Wednesday, August 31, 2011

My Beating Teenage Heart by CK Kelly Martin

Sometimes you read a book that just leaves you a little breathless. One that you go into expecting something and leave having taken a lot more than you thought you would. That was the experience in reading CK Kelly Martin's latest, My Beating Teenage Heart.

From the beginning of the story, we're kept distant. We know we're being talked to by Ashlyn, who is unsure of who she is or where she is. She feels like she's falling from the atmosphere, but she has no sense of her body or her purpose, but she immediately latches onto Breckon. He's lying in bed, broken, and she knows that she needs to see his story. For some reason, Ashlyn believes her story is also part of his story, and for her to understand this place she's in, she needs to follow Breckon.

At this point -- after only a couple of chapters -- I began envisioning a story much like Amy Huntley's The Everafter. It's a similar premise from the beginning, but Martin's story telling led me to believe she'd take me something different, new and unexplored, and she did.

Ashlyn begins revealing more and more about herself as she begins to see more about Breckon. He's just lost his sister, but as readers, we're not savvy as to how she died. He's in deep mourning, and he blames himself for the loss. Through this blame, Ashlyn experiences moments of complete recollection about her own life. As readers, we learn she's been through something horrible, something unimaginable. But it's been so removed from her in this afterlife that she experiences the pain again both within herself and as she begins to understand and sympathize with what Breckon experiences with his sister.

My Beating Teenage Heart is not a straight up contemporary novel, nor is it a strict fantasy. It's more speculative, and it treads the lines between the two genres. Going into the book is a little overwhelming, but it has to be. Since Ashlyn's the initial narrator, and since she's suspended in a place she doesn't understand, we don't get a completely clear sense of story from the beginning. But that's what drives the novel. The topics covered in the story are incredibly emotional, and as readers, we're able to easily trust Martin to tackle these things gracefully.

I bring up the trust issue because that's an essential element to making this story work. I've read many books with this idea before -- where someone begins to piece together their life in the afterlife -- but because Ashlyn is easy to immediately connect with and because she so strongly develops an interest in Breckon, who is alive and yet suffering from something earth shattering, I knew the story would travel to somewhere unexpected. And it did. Breckon and Ashlyn have a connection to one another, but it was a completely unexpected and effectively executed.

Martin's writing style is fluid, and even though we're given both the voices of Breckon and of Ashlyn, both are believable and dynamic enough to differentiate their stories. I mourned with Breckon, and I mourned with Ashlyn, too. The unraveling of her story in particular is smooth and the suspense building well played. I cared deeply about both of these characters and their stories. Voice is always my biggest power tool in a good book -- I can get into any genre if there's a powerful voice behind the story, and without doubt, My Beating Teenage Heart captures two incredible voices. Even if the story had fallen apart or taken me somewhere I'd been before, I could have forgiven it based on this element alone. Fortunately, we get a story here, too.

Here's the only spoiler I will give about the book: you'll need a kleenex or two for the last chapter. The way it comes together is not only powerful, but the language, the sentences, the words -- they're all the big players here. Many readers and writers believe that a lot of writing is itself about the act of writing, and it's here that Martin really puts the message out there. It's a hopeful ending, too, though not necessarily one that's rock solid. It's a little messy, leaving the reader a bit suspended at the end as well.

Pass this along to your fans of contemporary stories like If I Stay or Before I Die, as well as those who have enjoyed books like Huntley's The Everafter, Alice Sebold's The Lovely Bones, and Gabrielle Zevin's Elsewhere. This book is powerful and intense, and it is frank in sexual situations, as well as in other difficult to read topics (I won't mention in detail since they're all key to the unraveling of the story). Death is a heavy topic here, not a light one, but Martin's storytelling will satisfy readers. I think this is an easy sell to not only teens, but adult readers, too. My Beating Teenage Heart is easily at the top of my 2011 favorites list.

Review copy received from publisher. My Beating Teenage Heart will be available September 27. Check back Friday for a chance to win a copy here!

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Tuesday, August 30, 2011

All These Things I've Done by Gabrielle Zevin

It’s the year 2083 in New York City, and Anya Balanchine’s life is about to implode. Her father, a big-time mafia boss who dealt in illegal chocolate, has died, leaving her to take care of her younger sister Natty and her older mentally-handicapped brother Leo. Their legal guardian is their grandmother, who is so ill she is confined to her bed. This leaves Anya the de facto caregiver to everyone.

Additionally, Anya’s mafia family is exerting pressure on her to become involved in the business. She resists, and she’s especially put out when they try and involve Leo in their shady dealings. She worries that the family might expect her to step up to the plate and occupy the position her father held.

