19 December 2012

The Apothecary by Maile Meloy

The ideal selection for all middle grade readers excited about spies, magic, and science:

Sharks and Boys by Kristen Tracy

Enid THINKS she has problems. Her parents are in counseling because her father is a cheater, and Enid is having a lot of trouble forgiving him his indiscretions. She and her brother don't have nearly the kind of close connection as the others in their Twin Study Group. And her handsome, smart, and funny boyfriend wants a "break" from her. She feels like her world is spinning out of control and she's trying desperately to reel it back in to a place of calm and comfort.

But when she follows her brother, her boyfriend, and their friends to another state to spy on a party to find out if her boyfriend is cheating on her, she finds anything but calm. She finds herself on a sinking boat as a stowaway in the middle of a storm . . . in the middle of the ocean.This story is full of turmoil, and the group of friends must figure out a way to survive. They won't all be able to make it. And for those of them who do make it to the next day, what comes next?

Recommended to all middle grade and high school ages, though the fluffy title and cover might not prepare readers for the worst.

Reviewed by kate the librarian.

12 December 2012

a + e 4ever by I. Merey

This graphic novel overflows emotion, anxiety, passion, and curiosity from pages that contain a Japanese/manga personality (if not format). Many of the characters are drawn with feminine features, despite the gender, with slim bodies, girlish facial features, and longer hair . . . unfortunately for Ash.

Asher is a boy who has always been sensitive and quiet, and sort of looks like a girl. Eulalie is a tough girl with a thick skin and a rough attitude. They become fast friends, the sort of friends who have mutual experiences with bullying and being outcasts. Unfortunately for Eu, it only takes a few months of their friendship for her to admit that she likes Ash. And Ash response that he has a crush on the cutest boy in their high school. But it turns out that Ash doesn't only like boys; he just doesn't want a relationship with Eu.

From first sexual experiences (bad) to first kisses (good) and late nights (bad) to early afternoons (good), this stunning literary experience takes readers through some of the darkest times of teenage angst, confusion, anger, and love. And leaves us breathless. (The characters are as stunning as the pictures portray them to be.) Definitely for older teen readers, though.

Reviewed by kate the librarian.

08 December 2012

Rotters by Daniel Kraus

Grave robbing. Secrecy. Torture. Sickness. Pain. Hope. Family.

When Joey's mom dies and he is sent to rural Iowa to live with a father about whom he knows nothing, Joey is not hoping for the best. But when he finds "Dad," also known around town as The Garbage Man, who disappears for days at a time in the middle of the night, has little food and too many books, and couldn't care less about caring for Joey, he resolves to just take care of himself. But the extreme bullying he encounters at high school breaks him more than he thought possible, and his father ultimately can't ignore the kid in his life.

So Ken Harnett and Joey Crouch begin a journey that neither thought they'd take together. Harnett is one of a small group of successful grave robbers that exist in the country. They are rivals and family alike, each working alone to score the treasures that exist in graves and to strive to, in their own ways, restore dignity to the dead. But Joey gets caught up in too much emotion that he can't handle, a lifestyle that he struggles to understand, and a family dynamic that both doesn't - and does - include his beloved mother.

This is an intense and dark read, with a smattering of hope - enough to ensure that there will be an equal amount pain. Recommended for high school readers and older, especially those with a liking for books with an edge, stories that are slightly creepy, or simply for an out-of-the-box exploration of family and loyalty. (Those who like this title might also like The Love Curse of the Rumbaughs.)

Reviewed by kate the librarian.

The Blood Lie by Shirley Reva Vernick

On September 22, 1928 in Massena, New York, the Jewish Community is eagerly preparing for and anticipating the solemn holy day of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. It's also Jack Pool's sixteenth birthday and he's got his eyes on a driver's license and a pretty girl; unfortunately for Jack, the driver's license is the only thing that might be within his reach. Emaline Durham is Christian, so being friends is the only thing they can ever be, even if they both long for more.

