No More Dead Dogs

by Gordon Korman
First sentence: “When my dad was a helicopter pilot in Vietnam, he once rescued eight Navy SEALs who were stranded behind enemy lines.”
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Content: There is some romance (just crushes and a bit of cheek kissing) and some mild cussing. The text is pretty simple. It would be in the middle grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore, though I bet 6th graders would like it too.

Wallace Wallace (the poor guy getting stuck with parents who named him that!) ALWAYS tells the truth. Mostly it’s because his father was a horrible liar (well, exaggerator/storyteller) who eventually left his mom, and so Wallace decided to never do that. Unfortunately, his truth-telling doesn’t always come off well. In fact, in seventh grade English class everyone was required to read a “classic” — the made up Old Shep, My Pal — book and do a report on it. Wallace’s report, because he won’t lie: the book was awful. And please, no more dead dogs.

That report lands him in detention with the English teacher, who is also directing a play — an adaptation of, you guessed it, Old Shep — and so Wallace can’t go to football practice and instead ends up at play rehearsal. And, of course, advocates for changing the play. It’s more complex than that; it also involves pranks and Wallace being set up, and everyone not liking him, and a small middle school romance, but that’s the general picture of it.

I hadn’t ever read Gordon Korman’s books before, but I’d heard that he was funny and he gets kids. Well, maybe this was just dated — it was written in 2000 — which is often a problem with contemporary realistic fiction. But whatever the reason it really fell flat. The plot was silly (supposedly funny?). I guessed who the prankster was (was I supposed to? Or was it supposed to be a big reveal?) before the characters. I thought the kids were brats (maybe all middle schoolers are). And I just didn’t find it funny. But, humor is subjective: not everyone finds the same things amusing. So, I can forgive that. I can see how kids would eat this up: what I found annoying as an adult, they could relate to. And so I can see how it has value, even if I didn’t like it much at all.

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Simon Vs. The Homo Sapiens Agenda

by Becky Albertalli
First sentence: “It’s a weirdly subtle conversation.”
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Content: There’s quite a bit of swearing, including a lot of f-bombs, and some teenage drinking. It’s in the Teen section (grades 9+) of the bookstore.

This one is a difficult one to sum up plot-wise. Simon is gay, but he’s not out. He’s being blackkmailed by another student who found out (accidentally) about Simon’s gayness, because Simon is emailing and flirting with a boy, Blue, online. Their relationship is entirely online, even though Simon knows that Blue is a student at his high school… Blue is just more comfortable with the anonymity.

As the book goes on, Simon juggles being blackmailed, and making and keeping friends, and high school drama, as he falls in love with Blue, and tries to figure everything out.

It’s not a deep or complex plot, but I thoroughly enjoyed this book. I loved Simon and his loveable awkwardness as he tries to figure everything out. (Being a high school junior is hard.) I loved his relationship with Blue, and once he figured it out, their in-person relationship. I liked Simon’s  family — it’s always nice to see a good, functional family in a YA novel — and his friends, and liked that there was conflict between them, but not of the sort that went against their fundamental relationship. It was sweet and wonderful and just happy-making. Which is what I would call this book. Maybe not perfect, but definitely very very wonderful.

Hag-Seed

by Margaret Atwood
First sentence: “The house lights dim.”
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Content: There’s some swearing, including multiple f-bombs. It’s in the adult fiction section, but it has crossover appeal for those who are theater/Shakespeare fans.

Felix is the best, most innovative, most desired director around, and he’s on the cusp of Something Great with his interpretation of The Tempest. But, just as he was getting started with that, an unforseen bit of treachery outs Felix from his role. He’s sent off to the wilderness, where he finds, eventually, a job as a theater teacher in a correctional facility. He finds enjoyment teaching the felons (it’s a minimum security prison) the ins and outs of Shakespeare. And then, he learns that those who betrayed him are coming to visit, and he realizes that his Time Has Come; revenge is nigh.

Yes, if this sounds like the plot of The Tempest, you are correct. Very much so. And, I think, the better you know the play, the better this book is. As one who has seen it (once), and knows the general plot, but not all the intricacies of the play, I… enjoyed it. I liked the Fletcher Correctional Players best; I liked how they interpreted Shakespeare, rewriting the play to fit them. My favorite part of the book, perhaps, is the end, when the players come up with plausible futures for their characters. So, it was accessible and enjoyable to someone with a passing knowledge of the play. I do wonder, though, if you’ve never been exposed to The Tempest at all, if you’d be able to get into and enjoy this. (Just wondering…)

Thoroughly enjoyable, especially if you’re interested in a different approach to Shakespeare.