But things don’t completely suck for Anya until she breaks up with her jerk boyfriend. He comes over late one night to beg her for a piece of the contraband chocolate, and she gives in just to get him to go away. Then he lands in the hospital, poisoned, and the source is that piece of chocolate.

Suddenly Anya becomes embroiled in everything she tried so hard to avoid – the legal system, chocolate dealing, her mafia family, and even the son of the district attorney (although she didn’t really want to avoid him…). Anya must find a way to protect herself and her family, as well as determine who is really poisoning the Balanchine chocolate.

Anya lives in a unique dystopian New York. The city is full of crime (even more so than today) and the people have chosen to scapegoat chocolate and caffeine. At one point, an older character compares the prohibition of chocolate and caffeine to the Prohibition of alcohol in the 1920s – it’s ineffective and causes more problems than it prevents.

There are also indications of widespread destruction. The Statue of Liberty is only a memory and Liberty Island now houses a massive prison. The Metropolitan Museum of Art has been mostly destroyed, and what’s left has been turned into a club called Little Egypt (for the Egyptian artifacts that remain).

Unlike most dystopias, however, the dystopian environment does not take center stage, and the primary struggle is not against the dystopian elements. This could have been a book about the modern-day mafia and been almost the same story. It’s refreshing but also a little disappointing. As an avid dystopia reader, I love learning about all of those awful little details that make up the horrible future world, and I didn’t get a whole lot of that in All These Things I’ve Done. I thought the chocolate mafia was an interesting detail, but it wasn’t developed enough and left me a little dissatisfied.

Anya’s voice, however, is terrific. She’s a little wry, a little sarcastic, a little world-weary, and clearly cares deeply about her siblings and her grandmother. She's just the right combination of smart and naive to be believable as the daughter of a mafia boss with a lot of responsibility but also a teenager.

Unfortunately, I was not as enamored of Leo as a character. I always dread it when authors include a mentally handicapped character in their books because I worry that he will be used a device rather than a person. Need a way to make trouble for the main character? No problem – just have her mentally handicapped brother do something unwise, she’ll try to protect him, and she’ll be in a world of hurt. It came as no surprise that this is exactly what Leo does, on more than one occasion. It got to the point where I didn’t want to read about him because I knew he would be used in this way. I think it’s kind of a cheap tactic and one I’ve seen used too often.

That said, I did enjoy All These Things I’ve Done. Zevin’s writing is solid, the voice she’s created for Anya is engrossing, her plot is fast-paced, and her world-building is interesting (albeit underdeveloped for my tastes). I look forward to the second installment, just not with bated breath.

Review copy provided by the publisher. All These Things I’ve Done hits shelves September 6.

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Monday, August 29, 2011

The Shattering by Karen Healey

Keri’s beloved older brother Jake has just committed suicide. Jake had always seemed like a happy young man, and the suicide is both unexpected and traumatizing for Keri and her family. Because of Jake’s suicide, Keri reconnects with her old friend Janna, whose brother had also committed suicide some years ago.

Only Janna doesn’t believe the deaths were suicides. She introduces Keri to her friend Sione, whose brother had also committed suicide recently. Janna and Sione have been researching the suicides that occurred in their New Zealand town of Summerton, and they determined that there was one suicide per year, always around the same time. They are also curious about the fact that Summerton is always prosperous, always sunny at the turn of the year, and no one ever really seems to leave. The two girls and the boy investigate the suicides and it slowly becomes apparent – to Janna at least – that magic is at work. Keri and Sione are less sure, but all three follow the clues to determine what is really going on. Danger, heartache, and a little bit of romance ensue.

One element I really enjoyed about The Shattering was the diversity in the cast. Both Keri and Sione are at least part Maori. With Sione, who looks lily white but has a Maori name, this tends to be a problem. With Keri, it’s not as much of an issue. I like that Healey handled it this way. She is able to simultaneously show that non-white characters in teen fiction can be in a story that is not mainly about their race, as well as show the reality that race does matter.

The Shattering is told from Keri, Janna, and Sione’s perspectives in alternating chapters, although only Keri’s is first-person. While this may seem like an odd choice, it works. Keri is clearly the protagonist and we identify and sympathize with her the most, but Janna and Sione are also well-drawn, fully-fleshed characters with believable flaws that don’t prevent them from being likable. It can be difficult to portray three grief-stricken teenagers in such a way that they all clearly have their own voice, but Healey pulls it off admirably.

I normally avoid mysteries that have a magic or supernatural flavor. Since I like to try to puzzle out the solution myself as I read, I need to know that the laws of physics will be followed: the culprit isn’t invisible, doesn’t have superpowers, and can’t stop time. If magic is on the table, then it’s almost impossible to know the rules and therefore impossible to deduce the answer. Really, it could be anything.

Usually, that’s no fun. Not so with The Shattering. Healey is honest with her use of magic and doesn't spring magical elements on the reader as a cheat or deus ex machina. She presents the reader with a set of rules, albeit not the rules we usually find in the real world, and she does it believably by showing how the main characters eventually transition from being deniers to believers. That way, when the characters (in particular Keri) buy into it, the reader does too.

The end of The Shattering is what lifted this book from a four star to a five star for me. Obviously I can’t say much about it, but even after the main thrust of the book has been resolved, Healey has more to say about life and love and death and grief. It’s moving, and despite the fantasy elements of the novel, it’s also true.

Review copy received from the publisher. The Shattering hits shelves September 5.

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Friday, August 26, 2011

Cover Doubles: He Loves Me, He Loves Me Not?

These aren't exact replicas of one another, but they're so close, they could be. I like the images on both covers, as I think they stand out from the typical girl-on-the-cover look.

I'm Not Her by Janet Gurtler published May 1 by Sourcebooks. I love the title placement and font on this one. The only thing I can say about this, really, is that it looks younger than the intended audience, I think. This is a teen book, but it reads more middle grade to me, as the girl modeling has a much younger look to her -- even though you can't see her, you can tell she's less mature than a teen girl.

Second Hand Heart by Catherine Ryan Hyde published by BlackSwan (a London publisher) in 2010. I love the yellow title font against the green grass, and for some reason, I love how the flower petals look on this cover, as opposed to the Gurtler cover. For some reason, this girl reads older to me than the other cover model does, as well. Perhaps it's the perspective, as we don't see a shirt, which is one of the elements that made the first cover look younger.

Does one stand out to you more? I think they're both pretty good.

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Thursday, August 25, 2011

Rot and Ruin by Jonathan Maberry

Zombies are people, too. Or at least, they were.

That’s the lesson Benny Imura learns the first time he goes out zombie hunting with his older brother Tom. Tom’s a zombie bounty hunter (he prefers to call himself a “closure specialist”) and has agreed to take Benny on as an apprentice when Benny’s other attempts at holding down a job fail. Benny’s just turned fifteen, and in the post-apocalyptic world he inhabits, where zombies outnumber humans, all fifteen year olds must work a part-time job or have their rations cut in half.

Tom’s a different sort of zombie hunter who eschews the violent tendencies of the other big-name hunters and takes his job seriously. What exactly it is that Tom does when he goes hunting will surprise you, so I won’t share it here – you’ll have to read the book to find out. It’s one of the many surprisingly moving moments in this terrific book that is equal parts humor and heart.

Of course, hunting zombies (zoms for short) isn’t all Rot and Ruin is about. While the zoms provide plenty of action, the real conflict is with other living, non-rotting humans. Benny practically hero-worships the big-name zombie hunters – Charlie Matthias and the Motor City Hammer, for example – and looks down on his older brother, who he sees as weak and cowardly. Part of that feeling stems from the fact that when the zombie apocalypse occurred, Tom swooped up Benny (who was a toddler at the time) and ran away, leaving his mother to be turned by his already zombified father.

So things are tense between the brothers. Then Benny’s friend (and potential girlfriend) Nix Riley is abducted by Charlie and the Hammer, and Benny and Tom venture out into the great Rot and Ruin to rescue her from a pretty awful fate. They must battle zombies, contend with the murderous bounty hunters, and hopefully find the mysterious Lost Girl, who may be the key to rescuing Nix.

The first sections of Rot and Ruin are pretty hilarious. They chronicle Benny’s attempts – with his friend Chong – to land a part-time job. This might have been tedious reading in a world not overrun by zombies, but the zombie apocalypse has created a plethora of new jobs that are a riot to read about. For example: Benny interviews to assist an artist who specializes in erosion portraits – zombified images of family members that people pay for. Benny and Chong also try their hand at being pit throwers (unloading dead zombies from the backs of trucks and throwing them into the fire), carpet coat salesmen (literally, selling coats made out of carpets so zombies can’t bite you), and locksmith apprentices (to keep the zombies out of your home in case they break through the fence).

While the first portion of the book is definitely the funniest, Benny’s narrative voice keeps the funny going in bits and pieces throughout, despite the serious turn the story takes when Nix is abducted. I can count on one hand the books I’ve read that are this successful at combining laugh out loud humor with true poignancy (The True Meaning of Smekday is another one that does it). Rot and Ruin is so successful, in fact, that my eyes welled up at the end. (Yours will too, trust me.)

