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Book Review: All-American Boys by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely

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Sixteen-year-old Rashad is looking to buy a bag of chips at the corner store when he’s mistaken for a shoplifter and ends up the victim of serious police brutality.  Immediately the community is divided: was Rashad resisting arrest?  Was the cop, Paul Galuzzi, acting out of racist rage?  People’s opinions are split, but there are witnesses to the crime: Quinn Collins, a classmate of Rashad’s and best friends with Galuzzi’s little brother, saw the whole thing go down.  And there’s cell phone video of the beating, too.  Quinn is sure that Galuzzi acted right, because how could someone who practically raised him do something so horrible?  But then Rashad is absent from school again and again.  And as people start to take sides and tensions flare, Quinn has to confront some harsh truths about life and consequences of choices.

Brendan Kiely and Jason Reynolds each take one character and tell this story from both perspectives.  Each chapter alternates the perspective of one of the boys, and the result is a fast-paced, thoughtful piece of fiction whose aim is to examine the state of race relations and police brutality in America.  The good news is that it mostly succeeds, due in large part to the talents of both authors, who craft realistic characters and offer readers thoughtful nuance to the issue and the people facing the problems.

As with most “problem novels” (for lack of a better term), there is some visible moving of the set pieces around.  The novel takes an issue that is at the forefront of most Americans’ minds these days and crafts a fictional story that feels all too real.  But what’s commendable here is that both Kiely and Reynolds keep it fictional enough so that readers have a bit of distance from similar real-life situations, allowing them to take the time to really think about and consider the entire event.

On the whole, this is a compulsively readable story about two boys who end up having more in common than they think.  It offers readers no easy answers, isn’t overly didactic, and is absolutely one that will spark a great deal of discussion.  Both Kiely and Reynolds give this hard topic the care and consideration it deserves.

This ripped-from-the-headlines story told in dual narration offers readers a fresh, fictional perspective on an issue that’s important, timely, and difficult.  Recommended.

All-American Boys by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely. Atheneum: 2015. Library copy.

 

 

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Book Review: The Bunker Diary by Kevin Brooks

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Linus is 16, a runaway, and living on the streets of London when he gets abducted  by a strange man in a van.  When he wakes up, he finds himself in an underground bunker.  He’s alone, but there are other empty bedrooms.  Soon, those bedrooms are filled by people who were taken just like him.  They’re being watched and punished.  There is no escape.  As time passes, the people in the bunker come to the horrifying realization that they may have to result to the absolute worst possible outcome if they have any chance of survival.

Kevin Brooks’ The Bunker Diary is a disturbing read.  This is not a title for every reader, because Brooks doesn’t shy away from the harshest aspects of human life and death and that includes some pretty horrific gore.  But the book is beautifully written in sparse, haunting prose, and the pace is whip-fast, guaranteed to glue readers to every page as they race to find out the fate of the characters trapped underground.

There are certainly parallels to be made here to Jean-Paul Sartre’s No Exit (this might be lost on most teens, but there it is), and the book examines existentialism through its various characters.  This is going to work best for sophisticated readers who are able to stomach violence and introspection in equal doses.  It is, at times, simply brilliant.  It is a novel that demands to be reread to pick up on the details of plot construction, character development, and insight into humanity.

Readers who finish this one will be haunted by the characters and the book’s overall message.  It’s one that will garner a lot of discussion, which is good, because there’s lots to think and talk about within the book’s pages.  A winner of the Carnegie medal, this is a must-read for anyone who can handle the suspense, the horror, and the darkest parts of what makes us human.  Highly recommended.

The Bunker Diary by Kevin Brooks. Carolrhoda Lab: 2014. Library copy.

 

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Book Review: Bright Coin Moon by Kirsten Lopresti

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Lindsey Allen is a straight-A student whose sole focus is on becoming an astronomer.  In order to do that, she has to escape the life she lives with her free-spirit mother, a former beauty queen who runs a business as a fake psychic out of their garage.  When her mother decides it’s time to move from Oregon to Los Angeles, she uproots Lindsey’s whole life.  The two start over in L.A., living in a run-down apartment building.  A wealthy mentor enters Lindsey’s life, and she might just be the ticket to Lindsey’s bright future, but her mother has other plans.

What works well in Lopresti’s novel works very well: a strong protagonist who is fully realized as a character, a gritty portrayal of a complicated mother-daughter relationship, and sparse language that’s engaging and vaguely haunting.  Lopresti has crafted a story that resonates long after readers finish the last page, and it’s guaranteed to attract fans. The suspense of what will happen to these two women, as well as Lindsey’s growing suspicions and worries about her mother’s mental state, make this a compelling read.

The book has a few stumbles, though.  Lindsey’s burgeoning relationship with her super-cute neighbor Paco feels oddly chaste in a way that distracts from the overall narrative.  It doesn’t quite fit into the story and would in fact be better left out altogether since it never quite gels.  While Lindsey herself is well drawn, many of the other characters, including her mother, are not.  There’s a thinness to them that makes the reader wonder whether or not there’s truly anything under the surface.

 

Despite the book’s darker topics, Lopresti ends it on a hopeful, if cautious note.  It’s likely to attract a fair amount of teen readers because it has an appealing plot and is well written.  It would benefit from stronger character development, but it’s still a strong contender when it comes to teen appeal.

Bright Coin Moon by Kirsten Lopresti.  Sky Pony Press: 2015. Library copy.

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Waiting on Wednesday: Other Broken Things by Christa Desir

Waiting on Wednesday is a weekly meme hosted by Jill at Breaking the Spine.  Its purpose is to spotlight eagerly-anticipated upcoming releases.

This week I’m eagerly awaiting:

Other Broken Things by Christa Desir

Expected Release Date: January 12, 2015

Nat’s not an alcoholic. She doesn’t have a problem. Everybody parties, everybody does stupid things, like get in their car when they can barely see. Still, with six months of court-ordered AA meetings required, her days of vodka-filled water bottles are over.

Unfortunately her old friends want the party girl or nothing. Even her up-for-anything ex seems more interested in rehashing the past than actually helping Nat.

But then a recovering alcoholic named Joe inserts himself into Nat’s life and things start looking up. Joe is funny, smart, and calls her out in a way no one ever has.

He’s also older. A lot older.

Nat’s connection to Joe is overwhelming but so are her attempts to fit back into her old world, all while battling the constant urge to crack a bottle and blur that one thing she’s been desperate to forget.

Now in order to make a different kind of life, Natalie must pull together her broken parts and learn to fight for herself.

(summary via Goodreads)

This one hits all my sweet spots.  Not only does Christa Desir seem like an awesome person in general (she is one of the rare authors I follow on Twitter), she’s smart and writes incisive fiction about tough stuff.  It feels weird to say that a book that sounds this dark hits my sweet spots, but it totally does: addiction, Bad For You Friends, older dudes…I can’t wait to see what Desir does with all this.

What are you waiting on this week?

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Book Review: Infandous by Elana K. Arnold

Sephora and her mother live in the seedier part of Venice Beach, California.  Raised by an obscenely beautiful mother, Sephora has always felt like a small character in the fairy tale of her mother’s life, and she’s always felt lucky about that.  Now that Sephora is 16, she’s ready to be the star in her own story.  But sometimes, fairy tales don’t turn out like the Disney stories.  When Sephora meets Felix, things take a turn for the completely unfathomable.

This is a gut-punch of a novel, but readers should know that from the start.  Seph’s narration is matter-of-fact but beautifully written, and she warns readers that things “don’t really turn out the way they do in fairy tales. I’m telling you that right up front, so you’re not disappointed later.”  This is not posturing on her part: Seph is hiding some dark secrets that are causing her a great deal of pain.  As she relates her experiences over the summer, she reflects on a fling she had with an older man and juxtaposes this with the relationship her mother is starting with a much younger one.  Her jealousy over her mother’s relationship with this new person is palpable, and her feelings about not being the center of attention with her mother is authentic.

Interspersed in the story are Seph’s own retellings of famous myths and fairy tales.  She relates these stories in language both raw and rich, and the content of the stories serves as foreshadowing–or at least hints–of what Seph herself is hiding.  These stories blend beautifully with the novel’s overarching narrative, and readers will be riveted by them (as well as disturbed, which is largely the point).

There are strong parallels here to Lolita, and they work so well within the story.  This is a rich, nuanced, and multi-layered portrayal of a family with its share of secrets but also an abundance of love.  It’s an emotional read, and it isn’t for the faint of heart.  Older teens will gobble this one up and want to talk about it afterward.  One of the best books of the year, hands down.

Highly, highly recommended.

Infandous by Elana K. Arnold. Carolrhoda Lab: 2015. Library copy.

 

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Waiting on Wednesday: Rules for 50/50 Chances by Kate McGovern

Waiting on Wednesday is a weekly meme hosted by Jill at Breaking the Spine.  Its purpose is to spotlight eagerly-anticipated upcoming releases.

This week I’m eagerly awaiting:

Rules for 50/50 Chances by Kate McGovern

Expected Release Date: November 24, 2015

Seventeen-year-old Rose Levenson has a decision to make: Does she want to know how she’s going to die? Because when Rose turns eighteen, she can take the test that will tell her if she carries the genetic mutation for Huntington’s disease, the degenerative condition that is slowly killing her mother. With a fifty-fifty shot at inheriting her family’s genetic curse, Rose is skeptical about pursuing anything that presumes she’ll live to be a healthy adult—including going to ballet school and the possibility of falling in love. But when she meets a boy from a similarly flawed genetic pool, and gets an audition for a dance scholarship in California, Rose begins to question her carefully-laid rules.

(summary via Goodreads)

It definitely isn’t going to be an easy read, but it looks like it’s going to be a good one.  The topic–whether or not to get a genetic test that will surely alter your future either way–is one that makes for good fiction.  I can’t wait to see what this one has in store for its readers.

What are you waiting on this week?

books and reading · reviews

Book Review: The Truth Commission by Susan Juby

Normandy Pale and her friends start a “truth commission” as a way to find out the secrets at their school.  As part of a “creative nonfiction” piece for her school, Normandy details the drama and events over the course of a year as she attempts to step out from under her artist sister’s shadow as well as discover the truth about the human experience.  The truth commission goes swimmingly well until it leads them to Normandy’s own sister, who is hiding some pretty huge–and damaging–secrets.

Susan Juby’s ambitious fictional story of Normandy Pale is a knockout of a novel, guaranteed to win legions of fans, especially those who are literary geeks themselves.  Using Normandy’s creative nonfiction school project as her narrative device, Juby crafts a story that is funny, heartbreaking, smart, and sneakily provocative.  One of the best books of the year, this is one that readers will want to talk about long after they’re done reading.

Juby employs a whole host of literary devices to tell Normandy’s story, including footnotes (which tell their own hilarious, sweet story), flashbacks, cliffhangers, and more.  Literary trope geeks will delight in how many different devices are used here, and because Juby is so good at what she does, these thing add to the story instead of distracting from it.  These devices, combined with the story’s provocative themes about the nature of truth and gossip, about what should be or can be kept private in the world of oversharing and social media, make this a thoughtful, layered read.

Multi-dimensional characters and truly nuanced portrayals of family dynamics make this a rich read as well.  Normandy’s relationship with her family changes as the truth commission forces her to give a closer look to how her parents enable her sister Keira’s behavior.  They’re all tied up in it because everyone needs something from someone else, and there are no easy answers to be found here.  It’s a fascinating look at the dysfunction of families and how we can be blind to our own failings.

On the whole, this is a title with enormous teen and adult appeal.  It’s a novel that lends itself to multiple re-reads, and is guaranteed to add more to think about each time a reader completes it.  Recommended.

The Truth Commission by Susan Juby.  Viking Books for Young Readers: 2015.  Library copy.