Thursday, August 30, 2012

Yummy: The Last Days of a Southside Shorty



In Chicago in 1994, a fourteen-year-old girl was accidentally killed during a gang shooting.  The killer turned out to be a boy who was only eleven years old, Robert "Yummy" Sandifer, who got his nickname because of his immense love of candy.  The incident was covered nationally in the media - everyone was shocked and saddened that such violence could be perpetrated by a child.  In this biography, the events are examined by a fictional narrator, an eleven-year-old boy named Roger who is a classmate of Yummy's and lives in the neighborhood where the incident took place.


Roger is upset and baffled by what has happened, and the more he learns about Yummy, the more confused he is.  How can he reconcile the boy who loved candy and his teddy-bear with the boy who proudly carried out acts of violence to impress members of the gang he wanted to join?  We learn about Yummy's lack of a family, and that while his grandmother loved him, she had so many other children to take care of that she couldn't spend much time with him.  Was Yummy looking for attention from the gang?  A family or place to belong?  Was he a cold-blooded killer?  Or did he just make a series of bad decisions?


There are no easy answers here, but there is certainly food for thought.  The gritty illustrations are an excellent complement to the story, with their stark black and white imagery.  This is not an easy book to read, but it is one that will appeal to many teens and does not pull any punches.  It takes an honest look at a difficult topic, and it raises questions that are worth thinking about for any teenager - or adult, for that matter.  

Yummy: The Last Days of a Southside Shorty  by Greg Neri; illustrated by Randy DuBurke (Lee & Low Books, 2010)

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Croak


These days I rarely pick up a book without knowing much about it - I have a list that is so long of books recommended by you, my fellow book bloggers, and I haven't been led astray so far!  This one I saw in my library's Wowbrary newsletter back when it was on order, and, as I am a huge fan of the Discworld's Death, and the Death in the Sandman books - not to mention Chistopher Moore's A Dirty Job and the TV series Dead Like Me, of course I had to pick it up!

Our heroine is Lex (Lexington) Bartleby, a girl who was once kind and cooperative, but for the past two years has been constantly in trouble for mouthing off and fighting in school, and who is secretly terrified by the constant boiling rage she feels inside her.  Finally her parents, at their wits' end, decide to send her to stay with her Uncle Mort, who lives out in the country.  Lex is furious, and also upset at being separated from her sister, the one friend she has left in the world.  She certainly does not want to spend the summer shoveling cow dung, or whatever other lovely chores entail her stint on the farm.

She is astounded when she arrives at the town of Croak to discover that cow dung is not on her list of things to deal with.  Instead, she will be taught the family business.  Mort is a Grim Reaper, and her job will be to assist in transporting souls from this world to the next. Unfortunately, what should have been a summer of learning the ropes becomes fraught with danger, as someone is killing reapers, and while Lex is a newcomer to this world, she just may be the only one who can stop the murderer.

There were things I loved about this book, particularly the combination of humor and horror, which always tickles me.  The dialogue was snappy and worked well to define the characters and their relationships with each other, and the town of Croak itself is a whole lot of fun.

I had a little trouble with the premise, though.  It never seemed clear to me why these reapers are necessary, beyond making for an entertaining plot device.  Lex's rebellious persona seems to vanish when it isn't necessary to the plot, and the storyline was fairly simple and predictable.  And the adults were conveniently horrendously oblivious.

But let me tell you something about this book:  Yesterday when I was working at the library, an eighth grader came up to the reference desk holding it in her hand.  "I just finished this book and I LOVED it!" she told me.  "And the sequel isn't out yet.  Do you have anything else that's kind of like it?"  We talked about what it was that she enjoyed so much about the book, and it turned out to be the mixture of horror and humor.  She loved the humor, thought the book was hysterical, and she also liked the supernatural elements and the dash of romance.  I asked her what other books she had enjoyed, to get a better idea, and get this: she normally doesn't read.  Ever.  Unless they make her at school.  She just picked up the book on a whim, and now she wants more.

