Tuesday, March 24, 2015

The Walls Around Us

I love NetGalley for allowing me to read books ahead of time, but I have waited seven months to rave about Nova Ren Suma's  The Walls Around Us. My best way to summarize my feelings for the novel is, "I loved it, everyone must read it, can someone please explain the ending?"

The Walls Around Us has two narrators: Amber, who is locked away in a juvenile detention center for the murder of her stepfather, and Violet, a ballerina whose best friend has been convicted of murder and sent to the same prison. Ori, the best friend and best person in the novel, never gets to share her inner thoughts, but the way she is described by Amber and Violet makes the reader feel sad and worried about her fate.

When someone is locked up, time takes on an elastic quality, and the author plays with that, keeping the reader guessing when the events are taking place. Nothing in Suma's world is as straightforward as it seems, or as the characters wish.

The Walls Around Us is a book about relationships, particularly between girls. After three years in the detention center, Amber has taken on a hive mind mentality--much of her thoughts are projected as part of the group. "We were, all of us, the exact opposite of special. We were bad. Broken. It was up to the state to rehabilitate us into something worthy, if it even could." Amber protects herself and disassociates  from her actions by sticking to the pronoun 'we' when she refers to bad things that may or may not have been done.

The end of the book was confusing to me, but only because Suma has drifted heavily into the magic realism by this point. I think once someone I know has read it and we are able to discuss, I will fully appreciate the conclusion the way that I loved the rest of the book.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Reconstructing Amelia

I wasn't sure if I should review Reconstructing Amelia here. I mostly review YA and middle grade books, and have been particularly trying to focus on the books that would appeal to 5th and 6th graders. Reconstructing Amelia is for the oldest of young adults and adults.

After her only daughter commits suicide by jumping from her school's roof, single mother Kate is devastated. But when she receives a text message saying that Amelia didn't jump, Kate is determined to get answers.

Full of secret societies, bullying, teenage love, and plot twist, Reconstructing Amelia will appeal to fans of Gossip Girl and Gone Girl. For me, it was the perfect vacation read and a break from reading books that I can recommend to my students.

Sometimes you have to read a book just for you.

Friday, March 13, 2015

Greenglass House

I'm not sure who the audience is for Greenglass House. It's a middle grade novel, but seems geared towards adults who read middle grade novels, rather than actual ten year olds.

I was enchanted by the setting. Give me an old hotel with stained glass windows, perched on a hill in a snowstorm. Continue handing out steaming mugs and having the mysterious hotel guests tell each other stories that may involve the history of the smugglers' hotel. Keep me guessing about who is trustworthy. But don't ask my students to do that, because they won't.

Milo and his friend Meddy decide to figure out the true background of the guests, but in the guise of a role playing game. Which means that half of the time, they go by the names Negret and Sirin. I guarantee that many of my students would think those were two separate characters. Not a slam on my students, it's just confusing to skip between names, often in the same paragraph.

I also don't know many preteens who would persevere through sentences like, "There were three sconces along the wall on each side, and at the far end, a little half-circle-shaped table with a potted white poinsettia on it." So many of the sentences in Greenglass House were just like that. Curious, I looked up the Lexile for the novel, and it is only 800. But the sentences are long and the vocabulary is complex (puissance, glazier, etc.). Aside from that, it took 100 pages to really get going. I had to force myself to finish.

I'm glad I read to the end and learned the truth of the mystery. I don't know any young readers who would do the same.

Saturday, March 7, 2015

Hollow City

I have a rule that whenever a student recommends a book to me, it jumps to the top of my To Be Read pile. When the student hands me the physical copy, I read it in one day so that I can discuss it with her. Or maybe that wasn't the only reason I read it in one day. Ransom Riggs' Hollow City is addictive and hard to put down.

I remember liking the first book, Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children for its creepy ambiance and uniqueness. Still, the characters were rusty in my memory. I did have a vague recollection of Jacob, the narrator, being whiny, but I didn't find him that way in this book. The beginning of the novel features portraits of the characters, which helped me keep them and their peculiarities sorted.

It's rare to enjoy the second book in the series more than the first, but I think I prefer this book. Jacob has accepted that he is a Peculiar, so we don't have to deal with any angst, we just get to follow the group on adventures throughout time and space. The book is fast-paced and full of surprises, particularly the end. When my student handed it to me, she said, "There's going to be a third one." Hooray for that!

Sunday, March 1, 2015

The Crossover

I've been trying to track down Kwame Alexander's The Crossover since last year, and managed to get my hands on it days before it won the 2015 Newbery Medal. As a fan of novels in verse, I couldn't be happier.

JB and Josh are the twin sons of a retired basketball superstar. They are fairly interchangeable at the start of the book: popular, talented, and funny. Then JB gets a girlfriend and Josh is hurt by that, and their differences come to the surface.

