Monday, February 29, 2016

Burn Baby Burn

Meg Medina's name on a book is a guarantee that I will be reading that book sooner rather than later. I've been highly anticipating the release of Burn Baby Burn from the moment I heard about it and was so excited to get to read an advanced copy. I have been pondering how to articulate why this book is so special and particularly brilliant and not just gush. Hopefully I will attain more of the latter here.

The spring and summer of New York City 1977 was a hard time to be a girl graduating from high school eager to experience life. The city was on the edge of disaster: racial tensions were high, there were a series of arsons, a blackout that resulted in looting, and a serial killer calling himself Son of Sam who shot young women and their dates. Nora Lopez is a senior in high school and her life at home is no safer than she feels on the streets of New York. Her brother is becoming increasingly violent and angry. Her mother just makes excuses for him. Nora takes joy where she can. She loves dancing, hanging out with her best friend, and there is a cute boy at work who is into her as much as she is in. But how can she enjoy her present and plan for the future when danger is around every corner: both from unknown shadows and her very own family.

They went to the movies and found out that the city isn't huge at all. In fact, it can shrink down to the size of a gun barrel, just like that.

Burn Baby Burn was not the easiest book to read. Medina's subtle genius in this book is how suffocated she makes the reader feel. Nora's life is oppressed. She lives every day in fear. The prose perfectly captures the tone and feel of NY during the time period. Nora lives near where many of the shooting took place. She is a young woman who enjoys hanging out with a boy. Like most of the victims, she has long dark hair. The atmosphere of a city under siege is palpable on every single page. This is reflected by Nora's home life which is also closing in on her. Through a masterful use of imagery, simple language, and direct storytelling, Medina put me in Nora's place and I felt every moment of her terror, uncertainty, and the feeling that her life was caving in on her. This is not a creepy book in the sense that it is a thriller. It is creepy simply by being so REAL. It is also a book with hope that demonstrates the power of community and the importance of owning your life.

Every rule I know is gone, and we're in chaos. There are no rules for how a family should work. No rules for how far loyalty should reach...No limits on how people ruin one another's lives or how we blame one another for our pain.

Nora's personal journey is intrinsically linked to the events going on in the wider community. This is true of any individual journey, yet not all authors are able to pull this off as flawlessly as Medina does here. Nora's home life is a microcosm of the chaos playing out in the city, but it is also a part of that chaos. Nora behaves through much of this book as typical abuse victims do. She makes a lot of excuses, yearns for escape, lies to cover up what is going on, feels an immense shame, and pushes away those closest to her in order to hide. For someone so young Nora has a lot on her shoulders. Her mother expects her to fix so many of their problems and is often verbally abusive. Nora's brother, Hector, is violent and she knows he's on the brink of ruining his own life and possibly bringing hers down with it. Yet she keeps covering up for him and hiding him from consequences. Some of that is motivated by selfishness. She doesn't want to be the sister of a criminal, addict, and bully. She doesn't want the world to see how messed up her life is. As the events in the city reach a climax, so do the events in Nora's own life and how she takes control of her life and what she wants from it makes for a wonderful heart rending journey. I like how Medina didn't try to fix everything and tie it all up neatly. There are deep wounds in Nora and her relationships that will take time to heal and some that never will, but Nora had found courage and strength and realized that you can build a family outside of the one you were born into. She learned it's okay to ask for help.

Is it crazy to be disappointed by a monster? He's nothing like what we imagined...I wonder if everything we fear is the same way as unmasking Son of Sam. Maybe the things that scare us seem more powerful than they truly are when we keep them secret.

Relationships and the power of community play important roles in this book as well. It's easy to look at New York of 1977 and think that it was populated by a different sort of people than populate the city now. It's so different after all. But that's not true. Nora has an amazing amount of support. One of the difficult parts of reading her story is knowing this and wishing she would realize it sooner. Her best friend Kathleen loves Nora and Kathleen's parents are wonderful welcoming people. Nora's boss, Sal, adores her and attempts to help her any way he can. His colorful encouragement, gentle rebukes, and care for her safety give Nora a sense of home every day. Then there is Pablo, the new boy at work who Nora falls for. His calm reassuring presence and his unwillingness to give up on her make him one of my favorite YA love interests of all time. I also like how he backed off when she told him to, but never stopped caring from a distance. And I really appreciate that he isn't the one who saves her. He gives her support. He shows her that he is steady. He doesn't flinch from the ugliness of her life. There are enough people in Nora's life who do this on some level that when she finds the courage to save herself, she has a group of people ready to have her back. It's a beautiful demonstration of the importance of community and dangers of isolation.

I would recommend this to anyone. It's one of those books that I'm going to be pushing at everyone who reads and you will probably be tired of hearing about it by the time the year is over.

I read an ARC provided by the publisher, Candlewick Press, via NetGalley. Burn Baby Burn is on sale March 8.

Sunday, February 28, 2016

YA/MG Book Battle Begins Tuesday!

I wanted to get this post up DAYS ago, but there are some stressful and consuming events going on in Painterland right now which resulted in me traveling a lot this week and having minimal time for writing. However, I wanted everyone to know that this was happening again this year. I've been a judge in this battle since it started and will be again this year. I love how there is a mix of newer and older less appreciated than they should be books. I'm excited about the choices we have this year.

The Battle Schedule can be found here.

The Bracket can be found here.

Monday, February 22, 2016

When I Was The Greatest

Jason Reynolds is one of my favorite authors I discovered in 2015 after reading both his releases from last year. I didn't have time to get to his debut novel, When I Was the Greatest, last year but made it a top priority of this year. It confirmed and enlarged my love for his work.

Ali lives in Bed Stuy with his mom and little sister. His mom works two jobs, one as a social worker and one at a department store, to keep up with the ever rising rent on their apartment thanks to all the white people moving in near by. Ali knows his mom has high expectations of him. He is supposed to do well in school. He is supposed to earn money doing honest work for his boxing instructor, Mr. Malloy. He is supposed to look out for his sister. He is supposed to stay out of the trouble that can occur in their neighborhood. When Ali meets a new boy who moves in next door, he finally has a friend in the neighborhood. Ali's sister Jazz gives their new neighbor the nickname Noodles. Noodles as a brother who has Tourette's Syndrome. He is known as Needles because he constantly knits in an attempt to control his fits. Ali, Noodles, and Needles are team. They do everything together. Needles is often included begrudgingly by his brother, but the boys are a solid group. When the boys have an opportunity to go to a secret adult party in the neighborhood but only if Needles comes too, they jump at the chance. But at the party all three boys will be in over their heads in different ways, and have to confront harsh realities about themselves and their relationship.

Jason Reynolds is a master of voice and character. It is little wonder I love him then as that is my jam. His talent with both truly shine in this novel. From the first sentence Ali's voice completely captures the reader. I was spellbound from the start as if Ali were right next to me sharing his story. The structure has that sort of oral story flow to it too. Through Ali, the neighborhood and all the people in it come to life. There isn't a single person in this book who I didn't love, but by page 15 my heart was completely captured by the three main characters. Ali is smart, hardworking, compassionate, and loyal. He is desperate to stay out of trouble and terrified of disappointing his mother. He loves boxing but is afraid to face off in a fight. He is very much 15 with all the youthful exuberance and lack of common sense and maturity that accompanies that, but he is a good person. Noodles is desperate for approval but not always the right kind. He hates that he doesn't have enough money so he tries to hustle out of life what he can, and acts like a tough guy even though he is terrified on the inside. Needles is genuinely good. Devoted to his brother, excellent at freestyle rap, and a terrific dancer, her bears the brunt of his brother's anger on most days. Through much of the book he is the most unknown factor in the trio. This is not because he is a prop, but because this is Ali's story so much of what the reader knows of Needles comes from Ali and his biased view of what is happening and how he views those around him. What is revealed about all three boys in the last third of the novel is a result of circumstance but was always a part of who they were. Ali just had trouble seeing everything.

