Friday, May 26, 2017

Book Review of The Physics Of Everyday Things by James Kakalios

I like understanding how scientific concepts apply to common things in everyday life. For example, no science lesson sticks out in my mind more than the time my AP Bio teacher gave an in-depth explanation of how a hair dryer works. I don't know why, but I've always found that sort of thing fascinating. So, it was without hesitation that I requested a free review copy of The Physics of Everyday Things: The Extraordinary Science Behind an Ordinary Day by James Kakalios. And I thought I was in for a real treat--an entire book about what I'd loved so much from that class session. From the cover design, I surmised that the book was fun and pithy, possibly full of wordplay, and definitely jam-packed with full-color illustrations and diagrams to help readers understand the concepts being explained.

Nope. That couldn't be further from the case. The Physics of Everyday Things took a reader who was excited to learn about science and turned that opportunity into a snooze. There were no color illustrations of any sort within the book. The only diagrams were boring and very minimalist. Kakalios' idea of an "ordinary day" is somewhat asinine, except for a high-powered employee of a Fortune 500 company--I'm pretty sure that isn't going to be the demographic for this book. The pages within are mostly wall-to-wall print, thick with long scientific terms. And Kakalios does little to temper this dry material and information-dense text (most of his efforts therein come in the form of awkwardly using second person POV, which completely does not work in this application).

All in all, I truly have no idea who would want to read this book. Readers who would willingly slog through all of the scientific terms with a complete lack of visual interest would be better served by more advanced book, or an actual textbook, and would probably be annoyed with the second person usage and tired scenarios used to present the information (You Go To The Doctor, You Go To The Airport, You Take A Flight), which come across as ill-contrived as a pizza delivery at the beginning of a bad porn film. And readers who might feel buried underneath all of the scientific terms and hungry for the brightly-colored pictures and helpful diagrams the cover design promised would probably just give up and stop reading well before the end of Chapter One. Not recommended.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Book Review of I See Reality:Twelve Short Stories About Real Life by YA authors, compiled by Grace Kendall

One of my earliest introductions to YA, the genre I hold nearest to my heart (and enjoy writing the most), was actually not a YA novel, but, instead, a collection of short stories by authors whose works had been banned or challenged, edited by none other than the famed Judy Blume, called Places I Never Meant To Be. Half of my lifetime later, with as much reading as I do, I've never been able to find a YA short story collection that captured the same feeling. I gave up long ago, acknowledging that it was magical enough to have captured lightning in a jar just the once. ...and then, lo and behold, my sneaky book ninja friend gifted me with an ARC of this little gem. By the time I'd sunk my teeth into the second story, I knew: I See Reality had filled a second jar.

Had I found this book on a bookstore or library shelf instead of piled in amongst other books in the best type of care package--a box unapologetically stuffed with books--I would've selected to read it because of two of the contributing authors whose work I've loved: Trisha Leaver and Heather Demetrios. I posted a review here of The Secrets We Keep by Trisha Leaver, in case you're curious. (After eagerly awaiting it for way too long, the book still blew my socks off.)

Out of the twelve short stories included in I See Reality, I was moved by ten. All of them made me think, question, and gain new understanding. From Three Imaginary Conversations With You, in which Heather Demetrios introduces us to a high school senior who wants to break up with her older, controlling boyfriend to Kristin Elizabeth Clark's light touch when dealing with a gay protagonist finally gaining self awareness, each author brings unique characters in realistic situations to life in compelling and exciting ways. Kekla Magoon drives home the realities of poverty, racial identity, and abuse in Makeshift with such vivid sensory details that I felt WITH her characters--not FOR them. Jason Schmidt turns his narrative of a school shooting into the simplest and most touching story of a boy and a girl in Things You Get Over, Things You Don't. Prescription drug addiction and the pitfalls of high school romance come alive in Coffee Chameleon by Jay Clark. Marcella Pixley presents readers with a disturbing story of grief and mental illness in Hush, and Trisha Leaver speaks to everyone who hides his or her light under a bushel because of someone else's sins and other people's perceptions in Blackbird. In her untitled pithy short comic, Faith Erin Hicks makes a heartbreaking situation less painful with hilarity, while Jordan Sonnenblick sums up four years' worth of lessons in mere pages with The Sweeter The Sin. Capping off the whole emotionally reeling collection is The Good Brother, Patrick Flores-Scott's tale of two brothers: one who is in our country legally, and one who is here against the law.

