Saturday, July 30, 2016

This blog is moving!

Hi friends!  All of these posts will remain available here, but all new posts will be on a new blog Bookish Adventures, so I hope you will all continue to follow me there.  Thanks!

Friday, May 6, 2016


Jim Murphy's fascinating new book tells the story the life saving technique that has saved thousands of lives.  Prior to 1944 people with heart defects were basically given a death sentence.  There was no such thing as open heart surgery, and most doctors believed it was deadly to even touch a beating heart.  Consequently, thousands of "blue babies" died every year. These children were born with heart defects that prevented their blood from getting enough oxygen.

Three people were instrumental in this medical breakthrough.  Dr. Alfred Blalock was already a famous surgeon because of his pioneering efforts in treating shock patients.  He would be the one to perform the first operation on a blue baby.

His lab assistant, an African American man named Vivien Thomas was instrumental in developing the procedure that would become so revolutionary, but he would have to overcome many personal and professional struggles to do so.

Dr. Helen Taussig spent her career studying heart defects in babies and children and had a sense of urgency to find a solution.  She didn't want to watch any more children die.  She, like Vivien Thomas, had to deal with prejudice in a white male dominated profession.

This book gives background on each of the major players, sets the scene, and describes the drama of that first procedure and its aftermath.

Engaging and readable, this book is highly recommended!

Warning, this book does describe the animal testing that was necessary in developing the cure, but Murphy does a great job of contrasting the doctors' side with that of animal rights activists.

Thursday, May 5, 2016


In the Old Kingdom, there is still magic.  There are charter mages who can use that power to build or to destroy.  There are necromancers who can travel in death; sometimes they don't come back alone.

Sabriel's father is the Abhorsen.  He is a type of necromancer but not one who works with the charter.  Long ago the charter made order out of chaos and bound many of the free magic creatures who would consume and destroy.  While other necromancers work against the charter to bring the dead back into life for their own power and purposes, the Abhorsen makes sure the dead stay dead.

Sabriel is away at school beyond the wall that separates the Old Kingdom from the modern world.  When she gets the message that her father is missing, she must travel back to the Old Kingdom to Abhorsen's house to discover what has happened to her father and to try and save him.

But there is more to this story than simply a missing father or even a missing Abhorsen.  An evil more than 200 years old is awakening, and his goal is to destroy.  With the help of Moggett, a creature who takes the shape of cat, but is certainly no ordinary feline and Touchstone, a swordsman and charter mage with his own secret past, Sabriel will not only have to complete her quest, but she will have to accept her destiny for good or ill.

I first read this series over 10 years ago, and I recently decided to reread the whole trilogy as Garth Nix is adding more titles to the Old Kingdom world.  I cannot recommend them highly enough for fans of dark complex fantasy.  I still enjoyed the entire series as much today as I did the first time.


When Daniel's dad loses his job, the family decides to downsize.  They leave their comfortable home and private school behind for an old farmhouse in West Virginia and a poorly funded public school.  If that weren't bad enough, the place give him the creeps.  He always feels like someone is watching from the woods surrounding the house.

The kids quickly set Daniel and his little sister, Erica, apart as outsiders and tease them mercilessly.  Even though Daniel and Erica have never been close, they form an alliance to survive.  As time passes, Erica spends more and more time talking to the doll their parents gave her in exchange for giving up their old life.

His parents struggle to find work, and they spend more time arguing with each other than anything else.  This new start is turning out to be a disaster.

Then there are the rumors about about an impossibly old woman who lives in the forest and steals little girls.  Daniel knows it's just a story, but he can't seem to shake the uneasy feeling he gets from the woods.  What if Old Auntie is real?  What if she wants Erica for her next victim?

This is another fast-paced ghost story full of chills and atmosphere from Mary Downing Hahn!  I read Wait Til Helen Comes when I was nine years old and fell in love with ghost stories.  I love passing her books on to my students today!

Rebel Mechanics

It's 1888, and America is still a British colony.  The ruling class of magisters have used their magical abilities to control everyone else and slow the progress of technology.  Verity is newly arrived in New York City in search of a position as a governess.  When she is hired by a powerful and wealthy magister family, her life takes a surprising turn.  The job is easy and the children's guardian, their young uncle, barely pays attention to what is happening at home.

This is a stroke of luck for Verity since the first new friends she made in the city are actually members of the Rebel Mechanics, a group that wants to use steam power and technology to overthrow British rule.  The Rebels ask her to use her position to spy for them, and Verity agrees.  It doesn't hurt that one of the leaders is very handsome and very interested in Verity.

