Posted in YA Fiction

“If You Find Me”

If You Find Me
Author: Emily Murdoch
Publisher: St. Martin’s Griffin
Publication Date: 2013
ISBN: 978-1250033277
Lexile Level: 750
*South Carolina Book Award Nominee—YA category, 2014-2015

Every now and then you come across a book that leaves you basking in an afterglow when you’re finished. These are the books we read in one sitting, that we can’t put down for a minute. We eat without tasting, balancing plates and forks around pages, too drawn in to notice. If You Find Me is one such book.

This YA novel follows 14 year old Carey and her six year old sister Jenessa, as they are rescued from their home in the deep woods of Tennessee. After being hidden away for ten years by her mentally ill mother, the siblings are rescued by Carey’s father and a social worker. Carey was kidnapped by her mother, Joelle, and has been living in a camper in the woods. We never meet Joelle, but we’re told she’s both bipolar and a meth addict. After abandoning the girls, she writes a letter to the state revealing the location of the girls. Carey reveals small details throughout the book painting the picture of an abusive and neglectful relationship. The novel follows the journey of the girls adjusting to the civilized world.

The book is nearly perfectly balanced. I never feel like I’m being deprived of any character, even though it’s all told through Carey’s POV. Despite being in first person, we have a fairly good idea of how this adjustment is being handled by every member of the family. Carey and Jenessa are brought home to Carey’s father, wife, and stepdaughter. Each has their own reactions to what is happening. We see the least out of the dad, but that’s okay—it’s not his story. An underlying mystery of what happened on the “white-starred night” keeps the story moving along at a quick pace.

Carey is written beautifully. Her Southern cadence is perfect—you pick up on it from the very first paragraph. A Southerner myself, this is important to me. You can tell when a dialect isn’t written correctly—it comes across as forced, or worse, like a farce. Carey’s voice never feels unnatural to me.

My one complaint—and it’s more of a nitpick, than a complaint—is that I would have been more comfortable if Carey had been 16. There’s not much in the story that warrants it, but she is making the beginnings of a romantic relationship with a junior, and she does attend a party where there are drugs and alcohol. Carey never feels like a 14 year old—but that’s partially because of everything she’s gone through. The other small thing is that Carey is a little too…not perfect. I mean, the girl has been through hell, and that’s where the focus is most of the time. But she’s a musical prodigy, tests two grade levels above where she should be, and is described as being model levels of beautiful. While some of this is explained (her mother trained her on the violin from the time she was four; they had time to do nothing but study) it still feels a little over the top. Fortunately, these things are barely mentioned, and don’t really detract from the overall story.

I honestly don’t want to give too much away about this one. It is just so fantastic. Your best bet is to go in as blind as possible. Be prepared for a few emotional punches to the gut.

That said, don’t expect to use this for book clubs or library events. The content makes it way too squicky for that. But definitely put it in the hands of any adults who love YA, and any older teens who you think would like it.

Trigger warnings: child abuse, sexual assault

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Posted in Middle Grade Fiction

“Hardy Boys: Deprivation House”

Hardy Boys: Deprivation House
Author: Franklin W. Dixon
Publisher: Aladdin
Publication Date: May 2008
ISBN: 978-1435299160
Lexile Level: 700-750

Did you know that they are still making Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew books? I didn’t, until I was working in children’s. Yes, these teenage detectives have been brought into the 21st century, complete with cell phones and reality TV.

Deprivation House is actually the first book of the “Murder House” trilogy. I wrongly assumed that by trilogy, they meant three connected but self-contained stories. Instead, it is one story spread over three books. The last page offers a cliffhanger for the second book. This is a little disappointing, if only because there’s no reason this couldn’t be published as one book. It’s not unusual to see a 300-400 page children’s book. With a little editing, this could be a single story.

Technically, this is part of the Hardy Boys: Undercover Brothers series, which is not considered part of the mainstream Hardy Boys series. It’s all the same characters, the premise is just slightly different, with the boys being part of an agency.

But we do see the Hardy Boys solve the first leg of this case. Frank and Joe go undercover on a reality TV show, to investigate death threats that have been issued to contestants. Why them? Well, after their father retired, he started American Teens Against Crime (ATAC for short). Basically a spy network for teens, for situations where teens would be more appropriate for undercover missions.

