Edgecomb, Maine 04556
Welcome to the CTL Book BlogFebruary 10, 2021
You Gotta Read This! features book reviews written by CTL seventh- and eighth-grade students about books they have loved and think other middle school readers would love, too. All reviews are written by the kids in writing workshop, based on titles that they’ve selected and adored in reading workshop. The reviews are posted chronologically–extending back to 2009–tagged according to genre, and added to each year.
Punching the Air by Ibi Zoboi and Yussef SalaamFebruary 28, 2022
Sixteen-year-old African-American Muslim, Amal Shahid, is not the type to get into a fight. Instead of fists, Amal stands up for himself with words. He has always been an artist and a poet, rebelling against his biased school system. However, while out skating with his friends one night, the boys encounter a group of white kids on their side of the street. Soon, an argument breaks out. Before anyone can react, Amal throws the first punch. The scene turns into a full-on fist fight before his eyes. The police arrest Amal on his way home, falsely claiming that he put a white boy, Jeremy Mathis, in a coma by hitting him with his skateboard. In reality, Amal ran away from the scene, forgetting the board in the chaos. The court finds Amal guilty of a crime he didn’t commit. The black boy only threw one punch, but that was enough to convince authorities he was guilty of putting a white boy in a coma. As the book’s blurb says, “Boys being boys turns out to be true only when those boys are white.” Amal is then sent to prison, where his only escape and chance to fight back are his words.
Beautifully created by Ibi Zoboi, a civil rights activist and novelist, and prison reform activist Yusef Salaam, Punching the Air moves audiences beyond the typical reaction to a reading experience. Each line of the novel is packed with incredibly strong diction, capturing Amal’s anger and sadness about his injustice in a way that is close to overpowering, which fits the narrative to a tee.
Zoboi’s voice influences the novel in other ways, as well. Her unusual style of writing is unique because the verses are truly free to wander around the page, as readers will discover. Because this title is written in free verse, the pace of this read is quick. One of the main reasons I enjoyed this book was because of Zoboi’s effort to connect Amal’s artistic personality with the rest of the novel. Her words and art illuminate each page with Amal’s story, along with the beautiful cover design, which helps to bring Amal and his identity across. Readers can feel Amal’s raw despair in a way that is not common in most books: feeling every ounce of emotion that Zoboi pours into the pages. With every word, she lets Amal’s character come alive: bold, strong, and quick. Just like his pen.
Zoboi gracefully intertwines the fight with the present, where Amal is sitting in jail unjustly. Using flashbacks (never spilling too many details), she helps unfold the story. I loved how Zoboi chose to write about the fight. She only drops in small details of what happened, which makes the beginning of this book suspenseful and mysterious. She does this in a way that not only keeps a reader turning the page, but also aware of the social injustice and that Amal is in the right.
Although the genre is realistic fiction with a social justice focus, Punching the Air is different from any of its kind. Zoboi pours herself into Amal’s character, not afraid to cut any sugarcoating. This novel is real, with a shocking dose of authenticity that will have readers experiencing the action alongside the characters. Another feature that separates this book from others is the title. Zoboi made an effort to connect it to the characters in her novel: it’s a metaphor for Amal punching at the invisible walls around him, the walls that try to hold back his words and imprison him.
I would definitely recommend this novel for audiences who enjoyed books such as How It Went Down by Kekla Magoon and American Street by Ibi Zoboi. They would savor this fast-paced and stunning work of literature. People who don’t normally read free verse (like me) will love and appreciate what Ibi Zoboi has to offer. I personally rated this book a 9/10 because of the graceful diction and art that Zoboi incorporated into her novel. There is no doubt that this book was beautifully written, as Zoboi expertly crafted characters into realistic, raw, and imperfect human beings, whose emotions carried readers through her novel. I think that people who want to learn and read about these injustices will definitely benefit from reading this work of art.
Balzer + Bray, 400 pages
Only Mostly Devastated by Sophie Gonzales
Ollie spent the summer at Aunt Linda’s lake house hoping to find love. One fateful day, due to a mishap on the beach with his little cousins, he discovers it in Will Tavares. After a summer of sneaking out and sleeping under the stars, Will and Ollie say their final goodbyes. Promising to never lose contact with each other, the two lovers part ways. At first, Ollie is devastated when Will ghosts him with no explanation. However, a family emergency sees Ollie spending his senior year in North Carolina, thousands of miles away from his hometown in California. Little does he know, his knight in shining armor, Will, goes to the same high school as he will: a real dream come true. But this Will is different. He’s closeted, a class clown, and a bit of a jerk. Ollie wants nothing to do with this new version of Will—but how can he give up on his true love?
In Only Mostly Devastated, Sophie Gonzales does a fantastic job capturing the struggles of a gay high school student in a conservative town. Growing up in a welcoming family and community makes it easy for Ollie to express himself without the fear of being judged or shunned. However, having a homophopic and strict environment creates a much more challenging situation for Will. Even though this book is only from Ollie’s perspective, we are still able to see Will’s personal issues through the dialogue in Gonzales’ novel.
One of the aspects readers will enjoy in this book is the inclusivity. Gonzales created a variety of characters, and each person has a different background and issue they are struggling with. For example, one of Ollie’s new friends, Niamh, is the most beautiful girl Ollie had ever met, inside and out. However, she has always struggled with her weight and will sometimes starve herself. Another one of the girls in Ollie’s class is facing the stress of trying to be perfect and succeed in life, while also secretly trying to pursue a path in music. These secondary characters help readers connect to the novel in various ways.
Only Mostly Devastated was written in the first person, which is a style I prefer. Readers are able to dive into Ollie’s cluttered and confused thoughts, while also following the plot line and twists. By choosing this perspective, Gonzales allows readers to see how Ollie perceives other characters and breaks them down in his own mind.
The genre of this book is romance and realistic fiction. The novel is composed of twenty-two chapters each a length of around ten pages. These short and sweet chapters will make Only Mostly Devastated a quick read for those interested. Gonzales packed every chapter with countless important details, leaving readers on the edge of their seat with the turn of a page.
I would recommend this book to anyone over the age of twelve who enjoys reading a novel filled with humor, an abundance of romance, and a main character you can’t help but love. This novel will rip out readers’ hearts and shove them back, leaving them Only Mostly Devastated.
Wednesday Books, 278 pages
The Unteachables by Gordon Korman
The unteachables, or SCS8, are a rambunctious group of untalented misfit students who have been abandoned by their previously-assigned teachers. In the beginning of the book, one of the main characters, Kiana Rubini, has to stay with her dad and stepmother, while her mother is away shooting a movie. Her step-mom (who she calls stepmonster) accidentally does not sign her into the school, because her two year old step-brother threw up all over the car. She decides to go in, and is handed a schedule and given directions before she can say that she doesn’t even go to the school. Before she knows it, she is standing before the worst class in the school, the unteachables.
From here, Gordon Korman’s novel switches between several characters, which include Parker, who can’t read but somehow has a drivers license; Aldo, who has anger management issues; Elain (rhymes with pain); and Barnstorm, the school’s record breaking athlete, who always got out of trouble because of his sports abilities. The other main characters are Mr. Kermit, their grumpy teacher, and Kiana, the one student who doesn’t belong in SCS8. Korman develops the characters and their relationships throughout the book.
Dr Thaddeus, the superintendent, still holds a grudge against Mr. Kermit for a cheating scandal that took place in Mr Kermit’s class twenty seven years ago, and has jumped on every chance to fire him ever since. Because of this, Mr. Kermit has lost his original energy, from when he viewed teaching as a goal, not a job. He is counting down the days until the end of the year, when he can qualify for early retirement.
