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The Red Blazer Girls: The Ring of Rocamadour

June 28, 2011

The Red Blazer Girls: The Ring of Rocamadour byMichael D. Beil

Yearling (July 13, 2010)

Summary: Take three long time school friends, Sophie, Margaret, and Rebecca, add the new girl at school, Leigh Ann, and insert the curious old woman who lives in the convent next to their school and a perplexing 20 year old birthday card. What do you have? A recipe for a fast paced, fun mystery, ah la Nancy Drew or the Hardy Boys…but with a modern twist.

The Good: This book is a true mystery where clues and red herrings abound! The fun thing about the book is that the clues are all solvable using a little bit of math knowledge (and let’s face it, a couple of visits to the internet). I had about as much fun working out the clues as reading the book. This is a fun easy read and if you like the characters, there are more mysteries to be solved.

The Bad: There are red herrings (clues that lead the reader astray), but when the truth was revealed, I couldn’t say that I had a “palm to forehead” moment where I realized that I had missed a clue. The book is pretty predictable and I could definitely make suggestions to give the story a bit more depth. So, verdict: this book is a good lightweight mystery, but don’t expect a huge mental challenge.

The Ugly: My “ugly” is where I usually disclose anything about the book that bothers me or that might make the book unsuitable for a younger audience. As with most mysteries, there is some sneaking around. Kids- don’t go out in the middle of the night without your parent’s permission- ‘kay! Don’t go messing around dark, hidden hallways in your school between classes. That being said, this is a fun book without any real controversial issues.

The Awesome: When I was a tween (not that we used that term), I loved Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys. Even though the books were easy and predictable, it was fun to get immersed in a mystery. I have noticed that I have trouble finding mysteries when my students ask for them (or maybe it just is not my favorite genre as of late so I don’t gravitate to them). I am glad that this series is available and I think that many students will enjoy it.

Also, the “voice” of this book is very strong and intriguing. I have to say that I couldn’t decide where to put this comment. At times I was a bit annoyed by the author’s choice of words because it got into my head. I could picture students of mine as the narrator (trust me…only the peppiest of you could emulate Sophie). On the other hand, this book is a great example of “voice” and diction (students…remember to pull this one out of you hat when your English teacher tries to explain that elusive topic).

Pop

June 11, 2011

Pop by Gordon Korman

Balzer + Bray; Reprint edition (January 18, 2011)

Okay, this one took me a little longer to read because I couldn’t resist starting the sequel to Demon King and because ending the school year always takes a lot of my spare time and energy, but I finished it yesterday morning so here is the long-awaited review…

Summary: When high school junior, Marcus Jordan, moves from Kansas to New York State, the only good thing his new town has going for it is the Raiders, the high school’s championship football team. Marcus quickly learns that being the new guy in town does not necessarily get him the right kind of attention. Marcus is despised by the entire close-knit football team and the only person who gives him any positive attention is the head cheerleader…but it is pretty obvious that she is really trying to get someone else’s attention.

The only person in Marcus’ new town who seems to accept him is Charlie, the mysterious guy who shows up in the park and teaches him a thing or two about the game he thought he had down. Who is this guy who can throw a football like nobody’s business, not to mention tackle like a pro? Will Marcus ever be accepted by the Raiders and the rest of Kennesaw for that matter?

The Good: Pop shows how much you can learn from the most unlikely friendship. This is the kind of book with a lot of twists, turns, and surprises. It is pretty obvious from the beginning that there is something unusual about Charlie. Once the pieces started coming together there were lots of “ah ha” moments, but it is hard to say too much about the book without giving away some important surprises. You are just going to have to trust me on some of this…it really is a good book with lots of unexpected plot twists.

The Bad: Okay, for me, this was one of those books that I had to make myself read. I like most genres, but I have to admit that sports just are not my thing (says the girl who is afraid of having balls fly at her face). There is a lot of description about football moves and plays that went over my head. That being said, once I got past the fact that I got enough high school football during high school (marching bad will do that to you), the book is still a very good book.

The Ugly: Marcus seems to be very impulsive and does some things that I would not approve of if he were my son. He is also led by Charlie to pull some pranks that were downright mean. Marcus has a Vespa scooter and he has a tendency to run off  without letting his mom know where he is. Here’s the thing, this book is fiction. Just because Marcus does some things that he shouldn’t, doesn’t mean that you should! Enjoy the book, and be smarter than Marcus!

Also, there is one high school party scene in which under age students are drinking alcohol. Marcus does not drink the beer that is given to him. Like I said, the book is fiction…be smarter than that!

