Tuesday, September 23, 2014

The Scar Boys by Len Vlahos

This is one of the best YA books I have read this year. I was hooked from the beginning and enjoyed it all the way through. It is the much-longer-than-250-word college essay of a boy named Harry, who in his own words is "ugly and shy and my face, head, and neck are covered with hideous scars." Harry's disfigurement (due to a childhood lightning strike) causes him a lot of social difficulties, but once he starts high school he makes a friend and they start a band. This is the story of the Scar Boys and how they navigate the difficult journey toward adulthood. It's also the story of how four teenagers try to stay friends even as they start to go separate ways. The unequal nature of Harry and John's friendship was the part that really seemed real to me and made this rise above the level of a book about guys in a band. I loved the writing and the characters and even the descriptions of a band on a road trip. Recommended for high school readers (lots of "adult" language).

Monday, September 15, 2014

Phoenix Island by John Dixon

When a high school boy tells me he read a great book, I always want to read it for myself. The kid who told me about this one has never steered me wrong, so I grabbed it right away. He was right. This book was violent and horrifying and perfect for readers who like action and adventure, with a touch of science fiction thrown in. It's about a Carl Freeman, a 16-year-old who is sentenced to a military-style boot camp for teenagers who have broken the law. Carl's problem is his temper. When he sees a bully in action he fights back, and even though he is usually protecting someone helpless, he causes a lot of damage. Carl is also an orphan, so when he is sent to Phoenix Island, he has no family to wonder where he went. What he finds on Phoenix Island is a cruel, physically violent book camp where kids are bullied, tortured, and maybe even killed. Carl, a champion boxer, eventually fights back but he is up against a powerful system that goes far beyond Phoenix Island. Be warned—this book has numerous graphically violent fight scenes so it's recommended for 9th grade-up.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Sisters by Raina Telgemeier

Smile by Raina Telgemeier is well-known to tween girls as a fantastic graphic novel aimed at them. It's the story of the author's horrible accident that damaged her teeth while in sixth grade. Sisters is the companion book to Smile, and it's also autobiographical. Raina longed for a little sister until she actually got one. When Amara is born nothing is quite like she thought it would be. In this story, the family is heading from California to Colorado on a big road trip and Raina and Amara aren't getting along. The girls worry about their parents relationship, deal with a not-so-fun family reunion, and find a big surprise in their mom's VW van. Anyone with siblings will recognize how true-to-life this story is. It's a quick, easy read that will be loved by fans of Raina Telgemeier's other books.

El Deafo by Cece Bell

This charming graphic novel will be loved by a wide range of readers. Although the characters are all rabbits, it's the true story of the author's girlhood and she dealt with sudden hearing loss at age four. Cece has all the insecurities and endearing hopefulness of any little girl, but her life is made much more complicated by the big hearing aid box that she must wear around her neck while at school. She spend one year in a special kindergarten class where she learns to read lips, but after that she is in public schools. Although her box sets her apart, she sometimes sees it as giving her super hearing and she fantasizes that she is a fearless superhero called "El Deafo." She longs for a true friend, and finds several friends as the book goes on. One tries to manipulate her, one makes a big deal out of her hearing loss (always talking slowly and loudly), and one shies away from her out of guilt. There are small moments that made me really empathize with kids with hearing issues, especially the time when, at a slumber party, Cece is shut out of the conversation because the girls turn out the lights. My 9-year-old son loved this book, and I suspect kids from 2nd through 8th grades will enjoy it on many levels. Anyone who grew up in the 1970s will also recognize their childhood in Cece's story. I recently met Cece Bell for the first time at the Decatur Book Festival. We went to the College of William & Mary together, although we never knew each other there. She is the author/illustrator of a series of Sock Monkey monkey picture books which I love, and her husband is Tom Angleberger, author of the Origami Yoda books.

Monday, September 08, 2014

Don't Even Think About It by Sarah Mlynowski

Imagine all the things you would learn if you could hear the thoughts of everyone around you. Would you want to know what your friends think of you or what your parents are really up to? That's what happens to a group of New York City high school students after their homeroom gets flu shots. Due to a tainted batch of vaccine, everyone in the class who got the shot develops ESP, and they must decide what to do. Should they call the CDC and get medical intervention, or should they see what it's like to hear everyone's thoughts around them? This book is unique in that it is narrated by the whole group, because "when you're a group that can hear each other's thoughts, the line between I and We gets kind of blurry." Some enjoy the ESP and take advantage of doing better on tests and finding out who is interested in whom. Others hear things they don't want to hear and it changes their lives completely. At times it was a little tough to keep track of so many characters, but overall this was a fun book and recommended for 8th-up.

