Famous Last Words

Today, I bring you one of next year’s nominees for the South Carolina Junior Book Award, Famous Last Words by Katie Alender. The SCJBA nominee list is primarily intended for middle grade readers, but I think Famous Last Words–and probably several others on the list–is a great read for older readers as well. It is an engrossing murder mystery with a supernatural twist that many tween, teen, and adult readers will enjoy.

Willa, a girl struggling with her past, has just moved from Connecticut to sunny Los Angeles. Her mother recently married a movie producer, and now Willa must adjust to an entirely new life. It doesn’t help matters that there’s a serial killer on the prowl in LA, a killer recreating scenes from famous movies. But surely Willa is safe from harm, right? (You can probably guess the answer to that question.)

It doesn’t take long for Willa to realize that something isn’t quite right in her new home. A strange presence tries to drown her in the pool. She sees words and numbers on the walls, and dead bodies and rose petals appear in the bathtub. No one else sees these terrifying images, and even Willa is starting to think she’s crazy. That feeling only increases when she begins to get visions of the Hollywood Killer and his victims. Who is haunting Willa, and what is this being trying to tell her?

As a newcomer in this strange city, there are few people that Willa can go to for help. Her mom and her new husband would never believe her. They’d probably think she was crazy and send her to a mental hospital. Her new “friend” Marnie is a pathological liar and can’t exactly be trusted with something like this. Maybe her stepdad’s cute assistant, Reed? Possibly. What about Wyatt, her sullen lab partner who has a strange obsession with the Hollywood Killer case?

Who can Willa trust to believe her and help her deal with the horrors she’s facing? And can she discover what the ghost in her house is trying to tell her before she’s a deranged killer’s next victim?


I’m going to stop before I give too much away. The fun of a murder mystery is discovering all this stuff for yourself, am I right?!

If I had one problem with this book, it would be the somewhat forced love story. It just didn’t make a ton of sense to me, and, honestly, I’d love to see the occasional book with a strong platonic relationship between a girl and a boy. No mention of lovey-dovey stuff. (Wouldn’t that be a refreshing change?) For me, this book would have been more believable–even with the ghost story elements–without the romance. Maybe I’m alone in that. Then again, maybe not.

All in all, Famous Last Words is a a quick, easy, entertaining read that will definitely appeal to anyone looking for a good mystery. It kept me hooked from the first page, and I couldn’t wait to figure out if I was right about “whodunit.” (I called it early on. Let me know if you do, too!)

For more information on Famous Last Words and Katie Alender, visit the author’s website, Twitter, Facebook, and Tumblr.

Happy reading!

Watch the Sky

I was just talking to one of my colleagues about my most recent read, Watch the Sky by Kirsten Hubbard, and, in a nutshell, I described it as “kids of Doomsday preppers.” She reminded me that we actually have some of those kids at our school, so I think this book, which comes out on April 7th, will eventually be added to my school library collection.

Watch the Sky is an interesting book–told from the perspective of a young boy–about a rather fascinating (and disturbing, in my opinion) lifestyle choice. Now, I’ve never watched Doomsday Preppers or anything like it–nor do I intend to–but I think this book gives readers a small glimpse into what life may be like for the kids in those situations. It can’t be easy to live in fear all the time while finding some way to balance school, friends, and loyalty to family. That’s what Jory is going through in Watch the Sky

Jory’s stepfather, Caleb, is always telling the family to look out for signs. Signs of what? Jory’s not entirely certain, but Caleb seems to be sure enough for everyone. These mysterious signs could be things like an odd newspaper article, a meteor shower, some dead birds, or even the simplest, seemingly innocent thing. Jory’s not sure what makes something a “sign,” but he trusts Caleb to keep the family safe from danger.

Jory must also do his part to keep his family safe. He must follow all of Caleb’s instructions. He can’t draw too much attention to himself or the family, he always wears heavy work boots, and he can never tell anyone about his sister Kit. And he must make sure to “watch the sky” for signs.

Before long, Caleb becomes convinced that all of his “signs” are pointing to a cataclysmic event, one that the family will need to prepare for. What do those preparations entail? Stockpiling supplies, getting used to eating MREs (Meals Ready to Eat), canning food…and digging. Almost every night, the entire family digs in the canyon beyond their house. Jory’s not sure exactly why or what they’re digging, but this mission soon becomes clear. They are creating a bunker to survive whatever danger Caleb feels is on the way.

While all of this is going on, Jory also has to go to school. He has to worry about keeping his grades up, staying out of trouble, and making friends with a couple of people who won’t let him blend into the background.

