Monday, December 28, 2015

Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer

Into the Wild is the true story of Christopher McCandless, a young man from a well-to-do family who left everything behind to live the life of a tramp.  In fact, he renamed himself Alexander Supertramp.  After giving $25,000 from his savings to charity Alex left college to begin traveling throughout the west, carefully arranging things so that his family wouldn't discover he had gone for a few months.  Never staying more than a couple of weeks in any place Alex nevertheless made an impression on many people he met.  He himself was inspired by Jack London, Jon Muir, Thoreau, and other writers who extolled living life to the fullest.  After ten months on the road, Alex decided to hitchhike to Alaska.  Four months later his body was found in an abandoned bus on the edge of Denali where he had starved to death.

I believe I first heard about McCandless from a visiting author who used some of the music from the motion picture about his life as inspiration for a book.  I watched the movie and was left thinking about what an idiot this boy seemed to be, going into the wilderness completely unprepared.  During the two years since then I have heard from more than couple of young-ish people about how they read this book during college and were really inspired by Alex's life so I knew I had to read it for myself.  I can't say that my opinion of Alex has changed after reading Krakauer's book, but I do think I get why others find his story inspirational.  He is something of a modern-day Thoreau in terms of philosophy but one that probably speaks more to young people now.  Still, I remain unimpressed with his decisions and with Krakrauer's writing which is unnecessarily pretentious and full of labored metaphors.  Also, during our trip to Alaska this past summer I asked our Denali tour guide what real Alaskans think of McCandless.  They are not impressed.

Relief Map by Rosalie Knecht

Livy is spending a hot summer as she always does: hanging out in her small hometown with her best friend Nelson.  When the electricity goes out in their small town the residents are surprised to find that it was cut off purposefully by the police and FBI.  Furthermore, the access into and out of town has been closed as law enforcement searches for a wanted man from the Republic of Georgia.  The search for the man does on for days and the tensions and mistrust in the town begins to grow.  It seems that everyone has a secret to cover up including Livy and Nelson who end up involved in something that started with good intentions but ends up going wrong.  

This books seems intended to be an atmospheric piece but I didn't much enjoy the atmosphere.  Livy's involvement with the crime that is committed just frustrated me no end!  I realize that she - all of them, really - was swept up in events but she actively participated when it came down to it.  I was also expecting bigger secrets from the townsfolk based on the synopsis of the book.  Livy's parents seemed to have the biggest secret that was revealed while the other adults were just getting more frustrated with each other.  But even that seemed unrealistic to me in this day of riots, protests and marches.  Why weren't the people in this town taking more assertive action to resolve things?  I just had a hard time getting wrapped up in the events.

One of Us by Jeannie Waudby

K manages to survive a bombing by the Brotherhood and is rescued by Oskar.  K has no family and is very taken with Oskar so when he asks her to infiltrate the Brotherhood and report back to him, she agrees and is quickly enrolled in the Brotherhood academy.  Using her new name of Verity, K finds herself with friends for the first time in her life including Greg who might end up being more than just a friend.  K wants to help stop the terrorism she has heard about but the members of the Brotherhood tell a different story and K sees no evidence of plots amongst her friends and teachers.  In fact, the more time she spends in the Brotherhood the more convinced she becomes that there are no terrorism plans at all.  But Oskar makes it clear that refusing to do what he wants is not an option.

I was intrigued by the description of the book and was expecting it to be more like this:  someone from a fundamentalist sect ends up in our society and comes to realize that things are not as bad as she had been led to believe.  However, this book is not a bit different starting with the fact that the main character goes into the religious group.  It was never entirely clear to me whether the Brotherhood actually did have terrorists or if that was all just fear mongering on the part of mainstream society.  I think that a good deal of the book moves a bit slowly but once K goes to the rally with Oskar, things are fast-paced and exciting.

Saturday, December 12, 2015

It's a Wonderful Death by Sarah J. Schmitt

RJ dies unexpectedly and at the wrong time when a gypsy pushes her into the Grim Reaper.  RJ's not ready to die because she has a great life - popular and happy - and she figures she's owed the rest of her life since she wasn't the intended target in the first place.  Turns out, it's not that easy to return her to Earth and RJ has to sit through a tribunal to see if returning her is worth all the hassle.  The angels in charge of the decision aren't so sure RJ is worth it and she begins to agree with them when she is reminded of the mean things she did to earn her spot as queen bee at her school.  RJ is given an opportunity to turn her fate around by being put back into three situations in her life to see if she can make better decisions this time around and change her timeline. 

This is a fun book with a few deeper themes, particularly towards the end.  I read it quickly, in part because each chapter ended on a nice cliffhanger that left me feeling like I could squeeze in just one more chapter...  I enjoyed RJ and her development but I did feel like the section leading up to her return to Earth was just too long to keep the story clicking along at a good pace. 

The Hired Girl by Laura Amy Schlitz

Joan wants to live a life like the heroines of her favorite books Jane Eyre and Ivanhoe but there is not much chance of that living on her father's farm and working like a dog to take care of him and her three brothers.  Joan's dad has even squashed her dream of becoming a schoolteacher by making her quit school and chasing off her former teacher who comes to visit.  When her father burns Joan's books she knows she has to leave to find a better life so she sneaks away and ends up in Baltimore where she lies about her age and manages to land a job as a hired girl making six dollars a week.  Joan is thrilled to be working for the Rosenbachs who seem to be living in the lap of luxury with electricity and carpet sweepers but that does not keep her from the drama any 14 year old in 1911 with a secret identity would face.  Joan writes about her struggles with religion, money and first love in her diary.

I enjoyed The Hired Girl throughout which is saying something since, as you know by now, historical fiction is not my preferred genre.  I had heard good things about it but I'd also heard that there was a lot of controversy about it so I was reading with an eye open to issues.  So far, most of the complaints about it I've read are discussing a few passages about Indians and Joan's insensitive, offhand comments about them.  What surprises me about this is that I have yet to read anything concerning Joan's comments about Jewish people or Catholics which is a large part of the story.  I'm sure those complaints are out there but they are not what comes up most readily when searching "hired girl controversy".  My point here is not really to comment on any of those issues other than to say that I was surprised there isn't MORE controversy out there about this title.  But I'm also a big believer in the fact that kids and teens don't bring the same stuff to a book that adults do.  In this case, that could be good or bad. 

