Thursday, May 31, 2018

Life on Surtsey: Iceland's Upstart Island by Loree Griffin Burns

I <3 Iceland SO MUCH so of course I had to read this book as soon as it arrived in my library!  And I usually love nonfiction because there is so much to learn about the world so, bonus.  This book did not disappoint on either count.  I was fascinated to learn about how life begins to form on a big ole rock in the ocean.  How do plants grow?  Where do insects come from?  Well, not all of that was explained in exact detail but the details that are included are great and left me with a brain full of further questions to ponder.  The explanation of how entomologist Erling studies Surtsey's insects is clear and captivating.  And I love the slight diversions into Icelandic names and some customs which made the book more cozy and not all hardcore science.  My only issue is that now I want to know about the birds and plants on Surtsey and how those have been growing in the past 50 years so I need at least one sequel.

Sunday, May 27, 2018

Amal Unbound by Aisha Saeed

Amal loves school and dreams of becoming a teacher when she grows up. She has to put her education on hold for several weeks after her mother has a hard time recovering after giving birth.  Amal takes over the running of the household while trying to keep up with her studies.  One day at the market she has a run-in with the village landlord, a man known for his vile temper and crooked business practices.  As punishment, all her father's debts are called in and Amal is forced to go work as an indentured servant in Khan's house until she has worked off the family bill.  

There is so much hype about this book and I've read so many tweets from people talking about how meaningful it is to them that I definitely went into it with huge expectations.  With that lead-in it is probably not surprising to hear that I was not as impressed as everyone else seems to be.  Amal's story is good and full of many opportunities for us to be SO grateful for life in the West  (assuming that's where you live) where education is a right, not an option.  I'm sure my students couldn't possibly imagine a world where one fight with someone over a piece of fruit could lead to you sacrificing your entire future.  For all those reasons, I like this book.  Where it fell short for me was in the actual writing which is not bad, but not gripping, either.  I should have been on the edge of my seat what with the police showing up and the revelations about Amal's new life and the betrayals from others, but I wasn't.  And the ending was happy but much too neat - a point that the author makes herself when she writes that for most people in Amal's situation there is no easy out. 

Damselfly by Chandra Prasad

On their way to a competition the plane carrying all the members of a high school fencing team crashes on an island.  Samantha survives the crash and finds that several of her teammates did as well, including her best friend Mel and the most popular girl in school.  At first the teens are just trying to make it until they are rescued. But as days pass it becomes clear that any rescue could be a long ways off so they need to learn to survive indefinitely.  Even with all the dangers of their new home hanging over them, old cliques surface and threaten their society.  The group is also being menaced by an unknown island resident who wants the teens gone.

For a book with survival, a threatening island-savvy stranger, high school mean girls, someone slowly losing their mind, increasing violence, and racism, this book didn't do much for me.  Samantha was so wishy-washy that I never bonded with her nor understood why Mel would choose her as a best friend when Mel was such an interesting person.  I know we're supposed to think poorly of the popular girl and her minions but honestly, Samantha was one of them.  I just couldn't get wrapped up in the story, not even the horror "here's what people are really like on a base level" aspect.

Friday, May 25, 2018

As You Wish by Chelsea Sedoti

Eldon's job is to keep people from spending time in his hometown of Madison.  See, the people of Madison have a big secret and they don't want anyone hanging around too long so Eldon's job at the gas station is to make sure Madison sounds way too boring to visit.  The town secret is that everyone is granted one wish that magically comes true on his or her 18th birthday.  Most people know exactly what they want to wish for but Eldon's birthday is just a couple of months away and he isn't sure.  In an effort to figure it out Eldon starts asking others about their wishes and finds that most of them didn't turn out as expected.  Wishing almost seems to be more of a curse.  As his day draws nearer he has the hopes and expectations of several people weighing on him without any clear idea of what he plans to do.

This is such a great premise and I started the book full of voyeurism, expecting to see the wreck that comes from an ill thought out wish.  All of that is there but in such a drawn out, dull way that it was often a struggle to get through the book.  The chapters where we hear about the wishes are the best as you see how things can backfire even if you have good intentions to start with.  Other than that, I was suffused with the grim reality of a hot desert town full of people living with their regrets and that does not make for an enjoyable read.  All of this depression leads up to Eldon finally deciding on his wish which, to me, was just as selfish as he had exhibited himself to be up until that point.  Luckily, others pointed this out to him so at least there is some kind of comeuppance, but it's too little, too late. 

