Saturday, July 20, 2019

Spirit Walk, by Richie Tankersley Cusick

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Miranda Barnes didn't expect life to magically return to normal after a hurricane destroyed her hometown in Florida and forced her and her mother to move to St. Yvette, Louisiana. And life definitely did not return to normal.

Ever since her first night in St. Yvette, Miranda has been hearing screams in the middle of the night. Her mother dismisses them as nightmares, but the screams are too vivid to be dreams. Too real. She hears other things. Voices, begging for help. She smells things others can't. She has visions of spirits.

To make matters worse, at school, she is thrust into a group history project with five other students she doesn't really know. There's Roo, a girl who likes cigarettes and the color black; Parker, who is the quarterback and likes beer; Gage, who is shy and the guy who all the girls think is cute; Ashley, a beautiful cheerleader, and also both Parker's girlfriend and Roo's stepsister; and Etienne, Gage's cousin, a tall boy who is working a job repairing appliances.

Their project is to investigate the past of their hometown.

One afternoon after school, Miranda and her new "friends" are at the Falls, an old cemetery for Union soldiers who died during the Civil War. Suddenly, an old man crashes through the brush, babbling like an insane person. 

It's Miranda's grandfather. 

Miranda is shocked. For some reason, her mother has never permitted her to meet her grandfather. But now, here he is. Her grandfather rambles on about some entity that has haunted him, until Etienne steps forward. "It's okay, Jonas. You know me." Etienne and Miranda's grandfather, Jonas, have known each other for a long time, it turns out. Long enough so that Jonas has trusted him enough to tell Etienne his deepest, darkest secret: Jonas can communicate with the dead, a trait he has passed on to Miranda. 

It is this ability, this power, that is causing Miranda to hear those screams and those voices. And one of these spirits, a Confederate soldier named Nathan, has been following Miranda around St. Yvette, asking her for help. He wants her to give a message to his love, to fulfill a promise he made long ago. 

Spirit Walk is a two book set; both Walk of the Spirits and Shadow Mirror in one. Spirit Walk is a tale of love lost, love found, and... well, other stuff about love. It also tells a tale of tragedy. I swear, I almost cried while reading this book. The book has some mature themes, so I would recommend this for readers 12+, because this book does mention sex at least once, and no parent wants their 9-year-old running up asking "What's sex?" 

Overall, an awesome book, in my opinion.

Friday, July 5, 2019

City of Bones, by Cassandra Clare

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Clary Fray is at the Pandemonium nightclub when she sees something unexpected: the murder of a teenage boy with unnaturally green eyes and electric blue hair by three other teens covered in weird tattoos. Shadowhunters.

Shadowhunters are demon killers, and aren't exactly human. They are covered in Marks, which allow them to perform magic, or handle weapons that ordinary people can't. They also have the Sight, allowing them to see demons. Also, ordinary people can't see them unless they want them to. The first teen is Isabelle. She's armed with a whip and her stunning beauty. The second one is named Alec. He's Isabelle's brother and he has an attitude problem. The third one is Jace. He's Alec's and Isabelle's friend. He also has the slightly annoying tendency to tell sarcastic jokes.

The next day, Clary is hanging around in her apartment when her mom and her mom's friend, Luke, walk in. Clary's mom announces that they'll be going on vacation for the rest of the summer. But Clary doesn't want to leave, and she storms out of the building. At a local coffee shop with her best friend Simon, she recognizes Jace. 

Jace begins to tell her about the Shadowhunters, but while Jace is talking, however, Clary gets a call from her mom, sounding panicked. Clary can hear the sound of things crashing around in the background: "Go to Simon's and call Luke... tell him that he's found me...!" That's the last thing Clary hears her mother say before the phone line cuts out.

Frightened, Clary runs home to find that the apartment has been ransacked: paintings off the wall and torn up, furniture destroyed. Clary begins to search the house, hoping to find her mother or at least some reassurance she is okay. Instead, when she goes into her mother's bedroom, she finds a snarling creature... a demon. The demon attacks viciously, stinging Clary and injecting poison into her veins. Clary is able to kill the demon, and she stumbles outside. 

There, she finds Jace.

