Thursday, August 27, 2015

The Blackthorn Key

The Blackthorn Key
Kevin Sands
Simon and Schuster, 2015  371 pgs.
Grades 5-7
Historical Fiction/Mystery

Apprentice to a kind apothecary, young Christopher is saved from an uncertain fate as a penniless orphan in 1600's London. Master Benedict has taught him Greek, constantly challenges him with new ciphers, and tolerates the consequences resulting from Christopher's insatiable curiosity and hijinks with his friend Thomas, though not without punishment. London's apothecaries are turning up dead, thanks to, what is thought to be, a cult seeking "The Archangel's Fire" the ultimate weapon in a greedy grab for world power. But who is behind the cult? Master Benedict has secrets of his own that keep him out late at night and whispered conversations with his former apprentice, Hugh. Then both Master Benedict and Hugh turn up murdered. All eyes turn towards Christopher as the murderer. Luckily, Master Benedict has left a secret cipher for him in the shop ledger, which Christopher must decipher in order to clear his name and find out Master Benedict's secrets. He and Thomas start to solve the puzzle, which brings them to unexpected spots in London, all while being followed by the police and members of the cult. Christopher does not know who to trust and when the mastermind of the cult is revealed it comes as a huge surprise to the reader. Does Christopher find the secret behind the Archangel's Fire? Can he clear his name and if so, what will become of him without a master to serve? Who was responsible for Master Benedict and High's deaths? These and other questions will be answered by books end, all while leaving a few threads dangling, leaving room for a sequel.

This is the kind of book I would have loved as a kid. This is the kind of book I still love: mystery, historical fiction, and adventure all rolled into one. The setting is unusual and interesting and is a time period that, I think, will appeal to kids. This is what I call "smart kid fiction"; the kind of book that smart kids eat up. They will enjoy trying to solve the ciphers and be inspired to learn more about coding (and not the computer variety). Christopher is a courageous and intelligent character, whose main flaws are impulse control and unchecked creativity. His flaws turn into assets as he applies all the knowledge he has learned from Master Benedict and, armed with the master's work belt, devises clever solutions to tricky situations. Thomas proves to be a loyal friend and the two boys compliment each other and make a terrific team. Sands writes a tight plot that offers surprises and twists along the way. There are enough characters introduced to allow for suspects and to help move the plot along, but they were all easy to keep straight. The Blackthorn Key will be happily consumed by both boys and girls and should enjoy a long shelf life in the library, making it a recommended investment for youth service librarians. This has been one of my favorite reads this year. I only hope that Sands pens more adventures for Christopher and Thomas, because I'm not ready to say goodbye.

Friday, August 21, 2015

Sadie's Story

Sadie's Story
Christine Heppermann and Ron Koertge
Deborah Marcero, Illustrator
Harper Collins, 2015  169 pgs
Grades 2-4
Backyard Witch series #1

Veteran authors for young people, Heppermann and Koertge team up to pen a new series for children transitioning to chapter books. Sadie's two best friends, Maya and Jess, are going on vacation without her, leaving Sadie feeling rejected and lonely. To waste some time she ventures out to her backyard where she encounters a witch living in her playhouse. The witch is Ms. M and she and Sadie become instant friends. Ms. M. is also sad. Her best friend Ethel turned herself into a warbler and her cat has disappeared. Ms. M and Sadie set off to find Ethel, armed with binoculars and a field guide to birds. Ethel is never found, but the new friends do find the missing cat, save the playhouse from being sold at a lawn sale, and discover many birds living in the neighborhood along the way. Time passes quickly and happily. At long last Sadie's friends return and three are joyfully reunited. Sadly, Ms. M. leaves for Mexico, where she has dreamed that Ethel has traveled, but leaves Sadie with hints of future adventures.