The Awesome: As I said earlier, I can’t say too much without giving away major parts of the book so I am going to have to be a bit vague here. I think that this book shows a side of mental illness that we do not often see. It also makes it clear that we need to use proper safety measures when playing sports. This this book has a very unexpected and emotional twist at the end.

The Demon King

May 21, 2011

Demon King by Cinda Williams Chima

Hyperion Book CH (October 6, 2009)

Summary: Hanson “Han” Alister, has lead a hard life. Losing his father when he was young, he has had to support his mother and younger sister by any means necessary. For a while he was the “Streetlord of the Raggers,” but realizing the short life a street thief, Han has tried to find a way to make an honest living…well, semi-honest at least. However, the transition out of a life of crime is more difficult than one would guess. Everyone from the corrupt law enforcement to his former gang members and rivals is out to get him. It is made harder by the silver cuffs (bracelets) that Han has worn as long as he could remember. The cuffs make it impossible for him to hide from other criminals or from the law. What is it with the silver cuffs that cannot be removed and seem to grow with him? Will Han ever be able to live in safety and have enough to eat?

Raisa’s destiny is set. Such is the life of the first daughter of the Queen of Fells. She will marry who she is told to marry, behave the way she is told to behave, and she will, in time inherit the crown from her mother. She definitely should not sneak out of her room at night to visit her childhood friend Amon, and she surely should not go running around the most dangerous parts of town in disguise. Raisa just wants to find out what life is really like outside the walls of the castle and outside of the circle of noble friends. As her 16th name day approaches, the day when Raisa will be considered an adult and of age to marry, Raisa takes a chance to secretly leave the castle and find out what is really going on in her city. What she finds surprises her. Even more surprising are her mother’s plans for her future! Will strong willed Raisa be able to be the leader she wants to be, or will she be forced to comply with her mother and her advisors.

In a world where there is a struggle between the elite, sophisticated, and very corrupt wizards, and the warriors of the Demonai clan, what role will Han and Raisa play in the future of their kingdom.

The Good: This is an intriguing series told from two different perspectives. As with any story of this type, Han and Raisa’s story lines do eventually cross (I’m just not going to tell you how). While both of the main characters are interesting and well developed, my favorite character is Amon, Raisa’s childhood friend and the son of the chief of her mother’s guard. Amon struggles with his familial duty to protect the willful Raisa. Keeping her safe may be too big a job for one 17 year old boy!

The Bad: Okay, folks, I’m going to be honest with you…this book was a little hard to get into. I like fantasy so it seemed like my kind of book. A friend (and fellow teacher) who does not really like fantasy told me “This one is so good! You have to read it!” However, at about 50 pages in I called and asked her when I was going to get into it. She told me to just keep reading.  Shortly after that I realized that I did not want to put the book down. I wasn’t sure why, but I was hooked. All of my students who have read the book have loved it. This one may be a little slow to start for some (myself included), but it is worth it. Just keep reading!

The Ugly: Ahem…Okay, Han is a street rat (albiet…one who is trying to reform) and he hangs out in some pretty sketchy places and with some pretty sketchy people. As you are reading, just keep in mind that he is trying to get out of the life he has fallen into. Raisa is willful and is not above deceiving people to get what she wants. Both of these characters have flaws to go along with their redeeming qualities. Also, both characters get into some questionable situations and there are allusions to “mature situations,” but please trust me that both characters behave appropriately for the middle school reader (well…mostly).

The Awesome: There’s more! This is one of those books where you must read the next in the series. When I finished Demon King I absolutely had to read the next book, The Exiled Queen. You will be happy to know that it is just as engrossing as the first in the series and there is no lag time in “getting into” it since you already know the characters and the situation.

Killer Pizza

May 5, 2011

Killer Pizza by Greg Taylor

Feiwel & Friends; First Edition edition (May 26, 2009)

Summary: Toby Magill is ecstatic when he gets his first job making pies at “Killer Pizza.” Not the most athletic or popular kid, Toby has a secret dream: he wants to become a famous celebrity chef. Making pizza at the new neighborhood eatery seems to be the perfect entry level position. After slaving away in Killer Pizza’s kitchen for a couple of weeks with his new coworkers, Annabel and Strobe, the teens learn that they are not employed by the best pizza joint in town (well, it is, but that is beside the point), but a secret monster hunting organization.

Toby and his friends soon learn that delivering pizzas to a party of six year olds or keeping up with the appetites of hungry teenagers are not the biggest things to fear. A clan of super suave, and stupendously scary monsters called Guttata are taking over their town. How will the newest MCOs (Monster Control Officers) handle this unexpected turn of events?