Sunday, September 07, 2014

The Kiss of Deception by Mary E. Pearson

Lia is a princess who is not happy about her upcoming arranged marriage that will cement relations between two contentious kingdoms. She runs away on her wedding day, and along with her ladies maid, hides herself in a small town where she works as a serving girl at a tavern. When two young men show up at the tavern she has no idea that one is the jilted prince and the other is an assassin sent to kill her. Deception abounds, as none of the three know who the others are, and both men become attracted to the down-to-earth princess in disguise. Lia never had "the gift" that first daughters are said to possess, but when one man kidnaps her and the other gives chase, her gift begins to surface. This is an intriguing start to a new series (The Remnant Chronicles) and the best part of the story is how the author deceives the readers. Fans of fantasy series (and love triangles) will enjoy this book. Recommended for 8th grade-up.

Friday, September 05, 2014

Skink No Surrender by Carl Hiaasen

Malley is a teenage girl who is headed to boarding school because of her wild ways. In typical fashion, she avoids boarding school by running off with a guy she meets on the Internet. Her cousin Richard, also her best friend, is getting phone calls from her and he knows she is in trouble. The problem is, he has no idea how to find her. Fortunately, Richard meets Skink, a quirky old man who used to be the governor of Florida but now is burying himself in turtle nesting grounds and surprising would-be egg thieves. One-eyed Skink decides that he can find Malley, and he brings Richard along for the ride. Of course, since it's Carl Hiaasen and it's set in Florida, there are alligators involved. This book is being billed as Hiaasen's first book for young adults. I would say it's a great read for 7th grade on up. There is a lot of humor and action, and the readers who grew up on Hiassen's books for younger readers (Flush, Hoot, Scat and Chomp) will love Skink No Surrender.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

The False Prince by Jennifer Nielsen

Sage is one of four orphan boys plucked from orphanages by a nobleman named Conner. Their kingdom of Carthya is in chaos since the death of the royal family, and Conner plans to present one of the ophans as the long-lost Prince Jaron, the rightful heir to the throne. Sage looks like Jaron, but his defiant attitude and rough ways make it hard to believe anyone could turn him into an acceptable prince. This is the story of those boys and the web of lies surrounding them. You will definitely root for Sage to be selected, even though he doesn't seem to want to be chosen. This was adventurous and fun, and will definitely appeal to fantasy fans. Recommended especially for 4th-7th graders who like fantasy and action books.

Sunday, June 01, 2014

The Boy on the Wooden Box by Leon Leyson

Adults will remember the movie Schindler's List, but I'm guessing kids probably haven't heard of Oskar Schindler. Fortunately, this book brings Schindler to a new generation with the true story of the youngest Jew on Schindler's list. Leon Leyson was a young boy when Germany invaded Poland. His family was forced to live in a ghetto, then in a work camp. Leon's father had a job in a factory run by Oskar Schindler, and no one knew it at the time, but it was a factory that would save 1,100 people's lives. Schindler was a member of the Nazi Party and a German, but for some reason he made it his life's work to hire Jews in his factory and to keep them from being killed by the Nazis. There were many times in Leon's life when he escaped death by a sheer stroke of luck. He was starving and mistreated and worked almost to death. But when Schindler added him to his list of factory workers (along with Leon's father, mother, brother and sister), it was his only hope to survive World War II. As you can imagine, it's a great story of courage as well as heartbreak. This book is well-written and accessible and highly recommended for readers as young as fourth or fifth grade.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Noggin by John Corey Whaley

Travis Coates has come back from the dead. He passed away five years ago and opted to have his head frozen. Scientists miraculously figured out how to bring frozen heads back to life in the intervening years, and now Travis is alive again but he feels like he just died yesterday. The problem is that five years have passed for everyone else—five difficult years in which his closest friends grieved and adjusted to life without him. His best friend is in college, his girlfriend is engaged to someone else, his parents are keeping a secret from him, and Travis is stuck back at age 16 in his old high school. This book is bittersweet and funny and really quite moving at times. You will sometimes cringe at his behavior, but you will also sympathize with Travis as he deals with adjusting to being a scientific wonder. Recommended for high school readers who want something a little different.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Marie Antoinette, Serial Killer by Katie Alender

On a modern-day school trip to Paris, Colette sees the ghost of Marie Antoinette. It takes her a while to realize that the long-dead queen is beheading modern day people, and that thanks to her family name, Colette may be next. Much of the plot revolves around Colette's horrible "mean girl" friends and  a couple of intriguing French boys. This escapist story was a fun read—I admit that I enjoyed it more than I thought I would. Recommended for readers who are fans of the Clique series or even fans of French history. Fun for 7th grade-up.

