Saturday, July 28, 2018

Stronger, Faster, and More Beautiful by Arwen Elys Dayton

Writing a pithy summary of this book feels impossible as it is actually a set of short stories with one connecting factor that adds interest to the stories but isn't required for most of them to be complete.  This sci fi book has six stories, the first of which begins somewhat in the future and then each subsequent story takes place a little further along than that.  Each story shows the progression of genetic manipulation as humans change themselves more and more, eventually ending up with things such as wings, large heads and skin in an array of colors by the last story.  As you might imagine, this is not a book celebrating all those advances...

If you had asked me when I was about 50% through the book I would've said that I wasn't sure if I liked it or not but by the end of it all I really loved it in its entirety.  Although I love sci fi in theory, it is sometimes hard for me to get going on a story because there is the new world which I have to figure out and wrap my head around.  Since there are six stories, I had to figure out six different worlds as the Earth had changed considerably between each new story.  Once I got the rules for each story figured out, I could relax and enjoy what was happening and each one was a great example of the best of sci fi - setting up a future that tells a good tale while still leaving lots of room for your own speculation.  By the time I was into the sixth story and figured out where the entire arc of the book was going, my last wall of skepticism melted and my mind was happily playing back what had gotten us to this point while appreciating how extremely clever Dayton was to make it seem like I was reading six different stories as she was actually leading me along one path the entire time!  I was already content with my book-reading experience but then I read the author's note with the pictorial representation of her inspiration and that was the cherry on top.

Although I basically dismissed the one obvious connecting factor in the stories - the Reverend Tad Tadd - I do love the additional story of his growth from a personal minister to a religion in and of himself.  Other than the one story in which he is a major character, he is thrown in as a mere mention in most of the others.  And yet Dayton has crafted the mentions so well that I can see his fanaticism and that of his followers along with the corruption of his message as it fits his own desires and those of so much of the rest of America.  (Or is that my own bias coming to bear?)

Monday, July 23, 2018

The Similars by Rebecca Hanover

As a new school year begins, Emma is still struggling with the suicide of her best friend at the end of the previous year.  She saw no signs that Ollie was depressed and carries guilt about things she didn't say during the last few weeks of his life.  Emma's school prides itself on inclusiveness so it is not a surprise that their headmaster has invited six clones to attend their private academy.  The six are clones of other students who already attend the school but were cloned without the knowledge or consent of their parents.  Emma's world is rocked when she sees that Oliver was cloned and that now she will be seeing his face every day on Levi.  The two clash immediately but soon Emma finds herself relying on Levi to help her after her roommate Pru is viciously attacked, nearly dying.  As anti-clone sentiment grows at school and in the country as a whole, Emma learns more about the Similars and their special abilities but the mystery of what is happening behind the scenes at the academy grows bigger every day.

I did NOT see that last twist coming!  That is something you hardly ever hear me say.  Most books I have figured out the twist well before I've gotten there or I at least have a pretty good guess I'm waiting to confirm.  When this one was revealed I was truly surprised and it hadn't occurred to me at all so that was very exciting!  Despite that, the book overall was fine for me, but not great.  Emma and Levi's relationship arc was the same as any other doomed lover affair - hate, forced together, discover the other is not so bad after all, get close, obstacle to love with one of them misunderstanding what's happening and the other not explaining, resolution of the obstacle, deepest love story every told, self-sacrifice.  Yawning as I type.  It was not a bad love story, just nothing new happening there to capture my attention.  As for the rest of the plot...

