Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Book Review: The Final Six, by Alexandra Monir

I think The Final Six is a really good book --- but it was hard for me to tell.

Global warming has caused entire cities throughout the world to be flooded and destroyed.  Storms hit that wipe out entire populations. The government has drafted twenty-two teenagers to make a trip to one of Mars' moons -Europa - to set up a settlement for Earth's population under the moon's surface. They have to send teenagers so they will live long enough to complete their mission.

Leo, from Italy, and Naomi, from California, are two of the drafted. Leo desperately wants to be one of The Final Six, since his entire family was killed and he's barely subsisting.  Naomi has led a more protected life.  Her family is safe, but her little brother has severe heart disease, and Naomi is his protector. She intends to blow the tryout so she can come home.

There are twists and turns and of course, the government isn't being totally forthcoming about their training or their mission. There's a magic potion that has strange effects on some of the teens. Some of the teens are evil, some are sympathetic, and some really aren't developed at all.  A romance is inevitable, and Naomi's intentions are necessarily altered.

The tension mounts nicely, and at the end, just when we think all is lost, we get a thread of hope -- and then we must wait until the next installment.

All of that is great, but here's my problem.  This book is so much like Nyxia, a book that I really enjoyed, that the constant comparisons in my head perhaps tainted my enjoyment.  Nyxia came first, so naturally, I felt The Final Six was inferior. At the end of my review of Nyxia, I stated that I could see this book on the big screen.  I've read that The Final Six has been optioned by Sony Pictures. Huh.

If you haven't read Nyxia, you should be able to read and enjoy The Final Six without bias.  If you have read Nyxia, and then read The Final Six (or read them in opposite order), I'd like to know what you think.

The Final Six is exciting, timely, and should be recommended to your Sci-Fi fans.

Published by HarperTeen, March 6, 2018
eBook obtained from Edelweiss
352 pages

Rating: 4/5

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Thursday, February 22, 2018

Audio Book Review: Winter Solstice by Elin Hilderbrand @elinhilderbrand ‏

Winter Solstice by Elin Hilderbrand book cover and review
Hilderbrand's writing is mesmerizing and her characters are complex, which kept me interested in Winter Solstice.

We meet the Quinns - a blended family whose patriarch, Kelly, lives on Nantucket in an inn that he and his second wife, Mitzi, run. Unfortunately, Kelly is in the advanced stages of brain cancer. We get perspectives from all of the kids, the ex-wife, and even some side characters.

Like I said, the writing is excellent.  You can feel what the characters feel.  But really, not much happens in Winter Solstice. It covers about three months, and we get background stories of all the characters.  A few have been in prison, one son has returned from being a POW, and several have had extramarital affairs, so there is a lot to keep one's interest.

Winter Solstice is the definition of character-driven.  And that isn't a bad thing once in a while, especially by a talented writer.  I didn't understand why we were introduced to some of the tangential characters (i.e. Eddie and the lottery winners) especially when their story was just dropped at the end of the book, but this is a small complaint.

I like audiobooks when you forget they are audiobooks.  When you forget you are being read to and simply enjoy the story.  Erin Bennett is just such a narrator. No annoying voices, no extra drama.  Excellent.

I totally didn't realize this was the fourth book of a series, Winter Street, and I can honestly say I don't think the reading suffered because I hadn't read any of the other books.  But I would be interested to start from the beginning and see how these characters progress.

This is a clean, sweet story that I think teens would enjoy also. The characters will stick with you, and I'd recommend Winter Solstice if you enjoy heartwarming novels about the complexities of family.

Published by Little, Brown and Company, 2017, audio by Hachette
Audiobook obtained from the library
304 pages

Rating: 4/5

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Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Book Review: Frankenstein, by Mary Shelley

Frankenstein by Mary Shelley book cover and review
For a classic novel, Frankenstein is fairly easy to follow and kept my interest.

If you don't know the story, here are the basics. First of all, remember Frankenstein is the doctor that created the monster.  Many people mistakenly believe that the monster is Frankenstein.  Victor Frankenstein is a talented scientist and becomes obsessed with creating a living being from parts of other beings. He finally brings life to this hideous creature, who he then allows to escape (one of the fallacies of this plot, but just let it go.)

The reader gets the perspective of the creature, as he struggles to survive and become a part of society. No way that's going to happen, because he's too hideous.  He reveals himself to a blind man and is just about successful, but no, we can't allow that to happen or we wouldn't have a story. We also get the perspective of Frankenstein as he realizes this creature is wreaking havoc and is out to get Frankenstein and steal away everything dear to him.

Shelley does a good job of building tension and also sympathy.  But at the same time, I thought Frankenstein (the character) was really stupid at times.  And some of the monster's evolution was a bit far-fetched (Of course.  I get that is to be expected), and his abrupt change of heart at the end was not very credible. Frankenstein's evolution, however, is what makes the story a classic, I think.  His abject misery and eventual breakdown are utterly heartbreaking.

