Monday, November 28, 2016

Eleven Things I Promised by Catherine Clark

Frances is about to start a week-long bike race with a group from her high school.  She is not usually a bike race person, but she signed up with her best friend Stella, who is.  But Frances is facing the race alone after Stella was hit by a car while training for the race.  Before she was put out of commission, Stella made a list of ten crazy ideas she wanted to do during the week to make the race unforgettable.  The items on the list are things that Frances wouldn't ever do on her own but she is determined to do them all to honor her friend and, she hopes, find a way to connect with her friend who has been acting very distant. 

This is one of those light, fun books that has some not very light notes to round it out nicely.  I enjoyed Frances and the slow reveal on what, exactly, is happening with Stella. 

Scythe by Neal Shusterman

The world has been perfect for many years.  When the Cloud became self-aware and turned into the Thunderhead, it was able to see solutions for all the problems in the world.  Now there is no hunger, poverty, disease, or natural death.  In order to combat the threat of overpopulation the Scythes were created.  Scythes are people tasked with "gleaning"- the only way actually die in this society.  Neither Citra nor Rowan want the job when they are chosen to be apprentices to Scythe Faraday but they both begin to see the value of the job when it is done well and with compassion.  However, not every Scythe sees the job in the same way with some embracing the killing and looking to get rid of the old guard.  At the spring conclave of Scythes, one of these others sees an opening and sets in motion a plan to turn Citra and Rowan against each other.

I have read all or nearly all of Shusterman's books and in my opinion they vary in quality of writing and storytelling.  When he gets it right, however, he blows me away and Scythe is one of those stories.  It is the kind of book where I was on edge the whole time because I loved it so much that I was worried it would end in some disappointing way that would ruin it for me. But instead, the story kept developing in unanticipated ways.  And not only is it a good story, but it is also has some scary parallels to real life situations with abuses of power and people who believe they are above the law. 

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

The Detour by S.A. Bodeen

At the age of 17, Livvy is the author of a bestselling trilogy for young adults.  She has lots of money and a bright future until she rolls her car on a quiet stretch of road.  When she comes to she finds herself in the basement of a house being held captive by a woman and her creepy, flute-playing daughter.  The woman tells Livvy that she will be their prisoner until she apologizes for what she did.  The trouble is that Livvy has no idea to what this woman is referring so she has no idea how to make her happy.  Livvy's two captors are nasty and take delight in harming her but their actions seem benign when a male cousin shows up who makes it clear he has other plans for her.  Livvy needs to find a way to escape, while she still can.

Okay, so this is definitely a Misery-themed book.  Livvy herself notes the comparison.  So at first I was pretty disappointed with Bodeen for just copying that idea but fairly soon I got more absorbed in the story and forgot about that.  While there are flashes of a conflicted conscience from the adult captor, she's still pretty mean and easy to dislike but, like Livvy, I found myself warming up to her in comparison to the other two people holding her.  The story is pure action/thriller and if you take it for that without expecting a lot more, it's fun.  There are two plot twists, one of which is extremely easy to spot from quite a distance.  The other also becomes fairly obvious but I was still holding onto the hope that I was wrong about that one because I really wanted Livvy to be solely a victim in this situation. The Compound is one of my favorite YA books so I think I'm inclined to be generous with this title  since I've been waiting for Bodeen to write something that is close to the quality of The Compound. 

Saturday, May 28, 2016

Code of Honor by Alan Gratz

Kamran is living the life most teens dream of.  He's a football star dating a beautiful, popular girl and his future is is set for him to enter West Point and follow in the footsteps of the big brother he adores.  But Kamran's whole world collapses when his brother, Darius, appears in some terrorist videos and seems to be responsible for an attack.  Kamran's family falls under suspicion and is taken into custody by Homeland Security but despite the overwhelming evidence, Kamran can't believe Darius would ever turn against his country.  With the support of one agent, Kamran begins analyzing the videos and notices that Darius is including clues in code that only Kamran would understand.  What's more, he is warning of an upcoming attack on U.S. soil.  It's up to Kamran to stop the attack when no one believes him.

This is a fast-paced action story rooted in current events and stories of radicalization.  How can people who have been patriotic Americans be turned into an enemy of our country?  And what are their families to believe?  Although this is primarily an action book, there are deeper issues at stake and even Kamran doesn't trust his brother 100 percent all the time.  To me, it's his legitimate doubt that adds depth to the story and kept me fascinated all the way through.  The only part that lost me a little bit was when we found out the identity of the head terrorist.  That one thing felt more like a suspension of disbelief than the rest of the book which just had me hooked.

Friday, May 27, 2016

The Skeleton Tree by Iain Lawrence

Chris is excited to meet his uncle in Alaska for a sailing adventure.  But the actual trip is far from how he imagined it.  He arrives late and finds that they will be sailing with a surly boy named Frank.  Chris almost immediately becomes violently seasick and when he wakes up a couple of days later the ship is sinking and his uncle dies in the wreck.  Chris and Frank are alone.  They arrive on a deserted island with no radio, food or flares.  The two of them need to find some way to work together just to survive but they do have one ally in the form of an intelligent raven.

