Review: The Thing About Luck

The Thing About Luck by Cynthia Kadohata, illustrated by Julia Kuo. Atheneum Books for Young Readers. 2013. Reviewed from ARC.

The Plot: Summer Miyamoto’s family has had bad luck the past year. Summer got malaria and was very sick; her grandmother is having painful back problems; her little brother’s only friend moved away. That doesn’t count things like flat tires. Or her parents having to fly to Japan to help take care of elderly relatives.

Summer and her brother, Jaz, are left with their grandparents, Obaachan and Jiichan. Bills must be paid, and money earned for the mortgage, so her grandparents are coming out of retirement to work the harvest. From May to October, the family will travel. Her grandfather will drive a combine, her grandmother will cook for the workers, and Summer will help her grandmother, watch over her younger brother, and do her homework.

The bad luck continues. Efforts to help Jaz make more friends backfire, Summer’s grandmother is demanding, and Summer begins to worry that her grandparents are no longer physically able to work the harvest. Can their bad luck change to good?

The Good: What a perfect middle grade book. Summer, 12, is a sympathetic heroine. When she got annoyed and frustrated with her younger brother and grandparents, I was right there with her. When she was embarrassing herself in front of her crush, I blushed for her. When she figured out a way to help her family, I cheered.

I also love how wonderfully balanced The Thing About Luck is, perfectly balanced as mirror and window. Summer is such a typical twelve year old, that readers will be able to identify with her. What may not be so typical? Her old-fashioned grandparents. Her grandmother, who hides her feelings with a brusque exterior. Her younger brother, whose anger issues shape how the family interacts with him. Her parents leaving for so long. And, of course, working the harvest. With the assistance of Julia Kuo’s illustrations, the whole process of “harvesting” a farm is explained. This is not an easy or simple job. It takes work and coordination. Anyone reading this book is going to look at their loaf of bread differently. And they may also think, “yes, I could run that combine…” because, just like Laura Ingalls Wilder, Kadohata shares tons of details and explanations of why and how a harvest works.

Because Summer is telling the story, certain details are left out when Summer doesn’t know or it doesn’t matter. Take Jaz as an example. Jaz’s only friend just left. His grandparents decided the answer is to have a LEGO party, inviting all the boys in Jaz’s class. Invitations are sent. Only three say yes. No one shows up. (As an aside, the planning of the party perfectly illustrates the family dynamics. The grandparents doing what they think is right, as opposed to what the parents were doing. How the four individuals talk to each other and plan what happens. It’s a great opening chapter.)

At first it just seems that, well, Jaz has no friends. Slowly, over the course of the book, we learn more about Jaz. It’s more than him being “invisible” to others, the type of shy, introverted kid who has a tough time making friends. “Why doesn’t anybody like me?” he asks his sister. (Books about kids who don’t make friends easily and want friends and don’t have them, that’s my soft spot and it just makes me so sad.) And that’s when Summer mentions to the reader, “He had such a bad temper that when he was angry, he sometimes banged his head on a wall or whatever was handy. And he was weird because he would do things like one time he started singing a song in the middle of a test.

As Summer observes, her mother thinks the singing is cute, “but I doubted the kids in his class thought it was cute.” Later, Summer says that Jaz has been taken to doctors and there is no real diagnosis for Jaz, or at least not one her parents like. Instead, Summer is told to not make her brother angry.

It’s hard to know what, really, is Jaz’s story because this is Summer’s story and whatever she tells us is limited to her knowledge and world view. And that is part of why this is a perfect book because while I, as an adult, have questions about Jaz, most twelve year old readers won’t. What they will know is how unfair it feels that a younger sibling (or cousin or friend) “gets away” with things. Or that there is always a kid in class somehow like Jaz, who doesn’t fit in or has quirks. And they won’t care if it is or isn’t OCD or ADHD, etc. etc.

I loved how class and socioeconomics was addressed in The Thing About Luck. Summer’s family gets hired to work the harvest by people who own the combines. While Summer’s parents may want to go into business on their own one day, financially that would be tough. They are clearly the workers. Probably all you really need to know is that her grandparents, despite obvious poor health, are doing the work of people 40 years younger than themselves in order to make the money needed to pay the bills. Also – -and this is tossed off, as not important to Summer but the readers get it — Summer and her brother share a bedroom, small enough to require bunk beds.

The Parkers (the family they work for) are above them on the food chain, but they have to answer to the farmers who hire them. During the harvest, people are living in cramped trailers, eating meals together. How they all interact is fascinating to watch, especially considering the group of workers will be together, like a family, for several months. Don’t get me wrong, the Parkers are nice and friendly. They take the chance of hiring Summer’s grandparents. But it’s also their business. It’s not charity.