Ignoring all that and just focusing on the story, I found Joan to be somewhat annoying and got frustrated by the mistakes she continued to make throughout.  I was also somewhat confused by Mrs. Rosenbach who definitely blew hot and cold toward Joan.  Finally, the entire resolution of things seemed quick and probably unrealistic given what had gone down and even though Joan was (mostly) not at fault.  But even with all of that, I enjoyed the story and wanted to know what was going to happen next. 

Thursday, December 3, 2015

Sunny Side Up by Jennifer L. Holms

Sunny is spending the summer of 1976 with her grandfather in Florida.  Every day he promises excitement only to then take her places like the post office or out to a very early dinner with "the girls", a group of senior citizens.  Sunny is also plagued by memories of some things her older brother did before she left home which hurt her and the rest of the family.  When she finally makes a new friend in Florida her time there becomes more interesting as the two find missing cats for the neighbors and read comic books.

 This graphic novel is very much in the tradition of Raina Telgemeier.  The basic story is funny and somewhat light but there is more happening beneath the surface as we learn more about Sunny's life at home.  This is exactly the kind of book my students love (and I enjoyed it, too!).  A great book for upper elementary and middle school.

Lizard Radio by Pat Schmaltz

Kivali was abandoned as a baby wearing only a T-shirt with a lizard printed on it.  Her adoptive mother Sheila has told Kivali that she is a saurian, someone from another planet of lizards so she has never been sure of her true identity.  Is she lizard or human?  Is she a boy or a girl?  Kivali doesn't know, which makes her a bender and puts her in danger of being sent to the Blight.  In order to help her conform to society's standards Kivali is sent to CropCamp where she learns how to grow crops but also how to be a part of the group.  Kivali immediately is given the nickname Lizard and finds, to her surprise, that she enjoys the routine of camp life - working and having friends.  Her world is rocked when she hears that Sheila has disappeared, possibly vaped, and that the lying camp director wants to become Lizard's new foster mother.  Something is not right with this story nor with director Darlene's interest in her.

This is a sci fi transgendered teen story which seems like something I would love, but I didn't.  I started out intrigued by the world being built and Kivali's true nature and how torn she felt by wanting to just go with the flow and be part of something, but that intrigue faded about 2/3 of the way into the book.  Then it was just long and too much abstract things about feeling the call to be a lizard.  I was also sure she was going to vape and I'd finally know more about what, exactly, that meant, but that didn't happen either.  I just got tired of the whole thing.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

No True Echo by Gareth P. Jones

Eddie's mother died in a car accident when he was a baby so he lives with his grandmother.  He is not expecting anything unusual but his life gets mixed up with the arrival of a new girl named Scarlet.  She's beautiful and Eddie is instantly tongue-tied around her, especially when she begins talking about things that make no sense and refuses to answer any of his questions about what might be happening.  But all of that pales in comparison when he witnesses his favorite teacher murdering the man who might be his father and then wakes up to find that he's reliving the same day all over again.  Gradually, Eddie finds out that his mother and (possible) father are the inventors of Echo Technology which allows time travel.  The problem is, not everyone in the future has been playing by the rules and several timelines have been created so it's up to Scarlet to figure out which reality is the original reality.  As he relives the day, Eddie finds out about his various pasts and futures, one of which allows him to meet his mother for the first time.

What happened?  That's my first response to this book.  Like most time travel stories it leaves you trying to account for the loopholes inherent in time travel.  What Jones does that is smart is he has the characters say that you're not going to understand it so don't try, implying that in the future this will all make sense for all of us.  I appreciate the out he has given himself but that didn't stop me from wondering what had just happened.  Eddie's overlapping days and lives left me more than a little confused at times but the story is nicely grounded in his relationships. 

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Don't Fail Me Now by Una LaMarche

Michelle is barely hanging on.  Her drug addicted mother is in jail, again, and Michelle has to take care of her younger brother and sister, making sure they don't get split up into separate foster homes.  The aunt who takes them in demands $300 in rent money, today, which will take every penny of Michelle's paycheck from Taco Bell.  While at work she is approached by Tim who tells her his stepsister is Michelle's half sister.  Michelle always knew her good for nothing biological father had another family but the two girls have never met.  Now Leah has reached out to tell Michelle that their father is dying in a hospice in California and says he has an heirloom to pass on to Michelle.  With thing so bad Michelle figures she's got nothing left to lose and sets off on a road trip with all of her siblings and Tim to confront the father who left them all.
This story started slowly for me as the characters  and desperate circumstances were being established.  But once the road trip started the story picked up.  The growing relationship between the siblings was well done but I especially appreciated the ending.  Things were not tied up neatly for Michelle but she had a different perspective on what she had.  This is a nice family story.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

The Thing About Jellyfish by Ali Benjamin

Since the death of her former best friend, Franny, Suzy has decided to not speak.  The girls first met in a swimming class when Franny swam across the entire pool on her first try.  That's why Suzy doesn't believe her friend could have just drowned.  On a class trip Suzy reads about the Irukandji jellyfish, a jellyfish so toxic that just brushing one of its tentacles can make a grown man beg for death.  Suzy decides that Franny must have encountered an Irukandji jelly and sets off to prove her theory, ultimately deciding she needs to travel across the world to speak to the man she believes holds the answers. 

Wow, what a story!  Like many of my favorites it is a quiet, slow-growing story that sneaks up on you.  Suzy is a great, intelligent narrator who is completely relatable in her struggle to figure out how middle schoolers act.  She is unflinchingly honest when showing the reader the slow dissolve of her friendship with Franny without completely throwing Franny under the bus.  A really lovely sad, heart-breaking, realistic, hopeful book.

