Saturday, May 31, 2014

The Case of the Stinky Socks (Milo & Jazz Mysteries #1) by Lewis B. Montgomery, Amy Wummer (Illustrator)

I'm fishing for transitional readers that don't put me in a slack-jawed Friday night daze. Not easy. This type of book is designed to have a simple vocabulary and plot, but frankly, choices are slim. I find many of the series boring and flat. Harpoon me an interesting character, a bit 'o humor, and some depth and I'm a happy gal. Milo & Jazz succeeds in these areas and I was pleasantly surprised by a good story.

Milo gets a spy kit at home and proceeds to try and figure it out in a klutzy way that is funny. He pokes fun at himself and then tries to spy on his family and a neighbor girl, named Jazz, that goes to his school. It's hard to be sneaky when you are clumsy. She outs him pretty fast and asks if he is playing spy or detective? Milo responds that he has a spy agency and she quickly comes up with an advertisement that includes herself in the agency slogan even though Milo never said she could join him. When Milo starts to protest, they hear Jazz's brother, Dylan, screaming and discover their first case that involves a pair of missing lucky socks. Jazz is a take charge person and comes up with a plan, but Milo doesn't want to hear any of it. This is his spy kit and his idea. Jazz is a bit too pushy and tells him she wants to be his partner and that he needs her brains. When she insults Milo by implying he is dumb, he is convinced that he really doesn't want an overbearing partner that tells him what to do.  He wisely runs away from her.

Dylan is on a winning streak as pitcher for the Westview Wildcats baseball team. When he tells a local TV crew the reason for the wins is his lucky socks, they get stolen from his locker. The funny illustrations of reporters and opposing team members plugging their noses as Dylan shows off his smelly socks had me laughing. But more humorous is the poke at the superstitious athletes (particularly pitchers in baseball) that resort to superstitions to prolong winning streaks. I remember being grossed out by the Twin's pitcher that didn't wash his shirt when he was pitching well. And don't think this only happens in the United States. I was at a baseball game in Taiwan where a man led the crowd in cheers having us shout and stand. When a batter got a hit he would tell us we brought the team luck by standing up and we needed to stay standing. All in good fun, but some superstitious folks believe it. At work if someone wins a door prize the women from Taiwan will touch her for good luck.  When you read aloud books over and over with kids I appreciate a story like this one that tosses in some adult humor.

When Milo tries to solve the mystery he makes mistakes and keeps adjusting to improve his skills; whereas, Jazz is smarter and more logical than Milo, but talks condescendingly to Milo making her unlikable. They struggle to become friends at first because they don't know how to work together and talk to each other. Milo makes quite a few missteps as he learns how to solve mysteries. This quality makes him very real and kids (and adults) will root for him as he perseveres with figuring out clues. When Milo pursues clues in the locker room and comes across the older boy, Chip, that's a tennis player putting mousse in his hair, readers will laugh at the play on words and self-centeredness of Chip.

Ethan, Milo's younger brother is annoying and funny. He pretends he's a dinosaur and is even more impulsive than Milo. When he bites the Wildcat mascot, Milo is the protective older brother and it is easy to see similarities in their crazy actions. When an older boy that is the school mascot chases after Ethan for biting him, he is not only mad at Milo's brother, but he's disappointed that his job of mascot has not let him meet cheerleaders. This addresses the mascots motivation for chasing Ethan rather than giving up after a bit. The mascot boy, Willie, is not only angry with Ethan, he's angry that his sole reason for being a mascot has not produced the results he wanted which was to meet girls. The mascot also leaves the first good clue to what might have happened to Dylan's socks.

Jazz comes back into the picture as she's been clue searching without Milo. She compliments him on his plan not realizing that he was hiding versus carrying out an actual plan. He doesn't tell her and thinks maybe she wouldn't be a bad partner. Whether she is conscious of her actions or not, she is more effective complimenting Milo than insulting him. It shows how to make friends and work as a team.  As the two ferret out clues, it becomes clear that Chip is a big jock at the school with an even bigger ego. Chip seems a bit cartoonish in his stereotype of a narcissistic tennis player at the diner, but it still is funny. And you've gotta love Jazz. When Milo insults her purple notebook she has a nice comeback. These two are an unlikely pair but their love of adventures and mysteries seems enough to help them become friends.  They have some rough patches but they keep learning how to work together and Milo is able to solve the mystery.

The mystery misleads the reader as to the culprit. There are enough clues to figure out the true villain, but it would take a detailed reader to figure it out. My adult brain thought that at one point I would have just bought a pair of identical socks and tossed them in the dumpster and told Dylan I'd found his socks. I know, what a spoil-sport. The lesson of believing in yourself and not substituting luck for mental toughness is worthwhile along with other themes that layer this short book: teamwork versus self-centeredness, friendship versus hurtful words, being annoyed with siblings versus protecting them, and so on. It is also  nice that Jazz is from a different ethnic background. Like I said, if I can find a transitional reader with some nice depth and character development, I am hooked. Thanks for the heads up on this series Verna!

5 Smileys

Friday, May 30, 2014

The Boy on the Wooden Box by Leon Leyson

Finding excellent introductory books on the Holocaust for young readers is not as easy as it sounds even with the plethora of choices. More often than not they are too brutal for 5th or 6th graders or they don't give enough background to understand the setting and attitudes of people. Other times they are too one-sided presenting the Germans as one-dimensional villains omitting those that resisted the Nazi racist ideology. This story is a balanced account of Jewish attitudes that came from their experiences in the first World War, German's being merciful and merciless, and the author's firsthand experiences of surviving the ghetto's and concentration camps, giving it an authenticity more powerful than some of the more emotionally manipulative Holocaust stories. A straightforward account, it tells the horrors the author went through, but it is not graphic in its descriptions making the violence more palatable for the younger reader. The epilogue is a testament to the author's perseverance and courage in overcoming his trauma and living a long fulfilling life. While the start is slow it provides necessary background information. The action picks up in the middle and ends with a bang.

When Leon Leyson dad's new factory job landed his family in Krakow, Poland, they didn't realize how it would save their lives as World War II broke out in Europe. His dad's job put his family in contact with Oskar Schindler, the German Nazi that was sympathetic to the Jews and saved 1200 of them from death by claiming their unique skills as necessary for him to run his factory. Leon was the youngest person on "Schindler's list" at the age of 15 and his actions throughout the war saved his life and his family's. Leon took great risks at critical moments appealing to Nazi men in authoritative positions that had the power to kill him or show mercy. He was lucky in many ways, but he was also extraordinarily brave. Amazingly, most of Leon's family survived the ghetto and concentration camps. While the Nazi's tried to dehumanize the Jews, Leon oftentimes found someone, whether civilian or soldier, that represented the good in humanity and his story is tempered with good deeds in the midst of angst.

