John Clark bringing you some random thoughts as well as a bunch of book reviews. Thus far I’ve read 64 books in 2015 and reviewed most of them for various online entities. Even so, the TBR pile keeps growing…and growing… and growing. Since retirement is getting closer and this has been a pretty dismal winter in terms of any outside activities, I’ve changed my routine when getting home. I used to wash the dishes after supper and head up to my computer room immediately to do some library-related catching up. Now, I head for the recliner by the pellet stove and read for a couple hours before going upstairs. I’m beginning to think that an interesting book is the perfect rationalization for blowing off so-called responsible stuff. In addition, the sheer number of interesting books I discover every week are changing another long standing habit. I used to bull my way through a book no matter how bad it got. Now if I’m losing interest, I simply put it down and start another one. This is why almost every review I write is a positive one.
On to a challenge I hope some of you will accept. One of my down the road fantasies is to write a book with sixteen short crime stories, each one set in a different Maine county. One of the really cool things about our state is the number of unusual place names that are real. Ever been to Pripet? How about Wonderland, Pumpkin Valley, Sabino or Slab City (there are three of them). Given such a richness, one could spend hours just coming up with names for each story that would spur a reader’s imagination before they even start reading. Here are a few that I pulled off the top of my Head. The Revenge of the Roque Bluffs Rogue, A Plague of Poison Ployes in Plaisted, The Cardinal Sinner of Sabbathday Lake, Night of Nastiness in Norridgewock and The Twisted Temptress of T9, R7.
So, good readers, Below are the sixteen county names. Grab your handy Delorme Atlas or similar tool and come up with the best story titles for each one. Post them here or email them to me at firstname.lastname@example.org I will award the list I think is most creative with a worthwhile prize mailed to the winner after being announced in my next post here at MCW.
Now for some reviews of books I’ve read recently that are worth sharing.
First up is Hung Up by Kristen Tracy, Simon Pulse reprint edition, 2015 ISBN: 9781442460775. We’ve all called the wrong number. Usually you apologize and hang up as soon as you realize your mistake, but what if? Lucy never meant to call James. She was trying to reach the deadbeat who accepted her money for a plaque she special ordered, but never received. After leaving several fairly irate messages, James picks up on the next one. This is where 99% of the time that would be the end of it, but this is that magical 100th call and it turns into an ongoing telephone relationship that segues from James identifying himself so Lucy might actually realize she got the person who inherited the deadbeat’s number, to a little bit of everything.
Lucy is extremely guarded for reasons that don’t come out until quite late in the book, but they’re very sad and very real reasons. Fortunately, James is pretty cool with her skittishness and has some quirks of his own. When their plan to go to his formal dance falls through and he fails to contact Lucy for several days, it could easily have been the deal breaker for their fragile, but evolving relationship. Instead, it helps her understand that he has family issues, that, while nowhere near as traumatic as hers, are still distressing to him. By the end of the book, readers will feel like they’ve been on an emotional roller coaster, wondering if these two are EVER going to meet face to face.
This is a smart, emotional read that will appeal to teens who have experienced loss or who are skittish about the dating scene. It has a touch of mystery mixed in with neat dialogue and romance. All in all, it’s another good book for libraries who care about offering decent reads to teens.
How (Not) To Find A Boyfriend by Allyson Valentine. Philomel Books, 2014. ISBN: 9780399257711. Sadly, the stereotype of the smart girl who thinks she must play dumb to be popular isn’t a fiction. In this book, Laura Fullbright is an extremely smart girl who decides when she changes high schools that she’ll hide her past academic achievements so she can become popular. She joins the cheering squad where her gymnastics experience makes her a valuable addition. Her best friend Krista who has been with the same guy since she was twelve, is pushing Laura to go out with Jake who is good looking, but dumber than a box of rocks. She’s tempted. After all, hasn’t her goal this year to be popular and shouldn’t that include a hot boyfriend?
Of course, things always get complicated when you try scripting your future. The day before school begins, Laura is playing soccer with her little brother when the ball goes astray. It’s kicked back by a stranger and hits her in the head. Enter Adam, new to town and possibly better looking than Jake. It’s instant swoon for Laura and she senses that there’s interest on Adam’s part.
Would that getting his attention long enough to pursue her attraction be so simple—Not. Laura makes mistake after mistake in her attempts to connect with him. After switching out of her AP classes to help cement her popularity quest, she discovers that Adam is probably her equal in the brains department, so she initiates a series of well-intentioned, but disastrous swaps with other kids in an effort to get in the same classes and work on some projects with him, all the while trying to keep Jake far enough away so she doesn’t have to go to the prom with him.
