Mara wakes up in a field of dead grass. A fog obscures everything in sight except for a tall, thin boy in a robe. He is the Messenger. He tells her that she must come with him, that she has made a choice to help punish wickedness to keep things in balance.
They travel through time and space, flitting around to witness evil deeds. The Messenger uses his powers to make each of the accused choose to play a game or to face his worst fear. The Master of the Game, a tree-like creature covered in maze patterns, offers a macabre game to the accused who choose to play.
Mara finds she is the Messenger's apprentice, and will eventually replace him. As part of her training, they focus on a girl named Samantha, a high-schooler on the outside of a popular clique. She has just had an offer to publish a manuscript, and this has made a girl named Kayla her mortal enemy. Kayla picks on Samantha in every way possible, taking away her joy about her book. Samantha decides to take her own life, which has serious and unexpected repercussions for Mara.
Why I picked it up: Michael Grant wrote the Gone series, which is immensely popular in my middle school library.
Why I finished it: It had more twists than a Coney Island roller coaster, and I was along for the ride right from the beginning. The balance of the mystery and clues forced me to read the book all in one sitting so that I wouldn't have to leave the world Grant created until I knew what had happened.
It's perfect for: Christian, because, like the Messenger, he has a lot of tattoos. He’ll enjoy this twist, that the Messenger's body is covered with tattoos that are all experiences that he has gone through, each of which literally left its mark on him. The Messenger's skin can be read like a picture book.
@bookblrb: Mara is apprenticed to the Messenger, a supernatural being who punishes wickedness.
New York Times bestselling author Deanna Raybourn returns with a Jazz Age tale of grand adventure
On the verge of a stilted life as an aristocrat’s wife, Poppy Hammond does the only sensible thing—she flees the chapel in her wedding gown. Assisted by the handsome curate who calls himself Sebastian Cantrip, she spirits away to her estranged father’s quiet country village, pursued by the family she left in uproar. But when the dust of her broken engagement settles and Sebastian disappears under mysterious circumstances, Poppy discovers there is more to her hero than there seems.
With only her feisty lady’s maid for company, Poppy secures employment and travels incognita—east across the seas, chasing a hunch and the whisper of clues. Danger abounds beneath the canopies of the silken city, and Poppy finds herself in the perilous sights of those who will stop at nothing to recover a fabled ancient treasure. Torn between allegiance to her kindly employer and a dashing, shadowy figure, Poppy will risk it all as she attempts to unravel a much larger plan—one that stretches to the very heart of the British government, and one that could endanger everything—and everyone—that she holds dear.
In 2010, Ed Stafford became the first man to walk the entire length of the Amazon river. Adored by adventurers everywhere and in possession of multiple adventurer's society medals, he was at a loss for what to do next. Wanting to test himself, he decided to literally strip everything away and see what he could do on his own, with no help. He arrived naked to a deserted island and spent sixty days seeing if he could survive or even thrive. The only thing Stafford brought with him was a camcorder to record his trials and tribulations. (He had an intricate system to drop off tapes and pick up fresh batteries without seeing another human.)
Why I picked it up: I thought it was related to the reality show Naked and Afraid.
Why I finished it: Stafford is a piece of work. He did a lot of things that would have grossed me out: he killed a live goat (it took fifteen minutes of battering, since he did not have a knife), and he ate snails and grubs. He survived explosive diarrhea, sickness, problems finding fresh water and creating a shelter, when the sharpest tool he could find was a clamshell fragment. He claims the hardest part was being alone, that the human condition requires some kind of interaction. His emotional lows and highs sometimes hinged on small things, like finding a branch of hardwood he could use for the fire or having his meat spoil without refrigeration. Even while he was on the island, he got songs stuck in his head, including Kelly Clarkson's "What Doesn't Kill You Makes You Stronger."
It's perfect for: Ed, a former colleague and science teacher. He's an engineer who always wants to know how things work. Stafford spent a lot of time on his fresh water still, using the principles of science (like osmosis) to increase the amount of water he trapped. Ed would love that Stafford was able to come up with a way to get so much water he couldn't trap it all, despite the lack of rainwater.
@bookblrb: To test himself, adventurer Ed Stafford spent 60 days naked and alone on a deserted island.
When Teddy Holliday is robbed of her last hard-earned ten dollars at a local five-and-dime, she thinks that is the worst her day can get. Later that morning when a stranger arrives seeking a room in her boarding house offering her a wad of cash, more money than she has seen in one offering, she is grateful for the salvation. Little does Teddy know that the smolderingly handsome border, one Louis Daniels, is a bank robber - and that he knows the man who earlier robbed her - Clyde Barker of the famous Bonnie and Clyde duo.
When the whole gang takes her hostage in her own home, she must find a way to escape...as well as resist the sexual charms of Louis, who is determined to win her body and soul. What follows is a potent mix of gripping fear and sexual discovery. Not to mention a natural tornado that upends her life forever.
