These Shallow Graves

theseshallowgravesby Jennifer Donnelly
First sentence: “Josephine Montfort stared at the newly mounded grave in front of her and at the wooden cross marking it.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Content: There’s some mild swearing, murder, and some questionable situations. It’s in the Teen (grades 9+) section of the bookstore, but I’d give it to a 7th or 8th grader, who was interested.

Josephine is a thing that an 1890s socialite isn’t supposed to be: curious. She’s supposed to obey her parents, be elegant and ladylike, and marry a wealthy, eligible bachelor of her parent’s choosing. But, when her father unexpectedly turns up dead, supposedly having shot himself, Josephine won’t — can’t — settle for that. She heads out, teaming up with a reporter by the name of Eddie Gallagher, to find the Truth.

Thus starts a winding, sometimes scary, path that will lead Josephine down paths that would scandalize her family if they knew, but ultimately opens Josephine’s eyes and changes her forever.

I’ll be honest: the mystery was kind of predictable. I guess who it was fairly early on, as well as guessing the “big secret”. I didn’t have the how and why, but eventually, I figured out that too. The thing that kept me reading was Jo herself. I enjoyed the push and pull she had with Upper Crust New York Society, how she was willing to go against the expectations of her family. I found it all fascinating, and found Jo a character worth spending time with this.

Which made it worth reading.

Curiosity House: The Shrunken Head

curiosityhouseby Lauren Oliver (and H. C. Chester)
First sentence: “Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls: step right up and don’t be shy.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Review copy pilfered off the ARC shelves at my place of employment.
Content: There’s murder and some adult smoking and drunkenness. It’s in the middle grade section (grades 3-5) of the bookstore.

Orphans Philippa, Sam, and Thomas have basically grown up in Dumfrey’s Dime House, a place where unusual kids like them — Philippa is a mentalist, Sam is a strong man, and Thomas is a super-math-genius — are welcome. But, soon after Max (knife thrower extraordinaire) arrives, Mr. Dumfrey’s prize shrunken head goes missing and then people around the city start dying. It’s up to the four kids to figure out what is going on. And, in the process, figure out who they Really Are.

I found the mystery end of this delightful. I thoroughly enjoyed the four kids as they learned to work together and puzzle out who exactly was the person behind the killings. I figured it out before they did, but not much before, and I loved that the clues were there for anyone to pick up. Even the big twist ending wasn’t a huge surprise. It’s only vaguely speculative fiction (mentalist abilities and all that), so it’s perfect for those who don’t want much magic or ficitonal places. The only complaint is one I remember Ms. Yingling having: I wish the historical context was more explicitly put out there. Like her, I was able to figure it out, but I’m not sure that kids would get it (in fact I know so: this is one that my kid review group at work read and they didn’t even notice). Though that’s probably not something that would bother them.

At any rate, it’s a lot of fun.

(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.)

The Appearance of Annie Van Sinderen

by Katherine Howe
First sentence: “The cafe in the basement of Tisch, the art and film school at New York University, was redecorated this year.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Review copy snagged from the ARC shelves at work.
Content: There’s talk of teenage drinking (and some actual), plus drug use. There’s also one almost-sex scene. It’s in the Teen (grades 9+) section at the bookstore.

There is no way to write this, I think, without spoiling the premise. If you choose to go into this without knowing what it is, then you should probably stop reading now.

Wes is at NYU for the summer film workshop for a reason: he wants to transfer from the University of Wisconsin-Madison to NYU because Madison is, well, small. Constricting. The Same. He needs something different, and he Knows he can find it in New York City. (Well, can’t we all?) He’s out helping one of his friends, Tyler, film an art film at a seance when his life really changes: he meets Annie and Maddie. They’re edgy, they’re different, they are most definitely not from Wisconsin. And as Annie pulls Wes into her story (and he gets more tangled up with Maddie), he discovers that maybe the life-changing event he thought New York would offer him isn’t going to be in film school.

I’m going to say it, even though Howe danced around it: this is a ghost story. And, as such, it’s quite good. I liked not knowing that Annie was a ghost for a while — it took the whole first section for me to figure it out, though there’s a pretty big clue at the end of the prologue. I liked Wes’s discovering of her story, and how Annie flitted back and forth in time. I liked Howe’s historical detail; it’s most definitely something she excels at. And I thought the love triangle-ish thing between Wes, Annie, and Maddie was unique as well.

The only thing that really bothered me was that Howe refused to call a spade a spade. She never, once, admitted, in words, that Annie was a Ghost. She was a Rip Van Winkle. Every time it came up, they dodged the bullet. It got old. Just say she’s a ghost, please.

But, other than that, it was an intriguing weaving between past and present, and a unique way to look at ghost stories.


by Justin Sayre
First sentence: “Ducks, now would you look at this!”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Release date: September 22, 2015
Review copy provided by the publisher rep.
Content: There’s really nothing objectionable, though the subject matter is a bit on the more mature side. It will be in the YA section of the bookstore, though it’s probably good for 5th graders as well.

Davis is an only child, living with his mother — who is gone all the time, working at the bakery she owns — and his grandmother. His father’s out of the picture (dead? I think?) and his grandpa died a few years ago. And his grandmother is one of those Irish Grandmothers: overprotective, nosy, loud. The only real escape Davis has is his opera music (yes, he likes opera. No, it doesn’t come off as weird) and his friends, Sophie and Ellen. Except that Ellen is a sarcastic mean and likes Charlie (whom Davis isn’t really quite sure of), and Sophie has been hanging out with Allegra who is one of those stereotypical Mean Girls. So, where does that leave Davis?

During this summer before high school, Davis tries to figure all of it out.

I wanted to like it. Partially because I like our rep, and she really liked this one. But. I just didn’t get it. Davis was bothered by his weight, but it’s not a fat book. Which is a good thing. It’s not one of those books where he has to Overcome Being Fat in order to be happy. But, it’s also not a Accept Yourself and Be Happy book, either. On the one hand, it’s a process, and it doesn’t have a tidy happily-ever-after, which I respect. But I didn’t like the underlying assumption — especially at the end — that Davis was gay. A boy who listens to opera and whose best friends are girls isn’t necessarily gay. (Way to play into stereotypes.) That really bothered me, in the end.

Davis was a decent enough character; a bit lethargic for my tastes, and prone to being a reactor instead of someone who actually participates in his own life. But, it wasn’t a bad thing.

Aside from the stereotypes, I really can’t pinpoint why I didn’t love this book. It just wasn’t my thing.

The Wonder Garden

by Lauren Acampora
First sentence: “John likes to arrive first.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Review copy pilfered from the ARC shelves at work.
Content: There’s a bunch of f-bombs, but not as many as you’d think. Also some mild drug use and off-screen sex. It’s in the adult fiction section of the bookstore.

If I had to choose a favorite way to read short stories (other than not at all), I prefer them to be interconnected ones. Ones where it almost seems like I’m reading a novel. So, I was immediately made curious about these with the words “intricately interwoven stories”. Yes, please.

And, at first I enjoyed this. One minor character from the previous story would show up as the protagonist in the next, giving layers to what had previously went on. Some stories were odd (the insect installation), others kind of weird (the accountant-turned-hippie). I don’t know if I was truly enjoying it, but I was interested.

But about 2/3 of the way through, it fizzled. I was tired of trying to remember which story what protagonist showed up in. I was bored with the way it interconnected. And the stories weren’t enough to keep me interested; I just couldn’t find myself interested in their lives, and the words just weren’t pulling me in.

It could totally be me: short stories and I aren’t always the best of friends and I may have just not been in the mood for this. But, it is possible that it may have just worn out its welcome.

Goodbye Stranger

by Rebecca Stead
First sentence: “When she was eight years old, Bridget Barsamian woke up in a hospital, where a doctor told her she shouldn’t be alive.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Review copy picked up at Children’s Institute
Content: There’s one swear word. And several situations that are more middle school than elementary school. It’s in the YA section (grades 6-8) of the bookstore, but I’d give it to a fifth grader, especially as they’re approaching middle school.

