A Curious Beginning by Deanna Raybourn

a-curious-beginningNets are essential for catching rare and expensive butterflies and I excel that it.  But I don’t need a net to catch him.

Plot Summary: In 1887, most young women of breeding in England are either searching for husband or engaged in an appropriate career for such young woman such as tending or teaching other people’s children.  But, not Veronica Speedwell.  An orphan raised by two spinster ‘aunts’ she has assumed a career as a freelance butterfly collector, traveling around the world and procuring for wealthy collectors rare and beautiful specimens for handsome prices.  This very satisfying existence became much more exciting when, following the funeral of her last surviving aunt, she is approached by a German Baron who tells her he knows who her parents were and that she is in danger.  An abortive kidnapping convinces her to take him at his word and proceed with him to London where he says he will reveal all.  But before he can, he leaves her with a friend of his – a man with similar scientific pursuits as Veronica – and is summarily murdered.  This leaves Veronica and her new found companion Stroker, to clear themselves of suspicion of the Barons murder and solve the mystery of Veronica’s past before it is too late.

Critical Evaluation:  Rarely does a writer of historical romance novels create a character as interesting and out-of-the-box as did Deanna Raybourn in the creation of Victoria Speedwell.  Not only is she a self-trained biologist specializing in butterflies but she is a woman unrestrained by the normal conventions of society.  She goes where she wants, does what she wants and on occasion is sexually adventurous with any attractive man she desires.  She is a 1960’s woman in an 1880’s body.  Historical mystery/romances walk a fine line between the two genres.  Some readers will like this book because of the romantic tension between the two characters, while others will like it because of the mystery they must solve.  I liked it because of the main character who is her own woman, a feat even woman today have trouble accomplishing.  The writing is straightforward and enjoyable, and the overall sense of the era is solid.  There were woman like Veronica during this period; woman who through accident or design were independent and willing to embrace pursuits not common to most woman, and were generally referred to as ‘bluestockings’.  Raybourn did a good job of exposing a little known aspect of women’s history in clever and entertaining story by means of a clever and entertaining woman.

Author’s Brief Bio:  A sixth-generation native Texan, New York Times bestselling author Deanna Raybourn grew up in San Antonio where she met her college sweetheart. She married him on her graduation day and went on to teach high school English and history. During summer vacation at the age of twenty-three, she wrote her first novel, and after three years as a teacher, Deanna left education to have a baby and pursue writing full-time. Fourteen years and many, many rejections after her first novel, she signed two three-book deals with MIRA Books.  Retrieved from http://www.deannaraybourn.com/theauthor.html

Genre Designation:  Mystery

Bibliographic Information:  Publisher, Date: New American Library/Penguin-Random House, 2015.



Ruthless by Carolyn Lee Adams

ruthlessBibliographic Information:

  • Publisher, Date: Simon Pulse (Simon & Schuster), 2016
  • Edition: First
  • Description:  248 pages ; 21 cm
  • Interest Level:  YA
  • Summary: A spine-tingling debut about the ultimate game of cat-and-mouse in reverse as a teen struggles to retain hope—and her sanity—while on the run from a cunning and determined killer.

Ruth Carver has always competed like her life depends on it. Ambitious. Tough. Maybe even mean. It’s no wonder people call her Ruthless.

When she wakes up with a concussion in the bed of a moving pickup trick, she realizes she has been entered into a contest she can’t afford to lose.

At a remote, rotting cabin deep in the Blue Ridge Mountains, Ruth’s blindfold comes off and she comes face-to-face with her captor. A man who believes his mission is to punish bad girls like Ruth. A man who has done this six times before.  The other girls were never heard from again, but Ruth won’t go down easy. She escapes into the wilderness, but her hunter is close at her heels. That’s when the real battle begins. That’s when Ruth must decide just how far she’ll go in order to survive.  Back home, they called her Ruthless. They had no idea just how right they were.  Retrieved from http://www.simonandschuster.com/books/Ruthless/Carolyn-Lee-Adams/9781481422635

  • ISBN: 978-1-51815-652-6 (originally 978-1-48142-263-5)
  • Subjects:
    • Crime / Kidnapping – Fiction
    • Mental Health – Fiction
    • Survival Skills – Fiction

Reader’s Annotation: So, you think I’m a bad person because I have red hair and an attitude?  Brother, you don’t know the half of it.

Book Trailer(s): https://youtu.be/xoEqBwHFCI8

Plot Summary: Ruth Carver learned at an early age that success was the key to happiness or at least the glue that could hold her family together.  A gifted horsewoman from whose mother was running a failing horse training facility, the fame she gained in competitions lead to better times for her mother and fewer fights between her parents.  But that stress and her mother’s guidance lead to her becoming a ruthless competitor with little time for the niceties of life and little time or patience with anyone who didn’t have the same level of competitiveness. It left her alone except for one friend and to be seen by most people as cold and mean.  It was this image of her that led one man to see in her all the things he hated about a certain type of girl, and to her being targeted by him to be the seventh red-haired girl he buried under the floor of his forest cabin.  But Ruth will not go quietly into his dark night, and in her the six dead girls put their hope of revenge.

