Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Shelf Awareness--A Line in the Dark

YA Review: A Line In The Dark

A Line In The Dark by Malinda Lo (Dutton, $17.99 hardcover, 288p., ages 14-up, 9780735227422)

Even though Angie Redmond seems oblivious, high school junior Jess Wong is very interested in the two of them sharing a romantic "happy ending." But no matter what happens, Jess needs to first make sure her longtime best friend is "okay." When a girl from the exclusive Pearson Brooke boarding school, exuding the usual "we-are-the-sh*t aura," walks into the Creamery where Angie works, Jess immediately senses trouble. And this is before she watches "the Peeb" steal a bag of candy. Afterward, Angie admits she thinks the Peeb (whose name is Margot) is cute, and she and Margot quickly begin dating.

Jess knows she should be happy for her best friend, but watching Angie and Margot together is like "a punch in [the] face." The girls clash repeatedly over Jess's jealousy and dislike of Margot (Jess is sure Angie is "not seeing the real Margot") and the two don't speak for weeks. When they finally make up, Angie convinces Jess to go with her to a small Christmas party at Margot's summer house. The party includes Margot's best friend Ryan, Ryan's boyfriend and four other entitled Peebs. Tensions mount--helped by a healthy dose of alcohol--and secrets, lies and a gun turn into a recipe for disaster.

Jess is a talented comic book artist who draws what she can't say out loud. Her well-thought-out, alternate magical world helps her make sense of her own life, which in turn feeds her art. Her characters Kestrel, Raven and Laney form a familiar love triangle, with passions building out of control. Malinda Lo (Ash) delivers an enthralling mystery full of twists, turns, dark heroics... and high school. --Lynn Becker, blogger and host of Book Talk, a monthly online discussion of children's books for SCBWI. 

Discover: When Jess Wong's longtime best friend and crush Angie begins dating another girl, buried secrets come to light with disastrous results.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

November Recommendations

TRAIN I RIDE, by Paul Mosier, brings us Rydr’s story as she heads east from California via Amtrak. Her mother is dead, her Gramma just died, and she’s bound for a distant relative who lives in Chicago. It’s an emotional journey full of longing, regret, plenty of fun, and some very clever antics courtesy of a unique and absorbing main character. (MG)

ALL THE WIND IN THE WORLD, by Samantha Mabry, tells of Sarah and James who harvest maguey (a plant that gets made into mescal and tequila) in New Mexico. A sudden dust storm and a terrible accident send the two fleeing east, to work at a supposedly cursed ranch called The Real Marvelous. It’s got gorgeous, lyrical prose, fully fleshed out characters and setting, romance, and a touch of magic. Long-listed for the National Book Award this year, this will be a Book Talk discussion book early next year. (YA)

In JANE UNLIMITED, by Kristin Cashore (author of Graceling), Jane has floundered since her beloved Aunt Magnolia was lost while on a photography expedition to Antartica. Because of a bizarre promise, Jane accepts an invitation to the mansion of her former writing tutor, where she is confronted with five life-changing answers to a single question. An intelligent, quirky literary treat. (YA)

ALL THE CROOKED SAINTS, by Maggie Stiefvater, takes place in the "dark, true-dark" of the desert, where 18-year-old Beatriz Soria and her cousins transmit their pirate radio show from the back of a box truck. The entire Soria family are performers of miracles, and pilgrims flock to their ranch, where the darkness inside a person becomes visible. Read it for the language, for the way Stiefvater effortlessly weaves the narrative back and forth in time, and to savor the magic she conjures. (YA)

Also, two great paranormal series have just wound up:

LOCKWOOD & CO., by Jonathan Stroud (Bartimaeus books), caps off a terrific five book run with THE EMPTY GRAVE, an extremely satisfying wrap-up to this series about ghosts and other specters running amok in present-day England. It’s witty, snarky, charming, filled with action, and maybe a bit gross. Teenage Psychic Detective Agent Lucy Carlyle’s sidekick is a ghost in a jar. Not to be missed! (Upper MG)

And JACKABY, by William Ritter concludes in epic fashion with THE DIRE KING. This quartet of novels takes place in the 1890s and features eccentric detective R. F. Jackaby (who rightly understands the supernatural are everywhere). He is ably assisted by Abigail Rook from their offices in New Twiddleham, New England. There’s also shape-shifting police detective Charlie Cane and the very ghostly Jenny Cavanaugh, owner of the New Twiddleham building. It’s Sherlock Holmes meets Harry Potter. (YA)


Thursday, November 9, 2017

Shelf Awareness--The Secret of Nightingale Wood

MG Review: The Secret of Nightingale Wood

The Secret of Nightingale Wood by Lucy Strange (Chicken House, $16.99 hardcover, 304p., ages 8-12, 9781338157475)

When 12-year-old Henrietta Abbott (who has "always been Henry") and her family move to a large old home in the English countryside called Hope House, it's supposed to be a fresh start. But Mama is still "confused and upset" by the tragic death of Henry's older brother, Robert, and Father escapes by taking a job abroad. Henry and her baby sister (affectionately called Piglet) are looked after by Nanny Jane, while Mama is cared for by Doctor Hardy, who keeps her sedated with increasing doses of his "special medicine." Asserting that Mama is too ill to see her remaining children, the doctor chases Henry away.

