Tuesday, July 17, 2018

The Sacrifice Box by Martin Stewart

One summer, five unlikely friends gathered around a box in the forest and put in items to cement their friendship.  Now, four years later, the group is drawn back together when they begin experiencing horrors related to the items they put into the box.  Sep is the loner of the group and is just marking time until he can get off the island where he has lived all his life and go to the mainland on a scholarship.  He is skeptical when his former friends approach him but it soon becomes clear that someone broke the rules of the sacrifice box and now they are being targeted in the order in which they made their sacrifices.  As they work to close the box again, it becomes clear that they were not the first group of friends in town to be drawn to the box and that this time the box might not be satisfied until it gets a much bigger sacrifice.

Eh.  I picked this ARC because it sounded exactly like the kind of book my students would love to read.  It probably is going to be fairly popular at my school, but it wasn't as compelling as I expected.  For one thing, the kids were slow at getting back to the box to shut it up!  They were being chased by hordes of undead animals but still took the time to load up a wounded stag and take it to the veterinarian, then later they went back to the vet to warn him that there are some weird things happening.  Dudes, just go do the box thing!  And speaking of the vet, our first introduction to him was him saying that he killed animals and that when he looks at a puppy he knows he will be killing it someday. I guess he was speaking like that because he was not a native English speaker...?  But it was harsh and really turned me off to him and to the book overall.  Finally, the writing - particularly in the first few chapters - was much too overblown with some really overworked metaphors.   I can sell this easily with a short booktalk but I know some kids will put it down before we get to the murderous teddy bear.

Tiffany Sly Lives Here Now by Dana L. Davis

Tiffany is headed to California to live with the father she has never met nor even knew existed until shortly before her mother died.  As if that weren't enough of a change, when she arrives she finds out that she has four half sisters and a white stepmother.  Tiffany's new family has some strict rules governing her behavior, starting with her father's belief that his girls should not wear any weaves or braids, only their natural hair.  That will be a problem for Tiffany since she has alopecia - hair loss - thanks to the stress of watching her mother die of cancer.  Luckily, she gets some help from the woman across the street who is also a hairdresser as well as the mother of the weird kid who wears white make up all the time.  Tiffany's life has changed dramatically in all kinds of ways, but there could still be one more shock - this might not be her family at all!  Shortly before she left Chicago another man showed up on her doorstep claiming to be her father as well and asking for a DNA test.  Time is running out and no one knows the secret.

I just thoroughly enjoyed this book despite a few flaws.  Tiffany is so secure in who she is (despite her crippling anxiety) that I loved watching her interactions with everyone around her.  She is a good girl but she's not afraid to stand up to the jerk at school and her dad who is also a jerk for a good portion of the book with his crazy, controlling rules.  But she's working hard to fit in with her new family and supportive of her stepmother as she also tries to deal with her controlled life.  I really liked Tiffany's representation as an atheist which is something I don't remember seeing in most/any other YA books I've read.  And although that is contrasted with the Jehovah's Witness religion of her family, I didn't feel like their religion was being criticized or shown to be bad in any way.  

As I said, there are flaws in the story:
Given how strict he is for most of the book, his transformation to trying to be a decent guy is pretty quick.  Particularly his reaction to Tiffany's sister and her situation.
The depiction of the youngest sister who is autistic bothered me in that the family seemed pretty clueless on how to deal with her.  Of course Dad doesn't because that's his character, but even Tiffany's stepmom apparently hasn't done some basic research on how to handle an autistic toddler.
There are A LOT of story threads and several of them are left somewhat open.

I ruminated on these problems and a few others and felt like maybe I should like the book less or take away a star in my rating but I still just liked the whole thing.  So I ignored that feeling!  I think it's a great title to sell to my 8th graders in particular who will appreciate the great heroine, the drama of the story, the "villain", and a book with a black character who does not live in the ghetto.

Camp Valor by Scott McEwen, Hof Williams

Wyatt has landed in prison facing serious time after he is framed for a crime committed by his friend.  When a man named Hallsy shows up and offers him a chance to leave the jail and wipe his record clean, Wyatt takes it.  He is taken to a top secret summer camp where he will be trained to become an elite military operative along with many other children and teens.  Assuming, that is, that he doesn't quit first.  The people who make it through the exhausting training at Camp Valor are sent to infiltrate situations that would impossible for adults.  In fact, in 1984 a Camp Valor graduate killed a central American despot by befriending his son.  Unfortunately, that son turned his father's death into a reason to track down his killer and has become one of the most powerful underground figures on the Dark Web.  Now his revenge mission and Wyatt's training are about to collide.

Somewhere I read something about this book that made me excited to read it before it was published.  Then last week I was on vacation and ran out of things to read when I found a copy at the local bookstore.  I tore into it excitedly and was quite absorbed for awhile, thinking about how much my students would really like the military and action aspects of it as we see Wyatt enduring the brutal training.  Then, it began its slow, horrible descent into graphic, disgusting violence.  The book tells parallel stories until they intersect in the last few chapters.  I had no problems with Wyatt's timeline of training at Camp Valor (except for the romance which felt forced and added in just to be a plot point that led to another big event) even though if I think about it I guess it's pretty odd to have 11 year olds with stuffed animals defusing bombs and learning weaponry.  But it's an adventure book and she was a secondary character so I didn't dwell on that.  The main thing I DID dwell on in Wyatt's training storyline was the pill you had to take to wipe your memories if you tapped out - surely you had to take a different pill if you quit during Hell week as opposed to those who gave up in the first day?  Just my own internal musings about the logistics of the memory wipe pill...  Even though the teens at Camp Valor are learning to use all sorts of weapons, their scenes were not graphic or inappropriate for students.

No, the problem I had was with the other story of the Glowworm, the disgusting creature who used to be the despot's son.  Even the description of his appearance and smell is pretty bad but that's nothing compared to his eating habits - completely gratuitous - and violence with those who disappoint him.  In addition, there is his right hand assassin, Raquel, who attracts the Glowworm's attention when she kills some tourists because they photographed her eating her meal.  When the two plot lines finally match up then the violence and killings ratchet up as well.  The imagery in this book was so graphic and disturbing that I had to put it down one night before bed because it was making me uneasy in my own home.  Aside from the violence, I take issue with the way the Camp Valor team handled their mission with Raquel and the Glowworm.  It felt like a couple members of the team basically ignored all their training and protocols which led to a lot of death and injury.

I don't remember ever doing this with any other book I've purchased for my collection, but I'll be passing this one on to a high school rather than keeping it on my shelves.

Saturday, July 14, 2018

Screenshot by Donna Cooner

Skye has her life carefully planned out and the next step is to secure an internship with a senator in her town.  While at a sleepover with her two best friends Skye is pressured into dancing around in a nighty.  Without asking, Asha films her and posts the video to the latest social media platform, Chitchat, where nothing can be edited or removed for 15 minutes.  Skye panics about who might've seen the video but Asha takes it down as soon as she can and it seems like everything's okay.  Until a few days later when Skye receives an anonymous text threatening to post the video again unless she does whatever her blackmailer asks.  

