Tuesday, October 06, 2020

Cleo Porter, Heroes Level Up, and Tristan Strong

53156938. sx318 sy475Burt, Jake. Cleo Porter and the Body Electric
October 6th 2020 by Feiwel & Friends
E ARC provided by Edelweiss Plus

It's 2096, Cleo Porter and her parents never leave their apartment. It has no doors, no windows, and only a port where deliveries come into the apartment. This is because of a horrible flu that devastated the world in 2027, Influenza D. It mutated with each new case, so a cure couldn't be found. The world locked down, and huge monolithic apartment complexes took over. Cleo attends online school with a virtual teacher, Mrs. VAIN (Virtual Adaptive Instructional Network) and is working on a strenuous program to become a doctor like her mother. Her mother, a surgeon, performs surgery by manipulating drones, and her father constructs code for virtual environments. One day, when Cleo is deep in her studies, there is a package delivered to the apartment. It's got the right address, but the name is wrong; there's no Miriam Wendemore-Adisa. Since the delivery drones never make mistakes, Cleo doesn't have much luck contacting customer support or finding out much about the intended recipient, and she worries that the medicine that she discerns in the package is desperately needed. Her parents and her best friend are no help, so when she finally locates the woman's address, she makes a shocking choice: she will leave the apartment and deliver the medicine herself. Managing to get out of the delivery chute with a pillowcase full of supplies, she finds herself in the labyrinthine hallways of her building, battling observation and cleaning drones. She manages to make her way outside, but the world is quite a shocking place if you've never been there before. Luckily, she meets a 102 year old woman, Angie, who refused to be locked inside and scrapes together an existence with the help of Paige, a child she found outside a building where the systems had shut down. Paige gets food from the nearby fields and manages to avoid the drones that harvest it. Cleo is fascinated by the fact that the world is so huge, that Paige has scratches and sunburn from being outside, and by the fact that Angie would rather live outside than be inside getting help for her age related ailments. She is also determined to get back in order to deliver the package. Angie and Paige help her get back to the building, but it is a struggle to actually get back inside. Even if she does, will she be able to find the woman in time, and be able to return to her parents?
Strengths: Given our current situation (this is 6/23/20; Burt addresses the pandemic in an end note), this creeped me out big time. The parents even talk about how they met virtually, then got permission to get married and were delivered to their new apartment in a pod. Ahhhhhhgh! I'm with Angie on this one; I need a lot of outside time. Mrs. VAIN was a fantastic teacher, with her massive databases and elderly librarian persona (she wears a lavender cardigan), and the beginning of the book talks a lot about Cleo's medical education. This ties in nicely with the end of the book, which I don't want to spoil. There was a nice bit with her and her best friend hanging out at a virtual park, plenty of adventure both in and out of the building, and a lot of interesting philosophical ramifications to how a pandemic should be treated. Interesting, interesting book, and perfect timing!
Weaknesses: There were a couple of times where this dragged; descriptions of getting out of and back into the building. I had a LOT Of questions in my mind about how Cleo's world worked, so I would have added a few things and tightened up some of these slow bits. Of course, the lack of details gives this a lot of scope for the imagination for young readers.
What I really think: This would be great paired with Perry's Scavengers, about people living outside of a protective bubble around a city, and reminded me of a book I read years ago but can't locate-- there was a plague of some kind and children were no longer allowed out to go to school, and there were high stakes on line testing. That's going to bug me, but I'll definitely buy Cleo Porter and am amazed by Burt's versatility!

O'Donnell, Tom. Heroes Level Up (Homerooms and Hall Passes #2)
October 6th 2020 by Balzer + Bray
E ARC provided by Edelweiss Plus

Albiorix and his crew are having a great time being back in Bríandalör, successfully completing a lot of quests, but when June Westray's phone shows up in a pawn shop, he is really worried. Upon investigation, he finds that there is a bard from another party, Tristan Trouvere, who is selling vast quantities of items from Suburbia. He's charming, has great hair... and Albiorix doesn't trust him at all. Finding that the bard has bought all of the copies of the Hallmaster's Guide to Freshman Year of Futility makes him worry more, and it is only because the owner of the hobby games store, Grull, gives him his own personal copy that the group is able to travel to Pine Hill High School. Soon, Thromdurr, Devis,Vela, and Sorrowshade are back and assuming their old roles, although they soon find that high school is completely different from middle school. Tristan must be stopped from his looting of Suburbia, and the best way to do that is to win the scenario and make it end. To do this, Albiorix and his friends need to win a competition, get elected Homecoming king or queen, and get a perfect score on standarized testing. There are also other quests that might help, like hosting a party with 100 people in attendance, but these rarely turn out well. Thromdurr manages to have some success as a mathlete, and with the help of former nemesis Nicole,manage to give Albiorix a popularity makeover and get him elected. When he doesn't get a perfect score on his test, however, Albiorix knows that he is facing a bigger challenge than just Tristan. Will the group be able to complete their mission and take down Tristan?
Strengths: From an illustration at the very beginning that lists a characters skills as including knowledge of British sketch comedies, to the lyrics of their song in the battle of the bands competition ("Chocolate and podcasts and cool cababiners, antibiotics and backyard bird feeders"), Heroes Level Up is every bit a worthy snerk fest sequel to Homeroom and Hall Passes. The writing is unbelievably clever and quotable. I loved the reason they had to go back into the game, the details of how to win the game, and their opponents from both Bríandalör and Suburbia. There were twists and turns and deliciously quotable lines like Thromdurr's "Water is for the weak. If I grow thirsty, I shall slurp the blood of my enemies!" which I need made into a Cross Country t shirt! I want to be best friends with Sorrowshade, the gloom elf, who says "The thought of being on a team of any sort makes me want to crawl out of my skin and then turn around and throw up into the empty skin I just vacated." I worry about June and Morton's relationship, and how Albiorix will handle it. Most of all, I desperately want to read the group's adventures in The Sophomore Year of Self-Consciousness and Sorrow. 
Weaknesses: There were a couple of points where scenes went on just a half a beat too long (the house party, Homecoming, and the battle of the bands), but this was in general even better than the first book. I absolutely loved the ending!
What I really think: Whew. Both of my copies of the first book (which was shortlisted for the 2019  middle grade speculative fiction Cybils award) were returned, so I'm going to buy two of this sequel as well. 

 Mballia, Kwame. Tristan Strong Destroys the World (#2)
October 6th 2020 by Rick Riordan Presents
E ARC provided by Netgalley

While Tristan is making progress dealing with his friend Eddie's death and is enjoying being with his grandparents on their farm in Alabama, he is still reeling from his experiences traveling into the world of Alke and dealing with the forces of evil there. Being an Anansesem, he used the power of stories to get many things done, and now has a cell phone with the trickster god Anansi trapped in it that is a modern version of the Story Box. Being careful, however, he has buried the other artifacts that he brought back. After his grandfather arranges for him to spar with an up and coming boxer, Tristen starts to hear worried voices, and sees spirits in his grandparents' barn. He's even more worried when he finds out that John Henry's powers seem to be fading. He is just starting to get information from his grandmother, who appears to have some powers of her own when she tries to make a quilt to stop a horrible creature known as the Shambleman. The Shambleman is angry that Tristan destroyed Midpass, and kidnaps the grandmother to hurt Tristan. In order to go in search of the grandmother, Anansi has Tristan use an app on the Story Box Phone (SBP) to record a story and harness its power. This story summons not only Keelboat Annie but his friend Ayanna, who is doing a work study program with her. Some of Ayanna's colleagues got paired with a god or goddess in order to help with repairs to Alke. Gum Baby also reappears to help. Keelboat Annie thinks it best to head off to the Golden Crescent to try to find out more about the Shambleman and where he might have hidden Tristan's grandmother. Along the way, they realize that Mami Wata is also missing, and this is causing very big problems. Chestnutt the rabbit is investigating that, but Tristan adds it to his quest. When the Story Box Phone is damaged, Tristan also has to find someone to help him fix that. Their adventures put them in contact with boo hags, Ayanna's brother Junior, and other figures from both African and African American folktales. When they finally locate the Shambleman, they find that he is a figure from their past who is angry about Tristan's previous actions and is trying to further his own agenda. Even if Tristan manages to save Alke and make it back to his world in Alabama, will he be able to stop the Shambleman's plans for the future? (We'll need to read book three, which does not yet have a title, to find out!)
Strengths: Once again, Tristan's time with his grandparents in the real world is a great way to start the story, and finding out that his grandmother has some powers was fantastic. Having a relic of his trip, the SBP with Anansi in it, helps transition into Alke and the world of myths and legends. It's good to run into characters from the first book, but also meet new ones. The identity of the Shambleman was an interesting twist, and I tried not to ruin that. He ends up being a character that has suffered trauma that has informed his actions, which is something with which Tristan is able to sympathize. It's helpful that this has a similar format to a lot of the myth and folk tale based fantasies that have come out in the last ten years-- there is a quest, and a variety of figures are met. Some help, and some hinder the hero's progress.  One of my favorite parts was the Diasporapp which Anasi has on the SBP and can offer information about stories that are similar because they originated in the same place. The inclusion of some information about slave history is good to see as well.
Weaknesses: It would be very helpful for my readers if there were notes of the various folk tale and mythological characters at the end of this book. It occurred to me that so many middle grade fantasy books are based on Anglo-Saxon or Greek mythology because they've been part of school curriculum for so long. Fifteen years ago, readers could easily slip into these stories because they were familiar with things like the Arthurian cycle. What we really need in the schools now is a more pancultural approach to folktales, myths and legends, and we need books like the National Geographic Mythology books on underrepresented cultures. We have plenty of Norse, Egyptian, Greek/Roman and Arabian books, but relatively few on various Native American, African, Indian, and other tales. While the 1999 Julius Lester Uncle Remus: The Complete Tales might help understand many of the tales alluded to in Tristan Strong, we could probably use another updated account of those as well.
What I really think: This series is definitely for heavy duty fantasy fans who can read Tolkien or Christopher Paolini without breaking a sweat. There is so much good information about various aspects of Black history and culture in these books that I selfishly wish they were a bit shorter so it would be easier to get more students to check them out.

Ms. Yingling

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