Jace brings Clary to the Institute, a place where young Shadowhunters are trained and educated. Clary meets Hodge, a mentor to Jace, Alec, and Isabelle. She tells him about the phone call from her mother and how she has been attacked by a demon, a Ravener, according to Jace. Hodge is concerned. Not only because of that, but because, in addition,  there are rumors circulating about the return of a rogue Shadowhunter named Valentine, someone thought dead for sixteen years. Clary's mother gone missing, a demon attack, and the possible return of a powerful, evil being -- is it all connected somehow? Clary doesn't understand: Why does she seem to be at the center of this?

City of Bones is the thrilling first novel in a YA trilogy (actually, it has since been expanded to 6 books). Recommended for 11+ (some mild swear words).

The series seems kind of like The Lightning Thief by Rick Riordan. Both stories go a little bit like this: Kid lives normal life. Kid suddenly loses mother to monster. Kid is attacked by same monster which leaves them sick for a few days. Kid discovers secret society of people who fight said monsters. Kid is trained to fight monsters. Kid goes on mission to save world and save mom. The end. But just because it's been done before does not mean that it's not done well! The basic plot is common enough, but the story weaves emotion alongside witty humor, making it a perfect read for adventurous younger readers, teenagers, or even adults.

Saturday, June 29, 2019

The Thing about Jellyfish, by Ali Benjamin

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Suzy Swanson is invisible to her peers. Which is maybe for the best. She knows a lot of facts that would get her relentlessly teased and she would be dubbed "the nerd" for the rest of her school days. For example, she knows that there are 150 million jellyfish stings around the world each year.

Once, she hasn't always been invisible to everyone. Once, she had a friend: Franny Jackson. The two were like chocolate and peanut butter. But then Franny met some other girls in their school and slowly became one of those snobbish, stuck-up girls who are obsessed with make-up, clothes, and boys.

Gradually, Suzy and Franny began to drift apart.

Suzy watched in despair as her best friend transformed from the girl who had spent countless nights having sleepovers with her, who had run around with her as the sky grew dark, who had been entrusted with her secrets, into one of the girls who they had always despised. 

Then, one day in the summer, Suzy is out in her yard enjoying the nice weather, when her mom calls out to her, telling her to come inside. Suzy can tell that her mom is very upset. Then, her mom says three words that cause Suzy's world to fall apart: "Franny Jackson drowned."

It's the beginning of seventh grade. Suzy is with the rest of her class at an aquarium. She is nostalgic thinking about Franny, when she notices the entryway to the jellyfish section. She glances back at her class, knowing that, despite the neon t-shirts they had been instructed to wear, none of them would notice her disappearance. Social invisibility has its advantages.

In the "Jellies" section, she sees a photograph of a jellyfish in a glass jar. The jellyfish is an irukandji, the most dangerous species of jellyfish in the world. It is small, nearly invisible, a little less than the size of a human thumbnail. Irukandji stings are fatal if not treated, and symptoms can easily be mistaken for a common illness if the jellyfish is not noticed. These facts lead Suzy to formulate a hypothesis: Franny Jackson's death was caused by the sting of a jellyfish. And she decides that she will spend whatever time it takes researching, thinking, and even trying to reach out to jellyfish specialists around the world to prove her theory. 

The Thing About Jellyfish is about a middle-school aged girl who is trying to overcome the grief that one has when they lose their best friend. Before Suzy and Franny split, Suzy could talk for ages about anything. After they split, Suzy decided that it was best to just... disappear. become invisible. But now she has a mission, and she finds her bravery. She becomes determined to solve the mystery of Franny's death... but can she?

There are many people who can connect with Suzy, whether they have experienced the loss or death of a friend, or just appear to be invisible to the crowds. I would recommend this book for confident readers of chapter books 8+ (might be a bit challenging for younger readers, but it is a lovely story), or anybody 10+.

Sunday, February 24, 2019

The Tattooist of Auschwitz, by Heather Morris

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Lale Sokolov is a Slovak Jew, being transported to the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp by the Nazis. World War II is raging, and Jews all over Europe are paying the price. Lale is one of many Jews being loaded onto a cattle car to be transported like animals to the camp. Upon arriving, the prisoners have their heads shaven, and their clothes and belongings taken and replaced with a Russian soldier's uniform. They also have a number tattooed on their left arm. 

Lale's number is 32407.

