Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Twelve Days in May: Freedom Ride 1961 by Larry Dane Brimner

This nonfiction book starts with the events leading up to the Freedom Rides in 1961 and then provides a day by day account of those rides.  For those not familiar with the Freedom Rides, 13 men and women boarded buses in the north and headed into the southern United States in order to test the Jim Crow laws still in effect in the south.  Federal law at that time had outlawed "separate but equal" facilities for blacks and whites but those laws were completely ignored in southern states.  The Freedom Riders tested the laws at each stop with white riders going into areas designated as "colored only" and black riders going into the whites only bathrooms, waiting rooms and lunch counters.  The deeper south the Riders went, the more opposition they encountered including beatings from the KKK and nearly being burned to death when their bus was set on fire all while some law enforcement officers ignored what was happening.  The Riders had dedicated themselves to nonviolence and when images of the racist acts were publicized, it was a wake up call for some of the U.S.

The story of the Freedom Riders is amazing and horrifying but the treatment in this book didn't grab me as much as I expected.   However, it is presented in a very straightforward, easy to understand manner and would definitely be a good introduction for those unfamiliar with the time.  It is also a good bok to show people today how easily certain rights can be taken away when people don't stand up for what is right. 

The Chaos of Standing Still by Jessica Brody

Ryn is anxious to get home but finds herself stranded at the Denver airport on New Year's Eve.  She needs to get home before 10:05 AM the next day because that is the anniversary of her best friend's death at the hands of a drunk driver.  Ryn has been in counseling to deal with her grief but hasn't told her counselor some things including the fact that she has conversations with Lottie and that she hasn't opened Lottie's last text to her because as long as she has that, there's still some hope.  At the airport she (literally) runs into a boy named Xander and they end up mixing up their phones because they have the same cases.  Ryn only cares about somehow defying the storm and getting home, but fate - and Lottie - seem to keep putting her together with Xander who has his own secrets.

I eagerly snatched up Brody's new book but found myself reading something totally different from her usual fare.  The Chaos of Standing Still is a serious story about letting go and figuring out your identity after a devastating loss.  It's also about Xander and his relationship with his parents which needs some repair.  The bones of the story remind me of The Sun is Also a Star but I enjoyed that book more than this one.  However, it's difficult for me to offer a completely objective critique since the story was not at all what I was expecting and I'm sure that's shading my opinion.  If you're looking for a story of healing, growth and soulmates, this is a good choice for you.

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Pitch Dark by Courtney Alameda

Laura's mother is the captain of the Conquistador, a spaceship that has just located a treasure.  The USS John Muir left Earth over 400 years ago and has been lost all this time but the Muir contains soil that will help to regrow life back on Earth.  Laura's excitement is tempered by the device implanted in her throat that forces her to submit to the will of her enemies.  In an attempt to hack into the ship's computer to free herself from the device, Laura discovers that another group of hackers have already taken control of the ship and put it on a collision course with the John Muir.  When Laura comes to after the crash she discovers that the Muir is infested with zombie-esque creatures who destroy infrastructure and kill people with their piercing voices.  Luckily, she runs into Tuck, a survivor on the Muir, who is able to help her survive and work with her to defeat all their enemies.

I read an ARC of this book from NetGalley and I'm not sure why I requested it. (Although it does have an amazing cover!)  I was not a big fan of Shutter by Alameda so that should've been a clue right there.  But the description sounded great and I love sci fi so I overrode my instinct and requested it anyway which was a mistake.  I can't say for sure what it is about her writing that doesn't do it for me but there's something.  But I know that it's a personal issue specific to Alameda's writing so I can't be super-critical of the book overall even though I was dreading reading it.  In fact, as I was describing sections of the book to my husband, I could tell that the plot lines were interesting and that there were some unique parts.  (He's going to read it and will probably be a fan.)   I was intrigued by the idea of the subjegator but wish that we'd learned more about the Smithsons who put it in her and more details on why they decided to use it on her.  Those bad guys should've really been built up but they were almost incidental.  Was Sebastian using her the entire time or did he actually like her at some point?  As for the other bad guy, I saw that coming but I think my teens will be surprised and outraged with that twist.  Just a "meh" for me.  However....

My feelings toward the book became warmer and fuzzier when I read the author's note.  I love Alameda's introspective description of how political became personal during the writing and all the symbolic touches she included in the story.  So, while I might not mesh with her writing style, I now love Courtney Alameda as a person.

The Window by Amelia Brunskill

Jess has always shared everything with her twin sister Anna as well as relying on Anna to be the outgoing one.  After Anna dies, apparently by falling from her window while sneaking out for the night, Jess is lost.  Of course she's grieving, but she also has some questions about Anna's last night because the police report doesn't seem to add up.  The more Jess looks into her death, the more secrets finds her twin was keeping from her.  Did Jess actually know anything about her sister?  And who can she trust now to help her uncover the truth about Anna's death?

I wasn't sure about this book at the beginning because it got off to a slow, but familiar, start.  Jess is the quiet one who is left essentially voiceless after the death of her outgoing friend/family member and needs to find her own way in the world.  Having read several titles with that framework, I was unimpressed, especially since Jess didn't grab me as a compelling character and I thought the book was primarily going to be about her grieving process.  But fairly quickly we began to find out that Anna had her secrets, one that is pretty darn big, and I found myself zipping through the chapters.  I was even fooled by the red herring of who is to blame for Anna's death.  For a little while, at least.  It's not the finest mystery I've ever read, but I was engaged and I know my students will like it if I can booktalk them past the slow beginning.


Blink by Sasha Dawn

 Joshua first meets Chatham while playing with his twin baby sisters at the beach one day.  Chatham immediately fascinates him with her story of just being in town trying to find her sister who believes she witnessed a kidnapping there many years before.  The kidnapped girl, Rachel, has been a local mystery for over a decade and Joshua has been obsessed with her nearly all that time so he is further drawn to Chatham as they investigate both her sister's and Rachel's disappearance and how the two might be connected.

I found myself disturbed by Joshua's home life and that sense of disquiet overshadowed a lot of the rest of the story for me.  It seems obvious that we are supposed to be unhappy with his mom and former stepfather so Dawn did a good job of weaving some low level dread throughout most of the book, but that didn't make the book as enjoyable for me. I also was not taken with Chatham as a character.  Something about her didn't connect for me so I had little interest in finding out her secrets, feeling invested in them, or cheering on her relationship with Joshua.  Instead, it felt to me like she was using him toward her own ends most of the time.  I can chalk all of those issue up to the book just not working for me, specifically, but I actually have a serious issue with the transformation of Joshua's mom from abuse-enabler to someone who I think is supposed to be sympathetic as a character.  Overall, it just wasn't a fun read for me.

