Wednesday, April 18, 2018

The Serpent's Secret by Sayantani DasGupta

Just once Kiranmala would like to dress as something other than an Indian princess for Halloween.  All her life her parents have told her Indian stories full of demons and magical creatures and they have insisted that she is a princess and dressed her accordingly for Halloween.  On her twelfth birthday Kiranmala arrives home to find that her parents have vanished and there is a rakkhosh demon in her house, sent to eat her.  Two boys on flying horses arrive and whisk her away and Kiranmala now realizes that her parents' stories were true and she actually IS a real Indian princess.  With the help of the two brothers, their horses, a magical map, and an annoying, talking bird, Kiranmala sets out to find and rescue her parents.

This is a great mythological adventure for younger readers.  I have seen gushing reviews about it being the new Percy Jackson but I don't think that's going to be the case because kids are resistant to other mythologies and they have no background in Eastern folklore.  However, this book is a good introduction to that and there is plenty of action and comedy to keep them rolling along through the unfamiliar parts.  And also some gross bits with disgusting rakkhosh demons.  And some serious Daddy issues.  In fact, DasGupta hits all sorts of high points for early middle school readers which is part of what I didn't like so much about it - it felt a little too planned out and not as naturally evolving as I would've liked.  With that said, however, I still think it will be fun for my sixth graders which is why I plan to use it on my reading program for them next year. 

Monday, April 16, 2018

Slider by Pete Hautman

David is fascinated with the world of competitive eating and his hero is Jooky Garafalo.   When he sees a hot dog made famous by Jooky on an online auction site, he steals his mom's credit card to bid $20 for the hot dog.  Unfortunately, he wasn't paying attention and ends up winning the auction with a bid of $2000.  Now he needs to find a way to raise a lot of money, fast, so it's a blessing when his favorite pizza place announces they'll be having a speed eating contest with a grand prize of $5000.  David goes into training to stretch his stomach and work on his pizza-guzzling technique but he also has to deal with his autistic brother Mal, his perfect sister Bridgette, and his two best friends who seem to be developing feelings for each other.

This is a fine book with some things happening but it's quite lackluster.  The descriptions of David's eating made me somewhat nauseated and I quibble with the descriptions of him being hungry associated with his speed-eating.  I think those are two different things.  Mal is a good character but I didn't care much about anyone else.  This will have some fans, but there's not much here to excite my teens.

Puddin' by Julie Murphy

Millie dreams of being a serious journalist someday even though she doesn't see women who look like her on TV.  She plans to jump start her dream by attending a selective summer program for aspiring newscasters but first, she has to tell her mom that she won't be going to the fat camp she has attended every year since she was younger.  Millie's mom believes this will be the year Millie will lose the weight and begin her life while Millie feels like she can achieve her dreams regardless of her weight.  

Callie is a pretty girl for whom things come easy.  She knows she's going to be the next captain of the dance team and that this will be the year their team finally wins a national championship.  But when one of the team's sponsors drops out, Callie joins the rest of the team on a revenge mission that leads to Callie taking the fall for everyone and doing community service at the gym they vandalized.  That's where Callie and Millie begin to discover that they might be more alike than they thought.

I really enjoyed Dumplin' and was hoping for more in this companion novel but ended up let down by it.  Millie is a nice enough character but I never got completely invested in her nor her struggles - which were not all that much of a struggle in the first place.  She is so reliably upbeat about everything that she felt surface-y to me.  And her friends from the Dumplin' didn't seem to be very involved with her so it felt more to me like one-sided relationships with them just humoring her about the sleepovers.  I don't think they cared much at all about maintaining their friendships.  Meanwhile, Callie was just a mean girl, pretty much throughout the entire book.  Just when you thought she'd started to make some progress, she comes up with an entirely new way to be especially mean to people, all while feeling sorry for herself for being in a situation of her own making.  She judges Millie even after they are friends and she's too good for the pudgy guy who likes her and she takes the first opportunity where she's given some trust to sneak out of class to be with her sleazy boyfriend.  But I think my biggest issue with the plot was the supposed secret that loomed over Millie and Callie's friendship - the fact that Millie is the one who ID'ed Callie on the video in the first place.  And I get that the girls would eventually find out more about each other and become friends, because that's what happens in these kinds of stories, but why would Millie be so nice to Callie in the first place?  Shouldn't she have been mean to Callie at first?  Callie destroyed so much of Millie's family's dreams. There were enjoyable bits but the overall effect didn't leave much impression.

For Every One by Jason Reynolds

For everyone who has a dream but also has doubts about achieving that dream, this book is for you. As always, Jason Reynolds has crafted words into something lovely and meaningful in this poem.  It spoke to me at age 50 when he talks about the plans we have throughout life, imagining that we'll get there by age 13 or 18 or 25.  I think that will also resonate with teens who are still so sure they are destined for greatness sooner rather than later.  But Reynolds also talks about the fear of trying for your dream which I think might be more relevant to kids today than for my generation.  I think teens are more aware of roadblocks for them in society which is not a great thing.  There is plenty of time for cynicism later in life.  :-)  I think that addressing that nagging doubt is what makes this book more powerful than if it was just an "I believe I can fly" message.  A great title to hand to anyone just setting out on a journey as well as anyone who is lagging a bit in their journey.

So Close to Being the Sh*t, Y’all Don’t Even Know by Retta

I requested an ARC of this book, even though I basically only read YA stuff, because I love Retta.  I loved her low key demeanor on "Parks and Rec" and that she's a big girl.  I was excited to see what she had to say in print and to learn more about her than "Treat yo'self" and I was not disappointed for the most part. The first chapter was illuminating because I had no idea she was a talented singer as well as comedian.  Talented enough to be given the opportunity to audition for "Dreamgirls" which seems pretty amazing!  That chapter surprised me, taught me something about Retta, made me laugh, and offered some thoughtful insight into self-perception and opportunities.  I wish I could say the same for the rest of the book which instead seemed to take a turn more toward stream of consciousness and fun time without as much introspection.  I didn't pick up the book expecting a self-help tome or relying on Retta to tell me who I am, but I wanted more meat than was offered throughout.  I'm not sure I know much more about Retta than I did going in.  But for something fun and easy to read, it's a winner.

Saturday, April 14, 2018

The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo

Xiomara keeps her feelings to herself and in her journal.  She knows her strict Catholic mother wouldn't understand her emotions about how she's treated in the neighborhood or her doubts about the church or the way she expresses herself in poetry or especially the way she's starting to feel about her science partner, Aman.  As a teen, Xiomara's mother had planned to be a nun so she has strict expectations for ladylike, pious behavior for her family.  Xiomara and her twin brother have even greater expectations placed on them for their lives because their conception was an unexpected miracle, happening after their parents had been told it was impossible.  Xiomara has already put off her confirmation by two years and knows she has to complete it now, so she can't join her teacher's poetry club which meets on the same night regardless of how much she wants to be a part of it. But as her doubts and issues grow, so does her resistance to remaining silent about her life.

I am blown away by this novel and I'm not often a huge fan of books in verse. Part of my objection to books in verse is that they do not appeal to my students but I know that will not be an issue with this book.  I've seen only a couple videos of Acevedo performing poetry before reading this book and she is a powerful performer.  She totally packs all of her performing skill into text, which is not easy to do with poetry since it is really meant to be a spoken art, but the poems here pack a punch over and over.  I found myself a little dazed more than a few times where I sat and thought, and then went back and reread the previous passage to experience it again.  And the scene with the journal?  I literally gasped aloud and cried with grief over what was lost - and I don't mean just the stuff in the journal when I talk about what was lost in that scene.  The mother/daughter dynamics are so real and raw and relatable.  

