Trouble is a Friend of Mine by Stephanie Tromly

Zoe Webster, or Princeton as Digby calls her, has just moved to the small upstate New York town of River Heights. She’s skipped school on day one, not knowing how fast she’d wind up9780525428404 in detention. The trouble is, Digby is there too and he’s trouble. He wants her to help him find out who has been abducting young girls and he thinks it’s one of the town’s OB-GYNs, the one her mother goes to. She just wants to go back to go to a private school that will help her get into Princeton, and live with her dad and stepmom. Thus the nickname Princeton.

As much as Zoe dislikes Digby, she can’t help participating in his schemes, whether it’s going to the doctor with Digby and then downloading the his hard drive or breaking in at night to get Dr. Schell’s password, so Digby can open the encrypted files he stole.

Then there’s the weirdos across the street, an “end-of-the-world cult,” a bunch of kids that live in a mansion that supposedly runs an herbal tea business. The girls who wear prairie dresses are always cleaning and their driveway smells like chemicals while the boys  put bags with biohazard waste logos on them in their van.

This treat of a book is fast paced, funny, with close calls and plenty of sarcasm. As Zoe figures, “Preparing to survive a typical day of being Digby’s friend wasn’t that different from preparing to survive the apocalypse.”

Orbiting Jupiter by Gary D. Schmidt

Orbiting Jupiter is an elegantly written book, narrated by Jack, the Orbiting_Jupitertwelve-year-old son of an organic farmer and his wife. Set in rural Maine, the family has taken in a thirteen-year-old boy, Joseph Brook, as a foster child. Not only has Joseph been in juvie, but he is also the father of a baby girl named Jupiter. He is withdrawn and remote. Joseph won’t let anyone walk behind him, but Jack lets him know he “has his back.” He walks the 2 miles to school in the freezing cold with Joseph who gets harassed on the bus. Jack also teaches Joseph to milk cows and the cows take a liking to Joseph.  And Joseph shows Jack the planet Jupiter which he searches for nightly.

Despite the principal’s dislike of Joseph, Coach Swieteck, who’s back from Okay for Now, admires Joseph’s talent as do his math and English teachers. But Joseph wants so much to find his daughter whom he’s never seen but whom he loves.

Gary Schmidt is a tremendous author who creates real and unique characters all of whom are searching for something.  Watch him talk about Orbiting Jupiter

Winter by Marissa Meyer

WinterWhoo, I finished Winter, Book Four of The Lunar Chronicles by Marissa Meyer!  After a somewhat slow start, I sped through the last two thirds and I’m not a person that can sit in place for long periods of time.   It’s definitely a thriller, hard to put down.   All of the series are retold fairy tales and this on is based on Snow White,  Levana is like the evil, vain and hideous stepmother and her stepdaughter, the beautiful Winter.  Winter is fragile; she has Lunar sickness because she resists using her Lunar gift to control people’s minds.  She realizes what the effects doing so are.  Just like she refuses to use glamour the scars on her face which Levana made her inflict on herself.  Because of that she has nightmares, believes the walls to be bleeding and ceaselessly puts her childhood friend and loyal guard, Jacin, in danger.
 Cress, the third book in the series, ended with Emperor Kai being kidnapped on what was to be his wedding day.  He had agreed against his better judgement to marry Queen Levana in order to obtain the antidote to Letumosis, a type of plague, that was spreading to the Earth’s inhabitants.  Cinder knows better though, and along with the  sarcastic and egotistical criminal, Captain Thorne, kidnaps Kai and takes him on board the stolen airship, Rampion.  As Kai and the crew learn of Lunar attacks on his palace, he becomes determined to return to Earth to do his job.  There he sets up a plan to travel to Luna for the wedding, convincing the queen that it would be impossible to interfere.  Soon Kai and his chief advisor, Konn Torin, are back onboard the Rampion along with Cinder, Thorne, Cress, Wolf, and the lovable and sarcastic Iko,  and headed to Luna where Wolf hopes to rescue  Scarlet and all hope to put Cinder on the throne that rightly belongs to her.
Luna turns out to be very similar to the world of The Hunger Games, with various sectors kept apart to prevent rebellions and each having different industries or agriculture that feed supply the capitol, Artemisia, with its indulgent upperclass.  The wealthy even dress ridiculously, as they do in The Hunger Games.
I’d forgotten lots of details from the earlier stories, but without Meyer doing awkward replays, I was able to recollect who Cinder’s friends were and their own stories. But this book would be impossible to figure out without having read the first three. There are many twists and turns, as well as a few overly convenient meet-ups.  I really liked the way the short chapters change between recounting the events as they unfold for the main characters.  This becomes even more stunning as the events move toward crises.  As in the earlier books, all of the characters, cyborgs, androids, some of Levanna’s guards and Earthens have such human characteristics: fear,  doubt, senses of humor, sarcasm, loyalty and love.

