The Trouble With Goats and Sheep by Joanna Cannon

Book – The summer of 1976 is the hottest in recent memory, and Mrs. Creasy has disappeared from the Avenue.  Grace and Tillie, both aged ten, are determined to get to the bottom of the case, but secrets run deep in their little suburb, and the more they investigate the mystery, the further they find themselves drawn into their community’s shared and troubling past–all starting with the long-ago disappearance of a little girl.

The Trouble With Goats and Sheep is a hard book to categorize; it doesn’t really fit well into any type of mystery I know.  It doesn’t feature much actual detective work, and while we the readers learn the full story of What Happened through flashbacks, most of the characters do not.  As such, The Trouble With Goats and Sheep might better be considered as a work of literary fiction or coming-of-age story with mystery elements.

I think that my own vague feeling of letdown at the end of the book was a result of trying to force it to fit a more traditional mystery mold, but the fact that I made it to the end at all is evidence of its good points.  The author’s voice is compelling, and the novel’s themes are deep, exploring community, memory, scapegoating and the ways that fear and guilt can twist human behavior.  As a fan of ensemble stories, I enjoyed the large cast of complex and not-always-likeable characters.  As a whole, I found it a sufficiently intriguing debut novel to have hope for the author’s sophomore outing.

The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley by Hannah Tinti

Book – Samuel Hawley and his daughter, Loo, are always on the move. Each time they settle into a new place, Hawley sets up a shrine in their bathroom to honor to his late wife, who drowned when Loo was a baby. Finally, when Loo is a teenager, Hawley decides to try to give her a normal life at his wife’s seaside hometown in Massachusetts. When Hawley competes in the local Greasy Pole Contest, he takes off his shirt to reveal a body riddled with scars from bullet holes. As Hawley and Loo’s latest stop becomes “home,” Hawley reflects on his past and the incidents that led to his scars. Loo begins to reach out to a few of the people in the town and as she matures, she learns about the secrets that bind her and her father. This book is a unique look at family bonds, guilt, sacrifice and the impact of our decisions and how they can ripple through generations.

Beast by Brie Spangler

Book--Ever since the 6th grade, Dylan has been larger than other boys. Now at over 6 ft. tall, improbably hairy, and still growing, 15-year-old Dylan (called Beast by his peers) hides his face under hats and feels trapped in a body that doesn’t match his insides. When his school bans hats, Dylan walks off the edge of the school building and breaks his leg. He claims it was an accident. His orthopedist and his mother don’t agree. They send him to counseling for teenagers with self-harming tendencies, where he meets Jamie. Jamie is beautiful, smart, and funny, just the kind of girl that would impress Dylan’s friends. Because this is a Beauty and the Beast retelling, Dylan starts to shed some of his shallowness and misogyny as he falls in love with her, and begins to let go of his anger at the world. However, when Dylan learns that Jamie is transgender (a fact that she told him when they first met, had he been listening), he freaks out and pulls away from her. Will Dylan be able to get over his knee-jerk transphobia and apologize to Jamie? Will she be able to forgive him? Will they get back together?

Of course they will. But reading about how is the whole fun of it. I really enjoyed reading about Dylan’s journey from crass and callow teenage boy to sensitive young man. Despite being a fairy tale retelling, Beast stands on its own. If you enjoy this one, you may also enjoy other LBGT classic story retellings aimed at young adults (yes, this is a whole genre) such as Ash by Malinda Lo (retells Cinderella), Great by Sara Benincasa (retells The Great Gatsby), and As I Descended (retells Macbeth).

Love and First Sight by Josh Sundquist

Book – Josh Sundquist is a spunky motivational speaker and Paralympian. He lost his left leg to cancer at nine years old, and often pulls from his daily experiences dealing with his disability. Sundquist is a hilarious speaker and writer; I definitely recommend checking out some of his performances. He has also composed two memoirs, and Love and First Sight is his first novel.

In Love and First Sight, we meet sixteen-year-old Will Porter. Will is blind, and he is starting high school at a hearing school.  His first day does not go well; he manages to grope a classmate, make a girl cry hysterically, and sits on somebody in the lunchroom. But then he meets quiet, sweet Cecily who he quickly develops a crush on. When Will learns that a new type of medical operation could potentially return his sight, he is overwhelmed with the excitement of seeing the world for the first time. However, Will never anticipated the challenges he would face with the miracle of sight. Things are not quite what he expected, especially when it comes to Cecily. While Will’s friends described Cecily’s appearance to him when he was blind, Will finds that the girl he’s fallen so hard for doesn’t meet the typical standards of beauty. Though he knows it shouldn’t matter what she looks like, Will feels betrayed, and is unprepared for all the changes his newfound sight has brought to him. A coming of age story of young love, life-changing decisions and friendship.

