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Review

18

Mar
2013

In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

Review: Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Saenz

On 18, Mar 2013 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten

From GoodReads:

Aristotle is an angry teen with a brother in prison. Dante is a know-it-all who has an unusual way of looking at the world. When the two meet at the swimming pool, they seem to have nothing in common. But as the loners start spending time together, they discover that they share a special friendship—the kind that changes lives and lasts a lifetime. And it is through this friendship that Ari and Dante will learn the most important truths about themselves and the kind of people they want to be.

This was a rare book for me. I actually put it down after about 60 pages. I never do that. Especially with YA where I can usually say that I personally am not interested but can see a books merit for its intended audience. Aristotle and Dante was not one of those books for me, despite what the Printz Award committee might say.

Mostly I found the book to be incredibly boring with copious amounts of terse dialog that was hard to follow in a lot of places. The story and secondary characters seemed very implausible to me too. I also found the names of the characters to be incredibly pretentious and unlikely.

 

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15

Mar
2013

In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

Review: In Darkness by Nick Lake

On 15, Mar 2013 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten

From GoodReads:

In darkness I count my blessings like Manman taught me. One: I am alive. Two: there is no two. In the aftermath of the Haitian earthquake a boy is trapped beneath the rubble of a ruined hospital: thirsty, terrified and alone. ‘Shorty’ is a child of the slums, a teenage boy who has seen enough violence to last a lifetime, and who has been inexorably drawn into the world of the gangsters who rule Site Soleil: men who dole out money with one hand and death with the other. But Shorty has a secret: a flame of revenge that blazes inside him and a burning wish to find the twin sister he lost five years ago. And he is marked. Marked in a way that links him with Toussaint L’Ouverture, the Haitian rebel who two-hundred years ago led the slave revolt and faced down Napoleon to force the French out of Haiti. As he grows weaker, Shorty relives the journey that took him to the hospital, a bullet wound in his arm. In his visions and memories he hopes to find the strength to survive, and perhaps then Toussaint can find a way to be free …

I loved this book so much I’m not even really sure I can write a review that would do it enough justice. It didn’t help that I was caught totally off guard. I mean the last Nick Lake book I read was about ninja vampires. It was awesome, but it was still ninja vampires. In Darkness was so dark, brooding, sickening, saddening, and hopeful. Shorty is not a hero, he admits to doing some really awful, unforgivable things. He may have done them for the right reasons, but even he confesses that he should never have gone down that path. But all that doesn’t make him any less sympathetic or make you want him to live any less either.

This was an interesting book, for me, to read after finishing a chapter in another book about how exposure to a variety of people, cultures, and ways of living can essentially combat prejudice. I think there is a real lack of exposure in the U.S. to a mix of cultures (ancient and modern), histories, and viewpoints and this makes people blind to much of the world.

When I was in college I came to know a much broader world through my anthropology classes. I was fed a steady diet of history books and ethnographies.  It was incredibly eye opening and also maddening that my friends’ worlds were not opening up in the same way. In my junior year I spent six months studying in Cairo, Egypt which was a far cry from the England and France study abroad programs my peers were doing. Those six months were pivotal for me in that I suddenly realized how lucky I was to live in the U.S.; how lucky I was to have running water and a toilet; how lucky I was to live in a real neighborhood; how lucky I was to live in a country with social services; how lucky I was to live in a country that didn’t station its military on nearly every street corner (this was pre-Arab Spring); how lucky I was to live in a country and in a society where women were, comparatively, treated equally.

I think short of having such an eye-opening experience like that young adults can read widely and read a variety. I know not everyone will and I certainly wouldn’t expect it, but I do encourage it. In Darkness gives such a vivid and heart-wrenching picture of living in absolute, abject poverty. Site Soley is hell on Earth and I can’t imagine how the people trapped there manage to get up every morning and face life. The book was also incredibly informative about the history of Haiti and how it came to be the poverty-sticken, corrupt place it is. I was unaware of Toussaint L’Ouverture but found his story to be incredibly inspiring and fascinating.