Korman expertly flows the plot through a series of events that bond the students and a teacher together, to transform them both in the procss. The plot moves rather slowly as the book unravels, and the students uncover more of the teacher’s backstory. The plot quickens as the book goes on, as Mr. Kermit slowly transforms the class, and the class slowly transforms him, bringing back his positive teaching mindset. The climax of the book is when the students decide to fix and rebuild Mr. Kermit’s old car, because it’s falling apart. In a funny detail it’s called the “coco nerd” instead of Concord, because Parker thought that that’s what it said. They make it their goal to try to win the science fair with the rebuilt car, and win the extra ten points on their grade. If the students’ grades aren’t high enough then Dr. Thaddeus will fire Mr Kermit, so the students are determined to get the extra grade. The Unteachables is an intriguing realistic fiction novel, full of funny characters, and plenty of engaging scenes to keep you on the edge of your seat. I recommend this book to any realistic fiction lover, or someone just looking for a laugh. I rate it an 8/10.
Balzer + Bray, 288 pages
The Giver by Lois LowryFebruary 27, 2022
Jonas is a perfectly normal kid in his seemingly normal town. A town where nobody will ever go hungry and where everybody has the perfect job, and life. Within this community, all law breaking citizens are “released” to keep the law abiding citizens safe. There are a set of strict rules set in place to make sure that no one feels any source of sadness, pain, or any other negative feelings. And although this world may seem perfect, Jonas comes to find that it is most certainly not. After being skipped at the ceremony of twelve, a newly twelve year old Jonas is picked for the honorable assignment of Receiver of Memory. After only a few days on the job, Jonas starts to realize that his community may not be so perfect after all. What is release? What is beyond? Is this world really perfect, or is it more like an inescapable prison?
I appreciated reading this novel very much. One element that I personally enjoyed about this book was that this story was very cleverly written to let the reader gain knowledge along with the characters. A shocking plot point would surprise, not only the characters, but the reader as well. It helps readers feel more connected to the book and the characters within by having them solve small problems and try to think of clues and details along with the character that needs these problems solved.
Along with this, Lois Lowry captured the idea of something further than our everyday life. The word she used to do that was beyond. It draws the reader in to think about a better world, that may be closer than we think. This intrigued readers from across the globe. Even if Jonas’ final ideal of beyond may not be too different for us, as you may come to see with reading this book, it gives us a very important lesson — that we should be grateful for what we have, as some people strive for some of the most mundane or taken-for-granted aspects of our everyday lives. Maybe something like an office job or a family dinner with your annoying cousins, or even looking at the color of flowers on the side of the road— these would all be shocking and incredible for anyone in this messed up world.
When preparing to read this book, I was excited, as many of my friends said it was incredible. After starting it, I was slightly confused, as the action in the story that I was told about was not there. But after reading a few more chapters, I saw that the dip in the action was essential to the plot. Even though it is slightly confusing, it is worth waiting a chapter or two to find out what is yet to come.
The Giver is an incredible novel filled with emotion, sentiment, and action. It is a life changing, heartwarming story. This amazing novel really has changed lives, and giving this book a chance could change yours. As you follow Jonas through this story, you grow to learn the importance of friendship, family, and love.
Harcourt, 225 pages
I’m Not Dying With You Tonight by Kimberly Jones and Gilly Segal
Two high school girls: one black, one white. Lena and Campbell aren’t friends. They don’t even understand each other over the vast racial divide. But when the city all around them is up in flames, none of that matters anymore, as they are forced to rely on each other. Lena and Campbell must depend on their smarts, instincts, and each other to survive the most dangerous night they’ve ever experienced. After a violent fight breaks out at a school football game, Lena takes cover in Campbell’s concession stand, right in the middle of the chaos. When gunshots get mixed into the fight, along with some racist police figures, the girls need to get out. Campbell is relieved to see police arrive, but Lena views it as a greater danger. The only way they can make it home is to trust and rely on each other. Chaos surrounds the two girls, violence and hate fill the air around them, as they run for their lives through their riot-, hate-, and loot-filled city. Turmoil throws the two together, and now Lena and Campbell’s differences don’t seem as important as getting out alive. Can Lena and Campbell spend the worst night of their lives thrown together in a shack, and form an unlikely alliance and sense of desperate trust? Can two girls bridge a racial divide, in the hopes of survival?
This novel was written in first-person, dual perspectives, allowing the reader to get both sides of the night in the most detailed way possible. The chapters switch at suspenseful moments, and sometimes in the middle of a conversation. The next chapter picks up right away, seconds from when the last one ended, so the audience doesn’t feel like they’re missing any part of the story. Because the perspectives change during important, suspenseful, and controversial moments, readers get both girls’ opinions on most matters and readers see how each perspective fully embodies the characters and their personalities. Kimberly Jones wrote Lena’s point of view, and Gilly Segal wrote Cambell’s. The grammar and wording throughout the book changes depending on which character the audience is reading at the moment. Lena uses more slang, and different grammar, both in the dialogue and body of the chapters. Campbell uses more “conventional” grammar and less slang. Each chapter is written to embody their personalities, and it augments and accentuates the differences in their upbringing, which makes reading it more realistic, and shows the reader how big the divide they have to bridge is. The book moves at an extremely fast pace: because the night is so suspenseful, readers want to know what happens next.
Lena, a “queen bee” at their mostly black school in Atlanta, has been living here her whole life, and as a black woman, is used to racism, and violence in her town. Campbell, the new girl—both to the school and Atlanta— has never been around so many people of a different race. She grew up in a highly white area, and has never been in an environment filled with police brutality, racism, fights, or riots.
I’m Not Dying With You Tonight is a debut novel, written by two authors, Kimberly Jones— an American author who is also known for the viral video How We Can Win, posted during the George Floyd protests— and Gilly Segal— an author from Florida, who lives in, and calls Georgia home; she also works as a lawyer for an advertising agency.
Jones and Segal wrote this novel to take place in a town in Atlanta, Georgia, and it is loosely based around an incident during the Baltimore protests of 2015. Jones and Segal show the importance of sharing experiences from multiple people and how certain situations can affect anyone, no matter their race.
This novel helped me understand what was happening around the George Floyd protests and riots. Without this book I could not have had a clear understanding of police brutality, violence, and mass destruction as I do now, as a white, female, young adult who has mostly grown up in rural Maine, and has never personally experienced racism or violence in a way that others might. I have much more left to learn, but this book gave me a sense of understanding, and gave me enough knowledge and details to form my own opinion on certain ideas, and have conversations with others on these important truths about our country. I feel like I can now talk about this type of situation with an educated reason behind my opinions. This novel also made me more curious and feel more empathy, which made me want to know more about George Floyd and all the events that have happened in the past few years (2020-2022).
On a more lighthearted note, this book, while bringing awareness to very serious topics, also has a few classic teen issues and encounters that are mixed in with the suspenseful night. This novel explores unlikely friendships, trust issues, catcalling, and normal teen emotions and relationships such as boyfriends, home troubles, pressure, and money issues. This sense of normal obstacles that these girls face make it feel more relatable, and give a sense that this could and does actually happen. Jones and Segal thoughtfully added these important details to make the audiences’ experience smoother, and made the situations that Lena and Campbell have to go through feel that much more realistic, which gives readers something to connect to the characters about.
This book was eye-opening and showed the significance of how one’s upbringing can change and warp your perspective on events and impact how people move throughout the world. Racism, sexism, violence, and perspective play a large role in how people navigate their lives, and how they rely on their judgment, and trust themselves to make decisions. Readers will get a chance to see two very different sides of a tense and dangerous night, allowing anyone (black or white) to learn about others’ perspectives. This novel examines the roots of unlikely friendships, and explores two girls, forced to rely on each other for survival as they struggle to understand each other’s point of view.
Sourcebooks Fire, 272 pages
I Hunt Killers by Barry Lyga
His name is Jasper but most people call him Jazz. He is a teenager and the son of one of the worst serial killers, Billy Dent. He has a friend named Howie and a girlfriend named Connie, who help him throughout the entire book and are the only people who truly understand him. He lives with his grandmother, since his dad was put in jail early in the book. His mom died when he was very young, which his dad blames on Jazz. He deals with a lot of general backlash because of his dad: people at school expect him to grow up to be just like his father— or possibly worse.
