Tag: Young Adult

A True Story of Love, War and Survival

by Amra Sabic- El-Rayess

Amra was a teenager living in Bihać when the Bosnian war began. She first noticed things were shifting when a close friend refused to speak to her- because Amra’s family was ethnically Muslim. Though they didn’t follow religious practices they were soon persecuted along with all the other Muslims in her city. It was under seige for years- bombs fell regularly, innocent people were shot in the street by snipers, and worse. Just a few pages in you get a sense of what reading this is going to be like- the author doesn’t hesitate to tell you the horrible things soldiers said to a young girl, her fears of being captured, of rape or torture. Her family lived in constant apprehension and suffering, as electricity was cut off, food in short supply, and soon little or no medical care available. She often thought they would simply not survive. Sometimes they had to do difficult things, to stay alive. Other times they stood their ground refusing to give in to inhumanity and maintain some integrity.

But her story is also one of hope, as they pulled together with neighbors and family members to find ways to keep going- growing vegetables in abandoned lots, bartering for goods, tutoring younger children who had no teachers, assisting in the war effort when they could. It was traumatic- there were days she couldn’t get out of bed, and not just from lack of energy because they were starving. She saw terrible things on the streets, and narrowly missed death more than once- attributing a lot of her lucky moments to the presence of a calico cat. It showed up as a stray one day and soon became part of the family (though her parents protested at first). Many times through the war, something happened involving the cat that saved their lives- coincidence or not. And its friendly calm presence definitely helped soothe their nerves and warm their hearts. Sadly, the cat also was a source of trouble later on, and Amra was heartbroken when they faced the possibility of loosing her. The cat proved her loyalty to them again and again, even under great duress.

You know that Amra makes it through all the horrors of war and privation, because this book is based on the author’s own experiences, but it’s harrowing to read of all the losses she witnessed and experienced. She fell in love for the first time during the war, too. There are tender moments, and funny ones, and plenty of teenagers just being regular teenagers, even in such circumstances. Eventually Amra got a remarkable opportunity to leave the country via a scholarship, and was able to start building a new life elsewhere. Her story is told in a plain, straightforward style- which might be dull in other cases, but here I appreciated it, as more detail would have been difficult to read. This line from the book has stuck with me: War does not leave anyone with good choices.

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 4/5
370 pages, 2020

by Tillie Walden

Memoir about the author’s childhood, when she was immersed in the world of midlevel competitive figure skating. She got up at four a.m. for practice at one rink, and directly after school went to another to do synchronized skating with a team. She details the rigorous training, long hours, performance stress, the meanness of other girls who saw her as a threat, the way judges expected young girls to look very feminine, which made her uncomfortable. Gradually as the narrative unfolds she tells about why she really became a skater in the first place, and how as the years go on she realizes it’s not her main interest anymore, although she still loves the feeling of being on the ice, the freedom of motion, the thrill of getting a difficult move right, or passing a test. The competitions were another thing altogether. Especially tough since it seems she had little parental support- they drove her to practice and that was about it. Not a lot of explanation why her parents were so distant.

Also relates how she knew she was lesbian from a young age, but was afraid to let anyone know, and when she finally came out as a preteen, the varied and sometimes troublesome reactions of those around her. Falling in love for the first time and then loosing that friendship painfully. Realizing perhaps she enjoyed art or even her cello playing more than the demands of skating- and the solace she found in understanding and kindness from her cello instructor. (Although there was a gap there- a page where she was talking hesitantly about when a tutor attempted to assault her and the teacher asked what happened and the next page switches scenes- did she tell her teacher about it? or not?). There’s also a move to a different state where, in a manner that baffles me, she found that all the skating moves had different names! and the training didn’t seem to be taken as seriously. And a bully she has to deal with in school. And so much more. Skating is a main part of the story because it consumed her life for so many years, but it’s really mostly about finding herself- and a big part of that was finally realizing she didn’t want to be a skater anymore. She’d miss parts of it, but felt so much better when she abruptly left it behind. I know what that’s like, in a way. The artwork in this book wasn’t as compelling for me- I sometimes had trouble telling the faces apart, or reading expressions, but the story has so much to give I didn’t mind.

