We Were Liars by E. Lockhart

We Were Liars, by E. Lockhart, was published in 2013 by Delacorte.

Rating: 3/5

We Were Liars is a suspense/mystery novel. Cadence Sinclair Eastman has forgotten the majority of her fifteenth summer at her family’s private island and the story is about her struggle to put together the pieces of what happened that caused her amnesia.

Though it’s a suspense novel, it really doesn’t read like one. It’s mostly about teenage life, or what Lockhart assumes is teenage life. There’s familial drama, the close-knit adventures of cousins and friends, the confusion as Cadence struggles to remember and people around her refuse to answer her questions, and some odd fairy tale stories scattered throughout. Odd because they seem out of place, though clearly Lockhart believed they were necessary—I just didn’t get it.

Despite the fact that it doesn’t much read like a suspense novel, the ending is quite shocking. I went into it thinking I knew what was happening, then had to change my mind, then got hit with the plot twist at the end. I literally spoke to the book, that’s how shocked I was. Suddenly I wanted to reread the book, or go back quickly at least, to look and see all the clues and foreshadowing. That’s a good ending of a book, if it makes you want to reread it immediately.

We Were Liars wasn’t the edge-of-my-seat, gripping suspense novel I was hoping, but it still pleasantly surprised me, delivering a seemingly innocent plot with a shocking undercurrent. I thought the fairy stories were weird, and the writing was a little too scattered for me to really like, but overall, I liked my first foray into E. Lockhart’s works.

Recommended Age Range: 14+

Warnings: Swearing, kissing, death.

Genre: Young Adult, Mystery, Suspense, Realistic

You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/2E8sbsd

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Patina by Jason Reynolds

Patina, by Jason Reynolds, was published in 2017 by Atheneum. It is the sequel to Ghost.

Rating: 3/5

Though Patina is the sequel to Ghost, it’s not really necessary to have read Ghost first, though it does give you added insight to some of the characters. I like the whole idea Reynolds is going for: a book centered on each of the four central characters. If the pattern holds, each one will take place after the one before it. Patina starts where Ghost left off, finishing the race that Reynolds ended Ghost with.

Reynolds ends this book with another race, and yet again ends the book before we see the results. I like it as much as I liked it in Ghost, which is to say, not at all, and I hope it’s not a sign of a pattern.

Anyway, I don’t think I liked Patina as much as I liked GhostGhost tugged at the heartstrings a little bit more, though I liked the sibling relationship in this book and the conversations about Patina’s white aunt. And I liked that Reynolds didn’t go for the standard bully story in school, but simply had complex characters with different motivations, with Patina trying to understand their actions. But Ghost really pulled at me, whereas Patina was good, but not as immediately connecting as I found Ghost.

I do, however, still really like this series and am eager to read the next two books about Sunny and Lu. I’ve seen enough of their characters in these two books that I want to know more about their lives—which, I guess, is part of what Reynolds is trying to do. And I love the uniqueness of each character, and how their lives are so different in so many ways, and yet they can come together with the common interesting of running. Unity in diversity is a great message to deliver.

Recommended Age Range: 10+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Middle Grade, Realistic

You can buy this book here:

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, by Sherman Alexie, was published in 2009 by Little, Brown and Company.

Rating: 1/5

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian has won a lot of acclaim for its portrayal of Indian culture and its subversion and denunciation of common stereotypes. However, to be honest, I didn’t really notice much of that in the book itself—I was too distracted by the vulgar and inappropriate content that left me feeling very uncomfortable.

I did notice that Junior used a lot of blanket statements and generalizations, though. So much so that it started to undermine his role as a cultural-barrier-crosser. Then again, he IS just a teenager, so that seems par for the course, unfortunately.

I also didn’t appreciate the complete lack of care that was given in describing bulimia, or the biased statements about religion.

Basically, what I’m saying is that I almost DNF (that’s “did not finish”) the book. And it’s mostly because of the gross, inappropriate teenage boy content and jokes that went on for far too long.

