Review: I Am Still Alive

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Review for "I Am Still Alive" by Kate Alice Marshall (2018)

Review: 4 out of 5 stars

This was between three and four stars for me. Gary Paulsen’s “Hatchet” meets The Revenant. It’s a compelling read, but not quite what I expected.

When the story begins, Jess, a 16 year old girl, has been sent to the Canadian wilderness to live with her father whom she barely knows. She has recently lost her mother in an automobile accident, the same which has left her without the full use of her legs. She struggles to adjust to life in the remote wilderness where one must live off of the land and only way in and out is via plane. She learns a bit about hunting and fishing through her father and begins to build somewhat of a bond with him until he is killed by two mysterious visitors to their cabin. The men burn the cabin down, not realizing that Jess and her dad’s dog, Bo, are in the woods hiding. For several months, Jess is left on her own, finding food and shelter and surviving in the wilderness. Eventually she discovers the reason behind her father’s death and plots out a plan for revenge.

Essentially, this is a survival story. There is the revenge element, but that plot is not in play until late in the novel. For the first 2/3rds of the book, we are reading about Jess being cold, wet, in pain, and just hating her life in general. While I’m not gonna call her a whiner (hell, I’d be whining too!), I will say that not much happens early on in this book beyond descriptions of her misery. It’s cool–just not quite what I expected. I did keep reading though. Not for the survival stuff, but for the kick-ass revenge part.

I’m not in a rush to recommend this, unless you like survival stories.

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Review: Monday’s Not Coming

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Review for "Monday's Not Coming" by Tiffany D. Jackson (2018)

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

I’ll admit it: Monday’s Not Coming has been one of my most anticipated reads this year. I read this in a few days and I’m definitely giving this a solid 4 stars.

The story begins when Claudia, the main character, returns from a summer vacation to discover that her best friend Monday Charles has not show up for their first day of eighth grade. No one seems concerned. Claudia’s parents caution her not to worry, but she knows better. After several weeks pass, Claudia begins to ask around about her friend. The school says she hasn’t registered. Monday’s mom says that she’s with her father, Monday’s sister says she’s with an aunt. The police also dismiss her concerns, labeling Monday as a probable runaway. Despite the setbacks, Claudia is more and more determined to find her best friend as the novel progresses.

I loved the setting of this book, as well as Claudia’s character. Claudia resides in Washington, D.C., a city with predominantly Black residents. There are thoughtful explorations here of gentrification, the educational system, the child welfare system, as well as class tensions in Black communities. Go go music, the National Mall, and the Anacostia neighborhood are all very prominent “characters” here as well. I loved it all. Also memorable is Claudia herself, a very complex character. Monday is her only friend, but she represents way more than just a friend–she’s Claudia’s other half. Once Monday’s disappearance takes hold, Claudia’s dyslexia becomes more visible to those around her. She is compelled to take remedial tutoring, which she hates. Claudia also enjoys dance, but lacks the confidence to stand out.

The execution of this novel has some problems, though. This is definitely one of those “down the rabbit hole” kinda books, where nothing’s a given and you’re gonna go through some hoops before you get to the Big Reveal at the end. The hoops here are four timelines that run parallel throughout the book, labeled “Before” (events before Monday’s disappearance), “After” (events after we discover what happens to Monday), “Before the Before,” and “2 Years Before the Before.” It’s confusing. I understand Jackson’s use of ambiguity here, but all of the various timelines and events made this a muddled mess. There is a twist at the end, but by this time I was so lost in the mire of the timeline that I have to admit that the only reason I didn’t skip pages was because I genuinely wanted to find out what happened to Monday.

To tell you more about this book takes it dangerously into spoiler territory. It definitely shines for its fearlessness. It is one of the first YA books that I’ve read in which Black girl friendships are problematized and presented with the realness that they deserve. It is also one of the first YA books that speaks directly to the phenomenon of “Missing White Woman Syndrome,” the term first used by PBS News anchor Gwen Ifill to describe society’s tendency to treat the disappearances of young, affluent White women as media events with constant, around the clock national coverage, despite the fact that men, along with women and children of color, comprise the majority of missing persons cases. For Monday’s disappearance, no one joins a search party. Her picture is not in the newspaper. She’s not even on the nightly news.

4 stars. If you read nothing else in 2018, please read this. You don’t want to miss it.

Review: We’ll Fly Away

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Review for "We'll Fly Away" by Bryan Bliss (2018)
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

A very well written, hard hitting YA book.