While reading this book I was reminded of the similarities between Leon's experience and slavery in the United States. The Nazi's stripped the Jews of their dignity just like slave owners stripped blacks of their dignity. As the laws eliminated Jewish civil rights over time, Leon marveled at his classmates prejudice. Not all of their family friends had forsaken them. Leon's dad would sell his suits through a friend on the black market that helped put scraps of food on their table. Leon's tale is sprinkled with glimmers of hope and humanity along with the inhumane acts inflicted on the Jews. His description of the rampant starvation and fear as the Nazi's took control of Krakow brings to life daily living. His family didn't think of the future but worked to survive day-to-day as Leon scrounged for potato peels in garbage cans or anything edible. Hunger consumed his thoughts and actions. He also shows how there was no guarantee of a person's safety even with a work permit from Schindler. Yet, in spite of the struggles, he also describes new friendships and new love in the ghettos. How his mother fought having her dignity being stripped by chucking furniture out the second story window so the Nazi's would not be able to reuse it. Leon and his family's resilience against fear and hate shows that attempts to dehumanize the Jews and make them feel worthless did not always work. Leon, his mom, and others risked their lives to retain their dignity as their oppressors tried to take it away.

While the general public persecuted the Jews some were silent witnesses, such as Dr. Neu. In a powerful ending, Leon describes how he was tutored by a German man after the war three times a week for two years in school subjects in order to catch up on his education. He distinguishes true Nazi's from "Germans who retained some humanity." Dr. Nue was the latter and Leon appreciated that he didn't "whitewash" the past. He asked Leon questions about his experiences and listened. Leon describes true Nazi's as ones that say, "We didn't know" taking no responsibility and pointing the finger elsewhere. Dr. Neu's wife said that once and Dr. Neu scolded her. The civilians knew of the atrocities, but were afraid or unable to do anything about it. When Leon comes to America and sees blacks being persecuted by Jim Crow laws or segregation he cannot believe that he is seeing inequality and prejudice again. Unfortunately, the theme of persecution, war, and prejudice exist today just as much as in the past. Leon Leyson's timeless message is the hope for a better world that is ruled by humanity not hate.

5 Smileys

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

The Small Adventure of Popeye and Elvis by Barbara O'Connor

Barbara O'Connor has quite a gift with words. The cadence of the sentences using repetition, sounds, and great voice, hooked me into the story from page one. Interestingly, not much happens in this story and for an impatient reader like myself it says a lot when I can't put a realistic fiction book down because I'm so engrossed in the setting and character voices.  Popeye makes a temporary friend with Elvis who lives in a mobile trailer with a family of eight that has become stuck in the mud by his house. Popeye lives with his overprotective Grandma Velma, and uncle that is in and out of jail. He is bored and wants an adventure. When he and Elvis find floating boats in the nearby creek with messages, they track down the writer of them.

At first I thought this would be a good read aloud because of the beautiful writing, but the content has name calling and adults swatting kids. It is a part of the book's humor, but I just had a 4th grader name-calling and hurting other students feelings in my library. As an educator, I don't want to reinforce bad behavior, but the reality of life is that people name-call and you have to deal with it. In this story the name-calling is a part of the humor such as when Elvis calls his brother "A toe-jam tattletale." When they form the Spit and Swear Club it reminded of the time my brothers taught me some swear words. The author captures Popeye's thrill at doing something he knows he shouldn't be doing quite well. "Then the boy let loose with a string of the most amazing and wonderful swearwords that ...made [Uncle] Dooley look like a harp-strumming angel." I like that the book is not didactic but it will require some discussion as a classroom read aloud.

The families are poor and live in South Carolina, although Popeye is not illiterate. Their accents have them complaining about the "dern rain" or exclaiming "What in the name of sweet Bernice in heaven is that?" or kids calling each other "hog-stinkin' sack of nothin'" Popeye gets a vocabulary word each week from Velma that is challenging. He applies it to his situations as he tries to determine right from wrong. After reading hundreds of books that use this technique of defining words to young readers, I find it has become cliched for me and annoying. It is well done so it might not bother you, but personally I am tired of the technique.

Popeye's character is one that just follows Elvis who has an attitude and prides himself in not caring what adults think of him. While Elvis bucks authority figures, Popeye finds this an entirely new experience as he disobeys Velma in his quest to find the floating boat-maker. Velma responds to Popeye's disobedience by just swatting him, versus talking about what he is doing. I kept waiting for some revelation at the end where Velma finally sits down and asks Popeye what was going on, but she never does. While her high vocabulary suggests she's smart, her actions show otherwise. Her disinterest, while realistic, left me wondering what the character arc of Popeye was throughout the novel. I think it is that he is no longer bored because he makes a friend with Scarletta.

A funny character trait that Velma has it that she recites the kings and queens of England so she won't "crack up." This play on words throughout the story adds terrific irony because Velma means that she doesn't want to get dementia and lose her mind but her life situation is "cracked up" from her daughter and husband that abandoned their son Popeye for her to raise. Toss in Velma's irresponsible son, Dooley, that accidentally shot Popeye in the eye with a BB gun when he was three and that is in-and-out of trouble with the law, and the reader realizes most would be crazy dealing with all the troubles she has on her doorstep. A book that will make you "Yoo-hoo."

4 Smileys

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Busybody Nora by Johanna Hurwitz

Interesting transitional books can be tough to find. These short books oftentimes lack character development and interesting plots because they are structured for children that are still decoding words. They tend to have characteristics such as short word meanings, simple vocabulary, and declarative sentences. It takes a special writer that can engage adults as well as children readers at under a hundred pages. Of course, young readers are not as picky or get as bored as adults with children's' books. Many a times I might dislike a book that a child loves - such is just the nature of children's literature. Adults read 'em and write 'em, but the kiddos have to love 'em. And lets face it, what an adult likes is going to be different than a child. This book is going to appeal to both the adult and child. It would make a good read aloud that captures the home-life of  the good-natured six-year-old Nora living in a New York apartment with her younger three-year-old brother, Teddy. Adults will smile at Nora's naivety, while kids will love the bed-bouncing threesome of Nora, Teddy, and their two-year-old neighbor, Russell. A timeless book that is good for grades 2-3.