Saturday, November 25, 2017

All's Faire in Middle School by Victoria Jamieson

Impy is about to begin middle school which is scary enough, but Impy has been homeschooled her entire life and doesn't know what to expect.  Her parents work at the local Renaissance Faire which is where Impy spends all her free time.  She is thrilled when the queen gives Impy her first real role as a squire for the upcoming season.  Things continue to look up when she is befriended by a group of girls at school who are popular and nice.  But another girl from school who comes to the Faire each weekend warns Impy to be careful around her new friends and the warning seems founded as the group begins to tease Impy about her clothes and her attempts to fit in.  

An all too realistic portrayal of the problems with finding yourself in middle school.  Impy starts off well but soon falls prey to the cliques and the desire to fit in where you betray who you really are.  What's nicely done about this story (as opposed to many other books about the woes of middle school conformity) is that when Impy messes up, she faces very stiff consequences that are not easily resolved.  She is held accountable for her actions even though we can understand what led her here in the first place.  My main quibble with the book is the opening which drops the reader right into the Renaissance world without letting you know it is the Faire, not an actual setting in the middle ages.  That will turn off some teen readers who will struggle with the language right off the bat.  But once you get past that and onto the "quest" of conquering middle school, this will fly off my shelves.

Nyxia by Scott Reintgen

Emmett knows he has been given a one in a million chance when he is selected by The Babel Corporation to travel to Eden, a planet many light years away.  On the one year journey to Eden he is competing against nine other teens to be one of the top eight point-getters who will be allowed to go down to the planet and mine nyxia, a substance that can do almost anything.  The eight winners will be set up for life with money, health care, and status.  With his background and his mom's illness, Emmett needs to be a winner, but so do his opponents.  Babel only chose teens who all have hard luck stories and all of them want to win, at any cost.

Nyxia is a fun story with several interesting characters and I had fun while I was reading it despite the similarities to Hunger Games in some of the themes.  I feel pretty sure, however, that it is one of those books that is going to fade quickly.  In a few months, I'll be going through my bookshelf and see that I gave it four stars but not be able to remember much of anything about it.  So if you're looking for a meaningful, stick in your mind book, this might not be it.  But if you just want some quick and entertaining sci fi for right this minute, check it out.

The Hearts We Sold by Emily Lloyd-Jones

No one knows what the demons do with the arms, legs and other body parts they take in exchange for granting wishes, but it's clear that a lot of people have been taking advantage of their presence ever since the demons announced they are here.  Dee has never considered a deal until she learns that she won't be able to stay at her boarding school unless she is able to raise a lot of money, fast.  The thought of living back at home with her parents is untenable given their alcoholism and her father's temper so she finally approaches a demon she has seen at the hospital where she volunteers.  To her surprise, he asks for her heart which he will keep for two years while she doesn't age.  Dee is also dismayed to learn that she will be joining a group of other heartless teens in performing dangerous tasks for their Daemon.  Together, they have to enter randomly occurring voids and set off explosions to close them before whatever is inside the void finds a way into our world.  But what is in the void?  And if the demons are worried about it, does that mean that Dee is now fighting on the side of evil?


I thoroughly enjoyed this book from start to finish. All the characters are well-developed and interesting, not just the two main ones.  And the answers as to who the demons are and why they have decided to revel themselves to the world and what they are doing with the body parts are all much more interesting than I had imagined.  Real losses among the heartless up the stakes  on the action front but this book is about more than action.  Dee's struggle to trust and to deal with her family actually moves much more slowly, but realistically.  There are layers beneath a general fantasy thriller-esque title.

Sunday, November 19, 2017

Wishtree by Katherine Applegate

Red is over 200 rings old and is a wishtree.  Each May people write their wishes on pieces of cloth and tie them on  Red's branches.  Red has seen a lot of things happen during her life.  When Red and her friend Bongo, a crow, hear the girl who lives nearby wish to make a friend, Red wants to help make that wish come true.  Especially when someone carves the word "LEAVE" into Red's trunk and there is talk of ending Red's life to help make things easier in the neighborhood.

Okay, that description does not come close to conveying the emotion of what is happening in this book.  I will get back to all of that but let me start by saying that I was already enjoying it, but when I got to the wishing day part and I read about the messages being put on Red, I sobbed for the entire rest of the story.  And I thought about reading it again, which is unheard of for me.  AND I gave it five stars on Goodreads which is also unheard of for me.  This is just a lovely, wonderful book that can be read on so many levels and still be lovely regardless of your age or understanding of the depths.  In addition to the messages about acceptance and taking care of those around us, there is just some delightful interaction with all the animals in the book and the fun of the description of their naming conventions.  Such as:  all squirrel names start with "SQU" and skunks name themselves after things that smell nice and owls have sensible names, as you would expect.  I want everyone to read this.

The Seventh Wish by Kate Messner


Charlie is wishing for a few things to make her life run more smoothly.  She has an Irish dance competition coming up and she wants to place in all her dances so she can move up a level.  She wants her parents to be a little more focused on her problems because her older sister seems to eat up a lot of their time.  And she misses her sister who is away at college and seems to be too busy to respond to texts anymore.  When a neighbor invites her to go ice-fishing to raise a few dollars, that seems to be the answer to one of her problems:  buying a new, expensive dress for her dance competitions.  And then when Charlie catches an unusual fish that speaks to her and offers to grant a wish in exchange for being released, Charlie knows that she has the chance to fix a lot of her problems.  But the wishes she makes often seem to have some unexpected twist that makes them go awry.  But still, she hopes the fish might be the answer when she finds out that her sister isn't just sick, she is a heroin addict.

I like Kate Messner's books and have used two of them on my sixth grade reading list over the years so I was surprised to find out that I'd missed this one along the way.  I only heard of it now because I follow School Library Journal and they posted an article about The Seventh Wish.  Part of that article talked about how Messner had been disinvited to speak at some schools or told not to talk about this particular book because their community didn't have a drug problem.  Well now I HAD to read it!!   Like All the Answers, this one has that bit of magic but is still mostly just realistic fiction, especially since the magic does not solve the MC's problems, just works to reveal that there are problems in the first place.  What starts as a somewhat light story of a girl dealing with typical middle school problems becomes much more serious but in a totally realistic, saddening way as the extent of her sister's heroin abuse comes to light.  Messner does not shy aware from the realities of living with an addict but it is never inappropriate for a middle school crowd who - spoiler alert for those who don't deal with them all the time - are aware that people take drugs!  Furthermore, many of them are dealing with family members who take drugs.  Messner offers no easy answers and left me feeling the heartbreak of loving a person who now has an issue to deal with for the rest of her life while you are left to work through your worry and anger at them.  A really touching, well done book.

Friday, November 17, 2017

S.T.A.G.S by M.A. Bennett


Greer is having a difficult time fitting in at her new private school, St. Aidan the Great otherwise known as S.T.A.G.S.  Her roommate refuses to even speak to her until Greer receives an invitation to a weekend house party at the manor of Henry de Warlencourt, the popular leader of the most exclusive group at school who call themselves The Medievals.  The invitation promises a long weekend of "huntin', shootin', and fishin'".  Surprised to be noticed by the group, Greer accepts the invite despite a warning from another girl at school who attended the previous year.  When she arrives at the house she finds that there are no adults present except for a bevy of servants who are there to do whatever is commanded by the teens.  Other than herself and the popular Medievals, there are two other misfits from school.  As the "huntin'" portion of the weekend begins it becomes clear that the Medievals have their own idea of what will happening for the next three days.

