Three-Star Books Read in 2015 Part Two: Children's and Young Adult


The City of Ember by Jeanne DuPrau: Many hundreds of years ago, the city of Ember was created by the Builders to contain everything needed for human survival. It worked…but now the storerooms are almost out of food, crops are blighted, corruption is spreading through the city and worst of all—the lights are failing. Soon Ember could be engulfed by darkness…
But when two children, Lina and Doon, discover fragments of an ancient parchment, they begin to wonder if there could be a way out of Ember. Can they decipher the words from long ago and find a new future for everyone? Will the people of Ember listen to them?

I had heard about this for years, and my daughter had read it in class and liked it. It's a good atmospheric story with a plucky heroine, but the writing was a little more pedestrian than I'd hoped. 

Caddie Woodlawn by Carol Ryrie Brink: Caddie Woodlawn is a real adventurer. She'd rather hunt than sew and plow than bake, and tries to beat her brother's dares every chance she gets. Caddie is friends with Indians, who scare most of the neighbors -- neighbors who, like her mother and sisters, don't understand her at all.Caddie is brave, and her story is special because it's based on the life and memories of Carol Ryrie Brink's grandmother, the real Caddie Woodlawn. Her spirit and sense of fun have made this book a classic that readers have taken to their hearts for more than seventy years.

An entry in my ongoing project to read all the Newbery Medal Winners (you can be forgiven for not holding your breath): This seems universally loved, so I'm sure it's just my shriveled, cynical little heart that keeps me from wholeheartedly adoring it. I did like it - it's charming and cheerful and provides a good role model for little girls, and the cringe-y racist stuff can be explained away by the time it was written, and is mild at that. It might have been better if I hadn't known that it was based on the author's grandmother. The fact that it was based on real people, and then the character of Caddie and her father were so idealized, as if the author was desperate to show that they were on the right side of history, just the made the whole thing a tiny bit eye-roll-provoking. But charming. Unless your heart is two sizes too small. Like mine.

Into the Wild by Sarah Beth Durst: Twelve-year-old Julie has grown up hearing about the dangerous world of fairy tales, The Wild, from which her mother, Rapunzel, escaped.
Now The Wild wants its characters back. Julie comes home from school to find her mother gone and a deep, dark forest swallowing her hometown. Julie must fight wicked witches, avoid glass slippers and fairy godmothers, fly griffins, and outwit ogres in order to rescue her mom and save her Massachusetts town from becoming a fairy-tale kingdom.
Sarah Beth Durst weaves a postmodern fairy tale that's fresh, funny, and sweetly poignant.

This is pitched younger than I expected, and my reading experience never really recovered from that. It was cute, but not really 'postmodern' or 'fresh'. It was fairly shallow and simple, and obvious who was at fault and how everything was going to turn out. I wanted something darker and less pat.

A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness: The monster showed up after midnight. As they do.
But it isn’t the monster Conor’s been expecting. He’s been expecting the one from his nightmare, the one he’s had nearly every night since his mother started her treatments, the one with the darkness and the wind and the screaming…
This monster is something different, though. Something ancient, something wild. And it wants the most dangerous thing of all from Conor.
It wants the truth.

Damn, I'm going to end up apologizing again. I feel like I should apologize for apologizing. This is a lovely, inventive, poignant story about a difficult and painful subject. I would highly recommend it for an older adolescent age group, and I think it would be a great book to teach and discuss. It just didn't surprise or delight me.

Young Adult

I Am the Messenger by Markus Zusak: protect the diamonds
survive the clubs
dig deep through the spades
feel the hearts

Ed Kennedy is an underage cabdriver without much of a future. He's pathetic at playing cards, hopelessly in love with his best friend, Audrey, and utterly devoted to his coffee-drinking dog, the Doorman. His life is one of peaceful routine and incompetence until he inadvertently stops a bank robbery.
That's when the first ace arrives in the mail.
That's when Ed becomes the messenger.
Chosen to care, he makes his way through town helping and hurting (when necessary) until only one question remains: Who's behind Ed's mission?

It's always a double-edged sword when a writer's works are very different from each other. It demonstrates an admirable range and willingness not to rest one their laurels, and sometimes readers will love each work differently, and sometimes they won't be able to resist comparing them to the detriment of one or the other. I loved The Book Thief, and this was very different, which may be the only reason I liked it and didn't love it. It's original and heartfelt and interesting to read. I'm not sure the daring narrative device works entirely, but if not it's an admirable effort. 

Matched by Ally Condie: In the Society, officials decide. Who you love. Where you work. When you die.
Cassia has always trusted their choices. It’s hardly any price to pay for a long life, the perfect job, the ideal mate. So when her best friend appears on the Matching screen, Cassia knows with complete certainty that he is the one…until she sees another face flash for an instant before the screen fades to black. Now Cassia is faced with impossible choices: between Xander and Ky, between the only life she’s known and a path no one else has ever dared follow—between perfection and passion.
Matched is a story for right now and storytelling with the resonance of a classic.

