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.