Dying to Meet You

by Kate Klise, Illustrated by M. Sarah Klise
First sentence: “By turning this page and the pages that follow, you hereby release the compilers of this correspondence from all liability related to thoughts, ruminations, hallucinations, and dreams (good or bad) of or pertaining to ghosts, friendly or otherwise.”
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Content: So, this is a weird one: the narrator’s an older man and there’s a bit of a love story, but the skill level is beginning chapter plus it’s full of illustrations. My professor has this as a middle school-level book, and the vocabulary level is a bit high, but I’d be tempted to put it in the Beginning Chapter books (Grades 1-3) section of the bookstore.

I’ll say this up front: the best part of this book is the names. Celebrated children’s author I.B. Grumply is looking for a house to rent so he can finish the latest book in his best-selling series. He rents 43 Old Cemetary Road, which is, unfortunately, haunted by the ghost of a librarian and unpublished writer, Olive C. Spence. It also comes with a kid,  Seymour Hope, whose parents (awful as they are) have up and left him. The basic plot is this: I. B. Grumply wants peace and quiet, doesn’t believe there’s a ghost, and rages at Seymour until his convinces Grumply that the ghost is real (and cooks a mean dinner) and then they set about purchasing the house so they can all live happily ever after.

So, this was one of the books in the mystery unit for school, and I have to disagree: there is NO mystery here. It’s a ghost story, plain and simple. And it works as a ghost story. I liked the humor — the names are the best — but otherwise, this one was entirely forgettable.

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Ask the Passengers

by A. S. King
First sentence: “Every airplane, no matter how far it is up there, I send love to it.”
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Content: There’s almost sex, references to pot smoking (by an adult), and a number of f-bombs. It’s in the Teen section (grades 9+) at the bookstore.

Astrid Jones’ parents moved her from New York City to Union Valley, a wealthy small town somewhere in Pennsylvania (or Ohio; I never quite figured it out) when she was 10. In the seven years since, Astrid has felt like an outsider, and so, as her family slowly dissolves — her father off smoking his pot, her mother to her job, her sister to being popular — Astrid spends her time surviving, trying to figure out if she’s gay, and sending her love to the airplanes that fly above.

Of course there’s more to the story than that: Astrid has a girlfriend she’s keeping secret from everyone, she and her friends get busted for being underage at a gay bar, she explores the philosophy of Socrates, and she and her family try to (maybe) figure out how to be a family.

The thing that struck me most — and this is just because of who I am and my personal experiences — is that King nailed the feeling of being on the outside. Especially when you’re on the outside in a small, conservative, wealthy town. Where everyone knew each other from the time they were little and then you move in and they never really — even if you do have a couple of friends — accept you for who you are because you don’t fit their idea of “acceptable”. There was  LOT in here about appearances and labels and fitting in and caring what other people think of you, and that’s what resonated. I think, especially since this was published seven years ago, that our ideas of LGBT and labels about sexuality have changed (mine have,  at least) and so the fact that Astrid felt that she needed to come out as definitely gay was a bit off-putting: everyone around her pushed her to label herself, whereas I think now we might be more open to her saying “I’m in love with a girl” and not making her label herself as “gay” because of that. But maybe I’m wrong.

At any rate, this gave me a lot to think about. I loved it.

Joey Pigza Swallowed the Key

by Jack Gantos
First sentence: “At school they say I’m wired bad, or wired mad, or wired sad, or wired glad, depending on my mood and what teacher has ended up with me.”
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Content: It’s short, and it’s got short chapters, so probably good for reluctant readers. It’s in the middle grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore.

Joey Pigza has problems sitting still and focusing. It’s just the way he’s “wired”: he has an excess of energy and he just can’t focus. Unfortunately, that tends to get him in trouble, especially in school. That is, until one day when he accidentally hurts another student with scissors. Then he’s sent to a “special ed” (ugh) school in order to figure out how to behave better. Which not only involves getting Joey the right medication, but als teaching him how to focus so he can learn.

Honestly? I wanted to smack the adults in the book. I guess my parenting style is “let them be who they are” which I suppose doesn’t always translate well into strict social situations, but HONESTLY. I know Joey has ADHD, and couldn’t focus, and it was a medical condition that was interfering with his learning, but I wanted to shake every single adult that told him to sit still and be “normal”. NORMAL? Really?

