Monday, April 30, 2018

Things That Surprise You by Jennifer Maschari

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

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

Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Mask of Shadows by Linsey Miller

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

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

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

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

The Miscalculations of Lightning Girl by Stacy McAnulty

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

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

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.