Tuesday, December 10, 2013


Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly meme hosted by The Broke and the Bookish

This week's topic is: Top Ten Books on my Winter TBR

As every reader, my TBR list is overwhelmingly long (and I’m sure after reading everyone else’s posts, it will get even longer). Honestly, there are so many good books out there that I’m extremely eager to get my hands on. Right now, I prioritize based on my library hold list, and I read based on the due dates (definitely a good system for an indecisive reader). Below are the books I currently have stacked up; I know I’m WAY behind on some of them, but I’ve been putting them off for good reason (mainly because my emotions aren’t ready yet). Instead of blabbing on and on (I know I'm wordy), I listed just three words that make me want to read each book. Do any sound good to you too?

The Scorpio Races The Living   Fangirl
                                              Out of the Easy   Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock

1. The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater - Fear...Competition...Death
2. The Living by Matt de la Pena - Disaster...Survival...Action
3. Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell - Rainbow Rowell (she, alone, makes me want to read this)
4. Out of the Easy by Ruta Sepetys - Clandestine...New Orleans...Murder
5. Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock by Matthew Quick - Suicide...Choices...Humanity

This Is What Happy Looks Like Allegiant (Divergent, #3)   Champion (Legend, #3)
                                             These Broken Stars (Starbound, #1)   If You Find Me

6. This is What Happy Looks Like by Jennifer E. Smith - Happiness...Fate...Coincidence
7. Allegiant by Veronica Roth - Tris...Four...need I say more?
8. Champion by Marie Lu - June...Day...enough said!
9. These Broken Stars by Amie Kaufman - Space...Catastrophe...Romance
10. If You Find Me by Emily Murdoch - Abduction...Survival...Secrets

Friday, December 6, 2013

REVIEW: Wild Cards by Simone Elkeles

Wild Cards (Wild Cards, #1)
Title: Wild Cards
Author: Simone Elkeles Website Facebook Twitter
Publisher: Walker Books for Young Readers
Release Date: October 1, 2013
Pages: 342
Rating: 4 (3.5) out of 5 stars

Summary from Goodreads: After getting kicked out of boarding school, bad boy Derek Fitzpatrick has no choice but to live with his ditzy stepmother while his military dad is deployed. Things quickly go from bad to worse when he finds out she plans to move them back to her childhood home in Illinois. Derek’s counting the days before he can be on his own, and the last thing he needs is to get involved with someone else’s family drama.

Ashtyn Parker knows one thing for certain--people you care about leave without a backward glance. A football scholarship would finally give her the chance to leave. So she pours everything into winning a state championship, until her boyfriend and star quarterback betrays them all by joining their rival team. Ashtyn needs a new game plan, but it requires trusting Derek—someone she barely knows, someone born to break the rules. Is she willing to put her heart on the line to try and win it all?

First Thoughts: I’m really conflicted after finishing this book; I read it in a day, unable to stop at the end of each chapter, and yet, I found myself wanting more from the writing and the characters. Errr...

This is a fun, read-it-in-one-sitting kind of book. Let’s start with that. I picked it up on a Saturday afternoon and finished it, well, that Saturday night. I kept telling myself I’d stop at the end of this chapter...okay, the next chapter...well, maybe just a few more, until I turned the last page. It’s a smooth read that sucks you in from the beginning to the end.

Although I couldn’t put this book down (partially due to end of break procrastination), my inner reader was conflicted. There are parts in the book that just bothered me. At first, I couldn’t put my finger on it, but then I figured it out: too much telling and not enough showing. Instead of showing that  Ashtyn had trust issues, the book just bluntly said it (over and over again). Instead of showing Derek’s bad boy side (which I still don’t believe), the book just told us. There are moments where character traits are told to the reader, and honestly, I didn’t believe them. There isn’t evidence (dialogue, action, thoughts, etc…) to back up many of the statements, yet the narrator just expects the reader to believe them. (On a sidenote: I do love a dual-perspective novel; we get both Ashtyn and Derek’s side of the story, which I really enjoy.)

I also feel like there are a lot of forced moments in the story - particularly the physically romantic scenes. In my mind, this book came dangerously close to crossing the young adult to new adult (or whatever you call it) line. There are sex scenes that, although not extremely explicit, are descriptive enough to make me a bit uncomfortable to give it to readers on the young end of the young adult spectrum. These scenes disappointed me, because they are so not necessary. If anything, they turn Ashtyn and Derek’s romance into a physical thing rather than a more emotional connection.