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 4/5
396 pages, 2017

More opinions: Finding Wonderland
anyone else?

by Faith Erin Hicks

Maggie’s been homeschooled with her three older brothers. Mainly by her mother who recently left them, leaving the teens with their police officer father. Now Maggie’s starting public high school, with all kinds of new experiences to navigate. Not the least of which is how to make friends- the few kids who talk to her appear to be shunned by the others, and there’s history between her brothers and a group of popular jocks that she doesn’t know about. Her new friends have punk hairstyles, piercings and a style that might look threatening- yet they’re cheerfully friendly, unlike the polished-looking popular kids. Her twin brothers are annoyed that everyone expects them to still do everything together, and now they’re fighting all the time. The oldest brother is into theater, and pretty good at it (I liked that). Maggie’s also got this problem of a ghost that follows her around- she often walks through the graveyard- and I was really let down when the storyline didn’t complete that part. The ghost never spoke, never seemed to accept the help Maggie was offering it (based on a wild guess at what it might be wanting). Oh, and there’s zombies too- in a school play her brother performs in- and I don’t really care for zombie or ghost stories for some reason. But I liked the artwork, especially the early sketches in the back of the book. I do think the original title fit better (seen in preliminary cover sketches): The Education of Maggie McKay. The story was pretty good, but it left too many things unanswered and I wished for just a tad more depth with how Maggie was handling her new friendships. Maybe a sequel is coming that will address those things.

Rating: 3/5
224 pages, 2012

by Mariko Tamaki

Another graphic novel about pre-teen girls experiencing poignant growing moments during a particular summer vacation, different in mood and tone than my prior read. I got through this one in a single sitting when I had some insomnia at 3 am, couldn’t put it down. And then it kept turning in my head. It centers around Rose and her friend Windy, who have been spending summers at the beach in next-door cabins their families rent out, since they were little. They laze around indoors, watch horror movies (that they probably shouldn’t have), roam the beach, go swimming, and peek at the college-age kids that hang around the little convenience store. Speculate about what the older kids are up to, talk about sex and going through puberty- especially the prospect of growing breasts. Sounds like Windy is adopted and her mother is very into yoga, vegetarianism, etc. Rose has uncomfortable moments overhearing her parents argue, particularly over her mother’s refusal to go swimming, and her struggle with depression which nobody seems to want to discuss (other than the father blaming her for not enjoying herself and ruining their vacation- so insensitive). Then there’s things they overhear among the college-age kids that raises bigger questions- and from the younger girls’ eavesdropping we find out one girl is pregnant, the guy doesn’t seem to want to deal with it, the others gossip about her loose behavior. When the friends discuss this, Windy is rightfully outraged that everyone blames the girl, how sexist it is. The two seem to be diverging a bit. Lots of troubling content in this one, but I found it so real, I know there’s plenty of kids who have friendships and moments like these. Unsupervised watching of terrible horror movies, for example. The artwork by Jillian Tamaki is wonderful, I loved the texture and detail. I’d look for something else written by this duo. I could have done without the f-words, though (used a lot by the older kids in the story).

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 4/5
320 pages, 2014

The Fearless Science of Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey, and Biruté Galdikas

