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

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The Mountain calls.

61fvtvw74elThe Honest Truth, by Dan Gemeinhart (2015)

Opening Line: “The mountain was calling me.”

I mean, I get it. One of the best things about my new living situation is that when I turn a corner I might get surprised by a sudden mountain view. And the mountain this opening line is specifically about, Mt. Rainier, is particularly noteworthy. I vividly remember the time my family went on perhaps the greatest roadtrip vacation ever, along the northern west coast, and had been at Mt. Rainier National Park all day without seeing the actual mountain because of clouds, and then, on our way out, we came around a bend and THERE IT WAS IN ALL ITS MAGICAL GLORY.

rainier

I mean, you see those “mountains” down at the bottom? That’s what we thought were the mountains before this bad boy came into view.

So, I get it. The mountain calls to me too. Not that I’m going to try to climb it, like Mark does in The Honest Truth.

Mark is a normal kid. As normal as a kid who has been through multiple cancer treatments, beating the odds, can be. But now the cancer is back. And Mark is out of options.

More than anything, Mark wants to follow his grandfather’s dreams of climbing Mt. Rainier, but he knows his parents will never let him with his current diagnosis. And so, he sets off on his own, with just his beloved dog Beau, telling no one — with the exception of leaving a secret haiku for his best friend Jess.

While Jess struggles with whether to tell Mark’s parents where she’s pretty sure he went, Mark journeys across state lines with little Beau. Despite his well-orchestrated plans, things go awry, and the trip is much more difficult than Mark imagined. Still, his determination will stop at nothing to reach the summit.

This story is raw and honest and the reader feels the desperation Mark feels along the way. If you have readers like I do that “want something that’s going to make me cry”, suggest this. You will never feel sorry for Mark, but you will definitely feel for him (and bff Jess, unsure of what she should do to save her friend).

All heart, this one. 2 stars.

 

A beautiful surprise

51fb-u69shlBehind the Beautiful Forevers, by Katherine Boo (2012)

Opening line: “Let it keep, the moment when Officer Fish Lips met Abdul in the police station.”

This one was tough. It took me like 6 months to read, because I could only take so much at a time. And I was just reading it. It’s unimaginable to be living it. But this incredibly researched piece of stunning non-fiction absolutely deserves it’s National Book Award (and the four other awards it won).

Author Katherine Boo married into Indian culture and became fascinated by the startling clash of affluence so close to extreme poverty that she saw in Mumbai, particularly in the Annawadi slum on the other side of the road from the Mumbai airport. For years, Katherine spent her days among the residents of this slum, chronicling their struggles and successes, their joys and pain, their complications and hopes. While obviously life in the Annawadi slum is horrendously difficult, what this book does so well is show us privileged white Americans that that’s not all it is. Katherine profiles several Annawadian families over these 250 pages, including a family with a productive garbage picking business, a young woman who hopes to become the first female college graduate from Annawadi, and her mother who plans on taking on the roll of the “slum-lord” of the community. It’s not about feeling sorry for these people. It’s about seeing their strength in spite of and because of their surroundings. It’s about noticing their humanity, recognizing pieces of them that are in all of us. It’s about realizing our complicity in creating a world where realities like these exist.

That’s not even to mention her writing, which is SO DAMN FANTASTIC, it’s breathtaking.

Everyone should read this book, but be wary of when. This is not a quick or enjoyable read, so if that’s what you’re looking for, look again. But oh-so-worthwhile.

2.5 star

 

On the heartbeat of middle schoolers

Thing About Jellyfish, by Ali Benjamin (2015)

Opening Line: “A jellyfish, if you watch it long enough, begins to look like a heart beating.”

Suzy is starting 7th grade and everything is different from last year. When she began middle school, she had the best best friend, Franny, and together, they were content to be nothing like the popular girls. But now Franny is dead. And Suzy hasn’t spoken aloud in weeks.

Suzy’s mother told her that Franny drowned at the beach. But Suzy knows that Franny is a wonderful swimmer, and there must be another explanation. After a lonely class trip to the aquarium where Suzy visits the jellyfish exhibit, she has a new hypothesis: Franny was stung by a Irukandjii, a miniature jelly that causes its victims excruciating pain and a distinct feeling of impending doom. And now she just has to prove it.

Structured like a science lab report (background, procedure, results, conclusions, etc.), Suzy tries to keep her life in order, but this heart-breaker of a tale goes way beyond the scientific method. Flashing back and forth between her 6th grade year and current time, we get the story of Suzy and Franny’s dissolving friendship as the girls enter middle school. As a librarian in a middle school, and a former middle school student myself, I could see the honesty and truth represented here. Friendships definitely change in middle school. Figuring out what to do after the death of a friendship can be every bit as difficult as the death of a friend. This is was Ali Benjamin gets so right.

