Wednesday, June 27, 2018

A Skinful of Shadows by Frances Hardinge

Makepeace has spent a lot of nights near a cemetery learning how to defend herself from ghosts that want to possess her.  She never understood why her mother forced her to spend time there amongst the ghosts until she is sent to her father's ancestral home where she learns the family secret: the Fellmottes all have the ability to harbor the dead within themselves and there are many generations of elders living inside each of the adults.  Makepeace and her half brother James are there as back up vessels in case the careful planning of passing on the family ghosts goes awry.  The siblings have tried to escape several times but are always brought back.  But thanks to a family betrayal, Makepeace finds a way to get away.  Now she is in the thick of a civil war, spying, helping ghosts, and trying to escape her evil relatives.

No one is more surprised than me to find that I was able to give this book three stars.  No less than four friends - FOUR! - put this book down fairly early into it and another friend only gave it a two star rating.  If it weren't for the fact that it has been nominated for a reading program and that I wanted to have read it in order to be able to vote against it, I never would've even picked it up in the first place.  As the book went on I found myself mentally raising my rating until by the end I was up to three.  However, the beginning of the book is much too artsy and slow and I can't think of the student I would hand this to who would be delighted with it.  Not only is there WAAAAAAYYYY too much lead in to get to the really evil family and ghosts, it is historical fiction set in the 1600s with an English civil war pitting the king against Parliament.  It's like the author was looking for the the things teens care the least about.  Also, the daily life of a kitchen wench at that time.  Finally, though, we learn exactly what the Fellmottes are up to and why Makepeace is there.  From that point on, the book picks up speed with nasty ghosts, possession, aliases, betrayals, and spying.  There are also the ghosts Makepeace takes in willingly who help her through all of those other issues along with the ghost of a bear she had accidentally acquired earlier.Watching her work her way out of so many seemingly dead end situations with the help of her spirit companions was fun and I eventually just skipped over the boring war sections to keep the action moving.  So, the last half or so was not a bad page turner but getting to that point kills any interest from all but the most dedicated readers.

Monday, June 25, 2018

The Cruel Prince by Holly Black

Jude and her twin sister Taryn are mortals living in the Faerie world.  They were taken there as children when Madoc came to retrieve his biological daughter and killed both their parents.  Now, ten years later, they are under Madoc's protection but picked on constantly by the Folk around them, especially by Prince Carden and his friends.  Jude dreams of becoming a knight for the High King so she will not be at anyone's mercy anymore while Taryn plans to marry to become more a part of the Faerie world.  As her tormentors grow more bold Jude hones her skills and takes more chances.  And then when news breaks that the current High King is planning to turn over his crown to one of his children, the gamesmanship really begins among his heirs with Jude drawn into the complex politics with dire consequences.

I was skeptical going into this one because I can't think of a book about the Fae that I've loved or even liked much.  So I was very pleasantly surprised to find myself drawn in and making extra time to read this one.  In fact, I was interested enough to continue the story that I decided to join Audible in order to listen to the book while I took my walk this morning! (I don't like the narrator of the book, btw)  Then I dedicated most of the rest of my day to reading and finishing the book.  I think that the difference for me on this one is that while the faeries are every bit as cruel and cold as in the other books I've read, they are not as much the main focus of the story as the mortal character.  Furthermore, the plot is actually Game of Thrones - right down to the Red Wedding - so I enjoyed the political maneuvering.  Even though I wasn't always clear who was manipulating whom.  It was great fun reading something complex enough that I struggled to think about how to summarize it for the preceding paragraph because of all the things that happened in the book:  mortal enslavement, shifting alliances, changing goals, sibling betrayal, Daddy issues, spying, attempted murder, and complicated relationships just to name a few things going on here.  Not to mention all the magical things such as making horses out of ragweed and the lush descriptions of the Folk and their appearances which gave me a lot to savor.  I think I was completely won over, however, when Sophie said that she had been taken into Faerie while she was at Burning Man.  I laughed a good long while about that small, but delightful, detail.

Sunday, June 24, 2018

After The Shot Drops by Randy Ribay

Gifted basketball player Bunny has accepted a scholarship to a private school across town to increase his chances of getting noticed by colleges.  His best friend Nasir is mad because Bunny left without even talking to Nas about his decision AND now Bunny is dating the girl Nasir has always liked.  Since the two are not talking, Nas is spending more time with his cousin Wallace who is in danger of being evicted along with his grandmother.  In need of some quick money, Wallace starts betting against Bunny's team which is on its way to a state championship.  But when it seems like Bunny is unstoppable, Wallace pressures Nasir to step up the campaign against Bunny with some questionable actions.