I very nearly hated this book but have decided that I just strongly disliked it.  There is nothing to like about Frank who is mean to Chris and to the raven.  Even when the reason for his hostility is revealed, he didn't change much at all and I saw no growth in him.  Chris matures slightly thanks to their ordeal but neither of these two characters grabbed me.  The one character I DID care about is the raven but he is treated so badly by the boys that I couldn't get over my worries about him

Serafina and the Black Cloak by Robert Beatty

Serafina lives with her pa in the basement of the grand Biltmore mansion.  Her father is the mechanic for the estate and he has dubbed Serafina Chief Rat Catcher because of her uncanny ability to find the creatures and relocate them to the woods.  But Serafina's job is a secret since no one in the family knows they are living in the basement.  One night Serafina sees a man in a black cloak chasing a young girl through the basement and when he catches her, his black cloak swirls around them both and seems to eat up the girl.  Serafina tells her pa but he doesn't believe her.  Not even when they get word that a guest of the house has disappeared without a trace.  As the adults and staff search for the girl as well as another one who is still missing from a few days earlier, Serafina begins working with the nephew of the master of the house who likes animals better than people and who believes her stories of the black cloak.  The two are in a race against time to find the missing girls.  Worse, Serafina is sure that the man in the black cloak has set his sights on the young master of the house as his next victim.

I found this book to be mildly enjoyable although a touch young.  The main problem I had with the book is the (to me) extremely obvious foreshadowing regarding the villain and Serafina's origins.  I knew both nearly right from the beginning which took a lot away from the mystery and fantasy of the book.

Transferral by Kate Blair

When Talia wakes up with a cold on the day she's supposed to be on the campaign trail with her father, it's no problem.  She just goes to the hospital and has her cold transferred to a criminal.  When people are found guilty of crimes they are sentenced to specific illnesses as punishment.  If your crime was not so bad you might be sentenced to a cold or the flu but more serious crimes could get you a deadly disease.  Talia has always been in support of this system, just like her father.  On this day at the hospital a man wielding a butcher's knife threatens a young girl and Talia knocks him out with a chair.  She's happy to have helped and glad when he receives a serious disease as punishment.  But she soon learns that his situation is not what she expected and that things she had always taken for granted are not what they seem.

This is a fun sci fi/dystopia with a unique premise.  I like that Blair makes you buy into the system at first.  Since we're viewing it through Talia's eyes it seems fair and just to punish people with diseases.  After all, if you don't commit crimes, you won't get those diseases, right?  Of course as a savvy reader, I suspected it wasn't that good in reality and sure enough, I was right.  I appreciate the way the author is sneakily taking on modern day issues that seem black and white but really have layers not everyone wants you to see.   I found the final few chapters too long and it seemed to me that there could've been a less dramatic solution to Talia's problems, but well done overall and very quick for this genre. 

Wolf Hollow by Lauren Wolk

Annabelle's life has been happy and uneventful until Betty moves to town.  Betty is an exceptionally cruel bully, threatening to harm Annabelle's younger brothers if Annabelle doesn't do what Betty demands.   Things escalate quickly between the two girls, especially after Betty takes up with bad boy Andy.  One day while Annabelle and her best friend Ruth are talking to an apple seller who is from Germany, someone throws a rock that hits Ruth and causes her to lose her eye.  Annabelle is sure that Betty and Andy are responsible for the rock but Betty claims it was local recluse Toby.  Toby is definitely odd, living in a small shack in the woods, ever since he was injured in World War I.  Now that the country is at war with Germany again it is easy for people to believe Betty's story that Toby was aiming for the apple seller.  But Annabelle doesn't believe Toby is responsible for that nor for the sharp piece of wire stretched across the path on the way home that cut one of her brothers when he ran into it.  When Betty disappears, the town is quick to assume Toby is responsible and Annabelle is in a race to find out the truth.

All the reviews of this book liken it to To Kill a Mockingbird which is a good comparison.  Betty is infuriating but I can completely see her being believed by the adults in town.  Toward the end of the book I was a little too aware of the author's writing style but I was still totally wrapped up in the story which ended satisfyingly with the right amount of emotion. 

Saturday, May 21, 2016

Genius: The Game by Leopold Gout

Rex, Tunde and Painted Wolf are close friends but they've only met in cyberspace.  The three are gifted in electronics.  Rex is a great programmer and hacker; Tunde lives in Nigeria and his inventions have greatly improved the lives of people in his small village; and Painted Wolf is a Chinese activist who gets around national firewalls and exposes corruption.  The three together are know as the LODGE online.  When a tech billionaire starts inviting gifted kids and teens from all over the world to participate in a competition he has created, the members of LODGE finally get to meet in person.  In addition to winning the game, the three friends each have their own problems.  Tunde is being forced to create a dangerous weapon for a warlord who holds his family's lives in his hands.  Rex has written a program that will help locate his brother who mysterious disappeared several years before.  And Painted Wolf needs to see why her father was meeting with a corrupt official.  They have to work together to win the competition and complete their personal quests.

I liked the book well enough while I was reading it but now, a week or so later, my feeling is "eh."  It's sort of like a summer blockbuster movie - entertaining and what you want while you're watching (reading) it, but it doesn't stick with you for long afterwards.  Plus, it ends with a lead-in to a sequel and you know how I feel about that.  Why is everything a series?!  At any rate, it is a good story for those who like tech stories (although some of the programming discussion was over my head) and it moves along quickly so it's a fine action book, too.

The Greatest Zombie Movie Ever by Jeff Strand

Justin and his friends have made several movies for YouTube but are forced to acknowledge that they weren't all that great.  Determined to do better they decide to make The Greatest Zombie Movie Ever.  The only problem with that plan is that they lack a script, money, a place to film, and great equipment.  They do, however, have the beautiful Alicia as their leading lady and an impossibly short window of time to complete the film so there's no backing out now.

