Friday, September 28, 2018

The Length of a String by Elissa Brent Weissman, 2018

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Imani knows exactly what she wants as her big bat mitzvah gift: to meet her birthparents. She loves her family and her Jewish community in Baltimore, but she has always wondered where she came from, especially since she's black and almost everyone she knows is white. When her mom's grandmother--Imani's great-grandma Anna--passes away, Imani discovers an old diary among her books. It's Anna's diary from 1941, the year she was twelve--the year she fled Nazi-occupied Luxembourg alone, sent by her parents to seek refuge in Brooklyn. Written as a series of letters to the twin sister she had to leave behind, Anna's diary records her journey to America and her new life with an adopted family. Anna's diary and Imani's birthparent search intertwine to tell the story of two girls, each searching for family and identity in her own time and in her own way.
(384 pages)

I loved it.

There's no point beating around the bush. I really, really enjoyed reading this book. I love reading about Imani's struggles to fit in as a black adoptee in a white Jewish neighborhood. I love how Weissman portrayed Imani's thirst for knowledge about her birth family, while still loving her adoptive family more than anything. I love that her little brother is also adopted but has no interest in his birth parents, which represents the diversity in outlooks of adoptees.

Anna's story is a lot less fun to read than Imani's in places, but it was just as well done. Her story was similar to many other WWII refugee books I've read over the years, but there were enough details–such as the coat piecing plant, where Anna comes to help her foster father and the stingy uncles.

The uncles themselves were a great addition to the story, because they were both horrible and pathetic. I love nuance in a children's book. The details about Anna's family and her relationship with her siblings (especially her identical twin Belle) were both wonderfully done and incredibly sad. Watching her unravel her parents' thought process as they chose which of their children to send to safety was especially heartbreaking. So was seeing Anna's struggle to balance her love for America with her homesickness and, later, her sorrow for what European Jews were being subjected to.

It was kind of cool to be learning Anna's story alongside Amani, as Amani read each entry in her great-grandmother's diary and reacted emotionally to each new development. When there was information we readers needed that wasn't available from Anna's diary perspective, Amani would Google a topic or ask an older family member to get the answer. It was a smart storytelling technique, a story within a story, and I kind of wish more books did it.

Having made it very clear that there was a lot I liked about The Length of a String, I should add a few negatives. Anna's story is an interesting one but, as I said before, I've read a lot of WWII refugee books. Without Amani's story and reactions to reading her diary, I probably would have been a little less absorbed with it. Also, I felt like Amani was pretty selfish, digging into her adoption against her mother's express wishes. I would have preferred if she had been brave enough to convince her parents before she started searching, rather than reacting after she was caught. But then, she's only twelve and she has her heart set on finding her biological roots. It makes sense that her decision-making process isn't quite as mature as it could have been. Anyway, I really loved how that storyline was concluded.

All in all, this is just such a nice, solid, thought-provoking read which I very much enjoyed. If you like the looks of the description, then you probably will enjoy it, too!

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

Monday, September 24, 2018

Bash Bash Revolution by Douglas Lain, 2018

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Seventeen-year-old Matthew Munson is ranked thirteenth in the state in Bash Bash Revolution, an outdated Nintendo game from 2002 that, in 2016, is still getting tournament play. He's a high school dropout who still lives at home with his mom, doing little but gaming and moping. That is, until Matthew's dad turns up again. Jeffrey Munson is a computer geek who'd left home eight years earlier to work on a top secret military project. Jeff has been a sporadic presence in Matthew's life, and much to his son's displeasure insists on bonding over video games. The two start entering local tournaments together, where Jeff shows astonishing aptitude for Bash Bash Revolution in particular. 

Then, as abruptly as he appeared, Matthew's father disappears again, just as he was beginning to let Jeff back into his life. The betrayal is life-shattering, and Matthew decides to give chase, in the process discovering the true nature of the government-sponsored artificial intelligence program his father has been involved in. Told as a series of conversations between Matthew and his father's artificial intelligence program, Bash Bash Revolution is a wildly original novel of apocalypse and revolution, as well as a poignant story of broken family.
(293 pages)

I've always been interested in cutting-edge technology and the ways that technological advancements affect society, so I was naturally very excited to read Bash Bash Revolution.

Unfortunately, I didn't like it nearly as much as I'd thought I would. This is for a couple of reasons, so I'll just go through them.