Orbiting Jupiter by Gary Schmidt

Jackson's parents decide to take foster child Joseph into their home and onto their farm.  Joseph has had a lot of problems and by eighth grade, he has fathered a baby girl named Jupiter.  Jackson's parents and Joseph's interaction with the family's cows have a calming effect and slowly Joseph begins to relax and sees a more hopeful future for himself despite the arrival of his abusive father.  However, he wants to be a part of Jupiter's life and sets off on a dangerous trip to find her.

The ending of this book threw me for a loop.  I love Schmidt's writing and all of his other books have left me in tears of sadness and happiness but this one?  Not so much.  I had a difficult time with Joseph's - a 13-year-old - devotion to his daughter.  I also couldn't entirely swallow the love story but I think that's me bringing an adult's perspective to young love.  Despite those problems, I liked the story throughout until the tragic twist at the end which seemed an unnecessary part to add on to Joseph's story. 

The Nest by Kenneth Oppel

Steve has a new baby brother who has a number of health issues so his parents are usually at the hospital or talking about the baby.  One day, a strange looking wasp stings Steve and he begins having dreams where the wasp queen is speaking to him.  She tells Steve that they are growing a new baby that will be perfect.  At first the wasp is comforting and kind but as the dreams go on Steve becomes more worried about the wasp's plan, especially when the queen makes it clear that Steve will have to help the wasps get rid of his current flawed baby.  Are his dreams real or part of his previous troubles that caused him to see a counselor? 

I'm not sure what I think of this book.  Literally.  When I wasn't reading it, I was thinking about it so that's a good thing.  I assumed throughout that the wasps weren't real and that somewhere I would find out more about Steve's earlier issues which would explain what was happening with the wasps and the baby.  But when I finished the book I came to believe that maybe the wasps were real and that this is a horror/monster story which means I have to rethink everything.  Definitely worth reading, I'm just not sure what happened.

Wolf by Wolf by Ryan Graudin

Ya-el is part of the resistance working to bring down Hitler after he and the Axis powers won World War II.  Now, in 1956, Germania encompasses all of what was Europe and Africa while Emperor Hirohito rules Asia.  After several assassination attempts, Hitler is never seen in public anymore.  The only exception is at the ball following the Axis motorcycle race that covers thousands of kilometers and three continents.  The winner the previous year was an Aryan girl named Adele Wolf who so captivated Hitler that he danced with her at the ball.  Now Ya-el's mission is to take Adele's identity and win the race so she will have the chance to assassinate Hitler at the victor's ball.  Looking like Adele is easy since Ya-el can shape shift and look like anyone she wants as a result of the experiments done on her while she was in a concentration camp.  But acting like Adele turns out to be harder then she expected when Adele's brother also enters the race and another competitor makes it clear that he and Adele had some sort of relationship the previous year.  Ya-el needs to keep everyone fooled while battling to win the race.

I had hear great things about this book but was feeling a little iffy because what do I care about motorcycle races?  Turns out, I do care.  The action kept moving without focusing too much on the mechanics of a motorcycle, turning instead to the relationships of the racers.  Flashbacks show us Ya-el's life in the camp and the people she meets after escaping who drive her to complete her mission.  Life on the road is filled with peril including mechanical breakdowns, kidnappers, and poisoned food.  I really enjoyed this unique story which ended neatly enough for me to be satisfied while still indicating that there might be a sequel.

Monday, November 16, 2015

Shock Point by April Henry

Cassie is living with her mother and her new stepfather, a psychiatrist.  When Cassie finds information about some of her stepfather's former patients indicating that they were taking an experimental drug which caused them to commit suicide, she finds herself in danger.  Just as she's about to go to the press, Cassie is kidnapped and taken to a reform center for rebellious teens.  She finds out that her stepfather told the center that Cassie is a drug addict and that she likely won't be released until she turns 18.  But life at the center is unbearable with rotting food and physically abusive isolation.  Cassie has to find a way to escape the center and expose her stepfather for what he is before other teens die from his drug.

This is one of April Henry's earlier YA books which may be why I didn't enjoy it as much as her usual fare.  It felt grittier (which is hard to imagine since her usual fare involves lots of murder) and the ending fell into to place much too easily.

All American Boys by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely

After his ROTC training Rashad packs his uniform into his backpack and goes to the convenience store to pick up supplies for a party.  While bending down, a white woman trips over him and the police officer in the store grabs Rashad and begins beating him.  The arrest and beating are witnessed by Quinn, a teen who knows the cop and thinks of him as a big brother.  Rashad survives the beating, barely, and wakes up to find himself the center of community outrage over another beating of a black boy by a white cop.  Quinn, meanwhile, is struggling with what he has seen and his loyalty to his friend.  As tensions at school rise, Quinn has to choose which side he's on.

A timely book that really puts you in the brains of the two main characters.  With all the racial tensions in the country and the ongoing problem of black youths being beaten and killed by white officers, this book gives readers something more than a headline.  I'm a little sad that it is definitely a high school book due to the language because it's definitely something middle schoolers could talk about as well.

The Scorpion Rules by Erin Bow

Greta has lived as one of the Children of Peace for most of her life.  After years of unending wars, people asked artificial intelligence Talis to bring about peace.  His solution:  make every world leader send his or her own child somewhere to be held hostage.  If a ruler declares war, his or her child is killed.  Having these hostages hasn't stop all aggression but it has made a big difference.  Greta and her classmates have been together for years so their world is unsettled when Elian arrives and refuses to follow the rules of the Precepture.  Knowing that Greta's mother and Elian's grandmother are likely to be warring with each other soon over water rights, the two teens feel that their time is limited but everyone is surprised when Elian's grandmother invades the Precepture to force Greta's mother to do as she wishes.  

I wasn't entirely sure of this book as I began it.  The writing style can be stylized - is that the word I'm looking for? - and abrupt, which made me think I might not be liking it.  But before I knew it, I was unable to put it down and was completely sucked in by the end.  The romance - great and not what we've been conditioned to expect.  In fact, I read a review on Shelfari from someone complaining about the book and how she didn't even finish it because she knew exactly what was going to happen with the romance. I'm sure she would've been surprised had she bothered to keep reading.  The AI and transition to AI were both well-developed.  Lots to think about, lots to entertain, lots to be sad about. 

