Saturday, December 7, 2013
Absent by Katie Williams (Chronicle, 2013)
Summary from publisher:
Seventeen-year-old Paige is dead, the victim of a freak fall from the roof during Physics class. Now she's a ghost, permanently bound to the grounds of her high school. It isn't all bad: she has the company of her fellow ghosts Evan and Brooke, who also died there. And she can find out everyone's secrets, which can be amusing -- for a while. But then Paige hears something that isn't amusing at all: the rumor spread by the most popular girl at school that her death wasn't an accident -- that she supposedly jumped on purpose. Paige is desperate to stop the gossip, but what can a ghost do? Then she discovers something amazing. She can possess living people when they think of her, and she can make them do almost anything. Maybe, just maybe, she can get inside the girl who's responsible for the stories... and have a little fun turning the tables while she's at it.
It seems over the past few years I've read more and more books about a teenage girl who dies and has some sort of ghost life - some of these are better than others. Some of them feel like the same old, same old. Absent is one of the better ones. Not only is it well-written, it has several plot twists that kept me reading, wondering what was going to happen next.
I found it interesting that Paige, the main character, is unsure of exactly how she fell off the roof of the school. At several points in the book, Paige goes through the moments leading up to her death, trying to recreate in her memory exactly what happened. She can remember JUST to the moment and then.... nothing. Paige tries even harder to remember when she overhears Kelsey, the most popular girl in school, say that Paige jumped on purpose. Paige is almost certain that she DIDN'T kill herself, and she sets out to clear her name.
That's when she realizes she can inhabit the bodies of other students. All they need to do is think of her and she can slip inside their bodies and control their movements. Of course, there are consequences....
Absent is a bit of a psychological mystery.... there's more to these characters than is obvious on the surface. Hand this book to readers who enjoy paranormal fiction (I hesitated to use the word romance, since this is definitely not a romance). The size of the book as well as the intensity of the story will appeal to reluctant as well as avid readers.
Friday, December 6, 2013
Twerp by Marc Goldblatt (Random House, 2013)
Summary from publisher:
Julian Twerski isn't a bad kid. He's just made a big mistake. So when he returns to school after a weeklong suspension, his English teacher offers him a deal: if he keeps a journal and writes about the terrible incident that got him and his friends suspended, he can get out of a report on Shakespeare. Julian jumps at the chance, and so begins his account of life in sixth grade -- blowing up homemade fireworks, writing a love letter for his best friend (with disastrous results), and worrying whether he's still the fastest kid in school. Lurking in the background, though, is the one story he can't bring himself to tell, the one story his teacher most wants to hear.
Inspired by mark Goldblatt's childhood in 1960s Queens, Twerp shines with humor and heart. This remarkably powerful story will have readers laughing and crying right along with these flawed but unforgettable characters.
Twerp, set in the 1960s in Queens, New York, is a book that deserves a place on the middle school book shelf. Told through Julian's English journal, it is the story of bad decisions and the consequences that follow. We see Julian pulled into bullying other kids through the influence of his friend Lonnie, who is kind of like Teflon.... nothing sticks to him. Though Julian is not innocent, Lonnie is just as responsible for many of the pranks described, but receives no punishments or consequences. At times, I just wanted to shake Julian and ask him why he thought Lonnie was so great. Of course, as an outsider, I can see those relationships. When you're a part of one, it's harder to see.
Over the course of the book, Julian does a lot of growing up and realizes that perhaps the "fun" pranks he pulled on his friends and others in the school were not so fun for all involved. He begins to show remorse for his actions and a realization that the world does not revolve around him OR Lonnie.
This book would be a great addition to a study on bullying. It's not a heavy-handed, didactic story that will turn middle school readers off. Instead, it's a realistic story where the characters are human - no one is wholly good or wholly bad. The characters feel like real kids who make stupid decisions and grow from the lessons learned.