But she has suspicions about her new employer, too.  Is he really the bumbling amateur scientist he presents himself to be, or is there something more going on?

The stakes keep getting higher as the story progresses and Verity finds herself caught not just in a political tangle but possibly a romantic one as well.

Fans of steampunk, strong female characters, and light romance will enjoy Shanna Swedson's new series!

Thursday, April 7, 2016

How Lunchbox Jones Saved Me from Robots, Traitors, and Missy the Cruel

Luke's middle school has a reputation for being the biggest losers in the state--probably anywhere.  The trophy case is practically empty.  That's all just fine with Luke since he'd rather race home everyday and play Alien Onslaught with his online friend.

But somehow he gets suckered into joining the school robotics team.  He doesn't care about robots.  He doesn't even know anything about robots.  And this is the worst team ever!  The two Jacobs break everything, Mikayla is obsessed with using her feet for everything, Stuart leaves a trail of sunflower seeds behind him everywhere he goes, and, oh yeah, don't forget about Lunchbox, the biggest, meanest kid at Forest Grove Middle School.  How did this become Luke's life?

He's also pretty angry at his older brother, Rob, who is supposed to be his best friend.  But best friends don't just join the Marines and abandon you, so Luke is trying to pretend Rob doesn't exist.

That won't work forever, but right now he's got to figure out how to deal with robotics.  Give the rest of the team smallpox?  Maybe.  Or maybe this misfit team has a chance to bring Forest Shade Middle its first trophy.  Ha!  Who am I kidding?

Read Jennifer Brown's new book about robots and friendship!

Enchanted Air

This memoir in verse tells of the author's childhood spent traveling back and forth from California to Cuba to visit her mother's family.  To Margarita Cuba is a magical place filled with family, friends, animals, and delicious food.  It is like a fairy tale paradise especially compared to her noisy life in Los Angeles.

Like her mother, she longs for the yearly trips to Cuba where she can breathe the fragrant air and ride horses through the countryside.  But she will soon be cut off from her paradise.

When a conflict between leaders escalates to the brink of war in the Cuban Missile Crisis, all travel to and from Cuba is suspended, and Margarita's American and Cuban families are separated.

Margarita Engle's new memoir in verse is a beautiful love letter to Cuba and an authentic coming of age story.  Highly recommended!


I'm a sucker for anything about the women's suffrage movement, and I enjoy a good verse novel, so I wanted to read this one right away!

Clara Lemlich was born and raised in Russia, but violence and antisemitism force the family to immigrate to New York when Clara is a teenager.  Her orthodox father and brothers have dedicated their lives to studying scripture which may be edifying, but it doesn't pay the bills.  Despite her lack for formal education, Clara quickly realizes the family will be destitute if someone doesn't start working.  Her father is unwilling to change the focus of his life, and Clara and her mother can't take in enough sewing to pay the rent, so Clara decides to get a job.

One of the few jobs available to poor uneducated women was in the sewing factories.  Here women would be locked into hot stuffy rooms and work with dangerous equipment.  The floor managers were often unscrupulous men who took advantage of the girls who had no recourse.  Anyone who complained would be fired and blackballed.  Clara's situation is even worse because even though she is the only one working to support the family, her father shuns her. Her only bright spot is the free education she gets by going to classes at night after working long days in the factory.

As conditions in the factories worsen, Clara feels compelled to do something.  She hears about the labor unions organizing for the men, and she knows the women need this kind of support, too, but not only is she poor and an immigrant, she is a woman.

Melanie Crowder's novel is a powerful story about real life hero for women's rights.  Highly recommended!

Monday, March 7, 2016

I Become Shadow

Ren Sharpe is a shadow.  When she was fourteen, a secret government program kidnapped her from her bedroom, convinced the world she was dead, and began training her to protect someone who will become important in the future.  In their defense, she would have died in a few months anyway.

A few years ago, a super powerful satellite somehow managed to reveal not just crystal clear images of earth but earth in about forty years.  Since then, F.A.T.E. has been kidnapping and training teens who would've died in the regular course of their lives to protect people who will be important for one reason or another--political leaders, scientists, etc.

This training has turned Ren and her friend Junie into killing machines.  To complicate matters, Ren has developed feelings for Junie that could only get in the way.  As soon as the training is over, she will probably never see him again anyone, so what's the point?

