Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Noggin by John Corey Whaley

When an aggressive cancer stole Travis' life before he even got his driver's license, it should have been a shame and a tragedy. Instead, it became one of medical science's biggest breakthroughs when they reattached Travis' head to another teen's healthy body (after that guy lost his battle to brain cancer). But who would have thought that reattaching and reanimating a severed head would turn out to be the easy part of Travis' reincarnation?

For Travis, it seems like he took an afternoon nap; no time passed while he was inanimate. But while he was gone the world kept turning: the reality is, everybody else moved on. And the five years from age 16 to 21 meant lots of life-altering changes for his friends (and girlfriend) - they're not in the same place anymore.

I loved this book, and it's not as far removed from reality as you might expect for a sci-fi story. Because every teen is going through changes (and at their own pace), most of us have experiences where you get left behind despite the best intentions.

There's a great cast of characters here - old friends, new friends, parents, and the one other guy who was reanimated. They've each got their own struggles that help or hinder Travis' tale. In all, a great book about an unusually common experience.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Belly Up by Stuart Gibbs

In this quick, engaging who-done-it mystery for kids, a 12-year-old boy investigates the suspicious death of a theme park zoo's mascot, Henry the Hippo.

Teddy lives in a trailer at FunJungle because both his parents work there - his mom is a primate specialist, and his dad is a wildlife photographer. He's the only kid around, and he's usually in trouble for pulling pranks because he's bored. But something's not right about the giant hippo's death, and nobody else seems to want to find the truth.

It's a fun mystery, and I'll highly recommend it for animal-loving kids. Teddy's not quite a normal kid (he's wise beyond his years because he's had an unusual childhood around animals in the Congo) but he's got appropriately kid-size curiosity and impulse control problems. His investigation is dangerous and unwise, but he just can't stand to see an animal harmed without recourse.

There's a minor romance element when he crushes hard on the park owner's daughter, but it's innocent (she's a celebrity - who wouldn't be a bit tongue tied?) Also, there's a high ick factor that's really quite funny (dead smelly hippo, lots of exotic poop).

Thursday, April 17, 2014

The Serpent of Venice by Christopher Moore

Pocket the Fool is back, and he's seeking revenge on the bastards who killed his Queen Cordelia ... (if you thought these characters from Moore's earlier novel "Fool" would have a happy ending, you haven't read much Shakespeare).

In his second Shakespeare-inspired black comedy mash-up, Christopher Moore combines elements of "Othello" and "The Merchant of Venice," then stirs in a little Edgar Allan Poe and a variety of other recognizable references, characters, and quotes.

It's a twisty tale of intrigue - Iago's out to become a councilman if he has to kill everybody he knows to get there, Pocket's in town under false pretenses. There's a lot of cross-dressing, a court scene where everybody's out to win over the doge, and secret casks that can only be opened by solving a riddle. Plus a big git that's only interested in sex, Marco Polo, and a monkey. You know, typical Christopher Moore.

I loved this book, but it's at times hard to follow: there are a lot of characters, tons of back-stabbing and lying, and way too many things going on at once (you know: exactly like the Shakespeare source material). The more Shakespeare you know, the funnier the book will be. Also, I think a second reading may be beneficial for deeper understanding - which is fine, because these are characters I've enjoyed revisiting and will again.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Counting by 7s by Holly Goldberg Sloan

This lovely book deals with a tough subject: super-smart geeky kid Willow Chance is tragically left untethered after an accident claims her parents. But quick thinking and a hopeful heart lead to a new kind of family, made up of friends.

It's hard to write an encouraging review of a book (that will make you want to read it) with a theme so heavy. But this is a really, really wonderful middle-school book about friendship and community, about the impact you have on others without even realizing it. Even though there's tragedy, it's an uplifting book full of hope and happiness. There's a great cast of misfit characters, all of whom are a little broken but together can manage amazing, transformative things.

It's been a major award-winner, and for good reason. Highly recommended!

Monday, April 14, 2014

The House at the End of Hope Street by Menna Van Praag

In this hopeful novel, several women at wit's end finds themselves on an unknown doorstep and at the start of a mystical journey to find a better future.

The house itself is magic (in a Mary Poppins kind of way), and accepts entry by women with no other options. Over time, nearly every woman of note in science, literature, and politics has paid a short stay at the house, and the haunted pictures on all the walls prove it. Along with the house's custodian (an 82-year-old woman with her own secret dilemma), the historical women from the pictures offer advice and wisdom to the current inhabitants: a defeated and grief-stricken college student, an aging and lovelorn actress, and a spicy Portuguese singer with a dark secret.

