Saturday, September 19, 2015


The Not-Just Anybody FamilyThe first time I read The Not-Just-Anybody Family, I knew I was reading genius. Betsy Byars uses exactly the right number of words to show her readers what is going on.   There was Junior on the barn roof; Maggie, his sister, was doing her toenails; Vern, his brother, was on the ground watching.  I have not picked up the book in twenty years but Maggie's lack of interest and Vern's almost ghoulish anticipation of a fall mixed with the hope that Junior really could fly are permanently imprinted in my brain.

Byars has won awards for several of her other books.  But for me, The Blossom Family will always be my favorite Betsy Cromer Byars titles.

So what is so great about Betsy Byars' books?  They are so accessible - which is a thing these days - accessibility.  They run the whole range from funny to heart-wrenching.  She writes for all ages but most impressively for that age group that can determine if a person becomes a life-long reader or not - middle grades.  Her characters are believable.  They get in trouble of all sorts.  They all learn something from their adventures - although not always what adults might want them to learn.

Herculeah Jones, Bingo Brown, Junior, Maggie and Vern Blossom, Cracker Jackson, Ant and his Brother, - these are just a few of the likable, quirky and totally normal kid characters that Byars created.

Pick up a Byars book next time you are in the library.  You won't be sorry.

Thursday, September 17, 2015


The League of Unexceptional Children by Gitty Daneshvari is a welcome change.  No magical, undiscovered world-changing super-talented children here!  No half human, half immortal orphans!
Nope, this book revolves around two children so bland, so mediocre, so unremarkable as to be almost invisible to the world around them.

And that makes them PERFECT for the secret work that The League of Unexceptional Children does.

When the Vice-President is kidnapped in the middle of the night, Jonathan and Shelly are recruited to go undercover to find him before the VP can disclose the nation's most valuable nuclear codes.   Jonathan and Shelly don't actually need to go undercover.  They are so unremarkable that Jonathan's teacher thinks he's a new student almost every day.  No one even hears Shelly when she talks.

After a slow start involving an incompetent security guard and a short villain, the book turns into a spy thriller heavy on spycraft-ish talk and trappings and with more comic escapades than thrills.

To say much more will tell you almost all.  This is a quick fun read in which two ordinary kids fumble through saving the country.  They even compete with two superspy kids from Europe.

The best thing about this book - for me, anyway - is the way the characters of our heroes develop.  They may look and act boring to the world at large but, given a task that challenges them, they show some spunk, if not much talent.  Hmmmm, could there actually be a redeeming message in this silly book?  ....... Nope, probably not.

Key words:  Quick, Funny, Slapstick, Spies! 

Saturday, September 12, 2015

Jellyfish in the Sun

It's happening again!  Books with similar themes end up on my list right next to each other.

The Thing about Jellyfish by Ali Benjamin is narrated by Suzy who can't believe that her oldest friend could just drown.  "These things happen" is NOT an acceptable explanation.  Suzy becomes convinced that a rare jellyfish is responsible for Franny's death. 

Suzy is a fact person who inundates the reader with math and facts about jellyfish and the people who study them.  But this book also chronicles the all too frequent trauma that occurs when one person outgrows another - as Franny outgrows Suzy by the end of 6th grade.  This relationship break makes Franny's death so much harder for Suzy to accept. 

Her search for someone who can understand the horror of jellyfish - as she sees it - leads Suzy to start out on a dangerous and possibly illegal journey.

Her parents, her older brother and an unexpected friend help Suzy to move into a life without Franny.

Lost in the Sun by Lisa Graff    Ok.   In fifth grade, Trent killed someone during an ice hockey game.  Total accident.   Trent's parents and older and younger brother seem to think Trent should move on.  Trent's Dad, especially, has little patience for Trent's surly attitude.  Dad's new wife is expecting their first child any time now.  So, it was an accident. Get over it already.  (Not actual words from the book.)

Trent reacts to the guilt and the anxiety he feels by making sure he gets into trouble at school, and with his Dad.  He even refuses to enter into prank wars with his little brother.

Luckily, Fallon, a girl at school with a noticeable facial scar befriends Trent after she peeks into his Book of Thoughts and sees the pictures he draws there - pictures of what the boy he killed might be doing at that very moment.  Fallon wants Trent to draw a picture for her.

How Trent manages to make things worse and then how he manages to make them better - with the help of sympathetic outsiders - makes an engrossing and emotional read.

These books have totally different styles, despite their similarities - see below.  Jellyfish is awash with facts and musings on facts - the type of book that will lend itself to STEM curricula.  But there is an immediacy to Suzy's pain, even as she carefully plans her science report and her journey,  and her need to find explanations for her friend's death.

Sun, on the other hand, concentrates on Trent's emotional struggles.  Trent speaks in a matter-of-fact voice, referring to the accident almost casually.  And all the time he is seething and unable to see that he is till a worthwhile human being.  

Here is a list of other similarities:
New friends:  Both of the new frends have problems of their own that they seem to have overcome. 
Older brothers: Aaron - yeah, both of them.
Nice teachers:  Suzy likes her science teacher right away.  Trent hates everyone but his homeroom teacher really is pretty old.

Read 'em both, except you might want to read other books in between.  OK?

