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.