Monday, January 27, 2020

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday: PIPPA PARK RAISES HER GAME by Erin Yun

Image result for erin yun 
(Fabled Films Press, February 2020)

What It's About (from Goodreads):

A Contemporary Reimagining of Great Expectations by Charles Dickens for Middle Graders

Life is full of great expectations for Korean American Pippa Park. It seems like everyone, from her family to the other kids at school, has a plan for how her life should look. So when Pippa gets a mysterious basketball scholarship to Lakeview Private, she jumps at the chance to reinvent herself by following the “Rules of Cool.”

At Lakeview, Pippa juggles old and new friends, an unrequited crush, and the pressure to perform academically and athletically while keeping her past and her family’s laundromat a secret from her elite new classmates. But when Pippa begins to receive a string of hateful, anonymous messages via social media, her carefully built persona is threatened.

As things begin to spiral out of control, Pippa discovers the real reason she was admitted to Lakeview and wonders if she can keep her old and new lives separate, or if she should even try.

Opening Lines:
"I was the only person in the park. Tucking a damp strand of hair back behind one ear, I surveyed the abandoned slides and empty benches. It was just past six p.m. on a Friday, but it looked like nobody else wanted to be out in the rain."

My Thoughts:
This is the second book I've read in a row with a Korean-American main character, and I am enjoying getting to know a bit more of Korean culture (and food!) Pippa is an endearing and believable 7th-grader, worrying about her status, and making regretful choices. As she says midway through the novel: "I'd wanted a different life, but changing myself into the popular, private school Pippa had left me feeling more alone than ever."

Pippa doesn't disown her ethnicity, but she is embarrassed by her perceived poverty--her small apartment, and the fact that her older sister runs a laundromat. In her posh new private school, she is determined to erase the fact that she transferred from a public school--yet she feels conflicted when she doesn't speak up in support of her friend Buddy, whom she bumps into when she is out with her somewhat catty new social circle, "The Royals." These girls are rich, and they are also the mainstay of the basketball team. I liked the fact that the conflict spilled out into the sports arena, where Pippa has traditionally felt good about herself. There's also the opportunity to reflect on cyberbullying, which is a scourge of the middle school experience.

For an English Literature major (aka geek) like me, I enjoyed the parallels with Dickens' Great Expectations, down to the fact that the Haverford family live in a place called Satis House. As with Dickens, there's a lot going on plot-wise in this novel, but Erin Yun never loses control of the moving pieces. This was a satisfying read with an eye-catching cover. Highly recommended!

About the Author:
Erin Yun grew up in Frisco, Texas. She received her BFA in English from NYU and served as president for its policy debate team. This experience came in handy for her job as the debate consultant for the Tony-nominated Best Play on Broadway: What the Constitution Means to Me. She currently lives in New York City, and yes--she used to play basketball as a middle grader! WEBSITE

Monday, January 13, 2020

YA For A Day: The Sun Is Also A Star by Nicola Yoon

The Sun Is Also A Star by Nicola Yoon

What It's About (from Goodreads):
Natasha: I’m a girl who believes in science and facts. Not fate. Not destiny. Or dreams that will never come true. I’m definitely not the kind of girl who meets a cute boy on a crowded New York City street and falls in love with him. Not when my family is twelve hours away from being deported to Jamaica. Falling in love with him won’t be my story.

Daniel: I’ve always been the good son, the good student, living up to my parents’ high expectations. Never the poet. Or the dreamer. But when I see her, I forget about all that. Something about Natasha makes me think that fate has something much more extraordinary in store—for both of us.

The Universe: Every moment in our lives has brought us to this single moment. A million futures lie before us. Which one will come true?

Opening Lines:
From a Prologue: "Carl Sagan says that if you want to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first invent the universe. When he says "from scratch" he means from nothing. He means from before a time the world even existed."

What I Thought:
This was a fast read, and will appeal to the hopelessly romantic. As such, it is a tonic for this cynical and querulous age. I liked that the MCs were kids of color: Natasha is from Jamaica, and Daniel's parents are Korean. The main time frame of the novel takes place within 24 hours, and it is about chance and the different paths life can take.

Daniel is a poet, and Natasha has a scientific bent--but both of them impart some of their world view to the other. I liked the way Yoon dealt with the limitations of a first person narrative, by having chapters from a secondary characters viewpoint, and even interludes about multiverses, hair, and eyes.

While I was reading, I kept thinking in cinematic terms--so I wasn't surprised to read that it had been made into a movie!

