Monday, February 20, 2017

MG Review: The Memory Thief

Been doing pretty good on the review thing so far this year huh? Look at me go. *thumbs up self*

Let's do another!

The Memory Thief by Bryce Moore

Published: September 20th, 2016 by Adaptive Books
Genre: MG Fantasy
Binding: ARC
Page Count: 245 in the ARC, but I believe the finished version will have 256.
Part of a series? I don't think so, but I could be wrong. I have no information saying it will be part of a series, though.
Got via: The publisher sent it to me along with a few other things for review consideration.
Amazon / Book Depository / Indiebound

Summary (from goodreads): After witnessing another one of their parents' public fights, twin brother and sister Benji and Kelly wander off at the local county fair. Benji runs into a group of bullies and escapes into a tent called The Memory Emporium, where he meets a strange old man inside named Louis. The old man shows him a magically vivid memory of a fighter pilot, in the hopes of getting Benji to pay to see other memories Louis has collected from people over the years.

Benji quickly realizes the ability to take memories could help his parents stop fighting with each other, and he asks Louis to teach him how to become a Memory Thief. But Louis isn't the only person with the ability to show and manipulate memories. There's also the mysterious Genevieve, a Memory Thief with much more nefarious motives.

Benji learns how to manipulate memories himself, but having that power comes at a cost to his family, and possibly to his own mind as well. Genevieve’s powers get out of control as she steals more and more memories from people in town—including Benji’s sister, Kelly. Benji must learn to use this newfound power, as he is the only one able to stop Genevieve.

Review: While it's not going to be in my top ten or anything, this is a solid little book that I didn't really have any problem reading. It's not over the top wow amazing, but it's perfectly serviceable, and an enjoyable read. I definitely think there are things it could have done better, and I'll get into those things, but it wasn't bad by any means, and my feelings in general are satisfied. Let's jump into the rest of the review.

Plot Talk: The plot is a very strong part of the book. There's tons of action, but time for quiet moments, and it doesn't lag at all. It's described well in the summary so I'm not gonna repeat that, but the plot works well for the genre and the age it's aimed at. The only thing I kind of wish was that more of the plot had been propelled by Benji's mistakes, and not just his sister. It feels like Kelly spends a lot of time holding the, if you'll excuse the ableism in the expression, Idiot Ball, and a lot of the book's plot is Benji fixing her mistakes. Considering her character does very little to actually advance the plot in the book, it's not my favourite thing.

Characters: The plot complaint pretty much holds up here. I wish Kelly had had a little more character than just, you know, a Living MacGuffin, since she doesn't do anything besides get the plot going by being reckless and messing things up. While the villain is female, and that's neat, there's not a lot here for sympathetic female characters. Honestly, I really wish the author had gone for duo POV alternating between Benji and Kelly. It would have been really interesting to show more of the story, and would have given Kelly a larger role in general.

Benji is fine as a character and as a narrator. At times I thought his voice didn't ring entirely true in a "kid" way, but for the most part it was fine. Honestly though he's pretty standard fare for white boys this age in this genre. There was nothing I hated about him, but there was also nothing I found really exceptional or super special. He definitely could have been a little more interesting, or different in some way, but he's fine.

PG-13 stuff: I actually think some of the stuff of Benji and Kelly's parents fighting could be upsetting to readers who have had parents fight like that. It's pretty true to reality, and some of the things Benji's dad says and thinks are really out of line and honestly a little misogynistic. I found it a little uncomfortable. There's also a little violence (not from the parents), but nothing extreme.

Cons, complaints, bad stuff, etc.: I think I covered it? The voice doesn't always ring entirely true for a kid and I would have liked more agency from Kelly. The book is also super white, completely straight, lacking in any kind of real disability rep, and the only fat characters are unsavory characters who are quite negative. It's very... standard, honestly.

Cover comments: Great cover! It's very colourful and vibrant, and actually shows a scene that happens in the book. I loved that as a kid, and still think it's nifty.

