Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Between Shades of Gray

Sepetys, Ruta. 2011. BETWEEN SHADES OF GRAY. New York: Philomel Books.

Some of the last century's most harrowing stories didn't come to the surface to be told until much, much later. One case of this was the deportation and imprisonment of thousands of citizens from the Baltic republics of Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia.

These three small nations were swallowed up by Joseph Stalin and the Soviet Union in 1940, and then occupied by Nazi Germany in 1941. 

In June of 1941, over 130,000 were deported from Lithuania and sent to work camps in other parts of the Soviet Union. This is where Between Shades of Gray begins. Lina and her family are awakened in the middle of the night and told they have just a few minutes to gather their belongings. Lina and her mother and younger brother stay together, but they are separated from their father. Then they are herded on to trains in crowded, cramped conditions and eventually stop at a work camp. At the work camp they are forced to perform hard labor with little to no food. They live in a shack and are forced to pay rent to the lady who was already living there. 

They are transferred again to a work camp near the Arctic circle where they are forced to build their own huts to live in. Many do not survive in the harsh Arctic night, when the sun doesn't shine for months at a time.

The 'shades of gray' referenced in the title describe the actions of some of the characters in the novel. Some of the characters that we perceive to be horrible people do kind things, and some people that are close do things that are not so charitable.

I appreciated greatly reading about this piece of history I knew little about. Amazingly, some Lithuanians survived for over a decade as prisoners of the Soviet Union, only to return home to find other people had taken their homes and possessions. However, I felt the book was lacking a certain emotional quality. The narrator almost seemed detached as she described the horrifying things that happened to her and that she witnessed. Lina's mother was a bright spot in this book, a woman who was determined to keep her family together.

I recommend this book, even though it will rip your heart out over and over again.

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Wednesday, December 3, 2014

The Riverman

Starmer, Aaron. 2014. THE RIVERMAN. New York: Farrar Straus Giroux.

This Thanksgiving vacation my husband, daughter and I moved in to our new home. After all of the work that moving houses entails, I was often too tired at night to do much reading, and during the day there were always tasks that needed to be done. Hopefully this week I can get back into my reading habit!

The last book I finished before the Thanksgiving vacation was The Riverman by Aaron Starmer. This book had been mentioned in several articles I read, and also a young adult lit twitter chat that I participated in. So, following the buzz, I picked this book up and started to read.

The Riverman is about a boy named Alistair and a girl named Fiona. Alistair is sort of a loner, and only hangs around with his friend Charlie. Fiona lives in the same neighborhood, and she and Charlie used to play when they were young, but have since lost touch.

Fiona shows up at Alistair's house one day and asks him if she would write her biography. This seems like a strange request for a 12 year old, but Fiona claims that she is already 13. It seems that she has been visiting a magical world called Aquavania, but that in her magical land, there is a creature called the Riverman that is stealing the souls of children. She wants Alistair to record her story before the Riverman gets her.

The book tries to be suspenseful and dark, but I just thought it was weird. There was a lot of build up about this magical world, but I thought it fell flat. I didn't really care about the characters, either. They weren't endearing or even likeable. The structure of the story, switching back and forth between the real world and Fiona's retelling of her magical world, became cumbersome and confusing.

I didn't enjoy this book, but that doesn't mean that you won't love it. I know there is someone out there who would love this book, but it just wasn't me! 

Keep on readin',
Mrs. Cox
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Monday, November 17, 2014

Because of Mr. Terupt

Buyea, Ron. 2010. BECAUSE OF MR. TERUPT. New York: Delacorte.

Mr. Terupt is a new 5th grade teacher at Snow Hill School in Connecticut. This story, told through the voices of seven students in his class, documents how their new teacher affects their lives, and in turn, they affect his after an accident. 

Each chapter is told from a different point of view of one of the seven students. There's Peter, the class clown; Luke, the smart kid; Jeffrey, who is withdrawn and hates school; Jessica, the new girl; Alexia, the 'mean girl'; Danielle, who doesn't stand up for herself; and Anna, who is an outcast because of her family situation. 

The students tell their different sides of events as the year goes on, and it is clear that Mr. Terupt is having an effect on all of them in different ways. Mr. Terupt confronts Alexia when he sees how manipulative and mean she is to her friends. He asks his class to go work with special needs students, and Jeffrey and Peter surprise everyone with how they connect with the students in that class. After an accident happens (I won't give any spoilers!) the students realize that Mr. Terupt taught them more about life than they realized. 

I liked how the story was told from different points of view. This seems to be a popular thing for writers to do these days. This was a little bit more confusing because of the seven different points of view, but after learning more about the characters it became easier to keep up with who was who.

