Unusual Chickens for the Exceptional Poultry Farmer

by Kelly Johnson
illustrated by Katie Kath
First sentence: “My great-uncle Jim had your flyer in his barn.”
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Review copy swiped off the ARC shelves at my place of employment.
Content: There’s some tricky words, and I’m not sure whether or not the epistolary format will turn off reluctant readers or encourage them. There’s a lot of fun illustrations and some good chicken facts, though. It’s in the middle grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore, but I’d probably give it to a confident 2nd grade reader.

Sophie Brown and her parents have just moved from the bustling city of Los Angeles to a farm in the middle of nowhere California. It was a move partially because of necessity — her dad lost his job and hasn’t been able to find a new one — and partially out of happenstance — Sophie’s dad’s uncle died and left him the farm. So, they’re trying to figure this whole thing out. And it’s not going terribly well. That is, until Sophie discovers a catalog for “exceptional” chickens. Turns out, that Uncle Jim was not only a farmer (he had a vegetable garden and some grape vines) but he raised, well, unusual chickens.

The chickens are not quite magical, and they’re based on real chickens, but they’re not quite normal either. (One lays glass eggs, for example.) Sophie is given instructions by the person who runs the catalog on how to catch and care for the chickens, but someone is trying to steal Sophie’s chickens. The question is: will she figure out how to keep the chickens (without divulging their magical properties)? And can she stop the thief from stealing her chickens?

The cleverest thing about this book is the format: Sophie’s story spills slowly over the course of the book through letters she writes to her dead abuela, dead great-uncle Jim, and the chicken place. (It’s kind of unusual her writing to dead people, but it works. She doesn’t really expect an answer back.) It’s a very one-sided story, and we only get snippets of things other than chickens: her mother’s free-lance writing, or her father’s failing search for a job. But, the tone is light, and there is a mystery to be solved with the chicken thief. But what really comes through is Sophie’s voice. She’s a determined child, someone who is willing to figure things out and solve problems. She’s spunky. And she’s half Latina. All of which makes for a charming book, a fun read, and a book worth checking out.

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Lost in the Sun

by Lisa Graff
First sentence: “When we were real little kids, Mom used to take Aaron and Doug and me to Sal’s Pizzeria for dinner almost every Tuesday, which is when they had their Family Night Special.”
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Review copy snagged from the ARC shelves at work.
Release date: May 26, 2015
Content: There’s some bullying, and some tough subjects and a couple of instances of mild swearing. It’ll be in the middle grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore, though I would hesitate giving it to the younger end of that spectrum.

Eight months ago, Trent was the cause of a fatal accident. He hit a hockey puck into the chest of one of his friends, who then died. Not really from the hockey puck: his friends had a heart condition that no one knew about, and that’s what caused the death. But Trent is convinced that it’s his fault. And he feels like everyone — well his father, his brothers, and his former friends — blames him for what happened.

Now, on the first day of sixth grade, Trent is completely depressed. Until the “weird” girl, Fallon, decides that they need to be friends. Fallon’s the one everyone shuns, mostly because she has a scar down her face. Everyone asks how it happened, but she keeps the true story close, choosing instead to make up ones. Over the fall, Fallon and Trent deal with his grief, guilt, and anger, as he tries to make life work.

A lot of books deal with grief from dead or sick parents, or dead or sick siblings. But the idea that a kid could be the catalyst for a friend’s death hits home and deep. I thought Graff captured those emotions perfectly, from Trent’s self-loathing to his feelings like everyone hated him. And because we saw the rest of the world through Trent’s eyes, I could tell which adults were reaching out (his homeroom teacher, eventually) and which adults just needed a good smack (his father). The longer Trent’s self loathing went on, the more I was afraid that Graff wouldn’t be able to give Trent a good resolution. But, in so many ways, she did. I was thoroughly satisfied with Trent’s arc, and with the way things weren’t neatly tied up in a bow.

Quite good.

Audiobook: Small Victories

by Anne Lamott
Read by the author
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Content: She likes the word s**t, and drops about five f-bombs.  Which kind of caught me off-guard. It’s in the religion/philosophy section of the bookstore.

I’ve been curious about Anne Lamott for a while now; she’s an incredibly popular author at the store. I was in between audio books recently and discovered this one, and it was delightfully short. I figured audio was a good way to experience her.

This is basically a series of short reflections on life, God, and the intersection of the two. For the record: Lamott is a liberal, which I don’t mind at all, and was very against the invasion of Iraq in 2003. (Several of the essays are from around that time period.) She belongs to a church in northern California. She has a son, and lots and lots of friends, many of whom are suffering from serious illnesses. She has a good sense of humor, and is honest about her struggles with God, people, and just life in general.

