Audio book: Heartland

heartandby Sarah Smarsh
Read by the author.
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Or listen at Libro.fm
Content: There is some frank talk about abuse and drinking as well as a lot of swearing (including multiple f-bombs). It’s in the biography section of the bookstore, but I think a teenager might be interested in this.

This has been a big deal around the store, mostly because Smarsh grew up just outside of Wichita (and rumor has it she’s moved back here), and the places and people in it are pretty much staples in this community. But her story — the child of a teenage mom, growing up in a rural community on a family farm — belongs to much more than those of us here in Wichita. In fact, as I listened to her story — which sometimes got political, but mostly she kept personal — I heard echos of my own mother’s and grandmother’s story — married young, growing up in a small rural community, working hard their entire lives for just barely enough. It’s the story of many, many Americans.

Even so, Smarsh has one thing going for her that many poor do not: she is white. Sometimes, she acknowledges that fact, and tries to be more inclusive in her conclusions. But often, I felt like she was saying “look at me, look how poor we were, look how much I suffered, look at those scars” and I wanted to roll my eyes. Very few of us escape our childhoods without scars. And just because she grew up poor in Wichita and Kingman, doesn’t make her story exceptional.

Except she told it (and read it) well. So I have to give her that.

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Allie, First at Last

alliefirstby Angela Cervantes
First sentence: “Blame it on Junko Tabei.”
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Review copy pilfered from the ARC shelves at my place of employment. G
Content: It’s a great book for middle readers, short (but not dumbed-down) with no romance or awkward situations. It’s in the Middle Grade (3-5 grade) section of the bookstore.

Allie comes from a highly competitive family. Her great-grandfather was the first World War II Veteran to get a Congressional Medal of Honor. Her mother has won best anchorwoman four years running. Her big sister is a national debate champion. Her big brother is a soccer star, and her younger sister is an aspiring actress. However, Allie feels like she’s just a string of flops. She can’t win anything, most recently the Science Fair. So when the Trailblazer Award comes along — with a fancy trophy and a $200 prize — she’s determined to win.

This was a cute, inter-generational book without the whole mystical Mexican thing. (Mexicans, yes, but not mystical at all.) I liked Allie’s relationship with her Bisabuela, and how he was able to guide Allie through life experience and stories. I liked that there was a nice moral at the end, but the book itself didn’t seem preachy at all. (I didn’t like that all the kids seem to have cell phones and were super-privileged, but that seemed to fit into the story okay, so by the end I let that go.)

It really is a sweet little story.  Plus: the author is from Kansas, which is nice.

 

Firebrand

by Aaron Barnhart
First sentence: “The boy with the long black hair pushed his way through the shouting, jostling mass of students.”
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Content: There’s some fighting and battle scenes, but the language is simple(ish) and the book itself is short. It’s in the middle grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore.

Fifteen-year-old August Bondi and his family are Jews who are getting by in early 19th-century in Vienna, Austria. Life is good until the law comes down against them, and the Vienna Uprising occurs in in 1848. August’s parents decide that life is too dangerous for their family, and so they flee to America where they hope to have a better life. After a harrowing journey, the family ends up in St. Louis, where August’s parents find work and a community. But August is still restless and settling down doesn’t suit him. So he heads out to the Kansas territory, where he discovers the fight between those who want Kansas to be a slave state and those who don’t. It’s a cause that August can get behind: he is more than willing to fight against slavery and for the freedom of all people. So, he joins up with John Brown and his sons, fighting back against those who would have Kansas be a slave state. It’s a dangerous business, but one that August is willing to sacrifice for. From there, he settles down with a wife and then joins the Greater Cause in the Civil War.

It’s not a bad book, overall, and August’s story (he’s a real person) is a good one to tell. My only problem is that this is really three books. The first book: August’s story back in Vienna. How did he become a part of the resistance? What was it that caught his eye? What was it like being a Jew in Vienna in the early 19th century? So many questions glossed over. The second book is August’s journey to America and perhaps his joining the Browns in their fight against slavery. And the third is August’s time in the Civil War. It’s not that Barnhart can’t write (he can, actually; there were parts of this that were quite interesting), it’s just that he tried to do too much in such a small book and I feel like it would have been better served spreading it out. (And I never think that!)

But it is a good story to tell; it’s always good to hear the lesser known stories of history. (Even if they are more white male stories.) And the fact that it’s set here in Kansas is good as well. But I feel like it could have been better.