If you have read much or watch movies and TV much, there are no big surprises in this book other than the fact that the Medievals are content to injure their prey rather than going for the kill in every situation.  But just because you know what's going to happen, that doesn't mean it's not a fun ride along the way.  There were plenty of times where I gave myself a self-satisfied pat on the back for guessing a plot twist as well as times I shook my head about how oblivious Greer seemed to be.  Even after she bonded with the other misfits she was still blinded by the slick ways of the Medievals! It's often interesting to get a glimpse behind the slick mask of an evil person or, in this case, to be unsure if a person truly is evil.  Although I wouldn't count this title as a deep, meaningful read, I enjoyed it for what it was and I know that it will not be predictable to my students who haven't been exposed to as many similar stories as I have.  A definite winner for teens!  

Sunday, November 5, 2017

Tentacle and Wing by Sarah Porter

Ada learned at a young age that she does not see the world as humans do.  Ada is a kime - a Chimera born with a combination of human and animal DNA.  Most kimes are easy to spot as they have things such as wings, fur, tentacles, or other animal attributes.  But Ada looks 100% human on the outside. The only ability she has is to see things that are invisible to humans and infrared vision.  Her father knows about her abilities but has been helping her keep them covered up because kimes are taken to a prison-like place in order to keep them separated from the rest of society.  But a surprise test reveals Ada's true nature and she is taken to the facility.  Once there, she realizes that the other kimes are more like her than she thought and that someone on the island is working to change the public's perception of them, no matter the cost.

I was wrapped up in the book at the beginning with the hidden talents and the secret DNA test which rips Ada from her family, but not too much further in I began to have issues.  The book is solidly meant for middle grades so I didn't expect great depth, but I felt like some important information was skipped over in the storytelling.  For instance, I don't think it was established why, almost immediately, Ms. Stuart was so set against Ada and seemed to intend her harm.  Nor was Gabriel's animosity fully explained.  It all just came across to me as disjointed and I didn't care enough about anyone to get invested in the story.  Finally, the ending was wrapped up too easily.  Oh, sure, there was a big showdown but the reversal of the bad guys' feelings was too swift as well as Ada's decision to either stay on the island or go.

Be Mindful & Stress Less : 50 Ways to deal with your (crazy) life by Gina M. Biegel

 I was allowed to read an ARC of this book in exchange for an honest review.  While looking through available ARCs this title with the word "mindful" caught my eye immediately.  I'm a big believer in mindfulness even though it's something with which I struggle pretty much all the time so I was attracted to this book, thinking it might offer some new kind of tips that were going to blow my mind open and make mindfulness super easy to achieve.  And since I've been clenching my teeth recently thanks to even more stressors than usual (thank you censorship at work and politics in general), the promise of less stress was equally appealing.  Sign me up, please!

The book is described as "accessible" and "user-friendly" and I can agree with that.  There is no difficult jargon to grasp and the basics of mindfulness and Buddhism - impermanence, loving compassion - are introduced in an easy to grasp way.  The ARC was less user-friendly thanks to formatting errors but no doubt that will all be fixed and columns will line up in the actual book.  However, there were a few word clouds that I struggled to decipher in my copy. 

The information in the book is very helpful and presented in short chapters which would make it easy for someone to use almost as a daily affirmation-type book.  In fact, I think that would be a better way to absorb the information in this book.  Although the exercises are tried and true practices that help with caring for yourself and letting go of stress, nearly every chapter includes an acronym to help you remember the steps for that particular activity.  Acronyms are great tools, but when there are twenty different ones, they lose their effectiveness.  For me, at least.  I'm not sure if I ought to be using HOT or ACORN or STOP or one of the others for each situation.  If those could be condensed down to perhaps three, total, I think they would be much more effective for the reader. 

This book is clearly aimed at teens and some issues specific to teens rather than just a mindfulness book for the general population.  Sprinkled in with information about self-care and treating yourself as you would a good friend, there was a mention of trying some other strategies rather than relieving stress in a self-harming way with some negative behavior examples.  Those examples pulled me out of the book a little bit since they felt very specifically aimed at teens but as someone who works with teens, I can really appreciate that they were included.  It's not a lecture about "here are some positive things to do rather than cutting yourself" but rather a subtle message about loving yourself without skirting around the issue. 

In the end, MY mind was not magically blown open as I was hoping, but I can always use a reminder of the principles I am trying to embody.   This is a quick read that I think will be helpful to those teens who are open to trying the exercises within.

Monday, October 30, 2017

Projekt 1065 by Alan Gratz

Michael is living in Germany during World War II.  Although he is Irish, he is a member of the Hitler Youth because his parents are ambassadors to the country and Michael needs to look like he is sympathetic to the Nazis.  Plus, his position in the Hitler Youth gives him an opportunity to learn secret information that is helpful to the Allies since Michael and his parents are spies.  One of the things Michael learns about is Projekt 1065, a secret project to develop the first jet engine.  If the Germans can make the engine work their planes will dominate the skies and give them the advantage to win the war.  Michael uses his photographic memory to copy the plans and pass the information on to the Allies but his mission is further complicated when he helps rescue an injured soldier.


How to Disappear by Sharon Huss Roat

Vicky was never outgoing in the first place, but since her best friend Jenna moved away, Vicky has become nearly invisible.  She goes out of her way to dress plainly and doesn't talk to anyone.  She still talks to Jenna every day but Jenna's new life seems to be going in a new direction when she begins posting pictures of herself on Instagram with popular girls and a cute boy.  Then comes the day when Jenna butt dials Vicky and Vicky overhears Jenna talking with her new friends about how pathetic Vicky is.  Devastated, Vicky decides to create a new, virtual life.  She puts on an outrageous wig and bright clothes and photoshops herself into all sorts of fun situations.  She names her new self Vicurious and begins attracting followers immediately.  In fact, Vicurious becomes so popular, so quickly, that Vicky is a little unsure what to do next and why so many people reacted so strongly to #alone and #ignored, but she decides to use her new found fame to help others like herself.

This book sounds like a light take on social media but it actually draws you in to some fairly deep topics.  I know that most teens can identify with feeling alone and ignored so it's not surprising that Vicurious touches such a nerve.  Roat also takes us into Vicky's real life as she slowly, very slowly, discovers who she is and how that has value even if she's not the outgoing person in school.  The message for teens (and adults) is great!  There's even an emotional climatic scene with Jenna that drives the points home even more and feels very realistic.  This was an unexpected gem!

