Thursday, July 31, 2014

Second Star

18465577Sheinmel, Alyssa B. Second Star
May 13th 2014 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux (BYR) 

Wendy Darling's family has been fractured ever since her twin brothers, John and Michael, disappeared with their surf boards. It's been months, and after the boards were found shattered, the parents decided that the brothers were dead and sank into their own pits of grief. Wendy doesn't believe that they are really gone, and decides that they must be surfing in some out of the way cove. After meeting a mysterious boy, Pete, she tells her parents that she is traveling with her friend Fiona, and looks for Pete on the beaches. She finds him at a collection of condemned houses on a cliff, an area called Kensington that was abandoned due to safety issues but now the home of a variety of runaways. Pete takes care of the group, but is in conflict with another guy across the way-- Jas is a drug dealer who hooks kids on something called Fairy Dust. Pete and Belle want nothing to do with Jas but eventually admit that John and Michael were involved with him, and may have been surfing dangerous waves under the influence of drugs. In order to talk to Jas, Wendy takes a tablet of fairy dust in order to gain admittance to the house, and has a very bad trip. She ends up at home, suffering from drug flashbacks, but runs away again and finally pieces together the truth about what happened to her brothers.
Strengths: Peter Pan with surfers! This was certainly a very unique retelling of the story, and it works on many levels. Capt. Hook as a drug dealer was a little odd, but the reimagining of Tinkerbell is clever, as is the California version of Neverland. The cover alone will insure that my romance readers check it out, and it doesn't have anything inappropriate for middle school readers. The drug use is portrayed as bad, and there's some kissing.
Weaknesses: Just about any YA book dealing with death involves so much hand wringing and whining, and I've not been in the mood to be patient with that. People die. Life goes on. Reading about dysfunctional ways of dealing with death in book after book is becoming wearing.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014


For #WeNeedDiverseBooks Wednesday, I liked how this book had a strongly Puerto Rican family. This was an important facet to the characters, but not an element of the main plot. The boy on the cover looks a LOT like a student I had who was of Puerto Rican descent, which is the whole point of #WeNeedDiverseBooks-- all of my students should be able to see themselves reflected on the covers of books.

Sadly, the author passed away shortly after this book was accepted for publication.

18722321Aust, Patricia H. Shelter
May 9th 2014 by Luminis Books, Inc. 

Miguel, whose father insists on calling him Mike, lives in a precarious family situation. His father is very controlling, insisting that Mike and his sister Ellie complete household chores to his exacting specifications. Mike's mother, Mercedes, has born the brunt of the father's abuse, but when he socks her in the chin after an escalating argument that starts with Mike's job of mowing the yard, she has had enough. She packs up the children and heads to a women's shelter, starting the process of getting a restraining order and custody. Ellie is angry that she has to leave her boyfriend, Diego, behind, and Mike is upset about not being able to continue at his Tae Kwon Do dojo, but they are all relieved not to have to live with the constant threat of violence. However, Ellie's continued contact with Diego puts them all in jeopardy when the couple fights and Diego tells the father where the family is living. What will it take for Mike's family to be safe and be able to rebuild their lives?
Strengths: This was an unflinching portrayal of abuse, but I liked how the mother and children were able to remove themselves from the situation and stay strong enough not to go back. It was interesting to see Ellie portrayed as being in a similar relationship, but able to identify the abusive behavior and distance herself from Diego. The different processes, like getting a restraining order and filing for custody, were interesting. For some reason, seventh graders really want problem novels about halfway through the year, and this will be a great addition to my collection
Weaknesses: There is a lot of the narrative that occurs in text messages, complete with abbreviated text style. While I understand why this is done (people would not really be calling each other, and the characters were not near to each other), it was hard to read, and will date the book. In three years, we may all be communicating telepathically or something; books that reference MySpace or have long passages in e mail seem dated already.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Time Slip Tuesday-- The Time of the Fireflies

18889246Little, Kimberly Griffiths. The Time of the Fireflies
July 29th 2014 by Scholastic
E ARC from

Larissa family is struggling with their Bayou Bridge antiques store. Her mother is having a difficult pregnancy, the store is not making enough, and the family needs to deal with a decrepit house at the edge of town that they have inherited. When Larissa gets a call on one of the antique phones in the shop, she hears a familiar voice telling her to trust the fireflies and save her family. Sure enough, when she goes out to the house, a swarm of fireflies magically take her across a decrepit bridge, and she finds herself back in 1912, watching her ancestors. She begins to realize that a family doll has been involved in all of the family tragedies, and when her mother goes missing with the doll, she tries to change things before more tragedies occur.
Strengths: This had a very nice of sense of place, even though I am not usually fond of stories set in the south. The derelict mansion, the generations of women, and even the evil doll are intriguing. Larissa’s own accident, and her growing relationship with the girl she thinks caused it, adds another level to the story. This is a bit creepier than this author’s When the Butterflies Came, and I think will go over well with readers who like things like Alender’s Bad Girls Don’t Die or even the addictive Phoebe Rivers Sara Normal series.
Weaknesses: For some reason, I was really upset about the role of the mother, especially when she runs off with only five weeks to go in a problematic pregnancy. This made the book much scarier, especially for younger readers.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

