Book Review: Far From the Tree

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Benway, Robin. Far From the Tree. Harper Teen, 2017.

One of the most fascinating aspects of teaching is having a set of siblings a few years apart. They might be extremely similar—same facial expressions, same voice, same work ethic or lack thereof. I’ve also experienced the complete opposite—siblings that look and act so differently that I have trouble believing they are even related.

This is something I meditated on as I read Robin Benway’s Far From the Tree. The connection between families, particularly siblings, is a significant thematic idea in Benway’s novel.

Sixteen-year-old Grace has been aware of her adoption her entire life, though she’s given it little thought. That changes when she falls pregnant, is abandoned by her boyfriend, and chooses adoption for her unborn daughter. Although she feels she has selected a wonderful adoptive family, Grace feels a tremendous amount of grief and guilt after giving birth. She decides to locate and meet her biological family, beginning with her siblings—an older brother, Joaquin, and a younger sister, Maya.

But Grace quickly learns that Maya and Joaquin have problems of their own. Although Maya lives with a well-to-do family, her parents are on the cusp of divorce and her mother is struggling with alcoholism. Joaquin has floated through the foster care system for the majority of his life, finally landing with a couple, Mark and Linda, who are willing to adopt him. However, prior experiences have burned Joaquin, and he is not certain he is worthy to be adopted. Will Grace, Maya, and Joaquin have a normal sibling relationship? Will Grace come to terms with placing her baby up for adoption? Can Grace convince Maya and Joaquin to help her locate their biological mother?

The narration continually shifts between Maya, Joaquin, and Grace, and each character has a unique voice and perspective. This book doesn’t shy away from tough topics—adoption, the foster care system, divorce, teen pregnancy, bullying, racism, and anger are all touched upon and portrayed realistically. There are also small symbols sprinkled throughout the novel that have major significance—the photographs that line Maya’s staircase, for instance. This book is quiet, but impactful.

I was slightly irked by the character of Maya, as her personality seemed to fluctuate throughout the novel. When Maya and Grace first meet, Maya is extremely aggressive toward Lauren, her adoptive sister, with little buildup or explanation as to why. Maya is also described as being both extremely talkative and guarded, personality attributes that seemed to clash with one another.

This book is sure to be a popular choice in a school or classroom library. Students who have experienced any facet of adoption or familial strife will relate to the characters a great deal. This novel could springboard great discussions about family. Is our family determined solely by blood relation? What can our relatives tell us about our past and our future? What does it take to be an effective parent? Is the love of siblings unconditional? Far From the Tree is an emotional ride, but its hopeful ending will stay with the reader long after they’ve finished the book.

 

Book Review: We Now Return to Regular Life

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Wilson, Martin. We Now Return to Regular Life. Dial, 2017.

One of the most chilling books I’ve ever read was Jaycee Dugard’s A Stolen Life. Dugard was abducted as a child, then imprisoned inside the home of her abductor for eighteen years. She was repeatedly sexually assaulted and even bore two children during the time of her captivity. I was in awe of her strength and perseverance.

One thing I didn’t consider, though, was how Jaycee’s reappearance rocked her family and how difficult it must have been to assimilate into her previous life. These are topics that are explored further in Martin Wilson’s YA contemporary fiction novel, We Now Return to Regular Life.

The past three years have been hellish for Beth Walsh as her brother, Sam, went missing on a seemingly innocuous summer afternoon. He told Beth he was going to ride his bike to the mall with his neighbor, Josh, but failed to return home hours later. Despite exhaustive searches on foot, pleas to the public, and false leads, Sam was never located. Beth tries to begin her life anew by joining the soccer team, making new friends, and spending as much time away from home and her grieving mother and stepfather as possible. However, while studying with a friend, Beth receives a phone call she never anticipated: her mother tells her that Sam has returned home. Will he be the same mischievous little brother that Beth remembers? What happened to Sam in his three-year absence?