Nora decides that she wants to learn everyone's name in their apartment building. When she asks a crabby neighbor the woman responds sarcastically, "Mrs. Mind-Your-Own-Business." Nora is confused by the weird name. While the adult meant it as a putdown thinking Nora being too nosy, Nora fortunately does not get it and continues to ask everyone their name. She is the outgoing kid that wants to be like the doorman and know everyone's name in the building. She has no clue that some people like the crabby neighbor think it is impolite to ask and obviously does not like children.

Nora spends the next chapters in various domestic settings with her family from cooking to babysitting before she brainstorms a building party for a neighbor that she loves. Nora's heart is big and she's not afraid to show how much she likes her neighbors whether it is memorizing their names or having a party. My favorite chapters were when Teddy, Nora, and their mother make Stone Soup based on the book. I used to act out so many books and it was wonderful to see the mom jump into the foray and encourage her children's ideas. Dad gets in on the action too with a chapter where Nora and Teddy are making him a birthday present. Teddy is struggling to come up with an idea and his mom suggests building something for his dad from his blocks. Teddy doesn't like this idea because it is not a permanent gift but the mom explains that "Birthdays are happy memories." When the dad comes home and accidentally knocks over Teddy's creation before he can show him, Teddy goes into hysterics. The dad knowingly sits down with Teddy to rebuild it with him and the end result is a happy Teddy spending time with dad and a building grander than the original. The author puts in many authentic moments like this that makes the reader relate with the family.

Another fun chapter is when grandpa is visiting for dinner and becomes the storyteller telling a classic fairy tale but inserting himself into the story. Teddy is particularly enthralled with the story and Nora is engaged too. Both believe their grandpa and it is a wonderful example of adults encouraging children to use their imaginations and believe in the magical. If you are looking for books for the child that is on the cusp of reading chapter books, then I recommend this one with a pinch of pixie dust.

4 Smileys
Fountas & Pinnell N

Fury of the Seventh Son (The Last Apprentice / Wardstone Chronicles #13) by Joseph Delaney

Delaney departs a bit from his usual pattern in this series finale. There is still plenty of action and violence, but there are no new monsters and more revisiting adventures Tom and John had in previous books. It doesn't read like a finale. I had more questions at the end then answers. It looks like a spinoff series will result. Some foreshadowing suggests that a female spook is in the making and that Alice and Tom will have to face their issues at a later date.

While the reminiscing by Tom is interspersed enough that it doesn't slow the plot, those that have read the entire series might like the walk down memory lane, while others might not. It doesn't forward the plot although I could maybe argue that it shows Tom is now ready to take over the spook business. His character arc is mainly learning to stand on his own and trust his own instincts. Alice takes a back seat and is out-of-character for much of the beginning. She has always represented the mixture of good and evil and in most of this novel she is evil, which is different from her presentation in the previous books. I was happy to see at the end the return of her more familiar ambiguous character that looks differently at right or wrong than the average person. The romance was awkward and didn't quite work for me.

The forces of evil are putting the Fiend together except this time Alice is helping a powerful mage. This part of the plot needed to be fleshed out more because Alice's motivations and casting aside of friendships to the point of sacrificing Grimalkin and others just didn't make sense to me. I would have expected her to be torn more but she just stepped into the cauldron of evil and suppressed her good side. It doesn't make much sense until the end. In the grand battle at the end I expected Alice and the mage to be present but they aren't. Grimalkin gets more page time in this book then Alice and I find her character one dimensional and less interesting than Alice. I really wanted Tom and Alice to meet up and argue more about what she was doing. Tom wonders if she's in a thrall or power of the mage, but its pretty obvious that she isn't. So why would she turn head-over-heals bonkers over a thousand year old man at first sight? Her loyalty to Tom is a consistent trait throughout all the books and this is why I say she is out-of-character in the beginning with her harsh words to Tom.

John's death should have moved me, but it didn't. It seemed a good time to retire his character. He'd changed enough to accept Tom's incorporation of magic into a spook's life and it seemed fitting so that Tom could be on his own. John shows a softer side to Tom that foreshadows his demise. I wasn't keen on the prophecy because it gave away some major plot points. This technique adds tension but I find that I prefer different ways to pull the reader along. The problem with a series this long the characters have not changed much and the plot starts to feel recycled. But really, this is more candy reading for me. I just want something fast and entertaining and that is what I got. I'm not expecting anything too deep.  I do always look forward to Delaney's creepy monsters and the Boggart's new alliance with Tom was a great touch. At least we are done with the Fiend. Hooray.

3 Smileys

Monday, May 26, 2014

The Neverending Story by Michael Ende

Crazy. May. Sleep deprived. Brain fried. Just call me Grandma Goose. This line keeps skipping through my head, "Home again, home again, jiggety-jig." Yes, I'm going home to the USA in two weeks. School's almost out for the summer. And yes, I'm jiggety-jigging because I get to see my grandson. Move over Mother Goose. Grandma Goose is on the loose and losing her marbles fast. The character in this story, Bastian, is trying to get home too. He is losing it too, but in a worse way than me. He is stuck in Fantastica on a quest that is causing his human memories to disappear. And while Bastian doesn't say any Mother Goose nursery rhymes like me, he does like repeating the line, "But that's another story and shall be told another time." Or maybe that's the narrator. Whatever. This line points to the plot's mixed bag of creation stories, myths, fantasy, religion, and fairy tales. I found myself thinking of Lord of the Rings, The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe, King Arthur, creation stories, Norse myths and more. It also points to all the loose ends in the book that make the story "neverending." This allegory is rich with layered meanings regarding the function of fantasy and its interconnection with the real world. It is a story that demonstrates how fantasy can be healthy or hazardous depending on its use by the reader and writer.

Bastian is an unhappy boy that is bullied by peers for being fat and is alienated from his dad who is grieving the death of Bastian's mom. Bastian has stolen a book from a bookseller and is hiding out in the school's attic reading about the fantasy world of Fantasica that is being destroyed by the Nothing as the Childlike Empress lies ill in her Ivory Tower. Atreyu, a boy about Bastian's age, is called upon by the empress to cure her illness and save their world by finding a human that will cross the borders from the real world to the fantasy world and give the empress a name. Only humans can enter Fantastica and if the empress does not have a name then the Nothing will take over and the fantasy world will cease to exist. This requires Bastian and the reader to believe in the imaginary world of Fantastica that lets loose creativity and dreams in individuals. The Nothing is the denial of imagination and unbelief. The Nothing is human lies meant to manipulate people through propaganda. What begins as a parable regarding the power of imagination changes in the second part showing the nature of power and creativity.

