by Kathi Appelt
ages: 10+
First sentence: “Keeper leaned over the edge of the boat.”
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I wasn’t that interested in reading this one because I had such a bad experience with The Underneath. But Pam at Mother Reader convinced me that it’s completely different from Appelt’s first book. And she was right. It’s on that hinterland between reality and fantasy: while it has elements of both, it’s not really either. But even that worked for me.

It’s a simple story: Keeper has grown up on the Texas Gulf of Mexico shore, her family consisting, for the last seven years since her mermaid mother left, of Signe, Dogie and Mr. Beauchamp (that’s not counting the animals). They are the residents of a little road down by the shore. It’s a good life, one that seemed to, in one day, fall completely apart. So, Keeper has decided that she needs to go ask her mother how to put it back to rights. She gets a boat and in the middle of the night, heads out to the ocean to figure out how to put her life back together.

It’s a beautifully written book: sparse in the language, slipping in and out of viewpoints, including the animals, as the story needs. I loved that she used language I haven’t heard for a long time: cooleoleo, calloo callay, shazaam, easy peasy, and so on. It fit the feel of the book, as something both current yet also outside of time. It had the feel of mythology, and incorporated the mer mythos. But it was also very much grounded in reality. I loved how she defined family as anyone who cares about one another, no matter what. I didn’t think there would be enough of a story to manage 400 pages, but with flashbacks to the past explaining how this family came to be a family, it worked for me.

It’s not a flashy book, but it’s a sweet, quiet, tender one. And sometimes that’s exactly what a book should be.

Same Kind of Different as Me

by Ron Hall and Denver Moore (with Lynn Vincent)
ages: adult

First sentence: “Until Miss Debbie, I’d never spoke to no white woman before.”

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I would have never, in a million years, have picked this up if it weren’t for my in-person book group. I don’t to religious books, I especially don’t do evangelical books. It’s not that I have anything against religion or even evangelicalism, it’s just that I prefer to escape when I read.

I’d love to say that I loved the book, in spite of my hesitations. But, I didn’t. I liked it. I thought the story was interesting. But I wasn’t moved by it, or even motivated by it.

It’s the story of two men: Ron Hall, who came from a lower-middle-class Texas upbringing and turned himself, by luck and the grace of God into a millionaire art dealer; and Denver Moore, the product of Jim Crow laws and a Louisiana sharecropping upbringing, who was homeless in Fort Worth when Ron and his wife Debbie first met him. Debbie insisted that Ron reach out to Denver, and it eventually turned into a friendship. One that helped Ron make it through his wife’s cancer and eventual death (yep: it’s one of those cancer books). It’s basically their witness and testimony: look what God wrought in their lives.

The most inspiring person (obviously, since it’s their story about her and because she’s passed on) is Debbie: how she took the money Ron made and put it to better use. How she got involved in her community and worked to make it a better place. But, even that wasn’t enough to salvage the book for me.

Now, I suppose this is me being all hyper-critical: just because the writing wasn’t the most elegant, just because the story was a bit cliche, should I take apart these men’s beliefs? Because I do believe that they believe they were doing good by writing this book. No. That wouldn’t be fair. I guess my fundamental problem was that I just never got what I was supposed to get out of their story. (There’s class issues here as well, I discovered: I have a problem with wealthy people throwing their money at good causes and saying “Look at me doing good! Aren’t I wonderful?” And I felt like I got a lot of that.) In the end, though, I felt like I feel in those tear-jerker movies: manipulated. And that rankled me.

That said, there is good in this book. There’s a good story. There’s redemption and forgiveness and grace. I just didn’t feel it. But maybe you will.

Belly Up

by Stuart Gibbs
ages: 10+
First sentence: “I’d just been busted for giving the chimpanzees water balloons when I first heard something was wrong at Hippo River.”
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Teddy Fitzroy has had a charmed life. The son of a gorilla researcher and a nature photographer, he’s spent most of his life surrounded by animals in the Congo.

Now, at age 12, he’s found himself smack in the middle of the Texas Hill Country, at FunJungle, the worlds biggest, best, and newest zoo. It’s supposed to be state-of-the art, best researchers, finest environments for the animals, a whole safari experience without having to go to Africa. Except, Henry the Hippo — the mascot, and a huge, ornery, animal — has turned up (literally) dead. It looks like natural causes at first, but upon a closer look, it turns out that Henry was murdered. And it seems it’s up to Teddy (and his new friend, Summer, who is also the daughter of the park owner) to figure out who did it and why.

There’s adventure as Teddy and Summer try to unravel the mystery before them, with some close scrapes. It’s not so hard of a mystery that the reader can’t at least try to figure it out, but not so easy as to be predictable. It’s entertaining, and yet with all the animals, it kind of feels (I’m hoping it is at least) a little educational. If anything, it has a fabulous balance to it: well-written and engaging plus entertaining and kid-friendly.

Quite enjoyable, in other words.

(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.)

Rocky Road

by Rose Kent
ages: 10+
First sentence: “‘Pleeeez stop singing, Ma.'”
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Tess is not happy with her mother. Sure, life in San Antonio wasn’t all that terrific: their Pa walked out on them years ago, Ma’s grand ideas for making money kept flopping, and the rent was overdue. But was all that a reason to uproot the family — Ma, Tess and her younger, deaf brother Jordan — to Schenectady, New York? Especially in January, the dead of winter. And the grand plan this time? To open an ice cream shop. Tess is less than pleased, to say the least.

