Friday, September 25, 2015

Autumn Falls by Bella Thorne

After her father dies Autumn moves with her family across the country.  She was one of the popular kids at her former school but she quickly makes an enemy of queen bee Reenzie, especially after cute Sean shows her some attention.  Autumn's grandmother gives her a journal from her father saying that it will change Autumn's life.  Autumn begins using it herself, recording her thoughts and wishes and strangely, those wishes begin coming true.  Is she receiving help from her departed father or is it all just a coincidence? 

 I somehow missed that Bella Thorne is a teen star until I was done with this book which is probably just as well since it might've made me analyze this differently.  The story is predictable but solid middle school fiction with just a hint of something deeper than the main theme. 

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Jackaby by William Ritter

Abigail is an independent young woman looking for a job in 1892.  She finds a position as an assistant for Jackaby, a private investigator who seems supernatural things no one else sees.  Jackaby is able to see ghosts and spot the signs of werewolves. He believes that the murder they are investigating has some unusual aspects to it, especially when a neighbor reports hearing screaming all day long, a sure sign he is hearing a banshee wail at his own upcoming death.  At Jackaby's house, Abigail meets the ghost who lives there and helps take care of the house and Jackaby's former assistant who has been transformed into a duck.  More deaths are piling up and it appears that Jackaby and Abigail have only a short time to solve the crimes because they have both started hearing the wailing of the banshee for themselves.

A delicious blend of fantasy, horror, comedy, and historical fiction (which I don't usually like).  I like both Jackaby and Abigail as characters and found the oddball parts of the story right up my alley.  Fun!

The unlikely Hero of Room 13B by Teresa Toten

Adam is part of a support group for teens with obsessive compulsive disorder.  When Robyn enters it is love at first sight for Adam.  And when everyone starts picking superheros after the counselor tells them to choose a new name, Adam has to choose Batman to pair with Robyn.  Adam is great at taking care of others and becomes a solid leader for the group.  At home he is dealing with his young half-brother who seems to be developing problems of his own and his mother who is receiving threatening letters.  But Adam is not so good at taking care of himself and soon his compulsions are growing out of control. 

Adam is a great, deep character struggling with his own problems while helping everyone around him.  The secondary characters are also nuanced and interesting.  Although I know some things about OCD, this book really gives the reader a sense of the frustration and problems for someone dealing with it.  Emotional and funny, a great story.

Ms. Marvel: No Normal by G. Willow Wilson

Kamala is a regular teen until she is transformed into Ms. Marvel.  Given the choice, she opts for Ms. Marvel's traditional outfit and look until she realizes that it's difficult to fight evil in heels with hair flying everywhere.  Kamala is unsure of how to use her new powers, let alone using them for crime-fighting.   Slowly she begins to become more sure of herself exactly as she is which leads her to becoming more powerful than she imagined.

A straight up comic book, not graphic novel, but fun.  It already has a following and buzz with students coming in to request it.

The Iron Trial by Holly Black and Cassandra Clare

Callum is facing the entrance exams for the Magisterium, a training ground for witches and wizards.  He has been told by his father that he does not want to enter the Magisterium and warned to fail the tests at all costs.  Callum tries his hardest to fail the tests but the faculty of the school still see something in him and he finds himself away from his father for the first time in his life.  Callum is teamed with two other students under the tutelage of Master Rufus.  At first the don't like each other much but they begin to work together well despite the boring and strict tasks assigned by their Master. As is often the case in stories such as this, there is someone on the inside working against the Magisterium.  Many suspect Callum with his awkward ways so it is up to him to prove them wrong.

On the face of it this is a Harry Potter knock off but it has its own twists and turns that set it apart.  I guessed wrong on the bad guy until it was nearly revealed so I always appreciate a story that isn't obvious.  Good adventure, characterization and fights between good and evil. 

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Six Impossible Things by Fiona Wood

Dan's whole life has changed.  He had a happy family - he thought - until his father revealed that he is gay and that his business has gone bankrupt.  Now Dan and his mother have nothing.  Luckily, they have inherited a great aunt's house so they have somewhere to live but the house smells of cat and dog pee and since it is an historical building they cannot make any changes to it and own nothing in it.  They also can't afford Dan's exclusive school so he will be attending the nearby public school for the first time. Dan is determined to make an impression as a cool guy but fails almost immediately when he becomes a target for the school bully.  That doesn't help him in his quest to cross off number one on his list of impossible things - kissing the beautiful girl next door.