by Jim Ottaviani

Illustrated by Maris Wicks. Fun short graphic novel about the lives and work of three women scientists- all sent by Louis Leakey to study primates in the wild. Jane Goodall who first followed chimpanzees in the forests of Gombe, Dian Fossey who studied gorillas in the Virunga mountains, and Biruté Galdikas who tracked orangutans in Indonesia. For such a short book (I did wish it was longer!) it certainly packs in a lot of detail. Glad that I’ve read firsthand accounts by all three women, so I was familiar with many of the incidents noted, but others I wondered about as it’s been so long since I read the other books, I’ve forgotten many details. For example, I remembered that Jane Goodall once mentioned folding her clothes into plastic to get up a mountain trail without having them soaked- but this book while it illustrates that (decently), doesn’t explain what she was doing. I couldn’t recall what illness Biruté Galdikas had suffered from, nor exactly how Dian Fossey had died. The text and pictures make it clear that the work was difficult and tedious, that there was often strife (in Fossey’s case, between herself and the local people), that all three women also did the tiresome work of keeping notes, typing up reports, attending conferences and such after. There’s hints of Louis Leakey’s perhaps inappropriate reasons for recruiting young women to work for him. It shows Jane Goodall keeping her young son in a cage to protect him from the chimpanzees, but doesn’t mention her divorce from Hugo van Lawick, or her second marriage, whereas Gladikas’ divorce and re-marriage are addressed. Just a bit uneven in that regard which was a tad disappointing. Also sometimes confusing when it switched voices, who was narrating about whom. However I enjoyed reading it (in one sitting, a nice breather after the thick biography I just completed), the pictures were fun, and I felt like it gave a very good overview of the work these women did. Especially their significant discoveries- that Jane Goodall saw chimpanzees using tools, and Biruté Galdikas observed orangutans walking on the ground (which nobody thought they ever did, before). I’d hope the book is inspiring to young women who might want to do scientific work, or at least encourage them to pick up other books and learn more about them. It certainly added a few more titles to my own list!

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 3/5
140 pages, 2013

by Anne McCaffrey

Closely following Dragonsong, when this book opens Menolly has just left the sea hold she grew up in, and landed in the Harper Hall. I had forgotten the entire story takes place over just seven days- seven days in which a lot happens. Menolly is tested by the various teachers on her knowledge and skill- in singing, playing a variety of instruments, musical theory and even making the instruments from raw materials. She faces some instant resentment and prejudice from peers- girls sneering at her manners, boys jealous of her fire lizards, even one instructor who disapproves of girls being serious music students (in this world). But she also quickly finds friends, and admirers. She can’t quite believe it at first, not only being allowed, but encouraged to make music (having been punished for that where she grew up) and rather falls all over herself apologizing for everything. Then there’s her slow-healing injuries- her feet are still very sore, and her nearly crippled hand hinders her performance at first. But Menolly literally finds her stride in this book, adroitly showing her natural talent and abilities to those around her, standing up for herself to some nasty girls who gossip and try to ruin her reputation, even learning more about what her fire lizards can do, and coaching the Masterharper and one of his senior journeymen through the impression of their own fire lizards. This one didn’t fade at all on a re-read.

Rating: 4/5
264 pages, 1977

more opinions:
Charlotte’s Library
anyone else?

by Anne McCaffrey

This book was just as wonderful on a re-read as when I first discovered it decades ago. I actually savored it this time around, stopping myself at the end of each chapter to continue the next day- when I could easily have finished it in much quicker! Set in the world of Dragonflight, centered around an ordinary and very sympathetic character. Menolly is youngest daughter of a large family in a sea hold- a place very much set in old traditions. Her one love is music- which relieves all the drudgery of cleaning fish, tending her senile uncle and other tasks- but her father disapproves. Life becomes even more unbearable when the Harper who had nurtured her talent dies, and she seriously injures her hand- so her parents tell her she’ll never be able to play an instrument again. Menolly runs away from the Hold and shelters from dangerous Threadfall in a cave on a bluff. She happens across a clutch of fire lizards just as they are hatching- and bonds with nine of the delightful little creatures. The dragonlike lizards seem to like her music, easing her loneliness, and Menolly has enough skills as a fisherman’s daughter to survive there. Until one day she’s found by a dragonrider, running from Thread (having wandered a bit too far from her cave). He takes her to a weyr where she is shocked at the treatment she receives- kindness, understanding, even appreciation for her music when she looses caution and sings in front of others. Her confusion and alarm at being given attention and kindness makes you realize just how badly she’d been treated back home. (Meanwhile, all this time back at seahold, only her brother and the new replacement Harper had continued to look for her when she ran away and was presumed dead!) It’s with relief and gladness that the reader sees Menolly at the end of the book facing a possible new life for herself- one in which she can embrace her talent and grow, instead of feeling constantly squelched and shamed.

