Counting by 7s

countingby7s

Counting by 7s
Holly Goldberg Sloan
Dial Books
August 2013

Unexpected tragedy hits Willow Chance, a 12-year-old genius with a passion for gardening and medical diagnoses, when her adoptive parents are killed in a car crash. She is nearly put into foster care, but through some quick talking, she is allowed to live temporarily with her only friend, Mai, and Mai’s mother, Patty, and brother, Quang-Ha. The only other caring adults in Willow’s life are sad sack school counselor Dell Duke and a cab driver named Jairo who thinks Willow is a miracle sent to save him from cancer. They go to great lengths to help Willow and she, unintentionally, helps each of them to have a new outlook on life, a new home, or a new relationship. A court appearance that will determine Willow’s fate hangs over everyone’s head throughout the book and comes to a touching climax in the end.

The characters in Counting by 7s are really what make the book, and Dell Duke was my favorite. From Miss Honey in Matilda to Mr. Terupt in the series by Rob Buyea, teachers in children’s books are almost always too good to be true; they are savior, angel, substitute parent, or sage. Dell Duke is the opposite of all of these things by nature, making him the most subversively written teacher (ok, technically he is a school counselor) I’ve ever read in a children’s book. He’s a slovenly slacker who faked his resume to get his job. His filing system categorizes the kids he “helps” into judgmental categories. He’s antisocial and terrified of responsibility. Willow naively sees the best in him and after a while he begins to see potential in himself through her care for him. However, he is still himself in the end, just a slightly improved adult for having met Willow Chance.

In 2014 Counting by 7s was optioned for a movie staring Quvenzhane Wallace as Willow, but no more news has come out since then.

Read Alikes

Hold Fast by Blue Balliet
The Thing About Jellyfish by Ali Benjamin
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The Inn Between

InnBetween

The Inn Between
Marina Cohen
Roaring Brook Press
March 2016
Advanced Reader Copy courtesy of NetGalley

Quinn and Kara are best friends who have been through a lot together but now Kara’s family is moving a thousand miles away. Quinn is making the drive with Kara and Kara’s parents and brother from Colorado to California as a kind of extended goodbye when they stop for the night in an off-the-beaten-path hotel, the Inn Between. The hotel is a beautiful old Victorian mansion that seems bigger on the inside and has an overly cheerful staff and no phone line to the outside. After their first night at the Inn Between strange things start to happen – Kara’s parents disappear, Quinn thinks she hears and sees her little sister, Quinn nearly drowns in the hotel swimming pool, and on and on. Things get downright scary when Quinn and Kara accidentally take the elevator to the basement. What is really going on at the Inn Between? This young middle grade book has just enough creeps and suspense to satisfy young mystery fans but at its heart is a story about friendship and knowing when to let go. Pitch-perfect pacing, tight storytelling, and a few twists and turns make The Inn Between an addicting, cover-to-cover-in-one-afternoon kind of read.

Read Alikes

Coraline by Neil Gaiman
The Cavendish Home for Boys and Girls by Claire LeGrand

The Thing About Jellyfish

thethingaboutjellyfish

The Thing About Jellyfish
Ali Benjamin
Little, Brown Books for Young Readers
September 2015

Science-minded Suzy knows that everything happens for a reason, even her estranged best friend Franny’s untimely death by drowning. On a class trip to the aquarium Suzy convinces herself that Franny’s death wasn’t an accident. Her hypothesis (the book is divided into sections by the scientific method) is that it was caused by a sting from from a minuscule but deadly species of jellyfish. Upon learning about Franny’s drowning, Suzy goes practically mute, giving her a lot of time to figure out how to prove her hypothesis. She eventually decides that she needs to travel to Australia, in secret because her family would think she is “cray cray,” to talk to an expert on this species of jellyfish, causing her to steal her dad’s credit card information and cash from her mom and brother. Interspersed chapters are flashbacks written, somewhat awkwardly in the second-person present, by Suzy to Franny about their growing up together, growing apart as middle school approached, and finally an act – a grand gesture? revenge? – that Suzy never had the chance to own up to or apologize for, causing her immense guilt now that Franny is gone.

This past summer one of my best friends from college passed away suddenly, and it was one of the most emotionally difficult times of my life. I found myself relating in a lot of ways to Suzy’s reaction to Franny’s death – the initial disbelief, then imagining your friend’s last moments, searching for an explanation or meaning, and being nearly consumed with thoughts of this person you realize you totally took for granted. It’s powerful, heavy stuff and Ali Benjamin gave it the serious treatment it deserved, particularly when it is a pre-teen experiencing this level of loss.

The depictions of middle school in this book are so painfully accurate – being awkward, not knowing where you fit in, growing apart from your best friend, making a friend you don’t expect. However the grand-gesture/revenge flashback scene took on a level of ridiculousness that I just didn’t know what to do with. It was totally original, I’ll give Ali Benjamin that. I do, however, have some questions about the logistics described to pull off something so over the top and borderline psychopathic. I’m going to leave it at that.

The Thing About Jellyfish was a finalist for the 2015 National Book Award. You can read the NBA interview with Ali Benjamin here.

Read-alikes

Olive’s Ocean by Kevin Henkes

NaNoReadMo: His Fair Assassin series

hisfairassassin

Grave Mercy
Dark Triumph
Mortal Heart
Robin LaFevers
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
2012-2014

In 15th century France, the devotees of the convent of St. Mortain carry out his will – death. Each of the books in the His Fair Assassin trilogy follows a different member of the convent. Grave Mercy introduces Ismae who has escaped an arranged marriage and sought refuge in the convent. She trains to become “death’s handmaiden” and is sent away to court by the abbess to spy on Duval, a man she believes is a threat to the duchess. When Isme falls in love with her target, will she be able to maintain her position with the convent? Or perhaps he isn’t who the abbess thought he was in the first place.

Isme’s friend, training mate, seductress, and confirmed head case Sybella is the focus of Dark Triumph. She comes from a well known noble family complete with abusive father, creepy incest-y brother, and innocent younger siblings that she had to leave behind in order not to go completely mad. The convent sends her back into the arms of her destructive family to root out a conspiracy against the duchess, but Sybella hopes it will be a chance for her to seek revenge against these people who hurt her so much. Of course, she finds love in an unexpected place – spoiler alert: not with her brother! Ew! – and he turns out to be the perfect compliment to both her inner rage and her deadly talents.

In the last book, Mortal Heart, Annith, a trainee who has lived at the convent her entire life but never achieved full death’s handmaiden status, is finally given an assignment, but rather than one that will send her to court like her friends, she will be locked away in the convent for the rest of her life. Unable to come to terms with what her life would be like, she runs away and becomes the prisoner/traveling partner to a band of brigands, the leader of which she happens to become quite fond of. Annith does eventually make it to court, only to find that everything she thought she knew about her life is basically a big lie. As enemies circle the duchess one last time, death’s handmaidens must decide where to place their loyalties and who will live and who will die.

I love these books so much. My attempt at summarizing them above doesn’t come close to doing them justice. The handmaidens of death are totally kick ass – specializing in everything from weapons to martial arts to poisons – and they have a sort of mystical ability to see a special mark on the people they are meant to kill. The romances in each book are unique and respectful and never force Isme, Sybella, or Annith into a position of weakness. Being a Game of Thrones fan (the TV shows; I haven’t read the books…yet!), I was also really into the political intrigue at court and the place of the abbess and the convent in politics. The convent’s loyalties are thrown into question quite a bit throughout the series, adding to the suspense of whether the convent and its devotees are killing for the right reasons and if their missions are truly divinely inspired.

Read alike:

Graceling by Kristin Cashore
Seraphina Shadow Scale by Rachel Hartman