Once she is linked to her F.I.P. (future important person), she feels an intense longing to be near him.  Gareth is an engineering student at Texas A&M, so F.A.T.E. sets Ren up as his neighbor.  She's not supposed to interact with him, just to watch over and protect him.  But, of course, things go sideways, and Ren and Gareth soon find themselves in a battle of life and death with no idea who to trust.

Joe Shine's debut novel is full of action, and I can definitely see a lot of people enjoying it.  For me, it was difficult to overcome some of the nagging plot holes, and the bizarre opening trip to the gynecologist that had nothing to do with the rest of book.

Been There, Done That

This is an interesting idea for an anthology.  The premise is that everyday experiences can be transformed into fictional events.  A plethora of popular children's and YA authors have each submitted two stories--one that's real and one that is fictionalized.  Some of the fictional accounts are very close to the originals, but some veer into the fantastic.

This was an interesting read from a writer's perspective to see how themes and ideas from real life can translate into fiction.  None of the stories in this collection is particularly mind blowing, but it is the concept that will make this book a standout for kids.  Young readers will enjoy seeing this behind the scenes look at the writing process.  In fact, the reason I picked this one up is several students read it and told me they enjoyed it.

Kids who like short stories can enjoy this book, but it is best placed in the hands of aspiring young writers!

Thursday, March 3, 2016

The Truth About Twinkie Pie

Thanks to a million dollar prize in a cooking competition, GiGi and her big sister DiDi are starting a new life in New York!  All GiGi has ever know is her home in small town South Carolina where pretty much did nothing but study.  DiDi has been taking care of her since GiGi was a baby and their mother died, and big sister is determined to make her little sister a success.

GiGi wants to start fresh at this new school where no one knows her.  It's the perfect opportunity for reinvention.  Of course, she'll keep studying and making good grades, but a little fun never killed anyone.  That's why she's decided her recipe for success will involve a lot more friendship and a lot less studying in the library alone during lunch.

It seems to be working from the start.  When she literally runs into a beautiful and cool boy named Trip on the first day, she is pleasantly surprised to find a genuine friendship developing.

But, of course, it can't be that easy.  Mace has been friends with Trip forever, and she takes an instant dislike to GiGi.  Things get worse when GiGi catches Mace and DiDi hanging out.  DiDi never lets GiGi hang out with her at the salon, so why is she suddenly so friendly with her own sister's mortal enemy?!

When GiGi decides to make a grand gesture to fix her relationship with her older sister, she discovers a shocking secret that makes her doubt everything.

I really enjoyed Kat Yeh's book about friendship and family.  There are several laugh out loud moments, and GiGi's personality shines through on every page.

House Arrest

Timothy is on probation for a year.  That means the only place he can go without his mom is school.  He's under house arrest for a year!  He also has to check in with his probation officer and his therapist every week and keep a stupid journal that's supposed to show how sorry he is.

But he's not sorry.  Why is Timothy on probation?  He baby brother is really sick, like he needs someone watching him 24/7 almost died right after he was born sick.  Timothy's dad didn't stick around for long after the baby was born, leaving his mom alone to work and take care of the family.  She's doing the best she can, but medicine and nurses are expensive, so Timothy didn't even hesitate when he saw the man's wallet on the counter.  He just took it and bought the medicine his baby brother needed.

Now he's just made everything worse because his mom has to worry about his probation on top of everything else. As things continue to get worse for his family, Timothy decides to do whatever it takes to get help for his little brother, even if that might not seem like a good idea to anyone else.

I really enjoyed K. A. Holt's new verse novel.  It's touching and funny, and everyone will be rooting for Timothy and his brave family!

The Thing About Jellyfish

There is no way Franny could have just drowned.  She was a really good swimmer.  When Suzy's mother tells her, "Sometimes these things just happen," Suzy can't believe it's true.  Her best friend (former best friend?) couldn't just die like that especially not with so much anger left between them.

Maybe that's why she's so quick to jump on the idea of the jellyfish.  It's rare but possible it could have been in the water with Franny.  It's venom is so powerful, Franny would have drowned before anyone could save her.  This makes more sense than the idea that Franny's death is just a random event.

It's just not right that Franny's death could be random, that the last words she and Suzy exchange were in anger.  Suzy thought there would be more time.  But there wasn't.  Now there doesn't seem to be anything at all worth talking about, so Suzy remains silent.

No one else knows what she's thinking as she dives into research to try to prove a rare jellyfish killed her former best friend.

This was a good read about grief and emotion.  My only complaint would be in the growing tension between Suzy and Franny.  The final event that forces the two apart is pretty extreme, and it's difficult as a reader to understand Suzy's behavior and to really imagine a situation where anyone would think what she did was ok.  Yes, the book was good, but I'm a little conflicted.

Monday, February 8, 2016

We Are All Made of Molecules

It's just been Stewart and his dad since his mom died almost two years ago.  Stewart is small for his age and super smart, but he's been going to Little Geniuses where he fits right in.  He has his cat Schrodinger, and life is getting back to OK.  But his dad has been dating someone at work, and now they've decided to move in together, so Stewart is leaving his home, his school, nearly everything to move across town. He's decided to make the most of it.

Ashley is at the top of the social ladder.  She got there by being pretty and mean.  She's puts all her effort into looking good and belittling her friends, and almost none into her grades.  She is mortified when her mother's boyfriend and his geeky son move in.  To make matters worse, she hasn't told anyone why her parents got divorced.  What would having a gay father do to her social standing?

Things start out OK for Stewart until gym class.  That's where he meets Jared who is big, mean, popular, and athletic.  Jared seems to have made it his mission in life to squash Stewart like a bug.  Ashley also happens to have a crush on the totally handsome Jared and willing to forgive just about any personality flaw to make a relationship work.

Susin Nielsen's book is by turns funny and heartbreaking.  It's definitely a compelling read, and Stewart's unusual take on the world is endearing and entertaining.  My struggle is with Ashley.  She is not really likable at all.  She's mean to everyone, and it's challenging to feel sympathy for her.

Additionally, Stewart is very innocent for his age, but the book also contains profanity and attempted sexual assault.  It makes it difficult to place.  Grades 8 and up.

The Unlikely Hero of Room 13B

Adam really wants to get his OCD under control.  He tries to hide his counting compulsions and threshold issues, but he can't make them go away.  Once a week, he meets with his OCD support group.  There he feels a little more in control.  He can be concerned and supportive of the other other kids offering suggestions and keeping his criticism to himself.  The support group is also where he meets Robyn.

Robyn is a little older, a little taller, and the most beautiful girl he's ever seen.  Adam is in love.  Now his desire to improve his mental health is stronger than ever.  When their therapist suggests they all take the names of superheroes, the group readily agrees.  They have Thor, Ironman, Wonder Woman, Green Lantern, and Snookie.  Robyn chooses Robin, and Adam is elated and shocked at his boldness when he says Batman.  Now they are linked, and Batman wants to protect Robin.

But even as things start to go somewhere with Robyn, the rest of Adam's life is spinning out of control.  The conflict between his divorced parents intensifies, and his mother's hoarding is taking over every inch of the house.  To make matters worse, she has been receiving disturbing letters urging her to commit suicide.

Adam's little brother, Sweetie, has issues of his own, and Adam is often the only person who can calm him down which puts him in the position of having to choose between his mother and his half brother.

As the problems around him intensify, so does Adam's OCD, but he's trying so hard to keep it to himself, to be strong for Robyn and his mother.

Teresa Toten's book is charming and touching with a look inside the world of OCD.  While the romance story line might be a little unrealistic, the reader still roots for Adam who is a very likable character.  The plotting is excellent in this book, and readers will be hooked until the end.  Highly recommended!  Grades 8 and up.


Coney Island is not a place anyone wants to be right now.  Everyone who could get out already did.  The only people left are the ones who didn't have anywhere else to go.  And the Alpha, of course.

When they stepped out of the ocean, it was like a nightmare come to life.  They are vaguely human but with characteristics of ocean creatures.  Some have blades that slide out of their arms, some have deadly poisonous spikes, and some can kill you with a single touch.  Some of them look like beautiful fairy tale creatures come to life, and some look like monsters.

Right now they are camping out on the beach, kept mostly separate from humanity, but things are about to change.  Some of them are going to start going to high school.  This integration won't be easy.

Lyric Walker is in a unique position among the residents of Coney Island.  Her parents keep telling her to keep her head down, don't draw attention to herself.  But it doesn't take long before she is forced out of her comfort zone to spend time each day with Fathom, the Alpha prince.  He may have a nice face, but he is violent, aggressive, and there are sharpened spikes growing out of his arms that he uses as weapons.

Lyric may not want to build a friendship with Fathom, but she has no choice if she wants to protect the family secret.  As the violence and tension in the school and community increases, Lyric begins to realize she doesn't dislike the Alpha prince as much as she did in the beginning, and she finds herself caught in the middle of the hatred and terror gripping her community.

I am of two minds about Michael Buckley's series opener.  Most of the book is gripping and timely as it deals with racial issues and refugees complete with a radical demagogue.  However, the romance angle of the story did not work for me at all.  In fact I almost stopped reading a couple of times when the romance became central to the plot.  Maybe it's just me.  I've never found the "bad boy" archetype appealing.  I do think the book is worth reading in the end because it gives readers a safe place to consider issues of race and prejudice. Grades 8 and up.

Thursday, February 4, 2016

The Nest

Steve has had issues with anxiety for a while now.  He tries to hide it, tries to pretend he's all better now.  His parents have enough to worry about with the new baby.  The baby has so many problems.  It's just not strong, and it has to go back to the hospital over and over again.

When he has the first dream, he thinks she's an angel.  She has silvery wings and tells him she's here to help because of the baby.  Her words are logical and smooth.  She says they will fix the baby.  It will be perfect, like it was meant to be.

At first Steve wants to believe her.  These creatures will fix the baby, and everything will be fine again.  But it doesn't take long for the uncertainty to creep in.  How exactly can they fix the baby, and what is growing in the nest under the eaves of his house?

By the time he realizes the truth, it may be too late to save the baby or to save himself.

Kenneth Oppel's new book is a masterwork of slow creeping menace and horror.  That preys on the human desire to wish everything could be well and perfect.  I highly recommend this book, but warned it is very creepy, especially if you are afraid of wasps!

Pennyroyal Academy

Pennyroyal Academy is opening its doors to everyone.  For years, the academy has only trained those of noble birth to become princesses, but now anyone has a chance.  A girl with no name sees the posting and determines to join the academy.  She doesn't really know why, just that she is compelled to go.

When she arrives, she gets a name, Evie, and understanding begins to dawn on her.  Being a princess means fighting witches, the most powerful evil force in the land.  Pennyroyal Academy is accepting anyone who applies because the witches are gaining power, destroying lives and kingdom as they sweep across the land.

Evie has never fit in with her family or even met any other people.  Now she is thrown into a world of magic and shifting alliances.  While not everyone at the academy welcomes the penniless girl wearing a dress made of spiderwebs, she will make new friends.

As Evie's past is slowly revealed, the danger grows, and suspicion lurks at every corner.

M.A. Larson's series opener is a good pic for fairy tale and magic fans alike.  My only real complaint is the "training" the girls receive seems a bit dubious..

Tut: the Story of My Immortal Life

Thanks to a nearly deadly standoff with his murdering uncle a couple thousand years ago, Tut has been trapped in the body and mind of fourteen year old ever since.  Something happened in that moment when Horemheb tried to kill his nephew, and now the two are immortal.

Now Tut lives in Washington D.C. with his gods-appointed protector/babysitter Gill, the cat form of the god Horus, and an army of shabtis.  This makes for an interesting life, but things are about to crazy because Horemheb is back with the cult of Set in tow.  Horus and Set are old enemies and Tut and Horemheb are playing for opposing teams.

Now Tut has to figure out a way to defend himself from his immortal enemy and an angry god.  Plus, he's got normal stuff like an overeager partner for a project on Egyptian history and a crush on the new girl who is cute but maybe not trustworthy.

I think Percy Jackson fans will enjoy P.J. Hoover's new book, but it was a real struggle for me to finish it.  I think it kind of fall into that Twilight category of wasted immortality.  Yes, you are trapped in a teenager's body, but do you really think repeating the same few grades over and over is the best use of your time?  You could be curing disease or traveling the world, but instead you play video games and repeat the 8th grade forever.  I think I would've liked this a lot more if Tut had been magically transported to the future or been in gods induced coma or something.

I Am Princess X

It's been three years since May's best friend died in a car accident, and she still misses Libby every day.  But even without Libby life has moved on.  May's parents are divorced now, so she only spends part of the year in Seattle with her dad.

One day when she visiting one of the places she used to go with Libby, she sees a Princess X sticker.  The blue haired princess is a shock since she was Libby and May's creation, and May hasn't seen her since Libby died.  Together they created hundreds of pages of comic books, but no one else ever really saw it.  They never published it or anything, so where did the sticker come from?

Is it possible that Libby is still alive?  It seems crazy, but May can't stop her mind from going there.  The more she investigates what has become a web comic, the more she starts to believe Libby is alive and reaching out to May for help.

