Man Made Boy (Book Review)

Man Made Boy (Book Review)

Here is a fun YA novel.

The story of Frankenstein’s son, pieced together over the years by the Bride, provides us with a fun story about a boy trying to escape his past, and the mistakes of his present, all the while hoping to fit into a world where he doesn’t belong.

Boy, the simply named protagonist, is a monster. Stitched together, he is a hideous creation that is faced with the common dilemmas of a teenager, but has to deal with them while being stuck in The Show, a carnival-like atmosphere filled with all types of legendary monsters: a vampire, fairies, trolls, a centaur, minotaur, Medusa. You name it, and The Show has it.

But Boy wants more than to be a part of The Show for the rest of his life: he wants to be outside, and live in the normal world of humans, something that is easier said than done.

It doesn’t help that his parents are the legendary literary characters created by the mad scientist, Victor Frankenstein. They are as would be expected, and over-protective to boot.

boy5Man Made Boy takes us on a pretty awesome adventure, as Boy tries to integrate himself in the real world. In New York, he is able to get an under-the-table job, and is eventually joined by his troll girlfriend, as they try to make it as people. Of course, there are innumerable complications, including her growing addiction to Glamour, a drug that enables her to appear as a beautiful human.

To make things worse, Boy is a tech genius, and has created an Artificial Intelligence that forces him to hit the road, in search of normalcy, and in search of a place that he can call home, with other monsters that are like him. This creates a fun road trip, and the meeting of other interesting monster characters, both from urban legend and from literature.

Man Made Boy is an excellent YA read. It provides a lot of fun, and a lot of literary allusions that could hopefully pique the interest of young readers to learn more about monsters from books past. It is also rich in teen themes that are explored in new and unique ways. In an increasingly bland and repetitive world of YA literature, it is always refreshing to have a unique take on the same stories, and Man Made Boy definitely provides that. The novel is about inclusion, and love, and coming-of-age, in a situation where none of these things seem possible. It is about wanting to find the place where you belong, and having to make the sacrifices needed in order to find your place.

Boy is faced with questions galore about his life, and where it will lead him. He will need to love and lose, run and hide, and face the world. He will need to deal with his family, and with their past. He will need to look at his own creation, and be forced to deal with the fact that perhaps he isn’t too unlike the Frankenstein’s a family he has nothing but disdain for because of what they did to his father.

Despite being a page-turning ride, Man Made Boy offers plenty of complexity within its characters and themes. It is a very good read, and highly recommended in the genre. While there may be some language, it is a book that could be given to adolescents 14 and up without any issues.

The Last Leaves Falling (Book Review)

The Last Leaves Falling (Book Review)

There are some pretty horrific and sad diseases out there. It is unfair that children anywhere have to go through the hellish trauma of any kind of disease. Recently, YA novels have undergone a trend of featuring sickly children as their focus, creating instantly heart-breaking novels. There are some that are great, and some that are average, and some that are blatantly trying to jump on to the “sick lit” bandwagon.

The Last Leaves Falling would fall into the first category: this is a very strong novel, and it tackles the truly heartbreaking and incurable disease of ALS (Lou Gehrig’s Disease).

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Typically, ALS is a sickness that befalls the elderly, as it slowly shuts down the body of the person who has it. There is no cure, and it is not a good way to go. After the legs and arms slowly shut themselves down, the disease begins to work on the internal organs of the sufferer, until they are barely able to breathe. People essentially become trapped in their own bodies, able to think clearly, but unable to do anything about it. ALS is brutal, and it doesn’t stop.

It is not happy material.

The Last Leaves Falling takes this disease a step further, giving it to a young man, who must face his imminent death as his body begins working against him. With his amazing and dutiful mother at his side, he withdraws from the world that he no longer feels a part of: he has grown tired of the sympathetic stares, the judging, and growing feelings of uselessness that comes along with the disease. Leaving school, Sora shuts himself inside, rarely wanting to leave the apartment he shares with his mother. He reads books, and he goes online to be a watcher in an online chat forum.

