Earthfall by Mark Walden Book Review

Earthfall by Mark Walden

The earth has fallen. Humans are no more than mindless shells. Only a handful of people seem to be immune. Aliens have arrived on Earth and Sam knows, whatever their plans are, it cannot be good. On his own for nearly 19 months, Sam almost goes crazy with the knowledge that he is the only one not a "Walker", but then he meets a rag-tag army run by a scientist and an ex-military man. Sam knows there is something more going on then what they are being told, but their lives and those of the entire planet depend on them finding out.

This is how I look at books and my massive consumption of them. I know there are wonderful books out there, ones that make you hold your breath as you turn the page and gasp in horror when the big twist is revealed. Sadly, not every book can be that book and to be quite honest, within my average book reading of 100-140 books a year, I read quite a few duds. Most of the really bad ones never get reviewed here either because I feel bad for disliking it so immensely or because it wouldn't be fair to read a book that I simply skimmed (or sometimes skipped) through. This year there have been quite a few good books, but as anyone who has read this blog for long may know, I have a pension for science fiction. I am an equal opportunity reader of course, but I am always on the lookout for a good or even decent sci-fi. Earthfall falls into the category of great.

Earthfall reminds me of the sci-fi I used to read when I was a kid, books by H.M. Hoover, Anne McCaffrey, John Christopher, and Robert Heinlein. There is no doubt who the bad guys are and Walden is not afraid to let the reader know there is something so much bigger at stake and secrets that are just as big to go along with them. The pacing was right, the main character engaging, and the world, our world, devastating. However, this doesn't feel like a dystopian sci-fi in the way that Divergent or Hunger Games does. No, this is like a teen version of Independence Day, and just like the aforementioned film, there will be a sequel.

In fact, this is my only complaint. Earthfall wraps up fairly nicely, but I take issue with books that don't advertise themselves as a series if that is in fact what they are. This is definitely not a novel and it was open-ended enough for a series. It doesn't have to be a trilogy. Call it the Earthfall: The Chronicles of Sam or something equally understandable and ambiguous, but don't try to fool me either. I hate starting a series and not knowing that it is one. I feel like I have been tricked somehow.

I do not think everyone will love this book though. Truly, it is a book for lovers of the authors that I mentioned above. If you have been searching for a good YA sci-fi, I definitely think Earthfall falls into that category quite nicely. I may need to go in search of more of this author's titles.

The Tree Lady by H. Joseph Hopkins Book Review

The Tree Lady: The True Story of How One Tree-Loving Woman Changed a City Forever by H. Joseph Hopkins
Illustrated by Jill McElmurry

Meet Katherine Olivia Sessions, a woman who nearly 100 years ago, set about turning San Diego from a desert wasteland to a beautiful green place that people could enjoy. She attended college in a time where woman do not get higher education and she did something that everyone said was impossible.

A beautiful and inspirational children's biography, The Tree Lady is everything that I want out of a picture book biography. Informative yet sparse in language, the reader is given all the necessary information and none of the filler. It also inspired me to look up a few pictures of Kate and Balboa Park and it is simply fascinating to see such beautiful foliage in a place that was once desert.

The Invisible Boy by Trudy Ludwig Book Review

The Invisible Boy by Trudy Ludwig
Illustrated by Patrice Barton

Brian is sure that he in invisible, after all that would explain why no one seems to notice him or includes him in their group, game, or parties. Then a new boy comes to class and for the first time Brian has a friend, who doesn't ignore him and Brian finds himself not so invisible anymore.

A common discussion about children's picture books is the lack of people of color. Outside of the historical fiction realm, it is not uncommon to see a plethora of bunnies, chicks, cows, turtles, and every other animal as the artist muse. This solves a quick solution for one doesn't have to deal with race at all if they are bunnies and publishers still have the notion that a white family will not buy a book with black or Asian characters on them. Does anyone else see a problem with this?This is not to say that there aren't people of color in picture books or that artists do not want to draw them, they are just vastly outnumbered by animals.