About the Author:
Nicola Yoon grew up in Jamaica (the island) and Brooklyn (part of Long Island). She currently resides in Los Angeles, CA with her husband and daughter, both of whom she loves beyond all reason. The Sun Is Also a Star is her second novel, after Everything, Everything.

Monday, November 4, 2019

YA For a Day: I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter by Erika L. Sánchez

 I AM NOT YOUR PERFECT MEXICAN DAUGHTER by Erika L. Sánchez (Alfred A. Knopf, 2017)

What It's About: 
Perfect Mexican daughters do not go away to college. And they do not move out of their parents’ house after high school graduation. Perfect Mexican daughters never abandon their family.

But Julia is not your perfect Mexican daughter. That was Olga’s role.

Then a tragic accident on the busiest street in Chicago leaves Olga dead and Julia left behind to reassemble the shattered pieces of her family. And no one seems to acknowledge that Julia is broken, too. Instead, her mother seems to channel her grief into pointing out every possible way Julia has failed.

But it’s not long before Julia discovers that Olga might not have been as perfect as everyone thought. With the help of her best friend Lorena, and her first kiss, first love, first everything boyfriend Connor, Julia is determined to find out. Was Olga really what she seemed? Or was there more to her sister’s story? And either way, how can Julia even attempt to live up to a seemingly impossible ideal.

First Lines:
What's surprised me most about seeing my sister dead is the lingering smirk on her face. Her pale lips are turned up ever so slightly, and someone has filled in her patchy eyebrows with a black pencil. The top half of her face is angry--like she's ready to stab someone--and the bottom half is almost smug. This is not the Olga I knew. Olga was as meek and fragile as a baby bird.

My Thoughts:
I always like reading books about other experiences, and this one did not disappoint. Julia is a typical rebellious teenager, except she's straddling two worlds: the America she's grown up in, and the traditional values of her Mexican family.  The whole family is thrown into crisis by the death of her older sister, Olga. Julia moves from experiencing grief through anger, to realizing that her sister might not have been the perfect daughter everyone thought her to be.

The word I'd most use to describe Julia is caustic. She says what she thinks, and it often gets her into trouble. As is common in the teenage years, Julia feels she belongs nowhere, and this leads her to dark places.

In an attempt to readjust her view of life, her parents send her to spend time with family in Mexico. At this point in the book, Julia is ready to change and learn some lessons. This interlude is where the novel opened up. We got to learn the back story about an event which totally changed her parents' lives, and this gives Julia crucial insight into them.

I liked that the novel still wasn't all sweetness and light after this. Julia still struggles as she learns about her sister's secret life, as she receives college rejection letters, and she tries to figure out what to do with Connor, the boy she met at a bookstore, and with whom she might or might not be in love.

The insights into Mexican culture were fascinating, the narrative flowed well, and it was an engrossing read. What else could a predominantly middle grade mafioso ask for during an infrequent venture into YA? Hooray!

About the Author:
Erika L. Sánchez is the daughter of Mexican immigrants. A poet, novelist, and essayist, her debut poetry collection, Lessons on Expulsion, was published by Graywolf in July 2017, and was a finalist for the PEN America Open Book Award. Her debut young adult novel, I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter, published in October 2017 by Knopf Books for Young Readers, is a New York Times Bestseller and a National Book Awards finalist.

You can learn even more about her at her website. Twitter

Monday, August 26, 2019

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday: THE WORLD ENDS IN APRIL by Stacy McAnulty

THE WORLD ENDS IN APRIL by Stacy McAnulty (Random House Books for Young Readers, September 3, 2019)

What It's About (from Stacy's website):
Eleanor Dross knows a thing or two about the end of the world,  thanks to a survivalist grandfather who stockpiles freeze-dried food and supplies--just in case. So when she reads about a Harvard scientist's prediction that an asteroid will strike Earth in April, Eleanor knows her family will be prepared. Her classmates? They're on their own!

Eleanor  has just one friend she wants to keep safe: Mack. They've been best  friends since kindergarten, even though he's more of a smiley emoji and she's more of an eye-roll emoji. They'll survive the end of the world  together. . . if Mack doesn't go away to a special school for the  blind.

But it's hard to keep quiet about a life-destroying asteroid--especially at a crowded lunch table--and soon Eleanor is the  president of the (secret) End of the World Club. It turns out that prepping for TEOTWAWKI (the End of the World as We Know It) is actually  kind of fun. But you can't really prepare for everything life drops on  you. And one way or another, Eleanor's world is about to change.