SPORT RIPKEN

 

Here, he is able to do something he didn’t think was possible: he made some friends.

Online, and eventually in person, Sora is able to be himself, to the best of his abilities, with his new friends, and they spend some amazing times together, having fun, as kids should do, but at the same time dealing with the issues that come along with ALS.

As Sora worsens, the novel takes a turn when he makes a decision that will impact not only himself, but all of those who know him and care for him.

It is gut-wrenching.

The Last Leaves Falling is such a strong book for several reasons. The characters come across as real, and the situations that Sora must be a part of are described perfectly. We feel his pain, and understand his sentiments towards those that look at him in his wheelchair. We want to tell him that people aren’t so bad, that they will accept him however he is, but we can’t truly know this, no matter how much we wish it to be true.

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The sadness of the novel is ever present, always looming over our likable protagonist, but first time author Sarah Benwell doesn’t smash it into our faces. The disease is there, and always present in Sora’s life, but there is more to this novel than disease and sadness. It is a skillfully written tale of someone trying to come to terms with the hand that life has dealt them, no matter how brutal or unfair it may be.

Sora struggles, and his friends struggle, and his mother struggles.

But there is a conclusion, and one that is worth pouring through the 350-odd pages to get there.

This is a good read, albeit not a terribly happy one. We know what happens with ALS: there is no remission, no remedy, no way to delay the inevitable.

The Alex Crow (Book Review)

The Alex Crow (Book Review)

Andrew Smith has a knack for being one of the more original, and interesting, YA authors out there. His works may always be borderline for a younger audience, but despite some language and very frequent sexual references, his books offer readers something unique and original, which may be the most difficult thing to find in the copycat industry of Young Adult novels.

Coming up with a plot summary of Smith’s latest novel, The Alex Crow, is fairly difficult, as he weaves together a handful of story lines that remain blurry until all of the pieces begin to fall into place. There is the story of Ariel, a refugee new to the small town of Sunday, Virginia, after a harrowing escape from attacks in his native village. We get multiple perspectives of Ariel’s life, both during his incident of hiding in a refrigerator, his terrible life in a refugee camp, and his move to America. Then we get Ariel in the present day, at a camp for boys who are addicted to video games, along with his new brother, Max, who is pretty funny, if overly obsessed with masturbation (the names he comes up for the act are pretty impressive and hilarious). Here, the boys befriend Cobie, and the three of them are tied together by the work their parents do on something called the Alex project, which tries to de-extinct animals and creatures from the past, while creating some kind of killer drones. Throw into the mix some journals from Arctic explorers from the past, and the multiple voices and personalities of the Melting Man, an experiment gone wrong, and you may get an idea as to what The Alex Crow is about.

alex3It is a bit of a mess, until it isn’t.

Despite the stories being all over the place, and seemingly unrelated, the novel plows forward, and all of the stories are interesting on their own. This is a feat by the author, and each of the story lines is quite interesting and engrossing, leading us to question their inter-connectedness as the novel moves forward.

Ariel is a likable protagonist, and his rough life makes us sympathize for him, and his journey into a new life provides very good depth of his character, to someone we can see struggle, and change, and overcome his obstacles.

alexThe Alex Crow is full of fun secondary characters. From Cobie, to the pet crow named Alex, to the disgruntled camp councilor Larry, and all of the boys at the summer camp, Andrew Smith creates an interesting world that moves his story forward, and provides a ton of entertainment along the way. He has been great at doing this in his other novels as well, specifically Winger and Grasshopper Jungle. Even if the story isn’t for you, the characters always provide a ton of fun.

As for this being a YA novel, it shouldn’t be recommended to younger audiences, much like the rest of his work. He never hesitates to swear, and the sheer amount of sexual references makes The Alex Crow something that should only be given to high school students and older, for the time being. I wouldn’t hesitate to give this book to a well-read Grade 9 student, but anything younger than that would be questionable.

alex4Over the course of his career, Smith has developed a very distinctive style, and I have found all of his reads to be very entertaining. He is a breath of fresh air in the world of YA, not focusing on the same old stories that we have seemingly read a hundred times before. If anything, you know that you will be in for quite a wacky ride when you pick up a Smith novel. He pushes the boundaries, and provides his readers with something that we are all striving for in a novel: something different.