The first half of the book was great, but I felt like the 2nd half sort of ran out of steam. The ending was satisfactory, but I wanted a little bit more information. The strength of this book is in the characters. Even though the chapters are short, Mr. Buyea truly finds the voice of each one. They are all identifiable, too - there are probably kids like these sitting right beside you in class right now.

This was an easy and good read, if you need a break from your fantasy and dystopian books!

Keep 'on reading,
Mrs. Cox
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Friday, November 14, 2014

The Fourteenth Goldfish

Holm, Jennifer. 2014. THE FOURTEENTH GOLDFISH. New York: Random House Children's Books.

The Fourteenth Goldfish by Jennifer Holm (Babymouse and Squish) is a short book that straddles the line between realistic and science fiction. Ellie is a 6th grader. One night, her mom comes home late because she had to go help her grandfather get out of trouble. When her mom comes home, she has a strangely dressed young boy with her. Ellie soon figures out that the young man at her house is actually her grandfather.

Her grandfather, Melvin, is a scientist who worked in a lab. A cab driver from the Phillipines finds an odd specimen of jellyfish and ships it to Melvin. Melvin discovers that he is able to use the jellyfish to create a compound that reverse ages things - it makes them younger. So, he tries it on himself and turns into a 13 year old boy. He gets caught by the police when he tries to sneak back into his lab to get the rest of the jellyfish specimen.

Ellie loves having her grandfather around. He teaches her about several famous scientists and tells her about the power of observation. They have several adventures, including attempting to get into Melvin's lab to rescue the rest of the jellyfish specimen. 

No one seems to question that the odd boy wearing clothes that an older man would wear is a distant cousin of Ellie and her mom. In fact, Ellie thinks the whole thing is 'cool' until her ex-best friend tells her that she thinks her 'cousin' is cute, and Ellie realizes that her grandfather hasn't really thought through his whole reverse-aging experiment. 

I found this book to be choppy, and while it was a quick read, it didn't really hold my interest. The plot was introduced in a comical way, but I didn't find this book to be all that funny. The moral of this book was also way too obvious - enjoy the present moment - but I think that readers could figure this out on their own without being told several times.

It was a quick read with an interesting premise, but I never felt very connected to this story.

Just keep reading,
Mrs. Cox
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Thursday, November 13, 2014

Thirteen Reasons Why

Asher, Jay. 2007. THIRTEEN REASONS WHY. New York: Peguin Young Readers.

Clay Jensen finds a package on his front porch. He opens it to find a map and seven cassette tapes. He pops one in an old cassette player and hears the voice of Hannah Baker. Hannah committed suicide two weeks ago, and these tapes she left behind explain what happened to her. "I hope you're ready, because I'm about to tell you the story of my life. More specifically, why my life ended. And if you're listening to these tapes, you're one of the reasons why."

Soon Clay goes over to his acquaintance Tony's house, where he steals an old cassette walkman to listen to the rest of the tapes. The walkman will let him go from place to place that Hannah points out on the map.  So he spends all night walking, riding a bus, and riding with Tony to visit the places Hannah mentions and listen to her story unfold. 

A new student at the high school, Hannah finds herself the victim of rumors. Rumors that are far from true, but that she can see everyone else around her believes. These affect her relationships with other people and how other people choose to treat her. Clay has a huge crush on Hannah, but he's afraid to talk to her or ask her out because of her reputation.

This book is very suspenseful and very sad. I didn't know what was going to happen and how all of the people in the book were going to all fit together.  The structure of Thirteen Reasons Why was really interesting and unique. Instead of switching point of view and narrator with the beginning of each chapter, Hannah and Clay are narrating at the same time. While he listens to Hannah's voice on the tapes, we get to hear Clay's thoughts and reactions to her story.

As the author says in a Q&A at the end of the book, he did have a message in mind while writing this book. Our actions and words may have more of an impact on others than we ever realize. I cringed when I read this book, and it made me uncomfortable. I remember being an awkward teenager myself, and some of the actions of other characters in the book, the people on Hannah's list, made me sad. I wished Hannah had a best friend or a trusted teacher, or her mom she could have talked to. The story in this book didn't have to end this way.

Thirteen Reasons Why is a book I'll only recommend for 8th graders, because of the subject matter and some of the content. It was a good book, but not an easy book to read at all. 

If you are feeling sad, or if you have a friend who is sad and says things that worry you, please get them help. This school is full of adults who will help you and keep things confidential.

Until next time,
Mrs. Cox

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Monday, November 10, 2014

We Were Liars

Lockhart, E. 2013. WE WERE LIARS. New York: Delacorte.

