Friday, February 12, 2016

Review: The Word for Yes



The Word for Yes
By Claire Needell
Expected publication February 16, 2016 by HarperTeen

Jan, Erika, and Melanie don't always get along, but they usually manage. Their lives are changed by their parents' divorce and Jan's departure for college. And then, at a Halloween party, something terrible happens to Melanie. Will the sisters find a way to help each other through?

Oooh boy. I did not care for this book, which is hugely disappointing. This is, if not obvious from the title, a book that deals with sexual assault and issues of consent. An extremely important topic, to be sure, but I found this book very problematic.

From the very beginning, I had problems with the characters, most particularly with Melanie. Her hatred toward her sister is extremely unsettling to read - in many instances, I felt like I was reading the thoughts of a sociopath. I don't feel like her feelings against Erika are ever explained in a way that makes sense - she just seems to hate her because she's different from her. I completely understand how difficult and complicated relationships with siblings can be - I had an intense dislike of my own brother for most of my childhood. And, I suppose, maybe to an outsider, it would have been difficult to understand. But, even with my personal history of an antagonistic sibling relationship, I could not for one second relate to Melanie's feelings towards Erika.

Unfortunately, that doesn't mean that I related to Erika any better, either. It seems that she has some sort of developmental delay but it's never clearly addressed, which makes things a bit muddy. Eldest sister Jan was not really enough of a presence to merit much emotion - frequently, I wondered why she was there at all, since this was most clearly a story focusing on the relationship between Erika and Melanie.

And, that might lead into another issue I have with the book - for a book about sexual assault and consent, it does not deal with these issues as fully or as effectively as I would have hoped. I would actually be more likely to assert that this is a story of two sisters than it is a story of the aftermath of a sexual assault. I felt like the issues surrounding the assault were glossed over except for where they intersected with issues surrounding the relationship between the sisters. I feel like this book presents a lot of falsehoods surrounding sexual assault and does nothing to identify them as such. In fact, the afterword, the one part of the book that deals with sexual assault and consent most specifically, struck a very wrong chord for me. This book doesn't engage in overt victim-blaming (and the afterword specifically calls out victim-blaming as the wrong approach when dealing with sexual assault cases), but it certainly doesn't go out of its way to make it clear that what occurred was a crime and deserves to be handled as such. Even the afterword is wishy-washy about the criminality of the event, which I find extremely problematic.

Overall, I would not recommend this one.

Thanks to the publisher for a digital advance reader's copy, provided via Edelweiss.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Review: Brambleheart



Brambleheart: A Story about Finding Treasure and the Unexpected Magic of Friendship
By Henry Cole
Published February 9, 2016 by Katherine Tegen Books

The most important moment in Twig's hillside community is the Naming Ceremony. Unfortunately, Twig is afraid he won't receive a name - he hasn't found anything he's very good at. When he discovers a surprise interloper near the Hill, things begin to change for Twig. Will his secret turn his life around? Or is he putting everyone in danger?

Well, I keep saying I don't read a lot of animal fantasy and yet, I keep finding myself writing that in my reviews. So, I guess, maybe I read more of it than I think. I read Cole's last novel, A Nest for Celeste, and enjoyed it quite a bit, so when I saw this new title, I expected something along the same lines.

Unfortunately, this book didn't live up to the charm of that earlier title for me. I realize that any book that involves talking animals is, by definition, a fantasy - but I still wasn't expecting the appearance of a dragon. This element took me out of the story quite a bit. I guess I like my dragons in their own world or more seamlessly integrated into ours. The dragon here just felt out of place.

Additionally, I didn't get very invested in the story. None of the characters really struck me and I didn't care much about what happened to them. The antagonist was a little too jerky and Twig was a little too naive. The inevitable actions of the community regarding the dragon was completely unsurprising as well, though maybe it wouldn't be to a young reader.

Finally, the ending is extremely abrupt - literally, in the middle of the action. It makes a sequel seem inevitable but it's also incredibly jarring.

All in all, not my favorite read. Thanks to the publisher for a digital advance reader's copy, provided via Edelweiss.

Friday, February 5, 2016

Review: Pax



Pax
By Sara Pennypacker, illustrated by Jon Klassen
Published February 2, 2016 by Balzer + Bray

When Pax was an orphaned kit, Peter rescued him. They've been together ever since. Now, though, war has come and Peter must go live with his grandfather. And that means leaving Pax behind. Realizing his mistake, Peter will do anything to get Pax back, not knowing that Pax has begun a journey of his own.

