Saturday, August 16, 2014

Book Review: A Certain October by Angela Johnson

Book: A Certain October
Author: Angela Johnson
Published: 2012
Source: Local Library

When she's in a horrible accident that kills a friend and severely injures her seven-year-old brother, Scotty feels responsible - for Kris's death, for Keone's injuries. It's all her fault, but there's no way she can make up for it. In the face of her helplessness, Scotty starts to do things to help other peoples' lives, and that might be just enough to get her through this October alive.

It's always hard for me to characterize an Angela Johnson book. They don't seem to have beginnings or ends, you feel like you're dropped in the middle of someone's life and then get plucked out again. I feel more as if I should like them than I actually do. But the jumbled tangle of emotion and uncertainty is awfully close to living inside Scotty's head. It's a quick and often confusing read. I'd give it only to people who are fans of Johnson's other work.

Saturday, August 09, 2014

Book Review: Beautiful Music for Ugly Children by Kirstin Cronn-Mills

Book: Beautiful Music for Ugly Children
Author: Kirstin Cronn-Mills
Published: 2012
Source: Local Library

In the studio, Gabe runs his community radio show, "Beautiful Music for Ugly Children." He plays eclectic mixes and chats over the airwaves to night owls just like him. In the studio is the only place Gabe can truly be himself. Because to the outside world, Gabe is Liz, and Liz is female.

But Gabe has always known he's male, even if it's a scary thing to declare that to the world. As his radio show gains a cult following and he starts to dream of bigger and better (a career in radio, a life as himself, even--gulp!--a girlfriend), he needs the courage to stand tall against a world that doesn't know quite what to make of him.

One of the things I liked best about this book was the slowness of the process. Gabe comes out to his parents, to close friends, and then painfully, to the world, in baby steps like asking a radio station to change the name on his entry form from Liz to Gabe, and telling his new boss that though his W-2 says one name, it's really another. Each outing is its own different brand of scary.

There's a realistic variety of reactions to Gabe's secret. Some people are immediately accepting, like John, his musical mentor who's seen many, many things in a long career in radio and music. Paige, his best friend and sort-of crush, is also completely supportive, if sometimes a little clueless. On the other end of the spectrum are his parents and his brother, who are baffled and horrified. There's also Mara, a girl who's initially into Gabe until she realizes he's transgender, and then reacts with horror and vindictiveness, and of course, the almost-obligatory vicious transphobes, who harass Gabe through Facebook and eventually attack him and his friends.


There's not a lot of transgender books out there. I'm glad to add this one to the stack.

Saturday, August 02, 2014

Book Review: A Song for Bijou by Josh Farrar

Book: A Song for Bijou
Author: Josh Farrar
Published: 2013
Source: Local Library

When Alex spots the beautiful girl in the corner store, that's it for him. He's in looooooove. He has to find a way to get to know her. But Bijou Doucet isn't so sure about this strange American boy. Back home in Haiti, she was never allowed to spend time with any boy outside of her family, and she's not entirely sure she wants to defy that for a boy who can't seem to talk to her without tripping over his own feet.

Determined friends and creative thinking get the two into each other's company, and they shyly stumble toward something like romance. But they come from very different worlds, not just culturally but in their own experiences. Can a Brooklyn-born white boy and a Haitian girl ever find a way to be anything more than friends?

I'm going to declare it, there's not enough MG romance out there. There's especially not enough MG romance with a male point of view out there. And yet, for many middle schoolers, love is about all they can think of. Does anyone like them? Are they ever going to go on a date? What if he or she wants to hold hands? Or (gasp!) kiss?

The first-person POV switches back and forth between Alex and Bijou, a technique I appreciated because they do come from such different worlds. However, I wish there had been some stronger delineation of Bijou's chapters from Alex's. Different font, a chapter heading, something. Every time there was a switch (and it wasn't a consistent pattern), it might take me up to a page to figure out whose POV I was in.