The party is the climax of the book, but it only takes up a small portion of the pages. The majority of the book is spent leading up to it. This is not a book that revolves around the plot. It is all about relationships. It demonstrates the devotion and sacrifice good parents are willing to make for their kids. (And how "good parent" is not a text book term. Good parents come in various shades of gray.) It shows the impact selfish parents who choose themselves and their own pain over helping their kids have. There is a spectacular contrast shown here. It's a story of friendship and the limits that can have. And it's a great sibling story at its core. It shows how truly devoted siblings can be toward each other while also being resentful and squabbling. Ali and Jazz have an amazing relationship and I loved all their interactions. Noodles and Needles have a more fraught and difficult relationship but they are still brothers to their core and it is just beautiful from beginning to end.

Reynolds writing always pulls me in and in this book there were some parts where I was seriously tense. I stopped reading it for a couple of days because I knew nothing good was going to come of that party. I wanted to throw my arms around all three boys and yell, "Stay safe!!!!" Then the resolution of the events that arise from the incident at the party made for some tense moments too, but I loved how it all ended up. I appreciate Reynolds approach to writing real people in real situations that are hard but always filling them with hope too.

If you haven't given Jason Reynolds a try yet, you need to. He has a MG book coming out in May. After loving three YA novels from him, I'm looking forward to seeing what he does in a MG.

Friday, February 12, 2016

Shorter Musings

Shorter Musings are quick reviews of books I've read but don't have a lot to say about.

To Catch a Cheat by Varian Johnson
These books are just so much fun. Completely unrealistic in many ways (no middle school like this one exists in the country), but still so much fun. They are exactly the sort of adventures MG kids like-ones where kids their age are smart, capable, and working against the forces that control their lives. It is empowering. There is a really great friendship story in this one as Jackson and Charlie are having some difficulties. I like the way that played out and was resolved (that IS realistic). I really loved the developing relationship between Jackson and Gaby too. Jackson's nervousness over kissing Gaby is incredibly adorable and hilariously entertaining as well. Fans of the first book will definitely want to read this follow-up. 

The Girl From Everywhere  by Heidi Heilig
I like that this book exists for the teens I know who will eat it up like candy. Time traveling pirates is a concept that sells itself and I already have several people in mind who I know will really enjoy this one. It did not work for me as a personal read however. It is incredibly predictable and the character development is shallow. The world building is not the best either. I really wanted to love this one so was pretty disappointed and underwhelmed by the whole experience. 

I read an ARC provided by the publisher via Edelweiss. 

The Poe Estate by Polly Shulman 
This is a fun ghost story. The main characters are likeable and the adventure and mystery aspects of the plot make it a fast paced read. I enjoyed how the ghost aspect was handled especially. I didn't like it quite as much as I have the other books in the series, but it was fun seeing the characters I loved from the previous two books and being back at the Repository. I fell like what separates this from the other two is that the writing wasn't quite as strong. The dialogue felt very forced. I do like the interesting twist the collecting took in this one and how it went beyond mere objects. 

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

TTT: Favorite Love Stories

This Week's TTT Topic: This week is a Valentine's Theme of choice. I'm doing my Favorite Love Stories (Book OTPs) because it's been a looooong time since I've discussed this and it needed updating.

I love romance.  I freely admit it, there is no shame. I like fluffy ones and serious ones, but my ultimate favorites are the complicated combinations of both.