Thursday, May 24, 2018

The Ambrose Deception by Emily Ecton

Three teens, strangers to each other and unnoticed by most of the people in their schools, are chosen to compete for a $10,000 scholarship.  Melissa, Bondi and Wilf are each given three riddle clues to solve along with a cell phone and personal driver.  The first to figure out what their clues mean and snap pictures of the places or items will win the scholarship.  The rules stipulate that the three must work independently but it becomes clear that the contest sponsor, Mr. Smith, is not telling them the whole story and that the scholarship itself may not even exist so the teens begin working together.

This book was such a treat for me because I have not enjoyed the last several books I've read. This is the first book in some time where I found myself trying to figure out when I would next have time to read and wondering what would happen next. This book is a treat even if it is not being compared to some dogs.  Some of the things I enjoyed:
  • All three characters are wonderful (although I found Wilf frustrating because I desperately wanted to know what his clue was!) as were their drivers.  
  • The clues are repeated throughout the book so I didn't have to try to remember them all the way through.
  • The bad guy is satisfyingly defeated in the end.
  • The horrific school counselor - what a great secondary character!
  • I have a passing knowledge of Chicago so I was able to figure out a couple of the riddles, but knowing the landmarks was not necessary to enjoy the book because of the pace and fun.  
The plot and revelations remind me of "Trading Places" or "Brewster's Millions", both movies I love.  Book-wise I think it will appeal to fans of Escape From Mr Lemoncello's Library which continues to be very popular in my school.  There's an excellent chance I will be using this book on a  reading list because it needs just a little push to become huge.  Read it!

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Time Bomb by Joelle Charbonneau

A couple of weeks before school begins several students come to their high school for various reasons.   Although they came to school for many different reasons, one of them came to place the bombs that beginning going off, trapping them in the school and causing them to rely on each other to get out alive.

I expected a quick survival story with the mystery being that the bomber is one of the main characters.  Who could it possibly be?!  While that is the main jist of the book, I found it bogged down by the laundry list of suspects who were just checking off every box for type of high school student - fat, black, Muslim, gay, closeted gay, angry outsider, and perfect girl.  Okay, so that wasn't surprising given what I expected from the book, but I rolled my eyes so hard when the bonding discussions started.  "Dude, even though I wasn't one of the ones who made fun of you for being Muslim, it never occurred to me to stand up to my friends.  I understand who you are now!" (Simulation of the message conveyed)  "But you're the most perfect girl in school - I never realized that even YOU could have problems!"  After The Testing I have moved Charbonneau to the top of my "to read" piles but this book completes the trilogy that will make me avoid her future releases.

Monday, May 21, 2018

How you Ruined my Life by Jeff Strand

When Rod finds out his rich cousin Blake is coming to live with them for three months he isn't thrilled but he doesn't expect it ruin his life either.  When Blake shows up he refuses to do any work for himself, takes over Rod's room, and uses mindgames that leave Rod not sure what's happening.  Worse, Blake is a perfectly nice boy to everyone else so it looks like Rod is the one causing problems.  Before long Blake is causing Rod to have problems at school, with his girlfriend and with his band.

This book is a comedy.  I feel like I should point that out because when you read my summary it could easily be the description of "Single White Female".  I was chuckling about Blake's "pranks" and Rod's funny narration at first but by halfway through I was weary of both.  There's no explanation for what Blake is up to until the end of the book and even that is unsatisfying.  As is the tidy wrap up between the two boys after all the gaslighting Rod has been through.  Messing with someone is a funny premise but at some point it is no longer funny and has just turned into psychological torture.  Still, I was willing to hang in there because I assumed there would be a big payday where Rod is vindicated.  Given all the mayhem Blake created - he really DID ruin Rod's life - the resolution is not enough.

The Queen's Rising by Rebecca Ross

 After several false starts, Brienna is just about to become a passion of knowledge - someone who is recognized as a master of his or her field.  As she nears the date when all the passions in her school hope to find a patron who will support them Brienna senses a change in her relationship with Master Cartier, her knowledge teacher.   Before they have a chance to investigate their feelings further, Brienna finds herself without a patron and remaining behind at school while Cartier leaves for the summer.  Brienna has been experiencing memories from an ancestor that indicate the location of a missing relic that would help regain the throne of the neighboring country for its rightful ruler.  When she mentions these visions to her headmistress she becomes a key player in a secret, dangerous plot to unseat the king on the throne.