Have you ever finished a book and then been dying to discuss it with someone else? That's how I feel after finishing We Were Liars. I just really want to see what someone else thought of it. It was different from all of the other books I've read so far this school year. And it was one that left me not knowing how I should feel or what I should think about it.

The Sinclair family is "old money." Harris and Tipper Sinclair have three daughters: Carrie, Bess and Penny. The oldest grandchild is Penny's daughter, Cadence. She is the main character and narrator. The Sinclairs own their own private island off the coast of Massachusetts, where they spend every summer with their children and grandchildren. Cadence's Aunt Carrie is divorced, but brings her boyfriend Ed to the island every summer. Ed, in turn, brings along his nephew Gat. Cadence, Gat, along with Cadence's cousins Johnny and Mirren are the "Liars." The four are inseparable during their summers together on the island. But then, during the summer when they are 15, something mysterious happens. Cadence is found in the water, wearing only half her clothes. She ends up in the hospital and two years later she still has debilitating migraines. Now she is 17, and returning to the island after two years, and trying to figure out what happened to her that summer she was 15.

The first thing you notice when you open the book is that there is a map of an island, with houses labeled with the residents. Then, when you flip to begin the book, there is a family tree. I did turn back to these from time to time to keep all the names straight and remember who was who. Usually, if an author puts something like this in the front of the book, they want you to refer to it as you read. 

The second thing I noticed was the writing style. It is much more poetic than any of the other middle grade / young adult novels I've read so far this year. The author has a habit of using nouns as adjectives, which was interesting the first few times, but then becomes tiresome. Also, the story switches around from the past to the present quite often, and sometimes it's hard to tell what time period you are in. I think that was done on purpose, to make the reader feel confused like Cadence.

I don't really feel like I can tell you too much else about this book without giving anything away. Indeed, the inside of the dust jacket says, "If anyone asks you how it ends, just LIE." It was an interesting premise and story, but I can't say that I really liked any of the characters - they were all a little bit stuck up and pretentious. If anything, the takeaway lesson is that no family is perfect, and that money never ever buys happiness.

If you read this book, and read this entry, come see me and let's talk about this book!

Mrs. Cox
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Saturday, November 8, 2014

The Selection Series

Cass, Kiera. 2012. THE SELECTION. New York: HarperTeen.
Cass, Kiera. 2013. THE ELITE. New York: HarperTeen.
Cass, Kiera. 2014. THE ONE. New York: HarperTeen.

I had my doubts before I started this book. I thought it sounded like The Hunger Games meets the reality television show The Bachelor. 

Set sometime in the future in a politically rearranged North America, The Selection follows the story of America Singer. A caste system has been established in the society - people are born into a certain group or level and can only move up by marrying and paying a hefty fine. America is a Five, which is a caste of artists and creative people. She's in love with Aspen, a Six. Sixes are servants and workers. They meet in secret in America's treehouse. 

America's mother wants her to apply for the Selection. Thirty-five girls from across the nation will be chosen from the pool of applicants to move to the palace and compete for Prince Maxon's hand in marriage. Even if they are not chosen by the prince, they are moved up a caste and their families will receive money in their absence. Aspen also encourages America to apply, so she does.

America plans a special date night with an elaborate meal for Aspen. Aspen feels that he cannot provide America with the life she deserves because he comes from a lower caste. Soon after, America applies and is shocked when she hears her name and sees her face on the TV announcement of the selected girls. With her broken heart, America decides to go forward with the selection - what does she have to lose?

The palace is larger and more opulent than anything America has ever seen. Some of the other selected girls are friendly; some are from higher castes and look down on America because she's a Five.

Soon she meets Prince Maxon and is surprised that he's honest and funny and they soon strike up a friendship. While she is still heartbroken over losing Aspen, Maxon agrees to give her some time at the palace to get over the breakup. However, Maxon's feelings for America grow stronger, and America begins to feel the same way about him.

The best way I can describe reading this series was that it was a total guilty pleasure. Once I got about halfway through the first book, I was completely hooked. The books are a bit melodramatic, but I was there with America, cheering her on, shaking my head at some of her impulsive decisions, and trying to figure out which boy I liked better myself - Aspen or Maxon. Once I finished the first book I immediately went out to the shelf and grabbed the second one, The Elite. I finished it quickly and then grabbed The One. Along the way the plot reveals more about the political history and rebels who are trying to overthrow the King, Queen, and Prince.  There are many twists and turns, but the ending is one I was happy with.

