Wednesday, July 31, 2013

The Naturals, by Jennifer Lynn Barnes

The Naturals, the first in a new series by Jennifer Lynn Barnes and due out in November, is about a group of gifted kids recruited by the FBI to investigate (and potentially solve) cold cases. The group's gift lies in their natural ability to read people - to read emotions, to detect lies, to profile. Main character Cassie is a profiler; she can make accurate conclusions about a person's personality and lifestyle based upon seemingly minimal observation. At the start of the story, it's been five years since her mother's (unsolved) murder, and she's living with her father's family, but with the lingering feeling that she just doesn't belong. So, when she's approached by an agent to join the experimental project and move to Washington, D.C., she sees 'YES' as the only answer. She hopes that this will somehow eventually connect her to her mother's case, but she could never have expected how closely linked to it she will become. I won't spoil anything, but before long, Cassie herself is being pursued by a serial killer.

I found the more psychological aspect of the novel so interesting. Obviously, there's analysis of killers, crime scenes, and 'victimology' which was interesting, but more than that I liked the interactions of the various participants in the Naturals group. They're all late teenagers, they all live in a secluded house, they all have an inherent gift, and, of course, they all carry their own unique load of baggage. I love watching their interactions and personalities unfold.

I often pride myself on the fact that when reading mysteries, I can usually figure out 'whodunit' if you will, but this time I really couldn't! I was utterly convinced that the killer in the novel was one of two characters, neither of whom actually turned out to be the culprit. I'd like to think that I just wasn't reading carefully enough, since I was also watching my 13-month-old son while reading, but I don't think that's the case - I think that Jennifer Barnes's plot, characters, and writing are JUST THAT GOOD.

Amazon recommends this novel for ages 12 and up on their website, but I think I'd go more with 14 or 15 and up. The killing scenes are quite graphic - carving off of facial skin and keeping lipsticks as mementos of the kill - and there's some motivation behind a sexual motivation for the murders. I do think that it's these details that make the novel so great though - they make it seem so real.

Also Try: The Name of the Star, by Maureen Johnson; Shadowlands, by Kate Brian; "The Squad" series by Jennifer Lynn Barnes

Release Date: November 5, 2013

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Fallout, by Todd Strasser

FalloutWow! I loved Fallout by Todd Strasser! Judging from the reviews and press I've read about the novel, it seems like most people did as well. I don't know why I didn't make the connection when I started reading, but I realized on his website that Strasser also wrote The Wave, which I had to read in my 8th grade Reading class. I remember hating the teacher, but loving that book and its implications.

Fallout is set during the Cuban missile crisis. Things between the U.S. and Russia are tenser than ever, and all anyone can seem to talk about is whether or not this tension will result in a nuclear war. Main character Scott's father believes that it will result in the war to end all wars, a nuclear war, and is determined to prepare his family for the worst. So, he builds the only nuclear bomb shelter in the neighborhood, right in the family's back yard. This becomes the subject of some ridicule for Scott and his younger brother Sparky, but all of that changes when a bombing actually occurs. Now, all the neighbors who were so critical at the start suddenly want in to the shelter to protect themselves and their children. Some of Scott's neighbors force their way in, and they spend a little over a week together cramped up in the shelter, getting to know each other more intimately than they ever imagined, all the while constantly wondering if they'll get out and what they'll see when they do.

I often find myself falling in love with characters, or caring about them in a way I would care about a real person. But this novel was different - I didn't actually feel a particular liking for any character (although I felt a particular disliking for nasty-neighbor Mr. McGovern), but I experienced something I don't often get to with novels: I felt like I was right there with the characters. The way that Strasser described the tension in the shelter and the anxiety of the neighbors made me really feel like I was living it with them - horrifying and intriguing.

I also loved the way Strasser examined human nature - the way the characters changed from ridiculing Scott's dad's shelter to wanting in on it, and then once they were in, criticizing his hap-hazard gathering of items like food, water, clothing, etc. - the ultimate "looking a gift horse in the mouth," would have to be critiquing the man who saved your life. I really loved watching these changes unfold and seeing how unpredictable people can be when faced with catastrophic events. For instance, one of the characters, Mrs. Shaw, says she would never be able to sacrifice someone else's life to save her own. She's obviously shocked when she learns that her husband did just that: he helped Scott's dad keep too many people from getting into the shelter, essentially killing them.

The only potential problem that I see with this novel, and I think it's one that can be avoided, is that kids might think this actually happened. I feel like most of the historical fiction kids read is based on a main event that actually happened, with other, minor events and characters being fictitious. However, the major event in this novel is fictitious. There was no bombing. I would like to think that my students who read this book would be curious enough to do some of their own research, but I know that's not always the case. I'll be mindful of this when booktalking it and suggesting it to kids.

