Monday, December 31, 2018

The House in Poplar Wood by K.E. Ormsbee

Thanks to The Agreement, brothers Lee and Felix each live with one of their parents and cannot see the other.  Lee lives with his mother who serves Memory, a Shade who helps people remember or forget memories.  Felix lives with their father who serves Death. Because the parents serve different Shades, they cannot see each other nor their other son.  Both boys help their respective parent and it is assumed they will each become the next apprentices to the Shades at age 16.  Both boys would like to free their family from The Agreement but that seems impossible until Gretchen comes into their lives.  Gretchen comes from a family of Summoners - people who can command the Shades through Rites - and has been told to stay away from Lee and Felix.  But after overhearing a conversation that indicates Death might have overstepped his role, Gretchen wants help investigating what's really happening and she won't take no for an answer when it comes to getting the brothers to comply.  In return, she might be able to help with their family problem.

This book has such a unique premise and that usually translates to a big thumbs up for me but I'm feeling somewhat ambivalent about it.  There were parts that I found intriguing and wanted to keep reading, but overall it wasn't a page-turner for me.  It would've helped a bit if the roles of the Shades, Summoners and apprentices were more clearly explained earlier on but I got there with it all.  It also would've helped if the terms of The Agreement had been explainer earlier on but again, I got there.  But really, those are small quibbles.  I think the biggest problem for me was that the solving of the mystery and the role each character played in it didn't become fascinating for me until too late in the book.  Also, the feeling seemed to vacillate between spooky/scary and more straight up mystery.  With supernatural suspects.  Not a bad book, but not a favorite.

The Summer of Jordi Perez (And the Best Burger in Los Angeles) by Amy Spalding

Abby has landed the internship of her dreams at local boutique Lemonberry. She is a huge fan of the retro look and the fact that their dresses are available in plus sizes as well so she can wear them and write about them on her popular fashion blog.  In fact, her social media skills are a big part of what landed her the internship which has led to jobs and free clothes for previous interns.  The promise of so many great things leads to a big shock when Abby finds out the owner has taken on two interns this summer.  The other girl is Jordi Perez, a girl Abby knows vaguely from school who is rumored to have spent time in juvie.  The two girls hit it off and before long Abby finds that she has more than "just friends" feelings for Jordi.  Even more surprising to Abby, Jordi feels the same.

In thinking about this post I was going to say that I enjoyed this book immensely but that there is nothing groundbreaking in terms of rom-com.  Then I shook myself back to reality with a reminder that the main character is a fat, queer girl who gets to have a romance that is not all about either of them struggling to come out so it IS pretty groundbreaking after all!  Now, Abby does have to do a bit of coming to terms with who she is as a fat girl, but I can love that too because no matter how body pos you are, you still live in society.  There are a few things I would've liked to be a little different - more resolution in the mother/daughter relationship, more time with her best friend, and a stronger focus on the new friendship with Jax because the "Best Burger" stuff doesn't seem like enough of the plot to warrant it's own title shout out - but, hey, I'm not gonna let that bring me down.  Because the rest of the book is just good with fun characters who love and support each other.  It is exactly what I wanted it to be both in terms of a fat character and a not-straight teen.  It ended my year of reading on a high note!

Sunday, December 23, 2018

The Assassination of Brangwain Spurge by M.T. Anderson, Eugene Yelchin

Elves and goblins have been at war for about a thousand years when the elfin king decides to send an emissary to the goblins with an offering - a large gemstone found underneath the king's wading pool.  The head of the king's secret police force chooses his old schoolmate Brangwain Spurge to deliver the stone.  Spurge was picked on in school and nicknamed Weedy and his schoolmate feels he would be an unassuming choice (and easy scapegoat).  Spurge is sent to the goblin kingdom where he is hosted by Werfel, a fellow scholar who is anxious to make the elf feel at home and to impress the goblin overlord.  Unfortunately, all of Werfel's efforts are for naught as Spurge constantly finds fault with everything he sees and seems completely uninterested in sharing any information.  The two also disagree over matters of fact about who provoked the other and started the war.  But after Spurge slips away in a failed attempt to spy on the goblins, the two are both under suspicion and find their fates intertwined as they escape together. 

I expected a silly book from M.T. Anderson and I was not let down.  Werfel is wonderfully hospitable and his feelings are so easily bruised by his rude guest who doesn't start to realize what all they have in common until things start to go wrong.  It's not until Spurge is in danger himself that he began to interest me as that was the point where he finally developed some sort of personality.  And the revelation about the gemstone was also a turning point in my interest in the story.  While I ended up liking the book and chuckling at the humor, I feel like it is another one of many books that appeals to adults but will have a very limited audience with teens.  The cover does it no favors and the humor is sly.  Since it is nominated for a reading program in my county I will have the chance to see if my assumptions about how teens respond to it are accurate.

With the Fire on High by Elizabeth Acevedo

Emoni is going into her senior year of high school and is not sure what her future might hold.  She is a gifted home cook so when her school offers a new elective in culinary arts, she signs up even though her life is already very busy with a part time job and taking care of her two year old daughter. As an added pressure, the class is scheduled to travel to Spain over spring break but only if she can come up with enough money to pay for the trip and that seems almost impossible.  In the class she meets new boy Malachi but she is clear in letting him know she doesn't have time for anything other than being friends.  In the midst of juggling all the parts of her life she is also concerned about her abuela who seems to be going to the doctor more than usual while trying to form a closer relationship with her estranged father who left when she was just a baby.

Another beautiful book from Elizabeth Acevedo.  The way I could tell I was loving it is that I read for 30 minutes and then realized I hadn't checked the percentage counter on my Kindle in all that time!  That is unheard of for me since I am competitive with myself and always feeling like I'm behind on my To Do list.  So, things I love:
  • Emoni is so in love with her daughter and although there are a few others who try to make her feel ashamed of being a teenage mom, she knows who she is and holds her head high.  The book is not about being a statistic other than that her dedication to being a good mom drives some of her other choices and decisions.
  • I was unsure of Malachi when he was first introduced but he ends up being a good guy.  The progression of their relationship is slow and drama-free which is such a difference from the formulaic "Just when we were about to get close a huge misunderstanding made me sure he didn't really like me at all" thing in every other book and movie and TV show.
  • 'Buela is great and I am so happy that she - spoiler alert! - doesn't die or have some other major health issue.  That would've been the easy choice to make for Acevedo but again, she goes for real life.
  • Acevedo's writing is just lovely and makes me happy to read!

Friday, November 9, 2018

The Last Wish of Sasha Cade by Cheyanne Young

Raquel and her best friend Sasha have been preparing for Sasha's death from cancer for a long time.  Even though she knew Sasha was dying, Rocki is still devastated.  Then she gets a letter from Sasha telling her to go to the cemetery and to bring her laptop.  Once there Rocki meets a boy with the exact same piercing blue eyes as Sasha. Before she died Sasha tried to locate her biological parents and in the process she discovered her brother, Elijah.  Sasha refers to them as her "favorites" and promises that she will be sending them on adventures together so Elijah can get to know her even though she has died.  The one condition Sasha sets is that they cannot tell her adoptive parents about Elijah.  That's a condition that bothers Raquel because she knows Sasha's parents have lots of money while Elijah, who has aged out of foster care, is barely getting by.  Even though she's sure Mr. and Mrs. Cade would love to help out, she is determined to follow Sasha's request.  But she's not feeling as sure she will be able to follow another request:  not to get involved with Elijah.

I was promised a tear-jerker with this book but it didn't get to my cold, cold heart.  Sasha is an amazing friend and I wish I was the kind of person who would be thinking about everyone else's happiness if I were dying but I suspect I'm not.  I couldn't even cry during the many scenes that were obviously tailor-made for crying.  I"m not saying it's a bad book or that I didn't enjoy it at all, just that it wasn't the emotional read I expected.  Instead, it was a good story of friendship with some almost magical realism thrown in.  I wish that things weren't so pat in the back half of the book and I wish that Sasha's parents could've seen the light without Elijah getting into quite so much trouble, but I can still appreciate the happy ending.  Good, but not great.

Courage by Barbara Binns

After their father died T'Shawn's older brother Lamont took his place as T'Shawn's biggest influence.  All that changed when Lamont became the leader of a local gang and left home, eventually ending up pointing a gun at T'Shawn.  Now T is happy to have Lamont out of his life and is looking forward to joining a local diving team.  The life he is trying to live comes crashing down when his mother tells him Lamont is getting out of prison early and will be moving back home with them.  

For the first three quarters of this book I was absolutely sure that I would be using it with one or more reading programs in the upcoming year.  I'm sure you can see what I'm going from there...  But before we get to the part I didn't like, let me talk about what was so great. 

This book captures so much of the atmosphere of more mature stories about gangs or families dealing with incarceration but in a totally appropriate younger middle school way.  My sixth and seventh graders are handling some of the same issues addressed in books like THUG or Long Way Down but they aren't always ready for those edgier stories.  Courage is something I could put on a required reading list without hesitation. 

T'Shawn is a great character, so wonderfully drawn.  He was crushed by Lamont's gang activity and by the fact that he apparently chose his gang friends over T.  Now he is doing what he thinks is necessary to protect himself and his family, including trying to get him to violate his parole.  He also doesn't hesitate to speak up for himself and others when he observes racism which he faces both at school and in his neighborhood.  But Binns does a great job weaving those incidents into the story smoothly without it being an obvious lesson we're supposed to learn, even though we can learn from them.  T's eventual return to giving Lamont a chance comes about naturally with setbacks along the way.

So what lost me?  The last quarter of the book felt so much more obvious and forced than the story up to that point.  The nuances left and too many issues were pushed in.  T's coach became a caricature and I didn't see any realistic motivation for the revelations from Lamont's girlfriend.  If the story were tidied up and finished with the skill with which it began, this would be something I would recommend all the time.  I'll still booktalk it, but I didn't love it as much as I thought I would.

I Am Still Alive by Kate Alice Marshall

After her mom is killed in a car crash Jess has to live with her dad whom she hasn't seen in years.  When she arrives at the airport in Alaska, she is met by someone she doesn't know who then flies her into the Canadian wilderness where her dad is living off the grid in a tiny cabin.  Already grieving for her mom and dealing with her own injuries from the accident, Jess is not equipped to take on yet another challenge. And then things get even worse when men arrive and kill her father and burn down his cabin.  Now Jess has to survive with just her father's dog to help her and no hope of anyone else showing up to rescue her until spring.

