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In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

YA Review: Delta Legend by Kellan O’Connell

On 17, Feb 2015 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten

Delta LegendDelta Legend by Kellan O’Connell

From GoodReads: When 16-year-old Oakland teenager, Calvin Pierce, makes a bad decision and winds up getting arrested, his mother is quick to take action. Determined not to lose a second son to the drug and gang violence of the inner city, she sends Calvin to spend the summer working for his great uncle in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.

There in the predominately white region of agriculture and recreational boating, Calvin’s a fish out of water with a chip on his shoulder. But when severed body parts are discovered floating in a slough, his summer of proving himself takes on new meaning.

Something deadly is lurking in the deep, murky waterways of the Delta. Now the daunting task of containing the living incarnation of a mythical creature falls to Calvin and his ragtag posse of oddball characters.

I picked up a copy of Delta Legend for two reasons. The first was that I met Kellan O’Connell at the KidLitCon back in October and she was wonderful. I really enjoyed talking to her. The second was that it takes place nearby in the Delta region. It also features a diverse cast, so it fit with what am reading this year.

I’m really glad I found out about the book because I absolutely loved it. The pacing was excellent and action was mixed with character development (most notably Calvin). There was plenty of suspense and a lot of humor. The characters, and there were quite a few, had unique voices and I found them incredibly believable. I will note that O’Connell is white and she tackles writing from the perspectives of old and young, African-American and Chinese, and male and female.

The setting paired with the humor and to some extent the initial mystery of what is killing people brought Carl Hiaasen’s books MG to mind (Chomp especially) . Although those are clearly middle school books, this felt more in-line with high school. There is no sex and only some kissing, but there is quite a bit of language (but not in a way that felt unnecessary or out of place), some drinking and one incident of drug use at a party (minor characters take ecstasy) and murder (with descriptions of the bodies). Plus the kids are older. I would send fans of Hiaasen’s books to this when they hit high school. Anyone who likes a good suspenseful mystery would also appreciate Delta Legend.

O’Connell worked in the film and television industry for years and that comes through in her writing in the best possible way. The book is so cinematic. I could clearly see everything playing out. Not to mention the way she build suspense both within chapters and across the book felt very movie-like. Reading a chapter often felt like watching a scene from a movie, especially those where you suspect you know what’s going to happen and still have that “OH!” reaction when it does. One of the blurbs on the back of the book says something about this being adapted from a screenplay and if that’s the case O’Connell did an incredible job fleshing this out into an actual novel and, while it retained it’s cinematic quality, it was a well-written and well-crafted novel.

I also found the setting incredibly compelling. The first few chapters with Calvin take place in Oakland and the rest of the book is set in the Sacrament0-San Joaquin Delta. An Oakland setting would have been fine, but the Delta is an incredibly beautiful and vital region that doesn’t get a lot of attention. It was enjoyable to read a book set somewhere both close to home and relatively unknown. Plus it made for some excellent suspense having the murky waters of the rivers hiding a creature!

I had a few thoughts about the mythical beast part of the story. In both looking at the cover and in reading the blurb the readers know that there is a creature of some sort lurking in the waters of the Delta, but the characters don’t learn what it really is or even put together that it’s a creature until about half way through the story. This is not a big reveal to the reader, but it is to the characters and it’s handled so well that it still feels suspenseful. It’s rather like the “don’t go in there!” moments of horror movies. I was also expecting Calvin to follow a “chosen one” story arc and that, thankfully, is not what happens at all. In fact the creature ties into the Chinese history of the region which gives readers another fantastic glimpse into the richness of the Delta area. For a book with such a cast of characters and pieces of plot to tie in (a throw back to history, Calvin’s troubles and his brother’s death, his uncle’s history, etc., etc.) the book could have bogged down, or even just been too unwieldy, but it wasn’t in the slightest. O’Connell managed all the pieces beautifully and wove them into a coherent and compelling story.

Lastly, the ending was perfect. I don’t want to spoil it, but the ending as a whole is exactly how I like my endings.

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In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

Kidlit: Princeless by Jeremy Whitley

On 11, Feb 2015 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten

PrincelesPrinceless: The Arduous Business of Getting Rescued written by Jeremy Whitley, illustrated by M. Goodwin

From GoodReads: Adrienne Ashe never wanted to be a princess. She hates fancy dinners, is uncomfortable in lavish dresses, and has never wanted to wait on someone else to save her. However, on the night of her 16th-birthday, her parents, the King and Queen, locked her away in a tower guarded by a dragon to await the rescue of some handsome prince. Now Adrienne has decided to take matters into her own hands!