Henry explores nearby Nightingale Wood, and stumbles upon a fragile woman living in a caravan whom she comes to know as Moth. Even though Moth has her own sadness, she understands that to "lighten the darkness," Mama "needs stories, music, sunshine, birdsong, the smell of a rose, the smile of her daughter." Even with the growing certainty that Mama will be committed to Helldon, "a ghastly gray tomb of a building," Moth helps Henry believe "there will be a way to help."

Literature and fairy tales allow Henry to make sense of her world. Moth is like "a forgotten, fairy-tale princess," while Doctor Hardy "fill[s] the doorway like an ogre." Mama, trapped in her room, is Rapunzel, and numerous literary nightingales allude to freedom. In her debut novel, Strange tells a lovely, extraordinarily enchanting coming-of-age tale. Henry is determined to put things right, even while Dr. Hardy and the other adults begin to question her own sanity. As the cook's husband puts it, "we've all been tossed by the waves... the [t]rick is not to sink." --Lynn Becker, blogger and host of Book Talk, a monthly online discussion of children's books for SCBWI. 

Discover: When her family moves to the English countryside after the death of her older brother, 12-year-old Henrietta Abbott struggles to put her increasingly fragmented world back together.

Saturday, November 4, 2017

Novermber's Book of the Month--Clayton Byrd Goes Underground

November’s Book of the Month is the National Book Award-nominated middle-grade novel CLAYTON BYRD GOES UNDERGROUND, by Rita Williams-Garcia. She's also the Newbery Honor, Scott O’Dell and Coretta Scott King Award-winning author of One Crazy Summer and the sequels P.S. Be Eleven and Gone Crazy in Alabama.

All Clayton Byrd wants is a twelve bar solo when he plays blues harp with his grandfather, Cool Papa Byrd, and the Bluesmen in Washington Square Park. When Cool Papa dies, Clayton loses so much--his best friend, someone he could talk to, tell anything, ask anything—someone who made him feel like a person instead of a little kid. Clayton’s mother has never approved of her father or his blues playing, and when Cool Papa dies, she gets rid of all his things, including guitars and mementos that were meant for Clayton. Not only is Clayton furious, he feels completely lost. With no one to turn to, he grabs his now-confiscated harmonica, cuts school, and heads for Washington Square Park, hoping to hook up with the Bluesmen and join them when they hit the road. His adventures on the subway help him figure out a few things about himself, his family, and what it means to be “cool.” A little jail time and a sympathetic ear from his dad also help to turn things around!

Most central to this story is the relationship between Clayton and Cool Papa Byrd, the grandfather he idolizes, but the scope also widens to address a complex web of dynamics among other members of the family, including his mother, Ms. Byrd, and his father, Mr. Miller. Given the low page count, this examination is remarkably nuanced.

Williams-Garcia lets music define the deep bond that Clayton enjoys with his grandfather, and the way this shared love informs his entire world view. She infuses her prose with plenty of “rhythm and slow-burning funk” in this novel of loss, forgiveness, and the “deep-down cry” of the blues.


Sunday, October 15, 2017

October Recommendations


GENUINE FRAUD, by E. Lockhart (author of We Were Liars), is a tale told in reverse, a thrill ride which keeps readers guessing the whole way. Eighteen year old Jule West Williams begins the story on her own in a Cabo San Lucas resort, but she’s not using her own name and she’s the run. Events step back to England, where we meet Immie, whose name Jule gave as hers in Mexico. Money, love, sticky fingers, and superheroes. Confusing? Yes, and readers will be swept away until the very end. (YA)

In LANDSCAPE WITH INVISIBLE HAND, when the alien vuvv arrive, they offer to "end all work forever and cure all disease." Except this causes most people to lose their jobs, and only the richest humans can afford the new “tech." High school senior Adam Costello and his girlfriend Chloe, whose family members are all out of work, go on 1950s-style dates that the vuvv pay to view. It doesn’t go well. This is a biting satire about the world's haves and have-nots, set in an increasingly stratified near-future where the human race has, for the most part, become expendable. M. T. Anderson has created a strange and wonderful fantasy about seeking love amid the filth, and keeping hope alive, despite unquestionable odds against it. (YA)

In THEY BOTH DIE AT THE END, by Adam Silvera, Mateo and Rufus have both been called by Death-Cast, meaning today is their End Day. They meet through The Last Friend app, and they’ve got hours, or even minutes, left to tool around the city, living life to the fullest, doing everything they’ve ever wanted to do before it’s too late. To find the meaning of life before they die. (YA)

Picture books:

CREEPY PAIR OF UNDERWEAR, a companion to CREEPY CARROTS with words by Aaron Reynolds and pictures by Peter Brown, is a pitch perfect, just-scary-enough saga about boys’ briefs. The art is laid out to look like old-time movie frames and the soundtrack in my head played “The Cat Came Back” as I read. Funny text, clear illustrations, and they nail the comedic timing—this one’s a winner.