It only takes a moment for everything to change. Emaline's little sister Daisy never arrives back at home and Jack Pool is accused of murder. The townspeople get wrapped up in a lie that the Jews collect the blood of a Christian child to use in their holy day ritual, and neighbors begin to distrust neighbors in an attempt to explain the disappearance of missing Daisy. Jack is caught in a whirlwind of adult irrational behavior and discovers for the first time in his young life the complete destruction that can result from intolerance.

This is a short mystifying novel about a very real Jewish experience in American history. An eye-opening author's note at the conclusion of the story relays an important message to all middle great readers.

Reviewed by kate the librarian.

02 December 2012

The Silence of Murder by Dandi Daley Mackall

In small-town Grain, Ohio the murder of high school baseball coach, John Johnson, is very big news. And the only suspect is Hope Long's brother, 19-year-old Jeremy. Jeremy's lawyer thinks that their only defense is a "Guilty by Insanity" plea, but Hope is absolutely positive that her brother is innocent.

Jeremy has always been special, and even more so since the age of nine when he became selectively mute. Since then Hope has been both best friend and caretaker of her older brother. Their mom, Rita, has more important things to take care of -- like get drunk, go out on dates, and keep secrets. Hope knows that it's up to her, the only one who truly believes that Jeremy could never commit murder, to convince both her brother's lawyer and the jury of her brother's innocence. But she may uncover more information than she bargained for, and she may also learn more about those around her than she really wanted to know.

This mystery is perfect for middle grade and older readers. The story is smooth, but it's the characters that really move the novel along. Jeremy is a highly memorable character, and Hope brings him to life. This is an Edgar Award-winning title.

Reviewed by kate the librarian.

24 November 2012

Soldier Bear by Bibi Dumon Tak

This short novel for tweens is based on a true historical occurrence: during World War II, a bear joined the ranks of the Polish Army. 

One day, soldiers of the Polish 22nd Transport Artillery Supply Company, Peter, Stanislav, Pavel, Janusz, and Lolek, were sent to transport a truckload of equipment, and on the way the boys decided to take a break from the heat of the truck to sit outside in the shade and share a snack. It was during this break that they saw a young Iranian boy holding a blanket, and wrapped inside was a tiny bear cub. They paid the young boy with food in exchange for the bear, and from that moment on vowed to care for and raise the bear - named Voytek - as their comrade and their mascot. With some convincing, Voytek was even officially named a Private in the Polish Army.

This is the story of Peter, Voytek, and their friends during their years in service against the Nazis during World War II. It's a fascinating and almost unbelievable story that is told in an approachable way for all young middle grade readers to enjoy.
Wojtek with artillery ammo – sign painted on 22nd Artillery Supply Company vehicles. (image from Wikipedia)

For more information, start here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wojtek_%28soldier_bear%29

Reviewed by kate the librarian.

19 November 2012

Better than Weird by Anna Kerz

It isn't always being different, especially when you go to school with people who don't understand "different." Especially when your dad left home after your mom died, years ago, and you are worried he'll never come back. Especially when you can't seem to figure out when things are funny or not, when people are angry, or when you are supposed to keep still. Especially when you would do anything to hold onto just one friend (besides your grandmother).

Aaron has a lot on his plate. His excitement for his dad to come home (with a surprise!) is overwhelming, and he's been making lists of all the things they can do together. Plus, he's working with the chorus to be part of the upcoming play, even though it doesn't seem like anyone thinks he's a very good singer. And he's trying to avoid Tufar who even Aaron can tell looks angry every time they cross paths. His mind is in one hundred different directions, and he's having a very difficult time just getting through each day without getting into trouble or getting hurt.

This is the story of Aaron, a pretty normal kid who everyone else thinks behaves badly or inappropriately. Parents and brothers and sisters of kids with special needs, learning difficulties, or behavior disorders will recognize their own lives, and Aaron's perspective on life is endearing, eye-opening, and humbling for all of us. Great reading for all readers in middle school, particularly.

Reviewed by kate the librarian.

05 November 2012

Stupid Fast by Geoff Herbach

"Stupid Fast : The summer I went from a joke to a jock" definitely illustrates Felton Reinstein's life one high school summer. But it doesn't even begin to encompass all that he goes through in those short - um, long - months.

