Sunday, July 27, 2014

The Naturals by Jennifer Lynn Barnes


Cassie has a gift for reading people.  She was taught the art of close observation by her mother who made her living by pretending to be a psychic until she was murdered five years ago.  Since then Cassie has been living with her father's extended family but hasn't ever felt really at home with them.  So when she is offered a chance to join the FBI, she agrees to move to Washington, D.C. Cassie becomes part of the Naturals unit, a group of five teens who all have a natural ability to read people and crime scenes formed to help solve cold cases.  Cassie is trained by agent Locke and partners with Dean, another teen gifted in profiling people.  Although the teens are only meant to be honing their skills on cold cases, Cassie is drawn to the real case the adult agents are working on because the killer seems to have a signature exactly like the one who murdered her mom. 

This is an engaging, quick read and a perfect title for fans of any forensic mystery writer or TV show.  Although I liked the story, I do wonder about its appropriateness for teens because of the passages getting inside the mind of the killer and the confrontation with said killer at the end.  I also found the entire revelation of the killer fairly implausible but if you just go into it willing to enjoy the ride and suspend your disbelief, you'll be fine.

The Lost Kingdom by Matthew Kirby

Billy is happily surprised when his father invites him to go along on an expedition with his secret society of philosophers and scientists.  Billy's father is a botanist and Billy hopes to follow in his footsteps so he views this trip as a chance to see what his father does in the field.  But this trip has a much bigger goal than plant gathering.  The society will be taking their flying airship out of Philadelphia and across the frontier to find the mythical Welsh colony of Medoc in the hope that they will join the colonists in fighting the French.  Along the way the group will face French soldiers, a bearwolf and a traitor in their midst. 

In general tone this book is similar to Boundless which I also read recently but nowhere near as engaging.  Although both are set in the past and are nearly historical fiction except for a few magical things, this one read much more like actual historical fiction without the fun of Boundless.  I was also highly distracted by Billy's father's prejudice.  I know there was supposed to be a point to it and that it highlighted how Billy is different from his dad but it just felt like unnecessary racism as his father complained about the Indians again and again.

All Our Yesterdays by Cristin Terrill

Em and Finn are being held in a prison at the whim of the evil doctor who has not trouble torturing them to get the information he wants.  Em is drawn to the drain in the floor and when she gets it open she finds a list written by all the previous versions of herself with all of the courses of action they have taken to avoid this future.  You see, Em and Finn know about the doctor's time machine and have gone back in time over and over again to try to stop the doctor from bringing about Hell on Earth.  The list tells Em that the only way left to stop this future is to kill the doctor four years in the past.  The only problem is that four years ago Em was a happy young girl named Marina and she was in love with James, the brilliant young man who will become the doctor.

Great premise to this book and pretty good action throughout.  Like most time travel books and movies there are some holes but the author does a decent job of explaining away some of those.  My biggest complaint is the story sustaining device of not just immediately killing the doctor.

Plunked by Michael Northrop

Jack is thrilled when his baseball coach selects him as a starter along with his best friends.  But his joy is short-lived after he is hit two times while at bat - once in the head and once in the chest.  For the first time in his life Jack finds himself afraid of the ball and unable to play with his whole heart.  Jack has to find a way to get his courage back or get out of baseball entirely before he is completely embarrassed and out of friends. 

As with my previous baseball book, there was a lot of game play by play that didn't make much sense to me.  But unlike the last one, I wasn't much taken with the rest of the story.  Definitely meant for a younger teen audience.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Heat by Mike Lupica

Michael is the lead pitcher for his little league team.  Although he has never had his pitches clocked officially, his best friend and catcher Manny is sure Michael is throwing at 80 miles per hour.  The best friends are hoping their team is good enough to make it to the play off game in Yankee Stadium this year.  Off the field, Michael has a big problem to deal with:  His father died several months before and Michael and his older brother Carlos are trying to keep Papi's death a secret until Carlos turns 18 when he will be able to be Michael's legal guardian.  Carlos is working hard to support them but their cover-up is in danger of being revealed when a jealous opponent accuses Michael of being older than he is and the little league commission requires Michael's birth certificate to prove he is just 12. 

