Sunday, July 15, 2018

Review: Skink--No Surrender

Skink--No Surrender Skink--No Surrender by Carl Hiaasen
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Loved it! I'd forgotten how much I enjoy Carl Hiaasen's books since it's been a while since I've read Hoot, Scat, Chomp and Flush.

This one is an interesting cross between his novels for kids and his novels for adults. It's similar to his middle-grade novels, but the characters are slightly older and the plot is just a bit grittier, but still tame compared to a lot of YA books, and it features a recurring character from several of his adult novels. In this story, a teenage girl has run off with a guy she met in an online chatroom. Her cousin Richard, who is more level-headed and sensible than she is, knows that she could be in serious trouble and alerts her family (who think she's left early for boarding school), and then heads off to hunt for her himself, along with an eccentric hermit called Skink, who also happens to be a former governor and surprisingly tough for a 72-year old!

The story has lots of adventure as Skink and Richard follow Malley's trail across Florida, with Hiaasen's characteristic environmental message woven in. They encounter interesting locals, skunks, gators, wild boars, and a supposedly extinct species of woodpecker in the process, as well as facing other challenges. This is a great book for those wanting adventure stories without a fantasy or sci-fi element, and those who are interested in environmental concerns and conservation.

It is only slightly darker than his middle-grade novels; there is some violence and a death, but it is not overly graphic. There are references to cursing, but I don't believe there were any actual curse words, and though a teenage girl was kidnapped by an online predator, there is no sexual abuse, and she states that he did not hurt her, only kissed her and held her against her will. As I said, it is very tame compared to most YA, and I would not hesitate to recommend it for readers as young as 12, and possibly as young as 11 or 10, depending on maturity.

Now I'm so intrigued by the character of Skink, I'm going to have to find time to read some more of Hiaasen's adult novels....

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Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Review: Puddin'

Puddin' Puddin' by Julie Murphy
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Loved it!

Millie and Callie seemingly have nothing in common. Millie is short, fat, not popular, but has a small circle of friends including her best friend Amanda. She gets made fun of because of her weight, but is comfortable with herself and has an inner confidence and sweetness that is often mistaken for naivete. She simply ignores those who can't accept her, or kills them with kindness.

Callie is thin, pretty, has a popular boyfriend, and is next in line to be captain of the dance team. Though she seems to be part of the popular crowd, in reality she has no real friends because she doesn't let anyone get that close, and she knows what it's like to feel different. She adopts a "mean girl" persona in order to protect herself from getting hurt, and rejects people before they can reject her.

When one night of bad judgement causes their paths to become entertwined, Callie and Millie discover that they have more in common than they ever realized, and bring out qualities in each other they didn't know they had, leading to surprising developments.

This book is part sequel, part companion to Murphy's second novel, Dumplin'. It takes place where the previous book left off, but the focus is on different characters, though the rest of the Dumplin' cast is present as well. While this book does refer to events in the previous one, it can be read on it's own, but I would still recommend reading both because they are so good. In the author's own words, "If Dumplin' was about coming to terms with your own body, Puddin' is about demanding that the world do the same."

I loved this book at least as much as the first, possibly slightly more. I really enjoyed getting to know Millie much better, as well as Callie. I loved seeing how Millie's friendship helped Callie grow and learn she didn't have to play the mean girl and keep everyone at arm's length all the time, even if in real life the mean girls seldom change. The character development of the two main characters was wonderful, and I enjoyed being able to see different sides of them: Millie's ambition and determination, and Callie's softer side in caring about her family.

While there is some drama and romance in this story as well, it is first and foremost about friendship, and learning the difference between real friends and fake ones, and making the decision to be a better version of yourself, realizing you don't have to settle for someone else's stereotype of you.

I highly recommend this book! Though it looks a bit on the longer side, it really was a relatively quick and enjoyable read. Not too serious, but still very real and well-written; a perfect summer read.

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Sunday, May 27, 2018

Review: Amal Unbound

Amal Unbound Amal Unbound by Aisha Saeed
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This was very good, and a relatively quick and easy read, so might appeal to some of the more reluctant readers as well.

This is the story of Amal, a 12-year old Pakistani girl who is educated and dreams of going to college and becoming a teacher, until one day when the stress and fatigue from caring for her family while her mother struggles with postpartum depression causes her to mouth off to the wrong person. Jawad Sahib's family is powerful and wealthy, controlling everything in Amal's village and several others.

Jawad Sahib demands that Amal's father pay his debt in full immediately, which of course he can't, or surrender Amal to indentured servitude as punishment for her disrespect. Amal adapts to life at the Kahn compound, and is assigned to serve Jawad Sahib's mother, who treats her with kindness. While there, Amal learns dangerous secrets that could bring down Jawad Sahib and break the family's hold on her family and friends, but could also jeopardize her life.