A princess book for those kids and parents who want an alternative to the passive princess. Adrienne is one of those girls who questions everything and she’s a bit confused as to why she needs a prince to come save her- this is shown beautifully in the first scene with her mother reading a vapid fairy tale before bedtime. Unfortunately Adrienne’s parents don’t quite see it the way she does and at 16 she ends up locked in a tower.

I absolutely loved the characters in this book. Adrienne finds her situation silly and exasperating so she sets out to do something about it. She enlists the help of the dragon protecting her and she getting out isn’t quite so hard as she thought, so she decides to save her sisters. That proves more difficult, especially because she doesn’t really have a plan, she just flies by the seat of her pants. This makes for a lot of funny situations. Her quest puts her in a lot of danger, but she takes it in stride and thinks fast. What’s not to like about a pragmatic princess, one that is going to rely on herself instead of other people?

Then there is her new-found ally Bedelia, the blacksmith’s daughter. She’s hilarious and while she helps Adrienne out, outfitting her with armor and helping her fight off palace guards, she’s overly-enthusiastic and kind-of-silly. Her goofiness makes her a nice foil to the more serious and focused Adrienne. She’s not so silly, though, that she’s useless. She has skills as a blacksmith and she’s clearly physically strong and willing to help out Adrienne. She also makes an interesting comment toward the end about how Adrienne has been locked in a tower, but she has too. She’s been stuck covering for her alcoholic father by being the blacksmith of the town and hasn’t had a lot of choice in her situation either. It’s an interesting point about the different ways women can get stuck in towers.

Adrienne’s brother, Devin, introduces the idea of men who are not traditionally manly. He isn’t interested in fighting and shows some interest in poetry much to the disappointment of his father. He is the heir to the throne and the father worries he won’t be fit to rule. He, like Adrienne, questions the status quo, suggesting that maybe one of his sisters could rule. Their traditional father doesn’t agree and continually makes disparaging remarks about the son’s lack of interest in traditional manly things. I hope the father is fleshed out a bit more as the series continues. He’s awfully two dimensional.

I was particularly pleased to note that Adrienne and her parents could have been any color, but the illustrator chose to draw them as black. Of course there are no physical descriptions in graphic novels because you see the characters, but that’s true in picture books as well and yet how many times do we see a characters defaulted to white?

My one complaint is that quote at the top of the book about the story Disney should have been telling- a quote not from the author or illustrator, but a reviewer. I read a recent blog post by Liz Burns about princess shaming that I totally agreed with. It’s definitely food for thought, and it addresses exactly why I’m uncomfortable with this quote. I personally am not a princess person. I was always way more interested in talking animals. My daughter is the same and also likes fairies. But we’ll watch a princess movie and enjoy it for what it is- a bit of light entertainment. I think the pinkification of girlhood is troubling, but because it can over sexualize young girls, not because some girls like pink and like princesses. And for those girls that do, I don’t feel comfortable invalidating their interests simply because they aren’t mine. I encourage you to read Liz’s post.

As for who would like this book, I would say anyone. You don’t have to be looking for a kick-butt princess. You don’t have to be a feminist. You don’t have to be looking for diversity. It’s just a fun read that happens to have all those elements. It’s also totally appropriate for all ages. Sure older kids (high school) might find it a bit young, but the characters are so appealing and the story so much fun that they’ll get into it too. Middle schoolers will probably catch on to the girl saving herself theme and lower school kids will see a great role model in Adrienne. I hope future additions to the series touch on girl friendships with Adrienne and Bedelia.

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In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

Nonfiction Review: Taking Flight by Michaela DePrince

On 10, Feb 2015 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten

Taking FlightTaking Flight: From War Orphan to Star Ballerina by Michaela DePrince with Elaine DePrince

From GoodReads: The extraordinary memoir of Michaela DePrince, a young dancer who escaped war-torn Sierra Leone for the rarefied heights of American ballet.
Michaela DePrince was known as girl Number 27 at the orphanage, where she was abandoned at a young age and tormented as a “devil child” for a skin condition that makes her skin appear spotted. But it was at the orphanage that Michaela would find a picture of a beautiful ballerina en pointe that would help change the course of her life.
At the age of four, Michaela was adopted by an American family, who encouraged her love of dancing and enrolled her in classes. She went on to study at the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School at the American Ballet Theatre and is currently a member of the Dutch National Ballet’s junior company. 

Michaela DePrince is probably one of the most upbeat, positive and, therefore, inspiring people I’ve read about in a long time. She was born in Sierra Leone during the civil war there and was orphaned early. While much of what she recounts is from the perspective of a three year old, it’s still quite brutal. It’s horrifying to think what such a small child saw and experienced. The first quarter of the book was absolutely heart wrenching.

