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.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Restart by Gordon Korman

Chase has just woken up from a coma after falling off the roof of his house.  He remembers a lot of things but not the important ones like who his parents are, what his name is, and who he was before the accident.  But even though he can't remember his previous life, other people can.  His dad is obsessed with Chase resuming his place as a football star.  A girl he doesn't even know dumps frozen yogurt on him.  His best friends can't wait to include him in their "jokes" on the other students.  And lots of people at school seem to be nervous whenever he's around.  It seems that Chase has a decision to make:  resume his old life or start fresh?

I wasn't expecting much from this because Korman is not generally too deep and the reviews put this book more at the upper elementary level rather than middle school but I enjoyed it much more than anticipated.  I've seen the story before but this was handled well with a good look through Chase's eyes while prompting the reader to question who you would be if you didn't know who you already were.  Chase's growth into a decent person was believable as were the reactions of his former friends and enemies.  The only big problem I had with the whole story was his dad at the end.  After a whole book of macho posturing and an obvious willingness to bend the rules at any cost, his heartfelt speech was more literary device than sincere.

Want by Cindy Pon

Zhou and his close friends are Meis - people who are too poor to purchase the special suits that protect people from the pollution and sicknesses that are killing the citizens of Taipei.  Zhou's own mother was one of the victims of the rampant diseases and he is determined to change things starting with taking down Jin Corp and its corrupt owner.  The first step is to infiltrate the Yous, the wealthy citizens of Taipei, and get close to Jin's daughter.  When Zhou meets her, he is shocked to find out that he has a prior connection to her and that his feelings for her are going to make it difficult to use her to achieve his mission.

This is a unique world that is not very far removed from our current life.  There are just enough sci fi elements to make this world intriguing without being so many that I found myself trying to figure out what was happening. I loved all the characters - good guys and the nasty bad guy - and even my hardened heart was not turned off by the romance because it seemed natural rather than just added so there would be a romance.  Even the romance between two secondary characters was natural and carefully depicted as wonderfully loving. 

Saturday, August 12, 2017

Exo by Fonda Lee

Donovan is on a routine patrol with his partner when they get a tip about a group of underground activists who are opposed to the ruling aliens on Earth.  When they go to investigate, Donovan is shot and captured by the Sapience rebels who hope to use him as a bargaining chip for their demands.  Donovan is not only a soldier with an exocel - a body that is fused with alien technology that helps him defend himself and heal quickly - he is also the son of the Prime Liaison.  Donovan has close relationships with the aliens in charge and sees no problems with their rule but he is drawn to one of the young rebels.  His core beliefs are shaken even more when he finds out that his long lost mother is one of the leaders of Sapience. 

This is a book I should've loved what with the sci fi and cyborgs but I found myself rolling my eyes and wondering what was happening more often than not.  In particular, I am still not clear on what the word "Erze" means.  It appears to refer to a group of people who are bonded but also to a type of training but also seems to take the place of "God" in some of the dialogue.  I just wasn't invested in Donovan nor in the rebel group.  The one concept that did intrigue me was the idea of a totally different alien force coming and taking over Earth if this group abandoned it.  Something new to think about...

See You in the Cosmos by Jack Cheng


 Alex is 11 and on his way to a festival where he is going to launch the rocket he built into space.  He has been communicating online with others who are headed to the festival and has made all his plans to get there, along with his dog Carl Sagan.  Just like his hero, the human scientist Carl Sagan, Alex is planning to send messages to aliens about what life on Earth is like so he is keeping a running commentary about what he is doing.  Things don't go as planned at the festival but he learns that there is a man with the same name as his supposedly dead father living in Las Vegas and, with the help of some new friends, he delays his return home to go meet this man.

Alex is clearly labeled as 11 years old but I'm not sure the author knows exactly what an 11 year old is actually like.  At times Alex is incredibly bright and knows tons of things that are unusual for someone his age.  At other times he is unbelievably immature and naive about things.  For instance, he is totally clueless about what is happening with his mother which just doesn't ring true to me at all.  I've worked with thousands of kids during my career and the ones from homes with messed up parents know that their parents have issues and are actively covering up those problems to others.  I can suspend my disbelief that the adults he runs into are just helpful people and not super predators, but I couldn't get over the stream of consciousness ramblings of Alex as the book wore on.  It was cute at first when he would ramble for quite awhile along the lines of "first this happened and then that happened and then this other thing happened" but it got pretty grating to me and was just a further example that he was fairly young in his thoughts. 

Between Two Skies by Joanne O'Sullivan

Evangeline loves her life in a small town on the edge of New Orleans.  She has two good friends and loves to escape to her own private fishing/thinking spot out on the Bayou.  Other kids at school dream of getting out of Bayou Perdu after graduation but Evangeline just wants to follow in her father's footsteps and fish for a living.  When people start talking about Hurricane Katrina, her family decides to evacuate even though they are skeptical about how bad it will be in the end.  When the storm clears they learn that Bayou Perdu has been leveled and they are forced to start life over in a new, large, landlocked city.  Every member of the family has to start a new life and find a new role from who they were before.  Evangeline's adjustment is slightly easier when she runs into Tru, a boy she met just once before the hurricane but who is someone she would like to know better.

I loved the depiction of Evangeline's life in Bayou Perdu at the beginning of the book.  It's hard for me to imagine wanting to live in a small town in the south since my experience is much more big town with fewer bugs and biting things, but O'Sullivan paints a clear picture of how much the culture of her town makes up who Evangeline is.  I could feel it and it's a palpable feeling of loss when she learns that there is nothing left and that families are asked to stay wherever they are and begin their lives there.  Other Hurricane Katrina books I've read have always been from the perspective of someone who staying in Louisiana so I liked seeing the effects on one of the "lucky" people who got out before the devastation. 

But then the author lost me as the book took a solid turn into average teen romance.  There are still some references to what has been lost as Evangeline tries to find her friend who stayed behind and as her sister works to figure out who she is now, but mostly the story becomes about her feelings for Tru.  I would've much preferred to continue the main focus on the path of rebuilding a life rather than worrying about whether a boyfriend was just stringing her along the entire time.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Family Game Night and Other Catastrophes by Mary E. Lambert

Annabelle is just starting summer break and it appears that a really cute boy likes her so her life should be great, right?  It would be, if not for her mother's hoarding problem and her father completely ignoring the problem.  Annabelle can remember life before her mother started "collecting" things but now there are empty, molding milk jugs in the pantry, six foot high stacks of newspapers in the kitchen, paint cans in her brother's bedroom, a mountain of broken doll parts in her sister's room, and more in every inch of the house.  Every inch, this is, except for Annabelle's room.  When she was ten she threw all of her mother's junk out her bedroom window and has kept her room bare ever since.  Annabelle also has a rule that keeps all her friends at least five miles away from her house so that no one knows what is happening there.  But their lives are about to get more public when Annabelle's father leaves and her grandmother shows up.