Like I said earlier, this series isn't one of the best books I've ever read, but I thoroughly enjoyed reading it. Of course, girls will be much more likely to read this series than boys. I was a little sad when the books were over, but Ms. Cass has written a new one, The Heir, to be released in May 2015!

Until next time,
Mrs. Cox
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Friday, October 31, 2014

Counting by 7s

Goldberg, Holly Sloan. 2013. COUNTING BY 7S. New York: Dial.

Willow Chance is an interesting girl. She is adopted. She likes things to be a certain way, and is incredibly smart. She loves plants and diagnosing medical problems. 7 is her favorite number, and counting by 7's calms her down. When she goes to a new middle school and gets a perfect score on an achievement test, the administration sends her to counseling.

She meets Dell Duke, a counselor for the school system who only marginally does his job and doesn't listen to Willow; he just plays word association games with her. Also, while waiting for her appointments she meets Mai and her brother Quang-ha. Quang-ha is in counseling, but Mai comes with him. Soon, Mai and Willow become friends.

Then tragedy strikes. Willow finds herself an orphan again after her parents are killed in a car crash. The tragedy sends her reeling. Through her grief, Willow finds an odd support system and those around her learn that family are the people around you who are there for
you when you need them.

This book reminded me of Wonder and Out of My Mind, although Willow's special abilities are just one facet of the story instead of the main focus. I would recommend this book, although of course I have to look at it with a critical eye. The counselor, Dell Duke, is a problematic character for me. I don't especially like that someone who is entrusted to work with the most troubled of students is so bad at his job! I also had some problems with the ending, especially regarding Mai and Quang-ha's mother.  You'll have to read it and then we can discuss.

On to the next one!!!-
Mrs. Cox
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Monday, October 27, 2014

Audiobook: Into Thin Air

Krakauer, Jon. 1997. INTO THIN AIR: A PERSONAL ACCOUNT OF THE MOUNT EVEREST DISASTER. Bantam Doubleday Dell Audio Publishing.

So, I wondered to myself if audiobooks should count toward my total book count for the school year and whether I should write reviews for them. And then I thought, "This is MY blog! I can write what I want!" So I'll write a short review, but I, personally, am not going to count it toward my total number of books read.

In the past, I've generally not been a fan of audiobooks. I am a visual and tactile learner; I remember things best when I see them or when I write them down. I've tried audiobooks before and either had trouble with my iPod losing my place, or I just lost interest.  Anyway, my husband and daughter and I moved a few weeks ago, and I found myself with a longer commute to and from school. So I thought I'd give audiobooks another shot.

I joined Audible, which is now part of the Amazon empire. There are some audiobooks available on OverDrive, but I'm impatient to wait for my hold request to come in.

For my first choice, I chose this nonfiction book that came HIGHLY recommended from my best friend. Into Thin Air is the author's personal account of climbing Mount Everest and the ensuing disaster on his expedition in May of 1996.

With any nonfiction book that tells about a real life disaster from the point of view of a survivor, I always feel like the ending is given away a little bit. I didn't have to worry about the author, Jon Krakauer, because I knew he survived the ordeal to write the book! Still, when a nonfiction book can be as suspenseful as this one, you know the story and writing are top-notch.

Krakauer relates the history of climbing Mount Everest, which wasn't even discovered to be the highest peak in the world until 1856. Various expeditions tried conquering the summit, but it wasn't until May 29, 1953 that Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay became the first to climb the mountain. Since then, various expeditions have tried to summit the peak; some were successful while some were dangerous.

Mr. Krakauer finds himself going to Nepal to be a part of an expedition led by guide Rob Hall and his company Adventure Consultants. He is on assignment for the magazine Outside to write a chronicle of his trip. It was so interesting to hear about all the preparations that must be made for such an expedition. Before the team even reached base camp on the mountain they had already gone through quite an ordeal of traveling!

The author describes various personalities of his guides and co-climbers on the expedition. This aspect of the book made me long for a print version, because just hearing the names and not reading them made it really hard for me to keep track of who all of the players were. However, I kept listening and in the end, I still understood the story, even if I would have remembered more if I'd read the book instead of listened to it.

A chain of events leads to too many climbers trying to reach the summit on the day that Rob Hall chose for his team. In addition, clear weather quickly turns into a raging storm as the climbers are trying to descend the mountain, which leads to disastrous consequences.

