2018 Newbery Medal: Hello, Universe by Erin Entrada Kelly

Hello, Universe, by Erin Entrada Kelly, was published in 2017 by Greenwillow.

Rating: 1/5

Sometimes I really wonder what is going through the minds of those who pick the Newbery Medal books. There are those Newbery Medals that are really wow! books, and there are those that are more eh, shrug, move on. Then there are the books that I’ve really questioned, like Secret of the Andes beating Charlotte’s Web, or Daniel Boone winning the Medal over By the Shores of Silver Lake.

Hello, Universe is a book that I question.

For one thing, the plot of this book is glacially slow. There are 311 pages, and 231 of those pages cover the same day. The entire plot of the book is based around a couple of hours in the lives of four kids, and there’s simply not enough excitement to make the pace feel fast at all. In addition, the plot itself is simplistic and bare-bones. The characters stand around and talk most of the time. And Chet, the bully, is stereotypical and overexaggerated. At least Kelly gave some insight into his behavior by giving him chapters that explored his home life. 

For another, Kelly utilizes the most irritating trend of contemporary literature: the third person/first person point of view switch. I have never understood this. It’s more annoying than first person present tense. Of the four kids, three of them get 3rd person treatment. Valencia gets 1st person. Why? What is the point? Also, why are her chapters only ever titled “Valencia”? Everyone else gets titled chapters as per the content. Valencia’s chapters are only ever given her name. Why? What is the point?

This book does, though, offer fascinating insight into the minds of readers today. They seem to value diversity over everything else, even story, and they expect their diverse characters to act appropriately diversely by following quite rigid patterns and speaking and acting only in ways that are deemed appropriate. This book celebrates diversity, with Virgil (Filipino), Kaori (Japanese), and Valencia (deaf), and then showcases that diversity everywhere. “Look at this book! It’s diverse!” is shouted from every page. This is a good thing, and Kelly avoids old stereotypes in all of her portrayals, though her attempts at bullying were a little excessive, in my opinion.

Yet, in my opinion, Kelly sacrifices a good story at the altar of diversity. What good is highlighting diversity if you can’t also create a compelling, interesting story? It is possible to create fantastic stories with diverse characters, so why are people seemingly settling for less? All Hello, Universe shows is that Kelly capitalized on the diversity trend without bothering with what makes a book actually memorable and long-lasting, which is the story. In my opinion, it cheapens diversity to a selling point.

Recommended Age Range: 8+

Warnings: Psychics, astrology, way too many uses of the word “retard.”

Genre: Children’s, Realistic

You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/2JqynwR

The Outcast by Kathryn Lasky

The Outcast, by Kathryn Lasky, was published in 2005 by Scholastic. It is the sequel to The Hatchling.

Rating: 1/5

The Outcast is full of cheese and fluff and represents a cheap version of a prophecy fulfillment story. The problems I spotted in The Hatchling return tenfold in this book, to the point where not even nostalgia could win the day.

Let’s start with Nyroc/Coryn. Coryn consistently speaks in grandiose, cheesy statements, and is given advice that is also grandiose and cheesy. He’s not as familiar or as memorable a protagonist as Soren; in fact, he’s a rather flat character who is pretty much flawless in every way. The only thing Coryn struggles with in this book is fear that other people will confuse him with his mother. He does everything perfectly because, as this book tells us multiple times, he is the next owl king and everyone knows it and welcomes him and whoever doesn’t recognize that fact is evil.

The side characters also speak declaratively and pithily. Even the introduction of the dire wolves and their clan system is derailed by the clunky dialogue and lack of plot. Too much happens too fast, and there wasn’t enough buildup to this whole idea of a new owl king for the plot to be in any way coherent or believable.

Lasky tried to take this series in a different direction, but the lack of adequate development and buildup, lack of worldbuilding in terms of Hoolian knowledge (something she tries to rectify with her three prequels about Hoole) and prophecies, and the awkward, cheesy dialogue only make The Outcast a chore to read and difficult to finish.

