Book Review: In Sight of Stars

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Polisner, Gae. In Sight of Stars. Wednesday Books, 2018.

Note: This is a review of an advanced, uncorrected proof.

Many YA releases discuss mental illness in a frank but positive way. Some examples include John Green’s Turtles All The Way Down and Julia Walton’s Words on Bathroom Walls. Gae Polisner’s most recent publication, too, sheds light on tough topics like suicide and self-harm, but leaves the reader feeling hopeful.

In Sight of Stars features teenaged protagonist Klee (pronounced “Clay”), a high school senior and burgeoning artist. Klee’s artistic abilities were inherited from his father, an artist-turned-attorney. Klee, unfortunately, is the first to discover his father’s body following his violent suicide. Feeling numb and directionless, Klee moves with his stoic mother to the community of North Hollow.

In North Hollow, Klee begins a relationship with the beautiful but flighty Sarah. But Klee grows aggravated with Sarah’s elusiveness and is troubled by an accidental discovery regarding his parents’ marriage. Thus begins a series of events that lands Klee in a juvenile psychiatric ward nicknamed the “Ape Can”. Through the help of wise Dr. Alvarez and a mysterious nun with dwarfism, Klee recounts his haunted past and prepares to deal with his now complicated present. Will he make amends with Sarah and his mother? Will he untangle the mystery of who his father truly was?

Having read Polisner’s The Memory of Things—a book centered on the events of 9/11—I can say with certainty that the author describes the bustle and beauty of New York in a way that few writers can. I loved The Memory of Things, but In Sight of Stars is by far my favorite of Polisner’s books. The action felt fast-paced, the flashbacks were bitingly painful, and artwork was described so viscerally that I found myself Googling painting after painting.

In my view, the book’s one flaw is that the surprise or turn regarding Klee’s father felt predictable. I guessed the outcome early on; I would assume that younger readers would be able to connect the dots as well. Also, for teachers looking for appropriate read alouds, this book has a sizable amount of sexual content.

Overall, though, I truly enjoyed In Sight of Stars and can see a number of uses for this text in the classroom. Teachers who are touching on psychology or art related issues would perhaps be most interested in Polisner’s novel, but anyone hoping to start conversations about life after trauma should pick up a copy as well.

Book Review: Children of Blood and Bone

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Adeyemi, Tomi. Children of Blood and Bone. Henry Holt and Company, 2018.

If you’re at all active in the Young Adult book community, you’ve likely heard the buzz surrounding Tomi Adeyemi’s debut novel Children of Blood and Bone. Some of this buzz surrounds Adeyemi herself—a Nigerian-American Harvard grad who landed a movie deal for her forthcoming series. When my copy arrived in the mail, I was anxious to read and evaluate the novel.

In Zelie’s world, citizens were once divided into two factions: those who wielded magic (known as maji or diviners) and those who did not. Zelie’s mother was a powerful maji who could command spirit armies to do her bidding; however, she is eventually killed in a maji raid orchestrated by the cruel King Saran. With magic eradicated and Zelie’s mother only a memory, Zelie’s days are spent with her broken father and older brother, Tzain. The family catches and sells fish to survive.

While in the marketplace peddling her fish, Zelie is accosted by a panicked stranger. This stranger is fleeing from the king’s guards, and she’s adman ant on needing Zelie’s assistance. Later, the identity of the stranger is revealed—she is Princess Amari, the daughter of King Saran. She doesn’t share her father’s views on magic, though, and in fact claims to know a way to return magic to the kingdom. Can Zelie trust Amari? Will the magic that existed in Zelie’s childhood ever return?

Adeyemi’s world is carefully crafted and intricate; there’s truly no facet she hasn’t thought out. Even the animals are reimagined and renamed as hybrids—lionnaires, for example. I also loved that the female characters in Children of Blood and Bone are multifaceted. Zelie is tough and guarded but quickly falls in love; Amari is fearful and delicate but can act with violence when necessary. The book’s ending, too, is a true cliffhanger and made me eagerly anticipate the next book in the series.

I sometimes felt that Zelie and Inan’s relationship moved unrealistically fast. Like other large fantasy novels, keeping up with the many names, locations, special powers, particular deities, etc. grew to be a bit of a challenge.

