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28 January 2013 @ 02:24 pm
Calling all mystery fans! Click here or on the links list at the right to check out the new and improved Mystery Books Brochure. It includes all kinds of great mysteries for middle and high school students. The updated brochure even has short plot descriptions -- because sometimes it's so hard to decide what to read next! -- and Lexile scores. See you at the Library!

05 January 2013 @ 02:58 pm
Happy new year! Looking for books with LGBTQ characters and/or themes? Check out our all new, all updated brochure by clicking here or on the link to the right. You can also stop by the Library to pick up a paper copy ... and check out all our great books! :-)

27 December 2012 @ 01:25 pm

So I was a big fan of Ally Condie's debut dystopian romance "Matched" and its action-packed sequel "Crossed." The Penguin Young Readers group -- excellent people, all! -- chose to embargo the concluding book, "Reached," which basically means there were no advanced copies available and I, like the rest of the mortal world, had to wait for its actual publication date. Bah! ;-)

"Reached" was released in early November, and it has been a popular success, appearing on many YA bestseller lists. I was STOKED to read "Reached," as I hoped it would combine the ethereal writing of "Matched" and the breakneck pace of "Crossed." Alas, while "Reached" is by no means a failure, it is underwhelming and flat. I'm so sorry to write these words, but, for me, "Reached" was plodding and uneventful. I wanted it to be so much more.

SPOILER SPACE, y'all, because that's how we roll here ...

Ok, read on at your own risk, because I need to reveal some details to properly review this novel. As "Reached" begins, Xander is an Official with the Society (but secretly working for the Rising), while Ky is flying directly for the Pilot and Cassia is back sorting for the Society, waiting for the Rising to contact her, and conducting back alley trades with the Archivists. Each of the three main characters narrates his or her own story, so we get lots of insight and various perspectives on the action. The use of multiple narrators is surprisingly effective. The great revelation of "Reached" -- maybe the only real revelation of "Reached"?! -- lies in the fact that Xander is a remarkably complex, deeply wounded, deeply obligated man, which we may not have discovered without his individual narration.

As it turns out, the Rising has unleashed the Plague on the Cities and Boroughs of the Society. Via some seriously convoluted logic, the Pilot believes that spreading the deadly virus will break the Society's hold on the population, as the Rising members -- all of whom are immunized -- will sweep in and provide the cure to a grateful nation. Um, ok, I guess. At first, the Pilot's plan seems dope, as Society falls with barely a whisper. (I honestly thought of those last lines from TS Eliot's "Hollow Men," that "this is the way the world ends, not with a bang but a whimper.") But then the Plague mutates -- and here we are subjected to some incredibly tedious virology discussion -- and forms a new version of the virus that not only makes victims still, it actively kills them, regardless of cure or treatment. Even worse for the Rising? The immunization it provided its own members is no protection against the mutation. Only those with a special mark on their necks, who had previously been exposed and survived, are immune, and that's a very small percentage of the populace (but, of course, it includes Xander and Cassia).

Much of the "action" -- and I use that term loosely, because very little in the way of plot occurs -- involves the three teens finally joining forces in an outer mountainous community (Endstone, one of the so-called stone villages) to find a cure for the mutation. Leaving aside the highly dubious prospect that the fate of Society would rest with a bunch of teenagers, even this mess is sort of blah. There's a rad old Society exile named Oker, who is leading the team of scientists, and we briefly -- and I mean briefly -- see our old pals Eli and Hunter, but mostly it's Xander, Cassia, and Ky in a race against time. You'd think this might be a compelling setup, but it's so hollow and dull that I found myself barely caring. Ky quickly falls ill, and there is some small bit of sabotage and danger, but mostly we're treated to mundane passages about working, sorting, measuring, working, etc. Eh.

What's so unfortunate is that true moments of beauty and lyricism exist throughout the story, along with some lovely ideas about the relationship between art and community. Author Condie's descriptions are as lush as ever; nature bursts with colors, scents, and textures, all gorgeously rendered. Cassia creates a gallery on Camas, in which ordinary people -- so long deprived of freedom of expression -- share sculptures, poems, pictures, and even songs. The vibrancy of this community, and the joyous celebration involved by those participating in it, are so touchingly real. Even Cassia's growing embrace of poetry remains fresh and alive. We feel the seductive pull of poetry, of words and their purest expression.

Sadly, though, these beautiful passages and scenes only serve to underscore the slow, almost methodical nature of the rest of the story. The search for a new cure meanders, while the expected drama -- deaths, love affairs -- is muted, often occurring "offscreen." How are we to react to a death that we don't even witness? Full props to Condie for her willingness to off major characters, but I so wish that when those lives ended, we readers were allowed more than a passing glance. Moreover, the resolution to the trilogy's core love triangle is so telegraphed and so devoid of emotion that I had to go back several times and make sure I wasn't just glossing over some hidden details. I wasn't. It really was that empty. If not for the development of Xander's character and the exploration of how his whole life centers on the loneliness of duty, I may well have given up before the novel's end.

Fans of the first two books in the "Matched" trilogy will undoubtedly rush out and read "Reached," and I'm certainly not one to dissuade them. Some sections of "Reached" are as achingly lovely as ever, and following Xander's character is rewarding in its own way. But the larger plot -- or lack thereof -- and an overall sense of inertia really weigh "Reached" down. Like its predecessors, this one is good for older middle schoolers and up. Who knows, maybe you'll enjoy it more than I did. I sure hope so!


21 December 2012 @ 01:52 pm
Look what else is new ... our Teen Dystopian Fiction brochure is all shiny new and updated for 2013. Woot! Since it looks like we've all survived the Mayan doomsday (which, yay!), what better way to ring in the new year than to read all sorts of great books about the end of the world? :-) So for all you "Hunger Games," "Divergent," and "Matched" fans, here are more great books to add to your reading list. The Teen Dystopian Fiction brochure is available by stopping in the Library, clicking here, or using the link over on the right. Happy reading, everyone!

Oh, PS: Lexile levels are included, too, if those are important to you. But we always encourage your leisure reading to be according to your own interests, regardless of a score. Have fun!

teen dystopia 2013
17 December 2012 @ 04:33 pm
Check out our new "Best Teen Books of 2012" brochure by clicking here or on the "KPL Best of 2012" link on the right. Books are divided between middle and high school readers and, when available, Lexile scores are included. Happy reading ... or gift buying!

2012 cover
20 October 2012 @ 02:38 pm

I rarely review books written for the adult market, but I must make an exception for debut author Kevin Powers' exceptional new Iraq War novel, "The Yellow Birds." This is a devastating novel about the effects of war, a topic, sadly, that remains ever relevant. Our local high school students read Ernest Hemingway's WWI novel "A Farewell to Arms" and Tim O'Brien's Vietnam War short story collection, "The Things They Carried." "The Yellow Birds" is at least as relevant, at least as gut wrenching, and certainly as timely as those now-classic novels. When our nation's wars are primarily being fought by teenagers and those in their early 20s, high school students should damn near be required to read a book like "The Yellow Birds." In my humble opinion, anyway.

Private John "Bart" Bartle, a 21 year old native of Richmond, Virginia, has been deployed to Al Tafar in the Nineveh Province of Iraq in the fall of 2004. This is a volatile region, with streets taken and surrendered in brutal fashion, with random violence, mortar attacks, gunfire, and, everywhere, without end, death. The action flashes back and forth to Bart's pre-war training in Fort Dix, his drunken despair at a German bar / brothel with the heroic and deeply flawed Sergeant Sterling, and Bart's lonely disconnection and unraveling at home in Virginia. We know early on that Bart's closest friend, 18 year old private Daniel "Murph" Murphy, is dead. We slowly discover what happened and how Bart failed to fulfill a spontaneous promise to deliver Murph home safely. What we see clearly, even without knowing the details of Murph's death, is Bart's pain, his jagged grief at his perceived cowardice, the disorientation of living in a constant war and adjusting afterward, and the soul-crushing burden that witnessing, causing, and ignoring so much death creates.

There are many scenes that depict the terror and chaos of war: an interpreter is shot on a rooftop in mid-sentence; a disemboweled boy dies in agony after a gunfight in an orchard; a human bomb explodes, raining human matter down on a bridge; and a young girl feebly tries to drag an old woman's dead body across a dirt road. There is dust and blood and all manner of sickening odors and deafening sounds. Everywhere. All the time. Powers, a veteran himself, does an astounding job of conveying how war floods the senses, overtakes the brain, and strangles even basic human compassion.

There is a stark grace in Powers' word choice and descriptions. He mainly writes in spare, evocative language. This quiet lyricism is contrasted with long, almost run-on passages as Bart delves into his inner turmoil. In these instances, we are caught in a swirling midst of Bart's cycling thoughts and his version of psychic tail chasing. These philosophical ramblings -- Bart's breakneck effort to reason out a meaning in memory, guilt, death, and forgiveness -- are extraordinary. I had to stop and re-read so many passages in an attempt to distill their larger meaning, digest their emotional weight, and savor the beauty of the words used to describe such ugliness and pain. These are two of my favorite sections, in which an agonizingly depressed Bart has returned to Richmond and is completely broken:

You want to fall, that's all. You think it can't go on like that. It's as if your life is a perch on the edge of a cliff and going forward seems impossible, not for a lack of will, but a lack of space. The possibility of another day stands in defiance of the laws of physics. And you can't go back. So you want to fall, let go, give up, but you can't. And every breath you take reminds you of that fact. So it goes ...

Or should I have said that I wanted to die, not in the sense of wanting to throw myself off of that train bridge over there, but more like wanting to be asleep forever because there isn't any making up for killing women or even watching women get killed, or for that matter killing men and shooting them in the back and shooting them more times than necessary to actually kill them and it was like just trying to kill everything you saw sometimes because it felt like there was acid seeping down into your soul and then your soul is gone and knowing from being taught your whole life that there is no making up for what you are doing, you're taught that your whole life, but then even your mother is so happy and proud because you lined up your sight posts and made people crumple and they were not getting up ever and yeah they might have been trying to kill you too, so you say, What are you gonna do?, but really it doesn't matter because by the end you failed at the one good thing you could have done, the one person you promised would live is dead ...

Powerful stuff. For all barbarity of war and the awful claustrophobia of alcoholism and post traumatic stress disorder, Bart achieves a measure of peace by novel's end, giving "The Yellow Birds" a kind of quiet victory in simply showing the soul's ability to survive. Some years later, alone in a mountain cabin, Bart is able to, as he says, become ordinary again. "There are days ahead when I won't think of him or Sterling or the war." Yes, that's a small triumph, but it is still a hopeful note in a novel about how violence ravages its victims, perpetrators, and our larger society.

I think high school students, or those young people with the maturity to handle some incredibly jarring -- but never gratuitous -- imagery and language, should read, analyze, and discuss "The Yellow Birds." In a mere 226 pages, Kevin Powers has created what is destined to become a masterpiece of modern fiction. Please read this National Book Award-nominated novel now. You will never forget it. And keep this stunning book in mind the next time some politician somewhere argues for the deployment of US troops.

yellow birds

03 October 2012 @ 05:07 pm

David Levithan is an amazing, amazing writer who needs no accolades from me. Nevertheless, I'm giving them to him. ;-) Levithan is the author of one of my all-time favorite YA novels, the incandescent "Boy Meets Boy," and co-author of books you, dear reader, and I absolutely adore, like "Will Grayson, Will Grayson," "Dash & Lily's Book of Dares," and "Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist."

"Every Day" is Levithan's latest book, and the concept is blow-your-mind unique: A is a genderless entity, a being or soul, who inhabits a different 16 year old body each day. Boy, girl, black, white, Asian, straight, gay, transgendered, fat, slim, popular, suicidal ... you name it, A has been that person for one day. A's host remembers nothing of the "lost" day, apparently because A is able to implant alternate memories. A can access only internal facts about the host -- locker combinations, sibling names, etc. -- not emotional connections. A is, however, subject to the biological or chemical constraints of the host body and any corresponding emotional conditions caused by those constraints. (There is an absolutely harrowing day when A, in an addict's body, uses every bit of mental energy to combat nearly overpowering drug cravings; similarly, A's one day as a clinically depressed girl is devastating.)

When we meet A, A is in the body of Justin, a typical brooding high school guy with a chip on his shoulder and a pretty girlfriend. That girlfriend is the vulnerable, often heartbroken Rhiannon, who basically stays with Justin because (a) she thinks he'll become a better version of himself, and (b) she's afraid to be alone. Lo and behold, when A is in Justin's body, Justin is, indeed, a better version of himself. A ignores the "rules" and has Justin do some un-Justin-like things, like ditching school and taking Rhiannon to the beach. Even worse (or better?), A-as-Justin is suddenly more caring, attentive, and open, leading the beaten-down Rhiannon to emerge more fully from her protective shell. In one epic day, Rhiannon falls in love with "Justin" again, while A, for the first time in A's life, falls in love, too.

Except, of course, that epic day has to end. When A next lands in the body of Nathan, an overachieving, straight-laced guy, he drives for hours and crashes a party attended by Rhiannon. "Nathan," posing as a gay, non-romantic interest, dances the night away with Rhiannon and later contacts her by email. (A keeps a personal email account.) Unfortunately, A has to keep Nathan out late for the party -- the switch to the next host always occurs at midnight, regardless -- meaning that Nathan wakes up on the side of the road with no memory of how he got there. When Nathan's story of demonic possession goes viral -- and when Nathan himself starts emailing A demanding answers -- A's anonymity and very existence become threatened. Still, being smitten and nursing the hope of finally living a regular life, A risks all and reveals all to Rhiannon. She reluctantly agrees to keep meeting A, in all A's different bodies, while she sorts out her feelings.

"Every Day" is so thought provoking and raises such intriguing questions about personhood and identity and love, that for these reasons alone -- not to mention the beautiful writing and amazingly complex one-day characterizations -- it's a winner. Do we really love the person inside, or is the exterior an inevitable factor? A slowly realizes that it's easier for Rhiannon to connect with him when A is inhabiting a hot guy than when A is morbidly obese or female. A is such a remarkable character, mature beyond A's earthly years, yet still a teenager who can be rash and impulsive. But A is different in one crucial way. Unlike the rest of us, A sees no gender or sexual orientation. A exists as a pure identity. An essence. A being. Seeing how this all plays out is illuminating and heartbreaking and kind of beautiful. Huge kudos to David Levithan for pulling off the logistics of the hosting so smoothly and for making the romance between A and Rhiannon so incredibly ill fated (and, thus, so incredibly intriguing).

[Total side note, but as I read "Every Day," I thought of Against Me! lead singer Laura Jane Grace. Laura Jane was born as Tom Gabel, but she knew from a very young age that she was a woman. Tom married Heather Gabel a few years ago, and together they had a daughter. Tom struggled all this time with gender dysphoria, the technical term for feeling like your external anatomy and the sex roles assigned to it don't line up with your internal gender identity. In May of 2012, Tom came out publicly as transitioning to a woman, Laura Jane, despite the prejudices of some in the punk and wider communities. Laura Jane is an absolute inspiration of being true to who you are. And you know what's cool? Heather has stayed with Laura Jane, saying that she fell in love with the person who is Laura Jane, not the external male who was Tom. Awesome. A would be proud.]

There are some truly genius touches here -- A inhabits twins on back-to-back days, allowing A to see the after effects on the host -- as well as so many captivating insights into the relationships between teens and their peers, parents, and siblings. I highly recommend "Every Day" to older middle and high school readers. It's really like nothing else I've ever read, and a full week after finishing it, I still find myself thinking about A. Which, sign of a great book, y'all. Please check out "Every Day" and see what you think!

every day

20 September 2012 @ 03:18 pm

My boundless love for Sarah Dessen ... well, it knows no bounds. ;-) Sarah is my absolute go-to author for pitch perfect depictions of girl friendship, first love, and magical summers. Check out the Sarah Dessen tag below, because I'm a fangirl, y'all, and have read, cherished, and reviewed quite a few of her books. I mentioned in my previous entry that I was beaching it recently, and beach reading basically REQUIRES a healthy dose of Sarah Dessen. Hence, me, sand, the waves, an umbrella (I'm slightly vampiric!), and Sarah's 2004 gem, "The Truth About Forever." What a perfect combination.

Teen girl Macy recently (and quite unexpectedly) lost her dad to a fatal heart attack. Older sister Caroline is married and out of the house, mom is an uptight, driven mess, and boyfriend Jason is rigidly focused on his academic future. When Jason heads off to "brain camp" for the summer, Macy finds herself alone with a stack of SAT textbooks and a mind numblingly boring gig at her local library's reference desk. [Which, no comment!] Macy stumbles upon Wish, a local catering company, at one of her mom's events. The Wish folks, led by the pregnant and perpetually frazzled mother hen Delia, are a fun, quirky family. Their obvious warmth and affection for each other -- as well as their ability to get the job done, even when things inevitably go awry -- immediately appeals to Macy. On impulse, she joins the crew and starts working events, despite her mother's obvious disapproval.

So, yeah, there's a GUY on the Wish crew. Duh. His name is Wes, and he's a reformed bad boy who makes these epic angel and heart-in-hand sculptures out of wire, sea glass, and other scavenged materials. He's deep and dreamy, and you will love him instantly. Trust me. Wes and Macy somehow jump into a continuous game of Truth or Dare, played out over many long nights, in which each slowly reveals details about their lives, hopes, and issues. Basically, they fall for each other without ever really admitting it to themselves. You'll dig it. Again, trust me! Plus, he creates some art for her. Swoon.

There are, of course, complications. Macy's mom isn't too keen on the Wish folks, who also include sci fi nerd (and Wes' younger brother) Bert; the scarred but completely adorable Kristy; and the mostly monosyllabic Monica. Mom, who buries her grief in a frenzied workload, eventually isolates Macy from the crew, which seemed a bit unrealistic to me. Macy gave up her entire life following her dad's death, including treasured friendships, teenage silliness, and her most beloved activity, running. You'd think mom would like to see a little sparkle back in her daughter's life.

Complications also arise between Wes and Macy, as each remains on guard despite their attraction. When Macy spots Wes at a late night hangout with an old flame, she cuts him off and retreats back into her old, lonely ways. But try as she might, now that Macy has rediscovered life, she can't quite cram herself back into her spare, constricted little world. After a long summer of talks, parties, laughs, and tears, Macy is left with a tough decision: continue to play it safe with Jason and the SATs, or move forward, dive in, and take all the pain that comes with being truly alive.

Sarah is an incredibly beautiful writer, and "The Truth About Forever" is chock full of her usual lyrical passages, quietly heartfelt moments, and loving characterizations. She perfectly captures the heady combination of sky-high joy and crushing fear that accompany falling in love, making us understand exactly why Macy runs from Wes. Sarah slowly, believably pulls Macy along on her journey, nailing that end of the movie, they finally get together moment. It's so understated and charming that you get the payoff without feeling cheap about it. You know what I mean! Throw in empowering girl friendships and some exquisitely rendered mother-daughter scenes at novel's end, and "The Truth About Forever" is an absolute winner. Summer or not, you older middle school (and up!) readers will adore this one. In case you're like me and somehow overlooked "The Truth About Forever," please get on that now asap. Even though summer is over, there is always a place for a summer book. Happy reading!

PS ~ Cute fan-created book trailer below. Check it out!


19 September 2012 @ 05:14 pm

So I was on vacation at my very favorite beach in the entire world, sitting under an umbrella, listening to the sounds of the waves ... and, duh, obviously reading a book. I am a librarian, after all! I read an absolutely fabulous new novel, "Where'd You Go, Bernadette?," that is clever, insightful, quirky, and weirdly heartwarming. Check it out! Alas, I do not review it here, because it is an adult novel with little YA crossover. [But the narrator is an eighth grader AND I LOVED IT. Hee. That is all.]

Luckily -- or unluckily! -- for you good people, I also read Jodi Picoult's 1998 teen-themed novel "The Pact," and that, my friends, I am all over in the review department. It's the story of lifelong friends, teenagers, who become a couple because of love, remain a couple because of expectations, and ultimately confront a promise of mutual suicide. Yeah, that's heavy stuff, and Picoult, for all her many literary talents, does tend to dip into the old melodrama at times. But, overall, "The Pact" is a gripping novel that deftly explores the complex web of family, friendship, love, hatred, and grief. If it's a little soapy at times, eh, so be it, because when it's good, it's seriously, ridiculously good.

Chris Harte and Emily Gold literally grew up together, as we discover in a series of extended flashbacks. Their moms, Gus Harte and Melanie Gold, are best friends and next-door neighbors who are both pregnant at the same time in 1979. [Remember, folks, this book is a little old, but other than a few jarring technological details -- Gus has a beeper! -- it's not at all outdated thematically.] While Chris and Emily begin life as instant friends and constant companions, they eventually fall in, out, and sort of back in love again. I know "The Pact" is a book about suicide -- and I'll get to that issue, I promise! -- but I felt that aspect of Chris and Emily's relationship, that pressure to be something together at almost all costs, was so strikingly real. Emily's crushing disappointment in not living up to that long-ordained love, in loving Chris but not LOVING him, sends her to a dark place. That pain, coupled with buried sexual abuse, an unexpected occurrence, and a crushing bout of prolonged depression, leads her to contemplate not just her own suicide, but Chris' as well. Indeed, as the book opens, Emily tells Chris, "I love you," which is followed by this line:

And then there was a shot.

So the kicker here -- and there's really no way to avoid spoiling it, because it happens at jump -- is that following the night of the pact, Chris remains very much alive. While he's suffering from a gaping but hardly life-threatening head wound in the ER, Emily arrives DOA. As the respective families (and friendships) just about disintegrate from pain, rage, and confusion, we start to learn more about Chris, the survivor at the center of this storm. Chris was the stalwart one, the reliable, smart, kind boy who excelled at two things: swimming and loving Emily. When Chris is arrested for Emily's murder, it's not too hard for us to believe that while he may not have killed her out of malice, he clearly could have done so from a toxic mix of adoration and perceived loyalty. Chris' arrest further rips apart his family and the Golds, while also strangely bringing Chris and his distant, repressed father closer together.

