Wednesday, February 27, 2019

Slayer by Kiersten White

After Buffy, the vampire slayer, brought about the end of magic there has not been much need for Watchers - the men and women who support Slayers.  All of the former Watchers are now living in a castle, still learning about demons and other creatures as well as ways to help the Slayers that are still out there.  Nina knows that she will not be chosen to become a Watcher so she has been honing her healing skills instead.  Her twin sister Artemis has all the strength and cunning to be a Watcher but has somehow not qualified.  After witnessing an anomaly, Nina feels herself change in some way.  And then when a hellhound attacks the castle and she kills it with her bare hands, it is clear that she has become the last Slayer.

"Buffy the Vampire Slayer" is still one of my most favorite TV shows ever so I snatched up this book as soon as I could get my hands on it.  It is good but of course did not live up to actual Buffy.  In fact, Buffy is kind of one of the villains of the book because she broke magic.  If you're not coming loaded up with Buffy baggage then this is a pretty good story filled with good and bad creatures, double-crosses, misunderstandings, and killing.  Nothing too groundbreaking, but well done and fun.

No Fixed Address by Susin Nielsen

Felix is a very smart kid who loves a trivia gameshow called "Who, What, Where, When".  He also loves his mom Astrid despite the fact that she sometimes goes into a "slump" where she loses her job doesn't do such a great job taking care of them.  Most recently, she lashed out at one of her friends who was letting Felix and Astrid live in her basement.  After the fight, Astrid decides they will live in a van - just for a month, until she finds a new job and gets the money to rent a new apartment.  At first it's an adventure but as time goes on and there is no permanent home on the horizon, Felix is having more problems dealing with his homelessness.  When he hears that his favorite gameshow is hosting a junior competition with a big enough prize to solve their money problems, he knows he has to win.

I love me some Susin Nielsen.  Everything she writes has great characters and deep themes that she incorporates smoothly, before you know that you're reading something important.  Felix is a great character who is forced to be the parent but still reacts to things like a kid would.  Astrid is also a good character in her complexity.  She is not a good parent by any means, but she's not a monster either as many authors would be tempted to write her.  In addition, Felix's belief that "Who, What, Where, When" is the solution to all their problems is realistic in how it plays out.  Their descent into serious trouble comes about slowly with each decision seeming somewhat reasonable or temporary, rather than in one sudden catastrophe.  There are some happy turns of events at the end of the book but they are still within the realm of possibility and I like having some hope in a book so I'm okay with that.

Tuesday, February 26, 2019

Genesis Begins Again by Alicia D. Williams

Genesis comes home to find all the furniture out on the lawn because he father has failed to pay the rent again.  Genesis adds "being embarrassed by the entire neighborhood seeing them out on the street" to her list of things she hates about herself.  She also hates how dark-skinned she is and that people call her names like "eggplant" and "charcoal".  Even her father complains about how dark she is, especially when he has been drinking. This time the family moves to a large house in the suburbs and Genesis attends a school with a predominantly white population.  She is happy to make two friends fairly quickly who don't seem to care about her color at all.  She is further surprised when her choir teacher encourages her to audition for the school talent show.  Even though Genesis' life at school is going well, there are warning signs at home.  Like the failure to pay rent notice she intercepts on the front door and the hidden bottles of alcohol she finds after her dad promised to stop drinking.  And none of the skin lightening treatments Genesis has been trying have helped at all so she feels it might be time to try something more drastic.

The theme of internalized self-hate in this book is so well done as Genesis struggles with who she is.  And it's not just her inner monologue, she's surrounded by other people saying some pretty nasty things to her as well which would make anyone really question their identity.  I love both of her new friends who are so great and loyal but not in a making-a-big-point-of-how-accepting-they-are way.  I am disappointed that Genesis' mom hasn't been able to make the break with her dad but I can really appreciate how the author has Mom talk about not being able to leave entirely yet and how she never wanted to be one of those women and yet knows she is.  But I still judge her a little.  My complaints are that it feels like a debut novel in that it could've been pared down quite a bit AND I think the ending wraps up a few threads too neatly when it comes to Genesis finding her voice.  But I will still be happy to sell it to my students and I believe they will love it!