Let me start with this cover which is so ridiculous I don't even know what to think about whomever designed it.  This is a much more serious book than the cover would ever lead you to believe so that always annoys me.  I know that authors don't get a say on the artists associated with their books, but even the title comes across as somewhat goofy rather than serious hoarding story.  Once you get past those two things, the book is good at portraying the uncomfortable feeling of being surrounded by junk all the time and the family dynamics that help enable this disorder.  Since the book focuses on Annabelle you don't learn as much about what led her mother down this path nor do you see the entirety of her mental state.  Like, why can't she just throw away all this stuff that is obviously trash?  Seems simple but the little I know about hoarding makes me know that it's not that easy.  This is not really covered in the book but that's okay since I think this is more about Annabelle coming to terms with the reality of her life and not covering everything up all the time.  The ending is too simplistic and optimistic but otherwise, a decent book about handing a dysfunctional family.

The Shadow Cipher by Laura Ruby


Twins Tess and Theo live in an apartment that was designed by the legendary Morningstarr twins in the 1800's.  The Morningstarrs were the architects for all kinds of technology that is still in use today.  They also left behind the Old York Cipher - a series of clues and puzzles that will lead to a huge treasure for whomever can solve it.  So far, no one has managed to do that, not even the Cipherist Society of which Tess and Theo's grandfather was a member before he developed memory problems.  The people of the apartment building get word that it has been purchased by Darrell Slant, a billionaire real estate developer who will likely raze the building and put up something new and shiny.  With only a month until they will all be evicted, Tess and Theo feel like their only hope is to solve the Cipher and use the treasure to save their beloved building and piece of history.  With the help of their neighbor, Jaime Cruz, they start off on their crusade which proves to be more dangerous than they imagined.

I was so into the first chapter of this book with Ava taking on the murderous stalker but then she disappeared entirely from the story.  From then on the book felt youngish to me.  Where are the Morningstarrs?  Where is Ava?  Where are the badass people who created all these amazing creatures, puzzles, and technology over 200 years ago?  If I hadn't had my expectations raised by the opening chapter and the gushing about how amazing the Morningstarrs were, I probably would be more forgiving of what the book actually was - a fine mystery with young sleuths.  There were a couple of twists I didn't see coming but more that I did.  Especially the person who proved to be untrustworthy even though they were blatantly told to TRUST NO ONE!!!  Considering that Theo apparently reads as much as I do, he should've seen that one coming.  I also have issues with the clues and ciphers themselves because I don't feel like we, as readers, have much chance of deciphering them.  A couple of the clues rely on knowing about some of the Morningstarr inventions which we obviously can't know   When I'm reading a mystery I want to have a shot at solving it myself.  If the author uses clues or characters that are not available to the reader, that's cheating.  So in the end, the book is okay for me, but not great.

Sunday, July 9, 2017

Well, That Was Awkward by Rachel Vail

Gracie is surprised when she suddenly realizes that A.J., a boy she has known all her life, is very good-looking.  Once she realizes that she likes him, Gracie finds she has forgotten how to breathe or do any of the most basic things she used to know how to do.  But then she finds out that A.J. actually likes Gracie's best friend, Sienna.  Gracie is a good friend and is truly happy for Sienna despite her disappointment and even helps Sienna compose witty texts to banter with A.J.   In fact, it's almost like Gracie's the one having the relationship with A.J.

This story, inspired by Cyrano de Bergerac, is very of the moment in terms of the language and technology.  I was captured at the part where Gracie sees a woman who looks very much like her and is reassured that her future will turn out fine.  But as the book went on it lost some of its glow for me with long paragraphs of Gracie's train of thought.   While her back and forth thought process seems realistic, it was wearing to read and I was longing for another character to come into the picture.  In the end this felt like just another youngish romance.

Saturday, July 8, 2017

Beyond the Bright Sea by Lauren Wolk

Crow washed ashore on a small island in Massachusetts in a tiny skiff when she was only a few days old.  Luckily, she was found by Osh, the man who has raised her and been her father all these years.  Their neighbor Miss Maggie has been Crow's teacher and good friend.  The assumption in town is that Crow was set adrift by someone from the closest island which was a leper colony at that time but is now a bird sanctuary.  Because of their fear of contracting leprosy, the rest of the people in town keep their distance from Crow.  Crow has begun to wonder about her birth parents and starts trying to find answers through letters and by visiting the island.  The man they meet on the island only leads them to more questions, and danger.

I am a huge fan of Wolf Hollow and while I enjoyed this book, it didn't have anywhere near the same urgency as Wolk's previous one.  The characters were interesting but the slow pace of life on their island led to a slow pace of narration in the book. 

The Warden's Daughter by Jerry Spinelli

As the title tells you, Cammie is the daughter of the warden of Hancock County Prison sometime in the late 1950's.  Cammie's mother died while saving Cammie's life as an infant and now she is feeling the need to have a mother around.  Cammie feels like Eloda, the prison trustee who does the housework for them, might be a good replacement mother and she sets about trying to make Eloda act more maternally.

There are other things happening in this book but most of them just never develop into anything other than anecdotes that I believe are supposed to round out the story in some way.  A friend who has just begun the book was excited by the introduction of the child killer arriving at the prison and said she can't wait to see how that plays out.  The answer is:  it doesn't.  He arrives, people are angry, you don't hear much more about that other than how Cammie's dad sets up solitary for him and how her friend is fascinated by him.  That's the case with several of these storylines and a big problem with the book which is actually entirely about Cammie's anger over not having a mother.  White hot anger is not enough to sustain a story for 300 pages nor does it make for an especially sympathetic character who displaces all over everything and everyone.  

The next issue is the writing style and the setting.  The writing is fine, but boring.  It has the feel of an author who is trying to be deep with some fragments or edgy descriptions but that type of writing doesn't grab me and it definitely won't grab middle schoolers.  Nor will the historical fiction setting.  Teens don't like historical fiction unless there is an amazing story that just happens to take place in the past or unless the historical time period is the Holocaust.  Furthermore, they don't care to learn about the past so all the references to Bandstand are meaningless.  And yet even though the book is historical fiction, there is no mention of issues of race which surely would've been an issue with either Andrew's family or with BooBoo.

