‘Somewhere Out There’ by Amy Hatvany: A story of sisterhood and survival


Rating: 4 stars

“Somewhere Out There” by Amy Hatvany is her sixth book, a polished piece with authentic dialogue and a plot that keeps the reader reading long past her bedtime. The pronoun “her” is because “Somewhere Out There” is book that will appeal to women, especially women who have a sister.

It’s about three women. Jennifer is a teenage mother who is ill-equipped at sixteen years old to handle her first child, and less equipped to handle two of them when she is twenty. While trying to steal some food to feed her children, she is arrested. The family had basically been living in her car for the previous three years, “camping” as she called it, when she was arrested.

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‘A Murder in Time’ by Julie McElwain: Mystery with scifi twist


Rating: 4 1/2 stars

With her debut novel, “A Murder in Time,” Julie McElwain establishes her place as a solid writer who can combine a mystery story with a time-travel twist and some romance thrown in. It’s an unusual trio, but McElwain makes it work.

Kendra Donovan, the protagonist, is a brilliant FBI agent. She was a precocious child who entered college as a young teenager, and she was the youngest person to join the FBI in its history. When during a raid, half her team is killed because of a mole, Kendra decides to track down the person responsible. He cooperates, and is not prosecuted. But this villain caused the deaths of her friends and partners, and Kendra is determined to make him pay. Continue reading

‘Map of Fates’ by Maggie Hall is second in ‘Conspiracy of Us’


Rating: 4 stars

“The Map of Fates” continues the story that began in “The Conspiracy of Us” by Maggie Hall, wherein Avery West, a high school girl, is whisked off to Europe to a life of intrigue and espionage after her mother is kidnapped and she discovers that the part of the family she has never met is involved with a secret society that runs the world.

In this book, she is continuing on her journey to find out how to help her kidnapped mother by solving the mystery about Napoleon’s clues to a treasure that may rest in Alexander the Great’s long-lost tomb. He left the fate of the world in the hands of the twelve families he trusted — twelve families who live around the world, from England to Saudi Arabia and Japan.

There is the requisite love triangle, with Avery torn between Jack, the “keeper” of her family, and Stellan, the “keeper” of the opposition’s family. A “keeper” is an employee who works for one of the important families and is loyal to them unto death. The three of them and another employee of one of the families, Elodie, must solve the mystery of the bracelet following clues left by the mentor whom they all knew and loved, and who was killed in the first book.

There is also some mysticism and mythology. The “prophesy” is that a girl with violet eyes will join with the one who is immune to fire, and then things will be made right. Avery has discovered who the person who is immune to fire actually is, but how will a union of those people really change anything? And what exactly does a “union” mean?

In this second novel, Avery finds out who really kidnapped her mother and who is pulling the strings that she and the others are following. Can they break free and save her mother? The answer is in this story.

This series is perfect for readers who enjoy thrillers and world travel. A similar series is “All Fall Down” by Ally Carter and its sequel, “See How They Run.”

Please note: This review is based on the final hardcover book provided by the publisher, Putnam, for review purposes.

‘ARF: A Bowser and Birdie Novel’ by Spencer Quinn


Rating: 4 1/2 stars

For those who enjoyed the “Chet and Bernie” series by Spencer Quinn, here is a series for your pint-sized kids to enjoy. “Arf,” the second in the series after “Woof,” is just as entrancing and humorous as the first book. In fact, in this story the mystery of how Birdie’s policeman father died is unraveled. Bowser helps a lot, as do Birdie’s friends in this sleepy town on a bayou.

While the town may seem sleepy, there’s a lot going on. Someone breaks into Birdie’s house, her mother’s job is uncertain, and her friend is in trouble. Birdie, and Bowser, have a mystery to solve. The police chief’s son helps as much as he can even though he’s sure to get in trouble if his father finds out. But Birdie is the only one who can (and will) solve the mystery.

Quinn beautifully evokes life on the water in this small Southern town and his young characters are delightful. One might be certain that Bowser is Chet in another state — or maybe a brother? Their voice is remarkably similar.

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‘What We Saw’ by Aaron Hartzler: Young adult social commentary

what we saw

Rating: 4 stars

What happens when a girl from the wrong side of the tracks gets blacked-out drunk at a party and is sexually violated by several of the jocks in attendance? And Kate, another girl who attended the party and got drunk, wonders what happened at that party after she left. Her boyfriend took her home, but the other girl was not as lucky. This book was inspired by the real events that took place in Steubenville, Ohio, when a teenage girl at a party got extremely intoxicated and was raped by several of the jocks from her high school.

