The Book of What If: Questions and Activities for Curious Minds by Matt Murrie and Andrew R. McHugh

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Book of What If

This is an interesting book of scientific and philosophic trivia.  It poses 84 questions such as: What if we could be young forever?  What if nanobots joined in the fight against cancer? What if walls could talk? and What if there were no luck? Each question is followed by a discussion about that question, and an activity related to it.  A short biographical sketch about a person who is involved in some way with the topic under discussion is included.

The questions posed also have comments about them from various teenagers.  Some questions have a technical corner explaining or introducing something that already exists and is relevant to the question.

The author also included a very detailed end-note section.  Many of these references are on line and might lead the reader to do more exploration on their own.  They have also included other resources that will help the curious minded to go on further thinking explorations.

I realize the copy I was reading was a reader’s copy for critics, but I would hope that the editors could make the student comments more readable before it hits the market.  The typeface I was trying to read was grey-on-grey in that section and I found it very difficult to read those student comments.

I’m trying to pinpoint an audience for the book.  Students who love trivia or are just naturally curious about many things will enjoy it; other than that I believe the student audience is limited.  I truly liked the book, but its best audience might be for the teacher to use as class discussions or as writing assignments.  It is intended for the high school audience, but good readers in elementary school might enjoy it.

I was enjoying the mental gymnastics asked for by the book when I ran across the question: What is awesome didn’t exist? – not an unusual question for that book.  What blew my mind was that the example of “awesome” was Harvey Milk, and everything said about him related to the gay community and his actions for that group.  This chapter seemed to be out of place because this was about a person – not about an idea, and that really didn’t fit into the concept of the book as a whole.  It seemed to me that someone had told the authors they MUST have something in the book about the gay community, so this got stuck in to make some publisher happy.  It was totally unnecessary! I do not think it is necessary to stress the sexuality of Milk and to do so in context with the word “awesome.” This inclusion will also make some homeschooling parents and libraries think twice about purchasing it.

Truthwitch by Susan Dennard

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truthwitch

 

Fans of Sarah J, Maas will love this first book of a new series. This story takes place in the Witchlands. The main characters, Safiya and Iseult, and the land in which they live has long known the diverse power of witches.  These two come with very unique powers – which most had thought were long gone from the land.  Iseault is a Threadwitch.  She sees the ties that bind people to each other as strands of color.  The colors indicate to her the emotional bonds between people. But, she is unable to see her own bonds, and the lack of that ability limits her knowledge of how people may be using her.  Iseult is the cool-headed, more balanced of the two.

Sayfiya is a Truthwitch; she knows when people are telling her the truth.  Most of the rulers of her world do not realize that she is a truthwitch because she knows her life is in danger if they dicover her abilities.  If her power were made known, she would be the most sought-after person in the land because she would know if countries and rulers were telling the truth to each other.  Safiya is also impetuous and quick-tempered.  She often acts without thinking the consequences through.  She definitely needs Iseult to give her balance.

A young Bloodwitch, a man who can smell people’s blood and track them down, and a young male Wind Witch appear on the scene and their lives are changed forever.  The girls have many harrowing adventures the outcomes the reader will not anticipate. The reader will be eagerly anticipating the arrival of the next book in the series.

High school and middle school readers of fantasy will drawn into this tale of friendship and love.  I recommend it for such people.

Love Letters to the Dead by Ava Dellaria

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love letters

Dellaria tells the story of Laurel’s journey from the death of her sister and the breakup of her family to emotional healing in a most unusual way.  Laurel writes letters to famous dead people in her journal. This began as an English class writing assignment.  The point was to have the students write to a famous dead person about what effect their lives had had on them.  Laurel begins writing but never turns in the assignment.  She, instead, begins to write more and more letters to her “pen pals.”  She feels she cannot share the letters even though not doing so affects her grade in the class.

The people to whom she writes are very diverse: Kurt Cobain, Amelia Earhart, Jim Morrison, and John Keats.  Each of these people had died a very tragic death or had suffered from some tragic events in their lives.  Laurel’s letters to the dead gradually reveals to the reader what really happened the night her sister died.

This is a fantastic story told in a most unusual manner. I think teen readers will enjoy it, and I know they will learn more about the people to whom Laurel writes.  I recommend this for libraries that service middle school to high school readers.

Marked by Laura Williams McCaffery

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marked

This book is not at all what I expected when I picked it up. I had thought that it might be about tattoos and people’s reactions to them. While it IS about tattoos, it is more about a dystopian society that touts education as a way to move up in society while, at the same time, making it nearly impossible for that to happen.