This book has been getting buzz since it was announced, pretty much and, I confess, I was mostly intrigued by the notion of Jon Klassen illustrations (what can I say? I love him). I don't usually go in for animal fantasies, but I thought foxes might be okay - they're pretty intelligent creatures.

I really liked the parallel journeys of Peter and Pax - I actually think I may have enjoyed Pax's story more, but they were both excellent. I liked how similar Peter and Pax were - stubborn but loving, determined and scared. I liked that both were aided in their journeys by complex women - women who may have been mistrustful and a bit broken but who cared for the boys whose paths they crossed. I really loved all the characters - they were extraordinarily real and complicated and I felt for them. Though this is Peter and Pax's story, I thought Vola and Bristle were equally important and I may have loved them even more.

I also really appreciated that this book's setting is never specifically identified. It quite clearly makes the point that war can happen anytime and anywhere - no one is immune from its effects. The story becomes timeless.

I found it a bit on the edge of unbelievable at times, in both Peter and Pax's stories. Pax is a completely tame kit - the likelihood of his survival in the wild seems pretty low, particularly in a war zone. And Peter's stumbles didn't seem realistically paced - I don't think he'd actually have been able to continue on his journey.

But the ending - wow. It's abrupt but real. It wasn't until I read the last page and turned it, realizing that there was no more that I finally shed tears.

Thanks to the publisher for a digital advance reader's copy, provided via Edelweiss.

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Review: Salt to the Sea



Salt to the Sea
By Ruta Sepetys
Published February 2, 2016 by Philomel Books

Emilia tells herself a story to accept the secret she carries. Joana desperately helps anyone she can to make amends for what she's done. Florian is trying to outrun the treacherous thing he's done. And Alfred longs to prove his worth to his beloved Hannelore. These four lives will cross at the sight of the greatest maritime disaster in history.

So I absolutely loved Between Shades of Gray but was less enamored of Out of the Easy. I was cautiously excited when I heard about this one and was very pleased to be given access to the digital galley prior to publication. I really enjoyed this one.

It definitely falls more into the style of her first book - even ignoring the direct connection (which I won't spoil for you), this is another war story. It takes place during the same time period and in the same general part of the world as her debut. It shared stylistic similarities as well - the chapters are short, begging you to read just one more before setting it aside for the night. The short chapters keep the pace moving quickly, so the 400 pages absolutely fly by. Additionally, I'm generally a fan of novels using multiple POVs and I think it works very well here. We are given a variety of perspectives on the war and how one survives such a tragedy with these four main characters. I thought they were all equally well-developed, and I connected with each of them (though I'd say my connection with Alfred was one of unease and distrust).

Once again, I don't know if I should be pleased or upset that I learned something from this book. The four characters meet aboard the Wilhelm Gustloff, a ship fated for the worst maritime disaster in history. Yes, worse than the Titanic. And yet, before this book, I'd never heard of it. It's unbelievable to me how much we are not taught, but, once again, that's part of why I love historical fiction - discovering times and places I know little about (and also part of the reason I want to read more non-fiction this year). I imagine this book will be eye-opening to many readers.

My only criticism of the book is that the ending felt rushed. The majority of the book happens while the characters are on their journey toward the Gustloff. Once they are aboard, things move very quickly, and the book ends shortly after disaster strikes. I would have liked to have spent a bit more time with the characters after the tragedy before reaching the end.

Thanks to the publisher for a digital advance reader's copy, provided via Edelweiss.

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Review: Front Lines



Front Lines (Soldier Girl, book one)
By Michael Grant

Published January 26, 2016 by Katherine Tegen Books
Reviewed from e-ARC

Thanks to a court decision, women are now eligible to join the armed forces, just in time for America's involvement in World War II. On the heels of that decision, three young women will enlist. Each will have her reasons and each will discover that she had no idea what she was getting into.

Well, I'd be lying if I said I wasn't excited about this book from the moment I heard about it. Alternate history is kind of my jam if done well and I finally finished reading Grant's epic Gone series, so I was primed to see what he could do with a story like this one. Let me cut to the chase: I really enjoyed this.

