Sunday, May 25, 2014

The Heartbreak Messenger by Alexander Vance

Quentin didn't plan to break so many hearts but when he is paid to tell someone's girlfriend that her boyfriend is ending the relationship, he's hooked.  Quentin starts a business as the heartbreak messenger charging a fee to do the dirty work and offering extras such as flowers or chocolate to cushion the blow.  At first business is great because he really needs the money to help out at home.  But soon he begins to feel bad for the jilted partners and his best friend Abigail adds to his guilt.  Nothing too deep to this book but it is fun with a nice message.

Zombie Baseball Beatdown by Paolo Bacigalupi

While playing baseball near the local meatpacking plant best friends Rabi, Miguel and Joe smell something terrible.  When they run into a zombie cow they know something strange is going on and they know there's definitely a problem when their coach tries to eat their brains.  They are sure the cause is the meatpacking plant and start investigating the problems there on their own.  With tainted meat ready to ship all over the country, time is running out for the boys.  This book packs a lot into a fairly short space but it is done so smoothly.  Hidden behind the zombie apocalypse adventure are messages about illegal immigration and sustainable agriculture.  But they never disrupt the flow of the story nor keep you from laughing about the immortal zombie cow head. 

The Haunting of Gabriel Ashe by Dan Poblocki

When Gabriel's family has to move in with his horror novelist grandmother the only person he meets before school starts is Seth, the boy in the caretaker's house.  Seth proposes that the two boys play an adventure game where they are noblemen fighting the Hunter, a creature that eats children.  Seth is endlessly interested in the game but Gabriel loses interest when school starts and he makes other friends.  But Seth doesn't want their friendship to end and whenever he's around, strange things seem to happen and Gabriel begins to sense something lurking around him at home as well.  He is shocked to see a picture of the Hunter in one of his grandmother's books and to read the story which is all to familiar to him.  Have Seth and Gabriel awakened something real or is his imagination getting away from him?  This is a nicely creepy book for adults but I think it might be too slow for teens looking for something scary. 

The Thing About Luck by Cynthia Kadohata

Summer is used to traveling around while her family works to harvest wheat.  But she is not looking forward to it in a year that is already full of bad luck.  Her bad luck continues when her parents have to go to Japan due to a family emergency and Summer and her little brother Jaz are left with their grandparents.  Summer's relationship with her grandmother is already tense due to Obaachan's demanding nature and dealing with her severe back pain isn't helping matters.  But there is no time to rest when nature dictates the timing of their work.  I'm a fan of some of other Kadohata's books but this one didn't capture me and I don't see it being something that I'll be able to sell to kids. 

Friday, May 23, 2014

Wicked Cruel by Rich Wallace

Three urban legends are presented in short story form.  In one, did bullied student Lorne die from the accumulated injuries he received and has he come back to haunt his bullies?  In the second, Danny investigates a herd of ghost horses who met a tragic end.  And in the third story a boy shares a dance with a girl no one else can see.  I haven't heard of any of these urban legends and only the first seems to meet the criteria but the book does seem to be a good fit for those looking for "scary stories". 

Fallout by Todd Strasser

In the early 1960's the threat of nuclear attack feels very real so Scott's family builds a fallout shelter. Although his father tries to keep the project secret, the whole neighborhood knows what they are doing.  When the bomb is actually dropped neighbors come running and several force themselves into the shelter.  Now a shelter that was meant to hold four people has many more and it's questionable whether there will be enough supplies to keep all of them alive.  And even if they all make it, what will they find when they can finally return to the surface?  In the author's note at the end Strasser writes about the stress of the time and his family's bomb shelter.  He completely captures the sense of what it would've been like if the Cuban missile crisis hadn't been averted. 

Archon by Lana Krumweide

At the end of Freakling Taemon made the decision to have all PSI removed from his community.  Now the people are unhappily learning how to use their hands again.  Feeling responsible for their fate and knowing that there is still danger from the Republik, Taemon sets off across the mountain to see what he can learn.  He discovers a society different from what he expected that is a greater threat than he imagined.  Taemon has to try to stop the impending war but using his PSI comes at a huge price.  This sequel was much less engaging than the first book.  I couldn't get invested in the new character and I was frustrated at Taemon's lack of decisiveness about his powers. 