Despite its length, Children of Blood and Bone is extremely teachable, particularly because of Adeyemi’s author note at the book’s end. She reveals that the book was inspired by sad instances of police brutality, and that various heart wrenching losses in the book mirror actual losses in the real world. Children of Blood and Bone, then, would be the perfect book for a unit on allegory or text-to-self and text-to-world connections.

Book Review: One of Us is Lying

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McManus, Karen M. One of Us is Lying. Penguin Books, 2017.

I’ve noticed an emerging trend in Young Adult literature—the use of multiple narrators. I’ve seen this form completely flop if the speakers lack a unique voice or if the differing stories are too scattered and lack cohesion.

Karen McManus’ One of Us is Lying is an excellent example of an author who uses multiple narrators effortlessly.

Detention is full one fateful afternoon at Bayview High School; Bronwyn, Cooper, Addy, and Nate all find themselves held after school for an offense they didn’t commit. Also staying for detention is Simon, the infamous creator of About That, a Bayview based gossip website. As Simon delivers his usual quips and insults, he takes a swig of water and then collapses to the floor in anaphylactic shock. The four remaining students frantically search for his EpiPen and summon help to no avail. Simon is transported to the hospital where he is later pronounced dead.

When the police suspect foul play, the newly coined “Bayview Four” are prime suspects. Particularly damning is a queued-up entry to About That revealing secrets belonging to all four students. The murderer was someone in the room—but who? Was it Bronwyn, the studious perfectionist who may not be as squeaky clean as she seems? Or Addy, beautiful and popular and nursing her own share of guilt? How about Cooper, a burgeoning baseball star who is desperate to hide his true identity? Or Nate, the Bayview bad boy with an extensive rap sheet?

McManus is an expert in characterization. Each member of the Bayview Four is unique and deals with their share of hardship. Particularly poignant is the breaking of stereotypes. Addy, away from the influence of her controlling boyfriend, becomes athletic and independent. Nate, a drug dealer who doesn’t seem to think deeply about anyone or anything, dotes on his pet lizard. This book serves as a good reminder that, no matter how idyllic someone’s life might seem on the outside, no one truly knows what another person is dealing with.

One of the few flaws in One of Us is Lying is found in many other books that elect to use multiple narrators: the amount of characters can quickly become confusing. There were several characters I confused throughout my read—Leah and Jenae, for example, or Luis and Jake.

Excerpts from One of Us is Lying would be a great way to teach the characteristics of mystery and literary suspense. Students who are looking for a well-written novel that keeps them engrossed from start to finish will relish McManus’ novel.

Book Review: Release

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Ness, Patrick. Release. HarperTeen, 2017.

I was a young college student when I was assigned Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway. 19-year-old me “didn’t get it”, but 32-year-old me has since found value in the text. The monotony of everyday life can be both tragic and beautiful. I decided to tackle a modern Mrs. Dalloway retelling, Patrick Ness’ Release, to see whether or not it resonated with me the same way.

Teenager Adam Thorn has a lot on his plate. He’s gay, a grievous offense in the eyes of his willfully ignorant parents. Adam’s father is an evangelical preacher; his older brother is attempting to follow in their father’s footsteps. Along with balancing school and worrying about college in the light of his family’s financial issues, Adam also works part-time at a big box store to make ends meet. There he is consistently sexually harassed by his manager, Wade, until his advances reach a fever pitch. Adding to Adam’s strife, he isn’t sure he loves his current boyfriend, Linus, as much as his ex-boyfriend, Enzo. Enzo’s going away party looms at the day’s end. Will Adam sort out his feelings? Will he work up the courage to speak out against Wade? Will he finally confront his father?

As Adam is living through one very complicated and revealing day, a phantom has just risen from a nearby lake. A queenly spirit fills the body of Katherine Van Leuwen, a troubled girl who was strangled to death by her meth-addicted boyfriend. This spirit begins to travel through the town trailed by a protective faun. As she leaves destruction in her wake, it becomes clear that the queen’s destination is the jail to confront Katherine’s killer. Will she have her revenge? Will the soul of Katherine Van Leuwen ever find peace? Will the faun be able to stop the spirit from destroying the town and the world?

