Friday, June 22, 2018

Review: The Zippity Zinger, by Henry Winkler and Lin Oliver

Hank Zipzer is a boy who struggles to do what others find easily, especially read and write. Since boys sometimes struggle academically in their early years, Hank's problems are something that anyone can relate to and feel good about knowing they're not alone. Hank's academic struggles are secondary to the main plot in this story, which is about his struggles in throwing a good pitch for his school's upcoming baseball game. Upper elementary level kids may find it amusing that Hank's good luck charm ends up being his sister's pink monkey socks, and that's more important than whether adults find it amusing. Some jokes are mildly amusing for adults, but no doubt younger kids will find something to laugh at in every page.

Hank's dilemmas and family feel real and believable, but they do have their quirks. Particularly the sister's pet iguana and the dachshund named Cheerio. The sequence when Hank's friends dress up as Hopi Indians is bizarre, but since Hank is studying for his history test about the Hopi, it makes at least some sense. The characters themselves aren't particularly colorful (I mean in terms of personality - they are a diverse bunch in terms of race and gender, though), but that's probably not going to matter to the target age group of these books. If you have a son who you are struggling to find a book for, this might be something he enjoys. The series has been a big hit in my classroom of ESL learners.

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Review: Dork Diaries Tales From a Not-So-Fabulous Life, by Rachel Renee Russell

Dork Diaries is the girls' answer to Diary of a Wimpy Kid, and it's probably about as good as it could get. Rachel Renee Russell writes with energy and zeal and her comedy never grows tiring. Her drawings, while not as charismatic as Jeff Kinney's, have a distinct personality. In the vein of Diary of a Wimpy Kid, this does not have a straightforward plot, per se, but it's plot structure is much more traditional than Wimpy Kid's. There's the new school, the crush, the rivalry, and an art competition that make up the bulk of the story. None of this is particularly new, but the way Russell tells it makes it feel fresh.

Nikki, like Greg Heffley, has been given a diary from her mother. Only, where Greg wants to make sure readers don't call his a diary, Nikki vows to never write in it. But once she breaks that vow, she can't stop. Nikki is a middle school student who has just moved into a new school. Like many young girls, she wants to be popular. So it's infuriating that her mom won't purchase a cell phone like all the popular kids at school have. Even more infuriating is that Mackenzie, one of the most popular girls in the school, has a locker right next to hers. Thus begins a rivalry.

Often we are oblivious to the effect we have on others, or how others view us, and this is especially true in those egotistical teenage years. Russell does a nice job of portraying this through Nikki. Nikki does not think much of herself, and yet when it appears that Mackenzie has begun to take notice of her, the reader sees how others find something to envy about her. Not that Nikki ever notices this, but in order for a rivalry to form, this means both parties must sense some form of superiority in the other that must be overcome. Realizing the positive ways others see you is a powerful way to boost confidence and self-esteem, and I hope girls reading this (I can't imagine too many boys reading it) could apply this lesson to themselves.

Where Diary of a Wimpy Kid appeals to both boys and girls, Dork Diaries appeals only to girls. This is largely because girls will read almost any kind of book, but boys are much more picky. And Dork Diaries is clearly written to appeal to girls. The rivalry is one element aimed at girls. Diary of a Wimpy Kid has moments of bullying, but not truly a rivalry. There's also the romance - the typical sort of thing where the girl has a crush on this cute guy but doesn't believe he even notices her, even though clues that are obvious to the reader show that he has the same feelings. Some of the humor also relates to Nikki's insecurities with her own appearance. Multiple times Nikki makes fun of her own inadequacy to look good in an outfit the popular girls wear, and there are also the jokes about things on Nikki's face, such as one moment when she develops a rash on her ear. Russell taps into this insecurity over appearance as something girls might relate to, and one could criticize the book for perpetuating rather than combating this obsession, but sometimes a work of art is meant to reflect, not correct.

Popular as this series is, Russell has obviously tapped into something, and I admit that I enjoyed it as well, much more than I expected.

Monday, June 18, 2018

Review: The Night She Disappeared, by April Henry

This fast-paced young adult thriller is much more interested in the human emotion than shocks and scares. It's also more mature than your typical, but in the end it does fall into the usual traps of a YA novel. But everything feels real and genuine. April Henry doesn't obviously try to tug on our heart strings. Her characters have thoughts and feelings that anybody might go through in their situation, and that's what makes this worth reading.