Recommended Age Range: 8+

Warnings: Violence, use of the word “damned.”

Genre: Children’s, Fantasy

You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/2IQLx5X

The Novice by Taran Matharu

The Novice, by Taran Matharu, was published in 2015 by Feiwel and Friends.

Rating: 1/5

I really wanted to enjoy The Novice. The cover art is eye-catching, the premise seemed intriguing, and the summoning aspect of the novel was interesting. I could ignore some of the other worldbuilding flaws as long as the summoning continued to be interesting, and for a book that started on Wattpad (*shudder*), some of it seemed pretty decent, if plagued by mistakes that first-time writers often make.

But, eventually, I couldn’t get past the characters, their terrible characterization, and the stilted, clunky dialogue.

There is no nuance in any of the characters. The main character, Fletcher, is pretty much perfect: he has a rare demon, his flaws in magic are made up for in his innovation and outside-the-box thinking, and he’s perfectly good and true and just. The lack of nuance means emotion is expressed too strongly, and gray areas are never addressed. There’s “Fletcher (and his friends and the commoners)—good” and “Nobles—bad” type conflict, and the characters act as if they’re ten years old, shouting at each other, screaming, and making melodramatic statements at every turn.

The world also falls apart once you even start considering the mechanics of the summoning school. Apparently the rules are able to change at a whim—no one bats an eye when the tournament format is changed last minute to suit the evil teacher’s desires (and this teacher is one of about three teachers at this so-called famous school), and this teacher apparently didn’t even have to fill out any forms or discuss it with a council or anything. In addition, there seems to be no sense of structure or discipline—students go or don’t go to class, are allowed to leave the school apparently at any time and come back at any time, and don’t seem to be on any sort of schedule or regimen (despite the reference to timetables).

Then again, there’s only three teachers, so how are they supposed to keep an eye on all of these wandering students, anyway?

Plus, Matharu’s stark, black-and-white, all rich people are corrupt worldbuilding grows tiresome after the –nth instance of telling rather than showing.

And don’t even get me started on the number of comma splices in every single dialogue.

I wanted to like The Novice, but its Wattpad beginnings are too obvious, and its worldbuilding and character flaws too numerous, for me.

Recommended Age Range: 14+

Warnings: Violence, death.

Genre: Fantasy, Young Adult

You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/2Psky3o

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, by Sherman Alexie, was published in 2009 by Little, Brown and Company.

Rating: 1/5

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian has won a lot of acclaim for its portrayal of Indian culture and its subversion and denunciation of common stereotypes. However, to be honest, I didn’t really notice much of that in the book itself—I was too distracted by the vulgar and inappropriate content that left me feeling very uncomfortable.

I did notice that Junior used a lot of blanket statements and generalizations, though. So much so that it started to undermine his role as a cultural-barrier-crosser. Then again, he IS just a teenager, so that seems par for the course, unfortunately.

I also didn’t appreciate the complete lack of care that was given in describing bulimia, or the biased statements about religion.

Basically, what I’m saying is that I almost DNF (that’s “did not finish”) the book. And it’s mostly because of the gross, inappropriate teenage boy content and jokes that went on for far too long.

There were some good things about the book. I liked the theme of friendship and loyalty, as well as the potential conversations that could arise about loyalty to family, culture, and race. But I mostly wanted it to be over so I could stop reading all the sexual content.

Recommended Age Range: 10+

Warnings: Sexual situations, swearing, mentions of masturbation and erections, bulimia, alcoholism.

Genre: Middle Grade, Realistic

You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/2RacvZi

The Girl Who Chased Away Sorrow by Ann Turner

The Girl Who Chased Away Sorrow: The Diary of Sarah Nita, a Navajo Girl, by Ann Turner, was published in 1999 by Scholastic.

The narrator describes her experiences as her Navajo tribe is forced to relocate by the U.S. Army in 1864 New Mexico.