Josh feels an enormous amount of guilt regarding Sam Walsh’s disappearance. He was with Sam the day he went missing, but abandoned him when the two began arguing. Josh shares all of this with the police, of course, but what eats him inside is the bit of information he keeps secret: as Josh walked back home, alone, he was approached by a strange man in a white truck. The man offered to give Josh a ride home, but Josh fled and hid in a neighbor’s backyard until the man drove away. Josh later decides he was overreacting, and decides to keep the event a secret. But when Sam returns home after three long years, Josh is gutted to learn that the strange man in the truck was Sam’s captor. Will Josh ever come clean to Sam about keeping important information from the police? Will Sam forgive him? Will the boys repair their friendship?

We Now Return to Regular Life has a unique plot, and Beth and Josh’s dual narration gives readers a complete picture of how Sam’s disappearance and reappearance rattles a family and community. The book also discusses masculinity. Many of Sam’s former friends express disbelief that a boy could be abducted and sexually assaulted. Many of the same friends avoid or refuse to speak to Sam, believing that he is a freak or that he somehow enjoyed his kidnapping. These parts of the novel were difficult to read, but I felt they were important and worthy of discussion.

I have only nit-picky complaints regarding the book. I expected the media to have a larger presence in the story—news vans are parked around the house when Sam first returns home and there is one televised interview, but very little coverage is mentioned afterward. Also, the appearance of Beth and Sam’s biological father was much too brief. I desired more exploration of their broken relationship

Overall, Wilson’s novel would be a smart addition to a classroom library. The book explores the ways human beings grow and heal from trauma, which will unfortunately be relatable to a number of students.

Book Review: The Hazel Wood

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Albert, Melissa. The Hazel Wood. Flat Iron Books, 2018.

Note: This is a review of an advanced reading copy.

I was fortunate to receive an ARC of Melissa Albert’s The Hazel Wood. I’ve received other books in the past; however, upon opening the package, I knew Albert’s novel was unique. The cover was beautiful, embossed with silver and gold images of daggers and castles and birdcages. It was covered with blurbs of praise from authors such as Stephanie Garber and Kristin Cashore. And now, having read the novel, I can say with certainty that “unique” was an understatement. The Hazel Wood will be a sensation very soon, and with good reason.

At only seventeen, Alice has lived the chaotic life of a wanderer. She and her mother have never settled in one place, moving from one state to the next. Once in a new home, they relax briefly before being plagued by bad luck and moving again. In fact, Alice’s earliest memories consist of long stretches of highway and the books she read during her travels. There is another memory, too: the time she was kidnapped by a redheaded man who promised to deliver her to her grandmother. The man did not harm her, and she was soon rescued and returned to her mother; however, the incident spurred an obsession in young Alice. Her grandmother, Althea Proserpine, is an author who wrote a single book: Tales from the Hinterland, a collection of dark fairy tales. Although it was a hit, very few copies of the book still exist. Those who have read the book are secretive and fanatical about what lies within. Alice has never met her grandmother; her mother avoids the subject altogether, forbidding Alice to research the topic further.

The bad luck that once followed Alice and her mother seems to have finally come to an end. Alice’s mother is married to a wealthy man and Alice attends an elite prep school in New York. At the café where Alice works, one of the patrons bears an uncanny resemblance to the redheaded man of her past. Later, she returns home to find her mother gone, a single page from Tales of the Hinterland left behind as a clue. With the help of her classmate and Althea Prosperine expert Ellery Finch, Alice begins the quest of finding her mother and uncovering her family’s secrets. Will she find her mother alive? Will she ever meet the elusive Althea Proserpine?

I’ve read very few novels that are able to weave together contemporary and fantasy as well as The Hazel Wood. The fusion of the two genres kept me on my toes, unsure of what to expect. Alice is perhaps one of the best YA narrators I’ve ever read—her observations are laced with sharp sarcasm and a distinct voice. And the descriptions—particularly those at the latter half of the book—are as magical and vivid as any fairy tale.

I had no qualms about The Hazel Wood, only disappointment that the book will not be accessible to all young readers. The vocabulary can be challenging in parts, and I can foresee reluctant or struggling readers throwing in the towel.

