Friday, November 9, 2018

The Last Wish of Sasha Cade by Cheyanne Young

Raquel and her best friend Sasha have been preparing for Sasha's death from cancer for a long time.  Even though she knew Sasha was dying, Rocki is still devastated.  Then she gets a letter from Sasha telling her to go to the cemetery and to bring her laptop.  Once there Rocki meets a boy with the exact same piercing blue eyes as Sasha. Before she died Sasha tried to locate her biological parents and in the process she discovered her brother, Elijah.  Sasha refers to them as her "favorites" and promises that she will be sending them on adventures together so Elijah can get to know her even though she has died.  The one condition Sasha sets is that they cannot tell her adoptive parents about Elijah.  That's a condition that bothers Raquel because she knows Sasha's parents have lots of money while Elijah, who has aged out of foster care, is barely getting by.  Even though she's sure Mr. and Mrs. Cade would love to help out, she is determined to follow Sasha's request.  But she's not feeling as sure she will be able to follow another request:  not to get involved with Elijah.

I was promised a tear-jerker with this book but it didn't get to my cold, cold heart.  Sasha is an amazing friend and I wish I was the kind of person who would be thinking about everyone else's happiness if I were dying but I suspect I'm not.  I couldn't even cry during the many scenes that were obviously tailor-made for crying.  I"m not saying it's a bad book or that I didn't enjoy it at all, just that it wasn't the emotional read I expected.  Instead, it was a good story of friendship with some almost magical realism thrown in.  I wish that things weren't so pat in the back half of the book and I wish that Sasha's parents could've seen the light without Elijah getting into quite so much trouble, but I can still appreciate the happy ending.  Good, but not great.

Courage by Barbara Binns

After their father died T'Shawn's older brother Lamont took his place as T'Shawn's biggest influence.  All that changed when Lamont became the leader of a local gang and left home, eventually ending up pointing a gun at T'Shawn.  Now T is happy to have Lamont out of his life and is looking forward to joining a local diving team.  The life he is trying to live comes crashing down when his mother tells him Lamont is getting out of prison early and will be moving back home with them.  

For the first three quarters of this book I was absolutely sure that I would be using it with one or more reading programs in the upcoming year.  I'm sure you can see what I'm going from there...  But before we get to the part I didn't like, let me talk about what was so great. 

This book captures so much of the atmosphere of more mature stories about gangs or families dealing with incarceration but in a totally appropriate younger middle school way.  My sixth and seventh graders are handling some of the same issues addressed in books like THUG or Long Way Down but they aren't always ready for those edgier stories.  Courage is something I could put on a required reading list without hesitation. 

T'Shawn is a great character, so wonderfully drawn.  He was crushed by Lamont's gang activity and by the fact that he apparently chose his gang friends over T.  Now he is doing what he thinks is necessary to protect himself and his family, including trying to get him to violate his parole.  He also doesn't hesitate to speak up for himself and others when he observes racism which he faces both at school and in his neighborhood.  But Binns does a great job weaving those incidents into the story smoothly without it being an obvious lesson we're supposed to learn, even though we can learn from them.  T's eventual return to giving Lamont a chance comes about naturally with setbacks along the way.

So what lost me?  The last quarter of the book felt so much more obvious and forced than the story up to that point.  The nuances left and too many issues were pushed in.  T's coach became a caricature and I didn't see any realistic motivation for the revelations from Lamont's girlfriend.  If the story were tidied up and finished with the skill with which it began, this would be something I would recommend all the time.  I'll still booktalk it, but I didn't love it as much as I thought I would.

I Am Still Alive by Kate Alice Marshall

After her mom is killed in a car crash Jess has to live with her dad whom she hasn't seen in years.  When she arrives at the airport in Alaska, she is met by someone she doesn't know who then flies her into the Canadian wilderness where her dad is living off the grid in a tiny cabin.  Already grieving for her mom and dealing with her own injuries from the accident, Jess is not equipped to take on yet another challenge. And then things get even worse when men arrive and kill her father and burn down his cabin.  Now Jess has to survive with just her father's dog to help her and no hope of anyone else showing up to rescue her until spring.

I wanted to like this book and the adventure within but I just didn't get invested in the slow pace of it all and I didn't care much what happened to Jess.  It took me over a week to read which is a bad sign all by itself. I could appreciate how precarious Jess' survival was and marveled that humans ever managed to evolve given how delicate we are but I have the same reaction when I watch "Naked and Afraid" and that is over in about 45 minutes.  Eventually, though, I became tired of her struggles and finally completely done when she didn't follow through on something after all her prepping.  I might need to work on improving my attention span but there was not enough mystery to keep me riveted.

Tuesday, November 6, 2018

How We Roll by Natasha Friend

Quinn's family has just moved to a new town which might actually work out well for her.  She developed alopecia which caused her to lose all her hair.  Rather than being supportive, her friends abandoned her.  Now she can start school with a wig on and no one will know her any other way.  She is quickly adopted by a group of girls  but she starts off on the wrong foot with Jake who is confined to a wheelchair after an accident and is still dealing with his bitter feelings.  Slowly the two of them form a friendship and possibly more as they each deal with their own losses.