The Rest of Us Just Live Here by Patrick Ness

the rest of us just live hereSeventeen-year-old Mikey just hopes that his school isn’t blown up before  graduation,   so he can finish school and leave town for college.  Well he also wants to kiss Henna and take her to prom but there’s a new boy who just moved to town who wants the same thing.  Around the town are woods where the zombie deer hang out, like the one who lands in Mikey’s car when he and Henna run into him.  Occasionally an Indie kid. “that group with the cool-geek haircuts,” is killed.  And while all sorts of strange things go on like zombie deer, a demigod of cats and mountain lions, and iridescent blue eyes shining from the woods,  like the title says, “the rest of us just live here.” The bizarre elements are mostly confined to the edges, to chapter summaries with their own Indie characters.  The rest, the main body of the book is about Mikey, his friends and his family.

Mikey’s father is a drunk, his mother is a state senator who rarely has time for her kids except when she needs them.  His sister almost died from an eating disorder, his best friend is  a demigod and his friend Helene is about to go to Central Africa where there are wars going on, with her missionary parents.  It’s no wonder that he’s OCD in the worst way.  How Mikey and his friends get to graduation is a rollercoaster of an enchanting ride.  The Rest of Us Just Live Here is another wonderful book by Patrick Ness.

Li Jun and the Iron Road by Anne Tait

Li Jun and the Iron Road was adapted from the TV miniseries, The Iron Road.   Li Jun is  a young Chinese girl whose father Li Junhas gone to Canada to build the railroads.  After a time he has not been heard from or sent money, so Li Jun is sent by he mother to work as a servant for the first wife of the head of their clan in Hong Kong. When her mother dies, she is determined not to return to her abusive position, but to travel to Canada to work on the railroad and seek her father, Li Man.

LI Jun goes back to Hong Kong, disguised as a boy, and gets work in a firecracker factory.  There she also earns extra cash delivering laundry.  One of her customers, a kind man who is an alcoholic named Mr. Relic, becomes her tutor and teaches her Engllish.  Another mentor is Mr. Zhou from the fireworks factory.  In one of my favorite scenes from the book, Mr. Zhou teaches Li Jun how to explode a walnut shell without shattering the nut inside.  This will be a valuable skill when she becomes a railroad builder.

There is a lot to be commended in this book.  Baits can paint intimate scenes, like the one of her working with Mr. Zhou, or moments with her mother, but it all seems very rushed.  She seems to become an excellent English speaker overnight.  Her daily life in the railway is not fully explored and her relationship with Mr. James proceeds too quickly.

Nevertheless the story of Chinese railway workers, the discrimination, unsafe conditions, the lying and cheating that were used to get cheap labor is told.

I would give this 2 1/2 stars and recommend it to 4th and 5th graders.  It may have been intended for older audiences, but it lacks substance for it to be a praiseworthy YA read.

Fuzzy Mud by Louis Sachar

fuzzy_mudAfter a short history of the once elegant building that now houses the Woodridge Academy in Heath Cliff, PA, Sachar jumps into the middle of a blustering, and somewhat gross, lunchtime conversation among some boys in the 7th grade about a hermit who lives in the woods next to their school.. Tamaya and some friends from the 5th grade are sitting with these boys when she enters the conversation and right away someone calls her a “real Goody Two Shoes.” She wonders when the rules changed, when it became bad to be good?

That very afternoon she expects to walk home with an older neighbor, Marshall. She is not allowed to walk to school or back alone, but he has decided to ditch his usual path. He is afraid of an encounter with a bully, Chad, who has been threatening to beat him up. She breaks the rules and follows him.  Not only do they get lost, but she has a bad fall. While Marshall goes off to a leg to find the way, Tamaya notices some fuzzy mudlike substance. At the same time, Chad appears and attacks Marshall. Chad threatens her as being next, but she grabs some of the mud and shoves it into his face.

All the way home and all night Marshall worries about meeting Chad. Then when Chad doesn’t show up at school the next day, he wishes Chad would just come in and beat him up. When the principal comes into the classroom to announce that Chad hadn’t gone home the night before, he freaks.

