My first challenge?

The 13th Floor, by Scott R. Welvaert (2015) 414c4elowpl-_sx349_bo1204203200_

Opening line: “Sam Wentworth hated moving.”

I brought this one home to read after an angry parent threatened to call the district office yesterday. Fortunately, I had no part of that conversation (the school psychiatrist brought it to my attention, and he was just lovely about it), but I’m holding my breath to see if it will develop into anything. The book is part of the Tartan House series, and I bought it last year when trying to build up the hi/lo collection of our library. And on that note, it fulfills its goal entirely. Rated at a 4th-5th grade reading level with fewer than 100 pages, this one is definitely high interest, especially for kids who are gamers or like watching gory movies.  It captured my attention, and I flew through it in under an hour.

Sam is new at school and falls in with the popular kids over their mutual love of video games. When one of the guys gets a bootlegged copy of The 13th Floor game (which is evidently banned in the US), they all become so immersed, they can’t escape, and it begins to take over their lives. The game IS really gory. Set in an abandoned insane asylum, there are blood and guts everywhere. I can understand the parent’s disgust. However, it does exactly what it set out to do, which is engage reluctant readers to keep flipping the pages. I don’t know. I think I could argue its merit if this actually becomes a challenge, but we shall see. Sigh…and just over a week until Banned Books Week…

Oh, did I mention that the moral of the story is anti-bullying? It was a little heavy-handed, but I guess another point in my anti-censorship campaign.

1 star

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Horror in the Hollywood Hills

41qdvcova2l Famous Last Words, by Katie Alender (2014)

Opening line: “Nothing glittered.”

Hollywood isn’t quite like Willa was expecting. She and her mom have recently moved across the country to live with her new movie-producer stepfather, Jonathan, deep in the Hollywood Hills. In fact, Jonathan’s mansion was once home to another Hollywood hit, late actress Diana Del Mar, whose death may or may not have happened at home. Shortly after arriving in Tinseltown, Jonathan warns Willa about a recent murder, the fourth in a line of serial killings of young actresses. But since Willa isn’t an actress, no problem, right?

In the meantime, Willa’s been dabbling in some paranormal activity. Two years ago her father died after a sudden heart attack, one Willa is pretty sure she brought on. Since then, she’s been trying to contact her father to apologize. So far, she hasn’t been able to reach him, but when strange things start happening at the Del Mar Mansion, she begins to think she may have made contact with someone else. Someone who is trying to tell her something. Someone who knows something about the Hollywood Killer.

This is not something I would usually pick up. But it’s another SC Junior Book Award nominee, and one that I’ve had three students recently tell me was “SO GOOD, MRS. PATAKY.” While I probably wouldn’t use all caps in my description, I can understand why they would. Let’s just say I only read this one at night one time, because it LITERALLY KEPT ME AWAKE THE ENTIRE NIGHT even when I put it down after about 100 pages. (School was rough the next day, ya’ll.) Although there’s nothing particularly gruesome or “too-scary-for-middle-school,” I was so creeped out by this almost the entire time. Let’s be honest, my scare threshold is pretty low (the last horror movie I watched was a good 6 years ago), but I feel like what Alender does, she does well. In very cinematic scenes, the reader is there with Willa in her terror. I seem to be in to paranormal mysteries lately (see: The Screaming Staircase, The Diviners, The Name of the Star, all of which I loved), which seems strange to me. If someone asks me what genre I like to read, I usually say historical fiction, or dystopias, or fantasy. But never paranormal mystery. Here’s to branching out, exploring and getting hooked on new genres. May your reading life never get stale!

Creepy, engrossing, although without much depth. Great to hand to that constant barrage of students who want “something scary.” 1.5 stars

X for eXcellent

I Am Princess X, by Cherie Priest (2015)

Opening line: “Libby Deaton and May Harper invented Princess X in fifth grade, when Libby’s leg was in a cast, and May had a doctor’s note saying she couldn’t run around the track anymore because her asthma would totally kill her.”

As this opening line tells us, when they were kids, best friends Libby and May created a princess. But this princess was not the kind to wait in the top of a tower or sing sweetly with birds and squirrels. She was the kind to kick ass and take names, while wearing red high tops. Libby drew the pictures, May wrote the stories, and their princess, Princess X kept them busy for years. Until one night when Libby and her mom accidentally drove off the side of a bridge and died, taking May’s heart with them.

Years later, May is back in Seattle temporarily living with her father (after her parents’ divorce), still lonely after her best friend’s death, when one day she notices a sticker on the side of a building. And the girl on the sticker looks startlingly like Princess X.

May takes to the internet, desperate to find some answers, and she finds a webcomic that’s been going for a long time, filled with drawings just like Libby made them. The story is different though. The story tells of a framed car accident, a man with a gun, and a captured girl held hostage. And May can’t shake the feeling that the artist of this webcomic must be Libby.

I really loved this one, guys. There’s a lot going on here (comics, best friends, mystery, thriller, hidden identities), but it all ties in seamlessly. Like May, I found myself compelled to figure out what was going on. I hoped with her and despaired with her and had to keep reading (listening) until all the questions were answered. I’ll admit, the ending was a little too dramatic for my tastes, but overall, it did a lot of things right. I will definitely be talking this one up to my students.

2 stars

 

From Death Eaters to Death Investigators

The Cuckoo’s Calling, by Robert Galbaith (2013)

Opening Line: “The buzz in the streets was like the humming of flies.”

I don’t read mystery thrillers too often (at least not adult ones), but everyone knows I can’t resist J.K. Rowling (the face behind the Robert Galbraith pen name). And she didn’t disappoint.

The plot revolves around the sudden death of supermodel Lula Landry, who fell from her apartment balcony one freezing winter night in London. Police ruled it a suicide, victim of depression and the wild whirls of fame. But when her brother comes calling at the offices of P.I. Cormoran Strike, he cries murder, and it’ll be up to Strike to prove it.

Strike is the character to pay attention to in this book. He’s the one who’s a mysterious mess, and while Lula’s death is certainly intriguing, she’s dead before the novel begins. We don’t get to know her hardly at all. Instead, we get to know Strike, the wounded veteran with a basically bankrupt detective agency and a woeful end of a love life, who — despite it all — is somehow a character I was instantly drawn to. Add to that, Robin, the assistant he can’t afford to pay, mistakenly sent to him from the temp agency. She’s the smartest and quickest assistant he’s ever had, and although she gets a permanent job offer from a different company before the week is out, she hesitates. Because working for Strike is the most exciting thing she’s done in a long time.

As happens quite a lot with me, this was an audiobook read, so I’m not sure if the clues to the Lula mystery were really there all along or not, but for me this one wrapped up much like an episode of Scooby Doo, with the mask ripped off and Strike explaining to the audience what really happened. To be honest, I kind of liked it that way, but this might be a turn off for some readers. If not, there are already two more Cormoran Strike novels waiting in the wings.

1.5 stars

Things that go bump in the night

What We Saw at Night, by Jacquelyn Mitchard (2013)

Lots of times I listen to audiobooks I might not otherwise read based on what’s available at the time I need something else to listen to. I feel like I’ve really maxed out the audio collection of the public library system I just moved from, but they have a waaay bigger selection than the audio collection of the public library system I moved into, so I have been perusing both (don’t tell). I ran across this title, and it was one I’d never heard of, although I was familiar with the author as that one woman who’s book started that little thing called Oprah’s Book Club. I had no idea she’d written YA though, and the premise sounded interesting enough. You know I’ve been into thrillers lately, and this one sounded creepy.

Allie Kim has Xeroderma Pigmentosum, otherwise known as XP, an allergy to sunlight that makes her life a bit like a vampire’s. Unlike other kids her age, who have curfews of 11pm or midnight, Allie’s curfew is dawn. She must make it home before sunrise, or be subject to blistering skin, drastically increased chance for fatal skin cancer, and/or blindness. Luckily, Allie lives in a small town in Minnesota home to a research and medical facility focusing on XP. Those with this condition flock there, giving her best friends named Rob and Juliet, two more patients at the facility. Juliet’s an athlete, and after her skiing career comes to an end, she convinces Rob and Allie that they have to embrace the night and their lives by taking up Parkour. Parkour, or freerunning, is the discipline of getting from one location to another without letting things like sheer walls or 12 foot gaps get in your way. You may have seen videos on YouTube several years ago. Without the proper training and mindset, it can be incredibly dangerous. Even more so when you do it at night.

On their first real “trace” (the lingo used in Parkour for “run” or “routine” of sorts), the three friends take to the top of a new construction apartment complex, but before they even really get started, Allie sees something horrifying. Through the glass doors of one of the empty apartments, she sees a man standing over a girl who appears to be dead. And then the man looks up and looks straight at Allie.

Being the only one who saw anything, Allie tries to convince herself that what she thinks happened didn’t really happen. But after she starts doing a little solo investigation, things aren’t lining up. And then other things start happening. Like text messages from a blocked number. And a car that tries to run her down. And a door now shut after she left it open. To top it off, Juliet is being super weird. She’s knows more than she’s telling, and Allie starts to wonder if she’s somehow involved.

I was so intrigued by the premise of this story: super spooky (non-supernatural!) thriller, with the added layers of XP, causing the setting to always be darkness. I think I know why I hadn’t heard of it before, though. It was just okay. I mean, I wanted to know what happened, and it was definitely scary at parts, but I just didn’t feel that connected to Allie, Rob, or Juliet. And, (spoiler?) it doesn’t give you all the answers! You’re left wondering, and not in a good way! So frustrating!

So, hem, haw, 1 star.