The Westing Game

by Ellen Raskin

First sentence: “The sun sets in the west (just about everyone knows that), but Sunset Towers faced east.”
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Content: There are about three mild swear words, and some talk of murder. Plus a couple of bombs. It’s in the middle grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore (actually, I have a Newbery Award Winner section; it’s in that), and I can see no reason for this not to be there. 
Review copy provided by the publisher as a complimentary copy for my bookgroup.
There are very few books I have fond memories of from when I was a kid. The Little House books, and Wrinkle in Time are a couple. And this one. I’m not sure why I remember it so well; maybe it was because it’s a pretty decent puzzle book/mystery, or maybe I just liked the spunk that Turtle Wexler has. Either way, this one has stayed with me throughout the years as a charming, fun little book.

I’m happy to say that this is still — even after all these years — a charming, fun little book. For those who don’t know the plot, it’s this: Sam Westing has died, and 16 people –all connected to Sam Westing in some way — are called into solve the mystery of his “murder” in order to win his inheritance. It’s a rag-tag collection of people, from a judge to a doorman, to a dysfunctional family, to a couple of restaurant owners. There are several sympathetic characters: Doug Hoo, the resident jock/track star; Theo Theodorakis, an incredible support to his disabled older brother; and (my favorite) Turtle Wexler, 13-year-old spitfire. There are also some despicable characters, most notably Turtle’s mom. She is the epitome of overbearing mothers who have good intentions but go about it all wrong. Pushing her older daughter (at age 19!) into a marriage she doesn’t want, and emotionally abusive to Turtle… I disliked her with every fiber of my being.

I’m not sure if the puzzle was terribly well-plotted. I knew the answer, having remembered it from a previous read (maybe 10 years or so ago), but A read it and kind of felt the answer came out of nowhere. That didn’t much matter; she enjoyed the story for the characters. And perhaps that’s the real charm of the book. Raskin created a group of people that we can’t help but identify with and either love or hate. Either way, we’re more than happy to go on a bit of an adventure with them. 


Just One Year

by Gayle Forman
First sentence: “It’s the dream I always have: I’m on a plane, high above the clouds.”
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Content: There are a half-dozen f-bombs in addition to a handful of other milder swear words. Also there’s off-screen sex and some drug use. For these reasons, the book is in the Teen (ages 14+) section of the bookstore.
Others in the series: Just One Day

The book opens with Willem de Reuter, Dutch actor and playboy, waking from a coma. For those who have read Just One Day, you know exactly what point in the overarching story of Willem and Allyson that this picks up. The question is: where does Willem go from here?

While I’ve known that this book was coming out since reading Just One Day, I have to admit that I’m not sure it needed a companion book, or that Willem’s side of  the story needed to be told. That said, I was curious about Willem as a character, and the path that he took over the year that Allyson was trying to figure herself out. It turns out that while Willem’s path was more adventurous than Allyson’s, it essentially was the same: he needed to figure himself out.

However, it was Willem’s adventurous lifestyle that made the book for me. He couldn’t shake the memory of Allyson — or Lulu as he called her — and the searching for her (and, inadvertently, the healing from the grief of his father’s death three years before) took him to Mexico and India as well as through rural Netherlands and Amsterdam. I’m a sucker for books like these, ones where the main character gets to travel the world, giving himself over to the experience of seeing things.

And even though Willem is uncertain about his direction and, admittedly, a bit angsty (or in a funk a we’d call it around our house), he’s a pretty amiable character to be traveling the world with. I love how he picks up friends as he wanders from place to place. And how he just falls into experiences. It seems so… effortless.

I do understand that in many ways this is a fantasy. Not only the love-at-first-sight thing, but also the Fate/Kismet/Karma thing. No one’s life is that effortless, that charmed, that fate-driven. But, it was a nice fantasy to immerse oneself in for a while to get away from the drugery of “real” life.

The Girl Who Soared Over Fairyland and Cut the Moon in Two

By Catherynn M. Valente
ages: 11+ (I’m not sure the younger set would like this one. Just saying.)
First sentence: “
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Others in the series: The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making, The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland and Led the Revels There
Review copy snagged off the ARC shelves at work.

It’s been a year since September has left Fairyland Underneath, and she aches to return. The Real World just isn’t as fun or as interesting as Fairyland. And she’s been told that she can return every year, so she waits. And waits. But no one comes. Until, one day, long after she’s expecting them, someone does come, but won’t let her in. So, desperate as she is, she breaks in. Which means she’s a Criminal. She finds that things aren’t the same as they were, encounters the Blue Wind (who’s quite obnoxious), gets sent on a Mission, and tries to fight a Yeti on the moon. Yes, it is as weird as it sounds.

But, even though there were passages I found amusing (most specifically, the description of the Lopsided Library) and characters (like the car Aroostook) I liked, I just wasn’t as charmed with this one as I was with the other two. Maybe it’s because September is Getting Older, and Valente tried to bring in not only romance (Saturday, the Marid, is in love with September), but also the Trials of Getting Older, and it just didn’t Work. (This book makes me want to Emphasize with Capital Letters. It’s an unfortunate side effect.) I skimmed more than I read, I rolled my eyes more than I laughed. I wanted to Love Ell the Wyvery and Saturday again; I wanted to Enjoy September’s journey. But my heart wasn’t in it.

I don’t know if that means it’s the writing or just that I’m getting tired of this series. Could be either. Or both.

(Just for the record: because this is a Cybils nominee, I’ve been asked to make sure y’all know this is my opinion only, and not that of the panel.)

Just One Day

by Gayle Forman
ages: 14+
First sentence: “What if Shakespeare had it wrong?
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Review copy provided by my place of employment.

Allyson and her best friend Melanie have just recently graduated high school, and are off on a tour of Europe. You know the type: scheduled, regimented, seeing all the highlights tour. If it’s Wednesday, we must be in Rome type of thing. Allyson, being the structured-type girl herself, is enjoying it okay, in spite of Melanie’s attempts at a re-do. She keeps saying that in college they can reinvent themselves, but at the same time, loves that Allyson is so reliably… Allyson.

Then, they meet Willem. It was a fluke: when they were in Stratford-upon-Avon, they passed up the chance to see the Royal Shakespeare Company do Hamlet in favor of seeing a company called Guerrilla Will do Twelfth Night. And it was… something. Willem, 20 and Dutch, was charming, and Allyson fell, well, in like. And the next day when they met again on the train, she decided it was kismet, and decided on a whim to go to Paris with him. For the day.

Forman really works this implausibility. (Especially for me, as a mother of four girls, I was conflicted. Part of me was: YES, PARIS!! How romantic! And it was, really. The other part of me was screaming: NOOOOOOOO!!!!) It makes sense for Allyson in that moment to make that choice, to experiment with living a life that was something other than her same structured existence. And what better place to do it than Paris? She has a marvelous day, and then… Willem’s gone. She’s alone. “It” didn’t work.

So she packs off home and heads up to college, where she tries to move on with her life. Or rather, move on with the life that her mother has assigned to her. I realized while reading this one that a lot of my ideas on parenting teens have come from reading teen novels because I could totally see where things were going to go. Helicopter mom = disastrous first semester. It wasn’t until her second semester that Allyson began to figure out how to stand up for what she wanted, how to make friends, how to find her own path instead of the one her parents made for her.

And the end? Well, let’s just say it’s a hopeful one. I’m not sure how plausible it is, but by that point, I didn’t care. I was fully invested in Allyson’s story, in her trials and her hopes and dreams. Which Foreman made come alive for me.

Besides, it’s Paris. You can’t get any better than that.