Saturday, November 29, 2014

The Summer I Saved the World in 65 Days by Michele Weber Hurwitz

The Summer I Saved the World . . . in 65 DaysNina is enjoying the start to her summer, soaking up the sun. She watches her neighbor trying to plant flowers with a broken leg and gets the idea to do something different. She sneaks over later and plants the flowers and then decides to do nice things for others every day for the rest of the summer. She does it secretly, and it seems like a good idea, but another neighbor is worried someone is vandalizing their homes. Also, Nina's best friend likes a boy across the street, but Nina quietly likes him too. Nina doesn't know who she can talk to. Her parents are too busy with work, her brother keeps sneaking off, and she doesn't really have any other good friends. She misses her grandmother, and she's not certain her secret kindness is doing any good.

There aren't many books being written about characters doing nice things for others, so this book is a pleasant change. Nina and her best friend are an interesting contrast in characters. The friend is very self-centered, and Nina is trying to find ways to make others happy. The boy across the street is going through a rough time and questions Nina's efforts. His little brother and the lady next door add smiles to the plot.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Pack of Dorks by Beth Vrabel

Pack of DorksLucy thinks she's going to be one of the coolest girls in the fourth grade after kissing Tom during recess. However, she misses the next day of school after her mom delivers a baby sister, and things change in a big way. The new baby has Down's Syndrome, and the family must make adjustments. When Lucy returns to school, she finds the other kids are now making fun of her, and her best friend won't speak to her. Lucy is forced to talk to the nerdy kids and partners up with Sam to do a research project on wolves. Things go from bad to worse when Sam gets bullied and won't come back to school. Lucy learns a lesson about life from the wolves, and decides to form her own pack.

Many books have been written about getting along with classmates and friendship, but this book added the issue of mental handicaps. The author shared Lucy's frustrations as she slowly realized she needed to change. Her parents needed time to deal with a handicapped infant. Lucy's grandmother was a fun character, as she had no trouble speaking her mind. She also told Lucy that she had teased other kids when she was young, so she was able help Lucy with her problems.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Squeeze Play by Cal Ripken Jr. and Kevin Cowherd

Cal Ripken, Jr.'s All-Stars: Squeeze Play (Cal Ripken, Jr's All Stars)Corey is the starting centerfielder for the Orioles, but he hasn't been hitting the ball well for weeks. He's still a great fielder, but he can't seem to get a hit at the plate. To make matters worse, the girl playing right field constantly teases him, and his dad takes the games too seriously. Corey's dad calls players names, boos, and almost gets into fights with other parents. The team travels to North Carolina for a big tournament, and Corey is feeling the pressure. His dad's behavior seems to be getting worse, and Corey's about ready to give up the game he loves.

This book is for fans of baseball. The author describes the games as they're played, and he also shares some of the finer details of  baseball. The conflict with the girl playing right field is predictable, but Corey's relationship with his dad may connect with many athletic readers. Parents can put pressure on their kids playing sports and embarrass them with inappropriate behavior. Corey's dad is an extreme case, but I've seen parts of him in many parents over the years. Overall, a great book!

The Girls of Gettysburg by Bobbi Miller

The Girls of GettysburgThis book tells the stories of three girls leading up to the famous Civil War battle at Gettysburg. Tillie lives in the town and watches as neighbors and black people flee it before the Confederate soldiers arrive. She's sure the Union army will force the enemy away, but she soon finds herself in the middle of the violence and death. Grace is part of a black family that refuses to leave. Her father finally decides it's getting too dangerous and puts his family on a train out of town. Grace hops off to stay with her father, but she finds herself hiding in a cellar before the Rebel forces find her. Annie disguises herself as a boy, so she can join the Confederate army. She proves herself as an excellent shooter and a feisty soldier. It's sometimes difficult to keep her secret, but she just wants to head north and kill some Yankees.

It's unusual to read about the story of a famous battle through the eyes of three females. Annie's story was the most interesting to me; the author shared more consistent character interactions, and her secret added a sense of mystery. Grace's story became more suspenseful as the Rebel army drew closer. Tillie's story was least compelling to me, although her character showed great strength and courage when the battle began. I admired her actions once it came to an end.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Manhunt by Kate Messner

ManhuntValuable paintings are being stolen from art museums around the world, and no one has a clue about the thieves. Henry, Anna, and Jose are junior members of the Silver Jaguar Society, and they've solved some mysteries in the past. They travel to Paris with their parents, full members of the society, where they meet up with Hem, the son of another member. They discover the Serpentine Princes are behind the thefts and proceed to conduct their own investigation when their parents disappear. The society thinks one of its members is giving secrets to the Serpentine Princes, so everyone is a suspect. The adventure to save the artwork takes the characters all around, and below, the city of Paris.