Felton has grown. All of a sudden, he has hair everywhere, his body is catching up to his ginormous hands, and he is stupid fast. A few weeks in the locker room with weights and he is stupid strong, too. Everybody notices, but Felton still pictures himself as a small, weak kid, with nothing much to offer anybody. The football team latches onto him, Aleah - the daughter of a professor staying in town for the summer semester - definitely notices him, the crazy lady at the nursing home screams every time she seems him, and he seems to be driving his mother further and further into Crazy Town. Felton doesn't even begin to know how to start to figure life out. So he runs.

This is an original novel with an original voice. Felton experiences every single sort of growing pain possible, making him both a frustrating and sympathetic character. This one is perfect for young teenage boys, despite the f-bombs, and should let them know that life moves on, people aren't always what they seem, and maybe their lives aren't all that bad.

Reviewed by kate the librarian.

23 October 2012

Waiting by Carol Lynch Williams

London Castle is utterly and completely lost. She and Zach had spent the last sixteen years together traveling the world with their missionary parents, tied solely to each other and their faith. And now Zach is utterly and completely gone.

Through extraordinary poetic storytelling, the reader discovers pieces of the past nine months little by little. And little by little, Zach's relationship with Rachel, London's love for them and for Taylor, and the Castle family dynamic all begin to come together to form the tragedy of misunderstanding, depression, and pure grief. But there are bright spots, too, that fill in the gaps. London finds Lilli and Jesse (or maybe they find her), and she begins to gain back some of the faith, strength, and love that she just assumed would be gone from her forever now that her brother is gone. But she also allows herself to gain little pieces of Zach back into her life, too -- the good and the bad.

This is a novel filled with beautiful words and ugly emotions, and it's the perfect read for teens who love tearjerkers and who can handle brutal honesty and the terrifying reality of depression. Not for all, but wonderful for some. (I wish that there had been more of a conclusion with or explanation of Jesse, but overall, I loved this book. It's a quick read that packs a major punch.)

Reviewed by kate the librarian.

09 October 2012

Blink & Caution by Tim Wynne-Jones

Blink got his name because he blinks uncontrollably. He's on the run from a weak mother and a stepfather who is too strong for his own good. Over the past six months of living on the streets, he thinks he's gotten pretty good at finding clothes and food, but one day that gets him into trouble.

Caution named herself. Caution: Contents May Be Hot. Cation: Poison. She's running away from a tragedy for which she just can't forgive herself. She thinks she deserves nothing and has gotten mixed up with a dangerous drug dealer, hoping that he will be her salvation -- her death.

Blink and Caution cross paths before she steals his money, but they never notices each other before meeting at the train station, headed for Kingston. This meeting propels them on a journey that neither could have even invented from their dreams, and ultimately leads to precious forgiveness and friendship. Hopefully they can survive long enough to enjoy the life they never imagined.

This is some seriously good teen noir crime suspense. Reviewed by kate the librarian.

27 September 2012

Contest! from A. S. King

As a follow-up to my last post about A. S. King's Everybody Sees the Ants, check out the author's blog and submit comments for her awesome contest -- you might even win a copy of her upcoming Ask the Passengers!
Lauren Myracle says: "This book is made of stardust and guts..."

Everybody Sees the Ants by A. S. King

Disclaimer & Bottom Line: I am kind of partial to Please Ignore Vera Dietz, so I had really high hopes for this novel. While, not exactly what I expected, I was not disappointed either.

Lucky Linderman's name is pretty ironic, considering how likely he is to get beat up by the bully, ignored by his parents, and looked down upon by school administrators. He would really much rather just fly below the radar by everyone, but manages to get too much attention from all the wrong people who either (a) want to do him harm, or (b) "help" him. Actually, Lucky would rather be sleeping.

Lucky is a freshman in high school, so life sucks to begin with, but what makes it worse is that Nader constantly has it out for him -- like in the corner of the school's locker room and at the community pool -- and Lucky feels too weak to protect himself. He stopped telling teachers or his parents about the bullying back in elementary school once he realized that nothing would ever be done about it. His dad is too distracted by his grief for a Vietnam War POW/MIA father he never got to meet, and his mom is too busy swimming laps and running from her own problems. So Lucky finds solace in his dreams (where he finds himself to be bigger, stronger, and smarter than he ever feels in real life) and in his mission (to rescue his missing, presumed-dead grandfather). Ultimately, he's going to have to figure out a way to save himself.