The Backyard Witch series is a departure for authors Heppermann and Koertge. Both write books for teenagers and Hepeprmann also pens nonfiction. Sadie's Story is a solid series opener. We get to know Sadie and her family and friends without too much background weighing the book down. Children will relate to the feeling of being left out and navigating the complexities of friendships. Sadie's two friends go on vacation together, the one friend only allowed to bring one guest and not choosing Sadie. When the friends return they immediately go to Sadie's house and the reader has the impression that all will be fine with this group of girls. Ms. M. swoops in just when she's needed and leaves when her work here is done, much like Mary Poppins. Unlike Mary Poppins she borrows Sadie's clothes and plays right along side her. Adults can't see Ms. M and she performs no "real" magic, making the reading suspect that perhaps she is an imaginary friend. No mind, Ms. M gets Sadie off the couch, away from video games and outside bird watching, no longer feeling sorry for herself. Tips for bird watching and a list of books for further reading is included at the end of the book  Sadie's story is a bit longer than the usual transitional chapter book, but the controlled vocabulary, large print, wide margins, and generous illustrations make it level appropriate and not overwhelming. I am assuming that Ms. M will next visit Sadie's two friends in the remaining volumes of the series, but we will have to wait and see.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Fuzzy Mud

Fuzzy Mud
Louis Sachar
Random House, 2015  183 pgs.
Grades 4-7
Science Fiction/Adventure

Alternating points of view trace the captivity of a small Pennsylvania town by an ecological disaster. Fifth-grader, Tamaya, is use to being ignored by neighbor and walking companion, seventh-grader Marshall. The social rules are changing for her and friends are getting weird. Marshall, tired of constant bullying by class bad-boy Chad, drags Tamaya to a "shortcut" through the woods in order to avoid fighting with Chad. After getting lost Chad finds them anyway and trouble ensues. To defend them both Tamaya throws "fuzzy mud" she finds on the ground at the bully. Unbeknownst to them all, the mud is a mutation from a new energy source recently developed in a research facility in their town, whose cells are dividing rapidly. Tamaya returns home only to discover a terrible rash where her hands touched the mud. The next day reflects the progress of the rash worsening and Chad having disappeared. Tamaya returns to the woods to try to find him and Marshall faces an ethical decision: to try to rescue his torturer and risk punishment or do nothing and let Tamaya and Chad face danger alone. Eventually, Marshall also leaves the school grounds(both children leaving without telling anyone resulting in the school going into lock-down mode and all the adults panicking) and finds Tamaya and Chad in a nick of time. The three young people make it out of the woods and into the safety and comfort of the hospital. The disease begins to spread at an alarming rate and the entire town is quarantined until a cure can be found, which it is, although from an unlikely source. Senate hearing transcripts questioning the developer of Fuzzy Mud are interspersed throughout the book and each chapter ends with the mathematical equation of the mutation dividing, at first in small numbers and then getting out of control rather quickly.

Louis Sachar is a children's author who is consistently great, yet does not pigeonhole himself into a genre or style. If you are looking for the humor of the Wayside books or the layers of Holes you will not find it. Instead, expect a well conceived and written story for children reflecting the challenges of growing up and navigating school life within the backdrop of an ecological warning along the lines of Carl Hiassen, although without the humor. Fuzzy Mud is a nice length, reads quickly, and is not a series opener (thank you Louis Sachar!), making the book accessible to readers on many ability levels. Because of the alternating points of view, this book really is intended for both boys and girls. It will work on many levels and has lots of meat, making it a wonderful choice for book discussions. It would also be great for classroom use. Sachar has all three main characters (I'm including the bully) show growth in a believable and applaudable way. The book describes itself as a mystery-thriller. I think that is a bit extreme. Its not really a mystery and I think calling it a "thriller" is an exaggeration, although there is definitely a adventure element when the kids are lost in the woods and haziness about the reason behind the senate hearings, which is cleared up by the end. Fuzzy Mud is at its core a cautionary tale about the world's overpopulation and the need for alternative energies, as well as the dangers surrounding the development of man-made energies sources. Sachar also demonstrates the ancient riddle of doubling one thing (the old tale uses a grain of rice) every day, which seems innocent at first, but becomes a disturbingly large number rather quickly. Chapter beginnings show an increasing amount of dots, demonstrating this principal. Overall, Fuzzy Mud is a solid contribution to children's literature that can be used with a variety of children for both recreation and school settings.