Thursday, May 22, 2014

The Last Dragonslayer by Jasper Fforde

Magic used to be everywhere and it was powerful.  Nowadays magicians are hired to do jobs such as rewiring a house.  Jennifer is in charge of Kazam Mystical Arts Management and arranges for the jobs.  Jennifer begins having visions about the death of the last dragon and word soon spreads that the dragon is expected to die.  This is big news because due to an ancient pact dragons were given huge tracts of land in exchange for not burning and eating all the people around them.  But when a dragon dies, his land is now up for grabs so people begin gathering on the edge of the dragonlands waiting for the land rush to begin.  When Jennifer goes to visit the dragonslayer she learns that SHE has been chosen to be his replacement.  Now, she is tasked with fighting and killing the dragon who actually seems to be a pretty nice fellow once she gets to know him.  Jennifer is under immense pressure from some big corporations to speed up the dragon's death so they can get first dibs on the land for development.  What is the last dragonslayer to do?  I was not expecting much from this book as I had read one of Fforde's adult books which I didn't enjoy.  However, this one had me chuckling and the final solution was a surprise.  And I loved the quarkbeast, Jennifer's pet and companion.

Tides by Betsy Cornwell

Noah has landed a dream internship at the aquarium on the island where his grandmother lives.  He and his younger sister Lo decide to spend the summer with their grandmother hoping to have a quiet few weeks.  But Noah's job at the aquarium isn't at all what he expected when he has to spend most of his time doing paperwork.  And his summer is further disrupted when he saves a girl named Mara from drowning.  Mara and Noah have an instant connection but Mara is a selkie and her family has distrusted humans ever since a group of selkie children were kidnapped many  years before.  Noah and Lo learn that their grandmother is also intimately involved with the selkies and that the missing children might be closer than they think.  Another book with an interesting premise but the execution left me uninspired.  I felt as though there were too many topics on top of the loves story and mystery with the selkies - gay characters and bulimia to name a couple.  

When We Wake by Karen Healey

Tegan is hoping to be kissed by her crush when she attends a protest in 2027.  Instead, she is shot and killed, awakening 100 years later.  Tegan was saved by an experimental cryogenic procedure and is the first of her kind to be woken.  Tegan is grateful for a second chance at life but finds the new world much different.  And she is even more surprised to find that she is the center of a debate about whether cryogenics should be allowed.  Tegan wants to work on establishing her new life but the government agency that woke her controls most aspects of her life and they are not telling anyone the entire truth about anything.  This book has an intriguing premise but didn't have anything that surprised me as it went along.  But, for fans of this type of sci fi, it's probably good for them.

Mila 2.0 by Debra Driza

Mila and her mother have recently moved after their home burned down and Mila's father was killed in the blaze.  Mila became fast friends with Kaylee and the two girls spend all their time together.  But their friendship is tested when cute new boy Hunter arrives.  Mila feels an immediate connection with Hunter but out of respect for Kaylee she backs away from the relationship.  Kaylee's jealousy gets the best of her when the girls find Hunter walking on the side of the road and stop to offer him a ride.  Kaylee insists that Mila sit in the bed of the pickup truck so she can have Hunter all to herself.  When Kaylee takes a turn too fast Mila flies out of the truck, surprisingly only injuring her arm.  But the even bigger surprise is that the cut on Mila's arm shows wires and circuits, not blood and muscles.  This book is fine but one of those where I forgot most of it as soon as I was done with it. 

The Paladin Prophecy by Mark Frost

Will is athletic and smart but his parents have always told him to stay in the middle of the pack, don't stand out. While jogging to school one day Will notices that he is being followed by men in black cars.  He receives a text from his father telling him to run, even though his dad is hundreds of miles away.  At school, Will is called into the office where he finds out that he received the top score in the country on a standardized test.  Will is being offered a chance to attend the Center for Integrated Learning, a prestigious school for gifted students.  When Will gets home that afternoon he realizes that something has happened to his mom. Her eyes are glazed and she is telling him things he knows she would never say, especially since his parents have drilled a list of rules into his head for years.  When the men in the black cars show up Will knows that his only escape is to go to the Center and hope he can disappear off the radar.  At the Center, Will learns that he and the other students have other talents beyond their intelligence and that the dangers they face go far beyond this world.  This is a great adventure with supernatural elements. 

