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Friday, December 30, 2011

Payback Time by Carl Deuker

Summary: Payback Time is a sports-centered book that even non-sports fans will enjoy. As with his other books, Carl Deuker has written a novel in which a teenager faces tough choices and comes out on top.


Mitch (short for Michelin Man) True is a reporter for his high school newspaper. Despite not being chosen editor for his senior year, he puts his all into his new assignment – covering sports. As an added bonus, some of his articles even get published in the city newspaper and he gets to have Kimi as his photographer (she would probably never even speak to him otherwise.) When Mitch notices a new player on the team with amazing talent, his curiosity is piqued. When his questions lead to stonewalling, both by the coach and by the player himself, Mitch realizes that he is on to something big. Why is a great player like Angel spending so much time on the bench? Is he an undercover cop looking for drugs on campus? Is he the coach’s secret weapon for winning the state championship? Mitch & Kimi get into much more than they bargained for while trying to solve the mystery.

Mitch is a great character that I could associate with – a teen who is on the fringes in his school; a part but not one that necessarily stands out. His relationship with Kimi and the way it changes within the story is a great way to show how Mitch is taking more control of his life and working hard to be what he wants to be (mainly thin, which is difficult since his mother is a caterer who often brings home desserts for him to try.) The twists within the story kept me turning the pages to see if Mitch would get through the story unscathed and to see how it would all end for Angel.

For sports fans, the descriptions of the action in the football games are well-written, but not so in-depth that a non-sports person (such as myself) felt lost. That is a tough balancing act, but Deuker pulls it off well.

Themes:
Acceptance
Persistence
Making tough choices
Doing what is right



Age Appropriateness:
13 and up

Areas of concern (content):
Foul Language: mild
Nudity/Adult Content: none
Violence: moderate

Strings Attached by Judy Blundell

Summary: Judy Blundell’s Strings Attached is a great combination of mystery, suspense, and romance set in the early 1950’s during the time when gangsters were big news and McCarthyism was in full swing.


Kit is one of the famous Corrigan triplets, raised by her alcoholic father and her strict, seemingly unfeeling Aunt Delia. After a blow-up with her long-time boyfriend, Billy Benedict, Kit moves to the city to try and fulfill her dream of becoming a Broadway star. Although it isn’t easy, it is helping her keep her mind off of Billy and her brother, Jaime, who both joined the Army. Kit’s fortunes take a turn when Billy’s father, Nate, an attorney with rumored ties to a notorious gangster, sets her up with a good job and a nice apartment to live in. All she has to do is help Nate out by letting him know when she hears from Billy.

But Kit soon finds out that there are more strings attached to Nate’s gifts than she realized. Is Nate really involved in murder? Is her Aunt Delia one of his victims? And how will she face Billy, knowing what she does about his father?

I enjoyed Strings Attached more than Blundell's last novel, What I Saw & How I Lied.  The plot was solid and had enough twists to keep me guessing without becoming too confusing or unrealistic.  I found myself sympathizing with Kit throughout the novel, and hoping that she would achieve the success she was hoping for without Nate's help.  A good read for those who like a little suspense mixed in with their romance.

Themes:
Trust
Love
Independence



Age Appropriateness:
13 and up


Areas of concern (content):
Foul Language: mild
Nudity/Adult Content: mild
Violence: moderate

Saturday, November 12, 2011

The Blue Sword by Robin McKinley

Summary: I love fantasy novels with strong female characters, and The Blue Sword by Robin McKinley definitely fits that description. This Newbery Honor book is an inventive and interesting adventure with characters that are well fleshed out and sympathetic.


Harry Crewe is an orphan who is left in the care of her older brother, Richard, a soldier in the Homeland military. When he brings her to Damar, a desert frontier area, to live with Lady Amelia and Sir Charles, she is relieved and intrigued by this new land, much different from the lushness of Home. Damar is an area held in an uneasy truce with the Free Hillfolk, a secretive group who, it is rumored, have magic that the people of Home do not understand.

Corlath is the king of the Hillfolk. When he comes to the Outlander outpost to seek assistance against in impending attack from the savage armies of the North, he is angered by the response he receives. He is also stunned by his first sight of Harry; his kelar, his magic, tell him that this girl is important. She will become Harimad-Sol, bearer of the Blue Sword which has lain unused for generations.

Harry doesn’t know why Corlath has taken her from her home in the night and brought her out into the desert. But once she begins to understand the ways of the Hillfolk and to feel the pull of her own kelar, she realizes that she is as much a part of the desert as those who have roamed its dunes all their lives. Can she accomplish a seemingly impossible task and save her people, both Hillfolk and Outlander, from the coming army which seeks nothing less than total destruction?

Themes:
Courage
Friendship
Determination
Self-Confidence


Age Appropriateness:
10 and up

Areas of concern (content):
Foul Language: none
Nudity/Adult Content: none
Violence: moderate

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Killer Pizza by Greg Taylor

This year’s Sunshine State Book list is more action packed than I have seen it in a few years. I’ve been impressed with many of the books this year, but Killer Pizza by Greg Taylor hits a base that I haven’t seen so well-covered since Whisper in the Dark by Bruchac was one of the selections. Killer Pizza is creepy and action packed! It kept me tense and worried about the characters, and I’m definitely looking forward to the next book in the series, which is already out!


Summary: When Toby Magill gets a job at the new local pizzeria, Killer Pizza, he sees it as the first step towards his dream of becoming a famous chef. It’s a step away from just watching great chefs on TV to taking over the spatula someday, even if the food he makes at work has names like Mummy Wraps and Creature Double Feature. Little does he know what he and his new coworkers, Strobe and Annabel, have really signed up for!

Killer Pizza is an amazing pizzeria. But it has a more important purpose: behind the scenes, it’s a monster-hunting organization, and Toby, Strobe, and Annabel are the newest recruits in the organization. The trio quickly finds themselves fighting gargoyle-like creatures called Guttata who have settled in their town and are behind a string of missing persons cases.

Annabel and Strobe quickly prove themselves to be able fighters and quick thinkers under pressure. Toby isn’t sure he fits in with the group – he just wants to cook, after all. But can he walk away now that he knows what really lurks in the night?

Themes:
Courage
Friendship
Determination


Age Appropriateness:
11 and up


Areas of concern (content):
Foul Language: none
Nudity/Adult Content: none
Violence: moderate & scary

Jolted: Newton Starker's Rules for Survival by Arthur Slade

Summary: Jolted: Newton Starker’s Rules for Survival is another great book on the Sunshine State list for this school year. It’s a fun read with an interesting main character who, even though his problem is a bit out of the ordinary, readers will be able to associate and sympathize with.


Newton Starker’s family has been dealing with a curse for generations – most of them die after being struck by lightning. His mother is the most recent victim of this family peculiarity, and Newton is determined to beat the odds and not become another tabloid oddity.

In order to boost his odds for survival, he has enrolled at the Jerry Potts Academy for Survival in Moose Jaw, Canada. The school is not your average boarding school. All the students wear kilts and carry knives, classes include culinary arts and survival skills, and the major tests consist of lengthy outdoor camping/survival trips.

Newton plans not only to survive, but to land a spot in the hallowed Hall of Heroes at Jerry Potts Academy. He wants to be the best, and to be remembered for it forever. His biggest competition comes from Violet Quon, a spitfire of a girl who seems determined to make Newton’s life miserable. But Newton Starker has tricks up his sleeve, including an unexpected friend and a pig with an amazing talent.

Big on laughs and on heart, this book had me hooked from the very beginning. Newton’s desire to be the best and beat the odds keeps the story moving at a quick and enjoyable pace.

Themes:
Family
Courage
Achieving vs. Overachieving
Teamwork


Age Appropriateness:
10 and up


Areas of concern (content):
Foul Language: none
Nudity/Adult Content: none
Violence: mild

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Me & Jack by Danette Haworth

Summary: Before you walk past Me & Jack by Danette Haworth, let me just put your mind at ease – the dog on the cover doesn’t die. Because, let’s face it, most dog & boy stories (as Gordon Korman points out in No More Dead Dogs) end with the dog dying. The ending in Me & Jack is, thankfully, dog-death free.

Don’t think that means that this is a happy little story of a boy and his dog. Me & Jack is full of heart-wrenching and frustrating conflicts suffered by characters that I, as a reader, quickly grew attached to and felt very sympathetic toward.

Joshua Reed is an Army brat growing up during the Vietnam War. His father is a recruiter, and his job is taking them to yet another new town with a new start. Josh is excited when he quickly makes a new friend, Ray, and his dad lets him get a dog. Jack, with his oddly glowing ears and understanding eyes is exactly what Josh wants in a dog; loyal, playful, and protective of his boy.

Ray & Josh get along great, but Ray’s cousin, Alan, seems determined to hate Josh and Jack, and does everything he can to make Josh’s life hard. To make matters worse, Jack is being blamed for all sorts of mayhem in the town, from tipped garbage cans to dead livestock, and Josh’s dad is finding many people turning against him because of the rising casualties of the troops serving in Vietnam.

Can Josh & Ray remain friends even though Alan is determined to ruin everything? Will Josh be able to prove that Jack is not the menace that many believe he is or will he be forced to give up his new companion?

