Tuesday, January 31, 2017

MG Shorter Musings

Here are some shorter musings some recent MG reads.

Bounce by Megan Shull
This book is a fun spin on the old wish-for-a-different-life Christmas story. Frannie is having the worst Christmas ever when her parents decide to take off for the holiday and her brother and sister throw a major party in the house. Frannie wishes for a new family. When she wakes up, she's living someone else's life. And then it keeps happening. Christmas day over and over as someone else each time. The novel is fast paced and during her adventures Frannie faces her fears and becomes a little less afraid of the world. I think I would have liked this book more if I felt Frannie's character were better developed. I found myself far more invested in the girls whose lives she inhabited than I did her even at the end. As a mother, I found her parents to be the absolute worst as well.

The Harlem Charade by Natasha Tarpley
This is a good, entertaining mystery for MG readers. It has a lot of history about Harlem in it and a diverse cast of characters. As many mysteries do, this has a lot of info dumps. They are not handled with the strategic finesse I expect from really good mystery writers though and the writing feels clunky as a result. There is a lot of adults bearing their secrets to middle schoolers and yet not interfering with the dangerous investigation they have undertaken alone. It has a fast paced plot and I really appreciated how the friendship angle was handled. This is a great one to have on hand for mystery lovers.

The Memory Thief  by Bryce Moore
This is an adventurous sibling tale about twins whose parents are on the brink of divorce. They visit a fair where they run into a nefarious Memory Thief who steals all of Kelly's memories of her twin Bryce. She doesn't know who he is and she is mean and nasty about it. Bryce desperately wants his sister back and becomes a Memory Thief himself in order to restore her memories of him. The action is fast paced and I can definitely see kid readers liking this one. I thought it could use a little better pacing and closure at the end. (The end is very rushed.) It is an interesting look at people, motivations, assumptions, and secrets.

The Secret of Goldenrod by Jane O'Reilly

WARNING: This review is spoiler-ish.
The sentence level writing in this book is good and the characters are also memorable. My reasons for not clicking with the book are more about my expectations as a reader, which I would ordinarily say was my own fault. However, in this case the author intentionally messes with those expectations. Girl moves to a spooky house where strange things happen, no one has been able to live in, all the town's people are afraid of, and as a reader you sit back and wait for the ghosts and the stories of murder and anguish in the house. The author built that expectation up beautifully. Then the doll in a doll house in a hidden room behind a mirror comes to life. And talks. I mean, COME ON. Creepy stuff right around the corner. Right? Clearly the doll is going to be bad news. Again the author builds on that expectation and keeps the reader in a heightened sense of suspense. And....NOTHING HAPPENS. The girl plays with the doll. She learns lessons about friendship. And kind of sort of deals with her mom issues. (Her mom left her, because it's a MG book.) Everyone gets a happy ending. Over 300 pages and that's it. I ended the book with a huge sense of betrayal and more than a little annoyed at the author.

Friday, January 27, 2017

American Street

American Street by Ibi Zoboi is one of the most anticipated YA debuts of 2017. Everyone is talking about it. And with good reason.

Fabiola Toussant was born in America but has lived her entire life in Haiti. Her mother overextended her visa on a stay to America visiting her sister so Fabiola would be born a citizen. Now they are returning after 16 years. Except everything does not go as planned. Fabiola's mother is detained by INS and Fabiola is thrust on to a plane bound for Detroit alone. She is met by her cousins, twins her own age (Pri and Donna) and an older cousin (Chantal). With little time to process what has happened to her, Fabiola is instantly thrust into life in West Detroit: attending school with her cousins, meeting a cute boy, and coming in contact with the more dangerous side of Detroit's streets. When she is given an opportunity to get her mother in to the US that might mean betraying those closest to her, Fabiola must determine the cost of freedom and whether she's willing and able to pay it.

American Street is mostly told in Fabiola's first person narrative. There are occasional breaks between chapters where we get a small snapshot from each of the other characters' points of view. Each voice is unique and rounds out the story. Fabiola's voice is interesting. At the beginning of the novel it is possible to think her a little too trusting and naive. It's not long before she shows the steel core that exhaustion, confusion, and shattered hopes had softened a bit at the beginning. She is a child of Port-au-Prince. She understands danger, and she is actually quite good at manipulation. (I don't mean the latter in a negative way. She has survival skills.) Smart and adaptable, it doesn't take Fabiola long to find her confidence. She has run ins with misunderstandings, but she figures out how to slip into her new life remarkably well. As she adjusts, her relationships with those around her flourish and grow deeper. All of her cousins are different, but they form a unified team and Fabiola slowly but surely finds her place among them. She makes a wonderful friend. She meets a really awesome guy. (Kasim. Sigh.)