The Archived by Victoria Schwab

When we die our life histories are kept in The Archive.  Mackenzie is a Keeper charged with returning those Histories that escape back to the Archive.  Mackenzie was chosen for the secret job by her grandfather who passed along his keys that can open doors into the corridors between our world and the Archive.  When Histories first escape they are confused and easy to return but the longer they stay in the hallways the more angry and dangerous they become so Mackenzie is very surprised when she finds Owen who seems to be retaining his sanity even after days in the hallway. After moving to a new apartment Mackenzie notices a sudden upturn in the number of Histories she is sent to retrieve.  She also can't stop herself from investigating a mystery from the past in her new home.  Someone is deliberately sabotaging the Archives and Mackenzie is starting to believe that her new home is related to the problems in the afterlife.  This is a truly unique story, something that is difficult to find!  It creates an eerie mood  and leaves you thinking about what happens after death even though the book is a fantasy.

Etiquette & Espionage by Gail Carriger

Sophronia's mother despairs that she will never become a proper young lady so she is being sent off to Mademoiselle Geraldine's Finishing Academy for Young Ladies of Quality.  Sophronia immediately suspects that the Academy is different from what she expected when the new students have to rely on a werewolf to carry them high enough to get onto the airship where the school is located. Once aboard, Sophronia learns about good manners but also about spying techniques.  Sophronia and her friends are soon caught up in mysterious events that might lead her right back home.  This book is clear steampunk and the premise was interesting.  However, I didn't find the juxtaposition of spying and good manners as fully carried out as I wanted.  And I question the appeal to teens today who might not be familiar with the expectations of the time period etiquette-wise.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Splintered by A.G. Howard

Alyssa hears bugs and flowers talking to her and is sure she is losing her mind, just like her mom who now lives in a mental institution.  Alyssa quiets the bugs by killing them and making them into artwork but she hasn't told anyone about her delusions, not even her neighbor and crush Jeb.  During a visit with her mother Alyssa learns that she's not crazy and that the voices she hears are because of the curse on the women in her family.  They are descendents of Alice, and her stories of Wonderland are real.  Unfortunately, Alice didn't finish what she should have and now it's up to Alyssa to end the curse by returning to Wonderland, as soon as she can find the rabbit hole.  With Jeb tagging along and handsome, mysterious Morpheus providing information, Alyssa is thrust into a dangerous world.  Many people who have read this book love it but I could only manage to finish it by skimming like mad.  The world is too trippy and the story never-ending for me.  In retrospect, I shouldn't have been surprised by my reaction because I've never been much of a fan of Alice in Wonderland stories.  But if you like a psychedelic romantic adventure, this might be for you.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Deadly Pink by Vivian Vande Velde

Grace's sister Emily has disappeared.  Emily is a designer of video games and she has gone into a pink wonderland of a game - think Candy Crush but with more fairies and princesses - and won't come out.  Although Grace feels average compared to her sister, she is the only one who can go into the game to retrieve her.  Once she is in the fantasy world of the game, however, Grace finds that there are quite a few dangers she never could have anticipated.  The description of the video game feels very much like what it would be like to inhabit such a game but the story overall was only average.  Fine, but not very memorable.

Gunn's Golden Rules: Life's Little Lessons for Making it Work by Tim Gunn

I believe that Tim Gunn is the most gracious man on the face of the Earth.  Not matter what crazy situation he is put into on "Project Runway" he is always lovely to everyone on there and I want him to be my best friend.  As such, I can't help but love his book even though it's not as good as I wanted it to be.  It's really just a bunch of reminiscences of his life and interactions with famous people throughout his life.  What could be wrong with that?  So if you go into it expecting a somewhat rambling narrative then you'll be fine.  If you think that the chapters will be about whatever the title is, you might be disappointed.

Endangered by Eliot Schrefer

Sophie lives in two worlds.  For most of the year she lives in America with her father.  But in the summer she travels to the Congo to visit her mother on her bonobo preserve.As the story begins she is in a cab and sees a man selling a sick, abused bonobo baby on the side of the road.  She knows that her mother has told her to never purchase an animal but her heart goes out to the baby and she buys Otto.  Otto and Sophie bond and he slowly begins to return to health.  Shortly after her mother leaves the preserve to return some adult bonobos to the wild the government falls and the country begins a civil war.  As an American, Sophie has the chance to leave the country before the bands of warlords show up at the preserve but that means leaving Otto behind.  So Sophie and Otto have to find a way to survive as they cross the dangerous country to find her mother.  Endangered has a lot going on - civil war, animal rights, AIDS, roaming warlords - pretty much every African issue is addressed in this book.  The overall story is good but I wonder about the execution of it for most students and if they will be able to stay with it.

The Mystery of Darwin's Frog by Marty Crump

This nonfiction title promises that "young people will be enthralled" with the information about this unusual frog.  I generally love nonfiction books but found this one to be dry.  Science and animals are amazing and can be endlessly fascinating but the presentation of this weird creature was not so for me.  Even Steve Jenkins' beautiful collages didn't do it for me. 