Still, this novel will be beloved by teens who are up to the challenge of reading a complex and humorous tale. I believe the world will be raving about The Hazel Wood very soon, so I feel honored to have received an early copy of such a magical book.

Book Review: Long Way Down

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Reynolds, Jason. Long Way Down. Atheneum, 2017.

Early in my teaching career, I learned a very hard lesson—for a number of students, school is not a priority. This isn’t necessarily because a student is defiant or lazy. Oftentimes, the truth is much sadder. Students might not have adequate food at home, or perhaps they don’t have a home at all. Students might be struggling with mental illness or self-harming behaviors. Students might be grieving the death of a friend or family member. My students grapple with things I can’t imagine, and it’s understandable, then, when English homework falls to the wayside.

Jason Reynolds’ novel in verse, Long Way Down, reminded me of this particular fact. In Reynolds’ author bio, he says he is tired of “being around young people who are tired of feeling invisible.Long Way Down gives voice to the voiceless, and pulls the reader in for a chilling, nail-biting ride.

Fifteen-year-old William—or Will, as he is more commonly known—admires his older brother, Shawn. Shawn taught Will about girls, how to land the perfect swing off the monkey bars, and about the rules that permeate their neighborhood. The first rule is no crying, no matter the tragedy. The second rule is no snitching. Feign ignorance with the police. The third rule is revenge. After Shawn is shot and killed, Will knows he must follow all three rules, including the commandment on revenge. Shawn’s middle dresser drawer is ajar, and Will knows he will find a gun inside.

Will believes he knows who murdered his brother but, as the rules decree, he doesn’t tell the police. Instead, he retrieves Shawn’s gun and boards the elevator in his apartment building. His plans are to confront and shoot his brother’s alleged killer. But, as the elevator descends from the seventh floor to the lobby, Will is confronted by a number of figures from his past. Is he hallucinating? Is he correct on the identity of Shawn’s killer? Will he go through with his plot for revenge?

Verse is a fitting form for this novel. Will’s thoughts are scattered and sometimes incoherent in his grief, and Reynolds’ decision to showcase this through poetry is much more poignant than traditional prose. Without spoiling the book too much, the end message says a great deal about the cyclical nature of violence and the human being’s capability to put a stop to it.

If there are any downsides to Long Way Down, they perhaps lie in the book’s length. Not only is it a short book, but the poems are sparse, barely filling a page. Readers might feel as though some of their questions go unanswered but, again, this is somewhat fitting for the subject matter.

Long Way Down would be a great addition to any curriculum, particularly for those teaching poetry. This novel is chalk full of similes and metaphors and experiments with different poetic forms, including a shape poem. Poetic devices aside, this is a book that resonate with a number of students, from AP-level to reluctant readers. The book will likely lead to difficult—but important—class discussions.

Book Review: Warcross

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Lu, Marie. Warcross. Penguin Books, 2017.

I spent the bulk of my undergraduate career reading, but not reading for fun. I instead poured through classics or textbooks or articles about effective teaching practices. So, when I finally had time for leisurely reading, I chose Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games. I can remember my fascination with this new world, and how my heart soared and broke for Katniss Everdeen. I read at such a feverish pace that I had the trilogy completed in a few days. My love for YA fiction began with those books.

Perhaps that’s why I found Marie Lu’s Warcross such a pleasurable read. Emika Chen reminds me a great deal of Katniss, and the nonchalance found among the citizens in Warcross reminded me of the ignorance in Panem.

Emika Chen is left penniless following the death of her sole caretaker, her father. A doting man and a creative fashion designer, Emika’s father had a dark secret: a copious amount of online gambling debt. Left to her own devices and sporting a spotty criminal record, Emika turns to bounty hunting to survive. Thanks to a new technology sweeping the world—a virtual reality that exists just by putting on a pair of glasses—Emika is alerted when the police need extra assistance. Still, Emika is down to thirteen dollars, and she, too, finds an escape in virtual reality and an online game known as Warcross. Emika is watching the Warcross Championships when her desperation reaches a fever pitch. She attempts to hack into the game and steal a valuable power-up to resell. This unintentionally glitches her into the game, bringing the festivities to a halt.

