Friday, December 30, 2011

Dead End in Norvelt by Jack Gantos

After accidentally firing the rifle his father took from a Japanese soldier, Jack is in trouble. Then, when he mows down his mother's corn that she was growing to help feed senior citizens, Jack is grounded for the rest of the summer, even though his father is the one who told him to do it. Stuck at home and forced to help his dad dig a bomb shelter, Jack is feeling stir crazy. So he is only too happy to help out Mrs. Volker when she needs someone to type up obituaries for the old women who seem to be dying suddenly all over town. Mrs. Volker even promises to help Jack stop the nosebleeds that plague him whenever he even thinks about something scary or gruesome. She proposes to cauterize the inside of his nose at her house even though she can barely move her hands due to the crippling arthritis in her hands. As the summer goes on Jack learns more about history and his town which was started by Eleanor Roosevelt to help poor people get a leg up. He also comes to appreciate some of the odd characters around town even when it seems like he ought to be suspicious as more and more people seem to be dying. This book is obviously partly autobiographical since the main character is named Jack Gantos. It is a nicely written slice of life story in a small, interesting town but I'm left wondering exactly what is the point? It seemed like things ended with a few loose ends. What happened to the harassment by the Hell's Angels? Did the town die out, as seemed to be happening? (Actually, I looked up the real history of Norvelt so I know the answer to that but it's not answered in the story) Did Jack's family move to Florida? Just felt like it went in too many odd directions to me.

Darth Paper Strikes Back by Tom Anglelberger

This sequel to The Strange Case of Origami Yoda finds Tommy writing another case file, this time to defend his friend Dwight who has been accused to disrupting school with his finger puppet. Harvey, who has always been skeptical of origami Yoda's powers, comes to seventh grade with a Darth Vader finger puppet and is determined to prove that origami Yoda is not real. After Yoda makes a prediction that seems to be threatening, the principal threatens to expel Dwight and Tommy and Yoda's supporters must show that origami Yoda only helps others at the school. This book is cute but it didn't grab me as much as Origami Yoda. I'm not sure if that's because it's actually not as good, or if it's because the idea isn't as fresh now. Also, the way everything worked out seemed a bit too good to be true for me.

Island's End by Padma Venkatraman

Uido lives on an isolated island with the forty families who make up her tribe. She has dreams of visiting the Otherworld and talking to the goddess who lives there but she has only shared those dreams with her good friend Danna and the tribe's spiritual leader. She is honored and surprised when she is chosen to become the next spiritual leader for her tribe and sets off for months of difficult training. While most of her tribe is happy and accepting of Uido's new role, her older brother is jealous and skeptical. Uido's decisions are questioned further because she does not welcome the strangers who visit their island bearing gifts that seem helpful. Although she feels that she is right to be distrustful of the strangers, she finds that she has to rely on them when her younger brother falls sick and his spirit wanders over the ocean to the strangers' land. This story was inspired by real life tribes who are living in a primitive way even today. The author drew on the stories she heard of how several of these tribes knew about the tsunami that devastated civilized countries on the Indian Ocean.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Fetching by Kiera Stewart

Olivia and her friends are constantly made fun of by the popular kids at school. Most recently, Olivia was humiliated when they put ketchup on her pants making it appear that she had an accident. After being forced to wear horrible granny pants given to her by the school nurse, Olivia resolves to find a way to stop the bullying. Seeing how well some techniques work on the dogs she helps to train, Olivia decides to try the same techniques on her classmates. She and her friends begin acting like alpha dogs, ignoring bad behavior, distracting their bullies, and rewarding good behavior. Before long they begin to see some results and are soon surrounded by more friends than they could have ever imagined. Even the biggest bully, Brynne, seems to be coming around, especially after they train her friends to ignore her. Although everything seems to be going her way Olivia finds that she is not as happy as she had thought she would be. I love the premise of this book and enjoyed it overall but I wish that Olivia and her friends had jumpstarted their training techniques just a little earlier into the book. I was also sad that Olivia had such a falling out with her close friends because I imagined that they would never be able to completely get over that. But that's probably just me.