Obviously there's a heavy message here for teens (and everyone...) about the dangers of social media but the story is not overshadowed by the message.  It's really more of a modern day thriller where the consequences are relatable for anyone who has acted rashly in a world in which everything is public.  Skye is a good character who believes she knows what she wants but still has some growing to do when it comes to being confident in herself.  I could feel her anguish about what to do as each new threat upped the stakes.  Cooner also makes it clear how quickly your trust in those closest to you can be shaken.  I know this will be a booktalk winner!

Turn It Up! by Jen Calonita

Lidia and Sydney have been looking forward to coaching their school's girl a cappella group to a huge victory now that they are co-captains of the Nightingales.  But those plans fall apart when Lidia catches Sydney kissing the boy she has had a crush on for over a year.  The former best friends are now fighting all the time and the future of their group is not looking good, especially when Lidia quits entirely to focus on her dancing.

There's the trashy book you read because you just want a break from all the heavy fantasy you've been reading, and then there's a book that's not even good enough to keep you mindlessly, but happily, zooming through it.  This book was the latter for me.  I'd been saving it specifically because I wanted to read it after I finished a few heavier books I had to get through and I wanted an easy palette cleanser.  Even going into it with that mindset I found myself putting it down and I even finished another book that I picked up in the middle of reading this one.  It was fine, but it wasn't charming enough to push into a fun summer read.

Thursday, July 5, 2018

Whisper by Lynette Noni

"Jane Doe" has been captive for two and a half years while being subjected to tortuous experiments.  During that entire time she has not said a word because of what happened the last time she spoke.  Jane is confronted by the head of the institute and told that she will be working with a new handler but that she only has about a month to make a breakthrough before they end their work with her, permanently.  Expecting the worst, Jane is surprised when her new handler treats her like real person and steps in on her behalf when one of her other doctors goes too far with his experiments.  When she finally opens up a little she learns that she is not the only person able to create things by Speaking and that it is possible to control her power with enough training. 

I figured out some things about her new handler/trainer and was gratified to discover I was right about those things in the end.  I also predicted a couple other twists.  All that is to say that there is not so much unique in this book from other "girl who has untapped powers" books, but I still had fun reading it.  Jane is a nice, strong character who is surprisingly hate-free considering what she discovers about her family and the facility where she has been kept.  Her supporting cast is also fun and provide some needed warmth against the cold facility types.  I'm left with a few questions regarding the length of time Jane was held with no explanation and what her parents were thinking... But while reading the book I was just along for the ride and not questioning how we got there.

Sunday, July 1, 2018

The Love Letters of Abelard and Lily by Laura Creedle

Thanks to Lily's lack of impulse control due to her ADHD she ends up in detention when she accidentally breaks a room divider.  Her companions in detention are Abelard, a boy she scarred with her lunchbox when they were seven, and Richard, a talented artist who sketches a picture of Abelard that Lily takes.  Looking at the sketch of Abelard, Lily notices for the first time how handsome he is and she writes a passage from the old book The Love Letters of Abelard and Heloise on it.  When the picture gets posted online and attracts a lot of attention, the two teens begin a texting relationship and then start dating in real life.  Lily is always battling the impulse control monster that arises within her whenever she is off her medication (medication that leaves her with no emotions whatsoever when she IS taking it) while Abelard fights his own social issues thanks to his Asperger's syndrome. Yet the two are perfect together until Abelard leaves to go to an exclusive school designed especially for him and others who are brilliant, and Lily decides to try an experimental brain surgery meant to help her focus.

In reflecting on this book I can see that Lily and Abelard's romance is very nearly a fantasy in how quickly it developed and how perfectly these two misfits fit together.  I can see that, but I don't care because while I was reading it I just loved both of them and how their oddness was what brought them together.  Although I guess the genre that best categorizes this book is romance, there is so much more in it, most notably, Lily's struggle with ADHD.  Not having that myself I can't speak to the authenticity of how it is portrayed (although the author says she has it) but assuming it's accurate, I got a real feel for the frustration of navigating the world and I could see why she would choose brain surgery even though that's a pretty extreme option.  There is so much rich description of Lily's reactions but the scene that sticks with me is when she sees other girls coming back to school with fancy coffee drinks and she wonders what it would be like to move through the world like those girls - no monsters inside, free to take so much for granted - and I realized that I am those girls and really thought about how Lily was struggling every minute of the day.   Creedle's writing is also full of just some beautifully crafted turns of phrase that had me marking passages to go back and ponder.  For instance, I was mostly sold on the book already by page three with the description of the noise level in a school without walls - a stupid educational/architectural trend that has already had two revivals during my career.  And then Lily's ruminations about happiness and our desire to be happy all the time and how we use happiness as a yardstick to measure the worth of our lives which she sums up as such:  "It's a bully of a word, happy."  That sentence stopped me in my (reading) tracks and knocked me back with its simplicity and profundity.  It is nice to read a book that I not only enjoyed for its story, but also for the way in which it is crafted.

Wednesday, June 27, 2018

A Skinful of Shadows by Frances Hardinge

Makepeace has spent a lot of nights near a cemetery learning how to defend herself from ghosts that want to possess her.  She never understood why her mother forced her to spend time there amongst the ghosts until she is sent to her father's ancestral home where she learns the family secret: the Fellmottes all have the ability to harbor the dead within themselves and there are many generations of elders living inside each of the adults.  Makepeace and her half brother James are there as back up vessels in case the careful planning of passing on the family ghosts goes awry.  The siblings have tried to escape several times but are always brought back.  But thanks to a family betrayal, Makepeace finds a way to get away.  Now she is in the thick of a civil war, spying, helping ghosts, and trying to escape her evil relatives.

No one is more surprised than me to find that I was able to give this book three stars.  No less than four friends - FOUR! - put this book down fairly early into it and another friend only gave it a two star rating.  If it weren't for the fact that it has been nominated for a reading program and that I wanted to have read it in order to be able to vote against it, I never would've even picked it up in the first place.  As the book went on I found myself mentally raising my rating until by the end I was up to three.  However, the beginning of the book is much too artsy and slow and I can't think of the student I would hand this to who would be delighted with it.  Not only is there WAAAAAAYYYY too much lead in to get to the really evil family and ghosts, it is historical fiction set in the 1600s with an English civil war pitting the king against Parliament.  It's like the author was looking for the the things teens care the least about.  Also, the daily life of a kitchen wench at that time.  Finally, though, we learn exactly what the Fellmottes are up to and why Makepeace is there.  From that point on, the book picks up speed with nasty ghosts, possession, aliases, betrayals, and spying.  There are also the ghosts Makepeace takes in willingly who help her through all of those other issues along with the ghost of a bear she had accidentally acquired earlier.Watching her work her way out of so many seemingly dead end situations with the help of her spirit companions was fun and I eventually just skipped over the boring war sections to keep the action moving.  So, the last half or so was not a bad page turner but getting to that point kills any interest from all but the most dedicated readers.

Monday, June 25, 2018

The Cruel Prince by Holly Black

Jude and her twin sister Taryn are mortals living in the Faerie world.  They were taken there as children when Madoc came to retrieve his biological daughter and killed both their parents.  Now, ten years later, they are under Madoc's protection but picked on constantly by the Folk around them, especially by Prince Carden and his friends.  Jude dreams of becoming a knight for the High King so she will not be at anyone's mercy anymore while Taryn plans to marry to become more a part of the Faerie world.  As her tormentors grow more bold Jude hones her skills and takes more chances.  And then when news breaks that the current High King is planning to turn over his crown to one of his children, the gamesmanship really begins among his heirs with Jude drawn into the complex politics with dire consequences.