The Good: For fans of horror books, this is an awesome read! This book is chock full of freakishly scary monsters. But, for those who are a little squeamish about creepy topics, there is enough comedy to keep this one compelling.

The Bad: Okay, seriously…I had a hard time with a bunch of 14 year olds out hunting full grown venomous, clawed, scaly monsters? It just seems a little too dangerous to me. But oh, wait…what adult would believe in these creatures? I suppose sometimes it just takes a teenager to take care of such a serious job!

The Ugly: Well, the guttata are definitely ugly.

The Awesome: First of all, I love the cover and title of this book! Who can resist a cover that looks like a greasy pizza box (original publication cover). This is just an overall fun book. Now, I have to admit that I am not a huge horror fan. As a rule, I don’t do scary movies and I don’t do scary books (really, who goes down into the basement alone on a dark and stormy night when a killer is on the loose…get real folks). However, I will watch scary movies that don’t take themselves too seriously (oh, you know that it is a bad idea to go into the basement, but you are going to anyway…well go right ahead). This is a scary book that does’t take its self too seriously and I can’t wait for the sequel, Killer Pizza: The Slice (available in June 21, 2011).

North of Beautiful

May 2, 2011

North of Beautiful by Justina Chen Headly

Little, Brown Books for Young Readers; 1 edition (February 1, 2009)

Summary: Terra Rose Cooper has a lot going for her. She is smart, gaduating from high school a year early, artistic, the creator of intriguing collages, and attractive, tall and thin with long blond hair. However, she strives to hide two huge flaws in both her appearance and her life. Underneath layers of makeup, Terra hides a large reddish port-wine stain birthmark on her face. Underneath her obsessive control of her life, eating perfectly, staying in perfect shape, helping keep a perfect house, Terra hides years of verbal abuse inflicted on her entire family by her controlling father.

In a chance encounter, Terra meets Jacob, an adopted Chinese-American boy with his own scars and a wildly different approach to life. Terra begins to learn that there is a different way to look at life and beauty, inner and outer. Will Jacob, his mother, and a trip to China turn Terra’s world upside down?

The Good: I loved this book! I really, really did! I also have to add, my students who have read this book had the same reaction. Every single girl I have spoken with who read this book has given it rave reviews. The reader learns early on in the book that Terra’s father is obnoxious and that Terra has listened to his rants, directed at her and her family, for her entire life. However, in Terra, the reader sees a strong protagonist, who has made a plan to escape her father’s control. She just has to figure out if she truly wants to follow the route she has mapped for herself.

As a side note, I was intrigued by the side story of Terra’s mother. While Terra has learned to deal with her father’s controlling abuse by exercising compulsively and maintaining outward perfection, her mother has dealt with his abuse by overeating and has become overweight. Rather than stand up to her husband she has become overly passive in all aspects of her life. As the story unfolds, we see that she, like her daughter, is intensely creative. It is just as fulfilling to watch her character develop as it is to see the changes in Terra.

The Bad: In terms of reviewing this book for a middle school audience, it is important to note that Terra is a high school junior. She is not squeaky clean and there are a couple of implications of underage drinking and a few references to sexual behavior. However, all such references are brief and the writer does not go into detail. These behaviors are not, in any way, glorified. There are a couple of scenes which seem intended for a more mature audience, but given the context, they are not, in my opinion, inappropriate. *Side note to parents: If you get some weird questions from younger readers, please, please take the time to talk with them about the context! Don’t write off the book because of a few scenes. For every questionable scene in this book, there is a good background reason. This may be a good “read it together and talk about it book” for younger readers.

The Ugly: Terra’s dad is simply put, a jerk. There is no way around saying this. He belittles her mother for her weight and he insults his daughter’s appearance. His tirades are disturbing and may be bothersome to the reader. The good thing about Terra’s father is that he is consistent. You always know what you are going to get. He is always going to insult his wife’s weight and he is always going to insult his daughter’s appearance. Also, his tirades are contained. Through out the entire book, there are three instances where Terra’s dad goes on a tirade. Each lasts for 3-5 pages. At least Mr. Cooper’s bad behavior does not color the entire book.

The Awesome: I love the message this book sends: Terra uses her inner strength to overcome the adversity in her life. Terra seems to come by this strength naturally, but we also see her mother developing her own strength as the book progresses. I think this is an awesome book to remind girls to that inner strength is more important than outer perfection.