Maybe in Another Life by Taylor Jenkins Reid

Maybe in Another Life
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Have you ever wondered how one decision can change your life? If you decide to cross the street at a certain time, does that affect your life? There was a lot of pondering about destiny and fate and what is or isn’t meant to be in this novel. Hannah is at club one night. She meets up with Ethan, a guy she had dated in high school. The book splits into alternating sections: one timeline where she decided to stay at the club with Ethan and one where she leaves with her friend to go home.

I really liked the premise. I enjoy the author and have read all of her books. I was very excited for this one to come out, and I finished it quickly. I would’ve preferred it to be a little less chick-lit-centric, but other than that, I enjoyed it. I like the idea of alternate universes, how each decision we make in life creates a different universe and that there are billions of possible universes where we are living different lives.

When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead

When You Reach Me
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This book was an interesting blend of historical fiction, mystery, and science fiction.  I can certainly see why it won the Newbery Award, since it is well written, pays homage to a “classic” children’s book, and has a nostalgia factor for the teachers and librarians who grew up in the 70s and 80s — especially with all the references to Miranda’s mom practicing for her appearance on the game show $20,000 Pyramid.  I suspect, though, that a lot of tweens and teens would find it difficult to really get hooked on this story.  I was curious about how things would play out in the end, but the story didn’t exactly keep me on the edge of my seat.

One day, as Miranda walked home with her best friend, Sal, he got punched in the stomach. The kid who punched him was new to the neighborhood and didn’t even know Miranda or Sal, so there didn’t seem to be any reason for the attack.  Even worse?  Right after that incident, Sal began to get distant . Miranda felt lost without Sal, since the two of them had been constant companions since their early childhood.  And then, when the hidden/”emergency” key to her apartment went missing and she found a strange note hidden in a library book, Miranda got understandably freaked out.  Especially since the author of the note seemed to know things about her — even things that hadn’t happened yet.

Fans of A Wrinkle in Time are sure to enjoy the way Miranda’s life experiences have parallels to that book and make her question the real possibilities of time travel.  I think there are enough details, nevertheless, that the story will still make sense to readers who aren’t familiar with L’Engle’s work.

Flunked by Jen Calonita

Flunked
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I have always loved fairy tales, though I have often wondered how it was that all the “big bads” got away with so much.  Why was it that no one ever stepped up and did anything about the people who abused their power?  Sure, Cinderella got away from her terrible stepmother — but why wasn’t her stepmother held accountable for the things she had done?  This story goes outside the box and brings a little bit of justice into the mix with the Fairy Tale Reform School.  The teachers at FTRS — such as Cinderella’s stepmother, the sea witch from the Little Mermaid, and the wolf from Little Red Riding Hood — are actually working to atone for their bad deeds.  Such a clever premise!

Readers are introduced to the intricacies of the FTRS via Gilly, a petty thief who has been sentenced to three months at FTRS.  As the child of a poor cobbler whose business has hit a rough patch, thanks to fairy godmothers producing glass slippers for the royal princesses, Gilly tries to justify her thefts as necessary for the survival of her hungry siblings.  As soon as she gets to FTRS, she tries to think of a plan to run away so that she can get back to taking care of her siblings, but her plan is thwarted.  Luckily, her attempted escape helps her to befriend another student, Jax, who is also friends with her roommate, Kayla.  The three students soon discover that the “formerly” villainous teachers might not be as reformed as everyone else believes and set out to discover what they’re up to before it’s too late.  I recommend this story to fans of Adam Gidwitz’ Grimm series.

Binky the Space Cat by Ashley Spires

I love Binky the Space Cat!  Binky is a well-fed black and white house pet.  He loves his family and he absolutely hates bugs – space bugs, that is.  His goal in life is to become a space cat.  When he receives notification that he has been accepted into the F.U.R.S.T. (Felines of the Universe Ready for Space Travel) program, he is thrilled.  Binky seems to think that space is outdoors and that bugs are space monsters, but never mind – with the help of his little cat toy Ted, he will succeed in building a space ship.  With a grade level of 2 to 5, for ages 7 to 10, this is one of those books that cat lovers of all ages will enjoy.  The illustrations are charming and there are additional entries in the series so fans can follow Binky’s further adventures – although the first book is arguably the best.