Finally - the ending!!  There are two HUGE, problematic endings to the book.  The first ending is where Cammie, narrating as an adult, suddenly summarizes her life from age 13 until her early 20's.  We've been stuck in a few weeks of time throughout the entire book but now we learn in a few paragraphs what happened to her for the subsequent seven or so years.  Fast forward at supersonic speed!  Ugh.  All of which serves as a device for the next lazy plot device of the diary that reveals all sorts of secrets.  Through Eloda's diary we finally get to hear her voice which is supposed to explain why she basically had no personality throughout the rest of the book and why her abandonment of Cammie was actually a good thing.  And the other big reveal in the diary?  I'm not buying it at all.  

This is definitely one of those books that out of touch adults will think is great for teens but that teens will avoid like the plague until it finally gets weeded from the library shelves. 

Posted by John David Anderson


Before beginning middle school Frost worried about whether he would make friends.  Now in 8th grade, he is part of a "tribe" of four guys who are different but who all get each other.  When new girl Rose shows up and then starts sitting with the group at lunch, the balance of Frost's group gets thrown off.  In addition, Rose is something of an oddball and Frost isn't sure it's a great idea to be associated with her at all since they are already a target for the school bullies.  Things start to really escalate when the school declares a complete ban on cell phones.  Students begin using Post-it notes to leave notes - first on lockers and then everywhere else in school.  The notes are cute and friendly at first but soon take a different turn.

I found this book to be fine which is not as damning as it sounds, but it wasn't what I was expecting going into it.  I feel like it is being sold as a story about bullying but it read more to me like a growing up/friendship dynamics story.  The bullying is definitely in there, but since I work in a middle school, it seemed more like just what I see everyday.  Which is probably pretty sad, when I lay it out like that.  The final big act that leads to things changing for the main characters isn't prefaced enough to be totally effective.  When we are told what was written on the locker, the impact wasn't great because I didn't know all the backstory leading up to that and why it was so devastating to that character.  All of that was explained - what the bullies had been saying to him - but not until after it happened.  So I feel like the bullying aspect of the story was not as strong as it could have been nor as I was expecting.

However, the group dynamics part of the book was really good.  It was painful watching the one tribe member distance himself from the group and I think most adults can remember that happening to a friend (or being that friend) who is very suddenly not a close friend anymore.  Rose is a great character.  At first she is a problem for the friends but her presence allows them to change and deepen their relationships.  I assumed she was hiding some huge secret but no, she's just straightforward and fascinating.  So I feel that this is a good book that has some marketing issues.  Read it as a coming of age/growing up/friendship story and you will enjoy it.

Friday, July 7, 2017

The Sun Is Also a Star by Nicola Yoon

Natasha is beginning her last day in the United States.  Her parents are illegal immigrants from Jamaica and they are being deported this evening.  Natasha has one last chance to appeal her fate and stay in the home she loves.  So when she randomly runs into Daniel, she knows that falling in love with him is not something she has time for.  Even if she wasn't facing this deadline, Natasha believes in science and what can be proven, not love.  Daniel, however, is sure that the universe has made everything work in order for them to meet and fall in love, despite any protests his family might have.

I was somewhat skeptical about this book after hearing the premise but I'm happy to report that I liked it much more than expected.  Okay, yes, it is a love story but Yoon handles it surely and makes it seem totally plausible that these two could deeply affect each other's lives even in just one day.  It is never too mushy and really focuses on their lives, personalities, and families more than their feelings of being swept away by each other.  A romance for people who don't much like romances.  So the relationship story is good but perhaps my favorite part of the book is actually the other chapters that are dropped in with explanations of random things or quick stories about secondary characters.  Those are the parts of the story that really made me smile about the book as a whole which felt like magical realism when it was all said and done, even though it was totally realistic. 

Scar Island by Dan Gemeinhart

Jonathan has just arrived at Slabhenge Reform School to serve time for a crime he won't discuss.  The school is only reachable via a small boat as Slabhenge is a stone fortress built around an ancient lighthouse.  The headmaster of the school is a cruel man who enjoys punishing the boys and feeding them fairly disgusting food while he feasts.  Shortly after Jonathan arrives, however, a freak accident kills all the adults on the island and the boys decide to keep that a secret for a few days while they enjoy their unsupervised time.  But someone has to be in charge - don't they?  And will the new boss of Slabhenge be any better than the previous one?

This short book is loaded with creepy atmosphere.  I could feel the gloom and decay of Slabhenge pressing in on me as I read.  The Lord of the Flies comparison is accurate but the boys are not all good nor all bad.  Even the worst boy has some redeeming qualities which Gemeinhart uses Jonathan to point out to us as readers.  It is not a book my students are likely to pick up on their own, but it will be a winner when I sell it to them.

Flashfall by Jenny Moyer

Orion and her best friend/partner/love interest Dram are Subpars - miners working to extract enough cirium to earn their freedom from their difficult life and go live in the city.  Their outpost is right on the edge of the radiation laden flash curtain but Subpars are better able to tolerate the radiation than other humans.  Still, they can be overexposed and their are plenty of other dangers in the tunnels.  When some new people show up at their outpost, Orion begins to question their life and whether any of them will ever be able to escape from the mines.

A mining book.  Oh boy.  I don't think I've ever enjoyed any book I've read where the characters are miners or the book is set underground so that might be a personal issue.  This book did not change my mind about that setting, plus it left me cold in many other ways.  
  • I have no idea what the Flashfall was or what has brought about this life.  I don't care for didactic explanations in books, but I do like some sort of hint about the world in which we find ourselves.
  • The action is nonstop but not in a "wow, can't wait to see what happens next" way.  No, for me it was a "something else is happening but I don't know what it is nor what just happened before this new turn of events" way.  Just one deadly scenario after another.
  • I can dig (not in a mining way) a good uprising against the corrupt government book but there needs to be at least some sort of hope of success.  
  • I'm not a fan of stories where all sorts of characters sacrifice themselves in order to keep one or two main characters alive. The surviving characters usually do something stupid that makes all the sacrifices pointless.  If someone is willing to die to save you, make that count!
  • Although this is a unique-ish world, there are not really surprises in the overall storyline.  Romance between good friends, government that turns out to be oppressive and lying, tough heroine who defies the forces trying to kill her...  Seen it before.