This is a sweet, funny book with an incredibly sense of place. I want to visit Alex and Bijou's Brooklyn with all its color and variety and energy. It's not all sunny good fun, though. There are some ugly prejudices lurking under the surface. But Farrar keeps those light, brushing the edges of the story without making them the central conflict, and keeping his book light and sweet. Highly recommended for middle-school readers.

Friday, August 01, 2014

Reading Roundup: July 2014

By the Numbers
Teen: 10
Tween: 4
Children: 6

Sources
Review Copies: 7
Library: 9

Standouts
Teen: Sinner by Maggie Stiefvater
My two favorite secondary characters from the Shiver series get their own book! Isabel and Cole are each broken in their own way and it's fascinating to watch them trying to line up their jagged edges.
Tween: The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate
I don't always love the Newbery picks, even if I can see why they won. That said, I both appreciated AND loved this story of a lonely, artistic gorilla.
Children: Captain Underpants and the Tyrannical Retaliation of the Turbo Toilet 2000 by Dav Pilkey
I've been pointing children at these books for my entire librarian career, but I hadn't read one in a long time. This book reminded me why the kids still flock to them. Funny, swift-moving, and tongue firmly in cheek (at one point, a character notices a gaping plot hole and the other says to him, "Whaddya think this is, Shakespeare?"), there's a reason they're modern classics.

Because I Want To Awards
Longest Awaited: Mortal Heart by R.L. LaFevers
The last of the assassin nuns! That being said, this one was rather slower and I felt occasionally lost amidst the medieval politics. But it was still a satisfying ending to a complex and addictive series. Best part: how many NunFriend scenes we got, and how integral that friendship was to the plot. I think I have to read the series all in a row now to get all the undertones. Oh, darn. (Out in November; sorry, guys.)
Darn Near a Standout: The Impossible Knife of Memory by Laurie Halse Anderson
Nobody does alienated, struggling teen girl quite like LHA. Hayley actually seemed to have acquired some of her father's crippling PTSD, just in dealing with it.
Euwwwwwwwww!: In a Glass Grimmly by Adam Gidwitz
This author doesn't stint on the blood and guts. That would up the appeal already, but he backs it up with strong main characters and a satisfying arc for each.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Book Review: The Lost Girl by Sangu Mandanna

Book: The Lost Girl
Author: Sangu Mandanna
Published: 2012
Source: Local Library

Eva has always known that her life doesn't belong to her. She is an echo. Like the backup of a hard drive, her sole purpose is to absorb all the details of another girl's life, so that if that first girl dies, she's on hand to step in.

But Eva wants her own life, not Amarra's. She wants to create art, she wants adventures that haven't already happened to somebody else, she wants to love the boy she picks and not the one Amarra loves.

Then Amarra dies, and Eva must travel from England to India to take her place. The only people who know she isn't the original Amarra are her new family members, and since echoes are illegal in India, she has to be extra-careful to pass with Amarra's friends and boyfriend.

She's always known that she's not Amarra, but now those differences could mean the end of her.

I feel as if this book could have used another pass through the editing process. The beginning is slow and my interest didn't really kick in until  Eva got to Bangalore. The world building is also somewhat rickety. Everything seems contemporary, but the echo creation process has been (so we are told) in place for 200 years.  Echos are well-known enough to be legislated, but there's only three people in  the world who can create them, Also, Eva spends a lot of time being irritatingly passive, accepting her fate until someone drags her into action. This fits with her life experiences (she's always been told what to do and how to do it), but it doesn't fit with the way other people talk about her as someone bold and daring.  I wish we could have seen more echoes, or at least heard of them, to get a better picture of how echoes actually do fit into the world.

What I did like? Eva's tense, wobbly relationship with Amarra, like a younger sister always in her older sister's shadow, with the older sister resenting that she exists at all. The portrait of the parents' grief, both assuaged and heightened by Eva's presence. There was also the boyfriend's grief, which is a complicated beast, all tangled up with sadness and guilt and interest in Eva. The setting is also a view of India we don't often get, a well-to-do middle-upper-class world with light touches of non-Western detail.

