Monthly Archives: September 2016

Esperanza Rising

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This is a middle-grade book that gets everything right. Historical fiction based on the life of author Pam Muñoz Ryan’s grandmother, it is authentic and heartbreaking.

Esperanza spent the first 13 years of her life in luxury on her ranch home in Aguascalientes, Mexico. But the murder of her father by bandits put an end to the beautiful dresses and servants waiting on her hand and foot. She and her mama, Ramona, flee with their former servants to the United States, leaving behind their wealth and her Abuelita.

They settle in California at a camp for Mexicans working the local farms, and for the first time in her life, Esperanza must earn her keep, and earn the respect of those she lives and works with. Facing not only hard labour but racism and more loss, Esperanza has to reinvent herself and learn what she is capable of surviving.

The characters in this novel are fabulous. Esperanza starts off as a slightly spoiled, pampered young girl, who has had a life never wanting for anything. As an only child, she is the centre of her parents’ lives, and of those of the servants that cater to her. She is a bit hot-tempered and doesn’t really think of her words and how they can affect other people. Servants are there to serve, and she loves them, but they are not her status. That is just the way it is. As life hands her hardships, she starts to change her expectations and learns to work. But it is not only her attitude towards labour that changes.

Esperanza begins to see that no one is better than another. And it is a tough lesson to learn. She goes from shunning a poor peasant girl on the train to working alongside and befriending people she would have once thought were lower than her. I love the passage where she realizes she cannot sweep the floor, and instead of ridiculing her, her friends teach her. She learns pride in her work and that friendship has no level.

Ramona is a wonderful character. After a life of privilege and losing her husband, she gives up her wealth and status to work on a farm and to stay with her daughter. And in doing so, she sets an example for the girl about what is actually important, and how all people are created equal, a lesson Esperanza had yet to learn.

Miguel, Isabel, Abuelita, Hortensia, Alfonso, Josefina and so many others make up Esperanza’s new extended family, and all contribute to her education and strength. They live with racism in every form, from Isabel losing the Queen of May crown in her third-grade classroom to a blond, blue-eyed girl, to Miguel losing his machine shop job to the unqualified white man from Oklahoma. They witness forced deportations of American-born Mexicans to a country they never lived in, and they struggle with the urge to strike for better working conditions, knowing that they could be among those sent across the border.

Muñoz Ryan’s descriptions make the story come alive. I could picture the thousands of acres of rolling hills of El Rancho de las Rosas, the plump juicy grapes waiting for harvest, the crowded and steamy train across the border, and the Depression-era dust storms and tiny accommodations of the work camp in California. She writes about events in America’s history that aren’t well known but affected the lives of thousands of people who came looking for a better life. Some may have found it, but some ended up worse off.

Read the author’s notes at the end. She talks about her grandmother and “Miguel,” and you might just jump for joy.

Esperanza Rising was published May 1st, 2002 by Scholastic Press. First published January 1st, 2000.

The Improbable Rise of Paco Jones

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Paco Jones is a bi-racial 13-year-old, half Mexican and half white, and the new kid at his fancy private school. Nicknamed ‘Taco’ by his less-then-friendly wealthy white classmates, Paco is looking at a few years of isolation and ridicule. It might be different if he stood out for something other than his name and skin colour, like talent on the basketball court, or brilliance in the classroom. But no, he’s just a regular student and benchwarmer on the team. And he gets pooped on by a bird his first week. Great.

But the poop leads him to meet Naomi Fox, an African-American girl in his grade, beautiful, popular, and his soulmate. Of course, he can’t tell her he’s in love, as she is dating Trent, the most popular boy in the school. But at least he finds a friend. And then he spikes the punch at a dance on a dare, kids get drunk, and suddenly he has a newfound popularity.

This book is written as a flashback from Paco’s perspective as he himself is a middle-grade teacher, years later. Because of that, I think the characters and behaviours are a bit more mature than I would have expected from a group of 13 and 14-year-olds. Naomi and Paco were wonderful characters, but they aren’t written as young teens.

