The Puzzle Master

by Danielle Trussoni

“Puzzle’s are composed of patterns. They are meant to be solved.” (Trussoni).

If you like Dan Brown’s Da Vinci’s code, you’ll love The Puzzle Master.

When our hero Mike Brink was young he suffered a concussion playing high school football. When he awoke, he was suddenly aware “there was a system, an essential order to the world”  (Trussoni) He saw it” as patterns…patterns everywhere. At first, “all he knew was that he was experiencing highly structured geometric hallucinations on a regular basis” (Trussoni) After years of learning how to live with his “gift” Brink made a name for himself as the foremost puzzlemaker of the world. As such, he is asked by psychologist Dr. Moses to make sense of  a puzzle created by Jess Prince, one of her patients who is herself “living in a puzzle”. Ms Prince, famous writer now infamous murderer, is serving her sentence at the New York State Correctional Facility abd has taken to communicating in complex cryptic symbols.

When Brink meets Miss Prince he feels a strange connection and they have a surprisingly intimate encounter where Prince secretly passes him another puzzle. 

Soon Mike finds himself in a world of rare porcelain dolls, the supernatural, and ancient Hasidic texts which are all as intricately connected as the diagramed puzzles Trussoni includes in her text. 

I had forgotten I liked Trussoni’s writing (read Angelology a decade ago).The Puzzle Master was an easy thrilling read and a great story to reintroduce me to Danielle Trussoni’s writing. Now I have to go back and read her titles I’ve missed.

This novel will not be published until June 2023

Thank you to Netgalley and Random House for the advanced copy!

Freezing Order: The True Story Of Money Laundering Murder and Surviving Vladimir’s Putin’s Wrath

Bill Browder

This is one of the BEST non-fiction books I’ve encountered in a long time. Honestly, I kept muttering “Holy S*#!” most of the time I was listening to it.
Freezing Order is a book that centres around the Magnitsky Act, an Act named after Browder’s Russian lawyer and friend, who was murdered by Putin’s henchmen to cover up a multimillion-dollar money-laundering scheme. To find justice for his friend Browder devotes his life to promoting the Magnitsky Act, which will enable a country to freeze the assets of any foreign country that violates human rights. Needless to say, many a Russian millionaires would do anything to protect their fortunes.
I listened to most of this book while running and it was so riveting I often found myself extending my distance.

Browder’s experiences are fascinating and frightening. He lives a cat-and-mouse game with one of the most ruthless men in history, Vladimir Putin. Freezing Order is a perfect Christmas Gift for the reader in your life.

The Luminaries

by Susan Dennard

The Luminaries is a wonderful fantasy novel filled with Banshees Werewolves, Vampires, and all sorts of nightmares that haunt the woods.
Winnie aspires to be a hunter, and only one thing stands in her way; four years ago her father was deemed a “traitor” to the Luminaries and thus exiled from Hemlock Falls. Winnie and her mother and brother are allowed to remain but are considered outsiders in not only their luminary community but also in their family clan.
If Winne can survive the hunter trials and become a Hunter family will once again be accepted into Luminaries and reclaim the respect they once had.
The Luminaries is a supernatural fantasy novel that is filled with just the right amount of gore and adventure. I always love a kick-ass young protagonist and in this regard, Winnie fits the bill.

Thank you Netgalley and Tor Teen for the free book!

Elizabeth Finch

by Julian Barnes

This novel is about a man named Neil who is obsessed with his university professor Elizabeth Fitch. The novel serves as a homage to this woman who inspired our narrator to, well, to think. Although Neil loves Elizabeth’s class (Culture and Civilization), he does not write his final essay and instead invites Elizabeth to lunch. Lunch becomes biannual event where Neil and Elizabeth meet and talk, with Elizabeth always giving Neil something to think about and paying for lunch.
When Elizabeth dies, she leaves her academic journals, and Neil has to decide what to do with them.
Along the way, Neil decides to write that final essay he never got around to writing all those years ago. The author includes this lengthy essay about Roman Emporer Julian Apostate within the pages of the novel itself.
I found this short novel somewhat interesting. It definitely was a deviation from the summer reads I have been consuming. There is no real suspense or intricate plot to speak of; rather, it is more a novel about a man’s relationship with a woman he found fascinating.
The character Elizabeth Fitch compelling; I would have loved to have read HER story. This novel isn’t for everyone. It seemed to me that Barnes wrote this story more for himself rather than to entertain the reader, which is perfectly fine with me.

Thank you to Netgalley for the free copy.