Conclusion: I don't think this blows other books in the category out of the water, but for the most part it's fine. I adored the descriptions of the memories, and over all it's got kind of an Inside Out meets the Giver thing going on, minus the dystopia. It's a fun book, and I think kids would enjoy it. Not much more to it than that! Three out of five roses.

Other notes:

- I could make a metaphor out of how Benji acts when he takes his parents' memory of anger being like what happens when kids are expected to handle adult issues. It's clever.

- Benji and Kelly's parents expect them to use payphones instead of giving them cellphones because they worry about the kids getting in trouble online or something. One, you can get cellphones designed for kids that have limited features. Two, there are parental controls in general. Three, where are these magical 2016 payphones??? I found it bad enough when they were magical 2009 or 2011 payphones, but 2016? I don't understand this.

I think that's it!

Peace and cookies,

Monday, February 13, 2017

Things I've Read Recently (39): Valentine's Day Part 3

If you're new around here, Things I've Read Recently is a series of posts I do that are basically mini-reviews of books that I either forgot to review, didn't have enough to say for a full review, or just didn't want to do a full post about for whatever reason.

Sometimes it's because I like themes! I've done two of these posts and I am all sad that I won't do anymore after this because by the time this posts, my Storytime kid will have graduated to full-time school! Now I'm going to be in denial, okay? See post one here, and post two here, and this will be the last part. Like part one, this is only going to have three books, because I don't want to order more Valentine's Day books.

Secret Admirer by Ron Roy

Published: December 22nd, 2015 by Random House Books for Young Readers
Genre: MG Mystery
Binding: Paperback
Page Count: 127 plus listings for the author's various series, and praise from kids which is adorable.
Part of a series? It took me a while to figure this out! The A to Z Mysteries series has 26 books, one for each letter of the alphabet. Then, according to the author's website, the Super Edition series books have the same characters a year later, and are about 50 pages longer. This is the 8th book in that series, and the latest of it so far (I may need to update that). Then there is the Calender Mysteries series, which features these characters' younger siblings, and is aimed at a slightly younger audience. There are thirteen of those (one for each month, and a bonus book).
Got via: The library.
Amazon (and it's only 4 dollars!) / Book Depository / Indiebound

Summary (from goodreads): It’s Valentine’s Day in Green Lawn! But Dink, Josh, and Ruth Rose just aren’t feeling the love this year. Valentine’s Day was so much more fun when they were little. Then they each start getting messages and clues from a secret admirer! Can the kids figure out who wants to be their Valentine?

Thoughts: I love this kind of mystery as an adult. When I was a kid, I loved all the murder and crime solving and ones, but it is more realistic to have kids solving small mysteries like a secret admirer. I still think there's a place for the more out-there ones, but it's also nice to see ones like this, which are almost more about problem solving and critical thinking than a true mystery, while still retaining the spirit.

The characters are not the most fleshed out things ever, but they work well for carrying the story, and they do all seem to have some solid personality. It's also really sweet to see a book where kids are excited about Valentine's Day not because of crushes or anything, but just because they like the candy and partying and decorations and stuff. This is one that talks about the love between family and friends and pets instead of romantic love. I like that since the back of this puts the audience at ages 6-9 and I agree with that assessment.

It's a little predictable, but it's cute, and the searching for the letters thing? That is harder than you'd think. There are a few letters I still can't find! I enjoyed this one, and I can see why there are three series of this, because I can totally see how kids would love these. I've only read one of these before, from the regular series, and I think it was the vampire one when I was like twelve, but I would be fine reading more. This was just good-natured, you know? And they would probably be good for kids who don't like scary things, although I'd have to try a few more to decide that for sure.

I also see they've updated the covers, and I think that's cool - the new ones have a lot of personality and it does modernize them a bit, considering some of them are over a decade old. That's older than the kids reading them!

