Ghost by Jason Reynolds (Juvenile, Fiction)
There is a subset of children’s books referred to as high-low readers -- high for high interest and low for low reading level. These books used to bug me a great deal. The first ones I encountered were trashy novels that all had black or Hispanic protagonists. I was angry not only at the implicit racism but at the poor writing. Ghost, the first in a planned four-book series about a middle-grade track team, was described to me as a high-low reader, so I was expecting bad things. Happily, it’s a great book and I’d gladly recommend it. Castle Crenshaw, aka Ghost, has been running ever since his father threatened him and his mom with a gun. He knew he was fast, but didn’t know he could use that speed to compete on a local track team. Ghost is an appealing character with a lot of heart and a lot to learn. Cliché? Maybe. And that’s probably why I gave the book three stars, rather than four. Still, I think many middle graders will enjoy reading this book – the pace is fast; the story is good; and yes, it’s an easy read (plot- and vocabulary-wise not necessarily content-wise). By the way, I’ve since come to find many, many high-low reading lists that contain a wide variety of protagonists and I can ignore the trashy books that were seemingly churned out on some book mill.
Closed Casket by Sophie Hannah (Adult, Fiction, Mystery)
This is the second novel by Sophie Hannah to feature Hercule Poirot. Hannah was granted permission by the Christie estate to write these mysteries (the first was The Monogram Murders). Poirot’s sidekick in the updated books is a police detective named Catchpool who doubts his own ability to solve crimes, especially when he compares himself to the great Poirot. Closed Casket is a cross between a cozy and a locked-room mystery, both subgenres Christie (still a best-selling author) excelled at. I marvel at the way Hannah is able to re-create Poirot – he’s still Christie’s but now he’s also Hannah’s. More, I admire how different these books are from Hannah’s police procedurals featuring police detectives Simon Waterhouse and Charlie Zailer, which are more emotional and sometimes more difficult to comprehend as Hannah skips around, writing from multiple points of view. Comparing these two – The Monogram Murders and Closed Casket – I’d say the first was a little better, the crime a little more sophisticated, and Poirot a more central character, but both are enjoyable. I gave it four stars: Poirot is back.
Mayday by Karen Harrington (Juvenile, Fiction)
I keep trying to find a reason why I shouldn’t nominate this book for my local library association’s Mock Newbery Awards. Or maybe it’s the other way around: I’m trying to find a reason why I should. I gave this middle-grade novel five stars. I loved the protagonist and the journey he goes on to reconcile his sense of self with the important male figures in his life – from his deadbeat dad, to his stern grandfather, to his heroic uncle, and then, to his mom’s new boyfriend. Both literally and figuratively, Wayne Kovak must find his voice (his vocal chords are injured in a plane crash) and must discover the person he is meant to be. I guess what’s holding me back is the Newbery criteria that the book be distinguished. Is it? Is it marked by eminence and distinction? I’m not sure, but I think it comes close.
Booked by Kwame Alexander (Juvenile, Fiction)
Booked is Alexander’s second novel in verse for tween-to-teen readers. His first, The Crossover, won the 2015 Newbery Award, and it’s better than Booked. The story lines are a bit similar … sports figure heavily as do family problems. But I think the plot and the conflict in the first is just a little better thought out and construed. The parent problems in Booked almost come out of left field (this is a soccer book, but I don’t know any comparable term from soccer), while you can anticipate what might happen in The Crossover. Perhaps it’s not fair to compare one to the other, but they are similar so it’s difficult not to. I gave it four stars, but would recommend The Crossover to kids first. It’s just better. (I know I said that already.)