Being a middle-grade novel, the story is a bit simplistic and the conflict resolved rather quickly and maybe a bit too easily. But that is exactly what makes it very accessible to younger readers and reluctant readers. According to the author's notes at the end, Amal's character is inspired by Malala Yousafzai and all the Pakistani girls who fight for education. She also notes that many girls are subjected to far worse circumstances for far longer than Amal.

I really liked Amal's character, seeing how she cared for her family and friends, but also wanted something more. I enjoyed seeing the relationship she developed with Nabila, who was at first her enemy but then became her friend, and Fatima, who became her first student. The relationship between Amal and Nasreen Baji was also interesting, Nasreen's unexpected kindness in contrast to her son's cruelty, and Amal's realization that Nasreen was just as trapped as the rest of them.

Some critique this book as being too idealist, though middle-grade books are rarely completely realistic, but I think it is important to plant a seed, the idea that even those that are poor, young, and oppressed can sometimes effect change if they work together are willing to take the risk. I would recommend this for ages 8-12.

Aisha Saeed is one of the founders of the We Need Diverse Books campaign, and this is her second book. Her first book was the YA novel Written In The Stars about a Pakistani-American girl being pushed into an arranged marriage, and she has plans for a picture book, Bilal Cooks Daal, expected to be published in 2019.

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Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Review: You're Welcome, Universe

You're Welcome, Universe You're Welcome, Universe by Whitney Gardner
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I had a little trouble getting into this story at first, but by the end I really liked it.

Julia is a deaf teenage graffiti artist who happens to be Indian-American and have two moms. Everything is great until someone paints a slur about her best friend on the wall of their school for the deaf, and when the administration drags their feet about painting over it, Julia takes matters into her own hands and covers it with her graffiti art. Unfortunately, her "friend" does not show the same protective loyalty and quickly gives Julia up when questioned about it, resulting in Julia's expulsion.

Julia then has to be mainstreamed into public school, where she has trouble adjusting and fitting in, and most of the other students and teachers make little effort, except for a girl that Julia calls "Yoga Pants" who she seemingly has nothing in common with. Eventually Julia and YP (the name sign Julia gives her) do become friends, but just when Julia think she has found a real friend, YP reveals she has been keeping a huge secret.

This is a story about friendship, trust, and forgiveness. Refreshingly, there is no real romance, just a crush that is another source of conflict between Julia and her former "best friend", and the focus is on developing friendships, learning how to tell real friends from the fake ones, knowing when it's time to let one friend go, and when to forgive another.

While I wish Julia's moms had a little bit more character development, I think the characters of Julia and YP were fairly well-developed. Julia is not always the most sympathetic character; she is dark and sulky, adopting a tough, gritty, "too cool for everyone else" persona that just rubs people the wrong way, but it is obvious this her way of protecting herself and rejecting everyone else before they can reject her. YP, on the other hand, is a very friendly and likeable character, and her openness and vulnerability is a perfect complement to Julia's dark edginess.

I can't judge the accuracy of representation of being deaf and deaf culture, so I will leave that to those who can. But the story is not really about Julia's being deaf, but about friendship, and expressing oneself through art. I would recommend this for anyone looking for realistic fiction that doesn't involve romance.

This book was the 2018 Schneider Family Award winner.

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Sunday, May 20, 2018

Review: Little & Lion

Little & Lion Little & Lion by Brandy Colbert
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

If you are looking for diversity, this book has it! The main character is a black Jewish girl from a blended, interracial family who is trying to figure out her sexuality while at the same time worrying about her stepbrother who has been dignosed with bipolar disorder. One of her love interests is a male friend who is biracial (black and Korean), another is a girl who identifies as pansexual, and her best friend is a lesbian.

Suzette is home from boarding school where her parents had sent her when her brother began developing symptoms of mental illness, in part so they could focus on him, and partly to shelter her. But she feels a sense of responsibility for Lionel, and her love for her brother causes her to make a very bad decision that puts his safety in jeopardy out of a misguided sense of loyalty. At the same time, she is trying to figure out her sexuality after having an affair with her female roommate at school that had a very messy ending, but also finding herself strongly attracted to a male friend.

Some have described this book as being too messy and having too many issues going on, and I have often felt that way about other books in the past. But I realized as I was reading it, life for many of us IS really that messy, and my family is a good example. We'd like life to be more simple and only have to deal with one complication or crisis at a time, but it isn't always that easy, which is something I have learned in the last year or two. Life is messy, difficult, and complicated.

I think the character development could have been a little bit deeper, but I did like the relationships within Suzette's family, how close she was to her stepfather and stepbrother. I found Rafaela, the girl Suzette and Lionel are both attracted to, to be less than honest or worthy of either of them. At times she was manipulative and seemed to enjoy being the center of attention and having siblings both interested in her, then she claimed an ex was stalking her, when it seemed she was really stringing him along because she like the attention and drama, and enjoyed having him and Lionel fighting over her. I was really suprised no one called her out on that crap and told her to get lost.

I cannot attest to the validity of the representation of bisexuality or bipolar disorder, so I will leave that to other reviewers.

This book won the 2018 Stonewall Award.

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