Reviewed by kate the librarian.

25 September 2012

Tilt by Ellen Hopkins

As is typical of author Ellen Hopkins, there are quite a few emotional punches packed into the poetic words of her latest novel in verse. For anyone who read her adult novel Triangles, you will recognize these teen characters; for the rest of you, prepare yourselves to meet some interconnected individuals with a lot on their plates. Though you do get a sense of their home lives from reading Tilt, those of you who read Triangles know that these kids belong to parents who - in the best cases - are very distracted from their children's lives.

Mikayla is completely in love with boyfriend Dylan, and he would do anything for her - except stick around to see her through her pregnancy. Shane is finally coming to terms with his homosexuality and has a wonderful new boyfriend, but his family is falling apart at the seams largely because of the inevitable death of his four-year-old sister. Harley has gotten well over her head in order to gain acceptance and to feel good about herself, and nobody but her best friend seems to notice - until pictures of her start to get spread around, anyway. We get to know these and other characters through their relationships with each other, and there really is no easy way out of many of the situations they create for themselves.

Ellen Hopkins is always a very powerful writer, choosing her words delicately and forcing the reader to feel the emotions of her characters. In addition to Tilt and others, I have loved Crank, Burned, and Identical. If you haven't yet, definitely give this author a try!

Reviewed by kate the librarian.

06 August 2012

Small Town Sinners by Melissa Walker

Lacey has always felt very comfortable in her family, in her church, and in her faith. Growing up in a very small close-knit town, she's been best friends with Starla Joy and Dean forever, and her relationships - especially the one she shares with God - have always been of the utmost importance to her. But now that she's sixteen and she has a new boy to share thoughts, ideas, and feelings with, she finds herself wondering if it's alright to question those same beliefs that have always brought her comfort.

Much of the plot revolves around the teens' involvement in their church's production of Hell House, a popular grand theatrical event that aims to help other teens see that a life committed to God, as well as behavior and thoughts free from sin, are truly the best pathway to Heaven and happiness. But many of the scenes are intense, including the abortion, suicide, and gay marriage scenes, and some of the conservative Christian ideals observed here will make more liberal readers feel uncomfortable. Many readers will be glad for Ty Davis, who encourages Lacey to question the black-and-white teachings of her church and her father, stressing how important it is for individuals to make their own choices, and recognize that a personal choice doesn't always mean that you can't understand the behavior and beliefs of others. This novel makes a strong case for tolerance and understanding for all people.

Reviewed by kate the librarian.

31 July 2012

Saint Iggy by K. L. Going

Iggy has it pretty rough, but as far as he’s concerned, life isn’t always that bad. Sometimes Mom goes away to visit people, but she almost always comes back home. Dad’s asleep most of the time, and Iggy knows to lay low when his deal Freddie comes around; Freddie isn’t such a nice guy. School can be a pain, but that’s just because they don’t understand Iggy. Even when they set up a hearing to decide on Iggy’s expulsion from high school, maybe there is a way that Iggy can prove them all wrong? He’s got one friend, the mostly cool Mo, who might be able to help him out.

But Mo has problems of his own, and when he gets himself into some financial trouble with the most intimidating drug dealer Iggy knows, Mo comes up with some big ideas for a plan that will make everything all better. Iggy’s struggle to become someone who can contribute something good to the world is interrupted by the need to survive each new day that keeps coming.

This story is layered with a painful innocence that clashes with the harshness of reality. It’s recommended to all ages, but be cautious that most readers will fall in love with Iggy and then be forced to recognize that life doesn’t always work out as planned.

Reviewed by kate the librarian.

19 July 2012

The Drowned Cities by Paolo Bacigalupi

Mahlia's entire history has left her in a dangerous world, caught in the middle of a never-ending war. As part Chinese Castoff and part Drowned Cities, she fits in nowhere and is accepted by no one, except for Mouse, a kid who saved her life at the last moment with simple dumb luck, and the kind Doctor Mahfouz who has taken her into his home as his medical assistant, despite that she only has one hand (the other taken from her by the violence of war).