I am not a fan of sports books because of the extended descriptions of the plays and games.  I don't know enough about any sport to fully grasp the play on the field/court just by reading about it, especially when it is filled with sports jargon.  This book had several such scenes but it also had a fairly winning story about Michael's problems.  Michael himself is a nice boy and I was rooting for him to come out ahead as the issues kept piling up. With many sports books, I skim or skip the game descriptions and I did with Heat as well.  But unlike other sports book I've read, I still cared about the character aside from the game and didn't get bogged down in the game play.  I surprised myself by liking this book as much as I did.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Liv, Forever by Amy Talkington

Liv is excited to receive an art scholarship to prestigious Wickham Hall because it gives her a way out of the foster care system.  A perpetual outsider, Liv is unimpressed by the school's tradition of pranks on the new students and the exclusive and secretive Victors society.  But she does like class president Malcolm (even though he is slated to be the next president of the Victors) and he, much to everyone's surprise, likes her.  Liv's only other friend is fellow outsider Gabe who claims to see the ghosts of dead girls all over campus.  During a late night date Liv and Malcolm are nearly caught out after curfew. They split up to get away from their pursuers but Liv is caught by an unknown attacker and murdered.  As a ghost, Liv hears the classmates who looked down on her telling police how sad they are about her death and claiming that she committed suicide.  Liv goes to see Gabe for help and together with Malcolm they begin investigating her death.  Along the way, they discover that Liv is just the latest death in a conspiracy that has spanned the entire 150 years of the school's history.

I was enjoying the mystery of this book and the twist of the main character being a ghost most of the way through.  The ending diminished some of my enjoyment in the story, however.  First of all, the conspiracy is something I've seen on Buffy, the Vampire Slayer so it was not original.  But then again, are there many/any stories that haven't yet been told in some way or another?  But I was also unhappy with the very, very end which seems pretty clear is leading to a sequel, and not just because I prefer books that are not part of a series.  I can't say much about the ending without giving something away but I don't like the implied darkness therein. 

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Counting by 7's by Holly Goldberg Sloan

Willow is: a 12-year-old genius; a "person of color" living with her white adoptive parents; someone who loves plants; and a girl starting at a new school for a chance to fit in.  When she takes a standardized test and gets a perfect score on it she is accused on cheating and is sent for counseling with Dell Duke, a man just trying to skate along without being truly invested in anything.  While waiting for her appointment with Dell one day Willow meets Mai, an older Vietnamese girl whose brother is also being "counseled" by Dell.  The two girls become friends and a couple of weeks later convince Dell to take them all out for ice cream.  And so it happens that Dell drives Willow home on the day both of her parents were killed in a car accident.  Knowing that she will be put into a foster home Mai convinces her mother, Pattie, to take Willow in on a temporary basis but because their family lives in a garage, they use Dell's address on all the paperwork.  When the time comes for their first home visit, Pattie takes charge of Dell's apartment and the whole group begins to form their own community as Willow slowly returns to life.

I've come to realize that I'm very fond of magical realism as a genre and while this probably doesn't actually fit the bill since everything that happens is realistic, it has the feel of magic.  It's also one of those books that has a lot going on but you don't really realize that until you're done and reflect on what you've just read.  Goldberg is skilled at taking you through the changes in each character slowly while weaving all of their stories together, just like real life.  A really lovely book.

A Creature of Moonlight by Rebecca Hahn

Marni has lived most of her life in a small cottage with her Gramps.  She is known as the flower girl because of her garden and her way with plants.  But people also know that she and Gramps have an unusual back story.  Gramps used to be the king of their country but he gave up his throne to protect Marni when her uncle killed Marni's mother.  Marni's mother was one of the many girls called by the forest for a life of freedom.  Most girls who run away to the forest never come back but Marni's mother did return with Marni, who was sired by the dragon of the woods.  The people in the country fight a battle to keep the woods at bay but each year the trees travel a little further into people territory and the current king, Marni's uncle, thinks she might have something to do with the advancing forest.  When Gramps dies Marni has no choice but to go to court and take up her rightful position as princess even though she is torn between her human and wild side and even though she knows her life is in danger and the trees begin encroaching by leaps and bounds.