Afterward, Emika is panicked, believing she will be arrested or sued. To her surprise, the creator of Warcross, Hideo Tanaka, pays off her debts and requests her presence in Tokyo. He tells Emika that a hacker with malevolent intentions is attempting to disrupt Warcross. He needs her help identifying and capturing the hacker, and believes her participation in Warcross as a wild card will provide an inconspicuous and convenient disguise. The payment for capturing the hacker is monumental—ten million dollars. Will Emika find success as a Wacross player? Will she be able to reveal the identity of the hacker? Will she learn more about the mysterious Hideo Tanaka?

Marie Lu is an expert in sensory detail. Every facet of Emika’s world is described in a detailed way—from Emika’s rainbow streaked hair to the brightly colored power-ups in Warcross to the seedy underbelly of the Dark Web. The descriptions of Warcross and the various, ever changing worlds where the game takes place were absolutely captivating. And the book maintains the suspense throughout; Emika, and the reader, is never sure who to trust.

As someone who teaches and loves dystopia, I was a little disappointed that Warcross doesn’t make a lot of social commentary. There’s very little information about the government that exists in Emika’s world as well as what hardships in the “real world” have driven so many to seek an escape in virtual reality. I do believe the book is likely the beginning of a series, so perhaps this will be addressed in a sequel.

Overall, Warcross is an immersive, beautifully-written novel that will hold your attention from the first page to the last. Students will likely be attracted to the colorful cover and the action found within. Those who teach technology or coding will find it a useful addition to their curriculum. The novel will spur teens and adults alike to meditate on their own values and beliefs, as well as their personal definition of right and wrong.

Book Review: Juniper Lemon’s Happiness Index

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Israel, Julie. Juniper Lemon’s Happiness Index. Kathy Dawson Books, 2017.

I select books in many different ways. I heed recommendations from my co-workers and students, pay attention to the covers I see on my Instagram feed, and check out the new releases from authors I’ve enjoyed in the past.

Juniper Lemon’s Happiness Index is perhaps the first book I’ve selected based on its title alone. I was immediately curious—what kind of name was Juniper Lemon? What was a happiness index? I was excited to receive the book for Christmas so I could begin reading and find out.

Juniper, a high school junior, is grappling with life following the abrupt and tragic death of her older sister Camilla. There are holes everywhere Juniper looks: her parents are quiet shells of their former selves and teachers and adults are awkward and bumbling in her presence. Perhaps most devastating, Juniper’s former best friend, Lauren, has drifted away simply because she doesn’t know how to handle Juniper’s grief. Juniper carries on a tradition that Camilla instituted—a daily “happiness index”. On an index card, she writes the positives and negatives from that day, with an overall rating from one to ten. Since Camilla’s passing, most of these ratings have been dismal. But a discovery gives Juniper a renewed sense of purpose. She finds a handwritten break up letter from Camilla to a mysteriously addressed “YOU”. Juniper is puzzled—to her knowledge, Camilla wasn’t seeing anyone at the time of her death.

As Juniper attempts to untangle the mystery of the breakup letter, she also must begin her friend circle anew. More discoveries lead to her befriending the often-bullied Kody and the dreamy Angela. A new student, Nate, also strikes up a friendship, though Juniper struggles to understand his motives. Most surprising, Juniper finds herself enjoying the company of Brand, the resident school bad boy who spends most of his time in detention or vandalizing property. With the help of her new friends, will Juniper be able to find the “YOU” her sister was addressing? Will the resolution of this mystery alleviate her grief? Will she find a way to heal her family and keep Camilla’s memory alive?

I found this novel particularly poignant in its portrayal of grief. Anyone who has ever suffered a deep personal loss will likely agree that Juniper’s account is painfully accurate. The most heart-wrenching moments were unintentional—for example, a teacher starts to ask if Juniper is Camilla’s sister before remembering Camilla’s death and awkwardly stopping herself. The characterization of Juniper and Brand Sayers was particularly strong. Juniper is vulnerable, devastated, but darkly funny. Brand is perhaps the most pleasant surprise of the entire novel, a layered character who carries his own share of sadness.