The idea seems to be to give the boys more of a spy feel. They have handy gadgets and a tech guy and the typical crap science that you see in that genre. I can understand that. With technology improving so dramatically since the 50s, it’s harder to handwave away gadgets as “they built it in their garage.”

What I can’t get behind is the fact that their mom and aunt (who lives with them) DON’T KNOW THEY’RE AGENTS. As in, their father started this agency, knows they’re a part of it…and then keeps his wife, their mother, in the dark. And the implication made by the boys is that all agents operate without the knowledge of their parents. Not only does it feel terribly misogynistic, there’s absolutely no reason for it. The boys even say that they think their mom would be okay with it. So why the secrecy? What are they going to tell these parents when their teenager dies on a mission? It just raises too many questions.

Overall, this very much feels like a Hardy Boys story of old. Aside of the technology updates, nothing else really feels updated. It’s not a bad story at all—I suspected who the criminal was, but it wasn’t glaringly obvious. It’s not a story that talks down to kids, which is nice. I may even take the time to finish the trilogy, just for a proper conclusion to the story (or I might just look it up on the Hardy Boys wiki, which is totally a thing).

If you have mystery lovers who need a solid series, don’t be afraid to fall back on this classic.

Posted in Picture Books

“Junkyard”

Junkyard
Author/Illustrator: Mike Austin
Publisher: Beach Lane Books
Publication Date: May 2013
ISBN: 978-1442459618
Lexile Level: AD (Adult Directed)

Junkyard is the story of two robots living in a junkyard. But there’s so much junk that there’s no room for anything new. So the robots get munching, and then they get to building. Before long they’ve formed a nice green space to plant, grow, and play.

The text is in a rhyming format, with illustrations in an interesting sort of painted print style. The pictures work really well–the junkyard and robots have a slightly grungy, dirty look. Then as the robots clean, the setting because brighter and friendlier. The illustrations provide a lot of the enjoyment, but they are not crucial to the story. Someone with visual impairments would still be able to enjoy the story and know what was happening without them.

The story provides a subtle environmental message that could be used to start discussions on recycling or taking care of our environment. The reader could also use the book as an example of why they do certain environmental chores around the house, such as composting.

The only flaw in the book is the rhyming scheme. While large parts of the book are consistent in meter, some are not. Some lines are too long to make the rhyming feel natural. If reading out loud, it is easy to get tripped up on some of the lines. Alternatively, sometimes the first part of the stanza fails to match the first part of the stanza, making it hard to build up a natural pace. It’s not devastating–but it does mean the book would require practice before being used in front of an audience.

Final Thoughts: A good recommendation for fans of robots, or as an environmental tie-in.

Posted in Adult Graphic Novels

“The Sandman Vol. 2: Doll’s House”

The Sandman: The Doll’s House
Author: Neil Gaiman
Publisher: DC Comics
Publication Date: 1989-1990
ISBN: 0-930289-59-5
Titles: The Sandman #9-16

This is the place where I started to realized that The Sandman was not going to be your typical comic series. While the first trade had a cohesive storyline in play, from here the stories are a bit more disjointed. They are all pieces of the same puzzle, the overarching connection being Morpheus. But the linear timeline has been abandoned for the most part.

The Doll’s House collects issues #9-16. There is a summary at the beginning which I highly recommend reading, even if you’ve just read the previous issues. Not only is it well written, and unique in its framing, but it helps to pull together some details of the story which the reader may have missed. For example (I don’t think I’m really spoiling anything here) there is a minor character mentioned in issue #1, that we see again later as an old woman. On my reading of Preludes and Nocturnes, I didn’t make the connection between the women, but did upon reading the introduction.

That seems to be a running theme through the series. Small details come back to play larger roles in later issues. We first see Nada, the main character in #9 “Tales in the Sand”, as a brief cameo in #4 “A Hope in Hell”. I really like this sort of detail–it shows a lot of planning on the part of the writer, and it makes rereading the stories more interesting.
This trade has a very dark undertone. I wouldn’t recommend it to those who are easily triggered by gore or talk of rape. That is a good rule of thumb for the entire series, actually. As I said in the last review, it is not for the faint of heart.