Despite mostly finding her feet rather quickly, Fabiola's story has a harsh side. A girl in Gross Pointe overdosed on bad drugs at a party. The police are determined to find the dealer responsible. They are certain that the person they are looking for is Donna's boyfriend Dray. All Fabiola has to do is help them catch him and her mother will be allowed into the country. Easy right? And no big deal if he's a bad guy. Except nothing in life is ever that simple. Community is complicated. The decisions we make have ripple effects that reach out and touch everyone around us. Fabiola's actions lead to consequences that are realistically harsh. Through this Zoboi examines how many systematic problems there are in immigration, urban policing, and people's ideas of life in the inner city. It is interesting to me that you can say the title, American Street, in two distinct ways-with the emphasis on Street or the emphasis on American (like you would naturally say it as a part of an address). And both are correct for the story this book tells. (Well done there.)

I don't really want to say much more about the story because I really think it is one that should be experienced, and I don't want to give away too much of what happens. It is one of those books that does brilliantly what it is trying to do. My only complaint is that I wanted to go a little deeper into Fabiola's head. There were times she went from A to B and I wanted a little more insight into her own personal thought process that got her there.

American Street is a powerful read with truth, heart, and a magnificent cast of fully realized characters. I highly recommend it. (My readers sensitive about strong language should know that this book has a lot of it. It needs to be there, but heads up.)

I read an ARC I received via the publisher, Balzer & Bray, at ALA Midwinter. American Street is available February 14th.

Friday, January 20, 2017

ALA Youth Media Awards

Today is the day I'm on a plane to Atalanta to attend the American Library Association's Midwinter Meeting. The height of Midwinter every year is the Monday morning announcements of the Youth Media Awards. Monday morning we will learn the winners of the 2017 Newbery, Caldecott, Printz, and the many other awards given by ALSC and YALSA.

I feel like I am way out of sync with the majority of kidlit aficionados this year so I fear I  may not see many of my favorites get nods.

What I would most like to see come away with a shiny Newbery sticker:

What I would most like to see come away with a shiny Printz sticker:

I don't have many strong opinions on the other awards. This was a super off year for me in a lot of respects. I'm rather hoping this weekend renews my excitement and energy. 

Does anyone else have any favorites for Monday morning? 

Thursday, January 12, 2017

The Friendship Experiment

I always feel bad for books that come out in November/December. They often get lost in the shuffle as Best of Year lists are made at this time and many are too busy to read new books. If you're not paying attention, it is easy to miss these books entirely.  The Friendship Experiment by Erin Teagan is one such book. It is delightful and one of those books that naturally attracts middle grade readers yet I haven't seen many people mention it.

Madeline is dealing with a lot right now for one sixth grader. Her beloved grandfather just died. She is about to start middle school without her best friend by her side. She has a rare blood disorder that causes unpredictable nosebleeds that are difficult to stop. There is a new girl who experienced Maddie's dream of going to Space Camp and won't stop talking about it. Then there is her popular cheerleader older sister and her parents who don't seem to understand how her world is crashing down around her. In order to cope, Madeline begins writing SOPs in her science journal. Operating Procedures on how to avoid people who annoy you and how to survive losing your best friend are nice things to have in your head, but soon discovers the dangers of writing all the things you keep inside your head down on paper as her life spins even more out of her control.

The Friendship Experiment is told in Madeline's first person point of view and being in her head is wonderful. She is a fully realized very human character. She is a little neurotic, compulsive, and anxious. She is incredibly smart and wants to be a scientist more than anythings. She swabs things and grows super gross bacteria in her bedroom. Her greatest flaw (and it is great) is her carelessness with other people's feelings. Part of what makes Madeline's voice so authentic is how wrapped up in her self she is and how she sees everyone as an extension of herself. They matter in how they relate to her and not as individuals, which is text book middle schooler. The power in the book is how Maddie grows, changes, and learns over the course of the story.

All of Madeline's relationships are important and this is a book where the plot is entirely driven by character relationships and interactions. Yes, a lot of things happen and it is a fast paced read because of this, but those things revolve around people. It is a short book at 241 pages and yet Teagen did an amazing job at developing so many relationships and showing their impact on Maddie's existence and her impact on their lives. Grandparents, parents, siblings, friends, acquaintance-all of these relationships are explored and it is done with heart, humor, and insight. I particularly appreciate how chock-full of nerdy science girls this book is, and how it showcases everyone is a little weird about something. I also liked how none of those nerdy science girls were reduced to stereotypes. They all are different and have multiple things going on.