I was riveted by this true story. As Mr. Krakauer explains, Everest is the lofty goal of most mountain climbers, but can also be their untimely end. I enjoyed listening to this on my way to and from school each day, even if sometimes I had to stop frequently to answer the constant questions of my 4 year old daughter. :)

Keep listening,
Mrs. Cox

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The Boy on the Wooden Box

Leyson, Leon. 2013. THE BOY ON THE WOODEN BOX. New York: Atheneum.
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Mr. Leyson recalls his childhood, the beginning of World War II and the Holocaust in his memoir The Boy on the Wooden Box. After his family moved from their small village in Poland to the big city of Krakow, they enjoyed city life for a while before the Germans invaded Poland on September 1, 1939. By September 6, German soldiers were in Krakow and the Leyson family's lives would never be the same.

Soon, the persecution of Jews begin. Some Jews are ordered to leave the city. Eventually, the rest of the Jews are forced to move into the Nazi imposed ghetto surrounded by 12 foot high walls. Leon's family is still optimistic at every step of the Nazi persecution, saying "If this is the worst that happens..." Very soon things become very dangerous for the family, when the ghetto is liquidated and the remaining Jews are sent to a work camp in Krakow. Already Leon's older brother Herschel tried to flee the city, and his brother Tsalig was taken away by the Gestapo when his work permit was found to be unsatisfactory.

Luckily for the family, a man named Oskar Schindler hired Leon's father to work in his enamelware factory. This is the same Oskar Schindler whose actions during World War II were chronicled in the 1993 movie Schindler's List. Even though Schindler was a member of the Nazi party, he chose to do what he could to help as many Jews as possible. Schindler bribes Nazi officials into turning their heads when he does things that go against the Nazi orders. Eventually Leon's father, brother, sister and mother are all employed by Schindler.  

The title of Leyson's memoir The Boy on the Wooden Box comes from his real life experience. Leon wasn't tall enough to reach the controls on the machine Schindler assigned him to work on, so he had to stand on a wooden box. He recalls being nervous every time Schindler visited the workers, but says that Schindler had a kind demeanor and was interested in his Jews workers as human beings. 

Schindler built his own work camp next to his factory so that his workers can leave the horrible Nazi work camp. Later, as the Soviet army approaches and begins sending all of the Jewish detainees to Auschwitz, Schindler relocates his then munitions factory to Czechoslovakia. The men arrive safely, but soon learn that the women's train was diverted to Auschwitz. Schindler himself hurries away to rectify the situation and bring the women safely to the rest of the group.

Leyson's writing is simple and engaging. He is a trustworthy and honest narrator. I was glad that he went on to explain what happened after the war. His older siblings went to live in Israel just as it was being formed as a nation, but Leon spent time in a displaced persons camp in Germany before immigrating to the United States with his parents. While conditions were considerably better than they had been in the ghetto or the work camp, his struggles were not over with the end of the war.

Oskar Schindler is a man that much has been written about. While he definitely had his faults, his actions to save over 1,200 Jews during the Holocaust are astounding, considering the great danger Schindler put himself in to do so. As Leyson writes, "I am not a philosopher, but I believe that Oskar Schindler defines heroism. He proves that one person can stand up to evil and make a difference. I am living proof of that." (Leyson, 204)

While other books about the Holocaust may be too complex or graphic, this book is written for young people. Although Mr. Leyson describes the horror he went through, he does not let it shake his faith in the goodness of people. His message of tolerance and love is one that the world always needs to hear.

Just keep reading,
Mrs. Cox

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Saturday, October 25, 2014


Korman, Gordon. 2012. UNGIFTED. New York: Balzer and Bray (Harper Collins).

Donovan is an especially mischevious kid.  He gets in trouble a lot because he simply can't stop himself. After a harmless prank goes horribly wrong, Donovan finds himself in major trouble with the superintendent himself. But, the superintendent's secretary misunderstands her boss, and the next day Donovan gets a surprise. He is shocked to receive a letter in the mail the next day informing him that he has been accepted to his district's school for the gifted. 

Relieved to have a place to hide from his inevitable punishment, Donovan starts attending the gifted academy. He struggles to fit in and is constantly afraid the mistake will be found out. But, even as his teachers and classmates begin to seriously doubt his giftedness, he finds he brings other strengths to the class and they have things they can learn from him. He becomes a beloved part of the class, as well as their robotics team.

I enjoyed this book. The characters were well written and likeable. I also found myself laughing out loud throughout the book. Every chapter is told from a different character's point of view, and a few times I had to flip back to the beginning of the chapter to remind myself who was telling the story at the moment.

One thing to think about is how this novel portrays gifted students. Many of the members of Donovan's gifted class are stereotypical 'nerds' - one student has no social skills but an extremely high IQ, one is extremely driven to succeed no matter what, one is incredibly bright but has no self confidence. Also, the way the regular students gives me pause. In a real school setting, the divide between the gifted students and mainstream students would never, ever be that pronounced.