First, the language. Pretty self-explanatory, I thought the profanities were entirely unecessary.

Second, I didn't really like Matthew. I don't care what his reasons were, I just couldn't get behind his whole "smart guy drops out of high school to play video games" story.

Third, I don't like how they represented religion. One of the characters comes from a super-conservative Christian background, but she doesn't act like any of the (many) people I know who actually come from conservative families. Instead, she's basically just a tool for Lain to show the way technology was breaking down old pillars. She is fine as a character, but as a representative of my faith (or, really, of any serious religion) I didn't really like her. Because seriously, people don't change that easily.

And that brings me to my fourth and largest gripe with Bash Bash Revolution: it's completely unrealistic. I doubt an AI would ever seriously come to those sorts of conclusions, or behave in the manner that it does, and it certainly could have been shut down. Plus, there's no way it could obtain enough data to so perfectly develop and present programs to enthrall each person. Not to mention the simple fact that there are many people who simply would not become enthralled forever. Surely I'm not the only one who gets sick when I play VR for more than half an hour without giving my eyes a break, right? And there are old people who would never put the headsets on in the first place. And mothers with young children would never just up and abandon their kids, no matter how good the game they were playing. And so on and so forth. Enough people would not play, or would quit playing after a while, that they would realize what was going on and put a stop to it.

Honestly, I liked the basic premise at the beginning of the book, but I quickly realized that my ability to suspend disbelief simply didn't reach far enough to get invested in Bash Bash Revolution. Plus, this is the sort of book that scares people about tech for no good reason, and as a computer science major I just can't get behind that.

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

Friday, September 21, 2018

Breaking Cover by Michele Rigby Assad, 2018

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The CIA is looking for walking contradictions. Recruiters seek people who can keep a secret, yet pull classified information out of others; who love their country, but are willing to leave it behind to head into dangerous places; who live double lives, but can be trusted with some of the nation's most highly sensitive tasks.

Michele Rigby Assad was one of those people.

As a CIA agent, Michele soon found that working undercover was an all-encompassing job. The threats were real. The mission was a perilous one. Trained as a counterterrorism expert, Michele spent over a decade in the agency--a woman leading some of the most highly skilled operatives on the planet, secretly serving in some the most treacherous areas of the Middle East. But deep inside, Michele wondered: Could she really do this job? Was she in the right place at the right time, or had she misunderstood what she thought was God's calling on her life? Did she have what it would take to survive?

The answer came when Michele faced a life-or-death choice--one that had secretly been the plan for her all along.

In Breaking Cover, Michele has at last been cleared to drop cover and tell her story: one of incredible struggle; of thwarted plans and expectations; and most of all, of discovering a faith greater than all her fears.

(272 pages)

I feel terrible about this, but I completely forgot to review Breaking Cover. I planned to do it right before leaving for college, and somehow I thought I had but then when I came home again I saw it lying there and couldn't find my review online. Maybe I accidentally deleted it or something?

Anyway, moving on from my organizational woes. Breaking Cover is a pretty cool book about people who really lived a lifestyle that is usually only depicted in fiction. Michele seems like a very cool, relatable person, and so does her husband. I loved seeing what the life of married CIA agents was like, even though I cringed along with them when they kept being sent into the most dangerous spots on the planet.

Michele really shows what it's like to deal with sensitive information, interview potential terrorists/informants, etc. It's truly fascinating. Plus she was a woman serving a very important role in the Middle East, so most of her interviewees disrespected her for her gender from the moment she walked in the door. She describes in detail some of the strategies she used to manipulate their assumptions and use them to her advantage in the interview room, but it sounds like she also had to deal with similar snubs with American superiors and co-workers. It's pretty depressing.

Perhaps the scariest scene in the entire book is when Michele is driving through a town in the Middle East, alone and stopped at a stoplight, and a man begins to jeer and advance on her and then a bunch of other men step forward to come at her, too. She manages to get out of the situation relatively unscathed, but I can't believe the CIA didn't think to give her more protection (and perhaps a driver) in a country where women drivers are susceptible to being murdered.

It's hard to gather all my thoughts back together about a book that I read so long ago (so I can't warn about any bad language/material–sorry!). I definitely remember a lot more about Breaking Cover than I do about many of the other books I read around then, though, so I can vouch that it's a memorable read. I also have vivid memories of being fascinated by Michele's story (and even bothering my family with lots of cool anecdotes from the book), so I know I really enjoyed it. If you're interested, go ahead and pick it up for yourself!

