Absolutely Almost

by Lisa Graff
First sentence: “Not everybody can be the rock at the top of the rock pile.”
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Content: It’s pretty basic: short chapters, nothing too difficult plot or language-wise. It’d be good for reluctant readers as well as stronger ones. It’s in the middle grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore.

Albie has spent his life being almost. Almost smart enough. Almost good enough. Almost observant enough. But not quite. In fact, he’s been kicked out of his fancy prep school because he wasn’t smart enough, and his parents sent him to a public school. It’s never said what kind of learning disorder Albie has, but he definitely has one: math is hard, spelling is near impossible, and he just can’t live up to his busy parents’ expectations.

But things are going to change for Albie — not drastically, but some — because of a couple of teachers and a nanny who truly see potential in Albie. Not for just almost, but on his own terms.

It’s a simple story, following Albie over the course of most of a school year. He does learn and grow, and figures out things about friendship and how to stand up to his overbearing parents. It’s one of those affirming books: kids can be successful on their own terms and in their own way, and we need to appreciate that without making them measure up to some sort of standard. It’s all fine and good and sweet (and I did like Albie, quite a bit), but it lacked depth for me. Sure, it’s a middle grade novel, but that doesn’t mean that there can be some bite, some seriousness to it.

I don’t know if I was looking to shed tears, or to be Truly Moved, but I did feel like this one felt a little flat. Not bad, but not amazing, either.

Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass

by Meg Medina
First sentence: “Yaqui Delgado wants to kick your ass.”
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Content: There’s some mild swearing. The real reason it ended up in the Teen (grads 9+) section is for the bullying and the violence. It’s pretty graphic and the fallout is pretty severe.

Piddy Sanchez is starting a new school. It’s one of those inner city schools in a Hispanic neighborhood in Queens, the kind that justifies every bad stereotype there is. Just a few weeks in, and someone informs Piddy that Yaqui Delgado — whom Piddy has neither seen nor spoken with — is going to kick her ass. Why? Because she thinks Piddy is flirting with her boyfriend. (She’s not.)

It’s this threat, among other things, that begins defining Piddy’s life. She doesn’t feel like she can talk to her mother, who is working extra shifts to try and provide for the both of them. She does turn to her aunt Lila, but even then she keeps the awful details to herself.

It’s a harsh journey, one that I wouldn’t wish on any kid. I did like that there was a range of diverse people in this one; not all white characters were “good” and not all Latin@ ones were “bad”. There was a wide range of personalities, and the color of the skin just happens to be incidental. I also enjoyed how Piddy embraced her culture and loved her neighborhood.

I was glad for the solution to this one, as well. No one really “learned their lesson” and the bully wasn’t reformed and they didn’t become friends and live happily ever after. No, it was much more realistic and messy and showed that sometimes the best option isn’t always the most noble one.

It was a tough read, emotionally raw especially for me (because of the whole daughter thing), but I’m glad I did.

Brown Girl Dreaming

by Jacqueline Woodson
First sentence: “I am born on a Tuesday at University Hospital Columbus, Ohio, USA — a country caught between Black and White.”
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Content: There’s nothing objectionable. And it’s even an easy-ish read. Sure, it’s poetry, but it’s not difficult. Hand it to anyone with an interest in writing, kids, and history. It’s in our middle grade biography section at the bookstore.

I’m not quite sure where to start on this one. It seems We’ve (the collective we, here) been inundated by memoirs and biographies of celebrities, People of Note, and at first glance Jacqueline Woodson’s new book just falls into that pit of “celebrity” (of a sort) biographies.

Except, it’s not so much a biography or memoir as it is a reflection upon a childhood. Woodson makes her childhood an Everyperson experience, something that the reader can readily identify with, even if they didn’t have her exact same experiences.

Her childhood begins in Ohio, but mostly it’s spent in South Carolina, with her grandparents, and in Brooklyn, where her mother finally settled with Jacqueline and her brothers and sister. I kept trying to figure out the timeline (if she was born in 1963, then it must be…) but eventually, I just gave up and let myself get absorbed in the story.

And absorbed I was. Woodson wove historical elements into her story — sit-ins in the South; the way her grandmother felt about the way she was treated in stores by white people; music that was playing on the radio — all of which helped put her personal story in a larger framework. I could easily forget I was reading a memoir; it felt so much like a novel.

Part of that, too, was the form. Written in free verse, the memoir took on a lyrical quality. There were moments, especially toward the end, where I was moved by her insights not only in her life, but for Life in general.

One more thing: I appreciated her portrayal of religion. I get the sense she’s not a practicing Jehovah’s Witness anymore, but she portrayed the religion of her grandmother and her own childhood with respect. It was neither good nor bad; it was just a part of her life. And I found that refreshing.

Highly recommended.

Raging Heat

by Richard Castle
First sentence: “Nikki Heat wondered if her mother hadn’t been murdered what her life would have been.”
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Others in the series: Heat Wave, Naked Heat, Heat Rises, Frozen Heat, Deadly Heat
Content: These aren’t for the younger fans of the TV show. Grisly murders (though not terribly descriptive), off-screen sex, and lots of f-bombs puts it squarely in the adult mystery section at the bookstore.