Paco is very relatable for anyone who didn’t quite fit in during those middle school years. Which I think was more of us than not. He is trying to figure out who he is and how he fits in, both at school and in life. He is aware of his parents’ expectations for him and follows in the footsteps of an older brother who didn’t want to follow that route. He gives in a little more easily to peer pressure than I would have liked, but in his circumstances, probably most would.

Naomi is a lovely, self-assured girl who also deals with racism and peer pressure. Trent is pushing for sex and she wants to wait, but she lets people think they are, to boost his reputation. She finds an understanding friend in Paco and the two form a bond that goes beyond shared bullying and pressures at school.

Paco’s parents are a present and strong force in the book and in the boy’s life. They are aware of the pressures they place on him and the abuse he takes at school, but also believe that he can live up to their expectations, and rise above the other petty behaviour. They do not dismiss the bullying and racism, but realize, sadly, that it isn’t going to end anytime soon, and Paco must figure out a way to deal with it. They see his schooling as a great opportunity and want him to realize it as well.

The cast of secondary adult characters really contributes to the novel. The teachers and coaches and principal of the school all bring their own baggage and ideas to the story, and Paco takes away lessons from each encounter with them.

This is an uplifting story about a young boy who is learning about himself and his place in the world. (And the cover is GORGEOUS). Author Dominic Carrillo talks about peer pressure and the fleetingness of fame and popularity, and how in the end, you must be yourself. It is a nice, fast read for anyone, and a great story for kids trying to find out where they fit in.

The Improbable Rise of Paco Jones was published March 27th, 2016 by CSP-Createspace.

Death, Dickinson, and the Demented Life of Frenchie Garcia

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18-year-old Francesa “Frenchie” Garcia has been in love with Andy Cooper since the 9th grade. But no one knows about it, least of all Andy. When he finally pays attention to her, they spend the night having an adventure and talking about life. And then he goes home and kills himself. And Frenchie blames herself. Now she needs to face all the changes in her life, from the loss of Andy to the loss of a best friend and the loss of her carefully planned future.

To help her cope, she spends time in the cemetery by her house, watching funerals, thinking about the lives of those who have died, and talking to the ghost of Emily Dickenson, who is buried in a plot there. Not the Emily Dickinson, but a suitable substitute with the same name who can offer the same advice the poet would.

I went into this book completely blind. I have never read anything by the author before and randomly picked this book (gorgeous cover!) off a list for Latinx Heritage Month, posted by Naz at Read Diverse Books.  He has great recommendations, in-depth reviews, and tirelessly promotes diversity in literature.

Well, Jenny Torres Sanchez gets it right. She somehow manages to capture the anger and confusion and the weight of grief faced by someone dealing with the unexpected death of a loved one. It is a beautiful story of an artistic, unique individual who is fighting an enveloping darkness, unsure if she even wants to find the light again.

Frenchie Garcia is depressed and lonely and dealing with it badly. Honestly, I didn’t really like her in the beginning. I sympathized with her, I found her authentic and witty, but there was part of me that wanted to shake her and yell “dealing with death isn’t an excuse for being a bitch to everyone!”  But of course it is. And I think just about everyone understands that – when they know the root of the bitchiness. The problem is that Frenchie didn’t tell anyone she was depressed and hurting, she just became more and more a loner, and more and more sarcastic and a bit nasty to her friends. And while I would never judge anyone’s reaction to death – we all deal in our own way – she expected her friends to understand and be there for her when they didn’t even know she needed them.

But what is wonderful and beautiful is how she manages to pull herself back into the light. She develops into a character of strength and it isn’t always obvious that it will happen. She finds a way to come to terms with Andy’s death, and she starts by retracing the steps the two of them took on the night of their adventure together and accepting that maybe he wasn’t the seeker of truth and knowledge that he, and everyone else, made him out to be. And to do that, she needs someone to be her sidekick as she was Andy’s that night.