Summerlost

summerlostby Allie Condie
First sentence: “Our new house had a blue door.”
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Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: There’s a lot of talk of death, but nothing too sad. It’ll be in the middle grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore.

Cedar Lee didn’t expect much from her summer visiting her grandparents in Iron Creek. Her dad and brother died in a freak accident the hear before, and the rest of the family has been just barely managing. Then Cedar’s mother finds a house in Iron Creek and purchases it as a summer home, not something they can afford, but perhaps something that will help with healing.

Cedar’s not happy about it; she misses her dad and her brother, and doesn’t really want to move on. But between the new house, a summer taking care of her other brother, Miles, and her new friend, Leo, maybe she can heal.

This is a really difficult book to summarize, mostly because not much happens. It’s an incredibly introspective story, driven by characters — most notably the friendship (and just that, nothing more) between Leo and Cedar — rather than by plot. But it’s a lovely look at friendship and healing and enjoying the simpler things of life. There’s also is a love of Shakespeare and acting that weaves through the story which helps tie the whole story together.

An interesting aside: this is a very Mormon book. Oh, Condie does a lot to disguise it, but it’s really the Shakespeare festival in Utah (to which I’ve never been). And it — at least to a Mormon — just feels Mormon. But, that said, it’s something I noticed because I was tuned into the clues. And it’s not something I minded at all.

In fact, I thoroughly enjoyed this one.

Station Eleven

by Emily St. John Mandel
First sentence: “The king stood in a pool of blue light, unmoored.”
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Content: There are a half-dozen f-bombs, spread throughout the second half of the book. It’s a bit meandering, but otherwise, it’s a good crossover story, and I’d give it to a teen interested in the post-apocalyptic genre. It’s in the Fiction section of the bookstore.

It’s difficult, I think, to write a linear plot for Station Eleven. There’s a pandemic, obviously: the world has to end somehow. An aside: I think it’s interesting that the way the world ends in fiction these days is through sickness or climate change rather than some horrific nuclear event. Times have changed since Canticle for Leibowitz.

Anyway, a pandemic — Georgia Flu — sweeps through the world, with a 99% fatality rate. It kills you within 48 hours of catching it, so it doesn’t take long. That simple thing, changes the world. Station Eleven follows an actor, Arthur, and everyone his life touches — ex-wives, son, paparazzi, best friend, the child actors he was in King Lear with — before and through the pandemic, exploring the connections between them and the way everyone handles the New World.

The book was less about the pandemic or the world collapsing as it was about the connections between people. The action flipped between before the pandemic to 20 years after, only vaguely hitting upon time in-between. There was enough movement to keep me interested; the huge cast of characters were always doing something, and the non-linear plot helped with that as well. I think it was an intriguing reflection on the way our lives touch one another, how seemingly random occurrences to one person have great significance to another. Admittedly, there were times when I didn’t get the connections: the paparazzi’s story, for example, was so disconnected from the rest, I wondered why his was included. But for the most part, I found the book to be an intriguing examination of connection and humanity in a time of crisis.

The Bridge of San Luis Rey

by Thornton Wilder
First sentence: “On Friday noon, July the twentieth, 1714, the finest bridge in all Peru broke and precipitated five travelers into the gulf below.”
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Content: There’s really nothing, but because it’s a classic, it would be in the adult fiction section of the bookstore.

For my in-person last month, we wanted to read a classic. We looked at this huge long list of modern-day American classics some guy put up (I can’t remember right now who it was or why), and chose this one (mostly because it was the shortest). I know very little about Thornton Wilder; I’ve seen Our Town a couple of times (and never really “got” it) but that was the extent of my knowledge.

This story is a short one, a series of short vignettes about five people who died in a (fictional) bridge collapse in Lima, Peru in 1714. They were loosely interconnected, and the framework is about this monk who spent time researching their stories. I think it was supposed to be about the randomness of life and death, that both good and people can die at any moment and how it really doesn’t matter how you live your life.

Whatever.