Adjusting to the snow, ice, and a whole new middle school isn’t a piece of cake; it’s cold and she doesn’t quite feel like she fits in. Jordan keeps resisting his new school, he’s not learning new signs, which worries Tess. Ma’s spending all her time (and money) getting the new shop ready, which really worries Tess, since Ma’s prone to high ups and crashing lows, and Tess knows they can’t afford to have that happen.

It’s only as the winter wears on, and Tess finds ways to reach out: in the Senior Center community that they live in, at school with peer mediation, and eventually at the ice cream shop, that Tess finds out what community, friendship and surviving the rocky road of life is really kind of sweet.

It’s a sweet little book; very distinctive in its voice: the clash of Texas and New York is just oozing out of it. The characters, though perhaps a bit stereotypical (deaf younger brother provides challenge, crazy mom, well-meaning neighbors who offer up home-made charm, strange Zen-vegan new friends, crusty ex-Navy man with a heart of gold), still are quite enjoyable and engaging to read about. The conflict is all with Tess and her mother; Tess feels so much older than her twelve years, mostly because her mother — due to an eventual diagnosis of bipolar disorder — is so unreliable. And the whole crazy mother thing is often so overdone. But in this case it worked to make it a true Middle Grade novel: Tess took the initiative, got help from friends, including adults, and worked to make things — like this book — a success.

The ice cream recipes in the back are just an added bonus.

(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 Evolution of Calpurnia Tate

by Jacqueline Kelly
ages: 10+
First sentence: “By 1899, we had learned to tame the darkness but not the Texas heat.”
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Calpurnia Virginia Tate (Callie Vee for short) is the only daughter of seven children, positioned smack dab in the middle of all those boys. It’s not an enviable position, even though she’s her oldest brother, Harry’s, only pet. It’s made even less enviable because Calpurnia is not a huge fan of anything domestic: sewing, tatting, knitting, cooking… no, she’d much rather be outside.

Then, the summer of 1899, she and her grandfather (who has been living with them all the time) discover each other. Her grandfather is a naturalist of sorts — a founding member of the National Geographic Society and all — and Callie discovers that studying the world around her is what she really wants to do. She spends as much time as possible with her grandfather — in between piano recitals, forced sewing, school, and managing her brothers’ crushes for her best friend — living for and thriving off of the time spent studying and observing.

Of course, since this is 1899 and Texas, Callie couldn’t be allowed (allowed!) to proceed this way: good, proper, well-off girls just didn’t tromp through the underbrush looking at bugs. For me, this was the heart of the novel, this pull for Callie to do what she wanted and not what everyone expected of her:

I clomped through the kitchen on the way to washing up and said to Viola, “How come I have to learn how to sew and cook? Why? Can you tell me that? Can you?

I’ll admit it was a bad time to ask her — she was beating the last lumps out of the gravy — but she paused long enough to look at me with puzzlement, as if I were speaking ancient Greek. “What kind of question is that?” she said, and went back to whisking the gravy in the fragrant, smoking pan.

My Lord, what a dismal response. Was the answer such an ingrained, obvious part of the way we lived that no one stopped to ponder the question itself? If no one around me even understood the question, then it couldn’t be answered. And if it couldn’t be answered, I was doomed to the distaff life of only womanly things. I was depressed right into the ground.

The other things about the novel are true: Callie’s mom is a bit much (though I think I understood where she was coming from), and her father is little more than a cardboard cut-out. But, I adored the brothers — especially J.B., Travis and Harry — and her grandfather more than made up for her parents in character. Callie is, yes, spunky, but she’s more than that: she’s curious and observant, and — the thing that really got to me — doesn’t really want everyone to grow up and change. A girl after my own heart.

I also liked the way Kelly evoked a particular feel; the sense of anticipation, of change that must have accompanied the time period was quite palpable in the book. It’s a historical novel that actually felt like it. Callie was modern, sure, but she was struggling with her modernity against all the traditional values that were around her, and that dichotomy was intriguing.

A good story.

How Not to be Popular

by Jennifer Ziegler
ages: 13+
First sentence: “Oh crap.”

Sugar Magnolia Dempsey — Maggie to everyone but Les and Rosie, her parents — is tired of moving. She’s been moving all her life, mostly because Les and Rosie — second-generation hippies, determined to see the country, Buddhist in philosophy, convinced that family is all they need, and hilarious as characters — can’t seem to settle down. Which is all fine and good, except Maggie had a life — good friends and even a boyfriend — in Portland, and she’s been dragged to Austin, Texas because her mom has enrolled in a massage therapy certification program.

When her boyfriend breaks up with her, via email, three weeks after she left, she decides that the hurt must stop. So. To soothe her wounded heart, and to protect herself from the inevitable move, she decides that what she really needs is to be the opposite of popular. Instead of ingratiating herself into the in-crowd, like she has in the past, she’s going to go the “loser” way: tacky clothes, terrible accessories, the “wrong” friends, the “wrong” crowd.

There are moments of sheer hilarity among the stereotyped high school characters. The popular kids, the Bippys, are mean snobs. The losers, of course, are real and nice and fun to be with. Maggie’s perceptions and observations of high school life are spot-on, even if she’s a bit backward in her thinking. Which is why it all (of course) backfires on her. And she’s left to figure her way out of the mess.

I liked this book, but I think what I liked best about it was hearing M read it first. She shared with me bits and pieces of it — she loved Hank and Frank and Drip and even Jack , saying that they were her crowd. Penny’s love of Mr. Spock cracked her up. As did the fact that Jack wore a tie on his date with Maggie (“Dude, you DON’T wear a tie on a date!”). She even cried a little at the end.

You can’t get a better recommendation than that.

Buy it at: Amazon, Powell’s, or your local independent bookstore.