Friday, July 29, 2011

Forgotten by Cat Patrick

Every night before sixteen year old London Lane goes to sleep, she writes a note to herself outlining the things of importance that happened that day: she found out about a test tomorrow, she wore a certain outfit to school, she had a fight with her mother. This is necessary because her memory is wiped while she sleeps, and she wakes up not remembering a single thing that happened before.

This is already a fairly tricky concept, but Cat Patrick makes her debut novel Forgotten even trickier. Not only does London not remember what happened in the past, she does “remember” what will happen in the future. So she’ll know the answers to tomorrow’s test today, but as soon as tomorrow actually arrives, she won’t even know there was a test scheduled in the first place – unless she leaves herself a note.

I don’t know if there is a way to tell this story and manage to avoid gigantic plot holes. Patrick doesn’t find a way to do it, but she’s still crafted a heck of an absorbing read, so I was able to suspend my disbelief a little more than I’m normally willing to.

Of course, there’s more to the story than just London surviving high school with her condition without anyone catching on. (Her mother and her best friend are two of the few people who know about it.) One day, London meets Luke, a cute boy at her school, but she doesn’t have any future memories of him. Knowing her condition, she concludes that this means she won’t ever see him again. If she did, she would “remember” it.

Except she does see him again. And she continues to see him, and even starts to date him, all without ever remembering him. There is clearly something different about Luke.

And then there’s that strange memory that keeps invading London’s mind – a memory of a funeral sometime in the future, where London sees a number of friends and family members and feels a deep sense of sorrow. Whose funeral will it be? And can London prevent the death from happening?

The twin mysteries of Luke and the funeral propel the story forward. London’s relationship with Luke is sweet – she manages to convince him she remembers him day after day by keeping meticulous notes of their conversations – although it does get a little tiresome to hear her remark on how hot he is every time she meets him. Frustratingly, and this may be a bit of a spoiler so stop reading now if you’re sensitive to that sort of thing, the mystery behind Luke is never fully explained. He does have a secret, but it doesn’t have anything to do with why London doesn’t remember him in her future – that part is never explained. I could get over so many of the other problems with the concept, but this one made me a little crazy.

The mystery concerning the funeral memory is handled better. I’ve read several accounts of readers being blindsided by what they perceived as a “twist” near the end of the book, but it seemed to me like a perfectly rational explanation for the clues Patrick had placed throughout the novel. I suppose what I mean is that I treated this book as much more of a traditional mystery than others may have – I expected there to be a major solution near the end and felt the answer Patrick gave us worked well. It was logical (within the context of London’s condition, at least), fit all of the clues, and packed a pretty good emotional punch as well.

Patrick has a real sense of urgency to her writing style, making this a page turner that I wanted to finish in a single sitting. She also gave me a good sense of London’s character – I felt like I knew her, and as a result I sympathized with her and rooted for her. Overall, Forgotten is a strong debut. Even less than careful readers will pick up on its problems, but it’s enjoyable and engrossing nonetheless.

Review copy picked up at TLA. Forgotten is available now.

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Thursday, July 28, 2011

What I'm Reading Now: Twitter-Style

Summer hasn't been my best reading time this year, it seems, but I have been enjoying a lot of different kinds of books. Here's a peek at my small stack of current reads, Twitter style! If you've read any of these, I'd love to hear what you think.

Toads and Diamonds by Heather Tomlinson: This fairy tale retelling set in India is one of the two books in my bracket for nerds heart ya judging. Slow and a bit overwritten for me.

American Wasteland by Jonathan Bloom: Adult non-fiction to satisfy my obsession with eating healthy and well. I love these sorts of books, but I fear they make me more obsessed.

Where Things Come Back by John Corey Whaley: This contemporary debut ya came out earlier this spring and slipped my radar. Set in the south, this coming-of-age tale sounds up my alley.

Hooked by Catherine Greenman: I haven't read a story about a pregnant teen in a while. This debut looks good. Preg stories are becoming popular again. Hate the cover.

The Boyfriend List by E. Lockhart: One of my teens recommended I read this one, and since I send her home with piles, I can at least read one of her choices.

Can I See Your ID? True Stories of False Identities by Chris Barton: False identities fascinate me. This teen non-fiction is a new release and one I hope to book talk this fall. Lots of built in appeal.

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Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Silent in the Grave by Deanna Raybourn

Silent in the Grave, Deanna Raybourn’s debut effort, opens with the death of Lady Julia (née March) Grey’s husband, Edward. Edward had been sickly since a child, so his death was expected. What was not expected, however, was a private investigator named Nicholas Brisbane telling Lady Julia that her husband did not, in fact, die of natural causes. He was murdered.

Before his death, Edward had been receiving threatening notes using quotations from the Bible, including the one from which the novel gets its title: Psalm 31:17 – Let the wicked be ashamed, and let them be silent in the grave. Edward had hired Brisbane to determine the source of the notes and hopefully prevent the violence they implied. Julia is at first disbelieving, but when confronted with one of the notes, she chooses to keep Brisbane in her hire in order to determine if Edward was indeed murdered and if so, who the culprit is.

As Julia and Brisbane dive headlong into the mystery, they uncover all sorts of secrets – about Edward, about Julia’s household servants, and about Brisbane himself. This being a book from MIRA, an imprint of Harlequin, there’s a fair amount of romantic tension between the two leads, but this is a mystery first and foremost.

And it’s a great one. Julia is a terrific protagonist – a little snobby, but broad-minded enough to be relatable to a modern audience. She’s plucky, headstrong, smart, and funny, and Brisbane is wonderful as her enigmatic partner in sleuthing. Raybourn pours on the historical details, but it never becomes tedious. Instead, it makes the period come alive, elegance and decay alike. And the plots and subplots and sub-subplots are twisty and surprising and always interesting to read about.