In the first part of the story Fantastica is an escape for the miserable Bastian. He is an observer of the hero Atreyu's quest to cure the empress's sickness and he is rooting for Atreyu in his adventures. Atreyu discovers that humans have forgotten how to get to Fantastica which is causing its destruction. The sickness in Fantastica is also affecting the human world for it causes creatures from Fantastica to jump into the Nothing where they enter the human world causing despair and lies in the consciousness of humans. "When you've been through the Nothing, you won't be real anymore," explains the Werewolf to Atreyu. Creatures that enter the Nothing become lies in the real world, he says. Atreyu realizes that humans don't know that their world and Fantastica depend on each other for their health. Reality and fantasy are intertwined where one can't exist without the other.

When Atreyu returns to the empress to say that his quest has failed, the empress disagrees looking at Bastian from the text knowing that he has given her the name, Moon Child. Unbeknownst to Atreyu his quest was to hook Bastian into his adventures and be vested in the story, not find a cure for the empress. She always knew what the cure was for her ailment. She needed a human to believe in Fantastica and she got just that in Bastian.

The second part of the story has Bastian or the reader becoming the hero in the story while determining the plot's direction at the same time. Bastian is reluctant to say the empress's name out loud because he is afraid she will criticize him for being weak and fat. Bastian must learn to love himself if he is going to help both worlds. His reluctance to say the empress's name leads her to find the Old Man of the Wandering Mountains that is writing Bastian's story in a book called, "The Neverending Story." Here the Old Man rereads the Neverending Story again but adds himself as the narrator telling the story. The Old Man is doomed to repeating the story unless Bastian decides to be a hero and stop him. If he doesn't then Fantastica will no longer exist but be stuck in a circular unfinished story that leaves readers cross-eyed and bored. Fortunately, Bastian finds the courage to speak. Jiggety-jig.

When Bastian finally says the Childlike Empress's name, she gives him the same talisman that Atreyu had previously. Bastian learns that the talisman will grant him all of his wishes. He discovers that in Fantastica he can be whatever he wants by making up a story. One of the first things he does is fill up a library with books he has written; thus, fulfilling the bookseller's prediction that Bastian will become a writer. This moral that the constant renewal of fantasy through budding writers is essential to the health of both worlds and the Old Man's retelling the stories over and over all point to the allegorical nature of this story. It shows a partnership between reading and applying lessons learned to real life.

When Bastian is rewarded with the talisman, he uses the gift to save Fantastica from various enemies, but eventually gets tempted by the power it gives him and decides to become the Childlike Emperor. Even his good intentions at the beginning go bad. He tries to turn the Acharis that are ugly and sad into the Schlamoofs that are happy. He ends up stripping the Acharis of their dignity and ability to craft silver and turns them into clowns. The author is clear that there are no good dictators and as the story progresses, Bastian becomes even more stained by power listening to flattery of others with selfish motives and becoming self-centered and suspicious of those who care for him like Atreyu and the luckdragon, Falkor.

When Atreyu raises a rebel army and Bastian stabs him, Bastian realizes how corrupt he has become since landing in Fantastica. He is also losing his human memories from wishing too much. Bastian then attempts to find his way back to Earth and discovers other humans that have lost their way in the City of Old Emperors. None of them have human memories and flit about with no focus in life. The city's inhabitants demonstrate that fantasy as a pure escape is hazardous and unhealthy as opposed to fantasy that benefits humans in the real world. Bastian was given the talisman with the instructions of finding his truest wish, but he is just escaping from what he doesn't like about himself. He wishes to be all the things he isn't, handsome, courageous, benevolent, but his wishes show that he really does not love himself.

Even though almost all his memories are gone, Bastian decides how to best use his wishes. He must rely on the help of his friend, Atreyu and the luckdragon, surrendering all the power the empress gave him at the start of the story. By accepting himself for who he is, Bastian is free to be creative, believing he can become a writer. By loving himself, he can love others and is free from his misery. When he makes it back to his world, even though many years have passed in Fantastica, he has been gone only one night. His father is no longer neglectful and has snapped out of his grief noticing his son and trying to right the wrong of his past neglect. Bastian takes responsibility for stealing the book from the bookseller and goes back to tell him that he lost it. Just as he took responsibility for abusing the power of the talisman, he takes responsibility for his actions in the real world. He has changed from his quest in Fantastica and has found joy in learning to love himself. And even though the bullies are not talked about at the end, it is implied that Bastian has learned to be mentally strong and is better equipped to ignore his tormentors.

This is a brilliant work in many ways, but I found the second part as Bastian abuses his power slow in spots and his character not as interesting as Atreyu's in the first part. The allegory of fantasy as being a means of understanding reality is complex and challenging, but the author presents it quite well showing that crossing boundaries between reality and fantasy can help readers transform into better human beings if they glean some truth from the text. Actually, I am not particularly satisfied with my review but I have to stop and get back to running this madhouse library and getting ready to leave Taiwan. May. Oh May. For a more in-depth analysis there is an excellent review at I must say The City of Old Emperors is very tempting to escape to at the moment. Can't you see Grandma Goose wandering its streets? I'd fit right in. Jiggety-jig.

5 Smileys

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Cartwheel: a sequel to Double Eagle by Sneed B. Collard III

I tried collecting Bicentennial coins as a sixth-grader for a few months, but was hungry for a Peanut Buster Parfait at Dairy Queen. Goodbye coin collection. That was my only venture into the world of collecting. Unless you count when I helped my friend collect spleens from animals dissected in biology classes. (She is now a doctor.) This mystery involves sixteen-year-old Mike helping his friend, Kyle, rescue his younger sister, Annie, by going on a treasure hunt for a rare coin. If you like coin collecting and machines such as car engines, old cars, or coin presses, then you will enjoy this novel. In fact, I found myself wishing for a brother like Kyle who teaches Annie how to drive a car and know what's under the hood by the time she is thirteen. If I had a Kyle in my life, I wouldn't have tried to put the oil in the tank by going through the dipstick in subzero temperatures. This book is set in 1975 and brought back memories for me of growing up in a time of no cell phones, computers, or hyped up airport security. Collard does a nice job capturing the details and setting of what it was like then while creating a protagonist that must learn to stand up for himself and make decisions. 

