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.

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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 Review: Frozen Charlotte by Alex Bell

Frozen Charlotte
Alex Bell
Scholastic Press, November 2016
ISBN 978-0-545-94108-2
Hardcover

Everything began innocently enough. Sophie and her best friend Jay sitting in a cafe. He’d downloaded an ouija board app on his smartphone and was insistent they try it. Despite a sense of dread, she goes along reluctantly, but something seems to hijack the app, sending them really scary messages. Then the lights go out and all hell breaks loose. Someone in the cafe kitchen is badly burned and Sophie swears she saw a tall, ghostly figure atop one of the tables. Spooked by the experience, she pleads with Jay to take the towpath home when riding his rickety bike instead of going by way of the heavily traveled streets. The next day, she learns to her horror that he lost the brakes on his bike, slid into a canal and drowned.

Thus begins a series of scary and inexplicable events for Sophie. Her parents have a long anticipated anniversary trip to San Francisco, but are willing to cancel it because of what happened to Jay. Knowing that they’ll lose a bunch of money if this happens, stiffens her resolve to go stay with her strange relatives in an old girl’s school on the Isle of Skye they converted into a super menacing mansion.

Once there, things alternate between creepy and creepier. (Imagine highlights from “The Shining” if the cast were ripped from “The Munsters” minus any comedy and you’d be off to a good beginning.) Her uncle is an artist and essentially clueless about what’s happening, one of her cousins, Rebecca, died years ago under mysterious circumstances, but her ghost keeps reappearing (is she coming back to warn Sophie, or scare the heck out of her?) Then there’s her slightly older cousin Cameron, a brilliant pianist who suffered a terrible injury to one hand, severely hampering his dreams of becoming a world famous musician. Sophie can’t decide if he hates her or everyone in general. Next comes Piper, who is insanely beautiful and the same age as Sophie. At first, she seems like a breath of fresh air, but the longer Sophie’s around her, the more confused she is about who the real Piper is. Then there’s Lilias, the youngest girl who once tried to remove her own collarbone with a butcher knife. She’s hostile toward Sophie in the beginning, but the longer they’re around each other, the more they need to trust and rely on each other.

Add in that her aunt is locked up in a mental hospital, that there is an army of super creepy dolls remaining from when the school was in operation, coupled with a trash-talking parrot and generally gloomy weather and you have a grand recipe for a top notch YA horror story. Even if you start figuring out who was responsible for what nastiness before the end, it won’t matter because reading this makes for a grand and scary ride. Let’s hope the power doesn’t go out while you’re doing so.

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

Book Reviews: Whenever I’m With You by Lydia Sharp and Keep Me In Mind by Jaime Reed

Whenever I’m With You
Lydia Sharp
Scholastic Press, January 2017
ISBN 978-1-338-04749-3
Hardcover

Gabi’s natural grace is fascinating.  Poise, pragmatic manner and confidence rarely coexist in mere human beings; but this 17-year-old possesses all three.  Of course, she doesn’t realize that.  Her Alaskan acquaintances see only the novelty of a “rich Latina from L.A.”  and they don’t even have as much information ‘about’ her as the tabloids do.

Kai is not like that, but he isn’t living the typical teen-age life either.  When Gabi and her father moved in next door, Kai’s father had been gone for almost a year.  His departure turned Kai and his twin brother, Hunter, from full-time high-school students to home-schooled home-makers.  The boys cared for their younger siblings, their mother worked double shifts.

When Kai slips away to search for his father, he doesn’t tell anyone.  He’s been alone in the Alaskan wilderness, following his father’s footsteps for a couple of days when Gabi and Hunter figure out where he’s gone.  The two immediately realize the dire need to reach him ahead of an upcoming storm.  Even an experienced, outdoors-loving-Alaskan could not be prepared for this.

The dangerous expedition is but part of the plot.  Each twin has a secret and when secrets are shared it is as if someone pulled the missing piece of the almost-completed-jigsaw puzzle from a pocket and asks, “Were you looking for this?”  Fiercely frustrating; a remarkable relief.  Each person that participates in this quest has a solid strength inside.  The individual discovery and use is a pretty great thing to witness.

Aside: I have a particular fondness for the West-Virginian transplant.  Vicki easily embodied traits I recognize in the people from my home state; she amused and delighted me.   Special thanks to Ms. Sharp for that.

Reviewed by jv poore, January 2017.

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Keep Me In Mind
Jaime Reed
Point, May 2016
ISBN 978-0-545-88381-8
Hardcover

The adage ‘opposites attract’ brings no comfort to Ellia as she tries to picture herself in a relationship with the “tearstained boy hovering over (her) bed…declaring his undying love and devotion”.  She’s come out of a coma with no recollection whatsoever of the accident that caused it or the preceding two years.  Her parents, along with some friends are familiar, if not fully known; but the oddly earnest Liam is a stranger.