If nothing else, that rundown should've illuminated the very breadth and variety of issues and situations the authors whose works are included in I See Reality have explored in depth. Whether your eyes caught the names of some of your favorite YA authors on the list of contributors, or you're just interested in good YA short stories depicting diverse characters in a multitude of difficult situations, I See Reality is a fantastic choice. I can't recommend this one enough!

Book Review of The Secrets We Keep by Trisha Leaver

As a writer, reader, and lover of YA, I heard about The Secrets We Keep by Trisha Leaver almost a year before its release, and I was so excited that I actually marked the date in my planner in addition to immediately adding it to my book wishlist. I entered a contest to win an ARC, but didn't get one, so you can bet I had this title on preorder. All that to say: there was a lot of anticipation about this book for me, and I certainly wasn't disappointed! Merely reading the premise: that identical twin sisters are in a car accident, one survives, the other doesn't, and the surviving twin assumes the identity of the deceased twin was enough to get me interested, and the more I found out about the book, the more I knew it would be a must-read. But, in an epic book blogger fail, I forgot to post my review of this gem, and it has been sitting around in draft form ever since. As I went to post my review of I See Reality, a YA short story anthology with a short story by Trisha Leaver included, I wanted to refer back to this post, and that's when I realized my mistake. I love the cover design so much that, until my bookshelf got too crowded--what a good problem to have--it had actually earned a face-out.

For those of you who are dubious that a mix-up like that could happen, I point you to this story: which actually took place at the college I attended for undergrad while I was a student there, in which two completely unrelated girls were involved in a van crash and were misidentified as each other. They didn't even look like they could be sisters!, one could see how this is certainly possible with identical twins. Also, because of this issue, I kept noticing that Leaver set up lots of circumstances to explain the questions of any potential doubters (Maddie was wearing Ella's clothing, when asked her name by first responders right after the accident, Ella was struggling to utter Maddie's name in a feeble attempt to ask about Maddie's condition, and Ella was driving Maddie's car at the time of the accident).

As the story continued past the car accident, what I found most powerful and compelling about The Secrets We Keep was that Ella, the quiet, studious, independent sister seemed 100% sure that her identity was devoid of value--that nobody would miss her. That misconception, combined with the crowds of people vociferously showing their support for "Maddie" right after the accident caused Ella to confuse popularity with personal value. ...not to say that Maddie didn't have value as a person, but just to say that she wasn't a better or more worthwhile person simply because she was more popular than Ella was. It took actually stepping into Maddie's (highly uncomfortable) shoes and pretending to be her sister for several weeks to realize that, while Maddie might have had many supporters and admirers, Ella was the beneficiary of unconditional love. Though not a "people person," her strong and meaningful relationships with her best friend (and potential boyfriend), her parents, and her art make the choice of which twin to be, which seems like a no-brainer to her at first blush, a truly difficult decision as time passes.

The Secrets We Keep deals genuinely and movingly with many serious issues: self-value and awareness, the true meaning and cost of popularity, personal ethics, the lesson that what we do can have a sometimes life-altering impact on others, substance use and abuse/underage drinking and drug use, grief, and unconditional love. If you enjoyed If I Stay and Where She Went by Gayle Forman, you may just like this book even more. This is one of the most powerful pieces of YA I've read in a long time. Highly recommended.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Book Review of The Misadventures Of Awkward Black Girl by Issa Rae

The Misadventures Of Awkward Black Girl by Issa Rae is one of those books I've been wanting to read since it came out last year. So, when I opened my Glommable Glombox here and discovered a shiny new copy, I was stoked! I got even more excited when I saw it had been blurbed by Mindy Kaling, as I've read and enjoyed both of her memoirs--link to my review of Why Not Me? here. I found the cover of Misadventures instantly charming. Everything from Rae's awkward facial expression to her quirky ensemble was endearing to me. The bright, bold colors gave me a hint about the bright, bold personality I hoped would emanate from the memoir.

