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.

Chasing Power

by Sarah Beth Durst
First sentence: “Razor blade.”
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Review e-copy sent to me by the author.
Release date: October 14, 2014
Content: It says it’s for 14 and up, and maybe they did that because most of Sarah Beth Durst’s books lately have been aimed toward that crowd. That said, there’s really nothing that I think a 7th- or 8th-grader couldn’t handle (mild swearing, some pretty bad parenting, etc.). It’ll be in the YA section (grades 6-8) of the bookstore.

Kayla and her mother — Moonbeam — are on the run. They have been for eight years now, moving frequently, changing their names, trying to keep a low profile. Why? Because Kayla’s dad killed Kayla’s sister, Amanda. Why? Because Kayla — and her sister, presumably — have magical powers.

Kayla’s powers aren’t that big, and mostly she uses them to steal little things — cash, jewelry — to help keep her and her mother afloat. Thing is: her mother doesn’t want Kayla to use her powers. She says it’ll help her dad find them. And then, one day, someone does find her. His name is Daniel, and he knows about her and her powers. And he needs her help to rescue his mom.

What Daniel starts is an epic quest to find not only Daniel’s mother, but Kayla’s past. And not everything is as it

I adore Sarah Beth Durst (and I’m not just saying this because she offered me this e-book (and an interview!), I really do enjoy her writing and world-building. I loved Kayla for her strength and for her insecurities. I was often annoyed with Moonbeam and her “I know better, trust me, it’s for your protection” routine, but in the end, she was someone worth cheering for as well. And I love the way Durst used the magic — both Kayla’s telekinesis and Daniels transporting — to forward the story; the quest couldn’t have happened without their powers, rather than them just being incidental to the whole story.

A fantastic read.

The Night Gardener

by Jonathan Auxier
First sentence: “The calendar said early March, but the smell in the air said late October.”
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Content: It’s a very slow, very atmospheric book. Probably not good for those struggling, though I think it would make an amazing read-aloud. It’s in the middle-grade section (grades 3-5) in the bookstore.

It’s the late 1800s, and Molly and Kip are siblings are in England looking for work because of the potato famine in Ireland. They’re desperate, so they’ll take anything, even a job at the Windsor house… a place which many people say are haunted. Molly — who is a storyteller at heart — and Kip don’t really have much of a choice, so they accept the job and head to the house, not knowing the fate that awaits them.

The family — father Bertrand, mother Constance, and two children, Alistair and Penny — is a strange one. Guarded, pale, and most of all, adamant that Molly and Kip stay away from the green door.

And then there’s the tree: the gnarled, old, dead, black tree that takes up a good portion of the yard.

Of course, things don’t go well for Molly and Kip: they soon notice that every night a tall, shadow man comes to water and take care of the tree. And to dig holes. And no, none of this is a happy thing. It comes down on Molly and Kip to figure out a way to not only get out of there, but to stop the evil from perpetrating.

The jacket flap compared this one to Washington Irving and Edgar Allen Poe, and I don’t think it was that. (Maybe Irving; I haven’t read him in a long time.) What it was, however, was a ripping good yarn. Auxier utilized storytelling in the writing of this, and it showed. I could imagine someone standing in front of an audience, spinning this tale out, having everyone on the edge of their seat: will they make it? It’s a long tale, sure, one for multiple nights, but one that will have the listeners engrossed.

But as a reader? It was good, sure, but not great. I liked it, yes, but didn’t love it. I was gratified that Molly (and Kip) ended up being heroes of their own story; there was a time I was worried adults would step in and solve the problem, but Auxier is smarter than that. It was a good read, but I think it’d be a better one if read aloud.

Graphic Novel Roundup

The Shadow Hero
by Gene Luen Yang & Sonny Liew
First sentence: “In 1911, the Ch’ing Dynasty collapsed ending two millenia of imperial rule over China.”
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Content: There’s some violence (graphic, obviously), but that’s about it. It’s a higher reading level, but I wouldn’t be adverse to giving this to the superhero loving 9- or 10-year-old. It’s in the teen graphic novel section of the bookstore.

In the 1940s, the first Asian-American, Hing, was hired by a small comic press to draw a superhero. The producers/owners wanted The Green Turtle to be white but the way Hing drew The Green Turtle, you really couldn’t tell. It was a short-lived comic, and Hing never gave The Green Turtle’s backstory.

Which is where The Shadow Hero comes in: Yang and Liew imagine The Green Turtle’s origin story.

And what a story. Yes, this is a superhero comic: the kind of nerdy, unambitious boy who gets a super power, but not without great cost. Our hero is Hank Chu, the son of Chinese immigrants. All he really wants to do is run the grocery store in Chinatown with his father. But, Chinatown is run by the mob, people who extract “taxes” from the businesses. Hank’s dad forgets a payment once, and the mob comes down on him, hard, killing him in front of Hank. That spurs Hank (kind of; his mother had been pushing him to become a superhero for a while) into action: he’s going to take down the mob, going after the boss.