German officials discover that Lale can speak many different languages -- German, Yiddish, Russian, and more. This skill earns Lale a job as the Tätowierer (the person who tattoos the other prisoners), because he can communicate easily with prisoners of multiple backgrounds.  

At first, Lale is an assistant to the previous  Tätowierer, Pepan. Later, when Pepan is taken away, Lale becomes the Tätowierer, eventually taking on his own assistant. One day, Lale is tasked with the job of tattooing a large group of young women who have just arrived. He has trained himself to not look up while working, because looking up at the people's faces just makes his job harder. He does not want to see the faces of the people he is marking. With one person, however, he can't help but look up. This young woman's name is Gita, and Lale can't help but fall in love with her on sight. At the very moment he looks into her eyes, he promises himself that they will survive the camps, get married, and be free together.

Gita's number is 34902.

For the next two years, Lale does whatever he can to keep himself and Gita alive; he smuggles food, medicine, and even makes off with jewels and currency from the coats of newly arrived prisoners (which he can exchange for valuable and important supplies). He takes care of Gita, and uses his special privileges and extra rations given to him as Tätowierer to help as many of his fellow prisoners as possible. All the while, he marks his own people. and he holds onto his hope that he and Gita will survive.

Lale and Gita were real people. Their story is a love story, wrapped inside a horror story. They witnessed many acts of pure hatred and violence. And yet, when Lale met Gita, despite all the horrors that surrounded them, in his own words: "I tattooed her number on her left hand, and she tattooed her number on my heart." 

This book is good for history lovers, but I would not recommend this book for anyone under 12 years old. In addition to talking about the war, it is a very violent book, and contains discussion of both mass murder and rape. 

The Tattooist of Auschwitz is a sentimental true story of love and hope trying to survive in a world of hate.

Daddy's afterthoughts:  At B&N, Goodreads, Waterstones, and Amazon, this book consistently racks up extremely high reviews, averaging well over 4 stars out of 5 on all four sites. I will be stunned if this is not made into a movie within 2 years. This book is gripping and, I know it is a cliche, but you will not want to put it down. 

As Julia said, it is a true story, related to author Heather Morris by Lale Sokolov himself. Lale died in 2006. If you want to find out what happened to Gita, you'll have to read the book.

I can sum up everything I have to say about this devastating book in three lines from the book that effectively capture the swirl of emotions this book generates:
"I'm just a number. You should know that. You gave it to me."
"Yes, but that's just in here. Who are you outside of here?"
"Outside doesn't exist anymore. There's only here."

Sunday, January 27, 2019

Asylum, by Madeleine Roux

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Daniel (Dan) Crawford is a 16-year-old attending the New Hampshire College Prep summer program, a program designed to prepare students for college life by having them live in a dorm and take courses for 5 weeks. However, this year the regular dorms have been closed, and the students have to spend their 5 weeks in the old Brookline Asylum.

There he meets Abby and Jordan, two other teens attending the program. Abby has an artistic focus, while Jordan prefers math. One night they are exploring the basement of the old asylum, and they begin to unearth some dark secrets. They find horrific black and white pictures of patients and doctors performing "medical" experiments, creepy and disturbing images that disgust and horrify them. These would be the first of many disturbing discoveries at the old asylum.

A few days later, Dan finds an unread email in his Sent folder. How that even could happen, he is not sure. He clicks on it and is only able to read "RE: Your inquiry regarding patient 361" before an error message pops up. Upon closing it, Dan sees that the email is gone. 

As the days pass, more weird things happen. Dan finds notes on his desk that say odd things, his friends receive texts from him that he never sent, he has dreams of the asylum, he gets more emails about "patient 361," and he begins to experience hallucinations. One hallucination is of a room with an operating table, with bloody shackles on the wall. One day, while exploring the grounds, he, Jordan, and Abby find the room, the one from his hallucination. How is that possible?

It turns out that Brookline has dark secrets, and a haunting (and haunted!) past. As Dan and his new friends unearth more of the truth about what really went on in the asylum, they find information that connects them - personally - with the asylum's dark past...