Toby, an ordinary pig in 1780s England, narrowly avoids becoming dinner by running away with his human friend, Sam. A showman who uses animals in his variety act trains Toby to pick out pasteboard letters according to a series of secret signals, spelling words to answer audience questions. Then Sam teaches Toby what the words mean, and Toby learns to read and communicate with humans.
Why I picked it up: I had heard of the real Toby in Ricky Jay's book Learned Pigs and Fireproof Women, and was fascinated by the idea of taking the story of a trained pig one step further and turning it into the story of an intelligent, thoughtful pig.
Why I finished it: Toby is earnest and charming. I was rooting for him as he went from trying to survive, to being adored in show business, to realizing that the human world is cruel and that people might only ever see him as a freak (and not a thoughtful being).
It's perfect for: The students at Stella Schola Middle School, who read both kids books with animal protagonists and challenging literary classics. Potter does a wonderful job combining the two by basing the majority of the story on real historical documents and mentions of Toby (and his many imitators) by William Blake, Robert Burns, and other luminaries of the day. The sources and details are spelled out in a delightful appendix.
@bookblrb: In 1780s England, a pig named Toby avoids becoming dinner, joins a show, and learns to communicate with humans.
Kazu Kibuishi's #1 New York Times bestselling series continues!
Emily, Navin, and their friends continue to battle the Elf King in hopes of destroying him forever, but one of his most loyal followers, Max, isn't making it easy for them. The crew journeys to Lucien, a city that's been ravaged by the war. Emily has more enemies there than she realizes--and it'll take everything she's got to get herself and her friends out of the city alive.
The Emperor has been murdered.
In the capital, his daughter Adare seeks justice for her father. But it’s going to be tough -- the chief suspect is a powerful holy man.
On a distant Island, his younger son Valyn is on the verge of completing eight years of brutal training to become one of the Kettral, an elite fighting force. Members of his father’s guard, sent to protect Valyn, have been murdered. Assassins within the Ketrel make several attempts on his life. And soon Valyn must face the most deadly test of his training, Hull’s Trial.
In a remote monastery, his older son Kaden lives a life of hardship and contemplation as an adherent to the Blank God. His new master seems determined to help Kaden achieve the vaniate, the state of nothingness, but his lessons focus on suffering and pain. An unknown creature is killing the monks’ goats. The strangers who claim to be traders may not be who they say. And Kaden has no idea that his father is dead or that he’s now Emperor.
Why I picked it up: The cover and title promised violence.
Why I finished it: Each story has a lot of tension. How far will Adare have to go to get justice? Can Valyn survive his assassins and the trial? Will Kaden be killed by his training, the creature, or assassins?
Readalikes: There isn’t much class magic (spells, enchanted swords) in this fantasy world, but there are leeches who can twist reality. People believe them evil and unholy, and hunt them down, though the Kettral welcome them because their gifts can make a difference on the battlefield. This reminded me of the magic in Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn series in which metals fuel magical superpowers, and which is also full of glorious, well-written battles.
@bookblrb: After his murder, the Emperor’s sons, one training to become an elite warrior and the other a monk, become targets.
The companion to Raina Telgemeier's #1 New York Times bestselling and Eisner Award-winning graphic memoir, Smile.
Raina can't wait to be a big sister. But once Amara is born, things aren't quite how she expected them to be. Amara is cute, but she's also a cranky, grouchy baby, and mostly prefers to play by herself. Their relationship doesn't improve much over the years, but when a baby brother enters the picture and later, something doesn't seem right between their parents, they realize they must figure out how to get along. They are sisters, after all.
Raina uses her signature humor and charm in both present-day narrative and perfectly placed flashbacks to tell the story of her relationship with her sister, which unfolds during the course of a road trip from their home in San Francisco to a family reunion in Colorado.
After retiring from a brief but intense career as a spy for the U.S. government, code-name Pilgrim anonymously wrote the authoritative text on crime scene investigation. But living an inconspicuous life comes to a sudden halt when a killer uses his book as a how-to guide for committing the perfect murder. After helping out authorities with a gruesome, seemingly isolated crime, Pilgrim becomes entrenched in the world he promised himself he would never return to. Pilgrim travels to New York City, Afghanistan, Bahrain, Lebanon, and Saudi Arabia to hunt a man who is committed to bringing down the U.S. once and for all.
Why I picked it up: My friend got a copy as a Christmas present from family in Australia, and his wife "stole" it from him and couldn't stop telling me about it. After he stole it back from her, I tried to leave their house with it but got busted at the door. All they talked about was Pilgrim, so I had to hunt down a copy for myself to find out what all the fuss was about!
