Monday, April 29, 2019

Tooth & Claw: the Dinosaur Wars

Image result for tooth claw dinosaur wars coverTooth & Claw: The Dinosaur Wars
Deborah Noyes
Viking, 2019 160 pages
Grades 5-8
Non-fiction

Veteran non-fiction author for young people, Noyes, traces the "Great Bone Wars", otherwise known as the "Great Bone Rush", as two pioneering paleontologists compete in uncovering bones and naming dinosaurs in the second half of the 1800's. Edward Cope, a self-taught scientist, and O.C. Marsh, a highly educated Yale professor, met in Europe while studying and researching. They struck up a professional friendship, only to have it rapidly deteriorate upon return the US. As the United States began to expand and the railroads made travel easier after the Civil War, settlers started to unearth huge bones. The bones belonged to previously unidentified species, linking to Darwin's new and revolutionary theories of evolution and a complete new species of monsters: dinosaurs. The race was on to see who can uncover the most bones the fastest, get credit for and name the new species, and write professional papers, gaining notoriety within the profession. The battle became so intense and heated that it began to overshadow the work itself. Finally, as the century wore down, so did the funding and both men spent themselves out as the dino wars drew to a close, changing the face of the world of paleontology as we now know it.

I have read and enjoyed Noyes' previous biographies on Houdini and Nellie Bly and was greatly anticipating this new historical offering. As with the other two books, the author manages to capture history and spin it in a way that it reads like fiction. This account was riveting and I learned so much without realizing it. Both dinosaur enthusiasts and lay people, such as me, will enjoy this volume and walk away wiser from the experience of reading it. At times I had a hard time keeping March and Cope separate from each other. They were both similar in many ways, so it became difficult to tell them apart, although this does not detract from the arc of the narrative. The book is beautifully designed with sidebars of information supporting the text and maps and illustrations keeping the volume approachable. Noyes certainly did her research. Extensive back matter includes notes, sources, a timeline, bibliography, and index. My favorite learned fact is that the first dinosaur bones discovered in the US came from New Jersey. I've dropped that fact more than once this week while showing yet one more dino-lover the dinosaur section of the non-fiction. Chuck full of facts and history, readers will also learn about human nature and greed, as Cope and March loose themselves in the chase and become obsessed with out-collecting the other. Certainly useful for reports and the classroom, this new book will also find a use recreationally and deserves a place on library shelves.

Saturday, April 20, 2019

Sadie

Image result for sadie summers coverSadie
Courtney Summers
Wednesday Books, 2018 320 pages
Grades 10-Adult
Realistic Fiction

Alternating voices and formats tell the story of Sadie, a nineteen-year-old girl searching for the murderer of her younger sister. The main story is told by Sadie herself as she hits the road in search of her drug-addicted mother's ex-boyfriend who sexually abused her when she was younger. Sadie is convinced that it was Keith who murdered Mattie and is determined to find him and get her revenge. The search is impeded by Sadie’s pronounced stutter, making communication difficult and uncomfortable. On the way she meets interesting people, some more likable and more helpful than others, finally making her way to Keith's doorstep-only to find another surprise. Meanwhile, alternating chapters are told in a podcast, as West McCray follows Sadie's path, slowly uncovering her journey and motivations. The story is revealed little by little, as the true damage done by Keith unfolds and the extent of the horrors lurking within him are exposed.