Predictably, things do not go smoothly for Justin and his friends which is what makes for the comedy in this book.  I found it mildly entertaining but the obstacles became predictable and the droll responses to them felt staged in some way.  I think that the feeling that this was not fresh probably comes from the fact that I'm an adult and have read/seen a number of things with similar plots.  That probably won't be as much of an issue for teen readers.

The Biggest Poutine in the World by Andree Poulin

Thomas' mother left when he was only five and he only contact he has had with her since then is an impersonal note that arrives on his birthday each year.  His father is nearly as distant despite living in the same house. One of Thomas' last memories of his mom is of her making poutine - a Canadian dish of fries, cheese curds and gravy.  In an attempt to get attention from his father and become famous enough to make his mother come back, Thomas decides to set a Guinness record by making the biggest poutine in the world.  He enlists the help of his best friend and a girl he doesn't know well at all but who becomes a strong ally.  The three begin working through all the obstacles on their way to the world record and Thomas works to find out where his mom has been all these years.

This is a short book with very short chapters but it still manages to address some deep topics.  It starts out funny as Thomas works to procure hundreds of pounds of french fries and cheese curds as well as a place big enough to set up such a huge dish.  But slowly the author brings in more about Thomas' distant father and what has really happened to his mother which is a sad story that leaves Thomas with very real hurt and anger. 

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

23 Minutes by Vivian Vande Velde

Zoe has the ability to relive the previous 23 minutes of her life and change events.  It sounds like a great opportunity to make everything work out the way you want but Zoe has learned that the changes she makes often turn out worse than the original event so she usually just lives with things as they are.  But when she ends up in the middle of a bank robbery and a man who has been nice to her is killed, she knows she has to at least try.  She only has ten chances to get it right - save everyone and not get herself killed at the same time.  

 When Vivian Vande Velde gets it right she does a great job of putting together an exciting story with a small page count.  This is one of those books.  It seems like it might get boring or repetitive watching Zoe relive the same time frame over and over but each time there are new twists to keep you interested.  As a reader it also seems like the thing to do to fix the situation is obvious - call the police, duh! -  but Vande Velde goes through all of those choices and shows how they just make things worse.  A quick thriller that leaves you thinking a bit and rooting for Zoe to figure out a way to get it right.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

All the Answers by Kate Messner

Ava worries about a lot of things.  She worries so much that sometimes she can't do certain things.  Right now, she is worried about her upcoming math test and the fact that she has lost her pencil.  Ava finds an old pencil in a drawer and discovers that when she writes a question, the pencil answers her.  While testing the pencil with her best friend Sophie, the girls learn that the pencil can only answer questions with definite right or wrong answers but won't predict the future.  It seems like the best thing a worrier like Ava could have, until she asks a question that gives her an unexpected and terrifying answer.

Although there is the fantasy element of a magical pencil, this is really a book about dealing with fear and uncertainty and the messages about that resonated with me. Ava's reliance on the pencil has some expected and unexpected consequences and she grows in what it is that matters to her as the story progresses but it is never didactic.  This is an easy read that seems like a light story but sneaks in something more.

Ink and Bone by Rachel Caine

Thanks to alchemy everyone has access to every book in the world on his or her personal tablet called a codex.  But no one is allowed to own an actual copy of a book except for the Great Library which has controlled all the books since ancient Egyptian times.  Jess's family makes a living by selling books on the black market, a dangerous job when the Library's guards and robotic animals will kill anyone they find dealing with books.  Jess loves books and knowledge and is happy when his father arranges for him to enter training with the Library but dismayed when he finds out that he is to be a spy for the family.  Training is difficult and dangerous and people are eliminated every day by the Scholar assigned to be their teacher.  Jess's background helps him succeed at the rigorous training but the deeper he gets into the Library, the more he finds out about the danger they all face.

Jess's story starts off with a bang as he is running through the streets, attacked by a lion automaton, and encounters a person who eats books.  Then the pace slowed just a little which concerns me in terms of whether my students will keep reading.  I want them to keep reading because this is a unique story that I really loved.  The depth of the Library's corruption is revealed slowly and chillingly and the danger closes in on all sides for the recruits.  It's not often that I read something I haven't read before in some way but this book was different and great.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Until We Meet Again by Renee Collins

Cassandra is stuck in a beach house for the summer with her mom and stepdad.  After she gets in trouble for a prank she is left with little to do but spend time on the beach, which is where she meets Lawrence.  The two hit it off right away even though Lawrence is more prim and proper than Cassandra. When they both claim to live in the house just through the bushes behind them, they figure out that they are from different times - Cassandra from 2016 and Lawrence from 1925.  Their romance seems to defy time but when Cassandra sees that an event in the past has a direct effect on her present, she decides they can't see each other anymore.  It's a smart decision but it might be impossible for her to follow through on it after she learns that Lawrence will be murdered in less than two weeks.

If you are a fan of  Nicholas Sparks or the many romance movies out there about doomed love then this is the book for you.  I am not that person so it was not the book for me.  Ugh.  Overwrought with emotion and many opportunities to make things work out with a bad guy I saw the first time he entered the narrative.  Still, I have ordered a copy for my library because it seems exactly like the book my girls will love.

The Dead Girls of Hysteria Hall by Katie Alender

15 year old Delia has inherited her great-aunt's entire estate which includes a sprawling house with a dark history.  Delia and her family have just arrived to fix up the house for sale and immediately she sees some weird things and has uneasy feelings.  The house used to be an institute for "Troubled Females" - an insane asylum with a long history of women dying within its walls.  Most of those women are still there and they make it clear that they want Delia to join them.