Summer’s grandparents were born in Japan; her mother, as well as Summer and her brother, were born in America. Details about their Japanese heritage, and what that means, are woven through the book. Some of it is when her grandparents talk about their own childhoods. Her grandmother is the group cook, so there’s also talk about food. And now, of course, I want to eat shabu-shabu. It’s not just Summer and her family; some of the workers on the team are Irish, and there’s a reference to craic that made me laugh.

The only problem I had with this book? It ended! Oh, don’t get me wrong — great ending. Perfect journey for Summer. But I want more!

Other Reviews: Twenty By Jenny; The New York Times; SonderBooks.

Review: The True Blue Scouts of Sugar Man Swamp

The True Blue Scouts of Sugar Man Swamp by Kathi Appelt. Atheneum Books for Young Readers, an imprint of Simon & Schuster. 2013. Library copy. NBA Shortlist.

The Plot: Raccoons Bingo and J’miah are the two newest True Blue Scouts of the Sugar Man Swamp, charged to watch over the swamp and in case of emergency, wake the sleeping Sugar Man.

They’ll have to figure out how to wake him, when they realize the Swamp is threatened. Bingo and J’miah think the only threat is the dangerous Farrow Gang, wild pigs who eat and destroy everything in front of them.

Twelve year old Chap Brayburn knows about the other threat: Sonny Boy Beacoup, owner of the Swamp who doesn’t believe in the Sugar Man. Sonny Boy is joining forces with alligator wrestler Jaeger Stitch to build a Gator World Wrestling Arena and Theme Park. Sonny Boy doesn’t care it will destroy the swamp, or that Chap and his mother will be left without a home or a business, or the impact on the sugar that Chap’s mother uses to make her delicious pies. Sonny Boy doesn’t care he’s doing this just after Chap lost his grandfather. Give me a boat load of money, Sonny Boy laughs, and he’ll stop the development.

Grandpa Audie knew the swamp and its creatures better than Sonny Boy ever did. Grandpa Audie even believed in the mysterious, mythical Sugar Man. But Audie is gone, and Chap’s just twelve.

What can do raccoons do? What can a twelve year old do? You’re about to find out.

The Good: I read The True Blue Scouts of Sugar Man Swamp for one reason, and one reason alone: it was on the National Book Awards shortlist. I read primarily young adult or adult books these days; and I’m not a fan of books about animals.

I am really, really glad that the NBA “made” me read this. (I also wish I had the audiobook version read by Lyle Lovett! I KNOW.)

I quickly fell in love with the raccoons. Appelt creates a whole world and mythology for them that I believed in and enjoyed. And Chap! He’s a great twelve year old. He’s trying his best to do what he can in a really tough situation. One of the things he does? Starts drinking coffee (or rather, trying) and I had to laugh at Chap’s not liking it but feeling he “had” to. Oh, and he takes the “boat load” of money literally by wanting to fill up a small boat with the money he and his mother make off of their fresh sugar pies.

But, what really won me over was the plotting. While the main stories are those of Bingo, J’miah, and Chap, the other characters and their stories are also fully fleshed out. And — eventually — all those various threads come together in one momentous event. When I went back to the start and began rereading, I was delighted to see how some of that was foreshadowed. This is a book I would love to mark up with highlighters and sticky notes, to be able to get a firmer understanding of the genius behind it. It was delightful to see how an event in Bingo’s story overlapped with Chap’s. One example, without being spoilery: as a young man, Audie spent a lot of time in the swamp. He loved the wildlife, taking photos and drawing pictures. He was especially intrigued by the maybe-extinct ivory bill woodpecker. Due to a very bad storm, Audie’s car was lost within the swamp, along with his photos.

Guess what is the home of Bingo and J’miah? If you guessed the car, you’d be right!

Chap’s mother makes her pies out of a very special type of sugar, muscovado sugar, “sweeter than honey, sweeter than maple syrup, sweeter than candied apples.” Do you want to know how badly I want a pie? And do you know how much I love that muscovado sugar is a real live thing? Because, yes, raccoons aren’t really true blue scouts and there is no such thing as a Sugar Man (he’s like Sasquatch or the Yeti), but aside from that, the history and nature in The True Blue Scouts of Sugar Man Swamp is true. And interesting. (Like the part about wild pigs!)

And the language! Appelt is telling us a story, and it’s written as if someone is indeed telling me a story and there was something that just felt so right about that. Comforting or safe — no, those aren’t the right words. Rather, it was the coziness of feeling as if someone was sitting next to me, sharing. It made the story seem personal; it made it seem mine.