Zero Day by Jan Gangsei

Adele disappeared from her parent's home at age 8.  Now she has escaped from her captors and is returned home.  Her home now, however, is the White House because her father has become president in the eight years since she disappeared.  Most people are happy to have her back including her former best friend Darrow, but some are suspicious of Addie and whether or not she is just an innocent victim.  Addie's own actions are cause for suspicion as she slowly reveals where she has been and what she has been doing.

This is a great idea for a story but the execution falls flat.  It seemed there were many opportunities for excitement but the writing didn't capitalize on those opportunities.  Could've been better.

A Thousand Nights by E.K. Johnston

When the Prince comes to claim his next bride, the unnamed heroine of this book knows he will pick her sister since she is the most beautiful girl in their village.  Moved to protect her sister, she adorns herself to bring the Prince's attention to herself and is chosen to go back to the palace with him.  She expects to die on her wedding night just like the hundreds of other brides before her but when the Prince comes to see her, she tells him a story that captures his attention enough to buy her one more night of life.  And then another, and another, and another....  Meanwhile, she discovers that her family has been worshipping her as a small god and she seems to be developing powers as a result; powers that allow her to begin to see what is possessing her husband.

I was hoping for more fairytale and greater redemption for the imprisoned prince in this story based on the Arabian Nights.  The magical elements of the heroine developing into a small god were interesting but I was more wrapped up in the growing rebellion that was sparking in her name.  The story seems a bit long and not magical enough to attract widespread interest.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Love Fortunes and Other Disasters by Kimberly Karalius

 Fallon is starting high school in Grimbaud, a town known for romance thanks to the charms and fortunes from Zita's Lovely Love Charms shop.  It is a ritual for the students to line up each fall to receive their love fortune.  Fallon's own parents and older brother found true love thanks to Zita's fortunes so she can't wait to see what's in store for her.  It is a great disappointment, therefore, when her fortune says her love will never be returned which means she is destined to join the spinsters in town.  Along with others who received bad fortunes, Fallon joins a secret club determined to bring down Zita and change their luck and that is where she meets gorgeous Sebastian.  He is a heartbreaker so it's difficult to see how his fortune could've been anything other than good but he commits to the club wholeheartedly, focusing much of his attention on Fallon. 

Boy, this story really didn't do anything for me.  It sounded so promising and fun but I never really grasped the nuances of the world here nor how the fortunes worked as compared to the charms.  It was just too long for what it was and not nearly enough fun.

Challenger Deep by Neal Shusterman

Caden believes that someone at school is planning to kill him because the other student looked at him in the hallway.  He also experiences life on board the Challenger Deep, a ship preparing to explore the ocean's deepest trench.  On the ship he interacts with the unusual captain, his wise-cracking parrot and the ship's masthead.  Caden's fantasies are slowly taking over his real life as his schizophrenia progresses.  Eventually, his parents have no choice but to put Caden into a facility where he can get the help he needs to deal with his illness.

This book has been short-listed for the National Book Award.  I am a huge fan of Shusterman however I struggled with this book.  It is very good and undoubtedly an accurate portrayal of schizophrenia since Shusterman's son is the co-author and inspiration for the book.  It is this very accuracy that made it so difficult for me to read, particular the chapters on the Challenger Deep which are extremely difficult to decipher.  As the book progressed I began to see the real life events reflected on the ship which  might've actually made it more difficult for me because then I was trying to reconcile the two worlds.  Considering how difficult it was for me to make sense of things while reading, I can only imagine how difficult it is to actually be living that life.  Which is probably the point of the book and what makes it an important, excellent story.

George by Alex Gino

George knows she is really a girl but she keeps this a secret from everyone, worried about how she will be received when she lets people know she is transgender.  When she is alone, she looks at fashion magazines and imagines what it would be like to live life as the girl she is.  When her class begins preparing for a production of Charlotte's Web, George decides to try out for the part of Charlotte with the encouragement of her best friend Kelly.  Her decision to come out to this extent brings about a lot of opposition but also some support from unexpected sources.

This book shouldn't be dismissed simply because it is being released in the post Caitlin Jenner world and could be accused as jumping on a trendy topic.  Gino does a good job of putting the reader in George's brain and making you feel the discord of living in the wrong body.  It is a good choice for middle schools and the only thing that could be objected to is just the subject matter in general as there is nothing edgy in it other than that.  However, I found George's journey to be a little too simple.  I still liked the book but for transgender lit, I prefer Gracefully Grayson for more depth.

The Dead I Know by Scott Gardner

Aaron has enough things happening in his personal life to give him the nightmares that cause him to sleepwalk all over town. He lives in a trailer park where he is harassed by a local drug dealer.  His mam is suffering from dementia and Aaron is worried that she is a danger to herself.  Aaron's nightmares are actually memories of something terrible that happened years before.  With all of these problems, it's surprising that Aaron finds comfort while working as an apprentice at a funeral home with Mr. Barton.  Mr. Barton and his family give Aaron the quiet support he needs while letting him know that he's not the screw-up others have said he is.

This book reads like a high school book to me.  I don't believe there is anything inappropriate for middle school but it is a moodier book better suited to older readers with more patience for that.  It will not attract a big audience even at high school, however.  Mr. Barton is a great character and someone I wish I knew IRL.

Catch You Later, Traitor by Avi

At first, Pete doesn't understand why his friends are acting strangely but eventually he finds out that his teacher told the class Pete's dad is a communist.  In 1951 that's a very serious, and dangerous, charge.  Even Pete's best friend Kat has to stay away from him when her parent's hear the accusation so the two begin meeting in secret.  Pete's father doesn't agree with the current government practice of labeling communists and making people name names, but is that any reason for an FBI agent to be harassing Pete or for his father to be in danger of losing his job?  Pete is trying to solve the mystery of his father's background which his own paranoia grows about who knows what and who has been giving the FBI information about his fanily.