The Friendship Experiment is a fairly typical MG school/friend story, but it is one that excels at what it is trying to do and I think will have wide appeal to kids who love those sorts of stories.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

TTT: 2016 Releases I Didn't Get To

This week's TTT topic: 2016 Releases I Didn't Get To

There are so many books I look forward to every year, and unfortunately this year some of the ones I was looking most forward to, I wasn't able to get to. Here are some 2016 releases I'm making a priority in 2017.

What 2016 books were you looking forward to that you still need to read?

Friday, January 6, 2017

Shorter Musings (YA)

Here are some shorter musings on some recent YA reads.

 Bright Smoke, Cold Fire by Rosamund Hodge
There are some aspects of this one that I really loved-the politics, the world-building, Paris. I also rather liked the fraught relationships between the four main characters and how those developed. Other than Paris, I wasn't really enamored of the other three main characters though, and found myself wanting to smack them more than hope for good things for their lives. As this is a reworking of Romeo and Juliet with necromancy, there is a lot of angst and misunderstanding. I was prepared for that. I was not prepared for this 400 plus page book to only be the first half of the story. There's going to be a sequel. And I don't think Romeo and Juliet needs to be extended to 800 pages of angst and misunderstanding. And even Paris let me down in the ability to make good decisions department in the end so I'm more than a little annoyed with all of them. Also the end INFURIATED me. If you want to read this, I recommend waiting for book two to come out so you can read them together. I don't know that I'll be here for that second book though.

By Your Side by Kasie West
I had high hopes for this. Boy and girl stuck in a library together for a weekend? All the swoon potential. Unfortunately it never moved past potential into actually swoony for me. The library portion is concluded about 1/3 of the way in. That was a lot of space to do some really great character and couple development, but a lot of it was flat. West made the hero Dax a little to silent and broody for the relationship to start clicking soon enough. After that, there were SO MANY issues. Autumn has an anxiety disorder. Dax is in CPS and has a meth addict mom. Then there is the boy Autumn thought she liked who ended up in a medically induced coma. Plus their friends. As a result the end was rushed and the romance, while sweet, never really had me invested. Still enjoyable, but not what I've come to expect from West.
I read an ARC provided by the publisher via Edelweiss.

Learning to Swear in America by Katie Kennedy
I didn't like this quite as much as most people I know did though I did find it an enjoyable read. Yuri is a Russian boy genius who comes to America to help deal with a meteor that is going to take out the western US (and possibly Japan). It's a fish out of water story where Yuri meets a girl who helps him see the world differently. That could have been awful but it actually worked fairly well. For me personally there was just a little too much quirky in the characters and how they came together for my enjoyment to turn into full out love. The book is full of humor and heart though and is definitely a good recommendation for teen readers. I will definitely be picking up Kennedy's next book because there was a lot of potential in the writing in this one. I think I could love another book by her the way many of my friends loved this one.

Spindle by E.K. Johnston
Spindle is trademark E.K. Johnston. That is to say it is beautiful, evocative writing with characters you will love and a plot that will tear your heart to shreds. I think I may have chosen the wrong day to read this as I was incredibly sad already. I think my love for it may have known no bounds if I had been in a different mood. As it was, I ended up wanting a little something different. However, this is exactly how the story Johnston was telling needed to unfold and as always she does a brilliant job of convincing the reader that this is how it needs to be.

The Way to Game the Walk of Shame by Jenn P. Nguyen
As a romance this didn't really work for me on any level. The boy does a lot of changing. Goes from being the school's biggest player to totally focused on the heroine. He suddenly decides to go to college and stop having issues for her. She, on the other hand, has zero character development and ends the book the same girl she was in the beginning. I didn't really like either of them though. There were some moments of fun banter but they were overshadowed by pages of zero chemistry. It made it all very hard to swallow. I was also expecting there to be a little more commentary on the societal aspect of Taylor's reputation dragged through the mud while Evan was considered a "god" and "hero" for the same thing.

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Midnight Without a Moon

It's always exciting when the very first book you read in the New Year is an instant favorite magnificent work you will be pushing at everyone you see for the foreseeable future. Midnight Without a Moon, the debut novel by Linda Williams Jackson, is such a book for me. Prepare to hear about this book for months to come.

It is summer of 1955 in Mississippi and Rosa Lee Carter lives with her grandparents, brother, and cousin on a wealthy white man's cotton plantation. Her best friend is the preacher's son. Her life's goal is to finish school and find a way out of Mississippi. As the summer heat rises, Rose spends her time working in the cotton fields and quietly trying to learn all she can about the NAACP. But her grandmother insists they are group who are just going to cause trouble for good people. When a neighbor is shot after registering to vote and tensions continue to rise across the state and Rose's small community, she must decide what she believes, how much she is willing to risk to stand up for that, and whether it is better to stand and fight or find a way out.