Monday, December 19, 2011

The Future of Us by Jay Asher and Carolyn Mackler

Josh gives Emma a CD-ROM so she can load AOL on her new computer in 1996. When AOL finally loads and she gets online, Emma finds herself looking at a strange page called "Facebook" with a picture of someone who looks like an older version of her. She calls Josh over and eventually they decide that they are actually looking at their lives 15 years in the future. Josh is happily surprised to see that he is married to one of the most beautiful, popular girls in school. Armed with the knowledge that he will marry her in the future, he begins feeling more confident now and has soon attracted lots of attention from all sorts of girls. Emma's posts, however, indicate that she is in an unhappy marriage and not doing well at work either. She decides to take her future into her own hands and begins making changes now that ripple into the future. But each time she eliminates one possible future, something equally unattractive seems to happen. What's more, she has found out something about her best friend's future and is unsure about what to do with that information. I felt that this book was not a masterpiece and yet I keep thinking about it - something that I really love when it comes to a story! It presents an unusual twist on time travel as well as some subtle jabs at the all-consumingness of Facebook. I think it will be popular and spark some good discussion.

Saving Audie: A Pit Bull Puppy Gets a Second Chance by Dorothy Hinshaw Patent

Audie is a puppy rescued from Michael Vick's dog fighting ring. Although 40 dogs were rescued from the fighting ring, they still faced struggles. Most of them were scheduled to be euthanized because people believed that they would be too dangerous to ever be pets. But after a pit bull rescue group stepped in the dogs were tested and all but one of them was able to be rehabilitated. Audie is one of the dogs who was saved. This is his story from his life at the dog fighting kennels to his new life with the family who loves him. I liked the book and am, of course, thrilled that Audie is doing so well but the overall story seemed a bit slight to me. I wanted more details and lots more bashing of Michael Vick!

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

13 Gifts by Wendy Mass

After pulling a dumb prank to impress some kids at school Tara is suspended for the rest of the school year. Her parents have plans to travel to Madagascar so they send her to their hometown of Willow Falls to stay with her aunt, uncle and cousin. Although she generally avoids other people Tara soon finds herself with a group of friends and social engagements. Unfortunately, she has no money since all of hers was stolen on the train. In order to get some spending money Tara makes a deal with the mysterious Angelina who runs a collectables shop. Angelina gives Tara a list of 13 items to find in exchange for the money she needs as well as a promise not to tell anyone about something Tara has done. Tara sets to work trying to find the items with the help of her new friends but it seems that Angelina has made deals with many people in town, not just Tara. I enjoyed this book as I was reading it and was curious to find out what connected each of the items on the list as well as trying to figure out what was going on with some of the other people in town. But after finishing it I don't think I liked it nearly as much as I thought. It seems like the book is going everywhere at the same time. Some of the many, many things happening in the book include: the items themselves, the reason Angelina has had Tara collect the items, the thing Tara has done that opens her up to blackmail, her cousin's secret ability, her mother's reason for acting so strangely, the celebrity coming to town, David's bar mitzvah and his feelings about that, etc., etc., etc.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Eight Keys by Suzanne LaFleur

Elise and Franklin have been best friends their entire lives. They spend their time playing Knights, making ice cream with Elise's aunt Bessie, building things with her uncle, and investigating life under Franklin's microscope. When the two friends start 6th grade, however, Elise quickly learns that "playing" is something only babies do and that she doesn't fit in with a middle school crowd. Bullied mercilessly by her locker mate and unable to get help from a teacher, Elise falls behind in school and begins distancing herself from Franklin. On her 12th birthday she finds a key with her name on it that opens one of eight locked doors in her uncle's barn/workshop. What she finds is a room left for her by her father with an important message about living her life. Now, she just needs to find the other seven keys... This is a smallish but touching book about friendship, coming to terms with who you are and making choices that might affect the rest of your life. I liked it when I was finished, but I'm finding that I like it even more the more I reflect upon it.