I found all the reviews claiming that this was a ripoff of The Giver kind of annoying. There's a difference between something being wholly derivative and just based on the same them or archetype, and anyone who thinks this is a rehash of The Giver probably just hasn't read very widely. Is it better to be safe, if safe means the elimination of choice and individuality? This is a question that deserves to be asked more than once - it's not as if we've come to any kind of satisfactory answer. I find it annoying that love triangles are de rigeur, but as they go, this is one of the less annoying ones. I liked the character of Cassia and her parents were good characters in their own right rather than just being positioned to thwart or direct her. Matched doesn't do anything startlingly new, but it's a serviceable entry in its category. 

Atlantia by Ally Condie: Can you hear Atlantia breathing?
For as long as she can remember, Rio has dreamt of the sand and sky Above—of life beyond her underwater city of Atlantia. But in a single moment, all her plans for the future are thwarted when her twin sister, Bay, makes an unexpected decision, stranding Rio Below. Alone, ripped away from the last person who knew Rio’s true self—and the powerful siren voice she has long hidden—she has nothing left to lose.
Guided by a dangerous and unlikely mentor, Rio formulates a plan that leads to increasingly treacherous questions about her mother’s death, her own destiny, and the complex system constructed to govern the divide between land and sea. Her life and her city depend on Rio to listen to the voices of the past and to speak long-hidden truths.

My friend Marilyn said about this book "nothing was fantastically wrong with it but nothing was fantastically right with it either", and I agree. The setting was rich and promising, but the story was sort of meh. 

Chasing Power by Sarah Beth Durst: Lies, secrets, and magic — three things that define Kayla's life.
Sixteen-year-old Kayla plans to spend her summer hanging out on the beach in Santa Barbara and stealing whatever she wants, whenever she wants it. Born with the ability to move things with her mind — things like credit cards, diamond rings, and buttons on cash registers — she has become a master shoplifter. She steals to build up a safety net, enough money for her and her mom to be able to flee if her dad finds them again. Well, that, and the thrill of using her secret talents.
But her summer plans change when she's caught stealing by a boy named Daniel — a boy who needs her help and is willing to blackmail her to get it. Daniel has a talent of his own. He can teleport, appearing anywhere in the world in an instant, but he lies as easily as he travels. Together, they embark on a quest to find and steal an ancient incantation, written on three indestructible stones and hidden millennia ago, all to rescue Daniel's kidnapped mother. But Kayla has no idea that this rescue mission will lead back to her own family — and to betrayals that she may not be able to forgive... or survive.

Why yes, I did keep reading books by Sarah Beth Durst even though I kept being disappointed. This was probably the best of the three - a little darker, a little more mature. The story was fun and detailed and adventurous, I love the best friend's character, and I always like a little twisted family history. So, good. Still not great.

More Than This by Patrick Ness: A boy drowns, desperate and alone in his final moments. He dies.
Then he wakes, naked and bruised and thirsty, but alive.
How can this be? And what is this strange deserted place?
As he struggles to understand what is happening, the boy dares to hope. Might this not be the end? Might there be more to this life, or perhaps this afterlife?
From multi-award-winning Patrick Ness comes one of the most provocative and moving novels of our time.

I honestly can't remember why I gave this three stars instead of four. It's a really cool story, well-written, verging on the originality and inventiveness of the Chaos Walking trilogy. I didn't love the ending, maybe that's all it was. 

Of Metal and Wishes by Sarah Fine: There are whispers of a ghost in the slaughterhouse where sixteen-year-old Wen assists her father in his medical clinic—a ghost who grants wishes to those who need them most. When one of the Noor, men hired as cheap factory labor, humiliates Wen, she makes an impulsive wish of her own, and the Ghost grants it. Brutally.
Guilt-ridden, Wen befriends the Noor, including their outspoken leader, a young man named Melik. At the same time, she is lured by the mystery of the Ghost and learns he has been watching her... for a very long time.
As deadly accidents fuel tensions within the factory, Wen must confront her growing feelings for Melik, who is enraged at the sadistic factory bosses and the prejudice faced by his people at the hand of Wen’s, and her need to appease the Ghost, who is determined to protect her against any threat—real or imagined. She must decide whom she can trust, because as her heart is torn, the factory is exploding around her... and she might go down with it.

This is a Phantom of the Opera tale with an Asian, industrial spin. It's done very well, with fully rounded characters and conscientious world-building with a viscerally affecting unfairness in the class system that Wen accepts uncritically at first and then begins to question. The 'ghost' story is also transposed nicely into this setting. I will probably read the next in the series.

Glory O`Brien`s History of the Future by A.S. King: In this masterpiece about freedom, feminism, and destiny, Printz Honor author A.S. King tells the epic story of a girl coping with devastating loss at long last--a girl who has no idea that the future needs her, and that the present needs her even more.
Graduating from high school is a time of limitless possibilities--but not for Glory, who has no plan for what's next. Her mother committed suicide when Glory was only four years old, and she's never stopped wondering if she will eventually go the same way...until a transformative night when she begins to experience an astonishing new power to see a person's infinite past and future. From ancient ancestors to many generations forward, Glory is bombarded with visions--and what she sees ahead of her is terrifying: A tyrannical new leader raises an army. Women's rights disappear. A violent second civil war breaks out. And young girls vanish daily, sold off or interned in camps. Glory makes it her mission to record everything she sees, hoping her notes will somehow make a difference. She may not see a future for herself, but she'll do anything to make sure this one doesn't come to pass.