 

Walk Two Moons by Sharon Creech

Walk Two Moons

I first thought about reading this book when I helped a student request it for her summer reading assignment about ten and a half years ago.  Since there was a wait list of students who needed it for their assignment, I decided not to add a hold for myself.  (I thought it would be unfair to the kids who really needed it.)  Every summer I thought to myself, “I need to remember to read that when summer is over.”  And, every year, I’ve had such a long “to be read” pile when summer reading ended that this book was added to my “I’ll read this book someday” list.  At the end of the summer this year, though, the planets finally aligned.  I only had one week left before I was on vacation with my family, so I wanted an audiobook short enough that I could finish it before the week was up.  Even though it was still summer reading season, this audiobook was available on OverDrive, and I went for it!

While taking a long road trip with her grandparents, Salamanca Tree Hiddle (aka Sal), tells them all about her friend Phoebe Winterbottom.  Via Sal’s storytelling, we learn about how difficult it was for Phoebe when her mom suddenly took off.  Though the circumstances were not the same as when Sal’s own mother left her, it was clear that talking about Phoebe’s situation helped Sal to process her own feelings.  Mary Stuart Masterson’s narration was fantastic, and the adventure and humor in the story helped to keep this book light when it could so easily have been a depressing read.

Countdown by Deborah Wiles

Countdown

In October of 1962, my mom and dad were 7 and 13, respectively.  They’ve told me stories of the old “duck and cover” drills they had to do in school and how frightened they were about the potential onset of a nuclear war, but I don’t think I truly appreciated what they went through until I listened to this audiobook.  Experiencing the 13 days of the Cuban Missile Crisis vicariously through a character in a book, even knowing how the entire thing ended, was enough to make me anxious.  I can’t imagine I would have fared well if I actually had to live it.  (I probably would have had panic attacks all day, every day!)  Such is the power of this extremely well-written book and it’s wonderfully produced audiobook.  I was curious how the scrapbook pages would translate in an audiobook, and I was very pleased with the way sound bites were interjected into the story and sometimes woven together.  (It actually reminded me quite a bit of the commercials in MT Anderson’s Feed.)

More striking than the anxiety this story induced, nevertheless, was the hope that it inspired.  One quote, in particular, made such an impression that I pulled over during my evening commute to write it down.  (Because my OCD self was concerned about accuracy, nevertheless, I found a print copy of the book.)

There are always scary things happening in the world.
There are always wonderful things happening.
And it’s up to you to decide how you’re going
to approach the world…
how you’re going to live in it, and
what you’re going to do
.”

Though Franny’s sister, Jo Ellen, was responding to Franny’s fear over the Cuban Missile Crisis, her words can truly be applied to any person’s response to any terrible situation.  And, especially since this book goes beyond the facts of the Cuban Missile Crisis to explore Franny’s relationships with her family and friends, I think this book has a much broader appeal than just fans of historical fiction.

Ripley’s Believe It or Not! Reality Shock!

Ripley's Believe It or Not

I find it rather amusing that my 9-year-old son can’t handle seeing tiny hairballs on the floor from his beloved pet cat, but that he was completely enthralled by the FOUR POUND tiger hairball (picture on pg. 9) that was the size of a basketball! Looking through these books with my son, I always alternate between fascination and disgust.  And even though my own disgust sometimes outweighs my fascination, there’s something magical about bringing home a book that makes your child jump up and down with excitement and beg for just a few more pages before he has to go to bed.

