Monthly Archives: May 2016

All Involved by Ryan Gattis

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all involvedAll Involved by Ryan Gattis
Harper Collins, 2015 (Audiobook)

Set in 1992 Los Angeles at the time of the South Central riots following the Rodney King trial verdict, All Involved takes place over six days in the Lynwood neighborhood, and centers on a gang’s exploitation of the window of lawlessness provided by the breakdown in police control in order to shake up the hierarchy.

There are 17 narrators, who each tell a piece of an overall story, centering around the Hispanic gang of Big Fate and his acolytes. Many of the 17 are members of, or associated with, Big Fate’s click, but there is also a Hispanic nurse, a Korean high schooler, a Croatian firefighter, and an off the record Black law enforcer. Each one provides a snapshot of few hours on one of the six days and each individual appears only once. The remarkably clever plotting allows them to drive the narrative forward adding in texture and depth, while touching, sometimes only briefly, on the lives and fates of the other characters.

I listened to this over the course of a couple of weeks, and the use of multiple readers really enhanced the experience. Though there is a lot of gang lingo and some Spanish phrases (both of which are in a glossary in the book), the narrative flows easily, and the distinctly written characters are quickly established. It pains me to find myself caring about people who kill without apparent conscience, but I did, and wanted to know what was going to happen to them beyond the book.

All Involved won an Alex Award, given to books “written for adults that have special appeal to young adults” and, as the majority of the characters are shockingly young, this is a perfect fit for older teens who enjoy fast-moving, intricately plotted novels, as well as those interested in recent social history.

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Drag Teen by Jeffery Self

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drag teenDrag Teen by Jeffery Self
Push/Scholastic, May 2016

Lately I’ve noticed a trend in YA novels of gay teens who are not only completely happy with being gay, but whose friends and families are similarly accepting. I think this is a really positive step forward – that being gay is not the ‘issue’ of the book – and I hope that this attitude is as prevalent in the rest of the country as it seems to be at the private high school I work at in San Francisco.

In Drag Teen, 17 year old JT Barnett feels like he’s going to be stuck in Clearwater, Florida, pumping gas at his parent’s service station for the rest of his life. His boyfriend, Seth, is going off to college but JT’s parents seem unable, or unwilling, to fund further education. When Seth finds out about a New York drag teen pageant, whose first prize is a full four-year college scholarship, he pushes JT to enter, and the two of them, along with best friend Heather, set out to achieve this.

JT has always felt drawn to drag, though his only attempt so far, at a school talent show, ended in humiliation and tears. His description of what drag means to him rings honest and true: JT is an anxious, over-dramatizing bundle of insecurities, but in drag he can be in the moment, feel comfortable in his own skin and feel the joy of being his real self.

Unfortunately, for me, this was the only part of the book that felt authentic. The premise of a pageant offering  a full scholarship and only having 20 entries (with a simple online entry form and no parental consent needed) seemed wildly lacking in credibility – honestly, for that prize, I’d have my son in heels and a wig in a flash – and the plot is like a fairytale as JT has one fortuitous encounter after another: the drag queen who shows him how to do perfect make-up in 20 minutes, the woman who picks the trio up after a flat tire and turns out to be a country music star with a closet full of wigs and sparkly outfits.

Along with JT, Heather is a well-drawn character: she doesn’t want to be just the “fat sidekick” and kicks out on her own adventures, though I found it a little sad how she keeps being knocked down. Seth, on the other hand, never really comes off the page as more than a textbook dreamy boyfriend, even though he too has secrets.

The climactic pageant is the most satisfying part of the book (putting aside my qualms about its existence) as JT gets to know and appreciate the other drag teens and the world of this racially diverse “tribe”. The token villain, however, a mean teen who for no apparent reason singles JT out for bitchy treatment, is so easily turned to the good that my eyes nearly fell out rolling.

Still, when you pick up a book with a cover picture of a pink wig augmented with a tiara, on an acid yellow background, it is clearly not going to be all grimy reality and wasted opportunities, so I don’t think any reader is going to be disappointed by the spun sugar world, and fans of Tim Federle’s Nate books will feel entirely comfortable here (there’s no mention of sex or genitalia). It’s good to have another affirming book about teens of all types being accepted and celebrated, even if I would like it to have a little, or even some, edge.

Reviewed from an ARC.

A Taste for Monsters by Matthew J. Kirby

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TasteForMonsters-CCVR-1A Taste for Monsters by Matthew J. Kirby
Scholastic, September, 2016.

I am a big fan of MJK’s standalone books (and not so long ago we had an MJK week at bibliobrit), and though they are all very different, they share an excitement and specificity about a historical setting, as well as creatively introducing different speculative elements, all wrapped up in an intensely human story.

