Sunday, December 09, 2018

Invisible Emmie, by Terri Libenson

Seventh-grader Emmie isn't geeky or ugly or unpopular -- she's simply invisible.  Talking to other kids (especially boys!) makes her revert to a puddle of slime.  She lacks the confidence of her BFF Brianna (who's also a bit bossy!).  Instead, she races through the hallways and hides in class trying to avoid being noticed.

The contrast couldn't be any stronger with cool, outgoing, and popular Katie, whose life is bigger and brighter than anyone in the room.  But when a particularly embarrassing and humiliating moment happens, Emmie and Katie discover a common bond and both girls find that they have something to learn from each other.

Ostensibly a story about finding one's voice, this charming graphic novel navigates the familiar territory of building interpersonal skills, dealing with bullies, and forgiving human frailties.  And while much of the material is cliche, Liberson approaches it with a delightful mixture of respect and knowing elder wisdom.  While I have no doubt that children will Emmie's observations about school and parents, this is the sort of book that is almost more fun for those of us who have been through it all.  It is fun to look back with a knowing smirk that no matter how horrendous it all seemed at the time, this too shall pass (and perhaps to imagine that we were as much fun as Emmie)! 

Liberson's approach is full of warmth.  I especially liked the supportive relationship between Emmie and Katie, who (despite being attracted to the same boy) don't let it get between them.  A small twist at the end threatens the book's message, but I think Libenson has still managed to convey the idea that kindness in the end is what matters.  In sum, a cute look at seventh grade through a witty and funny narrator.

Saturday, December 08, 2018

Spooksville #1: The Secret Path, by Christopher Pike

Adam has just moved with his family to the town of Springville.  The first kid he meets is the loquacious Sally, who between being obsessed about her identity crisis and helping herself to a Coke that Adam was sent to the store to buy, informs Adam that the kids around the town refer to the place as "Spooksville." She then proceeds to tell him tales about all of the crazy things that happen in the town involving ghosts and witches.

Meeting up later with Sally's friend Watch, the three of them embark on a quest to find a secret path that leads to another dimension where the town is replicated, but everything is dark and scary.  There they must struggle with large spiders, a giant black knight, and an evil witch who wants to steal Adam's eyes.  It's all in a day's adventures in this first of a long-running series popular in the 1990s and reprinted regularly since.

I picked this one up on a recommendation from a friend who enjoyed reading the series as a child.  It's easy to see the appeal.  While hardly fine literature, the characters are endearing (Sally, with her snarky commentary and observations, was my personal favorite) and the action brisk.  While much of that action doesn't make much sense, it doesn't stop us from enjoying an exciting ride.

Sadly, the current cover fails to capture the lovely campiness of the first editions and makes this softcore horror book seem like it might actually be scary, instead of a fun read for middle schoolers.

The Gone Away Place, by Christopher Barzak

An atmospheric disturbance that spawns several huge tornadoes rips apart Ellie's hometown, wiping out most of the structures and killing nearly all of her close friends.  In the aftermath, Ellie struggles with guilt, both for surviving when so many did not and for never reconciling with her boyfriend over the fight they were having the morning of the disaster.  In the weeks that follow, Ellie becomes aware that she can sometimes see victims who are dead.

Not only see the dead, but she can also actually communicate with them. She has the opportunity to visit with her late friends, help them reconcile to what has happen, and assist them (and her) in letting them go.  But the person she most wants to see and with whom she most needs to reconcile -- her late boyfriend -- is the one she cannot find.

A strange novel that struggles a bit with what it wants to be.  At its heart, this is a novel about grief and recovery.  One of the most interesting parts of the book, before it veers into the supernatural, is simply recounting how physical recovery works after a natural disaster of this magnitude.  And then, the book moves on to the emotional struggle with such a great loss of life.  The ghosts represent a furthering of that, but then the story starts to suggest more sinister activity with ghosts taking possession of the living.  This latter source of drama seems headed for some sort of violent showdown, but it never quite develops.  The resulting storyline is meandering, as if the story has had a number of different endings and the author never quite cleaned it up.

The Dark Descent of Elizabeth Frankenstein, by Kiersten White

Elizabeth is rescued from penury to become the childhood playmate and companion of Victor Frankenstein.  With good sense and resourcefulness, Elizabeth knows it is vital for her to be unfailingly loyal to her benefactor.  Without him, she will be back out on the streets.  And while the role of faithful companion comes easily, it is not without challenge.  Victor is emotionally unstable and prone to "fevers" and sadistic fancies.  Keeping those things secret is crucial to prevent him from being institutionalized (a matter that Elizabeth realizes would directly affect her place in the Frankenstein household).