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Ghost by Jason Reynolds

Ghost is just his nickname, but Castle has been calling himself Ghost ever since the night he and his mom ran away from his dad who was trying to shoot them.  Ghost has been running in one way or another since then but he's not doing a great job at keeping out of trouble.  One day while he's hanging out after school he sees some kids warming up for track practice.  He feels an instant rivalry with a boy wearing expensive clothes, shoes and jewelry.  Ghost decides to run alongside the kids trying out and beats all of them which gets the coach's attention.  Coach offers Ghost a chance to join the team and he agrees but is surprised to find there's more to it than just running fast and Coach doesn't make exceptions to his rules no matter how talented you are.

I could sum up everything I have to say about this book with these words:  Jason Reynolds.  Everything he writes is multi-layered and beautiful and some part of every book makes me cry. Ghost is not a perfectly charming character - he is defensive, arrogant (defensively arrogant), gets in trouble at school, and does something seriously wrong pretty early on in the book - and yet I liked him and was rooting for him throughout.  He learns as he gets brought down a few pegs by Coach, another great character.  He finds out that others have their own, serious problems as well.  

Other great things about this book:
  • It's short so it won't scare off the kids who don't like to read.
  • It deals with characters who don't have much money.  Certainly not enough to just do whatever they want to do without thought about how much it costs.  There are very few books dealing with kids who are low income even though the majority of students at my school fall into that category.
  • Ghost's mother is working hard to keep them afloat but she is a strong mother who is still actively involved in raising her son.  We don't often see portrayals like this.  Generally, if a character in a book is poor, he or she also comes from a bad home.
  • It deals with track as the sport of choice.  I'm not sure that will be a selling point for my students, but I think it's something they can all appreciate if they give the book a chance. 
  • It has already been checked out constantly at my library so the kids are digging it.
 

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Refugee by Alan Gratz

Three kids in three different decades are forced to leave their homes in order to have a chance at a better life. 

Josef is a Jewish boy living in Germany in 1939.  When his father is returned to their family after spending time in a concentration camp, the family takes advantage of a Jewish relocation plan.  They board the St. Louis, bound for Cuba.  Josef and his mother are happy, dreaming of a better life without persecution in a new country but his father is scarred by his experiences with the Nazis and it seems that some of the Nazi persecution has come with them on the ship.

Isabel has lived her entire life in Cuba under Fidel Castro's oppressive reign.  When Castro says he will not stop Cubans who want to leave, Isabel's family joins their neighbors in a small boat to try to get to the United States, just 90 miles away.  But before they can reach freedom, they must survive days at sea, sharks, dehydration, and the risk of being returned to Cuba by the American Coast Guard.

Mahmoud has learned that the best way to survive the dangers in his city of Aleppo, Syria is to make himself invisible but even keeping his head down doesn't help with the bombings that destroy his apartment building.  Mahmoud's family starts a long trek to Germany that involves lots of payouts and dealings with people who don't have the family's best interest at heart all while their plight is ignored by much of the world.

Alan Gratz is fast becoming one of my favorite authors.  His most popular books deal with oppressive times and atrocities but he never relies on the horrors of the time period to do the work for him.  His writing style is calm - understated - which allows the reader to come to realizations along with the characters rather than telling us what to think.  Refugee does this beautifully.  All three families begin their journeys with hope and we as readers are led to believe they will soon be able to resume their normal lives in a better place.  But the danger and despair slowly grows for all of them.  Although they are separated by decades, their stories are very much the same which, I think, makes Mahmoud's story perhaps the most powerful for teens accustomed to hearing about bad things that happened in the past.  Mahmoud's family makes their escape with the help of cell phones and Google maps, clearly illustrating that these situations are not removed from us by time, only by our luck to be living in a safe place. 

Another thing that I appreciate is that Gratz does not tie everything up in a bow.  So many books for children and teens go for the happy ending or pull their punches with the bad guys.  In Refugee, each family suffers some serious, realistic losses so that even those families that manage to make it to safety do so with some sadness. 

Finally, I am always excited to learn something new even as I am stunned by how much I don't know.  Neither my husband nor I had ever heard of the St. Louis.  Although it is an awful story, it is fascinating.

Another great book by Gratz that I will definitely be using in reading programs at my school!


Saturday, June 24, 2017

Jess, Chunk, and the Road Trip to Infinity by Kristin Elizabeth Clark

Jess realized she was female several years ago but her father refused to give permission for his son Jeremy to begin hormone treatments because he was hoping it was just a phase or a mistake.  But now that Jess is 18, she can begin her physical transformation.  Besides his inability to accept who Jess really is, her father has further alienated her by dating her mother's former best friend.  Now they are planning to marry and Jess decides to take a cross country road trip with her best friend Chunk to surprise her father with her new look at his wedding.  Jess and Chunk are looking forward to talking and stopping at many cheesy roadside attractions on the long trip, but their trip ends up being much more than they anticipated.

I finished this book more than a week ago and I'm still not sure exactly how I feel about it.  I have a general sense of dislike but other than the VERY pat ending, I'm not sure why.  But I'm going to try to work it out as I type. 


Jess is largely unlikable in many ways.  She is pretty much only focused on herself and her problems.  Now, given that she is just now beginning her physical transition and that is going to actually bring about a lot of problems in addition to just being a human in general, it is understandable that she'd be in a pretty selfish state of mind right now.  But that didn't make her any more pleasant to hear from to me as a reader.  Chunk calls her on it here and there but she's still basically all about Jess.  A large part of why that bugged me is because Chunk has been unbelievably supportive of her for years and she seems totally unaware of the fact that this is unusual and has probably been difficult for him.  In fact, she is totally unaware that it would be difficult for anyone around her to just immediately come to grips with who she is, especially her father. Which leads me to my next gripe...

I believe that we are supposed to be mad at Jess' father because he is not totally, completely on board with his son now being his daughter.  Jess herself is mad at a few things he says to her and uses them to illustrate how "unaccepting" he is.  I didn't have that issue with him.  In fact, I thought his reaction was realistic and fine.  He did not tell her to get out of his life or disown his child.  He was struggling to understand but still wanted a relationship with her  Jess was the one to cut off all contact.  Just like she is the one who is furious at Chunk because he has told his mother about her.  Jess doesn't realize that most people aren't immediately completely fine and dandy with someone they care about coming out to them.  (Except her mother was which is another complaint I have because I don't believe she would be totally on board from the get go.)  I say all this as 1.  Someone who is not straight who had to come out to many family members and friends.  I only completely lost one friend who couldn't come to any acceptance, but several other people had to process things including my mom who immediately said "You are my daughter and I love you no matter what" but still made unthinking comments for years.  2.  Someone who has a close family member who is a trans man.  All of the family is loving and accepting and there was never a question of cutting this person out, but that didn't mean that there wasn't some adjusting.  We've all been socialized with expectations and dreams for people based on their sex, even if you don't know it.  And now that this person is the opposite sex, you have to readjust your thinking.  It does not happen in the blink of an eye.  Jess' father is struggling, but he is trying and she doesn't give him room to work on it.