Monday, August 17, 2015

Undertow

Undertow
Michael Buckley
Houghton Mifflin, 2015  376 pgs
Grades 8-Up
Science Fiction/Adventure

Lyric and her family have been living under the radar for the past three years; ever since the Alpha have come to their Coney Island Neighborhood. The Alpha are warring humanoid sea-creatures, who have washed up on the beaches of Coney Island, much to the shock and fear of the American public. It is revealed to Lyric that her mother was sent in a first wave of Alpha folk meant to infiltrate into American society. Infiltrate she did, as she married Lyric's policeman father and started a human life as yoga-guru Summer Walker. Since the Alpha have washed up, intolerance, hate, and suspicion has permeated what is already a hot-bed of diversity and racial unrest. Lyric's mother must stay hidden in their apartment and the family is forced to remain in the war zone of Coney Island, since Mom does not have documentation. Lyric's life is not easy as she suffers from crippling migraines, all while helping her best friend deal with an abusive stepfather and keeping the family secret. As an experiment to integrate the Alpha into American Society, a new principal takes charge of Lyric's school, assigning her with the impossible task of teaching the Alpha prince Fathom how to read. Predictably, Fathom and Lyric develop feelings for each other, which is tricky since Lyric has a sort-of boyfriend and Fathom is betrothed. Tensions heat up as the"Niners", a hate organization led by the governor of the state of New York, infiltrate the school and incite a riot, which escalates to a siege of the Alpha being trapped on the beach and refusing to surrender only to be imprisoned in interment camps. Things go from bad to worse for the Apha as their enemies, who pushed them to the shore in the first place, are approaching. Lyric desperately tries to get the humans to help the Apha defend themselves agaist this common enemy, but no one listens. A gristly battle ensues, leaving much carnage in its wake. What will be next for the Alpha? Will Lyric continue to remain with them? Where is Lyric's father being held prisoner? What exactly happened to Lyric's best friend's stepfather? These and other questions will be answered in the second volume of the trilogy Raging Sea due out in February.

I was very excited to read this book. I'm a huge fan of Michael Buckley, both for his Sisters Grimm series and the NERDS series. This is his first book for teenagers. The cover looks deliciously creepy and I was just at Coney Island for the Mermaid Parade and fell in love with the seedy Americana that the local preserves. Plus, New Jersey is having a big "shark summer" and I mistook "fear in the water" to mean sharks, which would be very timely. Beyond this, judging from the cover I assumed that Undertow would feature a boy character and be targeted to a male audience. With the exception of the Coney Island setting, this was all incorrect. It was more Divergent/Crossed/Hunger Games, although with cool humanoid sea-creatures. Its a catch 22: teen girls are a huge buying market, so publishers keep putting put books for them, which they keep buying, leaving our teen boys under served. My other complaint is that I was unaware going into this book that its the first in a trilogy. I was tricked yet again! Okay, enough ranting about stuff that is not Michael Buckley's fault. Once I realized what it was, I liked the book. It has non-stop action, an interesting and different supernatural species, and surprises to the plot. Buckley is an experienced author and knows how to keep readers turning pages. I was never bored with this book. The characters were realistically drawn and diverse. As usual to this genre, the least interesting character is the heroine, but teenagers have come to expect a drippy ingenue. I didn't believe the romance between Lyric and Fathom and found myself rolling my eyes when she declares her love for him after a very few limited and tense encounters, but, again, teenagers will eat it up. The Coney Island setting was intricate to the story and offered a compelling backdrop. The community of Coney Island is extremely diverse and teeming with new Americans. It was an interesting choice to pick that location in which to dump the new "immigrants", reflecting the current American objection to immigration under the thin guise of the sea-creatures.The romance hints at sex, but does not get graphic. Deaths occur, but the violence is not too over the top. Even though this book is aimed at teen girls, like Hunger Games it isn't too "girlie". A solid choice for reluctant readers and fans of the ever popular apocalyptic science fiction.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