It was tough to pull quotes to fully give the flavor, but here are some I liked:

[The two raccoons] both cracked open their eyes, they both robbed their bellies, they both noticed that the dark was growing thinner, they both reminded themselves that they were, in fact, nocturnal and morning was upon them. They both went right back to sleep. And there you have it, sports fans: two hungry raccoons with hours to go before they ate.

And this, from Chap’s cat: “then again, there was the whole hair ball thing. Humans. They had such weak stomachs.”

That tone! That voice! That humor!

I should point out at this point that while animals are point of view characters, they are always animals. Chap’s cat doesn’t “speak” to him, even though we know it’s thoughts.

This is a Favorite Book of 2013. And friends, since it’s about animals – -that tells you something.

Other reviews: BookEnds, a Booklist blog; The New York Times; Author Interview at SharpRead; Nerdy Book Club.


Review: A Moment Comes

A Moment Comes by Jennifer Bradbury. Atheneum Books for Young Readers, an imprint of Simon & Schuster. 2013.

The Plot: India. June, 1947. India will soon have independence; part of the process includes dividing the country into two parts, based on religion.

A Moment Comes is about three teenagers: Tariq, a young Muslim who wants to study in Oxford. Anupreet, a young Sikh woman who has already been touched by violence. Margaret, daughter of one of the Englishmen who is mapping the line between India and Pakistan.

Many things divide these three teenagers: religion, race, privilege, economics. What will they do when the moment comes to test who they are? To know what the “right” thing is?

The Good: A Moment Comes uses three separate voices to look at the partition of India and Pakistan.

Tariq doesn’t want to be involved; he just wants to escape to Oxford. The unlikeliness of this happening gradually becomes apparent. It’s not that Tariq doesn’t have the ambition. It’s that his family is, well, average, with neither money nor connections. He takes a job with Margaret’s father, in hopes that will somehow help him get to England. However, the violence is something he cannot escape, especially since some of his school mates are very involved.

Anupreet has already been touched by the escalating religious violence in her country (soon to be two countries). Her face is scarred. Her family is afraid to let her out alone. In truth, as time passes, it’s not even safe for her to be accompanied by her brother. Working in the household of Margaret’s family is a way for her to escape the prison and sadness of her home. As a Sikh, Anupreet’s experience offers a counterpart to Tariq’s. Both teens, and their families, suffer from what is going on.

And then there is Margaret, the outsider. She was involved in a bit of a scandal back home, which explains why she is now in India with her parents. Margaret offers the outsider view, to complement the two insider views of Tariq and Anu. Part of what I appreciated about A Moment Comes is how clearly the privilege of Margaret and her parents is shown, and yet at the same time I could sympathize with Margaret. I could both cringe at her ignorance or privilege, and feel for her own sense of displacement and loneliness.

Another thing I really liked about A Moment Comes? What it did not do. Tariq and Anu are working for Margaret’s family, and that divide is always present, just as the divide between Sikh and Muslim is there. Margaret may have a crush on the handsome Tariq, and be jealous of the beautiful Anu, but it’s not “that type” of book. Sorry to be a bit “spoilery,” but Tariq’s concern is getting into Oxford. While he may think Anu pretty, isn’t being nice to Margaret a better way to achieve his goals? But then — it’s not that type of book. It’s much more subtle, and not a soap opera. Rather, it’s three distinct people whose lives overlap but the don’t really intertwine until the end.

And, when they do intertwine — and this is at the end — it’s as much about putting aside individual ego for what is best for others. It’s about figuring out the right thing to do when there is no one “right” thing.

One more thing: by concentrating on the handful of months leading up to the partition, after violence has already started (and the level of violence stunned me), A Moment Comes is focused. This is not about why partition, because partition is coming. It’s a fact that Anu and Tariq and their friends and families must live with. The violence has already started, so this is also not a book about why that is happening. Instead, as with partition, it’s a fact that had to be lived with.

Other reviews: Bookworm 1858; Rich in Color; McNally Jackson Kids.

Review: The Winter Prince

The Winter Prince by Elizabeth Wein. Atheneum. 1993. Read ebook edition from Open Road Media, 2013. Personal copy.

The Plot: Medraut is the oldest son of King Artos of Britain, but he can never be Prince. He can never be King. He can never be his father’s heir. He can never have what his younger brother, Prince Lleu, has — not because of anything Medraut has or has not done.

Not because of skills or ability or talent; no.