Monday, February 25, 2019

The Storm Runner by J.C. Cervantes

Zane lives in New Mexico and has his own volcano nearby that he enjoys exploring with his dog Rosie.  He gets picked on at school because one of his legs is shorter than the other so he limps and walks with a cane.  When cute new girl Brooks shows up on his doorstep, Zane things he must've hit the lottery. But it turns out she is there to help him avoid a nasty prophecy.  Turns out that Zane is the son of a Mayan god and is destined to release an evil god from his volcano.  Zane is determined to NOT do that but prophecies have a way of coming true and he finds that he has to get more involved than expected when Rosie dies and he knows he will do anything to get her back from the underworld.

For a book filled with Mayan gods and shape-shifters and prophecies AND is recommended by Rick Riordan, I sure didn't like it very much.  :-(  In fact, I have to blame Riordan for my disappointment with this one.  His books are so filled with adventure and humor that others are trying to capture that same tone.  But Riordan's writing feels effortless and the characters just are funny or sarcastic.  In comparison, I was very aware of the writing process in this book and how the author was working to add humor to the book rather than having it there organically.  I did enjoy Rosie when we finally re-encounter her, but most of the rest of the story felt frenetic and forced.

This Lie Will Kill You by Chelsea Pitcher

When Juniper receives an invitation to a mystery party that promises the opportunity to win a 50K scholarship, she is suspicious.  Even more so because the party takes place on the anniversary of a party where someone died and for which Juniper feels some responsibility.  But she finds herself unable to turn down the possibility of the scholarship and agrees to go.  Once there, she finds that the attendees are all other people who share some of the guilt for Shane's death and it becomes clear very quickly that someone has arranged this night to find out what happened a year ago and make those responsible pay for the death.

One description I read of this book likened it to I Know What You Did Last Summer.  I spent lots of my teen years reading and re-reading everything ever written by Lois Duncan so I jumped onboard immediately, pushing aside other books on my "to read" pile.  What a waste of my time, spending those two days reading this instead of other things.  With a third of the book to go I was just taking time to read it so I could get it done.  None of the characters interested me at all and they were all charicatures, including the dead guy and his weird sister.  It was very clear who was the real villain in this whole scenario almost right from the start and we were never presented with any redeeming qualities at all.  And then at the point when "The Ringmaster" was finally revealed, the events happening at the house became muddy - I thought one person was getting away and being replaced by a doll but now I think she was actually killed...?  Maybe?  Then again, I didn't really care.  Nor did I care whether she was rescued by Juniper.  Such a big disappointment, but proved to myself that I don't just love every mystery I read.  So there's that.

Contagion by Erin Bowman

Forced to evacuate a mining operation because of weather, a rag tag group is told to report to another planet to answer a distress call.  Along for the ride:  a young pilot and nearly equally inexperienced captain, an elderly doctor who knows some secrets about the planet from when she was young, the doctor's intern, a computer expert, and a member of the security crew.   When the Odyssey arrives they find an abandoned station with dead bodies and a scrawled warning: "Don't trust the boy".  Further investigation of an outbuilding reveals that all the crew members jumped into a pit, apparently committing suicide.  Except they aren't actually dead.  And one member of the original crew is still alive - a boy, about Thea's age.

I started this book once and put it down after a couple of chapters because I was confused by the sheer number of characters and I didn't care enough to keep trying.  Then it was nominated for a reading program in which I participate and I had to read it.  The second attempt went better than the first but I'm still not blown away.  I've had my fill of space zombies and I'm frustrated by characters who keep doing stupid things and then later realize they should've just listened to everyone around them and done the smart thing in the first place.  And although I'm a fan of complicated characters who aren't all good or all bad, I am less likely to buy into their redemption after their stupid acts have caused everyone else to die.  The planet was dark and life-threatening situations just kept coming and I grew weary of the bleakness.  Especially because I loved Bowman's debut so much. 

Friday, February 22, 2019

The Color of Lies by C.J. Lyons

Ella has lived with her grandmother and uncle ever since her parents died in a fire many years before.  Ella and her extended family all have differing forms of synesthesia.  Her grandmother sees sounds, her uncle can taste words, and Ella sees auras which tell her lots about people.  So when she meets Alec and can't read him at all, she's not sure what to make of him even though she is drawn to him right away.  Alec is keeping a secret - he has met Ella on purpose because he is investigating her parents' deaths which were definitely murder, not an accident.  Once he reveals his true purpose, Ella has many questions which are clearly leading to danger with a killer who doesn't want her to dig into the past.