This book is already flying off my shelves because Alender does a great job writing horror for middle schoolers and is very popular.  I'm not that big of a fan and wouldn't have read this one except that it is nominated for one of my reading programs.  It is a good new ghost story and Delia is a likeable heroine although she seems to cover some of the same ground over and over.  I thought I had figured out a twist to the book but I hadn't because there wasn't really a twist.  My idea would've been better, IMHO....


Christopher lives on Perses, a planet that is being mined to help Earth.  Perses is just about to go into a three month blackout as they travel onto the opposite side of the sun from the Earth.  Right after the two planets lose contact, Perses is attacked and most of the adults on the mining planet are killed but Christopher's dad shoves him to safety in the mines in the nick of time with a promise of a beacon that will help him contact Earth.  Deep underground he finds a few others and together they find ways to survive until they can signal for help.  But their attackers are still on the surface and some of the survivors believe they should be more proactive rather than just waiting for a rescue.

I was super-psyched about this book as I started it.  The world building was good and not too complex for a sci fi story and I really liked the premise.  I was even able to overcome my aversion to stories that take place in tunnels.  I can't really complain about the story line which was still good throughout and the ending had a good cliffhanger but I felt like the writing got too simplistic as the book went on.  I wanted a bit more meat to really capture my attention.

The Darkest Corners by Kara Thomas

Tessa is returning to her hometown to see her dying father who is in prison.  Being back in Fayette brings up old memories, including her role in helping capture a serial killer.  At age 8, Tessa and her friend Callie testified against a man they believed killed Callie's cousin.  But nine years later Tessa isn't sure they got the right person, especially since neither of the girls actually saw the man on the night Callie's cousin disappeared.  Tessa also questions the role her mother and older sister might've played in the death and wonders what they could tell her if she could locate either one of them.   When another girl is murdered in the exact same style of the Ohio River Monster the two girls can't ignore their doubts any longer and have to begin looking into what happened in the past and who is a threat now.

I never got invested in this story despite the obvious looming danger.  I know that part of the problem, at least at the beginning, was trying to sort out the characters and how they were related.  With Tessa staying at Callie's house I felt like there was some connection there and couldn't work out how Lori, Jos, and Maggie fit into everything.  I finally got all that situated but still had to take a moment to remember who was who throughout the book when a character was mentioned.  In addition to my character issues, I wasn't that interested in the storyline either until pretty close to the end of the book.  At that point the revelations came fast and were explosive but that excitement didn't make up for the slogging through I had to do earlier.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

The Seventh Most Important Thing by Shelley Pearsall

When Arthur saw the trash picker wearing his dead father's hat he couldn't stop himself from throwing the brick at him.  The judge is ready to put Arthur in juvie for a long time but surprisingly, James Hampton - the trash picker - speaks up and asks the judge to give Arthur community service working for him.  When Arthur shows up for his first day at work he finds a list asking him to collect the seven most important things:  glass bottles, foil, cardboard, pieces of wood, lightbulbs, coffee cans, and mirrors.  Arthur starts going through the trash himself and comes up with a few things to bring back including a lamp. He figures that if a lightbulb is important, an entire lamp must be better, right?  Wrong.  He is chastised by his parole officer to get exactly what he is asked, no more, no less.  After several weeks of working alone Arthur finally gets the chance to see how the seven things are being used:  Hampton is transforming the trash into a huge piece of art depicting heaven that takes up most of the big garage where Hampton is working.  Suddenly, Arthur realizes how important his work is, even to the point of feeling responsible for keeping it from destruction when Hampton dies of a long term illness.

While fiction, this book is based on the real life work of folk artist James Hampton whose piece is on display in the Smithsonian.  Arthur's growth is realistic as he comes to grips with his father's life and death and begins to understand the bigger picture of Hampton's eccentricities.  I liked the main characters and thought the secondary people were well drawn, too.  And while I'm pretty sure I've seen the artwork on a trip to the Smithsonian, now I have to go back and look at it again with all the new knowledge I have.

Watch my video review of this book here:

Every Exquisite Thing by Matthew Quick

Nanette is quiet and thinks of herself as a bit of an oddball even though she is captain of her school's soccer team.  She spends her lunch periods with her beloved English teacher who gives her a copy of a cult classic book called The Bubblegum Reaper.  The book speaks to Nanette and she wants to know what happened to the characters.  Her teacher tells her that the author of the book lives in their town and after a meeting over coffee, Nanette and the author become friends despite the fact that he refuses to talk about his book.  One night he invites Nanette to his house for dinner and that is when she meets another fan of The Bubblegum Reaper, Alex.  Alex and Nanette quickly bond and begin dating and Nanette begins questioning who she really is.  For instance, does she even like playing soccer and does she actually want to go to college?  Alex, meanwhile, has deemed himself a protector of younger, bullied kids and on one of these missions he ends up in jail after assaulting someone.  He is sent away to reform school where something tragic happens.  Nanette's journey almost seems to just be beginning...

I am definitely too old, cynical and aware of how lame I was as a teen to appreciate this book.  Like Nanette - like every single young person ever - I was very aware of how deep and unique and old soul-ish I was as a teen.  Now that I am old and curmudgeonly and work with teens every day I realize that I was just a stereotype of teen angst.  This introspection made it difficult for me to identify with either Nanette or Alex and their struggles.  I'm sure I'm supposed to feel deeply for them and admire Nanette on her journey of self-discovery but honestly, I was agreeing with the friend who told her she was no different than all the rest of them and thinking that her parents were saints for the level of support they gave her.  Like I said, old and cranky.  But part of my introspection makes it possible for me to see the parallels to my own dedication to Thoreau and determination to live deeply and not, upon dying, find that I had not lived at all.  So while Every Exquisite Thing left me rolling my eyes, I can totally see it being gobbled up by my students who will be devoted to the deep messages within.