They Called Themselves the K.K.K. by Susan Campbell Bartoletti

The Ku Klux Klan arose after the Civil War and quickly became a terrorist organization spreading fear and hatred throughout the United States. This book traces the entire history of the KKK from its beginning as a "social club" to the modern day. Details about the founders and other members are given. Raids are described in enough detail to give the reader chills while imagining what it would be like to live through the terror. The book is well-researched and presents a number of people giving personal accounts about the impact of the KKK on their lives. Although I thought the book was well done, it didn't grab me as much as Bartoletti's book about the Hitler Youth.

The Grave Robber's Secret by Anna Myers

Robby is horrified when his alcoholic father forces him to take a dead body from its grave but he is fascinated by the doctor who uses it to learn more about treating people. Robby vows never to grave rob again and luckily, he doesn't have to when a man and his daughter come to rent two rooms from Robby's family. Robby is unsure of what to make of their new renter, Mr. Burke. He is kind and loving towards his daughter Martha but deliberately trips Robby with his cane. And although he has lots of money, he won't talk about what he does for a living. He also seems to have a mysterious hold over Robby's father. Robby tries to put everything out of his mind and focus on his new job working at the hospital helping out the doctors there, but when he hears his father and Mr. Burke bringing someone into the house late at night he has to investigate. He finds that they are up to something worse than he had imagined. This book was all over the place and the crimes of the two fathers seemed unrealistic as well as the results of the trials. Just blah.

The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater

"It is the first day of November and so, today, someone will die." A great first line opens this fantasy about meat-eating, wild water horses and the people on a small island who attempt to train and race them once each year. Sean Kendrick has a special way with the capaill uisce and has won the race on his horse for the last four years. He works for the richest man in town training other horses both magical and ordinary. His dream is to buy his horse Corr but his boss knows that he can't afford to let Sean go. Sean is further tormented by his boss's son, a mean-spirited, jealous man who would do anything to see Sean fail. Meanwhile, Kate Connelly decides that the only chance she has to keep her older brother on the island and their ragged family intact is to ride in the races herself even though no women have ever entered the race. Terrified of the capaill uisce, she decides to ride her horse Dove against the water horses. This book has a lot to think about and presents what I think is a very realistic vision of life on a small island that relies on tourism. All the characters are shown with depth and flaws and the relationship between Sean and Kate builds slowly. I know that it is well-written and will probably be popular with teens, but I didn't enjoy it myself. The pace was entirely too slow and the seemingly unending deaths made for a looooonnnnng read for me. Reminds me a bit of something about small town life in Maine by Stephen King in terms of how the atmosphere of life on the island is explored in detail.

Esperanza Rising by Pam Munoz Ryan

Esperanza lives a privileged life on her family's ranch in Mexico. She receives many presents on her birthday, has beautiful dresses to wear, is waited on my servants, and is doted on by her loving parents. But her life changes drastically when her father is killed by bandits. When her uncle tries to blackmail her mother in marrying him in order to maintain their lifestyle, Esperanza and her mother flee their home and travel to America to start over. They end up in a farming camp and Esperanza has to work for the first time in her life even though she doesn't know how to do something as simple as sweep a floor. Slowly, Esperanza begins to adjust to her new life and becomes aware of just how lucky she is, especially compared to some of the people around her. This is a good story from Ryan about hope and overcoming obstacles. Esperanza is spoiled but likeable and her trials and growth seem realistic. There are also many things to learn about this time period but they are not presented in a heavy-handed way. For instance, I had never heard of Valley Fever nor was I aware of the extent of forced returns to Mexico.