Chris is imprisoned for months while awaiting trial. Picoult flashes back and forth from his prison life, filling in more and more details of Emily's deepening pain and Chris' ceaseless devotion. While the jail scenes can play out as a bit over the top, Chris' pervading sense of fear and heartache is nicely conveyed, and the legal wranglings are easily comprehended. We're ultimately set up for a splashy trial, complete with surprise witnesses and "shocking" testimony. While perceptive readers will likely view Chris' confession as telegraphed, the details themselves -- and his palpable shame and guilt -- trump any obviousness. I saw much of this coming and was still utterly shocked by the depth of Chris' misguided loyalty and sacrifice.

One of our neighboring school districts requires high school students to read "The Pact" over the summer, and I can see why. From a purely cautionary standpoint, it provides lots of useful information about the warning sides of suicide, and it depicts, with incredible emotion, the devastation left behind in the wake of such a death. Chris and Emily's evolving relationship -- complete with all its joys and disappointments -- is also incredibly authentic and will likely resonate with many teens. Perhaps best of all, this book is a page turner, y'all. Beach or no beach, I would've devoured it in a day. It truly is that engaging.

"The Pact" is out there, so please give it a read if it now seems interesting. I should note that this one is definitely a high school book, as it contains sexuality, language, drinking, etc. If you really like "The Pact," the Lifetime network created a movie version a few years back. Check out the trailer below. Happy reading! Wouldn't you like to be back at the beach right about now? Sigh.


23 August 2012 @ 01:26 pm

"In the depth of winter, I finally learned that within me there lay an invincible summer."
~ Albert Camus

Ruta Sepetys' "Between Shades of Gray" is one of the most beautiful, evocative pieces of historical fiction I've ever encountered, teen or otherwise. It sheds much needed light on a largely hidden moment in history, when Soviet Premier Josef Stalin deported and imprisoned thousands of political prisoners from the Baltic nations of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. These innocent people -- men, women, and children -- were ripped from their lives, transported like cattle in filthy conditions, only to be beaten, starved, and worked to death at prison camps in remote areas of Siberia. Their only crime? Being deemed a danger to the repressive Soviet regime that had annexed their Baltic nations. Their real crime? Nothing other than being professors, teachers, doctors, army officers, and librarians.

We meet 15 year old Lina on the night in June of 1941 when Soviet NKVD (secret police) officers storm her house in Lithuania, taking her, her mother Elena, and her 10 year old brother Jonas into custody. (Lina's papa has already disappeared.) Lina's family has all of 20 minutes to gather their belongings before being herded onto a truck and, eventually, a train, bound for parts unknown. Mind you, they have done nothing wrong. The train car is a true horror: people are packed in with no room for movement and no bathroom facilities other than a hole in the corner of the car. Ona, a woman who has recently given birth, is left bleeding on a plank in the car, her infant daughter dying slowly from starvation. Author Sepetys captures the fear, humiliation, and anger that Lina and her fellow travelers feel, this utterly awful sense of shame and bone-chilling terror at what will happen next.

Eventually, over the course of six weeks, the Lithuanian prisoners make their way to Altai Province, in the southern portion of Siberia. Lina's family, thin and weak, is thrown into a hut with a brute of a local woman, Ulyushka. Everyone at the Altai camp is forced to work at least 12 hours a day to earn one meager bread ration, which is barely enough to keep a person alive. Lina and Elena are eventually assigned to farm beets and potatoes, while Jonas works with Siberian women making shoes. The mother of the lone teen boy on the trip, Andrius Arvydas (his mother bribed an NKVD guard to have him deemed feeble), is forced into prostitution at the NKVD officers' barracks. Many nights, the Lithuanians are roused from their sleep at gunpoint and threatened by the sadistic Commander Komorov to sign a "confession" condemning them to 25 years of hard labor. It is a lonely, miserable existence, filled with pain, hunger, and far too much sickness and death.

Lina's escape from this wretched life lies in her sketches -- of Lithuania, Jonas, Mrs. Arvydas, Andrius, her missing papa -- and memories of a better life in Lithuania. Lina could be killed for her "treasonous" sketches, which she hides in the lining of her suitcase, but they are a lifeline for her. Many references are made throughout the novel to the works of Norwegian artist Edvard Munch, whose depictions of raw emotional pain are models for Lina's work. [Click here to see an image of Munch's most iconic work, The Scream.] Lina is one brave and talented girl.

After nearly a year in Altai, Lina and her family, along with hundreds of Lithuanian and other Baltic peoples, are ferried by train, truck, and ship to Trofimovsk, an absolutely desolate land that lies above the Arctic Circle. Trofimovsk makes Altai seem like a luxury resort. The polar night (continuous darkness) lasts for months on end; dangerously frigid temperatures and continuous blizzards threaten the group's very survival; starvation, typhus, dysentery, and scurvy are constant killers; and the prisoners' living conditions -- crude, self-built mud huts in a polar region -- are subhuman. Without the late appearance of Dr. Samodurov (a real figure, as described here), all the prisoners would have perished during that first miserable winter.

In discussion materials and an author note afterward, Sepetys describes "Between Shades of Gray" as, ultimately, a love story. The Baltic people survived by using love as their sustaining force. I agree. Despite its devastating subject matter, this novel is warm, uplifting, and hopeful. Lina's love for Elena and Jonas, for her imprisoned father and lost homeland, and, finally, for the strong, kind Andrius, buoys what otherwise may have been a bleak and depressing tale. There is so much life and love in these pages, so much hope and triumph, that it goes a long way in easing some of the pain. The prisoners continue to maintain their national and familial pride -- Lina creates patriotic artwork, the Lithuanians celebrate their holidays in the depths of work camp blight, and the homesick and heartbroken share cherished family photographs that were hastily grabbed after arrests -- which is beautiful and inspiring. Even small kindnesses, like the Siberian co-worker who saves Jonas from the ravages of scurvy, add to the impression that although we have seen the worst of humanity, the best of humanity still quietly endures. So, yes, love IS the central theme here. And what a necessary message that is for young people to receive.

"Between Shades of Gray" also impressively tempers even its most beastly characters, including some of the heartless NKVD officers, the stoic native Altains, and the "bald man," an embittered Lithuanian prisoner who constantly criticizes his fellow detainees. Sepetys uses one NKVD officer, the young Nikolai Kretzky, most dramatically to show the withering effect of these atrocities on a basically decent Russian who is "just following orders." The real villain here, the one never actually seen, is Soviet Premier Josef Stalin, who masterminded the deaths of MILLIONS of innocents. As a stand in, we get all the people who spared themselves but made that devastation possible -- Lithuanians who gave information, Soviets who abided by a culture of fear and secrecy, and NKVD officers who channeled their own personal failings into either wholesale prisoner abuse or, at the very least, willful ignorance of the horrors surrounding them.

I absolutely recommend "Between Shades of Gray" to students in upper middle school and higher. This is a difficult book, and I don't mean to minimize that in any way. There is violence, death, and depravity, but much of it is handled "off screen" and little of it is overwhelming in detail or presentation. As mentioned above, the sum effect of this novel, the feeling you are left with at the end, is one of joy and promise. Please, give "Between Shades of Gray" a try. You will be glad you did.

between shades

As if being an unpopular sixth grade girl isn't difficult enough, try adding the slowing of the Earth's rotation -- and all its cataclysmic effects -- to the mix. That's the premise of Karen Thompson Walker's remarkable debut novel "The Age of Miracles." While I don't normally review books written for the adult market, "The Age of Miracles" should appeal to teens, as it is essentially a coming of age tale set against a dystopian backdrop. Although more subtle and literary than novels geared directly toward teens, its subject matter and almost cringe-worthy realism should win over many younger fans.

We meet Julia and her family on an ordinary sunny Saturday morning in California. Except, this particular morning isn't so ordinary after all, as Julia soon learns that the Earth's rotation has slowed overnight. The slowing will continue to increase to a point where sunlight -- and darkness -- will last for long days on end. As the Earth slows even more, vegetation dies, animal life is depleted, strange weather patterns emerge, sunlight becomes toxic, and people begin to suffer from "gravity sickness." If all this sounds terribly bleak, quite surprisingly, it's not. These events are all filtered through Julia's sensibilities, and she presents much of the horror in a stark, matter-of-fact manner. Julia's almost detached observations place the slowing in the background as a quiet force that is never sentimental, overpowering, or showy. The real drama, interestingly enough, occurs among the human beings.

A conflict erupts between "clock timers" (folks who adhere to the dictates of the clock, regardless of sunlight or darkness) and "real timers" (those people who follow the natural rhythms of sunrise and moonrise, regardless of when they occur). It's a classic "us against them" struggle, with all the attendant fear outsiders can generate in a trying time. A class schism also erupts, as those with money can afford artificial lawns, personal greenhouses, steel shutters, and sunlight radiation shelters. But none of these are the central source of human tension in "The Age of Miracles." Instead, it is the family interactions and middle school relationships that form the real heart of this novel.

Here's what I found most amazing about "The Age of Miracles": middle school kids can be just as horrible, careless, and insensitive as ever, even when life as they know it has been catastrophically altered. Julia is bullied at the bus stop, dropped by her best friend, used by a popular classmate, and excluded from the birthday balloon tradition at school. She pines away for Seth Moreno, the mysterious skater boy who lost his mother to cancer and is alternately warm and indifferent toward Julia. She worries about her unshaved legs and buying her first bra. She tries to mediate the cold hostility between her philandering father and controlling mother, all while seeking her own small piece of independence. Above all, much of "The Age of Miracles" is about one girl's overwhelming loneliness, which almost trumps the fact that her entire world is, literally, falling apart around her. And you wondered why I called this a "remarkable" novel? Because it is!

I'll give nothing else away, because Julia's story should be savored by the reader. Walker is a beautiful storyteller who uses spare language and quiet emotion to convey Julia's fears, pain, and small triumphs. There is not one moment here that is artificially rendered. Everything is conveyed with an almost heartbreaking honesty and stillness. Although written for adults, aside from a bit of language, minor drinking, and the themes involved, older teens should do just fine with this novel. "The Age of Miracles" is a stunning, haunting book about growing up. Please go out and read it now.

age of miracles

07 August 2012 @ 03:58 pm

Were you one of the 143 tweens and teens who signed up for the 2012 Summer Reading Program at Kinnelon Library? Did you write a book review? Are you just dying to see your review live on the Internet? Your wish is my command!

Check out the Kinnelon Summer Reading website for ALL your great reviews. Don't see yours? I'm adding more daily, so please keep checking back here.

Thanks again, readers! See you all next summer!

summer cupcake
16 July 2012 @ 04:30 pm

Man, do I love me some Maggie Stiefvater. If you haven't read "The Scorpio Races" yet, (a) for shame!, and (b) do yourself a huge favor and get on that immediately. [Read my rave review here if you don't believe me!] Maggie's latest book, "The Raven Boys," will be published by Scholastic in September 2012. Fortunately for me, I was in the right place at the right time during the daily 9 am Book Expo stampede o' booths and was able to snag an advanced copy. "The Raven Boys" is a story about boarding school boys and a somewhat clairvoyant girl who use magic to wake a sleeping Welsh King. I know. I KNOW! But it's really a story about friendship and sacrifice, and it is just so phenomenally written -- just so expertly conveyed on every possible level -- that what may seem like a silly premise underlies a wondrously captivating story.

I'll try to do some gentle, non-spoily plot summary. We start on St. Mark's Eve, as teenage Blue and her psychic aunt, Neeve, are recording the names of those who will die in the coming year as their spirits pass by. Blue acts like an amplifier for her aunt's talents, in much the same way she does for her own mom, Maura, and a houseful of eccentric psychics. Blue is not a seer, so she is startled to encounter the spirit form of a boy from nearby Aglionby Academy. The tormented boy says his name is Gansey and "that's all there is." Neeve warns Blue that seeing Gansey can only mean one of two things, that she is either his true love, or that she will kill him. Gah! Because, folks, being Blue's true love is no great prize either, as it's been long prophesied that Blue will kill the first boy she kisses. Kinda awkward, right? ;-)

Shortly after St. Mark's Eve, Blue, while working her part-time job at a pizzeria, encounters a very much alive Gansey -- think a teenage politician, "shiny and powerful" -- as well as his friends: hostile, anguished Ronan, with a neck tattoo and a world of anger radiating off him; stalwart Adam, an off-campus tuition student from the wrong side of the Henrietta, VA tracks who bears abuse and responsibility like he does everything else, quietly and painfully; and the "smudgy" Noah, a sort of loving puppy dog type who always hangs on the periphery of the group. Gansey leaves behind his rather impressive journal detailing his efforts to locate a ley line (a surging line of magical power) and raise the sleeping King Glendower, who will grant him a favor. As Blue befriends the boys -- and falls for Adam -- she quickly discovers that the Glendower quest is Gansey's entire life, and, for better or worse, a mission shared with equal zealotry but for very different reasons by Ronan, Adam, and Noah.

Blue is drawn into the quest herself and helps the boys discover where the ley line lies in Cabeswater, an eerie time bubble in the woods. In Cabeswater, thoughts and wishes can appear in corporeal form before your eyes; whole seasons pass while time on the outside remains still; trees communicate (in Latin!), issuing vague warnings and advice; a haunted beech provides visions of the future, including a fatal near-kiss between Blue and Gansey; and if someone performs an unspecified -- but deadly! -- sacrifice, the long dormant ley line will awaken and Glendower will most likely be theirs.

There's much more going on in "The Raven Boys," including the mystery of Blue's father, who disappeared years before, and the dark magic behind Neeve's visit to Henrietta. There is also an old, unsolved murder and a villainous Latin teacher who seeks Glendower for his own. If this all seems a bit out there, well, it is. I can't and won't argue that point. I will say / shout from the rafters that Maggie crafts this story so beautifully, slowly revealing secrets (Noah!) and adding layer upon layer of complexity to her characters. That's what I loved the most about "The Raven Boys," that these characters are compellingly crafted and so stinking real. Ronan, in particular, is incredibly complicated; he's in so much pain that he has become a powder keg of volatile rage and raw physicality, yet he can break your heart with his tenderness to both his friends and a tiny raven foundling. And Gansey ... oh boy, where can I even start? Gansey, the supremely wealthy and capable teen who was nearly killed by hornets as a child, is a strange combination of strength, poise, and fear. Gansey is terrified that he will fail his friends, his family, and his quest, and his struggle to be responsible for everyone and everything ends in disastrous results.

While "The Raven Boys" ends rather abruptly -- which, I get, first book in a series, but it's REALLY abrupt -- I can live with it. This book is so achingly beautiful, filled with such evocative descriptions, amazingly rendered characters, and lovely explorations of friendship, that I can forgive the somewhat jarring ending. You must read "The Raven Boys" when it releases in September. Promise me, ok? Then you can join me in this awful anticipation as we wait until 2013 to find out what happens to Blue, Adam, Gansey, and the gang!

raven boys

11 July 2012 @ 01:17 pm

Shame on me, because "The List" was my first introduction to author Siobhan Vivian, who has written three other novels for teens. If any of her other books are even remotely as captivating and incisive as "The List," then I need to get on them asap, y'all. Because "The List," about a yearly list of the ugliest and prettiest girls in one high school, is a total winner. I am still thinking about this book a full week after I finished it!

One Monday in September, Mount Washington High School is plastered with an official, embossed copy of The List, designating which girl is the most and least attractive in each grade. The List is an annual tradition at Mount Washington, and, aside from it bearing a Mount Washington seal, no one knows who is behind it or how the girls are chosen. All anyone knows for sure is that inclusion on The List dramatically changes each girl's life. What we learn in this novel is that those changes, for the favored and the ostracized both, can be surprisingly complex.

Throughout the novel, we follow the eight girls' lives as they intersect in the days following publication of The List. Of these eight characters -- loners, freaks, popular girls, a homeschooled transfer student, brats, athletes, etc. -- four-time ugliest designee Jennifer Briggis is one of the most intriguing. Jennifer was once best friends with the beautiful, popular Margo Gable, who is, of course, the prettiest girl in the senior class. After a freshman year meltdown at being named ugliest, in each succeeding year, Jennifer has tried to make it seem like she's in on the joke here and thus unbothered by The List. But when Margo's friends reach out to Jennifer in sympathy and include her in shopping trips and parties, we start to see how clingy and, perhaps, devious this perpetually bullied girl is. It's shocking stuff, frankly, and one of the most compelling portraits of a teen bullying victim that I've ever encountered.

The other girls are depicted in equally nuanced manners. We have freshman swimmer Danielle DeMarco, who had always prided herself on her strength and athleticism but who now sees herself as ugly and mannish. When Danielle's boyfriend becomes distant and avoidant post-List, Danielle is devastated. She tries to become stereotypically feminine, but ultimately reacts in a more powerful, life-affirming way. Junior Bridget Honeycutt is the most heartbreaking character. Bridget views her "prettiest" label as a validation of the eating disorder she had developed over the summer, and so she plunges headfirst back into the world of starvation and juice "cleanses." Bridget's final push to wear a smaller dress size -- and her emptiness at achieving this awful goal -- is gut wrenching.

Then there's Sarah Stringer, the ugliest girl in the junior class, who is really just an outsider with a punk edge and a fake aura of toughness. The night before The List's publication, Sarah had slept with her best friend, the quietly attentive Milo. After The List, Sarah pushes everyone away in just about the most effective manner ever: she stops bathing, brushing her teeth, and changing her clothes. The mythic List makers and popular kids will have to literally suffer her existence. Sarah's attempt to strike back really amounts to her donning an extra layer of armor in protection against further hurt. When Milo finally breaks through Sarah's defenses and reaches the vulnerable girl inside ... oy! Didn't I say this was a compelling novel?

Author Vivian perfectly captures the impact of labeling teen girls in both seemingly positive and negative ways, and shows how that labeling can quickly create pressure to fulfill false expectations in either direction. She also expertly conveys the fragility of each girl's sense of self worth, but never in a didactic fashion. I especially loved the ambiguous ending here. What is the real cost of popularity? Of anonymity? And is either worth it? While there are few neatly tied bows to the individual stories, you will think -- A LOT -- about each girl long after you're finished reading. If that's not the sign of a good book, I don't know what is.

"The List" is most definitely geared toward high school girls. There is age-appropriate language, some drinking scenes, and sexuality. I wholeheartedly recommend this timely, thought-provoking novel, which will resonate with so many young women. "The List" is out now. Read it!

the list
02 July 2012 @ 04:27 pm

"Legend," the debut dystopian novel written by Marie Lu, was published last November by the good people at the Penguin Young Readers Group. I'm not entirely sure why it took me ages to get around to reading "Legend" (too many books, too little time?), but I'm so glad I finally did. Although there's nothing genre busting or terribly unique about "Legend," it's a fast-paced, engaging dystopian thriller that will leave most readers breathless for book number two. (Which, Penguin, again, you rock, because I just so happen to have an advanced copy of "Prodigy," the second novel in the "Legend" trilogy. WOOT!)

We start out in a future version of Los Angeles, where fifteen year old Day, the Republic of America's most famous outlaw, is on the run with his best friend, shy orphan Tess. Day and Tess have been secretly watching Day's mom and brothers and are horrified to discover that Republic soldiers have quarantined their house. A deadly plague has been springing up periodically in the Republic -- yet only in the slum sections; interesting -- and now Day's little brother Eden has fallen ill. In a desperate bid to steal lifesaving meds for Eden, Day breaks into a Republic hospital, with disastrous results.

Meanwhile, fifteen year old June is one of the Republic's shining stars. A prodigy with a perfect 1500 on her Trial, June is the top student at prestigious Drake University. June is on the fast track to assume a top position in the military, much like her beloved brother Metias. And then everything falls apart. Stalwart, noble Metias is killed the night of Day's hospital break in, allegedly by Day's own hand, but you can smell a government coverup a mile away. Except, June cannot, because she has been so thoroughly indoctrinated by Republic propaganda, and so thoroughly insulated from society's ravages by her deceased parents' wealth, that she blindly accepts the Republic version of events. Commander Jameson -- in my mind, a meaner version of Captain Janeway from Star Trek: Voyager! -- personally recruits June to go undercover as a street person, find Day, and bring him to justice. Needless to say, June is all in, because she can't wait to exact revenge.

So, of course, undercover June will meet Day-with-an-assumed-name, they'll fall for each other, their real identities will be revealed, and betrayal / heartbreak / chaos will ensue. Guys, this is a teen novel, and, as I mentioned, we're not breaking any new ground here. But that's absolutely okay, because the romance is believable, the government conspiracy is gripping, the secrets are appropriately troubling, and the relentless pace keeps the story moving along quite nicely. Need more? The dual narration makes "Legend" more easily accessible for girl and boy readers, which is always a good thing in my book, and the characters are well crafted. I especially loved all the shadowy Republic figures, like Metias' oily, conniving friend Thomas and the lethal Trial director Chian. If the Republic is truly an awful, repressive force, then its minions should convey a real sense of danger, which they do in spades here. I'm all about a villain, y'all. ;-)

"Legend" also exhibits some surprising emotional depth, which is a bit unexpected -- but welcome -- in an action-based novel. Day's longing for his mom and brothers, June's grief over Metias' death, and the pair's affection for the sweet Tess help the story find its humanity and move us from the level of secrets and chases and lies to something a bit more real. Throw in some hardcore sacrifice -- ah, the bravery! -- and you end up with a thrilling story that wields some real emotional pop. Well done.

"Legend" is out now. Read it, already! And keep an eye out for the sequel in (gulp!) early 2013.

