"If you want your children to be intelligent, read them fairy tales. If you want them to be more intelligent, read them more fairy tales." Albert Einstein

30 April 2018

The Alcatraz Escape

Bertman, Jennifer. The Alcatraz Escape. Henry Holt, 2018

Emily, James, and their friends are going to try an escape room set up by Grizwald himself, set on Alcatraz Island. Once they reach the island, though, there are more mysteries to solve than just the puzzles that are a part of the game. Will they be able to solve the puzzles in time to win the grand prize, and can they do it in time to guarantee that the bookshop receives its large donation?

This is a fantastic middle grade mystery/adventure story, perfect for fans of the previous two installments or Chris Grabenstein's Lemoncello books. The puzzles and the mysterious events keep the reader turning pages to find out what will happen. There is suspense and some mildly scary situations, but this is a clean read that I could wholeheartedly recommend to any child.

What stood out to me the most was a discussion that some of the characters had near the end of the story, where one character says, "If you love something, like a book or a movie, and then you find out the person who created it did something awful or wasn't a very good person--is it still okay to love what they created?" Bertman doesn't provide an answer to this timely question, beyond that "people are complicated," which is certainly true.

I highly recommend this book for kids who like puzzles, for teachers who like to have read-alouds for their classroom, and for those who want their kids to read "clean" stories but still provide them with a challenge.

Recommended for: middle grade and tweens
Red Flags: mild bullying
Overall Rating: 5/5 stars

Read-Alikes: Escape from Mr. Lemoncello's Library, Greenglass House, I Kill the Mockingbird

I received a complimentary copy of this book through the publisher for the purposes of review.

27 April 2018


Wilinsky, Tom. Snowsisters. Duet, 2018.

Soph is a rich New Yorker. Tess is from a farm in New Hampshire. The teens room together at a writing conference and together learn more about each others' worlds.

TW: transphobia, homophobia, bullying, misgendering, etc.

Soph and Tess are rooming next to two other girls - Orly and Chris. Chris wants to be an investigative journalist, and when she discovers that Orly is transgender, she decides to investigate; i.e., she digs through Orly's things and spreads rumors to the other girls, trying to turn them against Orly. Never once does she speak with one of the event coordinators or instructors about her problem. This culminates in Chris moving the carrot nose from a snow person to turn it into a carrot penis. There isn't much resolution of this issue; there is an attempt at some sort of restorative justice with Chris and Orly, but as it appears in the last few pages of the book, it mostly falls flat.

The story of Soph and Tess - without the subplot of Orly and Chris - is fine. Soph and Tess come from very different worlds and get to learn about each other through the conference. This plot alone would have made this book fine. However, I take real issue with the transphobia throughout the book. Chris consistently misgenders Orly and is only halfheartedly corrected by some of the other girls. Chris's "come to Jesus" moment at the end does not end with her actually apologizing to Orly; she simply is bothered that no one "warned" her that she was going to have a transgender roommate. The reader is supposed to begin to feel sorry for Chris and this terrible position she was put in, when in fact Chris is the one in a position of power throughout the entire story. I can't in good conscience recommend this book to transgender teen readers. They deserve better.

Recommended for: teens
Red Flags: transphobia, homophobia (a side character was punched in the face by his father when he came out), misgendering, etc.
Overall Rating: 1/5 stars

Read Instead: If I Was Your Girl, If You Could Be Mine, Beauty Queens

25 April 2018

One True Way

Hitchcock, Shannon. One True Way. Scholastic, 2018.

Allie and her mom move to the South after her brother dies in a car accident and her dad separates from her mom. Allie meets Sam at school, and quickly learns that Sam likes girls and that Allie herself also likes girls. But this is 1977, and it's not safe for girls who like girls to advertise this fact. Allie discovers that two of her female teachers are also not just roommates. She and her mom seek advice from their church regarding Allie's sexuality.

What I Liked: The book reads as a solid middle grade story. It's told in a simple matter. Religion is featured prominently but is not mocked.

What I Didn't Like: The 1970s setting makes this read more like a memoir for Generation X adults rather than a book for middle grade students. There are so many things that date this story - Allie's use of a typewriter, the mimeographed notes that Sam receives from a friend, even simple things like Allie's choice to change into a dress before dinner. These date markers almost mark this as historical fiction, but the topic itself rates this as a contemporary book. I think it would have been more successful as a memoir aimed at adults rather than a cute middle grade story with an important message hidden in a very dated wrapper.