 I am reaching my limit of books with African-American characters who live in bad neighborhoods and have to do desperate things or make horrible choices in order to try to get out of the bad neighborhood.  I work with a lot of minority kids and I know they want to see themselves in books and it is still a struggle just in general to find enough books with diverse characters in them, but I have to think that if I were a black teen, I'd also want to see some books with black teens who are having stories other than the one about escaping the ghetto.  There is my weary rant about African-American characters and the situation so many of them find themselves in.  So keep my weariness in mind as I say that I was not too moved by this book that many others have loved. On the other hand, I didn't especially dislike it, either.  So... a couple of things I liked:
  • How loyal Nasir is to his cousin even though Wallace is in a bad situation of his own making and is doing nothing to make it better.  But Nas feels that need to help family.
  • Bunny and Nasir both make moves to make up because their friendship matters to each of them.
  • The book is well-written and highly accessible for teens.
  • Both boys' dads have jobs that give back to the community.

A couple of things I didn't like as much:
  • I never got too invested in either main character.
  • The basketball games and their play-by-plays.  But that's only because sports are not my thing so I can't follow those descriptions.  I've had that problem in many other sports books and I basically just skip those sections to get to whether the team won or lost and it doesn't seem to take away from the story for me.
  • As mentioned, the setting.  

The List by Patricia Forde

Letta is an apprentice wordsmith in Ark, a community of people who survived the Melting thanks to their leader John Noa.  Noa believes that many of the problems in the world before the Melting came about because of how people used words to manipulate others so people in Ark are only allowed to speak using the List of 700 words.  Letta and her master are the ones who distribute the words to the rest of Ark. When a strange boy stumbles into her shop one day, on the run from the gavvers who police Ark, Letta nurses him back to help and learns that he doesn't believe Noa is the savior she has always believed. And then when her master is found dead and Letta becomes the head wordsmith, she starts to learn secrets and begins to doubt much of what she has believed her entire life.

This is a standard dystopia without many changes to the format, but it is a well done formula.  Things are not as great as they seem, their charismatic leader is not the savior they thought, the rebels might be the ones who know what's really happening, only a crazy plot can save their society, and so on.  Despite that, I was interested in the premise and spent a decent amount of time trying to imagine only using 500 words to convey everything I wanted to convey.  My only real concern about the book is whether my kids still care about dystopias or not.  I think the interest is waning.  But if it's not, I really need a list of the 500 words so I can try to craft my booktalk using only those to get them interested!

P.S. The cover looks more like a young girl getting ready for a fantastic adventure in the big city rather than an oppressed society.

Piper by Jay Asher and Jessica Freeburg

Maggie lives in the small town of Hameln where she is ostracized because she is deaf.  She observes things in town and embellishes what she sees, turning them into fanciful stories.  Hameln is plagued by rats who are destroying everything as well as making people sick.  When a new man comes into town promising he will get rid of all the rats once and for all, the town elders agree to his terms for payment.  As the Piper spends more time in the town preparing to exterminate the rats, he meets Maggie and the two become very close, envisioning a future together.  But the longer the Piper takes to do his job, the angrier the townspeople become.

This retelling of the Pied Piper in graphic novel format was fine.  And I mean that in the most generic way possible for the word "fine".  The artwork is nicely done which I would expect for a graphic novel but the storytelling didn't do anything for me.  In particular, there were a couple of times where I was thumbing back through the pages to see what I had missed that resulted in us being at this point in the story.  I'm not sure what happened toward the end that left Maggie saying she thought she knew the Piper but now didn't know.  Yes, the people in town were angry with him after being stirred up by the previous rat catcher, but she didn't much care for the other people in town anyway...  At any rate, I wasn't taken with this version nor the elements added to try to explain any holes in the original story. 

The Academy by Katie Sise

Frankie loves fashion and has applied to a Fashion Academy without telling her parents.  She is very surprised when, out of the blue, her parents send her to a military academy instead.  Okay, so she did a few things she shouldn't have, but their reaction seems extreme.  Once Frankie gets to the Academy, it's worse than she thought.  There is almost no time to maintain her fashion blog, the classes are much more difficult than her former high school, and forget about the physical training!  But after a few weeks Frankie begins to see the value of some things she is learning at her new school and wonders if she could actually make a go of it there.