I know that part of what resonated with me is that I was raised Catholic (although nowhere near AS Catholic as Xiomara's family) and the doubts she expresses mirror some of what I was thinking as I grew up.  As an ex-Catholic now, I still have affection for the Catholic church and their more liberal beliefs so I was also very fond of Xiomara's priest who is a wonderful sounding board for her and mediator with her mother.   

I can't wait to get copies for my school and get them into the hands of my students.

Friday, April 6, 2018

The Hazel Wood by Melissa Albert

Alice and her mother have moved every few months, usually after someone creepy shows up or something odd occurs.  Although they don't talk about it much, Alice knows that some of these weird things relate to her grandmother who authored a book of dark fairy tales with a cultish fallowing.  The one time Alice got her hands on a copy of Tales of the Hinterland, her mother snatched it away from her with unusually sharp words.  When they get word that her grandmother has died, Alice's mother believes their lives will change but things take a turn for the worse when she is kidnapped by people who say they are from the Hinterland.  With the help of one of her grandmother's fans, Alice has to find her way to her grandmother's secret home, the Hazel Wood, and possibly enter a Story herself.

I was loving this story of Alice's weird family full of dark secrets and even darker fairy tales.  The strange people and animals who lingered on the edges of reality had me wrapped around their fingers and talons as I waited to see how our world intersected with the realm of fairy tales.  Plus, I love fairy tales and I couldn't wait to hear more of the stories contained in this secret book!  Every time Finch would retell one to Alice I was turning pages faster than ever.  That was my experience until about 50% in which is when Alice entered the Hazel Wood.  Or maybe she entered the Halfway Wood.  Or perhaps it was the Hinterlands.  I don't know where the fuck she was or what happened there for most of the rest of the book.  I understand the bones of the book - Hinterland is real, grandma opened some sort of portal, Alice shouldn't be where she is, and what she needs to do to escape.  But the description of everything surrounding those basic plot points is too trippy and not written clearly enough for me to become absorbed in what's happening.  As I hinted at, I wasn't even sure of the boundaries between the three spheres.  Characters were referred to as being "Hinterland" so I guess that's more of a designation rather than a place???  A very disappointing ending to a promising start for me.

Saturday, March 24, 2018

The Big Dark by Rodman Philbrick

It's New Year's Eve and everyone in Charlie's small town in New Hampshire is watching the northern lights.  After a particularly bright flare, all the power suddenly goes out - even batteries don't function anymore.  With the town cut off from the rest of the world and no power available, problems quickly start to arise.  Among the first is just keeping warm in the middle of winter but people also have to think about eating and Charlie's mom needs her diabetes medication to stay healthy.  Basic survival is further complicated by the threats coming from local bigot and survivalist Webster Bragg and his sons who are trying to declare martial law with only the part time police officer standing up to them. When Charlie's mom only has a few days of medicine left, he decides to ski the 50 miles south to the city to get her resupplied from the hospital there.

I spent the first several chapters trying to remember the name of the TV show that was on a few years ago where all the power went out and people had to survive so it was distracting to think about which story came first and who was being copied.  (The TV show came first.) Once I dealt with that distraction, I just wasn't caught up by this story at all.  It should've been an exciting, thoughtful examination of our dependency on power and how humans react to crises.  Instead, the excitement never came.  There were lots of events that kept the story moving, but they were presented in such a matter of fact, non-exciting way that I was never very invested.  Even the bad Bragg family wasn't fleshed out much other than that they were racists and survivalists.  A few in the town sided with them but the majority didn't.  Yet they also didn't do anything to help out the police officer who was willing to take a bullet for them.  And then the ending was SO convenient that the aftermath of the old west-style showdown was never followed up on.  Bland throughout.

Friday, March 23, 2018

Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi

 Zelie can remember a time when her people had magic, a time before the Raid where magic was taken away and all the maji, including Zelie's mother, were murdered by order of the king.   Now the powerless diviners are oppressed by King Saran and his guards who demand higher payments and take liberties with the girls while looking down on them.  In an effort to make enough money to pay their latest debt, Zelie and her brother Tzain go to town to sell a rare fish.  While there, a fugitive on the run from the palace guards begs for assistance and Zelie helps her escape from the city walls.  Only later do the brother and sister realize they have helped the princess who has stolen a sacred scroll that helps ignite long lost powers in the diviners.  With some of her magic awakened, Zelie learns that she is chosen to take three artifacts to a sacred place on the solstice to reconnect with the goddess and return magic to everyone.  But the king and his son will do anything to make sure that doesn't happen, even while the prince discovers he has powers of his own.

I am not entirely settled on a rating for this book.  Most parts of it are a solid 4.5 stars and other parts are just a three so I guess you could say that it was up and down for me - but mostly up.  I really liked all three main characters and their growth (and their regression) throughout the book.  Zelie is strong at parts but not so cocky that she has no insecurities as well. The pain she feels from previous traumas is presented so clearly by Adeyemi that you can feel it as a reader without crossing the line into being showy or just a passage in the book that is meant to be emotional but doesn't actually evoke feelings.  Amari's journey from being the victim in palace sparring matches to really feeling herself as lionaire is beautiful and so wonderful for me as a woman reading it.  And what's the story with her and Binta?  I feel like there was something there but even if there wasn't, I loved that Amari's biggest source of support came from a woman.  Meanwhile, Inan is such a huge sexy, disturbed mess that I both couldn't wait to see what he did and cringed every time his chapter arrived.  He didn't really surprise me when all was said and done, but he made me sad all the same.

One thing that will make me love a story is ambiguity in good and evil, hero and villain, and course of action.  This book had ambiguity not just in the characters, but also throughout the plot.  You're cheering for magic to come back and yet there are scenes that left me totally understanding the king's point of view about destroying it.  NOT the way he also massacred his people, but there's real danger in the magical abilities and I'm old enough to know that "absolute power corrupts absolutely" so I was worried about what was actually the right course of action here.  I couldn't just skim the story, I had to put some real thought into it.

Finally, the world of Orisha is fully developed with enough world-building to make it a different place from here (except in terms of the politics of the place which has some definite similarities to real life, in particular to violence against the minorities in the land) but not so extreme that I couldn't grasp the rules of the world and get involved in the story.  There is a map on the endpapers but I could visualize where the group was traveling just from the descriptions in the text and I could completely see the secret maji village and the temples and the broken bridge and the coliseum... 

The only thing I can think of while reflecting on the book is that if it had lost about 100 pages - and I don't have any particular part in mind that I feel was unnecessary, I'm just talking about the length in general - it would've been about perfect.  But that's a kind of nitpicky point, mainly thinking about the ability to attract a few more readers to something a little shorter.  My epic readers, however, will LOVE  having something new and I will begin selling it on Monday.  And then I will be buying at least one more copy because it will be in hot demand.

The Belles by Dhonielle Clayton

Camellia is excited that she is finally part of the group being sent to the palace to take over Belle duties.   In Orleans, everyone other than a Belle is born with grey skin and red eyes.  The Belles have the special abilities and talents to alter a person's appearance in any way to make him or her beautiful.  During the upcoming ceremony, one of the Belles will be chosen as the Favorite.  Camellia is so sure she will be the Favorite that it is a huge shock when her closest friend is chosen instead. Camellia is sent to a nearby teahouse where she learns that the life of a Belle is not as glamorous as she had imagined and that there are some secrets being kept from her.  She is further surprised when she receives an invitation to come back to the palace and finds out she is replacing Amber as the Favorite.  No one can give her an explanation of what happened to her friend but the more time she spends with the princess, the more she begins to suspect that something nefarious has taken place.  And when the queen makes a proposal to her, Camellia finds herself stuck in a dangerous position.