29 June 2012 @ 12:44 pm

Donna Cooner's debut novel, "Skinny," is a timely, gripping story about an obese girl's struggle to control her weight and, as importantly, to control the destructive, self-critical voice in her head, which she labels Skinny. It is as good a debut novel as I've read in years, and one that ALL teens should find relevant. This is NOT an obesity novel; it's a beautiful, universal story of learning to accept yourself.

When we meet Ever, she is 15 years old, weighs 302 pounds, and is absolutely miserable. Despite having a loving, supportive father and stepmother and a pretty cool best friend in Rat, Ever is crushingly lonely and angry at just about everyone: her thin, cool stepsister Briella; her seemingly carefree classmates, including crush Jackson and super popular Whitney; her parents; Rat; and, especially, herself. Ever's entire world is veiled in hatred of herself, her body, and her peers. It's an exhausting, isolating way to live.

After the most humiliating public experience on record during a school assembly, Ever bravely decides to undergo gastric bypass surgery, despite the very real risks involved. The surgery severely restricts the amount of food and liquid Ever can consume without becoming physically ill, so over the course of one summer, she begins to lose a dramatic amount of weight. Rat is Ever's cheerleader and coach during this time, carefully charting her weekly weight loss and exercise (and her choices of music ;-)). Unexpectedly, Briella also slowly becomes involved in Ever's transformation and starts to become actual friends with both Rat and Ever.

When school resumes in the fall -- and with the help of a makeover from Whitney, of all people, who takes Ever on as a project -- Ever starts to turn heads and gain acceptance from her peers. Ever, who has always kept her singing talents hidden, even decides to try out for the school musical, Cinderella, finally turning toward the spotlight she has continually shunned. But Skinny, the voice that constantly criticizes and demeans Ever, is alive and well, despite Ever's physical makeover. So when her dream date with Jackson results in something other than a fairy tale ending -- leading to a cascade of self hatred -- Ever finally realizes that she must start loving the person she is on the inside, lest she never escape Skinny's grip.

Yes, "love yourself" is a fairly cliched message, but it's handled here so deftly that you won't mind. You will absolutely understand the relentless nature of Skinny's criticism and how thoroughly it corrodes Ever's sense of herself. Seeing Ever discover a more positive inner voice is incredibly gratifying for us readers. Plus, there's so much more here: a believable love story, blossoming girl friendships, small and large triumphs, an opening night of Cinderella that had me reaching for tissues again and again ... seriously, what's not to love?

Scholastic is releasing "Skinny" in the fall of 2012. [Thank you for the advanced copy at Book Expo, awesome people of Scholastic!] My friends, please be on the lookout for this remarkable novel. You will not be disappointed. Happy reading!

25 June 2012 @ 02:32 pm

Y'all, summer reading preparations have kept me from writing up my book reviews. But, I promise, I have been reading! Scout's honor. :-p

Here's a review of one of the BEST books I've read this year, Elizabeth Wein's intriguing, twisty, deeply engaging World War II novel "Code Name Verity." When was the last time a book was part history lesson, part spy game, and part emotional drama? Yeah, I thought not. How about that same book also featuring two FEMALE leads, one a British spy and one a young British pilot? That's right. Unique concept, beautifully written ... read on for more, friends.

The novel is divided into two sections with two separate narrators, and it's up to us as readers to piece the overall story together and decide how much is truth and how much is a lie. In the first section, we have aristocratic Scot Julie (Verity) who works as a spy for the British. Julie was captured inside occupied France and is being held by the ruthless Gestapo (the Nazi secret police) as a prisoner of war in a commandeered hotel. Julie has been starved, terrorized, and tortured for information, which she is finally revealing in a confession written daily on recipe cards, prescription pads, and other leftover reminders of normal life. Julie's confession is structured as the story of her friendship with a young British pilot named Maddie (Kittyhawk), and throughout her discourse, Julie interweaves secret details of British planes, airstrips, codes, and missions. Repeatedly, Julie laments that fact that the Gestapo have broken her and that she is now the worst kind of coward and traitor for revealing these details of the British war effort. But is she?

In the second half of the novel, we hear much of the same story from Maddie's point of view. Maddie's plane, carrying Julie to her mission, crash landed in occupied France, and she's now being kept hidden by some French Resistance folks. Maddie records the story of her pilot training, her friendship with Verity, and the crash landing, as well as details of the Resistance effort to return her and other downed British pilots safely to England. Maddie figures her British superiors will want a full recounting, and the writing helps her maintain her sanity as whole days pass with her trapped in a claustrophobic barn loft. Straight off, we notice some striking differences in Maddie's account, most tellingly her repeated conviction that Julie is the bravest, strongest, and smartest young woman she has ever met. Interesting. Even Julie's staged meeting with an appeasing American journalist is markedly different here than in Julie's version.

I really cannot reveal more plot details -- I won't ruin it for you! -- other than to say that "Code Name Verity" ultimately becomes an absolutely heartbreaking story of friendship, honor, and sacrifice. The two lead characters, Julie and Maddie, are both believably terrified while also being believably brave, feisty, and selfless. The secondary characters are also well developed, especially the Gestapo Captain von Linden, Julie's captor, who is strangely kind and charming while also being incredibly sadistic. I think teens will be drawn in by the spying, codebreaking, planes, secrecy, and adventure, all of which keeps the story flowing even when we're not exactly sure what's happening. And the big reveals at the end -- when the whole truth (?) is finally revealed -- are staggering. I wanted to go back and reread everything again to catch all the clues!

"Code Name Verity" is a brilliant novel that is perfect for boys and girls who are older middle schoolers. Although there is torture and violence in this story, the majority of it is very discreetly presented and entirely age appropriate. I adored this beautiful, gut-wrenching novel, which will surely be one of the best books published for teens in 2012. Please check it out.

26 April 2012 @ 03:04 pm

Cutest. Thing. Ever. Seriously!

"Darth Vader and Son" is a new board book from Chronicle Books, and it's just about the most darling, hysterical gift book I've seen in ages. If the hail of giggles coming from everyone who has seen it are any indication, I'm not alone in my judgment. The book's 60+ pages each feature a single, full-color illustration of a bitingly funny take on a scene from one of the "Star Wars" movies. So, yeah, it helps if you are a bit of a "Star Wars" geek like me.

Darth Vader is depicted here as the doting, well-meaning, somewhat hapless dad of four year old Luke Skywalker. Ol' Darth is no Sith Lord here; instead, he does all the typical father / son activities -- albeit while wearing his mask and cape -- including soccer, ice cream, story time, bike riding, tickle sessions, and hide and seek. He even feigns delight at Luke's gift of a tie (thought bubble: "I can't wear this"), nervously handles potty time issues and birds and bees questions, and has to sort through Luke's potential playmates (Leia: yes; Han Solo: no). Without losing its humor, the book maintains an overall sense of warmth and affection.

Kids will think this book is adorable, but the real market is probably teens and adults, who will understand all the humor and "Star Wars" references and fully appreciate the sweet tone. "Darth Vader and Son" is a perfect little gift for Father's Day or birthdays (hint!). Thank you Chronicle Books for sending along such a lovely surprise. I can't wait for the rest of the world to see what a treasure you guys have here. Enjoy!


I know I'm dating myself with this reference, but it's actually not a secret that I'm old, y'all. OLD. But do any of you remember that 90s high school graduation night flick, "Can't Hardly Wait"? It was a fairly generic film about having a best night of your life experience -- partying, falling in love, having sex, drinking, changing who you are; you know, the whole deal -- as a way to celebrate freedom from high school. Cliques were busted, unspoken loves were revealed, and shenanigans ensued. It was certainly not a great (or even good) movie, but it made enough of an impact on me to stick in my brain all these years later.

I'm pretty sure "The Best Night of Your (Pathetic) Life," Tara Altebrando's new novel for Penguin Teen, aspires to the same "let loose / there are so many possibilities / anything can happen in one night!" vibe that permeated "Can't Hardly Wait." It probably tells you everything you need to know about "The Best Night ..." that it fails miserably at achieving even these meager heights. "The Best Night ..." is just so tame and tired, and it features such a thoroughly unlikeable protagonist, that I found myself wishing for more of the fun and freedom of, gulp, "Can't Hardly Wait."

The concept here is absolutely killer, which makes it even more of a shame that "The Best Night ..." sputters out so quickly. Check this: teams of seniors participate in an all-night scavenger hunt on a quest for fame, glory, and a Yeti statue. The clues are both clever and silly (everything from a "find a #1 foam finger" to "shuck a Mary on a half shell"), requiring the teens to drive all over to acquire more booty and gain more points. [Although, in an indication of this book's lameness, the *illegal, unsanctioned* hunt must end by 12:30 am. Um, seriously? Because kids have never lied about where they are to stay out all night? Oh boy.]

Our protagonist here is Mary, who, along with her fellow math nerds, musicians, and drama geeks, has vowed to win the hunt and finally, FINALLY!, be taken seriously by Barbone and the other popular kids. Mary is so resolutely fixated on winning the race that she's often incredibly obnoxious to her own teammates and friends. She's especially rude to her alleged best friend, insanely smart, suspenders-wearing, uber geek Patrick, who made a poorly received pass at her at prom. Patrick is clearly in love with Mary, who instead of showing any bit of warmth or compassion for her alleged best friend, instead ignores him, belittles him, and otherwise treats him like a dog. Meanwhile, her other best friend Winter is sullen and moody throughout the initial stages of the hunt, and it's clearly telegraphed that there's something going on between Winter and Mary's crush, this boring rich kid named Carson. That's the problem with "The Best Night ...", that everything outside of the clues -- all the human relationships and feelings and revelations -- is so stinking obvious. There is absolutely nothing unique here, from the standard jock stereotypes to the unworthy crush to the wholly unbelievable ending, in which we must buy that a high school senior is more afraid of being grounded than of committing grand theft auto.

I could go on, but you get the point. It's hard to care at all about a selfish, petty, wholly juvenile main character with an annoying best male friend, a pouting best female friend, a dull crush, and a night filled with very few hijinks and no real sense of risk or danger. Overall, I wish "The Best Night ..." was just more FUN than it ultimately turns out to be, because isn't that the whole point of a "one wild night" story? [Or even a "one wild day" story. Hello, "The Breakfast Club!"]

If I haven't dissuaded you, "The Best Night of Your (Pathetic) Life" will be published in July 2012. I think an older middle school audience would be fine, as there is only a bit of harsh language and one example of off-screen drinking. See what you think this summer ... and please let us know!


I hope that even my younger blog readers have learned about Brown vs. Board of Education, the landmark 1954 Supreme Court decision outlawing segregation in public education. Maybe you've even heard about the "Little Rock Nine," brave students who began attending all-white Little Rock High School in Arkansas during the fall of 1957. The Little Rock Nine, despite the Supreme Court decision several years earlier, required the assistance of armed National Guard troops to protect them from violence while going to school.

But did you know what happened the next year in Little Rock, in the fall of 1958? Did you know that the Little Rock Board of Education voted to close ALL the high schools in the district to prevent further integration of black and white students? I didn't either, not until I read Kristin Levine's poignant new novel "The Lions of Little Rock."

"Lions" is narrated by twelve year-old Marlee, a painfully shy, largely silent girl who excels at math but is rendered mute with fear when called upon in class. Marlee has a few friends, bossy Sally and her follower Nora, but barely speaks to either of them. Thankfully, Marlee is much more comfortable at home talking to her school teacher parents and older sister Judy. When her folks decide to send Judy away so she can start attending high school again, Marlee is left more alone than ever.

Enter new classmate Liz, a brash, outspoken girl who immediately befriends Marlee. Liz is a smart girl herself, and she recognizes a kindred spirit in Marlee. The two join up for an oral presentation on Native American history, with Liz offering Marlee a magic square math book -- the holy grail! -- if Marlee promises to speak during the presentation. Liz patiently works with Marlee to overcome her fear of speaking in a pretty ingenious manner, bringing her to the Little Rock Zoo to talk to all the animals.

Marlee blossoms in believable ways through Liz's friendship and encouragement, and it's just lovely to see this self-doubting girl begin to recognize her own courage. Except, on the day of the big class presentation, Marlee arrives at school to find Liz gone. [Awesome note: Marlee does the entire presentation herself anyway.] The real shocker? Liz isn't coming back. Ever. Turns out Liz is a black girl whose light skin allowed her to "pass" as a white student and attend Marlee's still all-white middle school. Classmates and parents are outraged at Liz's "deception," which adds another undercurrent of danger and unrest to an already volatile situation in Little Rock.

Marlee and Liz try to maintain a clandestine friendship, despite the pervasive threat of violence and against the expressed wishes of their respective families. But there is real danger lurking in Little Rock, especially now that Red, a total loose cannon and older brother of Marlee's classmate JT, has made it his goal to punish Liz. Red has already threatened and terrified Marlee. Now he's stolen some dynamite, hidden it in his trunk, and seems to be waiting for the right moment to strike.

Instead of accepting racial segregation and fear, Marlee instead uses her newly discovered voice to join a women's education committee (!), speak out to her classmates, canvass her neighborhood, and help prepare for a crucial Board of Education vote. I won't reveal any further details, but, trust me, "Lions" is a beautiful, touching exploration of Marlee's growing bravery, which unfolds in a gradual, authentic manner. It's also completely age appropriate for a middle school audience, as even scary or complex events are presented with a gentle hand.

As much as I loved Marlee, the other characters are wonderfully developed as well. Marlee's seemingly stoic, cold mother is painstakingly revealed to be a far more warm and layered woman nursing her own doubts. Popular JT, who bullies Marlee into doing his math homework, is later shown to have his own fears about Red's potential for violence. Even some members of an anti-integration group are not depicted as cardboard villains, but rather as basically decent people who are too afraid or ill-informed to do what is right.

"The Lions of Little Rock" is a masterful piece of historical fiction that melds drama, actual events from the civil rights movement, friendship, and family. It is an absolute gem of a novel, and one that deserves a wide readership. So, yeah, I loved it. Please go out and read it now. :-)


In this young adult version of "The DaVinci Code," a group of teens are drawn into a deadly mystery involving an ancient text, shadowy bands of zealots, and a mystical machine that communicates with God. Um, yeah, you read that last part correctly. Although largely compelling, "The Book of Blood and Shadow" is a bit too bloated and oddly paced overall to be a truly first-rate thriller.

Robin Wasserman might be best known for her "Skinned" and "Seven Deadly Sins" series. Here, she reaches back to Renaissance era Europe to frame a story of friendship, secrets, and betrayal. Nora, a senior at Chapman Prep, begins an independent study working for "The Hoff," an eccentric history professor. Nora will translate the seemingly inconsequential letters of minor poet Elizabeth Weston. Meanwhile, her college age best friend Chris and Chris' roommate Max -- both master Latin translators like Nora -- will help The Hoff translate the newly discovered letters of Edward Kelley, an alchemist to the Holy Roman Emperor who was later imprisoned and killed for treason.

I hate to needlessly reveal plot points, but there's simply no way around it here. Turn away, dear reader, if you don't want to know!

Spoiling ...

In short order, The Hoff is attacked; Chris is murdered; Chris' girlfriend Adriane is rendered catatonic; and Max disappears. A grief-stricken Nora is left to figure out what really happened and how a secret letter she stole from The Hoff factors into everything. Nora's investigation takes her to Europe, with a recovered Adriane and Chris' smart, resourceful cousin Eli. The crew races across Prague, frantically deciphering Elizabeth Weston's clues to the location of the Lumen Dei, the alchemical machine Edward Kelley -- and later Elizabeth Weston herself -- was inventing to speak to God. The teens are hunted by two secret armies, both ruthless and intent on capturing the Lumen Dei for themselves: the Hledaci, an ancient Czech religious group hoping to acquire the machine for its own aims of power and glory, and the Fidei Defensor, church defenders who want to destroy it as heresy.

There's a lot of darting about, running down alleys, looking over shoulders and such, which I'm all for in a thriller. Bring on the action! We are also treated to some pretty neat ciphers and clues, plenty of double and triple crosses, and the rare revelation of Latin translation (of all things!) as something gripping and -- dare I say it -- sexy. But Wasserman just cannot sustain the breakneck tempo and pulsing beat of danger that should accompany such a novel. Instead, we are left to muddle through lumbering descriptions, confusing bits of history, cumbersome exposition from main and secondary characters, and long passages that feature nothing but Elizabeth's increasingly ponderous letters. This book would have benefited from some judicious editing as it stops, starts, and meanders more than it ever sustains a consistent, driving pace.

I guess there's a love story here between Nora and Max? Or Nora and Eli? Or Nora and Chris? I never felt much of anything between Nora and Max, as their romance felt rushed and convenient. While Eli is a solid, interesting character -- he clearly is withholding an awful lot of information, yet remains somehow trustworthy -- the spark between he and Nora never really develops. Maybe this is because Nora, this sort of broken, withdrawn girl, always remains a bit elusive herself. Of all the characters, I actually loved petulant Adriane the best; I bought every minute of this complicated girl's "frenemy" relationship with the other kids.

"The Book of Blood and Shadows" was released this week. There is some violence and suspense, so maybe older middle school is the early range of the target audience. While I wasn't completely sold on this novel, I definitely think it has appeal for fans of smart, twisty thrillers. Please let us know what you think!

PS ~ Thanks Net Galley for access to the advanced copy. You guys rock!


I know, it looks like I've been slacking on the reading. In my defense, it took me a while to work my way through Stephen King's "11/22/63," an epic tale of time travel, fate, and the Kennedy assassination. (Short review: IT'S AWESOME! Please read it.) But I'm back in the teen novel game, having just finished the e-galley of Julie Schumacher's forthcoming "The Unbearable Book Club for Unsinkable Girls." Thanks to the folks at Random House for making the galley available, and to the good people at Net Galley for making it so easy and accessible to read advanced copies. You guys rock!

"The Unbearable Book Club ..." is pretty standard chick lit about four very different high school girls thrown together -- unwillingly, of course -- for a mother / daughter summer reading book club. Average, plain Adrienne narrates this novel in the form of her completed AP English summer assignment. She recounts how the book club's readings ("The Yellow Wallpaper," "Frankenstein," "The Left Hand of Darkness," "The House on Mango Street," and "The Awakening"); her burgeoning friendships with the other girls (popular wild child Cee Cee, weird nerd Wallis, and over achiever Jill); and her relationship with her single mom changed her over the course of the summer. Or, as Adrienne says at the beginning of her essay, "Whoever I was at the beginning of the summer, I am not that person anymore."

Adrienne suffered a knee injury prior to the summer, forcing her to cancel a months-long adventure camp with her best friend, Liz. Instead of hiking and canoeing with Liz, Adrienne is at the community pool, listlessly reading her assigned novels, when Cee Cee literally barges into her life. Cee Cee, home because of summer school and lonely because her friends are all off on glamorous vacations, begins to hang out with Adrienne. Cee Cee, with her big personality and refusal to accept "no" for an answer, brings "A" out of her reserved shell, while also finding all sorts of ways to get her in trouble (late-night sneak outs, car theft, drinking, questionable ear piercing). Jill, who works the snack shack at the pool and studies constantly, questions both Cee Cee's motives and Adrienne's acquiescence to Cee's every demand. Meanwhile, eccentric Wallis, a true outsider in every sense of the word, remains a mystery to the girls, always making excuses for where she lives and why her mother cannot attend meetings.

And so the summer progresses. Books are read, quoted, and discussed. Friendships are forged and threatened. Lessons are learned, amidst both tragedy and triumph. Hot dogs are cooked over an open flame. Yeah, it's all pretty unremarkable, with the occasional quirky bit of humor or interesting insight tossed in just when things are becoming too predictable. Let me be clear: there is absolutely nothing wrong with "The Unbearable Book Club ..." It has enough heart and humor to carry it past the woefully generic voice of its narrator and the stock characterizations. (The three new friends are utter stereotypes; I mean, seriously, an overachieving Asian-American and a fickle popular girl with a secret? Welcome to Teen Lit 101). "The Unbearable Book Club" is fine and summery and engaging enough overall. I'd recommend it as breezy chick lit for high school girls, as the content -- some language, a drunken escapade -- edges this one toward an older audience. I just wanted this book, which has so much potential to be truly captivating, to be more than a cheap knockoff of the "Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants" and "Peaches" series.

18 January 2012 @ 04:34 pm

"The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars,
But in ourselves, that we are underlings."
Julius Caesar (I, ii, 140-141)

John Green is a rock star in the world of YA lit and likely needs no introduction from me. [But, side note: I seriously cannot overstate my love of both "An Abundance of Katherines" and "Will Grayson, Will Grayson," so maybe it did need some saying!] I was at a Penguin Young Readers preview back in October 2011 when I first heard about "The Fault in Our Stars" (hereinafter, for the sake of my typing, "TFiOS"). Mentioning a new John Green title to a room full of librarians and educators created a bit of a frenzy, as you might imagine; we're talking sharks with blood in the water, only with books. Penguin placed a strict embargo on "TFiOS," which was finally released last Tuesday. Y'all, this is a book. Lev Grossman, a legit bestselling author in his own right, labeled "TFiOS" an "instant classic" in a blog post, and I agree wholeheartedly. Just go out and read it, already.

Hrm. Not sufficient, you're thinking? You need to know more? Fine, I will oblige.

At the most basic level "TFiOS" is a cancer book. But it's also not, not really. You'll just have to trust me on this, ok? It's not morbid or cloying or otherwise uplifting in an icky, artificial way. It is, rather, deeply touching, meaningful, flat-out hysterical, and just so achingly lovely that I kept going back to savor passages again and again. It is a remarkable novel for any genre or audience, let alone as a piece of teen literature.