Sunday, October 29, 2017

The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas

Starr lives in a poor neighborhood but goes to a fancy school across town where she is one of the only minority students.  She has friends in both worlds but never talks much about her life at home with her white school friends.  While at a party in the neighborhood one night she runs into her old friend Khalil and accepts a ride home with him.  They are stopped by a police officer who believes Khalil is reaching for a nonexistent gun and shoots him while Starr watches her friend die on the street.  Starr wants to keep her presence at the shooting a secret from most of the world outside of her family, but she feels the effects of it on her.  She notices that she feels nervous when she's with her white boyfriend and she's offended by the things her friends at school say about Khalil as his story makes the news and he is branded as a thug and drug dealer.  When Starr finally decides to take a stand she is pulled even deeper into the controversy and finds it affecting some of her closest relationships.

I pre-ordered this book because the buzz was already so huge about it.  I started it on the day it was released but put it aside at that time after just a few pages because I knew I couldn't use it for a county wide reading program for which I was reading at that time due to the language and content, so I just got back to it recently.  Since its release, the book has only gotten bigger which is why I'm unhappy to say that I'm not over the moon about it.   All the parts of the core story of Khalil's death are so important - the shooting of an unarmed black boy, the demonizing of him in the press, his reasons for the life he was living, and Starr's PTSD and fear about speaking up - but the rest of book bogged down with all of the messages that Thomas crammed into it that came across to me as lectures rather than organic parts of the story.  In particular, I remember the scene where Starr's boyfriend asked why African-American people have such weird names.  The subsequent answer to that question really felt like an important fact to be learned rather than something that helped the story.  

I've seen quite a few reviews talk about reverse racism in the book and I want to address that.  The scene that seems to come up the most is when Starr is having problems with her boyfriend and tells him that part of the problem is that he is white.  I finished this book more than a month ago so I don't remember if Thomas actually uses the term PTSD, but it is clear to me that is what is happening to Starr.  Let's be clear:  THIS SCENE IS NOT AN EXAMPLE OF RACISM ON STARR'S PART.  She is having flashbacks to the horrific thing she witnessed and that has made her look at things in her life differently.  

I wasn't all that fond on Starr's father in his insistence that they continue to live in the 'hood when he could've moved them to a suburban neighborhood much earlier.  But that's not a criticism of the book or storyline, that's just my frustration at him for endangering his own family to make a point.  I get what he was trying to do with revitalizing from within, but it made me like him a lot less as a character.  

In summary, it's clear that Thomas has a strong voice and a lot to say.  I just wish she hadn't tried to put all of it into this one book. I think Starr's story would've been stronger if the book had been about 100 or more pages shorter.

All Rights Reserved by Gregory Scott Katsoulis

 It is her 15th birthday and Speth is nervous about delivering her Last Day speech that will lead to her endorsements and adulthood.  Once you have given your speech, every word you say and every gesture you make costs you money.  All communication is owned by someone and you must pay the copyright owner to use the words and gestures.  Some basic words don't cost much but other words can be very expensive and must be avoided.  Speth's family is split up and in massive debt because her parents are working off a debt from an ancestor who downloaded music illegally.  But when it is Speth's time to deliver her speech, she doesn't say anything at all.  Her defiance at this important ceremony leads to lots of consequences for her family and ignites a resistance while also making her some powerful enemies.

I am fascinated with copyright law so when I read about this book I was caught up in the premise and ordered it up immediately.  As usually happens, media that has raised my expectations often ends up being a disappointment in the end.  The idea everything being copyright protected doesn't seem that far-fetched so I was totally along for the ride at first, enjoying the insta-lawsuits and thinking carefully about how I would weigh my words in this world.  But things began to go south for me as the book went along.  I think the author took on a difficult task by writing a protagonist who cannot speak.  We are privy to her thoughts, so that's helpful, but it's still hard to move some plot lines forward without any communication with other characters on her part.  One of the biggest issues I had was her unwillingness to speak even at times when she could or at times that, to me, seemed necessary.  Her zipping of her lips was not done purposefully to take a stand, it felt more like an impulsive action when she was overwhelmed by all that had happened right then.  As such, she was sort of drifting along and became the symbol of a revolution she hadn't planned.  I was shaking my head more than once about her continued silence and the consequences of it.

Saturday, October 28, 2017

Warcross by Marie Lu

Hideo Tanaka is the genius who invented Warcross, a worldwide virtual reality game that puts you right in the action thanks to his neurolink glasses.  Emika has read everything about Hideo but never imagined she'd have the opportunity to meet him until she hacks into the opening of the Warcross Championships and attracts worldwide attention.  Now she is personally invited to join a Warcross team but more than that, Hideo has asked her to use her skills to help track down an even more experienced hacker named Zero who wants to disrupt the tournament.  Emika finds herself with a group of friends for the first time in a long time as well as possibly with a boyfriend.

It's tough to come up with a premise that hasn't already been done a bunch of times but Warcross delivers some new stuff.  The worldwide video game concept has been done but this still has the next twist of the neurolink which doesn't feel all that science-fictiony to me.  Totally not that far away but pretty damn scary at the same time.  And my scared sense of foreboding is not off base, either.  

I love Emika as a heroine.  She is legit strong and sure of herself with the skills to back it up.  I felt pretty sure early on that I knew where a couple of things were going but I hoped I was wrong.  Unfortunately, I was right and I'm still sad about that.  But I'm happy for the storyline overall because I admire authors who are willing to do the unpopular, but more realistic, thing. 

Long Way Down by Jason Reynolds

Will was there when his older brother Shawn was murdered last night and he's sure he knows who killed him.  Will also knows the three rules:  1.  No crying. 2.  No snitching. 3.  Get revenge. So the next morning he wrestles open Shawn's dresser drawer and takes the gun he knows is hidden there in order to follow rule three.  He just has to get through his ride down seven stories in the elevator which is not as easy as it sounds when he finds himself haunted by friends and family on every floor.

Don't let the fact that this is free verse and a quick read fool you into thinking it's easy.  Every word is important to the overall story and is obviously carefully planned.  Each of Will's ghosts has a message for him and Reynolds' massive talent is clear as he packs massive impact into just a few words.  The entire book is a masterpiece and I knew it while I was reading, but it was the last page that blew me away.  When I read the last two words in the book my stomach dropped and I felt chills running up and down my spine.  Literally. 

Everything All at Once by Katrina Leno

Lottie's entire family is devastated when her Aunt Helen dies young from cancer.  Although the loss is personal to them, Helen's death affects the rest of the world as well since she was the author of one of the most beloved book series of all time.  In her will, Helen has left a series of letters for Lottie, one to be opened each day.  The letters are some of her last thoughts along with some specific tasks for Lottie to do which push her out of her comfort zone.  Lottie has always worried about death but now more than ever and Helen tries to get Lottie living.


