Symptoms of Being Human by Jeff Gavin
Fun! Fascinating! Captivating! Charming!
I thought about going with fourteen adjectives to describe Jennifer L. Holm’s recent release, The Fourteenth Goldfish, but then decided it is doesn’t need a gimmicky introduction; it stands strongly on its own as a great work of young adult fiction that pushes readers to think more about science, consider the possibilities of reverse aging and wonder just how much age plays into a person’s role within their family. While this book definitely skews to the younger side of young adult fiction, aimed primarily at the sixth/seventh grade levels, it is a fantastic find for science teachers since it introduces some great characters from the history of science and questions the role of scientists in all of our lives.
It was a bit shocking that Ellie’s kindergarten teacher thought it was a good idea to teach young kids about the circle of life by giving them a pet store goldfish with a lifespan of a week so they could learn about death. That seems like a bit of a harsh way to crush the innocence of a child, but Ellie’s miracle fish lives for years, outlasting all of the other kids’ aquatic pets. I giggled when Ellie’s mom fesses up to having used replacement fish for year, sneaking the dead one out of the bowl and plopping a new on in its place before Ellie can discover that her initial goldfish wasn’t special and didn’t outlive those of her classmates.
Soon though, the goldfish-incident is forgotten, when Ellie’s mother brings someone new home to stay. Dressed in a sweater vest, perfectly ironed khakis and black dress socks, Melvin just doesn’t blend in with other kids his age, but Ellie has a strange sense of knowing this odd new addition to her home. But why wouldn’t she? Instead of being another sixth grader debating between the corndog or the pizza for lunch, it turns out Melvin is actually Ellie’s grandfather!
Melvin, a scientist, through the help of some fisherman friends in Australia, has discovered how to reverse the aging process, using himself as the guinea pig in his first human experiment with what can only be described as science-fiction come to life. Since no one knew what he was working on and he now looks like any other pimply kid on the brink of being a teenager, access to his lab is denied, and he can’t drive a car or live on his own without raising suspicions. His daughter (Ellie’s mom) takes him in, but makes him attend middle school as part of his cover, where his multiple graduate degrees make sixth grade science something he could do during a nap and fitting in nearly impossible.
Stuck with Melvin, her grandfather, Ellie begins to realize that she isn’t cut out for the life of an actor like her parents, but rather that she has a keen interest in the experiments her grandfather has worked on and maybe her place in this world is wearing a white coat in a lab rather than an ornate costume on a stage.
I love that this book introduces a variety of historical figures in science, everyone from Galileo and Newton to Salk and Oppenheimer, but in a way that leaves a lot of room for the reader to follow up and discover more about them. There is enough detail to intrigue, but enough left unsaid to encourage a bit of post-reading browsing. But, the scientist themselves aren’t the only draw of the book, as it touches upon bigger questions, like what exactly is the role of a scientist and how far is too far. Jennifer L. Holm’s recent publication, The Fourteenth Goldfish, is lighthearted and a quick read (I downloaded it before bed and didn’t turn off the light until I had turned the last page!) and one that will draw in a variety of middle level readers, earning it:
When I realized it had been awhile since I posted a book review, I went back to the blog to check just how long it had been and was horrified to see my last book review went up on November 15- nearly two and half months ago. It isn’t that I haven’t read anything since November, but somehow I’ve been lazy and not written up any of them, good or bad. (And boy, there have been some doozies on either end of that spectrum.) It is probably not a good idea to go back and try to cover all of those missed reviews, so I’ll just promise to be better about them from here on out and pick up where I am now.
I initially picked up Morgan Rice’s Arena One because it was billed as a book for people who loved Hunger Games, which I did. (Although my love in the series diminished with each subsequent novel.) I figured this might be the next great YA trilogy and I was excited to start a new series. I’ll be brutally honest here- don’t bother. I’ve never read a book that seemed to be written solely with the thought of making millions in Hollywood. The whole thing seems ready to translate directly into a screenplay that will be attempt to be the next big summer blockbuster.
Arena One starts out in the not-so-distant future when the US has been destroyed by a second Civil War- this one brought on by the fractious nature of the American political system, where each side takes more and more extreme positions, until actual war breaks out, trapping the citizens in the middle of the politicians deadly hubris. After the government fails, large gangs take over the big cities and scour the countryside for any holdouts, hoping to make them slaves or pit them against each other, to the death, as a form of entertainment and a show of power. Hence, the existence of Arena One.