16 year old Hazel, a pretty average teen living with her folks in Indianapolis, had thyroid cancer that spread to her lungs. Although technically in remission -- Hazel survives on an experimental drug -- her lungs were so badly damaged that she can only breathe with the aid of an oxygen tank. Hazel dropped out of high school and got her GED when she was gravely ill, although she does take some classes at the local community college. Depressed and sort of isolated, Hazel mostly watches bad television with her mom, reads (and re-reads and re-re-reads) her favorite book, "An Imperial Affliction," and attends a weekly teen cancer support group at a neighborhood church. Lanky teen Isaac, left with one functioning eyeball after contracting a rare eye cancer, is the only saving grace at these meetings, as he alone seems to share Hazel's sense of sarcasm and irony at the whole miserable experience. When Isaac brings along his gorgeous, athletic friend Gus, a survivor of a type of bone cancer that resulted in the amputation of his leg, support group suddenly becomes a lot more interesting. Gus is handsome, charming, smart, kinda nerdy / cool, sensitive ... you know, typical John Green protagonist. He's also deeply into Hazel from jump, which, flutter. Even sick girls can fall in love.

At first, Hazel tries to resist Gus' advances. He's the very picture of health (er, minus the leg), just so vibrant and athletic. Meanwhile, Hazel, weak and lugging around an oxygen tank, worries that she will be a "grenade," ultimately exploding in Gus' life, dying, and wounding him irreparably. But Gus isn't so easily deterred. He's into Hazel and knows the risks. Gus uses his old dying kid wish (think Make-A-Wish Foundation) to take Hazel to Holland to visit Peter Van Houten, author of "An Imperial Affliction." Hazel and Gus are determined to find out what happened to the characters after the novel's mid-paragraph end, and the reclusive Van Houten, they believe, holds the key. Except, nothing goes as planned, Van Houten is an embittered shrew, and, oh yeah, Hazel and Gus fall totally in love amidst the canals and tulips and just about the most spectacular meal ever created. It's pretty awesome. Or, as Hazel says, "I fell in love the way you fall asleep: slowly, and then all at once."

I hate to give away huge plot points, so can we still be friends if I give you a SPOILER ALERT? Because I'm going to do it anyway. Consider yourself warned. Here's some SPOILER SPACE, just in case you were skimming:
And here we are. Strong, healthy Gus gets incredibly sick, incredibly quickly. He becomes, for all intents and purposes, the grenade that Hazel so feared she would be. Gus' cancer, long in remission, unknowingly returns and invades his entire body. Probably the most brilliant portions of "TFiOS" involve Gus' physical degradation. This isn't pretty soap opera dying; it's vomit, pee, confusion, messy dying, and it's not easy to witness. But it's always true, which makes Hazel and Gus' continued, doomed romance all that more authentic and beautiful. I can't think of a better, funnier, more touching scene than Gus' "pre-funeral," in which Isaac and Hazel eulogize Gus while he watches. Hazel begins by discussing infinite sets of numbers and says:

Some infinities are bigger than other infinities. A writer we used to like taught us that. There are days, many of them, when I resent the size of my unbounded set. I want more numbers than I'm likely to get, and God, I want more numbers for Augustus Waters than he got. But, Gus, my love, I cannot tell you how thankful I am for our little infinity. I wouldn't trade it for the world. You gave me a forever within the numbered days, and I'm grateful."

I told you, it's a lovely book. I will add that "TFiOS" can be ridiculously, wonderfully funny, as when Isaac and Hazel play voice-activated video games, trying to get the characters to do all manner of filthy things, or the teen support group meets in a church location that the kids call the Literal Heart of Jesus. It's also full of some pretty sharp social commentary about the celebrity of mourning, including Facebook postings of glorified dead kids, which are so far removed from the ugly reality that they're almost, sadly, laughable. Throw in fully developed parental figures, admirably complex secondary characters, and a gentle exploration of such larger, philosophical ideas as making an indelible mark on the universe and, somehow, being remembered, and you have a damn good novel.

I loved just about every aspect of "TFiOS" and would gladly recommend it to teen readers (and adult readers!), all genders, really from older middle school and up. There's some language here and a discreet sex scene, but if you can handle the difficulties of death, then you're good to go. "TFiOS" is such an unbelievably good novel. I can't see you being disappointed. Now will you go out and just read it already? :-p

04 January 2012 @ 05:10 pm
Friends, I don't know what it's like in your neck of the woods, but it is bitterly, horribly, freezingly cold here in North Jersey. What better time, I ask you, is there to read a funny book to warm your heart than the depths of winter? We've got a new brochure featuring laugh-out-loud books for middle and high schoolers. Check out "Hilarious Reads for Teens!". You can also find a link to the brochure on the right side of this page in the Read-Alikes list. Enjoy ... and stay warm!

21 December 2011 @ 12:59 pm
I always love when the year-end "best of" lists come out. They give me great ideas on books I may have missed and inspire me to read those books that I've been putting off for one reason or another. So, without further ado -- hot off the presses! -- I give you our "Best Teen Books of 2011" brochure. You'll also see the brochure over in the Read-Alikes list to the right of this page. Check it out! Who knows, you might find your next favorite book. Happy holidays and all my best wishes for a safe and joyous new year!

20 December 2011 @ 01:24 pm

You probably already know Maggie Stiefvater from her "Mercy Falls" werewolf series, which includes "Shiver" and "Linger." She's a phenomenal writer who is able to take otherworldly topics and give them grounded, touching depth. Maggie's latest novel, "The Scorpio Races," has already accumulated an impressive list of "best of" accolades, including one from the venerable New York Times. I had an advanced copy of "The Scorpio Races" literally forever, since Book Expo last June. I thought, "It's a book about water horses that eat people. Yeah, not so much." I was, I'm not ashamed to admit, dead wrong. It's a book about people, an unforgiving land and its creatures, sacrifice, forgiveness, courage, family, and love. It is, in one word, remarkable.

What, you need more? Fine. :-p

Puck Connolly is the middle child in an orphaned family living on Thisby, a rocky, isolated island. Older brother Gabe is leaving Thisby for life on the mainland, abandoning Puck and her younger brother, the quirky, sensitive Finn. Puck and Finn decorate pottery for the local tourist shop, but without Gabe's income, they'll never be able to keep their heavily mortgaged home and its small bit of farmland. Faced with an impossible set of choices, Puck decides to enter the island's Scorpio Races, in which capaill uisce (predatory water horses that emerge from the sea each fall) are raced against each other in a vicious, life and death game with a huge payoff for the winner. The water horses are aggressive, untamed creatures drawn, alternately, by the call of the ocean and their desire to feed on blood and flesh. So what will happen to Puck when she decides to race her beloved Dove, an ordinary mare who also happens to be her best friend, against these unpredictable, deadly beasts?

Enter Sean Kendrick, a nineteen year old orphan who has won multiple Scorpio Races on the back of Corr, a wild, crimson-colored water horse with whom he has an incredible bond. Corr is owned by the wretched Benjamin Malvern, Sean's employer and owner of the largest stable on the island (and, incidentally, the mortgage holder on the Connolly family property). The quiet, steady Sean is a resourceful trainer with an intuitive understanding of -- and a deep love for -- all the water horses, but most especially Corr. When Sean rides Corr, it's as if the two are one being, connected by a strange mix of respect, love, and fear. Sean hopes that by winning this particular Scorpio Race, he will finally earn the right to purchase Corr for himself.

As the races approach, Sean begins to admire Puck's grace and courage in being (a) the only female EVER entered in the Scorpio Races, and (b) the only rider EVER to challenge the capaill uisce on an ordinary horse. The two become friends, riding together on the jagged cliffs overlooking the shoreline and sharing observations and warnings on the other riders. They also fall in love, but it's not the cheesy, melodramatic deal that such love can often be in a YA novel. Like everything else in this extraordinary book, it's quiet, subtle, and yet still heart wrenching.

I will reveal no more about the races or the ultimate outcome, other than to say that we want both Sean and Puck to win, which is an untenable position. Maggie has created two incredibly well-realized characters. Puck is rough around the edges and bit churlish at times, but she's also brave, smart, and big hearted. Sean is stoic and strong, but he shares with Puck the same boundless love for a harsh, unforgiving land, a hardscrabble way of life, and the magnificent horses (both tame and wild) who share the island. The scenes with Sean and Corr, in which we feel the potent, magnetic connection between the two, thoroughly humanize both man and beast.

The secondary characters are also impressively shaded. Gabe is weak and cowardly, but we begin to understand why this young man must leave Thisby and his siblings to survive. George Holly, a wealthy, handsome American visiting for the races, starts off as a sort of patsy and emerges as a far more generous, perceptive man. And Peg Gratton, the local butcher's wife, is a plain homemaker and a raging feminist / mystical horse goddess during the pre-race festival. Rock on.

Maggie also provides many evocative descriptions of the island, the rocky coast, the turbulent waters, and the sleek, deadly horses. The scenes of Puck racing across Thisby on Dove's back, literally throwing caution to the wind, are breathtaking. Same with the scenes involving Sean and the surging strength of Corr as he gallops forward, torn always between the lure of the sea and his own deep affection for Sean. We even get suspense and terror, as when Puck and Finn must hide from a bloodthirsty water horse in a rickety lean-to during a raging storm. The writing as a whole is often beautiful and heartrending, filled with so many lovely passages like this one, when Sean remembers the first time he saw the capaill uisce:

[They] plunged down the sand, skirmishing and bucking, shaking the sea foam out of their manes and the Atlantic from their hooves. They screamed back to the others still in the water, high wails that raised the hair on my arms. They were swift and deadly, savage and beautiful. The horses were giants, at once the ocean and the island, and that was when I loved them.

"The Scorpio Races" is, without a doubt, one of the very best books I've read this year, teen or otherwise. If you can get past the violence -- which is organic to the story and serves to make the water horses a viable threat -- then I'd say this book is fine for older middle schoolers. Also, since Puck and Sean alternately narrate the story, this novel should appeal to both boy and girl readers. "The Scorpio Races" is a thrilling, emotional, stunningly crafted book that I absolutely loved. I hope you, too, will give it a try. Happy reading!

19 December 2011 @ 03:51 pm

Look, y'all. We have a guest reviewer, another fabulous teen librarian. Here's Katy's take on a new book from HarperTeen:

"Eve" by Anna Carey is one of the many new teen dystopian novels being published this year. It’s set in the not-so-distant future, after a plague has killed off 98% of the population. The United States is now ruled by the King of The New America, and almost all the survivors live in the newly rebuilt City of Sand, though a few Strays remain in the countryside. The plague created many orphans, who were sent to live in single-sex schools, like the one eighteen year old Eve attends.

Eve is about to graduate at the top of her class and has never met a male in her life. She’s aced courses like the Dangers of Boys and Men and can’t wait to be one of the Graduates who spend all their time studying and learning professions in order to be useful citizens when they move to the City of Sand. The Graduates are so busy, in fact, they never seem to leave their windowless compound just over the bridge.

The night before graduation, Eve learns the shocking truth about what happens to the Graduates. Dismayed, she runs away from school in search of refuge at Califia, a camp run as a safe haven for girls who have escaped from the schools. Along the way, she joins forces with fellow runaway Arden, a sharp-tongued girl who was Eve’s archenemy at school. The King’s soldiers are in hot pursuit of Eve, and sheltered Eve realizes she won’t make it far without Arden’s instincts for survival.

Eve also finds herself dependent on Caleb, a boy who gallops in on horseback to save her life. Though Eve has spent years being taught to fear men, she finds it hard to reconcile this propaganda with the kind person she slowly begins to trust.

"Eve" is part romance, part dystopia, with the budding romance between Eve and Caleb sharing equal stage with the disturbing revelations about their society. Reading "Eve," it’s hard not to think of some of the other recent heroines in dystopia -- Katniss of "The Hunger Games" trilogy or Tris from "Divergent" -- but unlike these feisty, strong girls, Eve ... well, she’s a bit of a drip. One character tells Eve she’s got plenty of book smarts, but no street smarts, and it’s true. Eve mostly seems along for the ride, relying on the sharper wits of her companions, and making some shockingly stupid decisions. It was hard for me to root for her, and even harder to believe that the King would be so desperate to find this dull girl.

If you love detailed, realistic characters, "Eve" is not your book. The characters are largely broadly drawn stock types, though a flashback scene where Eve’s dying mother gives her up to the school is heartbreaking and poignant. Carey does keep the action rolling along, though, so if you’re looking for a quick, page-turning read, "Eve" might fit the bill. "Eve" reads like a movie script, right down to the cliffhanger ending leading up to the next two books in the planned trilogy. You can read more reviews of the book on GoodReads, and you’ll see that most people either loved or hated this book. Hopefully you’ll love it!

Eve and Caleb’s romance is totally chaste, but there’s a drinking scene and a lot of violence, so "Eve" is probably best for later middle school and up. "Eve" is out now. If you’re intrigued, check out the book trailer below or read an excerpt. Hope you enjoy!

10 November 2011 @ 04:12 pm

Dana Reinhardt's "The Summer I Learned to Fly" is a quiet, charming novel about the summer of 1986, a pivotal moment in Robin Drew "Birdie" Solo's life. Birdie, fresh out of school, is helping her widowed mom run her new business, the local cheese shop. Each sunny California day at the shop, Birdie makes pasta with handsome surfer Nick, chats with lovable Swoozie, and does her best to keep her treasured rat, Humboldt Fog, out of mom's sights and safely hidden in her backpack. When Birdie discovers leftover cheese is continually being removed from the alley trash, she stumbles upon Emmett Crane, a quirky teen boy with a shady past and a penchant for making paper cranes. Emmett becomes Birdie's first true friend, leading her through a summer of heartache and discovery that concludes with an unexpected adventure far from home.

I hesitate to provide more details about the plot, because part of the joy of reading "The Summer I Learned to Fly" lies in its slow, careful revelation of Emmett's secrets. So let me simply tell you why I enjoyed this book so much; then you can learn all the details when you go out and read it yourself. :-p

Though set in the mid-80s, Birdie's story has a timeless quality to it. This book is most definitely not the kind that gets bogged down in the the latest fashions or the coolest gadgets. This book is, instead, a rich, layered story about human relationships. Reinhardt beautifully depicts Birdie and Emmett's shy friendship, in which Birdie finally discovers how much of the world opens up when you have a true friend by your side. Reinhardt also provides other relationships to cherish, including Birdie and Nick's so much more than a summer crush friendship, in which Birdie gracefully accepts Nick's girlfriend, and a mother-daughter bond that is frayed, challenged, and somehow strengthened as Birdie grows up and mom tries to move past her grief.

"The Summer I Learned to Fly" is a lyrical, subtle story about real people, in which all aspects of real life -- joy, pain, sorrow, exuberance, fear, growth -- are conveyed with depth, warmth, and genuine emotion. I had read one of Reinhardt's books in the past ("How to Build a House") and wasn't nearly as bowled over as I was here. There are so many perfect, authentic touches here, such as Birdie's guilt in reading her deceased dad's journal-like "Book of Lists"; Emmett's well-crafted crane messages, full of sorrow and hope; and the love and beauty that can be poured into pasta making. Perhaps those moments are what made this is a truly incandescent read for me. Regardless of why, I can tell you I found "The Summer I Learned to Fly" to be a wonderful, heartfelt story about a final, glorious summer of childhood innocence. I highly recommend it to boys and girls in early middle school and higher.

02 November 2011 @ 12:49 pm

In the interest of full disclosure, let me begin by saying that I never would've read Matthew Kirby's Nordic adventure "Icefall" were it not on the discussion list for my Book Fest Sleepers group. I don't do fantasy, which is immediately how I pegged "Icefall," based on its glowing glacier / magic hammer cover. My bad, Scholastic. My bad. "Icefall" is a rousing, action-packed tale of -- get this! -- historical fiction set in Viking times. This is not a fantasy story. At all. And before you run screaming in the opposite direction, please let me add that historical fiction is not one of my faves, either. But "Icefall" works in a genre-busting, hey, this is just a great story kind of way.

Plain middle sister Solveig, younger brother Harald, and gorgeous older sister Asa are sent by their father, the King, to a frozen fjord for the winter. The King hopes to keep his heir, Harald, and his other children hidden and safe from a rampaging foe, Gunnlaug. A trusted young soldier, Per, accompanies them on the trip, as does long-time slave Ole and household servants (and mother and son) Bera and Raudi. Before the inlet freezes completely, a warship full of berserkers -- think giant, fierce warriors in bearskins! -- arrives, sent by the King in a last gasp effort to defend his children against Gunnlaug's forces.

As winter surrounds and covers them, Solveig and her siblings adjust to their icy, isolated home. Brokenhearted Asa mostly stays in bed and steals furtive glances at Per, while young Harald bravely tries to buck up and grow into the man everyone demands he become. Solveig becomes a sort of apprentice to Alric, the skald (storyteller) who accompanied the berserkers to the fjord. Alric teaches Solveig the power of mythmaking, and observant, sensitive Solveig -- long overlooked by her father for these very traits -- displays a natural talent for weaving tales around the evening hearth fire.

When a traitor emerges in the group (the few cows are slaughtered, berserkers are poisoned and killed), the hungry, frightened occupants of this far-removed world begin to turn against each other. I loved how the claustrophobic setting and thickening suspicion heighten the suspense as the story progresses. Very well done! When Gunnlaug's marauders arrive in early spring, the survivors have been weakened by fear and illness, making them easy prey. Solveig then must use every bit of her ingenuity and skill to keep her clan together and find a means of escaping Gunnlaug's clutches.

Along the way, we learn much about ancient Norse belief systems, including death rituals, runes, ravens, and such gods as Odin and Thor, whose hammer figures prominently in the story (and on the book's cover!). We are also treated to the complex, touching relationship that develops between Solveig and Hake, the fearsome leader of the berserkers, in which love, loyalty, and sacrifice are all richly presented. And while the climactic scene is telegraphed long in advance -- again, the book cover! -- it does nothing to undermine its dramatic heft.

I was truly blown away by how much I enjoyed "Icefall." It's a perfect novel for middle grade readers (boys *and* girls) who are looking for an exciting story full of intrigue, action, and even mythology from a long-ago era. Its icy setting, amazingly dimensional characters, and well-integrated themes of courage and faith only enrich the experience. While the book ends on a bit of a cliffhanger, enough plot threads are resolved to provide a satisfying conclusion.

PS - I can't leave this review without mentioning author Kirby's technique of inserting snippets from one of Solveig's stories throughout the novel. When we finally realize why Solveig is reciting this particular story to her surviving clan members, her actions resonate more powerfully. It's a wonderful device to introduce portions of each character's history, and, as importantly, to fully capture the emotional bonds Solveig has forged with each of them. Brilliant.

PPS - "Icefall" is out now. READ IT!

01 November 2011 @ 02:53 pm

Author John Corey Whaley was recently honored by the National Book Foundation as one of its "5 Under 35" young fiction writers. Whaley's first novel, "Where Things Come Back," was placed on the list for my Sleepers discussion group at this year's Book Fest at Bank Street College. [Which, side note, but Book Fest is a great event, y'all. Get on the mailing list for next year!] I can honestly say I would not have read this literary teen novel if not for Book Fest; I can also say that, a full two weeks after finishing "Where Things Come Back," I'm still not entirely sure what to make of it.

In the simplest terms, we have parallel stories with different narrators and points of view. The main thread is narrated by Cullen Witter, the kind of sardonic teen we know well in the world of YA fiction. Cullen's sensitive, endearing younger brother Gabriel mysteriously vanishes one day, shortly after a phony naturalist lands in Lily, Arkansas and announces the reappearance of the long extinct Lazarus woodpecker. The second thread, told in the third person by an omniscient narrator, involves a young, overwhelmed missionary named Benton Sage and his college roommate, handsome, popular Cabot Searcy. After Benton commits suicide, Cabot becomes obsessed with Benton's diary, which leads him to researching fallen angels, reincarnation, the apocalypse, and the Book of Enoch.

Right, so simple, linear plot, huh? ;-) There is much to admire about "Where Things Come Back." Whaley is a wonderful writer, impressively melding two very different storylines into a cohesive unit while maintaining suspense and tension along the way. There are lovely characterizations here -- the friendship between Cullen and his loyal, unwavering best friend Lucas is breathtaking in its depth -- as well as biting commentary on media hype and social hysteria. Whaley deftly explores the wounds caused by grief, portraying both the unending desperation of pain and the stoicism of survival. Even Cullen's snarky list of possible book titles can be both wistful and incredibly funny.

Yet, despite these obvious strengths and my genuine respect for Whaley's talent, I never felt very connected to Cullen. His detached, ironic manner -- and his distance from his own emotions -- made it difficult for me to feel invested in his story. For me, Cullen only came alive during his interactions with Lucas, as Lucas' profound love for his friend humanized this otherwise aloof character. The story itself (a brother physically lost, a troubled man lost to his own obsessions) also failed to maintain its intensity, as long passages would pass in fantasy or intellectualism. Until its finale, when Cabot emerges as a deranged monster, I was impatiently waiting for *something* compelling to happen.

With its bland folk art cover and truly bizarre plot points, I can't imagine a teen willingly selecting this novel. I felt as if I had to slog through long portions of this book, leading me to believe that teen readers would surrender long before the conclusion. In my Book Fest discussion group, several people actually raised the question of whether "Where Things Come Back" is even a teen book at all and, instead, perhaps an adult novel featuring teenage characters. Maybe this was my main issue, that this otherwise worthy novel is simply aimed at the wrong audience?

If you read "Where Things Come Back," please know it is most definitely not intended for very young readers. There are casual references to drinking, drug use, and sex, and Cullen (like many teenagers) regularly uses profanity in his daily dialogue. "Where Things Come Back" is out now. Hopefully you'll enjoy it more than I did.