Critical Evaluation:  This is a timely and well written examination of what is unfortunately an all too often occurrence in the world.  Adams has presented a good exploration of what makes a serial killer and what makes one person rather than another the likely object of his obsession.  The chapters move seamlessly back and forth between the pasts of both the killer and the victim, as well as the present nightmare that has become Ruth’s life.  Adams also doesn’t flinch from showing both the negative aspects of Ruth’s personality as well as the history behind them while alternately revealing the terrible history of a boy who was abused and misguided in ways that shaped the monster he became.  You feel for the boy but despise the man he chose to become, just as you dislike the girl but genuinely respect and admire the woman she will become.  It is not easy to write a book that can deliver this level of tension and horror while staying both realistic and on a YA appropriate level.  It is an excellent work by a talented writer.

Author’s Brief Bio:  Carolyn Lee Adams is originally from the Seattle area, breeding ground of serial killers and those who write about them. She attended USC Film School and graduated with a BFA in screenwriting. RUTHLESS (Simon Pulse, Summer 2015) is her first novel. When she isn’t exploring the dark side of human nature in her writing, you’ll find her on stage as a stand-up comedian. Because those things go together.  Retrieved from http://carolynleeadams.com/about-me/

Genre Designation: Suspense Fiction

Possible Curriculum Links:  None

Book Talk Ideas:  What kind of person would someone think you are if they watched you but didn’t talk to you?

Materials Relating to Potential Challenges:


Why this book was selected?  The idea intrigued me, given that many books and movies have this kind of theme but few of them (other than April Henry) approach it for the teen audience.

All American Boys by Jason Reynolds

all-american-boysBibliographic Information:

  • Publisher, Date: A Caitlyn Dlouhy Book/Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 2015
  • Edition: First
  • Description:  316 pages ; 22 cm
  • Interest Level:  YA
  • Summary:  A bag of chips. That’s all sixteen-year-old Rashad is looking for at the corner bodega. What he finds instead is a fist-happy cop, Paul Galluzzo, who mistakes Rashad for a shoplifter, mistakes Rashad’s pleadings that he’s stolen nothing for belligerence, mistakes Rashad’s resistance to leave the bodega as resisting arrest, mistakes Rashad’s every flinch at every punch the cop throws as further resistance and refusal to STAY STILL as ordered. But how can you stay still when someone is pounding your face into the concrete pavement?

There were witnesses: Quinn Collins—a varsity basketball player and Rashad’s classmate who has been raised by Paul since his own father died in Afghanistan—and a video camera. Soon the beating is all over the news and Paul is getting threatened with accusations of prejudice and racial brutality. Quinn refuses to believe that the man who has basically been his savior could possibly be guilty. But then Rashad is absent. And absent again. And again. And the basketball team—half of whom are Rashad’s best friends—start to take sides. As does the school. And the town. Simmering tensions threaten to explode as Rashad and Quinn are forced to face decisions and consequences they had never considered before.  Retrieved from http://www.simonandschuster.com/books/All-American-Boys/Jason-Reynolds/9781481463331

  • ISBN: 978-1-48146-333-1
  • Subjects:
    • Race Relations – Fiction
    • Police / Brutality and Complaints – Fiction
    • High School students – Fiction
    • Political Protest – Fiction

Reader’s Annotation: You need to understand that no matter what I saw, Paul is a good guy!  There had to be a good, reason for his beating the crap out of Rashad; there just has to be!

Book Trailer(s): https://youtu.be/55xCHMudGBU

Plot Summary: The separate decision by two boys to stop at a local convenience store has consequences that neither one could have anticipated and that neither one will ever forget.  Both are going to the same party and stop to pick up snacks to bring with them.  Rashad arrives first and in a colossal misinterpretation of the facts, Rashad finds himself accused of trying to steal from the store, or mug a woman who bumped into him or both, by an over-zealous cashier and a police officer who only saw what he wanted to see.  Both the woman involved and Rashad try to explain but the situation spirals into violence in a matter of seconds.  The police officer begins beating on Rashad and injuries him so severely that he is put in the hospital.  And Quinn, who arrived in time to witness the assault, is horrified.  He has a personal relationship with the officer who has acted as a surrogate father to him in the wake of his own father’s death, but he thinks what happened was a horrific act of violence against a guy he knew to be a good guy.  He finds himself pressured by both sides to take a stand but he knows that to do so will change his life.  Rashad, meanwhile, only wants to forget it ever happened, at least at first, but as more and more people get involved on his behalf he realizes he what happened is bigger than himself and he has no real choice.  Both boys eventually come together, their separate stories combined into one and stand up for what they believe is right.

Critical Evaluation:  Addressing an issue that is front and center in the news is always a tricky proposition for a writer.  Current events change and move from front page to no page in a matter of seconds in many cases and a topic that the public considers important today is forgotten tomorrow.  Writing a book that deals with such topics places an author in a difficult position: seize the moment and risk having a book that is obsolete before it even comes out.  In this case the authors got lucky.  Not only was the topic one that remains important and topical long after they wrote it but they wrote a book that will be worth reading many years from now.  The story may be about the issues surrounding police brutality toward African Americans but the fundamental ideas of the book are eternal.  All societies throughout history have had a group or part of its population that is viewed with distrust and antipathy by the ruling class or police forces, which means that while the story is modern it is also eternal.  The writers, one black and one white, worked to reveal two sides of a situation in which one group or person must decide if they are willing to stand by and allow the injustices done to another group.  By presenting the story in two very real voices and from two very authentic points of view, the book achieves a level of relevance and respectability other attempts might fail to reach.  Combined with good writing and a compelling set of characters this book is a classic in waiting and should be read by anyone seeking to navigate an ever-changing world.

