Review of In the Red, by Christopher Swiedler

In the Red

by Christopher Swiedler

HarperCollins Children’s Books, 2020. 277 pages.
Review written October 22, 2021, from a library book
Starred Review

In the Red takes place on a Mars colony with a kid who grew up there. His parents took him out on the surface many times – but when he was ten and tried to pass his Basic Certification, he had a panic attack and failed. Ever since then, he can’t even get to the airlock.

Now Michael is twelve, and determined to prove himself. He’s sure his parents are disgusted by his “condition” and way too protective, so he schedules a test without telling them. When he gets put with the Advanced Test, he impressively calculates directions in his head without using the nav computer, but still has a panic attack when he’s almost gotten back to the dome. Will he never succeed?

Soon after, at night, his best friend Lilith shows him a secret way to get out of the dome. They steal a slightly damaged rover and go on a joyride. When everything is going well, Michael rashly decides to pay his father a visit, six hours away at the magnetic field station at the polar ice cap.

It would have worked, if the station didn’t suffer a major disaster that took down the magnetic field. Now all the humans on Mars need to take cover before the sun comes up with its deadly radiation and no protection from the magnetic field. Trouble is, where will Michael and Lilith find protection out on the surface?

That’s just the beginning of their troubles. Communication is also down, and no one knows they’re out on the surface. In the tradition of a good thriller, solving one problem is only a temporary respite before the next life-threatening situation comes up. The author has them working with reasonably imagined future technology that does have major constraints as they try to survive on a planet that could easily kill them.

This book reminded me of The Martian, but for kids. The dangerous situations and solutions all sounded plausible as well as terrifying. Michael’s practical genius with math had a counterweight in the devastating panic attacks that always put him at further risk.

A science fiction story that feels like it could be telling the future. Kid vs. Nature in a setting that is more hostile than anything on earth.

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Review of A Song of Flight, by Juliet Marillier

A Song of Flight

by Juliet Marillier

ACE (Penguin Random House), 2021. 446 pages.
Review written October 23, 2021, from my own copy, preordered from amazon.com
Starred Review
2022 Sonderbooks Stand-out: #12 Fiction

A Song of Flight culminates another wonderful fantasy trilogy by Juliet Marillier, the Warrior Bards trilogy.

A new problem has arisen. The prince of Dalriada has disappeared, after he and Liobhan’s brother Galen were attacked by strangers and Crow Folk. Galen is frantic to find him, and the warriors of Swan Island are called on to help.

At first Dau is sent without Liobhan, because she is too personally involved. But Liobhan has more experience with the Uncanny, so her skills will be needed.

At the same time, her brother Brocc and his baby daughter have been expelled from the Other World, because he was too compassionate toward the Crow Folk. But then an unscrupulous person sees his connection with them and forces him to help her with some sinister plans.

All these plot threads get woven together in satisfying ways, answering questions that were opened up since the beginning of the series.

Do read the other two books in the trilogy first. After you do, you’ll be as eager as I was to once again get immersed in this magical world.

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Review of Blackout

Blackout

by Dhonielle Clayton, Tiffany D. Jackson, Nic Stone, Angie Thomas, Ashley Woodfolk, and Nicola Yoon

performed by Joniece Abbott-Pratt, Dion Graham, Imani Parks, Jordan Cobb, Shayna Small, A. J. Beckles, and Bahni Turpin

HarperAudio, 2021. 6 hours, 55 minutes.
Review written December 30, 2021, from a library eaudiobook
Starred Review
2021 Sonderbooks Stand-out: #5 Teen Fiction

This is a lovely collection of six love stories written by six outstanding authors for young adults. All the stories are set on the day of a major blackout in New York City, and all the teens are Black. All the couples are also gravitating toward a block party supposed to happen in Brooklyn that night.

But given those constraints, we’ve got lots of variety. One story is presented in five acts as the couple attempts to walk across New York City from Harlem to Brooklyn to get home. They had recently broken up after years together, and now they’re stuck with each other again when the subways aren’t running. Another story has a boy helping another boy in the dark of the subway — and he’s only beginning to admit to himself that he’s attracted to that boy. One story takes place on a tour bus with a class from Jackson, Mississippi, exploring New York. There’s a love triangle on the bus. Another girl is helping out residents of a retirement home when she finally meets the girl her grandfather’s been telling her about. One girl wants to get to the party to confront her ex and get him to take her back. That plan is disrupted by the driver of the car she hired. Another couple have been friends for years and now they’re on a quest to settle a bet in the dark in New York Public Library after they were supposed to leave with everyone else.