Lastly, I wanted so much more from the characters. I liked Derek a lot, and I thought he was the most well-written of the bunch, but I still don’t believe the bad-boy side. He got expelled for a prank, and that’s about it. As for Ashtyn? I think this is a missed opportunity for Elkeles. Ashtyn had the potential to be a strong female, a tomboy not afraid to be who she was. Instead, there are too many references to how hot she is and the football piece is barely there. I still enjoyed their romance, but I just think there was so much more potential to make their story even better.

I know this sounds like a bad review, but it’s really not. It’s more like a wishful review. I enjoyed the book as it is, but I just saw a missed opportunity for a knockout. If you haven’t read a Simone Elkeles book yet, you definitely need to (she’s like a gateway drug for young adult readers). And even with my disappointment, I’m looking forward to continuing Ashtyn and Derek’s story in the second book.

Final Thoughts: I know my students will eat this book up (as they do with all of Simone Elkeles’ titles), but I found myself somewhat disappointed. It’s an addicting storyline and romance, but there’s just too much telling, rather than showing.

Who Should Read It? Fans of Simone Elkeles, obviously, need to add this to their TBR list. Also, readers of romance - especially edgy, bad-boy books (although Derek isn’t really a bad boy) - will fly through this story. Although it’s pegged as a football book, I think sports’ fans will be disappointed because there’s just not enough football in it. If you want a fun, addicting romance, this is your book. If you are looking for high-level writing, maybe not so much (sorry, Simone!).

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

REVIEW: Counting by 7s by Holly Goldberg Sloan

Counting by 7s by Holly Goldberg SloanTitle: Counting by 7s
Author: Holly Goldberg Sloan Website Facebook Twitter
Publisher: Dial
Release Date: August 29,2013
Pages: 384
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Summary from Goodreads: In the tradition of Out of My Mind, Wonder, and Mockingbird, this is an intensely moving middle grade novel about being an outsider, coping with loss, and discovering the true meaning of family.

Willow Chance is a twelve-year-old genius, obsessed with nature and diagnosing medical conditions, who finds it comforting to count by 7s. It has never been easy for her to connect with anyone other than her adoptive parents, but that hasn’t kept her from leading a quietly happy life . . . until now.
Suddenly Willow’s world is tragically changed when her parents both die in a car crash, leaving her alone in a baffling world. The triumph of this book is that it is not a tragedy. This extraordinarily odd, but extraordinarily endearing, girl manages to push through her grief. Her journey to find a fascinatingly diverse and fully believable surrogate family is a joy and a revelation to read.

First Thoughts: Beautiful story with a beautiful voice! All the Willows of the world - misunderstood kids experiencing nothing but heartbreak - deserve an ending like Willow Chance’s.

I completely understand the long list of awards for this book: An Amazon Best Book of the Year. A B.E.A. BUZZ BOOK 2013. A Junior Library Guild Selection. A Kids Indie Next List #4 of Top Ten Autumn 2013. A Texas Bluebonnet Award Nominee 2014-2015 Master List. It’s a beautifully written middle grade book that crosses over into young adult and even adult (I sure enjoyed it).

Although this book is realistic fiction, I’m not sure how believable it is - there are a lot of inconsistencies and predictable moments - and yet,  I don’t really think that matters. What matters is Willow, and she is wonderful. Loved, loved, loved her voice throughout the novel. As I read her story, I could picture her in many of my misunderstood students (I also feel like Willow is on the spectrum even though it’s never explicitly stated). Students who socially struggle, students with unstable home lives, students who are too smart for their own good - Willow embodies all of them.

To me, the most beautiful piece of the novel is its unlikely relationships. Willow, Dell (her counselor), Pattie (foster-like mother), Mai (happen-chance friend), and Mai’s brother (who just might be my favorite character) come together to form the most unlikely of families. And, their message about family is why I loved this book so much: family isn’t about blood, family is about who you love, trust, and rely on. So, even though Willow’s story is a heartbreaker, the ending is one of beauty and joy (sorry for the spoiler).