Some of the most fascinating items in this issue were:

  • the skateboarding mice who can even jump through a ring of fire (pp. 14-15)
  • a woman named Barbie Thomas who, despite losing both of her arms at 2 years of age, has gone on to compete in fitness contests (pg. 97)
  • the man who took a picture of himself every single day for 12 years — a total of 4,514 photos! (pg. 152)
  • the Canadian base jumper who, after becoming paralyzed in a 2004 BASE-jumping accident, now jumps in his wheelchair (pg. 175)
  • the pumpkin artists (pp. 208-209) who are capable of turning pumpkins into sculptures of ghouls, goblins, and monsters

And some of the more disgusting items were:

  • the bedside table made from an actual, stuffed sheep (pg. 29)
  • the Sufi holy man who used a sharp stick to practically gouge out his own eye during the Urs religious festival in Ajmer, India (pg. 41)
  • the short-horned lizards that squirt blood from their eyes as a defense mechanism to scare off predators (pg. 90)
  • the “snot shots” (pg. 201) from artist Ulf Lundin’s Bless You project, in which people sneezed at a camera without covering their mouth/nose… ack!

If you’re looking for a conversation-starting/engrossing book to share with a tween, the Ripley’s books are a pretty sure bet.

The Iron Trial: Book One of The Magisterium by Holly Black and Cassandra Clare

The Iron Trial

My son and I both love fantasy fiction, and we’re both suckers for ARCs from beloved authors… So, when I heard that Holly Black and Cassandra Clare were writing a middle-grade fantasy series together, I just knew I had to get my hands on a copy of this ARC.  (The good news for anyone reading this review is that the book came out September 9th and you can read it without scheming to find an ARC!)

And do you know what was even better than opening a random, unexpected package to find a copy of this ARC?  When it arrived in the mail on the very day that we were ready to start a new book.  Awesomesauce!  I knew these authors were awesome and that a collaboration between them was likely to be epic, but I also kind of expected that this book would be somewhat formulaic and predictable, like many of the other middle-grade fantasies I’ve read.  Thankfully, I was wrong.  Although there were some parallels to other books we’ve read, the story was fresh and there were a couple of plot twists that blew our minds!

Callum’s father has always taught him that magic is bad and that the Magisterium, a school that teaches adolescents how to hone their magical abilities, is evil.  So, when Callum had to go in to test his magical acuity at the Magisterium, he did his best to fail.  For some reason, nevertheless, Master Rufus chose Callum to be one of his apprentices.  Even though neither he nor his father wanted him to attend, being selected meant that Callum had to go to the Magisterium… As soon as he started to learn how to use his magic and began to make friends, though, Callum started to wonder if maybe his dad was wrong after all…

The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate‎

The One and Only Ivan

When this book won the 2013 Newbery Award, I wasn’t sure whether I wanted to read it.  It just sounded too depressing.  Luckily, a friend read it and said it was actually funnier than it sounded, albeit sad at times, and that she thought my son would also enjoy it.  I decided to get the audiobook because my son and I share 60-90 minutes of audiobook time per day in the summer driving together to my library and his day camp.  This was our first audiobook of the summer, and it was a *HUGE* hit.  So much so that my son was pretty much devastated any time that his sister was in the car and requested that we “waste” any of our time listening to music.

Although Ivan and the other animals were being held captive in less than desirable conditions, their actions and stories they told one another were often funny.  The humor sprinkled throughout the story definitely helped to keep it light.  My son’s favorite new vocabulary word, and the discussion of which he often used to try to convince his sister to listen to the story with us, was me-ball.  You may be asking yourself, “What’s a me-ball?”  Why, it’s a rolled up, dried out ball of poop that gorillas like to throw, of course! 😉  He thought that was hilarious, and he loved the loving friendships between the animals.  The best part of the story, in my opinion, was at the end when the author’s note explained that this story was based on the true story of a gorilla named Ivan.  I think it will do a lot to help readers understand that, though the thoughts and specific stories told by the animals in this story were fictional, animals surely want (and deserve) companionship and appropriate living conditions.

