Fat Boy vs. The Cheerleaders

by Geoff Herbach
First sentence: “Shortly before midnight on June 15, Gabriel Johnson, a sixteen-year-old from Minnekota, MN, was apprehended outside Cub Foods by Officer Rex McCoy.”
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Review copy pilfered from the ARC shelves at my place of employment.
Content: There’s a lot of swearing, none of it strong. I put it in the Teen (grades 9+) section of the bookstore primarily because I like to keep the YA section toned down. Also, because that’s where all of Herbach’s other books are. I’d say, depending on your kid, it’s good for as young as 7th graders.

In high school, there are two types of people: the jocks and everyone else. Gabe is everyone else.  Actually, Gabe is a band geek, and a mostly friend-less loser. He’s been going downhill since his mom ran off with a Japanese guy a few years back, and his grandpa moved in. It’s not just that he has only two friends, it’s that he’s overweight. Massively so. In fact, everyone (including his friends) call him Chunk. And he’s okay with that.

Gabe spends his days chugging Code Red, primarily because the money in the school’s soda vending machine goes to support the band that is Gabe’s lifeline. He figures he can chug 5 bottles of the stuff, if the money goes to fund his program. Then he finds out that a Super Sekrit school board meeting took away the vending machine money from the band and gave it to the Brand Spanking New dance team. Which makes Gabe mad. Eventually.

There’s more to the plot, of course, but it’s more about Gabe gaining self-respect than any eventual result. You know from the start — the whole book is his confession; a one-sided conversation with a Mr. Rodriguez — that he’s gotten arrested for doing something. You assume it’s for stealing money out of the vending machine. But, things are more complex than that.

Part of the charm of this book is the format; I was entertained by hearing only one side of the conversation, and imagining what Mr. Rodriguez’s side was. But, it was also Gabe. He was such a loser to start with, and it’s empowering to see how he regains control over his life, in spite of the people — from his friends to his father — who are trying to hold him back. Everyone needs a summer in which they find their best selves, and this story of Gabe’s was a truly fun one.

The Secret Hum of a Daisy

by Tracy Holczer
First sentence: “All I had to do was walk up to the coffin.”
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Review copy downloaded from Edelweiss.
Content: The subject matter — death and forgiveness — is a bit mature, but not so much that I don’t think a fourth-grader could handle it. There is some talk of crushes and bras, but even that is pretty tame.

It has always been just Grace and her mother. For 12 years, they’ve been wandering from city to city, finding work and a place to live here and there, never really settling down. When they finally make it to Sacramento, moving in with another single mom and her daughter, Grace finds she’s had enough of moving. She and her mother argue, and later that night, her mother dies in a tragic accident.

Suddenly, Grace is faced with moving in with her grandmother, whom she’s never met (and has a terrible opinion of, since she kicked Grace’s mom out when she got pregnant). To say it’s not something she wants to do is an understatement. At first, she tries to resist moving in with her grandma; she takes to sleeping in the shed, and tries to pull pranks to get her grandma to send her back to her friends’ house, where she was living. But, slowly, as she gets accustomed to the town, she learns that clues to her mother’s past, and therefore hers, are there, and slowly builds a home for herself.

I’ve read a lot of books with dead parents, so it takes something special to make one stand out of the pack. And I think, in many ways, this one had that something special. First: it was death-by-accident, and Grace was the first one to find her mom. It was realistic in that they argued, it was sudden, and Grace has to live with that. There’s also the non-shiny way everything fit together. Grandma was curt and doesn’t deal with loss well. Grace was petulant and stubborn and doesn’t deal with loss well. People are selfish, and unhappy, and yet…. it all works to make it feel more real than grating (it sounds grating. It isn’t. Well, maybe a little. But that helps give Grace her growth arc.). I also enjoyed the artistic thread that weaved its way through the book; Grace’s mother was an artist, her grandmother a landscape designer, and she’s a writer. The words of Robert Frost also tie this book together, giving it a poetic feel. It’s also a very hopeful book, one that looks past grief and loss to find a new beginning.

And one I found that, in spite of being about death and loss, I thoroughly enjoyed.