Recommended for: adults, really; middle grade
Red Flags: none
Overall Rating: 4/5 stars

Read-Alikes: Annie on My Mind

23 April 2018

NOT RECOMMENDED: Miles Away From You

Rutledge, A.B. Miles Away From You. HMH Books for Young Readers, 2018.

Miles fell in love with Vivian, a transgender girl. Vivian attempted suicide and has been on life support for over a year. He takes a trip to Iceland, has sex with lots of people, and deals with the fact that he wants to let Vivian die with dignity while her parents have deadnamed her, taken her off of her hormones, and are continuing to fund her life support.

Why the low rating? This twitter thread by a trans person will help you understand the trans perspective on this book. Also, the main character is not sympathetic, likeable, or relatable (how many teens do you know whose parents can fund a trip to Iceland on a whim?). I could not in good conscience give this book to a transgender teen, an asexual teen, or a nonbinary teen. There are much better books available.

Red Flags: transphobic language is just the start
Overall Rating: 1/5 stars

Read Instead: Autoboyography, Mask of Shadows, Noteworthy, Tash Hearts Tolstoy

20 April 2018

A Closed and Common Orbit

Chambers, Becky. A Closed and Common Orbit. Hodder & Stoughton, 2016.

Lovelace was supposed to be the AI aboard the ship, however, due to events in the first book in this series, her program was placed into a body instead and she has been sent to live with Pepper. Pepper is a human who has a complicated past as well, and this book alternates chapters of Pepper's past with the story of Lovelace adapting to being in a body instead of a ship.

That description makes this book sound really dry, which it definitely is not. Sidra (the name Lovelace chooses for herself) has to deal with all the overwhelming sounds and sights of the beings around her all the time, and she has to adjust to being confined to a body with certain programming protocols (for example, she can't lie). In addition, she's not actually allowed to inhabit a body, so her very existence is illegal. Add that to the descriptions of several alien species and their various languages, habits, festivals, etc., and you get a fantastic mix that's perfect for any Star Trek fan.

On top of this we have Pepper's story. Pepper was bred to be an employee in a factory. She and her fellow workers (it's never clear if they are all clones or whatnot) never see the sunlight and never interact with anyone else. When there's an explosion at the factory, Pepper doesn't even know what to make of the "big blue ceiling" she sees outside the walls. But she escapes and ends up living in an abandoned shuttle, which she works on repairing so she can escape. These sequences are equal parts The Martian, combined with any "escape from a cult" type story you can imagine, because Pepper doesn't know anything about the outside world.

Bottom Line: This book is positively fantastic, and my only complaint is that I've finished reading it and the next one isn't out until later this year. Highly recommended.

Recommended for: teens, adults
Red Flags: Pepper's language develops around the time she turns 14 - she learns to swear and therefore uses her new language abilities extensively
Overall Rating: 5/5 stars

18 April 2018

The 57 Bus

Slater, Dashka. The 57 Bus: A True Story of Two Teenagers and the Crime that Changed Their Lives. Farrar, Straus, and Giroux BYR, 2017.

I was living in San Leandro, CA, right next to Oakland, when this event occurred. I remember the news stories; I remember hearing about the "skirts for Sasha" day, and I remember being scared for my spouse, who is trans, who also occasionally used the 57 bus to get home when the BART wasn't working or was going to take too long.

This was an amazingly well done account of this event. The story is written in a highly compelling and readable fashion, and the author did a fantastic job delving into the background of both the victim and the perpetrator, to the point where even I felt some sympathy for the perpetrator and the situation he was facing with a possibility of being tried and imprisoned as an adult. Highly recommended.

Recommended for: teens and adults
Red Flags: one teen set another teen on fire on a bus
Overall Rating: 5/5 stars

16 April 2018

Head On

Scalzi, John. Head On. Tor Books, 2018.

Head On continues where Lock In left off, with Chris, a rookie FBI agent, and Chris's partner, Leslie, solving cases. This case involves a new sport called Hilketa that is primarily played by Haden's survivors. An athlete dies in the middle of a game - a first for the league and the sport, and Chris and Leslie are rushing to uncover the truth as witnesses die and evidence is tampered with.