Author’s Brief Bio:

  • Jason Reynolds is crazy. About stories. He is the author of critically acclaimed When I Was the Greatest, for which he was the recipient of the Coretta Scott King/John Steptoe Award for New Talent; the Coretta Scott King Honor books Boy in the Black Suit and All American Boys (cowritten with Brendan Kiely, also the winner of the Walter Dean Myers Award); As Brave As You, his stunning middle grade debut; and Ghost, the first book in his middle grade Track series. You can find his ramblings at JasonWritesBooks.com. Retrieved from http://www.simonandschuster.com/authors/Jason-Reynolds/403685768
  • Brendan Kiely received his MFA from the City College of New York. He is the author, with Jason Reynolds, of the Coretta Scott King Author Honor book All American Boys. His debut novel, The Gospel of Winter, has been published in ten languages, was selected as one of the American Library Association’s Top Ten Best Fiction for Young Adults 2015, and was a Kirkus Reviews selection for the Best of 2014. He is also the author of The Last True Love Story. Originally from the Boston area, he now lives with his wife in Greenwich Village. Find out more at BrendanKiely.com. Retrieved from http://www.simonandschuster.com/authors/Brendan-Kiely/408865698

Genre Designation: Realistic Fiction

Possible Curriculum Links: Political Science and Sociology

Book Talk Ideas:  What does doing the right thing mean to you?

Materials Relating to Potential Challenges:


Why this book was selected.  It was required reading for a course but well worth the effort.

Scourge by Jennifer A. Nielson

the-scourgeBibliographic Information:

  • Publisher, Date: Scholastic Press, 2016
  • Edition: First
  • Description:  353 pages ; 22 cm
  • Interest Level:  YA (Transitional 6th grade and up)
  • Summary:  As a lethal plague sweeps through the land, Ani Mells is shocked when she is unexpectedly captured by the governor’s wardens and forced to submit to a test for the deadly Scourge. She is even more surprised when the test results come back positive, and she is sent to Attic Island, a former prison turned refuge — and quarantine colony — for the ill. The Scourge’s victims, Ani now among them, can only expect to live out short, painful lives there. However, Ani quickly discovers that she doesn’t know the whole truth about the Scourge or the Colony. She’s been caught in a devious plot, and, with the help of her best friend, Weevil, Ani means to uncover just what is actually going on.  But will she and Weevil survive long enough to do so?  Retrieved from http://www.jennielsen.com/books/the-scourge
  • ISBN: 978-0-545-68245-9
  • Subjects:
    • Plagues – Fiction
    • Social Unrest – Fiction
    • Political Corruption – Fiction

Reader’s Annotation: Look, I’m not sick and I don’t have the Scourge!  How can you make me go to that terrible island full of people who are sick?

Plot Summary: Ani, one of the River People, is considered by all who know her as a source of trouble and disaster.  While climbing a tree to get a tasty snack, Ani manages to attract the attention of two of the Governor’s wardens apparently in the area looking for a few River People to test for a fearful disease called the Scourge.  She and her friend Weevil then find themselves accused of having the disease and subsequently exiled to a terrible island called the Attic, where a prison is being used to house the infected.  Once she is there, Ani starts to discover that things are not as they seem.  People seem to disappear but it’s not the people who are really sick.  In the few short days Ani is imprisoned on the island she makes everyone in charge wish they’d never see her or brought her there.  She is a force to be reckoned with who catches the scent of evil in the air and doesn’t stop until she exposes the truth about the Scourge.  The only question that will remain is whether the real scourge is Ani herself and who will SHE infect with the truth.

Critical Evaluation:  I hesitate to call this a fantasy as there are no magical creatures or fantastic scenes but since it takes place in an alternate world that is how it is seen.  But, regardless of the world it is set in, Jennifer Nielsen has created a truly wonderful character in Ani.  The story might lag a little in places and could be better thought out but the way she has written this young girl is unique in any of the books I’ve read recently.  She is clever, fearless, funny, compassionate and utterly relentless in pursuit of whatever goal she has.  Regardless of the situation she finds herself in she always comes out on top because she never even considers the possibility that she won’t win.

Overall, the characters are not as well developed as Ani is and are pretty one dimensional.  The story has some questionable moments in backstory elements such as the one surrounding the parents of the three main characters, Ani, Weevil and Della. The coming together of Ani and Della’s fathers in the hopes of saving their daughters is just a little too contrived, especially considering the short amount of time involved.  And, the discovery of Weevil missing father strains credulity to say the least.  It’s little things like that are problems which are generally the result of trying to force a particular happy ending situation that might be more difficult to achieve if events proceeded in a more realistic manner.  Generally, though this is a nice book with an awesome heroine that many readers will enjoy.

Author’s Brief Bio:  New York Times Bestselling author, Jennifer Nielsen, was born and raised in northern Utah, where she still lives today with her husband, three children, and a dog that won’t play fetch. She is the author of The Ascendance trilogy, beginning with THE FALSE PRINCE; the MARK OF THE THIEF series, and the forthcoming A NIGHT DIVIDED. She loves chocolate, old books, and lazy days in the mountains. Retrieved from http://www.jennielsen.com/about2

Genre Designation: Fantasy / Alternative History

Possible Curriculum Links:

  • Biology / diseases and cures
  • Political Science & Governance
  • Sociology / Anthropology (Social Stratification and alienation)

Book Talk Ideas:  What would you do if your best friend caught a terrible disease that might be contagious?

