Pip Bartlett’s Guide to Magical Creatures

Pip Bartlett’s Guide to Magical Creatures by Maggie Stiefvater & Jackson Pearce, Scholastic Press (April 28, 2015). ISBN: 9780545709262. Reviewed by John R. Clark, MLIS.

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When you live in a world where magical creatures are real, you love Unicorns and you can talk to any animal, it’s pretty difficult to hide that fact, or be taken seriously by adults. Meet young teen Pip Bartlett, resident of Atlanta, Georgia.

When one of the other students in her class has her parents bring their herd of trained unicorns to career day, it’s a perfect storm of opportunity for Pip. As soon as she sees them, she rushes over and starts talking. Unfortunately, there’s competition among the herd and once they realize Pip can understand them, it becomes a madhouse as various unicorns want her to tout their appearance and assets. The end result is disaster, leading to her being exiled to her aunt’s home for the summer. However, that’s not such a bad punishment because Aunt Emma is a veterinarian, running the Cloverton Clinic for Magical Creatures.

Pip brings her favorite book, Jeffrey Higgleston’s Guide to Magical Creatures with her, and as she meets (and helps treat) new species, she appends its original entries with stuff she learns. She also makes friends with Tom, a boy her age who lives close by the clinic. Despite Tom being a bit spleeny, they become good friends and help each other as an unusual infestation hits Cloverton. By the end of the story, Pip has encountered a myriad of new critters, as well as proven to others that she’s not an annoyingly delusional kid.

This is a fun, fast read with a plot and illustrations that will captivate younger teens, especially those who like light fantasy. It’s a very good option for both school and public libraries.

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

All In Pieces

All in Pieces by Suzanne Young, Simon Pulse (November 8, 2016) . ISBN: 9781481418836. reviewed by John R. Clark, MLIS.

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Protecting someone you love when nobody else seems able to is a challenge, even more so when you’re in high school. Ever since Savannah’s mother abandoned the family, she’s been almost totally focused on loving, caring for and protecting her little brother Evan who has a disability that makes his behavior hard to control. Her father’s a drunk, drowning his self-pity in beer every night, leaving Savannah to cook, clean and try to survive.

When her abusive boyfriend calls Evan a retard, she loses it, stabbing him through the hand with a pencil. Her act lands her in Brooks Academy, an alternative school where most of the students care little about education. She’s also lost most of her old friends and her life, already pretty constrained, seems to have shrunk even more. Add in that her absent mother’s sister, Kathy wants to take custody of her brother.

All she has to keep her sane are her friends Retha and her boyfriend Travis, who struggles with addiction. When new boy Cameron arrives at Brooks Academy, Savannah’s curious because he drives a BMW and looks far too together to have any issues, but the more she learns about him, the more she’s drawn to him, despite fighting her attraction as hard as she can.

Learning why he’s at Brooks, meeting his family while things at home fall apart more and more, coupled with crises for her as well as for Retha and Travis, create a fascinating story of how a decent girl in an impossible situation finds a way out. Teens who like stories of life crises, teen romance and baddies getting what they deserve will enjoy the story. Despite strong language and some violence, it’s well worth adding to a school or public library.

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Filed under Fiction, Grade 10-12

Spookygirl

Spookygirl by Jill Baguchinsky, Scholastic (2012), ISBN: 9780545620741. reviewed by John R. Clark, MLIS.

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Peer pressure in high school is a given and creates plenty of stress and discomfort, but when you can see and talk to ghosts, not to mention having to deal with rumors that your Dad killed your mother, uneasy takes on a whole new meaning. This is how readers meet fifteen year old Violet as the story begins. For the past several years, she’s been shuttled between her acerbic, disapproving aunt and her father, while he restarts life in a new career. Before Mom died, her parents were Palmetto Paranormal, making a living as investigators of unexplained phenomena and assisting spirits to fine eternal peace.

Dad is just now getting up to speed as a funeral director and while things are still tight financially, Violet’s happy to have her own cramped bedroom above the funeral home and assist Dad by doing make up on the recently deceased (applying death spackle is how they describe it). She also intervenes when a ghost is upset and confused in the mortuary. She can see and converse with them, while her father cannot.

Violet is less than thrilled at changing high schools, and when she senses something extremely powerful in the girls locker room, it unsettles her so much, she does everything possible to avoid going in there. Despite her unease at a new school, she stands up for a goth boy when he’s bullied by jocks. This new friendship soon has her helping him try to get the head goth girl interested. In the process, she ends up becoming one of the group despite having qualms about the whole friendship deal. As things get spookier in the locker room, in one of her classes and as she becomes more determined to find out what really happened the night Mom died, her new friends become an important part of the mystery-solving process. Add in some funny spirits, one with angst and some with real anger issues, not to mention Buster, who falls somewhere between a puppy and a sulky pre-adolescent and haunts their apartment, and you have a well plotted paranormal story that’s fast paced, funny at times and has some very interesting plot twists.

Teens who love strong characters and a good ghost story will like it big time.

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Filed under Fiction, Grade 10-12, Grade 4-6, Grade 7-9, Supernatural

The Ethan I Was Before

The Ethan I Was Before by Ali Standish, HarperCollins (January 24, 2017). ISBN: 9780062433381. Reviewed by John R. Clark, MLIS.

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Take two young teens from different parts of the country. Mix in plenty of guilt, several dashes of denial, a mystery or two, a rescue, some other young teens who are not so nice, an angry brother, scared parents and a hurricane. Mix well and pour into book form. Meet Ethan and Coralee. He’s just moved from Boston to a coastal Georgia town with his family after a tragic accident involving his best friend Kacey that left him so distraught, his parents felt they had no alternative. Despite the move, Ethan can’t stop recycling images and memories of what happened that day with his best friend.

The family has moved in with his grumpy widower grandfather Ike who initially seems like someone Ethan couldn’t like, but soon seems like he just might understand Ethan’s messed up feelings better than most.

He’s sure school in Palm Knot, GA will be another uncomfortable part of his life until Coralee appears. She doesn’t give him a chance to retreat into his shell and the shabby treatment she gets from Suzanne, who seems like the school’s queen bee, makes him want to hang out with her. She introduces him to Mack, the lady who owns the local hardware store and has an informal library there. It’s a sanctuary-like spot, perfect for the two of them to start getting to know each other.

What follows is an interesting peeling-the-onion-like series of disclosures wrapped around a severe hurricane that threatens the safety of both kids, but ends up blowing away the parts of their sadness in a way that’s thrilling and satisfying. It’s a great tale of how wounded kids can sometimes help each other even though individually unable to move forward. It’s a great book for any library to add to the collection.

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

Code Red: A Faith Flores science mystery

Code Red: A Faith Flores science mystery by Janie Chodosh, Poisoned Pencil Press, 2017, ISBN: 9781929345281. Reviewed by John R. Clark, MLIS.code-red

Not long after Faith solves the mystery surrounding her mother’s death, she’s noticed for her science skills that were central to doing so. This results in her getting a pretty prestigious summer internship in New Mexico. While it means being away from her boyfriend Jesse, for six weeks, she’s really excited about getting a chance to bond with her inner science nerd. She’s also scared because she knows that Santa Fe is the last place her mysterious father was and that it’s likely he’s still there.

Her new batch of intrigue starts the day she arrives. Still using aloofness around strangers as a defense mechanism, she’s by herself, watching the other interns mingling when a tall and quite attractive guy starts talking to her. Enter Clem, who is not only local, but a violin prodigy, multiracial and knows the sting of an absent parent. He lives with his mother, a nurse, while his father lives in California and has a new family that always takes precedence when it comes to Dad time.

When Clem starts a conversation, two things are quickly apparent, he’s darn good looking and he’s not a jerk. In fact, the more they talk, the more Faith realizes that they’re kindred souls in numerous ways. Still gun shy following how she was perceived while living with her late mother, she has a difficult time sorting out what to tell him and what to hide. Her relationship with Jesse falls into the latter category.

Fortunately her internship sucks her in from the start. She’s working at a startup that’s trying to genetically modify chilies so they repel a pest that’s threatening to destroy the crops so many in the area rely upon for income. Not only does she catch on fast, but she gets her initial assignments done so quickly, she’s given more complex stuff to work on, like gene sequencing and comparison.

Then she learns what happened to her father, followed almost immediately by meeting a person who not only surprises the heck out of her, but changes her life in ways she couldn’t have imagined before coming to Santa Fe. That life change opens up not only new emotions, but huge new challenges.

At the same time, Faith starts wondering about what happened at a party where a girl died from an overdose of Liquid Gold, a hallucinogenic that used to come from the Amazon rainforests and be extremely expensive. It now seems plentiful and cheap. The more she digs, the more she starts wondering if the place where she’s interning has a hidden connection to bad things happening in New Mexico.

This second book builds on Death Spiral, but adds so much more. It continues to involve science in ways that readers will understand because it’s woven in so well and explained clearly. Not only does it allow Faith to grow both intellectually and emotionally, it presents her with several huge life challenges. While few teen girls will ever face as many as Faith does, lots will have to deal with being smart, liking science, figuring out screwed-up families or complicated/confusing attraction to the opposite sex. This book gives readers a look at all of these issues. In addition to being a dandy mystery, it’s a great look at the coming of age process and how family can be defined in many different ways. Like its predecessor, this is an excellent book for any library to add.

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

Optimists Die First

Optimists Die First by Susin Nielsen, Wendy Lamb Books (February 21, 2017), ISBN: 9780553496901. Reviewed by John R. Clark, MLIS.

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Things can get really messed up in families that lack meaningful communication. While everything can seem functional on the surface, when a tragedy happens, everything can go off the rails quickly, leaving everyone in their own web of grief, denial, or craziness. Meet Petula De Wilde, a sixteen year old who is currently so boxed in by her phobias and trauma-induced OCD, she barely exists. When something horrible happened, she started isolating and shutting down. Several years later, she’s pushed away her best friend, can’t do a class presentation without her brain filling with so many awful possibilities that she collapses, or has an emotional meltdown and finds herself part of YART-Youth Art Therapy.

It’s an interesting group; Petula, Alonzo-talented, but shunned by his family because he came out, Koula-who struggles and frequently fails to recover from her addictions, Ivan-locked inside grief and anger because of what his mother did and the newest member, the bionic giant, Jacob.

New guy won’t let her be, hanging with her and asking questions until there’s a tiny crack that he manages to open wider and wider. His skill with a video camera and scripting is the gateway that starts Petula on a scary, scary road, one that leads through the Forest of Fear and Pain, with a side trip to betrayal, but when she (and everyone else in YART) comes out on the other side, the emotional sunshine there makes every awful, agonizing moment of the journey worth it. Too bad Jacob got lost on the journey. Want to find out why? Get the book.

This is an excellent look at how guilt and grief, especially in the absence of parental support and intervention, can chew up a teen and spit them out an emotional mess of yuk. It’s a worthwhile addition to libraries where issue-oriented fiction is an important part of the YA collection.

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

Avalanche

Avalanche by Melinda Braun, Simon Pulse, 2016. ISBN: 9781481438223. Reviewed by John R. Clark, MLIS.

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Stung by yet another snub by his professor father, this time because Dad’s 28 year old girlfriend is having pregnancy issues, Matt is eager to go from Des Moines to Colorado on a school break. Smart and having an eclectic mind, He’s not wise in the ways of survival or girls, two areas where skills will soon have plenty of value.

He and his best friend Toby have been invited by Toby’s older brother Sid to join a group of college age kids on a backcountry skiing adventure. It’s an interesting group. In addition to Matt, Toby and Sid, there’s Dylan, wealthy and somewhat reckless, his girlfriend Julie, and Sid’s sibling roommates, Carter and Leah.

Matt and Toby aren’t novices, but skiing at 11,000 feet, while going uphill as much as down tests them right from the start. When an avalanche hits, burying Dylan and seriously injuring Sid, everyone’s strength and mental stability are tested. The party must decide who goers for help (there’s no cellphone service at the abandoned cabin where they seek shelter) and who stays with Sid. How that’s decided and what happens to each group make for a fast and tension-filled read.

You might criticize some of the decisions made at times, but unless you’ve been in an unpredictable and life-threatening crisis yourself, it’s easy to play armchair quarterback. I really enjoyed the book and think teen adventure junkies will as well. Yes, there’s strong language and drinking, but both are typical of college age characters.

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Filed under Fiction, Grade 10-12

Death Spiral

Death Spiral: A Faith Flores science mystery by Janie Chodosh, The Poisoned Pencil; 1 edition (April 1, 2014) . ISBN: 9781929345007. Reviewed by John R. Clark, MLIS

death-spiral

Faith Flores has the deck of life stacked against her—Unknown father, addict (now dead) mom, fragmented education thanks to constantly moving, a distrust of most people and struggles with self-esteem and trust in general. One of the few things she had to hold onto was her belief that Mom was clean when she died, but when the death certificate states heroin overdose as the cause of death, her world takes a serious hit. Still, there was that scary rat-faced guy who threatened her mom just before she died.

Fast forward sixweeks. Faith is now living with her Aunt T. It’s more stable, there’s real food in the house and her aunt isn’t an addict or unpredictable. Even so, Faith feels edgy and distrustful most of the time. Then things begin to happen that shake her world, leaving her wondering, a lot.

First, there’s Jesse, a new boy in her classes who is passionate, smart, a fount of trivia and not scared off by her hardness. The more he spends time with her, the harder it is for her to keep all her feelings and secrets from him. When she finds a note from her mom’s addict friend, Melinda, asking her to come talk to her (in the same decrepit, creepy neighborhood where Faith used to live), She’s torn, but after blurting an invitation to Jesse, which he accepts, they go to see Melinda, only to find her looking like Faith’s mother and hinting that the two women were involved in something mysterious at the methadone clinic that was treating them.

From there to the scary ending, readers are treated to several story lines that blend together. There’s Faith’s determination to find the truth, her agonizing ambivalence about trusting those who care about her and opening up, the very complex web of secrets surrounding what was happening at the clinic and why a bunch of researchers and doctors were involved, all culminating in a very gutsy act by Faith, Jesse, her friend Anj, along with Anj’s Scottish exchange student boyfriend, Duncan.

This is a dandy mystery with a gutsy and stronger than she realizes female protagonist. Teens (and adults) who like an intelligent mystery with strong teen characters will like it a lot. I’ve ordered the sequel, Code Red and am eager to read it.

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Filed under Grade 10-12, Grade 7-9

Black Flowers, White Lies

Black Flowers, White Lies by Yvonne Ventresca, Sky Pony Press, 2016. ISBN: 9781510709881. Reviewed by John R. Clark, MLIS.

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Life for Ella Benton has always lacked something-her dad. He was killed in a traffic accident before she was born. Despite never having seen him, she feels a very strong connection, even believing he’s somehow watching over her and that the number eight, or multiples of it are lucky (his birthday was on the eighth of August)

When her mother decides to remarry, She’s okay with the idea, although realizing that having her new step-dad Stanley living in their apartment will take some adjustment. He has a son from a previous marriage, Blake from whom he’s been estranged for most of his son’s life, Since the wedding was agreed upon, Stanley has been trying to make amends and rebuild a connection with Blake.

When his son comes to stay for the wedding and a while after during the honeymoon in Europe, Ella is initially pleased. It will be nice to have someone around during Mom’s absence, but then things start going off the rails. Strange handprints appear, her best friend, Grace starts acting secretive and denying things Ella believes happened. Blake tells her mother told Stanley that Ella’s dad didn’t die as she believed, but in a mental hospital and then gets faxed records supposedly showing his admission to such a facility. Ella begins hearing strange noises and things begin vanishing. As the number of odd events increases, she’s no longer certain about people or events and begins questioning her own sanity. Is it possible that she inherited her father’s mental illness?

Readers will find the constant twists, intrigue and red herrings all blend to make for a dandy psychological thriller. They may put some of the puzzle pieces together, but will have great fun doing it. This is a nice choice for both school and public library collections.

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

Carve The Mark

Carve the Mark by Veronica Roth, Katherine Tegen Books, 2017. ISBN: 9780062348630. Reviewed by John R. Clark, MLIS

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Imagine a universe where all inhabited planets are close together, connected by an invisible flow of energy. Each is markedly different, but has three oracles; a descendant, a standing and an ascendant. On one, two races exist uneasily, divided by a supernatural swath of Feathergrass that some claim hides the spirits of their dead.

Athos’ mother is the current standing oracle. When his home is attacked by soldiers from Shotet, whose inhabitants are on the other side of the grass, his father is killed and he and his older brother Eijeh, are kidnapped because of prophecies told to Ryzek, leader of the Shotet. Athos was brought along not only because he killed one of his captors, but because his personal ‘currentgift’ predicts that he is to serve the ruling family headed by Ryzek. But prophecies and currentgifts can be slippery and be interpreted in more than one way.

Ryzek’s sister Cyra has a terrible ‘currentgift.’ She absorbs and generates pain, and as such, can hurt or kill others. Her brother has turned her into a formidable weapon, something she secretly abhors. When it’s discovered that Athos is immune to her pain-inflicting power and can actually still the effects of it on her, he’s assigned as her personal servant, creating a relationship that will alter everyone’s future.

What follows is violent, skillfully crafted and makes for one heck of a story. The worlds, their cultures and the characters are all drawn so well that readers are able to fall into the story and visualize every moment as if present. Despite the violence (and there’s plenty there), this is a book worthy of being added to any library where teens and adults who love dystopia and science fiction are valued.

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Filed under Fantasy, Fiction, Grade 10-12, Science fiction