Themes:
Family
Fairness
Standing up for those you love

Age Appropriateness:
10 and up

Areas of concern (content):
Foul Language: none
Nudity/Adult Content: none
Violence: mild

Monday, September 26, 2011

Alcatraz vs. the Evil Librarians by Brandon Sanderson

Alcatraz vs. The Evil Librarians by Brandon Sanderson is, hands down, my favorite Sunshine State Book of the year. This book is just fun and perfect for middle grades and teen readers! The humor in it is tinged with adolescent sarcasm, and has Lemony Snickett-esque warnings and asides to the reader sprinkled throughout the story. I will definitely being looking for more books from this author, and I hope that the series will continue to be as enjoyable as this first book.


Summary: Alcatraz Smedry has spent his life shuffling from one foster home to another thanks to his uncanny ability to break things. In his latest home, he has just caught fire to the kitchen when some even more shocking and destructive events suddenly take over his life.

Alcatraz escapes a man attempting to kill him and joins forces with a crazy man who claims to be his grandfather in order to claim his inheritance, which he had both received and had stolen in the same day. Alcatraz discovers that he is one in a long, distinguished line of Smedry family members who are Oculators (a job that involves wearing some very powerful glasses) with Talents, and the family business is….well, it’s a little hard to explain.

Basically, the world as you, dear reader, know it is ruled by a vast librarian cult who controls the populace by controlling the information we have access to. Librarian-controlled lands are, appropriately enough, called the Hushlands. The Smedry family, along with other freedom fighters, is working to prevent the librarians from taking over the remaining Free Kingdoms.

Alcatraz’s inheritance, a bag of very special sand that his father has painstakingly collected over the years, must be retrieved from the librarians before they can create lenses with it – for the lenses created could have untold powers! Can Alcatraz, his grandfather, and a few other brave souls infiltrate the library and recover the sands before they can be used against the Free Kingdoms? Are dinosaurs really British? And what is up with the random repetition of “rutabaga?” And how can being late be considered a life-saving talent? Read Alcatraz vs. The Evil Librarians to find out!



Themes:
Courage
Family
Self-discovery


Age Appropriateness:
10 and up


Areas of concern (content):
Foul Language: none
Nudity/Adult Content: none
Violence: moderate

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Scat by Carl Hiaasen

Summary: Scat by Carl Hiaasen is a fun and exciting read. Hiaasen is an author who is able to write books for both adults (Sick Puppy) and children (Scat, Hoot, Flush), and does both with great success. (Mr. Grisham, you could learn a little something from our friend Carl!)


In Scat, Hiaasen stays in his beloved Florida and introduces us to a cast of interesting and realistic characters: Nick is a baseball playing school kid whose dad has been injured fighting in the Middle East, Marta is his friend and a straight-arrow, follow the rules kind of girl. They become entangled in a mystery when their biology teacher, Mrs. Starch, disappears after a field trip into the Black Vine Swamp; a field trip that is interrupted by a mysterious fire that turns out to be arson! The prime suspect: their classmate, Smoke, who has a history of lighting fires.

Where is Mrs. Starch? Who is the strange guy that refers to her as “Aunt Bunny?” And what is the Red Diamond Energy Corporation doing in the swamp? Could it have anything to do with the endangered panther that Nick thinks he heard on the day of the field trip?

Hiaasen delivers another great mystery for kids involving corrupt businessmen, eco-warriors, and kids who are just trying to do the right thing. Scat is also full of chuckles and twists that keep the reader guessing, making it a hard to put down read.

Themes:
Protecting endangered species
Standing up for what is right
Friendship
Choices
Family


Age Appropriateness:
11 and up

Areas of concern (content):
Foul Language: none
Nudity/Adult Content: very mild nonsexual
Violence: moderate

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Bystander by James Preller

Summary: Bystander by James Preller is a Sunshine State Book for grades 6-8 this year. I understand why it was chosen for the list – bullying is a hot topic and this book looks at it in a gritty and realistic way. This is a book that would be great for book club discussions about bullying or for bibliotherapy.


Eric is the new kid in town, just starting seventh grade. His first friend in his new town, Griffin, is the popular guy who seems to get away with everything. Everyone wants to be Griffin’s friend, and many will do whatever it takes to reach that goal. But Eric quickly sees Griffin for what he is – a bully and a trouble-maker. Can Eric stand against Griffin without becoming his next target? Or will he just be another bystander, watching Griffin’s cruelty?

Bystander would be a great book to tie in with a unit on the Holocaust and the many people who looked the other way during the atrocities committed, as well as a great book for spurring a discussion about bullying and taking a stand against it. There is some language in the novel, but nothing extreme. The ending was, to me, anticlimactic but plausible. I understand why Preller ended the book as he did, but it still felt a little unfinished to me.

There really are no truly good guys or bad guys in this book – just good and bad decisions made by average people. Eric could be anyone, facing down one of a thousand Griffins by another name. Both boys have problems that spur their choices, and are great character studies in the different ways that people deal with the stresses of an unstable life.

Themes:
Bullying
Friendship
Standing up for what is right



Age Appropriateness:
12 and up



Areas of concern (content):
Foul Language: moderate (less than five instances)
Nudity/Adult Content: none
Violence: moderate

Monday, August 8, 2011

Ruined by Paula Morris

Summary: Ruined by Paula Morris is a suspenseful historical mystery/ghost story set in modern-day New Orleans. The main character, Rebecca, is shocked when her father sends her to New Orleans to stay with a family friend while he works in China. Since her mother died, Rebecca and her father have been nearly inseparable. But suddenly he is sending her to stay with Aunt Claudia and her daughter, Aurelia, where she will attend a private prep school in New Orleans’ Garden District.


Rebecca knows she doesn’t fit in. Unlike the top social tier within the school, she doesn’t have an old family name and fortune to impress her classmates. And unlike the other students, she wasn’t impressed by old family names and fortunes. Only Anton Grey, a member of the New Orleans elite, shows any interest in Rebecca, but she is unsure if he has other reasons for his attentions to her.

Rebecca is fortunate enough to make one real friend. Lisette lives in the Lafayette Cemetery, where she knows everything and everyone. Rebecca is able to talk to Listette, sharing her loneliness and her memories of home. Unfortunately, friendship with Lisette is not so simple – she is a ghost and her spirit is trapped at the cemetery where her body was hidden.

In Ruined, Rebecca is faced with many secrets and mysteries that have more to do with her than she realizes. Why can she see Lisette? What is Lisette’s true goal?

Themes:
Family
Secrets
Racism

Age Appropriateness:
11 and up

Areas of concern (content):
Foul Language: none
Nudity/Adult Content: very mild
Violence: very mild

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Interworld by Neil Gaiman and Michael Reaves

Summary: Interworld by Neil Gaiman and Michael Reaves is an awesome sci-fi/fantasy adventure. The authors mix science and magic together in a setting that includes an infinite number of worlds. I’ve been a Gaiman fan for a couple of decades now, and Interworld is a worthy addition to the Neil Gaiman shelf of my library.


Joey Harker is just a guy – he’s nothing special. He has no real talents or skills. He even gets lost in his own house sometimes! But one day, Joey gets more lost than usual – he walks into another dimension and finds himself in the middle of a war. Armies of science and armies of magic are both fighting to take over as many different dimensions as possible; trying to rule over the thousands of possible Earths that exist. In order to stop them, Joey finds himself part of a third army dedicated to keeping the balance – an army that is made up entirely of different versions of himself from the different Earths.

Unlike many of the other Harkers, Joey gets a choice – go home to his own Earth, where he can live out his life in safety or stay and fight until the end. What will he do? And how many rules will he break in the process?

I would love to see more stories about Joey and the other Harkers – this could make an excellent series, especially since only one enemy is really faced in this book.

Themes:
Balance
Loyalty
Persistence
Survival
Teamwork


Age Appropriateness:
10 and up

Areas of concern (content):
Foul Language: none
Nudity/Adult Content: none
Violence: mild

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Forbidden Sea by Sheila A. Nielson

Summary: Forbidden Sea by Sheila A. Nelson is a wonderful fairy tale with just the right mix of mystery, hardship, and tough choices. Even though it is set on the middle ages, the characters are easy to relate to, from their personalities to their dreams and despairs.


Adrianne Keynnman’s family once enjoyed a comfortable life on Windwaithe Island, where her father was the Master of Horses for Lord Durran, who rules over the island. But an accident took him away and the family lost everything – a loss that Adrianne takes the blame for. Now Adrianne, along with her mother, her sister, Cecily, and her Auntie Minnah, live in a small shack where the women do mending for the islanders to make a meager living.  Adrianne does what she can to help her family, but nothing she does ever seems to please her aunt, who greatly favors Cecily, and the girls' mother shows little courage, allowing Auntie Minnah to run the home.

When Adrianne saves Cecily from the Windwaithe mermaid, a creature Adrianne had thought to be a legend, life begins to take unexpected turns. The mermaid marks Adrianne and her days and nights are filled with the haunting sounds of the mermaid calling to her.

When the other islanders discover that the mermaid has marked Adrianne, it becomes dangerous for anyone who chooses to protect her. Should Adrianne just give herself up to the mermaid to save her island? Or is there more going on than anyone truly knows?