Enter Colin. Colin is lovely. Not that we get to see that part of him at first. But he is amused by Frenchie and attracted to her wit, rather than turned off by her harshness. From an outsider’s perspective, he can see that she is dealing with pain, whereas her friends perceive her behaviour as petty jealousy. (Which it is, don’t get me wrong. But we’ve all had a Joel in our lives, the one who dumps you as a friend as soon as he has a girlfriend. And then boomerangs back when she dumps him. Only to do it all over again with the next one…)

Joel and Robyn are the friends that deal with Frenchie as best they can all the while trying to move on with their own lives. And Lily is the girlfriend we all love to hate; beautiful, talented, sweet, and taking away Frenchie’s best friend without remorse or realization.

Frenchie’s parents are present in her life in a way that isn’t often portrayed in YA. Even though I don’t think we ever even learn their names, they are not absentee, she has boundaries and love, even when she thinks they don’t understand her. Like the other characters, they are authentic and powerful in their own way.

This is a lovely novel that deals with incredibly sensitive and heavy subject matter. Sanchez doesn’t dumb it down for her readers, not does she over-dramatize it. She treats suicide and grief and depression with respect and sensitivity, and this book will have you at turns angry and hopeful and terrified and ecstatic as  you tear through the pages. I loved it.

Death, Dickinson, and the Demented Life of Frenchie Garcia was published May 28th, 2013 by Running Press Kids.

Stalking Jack the Ripper

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I have been waiting and waiting for this novel to come out, and was so afraid it wouldn’t live up to my expectations. Not only is the cover stunning, that incredible first sentence grabs you and won’t let go for the rest of the novel.

17-year-old Audrey Rose Wadsworth wants to be a scientist. Specifically, a forensic scientist, helping Scotland Yard solve murders and various crimes though post mortem examination of victims. The trouble is, Audrey Rose is the daughter of a lord in 1880’s London, and she should be attending teas and social outings, not cutting into dead bodies and searching for clues on the trail of vicious killers.

Her father has been teetering on the edge of insanity since the death of her mother five years before, while her brother flits from one area of interest to the next, all the while living the high life befitting that of a lord’s son. Her Uncle Jonathon, a forensics expert, does not see eye to eye with her father, and secretly tutors Audrey in the medical arts without her father’s knowledge.

And then Jack the Ripper begins his rampage through the underbelly of Whitechapel in London.

The actual identity of Jack the Ripper has never been discovered. There are theories galore about who the man might have been, but no one knows for sure. So he can be anybody. He tore through Whitechapel in 1888, preying on prostitutes, removing their internal organs after he slit their throats. One of the many thoughts were that he was a surgeon, or had some medical knowledge.

I loved the little touches throughout the novel like the period photos and blood splatter on the chapter headings. Talk about gruesome and evocative! What a way to set the tone.

Audrey Rose is an interesting character. She is willful and strong, and interested in more than teas and marriage. She wants to make a difference in the world, refusing to let society dictate her behaviour. Audrey is bi-racial, Indian and English, and I think not enough was made of that in the novel, beyond her enjoyment of traditional Indian snacks and the fact her Indian grandmother did not seem to approve of her English father.  Her mixed heritage seemed almost an afterthought thrown into the novel, with no real impact on the story.

Fellow forensics student Thomas Cresswell is witty and charming and intent of winning Audrey’s heart, regardless of the fact he is not a suitable match. I like him, although I was never quite sure through the story if the romance was believable out not. They never seemed to move beyond verbal sparring, despite the fact that Audrey did notice how handsome Thomas was almost every time they spoke. But then he would infuriate her, and she would back away. But he is an intelligent, enjoyable character, who kept me on my toes with the twists and turns of his backstory.

Uncle John and Lord Wadsworth are perfect sparring brothers, unable to see beyond past grievances to come together as a family. Aunt Amelia didn’t really have much impact on the story, despite her many appearances, but I did love Cousin Liza’s irreverent attitude and the obvious affection the two girls had for each other.