That description doesn't do the plot justice because there's a great deal more depth and intrigue than indicated by my overview.  Brienna is a strong, straightforward character and I enjoyed watching her lend her all to the cause.  I've seen so many books that have the same plot over and over that I kept expecting there to be a big twist about her heritage or powers or abilities - and I guess there was something but it was not unexpected - but she is just a loyal girl who is willing to fight for what's right.  This world contains magic but it is not an active part of most of the story so I'd put this in the category of straight up adventure, and a fun one with a satisfying resolution.  My one issue is that the relationship between Brienna and Master Cartier gave me the heeby jeebies, especially after it was clear they liked each other but she called him "Master" on occasion.  That's probably an age thing.  I doubt my teens will feel the ickiness the way I did.

Saturday, May 19, 2018

P.S. I Miss You by Jen Petro-Roy

Evie is writing to her beloved older sister Cilla who was sent away by their parents after she became pregnant.  Evie's parents are strict Catholics who are trying to cover up Cilla's teen pregnancy by sending her to live with an aunt until the baby is born, then to boarding school afterwards.  Evie misses her sister terribly and writes to her almost daily talking about her life and hoping for big sister advice about her parents, religion, and her friendship with new girl June.  But Cilla never writes back, not even when Evie reveals more about how her feelings for June are developing into something more and how their parents seem to be breaking down. 

I liked this book but have a couple of issues with it that detracted from the story just a little for me.  First of all, I was having a hard time hanging in there while Evie wrote letter after letter with no response at all from Cilla.  And I know that's part of the point of the whole thing, but I was really disturbed by that.  And then when she finally does get a terse response, that was even worse!  The lack of reciprocal communication is a big factor in the book but I was pretty unhappy about it which really worked well to keep me intrigued so in the end, it's probably a good thing plot-wise.  But so frustrating!

My other smallish complaint is that there are a lot of issues packed into this story - teen pregnancy, religion, moving away from religion, developing lesbian feelings, and a couple other things I don't want to mention in case you haven't read the book yet because they're spoilers.  There were times when it felt like Petro-Roy was trying to take on too much but in reflection, I guess that all the other things that are happening would logically lead to a lot of questioning of religion.  

Despite these few things, I enjoyed the story and especially the slow development of Evie's feelings for June.  Their relationship rang so true to me, moving from a friendship to feelings of deeper caring in a very innocent way that is appropriate for their age.  But alongside those sweet, early romantic feelings are the fear of eternal damnation and the even more terrifying worry of having your parents hate you.  And given how Evie's parents reacted to Cilla's pregnancy, the fear of personal rejection would be even stronger in Evie than every non-straight person already feels when contemplating coming out to someone.  I was led to think about (again) some people's belief that being gay or trans is a choice and my response that I don't know why someone would choose to be discriminated against or oppressed or estranged from people they love.  Evie's worries are so clearly conveyed that I felt them growing throughout the book and making me tense IRL.  A real testament to the power of the writing and Petro-Roy's ability to pull me into the story.

Tuesday, May 8, 2018

Isle of Blood and Stone by Makiia Lucier

Mapmaker and explorer Elias has just returned from his latest journey when he is drawn into a mystery.  Two identical maps that contain a riddle have been found and the style seems like that of Elias' father, except that his father has been dead for years.  While on a picnic with the two young princes of the kingdom all the guards were poisoned and the princes were kidnapped along with Elias' dad.  The boat on which they were taken was lost at sea and now the only remaining royal son, and Elias' close friend, is the king.  But these maps hint that the tragic story everyone knows might not be correct.  If Elias' father lived long enough to draw these maps, perhaps the princes are still alive as well.  But someone wanted them out of the way in the first place and as Elias and the Lady Mercedes begin secretly trying to solve the riddle of the maps, it's clear that someone is still trying to keep the secret.

I think I started getting invested in this story at the point when Elias, Ulises, and Mercedes visited the haunted forest and made their discoveries there.  From that point on things moved fairly quickly with attacks, murders, and revelations.  The problem is that I was at least 40% into the book before I got to the exciting section.  Up until that point I was dragging myself along, trying to figure out what any of this meant.  And even though I ended up liking much of the book, I still don't know a whole lot about our main character Elias so I wasn't invested in him at all.  I have the sense that he is an adventurous, exciting guy with a strong sense of morals but none of that was elaborated on as I would've liked.  I think I could've been really wrapped up in him if I'd known more.  Instead I was much more interested in Mercedes and Reyna.  This could be a great adventure with some tweaking.  For now, I just don't see my students being able to slog through the story to get to the adventure.