Maberry is an old hat at zombies in the adult fiction market, and it shows here. He’s created a fantastically detailed and believable world. In Rot and Ruin, the zombie apocalypse is more than just a punchline or a device to creep you out, and that’s something I really appreciated.

The main criticism I have of Rot and Ruin is with Tom: he’s just too perfect. Sure, Benny resents him, but we know from the get-go that his resentment is misplaced. Tom not only has a heart of gold, he’s a badass fighter, a father-figure stand-in, and exemplifies the qualities of compassion and mercy. He’s the ultimate boy scout. He’s someone to look up to, to be sure, but he’s also someone who’s a little annoying because of it.

Of course this is a minor quibble in an overall fantastic book. There’s a sequel out August 30, but don’t take that to mean Rot and Ruin isn’t a complete book – it is, thank goodness. It just means that Maberry has more stories to tell about Benny and his world, for which I am very grateful.

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Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Lie by Caroline Bock

As a reader of and advocate for contemporary literature, it always excites me when a topic comes up that I haven't read before. Caroline Bock's debut Lie tackles a hate crime, which was something I haven't read before and which excited me to read. More than that though, this book handles the topic in a unique matter, giving perspectives from more than one narrator and delving into issues of not only race, but also of class and status.

Skylar's boyfriend Jimmy's been accused of brutally attacking two Latino immigrants in a neighboring town. Skyler's being asked about it because she was the only witness there that night, but she has kept a vow of silence about everything she's seen. She wants to protect Jimmy, but the more she thinks about the crime and the more she delves into the greater meaning of everything, the more she wonders if keeping her silence is the best thing she should be doing. It's not just Skylar at the helm of the story, though. Jimmy's best friend Sean is also debating whether or not he played a role in the assault and whether or not he needs to face the music himself.

Lie is a slower paced book, and it's one that requires paying a lot of attention. That's not to say it's a bad thing, but rather, this isn't a book you will breeze through. When I started the book, I expected it to be a bit of a louder read because the topic at hand seemed like it would call for that. I was pleasantly surprised it wasn't because it forced me to listen to what all of the different characters were telling me. In listening, I, too, was forced to think about the moral issues the characters debated.

This is a book that tackles multiple points of view, and I believe Bock does a pretty good job nailing them all. We're given the perspective of Skylar and what she's going through as a witness to a crime. We believe in her mental anguish, and we want her to do the right thing. Sean's voice is given to us next, and all we know is that he's sitting in jail for the crime. He makes bail eventually, and this is one of those details I drop in the review because it does play a larger role in one of the secondary story lines. Then we hear from Lisa Marie, who is Skylar's best friend and one of those people in her life who helps her realize she plays her own part in the crime and she needs to do something about it. We also get the chance to meet Skylar's father, who is an EMT. Of all the characters in the book, he has the most distinct voice, and it's one that begins in denial. He's convinced his daughter knows nothing and while he feels bad for the kids who were beat, he also thinks it's ridiculous his daughter is being punished for it.

Continuing the story are the principal at the high school that Skylar, Jimmy, and Sean attend. Her role is much less about telling the story than it is about setting the backdrop for where and what these come from. I liked this about her character, and I appreciated that she isn't introduced to readers immediately. Her first appearance is about 1/3 of the way through the book, which gives readers enough time to meet the main players in the story and build confidence or disbelief in who they are before getting further back story. Along with the principal, we meet coach Martinez, who oversaw both Jimmy and Sean on the ball field. He, like the principal, plays less a role in the story as a character and more as a voice to offer back story and development for Jimmy and Sean.

Finally, two characters who also chime into the story are probably the ones that spoke to me the most and really made the story flourish: Gloria Cortez, the mother of the two boys who were brutally attacked, and Carlos Cortez, the boy who was attacked and didn't require lengthy hospitalization. With Gloria, we learn why and how her sons Carlos and Arturo made it to America and why she wanted them to be here. When she learns of the attack, she makes arrangements to get back and pray Arturo, who was still quite injured in the hospital, back to health.

It sounds like a lot of characters and a lot to keep track of, but in all honesty, it's well done. I believed every voice, and I felt like each of them contributed something greater to the plot than any one character telling the story alone could. Moreover, I thought it did a lot of favors that the description of the book didn't. The book depicts Skylar as a devoted girlfriend to Jimmy because he saved her. I'm not sure what that even means, and while reading, I kind of anticipated some sort of romantic subplot that would detract from the greater importance of the story. However, the romance here is really not a big part of the story, and never once did I get the feeling from Skylar that she was a love drunk girl who needed to be rescued by a boy. Instead, I bought a girl who was terrified to turn in someone she cared about, and she would have been in that position no matter who the person she was with was. Although information dumps in stories can be tiresome, Bock does a great job of using her characters to do the information dropping in a way that's not simply convenient nor flat. I get a full sense of who both the principal and the coach are, even if their roles are smaller than many of the other characters.

