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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