Whew!  I think I might've gotten to the meat of the problem there.  But other than Jess being an issue, here are some other things I disliked:

  • We don't get to know much about Chuck/Chunk at all.  Much has been written about Jess' fat-shaming of Chuck but there really isn't even a description of him.  He is a bland, too good to be true, friend.
  • The aforementioned  ending.  UGH, make this better!!!  Not only is it way too convenient, it just ends without any further development or comment.  
  • The road trip formula although I know this is entirely my issue.  I am very much a schedule girl and pretty much any road trip story has to have deviations from the schedule and that makes me antsy.  They left late!  They stayed too long at the cabin to help the neighbor! They didn't get to their first planned destination!  And they had to get to Chicago by a specific day and time so how was that going to happen with all these delays?!!  I understand this is my particular sickness and that I'm reading a piece of fiction, not embarking on my own road trip, but it all made me uneasy.

Okay, so obviously I didn't like this book.  My only question to maybe temper my bad review is this:  Is it valuable to have a book that presents a trans character in a non-sensational way even if that book is not very good overall? 


City of Saints & Thieves by Natalie C. Anderson

Tina is a burglar and thief who works for the Goondas gang in Kenya.  She arrived in the city with her mother several years before but after her mother's murder, Tina has been surviving as best she can while ensuring her younger sister is safe at a local boarding school.   Tina has a clear mission:  revenge on the man she is sure killed her mother, Mr. Greyhill.  She has convinced the head of the gang to be part of her scheme to bring Greyhill down, steal his money, and kill him.  While Tina is in the home downloading files, she is caught by her former friend Michael who is Mr. Greyhill's son.  Michael is sure his father couldn't be a killer and strikes a deal with Tina to work together to find out the truth so she can be sure to bring down the correct person.  But the people with whom Tina works do not like changes in plans and they expect compensation, no matter what.

This is a multi-layered book with strong characters throughout.  Too often in stories the lead character is a miserable jerk who eventually learns something and becomes likeable by the end.  Tina is definitely unhappy but she is likeable throughout with her wits, skills and loyalty to her friends.  Michael and BoyBoy, the other two main characters, are just as developed and interesting.  Tina never shies away from the hard decisions but that didn't take away from my ability to identify with her. Although the three main characters are all pretty good people, most of the adults are harder to pin down one way or the other which makes them interesting and realistic. 

The book is a mystery and most chapters ended on enough of a cliffhanger for me to decide I had time to read just one more chapter...  But in addition to the satisfying mystery, Anderson has done a great job capturing the setting and some of the realities of life in Africa.  In order to find some answers, Tina decides to return to her former home in Congo.  Her town is a dangerous place constantly being attacked by various warlords who do some horrible things to the people in the town. All of these atrocities are included in the book but none of them in a way that makes this inappropriate for middle school readers.  In fact, the details are there to make it clear what, exactly, has happened to some people which is important for possibly taking some American teens a little more outside of their insulated worlds and hit them with the reality of life when your fate is at the whim of vicious, power-hungry men.  Even as I laud the wonderful way the setting is presented, I also want to point out that none of it feels too foreign for American readers which is great because books set in other countries are often dismissed by teens. 

Thursday, June 22, 2017

One of Us is Lying by Karen McManus

Bronwyn is headed to Yale like both of her parents before her.  Addy is beautiful and dating the most perfect guy in school.  Cooper is a baseball pitcher who is already being scouted by the MLB.  Nate has been in trouble with the law and has a reputation as a troublemaker.  Simon runs a gossip app that somehow finds out the dirt about everyone in school.   The five of them don't interact in real life but they all wind up in detention together after a teacher busts each of them for having a cell phone.  The problem is, none of them have any idea where the confiscated phones came from.  While the group is distracted by a car accident outside, Simon drinks a glass of water and then drops dead.  After his death is ruled a murder it is revealed that he was about to publish a column revealing dark secrets about each of the other four students in the room at the time of his death. Which of them was willing to kill Simon to keep the truth quiet?

What a fun book with enough twists to keep you guessing!  I liked all four of the major characters and was getting sadder and sadder as the book went on because I didn't want any of them to be lying or to be the killer, but I liked watching Addy the most as she developed into a real person rather than someone's girlfriend.  And even though I didn't want one of them to be the killer, I was savoring what a delicious surprise it would be when it was finally revealed who had been lying all along.  I do love an unreliable narrator!  The final bits of things in the book tied up too neatly but this isn't meant to be a deep, troubling book - it is just a great read to enjoy as you're along for the ride.

The Monstrous Child by Francesca Simon

Hel is the daughter of Loki and a giantess and like her older brothers, she is not entirely human.  Hel is born with decaying corpse legs which disgusts both of her parents.  At age 14 Hel and her brothers are taken by the Gods to Asgard where she meets Baldr long enough to fall in love with him before she is thrown into the underworld to be its queen.  Hel then spends eternity brooding about her lost love and getting revenge on the other immortals who have left her underground without another thought.

The review I read of this book described it as a good next step for Percy Jackson fans.  I haven't read any Percy Jackson books for years but this is nothing like I remember of them.  Hel's griping is somewhat funny at first as it seems so modern even as she is telling you about events from the Norse myths thousands of years ago, but I was so over it by about chapter three.  There really is no story here other than hearing a disgruntled narrator tell her version of her myth.  If you are not familiar with the myth, perhaps that is enough, but I'm no Norse scholar and I didn't find it compelling.  What's more, I felt like quite a few things were repeated.  A point would've just been made and then in the next chapter it was summarized again.  It reminds me of those reality shows where you come back from the commercial and the narrator catches you up on what you just saw three minutes ago.  I suppose there's not a lot to work with here since Hel is stuck in her own underworld and refuses to interact with any of the dead she oversees, but that's something the author should've considered when deciding to tell her story.

