Archive for January, 2017

Review of Ms. Bixby’s Last Day, by John David Anderson

Sunday, January 8th, 2017

Ms. Bixby’s Last Day

by John David Anderson

Walden Pond Press (HarperCollins), 2016. 300 pages.
Starred Review
2016 Sonderbooks Stand-out: #3 Children’s Fiction

Ms. Bixby’s Last Day is both a middle grade boys’ caper novel and a heart-warming tearjerker. How did John David Anderson manage to pull that off?

We’ve got three viewpoint characters, best friends Topher, Steve, and Brand, sixth grade students in Ms. Bixby’s class. One day, Ms. Bixby tells them she’s got to take a leave of absence a month before school’s out. She has cancer. They’re planning a class party for her last Friday, next week.

Topher has a taxonomy of teachers.

There are six kinds of teachers in the world. I know because we classified them once during indoor recess. First you have your Zombies: those are the ones who have been doing it for a few centuries, since Roosevelt was president — the first Roosevelt, with the broomy mustache from those museum movies….

Then there are the Caff-Adds. Brand calls them Zuzzers. You can spot them by their jittery hands and bloodshot eyes and the insulated NPR travel mugs they carry around with them….

Then you have your Dungeon Masters. The red-pass-wielding ogres who wish paddling was still allowed in schools. The kind who insist on no talking, whether it’s reading time, work time, sharing time, lunchtime, after school, before school, the weekend, whatever. You are supposed to just sit still and shut up….

Then you’ve got your Spielbergs. They’re not nearly as cool as Steven Spielberg. We just call them that because they show movies all the time….

My personal favorites are the Noobs. The overachievers. Fresh picked from the teacher farm. With their bright eyes and their colorful posters recently purchased from a catalog and the way they clap like circus seals when you get the right answer. They don’t stay Noobs for long. They get burned out pretty quick. A year. Maybe two. I don’t think it’s the students’ fault, though. I blame the system.

The last kind we simply call the Good Ones. The ones who make the torture otherwise known as school somewhat bearable. You know when you have one of the Good Ones because you find yourself actually paying attention in class, even if it’s not art class. They’re the teachers you actually want to go back and say hi to the next year. The ones you don’t want to disappoint.

Like Ms. B.

But then on Monday, it turns out that Ms. Bixby is already out, with a substitute in her place. Brand, Steve, and Topher make a plan to go visit her on Saturday. But then they overhear some teachers saying that Ms. Bixby is getting moved to Boston on Saturday. They are going to have to skip school to visit her on Friday.

They devise a plan to sneak off the school grounds, ride buses, pick up the specific items they need, and make it to the hospital. Everything that can possibly go wrong with their plan does go wrong. That’s the middle school boys’ caper part of the book. Sadly, I found myself laughing quite hard at their bad luck and, in a few cases, poor judgment. Though how they deal with each setback approaches brilliance in places.

As they narrate their journey, each boy also gives the readers memories of Ms. Bixby. We find out how she noticed them and saw them for who they are. We learn why they chose these specific items they need to bring to her. We also learn each boy’s back story and how they really needed someone like her in their lives.

This book made me think of my first college roommate, Colleen Jenks. Colleen was teaching high school English before she died of brain cancer. Truly, teachers get to touch lives in ways that will never be forgotten.

This book is, as Brand would say, frawesome (freaking awesome)!

johndavidanderson.org
harpercollinschildrens.com

Buy from Amazon.com

Find this review on Sonderbooks at: www.sonderbooks.com/Childrens_Fiction/ms_bixbys_last_day.html

Disclosure: I am an Amazon Affiliate, and will earn a small percentage if you order a book on Amazon after clicking through from my site.

Source: This review is based on a library book from Fairfax County Public Library.

Disclaimer: I am a professional librarian, but I maintain my website and blogs on my own time. The views expressed are solely my own, and in no way represent the official views of my employer or of any committee or group of which I am part.

What did you think of this book?

Review of 23 Minutes, by Vivian Vande Velde

Friday, January 6th, 2017

23 Minutes

by Vivian Vande Velde

Boyds Mills Press, 2016. 176 pages.
Starred Review
2016 Sonderbooks Stand-out: #3 Teen Fiction

I loved this book. Yes, there’s an unlikely assumption at the beginning, but since it’s the set-up and they never tried to explain it, it’s very fun to think about what you would do in that scenario.