Rating: 1/5

The Dear America series is fairly historically accurate at times, but I know there are a few entries that are panned widely for their inaccuracies. The most notorious is My Heart is on the Ground, which I’ll be covering when we get there, but I’ve also heard that The Girl Who Chased Away Sorrow has its problems. And there are certainly others besides those that have been criticized for their portrayals of history (such as When Will This Cruel War be Over?, which, again, I’ll be covering when we get there).

I won’t really go into the cultural or portrayal problems with this book; that has been done far more extensively in other places by Native Americans. From my perspective, Turner does a fair job portraying some cultural aspects of Navajo life (in comparison to books that have perpetuated bad stereotypes), but there are others where even I can tell she either glosses over them or twists them entirely. It’s interesting because the notes in the back indicated she did research, and even consulted a Navajo artist about the book. I’m wondering if the audience of the book put some sort of limit on what Turner thought she could and should portray, which is a shame if true.

My main problem with this book—and most people’s, I would argue—is that it is simply a poor depiction of The Long Walk. I know this is a children’s series, but Turner was far too nice in her portrayal. The inclusion of a kindly soldier, while perhaps true to history (though anyone that kind who is in that position needs to explain why he’s even taking part at all), softens the atrocities that happened on the trail, such as leaving the elderly, the ill, and the pregnant behind (if not downright shooting them, as is portrayed—“off page”—in the book). Sarah Nita’s “grin and bear it” attitude (more like “tell a story and bear it” attitude), which may actually work for some instances, only serves to make it seem as if the Navajo eventually became content with their situation. It seems to me as if Turner completely changed the entire tone of the Long Walk.

That’s really the problem—the tone seems off. The Long Walk was something terrible, but Turner’s approach makes it seem as if it really wasn’t all that bad. Even when she portrays things like pregnant women being shot, and the vague “the men can be cruel to our women” comments, there’s too much kindness, too much happiness, too much softening of events. Stories hold a lot of power, and can help in troubled times, but using that idea makes it seem as if Turner is proverbially patting people on the head and saying, “There, there. It wasn’t all that bad.” The Girl Who Chased Away Sorrow is simply an unrealistic presentation of the Long Walk, one that is inaccurate, far too happy, and, yes, disrespectful to the people who had to go through it.

Recommended Age Range: 8+

Warnings: Violence.

Genre: Children’s, Historical Fiction

You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/2OZd2fw

Daughter of the Pirate King by Tricia Levenseller

Daughter of the Pirate King, by Tricia Levenseller, was published in 2017 by Feiwel and Friends.

Sent on a mission to retrieve an ancient hidden map—the key to a legendary treasure trove—seventeen-year-old pirate captain Alosa deliberately allows herself to be captured by her enemies, giving her the perfect opportunity to search their ship. More than a match for the ruthless pirate crew, Alosa has only one thing standing between her and the map: her captor, the unexpectedly clever and unfairly attractive first mate Riden. But not to worry, for Alosa has a few tricks up her sleeve, and no lone pirate can stop the Daughter of the Pirate King.

Rating: 1/5

Daughter of the Pirate King reminded me of what I hate about certain young adult novels: one-dimensional characters, predictable romance, uninspiring prose, and way too many lingering gazes and “almost but not really” intimate moments.

Let’s start with the main character, Alosa, who’s this “I can take care of myself” female protagonist. And she can, for the most part, at least in the fighting department (which, by the way, when described by Levenseller, never seems as if it should actually work). She’s one of those “super strong, super tough, I can beat up lots of people and kill without thought” female protagonists. Of course, once she runs into her love interest, she meets her match, at least in terms of cleverness if not strength. That’s part of the attraction (of course), although it’s mostly his looks and his sensitivity (of course). But since a perfect protagonist doesn’t really make for a good plot, there are times when Alosa is remarkably dumb and/or rendered incompetent just so that the plot can progress; then, she returns to her normal capability as if nothing odd has happened.