As I read more of Misadventures, I realized it was like a mashup of Kaling's memoirs (WOC whose body type doesn't align with societal standards struggles to fit in, but is considered a dork by her peers, and uses humor to gloss over here glaring social inadequacies), and Born A Crime by Trevor Noah (POC with one parent born in Africa, who has spent years living there, and who looks at Black culture part as a participant and part as an amateur Sociologist, through the veil of humor), of which my review is here. Since those are all ingredients I find supremely compelling within a memoir, and I loved Kaling's and Noah's books, I was left perplexed that I didn't enjoy Rae's own take on social awkwardness, Black identity, extended family living in Africa, and body image struggles. After all, it was well-written, equally balanced in apt observations and shameless self deprecation, and full of charming 90s pop culture references.

Rae, herself, is an empathetic narrator. I found myself rooting for her from page one. But, ultimately, I think my sense of humor just isn't compatible with her humor writing style. And, even though I didn't enjoy reading this half as much as I thought I would, I came away from the experience with a newfound appreciation for the unique and timely public persona Issa Rae has crafted. That said, if you're a fan of hers, you'll want to give The Misadventures Of Awkward Black Girl a try. 

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Book Review of Why Not Me? by Mindy Kaling

Since I enjoyed Mindy Kaling's first book, Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (And Other Concerns), so much, I jumped at the chance to get a free copy of her second book, Why Not Me?, for review from Blogging For Books. It did not disappoint.

I love that Kaling's writing is witty and approachable. I love that her take on women's issues and her attitude about Hollywood are both totally real and grounded. I love that every facet of this book, from the back cover design to the endpaper graphics, from the photos to the author bio is completely in line with Kaling's identity and absurdly hilarious.

My favorite part of Why Not Me? was easily the section with the chapter about beauty advice here Kaling talked about hair. She uncovered the--let's be honest, no longer surprising--truth that pretty much everyone on TV has fake hair. The picture of "her" before all of the Hollywood styling (a photo of Gollum from LOTR made me laugh out loud... not just because I have a friend who has hair thinning due to some medical problems who recently described herself as having had "Gollum hair," but also because I admired the ladyballs (yeah, just like in Easy A) to admit that nobody looks like they do on screen in real life, and to encourage the women reading her book not to compare themselves and their appearances to a standard of beauty she herself can't even attain without a whole team of stylists and a barrage of beauty products.

If you like Kaling herself and find her funny, enjoy her TV show, or devoured her first book, grab this one for sure!

Monday, May 22, 2017

Book Review of Where The Stars Still Shine by Trish Doller

I remember how Something Like Normal got me through several tedious hours during an extended hospital stay. So, when I came across Where The Stars Still Shine, also by Trish Doller, on a list of recommended YA titles that portrayed PTSD well, I knew I had to check it out from my local library. However, I'm not a fan of the cover design, because I feel it doesn't capture the mood or themes of the book at all. I don't know if I'm like other readers of Where The Stars Still Shine, but I spent the entire time desperately wanting to see the inside of that Airstream, so I wish that had been incorporated into the cover concept somehow.

Where The Stars Still Shine opens twelve years after Callie's mom Veronica--a woman clearly not fit to be a custodial parent, who is off her meds for Borderline Personality Disorder--has kidnapped her and raised her on the run, so as to keep Callie away from her father and extended family in Florida. When Veronica is pulled over for driving a stolen car on yet another one of their last-minute moves to flee from yet another one of her scary boyfriends who is inappropriate with Callie (There have been many--hence Callie's PTSD.), Callie finds herself suddenly in the custody of a father she hasn't seen in over a decade, and amidst a huge extended Greek family in a Florida tourist town, not quite knowing where she fits in.

