Out of the Easy by Ruta Sepetys

Out of the Easy

To say that Josie Moraine has a very unusual life would be an understatement and a half!  Though she is only in high school, she already lives on her own and works two jobs — as a clerk at a local bookstore and as a maid of sorts for the brothel where her mother works.  That’s right…  Josie’s mother is a prostitute.  Not to mention a cold, calculating, unloving woman who only ever seems to think of herself.  And, as if that isn’t bad enough, Josie’s mother also happens to be in love with an abusive gangster-type.  So, when her mom disappears from the French Quarter the very same morning that a man turns up dead, Josie isn’t sure what to do or what to believe.  She has never wanted anything so much as a chance to get out of the “Big Easy” and to get a good education, but her mother and her mother’s foolishness always seem to get in the way.

One of the things I enjoyed most about this story was how the entire cast of characters was so well fleshed-out.  I get annoyed when authors skimp on developing the supporting characters, but Sepetys did not disappoint!  My favorite was Willie — the brothel madam who knew Josie was bound for bigger and better things, regardless of the fact that many people assumed/hoped she would simply follow in her mother’s footsteps.  I loved that Willie did her best to support Josie and to encourage her to want more from life instead of being upset that Josie didn’t want to join the [ahem] family business.  If you like historical fiction and/or mysteries, this is a book you won’t want to miss.

Rapture Practice: My One-Way Ticket to Salvation [a true story] by Aaron Hartzler

Rapture Practice

Aaron Hartzler credits his acting ability to all the practice he got at home.  After all, having questions about his faith and his sexuality weren’t exactly encouraged by his strict, Christian parents.  If he wanted to stay out of trouble, he had to pretend to believe what they believed and to behave as they thought he should.  As a child, he found it easy to get swept up in the excitement over the thought that Jesus might come down and take them all away to heaven at a moment’s notice.  As a teen, though, Aaron had begun to enjoy his time on Earth too much to hope for the rapture.  He also began to question many of the strict rules his parents upheld in the name of religion — especially the rules against listening to popular music and going to the movies.  He began sneaking around and breaking rules and, what started off as smaller/more innocent lies, soon became intricately planned deceptions and full-fledged rebellion.  Though I grew up attending church, my Presbyterian upbringing was very liberal and I found it fascinating [and sometimes horrifying] to see how vastly different it could have been even though his religion was based on the same holy book as mine.

The True Meaning of Smekday by Adam Rex

The True Meaning of Smekday

This has got to be one of the funniest audiobooks I have ever listened to.  Seriously!  Adam Rex wrote a hilarious story and Bahni Turpin’s narration was absolutely fantastic.  It’s no wonder this book received the Odyssey Award!  My son and I listened to it together, and we loved it so much that we harassed my husband until he agreed to listen to it too.  After we all finished listening, we started talking to each other like the Boov (alien) named J. Lo — and it’s gone on long enough that even my 3-year-old has talks like a Boov!  I’m pretty sure it won’t matter how many times I hear it; I will always laugh when I hear my son shout, “SHOOT FORTH THE LASERS … FROM MY EYEBALLS!”  Priceless family bonding.  😉

You may be wondering, “What’s this story about?”  Well…  When an alien race [the Boov] took over Earth and claimed it as their own planet, they renamed Christmas as Smekday and forced all the humans in North America to relocate to Florida.  Later, after the Boov were vanquished, students across the US were given the chance to explain the true meaning of Smekday in an essay.  This story is Gratuity “Tip” Tucci’s story/essay.

P.S. Random House has an excerpt on their website if you want to check it out for yourself — http://www.randomhouse.com/book/202129/the-true-meaning-of-smekday-by-adam-rex

The Lucy Variations by Sara Zarr

The Lucy Variations

Let me just start off by saying that I can’t imagine not loving anything written by Sara Zarr.  All of her stories [see also Story of a Girl, Sweethearts, and How to Save a Life] are just so compelling, and her characters so realistic that I become very quickly attached.  Finishing one of her books always makes me feel like a friend moved away; very bitter-sweet. One of the reasons I thought this particular book was so great is because it was still completely accessible even though I don’t know a ton about classical music or playing piano [so you shouldn’t let that stand in your way if you’re not well versed either].