There were some good things about the book. I liked the theme of friendship and loyalty, as well as the potential conversations that could arise about loyalty to family, culture, and race. But I mostly wanted it to be over so I could stop reading all the sexual content.

Recommended Age Range: 10+

Warnings: Sexual situations, swearing, mentions of masturbation and erections, bulimia, alcoholism.

Genre: Middle Grade, Realistic

You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/2RacvZi

1978 Newbery Medal: Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson

Bridge to Terabithia, by Katherine Paterson, was published in 1977 by HarperCollins.

Rating: 3/5

Bridge to Terabithia is one of those books that you don’t ever really forget. I first read this book maybe 15 years ago (wow! It feels weird saying that!) and I’ve never forgotten the ending. The majority of the content I did forget, and it was surprising to me to read it again (more on that later), but the ending stuck with me.

There are many things to like about this novel: the depiction of a boy/girl friendship, a creative and imaginative boy protagonist, the focus on grief and how it is expressed in different ways and the subversion of the “men don’t cry” attitude. The emphasis on imagination and its power is especially well done, in my opinion.

What surprised me the most was some of the content, which to me made the novel seem a little inappropriate for children. However, it was written in the 70s, so maybe that explains the change, though today I don’t think some things are expressed that were expressed in this book. There are many exclamations of “Lord” throughout, which isn’t so problematic, I suppose (I didn’t even remember that being in the book), but the one thing that struck me was the inappropriate incest joke made by May Belle and then continued by Jess. My skin crawled when I read that part.

Bridge to Terabithia is pretty much the quintessential Newbery Medal: slice-of-life, centered story with tragic events. I loved a lot of the aspects of this book, especially the creative boy protagonist and the boy/girl friendship, but some of it I didn’t like so much. I also think Paterson is still a bit too strange of a writer for me (i.e., Jacob Have I Loved).

Recommended Age Range: 8+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Children’s, Realistic

You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/2SEbgCQ

2007 Newbery Medal: The Higher Power of Lucky by Susan Patron

The Higher Power of Lucky, by Susan Patron, was published in 2006 by Atheneum.

Rating: 4/5

The Higher Power of Lucky is about Lucky, a young girl in a small town who likes to study naturalism and eavesdrop on help groups, where she hears about the mysterious “Higher Power” and is curious to know what it is and how to find it herself.

I was a bit startled when I first started the book since on the very first page is a story about a rattlesnake who bit a dog in a very sensitive area. Patron actually gives the word rather than a tamer substitute like “groin,” and Lucky ponders the word and wonders what it is. The word is explained to her later on. It startled me because I’m not used to children’s books saying words like “scrotum” and having the main character wondering what one looks like. From that beginning, I was worried I wouldn’t like the book.

However, the book as a whole is quite sweet. This idea of a “Higher Power” permeates the entire book, and though Patron never follows it to a religious conclusion (or any concrete conclusion at all, not that I could tell), it’s used to show how Lucky is searching for something that she feels is missing. This is also accomplished through her relationship with Brigitte and Lucky’s worries that Brigitte will abandon her.

As an adult, it was interesting to read this book because Patron is very good at portraying a child’s view of things. Lucky acts like a child, but not in an extremely irritating way, or an arrogant way, but a normal, child way. She makes mountains out of molehills, oversimplifies things, and is mean at times and stubborn at others. Her voice felt real.

The Higher Power of Lucky startled me at the beginning, but then won me over with a realistic protagonist, whose outgoing nature and stubbornness actually won me over rather than pushed me away. I feel like the actual “Higher Power” part was lost in translation at the end, but it’s a delightful, heartwarming book all the same.

Recommended Age Range: 8+

Warnings: It says the word “scrotum” at the beginning and then explains it at the end. Not crudely or anything, but not normally what you would find in a children’s book.

Genre: Children’s, Realistic

You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/2yBDZ2w

The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros

The House on Mango Street, by Sandra Cisneros, was published in 1984 by Vintage.