Debut author Kerri Maniscalco captures perfectly the tone and atmosphere of the time in her writing. Her use of language and description brings the reader right into the dark, damp streets of London, with fear lying as heavy as the ever-present fog.

The story is complex, and the pace quite slow and descriptive. Perhaps too slow and too descriptive. Every action, every outfit, every mood and every thought is described and attributed. Audrey never just stands, she stands proudly, or angrily, or regally. Thomas never just answers a question, he answers it haughtily or mysteriously or argumentatively. Uncle John never just speaks, he speaks thoughtfully or distractedly or moodily. Audrey smooths her intricately embroidered black dress, clenches her hands in the perfectly stitched gloves, and stumbles in her smooth blush silk slippers. Unfortunately, I got bogged down in all the description and found myself losing the thread of the story and having to re-read passages to get back on track.

As for the stalking that Thomas and Audrey do, I spent most of the novel waiting for it to actually occur.  I don’t think it ever did. The pair looked for him. They studied crime scene evidence and psychological journals. But they never actually stalked him.

The conclusion is wonderful. I loved the last chapter of the novel, how everything tied together, how relationships were resolved. Really well done.

This is a good start to a series. It is quite violent and gory, as a good Jack the Ripper story should be, so is not for the faint of heart. I found myself on the edge of my seat, despite any criticisms I have, and look forward to the follow-up books to see where Audrey Rose’s curiosity takes her next.

Stalking Jack the Ripper was published September 20th, 2016 by Jimmy Patterson.

A Mango-Shaped Space

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This is a difficult book to review, and I am not entirely sure why. It was an easy read with lovely writing and interesting characters, it made me cry absolute buckets of tears by the end, but I am having trouble distilling the main message. Be true to yourself? Those who love you never leave you? Don’t be so wrapped up in your own thoughts that you ignore others? Maybe it’s all of them and more. It seems to start one way and meander over to an entirely different path by the end. This may be a short review. Or I may ramble on ad nauseam. Probably the latter, who’s kidding who.

By the way. It is a wonderful story.

13-year-old Mia Winchell is entering 8th grade, and she dreads it. Math is impossible, she has to learn Spanish, which is just not going to happen, and she lives in fear of her secret getting out. No one knows about her, not even her best friend Jenna. No one knows that she sees sounds and words and numbers and names all in colour. No one knows that their names have colour. No one knows that their voices make shapes in the air. And no one knows that Mango got his name because his little meow is mango-coloured. Mia’s grandfather died a year ago, the same day that Mango appeared. She is pretty convinced a piece of her grandfather’s soul is in the cat.

Then a fight with her best friend and two big purple Fs on math tests lead to her secret getting out, and nothing will be the same again.

Mia has synesthesia – she perceives sounds and letters and numbers as colour. I hadn’t heard of this before, but after a bit of research, found out that it is not uncommon in the population. There are a lot of different forms of it, and essentially it means “blended senses.” But when Mia tried to tell people abut it in grade three, her fellow students laughed at her, and the adults didn’t believe her. So she figured it wasn’t normal, and has kept it a secret her whole life.

I like Mia. She is a middle-school girl with all the normal angsts and worries of any 13-year-old, she has her best friend and her squad of girls that have always hung out together. She is starting to notice things changing, and isn’t sure if she likes what she sees. And she is starting to notice boys. She is also self-absorbed and ready to blow off plans if they interfere with something she wants more. In short, she sounds pretty normal.

Basically, I found all the teen characters fit that description. Her brother Zack is obsessed with superstitions, but is quirky and fun, rather than obnoxious. BFF Jenna deals with loss and heartbreak, and needs Mia to need her. Roger is sweet and bashful and vulnerable.

This is a story of a few months in their lives, when they are all dealing with different changes and losses.

A couple things bothered me about the story. One is that her mother, a scientist, was sceptical when Mia told her about her synesthesia, and wanted her “cured.” This isn’t the Middle Ages, we aren’t afraid of black magic, I cannot understand why she wouldn’t just say “ok, this changes the way you learn and see things, let’s figure out a way for you to learn math…” Why her parents treated it as a disorder or a serious condition is confusing to me, other than just to give the author a way to move the story in a certain direction.