There’s also the “requisite” attempted rape scene, because of course there is. And that’s where the author really runs into a snag because she’s framed Alosa as the type who can take care of herself. So, Alosa does take care of herself because she’s the type who doesn’t need a man to rescue her. However, then she gets angry at Riden for not helping her, despite her repeated insistences that she can take care of herself, and it seems as if Levenseller also wants the reader to get mad at him, too (or not? It’s hard to tell). That’s inconsistent narrative; either 1.) Riden should have helped her because he was right there, and doing nothing was abhorrent or 2.) Alosa doesn’t need a man to rescue her, no matter what’s happening. If you get mad because Riden didn’t help, then you must think it’s all right for men to rescue women (gasp!), and it’s an acknowledgement that Alosa can’t do everything (which is fine).

I’m not sure if that was understandable; I just thought it was interesting how Levenseller has a woman rescue herself from a situation, like people love to promote, then describes the woman getting mad at a man for not helping, when people usually decry scenarios when women need rescuing by men.

Or maybe we need to start acknowledging the fact that helping people, regardless of their gender or their ability to take care of themselves, is something that’s morally good and that we should actively strive to do.

Anyway, moving on to the plot: it’s fairly interesting if you remove the romance, though Alosa does absolutely nothing to further her goal once she’s on the ship and simply has flirty exchanges with Riden. There’s a reveal at the end that’s a bit obvious, and other than that it’s fairly straightforward and predictable. There’s attempts at humor, mostly in Alosa’s continuous “witty repartee” and, of course, the dreaded romance, which I really don’t want to talk about because it’s so unoriginal.

Daughter of the Pirate King was a book that I started out hoping I would enjoy, only to get more and more annoyed with each page. I almost stopped reading it halfway through, but I need to have some low ratings on this blog, after all.

Recommended Age Range: 14+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Fantasy, Young Adult

You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/2OHBiTu

The Thickety: A Path Begins by J. A. White

The Thickety: A Path Begins, by J. A. White, was published in 2014 by Katherine Tegen.

When Kara Westfall was six years old, her mother was convicted of the worst of all crimes: witchcraft. Years later, Kara and her little brother, Taff, are still shunned by the people of their village, who believe that nothing is more evil than magic, except, perhaps, the mysterious forest that covers nearly the entire island. It has many names, this place. Sometimes it is called the Dark Wood, or Sordyr’s Realm. But mostly it’s called the Thickety. The villagers live in fear of the Thickety and the terrible creatures that live there. But when an unusual bird lures Kara into the forbidden forest, she discovers a strange book with unspeakable powers. A book that might have belonged to her mother. And that is just the beginning of the story.

Rating: 1/5

I very nearly stopped reading The Thickety: A Path Begins about halfway through, and then through the last half of the book wished I had stopped reading. A Path Begins is a tale about Kara, the daughter of a witch, who finds a book in the Thickety and is swept up into the seductive realm of magic. Only her brother, Taff, keeps her from being totally lost, and along the way she faces more immediate threats than the mysterious forest demon Sordyr.

The worst part about A Path Begins was the writing, in my opinion. Full of melodramatic dialogue, stilted description, and forced tension, it was a bad omen from the start. And it shaded everything in this book with a terrible light—the writing was so bothersome to me that I found it hard to find anything that I liked about the book. Even the setting is over-the-top, with a too-fanatical leader and a world that is so exaggerated in its extremes that it’s farcical. There are too many villains and Kara herself does too many stupid things for me to want to cheer for her.

The plot is also riddled with inconsistencies, like how Kara sprains her ankle and five minutes later is running on it with apparently no pain or problems whatsoever. There’s also the strange flip-flopping between “magic is good” and “magic is bad,” with the final decision between “good witch” and “bad witch” a completely arbitrary one, delivered clumsily, and ignoring the fact that such black and white pronouncements only lead to problems, mostly for the authors writing the characters who then have to explain away their character’s actions in order to fit them into their defined roles.

Really, the story just reads like a man wrote it. That’s not a bad thing, but I oftentimes have more problems with men’s style of writing than women’s. They just have ways of describing things that I can’t wrap my head around, and they also focus on things that I don’t understand why they would focus on.

