Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Middle-Grade Review: Alibi Junior High

I was intrigued by the plot summary of Alibi Junior High by Greg Logsted from the first time I read it, when the hardcover was released a couple of years ago, so I don’t know why it took me two years to finally read it.  It more than lived up to my expectations; I really enjoyed this clever, well-written novel.

Thirteen-year old Cody Saron has lived life on the run.  His dad is in the CIA, and he and Cody have been partners ever since Cody’s mom died when he was a baby.  Cody has spent his entire life undercover with his dad, traveling all over the globe.  Now he has his toughest assignment ever:  to be a regular kid and attend public middle school.

Cody’s dad is in danger, so he sends Cody to live with an aunt he didn’t know he had in a small town in Connecticut.  Cody can speak five languages and has a black belt in karate, but he knows nothing at all about normal adolescent life, as you can see in this scene from his first day of middle school, talking to his new neighbor at the bus stop:

The bus turns the corner and starts bouncing toward us. Albert looks at me strangely.

“What are you wearing?”

“What do you mean?”

“You’re wearing that to school?”

I look at my clothes.  “What’s wrong with them?”

“Everything.  The shorts are way too short, your socks way too long, and nobody tucks in their t-shirt.  You’re dressed like somebody’s dad.”

“Really? Somebody’s dad? Um, how about the backpack?”

He gives it a quick look then just shakes his head.

I expected some good spy action in this novel – and there is some of that – but what I didn’t expect was the warmth and humor.  Every kid (not just those with dads in the CIA) will relate to Cody’s struggles to just fit in and be like everyone else.  That, of course, turns out to be disastrous, and things improve once Cody just gives up and is himself.  And there is a great, pulse-racing climax, but this book is about so much more than action and espionage.  It’s about family and friends and finding your place in the world.

244 pages, Aladdin (Simon & Schuster)


Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Top Ten Kid/Teen Books on my TBR List for Fall

It's Tuesday, and that means Top Ten day over at The Broke and the Bookish.  Head on over and check out all the blogs who posted lists today!

Today's topic is Top Ten Kid/Teen Books on My TBR List for Fall.  I noticed some blogs mainly listed books that will be released this fall that they want to read.  I'm never that organized or caught up, so I went to my rather extensive TBR (to be read) bookcase.  Yes, they almost fill up a whole bookcase now!  And some have been there for a very long time, as you will see.  Many of these are recommendations from my son. (I stuck to just books for kids and teens here, but you can also read my list of grown-up books at Book By Book).
  • Linger and Forever by Maggie Stiefvater - I loved Shiver and plan to read the next two books as soon as I finish my current one.
  • Goldstrike by Matt Whyman, sequel to Icecore - my son says the second books is also good.
  • Words in the Dust by Trent Reedy - I really enjoyed Thunder Over Kandahar which is also set in Afghanistan.
  • The Roar by Emma Clayton - my son says this is really good.
  • The Thirteenth Child by Patricia Wrede - another one highly recommended by my son!
  • The Game of Sunken Places by M.T. Anderson - Jamie also liked this middle-grade book which sounds a bit like Jumanji.
  • After Ever After by Jordan Sonnenblick - I carried this teen novel out to California with me this summer but never got to it.
  • Sharp North by Patrick Cave - another one Jamie loved!
  • Nation by Terry Pratchett - can you believe I haven't read anything by Pratchett yet?
  • Crispin: The Cross of Lead by Avi - both my son AND my husband have been telling for years that this is an amazing book.

 Oooh, I'm excited for the fall now!  What kids and teen books do you want to read this fall?

Sunday, August 28, 2011

It's Monday 8/29! What Are You Reading?

I'm posting this a bit early this week because on Monday morning, we'll be at the hospital waiting while my 17-year old son gets all 4 wisdom teeth removed.  Fun stuff, eh?  That will cap off several extremely busy weeks.  Having the hurricane come through this weekend has been the most relaxing part of the week (and we had three extra teen boys sleeping over for the storm!).