The Death and Life of Zebulon Finch

The Life and Death of Zebulon Finch: At the Edge of Empire (vol. 1)
Daniel Kraus
Simon and Schuster, 2015  642 pgs
Grades 9-Up
Historical Fiction/Fantasy

At the sunset of the 1800's young Chicago gangster, Zebulon Finch is shot. The only problem is: his body refuses to die. He bears the gunshot wound and his body ceases to function, yet he can still walk, talk, and feel emotion. In this unnatural state he is fated to walk into the new century as a seventeen year old boy, who will never age or die. Unsure of what else to do do and of his place in the world, Zebulon joins a traveling medicine show, where he is treated like an animal and is forced to suffer a multitude of abuses in order to sell fake product. After an unfortunate duel offers him release from this prison, he connects with a doctor bent on uncovering the secret to immortality. As the doctor sinks further into madness, Zebulon connects with a newly discovered family member and the two escape together. After a parting of ways Zebulon finds himself fighting overseas in World War I, where he befriends star soldier Church, who is destined to become Zebulon's friend. The close of the war finds Zebulon back on American soil, this time working for African American southern bootleggers. Zebulon flees the south once the clan has their way with this enterprising family and travels up to New York City. Here Zebulon lives out the roaring 20's with his army buddy Church, amidst the flappers and gangsters, while living in squalor. Eventually, after tracking down a serial killer, Zebulon lands in Hollywood, where he becomes the boy-toy to an enterprising starlet with dreams of producing films, all while limited to the sexism and age worship of the place and time. The end of our story has Zebulon again at a crossroads, this time on the brink of World War II, where Kraus leaves us until the second half of Zebulon's story is released.

Whew! I won't lie: this is a lot of book! I started in June and just finished last night (although I was reading other books simultaneously). How come the two longest books I read this year contain the name of one of nature's smallest birds? The Life and Death of Zebulon Finch felt like The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, which is similar in historic scope and plays with aging, although in a different way, and is much shorter, which is expected it being a short story. Zebulon was not only long, but was dense and read slowly. It is very well written, which slowed me down further, and certain parts were either so beautiful or so cryptic, that they bared a re-reading. Kraus keeps a consistent voice all the way through for Zebulon. His language is that of a hundred years ago, yet vocabulary for the time creeps into the narration. Although Zebulon does not grow in age, he grows in wisdom and we see his experience shift from bewilderment, to nonchalance to acceptance. The book is dark and explores the underbelly of society. I would not call this a happy book in any way and it focuses on the worst of human nature. Zebulon is never a star of the time or place where he is residing, but manages to exist under the radar. Kraus hints that success will be coming for Zebulon in the second half of the century, which should prove interesting. In an aside, I found it of interest that Zebulon's physical appearance and permanent scarring is never dwelled on until his stint in Hollywood, highlighting the obsession of age and beauty experienced by this particular culture. This book would have been released as an adult book had it come out twenty years ago. Most teenagers won't have the patience or maturity to tackle it. That said, it's extremely well written and is sure to win awards. It would be a great choice for college students looking for something to read over the summer or for adults. Young men will be especially drawn to the book. I recently had a male college student ask me for a reading suggestion. He said that most teen fiction was too romance driven and "girlie" and he couldn't relate to most adult fiction. He wanted something lighter than college reading, yet not a waste of time. I wish I could have given him this book. Will I go on to read the sequel once it comes out? Hmmmm, maybe an abridgment.

