Wednesday, February 15, 2012

May B. : A Novel by Caroline Starr Rose

may bI won’t go.

“It’s for the best,” Ma says,

yanking to braid my hair,

trying to make something of what’s left.

Ma and Pa want me to leave

and live with strangers.

I won’t go.

May B. (short for Mavis Elizabeth Betterly) doesn’t want to move away from her sod farm house on the Kansas prairie, but her parents are adamant that she needs to move in with the Oblingers to help Mr. Oblinger’s fancy new wife get used to farming life.  Mrs. Oblinger is homesick: she’s way too fancy to be living in a dirt-floor sod house in the middle of nowhere, and May B’s family could use the extra money that she’ll earn.  Life at the Oblingers’ home turns out to be as lonely and sad for May B. as it is for Mrs. Oblinger, but while May B. has plenty of work to do, Mrs. Oblinger just dreams the day away.  When Mr. Oblinger has to go into town and stay overnight, Mrs. Oblingers seizes the moment to run away from the farm.  Mr. Oblinger rushes after her as soon as he discovers his wife gone, leaving May B. all alone.  She’s never been alone before, and she’s frightened.  She hopes they’ll be back soon, but they don’t come back!  With little food or wood for the fire, May B. has to find the strength to survive the huge blizzard that’s coming.  She’s terrified, freezing and starving, but she decides to try to find her way home.  Why hasn’t anyone come to help her?  Why has she been forgotten?  Have her parents sent her to this terrible place to die alone?  Review by Loretta Eysie

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Vanished by Sheela Chari

vanishedNeela loves to play her veena, a rare antique one sent by her aunt in India, but only  in her own room where no one can hear her.  “She had heard about how some musicians got stage fright, but she was sure that what she had was far worse.  At home she could play all the notes, and sometimes when she closed her eyes, she imagined herself in a concert hall with hundreds, even thousands of people watching her.  But if there was a real, live person in the room other than her parents or her little brother, something happened, as if her notes stuck together and became an out-of-tune, out-of-rhythm mess. Something happened to her, too –shaky knees, a dry throat, and once or twice, she saw spots.”  Nevertheless, she braved her fears and brought her instrument to school for the Instruments Around the World unit.  You would have thought the worst would be over after she played in front of her class, but as Neela was wheeling the large, unwieldy case containing her veena home, a sudden downpour drove her to take shelter in the vestibule of a church.  A well-dressed older man appeared suddenly and offered to let her dry off inside. She knew she wasn’t supposed to go anywhere with a stranger, but it was a church, after all, and she was awfully wet.  She was even more worried when he asked her to leave her veena in the closet while they went into the kitchen to make cocoa, but he was so insistent.  After she barely finished her cocoa, the man (“call me Hal”) disappeared, and when she checked the hall closet, her veena had disappeared, too!  As Neela tries to find out what happened to her veena, she learns a lot of interesting things about its history, like the fact that it is a rare “Guru original,” perhaps the very first one made by the famous veena-maker Guru, and it’s rumored to be cursed!  The veena always disappears and ends up back in the shop in India where it was first sold.  Neela’s relentless determination to solve the mystery leads to the uncovering of more than one person’s secret identity, a kidnapping, and a hair-raising near-accident when the thief pushes Neela off a moving train!  It’s hard to believe this is Sheela Chari’s first novel –it’s such a great story of tradition, family loyalty, music and friendship.  Review by Stacy Church  

Friday, February 10, 2012

Fetching by Kiera Stewart

fetchingWhat a great idea!  Use dog training techniques to shape your enemies’ behavior!  Olivia decides she’s had enough of being tormented by Brynne and her mean group of friends.  If she can use training to change a dog’s behavior, why not a person? The first step is: body language.  If you are someone who’s always tormented by bullies, you need to cultivate a strong assertive presence (think Cesar Milan!) –head up, shoulders back. “Basically, the way you walk and stand and talk tells everyone how you feel about yourself  It can say that you’re in charge and you know what you’re doing, or it can say ‘loser.’” Olivia has a hard time convincing her fellow Bored Game Club members that her plan can work, but they gamely (ha ha) try to ignore any bad behavior –even when it makes them feel like wusses.  Then Olivia teaches them about looking for cues that bad behavior is about to occur: “’You know how when a dog starts to get upset, sometimes its hair stands up on its back, or it might start to growl…There’s always some type of cue before an attack, and we’ve got to start noticing these signs…Because once you see the cues, you can create a distraction.’”  They’re having some mild success, but what really gets things going is when Olivia decides they have to step up the training by using treats (gum, cookies, post-it notes) to reward good behavior (anything from Corbin passing by Mandy without making an insulting noise, to actually witnessing one of Brynne’s minions standing up to her).  It isn’t long before the balance of power has shifted: Olivia’s friend Mandy, formerly a social outcast who outlined her lips with Sharpie, is running for class president, and their lunch table is so crowded with popular kids that there’s no place for Olivia anymore.  It also isn’t long until Olivia feels sorry for the formerly-popular, now-outcast Brynne.  When Olivia finds out that her best friend Delia shared some very private information about Olivia’s mentally-ill mother, Olivia turns to Brynne to fill in for the friends she’s turned against.  The class election provides plenty of drama, especially after Olivia tells Brynne the reason for her social downfall: that Olivia trained the other kids to dislike her.  This is a very clever book, and the techniques will be recognized by anyone who has familiarity with dog training.  In the end, Olivia promises to never use dog training on humans again, but I think a little calm, assertive behavior can go a long way towards improving your relations with the people around you!  Review by Stacy Church