One of my favorite aspects of this story was the romance between Adrianne and Denn, the boy who has been her friend since childhood. Adrianne loves him dearly but doesn’t feel that she is good enough to catch his eye compared to the prettier and wealthier girls of the island. Her interactions with Denn and his younger siblings (who adore her) make for some great moments that anyone who has ever experienced a crush on someone they feel they can’t have will understand.

Themes:
Family
Persistence
Loyalty
Love
Self-esteem

Age Appropriateness:
11 and up

Areas of concern (content):
Foul Language: none
Nudity/Adult Content: none
Violence: very mild

Friday, July 29, 2011

Distant Waves by Suzanne Weyn

Suzanne Weyn is an author whose works I have enjoyed a great deal, but I seldom see her getting any real attention/promotion. When I saw Distant Waves at a Scholastic Warehouse Sale, I had to pick it up and give it a read-through. It was so much more and better than I expected.


Although the cover says it is “A novel of the Titanic,” it is really much more than that. In fact, the Titanic doesn’t make an actual appearance until a little over half-way through the book. It is just one setting within the story, albeit an important one. Putting mention of the Titanic on the cover seems to me like a lure to get readers to pick up a book that can stand on many other merits.

Summary: Jane is the second of five sisters who live with their mother, a psychic. Early in the book, the family meets the brilliant scientist Nicola Tesla when caught in an earthquake he has caused with one of his experiments. From then on, Jane follows Tesla’s career through newspaper articles, keeping them in a scrapbook.

The family settled in a “spiritualist community” where their mother becomes a well-respected medium. Although Jane isn’t sure she believes in her mother’s gift, her doubt is nothing compared to the eye-rolling of Mimi, the eldest of the five daughters. Even when her twin sisters start to show signs of "the gift," Jane's doubts make her, at a certain level, an observer within her own family.

When Mimi learns a secret about her heritage, she runs away, leaving Jane feeling responsible for “losing” her older sister. She is eventually distracted, however, by the chance for the whole family to travel to London to be part of a large spiritualist gathering that is trying to discover if a great war is truly about to break out. At this gathering, Jane meets another of her heroes, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, as well as his friend Harry Houdini.

All five sisters find themselves aboard the Titanic for its maiden voyage, in spite of dire warnings that it may not be safe. How will they survive when the predicted sinking occurs? And how will Tesla’s presence on the ship change history?

One of the things I loved about this book was the inclusion of Nicola Tesla as a character. He is such a fascinating figure, and Weyn did an excellent job of capturing many facets of his personality. After reading this, I found myself wanting to read more about his life, achievements, and disappointments. The author did a wonderful job of taking elements of history and incorporating it into a story of her own creation – mixing characters that were truly part of the event into the plot in a believable way.

Themes:
Secrets
Family
Racism
Scientific Discovery


Age Appropriateness:
12 and up

Areas of concern (content):
Foul Language: none
Nudity/Adult Content: very mild
Violence: very mild

Thursday, July 28, 2011

The Presence by Eve Bunting

Summary: The Presence by Eve Bunting is an intriguing ghost story with twists and turns that keep it from being too predictable. The characters are believable and it is easy to empathize with Catherine, the main character.


Catherine is spending the Christmas holidays with her grandmother while her parents take a vacation in Europe. Everyone who loves her is hoping that getting away will help Catherine deal with the accident that killed her best friend; the accident she feels responsible for.

At her grandmother’s church, Catherine meets Noah. He’s handsome, young, and tells her that he can help her contact the spirit of her dead friend and obtain forgiveness. Catherine is hopeful – if she could only know that Kirsty forgave her, she could move on and stop having the nightmares.

But something about Noah doesn’t seem right. No one else seems to notice him, even when he is standing right next to them. An old lady warns Catherine to avoid the church. And girls who look like Catherine have been disappearing over the years. Could it all be connected? And what can Catherine do? Should she meet him in spite of her misgivings?

The story is told from two perspectives – Catherine’s and Noah’s. The two together give the whole story, and the switches are well done. Whereas Catherine wants forgiveness, Noah wants love and companionship. Despite being the antagonist, he is not a strictly evil character, and this made him much more interesting than the usual ghostly bad guy.

My favorite character in this book is Catherine’s grandmother. She’s a spry old lady who loves her romance novels and enjoys playing matchmaker for her granddaughter. She’s the kind of grandmother that would be wonderful to have in real life – supportive and just nosy enough to show that she cares.

If you enjoy a good ghost story, pick up The Presence. Its blend of romance and mystery makes it an enjoyable read.

Themes:
Secrets
Grieving
Forgiveness

Age Appropriateness:
12 and up

Areas of concern (content):
Foul Language: none
Nudity/Adult Content: very mild
Violence: very mild

Sunday, July 24, 2011

The Adoration of Jenna Fox by Mary E. Pearson

Summary: The Adoration of Jenna Fox by Mary E. Pearson was much more thought-provoking than I expected. A little more than a day after I finished reading it I am still pondering the implications and the questions brought up by this teen sci-fi read.


Jenna wakes up from what her parents tell her is a lengthy coma with little memory of who she is. All her parents will tell her was that she was in a horrible accident and that she is still recovering. But there are things that just don’t seem right – like why are they living in California now instead of Boston? Why does her father rarely come visit them? Why does her grandmother, Lily, seem unhappy with her “miraculous recovery?”

As Jenna’s memory starts to come back and connect the holes in her past, she finds herself with even more questions - questions that no one wants to answer. Who is Jenna Fox? What is she? Is she even human?

The Adoration of Jenna Fox can be enjoyed as a great read (which it is), but for those who enjoy a little deeper thought, it also brings up issues and questions that are important today, and could be even more so in the future.

One of the characters, Allys, is a victim of one of the many untreatable diseases that run rampant throughout the world of this novel. These diseases are blamed on the unchecked use of antibiotics – a problem that is already a reality. Allys has multiple prosthetic limbs due to the drastic measures that had to be taken in order to save her life. Could these antibiotic resistant diseases become the problem they are in the book? (Or is a better question “When will they become the problem they are in the book?”)

Organ transplants in the world of Jenna Fox are more accessible and less dangerous than in our world, but a limit is put on how much a single individual can have transplanted. Each organ or body part is deemed worth a certain number of points, and each person can only have so many points within a lifetime. Will this happen in our world?

The Adoration of Jenna Fox reminds me somewhat of another book that raises many of the same issues, Unwind by Neal Shusterman. (If you haven’t read it, you really must! It is amazing!) Like Unwind, The Adoration of Jenna Fox raises the question: What makes us human? What part of a human contains the soul, that essence that makes us who we are? It’s an unanswerable question, but one that is always worth pondering.

Themes:
Secrets
Friendship
What makes us human?
What is acceptable use of technology?

Age Appropriateness:
10 and up

Areas of concern (content):
Foul Language: none
Nudity/Adult Content: very mild
Violence: none

Saturday, July 16, 2011

The Stone Child by Dan Pablocki

The Stone Child by Dan Pablocki is creepy! It made me want to turn on more lights while I was reading, and that isn’t something that happens to me very often. I’ll have to read something light and happy before I go to bed tonight to get this story out of my head, otherwise I’m afraid this book will invade my dreams. So, if you’re easily scared or prone to nightmares, do not pick up this book. REALLY! If, however, you enjoy a book that makes even the brightest room seem slightly oppressive and has you looking over your shoulder because you feel like you are being watched….enjoy!


Summary: Eddie doesn’t really mind when his parents decide to move to the small town of Gatesweed. He doesn’t have any friends anyway, except for books by his favorite author, Nathaniel Olmstead. But the family move becomes less routine when they crash the family car into something; his parents think it might have been a bear, but Eddie knows it was a monster, like in one of Olmstead’s books. Then he looks across and sees the house – Nathaniel Olmstead’s house! What could be cooler than moving into your favorite author’s hometown, seeing the house he lived in before he disappeared thirteen years before? Eddie also finds an unpublished Olmstead manuscript, written in code, which could explain the author’s mysterious disappearance.

But Eddie also sees other things – the monsters in Olmstead’s books are very real, and Eddie must use his knowledge of his favorite books to fight them while also getting help from his two new friends, Harris and Maggie, to solve the mystery of Olmstead’s disappearance and keep the most dangerous monster of all from escaping into Gatesweed.

The Stone Child is full of bump-in-the-night chills that will keep you reading.

Themes:
Choices
Responsibility
Friendship


Age Appropriateness:
10 and up

Areas of concern (content):
Foul Language: very mild
Nudity/Adult Content: none
Violence: mild but creepy

Saturday, July 9, 2011

The Day of the Pelican by Katherine Paterson

Summary: Katherine Paterson was one of my favorite authors when I was a kid, and I was excited to see a new book by her on this year’s Sunshine State list. The Day of the Pelican is a fictional account of one ethnic Albanian family’s experience during the ethnic cleansing that took place in Kosovo in the late 1990’s.


Meli enjoys her life in Kosovo. Her family lives in a nice apartment above her father’s store. Her brothers like playing soldier, especially her older brother, Mehmet, who admires the men fighting in the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA). But war seems far away for Meli until the day Mehmet disappears; the day Meli draws her teacher with a pelican nose. She is convinced that all the trouble that follows is her fault, punishment for the drawing. A few weeks later, Mehmet returns; he had been kept prisoner, then was beaten and left for dead. KLA soldiers had found him and nursed him back to health, allowing him to return to his worried family.

