Book Review: Backtracked

Freedom, that’s the only thing I asked for.  The freedom to be myself, not the reflection of a memory.

I picked up Backtracked by Pedro de Alcantara because (a) he’s Brazilian and one of my besties is Brazilian, and (b) the jacket flap describes it as the story of a boy who is haunted by his brother’s death on September 11.  Also, the opening line about how Tommy had lived several lives before his birth and didn’t know it intrigued me.

The story is about a boy (Tommy) whose firefighter brother died on September 11, but it’s also a time travel story reminiscent of the movie Brother Future.  Tommy seems destined to stay stuck in time until he can help someone other than himself.  Either that or learn a Very Important Lesson.

What I Liked

– This novel is actually a love letter to the New York Transit system, and I liked some of the descriptions about how the subway has changed over time.

– Since this is largely historical fiction, I liked the moments when Tommy had to orient himself in time.  The descriptions of the other people and their clothing and homes were very interesting.

– It’s an engaging read, mostly because I had to see how Tommy would get back to the future.

What I Didn’t Like

– I didn’t feel one whit engaged with Tommy or his friends or his relationship with his family.

– I thought this book was going to be about Tommy understanding something about himself or his brother, and it wasn’t.

– The ending did not feel earned.

– None of his adventures felt at all connected to the ~*deeper lesson*~.

– Tommy is not Brazilian.  Which, honestly, is fine for the story (Tommy is Italian, which places him in certain situations/places in the past), but I was expecting him to be because of the author.

– The theme seems to be that Tommy has it so much better than he would if he lived in the past so he should be grateful, but, um, that does nothing to address the very real pressure he seems to be feeling because of the loss of his brother and the treatment he gets from his family.

In conclusion:  This book does not live up to the premise.  At all.

POC Challenge:  6/15; YA Reading Challenge:  10/75

Book Review: The Skin I’m In

That’s when I made up my mind.  Enough is enough.  I deserve better than for people to treat me any old way they want.  But saying that is one thing, making it happen is something else.

The Skin I’m In by Sharon G. Flake is about Maleeka who is constantly picked on and is just trying to survive middle school.  Then, a new teacher arrives and shakes things up.

What I Liked

– I am a sucker for stories about The Teacher Who Made a Difference, and I really like that Miss Saunders forces Maleeka to want more for herself through the assignment of a journal.  It really works well because Maleeka is very resistant to Miss Saunders, so it never turns into the kind of inspirational drivel you might expect.

– At first, I was annoyed that Maleeka doesn’t stand up for herself, but, like the quote says, it’s easy to want something to change and hard to make it happen.  Especially when you have aligned yourself with one of the school’s biggest bullies like Maleeka has.  Even though she wants to do and be better, it’s hard for her because she reached out to Charlese and now she’s stuck with her.  And is afraid of her.  And values the times that Charlese does stand up for her.

– I really like the themes Flake explores, and she has the culture of middle school pretty down pat.  I remember being picked on for no discernible reason, and that dread of “what will they find to say about me next?” is pretty accurately captured.  And I especially love how well she keys into Maleeka’s need to make herself invisible so much so that Maleeka downplays her intelligence so she doesn’t call extra attention to herself.  At the same time, though, Maleeka can’t hide how capable and smart she is.

– I love the cover.  It’s so striking.

What I Didn’t Like

– The plotting and characterization are a little shoddy.  Mostly, I don’t understand the motivations of the secondary characters, and they’re a little flatter than I’d like.  For example, Charlese is really nice to Maleeka and really horrible to her.  But I don’t understand Charlese at all.  What makes her tick?  Even if the niceness is conditional on Maleeka doing her homework, would she really be so nice as to give her clothes to wear?  And why?  I just don’t get it.  (I do understand why she’s a bully; I just don’t particularly understand her attitude towards Maleeka.)

The same can be said of Caleb.  He’s introduced relatively late in the novel, but it’s not revealed until much later that he’s some sort of do-gooder.  And, I’ll be honest, he is kind of cheesy.  I found it hard to imagine some of the things he said coming from any of the boys I knew in middle school.  That said, if it had been established earlier that that’s the kind of kid he is, I would’ve bought it more readily.

– I wanted more of Maleeka’s relationship with Sweets.  They’re best friends, but there’s no real sense of that in the story.

– I wish the book were a little clearer that the way Maleeka looks and dresses isn’t really the issue (it’s touched on), but that she’s such an easy target.  It’s obvious she craves her classmates’ acceptance, but if she had just realized that she can’t win for losing with those jokers and been okay with that, they would’ve left her alone.  There was no real moment of realization there, which makes complete and total sense, but I just wish that someone had pointed it out.  Obviously, that’s not the book Flake wrote or the main theme she wanted to explore (it’s more of a “do the right thing/be true to yourself/middle school sucks” deal), but still.  I just wish it had been explicitly stated somewhere.

– Basically, I felt like the book could’ve been about fifty or so pages longer.

In conclusion:  That said, I think this would be awesome for reluctant readers, probably because a lot of them would be able to strongly identify with Maleeka’s position in the school and her sense of alienation.  Maleeka’s need to belong as well as the choices she  makes because of that need make complete sense.  She is completely relatable even as I wanted to shake some sense into her.  I understood her, so in a lot of ways, the inconsistencies in the other characters didn’t really matter that much.

POC Challenge:  5/15; YA Reading Challenge:  9/75