MMGM--One Man Guy

If you're a middle grade aficionado, you know how difficult it is to get middle grade appropriate LGBTQA books. So many of the LGBTQA books that I come across have excessive drinking or drug use as well as a level of sexuality I would find inappropriate for middle school students no matter what the orientation of the participants was. I didn't buy Better Nate than Ever because there is ZERO interest in Broadway plays at my school, but I'm always looking for books that involve skateboarding, even tangentially, so I was glad on a number of levels to find this book.

18465591Barakiva, Michael. One Man Guy
May 27th 2014 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux (BYR

Alek's parents are making him go to summer school because he will have to go into a regular track of coursework without the extra effort, and this is not acceptable to his high achieving Armenian family.  He'd much rather spend his summer hanging out with his best friend Becky, even though they did share an awkward kiss. When he meets Ethan in summer school, he is drawn to his devil-may-care attitude. The two hang out together, ditching school and having a day out on the cheap in New York City. Alek takes offense when Ethan uses the term 'faggot' and tells him that he can't be friends with someone who degrades others with that terminology; Ethan replies that he can use the term because he himself is gay. After telling Alek about his first relationship and spending a lot of time together, the two decide they like each other. They continue their trips into the city, which gets Alek in trouble with his parents after they spend a week out of town because he cut class in order to do that. Complicating family matters is also his brother, who finds out that his girlfriend is half Turkish, motivating him to break up with her because so many family members were lost in the Armenian genocide. Eventually, the parents come around not only to their sons' romantic interests, but also to Alek's reduced academic aspirations.
Strengths: I really liked all of the details of Armenian culture, from the recipes to the historical references. The New York City setting is more interesting to an outsider than many I have read. Alek's relationship with Ethan is middle grade appropriate. I liked how they really were friends before they became romantically involved. And it involves skateboarding! Buying a copy.
Weaknesses: Showed this to a straight male friend and said "Would you have read this as a middle school student? What's it about? Pretend you're 12." His answer was basically "no". It looked like it was about gay characters, which didn't interest him, and if his friends had seen him reading it, they would have made fun of him. And that would be why this is the sort of book that is often stolen more than it is checked out. Since I have made a big push for #WeNeedDiverseBooks lately, I am hoping that I can recommend this to students on the basis of it being an interesting book about adventures in New York City from the point of view of a boy who is Armenian and also gay. I recommend books about ethnically diverse characters to all of my students. Why not share books about characters who might differ from (or be the same as) them in other ways without specifying which I think might be the case?

It's Marvelous Middle Grade Monday at Ramblings of a Wannabe Scribe and What Are You Reading? day at Teach Mentor Texts and Unleashing Readers. It's also Nonfiction Monday at Anastasia Suen's blog. 

The Bridge from Me to You

18520398Schroeder, Lisa. The Bridge from Me to You
July 29th 2014 by Point
E ARC from

Lauren has moved to a small town in Oregon to live with an aunt and uncle who run a bookstore and have three small children. Her mother was not particularly effective, and there has been a bad incident in the past involving Lauren’s half-brother that continues to upset her greatly. Colby is a local football hero who likes to hang out with his best buddy Benny and lives with his father and grandparents. When the two meet, they feel an instant attraction but aren’t quite sure how to connect. They dance around the issue for a while, finally try to date, and then Benny is badly injured in an accident. Colby is grief stricken, and it puts him off his game, so his father becomes demanding. Lauren is in therapy, and dealing with the incident with her brother, but enjoying being in a loving family. Eventually, the two decide to hang out as friends, and do things like have a bake sale to raise money for Benny, but that’s unsatisfactory. The two decide that they will go out, and Lauren’s mom decides to move far away from the west coast, and asks Lauren to go with her. Through it all, Colby and Lauren just want their lives to settle down long enough so that they can be together. Will it ever happen?
Strengths: I do enjoy Schroeder’s middle grade novels, and while this is more YA, it is appropriate for younger readers. The “dark secret” from Lauren’s life isn’t that bad, and the relationship is chaste. I needed a lot more romances this past year, so will definitely buy a copy, especially since this has a sad, Fault in Our Stars kind of feel to it.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Shipwreck Island

18525730Bodeen, S.A. Shipwreck Island.
July 29th 2014 by Feiwel & Friends
E ARC from