Rating: 3/5

I like the vignette style of writing better than the poetry style of writing, and The House on Mango Street weaves the vignettes together into a (mostly) cohesive story of Esperanza and her neighbors. The stories are mainly about Esperanza and the people around her, though a few of them are more about her feelings or observations.

I say mostly cohesive because the jump from topic to topic, and the seemingly random stories about clouds or trees, break up the overarching story of Esperanza. “But those stories are important to her life and character,” you might say. And you’re probably right. If I were studying this book, exploring it for its literary quality and experience, I might agree. But reading it as I did, to experience it for the first time without really delving into it, some of it seems disjointed.

The vignettes are beautifully written, even some of the more random ones, and Cisnero’s description of a Latina girl growing up in a poor neighborhood and her experiences with her family, her neighbors, the people she meets, are striking and vivid. Many of the vignettes end in a tantalizing way, hinting but never showing, while others reveal a darker side of things that are never further addressed or resolved. This is “slices of life” at its most realistic: the things people notice, day to day, the interesting stories they hear, are highlighted. Perhaps that’s why The House on Mango Street also feels disjointed at times: people’s observations and thoughts aren’t always smoothly connected together.

I can see why this book is put on high school reading lists. It was one of my high school’s picks for summer reading, though I read The Joy Luck Club instead. Though I can’t say I really liked the book, I can complement its beautiful writing, its portrayal of Latino culture, and its insight. The House on Mango Street is a book that should be savored, and while I didn’t have the time to savor it, I can at least see the potential in returning to it and taking the time to soak it all in.

Recommended Age Range: 14+

Warnings: Sexual assault.

Genre: Young Adult, Realistic

You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/2yusHNE

2015 Newbery Medal: The Crossover by Kwame Alexander

The Crossover, by Kwame Alexander, was published in 2014 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

“A bolt of lightning on my kicks…/ The court is sizzling. / My sweat is drizzling. / Stop all that quivering. / Cuz tonight I’m delivering,” raps basketball phenom Josh Bell. Thanks to his dad, he and his twin brother, Jordan, are kings on the court, with crossovers that make even the toughest ballers cry. But Josh has more than hoops in his blood. He’s got a river of rhymes flowing through him—a sick flow that helps him find his rhythm when everything’s on the line. As their winning season unfolds, things begin to change. When Jordan meets the new girl in school, the twins’ tight-knight bond unravels. In this heartfelt novel, basketball and brotherhood intertwine to show Josh and Jordan that life doesn’t come with a playbook and, sometimes, it’s not about winning.

Rating: 4/5

I’m not a huge fan of novels written in verse, but The Crossover won me over. Alexander made the format actually fit in a way that made sense; there was a reason that’s important to the story why it was written this way, and it really would not have been the same book at all if it had been written in prose. Not many novels-in-verse are like that.

This book is remarkably sad, as befitting a Newbery Medal (I kid, but seriously, Newbery Medal winners often have some poignancy attached), and the worst part is that what makes it so sad is the unnecessariness of it all. You can see the sadness coming from a mile away, and all you want to do is scream at the characters and get them to prevent what’s coming, but of course, that’s not how books work.

Despite the sadness, The Crossover is quite funny, and there’s even a happy ending of sorts. More bittersweet than happy, perhaps. And Alexander does a great job of conveying all the various emotions of everyone, not just Josh, so that really helps give the characters more depth.

The one thing that I found confusing was simply the basketball terminology. Even after having a crossover explained to me, I still had no idea what the point of it was or why it seemed to be so important in basketball. It would have been nice to have someone explain why it’s important to have a good crossover, but perhaps that would have broken up the flow of the book.

The Crossover actually reminded me quite a bit of some my students, who I think might really enjoy this book—even if it is written in verse! It’s sad and funny and heartwarming and bittersweet in all the right places in all the right times. I’m still not a fan of novels in verse, but The Crossover is one of my favorites of the style.