Deadly Design

by Debra Dockter
First sentence: “I was five years old when I found out that my older brother wasn’t just my brother.”
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Review copy downloaded from Edelweiss.
Content: There was a LOT of swearing in this (including quite a few f-bombs) plus some off-screen sex. That puts this squarely in the Teen section (grades 9+) of the bookstore.

I didn’t quite know what to expect out of this one, when I first picked it up. It’s billed as a sci-fi thriller, but I don’t quite think that fits. It’s not really futuristic, though it is dealing with gene splicing and genetic manipulation. And it wasn’t really thriller-y, except for a bit near the end. So, I came to think of it more as a medical drama, and on that level it worked for me.

Kyle McAdams is the younger son of a couple who had problems conceiving and bearing children. The one they did have died fairly young. So, they went to a doctor who promised them that he could “create” healthy children for them: one egg, one sperm, some genetic manipulation and they’ll have a healthy kid. Except, in the petri dish, the egg splt, and suddenly they had two children. They chose to have one at a time, and so Connor was born two years before Kyle. The catch: they were identical, pretty much in every way.

So, Kyle spent most of his life (in small-town Kansas, outside of Wichita. Yes, the author is local(ish).) in the shadow of his older, perfect brother. Connor was into sports, the Valedictorian, had the perfect girlfriend. Kyle was… not. Even so, when Connor drops dead right before his 18th birthday, Kyle is shaken: they share the same genes, does this mean he’ll die, as well?

When Kyle starts going down the rabbit hole of his origin, what he finds out gets creepier and creepier. He and his brother aren’t the only genetically modified humans out there, and they all seem do die right before their 18th birthday. The question is: why?

I’ll be up front: Kyle is a bit of a moody jerk. (A bit is an understatement.) That makes it hard to connect with him. And so, what kept me reading at the beginning was the novelty factor: I love a good Kansas book that gets Kansas right, as opposed to being just a “nowhere” place. I loved that she got the feel of small town right. Or the visits they made to Wichita. Or the weather. It was lovely. And I loved her ruthlessness: she was killing people off right and left in the first third of the book. It’s always refreshing to have an author write like that.

It also helped that Kyle became less sulky and annoying as the book went on. I began to care about his plight, though I never really felt a sense of urgency about his death. I don’t know why that was; Dockter showed herself willing to kill everyone off, and they told me that Kyle was going to die. Therefore, there should have been tension, but I just didn’t feel it. I came to care about the people Kyle interacted with, and when the twist happened, I was pretty shocked. (No, I didn’t see it coming; then again, I never do.)

That said, I do have one major complaint: Kyle didn’t DO much of anything. He went to doctors who told him stuff, and people helped him, and doctors solved his problems (mostly). But he was more a reactor than an actor in his life. I wanted Kyle to be brilliant and find a solution to save his life, but no. Mostly he had other people do the work while he waited around for them.

But, that said, I did enjoy the science and the drama of it. It’s a solid debut novel and I am interested to see what Dockter writes next.

The Testing

by Joelle Charbonneau
First sentence: “Graduation Day.”
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Content: It’s violent, but not graphically so. And there’s kissing, but no sex. Which means it’s in the YA section (grades 6-8) of the bookstore. However, much like Hunger Games, I’d be wary of more sensitive readers liking it.

This book has been out for two years now, and I’ve been putting it off for just as long. Mostly because the whole post-apocalyptic/dystopian genre has been SO overdone, that I really didn’t want to read yet another one.

Then we scheduled Charbonneau to come to the store — they’ve been working on it since the first one came out and the rep mentioned it was set in a futuristic Wichita — and I was tasked with reading and reviewing the book before she gets here. And so I did, smacking myself when I finished for waiting too long to get around to this one.

Sixteen-year-old Cia Vale has just graduated from her colony’s small school near the top of her class. She’s excited: in this post-Seven Stages War America, now called the United Commonwealth, that means she’s likely to be chosen to attend The Testing in the capitol, Tosu City (aka Wichita, though it took me nearly the whole book to figure that out). Except her father — a former Testing candidate and University graduate himself — doesn’t want her to go. However, once Cia’s been chosen, she can’t say no; refusing the Testing is an act of treason, punishable by death.

So, Cia travels to Tosu City with her father’s warning — TRUST NO ONE — echoing in her ears, and discovers what he meant. The Testing is not just high-pressure and high-competition for the twenty university slots. It’s deadly.