I wanted to like this book and the adventure within but I just didn't get invested in the slow pace of it all and I didn't care much what happened to Jess.  It took me over a week to read which is a bad sign all by itself. I could appreciate how precarious Jess' survival was and marveled that humans ever managed to evolve given how delicate we are but I have the same reaction when I watch "Naked and Afraid" and that is over in about 45 minutes.  Eventually, though, I became tired of her struggles and finally completely done when she didn't follow through on something after all her prepping.  I might need to work on improving my attention span but there was not enough mystery to keep me riveted.

Tuesday, November 6, 2018

How We Roll by Natasha Friend

Quinn's family has just moved to a new town which might actually work out well for her.  She developed alopecia which caused her to lose all her hair.  Rather than being supportive, her friends abandoned her.  Now she can start school with a wig on and no one will know her any other way.  She is quickly adopted by a group of girls  but she starts off on the wrong foot with Jake who is confined to a wheelchair after an accident and is still dealing with his bitter feelings.  Slowly the two of them form a friendship and possibly more as they each deal with their own losses.

I am just charmed by this book and by the characters.  Quinn does not begin the story confidently but she grows into that confidence by the end of the book.  There are plenty of books that could say the same but in this case I think a big part of it is because she has such a great support network with her wonderful friends.  It is SO rare to see a group of girls portrayed as helpful and supportive but Friend has taken the time to make each of them unique with their own foibles which also just being great people.  I'm tearing up just thinking about how great they were with Quinn both as a new girl in school and just as supportive friends in general.  There are lots of heartwarming sections of the book but that's obviously the part that really got to me.  However, let me also take a moment to talk about the romance storyline and how entirely realistic it is for a middle school dating situation.  I love that they are basically just friends but they are starting to feel something more in that young person way.  Just so good all around!

Lovely, Dark, and Deep by Justina Chen

Viola has become allergic to the sun.  Not just the sun, now Viola doesn't seem to be able to tolerate any light source at all.  Her entire world comes crashing down as she can no longer do anything she loves and must spend most of her time in her basement.  Most importantly, this new condition means she will have to rethink her entire future in which she had planned to be a journalist, starting with earning her college degree in Abu Dabi, possibly the sunniest place on Earth.   She is helped along in coping with all this by her devoted parents, dedicated friends, and Josh, a gorgeous boy she met on the same day she developed her condition.  But how can she have anything resembling a normal life and why would anyone want to be part of her life now?

I started off great guns but about halfway through I just wanted it to end.  I didn't feel like Chen gave me as much information as I wanted about what was happening or made things clear enough.  I'm not advocating for a more didactic writing style, but I needed a little more explanation of what each new development meant for Viola and what she would now be unable to do.  I also felt like there were several big realizations throughout the book.  The problem is, they were each the same realization.  Viola decides she's going to manage her illness herself and lead a normal life.  Then something happens, then she decides it again.  And the same for her relationship with Josh.  Plus the added fall back of "I have to break up with you because I love you so much".  Finally, for all of the slogging through her illness during the rest of the book, the ending felt too happy for me.  She has a new plan and that's great, but it's just not going to be that easy.  And Iceland in the summer is going to be one of the worst places for her to be.  Just sayin'.

The Opposite of Here by Tara Altebrando

Since her boyfriend died in a car accident several months ago Natalie has been struggling to work through her grief.  Her parents arrange to take Natalie and her three best friends on a cruise for her 17th birthday to help her move on.  On the first night of the cruise Natalie meets an intriguing boy who invites her to join him at the hot tub.  When she returns with her swimsuit, the boy is gone.  And then when she hears a rumor that someone might've fallen overboard and the ship's crew does a passenger head count, Natalie begins to wonder if her mystery boy might have had an accident.  As she begins looking for him she uncovers more secrets than she could've imagined.

Sounds intriguing, no?  Then you would be better off sticking with this description of the premise rather than ruining it by reading the entire boring book.  The writing totally left me cold along with all the characters, Natalie in particular.  Why is she so invested in this boy she barely knows who was condescending and snarky to her during the few minutes they spent together?  The first impression is bad and every new revelation makes him worse and yet she chases after him on sea and land.  After meeting mystery boy's twin, she forms an attachment to him even though he is one of those characters I hate - "I have important information that will clear this all up for you but I can't tell you and will instead keep you hanging."  But he is so brooding and mysterious that she can't quit him because that's a type of man we should be encouraging our teens to pursue.  Ugh.  To top it off, Natalie's friends are equally not interesting and explored so superficially that it just left me wondering if was supposed to be a clue that her usually reserved friend was now outgoing.  Give me a mystery where I care what happens.

Monday, November 5, 2018

Things Jolie Needs to Do Before She Bites It by Kerry Winfrey

Jolie has always felt unpretty thanks to her large underbite.  Now she is finally old enough to have corrective surgery and is looking forward to blending in with everyone else.  A couple of months before her surgery date, however, she suddenly realizes that she could die during the surgery.  The chances are very slim, but still...  So with her two best friends, Evelyn and Derek, she makes a list of things she wants to do just in case she "bites it."   

This is one of those fairly formulaic stories where a girl finds out she had a lot of what it takes all along, but I love those kind of stories.  Jolie is such a winning character and her things to do are totally doable and they lead to cute consequences. Like all romantic heroines, she is pretty clueless about what's happening right in front of her, but that's okay because she gets it in the end along with a good boost of self-esteem and a realization that she was never really all that different from her perfect sister in the first place.

