Sunday, March 22, 2020

Book review: Nowhere on Earth

Book Review: Nowhere on Earth by Nick Lake
Pub Date: 26 May 2020
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One word: derivative.

First, though, this book didn't know what it wanted to be. It felt easy to read, but right off the bat (chapter 1, paragraph 1) the author threw in "big words," which could easily turn off the reluctant reader who might have otherwise found this a highly accessible book.

Second, I honestly do not know if my high schoolers like reading stories where the teenage protagonist  (Emily) is smarter than the adults, but I personally dislike that as a plot method. Yes, teenagers mostly do think they are smarter than their parents, but to make that the premise of a book, as if the teen is a superhero and the parents are clueless, gets old.

OK, back to "derivative." Quite early in the story I felt like I was reading E.T., the Extra-terrestrial. This feeling resurfaced often. Then the Men in Black reference was repeated (and repeated) throughout the book. Then the plane crash was like Hatchet. I even got a hint of Star Wars with a line that sounded like, "These are not the droids you are looking for." Then a little bit of Star Trek was thrown in with their "prime directive"; Aidan couldn't interfere with the Earth's history. I hit my limit when Aidan's departure mimicked E.T.'s "I'll be right here" and I pictured the author thinking, "Queue E.T.s glowing finger." That wasn't the last unoriginal reference, though; the goodbye scene with Emily and Aidan turned into the intro from The Big Bang Theory.

I found the author's descriptions of Emily's father to be inconsistent in that his personality didn't match his character in the end. Throughout she describe him as "all military precision and attention," "Emily's dad had many useful things in his backpack - that was his style...," "...her dad, sticking to the logic of the story," "She was still averting her eyes. Her dad would see her lies in an instant, if he looked into them," "...her dad said needlessly, and Emily realized something else: this was how he dealt with stress. By trying to understand, to analyze," and "That was Emily's dad: no need to discuss what kind of message, or how, or anything irrelevant like that. Pure focus on the plan." Then at the end,
There was an awkward silence, and then they laughed. They tried not to talk too much about the time after the plane crash - he parents told themselves a story abut it, that they'd been in a rush to get to civilization, but Emily could tell they only partially believed it, and that the best way for them to reconcile the events with the kind of people they understood themselves to be was to not think about it.
To be fair, there were some positives. The author obviously took a great deal of thought into making Aidan's character's abilities consistent and plausible. That's a real plus, since the story wouldn't have worked at all without this being tight and dependable. I was also pleasantly surprised at how clever the author had Emily be at the end with the man in the gray suit, playing like she knew as much as her parents did about the events that occurred.

However, I think the author did more thinking about how he could mix ET with Agent J or Spock than he did about making an original and absorbing story. <2 stars="">

Monday, January 20, 2020

What I Want You to See
by Catherine Linka
Pub Date: 04 Feb 2020
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As a YA School Librarian, I try to read books from the perspective of my students. Although I've given this story a 5 ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐ for its story, I can only see it being a 3 ⭐⭐⭐ for my high school students. I loved the story and the style of writing, but I'm just not sure it's the type of story my students would enjoy. It's hard to say what about it does this: perhaps part writing style, part narrow character/plot appeal. The ability of a reader to relate to the world of an artist might affect how receptive the reader will be to this story. If it weren't for an art teacher in my current school who works with encaustics (hot wax painting), I might have been more lost in the story. 

Personally, I liked the writing style; although, it did take a bit of getting used to; but once I did, I flew through the rest of the story. It isn't a "great literature" style, more like both sophisticated and terse at the same time. The juxtaposition of style matches the main character's, Sabine's, duality, a teenager who has to grow into adulthood alone.

Linka fleshed out believable characters with realistic dialogue. Her characters don't feel cookie cutter or stereotypical. She didn't have to exaggerate or embellish and thereby kept her characters true to themselves. Linka also accomplished something I find that quite a few of the authors I read have a problem doing: she provided a satisfying and not forced ending to the story.