But despite being didactic In Darkness never felt like preaching. It was an exciting story laced with tension, war, voodoo, and some very interesting characters. I could really see it appealing to boys, which is another plus.

 

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13

Mar
2013

In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

Review: Girlchild by Tuppelo Hassman

On 13, Mar 2013 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten

From GoodReads:

Rory Hendrix, the least likely of Girl Scouts, hasn’t got a troop or a badge to call her own. But she still borrows the Handbook from the elementary school library to pore over its advice, looking for tips to get off the Calle—the Reno trailer park where she lives with her mother, Jo, the sweet-faced, hard-luck bartender at the Truck Stop.

Rory’s been told she is one of the “third-generation bastards surely on the road to whoredom,” and she’s determined to break the cycle. As Rory struggles with her mother’s habit of trusting the wrong men, and the mixed blessing of being too smart for her own good, she finds refuge in books and language. From diary entries, social workers’ reports, story problems, arrest records, family lore, and her grandmother’s letters, Tupelo Hassman’s Girlchild crafts a devastating collage that shows us Rory’s world while she searches for the way out of it.

I thought I would enjoy this one a lot more than I did. Probably because I found the description a bit misleading. Girlchild was certainly a tragic and touching story about poverty in the U.S. And Rory is at least a very insightful (may a little too insightful for her age?) narrator. However, I never got an overwhelming impression that Rory saw her life outside the trailer park; at least not until the last page. Her stream of consciousness narration in certain chapters was not only a unique way to tell parts of her story, parts that are very, very dark and troubling, but they were also reminiscent of what adult recollections of childhood memories are- disjointed impressions with flashes of clarity.

It was certainly an enjoyable book to read, if you can use the descriptor “enjoyable” for a book about loss, extreme poverty, molestation, abuse, and stereotyping. Fictional or real these kinds of stories need to be told both to raise awareness and to comfort those with similar stories. I found it to be incredibly moving despite my initial misconception and a few minor irks along the way.

As a side note, hooray for the sympathetic librarian! Rory may not have explicitly recognized her quiet kindness, but she is a lovely character the few times we meet her.

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11

Mar
2013

In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

Review: October Mourning by Leslea Newman

On 11, Mar 2013 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten

From GoodReads:

On the night of October 6, 1998, a gay twenty-one-year-old college student named Matthew Shepard was lured from a Wyoming bar by two young men, savagely beaten, tied to a remote fence, and left to die. Gay Awareness Week was beginning at the University of Wyoming, and the keynote speaker was Lesléa Newman, discussing her book Heather Has Two Mommies. Shaken, the author addressed the large audience that gathered, but she remained haunted by Matthew’s murder. October Mourning, a novel in verse, is her deeply felt response to the events of that tragic day. Using her poetic imagination, the author creates fictitious monologues from various points of view, including the fence Matthew was tied to, the stars that watched over him, the deer that kept him company, and Matthew himself. More than a decade later, this stunning cycle of sixty-eight poems serves as an illumination for readers too young to remember, and as a powerful, enduring tribute to Matthew Shepard’s life.

This was such a beautiful book. I wouldn’t exactly call this a novel in verse, but the poems weave together to paint such a haunting and vivid picture of the events surrounding Matthew Shepard’s murder, I think you can call it one. And the sparse language of the poems really highlight the emotion and feeling of the events.

I do not consider myself a person who is particularly drawn to poetry, although I have occasionally read and enjoyed some novels in verse, but this collection of poems is so evocative, eloquent and heartbreaking that I was drawn in. Some were better than others, but as a whole the book was incredibly powerful. The poems are tender and moving, which really make this seem like the only appropriate medium for telling the stories behind the tragic event.