I was skeptical going into this one because I can't think of a book about the Fae that I've loved or even liked much.  So I was very pleasantly surprised to find myself drawn in and making extra time to read this one.  In fact, I was interested enough to continue the story that I decided to join Audible in order to listen to the book while I took my walk this morning! (I don't like the narrator of the book, btw)  Then I dedicated most of the rest of my day to reading and finishing the book.  I think that the difference for me on this one is that while the faeries are every bit as cruel and cold as in the other books I've read, they are not as much the main focus of the story as the mortal character.  Furthermore, the plot is actually Game of Thrones - right down to the Red Wedding - so I enjoyed the political maneuvering.  Even though I wasn't always clear who was manipulating whom.  It was great fun reading something complex enough that I struggled to think about how to summarize it for the preceding paragraph because of all the things that happened in the book:  mortal enslavement, shifting alliances, changing goals, sibling betrayal, Daddy issues, spying, attempted murder, and complicated relationships just to name a few things going on here.  Not to mention all the magical things such as making horses out of ragweed and the lush descriptions of the Folk and their appearances which gave me a lot to savor.  I think I was completely won over, however, when Sophie said that she had been taken into Faerie while she was at Burning Man.  I laughed a good long while about that small, but delightful, detail.

Sunday, June 24, 2018

After The Shot Drops by Randy Ribay

Gifted basketball player Bunny has accepted a scholarship to a private school across town to increase his chances of getting noticed by colleges.  His best friend Nasir is mad because Bunny left without even talking to Nas about his decision AND now Bunny is dating the girl Nasir has always liked.  Since the two are not talking, Nas is spending more time with his cousin Wallace who is in danger of being evicted along with his grandmother.  In need of some quick money, Wallace starts betting against Bunny's team which is on its way to a state championship.  But when it seems like Bunny is unstoppable, Wallace pressures Nasir to step up the campaign against Bunny with some questionable actions.

 I am reaching my limit of books with African-American characters who live in bad neighborhoods and have to do desperate things or make horrible choices in order to try to get out of the bad neighborhood.  I work with a lot of minority kids and I know they want to see themselves in books and it is still a struggle just in general to find enough books with diverse characters in them, but I have to think that if I were a black teen, I'd also want to see some books with black teens who are having stories other than the one about escaping the ghetto.  There is my weary rant about African-American characters and the situation so many of them find themselves in.  So keep my weariness in mind as I say that I was not too moved by this book that many others have loved. On the other hand, I didn't especially dislike it, either.  So... a couple of things I liked:
  • How loyal Nasir is to his cousin even though Wallace is in a bad situation of his own making and is doing nothing to make it better.  But Nas feels that need to help family.
  • Bunny and Nasir both make moves to make up because their friendship matters to each of them.
  • The book is well-written and highly accessible for teens.
  • Both boys' dads have jobs that give back to the community.

A couple of things I didn't like as much:
  • I never got too invested in either main character.
  • The basketball games and their play-by-plays.  But that's only because sports are not my thing so I can't follow those descriptions.  I've had that problem in many other sports books and I basically just skip those sections to get to whether the team won or lost and it doesn't seem to take away from the story for me.
  • As mentioned, the setting.  

The List by Patricia Forde

Letta is an apprentice wordsmith in Ark, a community of people who survived the Melting thanks to their leader John Noa.  Noa believes that many of the problems in the world before the Melting came about because of how people used words to manipulate others so people in Ark are only allowed to speak using the List of 700 words.  Letta and her master are the ones who distribute the words to the rest of Ark. When a strange boy stumbles into her shop one day, on the run from the gavvers who police Ark, Letta nurses him back to help and learns that he doesn't believe Noa is the savior she has always believed. And then when her master is found dead and Letta becomes the head wordsmith, she starts to learn secrets and begins to doubt much of what she has believed her entire life.

This is a standard dystopia without many changes to the format, but it is a well done formula.  Things are not as great as they seem, their charismatic leader is not the savior they thought, the rebels might be the ones who know what's really happening, only a crazy plot can save their society, and so on.  Despite that, I was interested in the premise and spent a decent amount of time trying to imagine only using 500 words to convey everything I wanted to convey.  My only real concern about the book is whether my kids still care about dystopias or not.  I think the interest is waning.  But if it's not, I really need a list of the 500 words so I can try to craft my booktalk using only those to get them interested!

P.S. The cover looks more like a young girl getting ready for a fantastic adventure in the big city rather than an oppressed society.

Piper by Jay Asher and Jessica Freeburg

Maggie lives in the small town of Hameln where she is ostracized because she is deaf.  She observes things in town and embellishes what she sees, turning them into fanciful stories.  Hameln is plagued by rats who are destroying everything as well as making people sick.  When a new man comes into town promising he will get rid of all the rats once and for all, the town elders agree to his terms for payment.  As the Piper spends more time in the town preparing to exterminate the rats, he meets Maggie and the two become very close, envisioning a future together.  But the longer the Piper takes to do his job, the angrier the townspeople become.

This retelling of the Pied Piper in graphic novel format was fine.  And I mean that in the most generic way possible for the word "fine".  The artwork is nicely done which I would expect for a graphic novel but the storytelling didn't do anything for me.  In particular, there were a couple of times where I was thumbing back through the pages to see what I had missed that resulted in us being at this point in the story.  I'm not sure what happened toward the end that left Maggie saying she thought she knew the Piper but now didn't know.  Yes, the people in town were angry with him after being stirred up by the previous rat catcher, but she didn't much care for the other people in town anyway...  At any rate, I wasn't taken with this version nor the elements added to try to explain any holes in the original story. 

The Academy by Katie Sise

Frankie loves fashion and has applied to a Fashion Academy without telling her parents.  She is very surprised when, out of the blue, her parents send her to a military academy instead.  Okay, so she did a few things she shouldn't have, but their reaction seems extreme.  Once Frankie gets to the Academy, it's worse than she thought.  There is almost no time to maintain her fashion blog, the classes are much more difficult than her former high school, and forget about the physical training!  But after a few weeks Frankie begins to see the value of some things she is learning at her new school and wonders if she could actually make a go of it there.

Frankie is such a nice character which was such a happy surprise for me as I was expecting this to just be the standard formula of shallow-girl-learns-a-lesson.  Her priorities are a bit messed up as the book begins, but Frankie's heart is in the right place in terms of how she treats people all around her.  She truly believes in the power of fashion and uses her knowledge of it for good and to recognize people for their choices, which made me realize that pretty much every other depiction of fashion-obsessed people shows them as bitchy and shallow.  I became a little frustrated about a third into the book because Frankie had already said that she needed to take things more seriously and follow the rules a few times but then she had that revelation again and it was presented as something new.  But when she actually did get going, it was great - and not totally formulaic.  There was not a montage of her working hard and succeeding at everything she did.  She did well at some things and barely kept her head above water (literally, in one case) at others but her overall improvement was good.  This is a nice, easy story with a surprising dose of patriotism throughout.