Materials Relating to Potential Challenges:


Why this book was selected.  I like the idea behind the story which deals with fear of disease as a means of controlling political dissent.  While the book is on the youngish side, many YA readers will enjoy and benefit from it.

Red Rising by Pierce Brown

red-risingBibliographic Information:

  • Publisher, Date: Del Rey, 2014
  • Edition: First
  • Description: 382 pages : maps ; 25 cm
  • Interest Level:  YA
  • Summary: Darrow is a miner and a Red, a member of the lowest caste in the color-coded society of the future. Like his fellow Reds, he digs all day, believing that he and his people are making the surface of the planet livable for future generations. Yet he spends his life willingly, knowing that his blood and sweat will one day result in a better future for his children.

But Darrow and his kind have been betrayed. Soon he discovers that humanity already reached the surface generations ago. Darrow and Reds like him are nothing more than slaves to a decadent ruling class.

Inspired by a longing for justice, and driven by the memory of lost love, Darrow joins a resistance group in order to infiltrate the ruling class and destroy society from within. He will stop at nothing to bring down his enemies . . . even if it means he has to become one of them to do so.  Retrieved from http://www.redrisingbook.com/book.php

  • ISBN:  978-0-345-53978-6
  • Subjects:
    • Space Travel/ Colonization – Fiction
    • Caste systems – Fiction
    • Slavery – Fiction
    • Dystopian – Fiction
    • Resistance to government – Fiction

Reader’s Annotation: When I lost Eo, I lost my soul.  Why shouldn’t I take from them everything they took me?

Book Trailer(s): https://youtu.be/s6nj5ci_LMw

Plot Summary (150-200): “’I live for the dream that my children will be born free,’ she says. ‘That they will be what they like. That they will own the land their father gave them.’

‘I live for you’, I say sadly.

Eo kisses my cheek. ‘Then you must live for more.’”

Darrow is a Red in a society genetically manipulated to form groups designated to work in very specific areas of society.  Reds are the lowest of the groups and spend their entire lives in underground communities mining materials for the other groups to use to colonize Mars.  What they don’t know is that the colonization was completed many generations earlier and that their labors are going to support a corrupt system that treats them as slaves and denies them the benefits of their work.  Any Red to challenges the established order or commits even the smallest offences runs the risk of execution and Darrow loses his much loved young, pregnant wife to just such an offence.  Following her death, Darrow is drawn into a wild scheme to bring about revolution and justice for all the Reds and the other lower caste groups by infiltrating the elite ruling class of the Golds.  He undergoes genetic and physical alteration as well as months of training so that he can pass for a Gold and compete with other young Golds at the Institute where they will fight against each other to gain positions of power in the various ruling houses.  Darrow must do more than change his appearance to succeed; he must also reject the very values that lead him to join the revolution.  To destroy the Golds, he must become what he hates.

Critical Evaluation:  Dystopian stories are all the rage currently in YA literature, and Red Rising is an excellent example of one.  While it is very violent and brutal, the situation the characters exist in is very violent and brutal.  The primary characters themselves are well written.  It would have been easy for the author to make all the Gold’s monsters and all the Revolutionaries, saints but he doesn’t.  A critical part of the story is the growing conflict the main character feels about the Gold’s he becomes acquainted with and learns to care for.  How can he do what he must when he begins to see them as more than the killers he believed them to be?

The overall society, especially for the Golds, seems based on that of Ancient Sparta.  Strength and a willingness to fight and kill for what they want is the prime characteristic of the top level of the Martian society.  They are warriors and have little regard for anyone, male or female, who can’t live up to the standard that they have created.  Of all the dystopian stories I have read, I believe this one does the best job of creating a society that is at once very human and at the same time a work of science fiction.  The society created to live on Mars is the product of genetic manipulation by corporate and political interests on Earth anxious to capitalize on the natural resources available there and in space.  Of course, things didn’t work out as planned and a powerful new society was created.  This is one of the things I liked about the book because good science fiction should have a message and the messages found in this book are profound regarding mankind’s propensity for making really stupid mistake in the name of profit.

Author’s Brief Bio:  Pierce Brown spent his childhood building forts and setting traps for cousins in the woods of six states and the deserts of two. Graduating from college in 2010, he fancied the idea of continuing his studies at Hogwarts. Unfortunately, he doesn’t have a magical bone in his body. So while trying to make it as a writer, he worked as a manager of social media at a startup tech company, toiled as a peon on the Disney lot at ABC Studios, did his time as an NBC page, and gave sleep deprivation a new meaning during his stint as an aide on a U.S. Senate campaign. Now he lives Los Angeles, where he scribbles tales of spaceships, wizards, ghouls, and most things old or bizarre.

Genre Designation: Science Fiction

Possible Curriculum Links:

  • Space Travel and Colonization
  • Political Science
  • Sociology
  • Biology / Evolution

Book Talk Ideas:  Is it ever okay to do bad things for good reasons?

Materials Relating to Potential Challenges:


Why this book was selected.  After reading the book jacket I though it sounded like an interesting read and a change from the female driven books that most dystopian stories.

