The Takedown by Corrie Wang

takedownKyla Cheng is NOT a likeable character, and she is just fine with that.  She knows that people are sure to be jealous of her for many reasons, including but not limited to her valedictorian rank, popularity, and beauty.  What she didn’t expect, nonetheless, was for someone to hate her so much that they went above and beyond to ruin her life.  How did they ruin her life?  First of all, they found a way to edit a video to make it look like Kyla had been caught having sex with her young/hot English teacher — which most people wouldn’t believe because they didn’t think there was good enough technology to make such a seamless video even though Kyla swore it wasn’t real.  As if that was not enough, they also managed to hack their way into her college applications to submit them early… and with completely horrifying answers to the personal essay questions!  All of this, of course, is multiplied by the fact the viral video is connected to her social media profile, which is also linked to those of her family members.  She is determined to figure out who made the video so that she can get it removed from the internet, but will she be able to befriend her hater and/or track her [she is *sure* it is a her] down in order to delete the original file?

This is a great book for opening a conversation about the implications of living in the digital age and using social media, since it shows just how quickly a picture or video can go viral and how impossible it can be to get these things off the internet once they’re out there.  I recommend this book to fans of MT Anderson’s Feed.

Happy Reading!

The Bitter Side of Sweet by Tara Sullivan

Amadou (15) and his little brother Seydou (8) had already been harvesting cacao for two years before Khadija arrived on the farm.  They came willingly when they thought that they would be working for a single season to help make money for their impoverished family, but they soon discovered that they had been fooled.  The “bosses” told the boys they would only be able to go home after they earned back their purchase price, but no one would tell they boys how much they had cost or how much they earned each day.  Between their long hours of dangerous work — harvesting cacao pods with machetes — and their beatings when they failed to make quota, they boys quickly learned not to focus on anything but the task at hand.  They got along well enough with the other boys, but didn’t exactly make any friends.  All of their time was focused on survival.  Then Khadija showed up and their world turned upside-down.  Not only did a single child show up, when the bosses normally waited for a bigger group before making the expensive trip out to the farm, but Khadija was a girl.  A girl who was determined to escape from the very moment she arrived, and who tricked Seydou into helping her break free from her bindings…  After Amadou took the blame and helped them bring her back, though, he was forced to spend time with Khadija while they both recovered from their beatings.  Would he be able to help her adjust?  Or at least keep her from getting himself and Seydou into further trouble with the bosses?

I really wish I could say that this book was a dystopia rather than realistic fiction… It’s just so heart breaking to read about child/slave labor as it relates to the farming and harvesting of cacao (aka cocoa) in West Africa.  As someone who absolutely loves chocolate, I am going to have to spend some time with the Food Empowerment Project’s Chocolate List to see which companies they recommend and try to adjust my purchasing/consumption to more ethical companies.  I highly recommend this book for both the lesson in modern day slavery and the message of hope, bravery, and courage despite terrible odds.  I especially like how this book describes the brutality of the farm without getting overly graphic, making it appropriate for even younger tweens.

Happy Reading!

The Sky between You and Me by Catherine Alene

sky-betweenRaesha is not the stereotypical girl with an eating disorder from the “after school specials” of my youth.  She isn’t the super-popular girl who is afraid to lose it all if she gains a few pounds, nor is she the unpopular fat girl who thinks that she will finally be accepted by her peers if she loses some weight.  This story is much more realistic, so I think it’s only fair to provide a *TRIGGER WARNING* for people recovering from eating disorders.

While Raesha doesn’t set out to be anorexic, she is so dedicated to making it to (and winning) Nationals that she decides to lose a few pounds.  After all, being lighter will mean that her horse can run faster.  The worst thing is that she isn’t pressured by anyone else to compete in barrel racing but rather competes to honor the memory of her mother.  Between grieving for her mother and her father’s frequent absences (for work), Raesha is often very lonely.  And, with the change in behavior that accompanies her eating disorder, she only drives her boyfriend and her friends further away.  I would recommend this book for Ellen Hopkins fans and readers of Laurie Halse Anderson’s Wintergirls.

Happy Reading!

Bang by Barry Lyga

bangI am fairly certain that every person has something they look back on with regret.  Some people, though, have much worse regrets than others.  Take Sebastian Cody, for example.  When he was only four years old, he accidentally shot and killed his four month old baby sister.  Can you even imagine the shame and depression that could stem from such a horrific tragedy?

This story takes place ten years after that tragedy, the summer after Sebastian’s ninth grade year.  His mom is insistent that he have a “productive” summer, but he really doesn’t see the point.  After all, he plans to kill himself at the end of the summer.  All of his troubles began with a gun shot, and he plans to end them the same way.  But then, a new girl moves into his neighborhood.  Aneesa isn’t like anyone he’s ever met before.  Not only is she a Muslim girl who wears a hijab, but she is so straight-forward that she often surprises Sebastian with her blunt honesty.  It’s nice just to have a friend who doesn’t judge him for what he did all those years ago, but he wonders whether everything would change if only she knew the truth.  Much like Jay Asher’s What Light, this book expertly explores coming of age, friendship, and self-forgiveness.

Happy Reading!

Click’d by Tamara Ireland Stone

clickdAllie Navarro went away to a CodeGirls summer camp where she learned how to create her very own app, and she was super excited to share it with her friends when she came back home.  Even more exciting?  She would have the opportunity to enter her app into the upcoming G4G (Games for Good) competition!  Her app was eligible because it helped people to find other people near them with whom they “clicked” even if they didn’t know each other yet.  Basically, it was a friend finder and it worked to make the world a less lonely place.

