Monday, December 11, 2017

Taking a Short Break Until the New Year

Hello, everyone! This is just a quick note to let you know that I will be taking a short break from posting reviews until the January. I am taking a few weeks off to study for and take my college exams and celebrate the holidays. I'll be right back on Monday the 1st of January to start up my regular schedule of Monday and Friday book reviews. In the meantime, I hope you have a great end of the year. Happy holidays!

Unschooled by Allan Woodrow, 2017

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This year's fifth graders are the worst Principal Klein has ever seen. But he's hoping that Spirit Week can teach them teamwork, with a top secret prize for the winning team as incentive.
Best friends George and Lilly have been looking forward to Spirit Week all year. They might be complete opposites, but they can't wait to be on the winning team together. When their classes end up rivals, with Lilly leading Team Red and George leading Team Blue, the friends swear they can compete and remain best friends.
But suddenly there are slimed lockers, sabotaged costumes, and class pets held hostage. As the pranks escalate, it threatens everything, including the prize. Because if Principal Klein finds out, Spirit Week will be cancelled and the students will spend the rest of the year in detention.
Can George and Lilly find a way to fix their friendship and get the entire fifth grade to play fair, or is the most awesome week of fifth grade about to make this the worst school year ever?

(288 pages)

I reviewed the prequel to this book, Class Dismissed, about a year ago. I thought it was okay, pretty funny, but kind of forgettable. I did indeed basically forget about it after a while, so I had no idea another book was coming out this year.

I didn't, at least, until Unschooled showed up on my doorstep one day unannounced. I think my younger siblings, frankly, were more excited about it than I was (they had also appreciated Class Dismissed more than I did), so I read it quickly and immediately passed it on to my little brother. And I have to say, I actually liked Unschooled better than Class Dismissed.

It seemed a little more mature to me, and a lot more interesting. The premise of competing teams in school reminded me a little bit of the wonderful No Talking by Andrew Clements, and the split between best friends George and Lilly made for compelling friction. Things quickly spiralled completely out of control between the teams, and the best friends, and it was interesting to see how it happened fairly realistically and how the team leaders continued to be held responsible for things that were not really their fault. I did find it a little unrealistic that the adults put so much responsibility on the shoulders of these fifth graders, but it's all good because I like reading about what they do with it.

Honestly, Unschooled is an engaging, well-paced read with interesting main characters and good levels of tension. I enjoyed it quite a bit as a fun, rather fluffy, read; I suspect that kids in the target audience will love it even more than I did.

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

Friday, December 8, 2017

Eden Summer by Liz Flanagan, 2017

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It starts like any other day for Jess. Get up, draw on eyeliner, cover up tattoos, and head to school. But soon it's clear that this is no ordinary day, because Jess's best friend, Eden, isn't at school . . . she's gone missing.

Jess knows she must do everything in her power to find Eden. Before the unthinkable happens.

So Jess decides to retrace the life-changing summer she and Eden have just spent together. But looking back means digging up all their buried secrets, and she soon begins to question everything she thought the summer had been about, and everything she thought she knew about her best friend . . .

(288 pages)

Eden Summer isn't really a book I ever would have picked up on my own–too YA for my tastes–but I was still intrigued when a copy of it showed up on my doorstep a few weeks back. I love murder mysteries, so I hoped the search for Eden would involve lots of character analyses and shocking plot twists.

Well, I was right about the first part at least. There isn't much action in the book, mainly just characters wandering around and talking/remembering, but we definitely get to know the main characters very well. I quickly came to realize that I have very little in common with Jess and Eden, both of whom are very emotionally scarred and who make some very questionable lifestyle choices. Jess lives with her mother, who decided late in life that she was actually lesbian, and is struggling to deal with her own trauma-related demons while simultaneously hunting frantically for Eden. We get to know Eden quite well through flashbacks throughout the book, learning all about the anguish she feels after her older sister died in a tragic car accident. As for the third main character, Liam, we know less about him. We mainly just know that he's Eden's boyfriend and that he and Jess have been trying to support and shelter Eden throughout the summer.

It's hard to describe why, but I just didn't really like the characters very much. I feel sorry for both Eden and Jess for their prospective traumas, yes, but I also really hate the way Eden treated her sister in the month or so before the accident. And I love that Jess is so supportive of Eden after her sister's death, but I also can't accept the action she and *ahem* someone else did shortly before Eden's disappearance. It's simply unacceptable.

Also, a content warning: the language in Eden Summer is pretty awful. There are a lot of swear words scattered throughout it, including several uses of the f-word and "hell" as a swear and also some derogatory references to Jess's lesbian mother.

Like I said at the beginning of this review, I never would have picked up Eden Summer on my own. I think I'm glad that the opportunity to read it was dropped into my lap, because it's good for me to shake up my reading habits once in a while, but I am ready to set it back down and move on to something more my usual speed.

Disclaimer: I received an unsolicited complimentary copy of this novel from the publisher in order to provide an honest review.

Monday, December 4, 2017

Just Sayin' by Dandi Daley Mackall, 2017

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Just Sayin' tells the story of an almost-blended family that almost falls apart before it even begins. 11 year-old Cassie Callahan is staying with her grandmother while her mom, Jennifer, recovers from a difficult breakup from her fiance, Trent. Cassie, along with Trent's kids, Nick and Julie, are trying to figure out why their parents' relationship ended so abruptly and searching for a way to bring them back together. Meanwhile, the kids get caught up in a game show that encourages the "art" of insults, and learn along the way that our words have much more power than they think.

