Monday, October 9, 2017

Review: Laura Ingalls Is Ruining My Life

Review of Laura Ingalls Is Ruining My Life by Tougas Laura Ingalls Is Ruining My Life by Shelley Tougas
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Charlotte and her siblings, twin brother Freddy and younger sister Rose, have lived a rather nomadic life, subject to their mother's next whim or troubles. Charlotte doesn't even bother trying to make friends anymore, knowing that she will soon be uprooted and have to move someplace new; she and Freddy have each other and don't need anyone else, and Rose easily makes friends anywhere she goes. Their mother's latest whim has taken them to Walnut Grove, Minnesota, where she believes the spirit of Laura Ingalls Wilder will inspire her to write a book. But this move turns out differently, as Freddy suddenly makes new friends and Charlotte feels abandoned, betrayed, and angry at everyone, especially Laura Ingalls!

Naturally the title of this book caught my attention, having read all of Laura Ingalls Wilder's books and grown up with Melissa Gilbert's portrayal of Laura on the television series, but I really didn't know what to expect. Despite some of the other lukewarm reviews, I really enjoyed this book, and I think many tweens could relate to some of Charlotte's angst. In my opinion, the story was well-paced and the characters were generally well-developed (if I had one small criticism it would be that Rose's voice often seemed a bit too mature for the age of the character).

I felt a great deal of empathy for Charlotte, having no stability in her life and always being subjected to her mother's whims, or skipping town to avoid debts or difficult situations, and the hopelessness she expressed when explaining how there was no point in making friends or being invested in school because she knew they would soon be on the move again was heartbreaking. Even more so was her unfairly being accused of a crime after she had finely started to open up, make friends, and like living there. This story deals with many facets of tween angst: being the new kid, fitting in, making and maintaining friendships, relationships with siblings, difficult relationships with parents, and having a single parent who, while loving, is often self-centered and selfish.

I found myself frequently angry with Charlotte's mother, at how flaky, irresponsible and selfish she was, refusing to seriously consider how her decisions and lifestyle affected her children, preferring to gloss over everything with pollyannic platitudes. She clearly loved her children, but was too immature and self-centered to see how much she was hurting them. However, I loved the character of Charlotte's teacher, Mrs.. Newman, and how she turned out to be far from the meanie that Charlotte initially judged her to be, and even risked her job to stand up for Charlotte and protect her rights, in addition to nurturing her intellect and helping her to open up.

I found this story to be richer and deeper than many middle-grade books that often feel superficial and simplistic; it has some serious emotional upheaval and drama, but without being too dark. I highly recommend it to readers who enjoy realistic fiction with a little family drama and complex relationships, and those who might also have dealt with moving frequently, being the new kid and having trouble fitting in and making friends, and parents who don't always consider their needs. I think this could be a good book choice for a tween book club as well, and I like how it ties into a classic series that most people know. Some would also be happy to know that it also brings up the mistreatment of Native Americans, and some of the racist comments made by Laura and characters in her books.

Shelley Tougas has written several other middle-grade books, both fiction and non-fiction, including Finders Keepers and Little Rock Girl 1957: How a Photograph Changed the Fight for Integration.

[I received this book as a digital ARC from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.]

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Saturday, October 7, 2017

Review: I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter

Review of I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter by Erika L. Sanchez I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter by Erika L. Sánchez
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Julia Reyes feels like no one in the world understands her, and is caught between her mother's repressive, traditional Mexican expectations of her to be submissive, spend her time cooking and cleaning, and living with her parents until she marries someone appropriate, and her own desires to be independant and make her own decisions. She dreams of going to college far away and becoming a writer. She will never measure up to the memory of her sister Olga, recently killed in a tragic accident, who in her parents' eyes was the "perfect Mexican daughter". But, as Julia struggles to make her parents understand her need for independence and privacy, she discovers that Olga was not the perfect daughter everyone thought she was.

I've seen this book compared to "Gabi: A Girl In Pieces" and in many ways it is similar. Gabi and Julia are both struggling against their mothers' rigid, traditional gender roles and expecctations, and desire to go away to college and make their own choices in life. They both experience tragic deaths in their families and have friends going through the dramas of teen pregnancy (or the possibility of) and not being accepted by their families because of sexual orientation. Food is also prevalent in both stories, and both express their feelings through their writing.

However, while Gabi seems to be fairly well-adjusted and deals with her issues with humor and confidence, Julia's story is much darker and more melancholy. Julia feels overwhelmed, and trapped in a life she doesn't want, and feels powerless to get out. Her depression and anxiety become more severe after her sister's death, until she can no longer cope. While I would have to say I enjoyed the lighter tone of Gabi's story more, this book is very powerful and could possibly help others who may be dealing with depression and anxiety as well. I think this book does a lot to help de-stigmatize mental illness, and illustrates how a combination of medication and therapy can help. The secondary story of Julia's sister Olga also adds an additional element of mystery to the story.

While the Mexican culture and immigration issues do play a significant part in this story, I think most people can relate to the struggle between others' expecations of them and what they want for themselves to some degree, and many people can relate to the feelings of frustration and despair that Julia has, so it certainly should have appeal to a wide audience.

Recommended for teens and adults.

[I received this as a digital ARC from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.]

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Review: Warcross

Review of Warcross by Marie Lu Warcross by Marie Lu
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Emika Chen unexpectedly finds herself in the middle of the world's biggest gaming event, working undercover for the game's developer to stop a hacker, which proves to be bigger and more dangerous than she ever imagined.