I have really been dragging my feet on getting this review written mostly because I had such high expectations for it but ended up being quite disappointed.  I'll start with the few things I liked.
  • The setting is lush and so easily visualized thanks to the descriptive language.
  • The premise is unique
  • The references to several fairy/folk tales made me feel like I was really clever when I connected the dots and figured out the subtext.
  • I found myself imagining what it would be like to be able to alter your appearance so radically fairly easily (although painfully, apparently).
  • The deeper subtexts of the desire for beauty at all costs AND the enslavement of people and their differing stations depending on how useful they are to the people in charge.
Now on to the issues I have with The Belles.
  • Yes, the language is descriptive but it was overly so for me and began to feel like padding.  I found it over the top and then, annoying.
  • I could not get invested in any of the characters.  Camellia was not a great friend to Amber and she was not all the swift when it came to figuring out what was happening in the palace nor in making a decision about her course of action.  I wanted a stronger protagonist, someone I could root for.  Whatever sort of feeling I was having for her was then permanently squashed when she and Amber used their Belle powers in a competition with disastrous results.  I think I was supposed to be mad at the person who set up this situation, but Camellia knew the score by then and still played along.  But then was shocked by the results.
  • The villain was too much for me for too long.  Her sadism was clearly illustrated  and then it was shown again with another horrible scene.  And then another.  I get it already.  It reminded me of Ramses Bolton on Game of Thrones and Ramses was the character that almost made me stop watching because I didn't need to see more horrors to understand that he's a bad dude.  
  • The plot "twists" were not so twisty for me, especially the revelation at the end about the elder princess.  That just made me angry that no one had ever thought to check on that before because, come on!!
So, overall, a book I couldn't wait to get but that turned out to be a disappointment for me.  That's always a sad turn of events.

Thursday, March 15, 2018

Brave by Svetlana Chmakova

Jensen has big plans for his future.  He wants to be an astronaut and has already begun researching sunspots, something that makes everyone around him roll their eyes.  In his daydreams Jensen is the hero of every situation and he is happily unaware that his real life is not as great.  His "friends" call him names and say rude things to him.  But they're just joking, right?  It's not until Jensen gets involved with the newspaper crew who wants to interview him for a project on bullying that he even realizes he is a victim of some of that behavior.  

This book grew on my slowly as Chmakova  pulled me into a light story about a daydreaming boy and then sneakily turned it into a strong message book about bullying.  Jensen is a winning character, kinda clueless about life as many new middle schoolers are, with a perception of himself that does not match his reality (like A LOT of people).  His realization that he is being bullied is great, particularly because the questionnaire that helps him see this deals with the considerably less obvious forms of bullying, not just physical bullying.  As he looks around with new eyes, he also becomes more aware of how others are being excluded and takes it upon himself to do what he can to make a difference.  The "brick by brick" analogy is so powerful and hopeful and completely won me over.  I'm sure that's partly because I, myself, feel that some problems we are facing are just too big and I have no impact on changing them.  It's a good affirmation to remind readers that all our actions together can make a difference a little at a time.  And it's also one of the few books around that offers some solutions to bullying, not just calling out the behavior.

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

The Apocalypse of Elena Mendoza by Shaun David Hutchinson

On the day Elena finally manages to get up the courage to talk to the girl she has had a crush on, that girl is shot right in front of her.  Elena has always heard voices from inanimate objects so when the Starbucks logo tells her to heal Freddie's gunshot wound, Elena does.  Freddie heals as if she had never been shot and then her killer disappears in a flash of light.  Very few people believe Elena but this is not her first miracle.  In fact, she is already somewhat famous because she is the product of a virgin birth.  It turns out there is a scientific explanation for this, but it is still a miracle.  After the healing Elena hears from several other objects all of which tell her she is the key to saving humans from some unnamed problem and that she is to heal as many people as possible.  The issue is that every time she heals one person, lots of others are "raptured" away, leaving behind devastated friends and families.  She has also attracted the attention of the local police and some secretive government agents.  With the help of her best friend, her former boyfriend, and Freddie, Elena is struggling to figure out what she should do.

I really loved the beginning of this book with the healing and promise of some huge religious or philosophical revelation.  I am gaga about how Elena has a crush on a girl and has an ex-boyfriend and yet there is not a passage talking about her sexuality (until much later in the book in a flashback), she just likes who she likes.  In addition, her friend Fadil is great and I was really enjoying their relationship, his devotion to his religion, and his unconditional support of Elena.  So things were going great!  

And then, things just kinda petered out.  Elena asked for answers from the voices but they did not offer her any explanations.  She discussed her options and problems with various people but didn't form any concrete plan of action and I got tired of watching her just react to the latest thing.  I was particularly unhappy with the quick fade of Fadil from the story as Elena became more involved with Freddie.  The book was just long without much action for a huge chunk of time which I feel is an issue for so many authors - great idea for a premise and then seeming to go not much of anywhere. We are left with unanswered questions about the government agents and really, what, exactly, is happening that necessitated the healing and rapturing in the first place?  Elena finds some solution but I don't feel like there was enough groundwork laid to help us (or me, anyway) understand why people would take the option that was offered.  It feels like there was meant to be a deep message about human weariness or faith but it didn't end up being made clear.

Finally - and this is smallish in terms of the overall story, but it mattered to me - my praise of how a bisexual character was so naturally included in the story was tempered by a later passages/events.  While discussing some classmates the two girls identify one boy Freddie used to like who is now transitioning.  A discussion with another character at another time leads to the revelation that he is questioning and might be asexual.  There are other minor LGBTQ "characters" - I use quotes because we don't actually know most of these people, they are just mentioned in passing.  I'm all for representation but not in a laundry list.  Then it just stands out in a "some of my best friends are not straight" way.  Definitely pulled me out of the story as it was not naturally integrated the way Elena's sexuality was.

Saturday, March 3, 2018

The Other Boy by M.G. Hennessey

Shane and his best friend Josh love baseball and their team has a chance to win a tournament this year.  Unfortunately for his team, Shane has to go visit his dad on the same weekend of an important game so he won't be able to help his team win.  Although he doesn't want to let his team down, Shane is excited about his visit back to his former town because he will be seeing his doctor and might be able to begin having testosterone shots to help with his transition.  No one in Shane's new school knows that he was born biologically female but he is still nervous about someone finding out.  What's more, other boys his age are starting to grow hair and are becoming more muscular and Shane doesn't want to be left behind his peers.  But his dreams of beginning the shots are dashed when his dad, who isn't entirely comfortable with this decision, doesn't give his permission.  Back at home, Shane lets slip the name of his former school and the bully who has been harassing him finds a picture of Shane as a girl.  Now he is struggling with his identity again as well as wondering how his friends and girlfriend will react.  

