Book Review - Five Flavors of Dumb

Author/Illustrator: Anthony John
Publisher: Dial (November 11, 2010)
Reading Level: Young Adult
Source: Copy for Review
Rating: 4.5 out of 5 Stars

Description from GoodReads:

The Challenge: Piper has one month to get the rock band Dumb a paying gig.
The Deal: If she does it, Piper will become the band's manager and get her share of the profits.

The Catch: How can Piper possibly manage one egomaniacal pretty boy, one talentless piece of eye candy, one crush, one silent rocker, and one angry girl? And how can she do it when she's deaf?
Piper can't hear Dumb's music, but with growing self-confidence, a budding romance, and a new understanding of the decision her family made to buy a cochlear implant for her deaf baby sister, she discovers her own inner rock star and what it truly means to be a flavor of Dumb.

With a great concept and a very cool looking cover, I wondered whether Anthony John's new book FIVE FLAVORS OF DUMB would be a shining star or hit a flat note.  Could he pull it off in a way that was believable and entertaining?  Or would there be a significant amount of creative license taken to make for a good story?

Honestly, I approached this book with a critical eye.  After the first 6 or 7 chapters, I sent an email to a graduate school friend of mine who works with deaf teens.  We had both attended Gallaudet (note: the main character in the book has a goal of attending Gallaudet University - the world's only University for the Deaf).  I peppered her with questions, and I thought seriously about her answers and my experiences with the Deaf community.

My initial protest began when Piper (the main character in the story who is Hard of Hearing) claims that she has had the same hearing aids for nearly 10 years, I rolled my eyes.  Yes, hearing aids are expensive. Yes, they come in all kinds of bright colors which young children like. But seldom would a 17 or 18 year old be wearing the same pair of hearing aids as when they were 7 or 8 years old (i.e., the character would have physically outgrown her hearing aids automatically necessitating new ones). And even with "olympic precision" lip-reading, we are talking about someone getting only 46% of spoken language?! I was concerned that if John had taken some creative licenses to fit his story or failed to get some basic details correct where would the rest of the story go? So I took a deep breath, reminded myself that the average reader would not know these facts and pushed on.

It wasn't hard to move on with FIVE FLAVORS OF DUMB.  Despite my initial irritation over some technical stuff, I was really enjoying John's writing.  The short chapters made it feel like I was flying through the story.  But there was so much more about this book that kept propelling me forward.

First, I like books that I would call "ensemble" stories. Meaning that all of the characters truly play an important role in the book and develop along with the main character. This is an ensemble book - Piper may be the main character but her family, and the members of the band all have significant roles to play and they all grow and develop over the course of the story.

Second, yes, there is some romance in the book...but we don't spend page after annoying page reading about every detail of how wonderful, or beautiful the lusted after romantic target is. It is subtle and appropriate to the story.  Plus I really found myself wanting the two of them to get together.

Third, not only does the book focus positively on a character with special needs but also has characters of various ethnic/racial/socio-economic backgrounds. Yay for diversity that is not overly done but included in just the right way.

Fourth, I actually appreciated many of the adults in this book even with their flaws. Piper's relationship with her parents is one of the things in the story that seemed the most honest and real.  There is a natural conflict when you are a deaf child dealing with hearing parents - this is one part that I felt John nailed. Along with how John describes Piper's reaction to her sister's cochlear implant.

I also liked the interesting advice and mentoring she received from Baz, Mr. Belson, Tash's mom, etc. And though Piper's brother Finn is not an adult (so maybe this should go under another point but...) - I found myself pleasantly pleased with how that relationship developed. It was surprising in a very good way.

Finally, despite my initial irritation over the technical details and sometimes wondering if John was trying to fit some of his thoughts about deafness to his story, I definitely found myself loving the book. The book's back drop of Seattle, mentions of Nirvana & Cobain, and Hendrix provided a complimentary and story enhancing references. Once I started it, I pretty much couldn't put it down resulting in several hours of lost sleep that evening.