The reason that the young, arrogant Lleu is heir and favored son is because of the circumstances of their births. Lleu is the legitimate son of Artos and his wife, Ginevra. Medraut is the elder but he is illegitimate, and (as is only known by a handful of people) Medraut’s mother is Morgause, the king’s sister.

Medraut must watch from the sidelines at all that Lleu gets and is expected to get. His feelings towards his younger half-brother are complex, but it is not until his mother visits the royal household that Medraut is forced to make a choice, between his father and his mother, between himself and his brother, between the role fate has for him and the role he wants.

The Good: Why did it take me so long to read Elizabeth Wein’s first book, when I have heard over and over again how wonderful it is? Because I’m an idiot, I guess.

The Winter Prince is a retelling of King Arthur, told from the point of view of his son Mordred. If, like me, you went on a King Arthur binge at one time in your reading life, you may recall that the earliest legends and tales do not say that the king and his son were enemies. So, here, Medraut is loved by his father and his stepmother and their two children, Princess Goewin and Prince Lleu. He is a member of the family, acknowledged (though the truth about his mother’s identity remains a secret) and loved.

From the outside, even, Medraut is favored. Several years old than the twins, he has been educated; he has traveled, to Brittany, to Byzantium, to Africa; he is a healer. He is talented, he is well liked. Medraut cannot see all that he has, because of what he does not have.

Lleu is young and handsome; he is well liked; but he is immature. One thing I loved about The Winter Prince is that even though this is told from Medraut’s point of view, and Medraut loves his younger brother, the reader sees the good things about Lleu but also sees that Lleu is, well, immature. A bit soft. For example, Lleu has no stomach for hunting, even though for the time period (and as his brother tells him) hunting is necessary to get meat to eat to survive. Lleu also sometimes has the unintentional arrogance of a protected teen: he knows he is going to be King someday. Yet, for all that — Lleu is likable. It’s just, like Medraut, the reader wonders if Lleu is really fit to become King.

The Winter Prince explores the relationship between Medraut and Lleu with the question ever-lingering in the back: will Medraut be his father’s son, loyal to his brother? Or will he be his mother’s son, and decide to do what is necessary to become king himself?

His mother’s son: Morgause doesn’t appear until half way through the book, when she escorts her younger sons to Artos’s kingdom. Morgause is a woman who plays with others, including her son and her brother. Artos was unaware of their relationship when he was with Morgause; Morgause knew, and wanted a son to use against her brother in her own quest for power. Morgause’s hold over her eldest son is such that the entire book is actually directed to her. It is a story he tells to “you,” and you is Morgause.

Surprisingly, it is the Princess Goewin who says something that creates some empathy in the reader for Morgause’s viewpoint. “Father’s kingdom, this unity, it won’t last — Lleu’s not like him, and even if he were, too much is changing too fast. It can’t last. Father would have me marry Constantine, the son of the king of Dumnonia in the south. It won’t be bad, it’s important, with all the tin mines and fishing towns. But he may as well marry me to one of my cousins and exile me to the Orcades, as he has his sister, because you can be sure I won’t sit by as queen of Dumnonia and watch Britain trickle through Lleu’s fingers. If I have to I’ll take the kingship from him by force.”

Goewin doesn’t really mean her words, but her frustration about her gender preventing her even be considered for power puts some light onto Morgause’s own actions, her manipulations of her son, her cold heartedness. And, perhaps, it explains in part why it is so hard for Medraut and Arthur to cut Morgause out of their lives.

A couple more random observations before my final raves. Medraut is in his early twenties, and Lleu and Goewin are in their late teens. Yes, this is one of those young adult books where the main protagonist is not a teen. Despite Medraut’s age, and despite his years of independence traveling and living in other countries, he is wrestling with questions that are familiar to teen readers: what will his future hold? Does he accept or reject his fate? How much control does he have for his future? Can he balance his wants and desires with those of others? And of course, all along, the reader wonders, how can this be worked out, knowing how history views Medraut, knowing that there are no stories about any children of Arthur other than Mordred.

Final raves, or why The Winter Prince is a Favorite Book Read in 2013: I adored Medraut. I adored his angst over how his fate and how his family seemed to box him into a very specific space. I loved how he could both love his younger siblings and be jealous and envious and angry at them. I loved that Wein only shows some of Medraut’s and Morgause’s relationship — there are suggestions that something more may have happened between mother and son. She shows just enough, so that the reader isn’t overwhelmed by the abuse Medraut has suffered and so that the story stays focused on Medraut and Lleu. And the ending! I was on the edge of my seat for the last few chapters, wondering where this was going, and was so very satisfied with the ending.  And I love that this is done in less than 200 pages. (Yes, the ebook says 292 pages, but it ends on page 154. The remaining pages are the first chapters of the sequel, A Coalition of Lions, and a biography of Wein.)