Recommended Age Range: 12+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Middle Grade, Realistic

You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/2DB5zBY

1979 Newbery Medal: The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin

The Westing Game, by Ellen Raskin, was published in 1978 by Dutton.

This highly inventive mystery involved sixteen people (including a dressmaker, a secretary, an inventor, a doctor, a judge, a bookie, a burglar, and a bomber) who are invited to the reading of the very strange will of the very rich Samuel W. Westing. They could become millionaires, depending on how they play the game. All they have to do is find the answer—but the answer to what? The Westing game is tricky and generous, but the heirs play on—through blizzards, burglaries, and bombings. Ellen Raskin has entangled a remarkable cast of characters in a puzzle-knotted, word-twisting plot filled with humor, intrigue, and suspense.

Rating: 4/5

The Westing Game is a fun mystery/puzzle story, with a diverse and quirky cast of characters and a twisty-and-turny plot that, according to the introduction, the author made up as she went along. I’ve had this book recommended to me by a couple of people, so I knew when I started this Newbery Medal read that I would finally get a chance to see what it was all about.

At first, the characters can be hard to differentiate between, and none of their voices (or their interactions) seem quite accurate. However, as they start to get fleshed out and you become used to each character’s particular quirk, it becomes easier to tell them apart. Raskin was clearly aiming for humor/distinction rather than realism with these characters (and with her plot as a whole), so there’s still a little bit of separation there, but once the mystery really gets going, the odd absurd factor to the novel becomes less apparent.

Speaking of the mystery, it’s really quite fun. While I figured out the first half of it relatively quickly (almost as soon as the clues appeared), the rest was a surprise for me—especially the last part, which was almost too obscure (but not quite, making it rather brilliant). I wish there had been more to it, though—more clues, more steps, something. There was slightly too much in the middle that didn’t have to do with the clues and instead had to do with random revelations about each character (some of which didn’t really fit, like what we learn about Angela). It helped us get to know the characters more, but made that part of the mystery drag.

The multiple characters in The Westing Game are hard to get accustomed to at first, but once they get fleshed out it’s easier to tell them apart. The mystery is great—lots of twists and turns, obscure hints, red herrings, and a pretty cool reveal. However, there was almost too much going on in some parts, and the ending wasn’t as satisfying as I would have liked (why does Angela marry the intern after a whole book of her lamenting mournfully about marrying him??). It’s not quite on level with an Agatha Christie mystery (I have a bad habit of comparing all mysteries with hers), but it’s still great fun.

Recommended Age Range: 10+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Realistic, Mystery, Children’s.

You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/2uXaeY7

100 Cupboards by N. D. Wilson

100 Cupboards, by N. D. Wilson, was published in 2007 by Random House.

Twelve-year-old Henry York is going to sleep one night when he hears a bump on the attic wall above his head. It’s an unfamiliar house—Henry is staying with his aunt, uncle, and three cousins—so he tries to ignore it. But the next night he wakes up with bits of plaster in his hair. Two knobs have broken through the wall, and one of them is slowly turning…Henry scrapes the plaster off the wall and discovers doors—ninety-nine cupboards of all different sizes and shapes. Through one he can hear the sound of falling rain. Through another he sees a glowing room—with a man strolling back and forth! Henry and his cousin Henrietta soon understand that these are not just cupboards. They are, in fact, portals to other worlds.

Rating: 2/5

100 Cupboards is a quirky, almost absurdist, fantasy. The premise is that Henry, who has gone to stay with his aunt and uncle, discovers that underneath the plaster in his room are many different cupboards. He soon realizes that they are portals to other worlds and—of course—that some of the things in those worlds want to come out. When his cousin disappears into one of the worlds, Henry must go in and get her—and not let anything else back out.