Discovered on a list of audio-books great for family summer road trips, I gave this book a listen. Podcasts are hot right now and I was intrigued to hear a book that encompasses this format. It is an excellent audio-book, one that is even better than the print version. The print version shows the script of the podcast, yet in the audio book you can hear the actual podcast, complete with sound effects, background music, multiple voices, and the full extent of Sadie’s stutter. That said, because of the graphic nature of this book, I would not recommend it for family road trips--or, for that matter-younger teens. It gets very graphic, as Keith is a sexual predictor and sexual abuse, violence, neglect, and drug addiction are all active parts of the plot. The story is carefully constructed and the truth slowly revealed with little twists and turns along the way, weaving itself into a tight story. There is some closure at the end, yet we never know completely what happens, leaving the final details up to the imagination of the reader. Some characters find healing, others are left hanging, but that's life, isn't it? The reader will experience the story both from the eyes of the protagonist and those of the male reporter, who spends a life-changing year with Sadie, yet never meets her. I keep thinking that the title of the book is The Girls, which is the title of the podcast. Maybe that is too common a title, but I think it would have worked better for the story, since it really is a tribute to lost girls everywhere without a voice.

Friday, April 19, 2019

Midnight at the Electric

Image result for midnight at the electricMidnight at the Electric
Jodi Lynn Anderson
HarperCollins, 2017 25 pages
Grades 8-Up
Science Fiction/Historical Fiction

It’s the year 2065 and half of America is under water because of Global Warming. Orphaned Adri, has been chosen to spend the rest of her days colonizing Mars. While she waits for her launch, she is sent to rest at the rundown Kansas farm belonging to a relative, whom she previously knew nothing about: elderly Lily.  While poking around, Adri discovers old letters dating back to the dust bowl days. We now hear the first person narration of Catherine, a teenager living in the dust bowl during the depression. Her little sister is so sick from the dust that Catherine desperately tries to save her by borrowing money to try an electrical cure at a pop-up carnival. The cure fails and Catherine must go to extreme measures, even abandoning the boy she loves. Another envelope of letters takes the story back another generation and we hear the tale of Lenore, who is morning the loss of her brother from the battlefields of WWI. She finds comfort in the arms of a disfigured young man who is hiding out in an outbuilding on her family's English property. By the book's end, Adri and Lily have bonded, the mystery of the authors of the letters is somewhat solved and the three stories come together, all connected by a single surviving Galapagos tortoise.

I have been holding onto this ARC for two years and finally decided that it was "now or never". So glad I went for it! This book has a little of everything: dystopia, historical fiction, mystery, and romance all rolled into one. It is a story-within a story-within a story, all coming together by the end. The title is only a very little part of the plot. It would have made more sense to name the book after the tortoise that binds the girls together, but electricity is flashier and will potentially sell more copies. All of the main characters were very different and distinctly drawn. Readers will feel as if they know them and will sympathize with their tales. Once I got started reading, I had a hard time putting the book down. I think Midnight at the Electric would appeal to a wide-range of readers, most notably teen girls, as it crosses genres and keeps readers guessing. Be prepared for tears, as there are several emotional moments. I am very surprised I haven't heard more about it from teen readers. I plan on passing it onto my seventeen year old daughter with perfect confidence that she will love it!

Wednesday, April 17, 2019

Because of the Rabbit

Related imageBecause of the Rabbit
Cynthia Lord
Scholastic, 2019 183 pages
Grades 3-6
Realistic Fiction

Homeschooled Emma is a little excited, but mostly scared, the night before she is to start public school for the first time. Her father, a Maine game-warden, is called out to remove a trapped rabbit. Emma tags along and she and Dad discover that it is not a wild rabbit, but a pet and she takes him home. Emma names her new friend Monsieur Lapin (Lapi) after the main character in her beloved grandfather's stories. Fifth grade starts out awkward and rough. Emma tries to make friends with the two girls seated next to her, yet they seem to already be best friends with no room for a third. Another seatmate, Jack, is friendly, yet inappropriately strange. He is kind to Emma and interested in her pets, yet she is scared to call him a friend in case it puts off one of the girls. A new classmate brings to Emma's attention a missing rabbit in the neighborhood. Could it be Monsieur Lapin? Emma is scared to confess the find to her parents or call the number. She is also scared to be Jack's friend in public. As Emma's world gets bigger, life gets scarier, yet with the help of her supportive family and lessons learned from her new pet, Emma works it all out.

