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The Berlin Boxing Club by Robert Sharenow (2011)

The sounds of men hitting speed bags and jumping rope mingled with the gutteral grunts of exertion and blended in a strange primitive symphony. The place also had a distinctive animal smell that was warm and damp like a butcher shop on a summer day (p 101).

Fourteen-year-old Karl Stern is a tall, lanky youth when his boxing lessons with champion Max Schmeling begin at the Berlin Boxing Club. Hitler’s Nazi party is just coming to power in Germany and Karl is being bullied at school for his Jewish heritage, though he considers himself a Red with no religious affiliation.

He finds refuge in his apprenticeship at the boxing club, strength training and secretly meeting the beautiful Greta. He is also a passionate cartoon artist. Then his world begins to crumble. His father’s bussiness disappears, his family is evicted and his relationship with Greta is forbidden by law and her parents. Though reluctant to leave, it soon becomes clear to Karl’s father he must take his family out of the country.

Fluid prose, metaphors that reinforced the time period and the narrator’s youthful perspective, a well-paced plot and genuine characters define this novel. While there are several crescendos, the denouement was gripping and a wave of terror clutched at me. An excellent read.

Read other reviews:
Book Smugglers
Opps… Wrong Cookie

I also recommend:

1

A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness (2011)

Stories are wild creatures, the monster said. When you let them loose, who knows what havoc they might wreak (p 51)?

Oh, this book is so goooooood.

Connor has nightmares so terrifying, the monster who appears in his back yard doesn’t scare him in the least. The monster may be the size of a yew tree, contorted with an evil grimace, but it is not scary. Connor’s mother is sick and the treatments she receives only make her worse.  His father is has moved to America with his new wife and child.  At school, Connor is either bullied or ignored. So instead of being afraid of the moster, Connor hopes it can help him. After all, the monster is powerful.

The monster’s help comes in the form of three true stories, with the agreement that Connor will tell a fourth truth. But truth is at the heart of Connor’s nightmares.

This story within a story techinique and the story about story theme have been explored in many other much-discussed novels of 2011: Breadcrumbs, The Mostly True Story of Jack, and The Girl Who Circumnavigated the Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making. Interesting.

This slim novel packs a strong punch. I appreciated it front to back and up and down. It’s a book I don’t want to review in detail because I’m still savoring the experience. I’m not ready to share. Well-written and well-paced with complimentary illustrations, it’s one of the best books of 2011.

Is it elegible for a Newbery? Jonathan Hunt talks about it on Heavy Medal. I would be so disappointed if a sidebar kept this one from being recognized. Of course, there’s always the Printz!

Read other reviews:
Books, Time and Silence
Fuse #8
The Guardian

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Breadcrumbs by Anne Ursu (2011)

A boy got a splinter in his eye, and his heart turned cold. Only two people noticed. One was a witch, and she claimed him for her own. The other was his best friend. And she went after him in ill-considered shoes, brave and completely unprepared (p 155).

Hazel does not fit in at her new school. Most of the children treat her differently though she doesn’t understand why. At home, her mother struggles to provide for her after her father left. Her one happiness is her best friend, Jack. Jack does not belittle her thinking differently and imaginatively. Instead, they are partners in adventure. But Jack also befriends the very boys who tease Hazel, splitting his time deftly between her and them.

One day, a shard from an enchanted mirror enters through his eye and goes directly to his heart. Jack changes. He is mean to Hazel. Then he disappears all together.

Now it is up to Hazel to enter the woods and rescue her friend, Jack, the Prince of Eternity.

Breadcrumbs is, in many ways, a book about books. I counted references to at least ten different titles including: The Chronicles of Narnia, A Wrinkle in Time, The Wizard of Oz, Alice in Wonderland, The Golden Compass, The Snow Queen, Harry Potter, The Keys to the Kingdom, When You Reach Me, and Coraline. Hazel is described as a reader and the author pulls from these sources to describe her experiences.

There was a Nithling in her stomach, chomping away at everything around it. Tears filled her eyes, and she squeezed them away (p 74).

Nithlings are fearsome animal-like creatures formed from nothing in Garth Nix’s The Keys to the Kingdom series. For well-read children, these references will add a layer of understanding and connect prior emotional experiences to the current pleasure.

The first part of the story is (too) slow to unfold. It focuses on Hazel’s friendship with Jack, her tense relationship with her mother, and her unhappiness at her new school. We also learn of a mischievous troll-like creature named Mal and his twisted mirror. His magic mirror “took beautiful things and made them ugly, and it took ugly things and made them hideous” (p 70). When this mirror shatters high above earth, a shard falls into Jack’s eye, changing him.