I am always impressed by people who know from very early on what they want to do. Michaela wanted to be a ballerina and, considering her early-life circumstances, was incredibly lucky to make it. But none of it came easily. She had to work very, very hard to achieve her dream. It’s a little mind-boggling that some one so young was willing to stick with all the training, time, and effort it took to make it as a professional dancer. Clearly she had a passion and the drive.

In Taking Flight her voice comes across as genuine and sincere. She openly talks about her struggles through the years without over sharing. But she also doesn’t dwell on all the bad things that have happened to her. She takes them, examines them and weaves them into the fabric of who she is. I was particularly struck by her discussion of her first year in high school, away from her family. She is taken in by some older teens that introduce her to some really bad habits (drinking, smoking, and eating disorders). She freely admits to trying all those things, with the exception of the eating disorders. However she also says she was disappointed in herself for doing things she knew were not good for her, were not going to help her career in the long run, and ran counter to the values her parents instilled in her. Her early experiences with starvation and dysentery convinced her that she would not use an eating disorder to stay thin.

The obvious audience for this book is girls and boys interested in ballet, but if you can get other kids to pick up a “ballet book” I don’t see why it’s audience has to be limited by anything. Her story, while not universal, is incredibly inspiring. She keeps hope when it seems there is none. She works astonishingly hard at both school work and at ballet. I think best of all, though, she wants to be a good person and that shows through in her sincerity. She tries very hard to keep true to herself, her goals, and her beliefs and she does a remarkable job of it. In sharing that story it would seem incredibly didactic and lecture-y, but it never is. I think she buys into it so whole-heartedly that everything she writes comes from an deeply genuine place. Any kid would do well to see how far you can go with luck and determination.

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In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

YA Review: Killer of Enemies by Joseph Bruchac

On 30, Jan 2015 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten

Killer of EnemiesKiller of Enemies by Joseph Bruchac

From GoodReads: Years ago, seventeen-year-old Apache hunter Lozen and her family lived in a world of haves and have-nots. There were the Ones — people so augmented with technology and genetic enhancements that they were barely human — and there was everyone else who served them. Then the Cloud came, and everything changed. Tech stopped working. The world plunged back into a new steam age. The Ones’ pets — genetically engineered monsters — turned on them and are now loose on the world. Lozen was not one of the lucky ones pre-C, but fate has given her a unique set of survival skills and magical abilities. She hunts monsters for the Ones who survived the apocalyptic events of the Cloud, which ensures the safety of her kidnapped family. But with every monster she takes down, Lozen’s powers grow, and she connects those powers to an ancient legend of her people. It soon becomes clear to Lozen that she is not just a hired gun. As the legendary Killer of Enemies was in the ancient days of the Apache people, Lozen is meant to be a more than a hunter. Lozen is meant to be a hero.

Well, Bruchac has done it again. Another fantastic book that beautifully blends character- and plot- driven elements. And again he’s seamlessly woven Native American (Apache and Chiricahua in this case) lore and beliefs into the story. I’m always impressed with the vocabulary Bruchac uses. Maybe I don’t read lots of literary YA or maybe I read especially crappy YA, but his books have seemed so well written and use a wide range of descriptive vocabulary.

Killer of Enemies was certainly exciting with lots of close calls, fights, and tension. I flew through it’s 360 pages. However, while the story is about Lozen trying to survive and find a way for her family to escape the “settlement” (a former prison that is still pretty prison-like) they have been taken to, it’s also about her coming to accept her skills as a fighter and the destiny that may lay before her. While the skills she has are gruesome she wants to use them for the good of humanity. She really struggles to square the idea that killing and fighting maybe necessary to help those she cares about and the other decent people she knows live within Haven.

As a heads up, Lozen fights and kills a lot of monsters that are genetically modified animals- a gigantic cross between a tiger and porcupine, a massive eagle, and an immense snake to name a few. These scenes are violent and Bruchac doesn’t shy away from describing them. This book is not for your faint-of-heart.

Hand this book to kids who liked the latter parts of the Hunger Games trilogy. It brought to mind several other post-apocalyptic dystopias such as The Fifth Wave by Rick Yancey, In the After by Demetria Lunetta, and Ship Breaker by Paolo Bacigalupi. Give this book to kids who liked those or send them there after they finish this one and want more.

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In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

Middle Grade Review: Dragon Castle by Joseph Bruchac

On 29, Jan 2015 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten

Dragon CastleDragon Castle by Joseph Bruchac

From GoodReads: Young Prince Rashko is frustrated with his family – no one does any thinking but him! The kingdom and castle seem to be in the hands of fools. So when Rashko’s parents mysteriously disappear and the evil Baron Temny parks his army outside the castle walls, it is up to the young prince to save the day. But there is more to this castle and its history than meets the eye, and Rashko will have to embrace his ancestry, harness a dragon, and use his sword-fighting skills to stop the baron and save the kingdom. Along the way, he realizes that his family is not quite as stupid as he always thought.