Gen and Irene from The Queen's Thief Series by Megan Whalen Turner
These two are the very definition of complicated.  They are also the very definition of wonderful.  Their relationship isn't easy and it is obvious they work hard for it.  These two are expert at flirting under the radar. It is fun to watch as everyone else is oblivious to the conversations they are actually having in reality. (This true of even their very first encounter in the first book. Even though its not flirtatious, they begin honing their double level conversation skills from the start.)  What I love most is how absolutely perfectly matched they are in intellect and skill.  I love how they do not fit into any  romantic trope ever written.  Their love story is unique and it beautifully rendered.

Peter and Harriet from the Peter Wimsey Series by Dorothy Sayers
Again, complicated.  Complicated characters make for complicated entanglements.  Peter and Harriet are well matched too.  They are both intellectual, curious, interested in mysteries and insecure in different ways.  If they had  met any other way it might have been easy, or as easy as something involving  Peter could be, but they met in a prison where she was awaiting her second murder trial.  He had to rescue her by finding the real murderer making things awkward and well, complicated.  I adore the way their story unfolds, from that prison meeting (hilariously awkward proposal and all) in Strong Poison to the uncomfortable realities in Have His Carcase to the further uncomfortable realities and swoon worthy revelations in Gaudy Night to the complicated happily ever after in Busman's Honeymoon.

Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy from Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
I almost feel like this one doesn't need explaining. I mean this is rather universal for Austen fans right? But this is one of the love stories I cut my romantic teeth on. Their banter is so perfect. Darcy is such a socially awkward nerd (my favorite kind of hero-one who comes across an arrogant jerk but only because he has no clue how to interact with other humans). Elizabeth is such an opinionated stubborn girl. The combination is one I can never resist and this is the first novel I read that let me just REVEL in it. The place these two hold in my heart is huge.

Kate and Christopher from The Perilous Gard by Elizabeth Marie Pope
And speaking of awkward nerds, Christopher is one who takes the art to dramatic eye-rolling levels of self-sacrificial nonsense. Fortunately for him, Kate has more than enough common sense and hard core stubbornness for them both. She knows how to keep her head clear and focused in dangerous situations, which is good since she ends up having to rescue them both from the situation Christopher's well meaning loyalty and devotion to those he loves lands them in. The banter, which borders on the hostile at times, between these two is magnificent. Most of all I love the way their relationship develops through long conversations in the darkest place of both their lives. They can't touch so physical comfort isn't possible, but they keep each other going through conversation and the presence of their voices. The development of their relationship culminates in one of the best (possibly THE BEST) proposal of all time. Christopher totally nails that at least. *Swoons thinking about it.*

Christopher and Millie from The Chrestomanci Chronicles by Diana Wynne Jones
I know Howl and Sophie are most people's go to when it comes to romance from Diana Wynne Jones, but for me nothing beats Christopher and Millie. Even as a child Christopher is that perfect mix of snark, disdain, and awkward nerd I love in heroes. From their first meeting when he thinks he's all that and a box of chocolate and her magical goddess self is tolerating none of his shenanigans, they are perfection. I originally read these books in the order they are in the omnibus volumes so Charmed Life came first for me. It was an interesting way to read their relationship since they are married adults with children in that book and then you get to go back and see how they got there. But whatever part of their relationship I'm reading, they are perfect: the sniping children drawn together who are also trying to manipulate and control each other (The Lives of Christopher Chant), the awkward teens attempting to navigate their feelings for each other, the powers they have, and the lives they are expected to live (Conrad's Fate), or the married couple with the care of children and an entire enchanted castle and several magical realms (every other book in the series). I really love how their relationship is such an amazing partnership too. Christopher is the  Chrestomanci, but Millie is the stabilizing force of his life and the castle. And let's not forget the ultimate romance in Christopher's last and final life being kept safe in the wedding band Millie wears on her hand. HE LITERALLY PUT HIS LIFE IN HER HANDS.

I'm only doing five because, while I love romantic stories, I'm actually kind of picky about the ones I call my favorites. I'm picky about what I call an OTP. There are certain criteria that needs to be met. But here are a couple of bonuses.


My Movie OTP:

What are some of your favorite couples? Did any make my list?