I knew that Shane was a trans boy before beginning the book but I wish I hadn't had that knowledge.  One of the things I liked the best about this is that Hennessey just drops you into Shane's typical middle school boy life - sports, friend, graphic novels, beginnings of romance with a cute girl, bullying - without a word about his biological sex.  When I book talk this to my students, I totally want to find a hook other than his gender because I want my kids to be sucked into Shane's life as a completely "normal" boy before they can bring all their assumptions to bear.  There are a lot of things I like about this book including:
1.  His dad is not all okay with everything right away.  I've said this about several other books with transgendered or gay characters - your loved ones don't always just get it right away.  And even if they're supportive in general, they're gonna make some mistakes and say some stupid things.  It's okay that his dad is struggling to get there as long as he is still working on it.
2.  Because no one at school knows about his past, Shane has kinda convinced himself that he's fine and doesn't need a support group.  But it turns out he's not as all together as he thinks, especially after he is outed at school.  Coming out is a lifetime process as is self-acceptance.
3.  Some people he knows are okay with his revelation and some are not.  Always gonna be that way.  And just like his dad, some of them are supportive but don't really know exactly what to say or how to be supportive without also being awkward.  
4.  There is a little bit of romance - which is typical for a 12 year old boy - but the focus of the book is on Shane's identity in general, not his sexuality.  Sex and orientation are not the same thing but not a lot of people get that.  The other great thing about this point is that when parents come after this book, and some of them will, they won't be able to say that it is inappropriate because middle schoolers don't need to be reading about sex.  The only grounds for objecting to this book is your own personal bigotry and you're basically going to have to expose that in your book challenge.  They'll come up with some other reasons, but that's what's really going to be the reason.
5.  It's really just a story about a boy being bullied for being who he is and him figuring out how to stand up for himself and ignore the bullies.  And it shows that process in a very realistic way with Shane feeling like there's no hope at all to begin with.  It's a good message for my teens to see that you can make it out of the depths of despair back to normal life.  

Prince in Disguise by Stephanie Kate Strohm

Dylan has a lot to live up to when compared to her big sister Dusty.  Dusty is a former Miss Mississippi, is now engaged to a Scottish lord, AND is the star of reality show Prince in Disguise which is tracing her relationship with her fiance Ronan.  Although she is constantly compared to her big sister, Dylan has no taste for fame so she is not happy when she finds out she will be part of the show as it travels to Scotland to prepare for the big wedding.  Almost immediately she meets charming, geeky Jamie and the two become fast friends, and more, which is just what Dylan needs to help her cope with all the reality show twists the producers have in store for her family.

Prince in Disguise is full of unexpected twists, deep secrets and gasp out loud moments... NAH, that's not true at all!  This book is about as formulaic as any Hallmark channel movie but if you were expecting something else, you need to do some more reading and watching so you can spot the "twists" a little sooner.  Instead, this book is warm and comforting because you do know what's going to happen and what the surprise will be.  But what makes it more fun than some others of its kind is that ALL the characters are charming, which matters a lot to me.  Dylan and Jamie's romance is fun and moves at a realistic pace for two teens.  Although Ronan's mom is a snob who doesn't care for Dylan's family, the two sisters and their mom are a pretty tight unit and Strohm does a great job not putting Mom into the trashy in-law faux pas-ing with the royals stereotype.  In fact, Dylan's mom is a great standard of class which really was a twist on the usual formula.  No surprises galore, but satisfying romances and family bonding abound.

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Mary's Monster: Love, Madness, and How Mary Shelley Created Frankenstein by Lita Judge

The popular story of Mary Shelley creating Frankenstein is that a group of writers spending time at a lodge were challenged to write a scary story and Shelley's was chosen as the most disturbing.  Beyond that, I don't think I've ever heard much about Shelley's life.  I certainly never heard that she was an unwed mother or that the poet Shelley was married when he met Mary and they ran away together.  Mary Shelley's life was full of tragic events, many of which originated with her tumultuous relationship with Shelley.  Although her father wrote rhapsodic about free love, he was not supportive when Mary decided to pursue her own relationship so the two young lovers were banished and found themselves wandering Europe.  Shelley's reputation as a cad resulted in a lack of money for the pair in addition to the many deaths that surrounded them.  

This is a fascinating, and disturbing, biography full of information I didn't know about at all.  The text is descriptive and evocative and it, by itself, wrapped me in a dark, grim mood.  But in addition to the writing, there are the moody illustrations that show you the pain Mary is feeling and the monster hovering behind her at every step.  The entire book just works together to really take you into her life and gives you a real sense of the darkness that inspired the timeless story in the first place. 

Sunday, February 18, 2018

Unearthed by Amie Kaufman and Meagan Spooner

Mia has managed to get herself to Gaia, a planet that was home to a long-dead alien race called the Undying.  Just one power cell from Gaia is enough to power all of Los Angeles and the rest of Earth needs help as well.  If Mia can find some artifacts, she will be able to help save her sister from a bad job that is only going to lead to female exploitation.  When other scavengers almost get the drop on Mia she runs into Jules, a boy who is on Gaia to prove that his father wasn't crazy when he claimed there was a secret message in the Undying's writings that warned of extreme danger.  The two join forces to explore a smaller, unknown temple.  Jules hopes to find the answers to his questions while Mia is looking to cash out.  But the Undying secured their buildings with deadly puzzles that must be solved to get to the treasures and Jules and Mia are being followed by some other collectors who will stop at nothing to get loot for themselves.

Once again, a book for which I had some expectations that did not live up to them. In fact, if I wasn't already 3/4 of the way through the book, I would've put it down.  I struggled with:  
the characters
the romance
the puzzles
the constant on-the-run edness
the plot that didn't capture me

Are there other parts to a book?  Not really.  I can break it down a bit.  Neither Jules nor Mia interested me much at all although Jules had more possibilities for me since he had the knowledge of the Undying.  Unfortunately, we never learned much about this alien race and I had questions, dammit!  But given the ending, I can see that if we knew too awfully much, that might've resulted in some serious spoilers.  I also cared absolutely nothing for their romance which was completely YA lit formula and insta-love.  Will they?  Won't they?  Oh no - what about this misunderstanding!  I cared exactly zero because none of it felt real.

The puzzles left by the Undying could've been super cool but we were left to read long passages about how Mia and Jules solved them rather than being given the tools to figure them out ourselves.  I like puzzles.  I'm willing to bet that most avid readers like puzzles AND love when we figure out a twist or turn in a story before it is officially revealed.  Give me some hints about the glyphs or the pattern on the floor and I would've spent all kinds of time trying to prove how smart I am.  Instead, I was bored and skimmed quite a few of those passages.

I know there has to be some danger but I grow weary of a plot where the only thing moving the action forward seems to be the need to keep on the move because the bad guy is coming up behind you.  When I reviewed Illuminae I said that one thing I loved the most about it is that it is a great example of "show, not tell".  In Unearthed, Kaufman has lost that ability.

Tangled Planet by Kate Blair

 Ursa has known no life beyond her spaceship, the Venture.  The ship left Earth 400 years ago to start a new human civilization on Beta Earth.  Despite their careful planning, there have been some glitches with the resettlement.  The Venture was delayed in its arrival while some of the terraforming ships showed up earlier than expected resulting in overgrown vegetation.  While many of the colonists are thrilled to be off the ship and starting life on the new planet, Ursa is afraid of the wide open spaces which have already claimed lives, including her best friend Maia.  While on Beta one night, Ursa comes across a dead body and swears she saw a large creature with sharp teeth in the shadows even though no animals have been released on the planet yet.  Soon, Ursa herself is under suspicion as the dangers and deaths mount.

I am a big fan of Blair's first book, Transferral, and made the effort to backdoor the system to get this one by ordering it from Amazon Canada since it won't be released in the U.S. for a few more months.  As in many situations where my expectations are high, I have to wonder if that is a factor in why I can't rave about the book.  Oh, sure, I enjoyed it while reading it, but in the end there is nothing unusual about it.  