I’ve been thinking about how to start this. It’s not an easy book to categorize: is it a book about friendship? Yes. About growing up? Also yes. About bullying and the shame girls feel about their developing bodies?Again: yes. About first love and that line between friendship and something more? Yep.

But it’s also more: it’s about doing the wrong thing and making it right. About figuring out who you are in the wake of change. And it’s all done with Rebecca Stead’s beautiful writing.

The story is nominally about three friends — Bridge, Em, and Tab — who have been friends since the third grade. They made a pact to always stick together and never to fight, which is easy until seventh grade. Then Em begins attracting the notice of older kids and boys, and, well, likes it. Tab becomes enamored of a feminist teacher and dives headfirst into the world of equality and civil disobedience. And Bridge is kind of stuck in between. She doesn’t really want to grow up (I can relate), and yet she’s kind of interested in it as well. She picks up a pair of cat ears on a headband and wears those through the fall and winter because they felt “right”. She’s not quite sure who she is, or where she fits.

There are plot points, and chapters written in second person by a “mystery” high school freshman narrator (I figured out who it was fairly quickly. Yay me!), but mostly the book is about every day little things as Bridge is trying to figure out where she fits in this weird middle school world.

I loved it, and I think I did for one reason: I saw both myself and my daughters in this book. I saw the awkward 7th grader I was, and realized that Bridge was okay in her journey, because I survived. I saw M and C in the friends, and the ups and downs of their middle school experiences. And I saw A, as she starts middle school next year, and was reminded (again) of all the changes that will come her way. And for that, I loved this. I loved the smallness of it (and the diverseness: Bridge is Armenian and Tab is Indian) and the hopefulness of it. And I loved that the friends did, in fact, make it work out.

I thought it was marvelous. I just hope it finds the kids who will think that too.

Trouble is a Friend of Mine

by Stephanie Tromly
First sentence: “Of course I didn’t like Digby when I first met him.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Release date: August 4, 2015
Review copy provided by the publisher rep.
Content: There’s some mild swearing. And inferences about drug use by teens. I think it’ll be in the YA section (grades 6-8) though. (It’s not too bad.)

Zoe is the product of a bad divorce: her Wall Street broker dad cheating on her mom. She generally sided with her dad, but ended up in her mom’s custody, moving to a small podunky college town in upstate New York after the divorce. Zoe doesn’t want to be there at all and when Digby — kind of the high school pariah, of sorts — decides that she needs to be his side-kick (she really doesn’t have much say in it; he really just inserts himself into her life and she doesn’t kick him out) in discovering what has happened to a local kidnapped teenager, she goes along with it. For kicks and giggles.

When the ARC came into the store, it had this sticker on it:

I won’t say it gave me high hopes, but I was expecting some laughs. And there were: Digby has a talent for getting into some very bad situations, and there was some pretty amusing antics trying to get out of them. And Zoe’s mom with her bumbling cluelessness was pretty amusing too. (Though: not as amusing as the mom in Finding Audrey.) But while I didn’t find it funny, I did find it endearingly charming. Incredibly charming. And fascinating. There’s a mystery running throughout — and not just the finding the kidnapped teenager one — that kept my interest, and kept me guessing, which added to my general enjoyment. And I just adored Zoe and Digby and their friend Henry. And all the other people they came into contact with. It was just… delightful.

So, maybe it’s not the hilarious read our rep promised. But it’s still definitely worth the time to read it.

Between You & Me

Confessions of a Comma Queen
by Mary Norris
First sentence: “Let’s get one thing straight right from the beginning: I didn’t set out to be a comma queen.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Content: There’s a passage with about four F-words, and then a whole chapter on swearing. It’s in the Literary Reference section of the bookstore.

I am not an expert grammarian. I didn’t really pay attention in school when it came to the parts of a sentence or how things are ordered, or when to use (or not use) commas (which I use much too abundantly). But, a good book on grammar? I love that. I don’t know what it is, why I adore learning about this obnoxious language of ours, but I do.

And Between You & Me is a great book on grammar. (Which means I adored it.)

Mary Norris has been a copy-editor at the New Yorker magazine for the past thirty years, so she has some credibility. But, what she also has is a terrific voice. It’s not only readable, she has a snarky streak that is just endearing. She recounts a bit of the history of her time at the magazine, their style differences with the New York Times, and a little bit about how she ended up as a copy-editor. All of which is fascinating.

