Book Review: CONTAGION by Teri Terry

Terry, Teri - Contagion (2)Contagion
Teri Terry

Shay, a high school student who hasn’t fit into life in Killin, Scotland since she and her mother moved into an inherited home there from London, has been being bullied. One afternoon, in a scuffle, she falls into a kiosk and uncovers a missing persons poster.

With her photographic memory, she is certain she saw the young girl on the flyer. Unfortunately, it was almost a year before. Still, she calls the number, and Kai, the girl’s brother, not too much other than Shay, immediately arranges to meets with her and find out everything she remembers.

At the same time, Callie, a girl imprisoned in a highly secure underground bunker is forced to endure painful experiments until given the “cure.” The cure kills her, turning her body to ash, but she lives in an alternative form. In this state, she is able to travel through the facility and watch as the personnel who tortured her succumb to a terrifying illness.

As Kai and Shay try to find his sister and Callie attempts to negotiate her way home, the deadly and incurable illness reaches epidemic proportions. Kai’s mother, an epidemiologist, joins the team searching for a cure while Shay learns that she and Kai’s sister have more in common that a simple encounter.

Kai and Shay’s search may lead them to the secret to the disease, if they can keep ahead of its rapid advance and avoid the Special Alternatives Regiment, a secret military group that doesn’t want the teenagers to succeed.

Contagion, a disaster book in the young adult genre, was a fun and quick read, though because it is the first in a trilogy, it is setting up the action for the story, and the ending is unresolved, to be addressed in the sequels. For some inexplicable reason, books about infectious diseases interest me, and Contagion was written better than most. As expected in the YA literature, the protagonist is a smart, scrappy teenager who is pretty but doesn’t realize it and who develops a romance with an equally smart, strong, and handsome teenage boy who is the first to see the girl for who she is. Although this seems to be a requirement, I often find it saccharine and just endure it for the rest of the plot in series like The Red Queen. Happily, in Contagion, it’s the least mawkish I’ve seen.

Here, the disease vector is strange and new. Though it is clear from the beginning to readers how the epidemic is being transmitted, the characters don’t realize it until the end of the book, and even then, there is confusion. Even for the readers, most of the details are not fully explained, and I wish there had been a little more time on the hypothetical science behind it. Iona, Shay’s sidekick, was my favorite character, and I wish we’d seen more of her, though what we did see was a blast.

The conclusion of the book places the characters in precarious positions that will propel the action in the follow-up, Deception, which is due later this year and which I will read as soon as possible. I suppose that’s a good recommendation for Contagion!

Thank you to NetGalley and Charlesbridge Teen for providing an advance reading copy in exchange for an honest review.

Book Review: DREAMLAND BURNING, revisiting the Tulsa Race Riot

Latham, Jennifer - Dreamland Burning (2)Dreamland Burning
Jennifer Latham

In present-day Tulsa, workers renovating a back house on the Chase family property found a skeleton buried under the floor. Before calling the police, seventeen-year-old Rowan Chase summoned her best friend, James, and they looked at the bones themselves. Only when Rowan’s mother unexpectedly come home did officers come to the house. Because the skeleton was dated, it was assigned to a forensic anthropologist. Rowan feared that its story would never be told so she resolved that she and James would investigate and learn the identity and as much of what happened as they could. At the same time, she begins a summer job at the low-income Jackson Clinic.

Rowan’s story is intercut with that of Will Tuttle, seventeen-years-old in 1921, the year of the race riots that destroyed Greenwood, Tulsa’s vibrant black neighborhood. While Tuttle has been indoctrinated with the belief that whites are superior, and is pressured by his friend Cletus and a neighboring shopkeeper, Vernon Fish, to join the junior KKK, he is mixed race himself, with his mother a full Osage Indian. Furthermore, he befriends black siblings Joseph and Ruby Goodhope.

Dreamland Burning is exceptionally good at depicting Tulsa in the past and the present, and showing the layering of history through the two timelines. Personally, I enjoyed touches that reminded me of home–mention of the required ninth grade Oklahoma History course and descriptions of the smell of Sonic.

The book also vividly captures the horror of the Jim Crow error in Tulsa and the inequality, racism, and hatred that led to the two-day tragedy. Anyone who is interested in learning about this historical event but doesn’t enjoy non-fiction would be satisfied by this novel. Though it’s written for a young adult audience, it doesn’t shy away from the horrific details of the massacre.

Telling the story through two time periods allows Latham to explore how the attitudes that led to the Tulsa Race Riot still exist today and are manifested in small and large atrocities.

While I thought the book told an important and difficult historical story well, I didn’t particularly like the two protagonists. Both were wealthy, biracial teenagers of privilege who, although challenging their long-held and unquestioned assumptions, had secure families to support them. While there are narrative reasons to select these characters as narrators, they weren’t my favorite characters and tended to distract from the more interesting and unique personalities. Rowan, in particular, was to me unlikable. She constantly talked about wanting to please her parents, but her decisions were poor and often sneaky. While Will’s story has an elegant ending, Rowan’s conclusion was abrupt. In fact, I couldn’t believe there wasn’t another chapter, it was such a sudden end that I did a double-take when the next page was headed “acknowledgments.” Also, I thought some of the writing was cliched and unsophisticated. However, overall, Dreamland Burning is worth reading for the historical content.