The Alex Crow fits in with his previous works, and it continues on his path, of fun, original stories. A worthy read.

Fish in a Tree (Book Review)

Fish in a Tree (Book Review)

Having been reading YA novels for some time now, it has become increasingly frustrating that there are only a handful of original stories out there, and then a slew of followers who are looking to copy the latest fad. The current crop of YA novels seems to be stuck in this cycle of repetition, and readers are beginning to feel burnout on dystopian novels, the supernatural, magic, kids will illnesses, and first love stories. While there are still a ton of good books that fit into these categories, enough it enough for a little bit. There has to be something else out there, something that is wholesome, and fun, and without the increasing amounts of sex, violence, and swearing that can be found in the pages of a YA novel now.

Fish in a Tree may be as nearly flawless a Young Adult book as I have read in a while.

It should be stated right off the bat, that Fish in a Tree is a true Young Adult book, meant for a younger group of readers. Our heroine is in the sixth grade, a far cry from our typical protagonists who are in high school and doing the things that high school kids do. Ally, our central character here, is still young, and still brings with her much of the innocence and frustration of being that age. While Fish in a Tree is geared for the younger readers out there, it can easily still be enjoyed by “older” YA readers as well.

The story focuses on young Ally, a troublesome student in class, since she spends most of her time fearing having to read and write, as she severely struggles with both. Once her teacher leaves the school for maternity leave, the new teacher, Mr. Daniels, becomes quite interested in her and the way that she learns. From here we are provided with a heartfelt tale of a teacher learning about his students, and helping them learn to the best of their abilities, regardless of what difficulties they may have.

fish2This is a story that is hopeful, and not filled with any type of doom and gloom. It is inspirational, and provides us with a great insight into the struggles that Ally feels before she can understand her learning differences, and that she is not dumb, just that her brain works a little differently from the other kids. We see her rising confidence, and understand what an impact it can be on a child to be so far behind the others in his or her classroom. Author Lynda Mullaly Hunt does a fantastic job of describing Ally’s plight, and how each and every day is a struggle, and how there were too many times when it seemed that all hope was lost in her attempt to succeed in school. It is quite heartbreaking to begin with, as we can understand the difficulties that she is going through, if only she would acknowledge them.

Ally takes abuse from her classmates, especially the vile Shay and Jessica, for all of her shortcomings. But as she grows in confidence, and is built up by Mr. Daniels, Ally becomes not only a kid who is learning to read, but a better person as well. She, and her motley group of friends (the sassy Keisha and the brilliant and awkward Albert), are forced to deal with, and stand up to abusive classmates, realize who they are becoming as young people, and thrive in the new world of learning that Mr. Daniels has created for them.

Honestly, it was refreshing to read about a teacher that cares in Fish in a Tree. Teachers are easily painted villains in any number of teen stories, but it was nice to see a tale in which they actually help the hero by caring about them, and making sacrifices for them. Too many people forget that there are many teachers out there who will sacrifice their own time to help out students when they need it, even if it is not actually required of their jobs, or even if they get little to no recognition for it. Mr. Daniels is a terrific example of the caring educator, taking Ally under his wing, and dedicating himself to building her up to the levels where she belongs. The things he teaches her would not just help her get through Grade 6, but through life.

Fish in a Tree is a very good, quick read. It is a one sitting book (for adults), but won’t need any sequels, and won’t make you feel sad and defeated at the end. It is about the good things that still remain in schools, and paints a realistic picture of a student struggling with something that so many people take for granted as something that everybody can learn how to do.

Thirteen Days to Midnight (Book Review)

Thirteen Days to Midnight (Book Review)

If you could only have one superpower, what would it be? How about being indestructible?