This is a standard detective novel with the added twist that Chris and other Haden's survivors navigate the physical world using Threeps, robot bodies that they can control with their minds so they can speak, drive, work, and be with the rest of the world while their bodies are "locked in" in their beds. These Threeps are also what they use to play Hilketa, a game where one player is chosen at random and the other players attempt to remove that player's head and score points with it. I had a bit of a shock when I started reading this book and learned about Hilketa, but had forgotten about the use of Threeps and thought that players were actually ripping each other's heads off. Hilketa is a brutal and violent game, but the damage is only to the Threeps.

I initially read Lock In because it won an Alex Award, which is given for adult books with teen appeal. Since then I have read Scalzi's other novels, including the Old Man's War series, which I particularly enjoyed. Lock In and Head On are detective stories, and they would make great read-alikes for fans of gritty detective novels and crime procedural shows like Criminal Minds, Law & Order, Bones, etc. Another interesting point is that never once during either of the books is Chris's gender revealed. Scalzi wrote on the Tor blog about this choice, and I think it's really interesting. During the first book I assumed Chris as male, probably because Chris is often referred to by their last name, Shane, which is typically a male name.

Recommended for: older teens and adults
Red Flags: language, violence similar to that in crime procedural shows like Criminal Minds
Overall Rating: 5/5 stars

I received a complimentary copy of this book through Netgalley for the purpose of review.

13 April 2018

The Prince and the Dressmaker

Wang, Jen. The Prince and the Dressmaker. First Second, 2018

Prince Sebastian is supposed to be choosing his future queen and settling in to his duties as the future king, but he is exhausted because he spends each night as Lady Crystallia, a fashion icon. Outside of one servant and his dressmaker, no one else knows that Sebastian occasionally wears dresses and enjoys doing so. Meanwhile, his dressmaker, Frances, dreams of having her designs noticed by the most famous designers so she can make a name for herself and be more than just the prince's secret dressmaker.

This book is simply fantastic. Starting with the cover image (please note that the "spotlight" on the main characters is a dress that Lady Crystallia is wearing), the illustrations carry this story along perfectly. We get to witness the dreary life Frances led before she was discovered by the prince, and her hidden talent later on. The prince is eventually discovered by another member of the court and dragged in front of his parents in one of his Lady Crystallia gowns. However, the parents don't react in the way many of us would expect. This book is fantastic and I highly recommend it. My spouse even suggested we purchase our own copy to keep - a thing we've done with maybe a dozen books outside of the Harry Potter series.

Recommended for: tweens
Red Flags: none
Overall Rating: 5/5 stars

11 April 2018

My Brother's Husband

Tagame, George and Anne Tishii. My Brother's Husband. Pantheon Books, 2017.

Yaichi's twin brother moved to Canada, married Mike, and then died. Mike travels to Japan to walk in Ryoji's footsteps and meets Yaichi and his daughter, Kana. He visits with them for several days, learning more about Ryoji's family. Meanwhile Yaichi explores what he thinks about same-sex relationships and marriage.

This was a quick read; Kana reminds me a lot of Yotsuba from the eponymous manga series. A lot of the concerns that Yaichi and his neighbors have regarding Mike and Ryoji will sound reheated to queer Americans who have heard it all before, but it was interesting to see someone in another culture wrestle with these questions. Overall, this was a good, quick read and I would recommend it to fans of manga.

Recommended for: teens, adults
Red Flags: none
Overall Rating: 5/5 stars

09 April 2018

Nate Expectations

Federle, Tim. Nate Expectations. Simon & Schuster BYR, 2018.

Tim Federle has created a third installment to the Better Nate Than Ever series. Nate has returned home now that his time on Broadway is over, and he is attending high school for the first time in his life. Nate decides to create a musical of Dickens's Great Expectations for his English project, and he enlists the help of his new friends in doing so. Meanwhile, his Broadway boyfriend is starring in a television show, and they are attempting a long-distance relationship. Oh, and Nate hasn't come out to his parents yet.