Parts of this book were tough for me to read because Lottie's worries are described so clearly and echo some of my own thoughts about disease and death.  In addition, her grieving for Helen is palpable as she works on going on.  I was especially moved by the scene with her dad who is going through his own grieving process about the loss of his sister.  Starting my review with all that makes the book sound like a real downer when in reality it is actually focused on enjoying life.  Lottie is uncomfortable with things she is doing but she does them and finds herself learning more with each task.  This is one of those fairly quiet books that draws you in without giving an easy hook with which to describe it. 

A Week of Mondays by Jessica Brody


Ellison is not having a good Monday.  She forgot her umbrella so she looks terrible in her school picture.  Right before she's supposed to give a speech to the entire school for the class election, she eats something that has nuts in it and her entire face and tongue swell up.   And sure, the day started with a text from her beautiful boyfriend Tristan that said "We need to talk", but Ellison is sure she can turn things around during a dream date that night at the fair.  But instead, Tristan dumps her.  Ellie is sure that if she only had another chance she could totally make the day work out better.  The next morning, she gets the chance to have another Monday.  In fact, she gets an entire week of Mondays in which to change things up and make them work out perfectly.

There's nothing surprising here from other "Groundhog Day"-esque plotlines but that doesn't mean it's not still a bunch of fun.  Brody knows how to write super-likeable heroines who grow the right amount during the course of the book and keep me entertained along the way.  Ellison is no different, although she might be a little denser than some others when it comes to her realization about true love.

Friday, October 27, 2017

Something in Between by Melissa de la Cruz

Jasmine is a cheerleader and is at the top of her class thanks to all her hard work.  When she receives notice that she is one of the few high school seniors being recognized for her achievements she knows that she will have her choice of college scholarships.  But when she gets ready to apply, her parents reveal the shocking news that they never renewed their visas and now the entire family is in the United States illegally.  Jasmine will not be able to apply to any college and is possibly now facing deportation.  Determined to move on with her life, Jasmine joins the group going to Washington, D.C. to be recognized and while there, she runs into boy from back home who is the son of a congressman.  With a developing romance, Jasmine now has even more to fight for rather than going to live in the Philippines, a country where she has never lived.

The subject matter is definitely timely and is in some way based on the life of the author so I appreciate the book in those ways.  However, the length and the execution turned me off.  A story can't be all about being deported, but I felt like the main focus of the book was lost to the romance.  It was a bait and switch, promising me a book about the unfairness of immigration laws for some of our citizens but instead giving me a lackluster romance.  The couple was so quick to assume bad things about each other's motives that it felt the only connection they had was physical chemistry. On another note, how is it that Jasmine's parents didn't bother to tell her about their status a hundred times before this?  If she had no plans to go to college then maybe they could've kept this a secret but she has made it very clear that she expects big things out of her life.  I feel like the promising, relevant story got bogged down with too many side issues and way too many words.

Sachiko: A Nagasaki Bomb Survivor's Story by Caren Stelson

Sachiko Yasui was a young girl living in Nagasaki, Japan when the United States dropped an atomic bomb on the city during World War II.  Surprisingly, she lived through the bombing but her life was never the same.  Several members of her family died from the initial attack and many others died later from complications of the radiation.  Sachiko managed to move forward with her life and become someone who could speak firsthand about the devastating effects of war and its weapons.  This book is a powerful and beautiful account of Sachiko's life and legacy and ought to be read by all young people.

Lucky in Love by Kasie West

Maddie's not having the best 18th birthday ever.  While at the convenience store the night she gives in to a suggestion from the clerk and buys a lottery ticket and to her surprise, she wins!  Now a millionaire, she is looking forward to how money will change her life:  her parents will be able to stop fighting, her brother will get out of debt and go back to school, and she can go to college wherever she wants.  But as people find out about her new found wealth Maddie finds they all want something from her and she's not sure who to trust.  Luckily, her crush at work doesn't seem to have a clue about the lottery win and Maddie wants to keep it that way.

This book is mostly just fun and light but there are some darker elements that didn't seem to fit as well to me.  For instance, I'm still worried about her brother who has made some bad decisions with his money and now what will he do?  I know a book has to have some conflict and it wouldn't be much of a story if all her problems were actually solved by winning the money, but I guess I wanted her issues to be easily resolved and cotton candy-ish.  Still, if I'm looking for a break from some grim dystopian reading, I would absolutely turn to Kasie West.

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

The Hundred Lies of Lizzie Lovett by Chelsea Sedoti

Hawthorne is hoping to skip a day of school and think she might've found a reason when she hears that her brother's ex-girlfriend, Lizzie Lovett, has gone missing.  Hawthorne never really liked Lizzie who is everything Hawthorne is not - popular, pretty, and happy.  But now she becomes obsessed with Lizzie and her current boyfriend, Enzo.  Soon Hawthorne is working at Lizzie's old job and consulting with Enzo about her theory that Lizzie might have turned into a werewolf.

Boy, this is an odd book with an unlikable protagonist.  I get it that Hawthorne is struggling in her own life so it makes sense that she would be pretty weird as a narrator, but that didn't make her any more fun to read as she engaged in self-destructive behavior.  I was waiting for something big to happen but there really wasn't any big twist.  That's more like real life, I know, but it made the story flat for me.  

The Ark Plan (Edge of Extinction #1) by Laura Martin









Sky has lived in an underground compound all her life.  It hasn't been safe to live on the surface ever since dinosaurs were cloned and took over the world.  Despite the danger, Sky sneaks out of the compound on occasion to see if she can find any clues about her father who disappeared five years ago.  After all this time, Sky's best friend Shawn discovers a message in the one possession Sky's father left her.  The clue indicates he might be alive but the only way to know for sure is to leave the safety of the compound and venture onto the surface.

This is a great, fun middle grades adventure that also points out that humans can't control everything when they are fiddling around with science.  The dinosaurs are very, very bad which makes them super fun!  Sky is a good, strong heroine but it's a nice change of pace from other books that she doesn't just know everything.  In fact, she would be quickly dispatched by any number of dinos if not for a new ally who has more knowledge of the Earth's surface than she.  I've put the book on a sixth grade reading list and my students are eating it up!

Monday, October 23, 2017

Children of Exile by Margaret Peterson Haddix

Rosi and her young brother Bobo have lived their entire lives in a community of adults they call "Freds".  The Freds are nurturing and have taught the children rules for getting along and forming a society but they have been very clear in stating they are not the children's parents.  Now, suddenly, all the children are being returned to their biological parents without any explanation.  This ought to be good news but when the children return to their hometown, things are strange.  People avoid Rosi and it's clear that people with her eye color are ostracized.  Even her parents don't seem to like her but they dote on Bobo.  Some big secret is being kept from the children about their town and why they were with the Freds in the first place.

Just, ugh.  The secret is not great and it took way too long to get to the reveal.  And the time it took to get there was not compelling at all.  On top of that, after treating Rosi like shit the entire time she lived with them, it turns out there as a very good reason for treating her like shit and now we're supposed to understand and sympathize with the parents.  Nope.