Part Two picks up the pace with Hazel entering the woods. Here we see shades of Anderson’s other fairy tales and here Ursu explores a variety of themes. Her maticulous exposition pays off (for the most part) as Hazel struggles with identity and Jack weighs the painful reality of his distressed home life vesus the cold serenity of the Snow Queen’s palace. I couldn’t put the book down once Hazel entered the woods.

Read other reviews:
Book Smugglers
Fuse #8
Good Books Good Wine
Jenn’s Bookshelves
Kirkus (starred)
Publisher’s Weekly (starred)

Breadcrumbs | Advance Reader Edition | September 27, 2011 | HarperCollins Childrens | ISBN 978-0062015051 | 336 pages | Ages 8-14 | $16.99

The Snow Queen | Hans Christian Anderson | retold by Naomi Lewis and illustrated by Christian Birmingham | $18.99

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Mock Newbery 2012 Lists

The Ocean County Library KidLit Mock Newbery Club is in full swing. Here is a list of contenders thus far:

The Mostly True Story of Jack by Kelly Barnhill
Amelia Lost by Candice Fleming
Dead End in Norvelt
by Jack Gantos
The Trouble with May Amelia
by Jennifer L. Holm
Inside Out and Back Again
by Thanhhai Lai
Okay for Now
by Gary Schmidt
Wonderstruck
by Brian Selznick
Bigger than a Breadbox by Laurel Snyder
Hound Dog True
by Linda Urban
Breadcrumbs by Anne Ursu
The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making by Catherynne M. Valente

Check out other lists:

A Fuse #8 Production
Eva Perry Mock Newbery Club
OLA/WLA Mock Newbery
SJCPL Mock Newbery

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Eight Keys by Suzanne LaFleur (2011)

One morning, after rushing to wash my face and brush my teeth with one hand, I left with only a few minute to catch the bus. I had to hurry, but instead, my steps got smaller and smaller, and slower and slower. By the time I got to the bus stop, nobody was there (p 41).

When I picked up LaFleur’s debut title, Love, Aubrey, the plot summary immediately put me in mind of another earlier book called Everything is Fine by Ann Dee Ellis. Regardless, LaFleur’s prose and delivery were satisfying. The plot summary of her follow-up book, Eight Keys, immediately brought to mind Jeremy Fink and the Meaning of Life by the charming Wendy Mass. But once again, LaFleur brings her own lovely prose and well-timed delivery to a tear-jerker of a story.

Elise’s mother died in childbirth. A year later, her father was diagnosed with cancer and given a year or two to live. Since she was three years old, Elise has been raised by her Aunt Bessie and Uncle Hugh. Every year, on her birthday, she is given a letter from her father.

But just before her twelfth birthday, everything changes. Her locker partner teases her, her best friend, Franklin, is considered babyish and her Aunt’s sister – with newborn baby in tow – comes to live with the family. Suddenly, Elise stops doing her homework, she frequently misses the bus and soon, Franklin and she are no longer friends.

Then Elise finds a key with her name on it. She soon discovers it opens one of the eight locked doors in her Uncle’s barn. What she finds will lead her into her past and allow her to solve her current crisis.

Though the keys (and the contents behind the locked doors) propel Elise toward discovery, the outstanding aspects of this novel are found in the portrayal of the bullying Elise suffers under, her change in disposition, the doubts begining to plague her and her struggles to be accepted. LaFleur evokes complex emotions without over-explaining. She writes about various topics in easily understandable and concise prose. While I was tearing up, the story itself is not overly maudlin. To some, this may seem a simple coming-of-age-story but I found it enjoyable and appropriate for those about to enter middle school.

Read my review of Love, Aubrey and Everything is Fine.

Read other reviews:
Kirkus
Publisher’s Weekly (starred)
Random Acts of Reading
So Many Books, So Little Time (includes an interview with LaFleur)

Library copy | August 9, 2011 | Wendy Lamb Books | 224 pages | ISBN 978-0385740302 | $16.99

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Stick by Andrew Smith (10/11/2011)

Half my head is quiet.

 I was born this way.
Most people don’t notice right away, but once they do, I see their faces; I watch how they’ll move around toward that side–the one with the missing part–so they can see what’s wrong me with.
So, here. Look at me.

I’m ugly.

I’d like to preface my summary and review with a sentiment. I was enthralled by this book. Completely. I read it in one sitting.