Thursday, August 6, 2015

George

George
Alex Gino
Scholastic, 2015  195 pgs.
Realistic Fiction
Grades 4-7

George is a fourth grade girl trapped in a boy's body. Society identifies George as a boy, but she identifies herself as a girl. She keeps a secret stash of teen girl magazine hidden in her closet from which she gleans sneak peeks into the forbidden world of young females. George is ashamed of her secret self and is afraid of judgement by her peers and family. After a class reading of Charlotte's Web, George is so moved by the life and death of Charlotte she feels compelled to audition for the role of the gentle spider in the class play. George's best friend, Kelly, helps her prepare for the role. George bravely auditions, only to be turned down by her teacher for not being the traditional gender for the role. Devastated, George joins the stage crew where she encounters the class bully and finally comes to terms with who she is and finds the courage to be honest about it. George first confides her secret to Kelly, who after the initial shock, is supportive and shares her lead role as Charlotte with George. The night of the play, George reveals to the world her true self. Family members, peers, and school staff all now know her secret, which is both a relief and a fright and George nervously waits for everyone's reactions. Those who matter the most chose to be supportive and George continues to grow and figure out her place in life embracing her new identity.

Alex Gino presents the first novel written to my knowledge of a transgender child for children. Gino pens the book bravely, yet gently, never losing George's voice. Yes, the main point of the book is George struggling with gender identity and navigating through the world feeling different and finally finding the courage to be who she feels she really is, but it is also a universal story of a child feeling different and struggling to fit in. George's excitement over the auditions and then the disappoint when the teacher doesn't "get it" is heartbreaking and universally identifiable. Educators should read this book to help serve transgender youth possibly sitting in their classrooms. The principal was an inspirational character and a true champion. I felt choked up when she instantly supported George in being who she really is and protected him from his teacher's disapproval. The mother disappointed me at first, but then came around realistically. This is not a book about sexuality. George remains a child. When people asked him if he is gay, he says he is not ready to like boys or girls. The transgender portions of the book are age appropriate to the audience. Parents should be aware that George's brother talks about "dirty magazines" and tampons are mentioned, as well as being "gay" or "straight". Be prepared for questions about some of these topics if your child picks up the book. Then again, I feel that kids don't process what they don't understand while reading (unlike movies where the visual forces the point). This is an important book to have on the shelf both so that kids struggling with gender identity see a book that reflects their experiences and for kids who aren't struggling with these issues to feel empathy for their peers who are.

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

The Scorpion Rules

The Scorpion Rules
Erin Bow
Simon & Shuster, 2015  384 pgs
Grades 8-Up
Science Fiction

Welcome to the world of the future, where environmental destruction and war have left what remains in chaos. In desperation the United Nations has set a system in place, keeping children from ruling families hostages. If a country declares war on another, the children of the rulers die. The children are kept in isolated camps, training in history, diplomacy, and economics and growing their own food and tending livestock. Princess Greta of the Pan Polar Confederacy (Canada) is one of the "Children of Peace" and on high alert, since her country is on the brink of war. Her friend,Sydney, a resident of what is now the former United States, is taken away and killed to be replaced by a new boy, Elian, a former farmer. Elian refuses to conform to the rules of the school and resents being a pawn in the game of international diplomacy. Despite the conflicts between their two countries and Elian causing trouble for Greta and her classmates, she is drawn to the young man. Before long feelings develop between the two, but Greta is also suddenly attracted to her roommate Da-Xia. Her confusing feelings are put on hold as the school is under attack by Elian's grandmother, who has come to rescue Elian and force Greta's mother to share with her country (The United States) much needed water. Enter Talis, the former human, now robot ruler of the world. Greta must quickly devise a plan to save herself and her friends without Talis blowing up any cities to teach them a lesson. She has a plan, but the out come results in deaths, and it comes at quite a cost to Greta.