Thursday, June 21, 2018

Thornhill by Pam Smy

In 1982 Mary lives in the Thornhill orphanage where she is bullied and terrorized daily by one of the other girls who only shows a sweet face to everyone else.  Mary records her fears and the escalating bullying in her journal while making puppets to keep herself busy.  

In 2016 Ella has just moved into a new house that faces the burned out shell that was Thornhill.  Her father is often away so Ella spends time investigating the grounds of Thornhill where she finds broken puppet that she restores and places back where she found them.  She is hoping to finally meet the girl she sees on the grounds from time to time.

A student told me he was going to nominate this book for a reading program but then he didn't for several weeks.  But knowing that he had liked it enough to consider a  nomination, I added it to my reading list.  After leafing through it I had my doubts - I definitely had my doubts!  But then it turned out to be pretty darn interesting.  Mary's diary entries are creepy and heartbreaking as she allows herself to trust the other girls only to be betrayed by them all over again and let down by the adults around her.  And Ella's illustrated sections convey her loneliness and the way her life becomes slowly intertwined with Mary's.  Rather than feeling like a gimmick to pull in graphic novel readers, the graphic sections of the book seem like a perfect complement to the narrative.  In the end, a nicely scary book!

The Length of a String by Elissa Brent Weissman

Imani is preparing for her bat mitzvah alongside her friends.  Imani knows what she wants for the big gift her parents have promised her - to meet her birth parents - but she doesn't know how to tell her mom and dad about her wish.  While she works on a way to ask without hurting them too much, she spends time with her best friend reading her great-grandmother's diary.  Imani's great-grandmother Anna wrote about her life in 1941 when her Jewish family bought her passage to the United States to escape Nazis in her home country of Luxembourg. Anna's large family, including her twin sister, planned to join her as soon as they had the money to escape but they never did.  Imani is drawn into Anna's story and finds it reflecting her own desire to find out about her roots while also reinforcing her love for her adoptive family.

This is a good story throughout but my favorite part happened close to the end with the discovery of an unexpected family member and the connections made there.  Prior to that, I was engaged with the story but not bowled over by it.  At times I found myself removed from the book, looking in at the story as I read Anna's entries about adjusting to life in the U.S. and wondering why she wasn't sending all this information in a letter back home instead of writing it in the diary.  It felt too plot device-y.  I also had issues with Imani's mother's reactions to her attempts to find out more about her birth family.  It is explained in the end but the length of uncomfortable feelings dragged on too long.  I've seen this in other books with adopted kids and am always frustrated with the parents who had to know their kids would eventually ask these questions and should be prepared to answer them.  Aside from those couple of issues, I like the revelations about Anna's life and her family and I enjoyed Imani's friends who were quite drama-free.

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

From You to Me by K. A. Holt

Three years after her sister Clare drowned, Amelia is still grieving.  She is determined to take 8th grade by storm and not be the girl who cries about her dead sister all the time.  Her plan takes a serious hit when she is accidentally given a letter Clare wrote to herself on the first day of sixth grade.  Faced with a list of Clare's plans for the future, Amelia allows her best friend to convince her to complete the list on Clare's behalf.  Now Amelia is committed to doing things she would never have considered on her own.

This is such a gentle book of loss and healing and forgiveness.  Holt has an easy way of leading her readers to deep emotions without any obvious machinations or heavy-handed messaging.  Amelia is a completely sympathetic character struggling with her grief and guilt.  Of course she said something mean to her sister before she died but that's not even the main plot point at play here as it would be in many other books about grieving.  Amelia's just having an extremely hard time moving on because losing someone you love is impossible! On top of Amelia's struggles, I really enjoyed the secondary characters who were supportive but also not perfectly so as they made mistakes and became annoyed with Amelia's sadness.  Like real people.  And Amelia's annoyance with her mom about everything was just pitch perfect - speaking as someone who was a teen daughter and someone who had a teen daughter.  As for emotional, sensory investment... 1. All I could think about for the first third of the book was what kind of cheeses I had in the fridge and how they would combine in a grilled cheese sandwich and 2. I figured there was going to be some sort of cathartic scene and thought I was prepared for it until I started crying in a restaurant while eating lunch when the damn star said "Rosalie" on it!

Thursday, June 7, 2018

Every Shiny Thing by Cordelia Jensen and Laurie Morrison

Lauren is mad at her parents who sent her beloved brother to a boarding school for autistic students because she believes she could help Ryan out more at home.   She's also starting to feel estranged from her best friend who doesn't seem to get how upset Lauren is.  To top it off, one of the tenets of her Quaker school is simplicity and Lauren is suddenly aware of how much money her parents and friends throw around without a second thought. When Sierra moves in next door she and Lauren become fast friends.  Sierra is living with Lauren's neighbors because he own mother is an alcoholic who has been arrested and is trying to get sober.  Sierra is used to being a caretaker so when Lauren comes to her with a Robin Hood-like plan to raise money to help autistic kids, Sierra agrees to help.  But Lauren's behavior continues to grow and soon has Sierra worried and trying to keep their situation under control.

Every Shiny Thing is told in an alternating point of view format.  Lauren's chapters are narratives while Sierra's are free verse which makes the book read fairly fast.  I also read through it quickly because I was caught up in the story.  Both girls are good characters even though Lauren is quite flawed.  Even when she believes she is doing good, she isn't.  She is coming from a privileged life and is completely blind to her privilege when it comes to what she says and how she justifies her actions.  She's also a self-righteous teen who believes she sees things more clearly than others.  Just like all of us did when we were teens who couldn't believe how stupid everyone else in the world was or why we were the only people who felt so deeply.  But despite her many flaws, it is easy to feel for Lauren and to see why she is slipping down the slope into true kleptomania.  

While both girls are well drawn, Sierra's story is the one that really resonated with me.  Sierra is the perfect depiction of an enabler and caretaker for people with addictions.  And yet she is not labeled as such - we're just shown that life.  I could feel her unease grow throughout the book while she tried to keep the peace with everyone.  I know that one or both of these authors must be an Adult Child of an Alcoholic to capture that thought process so expertly and the huge, but quiet, toll it takes on a child. 

There are many themes to think about in this book and I would like to hand it to my students who need it. But I believe it will also appeal to those who are just looking for a good story of friendship and bad choices.

The Elephant Thief by Jane Kerr

Boy is a street urchin who stays alive picking pockets while trying to keep away from the head of the local gang.  Boy is caught during an auction for a menagerie of exotic animals left behind after their keeper's death.  From his high perch where he is awaiting his punishment, he helps Mr. Jameson place the winning bid for an elephant named Maharajah and in gratitude, Jameson hires Boy on the spot and gives him the name Danny.  After Maharajah destroys his train carriage it is decided that Danny and the elephant will walk the 200 miles to Mr. Jameson's zoo with Danny disguised as Indian prince Dandip.  What's more, Jameson makes a bet with another menagerie owner that Danny and the elephant can make the trip in just one week and if he loses, the consequences for both will be dire.

I'm always drawn to stories with animals as well as people who have special connections with those animals so I was looking forward to starting this book.  It read younger than I was anticipating but I'm not feeling like it's going to grab my sixth graders' attention despite the adventures throughout the book.  I struggle with main characters who don't talk because that places quite a burden on the writer to keep my interest when that character can't really interact with the rest of the characters.  I have yet to read a book or see a show with a mute character where the writer was entirely up to that challenge.  Except for the episode "Hush" on Buffy the Vampire Slayer.  Everyone should take notes from that.  And nearly all episodes of Buffy, for that matter.  But back to my point, it is frustrating to see situations arise that could be easily resolved if the character would just say a couple of words.  I do love Maharajah and Mr. Jameson's joie de vivre but the book overall was merely okay for me.