The premise of the book is by no means unique or horribly intriguing, but with a great writer at its helm, it could make a great story. Instead, Rice spends most of it writing car chase scenes and increasingly violent hand-to-hand combat battles. I think the initial chase scene is where I began to lose interest. I get the desire for action and the seemingly endless car chase may definitely draw in young male readers, but it felt like it went on for an eternity. How a car, no matter how plated and outfitted, would ever be able to submit to the abuse in the early chapters of this book is beyond me. And yet, it does and keeps on rolling! This whole section of the book felt like it was being written for the big screen, rather than meant for the realm of words on a page.
While another series with a strong female lead character is always a positive thing (especially when it is one that draws in both male and female readers), but I hate that yet again, that lead character has to get caught up in a romantic relationship, or worse yet, a love triangle. Brooke is a caring young woman who has spent the last handful of years protecting her little sister on her own, but the instant a boy walks into her life, she suddenly gets all oozy/woozy about him. (To be fair, she is still the physically and mentally stronger character, so she doesn’t totally wimp out, but it would have been awesome if this new compatriot had also been female.)
As the action (and I do mean action!) continues, there are more car chases, lots more blood and gore and a bit of suspense to lead into the second book in the trilogy. I can definitely see where middle school boys would love this book and if I were still teaching, I would definitely buy it (and it’s sequels) for my classroom, but on a personal level, I just hated how much it felt made-for-Hollywood. Knowing that popular YA books translate into massive bucks when they are released in theaters, it felt like Rice was pandering too much to the exes who might buy his stories. With that in mind, I give Arena One by Morgan Rice only:
Weird. That is the first word that comes to mind when I think back on The Pentrals by Crystal Mack. But, weird isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Weird can be unique, intriguing and definitely a draw for many. In an era where YA novels tend to be skewing heavily to the vampire/werewolf world, it is refreshing to read a story takes a fresh view of non-human characters. The idea of shadows and reflections being sentient beings is a fascinating one. That these images are not mere reproductions of us, but thinking, acting and even rebelling entities opens an endless world of possibilities. Like I said, it’s unique!
The Pentrals revolves around two main characters (although, some would consider them one and the same): Violet, a human high school student and Antares, a class two Shadow. After growing more and more frustrated with the self-destructive behavior of her human, Antares, in a fit of anger switches places with the girl she has shadowed for seventeen years. (The book is never clear on what actually happened to allow this exchange to take place, but it is somehow related to a surge of fury when Violet takes a popular pill that makes its user forget their worries and space out happily.) Once the switch has happened, it is up to Antares to not only play the role of Violet in her day to day life, trying to repair some horribly broken relationships, but also to solve a great Pentral mystery involving the rebellion of reflections.
But, before I get too lost in my thoughts about the possible narratives attached to thinking and reasoning shadows and reflections, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that I don’t totally agree with Mack’s take on the topic. Granted, it was her brilliant idea, and I do like it, but I felt like there were unexplained holes in the story or times that the actions seemed impossible. Without giving too much away, after the switch is made, Antares continues to attend some and somehow miraculously knows how to read and write, although she often talks about how much shadowing takes her full attention and she doesn’t get to follow lessons. Where would she have learned these skills? I also found it odd that there wasn’t more interaction amongst the shadows on the floor. As they constantly skim over one another in the school hallways, why is there not a layer of relationships built amongst this population of beings? I wanted to know more about their world! The other part of the book that I found confusing was how in-stride Violet took the switch. She was initially scared of the change, but it took a mere page or two for her to fall easily into her roll of learning to be a shadow. Shouldn’t this teenage girl be horrified that she has become a literal shadow of herself?
This book definitely seems set up for a sequel, which I would pick up because I am invested enough in Antares’ story to want to know what happens once her adventures in Violet’s body end, but also because I’m hoping for a few of the plot gaps to be filled in. (I really do want to know more about the working of the shadow/reflection world!) Crystal Mack’s debut young adult novel has some definite narrative gaps, but creates a world intriguing enough to draw me in for another round, earning The Pentrals:
Dream Girl is the first in what will be a series of books by S.J. Lomas. As is the case with many inaugural books, much like TV show pilots, this narrative is very character focused, building the back stories of the characters who will reoccur in the following books, creating a strong foundation for future narratives.