The Wikkeling by Steven Arntson

Henrietta lives in a society where everything is determined for you and children are protected from the simplest things. When they exercise in school, they do one jumping jack to keep themselves from overexerting. Their entire day at school is spent answering questions on a computer in order to prepare for the tests which determine whether you get to move on or become a garbage collector. Henrietta is not very good at school and she also suffers from terrible headaches on occasion which her parents believe are caused by the fact that they live in an old house with wood rather than a new synthetic one. Things change for Henrietta with three different events. First, her grandfather shows her an old book - printed on paper! - full of unusual animals. Shortly after receiving the book, Henrietta discovers that a wild house cat has moved into her attic. Finally, she makes two new friends who also suffer from headaches. Together, they determine that their headaches are actually caused by a strange creature called the Wikkeling, which only they can see. This is a creepy book but not the good kind of creepy. It also just crawls along reveling in the strangeness of society without really expounding on what exactly is happening. Too many happenings in too many directions for me.

Queen of Hearts by Martha Brooks

Marie Clare lives on a farm in Canada during World War II. When she begins to feel run down she is surprised to learn that she has developed tuberculosis, along with her younger brother and sister. The three are sent to a nearby sanatorium where they can try to get well. Marie Clare is separated from her siblings but makes a new friend in Signy, who has been chasing the cure for years but still seems frail. Together, they endure treatments such as having their lungs collapsed, ribs removed and spending all night outside in the below zero air. Despite her difficulties and a horrible tragedy, Marie Clare learns that her life still goes on and that it might even lead to love in an unexpected place. This book was fine but it didn't move me much although historical fiction is often not my thing. Unlike other historical fiction pieces, however, this one told its story without blatantly teaching you a lesson. The story was the main focus with a background of the TB sanatoriums and the treatments that were actually employed at the time.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

This Dark Endeavor: The Apprenticeship of Victor Frankenstein by Kenneth Oppel

In this book Kenneth Oppel imagines what Dr. Frankenstein might have been like as a teen and what might have begun his journey down the path to creating his monster. Victor feels that he is inferior to his twin brother Konrad in many ways even though he loves Konrad more than anyone else in the world. Driven by his competitive nature to try to best Konrad - as well as trying to impress their cousin Elizabeth - Victor takes risks including exploring a secret passageway that leads to a library full of occult books. Although their father forbids the boys and Elizabeth from entering the dark library ever again, Victor returns when Konrad falls ill with a life-threatening sickness. Victor finds a recipe for the Elixer of Life and believes that if he could just make the elixer, he would save Konrad and get all the glory for himself. Victor, Elizabeth and their friend Henry get help from Julius Polidari, a man who is known to have worked on mysterious potions in the past. The three friends embark on a series of increasingly dangerous quests to find the necessary ingredients to save Konrad. I have never read Frankenstein so I was not troubled by any discrepencies between this story and that one. This book was adventuresome, mysterious and thoughtful. Is Victor a good guy or a bad one? It's a hard question to answer and by giving us a look into his thought process Oppel let's you see how a person can make some decisions that lead to some bad consequences.

Addie on the Inside by James Howe

Addie is the only girl in a group of misfits (see The Misfits, also by Howe). Addie doesn't fit in because she is tall, smart and outspoken. In this book she is in seventh grade and finds herself questioning herself and the other girls around her. Why do they seem to act dumber when boys are around? Why do people roll their eyes when she raises her hand in class? Why does her boyfriend seem to get annoyed when she stands up for things she believes in? I loved, loved, loved this book! Having read The Misfits, which I also loved, I was actually hoping that there would be more of a gay theme to this one (even though Joe also has his own book). Gay issues are addressed but since this is Addie's story that was not the main theme. But I was very happily surprised to find that this book is a strong feminist piece instead. It is written in free verse which I usually hate because the kids hate it, but I still loved the book. That's how good it is!

