Friday, December 15, 2017

The Exact Location of Home by Kate Messner

Zig is fascinated by electronics and can fix almost anything.  If only his father were as easy to figure out.  He has seemingly dropped off the face of the Earth and Zig's mom won't tell him anything about where his dad might be only saying that it is up to his dad to share his situation with Zig.  Things at home aren't going well either.  With his mom not able to pay all their bills, they soon find themselves evicted and living in a homeless shelter - a secret Zig keeps from his two closest friends.  While geocaching, Zig runs into notes from another explorer who calls himself "Senior Searcher".  Convinced that is his dad, Zig becomes focused on finding all of Senior's caches, sure they will eventually lead him to his father.

The real meat of this story is how becoming homeless affects Zig's day to day life.  For those who have been lucky enough to never be homeless, we look at it from a different set of eyes than is presented in Messner's book.  Zig's lack of privacy in the shelter leads to his inability to do his homework and his grades fall.  Even more basic, he doesn't have a pencil with which to do his homework and it berated by teachers who can't understand why someone wouldn't have a pencil at home.  Of course the wonderful librarian leaves out pencils and paper for Zig each day.  :-)  In class, Zig has to listen to a teacher talk about the poor people they are going to help as a class project without realizing that two of her own students are part of that group.  For me as a teacher it was a good reminder that the kids acting out are always doing so for reasons other than just being poorly behaved.  Oh, sure, there's the story about what has happened with his dad, but that didn't resonate with me nearly as much.  Messner has again put together an entirely appropriate middle grades book that ends up tackling a serious subject.

Alan Cole Is Not a Coward by Eric Bell

Alan is bullied by his older brother, Nathan.  Nathan always has some new way to make it clear he is in charge between the two brothers and he has just suggested they play one of his favorite games, Cole vs. Cole.  Both brothers think up things for the other brother to accomplish and whomever gets his list done is the winner.  The problem is that Nathan's tasks for Alan are always humiliating but if Alan doesn't do them, the consequences are worse.   In Nathan's new proposal he sets seven nearly impossible tasks for Alan to do with the last one being "stand up to Dad".  As bad as Nathan is, their father is even more controlling.  If Alan doesn't complete the list, Nathan promises to tell everyone a secret Alan has been keeping from everyone - he's gay.  In a stroke of genius, Alan challenges Nathan to complete the exact same list and the race between the two brothers is on.

I've seen a few reviews describing this title as hilarious and poignant.  I am totally on board with the poignant part of that but not the hilarious one.  There are some funny lines but the humor is masking the tension of the bullying from both brother and father and the dread of Alan being outed.  I wasn't expecting a laugh riot so I really liked this book and how Alan came to find his voice.  Faced with coming out - a revelation he thinks will turn everyone against him - Alan digs down to strengths he didn't know he had.  Even better, he decides to rely on his friends who he has kept at arm's length.  Bell handles the actual coming out so well without resorting to a fairy tale ending (although I feel like the ending with Dad was a little bit of a softball).  But other than that (very slight, minor) flaw, this is a wonderful story of family dynamics with a gay character who is younger than we usually find in teen fiction, someone just beginning his journey.

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Twelve Days in May: Freedom Ride 1961 by Larry Dane Brimner

This nonfiction book starts with the events leading up to the Freedom Rides in 1961 and then provides a day by day account of those rides.  For those not familiar with the Freedom Rides, 13 men and women boarded buses in the north and headed into the southern United States in order to test the Jim Crow laws still in effect in the south.  Federal law at that time had outlawed "separate but equal" facilities for blacks and whites but those laws were completely ignored in southern states.  The Freedom Riders tested the laws at each stop with white riders going into areas designated as "colored only" and black riders going into the whites only bathrooms, waiting rooms and lunch counters.  The deeper south the Riders went, the more opposition they encountered including beatings from the KKK and nearly being burned to death when their bus was set on fire all while some law enforcement officers ignored what was happening.  The Riders had dedicated themselves to nonviolence and when images of the racist acts were publicized, it was a wake up call for some of the U.S.

The story of the Freedom Riders is amazing and horrifying but the treatment in this book didn't grab me as much as I expected.   However, it is presented in a very straightforward, easy to understand manner and would definitely be a good introduction for those unfamiliar with the time.  It is also a good bok to show people today how easily certain rights can be taken away when people don't stand up for what is right. 

The Chaos of Standing Still by Jessica Brody

Ryn is anxious to get home but finds herself stranded at the Denver airport on New Year's Eve.  She needs to get home before 10:05 AM the next day because that is the anniversary of her best friend's death at the hands of a drunk driver.  Ryn has been in counseling to deal with her grief but hasn't told her counselor some things including the fact that she has conversations with Lottie and that she hasn't opened Lottie's last text to her because as long as she has that, there's still some hope.  At the airport she (literally) runs into a boy named Xander and they end up mixing up their phones because they have the same cases.  Ryn only cares about somehow defying the storm and getting home, but fate - and Lottie - seem to keep putting her together with Xander who has his own secrets.