Also Try: 90 Miles to Havana, by Enrique Flores-Galbis; A Long Walk to Water, by Linda Sue Park; The Wave, by Todd Strasser

Monday, July 29, 2013

Living with Jackie Chan, by Jo Knowles

Living with Jackie ChanGood news and bad news about Living with Jackie Chan, by Jo Knowles. The good news is that I absolutely loved it...I read it from NetGalley in about four hours. The bad news is that I hadn't read anything by Jo Knowles sooner - really looking forward to trying Jumping Off Swings and See You at Harry's.

Living with Jackie Chan is about a high school senior, Josh, who moves in to live with his uncle right before his senior year. He got a girl pregnant back home, his home life is a mess, and he feels like relocating is the only way to give himself a fighting chance at getting his life back on track. His uncle, Larry, is a karate and Jackie Chan-obsessed nutjob, but he turns out to be exactly what Josh needs. He drags Josh to karate classes, where Josh meets their neighbor Stella, and develops a quick but complicated friendship. While navigating the ropes of a new school, new living situation, and a new friend, Josh is still coming to terms with the guilt that he feels over the pregnancy. It does not help matters that the people who live above his uncle have a baby - a constant reminder of what he did.

I loved the way Living with Jackie Chan unfolded, and the way it examined the dynamics of a boy/girl teen friendship, secrets, and reinventing ourselves. I do think it's a little mature for some of my students, but the novel focused more on the way the characters were positively changed than on the act itself, so I think it will be okay for most.

Also Try: How to Save a Life, by Sara Zarr; Jumping Off Swings, by Jo Knowles

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Ripped, by Shelly Dickson Carr

Ripped by Shelly Dickson Carr makes the THIRD Jack the Ripper-themed novel I've read in the past few months. All three of the Ripper novels I've read have taken different approaches: The Name of the Star, by Maureen Johnson, explored a modern-day copycat of the Ripper killings; Ripper, by Amy Carol Reeves, was a historical novel that chronicled the murders as they occurred; finally, Ripped is a time-travel novel in which the main character, Katie, attempts to go back in time to solve the murders and change the course of history, hopefully impacting her life in the present. I really liked taking a look at this topic from such different vantage points! 
Katie is a recent transplant to London - she finds herself living with her grandmother following her parents' untimely death. Her older sister, Courtney, is part of a girl group rock band; this lifestyle upsets their grandmother and has alienated Courtney from the family. Katie wants nothing more than to have things back to normal within her family and be able to see her sister more often. When she discovers a family link to the Jack the Ripper murders - an ancestor of hers named Lady Beatrix Twyford was murdered by the Ripper - she goes back in time via a time portal in the London Stone in an attempt to change history and save her family. The plot is filled with twists and turns, and I honestly did find myself constantly guessing who the Ripper would turn out to be - the culprit wasn't as obvious as is sometimes the case.

Overall, I enjoyed the novel but found it a bit too long. I couldn't really tell how many pages it was since I read it on my kindle app through NetGalley, but Barnes and Noble has it listed at 520 pages. My favorite parts were the inclusion of Cockney rhyming slang and the theme of the morality and potential complications of altering the past. The Name of the Star is still my favorite Ripper novel, but I think those interested in the subject would enjoy this one as well. 

Also Try: The Name of the Star, by Maureen Johnson; Ripped, by Amy Carol Reeves; Wrapped, by Jennifer Bradbury; The Future of Us, by Jay Asher and Carolyn Mackler (it explores similar themes of changing our past/future)

Thursday, July 25, 2013

My Sister Lives on the Mantelpiece, by Annabel Pitcher

I absolutely loved Annabel Pitcher's debut novel, My Sister Lives on the Mantelpiece! I can't wait to see what's next from this author!

I found the premise of the novel so uniquely interesting and morbid that I was pulled in from the opening line: 

"My sister lives on the mantelpiece. Well, some of her does. Three of her fingers, her right elbow and her kneecap are buried in a graveyard in London," (1).

The novel's narrator is a 10-year old boy named Jaime, and his older sister Rose was tragically killed in a terrorist attack in London. Rose's twin, Jasmine (Jas), and Jaime, are all but forgotten as their parents mourn the loss of their beloved daughter. Ultimately, the parents, unable to deal with the death, split up and the mom moves in with a new boyfriend. 
This is where the novel picks up - Jaime, Jas, and their dad move away from London and into the country to get away from it all. A huge part of what the father wants to get away from are the Muslims that live in London - he can't get over the fact that his daughter was killed my Muslim terrorists, and now finds himself prejudiced against all foreigners. They hope that this move will help them get over Rose's death and move on, but their alcoholic father seems totally stuck in the past.

However, the grass isn't always greener on the other side, and there is a little girl named Sunya - who happens to be Muslim - in Jaime's class. She's the only person that is nice to Jaime in his new school, and he struggles with their friendship, feeling like he is dishonoring his father by engaging with her. He's able to hide the friendship for a while, but ultimately things come to a head. 

