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Punching the Air by Ibi Zoboi and Yussef Salaam

February 28, 2022

Sixteen-year-old African-American Muslim, Amal Shahid, is not the type to get into a fight. Instead of fists, Amal stands up for himself with words. He has always been an artist and a poet, rebelling against his biased school system. However, while out skating with his friends one night, the boys encounter a group of white kids on their side of the street. Soon, an argument breaks out. Before anyone can react, Amal throws the first punch. The scene turns into a full-on fist fight before his eyes. The police arrest Amal on his way home, falsely claiming that he put a white boy, Jeremy Mathis, in a coma by hitting him with his skateboard. In reality, Amal ran away from the scene, forgetting the board in the chaos. The court finds Amal guilty of a crime  he didn’t commit. The black boy only threw one punch, but that was enough to convince authorities he was guilty of putting a white boy in a coma. As the book’s blurb says, “Boys being boys turns out to be true only when those boys are white.” Amal is then sent to prison, where his only escape and chance to fight back are his words.   

Beautifully created by Ibi Zoboi, a civil rights activist and novelist, and prison reform activist Yusef Salaam, Punching the Air moves audiences beyond the typical reaction to a reading experience. Each line of the novel is packed with incredibly strong diction, capturing Amal’s anger and sadness about his injustice in a way that is close to overpowering, which fits the narrative to a tee. 

Zoboi’s voice influences the novel in other ways, as well. Her unusual style of writing is unique because the verses are truly free to wander around the page, as readers will discover. Because this title is written in free verse, the pace of this read is quick. One of the main reasons I enjoyed this book was because of Zoboi’s effort to connect Amal’s artistic personality with the rest of the novel. Her words and art illuminate each page with Amal’s story, along with the beautiful cover design, which helps to bring Amal and his identity across. Readers can feel Amal’s raw despair in a way that is not common in most books: feeling every ounce of emotion that Zoboi pours into the pages. With every word, she lets Amal’s character come alive: bold, strong, and quick. Just like his pen. 

Zoboi gracefully intertwines the fight with the present, where Amal is sitting in jail unjustly. Using flashbacks (never spilling too many details), she helps unfold the story. I loved how Zoboi chose to write about the fight. She only drops in small details of what happened, which makes the beginning of this book suspenseful and mysterious. She does this in a way that not only keeps a reader turning the page, but also aware of the social injustice and that Amal is in the right. 

Although the genre is realistic fiction with a social justice focus, Punching the Air is different from any of its kind. Zoboi pours herself into Amal’s character, not afraid to cut any sugarcoating. This novel is real, with a shocking dose of authenticity that will have readers experiencing the action alongside the characters. Another feature that separates this book from others is the title. Zoboi made an effort to connect it to the characters in her novel: it’s a metaphor for Amal punching at the invisible walls around him, the walls that  try to hold back his words and imprison him. 

I would definitely recommend this novel for audiences who enjoyed books such as How It Went Down by Kekla Magoon and American Street by Ibi Zoboi. They would savor this fast-paced and stunning work of literature. People who don’t normally read free verse (like me) will love and appreciate what Ibi Zoboi has to offer. I personally rated this book a 9/10 because of the graceful diction and art that Zoboi incorporated into her novel. There is no doubt that this book was beautifully written, as Zoboi expertly crafted characters into realistic, raw, and imperfect human beings, whose emotions carried readers through her novel. I think that people who want to learn and read about these injustices will definitely benefit from reading this work of art.

Lilly Mae

Balzer + Bray, 400 pages


Only Mostly Devastated by Sophie Gonzales

Ollie spent the summer at Aunt Linda’s lake house hoping to find love. One fateful day, due to a mishap on the beach with his little cousins, he discovers it in Will Tavares. After a summer of sneaking out and sleeping under the stars, Will and Ollie say their final goodbyes. Promising to never lose contact with each other, the two lovers part ways. At first, Ollie is devastated when Will ghosts him with no explanation. However, a family emergency sees Ollie spending his senior year in North Carolina, thousands of miles away from his hometown in California. Little does he know, his knight in shining armor, Will, goes to the same high school as he will: a real dream come true. But this Will is different. He’s closeted, a class clown, and a bit of a jerk. Ollie wants nothing to do with this new version of Will—but how can he give up on his true love?

In Only Mostly Devastated, Sophie Gonzales does a fantastic job capturing the struggles of a gay high school student in a conservative town. Growing up in a welcoming family and community makes it easy for Ollie to express himself without the fear of being judged or shunned. However, having a homophopic and strict environment creates a much more challenging situation for Will. Even though this book is only from Ollie’s perspective, we are still able to see Will’s personal issues through the dialogue in Gonzales’ novel.

One of the aspects readers will enjoy in this book is the inclusivity. Gonzales created a variety of characters, and each person has a different background and issue they are struggling with. For example, one of Ollie’s new friends, Niamh, is the most beautiful girl Ollie had ever met, inside and out. However, she has always struggled with her weight and will sometimes starve herself. Another one of the girls in Ollie’s class is facing the stress of trying to be perfect and succeed in life, while also secretly trying to pursue a path in music. These secondary characters help readers connect to the novel in various ways.

Only Mostly Devastated was written in the first person, which is a style I prefer. Readers are able to dive into Ollie’s cluttered and confused thoughts, while also following the plot line and twists. By choosing this perspective, Gonzales allows readers to see how Ollie perceives other characters and breaks them down in his own mind.

The genre of this book is romance and realistic fiction. The novel is composed of twenty-two chapters each a length of around ten pages. These short and sweet chapters will make Only Mostly Devastated a quick read for those interested. Gonzales packed every chapter with countless important details, leaving readers on the edge of their seat with the turn of a page.

I would recommend this book to anyone over the age of twelve who enjoys reading a novel filled with humor, an abundance of romance, and a main character you can’t help but love. This novel will rip out readers’ hearts and shove them back, leaving them Only Mostly Devastated. 

Sarah

Wednesday Books, 278 pages


The Unteachables by Gordon Korman

The unteachables, or SCS8, are a rambunctious group of untalented misfit students who have been abandoned by their previously-assigned teachers. In the beginning of the book, one of the main characters, Kiana Rubini, has to stay with her dad and stepmother, while her mother is away shooting a movie. Her step-mom (who she calls stepmonster) accidentally does not sign her into the school, because her two year old step-brother threw up all over the car. She decides to go in, and is handed a schedule and given directions before she can say that she doesn’t even go to the school. Before she knows it, she is standing before the worst class in the school, the unteachables. 

