Book Review: Falling Over Sideways by Jordan Sonnenblick

Falling Over Sideways
Jordan Sonnenblick
Scholastic Press, September 2016
ISBN 978-0-545-86324-7
Hardcover

Claire’s life is uncomfortable. Older brother Michael can do no wrong. In fact there are times when she expects to hear a chorus of angels and see the halo when he enters the room. Mom tends to alternate between annoyingly perky and unsympathetic, while her author dad jokes when she wants understanding.

At school, she’s harassed by the mean girls, taunted by Ryder about her being an inferior saxophone player and then comes the worst. Her one emotional haven-the dance classes she loves, turn ugly as well. After spending her summer taking extra classes with her best friends, they get moved up while she  has to stay behind and dance with younger kids. Could life get any suckier? Yup.

She’s sitting at the breakfast table with her dad when he starts talking gibberish and falls over. Claire’s terrified, but manages to get it together and after getting Mom’s voicemail, she calls 911. The section describing her panicked, but proper responses makes for emotional reading.

Dad has suffered a stroke and anything resembling normal life comes to a screeching halt. What follows is an empathetic, sometimes funny, often angsty look at life when there’s a major tragedy as seen through the eyes of an eighth grader.

Claire already had a full plate of issues and Dad’s condition, coupled with her anger which turns to depression, pile on a heaping second helping. Told from her perspective, this is a really good look at how a girl navigates the issues surrounding creation of her own identity when rocked by something completely unexpected. Young teens who are struggling with these issues, as well as those where a family emergency upends everything, will really relate to Claire as she sorts out who to tell about Dad, how to be around him when his new reality scares her silly, what to do about mean teachers and kids, as well as sorting out what’s truly important to her. This is a very good book for both school and public libraries to add.

Reviewed by John R. Clark, MLIS, April 2017.

Book Reviews: Hearts & Other Body Parts by Ira Bloom and P. S. I Like You by Kasie West

Hearts & Other Body Parts
Ira Bloom
Scholastic Press, April 2017
ISBN 978-1-338-03073-0
Hardcover

Fast-paced and fabulously fun, Hearts & Other Body Parts is a freaky fusion of folklore that completely rocks my socks.  Fantasy, science-fiction and a bit of magic combine to capture, then carry you along the remarkable ride.  With the emphasis on “science”, some of this fiction feels frighteningly plausible.

The three sisters that center the story are quintessential siblings in the best ways possible.  Unique enough for interesting exchanges, their common ground allows them to create a formidable front when needed.  Norman, the new kid (whose full name is spectacularly perfect) is a gentle giant—in the most literal sense—but, his size is the least shocking attribute of his appearance.

Generally, students in small town schools divide into two groups when a new kid arrives: instant fans seeking something different or rowdy ruffians refusing change.  Not so when Norman enters the picture.  All eyes focus on him, the same expression on every face.  Mouths hang open in wonder, revulsion and fear.  When Esme joins Norman at the lunch table on his first day, he knew things would be different here; but even his peculiar past could not have prepared him for what was coming.

Zack erases Norman’s new-kid status and creates a fandom in the student body.  Girls surround Zack like fog, floating on his every word. Intelligent as well as wise, Norman is not captivated by Zack’s charms; instead he is suspicious.  Reports of missing girls convince Norman that Esme and her sisters, who have absolutely abandoned him to hover around Zack, are in imminent danger.  Norman can’t face Zack alone, but the bullies that once taunted him may not be much back-up…..even with the reluctant aid of a demon cat.

Reviewed by jv poore, March 2017.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

P.S. I Like You
Kasie West
Point, August 2016
ISBN 978-0-545-85097-1
Hardcover

This is such a sweet story—not so your teeth hurt–it’s perfectly sweet.  First and foremost:  I love the Abbott family.  I want to dive into their home and be submersed in the fresh, awesome, oddness.  Each quirky, yet quintessential, sibling provides poignant texture, interacting individually and collectively with Lily.  Her competition-loving, compassionate parents are perfectly embarrassing and absolutely adorable.  Also, there is a rescued “pet” rabbit.

I adore Lily.  She’s who I wanted to be as a teenager.  Her most awkward teen-aged moment is exponentially cooler than any of mine.  It is effortless to relate to, empathize with and understand her.  She is “learning lessons” that I learned, but sometimes forget.  The reminders are welcome and appreciated.

