Play Music by Laurie Lake White (purchased a copy)
This charming novel (based on a true story) is about Viennese immigrants to America in the early 1900s. Hugo is a conductor, first for a hotel orchestra and later in a silent movie theater, and his wife designs costumes for the Metropolitan Opera. The way that the family lived and thrived through their creative work made the book stand out to me, as did the vivid setting of these operas and shows. I particularly loved how compassionate the author was with her characters. Peter, someone who makes a lot of bad choices that drive the second half of the story, was my favorite because of how kind she was to him about his failings. Recommended for: fans of historical fiction and charming things. And artists.
Rain Reign by Ann M. Martin (via the public library)
This won the Schneider Family Book Award for Middle School. (The Schneider Family Award honors books that present the disability experience for children and teenagers.) It’s about Rose, a girl who has Asperger’s, and her relationship with her father and her dog Rain. Rose is obsessed with homonyms and that plus her obsession with rules makes it difficult for her sometimes in school. There is no one universal experience of life on the autism spectrum, but I thought this did a good job of showing us what it was like in Rose’s head. Rose is wonderful, and this is also a great story for people who like dogs. As far as classroom use, I think it would not make for a good readaloud because of there being so many homonyms, but it would make for a good guided reading book. Sweet and heartbreaking (you know how books about animals are). I really enjoyed this one.
The Port Chicago 50: Disaster, Mutiny, and the Fight for Civil Rights by Steve Sheinkin (via the public library)
All the Bright Places by Jennifer Niven (via NetGalley and then the public library)
I was approved for this on NetGalley after it was already archived so I had to wait for it at the public library. Do I think it will be popular with TFioS and Eleanor and Park fans? No doubt. But it also felt calculated to punch you in the gut without earning those emotions like the two aforementioned books did. I didn’t buy Finch and Violet’s relationship in a lot of ways (partially because he just seemed like quirky mental health weirdo and she seemed sad and affectless), I didn’t think they were fully realized characters that I could care about. It seemed like a YA version of Garden State (or maybe Elizabethtown) without even the saving grace of a good soundtrack. I am surprised so many people are so excited about this one because it fell flat for me. I would still tell my teenage friends about it if they had finished John Green and Rainbow Rowell and wanted another book, but it doesn’t shine like a lot of recent YA does for me.
Girls Like Us by Gail Giles (via the public library)
This won the Schneider Family Book Award for Teens and features two special ed high school graduates named Quincy and Biddy. They get an apartment together in the home of Liz, an older woman who needs assistance. Biddy is the softer and sweeter of the two, while Quincy is more savvy. They have both experienced terrible things and difficult things happen to them during the course of the story, but I came away impressed by the bravery of these characters. Recommended for high schools.
The Light of the World: A Memoir by Elizabeth Alexander (via NetGalley)
You may remember Elizabeth Alexander as the inaugural poet from President Obama’s first inauguration. Now she has written a beautiful exploration of grief and love following the death of her husband in 2012. Both her story and her use of language are worth a read. You might say that the idea sounds too sad, but I find reading about grief to be healing, especially in those moments when you recognize yourself and your own pain in someone else’s story. Pairs well with The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion and The Long Goodbye by Meghan O’Rourke.
Death Row Chaplain by Earl Smith (via NetGalley)
This is a pretty traditional redemption story – Smith was involved in gangs and drugs and then became a chaplain at San Quentin. He does a good job of taking the reader somewhere that most of us are unlikely to go, and had interesting and entertaining stories about connecting with the prisoners through baseball and chess. I also thought the book had a nice balance of talking about his own faith and beliefs without being preachy. One thing to note is his opposition to the death penalty, which I share, and which he explained with emphasis on his own experiences with people on death row and families of the victims. This book would be good for fans of Same Kind of Different as Me.
Among the Ten Thousand Things by Julia Pierpont (via NetGalley)
The inciting incident of this story is that a daughter finds a box of personal messages between her father and the woman he is having an affair with. The effects of these messages are felt by every person in the family, though I was probably least interested in the father’s story and most interested in the mother. I didn’t feel a strong connection with the characters, nor did I feel that the effect of finding this box was resolved for the daughter (or the mother). As other reviewers have said, Part Two comes chronologically at the end, and I felt it took some of the air out of Part Three to have the story already known in certain ways. This was not the book for me and I am not sure who I might recommend it to.
Goodbye Stranger by Rebecca Stead (via NetGalley)
3.5 stars. I am in the bag for Rebecca Stead but I was also pretty frustrated by Liar and Spy, which felt to me like a trick ending rather than an earned one. I kept waiting to find out what was “really” happening during this book, which took away from my enjoyment. Be assured that this one is a much more straightforward story about middle school students – friends who are growing apart in certain ways but who value their friendship as well as their independence. Together they struggle with things like divorce and social pressures. More specifically, a big plot point has to do with texting photos and how it can spiral out of control very quickly, and I liked how it was handled. My one problem with Goodbye Stranger (and it was a big problem for me) is that I felt that it was confusing. There are three separate narrators, and we don’t find out who one of them is or why she is doing what she is doing until right at the very end. I thought this needlessly complicated what was a very nice story. About 20% of the way through I was so frustrated that I wanted to stop, and I could imagine my students just quitting at that point. I don’t understand why that one narrator had to be kept in the shadows and I felt it could have been done differently. I am sure it would be a solid 4 stars on a re-read, but I wish I hadn’t had to fight so hard to read it the first time.
Some of these books were provided by the publishers. As always, my opinions are my own.