I regret finishing A Path Begins because it took up a lot of time to read and now I can never get that time back. It was too melodramatic, too stilted, too forced. None of the characters appealed to me and I have no interest in seeing more of the world or finding out what happens next.

Recommended Age Range: 10+

Warnings: Witchcraft, violence.

Genre: Middle Grade, Fantasy

You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/2sAgRyD

Dawn of the Night by Idazle Hunter

Disclaimer: Dawn of the Night, by Idazle Hunter, was provided by the author. No review was required. All opinions are my own.

Paul grew up as the son of a most revered knight, Sir Lawrence Hunter. It had always been his dream to be like his father. At least, that was until he met those he would be training with. Unicorns, dragons, dark spirits, and werecats are brought to life as Paul works to rise from a mere page to something much, much more important in the medieval world .Follow Paul from Cahal to Asthla as he not only searches for power, but for love.

My rating: 1/5 

I actually know the author of this book, so writing this review will be interesting. Luckily, I live in a different state than she does, so it will be difficult for her to track me down and hurt me. I kid. I don’t think she actually expected me to adore the book. In fact, she warned me about some of the more egregious grammar mistakes.

Basically, this is a NaNoWriMo novel that the author wrote in her teens. So, it’s about as good as you’d expect a NaNoWriMo novel written by a teenager to be. So, not particularly good, and filled with some really strange characterization and anachronistic plot details (like the use of the word “oxygen” in a medieval setting before the word “oxygen” was coined). Although, to be honest, this novel might be better than the novel I wrote in college, which was basically a NaNoWriMo novel if NaNoWriMo was a year long (NaNoWriYe?).

The one thing, above all else, that really threw me for a loop was the whole idea that the protagonist is not actually the protagonist. Or, he is, and is just possessed. But, anyway, at some point, “Paul Hunter” stops becoming the protagonist and “dark spirit that took over Paul Hunter’s body” becomes the protagonist. It’s hard to cheer for something so obviously evil. I suppose the dark spirit thing might be just a metaphor, but personified as it is, at some point I stopped hoping that Paul would succeed in what he was doing and simply hoped that Dark Spirit Guy would leave and that the Real Paul Hunter would come back and save the day (from…something. Himself.)

So….yeah. I don’t really have much else to say. Dawn of the Night is not a great book. It’s interesting in a “oh my goodness, how much more dramatic can these characters get” kind of way. The shadow-controlling power is cool, but Dark Spirit Guy needs to leave. Also, I’m not really sure why Paul hates his family. Or why that one king apparently was hated by his guards so much that they had no problems dethroning him on the word of a seventeen-year-old (or however old Paul was). Or why “whom” was so egregiously misused.

So, Idazle Hunter. Thanks for the book. Also, I didn’t like it. Sorry. I’ll still read the sequel, though, because you asked me to.

Warnings: None.

Genre: Fantasy, Young Adult

You can buy this here: http://amzn.to/2xTdp6A

Artemis Fowl by Eoin Colfer

Artemis Fowl, by Eoin Colfer, was published in 2001 by Hyperion.

Twelve-year-old Artemis Fowl is a millionaire, a genius, and, above all, a criminal mastermind. But even Artemis doesn’t know what he’s taken on when he kidnaps a fairy, Captain Holly Short of the LEPrecon unit. These aren’t the fairies of bedtime stories; these fairies are armed and dangerous. Artemis thinks he has them right where he wants them…but then they stop playing by the rules.

Rating: 1/5

I loved Artemis Fowl when I was a kid. I read every book except for the very last one, which was published after I had moved on to other genres. So, I was excited to reread this series and relive my enjoyment of them, or at least see what had attracted them to me.

To be honest, though, I really didn’t like the book at all. I’m not sure why I liked it so much when I was younger (probably still developing my sense of what I like in books), but it absolutely irritated me now. I hate the penchant a lot of male authors have for detailing things like guns/weapons, fighting, and technology in general in absurdly minute detail (I say male authors because I’ve only seen this writing style in male authors). I really don’t care what type of gun Butler carries or what its force is when it hits an object. I really don’t care what the name of Holly’s gun is or what it can do. Sometimes I can ignore things like that, but those sorts of details were so central to the book that I couldn’t.