Sarah is so irritated with her father: how dare he get remarried to a woman he has met online, and move her and her two sons, Marco and Nacho, into their California home. Having all of them go on the "honeymoon" together doesn't help, especially when adding three people to the package results in the group having to stay in a disgusting hotel  and sharing a bed with her new stepmom. If only Sarah knew... the "luxury yacht" that they've booked is a worn out old boat, and when a storm hits, the family ends up stranded on a rather unnerving island. There's an abandoned house, but no sign of other people, and lots of disturbing things occur while the group is trying to rally forces to survive until they are rescued.
Strengths: Good details on survival on an island, decent description of the difficulties of blending a family.
Weaknesses: I adore Bodeen's taut, psychological thrillers, and this had the air of being an old manuscript that got dusted off when her other books were successful. Sarah had an inordinately high slappage factor, and the clawed kangaroos and four winged birds on the island need a lot more explanation. Since this is supposed to be a four book series, there's plenty of time for that, as well as for the family to learn to get along.
Deaths: Sarah's mother, six years ago; the boat captain, in the storm.

Friday, July 25, 2014

Guy Friday-- Snap Decision

17070782Whitaker, Nathan. Snap Decision (Game Face)
July 1st 2014 by Zonderkidz 

Good friends Chase and Tripp both go to Archie F. Carr School, a small school in Florida, where 7th graders are allowed to play on the Varsity football team if they are good enough. When a number of seniors participate in a Senior Skip Day after being told not to, they get their chance. There's a lot going on in their lives-- Chase and his sister Hannah are being raised by a busy single mother, and Tripp's dad is a recruiter for a local university football team. There are various crushes and a friendship with an upperclassman, JB, whose family is very religious. When Tripp sustains a bad head injury during a game, Chase knows he needs to make sure Tripp gets proper medical treatment, even though it makes Tripp angry with him.
Strengths: Since there are never enough football books and this has a great cover, I'll definitely purchase this one. Enough football plays as well as references to teams that this will be popular.
Weaknesses: This did not draw me in as football books usually do, and there is a note from the author at the back explaining that this is his first foray into middle grade fiction. This is certainly a good start, but there were some parts that could have been better.

There need to be MANY more sports books for middle grade readers than fantasy books, so I would not want to dissuade any sports writers from attempting books for this age? I know that there are a few aspiring authors who read this blog, I offer the following (hopefully) constructive criticisms:

1. Many readers of sports books are struggling readers. Not all, but many. This book had a lot of characters, and they weren't well differentiated, which may confuse some readers.
2. The plot doesn't emerge until later in the book. I kept waiting to see what the hook would be, and it appears to have been Tripp's concussion. This needs to happen earlier on.
3. Real people and places are mixed in with the fictional ones. Maybe readers won't care, but there was a band and singer mentioned frequently enough that I had to do an internet search to find out if they were real. Coaches, teams, players (Mo Isom? Apparently a real person.), scientists-- too many things that seemed real enough rather than fictional that it bothered me. But then there was one team-- the Cleveland Rockers-- that seemed made up, since it was football rather than the women's basketball team of a few years back. Perhaps this is a problem of moving from nonfiction to fiction, but it slowed the story down. I also had to look up whether 7th graders are actually allowed to play high school varsity ball, because that seemed wrong to me. Apparently, it can be in smaller divisions with k-12 schools.
3. Don't include math problems in a book. Even if it's about cheating on a math test. It made me stop and wonder what was going on. I put down the book. Not a reaction we want from readers.
4. Religion is okay if it makes sense. I'm not a huge fan of religious diatribe, but in the case of JB and his family, it makes sense. When Chase quotes Job, that seemed out of character.
5. The first paragraph of every chapter is in bold print. Why? I found myself reading these paragraphs more carefully, but they didn't seem to be more explanatory or different from the rest of the chapters.

I do like the notes on concussions at the end; that's good information to include in a book.

Middle grade sports fiction is probably the toughest type of book to write. You have to appeal to the struggling readers and make the story clear cut and action packed, but you have to factor in the higher readers and give them enough to make the story interesting.  This is certainly a good try, but I hope that the next book (this seems like it will be a series, given the "Game Face" series title above the title) is put together a bit differently.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Creepy Reads (Lubar and Snicket)

18490550Lubar, David. The Gloomy Ghost
July 8th 2014 by Starscape (first published February 1998)
Copy received from publicist

Rory is going to be in big trouble for breaking the family television-- or he would, if he hadn't hidden outside in the yard and eaten a poisonous berry. Given that he goes toWashington Irving Elementary School and his friends have been turned into monsters in previous books, it's not a surprise that Rory turns into a ghost. At first, being a ghost is kind of cool, especially when he finds a ghost puppy, but when he visits Winston House and talks to other ghosts there, he finds out that he has two hours to alert his family and help them find his body and get help, or he will be a ghost permanently. When he helps a victim of Madame Zonga's bad fortune telling by manifesting himself so that living people can see him, the ghost of Josiah Winston is very interested in having Rory help him as a poltergeist, but when Rory almost has a run in with a Teridakian who is sucking up ghosts, he knows that it is more important to keep living.
Strengths: These Monsterific Tales are really meant for younger readers (Rory is a kindergartener), but they are also a good choice for reluctant middle school readers who want a book that they can finish quickly. For them, this is pleasantly creepy in a funny way; for younger readers, I would imagine that these would be a little scarier, since they might be afraid that they would turn in to ghosts. For whatever reason, children like to be scared, and I love that Mr. Lubar remembers this from his own childhood and writes his fun tales accordingly.
Weaknesses: This could have been a little bit scarier. Not often I say that!

18295854Snicket, Lemony. File Under: 13 Suspicious Incidents (All The Wrong Questions #2.5)
April 1st 2014 by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers 
E ARC from

The characters from Stain'd-By-The-Sea appear in a collection of short mysteries that are investigated by Lemony Snicket, ala Encyclopedia Brown. Granted, the mysteries are a bit odder than those in Sobol's Idaville. Stories cover a range of weird things, like pictures that fall off a wall, items that go missing, all in the typical Snicket-esque, non sequitur sort of way. Most of the characters from the All the Wrong Questions series are presented, but the thing that stood out the most to me (since my inability to recall short stories is compounded by my inability to understand Lemony Snicket-- I get sidetracked by thinking "What did VFD stand for? And why did I read all 13 books about the Baudelaires and still not find that out?") was the answers to the mysteries at the back of the book. When I was in early elementary school, my mother and I would read Encyclopedia Brown books together and try to figure out the mysteries before turning to the back-- I didn't do so well trying to figure out these, but I could see them being used to good advantage in a language arts classroom where they were studying mysteries.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

The Fire Wish #WeNeedDiverseBooks Wednesday

 And look how organized I am! There is an interview with Ms. Lough today at Fearless Fifteeners!

16123804Lough, Amber. The Fire Wish (The Jinni Wars #1)
July 22nd 2014 by Random House Children's
E ARC from

Najwa is a jinni still working on her skills, but when she manages to magic herself into the palace (which is supposed to be protected by wards), her teacher is very impressed and hastens her joining the Eye of Ilbis spy group. She is going to be sent to the palace to spy of Kamal, the prince, in order to collect intelligence for the war between the humans and the jinn. Zayale is a pretty girl from a remote mountain village. She is grateful to the government for keeping her village safe from jinn after the death of her aunt and uncle years ago, but not grateful enough to be married off! When she is traveling to Baghdad to be married, she catches Najwa apparating, grabs hold of her, and wishes that she could go home and that the jinni could take her place. Najwa has to grant the wish, and since she bears a strong resemblance to Zayele, accompanies Zayele’s cousin to the capital and prepares to marry the prince. Zayele finds herself deep in the lair of the jinn and tries her best to remain undetected. The war between the two groups is ramping up, however, even though the prince thinks they should get along. Secrets are revealed about both girls and their ties to the war, and the intrigue is just beginning.
Strengths: This had some very interesting twists in it that I did not see coming! I liked both girls, and found the world building to be solid. There is a nice romance. Definitely a different sort of fantasy, with its Baghdad setting.
Weaknesses: I wish there were some more information about the mythological characters involved in this story. Since it’s not the omnipresent Celtic mythology I found myself with a lot of questions.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Timeslip Tuesday

 I normally review things right around the date they are published, but this is early for two reasons: I wanted to give people time to read the first book in this series AND to request this from Netgalley. If you are a teacher, librarian, blogger, or other "professional reader" and DON'T use Netgalley, you should definitely check it out. There are always a lot of middle grade and young adult digital ARCs, and it's a life saver when I run out of things to read.

And, of course, summer is a fantastic time to time travel. Charlotte at Charlotte's Library is frequently taking off for other times and places with her Timeslip Tuesday feature.

20613605Barrows, Annie. Magic in the Mix (Miri and Molly #2)
September 16th 2014 by Bloomsbury USA Childrens
E ARC from

Molly has settled in to life with Miri's family having been rescued from 1935, but the two girls still wonder why they seem to be the only ones who realize and remember what has happened. For everyone else, the family has always had three sets of twins. When their father decides to renovate the house and removes a rickety back porch, the girls discover that the door has become a portal to 1918, and the girls meet a younger version of the evil Flo and also Molly's mother. To complicate matters, they also get sucked back in time to the Civil War, which was raging in their area of Shenandoah, Virginia. Their purpose seems to be to save a couple of soldiers' lives, but when their brothers Robbie and Ray travel to the past with them, they become the captives and it is up to Molly and Miri to figure out how to save them, perhaps with help from 1918.
Strengths: This has everything a time travel book could want-- magic, rambling farmhouse; criticial historical juncture, the promise of further travels. Also, what ten year old doesn't want to have a twin? And siblings who are twins? So many good things here.
Weaknesses: Our eighth graders are the ones who study the Civil War, and this cover is not going to appeal to that age group, who might otherwise find that time period interesting.