My initial, gut reaction to this: OMG, OMG, OMG! THAT WAS SO GOOD!

To begin with the book is beautifully written. It has a sense of humor, a good vocabulary and an exciting plot. Bruchac does a masterful job of working in Slovak phrases and words to add authenticity to the story. Reading the author’s note it appears he did his research into Slovakian folklore and culture, both for the book and out of curiosity about his own heritage.

The story alternates between the story of Rashko and his ancestor, Pavol. It seems likely that at some point the two stories will meet or at the least begin to parallel each other. They don’t quite do either, but they entwine with each other in such a compelling way. Pavol’s story becomes a lesson for Rashko and place for him to find answers about the situation he finds himself in and advice about how to handle it. In Pavol’s adventures and legend you can really see Bruchac’s gift for storytelling and interest in folklore. The fantastic storytelling is there in Rashko’s story too, but it really shines in the details of the legend. Bruchac obviously drew on Slovak legends and the way he weaves details into his own legends is wonderful.

Rashko’s story is incredibly written with perfect pacing, suspense, and excitement. Rashko is such a likable character. While he feels like he has to tolerate his family and their lack of intellect he never sounds like a jerk. He has a great sense of humor that’s a little bit sarcastic and snarky, but not so much that he’s exasperating. However through the course of events he learns that maybe he doesn’t quite have the world as figured out as he thought, especially his family.

The structure of the book (alternating between legend and the present) and to some extent the plot reminded me a lot of The Heroes of the Valley by Jonathan Stroud. I also saw similarities in their situation with missing parents and Baron Temny taking over, in the role of magic and the role of the castle with Tuesdays at the Castle by Jessica Day George. The book would be totally appropriate for upper elementary, although it’s reading level might be a bit high. Certainly middle schoolers, especially those that love fantasy and folklore, will enjoy this. But it could extend up into high school too. Just an all around good book for most ages.

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In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

YA Review: Ms. Marvel: No Normal by G. Willow Wilson

On 20, Jan 2015 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten

Ms. MarvelMs. Marvel, Vol. 1: No Normal written by G. Willow Wilson, illustrated by Adrian Alphona

From GoodReads: Kamala Khan is an ordinary girl from Jersey City — until she’s suddenly empowered with extraordinary gifts. But who truly is the new Ms. Marvel? Teenager? Muslim? Inhuman? Find out as she takes the Marvel Universe by storm! When Kamala discovers the dangers of her newfound powers, she unlocks a secret behind them, as well. Is Kamala ready to wield these immense new gifts? Or will the weight of the legacy before her be too much to bear? Kamala has no idea, either. But she’s comin’ for you, New York!

I picked this one up not because it was diverse (although that was a huge bonus) but because I absolutely love Willow Wilson’s writing. Love it. Ms. Marvel was, however, very different from her last two books I’ve read and a lot closer to her graphic novel Cairo. Writing a good story that doesn’t have much exposition, besides getting inside a character’s head, and relies heavily on dialog must be incredibly difficult, but Wilson pulls it off beautifully.

Kamala is kind of a dorky girl who plays games online, writes fanfic, and reads a lot of comic books. Her parents are Pakistani and hold her to some traditional values and even though she chafes against some of them because she just wants to seem like she fits in in high school. She’s a good kid and her parents are very accepting and understanding though. (Hooray for good parents!! I’m so tired of awful parents.) When sneaking out to go to a party she is not allowed to attend (there are boys and booze) a strange, thick fog rolls in and Kamala wanders off. After fainting she wakes up to Captain Marvel standing in front of her. Kamala expresses a desire to look blonde and beautiful, to wear clothes that show off her body, and to have powers, so Captain Marvel passes on her mantel to Kamala. As she is leaving, she warns Kamala that this is not going to work out how she expects and she is right.

It is up to Kamala now to figure out her powers and decide what she is going to do with them. I feel like a broken record saying this, but despite her differences from white suburban kids (who most books seem to be about) Kamala’s struggles, personal and familial, are not that far off from anyone else’s. We all wanted to fit in in high school. We all fought with, disappointed, and defied our parents. We all struggled to define ourselves and thought about who we wanted to be. I think most people even decided they want to be good people. Kamala wrestles with the same issues. She does decide to keep her new identity secret from everyone but her best friend which of course will set up some good tension between her and her parents. Certainly that tension isn’t unrealistic. We may not all have super powers, but we all kept secrets from our parents.