It kept me turning pages quickly to see if there was some answer to the many, many questions:
What are the Similars missions?
What are their special abilities?
Why do they have special abilities?  Are they NOT human?
Why is the school allowing the anti-clone protests when they preach open-mindedness?
What does Oliver's last message to Emma mean?
What does the message in the book from Pru's father mean?
Why is Emma's father so distant from her?
Is Pru dead?
Do The Ten do anything meaningful or do they just meet at midnight to haze and harass each other?  
Why would the principal allow Emma to just leave the lab after what she saw?  And why isn't Emma terrified for her life after that weird encounter?!
And more, not all of which are answered in this book. It was all a little too much without enough closure on all points.  Despite Emma apparently being extremely smart since she placed in "the Ten", she doesn't seem particularly adept at figuring much out.  Like I said, I was reading quickly because I was caught up in the story despite the flaws I kept finding.

Finally, there were just too many characters to keep track of once all the parents became involved.  I'm not sure how to fix that since the past is relevant to the present, but something needs to be done so that I can tell who has grudges from the past and which parents are supposed to hate each other now.  At least give some names that stand out or just call the parents Mr. So and So, Mrs. So and So.  But Jago and Jaeger?  And then the dinner on parents' weekend - Lord help me!

Wednesday, July 18, 2018

Heart of Iron by Ashley Poston

Ana and Di were taken aboard a pirate spaceship several years ago when they were adrift in an escape pod.  Ana doesn't remember anything about her life before arriving on the ship but she has been trained to be great at what she does.  Di is her closest friend but he has been glitching because his memory core is damaged but Ana is hopeful they will be able to restore him if she can get the coordinates to a mysterious ship.  Unfortunately, someone else buys them just before she has a chance but she is so determined to fix Di that they chase the buyer down and become entangled in an interstellar adventure with killer robots, romance, evil rulers, and a prophesized return of the Goddess.

I did not enter this book in the best frame of mind having been "forced" to read it after I was fairly determined to ignore it.  As such, I found the beginning a little confusing and cliched with the daredevil pilot and the plucky, clever girl who throws caution to the wind.  But once I got over my attitude and settled into this world, I found myself liking it quite a bit even as I tried to resist.  Luckily, the "secret" of who Ana really is, is revealed officially about halfway into the book rather then springing it on the reader at the end as if we don't already know.  That allowed the plot to really get down to the mystery of what happened years before without forcing the author to write mysterious sentences that didn't reveal anything.  Ana's pirate family is great and supportive, reminding me of the crew of the Firefly or the Scooby Gang in Buffy.  And if you knew what a Buffy fan I am, you'd understand how high that praise is. 

Ana's relationship with Di was less interesting to me just because I found the hesitating over their feelings - and whether Di even had feelings since he is a robot/android - typical and boring.  I also had some problems with their age difference since Di is fully formed and, I assume, was basically an adult right from the moment of his creation. Therefore, he was grown up when they went into the escape pod and Ana was still a child.  So for them to now form a romantic attachment is a little weird.  However, that is one of those mind-boggling conundrums like when you try to figure out time-travel movies because does a robot actually age?  Does my perception of what's an appropriate relationship between a human and an android even apply?  With that issue aside, I will say that it was pretty convenient that the crew just happened to find a more humanoid robot to download Di into.  Speaking of relationships, the bonding of Jax and Robb was too fast for my taste in terms of what they knew about each other (nothing) to become so close.  But I liked both of them and aside from the speediness of their relationship building, I liked watching them come together.

As I approached the end of the book I lost some of my enthusiasm because it was a little longer than I felt it needed to be.  I think the book overall could lose 50 to 100 pages and it would be better for that to keep the action moving and tighter than it is.  Otherwise, it is just a good example of straight up rollicking sci fi.

Tuesday, July 17, 2018

The Sacrifice Box by Martin Stewart

One summer, five unlikely friends gathered around a box in the forest and put in items to cement their friendship.  Now, four years later, the group is drawn back together when they begin experiencing horrors related to the items they put into the box.  Sep is the loner of the group and is just marking time until he can get off the island where he has lived all his life and go to the mainland on a scholarship.  He is skeptical when his former friends approach him but it soon becomes clear that someone broke the rules of the sacrifice box and now they are being targeted in the order in which they made their sacrifices.  As they work to close the box again, it becomes clear that they were not the first group of friends in town to be drawn to the box and that this time the box might not be satisfied until it gets a much bigger sacrifice.