I'm still digesting this book because it's not as straightforward as it sounds (and it doesn't sound all that straightforward, does it?).  I like the story and the characters, probably most especially the Lord of Ontrei.  I found Marni's stubbornness frustrating at times while also appreciating her strength and desire to control her own destiny.   The thing that is holding me back just a little is the writing style.  I would only recommend this to strong readers because the writing is lyrical and expects a lot of the reader to go on faith and piece things together before all of the world is revealed. 

Don't Look Back by Jennifer Armentrout

Samantha has no memory of her life before she was found wandering on a street after she had been missing for several days.  She learns that before she disappeared with her best friend Cassie she was the most popular mean girl in school with the perfect boyfriend.  But she doesn't remember that life and now she can't imagine living it.  In fact, the more she learns about who she was before the more disgusted she is with herself and the more determined she is to not go back to being that person.  But Cassie is still missing and Sam is struggling to remember her past to help find her, even if it sounds like they were more like rivals than friends.  Trouble is, Sam is pretty sure someone was trying to kill her the night she disappeared and she can't be sure who to trust when so many people had a reason to want her dead. 
I really, really enjoyed this book.  Sure, there's nothing new or deep here, just a fun mystery with lots of red herrings and a surprise twist at the end.

March by John Lewis

This graphic novel is written by real life civil rights activist John Lewis.  Although it is presented almost as a story, it tells about Lewis' real lifelong struggle for equal rights starting with lunch counter sit-ins in the 1960's.  The segregation and Jim Crow laws are vividly depicted as are the violent responses from the white authorities to the nonviolent protests.  I'm not usually a fan of graphic novels because the kids at my school aren't interested in them, only in manga, but this one caught my attention more than others.  It still won't be wildly popular, but it might have more of an audience than other nonfiction graphic novels.  One part in particular that I think teens might find interesting is the training the protesters went through to be able to give a nonviolent response to the attacks they expected to receive. 

Tesla's Attic by Neal Shusterman and Eric Elfman

After a fire destroys their home Nick, his brother and his dad move into his grandmother's home which his dad inherited.  Nick finds that the attic is full of all sorts of junk so he decides to have a yard sale to get rid of it all.  On the day of the sale the town is hit by a huge storm but when Nick's brother turns on an old lamp from the attic suddenly people arrive at their house despite the bad weather.  And everyone there is desperate to buy something, paying much more than any of it is worth.  When nearly everything is sold a group of men arrive asking after all the other items.  Nick can't tell them much about who bought what so one of the men gives him a card and they purchase everything that is left.  Nick doesn't think much more of it all until he becomes friends with a few of the kids who bought some of the items and learns that all of the stuff has strange, magical properties.  It turns out that everything in his attic was invented by Nikola Tesla and the men in the car are from the Accelerati, a group determined to use the inventions for their own nefarious purposes. 

I find that Shusterman varies from AMAZING, so good you can't believe it writing to fun, fine adventures that aren't very great.  This book is in the latter category.  It's obviously intended for a younger audience than some of his other work and it will appeal to that group, especially those who like a mysterious series with adult bad guys. 

The Chaos of Stars by Kiersten White

Isadora is the daughter of Isis and Osiris, ancient Egyptian gods, but she is human.  Ever since she learned that her parents weren't going to make her immortal Isadora has hated them.  So when she gets the chance to move to San Diego to live with one of her many human siblings she jumps at the chance.  But even halfway around the world she's not free of her mother's controlling nature and learns that she has to work at the local museum setting up an exhibit of Isis' artwork.  She's also troubled by bad dreams but Isadora is sure they don't mean anything.  At the museum she meets Tyler, a bubbly girl who immediately becomes her first friend.  She also meets Ry, an amazing-looking guy who seems to know more about Isadora than seems possible and wants more of a relationship than she is willing to give. Even though Isadora is trying to get away from her life among the Gods, she can feel that something is not right and danger might be dead ahead.  A fine paranormal romance for fans of that genre.  I found Isadora's anger at her mother annoying and the resolution in their relationship way too quick to be believable, but believability is not really a standard for a fantasy like this. 