I don’t know if I have anything new to say. I still enjoy these books for their own sake; although this one had highlights from both season 5 AND 6, it’s really it’s own beast. The mystery had me guessing, as Heat and Rook wandered the streets of New York and Long Island looking for the murderer of a Haitian immigrant. It was a pretty messy mystery, with lots of characters involved (both on the murdered end — there ended up being 4 or 5, I think — and as the murderers) and while I probably could have figured it out, I didn’t. I just sat back and thoroughly enjoyed the twists and turns.

I also enjoyed the tension between Rook and Heat as they tried to balance life, work, and romance. If you follow the show, you’ll figure out where the book character’s relationship is going, but it’s a satisfyingly bumpy ride. (I especially enjoyed it when Heat lost her cool and dumped a bottle of Tequlia in Rook’s lap. He really did deserve it.)

All I can say is I’m glad the show’s back on, so I can get a preview of the next book.


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.

The End of Your Life Book Club

by Will Schwalbe
First sentence: “WE were nuts about the mocha in the waiting room at Memorial Sloan-Kittering’s outpatient care center.”
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Content: There’s really nothing. It’s a very adult book in its sensibilities, but there’s no reason a teenager — especially a bookish one — couldn’t read this.

This book has been on my radar for a little while; it made the rounds at the bookstore when it came out and many of the staff and regulars loved it. But I didn’t get around to reading it until a good friend of mine suggested it for our book group.

If you haven’t heard about this one, it’s basically the story of Will’s mother as she goes from diagnosis for pancreatic cancer through her final days. The two of them are both avid readers, and they formed their own small book group during her chemotherapy sessions. It’s one part book-lovers book, and one part death and dying story.

I liked the book-lover part better, mostly because it was something I could grasp. I hadn’t read (or even heard of) a good number of the books they talked about, but Schwalbe was enthusiastic and thoughtful about enough of them that I’m interested in checking several of the books and authors out. I highlighted quite a few quotes about books and reading, ones that resonated with me.

As for the death and dying part, I was touched by Schwalbe and his mother’s story. She was a remarkable woman, who did remarkable things in her own small way. I had one of those “if I could only be as awesome as she was” moments. And you could tell the affection that Schwalbe had for his mother. I know that sometimes in these sorts of books the dead person gets “sainted”, but I never felt that his mother was. By framing the book around the books they read, Schwalbe gave this book a grounding — and a broader audience — that you don’t usually find in cancer books, something which I appreciated quite a bit.

I don’t think it was my favorite book ever, but I am glad I finally got to read it.

Loot: How to Steal a Fortune

by Jude Watson
First sentence: “No thief likes a full moon.”
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Content: The only think I can think of is that it’s a bit intense, action-wise. Probably on par with the Percy Jackson books. There’s no swearing, no romance. It’s happily in the middle grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore.

This book — combined with The Great Greene Heist (it’s a trend! Does two books make a trend?) — has gotten me thinking about the implausible versus the impossible. It is implausible that Jackson Green could have thrown together a crew to scam less-than-intelligent adults into exposing a blackmailing scheme. It is highly impossible, however, that 12-year-old March McQuin could have gotten together a crew in order to steal back 7 Moonstones that his illustrious thief father, Alfie, stole 12 years before. (Granted, the premise behind the Heist Society books by Ally Carter is also impossible.)

Impossible, however, doesn’t mean “bad”.

In fact, Watson has put together quite a ripping tale. After Alfie’s death during a heist in Amsterdam, March discovers he has a 12-year-old twin sister, Julia, that he didn’t know about. And then, at Alfie’s funeral, March and Julia are confronted by the woman from whom the moonstones were stolen. She’s offered them $7 million in order to steal them back. In a week. They’re up against incredible odds: Alfie’s old partner, who has just recently gotten out of jail, are after the stones as well.

Even though the premise is impossible, Watson does a fantastic job keeping up the pace. The chapters are short, the pacing quick, making it a perfect read for reluctant readers. Plus, it’s action-packed with chases (both in the car and on foot) and rooftop falls as well as planning and executing some pretty amazing heists.

No, it’s not a story that could actually “happen”. But it was still a lot of fun.

City of Heavenly Fire

by Cassandra Clare
First sentence: “On the day Emma Carstairs’s parents were killed, the weather was perfect.”
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Others in the series: City of Bones, City of Ashes, City of Glass, City of Fallen Angels, City of Lost Souls
Also helpful to read before picking up this one: Clockwork Angel, Clockwork Prince, Clockwork Princess
Content: There’s violence, some mild swearing, and some sexytimes. The sex is tasteful and protected (yay!), but it is depicted, to an extent. This entire series is in the Teen section (grades 9+).

