Monday, October 26, 2015

The Fourteenth Goldfish by Jennifer Holm

Imagine if a 14-year-old kid named Melvin showed up at your house and told you he was really your grandpa? That's what happens to Ellie at the beginning of this book. Grandpa is a scientist who has discovered the "fountain of youth," and he needs Ellie to help him break into his research lab and steal an important jellyfish. Yes, it's a strange story, but the characters are likable and the pages fly by as you meet Ellie's actor parents, her newly sporty former best friend, and her interesting new friend, Raj. Ellie adjusts to middle school, learns a bit about her strengths, and dares to ask the question, can science go too far? This is a fun book for 3rd-6th graders.

Monday, October 12, 2015

The Vine Basket by Josanne La Valley

Mehrigul is a 14-year-old girl who belongs to a group of people living in East Turkestan. Her language and people are called Uyghur, but the Chinese have invaded their land and control everything. Mehrigul longs to stay in school, but her father wants her to work on their farm, and her mother is depressed and unable to speak up for her. So she works the land and lives in fear that her father will send her to work in a Chinese factory far away. On market day, things change for Mehrigul. She encounters an American woman who pays her a huge amount of money for a decorative basket made of vines that Mehrigul has made. The woman says she will return in three weeks to buy more of the baskets. Mehrigul begins to dream of being an artisan and helping her family with the money, but her father, who gambles and drinks, has other plans for her.

Friday, September 25, 2015

The Wrath and the Dawn by ReneƩ Ahdieh

The Wrath and the Dawn is a historical fantasy set in an an Arabic world in the distant past. The main characters are Shahrzad, a 16-year-old girl who is seeking revenge, and Khalid, the 18-year-old Caliph of Khorasan (a sort of regional king). Khalid has been marrying young girls and murdering them systematically, and Shazi decides to marry him and kill him before he can kill her. She keeps herself alive for a few days by telling him stories (a la the famous Arabian Nights story) but that only lasts a few days. Khalid falls for her and she loses her interest in killing him and instead tries to find out why he has killed so many young women all the while succumbing to her growing feelings for him. I wanted to like this book more than I did, but I struggled to finish it. The writing was frequently overly flowery and the strong female character overcoming a male-dominated society didn't ring true to me. In spite of all the good reviews this book got, I just didn't buy into the characters or the romance or the fantasy elements included. I think this book will find an audience with fans of romance books, probably younger high school readers would be the right age to read it.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Roller Girl by Victoria Jamieson

I think almost everyone knows what it is like to "break up" with a best friend. It's a devastating but common experience, especially in the middle school years. Roller Girl is about a seventh grade girl who discovers a passion for roller derby, while at the same time drifting apart from her dearest friend from childhood. This book is colorful and bright and brimming with humor and expression. You will sympathize with Astrid as she works through the loss of a friend, and you will cheer with her as she takes on a tough new challenge in the roller derby arena. This book is going to be the next big hit, especially for the readers who love Raina Telgemeier's books Smile, Drama, and Sisters. I think this book is great for a wide range of ages—from fourth grade up through adults.

Fuzzy Mud by Louis Sachar

A fifth grade girl and a seventh grade boy take a shortcut through the woods to avoid a bully. But while in the woods they discover some "fuzzy mud" that turns out to be an environmental disaster waiting to happen. This book has a story that will keep readers interested, interspersed with accounts from the scientists who have created a new kind of organism that is rapidly multiplying. Third through fifth graders will enjoy this suspenseful story that combines bullying, friendship, and ecological issues into one story.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Half a World Away by Cynthia Kadohata

Jaden was adopted from Romania at the age of 8. He is now 12 years old and he still remember how it felt to be abandoned by his birth mother. His parents in the United States have loved him and cared for him, but he has trouble connecting with them or anyone else. In this book, Jaden and his parents travel to Kazakhstan to adopt a new baby. Jaden doesn't expect to care about a new sibling, and he certainly doesn't expect to feel attached to a special-needs toddler at the orphanage. Jaden has deep-seated problems for which there are no easy solutions, but this is a story about the power of love and the ability of people to change and grow. I enjoyed this book as an adult reader and I think students will also empathize with Jaden's complicated emotions.