There were many things to like about Where The Stars Still Shine. I particularly enjoyed the contrasts shown between modern Greek-American culture and Greek-themed performances and products meant for tourists. I also appreciated Doller's representation of Callie's PTSD, which was both apt and sensitively done. The awkwardness and difficulty Callie experiences in renegotiating her relationship with her dad upon their reunion feels realistic, and develops both characters well. And her friendship with cousin Kat keeps things lively and interesting. Also, this book features one of the most hilariously-run bookstores I've ever encountered in fiction. (I would love to browse through its cheeky shelf-talkers, maybe even more than browsing for the books themselves!)

One small thing that bothered me--and is so typical in YA--is that Doller gave Callie, a girl who refuses to attend school, and who hasn't been enrolled in years, a deep-seated love of books and reading. Of course, I have nothing against characters who like to read! But, the problem comes in when, like in Callie's case, this trait, which is oft mentioned and shapes a minor sideplot of the story, feels as if it was taken from the author's own life and has been plunked down onto a character for whom it is the most unlikely of fits. In addition to the fact that most kids who enjoy reading wouldn't be totally opposed to attending school, there's the added issue that none of the books mentioned really felt like they had any connection to Callie's character, reflecting things she was trying to work through, or themes from Where The Stars Still Shine itself.

I feel like this happens quite a bit in YA, and it is an example of lazy writing, because authors do it when they don't want to do the work of truly developing a character on the page so, instead of showing readers who that person is, they try to give cultural benchmarks like "girl who would pack books when given five minutes to pack everything she wants to take before a last-minute move," or "angsty better-than-your-pop-music-listening-self teen character who is a fan of the Smiths," or, really, any of hundreds of YA characters who are featured in books set in the past few years and have inexplicable preferences for 80s movies and music, just because that's when their authors were growing up.

Ultimately, though, I found Where The Stars Still Shine to be a quick and enjoyable read--not for the romance plot, but for the family issues, the new hometown struggles, and the bits about Greek-American culture. Also, I enjoyed the setting of Tarpon Springs (which is described fairly accurately in the book, from what I can tell). It felt unique and also homey. I'd recommend this book to fans of Finding Carter and The Face On The Milk Carton.

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Book Review of When We Collided by Emery Lord

I checked out When We Collided by Emery Lord from my local library after encountering it on a roundup of YA books that do a good job portraying characters with mental illness. However, it did not live up to that promise, which was surprising, because the author's note alludes to this being an #ownvoices title. Ultimately, it felt like a  less well-written Sarah Dessen novel mixed with many plot points shamelessly copied from Party Of Five. The cover design was a disappointment to me. With Vivi's keen interest in fashion and her job at the pottery studio, and the picturesque vacation town setting, I feel like there were many aspects from the plot to draw on that would've been visually pleasing while still related to the story.

Vivi is staying with her mom in Verona Cove for the summer and working at a paint-your-own-pottery studio. She loves vintage fashion, and often sews her own clothing and undertakes other creative projects. She also has bipolar disorder. Jonah is helping to take care of his younger siblings and keep his large family together, as well as trying to keep the family's restaurant running in the aftermath of his dad's sudden death. His mom is mostly non-functional, due to grief-induced depression. When We Collided is the story of Vivi and Jonah's relationship over the course of a summer.

Aside from weak writing, plot and logic inconsistencies, and a general feeling that most of the aspects of this book were shamelessly taken from other sources and smashed together, my main complaint about When We Collided is how Emery Lord dealt with bipolar disorder and mental illness through the character of Vivi. The author's note is written in such a way that makes me think this is an #ownvoices book, inspired, at least in part, by Lord's own experiences with mental illness. That's why I found her free usage of words like crazy and insane when describing Vivi shocking. More than that, Vivi is written like just your average MPDG YA character: she has a flair for original and vintage fashion, she's impetuous and moody, she breezes into the life of a guy with real substance and shakes everything up, seemingly just because she can. 

This treatment of Vivi's character--and of Jonah's responses to her behavior--made the whole story feel like one tired YA trope, instead of a true look at what it means to be in a relationship with someone who has bipolar disorder. Vivi doesn't come across as an empathetic character who has a health challenge--she comes off as selfish and immature when she leverages charm and originality to get away with everything she does. To me, When We Collided didn't read as a YA summer relationship/romance-y type novel that also dealt with serious issues, as much as it read as kind of a horror story: Jonah got hooked by Vivi, and then I waited on the edge of my seat to see just how much she was going to wreak havoc on his already stressful life. It felt to me like Jonah was Vivi's victim, more than he was her love interest. I feel that's entirely the wrong way to present a character with bipolar disorder, and a relationship between that character and another one. For those reasons, I absolutely don't recommend When We Collided by Emery Lord.

Friday, May 19, 2017

Book Review of The Princess Saves Herself In This One by Amanda Lovelace

The Princess Saves Herself In This One by Amanda Lovelace came out a few months ago, but I haven't been in a poetry mood since its release, so I didn't check it out until now. It has been on my TBR since I heard the title, which is simply irresistible, and I finally got to borrow a copy and see what Lovelace's debut poetry collection was all about. On her website, she says of this volume,  "i explore a wide variety of topics relating to child abuse, intimate partner abuse, sexual assault, eating disorders, self-harm, alcoholism, death, suicide, cancer, grief, and others." So, yeah, it felt pretty heavy at times. But, she also balanced out her adept reflections on traumatic experiences and difficult feelings with poems that celebrated her love of books in general, and Harry Potter specifically. I appreciated the minimalist cover design.

As someone who would rather do pretty much nothing more than read, but struggles to build friendships, this poem echoed through my mind long after I finished reading it.

And I enjoyed these two poems because they both made me smile. I loved the simple truths they conveyed about how girls are made to feel versus how they should be free to feel. Strong feminist overtones tinged the whole book--even its darkest parts--with a sense of hope for the future. ...if not the writer's own hope for herself, then her hope for the next generation of women.

Sometimes, Lovelace's voice is light and sarcastic. Others, like when she talks about her mother's abuse, the eating disorder that stemmed from her doctor telling her mother that Lovelace was overweight and the resulting over-restrictive diet she was put on, and her journey through the deep waters of grief, as family member after family member died around her are dark and velvety. Still, no matter what she's writing about, her treatment of the subject matter is perfectly balanced between relatable and profound. Highly recommended.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Book Review of Yellow Owl Workshop's Make It Yours by Christine Schmidt

I requested a free copy of Yellow Owl Workshop's Make It Yours: patterns and inspiration to stamp, stencil, and customize your stuff by Christine Schmidt from Blogging For Books for the purposes of review because I've been wanting to get back into crafts lately. This type of creativity isn't something I do all the time, but every once in a while, I get a yen to put stamps to paper, dye fabric in intricate patterns, or feel a brush glide over clay beneath my hand. I especially enjoy saving money on gifts or decorated items by making them myself. However, when the book arrived, I must admit that I was a little disappointed in the cover design. Though I could see the possibilities in each project showcased on the cover, how much the finished products contrasted sharply with my personal aesthetic made me wonder if Make It Yours was really going to enable me to make anything mine...  or if I'd just be churning out craft projects I didn't love and wouldn't want to use or give away.

However, the more of this book I read, the more I realized that most of these projects are highly customizable, and simply by selecting colors or creating patterns that fit into my own personal tastes, I'd still be able to follow the steps included and make the projects in Make It Yours truly mine. Here are some of the projects I've added to my to-do list from this book:

  • The Laundry Bag (This seems like an easy, low-budget project to decorate a personalized laundry bag that would be more fun than work. I'm going to file this one away under, "Ideas for high school graduation gifts," and bust it out the next time I need to come up with a present for a college-bound grad.)

  • The Custom Monogram (I maintain relationships with several penpals, and I'm a bit of a stationery fiend, so the idea of creating my own custom stationery is appealing. In the past, I've done several things with pre-made rubber stamps, but creating my own monogram stamp--and perhaps monogram stamps for others, to make gifts--is very appealing to me, especially because this project is simple and easy, and will enable me to use plain paper and envelopes I already have on hand, keeping my costs low. However, if you don't have paper and envelopes, and you don't want to buy them, there are even patterns included along with directions for making your own.)
  • The Logo Stamp (Similarly, this project also involves creating your own stamp, although this one uses a Carve-a-Stamp block or rubber block, so it is a significantly more advanced. I did this one time in a middle school art class and loved it, so I'm eager to try again with the new application of a logo... perhaps for this blog? I appreciate that Schmidt included not just the step-by-step instructions for actually making the stamp itself, but also lots of tips, tricks, and things to keep in mind when designing your own logo.)
  • The Art Deco Dresser (This one is more of a long-term goal, and is the big kahuna of my list. We currently have a plain dresser in need of a new paint job that I use to hold most of my medical supplies, and this advanced project involving gold leafing with patterns included in the back of the book in one of my favorite styles, Art Deco, will be just the thing to make it look new again.)

The reason I wanted to review Make It Yours specifically is because I heard that Yellow Owl Workshops was infamous for taking things to the next level: by Schmidt's lead, you don't just stamp--you create your own stamps, you don't just tie-dye--you board clamp to create straight lines on the fabric, you don't just paint pottery--you DIY Delftware-style. This is a benefit and a drawback of the book, depending on what your level of ability, experience, and budget might be. If you've done lots of crafts at home and you're ready for something more advanced, if you aren't intimidated by projects that have lots of steps, and if your budget (or your craft supply stockpile) can withstand several projects requiring 10-25 tools or supplies necessary to complete them, but you're looking for something new and different to kick things up a notch, this is exactly the right book for you.

But, if you're a beginner at crafts who doesn't have many of the basic skills down and has a small budget (or lacks a stockpile of supplies, as many beginners do), then you may ultimately find Make It Yours frustrating and intimidating. While there are several projects in the book that only require a few supplies, and don't employ advanced crafting skills, I doubt somebody who purchased Make It Yours with the intention of only doing those projects would feel it was worth the investment. My guess is that they'd probably just feel frustrated at their lack of experience or resources, and regret not having chosen a book that was more suited to their needs and goals.

I love the large size of this book, and the fact that it is paperback to keep the cost down, but seems durable. I really don't understand why the publisher would have made such a book's binding so it doesn't lay flat in an open position. I mean... you expect me to spend hours following your steps through a craft that takes potentially dozens of actions and tools or supplies on my part, and you also expect me to fight to keep the book open whilst I do it!? I also appreciate that patterns and templates for many of the projects are actually included in the back. I don't like that not all of the projects in the book have clear lists of supplies needed or difficulty ratings, and I don't understand why something that seems so crucial to the chosen format wasn't maintained throughout the book. The big, colorful illustrations add lots of visual interest, and also serve as explanations where the step-by-step instructions might still leave questions as to what the finished product should resemble. I like that Schmidt seems to have really thought through what a home crafter's experience would be when working through the steps of each project, and she included as much information as possible to help with any obstacles her readers might encounter without heaping on so many details that it would become overwhelming. I don't like how the book is organized, more by how the patterns look than what their purpose is. I'd prefer to be able to turn to a section on textile crafts, one on papercrafts, one on gifts, one on things that could be used for a small/home-based business, etc.

Ultimately, I recommend Yellow Owl Workshop's Make It Yours only for serious, experienced crafters ready for more advanced projects that require lots of time, skills, and supplies,

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Book Review of York: The Shadow Cipher by Laura Ruby

Since I read Bone Gap, I've added Laura Ruby to my list of must-read authors, so I was very excited when I received an arc of The Shadow Cipher by Laura Ruby in the mail, free from the publisher for the purpose of this review. Unlike Bone Gap, however, The Shadow Cipher is a middle grade book, and the cover says it is geared toward kids ages 8-12 or grades 3-7. The Shadow Cipher serves an underserved audience: younger, more advanced readers, with higher critical reading abilities and higher lexile scores. From working in a bookstore for several years, I know that kids in that demographic are hungry for longer books (this one clocks in at 448 pages) that have content their parents or teachers will deem age-appropriate, that don't condescend to them, and have a more advanced plot with plenty of twists and turns to keep them on their toes as they read. I was just such a kid, and having to choose between books teachers might have frowned upon me reading because of their "inappropriate" content, and books that I zipped right through because they were short and too easy to read was a constant problem. Ah, if only The Shadow Cipher had been around for me! And, the best part? The Shadow Cipher is the first book in the York series, so there will be more to come.

I must say, though, I'm not a fan of the cover. While it does accurately depict the three main characters, it doesn't represent the setting well. Most of the book is set in the mysterious and wondrous Morningstarr apartment building, and a cover featuring either the interior or exterior of that all-important structure would've been much more effective.

I am ultra picky about MG titles. I have my favorite authors in that reading level (E. L. Konigsberg, Kirsten Miller, Lois Lowry, Blue Balliett), and I've found many other reading ventures to be disappointing. The Shadow Cipher felt like a mix of Kiki Strike by Kirsten Miller and Chasing Vermeer by Blue Balliett, which is a huge compliment coming from me, and it also reminded me of another beloved title: The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin.

Ultra-intelligent and observant Tess and Theo Biedermann, fraternal twins, and their resourceful and charming friend and neighbor Jaime Cruz (all three seventh-graders) are trying to save their beloved Morningstarr apartment building from an evil real estate developer by solving the infamous centuries-old Old York Cipher, an encoded puzzle built into the very fabric of this alternate reality version of New York city by Tess and Theodore Morningstarr (after whom the Bidermann twins were named). Though many tourists and puzzle mavens alike have attempted to solve the cipher, none have succeeded in claiming the promised treasure awaiting the victor at the end of the riddles. Can three seventh-graders do what countless adults have failed to accomplish, and also save their beloved home?

The characters and story were so engaging that reading this book in one sitting was a total breeze--I didn't want to put it down! Two of my favorite characters are some of the most unexpected personalities to appear in the book. Six-year-old Zelda "Cricket" Moran pairs ballet tutus with skull and snake bedecked t-shirts and bridal gowns accessorized with gas masks... or, maybe it was scuba gear? Clueless adults might pass over her quirky ensembles as those of a child merely playing dress-up, but Cricket is always costuming herself for a part... sometimes, a role so obvious someone who didn't know her would miss it completely. She trafficks in the highly-prized commodity of secrets, and has the powers of observation only a child frequently ignored by those who assume they're more important than she could possess without attracting notice. Cricket also busts out SAT words like there's no tomorrow, and she uses them correctly and sincerely, which made me smile every time.

The Biedermann twins' Aunt Esther is introduced when she presents them with a large spotted cat, and says, "I have brought you an animal. This animal is called Nine Eighty-Seven. I have also brought you some Fig Newtons. But not for the animal." From there, both her eccentricity and her keen awareness of what matters most to her young relatives and her treatment of those priorities as sacrosanct reign supreme in her ultimately witty and endearing characterization.

Pleasingly for this diverse book reviewer, Shadow Cipher is rife with diversity. Of the main characters, Jaime Cruz's grandmother actually emigrated to the US from her native Cuba, and the Bidermanns are Jewish--Ruby incorporates plenty of Cuban and Jewish cultural references and Yiddish words, and all of the Jewish references are completely on-point and were delightful, appropriate, and enjoyable to me as a Jewish reader. Also, Tess seems to have some sort of unspecified anxiety disorder, resulting in her having a service animal--the cat, Nine Eighty-Seven. Though her disorder is referenced (respectfully and consistently), it is never explained explicitly. Ruby seems to go out of her way not to call things or people "crazy" or "insane," instead using words like "bananas" is sometimes used to describe strange or unbelievable situations, thus making The Shadow Cipher very sensitive in terms of neurodiversity.

My one complaint about this book is the HUGE cliffhanger of an ending and the fact that I can't find the release date of book two anywhere. Highly recommended.