But what I really enjoyed was a refresher on grammar. Her chapter on commas (where she took on both Melville and Dickens). Or a whole one on apostrophes. (Where she came up with this: “If you are going to put a sign with your family’s name on it in front of your house, as if to say ‘Our House,’ then you wan the plural possessive: The Volts’. And if your name ends in an s you still want the plural, even if it looks terrible: The Norrises’. And if you don’t like it, simply refrain from putting a sign with your name on it in front of your house.” I almost stood up and cheered.) And even the chapter on cursing was entertaining.

I could go on, but i won’t. I’ll just say this: read it. You won’t regret it.

Kissing in America

by Margo Rabb
First sentence: “According to my mother, my first kiss happened on a Saturday in July.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Review copy pilfered off the ARC shelves at my place of employment.
Content: There’s a few mild swear words, s**t being the most prevalent. It’s in the YA section (grades 6-8) of the bookstore.

Eva Roth adores romance novels, much to her feminist mother’s chagrin. Eva loves the sweeping romance, the rugged men (who are ruggedly handsome), the idea of falling in love. She lives in New York City, though; someplace where there aren’t rugged cowboys or Highland Scotsmen to sweep her off her feet.

Then she meets Will: cool, on the swim team, completely inaccessible. Until he is: he’s kissing her on the sidewalk in front of a subway stop, and Eva’s world changes completely.

Enough so that when Will moves to LA  to live with his dad, Eva concocts a way to go see him: she and her best friend, Annie, are going on a cross-country bus trip to be on this Smart Kids game show. Just so she can see Will.

It sounds like a fluffy romance, no? And in many ways it is: Eva falls in love, other people fall in love, there is sweeping kisses and lots of corny romance novel references. But this novel has a darker undercurrent running through it: The reason for the bus trip is that Eva has been afraid to fly, ever since her father died in a freak plane crash.  In fact, the novel turns out less to be about romance than about Eva’s relationship with her mother, grief, and moving on since her father’s death. Which is not what I was expecting.

Even though it wasn’t quite the fluffy romance I was expecting, I did enjoy the story. I liked Eva’s relationship with her best friend, Annie. (Though I wanted to smack her aunt and mother. Seriously overprotective, even if it is understandable.) I liked the road trip part, with Eva getting out of her bubble and routine. (Though it was quite tame compared to, say, the bus trip in Mosquitoland.) And I did like that everything wasn’t “happily ever after”;  it was realistic while being hopeful, and that worked for me.

A good summer read.

The Tapper Twins Go To War (with each other)

by Geoff Rodkey
First sentence: “Wars are terrible things.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Review copy picked up at Winter Institute for me by my co-workers
Content: There’s a lot of silliness, and it’s a “notebook” book and told in an oral history form, which means lots of pictures, not a lot of exposition, and a generous mix of technology. Perfect for reluctant readers. It’s in the middle grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore, but it’d be good up through 7th, I think.

The Tapper twins, Claudia and Reese, are at war. They disagree on how it started, but both are pretty invested in making each other’s life miserable now. It escalates from name calling to pranking (a dead fish left in a backpack) to online bullying to out-and-out destruction in an online gaming forum.

It’s told as an oral history; Claudia is the narrator, and nominally the one telling the events as they unfold, but she interviews friends and family (well, she uses text messages from her parents) and neighbors to defend or refute her point: that Reese is the one who started the War, and that he Deserved It. Of course, Reese totally rejects that idea.

Sure, this isn’t a lot of things, but it IS a lot of fun. And honestly: that’s what kids want and like. Personally, I loved the dynamic between the twins, their push and pull with each other. And while it’s an upper-middle class life that they live (computers, tablets, phones, babysitter, private school), and while it’s yet another New York City book, it’s a fun “fantasy” life for those of us in middle class, Midwest America (although yeah, I’d like to have their life and their problems) and a fun look at kids in New York City. It got me laughing, aloud at times, and sometimes that’s exactly all you want out of a book.

And I’m sure kids will love it.