Educated

by Tara Westover
First sentence: “I’m standing on the red railway car that sits abandoned next to the barn.”
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Release date: February 20, 2018
Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: There are some harrowing scenes of abuse and some mild swearing (no f-bombs). It will be in the biography section of the bookstore, but I think any junior or senior in high school may be interested in it.

I was handed this book because I’m the Mormon on staff, and because Westover grew up Mormon, in Idaho, everyone just assumed I needed to read it. Having finished it, I’m here to say that it’s not for those of us who are Mormon (though I think we’ll see some inherent criticisms of our culture, that others might miss), but it’s for everyone, in the way The Glass Castle is for everyone. Westover’s story is remarkable.

The basics are these: she grew up on a mountain in Idaho, the child of a fundamentalist/survivalist father who used religion as the reason to spurn the government. She was a wild child, helping out in the junkyard, avoiding books, until her older brother, Tyler, left and went to college. That spurred something in her, and she tried to go to school (they were all nominally “homeschooled”, which is code for “there are scriptures lying around the house if you choose to read them”) but consistently fell back into old habits. It wasn’t until she began being physically abused by her older brother that she felt a need to leave. She got into BYU (she studied for the ACT, and managed to get a good enough score), and once there learned just how far from “normal” her family was.

It’s a remarkable journey, not just because Westover got “out” of the situation she was in (though there really isn’t a resolution with her abusive brother, in the end, which while disappointing in a narrative setting, makes sense), but because of her reflections on education, class, money, religion, and the government. It’s an interesting line she walked, between her family and the education she received, first at BYU and then at Cambridge, but it is made so by her writing, her open, honest (sometimes brutally so) reflections on not just her family (she points no fingers) but also herself. This book feels like a work of therapy; like Westover needed to write it to understand herself, and by sharing it with the rest of us, we may understand not just her family, but ourselves as well.

I’m not sure remarkable is the best word for it. I was caught up in the story, my breath taken away (as a mother I was shocked and appalled: how COULD they let these things happen to their daughter!) and I was in awe that she found a way for herself.

Excellent.

With Malice

withmaliceby Eileen Cook
First sentence: “I’m not a morning person.”
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Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: There’s a handful (less than six) of f-bombs, some reference to teen drinking and sex. It’s in the Teen section (grades 9+) of the bookstore.

Jill wakes up in a hospital, with no memory of anything in the past two months. She’s told two things: she was in a car accident on her school trip in Italy and her best friend, Simone, is dead. Oh: and she’s being investigated with murder.

It’s a simple plot, as we go through Jill’s recovery and her attempts to reclaim her memory. We read through police interviews with people who were close to both Jill and Simone and with those who were on the Italy trip with them. We go through blog posts for people who believe that Jill is guilty, and see the spin that the expensive lawyer Jill’s dad hires puts on everything. What we don’t have is Jill’s experience in Italy.

Which means, while this book doesn’t have much going for it with plot, it’s still incredibly gripping. Even though it’s a first person narrative, because of the accident, you don’t know what’s truly a “memory” for Jill, and what she’s just recreated from what other people have told her. It really is left up to the reader to decide guilt or innocence, and it’s a fascinating experience.

I couldn’t put it down.

Husky

by Justin Sayre
First sentence: “Ducks, now would you look at this!”
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Release date: September 22, 2015
Review copy provided by the publisher rep.
Content: There’s really nothing objectionable, though the subject matter is a bit on the more mature side. It will be in the YA section of the bookstore, though it’s probably good for 5th graders as well.

Davis is an only child, living with his mother — who is gone all the time, working at the bakery she owns — and his grandmother. His father’s out of the picture (dead? I think?) and his grandpa died a few years ago. And his grandmother is one of those Irish Grandmothers: overprotective, nosy, loud. The only real escape Davis has is his opera music (yes, he likes opera. No, it doesn’t come off as weird) and his friends, Sophie and Ellen. Except that Ellen is a sarcastic mean and likes Charlie (whom Davis isn’t really quite sure of), and Sophie has been hanging out with Allegra who is one of those stereotypical Mean Girls. So, where does that leave Davis?

During this summer before high school, Davis tries to figure all of it out.

I wanted to like it. Partially because I like our rep, and she really liked this one. But. I just didn’t get it. Davis was bothered by his weight, but it’s not a fat book. Which is a good thing. It’s not one of those books where he has to Overcome Being Fat in order to be happy. But, it’s also not a Accept Yourself and Be Happy book, either. On the one hand, it’s a process, and it doesn’t have a tidy happily-ever-after, which I respect. But I didn’t like the underlying assumption — especially at the end — that Davis was gay. A boy who listens to opera and whose best friends are girls isn’t necessarily gay. (Way to play into stereotypes.) That really bothered me, in the end.

Davis was a decent enough character; a bit lethargic for my tastes, and prone to being a reactor instead of someone who actually participates in his own life. But, it wasn’t a bad thing.

Aside from the stereotypes, I really can’t pinpoint why I didn’t love this book. It just wasn’t my thing.

Everything Everything

by Nicola Yoon
First sentence: “
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Release date: September 1, 2015
Review copy picked up at CI3 and signed by the author.
Content: There is a few mild swear words, and one sort-of on-screen, sort-of-off-screen sex scene. The publisher has it listed for grades 7 and up, which puts it in the YA section, but I might move it to the Teen (grades 9+).

Madeline has spent her entire life inside. White furniture, white walls, filtered air, the whole deal. It’s because she has Severe Combined Immunodefiency (SCID), which basically means she’s allergic to the world. Any little disease, any little microorganism will kill her. So, she stays inside, reading, doing her online school.

And then Olly moves in next door.

Okay: yes, the plot is predictable. Boy moves in next door, they meet and have instalike, and suddenly the girl is questioning her Life Choices and Taking Risks.

But I ate this up. I don’t know if it was the short chapters, snippets of Madeline’s thoughts and observations, interspersed by some charming line drawings. Or the parallel worlds between her being trapped inside her house because she’s sick and Olly being trapped because of his abusive father. Or just the chemistry between Madeline and Olly, which was fantastic. Or the fact that Madeline was Afro-Asian, and yet it wasn’t really an issue. She just was. Her mother is suffenciently controlling (for good reason), and I adored Carla the Latina nurse, who was really more of a mother figure to Madeline.

And all of this added up to overcome the predictable plot and make me fall for this book. Another absolutely amazing debut.

Kissing in America

by Margo Rabb
First sentence: “According to my mother, my first kiss happened on a Saturday in July.”
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Review copy pilfered off the ARC shelves at my place of employment.
Content: There’s a few mild swear words, s**t being the most prevalent. It’s in the YA section (grades 6-8) of the bookstore.

Eva Roth adores romance novels, much to her feminist mother’s chagrin. Eva loves the sweeping romance, the rugged men (who are ruggedly handsome), the idea of falling in love. She lives in New York City, though; someplace where there aren’t rugged cowboys or Highland Scotsmen to sweep her off her feet.

Then she meets Will: cool, on the swim team, completely inaccessible. Until he is: he’s kissing her on the sidewalk in front of a subway stop, and Eva’s world changes completely.

Enough so that when Will moves to LA  to live with his dad, Eva concocts a way to go see him: she and her best friend, Annie, are going on a cross-country bus trip to be on this Smart Kids game show. Just so she can see Will.

It sounds like a fluffy romance, no? And in many ways it is: Eva falls in love, other people fall in love, there is sweeping kisses and lots of corny romance novel references. But this novel has a darker undercurrent running through it: The reason for the bus trip is that Eva has been afraid to fly, ever since her father died in a freak plane crash.  In fact, the novel turns out less to be about romance than about Eva’s relationship with her mother, grief, and moving on since her father’s death. Which is not what I was expecting.

