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.