How I loved this book as a teen. I came across a piece of it when I was in fourth or fifth grade- in a school volume with selected short stories, poems, and excerpts. The piece of Dragonsong in there wasn’t assigned reading, I was intrigued by the illustrations and read it on my own- having no context of the world it was set in, or the background- it started in the moment when Menolly pushed open the heavy seahold doors to leave home right before Threadfall, and wrapped up right after the momentous scene where she impressed the fire lizards. I read it several times over- fascinated, but didn’t realize it came from a full-length book. Years later, at an event with my family which I found boring, I wandered the building and discovered a small library- and of course I browsed the shelves. Dragonsong was there. I may have read the whole thing in one sitting, or found it at the public library later to finish it- I don’t recall now- but I immediately recognized it as the story I’d enjoyed in the school volume- and was so thrilled. Even more so to find it had two sequels. I like the illustration I’ve put to head this post, but the first copy I picked up had the whimsical artwork here to the left. Can’t decide which is my favorite now.

Rating: 5/5
202 pages, 1976

more opinions:
Charlotte’s Library
Martin’s Booklog
anyone else?

by Kenneth Oppel

This novel is of an early language experiment done with chimpanzees, in the seventies. It’s told from the viewpoint of a teenager whose parents work at a university. They bring home an infant chimp to raise in their home- to see if it can learn to communicate with sign language. Ben is annoyed at first, jealous of how much attention the chimpanzee demands. He’s also not happy having to attend a new school, dealing with pressure from his parents to get better grades, navigating an intense new interest in girls and trying to figure all that out while making new friends. Gradually he becomes more involved with Zan, the chimp, and starts to relate things he’s learned from his mother’s books (Jane Goodall!) with Zan’s behavior, also comparing to humans. He decides to be methodical in his efforts to win a girl’s attention- keeping notes on things she likes in a logbook similar to how his parents keep notes on Zan, and starts interpreting how kids behave at school- constantly shifting social status and all- with “alpha” chimp behavior. That was both funny and interesting. The family is eager to see how Zan starts picking up sign language and using it, but they come under scrutiny from the university department who brings in an expert challenging their ideas- is Zan really learning language? or is he just cleverly imitating signs to get rewards? There’s issues renewing their grant, and it becomes harder to manage keeping Zan- while he can be cute and endearing, at barely two years old he’s already stronger than any one human, can become aggressive without much notice and makes horrendous messes. This all leads to Ben’s parents deciding the chimpanzee must go- probably to a research facility where he can live with other chimps. Ben protests- he’s become fond of Zan and feels like the chimp is his little brother now- and he feels it’s unfair to treat the chimp as part of a human family and then ditch him in a new environment- will he be able to adjust? Ben’s outrage spurs him to some hasty, questionable actions- and while the ending was satisfying I felt it concluded a bit too quickly.

Overall I liked this book- I’ve read quite a few in the past about language experiments like this that were actually done with chimpanzees and gorillas, and I think this was a very well-rounded look at that for teens. It touches on all the issues without really diving deeply into any one thing- is the chimpanzee a family member or just an experimental subject? what is he really learning from them? what’s the best way to treat him fairly? At the end there are glimpses of different ways chimps are treated in other facilities- some quite grim and others more benign. Reading this made me look to see if I have other nonfiction books on similar topics on my shelf.

