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.