Chik Chak Shabbat

Chik Chak Shabbat Written by Mara Rockliff.  Illustrated by Kyrsten Brooker.  Reviewed by Cheryl Coffin.

Every Saturday, in apartment 5-A, Goldie Simcha makes cholent for her the neighbors.  Cholent can’t be made quickly, “chik-chak”.  It is a stew that takes time for the flavors to meld.

All the neighbors agree that the stew is simply delightful, but they can’t decide on the reason why.   Signora Bellagalli believes that it is the tomatoes that makes the dish so tasty. Mr. Moon says that it must be the barley. Lali Omar declares that the potatoes make the stew special and the Santiagos agree it is the beans.  The author is clever in having people from each culture declare the food they are most familiar with to be the reason for why the stew is so wonderful.

On one Saturday, Goldie falls ill and is unable to cook her cholent in time.  Each family decides to bring a special dish to her home, one that represents their own culture.  At that point, everyone sees that the sharing of their meal is what makes the food so special.

This is a beautifully written picture book that promotes acceptance, appreciation for other cultures, sharing, thoughtfulness, patience and community.  The author even includes a recipe for cholent, which sounds just delicious!

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Filed under Fiction, Grade K-3, Picture Book, Preschool

Dizzy

Dizzy by Jolene Perry and Nyrae Dawn, CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform (November 22, 2012). ISBN: 9781481050432. Reviewed by John R. Clark, MLIS.

dizzy

First off, let me say that I’m beginning to think of this writing team as the Preston & Childs of teen romance. They’re that good together. Dylan doesn’t do relationships. After watching his parents marriage blow up when he was little, he and older brother Derrick formed the Gibson Boys pact: No serious relationships and no happily ever after. Ziah is tall, blonde, serious and in a pretty dull relationship with James. Both are top notch students, planning on going to medical school.

When James gets invited to a no-costume Halloween party, he talks Ziah into going, but gets delayed by an internship. When she arrives and sees Dylan with his arm curled around his current hook-up, both of them get that electric sensation, but don’t want to go anywhere near it. Ziah doesn’t feel comfortable at events like this and when she heads for the porch to find a soda. Dylan surprises her. She tuns quickly and his beer soaks her white t-shirt. Her best friend Alyssa, who accompanied her is pretty drunk by the time James shows up. He offers to take Alyssa home and A few weeks later Ziah starts suspecting something happened between them.

As if that wasn’t bad enough, Ziah’s older sister who was on a career track that had no room for boyfriends, announces that she is getting married. When she brings her fiance home and the two families have a get together at the girls’ mother’s restaurant, Ziah realizes her sister is going to marry Dylan’s older brother, the other Gibson boy who swore off marriage forever.

When Dylan and Ziah are roped into helping plan the wedding, they have a very interesting time learning first how to be civil, then how to confide in each other and be friends. As hard as each try to skirt their growing attraction to each other, neither can avoid the eventual kiss that scares Dylan and leaves Ziah completely confused. It takes a major crisis and emotional meltdown when Dylan’s long-absent mother resurfaces for him to become broken enough to let Ziah in and start to heal.

Granted there’s some strong language here, but the story and the way the romance is developed more than compensate. Mature teens will savor the romantic tension and the torturous path these two take.

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Filed under Fiction, Grade 10-12

Free To Fall

Free To Fall by Lauren Miller, Harper Teen, 2014. ISBN: 9780062199805. Reviewed by, John R. Clark, MLIS

free to fall

Rory Vaughn never knew her mother who died shortly after having the C-section that brought Rory into the world. Now sixteen years later, in a world where handheld devices are pretty much running everyone’s life, thanks to an app called Lux, she’s been accepted at Theban Academy in Massachusetts, all the way across the country from her home in Seattle. When her dad learns she’s been accepted, he gives her a letter and a necklace her dead mother left with instructions for her to receive them if she was ever accepted at the school.

Things begin to speed up and get pretty complicated once she’s on her way. Another girl from her school, Hershey, was also accepted and although they have nothing in common, the girls end up as roommates. Rory learns that her mother went to the same school, but dropped out just before graduating and reappeared in her dad’s life, convincing him to marry her. She also runs into a mysterious guy, North, whose arms are covered with tattoos at a coffeehouse in the town just off campus. Initially a bit put off by his appearance, it isn’t long before she realizes there’s considerable attraction between them.