Perhaps one of the most powerful aspects of the novel is what it says about love. There is the romantic love, of course, that Adam feels for Linus and, in a twisted way, for Enzo. But Adam also talks about different sorts of love—the love he feels for both his father and brother, even though their comments about homosexuality wound him deeply. There is the love he feels for Angela, his dearest friend and the family he’s chosen. The faun’s supervision of the spirit queen, too, shows a dutiful and loyal sort of love. It’s truly a thematic idea woven into every aspect of Release.

For me, the second braid of Ness’ tale—the ghost story—fell completely flat. I waited for it to have some sort of monumental significance, especially at the book’s end, but I was left unfulfilled. These scenes left me confused, and the stilted language took me out of the story completely. I was surprised, too, at how graphic the sex scenes were. It seemed a bit too detailed for a young adult novel.

Although I would not teach the entirety of Release, this book might be powerful in excerpts. Teachers who are working on thematic ideas and thematic statements with their students might find value in Adam’s musings on the many variations of love and family.

Book Review: Truly Devious

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Johnson, Maureen. Truly Devious. Katherine Tegen Books, 2018.

So much of my life takes place at school. There are some weeks where I feel as though I’ve spent more time within the cinderblock walls of my classroom than at home with my husband and dog. Because of this, I’m often attracted to books where the action unfolds within a school—the Harry Potter series, for example, or Rainbow Rowell’s Carry On.

I can now add a new—and fabulous—book to that list: Maureen Johnson’s Truly Devious, the first book in a forthcoming series.

Ellingham Academy is a unique boarding school in Vermont, established in the 1930s by the wealthy and altruistic Albert Ellingham. Elaborate and secluded, Ellingham Academy aims to attract gifted students who need more time to focus on their individual gifts—inventions or creative writing, for example. Albert, his wife, and small daughter even live on campus. Albert is a fan of board games and riddles, and believes learning should be more like a game. This comes back to haunt him as both his wife and daughter are kidnapped and held for ransom. The kidnapper leaves a chilling singsong letter signed “Truly, Devious”. Despite monetary exchanges, Albert’s wife and daughter never return home. His wife’s body washes ashore; his daughter Alice’s whereabouts remain unknown. Although an anarchist is arrested and charged with the crime, most believe the man was innocent.

In present day, Stevie Bell is both nervous and excited to have been admitted to Ellingham Academy. Stevie is a true crime buff—she listens to a large number of crime podcasts, ravenously reads detective novels and criminology books, and is a fan of most detective shows. Her most fervent dream is to someday work for the FBI, and her cold case of choice is the Ellingham case. Her interest in Ellingham Academy is not purely academic—she wants to closely study and solve the crime. But when one of Stevie’s classmates is found dead, Stevie realizes her powers of deduction are needed in a different way. Is the killer among Stevie’s classmates? Will Stevie make progress in solving the Ellingham kidnapping case?

I am usually not a fan of mysteries, but Truly Devious pulled me in immediately. Ellingham Academy is a brilliant setting—visually idyllic but with a dark past. Albert, too, is something like Willy Wonka in that his properties are full of hidden passages and tiny intricacies. And though Stevie is both gifted and brave, she has moments of vulnerability and anxiety that soften her character and make her relatable. The mystery aspects of the novel, too, were nicely paced and believable.

My only real complaint about Truly Devious was that there was a broad cast of characters and keeping track of the students and faculty often made me want to take notes of my own. The adults, especially, were only sporadically mentioned, and I often had to go through the book to remind myself of which teacher was being referenced.

Still, I was enthralled by Truly Devious and am now eagerly awaiting the sequel. Many students are passionate about crime and forensics, and I can foresee this novel being popular choice among the student body. The novel also touches on topics that are worth discussing—fame, plagiarism, and political disagreements.

Book Review: Juliet Immortal

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Jay, Stacey. Juliet Immortal: A Novel. Ember, 2012.

Teaching Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet is the most fun I have during the school year.

I love assigning roles to my students, having them act out the various fight scenes with foam swords, and helping them uncover all of the hidden meanings and double entendres found within the text. I’m a sucker for any Romeo & Juliet retelling—from West Side Story to the children’s cartoon Gnomeo & Juliet. I was powerless, then, to the novel Juliet Immortal by Stacey Jay.

In Juliet Immortal, Shakespeare’s play is not fiction, but a romanticized and warped retelling of actual events. Romeo and Juliet did fall in love in Verona and marry impulsively; however, Romeo killed Juliet as she awaited him in the tomb in order to gain immortality. Juliet’s spirit goes to work for the Ambassadors of Light, inhabiting the souls of others across centuries and bringing soulmates together. Romeo works for the Mercenaries, dark spirits who try to convince soulmates to kill one another in exchange for the same immortality.