Book Review: MIDNIGHT AT THE ELECTRIC, a series of journeys looking for hope

Anderson, Jodi Lynn - Midnight at the ElectricMidnight at the Electric
Jodi Lynn Anderson

For most of her life, Adri Ortiz has prepared to be one of the elite colonists on Mars. She is leaving little behind on earth; her parents died when she was young, and she grew up in a group home in a Miami made unrecognizable by climate change. When she finally receives her acceptance letter, she learns she has a distant cousin, Lily Ortiz Vega, who lives in Canaan, Kansas, not far from the Wichita training center and will be staying with her during training.

Adri, a prickly character, has only two months to train for her mission, but she is drawn into life with Lily and her tortoise, Galapagos, learning for the first time what it feels like to feel secure in the love of a family.

She also finds a journal and a packet of old letters that capture her imagination. Catherine Godspeed, who lived in Lily’s farmhouse during the dust bowl, wrote a journal about the harrowing dust storms, her concern over her little sister suffering from dust pneumonia, and her nascent love with farm hand Ellis, but after Catherine’s journal abruptly ended, and Adri wanted to learn what happened before she left for Mars.

With Catherine’s journal were a series of letters to her mother, Beth, from her childhood friend Lenore Allstock, still living in England and grieving over the death of her brother, Teddy, in the Great War, yet saving money to travel to America to live near Beth.

As Adri learns about these women of the past and how they changed, grew, and forgave over time, she also reflected on her own character and learned how the women intersected with her own history in surprising ways.

The book is filled with journeys of hope, literal and figurative, as women flee from psychological damage and environmental destruction, though it also considers the notion of home and the extent to which it is tied to a certain place.

My favorite sections of Midnight at the Electric were from Catherine’s journals because I thought it was interesting to read about the dust bowl, maybe because I came from Oklahoma and it’s such an integral part of the state’s history. I liked Lenore’s section the least because the cracks in her relationship with Beth never seemed entirely significant to me and the story in her letters wasn’t entirely innovative. Adri’s relationship with Lily as it developed over time was very sweet, but I wish there had been more scenes relating to her training. I realize that Anderson may have chosen to have a tight focus on the women and their relationships, but I had still hoped for more of a sense of Adri’s world outside the farmhouse. Galapagos the tortoise had a subplot that made me cry ugly (though happy) tears.

Given the audience of Midnight at the Electric, the language is conservative and the level of conflict relatively tame, although it does deal with parental conflict, war, and sex. Overall, it was an enjoyable read that combined the three time periods in interesting and unexpected ways, though threading through them all a sense of hope at the end of a fraught and uncertain journey.

Book Review: AN ABSOLUTELY REMARKABLE THING, interesting young adult novel but too much “tell”

Green, Hank - An Absolutely Remarkable Thing (2)An Absolutely Remarkable Thing
Hank Green

An entry level graphic designer at a New York City tech firm, April was no stranger to late nights. Leaving around 2:45 a.m. one morning was commonplace. What was out of the ordinary: her MetroCard wouldn’t swipe, though she’d recently used it. Rather than buy another one, she decided to return to her office to grab another MetroCard in her desk.

Walking back, she saw what she described as a ten-foot-high transformer in samurai armor on the sidewalk. Although familiar with New Yorkers’ jaded persona, she was amazed that passers-by were not giving the statue more than a cursory look. She quickly called her friend Andy and exhorted him to bring his video gear: they were going to record for prosperity.

They created a humorous video with April pretending to interview the statue which she called Carl. With such a late night, April slept in, and by the time she woke up, their video had gone viral. Sixty-three other statues had appeared in cities across the globe, but only April and Andy’s video took off. The world starting referring to the statues as “Carl.” April became a de facto expert.

Andy’s father, a lawyer in Hollywood, immediately connected them with an agent, and April, the face of their team, appeared on television while nurturing her nascent social media accounts which she’d never really been interested in before. She broadcast a message that Carl was on earth for benign purposes, even when puzzles began to appear online–and people suffered an infectious dream that might give a clue to Carl’s intentions.

In contrast, Peter Petrawicki and his group, the Defenders, viewed Carl as a national security risk, and believed that the United States should militarize against the threat they posed. April and Peter became figureheads of competing movements and gained even more fame while their followers competed to solve Carl’s mysteries and gain control over his potential powers.

An Absolutely Remarkable Thing is absolutely creative and fun to read, finding the solutions to the puzzles along with April and her closest allies. The novel also is dense with questions about fame and how it changes people, and about the risk of losing authentic relationship when judging popularity through social media likes. It describes then skewers the process of branding a persona for online consumption. And, it criticizes the tendency for debates to become narrowed to ideological divides that sow dissent and breed extremism.