Reading as she navigates her way through this minefield, as well as finally realizing that being smart is as much a part of her as anything, is fun and cringeworthy in a very good way. The chemistry between Laura and Adam, coupled with her re-evaluation of her broken relationship with her dad, make this a great book for teens. Those who wrestle with the smart vs popular dilemma, who have parent estrangement issues and those who experienced high school social disasters will particularly enjoy this book. It’s a great one for any high school or public library.
#16thingsithoughtweretrue (16 Things I Thought Were True) by Janet Gurtler, Sourceboooks Fire 2014. ISBN: 9781402277979. Blame is a tricky thing. Morgan McLean has discovered this painful fact when the dancing she did boys underwear while singing, was filmed by her best friend and posted online. Needless to say, their friendship has fractured. If that weren’t bad enough, her mother starts having cardiac issues, scaring Morgan big time.
Mom can be quite the drama queen and has led Morgan to believe that her father abandoned mom as soon as he learned that she was pregnant. Morgan has no idea who he is or where he went. The cardiac issues, however, are enough to scare her mother into telling that she knows more about the absent dad than she’s let on. Morgan has to pry the information out bit by bit while trying to put the embarrassing video behind her.
When she gets a summer job at an amusement park, she has an immediate dislike for Adam, the slightly older guy who runs the staff. She’s not wild about her assignment in a gift shop, but with Mom ill and health coverage iffy, she needs money. In fact, she’s starting to think about giving her mother the money she’s saved so she can get far away and go to college.
Her conversations with Adam about her mom’s illness and his interest in becoming a doctor begin changing her initial impression, especially when he starts giving her emotional support as well as explaining what’s happening to her mother. Add to the mix diminutive, but bubbly Amy, her co-worker in the gift shop who is at first annoying, but grows on Morgan quickly, and you have three very interesting teens who form a solid friendship.
When Morgan learns that her father lives near Vancouver, she’s determined to go there and confront him. Adam and Amy, who was home-schooled and has few friends, insist on accompanying her. Their road trip to end all road trips involves secrets, a missed ferry and some life changing discoveries when Morgan finally meets her father.
I liked this book very much. Teens with family secret issues, majorly embarrassing experiences and missing parents will relate to a lot in this book as will those who have a liking for romances that start off a bit antagonistic. I’ve read everything Janet has written and like all her books a lot. This is a good addition for both public and school libraries.
I’m Glad I Did by Cynthia Weil, Soho Teen, 2015. ISBN: 9781616953560. Take yourself back to 1963 (if you’re old enough…I was 15). Justice (JJ) Green was born to write songs, but can’t get her lawyer parents or her in-law-school older brother to believe her passion. They expect her to follow the family script and become one, too. When her parents issue an ultimatum-get a summer job in a week or she’ll be filing in mom’s office next week, she gathers her courage and applies for an intern position with Good Music, a song publishing company in the same building where her disgraced uncle (her mom’s brother) Bernie has an office. When she starts losing her courage in the elevator, she confides in Nick, the elevator operator, including telling him who her uncle is.
While she does well singing her two compositions during the interview, she’s told that her style isn’t modern enough. Convinced she’s failed, JJ returns home, resigned to the eventuality that she’ll have to follow the family script. When she gets a call telling her she’s been hired, her elation turns to suspicion that Nick might have spilled the beans to her uncle. It’s true, but despite her initial anger, JJ’s soon immersed in the action and intrigue of the song publishing world, even creating the melody and some basic lyrics to a song she hopes will catch her boss’s ear.
What follows is an excellent YA historical mystery that weaves her attraction to Luke Silver, a guy her age with emerald eyes that writes lyrics which seem to meld perfectly with her notes, as well as her friendship with a cleaning lady, Dulcie Brown who was once a top singer before drugs pulled her into the gutter. Dulcie loves JJ’s music and they form a fast friendship that is headed toward helping Dulcie make a possible comeback Together, JJ and Luke have to convince the cops that Dulcie’s death wasn’t suicide, navigate the prejudices of the times and decipher the disturbing evidence that Luke uncovers as he sorts through his late father’s (a contemporary of JJ’s uncle Bernie) papers.
This is a fascinating and extremely well-crafted story, one that teens who like history, romance or music will welcome with open arms. Cynthia Weil’s background as a song writer really helps make this book sound authentic. I highly recommend it for all school and public libraries.
Sizzle by Lee McLain, Marshall Cavendish, 2011. ISBN: 9780761459811. Fourteen year old Linda Delgado has lived with her aunt Elba for as long as she can remember. Her father is a mystery, her mom deceased. They get by, but barely, thanks to the Mexican restaurant Elba has run for years. When her aunt’s health goes bad, Linda is sent to stay with her other aunt Pat in Pittsburgh. Not only is Linda losing everything that’s familiar (Arizona, cooking, her school and her best friend Julia), but she goes from just a household comprised of her and Elba to a chaotic one with two parents and seven kids, six of whom are either adopted or foster kids.
