Author/Illustrator: Raina Telgemeier
Colors: Braden Lamb
My rating: 4.5 of 5
Cat’s family is moving from the warmth and sun of southern California to the fog and chill of the northern coast, specifically a small old town named Bahía de la Luna. The doctors say it will be better for Cat’s little sister Maya there, that the coolness and moisture will make her cystic fibrosis easier to handle. Maybe so, but Cat’s still not happy about the move . . . or about all the ghost legends that seem to be emphasized throughout the town.
I love Raina Telgemeier’s graphic novels; they’re so full of life and fun, yet they deal with real, tough stuff as well. Ghosts is no exception, that’s for sure. It’s a real ghost story, but not so much a scary one. Rather, this book pulls heavily on traditions such as Día de los Muertos in which the spirits of the dead are friendly and welcome instead of haunting and scary. Not that Cat doesn’t have her share of scares along the way to realizing this. Cat’s part of the story is great in that it deals with very real-life fears–change, family illness, and death for a start. Because let’s face it, real life can be every bit as scary as ghosts, maybe even more so. Maya is the perfect balance for Cat’s uncertainty; however ill she may be, she’s full of life and spunk and energy. She’s just a great all-around character who’s lots of fun to read. I also really appreciated that the author chose to discuss cystic fibrosis and all the crazy stuff people who have it must handle on a daily basis. And of course, the art is classic Raina Telgemeier, so lots of fun there–I really loved all the Día de los Muertos influences and scenes in the art. Very cool. So yeah, basically Ghosts is a really great middle-grade graphic novel that I would highly recommend for readers 10 and up (including adults).
Author: Christopher Keene
My rating: 4.5 of 5
Noah and his girlfriend Sue find themselves increasingly concerned and frustrated as they seem to be losing their friends to the new VR game Dream Engine. But when the two are involved in a terrible car crash, Dream Engine becomes Noah’s only link to reality and consciousness as the doctors in the real world work to help him heal. Noah finds himself trapped in an astonishingly realistic virtual reality world–complete with monsters that could kill him in-game and send him into a coma in real life.
I very much enjoyed reading Stuck in the Game. It appeals to the gamer in me, but also to my love of sci-fi and fantasy stories. I know the concept of being trapped in a VR game is not exactly original (think Sword Art Online), but I do think that Keene’s use of the idea was both creatively and interestingly executed. Also, the whole idea of using VR in medicine–cyberpunk, original, and thought-provoking from both a scientific and an ethical standpoint! The balance of game mechanics and descriptions against Noah’s very human plight works. I actually really enjoyed both the characters and the plot; both were quite engaging. I do have to note that this book would be . . . not necessarily inaccessible for non-gamers, but more challenging for them to get into perhaps. The writing style flows well and is easy to follow, however; the writing style has almost the feel of a good-quality light novel. I would definitely recommend Stuck in the Game, especially for gamers and those who love science fiction and fantasy adventures.
Note 1: I received a free review copy of Stuck in the Game from Future House Publishing in exchange for an unbiased review, which in no way affects the contents of this post.
Note 2: You can check out the author’s blog (including more information about this book) at fantasyandanime.wordpress.com.
Author: Ingrid Law
My rating: 4.5 of 5
Savvy, vol. 3
Gypsy Beaumont lives in an extraordinary family, and one of the most outstanding things about this extraordinary family is that everyone, on their thirteenth birthday, gets a special talent, one particularly suited to them. Gypsy was understandably excited to get her new talent (called a savvy) of seeing the future, but things just don’t seem to work out like she’s imagined. In trying to prevent bad things she sees from happening, she ends up looking silly–and the bad things end up happening anyhow! Then one day, Gypsy’s family gets a call that her grandmother’s mind isn’t doing well anymore and that she needs help. A decision is made to move her grandmother in with them–a decision that turns the whole household around as emotions fly all about and, worse, savvies get all confounded. Gypsy’s quiet, disappearing brother Samson now flames, literally. Her savvy-perfect Momma becomes savvy-clumsy. Her baby brother Tucker gets an astonishing talent years before he should have. And Gypsy’s own talent changes remarkably as well. They’ll all have their hands full learning to handle these new savvies, and that’s only the beginning of their challenges.