Monday, July 14, 2014

45 Pounds More or Less by K. A. Barson

Ann is a size 17 and is tired of being judged for her size.  She has tried more diets than she can count but with her Aunt Jackie's wedding coming up in just two months Ann decides to try a new plan she sees on an infomercial.  Ann realizes that her biggest negative influence is her own mother who is a perfect size 6 and who never eats anything.  Ann does begin losing weight but her new diet plan is difficult to stick to especially with the pressures from her mother, dance lessons, a new job, false friends, and cute guy who just might be interested in Ann.  This book is pretty realistic in that Ann doesn't magically lose all the weight she wishes.  I appreciated her struggles and her final solution for eating right but I'm pretty tired of stories where the overweight person feels sad and squashes his/her emotions with a big pile of food.  Not every fat person does that.  Also, the realization about her mother's eating and Ann's reaction to that didn't entirely ring true for me in some way.

Surrounded by Sharks by Michael Northrop

Surrounded By SharksDuring his family's trip to the Keys Davey wakes up early one morning and decides to explore the island in order to find a quiet place to read.  He comes across a quiet, secluded beach and although there is a sign labeled "No Swimming", he goes in the water and ends up out to sea after being caught in a rip current.  When his family wakes up they go looking for Davey but no one suspects that he would actually be in the water.  Davey's predicament comes about in a totally plausible manner and the danger he faces is not just from the sharks but also from the sun, dehydration and exhaustion.  The slowness of the rescuers was frustrating to me but I think the steps (or lack of steps in some cases) they took might be completely realistic as well.  A good read for reluctant readers or those just looking for some adventure and survival.

Grandmaster by David Klass

Daniel knows that he is the weak link on his school's chess team and the older, better players never let him forget it.  So he's surprised when he is asked to be part of an eight person team competing in a father son tournament with a huge grand prize.  With some research his teammates have discovered that Daniel's father has the rank of Grandmaster in the chess world although he has not played in a tournament for 30 years.  Daniel didn't even know that his father played chess, let alone that he was one of the best players in the world.  His father lets him know that the stress of playing chess made him realize that he wanted a life and caused him to walk away from the game to save his life and sanity.  Although he is worried, he agrees to participate in the weekend tournament to help Daniel.  During the three days Daniel learns many of his father's secrets and some things about himself as well. 

Things I liked - The surprise of Daniel's father's super chess powers and the revelations of how he handled the pressure when he was younger. 
The manipulations of his dad's former competitors and how Daniel's dad handled that. 
The resolution of all the chess pressure when Daniel and his dad were back home
Things I didn't like - I wanted his dad to be able to kick some chess ass without losing his mind!

Picture Me Gone by Meg Rosoff

Mila is traveling with her father to the United States to visit his childhood friend Matthew but before they get there they get word that Matthew has disappeared leaving his wife and baby son behind.  Mila and Gil make the trip anyway to see if they can be of any help in finding Matthew.  Mila has a talent for sensing emotions and seeing things others don't.  She immediately feels that something is wrong with the story of Matthew's disappearance and his wife's reaction to it.  Mila, Gil and Matthew's dog begin a search for him uncovering more secrets about Matthew as they go.  This book was not my cup of tea at all.  I believe we are supposed to be stunned by Matthew's story and impressed by Mila's maturity and ability to observe things but neither thing happened for me.  Every review I've read of this book also mentions the lovely writing style but I found it pretentious and the lack of quotation marks just made me have to reread paragraphs pretty often trying to figure out who was speaking.  And the cover made me think that the book was about Patty Hearst.

A Matter of Days by Amber Kizer

When the BluStar pandemic came it killed most of the human population including Nadia's parents.  Nadia and her younger brother Rabbit survived because their uncle came to give them an immunization days before the virus became widespread.  Their uncle also left directions for them to find a way to get from Seattle to West Virginia as soon as possible to seek shelter with their survivalist grandfather.  On day 56 of BluStar they set out cross country but the other survivors they encounter aren't all as kind and helpful as they are.  In addition to the people they must avoid, Nadia and Rabbit meet Zack, a boy they decide to take with them as well as an injured dog and a talkative bird.  This story of post apocalyptic life moves a bit slowly at first and then much too quickly at the end so it wasn't my favorite.  However, I did appreciate that there were some decent survivors in the mix.  I don't understand why all the people in every post-apocalyptic book/movie/TV show are evil scavengers out to kill everyone else left behind.  Why do only the worst people survive?  But this book had some nice people, including a man teaching domestic animals how to survive without any owners around to help them.