Friday, May 09, 2014

Orange is the New Black by Piper Kerman

Yes, this is a popular TV show, but it originated as this book, which is the true story of one woman's year in a women's prison. Piper Kerman was a Smith College graduate who spent her first year after college traveling around the world with drug mules. Piper didn't mastermind anything or actually transport drugs, but she did knowingly transport drug money. She soon left that life and settled into a more normal existence, but ten years later her former "friends" turned her in and her past caught up with her. She was sentenced to 13 months in a women's detention center, and at age 35 she served her time. The book provides a really fascinating look at a place that most of us will never see, and it also gives a sympathetic view of the women who are incarcerated. Many lack an education and access to good attorneys, and the prison system does nothing to educate, rehabilitate, or otherwise help them be productive citizens. This is definitely worth reading. Recommended for high school on up.

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

All the Truth That's in Me by Julie Berry

This is an intriguing book about a young woman who has been abducted and later returned to her home. Instead of being welcomed back, she is treated with suspicion and loathing—partly because she returns with half of her tongue cut out. The story is set in an unnamed time and place, but it feels like pre-colonial days in New England. The village Judith comes from has a Puritan air about it, and is under attack from "homelanders" sailing from in from some unknown place. Judith's mother is especially ashamed of her daughter and doesn't allow Judith to express herself of explain her own disappearance or the related murder of another girl from the village. Judith pines for Lucas, the boy next door, who is now a young man ready to marry another village girl. The story is narrated by Judith as if she is speaking directly to Lucas, explaining her actions and revealing her secrets little by little. The writing is poetic and there are subtle revelations on almost every page, so pay attention. Spoilers ahead—stop reading here if you care. I did enjoy the book, but I had a few things about it that bothered me. I found the undefined setting to be distracting —I kept looking for actual historical details that weren't there. I thought the homelanders would come back or be revealed to have greater meaning. And while the cover is beautiful, Judith is specifically said to be plain looking, so I think the gorgeous, modern-looking model on the front doesn't really reflect the character of Judith.

Thursday, April 03, 2014

Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell

Fangirl is the second book by Rainbow Rowell to come out in 2013. I am a huge fan of Eleanor & Park, so I was excited to finally read Fangirl as well. This is the story of Cathe and her first year at college. She is an introverted girl, and an identical twin. Her mother abandoned the family years ago and she has a lovely father who is a bit unstable. It's hard enough to leave him behind, but she's also facing life on her own for the first time because her twin sister, Wren, chose not to room with her at college. Cathe's passion is writing fan fiction about Simon Snow—it's what she has always done and she can't imagine life without that emotional and creative outlet. This book takes readers through Cathe's entire freshman year. She struggles with Wren, she worries about her dad, she finds a surprising friend in her surly roommate, and she meets Levi, a really nice guy who slowly wins her over. Rainbow Rowell knows how to slowly bring characters to life and she knows how they talk. You leave her books knowing exactly what these people are like and feeling like you have a new set of friends. This is a really satisfying book for readers who like to live deeply in someone else's life. Recommended for high school readers.    

The Great Trouble: A Mystery of London, The Blue Death, and a Boy Called Eel by Deborah Hopkinson

I really enjoyed this book. I knew nothing about John Snow and his discovery that cholera was a water-borne disease, and now I know a lot. The story is set in London in 1854, and the main character is an orphan boy named Eel who is struggling to survive and support his little brother. Eel learns that people in his neighborhood are dying from the deadly disease that they call the "blue death." The theory of the day is that the disease is caused by "miasma," which meant it was carried in the foul-smelling air of London. Eel runs to alert Dr. John Snow, hoping that he could help save a man who was dying of the disease. John Snow doesn't help the sick man, but he does tell Eel that he thinks the disease, called cholera, is spread through contaminated water from the nearby Broad Street Pump. Dr. Snow hires Eel to help him prove his theory by interviewing neighbors and mapping the spread of the disease. It was obvious that the author incorporated a lot of historical facts into the story, but it never overwhelmed the story for me. I enjoyed the story and what I learned from it. This would be a perfect tie-in for a middle school science class. Recommended for 4th-6th grade readers.