Thicker Than Water by Kelly Fiore

thicker-than-waterBibliographic Information:

  • Publisher, Date: HarperTeen, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, 2016
  • Edition: First
  • Description: 307 pages; 22cm          
  • Interest Level:  YA
  • Summary: Perfect for fans of Ellen Hopkins—a heartbreaking tale of family tragedy and drug addiction where sometimes the best intentions lead to the worst possible outcomes.

Cecelia Price killed her brother. At least, that’s what the police and the district attorney are saying. Although CeCe is now locked up and forced into treatment, she knows the story is much more complicated. Cyrus wasn’t always a drug-addled monster. He used to be a successful athlete, but when an injury forced Cyrus off the soccer field and onto pain medication, his life became a blur of anger, addiction, and violence.

All CeCe could do was stand by and watch, until she realized an effective way to take away her brother’s drugs while earning the money she needed for college: selling the pills. Only she never expected what happened next.

  • ISBN: 978-0-06-232473-3
  • Subjects:
    • Illegal sale of drugs – Fiction
    • Murder – Fiction
    • Drug abuse/teenage – Fiction
    • Prescription drug abuse – Fiction
    • Family issues – Fiction

Reader’s Annotation: So, what was I supposed to do?  How was I to know that by selling his drugs and solving two problems at one time I would end up here and he would end up dead.

Plot Summary:  CeCe Price was a good student on her way to a promising career in science when her world devolved into something from an afternoon special for teens.  A series of terrible decisions by members of her family following the death of her mother leaves her floundering and leads her to make all the wrong decisions for all the wrong reasons.  Her brother Cyrus turns to prescription drugs after a career ending knee injury while in high school and her father, unable to cope with the mess he’s made of his own life in the wake of his first wife’s death, refuses to see or deal realistically with anything.   CeCe decides she can solve two problems – her brother’s drug use and her father’s financial failings – by selling some of the drugs Cyrus uses.  Eventually though, things go terribly wrong and CeCe finds herself in jail for causing the death of her brother.  But was she really responsible?

Critical Evaluation:  Overall, this was a really excellent look at a very topical problem: the over-prescription of opiates and the abuse of such drugs by teenagers.  CeCe is so typical of many of the kids I see even in middle school, who are good kids struggling to do the right thing and be successful in school with absolutely no support from the adults in their lives.  The author does an excellent job of creating a real person that the reader can empathize with.  The only problem I really had with the story is that I found it difficult to believe that any parent could be as dense and self-deluded as her father was, but sadly, in the face of endless news stories, he was very realistic.  The story moves between CeCe in her present which was after the death of her brother and while she is awaiting trial at a behavioral treatment center, and the past events that got her there.  You can see how desperately she tries to hold things together, and how miserably she fails.  She is, after all, only seventeen years old which is clear from how the writer portrays her, and doing what most seventeen year olds do under stress.  Choosing badly.  This is an excellent examination of a terrible tragedy that is impacting society today, well written and compelling.

Author’s Brief Bio:  Kelly Fiore-Stultz has a BA in English from Salisbury University and an MFA in Poetry from West Virginia University. She received an Individual Artist Award from the Maryland State Arts Council in 2005 and 2009. Kelly’s poetry has appeared in Small Spiral Notebook, Samzidada, Mid Atlantic Review, Connotation Press, and the Grolier Annual Review. Her first young adult novel, Taste Test, was released in August 2013 from Bloomsbury USA, and her second, Just Like the Movies, again from Bloomsbury, was releasted in 2014. Forthcoming novels include Thicker Than Water from HarperTeen in 2015.

Kelly lives and teaches in West Virginia with three children, two dogs, one hedgehog, and a very patient and loving husband.  Retrieved from http://kellyfiorewrites.com/about/

Genre Designation: Realistic Fiction

Possible Curriculum Links:

  • Social Studies: Current Events
  • Mental Health Issues

Book Talk Ideas:  What would you do if you had no money and needed it to keep a roof over your head?

Materials Relating to Potential Challenges:


  • School Library Journal; review published on January 1, 2016; positive review

Why this book was selected.  Although I don’t generally read realistic fiction since it is generally depressing, the timeliness of this topic and the importance of the issues made me think it would be a good book for inclusion in my library.


Upside Down in the Middle of Nowhere by Julie T. Lamana

upside-down-in-the-middle-of-nowhereBibliographic Information:

  • Publisher, Date: Chronicle Books, 2014
  • Edition: First
  • Description: 313 pages ; 22 cm
  • Interest Level: 7 to YA
  • Summary: “Armani Curtis can think about only one thing: her tenth birthday. All her friends are coming to her party, her mama is making a big cake, and she has a good feeling about a certain wrapped box. Turning ten is a big deal to Armani. It means she’s older, wiser, more responsible. But when Hurricane Katrina hits the Lower Nines of New Orleans, Armani realizes that being ten means being brave, watching loved ones die, and mustering all her strength to help her family weather the storm. A powerful story of courage and survival, Upside Down in the Middle of Nowhere celebrates the miraculous power of hope and love in the face of the unthinkable.” Retrieved from http://www.chroniclebooks.com/upside-down-in-the-middle-of-nowhere.html
  • ISBN: 978-1-45212-456-8
  • Subjects:
    • Modern Events – Fiction
    • Hurricanes – Fiction
    • Family Issues – Fiction

Reader’s Annotation: A birthday with no friends?!  That stupid storm is ruining my special day!