Monday, April 18, 2016

Rules for Stealing Stars by Corey Ann Haydu

Silly's family has recently moved to a house where they used to vacation.  Silly is the youngest of four sisters and is often left out but this summer she feels it more than ever when her two oldest siblings disappear for hours a time in their room and come back seeming to have secrets.  With their mother going through a bad spell again, Silly needs companions and eventually convinces her sisters to include her.  It turns out they have discovered that their closet  allows them to travel into the world of the dioramas they are creating.  It is exactly the sort of escape all the girls need from their alcoholic mother and their father who is in denial about the whole thing.  But one of the sisters is relying on the other world more than she should and is using the bad closet that could have dire consequences if they don't all work together to deal with their confusing world.  

Are you confused by that description?  I read the book and I'm not sure I get it all.  In particular, is the book fantasy?  Magical realism?  What exactly happened?  I liked the depiction of the chaotic alcoholic home and the girls' desire to escape by whatever means necessary.  And I was okay with the bit of fantasy in a mostly realistic book, although I wasn't sure if what was happening in the closets was really happening or if it was just a coping mechanism by the sisters.  But then the closets took over the story and things got weird.  So I'm left with a reaction of "Huh?" and feeling that it was just too weird for my taste.

Red Madness: How a Medical Mystery Changed What We Eat by Gail Jarrow

I do love narrative nonfiction that tells a good story where I learn something new.  That's the case with Red Madness, a book about pellagra which is a disease I knew nothing about.  Now that I've read the book I can't believe I didn't know about this disease because it was a scourge in the U.S. in the 1800's into the mid 1900's.  Even with my modern day medical knowledge, I was baffled by the cause of pellagra.  Perhaps that's because author Gail Jarrow carefully led me through the thoughts of the day which did not have modern day medical background.  What really struck me the most with the book is how effective the scientific method is when someone does it correctly.  I realize that's not a statement that is likely to make someone say "I can't wait to read this book!" but it really should.  And I'm super impressed with Dr. Goldberg who systematically worked out the cause and a went a long ways toward finding a cure.  But if the scientific method doesn't grab you, what about gross stories of people dying from diarrhea and pictures of horrible rashes?  A great example of nonfiction that sweeps you along with a story before you realize you're learning things.

Julia Vanishes by Catherine Egan

In a world where witches are publicly drowned, Julia knows she needs to hide her ability to be unseen.  At the same time, she uses her skill on jobs that support herself and the crew with whom she works.  Her current job has her working as a scullery maid in a home with many secrets including a woman who aids witches and a werewolf.  Julia doesn't know exactly what she's supposed to find here but the longer she lives in the house the more she begins to feel an attachment to the people living there, a baby boy in particular.  So when she finally learns what is expected of her, she doesn't want to complete her mission.  But her employer makes it clear that any other choice will have unimaginable consequences.  

It took me quite awhile to get drawn into this book.  I found myself finding other things to do rather than read this book until I was at least halfway into it.  It might've been at the point where Julia met Pia for the first time and we got more of a glimpse of this hidden world.  Or maybe it was when Julia makes her fateful choice.  From whatever point that was on, I was hooked.  I'm not sure, however, that my interest in the last half of the book makes up for the fairly long lead-in getting there and I wonder if my students will stick with it long enough to get to the pay off.

Friday, March 18, 2016

This Way Home by Wes Moore

Elijah is already being scouted for college basketball which is his ticket out of his rough neighborhood.  His coach lets him know that some recruiters will be watching at the upcoming street ball three-on-three tournament. When one of his best friends, Michael, shows up with some brand new shoes for their team Elijah is so anxious to make a good impression he ignores his uneasy feeling and uses the new gear.  Turns out the new stuff was provided by local gang Blood Street Nation and now the boys are indebted to them.  But when their mothers find out about the gang tie-in, they make Elijah and his friends give up the clothes and go back to their old tattered uniforms.  But renouncing the gang has some serious consequences.

Let's just start with the moms making the boys give up the gang presents.  When the boys do that, the gang retaliates in an extreme way and then all the mothers are shocked and spend some time wondering how anyone could have ever guessed that the gang would do something like that.  Ummm...EVERYONE?  Anyone who has read or watched or lived a gang story knows that you don't just say "I'd like to be out now" or publicly diss the gang without suffering an extreme consequence.  And these people live in a gang-infested neighborhood so surely they would know that.  That's just one of the issues I have with this book.  Another is Elijah's lackadaisical attitude towards finding a solution to the problem of the gang threats.  He takes his time thinking about what to do, time I don't believe he would have in real life.  And his best resource, a former special forces soldier who is something of a mentor to him, does some Mr. Miyagi stuff but there is no scene that points out how imploding the shed means he should do THIS to solve the problem.  It's just too unrealistic which is surprising for a book that I think is meant to be very realistic and gritty.

The Girl I Used to Be by April Henry

Olivia has grown up with the knowledge that her father murdered her mother when she was a toddler and then disappeared.  Now 17, Olivia is emancipated and free of the foster system when she is visited by two police officers.  They tell her that her father's remains have just been found and it now obvious that he was murdered at the same time as her mother and is no longer a suspect.  Olivia's whole world is upended.  She returns to her hometown to attend her father's long-delayed funeral and finds herself investigating her parents' deaths which, of course, puts her squarely in the sites of the killer.

