Monday, April 29, 2019

MARVELOUS MIDDLE GRADE MONDAY: No Fixed Address by Susin Nielsen

NO FIXED ADDRESS by Susin Nielsen (Wendy Lamb Books, September 2018)

What It's About (from jacket cover): 
Twelve-and-three-quarter-year-old Felix Knutsson has a knack for trivia. His favorite game show is Who What Where When; he even named his gerbil after the host. Felix's mom, Astrid, is loving but can't seem to hold on to a job. So when they get evicted from their latest shabby apartment, they have to move into a van. Astrid swears him to secrecy; he can't tell anyone about their living arrangement, not even Dylan and Winnie, his best friends at his new school. If he does, she warns him, he'll be taken away from her and put in foster care.

As their circumstances go from bad to worse, Felix gets a chance to audition for a junior edition of Who What Where When, and he's determined to earn a spot on the show. Winning the cash prize could make everything okay again. But things don't turn out the way he expects. . . .

Opening Lines:
November 27, 12:05 a.m. 
My leg jiggled up and down. I shifted from one bum cheek to the other. My palms felt damp and my heart was pounding. "I've never been interrogated before." 
"You're not being interrogated, Felix. We're just having a chat."

Why I Loved It:
My kids have read books by Susin Nielsen before (Word Nerd; Dear George Clooney: Please Marry My Mom) but for some reason I've never before done so. That has all changed because I adored No Fixed Address and am currently sneaking into the kids' bedrooms to steal those other titles off their shelves.

Nielsen has written a fantastic book with complicated characters about homelessness and hope. From the very first sentences, Felix is endearing. He also has to endure his mother, Astrid, who lies, cheats, and steals. As Felix says of her: "My mom is really good at making friends, and even better at losing them." As with most people like Astrid, there is fierce love and also fierce anger from Felix at all the situations she gets them into. But, masterfully, Nielsen reveals reasons for why Astrid is who she is. Both Felix and Astrid are two of the most wonderfully drawn characters in recent middle grade literature.

As Felix moves from school to school, he eventually reunites with an earlier friend, Dylan Brinkerhoff. I loved the friendship--the silly jokes and the way these two boys enjoyed one another. They even make room for Winnie Wu, a Hermione Granger type character, with whom Felix awkwardly goes to the prom.

Initially, it seems that Felix might be too ideal of a character, but he is capable of lashing out at his friends, even when he knows they are trying to help him.

I loved the insights into Swedish culture, as well as the other parts of Felix's heritage. (His father is part Haitian and part French.) There were also insights about dealing with depression, and trying to make it as an artist. And you could learn a lot of information from accompanying Felix in his cramming sessions for the quiz show.

If I were a 5th-grade teacher, this wonderful, complex, funny, and tear-making novel would be one of my "read-aloud" books. I read it almost in one sitting, and have been raving about it all week--so much so that it now looks like my wife is planning to sneak to my bookshelves and steal it for herself. So, in a way, we are all Astrids in this mafioso household!

If I had three thumbs, this would be a three-thumbs-up book. As I have to make do with two, two-thumbs-up will have to do. Terrific job, Susin Nielsen.

About the Author (from the jacket copy):
“This is the first day I’ve written in a diary. The reason I am, is ‘cos I love writing stories, and if I do grow up to be a famous writer, and later die, and they want to get a story of my life ... I guess I should keep (one).” SUSIN NIELSEN wrote this poorly constructed sentence when she was eleven years old. And while she isn’t exactly famous (although she likes to think she’s ‘Big in Belgium’), and no one has written the story of her life (maybe because she isn’t dead yet), she did predict her future.  She got her start writing for the hit TV series Degrassi Junior High, and went on to write for over twenty Canadian shows. More recently she turned her hand to novel writing. She is the author of five critically-acclaimed and award-winning titles, including Optimists Die First, We Are All Made of Molecules, and The Reluctant Journal of Henry K. Larsen.

Nielsen has been called the John Green of Canada. She once had a dream that John Green had been called the Susin Nielsen of the United States. She lives in Vancouver, BC with her family and two naughty cats.

Monday, April 22, 2019

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday: LAST OF THE NAME by Rosanne Parry

Confession: Rosanne Parry is a mentor and friend of mine. So I'm letting the Don have his way with the keyboard this week. Take it away, Don Corleone.

What It's About:
Twelve-year-old Danny O’Carolan arrives in New York City with nothing but his father’s songs, his brothers’ dance steps, and his his older sister, Kathleen. Driven from their home in Ireland, they must find work or they’ll end up at the dreaded orphan’s asylum. But there’s no steady work for boys, except joining the Union Army as a drummer. So Kathleen finds a job in domestic service for herself and her younger . . . sister. Danny reluctantly pretends to be a girl to avoid the workhouse and the battlefield. But when he’s not doing the backbreaking work of a housemaid, he sneaks off without his disguise. Roaming the streets of New York, he discovers how many different kinds of people live in its neighborhoods. Irish, German, and Italian immigrants, as well as free black people. All poor. All competing for the same jobs. All softened, Danny finds, by a song and bit of footwork. But the draft is on the horizon, threatening to force more Irishmen into the army. As tensions threaten to spill over into violence, how can Danny—the last bearer of the O’Carolan name—stay true to his family’s legacy and find a safe place to call home?

Opening Lines:
Granny says I'm seven devils in one pair of shoes. She doesn't know the half of it. Trouble is always nipping at my heels."

The Don's Verdict:
So I was looking over the latest book shipment Michale gets from them publishers, and this Last of the Name cover took my fancy. Then, Michale started all this drivel about conflict of interest, so I told him to head downtown for a cappuccino and a pastrami sandwich. He's got no work ethic, so that'll keep him out of the office for at least half a day.

I rolled up my sleeves and jumped right in. What can I say, fellas? This is one good book. Oh I know it's about the Irish, but one of the main characters is also an Italian, and he kind of saves the day. Plus, there's music and dancing and nuns and newspapers: it's all about New York, New York, bambini.

I know youse are sayin' "Don, you're not a literary man," but that ain't true. I can tell a story with the best of 'em--just look at that tale I told Puzo about mi famiglia, as well as the way I bankroll this here blog. (If Michale wasn't so hoity toity about people touching his precious laptop--which I bought him by the way, just saying--I'd be writing these reviews much more often.)

This Rosanne Parry knows her stuff. She must be a history teacher, because she sure knows what New York was like in 1863. She brings the place alive. From the ship to the docks, to the houses of the rich, to the orphanages and theaters and alleyways: she had me right there, 100 percent. The only thing missing was an Italian restaurant, but you can't win 'em all.

The characters are like real people. If you've ever had an older sister, you'll recognize Kathleen. Boy, can she boss. And young Danny is a spitfire--I'd make him an honorary grandchild of mine in a heartbeat. These two are resourceful and resilient and Signora Rosanne writes about them with warmth and wit. This tale's got a lot of heavy things going on in it, but she still made this old Don laugh. Her dialogue is great, and this story moves along at a cracking pace.

And if that hasn't convinced you to stick your schnozz between the pages, I'll do you one better. I'll send you Michale's copy, signed by Signora Rosanne, and youse can see how great it is for yourselves. Tell everyone the Don sent it to you. (Just leave a comment down below, and I'll pick one random winner.)

Michale said he was going to edit my post when he got back, but time waits for no man, especially one who's burning through my business account and is probably spoon deep in a tiramisu. So I'm just going to tell you a little something about Signora Rosanne, and then I'll push the publish button.

About La Signora:
Rosanne Parry is the author of many award winning novels including Heart of a Shepherd, and The Turn of the Tide. Her newest novels are Last of the Name and A Wolf Called Wander, both on sale in the spring of 2019. She and her family live in an old farmhouse in Portland, Oregon. She writes in a tree house in her back yard. WEBSITE  TWITTER

Monday, April 1, 2019

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday: NO SLAM DUNK by Mike Lupica

NO SLAM DUNK by Mike Lupica

What It's About (from Goodreads): 
Wes' father always told him that there was only one ball in basketball. That you had to know when to take it yourself and when to give it up, that finding the right balance was key. So at every practice and game, Wes tries his best to be a good basketball player and, above all, a good teammate.

As the season kicks off, Wes finds that not everyone on his team has the same idea. All-star player and the Hawks' point guard, Danilo "Dinero" Rey seems determined to hold the spotlight and the ball, even if it means costing his team the game. If Wes is to lead the Hawks to the playoffs, he'll need to find new ways to dish out an assist--even if it means his most important one comes off the court.

Opening Lines:
Everybody always says there's only one ball in basketball.
Now one had just hit Wes in the side of the face, making him feel like somebody had slapped him.

What I Liked About It:
I like novels about sports, even those I never had a clue about when I was a schoolboy in England many moons ago. (Basketball has since become a world-wide sport, so I would have no excuse nowadays.)

There's no doubting that Mike Lupica knows what he's doing when it comes to sports. The guy was a celebrated broadcaster for many years, and his descriptions of the game are spot on. But what makes a sports book top-notch is when the plot goes beyond the sport itself. In this novel, Wes is dealing with a father with whom he was once close, a father who was a basketball mentor for him. But his father has seen horrors in war, and has come back from active duty battling demons (including alcohol.)

This is deftly handled, and one feels for Wes as he tries to succeed both on the basketball court, as well as dealing with the way his family has been fractured. Lupica's secondary characters are well-rounded (Wes' best friend, Emmanuel, and his mentor, Mr. Correa.) There is also a great rivalry going on with Dinero Rey. Dinero is a bit of a show boat, and has his own issues. Can he be part of a team, with a player like Wes, who is equally as good, or will Dinero give in to ball-hoggery and bring the team down?

My 12-year-old is an extraordinary basketball player, and we read this novel aloud together, Here's what he thought: No Slam Dunk doesn't just tell you about what's on the court, it also tells you about what's happening off it. It really makes you see these characters in another way. I like the story and the conflicts and the way they solve it. I would give No Slam Dunk a 9 out of 10.
(Editor's note: The 12-year-old wrote the above paragraph himself, and changed his bio from 'great' to 'extraordinary.' He's as humble as his old man!)

About the Author (from Amazon):
Mike Lupica began his newspaper career covering the New York Knicks for the New York Post at age 23. He became the youngest columnist ever at a New York paper with the New York Daily News, which he joined in 1977. For more than 30 years, Lupica has added magazines, novels, sports biographies, other non-fiction books on sports, as well as television to his professional resume. For the past fifteen years, he has been a TV anchor for ESPN's The Sports Reporters. His previous young adult novels, Travel Team, Heat, Miracle on 49th Street, and Summer Ball, have been New York Times bestsellers. Lupica is also what he describes as a "serial Little League coach," a youth basketball coach, and a soccer coach for his four children, three sons and a daughter. He and his family live in Connecticut.