Town Secrets (Shelf Control #7)

town secrets

Title: Town Secrets
By: Scott Gelowitz
Published:  2014
Target:  middle readers

Synopsis (via Goodreads):    A centuries-old organization within the tiny town of Grayson protects many secrets – from unknown scientific discoveries to the truth about the mythical island of Atlantis, along with information that ties it to historical events from around the world, such as the eruption of Mount Vesuvius.

Thirteen-year-old Adam McTaggart and his wise-cracking friends learn some of these secrets and discover that their boring small town is much more exciting than they had always believed it to be. But someone is coming, looking for an ancient power protected by the secret organization, and they are destroying towns as they draw near.

Can Adam and his friends learn all they need in time to protect the biggest secret of all before it’s too late?

How I got it: Free on Bookbub! I love Bookbub.

When I got it:   June 2018

Why I want to read it:  Sounds very “Stranger Things”; group of boys, mysterious town goings on, strange powers etc. It has excellent ratings on GoodReads so I’m curious to see if it holds my attention. And besides, I need a good “boy book” after my misadventures with Warcross and Keeper of the Lost Cities, which I really must review on of these days.

Telling It Like It Is (My Time with Judy Blume)

margaretI often wonder about the censoring that occurs in the schools. Luckily I don’t often encounter it as Canada tends to be quite open-minded but I sure there’s still more than necessary in other countries around the world. Still, as a teacher, I tend to err on the side of caution as what I might think is perfectly fine may present a problem for some parents and families.

I have no idea what rules the schools had when I was young but I don’t remember not being allowed to read something. Then again, I probably wouldn’t know if something was kept away from me. My parents were very liberal when it came to books and as a preteen, I received the Judy Blume boxed set one Christmas.  judy blume box setI had read Are You There God It’s Me, Margaret, which all my friends were talking about, and I was dying to read the rest of her books.  I had no idea that they would shortly become some of the most contested and maligned children’s books to date.

Judy Blume was a pioneer in her time (70’s); writing honest novels for kids and teens, tackling racism, handicaps, death and weight problems as well as puberty and first love. Once the 80’s hit and censorship skyrocketed she faced a constant battle against those who felt her books were inappropriate. She spoke out long and hard against censorship and for a child’s right to knowledge.

I knew none of this, but I did know I was reading about things that no one talked about. And of course I shared the books with my friends and we would have “clandestine meetings” to talk about them.

Are You There God It’s Me Margaret, the first of her novels that we got our hands on, openly discussed bras and periods and questions of friendship. All things we wondered about but never openly talked about. Girls today receive a thorough grounding in all areas of sexual education. Way back in the day though, once we hit grade 5, us girls were taken to watch “the film”, a brief outline of what we could expect when we “became women”. Of course they would encourage us to ask questions, but nobody ever did. The remainder of our sexual education came from Ms. Judy Blume.

then againThen Again Maybe I Won’t gave us an insight into what happens to boys when they hit puberty, something no one ever talked to us girls about. I went on to read (and own) all of Blume’s books, but it’s Forever that I remember most vividly. Forever dealt with first love and losing virginity. The raciest topic yet. I remember passing Forever back and forth during band practice one day when I was in grade 7. One of the older girls had it and was sharing with us. We were hiding it behind our music and pointing out the “good parts” (Have you seen page 113!).  It was about sex and we were pretty sure we weren’t supposed to be reading about sex, so the forbidden fruit attraction was definitely a draw. foreverAs an adult, I now realize what a frank and thoughtful insight that novel is into first love. My twelve year old self just recognized good characters I could root for. In very true-to-life Blume fashion, there was a realistic rather than a happy ending, which I appreciate now.

Fiction reading is an invaluable source of information for children and teens, and well written material should always be celebrated. I applaud Judy Blume for her courage in writing the truth and thank her for playing such a pivotal role in my childhood education.

A Futuristic Puzzler

york

My Second Read from my Shelf Control pile!

It’s great knowing what’s next to be read. You know when you finish a book and you think “now what do I read”? And then you troll through all the books on your Kobo and Kindle trying to remember what each title is about, and more often than not having to look up the summaries again. Having a list makes things so much easier. Who knew?

See my Shelf Control post for the summary.