I was excited about the possibilities within the first few pages with the description of the Clearsighters who believed it was all a hoax and did themselves in at an airlock.  What a great addition to the story of a long space flight!  What's more, it was something I hadn't read before AND it felt like such a great reference to the "fake news" dumbasses who, unfortunately, are not standing anywhere near an airlock.  I also was taken by the fact that Ursa had supportive adults around her and she wasn't immediately on the run from nor a suspect by the people who mattered.  I get weary when the main character has to keep digging out of a pit that continues to collapse.  

But after that attention-getting beginning the story became more typical.  There's nothing wrong with it and there's a good deal of action, especially for a short-ish sci fi book, but the twists didn't keep me turning pages as quickly and the betrayals felt too clearly broadcast.

Thursday, February 15, 2018

The Disturbed Girl's Dictionary by NoNieqa Ramos

Macy is a problem student at school.  Students and teachers are afraid of her because of her outbursts.  The only people who aren't frightened of Macy are her best friend Alma, who is so smart and kind that everyone loves her, and George who is ignored by most of the school because he wears a helmet and seems to have mental issues.  Her home life is worse.  Her father is in prison and her mom has a series of male "guests" who spend the night and use drugs with her mother.  Finally, her younger brother Zach has been taken from the home by Child Protective Services and it feels like Macy is the only one trying to get him back.  Things only get worse from there and Macy chronicles her life in a dictionary she writes herself.

Picture me sitting with a slack jaw upon finishing this book as I try to grapple with everything that I've just read.  I had a slow start getting in to Macy's story because she references events that haven't yet happened and I was a little confused, but thing start to come together quickly.  Ramos does a masterful job of leading the reader slowly into the darkness of Macy's life.  We start with problems at school and her mother's many guests and Macy's ever-present hunger.  I get the picture quickly that things are not good and that Macy is a mess - although it's equally obvious that Macy is much smarter than her teachers give her credit for.  You can also see that hope is not lost for her because she is inquisitive and cares deeply for her brother and Alma.  But revelation by revelation we find out just how bad things are in Macy's world. One of the first scenes that showed (not told) me the state of her apartment was when Macy was cleaning it for the upcoming visit from CPS.  She'd referred to the general state of the apartment but the detailed description of all the work she put into making it as presentable as possible clearly illuminated just how bad her living conditions were.  We are slowly taken along as her already precarious world unravels and she is forced to deal with unfathomable situations without reprieve.  Macy uses whatever skills and tools she has to try to save what she can in her life - Zach, George, herself (as an afterthought), and Alma in a horrible, Sophie's choice decision.  I am blown away by this book and its impact on me.  I read a lot and am usually just moving on to the next title without thinking a whole lot about what I just finished.  So if I am still pondering a book days later, that's a winner.  I am trying to find a way to justify including it in my middle school collection but I think it's just a little too mature to get away with it which is a shame because so many of my students would (very sadly) identify with Macy's life.  And an equal number would have a window into a life different from their own but with a character with whom they can sympathize and maybe begin to have more empathy for others overall.

I have to say that despite how bleak a picture Ramos has painted here, I did not leave the book feeling depressed.  I was sad for Macy and the things she had to do and endure, but mostly I was in awe of such an amazing story, told so well.   I think it might be one of the most important books I've read.

Side note:  Other reviewers have mentioned Macy's nonstandard English as a reason they did not finish or enjoy the book.  But for those who are scared off by that, I will say that I have read many other books with way more slang and spelling differences than this one.  It should not be a problem to figure out what Macy is saying since most of the language variances are simple things like using an "f" at the end of words that end with "th".  So get over yourself and your insistence on a character using the Queen's English. 

Friday, February 9, 2018

Truly Devious by Maureen Johnson

Stevie is excited to be attending the extremely exclusive private school Ellingham Academy.  Besides the exclusivity of being accepted to Ellingham, there are the bonuses that she will be living away from  her conservative parents and she will be on the site of one of the biggest unsolved mysteries of all time.  For someone who wants to be a detective, this is an incredible opportunity to gather first hand evidence. Albert Ellingham's wife and daughter were kidnapped in 1936 after a letter arrived promising murder and mayhem.  The kidnapper/killer has been dubbed Truly Devious because of the way in which the letter was signed.  The wife's body was found later but the daughter has never been found and no one has ever been arrested.  Stevie aims to solve the mystery that has baffled everyone else.  But before long, Stevie and the rest of Ellingham Academy's residents are caught up in a new mystery on campus that has ties to the original one from 70 years ago.

THE ENDING!! YOU'RE KILLING ME WITH THAT ENDING, JOHNSON!!!!!  I am well known by both my faculty and students for never (well, hardly ever) reading sequels. I have too many things to read and I'm usually happy enough with the first book to move on.  Plus, as a librarian, I have a grudge against all these trilogies and trying to keep up with the release dates of various sequels.  I also give a loud "hmph!" to books with hard cliffhangers. There is no need for leaving your reader that way! But despite all my crabbing, I liked this book enough - which is to say a lot - that I will read the sequel whenever I can get my hands on it.  I've already searched every ARC source I have at my disposal to see if I can somehow backdoor the system.  Nope, I'm stuck waiting like the rest of the world.  So, what was so good about it?

Both timelines were interesting to me and both had their big share of clues and unanswered questions.  What is happening with those houseguests and Ellingham's wife?  I don't know, but something's up.  About the only thing I managed to figure out in either timeline was the probable identity of the original Truly Devious.  It is a rare book that keeps me guessing and yet doesn't leave me feeling like the author cheated by not planting enough clues.  For the (very) few things that were revealed by the end of this book, the clues were there, just not blaringly obvious.

All the students were quirky as you would expect at an extremely selective school, but they were also realistic and didn't feel quirky just for the sake of being quirky.  My only complaint regarding the characters is that I wanted Janelle to factor in more.  I started out expecting this to be a trio of friends doing the investigating but it really became mostly about Stevie.  But I do love the nonchalant inclusion of Vi who uses the pronoun "they" without anyone giving that a second glance or Johnson making a long passage explaining what is happening.  Get with the times, reader.

I felt the sinister atmosphere in both timelines.  I am particularly stressed that Stevie hasn't told anyone about the new Truly Devious letter and who did that and now she doesn't remember what it said!  I know that I can just go back and reread it myself, but that seems like cheating since our MC can't do that.

After all these positives, then the ending comes and that's the main reason I can't give this book five stars because hardly anything is wrapped up.  I know it's a series and I can even handle that, but it seems that at least a couple of loose ends should've been tied up.  Despite the stupidly hard cliffhanger(s), when I finished the book I didn't want to start another one because I was afraid it would ruin the happy, satisfied book glow I had.  So I just sat and thought about Truly Devious awhile, tweeted at/began stalking Maureen Johnson, and enjoyed the warm, good book feeling.

PS:  The next book DID ruin it.

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

The Stars Beneath Our Feet by David Barclay Moore

Although it has been a few months since his older brother Jermaine was killed in a gang-related shooting, Lolly still feels a rock in his chest all the time.  He has always liked building with Legos, but when his mom's girlfriend Yvonne brings him a a huge bag of the blocks from her job at a toy store, Lolly's imagination takes off and he begins making his own world that soon outgrows his apartment in Harlem so he begins building in a store room at his after school program.  Building helps to make the rock disappear but there are other problems in Lolly's life:  Big Rose starts joining Lolly and using his Legos and two older boys are following Lolly and his best friend Vega, threatening to steal their possessions by force if need be.  On top of that, Lolly is carrying a secret about the day Jermaine died that is making him think hard about his future.

I did not find the groove with this book until about two thirds of the way into it.  Up until that point it felt choppy and almost like a series of short stories about Lolly's life rather than a smooth narrative.  "The boys meet a coyote."  "Lolly builds a tower with Rose."  "Dad and his girlfriend arrive."  "Hanging in Vega's room with his cousins."  All of those events felt like disparate stories and didn't seem to be leading much of anywhere.  I also found myself having to re-read quite a bit to figure out what was happening.  Moore includes an author's note about using the language of his characters which might be unfamiliar to readers, but that was not the issue for me.  It was more a matter of sentences without lead-ins or context that left me unsure of how we got to that part of the conversation.   Along those lines (but a different issue) was how Lolly would be addressing a plot point without giving us any information about it beforehand.  For instance, there is almost an entire chapter of Lolly and his mom going to the police station to get Yvonne but Lolly talks about his mom being mad at him and then they are meeting their attorney and the police are interviewing him and all of this is going on without any explanation of what is happening!!  Now I'm a fan of "show, not tell" but you still gotta give me something to work with.  

You may ask yourself "Was there anything she DID like about this book?" The answer is yes, but those things were a bit spread out.  I like that art might be Lolly's way out of the life that is expected for kids in his neighborhood and that art is definitely the way to heal his grief.  I like that Vega makes a choice for his way forward even though it is difficult.  And I can really appreciate the last two sentences of the book and the message therein.  I just feel like there's too much else to wade through to get to that very important message.

Sunday, February 4, 2018

Everless by Sara Holland

Jules and her father are barely scraping by and they still owe so much more currency to the debt collector.  In their world, time is currency and it can be earned or extracted from your blood which then shortens your lifespan.  Jules is seeing signs that her father has been giving too much of his time away and might be close to death so when the opportunity to work at Everless, the nearby castle, arrives, Jules decides to go.  She doesn't tell her father because he has forbidden her to ever return to the place they had to flee when she was young.  Jules remembers playing with the two princes and an "accident" with fire that nearly killed one of them but they need to money so she goes anyway.  After a last, dire warning from her father to never be in the same room as the queen, Jules knows there is more happening than she has been told and decides that the only way to get answers is to do exactly that.  She takes a position as handmaiden to the queen's adopted daughter who will soon marry Jules' childhood playmate, hoping to find some answers about her own birth and family.

I am super saturated with fantasy and dystopias (not that this was a dystopia because everything was pretty bleak) and generally are not overly impressed with most of them anymore, but I enjoyed this.  You were thrust right into the world without a bunch of explanation but Holland did a good job revealing the rules of the world at a good pace that kept me from being frustrated about what, exactly, was happening here.  I guessed a couple of plot twists but was pleasantly surprised that I was wrong about a couple more so the predictability/formula factor was low for me.  Jules is a strong character and I liked that she was not overly conflicted in ways that led to her just being unlikable all the time which seems to be the go-to "character development" formula for many books and movies and TV shows now.  She stands by her female friends and is helped by an older woman so the girl power aspect is strong in this one.  In fact, the boys don't factor in much, at least not in terms of romance (beyond a crush) and that was also a refreshing change of pace.  Even my teens are sick of the requisite romance in every book. They just want to action.  I think this will be a winner for them.

Sunday, January 21, 2018

Dividing Eden by Joelle Charbonneau

When twins Carys and Andreus were born the seer predicted that one of them would be cursed and would lead the kingdom down a dark path.  Although Andreus was born sickly and struggling to breathe, the queen hid his curse and has relied on Carys to help shield her brother from prying eyes all their lives.  Whenever Dreus shows signs of an attack coming on, Carys distracts those around them, even sometimes taking lashings for her disobedient behavior.  Carys will not be able to help Dreus hide, however, when the king and their older brother are killed in battle and the Elders decree that the only way to determine who will be the next ruler is for the twins to compete against each other in a series of trials.  To the death, if need be.  Carys has no desire to rule and the two agree to throw the matches to Dreus but his mind is quickly poisoned by the current Seer who convinces him that Carys is secretly working against him.  Now Dreus is willing to anything to ensure he becomes the next monarch.

I have issues.  I will begin with my disappointment overall because I really loved The Testing and have had high hopes for this and Need, Charbonneau's previous book.  But my hopes have been steadily beaten down to the point where I will probably avoid whatever she writes next and that makes me sad.  So let's get into some of this.

First of all, the real conflict and interesting part of the story is the Hunger Game-esque competition between the two main characters but that plot point isn't introduced until 39% into the book.  (Yes, I was reading it on my Kindle which is why I know exactly when it happened.)  That is so incredibly, hugely, stupidly far into the book to get to the real excitement that I feel sure at least 75% of my students are going to give up a lot earlier.  I've successfully pushed books with slow beginnings before but I'm usually able to tell them "Just get through the first chapter and then it will pick up."  Talking to you, Black Book of Secrets and even the first Harry Potter.  But more than a third of the way in it just too far! I'm trying my darnedest to convince middle schoolers they have time to read and want to read and that's not the way to do it.

Secondly, neither character was appealing.  By the end of the book I could mostly feel okay about Carys, but it was a long time coming.  She is mean to her subordinates, threatening them for asking her questions and not talking to any of them in any way other than to issue orders.  Even her best friend refers to her as "Your Highness".  She is also an alcoholic throughout nearly all the book.  Eventually her dependence on the Tears of Midnight is explained and then I felt better about it all, but until then - which is almost at the end of the book - she is just a drug addict and we get to see her thought process as she craves her drug.   And finally, from a feminist perspective, she's pretty bad at that, too.  She has sacrificed herself at every turn to prop up her brother whose main defining characteristics seem to be his breathing problem and his delight in bedding every female in the castle.  Oh, and his blind spot when it comes to being used by pretty much everyone around him AND his willingness to completely discard his sister and their plans at the drop of the hat for a new piece of ass.  Even after it is clear that Andreus has reneged on their deal and is trying to beat her in earnest, Carys is still making decisions based on protecting him.  As I write this, I suspect that as a reader I am supposed to be impressed by her loyalty and selflessness.  Instead, I am mad that she doesn't do something for herself.

Finally (I think), I am left with confusion about many plot points.  This is obviously a series so of course not everything is given away.  However, SOME answers could've been provided.  Other than the one person who is obviously using Andreus, I have no clue who else is trying to orchestrate his ascendancy, nor why.  I don't know what's happening with the queen.  I don't know who murdered the king and the twins' older brother.  It's hard for me to be invested in what's going to happen next when I don't know what's already happening.  It's clear there are plenty bad guys to go around so hand me a couple of them to seethe over.  

I probably have more issues but this already feels like a lot to absorb.  I will just also add that the cover of the book is pretty cool, but it seems like it should've been done in blue and yellow to go with the competition colors.

Once You Know This by Emily Blejwas

Brittany's teacher wants his students to dream big and imagine a bright future but Brittany can't see past her life right now.  Her grandmother doesn't talk anymore, there's no money, someone needs to take care of her younger brother, and her mom can't seem to get out of her abusive relationship.  Brittany decides she needs to make a plan to turn her family's future around but she can't imagine what steps she could take to make that happen.  When a letter arrives for her grandmother, signed by "Fuzzy", Brittany begins investigating who that is and if it might be the opening she needs.