All of the stories are charming, and all of them are fun to listen to. Tiffany D. Jackson’s story in five acts begins the collection, and then another act is presented in between the other stories. Each story happens a little bit later in that fateful evening as we hear about the couple walking across the city. And as that couple progresses through the city, they come near each other couple along the way. The listener gets a sense of walking through the city, but focusing in on side stories along the way.

And as they chose outstanding writers for this collection, they chose amazing narrators for the audiobook. This collection is a complete delight.

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Review of Pax: Journey Home, by Sara Pennypacker

Pax

Journey Home

by Sara Pennypacker
illustrated by Jon Klassen

Balzer + Bray (HarperCollins), 2021. 247 pages.
Review written October 16, 2021, from a library book
Starred Review
2021 Sonderbooks Stand-out: #6 Children’s Fiction

Wonderful! A sequel to the beautiful book Pax, which is about a boy and his fox, separated by the boy’s father and trying to reach each other despite perilous obstacles — and a war.

In Journey Home, the war is over, but devastation has been left behind. Among that devastation, Peter’s father was killed in the war. And for the wildlife, rivers and streams and a reservoir were polluted. The entire town where Peter had lived when his parents were alive was abandoned.

This is a sequel, and you should read Pax first. I will try not to give away what happens in the first book, but Peter and Pax are again on quests that make them encounter each other.

Pax has a family now, but humans are encroaching too near, and he wants to find them a new den. However, in his search, his most adventurous kit comes along, and they have to take a roundabout path because of more humans.

Peter has lost his family — his father died in the war, on top of the loss of his mother before the first book started. Vola sees him as family, but Peter has learned that it’s better not to love — you’ll only lose them and get hurt again. He goes off to join the Junior Water Warriors, who are spending the summer cleaning up the polluted rivers left behind by the war. Peter does not intend to come back.

But he didn’t expect to encounter Pax.

For awhile, I thought this book a little too bleak, but Sara Pennypacker pulls off a transformation in Peter’s heart with exactly the right touch — not too sentimental and not even too predictable or unbelievable. The result is a powerful and inspirational story of healing. Pax is even more firmly rooted in my heart than he was before.

If you didn’t catch Pax when the book was first published, you now have two books you really should read!

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2021 Sonderbooks Stand-outs!

Another year of reading is finished! It’s time to choose my Sonderbooks Stand-outs for 2021!

First, let me make it clear that I am *not* choosing based on literary merit. These lists are *not* predictions for any awards, and they are not chosen by committee. These lists are all about my personal favorites from the books I read this year. I might not have great reasons for my choices, and I try not to overthink when I choose them. These are books I read in 2021 that made me happy when I read them.

I don’t have the reviews of all of these books posted, but I will remedy that as soon as I can and add in the link here.

First, here are my reading stats this year:

Books reread: 6
Fiction for adults: 23
Nonfiction for adults: 24
Fiction for teens: 26
Fiction for children: 52
Nonfiction for children: 108
Picture books: 239

Interesting (to me) is that I read many more adult novels than in previous years — and fewer of almost everything else.

It’s always hard to narrow down my list of favorites, but here’s what I’ve come up with this year, the Sonderbooks Stand-outs of 2021:

Fiction

  1. The Jane Austen Society, by Natalie Jenner
  2. The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue, by V. E. Schwab
  3. A Deadly Education, by Naomi Novik
  4. Cloud Cuckoo Land, by Anthony Doerr
  5. The House in the Cerulean Sea, by T. J. Klune
  6. The Hidden Palace, by Helene Wecker
  7. The Jane Austen Project, by Kathleen A. Flynn
  8. This Is How It Always Is, by Laurie Frankel
  9. Longbourn, by Jo Baker
  10. The Last Graduate, by Naomi Novik
  11. Unmarriageable, by Soniah Kamal
  12. A Song of Flight, by Juliet Marillier