Opening Lines: 
"Mack Jefferson, my best--and only--friend, reads to me from his Braille edition of The Outsiders. I'm spread out on the floor of my bedroom with my dog, Bubbles, running my hand through her soft belly fur and wondering if we have any pudding cups in the pantry."

The Mafioso's Verdict:
As you probably know from my post last month, things have been a little different on the Mafioso reading and writing front. I'm still enjoying my new job, and I'm still researching Shanghai in the 1930s, but I did also get the yen to read some middle grade (hooray!) As one of my clients stays in bed until 9:30 a.m., and I get to work at 7, I have a good couple of hours to plunge into a novel.

How did I choose Stacy McAnulty's book over the boxes of books waiting for my eagle eye and perusal? The eye-catching cover, for one, but also the fact that it involved a survivalist grandfather, a character I hadn't come across before. Good criminy, thought I, with the planet hurtling towards destruction via our making the climate go wonky, this should be a good read.

I wasn't disappointed. Except the planet's destruction in this case, is potentially via asteroid. I really liked the way the author wove in astronomy and science, and the way I was reminded that I really need to collect items for my emergency readiness kit. (In Portland, it's all about the "big one", the earthquake we're constantly told we are overdue for.)

The MC, Eleanor Dross, could have been a bit of a sad sack, but seeing things through her POV, we appreciate her inner life and her way of describing things. ("I never thought about a kid being lonely on Christmas. In commercials and movies, it's always old people who are alone. A gray-haired lady and her cats or the grumpy neighbor who spends most of his time shoveling." page 174) Eleanor's best friend is the sunny Mack, and she has a nemesis, Londyn Diggs, with whom she develops an initially prickly friendship. This character arc was especially well done.

This would be a fun read in a 5th/6th grade classroom, with the possibility for an important discussion about emergency prep, NASA, how to figure out if a website is a legitimate source or not, or setting up a school club. I'd certainly read other work by this talented, humorous author!

About The Author (from the author's website):
Stacy McAnulty is a children’s book author, who used to be a mechanical engineer, and dreams of someday being a dog therapist, a correspondent for The Daily Show, an astronaut, and a Green Bay Packer coach. She has written dozens of books including her debut middle-grade novel, The Miscalculations of Lightning Girl , an Indie Bestseller, and the 2017 Ezra Jack Keats New Writer Honor book Excellent Ed, illustrated by Julia Sarcone-Roach. Her other picture books include Earth! My First 4.54 Billion Years, illustrated by David Litchfield; Moon! Earth’s Best Friend and Sun! One in a Billion, both illustrated by Stevie Lewis; Max Explains Everything: Grocery Store Expert and Soccer Expert, both illustrated by Deborah Hocking; Love, Brave, and Beautiful, all three illustrated by Joanne Lew-Vriethoff; Mr. Fuzzbuster Knows He’s the Favorite, illustrated by Edward Hemingway; and 101 Reasons Why I’m Not Taking a Bath, illustrated by Joy Ang. She’s also authored the chapter book series The Dino Files and Goldie Blox. When not writing, Stacy likes to listen to NPR, bake triple-chocolate cupcakes, and eat triple-chocolate cupcakes. Originally from upstate NY, she now lives in Kernersville, NC with her 3 kids, 3 dogs, and 1 husband.
Website  Facebook  Twitter

Monday, July 29, 2019

Where Have All The Mafiosi Gone, Long Time Passing?

So, I started the year with every intention of paying this blog some attention--but things have not turned out as planned. There are several factors: in March, my wife was told that her job was being cut and, although they kept her on from month-to-month until June, I knew that I had to step up and help with the family budget. (Being a blog writer for the Don is not as glamorous or lucrative as one might think...) Thus, after 23 years of being a stay-at-home dad and a writer aspiring to be published, I sheathed my pen/closed my laptop in May and took a job as an in-home caregiver.

Guys, I think I've found my vocation. In an interesting way, it's a return to the volunteer work I did while I was in university in England. For three years, every Wednesday during term time, I would visit a housebound senior and do her shopping for her. I would return for cups of tea and for a chat. (38 years later, this dear soul's daughters still keep in touch with me.)

I love being around seniors, listening to their stories, and helping them with the activities of daily life which are made harder by infirmity and diminishing eyesight. And, as I told my wife after my first week on the job, after years of rejection in the writing world, to get compliments from my clients and positive comments from my employer is a tremendous boost.

