Category Archives: award winners

Challenger Deep by Neal Shusterman

challenger-deepCaden Bosch was a really nice, really smart guy, but mental illness took quite a toll on his life and his relationships.  To readers, it was immediately evident that Caden had split from reality because he alternated between life in the “real world” and a journey on a pirate ship.  To his family and friends, though, it simply appeared that Caden was becoming more distant and acting strangely.  How so?  One perfect example is the fact that his family thought Caden was on the track team.  While he did, in fact, intend to go out for the track team, he ended up quitting after only a few practices.  So, why did they think he was still on the team?  Because he would be gone for hours at a time and returned with worn shoes and sore feet.  Instead of attending track practices, though, he was walking around town for hours on end, utterly absorbed by his own thoughts.  Aside from the walking, Caden’s mental break was also evident in his art work.  As a gifted artist, he began to struggle with the fact that he could no longer create artwork simply because he felt like it but, rather, because he felt that he HAD to get the images out of his head.  How awful that must have been!

This book was amazingly well-written.  Though confusing at times, the pacing and structure were very clearly intentional.  And by the end, it was also clear that the “real world” had inspired the delusions Caden experienced.  As someone who has had plenty of personal experiences with depression, anxiety, and obsessive thoughts, I still had no concept of what life might be like for someone living through the delusions and hallucinations associated with schizophrenia until I listened to this story.  One important clarification, by the way, is that although this story was inspired by the mental health challenges and experiences of Shusterman’s own son, Brendan, it was by no means intended to be a memoir.  Fans of Shusterman’s Unwind dystology (dystopian series) will be pleased to see that this departure from his standard writing style still contained plenty of humor and adventure.

Happy Reading!

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The Compound by S.A. Bodeen

the-compoundEli and his family have been living in the compound for 6 years now.  Even though his father had enough money to build and furnish a compound that is practically a luxury mansion, Eli is far from happy.  First of all, there is the fact that his twin brother, Eddy, and his grandmother never made it into the compound — and that he feels at least partly responsible for Eddy’s death.  Second, there are the problems with their food supply that make him wonder whether they will have enough food to get them through until the end of the 15 year containment.  Third, and most importantly, there is the fact that Eli isn’t sure if anyone else has even survived the nuclear war that prompted his father to lock them all inside the compound in the first place.  When Eli’s father suddenly starts to behave more erratically than normal, the rest of the family wonders how many secrets he has been keeping from them and exactly what it means about their future…

Mystery and adventure?  Check.  Dark family secrets?  Check.  If you are looking for a story that will keep you on the edge of your seat, you will definitely want to check this one out!

Happy Reading!

The Sun is Also a Star by Nicola Yoon

sun-is-also-a-starNatasha is extremely practical.  She believes in science and cold, hard facts.  She knows that is it unlikely that she will be able to keep her family from being deported back to Jamaica now that her father’s DUI has alerted the authorities to their illegal status, but she also knows that she’s willing to hope and dream a little if it means that she might find a way for her family to stay in the US.  Even though she has only about 12 hours left, she’s on her way to a meeting about a possible “fix”…

Daniel has always wanted to be more of a dreamer and a poet, but he has instead done his best to live up to the standards of a “good son” as laid out by his Korean-American [legal] immigrant parents.  They expect him to go to Yale, to study to become a doctor, and to marry a good Korean girl so that he will never have to struggle as they once did.  Even though he is not sure he really wants to go to Yale, he’s on his way to an interview with a Yale alum…

When Natasha and Daniel randomly meet in New York City, neither of them is out looking for love.  A serious of seemingly random events — is it coincidence or fate? — brings them together, though.  Daniel falls for Natasha pretty quickly, but her practicality has her thinking he’s just crazy.  Although she doesn’t want to admit it at first, there *IS* something about Daniel that really speaks to her.  So, does that mean Natasha will fall for Daniel too?  Or will he end up heartbroken?  Can Natasha find a way to stay in the US?  Or will her family really have to leave in less than a day?  Will Daniel get into Yale?  And if he does, will he even go?  This audiobook had me so anxious that I found it nearly impossible to shut off even when I had real-life responsibilities to tend to!  I especially loved the fact that it was narrated by Natasha, Daniel, and the Universe — interspersed with narrations by some of the people they encounter throughout the day.  Not only is it a great story for the hopeless romantic in us all, but it’s an amazing look at how people’s interactions with one another might seem insignificant at the time even though they make a big difference in the long run.