And, yes, I have already downloaded the second book, A Coalition of Lions. There are five books in this series; the other three are The Sunbird, The Lion Hunter, and The Empty Kingdom.

Other reviews: Greenman Review; Chachic’s Book Nook (note: spoilers for the whole series); Lack of Genius; Interview with the author at Finding Wonderland (spoilers for the whole series.)

Review: Every Little Thing In The World

Every Little Thing In The World by Nina de Gramont. Atheneum Books for Young Readers, an imprint of Simon & Schuster’s Children’s Publishing Division. 2010. Library copy.

The Plot: Sydney Biggs, sixteen, is a good girl. That’s what she tells herself. She also tells herself that her mother is over-reacting about Sydney and her friend Natalia “borrowing” Natalia’s parents’ car to go to a party, despite both girls being grounded. And there was the time she pretended to be at Natalia’s and stayed overnight at her ex-boyfriend’s. And her mother’s reaction to Sydney’s grades slipping is a bit over the top. What else is Mom over-reacting about? Sydney quitting the swimming team. And sneaking away to spend a weekend with Natalia, Natalia’s boyfriend, and Sydney’s kind-of boyfriend.

Sydney’s divorced parents are disappointed and angry, and that’s why Syd now finds herself spending a month at Camp Bell Wilderness Adventure, canoeing in the wilderness.

Actually, Sydney doesn’t mind. A month away from her parents? A month away from the not-quite boyfriend? A month to not have to think about anything?

A month to not have to think about being pregnant?

If her parents are unhappy with staying out late, drinking, and lying, imagine how they’d feel if they found out she’s pregnant.

The Good: Every Little Thing In The World is a sensitive, thoughtful look at young teen facing a difficult decision. What should she do about her pregnancy? For Sydney, going away to Camp Bell is the perfect escape, rather than the punishment her mother thought it would be. Things get more complicated than she wants when her best friend, Natalia, comes along. Yes, Natalia is her best friend; but Natalia has her own issues and secrets to work through. Syd knows that any help or advice Natalia offers is based on Natalia’s own hopes and fears, rather than what Sydney wants or needs.

Sydney comes from a complicated place, and one of the things I adored about this book is none of those complications were fixed. Her life is messy, and it remained messy. Her mother, hurt by her divorce and struggling to make ends meet, is not as warm or open as she once was. Her father is so tied up in living the “perfect” life with his new family that he doesn’t see the damage he inflicts on those around him. Syd’s the poor girl at a rich private school, and Sydney is well aware that she is the only one at her school who doesn’t have nice clothes or endless spending money. The reader realizes well before Sydney that Sydney’s problem is not a pregnancy: it’s being too passive in her own life from fear of disappointing those around her. She had sex with someone without using a condom, because she was afraid of what he’d think of her for asking. She’s content for Natalia to always be the star, and to get the boys Natalia isn’t interested in.

Camp Bell becomes a place where Sydney can assert herself; not just in what will happen to her body and this pregnancy, but also in her own future, in creating new patterns and ways of being.

I have one mini-rant. I truly despised Syd’s father. Okay, maybe despise is to big a word. When Sydney was young, he became obsessed with eating healthier. The obsession grew and mutated into other areas, such as a conviction that oil will soon run out resulting in the culture crumbling. Sydney, a young teen when she first heard this, had such bad nightmares that visitation was temporarily ended.

Sydney, musing on her stepmother and mother: “Kerry still spent half the day doing what my mother had gotten divorced to avoid: making elaborate, organic meals from scratch. They were never ready when my father walked through the door, and he always heaved a sigh of disappointment at the the world’s inability to measure up to his high ideals.” Kerry, who before her three children in three years had been a trim athlete, now weighs almost two hundred pounds, a form of rebellion against her husband’s “high ideals.” Is her father realistic? Yes. I still wanted Kerry to pick up her kids and leave, to do something about her youngest’s permanent diaper rash, or to at least stop hiding her secret stash of “forbidden” food.

Let’s add this on a positive note. The canoeing group involves eight teens (four girls, four boys) and two counselors. I love the relationships that develop between Syd and her fellow campers. Yes, there is a cute boy who Sydney likes and who likes Sydney. Sydney’s growth isn’t just internal; it’s shown in how she interacts with others. And that cover? That is Sydney by the end of the book: strong and confident, becoming her own person.

Other Reviews: Stacked; Steph Su Reads.