In Thirteen Days to Midnight, author Patrick Carman has put together a very strong YA novel. The story focuses on a teenage boy, who has to overcome the guilt of being in a car accident with his foster father, leaving the man dead. He is perplexed by the final words that his friend/caretaker says to him, when he hears him say, “You are indestructible,” right before the car hit the tree and killed him.

thirteen2Jacob doesn’t think too much of it, until he returns to school after a period of mourning, and meets the new girl: the beautiful Ophelia James, or Oh, as she likes to be called. She sports a cast on a broken forearm, and Jacob has the honor of being the first to sign it. Taken in by her beauty, he wants to write something memorable, and witty. The only thing he can think of, are those final words he heard before the crash: You are indestructible.

From here, Jacob, Oh, and best friend Milo discover that there is power in the words, and that Jacob has control over it. If he says the words to someone, he can actually make them immune to anything, until he decides to take the power back. Only one person can have the power at the same time, but it opens a ton of possibilities for the trio of teens.

Thirteen Days to Midnight is a highly entertaining read. We are taken on a fun (to begin with) journey, where the kids take their time in establishing the rules of the power, considering how to use it to do good for people, and testing the limits of it. This allows us to read the descriptions of the many acts they undertake to see if they remain indestructible, and it lets our own minds run wild with the possibilities.

Of course, there are problems that arise. Jacob begins to discover that everytime he releases the power, his body begins to crave having it back, and when it is with others for too long, it begins to take its toll on them, both physically and mentally.

Here we get to learn more about the power, about the creepy, yet wonderful cult-ish book store owned by Milo’s father, the perfectly named Mr. Coffin. There is a history between Milo’s dad, Jacob’s pseudo-father, and the power, and the history is quite intriguing. Our heroes need to decide how to reign everything in when it seems like it is spinning out of control, and deciding how much responsibility weighs on them to do the right thing with it.

There are parts of this book that drag slightly, and some parts where the explanations are fairly confusing to understand, especially when it comes to the origins of the power, and how it really works when a life is saved, and is passed back and forth between people.

Regardless, this is a very good YA book. It is accessible to both males and females, and Carman is able to write a good, entertaining book without many of the downfalls of many recent YA novels. There is no sex, aside from a couple of very G-rated comments by Jacob, and even though there is a fair amount of implied violence, it never gets to the point of some books, where the violent descriptions are actually quite shocking. There is good balance here, but it doesn’t leave the reader any less entertained.

Generally, the pacing is quite solid, and the characters are likable. The subplots also do a good job in keeping the story moving forward, as there are several of them that add to the intrigue of the story.

Thirteen Days to Midnight is definitely a book I would recommend to kids, especially for those who are growing tired of series books, and want something with the same kind of excitement, but without having to commit themselves to reading an entire series of books. Now that I’ve said that, watch Carman turn around and make this into a series. But whatever, this is a fun book to read, with a fairly original premise.

Rikers High (Book Review)

Rikers High (Book Review)

A novel about a teen who has been sent to Rikers Island due to a fairly small charge, and becomes stuck there for months due to an ineffective court system seems like a pretty solid read. Plus, the novel is written by someone who spent years teaching at Rikers Island, to top it all off? This should be something good. Looking over some of the reviews for this novel on Goodreads, it seemed to be fairly well received, getting a score of 3.8/5.

Perhaps I would be getting into the novel version of Dangerous Minds, where a teacher really can make the difference in the life of a young, troubled person?

Sadly, I found none of these things to be true about Rikers High, and really feel that this novel was superficial and flat, in the end.

Martin is a teenage boy, sent to prison on a charge of “steering,” which involved him telling an undercover cop where to by weed in his neighborhood. A harmless enough charge, given that we are told time and again that Martin is a good kid. But he gets stuck on Rikers for months, due to what we are shown to be incompetence by his lawyer, and a system that just doesn’t care.

