Refresh, Refresh by Danica Novgorodoff, Benjamin Percy and James Ponsoldt

refresh refresh
“We didn’t fully understand the reason our fathers were fighting. We only understood that they had to fight…We could only cross our fingers and wish on stars and hit refresh, refresh, hoping they would return to us.” Cody, Gordon and Josh all live in the same small town, and all have fathers who are fighting in Iraq. Even as they constantly refresh their computer screens waiting for word of their dads’ safe return, they try to distract themselves from their worry by engaging in their own “fight club,” where they hit each other as hard as they can in an attempt to honor their fathers’ sacrifice by denying their own pain. “If you stepped out of the ring, you lost. If you cried, you lost. If you got knocked out or if you yelled stop, you lost.” Each boy is taking his own emotional knocks, as well. Cody struggles to raise his little brother on his own while his mother works endless factory shifts in order to make ends meet. Gordon suffers at the hands of bullies and longs to use his hunting rifle for something other than shooting deer. Josh’s secret college acceptance letter is his ticket to a better life, but will he use it if it means leaving his best friends behind? One brutal confrontation takes away all choices but one, and suddenly the boys find themselves facing a future that was once improbable but now seems inevitable. This bleak and emotionally raw GN, based on a short story by Benjamin Percy, realistically captures the pain of modern reservists’ families, who are often left in limbo when their breadwinners are sent off to war. Danica Novgorodoff’s gritty unpolished style and earth tone palette help convey the boys’ hopelessness and sorrow, the only bright colors being the red of their boxing gloves and spilled blood. A violent and heartbreaking tale that didn’t leave me feeling any better about the situation in Iraq and Afghanistan, but maybe that was the point.

Hate List by Jennifer Brown

Valerie thought she knew her boyfriend Nick. He liked Shakespeare and hated algebra. He was smart and funny and angry and sarcastic, just like Valerie. Even though they were both outcasts at their high school, Nick always made Valerie feel like she belonged. Valerie thought she knew her boyfriend Nick. Until the day he walked into the school Commons and killed six students and one teacher, then turned the gun on himself. Until Valerie threw herself in front of Nick’s gun to stop the carnage and sustained a terrible wound to her leg. That was the moment Valerie realized she didn’t know Nick at all–at least, not this empty-eyed person who calmly gunned down their classmates one by one. Valerie is left with the terrible guilt that she possibly helped cause this catastrophic event with her Hate List, a notebook full of names of all the people who ever tormented her and Nick. “Maybe I thought I didn’t mean for those people to die, but somewhere, I don’t know, subconsciously, I really meant it. And maybe Nick saw it. Maybe he even knew something about me I didn’t even know. Maybe everybody saw it and that’s why they hate me so much—because I’m a poser. I set it all in motion with that stupid list and then let Nick do my dirty work.” Now Valerie has to put the pieces of her shattered life back together, and she’s never felt more alone. With the help of a caring psychiatrist, a crazy craft lady and an unexpected new friend, Valerie will slowly make her way out of the darkness and into a future where nothing is certain except the fact that she’s a survivor. Debut author Jennifer Brown has written a book about a complex and uncomfortable topic that is clear, compassionate and compulsively readable, a book that delves deeply into issues of consequence, survival and forgiveness. And if you want to read more about school shootings and understand how and why they occur, check out Dave Cullen’s detailed and meticulously researched nonfiction, Columbine. 2 weepies

I am a Genius of Unspeakable Evil and I Want to be Your Class President by Josh Lieb

evil geniusIf Stewie on Family Guy ever grew out of his diapers, he might turn out to be like Oliver Watson, the pudgy, angry, brilliant seventh grade narrator of IGUEIWYCP, who is addicted to his mom’s grilled cheese and bent on world domination. Some kids dream of being king of the world—but Oliver actually is. He hides his intellectual genius behind the dumb façade of a dopey middle schooler when he is really secretly running the world from his incredible underground command center, which would put the Bat Cave to shame. “I freely admit I’m evil…that doesn’t mean I torture kittens or plot the genocide of entire continents of people; that’s insanity, not evil. And insanity is just what we call stupidity when it doesn’t make sense.” There’s only one thing Oliver can’t buy with his millions or manipulate with his cutting edge intellect—his emotionally immature father’s respect. So he decides to run for office—7th grade president to be exact—to show “Daddy” once and for all that he’s not a total loser and maybe even win his love. There’s only one problem—Oliver has been pretending to be an idiot for so long, it’s going to be hard to get people to believe he can really do the job. Is a self-described evil genius smart enough to figure out which battles are worth fighting and which are merely petty annoyances on his way to total global supremacy? I would expect nothing less than sarcastic snickers that quickly morph into ginormous guffaws from debut author Josh Lieb (whose day job is executive producer of The Daily Show) and that is exactly what he delivers in this rollicking tale of a tiny Napoleon. Bullies, beware–Oliver Watson is waddling your way!