The bigger part of the conflict arises from there being a killer that has been trying to copy the exact murders that Billy Dent committed. Jazz wants to try to stop the impressionist in order to not let any other people die. At the same time, he has to avoid the assumptions being thrown his way. But he may need help.
This is the start of the I Hunt Killers by Barry Lyga, which gets more intense as the story goes on and has a strong ending where Lyga brings everything together. The chapters are shorter, around 7-10 pages, which speeds up the pace. The text is slightly less descriptive and focuses more on the connections between the characters, while including lots of thoughts and feelings. Lyga’s writing reminded me of the style of another young adult author, Marie Lu. Since the pages are smaller, the plot builds up towards the end, which creates an illusion that it is moving faster.
The story is told entirely from Jazz’s first-person perspective, which is how Lyga forms the biases with the main characters. Lyga also finds an effective balance between seeing Jazz’s thoughts, dialogue, and description. The character development is well written by Lyga as each person that he encounters has an important backstory, which helps build the connections between the reader and the main characters.
It’s also unique how the protagonist is Jazz, but the antagonist is his dad. His father has a very important role because he could help Jazz but it is also his son’s biggest challenge: he’s created all of Jazz’s problems. It doesn’t happen in many books that the antagonist can play both sides of the story. Jazz needs his father to explore the dark side of the world, but without his dad he wouldn’t need to go through the same issues.
This novel is a solid 10 in my opinion. It’s a book that’s not for everyone but is one to at least try. It may not be the best choice for audiences looking for a light read because it can get the reader thinking at parts, which I found effective. It does include murder, discussions of rape, and heated family talks between Jazz and his dad.
In I Hunt Killers, Jazz has been born into the dark side of the world and readers are along for the ride as he has to fight his way out.
Little, Brown Company, 359 pages
Ground Zero by Alan Gratz
September 11, 2001: in an elevator descending from the top floor of the North Tower, Brandon hears a thump from above and is suddenly flipped sideways, trapped. He and the other people in the elevator don’t know if they will ever get out. Will he live to tell the tale?
In Afghanistan, on September 11, 2019, Reshmina goes out to get water from the village well, and she hears gunshots from nearby. She runs home, and on the way meets a soldier who has been injured from the fight. Because of Reshmina’s religion, she cannot talk to the soldier. She speaks loudly, as if talking to herself, and the American soldier follows her home. Will he betray their location or will he save them? This well-written novel is all set in one exciting and terrifying day that leaves the reader’s heart racing.
Ground Zero is a gripping story with two meaningful characters that both have the same problem, on the same day, in different years. Gratz writes this story with multiple themes: from war to friendship, from one day to another. Audiences will love how Gratz wrote about past history and what life is like now for Reshmina and her brother, Pasoon. At first I thought that just Reshmina and her family were in trouble, but readers will soon realize that her whole village is in danger, too. What will happen?
Gratz builds this novel around two powerful characters who will give readers new perspectives. The book is never slow-paced; it is always moving forward at an alarming rate that will make audiences never want to put this book down. Ground Zero is a perfect combination of two different genres—historical fiction and realistic fiction—that will teach you more about 9/11 and how much the Taliban has affected Reshmina and her village. I loved how Gratz put into perspective that the event Brandon is enduring killed many lives, and Gratz added so many little details that the reader can experience the thrill of the story.
Gratz is the author of seventeen other books, including Refugee, Code of Honor, Grenade, and many others. I have only read Refugee, and it is just as gripping as Ground Zero. Ground Zero is a riveting story with an action-packed plot that will leave audiences wondering how Gratz managed to set the novel all in one day. I rated this book an eleven out of ten and recommend it to anybody who would like to read a novel about the destruction of 9/11 and the Taliban. A couple chapters in will leave readers wondering—Will they survive?
Scholastic Press, 304 pages
One of Us Is Lying by Karen McManusFebruary 10, 2022
Five students were sent to detention, but only four made it out alive. High schoolers Bronwyn, Addy, Nate, and Cooper all become suspects for the murder of Simon Kelleher. Bronwyn is extremely smart and doesn’t like breaking rules, Addy is one of the popular girls, Cooper is an All–Star baseball pitcher, and Nate is on probation for selling drugs. Many students dislike Simon because he’s the founder of an app called “About That,” where he posts people’s deepest secrets. The four suspects work together to try and figure out if someone is framing them—or if the killer is amongst them.
I loved how McManus wrote this book from four different points of view. It made the story more entertaining because each character has their own problems, which the others couldn’t relate to. If it was only written from one of the characters’ point of view, then the reader wouldn’t get to explore each person’s side of the story, and the audience doesn’t get to learn about them as a character or understand their personal journey.
There is a lot of side drama in this novel. Each of the characters has a secret that can change everything. It’s a secret they never wanted anyone to find out about. But their secrets are revealed when someone posts them on “About That.” So now they have to deal with the fallout of their secrets being revealed.
McManus did a fantastic job with the mystery side of the book because there are clues throughout the book. It helps the reader come up with ideas as to who the killer is. Even with the clues, I didn’t even fully guess correctly. With other books it’s easy to solve the mystery, but not with this one. The audience isn’t just understanding the book, they’re trying to look for the smallest details that can help unravel the mystery.
In each new chapter, or somewhere within the chapter, it switches to different perspectives. The perspectives are from Bronwyn’s, Addy’s, Nate’s, and Cooper’s points of view. Each time it switches characters, McManus writes the name of the character, the day of the week, the date, and the time, which helps readers keep track of who’s narrating. Also, the pace of the book was effective. It doesn’t feel too fast or too slow, so the reader will get a lot of information without getting bored.
This novel was so enjoyable, I didn’t want to put it down. I would read for an hour or sometimes more. It was so much fun reading the book, as well as trying to solve the mystery. There’s a TV show on “Peacock” based on this novel that I thought was pretty good, but it is a little different from the book.
I rated this book a ten out of ten, and I think anyone that likes mystery or realistic fiction will like this book, too. Also, there’s a sequel called One of Us is Next, which I haven’t read yet, but I’m planning to. But I hope every single person reading this will try out this amazing book, and I hope you can solve the mystery.
Delacorte Press, 358 pages
The Butterfly Clues by Kate EllisonFebruary 9, 2022
Penelope (Lo), is a teenage girl with Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD), who has always loved to collect beautiful things. When she finds a antique butterfly from a house of a recently murdered girl named Sapphire, a young stripper, she attempts to piece together the clues left behind. With a dead brother whose death still haunts her and a father who is never home, Lo finds herself alone, and solving the mystery of who killed Sapphire seems impossible. However, with the help of an artist named Flynt, they realize that the answer was closer to home than imagined.
The Butterfly Clues is an excellent, exciting novel because of how quickly the plot takes off. Readers will find themselves wanting to read more because every time the plot starts to slow, it picks up again. Ellison beautifully describes the characteristics of OCD and takes a convincing and intriguing approach toward how someone dealing with a disorder acts and how they think and process information. Readers will notice that Lo is drawn to multiples of three. For example: if there were nine birds on a telephone pole, Lo would think that means luck. Also, readers will notice early on that the word “banana” gives Lo a sense of security. Ellison places a large amount of attention to detail on that specifically.
The Butterfly Clues is a novel written in first person from the perspective of Lo, which allows readers to follow along with her emotions. The plot has huge turns in it that readers will find unexpected and, after the book is finished, will provide a whole different perspective on Lo’s life and the journey it took to uncover the answers. The book takes place in Cleveland, Ohio, which gives it the big-city, lots-of-crime feel, especially since the book is set in “Neverland,” the more dangerous side of town where you don’t want to end up at night. Readers will also discover how close the community is there, but also how if you really want to find answers, it could mean death.
Ellison uses strong, sensory diction throughout the book as she describes the way people act and the violence in this world.
This novel gives the reader an insight into OCD, which is something I didn’t previously know about. It may seem that Lo is controlled by her disorder and therefore an unreliable protagonist, but without her disorder she would not have found the butterfly because her OCD gives her an urge to steal antique things. Without that, she would have not even met Flynt, and the book would be terrible—maybe not even a book at all.