I believe this is the third book in the series about the Silver Jaguar Society, but they can be read out of order. There were few references to previous books to confuse readers. The missing artwork, secret messages, and sneaking around the city created a nice a mystery and adventure. The unknown mole in the society added a bit of suspense.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Nickel Bay Nick by Dean Pitchford

Nickel Bay NickThis book is the 2014 winner of the Cybils Book Award in middle grade fiction. Nickel Bay Nick has been secretly passing out $100 bills for the past seven years, but he hasn't been heard from during this Christmas season. Meanwhile, Sam is a problem child. It's been years since he had his heart transplant, but he's now hanging out with older kids, vandalizing property, and stealing from stores. However, he makes a big mistake when he destroys the Christmas decorations of the old man down the street. It seems this man was once an international spy, and he has enough private information to blackmail Sam. He forces Sam to use his skills as a liar and thief to do some missions around the town, and he's almost caught by the police. Sam must continue to follow orders or he'll be taken from his father and sent to a juvenile facility.

Despite what my summary says, this book is a feel-good story. The missions are surprising and share a positive message for readers. Although Sam seems to be a sassy pain in the butt, the missions allow his good qualities to shine. The author is able create a sense of mystery surrounding the old man and his missions. There's something the old man isn't saying, but readers may be able to guess it. This book is one of my favorites of the year.

Ice Dogs by Terry Lynn Johnson

Ice DogsVicky lives in Alaska and loves racing her sled dogs. She used to help her father train the dogs until he drowned last year. She heads out through the woods with her dog team and plans to return before nightfall. She gets lost but discovers an unconscious boy who crashed his snowmobile. The city boy knows nothing about surviving in the wilderness, so it's up to Vicky to keep them both alive. She has a plan to find a familiar trail, but she honestly has no idea which way to go. Mother Nature decides to throw all kinds of dangers at the kids: blizzard, wolf, moose, cold, hunger, thirst, etc. It will take all of Vicky's survival skills, and some luck, for the kids to make it back alive.

This book reminds me of some old Gary Paulsen books about sled dogs, and it describes the special connection between drivers and their teams. Obviously, surviving in Alaska during the winter creates suspense, but the dogs are the real heroes in this story. The author gives each dog a personality, and they become characters in the plot, not just pets. Readers who enjoy stories about dogs or survival will love this book.

The Odd Squad: Bully Bait by Michael Fry

The Odd Squad, Bully BaitNick is the shortest twelve-year-old on the planet, at least that's what he says. He has a bully problem, Roy, and regularly finds himself stuffed in his locker. The principal decides Nick needs to join the three-person safety patrol with Karl and Molly, two other victims of bullying. The kids try to figure out a way to stop Roy with guidance from the school janitor. Their first efforts don't work, and Nick's secret texts to Roy only make the bully angrier. Nick gets more upset when he sees Roy with the most beautiful girl in school, but Nick is too frightened to speak to her. Things don't get much better until Nick discovers the bully's biggest weakness.

The author created an entertaining tale about the topic of bullies. Nick's grandmother was a funny character, and the janitor shared some strange stories and advice. Roy's character was easy to dislike, but he became almost human in the end. The resolution of the problem was a bit unusual, and it added more humor to the story.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Cartwheels in Thunderstorms by Katherine Rundell

Cartwheeling in ThunderstormsWilhelmina, Will, lives with her father on a ranch in Zimbabwe. She loves everything about the country and the freedom it provides. She is given the nickname Wildcat, and she's definitely earned. it. She enjoys playing and exploring with her best friend, but her happy life soon comes to an end. Her father dies, and Will is sent to a private school in London. Life in Zimbabwe was wild, but she is not prepared for the lessons, rules, and other girls at the school. They call her a savage, and Will doesn't know how to adapt. Her spirit is challenged, and she doesn't know what to do in order to survive.

The author did a wonderful job of developing Will's character. I was able to connect with her emotions and appreciated her frustrations. She was a little wild, but she was a good person. The death of her father was sad, but the way she was treated after his death was cruel. Students sometimes have trouble fitting in with new classmates, but it's nothing like the culture shock experienced by Will.

Chasing the Milky Way by Erin E. Moulton

Chasing the Milky WayLucy and her best friend, Cam, live in a trailer park and have a plan to escape their situation. They've made a robot from scrap parts and plan to receive thousands of dollars by winning a competition. Lucy's mom has mental issues, and her moods quickly change from happy to depressed, with a warped sense of reality. Cam's mom's boyfriend is abusive. Their whole plan relies on winning the robot competition, but the school bully manages to complicate things. After he knocks a school computer into a pond, things really get out of hand. Lucy's mom is accused of kidnapping, and the police put out an Amber Alert.

Lucy's character is put in charge of her family's well-being. It's probably an exaggerated situation, but I'm sure there are real families where a child is the most responsible member of the family. I felt bad for Lucy, and I admired the positive qualities in her character. I won't say I always admire her actions, but her heart's in the right place.