The family quickly decides that the time has come to abandon their home in the face of increased persecution from the Serbian government. Meli tells their tale as they stay in makeshift refugee camps and experience the brutal reality of hatred.

The family eventually makes their way to America for a new start. But will these Muslim refugees be welcomed in their new home?

The Day of the Pelican will introduce young readers to a recent event in world history that few will be familiar with. Meli is a narrator the reader can sympathize with.

Themes:
Family
Survival
Genocide
Immigration/Refugee experiences


Age Appropriateness:
11 and up

Areas of concern (content):
Foul Language: mild
Nudity/Adult Content: none
Violence: mild

Cross My Heart and Hope to Spy by Ally Carter

Summary: Cross My Heart and Hope to Spy is the second of the Gallagher Girls series by Ally Carter. It is just as much fun as the first in the series, and has even more of the girl-spy intrigue and drama that made the first book such a pleasure to read.


Cammie Morgan and her classmates are back for another school year at the Gallagher Academy for Exceptional Young Women. Cammie has gone through her first real mission de-briefing, including a polygraph test at the CIA’s real headquarters about her involvement Josh, her first boyfriend who was, unfortunately, a civilian without security clearance.

She is looking forward to a new school year to let her get back to normal (for her). But that is not in the cards – the Gallagher Academy is being invaded – by boys! The Blackthorne Academy is sending a few of its students to spend the year with the Gallagher girls. Cammie had enough trouble dealing with a regular boy – how will she deal with a boy who is just as well-trained in lying and covert operations as she is?

Now the school year is filled with make-up and hairstyling as well as code-breaking and martial arts. Are the Blackthorne Boys really there for innocent reasons, or is there something more sinister going on? Leave it to Cammie and her friends to find out the truth!

Themes:
Secrets
Friendship
Trust


Age Appropriateness:
10 and up

Areas of concern (content):
Foul Language: none
Nudity/Adult Content: light kissing
Violence: mild

Woods Runner by Gary Paulsen

I’m working my way through the books on this year’s Grades 6-8 Sunshine State book list, and the list is, so far, pretty good. I’ve only read a third of them, and the ones I’ve read have been good – some were even great.


Summary: Woods Runner by Gary Paulsen is a gripping historical fiction novel set during the American Revolution. Each chapter is followed by historical notes about some aspect of the main character, Samuel’s, experiences in the previous chapter. This was a great way to integrate some historical information into the story, as each was short and easy to read.

Samuel and his parents live in the frontier of Pennsylvania. The year is 1776 and Samuel, at the age of 13, is the main hunter for his family. His parents, despite living in the woods, have no real interest in exploring or understanding it as Samuel does.

One day when Samuel goes hunting for bear, his home is attacked by Red Coats and Indians. Although most of his neighbors have been slaughtered, Samuel sees signs that his parents and a few others have been taken prisoner. His knowledge of the woods must now be used for a new goal: to find and save his family.

Along his journey, Samuel finds friends who help him in his journey, including Coop, who nurses him after he is attacked by an Indian, and Abner, who uses forged passes to move freely through the British lines.

I really enjoyed Woods Runner, and liked it much more than I usually like Paulsen’s books. As a reader, it kept the action going and kept me wondering what would happen next. Samuel seemed very real to me, and I sympathized with his mixed emotions regarding the killing of his fellow man.

My only problem with the book is one that the average reader probably won’t even notice, but as an English teacher who spends a lot of time trying to get my students to understand the importance of citations, it stuck out. The book is full of great factual historical information, including an afterward that includes statistics about deaths due to various causes during the Revolutionary War. But there is nothing telling where he got these numbers or any of the other great historical information. It’s difficult to convince my students that citing sources matters when they don’t see examples of this in the books they read. This is a problem I see in most young dult and children's historical fiction - can we please get some citations in there, folks?  Can you let your young readers see that you really do research for these books? That’s just my English teacher soapbox for this post.

Themes:
Family
Survival
Coming of age

Age Appropriateness:
10 and up


Areas of concern (content):
Foul Language: none
Nudity/Adult Content: none
Violence: moderate – not gory, but sometimes descriptive

Friday, July 8, 2011

The Strange Case of Origami Yoda by Tom Angleberger

The Strange Case of Origami Yoda by Tom Angleberger is a Sunshine State Book for grades 6-8 this coming school year. After reading it, I have to say it is a good choice for the list for one main reason – it will hook reluctant readers, and maybe this hook will get them to read more books on the list! Origami Yoda is funny, sometimes downright silly, and very relatable.


Summary: The Strange Case of Origami Yoda is told as a series of tales from the perspectives of many different middle schoolers. All these students are united by one thing: Dwight’s Origami Yoda finger puppet and the amazing advice it gives. One of the students, Tommy, decides to gather everyone’s stories of Dwight’s Origami Yoda so that he can decide if Yoda really does have the answers, even though Dwight is such a loser. Because if Origami Yoda is for real, Tommy has to follow its advice about a very important topic: the girl he likes!

The stories that make up this book range from laugh-out-loud funny to slightly heartwarming. After each story, Tommy’s friend, Harvey, who is the resident skeptic, gives his view on what really happened and shooting down any possibility that Dwight and Yoda might be on to something.

The illustrations throughout the book make it feel like it really was put together by a middle school student, and will appeal to fans of other series such as Diary of a Wimpy Kid.


Themes:
Fitting In
Friendship

Age Appropriateness:
9 and up

Areas of concern (content):
Foul Language: none
Nudity/Adult Content: none
Violence: none

Friday, July 1, 2011

I’d Tell You I Love You, But Then I’d Have To Kill by Ally Carter

Summary: I’d Tell You I Love You, But Then I’d Have To Kill You is a fun girl-powered spy romance. The first of the Gallagher Girls series by Ally Carter, the story creates a plausible world in which teen girls are trained to be spies in an exclusive boarding school.


Cammie Morgan is a student at this school, the Gallagher Academy for Exceptional Young Women. To people on the outside, it is simply a private school for snooty smart rich girls. But this school offers classes in code breaking, covert operations, martial arts, and more than your usual language options. Cammie excels at Gallagher; after all, she comes from a family of spies, as do many of her classmates. But there is one thing that the Gallagher Academy has not prepared Cammie for: how to deal with boys.

When Cammie gets noticed by a local boy during a surveillance mission, she isn’t sure what to do. First of all, when doing surveillance, you are NOT supposed to be noticed. (Really, it defeats the purpose if you stick out!) And Cammie is an ace at blending in and going unnoticed. So why does Josh not only notice her, but take a real interest in her? And how can she have a relationship with a boy who can never know who she really is?

I’d Tell You I Love You, But Then I’d Have To Kill You is fun, laugh-out-loud fun at times. Cammie and her friends are easy to relate to; despite the fact that they are anything but ordinary in a lot of ways, they still have many of the same worries as any girl: fitting in, having friends, and solving the mysteries of the opposite sex. This is a series I will be recommending to students this coming school year!

Themes:
Secrets
Friendship


Age Appropriateness:
10 and up

Areas of concern (content):
Foul Language: none
Nudity/Adult Content: none
Violence: mild

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Wish I Might by Coleen Murtagh Paratore

I love Willa Havisham! The plucky young heroine of the Wedding Planner’s Daughter Series is a fun character that I became attached to while reading the first few books. When I noticed another book about Willa, I had to pick it up. This may be my favorite of them all!


Summary: Wish I Might, the fifth book featuring Willa Havisham, is an excellent addition to the series. It’s summer, and Willa is looking forward to it – mostly. Her perfect boyfriend, JFK, will be away at a baseball training camp in Florida for a month, and Ruby Sivler seems determined to steal Willa’s best friend. But life at the Bramblebriar Inn is just as wonderful as Willa could want. Her mom and Sam, who she now calls dad, are still happily in love, and the Inn is booked with guests and weddings.

Things start to get strange when a handsome boy shows up and claims he’s Willa’s half brother. Willa has always wanted a brother, but is Will who he says he is? And how should she tell her mother about him?

In Wish I Might, Willa is back at her best – trying hard to stay positive even when she’s worried. Even when she’s stressed about JFK not returning her calls, Will’s relationship to her, and how her mother will react to the news, she still stops to appreciate the little things and finds ways to help others. Willa is a great role model for any of my students. The fact that she’s an avid reader and aspiring author doesn’t hurt, either. I hope to see more books about Willa in the future.

Wish I Might also does a wonderful job of integrating other books (books that Willa is reading during the story), and gives a list of recommended books at the end. I may have to recommend some of Willa’s “skinny punch” books to my students this year. (If you want to know what a “skinny punch” is, you have to read the book. I promise, it’s worth it!)

Themes:
Secrets
Friendship
Family
Service to others

Age Appropriateness:
10 and up

Areas of concern (content):
Foul Language: none
Nudity/Adult Content: none
Violence: none

Monday, June 13, 2011

The Summer of Moonlight Secrets by Danette Haworth

I had the opportunity to meet Danette Haworth at the NCTE convention in the fall and came back to school excited about the possibility of having her come speak to our students.  That plan is still in the works (ah, the joys of committees - LOL) but in the meantime, I am picking up her books to prep for the (hopefully) inevitable visit.  I gave away a few copies of this book to students at the end of the school year, and I hope they enjoyed it as much as I did!