The pretty, popular girl at high school, Kayla, was out delivering a pizza and never returned. Police later found her car and the scene of what looked like a struggle. Kayla's missing, assumed dead. Drew was also working at the pizza place the night she disappeared, and he feels guilty because he was the one who took the man's order. The man asked if the girl who drove the Mini-Cooper would be delivering. That would be Gabie, a more vulnerable sort of girl than Kayla. She also feels guilty because Kayla asked to change shifts with her. Kayla was not supposed to work that night - Gabie was. And in their mutual feelings of guilt, Drew and Gabie understandably begin to develop a bond.

In my own classroom, April Henry's books have become a hit. I've collected several due to popular demand, and I understand why. Though many of my students struggle with books that use multiple perspectives, April Henry makes it easy. And she uses many, many perspectives. At least four are from the first person point of view, and there's another one or two from the third person, as well as the many police reports, 911 transcripts, and other miscellaneous writings. But what April Henry does is stick to a chronological timeline. When the book switches from Drew to Gabie back to Drew again, it follows chronological order. Drew and Gabie might have different viewpoints on something happening, but we don't see that event happen again from their point of view.

Drew and Gabie also happen to be likeably vulnerable. Drew comes from a single mom household, and his mom is a drug addict, while Gabie comes from a much wealthier household, but the fact that both of her parents are surgeons only means she's often left home alone. Both characters are lonely, but not sulky. Their vulnerabilities also cause moments of miscommunication. Of course, an attraction forms between them, but their lack of experience in romance leaves them unaware of the other's feelings. This sounds typical of a romance, especially YA romance, but somehow Henry handles it with more wisdom and realism than other authors do.

You can probably predict how the story ends, it's true, but you might just enjoy how it gets there. This is a story you can probably finish in an afternoon or less, but in that brief time you read it you will find it thoughtful and surprisingly well-researched. In the interview at the end, April Henry says she hopes her readers will learn something from it. I did. I learned a lot about what it's like to dive for bodies in rivers. That chapter may not have contributed much to the plot, but it does add to the realism and plausibility of the story. And it is a very good story, it turns out.

Sunday, June 17, 2018

Review: The Hidden Oracle, by Rick Riordan

Oftentimes it's the hero who's the least interesting character of an adventure story, especially in many young adult stories. Generally the hero is a bland person who either has no personality or just blandly sticks to principle. Rick Riordan has created a very different sort of fantasy-adventure hero in his god-turned-mortal, Apollo. Humorously egotistical and witty, Apollo alone would be worth the read, but the story is also entertaining.

Cast into a heap of garbage as a mortal, acne-ridden teenage boy, Apollo reflects on his accomplishments and what reasons his father, Zeus, would have to punish him. Except, he doesn't have much time because a couple of thugs approach with every intention to cause harm. That's when Apollo realizes he's lost all of his powers. Fortunately, help comes from a girl named Meg who has strange powers that include causing the garbage to fling itself at Apollo's attackers. It turns out Meg is a demigod and Apollo confides to her that he believes he needs to overcome some sort of trial before Zeus makes him a god again. So Meg commands him to be her servant, which means he must obey her every command, and accompanies him to places and people familiar to those who have read Riordan's other works.


What I didn't expect was Riordan's humor and wit. Apollo has some wickedly funny things to say. Riordan writes from Apollo's perspective with energy and freshness, though this diminishes slightly near the end of the book. Riordan makes hilarious use of cultural references from all sorts of time periods, anywhere from ancient Greece to modern day America. Teenage readers might not catch many of these, particularly if they are not caught up on their Greek and Roman gods (which I can't say I'm that knowledgeable about myself). But there are also references to the Beatles, Babe Ruth, and Britney Spears (who might be losing her cultural currency amongst today's teenagers - "...Baby One More Time" was a huge hit before Riordan's target audience was even born). But those up on their pop culture references will find Apollo's comments amusing.

The story itself is also engaging. Too many stories today feature main characters who are mostly spectators to the conflict and action happening around them. Apollo, weak and mortal as he is, is no slouch. Much as he complains about it, he pulls his weight, though others may do more of the heavy lifting. The conflict also does not resolve itself easily. Apollo and Meg find themselves in dire situation after dire situation. Yet, a story about gods is sure to have its fair share of deus ex machina moments. This is understandable, sure, but it's also a convenient and dull plot device. You may not be very surprised by the twists and turns, but you're bound to be entertained by Apollo's ego and wit.