From here, Gordon Korman’s novel switches between several characters, which include Parker, who can’t read but somehow has a drivers license; Aldo, who has anger management issues; Elain (rhymes with pain); and Barnstorm, the school’s record breaking athlete, who always got out of trouble because of his sports abilities. The other main characters are Mr. Kermit, their grumpy teacher, and Kiana, the one student who doesn’t belong in SCS8. Korman develops the characters and their relationships throughout the book.

Dr Thaddeus, the superintendent, still holds a grudge against Mr. Kermit for a cheating scandal that took place in Mr Kermit’s class twenty seven years ago, and has jumped on every chance to fire him ever since. Because of this, Mr. Kermit has lost his original energy, from when he viewed teaching as a goal, not a job. He is counting down the days until the end of the year, when he can qualify for early retirement. 

Korman expertly flows the plot through a series of events that bond the students and a teacher together, to transform them both in the procss. The plot moves rather slowly as the book unravels, and the students uncover more of the teacher’s backstory. The plot quickens as the book goes on, as Mr. Kermit slowly transforms the class, and the class slowly transforms him, bringing back his positive teaching mindset. The climax of the book is when the students decide to fix and rebuild Mr. Kermit’s old car, because it’s falling apart. In a funny detail it’s called the “coco nerd” instead of Concord, because Parker thought that that’s what it said. They make it their goal to try to win the science fair with the rebuilt car, and win the extra ten points on their grade. If the students’ grades aren’t high enough then Dr. Thaddeus will fire Mr Kermit, so the students are determined to get the extra grade.  The Unteachables is an intriguing realistic fiction novel, full of funny characters, and plenty of engaging scenes to keep you on the edge of your seat. I recommend this book to any realistic fiction lover, or someone just looking for a laugh. I rate it an 8/10.

Ben

Balzer + Bray, 288 pages


The Giver by Lois Lowry

February 27, 2022

Jonas is a perfectly normal kid in his seemingly normal town. A town where nobody will ever go hungry and where everybody has the perfect job, and life. Within this community, all law breaking citizens are “released” to keep the law abiding citizens safe. There are a set of strict rules set in place to make sure that no one feels any source of sadness, pain, or any other negative feelings. And although this world may seem perfect, Jonas comes to find that it is most certainly not. After being skipped at the ceremony of twelve, a newly twelve year old Jonas is picked for the honorable assignment of Receiver of Memory.  After only a few days on the job, Jonas starts to realize that his community may not be so perfect after all. What is release? What is beyond? Is this world really perfect, or is it more like an inescapable prison?

I appreciated reading this novel very much. One element that I personally enjoyed about this book was that this story was very cleverly written to let the reader gain knowledge along with the characters. A shocking plot point would surprise, not only the characters, but the reader as well. It helps readers feel more connected to the book and the characters within by having them solve small problems and try to think of clues and details along with the character that needs these problems solved.

Along with this, Lois Lowry captured the idea of something further than our everyday life. The word she used to do that was beyond. It draws the reader in to think about a better world, that may be closer than we think. This intrigued readers from across the globe. Even if Jonas’ final ideal of beyond may not be too different for us, as you may come to see with reading this book, it gives us a very important lesson — that we should be grateful for what we have, as some people strive for some of the most mundane or taken-for-granted aspects of our everyday lives. Maybe something like an office job or a family dinner with your annoying cousins, or even looking at the color of flowers on the side of the road— these would all be shocking and incredible for anyone in this messed up world. 

When preparing to read this book, I was excited, as many of my friends said it was incredible. After starting it, I was slightly confused, as the action in the story that I was told about was not there. But after reading a few more chapters, I saw that the dip in the action was essential to the plot. Even though it is slightly confusing, it is worth waiting a chapter or two to find out what is yet to come.

The Giver is an incredible novel filled with emotion, sentiment, and action. It is a life changing, heartwarming story. This amazing novel really has changed lives, and giving this book a chance could change yours. As you follow Jonas through this story, you grow to learn the importance of friendship, family, and love.

JoJo

Harcourt, 225 pages


I’m Not Dying With You Tonight by Kimberly Jones and Gilly Segal

Two high school girls: one black, one white. Lena and Campbell aren’t friends. They don’t even understand each other over the vast racial divide. But when the city all around them is up in flames, none of that matters anymore, as they are forced to rely on each other. Lena and Campbell must depend on their smarts, instincts, and each other to survive the most dangerous night they’ve ever experienced. After a violent fight breaks out at a school football game, Lena takes cover in Campbell’s concession stand, right in the middle of the chaos. When gunshots get mixed into the fight, along with some racist police figures, the girls need to get out. Campbell is relieved to see police arrive, but Lena views it as a greater danger. The only way they can make it home is to trust and rely on each other.  Chaos surrounds the two girls, violence and hate fill the air around them, as they run for their lives through their riot-, hate-, and loot-filled city. Turmoil throws the two together, and now Lena and Campbell’s differences don’t seem as important as getting out alive.  Can Lena and Campbell spend the worst night of their lives thrown together in a shack, and form an unlikely alliance and sense of desperate trust? Can two girls bridge a racial divide, in the hopes of survival?   

This novel was written in first-person, dual perspectives, allowing the reader to get both sides of the night in the most detailed way possible. The chapters switch at suspenseful moments, and sometimes in the middle of a conversation. The next chapter picks up right away, seconds from when the last one ended, so the audience doesn’t feel like they’re missing any part of the story. Because the perspectives change during important, suspenseful, and controversial moments, readers get both girls’ opinions on most matters and readers see how each perspective fully embodies the characters and their personalities. Kimberly Jones wrote Lena’s point  of view, and Gilly Segal wrote Cambell’s. The grammar and wording throughout the book changes depending on which character the audience is reading at the moment. Lena uses more slang, and different  grammar, both in the dialogue and body of the chapters. Campbell uses more “conventional” grammar and less slang. Each chapter is written to embody their personalities, and it augments and accentuates the differences in their upbringing, which makes reading it more realistic, and shows the reader how big the divide they have to bridge is. The book moves at an extremely fast pace: because the night is so suspenseful, readers want to know what happens next.