Summary: The Summer of Moonlight Secrets by Danette Haworth was an excellent follow up to The Folk Keeper in my reading queue. Both have the same mythical creature in a central part of the story (not telling which – that would be a spoiler!). Both have an air of mystery and magic woven throughout. But where The Folk Keeper focused on one character’s perspective, The Summer of Moonlight Secrets switches between the thoughts of three characters.


Allie Jo Jackson loves her home, The Meriwether, an old and once high-class hotel built on Hope Springs in Florida. She knows all its secret passages and hidden hiding places, all its history and secrets. She spends her days enjoying life and helping out at the hotel, polishing brass railings and eating chef’s delicious blueberry pancakes.

When Tara mysteriously emerges from the springs one morning, Allie Jo is stunned and intrigued. Who swims fully clothed? Where did she come from? Who is she, really? And what or who is she hiding from?

Allie Jo and her new friend, Chase, a guest at the hotel, set out to discover the truth and end up finding answers they never dreamed possible. Can two modern day kids believe in magic, or is Tara just a disturbed runaway? What do you do when you have a secret you have to keep from everyone – even your parents who you’ve always shared everything with? How do you know who to believe when no one is telling the same story?

This is a great book – fun, suspenseful, and magical. Each year, the Florida Department of Education chooses recent books to be featured on the Sunshine States Young Readers program list, and The Summer of Moonlight Secrets would be a great addition to that list for next time. I’ll have multiple copies of this book on my shelf next school year!

Themes:
Secrets
Friendship
Family
Doing what is right

Age Appropriateness:
8 and up

Areas of concern (content):
Foul Language: none
Nudity/Adult Content: none
Violence: mild

The Folk Keeper by Franny Billingsly

Summary: The Folk Keeper by Franny Billingsly is a beautiful fairy tale that sometimes reads like a Victorian Gothic novel. It has many of the elements of the latter: an orphan, a bleak orphanage, a mysterious benefactor, and a rich manor shrouded in secrets. Billingsly adds an element of magic with the addition of The Folk, magical creatures that live beneath the human realm and must be kept satisfied through the efforts of a Folk Keeper.


Corinna is one such Folk Keeper. Masquerading as a boy, the young orphan has found her way into an acceptable life, keeping the voracious and sometimes evilly mischievous Folk of Rhysbridge quiet so they don’t ruin the crops or curdle the milk. She records her activities in her Folk Record, as all good folk keepers do, and it is this record that holds the story itself. Corrina is the queen of her domain, protected by the knowledge that everyone else fears the folk and will not enter her cellar unless there is a dire need.

When a mysterious man makes a deathbed visit and whisks her away to the remote manor of Marblehaugh Park, Corinna discovers questions about her own origins and abilities she was unaware of. She also finds herself in the middle of a plot to get control of the manor which puts her and one she loves in great danger.

Can Corinna save the day while also discovering the truth about who she really is? Will she have to choose between two homes once the truth is discovered?

Themes:
Secrets
Self-discovery
Individuality

Age Appropriateness:
10 and up

Areas of concern (content):
Foul Language: none
Nudity/Adult Content: none
Violence: mild

Now Is The Time For Running by Michael Williams

I’m still making my way through the ARC’s I picked up at the conference in the fall. I’m so glad this one made its way to the pile. It releases next month, and is absolutely worth multiple reads!


Summary: Wow! Now Is The Time For Running is a riveting and heart-wrenching read. Author Michael Williams has taken on some tough topics; politically motivated killings in Zimbabwe, xenophobia in South Africa, the plight of refugees, and added in other more universal touches such as the difficulties of dealing with and caring for a handicapped family member. The mixture becomes a wonderful read with characters that I cared about and rooted for.

Deo loves to play soccer with his friends in his village in Zimbabwe. With his older brother, Innocent, cheering him on, he can do wonders with his soccer ball, a leather pouch his grandfather made for him. But everything changes when the soldiers come. Deo & Innocent have to flee their village and try to make it to South Africa where they believe they will be safe. Deo is determined to take care of Innocent, who has always been different due to the difficulties of his birth. Innocent is determined to find their father who, last they knew, lived and worked in South Africa.

Life in South Africa is different, but not truly better. They are seen as outsiders, refugees who steal jobs from true South Africans. Taking care of Innocent consumes Deo; without him, his brother will do or say the wrong thing. He just doesn’t understand. The two make friends among the other refugees. Some of these friends lead them astray while others become a temporary family.

Eventually, Deo has nothing left. Life as a refugee has taken everything away from him and he sinks to a painful numbness. When he is given the chance to play soccer again, will his love of the game be enough to bring him back to life?

Before I read this book, I didn’t even realize there was a Homeless World Cup in soccer. What an amazing and wonderful idea – we often hear how sports and other activities can keep kids out of trouble, so it only makes sense to use that knowledge to help those in tough situations get out of them.

Now Is The Time For Running left me inspired and hungry for more. I already have some former students in mind to hand this book to.

Themes:
Freedom
Safety
Survival
Fear
Xenophobia


Age Appropriateness:
14 and up


Areas of concern (content):
Foul Language: moderate
Nudity/Adult Content: mild
Violence: moderate

Friday, June 10, 2011

One Day and One Amazing Morning on Orange Street by Joanne Rocklin

Summary: One Day and One Amazing Morning on Orange Street by Joanne Rocklin is a feel-good read for all ages. Rocklin unites the stories of a variety of characters into a satisfying whole, much like an orange’s peel unites the many sections of the fruit. (I promise, the cheesy analogy relates to the book!)


Orange Street is named after the orange grove that covered the area. Now only one tree remains, in an empty lot that has become the neighborhood gathering place. The tree is a centerpiece filled with generations of memories for the residents of Orange Street, both young and old.

Ms. Snoops is losing her memory, but can still remember many of the wonderful times she had playing under that tree as a child, when it sat in the backyard of her best friend’s house so many years ago. Before the house burned down and was never rebuilt.

The members of the GWLH (Girls With Long Hair) club meet almost daily at the tree. Bunny/Bonita is the superstitious member whose secret little rituals help keep her mother safe on her many travels. Leandra is about to be a big sister and isn’t sure how she feels about it; fortunately she has her grandparents to help her figure it out. Ali is struggling with her own feelings about her little brother< Edgar, who got sick and never really got better.

Throw in Robert, the boy who wants to be a magician and Manny, Edgar’s male nanny, and you have a diverse and fun cast of characters who balance wisdom (Ms. Stoops and Manny) with childhood hopefulness. Add a stranger who threatens their happy existence around a stately old orange tree and you have a wonderful story that takes place across generations, while only happening in a day and a half.

Themes:
Friendship
Community
Family
Unity


Age Appropriateness:
Any


Areas of concern (content):
Foul Language: none
Nudity/Adult Content: none
Violence: none

The Girls by Amy Goldman Koss

Summary: The Girls by Amy Goldman Koss is an insightful look at the inner workings of a clique in middle school. Where most books on this topic focus on the thoughts and feelings of the victims of these groups, The Girls explores this territory from the perspectives of the group members themselves, showing the insecurities of tween girls, even those who claim the title of “most popular.”


Maya awakens one sleepy Saturday morning to a wonderful surprise – am unexpected outing with her dad to Six Flags. Even better is the fact that she can take a friend along. But when she calls one member of her group of friends after another, she discovers that they all have other plans. All but her have been invited to a sleepover. She wonders what she did wrong to get kicked out of the group.

The other members of the group have their own issues and insecurities that keep them from standing up for Maya. Renee’s parents are going through a divorce and she lives in the shadow of her model-beautiful mother. Darcy simply follows whatever Candace, the group leader, dictates. Candace is her key to popularity. Brianna often finds herself at the receiving end of Candace’s cruel comments, but enjoys the spotlight that being Candace’s friend places her in. Candace wants nothing more than to be exactly the opposite of her mother, who she feels gave up her own life to have children.

The slow implosion of this group of girls, beginning with the exclusion of Maya, makes an interesting story that middle grades girls will understand and feel a connection to. And, unlike many less realistic stories aimed at this age group, not everyone learns her lesson at the end. The ending is satisfying and heartening, though. I will definitely recommend this story to my students.

Themes:
Friendship
Insecurity
Bullying


Age Appropriateness:
Grades 4& up

Areas of concern (content):
Foul Language: none
Nudity/Adult Content: none
Violence: none

Monday, May 30, 2011

The Gardener by S.A. Bodeen

Summary: The Gardener by S.A. Bodeen is a tense and suspenseful page turner, much like her previous book, The Compound. The tagline caught my attention immediately: “This greenhouse…grows humans.”


Mason’s life is quiet but imperfect. He & his mom manage to get by on her meager salary from Haven of Peace nursing home. He’s used to strangers staring at him thanks to his gargantuan size and the huge scar on his face from a dog attack when he was young.

