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How to Save a LifeHow to Save a Life by Sara Zarr

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Sara Zarr writes the sort of books that are populated with characters who feel so real, you know you’d recognize them if you met them on the street. I couldn’t put this one down – I felt desperate for the characters to get to some emotional resolution. The good news is that the ending is satisfying but not too tidy. Just enough is left to your imagination.

The viewpoint alternates between Mandy, a pregant teen, and Jill, a high school senior whose widowed mother wants to adopt Mandy’s baby. Yeah, it sounds like an after-school special – and I kept waiting to dislike Robin for what seemed like an impulsive decision, but I never did. Jill got angsty and annoying, but in a realistic teenagery way. Mandy seemed a little air-headed, but again, it worked. They all came together. They figured it out – how to get along with each other. How to try a little tenderness, how to listen to what Mac would have told them if he were still alive.

There are a few messy romantic storylines, although “romantic” is not really the way to describe how Jill and her on-and-off boyfriend act around each other. But they’re not the central part of the story. It’s about family, yes, but also about trying to find the best part of yourself to show other people, even when being shut-off and hard is a lot easier.

Definitely recommended to fans of character-driven stories – and to adults as well as teens, I think. Obviously teen pregnancy is part of the story, and Mandy has a pretty awful past, but nothing is explicit.

Source: review copy from publisher

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Beyond SilenceBeyond Silence by Eleanor Cameron

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is an atmospheric, melancholy story about a teen boy visiting Scotland with his father. His brother has recently died, the family is crumbling, and he’s started hearing voices – vivid conversations – and seeing scenes that he finds engrossing and peaceful. He’s at loose ends in Scotland, wandering the countryside and befriending the local bookseller and the couple who run the castle-turned-hotel where he and his father are staying.

The story seems to fit into that type that I read a lot of as a kid – slightly eerie occurances, mysterious events from the past overlapping with our own time, old letters and photos and voices from the past. But while I was curious to see where the story went, there were so many loose ends never tied up, and so many plot strands that added a bit of atmosphere or character but no real plot.

It was a bit like watching an odd foreign film, the kind of moody thing where you’re intrigued but never quite sold on the whole set-up, and where the end leaves you in serious need of resolution. At the same time, though, you’re admiring the cinematography and acting. Which is all to say that I’m conflicted – slightly admiring, slightly confused, and wishing I could find out what on earth Eleanor Cameron was trying to do with this book.

Source: my public library (and to be honest, I checked it out because it showed up on a “hasn’t gone out in a long time” weeding list, and I usually love Eleanor Cameron so I wanted to keep it going for a while.  But if it shows up again in 3 or 4 years, I might give it the ax.)

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One False Note (39 Clues, #2)One False Note by Gordon Korman

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Like the first book, The Maze of Bones, this is a fast-paced story focused more on plot than it is on characters or style. The characters are still a bit flat, with more short-hand about their personalities (Amy is more timid, Dan takes more risks – Amy loves museums and libraries, Dan prefers electronics and action) but this isn’t a problem for kids who just want the action and mystery, or kids who struggle with reading and need to get hooked quickly without too much description. There’s just enough information about each place the kids visit – Austria and Venice – to add interest, along with a few funny incidents to vary the pace. The ending doesn’t really offer any resolution, sweeping you instead straight into the next stop – Tokyo.

I doubt I’ll continue with the series, but I’ll continue to recommend it to kids looking for quick, exciting reads.

Source: my public library

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Geektastic: Stories from the Nerd HerdGeektastic: Stories from the Nerd Herd by Holly Black

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

As with all short story collections, there are some stories that hit you harder than others. Here, part of that depends on your style of geekiness and part depends on the types of stories you enjoy. Overall, this is a solid collection, but a few of the stories suffer if you’re not up on the terminology that goes with that particular world.

In (I think – I already returned the book) “Definitional Chaos” by Scott Westerfeld, it took a while to get into the story because I was so distracted trying to figure out the terminology. Some stories, though, feel more universal to experiences of nerdiness – in Wendy Mass’ “The Stars at the Finish Line,” not being a space geek didn’t detract from my enjoyment of the story. Quite the opposite – it made me want to head out to the middle of nowhere on a clear night and do some star gazing.

Some stories are more about getting the in-jokes (I think “One of Us” by Tracy Lynn would fall flat without knowing at least a handful of the references) and others combine that nicely with emotional resonance. Libba Bray’s “It’s Just a Jump to the Left” had plenty of geekiness and a surprisingly touching ending.

Recommended if you identify as a geek, nerd, etc., or if you’re looking for a smart, funny short story collection.

Source: my public library

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The Trouble With ChickensThe Trouble With Chickens by Doreen Cronin

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Told in short chapters with plenty of illustrations, this would be a great read for young fans of mysteries. I don’t know if it would be the best introduction to the genre, but a kid who’s been listening to mysteries read aloud or digging Nate the Great and has a sense of the genre would get the humor here, I think. It’s not over-the-top or slapstick, but more of an homage to the noir genre populated with dogs and chickens. This would likely make a good read aloud, especially since there’s humor for both adults and kids. I’m looking forward to recommending this to families looking for mysteries to share as well as kids just diving into the world of chapter books.

Source: my library (which, yeah, means I bought it for the library in the course of my duties)

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The False PrincessThe False Princess by Eilis O’Neal

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Thoroughly enjoyable. A few things I particularly liked were Sinda’s growth as a character and the way magic was handled. Sometimes the magic in fantasy books feels arbitrary, as though the author constantly changed the rules to suit the action. Here, it felt thought-out in advance and fairly organic. I appreciated that Sinda dealt with the dramatic changes in her position in a realistic way – passive acceptance, then a bit of depression, then floundering around as she tries to figure out what to do next, then a gradual gain in confidence and competence.

I only had one minor quibble, plot-wise, where I expected a plot twist that didn’t come. Otherwise, it felt pleasantly complex without being too convoluted or slow. It’s not quite a page-turner, until the end, but it kept my interest throughout.

This is one of those books hovering between children’s and young adult – the characters are teens and there’s some romance, but it’s all completely appropriate for middle schoolers. It would probably appeal to fans of fairy tale retellings.

Source: my public library

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September 2011
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