Saturday, February 17, 2018

Review: The Stars Beneath Our Feet

The Stars Beneath Our Feet The Stars Beneath Our Feet by David Barclay Moore
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

3.5 stars. This story had a fairly strong finish, but was a little hard to get into at first, and the author's over-use of a particular phrase was very distracting and annoying.

Twelve-year old Wallace, or "Lolly" as most people call him, lives in the projects in Harlem with his mom. They are both grieving over the recent loss of Lolly's older brother, Jermaine, who was killed as a result of gang violence. Lolly is having a particularly hard time because not only is he grieving, he is also dealing with anger over whatever caused the two of them to stop speaking the week of Jermain's death, and feeling guilty because of it.

Lolly is obsessed with Lego's, meticulously following the directions to make them exactly like the photos on the box. But once he suddenly decides to break all his models down and build something entirely new, of his own design, he is finally able to start working through his feelings of grief and anger, and make an unexpected connection. But after two neighborhood thugs start hassling him and his freinds, will he be able to resist the temptations that Jermaine could not?

I had a little trouble getting into this book at first, but once I did really enjoyed following Lolly on his journey of discovery. I loved the characters, especially Lolly, his mom, her girlfriend Yvonne, and Lolly's friend Vega, and I really liked seeing the friendship that gradually developed between Lolly and Rosamund through building, and how they each were highly skilled, but in such different ways, and the way they integrated their work together at the end.

I like that this books portrays the difficulties of living in the projects, the realities of gangs, violence, and how difficult it is to resist, but also shows positive examples of those who are able to make better choices to give hope and direction to others. I did find some of the little side-stories to be unnecessary and a little distracting, and while I like the way his mom and her girlfriend were portrayed, some of the other minor gay characters were too stereotypical, almost caricatures.

Now, to what absolutely irritated the crap out of me about this book.... For some reason, the author *constantly* refers to characters "sucking their teeth", over and over and over. It's as bad as Ana constantly biting her lip in Fifty Shades of Grey. It was so distracting and annoying that I almost gave up on reading the book. I don't know how on earth the editor did not catch and correct this!

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Review: We Are Okay

We Are Okay We Are Okay by Nina LaCour
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I loved this book, and can see why it was chosen for the Printz Medal. While it does deal with grief, tragedy, and loneliness, don't let that put you off. While some tears may be shed reading this book and it does follow the charcters into dark places, it is NOT one of those dark, twisty, depressing books with a bleak ending.

The book opens on Marin, a college freshmen in New York, saying good-bye to her roommate, Hannah, as Hannah prepares to leave for winter break and Marin stays in the dorm, alone. From their conversation, the reader perceives that Hannah is concerned about Marin, that Marin is somehow fragile. As the story progresses we understand that Marin has sufferred some kind of tragedy that prompted her to leave everything and everyone behind in California, without even saying good-bye, and she has not talked to anyone since, not even her best friend Mabel. After 3 months of Marin ignoring Mabel's calls and texts, Mabel is coming to visit, which prompts Marin to begin to deal with her feelings.

As the story unfolds, we learn bit by bit what happened to Marin, and why it affected her so deeply as Marin herself finely begins to face the past and deal with her feelings. This is primarily a story about dealing with grief, showing how there is no one way to grieve and everyone processes grief differently, and sometimes in ways that are not so healthy. But it is also a story of love and friendship, and being able to let your guard down and admit when you need help and accept love. We see how Marin and Mabel's friendship evolves and changes, but that no matter how many walls Marin puts up, Mabel and her family refuse to give up on her, but give her the space to work through her feelings.

This is definitely a thoughtful book, with most of it taking place inside Marin's head, her thoughts, feelings, and memories, and while some readers might get a tad impatient to know what happened to Marin to leave her so affected, I think it unfolds at an appropriate pace. This could be a good book for teens who have had to deal with such losses to find someone to relate to, and would also be good for the friends or family of a young person who is grieving to read to help them understand how difficult it can be, and how differently people might deal with it.

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Friday, February 16, 2018

Review: Hello, Universe

Hello, Universe Hello, Universe by Erin Entrada Kelly
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

3.5 out of 5 stars. I struggled with how to rate & review this book. There are definitely some good points, but I found it to really drag for the first half and to be too predictable. Ok, but certainly not "the most distinguished book in children's literature" for 2017, which is what the Newbery medal is supposed to mean.

Four very different kids: Virgil, painfully shy and insecure; Valencia, strong and smart; Kaori, the good-hearted fortune teller and mystic, and Chet, the bully. One fated day when their lives intersect in the nearby woods. Some say there are no coincidences...

I'll start with what I like about it, which were the characters. The characters are fairly well-developed, at least as well-developed as they can be in a relativey short, middle-grade novel. I particularly liked Valencia, with her inner strength, interest in nature, and intelligence; and Kaori's fascination with "second sight" and sincerity in using it to help others. At times, I found Virgil's inability to speak up for himself frustrating and annoying, but I loved his Lola and their relationship, the way she stuck up for him in the family and encouraged him.