Touching for all of us who have been through this, and cathartic for those who are going through it right now. What a beautiful debut. Can’t wait to see what she does next.

2.5 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

Middle Grade Fiction…telling me about another disease I really don’t want to get

The Great Trouble: A Mystery of London, The Blue Death, and a Boy Called Eel, by Deborah Hopkinson (2013)

Opening line: “What we now call the Great Trouble began one thick, hot, foul-smelling morning in August.”

As a recent transplant to a new state, I’ve got a new list of reader’s choice award nominees to read. I’d already read about 4 of them, but have a whole slew of others to get through as quickly as possible so that I can start promoting them to students! The Great Trouble was one of the ones available for immediate check out at the public library as soon as I heard I was being considered for a new middle school job, so it was up first!

Orphan Eel is doing his best to take care of himself and his little brother Henry, by doing just about any job he can get, including running errands for the local tailor. But when the tailor gets suddenly and incredibly sick one day, dying the next, Eel senses that finding his next paycheck is the least of his troubles. Soon the entire neighborhood appears to be just pulsing with the illness known to everyone as “The Blue Death”, but known to us today as cholera. In Eel’s desperation, he goes to another one of his employers, Dr. John Snow, to ask for help. Dr. Snow is instantly anxious to help, but not in the way Eel imagines. Instead of providing Eel’s friends with any kind of comfort or medicine, Dr. Snow immediately takes samples from the community well, in his opinion the culprit of the epidemic. Dr. Snow’s opinion is not a popular one — the well has the cleanest and best tasting water in the area, and everyone knows cholera is spread through the air! If Dr. Snow is going to prove otherwise, he’s going to have to act fast, and he’s going to need Eel’s help.

This book is going to be a big hit with kids who like Laurie Halse Anderson’s Fever 1793 (which was a big seller in my school in Illinois…we’ll see if that holds any weight in my new school). Like Anderson does in Fever, Hopkinson expertly blends real historical drama and characters with her created story, making it hard to tell where fiction and fact meet. (I was super impressed by Anderson’s ability to do this, if you remember.) This book also does a great job of exploring the scientific process (answering the “5 W’s” described by Dr. Snow) in a fictional context, reminiscent of Calpurnia Tate. It’s not going to win the South Carolina Junior Book Award, I’m pretty confident, but a good addition to the shelves.

1.5 stars

Go ahead, judge this one by it’s cover.

Lost in the Sun, by Lisa Graff (2015)

Opening line: “When we were real little kids, Mom used to take Aaron and Doug and me to Sal’s Pizzeria for dinner almost every Tuesday, which is when they had their Family Night Special.”

First of all. How gorgeous is this cover? I’m in love with the colors and design. Nice work Andrew Bannecker.

Second of all. The story. Lovely. Heartbreaking. Uplifting. All the good things go into this story. Trent is starting 6th grade, which is hard enough for any kid. But six months ago Trent joined a pick up game of hockey, hit a puck into another kid’s chest (a kid who evidently had a heart condition), and that kid died. While a complete accident, Trent has not been able to forgive himself, and he’s pretty sure no one else has forgiven him either. His former friends are shunning him, his new teachers hate him, and worst of all, his father thinks he’s a waste of space (or so it seems to Trent). It doesn’t help that anytime he picks up a baseball or a basketball or any other piece of sporting equipment, his hands get clammy and he can’t breathe.

Then he meets Fallon Little, the girl with the horrible scar across her face, one that came either from a frisbee hitting her in the noggin, or a lightning bolt striking her, or being attacked by a soulless beast while scuba diving. Depends on which story she’s telling that day. Fallon is unlike anyone Trent has met before, and as much as he tries to dislike her strangeness, he can’t help but notice they way she laughs with her whole body and the way her smile tucks into the edge of her scar. And as much as Fallon jokes away her scar with extravagant storytelling, something happened there, something she doesn’t like to talk about.

This story is packed with wonderful characters and honest emotions, a nearly perfect middle grade novel.

2 stars

Interestingly, it’s a companion novel to Umbrella Summer, which is from the point of view of the younger sister of Jared, this kid killed by the hockey puck. She plays an important role in Trent’s story too, so I’m sure seeing the story from her eyes would be interesting as well. Cover’s not nearly as good though. 🙂