Ellison also teaches the reader about friendship, independence, and death. The pace was perfect and the chapters were somewhat long but had lots of pauses in the middle, which is something the reader will be grateful for.
I would recommend this novel to anyone who likes mystery, suspense, or friendship. I would also recommend The Adoration of Jenna Fox by Mary E. Pearson or Red Rider, which was another recent book by Ellison. I rated this story a ten out of ten and loved reading it.
This book made me want to read more of Ellisons novels, and I am planning to.
The Butterfly Clues draws readers in, and each word captivates you into reading more. If you read this novel, you will not be left disappointed.
EGMONT, 325 pages
Attack Surface by Cory DoctorowFebruary 8, 2022
Masha is a hacker who works for the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). She helps to defeat the xnet kids, a group of young people that try to defeat the DHS because the DHS is doing immoral things. Masha is very smart, but then she quits because she thinks what the DHS is doing is immoral. Next she works for Xoth, a cybersecurity firm. One of her jobs is to upgrade the internet for Slovstakian, so the government can spy on protesters. However, she is friends with a few protesters, so she helps the protesters defeat the government instead. Then she gets in trouble with Xoth, which leads to her getting fired. Soon after, she goes to work with the Army and helps with tech. While there she has to work with Carrier Johnson, who she also admires.
When readers begin this book they will not be able to put it down. It is written as if Masha wrote it after that fact, which made it more interesting. It was like a small detail that was interesting to Masha, which made it more personal so readers felt connected to her as a character—which makes it more interesting to the reader. The pace was a little slow, but the slowness helps so that readers can absorb all the data that Doctorow gives them.
Readers will also note how many small details are in this book and how much better this makes the novel. The details allow readers to hear all of Masha’s thoughts throughout the book.
Attack Surface is a book that is fun, and readers should read it if they like tech and suspense. It has flashbacks, so it can be a little confusing when readers are reading it. It is a good story that draws readers in. Readers will not want to put this book down.
Masha as a protagonist at first does not care what people use her work for. As the book progresses she gets more worried about how her work is used and what the companies that she works for are doing. She starts thinking about what could happen if she decides only to use her skills for good. It is interesting to see Masha grow as a character in this way.
This novel is also the third book in the Little Brother series, which includes Little Brother and Homeland. Readers will enjoy those, and this book will make more sense if you read the previous novels, but you can also read this book without reading the first two.
Tor Books, 385 pages
Girl in the Blue Coat by Monica Hesse
Hanneke is the main character in a mystery novel called Girl in the Blue Coat by Monica Hesse. She is a black market delivery girl in WWll Amsterdam, who finds and delivers illegal merchandise to customers. She has been making her rounds to Mrs Janssen, a client usually buying meat or kerosene. This time she asks Hanneke to find a missing person – a person who had been previously hiding out in her hidden room because she was Jewish and the Gestapo police were rounding up all the Jewish people into the train to get slaughtered. “I need you to find her before the Nazis do,” Mrs. Janssen tells Hanneke urgently.
In this novel, Hesse forces the reader to consider what they would do. No one wants to get mixed up in a job that has risks of death. No one would want to let a girl die at the hands of the Nazis if they can stop it. No one wants to search for a girl who could have been rounded up onto the train weeks prior– paying with your life, for a life that might not exist. But sometimes that girl reminds you of your life before everything crumbled. Reminds you of your ex-best friend, of your dead boyfriend. Sometimes you walk straight in. This is what happens to Hanneke.
Girl in the Blue Coat is packed with unexpected revelations about the missing girl at every turn. There are other revelations, too: Hanneke is recovering from the death of her would-be fiance, Bas. She’s dealing with the fact that she pushed him to go, even though he was scared. But she pushed him to go because who could ever imagine a world without Bas. Who could ever imagine moving on?
Hanneke has also lost her former best friend: they’ve gone from talking about day to day life on her bed, chatting casually while flipping through sleek thin magazines, to kicking her out, swearing to never seeing her again. Now they find themselves on the opposite sides of the war.
Hanneke is now tied into the center of this dark web involving a missing girl, betrayal from the closest of friends, a gunshot in the night, and a sacrifice gone unchecked.
From the first page this book takes a dive into her struggles, her broken way of life. Readers learn that consequences are dire. Throughout the book there is never a shallow chapter that acts as a connector. Hanneke is constantly putting her life on the line for Mirjam–the missing girl– by finding and selling illegal merchandise, as well as attending secret resistance group meetings. Each chapter hooks on so well, it’s impossible to escape.
You will want to just peek at the next chapter, but merely a couple words in, you will find yourself trapped.
Little Brown, 301 pages
The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides
“On the morning the last Lisbon daughter took her turn at suicide— it was Mary this time, and sleeping pills, like Therese— the two paramedics arrived at the house knowing exactly where the knife drawer was, and the gas oven, and the beam in the basement from which it was possible to tie a rope.”
This opens The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides, where the five Lisbon girls commit suicide one by one, as their lives are watched by the neighborhood boys. The boys attempt to piece together why the Lisbon girls took their own lives, but the book is not a mystery. It is an exploration of romance, death, life, and memory, as well as a timeless classic readers will love as they are entranced by a story, left wanting more.
Eugenides employs countless tactics to hook the reader, but one he excels at is his mastery of language. He uses simple words that pack a punch, as well as lyrical metaphors, to make this story read like poetry. Without Eugenides’ wordsmithing, The Virgin Suicides’ readers would lose interest, as the novel lacks a formal structure. In the end, Eugenides’ talents pull the reader into the dreamy tale, capturing them in the space between lines.
The book is told in a first-person collective, narrated by the neighborhood boys, now in their thirties. They recall the events of one year, adding an interesting subjectivity to the writing, which forces the reader to wonder how the story actually played out. The boys see the Lisbon girls as otherworldly and beautiful, and as the narrator, their bias is prominent and emphasizes a major theme: how people’s perspectives are unreliable. Eugenides does not shove this theme in the reader’s faces whenever he can, as some writers might do. Instead, the theme lurks in the background, never quite jumping out, but allowing the reader enough glimpses to see what it really is.
Eugenides uses poetic language, a unique narrative, and a strong theme effectively, so as not to distract from his compelling novel. You will be captivated by this tale of memory, love, life, and death.
Bloomsbury Publishing PLC, 250 pages
Every Last Word by Tamara Ireland StoneFebruary 10, 2021
“You start being kind to yourself, making decisions that are best for you, not best for everyone else. You look around at the people in your life, one by one, choosing to hold on to the ones who make you stronger and better, and letting go of the ones who don’t.”
Samantha McAllister might seem like a normal highschool girl, but something people don’t know is that she has obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), which fills her with anxiety and rapid thoughts, when all she wants to do is focus on fitting in with the popular group. But one day, she meets a girl named Caroline who introduces her to a place called Poet’s Corner: a secret and hidden room in the back of their school, where a group of students go every week to write poetry and encourage one another to embrace ways of expressing themselves through writing. By surrounding herself with a new community, Samantha finds herself curious about a boy named AJ who seems very familiar. Could she finally overcome her fears from just a small bit of change, or will Poet’s Corner become a bigger deal in her life than she expects?
Every Last Word was a touching and beautiful story because of how easily Tamara Ireland Stone grasped the concept of finding oneself within the daily challenges of being a teenager, while at the same time taking a realistic approach to the struggles someone deals with when having a mental disorder. I loved how Stone could write a book about literature as an art form, and how it can help people survive tough moments in their lives without realizing it.
In the very beginning of the book, Stone includes a flashback of Samantha handling an OCD attack when she was young. I found this effective because I was able to understand who the lead character was and the struggles she was facing in advance of when the plot line started. Whenever the setting changed, Stone always knew how to use the right words to captivate her audience into different moments. The word choices throughout the book always had a purpose, and the depth of the story was complex but easily understandable. I found it interesting how I could learn important life lessons—not just through the protagonist’s experiences, but from how Stone incorporated them metaphorically for the readers, too.
