Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Lots of Guilt (or, ARCs I'm Not Going to Read)

I know, I know, I'm a terrible person. I get free books in the mail - before they even come out in the store - and then I choose not to even read them? Even I am ashamed of myself. But sometimes you request a book because the teaser sounds amazing, only to find out once you crack it open that they're not nearly as good as you'd hoped. That's what happened with these two books: I got them both - one by request, the other unsolicited - and, before I started them, handed them over to my wonderful mother who sacrifices some of her valuable time to help me pare down my TBR list to the books I'll actually enjoy reading. Neither of these novels were so horrible she absolutely refused to let me read them (which she does do sometimes), but they were bad enough that she talked me out of wanting to. I'm putting the teasers and covers down below, though, so I can give at least some publicity to the books in return for the gorgeous ARCs that the publishers spent the time and money to send me. I'm also putting the reasons I'm not reading them, which you might find interesting. Just be warned, I haven't read the books myself - take all the negative things I write about them with a grain of salt!

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Noah is just trying to make it through seventh grade. The girls are confusing, the homework is boring, and even his friends are starting to bug him. Not to mention that his older sister, Emma, has been acting pretty strange, even though Noah thought she’d been doing better ever since the Thing They Don’t Talk About. The only place he really feels at peace is in art class, with a block of clay in his hands. As it becomes clear through Emma’s ever-stricter food rules and regulations that she’s not really doing better at all, the normal seventh-grade year Noah was hoping for begins to seem pretty unattainable. In an affecting and realistic novel with bright spots of humor, Jo Knowles captures the complexities of navigating middle school while feeling helpless in the face of a family crisis.
(Release Date August 2, 2016)

I feel terrible that I'm not even going to read this, after the folks over at Candlewick Press were awesome enough to send me an ARC when I asked them for one. I still think it looks really interesting - I haven't read many books about people with eating disorders, let alone about the siblings of people with them! - but my mother said that the book is split about halfway between focusing on Noah's sister's eating problems (which she said was really interesting to read about) and focusing on his school life (i.e. his girl-crazy best friends and unsupportive teachers, which she didn't like at all).

It sounds like my mom did really like the eating disorder storyline, but thought the book was ruined by the middle-school romance angle; if you're intrigued by the scenario and not turned off by middle-school romance, then you could still like Still a Work in Progress.

Disclaimer: ARC received from Candlewick Press
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Nadia lives in the city of Canaan, where life is safe and structured, hemmed in by white stone walls and no memory of what came before. But every twelve years the city descends into the bloody chaos of the Forgetting, a day of no remorse, when each person's memories – of parents, children, love, life, and self – are lost. Unless they have been written.
In Canaan, your book is your truth and your identity, and Nadia knows exactly who hasn't written the truth. Because Nadia is the only person in Canaan who has never forgotten.
But when Nadia begins to use her memories to solve the mysteries of Canaan, she discovers truths about herself and Gray, the handsome glassblower, that will change her world forever. As the anarchy of the Forgetting approaches, Nadia and Gray must stop an unseen enemy that threatens both their city and their own existence – before the people can forget the truth. And before Gray can forget
her.
(Release Date September 13)

I didn't actually request The Forgetting, it just showed up in a beautiful package from Scholastic one afternoon, so while I was thrilled (just look at that gorgeous cover, and read that amazing teaser!) I was also a little nervous from the teaser's mention of "Gray, the handsome glassblower" that the main characters would spend the whole time lusting after each other the way the characters did in Evangeline Denmark's Curio (my review), a book that I was originally so excited for that I reached out to the publisher for a review copy. This time I specifically asked my mom to skim through The Forgetting ahead of time and let me know whether it would be good, because I didn't really want to read another Curio. Unfortunately she told me that (and I quote) "the main characters spend the whole time panting after each other." Panting. Yeah, I wasn't exactly heartbroken when she said she didn't want me to read it. I am a little sad, though, that the author took such a fascinating plot and messed it up by adding romance. Why can't the main character ever just focus on saving the world with her best friend, instead of on saving the world while falling in love with her main ally?

