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.