Falling Over Sideways

fallingoversidewaysby Jordan Sonnenblick
First sentence: “I’m waiting in the wings, watching all the fathers dancing onstage.”
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Content: There’s no swearing, drinking, or drugs. There is some talk of crushes. It’s a pretty skinny book, too. It’s in the YA section (grades 6-8) of the bookstore, but I’d give it to a 5th grader who was interested.

Claire is managing 8th grade okay so far. Sure, she’s no longer in the same dance class as her best friends. Sure, the boy at school who’s been mean to her for two years is still there. Sure, she’s still being compared to (and found failing) her Perfect Older Brother. And, sure her science teacher is kind of crazy. But it’s all manageable.

That is, until her father has a serious stroke. And she’s the only one home. She does what she’s supposed to do: calls her mom, calls 911. But it’s left her shaken. And it’s left her dad as a shell of himself. And that means her life has changed, whether she wants it to or not.

And while it’s a tough year for Claire, there are some bright spots. Sonnenblick captures the ordinary incredibly well, finding the joy and heartbreak in the little moments. Claire has a really heartwarming growth arc, as she goes from being afraid of her father in his new condition to being his biggest champion. And she grows with her friendships as well, discovering friends where she didn’t think there were. It’s a heartwarming tale overall (even if the mom starts out as annoyingly perfect and positive), one that will not only resonate with kids whose parents have been ill, but pretty much everyone who’s struggled a bit in their life.

A very, very good read.


by Kwame Alexander
First sentence: “At the top of the key, I’m MOOVING & GROOVING, POPping and ROCKING — “
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Content: It’s poetry, which is a plus and a minus: plus, because it means it’s a quick read. Minus, because you have to convince kids that it’s okay to read poetry. There’s some kissing, but I’d give this to kids ages 10+. It’ll be in the Newbery section of the bookstore (yes, we do have one!).

I really didn’t know what to expect going into this. I’m sure it would be good — it won the Newbery, after all — but is it one of those good books that are just all style and no substance?

Because this book does have style. You can tell that right from the first page. Alexander’s not only writing a novel in verse, he’s playing with form. There’s style to these poems, it’s not just words on a page; they sometimes (like in the opening poem) leap right off the page. (There’s one poem, about 2/3 of the way though, that can be read in two different directions. I love that!) But, there’s also substance as well.

Twins Josh and Jordan Bell are inseparable, both in life and on the basketball court. Sons of a retired (due to injury) Euroleague player, basketball is their Sport. Their Religion. Their Life. But, during their 8th-grade year, things change. They drift apart, mostly because Jordan — JB as he wants to be known — starts going out with a girl. And their dad has serious heart problems. All of this weighs on Josh, and he lets it interrupt his game.

It’s a simple story, but one with tremendous amounts of heart. Josh is a complex character, who worries about his parents, misses the connection with his brother, and wants to be the top of his game. And yet, he has a temper, one that gets in the way of his wants and desires sometimes. There’s a depth to him that makes him real, which I appreciated it.

I did have a couple of complaints… I didn’t like the portrayal of the girlfriend, but I do understand it’s from Josh’s point of view, and he didn’t really like her intrusion into the relationship with his brother. So, I can understand why she was a bit of a caricature.) The other thing I didn’t really care for — and this is a spoiler — was the dad dying in the end. I did like that there wasn’t a “neat and tidy” ending, but it was a bit, well, Dramatic.

But aside from those two little complaints, I loved this one. I loved the style and the characters and just immersing myself in this world. For the Bells, the highest compliment is that they are Da Man. And this book is definitely that.

The Map to Everywhere

by Carrie Ryan and John Parke Davis
First sentence: “Fin crouched behind a rack of bootleg flavors, trying hard to ignore the taste of rat fur and broccoli juice seeping from the grungy bottles.”
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Content: It’s kind of long, there’s some difficult made-up words, and it does take a bit of time to get into, so not really for a reluctant reader. Then again, there’s some great illustrations… Either way, it’s i the middle grade section (grades 3-5) of the bookstore.

Marrill has lived a life of adventure, following her parents around the world. Now, what was supposed to be a temporary stop in Arizona has become (mostly) permanent: her mother has cancer, and they need to stay close to doctors. But the prospect of school and a stable home doesn’t make Marrill happy.

Across the universe, Fin is the opposite: stuck in the Khaznot Quay, where he was dropped off as a baby by his mother (who then disappeared), Fin has become a master thief, mostly because he’s the guy who can’t be remembered. Literally: people look at him and as soon as they look away, they don’t remember him anymore. It’s very convenient when you tend to steal things.

But when Marrill’s and Fin’s paths cross — it has something to do with the Pirate Stream (a magical time/space continuum thing; you can sail a ship almost anywhere in the universe on it) — they end up teaming up to stop a rogue wizard from destroying the stream, and therefore the universe.

This is a perfectly fine fantasy adventure, once it got started. The main problem for me was that it took too long to get started. I almost put it down several times as I was waiting for the adventure to start, wading through the new world, and how everything connected. However, once the people and things were in place, I really did enjoy Marrill and Fin’s adventures.

I’m not sure if I’m invested in the series, but I think the kids will like it.

I Kill the Mockingbird

by Paul Acampora
First sentence: “My mother’s wheelchair does not fit through the bathroom door, and I don’t know what to do about it.”
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Content: There’s nothing objectionable, but it feels a bit old for the section it’s in (middle grade, grades 3-5) but it’s not really quite old enough for the YA section (grades 6-8). It’s kind of one of those in-between books.