This quiet friendship story is for a slightly younger audience than Lord's famous and fan favorite Rules. As per an author's note at the end, Lord confesses to adding elements of her own life to the story including rabbits, homeschooling, French-Canadian storytelling grandparents, and a family member with autism. She encourages children to get writing and to use their own personal stories to get started. Whether homeschooled or not, readers will relate to this first person account of a young girl struggling to fit in and find a friend. Many kids love animals and will also relate to Emma's passion for her pets. Each chapter heading is a rabbit tip seemingly ripped out of a notebook that connects to what is to follow. This story is perfect for readers getting into harder chapter books. It reads quickly, has large margins, and consists of a lot of dialog. What it doesn't have is illustrations, which is refreshing to see and has become a rarity in books for this age group. The Maine setting is realized and cozy and Emma's family is kind and supportive as she branches out and expands her world.  As in Rules, Lord includes an autistic character who, though different, is a great friend, hopefully broadening reader's perceptions. My favorite message of the book is when Emma learns that to have friends, your need to first be a friend. The penny drops and Emma does the right thing, allowing her an entrance into school society. A great lesson for all of us!

Tuesday, April 16, 2019

Bridge to Terabithia

Image result for bridge terabithia coverBridge to Terabithia
Katherine Paterson
Crowell, 1977 128 pages
Grades 4-7
Realistic Fiction

Jess is anxious to begin fifth grade. It is not easy to be the only boy and middle child in a rural family that never seems to have enough. He has been practicing his running all summer in the hope of being the fastest boy in the daily races during recess. This year there is a surprise. A new girl has moved next door and she not only races with the boys instead of jumping rope, but is faster than even Jess. At first he resists her friendship, but eventually discovers that the two of them have much in common. Jess loves to draw, making him different than the other boys and Leslie is a bit of a tomboy with a huge imagination. The two friends find a magical spot in the woods and name it the Kingdom of Terabithia. It is here that their imaginations run wild and they can be totally themselves. Unfortunately, after the best day of Jess' life, tragedy strikes. Jess is not sure how to appropriately deal with the news as his life is thrown upside down. Somehow, through the power of imagination and the magic of Terabithia he finds a path towards healing.

Chosen as a final book/movie selection for my combined elementary book clubs, I was very anxious to reread this classic to see if it stands up to the test of time. Written in a very different place (rural American) and a different time (pre internet and social media) when children were encouraged to play outside in all kinds of weather unmonitored, it demonstrates the best and the worst in the "good old days". The unmonitored play results in a terrible tragedy, yet the creative freedom is also the path leading Jess to healing. I forgot that books and movies from this time period almost required a few curse words. I was startled by the amount of swearing in this book, especially since we no longer see it in children's fiction. Paterson paints a beautiful friendship between a boy and a girl at an age when this is awkward. She also effectively deals with a bully and how bullies are vulnerable and worthy of our compassion. I love the message of the positive effect of the arts in our schools and the portrayal of teachers as human and compassionate, even when they seem stern and unfeeling at first glance. Yes, the book is still a tear-jerker and, in my humble opinion, one-hundred percent worthy of its Newbery medal. I will be gathering with my book group kids in a few weeks to watch the movie from 2007 and discuss both and am very interested to hear what they have to say and if this story speaks to them.

Wednesday, April 10, 2019

Coyote Sunrise

Image result for coyote sunrise coverThe Remarkable Journey of Coyote Sunrise
Dan Gemeinhart
Holt/Macmillan, 2019 341 pages
Grades 4-7
Realistic Fiction

Coyote has been living on a converted school bus with Rodeo, her Dad, as they crisscross the country, letting the road lead them. They have been in deep mourning ever since a traffic accident that killed Coyote's mother and two sisters. A small crack erupts in their cocooned existence in the form of a kitten Coyote picks up for free at a rest stop. She convinces Rodeo to let the little guy stay and opens the window-just a little-to let others in. After a call to her grandmother Coyote learns that the park near her former home is being bulldozed. She and her mother and sisters hid a memory box in the shade of one of the trees and she is determined to collect that box. Only, how can she talk Rodeo into returning to a town filled with memory landmines? Coyote becomes determined to trick Rodeo into retrieving the box, letting strangers onto the bus to help with the driving and into their lives. By the time they cross the country, back to Washington State, Coyote and Rodeo gain more than the memory box. They walk away with a fresh commitment to each other and a new family of folks with whom to journey on the road of life.