So I was surprised to see children of all ethnicities represented in this book, but more importantly that there was a Korean child who tries to explain his meal of Bul go gi to his new friends at school. The author and illustrator went out of their way to create an American child with a very specific ethnic background and I thought it was great.

The illustrations are adorable, with Brian, the invisible boy, slowly becoming less and less invisible as each chapter progresses. The story had a didactic nature, but I think children can easily relate and there is even a discussion guide on the last page for teachers and librarians. A rather well-thought out story that I wouldn't mind owning. (Most of my picture books come from the library.)

Mister Max by Cynthia Voigt Book Review

Mister Max: The Book of Lost Things by Cynthia Voigt
Illustrated by Iacopo Bruno

Max's parents are actors, owning their own theater company and always performing and twelve-year-old Max has played many parts in their various shows. Then one day a mysterious letter arrives asking for the two Starlings to come perform and set up an acting troupe in India. Not wanting to turn down such an opportunity the two pack their bags, get an extra ticket for Max, and make their final preparations. However, when Max shows up at the docks the boat his parents are supposed to be on doesn't exist and his parents have disappeared with only a cryptic letter as a clue. Max returns to his home and librarian grandmother heartbroken over the turn of events but determined to make his own way, for twelve he feels, is old enough to be on his own. Purely by accident, Max falls into the line of work most would call detective work, but can he solve the biggest mystery of all, what happened to his parents?

Mister Max is a cute story that I guess would be considered historical fiction although there is little historical information within. I could never really pinpoint the exact time period, the use of money completely skewing this (Max earns $50 for his detective work. A portly sum in Victorian London, yet this amount only lasts Max a week or two). There was also the issue of independence, which Max desperately wanted and was willing to maintain, which would not have been such an issue in this time period. Apprenticeships cost money and once Max had earned enough through his sleuthing, he should have been able to find a decent clerk position with the money he had pocketed, boys did that kind of work all the time.

Histocracy aside, the plot was really a series of vignetted mysteries that, in the end, combine to create a greater mystery and help Max solve a matter of the heart. On the downside is the fact that although Max's parents are clearly missing, he doesn't seem as interested in solving that particular mystery, leaving it up to his grandmother to do the sleuthing. There were so many hints, letters in code, mysteriously heavy paintings, etc. that made the reader all too aware that Max's parents were in trouble and yet he is so concerned about remaining independent and not being forced to live with his grandmother that he sets it aside, sure that they know what they are doing. Let me point out here that his parents are overly-dramatic morons who don't seem to have a bit of sense between the two of them. In fact, they are so careless that they have been known to forget about Max altogether, being so caught up in their own theatrics. Max sees this drama in a warm light, but it made his parents highly unlikable and goofy.

It is a cute book, but a long one and I think if I was to recommend a middle grade mystery this would not be it. I believe I would steer readers toward Horten's Miraculous Mechanisms, which I somehow didn't review on this blog when I first read it, but I can assure you, it is brilliant.

I'm a Frog by Mo Willems Book Review

I'm a Frog by Mo Willems

Gerald is careful. Piggie is not.
Piggie cannot help smiling. Gerald can.
Gerald worries so that Piggie does not have to.
Gerald and Piggie are best friends.
In I'm a Frog! Piggie has some ribbiting news! Can Gerald make the leap required to accept Piggie's new identity?

Pretending is not a new concept in the Piggie & Elephant series and I don't think this particular book was nearly as funny as some of the others, but it is the usual Piggie and Gerald shennanigins that I know children love. And as a wink to the adults (for there always is one) there is the following dialogue: 

"Everyone pretends."
"Even grown-up people?"
"All the time."