Tool is a creation of war. He is part man, part animal, and like Mahlia is accepted by no one. He has no real home except for the battlefield. He has been created and groomed to answer only to his master and his purpose is to fight to the death. He is the ultimate creature of survival, but half-men can never truly be free.

Mahlia and Tool end up in the unlikely scenario of being each others' companions and saviors. Unfortunately, there are rarely winners in any war. Recommended to all older readers, especially those who like dystopian novels and tales of war, survival, or adventure. This title is the companion to Printz Award-winning Ship Breaker, and both stories offer much food for thought.

21 May 2012

A Long Long Sleep by Anna Sheehan

Rose is sixteen, but she was born 100 years ago.

The setting for Rose's world is somewhere in our future, where there have been significant leaps in technology and business, and her family has been at the forefront of most of it. She is the only child in a very rich, politically-connected family, and she's never known anything different. Her parents travel a lot for work, and when they do she is put into stasis, a dreamlike state that slows ones body down to just a step above death -- your body ceases to grow or change, and when one wakes up it feels as though only a moment has gone by.

When Rose is kissed awake by a young man, she discovers that 62 years have passed, the world has undergone major and disastrous changes, and everyone she knows is long gone. She must learn to accept her new world and her new life, through her heartache, her confusion, and her unwelcome fame.

Those who enjoy dystopian novels will be able to get into this story before too long. For some, it might take some more time to become absorbed into Rose's life, but those who stick with her will be glad they did. This novel from first-time author Sheehan fits in solidly with the rest of its genre. Recommended most to scifi teen girls.

Reviewed by kate the librarian.

26 March 2012

Chanda's Secrets by Allan Stratton

Chanda is a sixteen-year-old girl living in southern Africa, firmly caught in an AIDS pandemic. Millions of individuals living in this part of the world are infected with HIV/AIDS; this is not a work of historical fiction. In a life where money is scarce, good doctors even more so, and where ignorance and fear are roadblocks in the path to sexual safety, illness and disease are rampant. Chanda is living with her mother and her younger brother and sister, and her story begins immediately following the death of her youngest sister, baby Sara. Marking Chanda's mother as cursed and the reason for the death, Sara's father walks out on the family. Without money or work, life is difficult, especially for Chanda who is trying to make her way through school to get a scholarship. When her mother leaves to visit her family in her hometown, Chanda expects that she will return, and after a few weeks Chanda goes out to find her, determined to bring her home -- even if she is only bringing her back home to die.

Chanda's Secrets is a powerful story of poverty, and of the ignorance and fear about HIV/AIDS and the treatment of AIDS sufferers. It is about a young woman strong enough to stand up for the people she loves, whether it's her best friend who has to whore for money to bring her family back together, or a stepfather who she doesn't like but respects as a human being. It's about a difficult life and individuals fighting for survival every day. It's also about hope -- that through acknowledgement of the disease and education about safety, maybe one day AIDS will cease to exist.

*Great study/discussion/activity guide: http://www.allanstratton.com/secretsteachingguide.pdf
*The movie "Life, Above All" is based on this story.

Reviewed by kate the librarian.

22 March 2012

Mangaman by Barry Lyga, illustrated by Colleen Doran

Traditional comics meets nontraditional manga in this graphic novel-format masterpiece. Marissa Montaigne is popular, and she surely prides herself on being herself, and never any version of who someone might want her to be, and that's probably the reason she broke things off with her popular, jock boyfriend. But when she lays eyes on Ryoko Kiyama, she's smitten for sure. He's the boy, or the non-boy, that everyone's been talking about. When there was a rip in his world, he finds himself the odd-man-out in the "real world." Everyone makes fun of the sound track word bubbles that follow him around, and they can sometimes see the images that he's thinking, but he's only really concerned with two things: getting home, and Marissa. But what if he can't get home? And what if Marissa gets sucked into his world without him?

There's a lot going on here, and I kind of hope that there is more to come with the storyline. Recommended for any and all readers -- the non-"sex scene" is hilarious. And for the record, Barry Lyga is AWESOME.

