My Latest MG and YA Reads, September 2017

The latest middle grades and YA books on my reading list. #spon | Book reviews by NewberyandBeyond.com
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I haven’t been reading much YA recently (I’m reading through a stockpile of adult fiction and nonfiction), but what I have read lately has been weird and wonderful. If you like quirky characters and ridiculous plots, these books are for you. (All summaries via Goodreads.com)

Greetings from Witness Protection!

*Note: I received a copy of this book for review consideration. All opinions are my own.

Nicki Demere is an orphan and a pickpocket. She also happens to be the U.S. Marshals’ best bet to keep a family alive. . . .

The marshals are looking for the perfect girl to join a mother, father, and son on the run from the nation’s most notorious criminals. After all, the bad guys are searching for a family with one kid, not two, and adding a streetwise girl who knows a little something about hiding things may be just what the marshals need.

Nicki swears she can keep the Trevor family safe, but to do so she’ll have to dodge hitmen, cyberbullies, and the specter of standardized testing, all while maintaining her marshal-mandated B-minus average. As she barely balances the responsibilities of her new identity, Nicki learns that the biggest threats to her family’s security might not lurk on the road from New York to North Carolina, but rather in her own past.

Foster care kid Nicki struggles with kleptomania and and just wants her dad to get out of jail and take her home, away from the many failed foster homes she has lived in. But then the U.S. Marshals give her a chance to change her life: She must find a place in a family who is being put into witness protection. Nicki will strengthen their cover; the family will provide Nicki with a home. But, of course, things don’t work out that neatly…

Despite a totally unbelievable premise, this is a really fun and surprisingly sweet book. Nicki and her new family have issues as they reconcile themselves to a new life, and these issues still stand out against the backdrop of mobsters and false identities. The characters are sweet and relatable, and I think that’s what keeps this book from becoming ridiculous.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

Small Steps

Two years after being released from Camp Green Lake, Armpit is home in Austin, Texas, trying to turn his life around. But it’s hard when you have a record, and everyone expects the worst from you. The only person who believes in him is Ginny, his 10-year old disabled neighbor. Together, they are learning to take small steps. And he seems to be on the right path, until X-Ray, a buddy from Camp Green Lake, comes up with a get-rich-quick scheme. This leads to a chance encounter with teen pop sensation, Kaira DeLeon, and suddenly his life spins out of control, with only one thing for certain. He’ll never be the same again.

Holes was one of my favorite books as a kid, and this is the follow up to that Newbery book. For Armpit, now known by his given name of Theodore, life after Camp Green Lake is filled with hard work (digging, of course) and giving reassurance to his paranoid parents. But when he agrees to take his disabled neighbor Ginny to a concert and his old friend X-Ray convinces him to scalp some tickets, his life is turned upside down again.

Theodore is a sympathetic character, and Sacher doesn’t shy away from the reality that he is drawn back to criminal activity through his friend’s prodding. (There is a lot in this book that isn’t very realistic, but that’s Louis Sacher for you!) If you liked Holes and don’t mind taking some leaps of faith in the plot, you should read Small Steps.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime

Christopher John Francis Boone knows all the countries of the world and their capitals and every prime number up to 7,057. He relates well to animals but has no understanding of human emotions. He cannot stand to be touched. And he detests the color yellow.

Although gifted with a superbly logical brain, for fifteen-year-old Christopher everyday interactions and admonishments have little meaning. He lives on patterns, rules, and a diagram kept in his pocket. Then one day, a neighbor’s dog, Wellington, is killed and his carefully constructive universe is threatened. Christopher sets out to solve the murder in the style of his favourite (logical) detective, Sherlock Holmes. What follows makes for a novel that is funny, poignant and fascinating in its portrayal of a person whose curse and blessing are a mind that perceives the world entirely literally.

This well-known book offers a look into an autistic boy’s life by an author who has spent time working with autistic people. It has a unique format (filled with drawings, graphs, etc.), a lot of swearing, and kind of a crazy plot (that seems to be a theme with today’s roundup of books!). I did enjoy the format, and the story kept me engaged, but I disliked pretty much all of the characters. I would also be glad to see more novels involving autism written by people who are autistic, rather than people like Haddon who have only spent time with autistic people.