Why Can't I Be You by Melissa C. Walker

Claire's mom has finally agreed that Claire is old enough to stay home by herself for the summer rather than go to summer camp.  Claire is looking forward to relaxing days hanging out with Ronan, who lives in the trailer next door, and Brianna who has just moved to an expensive house.  But things start to go wrong right from the start when Brianna shows up with her cousin Eden who is much more sophisticated and quickly becomes the center of attention wherever she goes leaving Claire feeling like she can't even relate to her best friend.  Closer to home, she is also having problems with Ronan who has become very moody ever since his father has come home.   Claire has always been content with her life but she is beginning to resent things her friends have that she doesn't.

This is a good middle grades book a lot of kids could relate to.  In fact, I can relate to Claire's feelings of jealousy because I don't have a house with a pool or an in-home theater like Brianna does.  As such, I think the resolution of the book comes about a little too quickly because comparing yourself to your friends definitely continues to be an issue throughout high school.  Despite that shortcoming I enjoyed the rest of the story and the eventual humanization of Eden who at first comes off like a real snob.  And Ronan's troubles at home are not wrapped up so neatly as to be unrealistic. 

Friday, October 19, 2018

Two Can Keep a Secret by Karen McManus

Ellery and her twin brother Ezra are moving cross country to live with their grandmother in Echo Ridge while their mother is in rehab.  The teens don't know a lot about their mother's hometown other than the fact that their aunt disappeared while she was in high school and five years ago another homecoming queen was murdered.  Ellery is a true crime buff and finds herself with a real crime to investigate when a popular teacher is killed by a hit and run on the day they arrive in town.  Within days that event is overshadowed by a public threat promising to kill another member of the homecoming court.  History seems to be repeating itself when another girl goes missing.  Everyone seems to be a possible suspect but Ellery needs to sort it out because the killer is getting closer to her.

I liked McManus' One of Us is Lying but I like this title even more for its traditional hard-core mystery cred.  There are red herrings galore and I was as confused as Ellery as to the identity of the villain but the story itself is not confusing, just a fun ride.  What's more, I thought I had guessed a plot twist but I was wrong!  That hardly ever happens so it is delightful and a mark of some unique plotting when I am fooled.  All the characters were fleshed out enough for me to invest in them and to feel mad when they were treated/treated others poorly.  If I were to make one complaint it would be that there could've been more breadcrumbs dropped to lead me to the killer's identity.  I've read mysteries where the criminal shows up out of the blue having barely even been introduced and that is just unfair to the reader who has no chance to solve the crime.  This was not that low, but I did stop for a minute to think about whether I should be angry about the lack of foreshadowing.  Instead, I just kept reading because I was so wrapped up in the story that I wanted to see what happened next.  But if there are revisions to be done, I'd suggest more hints along the way for the sleuthing readers.

Thursday, October 18, 2018

Nightbooks by J.A. White

Alex is on his way to the incinerator when he is lured into and imprisoned in a witch's apartment.  Natacha plans a horrible fate for Alex but another captive tells him that the witch loves stories.  As it happens, Alex has his "nightbooks" - journals in which he he writes scary stories.  Day by day he buys himself a little more time while he searches for an escape.

There are parts of this book I liked a lot but overall it was just an average read for me.  I liked Alex's stories and his creativity and I cringed when they were damaged.  I was equally absorbed and terrified during the mishap in the greenhouse because I didn't see how they were possibly going to fix that situation and it just kept getting worse!  This will be a good horror story for my younger students because it is well-written but not too mature or overly scary.  For me, I can appreciate the book but it didn't draw me in entirely.

Wednesday, October 17, 2018

Sneaking Out by Chuck Vance

Luke and his roommate Oscar are sneaking out to meet up with two girls on the grounds of their boarding school.  Oscar is mostly looking to hook up with Kelsey but Luke actually likes Pippa who has just arrived from England.  While the four are hanging out in the woods they hear someone coming and then hear the headmaster's wife arguing with someone.  They all make it back to their dorms without getting caught but the next morning they learn that the headmaster's wife was murdered during the night right next to their rendezvous spot.  Before long, Oscar is the prime suspect in her murder even though Luke is finding that there are plenty of other people who have the motive and the background to have killed her.

I was kept guessing about the killer's identity throughout this book although I did have my suspicions about the actual murderer fairly early on.  However, so many people were set up as such good suspects that I couldn't be sure of any of them!  And with Luke just as confused as I was, I couldn't rely on any of his investigating.  I enjoyed his buddy relationship with Oscar a lot and eventually came around on Pippa although she was quite a cold fish at first.  And it's clear she is still hiding some important things from Luke (this mystery is the beginning of a series) so she might still be part of some other crimes.  This is a well-crafted mystery with so many great characters that I just had fun the entire time.

Neverworld Wake by Marisha Pessl

Beatrice used to be part of close-knit group of friends but things changed after her boyfriend, Jim, died, apparently by suicide.  The group never discussed Jim's death and Bea left town after graduation.  On a night back at home, she meets up with her former friends and they all go to a party. But on the way home they are in a car accident that leaves them in limbo between life and death.  They're told that time is essentially frozen until they come to a unanimous decision - only one of them can live.  They will repeat the same Wake until the vote is unanimous, letting one of them live and the rest die.  After hundreds of Wakes, the group decides that the answer must have something to do with Jim's death and they begin trying to answer the questions they have about that.