23 Ways to Mess Up Valentine's Day by Valerie Wilson Wesley

Published: November 1st, 2005 by Jump at the Sun which was an imprint of Hyperion.
Genre: Contemporary MG
Binding: Paperback
Page Count: 90 pages
Part of a series? Yes, this is the 5th book in the Willimena Rules series. It looks like Jump at the Sun closed, and the 7th book had a very limited print if it was printed at all (I honestly can't find an answer to that for sure) back in 2008. Then in 2015, there was a version published by Just Us Books, so it seems like the series will continue there along with Kindle copies.
Got via: The library, of course.

Summary (from goodreads): Of all the great holidays kids have to celebrate, you'd think at least Valentine's Day should be Willie-proof. You give some cards, you get some cards - what could be simpler, right? Wrong!! I, Willimena Thomas, managed to find a way to mess up even Valentine's Day - twenty-three ways, in fact.

See, the whole valentine thing always makes me worry. Every year I think, What if no one sends me a card? What if I'm the only one sitting at our class party with NO CARDS AT ALL on my desk? So this yeah, with a little help from my sister, Tina, I thought I had that roblem solved. Boy was I wrong!

At least I wasn't alone. You see, there was a new boy in our class who got Valentine's Day all wrong too....

Thoughts: Remember Valentine Frankenstein?? This is another book with kids worrying about not getting any valentines! This is why I'm in favour of not making something that's supposed to be fun for kids a popularity contest. Leave stressing about Valentine's Day for adults in bad sitcoms.

This was super cute. Willie is the sweetest little worrywort, and I think kids who struggle with worrying or even anxiety would relate to her. She does seem to have some interesting adventures, and I like the references to previous books in the story, even if I haven't read them, but some of her worries in this are proven to be unfounded in a really reassuring way.

This is my ninth Valentine book between these three posts, I believe, and it is the first one to mention that February is Black History Month. Willimena talks about several prospects for the project her class is working on, which is to pick their favourite black hero or heroine, and the one she eventually picks is (spoiler) Zora Neale Hurton, who I believe from my googling now that I can be sure but it fits inspired the name of this imprint. That's pretty darn awesome.

The illustrations showing Willimena and her sister Tina are absolutely beautiful, and I think she would be an amazing character for little girls to look up to and see themselves in. Her voice is engaging, and very funny, and I especially loved the relationship between Willie and her sister. I definitely recommend this one, and I would be happy to read more of the series!

The Valentine Cat by Ann Whitehead Nagda

Published: October 1st, 2008 by Holiday House
Genre: Contemporary MG
Binding: Hardcover
Page Count: 119 plus the about the author/illustrator
Part of a series? Yes, there five other books about the kids in this classroom, although they all seem to function as standalone books, too.
Got via: The library
Amazon / Indiebound

Summary (from goodreads): It's not fair! Jenny has to give away her cat, Munchkin, because her little brother has asthma. Why can't they give away her brother instead? Jenny's friends offer to take Munchkin, but problems come up.

Then Jenny's teacher says the cat can stay in their classroom for a while. Munchkin loves school! But he keeps getting into trouble - and Jenny just nows he won't behave at the big pet party on Valentine's Day. Will Jenny ever find a home for her naughty cat?

Thoughts: This was really good. It's a bit more complex than some of the others in these posts, and I think the writing is probably a higher level. At the same time, I thought this class of fourth-graders was very realistic. The focus in this one for the Valentine's Day is basically just that they get to have a party, and they're excited about that. Nothing about crushes or romance, or anything like that. I know some fourth-graders totally have crushes, but some of them also aren't ready to read about that, and especially some kids who read up, so a variety is nice.

This has one of the most responsible examples of rehoming an animal I've seen in many types of media. Munchkin needs to find a new home because Jenny's brother has asthma, as said in the summary. They didn't go into scary levels of detail, but they do say that her brother wheezes and that Jenny finds it scary, so it's not just "we've having a baby so no more cat", or anything like that. Jenny tries several homes, and they talk about how cats and dogs can get along, and mentions that sometimes cats don't eat much when they're unhappy. It's responsible, it's well-thought out, and it's very clever.