In this society, if a person is caught in a misdemeanor crime such as buying food or medicine in a “shadow market” – an unsanctioned market where items are available that are not normally available in the regular stores, they immediately receive a tattoo around their wrist. Three tattoos, and they go to prison. Tattoos are given immediately without any sort of trial – only that the police had caught them doing something “illegal.”

Lyla Northstrom is one such girl who has received a mark when she went to a shadow market to buy medicine for her ailing mother because her mother is not able to get medical care from any acceptable medical facility.  A police officer, who she has known since a child, offers her a way to redeem herself and to get her mark removed.  He wants her to spy on one of her best friends who has also been marked for participating in underground activity. She must decide if her freedom from condemnation and a chance to get an education is worth betraying her friend. As she gets further into the underworld and into the world of the government that is controlling her world, she learns that many things are not as they seem.

This book is also a sort of commentary on the control that government can get over people’s lives and the results of that control. I watched a documentary on freedom just yesterday, and I was hit with the comment that one can either have economic freedom OR government regulations – not both.  This books is a good example of what MIGHT happen if the government reigns supreme in all aspects of one’s life.  It is too frighteningly possible for such a society too exist is freedoms are eroded one by one.

This story is told as a combination standard novel and graphic novel, an unusual approach but may help get the graphic novel people reading something a little more challenging.  I could not list it as a graphic novel, but it does have elements of that genre in it.  And, one of the characters does write a type of graphic novels.

 

Welcome to New Zealand: a Nature Journal by Sandra Morris

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welcome to new zealand

When I found this book available for review, I hoped that this might be a book about the flora and fauna of New Zealand, a place that has long fascinated me.  I was mistaken.  It is about how to make a journal of one’s own environment.  The author informs the reader what to look for in his/her own neighborhood, and gives examples of the materials needed.  She also give suggestions of how to enter the findings into a nature journal.

The artwork is done by the writer.  It is mostly watercolor and pen and ink drawings.  It is very pretty and welcomes the eye to explore the pages, even as it encourages the reader to explore the out-of-doors.  It does have a glossary and an index to aid in research.  I recommend this book for the elementary reader, ages nine through twelve.

Sandrider by Angie Sage

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sandrider

This second book in the Todhunter Moon series is well-written and is a pleasure to read.  Alice Todhunter Moon is a novice magician in the Castle when a young girl accidentally enters the lives of the people in the Castle through the Ancient Ways. The inhabitants of the Castle already know about the Egg of Orm which had been stolen by an evil sorcerer named Oraton-Maar. But, they have no idea where he is keeping it until it hatches.  Of course, the girl can help them, but she doesn’t trust them, and they soon learn they can’t trust her either.

How Alice and her friends manage to get to the egg before the baby Orm hatches and whom the Orm will imprint on when it does hatch makes this a very fast-moving tale that will appeal to the middle-school reader.

Reader of the Septimus Heap series will enjoy this new series.  It continues with Septimus Heap now being in charge of the Castle.  This book may stand alone, but the reader will want to go back and read the first book if she begins with this one.

The Murdstone Trilogy by Mal Peet

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murdstone

I had read Tamar by Mal Peet, and I loved the story.  When I saw this book show up on our review list, I was glad that I could review it, thinking that it would be as good as the one I had read.  I was VERY wrong.  I read the entire thing, hoping against hope, that I would find something to like about it. The only thing I can say is that it was the biggest piece of twaddle I have ever read.

The main character is a writer of sentimental coming-of-age books for boys.  His agent convinces him that he needs to write a fantasy, because “fantasy sells.”  He can’t bring himself to do it, but in a very Faustian move, he does sell his soul to a “greme” named Pocket Wellfair, who actually writes a fantasy for him. After he becomes a sensation in the fantasy market, his agent tells him that he has to expand his work into a trilogy.  Many unbelievable things occur between the writing of the first book and that of the third book – one of which is that he goes off to an island in the Mediterranean to avoid having to write the thing at all.

I totally get it that Peet is thumbing his nose at writers who are looking out for their own “pocket wellfair.”  I do know that he thinks that writers who write to please their agents – no matter how pleasing or pretty those agents might be – will not be happy nor successful in the long run.  Hats off to Peet for that.

However, the book is loaded with so many British phrases and phonetic pronunciations that no high school student will ever take time to read it.  I’m not sure that many adult readers in the U.S. would choose to read it.  There is no way I could ever recommend the expenditure of limited library funds for this.

