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.