 

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08

Mar
2013

In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

Review: Moonbird by Phillip Hoose

On 08, Mar 2013 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten

From GoodReads:

He wears a black band on his lower right leg and an orange flag on his upper left, bearing the laser inscription B95. Scientists call him the Moonbird because, in the course of his astoundingly long lifetime, this gritty, four-ounce marathoner has flown the distance to the moon—and halfway back!
B95 is a robin-sized shorebird, a red knot of the subspecies rufa. Each February he joins a flock that lifts off from Tierra del Fuego, headed for breeding grounds in the Canadian Arctic, nine thousand miles away.  Late in the summer, he begins the return journey.
B95 can fly for days without eating or sleeping, but eventually he must descend to refuel and rest. However, recent changes at ancient refueling stations along his migratory circuit—changes caused mostly by human activity—have reduced the food available and made it harder for the birds to reach. And so, since 1995, when B95 was first captured and banded, the worldwide rufa population has collapsed by nearly 80 percent. Most perish somewhere along the great hemispheric circuit, but the Moonbird wings on. He has been seen as recently as November 2011, which makes him nearly twenty years old. Shaking their heads, scientists ask themselves: How can this one bird make it year after year when so many others fall?

In the interest of full disclosure, I am a sucker for birds. While many librarians are crazy cat ladies, I am a crazy bird lady. We own seven. So of course I read this book, right? Well, I almost didn’t. I got about halfway through the first chapter and found myself incredibly frustrated with the sidebars that kept interrupting my reading. They either cut off the paragraph I was in the middle of or horned in on the side crying out for attention, right in the middle of my sentence. It’s apparently been awhile since I’ve read any nonfiction intended for a young audience or a textbook. I like sidebars, and these had a lot of excellent and pertinent information, but who placed them in the book? Jeez. They were so distracting.

Sidebar rant aside, this is a book about one incredible bird, a bird who has lived nearly 2o years to fly the equivalent of the distance to the moon and at least halfway back. It’s also the story of his species and many other speices. The book does a brilliant job of subtley showing its audience how all things in nature are connected and how all our actions have an impact. In the end this is a book about conservation, but it addresses a polarizing and touchy subject lightly and by employing such a remarkable and unlikely hero that it never feels like preaching.

I was constantly reminded of the documentary Winged Migration, the movie Fly Away Home and even Project UltraSwan. Kids need stories like all these as they are the kind that inspire children to want to be conservationists, biologists, or ornithologists. Or just simply to get outside.

 

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06

Mar
2013

In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

Review: Friends With Boys by Faith Erin Hicks

On 06, Mar 2013 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten

From GoodReads:

Maggie McKay hardly knows what to do with herself. After an idyllic childhood of homeschooling with her mother and rough-housing with her older brothers, it’s time for Maggie to face the outside world, all on her own. But that means facing high school first. And it also means solving the mystery of the melancholy ghost who has silently followed Maggie throughout her entire life. Maybe it even means making a new friend—one who isn’t one of her brothers.

I am not sure why this is getting called a coming-of-age story. Maggie has some new experiences in the novel, but I wouldn’t say she grows up in any major way. Maybe I missed something. Graphic novels are not my strong suit, although I really wish they were. I just don’t find myself lingering on the art the way I know I need to.

Despite all that, this was a really sweet book. Maggie is so cute and innocent it would be really difficult not to like her. I was especially pleased to see a homeschooled kid in a book that is actually normal and well adjusted. Come to think of it I haven’t seen that many homeschooled kids in books, so it was nice to see one. Period.

The book deals with some heavy material (Maggie’s mother has left them, navigating high school for the first time), but does it in a way that is both gentle and not too heavy-handed. There are enough twists and funny bits to make a book that could come across as simplistic feel very nuanced. I really enjoyed this one.