Loki’s Wolves by K. L. Armstrong and M. A. Marr

Loki's Wolves

Armstrong and Marr have done for Norse mythology what Rick Riordan has done for Greek, Roman, and Egyptian mythology.  So, Riordan fans who need something to read while they anxiously await the final Heroes of Olympus book (The Blood of Olympus, coming October 7th) should definitely check out Loki’s Wolves.  Much like the Percy Jackson books, all the action and humor easily disguise the fact that you’re learning a metric ton of information about mythology.  My only complaint is that there’s not a glossary and/or pronunciation guide.  I mean, lots of kids have heard of Thor and Loki… but that might be as far as their previous knowledge of Norse mythology extends.  And, even as an adult with a pretty decent grasp of language, I had a hard time figuring out how to say some of the more exotic names.

Matt Thorsen lives in a small town called Blackwell, South Dakota.  He is extremely familiar with the legends of Norse mythology because his family are “literally” the descendants of Thor.  Matt has never been as successful as his brothers in school, but he is becoming a pretty awesome boxer — which should come in handy now that he is responsible for saving the world.  Seriously!  Ragnarok (basically, the apocalypse) is approaching and Matt is going to have to find a way to work with the descendants of other Norse gods — some of whom haven’t traditionally gotten along with Thor, like Loki — if he wants to find a way to save himself, and the rest of the world, from sure death.

The 26-Story Treehouse by Andy Griffiths

The 26-Story Treehouse

Somehow, my son and I didn’t hear about The 13-Story Tree House until after we already had our hands on this book… So, we went ahead and started this one with hopes that we would not be too confused.  The good news is that a lack of familiarity didn’t take away from our enjoyment of this story.  The bad news is that we had too little self-control to make this book last! 😉   We read this book in only two sittings.  Granted, there are a lot of interior illustrations; but, we also read for about twice as long as normal for each of those two sittings.  It was just so funny that we didn’t want to stop reading!  Although it’s much sillier and more fantastic than the Wimpy Kid books, I think fans of that series should definitely check this one out — and stay tuned for news about when The 39-Story Tree House and The 59-Story Tree House will make it to the US.  (The 59-Storey Treehouse will be released in Australia on August 26th.)

The Last Dragonslayer by Jasper Fford

The Last Dragonslayer

I was initially going to read this by myself, but I had to keep stopping to read things out loud to my son because he kept asking, “What’s so funny?”  After a few chapters he asked me, “Can you just start over and read that book out loud to me?  It sounds really good!”  Well, I couldn’t say no to that!  And, I must say, even though this book is cataloged as YA, it really didn’t have anything in it that made me uncomfortable reading it out loud to an 8-year-old.

Fifteen-year-old Jennifer Strange works as the manager for Kazam Mystical Arts Management.  Since wizidrical power has been dwindling for quite some time, wizards are reduced to using their power for more mundane purposes, like delivering pizzas and rewiring houses.  Jennifer spends her time and energy trying to find enough work for the Kazam employees, but demand seems to be drying up just as quickly as magic.  Until, suddenly there is a magical surge and people start whispering about the possibility that Big Magic is involved.  When “precogs” start picking up on the impending demise of the last dragon, Maltcassian, everyone in the UnUnited Kingdoms starts going mad about claiming a portion of the untouched Dragonlands — and Jennifer learns that SHE will become the Last Dragonslayer.  Reluctant to believe that she will have to kill Maltcassian, since he hasn’t yet done anything to break the Dragonpact, Jennifer does her best to wield her power as Last Dragonslayer with integrity.  This book has a winning combination of a strong female character with a good moral compass and plenty of wry humor.  I can see this book being a hit for fans of Harry Potter who want a lighter fantasy read.