I am just charmed by this book and by the characters.  Quinn does not begin the story confidently but she grows into that confidence by the end of the book.  There are plenty of books that could say the same but in this case I think a big part of it is because she has such a great support network with her wonderful friends.  It is SO rare to see a group of girls portrayed as helpful and supportive but Friend has taken the time to make each of them unique with their own foibles which also just being great people.  I'm tearing up just thinking about how great they were with Quinn both as a new girl in school and just as supportive friends in general.  There are lots of heartwarming sections of the book but that's obviously the part that really got to me.  However, let me also take a moment to talk about the romance storyline and how entirely realistic it is for a middle school dating situation.  I love that they are basically just friends but they are starting to feel something more in that young person way.  Just so good all around!

Lovely, Dark, and Deep by Justina Chen

Viola has become allergic to the sun.  Not just the sun, now Viola doesn't seem to be able to tolerate any light source at all.  Her entire world comes crashing down as she can no longer do anything she loves and must spend most of her time in her basement.  Most importantly, this new condition means she will have to rethink her entire future in which she had planned to be a journalist, starting with earning her college degree in Abu Dabi, possibly the sunniest place on Earth.   She is helped along in coping with all this by her devoted parents, dedicated friends, and Josh, a gorgeous boy she met on the same day she developed her condition.  But how can she have anything resembling a normal life and why would anyone want to be part of her life now?

I started off great guns but about halfway through I just wanted it to end.  I didn't feel like Chen gave me as much information as I wanted about what was happening or made things clear enough.  I'm not advocating for a more didactic writing style, but I needed a little more explanation of what each new development meant for Viola and what she would now be unable to do.  I also felt like there were several big realizations throughout the book.  The problem is, they were each the same realization.  Viola decides she's going to manage her illness herself and lead a normal life.  Then something happens, then she decides it again.  And the same for her relationship with Josh.  Plus the added fall back of "I have to break up with you because I love you so much".  Finally, for all of the slogging through her illness during the rest of the book, the ending felt too happy for me.  She has a new plan and that's great, but it's just not going to be that easy.  And Iceland in the summer is going to be one of the worst places for her to be.  Just sayin'.

The Opposite of Here by Tara Altebrando

Since her boyfriend died in a car accident several months ago Natalie has been struggling to work through her grief.  Her parents arrange to take Natalie and her three best friends on a cruise for her 17th birthday to help her move on.  On the first night of the cruise Natalie meets an intriguing boy who invites her to join him at the hot tub.  When she returns with her swimsuit, the boy is gone.  And then when she hears a rumor that someone might've fallen overboard and the ship's crew does a passenger head count, Natalie begins to wonder if her mystery boy might have had an accident.  As she begins looking for him she uncovers more secrets than she could've imagined.

Sounds intriguing, no?  Then you would be better off sticking with this description of the premise rather than ruining it by reading the entire boring book.  The writing totally left me cold along with all the characters, Natalie in particular.  Why is she so invested in this boy she barely knows who was condescending and snarky to her during the few minutes they spent together?  The first impression is bad and every new revelation makes him worse and yet she chases after him on sea and land.  After meeting mystery boy's twin, she forms an attachment to him even though he is one of those characters I hate - "I have important information that will clear this all up for you but I can't tell you and will instead keep you hanging."  But he is so brooding and mysterious that she can't quit him because that's a type of man we should be encouraging our teens to pursue.  Ugh.  To top it off, Natalie's friends are equally not interesting and explored so superficially that it just left me wondering if was supposed to be a clue that her usually reserved friend was now outgoing.  Give me a mystery where I care what happens.

Monday, November 5, 2018

Things Jolie Needs to Do Before She Bites It by Kerry Winfrey

Jolie has always felt unpretty thanks to her large underbite.  Now she is finally old enough to have corrective surgery and is looking forward to blending in with everyone else.  A couple of months before her surgery date, however, she suddenly realizes that she could die during the surgery.  The chances are very slim, but still...  So with her two best friends, Evelyn and Derek, she makes a list of things she wants to do just in case she "bites it."   

This is one of those fairly formulaic stories where a girl finds out she had a lot of what it takes all along, but I love those kind of stories.  Jolie is such a winning character and her things to do are totally doable and they lead to cute consequences. Like all romantic heroines, she is pretty clueless about what's happening right in front of her, but that's okay because she gets it in the end along with a good boost of self-esteem and a realization that she was never really all that different from her perfect sister in the first place.

Why Can't I Be You by Melissa C. Walker

Claire's mom has finally agreed that Claire is old enough to stay home by herself for the summer rather than go to summer camp.  Claire is looking forward to relaxing days hanging out with Ronan, who lives in the trailer next door, and Brianna who has just moved to an expensive house.  But things start to go wrong right from the start when Brianna shows up with her cousin Eden who is much more sophisticated and quickly becomes the center of attention wherever she goes leaving Claire feeling like she can't even relate to her best friend.  Closer to home, she is also having problems with Ronan who has become very moody ever since his father has come home.   Claire has always been content with her life but she is beginning to resent things her friends have that she doesn't.

This is a good middle grades book a lot of kids could relate to.  In fact, I can relate to Claire's feelings of jealousy because I don't have a house with a pool or an in-home theater like Brianna does.  As such, I think the resolution of the book comes about a little too quickly because comparing yourself to your friends definitely continues to be an issue throughout high school.  Despite that shortcoming I enjoyed the rest of the story and the eventual humanization of Eden who at first comes off like a real snob.  And Ronan's troubles at home are not wrapped up so neatly as to be unrealistic.