Amidst all this craziness, reading gives us a chance for a bit of downtime here and there:
  • I finished the middle-grade novel Alibi Junior High by Greg Logsted and really enjoyed the unique story about a boy raised by his CIA dad all over the world who has to attend public school for the first time.  Watch for a review this week.
  • I have now embarked on one last Big Book challenge for the summer.  I started Ken Follett's The Pillars of the Earth.  I am a Follett fan from way back and have wanted to read this book for a long time.  I am 120 pages into this 974 page paperweight and expect to build some muscles while carrying it around for the next few weeks!  It's very good so far - already gripping.
  • My husband, Ken, is still reading Tropic of Night by Michael Gruber and enjoying it.
  • Jamie, 17, actually read both of his required summer reading books in one week, proving once again that procrastination pays off!  He read The Housekeeper and the Professor by Yoko Ogawa, which he said was OK but not as good as the fantasy novels he wanted to be reading!  
  • He also read The Metamorphosis by Kafka, which he said was strange and pointless.  I asked whether he didn't think there might be some symbolism and hidden meaning in the brief story, since most of the book was taken up by notes and analysis (which he didn't read)....nope, just a strange story.
  • He also re-read book 3 in the Fablehaven series, Grip of the Shadow Plague, and is now reading the fourth book, which he got for his birthday, Secrets of the Dragon Sanctuary.  He loves this series and is enjoying it much more than Kafka!
With something going on outside of the house every single day last week, I didn't have any time for writing reviews, but I hope to get back on track this week when school starts up.  My writing time will expand exponentially!

What are you and your family reading this week?

(What are you reading Monday is hosted by Sheila at Book Journey.)

Monday, August 22, 2011

It's Monday 8/22! What Are You Reading?

Whew, another insanely busy week before school starts!  Our schedule has been unbelievable, with all sorts of medical appointments, physical therapy (pre-soccer season), college visits, and other assorted obligations in these last weeks of summer.  I definitely won't have much time for blogging this week!

We have been managing to squeeze in some reading, though:
  • At bedtime last night, I finished The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot.  It was a fascinating story, told in a way that read like fiction and made me care about the people in it.  I can't wait to discuss it with my book group next month.
  • I have now started Alibi Junior High by Greg Logsted, a middle-grade spy thriller I've been wanting to read for a while now.  I chose it out of my towering TBR piles because it is the shortest book!  I am anxious to get to a really long book for a September book group but wanted to first squeeze in a quick kids/teen book.
  • My husband, Ken, is still reading Tropic of Night by Michael Gruber.
  • Jamie, 17, got Secrets of the Dragon Sanctuary, book 4 in the Fablehaven series for his birthday last week.  As he often does, he decided to re-read the first 3 books in the series first, so this week he read books 1 and 2, Fablehaven and Rise of the Evening Star.
  • This morning, Jamie finally succumbed to a month of nagging (from me!) and started to read his required summer reading for school (with one week left to go!).  He's started The Housekeeper and the Professor by Yoko Ogawa.  Despite the odd title, it actually sounds pretty interesting - about a math professor who suffered a brain injury and can now only remember the past 80 minutes.  Of course, Jamie would rather be reading the rest of the Fablehaven series!
Last week, I posted two new reviews: The Passage by Justin Cronin at Book By Book and The Search for Wondla by Tony Diterlizzi, a middle-grade book.

What are you and your family reading this week?

(What are you reading Monday is hosted by Sheila at Book Journey).

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Middle-Grade Review: The Search for WondLa

 I had been eager to read the new middle-grade release from Tony Diterlizzi, co-author/creator of The Spiderwick Chronicles.  His latest is a middle-grade fantasy/sci-fi adventure called The Search for WondLa.  I ended up listening to the first half on audio and reading the second half on paper, with a rather mixed review of the two different approaches to telling this imaginative story.  Ultimately, I would recommend reading the book on paper but not listening to it on audio.