I absolutely loved Ingrid Law’s first two books about this remarkable family (Savvy and Scumble), so I approached Switch with high expectations. Those expectations were certainly met, if not exceeded. She manages to maintain all the things I loved about the first two volumes while also crafting something unique and pertinent. The wonder and adventure of the story are excellent while still being accessible for a middle-grade reader–and being completely clean. More than that, Law brings to the story a rich cast of interesting characters, and even many of the side-characters have an unexpected depth. She creates a story that reminds us all to be ourselves, to do the right thing, to support our family no matter what, and to love others even when it’s hard. Beyond that, she gives us a story about the very real challenges of dealing with relatives who have Alzheimer’s or other forms of dementia, acknowledging the difficulties while challenging us to recognize the moments of beauty in the midst of the brokenness. And she somehow brings all that in a story that had me literally laughing aloud. I would highly recommend Switch to just about anybody, but especially to those dealing with family members who have dementia–for the laughs and for the reminder that you’re not alone.
Author: Neal Shusterman
My rating: 5 of 5
“Caden Bosch is on a ship that’s headed for the deepest point on Earth: Challenger Deep, the southern part of the Marianas Trench. Caden Bosch is a brilliant high school student whose friends are starting to notice his odd behavior. Caden Bosch is designated the ship’s artist in residence, to document the journey with images. Caden Bosch pretends to join the school track team but spends his days walking for miles, absorbed by the thoughts in his head. Caden Bosch is split between his allegiance to the captain and the allure of mutiny. Caden Bosch is torn.” (I’m using the Goodreads summary here, because it’s perfect and I don’t want to change anything.)
I was absolutely blown away by Challenger Deep. I mean, I always enjoy Neal Shusterman’s writing, but this particular volume is something special even for him. It clearly comes from a very personal place, as he mentions in the afterword that a lot of the ideas come from his son’s own experiences with mental illness. And that personal connection really shows, inviting the reader into the world as it appears to someone struggling with a brain chemistry that isn’t working normally. I still can’t say I understand . . . I don’t think anyone who hasn’t actually lived there can really understand. But I can definitely be more accepting and willing to try to understand for having read this book (which is really helpful since I’m dealing with mental illness of a different sort with my Grandfather who has Alzheimer’s). I loved the was Shusterman wove together Caden’s “real world” experiences with life on the “ship” on its way to Challenger Deep. As you go, it becomes more and more clear that the “ship” is just another way in which he sees the world, you begin to see parallels between actually people, events, and choices. But because it’s presented in that way, you get this additional, interesting story that not only increases the reader’s understanding but is also really engaging in its own surreal sort of way. The writing, in Caden’s first-person view, is brilliant and easy to read in a strange, surreal way, even though the events are constantly flipping between “realities” sometimes even within the chapter. A nice plus also is that the chapters are really short, so it feels like a quicker read–and it’s easy to read a chapter or two between other things, even if you don’t have much time. I think I would highly recommend Challenger Deep to anyone, and particularly to anyone who has someone in their life who is dealing with mental illness.
Author: Louis Sachar
My rating: 4 of 5
It all started when Marshall and Tamaya took a “short cut” through the woods to avoid a bully. Or maybe it was before that, when a scientist caught up in inventing a new, renewable fuel source came up with the idea of Biolene, a genetically engineered microorganism that reproduces every thirty-six minutes. Whatever the case, the moment Tamaya stuck her hand in a muddy puddle covered in strange fuzzy stuff and threw that mud in the face of Chad–the bully who had tracked them down in the woods in spite of their precautions–she became part of a historic disaster on a grand scale. And just maybe, she became the girl who saved the world.