Asylum is the first in a bone-chilling trilogy featuring actual photos from actual asylums, which really adds to the creepy atmosphere. Highly recommended for older readers with a high tolerance for books that rank high on the creep-out factor, as it also contains some mild profanity. But you'd swear too if you were stuck where they were. When I finished reading this book for the first time, I was mildly disturbed. Definitely not something I'd recommend for a late-night story.

Asylum is the first book of the trilogy. Find reviews for the next novel, Sanctum, here. Asylum, as described by New York Times bestselling author Heather Brewer: a
s "Dark, twisted magnificence. Brilliant!" I agree with Heather Brewer!

Daddy's afterthoughts:  I will confess I did not read this book. There seem to be shades of The Shining, though, and IMO, nothing tops The Shining. Still, I would never recommend The Shining for the pre-high school age group, so maybe this series is a good scaffold up to that level of horror novel. I don't know when or where Julia mad a left turn from historical fiction and decided that horror was her bag (she's been bugging me to let her watch The Ring), but whatever keeps her reading :-) 

Saturday, December 22, 2018

Resistance, by Jennifer A. Nelson

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Life isn't easy for Chaya Lindner. She's a Jewish teen living in Nazi-occupied Poland, her parents are in a ghetto, her sister is dead, and her brother is missing. She lives with the threat of death if the wrong person finds out she's Jewish.

Chaya is working as a courier for the resistance group, Akiva, smuggling food, forged documents, and people in and out of the ghettos. Discovery means death, but she's skilled enough to not get caught. Her resistance group assigns her to a cell, a small group of about five people, who raid Nazi warehouses and trains for ammunition, guns, food, or anything that they can use. 

One day, her cell gets a new member: Esther, a young Jewish girl. Chaya thinks that Esther is useless. She's untrained, scared, and lacks confidence. Of course, they all started that way, but Chaya doesn't care. They do not need someone weak and helpless right now, as Chaya runs raids, dodges Nazis, and lies to save her skin and protect her identity. 

Akiva is planning an attack on the Cyganeria Cafe, a place where many German officers go. Akiva wants the attack to attract a lot of public attention, to persuade people to resist. If they kill a bunch of German officers, people will be inspired to fight back themselves. But the mission goes horribly wrong. The cafe was demolished, and some officers do die, but almost all of Akiva are arrested or killed. Esther and Chaya survive. 

Now, they are to head to the Warsaw Ghetto, and start an uprising that will embed itself in history. Just the two of them, making a final stand.

Resistance is a WWII young adult fiction book, based on the real heroics of real young people who fought and were willing to die for their cause. Chaya is sixteen, and while most sixteen-year-old girls are learning how to drive, or throwing parties, or dating, Chaya is worrying about one thing: Could she make a difference? Could she show that the Jews weren't going to allow themselves to be slaughtered? That they would stand strong?

When we think of WWII, we think of the ghettoes, the camps, the Nazis, and Hitler himself: In other words, we think of the horrors. We often don't think of the people like Chaya, who risked everything to save lives, and we especially do not hear about those who would have been heroes, if their attempts at resistance had been more successful.

Resistance is a great historical novel for anyone who is a history lover. I especially recommend this for anyone who has liked the similar books I have reviewed (click the links and read!) like Making Bombs for Hitler or The Devil's ArithmeticResistance uses the names of real places and real people who fought and died, or fought and didn't die. They all fought with bravery, and they all worked to show that they wouldn't give up.

Daddy's afterthoughts:  The cover of this book, perhaps deliberately evokes the lone resister at Tienanmen Square. I'm not sure many people know his name either. Chaya is not real, but the people and places around her in this book are. This is a somewhat more "adult" young-adult book, not just because of both the subject matter, but because of the unrelenting horror of wartime violence and the lack of a traditional "happy ending." Nielsen does not attempt to sugar-coat or Disney-fy reality, for which an appreciative and appropriately mature reader can and should be grateful. Much Jewish resistance was not "victorious" in the conventional sense of the word; often, the best that could be hoped for was increased awareness, or enough outrage to convince others to resist as well, so that the resistance would not die out altogether as the Nazis ran roughshod all over Europe. In Chaya's words, "We proved that there was value in faith. There was value in loyalty. And that a righteous resistance was a victory in and of itself, regardless of the outcome." 

Friday, November 23, 2018

Edge of Time, by Susan M. MacDonald

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Alec was your typical video-game loving teenager. Like many teens, Alec has family problems. His father is a violent alcoholic. Many kids and teens today know what it's like to have a loved one who is an addict to drugs or alcohol. The addict often becomes abusive, and this is what happens with Alec's father. This is an important detail, but it is not the main focus of the story.

Alec used to think that he'd live a normal life. Get a girlfriend, graduate, go to college, graduate, get a job, and start a family. Then someone tried to kill him. Then someone else did. And someone else and someone else. The weird thing about it all (like people trying to kill him is not weird enough) was that the people trying to kill him could point a gun at his head, but no one would notice, even if they did it in public, in broad daylight.  Like the assassins all have Harry Potter's Invisibility Cloak or something.

Riley was also a typical teenager. Currently, however, she is trying to get away from her step-mother (whom she thinks of as a "witch") and get to her sister's apartment in Vancouver. This wouldn't really be a problem if it weren't for the fact that someone has just tried to kill her (again) at a subway station. Like Alec, she too has had multiple people try to kill her, and like with Alec, no one else ever seems to notice when it happens.

Someone, or something, is out to kill them both. What they are aware of is that something unnatural is going on, and that they don't like it. What they are unaware of is that someone (or something) can mind-control innocent humans, making them do horrible things: kill people, blow up cities.

Or simply not see when an assassination is about to take place right in front of them.

Their paths cross when a man named Darius Finn informs them of the rare genetic trait they possess that gives them special powers. Darius and a group called the Tyons have been searching for people like Riley and Alec, people with that special genetic trait. The Tyons need people like Alec and Riley to learn how to control their power in hope that they can use it to help fight against that someone, that something, trying to kill them both, which they Tyons call Rhozan.

Darius brings Riley and Alec to one of the Tyons' secret bunkers in Toronto, where they are given further information about the Tyons and their role as Potentials. At first, Alec and Riley think Darius and the Tyons are crazy, but things start to make more sense to them after the bunker is attacked, and they realize that there is more going on than they think. The three flee to another bunker in Newfoundland, so Tyon operatives can fully train them to use their powers.

In Newfoundland, however, Alec is discovered to be far more powerful than anyone dreamed. In fact, it was an explosive burst of anger directed at his abusive father that caused the "rip" that allowed Rhozan to come through from his dimension in the first place. Now even some of the Tyons want him eliminated. If Rhozan were to take over the mind of someone so powerful...

Orson Scott Card, author of Ender's Game, writes:

It's the best kind of story - kids with troubles of their own suddenly find themselves the targets of assassins while even weirder people claim to be protecting them. And Susan M. MacDonald is the best kind of writer- she drops you into the middle of the action and makes you care what happens so you can hardly stand to put the book aside until you've finished. 
Edge of Time is the action-filled first novel in a trilogy (the next book is Time of Treason). I received the trilogy as a birthday gift from my relatives in Newfoundland. (Thanks, guys!) The ending will make you want to read the next book in the series; in fact, the ending will FORCE you to read the next book in the series. It really leaves you on a cliffhanger! I recommend it for anyone who likes a lot of action in their books, movies, or video games. (There is a sort of a video game connection in the book, but I don't want to spoil it!)

Daddy's afterthoughts: An auspicious debut novel! This might be a book you have to hunt for online, but it is worth it. It is published by Newfoundland's Breakwater Books, a small publishing house that focuses on Canadian writers in general and authors of Newfoundland and the Maritimes specifically. Read more about author Susan MacDonald, and the rest of her trilogy, here.

Fair disclosure: My wife's (Julia's mother's) aunt works for Breakwater. But if Julia did not really like the book, she would have said so! (In fact, read her other reviews, and you'll find a couple where she did just that...)

Friday, October 12, 2018

The Search for Delicious, by Natalie Babbitt

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It all starts when Prime Minister DeCree begins to write a dictionary. At first, everyone is fine with his definitions for the words, but when he gets to the D's, to "delicious," no one can agree. He wants to put "Delicious is a fried fish" as the definition. But of course, everyone in the royal court has their own favorite foods. The King loves apples. The Queen prefers Christmas pudding, and the Queen's brother, Hemlock, likes nuts. 

Chaos soon ensues, with everyone arguing that the definition of "delicious" should be their favorite food, and no one can agree. To resolve the issue, it is decided that the Prime Minister's 12-year-old adopted son and Special Assistant Vaungaylen ("Gaylen" for short) will ride out and poll everyone in the kingdom for their favorite food. The food that gets the most votes will be the winner and will be put in the dictionary as the definition for "delicious."

Once the poll is made official, Hemlock rides away from the castle. Upon seeing him leave, the King says, "Well, maybe he'll stay away. I wish he would, by Harry. He's always trying to take over and run things." With all the chaos and distrust in the kingdom it would be easy for someone in the kingdom (like Hemlock, maybe?) to go in and stir up a rebellion, to get all the people on his or her side, have them kill the King, then plant himself or herself in charge. 

The very next morning, Gaylen sets out on his journey. He takes the King's swiftest horse, Marrow, to make the trip faster. Gaylen arrives at the first town to be polled, and at first everything goes fine, but soon people are fighting, and shouting out names of foods. The Mayor of the town eventually calms everyone down, but still, it takes three days to poll everyone in the town, and even though there are around 200 people in the town, no two votes are the same. Gaylen is beginning to think that, at this rate, the Prime Minister may have to leave "delicious" out of the dictionary!

On his last night in the town, Gaylen hears from the Mayor that there is a man riding around on a gray horse speaking out against the King. Gaylen immediately knows that this man is Hemlock. The fact that everyone has their own opinion about "delicious" and everyone is fighting about it is bad enough, but Hemlock riding about trying to stir up a rebellion is even worse! And every day, the kingdom steps closer to a civil war. The book comes complete with a map of Gaylen's path through the kingdom, so you can see his whole journey. 

The Search for Delicious is a great children's novel. In a funny and clever way, it shows how most fighting usually starts off with really silly things. I'd recommend it for anyone - kids or adults! - aged 9+. Parents may be familiar with this book as well, it was published around 50 years ago. I'm glad that there is an older book like this that is still not as well known, so today's children can still enjoy some of yesterday's stories, without having them forced upon them and possibly ruined by school. 

Daddy's afterthoughts:  There aren't a lot of books, I think, that do as good a job of providing biting political satire to readers this young as The Search for Delicious. One needs only look as far as the dysfunctional Congress(es) of the last few years to find real-world exemplars of the obtuseness of some of Babbitt's characters. A sweet and light allegory. I really enjoyed it as well.

Sunday, September 23, 2018

Sing A Song Of Tuna Fish, by Esme Raji Codell

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Esme Raji Codell wrote this book to tell about all the exciting events that occurred during her fifth grade year. In the introduction, Esme says that your our minds are like attics, and that memories are like paper; they can crumble and turn to dust, so we put them in boxes that get packed away. She found these memories in "boxes" her "attic," and she wanted to share them with us.

Sing a Song of Tuna Fish is a memoir, but unlike Three Little Words, a memoir I reviewed earlier, this book does not focus on tragic memories. Instead, it focuses on the times that had an impact for Esme, those memories that left a mark, often in funny ways. 

She tells about when she egged a car with her mother; a red Jaguar was parked in front of a fire hydrant near their apartment, and her mom didn't like it, so she had Esme egg the car from the balcony. She tells about the Chicago neighborhood she lived in, and talks about some of the stores, restaurants, and other places in the town, such as the local bakery, the laundromat, and the gift shop. In addition, she talks about her schooling experiences, her childhood thoughts about love, a party she and her cousin threw for their grandma, and a few other things. It's a little bit of everything.

The book is like a journal of her per-teen life, and proof that even a "regular" kid's ordinary, everyday life is worth writing about. Her stories will make you smile. If you go back and read my review of Nothing, by Annie Barrows, the theme is similar. Ordinary kids actually lead pretty interesting lives, if they stop to think about it a little. 

Codell says that we all have these memories stored away in our mental "attic," and we just have to find them, and wipe away the dust once in a while. She goes up into her attic and dusts off some wonderful stories.