Lena, a “queen bee” at their mostly black school in Atlanta, has been living here her whole life, and as a black woman, is used to racism, and violence in her town. Campbell, the new girl—both to the school and Atlanta— has never been around so many people of a different race. She grew up in a highly white area, and has never been in an environment filled with police brutality, racism, fights, or riots.

I’m Not Dying With You Tonight is a debut novel, written by two authors, Kimberly Jones— an American author who is also known for the viral video How We Can Win, posted during the George Floyd protests— and Gilly Segal— an author from Florida, who lives in, and calls Georgia home; she also works as a lawyer for an advertising agency.

Jones and Segal wrote this novel to take place in a town in Atlanta, Georgia, and it is loosely based around an incident during the Baltimore protests of 2015. Jones and Segal show the importance of sharing experiences from multiple people and how certain situations can affect anyone, no matter their race.

This novel helped me understand what was happening around the George Floyd protests and riots. Without this book I could not have had a clear understanding of police brutality, violence, and mass destruction as I do now, as a white, female, young adult who has mostly grown up in rural Maine, and has never personally experienced racism or violence in a way that others might. I have much more left to learn, but this book gave me a sense of understanding, and gave me enough knowledge and details to form my own opinion on certain ideas, and have conversations with others on these important truths about our country. I feel like I can now talk about this type of situation with an educated reason behind my opinions. This novel also made me more curious and feel more empathy, which made me want to know more about George Floyd and all the events that have happened in the past few years (2020-2022).

On a more lighthearted note, this book, while bringing awareness to very serious topics,  also has a few classic teen issues and encounters that are mixed in with the suspenseful night. This novel explores unlikely friendships, trust issues, catcalling, and normal teen emotions and relationships such as boyfriends, home troubles, pressure, and money issues. This sense of normal obstacles that these girls face make it feel more relatable, and give a sense that this could and does actually happen. Jones and Segal thoughtfully added these important details to make the audiences’ experience smoother, and made the situations that Lena and Campbell have to go through feel that much more realistic, which gives readers something to connect to the characters about. 

This book was eye-opening and showed the significance of how one’s upbringing can change and warp your perspective on events and impact how people move throughout the world. Racism, sexism, violence, and perspective play a large role in how people navigate their lives, and how they rely on their judgment, and trust themselves to make decisions. Readers will get a chance to see two very different sides of a tense and dangerous night, allowing anyone (black or white) to learn about others’ perspectives. This novel examines the roots of unlikely friendships, and explores two girls, forced to rely on each other for survival as they struggle to understand each other’s point of view.

Beatrix

Sourcebooks Fire, 272 pages


I Hunt Killers by Barry Lyga

His name is Jasper but most people call him Jazz. He is a teenager and the son of one of the worst serial killers, Billy Dent. He has a friend named Howie and a girlfriend named Connie, who help him throughout the entire book and are the only people who truly understand him. He lives with his grandmother, since his dad was put in jail early in the book. His mom died when he was very young, which his dad blames on Jazz. He deals with a lot of general backlash because of his dad: people at school expect him to grow up to be just like his father— or possibly worse.

The bigger part of the conflict arises from there being a killer that has been trying to copy the exact murders that Billy Dent committed. Jazz wants to try to stop the impressionist in order to not let any other people die. At the same time, he has to avoid the assumptions being thrown his way. But he may need help.

This is the start of the I Hunt Killers by Barry Lyga, which gets more intense as the story goes on and has a strong ending where Lyga brings everything together. The chapters are shorter, around 7-10 pages, which speeds up the pace. The text is slightly less descriptive and focuses more on the connections between the characters, while including lots of thoughts and feelings. Lyga’s writing reminded me of the style of another young adult author, Marie Lu. Since the pages are smaller, the plot builds up towards the end, which creates an illusion that it is moving faster.

The story is told entirely from Jazz’s first-person perspective, which is how Lyga forms the biases with the main characters. Lyga also finds an effective balance between seeing Jazz’s thoughts, dialogue, and description. The character development is well written by Lyga as each person that he encounters has an important backstory, which helps build the connections between the reader and the main characters.

It’s also unique how the protagonist is Jazz, but the antagonist is his dad. His father has a very important role because he could help Jazz but it is also his son’s biggest challenge: he’s created all of Jazz’s problems. It doesn’t happen in many books that the antagonist can play both sides of the story. Jazz needs his father to explore the dark side of the world, but without his dad he wouldn’t need to go through the same issues. 

This novel is a solid 10 in my opinion. It’s a book that’s not for everyone but is one to at least try. It may not be the best choice for audiences looking for a light read because it can get the reader thinking at parts, which I found effective. It does include murder, discussions of rape, and heated family talks between Jazz and his dad. 

In I Hunt Killers, Jazz has been born into the dark side of the world and readers are along for the ride as he has to fight his way out. 

Owen

Little, Brown Company, 359 pages


Ground Zero by Alan Gratz

September 11, 2001: in an elevator descending from the top floor of the North Tower, Brandon hears a thump from above and is suddenly flipped sideways, trapped. He and the other people in the elevator don’t know if they will ever get out. Will he live to tell the tale? 

In Afghanistan, on September 11, 2019, Reshmina goes out to get water from the village well, and she hears gunshots from nearby. She runs home, and on the way meets a soldier who has been injured from the fight. Because of Reshmina’s religion, she cannot talk to the soldier. She speaks loudly, as if talking to herself, and the American soldier follows her home. Will he betray their location or will he save them? This well-written novel is all set in one exciting and terrifying day that leaves the reader’s heart racing.

Ground Zero is a gripping story with two meaningful characters that both have the same problem, on the same day, in different years. Gratz writes this story with multiple themes: from war to friendship, from one day to another. Audiences will love how Gratz wrote about past history and what life is like now for Reshmina and her brother, Pasoon. At first I thought that just Reshmina and her family were in trouble, but readers will soon realize that her whole village is in danger, too. What will happen?

Gratz builds this novel around two powerful characters who will give readers new perspectives. The book is never slow-paced; it is always moving forward at an alarming rate that will make audiences never want to put this book down. Ground Zero is a perfect combination of two different genres—historical fiction and realistic fiction—that will teach you more about 9/11 and how much the Taliban has affected Reshmina and her village. I loved how Gratz put into perspective that the event Brandon is enduring killed many lives, and Gratz added so many little details that the reader can experience the thrill of the story.