Good thing there is, because there are strange goings on at school. After years of not hearing the inner voice referred to as The Doubt, Rory hears it in her first class, Plato Practicum, taught by a woman who seems to have it in for her. It isn’t long before Rory realizes that what she believed about her mom wasn’t entirely correct, but when she and North begin digging, she finds reports altered or erased. Her roommate’s behavior becomes quite suspicious and Rory is invited to be considered for a super secret society that may have a long ago connection to her mom.

In a very short period of time, Rory finds herself doubting pretty much everything she used to take for granted, discovers a shocking truth about her parents, as well as what’s really going on behind the scenes at Theban Academy. It’s almost impossible to know who to trust except for North, who reveals his own secret bag of tricks. The more they dig, the scarier the information becomes and the last third of the book is a real roller coaster, keeping the reader flipping pages and oblivious to everything around them. It’s a great read for teens who like dystopian fiction or who like technology heavy stories. This is a very good addition for both school and public library collections.

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Albert Einstein: Forging the Path of Modern Physics

Albert Einstein: Forging the Path of Modern Physics by Diane Dakers. Reviewed by Cheryl Coffin.

This informational book on the life of Albert Einstein is written at a guided reading of X, which makes it an ideal resource for upper elementary and middle school students.  The author follows Einstein’s life, from birth to death, from this brilliant scientist’s birth and educational experiences to his end-of-life contributions as a pacifist and celebrated personality.

The text has five detailed chapters, jam full of black and white photographs and direct quotes.  There is also a brief glossary, helpful chronology, an index and a listing of supplementary resources (videos, books and websites) that offer current information and additional biographical information, photos and insights into Einstein’s complex theories.

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Filed under Grade 4-6, Grade 7-9, Nonfiction

Made You Up

Made You Up by Francesca Zappia, Greenwillow Books, to be published in May, 2015. ISBN: 9780062290106 . Digital review copy courtesy of Edelweis. Reviewed by John R. Clark, MLIS.

Made you up

When she was seven, Alexandria freed the lobsters at the supermarket. She was helped by a mysterious boy who had bright blue eyes and smelled like pond water. He agreed to be her friend after helping her, but he vanished.

Ten years later, Alex is struggling with reality. She has paranoid schizophrenia and has to rely on medication, obsessive and constant perimeter checks and her trusty digital camera to cope. She takes lots and lots of pictures that she looks at later to help determine what’s real and what are visual hallucinations.

She’s starting at a new school, having painted the word communists in big red letters on the gym floor at her old high school. Hopeful that she’ll fit in and maybe find some real happiness at the new school, she’s been working at Finnegan’s a restaurant all summer and has made friends with Tucker who has been filling her in on East Shoal High, her new school. When Miles comes in for his usual cheeseburger and fries, Tucker hints vaguely that he’s not normal and has Alex wait on him. The mystery boy barely talks to her, but when he does look up, his startling blue eyes pull Alex back to that day ten years ago and she’s filled with an array of emotions. Could it be that the boy she remembers really does exist, despite her mother telling her most of what she remembers that day wasn’t real?

When she starts school, Miles is running the club that gets all the kids who have to do community service. Alex has to participate because of her paint job at the other school. She’s a bit scared, but far more intrigued by Miles who is beyond smart, has a slight German accent and apparently hires out to do really strange stuff for other students.

Both of them, along with Tucker, are curious about the principal’s obsession with the gym scoreboard that was donated in honor of a girl more than twenty years before. When she returned five years after graduating, the scoreboard fell, killing her. They suspect there’s an odd link between the principal, the scoreboard and Celia, a cheerleader who has a thing for Miles and whose mother was in the same class as the girl the scoreboard killed.

This could have easily turned into a typical teen romance, but the author moved it into far more interesting directions and I am incredibly impressed with how she built Alexandria’s personality, especially her battle to distinguish reality from her illness. Having worked in inpatient mental health for more than 25 years, she got this aspect as right as anyone possibly could. So much so, that there are several completely gut-wrenching moments in the final third of the book that are directly related to her illness.

Miles is also well crafted and has some intriguing issues of his own. He’s both brilliant and terribly vulnerable, but keeps that latter piece hidden from everyone until Alex manages to get inside his shell.

This is a love story, a mystery and an excellent look at two teens trying to perceive the world through flawed lenses. While there is a fair amount of profanity and some violence, neither should deter any library from adding this to their collection. It would be particularly good for libraries who care about offering insights into teen mental heath issues. On a final note, there are sufficient mystery elements for this to be considered as a YA Edgar candidate.

