THE GOLLYWHOPPER GAMES by Jody Feldman

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Gil Goodson has had a very difficult year.  Since his father was accused of embezzling money from his employer, the Gollywhopper toy corporation, no one has treated his family the same way.  Even though his father was found not guilty, all of Gil’s friends believe that he did it and have forced Gil out of their social circles and off of his sports teams.  But now, one year later, Gil has the chance to escape it all.  Gollywhopper is hosting a huge scholarship competition called the Gollywhopper Games.  If Gil wins the games, his family could afford to move to a new city and leave The Incident behind them.  Much to the dismay of the Gollywhopper CEO, Gil is determined to solve every puzzle they throw at him.  But personality differences among his teammates make the task much more difficult than he had previously anticipated.

If you like brainteasers, solving puzzles, and unraveling mysteries, this is a very fun book!  It is aimed at an upper-elementary school audience.

THE SWEETNESS AT THE BOTTOM OF THE PIE by Alan Bradley

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Growing up in 1950s England, Flavia isn’t an average eleven year old girl.  She loves chemistry, poisons, and plotting vengeful pranks against her two older sisters.  But when her father is accused of murdering a man found dead in their garden, Flavia channels her creativity and intelligence toward solving the mystery of what really happened.  One thing is certain–whether innocent or guilty, her father is not the man she thought he was.  Trying to stay one step ahead of the police, Flavia begins her investigations with a cold-case apparent suicide of a school teacher that has some connection to her father’s and the recent victim’s past.  As she learns more about her father’s past she discovers the key to the mystery is more complex than she had first imagined. Flavia is a witty, clever, and endearing narrator, and the mystery itself is intriguing and difficult to unravel.  It’s a fun read, especially if you are interested in chemistry (or poison)!

PRIMARY COLORS by Joe Klein

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Primary Colors was originally published anonymously in December, 1996, and caused immediate controversy.  The novel follows a Southern governor’s campaign for the Democratic Party Nomination for President; but each character is a near exact replica of a member of Bill Clinton’s staff.  Jack Stanton (the Clinton figure) runs into trouble on the campaign trail when news breaks of his affair with his wife’s hair dresser.  He fiercely denies these claims and his aide Henry (the narrator and protagonist) struggles to cover up his messes.  He soon enlists the aid of the loud-mouthed ex-mental patient and former Stanton political adviser Libby to help him “dust-bust.”  The novel reveals the inner machinations of political campaign, the conflicts between Stanton’s staff and his ambitious wife’s staff, the temptation of negative advertising, the pitfalls of staff romances, but above all, the idealistic and genuine principles on which Stanton and his wife build their campaign.  These principles are tested and tried throughout the novel, and in the end, Henry and Libby administer the ultimate test of Stanton’s true character.

Joe Klein, a journalist, was not involved in any Clinton campaigns.  Yet his observations and imaginations of how the larger-than-life personalities might interact proved accurate.  Immediately upon the book’s anonymous release, White House staff members began to accuse one another of having written it and of revealing too many personal details.  The novel is an engaging–and apparently perceptive–glimpse into our nation’s political system.

The 1998 Mike Nichol’s film starring Adrian Lester, John Travolta, Emma Thompson, and Kathy Bates, is an excellent adaptation.  Klein actually confesses that when writing the character of Libby, he pictured Kathy Bates.

THE LOOKING GLASS WARS by Frank Beddor

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When Princess Alyss Heart was seven years old, her life changed forever.  Her evil Aunt Redd gathered an army of card soldiers and murdered Alyss’ mother and father, securing the Wonderland throne for herself.  Alyss barely escaped through the Pool of Tears into a parallel world, where for years she was trapped in a strange land called England.  Her magical powers of Imagination failed her in this new world, and eventually the memories of her childhood faded into seeming fairytales (tales which the Reverend Dodgeson would later record and publish in a work of “nonsense” entitled Alice in Wonderland).

But Alyss cannot stay lost in England forever.  Wonderland has suffered under Redd’s totalitarian regime, and people live in darkness and fear–their only hope being the return of the child queen Alyss and her powerful Imagination.  When Hatter Madigan, the deadly milliner bodyguard, whisks Alyss back to Wonderland, she, her childhood love Dodge Anders, and a rag-tag group of rebels must find a way to free their home from Redd’s tyranny.  This book is the first in a trilogy, followed by Seeing Redd and ArchEnemy.  

The trilogy is an incredibly clever, engaging, but dark re-imagining of Wonderland (think Alice in Wonderland meets 1984). Although it is sometimes shelved with juvenile fiction, I would recommend this book more to teens and adults.

If you liked The Looking Glass Wars, you might like Cinder by Marissa Meyer or Finnikin of the Rock by Melina Marchetta.

PAPER TOWNS by John Green

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Quentin grew up next door to Margo Roth Spiegleman–the girl of everyone’s dreams. One night, near the end of their senior year of high school, Margo shows up at his bedroom window dressed like a ninja and takes him on an adventure around the town to exact revenge on her cheating boyfriend and various other offenders. The next morning, Margo has disappeared, and Quentin and his best friends, Ben and Radar, begin a quest to find her. Along the way, he discovers the real “Margo” behind the super-human image that he and the rest of the school have attached to her. He discovers her human fears and insecurities and her human flaws. He also discovers a new confidence in himself along the way.

This book is hilarious and poignant, with a wonderful mix of witty, bathroom, and slapstick humor.  The intended audience is high school age teens, but it resonates with many adults as well.

Additionally, if you are not familiar with John Green and you are a nerd, you should check out the Vlogbrothers on Youtube (John and his brother, Hank) who post several times weekly on a variety of nerdy topics.  Here’s the link: http://www.youtube.com/user/vlogbrothers.  To all of you nerdfighters out there, DFTBA.

GREGOR THE OVERLANDER by Suzanne Collins

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If you are one of those people who believes that there must be a colony of gargantuan rats and cockroaches living under the streets of New York City, consider your paranoid fears vindicated. When Gregor’s baby sister crawls into an air vent in the basement of their apartment building, he follows her down a long dark chute and into the Underland.  Fortunately, they are found by the friendly giant cockroaches and not the malicious six-foot-tall rats.  The cockroaches bring them to the city of the Underland humans.  There, Gregor learns that his father who disappeared two years earlier fell down the same chute and ended up prisoner of the rats.  He also learns that he himself may be the warrior hero mentioned in an ancient Underland prophecy.  Together with the snobby young Underlander queen and her insufferable cousin, two loyal bats, two kind cockroaches, and the snarky, bitter traitor rat, Ripred, Gregor and his baby sister set off on a quest to save the Underland human race from destruction.

This is definitely one of my favorite children’s fantasy series.  The overall tone of the book is somewhat dark but also incredibly humorous.  Collins also uses the series to challenge some of the notions of right vs. wrong and heroism vs. barbarism that are often taken for granted in heroic fantasy literature.  And she is simply an excellent writer.  If you enjoyed the Harry Potter series, the Percy Jackson series, or Suzanne Collins’ other series, The Hunger Games, you should check out this book!   There are four subsequent books in the series:  Gregor and the Prophecy of the Bane, Gregor and the Curse of the Warmbloods, Gregor and the Marks of Secret, and Gregor and the Code of Claw.  Personally, I think they get even better, the farther you get into the series!

THE TRUE MEANING OF SMEKDAY by Adam Rex

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What is the true meaning of Smekday–the day formerly known as Christmas, the day that the Boovish aliens arrived to colonize Earth, and the day the Boov left one year later?  This is the essay question that Gratuity “Tip” Tucci must answer.  The winning essay will be put in a time capsule that will be opened in 100 years. In her three attempts at writing the essay, Tip gradually reveals the story of the Boov’s arrival and the events that followed.

While trying to reach the human reservation in Florida by car, Tip and her cat, Pig, met up with a Boov criminal, who has taken as his Earth name J.Lo. (a name that he believes is a popular Earth name due to its frequent appearance in media publications).  Together they travel across the country searching for Tip’s mom, who was abducted toward the beginning of the invasion. Then Tip, J.Lo, and Pig join forces with a gang of boys who have been hiding in a secret tunnel system under Disney World, and together, they drive the Gorg (another set of invading aliens–much more evil than the Boov) out of Earth.  Throughout her story, Tip includes illustrations and pages of comics drawn by J.Lo who can’t write in English.

This book is both hilarious and poignant, a nice blend of hard- and soft-science fiction, approaching issues of race and prejudice through the blunt, sarcastic, witty voice of 11 yr. old Tip.  The book is written for an upper elementary/middle school reading level.  It is one of my all-time favorites.