I suppose I can’t say it much better than the list below. Here are seven reasons why you should read Counting by 7s (from the publisher). I wholeheartedly agree with all of them, especially number 7 (fitting, right?):

  1. Friendship.  It doesn't always happen easily, especially for Willow.  But now she has met Mai, a girl with enough energy to tackle the impossible, and one who sees Willow for who she really is.
  2. Oddballs. We all feel like outsiders sometimes.  Willow the genius -- who has mastered several foreign languages and medical-school textbooks all by the age of twelve -- certainly doesn't easily fit in with the crowd.  Neither do the other people in this story filled with terrific, memorable oddballs.
  3. Hobbies.  It helps to have something interesting to focus on, such as Willow's passion for nature.  When tragedy strikes, it is the simple act of growing sunflowers that first brings her some pleasure again.
  4. Laughing and crying. But despite the tragedy, this is a beautiful, satisfying book -- the kind that makes you see your own life in a new way.  And through the heartache, you will find yourself laughing -- at the wonderfully absurd moments that happen even on the hardest days.
  5. Miracles.  Those unexpectedly silly moments are miraculous.  This is a story filled with everyday miracles.
  6. Family.  And the most miraculous thing of all is a loving family.
  7. Willow Chance herself, whose heart leads her on a path to belonging -- a path that is surprising, exhilarating, and without a doubt, one you will never forget.

Final Thoughts: One of those books with a character that simply touches your heart! You can’t help but fall in love with Willow and root for the happy ending she so deserves!

Who Should Read It? Although it’s technically a middle grade book, I think it has mass appeal for readers of all ages. It’s a heartfelt story that connects on so many levels. I know I’ll be adding it to my high school classroom library. Fans of Wonder should add this to their TBR list. It doesn’t have a lot of action and adventure, but it’s a beautiful look at life through some unlikely characters.

Friday, November 29, 2013

REVIEW: Tell the Wolves I'm Home by Carol Rifka Brunt

Tell the Wolves I'm HomeTitle: Tell the Wolves I’m Home
Author: Carol Rifka Brunt Website Facebook Twitter
Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
Release Date: June 19, 2012
Pages: 335
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Summary from Goodreads: 1987. There’s only one person who has ever truly understood fourteen-year-old June Elbus, and that’s her uncle, the renowned painter Finn Weiss. Shy at school and distant from her older sister, June can only be herself in Finn’s company; he is her godfather, confidant, and best friend. So when he dies, far too young, of a mysterious illness her mother can barely speak about, June’s world is turned upside down. But Finn’s death brings a surprise acquaintance into June’s life—someone who will help her to heal, and to question what she thinks she knows about Finn, her family, and even her own heart.

At Finn’s funeral, June notices a strange man lingering just beyond the crowd. A few days later, she receives a package in the mail. Inside is a beautiful teapot she recognizes from Finn’s apartment, and a note from Toby, the stranger, asking for an opportunity to meet. As the two begin to spend time together, June realizes she’s not the only one who misses Finn, and if she can bring herself to trust this unexpected friend, he just might be the one she needs the most.

First Thoughts: I’m not usually one for comparisons, but as I read this novel I couldn’t help but draw parallels to Harper Lee’s powerful classic, To Kill a Mockingbird. This story is a poignant, modern take on Lee’s coming-of-age story.

Let me start with why this is a 4 star, not 5 star book for me - it took me a little while to get into it. Once I was into the book? Wow! This is not an action-packed book. It’s not a conflict-driven plot. It’s simply a beautiful book about life told through incredibly real characters. It doesn’t have a happy heart-warming ending, necessarily; it’s just real life.

These complex characters are beyond real; this easily could be read as a memoir or piece of nonfiction. Because they are so real, they are extremely relatable. I found pieces of myself in June, and even in Greta, although I strongly disliked her for the majority of the novel. In June, I saw my strong sense of family and tradition. I don’t do well with change, and change sends June’s life into a tailspin. Although I hated (yes, hated) Greta for most of the story, I ended up completely understanding her. Growing up isn’t easy, especially when you’re the oldest. She wants to be older, she wants to be mature, and yet, she still wants to play invisible mermaids with her younger sister. I completely get that.

The characters, as individuals, are complex, but the relationships are really what make this story so poignant and powerful. As in life, there is a twisted web of relationships built on love, hate, secrets, and expectations. Although the sisters’ relationship drives the book, I found the most intrigue in the dynamics between Danni (the mother), Finn (the uncle), and Toby (the uncle’s boyfriend). The further the story went, the more layers that appeared. Even by the end of the book, I wasn’t sure how to feel about certain characters, but they definitely made me feel.