Friday, June 9, 2017

Project (Un)Popular by Kristen Tracy

Sixth grader Perry has a passion and a talent for photography so being on the yearbook staff is a natural fit for her.  Even better, her best friend Venice is on the staff as well.  The two girls are looking forward to helping to craft the yearbook and are flattered that the editor, Anya, chose them based on their photos. But it soon becomes clear that Anya has her own vision that involves putting a spotlight on all of the most popular kids in school and ignoring everyone else.  When Venice starts dating a boy Perry can't stand, she is open to Anya's suggestions to work as a spy and to help Anya with her yearbook dream.

I am on a roll of books that are just not very great and that is not a good roll to be on.  Storylines were dropped or put on hold indefinitely (because this is going to be a series) and Perry is not a winning protagonist.  She is quick to sell out her friend but never has a conversation with said friend about what is bothering her.  Because it is obviously a series, the "ending" did not even try to tie things up.  Another chapter could've come right there without missing a beat. 

Children of Eden by Joey Graceffa,

 Rowan has never seen anything outside of her own house and yard.  She is an illegal second child and would be arrested, or worse, if anyone knew she existed.  Rowan's mother informs her that she has arranged for Rowan to receive black market eye implants that will give her the same rights as anyone else in Eden.  The catch is that she will have to go live with another family and never seen any of them again, not even her beloved twin brother. On the way to the surgeon's office, they are stopped by government police officers and Rowan barely manages to make her escape.  But the danger is just beginning for her and those close to her.

I'm sighing as I try to figure out what to write about this book.  I didn't have high hopes for it to start with because 1.  It has not been reviewed by any of my usual sources; 2.  The author is a reality TV star/YouTube sensation; 3.  The premise seems to be a direct copy of Haddix.  My expectations were right on target in terms of my enjoyment.  The surprise revelations were not surprises to me and things went exactly where I expected.  The writing is not great overall with large chunks of action just being skimmed over a paragraph.  How many times did a character say to Rowan "Do you trust me?"  Considering that she had never met either of these people until two days before and that both of them betray her at times, I don't know why she should trust them.  It was just a trial to make it to the end.

Miss Ellicott's School for the Magically Minded by Sage Blackwood

Chantel is well on her way to being a powerful sorceress, exhibiting unusually strong summoning powers in particular, but she isn't as good at being quiet and submissive which is a requirement for the young ladies at Miss Ellicott's School for Magical Maidens.  When Miss Ellicott and all the other sorceresses who help protect the city disappear, Chantel and her friends set out to find them.  The first stop is to talk to the city's patriarchs who are expecting Chantel and have their own plan for what she ought to be doing.  The king is equally unhelpful and devious.  It becomes clear that Chantel must rely on her friends, a boy from outside the city walls, her newly-arrived dragon, and the memory of a queen she keeps summoning accidentally.

I had a tough time getting through this one.  It seems like it ought to be the type of thing I would enjoy but it was slow and the writing felt stilted and self-aware.  I enjoyed Chantel's conversations with the former queen but there were not enough of those to keep me very motivated.

Sunday, May 28, 2017

Addie Bell’s Shortcut to Growing Up by Jessica Brody

Addie is having a hard time enjoying her 12th birthday because all she really wants is to be 16.  Addie just knows that at 16 she'll have the coolest clothes, a drawer full of make-up, and her own cell phone.  Her birthday also sucks because she has a big fight with her best friend Grace who is content to do all the things they've always done and doesn't seem to be in a hurry to grow up.  Addie's slightly senile neighbor gives her an antique jewelry box with directions to be careful with it but Addie doesn't expect it to contain real magic.  After locking her wish to be 16 into the box, Addie wakes up the next day four years older with everything she ever wanted.  The only thing missing is Grace who apparently isn't her friend at all anymore.

I have to admit that I am a huge Jessica Brody fan.  If you didn't know, I am a young adult librarian who reads about 120-150 YA books each year and I am so over most dystopias, love triangles, secret magical powers, and every other fiction trope.  So even I find it a little surprising that someone as jaded and cynical as me is just delighted by all the silly fluff Brody puts out.  And yet I will always purchase whatever she has written for my school and I'll booktalk the Hell out of it to my kids.  In the case of Addie Bell, I horded the book on my "to read" shelf for over a month because I was saving it for a time when I really needed a reading pick me up and it did not disappoint.  Yes, her stuff is fluffy but it is well done fluff with a definite sarcastic edge and winning characters who aren't just placeholders in the story.  I would list 52 reasons to love this author in order to be super-clever but I'm way too tired to do that.  But I know at least that many reasons exist.  Read her stuff!!

I'm Not Your Manic Pixie Dream Girl by Gretchen McNeil

Bea is looking forward to starting school like she never has before.  She's going into her senior year with a boyfriend and a good chance to win a coveted scholarship to M.I.T.  She uses her extreme math skills to make a formula that is guaranteed to make her two best friends Spencer and Gabe popular rather than the target of bullies as they have always been up to now.  Her formula works like a charm for her friends but Bea's own life is not going as well.  Her boyfriend Jesse wants to be part of the popular group and very quickly dumps her for new girl Toile who is larger than life.  Now Bea has to apply the formula to her own life to win Jesse back.  She turns herself into a manic pixie dream girl in order to beat Toile in the quirky department.

This light book was just what I wanted at this point in my reading cycle.  Of course Bea learns an important lesson and realizes that what she wanted was right in front of her the entire time, but that's exactly the point.  The real fun is watching how successful the ridiculous archetype of femininity is on the population at school.  Or maybe that's the extremely sad part of the book because it rings so true.  A well-done romp that manages to sneak in some feminist thoughts along the way.

Saturday, May 27, 2017

A Shadow Bright and Burning by Jessica Cluess

Henrietta now teaches at the orphanage where she was raised along with her close friend Rook.  Despite poor treatment from the headmaster, Henrietta has been keeping her head down so that no one will notice that she is able to set things on fire, including herself.  Magical abilities are the quickest path to jail or death after a spell gone wrong opened a portal that allowed several Ancients - very evil creatures - to enter our world.  While magicians are considered dangerous, sorcerers are considered saviors.  When the powerful sorcerer Agrippa visits Henrietta's school, he discovers her power and takes her away to London to train as the first female sorcerer in ages who is prophesied to be The Chosen One. Henrietta only agrees to go if Rook can come along with her and soon she is thrust into a world entirely different from her upbringing.  But her magical powers don't seem to work the way the other young sorcerers' do which leads to a scary discovery.

