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: 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.

Book Review: Moxie

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Mathieu, Jennifer. Moxie. Roaring Brook Press, 2017.

This is an exciting yet challenging time to be a woman. Exciting because of recent developments—the women’s marches in Washington, DC and across the country, and the Me Too and Time’s Up movements. Challenging because, despite everything, we still have a lot of work to do. This is why Jennifer Mathieu’s Moxie is an incredibly important book, a must-read for budding young feminists.

Vivian lives in the small Texas town of East Rockport, where football rules all. Pep rallies are a frequent occurrence, local businesses shut down during home games, and football players have free reign over the school. It doesn’t help that the star of the football team, Mitchell Wilson, happens to the son of the school’s principal. He barks at his female classmates to make him a sandwich and plays a game known as “bump n’ grab” where he fondles girls in the hallway. This coupled with dress code checks that target female students specifically has pushed Vivian to take action.

Inspired by her mother’s past as a member of the punk rock scene and a frequent protestor, Vivan creates a zine known as Moxie, a call to arms aimed at other fed up girls attending East Rockport High. She leaves the zines anonymously in the girls’ bathrooms, and it has a small ripple effect throughout the student body. Subsequent issues follow—Moxie encourages girls to show up in a bath robe to combat dress code checks and slather players of the “bump n’ grab” game with offensive stickers. Other girls, inspired by Moxie, hold bake sales and arts and crafts shows. But, as Moxie’s influence spreads, the administration cracks down: eventually, any school activities under the sponsorship of Moxie are strictly forbidden. Will the administration trace Moxie back to Vivian? Will Vivian ever change the sexist culture of East Rockport High?

This book is equal parts entertaining and rage inducing. There were moments that I felt such anger toward the archaic policies at East Rockport High that I found myself grinding my teeth. Mathieu also does a fantastic job with characterization, particularly with Vivian and her boyfriend, Seth. Seth is a complicated character, a “good guy” who doesn’t understand Vivian’s anger and continually tries to reassure her that not all guys are the same. This is great commentary, a reminder that everyone can grow and change.

On the flip side, Moxie pushes the boundaries of believability. Some of the actions of the administrators and teachers, specifically, were so outrageous that it was difficult to imagine that they’d be allowed in the most closed minded of communities. And all of Vivian’s teachers are the same—checked out, disinterested, etc. I found it hard to believe that in an entire high school there was not a single caring adult who was aghast at the behavior of the male students.

Still, for classes studying gender issues, you’ll find few books better suited for class discussion than Moxie. The novel challenges feminist stereotypes—a character in the novel, for example, believes she cannot be a feminist because she is a cheerleader. Moxie would also be a great catalyst to promote positive change in our schools and communities.

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: 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.