This is what I'm talking about, people!  This novel turned out to be the home-run book for this teenager - the book that may set her on the road to reading for life.  There is nothing like it - teachers and librarians will know what I'm talking about, and I just love when I see it happen.  It's my favorite thing about my job, and it makes me want to do the Snoopy happy dance all around my library.  I refrained, though - I didn't want to scare her away.  So who cares about my little qualms about the book?  This book worked for this teenager, and in the end, that is (to this reader/former teacher/librarian/parent) the main thing that counts.

I sent her off with Skulduggery Pleasant, the first book of the Mediator series, and I placed a few holds on some other books that we didn't have on the shelf.  I hope she'll come back and let me know what she thinks.  If you have any other suggestions for her, let me know and I'll pass them on.

Croak by Gina Damico (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012)

Books in the Croak series:
1. Croak
2. Scorch (September 2012)

Also reviewed at:
Bewitched Bookworms:  "The plot and the storyline was lacking in my opinion and didn’t manage to completely drew me in, which was a pity because I still think the premise and idea is great."
Reutreads: "From Killers to Cullers, from Gamma to Ether, from yoricks to jellyfish, Croak is a hugely entertaining and also at times very touching read"
Working for the Mandroid:  "Who knew a book about reapers and a teenage delinquent could make me laugh so much?"

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Tuesdays at the Castle

Celie's favorite day is Tuesday, because that is the day when her father the king hears petitions, which is, admittedly, a bit boring.  And when the castle where they live grows bored, it tends to grow a new room or two, or possibly a brand-new staircase leading somewhere Celie's never been before.  She adores the castle and its mysterious ways, and she charts out its rooms and passages as they come and go.  And the castle appears to have a particular affection for her, too.

The entire kingdom loves the castle because it chooses their rulers, and it makes excellent choices.  When books and astrolabes began appearing in her older brother's room, and her younger brother's room was moved closer to the throne room, King Glower lost no time in declaring his younger son heir, and sent his older son off to the College of Wizardry.

When Celie's oldest brother is about to graduate from college, the king and queen set off to attend the graduation.  Celie is incensed that she is not allowed to go.  Matters take a turn for worse when her parents disappear and are soon presumed dead, and the castle becomes overrun with strangers from neighboring lands who appear to have their own agenda, an agenda that does not include the crown prince actually ruling their land.  Celie and the castle form a formidable team, along with her siblings, but it soon becomes apparent that there is only so much that the castle can do against such opposition.

This is a thoroughly delightful book, and reading it made me wonder why on earth I've waited so long to read a book by Jessica Day George.  My younger daughter fell in love with the Dragon Slippers series when she was nine or ten, and I've been meaning to give it a try for ages.  Celie is a feisty, intelligent heroine, definitely not a girly-girl princess in need of rescuing.  I enjoyed the interplay between her and her siblings, as well as the swoon-worthy Pogue, a character I hope to see more of in subsequent books in this series.

Yes, this is the first book in a series, but it does function perfectly well as a stand-alone novel, with events wrapping up quite satisfactorily. I admit am growing tired of all the series I must perpetually keep up with these days, but the castle is so fascinating and fun that I know I'll be pleased when the sequel is published.  My only issue with the book is the fact that, given the powers the castle is described as possessing, matters spiral out of control in a way that the castle clearly could have dealt with neatly and effectively right at the beginning.  Which wouldn't have given us a terribly interesting story, so I was quite happy to suspend my disbelief and sit back and enjoy this funny, exciting tale.

Tuesdays at the Castle by Jessica Day George (Bloomsbury, 2011)

Also reviewed at:
Bird Brain(ed) Book Blog: "I adored this book. I loved everything about it. I don’t think JDG was a step out of place anywhere, and that’s a more rare thing that you’d think."
Jen Robinson's Book Page: "Tuesdays at the Castle is tremendously kid-friendly, with a fun setting, engaging (if not fully realistic) characters, and an action-packed plot."
Small Review: "I am a fawning, pom-pom waving fangirl for Jessica Day George, and Tuesdays at the Castle just reminded me again why. Somehow she always manages to spin a cotton candy confection of fluffy happy goodness with a captivating plot, endearing characters, and seriously bad villains."

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Gator on the Loose!