The story opens with 12-year old Eva Nine, a young girl who has grown up entirely isolated in an underground sanctuary with her robot mother (cleverly named Muthr, Multi-Utility Task Help Robot, a name I may adopt!).  Though Eva has been happy and well cared for, she sets off on a journey, eager to find others like herself.  Her only clue to help in her search is a scrap of torn paper that shows a girl like herself with a robot and an adult human with the torn words WondLa left.  The world she explores is filled with strange, wondrous, and sometimes frightening creatures.

I brought the audio on our California vacation this June, figuring it would be a perfect fit for our annual road trip, with all the elements my family usually enjoys: a young protagonist in a fantastical place on a fast-paced adventure.  We listened to about half of it before my kids finally said, “No more!” and my husband and I agreed.  Now granted, none of us are smack in the middle of the book’s intended audience of middle-grade readers (my sons are now 13 and 17 and their reading tastes have matured a bit), but all four of us felt that the audio production just wasn’t very good. 

The story was interesting, but the narrator (ironically a well-respected actress, Teri Hatcher of Desperate Housewives fame) just grated on us.  She read the main character, a twelve-year old girl, in a fake-sounding little girl voice.  My youngest son kept saying, “She just sounds too young!” And some of the other characters had similarly strange-sounding voices (granted, they are all strange, made-up sorts of beings).  It’s hard to describe, but we just found the overall effect annoying and finally gave up.

Upon returning home, I was determined to give it another try, this time on paper.  I finished reading the book and enjoyed it very much.  I think this is a case where the old-fashioned paper format is best, especially because Diterlizzi’s imaginative text is accompanied by lots and lots of his wonderful illustrations.  With so many unusual creatures and places in the story, the illustrations were additive, helping me to better imagine Eva’s adventures.  I found the rest of the book engrossing, loved the ending, and can’t wait for the next book in the planned trilogy!

NOTE:  The book and audio both have a unique feature.  You go to the WondLa website (where there is also a nice promo video of the story), click on the WondLa Vision icon, and follow the instructions to download special software (it took about 5 minutes).  Then, you hold up certain illustrations (3 different pages of the book or the pictures on the first 3 CDs) to your web cam, and up pops a 3-D map of Eva’s journey, each one adding to the last as the story unfolds.  It’s pretty cool.

473 pages, Simon & Schuster


Monday, August 15, 2011

It's Monday 8/15! What Are You Reading?

Wow, what a weekend!  We got together with my extended family - 14 of us! - in the Poconos for a weekend of swimming, kayaking, horseback riding, and lots of eating!  We laughed so hard Saturday night that my stomach muscles hurt.  Lots of fun, though not much time for quiet reading, as you can imagine.

Here's what we're reading this week:
  • I finally finished The Passage by Justin Cronin and absolutely loved it, except for the very last sentence!  Though it seemed to be wrapping up nicely up until that last sentence, there is definitely a sequel coming, and he left me hanging.  It was excellent - highly recommended for fans of suspense, thrillers, paranormal, and post-apocalyptic plots.  Something for everyone.
  • Next, I finished up The Search for Wondla by Tony Diterlizzi (co-author of The Spiderwick Chronicles), a middle-grade sci-fi novel.  We started the audio on vacation, but no one wanted to finish it because of the narrator.  So, I finished reading the paper novel and really enjoyed it.
  • Now I am reading The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot.  I've been dying to read this after hearing so many wonderful things about it.  It's my neighborhood book group's pick for September, so I thought I'd get a head start and skip the last-minute panic!  It's fascinating so far.
  • My husband, Ken, is still reading Tropic of Night by Michael Gruber and enjoying it.
  • Jamie, 17 tomorrow!, finished reading Across the Great Barrier by Patricia Wrede and tells me I have to read this series!
  • Next, Jamie read Num8ers and The Chaos by Rachel Ward, teen thrillers which I recommended to him.  He said they weren't his normal kind of book, but he enjoyed both and is looking forward to book 3.
Last week, I posted two new reviews: The Condition by Jennifer Haigh at Book By Book and Revolution by Jennifer Donnelly here.  I also posted lists of Top Ten Underrated Books and Top Ten Underrated Books for Kids and Teens.