It’s the summer before high school, and Michael, Lucy, and Elena have a summer reading list they’re assigned. None of them really wants to do it, partially because they’re the sort of precocious readers who read Dickens in 8th grade, and partially because, well, no one like summer reading.

One of the novels on the list is To Kill a Mockingbird, and Lucy comes up with a brilliant (or so they think) idea to get people reading and talking about this classic: what if we made the novel scarce. Not steal it from libraries or bookstore, but just reshelve it so no one can find it. (As a bookseller: *grumble*) And then start a web campaign — iKILLtheMOCKINGBIRD.com — to feed it.

What they’re surprised at (and I don’t know why they would be), is how well it works. It goes viral (thanks to Wil Wheaton) and To Kill a Mockingbird starts disappearing from shelves all over the country.

It’s not just all about their viral marketing scheme (which I doubt would work. It’s plausible, if improbable), though. Lucy’s mother is in remission from her bout with cancer, which stresses Lucy out. And she and Michael might be going from friends to more-than-friends, which is awkward for both of them.

On the one hand, this was a sweet little book. There were some funny bits — the scene near the beginning where Lucy and Elena are doing a Nativity shoot for Lucy’s mom had me laughing — and some sweet bits. I liked that it was religious without being preachy (which will go over well in my heavily Catholic town). My problem is that I really didn’t feel it had a specific audience. It’s a bit old for my 5th grader, who won’t understand the whole viral bit or even the discussion about the novel. But it feels a bit… young… for an 8th grader, who would understand those things.

Even with that qualm, it was a good, quick read.

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.

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.

Under the Egg

by Laura Marx Fitzgerald
First sentence: “It was the find of the century.”
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Content: There some descriptions of horrible events, but nothing graphic. I think younger readers might have problems with the languages — there’s French and Latin, though translations are provided — and some of the names, but it’s in the middle grade (grades 3-5) of the bookstore, and I think it fits there.

Theodora (call her Theo) Tenpenny is the granddaughter of an artist and the daughter of an extreme introvert. She lives in what was once a grand old New York City house, but over the years has become neglected. Her grandpa Jack has kept everything reasonably in shape over the years and has managed to keep the family afloat by being mostly self-reliant. But since he was hit by a car and died (which seems overly gruesome for a guy in his mid-80s), Theo’s been in charge. And she’s struggling.

That is, until she takes her grandfather’s last words — “Look under the egg” — literally, and discovers that he’s been hiding a very old painting underneath the one of an egg that’s been hanging over their mantelpiece for years. Because she’s spent her life in her grandfather’s shadow, going to the Met and other art museums, Theo has a good eye, and realizes at once that this painting is something special. Something, perhaps, worth a lot of money.

However, as she and her new friend, Bodhi, find out, declaring a painting a lost work by a master is easy. Proving it is another matter. Especially when it turns out that this could be looted Nazi treasure.

On the one hand, there’s a lot of information to be had in this slim book. Both art history as well as WWII history play a major role in the plot. But I think that Fitzgerald handles it well, even if all the information and history might make it harder for younger readers to get into the book. But, she gave us a couple of great characters in Bodhi and Theo; they really are a team that works well together. I enjoyed the old-fashioned sleuthing to solve the mystery of the painting, and I liked how the history fit into the larger picture. I did find the ending to be a bit convenient, but even that was explained in a reasonable (if somewhat implausible) manner.

In the end, a highly enjoyable book.

The Impossible Knife of Memory

by Laurie Halse Anderson
First sentence: “It started in detention.”
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Review copy snagged off the ARC shelves at my place of employment.
Content: There’s a fair amount of swearing, but no f-bombs (I’m pretty sure, anyway), and some violence (some of domestic) and drinking and drug use, some of which involve teens. For that reason, it’s in the teen (grades 9-12) section of the bookstore.

Part of me wants to get off doing the easy thing here and say, “It’s Laurie Halse Anderson’s newest book. OF COURSE YOU SHOULD READ IT.”

Because, really? That’s all you NEED to know.

But, I suppose, you would like to know the plot?  Okay…. Hayley, 17, returns to school after being on the road with her rig-driving, veteran father for the past five years. The reason they move back to his home town is that he can’t seem to keep a job anymore. And that seems to be the case, now. Her father (who had several tours in both Iraq and Afghanistan) spends his days and nights drinking and smoking pot. How could she WANT to go to school and “assimilate” when the life of someone she loves is going to hell?

Or perhaps the reason you should read this (other than it’s Laurie Halse Anderson)? Because even though Anderson writes about PTSD, she doesn’t just write about the disease. She writes about the people.  The people you come to know and love. And she doesn’t just write about the disease, she writes about the issues surrounding it, like how hard war is on both the vets and the families; and how the community, however well meaning they may be, doesn’t always understand how hard war is; and like how no matter how much you love a person, they’re not going to be able to get help until they want to get help.

And then there’s Finn. Oh, man, I fell for him. But I don’t want to make it seem like this is a love story (it’s not, even though there is kissing! In a pool!) or that he saves the day (he doesn’t, though he is a catalyst and a support).

No, you should read this because it’s the story of a father and a daughter who have lost their way, and how they find it again.

Or you could just read it because it’s Laurie Halse Anderson.