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Filed under Fiction, Grade 10-12

The Blind Faith Hotel

Blind Faith Hotel by Pamela Todd, Margaret McEldery Books, 2008. ISBN: 9781416995098. Reviewed by, John R. Clark, MLIS.

blind faith hotel

What do you do when life falls apart and you’re fourteen? This is the dilemma Zoe faces. Her dad is hooked by the sea. On land, he’s moody and sometimes gets very drunk, but when he’s on the ocean, usually going after giant crabs up in Alaska, he’s completely different. Zoe is very close to him and he’s taught her how to read the subtle changes in the natural world. When her parents separate, her mother heads back to the Midwest with Zoe, her older sister, Nelia and her little brother Oliver. It’s a road trip that’s one mishap after another and Zoe doesn’t help because she’s miserable and angry. But sometimes what we get from the unknown and unexpected is the perfect medicine. Mom is coming back to the decrepit house she inherited from her grandparents, intent upon making it into a bed and breakfast.

At first, Zoe finds it very easy to hold on to her anger. When she has a moment of horror after looking in the mirror and realizing one breast is growing and the other isn’t, she freaks out, especially since she’s been invited to a pool party at one of the snotty girls’ homes a couple days down the road. Her panicked reaction gets her in minor trouble with the law, resulting in her doing community service at a small prairie preserve near her house. At first, she resents the backbreaking work, but when she starts learning the history of the place from gruff old Hub and noticing the amazing wild boy, Ivy, life does one of those amazing shifts and she starts to really care about Ivy and the preserve.

As she learns more about her family history, the way the preserve really does represent a tiny window into how the world was a hundred years ago and how much she cares for Ivy, her life begins to make sense and she gets that elusive sense of place, so important to everyone. It doesn’t come easily, she has to deal with accepting that her family is never going to be like it was when they lived on the west coast and she has to deal with losing people she cares about more than anything, but these make her stronger and more grounded. The book ends on one of those perfect notes that lets your imagination write the next chapter yourself.

While this is an older book (I discovered it while moving it to our storage collection), it’s a wonderful story for younger teens who love nature or are struggling with where and how they fit in.

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Filed under Fiction, Grade 10-12, Grade 7-9

Belzhar

Belzhar by Meg Wolitzer, Dutton Books For Young Readers, 2014. ISBN: 9780525423058. Reviewed by John R. Clark, MLIS.

belzhar

Jam Gallihue checked out of reality the day her British exchange student boyfriend Reeve, died. She tried hiding in her bedroom and playing mute when her parents sent her to a psychiatrist. All these did was land her six hours from her New Jersey home at a therapeutic boarding school in Vermont. The Wooden Barn doesn’t believe in medication and has some hippie-like aspects, while still enforcing structure. There’s no internet and members of the opposite sexes aren’t allowed to have any overt displays of affection. Not that Jam has any interest in anything like that. Her mind is stuck in an endless loop that displays the 41 days between when she met Reeve and he died.

For reasons that aren’t disclosed to her, she’s selected for an elite class called Special Topics in English that is always small and focuses on one writer for the entire semester. Her class has five members and will cover poet Sylvia Plath. In addition to Jem, there’s wheelchair-bound Casey, Serious, former student council president Marc, Gifted dancer Sierra and hoodie-wearing Griffin.

Each of them is stuck in place by a traumatic event. When they meet for the first class session, their elderly instructor, Mrs. Q as they come to call her, is both warm and enigmatic. She hints that they’ll become closer to one another than any of them realize and asks that they look out for each other. She gives them an antique-looking blank journal which she expects them to write in twice a week.

When they do, something that is nearly impossible to explain happens to each one, essentially forcing them to bond like Mrs. Q told them they would. As each member of the class reaches a higher comfort level after they first visit the place they come to call Belzhar, they begin to open up about what brought them to The Wooden Barn.

As hard as Jam tries to hold on to her feelings about Reeve, her visits to Belzhar force her not only to change how she looks at her past, but also understand how her new classmates are affecting her present.

Meg Wolzer does a stellar job of letting each person disclose their secrets and how visits to this magical place change them. Jam’s new relationship is perfectly scripted and her own admission about Reeve’s death near the end of the book is a very good gotcha. This is a compelling read and an excellent choice for both school and public libraries, particularly those who are committed to having YA fiction relating to mental health issues.