The story plays out much as it did in real life, but this time, the reader gets to know the characters involved. The characters that Hartzler creates are people we are familiar with: the son of the wealthy family who feels himself entitled to all he can get away with, and the kids from the poor side of town who are sneered at and mocked by those kids with more money, better clothes, and bigger homes.

The author utilizes first person narration, which helps because the reader knows what Kate is thinking and what her motivation is. Kate thinks about the difference between her and the unfortunate Stacey. Stacey didn’t have friends at the party to help her and take her home safely. Kate had Ben, a friend from childhood who becomes more than a friend over the course of the story.

And when the whole town backs the jocks — because they are the basketball players who are going to take the high school to the state championship — Kate wonders where the town’s morality went. One of the mysteries that Kate wants to solve is who exactly was there when the rapes took place, and how much does Ben know. The answers to those questions is complex, chilling, and predictable. The predictability of the ending doesn’t detract from the story at all — in fact, it feels rather inevitable.

Hartzler’s writing style is polished, and he uses his effective narrative to move the plot along at a rapid pace. It’s a hard book to put down, and at the same time it’s a book that is difficult to read because we know that the events in the story really took place — in small-town America. Perhaps this book should be read — and thoroughly discussed — by all high school freshman. No means no. That’s it.

Please note: This review is based on the final hardcover book provided by HarperTeen for review purposes.

‘Unidentified Suburban Object’ by Mike Jung: Middle grade fiction


Rating: 4 stars

“Unidentified Suburban Object” by Mike Jung is the story of a girl of Korean descent who is frustrated by her white-bread town and the fact that most of its inhabitants don’t know Korean people from Chinese or Japanese people.

Chloe is frustrated by the stereotypes, which include calling her by the name of a famous Korean violinist just because she plays the violin. In a sense, Chloe does fit the stereotype because she is a fierce student and competitive musician. She must be first chair in the orchestra, and she must get the best grades on all assignments.

Chloe is fascinated by her Korean heritage, but she is frustrated by her parents’ refusal to talk about being Korean. When she makes Korean food, they barely even notice. When she wears a traditional Korean dress (that she bought online), they don’t notice. When a new teacher arrives who is Korean, Chloe is thrilled that she will finally have someone to talk to about being Korean.

But a class assignment about family stories leads to a huge shock — and a huge surprise — for Chloe (and the reader). When she loses her Korean identity, Chloe is not sure just how she fits in.

“Unidentified Suburban Object” is well-written. It features an authentic first person narration. Middle grade readers will find the story entertaining and — one might hope — thoughtful. Not only is diversity discussed in the story, it also illustrates a student who is driven to be the best even at the expense of her classmates. Is that healthy? This would be a great choice for a group read to be discussed with the teacher.

Please note: This review is based on the final paperback book provided by the publisher, Arthur A. Levine Books (Scholastic), for review purposes.

‘Slacker’ by Gordon Korman: Middle grade fiction


Rating: 4 stars

“Slacker” by Gordon Korman is much like some of Korman’s other books. The main character is a kid who will be familiar to most of us — child or adult. Cameron (Cam) Boxer is, just like the eponymous title, a slacker. He doesn’t care about school, he doesn’t care about extracurricular activities, he just cares about playing video games.

His goal is to play in the Rule the World competition where the winner walks away with $10,000. His family’s furniture store is losing business because of the new mall outside of town, and the downtown is in trouble. To make matters worse, the ramp off the highway is slated to close, meaning that even fewer people would bother to go shopping in their town rather than going to mall with its immediate access from the highway.

But Cam has more immediate concerns. After an especially intense gaming session where his house almost burns down (because he didn’t turn off the oven), his parents grow concerned about the time that Cam spends in the basement on the computer. Cam, as the reader very quickly realizes, is hooked on playing games. He sneaks into the bathroom at school to play, and he plays every waking minute when he isn’t forced to do something else. His two best friends play with him, and his biggest frustration when playing is his arch-nemesis, Evil McKillPeople, who beats him at every single game. Every single one.