There is also the something-different-that-I-totally-dig-aspect:  putting a pencil to your desktop, jotting a note or song lyric to maintain sanity and/or a state of semi-awareness during class, only to be stunned when another student responds in kind.  I remember trading notes via the top of my desk with an anonymous person in my 8th grade Literature class (sorry, Mr. Leach).  So, no surprise, I’m stupidly delighted and charmed to find a book basing a pretty groovy relationship on such a simple start.  Particularly impressive, Ms. West presents a spot-on, classic-yet-credible, way of communicating without feeling the need to mute or explain away today’s textmania.

This was a one-sitting-read that I really enjoyed.  The mini-mystery to determine who Lily’s pen pal is warranted a close look and careful consideration of the characters.  Although cute and quick, this isn’t the cotton candy of reading—there is a Mean Girl and her role is not gratuitous and the importance of being a good friend cannot be overstated.  My copy is going to my 13-year-old niece and I’m sure I’ll donate another copy to my Middle Grader’s classroom library.  I really like this book for the Middle-Grade reader looking for a love story.

Reviewed by jv poore, October 2016.

Book Reviews: Lifers by M.A. Griffin and When My Heart Was Wicked by Tricia Stirling

 

lifersLifers
M.A. Griffin
Chicken House, February 2017
ISBN 978-1-338-06553-4
Hardcover

Particularly pertinent in current political climate, this fresh Middle-Grade mystery-adventure is a phenomenally fantastic read for all ages.  Mace may be a bit of a conspiracy theorist, but when weird news of missing teens and strange sights at night hits close to home, even practical Preston is pulled in.  Also….he is pretty sure he is partly to blame for the most recent disappearances.

Attempting to trace Alice’s steps, Preston walks the night streets of Manchester and senses a spooky truth to the recent rumors.  He enlists Mace to delve deeper and the two stumble onto a pseudo-futuristic-sci-fi scene.  Children are trapped in a prison prototype with dwindling supplies and absolutely no way out.  The only way in, is scheduled to be permanently shut down in less than twenty-four hours.

The juvenile delinquents are not completely alone.  One young lady is the daughter of a recently deceased politician, her “crime”: doubting that her father’s death was an accident.  She is not going down until the guilty party pays.  Two Urban Explorers snuck into the prison to help facilitate an escape and two workers who never wanted their creations to be used in this manner will fight for freedom.

The story plays out in a matter of days; the pace is very quick and quite captivating.  A bit of sharp wit, an unexpected kindness keeps the book from becoming bleak.  Many questions are answered, but nothing is too pat; there’s plenty to think on…..in a sneaky kind of way.

Reviewed by jv poore, February 2017.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

when-my-heart-was-wickedWhen My Heart Was Wicked
Tricia Stirling
Scholastic Press, March 2015
ISBN 978-0-545-69573-2
Hardcover

Lacy is clearly conflicted and completely compelling. At the tender age of sixteen, she has become so very good in spite of her tumultuous, tangled life; but, things change. The loss of a parent is heart-breaking and often life-changing.  When that loss is followed by an abrupt and unwelcome custody change, the downward spiral spins out of control.

Flashbacks and memories reveal the characteristics of Lacy’s parents allowing the reader to understand Lacy’s influences.  The vibes emanating from the recollections reach from the pages to raise the hairs on the back of your neck.  Parents are palpable presences and when Lacy thinks of her father, sunshine shoots from the pages.  She is light, happy, hopeful……joyous and buoyant when considering her father and his charming hippie-chick wife, Anna.

At the opposite end of the spectrum is Lacy’s mother, Cheyenne.  Her unique “teaching techniques” and willingness to spend weeks without electricity did not result in a nurturing home.  Rather, she burned her daughter’s wrist for asking “too many questions”, tied her to a tree to prevent “wandering”, then completely vanished without a word, leaving a broken 13-year old girl all alone.

When My Heart Was Wicked is a captivating and quick read that bravely tackles taboo topics such as “cutting”.  More than merely acknowledging the existence of a disorder that plagues so many teens, by offering an answer to the common question: “why?” On some level, problems that plague Lacy are the same, or at least similar to the challenges every teenager faces.  The importance of identity is not easy to address, but Ms. Stirling demonstrates how strong will, determination and knowledge can carve a unique path, even when it seems all forces are fighting to make you march down a different road.

Reviewed by jv poore, August 2016.

Book Review: Hidden Like Anne Frank by Marcel Prins and Peter Henk Steenhuis

hidden-like-anne-frankHidden Like Anne Frank
14 True Stories of Survival
Marcel Prins and Peter Henk Steenhuis
Arthur A. Levine Books, March 2014
ISBN: 978-0-545-54362-0
Hardcover

Anne Frank was the most memorable child of the Holocaust, but there were many, many others. In this extremely vivid and moving collection of fourteen personal narratives by survivors of Nazi occupation in the Netherlands, readers will find themselves experiencing a range of emotions.

