Saturday, July 30, 2016

Listen, Slowly

I was excited to check out Listen, Slowly, after having loved Inside Out & Back Again. I was surprised to find that this novel was not written in verse and that it is set in modern Vietnam.

Mia was raised by her Vietnamese parents in Laguna Beach, California and is your typical beach girl. But then she has to accompany her grandmother back to Vietnam and she realizes she might not be your average California girl, after all.

There is so much to love about Listen, Slowly. It has a beautiful exploration of Vietnamese culture with a true appreciation for the food, the people, and the language. I love it as an entry point to learning about a new culture from a relatable perspective.

The novel is not without flaws. I think it could have been split into two separate novels and been more appealing to its target audience: middle grade readers. The novel felt overly long and was full of convoluted paragraphs like this, "This is my understanding: if a brain is thinking in English, it's Vietnam; if thinking in Vietnamese, it's Viet Nam. If you learned it as Viet Name first, then your brain will think Viet Nam no matter the language. Unless you learned it as Vietnam and then become superfluent in Vietnamese, then your brain will switch to Viet Name. Unless you learned it as Viet Nam but forgot your first language altogether, then your brain will think Vietnam. Why do I care?" My students wouldn't care and probably would have given up.

I'm eager to continue reading Thanhha Lai's work, I just hope she realizes she will have more chances to write and that she doesn't need to cram it all in one book.

Sunday, July 24, 2016

The Underdogs

WOW- what an ending! I was excited to read Sara Hammel's debut novel, The Underdogs, so I could add another mystery to the list I recommend my students. What I got was so much more.

Evie and Chelsea are best friends who tend to be invisible at the tennis club where their parents work. When the local beauty queen is murdered at the club's pool, they use their knowledge of the people and place to investigate the crime on their own. This turns out to be dangerous and leads to shocking discoveries, for both the characters and the reader.

A murder is a difficult plot point for a middle grade novel, particularly when there seemed to be many characters in love with the victim. I kept waiting nervously for the book to go darker, but it skirted the line very well.

Best of all was the surprise twist at the end that I never saw coming. I hate spoilers, so won't say any more than I ended the book in tears and can't wait to share it with my students.

Monday, July 18, 2016

My Sister Rosa

After reading and loving Liar by Justine Larbalestier, I was so excited to see that she had a new novel out. My familiarity with the author had me searching for clues along the way to the twist ending which I knew was coming. All that self-preparation still left me surprised by how it ended. Bravo!

Che's little sister is terrifying. She is thrilled to kill ants, manipulate her friends into doing wrong, and using people to her advantage. Under her Shirley Temple facade lies a psychopath, but no one seems to believe Che. In his words, "Rosa is a ticking time bomb. I don't think it matters what you call it: psychopathy, sociopathy, antisocial personality disorder, evil or the devil within. What matters is how to prevent the bomb from exploding." Che seems to be the only one who can keep Rosa in check, until she starts to seem him as a nuisance, rather than an ally.

While we spend the novel in the mind of Che, the title character consumes the story (and everyone around her). My stomach felt sick as I read, waiting for the next terrible thing that Rosa would do, and how she would get away with it. Larbalestier never pushes Rosa's terror too far; it all seems like it could be possible with a deeply disturbed child. This is what makes My Sister Rosa so scary and unsettling.

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Serafina and the Twisted Staff

I can't believe I didn't review the first Serafina book; a student did an earnest book talk about it and started everyone in the class passing it on to each other. I loved Serafina and the Black Cloak, so I was eager to read the ARC of Serafina and the Twisted Staff from NetGalley. My only regret is that my students will have to wait to read it and I won't be able to discuss it with them!

The novel starts happily, with Serafina coming out of hiding in the basement of the Biltmore, no longer just a rat catcher, but also a friend to Braeden Vanderbilt. As readers of the series know, that peace won't last long as there always seem to be evil forces at work in Asheville's mountains. This time around, the villain is able to use magic to control animals, and they are being used to hunt and attack Serafina and her friends.

What I love about these books is that they are genuinely scary! They don't shy away from gore and are just frightening enough to disturb, but won't cause nightmares for middle grade readers. I'm excited for the third book in the series to come out in 2017.

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Red Butterfly

As I was reading Red Butterfly, I reflected on how unique the story was. I've never read a book from the perspective of a Chinese adoptee, especially one that follows the child from her original family life to her adopted life in the US. This originality kept me reading when the plot felt too sad. Make no mistake, this is a very sad book for a middle grade audience, but it is beautiful and worthy of a read.

I was confused, at first, by Kara's family life. Slowly, I learned that she was abandoned because of a malformed hand and taken in by an older American woman who was never able to get her adoption papers. They live a solitary life until Mama's older daughter has a medical emergency and their existence comes to light. Following this, Kara finally learns who she was, and needs to decide who she will be.