Cradles of the Reich

By Jennifer Coburn

Jennifer Coburn has exposed me to an atrocity in history of which I knew little. Before and during the Second World War, Germany established Lebensborn societies, homes for extraordinary German women of a certain Aryan pedigree who would be housed and nurtured with the hope of breeding strong, beautiful, “perfect” Germans. These homes would also accommodate children kidnapped from German-occupied countries because they looked exceptionally Aryan to be adopted and raised by German families.

Jennifer Coburn writes her story around three women who each experience Lebensborn in different roles. Gundi, unmarried and pregnant, is pressured to enter Lebensborn house because she is proportionally the “perfect “ German woman with perfect colouring and stature and body shape and exemplifies German motherhood. Gundi, however, is anything put the perfect Nazi and holds alliances and love elsewhere. Hildie desires to be a true “Hitler girl” and will do whatever it takes to bear a child of a Nazi officer. And Irma, a nurse who is attempting to do her job while trying unsuccessfully to notice atrocities taking place.

I read this novel from beginning to end on a travel day, and I was so absorbed in the story and characters it made all the flights and layovers I experienced fly by! This novel is a fascinating and heartbreaking novel about a time in history ( one of the many times ) where women are exploited for the “good of the country”. Be sure to add this to your Tbr list when it is published in October. Thank you to Netgalley and Source Books for the free advanced copy!

What Moves the Dead

by T Kingfisher

What a horrifically beautiful cover!

This was the perfect book to start off my summer. The novel starts with our narrator Alex, who is on their way to visit their dear friends Madeline and Rockrick Usher. Before they even arrive, Alex is mesmerized by the woods in which he travels. Although the lake and trees seem to possess a threatening and ominous air, the mushrooms and all things “fungal” seem to enthral Alex the most. The mushrooms “ grew out of the gaps in the stones of the tarn like a tumour growing from diseased skin [Alex] had the strong urge to step back from them and an even stronger urge to poke them with a stick.” Before they get the opportunity to do so, an older woman Eugenia Potter stops them. Eugenia is one of my favourite characters; eccentric and bold; she paints the various fungus she finds with the ambition of having her own name in the books recognized by the “Mycology Society”.
Second, only to Eugenia Potter, Alex is in themselves a fascinating character. As “Sworn Soldier”, Alex carries the courage they possessed on the battlefield in t the horror that awaits at the Usher’s estate. Alex discovers that their friends Madeline and Roderick have wasted (rotted?) away both physically and mentally.

Can Alex determine the cause of this decline before they too succumb to the madness and death surrounding them?
What moves the Dead, a gothic tale inspired by Edgar Alan Poe’s “Fall of the House of Usher”, is well crafted with viscerally vivid detail even though it moves at a rapid pace. It is the perfect novel to add to your summer tbr pile.

Thank you NetGalley and Macmillan-Tor for the free copy.

Good Enough by Jen Petro-Roy

Ok, let’s cut to the chase; this novel is an honest portrayal of a 12-year-olds struggle with anorexia. It is written as journal entries that provide an intimate look into her thoughts and emotions concerning: her motivation for not eating, her feelings of inadequacy, and her relationship with food. The author, Jen Petro Roy, was diagnosed with anorexia when she was young so the experiences relayed through the eyes of our protagonist Riley sound authentic and raw.

The entirety of the novel takes place in a treatment Centre where Riley undergoes weekly weigh-ins, having nurses stand outside the door making you count aloud so that they know if you throw up, counselling sessions. At the end of the day Riley’s writing gives us a realistic view of how she is processing her experiences and emotions. Riley is sarcastic, honest, and actually quite funny in her entries. I found it fascinating to follow her journey of healing and the baby steps it took for her to become strong enough to leave treatment. Her change comes slowly and with a lot of work, all of which is documented through the engaging voice of her journals.

This novel can be used as a segway into discussions around body image and mental and physical health, offering opportunities for parents and educators a non-threatening way to discuss these important issues.

Clap When You Land by Elizabeth Acevedo

A novel is written in verse. 

This novel made me tear up, not only because of the storyline but how beautifully it is crafted. Acevedo weaves together the story of two sisters: Camino Rios who, lives in The Dominican Republic, and Yahaira Rios, who lives in New York. When their father is tragically killed in a plane crash, the sisters discover their father has been living a double life, a life he shares with two different families. The lives of the daughters are completely different from one another. Camino’s mother has died, and she lives with her aunt Tia, a woman who “has seen death & illness & hurt/ but never forgets how to smile or tell a dirty joke” (pg 60). Camino plans to attend an international school and one day go to a university in the US to become a doctor. In the meantime, she has to navigate a world where most young women her age become pregnant or get forced into prostitution. So far. Camino has been safe from this fate because since she was thirteen, her father has “paid ElCero to leave [her] alone” (pg.36) (El Cero “recruits” girls to work as sex workers). And now that her father has died, she is a target.