Chloe, the only biological child, isn’t happy about having to share her room and her family with a girl her age, and in the beginning, the tension between them is pretty high, especially since both girls like Dino Moretti, a boy in their class. Linda’s biggest frustration is Aunt Pat’s refusal to let her cook anything at all. This is mainly because Pat is host of a local cable TV show where everything she cooks, with the exception of things like hamburg and stew beef, comes from cans. This horrifies Linda and she deals with it by making fun of it on her food blog.
When the blog gets noticed, Linda finds herself in hot water. How she makes amends to Pat, works things out with Chloe and what happens to her love of cooking and her crush on Dino make this a fun read for tweens, especially those who love cooking or have foster family connections. In fact, Lee has written three more quick reads (My Abnormal Life, My Alternate Life and My Loco Life) that are nice reads about spunky foster kids.
The Question of Miracles by Elana K. Arnold. Houghton Mifflin, 2015. ISBN: 9780544334649.
When you’re eleven, losing your best friend in a tragic accident is a pretty devastating experience. Add to that being uprooted from your home on the California coast and moving to perpetually rainy Corvallis, Oregon and you have the potential for a full bore meltdown. This is what Iris is dealing with as the story begins. In addition to these changes, she has to adjust from living in a house with others close by to an old farmhouse with a long driveway and riding on a school bus instead of walking to school or having one of her parents transport her. Then, there’s the matter of not knowing a single kid at the new school. The move has been easy for Mom, who got a new job as a genetic researcher, while her stay-at-home dad is excited about starting a garden and raising most of their food. Iris has nothing like these to look forward to, just the hurting, angry ache left by Sarah’s death.
On her first day at school, she meets Boris who is friendly, but socially awkward and kind of a know it all. Still, as time goes on, he grows on her and becomes her only real friend. Iris wonders whether he realizes how he’s perceived by the other kids, but isn’t ready to go there with him.
Letting go of her grief is the hardest thing imaginable for Iris. She’s sure that part of Sarah lives in their new house, but no matter how hard she tries, she can’t ‘see’ her. Boris is pretty sympathetic and understanding, partly because of what happened to him before he was born. As Iris gets to know his family, his mother calls him her miracle baby and encourages Iris to have Boris tell her the whole story.
His miracle, coupled with her gradual acceptance about Sarah’s death, thanks in part to a very understanding therapist, and her awareness that they both need to expand their friendship circle, bring the story to a positive and satisfying conclusion. This is a great book about pre-teen friendship and how to get through the grieving process. It’s a great one for both school and public libraries to add.
I Was Here by Gayle Forman, Viking, 2015. ISBN:9780451471475. Friendships are a lot like the weather, hard to control, challenging to adapt to, frequently mysterious and ever changeable. Cody and Meg’s was like that. Best friends since kindergarten, Cody was practically raised by Meg’s parents because she had almost no idea who her own father was and her biological mother, Tricia, has never been capable of much more than putting a roof over her head and being snarky in between her flings with loser boyfriends.
The girls planned on going to Seattle and rooming while in college, but Meg got a scholarship to a different school and Cody stayed behind because money was tight and her grades weren’t good enough for financial help. Communication between them started to drop off and the only time Cody went to see Meg, it felt odd and she came home early. Then Meg killed herself with a rare and highly toxic cleaner in a locked motel room. She set up a final email to go to Cody, her parents and Ben, the guy she had been involved with, telling them what she was going to do and ending with: “This has nothing to do with you and everything to do with me. It’s not your fault.”
Despite what Meg wrote, Cody can’t help being angry and self-blaming. When she reluctantly agrees to go and get Meg’s belongings from the house she shared with several other students, She begins what turns out to be a very torturous and involved role as amateur detective. The more she hears and the more she’s able to dig out of what emails she finds on Meg’s laptop, the stronger her conviction grows that there were others involved and bigger secrets that anyone knows in Meg’s death. Her unlikely co-conspirator, Ben, starts out as someone she hates because she believes he was responsible for sending Meg over the edge. However, the deeper she digs, the less sure she is about her initial feeling and there’s that subtle spark, the one that makes her realize that he feels much the same way she does and every time she’s with him, things seem just a bit better.
Their journey to find what really happened is both physical and emotional, making for a terrific read. Yes, there are a lot of F-bombs, but they shouldn’t deter either school or public libraries from adding this to their collections. It does for teen suicide what Laurie Halse Anderson’s The Impossible Knife of Memory does for the devastating effects of PTSD on those close to the one who suffers. Gayle also wrote If I Stay which was made into a pretty good movie last year.
If you have read a really good juvenile or young adult mystery recently, I’d love to hear about it because many Maine librarians are eager to find more to add to their collections.