I eagerly snatched up Brody's new book but found myself reading something totally different from her usual fare.  The Chaos of Standing Still is a serious story about letting go and figuring out your identity after a devastating loss.  It's also about Xander and his relationship with his parents which needs some repair.  The bones of the story remind me of The Sun is Also a Star but I enjoyed that book more than this one.  However, it's difficult for me to offer a completely objective critique since the story was not at all what I was expecting and I'm sure that's shading my opinion.  If you're looking for a story of healing, growth and soulmates, this is a good choice for you.

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Pitch Dark by Courtney Alameda

Laura's mother is the captain of the Conquistador, a spaceship that has just located a treasure.  The USS John Muir left Earth over 400 years ago and has been lost all this time but the Muir contains soil that will help to regrow life back on Earth.  Laura's excitement is tempered by the device implanted in her throat that forces her to submit to the will of her enemies.  In an attempt to hack into the ship's computer to free herself from the device, Laura discovers that another group of hackers have already taken control of the ship and put it on a collision course with the John Muir.  When Laura comes to after the crash she discovers that the Muir is infested with zombie-esque creatures who destroy infrastructure and kill people with their piercing voices.  Luckily, she runs into Tuck, a survivor on the Muir, who is able to help her survive and work with her to defeat all their enemies.

I read an ARC of this book from NetGalley and I'm not sure why I requested it. (Although it does have an amazing cover!)  I was not a big fan of Shutter by Alameda so that should've been a clue right there.  But the description sounded great and I love sci fi so I overrode my instinct and requested it anyway which was a mistake.  I can't say for sure what it is about her writing that doesn't do it for me but there's something.  But I know that it's a personal issue specific to Alameda's writing so I can't be super-critical of the book overall even though I was dreading reading it.  In fact, as I was describing sections of the book to my husband, I could tell that the plot lines were interesting and that there were some unique parts.  (He's going to read it and will probably be a fan.)   I was intrigued by the idea of the subjegator but wish that we'd learned more about the Smithsons who put it in her and more details on why they decided to use it on her.  Those bad guys should've really been built up but they were almost incidental.  Was Sebastian using her the entire time or did he actually like her at some point?  As for the other bad guy, I saw that coming but I think my teens will be surprised and outraged with that twist.  Just a "meh" for me.  However....

My feelings toward the book became warmer and fuzzier when I read the author's note.  I love Alameda's introspective description of how political became personal during the writing and all the symbolic touches she included in the story.  So, while I might not mesh with her writing style, I now love Courtney Alameda as a person.

The Window by Amelia Brunskill

Jess has always shared everything with her twin sister Anna as well as relying on Anna to be the outgoing one.  After Anna dies, apparently by falling from her window while sneaking out for the night, Jess is lost.  Of course she's grieving, but she also has some questions about Anna's last night because the police report doesn't seem to add up.  The more Jess looks into her death, the more secrets finds her twin was keeping from her.  Did Jess actually know anything about her sister?  And who can she trust now to help her uncover the truth about Anna's death?

I wasn't sure about this book at the beginning because it got off to a slow, but familiar, start.  Jess is the quiet one who is left essentially voiceless after the death of her outgoing friend/family member and needs to find her own way in the world.  Having read several titles with that framework, I was unimpressed, especially since Jess didn't grab me as a compelling character and I thought the book was primarily going to be about her grieving process.  But fairly quickly we began to find out that Anna had her secrets, one that is pretty darn big, and I found myself zipping through the chapters.  I was even fooled by the red herring of who is to blame for Anna's death.  For a little while, at least.  It's not the finest mystery I've ever read, but I was engaged and I know my students will like it if I can booktalk them past the slow beginning.

Blink by Sasha Dawn

 Joshua first meets Chatham while playing with his twin baby sisters at the beach one day.  Chatham immediately fascinates him with her story of just being in town trying to find her sister who believes she witnessed a kidnapping there many years before.  The kidnapped girl, Rachel, has been a local mystery for over a decade and Joshua has been obsessed with her nearly all that time so he is further drawn to Chatham as they investigate both her sister's and Rachel's disappearance and how the two might be connected.

I found myself disturbed by Joshua's home life and that sense of disquiet overshadowed a lot of the rest of the story for me.  It seems obvious that we are supposed to be unhappy with his mom and former stepfather so Dawn did a good job of weaving some low level dread throughout most of the book, but that didn't make the book as enjoyable for me. I also was not taken with Chatham as a character.  Something about her didn't connect for me so I had little interest in finding out her secrets, feeling invested in them, or cheering on her relationship with Joshua.  Instead, it felt to me like she was using him toward her own ends most of the time.  I can chalk all of those issue up to the book just not working for me, specifically, but I actually have a serious issue with the transformation of Joshua's mom from abuse-enabler to someone who I think is supposed to be sympathetic as a character.  Overall, it just wasn't a fun read for me.