This new book by Gemeinhart will find a ready audience in the middle readers of the trending problem novel. Coyote and Rodeo's story is so sad that it truly broke my heart and I understand why Rodeo chose to take to the road. The book does not remain sad. There are very funny bits right from the start that will entertain readers and lighten up the heavy underlining premise. I love a road trip book filled with quirky characters and this title certainly is all that. I read a review that criticized the novel for not developing the secondary characters enough. The story is told in the first person and we are seeing everything from Coyote's eyes. A twelve year old only sees others as they relate to themselves and no characters, especially adults, are particularly developed in the narrative of their own lives. Rodeo was crushingly flawed, yet loving, and both he and Coyote experience considerable growth throughout the story. I found this book hard to put down and I became emotionally attached to its narrator. Young readers will feel the same way and I have already recommended it to a few. This will be a great title for book discussion and I have already added it to next year's line-up.

Tuesday, April 9, 2019

A Box of Bones

Image result for box of bones coverA Box of Bones
Cohen, Marina
Roaring Book Press/Macmillan, May, 2019
288 pages
Grades 4-6
Fantasy

Very practical Kallie attends the town's "Festival of Fools" with her grandfather, where she encounters a strange girl dancing in the rain and an even stranger faceless man who gives her a mysterious magical box before vanishing into thin air. It is a puzzle box and Kallie becomes obsessed with figuring out how to open it. The school year begins and Kallie is reunited with her equally practical best friend, Pole, and meets the new girl: the same one from the rainstorm. Anna insists on being called "Anastasia" and invents stories about her glamorous life and her circus performing parents. Further investigation reveals that Anna is a foster child living in compromised accommodations who makes-up stories as a coping mechanism. Kallie is unsympathetic until she discovers the truth behind the death of her own mother and the secrets that her father has been keeping from her all of her life. Meanwhile, alternating chapters tell the story of Liah from fairy tale days, who unearths a magical bone, which brings doom to herself and her master and leads to a battle with an evil queen. The two stories come together by the end, as Kallie finally comes to terms with her family's secrets and allows herself to delve into her creative side.

Cohen's latest offering will be a perfect choice for fans of magical realism, contemporary problem stories, and those who like their fantasy a little dark. The atmospheric tale will be perfect for fans of Doll Bones by Holly Black or Coraline, although not quite as creepy. It begins with a quote from Neil Gaiman, which is an immediate plus in my book, stating "Sometimes fiction is a way of coping with the poison of the world in a way that lets us survive it". Love this quote and am living it! Cohen goes on to demonstrate exactly how this can work through the character of Anna. With Kallie she shows how releasing our creativity can be therapeutic and living only for practicalities is half a life. Readers will find the story-with-in-a-story interesting. The fairy tale-esque portion is in italics, so readers will not be confused as to which story they are reading. The important threads of the plot are sewn up, such as the truth behind Anna, the real whereabouts of Kallie's mother, and how the two tales intersect. A few questions remain by book's end and a few plot points seem a bit unrealistic, yet readers probably won't notice or care. A Box of Bones is perfect for a rainy day by a fire and will be enjoyed by both committed fantasy lovers and those new to the genre.