Sunday, February 05, 2012

The Death-Defying Pepper Roux by Geraldine McCaughrean

death“On the morning of his fourteenth birthday, Pepper had been awake for fully two minutes before realizing it was the day he must die.” This is the opening line of the rip-roaring adventure awaiting the “le pauvre” (poor thing) –Pepper Roux. Pepper and those around him, his parents and aunt, had known since the day he was born that he was not to live beyond his fourteenth birthday. Everyone was resigned to it, even Pepper. The night before he was born, Pepper’s spinster aunt Mireille had a dream of St. Constance, who told her, “in perfect diction,” that Pepper Roux was to die by fourteen. To make sure that Pepper would indeed be going to heaven, his aunt and mother made him go to church and pray all day, every day, on his calloused knees, making sure he was truly sorry for whatever "wrongdoings" he had committed since the last time he prayed. His Aunt Mireille filled his pockets with prayers and messages to give to the saints and family members in heaven. But when the day came for Pepper to die, he, in fact, did not die. He did not want to disappoint, but in truth, Pepper wanted to live. He wondered how this could happen: had he somehow sidestepped fate, shaken off the saints that were to capture him and whisk him away to heaven? He did not know, but felt like an intruder in life, an escapee, and that at any moment the angels and saints would realize their mistake and come after him in a flourish of fire and ice. But even so, when given the opportunity, Pepper sought out a life not his own. His attempts to slip into other peoples’ shoes propelled him all over France and from one life to the next. He donned the Sea Captain hat of his father, the apron of a butcher's assistant in a fancy department store, as well as stepping into the life of a horse trainer, newspaper writer, telegram deliverer, juvenile delinquent and many more. Through each of these misadventures Pepper was a bit naive, always seeing the best in others and too trusting of some unsavory characters. In every life he led he inadvertently caused mayhem while trying his best to spread joy and goodness in the depraved lives he saw around him. Yet Pepper knew too well that Death was after him. Ultimately, Pepper (with the help of a few surprising friends) came to learn to finally face his own death, and that things and people are not always what they seem. Pepper Roux is one extraordinary character –unforgettable, and the kind of person you would want to know in real life. You want Pepper to succeed and overcome the obstacles in front of him; you also want to protect him from the danger around him. This is a wonderfully crafted story filled with plenty of adventures. It's a book that once finished is not easy to leave behind. I also must suggest checking out the audiobook version of this story, narrated by Anton Lesser. Mr. Lesser brings the characters to life with such vibrancy and articulates the French words with flavor. Ms. McCaughrean’s sentences twist and turn and are filled with humor and wit; Lessen brings this humor to light in an incredible way that helps the story break out from the pages. Review by Lizzy Healy

Wednesday, February 01, 2012

Water Balloon by Audrey Vernick

waterThe water balloon blitz was just a joke when it started out in second grade. Marley found the water balloons early on a hot spring day. She decided to fill them and hide them to surprise her best friends, Jane and Leah, with an attack during their Monopoly game later in the day. Their version of Monopoly was wholly unique: the best friends had made up crazy actions to perform when you land on a square or draw a card. It made for a much more exciting time (for instance, if you landed on Marvin Gardens the other players had to quickly make up a new hairstyle for you). Marley blitzed them with the water balloons and it was one of the best moments and most fun the girls ever had. And so began a full-on blitz war: every summer one of them blitzed the other two and were awarded points for how daring and how surprising the attack was. That was during the height of their friendship, but now the three friends are in 7th grade and, as often happens, things have changed. It’s the summer before 8th grade and the girls haven't blitzed each other in a couple of years. Their lives have just gotten too busy. Marley's parents are divorcing and she is spending the summer at her dad's new place, unwillingly babysitting the most hyperactive twin 5-year-olds in existence. As if that wasn’t bad enough, Jane and Leah are doing an intensive acting camp together with high-schoolers and are too busy to hang out or even return Marley’s phone calls. Marley's life has done a complete 180 –she feels stretched as thin as a too-filled water balloon.. Marley wishes she could go back to childhood when everything was simple and she, Jane and Leah understood each other, were all each other needed, blitzing and laughing the days away. The only bright light of her summer is Jack, the baseball-loving neighbor at her dad's house with the brightest blue eyes. As her friends become more and more distant, she becomes more desperate to hold on to the old days. She decides to bring the water balloon blitzing back, but makes a grave mistake when she blitzes everyone (including high school boys) at Jane's first boy-girl, no-adult 4th of July party. Jane and Leah are furious and officially cut her out of their lives. They are more interested in boys and parties than games of monopoly; they even say she is the one who has not been a good friend since she has been so depressed about her parents. They actually tell her to get over it! Marley has a long summer with lots to learn about friendship (who your true friends are), romance (especially with a cute neighbor who is there for you when you need him), and family (in whatever form that may be).

Marley can be hard to like at times but it is easy to identify with her and her struggles with family and friends. The most excruciating aspect of the book is how awful her "best" friends are. They turn on her and blame her for everything without caring about her or what a difficult time she may be having. Marley comes to realize that you can't stay friends with people who are not true friends just because you’re scared to be alone. It takes time but she (and you as the reader) will come to realize that things are not always as bad as them seem and changes can make life better. If you like dramatic coming-of-age stories with some romance mixed in, then check out Water Balloon by Audrey Vernick. Review by Lizzy Healy