This is one of those books that's pretty difficult to sum up and make sound enticing.  In truth, I didn't find it all that enticing myself, although I don't have any particular problems with it either.  Life for Brittany and the other students in her class and neighborhood is shown as pretty hard, with no one aiming as high as their teacher would like for them.  I think that's important to show in literature because there aren't all that many books set in places where it's (almost) impossible to get out.  But the grim reality of Brittany's life that Blejwas shows us is then undercut by the nearly magical way out that is provided.  As a reader, I'm happy to see Brittany finally have some hope and am hopeful for her future.  As a cynical person in the real world, I found it too easy and I wonder about her mom's ability to not choose yet another loser to hook up with after they get away from this loser. 

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Murder, Magic, and What We Wore by Kelly Jones

Annis lives comfortable life in London with her aunt acting as chaperone while her father is constantly away on business.  Despite his cover story, Annis is sure that her father is a spy so when his solicitor shows up to say he has died in an accident, Annis believes it was murder and decides she will help solve the crime.  Taking along a clue she found in his trunk, she visits the war office to try to get hired on as a spy herself but no one has any interest in what she reveals.  Not even when she tells them that she has the magical ability to sew glamours:  clothes that she can shape into whatever she wants just by thinking about it.  Running out of money fast, the two women and their maid Millie - who reveals a new talent daily - move to a small town where Annis opens a modiste's shop and begins making gowns for the local ladies while continuing to work on her father's murder.

I so want to be able to make wildly becoming clothes just by thinking about them and taking a few stitches.  The descriptions of the clothes Annis was able to make with her powers were scrumptious and I wanted more.  Her aunt's insistence that there was no future in gown-making became annoying as Annis was clearly already getting some business and had a plan for getting more.  The mystery and spying layer added some depth and intrigue to the story which paid off at the end, although I would've preferred to have Annis continuing her gown shop in the little town becoming more and more famous even though that is clearly not what the author was going for.  And of course Millie is a wonderful character who clearly knows considerably more than her mistress about, really, everything.  Just a delightful read for me and surely for others who enjoy Pride and Prejudice-era stories.

The Afterlife of Holly Chase by Cynthia Hand

Holly is your typical spoiled rich teen who doesn't care about anyone.  So it's no surprise when she is visited by three ghosts on Christmas Eve to try to change her Scrooge-ish attitude and redeem her soul.  Unfortunately for her, she refuses to see the light and dies when she is hit by a car just a few days later.  She's given a second chance - or at least she is not doomed to misery - when she joins Project Scrooge.  Each year the organization chooses a new "Scrooge" to save and Holly is the current Ghost of Christmas Past. She has been doing her job for five years while still feeling sorry for herself when this year's Scrooge shakes up her afterlife.  

I love riffs on A Christmas Carol so this book had the benefit of the doubt from me going into it and it did not disappoint.  Much.  Holly checks all the right Scrooge boxes:  self-absorbed, following in the footsteps of a very bad role model, alienating former friends, and doing dastardly deeds to the help without caring one bit about the consequences.  Catching up to her five years later in a pretty bleak situation gave me a little smile of smug satisfaction.  And I think Hand is very clever to have wondered what the deal is with those three ghosts and come up with Project Scrooge as an answer.  I also love the hopefulness of there being a magical organization that sets out to save a soul each year which then makes the world a little brighter and happier.  It's quite in line with the idea of loving compassion.  

As for the part that somewhat disappointed...  The newest Scrooge is 17 years old, just like Holly, and super-hot.  So of course there has to be some forbidden romance.  I can deal with that aspect of the story overall but once that got started, that seemed to be the only thing happening for quite awhile in the book.  I wanted to know more about the workings of Project Scrooge and what Holly's new intern was up to and watching Holly wrestle with her own inner demons.  Plus, Ethan just didn't seem that bad so there wasn't the fun of seeing him do horrible things before his possible redemption.  It was during all the romance portion of the book that I felt it lost some of its fun and became just another standard teen romance with the hot guy book.

As you would expect, Holly has some realizations and grows and learns some lessons along the way.  Predictable?  Yes, but exactly what I wanted in a Christmas Carol story. 

Monday, January 15, 2018

7th Grade Revolution by Liana Gardner

Dennis has just started at Washington Academy Middle School and expects it to be just as bad as all the other schools from which he was expelled. One day the teachers tell the students that in response to some complaints they had the previous week, 7th grade is now in charge of everything at school.  They have two days to restructure their classes and school rules.  As the class flounders a bit with the many options now open to them, Dennis keeps quiet and studies the other students.  He notices that Rhonda has a lot of ideas but doesn't want to say them in case the cool kids make fun of her but slowly she becomes one of the leaders.  After spending a couple of hours in a basement room, some students emerge to find that the rest of the school has been evacuated.  Using a scanner app, Dennis overhears the FBI talking outside the school about taking over, shutting down the school, and finding a valuable artifact hidden somewhere within the building.  Determined to save their school the 7th graders decide to locate the artifact themselves so they have some bargaining power.

With secret passages, historical documents and a government agency lurking outside ready to take over, this is very much like "National Treasure" for middle school.  The final revelation of what the artifact was and why it was so valuable felt a little anti-climatic to me since it because less about a corrupt government agency and more about best interest of the country, but that's a small issue.  The methods are still questionable.  I also have issues with the ways in which the 7th graders decided to fight back.  Okay, they are trying to save their school and the FBI is flexing its power unfairly, but I still think you'd be in some pretty big trouble if you used those weapons against law enforcement.  But I don't believe that will raise a red flag with my teen readers who will just be caught up in the puzzle-solving and the adventure.

Auma's Long Run by Eucabeth A. Odhiambo

While most of the girls in her small African village are thinking about boys and marriage, Auma dreams of winning a track scholarship and going to school to become a doctor. She ignores the boys to stay focused on her goals because she has seen too many girls get tied down with children and chores.  She also sees that many more people than usual are dying and she hears whispers that they are dying from Slim, or, as her teacher calls it, AIDS.  When her father comes home from his job in the city and begins to waste away, Auma wonders if he might have AIDS and what that means for her mother and their family's future. 

This book was a disappointment for me after I began it with high expectations.  The beginning of the AIDS crisis and the misinformation that was everywhere at that time should have made for a compelling read, almost a mystery, as Auma worked to figure out what was happening and moved towards her goals.  Instead, I felt like the book meandered around a slice of life rarely hitting the severity of the health crisis on the head.  The basics were there - people believed that only dirty or bad people contracted the disease; infected men spread it to many other women thanks to local customs of acquiring widows; people didn't want to discuss the problem; and listed causes of death were wrong - but I never felt all those elements coming together to some undeniable truth.  If I change my focus to just looking at the impact AIDS had on one person's life, then I can be more affected by the story and extrapolate out to how this must be the reality for any number of children and teens at that time.  Unfortunately, I was looking for a more global view offering up condemnation for the way in which AIDS was ignored and the pain that denial brought.

Sunday, January 14, 2018

The Gentleman's Guide to Vice and Virtue by Mackenzi Lee

It is expected that Monty will settle down and join his father in business, a plan in which Monty has no interest.  In order to push off the inevitable, he plans a Grand Tour of Europe with his best friend (and secret crush) Percy.  Monty's plans for a year long party throughout Europe are dashed when his father insists on sending along a chaperone as well as Monty's stuffy sister Felicity who is to be dropped off at finishing school.  After a dreary month touring museums and listening to recitals, the two boys and Felicity manage to attend a party where Monty quickly runs afoul of an important man and subsequently steals something from his room.  The stolen item is more than a souvenir, however, and the man will stop at nothing to get it back for it could hold the secret to eternal life.  Now the adventure, and danger, really starts.