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04

Mar
2013

In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

Review: Tell the Wolves I’m Home by Carol Rifka Brunt

On 04, Mar 2013 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten

From GoodReads:

1987. There’s only one person who has ever truly understood fourteen-year-old June Elbus, and that’s her uncle, the renowned painter Finn Weiss. Shy at school and distant from her older sister, June can only be herself in Finn’s company; he is her godfather, confidant, and best friend. So when he dies, far too young, of a mysterious illness her mother can barely speak about, June’s world is turned upside down. But Finn’s death brings a surprise acquaintance into June’s life—someone who will help her to heal, and to question what she thinks she knows about Finn, her family, and even her own heart.

At Finn’s funeral, June notices a strange man lingering just beyond the crowd. A few days later, she receives a package in the mail. Inside is a beautiful teapot she recognizes from Finn’s apartment, and a note from Toby, the stranger, asking for an opportunity to meet. As the two begin to spend time together, June realizes she’s not the only one who misses Finn, and if she can bring herself to trust this unexpected friend, he just might be the one she needs the most.

This book just reminded me how foreign a concept the sibling bond is to me.  Being an only child it is very difficult for me to understand how siblings relate to one another. Much like it is probably difficult for people who have siblings to understand how uninterested I am, and was, in having a sibling.

Actually, maybe it made me feel that family loyalty is also a foreign concept. The people in this family, fabulous and dead gay uncle aside, are the most petty, self-centered and mean people I have read about in a long time. (Yes, I know they aren’t real.) If my family was half as awful as any of these people I would drop them like a hot potato. No second thoughts.

In case it was unclear I really didn’t enjoy this book all that much. Largely because I found it really difficult to relate to any of the characters. Certainly I think a lot of people (people with mean siblings) could relate and love this book. Largely because it will give them hope that maybe their siblings aren’t terrible human beings. I went through the book really hating these people and not feeling especially sorry for June (to my mind she was in part to blame for some of the issues going on in the family) then suddenly the ending came along and, while it was kind of the ending you really really want for them, it rang very false to me.

I get that there were a lot of messages in this book about the power of art, the power of family, love and friendship, the need to let go, and how loss can bring people together. But seriously, I couldn’t get past how shallow these people were. Which I’m sure someone will blame on my being an only child.

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01

Mar
2013

In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

Review: The Diviners by Libba Bray

On 01, Mar 2013 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten

From GoodReads:

Evie O’Neill has been exiled from her boring old hometown and shipped off to the bustling streets of New York City–and she is pos-i-toot-ly thrilled. New York is the city of speakeasies, shopping, and movie palaces! Soon enough, Evie is running with glamorous Ziegfield girls and rakish pickpockets. The only catch is Evie has to live with her Uncle Will, curator of The Museum of American Folklore, Superstition, and the Occult–also known as “The Museum of the Creepy Crawlies.”

When a rash of occult-based murders comes to light, Evie and her uncle are right in the thick of the investigation. And through it all, Evie has a secret: a mysterious power that could help catch the killer–if he doesn’t catch her first.

Libba Bray sure is the bee’s knees. This was one of those rare books I wanted to rush through to find out what happens, but wanted to slow down because I was enjoying the experience so much. I know this book is getting a lot of praise, but I can’t help heaping on some of my own.

Awhile back I read The Prophecy of the Sisters. I’ll admit I was drawn in by the cover of the first book and I paid for that. I guess the first book wasn’t awful, but as the series progressed it got worse and worse. I liked the premise of the astral or dream plane, the coming of evil, the bygone era, teens with paranormal powers, family mysteries, and murder. The thing is, as soon as I started The Diviners, I found myself thinking, this is what The Prophecy of the Sisters should have been. The Diviners really delivers on mystery, atmosphere, plot, character development and the details.

The Diviners is just a well written book and story. The plot twists and turns reveal just enough that you know there is something more but can’t quite put your finger on it. The characters at first glance seem like nothing more than types, but as the story continues tiny bits and pieces of information are leaked and you find they aren’t what they seem. I would even go so far as to suggest that one or two of them end up opposing the others. By the end of the book many of the plot pieces have fallen into place, but not all the threads of the story have come together. Just an all around good read.

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25

Feb
2013

In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

Review: Me and Earl and the Dying Girl by Jesse Andrews

On 25, Feb 2013 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten

From GoodReads:

Greg Gaines is the last master of high school espionage, able to disappear at will into any social environment. He has only one friend, Earl, and together they spend their time making movies, their own incomprehensible versions of Coppola and Herzog cult classics.
Until Greg’s mother forces him to rekindle his childhood friendship with Rachel.
Rachel has been diagnosed with leukemia—-cue extreme adolescent awkwardness—-but a parental mandate has been issued and must be obeyed. When Rachel stops treatment, Greg and Earl decide the thing to do is to make a film for her, which turns into the Worst Film Ever Made and becomes a turning point in each of their lives.
And all at once Greg must abandon invisibility and stand in the spotlight.

Okay, this one won an award or at least an honorable mention? Really?…Really? I got that Greg was an antihero. And I heard him when he said he learned nothing from the death of his “friend” Rachel. I even see the appeal of those angles for some readers. But really it just made the book feel like a huge waste of my time. I mean maybe I missed the point or I’m not hipster enough to understand that by not learning anything he learned something or how that’s just a realistic portrayal of someone’s life. There are no BIG LESSONS learned all the time. Sometimes it just sucks when your kinda friend dies. But I could have been reading The Diviners which I am already obsessed with and I am on page 22. And I am not a Libba Bray swimfan or anything.

In all honesty Me, Earl, and the Dying Girl would have, after page 50, been one of those ones I abandon to recommending to people I know who like movies and books about not much. Kids who don’t want to think too deeply, but want a book that makes them feel like they are learning a lesson. But thanks to the YALSA Hub challenge I read it cover to cover. God, I want my day back. I can’t even give it a whole-hearted real review. And the cover is awesome and I really wanted to read it.

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22

Feb
2013

In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

Review: Wonder Show by Hannah Barnaby

On 22, Feb 2013 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten

From GoodReads:

Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, step inside Mosco’s Traveling Wonder Show, a menagerie of human curiosities and misfits guaranteed to astound and amaze! But perhaps the strangest act of Mosco’s display is Portia Remini, a normal among the freaks, on the run from McGreavy’s Home for Wayward Girls, where Mister watches and waits. He said he would always find Portia, that she could never leave. Free at last, Portia begins a new life on the bally, seeking answers about her father’s disappearance. Will she find him before Mister finds her? It’s a story for the ages, and like everyone who enters the Wonder Show, Portia will never be the same.

Despite the cover, this is not the book for the kid who wants to run away and join the circus. Too bad because we’ve all been there, right? I mean, there is some running away and there is a circus, but really it’s a book about finding. Finding yourself, finding your family, finding a family, finding a future, finding where you belong and who you belong to.

In actuality, this a a book for kids who like their fiction a bit dark and even a bit sad and melancholy. It is absoultely beautifully written. Even though most children have not been sent off to a home for wayward girls for being too imaginative and unmanageable, Portia is so familiar a character. She’s headstrong, angst-y, and ready to grow up, but she also longs for the more magical and comforting time of her childhood. In the end her story isn’t about being sent away or looking for her father, but about finding a place in the wider, lonely world and making a family for herself from the hodge-podge of people she finds herself amongst.

Wonder Show really reminded me of Carnivale, a television show from a few years back. It was dark, conflicted, and…adult. This book tried to be and there were hints of cruelty, sexuality, and abuse, but in the end it was a middle-grade novel. I think if nothing else, this Yalsa Hub reading challenge is teaching me a lot about what I like to read and what I can see value in for other readers. The thing is, I will read just about anything and, if not love it, at least lose myself in the story. And I guess what I’m finding is I like the more adult books and, really, as a kid I think I would have too. Leaving out the complexities of the world, especially a world as dark as a traveling freak show, always feels like pandering to me. Yet, I still connected with the book and with Portia.

 

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