Sideshow edited by Deborah Noyes

Regular readers of RR know I am big fan of the multi-talented Deborah Noyes and her horror-ific short story collections. In this latest macabre mishmash, Noyes asks authors to turn their attention to that object of endless fascination: the sideshow freak. The resulting ten stories are both striking and spellbinding. Step right up to the striped tent and meet Aimee Bender’s “Bearded Girl” and Cynthia Leitich Smith’s slinky feline shape shifter. Over there beneath the Midway, you’ll find Annette Curtis Klause’s resourceful Egyptian dancer who, despite her maturity, still needs her “Mummy” now and then. Out behind the Big Top, God (yes, THAT one) visits a couple of kids who just lost their dog in David Almond’s dreamy contribution, while Cecil Castellucci’s heroine discovers a distasteful family legacy in “The Bread Box.” There’s also some cool comic shorts, including my favorite story of all, Matt Phelan’s “Jargo!” about the mysterious front end of a fake circus giraffe who was NOT to be messed with. Wacky, weird and sometimes tragic, these stories will stick with you long after you close the garish covers of this compelling and odd compilation. And the only ticket you need to get into Noyes’s freak parade? Why, your library card of course!

Pop by Gordon Korman

popQuarterback Marcus Jordan has a big problem. The team at his new school had a perfect season last year, so they aren’t interested in some hot shot rookie hitching a ride on their air-tight winning machine. Especially Troy Popovitch, the resident star QB who doesn’t like the way Marcus is eyeing his position–or his flirtatious cheerleader ex. So Marcus begins training extra hard at the local park in a hopeless attempt to win the team’s love, and it’s there he meets Charlie, a fit middle-aged man who not only seems to know his way around a football, but has an bone-shattering tackle technique as well. Even though Charlie is chronically forgetful and often shows up hours after he tells Marcus he will, he helps Marcus step up his game to the point where Coach Barker starts to let his butt off the bench once in a while. Then Marcus discovers that his buddy Charlie is actually Charlie Popovitch, famous retired NFL linebacker–and Troy’s dad. When Marcus tries to talk to Troy about his famous father, Troy goes ballistic and warns Marcus to stay away from him. What is going on with the Popovitch clan? Why won’t Troy acknowledge his well-known parent? And how is it that Charlie seems to know everyone in town, yet sometimes appears lost on his own block? When Marcus finds a unique way to pay back Charlie for all the help he’s given him that will help restore some of Charlie’s former glory, he knows he’s going to get in big trouble with both Troy and the team. But he also knows he’d do anything for the man who taught him how to make his defense go POP. This Superbowl of a sports book is about a lot more than football (although there are some seriously tense on-field scenes). Korman also tackles themes of family, conscience, friendship and loss, scoring a touchdown on all counts. A perfect choice for the crisp, cool days of fall.

Almost Perfect by Brian Katcher

almost perfectWhat if everything you believed to be true about someone was a lie? Well, not EVERYTHING. Just one thing. But it’s the one thing that changes everything. High school senior and small town boy Logan Witherspoon has the rug pulled out from under him when smart, sexy, funny new girl Sage reveals after their first kiss that she is biologically a boy. Hurt, confused and angry, Logan at first wants nothing more to do with her. But he misses Sage’s laughter and easy banter more than he thought, and soon he can no longer deny his physical feelings for her. The thing is, Sage LOOKS like a girl, ACTS like a girl, SMELLS like a girl and for all intensive purposes IS a girl in every way except, well, THAT one. Logan has never met a transgendered person in his life and has no idea how to navigate this new relationship. Does his attraction to Sage mean that he’s gay? What if someone finds out about Sage? Is he prepared to stand up for her? How can he explain Sage to his family and friends, and does he even have to? All because of “one teeny, little, microscopic, enormous, universe-sized complication,” Logan’s world has been turned upside down, and instead of answers he just keeps finding more questions. The biggest question of all is if he knows how to be a true friend to someone when she needs him the most. Unfortunately, that’s the one question Logan is having the most trouble answering. This honest, funny, and often heartbreaking book openly addresses the prejudices and misconceptions often held about transgendered people and puts them out there for us to examine, understand and hopefully discard as nonsense and ignorance. What Logan painfully comes to understand is that you fall in love with a person, not a gender, and that if you let it, love will always find a way. Make sure to check out Katcher’s equally excellent first novel, Playing with Matches.)