Gratz is the author of seventeen other books, including Refugee, Code of Honor, Grenade, and many others. I have only read Refugee, and it is just as gripping as Ground Zero. Ground Zero is a riveting story with an action-packed plot that will leave audiences wondering how Gratz managed to set the novel all in one day. I rated this book an eleven out of ten and recommend it to anybody who would like to read a novel about the destruction of 9/11 and the Taliban. A couple chapters in will leave readers wondering—Will they survive?

Karen 

Scholastic Press, 304 pages


One of Us Is Lying by Karen McManus

February 10, 2022

Five students were sent to detention, but only four made it out alive. High schoolers Bronwyn, Addy, Nate, and Cooper all become suspects for the murder of Simon Kelleher. Bronwyn is extremely smart and doesn’t like breaking rules, Addy is one of the popular girls, Cooper is an All–Star baseball pitcher, and Nate is on probation for selling drugs. Many students dislike Simon because he’s the  founder of an app called “About That,” where he posts people’s deepest secrets. The four suspects work together to try and figure out if someone is framing them—or if the killer is amongst them.

I loved how  McManus wrote this book from four different points of view. It made the story more entertaining because each character has their own problems, which the others couldn’t relate to. If it was only written from one of the characters’ point of view, then the reader wouldn’t get to explore each person’s side of the story, and the audience doesn’t get to learn about them as a character or understand their personal journey.

There is a lot of side drama in this novel. Each of the characters has a secret that can change everything. It’s a secret they never wanted anyone to find out about. But their secrets are revealed when someone posts them on “About That.” So now they have to deal with the fallout of their secrets being revealed.

McManus did a fantastic job with the mystery side of the book because there are clues throughout the book. It helps the reader come up with ideas as to who the killer is. Even with the clues, I didn’t even fully guess correctly. With other books it’s easy to solve the mystery, but not with this one. The audience isn’t just understanding the book, they’re trying to look for the smallest details that can help unravel the mystery.

In each new chapter, or somewhere within the chapter, it switches to different perspectives. The perspectives are from Bronwyn’s, Addy’s, Nate’s, and Cooper’s points of view. Each time it switches characters, McManus writes the name of the character, the day of the week, the date, and the time, which helps readers keep track of who’s narrating. Also, the pace of the book was effective. It doesn’t feel too fast or too slow, so the reader will get a lot of information without getting bored. 

This novel was so enjoyable, I didn’t want to put it down. I would read for an hour or sometimes more. It was so much fun reading the book, as well as trying to solve the mystery. There’s a TV show on “Peacock” based on this novel that I thought was pretty good, but it is a little different from the book. 

I rated this book a ten out of ten, and I think anyone that likes mystery or realistic fiction will like this book, too. Also, there’s a sequel called One of Us is Next, which I haven’t read yet, but I’m planning to. But I hope every single person reading this will try out this amazing book, and I hope you can solve the mystery.

Victoria

Delacorte Press, 358 pages


The Butterfly Clues by Kate Ellison

February 9, 2022

Penelope (Lo), is a teenage girl with Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD), who has always loved to collect beautiful things. When she finds a antique butterfly from a house of a recently murdered girl named Sapphire, a young stripper, she attempts to piece together the clues left behind. With a dead brother whose death still haunts her and a father who is never home, Lo finds herself alone, and solving the mystery of who killed Sapphire seems impossible. However, with the help of an artist named Flynt, they realize that the answer was closer to home than imagined.  

The Butterfly Clues is an excellent, exciting novel because of how quickly the plot takes off. Readers will find themselves wanting to read more because every time the plot starts to slow, it picks up again. Ellison beautifully describes the characteristics of OCD and takes a convincing and intriguing approach toward how someone dealing with a disorder acts and how they think and process information. Readers will notice that Lo is drawn to multiples of three. For example: if there were nine birds on a telephone pole, Lo would think that means luck. Also, readers will notice early on that  the word “banana” gives Lo a sense of security. Ellison places  a large amount of attention to detail on that specifically.

The Butterfly Clues is a novel written in first person from the perspective of Lo, which allows readers to follow along with her emotions. The plot has huge turns in it that readers will find unexpected and, after the book is finished, will provide a whole different perspective on Lo’s life and the journey it took to uncover the answers. The book takes place in Cleveland, Ohio, which gives it the big-city, lots-of-crime feel, especially since the book is set in “Neverland,” the more dangerous side of town where you don’t want to end up at night. Readers will also discover how close the community is there, but also how if you really want to find answers, it could mean death.

Ellison uses strong, sensory diction throughout the book as she describes the way people act and the violence in this world.

This novel gives the reader an insight into OCD, which is something I didn’t previously know about. It may seem that Lo is controlled by her disorder and therefore an unreliable protagonist, but without her disorder she would not have found the butterfly because her OCD gives her an urge to steal antique things. Without that, she would have not even met Flynt, and the book would be terrible—maybe not even a book at all.

Ellison also teaches the reader about friendship, independence, and death. The pace was perfect and the chapters were somewhat long but had lots of pauses in the middle, which is something the reader will be grateful for.

I would recommend this novel to anyone who likes mystery, suspense, or friendship. I would also recommend The Adoration of Jenna Fox by Mary E. Pearson or Red Rider, which was another recent book by Ellison. I rated this story a ten out of ten and loved reading it.

This book made me want to read more of Ellisons novels, and I am planning to.

The Butterfly Clues draws readers in, and each word captivates you into reading more. If you read this novel, you will not be left disappointed.

Allison

EGMONT, 325 pages 


Attack Surface by Cory Doctorow

February 8, 2022

Masha is a hacker who works for the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). She helps to defeat the xnet kids, a group of young people that try to defeat the DHS because the DHS is doing immoral things. Masha is very smart, but then she quits because she thinks what the DHS is doing is immoral. Next she works for Xoth, a cybersecurity firm.  One of her jobs is to upgrade the internet for Slovstakian, so the government can spy on protesters. However, she is friends with a few protesters, so she helps the protesters defeat the government instead. Then she gets in trouble with Xoth, which leads to her getting fired. Soon after, she goes to work with the Army and helps with tech. While there she has to work with Carrier Johnson, who she also admires. 

When readers begin this book they will not be able to put it down. It is written as if Masha wrote it after that fact, which made it more interesting. It was like a small detail that was interesting to Masha, which made it more personal so readers felt connected to her as a character—which makes it more interesting to the reader. The pace was a little slow, but  the slowness helps so that readers can absorb all the data that Doctorow gives them. 

Readers will also note how many small details are in this book and how much better this makes the novel. The details allow readers to hear all of Masha’s thoughts throughout the book. 

Attack Surface is a book that is fun, and readers should read it if they like tech and suspense. It has flashbacks, so it can be a little confusing when readers are reading it. It is a good story that draws readers in. Readers will not want to put this book down.  

Masha as a protagonist at first does not care what people use her work for. As the book progresses she gets more worried about how her work is used and what the companies that she works for are doing. She starts thinking about what could happen if she decides only to use her skills for good. It is interesting to see Masha grow as a character in this way. 

This novel is also the third book in the Little Brother series, which includes Little Brother and Homeland. Readers will enjoy those, and this book will make more sense if you read the previous novels, but you can also read this book without reading the first two.                                 

Sawyer

Tor Books, 385 pages         


Girl in the Blue Coat by Monica Hesse

Hanneke is the main character in a mystery novel called Girl in the Blue Coat by Monica Hesse. She is a black market delivery girl in WWll Amsterdam, who finds and delivers illegal merchandise to customers. She has been making her rounds to Mrs Janssen, a client usually buying meat or kerosene. This time she asks Hanneke to find a missing person – a person who had been previously hiding out in her hidden room because she was Jewish and the Gestapo police were rounding up all the Jewish people into the train to get slaughtered. “I need you to find her before the Nazis do,” Mrs. Janssen tells Hanneke urgently. 

In this novel, Hesse forces the reader to consider what they would do.  No one wants to get mixed up in a job that has risks of death. No one would want to let a girl die at the hands of the Nazis if they can stop it. No one wants to search for a girl who could have been rounded up onto the train weeks prior– paying with your life, for a life that might not exist. But sometimes that girl reminds you of your life before everything crumbled. Reminds you of your ex-best friend, of your dead boyfriend. Sometimes you walk straight in. This is what happens to Hanneke. 

Girl in the Blue Coat is packed with unexpected revelations about the missing girl at every turn. There are other revelations, too: Hanneke is recovering from the death of her would-be fiance, Bas. She’s dealing with the fact that she pushed him to go, even though he was scared. But she pushed him to go because who could ever imagine a world without Bas. Who could ever imagine moving on?

Hanneke has also lost her former best friend: they’ve gone from talking about day to day life on her bed, chatting casually while flipping through sleek thin magazines, to kicking her out, swearing to never seeing her again. Now they find themselves on the opposite sides of the war.

Hanneke is now tied into the center of this dark web involving a missing girl, betrayal from the closest of friends, a gunshot in the night, and a sacrifice gone unchecked. 

From the first page this book takes a dive into her struggles, her broken way of life. Readers learn that consequences are dire. Throughout the book there is never a shallow chapter that acts as a connector. Hanneke is constantly putting her life on the line for Mirjam–the missing girl– by finding and selling illegal merchandise, as well as attending secret resistance group meetings. Each chapter hooks on so well, it’s impossible to escape.  

You will want to just peek at the next chapter, but merely a couple words in, you will find yourself trapped.

Gigi

Little Brown, 301 pages


The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides

“On the morning the last Lisbon daughter took her turn at suicide— it was Mary this time, and sleeping pills, like Therese— the two paramedics arrived at the house knowing exactly where the knife drawer was, and the gas oven, and the beam in the basement from which it was possible to tie a rope.” 

This opens The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides, where the five Lisbon girls commit suicide one by one, as their lives are watched by the neighborhood boys. The boys attempt to piece together why the Lisbon girls took their own lives, but the book is not a mystery. It is an exploration of romance, death, life, and memory, as well as a timeless classic readers will love as they are entranced by a story, left wanting more. 

Eugenides employs countless tactics to hook the reader, but one he excels at is his mastery of language. He uses simple words that pack a punch, as well as lyrical metaphors, to make this story read like poetry. Without Eugenides’ wordsmithing, The Virgin Suicides’ readers would lose interest, as the novel lacks a formal structure. In the end, Eugenides’ talents pull the reader into the dreamy tale, capturing them in the space between lines. 

The book is told in a first-person collective, narrated by the neighborhood boys, now in their thirties. They recall the events of one year, adding an interesting subjectivity to the writing, which forces the reader to wonder how the story actually played out. The boys see the Lisbon girls as otherworldly and beautiful, and as the narrator, their bias is prominent and emphasizes a major theme: how people’s perspectives are unreliable. Eugenides does not shove this theme in the reader’s faces whenever he can, as some writers might do. Instead, the theme lurks in the background, never quite jumping out, but allowing the reader enough glimpses to see what it really is. 

Eugenides uses poetic language, a unique narrative, and a strong theme effectively, so as not to distract from his compelling novel. You will be captivated by this tale of memory, love, life, and death. 

Ori

Bloomsbury Publishing PLC, 250 pages


Welcome to the CTL Book Blog

February 10, 2021

You Gotta Read This! features book reviews written by CTL seventh- and eighth-grade students about books they have loved and think other middle school readers would love, too. All reviews are written by the kids in writing workshop, based on titles that they’ve selected and adored in reading workshop. The reviews are posted chronologically–extending back to 2009–tagged according to genre, and added to each year.

Happy reading!


Jarhead by Anthony Swofford

February 4, 2021

Some wars are unavoidable and need well be fought, but this doesn’t erase warfare’s waste. Sorry, we must say to the mothers whose sons die horribly. This will never end. Sorry.

Anthony Swofford is a man in his mid-twenties who, at the age of fourteen, decides that he’s going to follow the path his dad and grandfather carved out, and become a U.S. Marine, in response to the suicide bombing of the Marine barracks in Lebanon. Four years later, in 1990, he legally joins on his own (without the definite permission of his parents) and gets shipped off to the Mojave desert, where he and his fellow marines find out about the US declaring war on Iraq. To everyone else, this is bad news, but to Swofford, this is a way to exact revenge. From there, he is sent to Saudi Arabia to live in the sand for six months as part of the Surveillance and Target Acquisition Platoon (STA). While there, he is pushed on the verge of craziness, tests out a new government weapon, gets harassed by his Staff Sergeant, and finds out what it means to be a man, to be an American, and to serve his country, ─even if there’s a moderate chance he won’t make it back. 