In many ways, the words were just what I needed to hear: we’re all human, we’re all trying. God is in connecting with other people and reaching out to love them.

What I didn’t like so much, was Lamott’s reading of her own work. I understand why she needed to read her own words; it would have been odd otherwise. But Lamott read in such a way that it soundedlikeonereallylongsentancewithoutevertakingapauseorevenraisedorloweredhervoicewithsentenceinflection. When I concentrated to hear the words, I loved it. But her reading of them almost turned me off altogether. I’m glad I stuck it through to the end, for the thoughts and ideas. But, I wish Lamott had been a better narrator.

I’ll Give You the Sun

by Jandy Nelson
First sentence: “This is how it all begins.”
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Content: There is some teen drinking, a (non-graphic) rape scene, and several f-bombs. That, and because of the subject matter, puts it in the Teen section (grades 9+) of the bookstore.

Noah and Jude are twins, separate people but connected in thought and purpose (generally). So much so that they’ve become NoahandJude, pratically inseparable. That is, until the summer they turn 14. Then everything starts to fall apart. Jude becomes “wild”; Noah retreats into his own world until a new boy shows up next door. They end up “dividing” their parents, each vying for the other parent’s attention and love. On top of that, they are fiercely competing to get into the local prestigious art high school. It’s a mess.

Two years later, things aren’t much better. Jude made it into the school; Noah (who was arguably the better artist) did not. They’re still dealing with the aftermath of their mother’s fatal accident. They harbor secrets. And they’re no longer NoahandJude. They’re not even Noah and Jude. They’re two separate planets, who never talk to each other. It’s different from what it was before, but no better.

Did I mention that Jude sees the ghost of her dead grandmother, and senses the presence of her dead mom?

It’s thanks to the two ghosts that Jude searches out Guillermo, sculptor extraordinaire and Latino Mystical Guide, and finds not only salvation but True Love.

Yeah, the book derailed just about there.

For the record: everyone in this book is a Tortured Soul Needing Redemption. And they all find it together. I did enjoy Guillermo — in fact, he was the most interesting character — but that doesn’t change the fact that his role in the book was to cause a change in the white people around him. He was Passionate Lover, he was Father Figure, he was Spiritual Guide. And sometimes he was a living-breathing person, but those times were rare.

And don’t even get me started on the whole Soul Mate thing. Ugh.

What saved this book from being Truly Horrible was the writing — Nelson paints the world vividly, and I do have to admit that there was some good chemistry between Jude and her Soul Mate, even if that’s a trite trope and needs to be done away with. But what I really loved was the art. I loved Guillermo’s giant sculptures and the way Nelson depicted the process of art. I loved Noah’s chapters and the way he’d come up with paintings for everything. I loved how she considered fashion an art.

In the end, I did respect what Nelson was trying to do. But it’s not a perfect book by any means.

Afterworlds

by Scott Westerfeld
First sentence: “The most important email that Darcy Patel ever wrote was three paragraphs long.”
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Release date: September 23, 2014
Content: There’s some grizzly murders, terrorists, and a lot of swearing. Plus the huge length and the amount of patience it’s going to take to get through this one, and I’m not sure it’s for the faint of heart. It’s in the teen (grades 9+) section of the bookstore.

I picked this up because it’s the New Scott Westerfeld. I haven’t read everything he’s written, but I have loved (more or less) everything I read by him. (Also: I’ve met him, at KidlitCon in Seattle. He was pretty chill.) Even so, I didn’t know what to expect. And this was nothing like I’ve ever read before.

It’s really two books in one. Half of it is a ghost/terrorist/murder story. Lizzie, a high school senior, is traveling back to California after visiting her father, and some terrorists attack her airplane. She survives by playing dead, and soon discovers that she can see ghosts. But it’s more than that: she is a psychopomp, a valkyrie, a person who helps the dead find peace. And she’s in love with the underworld’s lord, Yamaraj.

The second half of the story is about Darcy, a recently graduated girl, who “wrote” the Lizzie half of the book during NANOWRIMO her senior year, and got it snapped up by a major publisher for 6 figures. Suddenly, her life is turned upside down, and she decides that college is not an option. Instead, she moves to New York and is thrust head first into the world of YA publishing. It’s a fictional account because Darcy is a fictional person, but very it much felt like an inside peek into the life of a writer.