I'm not an Avi fan since I don't generally like historical fiction and because my students also avoid that so I wasn't expecting much for this book when I began it.  I was pleasantly surprised by the story which I enjoyed reading, except for the Sam Spade copycat writing at points.  Those sections just seemed forced. But even though I personally enjoyed the book, I still wouldn't recommend it simply because it will have very limited appeal to most middle schoolers. In fact, about a month before I read this book, I weeded nearly every Avi book in my collection since none of them had been checked out for several years.

Monday, November 9, 2015

Mortal Danger by Ann Aguirre

 Edie is just about to jump off a bridge when she is approached by Kian, a stunning boy who offers her the chance to join his "company".  Kian's organization will give Edie three wishes now in exchange for three favors in return sometime later. Edie decides to accept the offer and her first wish is to become beautiful so that she can get revenge on the people who have been making her life miserable.  Soon, however, Edie finds out that she has taken on a very dangerous ally who will stop at nothing to make sure she uses her other wishes as quickly as possible so that she is beholden to them. 

 This was a fairly tortuous read for me.  And I believe I was supposed to feel the love at the ending which was presented in an upbeat manner but, ugh, I'm just NOT feeling it.  Just don't care what happens to Edie and Kian. 

Into the Killing Seas by Michael Spradlin

Patrick and his younger brother have stowed away on the USS Indianapolis with the help of Marine Benny.  The two boys have been separated from their parents since the beginning of World War II and hope to be able to find them again. But their plan is endangered when the Indianapolis is sunk by a Japanese torpedo.  The two boys are left clinging to a makeshift raft for days while around them sailors are dying of dehydration, madness and shark attacks. 

I'm fascinated by the real life story of the USS Indianapolis and I like Spradlin's "Spy Goddess" series so I was expecting much more from this.  The writing is not good and Benny's 1940's lingo feels forced.  A book about people being eaten by sharks should be more exciting than this.

Red Queen by Victoria Aveyard

 Mare is a Red - a person with red blood.  Most people are Reds and unless they have a special skill, they don't have many options other than entering the military to fight in the never-ending war.  Mare knows she will be conscripted soon but a chance meeting lands her a position working as a servant for the Silvers, the ruling class of the country.  Silvers have silver blood and special powers such as controlling metal or making people do whatever they want by controlling their brains.  The day after Mare starts work the Silvers are having an event to choose a bride for the prince.  Each Silver family has put forth a princess to demonstrate her powers in the arena.  During one demonstration Mare is pitched into the arena and comes under attack by the princess and without thinking, Mare defends herself with powers she didn't know she had.  Powers she shouldn't have.  To cover this up, the Silvers tell everyone that Mare is a long lost Silver who has just been returned to them and will now be engaged to the younger prince.  Mare has no choice but to go along with the ruse but that doesn't mean she can work for the Scarlet Guard rebellion in secret.

This is another dystopia and to me it read just like all the others I have read.  I was not wowed by it nor did I find anything unique about it other than the color of blood.  However, putting my cranky review aside, it has been attracting a lot of interest with my students who are not yet so over the dystopia craze so I can appreciate it for that reason, if not personally.

When by Victoria Laurie

Maddie never understood the numbers she saw when looking at people until her father died on the date she has always seen on him.  Now that she knows she is seeing death dates she tries to avoid others but her mother has put her to work as a psychic of sorts in order to make money.  When a woman comes in to ask for a reading on her sick youngest son, Maddie sees that her older son is actually going to die a week later.  The woman claims Maddie is a fraud but when the boy disappears a week later Maddie and her best friend Stubby become the prime suspects and have to race to prove their innocence to the disbelieving FBI.

This story is very similar in premise to Num8ers by Ward.  I had a hard time with just how vicious the police officers were to Maddie and Stubby, especially when she finally proved her ability and their complete turnaround.  Just okay, not great.

I Love, I Hate, I Miss My Sister by Amelie Sarn

Sohane is observant of her family's Muslim faith.  She dresses modestly and follows the rules.  But her sister Djelila is the opposite - drinking, smoking, dating, questioning authority, and standing up to the local gang of boys who don't approve of her ways. That course of action is what causes her death when one of those boys sets her on fire.  Now Sohane is reeling from her sister's death as she recounts the story of their lives.

This is a short book but it packs a lot in a few pages.  There are not many books available that focus on Muslim characters and this does a good job of presenting them as real people, not a stereotypical herd. 

The Question of Miracles by Elana K. Arnold

Iris's parents have moved her to a new home in a new state in the hope of helping her deal with the death of her best friend.  Iris is lost, thinking about big questions of life and death and whether Sarah might be able to find her now that she has moved.   Iris starts hanging out with Boris, a boy without any other friends, even though she doesn't like him much at first.  Her interest in Boris increases when she finds out that he is going to be visited by the Vatican to see if his life was saved by a miracle when he was a baby.

I'm honestly having a hard time remembering much about this book which should tell you the impact it had on me.  Aside from that, I also don't believe it's going to grab my students much at all.

Friday, November 6, 2015

The Six by Mark Alpert

Adam has a disease that is slowly freezing his body and will kill him sooner rather than later.  His father is a technology genius who has developed a virtual reality game that allows Adam to experience a life without the constraints he has in real life.  While playing the game one day in his father's lab, Adam is approached online by Sigma, a rogue artificial intelligence program.  Sigma has bad intentions and has taken over a base with nuclear weapons in Russia and is always several steps ahead of the humans.  Adam's dad has developed a new protocol where human minds can be uploaded into robotic bodies and the scientific team hopes they will be able to get close enough to Sigma to stop him. Adam is one of six teens suffering from terminal illnesses who agree to try the procedure and become the primary force trying to save the world.

I was super-excited to read this book because I like sci fi and had heard great things about Alpert's adult work.  AND the premise sounded intriguing.  It was and the book was fine, but I wasn't as absorbed in it as I anticipated.  But as with most well-done sci fi, there is a lot to think about and many ethical implications to consider.

