Marcus Vega Doesn’t Speak Spanish

by Pablo Cartaya
First sentence: “Most kids clear out of the way when I walk down the hall.”
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Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: There’s nothing “objectionable” language or other-wise, but the main character is 14 years old, and the themes seemed a bit more mature than the usual middle grade fare. So, it’s in the YA (grades 6-8) section of the bookstore.

Marcus Vega is a very large 14 year old. He’s one of those kids that went through puberty early, and he’s the giant in the hallway. He uses this to his advantage: he charges kids for his “protection” services, walking them to school and home again and otherwise being the heavy, enforcing the principal’s rules (for a fee). The money goes home to help out his struggling single mom, and he’s also super protective of his younger brother, Charlie, who has Down Syndrome. So, it’s not out of character for Marcus to punch a kid — the school bully, Stephen — for making fun of his brother. However, it’s his word against Stephen’s, and Stephen’s parents are the super involved, high donors type, and so it’s Marcus who ends up being threatened with expulsion. Thankfully, it’s right before spring break, and Marcus’s mom decides that it’s about time for them to head to Puerto Rico to meet Marcus’s father’s (who left when Marcus was four) family.

Marcus then becomes obsessed with finding and confronting his father, if only for closure. This takes him, his mother, and his brother, all over the island, meeting different members of the extended Vega clan. But, mostly what this book becomes at this point is an extended love letter to Puerto Rico. The book starts with a blurb about the hurricanes that hit the island last year, and how many of these places in the book are no longer like Cartaya describes them. But, as a reader, you can tell the affection that Cartaya has for the island. It’s a charming, sweet, Spanish- and Puerto Rican-infused book. Sure, Marcus has a happy ending but that’s not the point of the book, I think. It’s more to raise awareness: there is a culture and a history in Puerto Rico that’s rich and rewarding and even though they’re different from us, they’re also Americans too.

And while it’s not as good as visiting Puerto Rico, it’s a good second choice.

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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.

Me Before You

mebeforeyouby Jojo Moyes
First sentence: “When he emerges from the bathroom, she is awake, propped up against the pillows and flicking through the travel brochures that were beside his bed.”
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Content: There’s a bunch of f-bombs scattered throughout (but not enough to seem excessive) and some talk of sex (but none actual). It’s in the adult fiction section of the bookstore.

I’ve known about this one for years, and I’ve just been putting reading it off. Perhaps it’s my aversion to all things “everyone” reads (I know: I should read The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead, but…). Maybe I thought it would be maudlin and depressing. The movie came out (and went, here), and I still didn’t really feel much of a need. Then, as summer book bingo is winding down, I had the “Everyone But Me Has Read” square, and I figured this was what needed to fill it.

(I’m assuming y’all know what the plot is.) What I wasn’t prepared for was how much I enjoyed it. I loved Lou; she was smart and spunky and real. I loved her relationship with Will, that it was complicated but also honest and open. And I loved that Moyes faced the ideas of a Life Worth Living head-on. I’m not sure I agree with the conclusions, but it made me cry and it gave me something to think about.

In short, maybe the hype was right about this one. Now, to see how the movie holds up.

Not if I See You First

by Eric Lindstrom
First sentence: “My alarm buzzes and I slap it off and tap the speech button at the same time.”
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Review copy provided by the publisher.
Release date: December 1, 2015
Content: There’s a lot of swearing — not overly so, but enough that I wouldn’t recommend it to sensitive souls. It’ll be in the Teen section (grades 9+) of the bookstore.

Parker Grant hasn’t had an easy life. She lost her sight at age 7 when her mother crashed the car (and was killed), but she and her dad have made do. Parker found a close cohort of friends that have stuck with her through the years. With the exception of Scott, who she thought was her friend until a betrayal in 8th grade. Now, just before the start her junior year, Parker’s life just got messy again: her father accidentally overdosed on prescription meds, and she’s alone again. (Well, not really: her aunt and uncle and their family have moved in with her. Which helps, but isn’t really something she is happy about.)

(Before I go much further, I know: dead parents. I understand getting them out of the way for the purposes of the story, but wow. Merciless.)

Now, Parker has to figure out what she’s going to do. She’s coping, but not well. And when Scott shows back up at her high school (they went their separate ways in 9th grade), she has to deal with those resurfacing emotions as well.

Lest that make it sound like a love story, it isn’t really. Yeah, there’s some kissing, and some talk about love and boyfriends and such, but the ending isn’t a perfect, happily-ever-after.

I did, however, fall in love with Parker. Seriously. From the opening pages where she goes for an early morning run, and the mechanics of that, I knew I was hanging out with someone worth getting to know. And the great thing is that she was a complicated person. She was angry, she was holding her emotions about her dad, about Scott, about everything in. She was a bad friend sometimes. But she also learned and grew and changed. And there were pretty great people (who were also normal) surrounding her.

I don’t know how accurate Lindstrom’s depiction of a blind girl was, or how well it’ll resonate with people who have experience with blindness. But, I liked that he didn’t limit Parker by her “disability”. She was capable, she was smart, and yes she needed help, but she was independent in so many ways. I also liked that no one was limited by color, size, sexuality (though that wasn’t really explored), or ability. There were POCs in the book, but it was only mentioned in passing. It wasn’t dwelt upon; these were just kids hanging out, making decisions, trying to get through each day.

