Sunday, August 7, 2022

How You Grow Wings by Rimma Onoseta

Most of my posts are for middle-grade readers, but this book is for young adults.

What worked:

This book offers a contrast in the lives of two Nigerian sisters, daughters of a physically and mentally abusive mother. Their stories are shared in alternating chapters. Cheta is the older sister and bears the brunt of her mother’s anger. She’s headstrong and defiant and refuses to be cowed which infuriates her mother further. On the other hand, the abuse rarely targets Zam as she tries to be obedient and inoffensive toward others. Cheta perceives her sister as the cherished daughter which only fuels her feelings of persecution. She’s tormented when outshined by her younger sister although she’s quick to come to Zam’s defense. Zam slowly learns to deal with her severe anxiety and her transformation as a developing woman is remarkable.

The Nigerian family culture depicted in the story is quite different from what readers may be used to. Strict discipline is enforced by many parents and they are not to be questioned or defied. A cousin is brutally beaten by her father in the opening chapter while other adults watch. Some of them are uncomfortable with the assault but no one tries to intervene. Cheta once slapped her mother in retaliation so she’s now forced to dodge knives, pots, and other objects flung at her. Men are viewed as the dominant gender although women seem to have inner disgust toward them. A wealthy uncle and aunt are publicly revered, and secretly despised, and life in their gated mansion is quite different from Zam’s humble home. An independent-thinking housemate becomes a close friend and mentor as Zam learns to survive life’s challenges.

Obviously, this book addresses mental and emotional health. Cheta has the larger challenge due to her lack of support from her parents. Her mother is the source of her anguish and her father is withdrawn and rarely interacts with others. She has no money and lacks options to escape the situation. Seeking help from friends may land her in even more unsavory situations. Zam’s been suffering panic attacks for years but thinks she’s being punished by God and doesn’t deserve any help. Life with her aunt and uncle is better financially but the mansion is the scene of its own drama. Her cousin isn’t receptive to Zam’s presence and Zam’s actions around the mansion staff aren’t normal for family members. She feels guilt for leaving her sister behind and experiences additional stress after her mother’s phone calls. Each sister learns to cope with their emotions in different ways.

What didn’t work as well:

The tone of the story is pretty dreary especially when sharing Cheta’s life around her mother. Zam’s life living with her aunt and uncle is better but she still finds conflict within the mansion and is forced to deal with severe anxiety. The plot doesn’t have a clear goal in the first half of the book so it’s unclear where it’s headed. However, it becomes dual stories of survival although the sisters have drastically different roads to follow.

The Final Verdict:

This book doesn’t share an uplifting, inspiring story but it tells of the emotional battles faced by two sisters. They face contrasting challenges of poverty and wealth that will evoke a wide range of feelings from readers. I recommend you give the book a shot.

Saturday, August 6, 2022

Pilar Ramirez and the Curse of San Zenon (Pilar Ramirez Duology #2)

What worked:

Pilar is of Dominican Republic heritage which is a culture not often featured in novels. The story includes language, food, and other cultural details as much of the plot takes place on the island. The antagonists are mythical creatures in the Dominican folklore and a couple of them are returning from imprisonments. Seems like they may want to find a more powerful, magical penal system. The giant evil being resurrected in the plot was considered gone forever until the reality of its return faces the main characters. The conflict finds Pilar and her allies struggling to discover an impossible way to stop the overwhelming power being wielded by a bruja traitor.

Pilar is a bruja, and the dictionary defines that term as a sorcerer. Pilar is able to wield magic but seems more like a warrior-in-training, as her friend Carmen has been teaching her fighting techniques. Pilar is the only person able to see the storm growing over the sea and the truth behind this vision is revealed later. She also has dreams of people she’s never seen in places she’s never been and the meaning of these images becomes clearer as the story moves on. Most of the brujas in the world have died so Pilar may be the most powerful one left. La Bruja seems to be the boss, but she defers to Pilar’s judgment at crucial points in the plot.