Green asks a lot from the novel, and for the most part, the tone, from April’s voice, is sardonic and witty. There are two problems though. One is that the book veers too often into almost essay territory (complete with bullet points) on these subjects. The second is that April is not the most sympathetic protagonist. At only twenty-three, thrust into the spotlight, it’s not surprising she would make mistakes, but I’m tired of narrators who are isolated, self-destructive, unable to commit, and yet have a core group of dedicated friends who are loyal beyond all reason. Maya, perhaps the most interesting and authentic character, gets too little attention.

Who the Carls are and what they want is solved, but not in a satisfying manner, and April’s role is mystifying, as is the lack of government control over the Carls. After finishing An Absolutely Remarkable Thing, then, I was a little disappointed, though I had enjoyed the process of reading it. That said, if there is a sequel, I will read it to see what happens next.

BOOK REVIEW: The Goldfish Boy, a twelve-year-old detective with OCD

Thompson, Lisa - The Goldfish BoyThe Goldfish Boy
Lisa Thompson

Matthew Corbin, a twelve-year-old who has lived on Chestnut Close his entire life, isn’t like most of his classmates. He suffers from obsessive compulsive disorder, and he is so fearful of germs that not only does he clean his surroundings and wash himself all the time, he is reluctant to leave his house. Instead, he watches the neighborhood from the upper windows of his family’s home, even keeping notebooks of the neighbors’ activities.

He watches when six-year-old Casey and fifteen-month-old Teddy, grandchildren of Mr. Charles, his next door neighbor, arrive for a month-long stay while their mother goes to New York for work, and he sees Casey push Teddy into Mr. Charles’ pond when Mr. Charles is out front talking to Penny Sullivan. He notices the neighborhood bully, Jake, his former best friend, torment Melody, a girl in his class who spends an unusual amount of time in the nearby graveyard. Matthew observes the widow, Old Nina, water her plants at 10:00 each morning, and his gym teacher, Mr. Jenkins, go for his daily runs.

When Teddy goes missing, then, Matthew is sure that he has seen more and knows the neighborhood better than the police, and it’s up to him to solve Teddy’s disappearance. After all, he has a record of his neighbors’ activities the day of the disappearance, and, noticing Teddy alone in the yard at midday, he might be the last person to have seen Teddy. But investigating is difficult when you can’t leave your house, and both Melody and Jake make a case for joining the inquiry. Together, the misfitting trio follow leads, ultimately finding the clue that solved Teddy’s case.

Meanwhile, Matthew’s compulsive washing is so extreme that the skin on his hands is broken, raw, and bleeding. His parents have told the school he has mono, but the authorities are beginning to question his long absence from school. Worried and feeling helpless, Matthew’s parents arrange for him to see a doctor, difficult when he doesn’t want to leave the house. A new therapist, Dr. Rhodes, offers him hope for healing.

For ages eight to twelve, The Goldfish Boy offers a realistic and painful depiction of obsessive compulsive disorder and its possible treatment. Though at times I thought it rather pedantic, the book is a a positive representation that allows any child with OCD to see themselves as a main character or children in general to learn about the condition and develop empathy.

The mystery itself is high-stakes, yet it isn’t scary or gory, so it seems like a good choice for students in the target age group. Not surprisingly, the adult characters aren’t as developed as the children’s, and at first, Matthew sees most adults with some degree of suspicion or distance, but some of the neighborhood residents reveal themselves to be allies. Matthew, Melody, and Jake are all multidimensional with interesting backstories, though the author might be overdoing it on the tragic past angle.

In The Goldfish Boy, the children are given a great degree of freedom which surprised me. I grew up a very, very long time ago, and I would not have been allowed the same degree of movement outside the home. I’m wondering if this is because of the dead-end street where they live giving a sense of security (though a toddler was just kidnapped, so that can’t be right), different expectations of children’s behavior in England, or me having had a very overprotective family.

The Goldfish Boy also provides a hint into how difficult Matthew’s condition is for his parents. Every time they entered the narrative, my blood pressure increased. While his mother attempted to understand his illness, his father was impatient. In their defense, Matthew wasn’t being completely honest about the event that triggered his OCD, but still. At one point, they decided to take down the wallpaper in his room and paint it without talking to him. This seemed to be so disrespectful and boundary transgression that I was beside myself, especially when his dad exhorted him to stop being silly. In response, his mother told Matthew that they’d been too easy on him, and what they were doing was for his own good. I expected Matthew to confide in the therapist and her to caution the parents about their very, very bad behavior. Instead, Matthew decided that he liked how his room looked after all. This sequence bothered me so much as it promotes the idea that parents-know-best, when that is not always the case, and that children should do what their parents say without having a voice. Sadly, I think my distress over this scene will last longer than some of the other more positive aspects of the book.

In any case, The Goldfish Boy offers a readable and at times funny mystery with a non-conventional protagonist that should delight middle readers and help them develop empathy for people who are different, with Matthew, Melody, and Jake all presenting examples of how the past affects the present. It also promotes the idea that friendships might be difficult but are healing themselves.

I like the UK cover so much better than the cover released in the US. What do you think?

Thompson, Lisa - The Goldfish Boy UK