Yahaira, on the other hand, lives in New York with her mother. She attends private school, plays chess, and has a loving girlfriend. She and her mother own their apartment “where there is a small courtyard out back/where [they hold] summer barbecues for the family and neighbors” (pg. 129).

The tragedy of their father’s death forces the girls to accept their father’s actions and decide whether or not they want to accept each other as family.

Acevedo alternates point of view in each chapter in such a way that makes the reader empathize with both characters. We can’t help but hope the young women truly become sisters in every sense of the word. 

What About Will by Ellen Hopkins

So I’m looking for new books for junior high classrooms. NEW books. Not Holes, or Hatchet or The Outsiders. NEW titles. I found one. And, read it in a day and I loved it. I even teared up at the end. 

What About Will is written by Ellen Hopkins. Now for those of you who have spent any time in a junior or senior high school library know that Hopkin’s novels are ALWAYS signed out. This is interesting because she writes her novels in verse and, in my experience, most students don’t immediately gravitate towards verse.

Hopkins’s novels often deal with difficult themes using intense issues such as drug abuse, physical abuse, and sex trafficking, to name a few. What About Will, however, deals with a serious issue but in a heartwarming and empowering way. 

The story is told from the viewpoint of 12-year-old Trace. Trace’s life is pretty awesome; he lives with his mother and father and his big brother Will whom he adores. 

One day though, Trace’s life takes a dramatic turn when Will is tackled in a football game and suffers a serious concussion. Will recovers but, he no longer is “Will”. He is angry, in pain, shoves those whom he loves away from him, and starts to make decisions that put his life at risk. The stress of the accident causes his parents to divorce, and soon, Trace feels the need to tippy-toe around any serious issues he is experiencing in order to spare his loved ones’ stress. Even if it means keeping secrets that can turn out to be fatal.

Trace is a kind-hearted, selfless young man who just wants to keep those he loves safe and together. Unfortunately, he finds that no amount of good intentions on his part can sway the choices of others.

I really loved this novel so much that I’m including it in a book collection for Junior High Teachers to use for classroom book clubs. If I were still in the classroom I would try and possess several copies to use for literature circles or independent novel studies. It’s accessible to most readers because of its format. Students will not be overwhelmed by the number of words on the page or vocabulary.

Middle School Book Binge

So this month I’ve been trying to read more “Middle School” books so that I can confidently recommend new novels to teachers in our schools. So besides increasing my book total for my reading goal for the year 2021 I found some REALLY good middle school reads that have been published over the last few years. Here are just a few:

Hello, Universe by Kelly Entrada, 

A group of kids with totally different personalities become close friends after the universe throws them together to search for a missing boy. 

Virgil Salina: a sixth-grade boy. So shy his family calls him “Turtle”. He is small for his age and therefore gets bullied by his classmates. He becomes slightly traumatized by his Lola’s (grandma’s) Filipino folktales about stones gobbling up young boys. Virgil has a guinea pig named Gullivar that is his best friend.

Valencia Somerset: is an 11-year-old girl who is questioning the existence of God however she stills talks to St. Rene. Valencia is deaf and suffers from nightmares of abandonment. She is tough and doesn’t think she needs a “gazillion friends” in fact her best friend is a stray dog she finds in the woods near he house.

Kaori Tanaka is a twelve-year-old girl who fancies herself a psychic and offers her services to anyone who isn’t an adult. She is confident and creative and always makes herself available to help people by giving them “readings”

Chett Bullins is a bully. He particularly likes picking on Virgil. He feels uncomfortable around Valencia because he believes she can read lips and therefore knows all his secrets. Chett is particularly preoccupied with finding and capturing a snake just to prove how tough he is to both his classmates and his father. 

Themes of friendship, courage, and resiliency.

Black Brother Black Brother by Rhodes Jewell Parker

Donte and Trey are brothers. Donte hates school probably because he is one of the few black boys who attend and is therefore treated unjustly by the predominantly white student and faculty. To make matters worse, Donte’s brother Trey presents as white and doesn’t suffer racism. In trying to discover where he belongs in his world, Donte starts training under a former Olympic fencer Arden Jones and soon becomes a competitive fencer. Themes of bullying, racism, resilience, family, and friendship.

He Who Dreams by Florence Melanie

Our young protagonist John finds his identity in being one of the strongest soccer players at his school. One evening, as he is waiting for his little sister to finish her gymnastic class, he discovers an Indigenous dance class. Sensing a connection to the music, he forges a friendship with the dance teacher who encourages him to try Indigeninous dance himself. John tries to balance both the Irish and Cree sides of his culture but keeps his dancing a secret from his family as he navigates the mocking of his soccer teammates and the hostility of the boys in his dance class. 