Is the message really from Libby, and if it is, will May be able to help her friend in time?

This is a fun mystery with comic pages mixed into the story.  I recommend Cherie Priest's novel for mystery and graphic novel fans alike!

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Orbiting Jupiter

Jack's new foster brother is Joseph.  Here's what he knows about Joseph:  he's thirteen years old, he's been in juvie, he tried to kill a teacher, and he has a daughter he's never met.

This information does not dissuade Jack or his parents, and they accept Joseph into their family and their daily routine of farm life in Maine.  Joseph is skittish after his experiences.  He's been abused by his father and has suffered untold punishments in reform school.  He doesn't like to be touched, and he keeps his back to the wall.

The first sign that Joseph is beginning to thaw is the quick relationship he develops with Rosie the cow who instantly loves him and prefers him over anyone else when it comes to milking.

Jack stands by his new foster brother even when things get difficult, and he becomes the first person to have Joseph's back.

Joseph's main goal is to meet his daughter, Jupiter, and though it seems impossible, Jack's family eventually agrees to help in this quest.

Gary Schmidt's new book is smaller and quieter than his previous stories, but it is full of nuance and emotion.  This is a heartbreaking book about a boy who is misjudged and abused at almost every turn and the possibilities of hope.

Thursday, January 21, 2016


Penelope's first day at a new school goes horribly wrong when she trips in the hall and drops all her stuff.  But things get worse when some bullies tease her about being a nerder girlfriend because of the boy who stops to help her.  Without thinking she pushes Jamie away.  Now everything is just...awkward.

Penelope wants to apologize for being so mean to Jamie when he was just trying to help, but she's so shy she can't even bring herself to face him.  To make matters worse, she is in art club, and Jamie is in science clubs.  The two clubs have been rivals for years, and now that rivalry has come to a head.

Will Penelope ever be able to look Jamie in the eye?  Will all the fighting ruin the two clubs? in middle school is just so...awkward.

This is a great graphic novel and a great read!  The story and characters feel true, and there are several laugh out loud moments.  Svetlana Chmakova's new book is destined to be popular.  Highly recommended, especially for Raina Telgemeier fans!

Wednesday, January 20, 2016


Adrienne doesn't really like being a princess.  She hates fancy clothes and dinners, and those stories about wimpy girls waiting to be rescued never appealed to her.  Now her father has locked her in a tower where she's supposed to wait patiently for a prince to save the day.

But no one seems to be able to manage the job.  When she finds a sword hidden under her bed, she decides to take matters into her own hands.  She tames the dragon who is supposed to be guarding her and sets off to rescue her other sisters who are also locked in towers.

First, she needs some armor, so she meets up with Bedelia who is part dwarf and all blacksmith.  Together the two girls set off to free the girls of the land.

I absolutely loved this graphic novel from page one!  I snort laughed when Adrienne complained about the princess in her book having pipe cleaner arms. Princeless pokes fun at classic male and female stereotypes with charm and vigor.  I've finished book one and two, and I can't wait for Adrienne's next adventure!

Paper Hearts

Meg Wiviott's novel in verse is based on a true story of friendship and survival during the holocaust.

Fania and Zlotka find themselves at Auschwitz concentration camp.  There is no reason for the Nazis to hate them--except that they are Jews.  The girls never met before coming to the camp, but once there they form an instant bond of friendship.

Through the dehumanizing efforts of the Nazis, the young women find courage and strength from each other and their small group of friends.  In a place without hope, without love, without family, these young women dare to find all three.

Everything is illegal in Auschwitz but especially paper, pencils, and scissors, but Fania's 20th birthday is coming, and her friends want to do something special, something small, something dangerous.  They steal supplies to make a birthday card in the shape of a heart and bound with fabric taken from their own clothes.

This true story shows that it is possible to have hope and friendship even in the darkest of times.  Highly recommended.

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Con Academy

For his senior year, Will has conned his way into an elite prep school.  It's a far cry from his childhood years spent in Trenton, New Jersey, pulling cons with his parents.  Since his mother's death, his father has become nasty and unpredictable, and Will wants to separate himself from that life.

That's why he's at Connaughton Academy.  If a spin at this school doesn't open doors (or at least a few wallets), nothing will.  Everything seems to be going without a hitch until he meets fellow student and con artist Andrea.  She sees right through Will's "poor little orphan" sob story, and she's determined to get rid of him.