I appreciated the internal dialogues Sabine has with herself regarding morality. She ended up doing something that was morally correct and personally difficult. I found myself questioning myself as to what I might have done and when I might have done it. I can ask no more from an author than this: I was engaged in the story!

Saturday, January 04, 2020

Book Review: The Twin

The Twin by Natasha Preston
Publish date 3/3/2020
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Ms. Preston is way lucky the ending was worth the wait, because I almost never got there. About one-third through the story, I was ready to make this a DNF. It felt repetitive and formulaic. Been-there-done-that-check list: Evil twin ✔️, clueless adults ✔️, fickle friends ✔️... But I decided to stick with it to see what's it was about this story that was worth publishing it. I'm glad I did.

However, I'm not sure how I'm going to convince my high schoolers to keep reading past the commonplace plot other than to put a big "Wait for it...!" sign on the cover.

Some real positives, however, are that there were a lot of truisms in the story without being preachy. It didn't become a self-help book for someone who has lost a parent. I also feel like Ms. Preston did her best to make this a psychological thriller and not about mental health.

I'll get this for my high school library and wait to see what happens...

Saturday, December 28, 2019

Book Review: Break n Case of Emergency

Break in Case of Emergency
by Brian Francis
Pub Date: 04 Feb 2020
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First, I don't get the title; although, I get what the author wanted me to get from the title. It just didn't work. Even the addition of Trisha's egg gift to Toby didn't make the title any more relevant. I almost feel like the title is the opposite of what the author intended. 

Rural, conservative Canada... and a homophobic town. That's the setting. It was pretty one dimensional. I couldn't get past the characterizations and dialogue as stereotypical rather than as prose. The people in Toby's life are afraid to talk about everything: her mother's suicide, her father's abandonment, sex... They taught her to be humiliated by her parents. OK, I know that's how characterization occurs, but the turnaround time on the undoing of years of silence occurred quite quickly once Toby herself tries to commit suicide.

Toby's friendship with Trisha is seen from Toby's point-of-view, a skewed portrayal of a shallow, not-very-supportive long-time friend. Trisha seems to both protect and rip on Toby simultaneously; it feels superficial. And Trisha uses the phrase "bitch mom" when talking to Toby about Trisha's mother, but no where in the story does Mrs. Richardson get portrayed that way. 

Suicide isn't meant to be logical, and the author doesn't make it so. That's a good thing. Toby's justifications for committing suicide herself make that lack of logic clear. The only reason she offered that gave me pause was by asserting that people (she) loved her mom more when she was dead than when she was alive. It struck home for me how people convince themselves that others would be better off without them. But other reasons given felt more like exaggerations of teen drama. I don't know enough about suicide to know the accuracy of the reasons or if it was just the writing that didn't work for me. On the other hand, having Toby later be made to actually think about herself as one day being old felt like a genuine response to make to someone who attempted suicide.

I was taken aback by how quickly Toby turned around from thinking how she could try to commit suicide again to thinking there might actually be hope. It seemed to occur in one afternoon. Not only that, but that one afternoon also swayed her grandmother Kay to accept Toby's father again after years of animosity. The time frame for this turnaround was not realistic. It detracted from Toby's believability as a character.

I wanted to like this book more than I did, but I don't. I'm not sure how useful it would be in a YA collection in a community where teen suicides occur, especially since the repair of this character's psyche occurred in the snap of a finger... the egg shell never got broken (a-ha! Maybe that's what the title meant? There was never a second emergency?)

Book Review: What Unbreakable Looks Like

What Unbreakable Looks Like
by Kate McLaughlin
Pub Date: 23 Jun 2020
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There's a group in my high school promoting the understanding of human trafficking. I think I now understand it more with this book than from the group's efforts alone to educate our community. What Unbreakable Looks Like brought the topic home, literally. I embarrassingly never realized how close to home it could be. Thank you, Kate McLaughlin, for this important story.