In this story, we meet Lucy Beck-Moreau — musical prodigy and former concert pianist.  She used to be a pretty big deal.  I’m talking traveling the world, recording songs with symphonies, and hearing herself on the radio big…  But then, she suddenly stopped performing.  Everyone has a theory about what happened, but no one knows the real story.  Now that Lucy’s younger brother has a new teacher — because the former teacher dropped dead in the middle of a lesson — Lucy is starting to deal with her feelings about the whole situation, partly in hopes that she can help her brother avoid the burnout she experienced.

Shade of the Moon by Susan Beth Pfeffer

The Shade of the Moon

I am so grateful that someone let Susan Beth Pfeffer in on the “secret definition of trilogy” [as Scott Westerfeld put it when he wrote the dedication for Extras].  I was not OK with leaving the Moon Crash Trilogy as it ended in This World We Live In…  I needed to know what happened next!  Luckily, Susan Beth Pfeffer listened to her fans and kept writing even when her publisher wasn’t [initially] interested in a fourth Moon Crash book.

Miranda’s younger brother, Jon, is now 16 years old.  As the baby of the family, he has gotten used to a life of relative privilege.  Even when food was extremely scarce, people made sure he was fed.  When work needed to be done, others worked harder so he didn’t have to.  And when Alex had only 3 slips to get into an enclave — which would provide more safety, food, and educational opportunities for the people within — everyone agreed that those slips should go to Jon, his stepmother, Lisa, and her baby, Gabe.  Many clavers got in simply because of the money and power they had before the moon crash, so Jon’s so-called friends often remind him that he’s a “slip” and could be kicked out if he doesn’t play along/act the part of a claver well enough.  Since his “job” is playing soccer and his status as a claver gets him as much food, booze, and trouble-free mischief as he wants, though, Jon is often all too happy to play along.

People in White Birch, including some of Jon’s own family members [Miranda, Alex, and his mom], are known as grubs and often work for clavers in the capacity of domestic servants, drivers, and greenhouse workers.  I was extremely uncomfortable with Jon’s hateful attitude toward grubs and how cavalierly he acted despite his family’s position, but I could see how easily a teenager might dissociate for the sake of fitting in and surviving in such a harsh reality.  As much as I hated Jon and the things he did, it made all too much sense that a spoiled kid raised in a post-apocalyptic world would turn out this way.  Luckily, Jon experienced some decent character development and the ending left me feeling like there was hope for Jon and his family… and maybe even a fifth Moon Crash book!  😉

The Moon and More by Sarah Dessen

The Moon and More

Sarah Dessen is a fantastic writer.  And, if you like one of her books, chances are good that you will like them all.  I was especially pleased with the fact that this book features cameos of both people and places from other Dessen novels, like some of the characters (and even the beach town of Colby) from Along for the Ride and the website UMe.com [very much like Facebook] from Lock and Key.  But, just in case simply knowing that Sarah Dessen wrote this novel is not enough for you, I supposed I can spend some time explaining what it’s about!

Luke and Emaline are high school sweethearts.  Even though she doesn’t quite understand what Luke sees in her, she loves just about everything about him — he’s nice, fun to hang out with, and also quite good looking. Even though her life isn’t perfect, she is perfectly content.  Then, Theo shows up.  Other than the fact that he is also good looking, he is practically Luke’s polar opposite –  he’s serious more often than not, prefers fine dining to hanging out with friend at a burger joint, and he’s extremely driven rather than laid back.  Nearly everything Theo does is in an effort to be the BEST EVER.  It doesn’t make sense, but Emaline finds herself drawn to Theo and soon begins questioning everything about her life.  I recommend this book to people who enjoy their romance with a side order of deep thoughts.

The Place Beyond the Pines (DVD)

The Place Beyond the Pines

This film supposedly takes place in Schenectady, NY and follows parallel lives of two characters, a tattooed carnival stunt motorcycle driver played by Ryan Gosling and a young honest cop played by Bradley Cooper.  Their lives cross when Cooper chases down and kills Gosling’s character after he robs a bank trying to provide for the infant son from a one night stand with a waitress played by Eva Mendes. This act of violence causes others to call him a hero and we’re then immersed in a world of crooked police officers and life-changing moral dilemmas. The film then jumps ahead 15 years when the two teenage sons’ paths cross and cause us to see what went before in a whole different way. It’s a very intense film with great characters who are just trying to get through each day to support and provide for their family.