My work schedule has meant I now have little time for writing and even less time for blogging. Interestingly, as my children age and as my time is now spent with seniors, I have found myself moving away from my beloved middle grade. My latest project (in the research stage) is to write a family saga loosely based on my mother's youth. The daughter of a White Russian family, she spent her early years in Shanghai and then had to flee once more from the Chinese communists. Stateless refugees, the family was taken in by the government of Panama and made a life for themselves in that country, far from their native land. In this age of hard-heartedness towards refugees, it feels like this is a story whose time has come.

Because of all these other fulfilling parts of my life, it remains to be seen how much work I can produce for this blog. I hope it doesn't go dark for good, because I have really enjoyed reading and reviewing the work of many talented authors and making connections with many middle grade readers and writers who, I have to say, are the salt of the earth. Let's just see what the future holds.

But for now, missives from me are going to be sporadic. Thanks again to all my blog followers and supporters over the years. I look forward to supporting you going forward. Please keep in touch! Ciao for now!

Monday, April 29, 2019

MARVELOUS MIDDLE GRADE MONDAY: No Fixed Address by Susin Nielsen

NO FIXED ADDRESS by Susin Nielsen (Wendy Lamb Books, September 2018)

What It's About (from jacket cover): 
Twelve-and-three-quarter-year-old Felix Knutsson has a knack for trivia. His favorite game show is Who What Where When; he even named his gerbil after the host. Felix's mom, Astrid, is loving but can't seem to hold on to a job. So when they get evicted from their latest shabby apartment, they have to move into a van. Astrid swears him to secrecy; he can't tell anyone about their living arrangement, not even Dylan and Winnie, his best friends at his new school. If he does, she warns him, he'll be taken away from her and put in foster care.

As their circumstances go from bad to worse, Felix gets a chance to audition for a junior edition of Who What Where When, and he's determined to earn a spot on the show. Winning the cash prize could make everything okay again. But things don't turn out the way he expects. . . .

Opening Lines:
November 27, 12:05 a.m. 
My leg jiggled up and down. I shifted from one bum cheek to the other. My palms felt damp and my heart was pounding. "I've never been interrogated before." 
"You're not being interrogated, Felix. We're just having a chat."

Why I Loved It:
My kids have read books by Susin Nielsen before (Word Nerd; Dear George Clooney: Please Marry My Mom) but for some reason I've never before done so. That has all changed because I adored No Fixed Address and am currently sneaking into the kids' bedrooms to steal those other titles off their shelves.

Nielsen has written a fantastic book with complicated characters about homelessness and hope. From the very first sentences, Felix is endearing. He also has to endure his mother, Astrid, who lies, cheats, and steals. As Felix says of her: "My mom is really good at making friends, and even better at losing them." As with most people like Astrid, there is fierce love and also fierce anger from Felix at all the situations she gets them into. But, masterfully, Nielsen reveals reasons for why Astrid is who she is. Both Felix and Astrid are two of the most wonderfully drawn characters in recent middle grade literature.

As Felix moves from school to school, he eventually reunites with an earlier friend, Dylan Brinkerhoff. I loved the friendship--the silly jokes and the way these two boys enjoyed one another. They even make room for Winnie Wu, a Hermione Granger type character, with whom Felix awkwardly goes to the prom.

Initially, it seems that Felix might be too ideal of a character, but he is capable of lashing out at his friends, even when he knows they are trying to help him.

I loved the insights into Swedish culture, as well as the other parts of Felix's heritage. (His father is part Haitian and part French.) There were also insights about dealing with depression, and trying to make it as an artist. And you could learn a lot of information from accompanying Felix in his cramming sessions for the quiz show.

If I were a 5th-grade teacher, this wonderful, complex, funny, and tear-making novel would be one of my "read-aloud" books. I read it almost in one sitting, and have been raving about it all week--so much so that it now looks like my wife is planning to sneak to my bookshelves and steal it for herself. So, in a way, we are all Astrids in this mafioso household!

If I had three thumbs, this would be a three-thumbs-up book. As I have to make do with two, two-thumbs-up will have to do. Terrific job, Susin Nielsen.

