Saturday, August 29, 2015

Book Review: 5 to 1 by Holly Bodger

Book: 5 to 1
Author: Holly Bodger
Published: 2015
Source: Review copy from publisher via NetGalley

After decades of gender selection, the ratio of boys to girls has become 5 to 1, and the tiny country of Koyangar has instituted elaborate tests for girls to pick their mates. The winners will get marriage, money, and a life of trying to breed more daughters. The losers will get menial jobs or worse, sent to the wall that separates Koyangar from the rest of the Indian subcontinent, an almost certain death sentence.

Sudasa is the granddaughter of a highly-placed woman in the government, and knows that she is expected to select a particular contestant. But she keeps getting distracted by Contestant 5, who helps out the other contestants and shows compassion for the injured that are ignored by every other boy. What she doesn't know is that Contestant 5 has come to the Tests without any intent of winning a wife. Instead, he plans to escape, because anything is better than Koyangar.

Initially, Contestant 5 disdains Sudasa as spoiled and corrupt, and Sudasa can't fathom why he would risk the wall rather than try for a life of comfort and plenty as her husband. But as they get to know each other in stolen moments, they come to understand that they both want the same thing: freedom.

I have to be honest: I've been completely over the whole novels in verse thing for awhile, so while Sudasa's free-versified thoughts and feelings were interesting, I was always relieved when I got back to the prose of Contestant 5's sections. That being said, seeing Sudasa slowly realize that there was a life for her outside of Koyangar, and her grandmother's control was a fascinating character arc. I just wished it had been more fleshed out. Free verse tends to be extremely spare, without a lot of detail. This is obviously a personal preference, so your mileage may vary.

With its themes of gender inequity (girls are still treated like property, their rarity adding to their value like precious gems, locked away in a safe most of the time) and political corruption (always, always political corruption) this book fits into the usual run of current dystopian fiction. The non-Western setting and culture makes it stand out, but at only 246 pages (and about half of those in free verse), it feels like we skimmed over the setting and honestly, everything outside of the Tests themselves.

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Book Review: The Fourteenth Goldfish by Jennifer L. Holm

Book: The Fourteenth Goldfish
Author: Jennifer L. Holm
Published: 2014
Source: review copy from publisher, picked up at ALA last year

When Ellie's grandfather comes to live with her and her mom, it's worse than most people's grandfathers suddenly moving in. An old man would be bad enough. But Ellies grandfather is a scientist who's learned how to dial back the aging process, so now he's in the body of a thirteen-year-old boy, with all the stinky socks and boundless appetite that go with it.

That stuff is no fun, and neither is listening to her mom and grandfather fight all the time. But he also recruits Ellie to help him get back his experiments from his old lab, and in the process shares his love of science and the scientific process with her. For the first time, Ellie feels like she has a passion of her own.

But she soon learns science is a double-edged sword. Are there things you shouldn't do, even if you can?

Some years ago, I got a piece of writing advice about "gimmes." You get one "gimme" per story. It's the one thing that the audience has to accept for the story to work. It can be as outlandish as you (like a lone scientist secretly and successfully reversing the aging process on himself). But you only get the one, and everything else that builds on that "gimme" has to be real and logical. This is an example of how well that works. Holm uses the idea of reversed aging to explore complicated family dynamics and moving on with life even after things have changed on you - like the death of a spouse, a divorce, or even a one-time best friend who's moved on to other things.

I especially loved that she didn't just go the "rah-rah-science!!" route. A major theme of the book is the negative consequences of scientific discovery, such as Marie Curie's death from radiation poisoning or the aftereffects of Oppenheimer's atom bomb.  At the same time, Holm balances that with the wonder of discovering the world and its possibilities - a more nuanced rah-rah-science theme than most.

Funny, sweet, and swift-moving, this will appeal to a lot of middle-schoolers.

Saturday, August 15, 2015

Book Review: Goblin Secrets by William Alexander

Book: Goblin Secrets
Author: William Alexander
Published: 2012
Source: Local Library

Rownie isn't like all the other children who live in Graba's house, because Rownie has a brother of his own. But Rowan disappeared a couple of months ago, leaving Rownie all on his own without any defenses against the old witch.

When Rownie runs away from Graba's house and falls in with a troupe of goblin actors, he discovers a place where he's welcome, and moreover a gift for acting. With a mask on, he can be anybody. But Graba doesn't let go of what's hers that easily. Not to mention, the floods threaten their city and the Mayor, who has outlawed acting and is prejudiced against goblins, threatens the theater troupe. What can one small boy without his brother do against any of these dangers?