We see more trappings of the dream world in this collection, and see that the minions of Morpheus have their own powers. The consequences of his incarceration are still being felt now that he’s free. There are a few twist endings to the stories, and overall, it was very satisfying. I rate it just a little lower than Preludes and Nocturnes, mostly because I felt some of the gore was overkill (no pun intended). A serial killer convention is interesting to think about, but unless the Criminal Minds team is crashing the party, it’s not really my thing. I never really understood why the Corinthian was so violent. The reasoning for him being the way he was just seemed a bit weak, or maybe it just wasn’t explored as much as it should have been.

I think taken apart from the other issues, the stuff with the Corinthian would have played more powerfully. But by the time I got to it in the trade, I was already numbed by the proceeding horrors. I’m sure it made more sense in the original publication, where the issues would have been spread out. Still, it’s interesting stuff.

This is a powerful collection, and I do not recommend it lightly. It is definitely not for everyone. Tread lightly, dear readers. These dreams might just devour you whole.

Rating: 4 out of 5
Trigger warnings: Mentions of rape, gruesome images, violence, body horror

Posted in Adult Fiction

“The Help”

The Help
Author: Kathryn Stockett
Publisher: Penguin Books
Publication Date: February 2009
ISBN: 978-0425232200
Lexile Level: 730

The Help tells the story of three women living in Jackson, Mississippi in the early 1960s. Aibileen and Minny are African-American women who work as maids in white households. Eugenia, nicknamed Skeeter, is a white woman who’s recently graduated from college, and is trying to establish herself as a writer. The book alternates between their points of view–which isn’t something I usually like. But their voices are unique enough that it works.

We open with Aibileen, as she recounts part of her history and her current position taking care of the house and child of Elizabeth Leefolt. She is the primary caretaker of Mae Mobley, Elizabeth’s toddler, as Elizabeth supposedly has postpartum depression and pays no attention to her. I say supposedly, because Mae Mobley is two years old (she turns three over the course of the book) and is talking. I don’t know how long postpartum can last, but the way Elizabeth treats Mae Mobley when she does pay attention to her is nothing short of abusive. Also, her treatment of her son (once he’s born later in the book) and continued mistreatment of Mae Mobley seems to signal that this is not simply the “baby blues.”

Aibileen and Skeeter interact at Elizabeth’s weekly bridge club. Skeeter, having recently returned from college, is uncomfortable with some of the prejudice talk that her friends (specifically Holly Holbrook) throw around. She later asks Aibileen if she wishes things were different. The question rather baffles Aibileen–mostly because she’s used to how the world works. Her thoughts and reply implies that this is an incredibly naive act on Skeeter’s part–which, of course, it is.

Skeeter’s narration introduces her as a rather insecure young woman trying to find her place in the world. She’s mostly insecure about her looks, due to the constant criticisms of her mother. Her character is changed the most in the film adaptation, instead turning her into a Strong Independent Woman. In the novel, Skeeter is much more unsure of herself, and hesitant to speak out. It takes her awhile to find her voice.

Minny’s story is, in some ways, skimpy compared to the other two. It just never feels like there’s as much going on. We pick up with her after she’s been fired from working for Mrs. Walters, Hilly Holbrook’s mother. This is one area in which the film far exceeds the book. The film establishes the relationship between Minny, Mrs. Walters, and Hilly. It makes her firing, and everything that comes later, more meaningful.

Minny is blacklisted as a maid after being fired, as Hilly has spread the rumor that she stole from the household. She finally lands a job with Celia Foote, a white trash woman who has married a very successful man named Johnny. Because of her background, and the fact that Johnny used to date Hilly, Celia is an outcast among the white society women. She hires Minny to teach her to cook, as she wants her husband to think she is capable of keeping the house herself.

Skeeter, having gotten a job writing a cleaning column for the local paper, begins to meet with Aibileen for advice on how to answer the letters. In talking to Aibileen, she learns of her son Treelore, and his desire to be a writer. Aibileen even shares an idea for a book that he had, about showing the point of view of colored people in the South. Skeeter ponders on it for awhile, having been encouraged by an editor in New York to write something that she feels passionately about.