I love novels in verse, and I think that this story was well told through this genre. One of my favorite things about novels in verse is that so much of the story occurs in the beats between the stanzas. Author A. L. Sonnichsen makes good use of this, particularly when Kara is adjusting to her new home, full of empty spaces and quiet moments. I don't this would be popular with my current set of students, but one day I hope to have a poetic child who will love this like I did.

Thursday, June 30, 2016

Salt to the Sea

Salt to the Sea is why I read historical fiction. Ruta Sepetys has taken a historical event I've never heard of, the sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff, and connected me to it forever. After finishing the book, I searched out more information about the tragedy. This is exactly what teachers want readers to do-- be inspired to learn more.

Told from the perspectives of four teenagers, the novel gives various reasons why they are on the run from the Nazis and eager to board the ship. At first, it was a challenge to keep track of the back stories of each character, but then I was totally hooked and eager to find out their fates. Once I figured out that the fate of the Wilhelm Gustloff wasn't good, I decided not to look up the tragedy and learn about it in real time. I was horrified to learn that over 10,000 people were packed onto a ship built for 1,500. Even if it wasn't torpedoed, the conditions on the ship would have been unimaginable.

I was totally engrossed, but don't know if teenagers would choose to read this independently. It would be a great addition to a unit on WWII or as a book club selection. It should be read because the tragedy of the Wilhelm Gustloff should not be ignored.

Friday, June 24, 2016

An Ember in the Ashes

Have you ever wanted to read a book that's a combination of The Hunger Games, The Testing, The Lightning Thief, Game of Thrones, and about a hundred other (better) books that came before? Look no further.

There's a lot of buzz surrounding An Ember in the Ashes, which is touted as the next big dystopian series. Since these series are always a hit with my students, I wanted to check it out before they started asking me about it. I would love to be able to recommend it to them, but there are so many references to rape that it isn't suitable. If there was a drinking game for this book, sadly, that would be the word that sends somebody to the hospital.

There were things that I enjoyed about the novel. Laia, our female protagonist, isn't your typical dystopian heroine. She isn't overly skilled or confident or charismatic. She is truly an ordinary girl who is forced into unimaginable circumstances. I also loved the ancient Roman tinge to the story, since this time period fascinates me. Still, I can't get past all the discussion of rape, so I won't be sharing this book with anyone.

Saturday, June 18, 2016

The Wrath and The Dawn

Most Kindle owners have probably experienced the realization at 95% finished that there is no way the story can wrap up in time. That was how I realized The Wrath & The Dawn is the first in a series.

In an interesting retelling of A Thousand and One Nights, we learn of Shahrzad, who volunteers to marry a murderous Caliph who killed her best friend. She enters the relationship, bent on revenge, but ends up falling for Khalid. While her feelings have changed, everyone else still wants him dead. Now she must choose between her past with her family and her future with her love.

I was refreshed by reading a novel set in a time and place I haven't encountered much before. I enjoyed the rich details and characterization. Unfortunately, the novel kept diverting to the story of Shahrzad's father's strange quest for revenge, which was usually when I took a break. Still, I can't wait for the next book and hope that there is more romance in the sequel.

Sunday, June 12, 2016

Orbiting Jupiter

I always know what I am getting into with a Gary D. Schmidt novel: kind teachers, abusive fathers, a Maine setting, and several instances that make me bawl my eyes out. Even though I know this, I started reading Orbiting Jupiter as I was going to bed, and then ended up reading the whole thing. That's the other thing I know I'm getting from this author: an amazing story of resilience.

Jack is twelve when his family changes forever by fostering Joseph, a fourteen-year-old who has had an unimaginably difficult life. For Joseph, the only bright spot is knowing he has an infant daughter named Jupiter. He is determined to love and care for her, despite the odds. This comes at great sacrifice and tragedy.

This is a fast, slim read, but should be categorized for young adults, as it is devastatingly sad. It would be a tough sell with my current students. I think Orbiting Jupiter might be a YA book that is really better for adults, as a reminder to be kind to teenagers. I loved it.

Monday, June 6, 2016

You Know Me Well

David Levithan loves writing novels with a co-author, alternating perspectives of two characters. I usually like books with this plot device and I always love books written by Levithan, so You Know Me Well was a perfect fit.

Mark is a gay baseball player who is in love with his best friend, and Kate is an artist who is soon to meet the girl of her dreams. They spent most of senior year sitting next to each other and never speaking, but during San Francisco's Pride Week, they become the most important person in each other's world.

I am so happy this book exists. The writing is gorgeous and nobody writes about being a gay teenager better than Levithan. I can imagine that his novels are a safe haven for many readers. Levithan writes so beautifully that reading the first few pages always catch me by surprise and when I finish the book, I am left wanting more. I love stories that are about growing apart from one's friends and realizing that it is normal to outgrow friends as you become who you really are.

This is definitely for a high school audience, so I won't be sharing it with my students, but I will recommend it to teens and adults who are looking for a wonderful book.