Tubb, Kristin O'Donnell. Selling Hope.
It's the spring of 1910, and Hope is tired of traveling the seedy vaudeville circuit with her father, Nick, who is a magician. She is his assistant, and also reads tarot cards for extra money. When the troupe heads for Chicago, Hope's hometown before her mother died, Hope hatches a plan to get kicked out of the troupe and stay in Chicago. With the help of a young Buster Keaton, she sells "anti-comet" pills (really sen sen breath mints coated in flour) for 25 cents each to people worried that Halley's comet will destroy the earth, or at least all of them. This plan goes well for a while, but runs into difficulties when the troupe boss finds her out and wants a cut, and Hope realizes that she and her father have no other useful skills to earn money.
Strengths: Admittedly, I read this one for myself, but at just around 200 pages, I think I can sell this one to the children. Yes, it's an odd historical time period, but Hope is such fun, and the peek into vaudeville life so vivid and interesting that I think students will like it.
Weaknesses: Won't fly off the shelf on its own, and I don't think there are any students out there who have ever heard of vaudeville.
Michaels, Rune. Nobel Genes.
A boy whose mother conceived him with the help of a "Nobel Prize sperm bank" has to deal with his mother's mounting mental instability. His mother has bipolar disorder and is also agoraphobic. A tenant over their garage, Drum, helps occasionally, but the fourth time the boy's mother overdoses on pills, he leaves. A neighbor steps in briefly, but ultimately, the boy's grandmother is called. The boy has held on to the hope that his father is really a Nobel prize winner he will one day be able to locate, but that hope fades, especially once he lands at his grandparents' house. SPOILER ALERT: The boy's grandfather is also his father, which explains why his mother left home and refused all contact. This complicated novel is carefully done; I just handed it to my 7th grade daughter.
Strengths: It's February, and students want really depressing books about abuse, drugs, etc. This fits the bill. The content is disturbing, but the language okay for middle school. My students love this author's Genesis Alpha, although I couldn't bring myself to purchase The Reminder because it was so utterly creepy.
Weaknesses: Obviously, not everyone wants to hand books to middle schoolers that involve a parent in a drug overdose induced coma, but I spend a lot of time looking for depressing books within acceptable parameters, and I think this one is fine.
Price, Charlie. The Interrogation of Gabriel James.
Gabriel is a witness to a shooting, and the police are questioning him. Gabriel doesn't seem entirely innocent, being on the edge of a variety of animal killings, fires, and stalking a girl whom he suspects is abused. His biggest mistake is getting too close to the remaining members of a hippie cult, a cult which has personal connections to his family. Although we know that two murders occurred, the mystery is that we aren't entirely sure who is responsible for them. It might even be Gabriel himself.
Strengths: Students are forever asking for murder mysteries, and there are few to be had. This moves very quickly, is not long, and has plenty of action. It will be most successful with older readers.
Weaknesses: A slightly inappropriate event is the fact that the controlling father of the girl makes his children hang around the house without clothes on. This is not described in any detail or have any more implications other than the fact that they are unclothed, but it does give me a little pause.
Wright, Denis. Violence 101
From the publishers: "In a New Zealand reformatory, Hamish Graham, an extremely intelligent fourteen-year-old who believes in the compulsory study of violence, learns that it is not always the answer."
This one is described as for grades 8 and up, and I would have to concur. Hamish is a deeply disturbing characters who seems to be completely unaware that violence is wrong, and I couldn't read far enough to find out if he ever does. Several uses of the f word, as well as a deeply disturbing description of Hamish's science fair experiment where he mutilates rats, ruled this one out as a purchase for my library.