Ten-year-old Keisha is manning the phones at the family business, an urban wildlife rescue organization, when she receives a phone call from the manager of their local swimming pool.  When she learns that an alligator has been found in the pool, she knows she has to get her family together so they can rescue it safely.  After all, it might be a warm summer day, but Michigan is certainly no place for an alligator.  Not to mention the fact that the pool will remain closed until the alligator is rescued, and Keisha has big plans for practicing her cannonball.

This is a sweet, funny book about a family that works together to accomplish some pretty important goals.  I particularly enjoyed getting to know Keisha's family, from her funny little brother to her slightly goofy grandma.  I liked that fact that her family is racially mixed, but it's just a matter-of-fact part of the novel, not the point of the story.  Keisha is a clever, resourceful heroine, one that readers will be rooting for, and along the way they'll learn a little bit about animals, wildlife rescue, and responsible pet ownership.

Books in the Animal Rescue Team series:
1. Gator on the Loose
2. Special Delivery
3. Hide and Seek
4. Show Time

Gator on the Loose! (#1 in the Animal Rescue Team series) by Sue Stauffacher (Alfred A. Knopf, 2010)

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

The Girl Behind the Glass

The abandoned old house on Hemlock Road is the sort of place where kids dare each other to run up and touch the front door.  It is not the sort of place where twin sisters Anna and Hannah are remotely interested in living.  They'd far rather have stayed behind at their old house, but they had no choice in the matter.  Instead, they are stuck at the creepy run-down old place, angry with their older sister for being the cause of all their troubles, and they have no idea that Someone is watching them.

Hannah senses the mysterious presence in the house, but no one else does.  For the first time in their lives, the twins don't see eye to eye on things.  Being split up into different classes is difficult, particularly for Hannah, who feels excluded as Anna makes new friends and moves on with their new life.  But Someone is there, waiting, hoping that Hannah might turn out to be a friend - a friend who will never, ever leave her.

This is an atmospheric ghost story that has the added bonus of being told from the point of view of the ghost.  The voice of the "someone" in the story feels authentic and believable, ratcheting up the tension in the story as events unfold, and the mystery surrounding the presence in the house is gradually revealed.  I always love a good ghost story to read in the summertime, and this one fit the bill perfectly.  Fans of Mary Downing Hahn will be delighted with this novel, and it's been a huge hit with young readers at my library this summer.  

The Girl Behind the Glass by Jane Kelley (Random House, 2011)

Monday, August 20, 2012

Spellbound


Following a nearly fatal car accident, sixteen-year-old Emma moves to New York City to live with her aunt and younger cousin.  She is to attend a prestigious private school there, and she isn't quite sure how she feels about that.  But her younger cousin Ashley is determined to help her transition be as painless as possible.  There aren't many friendly students there at first, but Emma is immediately struck by Brendan, a very good-looking boy in her class.  There seems to be a connection between them, something that Emma can't explain.  When she sees that there is a drawing pinned up in his locker that has the same exact image that is on the necklace her brother gave her years ago, before he died, Emma knows that Brendan is hiding something from her.

Visions from the past that come to her in dreams only confuse matters, and when a new friend at school confesses to being involved in witchcraft, Emma allows her to try to help.  What they discover is fascinating and alarming.

This is a story of star-crossed lovers and history repeating itself.  What saves it from being a run-of-the-mil paranormal YA romance is the vivid characterization and the skillfully unfolding tale of the present unraveling into the past.  Some of the characters, in particular the antagonists, were a little too malevolent to be believed (and I am getting a bit tired of the beautiful, nasty, conniving beauty queen that seems to appear in every novel of this genre), but the developing relationships among the other characters made up for that weakness.  This book will be an easy sell to teens at my library, particularly with that compelling cover.

Spellbound by Cara Lynn Schultz (Harlequin Teen, 2011)

Also reviewed at:
Annette's Book Spot "The story is a realistic portrayal of how difficult high school life can be with different factions and the motivations of hormonal teens. At times, their behavior may go a bit over the top, but I still enjoyed the suspense and action."
A Novel Paradise:  "I’m usually skeptical of the” starcrossed lovers” kind of thing, but one thing that made the story work for me was how believable the characters were."
Reading with Tequila:  "Spellbound manages to navigate some tricky plot lines surprisingly well, feeling fresh but never over the top."