Thus the ultimate challenge is born.  The first one to con a fellow student out of $50,000 gets to stay.  The other has to leave.  Will has selected the perfect mark, Brandt Rush.  The guy is loaded and so full of himself as to be blinded by a carefully constructed lie.

The game is on, but as it progresses, Will starts to see things in a different light.  First, there's Gatsby the cute girl who is becoming his friend and maybe more.  But when Will involves his dad in the con, he's introduced an unpredictable element.

This was a really fun read, but I did feel frustrated with the bet structure.  The purpose of the game is to stay at school, but it quickly becomes obvious that neither of them will be able to stay  when it's over.  If you can overlook that, you'll enjoy Joe Schrieber's fun game of spy vs. spy!

Six of Crows

This is the first in the hotly anticipated new series from Leigh Bardugo.  As a fan of the Grisha Trilogy (Shadow and Bone, Siege and Storm, Ruin and Rising), I was super excited about this book!  Plus, look at the cover!  It is awesome!

Six of Crows is set in the same world as the Grisha Trilogy not long after the events in Ruin and Rising; however, it is not necessary to read the first series to be immersed in this world.  These are completely separate characters.  That said, there are some fun little "Easter eggs" for those of us familiar with the events of the first series.

Six of Crows is the story of six teens who become part of a crew to pull off a "heist" for an epic payout that could change their lives.

Kaz is the leader of a gang and the mastermind of the mission.  He has a mission for being ruthless and a nickname to match.  Dirtyhands is famed for acting without compassion or remorse, and this cruelty combined with a wily intellect have taken him far in his young life.  But he won't be able to pull off this job alone.

The thief, the sharpshooter, the Heartrender, the spy, the runaway, and the convict.

These make up the team Kaz will take with him into the frozen lands to break into the most fortified stronghold in the world.  If they survive, their lives will change forever.  If they fail, they will be dead.

I loved this book!  I don't want to give too much away because part of the charm is the slow revelation of backstory and connection amongst the characters.  This is a must read for fantasy fans!  (grades 8 and up)

Thursday, January 7, 2016

Baba Yaga's Assistant

Most kids would do anything to avoid a haunted forest and creepy witch who eats children.  Not Masha.  She has grown up with stories of Baba Yaga and all the children who tricked her.

So when her father announces he is going to remarry to a woman Masha's never met, she decides to run away and become Baba Yaga's assistant.  A child eating witch can't be worse than an evil stepmom and her horrible daughter, right?

Masha must use all the knowledge she has from grandmother's stories to outwit Baba Yaga, and a little bit of magical ability always comes in handy when you're dealing with a witch!

I really enjoyed this graphic novel from Marika McCoola and Emily Carroll.  Baba Yaga and her house on chicken legs has always been one of my favorite stories, and I love Masha who is wise enough to know Baba actually likes to be tricked.

Monday, January 4, 2016

2015 in Review!

So, I love the new format Goodreads is using for their year end stats!  It is both beautiful and informative.  Here is mine if you are curious. :)  At the end (School starts tomorrow.  It's still the end!) of each year, I like to take a little stroll down reading lane to review my year.  For the first part of this analysis, I'm including all books from picture books through books written for adults.

Total books read:  115

Total pages (Thank you, Goodreads!):  37,040

Five star books:  28

Four star books:  43

Three star books:  37

Two star books:  6

One star books:  0

Abandoned:  1

Adventure:  12

Fantasy:  30

Historical Fiction:  12

Horror:  6

Mystery:  17

Realistic Fiction:  18

Romance:  18

Science Fiction:  14

Sports:  2

Biography/Memoir:  8

History:  3

Technology:  1

Now for the really fun part!  Here are some of my favorite middle school books of the year!  If you want to see some of my other five star picks, click on the link to my Goodreads page.

My absolute favorite book of the year is this gem by Laura Amy Schlitz.  I just finished it over Christmas break, and what a treat it was!  Please, don't be put off by the cover.  You MUST read this book!  It is full of humor, voice, and intelligence.  Read it!

I feel like an evangelist, but this book is worth it.  You will be happier for meeting Joan Skaggs, a large and somewhat ignorant (but so intelligent) girl with an affinity for Jane Eyre!

What happens when a modern if nerdy Texas teen decides to take advice from a 1950's beauty queen on popularity?  Everything wonderful!  This book is delightful, thoughtful, and at time heartbreaking.  Popular navigates the social waters of middle school with surprising depth and skill.  A must read!