Reviewed by kate the librarian.

19 March 2012

the summer i learned to fly by Dana Reinhardt

Thirteen-year-old Drew Robin Solo spends most of her time helping her mom, Lizzie, in the Cheese Shop; she doesn't have many friends - not including her pet rat, Hum, of course - so there really isn't anything else to do. Her dad died when she was a baby and she only has a few things of his that helps her get to know him. She has an impossible crush on 18-year-old Nick who helps out in the shop when he isn't surfing. And she has three girlfriends who are all away for the summer (and who she doesn't much like anyway). But everything in her world changes when she finds homeless Emmett Crane eating the too-old-to-keep-on-the-shelf cheese late at night behind the shop. Emmett with the curly dark hair, who leaves notes folded up as paper cranes, who disappears for days without any word, and who hangs out on the beach with older kids with tattoos, cigarettes, and guitars. In one short summer, Drew learns a lot about her self and even more about the people in her life and the growing world around her.

I read this book in day, and thought I was going to be really sad and depressed by the ending, but was pleasantly surprised by a positive, inspiring, and completely more realistic conclusion. Recommended to most teen readers, especially girls with romantic hearts.

Reviewed by kate the librarian.

(Two books with pet rats in a week's time? Weird.)

14 March 2012

Level Up by Gene Luen Yang, illustrated by Thien Pham

Dennis has been bred to be a doctor (specifically a gastroenterologist). Throughout his elementary and teen years, his dad pushes him to work harder and be better, to put down his video games and to pick up a textbook and study as much as possible. But when Dennis' father dies of liver cancer just before high school graduation, Dennis buries himself in the same video games his parents were so against having in the house. Dennis is awesome at gaming, but the guilt from turning his back on his "destiny" as a doctor eats at him and eats at him - until he catches a couple of lucky breaks and studies and works his way into medical school. This is a story of a young man who can't quite seem to figure out what he wants out of life, or how to get it. It's the story with a lot of ups and downs, about a young man who manages to figure out the important stuff in the end . . . at least so far.

Gene Luen Yang has some wonderful graphic novels published for teens and adults, including the Printz Award-winning American Born Chinese. Level Up is recommended for all readers, especially those just breaking into comics territory!

Reviewed by kate the librarian.

08 March 2012

The Tale of One Bad Rat by Bryan Talbot

We first meet Helen in an Underground Station near Trafalgar Square. We follow her through the streets of London, where she meets a collection of individuals, including Ben, who sets her up with a roof and a few meals. When her beloved pet rat is killed by one of the cats in the makeshift shelter, she decides it's time for her to keep on moving. She hitchhikes north to England's Lake District - famous for its calm and its beauty - and by accident winds up being quite literally rescued by a couple who own a pub. (It turns out that Beatrix Potter once stayed at the same pub.) It is in this place that Helen is finally able to begin to come to terms with her past, a story that the reader uncovers through flashbacks along her hard journey. 

This is a story of sexual abuse, the battle toward self-acceptance and relinquishment of undeserved guilt. This is the story of "one bad rat," who overcomes unrelenting struggle and uncovers her self-worth through the support of strong, loving adults. Recommended to all readers -- and lovers of Beatrix Potter will find something a little extra-special here as well.

Reviewed by kate the librarian.

03 March 2012

Psychiatric Tales : eleven graphic stories about mental illness by Darryl Cunningham

Darryl Cunningham is himself a sufferer of mental illness as he has had to combat depression and anxiety through many of his childhood and adult years. His time working as a health care provider and on psychiatric wards - and his own life's experiences - serve as the basis for these stories. Stories of dementia (young and old), self-mutilation, depression, and personal disorders are connected not by sadness and struggle, but by hope, and Cunningham clearly is putting a call out for support and understanding from the general public for mental health sufferers.

In the chapter about famous people with mental illnesses, I even learned about a musical artist named Nick Drake who sounds like his sound might be pretty interesting, but who didn't become known until well after he committed suicide at aged 26. Even the slightest stories in this collection can serve as reminders that one never knows what the future holds, for better or for worse. It might be worth it to struggle through the bad to get a chance to experience the good.

Reviewed by kate the librarian.