Even though it wasn’t quite the fluffy romance I was expecting, I did enjoy the story. I liked Eva’s relationship with her best friend, Annie. (Though I wanted to smack her aunt and mother. Seriously overprotective, even if it is understandable.) I liked the road trip part, with Eva getting out of her bubble and routine. (Though it was quite tame compared to, say, the bus trip in Mosquitoland.) And I did like that everything wasn’t “happily ever after”;  it was realistic while being hopeful, and that worked for me.

A good summer read.

Red Queen

by Victoria Aveyard
First sentence: “I hate First Friday.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Review copy brought back from the ABA Winter Institute for me by a co-worker.
Content: There’s a lot — a LOT — of violence, some of it gruesome. It’s in the teen section (grades 9+) of the bookstore, and I’m going to leave it there, but I wouldn’t be adverse to giving it to a kid who could stomach Maze Runner or The Hunger Games.

This one is getting All the Buzz (at least in the bookselling circles). It’s got a great cover (seriously), and it’s another one of those vaguely apocalyptic books and so I think publishers are expecting it to do Great Things. I don’t know if that raised my expectations — it is a debut novel, so I don’t know how high they could have been — but this fell flat for me.

Mare Barrow is a Red. Which means, in this world (it was never clear if it’s Earth or a different world entirely), that she’s considered low. Base. A slave. Because her blood bleeds red. See, in this world, the people who have all the power are the ones whose blood is Silver (perhaps because they were aliens that invaded the planet hundreds of years ago? It was never clear.) and because they have powers that give them an advantage over those low Reds. Mare figures she’s going to spend her short life stealing to get by until she gets conscripted into the war that’s been going on for a hundred years, in which she will die.

And then her life changes: she meets Cal, a Silver, who gets her a job in the palace, and then during the Queenstrial (in which Silvers from the noble houses compete to become the prince’s bride), she discovers (quite by accident) that she has powers, like a Silver.

All this sets in motion political intrigue, betrayal, and a lot of fighting that will ultimately be Mare’s downfall. Maybe.

The plot doesn’t sound half bad: there’s a bit of a forced love triangle, and a twist at the end that wasn’t entirely unexpected. But the thing that kept pulling me out of the book was two simple words: smirk and sneer. EVERYONE smirked. EVERYONE sneered. And after the first 15 times, I noticed every time someone did. Then after the next 30, I lost patience with the book and skipped to the end. I did go back and fill in the middle, just to see how we got to the end, but I ended up loathing the book for two simple words. I couldn’t get past it. That’s just lazy writing and lazy editing (and the book would have been 20 pages shorter if they were all deleted). Sure, there were some interesting ideas about class and race and bias, but I couldn’t rise above the writing level to appreciate them.

Definitely for someone less picky than me.

Absolutely Almost

by Lisa Graff
First sentence: “Not everybody can be the rock at the top of the rock pile.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Content: It’s pretty basic: short chapters, nothing too difficult plot or language-wise. It’d be good for reluctant readers as well as stronger ones. It’s in the middle grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore.

Albie has spent his life being almost. Almost smart enough. Almost good enough. Almost observant enough. But not quite. In fact, he’s been kicked out of his fancy prep school because he wasn’t smart enough, and his parents sent him to a public school. It’s never said what kind of learning disorder Albie has, but he definitely has one: math is hard, spelling is near impossible, and he just can’t live up to his busy parents’ expectations.

But things are going to change for Albie — not drastically, but some — because of a couple of teachers and a nanny who truly see potential in Albie. Not for just almost, but on his own terms.

It’s a simple story, following Albie over the course of most of a school year. He does learn and grow, and figures out things about friendship and how to stand up to his overbearing parents. It’s one of those affirming books: kids can be successful on their own terms and in their own way, and we need to appreciate that without making them measure up to some sort of standard. It’s all fine and good and sweet (and I did like Albie, quite a bit), but it lacked depth for me. Sure, it’s a middle grade novel, but that doesn’t mean that there can be some bite, some seriousness to it.

I don’t know if I was looking to shed tears, or to be Truly Moved, but I did feel like this one felt a little flat. Not bad, but not amazing, either.