Monday, November 02, 2015

Reading Roundup: October 2015

By the Numbers
Teen: 12
Tween: 1
Children: 2

Review Copies: 7
Library: 8

Teen: P.S. I Still Love You  by Jenny Han
What I loved most was the acknowledgement that love is messy, confusing, painful, risky, and you can have feelings for more than one person at a time. Just so good.
Tween: Chasing Secrets by Gennifer Choldenko
Well, honestly, it was my only tween read this month. There were good things about this book - the mystery of the plague, the main character's slow-building friendships with Noah and Gemma and her growing understanding of her aunt - but I don't know, I've liked others of hers better. Still, as a historical mystery, I think it did the job.
Children: Creature Features by Steve Jenkins and Robin Page
Oooo, Steve Jenkins and Robin Page! I love their art, I love the science involved, and these are some wacky-looking animals. This one was just neat.

Because I Want To Awards
Wish I Could Have Loved It: Vengeance Road by Erin Bowman
Blood and secrets, a road trip through the 19th century Arizona desert, not to mention a pretty decent love story? This should have been my standout of the month, hands down. But the preternaturally wise and mystical Apache girl guide? Just . . . no.
Oh Thank GOD There's a Second Book: Wolf by Wolf by Ryan Graudin
This breakneck story across an alternate 1956 Europe ended on a cliffhanger that had me clawing at my face. Luckily there will be a second book. Unluckily it's not out until next fall. Curses.
Took Me the Longest to Read: Lair of Dreams by Libba Bray
And not just because it's like 54789 pages. I kept getting distracted from this one, but every time I came back, I was able to jump back into the haunted 1920s New York City.

Friday, October 02, 2015

Reading Roundup: September 2015

By the Numbers
Teen: 12
Tween: 2
Children: 3

Review Copies: 9
Library: 8

Teen: Bone Gap by Laura Ruby
Nobody believes Finn when he says that his friend Roza was kidnapped by a man he can't describe, but he knows he's right. With shades of the Persephone myth and two (count 'em) strong love stories, this book sucked me right in.
Tween: Goodbye Stranger by Rebecca Stead
Nobody writes complex middle-school inner life quite like Stead. This is a beautiful examination of friendships, how people change, and how difficult it is to maintain relationships or to know when to let it go.
Children: Grandfather Gandhi by Arun Gandhi and Bethany Hegedus, illustrated by Evan Turk
Gandhi's grandson doesn't feel like he can live up to his grandfather's peaceful example, until he learns that even the Mahatma still feels anger. Beautiful, thoughtful, gorgeously illustrated - ooo I loved this.

Because I Want To Awards
I Need a Hug Now Please: A History of Glitter and Blood by Hannah Moskowitz
In the waning days of a devastating war, the last three fairies left in Ferrum struggle to put themselves and each other back together. This book is extremely dark, but its very darkness makes it tremendously hopeful - because if you can survive losing everything, you can survive anything.
Fascinating Meditation on Storytelling: Ash and Bramble by Sarah Prineas
Caught up in the sinister machine of fairy tales, a seamstress (or is she?) and a shoemaker (not a prince) try to find a way to break free. It got away from itself occasionally, but I loved how it contemplated the danger of a single story told repeatedly.

Tuesday, September 01, 2015

Reading Roundup: August 2015

By the Numbers
Teen: 9
Tween: 1
Children: 3

Review Copies: 5
Library: 8

Teen: Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Saenz
Although there's not so much a plot as a set of loosely connected events, this story broke a major reading drought for me, sucking me right in to Ari's world and his blossoming understanding of love, family, identity, and sexuality.
Tween: The Adventures of Beanboy by Lisa Harkrader
Okay, fine, so there's not much competition for this slot this month. But I did adore this story of a kid in a struggling family, learning to see the world differently. I also loved his sorta? kinda? friendship with Sam, who was all prickles and combat-boot ferocity.
Children: Separate is Never Equal: Sylvia Mendez and Her Family's Fight for Desegregation by Duncan Tonatiuh
Brown v. Board of Education gets most of the attention when you talk about school integration, but not many know there was another, earlier landmark case in California, when the Mendez family fought for their children to go to the better equipped and funded white school. Tonatiuh's narration and illustrations guide you through this story without sugar-coating the struggle, before or after the decision.