Thursday, February 4, 2016


I was really hoping that 2016 would be different than 2015 when it came to me and super hyped beloved by the kidlit powers that be MG books. If Pax by Sara Pennypacker is any indication, I'm still going to be one of the minority dissenters. So be it. Honestly, I could write an entire post about the sort of books that get the most attention and promotion from said powers and what that says about the priorities of the kidlit elite, but for today I will stick to my thoughts on this particular book.

Pax is a fox who was rescued as a helpless kit whose family was killed by a boy named Peter. His entire life has been knowing Peter and Peter's care for him. Then one day they drive to a distant place, Peter starts a game of fetch, and then drives off with his father. Leaving Pax alone to fend for himself for the first time ever. Pax is in denial and stays close to the road hoping for Peter's return. But soon the events in the forest and the lives of the other foxes draw him in and he begins to form new ties and learn to be a fox in the wild. Meanwhile, Peter realizes he did a terrible thing following his father's instructions to abandon Pax. He sets off to find him despite the distance separating them and the looming war that has him now living with his grandfather while his father volunteers to serve in the military. Injured in his journey, Peter is taken in by Vola, a lonely hermit woman who is an injured veteran of a war herself. They help each other get back on their feet before Peter sets back out to reunite with his fox.

Let me say this first: The sentence level writing of this book is remarkable. The language, imagery, and sentence structure is beautiful. If we wanted to laude books solely on how poetic they are, I would be throwing the world's biggest party for this one. But that's not why I read books. It's always a  nice plus, but it's not enough to make me love a book on its own.

Regular readers of this blog know that I don't go in for animal stories much. My dislike of them is, however, proportionate to how much the animals are acting like humans. This is not the case here. The foxes are very much foxes. I loved the foxes. In fact, if this book had been all about the foxes my feelings would be very different. Pax learning to hunt and succeeding. My heart. His relationship with all the other foxes and how he begins to take care of them. My heart. The fox community and the way the human incursion is impacting them is so well done. The foxes are real characters you can feel for. The themes of broken humanity and its affect on everything shown through their eyes are subtilely rendered.

The humans ruin everything.

This is funny because that is literally the theme of the book, but for me the human characters ruined the book. Peter is as flat a character as you can find. He is a prop. Vola swoops in to teach him things, but ends up needing him just as much. She imparts wisdom. He teaches her to live again. Sound heartwarming? It possibly could have been if their chapters weren't filled with rambling dialogue intended to whack the reader upside the head with the moral of the story. Enough already. I got it. Humans suck. War sucks. The military is Evil.  I. Got. It. Already. All subtlety and nuance were tossed out the window in these chapters. The book's pacing also takes a hit as these chapters are longer (or perhaps just feet longer?), and I kept wanting them to stop talking and get back to the foxes. It was a very strange position for me to be in. Character matters to me more than any other part of a book though. This book failed on every level with human characters. I have some issues with the relationship dynamics here too. One thing I have to amusedly appreciate about this section is how much Pennypacker was able to put the word "damned" into a book for children merely by using the Haitian-Creole form of the word.

The end of the book is annoying as well. There is a certain amount of closure to both personal journeys of fox and boy, but one can not ignore the fact they are both still in the middle of an area about to erupt into a full out military battle. (Peter will probably be fine. My expectations for the foxes are less hopeful. Sadly I'm more invested in their welfare.) The book's setting is completely undefined, however it has a very dystopian feel to it. There are enough hints to know it is in a future North America. A war is about to be fought with the "west" over a lack of water. (It's definitely North America because coyotes play an integral part in the plot.) I'm not giving this a genre tag as a result. It's not contemporary or historical. I can't label it sci-fi despite the future aspect because it's not really sci-fi. And yes, this was frustrating and distracting to me for a good 1/3 of the book. Being confused about where/when I am in a story distracts from my being able to lose myself in the story. That combined with how bored and annoyed I was by Peter's chapters left me more than a little underwhelmed overall.