Wanderville

by Wendy McClure
First sentence: “Jack didn’t notice the smoke until there was far too much of it.”
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Content: There’s a some bullying and a fire that kills a family member of a main character, but that’s about it. It’s short enough to be a beginning chapter book, but it might be too challenging for most 1st and 2nd graders. Definitely belongs in the middle grade (3-5th grade) section of the bookstore.

Jack lives in a walk up in New York City in 1904. Their family is poor, but making it. That is, until a fire takes both their building and the life of Jack’s older brother. Frances and her younger brother Harold are orphans and living off the charity of one of the many orphanages in the city. Both find themselves on a train headed west, as part of the efforts of the Society for Children’s Aid and Relief Office. But, as all three find out, the best intentions of adults don’t always translate into good things for kids.

Faced with being separated from her brother, and looking forced labor in the eye, Frances, Harold and Jack decide to jump off the train before they reach their final destination. They’re wandering the Kansas prairie when they find Alexander, another orphan train escapee. He’s decided to start his own town, called Wanderville, and while it doesn’t look like much (or anything, really) it’s not his own. Unfortunately they way they get supplies is by “liberating” them from the nearby town. Which, obviously, is going to lead to trouble.

I wanted to like this one. It’s got a good idea — exploring the world of the orphans from the orphan train — and it’s set here in Kansas. I was hoping that it’d be a good contribution to historical/Kansas middle grade fiction. But it’s not. Perhaps it was me, but I didn’t like the characters, and felt the text itself was too condescending and predictable. I felt that if I had a checklist I would have ticked every single cliche off.  Bully on the train? Check. Evil man exploiting the system for his own gain? Check. Rugged and slow cop? Check. Sisterly figure who always knows better than the boys? Check. Adorable 7-year-old who is Wiser Than His Years? Check.) That’s not to say that kids won’t like it. I’m sure many will.

I just didn’t.

A Snicker of Magic

by Natalie Lloyd
First sentence: “‘They say all the magic is gone up out of this place,’ said Mama.”
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Content: Because the main character collects words, some of the vocabulary might be more advanced for some of the younger readers. Also, there’s a bit of a romance(ish; they’re more just really good friends though the hint is there) but it’s pretty tame. Is in the middle grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore.

All Felicity Juniper Pickle wants is to stop moving. Sure, she’s used to her mother’s wandering ways — the longest they’ve ever stayed in one spot has been six months — but that doesn’t mean she doesn’t long for the comforts of a true home and the ability to make friends. So when the Pickled Jalapeño (that’s their car) rolls into Felicity’s mom’s hometown of Midnight Gulch, Tennessee, Felicity hopes that they will finally settle down and call this Home.

Of course, getting her mom to settle down isn’t all that simple. And the longer they stay in town the more secrets are revealed about the town’s history. About why the ice cream there is so good. About why Felicity can actually see words floating through the air. And, mostly, about why her mother is so keen on wandering, and how Felicity can get her to stop.

And it all involves… a snicker of magic.

It’s a very quiet book, this, with a quiet sort of magic. And as I was reading this charming little story, the thought that came to me the most was that this felt a lot like Ingrid Law’s Savvy. This one is more Southern and small-town-ish than Savvy is, but at its heart, they’re quite similar. Both have a strong female character at the core, one who is determined to not only keep their family together, but to figure out how she fits in with everything else. And the magic is similar as well. Felicity sees words and “catches” them, by writing them down. (Which leads to a lot of fun word play: in addition to making words up — like spindiddly — words have textures, shapes and colors. It’s pretty cool.) The Blackberry Sunrise ice cream makes you remember. Her uncle sees colors when he plays notes. Someone in town doesn’t show up in pictures. Nothing grand, nothing life-changing, but magic nonetheless.

But it was more the feel of the book, the discovery of finding a home, a place to fit in. And Felicity’s desire to help her mother move past her divorce (dad just walked out on them), and their realization that home can mean a lot of different things. Full of delightful characters and quirky magic, it’s a delight to read.