Fallout by Todd Strasser Book Review

Fallout by Todd Strasser

It’s 1962, and all anyone is talking about is the possibility of nuclear war. Scott’s dad is the only person in their neighborhood who has prepared for the worst though, building a bomb shelter in their backyard, but praying they will never have to use it. Then, in the middle of the night, the unthinkable happens. As the sirens blare, Scott and his family run to the shelter, but are unable to close the doors before some of their neighbors force their way inside. Trapped underground, ten people in the space that was meant for four, with food and supplies for only four, they must survive until the radiation levels return to a sage level. But even worse than the possibility of starvation is what will remain once the door is opened again.

You know Todd Strasser. Even if you don’t think you do, you do. He has penned such tales as The Wave, Give a Boy a Gun, The Good Son, and Home Alone. Yes, that Home Alone. Strasser grew up during this nuclear war era. His dad built a bomb shelter in their backyard. And this story was the thing of his nightmares. What if nuclear war came? Would their shelter really have protected them? What about their neighbors, friends, family that were left behind on the other side?

I was absolutely entranced by this novel. The chapters bounce back and forth between the past (pre-bomb) and the present (in the bunker) making the pacing of this story incredible. The chapters of the past did a lot of world and character building, painting the picture of the fear that pervaded the children’s lives. We see how Scott and his best friend get along (or don’t), how different children were raised, how parents were reacting to this situation, of the terror of drills. Then, in the bunker, things are so dire that, despite liking the character building chapters, I was always eager to get back to the present. Would they survive? How do ten people share food meant for four for two weeks?

Just to be clear, this is not like the film Blast From the Past. This is an alternative history novel. In this book, a nuclear bomb really did go off. Everyone they knew, their neighbors, friends, wives, are dead. I definitely felt like I learned so much more about how people approached this situation than the slightly didactic, although very interesting Countdown. The characters felt so real and fleshed out. The fear is tangible. The hopelessness understandable. The desperate will to survive commendable.

At the end of the book, Strasser speaks about returning to his old home and visiting the bunker that his father had placed in the backyard. The hatch in the playroom had been sealed off, but the new owner had made an entrance from the yard. What the man found as he tried to break in were thick walls, reinforced with steel and concrete feet thick. His comment to Strasser, “Your father must have really wanted to keep you safe.”

One of the best books I have read this year.  Oh, and I love the cover.

Under the Empyrean Sky by Chuck Wendig Book Review

Under the Empyrean Sky (The Heartland Trilogy #1) by Check Wendig

Sometime in the future, there are two kinds of people. The wealthy who live on flotillas that drift high above the Earth and the poor working-class people who farm on the ground, watching over and harvesting an invasive genetically engineered corn. As if this existence wasn't already bad, the people of the Heartland suffer from all sorts of ailments, physical mutations, and tumors stemming from (presumably) working with the genetically altered plants. Cael's life is as hard as anyone and more than anything he wants to fight back against the Empyrean, but what can a few teenagers do when up against a government that clearly wants to keep them down?

When I originally read the jacket flap for this book, I thought, bingo...this is my type of book. Not hard sci-fi, but dystopian, with what felt like a promising premise and plot. Genetically engineered corn? Aren't people freaking out about this now? Sadly, this story suffered from too many
clich├ęd characters, some sparse world-building, and didactic social issue ruminations.There is, as seems to be in many stories these days, the gay character. The love triangle. The spunky girl and the sappy girl. The bully. The drunk father. The kindly sad father. 

Wendig creates this world with its social stratas, but we never actually get to see anything beyond the Heartland. Although I understand the author may be holding this in reserve for the trilogy, the result felt stilted. I had a lot of questions, questions that were actually necessary for this story, for this plot. How did things get this way? Why does anyone think this okay? Why does no one know anything about earlier religions, life, geography? There is mention of the schools being closed down, but parents aren't even passing information on to their children here.

Having done a lot of work with the poor here at home and overseas, I found Wendig's descriptions of what would basically be a frontier town rather disturbing. The fathers are all drunks and very few seem to show genuine love or interest for their children. The mothers and women in the story are simply property, traded away at eighteen to men they may or may not love. They, like all the characters in this story, are two-dimensional and cliched in a way that undermines the good things in the story.