Thursday, August 06, 2015

SYLO by D.J. MacHale

If you like action, mystery, and kids fighting against evil, SYLO may be the perfect book for you. Tucker is a 14-year-old boy who lives on Pemberwick Island off the coast of Maine. The first sign of trouble is when one of Tucker's teammates drops dead during a football game. Next a stranger encourages Tucker to taste something called the ruby, which temporarily gives him almost super-human abilities. When another islander dies mysteriously, the United States Navy swoops in, quarantines the island, and tells residents it is all for their own safety. But Tucker and his friend Quinn see a strange flying aircraft explode in the night and begin to wonder if the government takeover (by a group called SYLO) may just be a cover for something much worse than a deadly disease. Tucker, Quinn, and a tough friend named Tori make an unsuccessful attempt to leave the island, then are taken prisoner. The teenagers are constantly risking their lives to uncover the truth and get help from the outside world—and the author keeps you guessing up through the end. You're going to want to pick up the sequel immediately because the questions just get bigger and bigger. Great for middle schoolers who love action and dystopia.

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Turning 15 on the Road to Freedom by Lynda Blackmon Lowery

There is a lot of interest in the Selma voting rights march and this memoir makes Selma and the preceding marches come alive from the perspective of a young person. Lynda Blackmon was actively participating in civil rights protests in Selma before the famous march to Montgomery. In this memoir she talks about how those marches were organized and how her black teachers helped students leave school to participate. Lynda was jailed numerous times and often was fearful, but she continued to participate and was supported by her family and friends. She was beaten on Bloody Sunday, and then became the youngest person to march all the way from Selma to Montgomery. It was on that march that she turned 15 years old. This story is told in the first person and is easy to read. It is written in chapters but it reads like a personal essay. Students as young as fifth graders will have no problem understanding Lynda's story and will learn a great deal about the events surrounding the Selma march, including the deaths of Jimmie Lee Jackson and Viola Liuzzo. This would be an excellent addition to a middle school Civil Rights unit.

Monday, July 27, 2015

Written in the Stars by Aisha Saeed

This book grabbed me and I finished it within one day. I am interested in human rights and women's rights in particular, and this provided a fascinating look at the life of a girl of Pakistani heritage. Naila is an American girl with Pakistani parents. She is bright and ambitious and looking forward to college. She also has a boyfriend that she keeps a secret from her strict parents. But one night of fun gets her a consequence that she would not have believed. She thinks that her parents are taking her and her brother to stay with relatives in Pakistan for a short time, but the trip expands and all her future plans are up in the air. I found myself imagining how I would have gotten out of such a situation and I suspect that in real life Naila wouldn't have had a good outcome. I am curious how Pakistani readers react to this book. I imagine some would find it to be an indictment of their culture while others would welcome the story that exposes how girls can be treated differently in other cultures. I think American students will enjoy the story and learn something at the same time. I also must put in a plug for one of my all-time favorite books, Shabanu by Suzanna Fisher Staples. It's also about a girl Pakistan caught up in a world where she can't make decisions about her own future.

Monday, April 06, 2015

Tesla's Attic by Neal Shusterman

If you like science, action, fantasy, and mystery, this may be the book for you. Nick moves into an old house with a lot of intriguing junk in the attic. After he sells a lot of items at a garage sale, he realizes that each one has special power and that he needs everything back in order to avoid world destruction (yes, it's true). There's an evil society out to stop Nick and his new friends and each item has amazing and unique properties. How the items work together and how famed scientist Nikola Tesla is involved are questions that will be answered by the end of the book. Recommended for middle schoolers who like science fiction and fantasy.  

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

We Were Liars by E. Lockhart

Cadence doesn't remember the accident she had the summer she was 15. She's trying to piece things together, but her family members won't talk about it and there is a sense of uneasiness hanging over the private island where her wealthy family spends every summer. Cadence, her two cousins, and a family friend, are "the liars" from the title and for years they have enjoyed their privileged existence brought about by their well-to-do grandfather and his three daughters who will inherit his wealth. Now that Cadence is 17, she is desperate to know the truth and you, the reader, must also try to figure out who is telling the truth and who is a liar. This is essentially a really good mystery that will likely surprise you in the end. A great book for grades 7-up.