Even with this issue in mind, I still enjoyed this book and would recommend it. At the core of it is a story of true friendships and how new friends can change us for the better.

Keep reading,
Mrs. Cox

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Thursday, October 23, 2014

If I Stay

Forman, Gayle. 2009. IF I STAY. New York: Speak (Penguin Group).

At the beginning of the school year, many girls were asking me if we had this book in the library or if we could get it for the library, probably because it had been adapted into a movie that just came out. In order to make that sort of decision, I look in several places. I read reviews and see what grades the book is recommended for, and I also search the catalogs of other middle schools in our district to see if they have the same book. Many did, so I ordered my own copy of the book from Amazon (I still love the way a new book smells and feels) and have been carrying it around in my bag for about a month. I really liked the last book I read, but it took me a while to finish it for different reasons. I liked it too much to abandon it, so I stuck with it and finally finished it after a marathon reading session on Tuesday night. So, when yesterday I arrived at work ready to start a new book, I knew I had to read If I Stay.

The story is about Mia, a high school senior and talented cello player. On a wintry morning, she and her family wake up to a light snowfall in their Oregon hometown. After the morning clears and it's obvious that the storm is over, the temperatures rise and the snow melts. Mia and her mom, dad, and little brother Teddy pile in the car to go visit friends when the unthinkable happens. A truck hits their car. 

Mia opens her eyes to discover that she is outside of her body and can see what is happening TO her. She painfully sees that her parents are both dead from the wreck, but she doesn't look for her little brother. She sees the paramedics arrive and take her to the hospital, where they promptly load her on a helicopter and fly her to a bigger hospital in Portland. 

Mia watches all that unfolds over the next day. The book alternates between Mia telling stories of her former life and watching what is happening to her. Most of the book concerns Mia's relationship with her boyfriend Adam. Mia starts to realize that the choice of whether or not she should return to her body and wake up, or let go and be with her parents is up to her.

I read this book in less than one day, which is crazy fast for me!  It was so easy to read, so engaging, that I couldn't help it. I do think that more girls would be interested in this book than boys, and I know this won't be a popular decision here at my school, but I think it's probably for 8th graders since there is some mature content.

It's a lovely thing when you find a book you want to stay up late with. I was sad when the story abruptly came to an end when it appeared that I had at least 50 pages to go... the rest of the book was filled with discussion questions and excerpts from two others of Ms. Forman's books. I'll definitely be finding those and reading them too!

Keep on readin',
Mrs. Cox

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Wednesday, October 22, 2014

The Screaming Staircase (Lockwood and Co. #1)

Stroud, Jonathan. 2013. THE SCREAMING STAIRCASE. New York: Disney Hyperion.

This October I found myself reading the perfect book to get into the Halloween spirit.  The Screaming Staircase, the first in the Lockwood and Co. series, is a suspenseful adventure with likeable characters and an engaging plot.

For the past 50 years in England, there has been a Problem.  Ghosts, spirits, poltergeists, and the like come out nightly, and often cause damage and harm.  It turns out that young people are the only ones who can really see and hear these otherworldly Visitors, and those with the Talent for detecting ghosts can make a living for themselves getting rid of the unwanted visitors. Anthony Lockwood is the founder of such a business, his Lockwood and Co. Agency. The story is told from the point of view of his newest associate, Lucy Carlyle. Rounding out the trio is George Cubbins, a portly and unkempt boy who loves to research the backstories of the various ghosts the team investigates.

Lucy recounts growing up in a small village with her mother and sisters. After discovering she could hear ghosts and feel their emotions, her mother sent her to work for a local ghost agency.  A horrible accident happens on one of her jobs, and leaves her shaken.  So, she sets off for London by herself and the only ghost agency that will hire her is the struggling Lockwood and Co.

Anthony Lockwood is a mysterious but likeable character. We don't learn much about his past, only that his parents are both deceased. But he has a flair for the dramatic and often makes decisions and takes action without fully weighing his options. He is also self-confident to a fault.

The book opens with Lucy and Lockwood going to a new job - a house where a man fell down some stairs to his death. His fall was most likely caused by a ghost and his wife wants to get rid of it before returning to the house. Lucy and Lockwood discover that the problem is a ghost of a young woman who was murdered over 50 years ago. They discover her body and a gold locket she is still wearing. However, they forgot to bring along some of their key supplies for fending off ghosts, and Lucy and Lockwood escape an unfortunate house fire.

In the midst of trying to solve the 50 year old murder, as well as saving their agency from financial ruin, an eccentric businessman shows up and wants the trio to go to his house in the country to try to solve the mystery of the Screaming Staircase and the Red Room. The mansion is said to be haunted by multiple ghosts and several other ghost hunters didn't survive their night in the mansion...