Thursday, December 5, 2013
The Clockwork Scarab by Colleen Gleason (Chronicle, 2013)
Summary from publisher:
Evaline Stoker and Mina Holmes never meant to get into the family business. But when you're the sister of Bram and the niece of Sherlock, vampire hunting and mystery solving are in your blood, so to speak. And when two young society girls disappear -- one dead, one missing -- there's no one more qualified to investigate. now fierce Evaline and logical Mina must resolve their rivalry, navigate the advances of not just one but three mysterious gentlement, and solve a murder with only one clue: a strange Egyptian scarab. The pressure is on and the stakes are high -- if Stoker and Holmes don't figure out why London's finest sixteen-year-old women are in danger, they'll become the next victims.
I'm usually not a fan of mysteries, but the description of the main characters of this one had me intrigued. I wondered how Gleason would get Stoker and Holmes together to solve a mystery, and how these two families would fit together at all. Add to it the Steampunk setting, and I was hooked.
In The Clockwork Scarab, Stoker and Holmes must figure out why high-society girls just their age are going missing and turning up dead. Their clues are limited - the biggest one a clockwork scarab that leads them to a mysterious Society of Sekhmet. As the girls learn to work together and rely on each others' strengths, they find that they might just be able to become friends.
The mystery here kept me reading. There were enough red herrings thrown in to keep me guessing, but not so many that I got frustrated. I'm not sure I loved the ending.... I need to think about it for a bit. I enjoyed getting to know the two girls, though I think Mina's character was more well-developed than Evaline's. I'm guessing the next book (because you can tell there will be a next book) will focus more on Evaline's talents and abilities in solving another mystery.
Teens who enjoy mysteries or who are fans of the Steampunk genre will enjoy The Clockwork Scarab. They don't necessarily need to know a lot about Bram Stoker or Sherlock Holmes in order to understand the plot of this novel, and who knows.... after reading The Clockwork Scarab they may be inspired to go pick up Dracula or one of the Sherlock Holmes mysteries. This is definitely a book that can be used to ladder readers to some of the classics they might not pick up otherwise.
Wednesday, December 4, 2013
Navigating Early by Clare Vanderpool
Summary from publisher:
After his mother's death at the end of World War II, Jack Baker is suddenly uprooted from his home in Kansas and placed in a boys' boarding school in Maine. There he meets Early Auden, the strangest of boys, who reads the number pi as an unending story and collects clippings about sightings of a black bear in the nearby mountains.
Feeling lost and adrift, Jack can't help being drawn to Early, who refuses to believe what everyone accepts to be the truth about the great Appalachian bear, timber rattlesnakes, and the legendary school hero known as the Fish, who was lost in the war.
When Jack and Early find themselves alone at school, they set out for the Appalachian Trail on a quest for the great black bear. Along the way, they meet some truly strange characters, several of them dangerous, all lost in some way, and each a part of the pi story Early continues to reveal. Jack's ability to be a steadfast friend to Early will be tested as the boys discover things they never knew about themselves and others.
Navigating Early was a book I could not put down once I started reading it. Vanderpool's writing is strong and highly descriptive. I could picture myself there in Maine, feeling lost as the new kid in school, desperately wanting my father's attention. I wanted to know more about Early and why he keeps himself separated from the other boys in the school. What happened in his life that made him the way he is? I wanted to know more about Jack and his dad and why their relationship was so strained.
Vanderpool did not disappoint. As the story unfurled, she left little clues along the way for the reader to pick up and wonder about. Little breadcrumbs that put together told the whole story of both boys and led to a satisfying conclusion.
I do wonder about kid appeal for this one. I wonder if I enjoyed it as an adult because I was able to pay attention to the details of the story in a way most young readers I know can not. I'd love to talk to middle schoolers who have read and enjoyed this book. I can think of a handful of former students who I would hand this book to and who would read and enjoy it.
Strong readers who prefer character-driven novels and who enjoy paying attention to the writer's craft in the books they read will certainly enjoy Navigating Early.