Disclaimer: ARC received from Scholastic
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What do you think, am I right for passing these books by or just evil for wasting perfectly good ARCs? Let me know in the comments section below!

Friday, June 24, 2016

Mutation by Roland Smith, 2014

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Monsters of legend come to life! The final thrilling title in Roland Smith's popular series.
Marty and his best friend, Luther, have managed to rescue Marty's cousin Grace from the clutches of the nefarious pseudo-naturalist Noah Blackwood, but their most dangerous mission lies ahead of them. Marty's parents have been missing in Brazil for months and their trail has all but run cold. With time running out, Marty and the Cryptos Island crew race off for Brazil -- where they discover that Noah Blackwood has twisted the natural order of things beyond their wildest, most terrifying dreams.

(352 pages)

I hadn't read the first three books in the Marty and Grace series in a long time, so I just sort of assumed that all of the random characters popping in and out of the story were characters I'd once known and then forgotten.

Turns out, there are two other whole series of books set in the same world that are also being tied off in this book. Who knew? No wonder I felt kind of muddled. It seemed like Smith was casting his net a little too wide when it came to characters, but I guess if you're bringing together a couple of different series you're bound to be stuck juggling a ton of different characters. That's something to keep in mind, though, as you read this review: I'm reviewing the book purely as the last book in the Marty and Grace series, without any idea of the context with regards to the other series.

Basically . . . there are a million characters I can't keep track of. And the narration keeps jumping between them, so I kept forgetting who was where and what they were doing (not to mention which of the other myriad of characters they'd already met). The main storyline with Blackwood was gripping - chilling - and the entire reveal of where the characters had been disappearing to was cool.

The big big reveal, though, the one that comes at the end of the book? That one was . . . weird. Blackwood whole background seemed really random, since I don't remember any foreshadowing of it in the other books. As for a certain new character who pops up late in the book, I really love the entire idea behind her existence but it just doesn't make any scientific sense to me. I think there's a certain word that they use to describe her (if you've already read the book: the word starts with a "c" and basically defines her relationship to Grace) that's used a little too liberally. I also wish the book hadn't ended so quickly after she was introduced, because it would have been really interesting to see her relationship with the other characters (especially Marty, Grace, and Wolfe) explored more fully.

Speaking of relationships that aren't taken to their full potential, I feel like everywhere Grace turns there are fascinating alleyways that could be explored but aren't. Do she and Marty really just shake off the whole "hey, we're actually cousins and not twins!" reveal so easily that they never so much as think about it? Does she seriously adjust her entire definition of who her parents are that she can refer to "my mom" and think about "her father" and use those titles to refer to people she barely even knew existed for the vast majority of her life, never blinking an eyelash about her relationship to the couple actually did all of the diaper changing, hand holding, bike training and, well, all of the other things that parents do? I just find it hard to believe that her entire definition of family can shift so quickly. Plus, she literally isn't described as sharing a single word with Marty's parents about the fact that they lied to her for her entire life. The book says she's pulled into a big hug and forgives them everything, but that doesn't really change the fact that they have no idea she knows the truth. I would have liked some dialogue there.

But then again, the book already had too much going on in it. I would have happily chopped some of the other storylines to make way for mine, though I can see how fans of the others series' characters might have a problem with that. Maybe it's just the genre that I'm not used to, or maybe this approach of throwing a bunch of series together into one jumbled story doesn't quite work. I don't know, but I kind of wish that the Marty and Grace series had gone out with a bigger bang. The first books were amazing! Regardless, though, if you've made it this far in the series then of course you're going to read its finale. Let me know what you think - and if you've read all of the other series, tell me how well you think Mutation blends them together!

Monday, June 20, 2016

Home of the Brave by Katherine Applegate, 2007

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Kek comes from Africa. In America he sees snow for the first time, and feels its sting. He's never walked on ice, and he falls. He wonders if the people in this new place will be like the winter – cold and unkind.
In Africa, Kek lived with his mother, father, and brother. But only he and his mother have survived, and now she's missing. Kek is on his own. Slowly, he makes friends: a girl who is in foster care; an old woman who owns a rundown farm, and a cow whose name means "family" in Kek's native language. As Kek awaits word of his mother's fate, he weathers the tough Minnesota winter by finding warmth in his new friendships, strength in his memories, and belief in his new country.