Why I recommend it:

This book is presented as a Middle Grades read (ie. 9-12). I’ve starting searching through this section of the bookstore more and more as I find the teen reads have been taken over by the must-have romance. Even with a good premise, there always got to be a romance. Granted, I loved romance in a book when I was a teen but now I find it more than annoying, especially if it takes over the plot or makes the main character act like an idiot. But I digress.

With York Laura Ruby creates wonderful characters in Tess, Theo and Jaime. I found them very relatable and was never jarred from the story with a stilted or out-of-character comment. I was surprised by how much I liked Tess. I don’t usually like female leads but she was age appropriate and sufficiently “feisty”. I’m wondering if the fact that she was part of a brother/sister team made her more likable. That sibling dynamic often keeps the characters real. I found Land of Stories to be similar in that respect.

The plot moved quickly and it was fascinating to see this new version of New York. I loved the idea of having to solve a puzzle. I’m a sucker for a good puzzle. I also liked the idea of the puzzle being passed down through the years, going unsolved, much like Ready Player One. Yes, definitely some parallels to other novels but effective and without being blatant.

York is the first in the The Shadow Cipher series and I can’t wait to get my hands on the next one!

Suitable for ages 8 and above. This is firmly a 9-12 novel, written to that level, but as I said, I’ve been finding recently that many great stories (without the annoying romance) can be found here. You may want to read it with your kids, but I guarantee you’ll be reading ahead when they’re not looking

In Other Lands – (Shelf Control #2)

in other landsTitle: In Other Lands
By: Sarah Rees Brennan
Published: 2017
Target:  10+

Synopsis (via Goodreads):  

The Borderlands aren’t like anywhere else. Don’t try to smuggle a phone or any other piece of technology over the wall that marks the Border—unless you enjoy a fireworks display in your backpack. (Ballpoint pens are okay.) There are elves, harpies, and—best of all as far as Elliot is concerned—mermaids.

Elliot? Who’s Elliot? Elliot is thirteen years old. He’s smart and just a tiny bit obnoxious. Sometimes more than a tiny bit. When his class goes on a field trip and he can see a wall that no one else can see, he is given the chance to go to school in the Borderlands.

How I got it:   As I started compiling my To Be Read list last month, I realized that I had several books by Sarah Rees Brennan still to read.  I’ve been reading Brennan’s work since she was sixteen and am a huge fan but I’ve fallen behind and out of touch.  So I went to find out what she’s been up to lately.  I was shocked to learn of her recent health issues but relieved and delighted to find she still has her rapier wit and a new book out.  I had to buy it immediately.  Books by Sarah Rees Brennan are exempt from the Book Buying Moratorium.

When I got it:   December 2017

Why I want to read it:  Sarah Rees Brennan is the only writer who has ever made me spontaneously laugh out loud when I was reading her work.  She creates original characters with personalities that just leap off the page.  While I have yet to read her last series (maybe it’s the female lead that’s putting me off?), I am excited to start this one.

Down in Sweet Valley

sweet valleyA little while ago I posted about my Romance phase, a time when I was reading a book every two days, Harlequin, Silouette, everything I could get my hands on. It was during this time I latched onto Jessica and Elizabeth, the Wakefield Twins of Sweet Valley fame. Jessica and Liz are the sixteen year old, blond, blue-eyed Californians at the centre of Francine Pascal’s Sweet Valley High series, a teen soap opera in the basest of terms. Now that I think back on that time, it’s not surprising that I became hooked on the twin’s story, as I was also hooked on the daytime TV soaps (Guiding Light, As the World Turns, Another World).

In typical twin fashion, Liz is the studious good girl and Jessica is the good times- bad girl. Liz is always getting Jess out of trouble as she flits from boy to boy determined to maintain her popularity. Of course I related to Liz, studious good girl who lives vicariously through her sister (in my case it was my social butterfly brother). There was the hot older brother (tall, dark and handsome of course), the mousy best friend (Enid), the rich bitch (Lila) and the sporty faithful boyfriend (Todd) going through teen angst together. So much fun.

When I started the series, I had no idea what I was in for. I bought every one that came out and devoured them the same day, but it wasn’t long before the pace of release entered what I like to call The James Patterson realm; every time I turned around there was another one. They were breeding at an alarming rate and establishing new species (aka series) as they went.

 

Soon there was Sweet Valley Senior Year, Sweet Valley Kids, Sweet Valley Twins, Sweet Valley Junior Year not to mention Thrillers and Special Editions. I couldn’t understand how Pascal managed to churn out so many books so quickly. Little did I know she was another Caroline Keene. Just as the Nancy Drew “author” was really a series of ghostwriters, so was Francine Pascal. I think she conceived the original ideas then turned them over to an army of writers. I couldn’t keep up and at around book 50 threw in the towel. I did keep buying the thrillers and special editions but even those got to be too much. For a while I followed Sweet Valley University because I wanted to see what they were up to as adults but lost interest around the same time I lost interest in the main series

confidentialApparently there are a couple of books that are set when the twins are out of school (Sweet Valley Confidential and The Sweet Life) but I haven’t read them. Oh, and manga versions of course! I had no idea that the series kept going for 20 years, finally ending with a total of 603 books. (I’m not going near the four season TV show!)

Unlike most of my childhood book loves, I have never reread any of the Sweet Valley books. Might be interesting to see how well the series has held up over time. Even more interesting to see how my cynical self would find them now. Seems others had the same thought. There are many blogs out there recapping/rereading/reviewing the series. You really must check out the fantastically funny Snark Valley, and MentalFloss’ list of the most crazy plotlines, all of which happened after I stopped reading and prove that I made a good decision.

Still a big chunk of my teen years and very representative, in my humble opinion, of the American 80’s “ideal”.

So, any favourite memories of the Sweet Valley books? Favourite characters or plotlines? Who did you identify with? Leave a comment and tell me who was your guilty crush and I may just tell you mine J

What if it was you?

5-12-Esperanza-Rising1With what’s happening in the US right now in regards to immigrants and immigrant rights, I was reminded of a wonderful story I read for one of my Masters courses.

Esperanza Rising by Pam Muñoz Ryan is a story of drastic change and the necessity of adaptation.  It’s a story of extreme racism and stereotypes.  Our heroine, Esperanza is forced to flee Mexico with her family.  She has been exceeding wealthy all her life but suddenly she finds herself on the outside looking in.  She is now one of the poor she used to judge. The novel opens our eyes to the hopes and dreams of those who came to the “new world”, looking for a better life.  For some, like Esperanza, it is to escape from possible hardship and even death.  This book really makes you think and question but it is not a difficult read.  A straightforward story with a wonderful reflection on how we treat others.

I not sure what the answers are regarding immigration, but I do know that I’m an immigrant and Canada has gifted me with a wonderful life in a beautiful country.  While I understand the need to protect citizen’s rights, I sometimes think we lose sight of exactly how privileged we are.  How can we deny basic freedoms to others if we have the capacity to provide them?  Just as Esperanza discovered, we should be careful because who knows?  One day it could be us.

Ages: 10 and up            Rating:   4 stars

 

 

The Wonders of Auggie

Wonder_Cover_Art Wonder was recommended to me by a young friend who really enjoyed it and thought I might too. Being the highly intuitive young man that he is, I knew better than to doubt him and downloaded it immediately. Wonder is the story of August, a ten-year-old boy who has been home-schooled his whole life. It’s not like he doesn’t have friends, or is behind intellectually, but still his parents have decided it’s time to go to school. Begin with all the other new kids entering middle school in grade 5. August is adamant about not going. You see, August has what he calls mandibulofacial dysostosis, which, as I read the description, sounded a lot like Treacher Collins syndrome, a rare condition characterized by severe facial deformity. Really he’s just an ordinary ten-year-old but few tend to work their way past the surface to find that out. Auggie’s used to the glances, the second looks, the looking away when people don’t know what to say. Middle school is hard enough as it is without looking different. After meeting the principal and touring the school, Auggie decides to go, beginning a journey that is both touching and inspiring.

What I loved most about this book is that it’s told from a variety of viewpoints. The first section is from Auggie’s point of view, then the same incidents are reviewed and the story is continued from his sister’s point of view. We then hear the story of Auggie’s journey through the first year of middle school from a continuing succession of his classmates and even his sister’s boyfriend, before returning to Auggie. The reader views the same incident from two or three view points, an invaluable lesson for many children as they learn to think outside of themselves.  Also, the author never loses sight of the characters’ voice. I could see and hear these children telling their story; the slang was right, the vocabulary was right, and the actions and uncertainties rang true.

Wonder is a exceptional story from start to finish. One of the most valuable lessons we can pass on to the next generation is to see through another’s eyes; feel what another is feeling and try to understand the reasons for another’s actions and reactions.

Not only does Wonder make us think, and hopefully make our children think, it’s also an enjoyable read. Never did I feel as if I was being preached at, which is what put it over the top for me because, trust me, kids know when they are being preached at.

Ages: 8-12              Rating: 5 stars

 

I Miss Terry Pratchett

The_Amazing_Maurice_and_his_Educated_RodentsSo I’ve had cats as far back as I can remember. I was a little girl who loved cats and now I’m a big girl who loves cats.  As a big girl who loves cats I became enamoured with Terry Prachett’s The Amazing Maurice and his Educated Rodents. It’s definitely one I would have read in my teen years had it been released 20 years earlier.  I love this book so much I centred one of my Masters papers around it; as a stunning version of the Pied Piper story.

Maurice is a brilliant cat who has a human patsy, his front really. He also has a group of mice in his employ. Using both resources he sets up a scam to send in the rats to invade a town and then have his human ride to the rescue offering to get rid of the rats; for a fee of course. This is a brilliant story told with Terry Pratchett’s usual snarky voice.  I miss it and him.

hotel catAs a little girl who loves cats, my passion was once again manifested, as most of my passions were, in the books I read. In grade 3 I took a book out of the library called The Hotel Cat by Esther Averill. It’s the story of Tom who wins himself the job of Hotel Cat because he’s such a good mouser. There Jenny, the black cat who wore a red scarf and Checkers and Pickles the Firehouse cat. Together they formed the Cat Club. They looked after each other and made plans for the Stardust (?) Ball.

I loved this book so much I kept in my desk so I could read it over and over again. I can’t remember if I renewed the book or just pretended it was lost, but I know I kept it in my desk for a long time. I thought it would be pretty cool to be like Mrs. Wilkins, an elder resident who could communicate with cats. Not the elderly part the communicating part.

There’s been some great cats in book history but I don’t remember many particular cats owning their own books like Tom and Maurice. The Cat in the Hat maybe. Tao from The Incredible Journey?  Crookshanks and Mrs. Norris from Harry Potter are great characters but supporting characters at best. warriorsI did discover, however, a series called the Warriors, the story of four clans of wild cats, which appears to be very popular with my middle school girls. It a series written by a group of authors under the name Erin Hunter (a la Nancy Drew). I’ve read the first few books and thoroughly enjoyed them. My students tell me there are many more though. They’re right. This series is a monster. Thirty-four books in the core series (and counting) with additional manga and e-book versions to add additional detail should you require it. I don’t think I’m quite up to that many.

Any cat-centric chapter books you remember? I’d love to know what else I might be forgetting.

The Horsey Phase

IMG_3049

The beginning (cover from 1974)

I wonder if every young girl goes through a horsey phase.  So many of my students (all girls) are horse crazy so it’s possibly not a generational thing. My horsey phase was around the age of 11 and involved every horsey book I could get my hands on.

One I managed to get my hands on (although I’m not sure where from) was A Stable For Jill by Ruby Ferguson. I read it over and over (and over) again.  It’s the story of a simple British girl growing up in the 1950’s whose life is centred around horses and the horsey world. Her mother is a children’s book writer and travels often so Jill tends to have a lot of freedom. As I was only 10, I didn’t really wonder where her parental supervision might be. In A Stable for Jill, Jill’s mother goes on a book tour of the United States and Jill is forced to spend the summer with her aunt and cousin, who are as far from horsey people as it’s possible to get. Jill resigns herself to a miserable summer without her pony, Black Boy, yet it only takes her a few days to make friends with the local vicarage children who are decidedly horsey people and the summer starts to look up.

What I love about Jill is that she’s full of ideas, hard-working and down to earth. The vicarage children are about to lose their horse, Ballerina, so Jill helps them start a riding stable so Ballerina can earn her own keep. As a ten year old I found Jill inspiring. Forty years later I still find her inspiring.

I loved reading about competitions and hunting, about grooming horses and pony treks. I was desperate for more Jill. I wanted to know how she had found Black Boy. The library had three of the other books in the series. Strangely enough they were books 4, 7 and 9. The internet didn’t exist and I had to guess at events in the other books. Until Santa bought me the complete set one wonderful Christmas. I think Santa has connections in England.

I’ve been having fun doing a bit of research about the treasured books from my childhood; and find it interesting how some of them have been “updated”. Jill’s pony, Black Boy was renamed Danny Boy in later editions, and of course all references to cigarette smoking had to be removed.   I’m not a fan of changes to original fiction, as I think a book should be experienced as an author originally intended. Books are a snapshot of their times just as painting music, yet there seems to be this constant worry of offending; but I digress. Definitely a post for anther day.

I immersed myself in all things horses from the ages of 11 to 13. I took lessons, went to summer camp and of course read everything I could get my hands. If only The Pony Book Encyclopedia had been around at the time. I probably would have worked my way through it from top to bottom.

So, am I crazy, or is there generally a horsey phase somewhere in every girl’s childhood.

Happy Anniversary Harry

harryYes I know I’m a bit late.  I was completely convinced that the 20th anniversary of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone was July 17th. As a devoted Potter fan, I knew I had to commemorate the anniversary in some way so I sat down to write only to realize that June 26th was the anniversary date. Totally missed it! I think July 17th was the release of Deathly Hallows; definitely a memorable occasion for me, so I see where that came from but still annoyed at myself for missing it. Twenty years! I can’t believe it’s been twenty years. Where did that go? Anyway, better late than never I guess.

Every Harry Potter fan has their “I remember when” story I’m sure. You know, “I remember how/why/when I discovered the series”? And sorry, but I don’t count the films. I’m a purist. The films are a whole other world and a whole different set of stories. Really, the film Prisoner of Azkaban completely glosses over the Marauders, which is definitely what made that book so great. What I find sad now is that it’s not easy for Harry Potter newbies to discover the books without being influenced by the merchandising juggernaut that is Warner Brothers.

While I would like to say that I picked up Philosopher’s Stone in 1997 and waited in anticipation for the next installment, it wasn’t until 2000 that I actually discovered Harry and the magical world. Still it was before the first movie came out, so I had my own visions of the characters and Hogwarts rather than those Warner Brothers created for us.

gobletIt was my boss who introduced me to the series, however unintentionally. He sent me in search of the Goblet of Fire for his son who was demanding to read it. My boss, never one to deny his son, set me on the hunt for the sold out book, which had only been released a week ago. Keep in mind now, that this was the infancy of the internet and a time when “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” carried some credence. I hadn’t heard of the boy wizard at that point, but a bit of research piqued my curiosity as I was having a devil of a time finding a copy. Once I tracked it to an independent bookseller in Toronto, I found myself reserving two copies and hoofing it down there to pick them up. Of course I also had to get the first three books as I couldn’t read the fourth one first. So, successful in my search, I presented boss’ son with his copy of Goblet of Fire and said “we can read it together”. Ha, fat chance. I was finished all four books inside of five days. He was still only half way through Goblet. Yep, I was hooked.

I believe the true success of the Harry Potter series is a result of a combination of things. Yes, it’s a great story which I thoroughly enjoy (over and over and over again) but it also benefited from the “right place right time” phenomenon. The internet was in its infancy. Smart phones and iPads did not exist; even the iPod hadn’t been released yet. There were no social media sites and people were just discovering a whole new world of others with the same interest. The fandom was born and grew on a young internet. People could come together for the first time (anonymously for the most part) and immerse themselves in a whole new world. People from all over the world could talk about the books and play in the magical world while they waited for Order of the Phoenix to be released (three years it took!!). Somewhere in there the films came out but they were a blip in the already rabid book fandom.

The Harry Potter phenomenon as it’s been called won’t happen again as our world has changed far too much in the past 17 years. Everything so frantic and fragmented now as we are bombarded daily by tweets here and notifications there. Really it’s a talent just to keep up!

I still amazes me that it’s been ten years since the release of Deathly Hallows. Ten years. I miss Harry, and I miss the anticipation of the next installment in his story. We know how it all turns out now. His story is over and ten years later it’s still hard to accept that we have said goodbye to these characters.

Yes, twenty years have passed since the boy wizard began to take the world by storm and J.K. Rowling went from welfare mum to a woman richer than the queen. An incredible story for both of them.

Happy Anniversary. You’ve both definitely made your mark in history.