About the Author (from the jacket copy):
“This is the first day I’ve written in a diary. The reason I am, is ‘cos I love writing stories, and if I do grow up to be a famous writer, and later die, and they want to get a story of my life ... I guess I should keep (one).” SUSIN NIELSEN wrote this poorly constructed sentence when she was eleven years old. And while she isn’t exactly famous (although she likes to think she’s ‘Big in Belgium’), and no one has written the story of her life (maybe because she isn’t dead yet), she did predict her future.  She got her start writing for the hit TV series Degrassi Junior High, and went on to write for over twenty Canadian shows. More recently she turned her hand to novel writing. She is the author of five critically-acclaimed and award-winning titles, including Optimists Die First, We Are All Made of Molecules, and The Reluctant Journal of Henry K. Larsen.

Nielsen has been called the John Green of Canada. She once had a dream that John Green had been called the Susin Nielsen of the United States. She lives in Vancouver, BC with her family and two naughty cats.

Monday, April 22, 2019

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday: LAST OF THE NAME by Rosanne Parry

Confession: Rosanne Parry is a mentor and friend of mine. So I'm letting the Don have his way with the keyboard this week. Take it away, Don Corleone.

What It's About:
Twelve-year-old Danny O’Carolan arrives in New York City with nothing but his father’s songs, his brothers’ dance steps, and his his older sister, Kathleen. Driven from their home in Ireland, they must find work or they’ll end up at the dreaded orphan’s asylum. But there’s no steady work for boys, except joining the Union Army as a drummer. So Kathleen finds a job in domestic service for herself and her younger . . . sister. Danny reluctantly pretends to be a girl to avoid the workhouse and the battlefield. But when he’s not doing the backbreaking work of a housemaid, he sneaks off without his disguise. Roaming the streets of New York, he discovers how many different kinds of people live in its neighborhoods. Irish, German, and Italian immigrants, as well as free black people. All poor. All competing for the same jobs. All softened, Danny finds, by a song and bit of footwork. But the draft is on the horizon, threatening to force more Irishmen into the army. As tensions threaten to spill over into violence, how can Danny—the last bearer of the O’Carolan name—stay true to his family’s legacy and find a safe place to call home?

Opening Lines:
Granny says I'm seven devils in one pair of shoes. She doesn't know the half of it. Trouble is always nipping at my heels."

The Don's Verdict:
So I was looking over the latest book shipment Michale gets from them publishers, and this Last of the Name cover took my fancy. Then, Michale started all this drivel about conflict of interest, so I told him to head downtown for a cappuccino and a pastrami sandwich. He's got no work ethic, so that'll keep him out of the office for at least half a day.

I rolled up my sleeves and jumped right in. What can I say, fellas? This is one good book. Oh I know it's about the Irish, but one of the main characters is also an Italian, and he kind of saves the day. Plus, there's music and dancing and nuns and newspapers: it's all about New York, New York, bambini.

I know youse are sayin' "Don, you're not a literary man," but that ain't true. I can tell a story with the best of 'em--just look at that tale I told Puzo about mi famiglia, as well as the way I bankroll this here blog. (If Michale wasn't so hoity toity about people touching his precious laptop--which I bought him by the way, just saying--I'd be writing these reviews much more often.)

This Rosanne Parry knows her stuff. She must be a history teacher, because she sure knows what New York was like in 1863. She brings the place alive. From the ship to the docks, to the houses of the rich, to the orphanages and theaters and alleyways: she had me right there, 100 percent. The only thing missing was an Italian restaurant, but you can't win 'em all.

The characters are like real people. If you've ever had an older sister, you'll recognize Kathleen. Boy, can she boss. And young Danny is a spitfire--I'd make him an honorary grandchild of mine in a heartbeat. These two are resourceful and resilient and Signora Rosanne writes about them with warmth and wit. This tale's got a lot of heavy things going on in it, but she still made this old Don laugh. Her dialogue is great, and this story moves along at a cracking pace.

And if that hasn't convinced you to stick your schnozz between the pages, I'll do you one better. I'll send you Michale's copy, signed by Signora Rosanne, and youse can see how great it is for yourselves. Tell everyone the Don sent it to you. (Just leave a comment down below, and I'll pick one random winner.)

Michale said he was going to edit my post when he got back, but time waits for no man, especially one who's burning through my business account and is probably spoon deep in a tiramisu. So I'm just going to tell you a little something about Signora Rosanne, and then I'll push the publish button.

About La Signora:
Rosanne Parry is the author of many award winning novels including Heart of a Shepherd, and The Turn of the Tide. Her newest novels are Last of the Name and A Wolf Called Wander, both on sale in the spring of 2019. She and her family live in an old farmhouse in Portland, Oregon. She writes in a tree house in her back yard. WEBSITE  TWITTER