I also really liked the way the author showed what Chet (the bully) was thinking, revealing his bullying was because of his own fears and insecurities, and following the example set by his father. It was interesting how Chet didn't really know what his father did, but envisioned him has being someone very important at whatever it was, while I in turn imagined him as some low-level manager or supervisor, frustrated because he can't go any higher, frustrated with having to take orders, who then bullies other people to try to make himself feel superior.

The other positives are a very satisfying (if predictable) ending, and a very diverse cast of characters reflecting various ethnicities and abilities that are well-integrated into the story. Too often it feels like an author is just throwing in everything but the kitchen sink to check off boxes and score points for diversity, and it's just districting, artificial, and annoying, but that was happily not the case here.

What I didn't like about the book is that is seemed to drag on so slowly in the beginning, and so much of it was predictible. You knew Chet was going to do something to Virgil that was going to be the real start of the story and bring all the characters together, and you just wanted it to hurry up and happen already! It seemed to take forever to get to the real story, and the ending was completely predictible. You knew that new friendships would be made and expected that Virgil would finally find his voice, it was only the some of the details along the way that were unknown.

I think this is an enjoyable enough read and would still recommend it to kids aged 8-12, but it just didn't live up to my expectations of a Newbery winner. I just don't find anything particularly distinguishing about it. I guess the diversity of the characters and the fact that the author is a person of color make it stand out, but I find neither the writing nor the highly predictible and hardly unique plot to be anything more than average, certainly not the "most distinguished" children's book of the year overall. I can think of others I would rank higher.

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Saturday, February 10, 2018

Review: Vincent and Theo: The Van Gogh Brothers

Vincent and Theo: The Van Gogh Brothers Vincent and Theo: The Van Gogh Brothers by Deborah Heiligman
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

I am really shocked, but despite much anticipation, this book was a rare DNF for me. I really tried, but I just found it boring, choppy, had no flow, and not the least bit engaging.

And that really surprises me because (1) I almost never fail to finish a book, but I have so many demands on my time now that I just can't waste time on books I'm not enjoying unless I feel they are really significant for some reason, (2) I usually enjoy biographies, (3) it has been mentioned by some as a potential Newbery finalist, and most of all, (4) I'm a huge fan of Van Gogh's work! I just love his style of painting, and have reproductions of "A Starry Night" and one of the "Sunflowers" hanging in my house, and a coffee-table biography with lots of full-page photos of his work.

So given all that, I really thought I'd get into this book, but I just couldn't. There is no flow, it is broken up into a million short 3=4 page chapters, the writing is just clunky and odd, and the book has a serious identitiy crisis; the author doesn't seem to know who her intended audience is.

My library has it in the children's section, so for ages 10-14 ish, but I would never recommend it for someone of that age. I mean, this thing is almost 500 pages long! And while the Harry Potter books gradually became very long tomes, they were full of action and adventure, and highly engaging so the reader raced through them to see what happens. Not only is it long, difficult to read, and dull, there are topics within it that are not appropriate for this age range. While I certainly would not tell a 14 year old they couldn't read it, I most definitely would not suggest it or assign it.

But at the same time, it doesn't quite read as a teen or adult, book, either. Though overall it is a ponderous read, at the same time the writing comes across as a bit patronizing for an adult or older teen. I really can't figure out who this book was written for, or who would want to read it. Whatever the author's intentions, it clearly misses the mark.

Again, I'm surprised and disappointed I couldn't finish it. Admittedly, I'm under a huge time crunch and not feeling that great, so if I have a chance, I'll give it another try sometime when I'm in a different frame of mind.

I loved the cover, though :)

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Review: Orphan Island

Orphan Island Orphan Island by Laurel Snyder
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Nine children, alone on an island. Every year, a boat arrives bringing a new child, and the eldest child leaves by the same boat. Who are they? Why are they on the island? Where did they come from and what happens to the Elder after they leave? We soon see that things on the island are not quite normal, and something or someone is controlling it. Is it magic or technology? Who is charge of everything? Reminds me a bit of both <i>The Maze Runner</i> and <i>The Girl Who Drank The Moon</i>, and also made me think of the old Jim Carrey movie "The Truman Show".

Unfortunately, we do not get the answers to ANY of these questions, which just soured me on the whole book. So we find nothing about the big picture, but spend a year watching the new Elder, Jinny, flounder as a leader and fight with her ambivalent feelings about her impending departure. Some have  championed this book as a possible Newbery honor book, but it is not on my short list. Books that have no real ending, and leave so many important questions unanswered just piss me off!

I get that some see this as an imaginative metaphor for childhood, and the ambivalence of growing up; some kids embrace it while others want to stay a child a little longer. But kids are not going to appreciate that aspect at all, and are generally going to be very literal readers just as I am, and would be frustrated by all the unanswered questions. I would not recommend this book unless and until there is a sequel available to answer the mystery of the island and the children.

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