The Great Trouble by Deborah Hopkinson

Eel is happy to have a job working at the Lion Tavern.  Before getting work and a place to live at the Lion, Eel was a "mudlark", someone who spent his days sifting through the muck and waste in London to find things worth selling.  But now, between his work at the tavern and the other side jobs he does he makes four shillings a week, just enough to keep his younger brother somewhere safe where he can go to school.  When Eel is accused of thieving he goes to get Mr. Griggs, a tailor who pays him to do some work, to vouch for him.  But when he gets to the tailor's house, he finds that Mr. Griggs sick with "The Blue Death", cholera.  Soon, dozens of people on Broad Street have died from cholera and many more are sick.  Eel goes to another employer, Dr. John Snow, to ask for help.  Everyone believes that cholera is spread by the bad air but Dr. Snow has a theory that the disease is spread through the water and he needs Eel's help to prove it.  This book is based on the real cholera outbreak in London in 1854 that killed 616 people in less than two weeks.  Dr. Snow was indeed instrumental in changing people's ideas about disease transmission and stopped the outbreak when he managed to get the handle removed from the Broad Street pump.  I'm not generally a historical fiction fan and I still think this will be too dry for most teens, but the disease and general ickiness of London at that time will help pull in more readers than usual.

Silver by Chris Wooding

Paul started attending Mortingham Boarding Academy after the death of his parents less than a year ago.  He is just starting to deal with their deaths when something strange happens at school.  It begins with an unusual silver beetle that bites another student.  The student who is bitten falls sick and begins turning metallic as well.  Then Paul sees a silver dog that attacks the headmaster.  In no time at all much of the school is infected with whatever is happening and the Infected are relentless in their attempts to attack those who are still human.  Paul is one of the few students who manage to lock themselves into the science building hoping they can fend off the Infected until help arrives.  But with the speed the disease seems to spread, they're beginning to wonder if there will be anyone left to rescue them.  A fun, somewhat typical zombie (although they're not actually zombies) book with some really good gory descriptions and lots of deaths.

Friday, July 11, 2014

Death Sworn by Leah Cypess

Ileni is chosen to be the new magic tutor to the assassins after their previous two tutors were murdered.  She knows that the Elders expect that she will also be killed since she has been losing her magical abilities.  Ileni is determined to keep her dwindling magic a secret from the assassins and sets about teaching them meaningless tasks while trying to find the killer hiding amongst them.  At first she is disgusted by the mission of the killers but the more time she spends with them the more she realizes that she doesn't know everything that is happening politically.  She is also confused by her growing feelings for her protector Sorin.  Ileni knows she is going to have to choose a side as the danger around her grows.  I enjoyed this book while reading it but it hasn't left a big impression on me that I remember many details while writing this summary.

The Boundless by Kenneth Oppel

Will is at the ceremony to drive a golden spike that will finish the railroad line his father has been working on for years when an avalanche and a sasquatch attack disrupt the occasion.  Three years later, Will's father has risen to be in charge of the railroad company and they are both aboard the maiden trip of The Boundless, a seven mile long train pulling 900 cars including an entire circus and an impenetrable funeral car with the deceased railroad baron's body.  At a stop Will witnesses a murder by someone he recognizes and realizes the man is planning to steal the golden spike which is rumored to be in the funeral car.  The man recognizes Will as well who is now on board the very end of the train.  The only way to work his way back to first class is to join up with beautiful tightrope walker Maren and mysterious ringmaster Mr. Dorian while facing constant danger from the killer and his henchmen, sasquatch, muskeg hags, trips on top of the railroad cars, and the wendigo.  Such a great book!  Classic Oppel adventure with twists, turns, magic, and truly evil bad guys.