Happy Reading!

Lincoln’s Grave Robbers by Steve Sheinkin

Lincoln's Grave RobbersWhen I first heard about this book, I just couldn’t believe it.  How was it possible that there was a plot to steal Abraham Lincoln’s body from his grave and yet I had never even heard about it?  I admit that I was not the best history student; I much preferred math and science because I was terrible at memorizing all those names, dates, and places… but this is something I’m sure I would have remembered!  It didn’t surprise me in the least to see the depth and breadth of historical information that was included, since I’ve read other Steve Sheinkin books and listened to him speak about his research methods.  But I was definitely impressed  by the fact that, once again, he crafted a non-fiction book that read much more like a thriller than a textbook.  This is a great read for anyone who is interested in learning more about the early days of the Secret Service, money counterfeiting, and other [not always so] “organized crime” in the late 1800s.

Happy Reading!

Moon Over Manifest by Clare Vanderpool

moon-over-manifestAbilene Tucker’s father, Gideon, sent her to live with an old friend for the summer, while he worked on the railroad.  While she understood that life on the railroad was not suitable for a “young lady,” she knew she would miss her father terribly.  Upon arrival, she was further disappointed to find that the town of Manifest was so dull.  After growing up hearing so many stories about her father’s time in Manifest, she had expected it to be a grander and more exciting place.  When Abilene found a hidden cigar box full of mementos, though, she found some of the adventure she had been hoping for.  After all, there were even a few letters in the box that referenced a spy called “the Rattler.”  When Abilene shared the letters with her new friends, Lettie and Ruthanne, they decided to work together to figure out who had been the Rattler… and then they received an anonymous note telling them to “Leave Well Enough Alone.”  Yeah.  Whoever wrote that note certainly didn’t understand that the surest way to get tween girls to work hard at solving a mystery was to basically forbid them to do so!

I liked the way Vanderpool wove together the stories of Abilene and her friends with the boys, Ned and Jinx, to whom the mementos in the box had belonged.  It was very clever to reveal the past through both newspaper articles and “readings” of the mementos by the diviner, Miss Sadie.  Not only did Miss Sadie’s storytelling help to provide details about Ned and Jinx that the girls could never have pieced together on their own, but it added a further layer of mystique as Abilene tried to figure out if Miss Sadie was truly “reading” the items or simply making up a story.  I found it a bit painful to watch Abilene struggling to find any hint of Gideon’s existence in both Manifest and the stories Miss Sadie told, I liked the fact that readers are able to look back at the end of the story to see how the various story threads all truly came together.  People who enjoy learning about the early 20th century will love the rich, historically accurate details.  (Abilene came to Manifest in the 1930s and the stories of Ned and Jinx were from 1917-1918.)

Happy Reading!

Most Dangerous: Daniel Ellsberg and the Secret History of the Vietnam War by Steve Sheinkin

most-dangerousGrowing up in my family provided me with some very interesting insight into the Vietnam War. I was born in 1979 and completely missed “experiencing” the Vietnam War for myself, but my grandfather, Jim Cain, has been telling me stories about the Vietnam War for as long as I can remember. Although I didn’t realize it was a big deal until I reached my late-teens/early-twenties, I always knew Grampa had been a “Raven.” He would tell me stories about secret missions and being shot down in Vietnam, but I always kinda assumed he was playing it up and putting on a show for his grandkids. Yeah… I was wrong! As it turns out, the Ravens “were fighter pilots used for forward air control in a covert operation in conjunction with the Central Intelligence Agency of the United States in Laos during America’s Vietnam War [who] provided direction for most of the air strikes against communist Pathet Lao targets and People’s Army of Vietnam’s infiltrators in support of the Laotian Hmong guerrilla army.” (Check out http://ravenfac.com/ravens/Adventures/Episode0000.htm for more information about the Ravens – and a picture of my grampa!)