Frankie is such a nice character which was such a happy surprise for me as I was expecting this to just be the standard formula of shallow-girl-learns-a-lesson.  Her priorities are a bit messed up as the book begins, but Frankie's heart is in the right place in terms of how she treats people all around her.  She truly believes in the power of fashion and uses her knowledge of it for good and to recognize people for their choices, which made me realize that pretty much every other depiction of fashion-obsessed people shows them as bitchy and shallow.  I became a little frustrated about a third into the book because Frankie had already said that she needed to take things more seriously and follow the rules a few times but then she had that revelation again and it was presented as something new.  But when she actually did get going, it was great - and not totally formulaic.  There was not a montage of her working hard and succeeding at everything she did.  She did well at some things and barely kept her head above water (literally, in one case) at others but her overall improvement was good.  This is a nice, easy story with a surprising dose of patriotism throughout.

Thursday, June 21, 2018

Thornhill by Pam Smy

In 1982 Mary lives in the Thornhill orphanage where she is bullied and terrorized daily by one of the other girls who only shows a sweet face to everyone else.  Mary records her fears and the escalating bullying in her journal while making puppets to keep herself busy.  

In 2016 Ella has just moved into a new house that faces the burned out shell that was Thornhill.  Her father is often away so Ella spends time investigating the grounds of Thornhill where she finds broken puppet that she restores and places back where she found them.  She is hoping to finally meet the girl she sees on the grounds from time to time.

A student told me he was going to nominate this book for a reading program but then he didn't for several weeks.  But knowing that he had liked it enough to consider a  nomination, I added it to my reading list.  After leafing through it I had my doubts - I definitely had my doubts!  But then it turned out to be pretty darn interesting.  Mary's diary entries are creepy and heartbreaking as she allows herself to trust the other girls only to be betrayed by them all over again and let down by the adults around her.  And Ella's illustrated sections convey her loneliness and the way her life becomes slowly intertwined with Mary's.  Rather than feeling like a gimmick to pull in graphic novel readers, the graphic sections of the book seem like a perfect complement to the narrative.  In the end, a nicely scary book!

The Length of a String by Elissa Brent Weissman

Imani is preparing for her bat mitzvah alongside her friends.  Imani knows what she wants for the big gift her parents have promised her - to meet her birth parents - but she doesn't know how to tell her mom and dad about her wish.  While she works on a way to ask without hurting them too much, she spends time with her best friend reading her great-grandmother's diary.  Imani's great-grandmother Anna wrote about her life in 1941 when her Jewish family bought her passage to the United States to escape Nazis in her home country of Luxembourg. Anna's large family, including her twin sister, planned to join her as soon as they had the money to escape but they never did.  Imani is drawn into Anna's story and finds it reflecting her own desire to find out about her roots while also reinforcing her love for her adoptive family.

This is a good story throughout but my favorite part happened close to the end with the discovery of an unexpected family member and the connections made there.  Prior to that, I was engaged with the story but not bowled over by it.  At times I found myself removed from the book, looking in at the story as I read Anna's entries about adjusting to life in the U.S. and wondering why she wasn't sending all this information in a letter back home instead of writing it in the diary.  It felt too plot device-y.  I also had issues with Imani's mother's reactions to her attempts to find out more about her birth family.  It is explained in the end but the length of uncomfortable feelings dragged on too long.  I've seen this in other books with adopted kids and am always frustrated with the parents who had to know their kids would eventually ask these questions and should be prepared to answer them.  Aside from those couple of issues, I like the revelations about Anna's life and her family and I enjoyed Imani's friends who were quite drama-free.

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

From You to Me by K. A. Holt

Three years after her sister Clare drowned, Amelia is still grieving.  She is determined to take 8th grade by storm and not be the girl who cries about her dead sister all the time.  Her plan takes a serious hit when she is accidentally given a letter Clare wrote to herself on the first day of sixth grade.  Faced with a list of Clare's plans for the future, Amelia allows her best friend to convince her to complete the list on Clare's behalf.  Now Amelia is committed to doing things she would never have considered on her own.

This is such a gentle book of loss and healing and forgiveness.  Holt has an easy way of leading her readers to deep emotions without any obvious machinations or heavy-handed messaging.  Amelia is a completely sympathetic character struggling with her grief and guilt.  Of course she said something mean to her sister before she died but that's not even the main plot point at play here as it would be in many other books about grieving.  Amelia's just having an extremely hard time moving on because losing someone you love is impossible! On top of Amelia's struggles, I really enjoyed the secondary characters who were supportive but also not perfectly so as they made mistakes and became annoyed with Amelia's sadness.  Like real people.  And Amelia's annoyance with her mom about everything was just pitch perfect - speaking as someone who was a teen daughter and someone who had a teen daughter.  As for emotional, sensory investment... 1. All I could think about for the first third of the book was what kind of cheeses I had in the fridge and how they would combine in a grilled cheese sandwich and 2. I figured there was going to be some sort of cathartic scene and thought I was prepared for it until I started crying in a restaurant while eating lunch when the damn star said "Rosalie" on it!