Mason’s life becomes much more exciting when he digs into his mom’s papers and finds that she’s been keeping secrets from him – more secrets than he had imagined. Determined to know the truth about his mom and to discover who his mysterious father is, Mason sneaks into Haven of Peace to demand answers. Instead, he gets a mystery more intriguing than he had counted on.

Mason ends up on the run with a resident of Haven of Peace; a girl his own age who doesn’t know who she is. Their pursuers not only include the typical "men in black" types, but also more residents of Haven of Peace; teens just like her.  Solving her mystery may lead Mason to all the answers he has sought. But is he ready? And what will he do once he knows the truth?

The science-fiction elements in this book inspired me to do my own research and see how much of the background in the book was true. I love it when a book can get me so interested in a topic that I have to know more.

Themes:
Courage
What is right? (morality)
Secrets

Age Appropriateness:
Grades 7& up

Areas of concern (content):
Foul Language: 2 instances
Nudity/Adult Content: none
Violence: mild

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Horton Halfpott or The Fiendish Mystery of Smugwick Manor or The Loosening of M’Lady Luggertuck’s Corset by Tom Angleberger

Summary: Horton Halfpott or The Fiendish Mystery of Smugwick Manor or The Loosening of M’Lady Luggertuck’s Corset by Tom Angleberger is a silly mystery that is great for those times you truly want to read just for fun.


Horton Halfpott is a kitchen boy at Smugwick Manor, home of the Luggertuck family. Life at Smugwick Manor is very comfortable….if you’re a Luggertuck. If you’re a servant, you get the worst gruel, too much work, and almost no pay. Despite the hardships, Horton works hard and always does his best. He has to. His family depends on the meager salary he earns.

Life at Smugwick Manor changes one morning when M’Lady Luggertuck decides to loosen her corset. With the loosening of M’Lady’s corset, there comes a loosening of many of the strict rules that have controlled life at the Manor for years. And, even more shocking, M’Lady Luggertuck agrees to host a ball to help her love-struck nephew catch the eye of a wealthy young woman.

True chaos ensues when a family heirloom, the Luggertuck Lump, is stolen. M’Lady Luggertuck brings in a detective to find the culprit and Horton finds himself set up to take the blame for this, and many other, missing items at the manor.

The book is full of funny asides to the reader, many of which reference previous adventures of the Luggertuck family. (None of which are actually available, but all of which sound hilarious!) Much like Lemony Snickett, Angleberger addresses the Reader often, giving a feeling of engagement and involvement, making it feel almost like a conversation between the narrator and the reader.

The other characters in this story are fun and there are hints of future stories for a few of them scattered throughout the book. Bump, one of the stable boys, is said to have royal blood flowing through his veins, but does not know it. (The reader knows, thanks to one of the narrator’s asides.) The shipless pirates add an additional element of hilarity to the proceedings. (First of all, they’re shipless pirates. That is funny enough. But their captain is also painfully honorable, for a pirate, leading to further chuckles.)

I highly recommend this book for a light afternoon read! I hope to see more from this author. There are so many promising sub-plots in this book that could be developed into full stories.

Themes:
Honesty
Friendship

Age Appropriateness:
Grades 2 & up

Areas of concern (content):
Foul Language: none
Nudity/Adult Content: none
Violence: mild

Saturday, April 23, 2011

House of the Star by Caitlin Brennan

Summary: The war between Ymbria and Caledon has been a problem throughout the worlds for generations, despite a treaty and numerous marriages between the royal houses of the two worlds. As a princess of Ymbria, Elen has been brought up hating all those of Caledon, her enemy. When her mother tells her she is to be sent to Earth, to the House of the Star, she is furious. As much as she would love to go to the House of the Star, a horse ranch in Arizona, she knows that the real purpose for sending her there is to set her up with a Caledonian prince; it’s what has always happened. Marriage is not her dream; if she goes to Earth, she wants to train to become a worldrider and travel the roads between the worlds as a messenger.


Elen tries to run away, but finds herself practically herded to Earth by a worldrunner, one of the mystical horses that can travel the faerie roads, one of the very beasts that Elen has always dreamed of riding. But how can she enjoy being at the ranch knowing that her dreams will not come true?

Her preconceptions are put to the test when she arrives and meets the other campers at the House of the Star. The camper from Caledon is not a boy, after all, but a young girl who is very much like Elen herself; a girl named Ria whose main dream is to become a worldrider, a girl who loves horses as much as Elen does. But old prejudices are hard to shake, and Elen finds herself at odds with her Caledonian roommate, believing that she has come to the House of the Star for some other underhanded purpose. When her instincts turn out to be somewhat true, Elen and her friends set out to save Ria and a small herd of worldrunners.

This is a fun story and will be a hit with any girls who are fans of fantasy and/or horses. There is very little down-time in the story, but the characters are still developed enough to escape being flat. I wouldn’t mind seeing further books about Elen and Ria and their journey to becoming worldriders.

Themes:
Overcoming prejudice
Friendship

Age Appropriateness:
Grades 5 & up

Areas of concern (content):
Foul Language: none
Nudity/Adult Content: none
Violence: mild

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Dreamdark: Blackbringer by Laini Taylor

The first book by Laini Taylor, Dreamdark: Blackbringer, is an action-packed story that rejects many typical trappings of fairy lore to create a race of fairies that are strong and not at all girly. I really enjoyed reading Blackbringer and will be picking up the next book in the series!


Summary: Magpie Windwitch is a fairy like no other. First of all, her grandfather is the West Wind, and her best friends and travelling companions are crows. But what really makes Mag different is that she travels the world capturing escaped demons. While most fairies stick close to home, avoiding the outside world full of humans and other dangers, Magpie and her crow family chase danger.

When the greatest evil known escapes from its imprisonment, Magpie is the only one who can stop it – just like her hero, Bellatrix, Mag is fated to be a champion of the Djinn, the great beings whose dreams created the world and the creatures within it. But first, she must convince the Djinn king, The Magruwen, to awaken and take an interest in his creation once more.

Along the way, Magpie reconnects with old friends and discovers new allies. Her childhood friend, Poppy, is the first fairy in generations to be able to speak to plants. Talon, a fairy prince, is unable to fly due to his undersized wings, but he can craft items from magic; an ability that rivals that of the Djinn themselves! All three young fairies possess abilities that can help revive the lost magic within the fairy race – if the Blackbringer doesn’t destroy all of creation first!

This book is full of great battles, suspense, treachery, and even a touch of romance. The characters are likable and seemed very real to me as I was reading – even Magpie has her imperfections and doesn’t always do what she probably should, which makes her more interesting. The twists within the book, along with the mythical world developed within, make for great reading for anyone who likes adventure. I look forward to seeing these characters and their realm developed more as the series continues!

Themes:
Good vs. Evil
Overcoming limitations
Friendship

Age Appropriateness:
Grades 6 & up

Areas of concern (content):
Foul Language: none
Nudity/Adult Content: none
Violence: mild

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Theodore Boone: Kid Lawyer by John Grisham

I’m always curious when a well-known author of books for “grown-ups” jumps into the world of young adult and children’s literature. Some have made the move smoothly (Hiaasen is one who comes to mind immediately). John Grisham makes the move with Theodore Boone: Kid Lawyer. Is it a success?


Summary: Theodore Boone is an unusual thirteen year-old. An only child raised by parents who are both lawyers, his dream is to be a trial lawyer, arguing cases in the courtroom in front of judge & jury. He knows everyone at the courthouse, from judges to secretaries to bailiffs. And when anyone at his school has a problem, it’s Theo they come to for advice, be it a looming foreclosure on the family home or an escaped dog that’s been captured by animal control.

Theo’s quiet routine is disrupted by a big trial – the biggest in his town in decades. Mr. Duffy is accused of strangling his wife in their upscale home at a golf course. The prosecution’s evidence is iffy, there are no witnesses, and Duffy’s lawyer is good at what he does. Theo starts following the trial just to observe how such a big trial is handled, how the lawyers present their cases; things he will need for his future career. But the trial takes on a new aspect for Theo when a mystery witness comes to him for help. Can Theo protect the witness while also making sure a guilty man doesn’t get away with murder?

Review: My summary is much more exciting for me to read than the book itself was. It’s not that my summary is that amazing…the book simply failed to impress. Grisham tried to write in a way that included information about the legal system that was understandable to young readers; however there was still much that was either just boring (like Theo spouting statistics about the number of those accused of murder who actually plead guilty) or came across as somewhat condescending (like many of Theo’s explanations to peers throughout the story).

Theo's life is very good - unrealistically so.  His school is great, his classmates are smart ("It was a bright class in a strong public school" p. 25), his parents are understanding & civic minded (if a bit quirky), etc.  There are no bullies, no stressors - Theo only experiences trouble through the lives of others, like his friend April, whose parents are in the midst of a divorce.  It really seems a very picture-book sort of life, with parents who donate their time and money to the homeless and spend quality time with their son regularly. It makes it difficult to connect with Theo, but easy to be jealous of him.  It makes me wish that Grisham had written my childhood! (It would have been dull but comfortably happy).
What really bothered me when I finished the book however, was: (Spoilers Follow!)