06 October 2011 @ 02:48 pm

Simone Elkeles' "Chain Reaction" wraps up her "Perfect Chemistry" trilogy with a bang. It has all the steaminess and addictive readability of the first two novels, which kept me eagerly turning the pages even when, frankly, I should've known better. Although this one, too, requires a heavy dose of suspended disbelief -- the Latino Blood are once more trying to poach a Fuentes brother for their gang, leading to mayhem and a violent showdown -- it's still a fitting end to the series.

Our youngest Fuentes brother, who is the star here, is super smart, wannabe-astronaut Luis. When the Fuentes clan (sans Carlos, who is off in the military) returns to Fairfield, Illinois, Luis finds himself in Mrs. Peterson's chemistry class along with Nikki Cruz, the Mexican-American daughter of a wealthy local doctor. Luis and Nikki had met two years earlier at Alex's wedding to Brittany (see "Perfect Chemistry," if you're confused), at which time Nikki kneed Luis on the dance floor and stole his clothes while he was skinny dipping. Yup, she liked him, y'all. But, you know, hated him, too.

Needless to say, Luis quickly finds himself infatuated with the beautiful, guarded Nikki, while Nikki tries to see Luis as just another potential gang member / liar / felon / player, like her ex Marco. We get the usual bit of will-they-or-won't -they / do-they-or-don't-they, with the usual bit of fire and attraction that can't be denied. The difference in this novel lies in the fact that Luis is the character who is more open and receptive to falling in love, while Nikki is frightened by genuine affection. You probably don't need me to tell you where all this ends up, but the ride is a good one. Along the way, we also get some brotherly bonding as well as an incredibly implausible subplot about the Latino Blood, Luis' true heritage (apparently, the LB is his birthright), and a safe deposit box that Luis can only gain access to by accepting his role in the LB.

"Chain Reaction" is first and foremost a love story, and, like the other novels in the "Perfect Chemistry" series, it works insanely well on this level. There's plenty of tension, lots of make out scenes, moments of yearning and pain, and tender declarations of love and longing. It's good stuff! And if the forces designed to keep Luis and Nikki apart for the bulk of the novel feel a bit contrived, eh, I can live with it. The romance more than makes up for the LB nonsense. Plus, author Elkeles always provides a happy ending, which I love, and even a glimpse into our lovers' futures in her epilogue. What's not to like? ;-)

"Chain Reaction" is out now, and it 's a great read for upper middle and high school girls looking for an engaging (and hot!) love story. Be sure to check out the book trailer, too, which I've attached below. Happy reading!

30 August 2011 @ 04:09 pm

Author Sara Zarr, a National Book Award finalist in 2007 for "Story of a Girl," is back in October with her third novel, “How to Save a Life.” The nice people at LB Teens gave out advanced copies of "How to Save a Life" last May at Book Expo. At LONG last, I finally got a chance to read this beautifully written, at times heartbreakingly lovely book.

Less than a year after her father’s accidental death, Jill MacSweeney has completely shut herself down from the world -- from her still grieving but positive mother, from her patient boyfriend Dylan, from her old best friends at school. With her dyed black hair, gobs of dark eyeliner, and bulletproof attitude, Jill has effectively armored herself against the pain of living. Or so she thinks. The one place where Jill still can muster up some of her old kindness and warmth? At Margins, the local chain bookstore where she works part-time.

Jill’s life is about to change radically. Her mom, Robin, has decided to adopt the unborn baby of an Omaha teenager who contacted her on the Internet. Mandy, with her fluffy blonde hair, polyester dresses, and naïve ways, seems horribly out of place in hip Denver. Yet here she is, spending the last months of her pregnancy living with Jill and Robin. Jill, who is vehemently opposed to the open adoption Robin has arranged, either ignores Mandy or scolds her for the slightest perceived violation. Mandy, meanwhile, is a socially awkward, terribly lonely girl starving for some compassion and love. She is utterly lost. (Mandy’s letters to her former seatmate on the train west from Omaha -- a man who clearly wants nothing to do with her -- perfectly show her vulnerability and awkwardness; they are a wonderful device.)

We soon discover that Mandy is a whole lot tougher than she first appears, as we learn more about her shrill, uncaring mother and her mom’s abusive boyfriend, Kent. Kent had been raping Mandy for months before she left and is likely the baby’s father, yet Mandy still had the courage to steal his gold watch, arrange the open adoption, and leave for Denver. Once she has the baby, Mandy hopes to start a new life by pawning the watch and somehow locating Christopher, the Native American boy she met on one glorious day at the state fair.

As Mandy’s due date draws near, she increasingly doubts her decision to give her baby up. Can Robin be trusted when all other adults have failed her in the past? Would Mandy make a terrible mother, like her own mom? At the same time, Jill begins to thaw slightly from a tentative friendship with Ravi, the gentle loss inspector for Margins. But is life even worth living again when the old Jill is gone forever? I’d rather not give anything away about the conclusion, which is unexpected (and, to be honest, a bit pat). Part of the joy of this novel is discovering what path Jill, Mandy, and Robin ultimately end up walking upon together.

Mandy and Jill each narrate their stories in alternating chapters, so we get tremendous insight into their motivations, fears, and hopes. Jill knows she should follow her father’s old advice to “try a little tenderness” sometimes, but she’s too wounded and frightened to fully believe in anyone -- or herself -- again. Mandy, raised by a mom who constantly reminded her she was an unwanted burden, hopes for something better for own daughter, yet fears that surrendering her might not be the best choice. Both of these characters are so resilient and brave in their own ways that their small triumphs -- Mandy trusting Robin enough to reveal Kent’s abuse, Jill exposing her pain to Ravi and daring to live again -- are a joy to read. We want to root for these complex, flawed, yet hopeful girls. By novel's end, we feel like we've come to know them so well. How could we wish anything for them but happiness and peace?

Zarr is a wonderful, lyrical writer. She is a master at depicting small moments of raw emotion and painful revelation. Some of these scenes delight the reader, some make us squirm away, yet they are laid bare here, in all their stark authenticity: the perplexed discomfort of Mandy’s train companion; the excessive politeness of Dylan toward a fragile Jill; Jill’s reflexive anger (and profound regret) toward Mandy and Robin; Mandy’s tentative efforts to console a sobbing Jill, second guessing herself all the way; Robin’s heartfelt embrace of Mandy after learning of the abuse; Jill’s moments of unbridled hope with Ravi. These scenes are imbued with such incredible depth and feeling that they are -- sometimes in equal measure -- beautiful and wrenching to read.

“How to Save a Life” is, in the end, a joyful, expertly crafted novel exploring the concepts of family, friendship, hope, trust, grief, and love. Calling this an “issues” book about teen pregnancy or parental loss does a huge disservice to this thoughtful, touching story. It is so much more. FYI, regarding content, there is nothing graphic or gratuitous here -- no drinking or “onscreen” sex -- so I’d say students in 7th grade and higher should be fine. "How to Save a Life" will be published in October. Be sure to look for it then.

11 August 2011 @ 04:06 pm

Unless you've been living under the proverbial rock, you know that "Matched," author Ally Condie's dystopian thriller, was a big hit in the YA market. Not only was it a bestseller, but "Matched" was featured on several year-end Best of 2010 lists, including Publishers Weekly's Best Children's Books of 2010. I quite liked it myself! At Book Expo, the good people at Penguin Books for Young Readers gave out autographed copies of the sequel to "Matched," which is titled "Crossed." Does "Crossed" avoid the second-book-in-a-trilogy curse? Surprisingly, it largely does. It's styled differently than Matched -- both Cassia and Ky narrate alternating chapters -- and set largely outside the Society, but it is still a gripping, engaging read.

I'm going to try to avoid spoilers, but I think that's a bit inevitable, no? This is one of those read it at your own risk reviews, but, just in case, here's a bit of spoiler space:

Ok? Good. :-) We first see Ky in the Outer Provinces burying a young man and reciting part of Tennyson's "Crossing the Bar." The Society has sent Ky -- and many other young male Aberrations -- off to the provinces as decoys, designed to lure the remaining resistance fighters out of the shadows. The Society will then attack and destroy the rebels, although it's actually many of the unarmed Aberrations who die at the Society's hands. It's a terrifying, bleak job with little chance of survival, but Ky and a stalwart fighter named Vick endure it better than most. One night, Ky, Vick, and an innocent newbie named Eli make a run for the Carving, a remote area replete with rock structures and deep canyons where Ky once lived as a child and where free communities are rumored to thrive.

Meanwhile, Cassia, who is still assigned to a work detail and still searching for Ky, impulsively jumps into a line of girls being flown by the Society to the Outer Provinces to serve as the initial round of female decoys. Upon arrival, Cassia learns that Ky was in the same area days earlier, so she, another girl from the work detail named Indie, and a young male decoy escape to the Carving. While Cassia hopes to find Ky -- she dreams about him; recites all their poetry; composes new lines for when they are reunited -- Indie wants only to reach the Rising, the rebel group whose stronghold was once in the Carving.

From there on out, we have two parallel stories, with Ky and his group and Cassia and hers racing through the Carving, all facing different dangers, both from the outside world, and, occasionally, from each other. I doubt I'm spoiling much by saying that Ky and Cassia ultimately meet up before leaving again on their respective journeys. I mean, you really didn't think they'd get together in book two, did you? ;-)

So enough with the plot outline. What works so well? In no particular order:

* The characters. Ky has a harder edge here, and while he's still crazy in love with Cassia, we see more clearly how his pain, fears, and doubts color everything, including his relationships. I loved Ky's complexity, how all his strength and resourcefulness often cover such incredible inner turmoil and fear. (For example, Ky struggles with accepting his decision to leave the decoy soldiers, seeing not bravery but cowardice.) To me, "Crossed" really feels like Ky's story more than Cassia's, and, let me tell you, following such a rich character is not necessarily a bad thing. Other characters also have impressive levels of depth and shading, especially the naive yet brave Eli and Indie, who is at turns jaded, hopeful, cunning, and kind. I'm still not entirely sure whether to trust her!

* The action. I had a teen read "Crossed," and her biggest response was about the action. I agree. The pacing, the looming threat from the Society -- which is largely unseen here but remains a sort of dark, amorphous presence -- and the palpable sense of fear and desperation surge the plot forward beautifully. I had to keep reading. I had to! Along these lines, the mystery surrounding the existence of the Rising and their alleged leader (known only as the Pilot) adds to the intrigue and further underscores the tension.

* Its unexpected beauty. I'm a sucker for the lyrical passages, recitation of poetry, and musings on love and longing that are as central here as they were in "Matched." The joy and hope of Cassia and Ky's romance is contrasted effectively by the desolation and death that constantly surround them in the Carving. It's interesting that a novel that can be bleak and troubling also has its moments of purity and beauty. Incidentally, I'm not entirely sure that the conflict between Ky and Cassia worked as well as it should have -- I guess I never really believed this pair wasn't destined to be together -- but that's a minor point.

"Crossed" is a compelling entry in the "Matched" series, and it reads quite well on its own as a standalone novel. With that said, I cannot wait!!! for the concluding book in this trilogy, which I assume will be published sometime in 2012. "Crossed" will be released on November 1, 2011. Read it for its heart-pounding action, complex characterization, and poignant moments of raw emotion. I think it's a great book for older middle schoolers who will find so much to adore here.

10 August 2011 @ 04:43 pm

Another review. Another advanced copy from the great folks at Penguin Books for Young Readers. Life is hard. :-p

"The Probability of Miracles" is a "dying teen" novel, a trend we've seen often the last few years in books like Chris Crutcher's "Deadline," Jenny Downham's "Before I Die," and even Gayle Forman's lovely "If I Stay." Before the gloom frightens you away, I have to say that although our teen protagonist here has terminal cancer, "The Probability of Miracles" is sharp, uplifting, and, dare I say it, funny in an acerbic, biting way. Yes, there are poignant moments and tears -- folks, it's *terminal* cancer -- but I found most of this book to be an absolute pleasure to read. What a nice surprise!

You know what else I liked? Our girl Cam here is half-Samoan. How rare is that to see in a YA novel? Even better, Cam is an active participant in her culture, particularly in the ancient art of hula dancing. Deep down, Cam is terrified of her future, so she uses sarcasm and emotional distance as her defenses. Despite closing herself off from her family and lone best friend, Cam opens her heart and connects to the world through music and hula dancing. It is where the real Cam shines. The scenes where she tells a friend's story through hula are evocative and beautifully done.

Interestingly, much of Cam's hula is relegated to the Polynesian luau at Disney World. Cam's now deceased father and her Italian-American mom were both Polynesian performers at Disney, where Cam now also works. When Cam's doctors advise her to end treatment -- no more children's hospitals or new drug trials -- her mom seeks help through an alternative means: the small, hidden town of Promise, Maine. Miracles are said to happen in Promise, and all Cam has left is a miracle. Or so her mom thinks. Cam herself has no more hope, no more joy in discovering the possibilities that life may still offer. Although Cam agrees to stay in Promise for the summer, she's basically just waiting to die.

Through a series of implausible events, all of which are in the spirit of this unconventional tale and family, Cam, her mom, her half-sister Perry, and her bird Tweety find themselves living in a seaside Promise house owned by the family of sweet, patient, handsome (of course!) teen Asher. Cam eventually stops cloistering herself long enough to volunteer for the local veterinarian -- cute puppy and, er, baby flamingo alert! -- and start hanging out with Asher and the preppy, beautiful people she calls the "catalog kids." When Cam finally opens herself up to Asher, she falls completely in love. There are some magical moments, as Cam does at least as much to "save" Asher as he does to help her live again. Plus, there are some magical moments in general, since Promise is a miracle place with endless sunsets, puppies who come back from the dead, and roving flocks of flamingos. Author Wendy Wunder does a commendable job of balancing the serious elements (Cam is, after all, dying); some lighthearted fun (Cam, Asher, and the catalog kids win a Make a Wish trip to -- you guessed it -- Disney World); family tension; first love; and the wonder and beauty inherent in everyday, small miracles. I found the mix here to be delightful.

"The Probability of Miracles" comes out in December 2011 (why not a summer release for this tale of one summer, Penguin?). It is an engaging story with plenty of warmth and heart that never loses its sharp edge. I thoroughly enjoyed reading it. I'd say this one is geared for a high school audience, based on the themes here and some teen drinking and drug use, but see what you think. For more information, check out the book's Amazon page or the Probability of Miracles site. Happy reading!


Finally done with summer reading at our library. Woot!

So I read "The Future of Us," which I obtained as an ARC at Book Expo, way back in June. I'm only able to review it now because, folks, summer is a busy time at your local public library. Don't get me wrong! That's actually a good thing. But it does tend to push everything else aside for a few months. Now, onto the review ...

In the simplest terms possible, I was underwhelmed by this novel. Jay Asher wrote the phenomenal, deeply touching "Thirteen Reasons Why," while co-author Carolyn Mackler is responsible for witty, heartwarming books like "Vegan Virgin Valentine." Pairing up these two fab authors seems like a sure thing, right? Throw in a cool, time-traveling / destiny concept and this book should be an absolute joy to read. Except? It's kinda not. It's enjoyable enough and certainly not terrible. But it was also nothing special, and, believe me, I wish that wasn't true.

As I mentioned, the setup is genius. It's 1996, and Emma and Josh are next door neighbors and former BFFs. Emma is smart and athletic, but also sort of bossy and emotionally shut down, keeping her boyfriend at arms length and cutting off the vulnerable parts of herself. Josh is one of those dorky / sweet guys who tend to populate YA fiction. He's a skater with a self-deprecating sense of humor and a keen awareness of how low he sits on the high school totem pole. When Emma gets a new computer, complete with one of those AOL cd-roms that, for real, used to be everywhere, she doesn't just get an Internet connection. Through some funky mojo, Emma is able to log onto a crazy site called Facebook (!), where older versions of she and Josh post random musings about their lives. Despite their estrangement, Emma lets Josh in on the secret, and the two quickly realize that their actions in 1996 affect their future selves. Seemingly harmless events as teenagers lead to cataclysmic Facebook updates in 2011 involving spouses, occupations, and overall levels of happiness.

It's a neat concept, which should open up all sorts of clever avenues to explore the "butterfly effect." Can a chance encounter with a popular girl or a hook up with a dreamy track star really affect who you become? Can a fight with your best friend truly make you unbearably miserable 15 years down the road? These intriguing questions about fate and our role in our own destiny are raised, swept away, and never fully explored. Emma wants to change an unappealing future, regardless of the consequences, while Josh takes bold steps in the present to secure what looks like a fabulous future life. And that's all that happens in the plot. Eventually, after some mishaps, we get a pat resolution about living in the moment and letting the future evolve on its own. Eh. Even worse, I felt the internal logic here was shaky. If an action or inaction has fixed, finite consequences 15 years from now ... well, doesn't the same apply to what we do 5 or 10 years from now, too? How could the kids ever be sure that their future lives were statically, perfectly preserved by happenings in 1996? Will they never do anything again to alter their destinies? Doesn't this contradict the very foundation of the butterfly effect theory?

Aside from a lackluster execution of the core concept, I also found some of the characters to be a bit flat. Kellan and Tyson, Emma and Josh's bickering friends, seem like nothing more than comic relief. Cody, Emma's perfect jock crush, never becomes more than the arrogant, slick cheeseball he first appears to be. Even Emma, who is so controlled and closed off, doesn't really leap off the page; when she inevitably realizes her buried feelings for Josh, I felt rather blah about the whole development. So while there are some nice moments here of heart and humor, I never felt connected enough to care as much as I should have.

I'm sorry! I wanted to love this book and, despite some cute 90s references, a handful of sweet scenes, and plenty of snarky humor, I just didn't. But I didn't hate it, either. It's perfectly pleasant and readable ... and, well, forgettable. Sigh. "The Future of Us" will be released in November 2011. To see what others think, check out more info and reviews on this book at Good Reads.

PS - I hope you like "The Future of Us" much more than I did!

14 June 2011 @ 12:12 pm

Teen author -- and I mean that literally; she's still a teen! -- Kody Keplinger had a big hit last fall with her debut YA novel, "The DUFF." Kody is back this coming September with her sophomore effort, "Shut Out." If you loved "The DUFF," or if you're otherwise a fan of smart, breezy romps, then you'll delight in reading "Shut Out." It's a fun, steamy novel filled with believable girl friendships and some refreshing discussions of female sexuality. Plus, did you see the cover? How cute!

"Shut Out" is a loose, modern retelling of the Greek play "Lysistrata." In "Lysistrata," the women of Ancient Greece banded together to stop the Peloponnesian War by using a pretty ingenious method: they withheld sex from their lovers as a way of forcing the men to put down their weapons and negotiate a peace settlement. In "Shut Out," Lissa -- get it!? -- is tired of the constant battles between the football players (her boyfriend Randy is the quarterback) and the soccer guys. The sports fighting takes up nearly all of Randy's attention, and when a young soccer player is injured in a prank that goes too far, Lissa decides to take a stand. She gathers the other football girlfriends, as well as the rival soccer player girlfriends, and convinces them to withhold all affection -- from kissing to sex -- to get the boys to end the feud.

Of course, this being a teen novel, Lissa's campaign does not go exactly as planned. Along the way, Lissa breaks up with the incredibly doofy Randy -- he's the worst kind of cheater and cad -- and begins flirting with the dreamy Cash, her co-worker at the library (which, yes!) who also happens to be a star soccer player. Lissa had kissed Cash on a starry night the previous summer, when she was briefly broken up with Randy, but Cash never called her afterward. When Lissa starts twisting her honorable intentions around from feud-ending to settling her own score with Cash, the novel really takes off.

I have to say, I was surprised by the fact that Lissa isn't the typical YA heroine (you know what I mean, the smart, confident, sarcastic type). Her mom died years earlier, leaving Lissa with way too much responsibility for her paralyzed dad and older brother, Logan. Lissa is rigid and controlled about everything (Randy, cooking meals, her library job, Logan's whereabouts), and her anxiety -- though presented in the book as an eccentricity or quirk -- is prevalent enough to interfere with her life. Her counting of objects and excessive planning are manifestations of obsessive compulsive disorder, which, if not thoroughly addressed, is at least acknowledged. It gives her character unexpected dimension.

My favorite thing here is the portrayal of female friendship and, along with it, a frank discussion of teen sexuality as it applies to girls. Good looking out, Kody! Lissa's best friend Chloe is widely viewed as a slut. Rather than shy away from this label, Chloe embraces her sexuality and makes no apologies for the fact that she enjoys sex, even when it's not part of a formal relationship. As Chloe points out, why is it okay for a guy like her hookup partner Shane to have lots of sex, but not a girl like herself? Bitchy Kelsey, one of the football player's girlfriends, is cruel and demeaning to Chloe ... until a series of sleepovers help her see beyond the stereotype. We later discover that Kelsey doesn't much like sex at all, while other girls feel pressured to hide their virginity because that's way too uncool. All this girl talk feels real and honest, never preachy or didactic. And when the girls start learning more about each other and forming honest friendships, it feels like an authentic progression in their characters' lives. Nicely done.

As for Cash, he's swoon worthy and kind and funny and ... yeah, you know the type. And while there's no story here if Lissa stops overreacting / assuming and simply asks Cash why he never called her after their summer kiss, I can live with the plot device. Cash and Lissa's flirting and makeout scenes -- at the library, folks! -- are fresh and steamy, and you'll definitely root for this good guy ... even if he is a soccer player. ;-)

Is everything perfect here? No, of course not. Kody is terrific at portraying teen behavior, language, and friendships, hitting every bitchy and insecure note along the way. And she does a great job of providing some punch and sexual tension in a book that, surprisingly enough, has no actual sex. But her writing style still needs work -- how many times can one character "grin" at another? -- and she would benefit from some tighter editing.