This is a typical April Henry book which is to say it is not the greatest book ever but it IS entertaining, quick, has a good female protagonist, keeps your guessing, and leaves you satisfied at the end.  It will be wildly popular and is already being requested by my students even though it's not out yet.

Sunday, March 6, 2016

Lumberjanes: Beware the Kitten Holy by Noelle Stevenson

Five tough girls are fast friends at a summer camp filled with some unusual things:  three-eyed foxes and yetis, among others.  Their disbelieving counselor is searching for a way to get the girls back on track but the camp owner doesn't seem that surprised by their stories, hinting that something even bigger might be in store for the girls who believe in "friendship to the max"!

I was really looking forward to this girl-power graphic novel but just wasn't taken with the story much at all.  Nor did I feel like things were explained, not the least of which was the title.  The kitten holy did come up in the story but as I write this I'm not able to remember anything about it.  I am, however, a quick, skim-my reader...  Fun enough but not as great as I anticipated.

Fort by Cynthia DeFelice

Wyatt and Augie are having a great summer and it's just going to get greater once they have finished building their fort in the woods behind the local junkyard.  With the fort complete the two boys can hang out in the woods catching their own food and cooking it over a fire, just being boys.  But their great time is marred by two local bullies who come and mess up the fort.  That's bad enough, but then Wyatt and Augie find out that the bullies have also been messing with a mentally challenged boy in the neighborhood.  The two friends decide it's time to teach the bullies a lesson.

I like the two main characters in the book and was somewhat amused by their story but wasn't engrossed in it.  A literary "Home Alone".  A good choice for boys who want to read something quick and all about things boys find interesting.

Everything Everything by Nicola Yoon

Maddy has what is popularly known as Bubble Boy disease.  With virtually no immune system she cannot leave her carefully controlled home environment without risking immediate death.  She spends her time reading and playing Scrabble with her doctor mother and talking with her nurse, Carla.  She hasn't left her home in 17 years.  One day she observes a new family moving in next door and notices they have a teenage son.  When the new neighbors come over to introduce themselves with a bundt cake, Maddy's mom rudely sends them away.  That's when Maddy and Olly begin communicating, first with notes in the window, then online, then, finally, in person after Olly has been thoroughly decontaminated before entering the house.  When Maddy's mom finds out about their relationship she bans Olly from Maddy's life but now that Maddy has had a taste of a real life, she wants more, no matter what consequences it might bring.

This is a nice, angsty teen romance and will likely be received with open arms by my teens.  I enjoyed the story just fine but wasn't blown away by it as others have been.  I assume that's partly because I guessed the big twist well in advance of its actual reveal, but it was still a pretty good twist and I was happy with it.  Yoon also did a nice job covering up the twist which made me feel like I was probably wrong in my guess so that was fun. 

Saturday, March 5, 2016

Hawk by Jennifer Dance

Hawk is a First Nations teen track star hoping to win an upcoming meet in his town in Canada.  Recently, Hawk has been running out of energy while training with his best friend and when he finally gets to the doctor to figure out what's happening, he learns that he has leukemia and is facing several years of hard treatment to save his life.   He has never felt close to his parents who gave him over to his grandfather when he was young because they didn't feel prepared to raise a baby.  So Hawk is happy when his grandfather comes to stay with them during some of his treatment.  Soon after he arrives the family goes out to an event where his father works with a logging company.  Hawk and his grandfather see an osprey get stuck in an oily pond, the result of the toxic runoff from the logging.  The two rescue the osprey and Hawk begins to have dreams about it that seem to mirror his own path with leukemia.  

I was all in on this book for about the first third even as the story of the osprey broke my heart a couple of times.  I love the juxtaposition of the fish hawk's story with Hawk's own journey and I was moved by the rape of the land where Hawk's dad worked.  I could even see how the explanation of what the company was doing to counteract the mess they were making made sense to those who worked there.  Hawk's grandfather felt a little heavy-handed at times, especially as the story went on.  The environmental themes were so nicely interwoven at the beginning of the book without coming across as "here is a lesson you must learn".  I was thinking particularly about how moved my students would be by the ospreys' losses without realizing they were reading a story about the environment.  But later the book became more didactic and less fun.  Still, Hawk's growing relationship with his parents and his friendship in the hospital ward felt realistic and not forced.  I just wish the overall book had been shorter and more focused like the initial chapters.

See No Color by Shannon Gibney

Alex has always know she is adopted.  It's not hard to tell since she is a biracial girl with white parents and siblings.  Her father was a professional baseball player and Alex is following in his footsteps, beating the boys on her team.  But several things are starting to change for Alex.  Alex's body is maturing which is affecting her ability on the diamond.  Her younger sister, always the family's rabble-rouser, shows Alex a stack of letters from her biological father - letters her parents have kept hidden from her for years.  If that weren't enough to throw off her equilibrium, Alex meets Reggie, a black boy who makes her start thinking about who she really is.

I wish I had a lot of positive things to say about this book but it rubbed me the wrong way in several areas.  Before I get to those issues I will say that it is fine and I have no problem with it in my collection, but it's not the great biracial character book I thought it was going to be.  It's also not that great of a story, in my opinion.  