But Joey, I felt so bad for him. His mother abandoned him (but came back), his grandmother was abusive, his teachers were impatient with him… he just needed some time, some caring, and some attention to help him focus. Okay, so maybe there’s a lot of class issues in this one as well: they were lower class — his mom worked at a salon — and so she didn’t have the time to sit at home and interact with him in ways that he needed. And his diet of candy and fast food also is a class thing. Maybe I’m reading too much into this one, but there’s a lot to unpack about class there, I think. And bad adulting. And about kids with ADHD.

All this from a lower-end middle grade book. Go figure.

The War That Saved My Life

by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley
First sentence: “‘Ada! Get back from that window!’ Mam’s voice, shouting.”
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Content: There is some depiction of abuse, and tense moments when there is bombing. The bookstore has it in its middle grade (grades 3-5) section, but the state awards deemed it for 6-8th graders.

I know I’ve needed to read this one for a while now, and when my class did a unit on other awards and we were instructed to read a Schneider Family Award winner, I jumped at the chance to finally cross this one off my list.

Ada was born with a club foot. And, because her mother is AWFUL, she was raised to think that somehow her foot made her less. She wasn’t allowed out in public, she couldn’t walk, and her mother shut her in a cupboard and hit her every time she did something her mother didn’t like. And then Germany threatened invasion, and the children of London were sent to the countryside. Ada wasn’t on the list; her mother really was that cruel, but she decided she couldn’t let her younger brother go by himself, and so she went too.

Once there, they were placed with Susan Smith, who had been grieving the loss of her friend, Becky (it was unstated, but I believe they were partners), for two years. Susan didn’t want children, but she made the best of it. And, that simple act changed everyone’s lives.

It is a simple book, following Ada as she figured out how to live a life. Bradley does really well at portraying a traumatized child; Ada is sullen and ungrateful and unresponsive, and has panic attacks set on by the smallest things. But Susan is patient and kind and Ada flourishes. This really is a testament to kindness and resilience and the human spirit.

Very good.

Daughter of the Siren Queen

by Tricia Levenseller
First sentence: “The sound of my knife slitting across a throat feels much too loud in the darkness.”
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Review copy provided by the publisher.
Release date: February 27, 2018
Others in the series: Daughter of the Pirate King
Content: There is violence, obviously, and a LOT of sexual tension and kissing, but nothing ever happens. It’ll be in the the YA section (grades 6-8) of the bookstore.

Spoilers for Daughter of the Pirate King, obviously.

Picking up where we left off, Alosa has a copy of the map to the secret Isla del Canta, where the legendary treasure of the sirens lay. Initially, she plans to help her father find it, and then help rule the seas with him. Except, when she and her crew show up at the keep, Alosa discovers a secret that turns everything upside down. Suddenly, Alosa and her crew are no longer working with her father, they’re racing against him. And it will take everything that Alosa has to beat him to the island, and ultimately, defeat him.

Again: So. Much. Fun. There really isn’t a whole lot more to these (except for a very woke love interest), but man, female pirates are fun. Alosa is a great character, and I loved her relationship with Riden and with her crew. I loved that Levenseller was ruthless; she killed characters I thought were safe, which upped the ante and made the tension that much greater. I have a slight quibble with the end, but I’m going to let it go because it really was just fun to read.

And… it’s only a duology! So the story wrapped up. YAY! That said, I wouldn’t mind spending more time with Alosa and her crew again.

Cybils Reading Round-Up, Part 2

Frogkisser!
by Garth Nix
First sentence: “The scream was very loud and went on for a very long time.”
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Content: There’s really nothing “objectionable”, but it just feels… older. It’s in the YA section (grades 6-8) of the bookstore, but I’m sure a fifth grader who really likes quests and/or fairy tales would enjoy it too.

Anya is a princess in a minor kingdom, whose parents have died and left her and her older sister to be raised by her stepmother (who is off doing…something) and her husband (whom Anya calls her “stepstepfather”), who is trying to take over the kingdom. So, Anya is sent on a Quest, nominally to find the ingredients to make a lip balm to turn Prince Duncan back from a frog, but ultimately, for control of her kingdom.

It’s a charming little tale; I enjoyed the fairy tale references (Snow White is a male wizard, etc.) and it was mildly funny, but honestly, it was just too long. I lost interested about 23 of the way through, and skipped to the end to find out how it all finished, and I don’t feel like I missed much. I’m sure it’s enjoyable; I just don’t have the patience for it right now.

Beyond the Doors
by David Neilsen
First sentence: “Edward Rothbaum was in a grumpy mood.”
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Content: It’s a bit odd; it’s long, but there are interior illustrations, so it’s like the publisher (what’s up Random House?!) couldn’t figure out if it was for the younger or older end of the middle grade spectrum. It’s in the Middle Grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore.