For more fiction stories dealing with blindness, check out: Love Blind by Christa Desir, and Things Not Seen* by Andrew Clements (*Followed by Things Hoped For, and Things That Are. All three books of the trilogy are available on our pre-loaded Middle School Battle of the Books Kindle.)

Modern Children’s Classics to (Re)Visit Soon

Books – Revisiting childhood favorites may be the definition of comfort reading.  Some children’s books inspire a ‘what was I thinking?’ response when revisited later in life, but some have enough depth to genuinely repay a fresh, or first, look from a grown-up perspective.  The following are four children’s classics which I find myself rereading often–not just for nostalgia, but because their messages still resonate and they still make me think even as an adult.  (They’re all from the mid-20th century, because I needed some limit or this list would be five miles long).  It goes without saying that they’re still great choices for today’s kids, too!

From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E.L. Konigsburg

Twelve-year-old Claudia Kincaid has a stiflingly samey middle-class upbringing and an indefatigable independent streak.  Accompanied by her younger brother Jamie, mostly because she needs the financial security of his scrupulously hoarded allowances, Claudia runs away from home to an astonishing destination: The Metropolitan Museum of Art.  The description of Claudia and Jamie’s escapades in the Museum will never fail to be delightful, but re-reading now, what sticks with me is the depth of the story’s messages about emotional resilience and how life’s challenges teach us who we are.

The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin

I think it’s a disservice to this fantastic mystery to call it a children’s book–and I say that despite thinking that children’s books are for everyone, and despite the fact that it’s a beloved Newbery winner.  The mystery at its core is deliciously twisty, but what’s striking about this story is the size and breadth of its beautifully-drawn cast.  You could cut out the mystery element entirely and still have a fascinating story about strong personalities thrown together through the simple circumstance of apartment living, not unlike Alexander McCall Smith’s 44 Scotland Street series for adults.

The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster

I may be one of the two people in the world who loves the movie version of The Phantom Tollbooth, but I still really wish it had been better, because the book deserves the universal fame of better-adapted works like The Wizard of Oz.  All the classic portal fantasy elements are there: Milo receives a mysterious package in the mail and is drawn through it into a whimsical nonsense world that needs his help.  The Phantom Tollbooth is, sort of, a traditional good-versus-evil story, but it stands out because it’s actually less about outright wickedness and more about the perils of inaction: boredom, not heroism, sets Milo off on his adventure, and instead of moustache-twirling villains he faces enemies like the “Terrible Trivium”, the ultimate waster of time. Juster’s is a deeper, more complex, more contemporary and relevant kind of morality than usual in children’s fantasy, one that could easily be marketed as ‘fractured’ fairy tale were it not so full of genuine heart.

The Giver by Lois Lowry

If The Hunger Games is YA lit’s answer to 1984, then The Giver is its Brave New World.  I’m as much of a Katniss fan as the next Youth Services librarian, but The Giver did YA dystopia long before, and arguably better.  It’s a profoundly political story about every citizen’s complicity in government actions and the high price we pay for a life without discomfort, and it’s as touching, as painful and as thought-provoking now as ever.

 

 

 

Rabbit Cake by Annie Hartnett

Book – Rabbit Cake by Annie Hartnett has the most adorable bunny cover I have ever seen by far. But whilst one might expect to find a cute story of an adorable rabbit beneath this cover, we are instead met by death, mourning, and sleepwalking. The back synopsis was insane; there was such an onslaught of information I wasn’t sure I’d be able to follow everything going on when I actually started reading.

Elvis is 11 years old, and her mother has just committed suicide, or so everyone says.  Elvis is skeptical, and thinks something more sinister may be afoot in her mother’s death.  In the wake of her mother’s passing, Elvis is forced to undergo weekly sessions with the school counseling, and begins tracking her journey through the nine stages of grief. Her father mourns by dressing up in her mother’s clothes and wearing her lipstick. Elvis’s older sister, Lizzie unfortunately inherited her mother’s sleepwalking, and it’s quickly growing out of control. In the midst of trying to save her sister from meeting the same ghastly fate of her mother, Elvis works furiously on her mother’s unfinished memoir, and searches for answers into her death.

There is so much going on in this story; it’s dark, a  fair bit depressing, and very quirky. The sleepwalking was a huge aspect of the story, and I was so fascinated by it. Though it wasn’t the sweet story I anticipated from a glance at the cover, this book exceeded my expectations.

The Summer I Turned Pretty by Jenny Han

Book- According to Belly, summer is the only time of the year that counts. Every summer she goes to Cousins Beach leaving her school life alone. She starts out as a young and annoying little sister to Stephen. At the beach house they are also with her moms best friend for life and her two boys Conrad and Jeremiah.  She was left out of all the cool things, like camping on the beach, going to a party down the beach, going to the pier with the boys. She was always feeling left out.