185116617613196Barrows, Annie. The Magic Half
December 26th 2007 by Bloomsbury Children's Books

I seem to remember picking this up and being surprised that I didn't like it, but I have absolutely no record of this, so maybe I just imagined it. Hard to believe that I wouldn't like this story. 

Review by Charlotte of Charlotte's Library.

Perhaps I didn't buy it because the covers are not good. Time travel books are difficult to get my students to read, and all of these covers are sort of washed out and...meh. I will buy both of these, now because I do think it is a good time travel series, but I wish the covers were more dynamic and appealing.

Monday, July 21, 2014

MMGM- Secrets of the Manor

Confession: When I was in elementary and middle school, I wanted to live in an English orphanage. I liked my parents well enough, but adored Edward's Mandy as well as Carlson's Happy Orphelines, and was sure that an English orphange would be awesome. I hadn't read much about English manor houses (except for the Chronicles of Narnia, and England was NOT the point of those!), but loved Sayers' Lord Peter Mysteries in college. Downton Abbey was a natural progression for me, but now I'm deep into season two of Larkrise to Candleford. I am predisposed to like the following series!

18775448Whitby, Adele. Beth's Story (Secrets of the Manor #1)
June 24th 2014 by Simon Spotlight

In 1914, Beth is looking forward to celebrating her 12th birthday because she will be considered a young lady and recieve an heirloom locket, the twin of which her cousin and penpal Kate in America will get. Another cousin, Gabrielle, and her family are visiting from France for the occasion, but Gabrielle and her snooty maid are causing all sorts of difficulties, especially when Gabrielle's own heirloom necklace is missing. The blame is pinned to Beth's new lady's maid, Shannon, whom Beth pulled from the ranks of housemaids to assist her, even though other maids had more experience. Since Shannon is going to be dismissed unless Beth can figure out what really happened, Beth investigates and finds out what really happened. This is the first book in the series; in the second, Beth travels to America to visit her cousin Kate.
Strengths: This is a short (148 pages), appealing book that girls will be apt to read themselves into... I know I would have! Like the Royal Diaries from Scholastic, this is concerned more with day to day life than larger historical events of the time, but that makes it a good introduction to historical fiction for young readers. The fact that this is a series with books with appealing covers makes this a must have for elementary libraries and a good bet even for middle school.
Weaknesses: Beth is rather overprivileged and worthy of a few light slaps at the beginning, although she does improve. Had this been any longer, I probably would have given up on the book because she was so unpleasant at the beginning.

18722882Barrett, Tracy. The Stepsister's Tale
June 24th 2014 by Harlequin Teen

Ever since Lady Jane Mountjoy's alcoholic father abadoned her family, she and her sister and mother have tried to survive as best they can in their rapidly disintegrating mansion. While food and fuel are scarce, Jane's mother seems oblivious to this and insists that they still act like "ladies" even though they are lacking shoes. When their mother goes to town for a week and comes back with a new husband and stepdaughter, the depth of their deprivation is revealed. The husband starts to try to repair the mansion, but soon falls ill and dies, leaving his daughter Isabella behind to deal with his debts. Things become even worse, and soon Jane is depending on the kindness of their impoverished neighbors, exchanging mending for food and firewood. When the prince announces a ball for all the young ladies in the kingdom, Isabella thinks that this might be her way out of her situation, but Jane has discovered secrets about the prince that make this seem like less of a good idea.
Strengths: This is a fresh retelling of the Cinderella tale, deftly switching things up with a new villain. At first, this confused me, because I couldn't tell who was supposed to be evil-- both Jane and Isabella, while both flawed, were sympathetic. Very cleverly done. There's not much happiness here; everything is deprivation and ruined grandeur, which might make this appealing to readers who want problem novels. Our 7th grade used to do an entire unit on Cinderella, so this would be interesting for that, or for a unit on folktales.
Weaknesses: The cover makes this look like a cheesy Gothic romance novel. Especially like the eyeshadow and the well plucked eyebrows. Not how I saw the characters at all!