NOW, by Antoinette Portis, is a lyrical celebration of living in the moment, as defined by a young girl who shares her favorite things with readers. The engaging art is boldly designed and deceptively simple.

Board book:

CHEER UP, BEN FRANKLIN, by Misti Kenison, is a concise adaptation of the state of affairs during the revolution. Apparently, Ben Franklin is sad because no one is around to fly kites with him. Betsy Ross is busy sewing the flag, Paul Revere is busy riding his horse, etc. Luckily, (spoiler) Ben makes it to Independence Hall, where his friends are, and he joins the other delegates in signing the Declaration of Independence. I really love this book because of the precise way it’s boiled down history, though I’m not sure who the target audience is—an older sibling who’s already been to school reading to a drooly baby maybe???


Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Shelf Awareness--Otherworld

YA Review: Otherworld

Otherworld by Kirsten Miller and Jason Segel (Delacorte Press, $18.99 hardcover, 368p., ages 12-up, 9781101939321, October 31, 2017)

Eighteen-year-old Simon Eaton is one of only "two thousand lucky gamers" chosen to test an early version of Otherworld 2.0, a reboot of what is "known in geek lore as the greatest game of all time." It's a virtual reality app that requires exorbitantly expensive equipment, including headset, haptic gloves and "dainty booties." When Simon (illegally) uses his mother's credit card to buy his own gear, he also buys a set for Kat Foley. Since his parents have "very important golf balls to hit, frittatas to eat, and luxury leather goods to acquire," Kat was both his best friend and all the family he has needed for 10 years--until she began avoiding him. Six months after Simon was sent to boarding school, Kat started blocking his calls and "slowly began to vanish."

Simon is sure Kat's in trouble, so he figures "a few grand and a near death experience with [his] father" are worth it if Kat will talk to him in Otherworld. Unfortunately, their avatars die too quickly and they're booted out of the game. But then Kat kisses him in real life and warns him to stay away until "this is over." Simon's suspicions are confirmed: Kat is "knee-deep in some kind of sh*t." He follows her to a party in an abandoned factory where the floor collapses, injuring Kat. She's rushed to the hospital, where she's diagnosed with "locked-in syndrome," a rare condition that leaves her unable to move despite her normal brain function. Her stepfather enrolls her in an experiment designed by tech billionaire Milo Yolkin and the creators of Otherworld, in which a disc attached to her scalp allows her to move freely in "a world as real as this one." Simon, frantic to be with Kat in any world, follows her but finds the stakes are rising: regular players with headsets "get sent back to setup" when they die in the game, but those with discs can die "for real." Simon must navigate the hazards of this increasingly dangerous game-gone-wrong to help Kat get out alive.

Authors Jason Segel and Kirsten Miller (Kiki Strike) keep the action nonstop while they convincingly ratchet up the tension. Simon, with the giant "schnoz" he inherited from his "two-bit gangster" grandfather ("the Kishka"), is the bane of his mother's existence, and he's pretty good at annoying most other folks, too. But his love for Kat rings true, and he brings plenty of humanity to the high-stakes gaming and intrigue of this first installment in a series. --Lynn Becker, blogger and host of Book Talk, a monthly online discussion of children's books for SCBWI. 

Shelf Talker: Otherworld, a CGI virtual reality game so real you can taste, smell and feel it, becomes increasingly dangerous as Simon races to find his best friend Kat before the game literally kills her.

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

October's Book of the Month--The One Memory of Flora Banks

October’s Book of the Month is The One Memory of Flora Banks, by Emily Barr.

Flora is 17, but she only knows this because it's written on her hand. She can't remember anything that's happened since she was 10, when a brain tumor left her unable to make new memories. Flora writes lots of things on her hand, like "Don't drink alcohol" at the party for her best friend Paige's boyfriend, Drake, who is leaving for Svalbard, Norway. But Flora does have a cup of wine, and she winds up on the beach kissing Drake. And, incredibly, Flora remembers!

Unfortunately, Paige finds out. When Flora's parents leave for Paris to be with Flora's dying brother, Jacob, they think Paige will "babysit" Flora. Except Paige doesn't want anything to do with Flora anymore. Flora knows that if she can just find Drake, her brain will work again, so before long she has written enough notes on her hand, in her notebook and on her phone to enable her to buy a plane ticket from Cornwall, England, to Svalbard, where she intends to kiss Drake and "remember it to infinity.”

Flora's resourcefulness in overcoming her disability, along with her determination to gain some measure of autonomy from overprotective parents, makes her a strong and appealing character. In her YA debut, the author does a terrific job portraying how disorienting life must be for someone who can't remember what she does for more than two or three hours at a time. Life is always a mystery, yet Flora persists. Certainly, the most important advice she can give herself is etched right onto her hand: "Flora, be brave."