Returning to the prison after one of his failed court dates, Martin is caught in the middle of a scuffle between other inmates, and has his face slashed by a razor blade, leaving behind a four-inch scar that will be with him for the rest of his life.

rikers high2Eventually he is moved over to another section of the prison, where they send the students to school, so they can continue with their educations, or get their GEDs, or whatever else. There Martin is supposed to find his inspiration, influenced positively by the teachers he encounters, and the new people he is forced to live with.

The story is pretty straightforward, and we know from the start that it is on a finite timeline, because we know that Martin is going to be getting out of prison soon. So we know that he won’t be there to graduate in some heartfelt storyline, where his teachers break down and cry over all the positive changes he has gone through. In fact, he is only in the school portion of the prison for about a week, leading to one of the major problems of this novel: everything is superficial, and rarely goes beyond the surface of what could have been an emotional story about change.

Sure, Martin would love some revenge on the guy who cut his face, but despite feeling angry a couple of times, nothing really comes of it. He is able to stay away from the regular prison issues, and is able to fight off his anger, fairly easily.

All of the characters in Rikers High, Martin included, are pretty flat. We don’t really learn anything about any of them. And this definitely left me not caring that much about them. No details about the lives of his friends are given, so we can’t relate to them at all. There is no sympathy for the characters, only knowing what is happening. The writing in the novel very much felt like we were distantly being told a story, and we were not at all involved in it, as readers. This left the whole story lacking, for me.

The character that meant to be the inspirational teacher, does very little in my mind to deserve that. He treats the prisoners with respect, which is great. He holds their attention in class, but no reason is given why. He teaches them English, and has them do a series of amateurish assignments that are directly from cliched movies about great teachers. For some reason, these tough kids totally buy into these assignments, and really take their time and care to do them well. They even engage in deep conversations during class time. But why? How do they trust this teacher? It is just assumed, from our first meeting with him, that he is the good guy, and people really like him. That’s it, the only explanation that is offered.

In fact, the inmates like all of their teachers, save one. I feel like it’s rare to find a high school where kids like, and respect, all of their teachers, let alone one on Rikers Island. I found the whole school portion of the novel to be unrealistic, and almost pointless. Martin really doesn’t learn anything from the school. We know that he was smart before he walked into the prison, and nothing about that changes during his time there. He feels some kind of bond with his English teacher, which, again, we are unsure of why it is happening, or what it stemmed from.

The author, Paul Volponi, taught at the Rikers high school for years, and states at the beginning of his book that many incidents that he writes about are based in fact. That may be true, but it somehow seems almost too tame for what one would expect.

Another issue with Rikers High is that there is very little suspense in the storyline. Will Martin ever come face-to-face with the kid who cut him? Will he get out of prison (we know, without a doubt, that he will)? What little build up there is, really fizzles into nothing. The head goon on their ward, who controls everything, offers some potential incidents that could have changed the course of the novel, but literally nothing ever happens with him. He acts tough. Martin doesn’t bite. Moving on. There is also the story of the kid in the bunk next to Martin, which I suppose offers the emotional end to the story that it needs. Sanchez, who is going to be soon going upstate to the adult prison to finish his sentence, is looking for a way out. I guess the fate of this kid helps Martin understand something that he didn’t before…no, wait. He definitely knew all he learns before. Perhaps this incident was just something to reinforce the idea that…prison is bad?

Even the “suspense” building up to one of Martin’s fateful last evenings on Rikers, seems to be shallow. There isn’t much more to it than that. We have seen these types of scenes before, and this one was stolen right from The Shawshank Redemption, which did it emotionally and brilliantly. Rikers High, on the other hand, did it without flair or real concern over what was happening.

I did not like this book, and would find few YA readers to recommend it to. I feel that even a younger audience would see through the skimpy characterization and general lack of interesting incidents to keep the plot moving forward. We never feel scared about Rikers High, and it actually seems like a pretty decent place, which couldn’t have been the intention of the author. There was potential here, and not having read any of his other works, I don’t know if this is along the same lines of his other writing, or just an idea that was there, but just didn’t take off.

I think that the average YA reader wants some more depth in the books they read, and I didn’t find that there was much depth at all in Rikers High.