It's fine.  That's about all I can say for this book.  I was intrigued by the set up with the synesthesia and the fact that Ella had no inkling that her parents had been murdered, but then it just dragged on for a lot of pages without building on that momentum.  Ella's loyal friends are wasted characters, only in a few scenes to mark their territory with Alec since Ella continues to trust him despite his lies and the fact that she has no idea who he is.  It's pretty clear early on who the (main) villain is if you've read many mysteries.  That revelation might be surprising for some less experienced readers, but even if it is a surprise, I don't know that they will be invested enough in this character to be all that shocked.  In fact, now that I'm reflecting on it more, I don't even find the murderous plot plausible, especially given Ella's aura-reading skills.  Perhaps that's why that storyline is not explored in more depth - because it turns out she doesn't actually see lies at all.

Tuesday, February 19, 2019

Grace and Fury by Tracy Banghart

Serina is headed to meet the Heir where she hopes she will be chosen as one of the three new Graces - women who serve the Heir in every way.  She has been training all her life to be charming, beautiful, and docile to be the perfect Grace.  Her sister Nomi is along as her handmaiden.  If Serina is chosen, it will mean a better life for their entire family.   But when the Graces are announced it turns out that Nomi has been selected by the Heir despite her prickly demeanor.  Serina quickly assumes the position of handmaiden to her sister but just as quickly she is in serious trouble after taking responsibility for the book Nomi had in her possession.  Since women are forbidden to read, Serina is sent to Mount Ruin where tribes of women are forced to survive and fight to the death to get a few extra scraps of food.  With the Heir's birthday coming up, Nomi forms an alliance with the younger prince to try to change the status quo in the kingdom and get her sister back.

I was so captivated with this book the whole way through.  I liked both women and Banghart did a great job of having Serina roll with the punches - sometimes literally - despite the fact that she never expected to be anything other than arm candy.  After they are separated both women are dedicated to finding each other again and doing what it takes to make that happen but I didn't feel that they were all that devoted to each other as the story began so that's a flaw for me.  I totally saw the twist with the Heir coming (because I've read other books) but that just made me wish I was wrong as I progressed to that point.  And I am truly sad that I wasn't wrong.  This is just a fun adventure with some good feminist themes for teens and good characters.

The Beholder by Anna Bright

Selah is the seneschal-elect and expects to be the leader of Potomac one day.  Her path to taking charge hits a roadblock when her proposal to Peter, the boy she believes will be her partner, is turned down. Now her cold stepmother has rallied Potomac's council to send Selah overseas to meet a series of leaders, demanding that she come home engaged to one of them.  Despite her worry over her father's failing health, Selah has no choice in the matter and boards The Beholder with a small crew to begin her mission with England as her first stop.  As she examines the suitors her stepmother has arranged for her to meet, she realizes that all but one of them are the first born sons and would therefore be required to stay in their own country.  Selah knows she has to make a match with one of the first two men or else she will be heading into Imperiya Yotne, a region ruled by a dictator from which visitors don't return.

Once Selah got to England I was reading this book with a search engine open right alongside.  Why?  Because of all the storytelling elements included in this original story.  I started out thinking this was going to be a Cinderella-based story when Selah lost one of her shoes.  Then I was sure it was Snow White with the evil stepmother.  Eventually I worked out that it is all of them, and more.  I was already delighted with the Easter eggs of Perrault and Homer and Andersen but once it came to me that we were dealing with the King Arthur story, I was looking up every new person and event to confirm my suspicions.  And then we moved on to Norse mythology!  I can see some of the flaws in the book - too long for most teens, Selah falls in love too easily, I don't like how her crew is keeping secrets from her - but I was still just enjoying the ride.  If you are not as familiar with mythology and folklore it might not be as much fun for you but I think it's still a good adventure/romance.

A Curse So Dark and Lonely by Brigid Kemmerer

Rhen is an arrogant prince who has been cursed by a sorceress to relive the same season over and over until he can find a woman who loves him.  Each time he fails, he turns into a monster that attacks and kills everyone around him until the next season starts.  Harper is a young woman who is kidnapped while trying to help another girl.  When she ends up in magical Emberfall with Rhen, she is not only distressed to have been taken from her own world, but she is also worried about her mother who is dying of cancer and her brother who is working for a loan shark.  As she begins to accept that she is trapped in Emberfall, she finds ways to help the people there who are suffering from the absence of a leader and their terror of the monster.  As Harper ventures out into the country, Rhen learns more about his people and comes up with a plan to help them.

