I Believe in a Thing Called Love

by Maurene Goo
First sentence: “When I was seven, I thought I moved a pencil with my mind.”
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Review copy provided by the publisher
Content: There’s a propensity to use the s-word. It’s in the YA section (grades 6-8; I debated, but decided that it ultimately wen there) of the bookstore.

Desi does it all: she’s student body president, involved in practically every club, soccer star, valedictorian, and a model daughter for her dad (especially since her mom’s sudden death seven years before). The only thing she doesn’t have (and hasn’t ever had): a boyfriend.  And then Luca shows up at her school: reserved, artistic, with a shady past, and that… something… that makes him completley desirable to Desi. The problem? Desi is absolutely lousy at flirting. (Or as her two best friends, Fiona and Wes, call what she does: flailure.) So, Desi turns to one of her father’s passions to get help, and starts binge-watching K-Dramas. She comes up with a list of 28 tried-and-true (and also a bit cliche) steps to Get the Guy and starts her project.

The best part of this incredibly sweet book is that you don’t have to know K-Dramas (though I suppose it helps) in order to enjoy that this is parodying K-Dramas while also following the formula. (It’s  Jane the Virgin in book form!) Yes, there’s a definite arc to the book, but it feels, well a bit wink-wink-nudge-nudge about it all. It’s very self-aware, and that was something I really enjoyed about it. That, and the father-daughter relationship. Sure, there’s a dead mom, but Desi’s dad is the most well-adjusted adult in a YA novel I’ve read in a while. I liked that he was a mechanic with a passion for funny shows (Desi was named after Desi Arnez) and K-Dramas. I liked his relationship with Desi, and the love that I could sense between the two.

It’s cute, it’s sweet, it’s a little silly, and it’s thoroughly enjoyable.

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Matilda

matildaby Roald Dahl
First sentence: “It’s a funny thing about mothers and fathers.”
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Content: It’s a bit longer than Charlie, and a bit more complex. But, that said, I’d give it to a confident 8-year-old reader. It’s in the middle grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore.

So, I’ve read this one before, but it’s been years and years and years and even though I’ve watched the movie a bunch (it’s one of my girls’ favorites), I wasn’t quite prepared for how DARK Matilda is.

I mean, all the usual Dahl themes are there: a powerless, nice child (not poor, though that comes with Ms. Honey) is bullied (by her parents and other adults) and discovers something grand within herself in order to overcome. But, the adults are beyond awful. They’re abusive. The Wormwoods (who are hilarious in the film) are corrupt and neglectful. But, it was Miss Trunchbull, who I always condered just an annoyance, who really got me this time. She’s not annoying: she’s an abuser. And perhaps it’s where I am in my life, but that didn’t sit well with me. I’m not entirely sure why; Matilda and Ms. Honey have a happy ending, after all, and Miss Trunchbull (not to mention Mr. Wormwood) get their comeuppance. But, it kind of rang hollow for me.

That said, it’s also not as funny (or at least clever) as Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.  It was sweet — both Matilda and Ms. Honey are sweet characters amid all the lame, awful people — but it wasn’t clever. (Dark undertones!) I did enjoy it, but I’m not sure it’s my favorite. (Then again, I still have four more books to read this summer.)

The book group discussion, however, was fantastic! I had 20 kids ranging in age from 5 to 12, and they all had amazing things to say. One boy said he had read it eight times, and had some smart thoughts on it. As did many others. We talked about favorite characters and whether the Wormwoods were funny (yes) and whether Mr. Wormwood deserved the pranks (yes!). Ms. Trunchbull was deemed to be too mean to be funny, though one girl insisted that her parents would have believed her if she had told them what Ms. Trunchbull was doing. We talked a lot about the chocolate cake, and many pointed out that an 18-inch cake really isn’t that big. One girl said it was “just right”. And my favorite comments were when we were talking how Dahl makes ugly=mean and beautiful=good. One girl pointed out that ugly people can’t help being ugly and that they could be nice and beautiful people can be mean. And another girl said that maybe Dahl was just trying to make the character’s inward ugliness show outward. Both excellent.

So, maybe not my favorite, but it was a great discussion.

 

Genius: The Game

geniusthegameby Leopoldo Gout
First sentence: “The night Teo disappeared started off just like any other.”
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Content: There’s some mild swearing. It feels more like a YA book, so it’s in the YA section (grades 6-8), but I’d give it to an interested 5th-grader.

Three friends — Mexican-American Rex, Nigerian Tunde, and Chinese Cai — are at the top of the game when it comes to technology. Rex is a top-notch programmer and hacker, Tunde a brilliant engineer, and Cai a blogger who goes by Painted Wolf and exposes corruption in the government, and together they are LODGE, and have a massive on-line presence. Then they get word: the CEO of a major tech corporation is having an invitation-only competition for the world’s best and brightest. And Tex, Tunde, and Cai all need in, for different reasons. Not the least of which is to win.

On the one hand: this book is SO cool. It’s nice to have a tech-laden book that isn’t scifi, but rather just people using advanced technology the way it’s supposed to be used. Bonus points, as well, for an effortlessly diverse cast. (I did find Tunde’s chapters a bit odd, but I eventually warmed up to it.) It makes sense that all the people at the competition wouldn’t be white boys, and so I appreciated having not only a good ethnic mix (the CEO’s Indian, on top of it all!), but a good mix of girls and boys. The design of the book is cool too, from the sleek cover, to the art and graphics mixed in, depending on which narrator’s POV we’re reading. (Tunde’s was the most elaborate, Rex the most spare.)

But, I’m not sure cool is enough. For one thing, I was expecting a stand-alone, and about 2/3 of the way through I realized it wasn’t, and I’ll admit it: I lost interest. *sigh* The characterization lacked a bit, especially of the Big Bad; why on earth is he trying to bring the world’s tech down, and what does he want with our super-smart, capable kids? Questions that were, unfortunately, left unanswered. It’s not that it was bad — I finished it after all — but it just didn’t make me super enthused. It wasn’t bad. But it wasn’t super great either.

Friday Barnes, Girl Detective

fridaybarnsby R. A. Spratt
First sentence: “Friday Barnes was not an unhappy child.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Review copy snagged off the ARC shelves at work.
Content: There’s some biggish words, and a bunch of swoony 7th-grade girls, but other than that’s it’s aimed toward the 3rd-5th grade crowd. It’s in the middle grade section of the bookstore.

Friday Barnes excels in going unnoticed. In fact, she prefers it that way. She prefers just sliding through school, being little noticed. She also is incredibly observant, so when her uncle (who’s a private investigator) needs some help solving a bank robbery, she helps, solving it. Which means she received the $50,000 reward money. She uses that to go to a posh boarding school, mostly because she wants a change.

What she gets is a brilliant but absent-minded roommate, some ditzy teachers, and a few mysteries to solve (she makes a tidy profit doing so, too.)

It’s not a bad book. I like that Friday is a girl, and that she uses deductive reasoning to solve cases (kind of like Sherlock Holmes, or Encyclopedia Brown). And while the mysteries were run-of-the mill, I didn’t catch the clues enough to solve it myself, so they were pretty smart. That said, the stereotypes drove me nuts. The absent-minded smart girl with the dumb jock brother. The silly 7th grade girls who swoon over a hairy mystery guy in the forest because “hairy guys are cute”. The super hot boy who’s got it out for Friday. Yeah, it’s all supposed to be funny, but it kind of just fell flat. I’d love it if authors stopped using silly stereotypes for humor.

So, in the end, while I like the idea of this one, I didn’t really like the book.