(256 pages)

As a 21-century American kid, I am incredibly spoiled.

And I know that. I recognize it, and sometimes feel bad about it. I live in a wealthy country, in a (relatively) wealthy family, in a lifestyle that caters to my physical and emotional comfort. I get hung up sometimes on things like bad teachers or college decisions, and this book is a well-needed reminder to me that I really have nothing at all worth complaining about. I really am a "poor little rich girl."

Now that's off my chest, I suppose I should turn to the book itself. I haven't read many books told entirely through verse, but the poetic format really works here to get the story across in Kek's very distinctive voice. It's clear that he's really feeling the disconnect between his own lyrical language and the foreign and - to his ears - harsh sound of English. By turning the narration (which by necessity is written in English) into poetry, Applegate captures the rhythm and beauty of Kek's language. Or at least, I assume she does; I don't actually know anything about African languages.

I can't really critique the story itself, because it feels like it's real. I know that there really are people who are just like the various characters in the novel, and that makes it so much richer; Home of the Brave truly is as much a lesson in empathy as it is an entertaining read. I'm so very glad I did read Home of the Brave, and gained a sense of perspective on both my life and the life of African immigrants, and I look forward to reading it again in the future. I highly recommend you read it as well!

Friday, June 17, 2016

Chomp by Carl Hiaasen, 2012

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Wahoo Cray lives in a zoo. His father is an animal wrangler, so he's grown up with all manner of gators, snakes, parrots, rats, monkeys, snappers, and more in his backyard. The critters he can handle. His father is the unpredictable one.
When his dad takes a job with a reality TV show called "Expedition Survival!", Wahoo figures he'll have to do a bit of wrangling himself—to keep his dad from killing Derek Badger, the show's boneheaded star, before the shoot is over. But the job keeps getting more complicated. Derek Badger seems to actually believe his PR and insists on using wild animals for his stunts. And Wahoo's acquired a shadow named Tuna—a girl who's sporting a shiner courtesy of her old man and needs a place to hide out.
They've only been on location in the Everglades for a day before Derek gets bitten by a bat and goes missing in a storm. Search parties head out and promptly get lost themselves. And then Tuna's dad shows up with a gun . . .
It's anyone's guess who will actually survive "Expedition Survival". . . .

(290 pages)

I got a copy of this book through Barnes & Noble's summer reading program, basically because it was the only option that looked semi-decent and wasn't already snapped up by my siblings.

And I'm very glad I did get Chomp, because it is awesome.

Seriously, it's got so much going on and is so hilarious - but so deep at the same time. Wahoo's friend Tuna is dealing with some very serious stuff when it comes to her father, and I love to see how Wahoo and his father leap to do everything they can to keep her safe. It's also nice to see how absolutely horrified they both are at the thought that anyone could ever treat his daughter so poorly, and how Wahoo tries so hard to be there for Tuna. It's really sweet to watch the two of them interact, too - they're totally two peas in a pod, and even though there's a grand total of zero romance in the entire book (unless you count adults joking about how two kids named after fish just have to belong together) it's really obvious that Tuna and Wahoo simply belong together. I don't know if I necessarily want a sequel that brings romance in to make things official, but I'm totally envisioning those two being, at the very least, best friends for a very long time.

Besides Tuna and Wahoo, the rest of the characters are also rich and striking as well. Derek is such an idiot it's hilarious to watch him bumbling around. About halfway through he gets lost after being bitten by a bat, and he literally convinces himself that he's turning into a vampire. A vampire. I couldn't make this stuff up. There's also Wahoo's dad, the pig-headed animal wrangler who cares about animals more than anything - except for Wahoo and his mom, of course. Seeing him clash horns with the TV people over what they could and couldn't do with the animals was awesome, especially because he usually won the day by using his knowledge about animals to manipulate Derek into looking like an idiot (or, well, like even more of an idiot - on film).

Honestly, I don't know what else to say. I guess I should have jumped on the Carl Hiaasen bandwagon sooner. This is the only one of his books I've ever read, but I'm going to fix that soon - when I get back from the summer vacation I'm on right now, I'm going to binge-read the rest of his books. If you've read anything else by him, let me know in the comments which one I should start with!