I find it best when a realistic fiction book is written in first person because it makes personal moments more relatable for me. Stone provided this perspective for her readers, which gave me a better glimpse of Samantha’s thoughts and how they were triggering her to act around other characters.
The pace of this novel was perfect. It moved along steadily without jumping to conclusions too quickly. Each chapter was unpredictable. Stone knew how to bring excitement to her audience by making the tone appear non-suspenseful. This seemed to catch me more off guard when the plot would turn. I definitely recommend reading until the end, because the conclusion left me stunned.
Overall, this story was inspirational and gifted me with a whole new perspective on the world around me. I have realized how much other people’s lives affect our own because of how we silently learn from one another each day. Samantha taught me that we don’t just build each other up with our voices and actions, but with the experiences we have as a society, too. I rate this book a ten out of ten and at some point, I hope everyone is able to read this novel about a girl’s life, which will change yours for the better.
Hyperion, 383 pages
Warcross by Marie Lu
The online black market has exploded in activity ever since Tokyo billionaire, Hideo Tanaka, created the virtual reality world of Warcross. Each day, millions of people across the globe join the server to play, buy, sell, trade, or just see the world as a different reality. For young New Yorker Emika Chen, this futuristic world is not just an escape from her troublesome life and infinite debt, it’s also her only source of income as she hunts and hacks to survive. Emika’s life drastically changes overnight when she hacks into the competitive Warcross Championships, with the ambitious goal of stealing a valuable power-up in front of two hundred million people. Will she succeed in paying her debt, or will the eviction notice on her apartment door reach her first? Packed with constant adrenaline, this book will leave you wishing there were more pages to read.
As readers follow Emika Chen while she finds her way through the crowded neon streets of Tokyo, they will share her feelings and thoughts, allowing the author, Marie Lu, to carefully craft a plot woven with mystery and full of unexpected turns—right up until the end.
Readers will tear through Warcross, not just because of its fast pace, but also because Lu will leave them hanging at the end of each addictive chapter: a shared trait with Lu’s popular Legend series. Lu blends text messages and depictions of Warcross life bars into her captivating plot, giving readers an exceptionally personal experience: something lacking in other examples of the science-fiction genre.
As she dives right into the action in the present tense, and makes sure that every word on the page is a necessary part of this futuristic world, Lu succeeds in flawlessly introducing and developing new characters all while she keeps readers intrigued. The reader will find that Lu does not overwhelm with many different characters, but instead focuses on developing and giving the backgrounds of the small band of individuals. This allows the reader to have a deep connection with the characters. Just after finishing the first chapter, we know Emika’s job, how she gets around, the fact that she is poor, where she lives, and how she ended up having six thousand dollars in credit card debt.
I recommend this thrilling science-fiction novel from experience—as someone who has read many books in this genre. I have immersed myself in Warcross’s smart and intriguing plot multiple times for the sole reason that I want to be in Lu’s world again. Every science-fiction fan out there should pick up this addictive book. Trust me: Warcross will blow your mind and leave you wanting to go back and reread this ten-out-of-ten.
Penguin Young Readers Group, 353
The Bitter Side of Sweet by Tara Sullivan
Two years ago, Amadou and Seydou left their home in Mali, West Africa, to find a job and earn money for their family. Instead, they were brought to the Ivory Coast and sold into slavery on a cacao plantation. The work is dangerous, and the child slaves are beaten and starved if they don’t meet the unclear quota. The bosses promise they can return home when they pay off their debt, but Amadou has never seen anyone being released from the farm. One day, a girl is brought to the camp: thirteen-year-old Khadija is defiant and determined to escape. Amadou had lost all hope of ever going home, but her willful spirit makes him start thinking about the outside world again. When Seydou’s life comes under threat, Amadou sees no other choice but to attempt an escape.
This realistic fiction novel was incredibly effective. I was awed by the conditions that Amadou and the other children had to work in, and there were times when I got emotional while reading. The present-tense narrative makes the reading experience very moving and captures the child trafficking and labor plot in a very powerful way. I couldn’t put the book down as I followed Tara Sullivan and her three characters in The Bitter Side of Sweet through their journey to freedom—finding an unexpected friendship—in this page-turning book.
This novel completely changed my view on chocolate. To learn that cacao farmers would resort to using children as slaves because the pay was only two dollars a day was shocking. I had no idea that because cocoa is a crop grown primarily for export, around 65% of the Ivory Coast’s export revenue comes from its cocoa. As the chocolate industry has grown, so has the demand for cheap chocolate. On average, cocoa farmers earn less than $2 per day, an income well below the poverty line. As a result, the farmers often resort to the use of child labor to keep from going out of buisness. I was stunned to learn that the chocolate that I love and have enjoyed almost all of my life has come at the expense of child slaves.
“I have no idea why we grow these seeds, no idea who wants them. Why have so many trees growing the same thing? The bosses never talk about it; they only say that the seeds leave our farm and go to the coast, where someone else buys them. For what? I asked once, but they all shrugged. No one here knows. All we know is that people in the city want these seeds, so we grow them.”
The Bitter Side of Sweet opened my eyes to see the different cultures and the different levels of poverty and education around the world. I found it interesting that no one on the farm even knew what the seeds were for, let alone what chocolate was. It was strange to me that the people that worked farming these seeds had never tasted their own product. I feel that I am unbelievably lucky to live in America, a rich country where there is no need for slavery, with with laws that prevent child labor. This novel made me rethink my views on my life, and how fortunate I am to be born here.
Sullivan wove together a fast-paced book that made me feel like I was right there with Amadou, enslaved on a cacao plantation, fighting to stay alive. The visual language painted the action of the story in my mind, and even though I have never been to the Ivory Coast or West Africa, I felt like I had been alongside Amadou for years. If a reader did not know anything about the Ivory Coast or a cacao plantation, he or she could still follow the main plot of the book because of Sullivan’s vivid descriptions of each scene.
I absolutely loved The Bitter Side of Sweet; I would definitely recommend this book to anyone who is in need of a powerful realistic fiction novel (for readers ten and above). I would rate this book a ten out of ten; there was never a dull moment where I wanted to skip a scene, and it always kept me on the edge of my seat. Readers that have read Prisoner B 3087 by Alan Gratz and Between Shades of Grey by Ruta Sepetys will love this novel, as well as other books by Tara Sullivan, such as Treasure of the World and Golden Boy. The Bitter Side of Sweet is a must-read, and I guarantee that your perspective on chocolate will be forever changed.
Putnam, 322 pages
Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda by Becky Albertalli
That’s where I found Blue’s post. It just kind of spoke to me. And I don’t even think it was just the gay thing. I don’t know. It was seriously like five lines, but it was grammatically correct and strangely poetic, and just completely different from anything I’d ever read before.”
Simon Spier is gay, but he hasn’t come out yet. The only person he can talk to about it is Blue, the pen-name of another sixteen-year-old boy who goes to Creekwood High. Simon and Blue have been emailing back and forth ever since the August before junior year, when Simon found Blue via a social media post and felt he just had to know him. Through their emails, they tell each other the big, important things about their lives, but they’ve chosen to stay anonymous, at least for now—with secret email accounts, pen-names, no clues about who their friends are, or anything overly specific about school.
But when Martin Addison logs onto a school computer after Simon, finds his secret email account, and is cruel enough to take a screenshot, he threatens to reveal Simon’s sexual identity to the entire school. All Simon has to do to prevent this is help him land a date with Abby Suso, who happens to be one of Simon’s closest friends. For Martin Addison, this seems like no big deal. But to Simon, everything—and everyone―he cares about most is at risk. His junior year just got a lot more complicated.
In Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda, Becky Albertalli writes from Simon’s incredibly well-crafted perspective. Readers will feel as if they are in the head of a real teenage boy. Nothing about the tone is ever robotic, forced, or stiff. The audience will love the honest, humorous, socially- and emotionally-aware voice of Simon. He is observant, with a clear and strong perspective on his world. The chapters alternate between Simon’s first-person narrative and his emails with Blue. This is a strategy that I haven’t seen in many books, but in this case it’s extremely effective, as the reader learns more about both boys through their intimate, heart-warming, and often hilarious email chain. There is playful teasing, countless jokes, ingenius typos, and effective all-caps usage between Blue and Simon that keep the emails fresh, funny, and interesting. Because readers don’t know Blue’s real identity, these chapters give readers a chance to learn about the way he feels: Simon and Blue are always truly honest with each other.