Why I finished it: I've been trying to think of a classier way to answer this question, but the honest answer is that I COULD NOT PUT IT DOWN. After starting it, I read I Am Pilgrim every waking moment between work and sleep until I finished the last page. Hayes' writing style is clear when explaining complex political, religious, and scientific concepts. (I’m certain I will never be able to forget the effects of smallpox.) I felt like I was actually learning something while being entertained, and the tension just kept building until I thought I was going to burst.
It's perfect for: My husband, Carl, who never reads fiction because he's so busy reading medical texts for work, but also because he claims the truth is far more fascinating than any made-up story. (I started asking him detailed medical questions about the plot, and the next thing I knew he was twenty-four pages into it.)
@bookblrb: A retired spy is drawn back into the world of espionage after a book he wrote is used to commit the perfect murder.
After his mother's death, Evan and his dad move frequently, forever on the run from sad memories. Almost continuously the new guy at school, Evan uses it to his advantage, seducing girls and then dropping them after they have sex. He never lets himself get attached, knowing the next move is just around the corner. Then, at a private school in the South, he picks the wrong girl. Her jealous ex and one of his henchmen corner Evan in the showers. They give him a beating so bad he loses hearing in one ear and has to have his spleen removed. Desperate to see his son heal in a safe place, Evan's dad takes him back to the family’s lake house where he spent the summers of his youth.
Why I picked it up: I heard a lot of good buzz around this book as a Printz contender, and it was a finalist for the 2014 William C. Morris Award (for first time authors). I wanted to know how this book would live up to its provocative titles.
Why I finished it: Evan goes from being a fairly unsympathetic character to someone you want to hold close and protect. Mesrobian follows him through therapy in a way that doesn't feel like it has been staged as a lesson for readers, and the book is filled with enough coarse, true-to-life details that teens will read it as fact.
Readalikes: The Scar Boys by Len Vlahos, another debut novel in which a teen guy struggles to trust people and find his way despite being deeply damaged by the cruelty of his peers. Unlike Evan's beat down, Harry was tied to a tree during a thunderstorm, abandoned, then bullied about his injuries. Both guys reluctantly work with therapists to find healing for their invisible scars.
@bookblrb: Evan uses his status as the new guy at school to seduce girls and drop them until he’s badly beaten.
Em wakes up in Portland with no memory of who she is or where she comes from. Once she gets settled in a new life, she stumbles upon a magical curiosity shop run by an old man named Peter. She sees a key there that seems to tickle her memory, and Peter gives it to her. When she goes to leave, she finds a horde of living statues just outside the shop sent by someone who wants the key. Luckily for Em, she gets help from a talking cat, Schrodinger, who suggests she use her key to open a door to a new world. So begins her real quest to remember who she is and to find her destiny.
Contains Memorial issues #1 - #6.
Why I picked it up: I love the old fantasy trope of a mysterious shop that appears and vanishes without warning, but serves the purpose of setting the hero on a quest.
Why I finished it: The scope of the story is epic. Em’s journey takes her through realms run by three mythical sisters, Moment, Memory, and Possibility, and to a desert where the Tower of Babylon rises, run by blind librarians who imagine (nearly) every possible universe. (And this is just the first volume.)
Readalikes: Neil Gaiman’s Sandman, because Gaiman has a talent for telling stories about seemingly mythical characters who should have been invented ages ago. Gaiman’s Dream, who is in charge of the realms of sleep, reminds me of Moment and her sisters -- they are omniscient, omnipotent beings who appear to control reality but cannot control each other.
@bookblrb: Em has no memory of who she is. In a curiosity shop she finds a key which leads to a new world and her destiny.
Quebec, 1970. It’s the year Paul joins the scouts, goes to camp, has his first kiss, and decides he wants to be a comic artist. It’s also the year the Quebec Liberation Front wages a campaign for independence that includes bombings and kidnappings.
Why I picked it up: I bought this last year at TCAF because there was a big buzz around its release, and I had enjoyed two of Rabagliati’s previous semi-autobiographical graphic novels about a slightly older Paul, Paul Has a Summer Job and Paul Moves Out.
Why I finished it: Rabagliati’s art is absolutely amazing in the way it reveals small details, creates a sense of place, and helps the writing create a happy, innocent tone with a sense of foreboding. His characterization of Paul was spot-on, from his bewildered cluelessness (and happiness) when Héléne kisses him to the way he looks up to his scoutmasters. Besides Paul, my favorite character was his mother, who is unlucky enough to live across the hall from her controlling mother-in-law, her sister, and her husband’s brother. Their comments and they way they invade Paul’s mother’s space always have her on the verge of exploding, though she holds it in to keep the peace.
Readalikes: Mike Dawson’s hilarious Troop 142, which features a much less innocent summer camp with way more potty humor.
@bookblrb: In Quebec in 1970, Paul joins the scouts, goes to camp, has his first kiss, and decides to become an artist.