Eh.  I picked this ARC because it sounded exactly like the kind of book my students would love to read.  It probably is going to be fairly popular at my school, but it wasn't as compelling as I expected.  For one thing, the kids were slow at getting back to the box to shut it up!  They were being chased by hordes of undead animals but still took the time to load up a wounded stag and take it to the veterinarian, then later they went back to the vet to warn him that there are some weird things happening.  Dudes, just go do the box thing!  And speaking of the vet, our first introduction to him was him saying that he killed animals and that when he looks at a puppy he knows he will be killing it someday. I guess he was speaking like that because he was not a native English speaker...?  But it was harsh and really turned me off to him and to the book overall.  Finally, the writing - particularly in the first few chapters - was much too overblown with some really overworked metaphors.   I can sell this easily with a short booktalk but I know some kids will put it down before we get to the murderous teddy bear.

Tiffany Sly Lives Here Now by Dana L. Davis

Tiffany is headed to California to live with the father she has never met nor even knew existed until shortly before her mother died.  As if that weren't enough of a change, when she arrives she finds out that she has four half sisters and a white stepmother.  Tiffany's new family has some strict rules governing her behavior, starting with her father's belief that his girls should not wear any weaves or braids, only their natural hair.  That will be a problem for Tiffany since she has alopecia - hair loss - thanks to the stress of watching her mother die of cancer.  Luckily, she gets some help from the woman across the street who is also a hairdresser as well as the mother of the weird kid who wears white make up all the time.  Tiffany's life has changed dramatically in all kinds of ways, but there could still be one more shock - this might not be her family at all!  Shortly before she left Chicago another man showed up on her doorstep claiming to be her father as well and asking for a DNA test.  Time is running out and no one knows the secret.

I just thoroughly enjoyed this book despite a few flaws.  Tiffany is so secure in who she is (despite her crippling anxiety) that I loved watching her interactions with everyone around her.  She is a good girl but she's not afraid to stand up to the jerk at school and her dad who is also a jerk for a good portion of the book with his crazy, controlling rules.  But she's working hard to fit in with her new family and supportive of her stepmother as she also tries to deal with her controlled life.  I really liked Tiffany's representation as an atheist which is something I don't remember seeing in most/any other YA books I've read.  And although that is contrasted with the Jehovah's Witness religion of her family, I didn't feel like their religion was being criticized or shown to be bad in any way.  

As I said, there are flaws in the story:
Given how strict he is for most of the book, his transformation to trying to be a decent guy is pretty quick.  Particularly his reaction to Tiffany's sister and her situation.
The depiction of the youngest sister who is autistic bothered me in that the family seemed pretty clueless on how to deal with her.  Of course Dad doesn't because that's his character, but even Tiffany's stepmom apparently hasn't done some basic research on how to handle an autistic toddler.
There are A LOT of story threads and several of them are left somewhat open.

I ruminated on these problems and a few others and felt like maybe I should like the book less or take away a star in my rating but I still just liked the whole thing.  So I ignored that feeling!  I think it's a great title to sell to my 8th graders in particular who will appreciate the great heroine, the drama of the story, the "villain", and a book with a black character who does not live in the ghetto.

Camp Valor by Scott McEwen, Hof Williams

Wyatt has landed in prison facing serious time after he is framed for a crime committed by his friend.  When a man named Hallsy shows up and offers him a chance to leave the jail and wipe his record clean, Wyatt takes it.  He is taken to a top secret summer camp where he will be trained to become an elite military operative along with many other children and teens.  Assuming, that is, that he doesn't quit first.  The people who make it through the exhausting training at Camp Valor are sent to infiltrate situations that would impossible for adults.  In fact, in 1984 a Camp Valor graduate killed a central American despot by befriending his son.  Unfortunately, that son turned his father's death into a reason to track down his killer and has become one of the most powerful underground figures on the Dark Web.  Now his revenge mission and Wyatt's training are about to collide.