She decides that she wants to write a book from the perspective of “The Help”–the colored women who raise white children only to have them become their bosses. Gaining the trust of the black maids is not easy, however, as they fear repercussions should it be discovered who they are. Aibileen eventually agrees to talk to Skeeter, but no one else wants to.

Eventually, due to crimes against a civil rights leader and the arrest of Hilly Holbrook’s new maid (who stole from her to pay for her boy to go to college), several other maids in the area agree to be interviewed by Skeeter. Minny is one of them–though she is typically outspoken about how dangerous and preposterous the whole idea is.

The book moves between the three women, with Aibileen and Skeeter’s chapters focusing mostly on the interviews and the creation of the book. Meanwhile, Minny is dealing with Celia, who she eventually learns has miscarried several children, and is desperate to have them. Minny also deals with the escalating violence from her husband, and trying to care for her children.

While the plot is always moving forward, I confess there are parts where it felt a bit repetitive. The women are constantly afraid of being discovered, which makes sense and sets the stage. 1960s Mississippi was a dangerous place, and they ought to be afraid. There is a particularly good passage, where Aibileen talks about the difference in how white women will come after them, as opposed to the white men. However, there are places where I found myself wishing we could just get on with it.

Their book is eventually published, and slowly becomes an unexpected success. There are, however consequences, as several people in Jackson begin to suspect the true identities of those talked about in the book. At least one maid is fired, and our protagonists begin to fear that they’ve made a terrible mistake. But their gamble pays off, and they are soon able to start new lives for themselves, in their own way. Skeeter accepts a job in New York, Aibileen retires, and Minny leaves her husband.

To touch briefly on the film adaptation: there are a number of things the movie does very well. We get to see a number of scenes that are only referred to in the book as having had happened, which creates a more dynamic story. I feel Minny’s character and storyline are strengthened–though the violence she faces is downplayed. Some of the relationships are not as well portrayed (such as the one between Skeeter and her mother) but in other ways, we get more interaction (such as Aibileen and Minny working the bridge club together).

I liked the movie, though if anyone suffered from the adaptation, it’s Skeeter. She’s turned into the atypical Strong Independent Woman, and her romantic subplot–which actually takes up a great deal of her part of the book–is reduced to four scenes. She literally only meets her man, dates him, and is left by him. The character has about ten minutes of screen time total. It would have been better if they had cut him completely.

However, the performances made the movie shine. Viola Davis, Octavia Spencer, and Emma Stone are simply amazing. There’s really not a bad cast member in the lot. The movie has received as much acclaim as the book, and it is well deserved.

Despite its size, this book was a quick read. It is incredibly engaging, and the alternating voices keep it moving at a swift pace. I would highly recommend it to anyone who enjoyed the film (there’s some added bits that are just priceless) as well as anyone who enjoys realistic fiction.

While there have been some criticisms of the book (mostly that it downplayed too much of the experiences of black women at the time) I feel it is a realistic portrayal. The sad fact is, in mainstream entertainment, you’re not going to be able to show a lot of history’s cruelties without losing a large part of your audience. The book and film may have their flaws, but they are still enjoyable and worth the time.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5
Trigger Warnings: Racism, domestic violence

Posted in YA Graphic Novels

“Stitches: A Memoir”

Stitches: a memoir
Author: David Small
Publisher: W.W. Norton & Company
Publication Date: September 2009
ISBN: 978-0393068573
Lexile Level: n/a

The graphic novel Stitches: a memoir takes place in Detroit in the 1940s and 1950s. It is a snapshot of scenes from the life of the author, covering events of his childhood, teen years, and early adulthood. The artwork is entirely in black and white and is also done by Small. The book was a New York Times #1 bestseller and was named one of the ten best books of 2009 by Publishers Weekly. It was also awarded the YALSA Alex Award in 2010.