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

Monday, September 17, 2018

The Dollar Kids by Jennifer Richard Jacobson, 2018

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When a family buys a house in a struggling town for just one dollar, they’re hoping to start over — but have they traded one set of problems for another?

Twelve-year-old Lowen Grover, a budding comic-book artist, is still reeling from the shooting death of his friend Abe when he stumbles across an article about a former mill town giving away homes for just one dollar. It not only seems like the perfect escape from Flintlock and all of the awful memories associated with the city, but an opportunity for his mum to run her very own business. Fortunately, his family is willing to give it a try. But is the Dollar Program too good to be true? The homes are in horrible shape, and the locals are less than welcoming. Will Millville and the dollar house be the answer to the Grovers’ troubles? Or will they find they’ve traded one set of problems for another? From the author of
Small as an Elephant and Paper Things comes a heart-tugging novel about guilt and grief, family and friendship, and, above all, community.
(416 pages)

This is the second book by Jacobson that I've read; the first was Small As An Elephant, which I found to be sad and meaningful but in a way that was pretty generic and forgettable. I saw some promise in it, though, so when I was offered the chance to read The Dollar Kids I decided to give it a go.

And I'm very glad I did, because it hits all the right notes this time. There's sadness as Lowen struggles to cope with Abe's violent death, abandoning his artwork in mourning, but that sorrowful plotline is woven gently into a broader story about moving, small-town life, and struggling to fit in. I thought it was all very well done.

I suppose I'm biased to like this book from the start simply because it provides a relatively realistic depiction of what it's like to be the new kid. The Grovers and the other Dollar families are initially viewed with curiosity, and then suspicion. Some of the kids are incorporated into the town life, if they find an in with the established friend groups; the rest are consigned to outsider status forever. Lowen's mother's Cornish Eatery is a delightful place, which customers quickly grow to love, but the business struggles because the locals feel social pressure to frequent the restaurant run by a woman who has lived in the town for ages.

I've never experienced this same level of outcast status, but I moved across state lines six times before my eighteenth birthday, so I certainly know what it's like to be the new kid–and I can say that the feeling of being a "new" person is awful, and it takes forever to go away (and sometimes never does).

Many other reviewers will probably dedicate more space to the gun violence aspect of the book, so I won't discuss it too much other than to say that I thought some potentially controversial material was handled very smoothly. It's a tragic story, and we see the emotional impact of the loss firsthand through Lowen. I think the family's revulsion toward guns is presented logically and with no real chest-thumping rhetoric so it hopefully shouldn't offend gun rights supporters too much. Also, one of the Dollar families is a lesbian couple with children, but that isn't really a big focus of the story, either.

All in all, The Dollar Kids is a really great book. It's the kind of book you read and get thoroughly absorbed into, without worrying too much about the mechanics of it. Read it and enjoy it. That's really all I can say.

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

Friday, September 14, 2018

Flood by Melissa Scholes Young, 2018

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A sparkling debut set in Mark Twain's boyhood town, FLOOD is a story of what it means to be lost…and found.

Laura Brooks fled her hometown of Hannibal, Missouri, ten years ago after a historic flood and personal heartbreak. Now she’s returned unannounced, and her family and friends don't know what to make of it. She says she's just home for a brief visit and her high-school reunion, but she's carrying too much luggage for that: literal and metaphorical. Soon Laura is embroiled in small-town affairs—the contentious divorce of her rowdy best friend, Rose; the campaign of her twelve-year-old godson, Bobby, to become the town's official Tom Sawyer; and the renewed interest of the man Laura once thought she'd marry, Sammy McGuire.

Leaving town when she was eighteen had been Laura’s only option. She feared a stifling existence in a town ruled by its past, its mythological devotion to Mark Twain, and the economic and racial divide that runs as deep as the Mississippi River. She can’t forget that fateful Fourth of July when the levees broke or the decisions that still haunt her. Now as the Mississippi rises again, a deep wound threatens to reopen, and Laura must decide if running away once more might be the best way to save herself.

(323 pages)

Yeah, no.