Obviously, this story is about the characters and their relationships, but it’s also a snapshot of our history - 1987 in NYC. I found it surreal to think about the panic AIDS caused. I was too young to experience the hysteria, anxiousness, and panic that the outbreak and publicizing of the disease caused, but it came through loud and clear in this novel. When you think about it 1987 isn’t that long ago, and yet, in reading this book, it seems like lifetimes ago. But has much changed? There’s still panic and misinformation. There’s still judgment and intolerance. There’s still sickness and death. As a country and as people, we’ve come a long way, but when you look at our current society, I strongly believe that we still have a long way to go.

Final Thoughts: This is a book you can’t help but feel. Whatever the feeling is - grief, love, loss, happiness - you  will feel something as you read this book.

Who Should Read It? Although the book is told from a fourteen year-old’s perspective, I think this book is written for a more mature, older audience (it’s in the adult fiction section at the library). I think some young adult readers are ready for the book, but I would recommend it more to upperclassmen and adults. I actually think we should teach this book in place of, or alongside, To Kill a Mockingbird.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

REVIEW: Ghost Hawk by Susan Cooper

Ghost HawkTitle: Ghost Hawk
Author: Susan Cooper Website Facebook
Publisher: Margaret K. McElderry Books
Release Date: August 27, 2013
Pages: 336
Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

Summary from Goodreads: From Newbery Medalist Susan Cooper, a story of adventure and friendship between a young Native American and a colonial New England settler.

On the winter day Little Hawk is sent into the woods alone, he can take only a bow and arrows, his handcrafted tomahawk, and the amazing metal knife his father traded for with the new white settlers. If Little Hawk survives three moons by himself, he will be a man.

John Wakely is only ten when his father dies, but he has already experienced the warmth and friendship of the nearby tribes. Yet his fellow colonists aren’t as accepting of the native people. When he is apprenticed to a barrel-maker, John sees how quickly the relationships between settlers and natives are deteriorating. His friendship with Little Hawk will put both boys in grave danger.

The intertwining stories of Little Hawk and John Wakely are a fascinating tale of friendship and an eye-opening look at the history of our nation. Newbery Medalist Susan Cooper also includes a timeline and an author’s note that discusses the historical context of this important and moving novel.

First Thoughts: After seriously considering abandoning this book, ultimately, I’m glad I stuck with it. My advice? Get to the BIG twist (you’ll know what I mean), and you’ll get hooked.

After finishing this book, I’m left with some conflicted feelings. I went from not liking this book at all (almost abandoning it), to getting really engaged in it, to learning that it’s not really an accurate portrayal of Native Americans of the time period.

I had a really, really hard time getting into this book. Everyday my students commented on my lack of reading progress. They kept telling me it must not be the right book for me (think they hear that often?), and I agree that this is definitely not my kind of book at all. However, it came recommended by some trusted sources so I read on. I’m glad I did, because at the halfway point or so, I finally got engaged. There is a SHOCKING turning point that really changes the path of the story. For as much as I was stuck in the beginning, I flew through the second half of the book.

Even though this is a young adult book (even promoted for tweens), I don’t really feel it’s for a young adult crowd, or at least not a broad crowd. Its pacing is extremely slow (the reason I almost abandoned it) and there’s a lot of descriptive detail. I found the prose, in some places, beautiful, but that’s not always a huge draw to my student readers.

In doing some research after finishing the book, apparently, there are many issues about the portrayal of Native Americans. They are in no way represented in a poor light, but nonetheless, everything in the book is not historically accurate. Even though this novel is labeled historical fantasy, it’s hard to separate from the historical piece. I’m really disappointed in this, because I felt like the novel provided a lot of information. Admittedly, I don’t know enough about Native American culture, beyond what I learned in school. However, if you’d like to know more about the discrepancies and criticism of the book check out Debbie Reese’s blog here.

Final Thoughts: I’m not sure how to feel, even weeks after finishing this book. It was a REALLY slow start for me, but I ended up finishing the second half in one night. I think it’s worth a read for fans of this genre, but it’s not worth a trip outside your reading comfort zone.

Who Should Read It? I think this book has an audience in survival and wilderness readers. I also think readers of this time period of historical fiction will enjoy this story (remember it’s not factual). I know a few students I will recommend this to, but I don’t think I would do a whole-group book talk with it.