15-year-old Zoe has the ability to turn back time for 23 minutes. She doesn’t know why she has this ability or how it works, but she’s figured out what she can do. She has to put her arms around herself, without touching anyone else, and say out loud “Playback,” and she will be put back to 23 minutes earlier.

Once she has done this, she can keep redoing those 23 minutes, keep resetting to the same time – for ten tries. But if she once lets 24 minutes go by, or if she uses up her ten tries, she’s done and can’t go back.

Zoe has found that 90% of the time, trying to redo things makes them worse.

But the book starts with a situation Zoe has to try to change. She gets caught in a downpour and goes into a bank to get out of the rain. The people in the bank look at her askance because of her blue hair and the way she’s dressed. One youngish man, though, is kind to her.

But then a bank robber starts holding up the bank, and he ends up shooting the kind man in the face. Zoe has to try to fix this.

Her first try, she borrows a cell phone from someone on the street and calls the police. (Teens who live in a group home aren’t allowed to have their own cell phones.) A lot more people end up getting shot that time.

Next she tries warning the bank guard. That doesn’t go well, either. Eventually she figures out she needs to get the kind man’s help. But what can she say to win his confidence?

This book reminded me of the movie Ground Hog Day, except that Zoe knows the number of iterations is limited. I like the way she learns things in one iteration to use in the next.

The book is dedicated “to those who try to make things better for at-risk children and teens,” and Zoe is indeed one of those teens. I like the way the book shows her trying to do what’s right, despite the reactions of people around her. I also like the way the kind man’s character is revealed to be consistently kind, even though different things happen in each go-round, and he’s tested in different ways.

Of course, totally apart from the wonderful story, it’s fun to speculate what you would do if you had that power. What moments would you be able to fix? It’s easy to understand Zoe’s perspective that it’s usually not, actually, a good idea.

She found out about her ability when she was thirteen. That was when she learned the rules. Here’s why she was somewhat slow about changing things when the bank robbery started:

But she has not had good luck with this sort of thing in the past. She spent way too long on it at thirteen – she thinks she may have spent years playing back various moments when she was thirteen, trying to fix things, despite the fact that, really, nobody can fix being thirteen.

In the two and a half years she’s had this ability, playback has cost her more than it’s gained, and Zoe has come to think of her life as being like one of those choose-your-own-adventure books – one where it’s best to read through once and settle, because the choices only go from bad to worse.

Most of all, this is a thrilling, dramatic story with a life-or-death puzzle to solve and characters you come to love.

VivianVandeVelde.com
boydsmillspress.com

Buy from Amazon.com

Find this review on Sonderbooks at: www.sonderbooks.com/Teens/23_minutes.html

Disclosure: I am an Amazon Affiliate, and will earn a small percentage if you order a book on Amazon after clicking through from my site.

Source: This review is based on my own copy, sent to me by the publisher.

Disclaimer: I am a professional librarian, but I maintain my website and blogs on my own time. The views expressed are solely my own, and in no way represent the official views of my employer or of any committee or group of which I am part.

What did you think of this book?

Review of Den of Wolves, by Juliet Marillier

Thursday, January 5th, 2017

Den of Wolves

A Blackthorn & Grim Novel

by Juliet Marillier

ROC (Penguin Random House), 2016. 433 pages.
Starred Review
2016 Sonderbooks Stand-out: #1 Fiction

I was saving this book up to read after I finished judging books for the Cybils Award, and was happy about having a sick day this week — because I got to spend the day reading it. So my memory of the day is lovely.

This is the third book in Juliet Marillier’s series about Blackthorn, a wise woman and healer, and Grim, her giant-sized companion. Though you wouldn’t feel lost if you started with this book, to really enjoy the nuances and character growth in these books, you should start at the beginning with Dreamer’s Pool.

At the beginning of the series, Blackthorn and Grim were locked up in a nightmarish prison. Here she’s reflecting on how they escaped.