At first I was thinking this coverage of the topic was too much for some of my high schoolers, but I was self-censoring. If it could happen to my students, they should be able to read about it. I'm also going to recommend it as a book club title sponsored by the group in my school who have taken on this terrible topic.

What Unbreakable Looks Like is an accessible read. I read it in one day, which shows how well-written and well-told this compelling story is. I made a note at one point in the book at which Alexa (not Poppy) sees a familiar, i.e., threatening, car and speculates who is behind the wheel. McLaughlin deftly uses Alexa's thoughts juxtaposed with the reality of the situation to allow the reader to experience what Alexa experiences. Not once did I feel I encountered a character who did not have a part to play in this story; the characters were real, three-dimensional people. The flow of the story, which flashed back and forth in time, didn't confuse the reader and might have even helped to break the tensions in the action to allow the reader to process the intensities.

I highly recommend this visceral novel to high schoolers who are drawn to social issues or to the YA genre of realistic fiction that includes death, drugs, and disease (which is actually a genre-subsection in my library!) ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

Saturday, December 14, 2019

Book Review: Jane Anonymous by Laurie Faria Stolarz

Book Review
Jane Anonymous by Laurie Faria Stolarz
Pub Date: 07 Jan 2020
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LOVED IT! I got almost half way through the book before I even stopped to make my usual notes. Gripping, engaging, accessible, and intriguing. Then when I did finally make my first note, it was to express how the box of brownies Jane has with her in captivity reminded me of Wilson in the movie "Castaway." And that's a good thing (for me) since I love watching that movie.

I cannot go into how much this book pulled me in, or I will give away some of the plot. Suffice it to say that I 😲OMG'ed to myself when the abductor was revealed. Since this genre isn't my usual fare, maybe I just wasn't able to piece things together, so I was wonderfully surprised. I'd rather like to think, though, that Stolarz did a great job of weaving a believable tale that allowed her reader to be, well, wonderfully surprised! I had another WOWOWOWOW moment about 85% through the story, which I also cannot describe without giving away some of the mystery. However, it occurred regarding a drawing when the psychological background of the abductor was being revealed. Stolarz crafted both believable characters and a plot that didn't use ploys to make it happen.

I also really liked the way Stolarz allowed Jane to organically find someone with whom she could click in order to get the help she needed after her kidnapping. It felt real or natural for a traumatized teen to reject the counselors her equally traumatized mother wanted her to see.

I also liked Stolarz's use of NOW and THEN to guide the reader through the story. My favorite use of this was between chapters 59 and 60. I liked that NOW chapter 59 was followed by another NOW chapter. It kept the reader in an important moment of the story.

Regarding the plot thread of the shelter dog, I did note to myself that "maybe it's too obvious a connection between Jane and the dog's plight, but maybe that's how it works in real life, too." And being a dog love, I'm glad that sometimes, yes, that's exactly what happens; we heal each other.

In both books and movies, I get the feeling it is really difficult to create an ending. While I was pleased that the story didn't have a tidy ending for Jane, the epilogue felt extraneous and forced, like Stolarz had to try to explain what really couldn't be explained... Jane just had to work through what happened to her, and leaving the reader with a dreamlike final explanation detracted from the work the reader knows Jane has ahead of her. Still, a 5 ☆☆☆☆☆!

Wednesday, December 04, 2019

Book Review: Oasis by Katya de Becerra

Book Review:
Oasis by Katya de Becerra
Pub Date: 07 Jan 2020
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I so wanted to like this as much as I started out liking it. It really pulled me in quickly. I can see how it was initially described as Lost mixed with Twilight Zone, but I guess I was hoping for more Twilight Zone mixed with Lost.  I personally enjoy more scifi than fantasy, and Oasis was definitely more fantasy than scifi.

Confession: At first I thought the "diversity thing" was over the top, but I quickly understood the setting was absolutely appropriate for scholars from all over to participate in an archaeological dig. I was glad to find the mix of characters was not just a ploy for inclusiveness. I did have a bit of a struggle with some of the characterization (Would a 13 year old boy run to greet an older teenager girl and hug her? What about a brooding, moody, slightly older assistant would appeal so strongly to a teenage girl?) On the other hand, I give de Becerra props for being able to provide two different personalities to each character depending on the plot influences.