Upside Down in the Middle of Nowhere by Julie T. Lamana

Upside Down in the Middle of Nowhere
Armani is eagerly looking forward to her tenth birthday party, but there's one problem. Everyone is distracted by weather reports about Hurricane Katrina even though it's not even headed toward New Orleans. Armani's dad decides it's okay to have her party, but her friends are told not to come, just to be safe. The family realizes the storm has changed its course when the winds pick up and a giant oak tree smashes Dad's truck. The family huddles in the house for safety, but a wave of water smashes into it. A levee must have broken sending flood waters throughout the ninth ward. Dad keeps saying things will be okay up until the point when he's washed away in the flood while trying to save his son from drowning. The rest of the story is an adventure.

The plot develops much like any other book as Armani deals with her friends, family, and Meemaw. The threat of the hurricane is just a nuisance. Then, the plot becomes a survival story. The author successfully shares Armani's special relationship with her grandmother and the confusion surrounding the storm. The family's life-threatening conflict creates suspense and reminds readers that stories do not always end with happily ever after.

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Zane and the Hurricane: A Story of Katrina by Rodman Philbrick

Zane and the Hurricane: A Story of KatrinaZane, with his dog Bandy, travels to New Orleans where he meets his great-grandmother for the first time. Hurricane Katrina is on the way, and everyone in the city is ordered to evacuate. Zane and his grandmother hitch a ride with the minister from the church, but Bandy jumps out the window of the van. Zane goes after him, but the dog ends up running all the way back to grandmother's house. The power goes out, and flood waters start to swallow up the house. Zane manages to get on the roof where he's picked up in a canoe by a man and a young girl. That's when the adventure begins. They search for dry land, but the girl's past creates a problem. It seems a drug dealer wants to get his hands on her, so the group must find a way to escape this fearsome man along with the dangers of the hurricane.

The plot begins with surviving the hurricane, but it evolves into much more than that. The conflict with the drug dealer, poisonous snakes in the water, and frightened people willing to shoot anyone coming near their homes create a much bigger story than surviving a storm. The book addresses the subplots of Katrina. It's not just about the storm's devastation or feel-good stories of heroism. Pre-storm problems still existed, and some people were only concerned for themselves. The voice of the story is not complicated, and it's easy to follow.The storm's destruction is part of the story, but the plot goes well beyond it.

Monday, November 3, 2014

Dorothy's Derby Chronicles#1: Rise of the Undead Redhead by Meghan Dougherty and Alece Birnbach

Dorothy's Derby Chronicles: Rise of the Undead RedheadDorothy moves to her grandmother's house which happens to be an old funeral home. She makes a big impression on the first day of school when her grandmother pulls up in a black hearse. It's hard to fit in when you have a wacky grandma, and the popular girls decide to start picking on her. Dorothy tries to get back at one of the girls during dodge ball, but she faints after whacking herself in the head with the ball. When she wakes, she has a new nickname, The Undead Redhead. Dorothy goes to the roller rink with her grandma and discovers she was once a roller derby star named Shotgun Sally. Dorothy and her two friends decide to start a team, and Grandma is going to be the coach. However, one of the popular girls is also hanging out at the rink, and she seems to be keeping a secret. She behaves strangely around Dorothy's school locker, and Dorothy can't figure out what's going on.

This book is the first in a new series. Roller skating, and especially the roller derby, are unusual topics for a book, but I think they made this book interesting. Dorothy's unique grandmother will keep the attention of readers. She drove a hearse, sometimes with a dead body in the back, she packed Dorothy a "sparkly tiger-striped jumpsuit" to wear in gym class, and she hip-checked a bully at the roller rink. Not normal behavior from a grandmother. The topics of fitting in and being picked on are common, but the author was able to share them in unusual ways.

Saturday, November 1, 2014

The Blossoming Universe of Violet Diamond by Brenda Woods

The Blossoming Universe of Violet DiamondViolet feels like she needs to know more about her family history. She's biracial, and her father died when she was younger. Violet's sister had a different father, and it bothers Violet when people can't believe they're related. Her mother is white, but Violet wants to know more about her father's side of the family. She's never even met her dad's mother, because her grandmother is upset that he married a white woman. Violet decides it's time to meet the woman, so she travels to a museum in Seattle where her grandmother will be signing autographs. Violet and her mother aren't sure what to expect when they arrive. It may me a big mistake, but it's something Violet needs to do to complete the jigsaw puzzle of her life.

The book talks about many aspects of family life. It was nice to read about well-educated parents and sisters who actually liked each other. The grandmother's anger added drama to the story, but she was full of mixed emotions. It was refreshing to read about characters with problems who did not do crazy things to deal with them. Despite the conflicts, anger, and regret, there was always an underlying feeling of love.