If there's another book about echoes, I'm interested in the premise, but I would want a stronger execution.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Book Review: While We Run by Karen Healey

Book: While We Run
Author: Karen Healey
Published: 2014
Source: ARC from a friend

In 2127, Tegan Oglietti is a symbol of hope for the world. The first girl ever to wake from cryonic suspension, she tours internationally, along with her boyfriend, Djiboutian music sensation Abdi Taalib. They're fundraising for the Ark Project, a spaceship that will take cryonically frozen humanity to the stars.


Except that it's all a lie.

Captured by the government shortly after the events of When We Wake, Tegan and Abdi are held prisoner, subject to brutal physical and psychological torture if they don't do and say exactly what they're told. The Ark Project is a lie. It's stocked with the rich of the world, but it's also stocked with the poorest of refugees, and it's not hard to figure out what the power structure will be on the new planet. That's if anybody besides Tegan can ever be revived successfully in the first place.

When help comes from an unexpected and possibly untrustworthy source, Abdi, Tegan, and the rest of their friends have to go on the run while trying to figure out how to tell the world what they know, without bringing about the end of it.

Healey tells this story from Abdi's point of view, which was the right choice for this twisty, turny, suspenseful story. Abdi is a political thinker. He manipulates people almost automatically, and sometimes it's a struggle for him to be totally honest even with the people he cares most about. This is all tangled up with his own PTSD from captivity (his captor was an especially sociopathic one) and his perspective as a "thirdie" or third-world, outsider in the "firstie" world of Australia. This last forces the reader to think uncomfortably about our own world and how we view the others in it. He's especially conflicted about Tegan. He loves her, but sometimes he hates her too, from their experiences in captivity. It takes a long time for them to start working together again.

I have to mention the diversity in this book, too. Healey just does that right. It's plentifully stocked with characters from many races, backgrounds, and faiths (there's a running thread about Abdi's atheism contrasted with his family's Muslim religion), as well as two lesbian characters, one of whom is also transgender. And they're just that - characters. They don't exist to be diverse, they exist because that's the way our world looks and they are people with flaws and gifts as well as labels.

I feel as if I should have re-read When We Wake, because I know I didn't catch all the subtleties, but as it is, I was held captive by Abdi and Tegan's story. They're trying to do the right thing, but everyone seems to have a different perspective on what the right thing is. It's not black and white in any sense of the word, but dappled in shades of grey, and that's the most interesting pattern if you ask me.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Book Review: Temple Grandin by Sy Montgomery

Book: Temple Grandin: how the girl who loved cows embraced autism and changed the world
Author: Sy Montgomery
Published: 2012
Source: Local Library

Temple Grandin was different from every other kid she knew. She could zero in on the tiniest details, but missed the subtleties of body language. Things that didn't faze them caused her intense distress, but she could work all night and day on her out-of-the-box inventions. Her mom and friends knew that she would grow up to be something special - but what?

If you were to ask the average person on the street to give the first name that they associated with autism, odds are most of them would come up with "Temple Grandin." (Unfortunately, some of them might come up with "Jenny McCarthy" but that's a fight for another day.) Grandin is arguably the face of autism for many Americans, and it's because she's made a success out of what most would consider a disability.


As I read the chapters on her childhood, I was struck by how often young Temple came close to being institutionalized or marginalized, and how often a supportive adult or accepting friend was there to let Temple be who she was. Part of this was being autistic in the 50's and 60's when many people still thought it was something that could or should be fixed. Part of that is still around today, which makes me think about the valuable role of people who work with kids.

Though the author spends a lot of time on matter-of-fact explanations of the experience of having autism, that's not all the book is about. Alongside the biographical chapters, the author intersperses chapters on the engineering and animal science that made her famous. Some of the details of the animal slaughtering and the inhumane conditions that Grandin battles might be pretty strong for sensitive kids. Still, for its science, its biographical information, and its message that true success lies in embracing your own abilities, no matter how atypical, this is an invaluable book for any library.