When this won the National Book Award a few years ago, I hadn't really heard of it. This is a quieter book, not very action-packed in spite of the action that occurs, because Alexander has a very detached prose style that made me feel as if I were being told the story rather than living it. Still, I kept reading this for the world of goblins and witches. Alexander has a way of dropping grotesque and magical details about the world and the people that indicate intriguing secrets, which we never fully get but know are there. I also read this for Rownie himself, discovering the magic of acting and his own strength, which both help him when he finds his brother again.

Give this book to lovers of other quiet fantasy books.

Saturday, August 08, 2015

Book Review: Starglass by Phoebe North

Book: Starglass
Author: Phoebe North
Published: 2013
Source: Local Library

Terra's world is bounded to a single spaceship, the Asherah. It's been that way since she was born, and her mother, and her mother's mother back through generations since they left the dying Earth to travel to their new home of Zehava. Her life is laid out in a similarly confined way. At sixteen, she will take the job that the ruling Council has chosen for her, she will marry before the age of eighteen, and she will have her requisite two children in her early twenties.

But unlike her ancestors, Terra will land on Zehava. As she approaches adulthood, and as the Asherah approaches its final destination, she begins to realize that life is not nearly so simple as doing what you're told when you're told to do it. She gets involved with the Children of Abel, a rebel group seeking to overthrow the system, but she has her doubts about their motives and their methods.

The Council has one idea about life on Zehavah, and the Children of Abel have another. Somewhere in the middle is Terra's - but what exactly is it?

This is a doorstop of a book, but I didn't want to put it down. Terra's world and her narration were completely compelling. Sometimes it's hard to put up with Terra herself. She seems naive, self-centered, often clueless about the motives and emotions of others or the political system that rules her world. And there are also times when she willingly keeps her blinders on, going along with what's expected because it's easy, trying to be a good Asherite because it's too hard to swim upstream. These things also make her tremendously real and sympathetic, and made me willing to see how she was going to change and grow.

On starting this, I worried that we would have the inevitable love triangle. And we do . . . but at the same time we don't. There are two, and neither of them are quite standard. Koen, the boy Terra has agreed to marry, is in love with Van, another man, and both of them are Children of Abel. But same-sex marriages don't exist on the Asherah, so he's settling for Terra (who, to be fair, is settling for him). There's also Silvan, in line to be the next captain, who is arrogant and spoiled but also exciting and tempting. Terra doesn't love him either, but at least he evokes a reaction. But it makes things complicated that he once dated and dumped her best friend, who has never gotten over him. And then, of course, there's the one she's told nobody about - the mysterious boy in her dreams of the new planet. I appreciated the complexity of these relationships (well, except the last one, which seems more like wishful thinking than anything) and how Terra's feelings toward them were more about trying to be in love than actually being.
 

One of the other things that sets this book apart is the culture aboard the Asherah. Besides the standard, regimented dystopian system, the customs and language of the ship draw on cultural Judaism. Religion and faith, at least as far as God is concerned, seemed to have disappeared but ideas remain, like tikkun olan (the responsiblity of humanity to heal the world) or mitzvot (used in the sense of duties or good deeds in this book, but a minor Google search tells me is really more related to God's commandments).  Not being Jewish myself, I suspect I'm missing the subtleties and would love to talk this book over with somebody who knows both the culture and the faith.


A complicated, sophisticated sci-fi dystopia with a complex main character, suitable for those already into the genre.

Saturday, August 01, 2015

Reading Roundup: July 2015

By the Numbers
Teen: 10
Tween: 2
Children: 5

Sources
Review Copies: 7
Library: 7

Standouts
Teen: Shadowshaper by Daniel Jose Older
The rich world of Puerto Rican Brooklyn comes to life, with a plot and powers that have their roots in Sierra's heritage and everyday life. I wanted to spend a lot more time there.

Tween: The Curious World of Calpurnia Tate by Jacqueline Wilson
Calpurnia Tate, that science-minded girl, is back. While this was fairly episodic in nature and had an oddly abrupt ending, I still loved seeing how she matures, starts to understand what she wants and how the world may not be willing to give it to her without a fight.
Children: Violet Mackerel's Brilliant Plot by Anna Branford, illustrated by Elanna Allen
In order to get what you want, you have to have a plan. But it may not go as . . . well . . . planned. I loved how this book respected the deep and imaginative inner life and turmoil of its young narrator.