One of the things that really worked for me in this book was the setting. It takes place on Long Island, and the characters really feel authentic to the place. They're from a variety of backgrounds and statuses, and that's sort of the key. These characters range from middle class (which is something that the principal talks about) to lower class and immigrant. The disparity is palpable, and it creates tension in the story that amplifies the severity of the hate crime that happened. Readers are put into the same position as Skylar, as we do develop a sympathy for both the victims and the perpetrators of the crime. We know what's right and wrong, and we have our expectations and beliefs validated when Gloria and Carlos have their chance to talk in the story, but we still have a sense of understanding to Jimmy and Sean. For me, the story was less about the hate crime and more about the realities and hardships faced by different classes and social statuses.

This was far from a perfect book, as it did take quite a while for the storyline to pick up. There are a few big reveals that don't come until 2/3 of the way through the book, and given the slower pacing of the story, it felt like a long time to wait. I also never bought the depth and devotion in the romantic sense between Skylar and Jimmy, and it's really unfortunate that that plays such a big part in the book's description. It doesn't need to. The story is about whether to tell the truth or to lie, and it's about the millions of things in one's life that makes doing something that seems so simple so challenging.

Lie would make for a fantastic book discussion book, as I think that it's relatable and understandable to readers on many levels. This is the kind of book you give to those who like their stories with depth and with slower pacing. Bock's book strikes me as the kind of story with potential to be considered for awards as well because it is genuine and it is well-written. It doesn't fall into a lot of the traps books like this can that tackle a serious issue and do so with more than one voice. It's also a shorter book, clocking in at 224 pages; the story is tightly edited and after reading a ton of books that went on just a little too long, I appreciated this. It's also a paperback release, for those of you who purchase with a tight budget.

If I may, one of the things I think I like a lot more about this book than I should is the title. Lie sounds simple, but in the context of the book, it holds a lot more meaning. I think it's probably one of the smartest titles in a while.

Review copy picked up at ALA. Lie will be available August 30.

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Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Binky the Space Cat and Binky to the Rescue by Ashley Spires

Binky is a space cat, although no one else in his household knows it. He’s received his official letter from F.U.R.S.T. (Felines of the Universe Ready for Space Travel), which means he is ready to venture outside of the house and into outer space (known simply as “outside” to the rest of us). Binky’s goal as a space cat is to protect his family – a woman and her son – from the aliens that encroach upon their home (also known as the space station). You and I may call the aliens bugs or insects, but Binky knows better.

In Binky the Space Cat, Binky begins his tenure as a space cat by building a space ship. His family ventures into space all the time, and Binky knows he must protect them from the aliens that live out there. The only way to do that is to build a space ship and go out exploring. He also must undergo a lot of self-directed training for his trip. His faithful companion Tim, a stuffed mouse, is with him constantly. Binky’s project goes fairly well for some time, but when he nears the launch date, he realizes something that changes all of his plans.
Binky the Space Cat
In Binky to the Rescue, Binky falls out a window into outer space. He is rescued by his family, but when he is brought back inside, he realizes Tim has been left outside – right underneath an alien warship! Binky mounts a rescue, all the while being thwarted by his family who insist on keeping him inside the space station.

The stories are told mostly with captions rather than dialogue. Binky is not a talking cat – he meows and sobs and munches and makes other noises, which means he is much more of a “real life” cat than his feline counterparts in other stories. It wasn’t what I was expecting – I’m so used to talking animals by now that I’m surprised when they don’t talk – but it made for a nice change. Spires’ narration is witty and sly and just right for kids, who should get a real kick out of Binky’s misunderstanding of common everyday items as things from outer space.

Because Binky doesn’t speak, he communicates a lot through his facial expressions. All of his emotions are crystal clear and highly amusing. In fact, I’d say Spires excels more at the illustration aspect of storytelling than the writing, although she’s no slouch at writing either. As a bonus, these books are full-color, something I almost always require in a graphic novel before I’ll even consider picking it up.
Binky to the Rescue
Possibly my favorite review of this series of books is the one from School Library Journal, which calls it “sweet and clever, and for those who disdain sweet and clever, there is also farting.” The books are perhaps not as clever as I had wished – I tend to get my hopes up sometimes – but they’re clever enough to keep me reading and enjoying. Plus, Spires includes plenty of details in the illustrations that can be picked up on a re-read (in my case, I discovered at least one new fart, helpfully pointed out to me by my boyfriend). Binky’s a winner - and there's a third adventure due out on September 1.