Monday, May 7, 2018

The Last (Endling #1) by Katherine Applegate

Byx is a young dairne - a creature that resembles a dog and one of the ruling species in the world.  When she wanders away from her pack for just a minute she finds herself being hunted by poachers and helping to rescue a wobbyx.  Although she is only away for a short time, it is long enough for her entire pack to be massacred by a band of soldiers.  Now it appears that Byx is an endling, the last of her species.  But Byx's pack was actually in the process of migrating north to a place where rumor has it there is another dairne pack so is it possible she might not be alone?  With the help of a human girl, the wobbyx, and a panther-esque felivet, Byx sets off on a quest, pursued by several bloodthirsty enemies.

Most of Applegate's books leave me feeling warm and fuzzy, often in tears, so it was with great excitement that I pushed everything else on my "to read" list aside on the day this arrived at the house.  But here we are way too many days later (a bad sign right off the bat) and I'm neither warm nor fuzzy.  The Last just didn't grab me at all. About halfway through I pictured my review being "eh."  By the end of the book I just wanted to be done with it.  I have little patience for books where much of the "action" is the heroes running away from a villain and every time they stop to rest, they have to go again.  Obviously, other things happen along the way, but not enough to keep me very interested.  I think, however, it might sell very well to my die hard Warriors fans.

Tuesday, May 1, 2018

The 57 Bus: A True Story of Two Teenagers and the Crime That Changed Their Lives by Dashka Slater

As the title says, this is a nonfiction book.  In 2013 a non-binary teen named Sasha was riding home from school when an African-American boy named Richard set fire to Sasha's skirt resulting in second and third burns.  Richard was charged with a hate crime and faced being tried as an adult.  This book tells the stories of both teens up to the point of the crime and the effects on both of them afterwards.  Although the two sentence description of what happened seems clear cut, there is much more to be known about both Sasha and Richard and their families than you think at first.

I read through this book very quickly and found myself thinking about it after.  I believe we are supposed to feel some sympathy for Richard who comes from a relatively tough background but I wasn't feeling sympathetic at all for much of the book, especially when he tells the police that he's homophobic.  As his time in jail went on, however, I did begin to feel his pain and definitely the injustice of sending a teen to prison with adults.  And having worked with teens for 14 years, I know that they do a lot of stupid stuff with no thought of the consequences so I don't believe that Richard had thought clearly about what he was doing or what might result.  It also became clear that Sasha lives in a completely different world from Richard and one that is very insulated from day-to-day reality for a non cisgendered person so they are also not thinking about how much of society will react to their adornment - even though they ought to be able to dress however they'd like.  Slater manages to convey all of these complexities throughout the book but I do have issues with her writing style which is quite dramatic and pretentious.  And who are the three ladies present in court every time Richard appears?  Why bring them up if they're not going to be introduced?  If the story itself were not so compelling, I don't know that this book would be as highly praised as it is.

A Dash of Trouble (Love, Sugar, Magic Series) by Anna Meriano

Leonora - Leo - is excited about Halloween but she gets mad about being left out when all her older sisters get to skip school for the day to help out at the family bakery in order to prepare for the Dia de los Muertos festival the next day.  Leo feels like she's old enough to help out as well so she sneaks out of school to see what's happening at the bakery.  When she gets there, she is stunned to see her mother and sisters performing a spell.  At the festival the next day she spies on her older sisters channeling the spirits of the dead and now she knows that she is part of a family of brujas.  Anxious to see if she can perform magic as well, Leo steals a family spell book. When her friend has a problem, Leo tries to solve it with magic but things don't go quite as she expected.

This is such a cute, if predictable, book.  I love the magic flowing throughout Leo's family and how everyone has her own particular brand of it based on birth order.  I felt a bit tense when Leo was attempting magic without any training because of course it was going to go wrong, but I was also unhappy at the thought that she was going to have to wait four years before being officially initiated.  Obviously, I was fairly wrapped up in the story if I was feeling the disappointment and stress of being Leo.  And the longing to have some magical abilities of my own.   Just as sweet as all the treats Leo's family bakes!