Because I Want To Awards
Addictively Readable: Devoted by Jennifer Mathieu
This look at escaping from the Quiverfull ideal takes its heroine out of her family and shows her struggle to adjust to the world outside, as well as her longing to retain a connection with God.
Sniff: The Book of Broken Hearts by Sarah Ockler
A tender and sad look at changing families, letting go, and moving on, in which the romance is almost incidental.
Slyly Hilarioius: One Year in Coal Harbor by Polly Horvath
Though it deals with heavy subjects (a character in foster care, the yearning for a best friend who really gets you), there were several moments that had me howling aloud. While it takes place in Canada, I thought of the very best of the kooky Southern small town genre.

Saturday, July 25, 2015

Book Review: Gabby Duran and the Unsittables by Elise Allen and Daryle Conners

Book: Gabby Duran and the Unsittables
Author: Elise Allen and Daryle Conners
Published: May 12, 2015
Source: review copy from publisher via NetGalley.com

Gabby Duran has a reputation as the babysitter who can handle even the toughest cases with ease, and has a thriving babysitting empire. She's well used to things like being flown to Florida for the day to babysit a movie star's rambunctious triplets. However, she's thrown for a bit of a loop when she gets tagged to babysit little extraterrestrials by Edwina, the humorless head of A.L.I.E.N. (Association Linking Intergalatics and Earthlings as Neighbors). Seems that little extraterrestrials scare away most human babysitters.

But no matter where they come from, children are children, and Gabby lives up to her reputation. Her second alien charge, a tiny shapeshifter named Wutt, seems easy enough, even if she does have to cart her around school all day long. But then Edwina lets her know that another mysterious organization called G.E.T. O.U.T. is out to eradicate all alien visitors from the planet, and they have their sights set on Wutt. Who just happens to be a member of the royal family on her planet of origin, a planet that has a history of striking first and asking questions later.

No pressure or anything.

I had to read this with two sets of viewpoints. As an adult, I was appalled at how little infrmation Gabby got about dangerous situations and how willing Edwina, her A.L.I.E.N. contact, was to let her handle all these things herself with stakes like the future of planet Earth. I also thought Gabby was almost prenaturally good-natured and self-sacrificing for a twelve-year-old, but it's nice to read a middle school book with a minimum of whining. As a reader with an eye to what kids would like, I have to admit that Gabby being left almost completely on her own added to the appeal and the adventure of this story. I think kids will enjoy the breakneck pace, the goofy action, and the familiar, everyday events given a silly sci-fi twist.

Saturday, July 18, 2015

Book Review: The Doublecross (and other skills I learned as a superspy) by Jackson Pearce

Book: The Doublecross (and other skills I learned as a superspy)
Author: Jackson Pearce
Published: July 14, 2015
Source: review copy from publisher via Netgalley.com

Hale's parents are two of SRS's best spies. The Jordans are known worldwide. Too bad for them that he's a chubby, awkward kid who couldn't win a footrace against a herd of snails - hardly the kind of son to live up to superspy parents. Still, when they disappear on a mission, Hale knows he can break into the evil League's headquarters and rescue them, because he's got plenty of brains and wits, and really, what's more important to a spy?

But the League isn't the evil super-organization he's always been told it was. It's a rickety affair, drained of its funding, limping along with only one spy and some hapless support staff. And what they tell Hale turns his whole world upside down - because it turns out SRS are the ones who made his parents disappear. SRS are the bad guys.

Just like with his initial plan to rescue his parents, Hale knows the right thing to do, and that's to bring down the SRS from inside.

This is a book you probably shouldn't think about too closely, what with its prepubescent spies and I-Spy antics. It's awfully fun once you have a generous suspension of disbelief. The plot romps along, with plenty of explosions and gadgets and excitement, as well as humor. I also enjoyed Hale's confidence in his own abilities. Yes, he's overweight and not that great at the physical stuff. (Pearce mostly avoids making fat-shaming a source of comedy, luckily.) Hale is also observant, nimble-witted, and is able to oversee a mission with a variety of challenges.

What really appealed to me the most was the generous dose of heart in Hale's friendships with new League pals Ben and Beatrix, as well with his baby sister Kennedy, and his one-time friend/one-time nemesis/now maybe friend again, Walter Quaddlebaum.

The end is open to a series of Hale's adventures fighting the SRS, and that's a series that would probably be popular among middle-schoolers.