Doctor Sleep by Stephen King

Doctor Sleep

The long-awaited sequel to the Shining has arrived!  This novel follows an adult Danny Torrance (now known as Dan) as he navigates through life battling alcoholism while working at various hospitals and hospices around the country.  He still has a bit of the Shine, which he uses to help others.  Along the way, he meets a young girl named Abra who has the same Shining that he does, only her abilities are much more powerful than Dan’s ever were.

Dan and Abra encounter a group called the True Knot who attempt to harness the power of children who have the shining.

The book doesn’t pack quite the punch of the original as far as scariness goes, but it is a well-written book.  What I enjoyed was following up on Dan, who experienced all these horrors when he was a child.  I’ve often wondered about these fictional characters who have experienced these horrible things.  What becomes of them after?  Do these events impact their lives? This book answers those questions.

If you read the Shining, I recommend this book.  However, if you haven’t, it is still an enjoyable read.  There is nothing in this book that requires knowledge from the first book to understand.

I almost always enjoy Stephen King novels, and Doctor Sleep is no exception.

House of Secrets by Chris Columbus and Ned Vizzini

House of Secrets

This book reads like a blockbuster movie — and it’s not exactly a surprise, considering Chris Columbus [the director of the Harry Potter movies] is one of the authors!  (You may also recognize the name Ned Vizzini because of his hilarious book-turned-movie It’s Kind of a Funny Story.)  The short chapters and high action make this a great selection for reading aloud and/or for reluctant readers.  My son and I absolutely LOVED House of Secrets and thought the only “bad” thing about it is that we don’t know how it ends, since it’s the first of a trilogy and the other two books don’t even have publication dates yet!

Brendan, Eleanor, and Cordelia Walker, like many siblings, don’t exactly get along.  Unlike most kids, though, they get magicked away by an evil witch and have to learn to work together if they ever want to return home and see their parents again.  How did this all happen?  It began when their father lost his job as a surgeon after a mysterious incident that lead to a major lawsuit against the hospital he worked for.  Dr. Walker was having a difficult time finding a new job, which left him unable to afford the house they owned, and the Walkers stumbled upon a too-good-to-be-true Victorian home just outside of San Francisco.  The former owner was famous author Denver Kristoff, and the evil witch was actually his daughter, so the people and places Brendan, Eleanor, and Cordelia encounter are actually born of Kristoff’s imagination.  A fantastic story in both senses of the word.

Seraphina by Rachel Hartman

Seraphina

Seraphina’s father, a high ranking official, was extremely overprotective and wished to keep her hidden away as much as possible.  She assumed it was because her mother had died in childbirth and somewhat forgave his overbearing nature, but that didn’t mean she was pleased with his strict rules — especially the rule forbidding her from playing music.  When she found her mother’s old flute, she taught herself how to play and then played in front of some party guests to force his hand with music lessons.  Serafina did not understand why this caused him to become so enraged and to fear for her safety, but she was pleased that he at last conceded to let her study music with tutor named Orma [a dragon in human form].  The lessons improved her skill so much that she eventually became apprentice to a famous musician and then even became a tutor for the princess.  When Seraphina discovered the secret that drove her father’s fear, she began to understand that working with such high-ranking people put her in grave danger, but it was too late.  At that point, she could only hope to keep safe and to protect the people she cared about.

The Lost Hero by Rick Riordan

The Lost Hero

I think this story is a great creative twist on the whole Percy Jackson and the Olympians series and an awesome way to get kids to compare and contrast the Greek and Roman gods.  People who haven’t read the other series, which began with The Lightning Thief, can probably even just start with this spin-off series because Riordan did a great job including snippets of back-story about important people and events to catch people up (or to refresh the memories of people who did read them).