The Martian by Andy Weir

This book was recommended to me by several high school boys. It's not something I normally would pick up, but I listened to it as an audiobook, and found it very compelling. It is hands-down the most science-filled science fiction book I have ever read, and as a matter of fact, it's almost nothing but science. The plot is simple. Mark Watley, an American astronaut, is left for dead during a mission to Mars. He's not dead, though, and he must figure out a way to survive on Mars for as long as it takes NASA to rescue him. Things go wrong. He almost dies. He fixes the problems. Then more things go wrong. There's not a lot of characterization or dialogue, but his survival story kept me hooked and all the science sounded believable to me. I'm pretty sure this will appeal to people who don't like novels dripping with symbolism and emotion and deep meaning. Highly recommended to boys from grades 7-up (not that girls won't like it but it definitely has strong guy-appeal).

Friday, February 27, 2015

Steelheart by Brandon Sanderson

Today's blog entry is from Noah, a high school senior. I wish I could say I wrote this book review, but I must give credit where credit is due. I did read the book and enjoy it more than I thought I would, and this captures why smart high school guys love Steelheart

Rarely do stories engender in me as many conflicting emotions as Brandon Sanderson’s sci-fi/fantasy novel Steelheart, the first of the Reckoners series. Tapped by Drew E. as the Galloway Book Club’s choice for the month of February, I approached the 400 page novel expecting a campy, melodramatic plotline with the approximate literary value of Go Dog Go, bound tenuously together by intermittently hard-to-follow action sequences and a poorly constructed romantic subplot. I found exactly what I expected.

And I couldn’t put it down.

Steelheart is a fantastical dystopian novel, set ten years after the appearance of a glowing red star in the heavens, known as Calamity. Roughly a year after Calamity’s appearance, certain humans began manifesting various powers—such as flight, the ability to create forcefields, super agility, impervious skin, and other equally ridiculous capabilities—and, for one reason or another, those individuals became implacably evil with no regard for human life. Such people are known as Epics.

I’m sure that description prompted many of you to role your eyes back into your head; the plot does, I wholeheartedly agree, sound patently ridiculous. But it is a siren, my friends, luring any readers within its range to dash their brain upon the rocks of literary mind candy. Seriously, after the first chapter I began counting down the time until I could read again. My sleep suffered. Had the novel been longer, a significant decline in my academic performance wouldn’t have been surprising. Throughout the course of reading the book, I suppressed the part of my brain that steadfastly reminded me how, objectively, I should find the novel silly rather than engrossing.

Sanderson’s protagonist, David, whose biblical name is possibly the only allusion in the entire book, was an eight year old when the High Epic Steelheart, now emperor of Newcago (used to be Chicago), killed his father. Now, David is an 18 year old with a deep-seated hatred for Epics and an even more intense desire for revenge. He has dedicated his adolescence to studying epics and a mysterious group, the Reckoners, who wage war on them. With incredible predictability, when a Reckoners cell appears in Newcago, David manages to join them and lobby for an attack on Steelheart.

I just read the above paragraph, and once again, I’m amazed at how much I enjoyed the book. I don’t know how it happened. What came over me? Surely IQ points dripped out of my ears whenever I cracked the novel—but, after some soul-searching, I regret nothing. Sanderson knows how to weave a tacky plotline into a web of suspense, wind up his readers, and force them, against their better judgement, to revel in a narrative brimming with superpowers, vendettas, and dramatic confrontations. To read Steelheart is stare down the darker demons of our literary tastes, which we all need to do once in a while.

Friday, February 13, 2015

March: Book Two by John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, and Nate Powell

The story of John Lewis's activism continues in this graphic novel. Book One covered his childhood and the sit-ins. This book continues with the Freedom Rides and ends with the March on Washington. This is also the time period when John is made head of SNCC and is walking the line of representing the will of the young people versus getting along with other civil rights leaders. Most interesting to me were the arguments about the content of Lewis' speech at the March on Washington and the last-minute changes that were made. As in the first book, the story is compelling and the artwork complements it perfectly. This is a book that everyone should know about.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Are You Experienced by Jordan Sonnenblick

Everyone has heard about Woodstock, the most famous concert of the 1960s. Can you imagine being transported back in time and experiencing it for yourself? That's what happens to 15-year-old Rich. And the craziest part of all is that he is attending the concert with his then 15-year-old Dad and his then 17-year-old uncle whom he knows is going to soon die an early death. I love Jordan Sonnenblick and this book is not only a great story with his typical mix of humor and sentiment, but I also learned a lot about the experience of being at Woodstock. Of course, you couldn't describe Woodstock without including some rather mature content, so this book is recommended for 8th grade on up. If you lost music, you will especially love this book with it's appearances by Jimi Hendrix and other legendary musicians.