It sounds like I didn't enjoy Frankenstein, however, I did. With all it's plot holes and suspension of belief, I appreciated the feelings evoked and all the trials and tribulations associated with the story. Shelley is good at creating an atmosphere that gives you chills.  It's a classic and worth the read.

Published by Lackington, Hughes, Harding, Mavor & Jones, 1818
eBook obtained from Serial Reader
280 pages

Rating: 3.5/5

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Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Book Review: Blood Water Paint, by Joy McCullough @JMCwrites

Blood Water Paint by Joy McCullough book cover and review
I was pleasantly surprised at how much I enjoyed Blood Water Paint.

Written mostly in verse, Blood Water Paint is a fictionalized account of the life of painter Artemisia Gentileschi, who was born in 1593. Her mother dies, and either she must enter the convent or work for her father mixing his paints.  Eventually her artistic skills surpass her father’s, and he passes off her work as his own. He hires a teacher, Agostino Tassi,  to help her with her painting. Her father is hoping Tassi's connections will win him a huge commission.  She is raped by this teacher.

Of course in this time period, she isn't expected to tell anyone. Her support and her strength come from her visions of two ancient heroines, Susanna and Judith, whose stories she heard from her mother. These stories are recounted in prose and are woven through Artemisia's story. Both of these women bore many hardships and persevered in the face of insurmountable challenges. These women become subjects for Artemisia's paintings and gave her the will to persevere. Eventually she tells her father and he (since a woman isn't allowed to) brings charges against Tassi. After a lengthy investigation, trial, and much physical suffering, he is eventually found guilty. But when I say "physical suffering" -- well, you have no idea. Since Artemisia may never be able to paint again and this man gets only a five year banishment, this isn't much of a victory.

Some scenes are brutal, so be warned. And Blood Water Paint is more of a challenge than some books in verse. The poetry sections read like poetry - it's not just prose written in little lines.

Ultimately a story of feminist strength and survival, It may be a challenge to entice teens to pick Blood Water Paint up. I almost wish it was marketed to adults, but its powerful message may be worth the effort to push it to certain teens.

Published by Dutton Children's, March 6, 2018
ARC obtained from School Library Connection Magazine
292 pages

Rating: 3.5/5

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Monday, February 19, 2018

Book Review: Dear Fahrenheit 451: Love and Heartbreak in the Stacks, by Annie Spence

Dear Fahrenheit 451, by Annie Spence book cover and review
Dear Fahrenheit 451: Love and Heartbreak in the Stacks is delightful.

Spence picks out some of her favorite, and least favorite, books and writes them each a letter.  In some, she's explaining why the title must be discarded.  For others, she thanks them and describes why she loves them so much.  Some are books from the library, others are books from her own collection.  In one case, she writes a letter to an entire bookcase that was at a party she attended.

In all cases, she's hilarious.  Her wit and wisdom just really hit a note with me, and I devoured this book very quickly. (And, for anyone, it is a pretty quick read.)

The second part of Dear Fahrenheit 451: Love and Heartbreak in the Stacks contains lists of her favorites and recommendations for different situations.  Things like books with bad covers that are really good.  Or books that to lead to more books.  I enjoyed this section, but it wasn't as charming as the letters.

I got a few good ideas for books that need to be on my list.  And I laughed really hard a few times.  For me, that's a win.  Definitely worth the time if you are any kind of book lover.  Now I have to go pass this one on to a friend...

Published by Flatiron, 2017
Copy obtained from the library
244 pages

Rating: 4/5

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Thursday, February 15, 2018

Book Review: Girls Burn Brighter, by Shobha Rao

Girls Burn Brighter by Shobha Rao book cover and review
Girls Burn Brighter is a very well-written, compelling book.  But it is heartbreaking.

Poornima and Savitha become best friends during their poverty-stricken childhood in India.  Because of circumstances beyond their control (like being forced to marry, which actually is the least barbaric act in this book) they are torn from each other.

Their lives are so miserable, and through it all, what keeps them going is the possibility of escaping and finding each other again.

Rao's writing is beautiful. I was truly sucked in and couldn't put this down. (I may have snuck some reading of this one during work...)  I felt so deeply for each of these women and couldn't believe the lengths they went to in order to find each other. There was some luck involved, but a lot of this luck stemmed from the fact that they were so close, that they knew what paths each of them would take in certain situations.  It was fascinating.

This isn't a light book. And it's made worse by the fact that it ends so abruptly.  After such a distressing narrative, I wanted a complete ending.  I wanted just a little denouement or some kind of epilogue.  At the end of the book, I still felt all of the grief that I suffered throughout, even though the ending is "happy."  It was jarringly abrupt. You are waiting and hoping for them to finally find each other and you don't get to see any of that play out. Ugggh.  This was so frustrating to me!

I would still recommend Girls Burn Brighter to adults and older teens who enjoy dramatic stories that emphasize friendship, oppression of women, powerful females, and survival at all costs. Just be aware that you have to finish the story for yourself if you want a "feel good" ending.