I thought the first book in this series was adorable. This book is also adorable, but it's losing some of that simply because the main character is now in high school. Normally, a book with a main character in high school is considered young adult, but this book still definitely reads like a tween book. Nate has a chatty, stream-of-consciousness narrative voice which can be trying at times if a reader simply wants to know what happened next. The Nate books haven't been popular at my library, but I think that is due to the library's location rather than the writing quality of the books themselves. I recommend this book where the first two in the series are popular, or where a librarian sees the need to add more queer literature to the tween section.

Recommended for: tweens
Red Flags: One homophobic slur on Nate's first day at high school
Overall Rating: 3/5 stars

I received a complimentary copy of this book through Edelweiss for the purpose of review.

06 April 2018

I Am Still Alive

Marshall, Kate. I Am Still Alive. Viking BYR, 2018.

Jess's mother died in a car accident, and after Jess's leg has healed enough for her to sort-of walk again, she is sent to live with her father, a man she hasn't seen in over a decade. Her father lives in the middle of the Canadian wilderness, and he has warned Jess that he made some bad choices in life, and that if she ever sees a plane landing on the lake, to stay hidden no matter what. When the inevitable plane arrives, Jess's father is murdered, his cabin is burned, and Jess is left alone in the wilderness. Will she be able to survive the harsh Canadian winter, and what will she do to escape in the spring?

I am a sucker for survival stories - I remember wearing out my copy of My Side of the Mountain when I was in elementary school. This book has a large survivalist plot; Jess spends a lot of her time building shelter, attempting to hunt, trying to stay warm, etc. Much like Mark Watney in The Martian, Jess is completely alone, and her mistakes could be fatal. There's also the element of a thriller in this story, as Jess knows her father's murderers are going to return, and she has to decide if she is going to fight them and steal their plane or hide until they are gone.

I will admit I skimmed the final fight scenes, as I do in every thriller I read. I loved the build up to it, and the "before" and "after" chapters didn't jar me as they have in other stories. This is a compelling read and a great one to give to teens who enjoy survival stories.

Recommended for: teens
Red Flags: violence
Overall Rating: 4/5 stars

Read-Alikes: The Martian, My Side of the Mountain, Peak, The White Darkness

I received a complimentary copy of this book through Edelweiss for the purpose of review.

04 April 2018

Lighter than My Shadow

Green, Katie. Lighter than My Shadow. Jonathan Cape, 2013.

In this graphic novel memoir, Katie Green tells the story of her lifelong struggle with anorexia and food, as well as her healing and survival. The muted grayscale colors are appropriate for what is a good story, though not a happy story. This book may seem daunting at first due to its size and weight, but it is a quick read and a compelling one. Green brings the reader through her childhood as a picky eater into her teen years when she began her struggle with anorexia, and includes reactions from her friends and family and her continued struggle in her relationship with food.

I appreciated her candor in that she never says she is completely healed. She does, however, find the strength to live each day and to work through each challenge as it comes.

TW: anorexia as well as bingeing (no purging); molestation which, as this is a graphic novel, is a bit graphic in nature

Recommended for: teens and adults
Red Flags: fat-shaming, language, molestation,
Overall Rating: 5/5 stars

02 April 2018

Spill Zone

Westerfeld, Scott. Spill Zone. First Second, 2017.

I have yet to be disappointed by anything published by First Second, and this book is no exception. I haven't read it yet simply because it's been so popular that it hasn't stayed on our library's shelf long enough for me to snag it.

The story is set in post-apocalyptic America. Some kind of "spill" - we're never really told what it was - happened in one town, which means that town is now completely off-limits. The people who lived there did not survive. Addison is a photographer and visits the town to take pictures, which she then sells to wealthy patrons. This is how she is able to care for herself and her sister. Her sister was in the spill zone when it happened and has not spoken since then. But when a wealthy patron offers Addison a million dollars to retrieve an item from inside the spill zone, she can't resist. This would help her care for her sister for the rest of her life. But will she even make it out of the zone to enjoy her riches?

The illustrations in this book are spot-on; I especially appreciated the muted pastel palette used for the spill zone areas. I am glad this is a series, as I am curious to find out what happens next. This book will have wide appeal for teens, and it's short enough that many different readers would find it readable. Recommended.

Recommended for: teens
Red Flags: language, some gore
Overall Rating: 4/5 stars