Erin Bow presents a cautionary tale of the future; what can happen if we don't start taking care of our planet and put a stop to war. The "Children of Peace" are innocent bystanders to the bad choices of their grown-ups and must pay with their lives for their diplomatic choices. The concept of this book is interesting and different. The characters are well developed and unique, especially Talis (the head honcho), who adds comic relief, despite his apathetic slaughtering of political prisoners.  The plot is exciting, the writing tight, and the action is abundant with many cliff hangers and twists and turns. My only complaint is that it somehow, even with all of the action, felt a little longer than it needed to be. Greta is a strong character, if not particularly interesting, and readers will relate to her. Having two love interests, male and female, set the book apart from the typical love triangle and reflects the increasingly blurred lines of sexuality our young people are experiencing. There is a lot of violence in the story, but Bow doesn't get too graphic. The romance gets passionate, but is not described in detail. The concept of this story is great, even if it does get a bit bogged down. Teenagers won't care. They will suffer along with Princess Greta as she makes tough decisions and fights for the lives of herself and those she loves. The Scorpion Rules will find a natural audience with The Hunger Games/Divergent crowd and will be sure to find a readership.

Saturday, August 1, 2015

Unstoppable Octobia May

Unstoppable Octobia May
Sharon G. Flake
Scholastic, 2014  276 pg.
Grades 4-6
Historical Fiction/Mystery

Octobia May, a miracle girl who survived the ordeal of her heart ceasing to beat, lives with her Aunt Shuma in a boarding house with a multitude of geriatric residents in a small southern town in 1953. Aunt Shuma wants to grow the boarding house into a chain of hotels, but its impossible for an African American woman to get ahead in the 1950's Jim Crow south.She is raising Octobia May to be feisty, confident, and independent, which annoys many of the "good people" of both races in their town. Octobia May is convinced that one of their boarders, Mr. Davenport, is a vampire and she and her best friend Jonah set out to prove her theory. They do not find proof that he is a vampire, but they do catch him in many suspicious acts, including the murder of a causation bank teller. No one believes Octobia May's accusations about the former war-hero and her investigation leads to nothing but trouble. A new girl in the neighborhood, Bessie, surprises Octobia May by having interracial parents and not being able to speak after a family tragedy. Octobia May wears down Bessie with patience and kindness and helps her to find healing. The evil Mr. Davenport offers Aunt Shuma a private meeting with a local bank manger, which may result in a long-awaited loan to kick-start her dreams. Octobia May and Jonah crash the meeting and discover that the deal really is too good to be true and keep Aunt Shuma from making a huge mistake. Mr. Davenport's secrets eventually come to light with some surprises along the way, revealing some factual and seldom told secrets of America's history. Octobia May and Jonah find themselves in serious peril, but never give up fighting for the truth and saving those they love.

Flake uncovers a piece of American history rarely discussed in children's literature: the discrimination of the United States army during World War II and the willingness of some African Americans to "pass" as white in order to find success. African Americans during this time could not be promoted or supervise anyone with light skin. Men would pretend to be Caucasian in order to advance both in the military and in life in general. Flake presents this terrible chapter of our history, along with a vivid description of 1950's Jim Crow south in a highly readable mystery. Octobia May is a very likable character. Her tenacity and courage serve as an inspiration to all young people and they will either want to be her or be friends with her. Adding Jonah as her best friend and sidekick brings boy readers to the story and keeps the book from seeming too "girlie", which is isn't. The mystery starts as the reader tries to determine if Mr. Davenport is a vampire (which we are pretty sure early on that he isn't) and then gets more serious as we see our villain commit murder and introduce a relationship with the bank president. The situation is not as black and white as it seems as Mr. Davenport reveals his motivations in a "Scooby-doo" confession at the end and actually saves Octobia May's (his arch-enemy) life. Flake adds humor to the story (my favorite part being when Jonah perms Octobia May's hair), which helps to lighten it up and bring the entertainment. The boardinghouse oldsters add to the flavor of the book and provide Octobia May with all the support and love a young detective needs. Not a prefect girl, Octobia May finds herself in trouble regularly and doesn't know when to keep her mouth shut, but is so brave, interesting, and courageous that we forgive her as often as Aunt Shuma does. Will Octobia May have another adventure with her friends? We can only hope so.