Rating: Good but Forgettable

The Secret of Platform 13

A forgotten door on an abandoned railway platform is the entrance to a magical kingdom–an island where humans live happily with feys, mermaids, ogres, and other wonderful creatures. Carefully hidden from the world, the Island is only accessible when the door opens for nine days every nine years. A lot can go wrong in nine days. When the beastly Mrs. Trottle kidnaps the prince of the Island, it’s up to a strange band of rescuers to save him. But can an ogre, a hag, a wizard, and a fey really troop around London unnoticed?

The Secret of Platform 13 is a really cute, fun story about a group of misfits from a magical island trying to retrieve their prince from our world. Full of hilarious misunderstandings, mistaken identity, and magic, this is a great read for anyone who likes lighthearted fantasy.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

Book Pairing: Holes and The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

The books in this book pairing focus on a boy who is under a family curse and on his struggles to rise above that curse. | A review by NewberyandBeyond.com
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This is my final book pairing of the year! I’ve really enjoyed participating in the Reading to Distraction book pairing challenge this year (despite the fact that I procrastinated on actually writing the posts!). If you’ve missed all my previous book pairing posts (you can see them herehere, here, here, here, and here), here’s the deal. I’m taking part in the Reading to Distraction book pairing challenge based on this BuzzFeed article.

The last pairing I’m going to review is Holes by Louis Sacher and The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz. Here’s the connection, according to BuzzFeed:

Both Holes and The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao read as modern mythology, featuring two curse-afflicted protagonists who can’t catch a break. They’re tales of misfits and survival, and the cruelty that Oscar faces as an overweight Dominican-American teen obsessed with sci-fi is just as harsh and alienating as that of Stanley Yelnats’ prison camp.

Holes

Stanley Yelnats is under a curse. A curse that began with his no-good-dirty-rotten-pig-stealing-great-great-grandfather and has since followed generations of Yelnatses. Now Stanley has been unjustly sent to a boys’ detention center, Camp Green Lake, where the boys build character by spending all day, every day digging holes exactly five feet wide and five feet deep. There is no lake at Camp Green Lake. But there are an awful lot of holes.

It doesn’t take long for Stanley to realize there’s more than character improvement going on at Camp Green Lake. The boys are digging holes because the warden is looking for something. But what could be buried under a dried-up lake? Stanley tries to dig up the truth in this inventive and darkly humorous tale of crime and punishment—and redemption. (Summary via Goodreads.com)

I absolutely loved this book as a kid. It’s a fun, interesting story, told in chapters so short (two or three pages, typically) that I read it compulsively, almost in one sitting. There are flashbacks to Stanley’s ancestors which are interwoven into the present-day narrative in a way that I found fascinating. I enjoyed the movie as well–it’s the main reason why I can never actually hate Shia LaBeouf. Louis Sacher is great at writing slightly off-kilter setups for his relatable characters, and this book is one of his best.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

Things have never been easy for Oscar, a sweet but disastrously overweight ghetto nerd, a New Jersey romantic who dreams of becoming the Dominican J.R.R. Tolkien and, most of all, of finding love. But he may never get what he wants, thanks to the fukú — the ancient curse that has haunted Oscar’s family for generations, dooming them to prison, torture, tragic accidents, and, above all, ill-starred love. Oscar, still dreaming of his first kiss, is only its most recent victim – until the fateful summer that he decides to be its last. (Summary via Goodreads.com)

Oscar is also part of a family that has been cursed for generations, and like Stanley, Oscar is feeling the weight of his ancestor’s mistakes. He’s overweight, awkward, and can’t get a girl to save his life. As the chapters go by, we see the family history, including Oscar’s sister, mother, and grandparents, that has led to this point. (Sometimes, though, I found myself getting confused about who was narrating or who the chapter was about–context doesn’t always make it clear.) The book has a fair amount of cursing, sex, and violence, so please be aware before you check out this book!

Rating: Good but Forgettable

I wouldn’t have thought to put these two books together, but when I think about it, they both have a main character who can’t seem to catch a break. There’s some sort of curse upon each boy’s family that makes it impossible for them to get ahead. Oscar Wao has a lot more adult themes, from sex to violence to cursing (in Spanish and English), but the concept is the same. That said, the feel of each book is very different. Oscar Wao is told in a casual manner, from the viewpoint of one of the minor characters in the story, while Holes is narrated in a more typical way. Still, they’re both interesting books and a pretty good pairing as well.

Have you read either of these books (or book series)? How do you think they stack up to each other? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments! Happy New Year, everybody!

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