Although I wasn't totally swept away by this book I did enjoy it.  One of my favorite things about it is that Dan's life didn't get better overnight, he had to put in a lot of work to slowly turn things around.  Although I was hoping things would turn out well, I'm not sure it's likely that his crush would actually forgive him for what he has done which is pretty awful. 

Painless by S.A. Harazin

David has the disease CIPA which makes him unable to feel pain.  People with his condition don't usually live very long since they can't tell when they have injured themselves in some way.  David has managed to live to 17 thanks to his grandmother's vigilance but when she dies David becomes determined to get as much out of life as possible before his own death.  David creates his bucket list which includes finding his parents and falling in love.  He already has the girl picked out but she has issues of her own including the fact that she is his caretaker.

 This book has a built-in hook with David's disease which is fascinating to ponder.  At first it doesn't seem all that bad but you quickly learn all of the limitations he has, most of which keep him from an everyday life.  I'd say my complaint is that I don't know that I liked David all that much.  However, I think that the problem is that he is pretty immature and self-centered for his age which makes sense given how sheltered he has been.

The Night She Disappeared by April Henry

Gabie, Kayla and Drew all work at Pete's Pizza.  One night Kayla goes out on a delivery and doesn't come back.  Police find her car abandoned, the pizzas on the ground, and a rock covered in blood.  All of Pete's employees are frightened but Gabie even more so when she finds out that the man who ordered the pizza asked for Gabie first.  Was she the intended target?  Is she next?

April Henry's books are quick reads with action to keep you turning pages.  She says this story was inspired by true events which makes it even more intriguing. 

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Dumplin' by Julie Murphy

View my video review here

Willowdean has never been concerned about her size even though her mother is a former beauty queen who runs the local pageant and prides herself on still being able to fit into the dress she wore when she won the crown.  Will loves her best friend Ellen and Dolly Parton and has a crush on Bo, the hot guy with whom she works.  When Bo likes her back the two begin meeting after work for secret make-out sessions in his truck and for the first time in her life, Will begins to feel self-conscious about her body, especially when she finds out that Bo has been keeping a big secret from her.  And when she overhears Ellen's new friend describing her as Ellen's pity case Will's confidence sinks even lower.  Trying to get some dignity back she ends things with Bo and in a spontaneous moment decides to enter the Miss Teen Blue Bonnet Pageant surprising everyone, especially herself.  But while she becomes a hero to several other misfits at school her own life feels more out of control as she fights with Ellen and her mother while trying to figure out just what Bo actually wants.

I do love a story about a fat girl making good.  What's very nice about this is that while Willowdean does begin to worry about her body, weight is not really the issue here.  Most stories with an overweight character have the obligatory scene of disappointment or stress followed by a binge which is then followed by self-loathing.  None of that here!  Instead, this is a real depiction of a large person who is just a character with faults and strengths and I loved it.  I did feel bad for Mitch, however and I wished that her relationship with her mother had been a little smoother. 

Half a Chance by Cynthia Lord

Lucy loves her father, a famous photographer who travels the world to get the perfect shot and is gone a lot.  She tries to make the best of things when her family moves to an old house on the edge of a lake at the beginning of the summer by taking pictures of her new environment which includes a family of loons.  Lucy learns that her father is judging an amateur photography contest and decides to enter anonymously to see if she actually has talent like her father.  She enlists the help of her new neighbor Nate but her photos begin to reveal some truths Nate doesn't want to face about his beloved grandmother.

Lord is good at quiet stories that hit you with a meaningful message.  Her writing is accessible for younger readers who will get something out of the story but there is depth available for older, more astute readers as well.

Firebug by Lish McBride

Ava has the ability to start fires with her mind.  For years she and her mother were on the run but their luck finally ran out when her mother was killed by the Coterie, a mafia-like group that uses those with powers for their own ends.  Now Ava grudgingly works for the Coterie and its leader Venus with her two best friends.  But when Venus assigns her the job of killing someone she knows Ava has to go rogue and find a way to bring down the Coterie, preferably without being killed herself. 

I really loved McBride's Hold Me Closer Necromancer so I had high expectations for this one.  As usually happens, this was then a letdown.  That most likely doesn't mean it was bad, it just didn't delight me as much as the previous title.