Seriously. That’s how I ended up feeling at the end. I read the words, but none of them registered in my brain. I didn’t connect with any of the characters, the plot was nonexistent. I do have to admit that it may have been me (why else would it be on all the “you must read” lists?), because this isn’t the first book lately that I’ve gone “huh?” when I’ve finished. Slumps will do that to you.

Or maybe it’s the book. Either way, I finished it, but that’s about all I can say.

Graphic Novel Roundup – Raina Telgemeir Edition

Drama
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Content: There’s middle school drama, but other than that, it’s pretty tame. It’s in the teen graphic novel section of the bookstore, but only because it feels a bit mature for the middle grade section.

Callie is a theater nerd. She’s not one to be on stage — she can’t sing, and her acting needs some work — but she LOVES being backstage, helping create the sets. And so, for the middle school production (middle school!) of Moon over Mississippi, she’s been assigned to be in charge of the sets. That’s overwhelming enough, but Callie’s personal life has taken a turn for the confusing. She thought she was getting somewhere with her long-time crush, but he went back to his girlfriend (who’s not terribly nice). And then a set of twin brothers show up in her life to just confuse things more.

I really liked Telgemeir’s depiction of middle school (spot on!) and the theater program (again, spot on!). I loved Callie’s spunk and drive and her longing to feel accepted and belong. And even though it was Callie’s story, I thought that all her friends — from the twins to her best friend, Liz — were fully developed. (Though there were some stereotypes, the mean girl girlfriend being one.) My only real complaint was the inclusion that all guys who do theater (at least on-stage) are gay. It’s a stereotype, and although there are gay boys who do theater, not all theater boys (even on-stage) are gay. I know I’m nitpicking, but here in Kansas, that’s the kind of stereotype that really takes hold and so parents discourage boys from participating in the arts because of it. I would have appreciated one character, at least, who wasn’t part of that.

Even so, it was a lot of fun to read.

Smile
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Content: much the same as Drama; it’s got some themes that are a bit old for the younger elementary crowd, but there’s not much “objectionable”. It’s in the Teen Graphic Novel section, mostly because it seems to do better there.

Every once in a while, there’s an author (or in this case an author/artist) who gets the middle grade years so absolutely perfectly. The awkwardness, the challenges with friends, the wanting to be liked and not feeling liked.

Telgemeier is one of those people. It’s loosely based on her early teen years, and tells the story of how she lost her two front teeth in an accident and the dental work it took to make her smile what it is today. But it’s also the story of acceptance (inner and outer) and the things we’ll do and put up with so we don’t feel alone.

One thing I liked (well, I liked lots of things) was that the middle and high school Telgemeier drew was a diverse one. From her friends to the boys she liked, there were all shades of skin. And it wasn’t  this one’s the “black friend” or the “Asian friend”. They were all just friends — well, sort of; some of her friends, as A pointed out when she read it, were not very nice — and it wasn’t like Telgemeier was forcing a diverse world on things. It felt natural.

And, on top of that, she set it in 1989, which was a lot of fun to revisit.

Sisters
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Content: This one is “tamer” (not that the other two are wild) than the previous two books, and has a more universal appeal, being about sibling rivalry. It’s in the middle grade graphic novel section of the store.

This is another memoir(ish) graphic novel, that takes place during Smile (though you don’t need to read that one to enjoy this one). It’s centered on Raina’s relationship with her younger sister, Amara. It has their backstory, their relationship as siblings as well as a road trip (yay road trip!) to visit cousins in Colorado for a family reunion.

It’s not an easy relationship, the one between Raina and Amara. There’s jealousy, age difference, interest differences, and (of course) just plain sibling rivalry. It’s the usual stuff: hitting, yelling, punching, name-calling. But an event on the road trip (I knew they were useful!), helps the sisters see that maybe it’s okay if they’re different. They can still get along.

I think, out of the three, this one was the least angsty, the least middle-school drama-y, and my personal favorite. Not only because I still remember fighting with my siblings, but because I’ve got all these girls around here who fight and squabble and don’t get along. Maybe, someday, they’ll figure it out. So, this one hit home in a way the other two didn’t.

A word on her art: it’s a bit cartoon-y (that’s the techincal term), but I thought it fit her story-telling style. It’s not terribly detailed, but it served it’s purpose, and the bright colors drew the eye in.

I handed all three of these off to the girls and they enjoyed them as much as I did. I’m glad we finally got around to reading her work!