There are some hitches. At times, characters’ actions or words will contradict. For example, Julia tells the reader how much she preferred the late Edward’s blonde good looks, and a few pages later remarks that her teenage fantasies always involved dark, brooding men – exactly the opposite of Edward. I understand that this helps develop Julia’s character and her budding romance with Brisbane, who is very much a dark, brooding man, but it seems clunky.

Additionally, characters often act in what seems to be an anachronistic way. The March family speaks rather freely about sexual affairs, homosexuality, prostitution, and other topics we modern readers tend to believe just weren’t discussed openly in prim and proper Victorian times. Julia’s elder sister Portia is, for all intents and purposes, a fully out lesbian and lives with her lover Jane, and the family doesn’t seem to suffer much socially for it. Of course these things did go on then as they do now, but the way the characters react to it strains credulity. Their sensibilities are a bit too modern to be believable.
These are minor quibbles in an otherwise fantastic story. Silent in the Grave has everything required for a nearly perfect romantic historical mystery: lots of witty banter, a solid (and wonderfully salacious) central mystery, a large and colorful cast of characters, plenty of period detail, and several subplots to keep you interested in case you solve the main mystery before the sleuth does. Plus, Raybourn resolves mostly everything but leaves one small thread purposefully dangling so you’ll be eager to pick up the sequel once you’ve finished. Which I promptly did.

Borrowed from my local library.

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Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Between by Jessica Warman

Elizabeth Valchar is celebrating her 18th birthday on a yacht with a few of her friends, including her boyfriend. They have a little alcohol, a little weed, and she falls asleep happy. Then she's woken in the middle of the night by a thumping noise against the side of the boat. To her horror, Liz sees that it's her - her own body, drowned in the sea. 

Liz is dead, and the only person to keep her company in this strange between place is Alex, a classmate of hers who was killed in a hit and run accident earlier in the year. Alex has been existing - if you can call it that - in this place for awhile, and he's learned how it works. They can drift in and out of each other's memories, and by doing so, they can piece together the events that led up to each of their deaths.

By moving through Liz's (and occasionally Alex's) memories, a picture of Liz forms. She is pretty, popular, rich, and not terribly nice. She and her group of friends treat Alex and others like him - the unpopular, the awkward, the poor - shamefully. It's nothing personal, just how things are. But despite Liz's privileged status, we see that she wasn't happy in her life, either. She had been running insane amounts each day and been eating less and less. People worried she was following in her mother's footsteps, who suffered (and died) from anorexia. 

But Liz's problems extended beyond just the eating disorder. Something happened that led to her death, something most likely connected to Alex, and with Alex's help, Liz will figure out what it is - and by doing so, hopefully enable her killer to be caught and Liz and Alex to move on from this between place they inhabit.

If this all sounds very familiar to you, don't worry - it should. The premise is nearly identical to Amy Huntley’s The Everafter, which was a Morris honoree in 2010. It’s also got a lot in common with Lauren Oliver’s Before I Fall – mean girl dies and must investigate a mystery. It’s not a very original concept, and the mystery itself isn’t difficult to figure out (I deciphered both aspects of it hundreds of pages before Liz did).

Despite those strikes against it, Between is highly engaging, and I credit Warman’s writing for that. Her language flows and she’s created a great character in Liz. She starts out like your stereotypical mean girl, but like in all good books, she grows (despite being dead). And we as readers see that she maybe she wasn’t so two-dimensional in the first place. People aren’t easy, they can’t be pigeonholed, and Liz is no different. In that respect, the book is as much an education for the reader as it is for Liz.

Warman is less successful with Alex. He is vital to the story, and he needs to be present to move the plot along, but that’s all he is: a device. I never felt like I knew Alex beyond his role as a clue for Liz. This is Liz's story, so this fault doesn't cripple the book entirely, but it does weaken its impact. 

Even though the mysteries behind Liz's death and Alex's presence in the between place with her are easy to solve, there are a number of other subplots that keep the reader's interest. What secrets does Liz's family keep? Why had she been running so much? Liz has the unique privilege of seeing how her friends and family react to her death, which is riveting - who hasn't thought about how their own loved ones would react to their death at some point? So although the mystery wasn't really much of a mystery, there was enough here to keep me up late at night to finish the book.

Warman also develops a good dynamic between Liz and her friends on the yacht, particularly her boyfriend and her stepsister. The relationships between the characters are believable, and Warman convinces the reader to care deeply about Liz, despite her many flaws. That's the mark of a good writer. 

Warman's writing really carries this story. The central plotline isn't original, but the writing is good enough to make it worth the read anyway. That's not really a rousing recommendation, but I do think it speaks rather well for Warman's skill at her craft.

Review copy picked up at TLA. Between goes on sale August 2.

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Monday, July 25, 2011

Everything Beautiful by Simmone Howell

Riley Rose is a badass.

She's a little insubordinate, a little broken, a little overweight, and a little over it all. The thing is, though, she's totally comfortable with who she is, despite the fact she's experienced a loss that's rattled her and one that's caused her to accept a woman into her life that she otherwise hates: her stepmother. And it's her stepmother who insists she spend a week at a camp for Christians, something Riley would never in a million years want to do. She doesn't believe in God and she certainly doesn't want to spend an entire week pretending around a bunch of kids who are the kinds of kids she'd never be caught dead hanging out with.

But she has no choice.

When Riley gets to camp, she finds herself an instant outsider, and she doesn't make any effort to fit in, either. Instead, she finds herself looking around the fringes for the kids like her, the ones forced to be here, rather than the ones who chose to be here because they want to be. Lucky for her, though, she finds herself a companion in Dylan, a boy bound to a wheelchair and a boy about whom many campers whisper. There's something about him that strikes her as important, and it's not his disability. It's something much deeper and something that will change her views of faith and belief -- something she'd never in a million years admit could happen at a "god camp."