Through a series of questions, much like online dating websites, Click’d was able to match people by their interests.  This way, the kids in her middle school (and anywhere else her app spread) would be able to get to know people outside of their usual friend groups.  When you finished the questionnaire, you would get access to a leaderboard of the top 10 users with whom you Click’d — and then the app would send you on a scavenger hunt to find them!  The app utilized the phones’ geolocation functions to tell people when they were near a match with a series of “bloops” and flashing lights — and then it gave users a photo clue pulled from the user’s public Instagram feed.  Or, at least, that was what was supposed to happen.  Somehow, though, there was a glitch that accidentally utilized private photos from the users’ phones some of the time.  Would she be able to fix it in time to present at G4G?  Would she just present it without admitting to the coding error?  Definitely a good conversation starter about honesty and integrity.

I like the fact that this story raised issues about privacy and phone/internet safety concerns without resorting to R-rated problems.  There were embarrassing photos and screenshots of conversations that were supposed to be secret, but no sex acts or nudity involved.  I am not sure whether that was done intentionally so that parents, teachers, and librarians would feel more comfortable sharing this book with younger tweens, but it certainly doesn’t hurt.  I appreciated that there were no quick fixes, lots of hard work, and plenty of growing pains as the story worked up to the G4G competition.  I also loved the fact that it concluded with a happy yet realistic ending.   I thought that since my own middle-schooler is away at a computer programming summer camp this week, reading (and reviewing) this book was definitely apropos!  And, though the book will not officially be released until early September, I think I might just offer to let him read my ARC when he returns.  🙂

Happy Reading!

What Girls Are Made Of by Elana K. Arnold

what-girls-are-made-ofNina Faye was most definitely not a hopeless romantic.  Her own mother told her (when she was only 14 years old) that there was “no such thing as unconditional love,” and she took that message straight to heart.  Nina’s work in a high kill shelter and her obsession with stories of saints who had endured horrible tortures to prove their love for God only reinforced her mother’s statement.  And because she was aware of the fact that love was “conditional,” she made it her mission to figure out the conditions of love for the people in her life.  Not only did she try to figure out what she should do to make sure her parents didn’t stop loving her, but she also started to keep track of the conditions by which she could keep her boyfriend happy.  But what if knowing those so-called conditions of love is not enough?

This story was a brutally honest, often heart-wrenching, look into the struggle many girls face with both loving and being loved.  As the story alternates between Nina’s own story and the stories she is writing for her senior project (inspired by the stories of the tortured saints), readers are able to witness Nina’s life and better understand her frame of mind.  Since it describes both sex and torture in graphic detail, nevertheless, I feel compelled to state that this book is not for the faint of heart.

Happy Reading!

Ready Player One by Ernest Cline

ready-player-one As a child of the 80s (having been born in 1979), this book felt so much like coming home.  All of the references to 80s pop culture, especially geek culture, were just so spot-on!  I was not an arcade kid, since we didn’t have an arcade close enough to my house, but I definitely played more than my fair share of video games on personal gaming consoles like the Atari 2600 and NES.  I also have fond memories of playing puzzle and sim games on the Commodore 64 and Mac Classic in “computer class” at school.  I also watched waaaaaay too much TV and too many movies, so most of Cline’s references felt like a conversation with an old friend.  It’s beyond obvious that Ernest Cline was a fellow geek and that he loved all the cheeseball 80s stuff just as much as my friends and I did.  For real…  If you are a fanboy/fangirl of geeky 80s pop culture, you NEED to read this book!

Even better than the reminiscing, though, was the foreshadowing of what could come to be if we (citizens of the world) don’t change our reliance on fossil fuels and unplug a little from the world of “social media” to actually interact with the people and the world around us — in real life!  Imagine, if you will, a future in which most people around the world are so immersed in a virtual reality “utopia” known as the OASIS that they rarely leave their houses.  Since most people no longer have their own vehicles or even the financial means to utilize public transportation, the OASIS was the closest thing they would ever get to traveling.  Kids even started to attend school in the OASIS because the virtual world created it’s own schools to let pressure off of the failing public school system.  When I read one quote, I wondered if Cline was really just that attuned to the forthcoming changes in our society back in 2011 or if he somehow traveled through time to 2016 before he finished his story — “Now that everyone could vote from home, via the OASIS, the only people who could get elected were movie stars, reality TV personalities, or radical televangelists.”

One of the creators of the OASIS, James Halliday, had very few friends and never married or had any children.  By the time of his death, he had even been estranged from his former business partner and one-time best friend for about a decade.  So, before he died, he crafted an elaborate “Easter Egg” hunt within his virtual world to determine who would receive his fortune.  Halliday’s last will and testament was announced to the world with a video chock-full of 80s references and explained that his heir would need to use their knowledge of Halliday’s favorite things to puzzle out the location of three keys and three gates/trials he had programmed into the OASIS.  Everyone went nuts at first, but excitement waned after the first five years and only hardcore Gunters (a condensation of “egg hunters”) like Wade kept up the hunt.  When Wade finds the first key and his name shows up on the leader board, though, the OASIS is suddenly hopping again and the competition stirs up adventure, danger, and even romance. I can’t wait to see how the movie of this book turns out…

Happy Reading!