14 February 2012

The Buddha in the Attic by Julie Otsuka

In The Buddha in the Attic, the reader becomes absorbed in the lives of Japanese "picture wives" and their experiences traveling to America. From the journey overseas to meeting new husbands to falling in love and breaking hearts to child rearing and raising, the behind-the-scenes look at these women is alternatively fascinating and heart-wrenching. What allows this book to stand out beyond the scope of the content is the incredibly poetic storytelling. Beautifully styled and carefully worded, there is more than just story found on these pages; there is collective pain, hope, struggle, and heart.

Reviewed by kate the librarian.

07 February 2012

Mr. Monster by Dan Wells

I don't often review sequels or books that aren't the first in a series, but I think that there are some readers to whom this book will appeal . . . but be warned: it's certainly not for everyone.

Mr. Monster is the second book in a horrifying series that starts with I Am Not a Serial Killer. John Wayne Cleaver is obsessed with serial killers, and he's also a diagnosed teen-aged sociopath. He already took care of one demon killer in Clayton County, though no one really knows the whole story (like the fact that the killer really was an actual demon, or the fact that John's the one that destroyed him). Now there is a new serial killer in town, and John craves details to help answer some of the essential questions: Are the two killers related? Who is the new killer? Why is he killing? Before long, many of John's questions are answered, but it may be too late. How can he hold onto his "John the Brave" reputation if he can't figure out how to NOT to die.

John lives in a mortuary -- which feeds, and also calms, his obsession with death -- and this series contains very graphic descriptions of embalming, along with murder, torture, and death. These books are meant for those with strong stomachs, but beyond the gross, the storytelling richly combines the genres of thriller, horror, and fantasy into a mystery at which you can't quite stop staring, long after each page is turned. As each professional and reader review points out, adult and teen fans of the TV series Dexter will love this.

Reviewed by kate the librarian.

25 January 2012

Hawksmaid by Kathryn Lasky

Matty is the daughter of Nottingham's most famous falconer.  After her mother is brutally murdered by Prince John's men, her father teaches her many things to help her not only survive, but thrive as well.  It turns out that Matty is exceptional at falconry in her own right, at times it seems as though she is almost part bird, and she certainly is able to communicate with them through sound and feeling.  As Matty grows up, Prince John becomes more powerful and when the good King Richard is captured and held for ransom, she and her friends decide that they must do something to help their country.  So Matty becomes Maid Marion to secure a place working in the castle, and her friends form into a band of Merry Men: Robin Hood, Little John, Rich, and Will Scarlet.  Together they must find their own power, strength, and ability to ensure that good wins over evil.

This retelling of the legendary Robin Hood is in the capable hands of Kathryn Lasky, and middle grade and middle school readers who like adventure stories, historical fiction, and action will enjoy this read.  Though it's a relatively quick read, it's packed with death, destruction, and a little bit of a love story.

Reviewed by kate the librarian.

17 January 2012

The Fault in Our Stars

I admit it: John Green can do no wrong. Even though I didn't love Paper Towns as much as everyone else seemed to, I just can't help but dig every little thing about this author. The Fault in Our Stars is no exception - and, in fact, it might be my favorite John Green book yet.

Hazel has terminal cancer. She's basically normal except that her lungs don't work (hence the oxygen tank perpetually in tow); she was taken out of high school years ago because, really, what's the point?; and her mom keeps bugging her to get a life, but her social scene mainly consists of a cancer support group of kids who are either dying, hoping to die, dead, or blind. Then Augustus Waters arrives to change everything. Hazel fights falling in love with Gus of the prosthetic leg, the unlit cigarette, and the adorable crooked smile. But he wins her over, and they settle upon a whirlwind romance. And like most whirlwinds, I imagine, this went by too fast, leaving a lot of aftermath. But the bottom line remains: It was worth it.

John Green has this talent for creating characters and exploring settings and storylines like very few authors in the world (not to be dramatic or anything). And though the writing is impeccable and intelligent, his stories speak freely and comfortably, without making you feel stupid because you might not know so much about famous people's famous last words, anagrams, cartography, or anything else cool. His books make you feel cool just for being in the same room with them.