Mike is adjusting to his parents divorce and remarriage. He's currently in Florida spending 8 weeks with his dad, stepmom, and new baby brother. During the school year, he lives with his mom and stepdad in California. The changes are stressful enough that when Kyle shows up and invites him on a road trip to rescue his sister from an abusive aunt and uncle in Alabama, Mike jumps at the chance. Along the way they do some drag-racing and lose their money. Mike comes up with a scheme to uncover a priceless silver dollar from 1964 that results in the three collecting silver dollars. They uncover the mystery of the 1964 silver dollar and find some creative ways to make money. When the police become involved, Mike has to decide how far he is willing to help Annie and Kyle.

Mike's overall character arc involves him trying to deal with his anger over his parent's remarrying and turning his life upside down. He runs off with Kyle because he wants to runaway from dealing with a new baby brother. He empathizes with Annie for hating her aunt and uncle as her new parents and her new life with them. Helping Annie puts his life in perspective so he can move on and deal with accepting the changes. At the end when he stands up to an adult that happens to be a bully, he shows that he has grown up and matured on this trip to the point that the reader knows he will be okay.

The romantic subplot shows Annie trusting Mike enough to tell him the truth, but she tends to come off as someone that is manipulative and selfish. Of course she's thirteen and that is pretty typical of that age. Mike has to decide what to tell Kyle. Luckily he trusts his instincts and does the right thing, but he struggles with his decision. The tension drops off a bit in the middle and some convenient coincidences happen in the plot, but there are enough twists to make it interesting. I thought the start and ending were strong and I didn't see the uncle plot twist. 

Besides the theme of divorce and growing up, the author captures the joy of hunting for something or doing something crazy with a friend. Kyle and Mike love collecting coins and the fun is in the hunt. They like to be together whether it's talking or speeding in cars. When I think of all the hair-brained adventures I had with my best friend acting out books, it was because of the challenge it took to recreate plot and then adapt them to our own life. While this book is written for young adults, it is good for middle schoolers. Kyle smokes and there is some romance between Annie and Mike, but it involves only two kisses and Mike wondering about his inexperienced feelings toward her. It's pretty innocent. Add this to your book collection. 

3 Smileys

Friday, May 16, 2014

Hangman's Gold (Slate Stephens Mysteries #2) by Sneed B. Collard III

Book two of the Slate Stephens Mysteries has nice pacing with the plot being a bit more complex than book one, but I can't help feel that the series misses the majority of its target audience. The book is written for grade 4 or middle grade, but the boyfriend, girlfriend subplot is for older readers. If the plot focused on common conventions like friendship and dropped the boy, girl interest I wouldn't have a problem with it. Developmentally, most 4th graders are not thinking of the opposite sex in this way. As is, I think this book will appeal to readers that are not quite at grade level or still working toward fluency in middle school. 

Seventh grade Slate and Daphne are helping their geologist dads prospect for a gold mining company in the ghost town of Bannack, Montana. When two priceless artworks are stolen from the museum in the nearby town of Bannack, the sleuths begin to investigate. Their explorations lead them into the Bannack schoolhouse where they discover a clue to a treasure hunt for rumored lost gold a group of vigilantes stole from unsuspecting victims during the 1800s. 

Slate's voice develops more in this book and I like his emerging humor. He jokes and has a gentleness  that comes through as he interacts with his funny three-year-old sister that gives his character more depth. She annoys him at times which makes his feelings authentic for siblings, but their age difference is about 9 years so he is going to treat her with more maturity than siblings closer in age. In the first book Slate is a klutz, but here he is growing up and echoes his father's sense of fun. This comes out best with the walkie-talkie scenes where he is witty and playful with adults, his sister, and Daphne. He and Daphne are dating and he contemplates throughout the story how he is going to kiss her. 

The author has nice pacing and I found the geology fascinating which is amazing considering I dropped out of geology class because I thought it was so boring in college. I can't think of any other kid books that cover geology in fiction. Readers will like the ghost town and treasure hunt. This plot is full of facts about the vigilantes, art, mining, and ghost towns. The author's strengths are weaving interesting facts into a fast-paced plot. The part where Slate and Daphne are threatened is appropriate for younger readers. The author uses humor to downplay the danger and the villains are bumbling fools. It will be nice having conversations with students about the book. I'll be curious their reactions to the romantic subplot. I thought the protagonists age and romance was at odds with the rest of the story; however, students can react quite differently than me. They might not think anything of it.

The treasure hunt resolution is a bit of a letdown, but the clues were interesting to follow. Again, the plot is straightforward and the start is a good hook. Collard seems to have a blast recreating the vigilantes in Slate's dream and a seed for another story is masked in that dream. Perhaps the author will take a hike down the historical fiction genre lane, creating a book ripe with the hanging of Plummer and drowning of Dorothy. Or maybe a budding writer out there can pursue it. There are not many Wild West books and with only a handful of recommendations like Caroline Lawrence, Amy Timberlake, and Gary Paulsen, I would love to see more. A fun mystery.

3 Smileys

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

The Governor's Dog is Missing (Slate Stephens Mysteries #1) by Sneed B. Collard III

Sneed Collard III is coming to our school in the fall so I am starting to read his fiction books. A prolific writer, he started his career in 1994 and now has published 40 nonfiction and 7 fiction books. This mystery involves the governor losing his famous dog while on his normal daily walk. Sixth grader Slate, along with his best friend, Daphne, decide to find the dog. Slate has known Daphne since first grade and what was once a platonic relationship has resulted in him having feelings for her. It is driving him crazy and makes for some funny and awkward situations. The two sleuths go to the Capitol to follow their suspicions of an opposing politician they feel might have kidnapped the dog to manipulate the media and influence the upcoming election. The results are unexpected and humorous. Interesting facts are interspersed regarding the government and its infrequent sessions explaining why the two detectives had free reign at the Capitol and why security was loosey-goosey. The descriptions of Montana and Glacier National Park brought back fond memories for me. As the two kids follow the clues, they adjust to their changing relationship and learn a bit about dogs used against aggressive wildlife.