Nonfiction

  1. Stamped from the Beginning, by Ibram X. Kendi
  2. Intimate Conversations with the Divine, by Caroline Myss
  3. Every Thing Is Sacred, by Richard Rohr and Patrick Boland
  4. The Art of Bible Translation, by Robert Alter
  5. Two Trains Leave Paris, by Taylor Marie Frey & Mike Wesolowski
  6. Subpar Parks, by Amber Share

Teen Fiction

  1. Firekeeper’s Daughter, by Angeline Boulley
  2. The Girls I’ve Been, by Tess Sharpe
  3. How the King of Elfhame Learned to Hate Stories, by Holly Black
  4. Everything Sad Is Untrue, by Daniel Nayeri
  5. Blackout, by Dhonielle Clayton, Tiffany D. Jackson, Nic Stone, Angie Thomas, Ashley Woodfolk, and Nicola Yoon
  6. Winterkeep, by Kristin Cashore
  7. Beasts and Beauty, by Soman Chainani
  8. Terciel and Elinor, by Garth Nix

Children’s Fiction

  1. Pony, by R. J. Palacio
  2. Just Like That, by Gary D. Schmidt
  3. Amber & Clay, by Laura Amy Schlitz
  4. Long Road to the Circus, by Betsy Bird
  5. Starfish, by Lisa Fipps
  6. Pax: Journey Home, by Sara Pennypacker
  7. The Beatryce Prophecy, by Kate DiCamillo
  8. In the Red, by Christopher Swiedler
  9. Merci Suárez Can’t Dance, by Meg Medina

Children’s Nonfiction

  1. Unspeakable, by Carole Boston Weatherford, illustrated by Floyd Cooper
  2. Boardwalk Babies, by Marissa Moss, illustrated by April Chu
  3. Born on the Water, by Nikole Hannah-Jones and Renee Watson, illustrated by Nikkolas Smith
  4. Hear My Voice, compiled by Warren Binford
  5. The Great Stink, by Colleen Paeff, illustrated by Nancy Carpenter
  6. Geometry Is as Easy as Pie, by Katie Coppens
  7. Code Breaker, Spy Hunter, by Laurie Wallmark, illustrated by Brooke Smart
  8. A Sporting Chance, by Lori Alexander, illustrated by Allan Drummond
  9. The Pig War, by Emma Bland Smith, illustrated by Alison Jay
  10. Maryam’s Magic, by Megan Reid, illustrated by Aaliya Jaleel

Picture Books

  1. Watercress, by Andrea Wang, illustrated by Jason Chin
  2. The Passover Guest, by Susan Kusel, illustrated by Sean Rubin
  3. Seven Golden Rings, by Rajani LaRocca, illustrated by Archana Sreenivasan
  4. Fred Gets Dressed, by Peter Brown
  5. The Little Blue Bridge, by Brenda Maier, illustrated by Sonia Sanchez
  6. The Little Wooden Robot and the Log Princess, by Tom Gauld
  7. Simon at the Art Museum, by Christina Soontornvat, illustrated by Christine Davenier
  8. Milo Imagines the World, by Matt de la Peña, illustrated by Christian Robinson
  9. Luna’s Yum Yum Dim Sum, by Natasha Yim, illustrated by Violet Kim
  10. Lia & Luis: Who Has More?, by Ana Crespo, illustrated by Giovana Medeiros

Happy Reading! I hope you will enjoy these books as much as I did!

Celebrating 20 Years of Sonderbooks: Top 20 Fiction Books

20 years ago in August 2001, I began writing Sonderbooks!

I’ve been celebrating by posting highlights from each year of my website, but now I want to celebrate one more way. Since I’ve been looking over and remembering favorites, I decided to make a list of my 20 favorite books I read for the first time over the last 20 years.

This was possible only if I split it up between Fiction and Nonfiction, so expect a Top 20 Nonfiction Books post next. I also did my best to let first books represent their whole series.

You’ll see that I’m a big fan of fantasy. These are all books that still warm my heart when I think of them. Almost all of them I’ve read more than once or plan to read more than once, because they’re that good.

I couldn’t bring myself to rank them, though, so I will list them in alphabetical order by author. Click on the titles to read my reviews.