In a largely perfect novel, I only wish that two of the characters—Nate and Morgan—were given detailed characterization as well. Nate is important, but his role in the book nearly diminishes as the story unfolds. And Morgan, the resident school bully, is thoroughly mean and flat. She even pokes fun at Camilla’s death, a taunt that is overheard by adults who do not intervene.

Overall, Juniper Lemon’s Happiness Index is well-written and gritty and sure to be loved by teenage readers. As silly as it may sound, I thought the book could perhaps aid students in journaling. I loved how Juniper kept track of each day and rated them accordingly. This could perhaps inspire students to create indexes of their own and write about the highlights and disappointments of their day-to-day life.

Book Review: All Rights Reserved

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Katsoulis, Gregory Scott. All Rights Reserved. Harlequin Teen, 2017.

When teaching poetry, my students and I pause and discuss our favorite (school appropriate) words. There doesn’t have to be a deep, philosophical reason behind the favoriting of a word—perhaps it’s simply fun to say. Some of my favorite words include umbrella, melancholy, and cacophony.

If I lived in the dystopian world of All Rights Reserved, I would likely pay a hefty sum of money for using any of my favorite words.

Speth Jime lives in a world tightly controlled by greedy corporations, litigation happy lawyers, and stringent copyright laws. In Speth’s society, citizens receive a cuff they must wear around their wrist from their fifteenth birthday onward. The cuff records the words they speak and the gestures they make and charges the wearer appropriately. The phrase “find me”, for example, costs over eleven dollars. Citizens are also charged for hugging, holding hands, nodding, and kissing. Corporations own every word and gesture, and debt is seemingly unavoidable. Most teens live alone as their parents enter indentured servitude to pay the money they owe.

On Speth’s fifteenth birthday, her friend Beecher commits suicide moments before Speth is due to give her first speech and plug various sponsors. His actions convince Speth to keep silent and not engage in any gestures or actions that would cost money. Speth’s guardian, friends, and siblings are shocked—Speth will be unable to work or purchase goods if she chooses not to speak. This is further complicated when Speth’s older sister and the family’s bread winner, Saretha, is barred from working outside the home. As Speth strategizes various ways to save her family, she notices a growing movement of “Silents”—fellow adolescents who have chosen not to speak. Will Speth be blamed for their disobedience? Will she find a way to keep her family afloat? Will she be able to maintain her silence?

In a genre saturated with dystopian books, All Rights Reserved manages to stand out as a unique read. I was drawn into Speth’s world immediately, as the various nuances and rules seem eerily similar to today’s world. For example, Speth cannot ring her friend’s doorbell as she would be required to watch and react to an ad beforehand. This reminded me a great deal of watching an ad before a YouTube video or logging onto a website and dealing with many pop up ads. And, as an English teacher, I couldn’t help but smile at the references to classic dystopias sprinkled throughout the novel—Ayn Rand and 1984 are both subtly incorporated.

I had few complaints about Katsoulis’ novel—it was engaging and fast-paced. There were moments, though, where I hungered for more detail and explanation. Some areas of Speth’s world—the park at the book’s opening, for example—seemed to lack sensory detail. And some characters were briefly touched on, then forgotten. I was particularly captivated by Speth’s rebellious teacher, Mrs. Soleman, who is given a pivotal scene and then never mentioned again.

I plan to recommend All Rights Reserved to my students as we prepare for our upcoming dystopian literature circles. Even if you don’t teach dystopia, there are plenty of reasons to include All Rights Reserved in your classroom library or curriculum. The novel can start great conversations about rhetorical devices and advertising techniques—how do advertisers attempt to manipulate Speth and other citizens? How do advertisers manipulate us today? Students will come away from the novel with a greater appreciation for words and our ability to communicate freely, which is an extremely positive side effect.