While character-focused books often go a bit slower than action-oriented ones, Dream Girl doesn’t get bogged down by the scaffolding needed to create a series. Right away, readers connect with Christine, our good-girl protagonist who is drawn to Gabriel, the darker, mysterious boy who is worth a bit of extra time. Not long after Christine meets Gabriel, through their part-time jobs at the local library, she experiences a terrifying incident where she is drawn into a dream world that she doesn’t understand and can’t break free of on her own. These jumps to another realm continue the more she gets involved with Gabriel, and it doesn’t take long for her to see that there is more to him than just a troubled young man.
Written with teenage girls in mind, the love story plot of the book is immediately obvious and soon twisted into a bit of a triangle, as the young man meant to help Gabriel and Christine break free from the danger of the dream world becomes an additional possible love interest for Christine. Up until this point, I was pretty onboard with the narrative, but the turn towards a Twilight-esque love triangle left me a bit disappointed. I’d like to give teenage girls a bit more credit- having a strong female protagonist doesn’t require her to be attached at all times. Even though Gabriel is a major player in the book, I’m not sure many teenage boys would stick with this book to the end; the romance plays a little too heavily.
Love narrative aside, the book does a good job of creating a world in which the reader wants to continue. Sometimes at the end of a book that I know will be a series, I am happy to put it back on the shelf with no intention of ever picking up its counterparts. That can’t be said for this one. I’m hoping that the sequel to Dream Girl will see Christine move away from the need for a boyfriend and into a solid character on her own, but I’m also curious to see what happens to Gabriel, as the decision about what to do with his life was taken away from him and he is now forced into something that he can’t avoid. I’m hoping the characters continue to grow in their own rights and that the storyline is shored up in the next book, now that a strong foundation is in place. S.J. Lomas’ Dream Girl isn’t totally engrossing, but it is interesting enough to have kept my attention and make me curious about what happens next, earning it:
Jake and Lily by Jerry Spinelli
Twins. It is not a new topic for fiction, especially not for young adult fiction, so Jerry Spinelli breaks no ground with his newly released novel, and yet, even knowing that the same-birthday sibling world has been explored numerous times, if you are going to go there again as an author, you need to create something new. Spinelli attempts to make his mark in the twins-literature world by having pre-teen, differing-sex, opposite ends of the personality-spectrum kids tell their story in a first-person point of view through alternating chapters.
It’s a shtick.
A shtick I could get behind in other circumstances, if it was done well. (My going-into-sixth-grade niece was working on a book this summer and she was considering narrating the story from two points of view-one human and one animal-in an alternating chapter format. She was on to something. She’s also eleven years old.) But really, the format isn’t the problem as much as the stereotypical portrayal of twins.
I’ve known twins, not ever been super close friends with any, but I’ve been around them growing up and through my adult life. I realize they have a special connection, but the story told by Jake and Lily is one made for Maury Povich! They can read each other’s minds, they sleepwalk to the same destinations and they can never, ever play a game of hide-and-go-seek.
Outside of its stereotypical twin-ness, the tale is a great one that will be relatable for many middle school kids. Jake and Lily are siblings, and also best friends, but as they get older, their interests differ and they begin to grow apart, which Jake is fine with, but the transition becomes a painful one for Lily, who feels deserted and left behind. This type of relationship transition is as common as pimples amongst the middle-school demographic. As kids expand beyond the world of elementary school, their personalities evolve and old friendships don’t quite fit like gloves anymore. The twin-part is irrelevant.
On top of the expansion and evolution of friendships, Spinelli digs into the ever-more-talked-about world of bullying. His presentation of the bullies is one that rings true. The boys don’t start out trying to be mean, but a small comment from one, which garners a laugh from the others, grows into ever bigger words and actions that quickly become hurtful to others. The group of boys being bullies didn’t start out with that as their intention, but though a single leader, with a strong personality, the boys all soon fall into his patterns, accepting his actions until property destruction brings their behavior into a new light.
Jake and Lily is a great young adult novel that explores themes near and dear to the hearts of those entering the scary world of middle school. Most kids pushing the boundaries of adolescence will feel the pain of changing friendships, will experience the sting of bullying (on one or, more likely, both ends) and will be forced to expand their own horizons. Jerry Spinelli does a great job of illuminating what could be considered rather mundane, day-to-day growing pains, giving them the spotlight to shine in the eyes of the readers.
If only he would do it without the twin-gimmick…
Jerry Spinelli’s newest publication, Jake and Lily earns: