The Possibility of Now

The Possibility of Now by Kim Culbertson, Point (January 26, 2016). ISBN: 9780545731461. Reviewed by John R. Clark, MLIS.

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Anxiety goes hand in hand with the pressure to do well. For Mara James, on track to be top academic dog in her class at a private high school in San Diego, it’s like her alter ego. That is until the day she has a complete meltdown in calculus just before a test. She had what’s later diagnosed as a panic attack and turns a bunch of tests that are about to be handed out, into confetti while sobbing uncontrollably. She might have been able to live with that, but someone in her class caught the whole humiliating event on a cellphone and posted it online. Over 600,000 people have viewed her mega-meltdown and after hiding in her room over a holiday break, she wants out.

Out for Mara means moving in with Trick, the father she barely knows 700 miles north in Lake Tahoe. She’s seen him once when she was seven and he took her to the San Diego Zoo. Mom won’t talk to her about what led to their breakup and is less than thrilled about letting Mara go. In fact her reluctant permission comes with numerous strings including seeing a shrink and keeping up with the assignments she can access via a portal to stay current at her high school.

Despite initial misgivings, Mara soon discovers that there’s something magical about Lake Tahoe, a something that includes learning to see herself better, learning to trust new people, learning that lists aren’t always the best way to live and most importantly realizing, as one man she meets tells her “Most people don’t care what you’ve done. In my experience, they’re just trying to find their car keys.”

Following Mara’s journey from overstressed humiliation to feeling good in her own skin makes for a delightful read. It’s a book many teens dealing with the uncertainty of competition and family craziness will easily relate to. It’s a good addition to any library serving teens.

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

The Weight of Zero

The Weight of Zero by Karen Fortunate, Delacorte Press (October 11, 2016). ISBN: 978.1101938898. Reviewed by John R. Clark, MLIS.

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Zero is out there, patient, menacing and powerful. That’s the name seventeen year old Cat Pulaski has given to the depression aspect of her bipolar disorder. It came out of nowhere immediately after her beloved grandmother died of a stroke. Cat was there, but at age thirteen, felt powerless, yet somehow responsible for what happened. Now, four years later, she’s experienced both Zero and the manic side of her disorder and is terrified that Zero is about to return, more powerful than ever.

It’s this paralyzing fear that clouds her judgment to a point where she is unable to be honest or tell what parts of her daily life are ‘teen-normal’ versus her disorder. When she begins an intensive outpatient program (IOP), she’s guarded, but the other teens in it, some from her own school, soon begin to show her, through reluctantly talking about their own illnesses and behaviors, that they’re going through similar stuff. This bonding, coupled with her exciting, but scary relationship with Michael, a boy in her class who wants to get to know her, start Cat on an uneven, twisted and often painful journey to realization about the real prognosis for bipolar disorder.

Reading about this journey is addictive and emotional. Having worked on an inpatient adolescent unit for years, I can attest to how realistic the author’s portrayal of Cat’s fears, hopes and behaviors are. Granted there’s strong language, but it’s consistent with what these teens are going through. The secondary characters are all extremely well drawn, making this a strong candidate for both school and public library collections.

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Filed under Fiction, Grade 10-12

Beast

Beast by Brie Spangler, Alfred A. Knopf, October, 2016. ISBN: 9781101937167. Reviewed by John R. Clark, MLIS.

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Dylan has some large roadblocks between happiness and his daily life. One is his size. At fifteen, he’s well over six feet and weighs close to 250. It’s not fat, he’s big like his dad…His late dad who died of cancer when he was three. It’s just him and his mother, still living in the house his parents bought and had such dreams for. Then there’s his appearance. He’s hairy, really, really hairy, hence the nickname his best (and only) friend JP, gave him. Because of it, everyone has called him Beast for years.

Inside, he’s not really different from the rest of his classmates. He has fears, crushes and is above average intellectually, but has found himself a literal prisoner of his best friend, who uses emotional blackmail to get Dylan to strong arm other teens who owe JP money. JP’s no saint, but readers get an inkling of what makes him tick, thanks to his conversations with both Dylan and his mother. JP’s family is rich in money, but poverty-stricken in nurture and family warmth. In fact, he’s lived in a fancy tree house in his back yard for years.

When junior year starts, a new edict—no hats, no long hair, coupled with a really cruel act by JP lands Dylan on the roof outside his bedroom window and he breaks his leg in the resulting fall. Mom’s worried that it was a suicide attempt, and her worry lands him in a teen therapy group. It’s there he meets Jamie who is beautiful, funny and transgender. Unfortunately, he missed hearing her share that in group because he was in a major self-pity mode.

How he and Jamie navigate the uneasy path of attraction, gender issues, JP’s manipulative behavior, Dylan’s desperate wish for a cosmic sign, not to mention two moms who are on 24/7 helicopter status because of fears that their child will come to a bad end, make this a very hard book to put down. Despite language and one sex scene, it’s a very good book for school and public libraries to consider adding.

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Filed under Fiction, Grade 10-12

The Female of the Species

The Female of The Species by Mindy McGinnis, Katherine Tegen Books (September 20, 2016), ISBN: 9780062320896. reviewed by John R. Clark, MLIS.

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When Alex looks at her future, she sees nothing promising even though she’s on track to be class valedictorian. She’s reclusive, has no real friends and her home life is bleak. Her older sister was kidnapped, tortured and murdered three years ago, her father, the only person she felt any connection to, left shortly afterward and her mother lives in a perpetual blur fueled by scotch in large quantities.

When her sister’s killer got off, Alex gave in to the darkness that permeates her and exacted revenge rather graphically. She was never caught, but knows that darkness waits patiently inside, hence her having no plans for college or anything similar following graduation.

Despite her efforts to fly under the radar, two classmates find her intriguing. Jack Fisher, her only competition for top spot in their class, could have any girl he wants, and often does, but there’s something about Alex that makes him feel different and alive and despite her efforts to keep him at arms length, they both feel such a strong attraction that coming together is inevitable.

Then there’s Peekay, short for Preacher’s Kid, who ends up doing community service with Alex at the animal shelter. They bond over abandoned and neglected cats, dogs and even a rabbit.

As you read this book, you know something bad awaits, but Mindy does such a good job of pulling you in and getting you to care about all three teens, you also care about the peripheral players, especially Branley, the cheerleader Jack can’t seem to distance himself from. The twist at the end was a shocker for me and I expect it will be for many readers.

There are books you read casually, others you put down with reluctance when something needs to be done and there are a few that refuse to allow you to stop reading until the last page. This falls solidly into that last category. In the acknowledgments the author says she let the manuscript sit for 15 years. I’m ever so grateful she pulled it out and got it published. It’s gritty, has violence and strong language, but teens living hardscrabble lives or who love realistic fiction will devour this one.

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Filed under Fiction, Grade 10-12

Skin Deep

Skin Deep by E.M. Crane, Delacorte Books for Young Readers (March 11, 2008). ISBN: 9780385734790. Reviewed by John R. Clark.

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Andrea Anderson flies under the radar at school and at home. She knows she doesn’t fit with any of the cliques at school, and at home the only time Mom pays attention to her is during commercial breaks in her evening TV shows. She reads a lot to escape, but has little else to look forward to. Her only real friend, Victor moved away a couple years before. One thing she does have going for her is a budding insight, coupled with intelligence.

Everything changes when her mother tells her about mysterious Ms. Menapace who lives in a house on a nearby hill. She’s in the hospital needs someone to care for her dog. Despite initial misgivings, Andrea makes the trek to the home, imagining it in disrepair and believing the owner is a frail old lady.

Entering the fenced in garden to reach the back door is the first step in an amazing journey for her. Spring hasn’t fully hit yet, but the stones and sculptures are striking enough to start her imagining what things will look like when all the plants awaken. Then she meets Zena, the huge but gentle Saint Bernard, owned by Honora (Ms. Menapace). They connect almost immediately and once they venture into the woods, a place that’s like a second home to Andrea, that connection is cemented.

Reading on is like watching elegant dominoes fall in slow motion. Zena and Honora, who’s a lot younger than Andrea imagined, exert their combination of wisdom and magic to pull her out of the protective shell she’s built around her. Once it begins to crack, readers follow her coming of age, one that includes understanding of others, particularly her mother, new friends both young and old and a growing level of self confidence. It’s a beautiful journey to experience.

I haven’t seen such eloquent prose in a YA book for some time. The sample below is just one of many in the story: “I no longer feel awkward and second-rate with Honora. I’ve realized that I’m one color in her painting of the world. And while any artist may have her favorite colors, a good artist never discredits those subtle, shy hues that contribute to the landscape.”

While it’s been out for a while, this is a great book to offer teens and advanced tweens who like intelligent stories with great prose. I wish the author had written more.

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

The Best Possible Answer

The Best Possible Answer by E. Katherine Kottaras, St. Martin’s Griffin (November 1, 2016). ISBN: 9781250072818. Reviewed by John R. Clark, MLIS.

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Trust betrayed can really feel devastating, but when you’re young and love, or thought you loved the betrayer, the devastation can be even greater and demoralizing. After her now-ex shares an intimate picture online, Viviana Rabinovich-Lowe becomes so stressed and sleep deprived she falls asleep while riding her bicycle, suffering a concussion as well as major embarrassment.

She can’t shake the feeling that her father’s ever-longer absences, ostensibly to work as an architect in Singapore, are directly related to her mistake. In fact, it seems like her family is falling apart. Mom is angry and stressed, leaving only her younger sister Mila to help her avoid feeling totally abandoned. It’s her best friend Sammie who comes to her rescue, arranging for them to work together at the swimming pool serving the huge apartment complex where they both live.

The job is the beginning of her healing, although she has no idea that’s possible after the first crazy day. However, she meets Evan and has to struggle not to fall for him since Sammie has a thing for him. The job soon introduces her to other people who are completely different from her school mates and through them, Viviana starts to realize that she can hit her own personal reboot-my-life button.