What are you and your family reading this week?

(What are you reading Monday is hosted by Sheila at Book Journey.)

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Teen/YA Review: Revolution

 I finally finished listening to the teen/YA novel Revolution by Jennifer Donnelly (I don’t get much alone audio time during the summer!), and I was absolutely entranced by this unique novel that takes place in two different time periods and blends modern teen drama with historical fiction.

Seventeen-year old Andi is close to being expelled from her prestigious private school in Brooklyn Heights.  Her younger brother died recently, driving both her and her mother into deep depressions that each is dealing with in her own way.  Andi is so mired in grief and despair that she doesn’t even care about school anymore, just her music, but her scientist father isn’t about to let her fail.  During winter break, he brings her along with him on a trip to Paris, hoping the change of scenery will help and she’ll have time to work on the thesis she needs to graduate.

Once in Paris, Andi discovers an old diary, written by a teen girl named Alexandrine two hundred years earlier, during the French Revolution.  Alex wanted to be an actress, but instead took on a job as nanny to the young prince in order to help her poor family.  At first, the diary is just an escape for Andi, a way to forget about her own troubles and immerse herself in someone else’s life, but it becomes increasingly compelling and real to her, until the past and the present mingle.

Donnelly has written a unique and gripping novel, weaving together the present and the distant past through the parallel lives of these two young women.  Both Andi and Alex play the guitar, and music has a central role in the novel, with lots of references to both modern and classical music.  Revolution tackles some serious issues, including grief, depression, and suicide, as well as a thorough immersion in the French Revolution.  I found it all fascinating, and the audio was very well done, with excellent voice actors for both Andi and Alex.  This was the first Jennifer Donnelly novel I’ve read or listened to; I will definitely read another.

NOTE: This novel is best for older teens and young adults (and up!) with lots of references to drugs, alcohol, plus some serious issues such as depression and suicide (not to mention a bit of gruesomeness).

Listening Library

Listen to an excerpt:

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Top Ten Underrated Books for Kids and Teens

It's Top Ten Tuesday over at The Broke and the Bookish!  Today's topic is underrated books.  This took some thought.  I tried to focus on books that I loved that I didn't hear much buzz about - the kind of books I want to tell everyone about!  If you are interested in my list of underrated grown-up books, check out Book By Book.

Here is my Top Ten List of Underrated Books for Kids and Teens:

  1. The Roman Mysteries by Caroline Lawrence – picture Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys in Ancient Rome – a great series, but I don’t hear much about it here in the U.S. They made it into a popular TV show in the U.K.
  2. The Underland Chronicles by Suzanne Collins – obviously, everyone went totally crazy for her series The Hunger Games but this earlier middle-grade series seems to get overlooked.  Our whole family loved it (we read it aloud).
  3. Three Little Words by Ashley Rhodes Courter – I always felt this stunning YA memoir about foster care didn’t get enough attention when it came out.
  4. Lionboy trilogy by Zizou Corder – this amazing middle-grade series about a boy who can communicate with lions kept my whole family rapt, but I didn’t hear much buzz about it.
  5. Things Not Seen and its sequels by Andrew Clements – Clements’ popular books for younger kids get lots of attention, but we also loved this foray into teen fiction about a boy who wakes up one morning to find himself invisible.
  6. Alabama Moon by Watt Key – one of our family’s all-time favorite middle-grade read-alouds.  A local bookstore owner told my husband about it; otherwise, we hadn’t heard of it before or since.
  7. The Cronus Chronicles by Anne Ursu – Percy Jackson gets all the attention, but Ursu’s fabulous middle-grade series about two teens who get caught up in the affairs of Greek gods are action-packed, exciting, and sprinkled with a great sense of humor.
  8. The Mystery of the Third Lucretia by Susan Runholt – I loved this first book in a new mystery series with teen girl detectives tangled up with international art thieves.  Perfect for girls who love (or who’ve outgrown) Nancy Drew.
  9. Icecore and Goldstrike by Matt Whyman – exciting, techno-thrillers for teens that my son, husband, and I all loved, but I didn’t hear much else about them.
  10. Boom! By Mark Haddon – this hilarious British sci-fi adventure from the author of the adult novel The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time kept our whole family laughing through a very long day stuck in traffic.