It's Marvelous Middle Grade Monday at Ramblings of a Wannabe Scribe and What Are You Reading? day at Teach Mentor Texts and Unleashing Readers. It's also Nonfiction Monday at Anastasia Suen's blog.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Just Like the Movies

18018509Fiore, Kelly. Just Like the Movies
July 22nd 2014 by Walker Books for Young Readers 
E ARC from

Marijke is a track star and has a great boyfriend, Tommy, whom she feels could do so much better than having her as his girlfriend. Her parents were high school sweethearts and are still too lovey-dovey for her taste, so she worries constantly that Tommy will drop her. Lily has a troubled home life with a mother who is a serial dater, and has spent all of her time at school concentrating on her resume for college in hopes of getting a scholarship. She has a huge crush on Joe, who is involved with motocross but doesn't know she exists. A chance encounter between the girls exposes their shared interest in romantic movies, and the two come up with a plan to reenact movie scenes to add more romance to their lives. Prom is fast approaching, and the pressure is on for boys to have spectacular "Promposals", and the girls think they can help orchestrate these. Lily talks Joe into incorporating a raffle for these services into his motocross fundraiser, and Marijke tries to stop being paranoid about Tommy. The girls work together and take a lot of comfort for their new friendship as things go badly in each of their lives.
Strengths: Like this author's Taste Test, this is a light, fun romance book, and I need a lot of those. The movies referenced are all well known enough that most readers will have heard of them, or might want to investigate.My readers who like romance books sometimes read one a day, so I will definitely order a copy.
Weaknesses: I thought Tommy was not all that great a boyfriend, and Marijke's insecurities were a bit disturbing. Lily's geekiness is a bit overdone, as is her makeover, but I'm an old person with no patience for romance. Middle schoolers are not yet as jaded as I am and so won't mind these things!

17375024 Wettersten, Laura. My Faire Lady
June 3rd 2014 by Simon & Schuster Books For Young Readers

When Rowena's boyfriend dumps her, she decides to look into a job doing face painting at a Renaissance Faire. She's also glad to live away from home and her parents, who are pressuring her to apply to high powered colleges so she can get a good job. Wearing period costumes and working with small children is a small part of her life at the site-- there's also plenty of romance. She is attracted to  Christian, who does the jousting demonstrations, but makes a good friend in Will, who travels the fair circuit with his parents. She knows that Christian is trouble, but he's so dreamy that she ignores Will's attentions. Working with Suze, Rowena also doubts her college plans, and decides that she would rather follow her bliss and major in art that to follow her parents' directions.
Strengths: Very fun look at life at a Renaissance fair, and I can see older high school readers who are struggling with college choices really enjoying this. The romance is decent, too, and Will and Rowena, as well as Suze and some of the supporting adult characters, are very fun. A good choice for a high school library.
Weaknesses: Think I will pass on this one for middle school. There's too much drinking and too few consequences, too much talk of college, and the romances are too angst ridden. Also, the whole "I want to be an artist" message is a bad one for anyone of any age. No bliss following! Gainful employment! And I say this as a Latin teacher who was out of work for nine very long years!

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Annika Riz, Math Whiz

18263464Mills, Claudia. Annika Riz, Math Whiz
May 13th 2014 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux (BYR) 

Annika's family are all interested in numbers, and Annika prefers math to any other subject at school even though her friends don't feel the same way (Kelsey Green, Reading Queen is book one in this series). When she finds out that the public library is having a Sodoku contest, she really wants to enter, but fears that classmate Simon will beat her. The class is also preparing for a school carnival, and the third grade is in charge of cookies. Annika and her friends bake several batches but first don't put in enough baking soda, and then too much, resulting in less than optimal cookies. In the end, though, Annika is able to save the day using her math skills to make sure the group makes money on selling refreshments rather than losing it.
Strengths: This is a fun series for elementary school students; I'm looking forward to taking a peak at Izzy Barr, Running Star to see how big a role running plays in the book!
Weaknesses:This is too young for my middle school students.

13722228Mills, Claudia. Kelsey Green, Reading Queen
June 4th 2013 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux (BYR)

Kelsey loves to read, and frequently gets in trouble for reading her book during math class, which also explains why she is having trouble with fractions. When the principal, Mr. Barr, announces a whole school reading competition, Kelsey is hugely excited. She not only wants her class to win the pizza party and Mr. Barr to shave off his beard when the whole school reads 2,000 books, but she wants to beat Simon and get her name on a plaque as the top reader. Simon is reading a ton of books, and Kelsey thinks he may be cheating, or at least not reading all long books. One of her classmates, Cody, isn't reading any books, and Kelsey is nice to him and works with him to read Henry and Mudge books in order to help the class. She manages to read a lot of books, but will it be enough to beat Simon?
Strengths: Have to admit that I really liked this one! It also had very good points about reading competitions, though. How can they really be fair, if Kelsey is reading The Secret Garden, but other students are getting the same credit for Sarah, Plain and Tall? That said, I do get very carried away with this kind of contest, and DO follow the rules! When we had to read a book out loud in first grade in order to get a feather in our politically incorrect Indian headdress, you can bet I read every single one of the 109 books I got feathers for to my long suffering parents! The only competition we have in my school is based on Accelerated Reader points. We have one student at least who had over 1,000-- I managed to rack up 500.3 before completely losing interest.
Weaknesses:Again, too young for my crew, but a great series!

Warning: Rambling!