This book has been on my radar for a really long time -- upwards of a year. But I couldn't find it anywhere, in any book stores or libraries near by. I finally broke down and bought it online, with the notion it was the kind of story I might fall in love with, as it combined all of the elements I love in a story. And let me say, it hit every single note perfectly.

Riley is one of the best written female leads I've read in a while. She's got an attitude and a prejudice against everything, but she's completely okay with this. It's who she is and it's what she identifies with. But the fact of the matter is, she's really a hurting girl, and as readers, we're given insight into this slowly in the way she reacts to different situations going on around her. Immediately upon getting to camp, she's dropped into a room with two girls she classifies as "god kids," and she's not interested in giving them the time of day. She's above them, better than them and what she perceives as their perfect lives. But the thing is, one of her roommates is hurting and unhappy, and it's Riley who dives in to lend her a shoulder and an ear. She would never admit to it, and she'd never suggest she cares, but she does. She's built a million walls around her, but the fact is, they're all cracked and crumbling, and we're able to see it both from her mind and from our removed place as readers.

Riley is comfortable with herself and her physical appearance, even though she can get a little defensive about it at times. She's overweight, and she knows she sticks out amongst fellow campers for being an unathletic fat girl in a camp where there are athletes and outdoor enthusiasts aplenty. But never once does she suggest dieting, never once does she wallow in pity about her weight (other than mentioning she's gained so much due to being put on birth control pills). This plays such a crucial role in the story, I think, and it's a detail that would sell this title to many a reader easily.

Everything Beautiful has what might be the most wonderful romance I've read in a long time. Riley, despite being against everything this camp stand for, begins to find herself developing feelings for Dylan. Dylan is a bit of a camp legend, having once been one of the most athletic and strong campers; the thing is, an accident changed Dylan from an athlete to a disabled boy, and he hasn't been forthright about the cause of the accident. By being reticent about it, he's caused quite a stir in the camp, and many speculate about the horrible thing he must have done to get himself in that situation. And it turns him into an outcast.

Dylan's loss, combined with the loss Riley experiences in her mother's death, brings them together in an unexpected and sweet manner. But, of course, neither admits to it readily. Instead, they dance around their affections for one another by causing a bit of mischief and mayhem. I'm not a big romance person, as I find it often overdone in novels, but Howell nails it perfectly, and she does so in a way that never compromises either Riley's wild independence nor Dylan's slight aloofness.

One of the biggest themes in this book is that of belief and faith. The story is set in a Christian camp, which is meant to be an opportunity for teens to connect with one another and with their spiritual beliefs. Even though Riley is adamantly against religion and downright offended to be spending a week around people who hold beliefs completely opposite hers, this is a story of Riley learning that she is a person who has immense amounts of faith. And that's really the crux here: faith. Howell nails the idea that faith comes in a multitude of forms and shapes, and that no one matter of having it is better or more legitimate than another. People like Riley, who have no spiritual belief system, and people like many of the other campers who hold themselves as devout Christians, can all unite under the idea of having faith, whether it's in a God or in themselves. This revelation is such a powerful moment in the story and one that really snapped together all of the little pieces of the story I'd already liked. There really aren't enough stories about faith and belief that aren't overly preachy or one-sided, and I'm thrilled that this book exists to defy the stereotypes of this subgenre.

Everything Beautiful has easily become one of my favorites books for its strong characterization, powerful and believable voice, and for the well-woven themes of faith and love. This book also tackles the notion of grief quite powerfully and in a way that further proves everyone grieves differently (something I've talked about before). Hand this to fans of realistic fiction and to those who like sharp, biting, but ultimately aching main characters. It isn't what I'd call a clean book, and it incorporates enough moments of humor to temper the heavier topics at hand. Bonus: this book's set in Australia, so there's some fun setting and slang-related writing teens who like foreign books will enjoy, but the way it's written never becomes distracting. This back list title is worth the time to visit.

My only criticism is that I can't get the book with the cover I've chosen to include here. My cover looks like this. As anyone who has read this blog knows, I hate books where a fat girl has been made skinny on the cover, and without doubt, the American publishers chose to create a cover which makes 180+ pound Riley into a thin girl.

Book reviewed from a personal copy.

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Friday, July 22, 2011

Bad Taste in Boys by Carrie Harris

Kate Grable is a math and science nerd. She wants to be in the medical profession in her future, and she's been lucky enough to play doctor to the high school football team during their season. Not really a doctor, of course, more like a student trainer and assistant to the coach. Lucky for her, it's an awesome resume-builder and it lets her hang close to the guy of her dreams, Aaron.

During the course of the season, Kate becomes suspicious of coach, though. It seems like he's slipping his players some sort of steroids. Which is illegal, of course, and dangerous for the coach (if he gets caught), for the players (it'll ruin their bodies), and for Kate (a permanent dent on her record and surefire way not to get to med school). Bad as that would be, it's actually a whole lot worse. Coach hasn't slipped his players any sort of steroids. He's slipped them something much more dangerous, something that could change the entire face of this high school for good. And coach himself might have imbibed in this dangerous poison.

When every hunky guy in school suddenly becomes a flesh-eating, mindless, horrifying zombie, well, Kate knows she's in for the type of experience that might get her into something a little different than a medical school.

Bad Taste in Boys does exactly what I need in a paranormal book: it combines a realistic setting, a driven main character, and funny writing into a story that pushes the limit of the absolutely absurd. See, I don't usually like paranormal books because they try hard to be serious or to delve into a topic with some sort of deeper layer of meaning. I know not all do, but many do try to make some sort of greater point. The thing is, when I sit down to enjoy a paranormal book, I want something so out there that I'm laughing out loud. I want my mind to not be thinking of something greater or deeper, and fortunately for me, this zombie romp is a comedy of the strange.

Kate is an extremely relatable character. She's a passionate girl who not only wants to do well in school, but she finds ways to put her passion into practice. She's not one-sided though; we have the opportunity to see her engaged in friendships and in her family relationships, and we have the chance to see her swooning over Aaron, the boy of her dreams. Kate is smart and savvy, and throughout the course of her interactions with the football team, we see she's quite a likable character, too. And when things go south -- and they go south fast -- she uses her brain to concoct a solution. What I think I appreciate about Kate more than anything in this book is that she is not dependent on anyone but herself to solve a problem. Many books, especially mainstream paranormal titles, fall into the boy-saves-girl trope, and Harris's book avoids this. Even when Kate crushes hard, she never forgets who she is and what her own end goals are.

Bad Taste in Boys is a fast paced read, as the action picks up nearly immediately. I should note that it's also a bit of a gruesome read in this effect, as the zombie virus causes members of the football team to engage in behavior that leaves some with scabs and leaves some with dismembered body parts.

But here's the thing: it is really, really funny.

Throughout the course of the story, I found myself laughing out loud more than once. As much as Kate's a headstrong character, she's also funny. Her observations about the zombie situation, which could easily become scream-worthy scenes, are alight with humor. It's no big deal when coach loses her foot and, you know, Kate carries it around. When Kate walks over the dead body of one of the football team's family members, she could break down and lose everything, but she doesn't. Instead, she makes some environmental observations that detract from the grim situation and instead, offer a good laugh.

Although I found myself engaged with this story, I had a challenge with the ending of the book. This is a short book -- just about 200 pages -- and the subplots are what really drew me in. Near the end of the book, readers discover the answers to dozens of questions that arise throughout, including why Kate felt responsible for solving the zombie outbreak, why coach slipped his players this zombie serum in the first place, how the zombie virus could be reversed, and what happens to those responsible for creating this chaos in the first place. When things had a chance to fall into place, it felt a little rushed; I wanted to know more about the consequences of the coach and his provider's actions. I was extremely curious, too, what the later effects would be on the players and on the school. An extra chapter or two exploring this or perhaps leaking some of these questions a little sooner may have tightened it up for me.

That said, Bad Taste in Boys is a light paranormal read, brimming with laugh-out-loud moments and a lot of zombies. Who hasn't imagined their high school football team turning into a horde of zombies? Pass this book off to your paranormal fans, as well as those who humorous stories. And naturally, it's one to add to your ever-growing list of zombie lit, and it's one that stands out from the crowd for its unique take on how to reverse the disease.

I bought this bad boy.

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Thursday, July 21, 2011

Love Lies Bleeding by Jess McConkey

Jess McConkey's novel Love Lies Bleeding is only the second adult book I've read this year (not including audiobooks and comics). The first one was Jennifer McMahon's Don't Breathe a Word, a book I received from Harper Paperbacks that impressed me quite a lot. Based on Don't Breathe a Word, Harper does quite well with female-driven thrillers and mysteries, so I was pleased to receive another book in the same vein - Jess McConkey's debut (this one from William Morrow, another paperback imprint of Harper Collins).

The books share some similarities - both involve 30-something female protagonists who become caught up in a mystery that may or may not have otherworldly explanations. Beyond that, though, the similarities end. While McMahon's novel was well-written with compelling characters and a nicely spooky tone, I found McConkey's writing sub-par. The suspenseful plot was there, but it lacked almost everything else required for a great read.

The first problem is the characters. Our protagonist is Samantha Moore, a thirty-five year old woman who was brutally attacked in a parking lot one night and has been sent by her overbearing father and fiance to recuperate in a cabin in rural Minnesota. Her father hires a nurse, Anne Weaver, to care for her, which includes monitoring her medication and administering physical therapy. Sam has a few neighbors in the town, and it quickly becomes apparent that these neighbors have a lot to hide - and the secrets all seem to involve a woman named Blanche who used to live at the cabin Sam now inhabits.

Sam's situation should have created automatic sympathy for her on the part of the reader. Instead, she's almost unbearable. It's understandable that she should be experiencing a fair amount of self-pity after what happened to her, but it's taken to extremes here. What really bothered me was her relationship with her father and her fiance, Jackson. Sam allows them to micromanage her life and her recovery and then acts like she has no power over the situation, which is completely false. She's not a minor with no legal way of taking control of her own life - she's an adult with a fair amount of money and the ability to take care of herself. But she doesn't. She prefers to whine. I understand that characters must begin somewhere small so they can grow over the course of the novel, but Sam is just unbelievable as a grown-up. When teenagers act like teenagers, it's good writing. When thirty-five year old women act like teenagers, it's just annoying.

Sam was the biggest problem, but not the only one. The level of the writing overall was poor. Characters say things that contradict their earlier actions, sentences feel awkward or too simplistic, and McConkey inserts clumsy chapters told from the unnamed bad guy's point of view that muddle things up and make the red herring glaringly obvious. It felt like the work of an amateur. When writing is great, it's easy to tell. The writing here is not great.

I had a few other minor complaints (subplots are left unresolved and some characters are hard to distinguish from one another), but poor writing and an unlikable protagonist (whom the author wants so badly to be likable) are enough to damn any novel. That said, I did find the overall plot compelling enough to make me finish the book. I wanted to know whodunnit, and in making me want that, McConkey accomplished at least one thing that she set out to do. I'll look for more suspense novels from William Morrow, but I'll probably pass on anything else by McConkey.