Like all of Yang’s work, this is wonderfully drawn, and the story is compelling. I’m not a huge superhero comic person, but I couldn’t put this one down. It’s definitely a story worth reading.

Mr. Pants: It’s Go Time!
by Scott McCormick and R. H. Lazzell
First sentence: “What are you laughing at, Mr. Pants?”
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Content: It’s a perfect beginning chapter graphic novel. Words are simple and large print, but the humor is abundant and the pages keep turning. It’s in the beginning chapter book (grades 1-2) section of the bookstore.

This is one that our Penguin children’s rep (who has the most delightful Irish accent) RAVED about. She said, “Seriously: you just have to read it. It’s hilarious!” I put it off for a while, until she came again (there’s a sequel coming out), and reminded me: “You HAVE  to read this.” So, I did. And she’s right: you have to read it. It’s hilarious.

It’s the last day of summer, and Mr. Pants — a cat with two cat sisters and a human mom. No, I don’t understand, either — wants to go play laser tag. Except his younger sisters — Foot Foot and Grommy — have other ideas. Foot Foot wants to play with her new toy. Grommy wants to go to the Fairy Princess Dream Factory. Mom has to go shopping. The deal is this: Mr. Pants goes along with all this stuff (he doesn’t want to do, obviously), and they can go play laser tag.

Much like Babymouse, this is a gold mine for hilarity. There’s also some gender-bending going on; Mr. Pants is your typical “boy”, but he’s also accepting of his sisters’ likes. (Which, I think, is typical for a boy with sisters. Ask me, sometime, about the summer I was into Little House on the Prairie. I was Laura, and my brother was Mary.) It’s everything a beginning chapter book needs to be: colorful, funny, interesting, and good.

This One Summer
by Jillian Tamaki and Mariko Tamaki
First sentence: “
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Content: There’s a half-dozen f-bombs as well as mild swearing, and one of the minor characters gets pregnant. It’s in the teen graphic novel section for those reasons.

Every summer since she was five, Rose and her family would go to their cabin by the beach. She has her best friend there, Windy, and enjoyed the days playing, exploring, hanging out. But this summer is different. Rose is 13 (I think; she seemed 13) and she and Windy are talking about growing up (boobs were a big topic). And her mother and father are fighting. Quite a bit. Rose gathers from eavesdropping that much of it surrounds their failed attempt to have another baby. Which just makes Rose feel unwanted.

Add on top of that their observance (mostly from sneaking around) of an unfolding drama in the little town where their cottages are: a boy who works at the convenience store got his girlfriend pregnant and doesn’t want to accept responsibility.

It’s an interesting graphic novel, one that I think I didn’t like as much as I could have, solely because I was not the right age. But the 12-to 14-year old crowd, especially girls, would relate. It’s about changing, and accepting the future, and figuring out friends, and understanding the world. And it’s perfect for its target audience.

Just not for me.

Amulet: Escape from Lucien

by Kazu Kibuishi
First sentence: “There’s a real comfort in being a nobody like me, Master Griffin.”
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Others in the series: The Stonekeeper, The Stonekeeper’s Curse, The Cloud Searchers, The Last Council, Prince of the Elves
Content: There’s a lot going on, and sometimes the vocabulary is a bit challenging, but K (who’s 8) loves these books, so I’d say it’s good for a strong 2nd or 3rd grade reader. It’s in the middle grade (grades 3-5) graphic novel section of the bookstore.

I’ve been saying for years that I ought to break down and buy this series. And K discovering them this summer gave me the perfect excuse. However, I didn’t go back and reread the past ones before I dove into the new one. So, I’m still a bit behind on the story, but that’s my fault now.

Things are coming to a head and getting more desperate for Emily and the band of rebels. The Elf King is still in power, but his son, Trellis, is learning things and gaining power and confidence. But while we learn things about Max (he’s the Saruman figure) and his backstory, this book really belongs to Emily’s brother Navin, who is a pilot with the resistance, and is sent with his classmates (kinda sorta; he ends up tagging along because of reasons) to the city of Lucien, which has been bombed out and completely taken over by the “shadows”, evil blobs that possess people and turn them, well, evil. Their job: to see if there are any survivors, and to turn on the beacon, sending out a signal for help.

I really don’t have anything new to add to my thoughts on this series. Still gorgeous. Still not coming out fast enough. I’m still going to buy the next one when it comes out next year. I adore this series.

Just Call My Name

by Holly Goldberg Sloan
First sentence:
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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.

A Horse Called Hero

by Sam Angus
First sentence: “Wolfie stopped, distracted by the stacks of sandbags and newly dug trenches.”
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Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: There’s really nothing objectionable for the target audience, though there are letters written in cursive, and I know my 3-5 graders would have problems deciphering those. There’s also several intense situations, so if you have a sensitive child, you might want to shy away from that.