And they aren’t the only strong characters in this book. Martin, although readers will be upset with the way he acts, is developed well; he has a distinct personality, and visibly grows throughout the narrative. Nick, Leah, and Abby are some of the best friends a reader will find in a contemporary realistic fiction novel. Nick is caring, funny, and a complete constant in Simon’s life. Leah and Simon’s relationship is perfect because they fully get each other. There is nothing forced about their friendship. I loved the bond between Abby and Simon because they only met at the beginning of the school year, and they are already super close. Abby is gentle, kind, easy to talk to, and always knows how to cheer Simon up when he’s upset.
Simon’s parents are also crafted well. In some young adult books, these characters are just there because the protagonist has parents, but in Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda, they have their own well-crafted character development. Something that Simon struggles with is that he feels like his parents have a set idea of who he is, and if anything about him changes it’s always this super huge deal. Simon’s sisters, Alice and Nora, are also exceptional characters. Nora is quiet, but shows huge love for her siblings, and Alice is an incredible big sister who Simon and Nora both adore. It’s refreshing to read about siblings who have such strong relationships.
Readers will never feel bored or wish to skip ahead while reading. This is because the problem is introduced on page one, the chapters aren’t too long, and as time goes on, Simon and Blue continue to grow closer—and both Simon and the reader will be aching to find out Blue’s true identity. Readers will find themselves constantly guessing at who he might be, which will result in a completely satisfying conclusion, executed just right.
Albertalli has an amazing eye for detail, clear from reading a few sentences of her novel. Every new setting is described in a fresh, original way, and I found myself often thinking, Huh. People do that all the time, because not only does Albertalli have great sensory diction, she is also aware of the way people act, and that shows. This is reflected in the dialogue as well, which is realistic, funny, and mirrors every character’s individual personality.
Albertalli has written a variety of other titles, including Leah on the Off Beat, which is the phenomenal sequel to Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda, starring Simon’s best friend, Leah, and Love, Creekwood, a third book in this series. She’s also authored What if It’s Us, co-written with Adam Silvera, and Yes No Maybe So co-written with Aisha Saeed. I would recommend anything by Albertalli, even the titles I haven’t yet read, because she is just so good. Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda was also made into a movie that came out in 2018, called Love, Simon. It stars Nick Robinson and has gotten many good reviews. I am eager to watch it soon.
This story deals with many themes, including romance, sexual identity, friendship, and the importance of doing the right thing. Personally I believe that all of these themes are important to learn about, and it’s exciting to read more books with LGBTQ+ protagonists written by an author who is skilled at giving them a voice. I have learned a lot from entering into the head of Simon Spier, and I think anyone who picks up this novel will, too.
I would rate Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda a ten out of ten and recommend it to anyone twelve or older—it does have a fair amount of swearing—who enjoys books with romance, a bit of mystery, an abundance of humor, and a protagonist you can’t help but love.
HarperCollins Publishers, 303 pages
Crossover by Kwame Alexander
“A loss is inevitable
like snow in winter.
Seventh grader Josh Bell plays basketball with his twin brother, Jordan, and they are exceptionally talented. Their mom is the assistant principal at their school and their dad was an Italian League basketball player. They are very close with their father who taught them how to play and comes to all of their games. But after Jordan meets a girl he likes, he stops paying as much attention to his brother, so Josh decides he has to get his focus back onto basketball and claiming the championship. However, there are a few unexpected hurdles on and off the court that could make winning difficult.
Alexander wrote Crossover as a free-verse novel, which is when the whole story is told through free-verse poems. This is very effective because it really slows readers down and focuses them on each individual poem, which makes readers catch more of the theme and plot and makes the story more enjoyable. This book is in the realistic sports fiction genre, and it was interesting to see that because it was mostly sports focused in the beginning of the book, but near the end it switches to almost all realistic fiction. The plot is not full of action, but there are no slow parts in the story.
Crossover is written in first person from the point of view of Josh, which allows Alexander to show how Josh feels about everything in the book involving the conflict between the twin brothers. I found this effective because it made me side with the protagonist, Josh. I thought that Alexander added strong diction during the basketball games that he put into the book, which made them suspenseful and fun to read about.
I would recommend Booked by Kwame Alexander to readers who enjoyed this book because it is a different free-verse novel by the same author, and the plot is fast. I think that Alexander made the themes different, and that made them both enjoyable. Alexander also wrote Rebound, which I have not yet read.
I think this book had an enjoyable, fast-paced plot, the characters were relatable, and the writing was very easy to follow. I thought it was one of the best sports-related books I have ever read before, and I read many in this genre. I would rate this book a ten out of ten, and I would recommend this book to anyone because it is not just a sports book—it’s intriguing and fun to read.
Houghton Publishing Company, 237 pages
Ant Farm by Simon Rich
Ant Farm features short humorous vignettes that poke fun at everyday situations and objects, such as the label of a candy bar, which “may or may not contain peanuts.” Have you ever wondered what ants trapped in an ordinary ant farm feel? Have you ever thought about getting a job at the Crayola company? All of these hypotheticals and more will be answered in Simon Rich’s book, Ant Farm.
Many of these vignettes are based on the author’s perspective as a child: for instance, “a day at UNICEF headquarters as i imagined it in third grade” (every title is written in lowercase) is the author as a third grader, dreaming up a picture of the “evil king of Halloween, UNICEF,” who tricks kids into gathering money for him. Oftentimes there isn’t a specific perspective to connect with, as many of the vignettes are written as screenplay scripts, like “i still remember the day i got my first calculator.”
ME: What do these things do?
TEACHER: Simple operations, like multiplication and division.
ME: You mean this device just…does them? By itself?
TEACHER: Yes. You enter in the problem and press equal.
ME: You…you knew about this machine all along, didn’t you? This whole time, while we were going through this…this charade with the pencils and the line of paper and the stupid multiplication tables! I’m sorry for shouting…it’s just…I’m a little blown away.
Others are written simply as two characters talking, like in “ant farm.”
—All right, men, listen up. As you know, we’ve built seven tunnels and we still haven’t found a way through the glass. I can tell you’re discouraged and I can’t blame you. Tunnel 7 was our most ambitious project to date and you all risked your lives to make it happen. But rest assured, we’ll be out of this hellish wasteland soon enough. I have a plan.
—What is it? What’s the plan?
—An eighth tunnel. Through the sand.
—I don’t know, sir…we’ve been digging tunnels ever since we got here. We always end up hitting glass. We lost ten men on the last tunnel: Brian, Jack, Lawrence—
—I know their names.
However, there are recurring characters throughout the book: Seymour, the sweet, clueless kid who just attracts unfortunate attention; the teacher, who is blunt and bored with life; and God, ruler of them all, who occasionally abuses his power.
My experience with this book was a great one, and I devoured it quickly, often re-reading chapters because they were so relatable. The author finds so many everyday situations to make fun of and add new life to. There were chapters that I found hilarious because the content Rich was writing about was in my life as well, and even I didn’t realize it was until I read his take on it! The chapters are the perfect length: not too short to leave out details, but not too long, so the author leaves space for the reader to dream up other scenarios.
I would rate this book a ten out of ten and would recommend it to teens or tweens with an older sense of humor, because I found the situations and humor young adult, although this book is relatable for all ages. The author has written several other books as well, including Free Range Chickens and Hits and Misses, both of which I haven’t personally read but am excited for. Readers will be fully engaged and fascinated by Ant Farm and will come away with a sense of satisfaction.
Random House, 160 pages
Bone Gap by Laura RubyFebruary 4, 2021
“In despair, he left that farm and came to Bone Gap when it was a huge expanse of empty fields, drawn here by the grass and the bees and the strange sensation that this was a magical place, that the bones of the world were little looser here, double-jointed, twisting back on themselves, leaving spaces one could slip into and hide.”