Such an intriguing, dark premise. I went into the book with excitement from both the premise AND a recommendation from "Nerdette".  It's a shame it never captured me the way I expected.  The characters other than Bea all came across as snobs who just worked at covering up their actions and I felt no connection with any of them.  My interest was briefly reinvigorated when we learned more about how the Wakes are shaped and through that the group discovered a way to investigate other times, but then my state of mind reverted to just trying to get through the book.  It ended up being too murky for my taste without enough of a bang at the end to make up for it all.

Tuesday, October 9, 2018

Body Swap by Sylvia McNicoll

Hallie is walking through a parking lot, dreaming of running into the boy she hopes will be her first kiss, when she is hit by an SUV driven by an elderly woman.  Both Hallie and the driver, Susan, end up in the afterlife and they argue about who's to blame.  God - posing as a man named Eli - gives them the opportunity to return to Earth but when they get there, they find they have swapped bodies.  Now Hallie has to feel the pains of old age while Susan is living it up in her young body.  Both of them find they have things to learn from the other.

I love a body or soul swap story and all the inherent lessons learned which is what attracted me to this title in the first place.  But in the execution of this story, I was not so impressed.  One of the main issues was trying to keep the two characters straight.  I don't know how the author could've written them more clearly so that I'd be able to picture who was narrating at any particular time but it wasn't this way.  I invested way too much time working out the dynamics of who was speaking and what the relationships were with the friends and family members in each scene.  Aside from that, I was also just not very interested in how the SUV story played out, particularly how Susan's son finally got on board with the issues.  Finally, the usual trope for these stories is that both parties learn something about how great they have it already but I wasn't seeing any reason for Susan to feel like she wanted her old body back. 

Pretty in Punxsutawney by Laurie Boyle Crompton

Andie has been spending the summer hanging around the local movie theater, crushing on Colton and helping him do his job.  She is convinced that they will live happily ever after as soon as she can get him to kiss her.  But disaster strikes on the first day of school when she wears a weird retro dress and finds Colton distracted by a hot girl.  She gets a new chance to make it perfect when she keeps reliving the first day of school over and over, trying different tactics each time.  Could it be that the lessons she has learned from her mom's beloved 1980's movies "Pretty in Pink" and "Groundhog Day" won't help her in real life?

I was just looking for something light and fun and this was definitely that, but still not as engrossing as I was hoping even with those expectations.  Andie did grow, but it took her quite awhile to get there and her escapades weren't surprising enough to keep me as delighted as I wanted.  I also have a hard time believing that teens today are going to be as interested in 30-year old movies as the author of this book is. 

Wednesday, September 26, 2018

Pride by Ibi Zoboi

Zuri and her younger sisters have placed bets on who will be moving into the newly renovated house across the street in their Brooklyn neighborhood.  With all the lavish updates they've seen, a couple of the sisters were betting that a white family was moving in so they are all surprised to see a black family - with two gorgeous boys - arrive.  The older of the two boys immediately hits it off with Janae, Zuri's older sister who has just come home from college.  The younger neighbor, Darius, annoys Zuri right off the bat with his arrogant attitude.  She much prefers cute and flirtatious Warren who gets her and the pride she has in her neighborhood. And when Darius makes it clear he has an issue with Warren, well that just gives her even more reason to like him.  Despite their mutual dislike, Zuri and Darius seem to keep being thrown together and they slowly learn that first impressions aren't always reliable.

This book takes its general storyline from Pride & Prejudice but of course brings a contemporary mindset and some other plot points of its own.  I'm a huge P & P fan so I'm not sure if that helped or hindered my enjoyment of the book.  On one hand, it was disconcerting when I felt like some of my favorite parts of the original weren't included in this version.  And I couldn't always relax entirely into this book because I was comparing and contrasting while reading.  But on the other hand, it was delightful to see the way in which Zoboi took beloved characters and updated them for this setting.  In particular, Mr. Collins jumps to mind.  And of course I felt so clever when I could see that Warren was Wickham and was on the lookout for how he was going to end up being a jerk.  (Not that I am any more clever than any other Pride & Prejudice reader, but my brain was congratulating me for being so smart.)  In the end, I feel like this might be best enjoyed by someone who is coming to the story for the first time.  The story line is timeless and wonderful and Zoboi does a great job of making it ring for teens.

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

Dear Rachel Maddow by Adrienne Kisner

Brynn's teacher has assigned his students to write a letter to a hero.  Brynn chooses Rachel Maddow mainly because her ex-girlfriend was a fan.  After she writes her initial letter, writing to Rachel becomes a habit and all of her future writings for class are addressed to Maddow even though they remain in her drafts folder.  Brynn used to be an all-star student but after her brother's death from an overdose, her parents' divorce, and a break-up with her girlfriend, her grades have slipped and she is now in the basement of the school with other underachieving students.  Along with those issues she is also dealing with and overbearing stepfather and her mother who does nothing to help Brynn.  Despite these problems, Brynn is working on her grades so she can rejoin her beloved school newspaper and possibly break a big story that would take her over-privileged, arrogant nemesis down several pegs. 

Okay, that's a pretty crappy description of a book I liked a lot but I'm finding it a little hard to think of a really great hook for this story that is somewhat of a slice of life.  Brynn's voice is passionate and smart and I was easily swept up in her problems and triumphs.  As a librarian, I wish that she didn't use all the profanities in the entire world only because that will make it harder for me to sell the book to as many people, but the swearing was totally in place for Brynn's character.  Her gradual drift into the corrupt world of high school politics is wonderful and an all too accurate microcosm of real world politics, right down to voter suppression.  AND the resulting sense of hopelessness in trying to fight the power.  At least for this voter...