Victor's lapses of sanity become more pronounced as he grows up and Elizabeth's ability to control him less and less effective.  Behind them is something dark.  People begin to disappear, body parts reappear, and a monster that pursues her and the rest of the Frankenstein family enters their life.  By the time Elizabeth realizes the nature of the monster that has been created, it is all very much too late.

In this studiously fine crafted period piece, White has rewritten Mary Shelley's classic from the perspective of the female characters in the novel -- characters to which Shelley herself never gave much attention.  There is some speculation from the author that Shelley might have done it this way in a more enlightened time, but that is a moot point.  What is striking is how well the rewrite actually works.  Having familiarity with both the life of Shelley and the original novel, I appreciated her nods to both of them.  But without that knowledge, this is still a fine story, written convincingly in the style of the original.  Creepy, romantic, and natively gothic.


Saturday, December 01, 2018

Things Jolie Needs to Do Before She Bites It, by Kerry Winfrey


Jolie has an underbite.  It's made chewing difficult and can be quite painful, but most of all, it's made Jolie shy and averse to being seen in public.  But right after eleventh grade, she is having surgery to correct it. And when she does it, she knows that it will change everything.  She’ll no longer have to hide, she’ll fall in love, and she’ll finally be able to compete with her perfect older sister Abbi.  But she’s also afraid of the possibility that it could  all go very bad.  She might even die!  At seventeen  So, with help from her friends Evelyn and Derek, she drafts up a list of things she wants to do before surgery in case she doesn’t survive.

One of the goals (to kiss her crush) obligates her to try out for the school musical.  Prior stage experiences have gone poorly and she's terrified of appearing before people.  But to her surprise, she is cast as the lead and has to face her fears.  Other parts of her plan go astray.  Getting the chance to actually spend time with her crush (he’s the male lead) teaches her that maybe she doesn’t like him as much as she likes her loyal best friend Derek.

Well, there’s not a lot new here.  The story of the girl who wastes a whole novel searching for Mr. Perfect, when he is actually her best friend all of the time is old hat.  Throw in a school play, a drunken cast party complete with vomiting on your friends, and the female BFF who gets neglected because you're obsessed with a boy.  Oh, and add in a pregnant older sister -- why not?  I’ve read this story a dozen+ times before.  The oral surgery angle was interesting and different, but there simply isn’t enough here to justify another run at this tale.

Neverworld Wake, by Marisha Pessl

One year after the death of her boyfriend, Beatrice returns to the elite boarding school in Rhode Island where they both attended, for a mini reunion.  The remaining members of the gang are there, but things are strained.  The tension feeds an angry vibe that climaxes with a wild drive through the night that ends in a car crash.  But instead of being dead, the five young people find themselves stuck in a time loop where they are forced to live the same day again and again.

They have fallen into the "neverworld wake," explains a stranger who calls himself the Keeper, and they will remain in it until they take a vote.  One of them will escape the wake and the others will die.  Who gets to live?  That is what these five angry and distrustful former friends have to vote upon.  And the result must be unanimous or the loop begins again.

At first, the five of them refuse to even vote.  Then, as desperation sets in, they try voting but find that they can't achieve consensus.  It is only after thousands of repeats that they begin to understand what they must go through to get out -- but will they succeed before madness and entropy condemn them to be stuck inside the wake forever?

An original, but weird story (actually more What Dreams May Come than Groundhog Day).  It's part science fiction, with a dose of mystery and psychological thriller, and even a little humor thrown in. More a mood piece than character developing, the protagonist and her peers never get all that interesting.  I found it very hard to get into.  The novel's saving grace was the story and its many twists and turns.  When the plot is brisk, it is a fun read, but it drags just as often as it soars.

Saturday, November 24, 2018

Elephant Secret, by Eric Walters

Sam and her father maintain a sanctuary for elephants.  It's a hard and difficult job, but their efforts have been rewarded.  The  elephants they have rescued and taken care of have become a family to them and they in turn have been brought into the herd.

Between the costs of running the place and the time it takes, they have plenty of worries.  All of this takes a back seat when a new baby is born, and she turns out to be a very special new addition.  One of their financial backers takes a special interest in the baby and the trouble starts.

While the "secret" that gives the book its title and its conflict is a bit over-the-top, the story itself is a lovely description of elephant behavior and Sam's growing skill at managing the herd. A nice subplot involving Sam warming to her father's girlfriend allows Sam to develop emotionally as well.

Walters could well have stopped there.  There's plenty of conflict to drive the story already (a new bull elephant they have rescued and, of course, the challenges of raising a baby animal that weighs more than you!), but he wants to do something more with the story.  That seems silly and younger readers will just delight in the animals.