In this story, Jason wakes up on a school bus with no memory of his past or knowledge of the people he’s with.  The girl who’s holding his hand?  She says she’s his girlfriend, but he doesn’t remember anything about her.  He is also purportedly best friends with a guy named Leo but doesn’t remember him either.  Jason has no idea where they are or where they are going.  All he knows is that his name is Jason, he is apparently a student at Wilderness School (a school for juvenile delinquents), and something is not quite right about the teacher who is supervising their field trip.  As readers quickly surmise, Jason is a half-blood like Percy Jackson.  But, unlike Percy Jackson, Jason has a natural tendency to refer to the gods by their Roman names…

The Paganini Curse by Giselle M. Stancic

The Paganini Curse

It wasn’t exactly easy to be an independent teenage girl in New York City in 1911, but Aurora Lewis wouldn’t let societal norms dictate her life.  She refused to give up on her musical studies to attend a “finishing school” because she was determined to play violin in a symphony someday.  When she arrived at violin lessons one Saturday morning, though, she found the studio a mess and the window open — despite the winter chill in the air.  Looking down from the window, she found her teacher dead on the sidewalk… and was accused, by street hooligans, of having pushed him!  Although the police cleared her when they deemed his death an accident, Aurora wasn’t satisfied with that result and decided that she and her friends would have to solve this murder themselves.  This book was well written, fast-paced, and full of interesting musical and historical facts.

The Raven Boys by Maggie Stiefvater

The Raven Boys

Even though the rest of her family has psychic abilities, Blue was born without the ability to do more than to amplify the powers of others.  Because of this amplification, Blue is always expected to be present for the parade of souls on St. Mark’s Eve.  At this parade, her mother records the names of the people who are marching — because they will die sometime in the next year.  And, though Blue has never been able to see anyone before, she both sees and hears a Raven Boy named Gansey.  Blue has always had a policy of avoiding Raven Boys [a.k.a. students of nearby Aglionby Prep] because they usually mean trouble.  But, she is both inexplicably drawn to Gansey and curious whether she saw him because she is his true love or the reason for his death.

So the Sign Said by Natasha Osteen

So the Sign Said

Jordan Klein loved living in New York City and was less than pleased when she found out that her family had to move to Texas for the entire summer.  Why?  Her Uncle Jacob got caught trying to smuggle “contraband” [bibles] into China and was advised not to leave the country until charges were officially dropped.  Since Jordan’s father, Eli, was a professor of religious studies, he was asked to be the substitute pastor for his brother’s small-town church in Texas.  Jordan and her mom were both upset about leaving NYC for three months but figured Eli would probably realize he made a mistake and head home after only a couple of weeks.  Upon arrival, Jordan didn’t think she would ever get used to her temporary home… but she soon made some friends and found herself less anxious to leave town.  As readers might expect, the summer was life-changing.  Jordan learned a lot about herself that she may not have discovered if not for this move.  What I didn’t expect, nevertheless, was the crazy twist at the end or just how funny most of this book would be.  (I’m talking, laughing out loud so often that I had my coworkers staring at me during lunch funny!)  If you’re looking for a story that asks big questions without weighing you down, you should definitely check this one out.

The Execution of Noa P. Singleton by Elizabeth L. Silver

The Execution of Noa P. Singleton

I couldn’t tear myself away from this novel.  It opens with Noa P. Singleton, inmate number 10271978 in the Pennsylvania Institute for Women, introducing herself and telling us that “…I pulled the trigger. Post-conviction, I never contested that once.”  She is on death row and nearing her execution date.

Noa is unnervingly calm as she begins to tell us the back story.  She is adamant about her guilt and sees the past ten years spent in prison and her impending execution as the logical outcome of her crime, the murder of pregnant Sarah Dixon.  She isn’t even particularly ruffled when high-powered attorney Marlene Dixon, Sarah’s mother, visits her to announce that she no longer believes in the death penalty and will be pursuing a clemency petition for Noa.   Marlene just wants to know why — why did Noa shoot her daughter?  Noa has never answered this question publicly, and does not intend to now.  Noa’s story is so knotted and convoluted that it takes the entire book to tease it out.

This novel is about identity– self-identity and imposed identity, and about all of the little (and enormous) factors that go into making us who we are, or, at least, the factors that propel us to a certain place and time and point of action.  The opening passage sets the tone beautifully:

In this world, you are either good or evil.  If not, then a court or a teacher or a parent is bound to tag your identity before you’ve had a chance to figure it out on your own.  The gray middle ground, that mucous-thin terrain where most of life resides, is really only a temporary annex, like gestation or purgatory.

In telling Noa’s story, author Silver does not tackle the morality of capital punishment directly.  She never asks us explicitly if Noa deserves to be on death row.  She doesn’t push us to judge.  Feel as you will about capital punishment, she seems to say, but consider the person; consider the process.  And then maybe consider it all a little further. Noa P. Singleton is subtle, complex and quite stunning.