All the Light We Cannot See

by Anthony Doerr
First sentence: “At dusk they pour from the sky.”
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Content: There is some graphic (read: Nazi) violence and about a half-dozen f-bombs. It’s not a difficult read, even for it’s length, and if there’s a teen interested in WWII, it would be a good one to give. It’s in the adult fiction section of the bookstore.

I’ve kind of been avoiding this one. It was a slow build, but eventually EVERYONE was reading this. And we all know how much I love reading books that everyone is reading. (Not.) At least when it comes to adult books, anyway. I just don’t trust Everyone. (No interest in Gone Girl. Or The Girl on the Train. At. All.)

But this was picked for my in-person book group, and so I was kind of obligated to read it. I didn’t go in expecting much of anything, so I was pleasantly surprised when the chapters were short. And the story was engaging. And that the 500+ page book wasn’t one that was going to bog me down.

In fact, if I dare say this: I enjoyed it. Immensely.

This is, at its simplest, the story of two kids, a blind French girl and an orphan German boy, during World War II. Werner, the boy, is an orphan resigned to growing up in this mining town, working the mines, even though he’s a technical genius. Then, he gets drafted into the German Army, which in 1939 isn’t the happiest place. Marie-Laure is a French girl, living in Paris, with her father who works at the Museum of Natural History. When the Germans invade, they end up in Saint-Malo with Marie-Laure’s great-uncle Etienne. Then her father gets called back to Paris and goes “missing”. Their stories meet, finally, in August 1944, when the town of Saint-Malo is set on fire.

The story, however, is immaterial in this book. No, what’s important, I think are the characters. They way they interconnect with each other, with themselves. And the little acts of goodness — of light — that thread throughout the book. It’s a very dark time, World War II, but this is an incredibly hopeful book. Its short chapters are lyrical and evocative, and the suspense building up to August 1944 — every section or so, Doerr gives us a glimpse of what is happening — is palpable.

My only real complaint is that I could have done without the two epilogues, one in 1974 and the other in 2014. I felt no need to know what the characters were up to after the story ended, and it felt forced and not nearly as emotional as the rest of the book. But that’s a small complaint in the wake of the story.

Fish in a Tree

by Lynda Mullaly Hunt
First sentence: “It’s always there.”
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Content: The chapters are short, and while there are some bigger words, there’s nothing that a 3rd grader couldn’t handle. It’s in the middle grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore.

Ally doesn’t like school. Part of that is the result of her moving so much — her dad’s in the military, currently deployed in Iraq/Afghanistan (it didn’t say; I’m assuming this) — of it is because Ally can’t read. It’s a fact she’s hidden by becoming a troublemaker and through her art, but whenever she tries to read, the words swim, her head hurts, and she just. can’t. do. it.

Enter in Mr. Daniels, the permanent sub for her regular sixth-grade teacher who’s off on maternity leave. He picks up on Ally’s defense mechanisms, and realizes that there’s more going on than meets the eye. He espouses the believe that not everyone’s smart in the same way (yay for that!), and draws on Ally’s strength, giving her the confidence to make friends — Albert, the science geek, and Keisha, a baker extraordinaire — and to stand up to the classroom bully, Shay.

There are some nitpicky things that bothered me throughout that kept me from loving this as much as I wanted to. First, why did the teacher have to be male? I’m torn on this one: on the one hand, it’s showing a man doing things that are “normally” reserved for women. He’s concerned about his students, he’s caring, and he reaches out. Not to mention that he’s a man in a female-heavy profession. However, it seems to me in books like this — where a teacher saves a struggling student — the teacher is always male. It’s the men who get to think outside the box, who find ways to connect with the struggling students, who make changes within the system. And that bothered me.

Additionally, there’s a point when Albert comes out of his shell to fight back against his bullies, in order to protect Ally and Keisha from them. Perhaps that was in character for Albert, but it bothered me deeply. Why did he need to protect them? I initially thought it was because they were his friends — maybe he’d do the same for boys who were his friends — but then he says something about “never hitting a girl”and I cringed.

On the other hand, I was glad that Hunt included a broad spectrum of personalities and classes: there are people who are hyper, middle of the road kids, rich kids, kids on free lunches. The usual suspects — drugs, bad parents, etc –aren’t anywhere to be seen. The focus, really, is on celebrating our differences, and recognizing that intelligence isn’t tied to doing well on tests. And that’s worth celebrating.

So, while it’s an uneven book, I’m glad it’s out there.

El Deafo

by Cece Bell
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Content: There’s a little talk of Love (she has a crush) but other than that, it’s quite accessible for the 3-5 grader. It’s in the middle grade graphic novel section at the bookstore.

This one has been on my radar for a long time, and (like too many other things), I can now say I Should Have Read it Sooner!

It’s the mostly-true (except for the part where she’s a bunny) story of Cece Bell, and her experiences as a deaf child in the 70s and early 80s. She lost her hearing due to a bout with meningitis when she was four, and as a result had to wear a hearing aid and use a Phonic Ear during school. It’s not something she really enjoys at first, even though she realizes it gives her a sort of super-power.

But, the story is really only incidentally about being deaf, it’s more about finding a way to belong and a friend. Bell is very practical about the friends she made, not sugar coating anything. But, it’s not a harsh book; on the contrary, it’s a very sweet and often hilarious story. And it’s good that it’s out there to remind readers that it’s because of our differences that life is interesting.

Very highly recommended.