Seeing Red by Kathryn Erskine

After Red's father dies unexpectedly his mother makes plans to move them to Ohio leaving behind his father's automotive shop and the only home Red and his younger brother have ever known.  Red is determined to do whatever he can to stop this plan.  He tries removing the "For Sale" signs in the yard, making the house seem undesirable to potential buyers, and cutting school to do the repairs for customers with the help of his father's assistant.  When nothing works, Red turns to a bad boy neighbor and his gang but they tell him he needs to do something to prove his worth before he can join them.  Red's initiation involves a near lynching of his former African-American friend Thomas.  Racism doesn't stop there as Red learns more about his ancestors and encounters attitudes about his friendships with an elderly neighbor and his father's helper who becomes even more important to Red's family.

Writing this review has reminded me of the depth of this book which Erskine sneaks in with her skillful writing.  Every character is nuanced and few are all good or bad, just like real people.  A story of right and wrong and the difficulty in doing right all the time. 

The President Has Been Shot! by James Swanson

James Swanson has the knack for taking history and making it read like a thriller and this book is no exception.   Teens are not likely to be familiar with the specifics of Kennedy's assassination (in fact, I was in a classroom where a student asked who Kennedy was!) but Swanson does a great job of leading the reader through the events of the day.  He begins by introducing both Kennedy and his assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald and painting a clear portrait of both men.  Kennedy's importance to the country and the climate of the United States at the time of his presidency is clear as well as the personal, immediate style he favored that made him a favorite but also such an easy target.  Oswald's troubled life is presented equally well but not in a sensational way leading the reader to the fateful events of the day.  Swanson also does a nice job of countering any opposing theories about assassination with compelling evidence and lots of pictures that keep you turning pages.  And his focus on how Jacqueline Kennedy reacted to the death of her husband while helping to carry out the transition of power is heartbreaking.  A great history book that won't make you think you're reading a history book.  There's something here to be learned by every reader at any age.

Monday, September 14, 2015

The Cure for Dreaming by Cat Winter

Olivia is a young woman in 1900 who wants more from her life than being a wife, mother and homemaker.  Her cruel father believes that's all women are good for and is appalled at Olivia's support of voting.  When famous hypnotist Henri Reverie comes to town Olivia's father hires him to make Olivia follow directions and be submissive.  Reverie gives Olivia the command to "see the world the way it truly is" which gives her the ability to see a person's true nature.  Terrified by the monsters she sees, Olivia is desperate to undo the hypnosis and begins working with Henri who has issues of his own. 

I personally enjoyed the feminist themes of this book and how well-written it was.  I seriously question, however, its appeal to teens who I can't imagine being spellbound over voting rights.  I was also unimpressed with Olivia's final solution to reach her oppressors.  I think that the change came about too quickly and felt too simplistic in some way.  I will be interested to see how popular the book is with my students during an upcoming reading program.

The Body in the Woods by April Henry

Alexis, Nick and Ruby are all part of the Portland Search and Rescue Team.  They have all volunteered for their own personal reasons but are excited to receive their first call to help.  They are looking for a missing autistic man who is believed to be wandering in the woods.  As they work their grid looking for signs of the man, Alexis instead finds the body of a teen about their age who has been murdered.  The three teens want to help the police with the investigation but the police are, unsurprisingly, not interested in the help of teenagers.  But quirky, methodical Ruby does her own investigating and becomes convinced that this body is tied to other deaths and that they might be dealing with a serial killer.  What the three new friends don't realize is that the killer is watching them as well and has decided that one of them might be his next victim.

Typical April Henry which is to say, a fast read with lots of suspense and red herrings.  I felt that the killer in this one wasn't quite fair in terms of giving the reader a good shot of guessing who it was.  But it was still an easy book that kept me turning pages.  I liked all three characters as well and look forward to reading more about them.

Stella by Starlight by Sharon Draper

While up late one night Stella and her younger brother witness a Ku Klux Klan meeting very close to their house.  When she tells her parents the entire black community assembles at her house to try to figure out what to do.  Stella is suddenly more aware of the racial tensions in her town and unsure who all were under those sheets.  Things get even more heated when Stella's father decides to join the group of men taking a stand about voting despite the danger to himself and his family.