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Filed under Fantasy, Fiction, Grade 10-12, Grade 7-9

Catch A Falling Star

Catch A Falling Star by Kim Culbertson, Scholastic Press, 2014. ISBN: 9780545689373. Reviewed by, John R. Clark, MLIS.

catch a falling star

Carter Moon is an unusual teen. She’s perfectly happy living in Little, California, helping her father at the cafe he runs and supporting her activist mom with her causes. At night, she loves sitting on the roof with her best friends Chloe and Alien Drake who are a couple. In fact Carter and Alien even have a blog called Yesterday’s Sightings where they post about what they see and think about up on that roof.

Not everything’s perfect in Carter’s life. Her older brother, John, has a serious gambling addiction and has lied and stolen. Not even the extended rehab that strained the family finances made an impact and now one of the local sleazeballs is threatening him and the family in order to get what John owes. There’s also the issue of Carter’s abruptly dropping out of her dance activity right when she had a chance to go to New York on a summer scholarship.

When Adam Jakes, a teen actor, rumored to be having substance abuse and attitude problems, comes to Little to film a Christmas movie that’s a take-off on Dicken’s A Christmas Carol, Everyone in town is excited. Everyone except Carter. She’s immune to such things, but when the agent for the teen star corners her and makes an offer, she’s faced with a real dilemma. If she agrees to go along with pretending to be Adams’ new girlfriend while filming is taking place, she’ll be paid enough to get her brother out of debt, but she can’t tell anyone.

This story line has been done before. It would have been very easy for this book to become complete cheese, but it’s anything but. It’s a smart, sensitive and intriguing look inside Carter’s head and heart as she sorts her way through a situation that starts out as something she thinks she can handle, gets emotionally involved, manages to maintain her integrity and comes out a winner in the end. She’s an extremely likable girl who has to struggle with her beliefs in some situations where they’re severely tested. It would have been easy, for example, to wrap up her brother’s problems in a happily ever after way, but that’s not how it happens. I liked this enough to immediately order one of the author’s earlier books.

Teens who like movies/movie stars and good love stories will like this one a lot.

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Filed under Fiction, Grade 10-12, Grade 7-9

Richard Scarry’s Best Nursery Tales Ever

Richard Scarry’s Best Nursery Tales Ever.  Written by Richard Scarry.  Reviewed by Cheryl Coffin.  A classic collection of nursery tales that includes well-known stories, like Little Red Riding Hood and The Three Billy Goats Gruff, as well as lesser known tales that many readers may not be all that familiar with, such as The Five Little Pigs and The Teeny-Tiny Women.

In this book, Richary Scarry uses attractive animal characters and folksy, easy-to-understand words to engage young readers.  The pictures are bright and appealing.  A good selection for bedtime reading.

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Filed under Grade K-3, Picture Book, Preschool

The Raft

The Raft by S.A. Bodeen, Scholastic Paperbacks, 2013 (also available from Square Fish). ISBN: 9780545540360. Reviewed by John R. Clark, MLIS.

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Robie lives with her scientist parents on Midway Island. There are times when she’s the only person her age there and it makes for a strange lifestyle if you’re a teen. When it gets to her, she flies to Hawaii where she can stay with her aunt and get some much needed exposure to socialization and other teens.

Unfortunately, on this visit, her aunt, who works as a freelance consultant, must drop everything and fly to the mainland where a client needs her services ASAP. At first, Robie’s excited about having the apartment all to herself and the accompanying freedom. Unfortunately, this doesn’t last very long as she lets a strange street person freak her out. Once she starts feeling spooked, she can’t relax, so she decides to take the cargo flight that’s leaving the next evening, back to Midway. When she tries to call her parents, she can’t get through, so they don’t know she’s headed back. This omission is compounded when things at the airport are so hectic, her name is left off the cargo manifest as a passenger. Several hours into the flight, they encounter severe weather, an engine quits and they have to ditch the plane.
The pilot goes down with the aircraft, but Robie and Max, the co-pilot who is in his mid-twenties manage to inflate a raft and ride out the storm. Max has a bad head wound and neither has food or water, save the soggy, half empty bag of Skittles Robie finds in Max’s sea bag.

The remainder of the story is an excellently crafted mix of survival and surrealism. Robie learns a lot about Max from sneaking peeks at the journal she finds in his bag, survives shark attacks, severe dehydration and an infected nose caused by the tearing loose of the diamond stud she got just before deciding to return to Midway. How she survives, what happens to Max and the way she processes the entire experience in a stream of consciousness, make this a real nail biter. It’s not for the squeamish, but any teen loving a thriller or a great survival story won’t want to pass this one up.

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