Copy received from the publisher. Love Lies Bleeding will be on shelves July 26.

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Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Display This: Asia and South America

This is the last installment of our around the world Display This series, and we're making our final stops in Asia and in South America (since there is a real lack of ya lit set there). We've already been to Australia/New Zealand, Canada and Mexico, Europe, Africa, and the Middle East. As usual, selections are not all-inclusive, and they're limited to one book per author (kind of) and firsts in series that are sequential. Some countries, like India, have a wealth of books set in it, and I've limited selections to just a few. These books are easily accessible in the United States. All are fictional titles, and covers and descriptions come from World Cat. If you can think of other titles that fit, share in the comments! Without further ado, here we go.


Trash by Andrew Mulligan (Philippines): Fourteen-year-olds Raphael and Gardo team up with a younger boy, Rat, to figure out the mysteries surrounding a bag Raphael finds during their daily life of sorting through trash in a third-world country's dump.

Heart of a Samurai by Margi Preus (Japan): In 1841, rescued by an American whaler after a terrible shipwreck leaves him and his four companions castaways on a remote island, fourteen-year-old Manjiro, who dreams of becoming a samurai, learns new laws and customs as he becomes the first Japanese person to set foot in the United States.

Blood Ninja by Nick Lake (Japan): When Taro's father is murdered he is rescued by a mysterious ninja. With his best friend and their ninja guide, Taro gets caught in a conflict for control of imperial Japan. As Taro trains to become a ninja, he becomes less sure that he wants to be one. But when his real identity is revealed, it becomes impossible for Taro to ignore his destiny.

Now and Zen by Linda Gerber (Japan): American teenager Nori Tanaka has never thought much about her Japanese heritage, but when she travels to Japan for a summer academic program to escape from her parents' impending divorce, she discovers a new way of looking at both herself and the world.

The Fetch by Laura Whitcomb (Russia): After 350 years as a Fetch, or death escort, Calder breaks his vows and enters the body of Rasputin, whose spirit causes rebellion in the Land of Lost Souls while Calder struggles to convey Ana and Alexis, orphaned in the Russian Revolution, to Heaven.

The Diamond Secret by Suzanne Weyn (Russia): Nadya is a mischievous kitchen girl in a Russian tavern. Having nearly drowned in the Iset River during the turmoil of the Revolution, she has no memory of her past and longs for the life she cannot remember. Then two young men arrive at the tavern and announce that Nadya's long-lost grandmother has sent them to find her. Yearning for family and friendship, she agrees to accompany them to Paris for the joyful reunion. Nadya eagerly embarks on her journey, never dreaming it will be one of laughter, love -- and betrayal.

Toads and Diamonds by Heather Tomlinson (India): A retelling of the Perrault fairy tale set in pre-colonial India, in which two stepsisters receive gifts from a goddess and each walks her own path to find her gift's purpose, discovering romance along the way.

Climbing the Stairs by Padma Venkantraman (India): In India, in 1941, when her father becomes brain-damaged in a non-violent protest march, fifteen-year-old Vidya and her family are forced to move in with her father's extended family and become accustomed to a totally different way of life.

Secret Keeper by Mitali Perkins (India): In 1974 when her father leaves New Delhi, India, to seek a job in New York, Ashi, a tomboy at the advanced age of sixteen, feels thwarted in the home of her extended family in Calcutta where she, her mother, and sister must stay, and when her father dies before he can send for them, they must remain with their relatives and observe the old-fashioned traditions that Ashi hates.

Lucky T by Kate Brian (India): Carrie gets upset when her mother gives her lucky T-shirt to Help India, now she's only having bad luck, so she decides to travel halfway around the world to get her lucky shirt back.

Karma by Cathy Ostlere (India): In 1984, following her mother's suicide, 15-year-old Maya and her Sikh father travel to New Delhi from Canada to place her mother's ashes in their final resting place. On the night of their arrival, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi is assassinated, Maya and her father are separated when the city erupts in chaos, and Maya must rely on Sandeep, a boy she has just met, for survival.

Bamboo People by Mitali Perkins (Burma): Two Burmese boys, one a Karenni refugee and the other the son of an imprisoned Burmese doctor, meet in the jungle and in order to survive they must learn to trust each other.

A Million Shades of Gray by Cynthia Kadohata (Vietnam): In 1975 after American troops pull out of Vietnam, a thirteen-year-old boy and his beloved elephant escape into the jungle when the Viet Cong attack his village.

Wild Orchid by Cameron Dokey (China): After disguising herself as a boy to join the Chinese army, Mulan returns home only to face an arena that frightens her more than any battlefield--the royal court where she must honor her family through marriage.

Great Call of China by Cynthia Liu (China): Sixteen-year-old Cece travels to China in an attempt to discover her roots and possibly find out about her birth parents.

Chenxi and the Foreigner by Sally Rippin (China): When Anna travels to Shanghai to study traditional Chinese painting, she immerses herself in the local culture. She spends time with Chenxi, the good-looking and aloof classmate who is her student guide, and soon realizes that it is harder to escape being a wai guo ren--a foreigner--than she expected. When she unwittingly draws the attention of officials to Chenxi and his radical artist friends, she must face the terrible price of her actions.

Dragons of Darkness by Antonia Michaelis (Nepal): Two boys from very different backgrounds are thrown together by magic, mayhem, and a common foe as they battle deadly dragons in the wilderness of Nepal.

Peak by Roland Smith (Nepal): A fourteen-year-old boy attempts to be the youngest person to reach the top of Mount Everest.

Sea by Heidi Kling (Indonesia): Despite recurring nightmares about her mother's death and her own fear of flying, fifteen-year-old Sienna accepts her father's birthday gift to fly to Indonesia with his team of disaster relief workers to help victims of a recent tsunami, never suspecting that this experience will change her life forever.