When I first read the summary for this book it sounded a little like Earnest Cline's Ready Player One, but without the cool '80s pop-culture references, and I suppose it is. They both take place within the context of a worldwide game everyone plays and feature lone teenagers just trying to survive eventually learning to trust and work with others, and involve intrigue, danger, and romance. But there are two key differences: in Warcross the emphasis is on hacking rather than gaming, and there is no great quest for a huge reward at the end, but rather a worldwide team championship and a reward for catching a hacker. And no cool pop-culture references.

The pacing seemed just a little bit off, as the beginning of the story seemed to go on and on, and then the middle ans the "end" seemed a bit rushed. While Emika's character was fairly well developed, I would have preferred more development of some of the other characters and more depth in her relationships with her Warcross teammates. I was also frustrated by the lack of an ending and wish I had known this was going to be a duology before I started reading it. I did not find this book as good or enjoyable as the aforementioned Ready Player One, but RPO was written for my demographic while Warcross was not.

However, I do think many teens and tweens would enjoy this book, particularly fans of Lu's previous books and those interested in gaming, hacking, adventure, and intrigue. An understanding of coding or hacking is not needed to follow the story as no details are given, only vague references, which makes the story more readily accessible to a wider audience, but may be frustrating or annoying to those who do have an advanced understanding of coding. Those who would prefer more details relating to the hacks and code should check out Cory Doctorow's books.

The release date and title of the sequel are currently uncertain, but possibly by the end of 2018 and a speculative title of "Darkcross" has been mentioned on Goodreads.

Marie Lu has written several other YA sci-fi and speculative fiction books, including the very popular Legend series.

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Monday, October 2, 2017

Review: The Pants Project

Review of The Pants Project by Cat Clarke The Pants Project by Cat Clarke
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Olivia, who prefers to be called "Liv", is starting a new school that is known as the best in the district. However, it also has the most restrictive dress code in the district, one that requires girls to wear skirts. Liv likes the school, but hates the dress code. Liv hates wearing skirts and tights, and not only feels uncomfortable personally, but finds the whole thing impractical and sexist. But Liv is not a simply a girl who doesn't like skirts; inside Liv feels that he is really a boy. Can Liv convince the school to change the dress code, and find the courage to tell his family who he really is?

This book has a lot going on, and takes on many different, though related, issues: sexist dress codes, same sex parents, tween angst as friendships change, keeping secrets, bullying as Liv is bullied for both having two moms and for being different, and being transgender. I personally find it a little off-putting when an author tries to incorporate every topical issue into one story, but they all come together fairly well in this one.

I enjoyed the Liv's character, and how most of the time Liv was fairly mature and level-headed, using humor to deal with things, but prone to outbursts of rage when things were just too much. While I loved the character of Jacob and the friendship that developed between him and Liv, I also found him a little too good to be true. Readers will be pulling for Liv in the fight against the dress code, and love the humorous-but-effective way Liv and his friends protest it.

This book is very age appropriate, and while some might feel it is overly simplistic, I think that's appropriate for the intended audience. I also like that the tone is very matter-of-fact and it is not "dark and twisty" as YA books tend to be. I think this could good book both for tween kids who may be transgender, as well as for those who are not, to help them develop empathy and understanding. This book would certainly appeal to those fighting against school dress codes, which has been a big issue in my school district, as well as many others. I cannot speak to the authenticity of the portrayal of a trans child, and will leave that to those who can.

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Friday, September 22, 2017

Review: All's Faire in Middle School

Review of All's Faire in Middle School by Victoria Jamieson All's Faire in Middle School by Victoria Jamieson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Imogene has grown up with a rather unconventional lifestyle. Her parents are part of the local Renaissance Faire; her mother has a shop to sell her crafts, her father performs as a knight in the jousting match, and this year Imogene is finally going to be allowed to start playing the role of squire. But that's not the only change in Imogene's life. This year, after being homeschooled all her life, she is going to start middle school, and middle school is definitely a place where you don't want to be different.

Imogene struggles to learn the rules in this strange new environment, and finds herself a bit lost. Her attempts to fit in backfire, and she ends up hurting a friend, as well as her little brother, as things spiral out of control. Will her family and friends ever forgive her? And will she ever find her place in this strange new world called middle school?

I really liked Jamieson's previous book, Roller Girl, but I think I liked this one even more. They are both excellent books that deal with angst of tweendom, but I think I related to Imogene's experience a little more. Not that I grew up in a Renaissance Faire, but I do know what it's like growing up poor, not having the "right" brands of clothes and shoes, and having trouble fitting in and feeling like an outsider. Jamieson captures those feelings perfectly. While cliques and snobs abound even in adulthood, nothing is quite as bad as middle school.

As I have mentioned before, while I recognize the value of graphic novels, they really aren't my thing and I don't read them very often. But if one is really well done, I can get past the format and really enjoy them, and this is definitely one of those. I think any middle-schooler could relate to this story, and I would recommend it to any of them, but especially those who like graphic novels, or are open to trying them. I wish more parents and teachers would recognize the value of graphic novels and not discourage kids from reading them, especially since they are such a great way to reach reluctant readers or those who are more visually oriented. Fans of Roller Girl, El Deafo, and Raina Telgemeier's books will love All's Faire in Middle School as well.

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