What they don’t know, but we do, is that there have been some secret government meetings about the goings on about 30 miles from the school at SunRay Farm where a scientist has been developing “a single-celled living creature that is totally unnatural to this planet… [in order to] burn them alive inside automobile engines.” These creatures were formed from DNA altered slime mold.

So begins an environmental disaster story that is exciting and scary. I love the way each chapter has an illustration with a petri dish that starts off empty, but begins to multiply exponentially. As Tamaya comes down with a rash, the incredible multiplication of the ergonyms is revealed with increasing figures from 2 x 1 = 2 to 2 x 32,768 = 65,536, giving us the sense that this threat is unbeatable.

Thanks to NetGalley for allowing me to preview this wonderful book.

Bigger than a Bread Box by Laurel Snyder

Just a few days after hearing her parents argue, or her mother yelling at her dad when the lights went out, and thinking that the argument had blown over Rebecca came downstairs for breakfast to find that her mother had all their mismatched suitcases laid out. Her mom told her they were going home, meaning they were leaving Baltimore for Atlanta and her gran. By the time she got home from school, the car was packed her two-year-old brother Lew strapped in his car seat, and she was
told to get in the car.

‘It’s time to go’, [mom] snapped. Then she closed her eyes and took a deep breath. She let it out. ‘Don’t worry, you’ll see your father again. This isn’t the end of the world.’

But for twelve-year-old Rebecca, it was the end of the world. Torn from her father, her school and best friend without warning with her father running after the car, was pretty devastating for Rebecca. She stopped talking to her mother. Even when they arrived at Gran’s, she continued to boycott her mother. Looking for a phone to call her dad, she stumbled into the staircase to the attic where she found an old, red bread box. Having been wishing for all sorts of things, like her dad to show up, for a book. She found one in the bread box. Pretty soon she was wishing for all sorts of stuff that the bread box was able to proBigger-than-a-Bread-Boxvide, including money, candy for her brother, a phone, except it couldn’t bring her her dad.

Starting a new school, Rebecca, who “had never been the New Girl before,” was told to sit next to Hannah, the queen of the popular girls, and was introduced as Becky. She’d never been Becky, and never hung out with the cool girls. At home she hung out with Mary Kate; they read a lot, went to the park and liked to cook and bake together. Suddenly she found herself adopting the manners of the cool girls.

But at Gran’s she began to play with Lew and take him for walks in his stroller. She started to see that she wasn’t the only one that missed her dad. And she learned one of the reasons her mother had left home. It’s not long before all this accumulating stuff that doesn’t belong to her and being fake with her new friends blows up in her face.

At first I found the magic box kind of a strange plot device, but I still couldn’t put it down.  I realized that after an episode like she experienced, wishing and magical thinking would be about all that was left. In fact Snyder portrays the divorce and its effect on Rebecca and Lew incredibly vividly. Her Gran is supportive and loving but forthright about how Rebecca is going to have “to do some stretching.” In a way, he Gran is the person who provides her the support she needs during this chaotic period. After what could have turned into a disaster, Rebecca learns to speak for herself.

This is definitely a tear jerker. I decided to read it after reading a glowing review of Snyder’s forthcoming book, SWAN: The Life and Dance of Anna Pavlova . Even though they are totally unrelated, I’m very glad I read it.

The Life and Times of Benny Alvarez by Peter Johnson

Benny-AlvarezBenny Alvarez’s brother calls him Mr. Negativity.  He loves to argue and be contrary and his mother complains that he always sees the glass half empty.  Benny’s grandfather is really sick, his brother, Crash, is like a whirling dervish of uncontrolled energy and feelings, and he’s had it with the girls at school who think they are so smart, especially Claudine.  He has been in a battle with Claudine since 5th grade, arguing over everything, but now in seventh grade, he’s begun to blush when she sees him him looking at her.

Benny and his two best friends are into words and have a club, the Word Warriors.  They are into the Book, the thesaurus, and each day one throws out a word to see if the others can come up with synonyms.  Of course Claudine takes Latin, so she can figure out the meaning of words from their roots.  Words are at the heart of this book, which can hurt or heal.  The story takes a turn when the gorgeous teacher, Ms. Butterfield, or Ms. D for demigoddess, introduces a section on poetry.  When asked what he thinks about poetry, Benny thinks “My take is that I think less about poetry than I do about the two glands on Spot’s rear end that the vet told us to massage twice a week.”  But he says, he doesn’t really think about it.

The girls love poetry and think it’s all about verse and rhyme; the boys hate it, but they prefer not to rhyme or use verse.  Claudine and Benny get locked in a competition to see who can write and deliver the best poem.  Around the same time, Claudine’s dog dies and Benny’s grandfather has a second stroke.  Both of them are forced to look at things and each other from a different angle.