The setting of this book is unusual in that most books about prejudice seem to take place either during the Civil War or during the Civil Rights Movement.  Our teens know very little about race relations outside of those two events so it's a good thing to have this showing problems somewhere in between those time periods.  However, this book is like many other historical fiction books in that it is MAKING A POINT which does not appeal to teens.  After the powerful opening scene of the Klan rally the story loses steam until it finally picks up again when Stella's dad tries to register to vote.  I wish that some of that storytelling was more visible throughout.

The Life and Times of Benny Alvarez by Peter Johnson

Benny is Mr. Negativity who sees the glass half empty, much to his mother's dismay.  Benny is also someone who really likes words and challenges his two best friends to find new words in their dictionaries.  The three boys love their young teacher who they refer to as a demigoddess.  So Benny is unhappy when she reveals that she is engaged to the drippy poet who visits their class.  But things get more interesting when a class unit on poetry becomes a fight between the boys and girls.  Benny becomes the boys' representative on the side of prose against the girls who firmly believe a poem has to rhyme.  A competition begins to see who can write the better poem with Benny trying to come up with something while dealing with issues at home involving his beloved grandfather.

A nice book that didn't leave much impression on me.  I had to really stretch to come up with anything on it a couple of months later.

Illusive by Emily Lloyd-Jones

A deadly plague threatened the entire human population so a vaccine was rushed out without thorough testing.  A small group of those who received the vaccine developed some super powers.  Ciere is an illusionist - someone who can blend in with her surroundings seemingly becoming invisible.  Without any really good options, she joins a crime syndicate joining robberies as ordered along with her good friend Devon.  But Devon is captured by the government and placed under the control of a mentalist who can force him to do whatever they want.  Ciere and her other friends take a job that's so dangerous everyone else has passed on it.  They find out why when they retrieve the item which could end up bringing about the downfall of all of them.

This was a fast-paced book but I never got fully invested with any of the characters.  I think part of the problem was that I didn't entirely grasp all the powers and what they could do.  While I like a book where the author isn't talking down to the reader, I like a little more help in "getting" the world being built.  Despite that, there are twists and turns a-plenty to keep you guessing.

Twisted Myths: 20 Classic Stories with a Dark and Dangerous Heart by Maura McHugh

McHugh takes some of the most savage myths from all cultures and retells them in this volume of short stories.  Greek, Norse, Aztec, Egyptian, Indian, and many other mythologies are represented here.  Although that gives the book some breadth, that will also likely make it less appealing to teens who primarily want Greek mythology.  Even Rick Riordan can't sell Egyptian mythology as well as the Greek.  Still, the stories are good and unusual with nice illustrations to help set the mood.

Savage Mountain by Jon Smelcer

Brothers Sebastian and James are constantly belittled by their father but they keep it a secret because everyone else in town believes he is a great guy.  Sebastian has reacted to the verbal abuse by being an overachiever hoping to one day gain his father's respect.  James has gone the other way, rebelling and getting into trouble.  In one last desperate attempt to earn some praise, the brothers decide to climb a nearby mountain that rises 16,000 feet.  They recklessly set off on their quest without telling anyone what they are doing.  Will their plan finally get them the recognition they crave or will it end up killing both of them?

This is a short book that has a lot of action on the face of it but I ended up feeling a bit bored by the time I was through with it.  The writing was pedantic at points.  I did, however, enjoy the description of Alaska and the growth of the brothers who eventually begin to see that winning their father's love isn't what they need to be okay.

Saturday, September 12, 2015

Famous Last Words by Katie Alender

Willa has just moved to Hollywood with her mother and new stepfather, a very famous director.  She doesn't mind the move and likes her stepfather well enough but misses her friends.  Hollywood is shaken up by a series of murders that have occurred where young actresses have been killed and their bodies staged in the death scenes of famous movies such as "The Birds".  That shouldn't be an issue for Willa, however, who has no interest in acting or the movie business.  The problem Willa is having is that she can see ghosts.  She tries to deny this ability and ignore those she sees, but the one that is haunting her in her new home is insistent and frightening.  When Willa finally begins listening to the ghost and translating her messages, she realizes that this is the ghost of one of victims of the serial killer and she wants Willa's help to bring the killer to justice.

Alender is a popular author with teens striking the right balance of horror and romance for young adults.  Her writing is not astounding but it is fast and enjoyable and this is another title that will be read voraciously.