Devoted by Jennifer Mathieu

Rachel is part of a Quiverful family - a patriarchal, fundamentalist religion that believes in big families where girls are controlled by their fathers and then their husbands.  Rachel's parents have ten children and she has always assumed she would follow the same path as her older sister who seems blissfully happy with her early marriage and babies.  But Rachel begins to question some of her religious beliefs when her mother becomes pregnant again and doesn't seem to see the dangers of that even after the problems she had with her last pregnancy.  And then Rachel learns that Lauren Sullivan, a girl who left their community several years before, is back in town.  Unsure of what she is doing, Rachel contacts Lauren and the two begin a correspondence that leads to Rachel feeling haunted by the question of what she wants from her life.

I really loved this book for a quick, somewhat trashy read.  That's not to say that is it actually trashy or not well done, it is just a hot topic what with the Dugger's problems so it felt like a glimpse into a real life drama.  Rachel's decision is never treated lightly and her assimilation into regular society is not easy which I'm sure would be very realistic.  Although most of us are not in these extremely restrictive societies, I want girls to read this and become more aware of the ways in which women can be marginalized even in our equal society. 

Undeniable: Evolution and the Science of Creation by Bill Nye

Over a year ago Bill Nye debated Ken Ham, the founder of the Creation Museum, about evolution.  That debate is what led to this book refuting creationism beliefs in many detailed chapters.  Bill Nye does a great job taking very complicated ideas and writing about them in an accessible way while injecting some humor. And a lot of smackdown for Ham and his followers.  I spent a long time on this book, reading a few chapters at a time then taking time to reflect, because there was so much to think about.  Much of it is not easily recalled but I do remember Bill's stated reason for the book:  It's easy enough to write off adults such as Ham and ignore what they say and believe because you will never convince them to change their beliefs.  But their beliefs are being passed on to the next generation and that is dangerous and impacts our world.  As a teacher, I really appreciate Nye's feelings about impacting the future as well as his love of learning just for its own sake.  Bill, Bill, Bill, Bill!!!

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Mark of the Thief by Jennifer Nielsen

Nic is a slave working a mine in ancient Rome.  When a rich man arrives at the mines he sends Nic into a newly discovered cave to retrieve something for him.  Nic assumes he is going to his death since the others who have entered the cave have not returned but despite his rebellious nature he doesn't have much choice.  Inside the cave, Nic finds great treasures, the bulla - a magical necklace the rich man wanted - and a griffin.  Against his orders, Nic puts on the bulla and uses the griffin to make his escape after the griffin has marked him. Now that he is wearing the bulla Nic understands why the man wanted him to find it because he can feel the powers coursing through him.  Nic realizes that the bulla belonged to Julius Caesar and knows that whomever wears the necklace will have great powers.  Nic's new powers are further amplified by the griffin mark on his back but he has no idea how to control them.  He needs to find out soon, though, because many people in Rome are clamoring for the bulla to carry out their own agendas.

I am a fan of The False Prince as are most of my students.  I had Jennifer Nielsen come to visit my school and she did a great job working with the kids and getting them excited about writing, reading and her books.  At that time she had just returned from Italy where she was doing research for this book so I had even more excitement for this release.  However, this book did not live up to The False Prince for me.  In fact, I didn't care much about Nic nor his friends/helpers and had a hard time just getting through the story at all.  Despite my issues with it, Mark of the Thief was selected for a countywide reading program this year and it seems like my students are also less enamored with this book than her previous works.  I like the griffin, though. 

Welcome to the Dark House by Laurie Stolarz

Ivy doesn't know why she gets the e-mail about the contest in the first place.  She is not a fan of Justin Blake nor his horror movies, not after she lived through the real life horror of escaping from the person who murdered her parents.  But something makes her write about that experience and enter the contest to go to the Dark House and have her worst nightmares come true.  She is selected along with six other teens, all of whom are Blake superfans looking forward to a scary weekend.  But their fun quickly turns deadly in ways specifically tailored to their biggest nightmares. 

I am not a fan of horror movies so you should probably know that about me before taking my evaluation of this book to heart because this book is a written horror movie.  Unlike its movie counterparts, the book didn't actually keep me awake at night but it also didn't do much for me enjoyment-wise.  However, if you love slasher films, you'll probably love this book so give it a try.

Saturday, October 31, 2015

Under the Egg by Laura Marx Fitzgerald

Theodora adored her grandfather who was the glue holding her life together.  Her mother is always working and totally out of touch with the day to day running of the household and earning money so it was up to Grandpa Jack to make ends meet and take care of Theo.  As he was dying he whispered that there was a letter and a treasure hidden "under the egg".  Now, without Jack's social security, Theo could really use a treasure to keep their house but the only egg she knows of is a painting of a large egg.  When she accidentally strips off some of the egg painting and sees something else underneath it, she sets off trying to solve the mystery of what could be hidden there and how her grandfather came to own it.

Reading the reviews of this book which compared it to other mysteries I didn't like made me reluctant to even begin Under the Egg.  So I was very pleasantly surprised by the story once I finally started.  I enjoyed Theo and Bodhi's investigation and I learned a lot about the Monuments Men which then made me watch the movie about them which further enhanced my appreciation of this book.  Plus, the movie had George Clooney so what could go wrong there?  Good mystery with more to it that it originally seems.

Twerp by Mark Goldblatt

Julian "Twerp" Twerski has just returned from a week long suspension to find that his class is studying Shakespeare.  In lieu of writing a paper about Shakespeare, Julian's teacher allows him to keep a journal.  Through the course of the journal Julian reveals a lot about his life, his best friends, and, eventually, what he did that caused him to be suspended in the first place.  

Here is the problem I had with this book:  I didn't like any of the characters much.  Julian eventually grew on me as I learned more about him but that took quite awhile.  I think that I'm supposed to find his best friend funny but all I saw was that Lonnie was clever and manipulative and the main reason Julian kept getting in trouble.  Their friendship seemed real but not enjoyable for this reader. Also, it's set in the past which is always a problem when selling to teens.

Shadow by Michael Morpurgo

Matt's best friend Aman has lived in England for the past six years after his family escaped from Afghanistan.  Despite his years in England, now his family is being deported and he and his mother are waiting in a refugee camp hoping for some help.  Matt tells the story of Aman's escape to his grandfather hoping that somehow he can help his friend.  Aman's escape was greatly aided by a stray dog he named Shadow who stuck with him across four countries and through torture by the Taliban.  Now it looks like the family will need another miracle to avoid being sent back to the nightmare from which they escaped.