Ban This Book by Alan Gratz

Amy Anne's family is chaotic and a lot of the responsibility for her sisters falls onto Amy Anne's shoulders.  That's why she loves to spend time after school reading quietly in the library.  But one day she tries to check out her favorite book, From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, and Mrs. Jones tells her the book has been banned from their library.  One parent has protested a list of 12 books in the school library and is asking to have them removed permanently.  Amy Anne goes to the school board meeting to talk about how much the books mean to her but she finds herself mute when it is time for her to speak, and the board votes to remove all the books from the library.  When Amy Anne loans her personal copy of one of the books to a friend at school, she gets an idea and is soon running a private library of all the banned books out of her locker.  But as the list of challenged books continues to grow, her locker isn't big enough to keep up and it's only a matter of time until someone finds out about what she's doing.


I was still absorbing the events in Refugee when out of the blue, here was another book by Alan Gratz.  This is a strong indictment of book banning subversively hidden inside a middle grades novel.  I love that Amy Anne has to work hard to (literally) find her voice.  How many of us are upset by something but have a hard time standing up to The Man about that issue?  Her ability to challenge this injustice grows a bit at a time until she is fierce!  Every book mentioned in the novel is the object of banning in real life which could lead to some great discussion about why people feel it is necessary to remove a title from everyone and outrage from students as they see some of their own favorite books being removed.  Although the book is definitely written for middle grades, it tackles serious subjects including the removal of the wonderful librarian - thank you, Alan, for such a strong characterization of librarians! - and the spinelessness of the school board.  And to top it off, there's a cameo by Dav Pilkey helping to stick it to the banners!




Allie, First at Last by Angela Cervantes

Allie comes from a family of winners.  Her younger sister is already a TV star, her brother is a star soccer player and her grandfather has won a Congressional Medal of Honor.  Allie knows she needs to do something to add her name to the list of Velasco achievers.  When her teacher announces a contest, Allie is determined to be the winner and decides to document her great-grandfather's life.  But the path to winning her award is not smooth as she has to deal with her ex-best friend and new boy Victor who is full of surprises.

I really like Cervantes' voice for middle schoolers.  Both books I've read by her (Gaby Lost and Found) are authentic and don't sound like an adult trying to write like a girl in middle school.  Victor is a great character and provides a good lesson for Allie about making assumptions.  Lessons are learned, to be sure, but the story lets the reader figure things out without telling you what to think.

Saturday, September 30, 2017

Patina by Jason Reynolds

Patty has a lot of things that keep her running.  She is struggling to adapt to her new fancy school where she feels out of place.  She is taking care of her younger sister.  She is coming to grips with the fact that they now live with her aunt and uncle since how mom can't take care of them after she lost her legs to diabetes.  And she's trying to handle her bad attitude on the track because if she doesn't, Coach will make sure he finds a way to help her run it out.  Patty is used to taking care of everything and relying only on herself.  But now she has to work on a group project at school and running a relay race at track.  Can she trust other people to do their part, or will it be up to her to make it all work out, as usual?

This sequel to Ghost picks up right at the end of the previous book.  Literally, right at that second.  But you don't have to have read Ghost to understand Patty's story at all because it is completely about her life.  As always, Reynolds' writing is lovely and understated.  So understated that I didn't come to a full appreciation of this book until I'd had some time to reflect on it and let it sink in.  Patty is so used to taking care of everything in her life, and we are seeing her life through her eyes, that I was slow on the uptake of realizing that the conflict in the book is her finding ways to let down her guard to those who want to help her.  Patty is such a winning character that I found myself feeling her anxiety as I was reading.  She will be so easy for my middle schoolers to relate to because so many of them are dealing with a lot of stuff themselves.  Another great book from Jason Reynolds!

Your One & Only by Adrianne Finlay

Althea-310 is as shocked as the rest of the Altheas when she sees Jack for the first time.  Jack is human, a species that died off 300 years ago in the slow plague while Althea-310 is one of ten Althea clones in the city of Vispera.  In an effort to keep humanity alive, nine scientists cloned themselves, refining their genetic make up in each succeeding generation.  Now, every ten years a new batch of clones are "born" with ten of each of the original scientists.  Jack is the first human any of Althea's generation has seen.  Jack's introduction into Vispera doesn't go smoothly, but Althea still finds herself fascinated with him and becomes more distressed by the way he is treated by some other members of her society.  One of the bigger questions, however, is why the older generations made a human in the first place?  And what is happening to their society?


I really liked the concept of this book.  So much so that I was drawn in despite my initial eye roll when reading the synopsis that made it clear this was obviously going to be a romance.  Of course there is the forbidden romance between Althea and Jack, but there is a good sci fi world and story as well. 

Vispera sounds like a great place to live where things are peaceful and orderly.  I've read enough to know that it can't possibly be as perfect as it seems, but despite the initial problems with Jack's introduction to society, it still seemed pretty nice there.  The problems with this perfect world were revealed quite slowly throughout the book which is not a criticism at all.  In fact, I enjoyed the pace all the way until the end.  (More on that later.) There is a nice balance between showing us the day to day life of Vispera and the action sequences that keep the story moving.  I also liked the pace of Jack and Althea's growing romance which was not insta-love but rather a realistic getting-to-know-you relationship. 

As I mentioned, the book lost my admiration quite a bit at the end where the pace suddenly sped up considerably.  It was much more of a narration of "Then they went here.  Then this happened.  Then some of them left.  Then she saw this thing."  So much happened in those last couple of chapters but it was all just explained rather than being part of the storytelling.  I also had issues with Sam's final days and his sudden love of Jack which I hadn't felt at all before.  Sam needed to step it up a lot sooner in Jack's life!!  But despite those two criticisms, this was enjoyable and unique.

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Truthers by Geoffrey Girard

First of all - this is not the official cover of the book.  It is a dog reading a book with the official cover and I loved it so I decided to use that picture rather than just the cover.

Katie knows how to fend for herself since her dad spends most of his time high or investigating conspiracy theories.  But even that chaotic life is disrupted when he ends up in a mental institution, so medicated he is almost unable to communicate at all.  When Katie visits him he does something shocking to make himself more lucid for just a few minutes.  In his babbling he tells Katie that he was in Pennsylvania on September 11 and saw people being unloaded from planes.  He also claims that a woman handed Katie to him and that she is not his biological daughter.  Instead, she might be the smoking gun that proves the existence of a huge government cover-up.  In order to have her father released from the hospital Katie needs to prove that his beliefs are not crazy and in order to do that, she needs to investigate what really happened on 9/11 for herself.

Fairly early in the book Katie confesses that the events of 9/11 are basically the same as any other ancient history to her since she was a baby when it happened.  I, however, remember it well and am still devastated by the attacks so I went into this book with caution and curiosity as to how Girard would handle things.  I am not a truther so I was dismayed with the overwhelmingly persuasive arguments presented that seemed aimed at convincing the reader of a cover up.  Despite my feelings, I was willing to go along with the story in that direction so then I was dismayed again with the ending that seemed to completely negate all the previous conspiracy build up.  It felt like a sell out to me or an attempt to appease both sides of the truther spectrum.