Review: Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie

Home Fire presents two extreme views of Muslims: the jihadist who seeks to destroy non-Muslims and the politician who seeks to isolate himself from his Muslim roots. These are the only two types of Muslims able to ascend to power, in their own way, though their methods end up isolating the majority in the middle. Home Fire portrays the meeting of two Pakistani families that live in England, one with a jihadist father and one with a politician father. Kamila Shamsie shows readers the perspective of a handful of these family members to provide us insight into the misunderstanding between them. This is a novel that is at times slow, at times exciting, and at times heartbreaking, and the ending is sure to leave many readers divided.

One of these families is the Pasha family. Isma is the oldest sister, who is forced to take care of her two twins, Aneeka and Parvaiz (a girl and a boy) when her mother and grandmother pass away. Their father, Adil Pasha, had passed away years before, a jihadist dead en route to Guantanamo. The other family is the Lone family, with father Karamat serving as home secretary in England and his son Eamonn (a creative spelling of Aymen to appear less Arabic), who has a lot of money but zero ambition.

These two families know of each other from years past, but it is not until Isma's meeting with Eamonn in Massachusetts that events are set in motion. The early section comes from Isma's point of view, and being a dull character, her part is a slow read. There are some necessary background details in these first 50 pages, but they read like a flavorless literary novel. It's not until 70 pages in that the novel really comes to life, and that's because Aneeka radiates with energy that her sister, and the other characters, lack. Parvaiz is also crucial, showing the allure for a young Muslim man to join a radical organization - it provides for him much-needed masculinity and the promise of knowing his father, somebody his sisters and mother avoided talking about. It proves a dangerous allure, one that Parvaiz quickly regrets being seduced by. The middle sections of the book crackle with energy before slowing down for Karamat Lone, who is a sharp departure from the others in how unlikable he is.

The novel's end is abrupt and shocking. I'm still not sure what to think about it. In some regards it seems the perfect ending, but it almost feels too sudden, unsatisfactory. It lingers however, and I wonder if better knowledge of the source material, Sophocles' Antigone, would deepen my understanding of Shamsie's choices. It's not just the novel's ending that will linger with me, but the novel as a whole - it's that good.

Saturday, June 16, 2018

Review: Mr. Mercedes, by Stephen King

Stephen King's Mr. Mercedes features perhaps some of the most interesting, most complex characters he has written to date. King often succeeds in writing interesting heroes, but he usually falls short in writing more complex villains - generally they are of the one-dimensional, pure evil variety. Brady Hartsfield, otherwise known as Mr. Mercedes, is not one-dimensional, though he is quite evil. He is a disgusting person, but at times King is able to elicit pity for him and show his humanity. The hero, Bill Hodges, is also human, in that while he is a competent detective, perhaps one of the best, he is not a perfect individual. Not to say he is unlikeable, but that King has succeeded in creating characters that allow the reader to see parts of themselves in, people to empathize with rather than idolize or envy. On top of that, the story is quite good - tense, thoughtful, reflective, humorous, and terrifying.

Mr. Mercedes is one of those cases Bill Hodges didn't solve. A man wearing a clown mask plowed over and killed 8 people waiting in line for a job fair. The cops found the vehicle and the owner of the vehicle, but they never discovered who was behind the wheel at the time of the murders. Now that Hodges is retired, his life is meaningless. He watches TV shows he can't stand, such as Jerry Springer and Judge Judy and Dr. Phil. Hodges also has been playing with his father's old revolver. This is the way many retired police officers and detectives go - suicide.

The Mercedes killer knows this. He sends Hodges a taunting letter. Thinking he's smarter than those he's eluded, Brady little realizes he has provided some helpful hints to Hodges. His letter also has the opposite of its intended effect - it motivates Hodges to act rather than to end his life. And so begins a cat-and-mouse game between retired police detective and psychopathic serial killer, one that grows increasingly dangerous not just for the two main actors, but for the many side characters who show up, as well as potentially many others.

Bill Hodges is a likeable hero, smart and thoughtful. We see his flawed side, such as his realization that the judgmental attitude of him and his partner may have caused them to wrong the woman who owned the Mercedes: Olivia Trelawney. And although Hodges begins to see how he wronged her, he continues to misjudge people - something we all do. King is sympathetic to those who appear "different," the so-called outsiders, even if it is that older woman who is self-righteous and nitpicks everyone else's faults. Another story, particularly an NCIS-type story, would have the reader laughing along with the main character at someone like Olivia Trelawney. But King sees the worth in a person like her. Olivia's parents, who show that the apple doesn't fall far from the tree, may not get as nice a treatment, but King's sympathy is still there. Hodges, as a sort of regular every man, reveals our own flaws, that we sometimes can't get past our own prejudices and initial impressions to see the deeper side of people. Or we can, but it takes some practice.