The Rothbaum’s mom has been missing for years, and then a freak fire leaves their dad in a coma. So they’re bundled off to their (previously unknown) Aunt Gladys’s house, where there are no doors and nothing to eat but cereal. And Gladys is a bit… off… as well. Through some digging, the Rothbaums discover the real secret: their grandfather discovered an ability to jump into memories, and has gotten stuck there. And it’s up to the kids to figure out how to solve the problem.

This was fun. Nothing super brilliant, but I liked the kids and the idea of memory jumping is a clever one.

A Face Like Glass
by Frances Hardinge
First sentence: “One dark season, Grandible became certain that there was something living in his domain within the cheese tunnels.”
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Content: It’s long and slow moving. So, maybe not for a reluctant reader. It’s in the Young Adult section (grades 6-8) of the bookstore.

Neverfell is an outsider in the world of Caverna, an abomination… because you can see her emotions on her face. So, when Neverfell gets caught up in court politics, the fate of Caverna lies within her hands.

I usually like Hardinge’s books, but this one just fell flat for me. I wanted to like it, and I liked parts of it, but it was just… too long. And it didn’t hold my interest. I would put it down for days and just not care enough to pick it back up. (I would have abandoned it, except for the Cybils.) It’s not that it was badly written, or a bad story… it just didn’t hold my interest. So maybe it was more me than anything else.

Dragon’s Green
by Scarlet Thomas
First sentence: “Mrs. Breathag Hide was exactly the kind of teacher who gives children nightmares.”
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Content: There are a few scary bits. It’s in the middle grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore.

Effie Trulove’s grandfather spent time teaching her about the magical world, and even though she’s not quite sure she believes him, it was spending time. But, he’s passed on, and suddenly Effie’s thrown into situations where she comes to realize that, yes, her grandfather wasn’t making things up: there really is magic. So with the help of her trusty new friends, she can defeat the Bad Guys (who are out to steal all the magic books), and figure out her place in the magic world.

I said, once, that silly names and magic don’t a fantasy make. And I think that holds here. The names bugged me (so very much), as did the gendering of  the friends (the boys were the Warrior and Scholar, the girls were the Witch and the Healer, though Effie was the Hero). I thought it would have more of a D&D feel, and be predictable that way, but it veered a bit from that, which was nice. It just… bugged me, in the end. I’m not sure I can really put my finger on why. But this was was most definitely not for me.

American Heart

by Laura Moriarty
First sentence: “One thing someone just meeting me might want to know is why I have two first names.”
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Review copy provided by the publisher.
Release date: January 30. 2018
Content: There are some disturbing situations, including an almost rape and violence against minorities. It will be in the YA (grades 6-8) section of the bookstore.

Sarah-Mary and her younger brother are living with their aunt in Hannibal, Missouri, because their mother is one of those Bad Mothers who can’t take care of her children. Her younger brother is okay with this (except for the missing mom part), but it chafes with Sarah-Mary. She has a limited amount of freedom, which chafes. And then, she and her brother meet an Iranian woman, whom Sarah-Mary ends up calling Chloe, who is  on the run, avoiding the mandatory Muslim registry that has been implemented for “our safety”. Her brother begs Sarah-Mary to help get Chloe to safety in Canada, and of course Sarah-Mary promises. And thus begins the adventure.

It’s not a pleasant one, either. Moriarty attempts to focus on the wrongness of profiling people by race or religion (there’s this scene where Sarah-Mary witnesses a raid on a house where the person was harboring Muslims) and touches on prejudice and discrimination. She also make sure that the dangers of two women hitchhiking are amply described.  Nothing “bad” ever happens, but the novel brushes up against it several times, and it’s only through luck, wit, and technology that Sarah-Mary and Chloe get away.

And along the way Sarah-Mary learns the one great lesson that we all need to learn, especially right now: people are people. They all have hopes, dreams, and stories. And that judging a whole religion or race by one person’s actions not only is not fair, it’s wrong. However, the Muslim registry doesn’t miraculously go away at the end of the book, nor does Sarah-Mary’s actions have a larger Meaning, so maybe Moriarty missed the mark on something big here.

Perhaps, though, that’s also the problem with the book. That Sarah-Mary (read: white people) needed a Muslim woman (read: any diverse person of color) to Show Her the Way. As a concept, it’s clumsy, and I’ve read some responses on the book that lead me to think that it might be harmful, reinforcing White Stereotypes of Islam and Muslims, and just the White Savior narrative. I did enjoy this while reading it, but in retrospect, I’m not sure it was the best idea for a white woman to tackle something like this.