The Life and Times of Benny Alvarez is a light-hearted read which covers some serious territory but has some really funny parts as well.

The War that Saved my Life by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley

On September 1, 1938, British Operation Pied Piper began under which British children were evacuated from cities in order 20912424to protect them from anticipated German bombing. On September 3 Britain declared war on Germany. In The War that Saved my Life, Ada and Jamie, like thousands of children from London, were sent to the countryside. It wasn’t supposed to be that way. Their mam only wanted to send Jamie, since, as she said to Ada, “Who’d want you? Nobody, that’s who. Nice people don’t want to look at that foot… You can’t leave. You never will. You’re stuck here, right here in this room, bombs or no.” Ada had a club foot and had never been allowed to leave their tiny apartment. She only stared out their window at the kids playing and was sad when Jamie had become independent, running around with his pals. But she had a plan, “You find out where we have to go and what time we have to be there…We’re leaving together, we are.”

Leaving is harder than she thought, not sneaking out on their sleeping mother part,  but getting to the school. Ada had never walked before, only crawled on her scabby knees,  but at one point Peter White, whom Ada had watched from the window, offered Ada a piggy back ride to the school. From there they were taken by train, with no food or bathroom stops. But Ada caught sight of a girl on a horse running through a field and flying over a stone fence, and she decided, “I’m going to do that.” Finally the train stopped and a teacher ordered all of the children out to use the loos. This was Ada’s first time to see herself in a mirror and she saw “the shabbiest, nastiest-looking girl (she’d) ever seen.” Then they were lined up like “fish on a slab” to be chosen by the villagers. After all of the children were chosen, Jamie and Ada remained, but the iron-faced woman, a member of the WVS (Women’s Volunteer Service) took charge. She ordered a single reclusive woman, the “not that nice” Miss Smith, to take them in.

Ada becomes transformed living with Susan, who has a pony in the field, left by her friend Becky who died. Despite her bravery in teaching herself to ride the pony, she remains defensive, dubious and fearful of the day she will have to return home. Despite Susan’s initial skepticism about taking in the children, it turns out that Susan’s father, too, had been very disappointed in her, she slowly grows to love them.

This is a wonderful book with a few lapses, but they don’t take away from the experience of reading it. It reminds me of Goodnight Mr. Tom, another book about an evacuee with an abusive mother who winds up living with a recluse.

Goodbye Stranger by Rebecca Stead

goodbye-strangerRebecca Stead has written another extremely well crafted book with authentic characters and dialog.  There are two stories, the main one about three 7th grade girls who have known each other since 4th grade.  Because Bridge had announced that she was allergic to clubs, that she preferred the term ‘set,’ like in math,  “…from then on, they were the set of all fourth graders who drew creatures on their homework.  More than that they were friends.”   As 7th grade moves forward, you wonder if they’ll stay friends.  On club day  Em joins the soccer club and becomes a star player.  Tab gets engrossed with her feminist literature teacher who also runs the Human Rights Club which Tab joins.

Bridge doesn’t want to join a club, but she joins Tech Crew, “Not a club.”  And that’s where she gets to work with Sherm.  Shem and Bridge have a secret connection that Bridge didn’t even know about.  They have a friendship that is wonderful, leaving room for it to develop. One of my favorite scenes happens on the first day of tech crew when Mr. Partridge has the crew one by one walk on the stage and stand in the middle of the stage in order to imagine what it’s like to be onstage and vulnerable and why actors need the stage crew to be there offstage taking care of them.

The other story line is of a high school girl, name unidentified, who decides to not go to school on Valentine’s Day.  That’s the day flowers are given to and received from friends.   And she has bad memories of some of her friends, especially one named Vinny who is manipulative.   Her day off is described in second person, “You feel for your purse, your wallet, your phone.  And your remember.  You don’t have your purse. You don’t have your wallet.  You don’t have your phone.  You can’t go home right now.”  Her vulnerability from hurts by friends made me wonder about how long the friendship of three 7th graders would last.

On top of this there are other plot lines skillfully woven in, all about friendship and broken relations.  How do friends stay friends as their lives and interests change and how do friends deal with hurt and duplicity.  All of the strands of Goodbye Stranger deal with these issues.  As with When You Reach Me after I finished it, I was in awe at how skillfully and subtlly Stead weaves various characters and storylines together.  Put this on your TO READ list!  It’s due out on August 4, 2015.  Thanks to NetGalley for making this fantastic book available.