This book is just depressing. Its characters are all, with the sole exception of twelve-year-old Bobby, unpleasant and immoral people who have gotten themselves into crummy situations. Laura's best friend Rose is the most grating, but Rose's ex is pure awful (read: he tries to sleep with Laura!), Laura's mother is unhelpful and emotionally distant, her brother is a druggy, her "dream man" and ex Sammy is divorcing his wife because she doesn't want kids (or, possibly, she's divorcing him because she caught him messing with her birth control!), and the list goes on and on.

Laura herself is just as bad as anyone. She likes to pity herself a lot, but she's made her fair share of bad choices. She's slept around a lot, and she's still coping with a miscarriage she had after a series of flings. She is a big-time enabler, helping Rose even when she is going nuts and assuaging her guilt by taking Bobby away on outings whenever she can. She also lends her brother money to buy land for a house, and we all knew how that was going to turn out.

I liked the idea of a book set on the island where Mark Twain grew up, and the attempts at examining racism were well-meant, but I just found Flood so frustrating and depressing (and expletive-filled) that I couldn't find much more to enjoy. I don't recommend it to anyone.

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

Monday, September 10, 2018

A Flexible Faith by Bonnie Kristian, 2018

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BONNIE KRISTIAN shows that a vibrant diversity within Christian orthodoxy-which is simply to say a range of different ways to faithfully follow Jesus-is a strength of our faith, not a weakness.

It is all too easy to fail to grasp the diversity of the Christian faith-especially for those who have grown up in one branch of the church and never explored another. We fail to realize how many ways there are to follow Jesus, convinced that our own tradition is the one Christian alternative to nonbelief.

A FLEXIBLE FAITH is written for the convinced and confused believer alike. It is a readable exploration of the lively theological diversity that stretches back through church history and across the spectrum of Christianity today. It is an easy introduction to how Christians have historically answered key questions about what it means to follow Jesus. Chapters will include 17 big theological questions and answers; profiles of relevant figures in church history; discussion questions; single-page Q&As-profiles of more unusual types of Christians (e.g., a Catholic nun or a member of an Amish community); and a guide to major Christian denominations today.

As Bonnie shares her wrestlings with core issues-such as who Jesus is, what place the Church has in our lives, how to disagree yet remain within a community, and how to love the Bible for what it actually is-she teaches us how to walk courageously through our own tough questions.

Following Jesus is big and it is something that individual believers, movements, and denominations have expressed in uncountably different ways over the centuries. In the process of helping us sort things out, Bonnie shows us how to be comfortable with diversity in the Body. And as we learn to hold questions in one hand and answers in the other, we will discover new depths of faith that will remain secure even through the storms of life.

(272 pages)

This book is so awesome.

No, seriously. Just to start with, it's so nice to read a book about Christian theology that's not trying to make every reader believe exactly the same thing as the author.

Kristian starts the book by laying out a few main beliefs all Christians must have to be counted as Christians (basically believe in the Bible, Jesus, and the Holy Trinity), and makes the argument that all other issues are open for interpretation by different denominations. Then, each chapter in the rest of the book describes the logic behind all the main opposing viewpoints on a given topic. Kristian offers her own viewpoint at the end of a handful of chapters, but never implies that her perspective is the only valid one; on the rest of them, she doesn't even offer any hints about what she believes.

I love it. I love that she's fighting the "my way or the highway" attitude in so many churches, that she's showing her readers all the valid options for personalizing their faith. I may not agree with all of the options she lists (in fact, I'm quite strongly opposed to a few of them!), but I love that she lays everything out in a way that lets every reader draw their own conclusions.

She also has an interview with a different "out of the box" Christian in between the chapters. Some people might find those really interesting as well, but I found myself skimming over them a fair bit.

A Flexible Faith is a wonderful resource for nonbelievers as an overview of Christian beliefs, for questioning Christians trying to get away from a denomination that's just not right for them, and for established Christians with a shallow understanding of competing Christian ideals. Basically, for anyone with any questions about any area of Christianity, A Flexible Faith is a wonderful starting point.