Revenge of the Girl With the Great Personality by Elizabeth Eulberg

Lexi is smart and funny and has several close friends but she is not a girly girl.  Lexi gets enough of make-up and fancy clothes each weekend while she is at beauty pageants with her younger sister.  Lexi's mom puts every penny they have - an many they don't have - into her sister's pageants, hoping to make her a winner.  In exchange for getting her best friend to ask out his secret crush, she agrees to come to school in heels and a dress with full make-up and hair.  Lexi is shocked at the reaction she gets from people to whom she has never spoken, including a boy she really likes.  But are looks really all that important?  Okay, this book has a quick, pretty unrealistic ending but I really enjoyed the rest of it.  Although it is billed as a comedy I feel that Lexi's mom is one of the biggest villains I've encountered recently. 

The Dark Unwinding by Sharon Cameron

Katherine has no choice but to live under her aunt's thumb since she has no money of her own even though her aunt treats her poorly.  When her aunt tells her to go investigate her uncle Tully and report back on his mental condition, Katherine has no choice.  She finds that Uncle Tully is a kind, shy man who makes amazing mechanical creatures but he does seem a little off mentally. (Today we would probably say that he has autism.)  Tully also supports a whole town of people who would all be penniless and out of their homes if Katherine told her aunt the truth about Tully.  Torn between protecting her sweet uncle and facing her own financial ruin if she doesn't do what her aunt wants, Katherine is further troubled by blackouts where she is reported to be acting as if she is drunk even though she hasn't had any drugs.  This is an example of what steampunk should be - set in the past but with some futuristic creations.  I found the book a little too long but the story was good and the reveal towards the end with the aunt arriving was satisfying. 

Skinny by Donna Cooner

All of us have a voice in our head that tells us who we are.  Ever calls her voice "Skinny" and Skinny tells Ever that she is fat, pathetic and a loser.  Skinny also tells Ever that everyone is making fun of her because of her weight.  Ever has an amazing singing voice and would love to try out for the school plays but won't because oof her fear of being made fun of.  When she learns that next year's musical will be "Cinderella" Ever knows she must try out for the role so she decides to undergo gastric bypass surgery to lose weight.  The possible consequences are huge but with the support of her best friend Rat, Ever has the surgery.  This is a realistic look at weight loss surgery and the changes that occur both physically and mentally to someone losing a lot of weight.  There are no quick transformation solutions in this book, rather it presents the ugly results of the surgery.  But I really appreciated this book's realistic journey to self-acceptance and Ever's realization that her body was not the only thing getting in her way.

Doll Bones by Holly Black

Zach, Poppy and Alice have been friends for years and spend their free time playing pirates, thieves and warriors with their action figures, always overseen by the Doll Queen in her cabinet.  When they enter middle school Zach's father becomes uncomfortable with his son's games and throws away all of his figures.  It appears that the friendship is over and the friends will drift apart until Poppy claims that she has been having dreams about the Doll Queen.  Poppy believes that the Queen is asking her to be buried in a graveyard several towns away.  Zach and Alice reluctantly go along on the quest to find the gravesite and put the doll to rest but they encounter some things that make them wonder if Poppy might be telling the truth.  This book has great reviews but this won't be one of them.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Prisoner B-3087 by Alan Gratz

Yanek is a Jewish boy living in Poland when the Nazis annex the country.  He and his family are sent with the rest of the Jews to the ghetto where dozens of people live in one small apartment.  Yanek is smart and scrappy enough to survive in the ghetto while hundreds of others die around him.  But his intelligence doesn't save him in the end from being sent to a Nazi concentration camp.  And then another.  And another.  Ten camps in all, each with its own nightmares and barely survivable conditions. Even in an area filled with books on the subject this one stood out to me and presented horrors of the Nazi extermination plan that I didn't know.  As I was reading, however, I began to feel a little skeptical about the story because it seemed like a plot device to have Yanek being a prisoner in nearly every death camp.  And then I got to the end of the book and learned that it is based on the true experiences of a boy who survived the war and all of those camps!

Navigating Early by Clare Vanderpool

After his mother's death Jack has to go to a boarding school in Maine while his military father is deployed.  Already struggling with the changes, Jack finds himself even more out of place with the school sport of rowing crew.  He receives some help from Early, a boy who chooses to live in the boiler room and concocts a story based on the numbers in Pi.  Early and Jack become friends and find themselves the only two at school on a break.  Early sets off on a quest to follow the story of Pi and to find his brother who everyone believes was killed in the war.  Jack goes along on the quest and the two boys encounter bears, pirates and more.  This is an unusual book definitely meant for advanced readers who can appreciate a little magical realism.