This is an elaborate, slightly altered telling of Beauty and the Beast so you can guess the general storyline but there are some other luscious details added.  Harper is a good, strong character who makes impulsive decisions that seem right but sometimes have unintended consequences.  Rhen is swoony pretty much right from the get go but also a little sad and haunted by his past failures and the fact that he keeps eating all his subjects.  I feel like Harper's disability is more token than real representation, but I mostly ignored that.  I also feel like her taming of the beast happened real damn fast but I still liked picturing a big bird-serpent-monster-dragon head-butting her.  What's more, I enjoyed all the supporting cast of characters and watching Rhen become a real leader. 

Saturday, February 2, 2019

The Vanishing Stair by Maureen Johnson

In this sequel to Truly Devious Stevie Bell finds her way back to Ellingham Academy thanks to the man she hates, Edward King.  Once there, she continues investigating the crime from the past as well as trying to figure out where Ellie went after she disappeared from a locked room at the end of the first book.  Some parts of the mystery are solved (the identity of the kidnapper/murderer from 1936!) while new questions are raised.

I read a sequel and I never read sequels.  Even more, now I'm going to have to read the third book since I've already invested this much time and brain power to it all.  However, I was not as blown away by this sequel as I was with the first book which had me rapidly turning pages.  In fact, I felt like the first third, at least, was sort of marking time without much happening at all since this has to be a trilogy.  Once the action actually started things moved along fairly well and I was highlighting clues right and left in order to try to solve the many mysteries.  And I DID solve the Ellingham case before it was officially revealed - yay me!  But...
1.  The "always on the staircase" riddle is NOT good, even when you know the solution to it.  Ellingham is supposed to be a master gamesman so he should've come up with something better than this.  And if this is the only clue he left behind as to the criminal's identity...?  I think he would be a lot more obvious than this.
2.  I am very tired of this romance pattern.  Either be together or don't be together but stop wasting my time with stories where they almost connect but then there's some misunderstanding.  And honestly, David knows what a creep his dad is so having him be outraged that Stevie is yet another person manipulated by him doesn't ring true.  Furthermore, why didn't Stevie just say "I wanted to come back here so I used him to make that happen."
3.  Vi.  This is a minor point in the overall story as Vi is nothing but a tertiary character, but the inclusion of Vi feels token and not like real representation.  We know from the first book that Vi is biologically female but prefers to use they/them as pronouns.  That's pretty much it.  Is Vi nonbinary?  Trans?  Just a girl who prefers to support others by using inclusive pronouns?  I have no idea because there is no other meaningful description of Vi in either book.  If the idea is to include some LGBTQ readers into the story, then I wish Johnson had done something more with this character so people could actually see themselves there.

I know I have more quibbles with it but that's all that's coming to mind at the moment.  Despite that, it still has me thinking and wondering how things will tie up when all's said and done.

Come November by Katrin van Dam

Rooney's mom is not worried that she just lost her job because November 17th is not that far away.  Mom is a member of the Next World Society and believes that the family will be taken away by aliens on November 17th to live on a planet that is not affected by climate change.  Rooney is not a believer and has no patience for her mother's beliefs, especially when Rooney's younger brother David seems to be getting on board with the Society's dogma and turning against Rooney.  At a loss for what else to do, Rooney turns to her long absent father.  She just wants some money to help in the short term but he offers other help after the prophesied day comes and goes and the group's charismatic leader disappears with all their money.

Who doesn't love a cult story filled with crazy people following an unscrupulous leader?  On those points, this book didn't disappoint.  Rooney's mom and the other Next World people are so frustrating in their beliefs and in the way Rooney is pushed to ascend with them on November 17.  And watching David slip away from her in his worry about being left behind is heartbreaking.  What's not so crazy about this cult is that the followers are green warriors, hoping to find a world where people actually care about their planet.  I can see how that would lure people in because the enormity of climate change is too much to face sometimes.  So some of the beliefs of this group didn't seem quite as wacko as your typical religious cult.  I think that's a super-smart and intriguing choice that van Dam made there.

But aside from the unusual cult, the rest of this book was not as intriguing.  I wasn't wrapped up in Rooney's day to day life and romance, which quickly faded into the background once they found each other.  In many ways things could've been covered more quickly to keep the pace up, but then the end of the book suddenly jumped ahead at light speed to give us a synopsis of what had been left out.  More consistent pacing would've benefited the overall story.