Louis Sachar’s writing is always a treat to read, with his easy humor and readable text. Fuzzy Mud was all of that, but it took a more intense perspective than most of his books. It was excellent. The characters were enjoyable, and they prompted the reader to take another look at bullying–from both sides of the situation. Furthermore, the entire plot was crafted in such a way as to raise ecological awareness about a number of hot topics: fuel shortages, overpopulation, and genetic engineering to name a few. As I said, the actual plot writing was intense, but also middle-grade appropriate. I really enjoyed the way notes from the legal proceedings over Biolene were interspersed within the text in a way almost reminiscent of that used in Carrie. Furthermore, the addition of mathematical equations scattered throughout to demonstrate how quickly one microorganism can become thousands really served to add a great sense of tension, as did the petri-dish illustrations at each chapter header–complete with samples doubling each chapter and spilling over the page! I think for middle-grade and older readers who enjoy an intense but thoughtful biological/ecological thriller, Fuzzy Mud is an excellent choice.
Author: Stephen King
My rating: 4 of 5
WARNING: MATURE AUDIENCE
If you know something’s going to happen, are you morally bound to do something about it? Johnny Smith never imagined considering that sort of moral conundrum the night he took his girl Sarah to the fair. They were just having a good time . . . until a tragic accident later that night left Johnny in a coma. Nearly five years later, he awakens to find his world irrevocably altered: his girl married, his youth vanished, his health crippled. And the strangest changes to his mind. Johnny Smith finds that memories related to locations are a “dead zone” in his brain, something he can’t bring into focus. But as if to compensate for this loss, he also finds that he sometimes gets what can only be termed “psychic flashes” when he touches things–memories of pasts that he never knew, awareness of present events that are deeply-kept secrets, and worst of all, knowledge of future events and the corresponding responsibility of that knowledge.
The Dead Zone was a fascinating read from a psychological and moral standpoint; it’s more introspective than some of King’s writing (although I am regularly impressed by the way his books tend more towards the psychological and less towards the thriller–a very positive thing in my thinking). Johnny Smith’s character was a good choice in that he’s a “good guy” from a religious heritage, and although not religious himself, he has strong moral feelings about life–but he’s also conflicted in a lot of ways. That makes for some very interesting psychological development. Plus, he’s the sort of guy who just wants a normal life; he’s totally not interested in the whole “psychic” gig. King’s exploration of the effects of brain damage and the resultant flashes on Smith’s daily thought processes in interesting also. Additionally, I think he did a good job progressing the plot through foreshadowing and hints without there ever being a great deal of “action” per se until the very end. In spite of that, I never found the story boring–okay, I consumed the entire 400+ pages within a couple days. Without giving away details, I thought the ending was more Carrie-esque, while still fitting the rest of the story; I guess you could say it was the inevitable conclusion of Smith’s condition. In any case, for adult readers who enjoy a good psychological thriller, I would highly recommend The Dead Zone.
NOTE: I forgot to add this above, but I found his treatment of the 1970’s U.S. to be quite interesting as well, especially his treatment of the political environment of the time.
Author: Terry Trueman
My rating: 4.5 of 5
You might consider Shawn McDaniel a genius: he’s smart and has a photographic memory of everything he’s experienced since he was a small child. That’s if you actually could know him. . . . Actually, if you met him on the street, you wouldn’t think that at all. Because Shawn has cerebral palsy and is completely unable to interact with the world around him. So no one, not even his family, have any clue that he’s able to even think at all, much less that he’s probably much smarter than they are. Which brings us to Shawn’s very real and very immediate problem: he thinks his dad is planning to kill him and there’s nothing he can do about it.
I really had no idea what to expect when I picked up Stuck in Neutral; the cover looked interesting, so I decided to try it. But this story was a wonderful surprise; powerful and moving in ways I couldn’t have expected. It’s the sort of story that changes how you view the world around you. Trueman, whose own son has a condition very similar to Shawn’s, has a brutally, painfully real view of how the world views people with cerebral palsy and similar conditions. And he is painfully, viscerally honest about the needs these people have. But by telling the story from Shawn’s perspective, trapped but intelligent and very aware, he brings everything into a different focus and makes you re-evaluate your preconceptions. But this book isn’t just some lecture to make you feel bad about how you react; Shawn is an incredible character and I got totally wrapped up in his story, the suspense of watching his father deciding his fate. And the cliffhanger ending was excellently done, leaving things up to the reader’s interpretation. I would definitely recommend Stuck in Neutral to all readers in their upper teens and older.