Monday, June 13, 2016

Slacker by Gordon Korman, 2016

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Cameron Boxer is very happy to spend his life avoiding homework, hanging out with his friends, and gaming for hours in his basement. It's not too hard for him to get away with it . . . until he gets so caught up in one game that he almost lets his house burn down around him.
Oops.

It's time for some serious damage control--so Cameron and his friends invent a fake school club that will make it seem like they're doing good deeds instead of slacking off. The problem? Some kids think the club is real--and Cameron is stuck being president.
Soon Cameron is part of a mission to save a beaver named Elvis from certain extinction. Along the way, he makes some new friends--and some powerful new enemies. The guy who never cared about anything is now at the center of everything . . . and it's going to take all his slacker skills to win this round.

(240 pages)

Who doesn't love a good Gordon Korman? I know I certainly do! This was a great read to kick off the summer with, because it's just so fun.

Now, the cynical part of me does has to say that Slacker is similar to many of Korman's other books, especially Ungifted and A Semester in the Life of a Garbage Bag (both of which I like more, partly just because I read them first). It's beginning to feel like Korman is kind of recycling components of his older books.

He's still a great writer, though, and I know that Slacker will appeal to a lot of kids. Heck, it appealed to me even though I'd already read so many of Korman's other books. He's an amazingly skilled writer, an amazingly funny writer, and that will always draw the attention of his audience. Plus, Cameron's gaming obsession is a total draw. I know that my brother's eyes lit up the minute I said the word "gaming" - now he wants to read Slacker as soon as I'm done with it, because he assumes it will be an interesting book.

For me, though, Slacker just didn't quite hit the sweet spot. It was good, and I really did enjoy kicking off the summer with a new Gordon Korman novel to make me laugh, but I never felt quite the same connection to the story, or the characters, that I have had with many of his others. If you haven't read as many of his books, though, then I definitely still suggest you give Slacker a try - it may not be very cutting edge compared to Korman's other books, but it's still funnier than the vast majority of middle grade books out there. If you do read Slacker, definitely let me know what you think of it in the comments section below!

Disclaimer: I received a copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

Friday, June 10, 2016

Fever 1793 by Laurie Halse Anderson, 2000

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It's late summer 1793, and the streets of Philadelphia are abuzz with mosquitoes and rumors of fever. Down near the docks, many have taken ill, and the fatalities are mounting. Now they include Polly, the serving girl at the Cook Coffeehouse. But fourteen-year-old Mattie Cook doesn't get a moment to mourn the passing of her childhood playmate. New customers have overrun her family's coffee shop, located far from the mosquito-infested river, and Mattie's concerns of fever are all but overshadowed by dreams of growing her family's small business into a thriving enterprise. But when the fever begins to strike closer to home, Mattie's struggle to build a new life must give way to a new fight-the fight to stay alive.
(272 pages)

I didn't know anything about the Philadelphia yellow fever epidemic before I read this book. I had a hazy idea that there were bouts of fever, sure, and I think I've even read some books about characters who live through it before. And yet it wasn't until I read Fever that the true horror of the ordeal became apparent to me.

That honestly makes this a very hard book for me to review. How do you analyze and rate your emotions? I'll do my best to put together a coherent review, though - and please be understanding if this is a little scattered.

The funny thing is that just today I was talking to a woman about my upcoming AP US History class, she asked if I'd read Fever; when I said I already had, we spent a minute talking about what an impression it had on us and how we'd never known anything about the yellow fever. This is the kind of book that leaves an impression on you, because it's so striking and horrifying. The thought of people dying in droves, of bodies rotting everywhere and being tossed into mass graves, of children left parentless and parents left childless, is absolutely horrifying.

Ick, I don't want to think about it. Except, that's what the entire novel does: it makes you think about it. And while it's not the thickest book on the topic I'm sure - and it focuses more on its main character than on the fever itself - this makes an excellent introduction to the topic as well as a very humanizing depiction of an event that would otherwise be just another dry entry in a history textbook. If you're interested, I definitely recommend Fever. If you give it a try, let me know what you think!

