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.

Listen, Slowly by Thanhha Lai

13-year-old Mai has big plans for the summer and they don't include escorting her grandmother to Vietnam to solve a 40 year old mystery.   Mai wants to go to the beach and catch the attention of a boy she likes.  Instead she is stuck in a Vietnamese village while her grandmother waits for news of her husband who disappeared during the war.  Although she is Vietnamese by heritage, Mai doesn't know the language or anything about the culture and she can't wait to get home.  In the meantime, she finds ways to entertain herself without much Internet access.  For instance, she teaches the women of the village how to make thong underwear, a garment they soon come to regret.  Mai also begins to remember how close she was to her grandmother when she was younger and eventually begins to appreciate her roots.

I really loved this book.  So often books set in other cultures are meant to SHOW YOU ABOUT THE CULTURE and the story is missing.  This book does show you about Vietnam and how different it is from Mai's world, but it doesn't favor either culture as they both have their merits.  Mai, meanwhile, is a typical American teen, not a saint.  The story shows her growing slowly and realistically but she doesn't completely abandon who she is.  There is warmth and humor a plenty in this book.

Skink - No Surrender by Carl Hiaasen

When Richard's cousin Malley disappears the family finds out that she has run away with a man she met on the Internet to avoid going to a boarding school.  No one is happy but Richard believes she is in danger and is determined to find her.  While sitting on the beach one night a man emerges from the sand next him where he has been waiting to catch someone disturbing turtle eggs.  This odd man, Skink, is a ragged, one-eyed survivalist who used to be the governor of Florida and he seems to be exactly the person Richard needs to help find Malley. 

I generally like Hiassen's quirky characters and environmental stories but this one went over the top for me which is strange to say since most of his books are fairly out there.  I couldn't muster up much sympathy for Malley nor did I find Skink to be believable even taking into account that he is supposed to be a little unbelievable. 

Beneath by Roland Smith

Pat has always idolized his older brother Coop, who is fascinated with life underground.  When the boys were younger Pat helped Coop dig a tunnel from their house to nearly the center of town.  But when the tunnel collapsed after and accidental gas explosion, Coop was investigated as a domestic terrorist and eventually left home without a word to Pat.  So Pat is delighted when he finally begins receiving letters telling him of his brother's new life in New York City where Coop has found an underground community.  When the letters suddenly stop Pat decides his brother must be in trouble and sneaks away to locate the subway tunnel community.  But it turns out Coop has gone even further beneath the city to a community from which no one ever leaves.

I believe that I have an issue with books set underground as I don't think I've ever liked any of them.  Except for maybe City of Ember.  Besides the setting, which definitely does not appeal to me, I found this to be a slow-moving story with not much action until the very end.  Just couldn't get involved with either character nor what was happening to them.

The Scandalous Sisterhood of Prickwillow Place by Julie Berry

Seven young women at a Victorian boarding school are not upset at all when their penny-pinching headmistress and her gluttonous brother die during dinner one evening.  Rather than reveal the deaths, the girls decide to bury the bodies in the garden so that they can continue to live there.  But their plan is in almost immediate danger of being revealed as a steady stream of visitors come by the house and further when they are required to go to a town social.  All while trying to solve the mystery of who might've poisoned the headmistress and her brother in the first place.

This is meant to be a screwball comedy and reminded me greatly of "Arsenic and Old Lace".  Except there was no Cary Grant in it which, of course, makes everything slightly less good.  I might've enjoyed the story more were it not for the precious writing contrivances.  Each girl was given an adjective such as Dour Elinor and Stout Alice and Smooth Kitty and Disgraceful Mary Jane.  While helpful at first to define so many characters, this is how the characters were labeled throughout the book which I just found annoying and too much of a "look how witty and quirky I am" message from the author.

What Waits in the Woods by Kieran Scott

Callie is on a camping trip with her best friends even though she is afraid of being in the woods.  But since she's somewhat new to the school she doesn't want to do anything to rock the boat although she did insist on bringing along her boyfriend, Jeremy.  Already on edge, Callie begins to really worry when the group becomes lost and loses some of their supplies.  And Callie's sure someone has been following them.  Finally, they meet another hiker who offers to help them find their way to his cabin where they can call for help, but its still a few days away.  No one is sure who can be trusted and unease turns to terror when one of their group is murdered.

A quick read with red herrings galore.  The mystery is helped along with interspersed chapters from the killer's "Recovery Journal".