Complaints: It's not as white as it could be, with several characters of colour, but it also could be more diverse both in that, and in other ways (ability, weight, etc.). There's a moment of fatshaming the author felt she had to throw in for some reason that stereotypes how fat kids eat (if fat kids ate more vegetables, they wouldn't be so fat), but at least it's only once.

Those things make me sigh, but other than those, it's good. I wish that wasn't that, but at least it was small enough that most kids would probably just skim over it since they're so used to getting that kind of stereotypical message anyways. The other messages in it about responsible rehoming of pets makes it work well enough for me to ignore that, and I liked the subtle Valentine's Day theme for kids who may not be in as into it as others.

And I think that's all we're going to do!

Thanks for reading, and Happy Valentine's Day! I hope you have a great one, whether you're snuggling up with someone you like, or, if you're like me, enjoying the pretty colours and readily available chocolate while being aromantic! :D

Peace and heart shaped cookies,

Monday, February 6, 2017

YA Review: Boy Robot

Boy Robot by Simon Curtis

Published: October 25th, 2016 by Simon Pulse
Genre: YA Science Fiction
Binding: ARC
Page Count: My ARC has 418, says 432, and goodreads actually doesn't have a page count. (Someone should fix that.) I assume around that mark.
Part of a series? Goodreads also says this will be a trilogy.
Got via: Simon and Schuster Canada sent it to me.
Amazon / Book Depository / Indiebound

Summary (from goodreads):  There once was a boy who was made, not created.

In a single night, Isaak’s life changed forever. His adoptive parents were killed, a mysterious girl saved him from a team of soldiers, and he learned of his own dark and destructive origin. An origin he doesn’t want to believe, but one he cannot deny.

Isaak is a Robot: a government-made synthetic human, produced as a weapon and now hunted, marked for termination. He and the Robots can only find asylum with the Underground—a secret network of Robots and humans working together to ensure a coexistent future. To be protected by the Underground, Isaak will have to make it there first. But with a deadly military force tasked to find him at any cost, his odds are less than favorable.

Now Isaak must decide whether to hold on to his humanity and face possible death…or to embrace his true nature in order to survive, at the risk of becoming the weapon he was made to be.

Review: This is gonna be a long review. This book did not work for me and I have seven pages of notes on why. Go get a snack because we're gonna be here a while. There may be spoilers, depending on what you consider a spoiler... honestly there will probably be spoilers. If you want to avoid them, read my conclusion section. It'll sum everything up and probably not have any. Hopefully.

One of my very first notes is that the writing is very pretty, but it could get old. The prose tends to be very literary and honestly that doesn't work super well for me. This book should have a lot of action, and there are a fair amount of action scenes, but the voice doesn't gel in those scenes. They lack urgency. Some people will probably really like the voice, but for me, it really struggles in places. Yes, it's pretty writing - but it doesn't make me care about the characters.

Plot Talk: Plot is a pretty big problem for me. Giant, even. This part will probably have spoilers. The way the book is set up is that there's Isaak's point of view chapters, and there are chapters that are backstory/flashbacks(/possibly memories? it's not always clear) from other characters. I don't like the flashbacks. They start in the prologue, and the prologue starts with an action scene. The problem is, I don't know any of the characters in the prologue. They have no names. I don't know the context of the world. Why should I care about random people running away from other random people? There's really no reason that I should, and then it switches from that to Isaak's POV and they don't feel connected at all.

Also, the flashbacks (for lack of a better term, we'll stick with that) are in third person past tense, generally, and Isaak's POV is first person present tense. I've read that before, and I'm generally not a fan. This book has not convinced me otherwise. The flashbacks are very repetitive. There are times where you see something, and a few pages later, the book tells you the exact same thing again in Isaak's point of view. It does this very badly in one of them right the end, like page 380ish end, and it completely ruins the tension. It tells you the backstory of this character, goes back to Isaak's POV, and introduces that character. Well, besides the fact that the book literally spends two pages repeating everything that was said in the flashback almost word for word with no new information whatsoever, it would be so much better if I didn't know if Isaak could trust the character or not, if I didn't know if they were lying or telling the truth.