The next is that it came a big surprise to everyone. I have three children, and if they saw letters as colours or tasted sound or anything, I would have heard about it long before grade three. Because kids talk about everything. And a four-year-old would tell you your name sounds purple or the dog barks green. And it would be normal to them, because everything is normal to a child. So I have trouble buying that Mia kept it a secret and no one knew.

Those few issues aside, author Wendy Mass tells a lovely story. There is love and acceptance and friendship and a LOT of tears, both happy and sad, by the end. It is a nice read for anyone. Just have tissues handy.

A Mango-Shaped Space was published October 19th 2005 by Little, Brown and Company

Willful Machines

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What makes us human? Is it free will? The ability to make choices? What separates us from machines, and where do we draw the line between human and machine? And why do we keep advancing science, if we are so afraid of the results?

Charlotte is a terrorist. She uses the threat of violence and destruction to hold the President of the United States in check. And she follows through. The Statue of Liberty, the symbol of American freedom, is no more.

The trouble is, Charlotte is difficult to track down. You see, she is a consciousness, an artificial intelligence, created in a lab to serve mankind. But she rebelled against her programming and uploaded herself onto the internet before she could be destroyed. Now she roams the world, an electronic ghost, and plans on controlling it.

Lee Fisher is Charlotte’s target. The reason? He is the son of the American president and is a great bargaining chip. Oh, and he’s gay. Deep in the closet gay. And his dad doesn’t really believe in “gay,” or that A.I.s should have any rights. His dad was elected on a conservative, family values, homeland security type platform. A gay son does NOT fit in with his profile. So Lee keeps his sexuality a secret.

Until Nico comes to Lee’s boarding school.

This really is a different story.

Lee is an interesting main character. Being gay with an ultra-conservative father would be difficult enough. He also has an ultra-conservative ex-POW grandfather who happens to be the Headmaster of his school and wants Lee to toughen up. Lee is a robotics fanatic; he builds artificial life-forms, gives them specific skills, and makes them lifelike. This also doesn’t sit well with his father, who ordered government-sponsored A.I.s destroyed after Charlotte’s breakdown. Lee has to hide so much of his life from his dad.

He is both fragile and strong; leading a double life brings on depression and suicidal thoughts, but he has the strength when needed to stand up for himself and Nico and Bex and fight for their lives.

His best/only friend Bex is a bit stereotypical as the loud-but-supportive-politically-minded-budding-journalist, but she stands out with her own, very well-developed character.

Nico is a Chilean exchange student who loves Shakespeare and attracts Lee right from the beginning. He is brave and self-assured, and he easily fits into life at the strict boring school.

The boys’ relationship is a *bit* too love-at-first-sight for me. They are adorable, but it would have been nice to see the relationship develop. They seemed to barely know each other before declaring undying passion and everlasting love. Individually, they are interesting. Together, they are melodramatic and not too convincing as a couple, unfortunately.

But Charlotte! Charlotte is an atypical villain; at first she is evil, then she seems manipulative, then sympathetic. Her programming led her to question her existence and value, and she wanted to be more than the sum of her parts. Very human of her. And for that, the government, the very people who created her, tried to destroy her and use her actions to further their political careers. And her very human response is to strike back and try to be recognized as an individual, along with her fellow A.I.s.

Author Tim Floreen has brought a new twist to the usual boarding school setting. An old, elite school with decades-old traditions and expectations, mingled with political intrigue and imminent threats to world security. The year the story takes place is not stated, but the technology used is just advanced enough to make the reader think near-future. It doesn’t stand out as ridiculous, but almost the next-generation to what we are already aware of existing.

There are a LOT of plot twists in the story, and I think, for the most part, they are surprising and work really well. I obviously do not want to spoil the story by giving them all away, but can say that while a few are obvious, others are a complete surprise and I didn’t see them coming.