Wednesday, November 21, 2018

The Many Reflections of Miss Jane Deming, by J. Anderson Coats

Jane figures that there are few places worse than the mills of Lowell and Washington Territory sure sounds pretty good in the descriptions that Mr. Mercer gives.  And so she's looking forward to their arrival in the frontier town of Seattle.  Along with her widowed stepmother and half brother Jer, they set sail around the Cape and up the west coast.  Dodging Spanish warships and visiting post-quake San Francisco, they survive several months at sea to arrive and find that Seattle is just a muddy mill town and hardly better than what they left.

Jane, however, is a stubborn and sturdy girl who realizes that the only way you can make your way in the world is to do things yourself.  With fortitude and a willingness to learn new things and take risks, she pursues a path that mixes conventional and unconventional, achieving a success that is hardly at all the end that she originally envisioned. The conclusion is inspirational both in the sense of what it does for Jane as well as in motivating the reader to want to learn more about nineteenth-century life in the Pacific Northwest.

If there's a fault to this beautifully-written and rich fictionalized account of frontier Washington, it is the lack of a historical note or a bibliography.  Coats obviously knows her history and reveals a amazing collection of tidbits about the ways and mores of the time.  It's the sort of thing that makes you crave for more and a reading list would have been very welcome.

As for the story itself, Jane is one of those amazing inspiring characters.  The obstacles she faces are horrendous but she overcomes each in modest ways, often surprising even herself in how she does it.  Where tasks seem impossible, she finds a different way.  Where Plan A fails spectacularly, she picks herself up and finds a Plan B.  This isn't just some hokey "frontier spirit" thing, but the real thing.  Coats pretty much is showing how real people worked through their problems and survived in the harsh conditions of the region of the time.  It's not always perfect and it's certainly not pretty, but it gets the job done.  In that way, Coats captures not only the historical details of the period, but also the mindset of the people.  None of which is to say that this is a survival story.  There's room in there for humanity as well, as Jane not only takes care of her material well-being, but also builds friendships, bonds to a family, and develops a sense of pride and self-identity along the way.

A truly beautiful book and a gem of historical fiction.

Monday, November 19, 2018

Annie's Life in Lists, by Kristin Mahoney

Six Things You Need To Know About This Book

1.  The entire story is written in enumerated lists (like this one).
2.  It's a story about a fifth-grader named Annie who moves from Brooklyn to the small town of Clover Gap.
3.  In addition to her love of lists, Annie has an incredible memory.
4.  Sometimes having a good memory can get her into trouble because people think she's strange or she talks about something obscure she's remembered.
5.  But Annie's biggest problem is shyness.
6.  Which doesn't stop her from making new friends and working on making a new home.


Four Reasons I Liked the Book

1.  The lists were not as obnoxious of a literary device as I feared.
2.  Mahoney is a good storyteller.
3.  Even the mean characters were not so bad.  It was a fun and gentle story.
4.  The illustrations were cute and added some whimsy to the story.


Two Things I Didn't Like

1. The book's structure means that sometimes you don't get a lot of depth.
2. Occasionally, Mahoney cheats and adds an extended comment on the end of the list, which breaks the structure.



Saturday, November 17, 2018

Let's Pretend We Never Met, by Melissa Walker

Moving and changing schools in the middle of the school year is pretty traumatic in sixth grade, so Mattie feels she is pretty lucky to find that her new next-door neighbor Agnes is the same age as she is. Instant friend! Agnes, though, turns out to be something of a surprise: she's impulsive and energetic, and "a bit off." And while Mattie mostly enjoys Agnes's company, Agnes can be a bit overwhelming.  And, as Mattie discovers when she starts attending school, Agnes isn't well-regarded by her peers.  Afraid that being associated with Agnes will hurt her chances of making friends at school, Mattie tries to distance herself from her neighbor when they are out in public. Heartrendingly, Agnes gives her that space.  However, as Mattie's social life grows, she finds less and less room for Agnes and eventually shuts her out entirely. To Mattie's surprise, this doesn't make her happy.  Interspersed with subplots about her parents struggling to adjust to the move and to caring for Mattie's aging grandmother, the book explores a number of different relationships.

The tone is sweet and ultimately affirming.  The characters, while different, are ultimately supportive.  The message:  regardless of age and situation, we all need to be validated and be included in social circles.  There's this lovely phrase -- "She knows things" -- that keeps cropping up throughout the book for different characters. It's part of an overall approach to the characters: as much as children and adults like to pretend that the other one does not understand, we all basically do. As a direct result, little of the plot is driven by ignorance, even though often the characters hold back on saying things that might hurt, simply out of kindness.

Walker, who writes pretty decent YA books, transitions to middle readers quite well, producing a sweet simple story that leaves you feeling good (albeit with a few tearful hugs along the way).