Between the cliches was the story of Cael and his father, the only three-dimensional characters of the whole lot. Cael hates his father for sitting back and doing nothing, for just watching as their home and lives are destroyed and ground down by the Empyrean. But it is clear to the reader that Cael's father definitely is not what he seems. That is the heart of a story.

The series has potential. However, I expect a lot more world building in the second book that should have been in this first one. For those who harbor deep mistrust of produce, this may be your thing.
Oh, and if you enjoy those teenage love triangles, you should snatch this one up pronto.

Fat Angie by E.E. Charlton-Trujillo Book Review

Fat Angie by E.E. Charlton-Trujillo

Fat Angie is broken. Her sister, varsity-athlete-turned-war-hero has been MIA in Iraq for over 9 months. Everyone thinks she is dead, but Angie knows they are wrong. Even so, Angie did try to kill herself last year, in front of a gym full of kids and now she is back in school where those kids make it miserable for her every single day. They call her Fat Angie like it is her name. Her couldn't-be-bothered mother only cares about is the fact that Angie is fat and so refuses to buy Angie more clothes until she loses weight. This, of course, makes Angie just eat more. Fat Angie's life pretty much sucks, until the arrival of KC Romance. Pretty, bold, and not afraid to be seen with Fat Angie, the two begin a rocky friendship, one that takes them into territory that Fat Angie isn't sure she is ready for and will force her to confront the damage in her life.

This book has a lot going on. War, death, homosexuality, bullying, obesity, suicide, cutting, divorce, absent parents, adoption. Yet, despite all of these things, which could have been toned down a bit I admit, I found it to be compelling, with a wonderful multi-dimensional protagonist. Fat Angie is bullied because she is fat, she is fat because of her sister's disappearance and her mother's neglect, her sister's disappearance led to her suicide attempt, and divorce was already a part of her family before all this stuff went down. Reminding me in tonality of It's Kind of a Funny Story and even Fat Vampire, I was really rooting for Fat Angie. I wanted her to make friends, to confront her bullies, to tell her mother off, to reconcile with her brother, to settle things with KC.

There are a few things about this story that fell flat for me. The first is Angie's mother, who is one of the worst examples of a cruel verbally-abusive mother that I have seen in a while. As a story that is supposed to be so reality-based it felt odd and out of sync with the story to have such a terrible mother who has very little redemption in the end. I understand that the author wanted to have an antagonistic character (which already exists in the school bully), but the mother was just over-the-top cruel to her daughter and we are given very little in regards to this woman's character before her daughter went missing so it is hard to see her as anything but cruel.

The second thing is in regards to other reviewers complaining about Angie losing weight. Some feel that she should just embrace the fat and develop a healthier body image. Here is the thing, Angie has an eating disorder. She binge eats because she is unhappy. She was not always fat and once she begins to exercise again, playing basketball and running, Angie loses that weight. Yes, Angie should lose weight as she begins to heal, because she has an eating disorder.

Lastly, is the homosexuality or as Angie calls it "gay-girl-gay". This is the third book in a row that I have read that has homosexuality in it. (Love in the Time of Global Warming, Under the Empyrean Sky) It is the newest "issue" and in some stories it works and in some it feels like this added thing, simply to have a gay character in the mix. I am still unsure if this worked, mostly because it is clear that Angie and KC both have so many problems and haven't learned yet how to communicate in a way that create any kind of lasting relationship. I don't need my characters to live happily ever after, but I want to know they are going to be okay and I am sure that Angie is well on her way to recovery, but I don't know about KC. In fact, I think KC has a long way to go and trying to make a relationship work, whether hetero or not, was really not advisable. But then, teens make these kinds of bad choices all the time.

All in all, I was rooting for Fat Angie. I cared about her and wanted her to be okay. As you will see with my next review, if you don't care about the characters, it makes for a pretty boring read.

The reason why I read this book: