Friday, April 25, 2014

Review: Upside Down in the Middle of Nowhere

Upside Down in the Middle of Nowhere
By Julie T. Lamana
Published 2014 by Chronicle Books

Armani is about to celebrate her tenth birthday and nothing is going to get in her way. If only people would stop talking about this fool storm that's threatening New Orleans. Unfortunately, that storm is about to get a name - Katrina - and change Armani's life.

I'm pretty sure I picked this up on a whim at ALA Midwinter but I'm very glad I did. Since then, this book has been getting some buzz, even popping up on some early Newbery contender lists. After finishing it, I can't say I'm surprised by that.

This book is just phenomenal. It's completely gripping, from the beginning chapters of Armani's everyday worries about turning ten to the harrowing chapters when the family is in the throes of Katrina. The chapters are short, keeping readers turning the pages at a frantic pace. I did not want to put this book down. It's fascinating and a bit mind-boggling to me to think that target readers of this book will either not have been alive or too young to remember Hurricane Katrina but Lamana does an amazing job of putting readers right in the middle of the storm. I visited the Gulf Coast six months after Katrina struck and, from what I recall, Lamana has done an excellent job portraying the storm and the aftermath realistically. This is a hard book to read because it shines a light on how terrible conditions were for survivors of the storm, but it's also incredibly important. She has done a wonderful job of showing how upsetting the events are without traumatizing readers. What will be most appealing to kids, though, is that it is an engaging tale of struggle and survival.

The characters are fantastic as well. Armani is one of the most interesting narrators I've encountered in recent history and I absolutely loved hearing this story in her voice. Similarly, I loved being introduced to her family, a cast of characters for certain, but believable and a lovely depiction of a family. I think Lamana has also done an excellent job of leaving clues throughout the book that come into play later on, like the bench Armani and her grandmother always sit on, the Boman family, and Uncle T-Bone's military service. It's so rewarding to see that everything is connected in some way. Armani's emotions are conveyed very convincingly and I'm incredibly impressed that this is Lamana's debut novel.

If I have one criticism of this book, it's that the ending is a bit too tidy. Yes, there is clearly some loss, but the fact that Armani is able to return to New Orleans so quickly after the storm seemed unlikely to me. Ultimately, the novel ends on a hopeful note, which is nice, though perhaps, as I said, a bit too tidy. Overall, however, this book excels on every level. I'm so glad I read it and look forward to sharing it with readers.

Thanks to the publisher for an advance reader's copy.

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