The adventure has a good deal of action-packed scenes that will satisfy young readers. Pilar and her friends use magic to conjure weapons against their foes. Machetes are wielded in hand-to-hand combat as some beasts can only be defeated by removing their heads. Powerful storms and devastating winds create a dark, malevolent atmosphere to accentuate the intensity of the characters’ clashes. Pilar uses her magic and special gloves to traverse the city spiderman-style and to maneuver around giant creatures. She later learns that teamwork is a highly effective strategy against their enemies.

What didn’t work as well:

Authors often use vocabulary from other languages to enhance the cultural influence. This book frequently uses insignificant Spanish conjunctions which may distract readers due to over usage. Other Spanish phrases are used more strategically, adding a cultural flair to the events. The vocabulary seems more appropriate and blends into the story better when it’s used in the characters’ dialogue.

The final verdict:

I recommend reading “Pilar Ramirez and the Escape from Zafa” before reading this one as many connections are made to past events and characters. The action, suspense, and Dominican folklore should entertain young readers and I recommend you give this book a shot. 

Wednesday, August 3, 2022

Hana Hsu and the Ghost Crab Nation by Sylvia Liu

What worked:

The template for the story is familiar so it will be easy to follow the plot. Hana dreams of attending Start-Up like her older sister but she soon learns that something nefarious is going on at the school. Large corporations are presented as the antagonists while their motives remain secret. Why would they care about different fungi and parasites and what does that have to do with the school? Hana tiptoes into the center of the drama as she reluctantly gets drawn in and she’s assisted by two classmates. The new friends have differing opinions throughout the book which offers a twist to a familiar story. Tomas is withholding a secret that will eventually be revealed to his friends.

Some moral issues concerning technology are at the forefront of the plot. The right to privacy is in doubt as all citizens are meshed, their brains becoming connected to the multiweb. It allows instant contact with friends, games, and news, but the corporations are also able to track everything people do. In addition, a point is made that the control of knowledge is power. People feel informed due to electronic connections to information but who’s controlling the news? Brainwashing is highly possible when corporations can decide what information and “truth” to share with the public. Hana’s own family finds itself on both sides of the issue of anti-tech and becoming enmeshed.

Hana’s character bridges the conflict between corporations and the rebellion against technology. The corporations are starting to control her school as traditions and procedures are changed. Hana discovers things feel wrong and some of her technology doesn’t work properly. She likes to build small, mechanical bots and frequently visits the Junkyard looking for parts she can use and recycle. She meets a tough girl named Ink and becomes drawn into the untold world of technology. Ghost Crab Nation refers to the name of a major anti-tech group. Hana is forced to face the conflicting stories of being meshed and must rethink her future. To complicate matters, Hana’s mother works at the largest corporation in the world and her research places her at the center of a covert plot.

What didn’t work as well:

The early chapters of the book share the common story framework of secret, evil things going on behind the scenes at a character’s dream school. However, the rest of the plot morphs into an engaging conspiracy with many unexpected twists and turns. More surprises await even after Hana figures out what’s actually happening.

The Final Verdict:

People should be free to think. The plot considers issues related to technology as it continues to become more invasive in our lives. Hana’s friends and family provide different perspectives on the issues but struggles with both groups add additional problems for her character. I recommend you give this book a shot!

Monday, August 1, 2022

Gravebooks by J.A. White

What worked:

This book is the sequel to Nightbooks, but it’s not essential that you’ve read it first. The prologue provides enough information about the evil witch Natacha that readers can easily jump right into this new adventure. The premise of the story is reminiscent of The Arabian Nights where Scheherazade must make up new stories every day to avoid being killed by the king. Natacha enters Alex’s dreams and won’t allow him to wake up until he’s written her an original story. She expects a new one every night, although she often requires Alex to write multiple tales before she deems one of them acceptable. The stories appear on gravestones and cause flowers to grow. Natacha is expecting unique flowers, and her jackal’s sniff determines the worthiness of Alex’s efforts. The importance of the flowers will be revealed later in the book. The author provides multiple surprises as the plot nears its climax.