Beyond Clueless by Linas Alsenas

beyond clueless

Whenever teenagers have changes in their lives, they may not always be able to process everything about them and to make good judgements in the face of such changes.  This is true of Marty Sullivan. She has just started high school at a private, single sex Catholic high school, and she is not at all sure of how she will fit in.  Of course, her best friend, Jimmy, goes to another school, so she must find her way without her best support.

She becomes involved in her high school musical.  There are parts for boys in the musical, and the guys are allowed to come from any school in the area.  Since several guys are needed, she gets Jimmy to come try out.  He brings his new boyfriend, Derek.  Derek gets two friends of his, Kirby and Oliver, to try out also.

Marty is drawn to Oliver, but she knows this is ridiculous because he is gay.  Marty thinks that Kirby is Oliver’s boyfriend.  Another boy from a neighboring school seems to be drawn to her, so she goes for him. She, along with her new friend, Xiang, learn that high school isn’t all bad and that things are seldom as they seem on the surface.

This is a great coming-of-age story for teen readers.  One thing I would like to point out is that, while the story is supposed to take place in a suburb of Cleveland, the author calls the town Bracksville.   There is a real town named Brecksville; it is a suburb of Cleveland. I don’t know if the misspelling is intentional or accident.  In any case, I do recommend it for high school libraries, unless your audience would have problems with the reference to gays.

Queen of Shadows by Sarah J. Maas

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queen of shadows

I began reading this series, Throne of Glass, with the third book, and was delighted when I got a chance to review this volume.  In this tale, Calaena Sardothian has embraced her true identity as Aelin Galathynius, Queen of Terrasen; but before she can go home to take her rightful place as Terrasen’s ruler, she must go to Rifthold to rescue her cousin, and a friend, both trapped by  a brutal king.

Aelin, who was trained as an assassin, must destroy demons who do unspeakable things to those they enslave, and she must try to free the magic in the world that has been captured by the king so that magic workers can use it to drive back the forces of evil.

The reader also learns more about Manon, the Wing Leader of the Blackbeak witch coven, and of a young girl named Elide enslaved by her own uncle on the mountain of Morath. Manon can be as blood-thirsty and as cold-hearted as any witch in the coven, but something awakens in her when she is around Elide.  She begins to feel compassion for Elide – a new experience for her.

Aelin, on her quest to save her cousin, learns that one cannot always judge people by what the eye sees; they are often hiding their true identity out of fear.  This is a good lesson for all of us to learn.  We sometime have to look deep into a person to discover who they really are.

The author has skillfully woven together the bits and pieces, both good and evil, of this fantasy world.  She brings all events to a satisfying conclusion, and yet teases the reader into desiring to know more about Manon and Elide and possibly other characters from the Throne of Glass series.

This series is very violent, and is not appropriate for younger readers.  I can only recommend it for those readers high school age and above.  If you have read the other books in the series, you will need to get this one.  It can stand alone, but it is best read in sequence.

Black River Falls by Jeff Hirsch

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black river falls Cardinal Cassidy is one of the lucky ones in Black River.  He has managed to escape the virus that has ravaged the town.  This virus causes amnesia of events in people’s lives without destroying their scholastic ability.  Families have been torn apart because they no longer recognize each other, and Cardinal’s family is no different.  No one, except Cardinal, remembers who they are, where they worked, or what the world outside of Black River is like.

The National Guard has been sent in, wearing haz-mat suits, to keep the town in quarantine until the scientists can come up with a cure or, at least, a vaccine so that the rest of the world will not be infected by contact with the survivors.  If no cure or vaccine is found, the National Guard is going to insure that no living human being leaves Black Falls.

Hector Gonzolez finds Cardinal living outside of the town.  He realizes that Cardinal is not infected, so he gives him a breathing mask to enable him to go into the town and look for his family.  The mask also enables Cardinal to help little children who cannot remember their families, but they are so young that they need help in surviving.

Cardinal takes these children to his hideout on the mountain because it is not safe for them to be in the town.  Hector keeps Cardinal’s secret, and even helps him with some necessary supplies, but one day the National Guard is ordered to pull out and a private company comes in to take over the control of the quarantined town.  This new group has a totally different approach to solving the problem of the memory virus.

This is a very good sci-fi story, and will cause the reader to examine the possibility of a man-made dangerous virus.  It is written for middle school and/or high school readers.  I definitely recommend it for those readers.