Plot Summary: Armani lives in the Lower Nines, a bowl-shaped section New Orleans that lies below sea level in some areas but is protected by levees.  On her birthday Hurricane Katrina hits and while she and her family manage to survive that, the breeching of the levees were a different matter.  When the dark, dirty waters roll over the Nines, Armani and her family retreat to the attic barely getting inside before the water fills the house below them and traps them in the hot, cramped space.  In the first night she loses her beloved Grandmother whose health can’t take the stress caused by the catastrophe.  The next day they are forced onto the roof, where the puppy she’d gotten for her birthday, falls into the swirling water, followed by her older brother who was trying to save her.  Her father then goes in to try and save the boy, and all three disappear.  While they are saved by a passing man with a boat her life doesn’t get much easier as she becomes separated from her mother and one sibling, leaving her responsible for two little sisters in a chaotic world.  As she navigates the world of refugees, Armani finds that there are many unpleasant people but that there are also people who step up and work to fill the voids in her life.

Critical Evaluation: One of the most difficult things to do is write effectively about people who come from a different culture than you do.  Some writers have an innate empathy which allows them to understand how other cultures work for its members but most don’t.  Julie Lamana seems to be able to reach into the lives of her subjects and recreate them in a believable and deeply personal way.  Armani and her family are African Americans living in an insular and culture specific area of the United States but they are brought to life in a way that could put them next door to anyone anywhere without disrespecting the various aspects of their culture.  You know these people; they are your family and friends; they are all of us.  The book is both terrible and wonderful in its depiction of a family enduring terror and loss that shakes them to their core but doesn’t beat them.  This is a deeply moving account of an American tragedy told from the point of view of a child who was no longer one in the wake of the storm.  The only real complaint I have was the number of times I had to stop and wait for the tears to clear up so I could keep reading.

Author’s Brief Bio: “Julie T. Lamana grew up in a military family, moving frequently throughout the U.S. and abroad. She went to kindergarten in Japan, where she discovered her love for storytelling while watching Japanese television and making up stories to go along with the images on the screen!

Fortunately, or unfortunately, Julie attended seven different schools in second grade alone and many others over the years, before her family finally settled in Colorado when Julie was in the eighth grade. Moving so often made it difficult to maintain meaningful relationships, which led her at a very young age to the magic found within the pages of books…lots of books.

In 1995, Julie and her husband packed up their six children, two dogs and neurotic cat, and left their cabin tucked away in the Rocky Mountains and relocated to Louisiana. After taking some time to adjust to living at sea-level, Julie continued her career in education and her passion for literacy.

Julie is now retired and spends most of her time at her writing desk. She often gazes out the window where she’s surrounded by ancient oaks and pecan trees, overlooking a pond that may or may not be home to various snakes and alligators.

Julie has been a member of the SCBWI since 2007. She is currently hard at work on her next middle grade project.”  Retrieved from  http://www.adamsliterary.com/julie-t-lamana/

Genre Designation: Realistic fiction

Possible Curriculum Links:

  • Science / Weather related
  • Political Science / Government effectiveness

Book Talk Ideas

  • Are you prepared for a natural disaster?
  • Where would you go and what would you take with you?
  • What would you do if you had a medical emergency during a flood, earthquake or other natural disaster?

Materials Relating to Potential Challenges:


Why this book was selected.  I remember watching the new during Hurricane Katrina and being stunned by what I saw.  This book does an excellent job of looking beyond the news to the people who lived the event.


The Body of Christopher Creed by Carol Plum-Ucci

body-of-chris-creedBibliographic Information:

  • Publisher, Date: Harcourt, Inc., 2000
  • Edition: Most recent copy, 2008
  • Description:  259 pages; 18 cm
  • Interest Level:  YA
  • Summary: Chris Creed grew up as the class freak and the bullies’ punching bag. After he vanished, the weirdness that had once surrounded him began spreading. And it tore the town apart. Sixteen-year-old Torey Adams search for answers opens his eyes to the lies, the pain, and the need to blame someone when tragedy strikes, and his once-safe world comes crashing down around him.  Retrieved from https://www.amazon.com/Body-Christopher-Creed-Carol-Plum-Ucci/dp/0152063862
  • ISBN: 978-0-329-67188-4 (originally 978-0-15-206386-3)
  • Subjects:
    • Missing persons – Fiction
    • Juvenile Social Issues – Fiction
    • Legal Rights – Fiction

Reader’s Annotation: God, Creed is one of the most annoying people in the world.  I could just kill him; but I didn’t.

Plot Summary:  The story begins a year after the events surrounding the disappearance of a high school junior named Christopher Creed.  Torey Adams, a popular kid from a school in New Jersey finds himself drawn into the mystery surrounding this disappearance.  Creed, a kid he has known ‘forever’ just vanished after sending out a cryptic email message that some see as a suicide note and others fear is a misdirection by someone who has murdered the boy.  Creed was a seriously unpopular person whose behavioral quirks made him a victim of bullies and lead to his being generally rejected by everyone else.  Despite his own personal dislike of Chris, Torey finds himself pulled into the effort to solve the mystery by a friend, Ali and her other-side of the tracks boyfriend, Bo Richardson. Because Bo had once injured Chris who had been annoying him, Bo becomes a prime suspect in the minds of the authorities and Creed’s very strange mother.  The new relationship between Torey and Bo leads to the assumption that Torey was connected to his disappearance and effectively ruins his life in the school and town.  The question of where Christopher Creed went eventually becomes secondary to the power of gossip and rumor in a small town.