A fun twist to the book is the fact that the plot includes the short stories written by Alex. They’re supposed to be original and scary because Natacha won’t accept them if they’re not. If you’re like me, you’ll find yourself judging the quality of the stories just like Natacha. For the most part, Alex is successful, so readers are able to enjoy many spooky stories within the pages of one book. Another novel approach by the author occurs when Alex discusses his writing process, so readers can learn about how authors craft new stories. Alex considers the origin of new ideas, characterization, plot development, word choice, conflict, and creative endings. He also battles writer’s block, which presents an additional problem while trying to escape his dreams. 

The author’s creativity is highlighted in this book. The dreamworld appears as a graveyard of Alex’s abandoned writing topics and it’s very real for him. It’s frightening how he can’t escape his own mind unless the witch allows it. After choosing a tombstone, Alex drops into another dreamworld based on an idea from his past, and he’s forced to compose a story before he can leave it. He’s trapped in a dream within a dream that has infinite possibilities. The additional characters, conflicts, and solutions allow plenty of room for healthy imagination. Alex must also learn to understand his friendship with Yasmin, and she’s forced to deal with her terrors from the first book.

What didn’t work as well:

While not a huge issue, the characters reference events from the first book, so readers may feel like they’re missing something. The easy solution to the problem is to read Nightbooks first. I’ve not read it yet, but I was easily able to enjoy the suspense and eeriness found in Gravebooks

The Final Verdict:

It’s not safe to dream anymore. The overall book is scary, but the short stories included are even more frightening. The author is skillfully able to evoke feelings of uneasiness and fear, and I highly recommend you give it a shot.

Tales to Keep You Up at Night by Dan Poblocki

What worked:

The story centers around an old, tattered library book titled Tales to Keep You Up at Night that Amelia finds in her grandmother’s attic. The book contains a collection of eerie stories beginning with Moll Bowen, a 90-year-old woman using a stiff, leather-bound book with yellowed pages to help her neighbors. Moll’s Well is said to have the purest, sweetest water anywhere, and she uses it to complete the recipes within the book’s pages, although Judge Turner sentences her to death for practicing witchcraft. This event becomes the catalyst for future tales surrounding the book and the well. Adding to the mystery, Amelia’s last name is Turner, and the librarian’s last name is Bowen.

Much of the book is comprised of creepy short stories that seem to be unrelated. However, the names in the stories should become familiar, and Amelia finally discovers connections, even though they’re very improbable. The stories describe witches that can appear as anyone, giant golem-like creatures wandering the forest, pumpkin vines seeking to kill, and other dangers that lurk in the night. The variety of tales will keep readers engaged and wondering where the plot is headed. They create a riddle to be solved with clues that will tingle your spine, and readers may not like the many possible solutions. Young readers may fear the dark after reading these stories!

The format of the plot is a bit unusual since most of it is introduced through the short stories. Brief chapters about Amelia, the main character, pop up throughout, but they mostly share Amelia’s actions between readings. She’s deeply distressed about her grandmother’s disappearance last year, and she’s extremely upset that her mothers have chosen to sell the old house. Amelia wants to learn what really happened to her grandmother, and that spurs the opening of the plot. She eventually uncovers what happened, but it’s not something she ever expected.

What didn’t work as well:

The early stories are unrelated, so understanding an overall conflict or plot is more challenging. You might imagine where the narrative should be going, but the stories don’t easily fit that idea until Amelia discovers how they tie together. They’re woven into a heart-pounding, ominous adventure.

The Final Verdict:

There are many ways a story can echo through life. The ghoulish tales will keep readers up at night, and the format of the narrative will keep readers thinking. The overall book successfully presents a chilling plot that will highly entertain middle-grade readers. I highly recommend you give it a shot.

This Appearing House by Ally Malinenko

What worked:

The book fulfills the author’s goal to write a book showing a young person overcoming a serious illness. The journey isn’t without struggles, as Jac fears the disease is returning after five years of treatment. She takes a couple of falls, her hands start to twitch, and she might be experiencing hallucinations. How else can she explain the house that appeared at the end of Juniper Drive? The plot becomes a haunted house story, and the author’s skillful descriptions conjure creepy, eerie emotions. The experience inside the house is a metaphor for the internal battle Jac’s facing. The only way out is through, and she’ll eventually need to face her inner monsters.