Disappeared by Francisco X. Stork

Sara's best friend disappeared one day just like many other young women in Mexico.  Now working as an investigative reporter, Sara has been trying to find her friend as well as all the other girls who have gone missing.  When she receives a threat against herself and her family, as well as a clue as to where the girls might be, Sara knows her time is running out and that someone she trusts is actually working against her. 

Meanwhile, Sara's brother Emiliano is trying to make enough money to buy a motorcycle and open a store where he can sell the folk arts created by friends so he can make a better life for himself and his family.  He's also trying to make enough money to impress Perla Rubi, the girl he likes who comes from a rich family.  Emiliano is offered an opportunity to go into business with a powerful man it might be the answer to his problems, but it could also be an offer that causes him to forsake his ideals.

For a book with so many ethical questions and mortal danger this story should've been much more compelling. I was never on the edge of my seat about either sibling's story nor torn apart by the impossible situations in which they found themselves. IRL I have very strong opinions about the building of the dumbass wall (did I give my feelings away?) and my belief that maybe we ought to concentrate instead on making life in Mexico more bearable for its citizens. So you would think that I'd be highly invested in this book that tackles quite a few of those problems. Instead, something about the writing came across as more clinical to me.

Saturday, June 2, 2018

The Gone Away Place by Christopher Barzak

Ellie wasn't at her school the day of the tornado outbreak.  She left after a big fight with her boyfriend, Noah, and was in the lighthouse when the storm started.  From there she saw the massive tornadoes destroy most of her town and she saw the explosion when a gas truck fell from the sky onto her school, killing Noah and her three best friends.  After the storm the entire town is grieving and trying to pick up the pieces of their lives.  Ellie keeps telling her parents that she's "fine" but she begins to question that when she starts seeing her next door neighbor - one of the kids killed at school -  playing basketball in his yard.  When Ellie talks to him and records him telling his story, she finds that she can help free the souls of the dead who are now appearing to many others in town. 

I finished this book yesterday and have been mulling it over, trying to make a decision about what I think the main theme is, a way to sum up my feelings about it, and how to put into words all the things it is.  What I have decided is that The Gone Away Place is too many things for me to put one word on it because the scope of emotions and thoughts in the book is awesome.  However, the closest I can come to summing up the book for me is the word "grief".  People think they know what grief means but that is too small a word and too easily dismissed to encompass all the subtleties Barzak infuses his story.  Both my parents have died so I know some things about grieving but I couldn't have listed all the components of grief if asked.  As I read the book and have continued to reflect on it, I realize that there are so many parts that contribute to the aching feeling of grief and they are included in The Gone Away Place.  Here are some of the threads wound up in this book:

Several of the ghosts are longing for the future they will not have now.  They tell Ellie about their plans - reconnecting with a brother, getting out from a sibling's shadow, beginning college.  All of them delayed their own happiness because they knew they would soon be able to begin the lives of which they dreamed but now that opportunity is gone and I could feel the loss in reading their stories.  When someone we love dies, all of our future dreams with that person die with them.  It's not just the person themselves we are missing, it's the experiences we were going to have with them as well. 

Regret is such a huge part of grieving.   There will always be something you wish you had done differently with a loved one after they've died.  For Ellie, her last conversation with Noah is haunting her and, since she has seen several ghosts but not him, she appears to have real evidence that he is holding that against her.  Tied in with that is the idea that death puts things into perspective and
 makes us re-evaluate our priorities.  Ellie now sees that her problem with Noah was not a big deal in the big picture.

Preserving someone's story is important.  Once someone is gone, their story dies with them.  Ellie finds that capturing those stories is the key to helping a ghost move on.  Even her best friends tell her parts of their lives Ellie didn't know about.  Remembering someone's story - things they did and what they thought - is their legacy so capture those memories while you can. 

And on the theme of personal stories... Ellie's counselor talks about the disruption in Ellie's story and how she needs to find a way to continue it, possibly in a new direction.  That was such a great visual for how your life begins to mend itself after a death that I stopped to let it sink in and then, to see if I could analyze what changes I'd made in the direction of my life.  How often does a book cause me to stop reading and just let its message settle into me?  Powerful!

Finally, there is hope.  Ellie is given such a gift in that she has the chance to talk to her friends again before they move on.  I haven't had that kind of encounter with a dead loved one, but I can still identify with the feeling of hope those meetings in the book gave me.  Because as bad as grieving is, there are also so many moments when you see something or hear a piece of music or remember something about that person that makes you smile and makes your heart fill with love and happiness that you had that person in your life in the first place.  Ellie talking with her friends brought those warm feelings to me while reading the book and it felt completely at home as a part of the grief.

The Gone Away Place is a deep story that presents itself almost as an adventure or horror novel - tornadoes! angry ghosts!  Take time to read it and really experience the full range of what it has to offer.

Also - holy crap, is that cover terrifyingly beautiful!

Thursday, May 31, 2018

Life on Surtsey: Iceland's Upstart Island by Loree Griffin Burns

I <3 Iceland SO MUCH so of course I had to read this book as soon as it arrived in my library!  And I usually love nonfiction because there is so much to learn about the world so, bonus.  This book did not disappoint on either count.  I was fascinated to learn about how life begins to form on a big ole rock in the ocean.  How do plants grow?  Where do insects come from?  Well, not all of that was explained in exact detail but the details that are included are great and left me with a brain full of further questions to ponder.  The explanation of how entomologist Erling studies Surtsey's insects is clear and captivating.  And I love the slight diversions into Icelandic names and some customs which made the book more cozy and not all hardcore science.  My only issue is that now I want to know about the birds and plants on Surtsey and how those have been growing in the past 50 years so I need at least one sequel.

Sunday, May 27, 2018

Amal Unbound by Aisha Saeed

Amal loves school and dreams of becoming a teacher when she grows up. She has to put her education on hold for several weeks after her mother has a hard time recovering after giving birth.  Amal takes over the running of the household while trying to keep up with her studies.  One day at the market she has a run-in with the village landlord, a man known for his vile temper and crooked business practices.  As punishment, all her father's debts are called in and Amal is forced to go work as an indentured servant in Khan's house until she has worked off the family bill.  

There is so much hype about this book and I've read so many tweets from people talking about how meaningful it is to them that I definitely went into it with huge expectations.  With that lead-in it is probably not surprising to hear that I was not as impressed as everyone else seems to be.  Amal's story is good and full of many opportunities for us to be SO grateful for life in the West  (assuming that's where you live) where education is a right, not an option.  I'm sure my students couldn't possibly imagine a world where one fight with someone over a piece of fruit could lead to you sacrificing your entire future.  For all those reasons, I like this book.  Where it fell short for me was in the actual writing which is not bad, but not gripping, either.  I should have been on the edge of my seat what with the police showing up and the revelations about Amal's new life and the betrayals from others, but I wasn't.  And the ending was happy but much too neat - a point that the author makes herself when she writes that for most people in Amal's situation there is no easy out. 