I’m not even going to try and sum up what has happened up to this point, or even what happens in this book. Coming in at over 700 pages, to say a lot of stuff happens is a major understatement. But, everyone is here: Jace and Clary, Simon and Isabelle, Alec and Magnus, Jocelyn and Luke, as well as hangers on: Brother Zachariah (yay!) and Tessa each play a role, as do Maya and Raphael. And, of course, the big baddie, Sebastian.

It also introduces new characters in 12-year- old Emma Carstairs and her best friend Julian Blackthorn. They don’t really play a huge role in the story; mostly they just play small roles. But they — and their family — are involved enough that we get to know them. And — and this is a complaint I have — they serve as a linchpin for a start of a new series. At some point, one does have to wonder, I think, if Clare can write any stories in a different world. But then, why should she, when this one is so rich?

It was nice to hang out with Clary and crew again, to see how relationships have developed, and follow them as they try to thwart Sebastian’s evil plan. Like always, Magnus was the most interesting character, and I was thrilled to see the way he and Alec’s relationship went. There’s some heartbreaking moments, and Simon even gets to shine with his Dungeons & Dragons references.

It’s a good conclusion (of sorts) and a fun story, even for all its length.

My Basmati Bat Mitzvah

by Paula L. Freedman
First sentence: “When Ben-o came over on Saturday for movie nigt, my dad answered the door wearing gray silk pajama bottoms and his Math Teachers Play by the Numbers T-shirt, an unlit pip clenched between his teeth.”
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Review copy snagged from the ARC shelves at my place of employment.
Content: There’s a lot of questions about religion and God in this. Plus some 7th-grade kissing. If we had it at the bookstore I’d probably waffle between putting it in the Middle Grade (grades 3-5) and YA (6-8) sections. It could easily go either place.

Tara Feinstein is your typical New York City middle schooler. She has two best friends, Rebecca and Ben-o (thusly named in fourth grade when there was a Ben D., even though he’s since moved away), and is looking forward to 7th grade. She’s been attending Hebrew School for the past few years — her mother, who is Indian, decided that Tara needed to get in touch with her Jewish (from her father) side — and is wondering whether or not to go through with her bat mitzvah in December. And like a typical middle schooler (at least one in my house), she has questions. About whether or not going through a bat mitzvah is somehow denying the Indian side of her. About whether or not there is a god. About why Ben-o is acting so strange and Rebecca seems to be hanging out with a girl that Tara just Doesn’t Like. Typical middle schooler stuff.

There really isn’t much overall conflict in this. Mostly it’s like life: a series of ups and downs. Tara and Rebecca accidentally ruin a priceless heirloom sari that Tara’s been given by her aunt. The new friend Rebecca has turns out to be a bit of a kleptomaniac. Ben-o turns out to likeĀ like Tara, but covers it up by hanging out with another girl, which is confusing to say the least. So, there is Drama (which, on the one hand, will make this book imminently relatable to everyone, but I was a bit Done With, only because there’s so much middle school Drama in my own house that it was a bit overkill for me).

What I did enjoy was the melding of the cultures. How Tara’s Indian aunt called Tara’s Jewish grandmother “Ruthie-ji”. Or that the grandmother would bring a matzoh ball soup to a Diwali celebration. Or the way Tara melded the two at her bat mitzvah: wearing a dress made out of the ruined sari and serving Indian food. What better way to celebrate the good things in all cultures and traditions? I also enjoyed her musings about God and the afterlife and religious traditions. It’s that which kept me reading in spite of my Drama overload. And it’s was those elements that made the book good (for me).

The Geography of You and Me

by Jennifer E. Smith
First sentence: “On the first day of September, the world went dark.”
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Review copy sent to my boss by the Little, Brown people, and she passed it off to me.
Content: There’s kissing. And a wee bit of swearing. Mostly it’s just sweet. It was in the Teen section (grades 9+) but after finishing it, I moved it to the YA section (grades 6-8) and it fits there just fine.

Lucy is the youngest child of well-off parents, living in an upscale apartment in Manhattan. Owen is the only child of parents who were once drifters, and whose mother recently died in a freak accident. His dad — who isn’t doing so well — is now the superintendent of Lucy’s building. They would have never met, except they were both in the elevator when the power went out. It was a chance meeting, but one that expanded into a night spent wandering a darkened New York City, and then falling asleep on the rooftop.

The next morning, though, Owen is gone when Lucy wakes up, and they never really quite connect again. Lucy’s parents move her to Scotland; Owen’s dad is fired and they’re headed west, looking for jobs. They figure they’ll never see each other again. Except, Owen starts sending her postcards. And so, they start a tentative long-distance relationship. One with its ups and downs.

It’s not a spoiler to say that this one has a hopefully ever after. It’s not happy, per se — Lucy and Owen still live a great distance away — but it’s hopeful that they can make it work. And it’s not a spoiler to say that it’s not a terribly deep book. There’s no issues, really, and no angst. It’s mostly just a sweet journey of two people figuring out they really really like each other.

It’s enjoyable fluff, though. Sweet and charming. And I found that’s exactly what I needed to make me smile.