It’s hard to balance his schoolwork and friendships with everything happening at home, and Jory is starting to wonder why he should have so much to worry about. Why is Caleb so convinced that danger is coming? If things are really so bad, why aren’t they warning others? Caleb always taught Jory to question everything he was told, but what will happen when Jory begins to question Caleb? Is he prepared to live a life without fear if it means losing his own family? Or will Jory follow Caleb into an uncertain future away from the world around him?

Answer these questions and many more when you read Watch the Sky by Kirsten Hubbard.

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I think Watch the Sky will spark some intriguing conversations with my students. I haven’t read anything like this book before, so it definitely fills a hole (that I didn’t know was there) in my library collection. I would recommend this book for libraries that serve elementary and middle grade readers.

That being said, I did have one big issue with the book. There didn’t seem to be much resolution at the end. I kind of expected what was going to happen, but there just needed to be more. More about what happened to Kit, both before and after her time with Jory’s family. More about how Jory and his family fared after their decision in the canyon. What came next? Maybe these things played out in the final version of the book (I read a galley copy via NetGalley), but I would have liked a bit more clarification.

For more information on Watch the Sky and author Kirsten Hubbard, check out the author’s Goodreads page.

Freaky Fast Frankie Joe

I’ll be the first to admit that, sometimes, I’m not exactly enthused about books that I have to read for work. Yes, that includes some of my state’s book award nominees. Simply put, I read them because I must. I’m a firm believer that you can’t recommend books to students if you haven’t read them yourself, and, since I promote the crap out of the South Carolina Book Award program at my school, I read all of the Picture and Children’s Book Award nominees before the school year starts. I’ve got a few of the CBA nominees left to read, and most of those are the books that I figured would be difficult for me to get into. I started reading one of them late last night, and, to my great surprise, I finished it early this morning. That book is Freaky Fast Frankie Joe by Lutricia Clifton.

Frankie Joe Huckaby is a twelve-year-old who’s about to face some major changes. His mom is in jail for the next ten months, so Frankie Joe is being forced to leave his home at the Lone Star Trailer Park in Laredo, Texas, to move all the way to Illinois to live with a dad he hardly knows, a step-mom he’s never met, and four half-brothers he didn’t know he had.

Frankie Joe is less than thrilled with the move, and it soon becomes apparent that his new brothers may not be all that excited about it either. One of them, in particular, seems to make it his mission to make Frankie Joe more miserable than he already is. (It seems that school wasn’t exactly a priority for Frankie Joe’s mom, and he’s got A LOT of catching up to do.) Well, mission accomplished. If he didn’t want to return to Texas before, he certainly does now. All he has to do is make a plan to get there…

Frankie Joe knows that he’ll need money to make the 1,400 mile journey back to Texas, so he comes up with a way to earn a little cash. He starts a delivery business for many of the people in Clearview, Illinois. He delivers pizzas, skin care products, groceries…whatever he needs to earn a few bucks, enough to get what he needs to make it back home to his mom.

But what if Frankie Joe is better off in Illinois? His grades are improving, he’s taking on responsibility, he’s making friends, and he’s providing an important service in this little town. Even though he’s determined to make it back to his mom, is that really the best thing for him? Sure, Frankie Joe misses his mom and his friends in Laredo, but is going back to them what he should do? And what will happen when the decision is taken out of Frankie Joe’s hands? What will become of Freaky Fast Frankie Joe? Read this 2013-14 South Carolina Children’s Book Award nominee by Lutricia Clifton to find out!

Even though I was a little reluctant to read this book, once I actually started reading it, I was hooked. It’s a great story, a fast read, and, even though the reader may see what Frankie Joe should do, it’s interesting to see his thought processes through the changes in his young life. He deals with moving across the country, new family members, school, name-calling, making friends, and taking responsibility in ways that I think a lot of kids will appreciate.

I think Freaky Fast Frankie Joe is a great novel to use in classrooms to facilitate discussions on a variety of topics. For one, students could explore the differences in geography between Texas and Illinois. They could map out the route Frankie Joe would have taken, discuss the weather he may have encountered, and research the types of plants, rocks, and other things he may have encountered along the way. Frankie Joe also looked up any words that were new to him and found applications for those new words in his own life and experiences. This book could also be used to explore the concepts of blended families, parents in jail, and moving with students–and even adults–who are having difficulty adjusting to similar changes in their own lives.

For more information on Freaky Fast Frankie Joe and author Lutricia Clifton, visit http://www.lutricia-lois-clifton.com/.