South America

South America as a setting seems to be lacking in the young adult world, so any additional titles you know of, please share. I'd like to see more down here!

Violet by Design by Melissa Walker (Brazil): Despite her intentions to give up runway modeling, eighteen-year-old Violet is lured back by the promise of travel to Brazil, possibly Spain and France, and, after seeing her best friends off to college, embarks on an, often exciting, often painful, international adventure.

Croutons for Breakfast by Kathy Wierenga (Venezuela): This book is the seventh installment of the "Brio Girls" series. Hannah and Jacie both undergo personal transformations as God reveals Himself to them in new ways on a Brio missions trip to Venezuela.

Boy Kills Man by Matt Whyman (Colombia):
Two thirteen-year-old boys, blood brothers and best friends, get drawn into a dangerous, violent world on the streets of a troubled Columbian city.

City of the Beasts by Isabelle Allende (Chile): When fifteen-year-old Alexander Cold accompanies his individualistic grandmother on an expedition to find a humanoid Beast in the Amazon, he experiences ancient wonders and a supernatural world as he tries to avert disaster for the Indians.

Exposure by Mal Peet: Paul Faustino, South America's best soccer journalist, reports on the series of events that hurl Otello from the heights of being a beloved and successful soccer star, happily married to the pop singer Desdemona, into a downward spiral, in this novel loosely based on Shakespeare's play, Othello.

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Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Audiosynced: The False Princess by Eilis O'Neal

Nalia is the crown princess of the country of Thorvaldor, raised to know that she will one day be queen. Except she’s wrong – she’s called into the throne room one day and told by the people she thought were her parents that her real name is Sinda, and she’s a false princess.

When the real Nalia was born, the Oracle gave a prophecy that stated she would die before she reached age 16. Therefore, the princess was taken to a safe location and another baby – Sinda – was brought in to take her place for sixteen years. Now that the real Nalia has survived to age sixteen, the charade can end. Nalia is brought to the palace and welcomed by the citizens of Thorvaldor, while Sinda is sent to a country town to live with her aunt (her real mother abandoned her and her father died some time ago).

Sinda, while not proud, finds this arrangement almost unbearable. Her aunt is a dyer, a trade which Sinda knows nothing about, and her attempts to learn are fruitless. Furthermore, the woman is cold and unsympathetic, and the townspeople gossip about Sinda. She has no real friends there and misses Kiernan, the noble boy who was her dear friend at the castle.

When Sinda discovers that she has magical abilities, she leaves her aunt and the country town and moves back to the capital city. She’s taken in as an apprentice by an eccentric old female wizard and begins to settle in to a content – if not completely happy – life. But things don’t remain calm. Soon, Sinda uncovers a conspiracy involving her, Nalia, and yet another girl in another place. She and Kiernan dig into the past in order to expose the person who set in motion a plan to topple the ruling family sixteen years ago.

There were a lot of things I really enjoyed about The False Princess, Eilis O’Neal’s debut novel. Sinda has a strong, interesting voice. She’s believable with understandable strengths and weaknesses. She seems like an actual teenager, not an adult who occasionally makes bad decisions. Most importantly, she grows throughout the novel – she learns to stand up for herself and not just accept what is given to her. She learns to ask (or fight) for more.

The plot itself is fairly standard, but that’s not a bad thing. People who pick up books like these want a fun mix of magic, adventure, and romance, and that’s exactly what O’Neal delivers. And she did manage to surprise me at a pivotal moment, which I really appreciated.

Mandy Williams narrates the story slowly, in a soft but clear voice that is perfect for contemplative Sinda. She doesn’t give much variation for other characters, but that doesn’t harm the story. It’s told in the first person, so the minimal differentiation makes sense.

That said, I felt like the writing was lacking in parts. In half a dozen spots, I was able to speak the story aloud simultaneously with Williams – and I had never read or listened to the book before. This indicates clichéd or unoriginal prose, which is too bad. O’Neal is deft at characterizing Sinda, but the writing lacked sparkle otherwise.

I’d hand this one to fans of re-told fairy tales and books in the vein of Ella Enchanted (though it doesn’t come close to Gail Carson Levine’s level of humor and charm). It doesn’t deliver anything new, but it’s a tried and true kind of story and it’s told well. As a tween or young teen, I just know I would have pictured myself as Sinda (who is somewhat timid, has brown hair, and loves to read) as I read the book. It’s definitely a winner.

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Monday, July 18, 2011

The Babysitter Murders by Janet Ruth Young

I like books that are a little twisted. The more grounded in reality a book is and the more twists is throws, the more it makes me question character motives and desires, the more I find myself enjoying the book. Janet Ruth Young's forthcoming The Babysitter Murders was strange, haunting and one of those reads that will be sticking with me for a long, long time. In the midst of creating a plot rife with horror, Young offers us a sympathetic and relatable main character who wants nothing more than help for struggling with a severe mental disorder. Moreover, this book was even a little funny.

Dani is a babysitter, and she loves the little boy for whom she's in charge. It'd been a dream for her to babysit, and she lucked out with babysitting Alex. The book opens with something innocuous: the television news reporting on a murder that'd taken place. Dani, wanting to protect Alex, takes him out of the room and tries to wipe the images of the dead child's body being removed from the scene of the crime out of her mental image.

But she can't. In fact, this scene keeps replaying in her mind. Dani's fixated on this idea, and she begins to wonder if maybe she could commit a murder so vicious. It's not that she wants to, it's that she would never want to do something so gruesome. But the thoughts won't escape her head, and every time she sees Alex, she has to stop thinking about what it would be like to kill him. She goes through routines of making sure things like the sharp knives are hidden, that any potential weapons are out of her reach and line of vision.