In his memoir, Jarhead, Swofford gives an effective first-person account of living the Marine life ─the pros and the cons ─all the while using precise diction to accurately capture his thoughts and feelings and the landscape around him. How he structures the narrative is interesting because, unlike most other books about war, Swofford splits up the parts, so the book doesn’t go chronologically from enlistment to retirement. Instead, readers get various chapters that, some of the time, have no relation to the previous chapter, and that’s what makes this book unique. He also devotes a chapter to the cleaning guide for the M40A1 Rifle that tells readers how to properly clean it and keep it 100% functional (combating condensation, humidity, etc.), which is fitting because Swofford cleans his guns to get his mind off things, even if the guns are already clean. It’s his escape from reality. 

I felt that the plot was decently fast-paced, due to Swofford only describing the parts of his experience that are significant. He’s not explaining every little detail about the sand or the sky or the guns: it’s a mix between him telling the story around a campfire and him writing it in a book. It’s that nice blend that doesn’t have so much description that it takes up a whole paragraph but not too little that readers can’t “see it” in their heads.

One idea that I learned from this book is that there are a lot of things that can go wrong when someone’s fighting in a war. A friendly platoon can mistake them for an enemy and shoot, they can be walking along as quietly as possible and still get ambushed by enemy forces, something bad can happen back in the States and make them severely depressed, and all these other factors that they can’t prepare for could happen any second.

Swofford has published a couple of other books including Death of an American Sniper, which documents the life of Chris Kyle, a Navy Seal sniper who had 160 confirmed kills and a first-hand account of Eddie Ray Routh, the war-torn man who ended Chris’s life. Jarhead was also the inspiration for the movie Jarhead,  and the two other movies that are about US soldiers in combat but are not related to the first installment.

I rated this book a ten out of ten for its satisfying reading pace, and I recommend this memoir to anyone who is interested in war or military stories and is okay with a lot of profanity.   The diction used in this chronicle is gripping and psychological and is sure to make you ponder when Mr. Swofford leads you on this war-torn path through a small part in American history.

Jack

Scribner, 257 Pages


The Fountains of Silence by Ruta Sepetys

March 6, 2020

“You trust too easily, Ana. You reveal too much. Stay silent.” Ana is tired of silence, tired of unanswered questions, and tired of secrets. A girl of patched pieces, she dreams of new beginnings. She dreams of leaving Spain. But her sister is right. Her dreams have proven dangerous.

It’s 1957 in Madrid, Spain, in the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War. Spain is under the dangerously strict dictatorship of Francisco Franco. Ana lives with her sister and brother in constant fear of  the Gaurdia Civil finding out who their parents’ loyalty was to. Ana works at an American hotel—Castellana Hilton—where she meets eighteen-year-old Daniel, who comes to Spain from Texas with his parents for his father’s oil business and, through his photography, is learning that the real Spain is not the one presented to Americans. Ana struggles to survive in a Spain filled with danger and fear and come to terms with her past, while Daniel is just starting to discover the secrets of Spain.

I loved how Sepetys crafted main characters with unforgettable stories. This was important because there are four characters the reader follows, so it helps for them to each have a memorable life for each perspective to be important.

The Fountains of Silence is historical fiction although Sepetys includes excerpts from real historical documents of the time period, with world leaders and newspapers expressing what their perspective on Spain was. This gives readers a feel for what Spain was like at the time. Sepetys also includes pictures at the end of the book, all of which give the reader historical information on Spain.

The third person narrative made it possible for Sepetys to include four different perspectives: Daniel and Ana, as well as Ana’s brother Rafael, who is trying to forget the horrible memories of his childhood spent in a boys home in Barcelona and helps his friend Fuga escape his memories by bullfighting. Puri, the fourth point of view, is Ana’s cousin who works at an Inclusa and tries to be the perfect Spainyard, but when she starts to discover who the orphans really are it’s hard for her to ignore the secrets of around the Inclusa. I thought this was effective because it gives very different perspectives on Spain in 1957 because of each character’s childhood and family background.

I thought this was a fast paced book because readers always want to learn what is going on in another character’s life. When you finish a character’s chapter you want to learn what will happen to them next, so you just have to read the next few chapters.

I rate this book a ten out of ten and recommend it to anyone who would like to read a well written novel on the secrets of Spain’s past through the narrative of well crafted characters. Sepetys has also written Between Shades of Gray and Salt to the Sea. I have only read Between Shades of Gray and really enjoyed it. The Fountains of Silence is a book of survival, friendship, and truth and will leave you looking beyond what is presented to you.

Ruth

Philomel Books, 472 pages


The Seventh Most Important Thing by Shelley Pearsall

“One kid. One crime. One chance to make things right.”

Arthur Owens grasps a stone cold brick in his hand and hurls it at a garbage picker’s head. Luckily for Arthur, the wind has picked up, and the brick hits the man in the arm, knocking him into the street. Ever since Arthur lost his dad things haven’t been right, but the judge doesn’t care, he wants to send Arthur away forever.  But the Junk Man offers an alternative: 120 hours of community service, working for him. Arthur is given a wonky shopping cart and a list of the “Seven Most Important Things”: glass bottles, foil, cardboard, pieces of wood, lightbulbs, coffee cans, and mirrors. Arthur is curious about what the Junk Man will do with this “trash” that could potentially change his life. 

In The Seventh Most Important Thing, Shelley Pearsall crafts a remarkable story of how one person and one idea change a life forever. However, this book does have some mysterious aspects to it—it is kept a secret as to what the Junk Man is doing with the “trash” until Arthur starts working with him in his garage. As the reader, it is fun to experiment with theories as to what might happen next. During the novel, the reader may notice how Arthur’s character changes over time, through his family that surrounds him as they are struggling and as he continues to work for the Junk Man, instead of going to juvenile detention.

The Seventh Most Important Thing is written in third person and is contemporary realistic fiction. As a reader of this book, the pace could sometimes get a little slow, and it was harder to read, but I encourage others to keep pushing through: it will pay off. 

This book also has a fascinating real-life connection. The Judge reveals the Junk Man’s real name in the court session—James Hampton. James Hampton was an American folk artist from Washington, D.C., who worked as a janitor, but secretly built a large assemblage of religious art from scavenged materials, known as “The Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nations Millennium General Assembly.” It’s currently on display at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. 

Pearsall has also written two other books—Trouble Don’t Last and Jump Into The Sky. Both have been strongly reviewed on Publishers Weekly and Booklist, looking like great reads. Trouble Don’t Last won the Scott O’Dell Award for Historical Fiction in 2003. 

I would rate this book a ten out of ten and recommend it to anyone who loves to see the power of one mistake turned into something unimaginable. 

Piper

Yearling, 288 pages


The Way We Fall by Megan Crewe

January 27, 2017

It all starts when a deadly disease sweeps across sixteen-year-old Kaelyn’s island  after her best friend leaves for school on the main land without saying goodbye. It seems that there is no chance of survival for anyone, especially when the government quarantines the island. Soon protests start to fill the usually-bare streets, spreading sickness through the whole town.

Leaving few healthy, it’s up to Kaelyn, her dad, and a group of new friends to find a cure. As the hunt for the cure continues, the disease spreads, putting the hopeful heroes at risk. These determined teenagers must use their knowledge of survival to save the human race, even while their own lives are in danger due to the contagion.

This novel by Megan Crewe is split into different sections as the characters enter each phase of their journey, written by Kaelyn as journal entries. Within those phases the chapters go by days, making it easy to follow the progress—and—problems that Kaelyn faces.

From the first page I was sucked in. Obviously most teenagers don’t need to find a cure to save the human race, but I found Kaelyn easy to relate to her personal problems. Right before the disease hits, her best friend has left without a goodbye to attend her dream school, and throughout the book  Crewe incorporates letters written to her from Kaelyn. Another problem  Kaelyn is forced to face is that her older brother is never around to help her care for their home and quarantined mother, while her dad spends days and nights on end at the hospital caring for the diseased.

In The Way We Fall Crewe layers theme deep inside every problem Kaelyn faces. Some themes that emerge are based around family and the importance of life and love. But as the plot thickens, Kaelyn is forced to face the harshness of reality and must consider how to cope with death and anger. One of the main themes I found was is learning to forget everything bad you have ever done in the past and focus on the now.

The Way We Fall is the first book in the Fallen World: a series of four books that follows Kaelyn and her journey to stop the lethal disease.

I would recommend this novel to anyone who loves compelling stories about dedication, loss, and adventure—but also anybody who is into contemporary realistic fiction and wants to try something more dystopian. However, even if you’re not into those genres and themes, I would tell anyone that The Way We Fall is a must read. Crewe included so much character development it feels like I grew up with Kaelyn and her friends and family.You will definitely not regret trying this amazing book.

This story reveals how Kaelyn reacted when she was put up to the test of saving the human race. But what would you do if everyone’s life was on the line and you were the only one who could save them?

Katie

Hyperion, 309 pages


Peak by Roland Smith

February 11, 2016

PeakWhen Peak is arrested for scaling skyscrapers at the age of fourteen, he is given a choice: go to juvenile detention, or go live in Taiwan with a  father that he hasn’t seen in five years. He chooses his dad. Together they fly to Taiwan, and when they get there Josh (Peak calls his dad by his first name) sends his son to take fitness and blood tests. But why? He finds out a week later when he flies to Nepal, and together they start climbing the north side of Mt. Everest. Peak must push on to get home safely to his mom and sisters.

Peak is amazing, realistic mountaineering fiction, and I couldn’t put it down. Roland Smith hooks his audience at the lead with a basic intro. By not introducing his family yet with a first person narrative, readers can get a picture of what it is like to climb Everest—and for Peak it is how he needs to get through his struggles  to see his family again. But Peak meets a lot of people who are threatening his climb and threatening his climbing partners—technically they aren’t supposed to be climbing past camp three. Not only does Peak need to come home safely, he needs to reach the summit before his fifteenth birthday in order to be the youngest person to summit Everest.

Peak is reliable narrator, which is a good choice because there are other aspects of the story that are hard to understand, so Smith makes him explain. For example, Peak tells readers what the different equipment is, and he describes how they use it. For example, a climber needs crampons (sharp metal picks that you attach to your boots) on snow and ice. Because of this great narration I could get a full picture of what it is like on Everest, so I definitely rated this book a ten.

I recommend this story for boys and girls who like realistic novels about survival. Also this book has a sequel called Edge. Both of these amazing tales are must-reads.

Emma
Harcourt Books, 246 pages


Love that Dog, by Sharon Creech

January 21, 2015

1The astounding book Love that Dog —as I like to call it, Sharon Creech’s best—is a free-verse novel with a lot to tell. Ten-year-old Jack hates poetry. His teacher tries to get him to like it, but he doesn’t want anything to do with it. This story, which is told through free-verse poems itself, has a lot of great diction, thoughts, and feelings.

From first poem I read, I couldn’t put the book down. It was so intriguing. A little bit of literature can go a long way for a reader who loves to read free-verse novels. I would recommend this to girls and boys of the age of ten and up.

Love that Dog is a one-hundred page book, but I easily finished it in about two to three days. The plot stuck with me the entire time. One of the parts I loved is when Jack really starts to realize something that no one knows except for him… But that is something you will have to read to find out.

This book is full of amazing character personalities, unforgettable poems, and work by other poets like William Carlos Williams, Robert Frost, William Blake, Valerie Worth, Arnold Adoff, S. C. Rigg, and Walter Dean Myers, that takes you right into the story.

I mostly read action-adventure or mystery, but after looking for books in our school’s library I decided to change it up and read something else. I’m glad I took a chance with this book because otherwise I never would have discovered my love for free-verse novels.

One of the aspects of this book that I didn’t like was how the famous poets’ works were at the end of the book instead of scattered throughout. I didn’t know what Jack was talking about when he referenced the poems, so I had to go into the back of the book and read them, then read the whole book. I would recommend a second book by Creech: Hate that Cat. It also has a compelling plot line and features all the same characters.