I enjoyed this story.  It was creepy enough without being downright terrifying, it has great characters and it is very well written. Without being entirely obvious, Mr. Stroud subtly describes an alternate world and how our lives would be different if we had to deal with the ghost problem every night. I found that the first half of the book may have moved along slowly, but once I got to the last third, I couldn't put the book down.

The second installment in the Lockwood and Co. series, is The Whispering Skull, and we have both in our library to check out. I think you should.  The Screaming Staircase was also a Texas Lone Star Book for this year.

Happy Reading!
Mrs. Cox

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Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Ten Places Books Have Made Me Want To Visit (whether fictional or real)

Back again with another list from The Broke and the Bookish:  Ten Places Books Have Made Me Want to Visit.

In no particular order......

1.  Narnia, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe

Who wouldn't want to visit this magical kingdom? Especially during the Golden Age when Peter, Susan, Lucy and Edmund were kings and queens.

2.  The Shire, The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings

Again, who wouldn't want to visit the Shire, so beautiful and homey?

3.  New York City, From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler

A girl and her little brother run away to live in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.  I read this book as a 5th grader and it made me want to visit New York City.  Many years later as an adult, I did visit the city and the Met.  It's fantastic!

4.  Amsterdam, The Fault in Our Stars

Gus and Hazel, both terminally ill, visit Amsterdam in this tear-jerker.  Hazel has trouble carrying her oxygen tank up the narrow staircase at the Anne Frank House.

5. Willy Wonka's Chocolate Factory, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory

Wouldn't you want to meet an Oompa-Loompa or maybe try an everlasting gobstopper?  I have a real sweet tooth so this one is hard for me to resist.

6.  Hogwarts and other locations, Harry Potter

I want to go to Diagon Alley and Hogsmeade and ride the Hogwarts Express and go to a quidditch game!

7. Mt. Everest, Into Thin Air

I'm listening to this audiobook at the moment and although I'm not sure I want to climb it, I would like to go to Nepal and see the tallest mountain in the world. 

8. Paris, Les Miserables and The Da Vinci Code

I've visited Paris three times and it is magical. These two books are vastly different but both have parts that take place in the City of Light.

9.  The Scottish Highlands, Outlander

This beautiful but stark landscape is somewhere I really want to visit one day.

10. Zuckerman's Farm, Charlotte's Web

I would love to hang out with Templeton, Charlotte, Wilbur, the Goose, and Fern in the peaceful barn and not have a care in the world.

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Tuesday, October 7, 2014

My own Top Ten Tuesday

So this Tuesday I find myself moving out of the house my husband, daughter and I have lived in for the last six years (well, four for my daughter) and I'm really too overwhelmed to sit and think of Character Driven Books for this week's list. So instead, I'm making a list of 10 books that I did not give away, sell, or donate when I was cleaning out my bookcases at home.  I know I kept more than just these, but these are the ones that come to mind:

10.  The Chronicles of Narnia

This was the boxed set I made my mom buy me in 3rd grade because my teacher had read the first two out loud to us in class and I HAD to know what happened in the other 5 books. Can't wait until my daughter is old enough to listen to me read them to her.

9. Charlotte's Web

Another book that I got in the 3rd grade for Christmas. My 3rd grade teacher really got me started reading. Her name was Mrs. White and I know she's out there somewhere.

8. Harry Potter #4, 5, 6, 7

I think my Harry Potter #1, 2, and 3 were destroyed when I had them in my classroom library when I was a teacher. Small price to pay if kids are actually reading them. One day I really need to go back and reread the whole series.

7. D Day: June 6, 1944: The Climactic Batter of World War II

I did a special program in college called the Normandy Scholars Program. In the spring of 2001 at the University of Texas at Austin, I took only history courses that were about World War II, and then traveled to France for three weeks with my classmates. I got rid of most of the other books from those classes, but I kept this one because it's a good account of what happened on that very important day.

6. Where the Sidewalk Ends

I had to keep this one - again, for my daughter one day.

5. The Hunger Games, Catching Fire and Mockingjay

Again, I need to reread this series to fully appreciate it, and also so I can see the 2nd and 3rd movies.

4. 1984

Have the things that Orwell predicted come to pass? No, but maybe some of them are, especially what Orwell has to say about language and how it's used to influence people. It's worth another read.

3. 5 Ingredient Fix it and Forget it

One of the few cookbooks I own, I figured it couldn't hurt to keep it.