These survivors were separated from parents, siblings, cousins and other relatives, found themselves moved more times that they could count, experienced despair the day after hope and came out of the experience forever changed. They had to adopt new names, new religions, learn different customs and even undergo eyebrow shaping and a change of hair color. Readers will discover how entire communities were herded like cattle, lost everything they had accumulated, were forced to ignore siblings in public, live under inhumane conditions, endure beatings by people who had supposedly befriended them, go hungry for extended periods of time and often had to remain in unlit cold and cramped places for hours while being terrified that the knock on the door meant exposure and a trip to a concentration camp.

Each story is different, each survivor knew great loss and deprivation, but all endured. What comes across clearly in each story is how the experience forever changed not only the narrator, but their relationships with surviving family members. Each reader will have unique reactions to every story. There are some that inspire admiration, some that evoke pity, sympathy or empathy and even one that might strike one as annoying, but none of us were there to live the terror and fear, so who’s to say how our story might come across under similar circumstances.

This is a book that should be read by as many people as possible, particularly in a time (like now) where ethnocentricity and racial intolerance are once more on the rise. It’s well worth having in any school or public library.

Reviewed by John R. Clark, MLIS, February 2017.

Book Reviews: Rescued by Eliot Schrefer and The Game of Love and Death by Martha Brockenbrough

rescuedRescued
Eliot Schrefer
Scholastic Press, May 2016
ISBN 978-0-545-65503-3
Hardcover

Every child wants a pet at some time or another.  A dog, kitten, pony or orangutan.  Maybe orangutan isn’t typical, but if you grew up watching BJ and the Bear or Every Which Way But Loose, you may see the simian sway.  Whatever the animal, it is almost always up to parents to make the decision.  Children don’t always know what is best.

When John casually notes the potential appeal of ape ownership while watching an old movie, he was not actually asking for a pet.  His dad could dig the draw when he recognized the leading “man” as an orangutan because sometimes the adorable orange creatures would wander around his company’s plant in Indonesia.

In fact, he returned from a business trip bearing a baby-orangutan-in-a-barrel.  John was beside himself with wonder and joy.  His mother was also struck with wonder; but hers was the “in doubt” version, much different than the “filled with admiration, amazement, or awe; marvel” version that burst from her son. John’s wonder won and Raja became the newest member of the family for four rambunctious years.  Until divorce divided them.

The two year separation of John and Raja was torture; for both boy and beast; but paled in comparison to their last days together leading up to their final farewell.   This relationship is written so well, it is as if I actually witnessed it.  The fondness, understanding, patience, support and tolerance between the “brothers” is palpable.  The range of emotions that rocket through John as he blindly battles the hardest decision of his entire life build the ultimate reader’s rollercoaster and recalling that this is a sixteen-year-old-boy, ties a knot and truly tugs the heart-strings.

I thoroughly enjoyed each and every bit of this tiny tome and would be remiss if I did not highly recommend Rescued to those searching for reads.  While the book may  technically tip into the Middle-Grade category (for the 12-year-old and older readers), I have no doubt that there are many Teen-Aged, Young-Adult and Not-So-Young-Adult readers that will love Raja’s story as intensely as I do, and I’m confident that I’m not the only reader to learn a lot from it.

Reviewed by jv poore, July 2016.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

The Game of Love and DeathThe Game of Love and Death
Martha Brockenbrough
Arthur A. Levine Books, May 2015
ISBN 978-0-545-66834-7
Hardcover

The Game of Love and Death is positively packed with particulars to ponder.  Love is a man, Death a woman. Each chooses a competitor, a term I use loosely; the chosen do not actually compete.  Most people are unaware of the Game, even while participating.  Virtually no rules, a victor is declared; but the win seems superfluous.

Flora, an amazing aviation mechanic, is also a phenomenal pilot, possibly rivaling Amelia Earhart.  It is 1937 and she “has the brown skin, and here in America, (you) pay so very much heed to that.” Besides, she can trick herself into believing that she was meant for something else.  The death of her parents created a void she valiantly tried to fill with the jazz nightclub she inherited.  Flora chose work over a high school diploma, believing “…the club was her future and most white folk were hell-bent on keeping colored folk in their place, even if they were polite about it.”

Henry hasn’t had it easy, but he is a white male.  His dream is simple: eke out a living with his beloved bass.  Instead, he works for the newspaper of his almost-adopted family, often accompanying Ethan on interviews.  When Henry sees Flora working on a plane, it is as if he had been sleep-walking through life and is just now completely awake.

