Sunday, January 31, 2016

The Secrets to Ruling School by Neil Swaab

The Secrets to Ruling School (Without Even Trying)The Secrets to Ruling School by Neil Swaab

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Review copy provided by Netgalley

While this book is not the only one to come out in past few years looking like a rulebook written in a school notebook, this book is singular in its overall format. This book seems to dance back and forth between instructional guide and second-person narrative. I liked that. It was a very funny book too, though I wasn't particularly keen on a couple choices of verbiage such as referring to kids being 'screwed' when things go wrong, or to 'taking a dump' in the bathroom that were sprinkled throughout. That's the kind of stuff that makes a school librarian choose not to put a book on their shelves. Also, there was a reliance on the cliched school social structure that I find tiresome and completely unrealistic in most cases. Essentially, that kind of storytelling perpetuates archaic social settings that don't reflect the reality of today, making teenagers seem one-dimensional and agonizingly predictable.

However, I don't mean to come down on this decision too hard, because I really was very impressed with the book. Within the setting he created, Swaab did an impressive job of creating a gradually escalating plan to affect change throughout the school. The cliques that he used were essential to the overall plot. Each clique needed something from the other one that made for a ever-evolving set of obstacles that the main character, me, had to overcome in order to find his comfortable place in the school.

This book is full of advice, most of it the kind that would most teachers and parents openly weep, but all of it done in a tongue-in-cheek, humorous style. The astute reader will realize that the plans, though amazing elaborate and seemingly well thought out, all have glitches that tend to make them backfire for one reason or another and generally complicate the characters' lives further. It's not until the end is in sight that you start to realize that the characters are growing from experience together and that real friendships are forming. One character I felt continually bad for was Eugene Leach, whose unpopularity made him the butt of many of jokes about lonely he was. I don't feel like that was done in good taste. Still, there is something enjoyable about this story.

I'm sure it would appeal to readers of anything from I am a Genius of Unspeakable Evil and I Want to Be Your Class President or Vordak the Incomprehensible: Rule the School to fans of Diary of a Wimpy Kid or Big Nate: In a Class by Himself or Dear Dumb Diary Box Set #1-4 or Tales from a Not-So-Fabulous Life. It was right on par with those books for crass, occasionally crude humor.

Were I a middle school librarian, I would undoubtedly add this book to my library, but as I am dealing with an elementary crowd, I would probably pass this by in my next order. Still, as a reader, I was very impressed. I liked the book. I laughed throughout, and I would happily add this book to my personal collection. Good book if the audience is ready for it.

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The Day the Mustache Took Over by Alan Katz

The Day the Mustache Took OverThe Day the Mustache Took Over by Alan Katz

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Review copy provided by Netgalley

This book could probably best be described an absurd mix of Amelia Bedelia, The Cat in the Hat, and Mary Poppins. This is the story of badly behaved twin boys with parents that seemingly have no time to raise their children themselves. Therefore, the children are essentially raised by nannies that quit with such regularity that the boys have been through hundreds of them already. Then, a nanny shows up that changes everything, though this nanny is no Mary Poppins regardless of how similar their entrances.

After those early comparisons to Mary Poppins, the book swiftly shifts tones to something more akin to the Cat in the Hat, with the nanny, Martin, taking the role of the terribly behaved Cat while the twins clean up after him like Sally and her brother. The similarities to Amelia Bedelia come into play when Martin is left to his own devices while the children attend school.

All in all, this book is just an absurd romp through one bit of craziness after another. Martin, the nanny, has as much need for growth as the twins it turns out and they all do evolve into more responsible, caring versions of their earlier selves, but character growth isn't the central focus here. This is about the laughs and it does that fairly well. This is something that would probably appeal to reluctant middle-grade readers. It's illustrated, though not on every page, and the text is not overwhelmingly complex.

It ends fairly well, but mostly it seems to be a set-up for the next book in this series. This series will be a welcome addition to the humor fiction category, well-written though strongly reminiscent of stories that came before it. Well done.

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Saturday, January 30, 2016

Chasing Secrets by Gennifer Choldenko

Chasing SecretsChasing Secrets by Gennifer Choldenko

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Review copy provided by Netgalley

Anyone who knows Choldenko's other work is sure to approach this one with high expectations, and happily, I can report that they will not be disappointed with the results here. I feel like this book could be called the West Coast's equivalent of Fever 1793 by Laurie Halse Anderson which was set in on the East Coast in colonial Philadelphia. However, the major difference between these two outbreaks is of course the fact that the San Francisco outbreak carried with it this terrible weight of secrecy.

Reading this, I was most impressed with the scope of different issues that Choldenko addressed in one book. There were the issues of ethnic discrimination and prejudice in turn-of-the-century San Francisco, the gender roles that limited girls and women to a powerless existence in many cases, the economic class struggles limiting citizens access to adequate medical care and educational opportunities, and most perplexing of all, the medical practices of the time and the generally poor conditions that physicians were forced to work under.

I found the main character, Lizzie, to be inspiring and unflinchingly honest. She had several personal trials to overcome in this story, but they paled in comparison to the societal troubles she faced. The time of this novel, 1900 in San Francisco seems almost unrecognizable to a reader today, and yet Choldenko gave the the landscape a surge of reality throughout that kept the story engaging and relatable.

This is an exceptional piece of historical fiction, one that could generate extensive conversation among readers. It certainly deserves a place in the classrooms of elementary and middle schools all across the country just as much as any of her Al Capone titles. It has so much teachable content that it would be a shame to let this one slip by. The entire book is very well done.

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The Night Parade by Kathryn Tanquary

The Night ParadeThe Night Parade by Kathryn Tanquary

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Review Copy provided by Netgalley

This is a thrilling read that is sure to engage readers from the moment the magic of the first begins. Set in a mountainside village in Japan, this is the story of Saki, a sullen teen from Tokyo forced to leave her beloved city for a family visit to her grandmother's home and the annual celebration of Obon. Sami starts the story as a rather unlikable character, more interested in her phone than her family. She has awful friends that are the very embodiment of the mean girl mentality, and she thinks there is nothing more important than impressing and appeasing the worst of them all, the manipulative leader of the group, Hana.

Neither Saki, nor her younger brother Jun, nor even her parents seem particularly thrilled with having to go, but they are going out of a sense of familial obligation. Saki's grandmother is probably the most likable character of all in the beginning. However, Sami soon falls in with the wrong crowd in the village and sets in motion a curse that she can only undo by traveling into the world of spirits known as the Night Parade. Over the course of three nights, she must find a way to lift the death curse she brought on with the help of the guides. However, her task will be none to easy as she soon discovers, and the consequences of failing are too great to risk.

I loved that this was a children's fantasy set in the world of Japanese folklore. It was such a refreshingly new angle. As a reader, I was entirely unaware of the celebration of Obon, and everything about this story seemed invite another unexpected chance to gain further insight into Japanese culture. While this is a highly appealing title for readers of the fantasy genre, it will hold equal appeal for YA teen readers. Along the way a reader will inevitably gain a deeper appreciation of Japanese cultural customs, which is a nice bonus. Certainly a worthwhile read that should make a big splash in fantasy market this year. Well done.

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