Friday, September 4, 2015

Undertow By Michael Buckley

Undertow by Michael Buckley.

For three years, Lyric Walker has behaved like a model citizen - in school, at home, everywhere.  The wild thing she used to be cannot come out.  Her home town of Coney Island has become a refugee camp for a strange race of sentient sea creatures.  The hatred and mistrust between humans and these aliens - the Alpha - grows to a fever pitch when the president demands that Alpha children enter New York's public schools.

Lyric's school is first.

But Lyric and her parents have a secret that may kill them.  When Lyric is forced to befriend the Alpha prince, Fathom, things become confusing all too quickly.  He is untamed - as are all the Alpha - with a sense of honor that demands quick and violent retribution for the smallest of slights.  Lyric only agrees to help Fathom adjust to humans when escape from the area is offered to her for parents as well as herself.

The government, itself, is split between the locals who hate and want to exterminate these interlopers and the federal government that views them as possible allies.

A subplot about Lyric's best friend's abusive step-father, and that best friend's boy friend add pathos to an otherwise action adventure sci-fi novel.

Things start out uncomfortably in this book and quickly become ugly and then uglier.  Hate and what it motivates people to do is never a pretty sight.

Things I liked best about this book:
1.  Cool battle scenes.
2.  Lyric and Bex, her best friend.
3.  Lyric's migraines turn into something significant.
4.  The trial scene - wow, that was so awesome!
5.  Governmental wrangling.  Don't totally trust them!!  Conspiracy theorists, unite!

Possible Spoiler Alert!!
I expected an underlying theme to be the warming of the oceans.  I thought that was the reason these people were forced onto land.  That may crop up in subsequent titles in this series - because Fathom, Lyric, Bex and all the others will return.  But the reason the Alpha left the sea is pretty freaky and scary.

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Silver in the blood, in the hand and everywhere

Media of Silver in the BloodDacia, and her cousin LouLou, are traveling to Romania to meet their mothers' family for the first time.  While Lou visits Paris and shops the fashion houses there, Dacia travels by ship with her Aunt Kate.  Dacia, ever the rebel, is in disgrace since she had an escapade with a certain nobleman in England.

Dacia catches sight of her prim aunt passionately kissing a stranger when the train they have boarded is stopped by snow in the mountains.

Meanwhile, Lou is stalked by That Awful Man, a stranger who accosts her on the ship asking if she is The Wing or the Claw.  Another time, he announces that she is the Smoke and an houri, which upsets her terribly.

In Romania, Dacia meets Prince Mihai, charming to the nth degree.  Then she meets her maternal grandmother, the dread Lady Ioana.  "Dread" does not come close to describing this woman.

Dacia and Lou are trapped by their genetic make-up in a destiny that neither wants nor can control.

But things are worse.  Their family believes that these two girls are the answer to a prophecy.  And the family is at odds about what the prophecy means.

And the English Lord, That Awful Man and Prince Mihai are, none of them, what they seem to be.

Ahh, a proper paranormal romance, set in the home of paranormal activity, the mountains of Eastern Europe!   Terror, entrapment, kidnapping, poison, armed guards, swoon worthy men, Victorian fashions and manners... It's all in here.   Silver in the Blood by Jessica Day George.

Monday, August 31, 2015

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

The Improbable Theory of Ana & Zak by Brian Katcher

Here's the link.
 The Improbable Theory of Ana & Zak by Brian Katcher

The first chapter is Zak's.  We meet his stepfather, Roger, and we find out that Zak is NOT into sports.  He's not into school so much.  He's into games, and comics, and stuff like that.  And he misses his Dad.

Then, in the next chapter we meet Ana.  Here's what we learn about Ana.  She does a lot of stuff and she does it all well and she does it ALL because it will look good on her college applications.  And she doesn't have time for fun.  Her sister was the fun one.  "I don't have a sister anymore."

If these two characters were a Venn diagram, their edges would barely touch.  That touch would be the fact that they go to the same school.  That is ALL they have in common. Oh, and they are both smart.

So, Zak lifts his health essay straight from Wikipedia.  And his flustered-seeming health teacher catches it.  And his punishment is to serve as the alternate at the Quiz Team - of which Ana is captain - tournament.  This is a HUGE punishment because the tournament is on the very same weekend as the Annual Washingcon - the comic con event that Zak has not missed in 5 years.

Then Ana's younger brother - also on the Quiz team - goes AWOL from the hotel.  And Ana - whose parents are kind of scary - has to find him.  And Zak helps because he knows that Younger Brother, Clayton, has run off to Washingcon.  So, Zak gets to go after all.  And there are a lot of people in costumes and some mayhem, and a wedding and a battle and an altercation with an underworld figure of the criminal persuasion - not of the supernatural sort.  And Clayton is Super at eluding capture.  And Zak is a Washingcon celebrity of sorts and Ana learns a LOT.  And, oh wookies! Are they in a bunch of trouble!

Also, some parental drama occurs in which things get dealt with.  'Nuff said.

The parent in me wants to add:  Do NOT try this at home.  But if you do and you find a lost valuable item, leave it where it is, ok?  Just report it to the front desk and go your merry way.

Cons look like fun.  For younger people.  I'll just don my Chrestomanci bathrobe and pour another mug of coffee, right here, at home.