Because I Want To Awards
He Picked the Wrong Victim: Ruthless by Carolyn Lee Adams
When a serial killer kidnaps Ruth, he doesn't know he's met his match. The resident mean girl at her family's stables, Ruth comes by her nickname of "Ruthless" honestly, and it's her cold determination and dispassionate survival skills that will not only keep her alive, but enable her to come out on top.
Didn't Go the Way I Thought It Would: Silver in the Blood by Jessica Day George
Two cousins discover magical family abilities and obligations. To my delight, it was shy and obedient Lou who immediately rose to the occasion, and willful, wild Dacia who needed some time to come to grips with the situation - a reversal from what I expected.

Saturday, August 29, 2015

Book Review: 5 to 1 by Holly Bodger

Book: 5 to 1
Author: Holly Bodger
Published: 2015
Source: Review copy from publisher via NetGalley

After decades of gender selection, the ratio of boys to girls has become 5 to 1, and the tiny country of Koyangar has instituted elaborate tests for girls to pick their mates. The winners will get marriage, money, and a life of trying to breed more daughters. The losers will get menial jobs or worse, sent to the wall that separates Koyangar from the rest of the Indian subcontinent, an almost certain death sentence.

Sudasa is the granddaughter of a highly-placed woman in the government, and knows that she is expected to select a particular contestant. But she keeps getting distracted by Contestant 5, who helps out the other contestants and shows compassion for the injured that are ignored by every other boy. What she doesn't know is that Contestant 5 has come to the Tests without any intent of winning a wife. Instead, he plans to escape, because anything is better than Koyangar.

Initially, Contestant 5 disdains Sudasa as spoiled and corrupt, and Sudasa can't fathom why he would risk the wall rather than try for a life of comfort and plenty as her husband. But as they get to know each other in stolen moments, they come to understand that they both want the same thing: freedom.

I have to be honest: I've been completely over the whole novels in verse thing for awhile, so while Sudasa's free-versified thoughts and feelings were interesting, I was always relieved when I got back to the prose of Contestant 5's sections. That being said, seeing Sudasa slowly realize that there was a life for her outside of Koyangar, and her grandmother's control was a fascinating character arc. I just wished it had been more fleshed out. Free verse tends to be extremely spare, without a lot of detail. This is obviously a personal preference, so your mileage may vary.

With its themes of gender inequity (girls are still treated like property, their rarity adding to their value like precious gems, locked away in a safe most of the time) and political corruption (always, always political corruption) this book fits into the usual run of current dystopian fiction. The non-Western setting and culture makes it stand out, but at only 246 pages (and about half of those in free verse), it feels like we skimmed over the setting and honestly, everything outside of the Tests themselves.

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Book Review: The Fourteenth Goldfish by Jennifer L. Holm

Book: The Fourteenth Goldfish
Author: Jennifer L. Holm
Published: 2014
Source: review copy from publisher, picked up at ALA last year

When Ellie's grandfather comes to live with her and her mom, it's worse than most people's grandfathers suddenly moving in. An old man would be bad enough. But Ellies grandfather is a scientist who's learned how to dial back the aging process, so now he's in the body of a thirteen-year-old boy, with all the stinky socks and boundless appetite that go with it.

That stuff is no fun, and neither is listening to her mom and grandfather fight all the time. But he also recruits Ellie to help him get back his experiments from his old lab, and in the process shares his love of science and the scientific process with her. For the first time, Ellie feels like she has a passion of her own.

But she soon learns science is a double-edged sword. Are there things you shouldn't do, even if you can?

Some years ago, I got a piece of writing advice about "gimmes." You get one "gimme" per story. It's the one thing that the audience has to accept for the story to work. It can be as outlandish as you (like a lone scientist secretly and successfully reversing the aging process on himself). But you only get the one, and everything else that builds on that "gimme" has to be real and logical. This is an example of how well that works. Holm uses the idea of reversed aging to explore complicated family dynamics and moving on with life even after things have changed on you - like the death of a spouse, a divorce, or even a one-time best friend who's moved on to other things.

I especially loved that she didn't just go the "rah-rah-science!!" route. A major theme of the book is the negative consequences of scientific discovery, such as Marie Curie's death from radiation poisoning or the aftereffects of Oppenheimer's atom bomb.  At the same time, Holm balances that with the wonder of discovering the world and its possibilities - a more nuanced rah-rah-science theme than most.