Cinder

I love a good fairy tale retelling.  (That is clear to anyone who follows me on Twitter and sees my comments about Once Upon a Time every Sunday night.)  I also enjoy really well-written science fiction.  It should come as no surprise, then, that I found Cinder by Marissa Meyer to be a real winner.  This book combines the classic tale of Cinderella with cyborgs…kind of Disney meets Terminator (or Battlestar Galactica).  What more could a nerdy girl ask for?

Cinder doesn’t have what one would call an easy life.  Her stepmother treats her as nothing more than a slave.  Everyone around her gives her a wide berth.  But why?  What’s wrong with Cinder?  Well, she’s not entirely human.  After a horrible childhood accident (that she has no memory of), parts of Cinder’s body were replaced with mechanical and computerized parts.  Those around her consider Cinder, a cyborg, to be disposable and easily overlooked…unless they need something fixed, of course.  Cinder has an uncanny ability to fix nearly anything that’s broken…and it’s this ability that leads her to an encounter with the Crown Prince of New Beijing, Kai.

Kai goes into the local marketplace looking to have his android fixed, and his search leads him to the best mechanic available, Cinder.  He doesn’t know she’s a cyborg, and she has no intention of telling him.  But Cinder—and Kai—have no way of knowing that forces are at work that will reveal all their secrets and put both of them—and the people they love the most—in more danger than they could possibly fathom…

A devastating plague is sweeping across the earth.  The emperor, Kai’s father, is in the final throes of the disease.  Peony, Cinder’s beloved stepsister—and her only real friend—has just been infected.  Cinder is blamed by her stepmother for Peony’s sickness, but even Cinder is not prepared for the lengths her stepmother will go to for retribution.  Cinder is “volunteered” as a test subject for plague research.  As everyone in New Beijing knows, this is a certain death sentence…one that Cinder has no intention of accepting quietly.

As it turns out, Cinder will have bigger problems than being a glorified science experiment…for she is immune to the disease that is engulfing the world.  How is this possible?  What’s so special about Cinder, a cyborg that no one—except maybe Prince Kai—wants to befriend?  Cinder soon learns that she’s even more special than her cyborg parts would indicate.  She may, in fact, be the salvation that the entire world is looking for.  As everyone knows, though, one person’s salvation is often another’s destruction.  Who will ultimately be destroyed?  Who will be saved?  That answer may just rest with the decisions made by Cinder, a girl forced to deal with more than anyone should ever ask of her.  What will happen?  I’ll leave that for you to find out!

I admit that it took me a little while to get truly invested in Cinder.  About a quarter of the way through, though, I got absolutely hooked, and I couldn’t wait to get home from work to immerse myself in this story.  Yes, there was a ton of foreshadowing, and anyone familiar with the basics of the Cinderella story could predict what was going to happen, but there were a few surprises thrown in that made this an action-packed tale that, in my opinion, male and female readers could enjoy.

Cinder is also a fine read for readers in middle school on up.  I’m not one to pay a huge amount of attention to bad language in books, but I can’t recall much of it jumping out at me in this book.  There was a sort of innocent love story in this book, but, again, there was nothing that really struck me as being inappropriate for middle grade readers.

I love that, at its heart, Cinder is a science fiction book geared primarily toward teen female readers.  For too long, girls (and women) who love science fiction have been bombarded with loads of male protagonists, but we’ve had very few—relatively speaking—that we as females could identify with.  I hope many other authors will follow Marissa Meyer’s example and write quality science fiction with strong female characters!

I look forward to reading more about Cinder in the next book in this series, Scarlet, which will be released on February 5th of 2013.  Book three, Cress, is scheduled for a 2014 release, and book four, Winter, is set for a 2015 release.  There are also a couple of free ebook novellas that go along with this series.  You can find more information about those on Goodreads.

If I still haven’t convinced you to give Cinder a try, visit the author’s website at http://www.marissameyer.com/ for a closer look at this series.  You may also want to check out the video below to hear author Marissa Meyer tell even more about this fabulous first book in the Lunar Chronicles.

Geek High

Geek High is your typical “pink book.” It is targeted to girls, and the story is a predictable tale of high school woes and fumbling romance. What might be a little different, however, is the main character, Miranda. She’s a math genius, and she attends the Notting Hill Independent School for Gifted Children, also known as Geek High. She’s funny, awkward, extremely intelligent, and she’s just been dropped on the doorstep of her estranged father while her flaky mother lives in London for a while.