“We’ll Fly Away” is the story of two boys, Luke and Toby, who have been friends for most of their lives. Luke, the stronger of the two, is an athlete who dreams of college success through wrestling, while Toby, aimless and a victim of his father’s physical abuse, relies on Luke to protect him. Both boys long to escape their rural North Carolina town (ironically, the setting of which is only about an hour away from me) and bond over a broken down airplane they discover in the woods as kids. Interestingly, the theme of flight is all throughout this book, even though it is apparent early on that neither of these boys are going anywhere. Escape, it seems, is only possible through death and/or violence.

When the story opens, we discover that Luke is in prison, writing letters of apology to his friend Toby. We are not told why he is on death row, but it is obvious that he is there for a horrible crime. In his letters, Luke struggles with his morality, getting along with inmates, and other adjustments to prison life. The story switches between his letters to a third person narrative of the events leading up to Luke’s imprisonment. In the third person flashbacks, we learn that Luke’s life isn’t free of dysfunction either. When he isn’t wrestling, Luke is taking on way more responsibility than he should, watching over his younger twin brothers while his mother takes up with different men. Toby’s father, a local criminal, physically and emotionally abuses him, leaving him with a lack of social skills that lead him into conflicts at school. Luke, ever Toby’s rescuer, comes to his defense time and time again.

I won’t go into too many of the details of this story to avoid spoiling it. I will say, however, that this is a fairly solid book that examines male friendship, difficult choices, and the criminal justice system in a very meaningful way. Even though there was a bit of a lull in the middle of this, the ending was shocking enough to make up for everything it lacked in between.

Definitely recommended.

Review: Calling My Name

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Review for "Calling My Name" by Liara Tamani (2017)

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

I loved this YA book. The cover’s cute and the writing is quite gorgeous.

“Calling My Name” is the beautiful story of a young Black girl named Taja, growing up in a middle class, Southern Baptist family in Texas. The story begins with Taja as a young girl and follows her through her senior year of high school through a world of ‘firsts’–social awkwardness, wearing a bra, friendship drama, sibling and family relationships, her first kiss, losing her virginity. Each chapter is named and presented vignette style, with quotes from various Black women authors (Toni Morrison, Zadie Smith, Zora Neale Hurston) interpolated throughout the text as themes for what follows. I also loved the lovely ambiguities here: we’re never told explicitly how old Taja is, though the passage of time as the novel progresses is evident. Also nebulous is the exact time frame in which Taja’s childhood takes place, surrounding references to pop culture and relics such as acid-wash jeans allude to the late 80’s through the mid-90’s. I loved, however, that time really didn’t seem to matter here: Taja’s life could be today, 20 years ago, or even as far back as 40 years ago. I’ve always maintained that the best books do not have to explicitly state everything they’re made of, and this book knows that and much, much more.

Religion, specifically the Black Southern Baptist tradition, plays a prominent role in this book. Taja’s parents are ultra conservative and tightly control her behavior, not wanting her to fall into “sin” or become “used goods” before marriage. Taja’s identity as a Christian influences much of her thoughts and actions, leading to several conflicts as a teenager until she eventually finds her own voice as an individual, shortly before leaving for college.

Reading this book was emotional for me. It is the first book that so closely mirrored my own experiences as a Black girl in the 80’s and 90’s, growing up in very much the same middle class, conservative Southern Baptist family dynamic. The stereotypical ‘problems’ that we typically associate with the narratives of people of color (you know, incidents of racism, poverty, substance abuse, economic struggle) were largely absent here, which I have to admit that I appreciated for a change. This is not a story about any of those kinds of traumas–it’s a story about soul-searching, Black girl style. Throughout the reading of this book I wanted so much to simply applaud because finally, someone got it RIGHT.

It goes without saying that I completely and totally recommend that you read this book.

Review: After the Shot Drops

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Review for "After the Shot Drops" by Randy Ribay (2018)
Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars

“After the Shot Drops” is the story of two friends, Bunny (affectionately named so because he’s got ‘hops’) and Nasir. When the novel begins, Nasir and Bunny are not on speaking terms, mostly because Bunny has recently transferred to an upper crust private school to play basketball without talking to him about it first. While Bunny realizes he’s out of place among his wealthy, mostly White peers, Nasir remains at his inner-city school and finds kinship with his cousin, Wallace, a troubled young man facing eviction. To earn quick cash, Wallace bets against Bunny in a final championship game–leading to very serious, life-altering consequences for all three young men.