Damselfly by Chandra Prasad

On their way to a competition the plane carrying all the members of a high school fencing team crashes on an island.  Samantha survives the crash and finds that several of her teammates did as well, including her best friend Mel and the most popular girl in school.  At first the teens are just trying to make it until they are rescued. But as days pass it becomes clear that any rescue could be a long ways off so they need to learn to survive indefinitely.  Even with all the dangers of their new home hanging over them, old cliques surface and threaten their society.  The group is also being menaced by an unknown island resident who wants the teens gone.

For a book with survival, a threatening island-savvy stranger, high school mean girls, someone slowly losing their mind, increasing violence, and racism, this book didn't do much for me.  Samantha was so wishy-washy that I never bonded with her nor understood why Mel would choose her as a best friend when Mel was such an interesting person.  I know we're supposed to think poorly of the popular girl and her minions but honestly, Samantha was one of them.  I just couldn't get wrapped up in the story, not even the horror "here's what people are really like on a base level" aspect.

Friday, May 25, 2018

As You Wish by Chelsea Sedoti

Eldon's job is to keep people from spending time in his hometown of Madison.  See, the people of Madison have a big secret and they don't want anyone hanging around too long so Eldon's job at the gas station is to make sure Madison sounds way too boring to visit.  The town secret is that everyone is granted one wish that magically comes true on his or her 18th birthday.  Most people know exactly what they want to wish for but Eldon's birthday is just a couple of months away and he isn't sure.  In an effort to figure it out Eldon starts asking others about their wishes and finds that most of them didn't turn out as expected.  Wishing almost seems to be more of a curse.  As his day draws nearer he has the hopes and expectations of several people weighing on him without any clear idea of what he plans to do.

This is such a great premise and I started the book full of voyeurism, expecting to see the wreck that comes from an ill thought out wish.  All of that is there but in such a drawn out, dull way that it was often a struggle to get through the book.  The chapters where we hear about the wishes are the best as you see how things can backfire even if you have good intentions to start with.  Other than that, I was suffused with the grim reality of a hot desert town full of people living with their regrets and that does not make for an enjoyable read.  All of this depression leads up to Eldon finally deciding on his wish which, to me, was just as selfish as he had exhibited himself to be up until that point.  Luckily, others pointed this out to him so at least there is some kind of comeuppance, but it's too little, too late. 

Thursday, May 24, 2018

The Ambrose Deception by Emily Ecton

Three teens, strangers to each other and unnoticed by most of the people in their schools, are chosen to compete for a $10,000 scholarship.  Melissa, Bondi and Wilf are each given three riddle clues to solve along with a cell phone and personal driver.  The first to figure out what their clues mean and snap pictures of the places or items will win the scholarship.  The rules stipulate that the three must work independently but it becomes clear that the contest sponsor, Mr. Smith, is not telling them the whole story and that the scholarship itself may not even exist so the teens begin working together.

This book was such a treat for me because I have not enjoyed the last several books I've read. This is the first book in some time where I found myself trying to figure out when I would next have time to read and wondering what would happen next. This book is a treat even if it is not being compared to some dogs.  Some of the things I enjoyed:
  • All three characters are wonderful (although I found Wilf frustrating because I desperately wanted to know what his clue was!) as were their drivers.  
  • The clues are repeated throughout the book so I didn't have to try to remember them all the way through.
  • The bad guy is satisfyingly defeated in the end.
  • The horrific school counselor - what a great secondary character!
  • I have a passing knowledge of Chicago so I was able to figure out a couple of the riddles, but knowing the landmarks was not necessary to enjoy the book because of the pace and fun.  
The plot and revelations remind me of "Trading Places" or "Brewster's Millions", both movies I love.  Book-wise I think it will appeal to fans of Escape From Mr Lemoncello's Library which continues to be very popular in my school.  There's an excellent chance I will be using this book on a  reading list because it needs just a little push to become huge.  Read it!

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Time Bomb by Joelle Charbonneau

A couple of weeks before school begins several students come to their high school for various reasons.   Although they came to school for many different reasons, one of them came to place the bombs that beginning going off, trapping them in the school and causing them to rely on each other to get out alive.

I expected a quick survival story with the mystery being that the bomber is one of the main characters.  Who could it possibly be?!  While that is the main jist of the book, I found it bogged down by the laundry list of suspects who were just checking off every box for type of high school student - fat, black, Muslim, gay, closeted gay, angry outsider, and perfect girl.  Okay, so that wasn't surprising given what I expected from the book, but I rolled my eyes so hard when the bonding discussions started.  "Dude, even though I wasn't one of the ones who made fun of you for being Muslim, it never occurred to me to stand up to my friends.  I understand who you are now!" (Simulation of the message conveyed)  "But you're the most perfect girl in school - I never realized that even YOU could have problems!"  After The Testing I have moved Charbonneau to the top of my "to read" piles but this book completes the trilogy that will make me avoid her future releases.

Monday, May 21, 2018

How you Ruined my Life by Jeff Strand

When Rod finds out his rich cousin Blake is coming to live with them for three months he isn't thrilled but he doesn't expect it ruin his life either.  When Blake shows up he refuses to do any work for himself, takes over Rod's room, and uses mindgames that leave Rod not sure what's happening.  Worse, Blake is a perfectly nice boy to everyone else so it looks like Rod is the one causing problems.  Before long Blake is causing Rod to have problems at school, with his girlfriend and with his band.

This book is a comedy.  I feel like I should point that out because when you read my summary it could easily be the description of "Single White Female".  I was chuckling about Blake's "pranks" and Rod's funny narration at first but by halfway through I was weary of both.  There's no explanation for what Blake is up to until the end of the book and even that is unsatisfying.  As is the tidy wrap up between the two boys after all the gaslighting Rod has been through.  Messing with someone is a funny premise but at some point it is no longer funny and has just turned into psychological torture.  Still, I was willing to hang in there because I assumed there would be a big payday where Rod is vindicated.  Given all the mayhem Blake created - he really DID ruin Rod's life - the resolution is not enough.

The Queen's Rising by Rebecca Ross

 After several false starts, Brienna is just about to become a passion of knowledge - someone who is recognized as a master of his or her field.  As she nears the date when all the passions in her school hope to find a patron who will support them Brienna senses a change in her relationship with Master Cartier, her knowledge teacher.   Before they have a chance to investigate their feelings further, Brienna finds herself without a patron and remaining behind at school while Cartier leaves for the summer.  Brienna has been experiencing memories from an ancestor that indicate the location of a missing relic that would help regain the throne of the neighboring country for its rightful ruler.  When she mentions these visions to her headmistress she becomes a key player in a secret, dangerous plot to unseat the king on the throne.

That description doesn't do the plot justice because there's a great deal more depth and intrigue than indicated by my overview.  Brienna is a strong, straightforward character and I enjoyed watching her lend her all to the cause.  I've seen so many books that have the same plot over and over that I kept expecting there to be a big twist about her heritage or powers or abilities - and I guess there was something but it was not unexpected - but she is just a loyal girl who is willing to fight for what's right.  This world contains magic but it is not an active part of most of the story so I'd put this in the category of straight up adventure, and a fun one with a satisfying resolution.  My one issue is that the relationship between Brienna and Master Cartier gave me the heeby jeebies, especially after it was clear they liked each other but she called him "Master" on occasion.  That's probably an age thing.  I doubt my teens will feel the ickiness the way I did.