His sidekick/partner is his cousin, Henrietta (not sure why there’s all this fascination with the name, or variations of, Henry), who is rather annoying most of the time. I don’t have a lot of patience for impatient, headstrong characters. I mostly end up getting annoyed that they rush in and mess things up most of the time with their rashness. Henry himself is all right. He’s got the right sort of mystery about him, and though he’s timid, he’s brave when he needs to be. However, the plot revolving around his parents seems pointless (why not just make him an orphan?), and some of the things that are revealed during the course of the book aren’t as smooth or as clear as they could be.

This is the sort of book where I started out really interested and then gradually became less so as things became weirder. I thought things were a bit rushed at the end, and some of the worlds and characters that Wilson introduces seemed out of place. I don’t really have any desire or interest to find out what happens next. I thought the premise was interesting, but I would have much preferred it if it had simply been a “crawl into cupboards and explore other worlds” type of fantasy, rather than a “you let something evil out and now must save everything” type of fantasy. The introduction of that part is where things fell apart in this book, in my opinion.

100 Cupboards has a really good premise, though Wilson doesn’t always execute it as well as he could. Some of the mysteries were interesting, and some of them fell a little flat. The book as a whole is a bit quirky and odd, and doesn’t always hit the right notes. I can see some people really enjoying this book, but for me, I’m not interested in reading any more than I have.

Recommended Age Range: 10+

Warnings: Violence.

Genre: Middle Grade, Fantasy, Realistic

You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/2tlEcUf

The Penderwicks At Last by Jeanne Birdsall

The Penderwicks at Last, by Jeanne Birdsall, was published in 2018 by Knopf. It is the sequel to The Penderwicks in Spring.

Five older siblings, a few beloved dogs, an endless array of adventures. These are the things that have shaped Lydia’s first eleven years as a Penderwick. And now she’s dancing at the bus stop, waiting for big sister Batty to come home from college. This is a very important dance and a very important wait—the sisters are about to find out that the entire Penderwick family will soon be returning to Arundel, the place where it all began. And better still is the occasion: a good old-fashioned, homemade-by-Penderwicks wedding. Honorary Penderwick Jeffrey is flying in from Germany. Jane is bringing her sewing machine. A dog or two is planning a trot down the aisle. And Lydia is making sure everything comes together—this is Rosalind’s destiny, after all.

Rating: 3/5

The prediction I made in my review of The Penderwicks in Spring that, if there were a last Penderwick novel it would star Lydia, came true. I was super excited when I found out there would be one final Penderwick novel (as a reminder, The Penderwicks series are some of my favorite children’s novels) and reread the first four one right after the other in order to remember everything. And I’m glad I did, as it caused me to be much more prepared for this novel.

The big thing about this novel is that it upset all the Skye/Jeffrey fans. I found this out via Goodreads reviews, but once I read the first four Penderwick novels again (notably, The Penderwicks at Point Mouette and The Penderwicks in Spring), it became much more obvious to me what Birdsall had planned for Jeffrey (and Batty). And, having reread the novels, I am much less a Skye/Jeffrey fan myself than I was initially. And I’m never sure why fans get so rabid when authors don’t put their favorites together (Louisa May Alcott, cough). It’s clear that Skye loved Jeffrey only as a brother. Let’s respect this fictional character’s decision and move on.

Anyway, moving on, The Penderwicks at Last isn’t nearly as good as The Penderwicks in Spring. It’s fun, yes, and wraps up the storyline, and has the same amount of Penderwick shenanigans as there can be with almost all of them grown up. And I loved the bookending of this book with The Penderwicks—the return to Arundel, Cagney, Mrs. Tifton, and Lydia running into Jack in the tunnel just as Skye ran into Jeffrey. Lydia’s outrage at being a good influence and at being the nice Penderwick was great, but it also makes sense seeing as Iantha is her mother.

But Spring had so much depth and heart and emotion and humor in it that is lacking in At Last. Spring may even have wrapped up the series in a better way, but perhaps I’m biased. The Penderwicks at Last is a good finale, but not a great one.

Recommended Age Range: 8+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Children’s, Realistic

You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/2Mvr87v