Tuesday, December 3, 2013
Samantha Sutton and the Winter of the Warrior Queen by Jordan Jacobs
(Sourcebooks Jabberwocky, January 2014)
Summary from Goodreads:
A secret society, a lost fortress, a precious artifact only Samantha Sutton can protect.
Twelve-year-old Samantha Sutton isn't sure she wants to go to England with her Uncle Jay, a brilliant, risk-taking archeologist. But the trip seems safe enough--a routine excavation in Cambridge--and Samantha has always had a love for the past.
At first the project seems unremarkable--just a survey to clear the way for a massive theme park. But everything changes when Sam uncovers something extraordinary. Are the local legends true? Is this the site of the ancient fortress belonging to Queen Boudica, the warrior queen? What treasures might be found?
When others begin to learn of her findings, Samantha senses she is in danger. Can any of her friends be trusted? Samantha will need to solve the mystery of the site in order to protect herself and let the world know of her remarkable discovery.
The Samantha Sutton series is great for middle grade readers who love mystery and adventure. The archeology and folklore that help to make up the plot provide an interesting and intriguing twist, as does the plucky 12-year-old heroine, Samantha Sutton.
Recently, I had the opportunity to interview the author, Jordan Jacobs. Mr. Jacobs is an archaeologist who was inspired by his experiences to write the Samantha Sutton stories. I wanted to know just how his profession as an archaeologist helped him when he began writing and how he came up with Samantha's character. Here's what he had to say!
1. How did you decide to make the main character of this adventure/mystery a girl?
Making Samantha a girl wasn’t really a conscious decision. It’s just what came to mind. I had an idea for a series of stories involving a responsible girl and her dashing, irresponsible uncle. There was something about that dynamic that interested me. What happens when the person who is supposed to keep a kid safe has no understanding of danger?.
2. How did you come up with the character of Samantha Sutton?
As Samantha took shape, she started to become more and more like the many strong women and girls I know in my life: my wife, to a large degree, and my sisters and friends. But she’s like me, in many ways, too: our interests are the same, as is our love of the puzzles that archaeology is designed to solve.
3. Which came first - the character or the plot, and how did that decision affect the way you approached writing the book?
Actually, what first came was a list of settings that I would’ve loved to read about as a kid! The bleak, spooky marshes of England are exactly the kind of place that would have sparked my imagination. So, too, is the incredible temple of Chavin de Huantar, Peru, (And so are the settings of Samantha’s next adventures...but I’m keeping those secret for now!). The characters followed, and then the plot. Having an understanding of how each character would respond was helpful in choosing the most interesting situations to stick them in.
4. As an archaeologist, you do a lot of digging to find out the history of the area you're studying. How are archaeology and writing related?
Great question! There are actually many similarities. To start with, both require a lot of patience, and a certain amount of faith that all the careful, detailed work will eventually accumulate into something more profound. There’s a sequencing component, as well. Archaeologists work hard to determine how one thing led to another. In writing a book--and especially, in editing--similar logic plays a role in ensuring that all threads of the story make sense in the order they’re written, and that the plot unfolds in a logical way.
5. What advice would you give to middle school kids who would like to write?
Practice! Like any other skill, you just have to keep at it. It won’t be long before you have an idea for what works and what doesn’t, and a voice and style of your own. And while I think it’s important just to write, regardless of who may read your work, you might be surprised: elements of stories I wrote in seventh and eighth grades have found their way into the Samantha Sutton books.
So there you have it.... great insight and great advice from Jordan Jacobs. If you haven't read Samantha Sutton and the Labyrinth of Lies, you have time to read it before Winter of the Warrior Queen drops in January.
Give it a read... you won't be sorry.
Monday, December 2, 2013
Listening for Lucca by Suzanne LaFleur
(Wendy Lamb, 2013)
Summary from publisher:
"We're moving to your house," Mom reminded me. "The one from your dream."