How to Speak Dolphin by Ginny Rorby

Lily spends most of her time taking care of her half-brother Adam who has autism.  Lily's mother died and her stepfather seems unwilling to recognize that Adam needs special help.  When her stepfather, Don, gets a call about helping a young dolphin who has cancer he agrees to help because he has heard about the positive effect swimming with dolphins can have on people with autism.  Adam is already obsessed with dolphins and he quickly forms a strong bond with dolphin Nori.  Lily loves seeing her brother happy and communicative but she doesn't like the conditions in which Nori lives.  With a friend, Lily has also researched and found that dolphin therapy is unproven so there is no solid reason to keep Nori in captivity.  But convincing Don to help free the dolphin is another matter. 

If you've seen "Blackfish" your heart will break a little reading this story and imagining Nori's struggles.  A good story for younger readers.

Be Not Afraid by Cecilia Galante

Marin sees other people's pain and not in a metaphorical sense.  When she looks at people she can see their pain in colorful shapes on their bodies so she avoids looking at people as much as possible.  Marin especially avoids Cassie who invited Marin to her house several months ago and then used her in a bizarre ritual of some sort.  Marin's anonymity ends on the day Cassie stands up in class screaming and tearing her nails across her face, all while pointing at Marin.  No one is sure what has happened to Cassie who is getting worse by the hour but Cassie's brother believes that Marin might hold the answer.  When Marin goes to see Cassie she sees something in her she can't explain, something that she has never seen before.  Worse, it seems that thing sees Marin in return.

This book is not for the faint of heart!  If you haven't guessed (you would soon anyway) Cassie is possessed and Marin might be the key to exorcising her.  Very well written and not entirely just horror.  Both girls have darkness and pain they are trying to handle.  Something different from the usual flock of YA lit.

The Conspiracy of Us by Maggie Hall

Avery's mother's job requires them to move regularly so Avery has learned to keep to herself and not form close friendships.  But something about Jack causes her to change her mind and say yes when he asks her to go to the prom with him.  Unsure what made her agree to go, Avery is further surprised when they are approached by Stellan who says Avery needs to leave with him immediately and whom Jack seems to know.  Avery learns that they are part of a secret world of families known as The Circle of Twelve and that her own father is the head of one of these families.  Anxious to finally meet him she is swept away to Istanbul and Paris but danger is never more than a few steps behind.

Reviews liken this book to those by Ally Carter and I would agree with that.  Unfortunately, I haven't really cared for Ally Carter's stories personally.  I can see that this would be fairly popular with girls since both Stellan and Jack are studs and the descriptions of the clothes Avery gets to wear are detailed.

The Spider Ring by Andrew Hartwell

Maria's grandmother has always loved spiders, something Maria does not understand.  When Grandma Esme dies she leaves Maria a spider-shaped ring and a note saying "The spiders are your friends.  Do not abuse their friendship."  The night Maria idly wishes that she had something new to wear and is stunned when a pack of spiders sets to work getting her a new outfit.  Maria realizes that with the ring she now has the ability to command brown recluse spiders who will do whatever she asks.  Soon, however, Maria is approached by a mysterious man from her grandmother's past which leads her to realize that there are several spider rings and one person who wants to own all of them - someone who is willing to kill whomever gets in her way.

A fine book with a good premise but the story overall was an "eh" for me.  It should make for a good booktalk and be a fairly easy sell, especially because it is short, but I didn't care all that much about what was happening.

We are All Made of Molecules by Susin Nielsen

Stewart and Ashley are complete opposites but they have to find a way to live together when Stewart's father and Ashley's mother move in together.  Stewart is a gifted nerd who is still grieving for his mother.  Ashley is a popular fashion plate who has refused to speak to her father ever since he came out and broke up their family.  Stewart is ready to embrace Ashley as his sister but she wants nothing to do with him.  Turns out, however, there is more to both of them than their labels.

This is one of those books that is difficult to describe and "sell" which frustrates me because it's a good story.  I have liked everything written by Susin Nielsen.  She gives depth to all the characters in the book while making you feel like you're just reading a regular story.   Give this book - all her books - a try.

Portraits of Celina by Sue Whiting

Bayley is still grieving for her father when her mother uproots them and settles in a family lake house in the middle of nowhere.  In her new place Bayley finds a trunk containing clothes and personal items from a distant relative named Celina who disappeared 40 years ago.  Bayley likes Celina's style and begins wearing the clothes from the trunk and when she does, she begins to sense Celina's ghost telling her to "make him pay".  Bayley doesn't know who "he" is but the more time she spends trying to find out, the more she struggles to keep Celina from possessing her entirely.  Bayley finds distraction with Oliver, the cute, rich boy who lives across the lake from her whose family just might be connected to Celina's disappearance.

Celina's ghost is creepy and persistent so this is a good choice for lovers of ghost stories.  I thought that the killer was a bit too obvious.  So much so that I'd discarded him from my options, assuming he was a red herring.