So, those are my picks.  How about you?  What are your favorite underrated books for kids and teens?

Monday, August 8, 2011

It's Monday 8/8! What Are You Reading?

Happy Monday morning!  I always look forward to hearing what everyone is reading each week.  It makes Monday a day to look forward to!

We spent the weekend doing much-needed yard work, shopping for my son's birthday, and relaxing with some movies and TV shows (we enjoy catching up on TV shows on DVD during the summer, like Bones, The Mentalist, and Glee).  Our boys both had sleep-overs.  So, busy, busy!

Here's what we've been reading this week:
  • Yes, I am STILL reading The Passage by Justin Cronin!  I only have about 50 pages to go.  It is a big book that has taken me three weeks to read, but it has been well worth it - an excellent, well-written novel with a unique plot and in-depth characters.
  • My husband, Ken, finished his Jeffrey Deaver novel, The Burning Wire, and is now reading Tropic of Night by Michael Gruber which he picked up at Borders' clearance sale last week.  He enjoyed Gruber's other novel, The Book of Air and Shadows, which I got him for Christmas one year.
  • I forgot to mention last week that he and I started a new audio book when we went to pick up our kids from their grandparents' house.  We're listening to Dying for Mercy, a mystery by Mary Jane Clark.  It's good so far - we listened to a bit more while birthday shopping yesterday - though it's hard to say when we'll next have time alone in the car.  This could be another 6-month long audio!
  • Jamie, 16, is reading Across the Great Barrier by Patricia Wrede and loving it.  This is the second book in the Frontier Magic series that started with The Thirteenth Child.  Jamie says it is a great series.
I posted two new reviews last week.  At Book By Book, I reviewed the audio book The Bedwetter: Stories of Courage, Redemption and Pee, a funny and outrageous memoir by comedienne Sarah Silverman.   Here at Great Books for Kids and Teens, I posted a review of Amy & Roger's Epic Detour by Morgan Matson, a teen road trip novel that I absolutely loved.  And I posted a summary of what I read in July.

What are you and your family reading this week?

(What are you reading Monday is hosted by Sheila at Book Journey.)

Friday, August 5, 2011

Teen/YA Review: Amy & Roger’s Epic Detour

I always enjoy reading road trip books while we’re on a road trip, so I had saved Amy & Roger’s Epic Detour by Morgan Matson for our June trip through California.  I absolutely loved this warm, unique novel and even found myself reading passages aloud and showing pages to my two teen sons (who are not normally interested in a book with a picture of a girl and boy holding hands on its cover!).  In the classic tradition of all good road trip books, this one is not only about the physical journey but an emotional one as well.

Amy hasn’t been the same since her Dad died this past spring.  Her mom has decided to move them from California to Connecticut, and Amy is expected to join her on the East Coast as soon as she finishes her junior year of high school.  The problem is that Amy hasn’t driven since her dad’s death, so her mother enlists the help of the 19-year old son of a friend of hers to drive Amy to Connecticut.

Amy barely remembers Roger from when they were kids and is embarrassed by her inability to drive.  Though Roger seems like a well-adjusted guy, he is struggling with some issues of his own.  Together, they set out on their cross-country drive, following Amy’s mother’s planned route at first.  Soon, though, the pull of the open road entices them to make a detour that turns into…yes, an epic detour.  One of my favorite parts of the book was when they decided to visit Yosemite National Park, just as we were heading there ourselves, and I could follow along!