The harrowing story of Flora and Henry in the The Game of Love and Death is enriched by the secondary characters.  Ethan isn’t the golden boy he seems, and his secret struggles would tarnish his image if revealed; although there is nothing to be ashamed of.  Simple spoken statements throughout, “there hasn’t been a white newspaper that’s written about the likes of us unless some sort of arrest was involved,” reiterate bigoted opinions; making the book more than just entertaining to thought-provoking, too.

Reviewed by jv poore, December 2016.

Book Reviews: I Let You Go by Clare Mackintosh and Endure by Sara B. Larson

i-let-you-goI Let You Go
Clare Mackintosh
Berkley, November 2016
ISBN 978-0-425-98749-0
Trade Paperback

I Let You Go grabbed me by the lapels and pulled me into a suspenseful, fast-paced mystery with tight twists that had me paging backwards a couple of times to truly keep up.  The gripping, heart-stopping story unfolds from different perspectives, revealing varying pieces of the puzzle until suddenly I saw the big picture and it was nothing I envisioned.

Two victims of a random tragedy try to piece their lives together—independently, and wholly alone.  As a year stretched out, the crime remained unsolved and it seemed as if each of them may be successful.  After an arrest, a trial, new information revealed and slowly, the big picture shimmers and changes.

So happy to have a new author to add to my list of favorites; I cannot wait to read more by Ms. Mackintosh.

Reviewed by jv poore, January 2017

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

endureEndure
A Defy Novel #3
Sara B. Larson
Scholastic Press, January 2016
ISBN 978-0-545-64490-7
Hardcover

Endure is the final book in the Defy trilogy by Sara B. Larson.  I didn’t realize that, going into it.  Earnestly entering Antion, enchanted by Alexa and King Damien, it was evident the story did not begin here.  (Yes, thus the title.  I get it, now.)  While I did immediately add Defy and Ignite to my To-Be- Read stack, I never truly felt late to the party.

The bond between Alexa and Rylan blatantly had background, but was too authentic to warrant doubt.  Maybe that hot fudge sundae wows with whipped cream, but it’s also delectable despite the absence.  Similarly, Damien’s trust in Alexa—both in her abilities as well as her commitment to him, is astounding…and unquestionable.

But this isn’t just a story of passionate people, complex choices and difficult, dangerous decisions….it’s about community, doing for the greater good, even if incurring loss.  Listening and learning, evolving, even—or especially—when plowing forward.

And there’s magic!  Good and bad; healing and harmful.  Also, a battle! One that’s been brewing, boils over, beating down kingdoms. It is a fantastically furious, frantic, ferocious fight to a final victory.  Grief and hope, strength and support, friendships and fondness bring balance to angst and action.

If you happen to know of a Middle Grader searching for good reads, the Defy trilogy may do the trick.

Reviewed by jv poore, July 2016.

Book Review: The Transatlantic Conspiracy by G. D. Falksen

the-transatlantic-conspiracyThe Transatlantic Conspiracy
G. D. Falksen
Soho Teen, June 2016
ISBN 978-1-61695-417-8
Hardcover

Oh, I do love a story about bad girls and The Transatlantic Conspiracy is quintessential.  Rosalind’s own words best define her when she explains to Alix, “I drive motorcars and I’m a suffragist, so my reputation is already a bit uncertain.”  Their mutual friend Cecily not only tinkers with clocks, but has been known to write “strongly worded letters” to express her displeasure or disappointment.  Embarking on the maiden voyage of the underwater railway, Alix is quick to confirm that her traveling companions both know “how to give a swift quick and a good stab” (with a hatpin).

Perhaps I should mention that this steampunk story begins on May 25, 1908.  My first book from this fantastical, science-fiction subgenre complete with advanced machines and modern technology.  It did not disappoint.

Rosalind is quite accustomed to traveling alone, despite being female and seventeen years old.  She has every confidence in her father’s perpetually advancing railways, whether it be traveling above water on an impossibly long bridge or seven days underneath, riding a train through the ocean from Germany to New York.   She may not cherish her reluctant role as a “pawn in her father’s advertising campaign”, but she has never felt afraid.  Until now.

From the beginning, with Cecily and sibling Charles unexpectedly announcing plans to accompany Rosalind to America, to feeling inexplicably unnerved at the station, Rosalind is overcome with unease as she boards.  A strange skepticism settles; people seem to smile around secrets tucked safely away.  Charles disappears.  Two passengers are murdered.  It is only the second day.

Fully engaging with twists and turns, sneaky surprises, loyal friendships and levity, The Transatlantic Conspiracy was a fascinating foray into steampunk.

Reviewed by jv poore, May 2016.