Somewhere I read something about this book that made me excited to read it before it was published.  Then last week I was on vacation and ran out of things to read when I found a copy at the local bookstore.  I tore into it excitedly and was quite absorbed for awhile, thinking about how much my students would really like the military and action aspects of it as we see Wyatt enduring the brutal training.  Then, it began its slow, horrible descent into graphic, disgusting violence.  The book tells parallel stories until they intersect in the last few chapters.  I had no problems with Wyatt's timeline of training at Camp Valor (except for the romance which felt forced and added in just to be a plot point that led to another big event) even though if I think about it I guess it's pretty odd to have 11 year olds with stuffed animals defusing bombs and learning weaponry.  But it's an adventure book and she was a secondary character so I didn't dwell on that.  The main thing I DID dwell on in Wyatt's training storyline was the pill you had to take to wipe your memories if you tapped out - surely you had to take a different pill if you quit during Hell week as opposed to those who gave up in the first day?  Just my own internal musings about the logistics of the memory wipe pill...  Even though the teens at Camp Valor are learning to use all sorts of weapons, their scenes were not graphic or inappropriate for students.

No, the problem I had was with the other story of the Glowworm, the disgusting creature who used to be the despot's son.  Even the description of his appearance and smell is pretty bad but that's nothing compared to his eating habits - completely gratuitous - and violence with those who disappoint him.  In addition, there is his right hand assassin, Raquel, who attracts the Glowworm's attention when she kills some tourists because they photographed her eating her meal.  When the two plot lines finally match up then the violence and killings ratchet up as well.  The imagery in this book was so graphic and disturbing that I had to put it down one night before bed because it was making me uneasy in my own home.  Aside from the violence, I take issue with the way the Camp Valor team handled their mission with Raquel and the Glowworm.  It felt like a couple members of the team basically ignored all their training and protocols which led to a lot of death and injury.

I don't remember ever doing this with any other book I've purchased for my collection, but I'll be passing this one on to a high school rather than keeping it on my shelves.

Saturday, July 14, 2018

Screenshot by Donna Cooner

Skye has her life carefully planned out and the next step is to secure an internship with a senator in her town.  While at a sleepover with her two best friends Skye is pressured into dancing around in a nighty.  Without asking, Asha films her and posts the video to the latest social media platform, Chitchat, where nothing can be edited or removed for 15 minutes.  Skye panics about who might've seen the video but Asha takes it down as soon as she can and it seems like everything's okay.  Until a few days later when Skye receives an anonymous text threatening to post the video again unless she does whatever her blackmailer asks.  

Obviously there's a heavy message here for teens (and everyone...) about the dangers of social media but the story is not overshadowed by the message.  It's really more of a modern day thriller where the consequences are relatable for anyone who has acted rashly in a world in which everything is public.  Skye is a good character who believes she knows what she wants but still has some growing to do when it comes to being confident in herself.  I could feel her anguish about what to do as each new threat upped the stakes.  Cooner also makes it clear how quickly your trust in those closest to you can be shaken.  I know this will be a booktalk winner!

Turn It Up! by Jen Calonita


Lidia and Sydney have been looking forward to coaching their school's girl a cappella group to a huge victory now that they are co-captains of the Nightingales.  But those plans fall apart when Lidia catches Sydney kissing the boy she has had a crush on for over a year.  The former best friends are now fighting all the time and the future of their group is not looking good, especially when Lidia quits entirely to focus on her dancing.