Dorothy and Wolfgang Revel — they go by Dodo and Wolfie, however — are children in London the winter of 1940 when the German bombs start dropping. Their father is called up to serve in the army — he was a celebrated commander during World War I — and they are sent off to Northern England to live with strangers. They’re doing okay, until word comes back that their father was arrested for desertion. Then, they are outcasts in this strange place. That is, until they’re taken in by the school teacher. Whereupon Wolfie chances across a horse being born and adopts it for his own.

If you can’t tell my my enthusiastic summary of the first 50 pages (which is really all that is; this book covers an enormous amount of time), I am not a horse person. And, alas, this book did nothing to help with that. I kind of had hopes that this would be Inspiring and Uplifting and help me see what people find in horse books, but… no. I was bored. The basic plot revolves around Wolfie’s love for Hero The Horse and the kids’ concern about their father. There was an incident when Hero saved them after they got trapped in the bog, and another when Hero helped Wolfie get out of a mine after an explosion, but by then, I was so Bored because of the lack of Real Plot (and the extended time; Wolfie was 5 or so when it started, and 14 by the end), I was just skimming.

I am sure that there are kids who would Love this one, but I am not one of them.

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.

The Year of Billy Miller

by Kevin Henkes
First sentence: “It was the first day of second grade and Billy Miller was worried.”
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Content: None. It’s currently in the middle grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore, but after finishing it, I’m wondering if I should move it to the beginning chapter books section. Since Billy’s a second grader and the type is pretty large and the words pretty simple.

Billy Miller is in second grade. That’s a Big Deal. He’s never done that before. And he’s not sure he can. Especially since the first day of school — with his very kind, and probably unrealistically good teacher, Ms. Silver — gets off to a bad start.

But, as the book unfolds in a series of short vignettes, each focusing on a different member of Billy’s family and in a different season, we find that Billy has ways of dealing with each and every challenge that comes his way.

It’s a very sweet little book. Simplistic, sure — there’s a girl, Emma, in Billy’s class that isn’t very nice, but instead of dealing with (or expanding) the problem, Henkes just kind of glosses over it — and without much conflict. But that doesn’t stop it from being sweet and charming. But really, that’s all it is.

Which isn’t a bad thing.

Fablehaven

by Brandon Mull
First sentence: “
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Review copy sent by the publisher because this is my January book group pick at work.
Content: Some mild fantasy violence, and one intense scene. Resides happily in the middle grade (3-5th grade) section of the store, though the language may be a bit difficult for the younger end of the spectrum.

People have been telling me for YEARS that I need to read Fablehaven. That they LOVE Fablehaven. That it’s brilliant. So I jumped at the chance to pick it for my 3-5th grade book group.

Seth and Kendra are off to spend a couple of weeks at their grandparents’ house while their parents are off on a cruise. The thing is: this is the side of the family they don’t know very well (you know there’s always one). Their grandparents are reclusive, and they’ve hardly seen them. In fact, their mom had to beg and plead in order to get them to let Seth and Kendra to stay there. So no one is really expecting things to go well. This feeling is exacerbated when, upon arriving, Seth and Kendra are shuttled off to the attic and told to stay either there or in the yard.

(Complaint #1: REALLY?  I’ve heard of controlling parents, but controlling grandparents is a first. I wanted to smack Grandpa for this. “It’s for your safety.” BAH. It’s a middle grade fantasy novel. Lighten up. Also: if that’s the way he treats the creatures in Fablehaven, I’m not surprised at the way he treats his grandkids.)

The kids are complete opposites. Kendra follows everything to. the. letter while Seth is the macho end of things and completely disregards Grandpa’s rules. (Complaint #2: why is it that 11-year-old boys are often
 portrayed as brats? I don’t have a son, so I don’t know if it’s typical. But I wanted to smack. the. kid. I also wanted to shake Kendra: lighten up a little, girl.) This not only leads to the discovery that Grandpa’s house (Grandma’s “missing”; she turns up later, just in time to help save the day. Which leads to Complaint #3: while Seth did a grand job creating conflict, the kids did very little in solving it. Sure, they were there, and they helped, but they didn’t DO much of anything.) is full of fairies and mythical creatures, but also to Seth creating a whole bunch of havoc.

And the book is already half done.

(Complaint #4: It seems like authors use series books to be lazy with world building. They take half the book SETTING THINGS UP and then hurry to wrap things up — or not — in the second half. *sigh*)

I wasn’t much interested in Seth or Kendra much after the halfway point. They did some stuff, they got Grandpa into deeper hot water, they rescued Grandma, blah, blah, blah.

I just didn’t care.

Perhaps this was a victim of high expectations. Or maybe it was reading it after reading So Many Cybils books (it wouldn’t have made my shortlist!). Or maybe it was lousy world building, with obnoxious characters, excessively floral language, and an uninteresting plot.

But it could be me.