Juliet has awakened in the body of Ariel, a teenager of the 21st century with physical and emotional scars. Via glowing auras, Juliet realizes that she is to bring together her best friend Gemma and a haunted boy named Ben. But Juliet’s own feelings for Ben threaten to derail her mission and the rules of the spirit world. Romeo, too, has returned to the same era, inhabiting the body of Dylan, one of Ariel’s schoolmates. Who will win this struggle of good versus evil—Romeo or Juliet? Will Juliet ignore her feelings for Ben and complete her mission? Are the goals of the Ambassadors of Light and the Mercenaries as clear as they seem?

The premise of Juliet Immortal is an intriguing one as Romeo, the Nurse, and various Ambassadors and Mercenaries can inhabit any body of their choosing. Anyone in Juliet’s new world, then, could quickly turn into an enemy. The suspense is palpable, and many of the fight scenes and moments of violence felt appropriately climatic.

To my disappointment, Juliet Immortal did not satisfactorily mirror its source material. As readers of Romeo & Juliet know, the Nurse is a lively character in the play—raunchy, dimwitted, and incredibly funny. The Nurse in Jay’s novel is an extremely flat, almost robotic character, and I would have loved to see some of her traits from the play carry over. And while Juliet’s immaturity and impulsiveness result in her death in both the play and the novel, she doesn’t appear to have learned her lesson in Juliet Immortal. Her feelings for Ben bloom as quickly as her feelings for Romeo, and some of Ben and Juliet’s proclamations of love were much too corny.

I’m not certain that Juliet Immortal would be an appropriate book to read with a class in its entirety. The violence in the text is graphic and disturbing. Still, Jay’s book would be suitable for a classroom library, and a great recommendation for a mature student who is hesitant to leave the famous star-crossed lovers behind.

Book Review: Expelled

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Patterson, James, and Emily Raymond. Expelled. JIMMY Patterson Books, Little, Brown, and Company, 2017.

I love a good story, whether that story is found within a book, television show, or movie. In truth, I’d go to the movies every weekend if money were no object. I love documentaries, particularly crime documentaries. Specifically, I am intrigued by the idea of exonerating a wrongly accused individual. So, when I read the synopsis of James Patterson and Emily Raymond’s Expelled, I simply couldn’t resist purchasing the novel.

Theo Foster is having an extremely unfortunate junior year. His ailing father committed suicide, and Theo discovered his body. More recently, Theo has come under fire for an inappropriate photo posted to his Twitter account. The photo shows the drunken school quarterback, a topless female student, and the school mascot urinating on a football jersey. Theo is expelled for this offense, and the photo becomes the talk of the school and community. Theo, however, maintains his innocence, and is completely bewildered by this chain of events. Fearful that expulsion will ruin his entire future, Theo sets out to clear his name and discover who really posted the photo from his account.

Theo bands together with his friend Jude, the school’s mascot who has also been wrongfully accused and expelled. Together, they set out to create a documentary where they’ll interview their peers and get to the bottom of the photo scandal. Theo’s mysterious and alluring classmate, Sasha Ellis, also agrees to help, as she has been wrongfully accused of stealing money from the school’s vending machines. But Theo meets resistance at every turn—from school administrators, from other students at the high school, and from Theo’s own friends. Are those closest to Theo as innocent as they seem? Can Theo prove his own innocence?

As a high school teacher, the details and plot points in Expelled always felt true and unexaggerated. In the age of social media, an unflattering photo or tweet can destroy lives and reputations, ruin chances for scholarships or job opportunities. The novel also touches on serious subjects such as suicide, steroid use, and sexual abuse.

Overall, though, I had a difficult time feeling invested in Expelled. Theo seems to be the only member of the accused interested in clearing his name and—while some of that makes sense later in the novel—he is consistently distracted by his interest in Sasha. His feelings toward her occasionally border on obsession. And the ending seems rushed and much too neat.

Still, Expelled would be a worthy addition to a classroom library. Teachers can also use excerpts from the novel to stress the dangers of reckless social media use. Students who are interested in mysteries will likely find it a satisfying read.