The book opens when David is six. He takes us through the family life, highlighting the language of each family member. Each form of communication is decidedly nonverbal, highlighting the strains of the family’s life. We see David visit his maternal grandparents, and the abuse that happens at the hands of his grandmother while he is there. However, we do also see the loving relationship that he has with his step-grandfather. Soon afterward, a family friend notices a growth on David’s neck, pointing it out to his mother. When asked if he will have to go to a doctor, his mother appears to be more concerned about the cost of such a venture than his health. As David’s father is a radiologist, many of their friends are also in the medical field. While visiting said friends on a yacht, one of the doctors examines David’s neck and advises a visit. The official diagnosis is that it is a cyst, and can be removed at their convenience. Again citing money worries, David’s mother puts off the operation.

However, we see that their family does not hurt for money, despite his mother’s protests, as she soon goes on a shopping spree with his father. The physical and emotional abuse at the hands of his mother becomes all too clear as the book progresses. This is especially clear in the fact that it takes more than three years after the initial diagnosis for the surgery to take place.

David is left almost completely mute following his operation. By the time we reach his late teen years, his mother’s abuse and her impact on him has become clear. Eventually, and after much trouble, David moves out, and eventually establishes himself as an artist.

There are a few twists in the book, which I won’t spoil here. As far as graphic novels go, this book is amazing. The artwork is simple, but effective. Small’s art appears to be something in the lines of a watercolor medium, and is entirely in black and white.

There is a lot of silence in this book, and it sets the atmosphere perfectly. The overall impression is of a family trapped by their own silence and inability to talk to each other. I do wish that we had gotten to see more of the brother, especially since the book is partially dedicated to him. With the exception of one scene, he is rarely in the book, and I would have liked to have more of a picture of David’s relationship with him. I’m curious as to if the abuse was focused on David, or if his brother was equally disliked by their mother.

Dreams are a heavy motif in the book, as is Alice in Wonderland symbolism. I thought that the therapist being portrayed as the White Rabbit was interesting, particularly given the comments at the end of the book in the acknowledgments, which credit the therapist with helping David regain his sense of self.

Overall, this is a very impressive piece of work. It is stark and realistic, even if the artwork is a little more cartoonish. The style reminded me of the Calvin and Hobbs artstrip, despite being in black and white. While the material is dark, it is a quick read, and well worth checking out.

If you liked Stitches: a memoir, check out Special Exists by Joyce Farmer, or Swallow Me Whole by Nate Powell.

Posted in Middle Grade Fiction, Middle Grade Graphic Novel

“Star Wars: Jedi Academy”

Star Wars: Jedi Academy
Author/Illustrator: Jeffrey Brown
Publisher: Scholastic
Publication Date: August 2013
ISBN: 978-0545505178
Lexile Level: 650

The first volume of the Jedi Academy graphic novels introduces us to Roan, a boy on Tatooine who ends up going to the Jedi Academy after he is rejected from Pilot School. We follow him through his first year through a collection of journal entries, traditional comic panels, and other inserts.

Jeffrey Brown does a fantastic job introducing us to Roan and his struggle as he enters middle school. Roan’s primary problem is that he’s behind most of the Jedi students, who have been training for years. We’re not clued in to why Roan has been selected only now for training, but maybe that will come out in the later volumes.

The cast of students is just big enough to be comfortable and still feel like an entire class. Of course, there are the stereotypical bullies (one has to wonder why such children would be permitted to train as Jedi) but their behavior seems to be mostly to provide some conflict. One thing that stands out is Roan’s comments on how busy he is and how there’s so much to do for class. I like this inclusion—it seems like a little thing, but that is a legitimate adjustment problem that readers may have as they transition from elementary to middle school themselves.

The books are great for anyone with only a basic knowledge of the Star Wars universe. Different creatures are explained and it may help children who are 1) interested in seeing the movies for the first time, or 2) have seen the movies, but struggled with the different terms being thrown out.

Though I use the term graphic novel, this is really more of a chapter book, with the comic book panels being used sparingly. Fans of Captain Underpants and other hybrid books will enjoy Jedi Academy.

Final thoughts: Great for kids who love Star Wars, as well as fans of hybrid novels. It’s a good bridge for those who are transitioning into chapter books, but may need work on their stamina. Also good for those who get bored with traditional novel formats.