Siena doesn't mind moving to Maine. It's not like she has any friends in Brooklyn, where everyone thinks she's weird. She has strange, vivid dreams. During the day, she sees visions, moments from the past. And she collects lost things that have been left behind.
No one is sure what Siena's little brother, Lucca, will think of moving, because Lucca hasn't spoken in over a year.
The family's new house, which feels oddly familiar to Siena, holds many secrets. When Siena finds an old pen in her room, she begins to write a story about a girl who lived in their house many years ago. The story becomes so real it's as fi Siena is living it herself.
Gradually, parallels emerge between the past and the present, and Siena wonders -- is this house the wrong place for Lucca, or will its secrets be the key to finding his voice?
Listening for Luca has a lyrical quality to the writing that pulled me in from the beginning. I knew I would probably enjoy the writing, since one of La Fleur's earlier books, Love, Aubrey, was a favorite when it appeared on our state book award list. Like in Love, Aubrey, the main character in this book is a girl who is trying to solve a mystery about her life. In this case, it's the puzzle of why she can see wisps of the past in her dreams and when she holds objects with history. In addition, she's trying to figure out if she's responsible for her brother's selective mutism. Throughout the story, the reader goes along as Siena finds clues to her present in her new house's past. We also see her begin to reach out to new friends for companionship and support, something she was missing back in her old neighborhood.
Unlike many young adult novels, Siena's parents are neither missing or negligent. In fact, her parents play important roles in this touching novel. At times I wondered if her mother's hovering and constant attention on Lucca was part of the reason he refused to speak, though as a parent I could understand her worry about her child. It was nice to read a YA book that didn't cast the adults in the book as villains.
Readers who like their realistic fiction with a touch of magic will enjoy Listening for Lucca. It's a touching story full of heart with a little mystery for good measure.
Sunday, December 1, 2013
The Clockwork Three by Matthew J. Kirby (Scholastic, 2010)
Summary from publisher:
Embark on an astonishing adventure...
Giuseppe is an orphaned street musician who sees no way to escape from his ruthless master, until the day he finds an enchanted green violin.
Frederick is an apprentice clockmaker with a past he cannot remember, who secretly works to build the most magnificent clockwork man the world has ever seen.
Hannah is a maid in a grand hotel, whose life is one of endless drudgery, until she encounters a mystifying new guest and learns of a hidden treasure.
As mysterious circumstances bring them together, the lives of these three children soon interlock, like the turning gears of a clock, and they realize that each one holds the key to the others' puzzles. The trio's adventures sweep them through the winding alleyways and glittering plazas of their city, and along the way Giuseppe, Frederick, and Hannah must learn to trust in one another -- and in themselves --- for they risk losing the things they hold most dear, as the dangers they face quickly become all too real.
The Clockwork Three is a middle grade novel about the power of friendship and the importance of helping others reach goals. Each of the three main characters has suffered hardship in life and believe they can trust no one but themselves. When chance brings the three together, they realize that they are stronger together. Giuseppe needs to find a way to outwit and escape Stephano, the cruel man who forces him to give up the money he makes as a street musician. Hannah works to support her entire family after her father, a stonemason, suffers a tragic accident. Frederick is an orphan desperate to remember the mother he lost as a young child. Each of them faces great obstacles in reaching their dreams.
Readers who have experienced The Invention of Hugo Cabret will understand the descriptions of the clockwork man who plays a central role in this story. For a fourth or fifth grader who might be encountering the idea of clockwork for the first time, showing him or her a few pictures of the elaborate clocks and watches that were popular during the previous century will help them to visualize Frederick's work.
Overall I enjoyed this story. The three story lines start out as separate stories that are eventually woven together into a complex, intriguing plot. There were definitely times when I wondered how any of the three children would achieve their goals, and Kirby does a good job of building and eventually resolving that suspense. Secondary characters come and go and can be confusing at times, so careful reading of those scenes is a must.
Hand The Clockwork Three to readers who enjoy mystery and adventure. They're sure to enjoy it.