1. The reader never really felt the pressure/danger to the “mystery witness.” Simply telling the reader that he was an illegal alien and was afraid of being deported was….boring. (Especially when so much more was eluded to within the story, but I’ll get to that next.) Yes, I know that is a very real fear for someone in that situation, but, as the reader, I didn’t feel that much concern for Bobby, the witness. He wasn’t really developed and it never felt to me like he was ever in any real danger. He was simply a plot device to get Theo involved in the case, not a person. But then, I didn’t get attached to any of the characters in the book, as it simply felt rushed to me.

2. There is a great villain introduced in the book who never gets to actually do anything villainous! Seriously, he’s introduced in a way that makes him seem shady, dangerous, and untrustworthy. He’s on the “wrong side” of the court case. But the worst thing he does is follow someone to see what they are up to. Very anticlimactic. Grisham should pick up some of Caroline B. Cooney’s or Gordon Korman’s books for young adults – they write comparable young adult books that truly build tension and make you care about the characters in a way that this book did not.

My final word: fine for a nice mindless read, but not what I expected from such a well-respected and touted author. I even looked to see if there is another book in the series coming out – maybe the story continues. And while there does seem to be another book coming out featuring Theo and his friends, it starts a whole new plotline, so no hope there for what this story needed – more development and more real action.

Themes:
Innocence/Guilt
Doing what is right


Age Appropriateness:
Grades 4 & up

Areas of concern (content):
Foul Language: none
Nudity/Adult Content: none
Violence: very mild

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Johnny & The Dead by Terry Pratchett

I had forgotten just how much I love Terry Pratchett’s wit. His jokes and puns can slip past you if you aren’t paying attention – I’ve read some of his books multiple times and still find jokes I didn’t catch the first time. Johnny & The Dead is full of that same humor; sometimes in-your-face laugh out loud funny, sometimes wry chuckle five seconds later (oh, I got it!). But it’s fun.


Summary: Johnny & The Dead is the second book in the Johnny Maxwell trilogy. I caught it on sale online and, since I am a fan of Pratchett, I decided to pick it up. I will now be in search of the other two books, as this was delightful and fun! And, it stood well alone. I didn’t feel I was missing anything despite not having read the first book.

Johnny Maxwell is a British school boy who just happens to be able to see the dead. Really! And the dead are not happy – the cemetery has just been sold (for a mere five pence) and they are going to be moved to make way for “Modern Purpose-Designed Offices.” As one cemetery resident says, “Last Resting Place, it said. It didn’t say After Eighty Years You’ll Be Dug Up and Moved…” Thus begins Johnny’s career as an activist, which includes attending a town meeting and asking the questions that the developers don’t want asked.

In the meantime, the “post life citizens” of the cemetery have become intrigued with the “outside” and decide to venture outside the confines of its walls. What they discover is a world beyond the limits of anything they had ever dreamed of, living or otherwise.

This story was full of funny moments, many courtesy of Johnny’s friends Bigmac, Yo-less, and Wobbler, who stand by Johnny even when convinced that he has lost all grip on reality. The “post life citizens” are also a great cast of characters, including Solomon Einstein (Albert’s lesser-known cousin who was a taxidermist), Stanley “Wrong Way” Roundabout (who holds the record for own goals in the history of any sport due to his poor sense of direction), and Vincent Fletcher (who invented a form of telephone which he said was better than Bell’s).

The characters made me care, the jokes made me laugh, and the ending made me smile.

Themes:
Freedom (from unspoken expectations)
Courage
Friendship

Age Appropriateness:
Grades 6 & up

Areas of concern (content):
Foul Language: none
Nudity/Adult Content: none
Violence: very mild

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Generation Dead by Daniel Waters

It took me months to read this book, and I first attributed that to it being boring. But on further thought (and after finally finishing it) I don’t think boredom was a factor. Read on and I’ll give you my ideas on why this book was a long-haul read for me and why that shouldn't stop you from picking it up.


Summary: Phoebe is your typical gothy high school girl – listening to bands whose names sound like the titles of Victorian-era gothic romance novels, dressing in all black, and hanging out with the undead. Okay, so maybe that last part isn’t SO typical. It’s a result of Phoebe living in a world where dead teens have started coming back and re-joining the world of the living, even if they aren’t exactly living, but the usual definition. These “differently-biotic” teens are a mystery, and the theories abound as to why they come back, and why only some kids come back. Some of them seem almost alive, walking and talking like any other teen; others seem more like Hollywood zombies, with jerky movements and halting speech patterns.

Navigating this brave new world with Phoebe are her two best friends. Margi is Phoebe’s goth other half, but is still reeling from the death (and subsequent return) of their friend Colette. Because of this, Margi is less comfortable with the “dead kids” and this causes friction in the relationship between Phoebe and Margi.

Adam is Phoebe’s next-door neighbor and other best friend. The two are a strange pair; he’s a football player, seeming a polar opposite to Phoebe. But the two are united by a shared childhood, Phoebe’s understanding of Adam’s home difficulties, and by the fact that each cares strongly for the other in a way that neither will admit.

Now throw Tommy into the mix. Tommy is a “differently biotic” student who decides to join the football team. This causes a variety of responses, and brings a firestorm of media attention on Oakvale High. Should a zombie be allowed to play with the living kids?

This attention brings in the Hunter Foundation, a group whose stated aim is to help the “differently biotic” become more accepted in society. They set up an elective/work co-op at the school to encourage a dialogue between the living and the dead. Phoebe, Margi, and Adam all join, as does Tommy. It is within the group meetings of this class that some of the most poignant (yes, I do mean that word!) moments of the book come about. But it also has moments that could be taken from any support-group meeting.

How will the group deal with each other, their own feelings, and the danger posed by those who are less than understanding? That is the question in this, the first book in a series.

Review: I think one of the things that initially turned me off this book was how predictable it was to me. The goth girl stock character seems to be the new “it girl” of YA lit. There is almost always a popular, handsome, and athletic boy who has a crush on her but doesn’t let her know until a pivotal moment in the book. Margi is the typical best friend who is also goth, and they have a disagreement that alienate them for a while in the story. It’s very formulaic in that way.

What made me keep reading? Well, at first it was the prompting from one of my students who was somewhat patiently waiting for me to finish reading. Then I started looking at the novel differently. It is a novel with an important theme: hate and the results of that hate. Throughout the novel, the characters deal with those who hate the “differently biotic” for the simple reason that there are there. There are attacks, both verbal and physical, on characters both living and dead. The dead characters are, overall, shown in a very sympathetic light. But just like in real life, there are characters on both sides of the issue that keep adding fuel to the fire of conflict.

After I finished reading, I couldn’t stop wondering about some of the issues from the novel. How would people react in a situation like this? Would we find ourselves in the middle of the next Civil Rights movement? Would there be people out there who would make it their goal to send all these reanimated dead back to their graves? Even the issue of citizenship is addressed – are you still a citizen once your death certificate has been filed? Do you have any rights? These are the type of unanswerable questions that make a book stick in my mind, and thanks to this, I will be buying the rest of the series, just to see how the author addresses these issues.

I suppose, when it comes right down to it, this is a book I will be recommending to my students because, despite the formulaic elements of the plot, it will make them think! If they find themselves wondering about even a fraction of the questions I was left with, it will be a win. I’m all for a book that will have them wondering long after the last page has been read.

Themes:
Hate/Racism (is it racism – is being dead a race?)
Individuality
Standing by personal convictions

Age Appropriateness:
Grades 7 & up

Areas of concern (content):
Foul Language: mild
Nudity/Adult Content: very mild
Violence: Mild

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Jane Slayre by Charlotte Bronte & Sherri Browning Erwin

I can’t say enough how much fun I am having with all the classic mash-ups that have been coming out. I’ve read a bunch of them, including Little Vampire Women (reviewed in an earlier post) as well as Pride & Prejudice & Zombies (the book that, I feel, started the genre on its successful spiral). So when I saw Jane Slayre at a bookstore, I knew I had to have it.


Summary: As in the original Jane Eyre, Jane is an orphan being raised by her wealthy but cruel aunt Mrs. Reed. However, Mrs. Reed, in Jane Slayre, is a vampire – as are her spoiled children. Jane is forced to keep their hours, sleeping during the daylight hours and rising only after dark. After a punishment for a “misdeed” almost results in her death, Jane is relieved to be sent away to school where she will no longer have to worry about being consumed by one of her cousins as a midnight snack.

At Lowood, the school to which Jane is sent, all seems better at first. Granted, the food is not much and the conditions aren’t first rate, but it is a charity school. Jane is simply glad to be away from her family’s cruelty; even more so when she makes her first real friend, Helen. Unfortunately, not all is well at Lowood and Jane finds herself being trained in the art of zombie slaying by Miss Temple, her mentor. The man who runs the school, besides being very stingy with funds for food and clothing, is reanimating girls who die and turning them into zombie servants (An idea Jane was already familiar with, as her Aunt Reed had one, and now Jane knows from whence she came). Jane & Miss Temple work together to free the corpses of these girls from their slavery and to end these horrible experiments.

The mash-up continues to follow the original plot through the remainder of the story, with the addition of vampires to fight and an additional affliction for Mr. Rochester’s first wife, Blanche. If you were a fan of the original (but not a purist) you will enjoy Jane Slayre. If you didn’t enjoy the original, but you like a good monster tale, then I also suggest you give Jane Slayre a try.