Reviewed by kate the librarian.

11 January 2012

How to Save a Life by Sara Zarr

Mandy has had a pretty rough life, but she's had enough of feeling powerless, unloved, and unlucky.  She's found a solution - at least a partial one - and is headed across the country by train to meet the woman who she hopes will become the adoptive mother of her unborn child.

Jill thinks that it's absolutely ridiculous that her fifty-year-old mother is planning to go through with an unofficial (no social worker, no lawyer, no signed forms) open adoption with someone she found on the internet!  After Jill's dad died last year, they've both been lost, but Jill doesn't think that adopting a baby is going to be the answer to their grief.

Jill and Mandy don't make a very good first impression on each other, but they become part of a very complicated relationship and somehow they must figure out their place in all of this . . . hopefully before a baby becomes part of the mix.  Jill has some friends to help her along the way, and through alternating perspectives, the reader begins to rally for both girls to find some happiness  It took me some time to really get into this story, but once I did, I found that I really cared about what happened to the characters.  In this novel, you'll find friendship, love, pain, loyalty, and sadness, but most of all, you'll find family.

Reviewed by kate the librarian.

10 January 2012

This Girl is Different by J. J. Johnson

"This girl is different" is Evie's personal mantra.  She's been homeschooled her whole life, opting now - beginning her senior year - to enroll in a public high school.  She lives in a sustainable home, complete with chickens, a cow, and solar energy.  She doesn't know who her dad is, but it's totally fine; her mom is practically every bit as "hippy" now as she was when Evie was conceived.  Her real full name is Evensong Sparkling Morningdew.  She's different alright.

She meets and makes friends - her first! - with cousins Jacinda and Rajas just days before school starts, and with their help she tries to navigate her way through the hallways, the social customs, and the political hypocrisy that is their high school.  She verbally spars with the teachers, she actively participates in classroom discussion to her classmates' dismay, and she ultimately can't find her footing in the peer social structure that is seemingly established from public-school-birth.  But she refuses to give up.  She wants to make public high school a better place to learn, interact, and build, and she will not back down.  Even when the bad starts to outweigh the good. There are a lot of details in this novel -- some of which add to, and others that distract from, the whole vibe of the story (including an inappropriate student-teacher relationship) -- but everything ties together in the end to offer a clear picture of Evie's perspective on a world that isn't too big to come crashing down . . .

Recommended to all ages, mostly, though the student-teacher relationship and some sex talk might limit the audience.  Especially recommended to students who might not fit into the stereotypical high school box.

Reviewed by kate the librarian.

03 January 2012

The Toymaker by Jeremy de Quidt

Very often I opt not to review books when I can't figure out to whom they might be recommended, but since this title is up for consideration for a Garden State Teen Book Award nomination, I figure I might as well jot some thoughts down.

The Toymaker is a creepy story, with lots of unsettling bumps along the way, and filled to the brim with a super haunting atmosphere.  Mathias has spent his whole short life traveling with his grandfather, Gustav the conjurer, as part of a circus troop.  When his grandfather dies, he is taken away by Dr. Leiter and brought to an inn in a small village.  But this is no safe and ordinary rescue; Dr. Leiter knows that Gustav has been hiding a secret and he wants to make sure that this particular secret is never uncovered.  Dr. Leiter and his "partner," an incredibly violent and unfeeling dwarf named Valder, are willing to go to great lengths to discover what Mathias knows, or destroy him in the process.  But a young girl working at the inn named Katta rescues Mathias and propels them both into a whirlwind chase filled with death, fear, pain, and only the smallest chance of survival.

There is little to like about this story or many of the characters.  Koening, the Burner who ultimately becomes friend and caregiver to the young ones, has the biggest heart, but the reader is never quite sure of his motive.  Stefan, Koenig's brother and companion, and Katta are never without a violent thought for the other.  And Mathias is being dragged along through so much of the trip due to injuries and sickness, that the reader never truly comes to know him.  Part action/adventure, part fantasy, part mystery, this story blurs lines and take the reader along for quite the ride. 

"The Toymaker will touch your heart and haunt you forever." . . . And that's not necessarily a good thing.

Reviewed by kate the librarian.