The storyline moves quickly, rotating between the four women's stories but also providing perspective from other characters. The action takes place over just three months, but sometimes the story takes a hop of a week or more to pull the narrative forward. I really enjoyed this novel, and it held some fun, pleasant surprises for me. It's a lighthearted book that's encouraging and bright without becoming saccharine.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Attachments by Rainbow Rowell

It's often debated whether love at first sight exists, but what about love BEFORE first sight?

Since the newspaper doesn't trust its employees with this new-fangled internet technology (the book is set in 1999), the IT department is filtering all email - and it's Lincoln's job to read flagged messages and issue warnings for violation of policy. But he's begun following the conversations between a copy editor and an entertainment writer like it's a daily soap opera, instead of sending the women warning notes from "security" like he should. Beth and Jennifer's relationship and all their daily interactions are so very interesting, especially for a guy who's stuck in a state of arrested development.

And as much as he'd like to take action - to walk into the newsroom and meet Jennifer face to face - it's hard to ask a woman on a date when you've been secretly reading her emails for months. Talk about awkward! Plus, she's got a boyfriend. But lately, meeting Jennifer is all Lincoln can think about.

I've had a huge booknerd crush on Rainbow Rowell since reading her teen books (Eleanor and Park, Fangirl) and this was her first adult novel, published in 2012. I've already read an advance copy of her upcoming adult novel, Landline, which you'll see reviewed here in June.

I've adored all of Rowell's books, and this one is no exception. She writes fully realized, relatable characters in the kind of real-world sticky situations you can imagine yourself in, too. I'll be passing this book along and recommending it quite a bit - don't wait to try it yourself!

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Soup by Robert Newton Peck

In this classic children's tale, a pair of boys growing up in small town America find "innocent" trouble and make mischief. Actually, it's more like a collection of short stories - vignettes of days gone by (the stories take place in the 1930s).

I'd never read any of the Soup series of books, and picked up this audiobook for some car time. Narrated by Norman Dietz, the book felt like your favorite grandpa telling you about his childhood: rolling down the hill in an apple barrel, getting in trouble at school, having a crush on that one cute girl.

For those who haven't read this series, "Soup" is the narrator's best friend (who doesn't like his real name and at threat of violence, no one calls him Luther), and the narrator is Rob. Soup's the mastermind behind all kinds of hijinks, and Rob's usually the action man. I'd say the series is on par as a boy-oriented alternative to the Little House on the Prairie books.

Saturday, April 5, 2014

The Muppets: Character Encyclopedia by Craig Shemin

I'm a big Muppets geek from way back, so you know this one had to go home with me. This character compendium covers the complete Muppets chronology, from pre-TV's The Muppet Show through the in-theatres-now Muppets Most Wanted film.

It's fun, and you'll learn things about lots of the marginal characters. But the brief bio format left me wanting on the major players, and I wish there was more behind-the-scenes info on the character's development.

In summary, I'm glad I checked it out from the library rather than buy it, but I'm also glad I read it.

Friday, April 4, 2014

The Chase by Janet Evanovich and Lee Goldberg

In the second novel of the series, sexy con artist Nicholas Fox is helping close in on art theft by partnering with by-the-books FBI agent Kate O'Hare in a secret operation.

I loved the first book in the series, and this one's just as good! There's a fantastic sexual tension between the main characters and a great volley provided by their opposing moral compasses. There's lots of action, plenty of explosions, and a fantastic cast of secondary characters. Even though you know it's going to be all right (it's always all right, isn't it?), the reader is still drawn into the suspense of the caper and its dangers.

For a lighter read, this one's near perfect.

Roomies by Sara Zarr & Tara Altebrando

When freshman dorm assignments are sent out, immediately Jersey-girl Elizabeth sends an email to make contact with her San Francisco roomie Lauren. Over the summer they build a long-distance relationship, but written communication leaves a lot of gaps open to interpretation: Will they be friends in real-life? What did she mean by THAT response?

The girls are very different and face dramatically different (and yet also very similar) struggles in launching into adulthood. Going away to college is a scary enterprise on its own, and both girls are worried about the changes in their long-standing relationships that leaving will bring. Will their friends still be the same come Thanksgiving? What about long-distance love?

For each, it's nice to have an unconnected sounding board and confidante in this time of turmoil, but maybe it's not wise for that to be your yet-unmet future roommate. Their relationship begins at a lightning pace, with notable misunderstandings and misinterpretations. Since the book alternates points of view for each chapter we get both sides of the exchange, with the added benefit of all the background that isn't relayed by their messages.

It's a well-done, fun and relatable book that many teens will find hits very close to home. For adults, it's a look back - or a reminder in their future letting-gos.