The Water Castle by Megan Frazer Blakemore

The Water Castle

I know I am always telling people not to judge books by their covers, but I am certainly guilty of this infraction from time to time.  Somehow, I saw the cover of this book and thought it would be more fantastic than it was.  Maybe it was the banner that says “Believe in the unbelievable…”  Maybe it was the castle in the background.  But, somehow, I had my mind set that those kids would be involved in mystical time travel.  Yeah…  Not so much!  Although, there were chapters that took readers back to the early 1900s to discover the history of the Water Castle and the ancestors of the main characters, those main characters most definitely did not travel through time themselves.  And that was OK.  Even though this story wasn’t what I thought it would be, I still thought it was extremely cool.

Ephraim Appledore-Smith’s family relocated to Crystal Springs, Maine, after his father had a stroke.  Though his mother had inherited the house quite some time ago, Ephraim and his siblings had never been there before.  His mother decided to move to Crystal Springs because she had hopes that a specialist who lived in that area would be able to help her husband with his recovery.  After their arrival, though, Ephraim became obsessed with the possibility that the local water had special, mystical properties and that he could use it to cure his father.  After all, that was how the “Water Castle” came to be in the first place; his ancestor, Orlando Appledore, built the house because he was convinced that the Fountain of Youth was in Crystal Springs.  After floundering to find his niche in the new town/school, Ephraim became part of an unlikely trio — with Mallory Green, whose family has always worked as caretakers of the Appledore property, and Will Wylie, whose family has long feuded with the Appledores.  First brought together by a polar explorer’s research project, the three banded together with a determination to find the fountain of youth themselves.

What We Found in the Sofa and How it Saved the World by Henry Clark

What We Found in the Sofa

River was orphaned when his parents died in a car crash, and he’s also shorter than he should be because his legs’ growth plates were fractured in the crash.  He now lives with his aunt and pretty much only has two friends — Freak and Fiona.  Freak has plenty of problems of his own, thanks to his alcoholic father.  And Fiona is popular enough that she pretends not to know River and Freak when other people are around.  To make matters worse, they live next to a place the local newspaper calls “Hellsboro” — the area surrounding the old Rodmore Chemical plant where an underground coal-seam fire makes the land uninhabitable.

After all of that, I can understand if you’re hesitant to believe that this is a great/often funny middle grade book, but it really is!  My son and I actually laughed out loud fairly often as we read this story.  How is that possible?  Because it doesn’t focus so much on the depressing stuff; that’s all more of a footnote, really.  The story centers around all the craziness that happened after they found a rare crayon in a sofa by the curb in front of the Underhill Mansion.  If you want a funny story about cell phones, genetically modified foods, flash mobs, and brain control (presented as a nice blend of realistic and science fiction), I suggest you check this one out.

A Very Grimm Series [A Tale Dark & Grimm, In a Glass Grimmly, and The Grimm Conclusion] by Adam Gidwitz

A Tale Dark & Grimm

It’s no secret that I read to my children all the time… I’m a former teacher who became a librarian, so books and reading are kind of my thing!  When I report that my son loved a book or a book series, some people take it with a grain of salt.  They say, “But he loves everything!”  Well, he kinda does… And that’s OK.  For the people out there who haven’t yet convinced their children how awesome books and reading can be, though, THESE BOOKS might be a breakthrough!  Not only does Adam Gidwitz trust that many kids can handle the gory old versions of the Grimm fairy tales, but he also understands just how often to give little reassurances and asides [as the narrator] to take the edge off for kids who might get a little nervous about what is going on in the story.

Here are a few things you need to know before reading these books:

1) You don’t necessarily have to read them in order, since each book has different main characters — though you may want to read A Tale Dark and Grimm before The Grimm Conclusion, because the latter references the Hansel and Gretel’s stories in the former.

2) If you plan to read these stories out loud, you may want to establish a separate “narrator” voice, so the listeners can tell when the narrator is interjecting without you having to say so every time.  (Especially because it happens A LOT!)

3) These books are HILARIOUS… in a dark and disturbing way.  My son has inherited my sick sense of humor, so he and I often found ourselves cracking up so hard that we had to put the book down and just laugh [or risk losing our place].  We were even scolded a few times because my daughter was trying to sleep and we were being too loud!  😉