The Girl is Murder by Kathryn Miller Haines

Iris and her private eye father have just moved into a house in a much poorer section of New York than where they lived before. Her pop has just returned from World War II with an amputated leg which is making his detective work more difficult. Iris misses her privileged life and private school uptown and finds that she is an outsider at her new school. When the only boy who was nice to her goes missing, his parents hire her dad to find him. Iris decides to start her own investigation at school and soon finds herself making friends with the cool group, sneaking looks at school records and dancing the night away at the Savoy. The more she discovers, the less sure Iris is about who to trust, including her best friend from her former life. This is a great, realistic mystery with lots of shady characters. I enjoyed the historical setting but I think that some of the lingo of that time period might be confusing for teen readers. I especially liked the character of Suze and the nastiness of someone she thought was a friend (but I can't say who since that would give away too much!)

Fantasy Baseball by Alan Gratz

Alex believes he must be dreaming when he finds himself playing baseball with Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz. His team includes a flying monkey, a tin man and a scarecrow, among others. Although Alex is sure it's all a dream, Dorothy tells him that he is a Lark - the daydream of a real person who wishes he was a great baseball player. Whatever he is, Alex becomes the star of the Cyclones helping them win against teams filled with many other storybook characters. He runs into trouble, however, when he humiliates the Big Bad Wolf in front of a stadium full of onlookers. With a price on his head and a growing sense that Dorothy might be right and that his time with the Cyclones is limited, Alex has to find a way to save himself and convince his team that they are as good as anyone else. An interesting book about being "real" no matter who you are. I gave it to a friend who is a huge baseball fan to get her opinion since I'm not into sports books but I haven't heard from her yet...

Alice in Time by Penelope Bush

14-year-old Alice feels that she has a terrible life. She lives with her mom whom she blames for her parents' divorce seven years before. She fights almost constantly with her mom and is scheming to move in with her dad now that he has remarried. She also has a crush on the new cute boy at school but doesn't know what to do when she finds out his sister is the girl who constantly picks on Alice. The icing on the cake comes when Alice's best - and only - friend tells her that she wants to attend a private art school next year. After being humiliated at a party Alice goes to a local park and twirls around and around on the merry go round until she is thrown off. When she wakes up she finds that she is her seven-year-old self again. Her parents are still married and she is still best friends with the girl who torments her as a teen. With this opportunity to affect her future, Alice makes a list of the things she wants to change including saving her parents' marriage, keeping her cat from being killed, turning the tables on the girl who picks on her later, and doing what she can to keep her grandmother from getting sick. But Alice finds that changing the future isn't as easy as she thinks and that the circumstances of her life aren't exactly as she has remembered. I thought it took too long to get to the point where Alice travels back to being seven but once there the book was intriguing. Some of Alice's revelations were obvious to me but mabye that's part of the fun since we can see things that she can't. And isn't that probably the truth in our own lives - that we "remember" the past as we want to see it, not necessarily as it actually was?

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Me & Jack by Danette Haworth

Joshua moves a lot since his dad is an Air Force recruiter. When they move into their new home his dad surprises him by letting Joshua adopt a dog from the pound. Joshua feels an immediate bond with an odd-looking, large red dog with pointed ears. After deciding to name his new dog Jack, Joshua sets out to meet some new people. While wandering around town with Jack he meets Ray and Prater. Ray takes a liking to Jack but Prater is immediately mean to both Joshua and his dog. When some trash cans are knocked over and some small animals are killed, people in town begin to believe that Jack is the culprit. Joshua feels certain that his dog couldn't be to blame and is determined to find out what's really happening. Joshua's dad is facing problems of his own since he is recruiting boys to serve in the military and many people don't support the Vietnam war. This book kept me interested throughout but when I finished it I sort of felt "blah" about it. I think that the bulk of the book was better than the somewhat quick resolution.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Warrior Sheep Go West by Christopher Russell

The warrior sheep are just five regular sheep living on a farm in England. When they think they have received a threatening message from Red Tongue they believe it is up to them to save all of sheepdom from the monster. Before you know it they have managed to get themselves on a flight to the American west where they hope to find Red Tongue and defeat him. The warrior sheep are silly, to be sure, but actually not as silly as I had hoped. I thought this book would be a lol-riot but it was more odd and contrived. Of course it was contrived - it's a book about sheep saving the world - but even the silliness didn't flow for me. And the rapper sheep really left me cold.

