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.