Funny, sweet, and swift-moving, this will appeal to a lot of middle-schoolers.

Saturday, August 15, 2015

Book Review: Goblin Secrets by William Alexander

Book: Goblin Secrets
Author: William Alexander
Published: 2012
Source: Local Library

Rownie isn't like all the other children who live in Graba's house, because Rownie has a brother of his own. But Rowan disappeared a couple of months ago, leaving Rownie all on his own without any defenses against the old witch.

When Rownie runs away from Graba's house and falls in with a troupe of goblin actors, he discovers a place where he's welcome, and moreover a gift for acting. With a mask on, he can be anybody. But Graba doesn't let go of what's hers that easily. Not to mention, the floods threaten their city and the Mayor, who has outlawed acting and is prejudiced against goblins, threatens the theater troupe. What can one small boy without his brother do against any of these dangers?

When this won the National Book Award a few years ago, I hadn't really heard of it. This is a quieter book, not very action-packed in spite of the action that occurs, because Alexander has a very detached prose style that made me feel as if I were being told the story rather than living it. Still, I kept reading this for the world of goblins and witches. Alexander has a way of dropping grotesque and magical details about the world and the people that indicate intriguing secrets, which we never fully get but know are there. I also read this for Rownie himself, discovering the magic of acting and his own strength, which both help him when he finds his brother again.

Give this book to lovers of other quiet fantasy books.

Saturday, August 08, 2015

Book Review: Starglass by Phoebe North

Book: Starglass
Author: Phoebe North
Published: 2013
Source: Local Library

Terra's world is bounded to a single spaceship, the Asherah. It's been that way since she was born, and her mother, and her mother's mother back through generations since they left the dying Earth to travel to their new home of Zehava. Her life is laid out in a similarly confined way. At sixteen, she will take the job that the ruling Council has chosen for her, she will marry before the age of eighteen, and she will have her requisite two children in her early twenties.

But unlike her ancestors, Terra will land on Zehava. As she approaches adulthood, and as the Asherah approaches its final destination, she begins to realize that life is not nearly so simple as doing what you're told when you're told to do it. She gets involved with the Children of Abel, a rebel group seeking to overthrow the system, but she has her doubts about their motives and their methods.

The Council has one idea about life on Zehavah, and the Children of Abel have another. Somewhere in the middle is Terra's - but what exactly is it?

This is a doorstop of a book, but I didn't want to put it down. Terra's world and her narration were completely compelling. Sometimes it's hard to put up with Terra herself. She seems naive, self-centered, often clueless about the motives and emotions of others or the political system that rules her world. And there are also times when she willingly keeps her blinders on, going along with what's expected because it's easy, trying to be a good Asherite because it's too hard to swim upstream. These things also make her tremendously real and sympathetic, and made me willing to see how she was going to change and grow.

On starting this, I worried that we would have the inevitable love triangle. And we do . . . but at the same time we don't. There are two, and neither of them are quite standard. Koen, the boy Terra has agreed to marry, is in love with Van, another man, and both of them are Children of Abel. But same-sex marriages don't exist on the Asherah, so he's settling for Terra (who, to be fair, is settling for him). There's also Silvan, in line to be the next captain, who is arrogant and spoiled but also exciting and tempting. Terra doesn't love him either, but at least he evokes a reaction. But it makes things complicated that he once dated and dumped her best friend, who has never gotten over him. And then, of course, there's the one she's told nobody about - the mysterious boy in her dreams of the new planet. I appreciated the complexity of these relationships (well, except the last one, which seems more like wishful thinking than anything) and how Terra's feelings toward them were more about trying to be in love than actually being.

One of the other things that sets this book apart is the culture aboard the Asherah. Besides the standard, regimented dystopian system, the customs and language of the ship draw on cultural Judaism. Religion and faith, at least as far as God is concerned, seemed to have disappeared but ideas remain, like tikkun olan (the responsiblity of humanity to heal the world) or mitzvot (used in the sense of duties or good deeds in this book, but a minor Google search tells me is really more related to God's commandments).  Not being Jewish myself, I suspect I'm missing the subtleties and would love to talk this book over with somebody who knows both the culture and the faith.

A complicated, sophisticated sci-fi dystopia with a complex main character, suitable for those already into the genre.