Thursday, August 16, 2012

I Was a Teenage Popsicle

Floe Ryan awakens after ten years in a cryonics chamber.  Her terminal illness has been cured, but everything about her former life in Venice Beach has changed. Her parents have been frozen as well, and her sister is her new guardian. Her big sister - who used to be her little sister, is in charge of her life. And while Floe is still a teenager, her sister is married now - and has a baby.

Luckily there is Taz - a teenager who was frozen the same time she was.  He is the only one who can understand what she is going through. Trouble is, Floe is going to be attending a different school, far from Venice Beach, and since she's not allowed to tell anyone what happened to her, fitting it is a huge challenge. She's ten years behind everyone else, and she feels totally clueless.

I picked this book up at the library where I work, when I was going through a list of books that hadn't been checked out in a couple years.  I wasn't sure why this one had been sitting there for so long.  It looked kind of cute, so I thought I'd save it from being discarded and bring it home to read.

It was a cute book, and I think the narrator's informal, slightly snarky voice would be appealing to many teen readers.  I had a few issues with it, though.  Ten years just didn't seem like quite enough time for Floe to be having such substantial difficulties adjusting to the new time period.  Very little seemed to be different - just the computer organizers that the kids were using, which seem a bit archaic compared to some of the apps that are available now.  It read a bit like science fiction written by someone who doesn't read much science fiction.  The plot also relied a bit too much on coincidence for my liking.  I doubt most teen readers would take issue with these two things, and I did enjoy the concept of the book.  Floe is a strong protagonist, and readers will root for her as she strives to find a place for herself in the future that is now her present.

I Was a Teenage Popsicle by Bev Katz Rosenbaum (Berkley Jam Books, 2006)

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

The Everafter

Madison Stanton is in a very strange place.  She's not sure where, or when, or even why - the one thing that she is certain of, though, is that she is dead.

She cannot remember what happened, and she isn't sure she even wants to.  But in this strange place she encounters objects that are important to her in some way.  Each one has a story to tell, a specific story about how that object fit into her life, how it made her the girl she grew up to be.  As she floats through the strange void of the afterlife, learning a little bit from the objects she encounters, a picture begins to form of her life and the events leading up to her death.

This was another of the e-books I downloaded to read over vacation without knowing very much about it.  The story is a bit like a puzzle, with each object's story giving a clue about the way Madison died.

I'm not a huge fan of books with dead people as the main character because there isn't a whole lot there that can be changed or hoped for.  This one held my interest, but I didn't love it.  I found it tragic that Madison died so young, and while the climax of the book turns out to be the scene of her death, it just didn't hold that much interest for me because it was something that had already happened.  I did enjoy the storytelling, though, and would be interested to try other books by this author.  I think it would be appealing to many teen readers, and it certainly offers food for thought.

The Everafter by Amy Huntley (HarperCollins e-books, 2009)

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Lords and Ladies


This series just gets better and better!  I was delighted to discover that this book features the witches, who are among my very favorite characters from the Discworld novels.  In this installment, the witches have returned from their travels (described in humorous detail in Witches Abroad), and now they are back home.  Magrat finds that she is about to be married, although there has never been a proposal, and there is a bit of romance that seems to be missing in her situation.  The other witches marginalize her when they discover a threat from the stone circles: faeries are scheming to break through into their world, and these faeries are not nice.  At all.  

I thoroughly enjoyed this one, particularly the glimpse into Granny Weatherwax's past, to see the headstrong, feisty young girl she was.  I also loved that the wizards were involved in the story, the librarian in particular, who is one of my favorites.  I know I always say this when I write about one of Terry Pratchett's books, but I'll say it again:  what I adore about his books is the way he weaves humor into his stories, but there is a layer of serious thoughtfulness to them as well, that gives them unexpected substance.  I know this is a series I will be returning to again and again.  