Rose's voice and character are absolute perfection. It works well for the time period while also being accessible and relatable for today's readers. Her life revolves around her closest relationships and is not entirely her own. She is a smart girl who desperately wants to finish school and become more, but her grandparents decide whether or not she goes to school. She works hard in the cotton fields and helping her grandmother while her older cousin gets to lounge around a good amount of the time. Relationship and family dynamics are the core of this book. Rose's mother had her and her brother young and out of wedlock. She married someone later and left her children with her parents. This is also the case for Rose's cousin. It makes for fraught family dynamics and the relationships are complicated by what her grandparents believe and the new ideas of beating down Jim Crow that are filtering in from so many of their relatives moving north and returning for visits. I can not even begin to explain in a short review how intricately Jackson pulls all of these together, layers them, and shows their complex importance simply by breathing life into the characters and making them real. I loved and felt so much for Rose, found her relationship with Hallelujah (her best friend) endearing, and adored her grandfather. Her grandmother filled me with rage, while at the same time that I found myself reluctantly understanding and empathizing with her. The complexities of all these people and their relationships make the story rich. It's a true picture of family and community that is not always comfortable, but shows the ties that bind us even when we don't necessarily like a person.

This story of Rose's self realization and her family's facing new challenges and questions is set against the summer of Mississippi in 1955 and the murder of Emmet Till and the trial of his murderers. This is kept in the distance though, and his is not the first murder discussed in the book. The book opens with the shooting of a man Rose knows because he registers to vote. The historical context of the book is important and the way the story is told even more so. This is a story about a black family living in a black community. It in no way shies away from or sugar coats what life was like in this time or place. In many aspects Rose's family life looks the same way it would have a hundred years before under slavery. Jackson does not attempt to make the reader comfortable with it in any way. The language she uses and the way people talk may make many squirm, but it makes the book that much richer and authentic. I think it is important to note that this book coming out this year, as the Voting Rights Act is being gutted, is a much needed reminder of exactly what things were like, why we need to keep fighting, and for a significant portion of the population the 1950s were Hell on earth and not a time we want to revisit.

The sentence level writing in the book is excellent as well. Jackson has a true way with words. She can write beautiful poetic imagery and also say much with one simple sentence. Few authors are able to find a balance between the two and wield them well together. Jackson can. The book is also infused with a sly, tongue-in-cheek humor that I love. This comes from Rose herself, who is quite a smart mouth in her own head even if she doesn't let it out much, and from others as well. There are some truly great pithy one liners.

This is pretty much a perfect book in every way: character, theme, setting, plot. It's being marketed as MG and I think it is a must have for every middle school library and classroom. I believe it will also have crossover YA appeal and that both the 2018 Newbery and Printz committees better be discussing it.

I read an ARC provided by the publisher, HMH Books for Young Readers, via Edelweiss. Midnight Without a Moon is on sale now, and you should buy it immediately.

ETA: Giveaway
The author is generously offering an ARC of the sequel to Midnight Without A Moon. (YES! There will be a sequel. Midnight Without a Moon stands on its own just fine, but I'm so excited we will have another book with Rose's voice and her community.) To enter comment below. Be sure to add an email address or Twitter handle where you can be reached. Deadline is Wednesday, January 11 at 8:00 PM EST.  Good luck!

Monday, January 2, 2017

Most Anticipated Books of 2017

Happy New Year Everyone!

With a new year comes a whole bunch of new books to eagerly anticipate the release dates for. Here are some of the ones I'm looking forward to the most.

The Ultimate (no other book comes close; it's been SIX YEARS):

Date: May 16th
MG Releases I'm Anticipating

Midnight Without a Moon by Linda Williams Jackson (Okay technically I've already read this. AND IT IS AMAZING. I'm anticipating buying it and telling everyone to read it. Review on Wed.)
Date: January 3rd
Date: February 28

Hello, Universe by Erin Entrada Kelly 
Date: March 14th
Date: March 21st

The Shadow Cipher by Laura Ruby 
Date: May 16)
Date: May 30

 The Emperor of Mars by Patrick Samphire
Date: July 18

Young Adult Releases I'm Anticipating 

By Your Side by Kasie West
Date: January 31
American Street by Obi Zoboi
Date: February 14th

Piecing me Together by RenĂ©e Watson
Date: February 14
The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas
Date: February 28

Geekerella by Ashley Boston
Date: April 5
The Pearl Thief by Elizabeth Wein
Date: May 2

When Dimple Met Rishi by Sendhya Melon
Date: May 30
Date: June 13

Bad Romance by Heather Demetrios
Date: June 13

I'm going to have to do special budgeting for May.

What titles are you most anticipating in 2017?