I gave this three and a half stars because there are some issues here. For one, the pacing was entirely too slow. It took me nearly a month to finish this book, and that was because it failed to really maintain my interest for more than 50 pages at a time. We don’t find out until nearly page 150 that Wallace is up to something sinister that will ultimately change the rest of the book. Second, this book is written in dual narration, switching back and forth between Bunny and Nasir. While I’m not criticizing this method of storytelling, I was a little weary of the characterization here. The voices of Bunny and Nasir seemed indistinguishable, I couldn’t tell one from another. If the author hadn’t labeled who was speaking before each chapter, I wouldn’t have known who was saying what.

Third, during certain scenes of this book, there’s a lot of very technical, play-by-play basketball talk. While personally I like bball, there may be other readers that get kinda lost here. While I don’t think you have to love basketball to read this, liking it sure does help you get through those pages.

Overall, I think this is a fairly decent book. I love how it focuses on Black male friendship, a subject that I don’t think gets a lot of play in YA literature. As a matter of fact, I can’t think of a book that I’ve read in the past 5 years where a friendship between two young Black men was front and center, to the exclusion of other subjects. There are short, quick chapters here too, which tends to engage those students who are reluctant to read.

Definitely recommend this book!

Review: Emergency Contact

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Review for "Emergency Contact" by Mary H.K. Choi (2018)
Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

This book is wildly popular right now. I follow the author, Mary H.K. Choi, on Instagram. A Facebook book club I’m in spoke in glowing terms of this and recommended it. I’ve gotten three emails in the past month from Kirkus Reviews, they also recommended this. Hell, even Rainbow Rowell recommended this. It’s like God himself was screaming at me to read IT, so I did.

And errr…this book was kinda meh for me.

Without giving away too much of the plot: Penny is a introvert with a MILF-y mom that annoys her immensely. She goes off to college an hour away and meets Sam, a tattooed hipster dude who works and lives in a local coffee shop. They bond over their personal crises, texting each other as they deal with their respective family and personal issues. Penny discovers her love of writing fiction, Sam nurtures his desire to be a filmmaker. In the end, exactly what we expected to happen between these two happens–they fall for each other.

I said I wasn’t going to give away the plot, but I actually kinda just did. I’m sorry. But honestly, that’s like, it with this book.

This book is sweet and the language is kinda cool, but there’s nothing here that I haven’t read before. I suspect that one of the reasons why this book is so popular is because it has a rose gold toned, super cute Forever 21-ish looking cover. I know that sounds harsh, but dude…seriously, what’s really here? It’s just a run-of-the-mill YA love story. While I appreciate the way that the author does try to give the protagonist some depth, I realized that after I close this book I probably won’t remember much about Penny anyway. What I most remember about Penny is her annoying tendencies, i.e., her hopeless fascination with Sam at first sight. No less than 5 times we’re reminded by Penny of Sam’s tattoos, ooooh ahhhh, as if we’ve never seen a tattooed man before. Is Penny’s fawning, otherworldly reaction to Sam even real? Of course not. Girl, have a seat please.

Once again, not a bad book, but one that didn’t really excite me either. Three stars.

Review: Ghost Boys

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Review for "Ghost Boys" by Jewell Parker Rhodes (2018)
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

“All children, except one, grow up.”
-Peter Pan

Jerome is a likeable 12 year old boy living in Chicago with his parents, grandmother, and sister. He is bullied at school, so a friend gives him a toy gun to brandish for protection. During a visit to a local park to play with the gun, Jerome is shot and killed by a police officer, who felt as if Jerome was a “threat” to his life.

Once dead, Jerome remains in the world of the living, watching his parents grieve and visiting places he used to go. No one sees him, until he encounters the young daughter of the police officer who killed him. They strike up an unlikely friendship. Ghost boys, we learn, are young Black boys killed by racially motivated violence. Emmett Till, Tamir Rice, and Trayvon Martin all make appearances in this book. We’re told that there are hundreds of ghost boys, walking around in the world of the living, making sure we don’t forget them.

This is a sad, heartbreaking book. I will admit that I went into the reading of this book angry on the subject matter. I won’t say I liked it either, because it deals with an all-to-real horror that I, as the mother of a 14-year-old Black boy, hope to never, ever encounter. Yet mothers are still dealing with the pain of their children shot dead by police with no consequences, legal or otherwise. Ghost boys continue.

This is geared toward middle grades readers. I’d definitely use it with that age group to discuss issues of empathy and racism.