All that will come in time. For now, read "Shut Out" for what it is -- a fast, funny, believable story with an original hook, great female characters, and an honest discussion of female sexuality. It's a shame this book won't be released until autumn, because it'd be perfect for the beach (who doesn't want an effervescent, romantic page turner in the summer?). "Shut Out" is sure to find a wide audience among teen girls (the cursing and sex talk here probably push this one towards 8th grade). One of my teen readers breezed through "Shut Out" and loved it. I'm sure she won't be the last! "Shut Out" will be published in September. Look for it then.

11 June 2011 @ 04:45 pm

The good people at HarperTeen are beside themselves with joy over debut novelist Tahereh Mafi's dystopian novel "Shatter Me," which publishes in November 2011. Don't believe me? Check out this Publishers Weekly article about the book deal for Mafi's planned trilogy. And they're not the only ones keen on "Shatter Me." Movie rights have already been sold to Twentieth Century Fox, although, in the interest of full disclosure, it should be noted that this particular studio is owned by News Corporation, the same parent company that owns HarperTeen.

I was saying ... ? Right, so there's already a whirlwind of buzz surrounding "Shatter Me," which I was lucky enough to read in ARC form with a copy obtained at Book Expo America. Should you believe the hype? Yes and no. This is a powerful dystopian thriller / love story that is written in a unique, if at times overwrought, style. It can be quite gripping and chilling, and the consistent pace makes the pages fly by. My biggest problem here is how much of the concept and plot of "Shatter Me" is lifted straight from the "X-Men."

We meet 17 year old Juliette in an insane asylum, locked away silently in a room with a tiny, murky window. Juliette has had no companionship -- has not even spoken aloud -- for 264 days. Suddenly, a new inmate is tossed into her room. Juliette, who has spent her time keeping a secret journal and counting tiles, meals, and steps, is frightened by the newcomer, despite his strange familiarity. Over time, we realize that the handsome boy is her old schoolmate Adam Kent, the son of an abusive alcoholic.

The asylum scenes are spellbinding. We completely understand Juliette's pervasive, all-consuming fear at her terrifying conditions and her depraved, unseen captors. We also share in her overwhelming sense of isolation and her bone-deep loss of humanity, both of which have resulted from her accidental killing of a small boy. The asylum and its murderous psychological effects constitute the very definition of terror. It's powerful stuff to read.

So is Juliette a monster, as she has long believed? Hardly. This broken, unloved, exiled girl is just profoundly different, somehow able to harm people through her mere touch. If you're a fan of the "X-Men" comics or films, then you may immediately think of the mutant Rogue, whose touch can drain the very life from another individual and who must, accordingly, always wear gloves and remain distant from other humans. In Juliette's future world, where a savaged, fractured society is being "reestablished," she is seen as both a threat to be controlled, and, later, as a potential weapon to further terrorize a frightened populace. (Like, ahem, Rogue in the "X-Men." Just saying.)

The brutal young dictator Warner, who seems to run a small fiefdom in this new world, takes on Juliette as his pet project, goading her into succumbing to the evil within. He and a battalion of soldiers -- including, surprisingly enough, Adam -- take Juliette to an opulent mansion within a protected compound. Here, Juliette's every need is catered to ... while she is also constantly monitored, tested, and manipulated. I have to admit that I got a huge kick out of the creepy Warner. There's something intoxicating about his malevolence, something charming in the sick way he idolizes Juliette. Warner alone understands the part of Juliette that enjoys the rush and power of harming someone with her own hands, a feeling Juliette won't even admit to herself. Warner is handsome and thoughtful but also unbelievably cruel and violent, killing a soldier and torturing a toddler without a moment's hesitation. He is, above all, a deeply compelling character whose "love" for Juliette is striking and disturbing. Because so much of the ravaged society is never revealed to us, Warner must represent all the danger, violence, and despair of this future world. He does so, in spades. (Side note: For a dystopian novel, there is precious little worldbuilding in "Shatter Me." We are told about, but rarely shown, the infertile land, apocalyptic weather patterns, and decimated animal species that have so frightened people and led society to cede so many basic rights to this shadowy, militaristic government.)

The bulk of the novel involves a clandestine love affair between Juliette and Adam -- c'mon, you had to see this coming -- and the planning and execution of the pair's escape from the compound. Adam is one of those super compassionate, sexy, understanding, perfect guys who always show up in YA novels, dystopian or otherwise. If you're a fan of romances with lots of "I love you's" thrown into the mix, then you'll probably adore this relationship. I personally found the Adam / Juliette scenes somewhat repetitive -- how many times can they secretly kiss and exchange whispered sweet words? -- but I might just be jaded. ;-) Considering these two characters never sleep together, there is a surprising amount of steaminess in their makeout scenes. At least that part isn't boring!

By novel's end, Adam and Juliette -- along with a young surprise character (I won't spoil!) and a fellow soldier named Kenji -- end up in an underground lab that is, spot on, a ripoff of the "X-Men." Without spoiling too much, I'll say that Juliette isn't alone in her unusual talents. A revolutionary force is amassing under the leadership of a caring, extremely intelligent leader (hello, Professor X!) who wants to harness these strange abilities for good. Yup. Bunch of kids with otherworldly talents, ostracized by society and now being led to stand with each other and save the world? If that's not the "X-Men," I'm not sure what is.

As I said, I found the entire concept here, despite its smart execution, to be utterly derivative. When you're simply repeating a story -- even when you're doing it well and adding your own touches -- it loses its freshness. As such, we readers can never really be transported away. That's a shame. What perhaps sets this book apart and saves it -- though not fully -- is author Mafi's writing style. Much of Juliette's narrative is told in a stream of consciousness style, with run-on sentences, evocative metaphors, and the regular use of strikethroughs for unwanted or unacknowledgeable thoughts. While Mafi can sometimes use one too many over the top descriptions ("My throat is a reptile covered in scales" or "I'm a cumulonimbus existence of thunder and lightning"), these literary devices wonderfully convey the rich, ethereal, and fractured world within Juliette's own mind. That's a powerful technique, and it helps further develop this captivating, wrenching main character. Does it compensate for the "X-Men" retelling? Probably not. But this writing style, coupled with a truly original concept, could create an absolutely groundbreaking novel. Maybe that's something to look forward to?

"Shatter Me" will be released in November 2011. I'm sure you'll see loads of promotion, since the folks at HarperTeen are geniuses at marketing a YA book. While I have my reservations, I think there's a vast audience of primarily teen girls -- based on the main character and the love story here -- who will eagerly scoop up this novel. In fact, one of my teen readers in Kinnelon, who also read the ARC, completely -- and I mean completely -- LOVED this book. So take my opinion with a grain of salt.

PS - I have no cover photo to insert in this entry, since the cover art is still being designed. Check back to the Amazon page. I'm sure they'll post the cover image as soon as it's ready. Until then, enjoy the book trailer below!

11 June 2011 @ 02:27 pm

And so begin reviews from my Book Expo America haul of ARCs. Woot!

"Shelter," which publishes in September 2011, is bestselling adult author Harlan Coben's first novel for teens. I was thrilled to get an advanced copy of "Shelter" at BEA. I've read a bunch of Coben's adult novels and was excited / anxious to see if his style would translate for YA. Rest assured, he hits this one right out of the park. "Shelter" is a brisk, action-laden mystery with a surprising bit of depth and realism. I was blown away by how much I enjoyed it!

We're following Mickey Bolitar, a tall, muscular 15 year old, who has come to my home state of Jersey to live with his Uncle Myron (Myron Bolitar is the star of his own set of mysteries for adults; check them out!). Mickey's father was killed in a traffic accident in California -- Mickey was a passenger and eye witness to the horror -- and his mom is an addict in treatment. Myron provides Mickey with plenty of space, which helps the exceedingly independent Mickey grudgingly adjust to his new life. Mickey's folks worked for an international charitable organization called the Abeona Shelter, so Mickey has lived pretty much all over the world and learned long ago to take care of himself.

As a lonely, hurt Mickey starts his new high school, he quickly falls for fellow new student Ashley. Mere weeks later, Mickey is stunned to discover that not only has Ashley vanished, much of what he knew about her was a lie. On his own, Mickey begins to investigate Ashley's disappearance, which leads him to befriend two truly awesome characters: tough goth girl Ema and super nerd Spoon. I cannot overstate how much I loved Ema! Ema's a big girl with a sullen exterior who is lugging around her own set of mysteries (where she lives, how she got so many tattoos, who her parents are, etc.). But she's also fiercely loyal, sharp tongued, and resourceful, making her a perfect partner in crime for Mickey. I absolutely adored the friendship between these two unlikely pals. Their shared insecurities and strengths, and the bond they form, felt utterly real to me. Our boy Spoon, the geeky son of the school janitor, provides comic relief as well as some surprisingly solid detective skills.

Mickey and the gang's investigation keeps leading them back to the Bat Lady, a spooky neighborhood woman who lives a shadow life and whose decrepit house has frightened off children for years. Remember Boo Radley, the boogeyman in "To Kill a Mockingbird"? That's exactly how the Bat Lady is viewed. Because the Bat Lady has told Mickey that his father is alive, Mickey has personal reasons, beyond finding Ashley, for learning more about this strange old woman. With Ema's help, Mickey breaks into the Bat Lady's house and finds an image containing an elaborate butterfly ... the same butterfly that marks his father's grave and is hidden within one of Ema's tattoos. Cool! As Mickey teases out more clues, he follows a trail that leads him to a guy with a tattooed face, a violent strip club owner, and a bald government agent who seems to be following him around. Again, cool!

I can't reveal more about the Bat Lady or what Mickey and his friends ultimately discover, because it's a shocker. I can say that the book takes a deep, emotionally wrought turn that grounds the story in one of the most appalling incidents in modern history. There's a theme here about our inherent obligation to help and sacrifice for others that is both thought provoking and beautifully depicted. We're also left with a whiz-bang cliffhanger, which nicely sets up book number two. I cannot wait.

"Shelter" has loads of action -- the climactic fight scene alone is a doozy -- as well as ample heart, humor, and intelligence. All the clues along the way fit together in a manner I never would have predicted, but which resonated with me long after the story ended. "Shelter" is a perfect novel for boys and girls who are fans of mysteries and adventures, because it nicely meshes the best elements of both genres. I'd put this book squarely into the upper middle school range (solely based on the suspense level and violence), but see what you think. This smart, twisty thriller is sure to gain Harlen Coben a whole new audience of devoted young fans. "Shelter" publishes in September 2011. Until then, you can read an excerpt here. Enjoy!

20 May 2011 @ 06:46 pm

Everyone remotely involved in teen literature knows that pretty much every dystopian novel is touted as the next "The Hunger Games." Sure enough, I heard that exact pitch for Veronica Roth's debut teen novel, "Divergent," which takes place in a desolate, fractured Chicago of the future. You know what, though? "Divergent" actually has some of the spark -- the great hook, feisty lead character, and intense scenes of desperate survival -- that made "The Hunger Games" such a phenomenon. While it lacks Suzanne Collins' precise worldbuilding, complex love story, and overall literary skill, it's still a compelling, highly enjoyable read.

Dystopian Chicago -- the lakes have dried up, buildings are hulking shells -- is divided into five factions, each based on a desired human trait. Amity folks are friendly and personable; Erudite is comprised of cold intellectuals; Abnegation members are selfless, plain people; Candor-ites are blunt and, perhaps, far too honest; and the Dauntless are strong, fearless fighters. The factions were created as the antidote to the human complexity that lead to power struggles, infighting, wars, and the near destruction of society. Teenagers now take an aptitude test, after which they must choose to remain in their birth faction or join the faction for which they show an innate ability. As such, society remains properly ordered, separated, and safe.

Smart, resourceful teen Beatrice has always felt out of place in her Abnegation family. Try as she might, she cannot seem to hold her tongue, quietly accept her circumstances, and selflessly offer up her time and possessions. Her aptitude test reveals a shocking result: Beatrice shows a talent for three separate factions. Such Divergence is considered so explosive and dangerous that Beatrice must keep the results secret from everyone, including her parents and beloved brother Caleb. (To be honest, we're never actually told why Divergence is such a threat, although we get hints late in the novel.) At her Choosing Ceremony, Beatrice selects the Dauntless group, seemingly betraying her family. She is plunged into an underground world of darkness, tattoos and piercings that is also a place of camaraderie, physical and mental strength, and bravery.

The bulk of the novel encompasses the Dauntless initiate training, which Beatrice -- rechristened Tris -- initially undergoes with others who were likewise born into other factions. The training is grueling, which should be expected from a group that leaps off buildings and jumps onto moving trains. We're talking beatdown fights (think UFC!), mental torture, firearms, bloodshed, daredevil feats, and knife throwing. There is plenty of action throughout "Divergent," and the training sequences, even after the Dauntless-born initiates are added to the mix, are riveting in their sheer physicality and emotional duress. We see Tris come alive during this process, emerging from a mousy Abnegation girl to discover her inner strength and calm resolve. It's a coming of age tale on steroids!

I also loved how the Dauntless competition splinters Tris' new group of friends, much like any rivalry with dire consequences inevitably reveals human flaws. (Losers here are relegated to the Factionless and forced to live apart from society as outcasts.) Tris' friends Will, Christina, and Al are all perfectly content to like her when she's the weakling "Stiff," but are offended and threatened when she emerges as a viable competitor. The wicked hazing of several initiates, including Tris, also reveals the ugly human underside of stress and cutthroat competition. Tris' horror and panic at this violence, including her post-traumatic stress reaction, are gripping and terrifyingly real.

Author Roth nicely conveys the full gamut of emotions felt by an alternately exhausted and exhilarated Tris. We clearly perceive Tris' delirium at destroying her old Abnegation bonds and soaring down a rip line or running breakneck along the edge of a cliff. There is an intoxicating freedom in living so dangerously, which we experience right along with Tris. The paintball game, in which Tris climbs the dilapidated ferris wheel at Navy Pier, is both frightening and pretty darn fun. At the same time, Roth richly depicts every last bit of pain and turmoil from Tris' many beatings and sufferings, including some harrowing scenes in which Tris must face her biggest fears in an all-too-real simulation. (Hello, hordes of pecking, smothering crows!) That's potent stuff.

There's also a love interest here, a stern trainer nicknamed Four (Tobias), who is one of those protective, compassionate, kind -- and super cute! -- guys we tend to see in YA fiction. Four has some secrets of his own, which he slowly shares with Tris. There's supposed to be a forbidden love angle going on with Tris and Four, but we never sense enough of the danger, passion, and longing that we should. I actually felt more intensity and steam -- not all of it good! -- from Four's rival, young, masochistic leader Eric. Eric is a great character, charming and seductive one minute and lethal the next. His undercurrent of malevolence really drives the story, since there is no real villain (an Erudite leader named Jeanine appears late in the book, but she's basically a one-dimensional poster girl for evil). Eric's edginess and volatility work particularly well towards the end of the book, when Four and Tris uncover a plot that I found silly and unbelievable. Remember the zombie army from "Attack of the Clones," after Emperor Palpatine executes Order 66? All the clone troops became mindless killers, decimating the Jedi Knights and other peace-loving folks. "Divergent's" conclusion is exactly like that. It's a bit of a cheap plot device. At least Eric grounds the story in a tangible, believable menace.

If the love story and ending are a bit wonky, Eric's still an excellent foil, Tris rocks, and there's a cool mystery brewing beneath the whole Divergent idea, which we finally (finally!) begin to glimpse by story's end. Throw in some exploration of the larger notions of group dynamics, weakness, greed, power, sacrifice, and bravery -- as well as unexpected cameos and shocking revelations during the climax -- and you have the makings of a surprisingly deep action novel. Could the ending be better? For sure. Is too much of this novel simply laying the foundation for book two? Probably. Will I be back for the sequel? YES. :-)

"Divergent" is out now, and I think it's a good choice for boys and girls who like action, sci fi, or adventure stories. I'm thinking the audience here is later middle school and up, since there's some mild language and, as I mentioned above, some fairly intense scenes of violence and torture. Please let me know what you think!


My love of Sarah Dessen knows no bounds (check out my reviews of "Along for the Ride," "Lock and Key," "Just Listen," and "Keeping the Moon;" raves all!). For my money, Sarah is one of the finest YA authors around, always providing fresh insight into the classic teen coming of age / falling in love story. Sarah's latest novel, "What Happened to Goodbye," while perhaps not her strongest work, is still miles ahead of most teen literature out there. It's a winning, beautifully written novel that is sure to become a favorite of Sarah's legions of fans.

When we meet Mclean Sweet, she and her divorced dad, Gus, are settling into their fourth new home in two years. After her folks' contentious divorce -- mom cheated with the head coach of dad's most beloved university basketball team -- Mclean chose to travel with restaurant consultant Gus instead of remaining home with mom, a new stepfather, and twin half siblings. Mclean uses each move with Gus to reinvent herself, alternately playing the roles of theatre chick, athlete, and activity joiner. Mclean even uses a new first name in each town to go with each new persona. The result? Everything is temporary for Mclean; she forms no real ties or attachments, and she leaves behind so-called friends without so much as a backward glance. Even worse? By always pretending to be someone else, Mclean has lost the girl she really is.

In Lakeview, Gus's job is to reinvent Luna Blu, a local Italian restaurant managed by the overwhelmed but well meaning Opal. Inadvertently, Mclean keeps her own name and much of her true self at school, the restaurant, and with her charmingly weird next-door neighbor Dave. It's a new experience, just being Mclean, since there's nothing and no one to hide behind. She also befriends the delightfully bossy Deb as well as bickering but kind best pals Riley and Heather. As the kids embark on an outrageously overdone large-scale model project -- and as Mclean slowly lets Dave into her closely guarded world -- Mclean realizes she is becoming connected to these people and this town. She cares now, more than she ever intended. So what happens when she has to leave again?

I won't give much else away, because the joy of this book is discovering what ultimately happens to Mclean, Dave, Gus, and the troubled Luna Blu restaurant. I can easily discuss the many things I loved about this book, which I will do in no particular order:

* No great surprise here -- this is Sarah Dessen, folks! -- but Mclean has such great depth and emotional complexity. She's essentially a parent to her father, soothing his wounded heart, arranging their moves, and getting them properly settled into each new town. Yet, Mclean is also just a high school senior who, beneath this veneer of capability, is absolutely devastated by her mother's infidelity and her parents' divorce. Mclean is so emotionally disconnected from mom that she can only manage unreturned phone calls and carefully calculated, obscenely polite conversations with her. What Mclean doesn't realize is that by separating herself from her mom and her picture perfect former life she has also isolated herself from her peers and father. When Mclean finally allows herself to truly experience all that pain, betrayal, and loneliness, it's incredibly moving.

* Dave. Oh, I could write a lot about Dave. Yes, he's a standard YA love interest. He's sensitive, kind, smart, funny, cute in an offbeat way, quirky ... you know the type. He could easily have stepped out of the pages of a John Green novel. But Dave also has believable conflicts with his parents about his boy genius status, a sweet friendship with Riley, and a slew of quiet, touching moments with Mclean. Very well done.

* The three main adults in this novel (Gus, Mclean's mom Kate, and Opal) are not just window dressing, thrown into a scene to stir up conflict only to disappear and leave the real action to the teenagers. These adults are all interesting characters with their own shadings, depth, and shortcomings. I thought Kate, in particular, was well developed. A cheating wife / shrill mother can quickly devolve into painful stereotype, which never happened here. Just as Mclean does, we eventually see beyond Kate's missteps to find a brokenhearted mother longing for her daughter.

* As always, Sarah creates a precise, evocative setting. We walk the streets of Lakeview with Mclean and understand exactly how this small, nondescript town can hold so much promise. There's something beautiful and alive about its alleys after a snowstorm, its starry skies on a clear night, its cozy woods surrounding Riley's house, its failing neighborhood restaurant and overly cheery local coffeehouse. The uber model project -- which recreates the town in painstaking, oversized detail -- only adds to this sense of community and place. Each building, street, and house clicked into the model is another chance for both us and Mclean to feel more at home in Lakeview. Similarly, when Mclean lovingly describes the shore town she often visited with her mom, we understand how surf, salt, sun, and freedom can transport her to happier times. Later, when Mclean grudgingly visits another beach town with Kate (shout out to Colby, Last Chance, and Heidi's bikini shop!), we readers are swept along on Mclean's same wave of nostalgia and longing.

* Sarah is an expert at portraying emotional moments with simple grace and lyricism. My only real complaint with this novel lies in its rushing past some of these scenes instead of allowing us to savor their impact a bit more. For example, presenting the dramatic culmination of Mclean's journey in a flashback undermines its intensity. I wish we could have stayed in the moment and enjoyed it more! Still, the depictions of the quiet beauty of friendship, parental devotion, and first love are real treasures here. When Mclean sees Dave's heartfelt messages for her in the completed town model ... oy! That's good stuff. :-)

"What Happened to Goodbye" is a perfect summer novel for readers looking for an understated coming of age story with well-developed characters, a charming setting, flawed but involved parents, and, of course, some kicking romance. There's the occasional bit of strong language here, but nothing that would offend an average middle schooler. "What Happened to Goodbye" is out now. I loved it. Go read it! :-p

12 April 2011 @ 11:27 am

Judy Blundell won a well-deserved National Book Award in 2008 for her noir mystery, "What I Saw and How I Lied." Blundell is back with her latest novel for teens, "Strings Attached." Set primarily in the autumn of 1950, "Strings Attached" is another complex, multi-layered noir filled with striking characters, an evocative sense of time and place, ample secrets and lies, and a more sophisticated level of storytelling than what we normally see in YA fiction. Although I worry it might be a wee bit too sophisticated for its intended audience, "Strings Attached" is a wonderfully written, compelling story.