Sunday, September 10, 2017

The Empress by S.J. Kincaid

This sequel to The Diabolic begins with everything going their way for Tyrus and Nemesis.  Tyrus no longer has to act like a madman and is recognized by everyone as the emperor.  Everyone knows that Nemesis is a Diabolic and the future empress and while they might not be thrilled about that, it is clear that Tyrus will have it no other way.  However, although Tyrus has the scepter that gives him control over all the bots in the kingdom, it is not working.  Some research reveals that a majority of the vicars need to give their approval of the emperor for the scepter to work correctly and most of them have problems with the empress being nonhuman.  In addition to their problems with gaining approval for their match, Tyrus and Nemesis have to scheme against the cunning Senator Pasus who is bent on revenge for his daughter's death and determined to rule the empire one way or another.

This book was such a letdown from The Diabolic that my initial rating was one star.  After giving myself 24 hours to reflect, I bumped it up to two stars because it is not bad, just really suffers in comparison.  I seldom read sequels and when I do and am disappointed, I wonder if it's because the sequel is actually not as good or it it's because I've seen the author's tricks already.  I don't have an answer to that question with this one but here are some of my issues:
  • Tyrus is described on several occasions as always being ten steps ahead of everyone in his planning and yet he allows Pasus to get the drop on him more than once.
  • Despite his careful planning (which we are told about but don't always see materialize) he never tells Nemesis what he has in mind but instead asks her to trust him.  Then they leave their secret chat room and he turns on her and she's supposed to not act.  But when she does act, he later tells her she didn't do what he wanted.  Maybe he could give her a clue about what he's going to do so she won't inadvertently mess something up?
  • I missed the story and character development because the entire book was jumping from one life-threatening situation to another.  There's a blazing star that is meant to cook everyone!  There are Diabolics that are meant to kill Tyrus!  There's a black hole that will suck them in!  Here's someone else Nemesis wants to kill to protect Tyrus without his knowledge!  Here's a spaceship ripping the roof off their room!  The pace and action left no room for much of anything else and made it choppy for me.
  • Nemesis does grow as the story progresses but a huge part of the book is whether she is human or not and for quite awhile her reactions are complete devoid of empathy.  I feel sure that we, as readers, are supposed to believe she is capable of love and emotion but that is not shown in her interactions with others.
  • Why, why, why do neither Tyrus nor Nemesis kill Pasus in any of the situations where they had that possibility?  He is evil and has made it clear he plans to use them for the rest of their lives to his own ends.  As I noted above, he manages to back them into corners on several occasions so he's not a dolt who can be easily manipulated like so many others at court.  The reason to keep him alive: contrived narrative necessity.  
  • I read a review of the first book months ago that described it as a romance set in a space opera and that seems to be an apt description. That formula really seems to fit here as Nemesis and Tyrus are kept apart by forces but then have moments where they can really express their love but then she doubts whether he actually loves her or not but then he does but then maybe he doesn't....  My husband has a plausible theory about what is happening with Tyrus towards the end of the book which has to be what happens or else any reconciliation that comes about (and it must come about for the romance to be complete) is ridiculous.  
  • There is a great deal of use of drugs throughout the book.  I don't mind the references in general because it is clear that drug use is a part of the life for the royalty in the book.  Furthermore, Nemesis and Tyrus both seem to disdain their use and only use them as required to be social with Nemesis not feeling any effects from them and Tyrus working to limit their effects on him.  But one passage in particular stood out after Nemesis rescues Neveni from death:  "I made sure to dispatch a service bot her way with recreational narcotics.  Venalox was a dreadful narcotic, but I still had faith in other sorts.  Drugs were a most excellent means of coping with grief."  Two sentences, so not a big deal overall.  But it still stood out as something that concerns me in its message.
A disappointment all around.  I should've stuck with my usual never reading sequels policy.

Saturday, August 26, 2017

Little Monsters by Kara Thomas

Kacey has only lived in Broken Falls a few months after leaving her unstable mother to join her father's family.  She has made two close friends, Bailey and Jade, and is very close with her stepbrother Andrew and half sister Lauren but she worries about having to leave her new family or being rejected by her friends.  So when Bailey and Jade show up at her house and ask her to sneak out to take part in a seance, Kacey goes along rather than dealing with their anger.  The night after the seance Kacey's friends attend a party without her and Bailey goes missing during the night.  As one of Bailey's best friends, the police have a lot of questions for Kacey and it soon becomes clear they are doubtful about some of her answers.  But if Kacey is not responsible, who is?  And can she trust anyone close to her?

The answer is "no" in this psychological thriller that keeps you guessing for a good chunk of the book.  I had a glimmer of a guess pretty close to when the killer was revealed by the author, and I knew there was something going on with this character, but I didn't have it all worked out by any means.  Thomas slowly leads you through the mystery planting doubts about every character along the way, including Kacey herself.  Her perfect, close-knit family is slowly revealed to have more than its share of cracks in their facade and I didn't know what to believe about anyone.  In that regard, I enjoyed the book since I usually find myself guessing the twist fairly early on.  But I'm not sure that I enjoyed the book overall because the situation at the end left issues for everyone, forever, and I'm still obsessed with how their lives will now be shadowed by the events of the story.  So if you like those dark, not fully resolved endings for characters who have secret problems, this is the book for you.  As for me, I'm still thinking about it so that's usually a good sign.

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Miles Morales by Jason Reynolds

Miles attends a private school where he lives with his best friend Ganke.  He's on scholarship for his room and board and while his parents are still struggling to keep up with his tuition, they are happy to give Miles the opportunity to get out of the neighborhood that led to his uncle Aaron becoming a criminal.  Besides struggling with expectations - his parents' and his own - Miles also has to deal with his secret identity as Spider Man.  After being bitten by an enhanced spider at his uncle's house, Miles developed spider-like abilities which he uses to help stop crime.  His father and Ganke know he's the Spider Man, but no one else does.  Lately, Miles' spidey-sense seems to be malfunctioning.  Every time he is in his history class with Mr. Chamberlain he feels it buzzing but when he leaves class to see what's happening, it stops.  Eventually, Miles wonders if it's Mr. Chamberlain himself who is setting it off.  He's definitely a mean teacher but he has also recently been writing racist statements on the board and talking about the benefits of slavery during the Civil War.  

Jason Reynolds, as always, is amazing and has presented us with a layered story which will be a surprise to those picking this up just to read about Spider Man.  Just as he did in When I Was the Greatest, Reynolds fills the neighborhood barbershop with strong characters who really make you feel the local vibe and issues plaguing their streets.  There are never any throw-away characters in a Reynolds book and there are always layers of storytelling.  This being a superhero book, of course there is the somewhat dark origin story.  But on top of that there are the issues with being not-white in American society in education, the prison system, profiling, and more, all of which are brought into the story without a blatant arrow pointing them out. The only problem I have with the book is that it doesn't focus enough on Spider Man.  Miles and his problems are fully explored but the superhero aspect of his life mostly takes place pretty close to the end of the book.  I would've liked to have seen more webslinging action throughout as well as a little more lead up to the evil big boss. 