While the plotting and writing isn’t as tight as Suzanne Collins’s, it’s still a quick, engaging read. Charbonneau sets the stakes high right away, with Cia’s roommate committing suicide, and doesn’t let up until the final pages of the book. There are twists and turns — some of which I saw, some of which I didn’t — and Cia is a good, strong narrator to carry this story on her shoulders. It’s definitely post-apocalyptic; Charbonneau cleverly gave us a brief history of how this country came to be in a series of short written test questions early on. The dystopian part is harder to see — Cia comes to hate the Testing officials, and the government as an extension, but I’m not sure I ever felt the way she did about the officials. Unlike, say, President Snow in The Hunger Games. (Yes, comparisons are inevitable.) I do think, on the other hand, that it’s a tighter, more interesting story than Divergent (yes, there’s a love interest, which I think was mostly unnecessary).

But the best thing about waiting to read this one is that the whole series is out already. And I don’t have to wait to read the second one. And I’m invested enough in Cia’s story that I’m quite curious to find out what happens next.

Dorothy Must Die

by Danielle Page
First sentence: “I first discovered I was trash three days before my ninth birthday — one year after my father lost his job and moved to Secaucus to live with a woman named Crystal and four years before my mother had the car accident, started taking pills, and begin exclusively wearing bedroom slippers instead of normal shoes.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Review copy handed to me by my manager who said “Get on this.”
Content: A pregnant teenager, a moderate amount of swearing including a few f-bombs, and some violence. The book belongs in the store’s teen section (grades 9+).

At first glance, the idea of this book is awesome: Dorothy from Wizard of Oz, didn’t want to be in Kansas after she went home, and found a way back to Oz, where she has taken over and is not only a tyrant, but she’s a bully. And she’s draining Oz of its magic. It is going to take another girl from Kansas — Amy, of the trailer park — who finds her way to this new and drained Oz, to kill the tyrant and save Oz from certain ruin.

See? Sounds pretty cool, right?

Well, not so much.

It’s not that this one was Horrible, per se. There were a lot of things to like about it, starting from the cool idea. I liked the way that Page developed the magic in the world, and made the Wicked Witches if not the good guys, at least the better ones. I liked Amy, and her willingness to try even though the odds were against her.

But that was about it. I won’t delineate my entire complaints (which include having Amy say “I was used to cornfields back in Kansas..” UM, where??), but rather my main one, this: why is this book not a stand-alone? There really was nothing in this book that either 1) warranted that it be 460 pages or 2) meant for it to go longer than one book. I think with some better plotting and editing (and less of the pregnant bully in the beginning) this could have been a tight, fun, cool romp in a unique version of Oz.

I guess I’m a bit miffed that it’s not, and that’s effecting how I see the book. Others (who don’t mind the whole drawn-out-ed-ness of this one) may find it more enjoyable. Part of me hopes she finds success with this, because it’s a really cool idea.

I just wish the execution was better.

Wanderville

by Wendy McClure
First sentence: “Jack didn’t notice the smoke until there was far too much of it.”
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Content: There’s a some bullying and a fire that kills a family member of a main character, but that’s about it. It’s short enough to be a beginning chapter book, but it might be too challenging for most 1st and 2nd graders. Definitely belongs in the middle grade (3-5th grade) section of the bookstore.

Jack lives in a walk up in New York City in 1904. Their family is poor, but making it. That is, until a fire takes both their building and the life of Jack’s older brother. Frances and her younger brother Harold are orphans and living off the charity of one of the many orphanages in the city. Both find themselves on a train headed west, as part of the efforts of the Society for Children’s Aid and Relief Office. But, as all three find out, the best intentions of adults don’t always translate into good things for kids.

Faced with being separated from her brother, and looking forced labor in the eye, Frances, Harold and Jack decide to jump off the train before they reach their final destination. They’re wandering the Kansas prairie when they find Alexander, another orphan train escapee. He’s decided to start his own town, called Wanderville, and while it doesn’t look like much (or anything, really) it’s not his own. Unfortunately they way they get supplies is by “liberating” them from the nearby town. Which, obviously, is going to lead to trouble.

I wanted to like this one. It’s got a good idea — exploring the world of the orphans from the orphan train — and it’s set here in Kansas. I was hoping that it’d be a good contribution to historical/Kansas middle grade fiction. But it’s not. Perhaps it was me, but I didn’t like the characters, and felt the text itself was too condescending and predictable. I felt that if I had a checklist I would have ticked every single cliche off.  Bully on the train? Check. Evil man exploiting the system for his own gain? Check. Rugged and slow cop? Check. Sisterly figure who always knows better than the boys? Check. Adorable 7-year-old who is Wiser Than His Years? Check.) That’s not to say that kids won’t like it. I’m sure many will.

I just didn’t.