Ah, Conmael; my mentor, who was one of the fey. A mysterious stranger, or so I’d thought at the time, who had saved me from execution and released me and Grim from vile imprisonment, but only after I’d promised to adhere to his rules for seven years, gods help me. Those rules were three: I must live here in Dalriada and not go south to seek vengeance against my enemy, Mathuin of Laios; I must say yes to every request for help; and I must use my abilities only for good. To someone who did not know the angry, bitter creature I had become, that might not have sounded so hard. But it was hard. Making Mathuin pay for his crimes, not only against me but against a whole host of wronged innocents, had become the only thing that mattered to me; even more so after a year’s incarceration in his cesspit of a lockup. I had struggled to keep my promise. Twice, I had come within a hairsbreadth of breaking it, even in the knowledge of the punishment Conmael had threatened. As for saying yes when folk asked me for help, that was not always as simple as it sounded.

In each book, Blackthorn and Grim have a large case to solve for someone else, involving something uncanny. But at the same time, in each book, things come up regarding Mathuin. By now, he’s found out where Blackthorn lives and wants to eliminate her.

It turns out that this third book brings the larger story to a satisfying conclusion, but I hope this won’t be the last we see of Blackthorn and Grim. After all, Juliet Marillier continued the Sevenwaters series after the first trilogy.

But the more immediate issue in this book involves a wild man who returns to Wolf Glen after being in the Otherworld for 15 years. The landlord at Wolf Glen wants Bardan, the wild man, to finish the heartwood house that he began 15 years ago. He hires Grim to help build it, but sends his daughter away to Winterfalls. At Winterfalls, she comes under Blackthorn’s wing. Between the two of them, Blackthorn and Grim realize something is not as it seems at Wolf Glen.

I think what I love most about this series is the gradual growth and healing we get to watch happen in Blackthorn. Yes, they were both traumatized, and both still have nightmares and flashbacks. (I like that the author doesn’t pretend that just goes away.) But as Blackthorn helps people, we watch her innate kindness shine. And slowly, slowly, she learns to trust. Slowly, slowly, her heart opens again.

Grim, for his part, also shines as someone who’s kind and will give himself to help others, but especially Blackthorn. His growth is mainly in learning to value himself, and offer his common sense and great strength.

The resulting romance is exquisite.

julietmarillier.com
penguin.com

Buy from Amazon.com

Find this review on Sonderbooks at: www.sonderbooks.com/Fiction/den_of_wolves.html

Disclosure: I am an Amazon Affiliate, and will earn a small percentage if you order a book on Amazon after clicking through from my site.

Source: This review is based on my own copy, pre-ordered via Amazon.com.

Disclaimer: I am a professional librarian, but I maintain my website and blogs on my own time. The views expressed are solely my own, and in no way represent the official views of my employer or of any committee or group of which I am part.

What did you think of this book?

2016 Sonderbooks Stand-outs!

Thursday, January 5th, 2017

I’m ready to announce the 2016 Sonderbooks Stand-outs!

I always have to wait until the year is completely over. This year, as so often happens, I read some of the best books of the year in the last week.

And I’m far, far behind in posting reviews! So my next priority will be to get all the reviews posted of these Sonderbooks Stand-outs. These last three months, I was working as a judge for the Cybils first round panel in the category of Young Adult Speculative Fiction. We announced our list on New Year’s Day! Anyway, the last three months I was spending so much time reading, I got out of the habit of posting reviews.

Here are my stats for 2016. I didn’t read as many books as last year, but maybe the Young Adult books were longer?

In 2016, I read:
5 rereads
49 novels for Teens
47 novels for Children
12 novels for Adults
25 nonfiction books for Adults
107 nonfiction books for Children (most, but not all, picture books)
477 picture books
For a grand total of 722 books (but most picture books).

So — this makes it hard to choose my favorites! But I have done my best to choose them and rank them. This ranking is extremely subjective. It’s not intended to be a measure of literary merit. It represents how much I loved these books.

Please remember also that I don’t review books I don’t like. I didn’t review nearly all the books I read this year. But all of my Sonderbooks Stand-outs are books I enjoyed greatly and highly recommend.

Now go take a look at my 2016 Sonderbooks Stand-outs!