And they drag the pace down, since they often happen in the middle of action scenes. The characters I actually kind of care about could be dying! Things are exploding! Here, have some backstory of a character who won't show up for a hundred more pages and will only have two lines, or hey, how about the backstory of one who shows up in the next chapter only to die and is never mentioned again. Why. And they don't all connect to characters easily. I have guesses about which nameless character is which, but I don't know for sure for all of them. There's a couple I have no clue about when the book ends and - am I supposed to remember a half dozen backstories about nameless, not well described characters for another year until the second book comes out?

There's more about them I'll get to, but for now let's say - the plot in Isaak's POV isn't bad. It's pretty slow and not a ton happens since half the book is backstory, but it isn't awful. But half the book is backstory. Halfway through this, I felt like nothing had happened besides a road trip.

Characters: Isaak's kind of bland and I hate the love interest. Which, here's actually one thing I really liked. Isaak is queer, probably gay although he's not completely sure it seems and I hate labeling people without their consent even if they're fictional, but queer nonetheless. Awesome! I liked that. More queer protagonists in science fiction and fantasy, please. And I know that's gonna draw some people in no matter what else I say. Also awesome!! I genuinely hope you enjoy this more than I do, because I know what it means. And that is one thing that is handled well. Isaak is a boy with a crush on a boy, and it's not treated as weird or a big deal or anything the narrative or other characters. More of that, please.

Saying he's bland is a little harsh. We just don't get to spend enough time with him, and honestly this is the same of all the characters. Telling us their backstory isn't the same thing as developing their personality. There's a character who at one point Isaak says he regrets not getting to know better - yeah, me too! If the book had spend the chapter letting Isaak getting to know her within his POV scenes instead of telling us her backstory when we hadn't even met her, and had no reason to care, both their development would have been way better. And I swear, the kid spent more time asleep or unconscious in this book than actually doing anything.

Now this is the weirdest thing to type, but like - if Isaak was a girl, and nothing else changed, I feel like people wouldn't like this? Okay, like let me try and explain this clearly. You have a book where a white girl find out on her eighteenth birthday that she's some magical powerful creature and that's the reason she didn't fit in all her life. This comes with hot guy to kiss who's kind of a jerk, obviously. Then it turns out she's the most powerful of all the magical creatures and the one who's going to save them all and the world.

Tell me people don't make jokes about that.

And the thing is, if it was done well, I would think it was really cool. But it doesn't feel like it's done in a "this but queer" way like, I don't know, Empress of the World is a cute summer camp romance store, but with queer girls. There's a line where tropes become cliches and this doesn't come down on the good side of this. And I fully think that's because of the narrative choice to spend half the book away from the main character. For example, Isaak has almost no angst about being a Robot. There's a tiny bit attempted for a page or so, but then that's immediately forgotten, and honestly - why should I care as a reader? I spent almost no time with him when he was a human, and knew very little about his life before he knew he was a Robot. There's no sense of loss to make me care - if he can brush it off in a page, why should I care?

Besides that the love interest is a complete jerk and I hated him, and I don't care what the excuse is, he sucks, the villains are super underdeveloped. Like I'm legit not sure who the bad guys are? Please, feel free to tell me, because I honestly don't know. You'd think that would have shown up amongst all the backstory, but nah. We got to know a goon for a minute until he immediately died on screen basically as soon as he showed up, but the head honchos? No clue. Why did you tell me the backstory of a goon who immediately died in the next chapter, but not tell me who's running this whole thing? I don't understand.

PG-13 stuff: Tons and tons of trigger warnings here. Child abuse, child rape, rape in general, violence, transphobic violence, oodles of casual murder. And it's not that I think you can't do those things in YA because I do. But they feel incredibly gratuitous to me. They don't happen to Isaak. They only happen in the flashbacks to characters who are largely nameless and faceless. We have no reason to connect to these characters or their pain, and after the third or fourth nameless character gets abused for what seems like no reason, it starts to feel like tragedy porn. These things get fairly graphic, and the child rape especially is incredibly disturbing, and when we spend next to no time with these characters when they show up on screen in Isaak's POV, it feels... cheap. It feels like it is done for shock value, not to understand or emphasize with the characters.