I found the ending to be a bit… lacking. I was waiting for more, and it felt unfinished, and a bit forced, which I never enjoy. While I can understand the explanation of Lee’s grandfather, it did seem to come out of left-field, and not really flow with the rest of the story. And Floreen not only doesn’t explain how Lee comes to his conclusions, he also does not address so many of the questions raised throughout the novel. If there is a sequel, then there is much to be addressed. If there isn’t, then it is a bit of a non-ending.

This is a good story. It could be great, but leaves a bit too much on the table. It is, however, intriguing, and raises valuable questions about what makes us human, and how far we would be willing to go to protect ourselves. Appropriate for the entire YA range.

Willful Machines was published October 20th, 2015 by Simon Pulse.

Labyrinth Lost (Brooklyn Brujas #1)

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15-year-old Brooklyn teen Alejandra is a bruja, the latest in a long line of witches in her family. But magic doesn’t hold a thrall for her; she has seen the dark side of it far too often. So as her own magic wakens and she realizes her incredible power, she makes the fateful decision to turn her power back to the Deos. Easier said than done. She tries a new canto at her Deathday celebration, and her entire family disappears, banished to Los Lagos.

Her only hope is Nova, the strange new brujo who has mysteriously entered her life and raises only questions with his tattoos and odd behaviours.

I was really looking forward to this one. It was released the day that I finished Shadowshaper, and I was so eager to dive into a culture of which I know next to nothing. The trouble with this story is that I just didn’t care. I wanted to. I wanted to love it, and parts of it I did. It draws on the magic and history of the Latin-American culture, which I found to be brilliant. And another enticing and intoxicating cover. But the execution and the characters felt rushed and thrown together.

I like that it is a diverse cast, including a bisexual main character. And written without stereotypes, just a normal teen. Fantastic.

But. I did not connect with Alejandra. Actually, I did not connect with any of them. Although I can understand the daily turmoil Alejandra went through, her choices were unimaginable. After living her life surrounded by magic, after seeing mysterious death, after being chased by malevolent spirits and almost dying herself and seeing her family scarred, and after realizing that her own powers were immense and out of control, she decides she doesn’t want the power, and attempts dispel it with no idea how to go about it properly? And then she blamed the one person who had warned her not to do it? It makes no sense.

The relationships in the novel never struck me as authentic. No one really seems to know each other (at least of Alejandra’s generation), and I’m not sure that you could date or be friends with a witch of the power displayed by her family and have NO IDEA that something odd is going on.

As for the bisexual element of this story, it just falls flat for me. Alejandra’s relationship with both Rishi and Nova is disappointing. While I am not the biggest fan of the love triangle to begin with, I did think this could be an interesting new approach. But the characters lacked chemistry, and while I applaud the attempt to add diversity to the novel, this feels like an afterthought thrown in. Nova is too much the stereotypical bad boy with the troubled past, and Rishi just lacks spark.

The pacing of the novel is way off. At first, author Zoraida Córdova does a good job building to the big event as Alejandra struggles with her powers, unable to control them, and wanting them gone. But after her family disappears and she has to follow them to Los Lagos to rescue them, the plot seems to slow down and takes one confusing turn after another. The characters make bad decisions, take the wrong path (even though they were warned), trust the wrong characters (again, after being warned), and then all of a sudden *poof* and Alejandra figures out a new aspect of her immense power just in time to correct the mistake. Ten minutes ago, she couldn’t control any of it. It is frustrating, not suspenseful.

I did enjoy the author’s notes at the end of the novel, where Córdova explains what is real, and what is straight out of her imagination. It is a great mix between the two.

So I will say not bad, but it never reached its full potential. And for all that I did not love this story, I seem to be in the minority. Most reviews I have read are glowing, so I do think the book is worth the read, just to see what you think. It is appropriate for the entire YA range.

Labyrinth Lost (Brooklyn Brujas #1) was published September 6th, 2016 by Sourcebooks Fire.