From what follows you might get the feeling I really didn't like the book, but I did. I just liked the beginning and where I thought the dig plot was going more than I did where it ended up. So what follows in this review are things that detracted from my fuller enjoyment of the book:

  • I get the teen hormone thing, but the kissing did seem to appear at random (or inopportune) times. I guess that's how it is with teens. I know the kissing was the plot device to imbue the main character with self-consciousness and doubt, but it seemed to belie her strength and wisdom as a strong female character. 
  • In one scene, the brooding, moody character tells the main character, "It'll be all right," after she says she has doubts about their situation. It reminded me of the insurance commercial where the frightened teens agree to run into the chainsaw shack instead of escaping into the running car. A bit too obvious that danger lurked ahead.
  • Another short scene was full of psychobabbly, new-agey philosophy. I wondered at the time I was reading it if teens like that mumbo-jumbo and would buy into it.
  • For me the depth of the stolen tablet's insight into the characters was lessened by the fully developed characterization of the main players previously by the main character. I just thought the part where the tablet "made things clearer for its host" really just reiterated the things that main character had already revealed about her friends.
  • When the characters each experienced the tablet in different ways, why was Rowen's depiction one of a tree? Nothing else in the story implied that vision, so it felt random to me.
  • Is it me, or was it too obvious for the author to use the terms "alternate reality" and "parallel universe" toward the end of the story. Did that need to be spelled out so blatantly? And what about the use of "alien threat"? That TOTALLY changed what the dark essence was for me and took me even further out of what I had come to find comfort in while trying to stay engrossed with the story. An alien threat is a very specific choice of words that restricts the reader's imagination. 
The book had a really strong beginning; I'll give it that. I was compelled to read it, and then I was compelled to read it to see if it dug its way out of the hole it fell into. If you're a fantasy fan, it did. If you're a scifi fan, it stayed buried.

Sunday, September 08, 2019

Book Review: Crying Laughing

Book Review
Crying Laughing by Lance Rubin
Publishing date: November 19, 2019
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5 ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
If we couldn't get more of Denton Little, at least we have Winnie Friedman. Cleverly written story about comedy without being forced and corny -- quite an achievement. Makes me want to start an improv club for my students!

Even though I know a bat mitzvah is for girls and a bar mitzvah is for boys, and the reader is told about the character's bat mitzvah, I still found myself [pleasantly] surprised when I absorbed that the protagonist was a female and not a male. This is a good thing since I was able to break myself from stereotypical thinking early in the story. I think that the character is Jewish also makes for a subtle take on the humor that other ethnicities might not have inherent in their culture, the subtleties between puns and sarcasm, which are so integral to Jewish and Yiddish parlance. In other words, this mix of character development worked very well for this story.

And speaking of inherent ... sporks are inherently funny. Just sayin'...

Teens will relate to the cute humor throughout the story, too. For example, categorizing potential relationships as "hope-will-flirts," "neutral-will-flirts," and "please-don't-flirts" is funny and quite teenager-ish.

While the humor carries the story afloat, the author does an a-ma-zing job of showing a teen's understanding of complicated adult conversations. Winnie's father has ALS, and the subject is handled honestly from the patient-, the parent, and the family-perspectives. All of the characters are treated with equal humanness and not made into oversimplified caricatures.

The few criticisms I have do not deter from the 5 ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐ or the story. There are just a few times where the writing is too PC or 'too' inclusive just to fit in with the contemporary times....Jews, hijabs, and trigger warnings. There are also some contemporary references that might date the book before it's ready to be a thing of the past: Polly-O string cheese (specifically Polly-O), the TV show Parks and Rec, Totes McGotes, and FOMO.

Regardless, I loved this book and cannot wait to get it for my high school library!