Thursday, June 7, 2018

Every Shiny Thing by Cordelia Jensen and Laurie Morrison

Lauren is mad at her parents who sent her beloved brother to a boarding school for autistic students because she believes she could help Ryan out more at home.   She's also starting to feel estranged from her best friend who doesn't seem to get how upset Lauren is.  To top it off, one of the tenets of her Quaker school is simplicity and Lauren is suddenly aware of how much money her parents and friends throw around without a second thought. When Sierra moves in next door she and Lauren become fast friends.  Sierra is living with Lauren's neighbors because he own mother is an alcoholic who has been arrested and is trying to get sober.  Sierra is used to being a caretaker so when Lauren comes to her with a Robin Hood-like plan to raise money to help autistic kids, Sierra agrees to help.  But Lauren's behavior continues to grow and soon has Sierra worried and trying to keep their situation under control.

Every Shiny Thing is told in an alternating point of view format.  Lauren's chapters are narratives while Sierra's are free verse which makes the book read fairly fast.  I also read through it quickly because I was caught up in the story.  Both girls are good characters even though Lauren is quite flawed.  Even when she believes she is doing good, she isn't.  She is coming from a privileged life and is completely blind to her privilege when it comes to what she says and how she justifies her actions.  She's also a self-righteous teen who believes she sees things more clearly than others.  Just like all of us did when we were teens who couldn't believe how stupid everyone else in the world was or why we were the only people who felt so deeply.  But despite her many flaws, it is easy to feel for Lauren and to see why she is slipping down the slope into true kleptomania.  

While both girls are well drawn, Sierra's story is the one that really resonated with me.  Sierra is the perfect depiction of an enabler and caretaker for people with addictions.  And yet she is not labeled as such - we're just shown that life.  I could feel her unease grow throughout the book while she tried to keep the peace with everyone.  I know that one or both of these authors must be an Adult Child of an Alcoholic to capture that thought process so expertly and the huge, but quiet, toll it takes on a child. 

There are many themes to think about in this book and I would like to hand it to my students who need it. But I believe it will also appeal to those who are just looking for a good story of friendship and bad choices.

The Elephant Thief by Jane Kerr

Boy is a street urchin who stays alive picking pockets while trying to keep away from the head of the local gang.  Boy is caught during an auction for a menagerie of exotic animals left behind after their keeper's death.  From his high perch where he is awaiting his punishment, he helps Mr. Jameson place the winning bid for an elephant named Maharajah and in gratitude, Jameson hires Boy on the spot and gives him the name Danny.  After Maharajah destroys his train carriage it is decided that Danny and the elephant will walk the 200 miles to Mr. Jameson's zoo with Danny disguised as Indian prince Dandip.  What's more, Jameson makes a bet with another menagerie owner that Danny and the elephant can make the trip in just one week and if he loses, the consequences for both will be dire.

I'm always drawn to stories with animals as well as people who have special connections with those animals so I was looking forward to starting this book.  It read younger than I was anticipating but I'm not feeling like it's going to grab my sixth graders' attention despite the adventures throughout the book.  I struggle with main characters who don't talk because that places quite a burden on the writer to keep my interest when that character can't really interact with the rest of the characters.  I have yet to read a book or see a show with a mute character where the writer was entirely up to that challenge.  Except for the episode "Hush" on Buffy the Vampire Slayer.  Everyone should take notes from that.  And nearly all episodes of Buffy, for that matter.  But back to my point, it is frustrating to see situations arise that could be easily resolved if the character would just say a couple of words.  I do love Maharajah and Mr. Jameson's joie de vivre but the book overall was merely okay for me.

Disappeared by Francisco X. Stork

Sara's best friend disappeared one day just like many other young women in Mexico.  Now working as an investigative reporter, Sara has been trying to find her friend as well as all the other girls who have gone missing.  When she receives a threat against herself and her family, as well as a clue as to where the girls might be, Sara knows her time is running out and that someone she trusts is actually working against her. 

