Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Notes from the Midnight Driver by Jordan Sonenblick

I recommend this book for: middle school and high school

Alex is a pretty good kid who makes a dumb mistake when he gets drunk and tries to drive over to his father's house to yell at him (Dad is currently dating Alex's third grade teacher!) He gets into an accident where no one is hurt -with the exception of a rather pricey lawn gnome - and is sentenced to 100 hours of community service in a nursing home. Alex is assigned to visit Solomon Lewis, an aging Jewish guitar player with emphysema and a bad attitude. Their interactions are hilarious and sometimes heartbreaking. Alex also has his mother and his best friend Laurie, a gorgeous karate master, to deal with, and all of the characters really seem like real people. This is a book that got passed around the branch from person to person, and not one of us was disappointed in it. It also has the plus of no bad language, no drug use, and the only bit of drinking involved is the stunt that gets Alex in trouble in the first place, so it can go on the 'clean' list. Read it, it's fantastic!

The real reviews.

The Wrong Hands by Nigel Richardson

I recommend this book for: high school

Wow! This book was intriguing, and I'm not entirely sure that I liked it, but it interested me . . . does that make sense? Graham lives in Britain and is constantly teased because, among other things, he has gigantic, deformed hands. But he also has a secret, and his mother tries to force him to keep it between the two of them. The first time he tells someone, it goes tragically wrong and he finds himself under suspicion of criminal activity, and he's carted off to London to stay with his uncle until it blows over. Then a tragic airplane crash and Graham's actions afterward put him in the spotlight and his mother in a psych ward. Are you confused yet? One of my coworkers read this book and completely hated it - her comment was "If I'd wanted to read A Clockwork Orange, I'd have read A Clockwork Orange." Since I've never read A Clockwork Orange, I don't really know for myself how they compare, but I did feel compelled to finish this book and see what happened - although, admittedly, I spent a lot more time on Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire in the last week. Enjoyable? Well, I suppose that depends on your definition, but it was definitely interesting and compelling, in a magical realism/unreliable narrator/not really sure what's going on, but he might tell me if I keep reading sort of way.

More concise reviewers say . . . (Don't read the first review if you don't want the big secret spoiled!)

Monday, June 18, 2007

Gregor the Overlander by Suzanne Collins

I recommend this book for: middle school

Gregor is 11 and bummed because he has to stay at home and watch his baby sister Boots instead of going to summer camp. He also misses his father, who disappeared over 2 years ago, intensely. Then he and Boots fall down a grate in their NYC apartment building's laundry room and find themselves in the Underland, a dangerous new world populated by giant talking bats, roaches, and rats, as well as a peculiar race of humans. Gregor is called on to fulfill an ancient prophecy about a warrior from the Overland who will save the Underland in a time of war - and in the process, he may be able to rescue his father, who was captured by the rats.

I read this in about a day and a half - it was very action-packed and kept me wanting to read just one more chapter. If the book has a major flaw it is that some of the minor characters are not developed at all - in fact, some of them exist just to die and fulfill a part of the prophecy - but it is exciting and most of the characters are very well-developed. Highly enjoyable!

Professional reviewers agree!

Thursday, June 14, 2007

The Green Glass Sea by Ellen Klages

I recommend this book for: middle school and high school

Dewey and Suze are 12 years old, and both of them are daughters of the scientists working on the atomic bomb during WWII, so they live with their parents (or in Dewey's case, her single father) on the Hill. They are also both social outcasts, Suze for her bossiness and Dewey because she'd rather tinker around with radios and gizmos of her own invention, and because of a severely injured leg. In true middle school fashion, Suze bullies Dewey because she's the only person lower on the popularity totem pole than she is herself. Then a top secret assignment takes Dewey's father away, and Suze's mother offers to let her stay with them and the girls are forced together.

I thought this book was fantastic. It gives you a good sense of what life was like for kids during the war, from the music on the radio to the comic books. The ethics of the war and the bomb are discussed, but mostly in hushed voices by the adults, so the moral never overtakes the story. The characters are utterly believable, both kids and adults, and they make a beautiful novel. I'd find it hard to believe that a child could get to middle school without having some context of WWII and what exactly the word "Hiroshima" means, so I don't think the book's subtlety would trip anyone up, although I suppose it is possible.

Parents who are concerned about this sort of thing should note that there are some instances of bad language under provocation, and Suze's mother constantly smokes cigarettes, plus the scientists like to celebrate with drinks when their 'gadget' has a successful test - but hey, that's real life. Personally, I heard worse in class when I was in middle school.

What the pros thought.