This is really two books in one – a scrapbook-style travelogue with photos, receipts, postcards, and other memorabilia interspersed with a novel describing how Amy and Roger both gradually open up to each other and face their own demons.  It could have turned out kind of gimmicky, but it’s not at all because it works so well on both levels.  It’s a well-written novel, warm and real, that is made even better by the travelogue. 

One of the highlights of the book for me was Roger’s Playlists, scattered throughout the book.  I do the same thing on our family road trips – make up custom CDs suited to wherever we are traveling – so I had a blast reading through Roger’s music choices and sharing the playlists with my sons.  In fact, now that I have the book back in my hands (we shipped a box of books back home after our trip), I can’t wait to look up some of Roger’s more obscure songs and listen to them myself.

Amy & Roger’s Epic Detour is a wonderful novel that addresses difficult topics in an accessible way.  The road trip is not merely background but an integral part of the journey.  It is described in wonderful detail that makes you feel as if you are riding along, discovering both the country and yourself along with Amy and Roger.

NOTE: for some extra fun, check out Roger's Playlist #1 on YouTube, a collection of 18 songs from Roger's first playlist in the book which someone has thoughtfully compiled

343 pages, Simon & Schuster

Monday, August 1, 2011

It's Monday 8/1! What Are You Reading?

August 1st already!  July seemed to go by quickly.  I had a very unusual week - my kids were gone all week, and my husband was gone half of the week, so I enjoyed some quiet solitude, a rarity around here in the summer!  I had planned to catch up on all the things I'm behind in and spend lots of time reading, but that never quite works out as I'd planned.  Instead, I watched a bunch of girl-centric movies in the evenings and spent a lot of time with a friend going through a difficult time.  So, not quite the productive week I'd foreseen but rewarding just the same.  The kids had a blast on their grandparents' sailboat, enjoying Block Island, R.I.

And here's what we all read last week:
  • I am still reading The Passage by Justin Cronin.  I am finally about halfway through this hefty book!  It is really, really good - original, suspenseful, and compelling.
  • My husband, Ken, is reading The Burning Wire by Jeffrey Deaver, one of his favorite thriller writers.  He had fun yesterday browsing though Borders' clearance sale and spending his last Borders gift card, but my son said the YA section was almost empty!
  • Jamie, 16, loves to read books set on the water when he's on his grandparents' boat, so he started the week with Rip Tide by Kat Falls, sequel to Dark Life (which he loved) about a civilization deep under the ocean.
  • Next, he re-read Pirate Curse, book one in The Wave Walkers series by Kai Meyer - he just has to read at least one pirate book when he's sailing!  He said it was pretty good but not great.  I don't think he's ever read the rest of the series.
  • Then he left the water theme behind to read The Lost World by Michael Crichton, sequel to Jurassic Park which he read and loved a few weeks ago.  He loved the sequel, too!
  • Now he is re-reading The Thirteenth Child by Patricia Wrede in preparation for reading its sequel in the Frontier Magic series, Across the Great Barrier, which was recently released.  Jamie says this is a great series - I really need to find time to read it.
I did manage to write some reviews last week, including The Story of Beautiful Girl by Rachel Simon on Book By Book, a wonderfully original love story, set against the backdrop of a mental institution in the 1960's.  I also posted a review here of D.J. MacHale's Morpheus Road: The Black, a fast-paced ghost story for teens.

In addition, I posted lists of Top Ten Books That Tackle Tough Issues, both at Book By Book (grown-up books) and here on Great Books for Kids and Teens (two different lists).  Finally, I posted an update on Borders' closing and my shopping expedition to their clearance sale and a sneak peek at the actors playing Gale and Peeta in The Hunger Games movie.

What are you and your family reading this week?

(What are you reading Monday is hosted by Sheila at Book Journey.)