Monday, October 31, 2011

Inside Out and Back Again

Inside Out and Back Again
By Thanhha Lai
Harper, 2011. 263 pgs. Middle Grade fiction

In 1975, Ha has lived in Vietnam for her entire life, living with three bothersome older brothers, her sad mother, and the shadow of her father, who has been missing in action for nine years. When the opportunity comes for their family to flee the country, they decide to go, only to find that real-life America isn't quite like what they've seen in movies. As a stranger and outsider, Ha faces teasing at school and misses her homeland.

This novel-in-verse is beautifully written and gives readers a wonderful look at the process of leaving a beloved homeland for a strange country is like. I loved Ha--she's spunky and funny and I think Lai captured the emotions of such a turbulent situation perfectly. Just pick the book up; it'll convince you itself.

Clean read.

Thursday, October 27, 2011


By Robison Wells
HarperTeen, 2011. 376 pages. Teen fiction

Benson Fisher is a foster kid who has gotten a scholarship to a boarding school, the Maxfield Academy. However, when he gets there, he finds that everything about the school is seriously wrong. There are no teacher or administrators present and the students are divided into three different gangs who coexist somewhat peacefully, sometimes anyway. The constant threat of detention, which is equated with death, looms over them. While most students seem to accept that they're part of some weird experiment (although they don't really know what's going on), but Benson isn't willing to stick around. He's desperate to escape and wants to convince the others to escape as well..but he soon finds that he has no idea who he can trust.

This book started off pretty well; readers are drawn in with Benson, trying to figure out what the heck is going on and why--why are kids at a school with no teachers, why do they have to play weird paintball games, and what happens to the students who disappear? However, as interesting as the book is, the ending kinda throws a wrench in it. Things finally start to really unfold in about the hundred pages, but a lot of that is actually slow parts, and the real action and real answers come in the last thirty pages. It happens too quickly, it's really confusing trying to figure out who is on what side, and the book is left on a huge cliffhanger. (Okay, the cliffhanger might not bother some readers, but I personally want some sense of what's going on...particularly since I'll be waiting at least a year for them to publish the next book.) So, while it's interesting and entertaining, I think Wells has set himself on a very dangerous edge here--not enough questions were answered in this book, and the second book in a series tends to be the if he doesn't deliver a home run with the second book, it's going to be hard to convince readers to stick with it. The second book will really need to give a lot of answers and they have to come a lot faster--not in the last thirty pages of the book.

3.5 stars...but that's subject to change depending on what happens with the next book.
Mostly a clean read (there's some language, but nothing of the super harsh variety).
Good choice for teen guys.

Monday, October 10, 2011


By Brian Selznick
Scholastic Press, 2011. 637 pgs. Middle Grade fiction

In 1927, Rose, who is deaf, longs for a life beyond her home, where she spends her time collecting pictures of a famous actress. Fifty years later, twelve-year-old Ben, whose mother has recently died, loses his hearing and finds that the father he never met may be living in New York City, so he runs away from home to find him. In New York, he meets Jamie, a boy his age who spends his time at the American Museum of Natural History. Ben, fascinated by the museum, comes to find that it might reveal the secret of his father's identity.

Ben's and Rose's stories are told alternately throughout the book, Ben's in words and Rose's in pictures, and then they intertwine at the end. The artwork is stunning, and I liked the way the stories came together....although I don't know that I actually would have liked the book as a child. I think it's one that advanced readers or those interested in art will like. The art is kind of what sold it for me; the text didn't pull me in as much.

3 stars. Clean read.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Death Cloud

Death Cloud
By Andy Lane
Macmillan, 2011. 6 CDs (approx. 7 hours). Middle Grade/teen fiction

Sherlock Holmes has to spend his school holiday living with an aunt and uncle he's never met before, and he isn't excited about the prospect. However, once there, things turn out to be more interesting than he'd thought. Two people die from what is suspected to be a plague, but there are some facts that just don't add up, such as why both bodies seemed to have a mysterious cloud float away from them after the death. As Sherlock, his friend Matty and his tutor Amyus Crowe, set out to figure out what is going on, Sherlock finds that he just might be the next one to be killed off.

I liked this young Sherlock Holmes book; watching Sherlock's process of using logic and finding facts to form conclusions was intriguing. I think the plot might appeal to younger readers, but at the same time, Sherlock's interest in Amyus Crowe's daughter (particularly when he's checking out her body, in her tight riding britches and shirt), might have some parents of younger readers objecting to the content. I very much enjoyed the audio version; the reader was good both in voice and in pace.

4 stars.

Breaking Stalin's Nose

Breaking Stalin's Nose
By Eugene Yelchin
Henry Holt and Company, 2011. 154 pgs. Middle Grade fiction

Growing up in Stalin's Russia, Sasha Zaichik can't wait to join the Young Pioneers, the Communist group for youth. He's known all the laws and rules of being a good Communist since he was a child, he loves Stalin, and he wants to grow up to be a hero like his father, a good, good Communist. However, on the eve of the ceremony when he'll finally join the Pioneers, Sasha's father is arrested. Certain there must be a mistake and that when Stalin finds out, he'll free his father, Sasha stills plans to join the Pioneers. However, this incident sets in motion a series of events that shows Sasha that perhaps Stalin and Communism are the idols and ideals he wants to uphold anymore.

This is a quick read (I read it in 30 minutes), but it's a great overview into Stalinist Russia, and how the people lived in fear and oppression, and that no one was safe. With black and white illustrations throughout, this is historical fiction that could appeal to even reluctant readers and the themes make it an excellent choice for classroom discussions.

4 stars. Clean read.