Saturday, May 19, 2018

P.S. I Miss You by Jen Petro-Roy

Evie is writing to her beloved older sister Cilla who was sent away by their parents after she became pregnant.  Evie's parents are strict Catholics who are trying to cover up Cilla's teen pregnancy by sending her to live with an aunt until the baby is born, then to boarding school afterwards.  Evie misses her sister terribly and writes to her almost daily talking about her life and hoping for big sister advice about her parents, religion, and her friendship with new girl June.  But Cilla never writes back, not even when Evie reveals more about how her feelings for June are developing into something more and how their parents seem to be breaking down. 

I liked this book but have a couple of issues with it that detracted from the story just a little for me.  First of all, I was having a hard time hanging in there while Evie wrote letter after letter with no response at all from Cilla.  And I know that's part of the point of the whole thing, but I was really disturbed by that.  And then when she finally does get a terse response, that was even worse!  The lack of reciprocal communication is a big factor in the book but I was pretty unhappy about it which really worked well to keep me intrigued so in the end, it's probably a good thing plot-wise.  But so frustrating!

My other smallish complaint is that there are a lot of issues packed into this story - teen pregnancy, religion, moving away from religion, developing lesbian feelings, and a couple other things I don't want to mention in case you haven't read the book yet because they're spoilers.  There were times when it felt like Petro-Roy was trying to take on too much but in reflection, I guess that all the other things that are happening would logically lead to a lot of questioning of religion.  

Despite these few things, I enjoyed the story and especially the slow development of Evie's feelings for June.  Their relationship rang so true to me, moving from a friendship to feelings of deeper caring in a very innocent way that is appropriate for their age.  But alongside those sweet, early romantic feelings are the fear of eternal damnation and the even more terrifying worry of having your parents hate you.  And given how Evie's parents reacted to Cilla's pregnancy, the fear of personal rejection would be even stronger in Evie than every non-straight person already feels when contemplating coming out to someone.  I was led to think about (again) some people's belief that being gay or trans is a choice and my response that I don't know why someone would choose to be discriminated against or oppressed or estranged from people they love.  Evie's worries are so clearly conveyed that I felt them growing throughout the book and making me tense IRL.  A real testament to the power of the writing and Petro-Roy's ability to pull me into the story.

Tuesday, May 8, 2018

Isle of Blood and Stone by Makiia Lucier

Mapmaker and explorer Elias has just returned from his latest journey when he is drawn into a mystery.  Two identical maps that contain a riddle have been found and the style seems like that of Elias' father, except that his father has been dead for years.  While on a picnic with the two young princes of the kingdom all the guards were poisoned and the princes were kidnapped along with Elias' dad.  The boat on which they were taken was lost at sea and now the only remaining royal son, and Elias' close friend, is the king.  But these maps hint that the tragic story everyone knows might not be correct.  If Elias' father lived long enough to draw these maps, perhaps the princes are still alive as well.  But someone wanted them out of the way in the first place and as Elias and the Lady Mercedes begin secretly trying to solve the riddle of the maps, it's clear that someone is still trying to keep the secret.

I think I started getting invested in this story at the point when Elias, Ulises, and Mercedes visited the haunted forest and made their discoveries there.  From that point on things moved fairly quickly with attacks, murders, and revelations.  The problem is that I was at least 40% into the book before I got to the exciting section.  Up until that point I was dragging myself along, trying to figure out what any of this meant.  And even though I ended up liking much of the book, I still don't know a whole lot about our main character Elias so I wasn't invested in him at all.  I have the sense that he is an adventurous, exciting guy with a strong sense of morals but none of that was elaborated on as I would've liked.  I think I could've been really wrapped up in him if I'd known more.  Instead I was much more interested in Mercedes and Reyna.  This could be a great adventure with some tweaking.  For now, I just don't see my students being able to slog through the story to get to the adventure.

Monday, May 7, 2018

The Last (Endling #1) by Katherine Applegate

Byx is a young dairne - a creature that resembles a dog and one of the ruling species in the world.  When she wanders away from her pack for just a minute she finds herself being hunted by poachers and helping to rescue a wobbyx.  Although she is only away for a short time, it is long enough for her entire pack to be massacred by a band of soldiers.  Now it appears that Byx is an endling, the last of her species.  But Byx's pack was actually in the process of migrating north to a place where rumor has it there is another dairne pack so is it possible she might not be alone?  With the help of a human girl, the wobbyx, and a panther-esque felivet, Byx sets off on a quest, pursued by several bloodthirsty enemies.

Most of Applegate's books leave me feeling warm and fuzzy, often in tears, so it was with great excitement that I pushed everything else on my "to read" list aside on the day this arrived at the house.  But here we are way too many days later (a bad sign right off the bat) and I'm neither warm nor fuzzy.  The Last just didn't grab me at all. About halfway through I pictured my review being "eh."  By the end of the book I just wanted to be done with it.  I have little patience for books where much of the "action" is the heroes running away from a villain and every time they stop to rest, they have to go again.  Obviously, other things happen along the way, but not enough to keep me very interested.  I think, however, it might sell very well to my die hard Warriors fans.

Tuesday, May 1, 2018

The 57 Bus: A True Story of Two Teenagers and the Crime That Changed Their Lives by Dashka Slater

As the title says, this is a nonfiction book.  In 2013 a non-binary teen named Sasha was riding home from school when an African-American boy named Richard set fire to Sasha's skirt resulting in second and third burns.  Richard was charged with a hate crime and faced being tried as an adult.  This book tells the stories of both teens up to the point of the crime and the effects on both of them afterwards.  Although the two sentence description of what happened seems clear cut, there is much more to be known about both Sasha and Richard and their families than you think at first.

I read through this book very quickly and found myself thinking about it after.  I believe we are supposed to feel some sympathy for Richard who comes from a relatively tough background but I wasn't feeling sympathetic at all for much of the book, especially when he tells the police that he's homophobic.  As his time in jail went on, however, I did begin to feel his pain and definitely the injustice of sending a teen to prison with adults.  And having worked with teens for 14 years, I know that they do a lot of stupid stuff with no thought of the consequences so I don't believe that Richard had thought clearly about what he was doing or what might result.  It also became clear that Sasha lives in a completely different world from Richard and one that is very insulated from day-to-day reality for a non cisgendered person so they are also not thinking about how much of society will react to their adornment - even though they ought to be able to dress however they'd like.  Slater manages to convey all of these complexities throughout the book but I do have issues with her writing style which is quite dramatic and pretentious.  And who are the three ladies present in court every time Richard appears?  Why bring them up if they're not going to be introduced?  If the story itself were not so compelling, I don't know that this book would be as highly praised as it is.

A Dash of Trouble (Love, Sugar, Magic Series) by Anna Meriano

Leonora - Leo - is excited about Halloween but she gets mad about being left out when all her older sisters get to skip school for the day to help out at the family bakery in order to prepare for the Dia de los Muertos festival the next day.  Leo feels like she's old enough to help out as well so she sneaks out of school to see what's happening at the bakery.  When she gets there, she is stunned to see her mother and sisters performing a spell.  At the festival the next day she spies on her older sisters channeling the spirits of the dead and now she knows that she is part of a family of brujas.  Anxious to see if she can perform magic as well, Leo steals a family spell book. When her friend has a problem, Leo tries to solve it with magic but things don't go quite as she expected.