Books borrowed from my local library.

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Monday, August 22, 2011

At The Hub!

I've got two posts over at YALSA's YA Lit blog this month that I thought would be worth sharing. First, I talk about my love for Recovery Road and why I nominated it for the YALSA Reader's Choice Award. I really liked that book. A lot.

Today, I shared my monthly piece on debut authors who have their books out this month. I've talked about two of them here already, and one of them I'll be talking about later this week. Go check it out.

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Stay with Me by Paul Griffin

Mack's a high school drop out, and he's been tasked with a mission by his soon-to-be-deployed friend Tony, and that's to take care of his sister CeCe. Mack's skeptical of Tony's request, part because he doesn't think he's good enough to take care of CeCe and part because he thinks CeCe is a knockout and the kind of girl he dreams about. In other words, he's afraid to get too close, ruin his chances with her, and ruin his friendship with Tony all together.

The thing is, though, Mack lets himself get close to CeCe, and soon, they're a couple. Soon, he's falling head over heels with her, and he knows she's the only girl for him. Even though she doesn't share some of the passions he does, he wants to be with her. But he's also afraid to let her in on his secrets and on his past.

Mack's biggest talent, and the one thing he thrives on, is his ability to train dogs, specifically pits. When he finds a pit who has been abandoned, he takes her in and wants to rehabilitate her. This scares CeCe, who had been a victim of a dog attack before. But slowly, Mack turns CeCe around and teaches her that even a dog with a reputation can be loved. She believes him so much that she wants to adopt the rescue, which Mack named Boo. And that's when the story takes off.

It takes little time before Mack finds himself in prison, then finds himself in solitary confinement, then finds himself in the position to completely change his life around using his talents. But he also knows he's really screwed up his future. He worries he'll never get to be with CeCe again. He doesn't know if he can live with that, either.

Stay with Me is a fast-paced, urban novel that will appeal to fans of Simone Elkeles, as well as those who like their stories with edge. The characters in this story are what you'd imagine them to be: hard, passionate, and gritty. They're all good at the core, though, even if they make huge mistakes. That's what I liked about this book so much, though: as readers, we know that these are all good characters and that they make mistakes and that they are learning from them. As much as we get to know Mack's huge mistake from his perspective, we also learn that Tony's decision to enlist as a combat medic ends up being quite a bit of a mistake. CeCe's no perfect girl, either. She's struggling with a home life that's anything but perfect, and she knows that whatever happens to her brother overseas will inevitably impact what goes on at home with her and her alcoholic mother.

Griffin's book is a plot-driven narrative, but he doesn't sacrifice character development. I loved how the three main characters in this story grew into themselves and one another over the course of the story, and I felt like it was extremely authentic. There was no ah ha moment for them. The events in their lives forced them to adapt, which inevitably forced them to grow. They became stronger for that.

The romance in this book is simultaneously hot and sweet, which is why I think this book will appeal to fans of Elkeles's titles. Although CeCe and Mack seem to get together quickly, despite Mack's initial reluctance due to his own history and reputation, it doesn't feel false or contrived. Big brother Tony had a hitch they would be good together, and it simply took them actually being alone together for things to start. The way their relationship developed felt real, too, as it started slow and tenuous but rapidly moved into something more. If I were being honest, though, I'd say I felt that Mack was a little too in love immediately and I felt that, at times, he became a little too involved with the idea of CeCe, rather than the true CeCe. This ends up being the thing, of course, that helps him power through his time in jail.

Despite all of the things that really worked for me in this book, there was almost an over reliance on happenstance in the last third of the book. While Mack's in jail, he has the opportunity to work with an organization that uses criminals to rehabilitate abused and neglected dogs. It's perfect for him, and though this sort of organization doesn't really exist, Griffin notes at the end of the novel that such things have been tried before and proven successful both for the animal and for the criminal who gains a sense of self and responsibility -- and frankly, I thought this element of the story was important because it shows that even "broken" people can be fixed. However, the dog that Mack ends up working with and training to adoptability ends up becoming a convenient tool to tying him back with CeCe. See, when he goes to jail, he avoids CeCe as much as possible, but in working through this program, he's brought back to her in a way that inevitably changes their relationship. It felt too convenient and was too predictable. For a novel that kept me surprised and engaged, this last third fell apart for me because it went too much down the obvious path.