Loki's Wolves by Kelley Armstrong and Marissa Marr

Matt lives in a small town where everyone is a descendent of a Norse god or goddess and the myths are not just stories, they are history.  During a festival Matt hears the town's adults say that the signs indicate the coming of Ragnarok, the end of the world.  The only way to stop Ragnarok is for the gods to battle all the monsters that will be coming.  Since Matt is a descendent of Thor, it's up to him to fight the ancient monsters but according to the prophecy, he won't live through the war.  The only chance he has is to unite with Fen and Laurie who are related to Loki.  The two boys have never gotten along but to help save the world they set off on a quest to find the rest of the modern day gods and goddesses.  Since The Lightning Thief students have been looking for mythology like mad.  Although there are other books that include mythology, this is the first one I've read that feels like Percy Jackson and is well done enough that I can recommend it.  I like all the characters and was suitably unhappy by the death at the end of the story.  I hope it catches on!

Obsidian Mirror by Catherine Fisher

As the book begins Jake finally manages to get himself expelled from school.  He wants to go stay with his guardian, Oberon Venn, because he believes Venn has murdered his father who has gone missing.  When Jake arrives at Venn's mansion he finds a man surrounded by secrets, many of which involve the ominous obsidian mirror.  Jake learns that Venn and his father worked together to unlock the secrets of the obsidian mirror which allows time travel.  Without knowing exactly how it worked, Jake's father tested the mirror and has been missing ever since.  But Venn and Jake's father were not the only ones interested in the mirror and an unusual group of humans and fey are gathering around the house, all hoping to control the mirror for their own reasons.  Like Fisher's other books this one is a complex piece, further complicated by the time travel.  The story moves from one time to another relying on context clues to make it clear when you are.  A good book but it definitely requires a serious reader!

Monday, May 12, 2014

The Girl Who Was Supposed to Die by April Henry

When Cady comes to she finds herself in a cabin with two men, two of her fingernails pulled out, and no memory of anything else in her life.  She hears one of the men tell the other "Take her out back and finish her off." Cady manages to escape with fighting skills she doesn't remember having and finds herself on the run with no idea of who to trust.  When she finally tries to get help from a security guard she is told that she's an escapee from a mental institution.  What can she believe about herself?  What has happened to her family?  What terrible event caused her to lose her memory in the first place?  I have not been a fan of April Henry's books in the past but this one had me turning pages to see what could possibly be happening.  And I was not disappointed when the mystery of Cady's past was finally revealed.  Not a deep book, but entertaining and an escape.

Broken by C.J. Lyons

Scarlet is going to school for the first time in her life.  She has Long QT, a disease that can lead to your heart not being able to restart on it's own after a skip or shock.  Scarlet's parents have only agreed to a one week trial at school and it starts off poorly when she immediately makes an enemy of the school's popular, bullying football player.  But Scarlet also bonds with the members of her peer mentoring group and Tony, a boy in English who seems as obsessed with classic movies as she is.  Assigned to do a project on one of their medical histories Scarlet and Tony beginning researching her past and genetics.  Scarlet's mom is totally against the project and won't share any of her files.  When Scarlet steals the files and begins secretly checking them she learns some things that make her question her past and her diagnosis.  This book had me on the edge of my seat wanting to read more.  I was sure I knew what was happening but I couldn't wait to find out if I was right (and I was!). 

When I Was the Greatest by Jason Reynolds

Ali lives in Bed Stuy, a neighborhood known for problems.  But Ali keeps his nose clean - taking care of his younger sister Jazz, taking boxing lessons, and hanging on the stoop with his best friend Noodles.  The biggest adventure in the boys' life is when they go searching for some black yarn for Noodles' brother Needles who knits to help control his Tourette's Syndrome.  When the boys are invited to an adults-only party a block away they know they have to find a way to get the right clothes to look like they belong there.  But a mishap at the party leads to problems beyond what Ali can handle all on his own.  This is one of those books that sticks with you after you finish it.  The depiction of urban life feels so realistic that the reader is pulled into the daily interactions with everyone in the neighborhood.  Every single character is completely fleshed out and I loved them all despite their flaws.  I was so drawn into Ali's world that I felt my own tension ramping up as the boys realized the problem they had.  Great, slow-building read.