Life is not so great for Miranda. She’s being forced to live with her evil stepmother and stepsister and a father she barely knows anymore. Her love life is nonexistent. She’s being pressured to be on the math team even though it bores her to tears. One of her best friends is writing a gossip blog that she’s being blamed for, so she’s blackmailed into planning the Geek High’s horrible Snowflake Gala. To make matters worse, the guy she’s been crushing on for two years has the hots for Miranda’s totally abhorrent stepsister, Hannah.

Could anything else go wrong for Miranda? Of course! (This wouldn’t be a high school drama if it didn’t.) But she might just find a way to turn things around. With the help of some friends–and even some “enemies”–Miranda could make things go her way. There even might be hope for her to find a date to the Snowflake Gala. Will this Cinderella story have a happy ending? Find out for yourself when you read Geek High by Piper Banks.

Although this story was predictable, and some of the pop culture references were a bit dated, I thought this was a quick, enjoyable read. If you’re looking for something light with a totally relatable main character, this might be the book for you!

FYI, Geek High is the first in a series of books. I think there are four or five books in this series right now. If you’d like more information on this series and author Piper Banks, visit http://www.piperbanks.com/.

Ash

It is no secret that I love fairy tales.  I especially like retellings of these tales, particularly when they have a twist.  My latest read, Ash by Malinda Lo, is a retelling of Cinderella, and it definitely has a twist (many twists, in fact).  I’ll get to the changes soon, but I must say that this story is beautifully written, and I would recommend it to anyone who enjoys fairy tales.  Malinda Lo has crafted a timely version of the Cinderella story that is so haunting, so rich, and so vibrant that readers who take the time to truly appreciate the story will not be disappointed.

Ash seems to lose everything in the blink of an eye.  First, her mother dies.  A short time later, after remarrying suddenly, Ash’s father becomes sick and leaves Ash all alone.  Her cruel stepmother forces Ash to become a servant in her own home, and Ash grieves for the life she once knew.  Her only solace is in reading the fairy tales her mother passed on to her.  Ash wonders if the fairies are real, and, if they are, will they take her away from her current life and the pain that comes with it?

Her answer comes in the form of Sidhean, a fairy who seems to have a strange connection to Ash.  Ash wants Sidhean to take her with him to the realm of the fairies, but he resists and insists that she is not ready.  Ready for what?  Ash does not know, but she can feel Sidhean’s presence with her, and she knows that the time will come when he will claim her forever.

Everything changes, though, when Ash encounters Kaisa, the king’s huntress.  The more time Ash spends with Kaisa, the less she focuses on Sidhean.  She grows closer to the huntress and does whatever she can, including making wishes of fairies (which are never simple and always come with a price), to spend more time with Kaisa.  Ash and Kaisa develop a friendship, which soon evolves into something that neither young woman was expecting.

When Ash realizes that her time with Sidhean grows closer–and her time with Kaisa comes to an end–she knows that she has a choice to make.  Will she go with the fairy who has given her all that she has asked, or will she risk everything for the love she has always wanted?  Read Ash to discover what happens when one young woman must decide between the fairy tale and true love.

Although I kind of knew what to expect when I began reading Ash, I was not prepared for the absolute beauty of the story.  I was utterly captivated.  It did not (and does not) matter to me that the Cinderella in this story did not want the handsome prince.  She just wanted love.  I think that’s all that anyone wants, and I applaud Malinda Lo for telling a story that will resonate with gay and straight readers alike.  I look forward to reading Huntress, the prequel to Ash, and I know that it will be just as beautiful.

For more information on author Malinda Lo and her writing, visit http://www.malindalo.com/.

How to Build a House

No, this is not a do-it-yourself manual on how to actually build a house.  In this novel, Dana Reinhardt tells the story of Harper, a teen girl who is escaping the drama of her family life for the summer.  She’s going to Tennessee to help build a house for a family who lost nearly everything in a tornado.

How to Build a House alternates between Harper’s present building the house for this family and the past and the mess her home life became when her dad and stepmother divorced.  Harper is dealing with her father’s faults, her relationship with her former stepsister and best friend Tess, and a new relationship with Teddy, the teen son of the family for whom this house is being built.  Harper seems to find peace this summer, both because of helping out this family and the love she finds with Teddy.

How to Build a House was, at times, a very sweet book.  At other times, being the responsible adult I am, I had issues with how casually rules and sex were treated by the book’s characters.  I am not, however, naive enough to believe that the treatment of these issues in this book were unrealistic.  I would recommend this book for those who want a light summer read.  This book is not terribly deep or hard to read, but it does offer a good message about finding peace with oneself.