After completing the book and pondering the technical vs. the literary, I am giving this a 4.5 out of 5 stars.  I will say that I was a little relieved to discover through an email conversation with the author that he had actually based some of the things I had questioned on real incidents.  Yes, sometimes reality is stranger than fiction.

In 2009, the stand out YA Realistic Fiction story for me was Allen Zadoff's FOOD, GIRLS & OTHER THINGS I CAN'T HAVE.  I loved that book. It made me laugh and it moved me emotionally.  I know that we haven't gotten to the true end of 2010 yet, but I would have to say that Anthony John's FIVE FLAVORS OF DUMB is currently sitting in my top spot for YA Realistic Fiction for the current year.  It is funny, smart, touching, and just a great read.  I would encourage to find this book and read it.  And I look forward to future books by this author.

Book Review - The Red Umbrella

Author: Christina Diaz Gonzalez

Publisher: Knopf Book for Young Readers (May 11, 2010)

Reading Level: Upper Middle Grade/YA

Source: Personal Copy

Rating: 5 Star (A definite must read)

Description from GoodReads:

The Red Umbrella is the moving tale of a 14-year-old girl's journey from Cuba to America as part of Operation Pedro Pan—an organized exodus of more than 14,000 unaccompanied children, whose parents sent them away to escape Fidel Castro's revolution.

In 1961, two years after the Communist revolution, Lucía Álvarez still leads a carefree life, dreaming of parties and her first crush. But when the soldiers come to her sleepy Cuban town, everything begins to change. Freedoms are stripped away. Neighbors disappear. Her friends feel like strangers. And her family is being watched.

As the revolution's impact becomes more oppressive, Lucía's parents make the heart-wrenching decision to send her and her little brother to the United States—on their own.

Suddenly plunked down in Nebraska with well-meaning strangers, Lucía struggles to adapt to a new country, a new language, a new way of life. But what of her old life? Will she ever see her home or her parents again? And if she does, will she still be the same girl?

The Red Umbrella is a moving story of country, culture, family, and the true meaning of home.

In late November 2009, I signed up for  The Story Siren's 2010 Debut Author Challenge.  The challenge - to read at least 12 novels by debut authors in 2010.  With this review, I will be logging in on #12.  WooHoo!  I still plan on continuing with the Challenge for at least another 12 books.  Now on to the review....

History does not have to be dry and boring and Christina Diaz Gonzalez proves that to us in her debut novel The Red Umbrella.  In this powerful and personal story of a young teenage girl named Lucia, readers learn about the events that took place in Cuba and the United Stated in the early 1960's. Gonzalez used the stories of her parents and mother-in-law as the original seed for telling the world about Operation Pedro Pan, when families in Cuba sent their children to the U.S. to avoid Castro's revolution.

According to Gonzalez, there were nearly 14,000 children who arrived in Miami during the years of 1960 to 1962.  Some were met by family and friends while others were placed in a camp until a foster home could be located for them.  Her research uncovered that of these 14,000 children nearly 90% were reunited with their families over a period of time.

With this as her background, Gonzalez paints a vivid portray of what life would have been like for a teenager in Cuba in 1961.  What might she have worn, or what music she listened to, or even what movie she might have seen.  This attention to detail and desire for accuracy rather than slow down the story allows the reader to image what life would have been like.  Lucia, along with her younger brother Frankie live a comfortable life with their parents.  Initially, their parents seek to protect them from the realities of Castro's revolution.  However, there comes a point when their parents are no longer able to keep out the atrocities that are occurring.  In a final attempt to protect them, Lucia and Frankie are sent to the United States in hopes that they will eventually be reunited as a family.

The book is divided into two parts - the first half of the story provides you with the background and what is happening in Cuba.  The second half explores the reality of what it is like for Lucia and Frankie to live in a foster home while they wait and hope for reunification.

As I read The Red Umbrella, I was emotionally moved by the story of the Alvarez family.  Their story is one of loss, love, grief, and hope.  I seem to be saying this a lot lately, but keep a box of tissues near you as you read this book, and you do need to read this story.