Despite the fact that her father was fighting in the Vietnam War, my mother was a tried and true “hippie” who protested the war. (Her parents actually found out, long after the fact, that she had attended an anti-war rally while they were stationed in England because of an old photo that was published in their local paper when Bill Clinton was running for president!) Some people would argue that she was less than patriotic for not supporting that war, but I don’t think opposing war makes anyone a bad American. Especially after listening to this story of how politicians sabotaged one another and actively prolonged this particular war to “save face” and further their own political agendas, I find it extremely difficult to even consider accepting war without considering all other possible avenues toward diplomacy. I am grateful to live in a country where citizens have the right to free speech and where freedom of the press works to keep citizens informed of what is going on behind the scenes.  I never learned much about the “Pentagon Papers” in school, but this book had me riveted.  I especially liked the fact that the afterword of this story referenced a more current “information leak” involving Edward Snowden and provided Daniel Ellsberg’s opinion on the matter.  After what Ellsberg has been though, he is certainly someone whose opinion on the Snowden case is relevant.

Happy Reading!

Bone Gap by Laura Ruby

bone-gapThe O’Sullivan brothers lived alone and did their best to get by, but it was tough having a dead father and an absentee mom (she took off with an orthodontist who didn’t seem to keen on having teen-aged step-sons).  Sean had to put his dreams of becoming a doctor on hold to take care of his younger brother Finn; he worked as an EMT instead.  Finn was an awkward boy whom the townspeople all seemed to talk/worry about, and Sean’s resentment was fairly evident.  Then, one day, Finn found a girl in their barn.  Roza was badly hurt, but she refused to go to the hospital, so Sean took her inside their house and did his best to mend her injuries.  They decided to give Roza the keys to the unused apartment in the back of their house, and her presence seemed to help all three of them thrive… until the day Roza disappeared from Bone Gap.

Sean was heart-broken and Finn was devastated because he largely blamed himself.  He swore that there was a man who took Roza away, but he couldn’t really describe the man other than the strange way he moved through the cornfields.  He felt that if he could just do a better job at describing the man, he could save her.  People in town had always called Finn names like “space man” because of he always seemed to lack focus and didn’t really look people in the eye.  He also seemed to have a hard time recognizing people, though his vision was technically fine.  The only person Finn seemed to get along with was a girl named Petey, whom most of the townspeople teased for being “ugly.”  Petey believed Finn when he said that a man took Roza away, and she was determined to help him solve the mystery, but she was so self-conscious she couldn’t help but wonder if Finn was just pretending to like her.

I’m gonna be perfectly honest and admit that I actually had to start listening to this audiobook over again because I was about half way through and all sorts of confused. The book changes perspectives between Finn and Roza — as he looks for her and she deals with having been taken — and also goes back in time a bit, at times, to explain how everything came to be.  I mean, I was doing chores like mowing the lawn and folding laundry, so it’s not like I was focused on something terribly exciting that took my attention away…  But it was confusing enough that I really couldn’t go on without starting over.  I don’t think it’s necessarily a bad thing, but I just figured it was worth mentioning in case any of y’all start to read/listen to this book and end up feeling confused, too.  It was totally worth starting over again, in my opinion, so I would recommend doing the same if you also feel lost.  Now that I “got” it, it was pretty awesome.  If you like books with a touch of magical realism, like Belzhar, you should check this one out.

Happy Reading!