My true rating would be some kind of sine wave between two-and-a-half and three-and-a-half stars. Glory is an interesting character, but I think to be a true outcast you have to be a little less self-congratulatorily aware of your outcast status. I read something in another review that I agree with - that she tells about her 'best friend' Ellie being selfish more than she shows it. It's more like her being a really judgy bitchy best friend than Ellie being a selfish one, in most cases. And the fact that she considers herself a feminist and calls Ellie slutty on several occasions is also a little problematic. And then the whole future thing. From....drinking a petrified bat. That's, uh, a little random. And the 'transmissions' - are they verbal, or visual? I'm sure there's a way this could have been done convincingly, but I don't think this was quite it. Given some of the turns that have been taken in the women's rights arena, I don't think her future concerns are misplaced, but this just didn't quite hit it out of the park. I am open to reading another book by this author, I just haven't quite gotten around to it.

Free to Fall by Lauren Miller: What if there was an app that told you what song to listen to, what coffee to order, who to date, even what to do with your life—an app that could ensure your complete and utter happiness? 
What if you never had to fail or make a wrong choice?
What if you never had to fall?

Fast-forward to a time when Apple and Google have been replaced by Gnosis, a monolith corporation that has developed the most life-changing technology to ever hit the market: Lux, an app that flawlessly optimizes decision making for the best personal results. 
Just like everyone else, sixteen-year-old Rory Vaughn knows the key to a happy, healthy life is following what Lux recommends. When she’s accepted to the elite boarding school Theden Academy, her future happiness seems all the more assured. But once on campus, something feels wrong beneath the polished surface of her prestigious dream school. 
Then she meets North, a handsome townie who doesn’t use Lux, and begins to fall for him and his outsider way of life. Soon, Rory is going against Lux’s recommendations, listening instead to the inner voice that everyone has been taught to ignore — a choice that leads her to uncover a truth neither she nor the world ever saw coming.

I liked it, just not quite as much as her previous novel, Parallel. This still has Miller's very readable style, and the world-building is sound. The projected dominance of apps like Lux seems very plausible. I also liked how the vapid roommate is allowed to develop as more than a one-dimensional character. But at one point one of the characters says something like "this is like a bad Nicolas Cage conspiracy movie from the early aughts", and he's not wrong. Still enjoyed reading it.

Belzhar by Meg Wolitzer: If life were fair, Jam Gallahue would still be  at home in New Jersey with her sweet British  boyfriend, Reeve Maxfield. She’d be watching  old comedy sketches with him. She’d be kissing  him in the library stacks.
She certainly wouldn’t be at The Wooden Barn, a therapeutic boarding school in rural Vermont, living with a weird roommate, and signed up for an exclusive, mysterious class called Special Topics in English.
But life isn’t fair, and Reeve Maxfield is dead.
Until a journal-writing assignment leads Jam to Belzhar, where the untainted past is restored, and Jam can feel Reeve’s arms around her once again. But there are hidden truths on Jam’s path to reclaim her loss.
From New York Times bestselling author Meg Wolitzer comes a breathtaking and surprising story about first love, deep sorrow, and the power of acceptance.

So here's the thing: the reviews about this book that say there are some BIG problems are totally right. It oversimplifies a lot of things, and brushes over some other things - one big thing in particular, that is well-nigh indefensible AND unforgivable- and a lot of this has been done before, and arguably done better. But -*helpless shrug*- I still liked it.


Nicole said…
You've probably read this, but WONDER. Wonder is such an excellent children's book. Jake was reading it at school, and talking about it all the time. We bought it for him for Christmas and I picked it up - couldn't put it down!
Alison said…
You don't have to apologize. Your opinion is your opinion. 😉 Of these, Matched sounds the most interesting and I agree, there's plenty of room for multiple books that explore the same theme. However, I don't know that I'll add any to my already-too-long TBR list. Life's too short, you know?
Alison said…
Both my kids read Wonder in school and loved it (quite a feat for my math-obsessed son) and of course I read it and loved it too. It's a great example of a book that has an important message without being preachy.
Tudor said…
I find this approach really interesting - you writing about your three-star books - as a writer I often find my three-star ratings come with THE BEST reviews. Don't get me wrong, I LOVE my four- and five-star ratings, but the reviews with them often say something like "I just adored everything about this book and you should read it!!!" Which is awesome, but the three-starrers seem to be super-engaged with the book. It's like they're a tiny bit torn, and they dig deep to explain their rating. Some of my three-star reviews are literally the best reviews of my work ever. EVER. Super quote-worthy and thought-provoking. Just a thought from the other side :)
Alison said…
That's really interesting, Tudor.

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