With a tearjerking ending, this book will appeal to so many different readers. I have the boys will read any basketball book, the kids who like novels in verse because they are quick reads, the readers who want the "hot titles." The Crossover is good for all of them. I am so happy that it won THE major award, another point for the We Need Diverse Books movement.

Monday, February 23, 2015

I Was Here

I Was Here is so incredibly readable. I opened it up and suddenly I had zoomed through a third of the book. Bravo Gayle Forman for grabbing me and hooking me.

Cody's best friend committed suicide and now she is picking up the pieces of Meg's life. Meg always shone brighter than Cody, but hid a dark side that comes to the surface when Cody starts to investigate her death. I wanted to know more about their relationship and why Meg would choose to end her life. I found their friendship to be believable and perfect for the small town setting.

I was disappointed by the romance in the book. I understand that the target audience is young adults, but it felt inauthentic for Cody to fall for this guy who seemed fairly unlikable and was involved with her dead friend. Ben just didn't have enough of a spark to make that big leap. The only thing I can think of is that her mother has terrible taste in men and Cody shares it. The story didn't need Cody and Ben to fall in love for people to read it.

I Was Here isn't on the same level as If I Stay, but it was the most engaging book I've read lately.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

A Long Walk to Water

I'm sure every book reviewer has that moment when they wonder, "Am I a bad person if I don't like this?" For me, that book is A Long Walk to Water. As I was procrastinating writing this review, I saw a tweet that said, "A Long Walk to Water is so good! It sparked a thoughtful discussion about if reading helps us become better people :-) #titletalk" Oops.

I really wanted to love it. There were many Sudanese "Lost Boys" that worked at the Trader Joe's near where I grew up. I had a vague idea of why they were in Massachusetts and always marveled at them, so tall and friendly. I was eager to read a story that I could share with my students, but I just didn't get it from Linda Sue Park's short novel.

I wanted more in-depth information, especially since it is based on the true story of Salva Dut. Perhaps it is because the book is targeted at children, but I wanted to know about Salva's time in a refugee camp. Since he spent six years there, it merited more than one sentence. While I admit that the book picked up at the end, for me, most of the book was similar to Salva's journey across Sudan: a grueling slog. I won't be recommending it.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Nest

I had heard that Nest by Esther Ehrlich was a sad book, and it's true. This was probably the most dismal middle grade novel I've come across. Beautifully written, but it's dark.

Chirp's mother has an illness that will never get better, and it's affecting the entire family. Her psychologist father is trying to hold things together, her older sister is going to adult parties, and Chirp tries to make her mother happy. She's too young to understand that choreographing dances and baking pies can't touch the sadness of depression.

Ehrlich makes you feel for the characters. Poor Chirp and her friend Joey, the bad kid from a bad family, just want to be normal children, but the odds are stacked against them. Joey, in particular, was just a raw wound of a character. I wanted to bundle him up and bring him home with me. Unfortunately, we don't get to write the endings to the books we read.

In my classroom, I post the covers of all the books I read, so I know my students will ask me about Nest. I am hesitant to recommend this book to anyone--I don't know many fifth graders who like to be sad and finish a book feeling unsettled. Still, it was well written and any book written in Cape Cod gets bonus points from me.

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Spy School

Ben Ripley is like many kids who think it would be cool to be a spy. When the CIA selects him for a top secret spy school, he's surprised, because math is his only strength. If he thought he was unqualified before arriving, he knows it once assassins start trying to kill him and all his fellow students seem suspicious. When a genuine crisis occurs, Ben has to use everything he knows to prove he belongs, and to stay alive.

I dove right into Spy School after finishing Stuart Gibbs' book, Belly Up. I found them to be very similar: funny, clever, and full of adventure. When I told the premise to my 5th graders, they were all very eager to check out the book when I finished. It is perfect for their age group, as all Gibbs' books seem to be.

Now, I'm torn. Do I read the sequel to Belly Up or do I read the sequel to Spy School first?

Friday, January 30, 2015

Belly Up

Hooray for Stuart Gibbs and fun middle grade mysteries!

After the heaviness of The Winter Prince, I decided on something light and selected Belly Up, based on the cover. I was so happy to find a successor to Carl Hiaasen's animal mysteries.

Teddy Fitzroy gets to live in the world's greatest zoo, FunJungle, where his parents are employees and he can spend his day exploring the park. It's different from where he grew up in the Congo, but at least it's safe. Or it was, until someone murdered the park's mascot, Henry the Hippo, and then decided that Teddy was too curious. Now, he has to figure out who is the murderer, before he becomes the next victim.

This was an engaging and fun book that would make a great read aloud...maybe the one I will start with my class after we finish The Fourteenth Goldfish. I was happy to learn that there is a sequel, Poached, which I will be seeking out. The more modern, appealing mysteries I can recommend to students, the better!