Liam is a runner. An addict, actually; his entire personality changes if ever he is deprived of his daily run.  An excellent student, he works diligently for his grades and he writes ridiculously well.  Ellia firmly believes that humans should run in emergency situations only and nothing about school holds her attention, aside from the opportunity to people-watch in order to ponder and provide fashion critiques, solicited or not.

Logically, these two people do not belong together, but emotionally Liam is so confident and persuasive that Ellia is compelled to seriously consider the plausibility.  Understandably the most important thing in Liam’s world, this is really just a piece of the wicked jig-saw puzzle that is now Ellia’s life.  Her first priority is to figure out who she is and why; based on what she’s heard so far, she’s not particularly proud of the person she was.

I absolutely adore the way this author captures and conveys the sheer magnitude of emotions that teens experience.  More accurately, I admire the authenticity of her characters.  The surprisingly witty banter exchanges are straight from the hallways of any high-school and exist alongside the lyrical and somewhat haunting soliloquies throughout. I was immediately intrigued, then immersed and invested.  There were enough questions to be answered that the story-line slid smoothly along, keeping me engaged from the first page to the very last word.

Reviewed by jv poore, September 2016.

Book Review: Riding Chance by Christine Kendall

Riding Chance
Christine Kendall
Scholastic Press, October 2016
ISBN 978-0-545-92404-7
Hardcover

Troy is adrift and in danger of falling into that trap created when grief is compounded by lack of a caring parent to turn things around. His mom died not long ago and his father is still too wrapped up in his own loss and sorrow to intervene. When Troy gets the blame for a cellphone theft that should have been dropped on Lay-Lay, the crime-spree-in-the-making on his Philadelphia street, he’s less than thrilled at the community service assigned to him and his best friend Foster.

As often happens, what initially seems like a punishment and a total downer, becomes a whole new way of looking at life with some amazing skills attached. The boys are assigned to an equestrian program in the large city park not far from their homes. Troy’s initial impression is that horses are uncomfortable and smelly. However, he’s interested right off by Alisha, a very pretty girl who is his age and is already quite comfortable with the horses.

It turns out they have something in common-grief and loss. Winston, a former professional polo player who runs the program, is Alisha’s uncle and took her in after her parents died. Despite his initial unease around horses, Troy soon realizes that when he’s with them, especially Chance, the horse he’s assigned to ride and care for, he feels more alive and at peace. In fact, there are times when he’s grooming her or riding when he feels almost like he did before his mother died.

Despite his growing comfort with Chance and a realization by almost everyone involved that he’s a natural around horses and has great potential as a budding polo player, Troy can’t lose his hard edge. That’s sharpened by an encounter outside his house with police that goes badly, as well as his inability to be open with anyone about how he really feels. This increased mistrust and alienation threaten his newfound love of horses and excitement about becoming a member of the polo team. It takes the adults around him and Alisha, as well as his best friend confronting him, coupled with a very frightening incident at a polo exhibition for Troy to realize that he’s not much different than those around him.

The dialect takes a chapter or so to get comfortable with, but after that, the story becomes a seamless and engrossing read. I finished it in less than two hours. Both adults and teens/tweens will really identify with the way Troy feels, how he’s his own worst enemy and the way he comes through a better person. A great book for inner city schools and libraries, but a really good one for any library where diversity in the collection is important.

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

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.

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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: Pip Bartlett’s Guide to Magical Creatures by Jackson Pearce and Maggie Stiefvater

pip-bartletts-guide-to-magical-creaturesPip Bartlett’s Guide to Magical Creatures
Pip Bartlett #1
Jackson Pearce and Maggie Stiefvater
Scholastic Press, May 2015
ISBN 978-0-545-70926-2
Hardcover

Little-Girl-Me would have loved every single thing about this book.  The Not-Young-Adult-Me was completely captivated and charmed.  In the interest of full disclosure, I expected nothing short of stunning brilliance with two of my very favorite authors joining forces.  My expectations were exceeded.

Pip Bartlett not only loves Magical Creatures more than life itself, she can actually talk to them.  They understand her and when they “speak” she understands them.  Although absolutely no one believes her, this spunky soul is unstoppable.  Her curiosity, tenacity and determination are admirable and this reader could not stop rooting for her.

When Pip spends the summer with her aunt, a Magical Creature veterinarian, the tiny town is invaded by cute, yet combustible, Fuzzles.  The townsfolk may see the situation as hopeless, but I had no doubts about Pip’s ability to save the day…..and the Fuzzles.

I sat down and read this cover to cover, coming up with at least a dozen children that I’ll need to give this book to.  I can easily recommend it for the reluctant reader because I believe the drawings and journal-esque style make it easy to read and I like it for the voracious reader because it is stand-out-something-different.

Reviewed by jv poore, July 2016.