Meanwhile, Sara's brother Emiliano is trying to make enough money to buy a motorcycle and open a store where he can sell the folk arts created by friends so he can make a better life for himself and his family.  He's also trying to make enough money to impress Perla Rubi, the girl he likes who comes from a rich family.  Emiliano is offered an opportunity to go into business with a powerful man it might be the answer to his problems, but it could also be an offer that causes him to forsake his ideals.

For a book with so many ethical questions and mortal danger this story should've been much more compelling. I was never on the edge of my seat about either sibling's story nor torn apart by the impossible situations in which they found themselves. IRL I have very strong opinions about the building of the dumbass wall (did I give my feelings away?) and my belief that maybe we ought to concentrate instead on making life in Mexico more bearable for its citizens. So you would think that I'd be highly invested in this book that tackles quite a few of those problems. Instead, something about the writing came across as more clinical to me.

Saturday, June 2, 2018

The Gone Away Place by Christopher Barzak

Ellie wasn't at her school the day of the tornado outbreak.  She left after a big fight with her boyfriend, Noah, and was in the lighthouse when the storm started.  From there she saw the massive tornadoes destroy most of her town and she saw the explosion when a gas truck fell from the sky onto her school, killing Noah and her three best friends.  After the storm the entire town is grieving and trying to pick up the pieces of their lives.  Ellie keeps telling her parents that she's "fine" but she begins to question that when she starts seeing her next door neighbor - one of the kids killed at school -  playing basketball in his yard.  When Ellie talks to him and records him telling his story, she finds that she can help free the souls of the dead who are now appearing to many others in town. 

I finished this book yesterday and have been mulling it over, trying to make a decision about what I think the main theme is, a way to sum up my feelings about it, and how to put into words all the things it is.  What I have decided is that The Gone Away Place is too many things for me to put one word on it because the scope of emotions and thoughts in the book is awesome.  However, the closest I can come to summing up the book for me is the word "grief".  People think they know what grief means but that is too small a word and too easily dismissed to encompass all the subtleties Barzak infuses his story.  Both my parents have died so I know some things about grieving but I couldn't have listed all the components of grief if asked.  As I read the book and have continued to reflect on it, I realize that there are so many parts that contribute to the aching feeling of grief and they are included in The Gone Away Place.  Here are some of the threads wound up in this book:

Several of the ghosts are longing for the future they will not have now.  They tell Ellie about their plans - reconnecting with a brother, getting out from a sibling's shadow, beginning college.  All of them delayed their own happiness because they knew they would soon be able to begin the lives of which they dreamed but now that opportunity is gone and I could feel the loss in reading their stories.  When someone we love dies, all of our future dreams with that person die with them.  It's not just the person themselves we are missing, it's the experiences we were going to have with them as well. 

Regret is such a huge part of grieving.   There will always be something you wish you had done differently with a loved one after they've died.  For Ellie, her last conversation with Noah is haunting her and, since she has seen several ghosts but not him, she appears to have real evidence that he is holding that against her.  Tied in with that is the idea that death puts things into perspective and
 makes us re-evaluate our priorities.  Ellie now sees that her problem with Noah was not a big deal in the big picture.

Preserving someone's story is important.  Once someone is gone, their story dies with them.  Ellie finds that capturing those stories is the key to helping a ghost move on.  Even her best friends tell her parts of their lives Ellie didn't know about.  Remembering someone's story - things they did and what they thought - is their legacy so capture those memories while you can. 

And on the theme of personal stories... Ellie's counselor talks about the disruption in Ellie's story and how she needs to find a way to continue it, possibly in a new direction.  That was such a great visual for how your life begins to mend itself after a death that I stopped to let it sink in and then, to see if I could analyze what changes I'd made in the direction of my life.  How often does a book cause me to stop reading and just let its message settle into me?  Powerful!

Finally, there is hope.  Ellie is given such a gift in that she has the chance to talk to her friends again before they move on.  I haven't had that kind of encounter with a dead loved one, but I can still identify with the feeling of hope those meetings in the book gave me.  Because as bad as grieving is, there are also so many moments when you see something or hear a piece of music or remember something about that person that makes you smile and makes your heart fill with love and happiness that you had that person in your life in the first place.  Ellie talking with her friends brought those warm feelings to me while reading the book and it felt completely at home as a part of the grief.

The Gone Away Place is a deep story that presents itself almost as an adventure or horror novel - tornadoes! angry ghosts!  Take time to read it and really experience the full range of what it has to offer.

Also - holy crap, is that cover terrifyingly beautiful!