Collard reminds me a bit of Deborah Hopkinson where they are short on character development but shine with interesting facts. It reads a bit like a nonfiction book and I wasn't vested in the character as much as expected. I enjoyed the book, but the protagonist has basically one emotional or internal struggle which simplifies the story. Slate is entertaining but his character arc is basically his crush on Daphne.The subplots could have been fleshed out a bit more. The two take initiative by seeking out state politicians and providing a civic duty, but I wasn't sure of their motivations to find the dog except he was famous and a dog. If Slate was portrayed as a dog crazy kid or if the author had played up the angle of Slate losing his dog and not wanting the governor to feel the same, then maybe I'd go for it. Slate does some funny and klutzy things that make him endearing. This is a good book for readers in middle school and grade five that are still reading for fluency. Literary strategies such as defining high vocabulary words as a tool to help with reading are used in this book, but the boy-girl interest makes it for older students. This is a good book for struggling readers in older grades.

The setting is well-defined and I had a clear sense of Montana. The mystery was too hard for me to figure out, but that made me vested in it. The clues are spaced well and kept the pace moving along. I wanted more description of Glacier National Park and loved the information on the dogs. I worked in Yellowstone National Park and came across wild elk, buffalo, and bears. Even after 22 years the terror of coming across a wild animal unsuspectingly came back to me after reading about Slate and Daphne's bear encounter. When I worked at Yellowstone there was some hysteria because 5 bear attacks occurred in the park. Glacier was having similar problems and park biologists had a theory that it was because of the previous harsh winter and the not enough food in the back country causing them to come to lower altitudes than normal. As we know, many animal conflicts are a result of human encroachment on habitat. Collard's subplot of Glacier Park touches a bit on bear management that adds an interesting twist to the main mystery. If you like nonfiction and mysteries then give this a go.

3 Smileys

Monday, May 12, 2014

Picture This: How Pictures Work by Molly Bang

I wished I had read this book back in journalism school. It explains basic composition in pictures that is easy to understand. I've heard much of it before but I like how Molly Bang puts it all together tying colors, shapes, space, and placement with emotions and word associations in a simplistic way. She uses the story, "Little Red Riding Hood," changing colors, shapes and placement to create the emotion of fear. The examples show the effects of size and color, as well as, what people associate the color with when looking at an image. I grabbed a picture book and tried to use the principles when looking at the pictures. Many of them applied to the pictures and if you want to review picture books this book would be helpful in breaking down components of good design and use of color.

The first part of the book describes building a picture through shapes and space to create a mood. Bang uses the scary part of the wolf in "Little Red Riding Hood" to create her pictures. The second part focuses on basic principles of emotional responses to placements of shapes on the page. A smooth surface with horizontal shapes gives stability; whereas, vertical shapes imply energy and diagonal is dynamic. The upper half of the picture implies lightness and floating; whereas, the bottom can crush. The center of the page has the greatest attention and when an object is moved to the side it adds tension and movement. White background implies safe while black is more ominous. Pointed shapes are scary and rounded are comforting. Large objects dominate pictures while small ones look vulnerable. Colors have a stronger influence on the viewer than the shape itself. Contrasts pull out patterns in pictures. These are the basics simplified even more than the author, but it gives you the idea. This is good for beginners or those that want a refresher on picture composition.

5 Smileys

Sasquatch in the Paint (Streetball Crew, #1) by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Raymond Obstfeld

Basketball does not dominate this plot but supports the themes of growing up, learning to manage time, and making friends. Good character development and a fast pace kept me engrossed in this story. Theo Rollins has grown six inches over the summer and is on the 8th grade basketball team. When Coach Mandrake decides to create an offense around Theo's height he feels pressure to improve his game. He's not an experienced, good player. In fact, the coach implies he might get kicked off the team if he doesn't improve. Theo decides to engage in some pickup games but the extra work hurts his other after school activity which is his science club's trivia competition. Unable to keep up with the two he must decide how he'll spend his time. When his cousin is the victim of a theft and Theo is accused of the crime, he finds that he's running out of time for everything.

The theme of managing time and learning to be responsible is one every coach watches young adults go through. Some can manage heavy loads and others can't. When Coach Mandrake threatens to kick Theo off the team if he doesn't perform, I didn't really think buy it. Coach knows Theo is inexperienced and it seemed that it was only the team's second game - I never did get a clear indication of how far into the season they were. Mandrake also spends time pointing out Theo's mistakes when he should have been pointing out the strengths he could build on. By the time he does it is on page 178, but then he implies that if the team loses on Friday, Theo would be off the team. I know the author was trying to up the tension for Theo, but it was contradictory. I don't coach basketball but what I've observed is that most basketball coaches will go out of their way to develop a kid that has height and potential.

A nice tie-in with teamwork was Theo's observation that his science club team didn't work as well together as his basketball team. They were too individualistic. The end shows how the basketball team worked together to try and overcome a taller, stronger team and how Theo realized that he could use his intelligence and creativity to try and break the opponents down. Sometimes it worked and sometimes it didn't. That was another reason the Coach threat didn't jive with me. Players take more risks when they know they are supported by the coach and they can be creative. Of course, I am a female and I only know girl sports which is quite different than boy sports. And I've never coached boys. I'm no expert so take my musings as is... just musings.

The characters are engaging from Theo's internal struggles with growing up and not wanting his dad to treat him as a kid to him grieving the death of his mom and his family trying to move on. Brian is Theo's sidekick and adds great humor. The girl, Rain, is strong-willed and not afraid to speak her mind or follow the crowd. She's unpredictable and interesting as a character. Gavin looks like a self-centered jerk, but he has an introspective side that actually helps Theo deal with his basketball woes. What begins as a one-dimensional, racist twit turns into someone that is insecure and bluffs his way with others to cover it up.

The plot maybe tries too hard to hit different ethnic backgrounds having minority characters dealing with racism. There was comments regarding the Asian boy, Jewish boy, Muslim family, and being a female. While I really liked the rapport between Brian and Theo and their discussions, I thought the Muslim boys were somewhat stereotypical with using violence against their cousin. I really liked the BIB  "Because I'm Black" jar that represented not making excuses for your skin color. When Theo talks to his dad about the game and blames the kids in the stands for his poor performance because they were calling him names such as monkey, his dad made him put a dollar in the BIB jar. Theo's mom started the jar as a way of not using racism as an excuse. She once blamed a high charge from a repairman on being female. Theo and his dad told her to put a dollar in the jar. The jar wasn't just for Theo but the adults as well. It is a good reminder to not be angry and point fingers at others but take responsibility for actions. Name-calling in sports is meant to rattle a person and Theo had to find a way to deal with his anger. Today, racism in European soccer exists with fans tossing banana peels at black players on opposing teams. One soccer player picked up the banana and ate it, using humor to try and make the tosser look foolish and show he didn't care. Racism is ugly. People have to find a way to deal with it in a healthy manner.