Stick isn’t his real name. It’s Stark McClellan but everyone calls him stick. He’s thirteen-years-old, six feet tall and, well, a stick. His older brother, Bosten, who is in the eleventh grade, has always looked out for Stick, whether it is protecting Stick from school bullies or their abusive parents. The brothers have formed a loving bond so solid nothing can come between them.

There are many exceptional aspects to Smith’s storytelling. Stick is our first person narrator and the verity of his voice is immediately apparent and consistent.

Things get into my head and they bounce around and around until they                    find a way out.
My mother never talk about my ear. She hardly ever talks to me at all.
I believe she is sad, horrified. I think she blames herself.
Mostly, I think she wishes                   I was never born (p 7).

The prose echo Stick’s thoughts just as his thoughts echo and bounce around in his mind, trapped by his missing part. Stick believes himself ugly – a thought reiterated just often enough that we know it is never far from his thoughts. It is a thought that strips him of whatever fragile confidence he is able to build before the negative external forces in his life tear him down. It colors ever new interaction, magnifying his already meek nature. This is depicted as well as and perhaps even better than other excellent books dealing with physical abnormalities (like North of Beautiful and SLOB). Continue reading

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Hound Dog True by Linda Urban (9/6/2011)

Mattie pulls her pajamas on, which she can do in the dark. She does not need to see her pajamas. She knows they are pale blue with yellow cheese on them, and that the top has three little mouse buttons. Eenie, Meenie, and Miney.
The last button hole stays empty. Moe is long lost.
“Poor Moe,” Mattie says (p 24).

When Mattie is introduced to new people – which is often because she and her mother are always moving – she might be considered shy or even stuck up. She looks down and talks softly, if at all. After all, saying the right thing – the clever thing – is not easy. And Mattie knows that one word, one incorrect word, can be devastating.

Mattie is happy about the latest move. She and her mother will live with her Uncle Potluck while he recovers from an impending knee surgery. Mattie will begin school in one week. Until then, she follows her Uncle, the school’s custodian, as he tends to the building in hopes that he will allow her to spend recess, lunch and other “lawless time” with him instead of being forced to mingle with the students. She studiously records all custodial duties and her Uncle’s sagacious tips.

This book is excellent not only for what is written and how it is written but for what isn’t written. It is a slender book that tackles mother/daughter relationships, bullying, early adolescent worries, the art of  story through writing/drawing, and (a hint of) romance with elegance and brevity. If you have the chance, pop over to Heavy Medal and read this little rant by Jonathan Hunt called Is This Absolutely Necessary? Urban’s Hound Dog True puts those 300+ page books to shame.

The characters, even those with minor appearances, are strongly and clearly portrayed. Uncle Potluck is that rare character that threatens to upstage the main character, even one as deftly developed as Mattie, with his wit and wisdom.

And I haven’t even mentioned Quincey Sweet yet! She is the teenage-looking neighbor whom Mattie avoids until she realizes Quincey is a kindred spirit. This is an exceptional book and a very satisfying second offering from Urban, whose debut novel, A Crooked Kind of Perfect, is a perfect gem.

Hound Dog True has received a starred review from Kirkus. I’ve added to to my Mock Newbery list. Read other reviews: Fuse #8My Sentiments Exactly!, Shelf Awareness and Soup of the Day.

Advance Reader Copy | September 6, 2011 | Harcourt Children’s Books, an imprint of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt | ISBN 978-0-547-55869-1 | $15.99

Cover image courtesy of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company.

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Bluefish by Pat Schmatz (9/13/2011)

“You know how sometimes you don’t know something is stupid until it falls out of your mouth and then it’s too late?”
Travis didn’t have an answer for that one, since he usually kept his stupid thoughts in his own head (p 57-8).

One fish. Two fish. Red fish. Travis. The stupid bluefish. In a new town, Travis hopes to escape his label, but he doesn’t expect to. His Grandpa, a recently recovered alcoholic, is difficult to live with. There’s not much Travis cares about now his dog Rosco is missing. Then Velveeta takes an interest in him.

Velveeta is sharp-tongued and observant. Humorous, but with secrets of her own that we learn through letters to someone named Calvin.

Bluefish is a character story and a good one at that. Travis is illiterate until his new English teacher uses unique methods to engage and teach him. With copy of Haunt Fox in tow, Travis begins to set right the neglect he suffered. Velveeta connects with Travis while reading The Book Thief - sometimes helping, sometimes hindering – and learning plenty about herself in the process.

This is a quick read at a little over 200 pages and it leans a little on two established titles, but carves a niche of its own. Characters are revealed slowly (but not too slowly) and subtly (the only way I like it!) until we are endeared to them, flaws and all. The ending is abrupt but I find I liked it. The characters still have obstacles to face but its real. Life doesn’t tie things up in nice little bows, but personal discoveries will carry Travis and Velveeta through to another day and they may actually find themselves looking forward to it.

This is a review of an advance reader copy provided by the publisher, Candlewick, via NetGalley. Read the Kirkus review.

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Please Ignore Vera Dietz by A.S. King (2010)

Let me tell you – if you think your best friend dying is a bitch, try your best friend dying after he screws you over. It a bitch like no other (p 7).

Vera knows what really happened the night Charlie Khan died. He didn’t kill all those animals, though everyone assumes he did. He wasn’t a bad kid. She knows his father beat his mother and bullied him. She knows he had the spirit of the Great Hunter. After all, she was in love with him.

But that was before he ditched her for Jenny Flick and the Detentionhead crowd. From their youth, the two played together, grew together, protected and supported each other.

Then, during their junior year in High School, Jenny Flick inserted herself into Charlie’s life. Vera never understands why he abandons her for Jenny and her loser friends. But after Charlie acts cruelly toward her, she no longer cares. A few months later, Charlie’s dead.

*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

Vera Dietz has many quality points. It is told from several different perspectives: Charlie’s (aka the dead kid), Ken Dietz (Vera’s dad), even the town’s make out point, the Pagoda. Mostly, it’s told from Vera’s perspective, alternating between the present and ‘history.’ Each voice is unique and genuine. Each contributes to the story.

This is not just a story about Vera and Charlie, about friendship and the hope of romance, but it is also a story about family, community and loss. There’s an element of bullying. Vera hallucinated under the weight of her kept knowledge. She turns to alcohol for relief, and this is handled well and honestly.  

But there’s also some room to trim. Vera begins to drag just before the conclusion and I became a little impatient for things to wrap up. It gets a little repetitive. It just needed a little more editing.

While Vera is a very good book, I didn’t love it. It isn’t as divisive as Nothing nor as unique a plot as Stolen (whose language I often found beautiful). It lacks the economy of text that defines Revolver. (These are the other 2011 Printz honor books.)

But it is darkly humorous and the characterization is excellent. The narration, while it jumps perspective and time, is seemless, a huge feat in itself.

I certainly struggled alongside Vera and, especially her father. I felt a good deal of sympathy for him and I hated him for his weakness. I raged at their enemies, Jenny Flick and Mr. Kahn, and pitied Charlie.

However, the inclusion of Vera’s vocab class words is a technique I’ve seen used by other authors and it just didn’t resonate with me. It seemed… lazy. I would have just had Vera use the words, like parsimonious to describe her dad, rather than tying it to her lessons, as if she was just discovering the words to describe her dad at age 17. On top of all the Zen comments (Which Zen guy said, “If you want to drown, do not torture yourself with shallow water”? p 22) it was a little much. Oh well.

Of course, I still highly recommend this as a great read for older teens. Read other excellent (and more in depth) reviews at: The Book Smugglers, A Chair, a Fireplace and a Tea Cozy, and Reading Rants.

If you enjoy this, I’d also recommend:

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Brutal by Michael Harmon (2009)

I frowned. He should be yelling at me right now for saying those things. He should be telling me none of it was true and that I didn’t understand because I was a kid. Just like mom always did (p 21).

If Coffeehouse Angel was about the mundane middle, Brutal is about the long looser tail and their champion/critic Poe.

Poe’s mother has flown away to Africa to play the Hero Doctor role, sending Poe to live with a father she’s never met. David is exactly like Benders Hollow: sterile, boring, disconnected… at least at at first sight.

Soon, Poe is bucking authority at school and at home, calling them out for their hypocrisy, favoritism and anything else she takes issue with. While spats with the choir director and the PE uniform policy gets things rolling, it’s the tension between her new neighbor, Velvetta, and the school’s top jock Colby Morris. More accurately, it’s Colby’s bullying of Velvetta and the school’s incompetence at addressing it.

Poe and Theo, Poe’s romantic interest, have sharp tongues and quick wit, but will it be enough to change an institution?

Just as I am surprised when a female author completely captures a male perspective (J.K Rowling, Harry Potter), I was surprised that Michael nailed a female perspective, in first-person narration no less!

Poe is a fantastic character in the way of Frankie Landau-Banks. Their missions are the same: equality, or equal difference. Their success is left up to the reader to determine. Both make in roads, and Brutal wraps up with a pretty bow on it, but tradition is a hard thing to undo.

Ultimately, I loved it! Strong voice, strong characters, gripping plot. I highly recommend it. And it’s one of the few books on bullying I found I could tolerate.