 I know this is supposed to be a deeply moving story of atrocities and survival and perseverance and a dog but that's exactly how it read to me and not in a deep, heartstring-tugging way.  The real life issues happening in Afghanistan and in places governed by radical groups such as the Taliban are sad and moving but this was too stilted and obviously meant to be moving to actually move me.  Even the dog didn't draw me in.

This is How it Ends by Jen Nadol

Riley finds the binoculars when he meets his friends in the woods one night.  They got together just to party and blow off steam but something strange happens when they take turns looking through the binoculars.  Riley sees himself in bed with Sarah, his best friend's girlfriend.  He has always had a crush on Sarah so he assumes he must just be hallucinating.  But Natalie sees her father's murder which then happens just a few days later.  Suddenly the binoculars seem a lot more sinister.  Are they actually showing the future?  And if so, are the things they've seen inevitable?

 Since I am, once again, behind in my writing about these titles I often have to remind myself about the details of a book.  With this one I not only had to read the review, I also had to find a second summary before my memory kicked in about it.  That's not a great sign.  I don't know that it's as dismal as that would seem as an indicator of enjoyment for most readers, but the book didn't make a lot of impression on me.

Stolen Treasure by Anne Schraff

One of the most prized possessions in Isa's house is a picture of her grandmother.  It was a gift given to her grandmother by her grandfather and it is so cherished that Isa's mom and aunt fight over it.  The painting disappears one day after Isa has had a slumber party.  The natural suspect is one of Isa's friends who has been in trouble before but Isa doesn't want to believe she would steal from the family so she sets out to prove her friend's innocence.

This book from Saddleback Publishers is a low level reader.   The story is not deep but it has proven to be popular with my middle schoolers who are struggling readers.

Hide and Seek by Catherine MacPhail

Nicole can't wait to play a trick on the new girl, Destiny.  She begins telling Destiny a story about someone who died in the school and how the ghost still lives there and appears at night.  When she has Destiny reeled in, Nicole suggests they spend the night at the school to see the ghost firsthand and even though she doesn't really want to, Destiny agrees to go along with the plan.  What she doesn't know is that Nicole has played mean tricks on others in the past with the help of several friends and she has called all of them in to help again.  Their play is to play everything just like a horror movie with each one going off to find something and never coming back.  The plan seems to be going perfectly, maybe even a little too convincingly...

This book is intended for middle to high school students who are reading at about the first or second grade level and it is perfect for that crowd.  The cover is cool and the story is just the type of thing teens want to read. Many books written for struggling readers read exactly like that - stilted and obvious.  This book can easily "pass" as actual middle school fiction.  One of many published by Saddleback.

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Kinda Like Brothers by Coe Booth

Jarrett is used to his mother's tendency to take in any baby in need and foster him or her until a permanent home can be found.  He doesn't like having to share her attention with the never-ending string of babies in the house but he has learned to deal with it.  But things are much different when his mom agrees to take in Treasure and her 12 year old brother Kevon, who is now sharing Jarrett's bedroom.  The two boys clash from the beginning and things really heat up when it turns out that Kevon is a great basketball player and attracts the attention of Caprice, the girl Jarrett likes.  Jarrett starts telling people at school and the rec center some of Kevon's secrets and Kevon responds in kind. 

This is a great story of the two boys and their struggles to get along which really is just like brothers.  The portrayal of both boys is good but I also liked Mom's boyfriend who is a very strong role model for all the boys in the neighborhood and a good partner for Jarrett's mom who needs someone understanding.

Unfriended by Rachel Vail

Truly and Natasha used to be best friends before Natasha ditched her to be part of the popular crowd.  Now Truly considers Hazel to be her best friend so she is surprised but happy when Natasha invites her to sit with the in crowd at lunch.  Truly goes off without a thought for Hazel and Hazel is so hurt and angry she decides to get revenge by hacking into all of Truly's social media accounts and posing as her.  The rumors, snubs and accusations fly from there with everyone getting involved.

This book has characters who are deeper than you would imagine but it is still basically a mean girl story although one set right now with all the pop culture and social media references.  The trick is that it is difficult to pinpoint who, exactly, is the mean girl.  Natasha definitely falls most neatly into that category but even so we find out some motivation for her behavior.  Everyone else makes mistakes but also do admirable things which is part of why the book is more worth reading than others that seem similar.

Shutter by Courtney Alameda

When Micheline and her ghost-hunting crew enter the hospital without permission they don't expect serious trouble so they are surprised when the powerful ghost seems to know them and all of them are infected with a soulchain, a ghost-caused infection that will kill them in just a few days if they don't stop it.  Micheline is the daughter of the head of the Helsing Corps and her father is a no-nonsense, cold man.  With nothing much else to lose, Micheline and her crew decide to track the entity through whatever means necessary, not always the safest ones, in order to save their lives. 

Teens often ask for scary books but middle school fiction is seldom scary enough for true horror lovers.  Shutter ought to meet that need.  The ghost is vicious and leaves a disgusting trail of gore in its wake.  The revelation about just who and what the ghost is and what it wants should leave readers with shivers.  I personally found the book too long but I can appreciate it for its dark story.

Whatever After: Fairest of All by Sarah Mlynowski

Abby's younger brother Jonah drags her into the basement of their new home where he has discovered a large mirror making strange noises.  When the siblings knock on the mirror three times they are sucked into it to fairy tale land  where they meet Snow White.  Abby and Jonah arrive just as Snow is about to eat an apple from an old woman at her door.  Knowing his fairy tales, Jonah knocks the apple away and saves Snow's life.  But if she doesn't eat the poisoned apple, then Snow will never meet her prince and live happily ever after.  Abby and Jonah have to find a way to put the story back on track.

This is a fun book for low readers who don't want to look like they are low readers.  The lexile level is 400 but the story still has good twists and turns to satisfy middle school readers. 