There are some funny lines in this book. When Theo has a confrontation with a kid in the cafeteria he observed that "Everyone returned to what they were doing as if nothing had happened. Theo thought everything in middle school was like that. Students went through the day like pets on a leash. When something shiny or loud caught their attention, they all looked and barked for a few seconds, then continued walking until they passed the next shiny or loud thing." I have some noisy middle schoolers stampeding by my library right now. This book is a "skyhook" winner shot.

4 Smileys

The Living by Matt de la Pena

This book has plenty of action, some romance, and is a mixed bag of genres that made it somewhat choppy. Toss in characters with not much depth and I just about abandoned it several times. Shy is working on a cruise for the summer making friends with other crew members his age. He is interested in Carmen but she is engaged to a guy back home. They both have relatives that died from a wicked disease that kills within 24 hours. When a man commits suicide, Shy finds himself being stalked by a guy in a black suit. When an earthquake strikes the West Coast causing tsunami's, the cruise ship is in danger and Shy must try to help save his friends and passengers. When he discovers the black suit guy's employers real intentions, he must help save the world.

The dialogue has the kids swearing all the time and tossing racist comments between the mixed race crew and rich white kids on the cruise. While it is nice to see a protagonist with mixed heritage, the stereotyped rich kid, poor kid never let the story rise above a contrived plot. There is too much name-calling and Shy seems to point fingers just as much as the white kids making for a shallow message.  When Shy begins to make friends with one of the prejudiced girls as a result of their traumatic escape from the ship, I kept waiting for some revelation regarding her racist comments but instead they seem to be interested in becoming boyfriend and girlfriend. She says she is sorry, but that's it.

If you want to compare survival in a raft, then read, "Unbroken," by Laura Hillenbrand that has a similar setup except Hillenbrand's story is based on a true story. Both author's seem to do a good job with the horrors, although Hillenbrand goes into more detail which you'd expect in an adult story. The plot dealing with Romero's disease was interesting but the shifts from romance to survival to mystery made it feel like separate stories. They come together at the end, but there are times when it seemed like a different story. It gets a bit unbelievable at the end but suspend your disbelief and just go with the flow. This is on the beach, fluff reading with a cliff hanger ending.

2 Smileys

Friday, May 9, 2014

Forge (Seeds of America #2) by Laurie Halse Anderson

Left hanging as to what happened to Isabel and Curzon in "Chains," book one of Seeds of America, the action continues to steamroll with Curzon finding himself in the middle of the British fighting the Patriots during the Revolutionary War. Isabel has run off tired of waiting for the two to go find Ruth after fleeing to freedom and Curzon is trying to find her. He gets lost and ends up saving the life of Eben a brawny boy his age with a big voice and big heart. A series of mishaps leads Curzon to enlisting and making friends with a troop of soldiers. Not everyone welcomes a black soldier, but throughout the course of trying to survive Valley Forge, they form a bond that goes beyond prejudices.

The author is fantastic with historical details making this better than your average historical novel. The character development of Curzon is terrific with Eben, but falls off some with Isabel. Her reaction to him was cooler than I expected and some of her actions didn't make sense. I kept waiting for more explanations regarding their fight but it never comes and as a result the romance seemed rushed. Eben and his fight with Curzon, for instance, was more interesting because it showed him having to face his prejudices and think about not going along with common opinion that was another human being owning a person based solely on the color of his or her skin.

When Curzon arrives at Valley Forge in the winter of 1777, the author captures the ill-prepared army and dire conditions the soldiers had to survive in during subzero temperatures. Lacking shoes, shelter and food, thousands of men died that winter. Curzon's descriptions of eating "firecakes" is unforgettable. Animals suffered as well. One chapter describes the supply wagon arriving and the horse dying shortly thereafter. And just like in "Chains," Halse Anderson captures the dilemma facing black soldiers such as Curzon who are lied to by masters or told they are free and then find they are not because the white man selfishly wants to enslave them for his own needs. Injustices abound and even moreso for Isabel that is forced to wear an iron collar.

The plot has some conveniences that seem contrived, but for the most part there is plenty of action and adventure. When Eben and Curzon fight, Curzon asks him if only white man can be free. Eben says of course not thinking of the free black men he grew up with at home. When Curzon asks if slaves can be free and Eben says of course not because they are owned by a master, Curzon says this is an unnatural law and compares it to the Patriots fighting against the British government and their unfair laws. Eben gets mad at him for the comparison and the two don't speak, but Curzon has planted the seed of equality in Eben who is a fair and just person. It is not surprising at the end when he has empathy for Curzon and changes his mind. Again this story ends on an exciting cliffhanger. Another winner by Hale Anderson.

4 Smileys

Thursday, May 8, 2014

A Snicker of Magic by Natalie Lloyd

Anyone who works with kids knows the power of words. Words can hurt or heal. Words can build up or break down. Words can inspire courage or fear. Words can dance on paper like wind chimes or remain silent. Felicity has a snicker of magic that allows her to see words on people and objects. The words might reveal a history, express feelings, or predict the future. Words materialize out of nowhere and bring her comfort or knowledge in situations. She jots her words in a blue book she carries everywhere, but words fail her when she has to speak in front of groups. The only good thing about moving all the time is she can leave behind her most recent public-speaking disasters. The bad thing is she has to introduce herself in every new school and new class. Her newest school results in her mispronouncing her name in front of the sixth grade class saying, "My name is Flea..." Hers is an unsettling lifestyle involving her mom's extreme wanderlust that uproots her and her younger sister every few months. Unhappy since her husband left her, Felicity's mom has been on the run, flitting like a sparrow from one city to the next. When the three settle with their Aunt Cleo, the two girls make friends and don't want to leave. Felicity can tell her mom wants to leave after 24 hours. When Felicity uncovers a curse in her family that she believes makes her mom wander, she's determined to break it. With the help of her best friend Jonah, she finds out what really matters in life and learns to believe in herself.