Rating: 3/5
375 pages, 2010

by Kacen Callender 

     Felix is a trans gay seventeen-year-old. He lives in New York, attends a special summer art school program, goes back and forth between his dad\’s apartment and his best friend\’s. He really wants to apply for a scholarship but can\’t quite get his portfolio together, and seems to spend a lot more time hanging out with his friends, talking about issues and messaging around on Instagram than actually making any art. But then, art wasn\’t really the focus of the story. It\’s relationships, and finding oneself, and coming to terms with how people do or do not see you, and how you see yourself. It\’s about feeling marginalized- Felix is also black- and honestly I was surprised at how often people within the LGBTQ community portrayed here cut each other down- for not being different enough, or for taking up each other\’s space. Felix is surrounded by friends who are gay or non-binary or otherwise gender non-conforming. He came across as a really emotional person, although we\’re inside his head so maybe it just appeared that way. He\’s upset with his father- who supports him in many ways but often uses the wrong pronouns and can\’t bring himself to say Felix\’s chosen name. He\’s shocked and horrified when someone hacks his online account, prints photos from before he transitioned, and displays them at the school. Felix is determined to find out who did this and get revenge- so he starts catfishing (a new term for me) another student on Instagram, pretty sure this guy is the culprit even though his friends warn him he could be mistaken. Things get awkward when Felix starts to realize he actually likes talking to this guy in his online persona, when in real life they can\’t stand each other. Meanwhile his best friend has started dating someone new, which hurts his feelings although he can\’t figure out why. 
I found this book a little hard to get into because well, it\’s not my usual type of read and the tangled mess of friendships, dating, and fake online identities (who knows what about whom?) kinda makes my head swim after a while. I was rather appalled at how quickly Felix jumped into his plan for revenge, but it also gave his character some realistic flaws, I admit. I also didn\’t like how Felix treated his father, or some of his friends later on in the story- but things get better near the end. Felix starts to do more painting, figures out some things about relationships, finds the bravery to speak honestly to his best friend, and bounces around New York attending LGBTQ support groups, going to the gay pride parade (although he hates the crowds and noise of parades- I\’m with him on that one!) and sometimes just loafing around the park with his friends. Some of the conversations in this book felt odd- especially in the support group- and some of the talks Felix had with his dad- I sympathized with the father a lot but on the other hand, found his advice to Felix regarding love rather strange. Because more than anything, Felix wanted to feel loved and have a strong connection with someone- he actually had that all along but didn\’t see it until the end. Well, it\’s a good story and I was eager to see if Felix would find the things he was looking for, but honestly I could have done without all the f-words and the characters were always smoking pot or drinking which also bothered me, but it made me feel so old

I sincerely thank Jenny for bringing this book to my attention and giving me the opportunity to read it.

Rating: 3/5                    354 pages, 2020

by Timothy Zahn 

Sorry book, I skimmed most of you. The more convoluted the plot got, with suspicions abounding about who knows what about whom, who is infiltrating or conniving or scheming about what- well, I just lost interest. Kayna and Taneem stow away inside a bomb-rigged safe to get aboard the enemy spaceship; Jack and Draycos wind up in jail, then get sprung and for the bulk of the story are hiding on another ship in a gap between the hull and the inner wall- each party spying on the crew and those in charge, sowing unrest in the thin alliance their enemies hold, and attempting to sabotage the ultimate weapon. There’s lots of sneaking through air ducts, and using sophisticated tools to eavesdrop. Kayna isn’t who we thought she was (no surprise) and Jack finds out a few more obscure secrets about his past. Taneem realizes she can slide onto other people’s skin without them even being aware (the guy was asleep) which was kind of weird, but not really explored much. In the end more about the K’da background and their bond with humans came to light, which is really why I pushed through this. My main curiosity was about the ongoing development of the K’da/human relationship, and the interactions between the four main characters- but this book was much more about the tension and excitement of space battle. Not really for me. However fans of the author like how this wrapped up the series with drama and speed, so there you are.

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 2/5                364 pages, 2008


All books reviewed on this site are owned by me, or borrowed from the public library. Exceptions are a very occasional review copy sent to me by a publisher or author, as noted. Receiving a book does not influence my opinion or evaluation of it


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