As the book opens, 17 year old Kit Corrigan, one of the formerly famous Corrigan triplets of Providence, Rhode Island, is narrating her story of life in New York City in October 1950. When we first meet Kit, she is a chorus girl in an awful musical production on Broadway, having quite recently escaped a tumultuous past in Providence. Kit's brother Jamie and her explosive ex-boyfriend Billy both joined the Army after a violent incident outside a nightclub. A heartbroken Kit then fled to New York to start anew and follow her dream of becoming a famous dancer and entertainer.

No sooner does Kit land in New York then mob lawyer Nate Benedict, Billy's dad, shows up outside her stage door. Nate offers a struggling, hungry, homesick Kit a job dancing at the posh Lido Club, a luxurious Manhattan apartment, and a new wardrobe of the latest, high-class fashions. What does Kit have to do in return? At first, not much at all. Just contact Nate if and when she hears from Billy. But over the next few months, Nate exerts an increasingly stronger hold over Kit, using her allegiance to Billy and her sense of duty to force her to spy on gangsters at the Lido Club. Once an apologetic Billy arrives in New York from basic training (and with hopes of marrying Kit before he deploys), Kit realizes she is in way too deep with Nate to walk cleanly away. Even worse, she knows that once the volatile Billy learns of her arrangement with his hated father, he will explode. Throw in a gangland killing, references to the Communist and nuclear scares of the early 50s, backstabbing, rumors, newspaper gossip, and some shocking revelations from the past, and you have the makings of a gripping, twisty tale.

Above all here, I loved the narrative structure. Kit frequently alludes to past incidents in relaying her current life happenings. But these quick mentions are often only elaborated upon far later in the book. Indeed, sometimes long chapters later, Kit will flashback in time -- occasionally to events that occurred when she was only a little girl -- to fill in the back story. Brilliant! This method keeps us off balance and guessing, as Kit slowly teases out the additional details needed to fully understand the present day occurrences. In this way, we discover that prim, maiden aunt Delia may not be exactly as proper as Kit has previously described, while we also learn the true nature of Kit's original promise to Nate Benedict. We even see firsthand the worst of Billy's temper, as Kit recalls incidents of his pettiness and anger. When we read about Billy throwing Kit's few possessions along the highway in a jealous rage, we better understand the crushing pressure she feels to keep her dealings with Nate a secret from him. It's an incredibly effective technique.

I also adored the precision of the setting -- we get all the lingo, music, fashions, fears, food, celebrities, technology, etc., of the early 1950s -- as well as the dark smokiness of New York City nightlife. Similarly, Blundell expertly maintains a noir tone throughout the story -- Who are those men watching Kit and her neighbors? Has someone been in the apartment? What is Nate really involved in? Is someone following Kit? What happened to the long-missing Delia? Could Nate be a murderer himself? -- which underscores the sense of foreboding and intrigue. Well done!

I won't say too much about the characters, other to report that they all, beyond just Delia, have great depth and intricacy. Yes, Billy is wild and tempestuous, but we also see his tender, frightened side. He is a young man terrified of becoming his father, which ultimately colors all his actions. Speaking of which, Nate is calculating and quite possibly evil, but by the end of the story we better understand -- but never accept -- his desperation. And Kit? She's headstrong, scrappy, and terribly naive, but her dreams of succeeding give the story an undercurrent of optimism and hope.

Ok, so needless to say, I loved "Strings Attached!" It's edgy, complex, and perfectly evocative of its time and place. Is it maybe too sophisticated and subtle for its intended teen audience? Perhaps. But more mature readers will be drawn into this stirring novel of suspicion, obligation, and long-hidden secrets. "Strings Attached" is out now. Enjoy!


I read (and kinda loved) Simone Elkeles' Walker Books teen romances "Perfect Chemistry" and "Rules of Attraction." Afterward, I knew I had to dig up the star-crossed love tales she wrote for the Flux imprint of Llewellyn. Hence, in the last week, I rolled through "Leaving Paradise" and "Return to Paradise." Although I didn't enjoy the "Paradise" books nearly as much as the "Perfect Chemistry" novels -- they lack intensity and steaminess, two crucial elements for romance! -- I'd still recommend them. Yes, there are stock characters and recycled plotlines galore, but these books are still eminently readable, super fun, and incredibly addicting.

In the first book, "Leaving Paradise," one of our narrators is disabled teen Maggie, who was the victim of a hit and run accident by a drunk driver. After multiple surgeries and months of rehabilitation, Maggie still experiences great pain in her injured leg and walks with a severe limp. A former tennis star and popular girl, she's now a friendless, isolated recluse. Maggie is weak and scared, and she's clearly internalized the idea that she will always be a "crippled" loser. The other narrator here is Caleb, the handsome, cocky ex-jock who hit Maggie and has just spent a year in juvenile lockup paying for his crime. You know these two are going to fall in love, right? Just in case this setup isn't outlandish enough, let me add the following soap opera details:

(a) Caleb is Maggie's next door neighbor;
(b) Caleb's twin sister Leah is Maggie's former bff;
(c) Maggie crushed on Caleb for years and told him she loved him the night of the accident;
(d) Maggie has no memory of the accident; and
(e) Maggie's after school job and Caleb's community service are ... wait for it ... at the home of the same curmudgeonly yet kindhearted old woman, Mrs. Reynolds.

Yeah, it is what it is. While Caleb builds a gazebo for Mrs. Reynolds, Maggie plants flowers. She discovers an inner strength that she thought had died, while Caleb learns to let go of some of his anger and allow others back into his life. It seems to take very little for Maggie to fall for Caleb again, which I had a hard time buying. I'm all for forgiveness, but, really? On Caleb's end, working with Maggie helps him see how kind and beautiful she is and before he knows it, love is in the air. Of course, Caleb is forbidden from having contact with his victim and Maggie's mom would freak, so all the smooching -- which is actually not that much! -- has to be kept on the down low. And then some things happen, which I won't reveal, and a secret emerges, which is pretty obvious, and the book ends so abruptly I literally checked to make sure no pages were missing. Hrm.

"Leaving Paradise" was definitely not my favorite. I never felt the passion between Maggie and Caleb, and I could not get past the contrived scenario, rapid transformations, and flat characters (besides a cranky but sweet grandmother type we also have the beautiful, bitchy ex-girlfriend and the tough, no-nonsense -- but with a heart of gold! -- African-American juvy counselor). Having said that, I went straight out and read "Return to Paradise," because I had to know what happened. So take what I just said with a grain of salt. ;-)

I much preferred "Return to Paradise" over its predecessor. It's eight months later, Maggie has graduated from high school, and she is embarking on a six-week drinking / drug awareness tour of camps and youth groups. You want to guess who returns to town and unexpectedly joins the same tour? Yup, our boy Caleb. He and Maggie will be in a van traveling the Midwest together, far from their hometown of Paradise. Without giving too much away, these two aren't the best of friends as the trip starts. I liked how the characters are far better developed in this book. Caleb is more wounded, so he's harder and more closed off from the world. His feelings of anger and frustration radiate off him, but inside, he's afraid. Much like the Fuentes brothers in the "Perfect Chemistry" series, Caleb uses arrogance and abrasiveness to mask his pain. Maggie is also more complex. She's much stronger and has found a greater sense of peace here, as she has come to realize that her accident and injured leg do not define or limit her. (Rock on, girl.) Yet she's also still worried and vulnerable.

What else works better here? Lenny, one of the other kids on the trip, is a great character. He's obnoxious, gross, and generally a pain in the neck, but we soon learn there's a lot more going on with this guy. His plight, as well as Caleb's estrangement from his family and his own longing for a home, added some much needed emotional depth to the story. I also liked this more focused and confident Maggie, as she's now able to take Caleb's barbs and throw them right back at him. Her tenacity made their verbal sparring more compelling. Most importantly, we get some much-needed steam back in this novel. I'm not talking about tawdriness -- we are given ample foul language but not much explicit sex at all -- but more about the fire of this forbidden romance. And author Elkeles is a master at turning up this kind of heat and keeping it appropriate for a teen audience. Plus ... we end on a happy note.

Over all, I'd say to expect some limitations with the plot and characters in "Leaving Paradise," but work your way through it and get to "Return to Paradise." You'll be rewarded with an engrossing teen romance with better characterization, stronger emotional intensity, and some real romantic tension. Both books are out now. Enjoy!

23 March 2011 @ 03:47 pm

Tim Tharp was a runner-up for the 2008 National Book Award (Young People's Literature) for "The Spectacular Now," his fantastic novel about a teenage alcoholic in extreme denial. Tharp is back with "Badd," another novel featuring an unreliable teen narrator with a precise, rich voice who faces some very serious issues. While "Badd" lacks the charismatic lead and disarming buoyancy of "The Spectacular Now," it is still a compelling read.

In a hot summer in a small town, high schooler Ceejay McDermott is playing paintball with her crew, crushing on her friend Tillman, and counting the days until her idolized older brother, Bobby, returns from the Iraq War. Ceejay is a tough, no-nonsense girl. From her descriptions, her steely reserve and bad ass approach to life are nothing compared to Bobby. Before he left for Iraq, Bobby was a wild, charming tough guy willing to (literally) fight for the little guy and raise plenty of hell along the way. When Ceejay spots Bobby in a car weeks before his planned return, she and goth girl best friend Brianna track him down to a stoner buddy's apartment. Turns out Bobby was discharged early for drug possession. The vacant man who has returned home -- at times enraged, skittish, and lost -- is nothing like the brother Ceejay remembers. Bobby is jumpy and troubled, freaks out at the smell of grilled meat, has flashbacks of exploding IEDs and dead friends, and numbs his pain with booze, drugs, and women.

Inexplicably, Bobby soon hooks up with the town's most eccentric resident, Captain Crazy, a man who lives in a trailer surrounded by huge sculptures designed to ward off evil spirits. The Captain lost his own brother back in Vietnam, so despite his childlike exterior and odd behavior, he knows full well the heartbreak of war. Bobby recognizes something of himself in the Captain -- or maybe finds in the Captain something worthy to protect -- and so, despite encountering scorn and negativity, embarks on a mission with the Captain to build a flying contraption (an "aero-velocipede") named Angelica.

Too weird? Maybe. "Badd" is a strange juxtaposition of gritty reality -- the town people's casual drug and alcohol abuse, violence, and infidelity; the wasting death from cancer of Ceejay's grandma; Bobby's post-traumatic stress disorder and suicidal behavior; the Captain's mental illness -- and fanciful notions of unseen good forces, a misfit revolution, and the redeeming freedom of flying unfettered through the sky. I'm not entirely sure it all meshes together, and I haven't even touched Ceejay's growing romantic relationship with Padgett (Mr. White), a sensitive, compassionate teen who wears all white as a sign of hope.

Perhaps if the character leading us through this story was more open or displayed some more vulnerability, "Badd" would've had a stronger impact on me. But Ceejay is so blankly inexpressive and so unwilling to examine her own pain and fear that it leaves a gaping hole at the center of the story. Yes, Ceejay's voice is strong and clear and I know exactly who this rough, brave girl is. She bullies Brianna, beats up a drunken lout, worships her heroic brother, hides her true feelings, and is convinced in her heart that she will never be pretty, popular, or loved. That's a deeply rendered character. She just never fully grabbed me. So while I liked how Ceejay's own issues color her views of and decisions toward Bobby and his behavior, I simply could not connect with her, even in her softer moments with Padgett or younger sister Lacy.

None of this is to say that "Badd" isn't a good read. It is. Bobby is so traumatized and lost that I couldn't help but get pulled into his suicidal descent and fragile recovery. As bizarre as it is, Bobby's relationship with the Captain, full of sacrifices and kindness, is touching and believable. I wanted them both to survive. I was even glad to see Angelica soar across the sky, as this sweet if somewhat pat conclusion felt well earned. I guess I just hoped (er, expected) a bit more from the great Tim Tharp. In the end, although "Badd" never reaches the transcendent heights of "The Spectacular Now," it's a still an intense, worthwhile book.

PS - "Badd" is definitely intended for a high school audience. We're talking about loads of strong language, ample drug and alcohol use, sexual references, and the kind of painful emotional distress that is probably best suited for teen readers.

16 March 2011 @ 01:05 pm

When I heard last year that a big teen sci fi trilogy would be published beginning in early 2011, I was super excited. Being a sci fi geek (I love me some Star Wars and Star Trek), of course I'd be stoked to read about teens in outer space. Beth Revis' "Across the Universe," which was released by Razorbill / Penguin in January, isn't so much a sci fi novel as it a dystopian novel set in a claustrophobically insulated community on a spaceship. Once I accepted that fact -- and despite one huge misstep, which I'll elaborate on below -- I really enjoyed this creepy, suspenseful, love-tinged view into a strange future.

The story kicks off with an absolute bang. Modern teen Amy describes in brutal, terrifying detail the cryogenic freezing of her parents and then -- ack! -- herself. Amy and her folks are being frozen for a long journey aboard the space vessel Godspeed, which will take over 200 years to reach a habitable planet. Getting frozen is excruciatingly painful, involving all manner of tubes, suffocating liquids, and nearly unbearable pain. Even worse? Amy never fully loses consciousness, so as hundreds of years pass, she floats in and out of nightmares, confused and alone. It's wrenching to read!

While Amy is in frigid hell, we fast forward 200+ years to life on board the Godspeed. Apprentice leader Elder narrates here, detailing a world of monoethnic people, divided labor forces (there are "Feeders" and "Shippers"), unquestioning compliance to the rule of Eldest, forced medication of allegedly insane people, and some vague talk about an upcoming "Season." Elder is the lone teenager currently on board, and he's being groomed by the ruthless Eldest to someday take his place as ruler. Elder is lonely, curious, and defiant, so when he accesses a hidden basement and discovers Amy's thawing coffin, he is enthralled by the pale girl with flaming red hair.

Amy is disoriented upon waking up too early -- without giving anything away, Godspeed is still *very* far from what's now being called Centauri Earth -- and shattered to learn that she will likely outlive her parents. Amy's heartbreak at the futility of her situation is devastating to read. Moreover, our girl now lives in a stifling community in which everyone is the same and no one argues, questions authority, or expresses any independent ideas ... and, as a bonus, they all think she's a dangerous freak. Well, everyone but two people: Elder and his best friend, twentysomething mental patient / artist / free spirit Harley. As more cryogenic boxes are mysteriously pulled from stasis and the bodies within allowed to die, Amy, Elder, and Harley struggle to find out who is behind the murders and what is really happening aboard this ship of lies, secrets, and manipulation.

What works well here? Amy and Elder are great characters with distinctive voices. Amy's tough survivor streak, strength, and independence create plenty of conflict within the oppressively orderly world of the Godspeed. Her brave confrontations with Eldest and one of his cronies, Doc, are riveting, and as a feisty newcomer, she helps voice our own bafflement at life on the spaceship. Considering this is a sci fi / dystopian novel with little basis in our current reality, Elder, as a boy of the future, is remarkably believable as a real teenager. He can be proud, petulant, childish, bold, and occasionally heroic as he struggles to balance the responsibility of his impending leadership with his weaknesses as a regular kid. Author Revis is particularly adept at showing Elder's internal conflict in challenging Eldest and the rules that have been ingrained within him since birth.

I also loved the ship's setting, with its "big brother" monitoring and stifling atmosphere of order and control. There is no authentic outdoors, no view of space, and everything from the air to the sunlight is artificial. We get a palpable sense of living within an elaborate metal box. The repressiveness and danger spike up the tension factor and help give the mystery even greater weight. Indeed, much of this book is so taut and suspenseful that I was actually worried to read on and discover what would happen next! We're also treated to some truly thought-provoking issues about time and sacrifice; freedom (Harley's drug of choice becomes staring through a forbidden portal at the long-hidden stars); and the balance between individual expression and society's basic need to function properly. Plus, there's some romance. ;-)

Ok, so you're wondering what exactly my issue is. UGH! I hate to even bring it up, but reproduction among the inhabitants of Godspeed is limited to the Season, a brief mating period on a designated schedule. And when I say "mating period," I mean exactly that. You know, people behaving like animals in heat? Outside? In public? Indiscriminately? Whoa. I get how structured repopulation is critical for plot purposes (fixed generations are integral to the story's functioning), but, for cripe's sake, you usually don't see rampant nudity and random, group sex in a teen novel. And an attempted gang rape scene? Good lord. I'm no prude, but in a book essentially written for children, I wish the author would have figured out another way to ensure the existence of specific age groups aboard the ship. The method she chose was both distasteful and, in my view, wildly inappropriate for the intended audience.

If you can get beyond that issue -- which, admittedly, gave me a great deal of difficulty -- "Across the Universe" is a riveting, thrilling, often troubling tale of life in a repressive future society. The story contains plenty of secrets, a compelling mystery, and some epically shocking revelations, all of which should keep readers galloping through the pages. There are even some heavy emotional moments -- oh, Harley! -- and the beginnings of a sweet romance. In other words, there's plenty to enjoy in this first installment. If you're a high school aged fan of dystopian tales like "The Giver" (or Ally Condie's recent "Matched"), you should check out this dark, troubling tale.

PS - "Across the Universe" has its own site. And here's Penguin's book trailer:


I'm reviewing together the first two books of Simone Elkeles' "Perfect Chemistry" trilogy. Although the particulars are different, each book is basically a steamy, updated version of the star-crossed love story featured in "Romeo and Juliet" (or "Pretty in Pink" or "She's All That" or "West Side Story" or ... well, you get the picture!). I slightly preferred the first book, "Perfect Chemistry," over its successor, "Rules of Attraction," but I'll admit I thoroughly enjoyed both novels. Despite soap opera plots, cliched setups, and mostly flat characterizations, I gobbled both books up ... and even re-read some passages. These books may be light and a bit trashy, but they're fast-paced, addictive, and rewarding in their own way.

Ok, so in the barest of plot outlines, both books feature a poor bad boy with a heart of gold who falls in love with an innocent, good girl from the other side of town. The characters resist the unexpected pull, outsiders (and occasionally family members) are opposed, events conspire to keep the lovers apart, a tragic event occurs, and, ultimately, we get our well-earned happy ending. [By the way, I LOVE a happy ending in YA literature!]

In "Perfect Chemistry," Latino gangbanger Alex Fuentes is paired as a chem lab partner with white cheerleading captain Brittany Ellis. They instantly hate each other, bickering constantly, which only masks the intense attraction they both feel. Alex stupidly makes a bet to score with Brittany before Thanksgiving, but in trying to bring the most perfect, popular girl in school down a notch, he actually starts caring for her. A lot. On Brittany's side, her rigid perfection is a cover for a troubled home life, and, despite having a (jerky) boyfriend, she finds herself thinking about Alex and his secret sweet side all the time. Throw in an escalation in Alex's gang involvement, violence, falling in love, vulnerability, rejection, and heartache, and you get the idea here.

Although it can be incredibly obvious at times -- of course the tough guy is sweet; of course the popular girl is scared; of course all their fighting is hiding true love; of course Brit's boyfriend is a lout; etc. -- "Perfect Chemistry" works because it hits every star-crossed love note perfectly. Yes, this plotline has been done to death, but author Elkeles expertly captures the angst, desperation, and world-shaking importance of first love. She also does a superb job of conveying the sensual, intoxicating side of that love without ever crossing the line into tawdriness or inappropriateness. This is, after all, a teen novel.

Much of what I just wrote can be applied to "Rules of Attraction," which is set three years later. Middle Fuentes brother Carlos is sent from Mexico (where he's joined a gang) to Colorado to live with reformed older brother Alex. Carlos is exactly like Alex in the first novel -- sexy, arrogant, smart, confident, undisciplined, and hotheaded. Following an arrest, Carlos moves in with classmate Kiara Westford's family. Professor Westford agrees to supervise Carlos in an attempt to help him straighten out his life before he ends up in jail or dead. Unlike the beautiful, popular Brittany, Kiara is a tomboy who can fix cars, hike mountains, and play soccer. She also stutters when nervous, which causes her bitchy classmates to ridicule her. Kiara begins to fall for Carlos when she sees his shy, kind side, although Carlos at first insists they be only fake boyfriend and girlfriend. Naturally, this doesn't last long! Much like Alex, Carlos is also stalked by the perils of gang life and must risk violence and death to be with the girl he loves. That's heady stuff!

The biggest difference in "Rules of Attraction" lies in Kiara's family. While the Ellises are cold and distant, Kiara's folks are warm, involved, and compassionate. Kiara's dad is one of the few truly well-rounded characters in either novel, as this mild mannered, bleeding heart psychologist has a hidden past, a tough streak, and secrets of his own. I loved the relationship Carlos develops with Professor Westford and how Carlos matures under the Professor's patient care.

Again, despite the flaws here, the essence of the story -- that true love among teens is powerful, frightening, uplifting, and so worth dying for -- is captivating. There is a real sense of urgency behind Carlos and Kiara's relationship, which is fueled by the palpable deadline of Carlos' impending, coerced drug deal. If the resolution of Carlos' gang predicament is both laughable and wholly unrealistic, so be it. It takes nothing away from the raw energy that pervades this book. Just check out the scene depicted on the book's cover, when Carlos and Kiara lean out of car windows in the rain after an emotional night, and you'll get a sense of what I'm talking about here.

Neither "Perfect Chemistry" nor "Rules of Attraction" are going to win any awards for literary merit. So what? These books work wonderfully as intense teen romances. Even if I rolled my eyes at times, I raced through both books, re-reading, sighing, laughing, and, on one occasion, even crying a little. If that's not the mark of a great teen romance, I don't know what is.

Final note: although both novels are sensual, they aren't graphic. The sex takes place "off camera." There is a great deal of strong language, but that's to be expected in books that star gang members. If the language doesn't put you off, I don't see any problem with 8th graders (maybe even mature 7th graders?) reading these books. And if you love them as much as I did, the third book -- yay for another Fuentes brother! -- comes out in August 2011. Enjoy!

Here's the book trailer for "Rules of Attraction," which I think captures the smoking hot intensity I've been trying to describe!