And he keeps getting better! A Taste for Monsters is a story of redemption set in a wonderfully drawn late 19th Century London, with a Gothic mood, and supernatural elements drawing from the spiritualist ideas of that era.  17 year-old Evelyn Fallow gets a job as maid and companion for Joseph Merrick, aka the Elephant Man, at the London Hospital in the East End. This coincides with the horrific Whitechapel murders, attributed to the never-identified Jack the Ripper, and when the victims start haunting Joseph, Evelyn feels it is her task to bring peace to the ghosts.

Educated and intelligent (and fictional) Evelyn narrates with the formality and seriousness of a Victorian novel (though, thankfully for YA readers, without the longueurs), but her true heart, and her devotion to Joseph bring her alive off the page. Evelyn herself is a victim of ‘phossy jaw’ (phosphorous necrosis) caused by working in a match factory, which means her lower face is severely disfigured, and she has been victimized and reviled on the streets:  “The harsh words and violence had eaten away at my soul just as the phosphorous had my bone.” Her empathy with Joseph, her work at the hospital, and her quest to dispel the ghosts develop a self-confidence and gutsiness in Evelyn that provide the spine of the novel.

As in The Lost Kingdom, Kirby mixes real-life and fictional people. As well as Joseph Merrick, the novel also weaves in the murder victims, the patronizing Dr. Treves, Henry Sidgwick, the founder of Newnham College, and stern but fair Matron Luckes. Joseph, who we only see through Evelyn’s eyes, changes from the ‘monster’ that his physical appearance suggests, to becoming a kind, valiant and sensitive gentleman as she gets to know him. Her growing protectiveness of his physical and emotional health allows Evelyn to realize that her own scarring does not define her, and that a person’s true nature, whether monster or not, is internal and not indicated by their looks.

Kirby has a masterful hand with the telling historical detail. Evelyn’s trips on the new underground railway and her expeditions into the grimy, frighteningly unprotected streets, contrast with the bustling sanctuary of the hospital, and both provide an authentic setting. Of course somethings resonate with today – the public has a paradoxical tabloid taste and revulsion for monsters, and the East End Jewish population is demonized and scapegoated. The author also revels in the contemporary patois, and though sometimes the meaning isn’t always clear, it’s easy to get the gist. One bravura passage has Evelyn and the other maids describe a salacious gossip as “an old haybag”, “a vile church-bell”, and “a blowsabella”.

The novel’s plotting and pacing, along with the character development, are so impeccable, I was just a little disappointed that Evelyn’s climactic epiphany seemed a tad too slick and easy.  Nonetheless, the ending itself is satisfying and feels complete.

Teens who enjoy a mix of history and fantasy will surely love this, but it’s also worth trying with fans of straight historical fiction like Mary Hooper’s Fallen Grace (Bloomsbury, 2011).

Thanks to Scholastic and Edelweiss for the digital ARC.

Sophie Quire and the Last Storyguard by Jonathan Auxier

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sophie quireSophie Quire and the Last Storyguard by Jonathan Auxier
Abrams, 2016.

The power and magic of stories and books is the potent theme of this thrilling and emotionally satisfying middle grade fantasy adventure, which returns, two years later, to the world of Peter Nimble and his Fantastic Eyes (2011).12 year-old bookmender Sophie Quire must unite the magical Books of Who, What, Where, and When in order to stop Inquisitor Prigg, leader of the No Nonsense movement in Bustleburgh, in his plan to burn all story books. Coming to Sophie’s assistance are Peter Nimble, the Greatest Thief Who Ever Lived, and his heroic companion, cat-horse-man Sir Tode.

Full of lively wordplay (a spell that renders an object impervious to flame is called the Shadrach charm), and fourth wall-breaking asides, the text is delightfully polished and easy to read, and while the pace is maybe a little leisurely in the middle, the plot flows along, shaped by Sophie’s quest.

Sophie, the lone character with dark skin as her dead mother came from the Topaz Isles, loves stories and knows all too well how reluctant heroes react at each stage of their journey, so she does not shy away from plunging into the unknown, following her instincts, developing a steely self-assurance and taste for adventure. Peter, on the other hand, has become more than a little cocky since we last saw him, and his arc is to find in himself a need to look out for others as well as himself. Support characters have helpfully Dickensian names, like Torvald Knucklemeat, signaling their roles.

The author uses Professor Cake to voice his own views: “Stories are not mere diversions to occupy us on a rainy day. They are a type of magic spell – perhaps the most powerful in existence – and that effect is to summon possibilities.” But he gives some balance by having the villainous Prigg have a noble motive for his turn towards pragmatism and ‘progress’.

There is enough background on Peter to make sense of him as a character, and this is more of a self-contained companion than a sequel. The ending suggests that the Sophie, Peter, and Sir Tode could move on to more exploits together, which will delight lovers of richly imagined speculative fiction.