Welcome to Bone Gap, a small town in Illinois where Finn is called names like “spaceman” and “roadkill.” His mother left him, and soon after a mysterious girl named Roza shows up out of nowhere. Everyone quickly learns to love her more than any of the people they have grown up with一especially Finn’s older brother, Sean. Then Roza is taken just as mysteriously as she arrived, and only Finn saw who took her. The people of Bone Gap do not believe him. But soon after, he recognizes the man at a fair, talking to someone just out of sight. Will Bone Gap believe him now? Or will he need to find who’s making the deals with the devil?
When I started reading this book, I couldn’t stop. The way Laura Ruby keeps the narrative in third person, but incorporates Finn’s thoughts, helped me see the whole world of the novel instead of just observing through Finn’s eyes. This book is told from alternating perspectives with no set pattern. This will keep the readers interested because they will want to follow every storyline.
When Roza “magically” shows up she doesn’t speak English. I think Ruby made this choice to create another reason for no one to like her at first. She also looks like she has been living in the sewers and has a possibly broken toe. Finn’s brother, Sean, is a doctor in training, and he fixes her up, but Roza wants Finn to do it, not Sean. Soon after, she is taken. Ruby uses Roza as a MacGuffin 一a device for moving the plot forward一 because everyone wants her back. Finn describes the man that took her with language like, “He moves like a corn stalk.”Because the people of Bone Gap don’t believe him, he is left with guilt for not trying to save Roza—only the guilt is for his brother, because ever since she has been gone, Sean has been distant and uncaring. And the one thing Finn needs is a family.
Ruby makes this book engaging by always having a little spin between each perspective so readers want to keep going to find out the true full story. She makes it seem like Roza is being held against her will, but based on what we know from Finn’s perspective, anything could have happened. That kept me engaged with the plot, and in the high-intensity scenes I couldn’t put the book down.
With the weird and twisted characters, Ruby makes her audience think by keeping the characters’ secrets. Then, when they reveal them, everything readers thought we knew is changed. Because this book is third-person, we only think through one person at a time, so when we are with Finn we don’t know what is happening in his brother’s mind or in Roza’s mind. This keeps the book fresh and new with no repeated scenes.
Overall, I loved this book and would recommend it to anyone who enjoys realism with a twist or thrillers. I rate this book a ten out of ten and appreciated its allusions to the Orpheus myth. This is a very special book, and I have never read anything like it before. If you read this novel you will not be disappointed.
Balzer + Bray, 368 pages
The Sun Is Also a Star by Nicola Yoon
Natasha and her family are immigrants from Jamaica, who moved to New York City when she was eight years old. She only has one day left before she and her family are deported to Jamaica, leaving the world she has created behind. Natasha decides to walk the depths of Times Square to distract her from this reality, when her life almost flashes before her eyes: a car comes speeding towards her. Luckily Daniel, a boy who is living under his parents’ expectations to become a doctor and with his not-so-nice brother Charlie, is in the right moment at the right time and saves Natasha from getting hit. Daniel doesn’t leave Natasha’s side after the incident, as he gets a different feeling that he has never felt with anyone else he’s ever met before. Daniel is convinced that he can make Natasha fall in love in just one day. Although he has a lot of hope for his unheard-of plan, Natasha is not one to believe in “love at first sight.” She prefers sticking to the facts and research. Natasha may not believe in love, but Daniel is on a mission to convince her otherwise with the only day they’ve got left together.
I had a great experience reading The Sun Is Also a Star. Although it fell under the genre of contemporary realistic fiction, it wasn’t like any other book I’ve read before. One of the key elements I loved reading throughout the book was how Nicola Yoon structured the character development between Natasha and Daniel. The two have awkward and tense energy between them initially, but as they start talking more, readers can see them warming up to each other, making it feel as though they’ve known each other for the longest time. The development of them individually is fascinating, too. Natasha starts out skeptical and always seems to be on edge. But when she meets Daniel, he helps her loosen up a little bit, making her feel more comfortable and at ease as she gets to know him better. Yoon has Daniel lack a lot of confidence to start out. His parents want him to be a doctor even though that’s not the path he wants to go down. He’s also used to Charlie always being rude to him, but he would never stand up for himself. I found it satisfying when Daniel slowly starts gaining confidence as he sticks up for himself against his brother and tells his parents he doesn’t want to do what they want him to do—all because he met Natasha. If Natasha and Daniel hadn’t met, they would still have these insecurities to struggle with.
I liked how Yoon structured the narrative because one essential feature for any book is having multiple perspectives to create a balance with different characters, instead of having it told through one character. This creates more depth and can be easier to understand. I found the way Yoon crafted the different chapters interesting. Most of the chapters alternate between Natasha and Daniel’s perspective, but some chapters include side characters that the two meet throughout the story, and some chapters are written as meanings or definitions that have to do with the situation Natasha and Daniel are in. This intrigued me because I’d never read a book like that, but I really enjoyed it. It created more clarification that was essential for the book. I also found it different how Yoon chose to have varying chapter lengths, from two words to six full pages, which was unexpected to me but added suspense and wonder about what the next chapter will say, which I thought was smart for Yoon to do.
The pace of the book was neither fast nor slow. It was a pace that was perfect for me because I never felt bored, but I also didn’t feel rushed or caught off guard while reading. It’s rare to find a book with a pace that is perfectly fitted for the reader such as myself. With this in mind, reading did not feel like a chore or homework because Yoon kept the situation alive and exciting throughout the entire story, making it difficult for me to put the book down whenever I came to a new chapter, which I admired greatly. I rate The Sun Is Also a Star a very strong ten out of ten because it was everything I could’ve wanted in a book: an intriguing title, two main characters in their teens finding their own way in life, a complex setting like New York City, an effective main problem spread evenly throughout the entire story, suspenseful action that kept me on the edge of my seat, and a satisfying ending that fit perfectly.
I recommend The Sun Is Also a Star to fans of Yoon’s other book Everything, Everything, contemporary realistic fiction lovers, and ultimately anyone who’s looking for a detailed story to get hooked on. The Sun Is Also a Star is also “The #1 New York Times Bestseller,” was one of the National Book award Finalists, and is now a major motion picture. Readers will not regret reading this masterpiece of a story.
Ember, 344 pages
Jarhead by Anthony Swofford
Some wars are unavoidable and need well be fought, but this doesn’t erase warfare’s waste. Sorry, we must say to the mothers whose sons die horribly. This will never end. Sorry.
Anthony Swofford is a man in his mid-twenties who, at the age of fourteen, decides that he’s going to follow the path his dad and grandfather carved out, and become a U.S. Marine, in response to the suicide bombing of the Marine barracks in Lebanon. Four years later, in 1990, he legally joins on his own (without the definite permission of his parents) and gets shipped off to the Mojave desert, where he and his fellow marines find out about the US declaring war on Iraq. To everyone else, this is bad news, but to Swofford, this is a way to exact revenge. From there, he is sent to Saudi Arabia to live in the sand for six months as part of the Surveillance and Target Acquisition Platoon (STA). While there, he is pushed on the verge of craziness, tests out a new government weapon, gets harassed by his Staff Sergeant, and finds out what it means to be a man, to be an American, and to serve his country, ─even if there’s a moderate chance he won’t make it back.
In his memoir, Jarhead, Swofford gives an effective first-person account of living the Marine life ─the pros and the cons ─all the while using precise diction to accurately capture his thoughts and feelings and the landscape around him. How he structures the narrative is interesting because, unlike most other books about war, Swofford splits up the parts, so the book doesn’t go chronologically from enlistment to retirement. Instead, readers get various chapters that, some of the time, have no relation to the previous chapter, and that’s what makes this book unique. He also devotes a chapter to the cleaning guide for the M40A1 Rifle that tells readers how to properly clean it and keep it 100% functional (combating condensation, humidity, etc.), which is fitting because Swofford cleans his guns to get his mind off things, even if the guns are already clean. It’s his escape from reality.