Maureen Johnson's insanely delightful "13 Little Blue Envelopes" is one of my favorite teen books EVAH. And, believe me, I've read a lot of teen books. So I was beyond stoked to have the opportunity to read an e-galley of its sequel, "The Last Little Blue Envelope," courtesy of the good folks at HarperTeen and Net Galley.

I feared "The Last Little Blue Envelope" might suffer in comparison to the wholly original premise of the first book. In "13 ...," high school (Jersey!) girl Ginny follows her deceased, super eccentric aunt's clue-laden letters on a solo tour throughout Europe. "13 ..." is a magical novel about discovering yourself, growing up, and creating your own identity while experiencing the wonders of European art and culture. Plus, it's a mystery -- where do the clues lead?! -- and a love story and a travelogue and ... well, if you haven't read it, please stop what you're doing right now and go seek it out. I will wait. ;-)

I was saying ... ? Right, the sequel. It is difficult to follow up such a clever and brilliantly executed concept. And, yes, "The Last ..." doesn't quite reach the incandescent heights of its predecessor. But that's cool. It's still a lovely, highly readable novel with a winning combination of funny, sweet, sarcastic, and touching moments. So while it didn't move me in quite the same way as "13 ...," I'd still recommend it without hesitation. And I still plowed eagerly through it. And I'm still thinking about reading it again!

I hesitate to give away too much of the plot, because -- and I'm thinking particularly of my difficulty in reviewing Suzanne Collins' "Hunger Games" sequel "Catching Fire" -- part of the interest here is in seeing how Ginny ends up back in Europe again following Aunt Peg's cryptic, art-related clues. I will say that this journey is more personal for Ginny and has a deeper sense of finality to it.

Here's what else I can safely reveal: Ginny; a mysterious loner named Oliver; our old pal, wacky theater boy Keith; and a charming, posh Londoner named Ellis traipse through Paris, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Ireland puzzling out the details in Aunt Peg's final, long missing letter. Some of the adventures are hilarious. The gang's Paris caper is an absolute hoot, barely edging out their night in a Belgian inn populated by a truly odd caretaker and his dozens of affectionate cats. I laughed -- out loud! -- several times. Yet, some parts of the trip are certainly more bittersweet and emotional, including one pivotal scene where Ginny is alone in the Irish dusk with her memories of Aunt Peg. The richness of that scene and its aftermath are stunning. As in her prior novels, Maureen is masterful at conveying a full range of emotion -- everything from lighthearted screwball whimsy to "lump in your throat" pangs -- and smoothly managing those shifts in tone without unsettling the reader.

I also really enjoyed how much more mature -- sometimes in small, subtle ways -- Ginny has become. It's great to see a beloved character evolve and grow while still retaining her core essence. It's Ginny, version 2.0. Ginny's quiet relationship with her "uncle" Richard, in which so many important ideas are conveyed through soft gestures and unspoken sentiment, is a fine example. Her changing relationship with former / sorta / maybe boyfriend Keith, whose clownish antics frustrate her one minute while his tender warmth draws her further in the next, also felt real. Any first love -- let alone a transcontinental one! -- can be a fragile, conflicted thing, making Ginny's love / hate struggles with Keith resonate. A newly perceptive Ginny can also detect the hidden depth, complexity, and secret compassion in our new teen, the elusive outsider Oliver, keeping us interested in what could otherwise be a potentially loathsome character.

So, yes, GO READ IT!! when "The Last ..." is released by HarperTeen in April. Although it falls a bit short of the original, there's still so much to adore here, putting this novel miles ahead of much of current YA literature. It's real. It's heartfelt. It's funny. It's entertaining. It's touching. Really, what more can I ask for!? FYI, aside from a drinking scene, there is very little here to offend even the most sensitive reader. "The Last ..." is a perfectly appropriate novel for older middle schoolers. Even better? It's a pretty great novel for them, too. Happy reading!

23 February 2011 @ 04:28 pm

Lauren DeStefano's upcoming "Wither," the first book in her Chemical Garden Trilogy, is (yet another) teen dystopian novel. Here, we have a future world where the United States is the lone remaining country, Manhattan is a hardscrabble city of industrial skyscrapers, and, because of wickedly disastrous genetic engineering, all women die from a virus at age 20 while men live to the ripe old age of 25. Gah! Interesting hook, right? For the most part, first time author DeStefano delivers the goods, with effective world building, evocative descriptions, some suspenseful moments, and an engaging romance.

As the book begins, 16 year old Rhine has been kidnapped by a Gatherer, who has stolen a fresh group of girls to be sold as child brides. Because the virus kills the young -- only the pre-engineered "first generation" survives to old age -- reproduction / repopulation is a preeminent concern, especially for the wealthy. With parents dying so young, there is a staggering population of orphans that can be stolen and sold as either servants or brides. Here's where the Gatherers come in; these ruthless men snatch children for profit, selling the special ones and killing those deemed unworthy. Rhine is incredibly savvy and a true survivor (she and twin brother Rowan have lived for years after their first generation parents' accidental deaths), but, nevertheless, she finds herself caught by a Gatherer. Rhine's blonde beauty and heterochromia (different colored eyes) save her life, as all but three girls herded into the Gatherer's van are executed.

Rhine's ultimate destination is the house of Linden Ashby, a fragile, vulnerable 21 year old whose current wife, 20 year old Rose, is fast succumbing to the fatal virus. Rhine, world weary 18 year old prostitute Jenna, and naive 13 year old orphan Cecily are destined to be the three brides of Linden, as orchestrated by his ruthless father Vaughn. You read that correctly. Three brides. Did I forget to mention that the wealthy dabble in polygamy? I know. Ick.

So that's the setup. Rhine is kept captive in a spectacular, isolated Florida mansion with the reserved Jenna and bubbly, buoyant Cecily. Housemaster Vaughn monitors the girls every movement, so running away -- let alone, for some time, even opening a window -- is impossible. The mansion is surrounded by long miles of orange groves, trees, and even distorted holographic images to prevent escape. Vaughn is cunning and evil, a madman scientist with a secret stash of corpses in his basement who controls every aspect of the girls' lives, from food to entertainment to clothing. In other words, cross him and die a torturous death.

Oddly enough, Rhine becomes friends with Linden's wife Rose before she dies, and she and her "sister wives" grow close as the months pass, spending each day together reading, playing music, or swimming in the pool. The rather pathetic and heartbroken Linden is generally tolerable, and when Rhine assumes privileged "first wife" status, she begins attending lavish galas and parties. But it's all still no more than a very pretty prison. Rhine bides her time, slowly building Linden's trust as a means to enable her escape. When Rhine falls for one of her attendants, kind, nurturing teen Gabriel, she decides to risk everything to regain her home, her twin, and her freedom.

The characters are well conceived and nicely developed. Rhine is brave, stalwart, and fiercely loyal, a smart girl with a heap of courage. I couldn't help but root for her. We also discover that Jenna is a keen observer and, in her own way, as rebellious as Rhine, while the young, hopeful Cecily, so easily dazzled by her new glamorous life, is perhaps stronger than she first appears. I was quickly caught up in these girls' lives, their interactions, and the strange family they create, full of companionship, love and occasional jealousy. Vaughn is a great villain, sweet on the surface with a terrifying, murderous core. I completely believed he would do anything to further his nefarious goals. Even some of the secondary characters, from a young attendant to a crotchety cook, are beautifully rounded.

My major problem? If DeStefano was trying to create tension through a romantic triangle involving Rhine, Linden, and Gabriel, she fails miserably. There are many scenes where we're supposed to see a tender, loving side of Linden, and he is repeatedly presented as an innocent pawn manipulated by his cruel father. When Linden finally takes Rhine out on the town -- after months of laying and holding her in bed at night -- he is so affectionate and attentive that Rhine must constantly remind herself that it is an illusion. But are we supposed to forget the part where Linden impregnates 13 year old Cecily and regularly has sex with Jenna, a woman for whom he has no feelings? Are we not supposed to be repelled by Linden's inherent complicity in keeping these children prisoners (and virtual sex slaves) in his house? Really? Maybe it's just me, but I could not get past viewing Linden as a lonely creep exploiting a bunch of vulnerable girls. Meanwhile, Gabriel, this amazing, thoughtful boy, is in love with Rhine, in a real, honest way. Why on earth would she choose Linden over him? As such, the many passages in the latter portion of the book detailing Rhine's growing feelings for Linden struck me as patently false. I got to a point where I wanted her to either flee with Gabriel or have Vaughn finish her off already.

There are other problems, mostly in terms of pacing, and the book would have benefitted from tighter editing. But the story here is a good one, and if you can stomach the polygamy angle and at least tolerate the artificial romantic drama, I think you'll be pleased. Rhine is a great character, a tough, crafty fighter, and author DeStefano uses lush descriptions to depict the posh mansion, sumptuous gardens, swirling snowflakes, sparkling gowns, colorful crystal candies, and, on the uglier side, the darkness and desolation of Manhattan. Her detailed, evocative descriptions alone make the book worth reading. Throw in a truly thought-provoking premise, a nasty villain, and a swoon worthy love interest, and you have the makings of an enjoyable page turner.

"Wither" comes out in late March (by the way, thank you Simon & Schuster for the e-galley; you guys rock!). This one is definitely for the high school crowd -- sex, violence, disturbing images -- and should be a good fit for fans of darker fantasy and dystopia (think Cassandra Clare and Holly Black). Let me know what you think!

PS - LOVE the bird in the gilded cage cover!

22 February 2011 @ 01:14 pm

"Pink" is an Australian import, originally published Down Under in 2009 and recently released in this country by one of my favorite teen publishing houses, HarperTeen. In the interest of full disclosure, I read "Pink" primarily for two reasons:

(1) The goth girl / girly girl lip cover. Look below. It rocks!
(2) There are so few teen novels with a bisexual main character, so I was dying to see how author Lili Wilkinson portrays what still seems like a taboo subject in teen literature. (Which, FYI, it really shouldn't be taboo.)

What I found is a funny, witty, heartfelt story about a high school student who transfers to a private school to reinvent herself. Gone is black haired, loner Ava, the one with acerbic goth girlfriend Chloe and no interest in school activities; in her place, we have pink cashmere sweater Ava, she of the lustrous brown hair, impractical shoes, and a sudden interest in both the school musical and one of its handsome lead actors. Much of this story is about Ava's desire to be someone else, someone more like Alexis, the cute, perfect, popular girl who immediately befriends her. Following Alexis' lead, Ava tries out for the school musical (a gangster show called "Bang! Bang!"), with disastrous results. Wanting so much to belong to the theater crowd, even tangentially, Ava joins Screw, the unpopular stage crew composed of lovably geeky misfits like nerdy Trekker Jen, sweet schlump Jacob, gay (with an h!) performer Jules, and ginger-haired wiseguy Sam.

So that's basically the story. Ava reluctantly becomes friends with the Screw kids, while trailing after Alexis and her crowd whenever she can. She hooks up a few times with gorgeous actor Ethan, but it's all a lot of work being perfect for the popular kids, hiding Chloe, her bisexuality, and pretty much her entire life. She also sort of, maybe, kind of starts feeling something for Sam, the outcast Screw leader who challenges her at every turn.

The lessons here go down gently. We learn that many of the other characters -- Sam, Jen, Alexis, Ethan -- are also hiding their own painful secrets. But none of these revelations are done in a horribly heavy handed, after school special manner. The themes of acceptance and being true to yourself are usually conveyed in a charming, enjoyable way. Trust me, this is so not an issues book!

Instead, "Pink" is breezy and very readable, with plenty of humorous moments provided by the Screw kids. I loved the sense of camaraderie among the Screw members; these were the truest, most fully developed friendships in the book. By comparison, it was hard for me to understand why Ava twisted herself around for boring, toothy Ethan and nihilistic, one-note (that note being bitchy) Chloe. Both characters felt incredibly empty -- almost impersonal -- to me, while the Screw kids and Ava were leaping off the page with complexity. While I appreciate the efforts to show some vulnerability and soften Ethan and Chloe, for me, they just never progressed beyond cardboard stereotypes. Unlike Alexis, Sam, Jen, and many of the other characters, neither Chloe nor Ethan ever seemed real, and so I had a hard time caring about or understanding Ava's attraction to either of them.

Because of that vacuum at the center of the story, Ava's explorations of her bisexuality seem more discussed than actually explored. Yes, she considers / ponders / analyzes the issue, but it remains mostly a cerebral exercise. And, since Sam is so beautifully shaded -- he can be sweet, sullen, charming, shy, boisterous -- it is natural for us readers to favor him in any romantic triangle. We just know him better. Having said that, the romance angle largely goes nowhere. I was disappointed in how "Pink" ultimately shies away from really embracing Ava's bisexuality. The love story ends on a vague, unsatisfying note, with some cliched lines about life being messy and confusing and that no one should ever force you to choose. Yes, bisexuality is a perfectly normal orientation that should be accepted like all the others. We can shout that one from the rooftops until the rest of the world understands! But in a novel about one bisexual teenager, I need a more definitive conclusion. I was let down by the ending, plain and simple.

Don't get me wrong. I'd still recommend "Pink." It's a fun, often lighthearted romp that touches upon some universal issues of identity, acceptance, understanding, and friendship. The pages fly by and, with the exceptions discussed above, the characters have plenty of depth and the ability to convey genuine emotion. They will draw you in! The screwball antics at the "Bang! Bang!" show and the gross-out "would you rather" games played by the Screw kids provide plenty of levity and lots of laughs. "Pink" is a book that I can see being read by many high school girls, regardless of their sexual orientation, since it has wide appeal (and, again, that killer cover). I just feel the potential was here for this novel to have been so much more.

15 February 2011 @ 06:08 pm

Thanks as always to the brilliant folks at Penguin Books for Young Readers, who can always be relied upon for truly excellent swag. (And I read today they are joining Net Galley; yay!). I loved my advanced copy of Newbery Honor author Joan Bauer's latest middle grade novel, "Close to Famous." In fact, I read it in one sitting!

When we meet 12 year old Foster McFee, she and her mom are fleeing Memphis and mom's abusive, Elvis impersonator boyfriend. The pair end up in the small town of Culpepper, West Virginia, home to a mammoth prison, a dying downtown, and a host of eccentric residents. Foster and her mom find free lodging in an airstream trailer owned by a kind older couple. In short order, mom has a job at the local hardware store while spunky Foster has negotiated a deal with diner owner Angry Wayne (ha!) to supply a daily order of home baked goods. See, Foster is a Food Network superfan -- her idol is a fictitious ex-military food host named Sonny Kroll -- and she loves nothing more than practicing her own kitchen cooking show while perfecting her already scrumptious cupcake and muffin recipes. When Foster meets local legend Charleena Hendley, once a famous Hollywood star but now a bossy recluse, her most closely guarded secret is revealed. Seems that underneath her optimism and seemingly boundless spirit, Foster views herself as a stupid, hopeless loser. She has accepted a cruel teacher's label of being "limited." Why? Because, as only her mom knows, Foster cannot read.

If you think a story about illiteracy and cupcakes seems either tedious or manipulative, I can assure you, it's not. Foster sees baking as a way to spread love and kindness, and that warm spirit envelops the whole story. Indeed, this novel has a homey, comforting tone even when dealing with potentially gritty issues like domestic violence, poverty, and grief. There is also plenty of humor, much of it provided by the over the top Charleena and Foster's new best friend, a short, controlling filmmaker named Macon. Yes, many of these supporting characters are outsized personalities, but in the scope of the story, it works. Because Foster is so realistically portrayed -- she is very middle school, alternating between shy, engaging, funny, sullen, hopeful, impatient, etc. -- she grounds the story, allowing the bigger personalities to shine without becoming irritating.

All the lessons here about believing in yourself and your potential, persevering through hardship (one character is even named Perseverance Wilson), and opening yourself up to life's possibilities are gently delivered. They seem to spring organically from the story itself, so it never feels like the narrative is being interrupted. And for a novel directed primarily at younger readers, there are some truly lovely, nuanced scenes -- in particular, I'm thinking of Foster's "re-graduation" ceremony after learning to read and her final pretend cooking show -- that deliver quite an emotional punch.

"Close to Famous" is a charming, heartfelt story with a delightful main character, plenty of heart and humor, some easily conveyed life lessons, and enough mouth watering descriptions of food and cooking to make you hungry. I don't see how you can miss with that combination! I'm sure "Close to Famous" will be as beloved by middle schoolers as all of Joan's previous novels. "Close to Famous" is out now. My recommendation: read it. :-)

PS - I was so pleasantly surprised to see that the cover image, which is meant to depict Foster, is that of a girl with light brown skin. Foster is multiracial, so it was refreshing to see that accurately reflected on the cover. Well done.

01 February 2011 @ 01:38 pm

I'm already in love with Gary D. Schmidt for writing 2007's Newbery Honor book, "The Wednesday Wars." In his forthcoming novel, "Okay for Now" -- which I scored in advance through Net Galley; huzzah! -- we follow one year in the life of Doug Swieteck, a minor character in the Vietnam era "The Wednesday Wars." "Okay for Now" is just about a perfect middle school novel. It's filled with endearing characters, heartwrenching coming of age incidents, plenty of self-deprecating humor and laughs, and such rich, honest emotion that I found myself smiling through tears several times. If this book does not receive, at the very least, another Newbery Honor, there is truly no justice in the world of children's books!

The Vietnam War is still raging in the summer of 1968 when the troubled Swieteck family moves from Long Island to the tiny upstate town of Marysville, New York. Doug's father is a drinker and a bully, his older brother (unnamed through much of the story) is a budding thug, and his beleaguered mom is doing her best to keep on a brave face, especially while oldest brother Lucas is off fighting in the war. To supplement the family's very modest earnings -- dad is hanging on to a menial job in the local lumber mill -- Doug begins a weekly Saturday morning job delivering groceries to Marysville residents. Among other residents along his route, he meets the eccentric playwright Mrs. Windermere, who has a fondness for ice cream, a yearning for the god of creativity, and a soft spot in her curmudgeonly heart for "skinny delivery boys." The passages depicting Doug's journeys with his grocery-laden wagon, particularly in the steamy summer months and frigid winter ones, are alternately hysterical and deeply touching ... and sometimes both!

Each Saturday after finishing his route, on the only day it is opened each week, Doug visits the Marysville Public Library. He is intrigued by John James Audubon's striking picture of a crashing arctic tern and its "terrified eye." Kindly librarian (woot!) Mr. Powell notices his interest and patiently, slowly teaches Doug how to draw the tern and other majestic birds from the glass-encased Audubon book. Each chapter of "Okay for Now" begins with an Audubon plate and relates a theme from the given picture to Doug's own life, his family, and his burgeoning artistic talent. If this sounds horribly boring, I swear it's not! It is a charming device, completely original, and a lovely, subtle way of depicting Doug's journey of growth and self-discovery. Along the way, we learn that cash-strapped Marysville is selling off pages from the priceless Audubon book, leading to a subplot where a determined Doug vows to make the precious book whole again.

Why should you care about a boy from the 1960s who spends his free time drawing Audubon birds? I understand your skepticism! But Doug is such a superbly crafted character that you will eagerly turn the pages to follow his story. Doug is a total middle school boy in his love of baseball (and the Yankee's Joe Pepitone!), his sense of humor, his blossoming affection for the grocer's spunky daughter, Lil, and his quiet protection of his mom and family. But Doug is also presented as a real, multidimensional kid, so he often retreats into a petulant dislike of "stupid" Marysville; he doubts his own talents and abilities; he mouths off to the gym teacher and school principal (although it's deserved in both cases!); and he abandons projects as soon as obstacles appear. In other words, he's relatable and flawed. Doug is also special, as he stubbornly, fiercely guards the kinds of secrets no 8th grade boy should have to carry. Doug is a great combination of bravery, heart, and humor, and he possesses both a rebellious nature and an optimistic spirit. I ADORED HIM!

What else works here? I loved how gently encouraging so many of the adults are toward Doug, who is in a world of pain from his father's drinking and abuse. Besides Mr. Powell and Mrs. Windermere, the lumber mill owner, grocer, and two teachers take a keen interest in Doug, while the seemingly sadistic gym teacher (later shown to be a tormented Vietnam veteran) eventually plays a pivotal role in Doug's life. So much of the story involves cultivating the hidden promise and potential in people -- not just Doug, but his wounded brother Lucas, spit upon and rejected by war protesters and small-minded neighbors; his older brother, finally revealed as Christopher, who is so much more complex than his sullen exterior and criminal reputation suggest; and even his sweet yet steely mother, who looks upon a gifted orchid like it's a treasure. Along these lines, there is also a wonderful theme about life being full of incredible possibilities -- this is the era of the moon walk, after all -- such that even a poor, uneducated kid like Doug with, frankly, a brutal home life, can imagine himself free and soaring. Rock on!

So, yeah, there's also a bit of romance, some babysitting adventures, a Broadway play, a plastic toy rocking horse named Clarence, and some truly quirky, almost screwball elements thrown in. Does all of it work? For the most part. By the time Doug's hero Joe Pepitone shows up at Jane Eyre on Broadway, I was fully prepared to suspend any and all disbelief and just go along for the sweet ride. I think you will be, too. Read "Okay for Now" for its insight into the late 1960s, its realistic characters, its many laugh out loud scenes, its incredibly heartfelt moments -- I dare you not to cry when Doug plays on the skins basketball team for the first time! -- and its lovely depictions of friendship, hope, redemption, and possibility. In the story, Doug immediately relates to the nobility of Audubon's brown pelican; for me, this wonderful, funny, uplifting novel has a beautiful nobility all its own.

PS - My one criticism: I can live with the so-so title, but the cover featuring a boy with a bag on his head? Really? Oh, Houghton Mifflin, I know you can do so much better.