So, a couple of the problems I have involve Alex's adopted parents.  I can sort of buy their reasons for keeping the letters from her but when she finds the letters I don't understand their outright anger and refusal to talk to her about her biological parents.  In a different section Alex is talking to Reggie's mom and gets the idea to go to a black hairdresser.  Alex's mom takes her without an issue and doesn't embarrass her so that's all okay, I guess.  But both of these incidents bother me for this reason:  Alex's parents know she is not white.  As people who have adopted a baby from another race, why didn't they do anything to find out more about her heritage or unique needs?  I can't say that wouldn't possibly happen, but based on several conversations in the book I would say that Alex's parents are racists.  The kind of racists who don't believe they are, but racists nonetheless.  

Having said that, perhaps my next complaint shouldn't be an issue, but I also had a problem with the way in which Alex completely turns her back on her adopted parents.  Once she begins to discover more about being transracial and the African-American community she basically doesn't seem to care about her parents at all anymore.  That's hard for me to swallow since I've worked with students who have abusive, drug-addicted parents yet will still defend them tooth and nail.  

Finally, I have a concern about the physical relationship between Reggie and Alex.  I don't care that their relationship gets physical, it's the description of what happens between them. They don't have intercourse, but while they are heavy petting (is that even a term now?!), the author describes how Reggie puts a finger inside Alex.  I've defended a lot of books where teens have sex so it's not the sexual contact in and of itself that bothers me, it's the graphic, and in my opinion, completely unnecessary description of what exactly happens.  Now I will say that the scene is quite a ways into the book which means that only a pretty good reader is going to get there so that doesn't usually cause a problem, but why do I need that particular detail?

I just wish the book had stayed focused more narrowly on Alex disappointing her adopted father in terms of baseball and her growing identity as an African-American young woman.

Monday, January 25, 2016

Paper Hearts by Meg Wiviott

Zlatka and Fania didn't know each other before they met at Auschwitz but when both girls lose the rest of their families to the Nazis, they decide to take a chance and rely on each other.  Their stories, told in free verse, paint a picture of the atrocities they faced each day and the ways in which they managed to go on with life despite those horrors.  It also shows them keeping their humanity.  This book is based on the real friendship of a small group of girls in Auschwitz.  They took the time to make a small book for one girl on her birthday and she kept that booklet with her until she was liberated.  This is a true story of the power of friendship and knowing that someone else cares whether you live or die and how that can give you the strength to go on.  It's another Holocaust story, but one with a different turn and it will be popular with my kids.

Beware That Girl by Teresa Toten

Kate knows how to  fit in at a new school; she's been doing that all her life.  So when she arrives at her latest private school she looks around for someone to latch onto and finds the perfect person in Olivia, the school "it" girl.  Olivia and Kate become fast friends even though it's obvious that Olivia is keeping some secrets about the previous school year and why she is repeating her senior year.  But Kate has secrets of her own dating back to early childhood.  The entire school is shaken up with the arrival of their new head of fundraising, Mark Redkin.  Mark is smooth and extremely good-looking and all the girls and women in the school are trying to get his attention.  But he is especially interested in Kate and Olivia and seems to know all their secrets.  Kate becomes more and more suspicious, especially after Olivia gets too involved with Mark.

I was expecting "Single White Female" but found something much different which messed with my head a bit as I tried to restructure what was happening in this book.  It takes a decidedly mature turn halfway (or earlier) in.  The big payoff is in the last few paragraphs of the story but I'm not sure that twist made the rest of the book worthwhile. Plus, I saw it coming given the title and comparisons to other books.  Good if you are into psychological thrillers.

I read an Advanced Reader's Copy of this book thanks to the publisher.

Awkward by Svetlana Chmakova

 Peppi knows the rules for surviving at a new school but she ends up breaking one immediately when she gets labeled as "nerder girlfriend" by accidentally tripping over the school outcast.  Embarrassed and worried about being an outsider, Peppi shoves the boy away and runs off.  Although she's able to make new friends in the art club, Peppi feels ashamed of how she treated the boy, Jaime and wishes she could apologize.  When she needs tutoring in science she is upset to see that Jaime is her tutor.  She's still unable to say the words but the two find they have a lot in common.  They largely hide their friendship at school, however, because the art and science clubs are feuding and competing for one table at the school fair.  That's when things start to get mean and dirty.

This is a graphic novel in the vein of things by Raina Telgemeier which is a good thing since teens can't get enough of her stuff.  The characters are winning and the story reflect typical middle school struggles.  I even liked the illustrations and could easily follow the story, something that doesn't always happen with manga.  A good next step for those who have read Smile fourteen times.

This is Where it Ends by Marieke Nijkamp

The students of Opportunity High School are gathered in the auditorium for a speech from the principal about the beginning of a new semester.  When they get up to leave, they find that all the doors are locked and then Tyler starts shooting.  During the next 54 minutes the reader hears about the shooting from four different perspectives:  Tyler's ex-girlfriend, his sister, his sister's girlfriend, and her brother.  Each of them have their own issues with Tyler but none of them could've imagined this would happen. 

This is a devastating book that left me thinking "whoa" for at least five hours after finishing it.  It is much too real and easy to imagine happening given the real school shootings of recent years.  What makes it strong:  we are never inside Tyler's head which is very good.  It would be tempting to somehow try to make us feel some sympathy for him since he is obviously disturbed but Nijkamp never takes us down this path.  The characters are diverse but in a natural way, not a "Oh, look, there are lesbians in here" way.  Their relationship is loving and rings true without exploitation which also goes for the Hispanic and Muslim characters.  Give this book a try, if you have the nerves to get through it.