Rain Reign by Ann M. Martin

Rose is obsessed with homonyms.  She collects them in her notebook, writing down new ones whenever she hears them.  Not surprisingly, she is not very popular as school because of her odd behaviors and because she has an adult assigned to be her permanent helper.  Her life at home is also a little tough with her distant, brusque father who seems to spend a good deal of his time at the local bar.  Her father did do one nice thing for Rose, though, when he brought home a stray dog Rose named Rain.  Rain is her best friend and companion.  The other person Rose can count on is her uncle who visits as often as possible but isn't there as often as Rose would like.

When  a hurricane threatens Rose's father says they do not need to evacuate since he believes the storm will not be that bad.  His prediction is wrong and the day after the storm the creek at the bottom of their property has swelled and swept away the bridge the allows them to leave home.  Worse than that, Rose's father let Rain out the night before during the hurricane and didn't get her back in so Rain is missing, presumably swept away in the strong water.  Rose begins a search for Rain knowing that she could be many miles away from home by now if she's even still alive. 

I will let you, my reader, know that Rain is not dead so you won't have to worry about that.  But giving you that reassurance does not let you off the hook for the heart-wrenching emotion that is to come in this book.  I found myself a little concerned upon starting the book because of the constant inclusion of all the homonyms and was worried it was going to be gimmicky.  But the story moved on to the real meat which is just lovely and sad and happy. 

Need by Joelle Charbonneau

Kaylee has lost most of her friends except for .  When he shows her a new social networking site called NEED that grants wishes just for signing up others, Kaylee's not interested in joining.  But to help   out, she signs up and in response to the question "What do you NEED?" she asks for a new kidney for her brother who will die before too long without one.  Soon, everyone at her school has joined NEED and in order to get your wish granted, you need to complete a small task assigned by NEED.  The favors seem harmless enough but when one of their classmates dies from an allergic reaction to nuts, Kaylee begins to see a horrible pattern emerging.  Trying to get help, she contacts the police but the site mysteriously disappears and Kaylee receives an email saying she has broken the terms of the site.  Now Kaylee is on the run as she tries to find out who is running NEED and how to stop any further deaths.

This ought to be popular with teens but I didn't find it as compelling as The Testing, Charbonneau's first book.  Although NEED and the person/people behind it are evil, I think there were a few missed opportunities.  For instance, I was sure that the reason Kaylee appeared to be being set up for the first death was because that girl would turn out to be a match for a kidney donor.  Still, the story moved quickly and the mystery of who was to blame had a decent number of hints spread throughout to give the reader a fair chance of guessing before the reveal.

I Will Always Write Back by Martin Ganda and Caitlin Alifirenka

When Caitlin's teacher said they would be writing pen pal letters that year Caitlin found herself drawn to Zimbabwe for some reason.  Her letter ended up in the hands of Martin who was one of only ten people in his class to receive one of the letters.  Martin was first in his class so he got the first of the letters. Thus began a correspondence that lasted for years and changed both of their lives.  At first Caitlin had no idea how different her life was from Martin's.  She sent a picture of herself and asked for one in return without realizing that pictures were too costly and hard to come by for someone living in one of the poorest sections of Zimbabwe.  Caitlin sent a dollar, asking for a Zimbabwe dollar to compare but Martin didn't have one to spare.  Her dollar, however, helped take care of his family for a long time.  Once Martin began to reveal more about his life Caitlin realized how different their lives were and felt compelled to help Martin who she now considered her best friend.  Once her parents got involved the entire family made it their mission to help Martin reach his dream of coming to the United States for college.

This book is not the type of thing I usually pick up but something about the description appealed to me and I was totally engrossed very quickly.  The message of Caitlin and Martin's friendship is great in how their commitment to each other makes each of their lives better.  I just wish that the execution of the story had been better so that it would reach more teens.  The book is too long for a read aloud and will put off many teen readers.  The writing is also more of a laundry list of what happened, especially later in the book.  The stories of the photos and dollars early on are engaging but later I felt that it was more of a "first I did this, then this happened, then this" recounting of events.  Also, I know that this is the story of both Caitlin and Martin but Caitlin's chapters seemed irrelevant and strangely disconnected from the central story during her teen years.  Why do I need to know that her new boyfriend was allowed to smoke pot in his room?  I'm struggling because I really like the message of this book and humanity exhibited on both sides which makes me still like it quite a bit, but I don't care for how it was done overall.  Also, as a side note, the cover will make it that much more difficult for me to entice any teens to read it.