Brady is a villain of the worst variety, but King treads surprisingly delicate with him. The story often follows Brady, in the third person limited (just as it does Hodges), and he proves himself to be cuttingly funny, especially as he charmingly says the right thing while thinking awful thoughts. He's also pitiful. King wisely avoids the origin story, but we see his home life, and it's pretty messed up. There are moments when Brady shows his humanity, especially as it involves his feelings with family, but even that grows complicated by his frustrated sexual feelings for his mom. Frustrated not in that they are not reciprocated, but that it feels wrong to feel them. Some of my complaints about King's previous work, such as Under the Dome and 11/22/63, were his thinly developed villains. It's interesting that the TV shows based on those books feature more complex versions of those villains, something especially true of Lee Harvey Oswald, whose television portrayal was much more complex and nuanced than King's portrayal. But King corrects many of his old errors in Mr. Mercedes and makes this a much more compelling read.

King's use of pop culture references and dialogue serve to make the story feel believable and realistic and very much a part of the time it was written - our time. One scene in which characters discuss two of King's well-known characters - the car from Christine and the clown from It - without naming either story goes to show just how deeply-entrenched King's own works have become in pop culture. But King does suffer from bloat, just a little. At times his dialogue goes on longer than it should, or his use of detail is a bit too much. That said, I prefer the life these details give. King could go the route of many other authors of thrillers in providing sparse, get-to-the-point details that make for a fast-paced novel but one that's but a skeleton: no flesh, no filling.

Some criticisms about the plot and character choices that readers might make come down to the fact that these characters don't make the best decisions, and that's only human. That Hodges, a retired detective, would go after a serial killer on his own is the stuff of movies, but Hodges knows it carries serious consequences and just can't help himself. There might also be consequences in him making the right decision. It's encouraging to see that as King gets older, his characters grow more complex and his stories remain just as fascinating and suspenseful and humorous to read.

Wednesday, April 4, 2018

Review: The Handmaid's Tale, by Margaret Atwood

There's a scene at a doctor's office in The Handmaid's Tale that seems particularly relevant today in light of the #MeToo movement when the doctor offers to help the main character get pregnant. Many other little details are reminiscent of events happening now - the timidity of Margaret Atwood's female characters is similar to those of women who are just now opening up about sexual misconduct from famous men, years and decades later. The Handmaid's Tale should be an important, relevant novel, and yet the way that Atwood withholds details about her world, the inability to make the world believable, prevent this novel from touching on anything outside of its pages. This is a nothing much happens sort of novel that has an aura of importance, what turns out to be a deceiving aura.

The biggest problem for me is that Atwood does not do a very good job of building her dystopian world. Based on flashbacks that the main character, Offred, shares, it seems that society has changed almost overnight. Women don't work, but serve in a variety of feminine roles, such as a handmaiden, women meant for breeding purposes (and for some reason people don't have babies very easily anymore). Being set in the United States, I find it very hard to buy that this society would change so quickly, or that it would become this sort of dystopia at all. America is so entrenched in big business, which would find profits crippled if half of America's buying power was made powerless. When we do learn some backstory about what happens, it is even more preposterous. And even so, it makes little sense why anyone would want to run the world in the way it is run here. Things are done inefficiently.

Even outside the story and ideas, the writing doesn't dazzle either. Atwood makes use of simplistic, cringe-worthy similes. The style is that of dull literary writers who write for literary crowds in literary magazines - sounding important, but lacking vitality. This stems from Atwood's bad habit of telling rather than showing. Oftentimes the reader is told how somebody feels, and sometimes this doesn't make much sense in the context of the event, or it just feels forced. The dialogue doesn't help either, especially during flashbacks when Offred's mother speaks. Her words sound unreal, unlike anyway people really speak. All of this adds up to defeat the magic of the world.

The Handmaid's Tale sounds an awful lot like YA dystopia today, only with actual sex (mostly rape) and obvious sexual symbolism. The heroine sounds much more like Divergent's Tris than a 30-something year old woman. Because Atwood doesn't quite sell the world, when characters do things that break the rules of society I feel no sort of sympathy or tension that such rule breaking is supposed to evoke. In the end, this hurts any sort of larger picture message that Atwood might be aiming at. If the world doesn't make sense, then how could it apply to our real world that largely does make sense, even if it's not always fair?