You Owe Me a Murder by Eileen Cook

When Kim signed up for the educational trip to London it was so she could spend more time with her boyfriend. But now that he has dumped her and is dating another girl also going on the trip, Kim is miserable about the upcoming trip.  At the airport she meets Nicki and the two hit it off right away, spending a few hours together while waiting for their plane.  Nicki shares stories about her awful mother and Kim talks about her ex, Connor.  The two make lists of all the terrible things about the people they hate and Nicki tucks the lists away.  Kim falls asleep and when the plane lands, Nicki is nowhere to be seen although Kim does think she sees glimpses of Nicki as her group travels throughout London.  While the group is on the crowded Tube platform one day, Connor falls onto the tracks and dies after being hit by the train.  Was it a suicide or accident?  Kim can't imagine either one but then Nicki gets in contact with her saying that she took care of Kim's problem and now Kim owes her the death of Nicki's mom.  Armed with Kim's list of reasons she wants Connor dead, Nicki uses everything in her power to blackmail Kim into committing murder.

I knew this was a "Strangers on a Train" knock off and I was fine with that.  Especially since my students are completely unlikely to know what that is so it will all be new to them.  But I ended up so disappointed in the execution of this and with Kim in particular.  I know she has to make some dumb mistakes in order to keep the blackmail plot working, but she couldn't have been more passive in controlling her own fate, starting with keeping it a secret that she ever dated Connor.  That decision didn't make sense no matter how the author tried to explain it.  And then there was just the escalating series of dumb decisions the led to lying to the police over and over.  Again, I know some of this is necessary because if you go tell the police and they solve the crime, the story's over, but I cannot forgive how even in the very end Kim gets out of this situation with no action on her own part.  Again and again she gives herself the "work the problem" pep talk and tries to come up with a solution.  Each time I thought "Okay, NOW she's going to take the reins and turn the tables on Nicki!"  I was primed for some self-empowerment and excited to see Nicki falter when her easy mark turned out to be tougher than imagined.  But it never happened and I felt no relief for the end of the tension other than that I was finally done with the book.  It's okay that Kim has no backbone for the first half of the book because she has to get into a bad place, but please write her a way out of this that is of her own making with some clever thinking.

Friday, February 1, 2019

Just For Clicks by Kara McDowell

Claire and her twin sister Poppy are fashion vloggers on their way to becoming very famous.  They got their start thanks to their mom's very popular blog detailing their lives. Although they are the envy of teen girls everywhere, Claire doesn't love being in the spotlight and is looking forward to slipping away to college in about a year.  When she meets new guy Rafael she is excited to start a friendship with someone who doesn't seem to know her entire past.  Claire's plans for a normal life hit a stumbling block when the girls are offered their own reality TV show which is Poppy's dream.  And then even more pieces of her life come tumbling down when Claire discovers a devastating secret in her mom's private journals.

This book is mostly exactly what you'd think it would be both romance and story-wise except for all the stuff that is tackled and resolved quickly in the last few chapters.  Family fights and misunderstandings - check.  Possible romantic competition - check.  Sacrificing dreams due to unconditional love - check.  Getting over your attitude problem that is causing you to misread situations - check.  And more!  Of course I didn't go into this book looking for a downer so I wanted the happy ending to all of those stories, but maybe not so many stories and not so fast.  Claire's turnaround from disavowing her family to recognizing their worth happens in the blink of an eye and the thing that causes her to change her attitude is also revealed mighty fast.  I feel like that amount of crazy might not be revealed so quickly in real life. 

Despite those ending flaws, there are a few things I liked a lot about this book. 
1. Claire and Poppy's mom is sort of a stage mother but not in a bad way at all.  She totally cares about her daughters and it shows in how she treats them which is a great change from the portrayal of most parents in YA books.
2.  Rafael is a really nice guy and the romance progresses very slowly rather than with insta-love.  Most of their interactions in the book consist of them talking and asking questions of each other.  Like, actually getting to know each other! 
3.  The downside of being internet famous (probably famous in any way at all) is unflinchingly shown.  Of course it appears that these people have perfect lives but the online harassment and the work involved in maintaining that appearance is no joke.
4.  And speaking of work... It is made clear that you don't just get famous by writing a few entries and being discovered.  It's a fulltime job getting your name out there.  It's a good lesson for all those teens who are going to monetize their videos and get rich quick.