Hello, Sunshine by Leila Howland

After being rejected from 11 colleges Becca decides to try to make it as an actress in Hollywood.  She drives out west with her boyfriend who will be attending Stanford.  The two have made plans to meet halfway between their new homes on a regular basis but when he drops her off, Alex tells Becca that he believes they should take a break.  Heartbroken, broke, and all alone Becca tries to live her dream in a rundown apartment.  Luckily, she has the help of two neighbors:  Marisol, another aspiring actress who gives her lots of hints on what to do, and Raj, a student at a local film school who hopes to be a screenwriter.   With money running out fast Becca has to navigate her way through the confusing world of stardom where you have to have an agent to get an agent and you can't get anywhere without expensive headshots.

I kept waiting for Becca to fall on her face with her lack of expertise or for someone to betray her but this book really was sunshiny, which was exactly what I needed.  I was just looking for something fun to read that didn't take much or any brain power and this fit the bill.  Becca is definitely naive about making it in Hollywood but she was willing to learn and work hard.  Her ascent to some breaks was still a bit accelerated, but we did get to see her paying some dues along the way.  Her two new friends are loyal and so helpful without being secretly jealous or bitchy which was also surprising.  There's not a lot of arc to this story nor much conflict, but it is light and fun which is what you need to break up the apocalyptic dystopias at times.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

In Some Other Life by Jessica Brody

Kennedy loves journalism and is currently obsessed with winning a major award for her school newspaper for the fourth year in a row.  She is also preparing for her interview at Columbia, one of the most prestigious journalism schools in the country.  Things at home are going well too as her father finally gets recognized as the amazing artistic photographer he is.  But Kennedy's seemingly perfect world falls apart when she catcher her best friend kissing her boyfriend of three years.  Distraught, Kennedy wonders "what if".  You see, three years ago she received a letter offering her a spot at a excellent private academy in town but she turned it down in order to stay closer to her boyfriend.  Now she has to wonder if she made the right decision.  Thanks to a bump on the head, she is going to get a chance to find out what her life would be if she'd taken the other path.

Obsessed with "Hamilton" the musical, I am about halfway through reading the Chernow biography of Hamilton that inspired Lin-Manuel Miranda and I needed an easy, quick break.  When I saw that Jessica Brody - one of my favorite YA authors - had something new out, I knew it was exactly what I needed.  Kennedy's story is not new but it is well done and reassuringly familiar just like Brody's other books.  Of course she discovers that the grass is not necessarily greener but her other life is not as horrible as you would expect and the friend she has admired from afar is a nice girl, not the stuck up snob I expected.  Comfortable and fun like dozens of previous variations on this theme. 

The Marriage Pact by Michelle Richmond


Days before their wedding Alice politely invites a new client to the ceremony.  Surprisingly, he accepts the invitation and he and his wife bring a perplexing gift:  A box inviting Jake and Alice to join a group call The Pact.  When a Pact consultant shows up, she requires Jake and Alice to sign a contract agreeing to abide by the rules of the Pact which is described as a way to keep marriages vital and strong.  Not following the rules will have consequences.  The newlyweds decide to sign up and at first the rules seem easy enough and they make sense:  each partner has to bring the other a gift once a month; always answer calls from your partner; plan a trip together at least once a quarter to develop some shared experiences.  But then Alice gets in trouble for working late too often and is taken off to a Pact prison for a few days as punishment for her transgression and the true face of The Pact begins to emerge.

A reminder to myself of why I only read 1-3 adult books a year. It was interesting enough to keep me reading but the punishments were just completely unbelievable even though I had given myself over to the unbelievable premise in the first place. In fact, the premise is the totally fun part of this book and I knew it was going to go bad very quickly so I was willing to go with the insanity. Even with that mindset, I was completely not buying the things that were happening. And the punishments were very harsh right from the get go. I get that no one ever leaves The Pact, but it really seems like we as readers should've been able to relish the slowly growing horror of the consequences for marital infractions. After all, the initial rules of The Pact feel completely reasonable so make us buy in to the ideal and then slowly turn over the stone to see all the squirmyness beneath it.

Frozen Charlotte by Alex Bell

Sophie's friend Jay has added a Ouija board app to his phone and insists that they play with it.  Not knowing anyone else to call, Sophie asks to hear from her cousin Rebecca who died several years before.  The Ouija board seems to respond and lots of scary things happen in the diner where they are playing including Rebecca's spirit saying that Jay will die that night, a prediction that comes true.  Still reeling from his death, Sophie goes to spend a couple of weeks with her cousins in Scotland.  Her family lives in a former school where several students had serious accidents and a teacher died.  Life for Sophie's family has also been filled with tragedy  Besides Rebecca's death, her male cousin's hand was seriously burned, a cat died in a fire, her aunt is in an asylum, the youngest daughter is afraid of her own bones, and the cousin closest in age to Sophie vaccilates between being the nicest person ever and manipulative shows.  And what about all those Frozen Charlotte dolls that have been in the house for decades that seem to talk and move...?

Like much horror, this is not the finest work of literature ever but it is horribly, wonderfully creepy.  The dolls alone are terrifying and yet they end up being less dangerous than some other things in the house.  Why Sophie's uncle would stay in the house is beyond me and why he is so oblivious to the talking toys and ghosts all around them is another mystery.  I was kept guessing as to the real source of the danger when in most books it is very obvious so that was fun.  It can be so difficult to find true horror for middle school ad this totally fills the bill.  Bonus:  it will be a breeze to sell just on the Ouija board alone. 

A Single Stone by Meg McKinlay

Jena is in charge of the line, a group of seven girls who twist their bodies into the narrowest of cracks in order to crawl into the mountain in search of the stone their village needs to stay alive throughout long winters.  In order to join the line you must be small so families are delighted when their baby daughters are born tiny.  For those who are not born small, the Mothers of the village can perform surgery to help decrease a girl's size.  Being part of the line is a privilege but it is also advantageous since families of the line get an extra share of the mined materials which can mean the difference between life and death when snowed in during the winter.  Jena's natural parents are both dead but she has a loving home with a good friend.  When her adopted mother has an extremely small premature baby, Jena overhears some comments and gets some information that makes her begin to question the Mothers' tactics and what is happening in their village.

Mining and tunneling already give me the creeps but the vivid descriptions of the spaces "the line" go into in this book made it hard for me to breathe. The mystery of what has happened with Jena's mother and father is carefully revealed along with the truth of the Mothers as the book builds with a slow burn.  This is a messed up society where the author trusts the reader to be appropriately shocked without any sensationalism.