She is absolutely in love with and chasing after Conrad. He does little things to show her he notices her and cares for her, but then he follows that up with being distant and harsh with her. Finally this summer, she thinks its the summer to change everything. She is allowed to go to the party down the beach and meets a new guy named Cam. He is a little different, but she likes different. She is not sure how much she can like him, as her heart always belongs to Conrad. Then there is Jeremiah, her best friend at the beach, who occasionally shares a secret lust look with her.

I enjoyed this book. This is the first in a trilogy (all of which I have read), and I think Jenny Han sets up the background story well. I did get a little annoyed with Belly, the main character, as she is a little over dramatic at times. I suppose that’s why this is considered a young adult romance novel. It was a nice easy read where the plot line isn’t far-fetched or complicated. It reminded me of the way I used to see things at her age. Man, I am excited to actually be an adult!

Short by Holly Goldberg Sloan

Book – Writing is both a craft and an art.  With enough practice, most writers can produce a well-constructed and enjoyable book, but only a sparse few have that other thing–call it a voice, or originality, or authenticity, or heart.  It’s really hard to describe why a Holly Goldberg Sloan book is an occasion and a joy.  She’s just got that touch of art that makes a story special.

Counting by 7s was Sloan’s breakout hit among both child and adult readers, and justifiably so; it’s beyond gorgeous.  Short, her newest book, has some definite similarities, including a young female protagonist growing up through the story, inter-generational friendships, and grief and healing as themes.  But overall it’s a lighter, breezier, more comforting read.  Like Raina Telgemeier’s smash-hit graphic novel for the same audience, Drama, Short centers on a young Theater Kid finding confidence and belonging through a new production.  In this case, the show is The Wizard of Oz, and eleven-year-old Julia, who used to be bothered by her (lack of) height, suddenly finds that it’s her ticket to the spotlight–she’s the only kid her age small enough to land a part as a Munchkin.  An average student and middle child, Julia finds that the production lets her connect with and earn the approval of adults in a way she’s never experienced before, and gives her a safe window into a more complicated, grown-up world.

Short is a quiet book, wonderfully written and touching.  Definitely hand it to any tweens in your life.  And when they’re done, borrow it back from them to have a look for yourself.

When the Moon Was Ours by Anna-Marie McLemore

Book – Best friends Miel and Sam are inseparable, and have been since Miel spilled out of a water tower when she was five, screaming that she’d lost the moon, and Sam was the only one who could comfort her. Now teenagers, Miel grows roses from her skin and assists her guardian in magic to remove people’s lovesickness while Sam paints moons of every size and color and hangs them in the trees. They’ve loved each other since they were children, but their relationship is tested when the beautiful, cruel Bonner sisters – las gringas bonitas – decide that they want Miel’s roses for themselves, and threaten to reveal all of Sam’s secrets.

When the Moon Was Ours is a beautiful combination of elegant magical realism, reminiscent of Alice Hoffman, and an emotionally wrenching story about coming to terms with your self. Sam was born female but is living as a boy, struggling toward a transgender identity but not sure of it yet; Miel lost her family at a young age and blames herself. Their struggles feel real, and its immensely gratifying to watch them both pull through them. Although published as YA, this gorgeous book is one that anyone who loves fairy tales would enjoy.

The Ghost Bride by Yangsze Choo

51323qF2glL._SX330_BO1,204,203,200_Book–In the port town of Malacca in Malaya in the 19th century (modern-day Malaysia), Li Lan is the daughter of a impoverished-but-genteel opium addict. Though of marriageable age, Li Lan receives no suitors but one: the prestigious Lim family wants her for their only son’s bride. There’s a catch, however. Lim Tian Ching, heir to the Lim family fortune, has recently died under mysterious circumstances and is demanding a bride from beyond the grave. Ghost marriage, an ancient but rarely practiced custom, is used to soothe an angry spirit, and guarantees the bride’s place in her groom’s house for the rest of her life.

Before Li Lan has even accepted the proposal, Lim Tian Ching begins to haunt her, and she is drawn into lifelike nightmares that sap away her energy. Li Lan is torn between the waking world and the shadowy ghost world where, if she’s not careful, she may remain forever.

The gorgeous, strange setting of turn of the century Malaya and the dreamlike ghost world draw the reader in, stealing the show from the somewhat milquetoast Li Lan and her trite love triangle between new Lim heir Tian Bai and mysterious spirit Er Lang. The Ghost Bride will appeal to those who enjoyed the movie Spirited Away, which has a similar beautiful, nightmarish, dream-logic setting and characters drawn with a light hand.