In a way that only Dandi can accomplish, this story weaves together, in a contemporary way, an old-time game show, letter writing, outstanding vocabulary, and reminders from God's word that taming our tongue is both difficult and important!

(178 pages)

Man, Dandi Daley Mackall is versatile. I originally grew to love her Starlight Animal Shelter horse series a long time ago, and then I rediscovered her when I started receiving books for review from her publishing company Tyndale and they sent me Larger-Than-Life Lara (a book told in "school assignment" format by a girl whose overweight classmate was bullied) and With Love, Wherever You Are (a retelling of her grandparents' romance while both were serving in Europe during WWII). Now we get something quite different yet again with Just Sayin,' which is told entirely through letters and texts exchanged between the characters.

It's a very interesting narration gimmick, and one that works really well here. I had a little trouble suspending disbelief for the duration of the book (because let's be honest, no one–let alone children–regularly writes such detailed, vulnerable letters to friends, family members, and new acquaintances). I managed, though, and I'm glad I did because Just Sayin' really is a very good read.

The story of the split between Nick's dad and Cassie's mom so soon before their marriage is an interesting one, if a little simplified at times. With just 180 pages to work with, Mackall didn't really have space to flesh the nuances of the situation out as well as she could have otherwise. I was rooting for them to join together as a family once more, of course, but I cared a lot more about Cassie, Nick, and Nick's little sister Julie than I did about the parents. I was particularly mad at Cassie's mom–because I don't care what sort of emotional drama you're going through, up and abandoning your daughter at your mom's house indefinitely is not okay.

But forget the parents, it's really all about the kids. Cassie's and Nick's letters are so warm and funny, and I love the way they try out all sorts of nasty insults on each other. They're big fans of insults, and they're almost professional-level good at dishing them out. Cassie begins to have a sort of "crisis of faith" during the book, in which she starts reading the Bible at her pastor's urging and realizes that some insults are unkind and un-Christlike. This is an interesting side story, though I also struggle with the idea that a kid her age would be mature enough to come up with these sorts of complex biblical analyses (let alone be convicted enough to consider implementing them!).

Really, my main issue with Just Sayin' is that the characters act pretty unrealistically both for their age and for the format of their correspondence. But it's such a fun and heartwarming book–and the kids' letters are just so laugh-out-loud hilarious!–that I can't help but love it anyway.

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

Friday, December 1, 2017

Almost There by Bekah DiFelice, 2017

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Home, by definition, is where you feel comfortable, where you are established, where relationships are worn in and familiar. It is where you are known, a place to belong. It is a universal longing, but an elusive destination.

Why does life often move us far from this secure, primal comfort? We transfer to different locations or simply live unsettled in our own hometown. We rebuild, make new friends, find new jobs, and forge new ties. Our blanket of security becomes a whole host of unknowns. Underneath it all, sure as the evening taps, there is a homesickness for belonging.

What if this homesickness is not just a series of challenges to be overcome, but a vehicle for God to draw us to Himself? What if God is orchestrating our circumstances to bring us into the knowledge of who He is? What if all along He is inviting us home?

Is it possible to build a home in a life that marches to the cadence of constant change and transition? In Almost There, Bekah DiFelice, a military wife familiar with the impermanence of home, offers encouragement and wisdom to those who struggle with a search for belonging in a world where home is constantly shifting. God, the grand home builder with an eternal guarantee, invites us to build a home that resides in the privacy of our hearts, a settlement that is fundamentally immovable. If we put roots down in a God who is unchangeable, He promises to be a steady anchor in the unpredictability of life.

(192 pages)

I am not a military kid, but people often think I am.

My family has moved eight times since I was born, at an average of every three years or so. When I tell people we've moved because of my father (a scientist), the first assumption for many is that my father has a military job.

All that to say . . . I can relate on a very personal level to DiFelice's descriptions of the trials and tribulations of moving somewhere new every so often. I know what it's like to hunt for a new church, to make awkward small talk with people who might be new friends (or possibly new frenemies), to unpack all my belongings and make an impersonal new house into a home.

Or at least, to make it some part of a home. The whole point of DiFelice's book is detailing her search for home. She was thrust from her childhood home to marry her husband and follow him first to Yuma, Arizona (a tiny base in the middle of nowhere) and then, after three years and every three years after that, to a new location somewhere around the world. She was definitely a lot less prepared for moving out into the world than I am, because she'd lived her whole life in the same place surrounded by family; her quest to discover what home really is was interesting to read (and often hilarious), but I don't know that it was specifically that helpful to me.

After all, I already know where my home is: it's wherever I'm living at the moment. And also with my family. And also, to varying extents, every place I've ever lived. Because personally, I don't believe that home has to be just one place. My home is a physical place and an emotional one–it's every place I've ever lived that I still have fond memories of, it's the house of my parents and siblings who love me (no matter where that house happens to be at the moment), and it's the physical address where I live my day-to-day life at the moment. Home is like a running tally sheet, not a single focal point that almost always stays the same.

And I think, really, that DiFelice reached the same conclusion that I did. She also had some more insight into God's role in things, which I hadn't really given much thought to. But the real reason I loved reading Almost There has nothing to do with the deep philosphical insights: Bekah DiFelice is simply hilarious. I loved the funny, realistic ways she had of describing the experience of moving around and living life. I can't think of much else to say about the book (other than that it's really good and I very highly recommend it!), so I think I'll just end with a quote from her describing the drive to her first home away from her parents, in Arizona:
When night set in, headlights flashed bright and aggressive from the opposite direction. So many people, it seemed, were fleeing from the very place I was headed. I departed Colorado armed with Cheez-Its and gusto, and in the desert I realized that both were gone.
Disclaimer: I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.