Themes of identity, family, culture, courage. 

The Science of Unbreakable Things by Tae Keller

With the help of her friends, Natalie sets out to win a science competition so she can use the prize money to help her mother overcome depression by flying her to see a rare orchid known for surviving impossible odds. This story includes humorous illustrations and THE most engaging footnotes that help us love Natalie even more. 

Themes of mental health, friendship, family.

Allergic by Megan Wagner Lloyd illustrated by Michelle Mee Nutter

Allergic is a graphic novel. It is a heartwarming story about Maggie who desperately wants a pet but is devastated because she is severely allergic to pet dander. Maggie takes it upon herself to outsmart her allergies and try to find a pet that she isn’t allergic to. 

Themes of family, friendship, resiliency.

Front Desk by Kelly Yang

Mia Tang and her parents immigrate from China and take jobs managing a motel – a place where they not only work but live. Unfortunately, the owner of the motel is corrupt and takes advantage of the Tangs by not paying them a fair wage, and by taking the cost of any damages caused by hotel guests out of their paycheck. Although living in and managing the hotel has its hardships, Mia meets an assortment of hotel “residents” who are kind and helpful and end up being allies of the Tangs. Mia, being the precocious, brilliant 11-year-old she is ends up saving the ay for not only the hotel guests but for her own family. 

Themes of inclusion, bullying, the immigrant experience, friendship, and resiliency. 

“Shuggie Bain” a novel by Douglas Stuart

      This is a sad, frustrating, yet compassionate story. In this book, is the main villain (I was going to write "antagonist", but villain is more appropriate) is alcohol that seduces and creates monstrous behaviour sympathetic characters.
      Although Agnes seems to be the main character, this is Shuggie's story. He is our anti-hero. For most of the story, Shuggie is a child trying to survive the hardships of poverty in Glasgow without an adult's guidance to help. It is Shuggie who has to take care of his alcoholic mother once his father abandons the family for another woman.
     Agnes is both beautiful and ugly. She leaves her first husband, "The Catholic", the father of her first two children, to marry a taxi driver by the name of Hugh Bain and soon after gives birth to Shuggie.
     I felt NO sympathy for Agnes for most of the book; I thought it was her vanity more than her addiction that led to her make the stupid, selfish decisions that jeopardized her life and the life of her children…until I came across this quote "She loved [Hugh], and he had needed to break her completely to leave her for good. Agnes Bain was too rare a thing to let someone else love. It would do to leave pieces of her for another man to collect and repair later." To me, the cruelty and selfishness of Hugh outweighed Agnes's weakness.
     Like I mentioned earlier, though, this is Shuggie's story. His heartbreak over his mother, his father's treatment, and his confusion about his sexuality make him a genuinely sympathetic character.

I thought about Shuggie long after I finished reading.

Word Problems poem by Ian Williams

Word Problems poems by Ian Williams

I was really apprehensive about responding to poetry. I don’t read a lot of poetry, I’m not sure why. I guess it’s because  I don’t feel “qualified” to talk about it. That being said, one of my 2021 reading goals is to read more poetry and therefore my first choice this year had been Ian Williams Word Problem Poems.

Williams juxtaposes serious topics such as racial discrimination and mental illness against elementary school math problems and language arts “rules”. This approach leads me, as an educator, to reflect upon what is integral to my teaching;  that I should be spending more time discussing timely and impactful societal issues rather than solving for x or making sure students use proper subject-verb agreement. 

Williams’s poems offer an intimate view into the mind of a black man. Free -verse, creative and experimental, and intimidating (honestly I don’t even know what words to use to describe my response) but tremendously thought-provoking. 

Always one for experimentalism and creativity, I really enjoyed and appreciated deliberate choice in format and typography for each poem. The shapes, in and of themselves, lead to another level of interpretation of the meaning of the poem.

So, if you’re tentative about adding poetry to your reading list “Word Problems” will be an engaging addition.

“It Will Just Be Us” by Jo Kaplan

It Will Just Be Us

By Jo Kaplan

Well, this book has all the trappings of a good gothic horror story: a creepy house, unsettled spirits, the ability to prophesize, and a madwoman (or is it mad women? You decide). 

Besides being creepy and downright unsettling, it also is a story about nature vs. nurture forcing us to ask ourselves “are we a product of our environment and learn evil, or are we born evil”?  This was a quick and easy read that left me with just the right amount of unsettledness to keep a light on at night. 

Thank you Netgalley for the ARC