Jac has recently moved to New Jersey, so school and friendships offer challenges. She hasn’t shared her health problems with anyone else, not even her best friend Hazel. Hazel has his own issues dealing with a bully intent on shaming him for his girl’s name. Hazel’s character isn’t going through a gender-identity crisis; he’s named for a rabbit in his mother’s favorite story. Jac has erected a figurative wall inside her mind to shield her feelings, so no one truly knows what’s happening to her.

The story spends a good deal of time describing Jac’s relationship with her mother. It’s complicated, as her mother tries to juggle being a caring parent while not being overly protective. Jac tries to live as normally as possible, but her mother’s constant questions about how she’s feeling sidetrack her thoughts. It’s hard to not obsess about the disease when her mother won’t let her forget. On the other hand, her mother must protect her daughter from harm, so she needs to know what’s going on. Mother and daughter want the same thing, but their efforts are in conflict. As I said, it’s complicated.

What didn’t work as well:

Most of the book doesn’t specifically mention Jac’s disease and simply talks about its symptoms. It’s not clear why the author chooses to keep it secret, since the book’s synopsis says it’s cancer. Why not use the word from the beginning? Jac struggles with accepting her diagnosis, but informing readers of the disease shouldn’t significantly affect the story.

The Final Verdict:

The only way out is through. This book could be categorized as a ghost story, but it shares the profoundly emotional war that consumes people diagnosed with serious diseases. The author passionately expresses the fear, confusion, and anger of living with an illness. I highly recommend you give this book a shot. 

The U-nique Lou Fox by Jodi Carmichael

What worked:

The book describes the problems associated with dyslexia and ADHD. These two disabilities make school especially difficult for Louisa, as she struggles to read and pay attention. Dyslexia makes letters on the page get mixed up, so reading textbooks and directions from the board require extra concentration. However, the ADHD causes her mind to wander and leads to conflicts with her teacher. Her frustrations result in impulsive comments and behaviors that get her into additional trouble. She views her teacher as the Shadow Phantom, and Lou sees their relationship as opposing forces. The unfolding story requires both of them to better understand the other. Lou’s command of verbal language and her knowledge of word definitions make it hard for others to understand her issues. The story is told from Lou’s point of view, so readers share her thoughts and feelings as events start to unravel.

Lou’s parents are extremely supportive and loving, but their announcement of her mom’s pregnancy creates mixed emotions. Lou is excited to become a big sister, and her two close friends, Lexie and Nakessa, are equally enthusiastic for her. However, Lou overreacts to small things around the house and becomes jealous of the unborn sibling. Readers with younger brothers and sisters can relate to her since the family dynamics are forced to change. Parent time will be divided with an additional child, and Lou’s life as an only child leaves her feeling unprepared for the necessary adjustments.

Luckily, Lou is distracted by the upcoming presentation of a play that she’s producing with Lexie and Nakessa. Most of the chapters describe their progress as the play evolves, and it’s the source of creativity, happiness, and potential conflict. The three girls meet every day before school under an oak tree to stretch and chat. They call themselves the Bendables, and Lou’s future backup plan is to join Cirque de Soleil if her playwriting career doesn’t work out. Lou’s friends are super supportive and understanding, and they try to remind her to make wise choices when they see her frustration boiling over. They’re tolerant of Lou’s moods and encourage her to express her creativity and artistic talents. However, Lou must learn how to control her behavior and become the best friend and big sister she can be.

What didn’t work as well:

Lexie and Nakessa are very important characters, but they’re flat. The author doesn’t provide many details about their lives beyond school, so it’s difficult for readers to make connections. More character development would make it easier to become emotionally involved, but the story of Lou’s struggles with learning problems and becoming a big sister carry the plot.

The Final Verdict:

Appreciate those close to you. The author is able to evoke empathy for Louisa, as she becomes overwhelmed by the challenges faced every day. The plot isn’t overly complicated, but the feeling of normalcy helps to make the book approachable. This book became more than I expected, and I highly recommend you give it a shot.