The humor is also profoundly kiddish, which may have been what I liked about them as a kid. Now, as an adult, I find it grating. None of the humor in the book made me laugh. I can see that Colfer thinks he was being very clever with his development of the fairy world, and maybe he is being clever, but it did not appeal to me at all. I have no interest in finding out more about the world.

I’ve enjoyed rereading a lot of the books I read when I was child, but Artemis Fowl is one I did not like revisiting and have no wish to continue with the series. The writing style, the humor aimed at children, and even the world and story itself irritated me. I suppose not every childhood favorite can be an adulthood favorite, and Artemis Fowl certainly misses the mark by a long shot.

Recommended Age Range: 12+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Fantasy, Realistic, Middle Grade

“Captain Short!” he roared, mindless of her headache. “What in the name of sanity happened here?”

Holly rose shakily to her feet. “I…That is…There was…” The sentences just wouldn’t come.

“You disobeyed a direct order. I told you to hang back! You know it’s forbidden to enter a human building without an invitation.”

You can buy this book here: http://amzn.to/2x340Gk

The Inquisitor’s Tale by Adam Gidwitz

The Inquisitor’s Tale, Or, The Three Magical Children and Their Holy Dog, by Adam Gidwitz, was published in 2016 by Penguin.

61tsxh3l6llOn a dark night in 1242, travelers gather at a small French inn. It is the perfect night for a story, and everyone in the kingdom is consumed by the tale of three children: Jeanne, a peasant girl who has visions of the future; William, a young monk with supernatural strength; and Jacob, a Jewish boy who can heal any wound. Together, their powers will be tested by demons and dragons, cruel knights and cunning monks From small villages to grand banquet halls, these three unlikely friends—and their faithful greyhound—are chased through France to a final showdown in the waves at the foot of the abbey-fortress of Mont-Saint-Michel.

Rating: 1/5

I struggled to finish The Inquisitor’s Tale. After each chapter, I kept thinking that I would stop reading it. But I gritted my teeth and continued, because as much as I am less averse to not finishing a book, I still think it’s a cop-out. So, instead of the book growing on me, or me wanting to know how it ends, I finished the book out of sheer determination, not pleasure.

I can’t even really describe, either, what I disliked so strongly about The Inquistor’s Tale. I found it childish in its humor, overly preachy in its message, and melodramatic with its characters. Gidwitz frames this story like The Canterbury Tales, sort of, and while it’s an interesting device to use and while he does some clever things with it, nothing was truly spectacular or added any depth.

Gidwitz, though dealing a fair hand with his portrayal of religions—somewhat—also emphasizes that sort of bland, all-inclusive type of depiction that culture loves to do. Underneath its preachiness, his message seemed to be nothing more than “live and let live,” but at the same time denounced any form or expression of religion that went against what the characters, and through them, Gidwitz himself, thought was right. So, Gidwitz was, at the same time, emphasizing both inclusivity and exclusivity. Since he’s working within the historical time period, some things he manages to get away with, but for the most part what he’s trying to emphasize is muddled and confused.

If I ever felt physical pain when reading before, The Inquistitor’s Tale is what would cause it. This book did not entertain, engage, or even mildly appeal to me in any way. Add to that a muddled message beneath a, granted, decent Middle Age setting, unrelatable characters, and immature humor, and The Inquisitor’s Tale is not any book I would ever want to read.

Recommended Age Range: 10+

Warnings: Some gruesome scenes.

Genre: Historical Fiction, Fantasy, Middle Grade

Standing in the center of the clearing was a figure as white and shining as a ghost.

But it was not a ghost.

It was a dog.

A white greyhound, with a copper blaze on her forehead.

You can buy this book here: http://amzn.to/2w2Kg6K