Emma

Harper Collins Publishers, 128 pages


I Was Here, by Gayle Forman

18879761When Cody’s best friend Megan unexpectedly kills herself while at college, Cody departs on a wild adventure to uncover why Meg would take such a drastic step. On the way, Cody meets many of Meg’s friends, including Ben McCallister, who may have been Meg’s boyfriend. Cody becomes suspicious of Ben while accidentally falling for him. They embark on several road trips and meet weird people who might have convinced Meg to kill herself.

The big idea of this book is losing someone very special to you and the pain going through that experience. There is a lot of dialogue in this read, including disagreements, happy talks, and sad moments all of which are entertaining to read.

The main character, Cody, is at college in her hometown when she gets an email saying that Meg is sorry but she had to do this. Nonetheless Cody loves her best friend and is heartbroken when the event occurs. She gets through it well but is still sad. The characters are easy to relate with if you have lost someone special. Readers will go through the death of Meg with all the characters and understand their thoughts about everything that occurs.

I rated this book a nine out of ten. Forman wrote the book well with very strong visuals so that the reader can see a movie in his or her head while reading.

With her intriguing theme and well-pieced-together characters that will make you want to read on, this book is easily read in two to three nights.

The genre of this novel is contemporary realistic fiction. If you loved Forman’s If I Stay and Where She Went you will be a fan of this book. I would recommend this book to readers thirteen and up. I think females would enjoy this read much more than males. I wouldn’t be surprised if a movie of the book were filmed. Be sure to read the book first!

Jolie

VIKING, 288 pages


Barefoot Gen, by Keiji Nakazawa

February 8, 2012

I loved this amazing book, Barefoot Gen by Keiji Nakazawa. It’s a graphic novel about a city in Japan called Hiroshima, during World War II, when the U.S. dropped two atomic bombs on Japan to end the war. This story is about a young boy named Gen and his family and how they deal with the nuclear annihilation.

I think Barefoot Gen was as graphic novel because not only can we read the visuals, thoughts and feelings, and actions, from the character’s perspectives, but we can look at the  great, descriptive drawings. These allowed me to see everything at a completely different level than if it was prose. They’re also a reason I rated this book a ten out of ten.

Barefoot Gen is a book with many important themes: survival, death, and the importance of family. But it’s also about having courage and faith in yourself and realizing that no matter how bad a situation is, we have to deal with it and make the best of it.

This was a very quick read for me, because there was always one exciting thing after another and it kept me guessing on the future of the book, both plot and character wise. The lead was not what I expected, because the actual attack happens near the end, there are two sequels that describe the aftermath of the bombing.

I would recommend Barefoot Gen to anyone who likes a fast-paced read, along with an adventure, along with a true but horrific story about this famous event.

Nathaniel

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Dark Places, by Gillian Flynn

July 7, 2010

FlynnThis book is about Libby Day, whose family was brutally murdered, supposedly, by her brother Ben Day, who nobody really knows much about.  The book is set thirty years later when Libby is thirty-seven and is about her trying to prove that her brother is not guilty. It skips back and forth from between when she is seven and thirty-seven. I would definitely rate this book a ten because it didn’t give any hints about who committed the murder and made the reader wait anxiously to the end.  Other titles by her are Sharp Objects which has gotten good reviews and has a praise section on the back of Dark Places and they were all great.  This book left me feeling satisfied that I found out how the family was killed, who did it, and why.

It is written in first person and it works effectively because you need flashbacks to understand how life was before the murders, like almost every other chapter is a flashback along with the time, date, and the point of view.  I think it works because it does show how the family was run.

This book is jam-packed, and if you skip, you will miss something and won’t understand the ending, which is one of my favorites.  You must pay attention to descriptive parts because they have lots of clues like when she first met Lyle Werth.  I skipped that part and had to go back, so be careful and don’t skim.  If you find yourself skimming, stop reading this book, because it is very dense.  I would say that she writes like a realistic J.R.R. Tolkien because it was so jam-packed with information yet the genres are very different.  J.R.R. Tolkien writes fantasy but their books are both very dense with many characters that get mixed up and you have to read a lot a night to remember them all, or have a very good memory.

This book is appropriate for 6th grade and up because of strong language, violence, and boy/girl stuff.  I would not recommend this to anyone that is under twelve because they just won’t understand it and will not enjoy the true concept of the book, which is more than just finding the killer.

Wallace

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The House of the Scorpion, by Nancy Farmer

May 6, 2010

scorpionMateo Alacran, known as El Patron, rules a small stretch of poppy fields between United States and Mexico, the futuristic country of Opium.  In Opium, things are run far different from anywhere else.  El Patron, a drug lord, is selfish and cruel because anything that he possesses, becomes his forever.  Whether the possession is a person or a useless object, it will remain his to the grave.  In Nancy Farmer’s future, clones are considered to be scum, lower than animals, and are not welcome anywhere because when a clone is made its brain is damaged forever because of the crude law.  Matteo’s life is saved, and he is forced to set out to live as normally he can while being a clone.

Mateo Alacran, the clone of El Patron, is forced to live his life in Opium where he is ignored, hated, and shunned by everyone except for his “father,” El Patron, his adopted mother Celia, and trusty bodyguard Tam Lin.  The only reason Mat is not banned or enslaved from Opium is because of El Patron’s orders to protect Mat.  But how long will those orders stay true?  Mat is confused why clones are hated and determined to find his destiny.  Can Mat survive in a place where he is hated?  Is their a place where he will be accepted as a normal boy, or is he destined to live his life forever thought of as a dirty clone?  Why does he exist in the first place?

Nancy Farmer does an amazing job of creating a problem so intriguing that you are forced to read on.  She adds the thoughts and feelings of Mat and great description of Opium and its rules.  The people of Opium are so different from our world now that you have to pay close attention to everything that happens or you will be lost.

I highly recommend this book to everyone who enjoys action, suspense, and mystery because you will love figuring out the purpose of Mat’s existence alongside of him.  For example, when Mat sees a brain damaged clone, he wonders how he can be a clone too and thoughts cloud his brain.  You experience all his thoughts and clues to solving the mystery with him.  Nancy Farmer creates such a crude and unfair future with many twists and turns you will be intrigued to read more and won’t be able to put this book down until Mat is safe along with the people of Opium and the rest of this future world.  In this amazing book, Nancy Farmer teaches about friendship, loyalty, and what it means to risk everything to right the wrongs of the world even if you’re only a clone, powerless and never meant to be.

Eloise

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