The Boy in the Black Suit by Jason Reynolds

 Matt and his father are not handling the death of Matt's mother well.  His father has begun drinking again and is nearly killed when he is hit by a car while drunk one night.  Matt is now on his own and needs some money so he takes a job at the local funeral home with Mr. Ray.  Matt finds that when he watches other people break down with their own grief, it helps him deal with his own sadness just a bit.  When he sees a girl his own age named Lovey at her grandmother's funeral he is instantly interested in the smart, beautiful and tough girl.  As Matt spends more time with Mr. Ray and Lovey some of his own secrets come out along with those of his new friends.

I just love Jason Reynolds.  He has an ability to write a story with deep themes but in such an effortless way that you don't realize the complexities involved.  Every single character on the page is completely rounded out no matter how large or small his/her role in the story.  Still, I didn't love this book as much as When I Was the Greatest, his first book.  But it is still great and will resonate with anyone who is struggling with grief.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Misdirected by Ali Berman

Ben's family is not religious but he has always attended a Catholic school because his parents believe he will get a better education there.  When they have to relocate for work he is enrolled at a Christian Academy.  Everyone at his former school was accepting of people from different religions but Ben finds that it is not at all acceptable to be anything other than Christian at his new school, especially not an atheist like Ben.  Already facing some bullying for his lack of beliefs, Ben is dismayed by the curriculum at his school which completely disregards science.  Although he is trying to not make waves, Ben refuses to compromise his beliefs and writes a well-documented paper about evolution which receives an F.  Ben goes on a public rant filled with expletives and ends up in more trouble than ever. 

Misdirected approaches prejudice from an interesting angle which is not actually anti-Christian. 
Ben's girlfriend Tess is tolerant of his beliefs - more than he is of hers - and others at school support him as well.  While I liked the subject and the idea of reverse discrimination, I wasn't caught up in Ben's story.

The Pretty App by Kate Sise

 Blake has been the lead mean girl at her school for a long time but she is starting to have qualms about how she treats others.  Blake misses her close relationships with her older sister who has pulled away since leaving for college and her former best friend who is part of the geeky computer kids.  Blake is looking forward to starting college herself and having a clean slate.  She thinks her clean slate might have arrived earlier than expected when she is selected as a finalist for The Pretty App, a new app looking for the most beautiful girls in the United States.  Blake is excited to travel to California to participate in the reality show aspect of the app even while she's hurting from the lack of contact from her new boyfriend who left her with while saying that everything he said and felt was real, no matter what else she hears.  Blake is in for several big shocks when she arrives in California.

I was looking to read something light and easy and this filled the bill although it wasn't as fast as I expected nor wanted it to be.  Because she is looking to change Blake is a much more sympathetic character than you would expect given her status in the school. In fact, the main problem I had was trying to figure out why such a nice girl would've been so nasty in the first place.  There are quite a few references to events that I assume happened in the first book, The Boyfriend App so it would've been nice to have that background before reading this one but it wasn't necessary to understand what was happening in this one. 

The Zodiac Legacy: Convergence by Stan Lee

Steven is bored with his class trip to the museum so when he hears someone screaming for help he is eager to find the source.  Steven ends up in a secret room where a strange ritual is taking place with Maxwell trying to absorb the powers of all the animals from the Chinese Zodiac.  Interrupting the ritual, Steven absorbs the powers of the Tiger and is quickly recruited by Jasmine who is part of an organization fighting against Maxwell's group.  Other zodiac powers have been claimed by teens around the world so Steven and Jasmine have to find those people and get their help before Maxwell finds them. 

Being nerdish myself, I was eager to read this book by Lee but ended up wondering when it would ever end.  The answer was:  not soon enough because it is SO LONG! 

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo

Watch my video review here

Inej is a member of the Dregs, a tough crew in a tough city.  Inej is known as the Wraith because of her ability to scale walls and get into any place without being seen or heard.  The Dregs' leader is Kaz, a ruthless, wily opportunist.  With his reputation, Kaz is the natural choice for an impossible mission.  Someone has developed a new drug that severely amplifies the magical powers of the Grisha, making them nearly unstoppable but leaving them so addicted to the drug they are completely dependent on their new master.  Kaz agrees to somehow break into an impenetrable prison to kidnap the man responsible for making the drug.  He assembles a crew of six, including Inej, to complete the task.  Naturally things do go entirely as planned even without the threat of members of the team killing each other.

When I learned that Leigh Bardugo had another book coming out I gave a little shriek and immediately began searching for a digital ARC of it so I could begin reading it right away.  When that didn't pan out, I just put in my order for it so at least it would arrive on the day of publication.  All because Shadow and Bone is one of my all-time favorites.  Even better, Six of Crows is set in the same universe.  However, perhaps it was the build up but I didn't love this anywhere near as much as Shadow and Bone and I have a hard time believing that teens are going to stick with it as well.  There is little action for most of the book and lots of character development.  When the group does get to the castle and things begin going awry while Kaz seems to always be a step ahead, the story sizzles but the lead up is pretty darn long.  Also, Bardugo drops you right into this world with the explanations of certain things coming a chapter or two later.  That's why it's a challenging book and I often like a challenging book, but it felt like it might be a little unfair to teens.  Still a very good book, but not as all out enjoyable for me as her previous works.

Saturday, October 24, 2015

In Real Life by Cory Doctorow

Anda likes playing video games and she becomes very involved in Coarsegold after a woman visits school specifically looking for girls to play the online game.  In order to encourage more female gamers the girls have to choose to play as female characters.  Shortly after joining the game Anda is approached online by a character who tells her she can make money by killing gold farmers.  Anda is okay with that until she begins talking to one of the gold farmers and discovers that he is a real person from China who is working in slave-like conditions.  While unsure what she can do, Anda wants to help her new friend and begins a crusade to try to stop the abuse of Raymond and his friends.

This book is timely what with Gamer Gate and I think it's a good idea to have something encouraging girls to come out of the closet about their gaming but the story is heavy-handed.  I think that without the lengthy introduction explaining the politics of gold farming readers wouldn't necessarily get the deeper meaning here.  I also think that the message overshadows the story.