Can I also say that this cover is fantastic? What a perfectly fitting cover to the story, and I think it has mega appeal to the intended readership. Hand this book off to your urban contemporary readers. I think this will have appeal to those who like a good romance story, as well as those who like stories that include crime. In my community, my teens are very interested in stories about gangs, and even though this book doesn't tread into that territory, I know this book will find a good readership with that audience. It's a story about change and growth and overcoming one's past, which is precisely what I think appeals to fans of that genre/niche. This is a fast paced story, and I think despite the length, it will appeal to more reluctant readers.

Review copy picked up at ALA. Stay with Me will be available September 8.

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Friday, August 19, 2011

Reviews Twitter-style

I've been able to read a ton of things lately, but typing up in-depth reviews for everything I read is impossible. So, here's a few books I've dove into recently and my thoughts on them, Twitter-style. Of course, they're a little longer than 140 characters, but these are short and to the point.

Where Things Come Back bu John Corey Whaley: This quiet contemporary gem is a story about small town life. Told through dual, seemingly unrelated narratives, this layered and nuanced story introduces us to Cullen, whose brother Gabriel has just disappeared. While everyone searches high and low for Gabriel, Cullen begins his own mourning process. At the same time, we meet an academic hell bent on finding meaning in faith who is so driven by uncorking the mysteries of life and the afterlife, that he becomes delusional and destructive. Both narratives tie together over a man named John Barling, who has come to Lily, Arkansas and claims he has rediscovered the elusive Lazarus Woodpecker. This story of faith and belief is one that will appeal to those who like sharp story telling and more literary works. Faith, family, and small-town politics are all at play and all given even-handed, fair treatment, and Cullen's voice in this story is knockout: it's rich, authentic, and full of emotion that begs the reader to feel things right along with him. I suspect this is the kind of book that might see some Morris attention this year because it really is that good.

The Vespertine by Saundra Mitchell: This historical fiction, set in 1899, follows Amelia van den Broek as she's sent from her home in rural Maine to live with her cousin Zora's family in wealthy and stylish Balitmore. The goal, of course, is for her to court a suitable man and settle down but things go a bit awry. See, Amelia can see the future, and as much as it becomes a fun parlor trick that bemuses the girls in Zora's social circle, it becomes a burden when the futures start to play out in ways that ruin lives. This is a well-paced story that exudes the historical setting, right down to the language and lush, sometimes extravagant, settings. It's a clean story, too, and one that will appeal to a wide range of young adult readers. I'm eager to go back and read Mitchell's first novel, Shadowed Summer, and I am happy to say that this book left me eager to read the next book in this series. It was that engaging and fresh that, when I finished, I anticipated future installments in Amelia's story.

Kiss & Tell by MariNaomi: This graphic novel is one for fans of Julia Wertz. Naomi's written a memoir that follows all of the relationships she's been through. Rather than focus only on the romantic aspects of them, she broaches other things that worked or didn't work in the relationship. She begins with her youngest relationships -- those little kisses and "I like you" sort of things that happen in elementary school -- then delves into the later relationships. Although I liked the concept, the book was a little too long for me and felt uneven, as there was a lot of emphasis on those very early relationships and not enough on the later relationships, which had more depth and made for more interesting reading. For a first novel, though, it was a good effort, and it has piqued my interest in future stories from MariNaomi. This book would be fine for older teens and definitely adult readers, and it's completely LGBTQ friendly. Be prepared for reading and seeing what happens in real, honest relationships. That is to say, there is nudity and it's unflinching at times (and sometimes in a really funny way, too).

The Summer I Learned to Fly by Dana Reinhardt: This story was uneven for me, as it's set in the 1980s for no good reason (actually, I think anyone knows the big reason books are set in this time period frequently is that it's often a way to avoid technology and because it's a time period that many authors are comfortable with, having experienced it themselves). Likewise, I found it a bit jarring to read a story told through the eyes of an 18-year-old about being 13, as it was a little too self-reflective. That said, Reinhardt's style continues to grow on me, as she's a slow reveal storyteller, and her writing is tight. Drew is an interesting character, and I loved the setting in a cheese shop. Perhaps my favorite part of the story was the use of her father's notebooks as a way to discover who she is and a way to figure out how to be her own person. I loved seeing how much Drew related to the father she didn't know through his life lists, and I loved how, despite not wanting to be a list keeper herself, she is, and we as readers get to see her become a strong, independent person.