The plot is pretty straightforward. Felicity is able to get her mom to stay in town when she signs up for the school talent show called, "The Duel," named after two magical brothers in town that had the gift of music until they became jealous of each other. The loser of the duel was cursed to wander and leave town. The other brother's magic no longer worked with his brother gone. Now that the family was broken, he too, eventually left town. As a result, the town's magic disappeared except for a snicker of it and other family's left too leaving a sad, broken, and unhappy town. The story is a symbol of the adult characters and Felicity, the protagonist, who are leading unhappy, unfulfilled lives. They are broken and beat down by unrealized dreams and fears. Felicity is terrified of speaking and tired of moving. Her younger sister is tired of always trying to make friends at school. Cleo is a chain-smoking aunt that fell out of love over an argument. Uncle Boone is a washed up singer. Her mom can't stay in one place and is broken over her husband leaving her and their two daughters. Florentine carries a bag of burdens that she cannot put down. Jonah is scared his dad will die fighting in an overseas war. Much of this story swirls around hope, love, and belief or faith that all will work out if a person keeps on working at reaching his or her potential through positive words and support from those he or she loves.

Jonah is in a wheelchair and does kind things for others anonymously. He is a budding philanthropist that believes in Felicity and always says that something good is going to happen. His magic ability is his "know-how" that allows him to predict the future. However, he can't predict what will happen to his dad who is fighting in a war and he is afraid that he will get killed. Felicity uses magic, symbolized in a dove tattoo, to help Jonah deal with his fears, just like Jonah helps Felicity deal with stage fright. The author doesn't really incorporate Jonah's disability into the plot and I forgot he was even in a wheelchair for much of the time.

The end reminds me of the Romantic writings that would describe nature in so much glory it was like a religious experience. In this story, when the magic breaks loose and heals all the broken people it is a miracle that causes a revival of the townsfolk jumping and dancing in joy. It made me think of Colin in "The Secret Garden," who is so moved by nature he jumps up and recites the Doxology. Nature in that book so moves the characters that it is like a religious experience. Magic in this book so moves the characters that it is like a religious experience or rock concert. Felicity is not a flawed character, but is the magic weaver; she weaves words to mend and heal those around her as well as her own heart that is upset that her dad abandoned them. She doesn't understand how he could love them and leave them.  She makes peace with it at the end.

Felicity's magic at seeing words seemed like a metaphor for the author writing a book. Felicity is afraid of speaking and must learn to take the risk of speaking in public just like the author must take the risk of writing a book that can be rejected by the public. "No matter how many words I write, they're still just words. Words aren't the same as talent." Jonah tells her that "Your words are talent." Writing a book is like magic. All those words have to fall into place. It is difficult and requires the author to leave himself or herself vulnerable. When the words above Boone change because Felicity says something positive instead of negative, she realizes the power of words. "Maybe sometimes the words I say are as magical as the words I see." It would seem that the author's way of dealing with fears of rejection are to focus on the positive. When Boone talks about how it is harder to see colors as he ages, it suggests that adults don't believe as readily as kids in magic whether that is magic in a story or magic in changing the future or how a person sees himself or herself. This is a feel good story that looks at how the power of words can magically change people for the better.

4 Smileys

Saturday, May 3, 2014

Better Nate Than Ever (Better Nate Than Ever #1) by Tim Federle

Yikes. Ning Chi chili sauce feels like swallowing a flaming sword... one small teaspoon in a pot of homemade soup and if there was an open fire hydrant nearby I would have had my mouth over the geyser. Instead I settled for the bathroom faucet guzzling water and letting it run down the side of my face and into my hair where the chicken noodle soup had matted it together. I needed a spoon the size of my head to keep the noodles from slithering off and splashing broth all over me and the book, "Better Nate Than Ever." If I was the protagonist, Nate Foster, two bullies from a school gang would have picked me up and dunked me head first in a toilet to quench my thirst. A few punches to the stomach would seal the deal before they'd leave off. Thirteen-year-old Nate's list of physical and verbal abuses at school and home (by his brother) include beatings and name-calling such as, "gay," "homo," "faggot," "Natey the Lady" to name a few. While he is uncertain about his sexuality, he has had it with life in Jankburg, Pennsylvania where he doesn't fit in. He hatches a plan with his best friend, Libby, and goes to New York to audition for "E.T. The Musical." While this novel is marketed as middle grade, Nate's attitude, humor, family addiction problems, and sexuality issues are going to attract more middle schoolers than elementary students - at least in my school.

The self-deprecating voice is humorous even if it sounds too old at times. I struggled with the parenthetical asides that Nate gives. You'll either like this stream-of-consciousness or be like me and feel that it slowed the pacing. In the Chapter, "Split Screen," every other sentence had parentheses and it was a confusing transition because he's in Heidi's apartment the chapter before. I ended up rereading and skipping the parentheses so I could figure out the action and how Nate ended up at the casting agency when in the previous chapter he was told he was cut from the play. The phone call explaining this comes at the end of the chapter versus the beginning which is why it was so confusing.

Just to be clear, this parentheses technique of revealing Nate's thoughts varies throughout the entire book and is critical to character development. It makes Nate accessible and creates a fully imagined, emotional character that drives the action. I only had problems at the beginning and that one chapter at the end where it felt like a downpour of parentheses confusing my already jumbled ADHD brain. The parentheses contain inner monologues that flesh out Nate and are funny, but it was too much for me at times, particularly in the beginning. It took me until page 50 to get into the story and character's voice. The beginning dialogue doesn't flow as well as later (when there are less parentheses) and the greyhound action scene has Nate talking in an awkward way to the ticket man. This is actually on purpose and while it is explained later some foreshadowing would have made it less of a "huh" moment and more of a file-that-information-away for later in the plot.  It makes sense at the end of the story when he is talking to Libby. The hilarity begins for me when Nate is at the audition. His descriptions of the over-the-top competitiveness are funnier-than-heck.

Sexuality is not an easy topic to write about and the author does a nice job showing Nate's passion for theater and how it appeals to his melodramatic character in this coming-of-age story. He relates incidents and people to different Broadway musicals, some obscure and others famous. His euphemisms related to theater such as "Holy cats!" substitute profanity throughout the story in an amusing way. The character arc has Nate working on his self-identity and learning to embrace his differences from others. Themes involve a best friend, bullies, his parent's marital problems, an estranged sister, addiction, cancer, intolerance in Christians, competitiveness of auditions, and more. I liked the theater audition best and thought the author really created a terrific dynamic between exaggerating the competitiveness and oddness of it all with Nate's insecurity and snarky observations. Nate's naiveness at reading a script and brilliance at making the performance memorable was a highlight. This is a strong debut novel.

4 Smileys