Themes:
Personal Courage
Love
Independence

Age Appropriateness:
Grades 7 & up

Areas of concern (content):
Foul Language: none
Nudity/Adult Content: none
Violence: Mild

Saturday, March 19, 2011

The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate by Jacqueline Kelly

I finished The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate this afternoon as I relaxed outside on my new hammock and enjoyed the end of my spring break. My husband gave me an occasional odd look (accompanied by a raised eyebrow) as I chuckled to myself at the antics of Calpurnia and her large family. I had heard a lot about this book, and it truly did live up to all the good things I heard.


Summary: Calpurnia Tate is not your typical turn-of-the-century girl. In Texas in 1899, most young ladies her age are looking forward to a life that includes being wooed, married, and raising a houseful of children. Calpurnia detests domestic chores, is terrible at knitting and tatting, and would much rather help her six brothers take care of the family’s animals. But her mother dreams of a proper “coming out” for her only daughter, and is determined to train Callie to be a proper lady.

That long, hot summer of 1899, Callie really gets to know her grandfather; a quiet old man who she & her siblings all live in awe (and a little fear) of. She starts joining him on his forays to the river, where he collects specimens for scientific study. She assists him in his laboratory, where he is trying to create palatable liquor out of pecans. (This leads to some of the funniest moments in the book.) He introduces her to Darwin’s theories (which he leaves her to decipher on her own). And together, they make a discovery that just might make them immortal.

All the while, Callie also handles other pitfalls; dealing with the fact that three of her brothers all have a crush on her best friend, chasing away her older brother’s unworthy love interest, and showing enough progress in her domestic pursuits to pacify her mother. Will a new century bring the change Callie hopes for, or will she be doomed to a life she doesn’t want?

Themes:
Family expectations vs. personal dreams
Change
Individuality
Family
Scientific discovery



Age Appropriateness:
Grades 6 & up



Areas of concern (content):
Foul Language: some mild
Nudity/Adult Content: none
Violence: No.

The Haunting of Derek Stone by Tony Abbott


I don’t often review a whole series together, but The Haunting of Derek Stone by Tony Abbott is the kind of series that really needs to be read all together. Although the author gives a quick review in each book in case you are picking up the middle of the series, these snipets of information also make the reader want to go back and see how Derek reached this point, if they haven't read the previous book(s). The flow of the action is so quick in this series that you really must keep reading – there is almost no down time in the entire series!


Summary: Derek Stone used to be an average, slightly overweight, fourteen-year-old boy living in New Orleans. That was before he discovered that the evil dead are coming back into the world of the living to try and take over. That was before his father and brother died in a train crash and were both translated – their bodies taken over by dead souls. Derek’s brother, Ronny, is now Virgil, a good soul that has come back to fight the forces of evil. It’s a good thing, too; Derek can use all the help he can get!

The action in this series is non-stop. Every time you think Derek and his companions are going to get a break, the Legion catches up with them and the havoc begins anew. As the story continues and the walking corpses multiply, Derek gains more allies and learns the truth about himself. Who is he & how can he stop the Legion from destroying the living world? What will he have to sacrifice in order to save a world full of people who don’t even know they are in danger? Can he stop The First & close The Rift? Will he survive? And can his life ever be normal again?

If you’re going to start this series, make sure you have all four books. They are quick reads, and each leaves you wanting to know what happens next!

Themes:
Good vs. Evil
Courage
Lotalty


Age Appropriateness:
Grades 6 & up


Areas of concern (content):
Foul Language: none
Nudity/Adult Content: none
Violence: Yes. Many battle sequences.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Chains by Laurie Halse Anderson

I love spring break – a chance to get caught up on my reading! Today I sat down and read (a truer account would be that I devoured) Chains by Laurie Halse Anderson. It’s been on my pile to read for a while, and I am so glad I finally picked it up. Her previous historical fiction novel, Fever 1793, is so good that I have to replace it on a yearly basis because it either gets worn out or simply not returned. Chains is just as good, with the same feeling of urgency within in. You root for the main character, Isabel, all while feeling her frustration and despair.


Summary: Having already suffered the loss of her mother a year earlier, Isabel finds herself, along with her little sister, Ruth, passed down as mere property when her owner passes away – despite the fact that there is a will that states that both girls are to be set free. The Spring of 1776 is an uncertain time in the colonies, and the lawyer who holds these vital papers is elsewhere, unreachable due to a military blockade.

Isabel & Ruth are quickly sold by this new master to a Loyalist family with a home in New York. Isabel, renamed Sal by her new owners, is placed in the dangerous position of spying on her master and his friends in order to help the Patriots. She is pulled into this world by Curzon, the young slave of a Patriot. Through the course of the story, the relationship between these two young slaves in a country fighting for its freedom develops from one of distrust to one in which one must depend on the other for survival.

Throughout the story, the reader feels for Isabel as she tries to protect Ruth, who is only five years old and suffers from “fits” (epilepsy), is punished for being “insolent” and tries to find a way to free herself and her sister. Isabel also becomes a hero to others, helping keep prisoners of war fed and alive in deplorable conditions. I often felt that I was holding my breath along with Isabel; afraid that she would be caught in one of her many dangerous excursions.

Halse has deftly woven her characters into the tapestry of history, creating a story that will have readers delving into the book to discover how Isabel’s story will end. But Chains is not the end of her story – I’ll be picking up Forge to see what happens next!

Themes:
Freedom
Courage


Age Appropriateness:
Grades 6 & up

Areas of concern (content):
Foul Language: none
Nudity/Adult Content: none
Violence: mild


Sunday, March 6, 2011

Clarity by Kim Harrington

Clarity, the debut novel by author Kim Harrington, gives teen girls a great mix of romance, action, and suspense with a touch of the supernatural thrown in. I enjoyed this novel and look forward to more offerings from this author – I think that the characters in this book could support a series.


Summary: Clarity “Clare” Fern is used to being considered a freak in the Cape Cod tourist town where she lives with her mother & brother. They all have special abilities; Clare is a psychic who can touch an object and sense the thoughts and feelings attached to it. Her brother can communicate with ghosts. Her mom reads minds. They do readings together out of their Victorian house during the busy tourist season.

But this particular summer will not be the usual boring tourist season. A murderer is on the loose in Eastport and Clare has been asked to (unofficially) help work the case with the new police detective’s very handsome son, Gabriel, and her ex-boyfriend, Justin, whose Dad is running for re-election as mayor. As the bodies start to pile up and Clare’s brother, Perry, becomes the prime suspect, Clare finds herself torn between two very attractive guys who are distracting her from finding the real killer.

Add to all this a splash of high-school mean girl tormenting, snobby upper-crust townies, and another psychic competing for the tourists’ business, and the Fern family is in for a bumpy ride! Can Clare solve the case? It will take more than just her abilities to do so; fortunately she’s also got common-sense and a big heart.

For fans of the recent spate of supernatural mystery fiction for young adults, Clarity is a treat to be enjoyed. The characters are pretty well developed, and again I feel that a series centered around Clare and her family could develop them even further and build a good fan base.

Themes:
Loyalty
Friendship
Love
Being different

Age Appropriateness:
Grades 7 & up

Areas of concern (content):
Foul Language: very mild
Nudity/Adult Content: mild
Violence: mild

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Playing For Keeps by Joan Lowery Nixon

This week I reached into my huge pile of books to be read and pulled out Playing For Keeps by Joan Lowery Nixon, whose mystery The Séance I read a few years ago and thoroughly enjoyed. Playing For Keeps was just as good; suspenseful and tense with pretty good character development for a YA mystery offering. It was also a quick read which I was able to finish in one sitting.


Summary: Just when Rosie thinks she is going to end up grounded for the rest of her life by her mom, her paternal grandmother, Glory, shows up needing a roommate for a Caribbean cruise. Leaving unfinished business with her mother at home, Rosie finds herself whisked aboard ship where she discovers that her grandmother’s real purpose was to get her to spend time with a friend’s very nice grandson, Neil, who is clearly not Rosie’s type with his Hawaiian shirts and knowledge of trivial facts.

Before the trip can become a total failure, though, Rosie finds herself in the middle of an international mystery involving a retired Cuban baseball player and his nephew, Ricky, a refugee fleeing his island home.

In order to keep Ricky from being sent back to Cuba where he will be punished for fleeing, possibly even killed, Rosie gets help from Neil and her new friend, Julia, whose parents fled Cuba many years before. Together, the four teens must manage to outsmart a Cuban policeman, the ship’s security crew, and their own families to make sure Ricky gets the chance to make it to American soil and ask for political asylum.

The story involves romance, espionage, and a lot of tense situations. There is murder, suspicion, and lots of situations where the reader and the characters aren’t sure who can be trusted. Rosie’s guilt about her fight with her mother is also laced throughout the story, and as she realizes what other people face (through Ricky’s plight) she comes to regret her previous choices somewhat. Playing for Keeps is a satisfying story with a fun ending that doesn’t leave any glaring loose ends.

Themes:
Freedom
Morality (What is right?)
Standing up for your beliefs


Age Appropriateness:
Grades 7 & up

Areas of concern (content):
Foul Language: none
Nudity/Adult Content: mild kissing
Violence: mild