And yes, I really do read a lot, and I read quickly. I have trouble remembering some fantasy books, but in general, I remember enough to write reviews, even if I have skimmed a bit. Things like #bookaday and #throwdown get a little confusing for me to keep track of, because I no longer post books the day after I read them. I try to post reviews close to the publication date unless I am getting the book from the public library, so what I am reading and what reviews appear are very different.

For example, on Monday, June 30, I went to the library and got out The Killer Detail (a photo essay book about fashion icons), Wetterseten's My Faire Lady, Barakiva's One Man Guy, Kelsey Green, and had Harper's Dreamer, Wisher, Liar to review for Young Adult Books Central. In addition, I ran, took the dog to the vet, got a hair cut, did laundry and hung it out, cooked mashed potatoes and chicken for dinner, did normal tidying of house and consulting with girls and my parents. Probably put in about five hours of reading total. 950 pages, not counting the photo essay book. I would only have gotten 2 AR points, though, since the other books are so new, but decently lengthy and probably about 8 points each.


Friday, July 18, 2014

Guy Friday: Video Game Experts

One of the interests that my students put on a beginning of the year interest inventory is frequently "video games". Oddly, there are very few books that even mention video games, Kincaid's Insignia being an exception. Interestingly, that book, as well as the two following, all begin with the same assumption: if you get really, really good at video gaming, you will, in fact, be approached by the armed forces or another entity to use your awesome skills to defend the World As We Know It.

If my lack of success at DinoPark Tycoon is any indication, I don't have to worry about being recruited.

18222839Wesselhoeft, Conrad. Dirt Bikes, Drones, and Other Ways to Fly
April 8th 2014 by HMH Books for Young Readers
Also reviewed at Young Adult Books Central.

Arlo lives in a dying New Mexican town with his sister Siouxsie, who has Huntington's disease, and his father, who is barely functional. There are reasons-- not only was Arlo's mother killed in a convenience store robbery, but Arlo's father lost his job as editor of the local newspaper, which folded. Arlo survives by immersing himself in motorcycle riding and in planing war games where he manipulates drones. His skills are such that he comes to the attention of the Air Force, who want Arlo to come and try his hand at operating drones. He does well enough that the Air Force wants to train him, but Arlo is leery of the military, especially when they want him to operate a drone that will take out an evil leader. He is torn, however, because the Air Force promises him a large sum of money and care for his sister as long as it is needed. In the meantime, he hangs out with Lee, a motorcycle riding beauty from Washington state who is living with his mother's best friend while her father is off fighting in the Middle East, and attempts Evel Knievel style motorcycle jumps in order to get on a television program and secure money for Siouxsie's treatments. How can Arlo manage to take care of his family and still be true to his own values?
Strengths: This had so many good elements to it: motorcycle stunts, video games, an adolescent fantasy scenario where the military needs Arlo to save the day, a romantic interest who is cute and shares Arlo's fondness for motorcycles, and an obnoxious dog to add a little vulgarity. Add a strong sense of place, a character with a specific ethnicity (Hispanic) that is important to the story but not the whole story, and a family dealing with grief in a realistic but practical way, and this was a winner for me.

I always enjoy books more when I am rooting for the main character, and Arlo was fully developed, flawed, but tried so hard to help everyone around him while relying on his own coping mechanisms. The supporting characters are interesting as well, and the plot device of having the Air Force interested in Arlo because of his skills is handled in a way that made me believe it could actually happen. 

Weaknesses: I kept waiting for an explanation of the sister's name. I know it was a southwest setting, so probably more Native American oriented, but all I could think of was Siousie Sioux and the Banshees!

Mr. Wesselhoeft replied with the following comment on, and I was right about the rock reference-- I just read too fast and missed the explanation. I love when I head from authors about their books!

"Many thanks for the generous and eloquent remarks about "Dirt Bikes, Drones." You're absolutely right about the origin of Siouxsie's name--it's from Siouxsie and the Banshees. At one point, Uncle Sal tells Lee: "Arlo's mom and dad were a little behind the times. They named their kids after a folk singer and a gothic rocker girl."