Cons, complaints, bad stuff, etc.: Um, I think this entire review has been a complaint, hasn't it? Bad pacing that made it hard for me to connect with the characters, weird narrative thing with the flashbacks that I didn't like, and I felt that the violence was too over the top and wasn't handled well at all.

There wasn't a fat person to be seen in this book. No jokes about it, at least, but considering their bodies are supposed to basically be "perfect", that's a little messed up to me. I also found the skin descriptions a little odd. Almost nobody is described at all until probably three hundred pages in, and then people have various skin tones, but it takes three hundred pages to get there, and there's a couple of uses of food to describe skin which usually isn't a good idea. I dunno, I could be totally wrong, but it felt strange.

I also found the trans rep potentially problematic. I looked for reviews from trans reviewers, and asked on Twitter, but I didn't find anything. I wish I had something to link to, and learn from, but I would not be comfortable recommending this book to a trans kid. Most of the trans character's time in the book is spent suffering in a flashback and then she only shows up for a minute or two and doesn't really do anything. She does not feel like a significant character, and probably 90% of her page-time is abuse. And it gets really graphic, and after a very, very graphic scene that I would never, ever recommend to a trans reader, the character gets maybe three lines of dialogue and disappears.

I'm cis and my word is obviously not final, but I don't want my trans friends to have to read this to say it's not okay. I want you to really understand this - I don't want to tell trans folk to go into this expecting a trans character, and have to read those scenes, because I think it would hurt them, and it feels incredibly invasive to have this character that you almost never see unless she's being abused.

Cover comments: The cover's great. Very simple and striking, and I like that it looks like computer parts. It would probably get disgusting as a library book, lol, but it's striking, and I like the little details of how the edges are kind of yellowed looking.

Conclusion: I liked about half this book, and that would be the half told from Isaak's POV. But the flashback chapters honestly have ruined it for me. I was considering giving this somewhere around a rating of two or so, but I keep typing and things just feel worse and worse. Large amounts of those flashback chapters are so graphic and violent in a way that feels both like it's for shock value, in the abuse the flashback characters suffer, and inconsequential, in the murders and deaths that occur constantly in those chapters.

I couldn't connect to the characters well including Isaak because of the narrative structure. I finished the book confused about a bunch of things. It's super repetitive. I felt like almost no actual plot occurred, and some of what did happen had ruined tension because of the flashbacks. And, most importantly, I think that the content could seriously hurt people. The only thing that keeps this from getting a straight-up zero is that I appreciate the queer protagonist and his chapters didn't have most of the problems that the flashback chapters did. One rose.

Other notes:

- I took this to work when it was -40 and my pen froze so much that it was actually really hard to write. And these are nice pens. Can it please be spring now?

- There's just a joke here that says, "You're a wizard, Harry," and I made myself laugh with that, at least.

- Another one of my notes says, "This is like watching an episode of a show I don't watch", and that's really true. The opening and a lot of the flashbacks are a lot of action, but no reason for me to care about the characters.

- Random place to put this, but there's a whole lot of info-dumping in characters' dialogue for a book that's half flashback.

- JB is the kind of douche who calls a group of girls, "Ladies". I absolutely hate that. Don't ever do that to me. It makes me snarl.

- There was a tiny subplot that felt a little disability inspiration porn? I dunno, could just be me being over-sensitive, but it felt a little cheesy. There's also a scene where a black woman's nose is made narrower through magic-science shapeshifting powers, and this is implied to make her more attractive. These things made me really uncomfortable.

- I have at least five notes that are just, "Why do I care?"

- Seriously, you had to kill a woman to get manpain for a character that immediately dies?? What was even the point of that?

Okay, I think that's... well, it's actually not everything I noted, but it's enough. Let's wrap it up here. Thanks so much for reading.

Peace and cookies,