2. Macmillan's Children's Dictionary

I got it as a birthday present in the 2nd grade and still have it. I couldn't get rid of it.

1. I Want My Hat Back

Hilarious children's book I got signed by the author at TLA two years ago. :)
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Thursday, October 2, 2014

The Maze Runner

This has been far and away the most popular book at our school so far this school year. I can see the appeal:  the movie was recently released, it would appeal to guys as well as girls, it has that 'scary' element about it. We are talking about it at our next book club meeting. However, I wasn't as enthralled with it as I'd hoped I'd be.

Thomas is a boy who falls through some sort of elevator like box into a strange world called the Glade, only inhibited by boys. He only remembers his name; he has no memory of his previous life.

The Glade is a strange artificial place where all of the boys live, surrounded by giant stone walls. Beyond the towering walls is a maze. There are several 'maze runners' among the boys, who explore and map the maze as it changes daily. They must always return before nightfall because the huge stone walls actually close at night, and also scary monster like creatures the boys call "grievers" come out at night.  The main goal of the boys is to solve the maze and escape their captivity.

The day after Thomas appears in the Glade, a girl appears in the lift. She is the first and only girl that has ever been in the Glade. And she comes with the message that she is the last one.

The story in The Maze Runner is told from the point of view of Thomas. The reader doesn't know any more about his situation than he does, which at times can be frustrating. The constant withholding of information makes for sort of a boring and flat story.

Thomas, nor any of the other characters, are very well developed. I get that this is a book driven by plot instead of characters, but I didn't feel a connection to any of them. We don't feel and experience what Thomas is going through, the author just keeps telling us. I also didn't really care for the way the female character, Teresa, is depicted. She could have been a strong and dynamic heroine, but instead she is referred to as "pretty" and "smart."

These things aside, I did find myself want to keep reading and wanting to solve the mystery. It does end in a cliffhanger - The Scorch Trials - but I don't really find myself wanting to get up to go find it just yet.

Keep reading,
Mrs. Cox
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Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Top Ten Tuesday: Ten Books that Were Hard for Me to Read for Various Reasons

Here I am again with another list fashioned after the Broke and Bookish's Top Ten Tuesday meme. This wasn't an easy list to come up with, just like the books on it were not especially easy to read. I'll try to explain the various reasons these books were difficult for me as I go through my list. 

10. All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque

I had to read this one as a freshman in high school and again in college.  It's a depressing book about young German soldiers in World War I who have their youth stolen from them by the atrocities of war, and it also has one of THE WORST endings of a book EVER.  (I won't give it away in case you haven't read it. Good luck if you do have to read it.)

9. The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway

Another one from that blasted freshman English class in high school! Even though it was short, it was just painful. It's about an old man struggling to catch a big fish. That is all. Honestly I don't remember if he catches it or not. It's one of my father's favorite books; a metaphor about the struggle of life of something.... I don't even think I finished it.

8. The Twilight Series by Stephenie Meyer

Like a train wreck, I could not look away. But it was not pretty.

7. Babbitt by Sinclair Lewis

Supposedly an American classic. I was supposed to read this in college for a history class about the 1920's and 1930's. It's about a real estate agent and has no real plot. Yep.

6. Survival in Auschwitz by Primo Levi

Mr. Levi was an Italian scientist, who also happened to be Jewish. He was arrested during World War II by the Italian Fascist regime and sent to Auschwitz. His book is a harrowing account of the evil that was committed there. A well written and important book, but so hard to read because of the subject matter.

5. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte

I read this book when I was in the 8th grade. It was probably a little too hard for me then, but I was determined to read it. Long and slooooow moving with a twist that just didn't make a lot of sense to me. Maybe if I re-read it as adult? Nah.

4. Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

This book is about a young man and a girl he loves.  Unfortunately, she marries someone else. 50-something years and HUNDREDS of pages later they finally are together. This is one of those books that some people absolutely love but I just thought was overrated.

3. The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

I thought this was actually a very good book but it is so sad and depressing. It is the story of a successful, ambitious young woman who slowly goes insane. To make matters worse, Sylvia Plath herself took her own life when she was just 30 years old.

2. The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck

Some would say this is an American classic.... Steinbeck has a very distinct writing style that I find difficult. Not only that this is a story of terribly poor people on a horrible journey, but there is AN ENTIRE CHAPTER ABOUT A TURTLE CROSSING THE ROAD. That's all I need to say.

And drumroll please.....

1.  The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka
A man wakes up one day and he's a cockroach. He goes through his whole day and NEVER ONCE WONDERS WHY HE'S A COCKROACH. I couldn't handle it. Thankfully it's short.

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