Daddy's afterthoughts: I've heard tell that Esme Raji Codell does the reading herself for this book's audiobook, and that she imbues it with some real personality. This collection of vignettes is full of whimsy and some funny OMG moments. The perspective of a 10-year-old is good for that. She writes about her fifth-grade self, so the book targets that age range, I suppose (9 to 11), but I read the book and think that adults will warm to it as well. As YA memoirs go, it is not at all heavy and adult-themed like The House on Mango Street, but it still retains a sense of seriousness and sincerity even through the hilarity and silly bits, and there are discussions of mature topics that may stimulate conversation with younger readers like school life, love, money, and religion (Codell is Jewish, and much of the storytelling is infused with cultural references familiar to those of us that grew up in Jewish households; for others, perhaps somewhat less familiar). Codell provides lesson plans and discussion guides to accompany the book at: //

Friday, August 17, 2018

The Frame-Up, by Wendy McLeod MacKnight

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Mona has lived in the painting Mona Dunn (her portrait) in the Beaverbrook Art Gallery for almost a century. Ever since she was moved to the gallery, she has obeyed the number one rule: No one is allowed to know the paintings are alive.  

All of the gallery's "residents" obey that rule, among other rules, and live peacefully. They can move around through the different paintings as easily as you or I can go to different rooms in a house. They attend meetings. They hang out with each other and socialize. They laugh; they play. They generally live like you or I do, but they can never leave the paintings.

And they never age.

A restless 13-year-old girl, Mona loves to explore the gallery. She enjoys talking to the friends she has made in other paintings, and admiring the scenery of some of the landscapes.

Sargent Singer is the 12-year-old son of the gallery director. He's a talented painter and is visiting his father for the summer. His parents are divorced, and he hasn't seen his father for a while. One day, Sargent is looking around the gallery when he catches sight of Mona's portrait. He thinks he sees her sticking out her tongue at some rude children in the museum. But... that's impossible. He tries to convince himself that he is only hallucinating. 

The museum closes for the day, but as the gallery director's son, he has the freedom to move around after hours. He returns to Mona's painting, and he notices that it is empty! He glances around at the other paintings, and out of the corner of his eye, he sees a shape in the painting San Vigilio, Lake Garda that shouldn't be there. 

Peering closer, he realizes that the shape is Mona Dunn. 

Mona is horrified, believing that the biggest and most important secret of the Beaverbrook Gallery has been exposed. But he and Mona become friends, as they are forced to team up to solve mysteries about what is really going on at the gallery. 

How can such a friendship survive, when he is real and she is just... paint?

The Frame-Up is perfect for fans of the movie Night at the Museum, and, like in Harry Potter, the paintings come to life. (This novel actually makes references to both movies.) And there is a scene involving movie night at the museum's summer art camp that will make you giggle. There are also some similarities to a wonderful book I reviewed recently about a girl trapped in a painting on the side of a china platter, Joplin, Wishing by Diane Stanley. (Click the link to read my review!)

The blurb on the cover says "Look beyond what you think you see." And that's always what you must do.

Daddy's afterthoughts: This book takes the Toy Story trope and has some fun with it. (I know, Toy Story wasn't first, but it's the one most kids will register with. For a nice internet rabbit hole to fall down reading about this stuff, try this.) The copy of the book Julia had (a pre-publication draft) only has black-and-white reproductions of the artworks, all of which are real, but I have read that published versions of the book contain full-color plates. For young readers who are art lovers or who fancy themselves painters, the book dips its feet in that world nicely. In fact, it reminds me personally of my favorite board game growing up in the 70s as a child, Masterpiece, where the goal is to buy and sell classic paintings at auction for a profit. (Follow the link for a short video explaining the game - it is a great way to introduce kids to great art, though the game is out of print now.)

Tuesday, July 31, 2018

Nothing, by Annie Barrows

Image result for nothing by annie barrows

Charlotte and Frankie are two girls who believe that absolutely NOTHING happens in their lives. So Charlotte decides to write a story that records everything that happens during their sophomore year of high school to prove that their lives are full of nothing. She writes about her friends, her crushes, other people's girlfriends and boyfriends. She writes about her looks, her best friend's looks, parties she goes to, and a bunch of other things that fifteen-year-old girls tend to do (shopping and stuff like that). 

And then she realizes something.

She realizes that real life isn’t fiction. Real life isn’t a book or TV show. Charlotte and Frankie want a lot of drama in their lives, and that just doesn’t always happen.

Nothing is not for young readers. Nothing has more than a few swear words on every page, and Charlotte and Frankie talk about sex. They also do drugs (they smoke weed) and drink. Now, don't get me wrong. I liked the book. It made me laugh a lot, mostly at the unpredictable behaviors of teenagers. But it’s not a kids’ book.

Even a book about "nothing" must have a purpose. This one teaches that real life isn't a fantasy world like you'd see on TV, or read in a book. The problem is, many people think that it is. Charlotte and Frankie do, but they start to realize that, possibly, their lives were already “maybe, just perfect.”

Just remember that your life isn't nothing. Life is full of activity and excitement; you may just need to write it down to see it!

Daddy’s afterthoughts: I can't possibly add thoughts any better than the author herself. The advance reader's copy Julia got her hands on had this gem tucked inside. It pretty much says it all. Enjoy!

Thursday, July 19, 2018

Stargirl, by Jerry Spinelli

      "Did you see her?"
      That was the first thing Kevin said to me on the first day of school, eleventh grade. We were waiting for the bell to ring.
      "See who?" I said.
      "Hah!" He craned his neck, scanning the mob. He had witnessed something remarkable; it showed on his face. He grinned, still scanning. "You'll know" (p. 3).

He's talking about the new girl.

The new girl at Mica High is different. There's no other way to describe her. That's what Leo thinks. At first. 

She brings a pet rat to school, she wears weird things like kimonos and Indian buckskins, she brings a ukulele to school and sings "Happy Birthday" to people. She wears no makeup. And she calls herself "Stargirl." The students have never seen anyone like her before. Everyone loves her. She's not one of the beautiful ones, but still she becomes the most popular and beloved student at Mica High.

And Leo finds himself in love. Not in love with the beautiful girl, or the smart girl, or the artist, or the actress. He loves Stargirl, not for her popularity but for her difference -- for who she is on the inside.

Then she's turned on. Shunned. Hated for her differences. Like a new toy that first you love because it's fun and new, but then quickly get bored of, then ignore, then start to despise, the kids at the school start giving her the silent treatment. One of the "popular" girls threatens to drop her pet rat down the stairwell. But she doesn't let them get to her; she sill not let them make her feel bad.

Leo, however, does feel bad. He is worried for her. He is also worried for himself -- what will others think of him for hanging out with her? (Classic teenage boy behavior, right?) He begs her to be "normal," to become like all the other girls. Blend in more; act like everyone else. For a little while, she does.

Then, Stargirl disappears.

This isn't the end. Will she return? And if so, in what form? Will she stay the way she has always been? Or will she stay "normal?"

Stargirl celebrates the individuality of each and every person, all the while showing what happens when one person wants to be different, while the others want conformity. Stargirl would be a great read for 9+, for any kids -- especially girls -- who feel that pressure and don't know how to respond to it. 

Stargirl among the Mica High students is like a flower among the grass, or a cactus in the barren desert. Stargirl is the flower, she doesn't let the others steal her beauty. Not for long, anyway.

Everyone talks about being normal, but when everyone is an individual, normal isn't a thing.

Jerry Spinelli also wrote Wringer, which you can check out in my very first book review post, from over a year ago!

Daddy’s afterthoughts:  I don’t want to spoil the ending, but if you are familiar with Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “The Birthmark,” there are some parallels to the character of Georgianna. The arguably mad scientist Aylmer tries to use his alchemical wizardry to make his already remarkable wife Georgianna “perfect,” not realizing that when he succeeds, she becomes too good, too angel-like, to continue to exist on earth with the rest of us imperfect mortal fools, and so she is forced to depart. Perhaps, too, Steven King’s The Green Mile, in the character of John Coffey, who despite being misunderstood and even hated, gives his goodness to the world to the last, right up until he is executed for a crime he did not commit (whoops, spoilers). Even touches, perhaps, of Mary Poppins (the movie version of her, anyway), who comes, works her magic, and then, sensing the change in the winds, realizes it is time for her to go.

Stargirl is a mysterious, inexplicable character who comes, and then goes, and leaves a legacy of memories. But is it just a legacy of memories? Or a legacy of memories and the accompanying lessons that leave the world a better place than when she first comes to town? Does her presence have a net positive impact on the community? And after she goes, does she stay away forever? This book is a glorious YA parable, and I would recommend it even for adults.


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