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‘War Hawk: A Tucker Wayne Novel’ by James Rollins and Grant Blackwood


Rating: 4 stars

The story of Tucker Wayne — and, more importantly to some of us — his incredible military dog Kane, continues in “War Hawk,” cowritten by James Rollins and Grant Blackwood. Their story was first told in “The Kill Switch.”

In this story, Tucker Wayne is on his way to a vacation with Kane in the national forests when an old girlfriend finds him and draws him into a mystery. People she worked with on a national defense project have been disappearing, and she is worried that there are nefarious forces at work, killing the workers to silence them permanently. He and Kane, the brilliant and faithful former military K9, go to investigate and are drawn into a war of global proportions.

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‘Some Kind of Courage’ by Dan Gemeinhart: wonderful middle grade story

somekindof courage

Rating: 5 stars

To say that “Some Kind of Courage” by Dan Gemeinhart is a wonderful story is like saying that Michael Jordan was a wonderful basketball player. On one level, this book is a historical fiction piece about a boy who has lost everything except his horse. Then, when he loses his horse — his beloved horse — he does everything he can to get her back. It’s a lovely story of determination, grit, loyalty, and bravery that will enthrall middle grade readers.

But this story is also a kind of fairy tale. When Joseph sets out on his journey to rescue his horse, Sarah, there are many obstacles along the way. And just as in many fairy tales the hero is tested while on a journey, so is Joseph tested. Will he stop to help a Chinese boy who is all alone in the world and starving? Will he help a women in pain and stay with her for days even though his horse is getting farther away with every moment of delay?

Joseph is a fabulous main character. In spite of adversity, he keeps his moral compass, he shows compassion to others (including animals), he fights bigotry, and he inspires loyalty. This would be a superb choice for the fourth or fifth grade classroom because of the myriad inquiry projects that would naturally spring from the story. Historical research about the Washington State area; what native American tribes lived there and how they were treated by settlers; and the Chinese immigration for the purpose of building a railroad and what happened to the immigrants after the railroad was completed. These are just a few of the projects that would spark the interest of those reading this story.

Gemeinhart’s writing is polished and real. The first person narrator sounds authentic, grammatical errors and all. It’s fascinating how he gives Joseph a friend, a Chinese boy named Ah-Kee, who doesn’t speak one word of English. Perhaps one of the themes of the story is that for love or friendship to take place, words aren’t necessary.

Similarly, Joseph and his horse cannot, of course, converse — yet their love for each other jumps off the page. And they are totally and touchingly loyal to each other.

Gemeinhart is also the author of “The Honest Truth,” which is about a boy trying to fulfill one last dream, and which also takes place in Washington State.

Please note: This review is based on the final hardcover book provided by Scholastic Books for review purposes.

Children’s board books for Spring


There are a plethora of board books sure to please even the most finicky reader — be they child or adult.

For the youngest of readers comes “Corduroy’s Colors” and “Corduroy’s Numbers” by MaryJo Scott and published by Viking. Both have rhyme and lots of colors. The illustrations by Lisa McCue are happy and bright and perfect for the children too young to read on their own and just beginning to recognize colors. It’s also a great book (as are many in this list) for children learning to recognize words.

“P Is for Peter” is an ABC board book for young readers with Peter Rabbit and all his friends showing the different letters of the alphabet. “A is for A cozy dormouse” begins the sturdy book and “Z is for Snoozing little bunnies everywhere” ends this ABC book that will delight Peter Rabbit fans. The illustrations are simple drawings colored with pastel shades. Some of the letters will make readers laugh like “L is for lippity, lippity, hop!”

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‘Need’ by Joelle Charbonneau: Young adult fiction asks “what do you need?”


Rating: 4 stars

Need versus want: that’s what Joelle Charbonneau explores in this young adult thriller, “NEED,” about a small town in Wisconsin and how the teens react when a social networking site, NEED, appears asking them what they need.

At first, the “price” for the requests is easy — just get five people to sign up on the site. But the cost of the requests escalates to running errands, errands that seem innocuous at first. When Kaylee Dunham signs up, she knows that her request won’t be granted. She asks for a kidney for her brother who might die without a kidney transplant. She’s made a fool of herself asking everyone in school to be tested as a donor, and she’s desperately trying to find her father (who disappeared shortly after her brother’s diagnosis) to see if he might be a donor.

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Convicted dog fighters can adopt dogs from county shelter with failed policies