Dani can't handle the thoughts anymore. She wants to be able to function normally, to not think about killing this child she adores so much. And she reaches out -- she tells Alex's mother about these thoughts in an effort to get some help and in an effort to clear her mind. Everyone has strange thoughts, and Dani wants to get it out there.

The problem comes, of course, in that Alex's mother is not okay with hearing Dani has had thoughts of killing her son. Even though Dani's admitted to never doing it and not wanting to do it, Alex's mother doesn't do Dani any favors; instead, his mother calls the police to come "take care" of this girl who wants to kill her son. She's sent to the police, where she's questioned, then she's sent home, where her life gets only harder, not easier, when she begins seeing a therapist for these thoughts. Dani's got obsessive compulsive disorder, with an emphasis on the obsessive, rather than compulsive, aspects, and the support structure she desperately needs to overcome her thoughts just doesn't exist.

In the effort to not spoil the story, I won't explain why the ending is one of the most enjoyable I've read in a while. But it was -- Dani will get her say in the matter of her life, even if it may land her in more, rather than less, trouble down the road.

The Babysitter Murders was one of the most terrifying (yet funny) books I've read in a while. Young manages to take an exceptionally scary topic and idea and weave just enough humor within it to temper the heavy issues. The book is fast paced, and it's one I read nearly in one sitting because I was eager to learn what would happen to Dani: would she ever recover? Would she put these obsessive, unhealthy thoughts into action? Would she ever get the help she desperately needs?

Dani was an exceptionally well written and sympathetic character. We're given insight into her thought process and her mind throughout the story, and even though it is skewed from normal thinking, we actually understand everything she's going through. Everyone gets fixated on thoughts, so we relate; where we realize there's a problem with Dani's thinking is that she cannot let it go, and she goes through the motions to ensure she doesn't accidentally follow through in some of her thoughts. In one scene, she's in music rehearsal, thinking about doing something to her instructor; she becomes so obsessed with whether she's actually performed the act she's been thinking about that she has to step back and ask her friend if she's just done something weird or out of the ordinary (she hasn't). It takes what most of us experience on a daily basis and amplifies it. For me as a reader, the scariest things are those I understand and relate to, not those that are so outlandish I could never connect with -- but here, I connected with Dani because I understand completely these strange, skewed thoughts. The difference being, of course, I can stop mine while she cannot.

The biggest thing that stood out to me in the book was how sympathetic Dani was as a character. She's the one who reaches out for help again and again, even though she's treated poorly in the process. Rather than allow herself to do something that could land her in huge trouble and ruin the lives of others, she reaches out to an adult she trusts for help. The problem, of course, is that the adult betrays her trust and immediately considers her a criminal, rather than someone with a true mental disorder. It's not just in this instance, though, that Dani becomes a target. After she's been taken away from Alex's home by police, her arrest hits the newspapers; the police reports list taking an under age girl into custody for a "threat" to kill a small child. Though her name is never listed as the girl (since she is underage), it takes little more than some Googling for people in town to figure out who the person is, and she becomes a target for hatred in her community. Even the police write her off as a rich kid who needed a hobby, rather than a very mentally ill teen who needed help. As readers, we know what a good person she is, but there is no one in this story who is on her side. Dani cares so deeply about the people in her life, yet no one wants to reach out and show her the same sort of love. It's painful to read because we understand her and because we want the people around her to get it, too.

Onto the humor of the story -- perhaps funny isn't the word many people would use. Perhaps the reason this book resonated as a bit humorous to me was because it's uncomfortable, and Young knows this. To make it less a horror read, she offers just enough small details and interactions between characters that are absurd, and these absurdities undercut the seriousness of the greater plot and scenes. It's not played as a trick or as a slight of hand, but rather as a way to reground the story in reality. Because even in the midst of exploring a severe mental illness, there is still a lot of humor in life and in character, so it's critical these moments are highlighted. Both the readers and the characters deserve these moments to breathe and recollect. I'll be honest in saying I don't know if it's a universal humor nor that everyone will find the funny in the book, but for me as a reader, it was spot on. It was a bit of an uncomfortable and unsettling kind of funny that I appreciate greatly and find is hard to nail. Young, however, succeeds here.

As I mentioned earlier, though, this book ends with a bang. I cheered for Dani throughout the story, and I wanted her to get better and find a way to recover and earn respect again in her community. In the last chapter, I think she achieves this, and she does it in a manner that shouldn't have caused me to cheer (but it did). Although this story is focused on Dani's OCD, it's also a story about relationships and how tricky they can be to navigate and understand; the end, I think, tied up the loose ends about what relationships meant to someone with such disordered thinking.

This book reminded me a lot of Tom Perrotta's Little Children, though Young's target readership is young adults. The books both look at the effects of being an outsider within a community, and both bring up the idea of vigilante justice. Dani becomes a target of violence and hatred out of misunderstanding and out of prejudice, much like the recovered pedophile does in Perrotta's story.

The Babysitter Murders is one to hand off to fans of psychological thrillers, though there's less emphasis on the thriller aspect and more on the psychological. It's a contemporary story about mental illness, and it's one that won't be for every reader -- it can get a little visual in discussing murder and justice. It's suited to its age group, and I think it's easily one of those books that teens who prefer adult contemporary titles will find enjoyable (and it may even change their mind about any prejudices they may have about ya books). I could see fans of books like Stolen (Christopher) and Forbidden (Suzuma) enjoying this one quite a bit, as well, as it tackles a heavy issue while developing a fantastically sympathetic lead character. This is a book that will have easy crossover appeal to adult readers, as well, especially those who like books in the same vein as Tom Perrotta.