Brynn's orientation is not even addressed as an issue for her which is just lovely.  She is just a person with an ex and a new love interest and some sticky issues regarding all of the above.  Sure, her life is a mess but unlike so many other books, it's not because she's a lesbian or because she has to come out or any other specifically gay-related issues.  And the absolute best scene of political maneuvering is when someone papers the hallways with flyers, some that say "Brynn is gay" and some that say "Brynn sucks dick" and she asks which it is because it can't be both.  And then loudly reminds everyone that she is a lesbian without it being a thing at all.  I still like books where the character is dealing with coming out because that's still a real problem for people, but I'm also so happy that we are now getting to a place where gay characters can just be people.

One final love/hate from the book:  Brynn's mom is just so not good, mainly because she is more concerned with keeping her husband than her daughter. In a big (but quietly underplayed) showdown toward the end of the book I fully expected that Mom would finally come out from under her husband's thumb and choose Brynn because that's the formula.  As I was reading that section the back of my brain was hoping that Mom wouldn't come around because that would be more realistic.  But then when Mom was still a jerk, I was very sad and worried about Brynn.  To quote the author: "The sadness of that fills me from toes to heart."

Tuesday, August 21, 2018

Mirage by Somaiya Daud

Amani is ripped from her family by the alien race that has taken over her star system, the Vathek.  She finds out why she was singled out when she meets Princess Maram and sees that they could be twins.  Amani is trained, sometimes violently, to be exactly like Maram in order to be her body double at events where Maram might be in danger.  The princess's father is Vath and Maram seems to be just like the cruel overlords so people are not looking forward to her ascension to the throne. But after a rough start, Amani begins to see that Maram might be more understanding and could possibly be turned into a good ruler.  In the meantime, Amani is sent into many situations along with Maram's politically convenient fiance, Idris, and soon the two find themselves growing close.

I set aside time today to finish this book because I just wanted it to be over.  I had heard such hype about it and was looking forward to an exciting sci fi adventure but instead it just dragged along.  The main sci fi thing about it is that the Vath are from somewhere else in the solar system.  But other than that knowledge about them, they basically act like humans (or like whatever the original people are on the planets where Amani lives), except meaner, so there's not much of a sci fi element.  The world that was built was fine but the mythology of the culture was not explained clearly enough for me to embrace it or even understand some of it at times.  I wasn't 100% sure what a tesleet was until at least half to three quarters of the way into the book.  The love scenes were long, particularly the actual consummation scene, without drawing me in with the descriptions of how Idris didn't speak the language but he could read what she was feeling, etc.  On a side note, that poem about ploughing and flushing - OH MY! 

Plot-wise, not a whole lot happened.  Once Amani got the knack of being Maram, there was the romance and some pretty clothes and a bunch of scenes where Amani met people are fooled them or confessed to them.  Even the spying was pretty lackluster.  I needed more political intrigue or action.  Finally, I expected some sort of revelation about why the two girls looked so much alike, especially since Maram is only half Andalaan (I think that's the ethnicity...) and all the Vathek look very much alike in coloring.  I assumed we'd find out they were sisters and then Amani would have to deal with her own tie to her oppressors, but no explanation was offered for the resemblance.  It's clear this is book one in a series so maybe that will come up later.  For now I have to assume that they're "cousins, identical cousins...". 

Sunday, August 19, 2018

To Be Honest by Maggie Ann Martin

After her beloved older sister heads off to college, Savvy is left home alone with her diet-crazed mom.   Ever since she was on the reality TV show Shake the Weight, her mom has been obsessed with her own and other's weight and she makes lots of not so subtle suggestions on how Savvy should improve herself.  Savvy is a little chubby but she is usually happy with herself so she mainly tries to stay out of her mom's way but that's going to be more difficult with Shake the Weight coming to the house to film a follow up segment.  Although she tries to be positive, the editors make it appear that Savvy is doing whatever she can to sabotage her mother's progress.  Luckily, Savvy has a new friend, George, who is supportive, cute and funny.  But is he as interested in her as she is finding herself to be in him?

Things I liked:  Savvy.  George.  Their relationship.  The focus of a book with themes of weight being about a person who was too thin rather than overweight. Savvy's ultra-supportive and fun best friend.  The "it's not even worth addressing" fact that her sister is gay.  Portrayal of a character who has panic attacks.  Condemnation of a reality TV show.  Most of the book.

But then.... I was thoroughly enjoying all of this book - even with the typical back and forth of a romantic relationship - up until the last couple of chapters where everything suddenly just ended.  Was the author under a high pressure deadline to wrap it all up?  Threads that were unsatisfactorily concluded for me:

  • Savvy's mom crashes which was not a surprise with the foreshadowing that had been included, but then she goes to the hospital and that's about it.  We hear third hand that she's going to to have spend a couple more weeks somewhere, but there's no real resolution between her and Savvy.  And with her eating disorder, is she suddenly just all better?  That's not usually how such things work.
  • George's problem is his insecurity about getting too attached but he says that and then Savvy says it and now they're all good?  
  • The initial panic attack was nicely written and Savvy mentions having a history of them at other times in the book, but otherwise that issue is dropped.
  • Savvy's article for the newspaper!  She goes to the award ceremony at the end of the book because her article was such a great thing but as readers we see so little of how she got there.  She interviews the coach, they crash a practice, and she talks to a former player.  But we are not let in on the writing and publishing of the article nor on the fallout from it other than a quick mention during the award scene.  George tells her how proud he is because she has worked so hard on it, but I didn't see that hard work, just a few threads that were leading to something explosive.
I wish the conclusion of the book had been as well done as the first three quarters.  The more I reflected on the story, the more unhappy I was with it overall.