I expected to love a book with a charming bisexual character on a Grand Tour.  I didn't dislike it, but I wasn't as blown away as I expected.  Expectations....  Monty is, indeed, charming but for much of the book that was all he was.  Well, charming AND irresponsible.  Whenever the three would finally get something rolling, Monty's actions would somehow mess it all up again.  It got a bit frustrating.  I also found myself frustrated by the typical romance arc of misunderstandings that got in the way of Percy and Monty finding true love.  He likes you already!  Kiss him!  One section in particular sticks in my brain regarding that:  When Percy suggests they shirk their responsibilities and run away together and then is greatly offended when Monty mentions their lack of money.  At that time, that would be a HUGE consideration.  And two gentlemen would have a difficult time taking care of themselves or finding suitable work.  Less romantic, to be sure, but accurate.  

However, it's not all gloom and doom.  I liked the book although I found it a little slow and I'm not sure even now that I completely get the deal with the heart.  But my favorite part of the whole thing has to be Felicity and her growth from drudge to amazing person.  Growth isn't really correct, she was amazing the whole time but not through Monty's eyes.  I love when she stitched up her own wound and all the things she knew how to do thanks to her studying.  I hope she decides to act on the offer she is given towards the end of the book because I can totally imagine her being free and sailing the seas.

Insignificant Events in the Life of a Cactus by Dusti Bowling

Aven has learned to do anything she wants even though she was born without arms.  When she first entered school there was some adjustment time before everyone got used to her using her feet to eat her lunch or holding her pencil in her toes, but now, she has several close friends and the rest of the school doesn't stare at her.  Even though she is a strong girl, she does have some worries about starting over in Arizona where her parents have just taken jobs running Stagecoach Pass, a rundown theme park.  After a few awkward days, Aven meets Connor and they become fast friends although he also feels like an outsider due to his Tourette's syndrome.  The two friends bond over differences, invite a third boy to join their circle, and work together to solve a mystery at Stagecoach Pass.

This is a sweet book with an incredibly plucky main character.  A bit too plucky, if you ask me, but I'm pretty curmudgeonly at times.  Aven is a fun narrator who actually does drop her upbeat image and reveal some insecurities at times which makes her all the more interesting to me.  I have some pretty big issues with the solution to the mystery and how neatly all those pieces fit together - and all without any unresolved identity crises - even if I could convince myself this is actually magical realism.  Which it's not.  But I appreciate the title (gotta read the book to get it) and I love Aven's enthusiastic ideas for taking the park up to a whole other level.

Saturday, January 13, 2018

Solo by Kwame Alexander

Blade's father is a famous rock star but he's also an alcoholic who has made more promises to get sober than Blade can remember.  After he crashes Blade's high school graduation in a drunken stupor, Blade has had enough.  All he really wants is to spend time with his girlfriend Chapel but her parents have forbidden her to see Blade because they believe he will be just like his father.  Then, another bombshell rocks his world as he learns that he's adopted.  Feeling like he needs to meet his biological mother, Blade decides to go to Ghana where she is working.

I never felt the love that others did for Alexander's sports books so I was surprised to find myself drawn into Solo.  It's still not one of my favorite books of all time or anything, but it's quite different from what I expect from him and the storyline was more to my liking.  I could identify with Blade's withdrawal from his dad after having his hopes for a more stable father crushed so many times.  Blade's sister, while a good character to keep Blade grounded, was a little too good to be true in that she didn't seem to be struggling at all with or reacting negatively to the addiction.  

I am confused about why Blade's adoption has been a secret for so long.  In fact, I'm confused about HOW his adoption could've been kept secret for so long.  Since his dad is so famous, wouldn't the fans have noticed when the family suddenly acquired a baby 18 years ago?  When he finally does meet his bio mom and reads the letter his adoptive mom has left for him, it appears the two women knew each other so, again, I don't know why this has been a secret all this time.  And speaking of his eventual meeting with his mom....  After all this build up and Blade's need to find some answers, their conversation which consisted of questions only - questions as "answers" to questions - was poetic (perhaps) but not very satisfying when it comes to what I would expect to transpire after a long delayed, long-lost family meeting.  Is Blade supposed to now feel more sure of where he is in the world?  I'm not getting it.

Finally, I have a question about Joy, the girl Blade meets in Ghana.  To be accurate, I don't know that I have a question about her, but I wonder about this character in light of a lot of reading I've done over the past few years regarding diversity in books.  One criticism that comes up a lot is when authors write a character that is a different race from themselves and how they cannot truly get the voice right and, in fact, often include character traits that are downright offensive.  In this case I think specifically about Debbie Reese's complaints about Touching Spirit Bear which she doesn't like because of the stereotypical magical, wise old Native American characters.  Although those men are the two most positive characters in the book, she points out that they fill the bill of the mystical native person which then flattens them to a damaging stereotype.  I don't know that I agree because I really like those characters, but then again, I'm not Native American so it's not really up to me to say.  But with that argument in mind, then isn't Joy exactly that same character?  She is there as a foil to Blade's shallow Western life and always has a wise saying to offer that helps him develop tolerance and understanding.  I feel like she's the stereotypical wise woman from a quieter, "foreign" culture (to Americans, anyway) who exists in the book only to be a sage for the main character.  If I hadn't been doing so much reading about writing to include diversity I'm sure I would've really liked Joy as a calm, happy character but now I can't separate out these issues.

So in conclusion, I liked the book more than expected, but it appears I still had quite a few issues with the authenticity of the characters. 

Sunday, January 7, 2018

The Epic Crush of Genie Lo by F.C. Yee

On her way to school one day Genie gets involved in helping a new boy escape from the beating he is taking from a group of others.  Imagine her surprise when that same boy, Quentin, shows up in her class and proceeds to tell the class that she is the one for him.  Genie's mainly concerned with getting into an ivy league school and getting as far away from home as possible so she has no time for Quentin, particularly when he tells her he is the Monkey King from Chinese folklore.  What's more, Quentin claims that Genie is the reincarnation of his favorite weapon and the two of them are reunited to defeat over 100 demons who have been released from Hell.  Although his claim is crazy, it turns out to be true and Genie now has to rediscover her powers while balancing the rest of her life.

I've read some Asian folklore in my past and it always confused me but I guess I absorbed a bit more than I thought because things were coming back to me as I read this book.  The author did a nice job explaining the Monkey King's history but I do wonder how it will go over with teens who have no background in his legend.  I'm overall okay with the story but I'm not wowed by it by any means.  There were times when I had to back up because I was sure I'd skipped some pages (even though I was reading on a Kindle...) because the story jumped to somewhere new but it felt like I was supposed to have some background information at that point.  I appreciate the focus on a female protagonist but girl power aside, that doesn't mean you can ignore the male lead's development.  He's the Monkey King, after all!  He should've been wowing me throughout but other than his awesome jumping ability and his imaginary parents, I don't feel like he brought much to the table in terms of demon-fighting.  My other issue is with Genie's best friend.  I really liked her and felt some pain as she watched Genie walk out of her recital for (in her mind) no good reason.  That's a pretty common thread in superhero stories but unlike others, the two of them never really worked it out.  They had an indirect make up session where Yunie came to Genie's defense over Quentin's suspected cheating, but no actual conversation.  Instead, Quentin told Genie she didn't really need to try to make up for the recital thing because her friend would forgive her. 

That sounds like a lot of complaints, because it kinda is, but I still basically enjoyed myself while I was reading.  I just wish it had blown me away.