For me, the story of the Alvarez family was made even more real when I had an opportunity to see Gonzalez at Vroman's Bookstore in Pasadena.  The audience was filled with predominately Cuban Americans.  Many of these individuals had either been Pedro Pans or had left Cuba in some manner during the 1960's.  The Red Umbrella was not just a story, but it was their story.  Some had hardly shared this story with their families.  Others were using this book to share a piece of their personal history with their children or grandchildren.

This is a powerful story, and an amazing debut novel by Christina Diaz Gonzalez.  I look forward to her next book whenever it is released and I hope that this book will receive the attention, accolades and awards that it is due.  If you don't have this on your "to-be-read" pile, then get it on there.

You can find out more about Christina Diaz Gonzalez on her website here:

You can find her on Twitter @christinadg or on Facebook:

You can purchase of signed copy of The Red Umbrella (while copies last) at Borders Glendale.

Book Review: Restoring Harmony

Author: Joelle Anthony

Publisher: Putnam Juvenile (May 8, 2010)

Reading Level: YA (6th grade up)

Source: ARC for review

Rating: 5 Stars

Description from GoodReads:

The year is 2041, and sixteen-year-old Molly McClure has lived a relatively quiet life on an isolated farming island in Canada, but when her family fears the worst may have happened to her grandparents in the US, Molly must brave the dangerous, chaotic world left after global economic collapse—one of massive oil shortages, rampant crime, and abandoned cities.

Molly is relieved to find her grandparents alive in their Portland suburb, but they’re financially ruined and practically starving. What should’ve been a quick trip turns into a full-fledged rescue mission. And when Molly witnesses something the local crime bosses wishes she hadn’t, Molly’s only way home may be to beat them at their own game. Luckily, there’s a handsome stranger who’s willing to help.

Restoring Harmony is a riveting, fast-paced dystopian tale complete with adventure and romance that readers will devour.

When I received the Advanced Reader's Copy (ARC) of Restoring Harmony, I was bogged down with books to read for book club or prior books for review.  In addition, work/life was just really busy.  Some books I have a gut sense that I am going to enjoy and I don't want to rush through them. I had that feeling about Restoring Harmony and I found myself carrying it around but not reading it because the time wasn't right.  Finally, I had just the right time and I devoured the book in one sitting.

Let me just start with what I liked about the book...

I have discovered that I love books with short chapters.  This may be a silly thing but it makes the book feel like a super fast read even if it takes me exactly the same time to read as any other book with the same number of pages. Additionally, it means that the book will go on my list to recommend to reluctant readers.

Another reason that this will go on my list for reluctant readers is that Anthony grabs you from the beginning and keeps you hooked in until the end.  I really don't feel that as the reader I should wade through 75 or 100 pages before the book "gets good".  My reluctant readers won't even hang in there for that many pages before giving up on the book.

My third reason for loving this book - I loved the characters.  Molly is a wonderful protagonist.  She is bright, tenacious, resourceful, and just plain likable.  She is sent out on a journey to contact her grandparents and convince them to return to Canada with her.  Molly embraces her mission and despite obstacles and set-backs plunges forward without giving up and without annoying the reader.  Molly isn't the only character I loved.  There is Spill.  You really need to read the book - you will fall in love with Spill too.  He is swoon-worthy in a very good way.  I am adding him to my list of fictional crushes.

My fourth reason for loving this book - I truly appreciate books that have a sense of community in them and adults who are not all jerks.  I realize YA is written from the perspective of teens, but not all teens hate all adults.

Just a few more things...I can share Restoring Harmony with readers from sixth grade on up.  I appreciated the timeless feel to the book, and the dialogue did not annoy me.  Have you ever read a book where the voice of the characters just irritated you?  I have and it really is a turn off - not so with this book.

Finally, the writing of the book was wonderful.  Anthony does an incredible job in describing her world, the struggles of the society, the challenges facing the characters, the emotions behind the words.  There is intensity and darkness balanced with hope.

Joelle Anthony's debut novel, Restoring Harmony, is a wonderful offering and one that I hope really gets the attention that it deserves.  I look forward to future books by this author.

Check out Joelle's blog for more information about Restoring Harmony and to listen to some related music or check out the wonderfully done book trailer.