Saturday, August 18, 2018

Dry by Neal Shusterman

Southern California has been rationing water for quite awhile but no one was expecting the Tap Out - the day that water stopped flowing entirely.  At first Alyssa's parents and neighbors assume the water will come back on in just a couple of days, but before too long people are starting to act a little crazed and her formerly peaceful neighborhood is turning into a war zone.  A lot of the frustration is aimed at Alyssa's survivalist next door neighbors, and their son Kelton, who have supplies and electricity when everyone else is without and that frustration turns violent as time goes on.  With Alyssa's parents missing and no relief in sight, she goes with Kelton and a strange girl to find Kelton's family's Bug out where they hope to survive until conditions improve.  But getting there is not all that straightforward either.

A few chapters into this I had to run an errand and decided it wouldn't be a bad idea to buy a case of bottled water just to have on hand because the speed with which society falls apart in the book felt entirely too realistic.  So in terms of making me think hard about how close most of us are to dropping civility in the face of a crisis, this book is right on target.  Unfortunately, after that good opening for a scary survival story, it was just fairly dry. I wasn't invested in any of the characters and felt that they often made poor choices.  Not the kind of poor choices that lead to interesting story developments, just some fairly illogical choices.  It seemed that Shusterman was going for a picture of the greater scene by including quick scenarios of the girl in the Target parking lot and Alyssa's uncle and the "saint" on the freeway, but I would've preferred more connection with our main characters.

Thursday, August 2, 2018

Love à la Mode by Stephanie Kate Strohm

Rosie and Henry meet on the plane taking them to study at a prestigious culinary program in Paris.  They have an immediate spark and it seems like they might have begun a relationship when they kiss a few weeks later, but then a series of complications gets in the way.  Henry want to be a chef more than anything but his mother is pushing him to keep his options open for college or another career.  In order to "help" him think about other opportunities, she talks with his teachers and asks them to assign him extra work.  Now he is stressed out with his nonstop schedule and the pressure of trying to keep his grades high enough to satisfy his mom.  Rosie, meanwhile, wants to be a pastry chef and makes the best cakes, breads and desserts ever.  Unfortunately, she is not as great at all the other cooking and is worried she will be asked to leave the school if she doesn't measure up.  Throw into the mix the hot son of a celebrity chef to further complicate things for Rosie and Henry.

As I expected, this is a light romance following typical romance conventions.  Even so, it is very frustrating to me that the couple can't get together sooner because they won't just TALK to each other!  If Henry had just told Rosie about the pressure he's receiving from his mom she wouldn't have to wonder why he seems to be avoiding her, and so on.  But putting that aside, I liked all the characters and the group of supportive friends surrounding our two main people.  I was happy that hot boy Bodie wasn't a bad guy either, especially because I was sure he had somehow sabotaged Rosie's cheesecake.  The only caveat I would include about this book is that while I really enjoyed the cooking atmosphere and liberal references to real life chefs, terminology, and TV shows, I don't know that will work for every reader.  Perhaps the Parisian love affair will help overcome any issues for those who are not Chopped or Top Chef viewers.  I know I felt the romance of the city as Strohm wove it into the storyline.

Saturday, July 28, 2018

Stronger, Faster, and More Beautiful by Arwen Elys Dayton

Writing a pithy summary of this book feels impossible as it is actually a set of short stories with one connecting factor that adds interest to the stories but isn't required for most of them to be complete.  This sci fi book has six stories, the first of which begins somewhat in the future and then each subsequent story takes place a little further along than that.  Each story shows the progression of genetic manipulation as humans change themselves more and more, eventually ending up with things such as wings, large heads and skin in an array of colors by the last story.  As you might imagine, this is not a book celebrating all those advances...

If you had asked me when I was about 50% through the book I would've said that I wasn't sure if I liked it or not but by the end of it all I really loved it in its entirety.  Although I love sci fi in theory, it is sometimes hard for me to get going on a story because there is the new world which I have to figure out and wrap my head around.  Since there are six stories, I had to figure out six different worlds as the Earth had changed considerably between each new story.  Once I got the rules for each story figured out, I could relax and enjoy what was happening and each one was a great example of the best of sci fi - setting up a future that tells a good tale while still leaving lots of room for your own speculation.  By the time I was into the sixth story and figured out where the entire arc of the book was going, my last wall of skepticism melted and my mind was happily playing back what had gotten us to this point while appreciating how extremely clever Dayton was to make it seem like I was reading six different stories as she was actually leading me along one path the entire time!  I was already content with my book-reading experience but then I read the author's note with the pictorial representation of her inspiration and that was the cherry on top.

Although I basically dismissed the one obvious connecting factor in the stories - the Reverend Tad Tadd - I do love the additional story of his growth from a personal minister to a religion in and of himself.  Other than the one story in which he is a major character, he is thrown in as a mere mention in most of the others.  And yet Dayton has crafted the mentions so well that I can see his fanaticism and that of his followers along with the corruption of his message as it fits his own desires and those of so much of the rest of America.  (Or is that my own bias coming to bear?)