Maybe the best indication of how much I liked this is how surprised I was when I discovered it's nearly 600 pages long (though, given his other books, maybe I shouldn't have been). Because of formatting, books are usually shorter in ARC form than their final copy would be, so, once again, maybe I shouldn't have been surprised. But really, this book flew by for me. I enjoyed every minute of reading it. I really loved the characters - all of them - though I wish they were given equal amounts of viewpoint time. Once again, Grant is tackling a lot of complicated issues here - politics, war, sexism, racism, religion, etc. Mostly, they are handled in thought-provoking ways. I think this book would be great for lots of discussions and I'd be really interested to hear what an actual teenager thought about it. I'm very much looking forward to reading more in this series.

However, I don't want to write this review without acknowledging a few things. First, this book does indeed deal with a lot of sensitive issues and it is also set during a particular moment in time. In light of so many recent discussions of what historical fiction owes its readers with regards to these sensitive topics, I'll say that it isn't outside my realm of comprehension that this book could face some criticism. This seems unlikely, given the author (let's be honest, men don't generally face nearly as much criticism as women), but I still see the possibility. And, speaking of the author, Grant has taken it upon himself to insert his opinion in many of the aforementioned discussions. His opinion has not always painted him in the best light to me, as a general fan of his work. And his opinion has contributed to a certain amount of guilt I feel over having enjoyed this book. Just typing that sentence seems unbelievable to me, because I don't believe in things like "guilty pleasure reads" - read whatever you damn well like and stuff everyone who judges you for it. But I can't deny that the guilt is there. After all, Grant is a white man, writing a series about three female protagonists, one of color. How much can he really know their experience, even in the alternate reality he's created?

I also don't want this review to go by without pointing out a ridiculous bit that I couldn't help but notice. Rio, the main character, is frequently described as a girl familiar with manual labor, not a delicate flower, but a girl with muscles. Later in the book, her army gear is described as weighing 35 pounds, one-third of what she herself weighs. If we take this at its literal word, Rio would weigh 105 pounds. Then, just a bit later, she's described as standing 5'8" tall. I can't profess to have seen every body type in the world and really, I'd rather my stories didn't include specific measurements such as these, but those descriptions don't add up in my mind to a realistic character. I wish Grant had left them out altogether; they distract much more than they add anything to Rio's character.

So, a book I enjoyed but one I feel conflicted about enjoying. Am I silly for feeling this way? Or am I going to get flack for it? I don't know, but I've always tried for honesty here (even among the handful of folks who read this), so there you have it.

Thanks to the publisher for a digital advance reader's copy, provided via Edelweiss.

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Review: Etched in Clay



Etched in Clay: The Life of Dave, Enslaved Potter and Poet
By Andrea Cheng
Published 2013 by Lee & Low Books

In South Carolina in the early 1800s, a young slave named Dave is taught to make pottery. He is also taught to read and write. He will combine these two skills to become the most talented potter at the same time as he risks his life by signing his work.

This book got some attention when it was released and, being told in verse, it definitely caught my eye. As I recently weeded our children's biography section, I spotted the book again and decided to read it, knowing it would be quick. As a prose biography, it is, indeed, a quick read - probably took me about an hour altogether. But it's not a slight read. In fact, it's quite difficult to read at times - how Dave is constantly separated from the people he cares about, his tragic accident, the simple and awful fact of slavery itself. But Dave's will seems to shine through the pages. I won't say that it seems Dave had a good life - it certainly doesn't seem that way at all - but it does seem that he enjoyed making pottery and writing his poetry on the jars he made. However, what is unclear is how much of this is actually fact. I didn't get a real feeling about the line between fact and fiction in Cheng's work - so are my feelings about Dave's enjoyment of pottery accurate or not? I appreciated Cheng's efforts in drawing attention to a largely unknown historical figure. I would have liked a bit more biographical information at the end, and, if that doesn't exist, some notes on how Cheng make the choices she made.

Monday, February 1, 2016

January Check-In

It's the first check-in of the new year! Let's see how I did this month!

Early-chapter: 0

Middle-grade: 6

Teen: 10

Adult: 12

Picture books: 0

Library books: 21

Books owned: 7

Read Harder Challenge: 4/24

Non-fiction goal: 2/25

Series goal: 0/5

Short stories/Novellas: 8

So, as you can see, I've added a few categories to my monthly check-in list; these align with some of my reading goals for the year. I had a pretty decent month, though I'm obviously still working on reading my own books rather than library books. In February, I'll likely be focusing on books related to the honeymoon I'm taking in March, so probably my numbers will be heavily adult and still mostly library books.