The process of getting there isn’t smooth or easy. It involves dealing with disappointment, multiple men’s bathing suits, a tomato attack, scary views of storms over Chicago and a mind-blowing discovery about her family. All of these experiences combine to give her that new identity she never knew existed, but so desperately needed.

Teens liking stories with quirky characters, painful life experiences and unusual events are going to like this one.

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Filed under Fiction, Grade 10-12

The Memory of Things

The Memory of Things by Gae Polisner, St. Martin’s Griffin (September 6, 2016). ISBN: 9781250095527. Reviewed by John R. Clark, MLIS.

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How do you think you might have reacted if you were sixteen and close to Ground Zero on 9/11? Add in the realization that your NYC police detective dad probably rushed to the tower as soon as the first plane hit and that your mom and little sister are supposed to fly back from California, but all flights are grounded. Now factor in that phone service is extremely spotty because of everyone being frantic, not to mention that both cell and landline circuits were destroyed or damaged by the terrorist attack. In addition, Kyle Donohue’s Uncle Matt waits at the family apartment. He’s paralyzed following an accident that nearly killed him and needs plenty of personal care.

While running with classmates to escape the chaos and toxic fumes from the towers’ collapse, Kyle sees a girl about his age wearing bedraggled angel wings, clinging to the side of the Brooklyn Bridge. He impulsively rescues her, bringing the frightened and confused teen home with him. His action is the beginning of a touching and intriguing story about two young people dealing with different fears and feelings during one of the most traumatic events in recent memory. At first, Kyle isn’t sure whether she remembers anything and is scared she’ll vanish in another attempt to harm herself. In addition, he has to respond to his growing fear that Dad might be dead, another tower victim, that Mom and his sister may be stuck in California forever and that Uncle Matt may completely freak out because he’s also a NYC policeman, but is completely unable to do anything to help.

As the first few days go by, Kyle walks on egg shells for fear of saying or doing something that might damage the mystery girl, but after she begins talking, something starts creating a bond between them, in part because she relates well with his Uncle Matt. The longer she stays in the apartment, the more smitten Kyle becomes.

Told in alternating voices, readers get a very gut level feel for what happened on 9/11 to those directly impacted as well as how love can blossom even in times of disaster. Along the way, they also learn the girl’s story and what brought her to stand on the bridge. This is an emotional and satisfying story, one teens will very much enjoy.

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

Diplomatic Immunity

Diplomatic Immunity by Brodi Ashton, Balzer & Bray, 2016: ISBN: 9780062368560. Reviewed by John R. Clark, MLIS.

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How much do we know about how a serious economic downturn or event has on kids? Unless it’s happened to you, I doubt you have given it much thought. As someone who experienced it in my early adolescent years, I can tell you the images and how I felt are as strong 50 years later as they were when it happened.

This is one of two driving forces in Piper Baird’s life. Her dad lost almost everything in a failed tech startup and now does shift work for a power company. Even with Mom working nights at a bakery, finances are beyond tight. Her dream of a journalistic career and even a college education are dimming. When she gets a last minute scholarship to the exclusive Chiswick Academy which will give her a shot at the Bennington Scholarship (a full ride to a top journalism school), it’s exciting, but scary. Many of the students come from international diplomatic families and except for a very few scholarship kids like her, they’re rich and privileged.

All these challenges have her both a bit defiant, pretty anxious and very determined to succeed. The first student she meets is Rafael Amador, son of the Spanish Ambassador. Sparks of various kinds fly at their first meeting which involves embarrassment a swatch of duct tape and her realization of just how huge a gap exists between her and the non-scholarship kids

What follows includes budding attraction, foolish decisions, the possibility of family bankruptcy, disaster and a happy ending, all fun to follow. Read the book and find out what these all mean.

Caveat: I read primarily for enjoyment and review to share my likes and insights with others. If a book is hard to put down (and this was) it’s a winner in my opinion.

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

Chris Hatfield Inspiring New Generations to Explore Space

Chris Hatfield Inspiring New Generations to Explore Space.  Written by Diane Dakers.  Reviewed by Cheryl Coffin.

In this volume, the author considers Chris Hatfield’s life, from his early years growing up on a family farm to his rise to fame as a much-admired astronaut. Written at a guided reading level of W, intermediate readers will learn about the people who inspired Chris and how Chris’ internal motivation and focus helped him achieve his professional and personal goals.

This book has many photographs, quotes and interesting facts to engage the reader.  There is a brief timeline, a glossary, and a list of websites for those who wish to learn more about Chris Hatfield.   This nonfiction text would make a nice addition to any elementary or middle school media center’s biography section.

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Filed under Grade 4-6, Grade K-3, Nonfiction

Amelia Earhart Pioneering Aviator and Force for Women’s Rights

In this nonfiction text, the author shares the story of Amelia Earhart’s life, from her difficult early years to her rise to stardom as a daring female aviator. Written at a guided reading level of W, intermediate readers will uncover the challenging journey Amelia took to achieve her dreams.

This book has a number of great features, including: numerous black and white photographs, a chronology of Amelia life, an index and a brief glossary.

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Filed under Grade 4-6, Nonfiction