This is such a cute, if predictable, book.  I love the magic flowing throughout Leo's family and how everyone has her own particular brand of it based on birth order.  I felt a bit tense when Leo was attempting magic without any training because of course it was going to go wrong, but I was also unhappy at the thought that she was going to have to wait four years before being officially initiated.  Obviously, I was fairly wrapped up in the story if I was feeling the disappointment and stress of being Leo.  And the longing to have some magical abilities of my own.   Just as sweet as all the treats Leo's family bakes!

Monday, April 30, 2018

Things That Surprise You by Jennifer Maschari

Emily is excited to be entering middle school and even more excited about the release of the newest book in her favorite series about a unicorn detective.  Emily and her best friend Hazel have always dressed up and attended the book launch parties but this year when Hazel shows up, she is talking about her new friends on the field hockey team and doesn't even have a costume ready.  As the year begins Emily tries to be open-minded and works on joining Hazel's new group but often feels excluded.  In an effort to feel more a part of things, Emily "borrows" her mom's credit card and orders a series of CDs about creating a new you that she heard about on an infomercial.  On top of her problems at school, Emily is worried about her beloved older sister who is now in a facility getting treatment for anorexia while her father is setting up his new house with his girlfriend.  

This is one of those books that lures you in with a fairly typical beginning of middle school jitters and adjustments and friends outgrowing each other, but then begins to sneak in more serious subjects.  Hazel and Emily's parting of the ways ends more viciously - but also more realistically - than most books like this, although there is some reconciliation toward the end.  I liked Emily's attempts to reinvent herself and the steps provided by her CDs which I expected to be a scam but instead gave some sound steps to getting in touch with yourself and developing confidence.  I also liked the portrayal of Em's sister and her recovery from anorexia which is not a magic cure nor is it easy for the family.  They all make mistakes and Em, in particular, carries a lot of resentment.  It all meshes nicely to result in a strong book that is not as juvenile and the cover might have you believe.

Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Mask of Shadows by Linsey Miller

Sal is stuck being a thief for a crime boss who takes most of what is stolen.  When Sal robs a carriage there is a flyer that offers the chance to become a member of The Left Hand, a group of four who work as assassins for the Queen.  Sal admires the queen who ended a war and banished the bloodthirsty Shadows out of the land, but not before the Shadows attacked Sal's home and killed everyone by skinning them alive.  If Sal can win the role of Opal and join The Left Hand, they can get away from the life of being a thief while also having access to the very people against whom Sal has vowed revenge.   

I spent much more time reading this book than I usually do for a book of 350 pages because I had to re-read so many passages that just didn't make sense to me.  At first I thought I was skimming too much and missing something, but eventually I decided that the writing really was that unclear.  And when I finished the book - finally! - and read reviews by others, I was heartened to see that I'm not wrong in my assessment as many other people also struggled.  Close to the end of the book I started a conversation with my husband with "So this book I'm reading.." and he broke in to say "Yeah!  What is that about?!  All I saw were the words 'mask', 'left hand', and 'five'."  He had been looking on while I read on the train and said that he had managed to finish reading a page before me which never happens so he knew I was moving slowly.  So what was so unclear about this book?
  • I was very often unsure which character was speaking during dialogue.  I would assume it was the person who had just been described - like "Ruby smirked" - but then the statement didn't seem to make sense coming from Ruby so I'd have to re-read to see what I had missed.  
  • There were classes? or races? or people and Sal had vowed revenge against some of them but I wasn't sure who they were.  Were the Erlands the nobility?  What is their place in society now?  By the end of the book I think I had it down, but there wasn't a complete explanation of how things went down during the war until pretty close to the end.
  • Who had magic?  How did the Queen banish it?  When we meet her there is some description of the scars she bears from getting rid of it but I don't know how that happened.  I think maybe she was a mage, but I don't know that for sure.  Again, just general confusion for me in the world-building.  
  • For that matter, I wasn't even sure if The Left Hand was one of the four assassins specifically or if that referred to the entire bunch of them until about halfway through the book.  I'm not a fan of didactic explanation of things, but I need more to go on.
  • All of the people auditioning for the job of Opal are given numbers, one through twenty-three, and they all wear masks so it's difficult to separate them while reading as there is very little characterization.
  • And more...
I also figure I need to address the fact that Sal is gender fluid because it is the first thing written about this book in many reviews, although I don't feel like it's that big of a thing because it really doesn't factor into the story in any meaningful way.  Yeah, it's cool that there's a non-binary character in a book and yeah, I wouldn't be happy if that was THE point of a book, but much ado has been made of Sal's gender and as a storyline, that fizzles.  I think my biggest problem with the writing about Sal's identity is their description of it to someone who asks what pronoun to use.  Sal says that if they're wearing a dress, use "she", if dressed like a man, use "he", otherwise use "they".  That's not so hard, right?  (They say something like that after the explanation).  Well, that does sound clear cut but then I got to thinking about it - do women ONLY wear dresses/skirts in this world?  Because in our world, women wear all kinds of things including pants lots of the time.  So I don't think we can identify a gender just based on clothing choice in the real world and that could be fairly misleading to readers who need some guidance on navigating gender identities in real life.  But mostly, I just didn't find that Sal's identity mattered to the story at all.  Since the book is fantasy it seems like the author could have gone almost anywhere with this as a storyline and not been held back by expectations from our world.

And while talking in the realm of gender and sexuality, the romance in the story left me unmoved as well.  Elise says that her only options have been to be with a man but she doesn't always feel that way and if Sal makes it to Opal, the world will be forgiving so I'm guessing that means Sal is a female biologically even though that is never explicitly revealed.  I think that having a lesbian relationship is great but I was never feeling the growth of the romance nor the reason why Elise was interested.  Like much of the rest of the characterization, it felt flat to me.

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

The Miscalculations of Lightning Girl by Stacy McAnulty

Being struck by lightning turned Lucy into a math savant.  She can solve any math problem put before her, even things that stump geniuses.  Her grandmother has been homeschooling her since then and Lucy has passed enough classes that she can now apply for college at age 12.  But then Lucy's grandmother springs a surprise on her: she's going to go to middle school, at least for one year.  Although she is active in an online room for math fanatics, Lucy doesn't have any experience with real people other than her grandmother and uncle so this will be a real test!  Step one is to make sure no one knows about her math abilities.

I met this author why she was touring to promote the book and she is delightful and a mathematician herself before deciding to write so that gives a lot of street cred to this story.  Lucy's journey into middle school is not all that different from many other "oddball going to school" stories out there but it has its own charms within a somewhat common trope.  Lucy herself is a nice character who, despite being a genius in many ways, is still very much a youngish middle school girl with appropriate worries about fitting in.  As she starts to make friends (or frenemies?) she encounters the same problems we all did in middle school so that will resonate with my teen readers.  Lucy's new friends are quirky themselves but not in a staged way and the development of their relationships is realistic.  Even the crisis with the dog is not over the top or too disturbing.  However, I will say that the ending is pretty pat and neat. I enjoyed it, but I was aware of how much it tied up so that was a distraction from getting all wrapped up in the story.