Ghosts of Tupelo Landing

by Sheila Turnage
First sentence: “Desperado Detective Agency’s second big case snuck up on Dale and me at the end of summer, dressed in the happy-go-lucky colors and excitement of an auction.”
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Others in the series: Three Times Lucky
Content: There may be a few instances of mild swearing (but I really don’t think so), and some talk of abuse, and another (potential) murder. But it really is innocent and happily belongs in the middle grade (3-5th grade) section of the bookstore.

Every once in a while, a series of books captures my fancy so completely that I fall head-over-heels in love with the characters. The Casson family books are that way. As is My Most Excellent Year. I’m adding the Tupelo Landing books to that list. I adore the town, even with all its quirks, and the people in it. I want to live next door and enjoy them every day.

This installment picks up as the school year is starting, and Mo and Dale are about to enter sixth grade. This is a good time as any: one of the amazing things about this book is that while it is a sequel, it really does stand on its own. Turnage works in the story from Three Times Lucky as you go along, in ways — like press releases or newspaper clippings or just dropped comments — that don’t stop the narration of the current story. It was lovely to get a refresher while being immediately immersed in the new story.

The case that the Desperado Detective Agency is working on this time is a good old-fashioned Haunting. Miss Lana and Grandmother Miss Lacy bought the old inn at an auction, mostly because they didn’t like the look of the “city” woman (whom Mo less-than-affectionately calls “Rat Face”) who was bidding on the property. They didn’t want her to come in, tear the dilapidated inn down, and put up condos in place. Unfortunately, buying an inn to renovate and then renovating it — especially when there’s a bona fide ghost lurking about — are two different things.

Mo and Dale get involved because of a history assignment. They’re supposed to interview one of the town “elders”, and Mo’s nemesis, Anna (whom Mo less-than-affectionately calls “Attila”) nabs Grandmother Miss Lacy first. So, Mo — in a fit of pique — says they’re going to interview the inn’s ghost. That sets them to unraveling a 60-year-old mystery of how a girl — one of Grandmother Miss Lacy’s best friends — met her death.

The only real criticism I have of this book is that all the conflict seems a little contrived. The outside city girl just lurks in the background being uptight, and the new character, Harm Cremshaw, turns out to have more bark than bite.  Even the resident town grump, Red Baker, turns out to be mostly harmless. That said, I’m not reading these books for the conflict. Or even for the mystery. (Or the ghost story in this case, though it’s so slight, I’m not really considering this as a “speculative fiction” though it probably is.) No, I read this because I love the characters — Mo’s spunk and observations; Dale’s adorable cluelessness, Miss Lana’s optimism, the Colonel’s stoic nature — and I love the way Turnage writes them.

And that’s why you should be reading these as well.

Grasshopper Jungle

by Andrew Smith
First sentence: “I read somewhere that human beings are genetically predisposed to record history.”
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Review copy highly recommended by our publisher rep.
Content: Weeelll….. sh*t is Austin’s favorite word, and all grasshoppers do is “f**k and eat”. Which gives you a pretty good idea of the language. And Austin and Robby smoke. There is some drinking and one very unsexy sex scene (and talk of masturbating and erections and sex). It’s in the teen section of the bookstore, but I know I’m going to find it difficult to find a parent willing to buy this one for their kid. (That’s not to say the kids won’t like it. They might.)

The short version, the one I’ve been pitching at work (after I realized it was more than “grasshoppers and sex” — though it is that), is that it’s what would happen if Holden Caulfield found himself in a Stephen King novel. Austin — he’s the 16-year-old, sex-obsessed boy whose head we’re living in — is confused and lonely (even though he has a best friend and a girlfriend) and angsty and more than a little self-absorbed, much like Holden. And yet, the setting is so utterly antithetical to our character: a strain of mutant bacteria gets out and starts changing people into six-foot-tall praying mantises whose sole purpose in life is to eat — everything, including each other — and procreate.

Who dreams up these sorts of things? (Well, Stephen King and Andrew Smith, obviously.)

At any rate, it’s nothing like what I expected. I think with all the advance buzz — not just from our rep, but also Publisher’s Weekly, and just the reviews on Goodreads — I expected something, well, amazing. And I got… well, a sex-obsessed, selfish, confused 16-year-old boy. I can deal with that, for the most part (I did make it through Winger after all), and I appreciated Smith for giving us a confused sex-obsessed boy; Austin’s not only confused about life, but also about his own sexuality: how can a person be in love with — and desire — both of his best friends at once?