How to Turn $100 into $1,000,000 by James McKenna and Jeannine Glista with Matt Fontaine

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How to turnHow to Turn $100 into $1,000,000: Earn! Invest! Save! by James McKenna and Jeannine Glista with Matt Fontaine
Workman, 2016

From the creators of the Biz Kid$ TV show and education initiative, this is an easy reading guide for teens on managing their money and creating wealth.

The text sets out its objective very clearly: “Making money is a game, and we’re going to teach you the basic rules,” before guiding the reader through setting goals and a budget, finding ways to make money, and then using that money to make more money.

The eye-catching title may mislead some readers into thinking the book is about get rich quick schemes, but a breezy tone and plenty of jokes make the useful and sober, if not earth-shattering, advice on being smart about finance (“ Millionaires are people who save money, not people who spend it”) more palatable. 6how to turn inside

Large print, plenty of white space, many sub-headings, and a brief summary at the end of each chapter make the text easy to skim, and the rather busy layout includes plenty of sidebars, quizzes, and illustrations (showing kids with different colored skins) to augment the main text.;

Backmatter consists of a checklist and planner, one-page business plan, budget tracker and glossary but no further reading suggestions.

While some of the more sophisticated advice, such as how to set up an investment portfolio, will not be relevant to the majority of readers, this is, nonetheless, a useful handbook for all teens.

Reviewed from a black and white ARC – published version will be in two-color.

Cloud and Wallfish by Anne Nesbet

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cloud and wallfishCloud and Wallfish by Anne Nesbet
Candlewick, October 2016

It can be hard to make historical fiction exciting and relevant to middle graders, particularly when it’s not part of the American experience. With Cloud and Wallfish, Nesbet (The Cabinet of Earths, HarperCollins, 2012) has written a marvelously layered and insightful novel about the Cold War and gives the reader a way in through vividly created characters.

It’s 1989, and out of the blue, 11 year-old Noah Keller is whisked off to East Berlin by his parents, ostensibly for his mother to complete her doctoral dissertation on methods of speech therapy. But why does he need to have a different name and different birthday, and why are all the Rules (“1. They will always be listening and often be watching. Don’t forget that!”) necessary? Noah finally makes a friend, Claudia, but when her parents are killed in a car accident in Hungary, what he thinks he knows begins to drift and warp.

Noah has an Astonishing Stutter, and here is how Nesbet has him describe it:

“Talking was like riding a bike with a wheel that liked to freeze up, almost out of nowhere…that wheel would simply stop short, like an invisible wall had suddenly sprung up in the road before him, and he and his bicycle would just bang right into that wall and stop.”

All his life he has had to deal with people’s assumptions about his intelligence, and rather than shy away from speaking, Noah “kept opening his mouth and plowing on.” The author makes an explicit decision not to write out the “shards and pieces” of his speech, but rather to just record what he meant to say. Nonetheless, there are sufficient references to the stutter in the text that the reader isn’t allowed to forget what he is struggling with.  We can also see that he is an exceptionally smart boy as he attempts to untangle the truth from the deception. He has a very organized mind – he starts keeping mental folders on Mom and Dad – and he also has great empathy and compassion

The support characters are also extremely well-crafted. Claudia aka Cloud is an imaginative, creative, wistful girl, utterly unsuited to the harsh straight lines and undercurrents of the German Democratic Republic. Noah’s Mom and Dad who mysteriously morph from the Kellers of Oasis, VA to Sam and Linda Brown, suddenly knowing so much more than they have previously revealed, are also regular warm, loving. protective parents.

Anne Nesbet was in East Berlin at the exact time she has set the novel – the looming 40th anniversary of the German Democratic Republic – and her intimate understanding, which she writes about in an author’s note at the back, really brings Noah’s complex experiences to vivid life. The city behind the Wall is full of unanswered questions, barriers, secrets, and disguises. As Noah perceives Berlin as a zoo, he tries to understand who are the spectators looking in and who are trapped looking out, and he sees himself as a wallfish swimming “through the stone wall in the middle of inside and outside.”

Each chapter concludes with notes from a secret file, which the author uses to explain the context or background of incidents in the text, often using actual quotations from contemporary East German proclamations or newspapers. As Noah’s father sniffs the air for the smell of history being made, Nesbet ensures that 21st century middle grade readers can understand the enormity of the events as they happen, at the same time as giving them an emotional heart through Noah and Claudia.

Though written from an American perspective, the author does include the harsh East German perceptions of Western society, which may come as a thought-provoking surprise to some readers. This would make a great companion read to Jennifer A. Nielsen’s A Night Divided (Scholastic, 2015), which has an East German perspective at the time of the building of the Wall.

Thanks to Candlewick for the ARC.