My experience reading Pax was eerily similar to my experience watching the Pixar movie Wall-E. It is the same story and themes, but with foxes instead of robots. (Pax is Wall-E. Bristle is Eve. Exactly.) Do you know how many kids I know who actually enjoy Wall-E? It's a small list. So who is this book for? To me it feels very much like one of those books adults want to give to kids so they will Learn an Important Lesson about life. Could it win the 2017 Newbery? Absolutely. I think that is the very reason it was published. There are some books I read, and automatically think, "This is medal bait." That is a far cry from me reading a book and thinking, "This deserves a medal." For me this goes squarely in the former category.

I read an ARC provided by the publisher, Balzer & Bray, via Edelweiss. Pax is on sale now.

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

TTT: Favorite Historical Fiction

This Week's TTT Topic: Historical or Future Settings or Books

I don't think I've ever made a list of my favorite historical fiction so that's what I decided to go with. For the purposes of this, I'm counting a book as historical fiction if that was what it was considered when published. (as opposed to books that take place in the past)

What are some of your favorite historical fiction novels?

Monday, February 1, 2016

Rebel Bully Geek Pariah

I enjoyed Dead Ends, the only other book by Erin Jade Lange I've read, and I was excited for this book based on its blurb. I think the blurb is a little misleading. If you are going to compare something to The Breakfast Club it better have fun. And hijinks. The funny kind not the terrifying kind. This book is like terror thriller Breakfast Club. That's not to say that I didn't like it. Just that I quickly had to adjust my expectations while reading it.

Sam had a plan. Buy her mom's present for her anniversary of sobriety after another boring evening at work. Her plan falls apart when she is fired from her job for being rude to a customer. From there her night descends into mayhem when she follows a classmate into the woods at a party to retrieve a stolen item. When the cops come to break up the party in the woods, Sam finds herself hiding with Andi (the thief who is a former popular girl), York (a former football player who is drunk and has a major chip on his shoulder), and Boston (York's nerdy genius younger brother). They decide to steal a car to escape and that is only the first in a series of very bad decisions that snowballs into a night of tension, fear, and running for their lives.

Reading this book is kind of like watching a train wreck. It is rather impossible to look away. The writing is what I expected it to be from reading Lange's previous book. The train wreck aspect is what the characters are doing to their lives. It is a series of bad decisions I can totally see a group of four misguided teens making. It is enough to strike fear in the heart of any parent. (I read this on the same day I had to talk a group of tween girls that included my daughter out of jumping off a balcony into snow that wasn't as deep as they thought it was only to find out they went back and did it anyway after I left. So yeah. Fear). I think this is probably going to get a lot of complaints about the characters being stupid and the events unrealistic. I don't think they are. I think the characters are teenagers whose brains aren't fully developed and the way the plot is tied together in the end makes all the strange events make complete sense. The plot is action packed and the pacing well done. Lange allows for a series of breaks and breathing points before sending the reader careening through another series of turns and jolts in the action. It's a roller coaster ride for sure.

The characters make some incredibly ridiculous decisions. They are young. They are scared. They are directionless. I really loved the bond that formed between this ragtag group and came to appreciate each of them individually. They all have strengths and weaknesses. All of them learn and grow (though some more than others). In the official blurb each of the characters is tagged with one of the labels in the title, but it isn't quite as simple as that. Each of them have elements of all four of these in them. At different points in the story they each show a different label as their dominant trait. The way Lange showed this through their actions, conversations, and interactions was really well done. It is a study in how each person is more than one thing and we are formed by experiences even as we sometimes try to outrun them.

This is a good book to give teens who enjoy action and thrills.

Content for those Wary: underage drinking, some language, references to sex

I read an ARC made available by the publisher, Bloomsbury USA, via NetGalley. Rebel Bully Geek Pariah is on sale February 16th.