But, reading through the Goodreads reviews, I stumbled upon one from Kellie at Stacked that made points that I think had been at the back of my mind while reading this book. Nominally, it boils down to this: a woman couldn’t have written a book like this about a girl talking so frankly about sex or her vagina and have it receive the same amount of buzz and acclaim that this one is getting. And secondly: Austin treats girls and women as objects.

The first point, I can see and understand and am a little bit miffed about. It really does go back to this “boy books” and “girl books” thing we (publishers/sellers/parents) have gotten into. We “need” this book because boys “need” this book (because they’re not reading anything else). But that least me to point number two, which is what was bothering me while I read the book. I had chalked it up to being inside a 16-year-old boy’s mind, which is not a comfortable place. But, looking back, it’s really because, to Austin, all women (well, perhaps all people) are a means to an end: sex. He says he “loves” his girlfriend, but honestly, he just wants to jump her. And this — at my very core — bothered me. (In fact, when Robby finally confronts Austin and tells him he’s selfish, I cheered. More of that, please.)

I was talking to a friend at work about this and she pointed out that maybe, just maybe, it was meant to be satirical or ironic. That perhaps we, as readers, were meant to see that Austin is a complete jerk, and find humor in that. Or at the very least, self-reflection.  Perhaps. All I found was discomfort.

There were other things I was disappointed in: Austin’s circular telling of his own personal history, his constant repeating of people’s names (yes, I know Shann’s name is Shann Collins and her stepfather is Johnny McKeon, can you PLEASE stop already?), and just the general uneven pace of the narrative. That said, there were things to admire: actual sentences that made me laugh aloud. Or the fact that Austin’s (and Robby’s for that matter) sexuality was just a thing, and not an “issue”. Or six-foot-tall unstoppable praying mantises.

But I don’t think the positives outweigh the negatives on this one.

Better Nate Than Ever

by Tim Federle
First sentence: “I’d rather not start with any backstory.”
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Content: There is some bullying, a bit of swearing, and some frank talk about sexuality and alcoholism. I probably wouldn’t give it to a third grader (it just feels more mature than an 8-year-old, but you know your kid), but a 4th or 5th grader would be fine with it. It’s in the middle grade (3-5th grade) section of the bookstore, though the library has it in the teen section (which surprised me).

Nate Foster is a 13-year-old kid living in the blue collar town of Jankburg, PA (just outside of Pittsburg). His dad is a “maintenance engineer” and his mom runs a slowly dying flower shop. They have put all their hopes, dreams, and expectations on Nate’s older brother, Alex, the sports star. Which leaves Nate as the… well… outcast. It doesn’t help that he’s a Broadway musical fanatic, knowing them all, singing away, quoting incessantly. Which leaves his family (and the town) baffled.

Of course, Federle is playing off of stereotypes here: people in blue-collar towns are (obviously) backward and don’t understand Culture. People — boys especially — who like musicals are (obviously) gay. (There is much too much discussion about Nate’s sexuality here. And while his position is “I’m 13, how would I know if I were gay?” it bothered me that musicals are, necessarily, lumped in with being gay. Can we just get over that, now, please?) Boys who are short, overweight, and awkward are (obviously) bullied at school (and by his — jerk is not a strong enough word — older brother).

When Nate finds out about open auditions for a new musical based on the movie E. T. he jumps at the chance. And because he knows his backward parents would never let him, he takes the opportunity (with the help of his friend Libby) to run away to the auditions. He was supposed to go there and back again in a day, but (of course) things don’t quite work out. Which brings us to another cliche here — the kid from the backward blue-collar town has NO IDEA how to make it in New York City. (Which may be true, having never run away to the big city when I was 13.)

Even with all the cliches and stereotypes, this wasn’t a terrible book. And I think what saved it, for me at least, was Nate himself. Federle caught the voice of an awkward, insecure, hopeful kid someone who has been beaten down his whole life, and yet still remains optimistic about everything. He’s adorable, and heart-warming, and just plain fun. It was this that kept me reading, and when I finished, it was this that made the book a good one for me.