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

Thursday, September 6, 2018

The Law of Finders Keepers by Sheila Turnage, 2018

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Pirates, family, and the truth about Mo's Upstream Mother collide in the conclusion to the Newbery Honor and New York Times bestselling Three Times Lucky

When the Colonel and Miss Lana share the clues about Mo's watery origins that they've been saving, it seems the time is finally right for the Desperado Detectives (aka Mo, Dale, and Harm) to tackle the mystery of Mo's Upstream Mother. It's the scariest case Mo's had by far. But before they can get started, Mayor Little's mean mother hires them to hunt in her attic for clues to Blackbeard's treasure, which could be buried right in Tupelo Landing. Turns out, the Desperados aren't the only ones looking. A professional treasure hunter named Gabe has come to town with Harm's estranged mother--and soon the race is on, even though the treasure's rumored to be cursed. As centuries- and decades-old secrets are dragged into the light, there isn't a single person in Tupelo Landing quite prepared for all that they uncover. Especially Mo.

The fourth and last book in the Mo & Dale Mystery series and the long-awaited conclusion to Three Times Lucky, The Law of Finders Keepers is a heartbreaking, heartwarming, honest, and hilarious adventure that you can read right after you finish Three Times Lucky.

(368 pages)

I have been such a huge fan of the Mo and Dale series for years, ever since I saw Sheila Turnage speak on a book panel while promoting Three Times Lucky and I went home and picked up a copy from the library. She was such a cool person in real life, and I still count myself lucky to have seen her before Three Times Lucky became really famous and won its Newberry Honor. And I'm still kicking myself for not buying a copy and getting her to sign it!

Anyway, all that is to say that I was very excited for the release of this final book in the Mo and Dale series.

Did it live up to my hopes? Yes and no.

In some ways, I was a bit disappointed with The Law of Finders Keepers. The "kids hunting for pirate treasure" storyline has never been my favorite, and I'm a bit sick of it. Plus I felt like things were a bit more rote this time, that some of the new characters weren't nearly as interesting as the older ones. Not to mention the storyline about Mo's search for her Upstream Mother. I liked how Turnage portrayed Mo's feelings, as well as the Colonel and Miss Lana's as the search heated up–but I felt like the big clue that fell into Mo's lap was a bit of a plot convenience, I thought the mechanics of the climax were kind of ridiculous, and I'm still not sure the story of Mo's mother is very satisfying for me. Plus the book gets into some darker stuff–a life-threatening experience with quicksand and Harm's troubled relationship with his mother, in particular–which made things feel a little more grounded than they have in the past.

There. I got the negative out of the way. Now I want to point at everything I said above . . . and say it doesn't matter. Because the truth is that even with all those iffy areas, I still adored the book. It's still a really, really fun and compelling read, full of off-the-wall characters and plot twists. In any other writer's hands, The Law of Finders Keepers would have been the cringey end to a series that went on too long; in Turnage's, it's a funny, grabbing romp. Even the areas that weren't as strong as the previous books really weren't that bad, and perhaps their "grounding" effect on an otherwise pretty flighty series was a good way to bring things to a close.

Honestly, I just love this series so much. Three Times Lucky will always be my favorite out of the four by far, but The Law of Finders Keepers is still a great read. I recommend it to anyone who's gotten this far in the series already (but don't you dare read this series out of order!).

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

Monday, September 3, 2018

Home by Adam Leitman Bailey, 2018

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Home takes children on a journey using their own eyes to visit many different places to live while providing a touching story about the importance of family over all else. It is the story about a young boy from a small apartment in a big city who dreams about other types of homes. The boy goes out on a colorful adventure to visit many different homes – from a large house in the suburbs to an igloo to a farmhouse – and meets families wherever he goes. The boy enjoys visiting each residence, but at the conclusion of his trip, he comes to a realization...

This is a story about the importance of love and family over all else.

(21 pages)

I don't make a habit of reading or reviewing children's books, but once in a while an invitation to do so comes along and I shrug and agree. It's nice to read something simple once in a while, you know?

This is an extremely simple book. Each two-page spread has just a few pages of text, and the rest of the paper is taken up with illistrations. We see the boy exploring a large variety of different homes, from a big mansion to a farm to a trailer park and a bird's nest. Each home seems like a pretty cool place to live, with nice and friendly people and fun things to do, so the boy's realization that his home is the best (because it has his family) seems a little bit of a leap.

It's perfectly true, though. And I think parents and kids would enjoy reading this simple story around bedtime. The illustrations are peaceful and pretty, in the same style as on the cover, and the book on the whole is a nice, pleasant bedtime story which parents hopefully won't get too sick of even after many repetitions.

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