Books in the Discworld series:
1. The Color of Magic
2. The Light Fantastic
3. Equal Rites
4. Mort 
5. Sourcery
6. Wyrd Sisters
7. Pyramids 
8. Guards, Guards
9. Eric
10. Moving Pictures
11. Reaper Man
12. Witches Abroad
13. Small Gods
14. Lords and Ladies
15. Men at Arms
16. Soul Music
17. Interesting Times
18. Maskerade
19. Feet of Clay
20. Hogfather
21. Jingo
22. The Last Continent
23. Carpe Jugulum
24. The Fifth Elephant
25. The Truth
26. The Thief of Time
27. The Last Hero
28. The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents
29. Nightwatch
30. The Wee Free Men
31. Monstrous Regiment
32. A Hat Full of Sky
33. Going Postal
34. Thud
37. Unseen Academicals
39. Snuff

Lords and Ladies (#14 in the Discworld series) by Terry Pratchett; narrated by Nigel Planer (Random House Audiobooks, 2007)

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Boy Proof

This was among the e-books available through my library's digital catalog that I downloaded because it was immediately available and I seemed to remember hearing good things about it.  I thought I was going to be getting a contemporary YA school story with a touch of romance in it, and I guess that is kind of what I got, but wow, this book is way, way more than that.

Our heroine is Victoria, although she prefers to be called Egg after her favorite film character of all time.  Victoria is an unabashedly intelligent, quirky, self-involved, highly creative teen, and frankly it took me a while to warm up to her.  She is very prickly, often rude, and has a tendency to hurt people's feelings, occasionally remaining completely unaware it.  Or apathetic to it - it can be hard to tell.  But I never wanted to stop reading.  The advice often given to writers is that if you don't make your main character sympathetic, you had better at least make her interesting, and Castellucci certainly does that.  And it wasn't very long before I'd completely fallen for Victoria as well as this wonderful book.

Victoria's predictable, safe world is shaken up by the arrival of Max, the new kid at school who suddenly makes her work to be the best, something she's always taken for granted.  I loved that rather than being a simple foil for Victoria, he is a complex - and highly sympathetic - character himself.  Following Max's unwelcome (mostly) presence in her life are other major changes, and soon Victoria is questioning many of her assumptions, suddenly finding herself at odds with people she's been taking for granted.

I loved the LA setting, and the fact that her father is a special effects artist for movies, and the way that the book explores Victoria's relationship with her divorced parents throughout the story.  There is humor that keeps the book from becoming ponderously emotional, and the characters are always believable in their dialogue and motivations.  I adored this book, and I am looking forward to reading everything else by Castellucci that I can get my hands on.

Boy Proof by Cecil Castellucci (Candlewick Press, 2011)

Also reviewed at:
Bookshelves of Doom:  "I fell for this book immediately."
Cynsations: "What I like best about Boy Proof is how fresh and dynamic Egg/Victoria is. Another author might've toned her down, made her safer, more typical somehow. Instead, Miss Cecil writes with courage and reveals E/V for the dynamic, intelligent, out-of-this-world girl that she is."
Jen Robinson's Book Page:  "I think that anyone who has ever felt that sense of otherness while in school will be able to relate to Egg on one level or another."

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Please Ignore Vera Dietz

This is not the usual kind of book that I tend to read, but I'd heard good things about it, and when it came up as available for immediate download from my library's ebook catalog, I loaded it onto my Nook right before I left for vacation.  And I was glad I did.

The story is a compelling one, and it's told in an innovative, effective way. Seventeen-year-old Vera has lost her best friend, Charlie.  He has died, and Vera is left to pick up the pieces.  The worst thing about losing her best friend, the boy she grew up with, spent so much time with, is that she actually lost him months before he died.

The book is like a puzzle, with scenes from the present alternating with scenes from the past, and these scenes are narrated from different points of view.  The reader may begin to suspect the truth of the events leading up to Charlie's death, but there are bound to be some surprises along the way.

This is a difficult book to read, and I'd recommend it to older teens because of the dark subject matter, but it is not without humor, and it did not leave me feeling depressed.  Vera is a character I came to care about, and although I did feel like shaking her a few times, her motives were always clear and believable. I think fans of Chris Crutcher would enjoy this book, and readers who enjoy John Green's novels, too.

Please Ignore Vera Dietz by A. S. King (Alfred A. Knopf, 2010)