I read this book months ago and gave it four stars but did not write a review of it at that time.  Recently, someone nominated it for a reading program and when I picked it up to read it, I thought "This book seems familiar" before I remembered I'd read it before.  So the fact that I'd forgotten I read it makes me question my initial rating...  But in reviewing the events of the book I do remember that I liked the world created here with the elemental Ancients and the Pride and Prejudice-esque sorcerers.  There are no unseen twists in the story in terms of Henrietta's powers, Rook's path, the male sorcerer students, or the Ancients, but the book is a fun ride anyway.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

27 Magic Words by Sharelle Byars Moranville

Kobi always knew her father was a magician because he could do tricks and had a rabbit.  But her author mother told her about the magic of words and gave her 27 of the most magical ones on post-it notes before both her parents left for a trip from which they never returned.  Now Kobi and her sister Brook live with their Grandmamma in Paris but will be spending several months in Iowa with an uncle they have never met while Grandmamma honeymoons with her new husband.  Unsure how to fit in, Kobi relies on her magic words to avoid trouble and to see her parents whenever she wants until they return home.  But Kobi's stories might be catching up with her in her new home.

I very nearly put this book down after the first couple of chapters because it was odd but then it began to even out into a more normal story.  Kobi is a little younger than I usually like my characters but she became more self-assured as the story progressed.  I liked all of the adults in the book which is unusual since they are generally set up to be the bad guys.  The loving relationships and the girls' growth made this an enjoyable, if not entirely gripping, story.  The cover is doing it no favors in terms of attracting readers.

Piecing Me Together by Renée Watson

Jade lives in the poor section of Portland but goes to a private school where she is one of only handful of black students.  She is studying Spanish with the hope of being one of the students chosen to study abroad during her junior year.  Instead, she is offered an invitation to a mentorship program called Women to Women where she is paired with an older black woman who attended her school.  Although Maxine is supposed to be mentoring Jade, there are some things Maxine needs to work out in her own life.


This is one of those books with depths that are included so quietly and calmly you don't realize how much meat is in there until you have time to reflect.  Things I loved about it:
  • One of the most racist (definitely classist) characters in the book is Maxine which was a surprise.
  • Other books that feature a main character torn between two worlds have the mandatory scenes where the friends from the different sides of the tracks clash with each other.  Jade's friends got along the entire time.
  • Jade's best friend from the neighborhood didn't try to make her feel bad for leaving the neighborhood.
  • Jade is struggling with feeling beautiful in any number of ways including her color and weight.  And her struggle is never fully resolved.  Like all of us, she has good and bad days.
  • She is not saved or made to feel beautiful thanks to a boyfriend who loves a "thick" girl.
  • Jade's mom!
  • White privilege is woven into the story but the words "white privilege" are never uttered.
  • As someone whose actual field is communication, I LOVE that Jade begins to claim some power by talking to people and telling them directly what she thinks.  Imagine that!!
  • The references to artists and their works without a didactic description of who they are.  It's up to me as the reader to either already have the knowledge of who they are or go find out.
  • Jade's friend from school has realistic layers.  She is not racist (mostly) but she is unable to see how some situations are different for her and Jade.
  • Jade lives in the poor part of Portland but there's no obligatory gangs, addicts, drug dealers...
  • The way that the symphony lady talks down to all the Women to Women members in such a natural way that she doesn't even know how offensive she's being.  
  • And so much more that I'm not remembering already even though I just finished the book. Really masterful writing that captures what it is to be a teen trying to put yourself together.

Friday, May 19, 2017

Nemesis by Brendan Reichs

Min has just turned 16 and just like all of her previous birthdays on even years, she was murdered by the man in black.  Also just like before, she wakes up in a small clearing near her home with no evidence of her death.  Min has been seeing a counselor and taking a pill he prescribes for years but neither thing has stopped the murders.  This year, however, Min and the rest of the world are facing something that could possibly be an even bigger issue.  A huge asteroid nicknamed the Anvil will be passing close enough to Earth that there is a danger of a collision that would wipe out all of humanity.  As the Earth begins to deal with unprecedented natural disasters, Min discovers that she is not alone with her problems and that several people close to her might know more about what is happening than they have revealed.
 
The first half of the book was great and fast-moving with a weird premise I don't remember seeing before.  I couldn't wait to find out what exactly was happening.  Then the second half began and I felt for awhile that I was reading some other book entirely.  Something Lord of the Flies-ish.  I still couldn't wait to find out what exactly was happening, but I wasn't enjoying it as much at that point and the story dragged.  Finally, at the end I felt my familiar sense of being disgruntled because of the hard cliffhanger that made this book feel almost like a prequel to what's REALLY going to happen next.  All of that is not to say that I didn't enjoy the book, just that it wasn't as great as I was expecting after reading the first few chapters.

The Diabolic by S.J. Kincaid

Diabolics are created to be the ultimate bodyguards.  Raised in horrible conditions where they are rewarded for violent behavior, they are ultimately purchased to bond with and protect one person.  Nemesis is a Diabolic sworn to protect Sidonia, the daughter of a Senator who has spoken out against the corrupt Emperor running the galaxy.  When Sidonia's father goes too far, the Emperor demands that Sidonia be sent to the galactic court for an audience.  Knowing that the Emperor could possibly be bringing her there to kill her, the family decides to send Nemesis in her place.   Now Nemesis is thrust into a world of complex politics and emotions as she works to convince everyone she is Sidonia. 

This is exactly the type of sci fi I love - a big sprawling space opera that keeps me guessing.  I was only confused by the world for a short while and even then, only in figuring out the titles and hierarchy of the nobility.  Nemesis is a great character who struggles with her humanity (as in, does she have any) but mostly deftly navigates her way through a pit of vipers at court.  There were twists and turns a-plenty that kept me guessing and even had me gasp aloud at one point, then left me with a smile I couldn't wipe off my face because of the delight of the plot twist.  There was even a turn close to the end I didn't see coming and that hardly ever happens.  One issue I had was that I pictured Tyrus as Tyrion Lannister, undoubtedly because of the similarity of their names and their cleverness.  I like Tyrion but I was pulled out of the story while I had to remember that Tyrus was not that character.  But otherwise, a smart, well-developed story that kept me enthralled.  I will be recommending it to everyone and am already haranguing my husband to start it so we can discuss.