With a page taken from Freaky Friday, The Swap tells the stories of Jack and Ellie, two middle schoolers with some serious problems.  Jack is a great athlete,but he finds his father's militaristic training and parenting style almost impossible to bear.  He know he has to "be a man," but that is getting tougher every day.  Ellie's former best friend has suddenly turned her queen bully sights on her, and she feels abandoned and belittled.

This book is by turns hilarious and heartbreaking.  As a side note, I picked it up because it was popular with my students with no advertising from me.  That's usually a good sign!

If you've been reading this blog for long, you know I'm a huge fan of Marissa Meyer's Lunar Chronicles, so Stitching Snow naturally appealed to me at first glance, but Lewis's world is darker and grittier with an epic sci-fi feel.

I read this book in one sitting because it is just so compelling.  Be warned, Disney's Evil Queen never thought to be as horrible as Essie's parents in this book! (Grades 8 and up)

This is a fantasy murder mystery with talking cats and a dash of female empowerment and even a bit of romance.  It's like Forster wrote it just for me!  Set in a fantasy version of ancient China with a dash of magic this is a lush world you won't want to leave! (Grades 8 and up)

This is a great story for all the animal lovers out there who know the power and healing that can come from a beloved pet.  It is the story of Tony, who has been neglected and abused, but when he is at his lowest point, he finds love, acceptance, family, and healing.

Stuart Gibbs is one of my favorite middle grade authors.  His books are the perfect blend of mystery, humor, and poop jokes!  Space Case was even better than I expected with a great twist at the end.

When Jack's aunt is kidnapped, he is warned to avoid the police, but he won't be alone.  Legendary film director and master of suspense, Alfred Hitchcock, just happens to be staying in the next hotel room.  Hitchcock proves a competent if reluctant detective, and this story is full of tongue in cheek humor and intrigue plus plenty of Easter eggs for Hitchcock fans!

This book was my first real introduction to the Romanov family, and it is fascinating exploration of royalty, the Russian class system, and political upheaval.  Fleming as effectively contrasts the daily life of royalty with that of the peasant class.  Highly recommended.

This evocative memoir in verse recounts Woodson's childhood in both rural South Carolina and in New York City.

Finally, here are a few sequels I read and enjoyed this year.

Marissa Meyer's Lunar Chronicles concluded this year with Winter the long awaited sequel.  I love the series as a sci-fi and fairy tale fan, and this juicy conclusion weighing in at over 800 pages was the perfect fit for Christmas break.  I also recommend the companion novella, Fairest, which tells the story of Queen Levana.  (grades 8 and up for Fairest)

It's no secret I'm a huge fan of this Dickensian ghost series by Jonathan Stroud, and the third entry is no exception even if I did find myself yelling in frustration at the end.  I can't wait for the next one!

While not achieving the perfection of the first book, Crime is still an excellent book and continuation of The Winner's Kiss. This series is a blend of romance, politics, and morality. (grades 8 and up)

What are your favorites for 2015?

The Hired Girl

I LOVED this book!  It gets all the stars!

Joan is pretty certain her life is over.  It's 1911, and she is the only daughter of a poor farmer who sees no need for education and reading.  He sees fourteen year old Joan as a woman to do alone the woman's work of the farm--cooking and cleaning for her brutish father and brothers.

But Joan loves reading and school.  It was her dead mother's fondest wish that her daughter should get an education, become a teacher, and be the master of her own fate.  A smart girl like Joan would not have to marry a family and work herself to death.

When Joan sees an advertisement in the paper for a hired girl in the city, an idea begins to form.  Working for a family of strangers couldn't be any worse than working for her cruel father plus she would earn wages.  This sets off a conflict with her father so terrible Joan knows she must leave or else see all the days of her life as a an unloved servant to her father.

But she has little idea what to do when she actually arrives in Baltimore.  Where will she sleep?  How will she get a job?  A chance encounter in a moment of despair will change her life forever.  Joan, now known as Janet to conceal her identity, finds herself employed in the home of a wealthy Jewish merchant.  This is the first step on her road to progress, but little does she know the growing pains she will have to endure on her way to becoming a lady of refinement.

All these adventures she faithfully records in her diary, a gift from her former school teacher, and reading this book is like a visit with a best friend.  You both keep saying it's time to leave, but the hours continue to slip by while you enjoy one another's company.  Laura Amy Schlitz's new book is my favorite book I read in 2015.  It is just brimming with personality, humor, and voice as well as being an exploration of feminism, religion, education, and love.  Highly recommended!