Wednesday, April 3, 2019

Not So Normal Norbert

Not So Normal Norbert; Hardcover; Author - James PattersonNot So Normal Norbert
James Patterson & Joey Green
Hatem Aly, Illustrator
Jimmy Patterson Books/Little Brown, 2018
349 pages
Grades 4-7
Science Fiction/Humor


In near-future Earth life is very dull. The weather is grey, the clothing is grey, pretty much the whole world is grey. Even worse, no one is allowed to have an unusual or creative thought or be different in any way. Bored out of his mind and missing his parents who were arrested years ago by the truth police, Norbert entertains his class with a hysterical impression of Loving Leader that lands him in prison. He is deemed "different and dangerous" and sent to a distant planet where other creative renegades are exiled. Here he meets some interesting young people, yet he resists giving in to his artistic impulses. Norbert is determined to prove that he is not different in order to be sent back to Earth to find his parents. The call of an improv troupe becomes too irresistible to pass up and he reluctantly gets involved--and excels. The troupe puts together a comedy show with Norbert's impression as the cornerstone and himself as the director. The show is filmed with the camp’s equipment and is accidentally televised back to every screen on Earth. Loving Leader is furious. Will this ruin Norbert's chances to find his parents?

James Patterson adds to his stable of highly readable series with this latest creation. Science fiction and humor combine to make a high-interest and entertaining story, sure to entice reluctant readers, even boys who don't think that they like to read. The book is long at first glance, but the chapters are short with cliff-hangers, the action never stops, and surprises and twist abound. To further add to the appeal each chapter contains a black and white comic illustration complimenting the text. The fact that Loving Leader is the ruler of the whole world and has time to personally chew-out Norbert for misdirection is a bit implausible, as are other plot points, yet readers won't care. Norbert is a character that class clowns and kids who struggle with keeping still will relate to and the target audience will cheer as he gains confidence and the respect of others. The secondary characters are deliciously quirky and will appeal to creative nerds everywhere. The story ends a little too happy, but readers will find it satisfying, even as certain threads are meant to dangle loosely, encouraging kids to crack into the next series installment, who's release date is yet to be announced.

Tuesday, April 2, 2019

The Unbelievable Oliver and the Four Jokers

Image result for unbelievable oliverThe Unbelievable Oliver and the Four Jokers
Pseudonymous Bosch
Shane Pangburn, Illustrator
Dial, May, 2019 188 pages
Grade 2-5
Mystery
Unbelievable Oliver series #1


Poor Oliver! He is the only student in his third grade class not invited to rich-kid, Maddox's birthday party and his fledgling magic career is off to a bumbling start. When his two best friends, twins Bea and Teenie, land him a gig at the party as the paid entertainment, desperate measures must be taken. Oliver pays a visit to the Great Zoocheeni's Magic Emporium, where his older cousin is employed. He purchases a shabby magic hat containing a secret weapon: a talking rabbit who knows his way around the magic biz. Benny is willing to help Oliver get through this last gig and then he hopes to retire and enjoy the good life, only the show does not go as planned. Halfway through Oliver's act it is discovered that Maddox's favorite present is stolen. Fingers are pointed at Oliver and his friends. They must split up and follow the clue to determine the real perpetrator and then Oliver must finish his act. Does Oliver have what it takes to find the culprit, as well as pull off a real magic act?

As teen author are moving down to middle grade, middle grade seems to be migrating to chapter books. Pseudonymous Bosch (the Secret series) offers a heavily illustrated chapter book with his characteristic humor, although a little less biting and sarcastic than what he pens for an older audience. Magic has become a hot trend, as seen in several new releases this season, and Oliver is sure to find an audience. The featured trick at the party is described in depth in the back and, best of all, involves storytelling. The plot is fast moving and Oliver is a character that the target audience will appreciate and relate to. Cartoon-like illustrations are on almost every page and help to move the plot along, also adding humor to the proceedings. Black and white with purple highlights, they properly reflect both the fun and the magic. The mystery is not particularly advanced, but will serve to introduce new readers to the genre. The talking rabbit, though not plausible, offers comic relief and a foil to Oliver's efforts. A teaser at the end invites readers to crack into the next installment, date yet to be released.