Friday, May 12, 2017

Ashes to Asheville by Sarah Dooley

Fella had a warm, happy home with her sister Zany and her two mothers, Mama Lacy and Mama Shannon.  But after Mama Lacy died, Fella's grandmother went to court and got custody of her so now Fella lives with her grandmother, Mrs. Madison, and not her other mother and sister.  One night Zany sneaks into Mrs. Madison's house and Fella catches her stealing Mama Lacy's ashes.  The two girls, and Mrs. Madison's poodle, set off on a road trip to Asheville, North Carolina to scatter their mother's ashes in the place they called home when they were all together and happy.  The trip doesn't go as smoothly as planned, though, with car problems, a thief, an injured poodle, and more.

 I wanted to love this book concerning a family with two mothers who cannot be a family anymore due to outdated laws.  Unfortunately, I just liked the book, and even that is tenuous.  Neither of the girls were appealing to me with their constant bickering and disregard for the safety of the dog.  There were problems galore which made the book stressful and unrealistic.  Finally, I saw the ending solution to the problem coming a mile away and it seemed too pat, even though it was nicely happy.

CatStronauts: Mission Moon by Drew Brockington

An energy shortage has put Earth into rolling blackouts.  The World's Best Scientist informs the president that the solution is to set up a solar energy plant on the moon.  Luckily the CatStronauts are up to the task!  The team of Major Meowser, Waffles, Blanket, and Pom Pom begin training immediately to save the world.

This book had me at "Catstronauts" and a character named Pom Pom.  It didn't live up to my giddy expectations but it's still fairly fun.

Short by Holly Goldberg Sloan

Julia is still grieving for her beloved dog Ramon and wants to spend the summer not doing much of anything.  Those plans change when her mother makes her audition for The Wizard of Oz along with her little brother and she finds herself cast as one of the Munchkins.  Unsure of herself at first, Julia is quickly enamored of her dynamic director and Olive, an adult little person who becomes Julia's friend and mentor.  As she begins to speak out more she finds herself attracting attention and becoming more integral to the play.

I love Julia's voice although I wondered if she was supposed to be on the autism spectrum or if she was just a nonstop, full of energy kid.  I think she's just full of energy.  There were about 50 sentences in the book I wanted to write down and hang on my wall because they were just so poignant and craftily written but I also wanted to keep reading so I didn't take the time.  The story is slight in that there is not a huge crisis that needs solving and Julia doesn't alienate everyone she knows before she learns an important lesson, but I'm okay with that.  I just enjoyed reading her story and listening to her funny, preteen observations.

Monday, May 8, 2017

The Boy at the Top of the Mountain by John Boyne

Pierrot lived in Paris with his parents until he was orphaned. He spends some time in an orphanage until he is taken in by his aunt Beatrix whom he has never met.  She is a servant in a fancy house in Germany.  One of the first things she does is change Pierrot's name to its German variation, Pieter, explaining that it will be better if he has a more German name.  She also advises Pieter to not mention his childhood friend Ansel who is Jewish.  When the master of the house finally arrives it is none other than Adolph Hitler.  Pieter is impressed with Hitler and tries to do whatever he can to impress the man.  Hitler takes Pieter under his wing and begins turning him into a perfect German boy. 

I've never actually read The Boy in the Striped Pajamas because it is always checked out of my library and I never have to work to sell it to my students so I have no comparison to Boyne's earlier works for this book.  However, I was absorbed in this book.  I don't believe it is the best writing ever and the story is not always nuanced, but that is not what I took away from the book.  As he falls more under Hitler's spell, Pieter begins spouting Nazi propaganda and acting as a good Aryan boy ought to act.  He finally does something unforgivable and shocking to me as a reader but it is exactly what many Germans did during Hitler's reign.  Later in the book, Pieter begins to realize that his actions have been horrible and he tries to make amends but Boyne makes it clear that although you can apologize and try to make up for your past actions, you will always have to live with what you have done.  That is a lesson I think is very important to take away from the story. I also liked the slow assimilation of Pieter to the Nazi mindset.  All too often we ask how can people do some of the horrible things they do?  Why didn't the Germans stand up to the Nazis?  Why would people follow the teachings of the Taliban?  People can be indoctrinated slowly, in steps so small you can't even see the path until you are at then end of it.  That's the strength of this book.  Pierrot is a nice boy, a kind boy.  But even he can be molded into someone else with the right attention and messages.

Labyrinth Lost by Zoraida Córdova

Alex comes from a long line of brujas - witches - and her family expects her to take her place among them.  Alex has felt some of her powers awakening but she has been keeping it a secret from her mother and two sisters because she has seen magic bring about some sad consequences.  After an incident at school she can't hide the fact that she is an encantrix, one of the most powerful types of brujas, and her mother begins planning her deathday celebration.  During the deathday ceremony a new bruja receives the blessings of long dead ancestors which helps to shape and control her magic.  Alex decides to find a canto to renounce her powers so she can live a non-magical life but her spell goes awry and her entire family - living and dead - are taken into Los Lagos where they will be preyed upon by the Devourer.  She has to enter the underworld to rescue her family with the help of a brujo she has only just met and the unexpected addition of her human best friend.

I was unexpectedly loving this book for about the first third to half.  Unexpectedly because it was nominated for a reading program by someone whose taste in books doesn't usually mesh with mine.  I love Alex's family and the descriptions of her sisters and mom moving so easily with their magic.  I could feel how they were part of two worlds and I was drawn into their lives.  I love the mythology Cordova has created for this book with the dead ancestors still being around and still having jobs to do after death.  Alex's family's lives felt rich and homey while the female characters were strong, powerful and beautiful.  I couldn't understand why Alex would be so dead set against taking her place with these wonderful people so that was one of my first issues with the book. But then again, there has to be some conflict to make a story so of course she has to be some sort of misfit. 

Despite my issues with Alex, I was totally absorbed throughout the beginning of the book and even a ways into the adventures in Los Lagos.  But then it all started to get too trippy for me.  After finishing the book I read a bunch of reviews on GoodReads where many people referenced Alice in Wonderland for the section set in the underworld and that helped me to figure out why I didn't care for the end of the book since I am not an Alice fan nor do I like psychedelic literature.  It started to fall apart for me at the section in the field with what are sort of fairy-esque creatures.  But mostly, I had a hard time following where they went, how they got through the mountains, the battle scenes, the ghosts who helped them, what Alex's powers were, how they worked...  It was not clearly drawn enough for me and all of that went on for too long. I wish the story had stayed in Brooklyn.  Since tht didn't happen, I wish that the part of the story taking place in Los Lagos had been less frantic with well-defined events.

Finally - liked the relationship that developed even though it ended up being another insta-love situation.  The hints about the relationship seemed obvious to me but I think that won't be the case for many readers.