Even though it's a heavy book, it is balanced with the right amount of humor, too, making it one of those books that perfectly toys with the reader's mind and emotions.

Galley received from the publisher. The Babysitter Murders will be published July 26.

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Friday, July 15, 2011

Guest Post: Behind the Scenes of the My Life Undecided Book Trailer

To say this is a guest post I'm excited about would be an understatement! Today, we're bringing our readers a look into the life of the making of a book trailer by Jessica Brody, author of MY LIFE UNDECIDED (published last month and reviewed here in brief) and 2010 debut THE KARMA CLUB. Jessica has two of the best book trailers out there, so when we had the chance to ask her to talk about making the one for MY LIFE UNDECIDED, we had to get the scoop.

I, for one, love going behind the scenes of anything. Universal Studios Backlot Tour? I’m there. Bonus Features on a DVD? Yes, please. Film Screening with a special Q&A with the director? Where do I sign up? I’m a sucker for those “Making Of” stories that supposedly spill all the best Hollywood secrets.

Which is why when I was asked to write this post, I jumped (rather enthusiastically) at the chance. Don’t get me wrong. I don’t presume to think that my “behind the scenes” stories from the set of the MY LIFE UNDECIDED Book Trailer are anywhere near as cool as the “behind the scenes” stuff from let’s say, AVATAR, but I hope you’ll enjoy them nonetheless!

So here are my top four “Behind the Scenes” stories from the MY LIFE UNDECIDED Book Trailer. Complete with cool photos from the set! And be sure to check out the trailer itself below.

1) Stunt Doubles? We Don’t Need No Stinkin’ Stunt Doubles!

The rugby “tackle” scene was my favorite scene to shoot. It was also our very first scene of the entire production so everyone was really excited and pumped.

I wanted the tackle to look as realistic as possible so I cast a professional Stunt Woman (the fabulous Jessica Bennett) to play the Rugby Player and she gave our talented (and very brave) young actress (Taylor Coliee) a crash course in stunt tackling.

The first thing we did to make sure Taylor was safe was pad her up. Jessica placed pads on strategic areas of Taylor’s body to make sure she was protected from the “tackle.”

Then, in order to get Taylor comfortable with the idea of being rushed by a charging rugby player (definitely not something you experience every day...unless, of course, you are a rugby player), we did a few takes where Jessica (our stunt woman) actually picked Taylor up and carried her off frame. Just to get her used to the idea of being “tackled.”

Then, once Taylor was comfortable with the action, we did a real tackle. But instead of having Taylor hit the ground, we used a trusty crash pad and a spotter, which you obviously can’t see in the actual footage.

And although we did end up using it in the final trailer, we also shot a few takes of Taylor “hitting the ground” in case we wanted to cut to that in the edit. This was actually kind of fun. We had Taylor and Jessica lie down on the grass and then filmed them literally getting up from that position. It’s a common movie trick. In order to make it look like she’s actually falling to the ground, all you have to do is reverse the shot and speed it up. When you cut that quickly together with the “tackle” shot you get the impression that she really is being tackled to the ground.

2) You’re Under Arrest!

The arrest scene was SO much fun to shoot. We used what’s called a “Picture Car,” which is basically a prop car that looks like a real police car. It’s the same kind of cars they use in all those procedural cop shows like CSI and Law and Order. We rented this car from a great Picture Car company called Aardvark Props. The guy who owns this company actually made the car himself. How cool is that?

We all had just a bit too much fun with this scene. It was really comical because we’d all be laughing and having a blast and then we’d yell action and Taylor and Rob (our cop) would suddenly have to look all serious. Because he is supposed to be a cop and she is supposed to be getting arrested! But thankfully they were talented actors and had no problem switching the seriousness on and off.

It also happened to be freezing out that night and poor Taylor had this skimpy little outfit on for her costume. So after each take, someone would run out with a blanket and wrap her up. Here she is between takes. She was such a trooper!

3) The Great Debate

The debate scene was hilarious. I wish we could have used more footage of Cesar Manzanera (our debater). He was so funny. Everyone was cracking up. When he came into the audition, I laughed so hard I cast him right away. He was just perfect. Even Taylor had trouble keeping a straight face at times, as evidenced here. This is a photo from when I directed them to do the scene where he’s debating so passionately he nearly knocks her in the head. Both of them appear to be on the verge of laughing.

4) More Windex Please!

There’s a small reference in the book to a moment in Brooklyn’s life, when she was eight years old and a “neighborhood kid” dared her to drink Windex. It’s one of the many “bad decisions” she’s made over the years. When I decided to put this part in the trailer as a flashback to demonstrate Brooklyn’s history of Decisionally-Challenged-ness, I knew it was going to be a blast to shoot. And it was!

The two young actresses we used were such pros. For Riley Chambers, the girl who plays Brooklyn age 8, this was her very first acting gig (although you’d never be able to tell!) And you might recognize Emily Skinner, the girl who played the Neighborhood Kid, because she’s been on tons of TV shows. They were both fantastic. So talented and professional and fun to work with.

Of course, we didn’t use actual Windex. My husband and I had a great time at the supermarket picking out a beverage that looked the most like Windex. And guess what won? Mountain Berry Powerade! Yum!

We did a couple takes where Brooklyn reacts to her father walking into the room and yelling at her. She was supposed to look “busted” but we ended up not using any of the takes because no one could stop from laughing. Every time Riley would react, she would spit the Powerade all over the counter and we would all crack up. It was hilarious!

But no matter, I was still so thrilled with the scene that we ended up with.

So those are my top four Behind the Scenes stories! I hope you enjoyed them! If you want to see more photos from the set, be sure to visit my website:!

And also, check out the book’s new interactive website, where you can post your tough decisions and poll our readers for some advice...just like Brooklyn!

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