18850680 Klavan, Andrew. MindWar
July 8th 2014 by Thomas Nelson Publishers 
E ARC from

Rick has had a tough couple of months. His father left Rick's mother and Rick and his little brother Raider, and shortly after that, Rick was in a bad car accident that broke his leg and effectively ruined his football career, so he's been spending his days in his darkened bedroom, playing videogames. When he finally leaves the house and goes for a walk, he gets jabbed with a tranquilizer, kidnapped, and recruited by the government to work on MindWar because of his skills. An evil doer named Kurodar has melded himself with a computer and is trying to mount a cyber takeover of America through the Realm, and Rick is supposed to go into that realm. It's tremendously dangerous; he can only stay for short times, and anything that happens to him there affects his actual body, even though in the Realm he does not have a broken leg. Kurodar has an agent, Reza, who is a former terrorist who considers Kurodar his god, and who is trying to take down Rick in the game. Rick is helped by two people, Favian and Mariel, who appear to be fading badly and whom he would like to rescue. There's also the Traveler, a scientist who has the code to bring Kurodar down, and his plane is attacked. Rick has to find a way to prevent Kurodar from attacking any more of the US, and many secrets about his family and his involvement in the Realm are brought forth, although I'm sure there will be more in book two.
Strengths: This book was the closest thing I have read to being in a video game. There's lots of fighting in the realm-- crocodiles, dragons, lots of swords. Rick is, of course, a superb athlete as well as a skilled video game player, so there's tons of fantasy adventure appeal in this. Klavan's If We Survive and The Last Thing I Remember Series are very popular in my library.
Weaknesses: I always feel vaguely uneasy about the villains-- Klavan doesn't seem to worry about being politically correct, and The Homelanders series got a little too... right wing for my taste. Are Russians still villains? Why not make the villains Icelandic? That would be innovative, at least. (They are isolated, live in a cool climate, have complicated names, and there aren't a whole lot of them, so I totally see this working!) This seemed okay, but it was one more thing that kept me on the edge of my seat.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

A Hitch at the Fairmont

18689749Averbeck, Jim. A Hitch at the Fairmont
June 24th 2014 by Atheneum Books for Young Readers 
E ARC from Edelweiss Above the Treeline

Jack Fair ends up an orphan in 1956, after the apparent suicide of his actress mother and the death of his father, whom he never met, during WWII. He is given over to the custody of his Aunt Emily, a mountainous, evil woman who lives a pampered life with her pet chinchilla at San Francisco's Fairmont Hotel. She's not nice to Jack, who misses not only his mother but his friend Schultzie, with whom he had hoped to live. After a short while, his aunt is apparently kidnapped, and a ransom note is left on the sheets of her bed in chocolate. In Jack's panic, he runs into Alfred Hitchcock in the hallway, and begs for his help. This works against him, since the police think that the kidnapping is one of Hitchcock's publicity stunts and refuse to help Jack. Hitchcock agrees to help Jack investigate, and the two come across a lot of family secrets involving blackmail, slavery, and sordid pasts. They must hide the aunt's disappearance from Jack's social worker, which involves Hitchcock impersonating the aunt, adding an element of slapstick to the intrigue and suspenseful chases within the hotel and out in San Francisco as well.
Strengths: This struck a good balance between the CSI style gory mysteries my students want, and the clue oriented mysteries the teachers want them to have. There are too few books set in the 1950s, and this had some excellent details of San Francisco at that time. Introducing young readers to Hitchcock might encourage them to watch some of his classic films. The inclusion of cartoon story boards at the beginning of each chapter may entice graphic novel readers. Lots of interesting elements in this, and it didn't even require me to suspend disbelief too much to think that Hitchcock could have been coerced into helping Jack. That was convincingly set up.
Weaknesses: At 461 pages, this may be a hard sell. Luckily, the cover is a strong one. I've decided to buy a copy, but I do wish that this had come in at about 300 pages; then it would have been very easy to get into students' hands and more of them might discover Hitchcock's work.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Sahara Special

Sahara SpecialCodell, Esme Raji. Sahara Special
April 1st 2003 by Disney-Hyperion

Sahara is bright and loves to read and write, but after she turns in no work in the fifth grade and her teacher uncovers a bunch of sad letters to her father (who has abandoned the family), Sahara is given a tutor to work with in the hallway, leading the other students to call her “Sahara special”. When the tutor also has to work with recalcitrant and possibly violent Darrell, Sahara’s mother has her moved back to the regular classroom and Sahara has to repeat 5th grade. The children in class seem a little nicer, and the teacher is unconventional (we know this because she wears weird clothes, purposefully doesn’t read student files, and publically acknowledges that textbooks make good paperweights). Sahara still doesn’t do much work, but eventually Ms. Pointy (Poitier) gets through to her and Sahara is on her way to doing better in school and becoming a writer.
Strengths: The only indication we have that Sahara is not a white student is the tiny picture on the cover, but we can still count this as diverse because she struggles in school. There are not too many books that deal with the emotions of being identified as a special education student. Perhaps in the years since this book has been published, both the way students are treated and the stigma involved in educational help have changed, but I’m sure that our students all know what “testing brush-ups” mean. Like school related books such as Because of Mr. Terupt, differences are celebrated and students are encouraged to succeed.
Weaknesses: This book is very slow paced and only mildly funny. It’s the sort of book that teachers seem to like, but which students find less than enthralling. On a personal level, it just kind of annoyed me. Most of the time, in my school, we want students to feel bad about themselves and try everything within our power to embarrass them and make them not succeed. *Sigh*NO!  Does Ms. Poitier know how much effort goes in to writing the reports about students that she refuses to look at?