Published by Flatiron, March 6, 2018
eARC obtained from Edelweiss
320 pages

Rating: 4/5

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Monday, February 12, 2018

Book Review: People Like Us by Dana Mele @MsDanaMele

People Like Us by Dana Mele book cover and review
People Like Us is a twisted thriller that kept me on the edge of my seat.

Kay and her nasty group of friends attend a prestigious all-girls boarding school, Bates Academy. This group of girls has gossiped, bullied, and cheated on their friends and each other for years, and Kay is the leader of the group.

When they find the body of a dead classmate in a pond, the suspicions abound.  It turns out several of them have a reason to kill her and no one has a great alibi.

Kay receives access to a blackmail web page that appears to be from the dead girl.  Kay must out each one of her friends for some secret transgression, or else the blackmailer will tell Kay's secrets.  And Kay has many secrets. Kay and her closest friends end up in the crosshairs of the murder investigation, and as Kay tries to clear herself, she runs up against formidable obstacles.

I guessed the identity of the murderer at about the halfway point, but I wasn't sure, and it didn't ruin the rest of the story.  The backstabbing and lying of these teens really began to stretch credibility. I mean, really, the motives are really absurd, but I stuck with it and found People Like Us to be a juicy, intricate mystery with well-described (if awful) characters.

This isn't a book that's going to have you rooting for the good guy -- because there aren't any -- but it will keep your attention and keep you guessing. I think my teens will enjoy it.

Published by G. P. Putnam's Sons, February 27, 2018
eARC obtained from NetGalley
384 pages

Rating: 4/5

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Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Book Review: Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda by Becky Albertalli

Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda by Becky Albertalli book cover and review
Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda is a super cute contemporary romance that I enjoyed more than I thought I would.

Simon is gay, but he hasn't come out to anyone.  He's having an ongoing email conversation with a guy who is called Blue, but Simon doesn't know his true identity.  So much of the story is Simon trying to figure out who this guy is that he has a huge crush on.  And they go to the same high school. Many conversations are about coming out -- and when, and to who -- as well as Simon pushing Blue to reveal his identity.

Simon has a great circle of friends and he's also involved in the theater at school. He accidentally leaves a school computer logged in, and one of the kids at school, Marty, sees his emails.  Marty has a crush on one of Simon's friends, Abby, so Marty basically blackmails Simon.  He wants Simon to arrange for Marty to get together with Abby. If he does, then Marty will keep Simon's secret.

Everything blows up -- in many ways -- for Simon. But eventually, this is a happy story that leaves you with a warm feeling in your heart. As far as the LGBT aspect, this story was a natural, cute romance.  I don't like it when these stories feel contrived to include gender nonconforming teens. Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda did not feel like that.  Simon and the other characters are teens just like any others, with stressors just like many of them.

The only thing I found a bit over the top was the fact that Simon could be so in love with a guy just by reading his emails.  Especially when there is so much they can't say to each other, lest they reveal their identities. Maybe I'm just too old to remember what it's like to be a teen.  Perhaps it isn't unrealistic for them.

I'm picky about my YA romances, and I enjoyed Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda a lot. I'm sure many more of my teens will pick it up after Love, Simon the movie, releases on March 16.

Published by Balzer + Bray, 2015
Copy obtained from the library
303 pages

Rating: 4/5

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Tuesday, February 6, 2018

Book Review: Love, Hate & Other Filters by Samira Ahmed

I don't remember what I read that prompted me to order Love, Hate & Other Filters through interlibrary loan.  But it arrived, and I read it--and really enjoyed it.

Maya was born in the United States and has Indian parents.  She dreams of going to film school in New York, but her parents have other ideas.  Ideas about her finding a suitable Indian boy and attending a local college.  But she's been hanging out with  Phil, who she's known since they were in grade school. An act of terrorism hundreds of miles away changes all of Maya's hopes and dreams.

Maya's struggles are real and authentic.  She is dealing with parents having difficulty letting her go, with the added issue of her becoming Americanized and losing her Indian culture.  She's dealing with the attention she's getting from Phil, even though he supposedly has a girlfriend. And she's dealing with an act of terrorism that, because of her heritage, causes her to suddenly be besieged by students at her school.

The reader gets insight into the terrorist through small vignettes between chapters throughout the book.  This is a nice technique and works well to dole out the information. Maya is a sympathetic character that I wanted to see happy.  Her supportive aunt gives an alternative idea of an Indian woman succeeding in the United States, which also worked well to demonstrate the turmoil of these poor Indian parents. The plot moves quickly, and the book is easy to read.

I do have a small nitpick.  I really don't see schools being locked down for a terrorist attack hundreds of miles away.  Not a biggy, but seemed odd.  An added bonus is that this takes place in Illinois, which is where I'm located, so this will definitely appeal to my students. Actually, that might be why this ended up on my list.  Students of Indian heritage will be able to relate, and others will enjoy learning about Maya's situation and seeing it through their own eyes.  I'll be purchasing a copy for my library.

Published by Soho Teen, January 16, 2018
Copy obtained from the library
281 pages

Rating: 4/5

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