TimeRiders by Alex Scarrow

Liam is onboard the Titanic minutes before it will sink to the bottom of the Atlantic when a strange man appears out of nowhere and offers him a chance to live by becoming a TimeRider. Liam accepts and becomes part of a team with Maddy and Sal, two other people rescued from untimely deaths. Since time travel has been successfully invented the TimeRiders are tasked with keeping history intact from people who would try to change the past. The three teens are given the job of living the same two days over and over again while watching out for changes. They are joined by Bob, a robot in a human body. When the team notices a slight change Liam and Bob travel back in time to investigate and find themselves trapped there. Meanwhile, the future becomes worse and worse as changes are made by the man who has sent himself back for exactly that purpose. I really enjoyed this book! It had a lot of depth for a light read. And while time travel stories can be confusing, this one did a nice job of keeping things pretty clear. The change in motivations seemed believable and the horror of the resulting future was palpable. I highly recommend it for something fun but not meaningless.

The Midnight Zoo by Sonya Hartnett

Tomas, his younger brother Andrej and their baby sister are the only survivors of a Nazi raid on their home of Gypsies. They have been on the run ever since struggling to stay alive. One night they enter a small zoo and find that they can talk to all the animals living there. The animals have also been struggling to survive since their caretakers have been driven off. The children and animals share their experiences with the war and gradually come to appreciate each other. As the children overcome their fear of the animals they try to find a way to set them free but it seems to be an impossible task. I was hoping for a book full of animal love but this one is much more serious and the animals are less friendly and helpful than I had imagined. I think the distrust is more "realistic" but less fun. However, the message of the book sinks in slowly as you are reading which makes a more lasting impact. The dreamy sequence at the end of the story didn't do anything for me either but I think that's typical of the author from what I've read by her.

The Project by Brian Falkner

Luke and Tommy believe that their English teacher has assigned them the most boring book in the universe to read so they decide to play a prank instead. When they are caught their principal make them a deal - prove that the book is the most boring in the world or face punishment. When they begin to investigate they find that a title named Leonardo's River has been described as so boring that the printer couldn't even keep awake while making it. The book has been missing for over a hundred years and an eccentric man has offered to pay millions of dollars for a copy of the book. While helping to clean out the basement of the local library during a flood, the boys see a copy of Leonardo's River and make plans to steal it. Unfortunately for them, they are not the only ones who are trying to get the book and the other people are willing to do anything to get it before Luke and Tommy. Like Falkner's other books, this one has lots of action and complicated schemes driving the bad guys. People who have enjoyed his other titles will also enjoy this one.

Monday, December 5, 2011

The Auslander by Paul Dowswell

When Peter's parents are killed during World War II he is sent to an orphanage in Poland. But even though Peter is Polish, he looks just like the Aryan boys on the Nazi posters with blonde hair and blue eyes. The Nazis decide to integrate him into their society and Peter is adopted by a German family. At first Peter is happy that he has been rescued from the orphanage and is living with such an important family - his new "father" is a high-ranking scientist. Before long, however, Peter begins to question the Nazi techniques as well as their ethics. But Peter has also learned that is is very dangerous to say anything bad about the Nazis and that you can't trust anyone. This book accurately portrays the climate of fear in Germany during World War II and presents some atrocities not normally shown such as the experiments on children and the disabled. Although those sections were interesting I found that the book moved slowly overall so I have my doubts about whether students would keep reading.