Additionally, it’s one of those books that’s good to have out there, if only because it addresses stereotypes. There aren’t that many books out there where the male main character gets to be something other than stereotypically male. Hopefully, boys will pick this up and give it a shot. If only to increase their empathy.

There’s a sequel — Five, Six, Seven, Nate — which just came out. I may even like Nate enough to give that one a shot.

The Last Present

by Wendy Mass
First sentence: “When you’ve drawn breath for nearly a hundred years, not much surprises you.”
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Others in the series: 11 Birthdays, Finally, 13 Gifts
Content: There some kissing (a first kiss) and a bit of fudging the truth, but other than that, nothing objectionable. Sits quite happily with the rest of the series in the middle grade (3-5th grade) section of the bookstore.

Amanda and Leo have gone without talking for a year. Again. This time, though, it wasn’t a fight that did it: Angelina — the mysterious, magical woman in the town of Willow Falls — asked them to. Because when Amanda and Leo don’t talk, they have the power travel through time.

This time, they’re tasked with going back in time to fix their friend’s sister’s birthday party. See, Angelina bestows a “benediction” of protection on all the children of Willow Falls, something that will keep them safe. But she didn’t make it in time to help Grace (that’s the friend’s sister), and every attempt she made in the intermittent 10 years didn’t work either. And she’s tasked Amanda and Leo with going back and making sure that Grace’s benediction happens. Three times.

It sounds simple, and in many ways it is: Amanda and Leo head back to a different year each day over the course of a week, and all they have to do is fix one little thing at each birthday party. But as they find out, it’s not as easy as it sounds. And then there’s the problem that all this might be more about Angelina than it is about Grace.

While it’s nothing earth-shattering or ground-breaking, it’s a very sweet little book. I liked how Mass brought in all the elements of the whole series, and though this is Amanda and Leo’s follow-up story (they were always my favorite, anyway), Rory and Tara do have parts to play. It’s very much one of those “on the cusp of adulthood” books: Amanda and Leo have their first kiss, and they are beginning to make decisions that will effect their future. But even with that, it’s a simple, sweet (I know: I keep saying that. There really is no better word.) story about moving on and making things right.

And a fitting end to this series.

The Silver Star

by Jeannette Walls
ages: adult (though it would be okay for a 14+ teen)
First sentence: “My sister saved my life when I was just a baby.”
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I read The Glass Castle so many years ago that I didn’t have much memory of it outside of a general liking of it. So, I went into reading The Silver Star with a fairly open mind. The only real prejudice was that I heard this was a good YA crossover. Which was enough to get me to pick it up.

And, surprisingly (to me at least), I quite liked it.

Sisters Liz and Bean (whose real name is Jean) have grown up with their artist/flake of a mom, moving constantly, and dealing with her occasional disappearing acts. Then one time, she doesn’t come back. Liz and Bean manage for a while, but when people start poking their noses around, they decide to up and go across the country to visit the uncle they’ve never met in their mom’s hometown of Byler, Virginia.

Their Uncle Tinsley takes them in, but they find that living in small town Virginia is has own set of challenges. (Especially in 1970-71, which is when this takes place.) In addition to the whole new kids in town feeling, the girls find they have to deal with a lot of Small Town History. The Hollidays used to be the mill owners, and used to be Big People in Town, but have been fading over the years. The current mill manager — Mr. Maddox — is a real piece of work (that’s being nice; ominous music started in my brain about page 100), and there’s a bit of a feud between him and Tinsley. And that only intensifies when Maddox assaults Liz.

Two things I think Walls really got: 1970s politics, and smart kids. The former was evident not only in the race relations, which admittedly she just breezed over, but in the politics of sex crimes. While the way the town and the legal system treated Liz, I was glad Walls wasn’t tempted to modernize this. (Though I wonder how “modern” the legal system really is in this area.) It helped the authenticity and feel of the novel overall.

I also appreciated that she didn’t glorify either small towns or the South; it’s all laid out there, the good and the bad, for better or for worse. And for some people — like Liz and Bean’s mom — it is worse. But that said, family doesn’t necessarily mean blood. And in tough times, good people stick together.

It’s a quick read, and well worth the time.