Monday, June 11, 2007

Operation Red Jericho by Joshua Mowll

I recommend this book for: middle school and high school

Doug and Becca have been shuffled from one relative to another since their parents mysteriously disappeared, but they've always left on bad terms - this precocious duo have interests in fencing, science, and very dirty socks. When they board their uncle's ship in 1920, they expect to see some of the world. They don't intend to get wrapped up in secret societies, battles with Chinese pirates, or scientists wanted for murder - but that is exactly what happens. Their uncle is a member of the Honorable Guild of Specialists, scientists sworn to protect a deadly secret. The Guild seems to be their destiny as well, but Becca and Doug have other plans.

The coolest thing about this book was the format - the narrative was interspersed with excerpts from Becca's diary and Doug's sketchbook, as well as fold-out technical drawings of the various gadgets they encounter and photos.

Read professional reviews.

Astro City: Life in the Big City by Kurt Busiek, Brent E. Anderson, and Alex Ross

I recommend this book for: middle school and high school

A somewhat different take on superheroes, Astro City follows the day to day life of the people in the city - those who wear capes and those who don't. This collection included stories about what the Samaritan does all day - from sneaking out of work to the split seconds of flight, a newspaper reporter's first big story, a petty criminal convinced that a hero is out to get him, and a blind date between a hero and a heroine - who keep getting interrupted to sign autographs. I found it interesting, and my husband (a grownup comic book geek) enjoyed it as well.

Well, no professional reviews on this one, but here's what some other people thought.

The Radioactive Boy Scout by Ken Silverstein

I recommend this book for: Adults and high school

The subtitle of this book is "The Frightening True Story of a Whiz Kid and His Homemade Nuclear Reactor," and that's exactly what it is . . . with some editorials on nuclear power, the Boy Scouts, and other related topics. I found it fairly enjoyable, but some of the scientific babblings were over my head, and it didn't fit the purpose I hoped it would (interesting non-fiction for middle schoolers). For older teens or adults with interest in science or weird news, this would be delightful.

No professional reviews, but here's Amazon!

Friday, June 1, 2007

Inkspell by Cornelia Funke

I recommend this book for: advanced readers

This is another book that I probably wouldn't have picked up if it wasn't on my system's summer reading list for middle school. As such, I didn't read the first book, Inkheart, and started out extremely perplexed! If you haven't read the first one, do yourself a favor and read the summary and reviews here.

As Inkspell opens, Dustfinger has found someone who can read him back into his own story, but the world he returns to no longer follows the storyline Fenoglio created. Cosimo the Fair is dead, and the Laughing Prince mourns him constantly. One of Dustfinger's daughters has died, and things look grim for the kingdom, as the Adderhead attempts to put his grandson on the throne and take it for himself. Meggie reads herself and Farid into the story, desperate to protect Dustfinger from his death. Simultaneously, Orpheus - the reader who returned Dustfinger - comes looking for Mo to read him into the book and terrorizes Elinor's household. Mo and Resa end up in the Inkworld, while Elinor becomes a prisoner in her own house.

This book took me f-o-r-e-v-e-r to finish - weeks! I can normally get through a decent sized YA or J novel in a few days at the most, but this one was so complex and hard for me to get into that it took far too long. The characters were compelling, so I finished, but it was a struggle. I would only recommend this to advanced readers who enjoyed the first book.

But what do I know?

Claws by Dan Greenburg

I recommend this book for: middle school.

Cody is 14 but looks older, so he's able to run away from his abusive mother and work his way across the country. At the opening of this book, he's opted out of cleaning bathrooms and busing tables for working as a wrangler on a ranch in Texas. Only, this ranch doesn't raise horses and cattle - it raises tigers.

Sunny and Deke, the co-owners Cody meets at the ranch, are ex-circus folk who now run the ranch and rescue abused animals. There's also Sunny's brother, who has been missing for several weeks, and the rumors around the ranch say Sunny killed him and fed him to the animals. But Cody takes her side and starts an investigation that could prove her innocence - but it also puts him in grave danger.

I really enjoyed this story. The descriptions of Cody's work weren't entirely pleasant (he's responsible for feeding the big cats with parts of cows, then cleaning their cages later), but even my weak stomach was able to handle them. The characters were interesting, and it was facinating to look at life on a tiger ranch - Greenburg based the story on his own tiger ranching experiences, so it's a rather accurate picture. Especially touching were Cody's interactions with a young boy who's an outcast because of a stutter and a huge tiger who is classified as too mean to live because of his abusive past. I felt that the end of the book was resolved a bit too quickly, and it was somewhat too neat, but it was definitely open ended and possibly leaves room for a sequel. A great quick read!

Hey, they like it!