20 Novels I love which I met in my last 20 years of reading:

The War That Saved My Life, by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley

The Sand-Reckoner, by Gillian Bradshaw

Enchantment, by Orson Scott Card

The Truth As Told By Mason Buttle, by Leslie Connor

The Hollow Kingdom, by Clare Dunkle

Enchantress from the Stars, by Sylvia Engdahl

Book of a Thousand Days, by Shannon Hale

The Goose Girl, by Shannon Hale

Midnight in Austenland, by Shannon Hale

Grave Mercy, by Robin LaFevers

Daughter of the Forest, by Juliet Marillier

The Flight of Swans, by Sarah McGuire

For Darkness Shows the Stars, by Diana Peterfreund

The Name of the Wind, by Patrick Rothfuss

Crown Duel, by Sherwood Smith

Beyond the Limit: The Dream of Sofya Kovalevskaya, by Joan Spicci

The Scorpio Races, by Maggie Stiefvater

The Screaming Staircase, by Jonathan Stroud

The Thief, by Megan Whalen Turner

Code Name Verity, by Elizabeth Wein

Celebrating 20 Years of Sonderbooks: Favorites from 2014

20 years ago this month, I began writing Sonderbooks!

To celebrate, I’m writing posts revisiting favorite books from each year. Tonight we’re looking at the 2014 Sonderbooks Stand-outs.

For Grown-ups

You Should Have Known, by Jean Hanff Korelitz

I’m not sure I should get therapeutic satisfaction from a thriller about a marriage therapist whose husband turns out to be a sociopath, but I do.

The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry, by Gabrielle Zevin

A tale about a bookseller whose life is changed by a baby.

Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar, by Cheryl Strayed

Beautiful advice that lifts my heart to read.

Her Gates Will Never Be Shut, by Bradley Jersak

Another book that presents a strong biblical case for universalism.

For Teens

Mortal Heart, by Robin LaFevers

The third book in the amazing historical fantasy trilogy about assassin nuns in medieval Brittany.

Impossible, Extraordinary, and Unthinkable, by Nancy Werlin

These books are part of an amazing trilogy I devoured one after the other, with the beginning based on a young woman and her daughters cursed as in the ballad Scarborough Fair.

All the Truth That’s In Me, by Julie Berry

An amazingly crafted tale about a wounded girl finding her voice.

For Children

The Winter Horses, by Philip Kerr

A story of trying to save a herd of wild Przewalski’s horses from the Nazis during World War II, and some children as well.

The Great Greene Heist, by Varian Johnson

A middle school heist novel! All kinds of fun!

Brown Girl Dreaming, by Jacqueline Woodson

A multiple-award-winning memoir in verse. It’s moving and it has beautiful poetry.

The Princess in Black, by Shannon Hale and Dean Hale, illustrated by LeUyen Pham

A delightful beginning chapter book that shows that even princesses can be action heroes.

Waiting Is Not Easy! by Mo Willems

I read this beginning reader while waiting for a job to come open I wanted to apply for, then to hear about each step of the process. How I related to Gerald! I didn’t even get the job in the end, though Piggie does show Gerald a delightful surprise at the end.

If you didn’t catch these books in 2014, I hope you’ll enjoy them now!

Review of Child of St. Kilda, by Beth Waters

Child of St. Kilda

by Beth Waters

Child’s Play, 2019. 72 pages.
Review written October 3, 2020, from a library book
Starred Review
2020 Sonderbooks Stand-out:
#6 Children’s Nonfiction Picture Books

Here’s a lovely picture book for older elementary school readers. It tells about the remote island community of St. Kilda in northern Scotland. Conditions there were rugged and harsh, and the last settlers left the islands in 1930, after they had been inhabited for at least 4,000 years.

The story is told from the perspective of Norman John Gillies, who was born on the island of Hirta in St. Kilda in 1925. It tells what life was like on the islands as he knew it, and then how his life changed when the entire community moved away. Norman John was the last person alive who had lived on St. Kilda.

The book gives us painting of the wildlife and landscapes of the islands and tells about their rugged way of life. Some of the animals there aren’t found anywhere else in the world, because of how remote the islands are.

It tells about the community there and how they’d be cut off from the mainland for weeks at a time. They didn’t use money and paid rent in feathers, oil, and tweed. They worked together on various tasks for making food and clothing.

Here’s a story that came with a striking picture of the cliffs:

Between the months of March and November, collecting birds and eggs was the main activity.

The men climbed down the steep cliffs, using nothing but a simple handmade rope tied round their waist. They caught birds with a snare and also collected their eggs. Climbing barefoot gave a better grip, but it was still very dangerous work. It is said that the ankles of St Kildan men were much thicker than those of people from the mainland and their toes were much further apart.