Critical Evaluation:  I read one review of this book that was negative based primarily on the reviewer interpretation of the characters as sounding younger than they were supposed to be.  Frankly, I often find the opposite to be true when dealing with YA literature; the characters frequently sound like thirty-somethings trying to be seventeen.  In this case I didn’t find the characters particularly young sounding.  At worst they sounded a bit over-protected and since that was one of the characteristics the author intended for them to have, that was okay.  In many ways this was a very realistic view of kids in that no matter how close some people are, they will turn on another member of the group if that member violates the rules that govern them.  Torey’s friends turned on him not because they really suspected him of harming Chris but because he was associating with a social inferior.  In many of their minds, that was worse than murder.

One problem I did have with the book was the first and last chapters which are written a year after the events of the story.  I don’t generally like flashbacks but as I read the story, I decided it was a small flaw that I could live with.  And while the book has a slow start, once Bo comes into the picture the story gets much more interesting.  I almost wish it had been written from his point of view because he was a much more interesting character than most of the others.  Overall, this is an excellent exploration not of murder or mayhem but of how quickly life can turn on a person.  Torey learned the hard way that something doesn’t have to be true to be dangerous or destructive.  The book does an excellent job of showing the fragility of life and how no good deed goes unpunished.

Author’s Brief Bio:  Carol Plum-Ucci attended the Brigantine Public Schools, Atlantic City Friends School, and Holy Spirit High School, graduating in 1975. She earned her bachelor’s degree in Communication from Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana in 1979. She attended Rutgers University and received her Master of Arts degree 2004.

Plum-Ucci received one of the nation’s top literary honors for her first novel, THE BODY OF CHRISTOPHER CREED, a suspense story set in the historic woods of Southern New Jersey. The novel received one of four Michael J. Printz Honor Book Awards, sponsored by the American Library Association, recognizing the best literature published for young adults. The novel also was a finalist in the Edgar Allan Poe Awards and was named to the Reader’s International Children’s Choice Awards List.

Genre Designation: Mystery / Drama Fiction

Possible Curriculum Links:  English

Book Talk Ideas:  How would you deal with your friends suddenly turning on you?

Materials Relating to Potential Challenges:


Why this book was selected.  It was required reading for a course.

The Gilded Cage by Lucinda Gray

the-gilded-cageBibliographic Information:

  • Publisher, Date: Henry Holt and Company, 2016
  • Edition: First
  • Description: 245 pages; 22 cm.
  • Interest Level:  YA
  • Summary: After growing up on a farm in Virginia, Walthingham Hall in England seems like another world to sixteen-year-old Katherine Randolph. Her new life, filled with the splendor of upper class England in the 1820s, is shattered when she discovers the corpse of her brother George in a lake on the estate-the tragic accidental drowning of a young man, the coroner reports, despite the wound to George’s head.  Katherine is expected to observe the mourning customs and get on with her life, but she can’t accept that her brother’s death was an accident. A bitter poacher prowls the estate, and strange visitors threaten the occupants of the house. There’s a rumor, too, that a wild animal stalks the woods of Walthingham.

Can Katherine retain her sanity long enough to find out the truth? Or will her brother’s killer claim her life, too?

  • ISBN: 978-1-62779-181-6
  • Subjects:
    • English History – Fiction
    • American History – Fiction
    • Women’s Rights – Fiction

Reader’s Annotation: My brother lies dead, cold and pale in another wing of this huge old place.  But my anger is not cold, it’s hot as a Virginia summer and I will have justice.

Plot Summary:  Picked up from the wilds of 1821 Virginia and transplanted to the gilded halls of an English manor home, young Katherine Randolph finds that all that glitters is not gold.  When she and her older brother, George, are told they are the inheritors of a lordship in England upon the death of a grandfather they knew nothing about, they left the rural Virginia farm where they lived to embrace a new way of life in the old country.  But shortly after they’ve arrived, George is found dead and presumed drowned, something Katherine refuses to accept.  She believes she was murdered and her efforts to determine how he died leads to another death and the realization that both deaths were the result of foul play.  Katherine finds herself first sedated to control her investigation then committed to a mental when she becomes a risk to those responsible.  With the help of a clever young lawyer she escapes and works to being justice to the evil doers.

Critical Evaluation:  One of the first Gothic romances I ever read was written by Victoria Holt but it’s been so long I couldn’t tell you which one.  What I can tell you is it was better than this one.  Books written by writers such as Holt or Barbara Michael’s could easily be read by YA readers today as they lacked any objectionable materials but were replete with danger and tension, two things sadly lacking in this book.  I chose this book for my library collection because of the cover and because the kids in my school like books like this but I am very disappointed in it.  The initial introduction of the main character Katherine presents us with a young woman of early America who is practicing with a rifle and shooting tin cans.  This was the first point that gave me pause as tin cans did not become widely used in the US until around 1840.  The second problem can with the discussion of fashions the women wore in England.  The author mentions crinolines but 1821 England was the period associated with Jane Austen and with simple, Greek inspired dresses. So, why are these two minor points important?  Because they demonstrate a lack of respect by the author for the genre and the history of the characters she is writing about.  She starts off with the possibility of a strong female character but writes her in an inconsistent manner.  On the one hand she is convinced her brother is murdered but then she allows people to give her medications to make her more controllable.  Overall, the reader is left with the idea that the books was thrown together from bits and pieces of other better gothic novels but with no real respect or understanding of the genre.