I loved watching the characters evolve, and found myself hating the mother whole-heartedly as she all but abandoned her two surviving children. I also found the dynamic of the dead twin and the way the survivors each dealt with it intriguing. I loved this novel and felt that it really made me think, but I do feel like while it's a YA novel, it would resonate more with older people.

Here's a book trailer for the novel:

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Cardboard, by Doug TenNapel

I was expecting to like Cardboard, by Doug TenNapel, a lot more than I actually did. I had one of his other graphic novels, Ghostopolis, in my classroom library, and it was such a crowd-pleaser that it actually went missing. 
Cardboard is about a boy named Cam who lives with his father; his mother is dead. Cam's father is struggling to find work, and the novel opens as he tries to find something to buy for Cam's birthday. He winds up getting him a cardboard box, being convinced by the toy-peddler that it is a gift that will inspire the imagination and lead to father-son bonding. It's pretty predictable when the toy seller gives the two rules of the cardboard (you can't have more and you have to return the scraps) that something is up with this particular box of cardboard. Sure enough, it turns out to be magic, and Cam and his father ultimately find themselves working against an evil neighborhood boy, Marcus, to keep their find from turning evil. 

I did really like the premise of the graphic novel, but I felt like there were too many facets to the story that were underdeveloped. For instance, Cam and his father both mourn the mother, but it's kind of brushed on and left. Also, Marcus - the evil neighbor - mentions that he has bipolar disorder, but then that's dropped. 

I do think that this book will be popular in my classroom, I guess I'm just not a huge graphic novel fan. 

Also Try: Ghostopolis and Bad Island, by Doug TenNapel; Anya's Ghost by Vera Brosgol

Monday, July 22, 2013

Hereafter, by Kate Brian

Shadowlands (Shadowlands, #1)I received a galley of Hereafter through NetGalley - it's not due to published until October 1 - and I somehow didn't realize that the novel was the second in a series, not the first. That explains the mild air of confusion I felt throughout the novel! The first book is called Shadowlands, and I can't wait to read it and fill in the gaps.

Despite being a little confused, I loved the idea behind the novel and I love Kate Brian's style. I've known her name for a while, as her Private series has been very popular. I never read any of the Privates books, and I think that this new series is quite different than they are.

Hereafter (Shadowlands, #2)The novel takes place on Juniper Landing Island, which turns out to be a sort of in-between place. It's where people go after they die, while they're awaiting their fate - to infinite life in a good place, or in the evil Shadowlands. The thing about Juniper Landing, though, is that no one there knows they're dead; they all think they're on vacation. When people are "escorted" to their beyond, the other vacationers just assume they've gone on home. That brings up the "escorts". There are people on the island who are called "Lifers", and they escort the newly dead to their afterlife.

Main character Rory and her family are new to Juniper Landing, after having Rory's serial killer teacher. Rory quickly learns that she is a Lifer, but her father and sister, Darcy, are awaiting their fate. Rory quickly bonds with several of the Lifers, but all can tell that something is amiss on Juniper Landing. Rory looks to the oldest Lifer, Tristan, for help when one of the others, Nadia, turns on her. Things take a turn for the worse when everyone starts going to the Shadowlands - not just the awful people who deserve to. Can Rory figure out what's going on before it's too late?

Friday, July 19, 2013

Yummy: The Last Days of a Southside Shorty, by G. Neri

I read Yummy: The Last Days of a Southside Shorty because I'm participating in Book Boot Camp, an online reading club focusing on one middle grade genre per month. July's genre is graphic novels/manga. I've heard a lot about Yummy before, but just never got around to reading it - Book Boot Camp was the push I needed!

Yummy is narrated by a boy named Roger, a classmate of Chicago's infamous Robert "Yummy" Sandifer, who was murdered at 11 after killing a 14 year old girl. As is so often the case with youth violence, Yummy was a member of a notorious gang, the Black Disciple Nation, or BDN. Yummy's story got a lot of press nationwide, as people tried to reason out how someone's life could take such a terrible turn so early on, and how gang violence had become so pervasive. Yummy was featured on the cover of an issue of TIME magazine (view article here), and President Clinton spoke out about the incident.

In the novel, Roger, whose brother is affiliated with the BDN, tries to decipher Yummy's short life, asking some really important questions: "If I grew up like him, would I have turned out the same?" and is a person like Yummy, in his circumstances, more of a bully or more of a victim? Yummy didn't take very long to read - honestly about 35 minutes - but I found myself sitting and pondering these questions for much longer.  That's what you want in a book, isn't it?

I was so impressed with Yummy. It dealt with some really harsh realities and mature content, but I felt like it could have been (and was expecting it to be) a lot more graphic and violent than it was. I do think the image of Yummy, with his teddy bear, will stay with me for a while.