Monday, June 6, 2016

Uprising by Margaret Peterson Haddix, 2007

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Bella, newly arrived in New York from Italy, gets a job at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory. There, along with hundreds of other immigrants, she works long hours at a grueling job under terrible conditions. Yetta, a coworker from Russia, has been crusading for a union, and when factory conditions worsen, she helps workers rise up in a strike. Wealthy Jane learns of the plight of the workers and becomes involved with their cause.
Bella and Yetta are at work--and Jane is visiting the factory--on March 25, 1911, when a spark ignites some cloth and the building is engulfed in fire, leading to one of the worst workplace disasters ever.
Margaret Peterson Haddix draws on extensive historical research to bring the tragedy of the Triangle Shirtwaist fire to tangible life through her thrilling story of Bella, Yetta, and Jane.

(346 pages)

This book is so sad.

The first time I read it, I spent the entire time trying to guess which two girls would die and simultaneously hoping that the narrator had lied and really all three of them would make it through the fire. My hopes were dashed. I can't say who died, but the truth is that I didn't want any of the three girls to die. They all had long lives ahead of them, so much to hope for. When I finished the book and put it down for the first time, tears streaked down my face; it took me a long time to completely understand and come to grips with the tragedy of the fire, and even longer to stop being haunted by it.

Now, re-reading Uprising, my strong reactions all come flitting back. The thing about this story is that there's so much going on even before the fire starts. Each girl is working to come to grips with the bad things in her life, and to find a way to continue on. There's the huge labor strike, and the description of the horrible working conditions factory girls endure; there's the moral dilemma Jane faces, in choosing between her wonderful stuff and the sexist father whose money provides it; there's Bella's struggle to adjust to America, and her guilt about leaving her family behind in Italy to die. If not for the last few chapters, this would be a very thought-provoking book about life in the early twentieth century for young women in America. It would have been a sad book, but also a hopeful one as all three girls worked toward a better future.

Instead, we have the tragedy of lives cut short by the factory fire. And it's this feeling of sudden, horrible destruction that is so terrible. It's not like the girls face a long, painful battle with cancer and then meet their deaths gracefully; one minute they're alive and fighting, making plans, and the next two of them are dead. This sudden shock, this destruction of lives that were so busy fighting for life just a few pages before, is what truly carries across the pain and horror of not just that one fire but all the events that have resulted in premature deaths. It's heartbreaking and thought-provoking, as all good historical novels are, and I'm much the better for having read it.

I only recommend this book to people looking for a serious read with the potential to make them cry. It's not a happy read, though it's certainly got its moments of hope, and you really only should read it if you're emotionally ready. If you are, and you do, definitely let me know what you think in the comments section down below!

Friday, June 3, 2016

The Always War by Margaret Peterson Haddix, 2011

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In a war-torn future United States, fifteen-year-old Tessa, her childhood friend Gideon, now a traumatized military hero, and Dek, a streetwise orphan, enter enemy territory and discover the shocking truth about a war that began more than seventy-five years earlier.
(256 pages)

The first time I read this book, I was absolutely floored by the plot twist. Margaret Peterson Haddix is a genius when it comes to inventing mind-bending scenarios, and The Always War is one of her very bendiest books. Unfortunately, it's also one of her shortest.

And that's what always frustrates me when I re-read it. Just when things are really getting hot, just when the plot twists are falling hard and fast and the world is about to change forever, the book ends. I know there's something to be said for letting the reader fill in their own ending (which I did, vividly, as a twelve-year-old girl after reading it for the first time), but I'd much rather have just read her description.

Besides its shortness, though, I love everything about this book. The worldbuilding is intriguing, the characters are realistically flawed and yet still lovable, and the plot - oh, gosh, that plot. I just can't get over it. I wish I could talk about it more, but I can't spoil the twists for you!

Anyway, this is a good book but doesn't make my list of favorite Margaret Peterson Haddix books because of its short length and rather abrupt ending. If you've never read one of her books, don't start with this one - maybe try Double Identity or Turnabout first; if you've read several of her other novels, then definitely give The Always War a go!