You can watch my video review of it here:

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Shadowshaper by Daniel José Older

Summer vacation has just started and Sierra is looking forward to working on the mural she is painting on a building in her Brooklyn neighborhood.  Things take a weird twist, however, when she begins seeing changes in the other paintings around her.  Murals seem to be fading away and she could swear she has seen the people in them moving and crying.  Her grandfather, who had a stroke a year ago, suddenly speaks to Sierra and says something about finishing her mural, shadowshaping, and working with a boy from school named Robbie who she barely knows.  When Sierra sees Robbie at a party later that day he is not confused about the term shadowshaper but also doesn't explain it all to Sierra before they are interrupted by a zombie-esque man who seems to know Sierra.  It turns out that Sierra's family are Shadowshapers, people who can connect dead spirits with artistic things and can control them.  Now a former friend of her grandfather's is using the spirits against the other Shadowshapers in order to take control of them all and only Sierra and her friends can stand against him.

I have not been looking forward to writing this review because I didn't much care for the book even though every single professional journal gave it a starred review. When that happens I wonder about my assessment but I did find some kindred spirits on Goodreads which has bolstered my resolve.  Let me first agree with everyone else that the cover is great and will definitely draw in readers.  But once I get past that...  The story is fine and similar to other popular fantasy titles.  Not similar in terms of the world being built, that is unique, but similar in that there is magic and a character who doesn't know she has powers and a threat to the world, and so on.  So I can recommend the book at school and it will be good.  But is it one of the best books of the year?  No, not in my opinion.  The world building is slight and I don't feel like Shadowshaping was every completely explained.  The explanations that Sierra did get came much too late in the story and there was no good reason for the delay.  If I suddenly discovered that I had some magical abilities, I wouldn't sleep until everyone had told me everything they knew about it all!  There are also some plot holes and convenient twists.  For example, at one point Sierra wonders who in her circle of friends could be leaking information to the bad guy.  She's sure she knows who it is and runs off to confront the girl only to find out it wasn't her but we never learn who it was.  It seemed to me that Sierra was a Shadowshaper but at some point she is ready to embrace her powers and asks Robbie to make her one.  He tells her it's not that simple and that he can't do that but then looks at her hand and says, basically, "hey, you're already one!  Let's go!"  It was just too simplistic for me. 

Illuminae by Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff

Kady and Ezra have just survived their break up and the destruction of their planet.  When the mining colony on which they live is attacked by the BeiTech corporation the few survivors end up on the run on only three ships.  With their manpower severely depleted Ezra is conscripted into service and becomes a pilot while Kady hones her skills as a master hacker.  The survivors are barely staying ahead of the pursuing attacker when one of the ships is destroyed with only a few people managing to get out on escape pods.  But why are those lucky few quarantined in the bay in which they land?  With her hacking, Kady slowly begins to find documents that reveal a deeper story about the attack on the ship and the illness that began with the biological attack from BeiTech.  Meanwhile, both Kady and Ezra are realizing that their break up might have been a mistake but can they reconnect from their different ships before something else goes wrong?

This is such a unique book both in story and format.  The entire story is told via documents from the ship and commanding officers, IMs between characters, and transcripts of what the Artificial Intelligence on the ship is thinking.  So much happens that I cannot write about without giving too many spoilers but there is betrayal, danger, an AI, zombies, smart characters, and more!  I felt like it started a little slow in hooking me in which worries me in terms of grabbing my teen readers, but once the Copernicus is destroyed and we learn more about that event, the action doesn't stop.  The writing is also smart and the epitome of "show, don't tell".  Highly recommended for sci fi fans.

Watch my review of this book at

The Blackthorn Key by Kevin Sands

Christopher was lucky to be taken in as an apprentice to an apothecary and he likes working and learning with Master Blackthorn.  Under his Master's tutelage Christopher has been solving puzzles and learning how to create lifesaving medicines as well as other concoctions such as gunpowder.  However, Christopher has been more worried recently due to a series of murders of other apothecaries rumored to be carried out by the Cult of the Archangel.  When the cult kills Master Blackthorn it is up to Christopher to decipher the clues he left behind to find the killers, find out what they're after, and stay a step ahead of them himself.

This is a good mystery for the type of mystery fans who like to solve puzzles, not just figure out who the killer is.  Christopher's ingenuity makes him a fun, likeable protagonist along with his devoted best friend Thomas.  The bad guys are abundant and not all of them are stupid so they are dangerous.  It didn't blow me away, but it was enjoyable and solidly middle school.

Acne, Asthma, and Other Signs You Might Be Half Dragon by Rena Rocford

Allyson struggles with her severe acne and asthma.  These problems along with the fact that she is always the new girl in school because her mother makes them move several times a year make her an outsider at school.  But at her latest school she has finally made a close friend, Beth.  While at the mall one day, Beth and Allyson are harassed by a group of large boys and Allyson ends up breathing fire at them.  Although it's a shock to her, Beth isn't surprised since she, herself, is a troll.  Beth reveals a whole world of mythical creatures who look like humans and Allyson learns that she is half dragon.  Her acne?  Scales.  Her asthma?  Fire.  While she is still coming to grips with this secret identity no one ever told her about, a unicorn is kidnapped and Beth is the prime suspect.  The two girls go on the run to find the missing boy and keep Beth away from the murderous unicorns.

It seems like much more could have been made of the fun parts of finding out you're a mythical creature.  The relationship between Beth and the troll crushing on her was fun but the rest of the story, while fine, wasn't as great as I expected.  And, as always, it is a set up for a sequel although I guess I can't hold that against the book since that is what teens want now.  It just got too convoluted in the resolution for me.  Good cover!