Monday, July 23, 2018

The Similars by Rebecca Hanover

As a new school year begins, Emma is still struggling with the suicide of her best friend at the end of the previous year.  She saw no signs that Ollie was depressed and carries guilt about things she didn't say during the last few weeks of his life.  Emma's school prides itself on inclusiveness so it is not a surprise that their headmaster has invited six clones to attend their private academy.  The six are clones of other students who already attend the school but were cloned without the knowledge or consent of their parents.  Emma's world is rocked when she sees that Oliver was cloned and that now she will be seeing his face every day on Levi.  The two clash immediately but soon Emma finds herself relying on Levi to help her after her roommate Pru is viciously attacked, nearly dying.  As anti-clone sentiment grows at school and in the country as a whole, Emma learns more about the Similars and their special abilities but the mystery of what is happening behind the scenes at the academy grows bigger every day.

I did NOT see that last twist coming!  That is something you hardly ever hear me say.  Most books I have figured out the twist well before I've gotten there or I at least have a pretty good guess I'm waiting to confirm.  When this one was revealed I was truly surprised and it hadn't occurred to me at all so that was very exciting!  Despite that, the book overall was fine for me, but not great.  Emma and Levi's relationship arc was the same as any other doomed lover affair - hate, forced together, discover the other is not so bad after all, get close, obstacle to love with one of them misunderstanding what's happening and the other not explaining, resolution of the obstacle, deepest love story every told, self-sacrifice.  Yawning as I type.  It was not a bad love story, just nothing new happening there to capture my attention.  As for the rest of the plot...

It kept me turning pages quickly to see if there was some answer to the many, many questions:
What are the Similars missions?
What are their special abilities?
Why do they have special abilities?  Are they NOT human?
Why is the school allowing the anti-clone protests when they preach open-mindedness?
What does Oliver's last message to Emma mean?
What does the message in the book from Pru's father mean?
Why is Emma's father so distant from her?
Is Pru dead?
Do The Ten do anything meaningful or do they just meet at midnight to haze and harass each other?  
Why would the principal allow Emma to just leave the lab after what she saw?  And why isn't Emma terrified for her life after that weird encounter?!
And more, not all of which are answered in this book. It was all a little too much without enough closure on all points.  Despite Emma apparently being extremely smart since she placed in "the Ten", she doesn't seem particularly adept at figuring much out.  Like I said, I was reading quickly because I was caught up in the story despite the flaws I kept finding.

Finally, there were just too many characters to keep track of once all the parents became involved.  I'm not sure how to fix that since the past is relevant to the present, but something needs to be done so that I can tell who has grudges from the past and which parents are supposed to hate each other now.  At least give some names that stand out or just call the parents Mr. So and So, Mrs. So and So.  But Jago and Jaeger?  And then the dinner on parents' weekend - Lord help me!

Wednesday, July 18, 2018

Heart of Iron by Ashley Poston

Ana and Di were taken aboard a pirate spaceship several years ago when they were adrift in an escape pod.  Ana doesn't remember anything about her life before arriving on the ship but she has been trained to be great at what she does.  Di is her closest friend but he has been glitching because his memory core is damaged but Ana is hopeful they will be able to restore him if she can get the coordinates to a mysterious ship.  Unfortunately, someone else buys them just before she has a chance but she is so determined to fix Di that they chase the buyer down and become entangled in an interstellar adventure with killer robots, romance, evil rulers, and a prophesized return of the Goddess.

I did not enter this book in the best frame of mind having been "forced" to read it after I was fairly determined to ignore it.  As such, I found the beginning a little confusing and cliched with the daredevil pilot and the plucky, clever girl who throws caution to the wind.  But once I got over my attitude and settled into this world, I found myself liking it quite a bit even as I tried to resist.  Luckily, the "secret" of who Ana really is, is revealed officially about halfway into the book rather then springing it on the reader at the end as if we don't already know.  That allowed the plot to really get down to the mystery of what happened years before without forcing the author to write mysterious sentences that didn't reveal anything.  Ana's pirate family is great and supportive, reminding me of the crew of the Firefly or the Scooby Gang in Buffy.  And if you knew what a Buffy fan I am, you'd understand how high that praise is. 

Ana's relationship with Di was less interesting to me just because I found the hesitating over their feelings - and whether Di even had feelings since he is a robot/android - typical and boring.  I also had some problems with their age difference since Di is fully formed and, I assume, was basically an adult right from the moment of his creation. Therefore, he was grown up when they went into the escape pod and Ana was still a child.  So for them to now form a romantic attachment is a little weird.  However, that is one of those mind-boggling conundrums like when you try to figure out time-travel movies because does a robot actually age?  Does my perception of what's an appropriate relationship between a human and an android even apply?  With that issue aside, I will say that it was pretty convenient that the crew just happened to find a more humanoid robot to download Di into.  Speaking of relationships, the bonding of Jax and Robb was too fast for my taste in terms of what they knew about each other (nothing) to become so close.  But I liked both of them and aside from the speediness of their relationship building, I liked watching them come together.

As I approached the end of the book I lost some of my enthusiasm because it was a little longer than I felt it needed to be.  I think the book overall could lose 50 to 100 pages and it would be better for that to keep the action moving and tighter than it is.  Otherwise, it is just a good example of straight up rollicking sci fi.

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.