I felt that the plot was decently fast-paced, due to Swofford only describing the parts of his experience that are significant. He’s not explaining every little detail about the sand or the sky or the guns: it’s a mix between him telling the story around a campfire and him writing it in a book. It’s that nice blend that doesn’t have so much description that it takes up a whole paragraph but not too little that readers can’t “see it” in their heads.
One idea that I learned from this book is that there are a lot of things that can go wrong when someone’s fighting in a war. A friendly platoon can mistake them for an enemy and shoot, they can be walking along as quietly as possible and still get ambushed by enemy forces, something bad can happen back in the States and make them severely depressed, and all these other factors that they can’t prepare for could happen any second.
Swofford has published a couple of other books including Death of an American Sniper, which documents the life of Chris Kyle, a Navy Seal sniper who had 160 confirmed kills and a first-hand account of Eddie Ray Routh, the war-torn man who ended Chris’s life. Jarhead was also the inspiration for the movie Jarhead, and the two other movies that are about US soldiers in combat but are not related to the first installment.
I rated this book a ten out of ten for its satisfying reading pace, and I recommend this memoir to anyone who is interested in war or military stories and is okay with a lot of profanity. The diction used in this chronicle is gripping and psychological and is sure to make you ponder when Mr. Swofford leads you on this war-torn path through a small part in American history.
Scribner, 257 Pages
Leah on the Offbeat by Becky AlbertalliFebruary 3, 2021
Creekwood is a wealthy town, and for most people it’s the perfect place for their perfect family—not for Leah. Her mother is struggling with work, and Leah’s not sure about her mom’s new boyfriend, Wells. Plus, it’s senior year, and things are changing: everyone is looking at colleges that are way out of Leah’s price range, and her feelings for her long-time classmate Abby are becoming something more than friendship. As the school year goes on, more starts to happen. Abby breaks up with her boyfriend (which makes Leah surprisingly happy), and Leah gets a boyfriend, Garrett (who she decides to ignore). She can’t help feeling that her world is changing. Leah has to survive the ups and downs of senior year. Will she make it?
In Leah on the Offbeat, Becky Albertalli develops Leah and her supporting characters to be lifelike. Most of the situations Leah is put in happen to many kids, and it is cool to see a book that has so many connections to the real world. Readers will want to dive right into Creekwood High School’s drama and gossip, and they will immediately fall in love with Leah’s quirky personality. They will also enjoy Albertalli’s way of making the characters’ dialogue super realistic. I felt like I was inside of the book listening to the characters talk to one another.
The novel is written in first person, which gives readers a sense of what Leah is thinking all the time. It is crucial that Albertalli did this because, without Leah’s thoughts and feelings, the book would be bland, and readers would find themselves wondering what is going on in Leah’s head.
I found that the pace of Leah on the Offbeat was fast, but it had some parts that were slow on purpose, so the moments they described were more special. At some points in the end there were a couple of suspenseful moments where readers will not be able to put the book down.
One choice of Albertalli’s that was effective was how she made the antagonist Leah herself. Leah is self-conscious about her body and is nervous about telling people that she is bisexua, even her best friends, and I think that readers will gain knowledge about how some kids are not comfortable coming out to their families. Leah on the Offbeat clearly shows how hard it can be for kids to tell the people that they love one of the most important things to them. Leah’s rose as the antagonist of her own story will show readers that it is hard to tell people how you feel.
Leah on the Offbeat was definitely a ten out of ten read for me. With all these effective features, how could it not be? Albertalli has written other amazing books that readers will enjoy: Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda is the first book in this series. It focuses on Leah’s friend, Simon, and it’s a great book. Albertalli also wrote What if it’s Us, a wonderful book about a summer romance. I would recommend this book to anyone who likes contemporary realistic fiction and to someone who is looking for a heartwarming romance novel that will make readers fall in love with Leah’s story.
Balzer + Bray, 339 pages
Unwind by Neal Shusterman
“In a perfect world everything would be either black or white, right or wrong, and everyone would know the difference. But this isn’t a perfect world. The problem is people who think it is.”
This is a world where the government believes in “unwinding,” a way of disassembling criminals or unwanted children from ages thirteen to eighteen without killing them, as an alternative to abortion or disowning. Meet Connor—a seventeen-year-old “troublemaker” who found out about his unwind order, Risa— a sixteen-year-old orphan and a talented pianist that lives in a state home, and Lev—a thirteen year old born into a religious family, who was planned to be tithed (a religious way to give back to God, willingly unwound soon after their thirteenth birthday when they become eligible for unwinding) and is proud about it. Readers follow along as the trio teams up to evade the Juvey-cops and attempt to end the practice of unwinding for good.
The gripping novel Unwind by Neal Shusterman is written in third-person omniscient, focusing on Connor, Risa, and Lev. I thought this was effective because when the characters split up, readers could follow each of their stories and know what they are thinking and feeling. It shows the reader opinions of other characters that are relevant to the story and how their opinion of unwinding changes throughout the book. Shusterman also includes excerpts from news articles that inform the reader of what laws the government is passing.
This fast-paced book keeps the reader guessing at every turn. Shusterman leaves each chapter as a cliffhanger, making the reader try to predict what will happen to the characters. He also includes allusions to real life events.
The themes of this story are morality and injustice because the plot revolves around the idea of unwinding an unwanted, which will lead the people to rethink their opinions on the laws in this society. The audience will experience the characters questioning their own beliefs and their way of living. If unwinding existed, would you stand up for the runaway unwinds? Would you go AWOL or accept your unwinding?
I rate this title a ten out of ten and recommend it to anyone who would like to read a fast-paced sci-fi dystopian thriller about unequal treatment and morality. There are three other books in this series: Unwholly, Unsouled, and Undivided. Shusterman has also written multiple other books, including The Ark of a Scythe Trilogy, The Skinjacker Trilogy, and The Star Shards Chronicles. I have only read the first two and enjoyed them almost as much as Unwind. I would recommend this novel to anyone who likes a page-turner that makes the reader stop to think about what the world might become.
Simon & Schuster, 335 pages
Strange Birds by Cecelia Perez
Ofelia Castillio: a journalist in training. Cat Garcia: an animal activist. Aster Douglas: the gifted baker. Lane Distani: the lonely artist. It all starts with a note, stuffed into three random backpacks. These mysterious, anonymous letters guide Cat, Ofelia, and Aster into the backyard of Lane’s lavish mansion. The recipients follow their instructions up the rickety ladder and into the artist’s treehouse. After a few introductions and explanations, the girls form their own troop, attempting to stop the use of a feathered hat in Cat’s former Girl Scout troop, the Floras. The four new friends journey through the streets of Sabal Palms, Florida, bringing awareness to the mistreatment of birds. What will these twelve-year-old girls have to do in order to stop the Floras? What measures will these outcasts take?
In Strange Birds, Cecilia Perez creates four remarkable characters, each with her own view of life. Even though these girls are as different as can be, that won’t stop them from fighting for what’s right. Each chapter is full of new possibilities and plot twists as the girls discover adventure around every corner. Whether it’s sticking fifty plastic flamingos in the Floras’ front lawn or stickering Brownie boxes with their motto, “Return the Feathers”.
Perez writes in third person, with the chapters alternating among the four girls. As I was reading, I noticed that the pace was quite quick, and I had to slow myself down so I could enjoy all of the small details she included. The book is written in a friendly tone that will make the reader fall in love with the characters. With their differing personalities, anyone could recognize themselves in one of the four girls.
Bird cruelty is hardly ever talked about, especially in books. Perez blended real-life problems with the events of her fictional characters’ lives seamlessly. Writing about such a broad subject isn’t easy, but I loved how she used four twelve-year-olds to express her feelings and bring awareness to a big problem at the same time.
I would rate this book a ten out of ten for its diverse characters and captivating plot line. Readers of all ages will connect to each and every one of the characters—because we are all Strange Birds.
Kolika, 350 pages
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