I liked each of the stories individually; Westerfeld knows how to plot, and how to hold a reader’s interest. The Lizzie story was sufficiently chilling (while also being a bit swoony) and had some clever and interesting takes on the afterworld. And the Darcy story was well-done as well; Westerfeld caught the uncertainty of a first-time published author as well as the excitement and naivete of someone just out of high school facing the Big Wide World.

But, what I enjoyed most, and what kept me reading, was the connection between the two parts. I loved seeing Darcy angst over her book, and how different parts of her life fit into the book. I loved reading about how parts of the story were changed and adapted. And I loved all the different teasers about the end, and how it could have been different. I’m not a writer but I loved seeing how the author and the story are tied up together and the effort it takes to write a story.

I don’t know how well this is going to go over with non-Westerfeld fans; I do hope it goes over well. There’s a couple of good stories here. And I’d be more than happy to read more of Darcy and Lizzie’s story.

Just Call My Name

by Holly Goldberg Sloan
First sentence:
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Others in the series: I’ll Be There
Content: To say that this is intense is an understatement. Violence, yes, but also psychological intensity. It’s not for the faint of heart. It’s in the Teen section (grades 9+) at the bookstore.

When we last left Sam and Riddle, their father was safely behind bars and they were living with Emily Bell and her family. A happily ever after, right?

Well, only Holly Goldberg Sloan would take a happily ever after and turn it into a nightmare.

First, there’s the whole issue of security: Sam and Riddle (especially Riddle) were controlled and abused for so long that it’s difficult for them to trust their own decisions, to get back into “real” life. They’re suffering, and much of that is the residual affects from the years spent with their father. It doesn’t help that Emily and her family (well, except for her brother, who’s resentful) are super nice. Sam and Riddle don’t know how to handle super nice.

And then their happily ever after starts unraveling. First, it’s Destiney Vance, one of those girls that just screams trouble. Sam just knows it: like calls to like, and he understand’s Destiny’s hard life. But, she won’t be gotten rid of, and sticks to Sam and Emily (and Emily’s former boyfriend, Bobby) like glue.

Which is a good thing, because their dad, Clarence, finds his way out of jail and is coming for the boys. And the Bells.

Few authors have the power to completely wreck me emotionally, and yet keep me turning pages at an ever more furious pace, dying to know: WHAT NEXT? Sloan is one of those authors. She captures the inner lives of all the characters, deftly balancing between Sam, Riddle, Emily, Jared, Destiny, Robb, and Clarence. You wouldn’t think it would work, but Sloan pulls it off not only well, but spectacularly. It probably would have been even more powerful if I’d read the first book right before, but even though I didn’t, I was able to immerse myself in this story, my heart simultaneously aching and pounding as I read about Sam and Riddle and their not-so-happily ever after.

Amazing.

Landline

by Rainbow Rowell
First line: “Georgie pulled into the driveway, swerving to miss a bike.”
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Review copy nabbed off the ARC shelves at my place of employment.
Content: It’s all about marriage, so I don’t know how appealing it would be to teenagers. It’s also full of f-bombs and illusions to sex and drinking (but no actual, I don’t think). It’s in the adult fiction section of the bookstore.

After 15 years of marriage, Georgie and Neal are broken. Well, Georgie doesn’t really like to think they are; she loves her husband and her two  young daughters. But she’s gone all the time, writing for a popular TV sitcom. Neal stays home with the kids, and does a fantastic job, but increasingly it seems like it’s not enough for him. And so when an opportunity comes for Georgie, and her best friend Seth, to pitch a new show — their own show — just after Christmas, Neal digs his heels in. They were supposed to go to his mom’s house, in Omaha. And now Georgie is putting work first, again. So, he packs up the kids and takes them, leaving Georgie stranded a week before Christmas.

But then, Georgie discovers that her old yellow landline phone connects her to a Neal in the past, one the year they got engaged. And maybe, by talking to Neal-in-the-past, she can figure out what is wrong in the present.

Rowell is a talented writer; don’t get me wrong. There were some fun moments, and some beautiful turns of phrase in this book. But, I think she writes better about falling in love than about staying in love. There wasn’t much drive, much reason to stay connected to this book (and I didn’t cry!), much reason to care about the characters. It all felt very rote, very run-of-the-mill, and not at all fresh or original. Perhaps we were supposed to think it was, since Georgie is the breadwinner and Neal is the stay-at-home parent, but it felt like the same old conflicts with just a role reversal. And perhaps there was growth, but I just didn’t feel it. They are both self absorbed and unfit for each other, and although Rowell wanted us to believe that love is “enough” she never gave me enough proof to convince me that, in the case of Georgie and Neal, it would be.

Not bad, but not great, either.