There's the trashy book you read because you just want a break from all the heavy fantasy you've been reading, and then there's a book that's not even good enough to keep you mindlessly, but happily, zooming through it.  This book was the latter for me.  I'd been saving it specifically because I wanted to read it after I finished a few heavier books I had to get through and I wanted an easy palette cleanser.  Even going into it with that mindset I found myself putting it down and I even finished another book that I picked up in the middle of reading this one.  It was fine, but it wasn't charming enough to push into a fun summer read.

Thursday, July 5, 2018

Whisper by Lynette Noni

"Jane Doe" has been captive for two and a half years while being subjected to tortuous experiments.  During that entire time she has not said a word because of what happened the last time she spoke.  Jane is confronted by the head of the institute and told that she will be working with a new handler but that she only has about a month to make a breakthrough before they end their work with her, permanently.  Expecting the worst, Jane is surprised when her new handler treats her like real person and steps in on her behalf when one of her other doctors goes too far with his experiments.  When she finally opens up a little she learns that she is not the only person able to create things by Speaking and that it is possible to control her power with enough training. 

I figured out some things about her new handler/trainer and was gratified to discover I was right about those things in the end.  I also predicted a couple other twists.  All that is to say that there is not so much unique in this book from other "girl who has untapped powers" books, but I still had fun reading it.  Jane is a nice, strong character who is surprisingly hate-free considering what she discovers about her family and the facility where she has been kept.  Her supporting cast is also fun and provide some needed warmth against the cold facility types.  I'm left with a few questions regarding the length of time Jane was held with no explanation and what her parents were thinking... But while reading the book I was just along for the ride and not questioning how we got there.

Sunday, July 1, 2018

The Love Letters of Abelard and Lily by Laura Creedle

Thanks to Lily's lack of impulse control due to her ADHD she ends up in detention when she accidentally breaks a room divider.  Her companions in detention are Abelard, a boy she scarred with her lunchbox when they were seven, and Richard, a talented artist who sketches a picture of Abelard that Lily takes.  Looking at the sketch of Abelard, Lily notices for the first time how handsome he is and she writes a passage from the old book The Love Letters of Abelard and Heloise on it.  When the picture gets posted online and attracts a lot of attention, the two teens begin a texting relationship and then start dating in real life.  Lily is always battling the impulse control monster that arises within her whenever she is off her medication (medication that leaves her with no emotions whatsoever when she IS taking it) while Abelard fights his own social issues thanks to his Asperger's syndrome. Yet the two are perfect together until Abelard leaves to go to an exclusive school designed especially for him and others who are brilliant, and Lily decides to try an experimental brain surgery meant to help her focus.

In reflecting on this book I can see that Lily and Abelard's romance is very nearly a fantasy in how quickly it developed and how perfectly these two misfits fit together.  I can see that, but I don't care because while I was reading it I just loved both of them and how their oddness was what brought them together.  Although I guess the genre that best categorizes this book is romance, there is so much more in it, most notably, Lily's struggle with ADHD.  Not having that myself I can't speak to the authenticity of how it is portrayed (although the author says she has it) but assuming it's accurate, I got a real feel for the frustration of navigating the world and I could see why she would choose brain surgery even though that's a pretty extreme option.  There is so much rich description of Lily's reactions but the scene that sticks with me is when she sees other girls coming back to school with fancy coffee drinks and she wonders what it would be like to move through the world like those girls - no monsters inside, free to take so much for granted - and I realized that I am those girls and really thought about how Lily was struggling every minute of the day.   Creedle's writing is also full of just some beautifully crafted turns of phrase that had me marking passages to go back and ponder.  For instance, I was mostly sold on the book already by page three with the description of the noise level in a school without walls - a stupid educational/architectural trend that has already had two revivals during my career.  And then Lily's ruminations about happiness and our desire to be happy all the time and how we use happiness as a yardstick to measure the worth of our lives which she sums up as such:  "It's a bully of a word, happy."  That sentence stopped me in my (reading) tracks and knocked me back with its simplicity and profundity.  It is nice to read a book that I not only enjoyed for its story, but also for the way in which it is crafted.