Thursday, August 11, 2022

Big Rig and Empty Smiles (Small Spaces #4)

Hawes, Louise. Big Rig
August 9th 2022 by Peachtree
E ARC provided by the publisher

Hazel and her father have been on the road since she was four, traveling together as the father delivers cargo for his friend Mazen's trucking company. Because her mother died shortly after she was born, when Hazel was younger, she would stay with Mazen's wife Serena when her father, a former college English professor, was on the road, but now the two are a good team, listening to audiobooks, watching trucker movies at reststops, and working on a homeschool curriculum. They return to Mazen and Serena's between trips, and the father is thinking about giving up trucking and settling down to another job so that the pair can live in a house. Hazel, whose handle is Hazmat (even though they don't have a CB radio), thinks this is an awful idea, as she wants to grow up and drive a truck herself. The concern is that trucking is a dying career, with the advent of self driving trucks. Driving is always an adventure, and Hazel and her father make decisions together, consulting her mother's ashes, which they keep in a green marble box in the cab. After the two pick up a runaway, Willow, Hazel learns a bit about social media and newer movies than the ones she and her father watch, and comes up with the idea of writing The Great American Novel about life on the road. Willow is quite troubled, and tells them that she is running away because her father is abusive, but when the father tries to get her  help from social services, she leaves them and gets a ride with someone else. While on the road, there are a number of exciting things that happen; the two find an abandoned baby at a truck stop whom they care for before turning over to the authorities, the rescue a kitten from a plane crash near the highway, even taking the cat into a hotel where there is a parade of ducks. This does not end particularly well. When Hazel is interested in film making (because she wants to turn her  novel into a movie), her father adds the history of films to their curriculum. In Chicago, they try to find Charlie Chaplin's original studio, and get caught in a storm and have to rescue children from a bus from a special needs school that has gotten stuck in the downpour. They are even extras in a movie! There are smaller adventures as well, like repeated visits to favorite stops along their route, Hazel's foray into a unit on human reproduction that raises a lot of questions about periods, and exciting news from Mazen and Serena. When someone in Hollywood is interested in Hazel's story, but wants her and her father to consult on the film, which would mean settling down in California, will Hazel decide that fulfilling her dreams means leaving the road?
Strengths: As someone whose family took month long trips across the midwest with a travel trailer to visit friends and relatives, I loved this look at being on the road in a truck! Hazel's interest in trucking as a way of life lead to lots of interesting information being discussed, from how daily life is conducted on the road (showers in truck stops, how cabs are fitted out, even how cargo is unloaded) to the role of women in the trucking industry to the future of trucking with new technologies. Her relationship with her father is solid, and her homeschooling comes up frequently. It's great to see that while her father is sure to cover the basics, he does expand her curriculum when a topic of interest, such as the history of films, comes up. There are lots of adventures that are treated realistically, and Mazen and Serena are a nice foil, and show that Hazel does understand the kind of life her father wants for her, even if it's not one that she finds appealing. This is an especially good choice for readers who haven't had much experience travel and want some vicarious thrills, but also good for readers like me who have been many of these places and now just really, really need a bag of sour balls, a car bingo sheet, and a burger from the Carlock Diner in Carlock, Illinois, the only actual restaurant my family would stop at!
Weaknesses: If Hazel never met her mother and is still having such problems processing her grief, she and her father should probably get some counseling. I've read more books about children dealing with divorced or absent parents, which seems more realistic, but Big Rig was part of a recent batch of books that had not only long dead parents but also boxes of ashes. Just never my favorite, personally. 
What I really think: Fans of The Remarkable Journey of Coyote Sunrise Lang's Wrong Way Summer, Downing's When Life Gives You Lemons, Make Peach Pie, Cavanaugh's When I Hit the Road, and Bradley's The Road to Wherever will enjoy this road trip book, which has the added bonus of being the only middle grade book I can think of that addresses long distance trucking as a way of life. Almost made me miss going out to western Iowa and stopping by the Iowa 80 truckstop

Arden, Katherine. Empty Smiles (Small Spaces #4)
August 9th 2022 by G.P. Putnam's Sons Books for Young
E ARC provided by Edelweiss Plus

**SPOILERS IF YOU HAVEN"T READ Small Spaces, Dead Voices, and Dark Waters. Proceed at your own risk. 

Coco, Brian, and newcomer Phil are reeling after their experiences in Dark Waters and the fallout from the boat crash. Their parents are very concerned about the kids, and wonder if keeping them apart would be better. Do they brood and imagine things when they are together? When two children go missing from a carnival several towns away, Coco and Brian know that this is likely due to the challenge that the Smiling Man issued; they can get Ollie back if they play his game and win. When one of the children, Tim, shows up in their town they know that things are starting up again. When their houses are ransacked and Ollie's mother's watch is stolen from Coco's room, they know they have to go to the carnival in their town and play the game. When they are allowed to question Tim, he mentions three keys, and the words ghost, mirror, and gate. While the parents aren't keen to let the children go, they see no other option. We also see Ollie operating within the carnival, playing chess with the Smiling Man, and trying to figure out what is going on so that she can leave messages and attempt to reach her friends. He assures her that she is safe at the carnival as long as she stays in her room at night, when the carnies turn into killer clowns, from whom he can't protect her. The clowns, like the scarecrows, have a habit of turning people into little dolls, which are hung up at the carnival. The children finally feel like they have to tell their parents what has been going on, but they don't really understand the dark magic that is involved. They only understand that a creepy man has been stalking and threatening their children, so of course they want to help. Call the police! Get restraining orders! But none of that helps when the clowns come to their homes and turn the parents into dolls as well. Will Coco, Brian, and Phil be able to work with Ollie at the carnival to finally win the Smiling Man's game and be safe from him forever?
Strengths: I always knew Ollie wasn't gone; didn't you? I wasn't surprised that she was at the carnival, but it was a relief to see her again. Coco, Brian, and Phil also knew this, and their dynamic with the parents is the most delightful and interesting part of the book for me. It's so easy to kill off parents (and there are a couple not in the picture) or have the villains kidnap them (and this also happens), but the really effective thing is to have the parents be present, helpful, and a tiny bit annoying, just like many parents are in real life. I adored their reaction to the kids coming clean; we'll take care of it, why did you wait so long to tell us... but they totally don't get it because they just don't understand. Perfect. This will speak to so many middle grade students. On top of that, there are a lot of terrifying scenes, a lot of power that the kids have to change the situation, and firm friendships that stand up to difficult situations. 
Weaknesses: While there is a brief discussion between the Smiling Man and Ollie about why he continues to stalk and torture the children, I could have used a little more explanation about how he came to be, and how the children are able to send him off by finishing his game. He's come back before; will he bother others? It just seemed like there could have been some epic clown battle with the Smiling Man falling off the top of a roller coaster after delivering a rant that explained everything. Perhaps I've seen Snow White too many times. 
What I really think: Anyone with an existing case of coulrophobia should NOT read this book. I find clowns to be tackier than frightening, but this gave ME the heebie-jeebies! Even though my students normally aren't as thrilled with books involving haunted carnivals, Empty Smiles uses that setting to excellent advantage to wrap up a creepy and popular series. I can't wait to see what Arden writes next; I'm sure it will be terrifying!

GOOD NEWS FOR HORROR FANS! There are so many horror and mystery books coming out this month that next week will be ALL HORROR TITLES!

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