I can’t place this book in a larger context of the Avengers stories or even within the context of Captain Marvel. Until I read this I didn’t know that Captain Marvel was a woman. To some extent this felt limiting when I first started reading. I was a little confused that her world was not actually ours even though it’s essentially the same. Within the book super heroes are real and they have powers. I don’t know why I was confused, but I was. I chalk it up to never having read comic books like this before.

Not only is the story a universal one, but the art of the book is really wonderful. I’ve read a few graphic novels where the art has really detracted from what might otherwise be a good story. I’ve also read graphic novels where the art just doesn’t seem very good. Not so here. Alphona can really draw people. Facial expressions are easy to read and characters look consistent across the book. Even when the art pulls back and the characters become less distinct you can still tell who is who.

I especially loved Kamala and how she dresses. She’s clearly very pretty, but she doesn’t fit that high school ideal. She dresses kind of creatively and she has these really cute facial expressions. Alphona also does a great job with the settings. You get a real sense of place, like you could visit this Jersey City even though it’s drawn. And there are some funny little details and asides in the background (i.e. a cereal called GM O-s). It’s these little bits that enhance the story and make all the dialog come together to form a cohesive whole.

I really love this cover. I know it’s been said before that publishers, when they do put a POC on a cover, often hide their face and that’s exactly what’s going on here. But it works in context of the story. Kamala is struggling to figure out who she is and who she wants to be and then has this added complication of being given super powers that put her in a position to defend those who need help. It isn’t clear either who she is as Kamala or who she is as Ms. Marvel and I think hiding her face emphasizes this question. Not to mention as a super hero she seems to want to protect her identity.

A great story about a girl who is figuring out who she is. It just so happens that she has super powers. The beauty of the story, at least for me, was how she figures out that although her powers technically make her special she doesn’t need them to. They don’t define her or make her a better person. They certainly force her to really think about that, but she makes the conscious decision to do that.

Give this book to kids who like good super hero stories with character development, not action (although there is some of that and there are hints of action to come). It would also be a good choice for kids who are looking for stories about coming into your own.

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In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

YA Review: Heap House by Edward Carey

On 01, Jan 2015 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten

Heap HouseHeap House written and illustrated by Edward Carey

From GoodReads: Clod is an Iremonger. He lives in the Heaps, a vast sea of lost and discarded items collected from all over London. At the centre is Heap House, a puzzle of houses, castles, homes and mysteries reclaimed from the city and built into a living maze of staircases and scurrying rats.

The Iremongers are a mean and cruel family, robust and hardworking, but Clod has an illness. He can hear the objects whispering. His birth object, a universal bath plug, says ‘James Henry’, Cousin Tummis’s tap is squeaking ‘Hilary Evelyn Ward-Jackson’ and something in the attic is shouting ‘Robert Burrington‘ and it sounds angry.

A storm is brewing over Heap House. The Iremongers are growing restless and the whispers are getting louder. When Clod meets Lucy Pennant, a girl newly arrived from the city, everything changes. The secrets that bind Heap House together begin to unravel to reveal a dark truth that threatens to destroy Clod’s world.

I was so intrigued by this book. On the surface it’s a darkly interesting book set in an alternate late Victorian England, but I think it ends up being social commentary on several aspects of our society.

Clod comes from a family that is part of the wealthy upper echelons of society, but they never seem to leave their mansion and they certainly don’t associate with anyone outside the family. Cousins marry cousins and generations of Iremongers live and die within their house.

Things are not quite as they seem, though. The Iremongers actually live in the center of a vast garbage dump. A dump so expansive it has it’s own weather patterns, mythos, and a town dedicated to sifting through the garbage. Every Iremonger is given an object when they are born (or if they are a person discovered to be distantly related and brought in to serve, they are given it upon arrival) that is their birth object. It is something personal and must be well tended and kept with them always. The matriarch of the family chooses them for each member. Clod is, however, special and can hear the birth objects, as well as a number of other objects, speaking. They all say one name, usually a first and last, but some include a middle name or simply a first name.

Lucy is a distant relative of the Iremongers and she is plucked form an orphanage where she has been living since her parents died of a mysterious disease. Lucy is taken to Heap House to be a servant. There she meets Clod and the two become friends of sorts and then begin to fall in love. The arrival of Lucy, though, coincides with some strange things beginning to happen in the house. Objects begin to move around of their own accord, the adults become jumpy and frightened, and Clod begins hearing objects say other names and words in addition to their own names.

Spoiler Alert: I’m going to talk about parts of the book and how they fit with these themes that I saw and by necessity I’ll be spoiling the plot. Personally I don’t think it would ruin the book to know this information, but if you like to go into books without knowing too much, don’t read past here.

What was so interesting about the book is how the trash heaps and the birth objects become a commentary on our throw-away society. The trash continues to build up as people from London throw out all kinds of things, things that are still useable as well as trash. Loads of garbage come in everyday removing it from proper society and dumping it on the unfortunate souls who live in the Heaps. It’s kind of doomsday scenario for our culture now.

In an interesting twist it turns out that many objects used to be people. These people have been reduced to things. Things that contain such little value for others that they are thrown away. Somehow the Iremongers have figured out how to pull strength from these other people who are now their birth objects. Not only do the Iremongers have little regard for the poor who sift through the garbage trying to eek out an existence, and even their servants to some extent, the adults who are in the know actively seek to keep the objects as objects, hence the rules about caring for birth objects and keeping them close by. They have little regard for stuff and have come to view people as disposable and there for their own use.

This idea also plays into a look at the stratification of society and how it dehumanizes people and unfairly treats them. At the very bottom are the people who are “married to the heaps” and sift through the trash. They have an abysmal existence and don’t live long. They don’t marry or have families. Others, like Lucy’s parents, are slightly luckier and have jobs that indirectly involve sorting garbage. But the trash town is ravaged by a disease no one understands and no one is too keen on figuring it out for the sake of saving the poor.

Even the Iremongers, who are wealthy and deal with a problem no one else wants to deal with, isn’t accepted by polite society. The original Iremongers were ruthless, cruel, and underhanded. They bought up debt and trash and made money by being cold and calculating. People hate them for it, but they have money so they are part of the upper class albeit marginalized. This marginalization served to push them further into themselves and helped them create the society that is out in the trash heaps. One where human life is not worth anything unless it serves to strengthen the family (through their strange relationship with birth objects).

Heap House is an odd book, but if you like dark dystopian fiction and Victorian gothic literature this is a great combination. Carey does an incredible job world building, but also revealing these twists and turns to the back story. I wanted to turn the pages as fast as I could to discover more, but I also wanted to savor the book. This one will warrant a re-read, probably when the next book in the trilogy is released here in the US.

For more information about the trilogy check out Edward Carey’s website. You can explore Heap House and Foulsham as well as find out what your birth object would be.

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In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

YA Review: The Book of Unknown Americans by Cristina Henriquez

On 23, Dec 2014 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten

Unknown AmericansThe Book of Unknown Americans by Cristina Henriquez

From GoodReads: After their daughter Maribel suffers a near-fatal accident, the Riveras leave México and come to America. But upon settling at Redwood Apartments, a two-story cinderblock complex just off a highway in Delaware, they discover that Maribel’s recovery-the piece of the American Dream on which they’ve pinned all their hopes-will not be easy. Every task seems to confront them with language, racial, and cultural obstacles. At Redwood also lives Mayor Toro, a high school sophomore whose family arrived from Panamà fifteen years ago. Mayor sees in Maribel something others do not: that beyond her lovely face, and beneath the damage she’s sustained, is a gentle, funny, and wise spirit. But as the two grow closer, violence casts a shadow over all their futures in America. Peopled with deeply sympathetic characters, this poignant yet unsentimental tale of young love tells a riveting story of unflinching honesty and humanity that offers a resonant new definition of what it means to be an American. An instant classic is born.

I think technically this is an adult book. A good chunk of the narrative centers around adults and one of the major themes is the struggle of being a parent and wanting to protect your child even though you often can’t. However I think for older YA it’s a great foray into adult literature and does feature a teenage girl and boy very prominently.

In part, this was such a sweet story. You meet all these characters that live in a small dingy apartment building and hear their stories of why and how they came to the US. All have come for a better life and, while they may not have found great wealth, many of them are happy. Everyone is poor, but they manage to get by and support their families. You can’t help but feel for these people and come to care about them. The book certainly could have become overwrought trying to win your sympathy for poor immigrants, but it never felt disingenuous or contrived.

Alma and her husband (whose name is escaping me) have come to the US because Maribel, their daughter, has suffered a fall and a traumatic brain injury. Here they can get her into a good school that can help her recover and cope with her condition. Maribel is very beautiful, but her mind is not quite all there (although this begins to change as the story goes on). When they arrive Maribel is befriended by Mayor, a boy from downstairs. In the small moments he gets to know her and comes to love her for more than her beauty. While Alma is busy struggling to overcome language and cultural barriers and worrying over Maribel, Mayor comes to see her for herself and appreciate the girl she is post-accident- something Alma really struggles with.

There is of course strife, mostly inflicted by parents who are just trying to protect their kids. Maribel is being watched by some creep in the neighborhood and after an incident where he touches her, Alma tries to keep Maribel even closer. This interferes with her friendship with Mayor and gives it a bit of a Romeo and Juliet feel. There is also sadness in the book, it is a story about immigrants who are just barely making it in America. But this is tempered with the stories of the people in Alma’s apartment block and Maribel and Mayor’s love story.

The book also does a wonderful job highlighting that all immigrants are not the same. Some came here as children, others came here as adults. Some have been in trouble with the law, others have always been on the straight and narrow. Some had good jobs and opportunities back home while others were forced to leave because of political conflict or because of a lack of options. Some have struggled others have maintained a certain level of quality of life all along. Some have found love, others have not. Some come from Mexico, while some come from various parts of Central America. They are as varied in their stories as the white middle class. It’s a refreshing glimpse into a community that often gets painted with a broad brush by the media and politicians.

I feel like I don’t know exactly what to say about the book. It was just so enjoyable despite the sad parts. It felt like peeking into cars as you drive along and realizing people have lives separate from yours and wondering they are going.

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In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

Middle Grade Review: Revolution by Deborah Wiles

On 22, Dec 2014 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten

RevolutionRevolution by Deborah Wiles

From GoodReads: It’s 1964, and Sunny’s town is being invaded.  Or at least that’s what the adults of Greenwood, Mississippi, are saying. All Sunny knows is that people from up north are coming to help people register to vote.  They’re calling it Freedom Summer.
Meanwhile, Sunny can’t help but feel like her house is being invaded, too.  She has a new stepmother, a new brother, and a new sister crowding her life, giving her little room to breathe.  And things get even trickier when Sunny and her brother are caught sneaking into the local swimming pool — where they bump into a mystery boy whose life is going to become tangled up in theirs.

So as an introduction this is the second book in the Sixties Trilogy. The first was Countdown which was a story about Franny. In Revolution we meet Sunny, a young, white girl. While the two books are part of a trilogy they are really companion novels. Franny’s older sister was getting involved with the Civil Rights movement in Countdown. In Revolution she shows up in Mississippi for Freedom Summer working with various organizations that were getting African American citizens registered to vote in a very contentious area. She does not play a major role in the story exactly, but she is here and Franny is mentioned. You do not have to read these books in order.

I found Countdown to be very successful in integrating the ephemera and the story and in telling the story of Franny and her family and friendship struggles set against a turbulent historical time. My first thought upon seeing Revolution was, wow that’s long. And sadly I think that will be most kids reaction to this as well. Even though there are pictures that technically cut down the 495 pages I have a hard time believing most middle school kids will be willing to look past that page count.

It wasn’t nearly as successful with using photos, clips, and quotes as Countdown. Here many of the snippets were overly long and felt tangential at best. Often times it felt like Wiles was trying to make a point with them and a connection to the story, but it was only truly successful a few times. More often than not I found myself skimming them and feeling like I was missing something if I would only dig deeper. For a book that is this long I think you will be hard pressed to find a student who would sit down and puzzle out the connections.

All of this isn’t to say the story itself wasn’t good. It’s definitely a character-driven book and follows Sunny through a difficult time in her life as she adjusts to family drama and changes and learns to look outside herself. Sunny is rather selfish but she grows as the story moves along which makes her infinitely more likable. Sunny has a non-traditional family, but they are supportive and loving which is refreshing.

The story also squeezes in bits about an African American boy who becomes linked to Sunny and wants to get involved in the Freedom Summer movement. In a lot of ways I wished the story was more about him simply because this is still a book about a white girl and her white girl problems. The book does get points for having a diverse cast of characters, including central ones. Wiles also gets major points for the research she put into the story. She has a long note at the end about Freedom Summer and an extensive bibliography.

I know the book was a finalist for the National Book Award, but it kind of feels like it could be one of those books where it’s a good book grown-ups push on kids. I guess I just can’t get past the length and not plot driven enough to entice kids to read it in droves.

This isn’t to say the story wasn’t enjoyable- rereading this review it sounds like I hated the book, which I didn’t at all. You’re just going to have to find the right reader for this one. I’m sure they are out there. Personally I stuck with the book because of a family connection. My father in law grew up in the delta region of Mississippi. He remembers this time, and especially this summer, and told me the events really changed his mind about the Jim Crow laws he grew up with.

If this is a time period/topic that interests your readers I would also suggest The Watsons Go To Brimingham- 1963. For friendship and race relations I cannot recommend The Lions of Little Rock enough. That one is also a lot shorter. For a nonfiction suggestion try Freedom Riders: John Lewis and Jim Zwerg on the Front Lines of the Civil Rights Movement.

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In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

Guest Post: September Girls by Bennett Madison Review

On 10, Dec 2014 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten

So today I have the very first guest post on my blog. My best friend Alexis and I share similar (read: excellent) taste in books. She is always very thoughtful and insightful when we talk about literature so I love suggesting titles for her to read that I have found intriguing. A few months ago I read and reviewed September Girls by Bennett Madison and loved it. I was surprised to find there were a lot of people who thought it was sexist, so I asked Alexis if she would read it and see what she thought. Alexis kindly agreed to share her thoughts on the book with me and here on the blog. Thanks, Lex!

September GirlsIt took me a long time to get into this book. It took me weeks, and two tries. But I’m glad I stuck with it, because it was so worth it. Overall, the book was beautiful, lyrical, and thought-provoking. I found myself mulling over this story long after I had finished it, turning plot points and ideas over in my head in a way I haven’t had cause to do in a long time.

I had a hard time starting out because the narrator is rather obnoxious at the beginning. He’s a typical teenage kid, spewing snarky, apathetic nonsense about dicks and boobs and how fed up he is with his family. And while I recognized a lot of my own obnoxious teenage attitude in Sam, I knew that if I had to read a whole book of it I would throw it across the room. Luckily, this was not the case. As Sam arrives at the beach and begins to experience its beauty, its dilapidation, and its strangeness, his narrative voice begins to change. As he begins to accept what is going on around him, begins to think for himself, and allows the people he meets to affect him, he matures (as we all do). Sam’s slow growth is a joy to experience as he allows others to see who he truly is rather than what he thinks society expects him to be. He begins to be honest with himself, with others, and with the reader.

The other characters have wonderful arcs as well. Sam’s brother starts off even more obnoxious than Sam (he is clearly where Sam gets many of his misguided ideas of what it is to “be a man”) but slowly calms down and matures throughout the story. DeeDee, one of The Girls that Sam meets and gets to know well, undergoes a similar journey to Sam; finding herself and becoming true to who she is and what she wants rather than succumbing to the expectations of her community. Even the more peripheral characters such as Sam’s parents and a few of the other Girls don’t stay one-dimensional, even if their arcs aren’t as clear-cut or fleshed out as those of the main characters.

Bennett Madison’s writing is just fabulous. He manages to make even the most run-down, tacky, tawdry settings seem beautiful in their own strange way. When Sam arrives at the beach, the writing is ethereal and dream-like. Everything is rather vague, as though seen through water or through a summer haze, and not everything has quite taken shape. Characters seem to have vague and unexplainable reasons for doing things, like one has in a dream. Strange things happen and characters don’t question them as much as one would expect. Sam also starts off quite passive, allowing things to happen around him and wash over him, but not quite taking part yet. Unfamiliar things seem familiar, in a tip-of-your-tongue, memory-slipping-away sort of way. As the story and characters take shape, the writing also sharpens, reflecting the characters’ realizations of themselves and their desires. By the end, Sam is his own person rather than a collection of others’ expectations, and the other characters define themselves more honestly and definitively than they did at the start of the story. This is even more concretely exemplified in DeeDee’s transformation. She describes herself as quite literally taking shape as she discovers who she wants to be, and she learns that although we might think we want something, part of growing up is learning that things aren’t always what they seem.

I think what most surprised me as I reflected on this book, was how metaphorical it was without ever feeling metaphorical. I hate books where the author is clearly trying so hard to make metaphors, and it feels so contrived. “Oh I see, the car was a metaphor for life. How deep!” Blech. This book dealt with big themes and big ideas and never once did I feel like the author was beating me over the head with them. One of the themes that really resonated with me was the connection between growing up and going home. As we leave childhood and transition to adulthood, we often long for the simpler days when home equaled comfort and everything was simple and answers to questions were whatever Mom said they were. But as we grow up, we realize that we have to go find our own version of home, and make up our own path and our own answers along the way. Even if we return to what was once home, it can never be the same because we have changed, and it has changed in relation to us. This book dealt with that idea and its permutations so beautifully and gently.

The only thing that bugged me throughout the book were the few Little Mermaid references. So much of the story felt ethereal with just a hint of darkness lurking beneath. It was a perfect mood for the book, and pulled off so well. So the references felt jarring when they did appear. There weren’t many of them, but all the ones I noticed were, bizarrely, references to the Disney production. The reminder of that joyful, colorful, bubbly movie really clashed with the rest of the writing and took me out of the moment. I thought, if anything, there would be references to the original, and much darker, Hans Christian Anderson story. However, as complaints go, it’s really my only one and it’s rather small. Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to go find a beach and read up on Mermaid lore and mythology.

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