Author’s Brief Bio:  [Information about this author is very limited.] Lucinda Gray is the pseudonym of an American novelist who lives in New York. Retrieved from http://us.macmillan.com/thegildedcage/lucindagray/9781627791816

Genre Designation: Mystery (Historical)

Possible Curriculum Links: Women’s roles in history.

Book Talk Ideas:  How far would you go to find the truth?

Materials Relating to Potential Challenges:


Why this book was selected.  I like historical mysteries and this one looked interesting.

The Silent Boy by Andrew Taylor

the-silent-boyBibliographic Information:

  • Publisher, Date: HarperCollins, 2014
  • Edition: First
  • Description: 424 pages; 25 cm
  • Interest Level:  AD
  • Summary: Paris, 1792. Terror reigns as the city writhes in the grip of revolution. The streets run with blood as thousands lose their heads to the guillotine. Edward Savill, working in London as agent for a wealthy American, receives word that his estranged wife Augusta has been killed in France. She leaves behind ten-year-old Charles, who is brought to England to Charnwood Court, a house in the country leased by a group of migrant refugees.  And only when Savill arrives there does he discover that Charles is mute. The boy has witnessed horrors beyond his years, but what terrible secret haunts him so deeply that he is unable to utter a word?  Retrieved from https://www.harpercollins.co.uk/9780007506606/the-silent-boy
  • ISBN: 978-0-00-813135-7
  • Subjects:
    • History – Fiction
    • Mystery – Fiction

Reader’s Annotation: I can not speak, can not tell them what I saw.  I can only run and run until I find someplace without so much blood.

Plot Summary:  In his second book, featuring Edward Savill, Taylor tells the story of Edward’s wife and the child she had by another man.  After she is murdered violently in front of her son, the traumatized child is taken to England by other refugees from the violence of the French revolution.  His wife had lead several men to believe they were the child’s father and one of them is struggling to keep him.  Edward, initially working with his ex-wife’s father, is the legal guardian of the child since the two were still married when the child was born.  But things are not as simple as they appear.  He had thought his wife had been merely unfaithful but, as he learns more about her, he realizes she was working for the British government possibly as a spy.  Moreover, the story of her son and her subsequent death, have a twisted dark reality that he knew nothing about.  To save himself and the boy he must find the truth.

Critical Evaluation:  I have always loved a good historical novel and if it happens to be a mystery, that’s even better.  Having read the first book by Taylor featuring Savill, I hoped The Silent Boy would be as good; I was not disappointed.  Taylor has created a hero in Savill who is better than his times.  He is a good man, who faced with the very real evidence of his estranged wife’s betrayal in the form of her orphaned son, only sees a frightened child and his daughter’s half-brother.  When pressured by his father-in-law to give the child to him, Edward stands firm, determined not to make a decision that would not be in the child’s best interest.  Taylor has accomplished something that many writers of history fail to do; create a character that reveals a little known feature of history in the form of a man who is a true humanitarian.  Humanism was a critical aspect of the period of European and American history that lead to the creation of the United States and to the French Revolution.  Edward is a very human person, with all the flaws and strengths associated with being human but he works on his flaws and struggles to both know and do the right thing.  The rest of the characters are equally well thought out and constructed, in particular the villain of the piece who is ultimately responsible for all the evils of the story and a thoroughly rotten person.  Overall, this is a story of a man who faced with tragedy demonstrates what it means to be a good person without being a caricature of one.  The book is well written and compelling, and should appeal to anyone regardless of their interest in history.

Author’s Brief Bio:  Andrew Taylor has been a full-time writer since 1981, and has written over twenty books. He has been described by The Times as ‘One of Britain’s best writers of psychological suspense.’

Having decided to become a writer at the age of ten, he claims that it was his newly recognized facility for writing stories, teamed with the idea that a writer’s life consisted of not wearing a tie to work, that first attracted him to the career. ‘Another thing I like about crime fiction’ he asserts, ‘is its lack of pretension. It sets out to entertain – it’s fiction with its sleeves rolled up.’  In the years preceding Andrew Taylor’s breakthrough in the literary world, he worked as a boat-builder, wages clerk, teacher, librarian, labourer and freelance publisher’s editor. Since then, Public Lending Right estimates place his British public library readership in the top one per cent.

His novels include the Dougal and Lydmouth crime series, the psychological thriller The Barred Window and his ground-breaking Roth Trilogy, now published in one volume as Requiem for an Angel. He also reviews and writes about crime fiction, particularly in the Independent. Awards received for his books include the John Creasey Memorial award from the Crime Writer’s Association and an Edgar Scroll from the Mystery Writers of America, both for Caroline Minuscule, and the CWA’s Ellis Peters Historical Dagger. The Roth Trilogy was adapted into acclaimed ITV drama Fallen Angel. The American Boy was a 2005 Richard & Judy Book Club choice.

He lives in the Forest of Dean with his wife, a photographer, and their two children.  Retrieved from https://www.harpercollins.co.uk/cr-109951/andrew-taylor-1

Genre Designation:  Mystery

Possible Curriculum Links:

  • American History
  • French History
  • English History

Book Talk Ideas:  What was the most frightening experience you’ve ever had?

Materials Relating to Potential Challenges:


Why this book was selected.  I love historical mystery books, if they are well written and this one was.