The boys started climbing at about 10 years old, which must have been very scary! Norman John’s uncle, Finlay MacQueen, was the best climber of his day.

They would divide the catch among the whole community.

The book tells about school, church, and some interesting mail traditions.

But it was in the 1900s, when visitors began coming to the islands, that things began to change. As with other populations that met Europeans, the islanders didn’t have immunity to diseases that the visitors exposed them to, so many people died of illness. There was also the problem of young people deciding to move away where it wasn’t so hard to make a living. Some more disasters hit, and eventually, in 1930, when Norman John was five years old, the islanders were evacuated.

This book tells a story that’s fascinating and unusual. It does a good job of explaining why the people had to leave, while at the same time showing beautiful things about the rugged life on the islands. And it tells about Norman John’s years growing up on the mainland, happily remembering St Kilda.

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Review of Can You Crack the Code? by Ella Schwartz, illustrated by Lily Williams

Can You Crack the Code?

A Fascinating History of Ciphers and Cryptography

by Ella Schwartz
illustrated by Lily Williams

Bloomsbury Children’s Books, 2019. 118 pages.
Review written December 14, 2020, from a library book
Starred Review
2020 Sonderbooks Stand-out:
#6 General Children’s Nonfiction
2021 Mathical Honor Book, Grades 6-8

I’ve always thought codes and ciphers are fascinating, from the time I was a kid right up to the present when I made some videos showing how to make interesting ciphers using mathematical concepts.

When I made the videos last Spring when the library was closed for the pandemic, I didn’t find too many current books on making codes, but that situation has been remedied. This book is a nice solid selection to fill in that gap. Written for elementary to middle school kids, it gives a history of encoded messages along with explanations of ciphers and codes the reader can use.

Each chapter has a message to decrypt, and the book ends with a message for the reader to solve and email the author if they figure it out. A few clues are given, and it’s a nicely appropriate historical code used.

The book starts with steganography – hiding a message in some way – and the Caesar cipher and continues with things like Benedict Arnold’s book cipher and Thomas Jefferson’s wheel cipher up through a puzzle encoded in a statue in front of CIA headquarters and the use of prime numbers in computer security.

Even when they get deep into the history of clandestine messages, they do give the readers chances to crack the codes.

There’s plenty here to get kids intrigued, and one thing I love about code-making is there are lots of jumping-off points from this book.

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Review of The Light in Hidden Places, by Sharon Cameron

The Light in Hidden Places

by Sharon Cameron

Scholastic Press, 2020. 391 pages.
Review written October 24, 2020, from a library book
Starred Review
2020 Sonderbooks Stand-out:
#10 General Teen Fiction

The Light in Hidden Places is a Holocaust novel, so don’t pick it up if you want something cheery. The book tells a true story, though, which gives you hope that the main character is going to come through. In fact, if I hadn’t known it was based on a true story, there was no way I would have believed the characters survived many of the things that happened in this book. If the author had invented them, I would have said it was way over the top with the danger.

The story is of Fusia, a Catholic teenage Polish girl who gets a job in the shop of a Jewish family in 1939 while living in town with her sisters. When the Russians come and her home is bombed, she ends up living with the Jewish family. But the Germans are next, and after awhile, they send the Jewish family to the ghetto. It seems like a safe place for them, and Fusia finds ways to get them food. No one really believes the rumors when some of them get sent on trains to work camps.

As the war goes on, Fusia tries to visit her family on the farm, and finds them gone (sent to a different labor camp in Salzburg), but her young sister Helena alone there and starving. She takes Helena back to the town. And then she gets asked to hide one of the brothers from her Jewish family, for just one night. One night stretches out. She ends up hiding more people. I won’t even say how many Jews she ends up hiding because it seems impossible.

As the war goes on, the chance that Fusia and Helena will be able to keep these people hidden – while also healthy and not starving – gets worse and worse. For some of the time, there are even Nazis living under the same roof. The tension is high, and once I got more than halfway through, I couldn’t stop reading. I kept thinking they couldn’t possibly get through the next crisis.

And the story is all true. Photographs and the Author’s Note at the back give us details. But the author makes it all feel immediate and gripping. This isn’t dry and dusty history at all.

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