Dark Souls by Paula Morris: Morris's debut novel Ruined is one of my favorite books to book talk because it has a mix of so many good elements -- it's a ghost story, it's got a great setting in New Orleans and builds upon the lore of the city to enhance the ghost story, and it's a story about a girl fitting in as an outsider. It's clean and well paced, and it's one of my perennial book talk picks. I was thrilled to get to read Morris's second novel, also a ghost story, but this one was set in York, England, following a horrific accident that led Miranda to discover she had a power to see things that don't really exist. The setting and lore upon which this story is built wasn't as strong nor memorable as it was in Ruined, and I found the story to drag in more than one place. The romantic elements fell flat and were uninteresting to me, and even after finishing what should have been a really enjoyable supernatural story, I found myself disappointed. That said, I think fans of Ruined will like this one, and it's appropriate for younger and older teen readers who want a spooky story that doesn't rely on witchcraft or paranormal romance. It's a true ghost story.

Continue reading...

Thursday, August 18, 2011


Here's an interesting double-take: the same almost-kissing couple on the cover of two pretty different books.

The choice of background image is what differentiates one book from the other. The one at the left is (obviously) much darker, giving it a moody edge, whereas the one at the right screams "girly book." I haven't read either, but the synopsis for Simone Elkeles' Return to Paradise indicates that it is indeed pretty moody. I wouldn't necessarily say that putting a kissing couple on the cover of a book makes it appeal to boys, but the darker background of Elkeles' book speaks to both genders better than the pastel swirls of the other.

When I came across Reaching Through Time in a catalog, I was a little flabbergasted to discover that Lurlene McDaniel is still writing - and even more flabbergasted that the book is a collection of three romances involving time travel and NOT ONE of them seems to include a tragically terminal teenager. It was just released on the 9th - has anyone read it?

Continue reading...

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Round Robin, Taste Tested Review: Bake Sale by Sara Varon

Today, we're bringing you something a little bit different -- it's a round robin review of a graphic novel, but it's a little more than that. It's also a taste tested review. See, today's book, Bake Sale, by Sara Varon is about a cupcake who runs a bake shop and included in the book are actual recipes from his shop. So we thought it was only fair to review the book by also each trying out one of the sweet treats.

Kelly Says...

I have been looking forward to the next Sara Varon book for a long time. Robot Dreams is probably my favorite graphic novel (you can read Kim's review here), as it tackles the theme of friendship in a unique way. Bake Sale, too, is a story of friendship between Cupcake and Eggplant, and it's geared toward upper elementary and middle school students.

Cupcake owns a bakery, and he's the only one manning it. He makes his living by doing what he loves, and he has regular outings with best friend Eggplant. We're dropped in the story when Eggplant announces he'll be going on a trip to Turkey to visit his family, including his aunt, who is a world-renowned baker. It's not just any world-renowned baker though, it's Turkish Delight, who is Cupcake's ultimate idol.

Over the course of the story, Cupcake begins imagining what it would be like to meet his idol. In the course of thinking about this, he begins stumbling at his job and disappoints some of his customers. But when Cupcake finally says something to Eggplant about his envy that Turkish Delight is related to him, Eggplant insists than Cupcake come along with him to Turkey and meet her. Cupcake laments about not having the money to do that, but he decides that if he worked extra hard -- selling his baked goods all over the city and on weekends when the shop's not open and trying his hand at some new recipes -- he'd be able to raise the money. And he does!

Unfortunately, something happens in the story and causes his plans to be derailed, and Cupcake no longer has the opportunity to go to Turkey. At least, that's what he thinks.

I don't want to explain much more because this is really quite a simple storyline. The book's strength is in the concept and in the art. I'm a big fan of the soft color palette that doesn't fall into a too cliche or too sweet pastel. It's appealing and approachable, and it works with the story to strengthen it. Each of the characters in this story is unique, and the way that Varon has given each of these foods such a distinct look enhances them. Since we don't get to "meet" many of the characters through the text of the book, we rely almost entirely on the images, and fortunately, it works quite well. The one weakness to the book, though, is that I found the font used for the story to be too curly and cutesy, to the point that it becomes unreadable at times. I found this especially true in differentiating "a" from "2" in more than one place. I wish a simpler font had been chosen, as it would have also made the illustrations do more of the work, which they could have easily done.

The story itself, as I mentioned, is quite simple, and it's nothing entirely new or fresh. But for the age group it's intended for, and with the strength in the illustration, it never comes off as boring or dull. It's a friendship story with a nice lesson at the end, and any reader will appreciate this. I found the ending to this one to be pretty polar opposite that of Robot Dreams, which I enjoyed. Taken together, Varon's two stories of friendship give readers insight into the idea that friendship comes in many forms. I think this book, especially when it comes to its illustrations, will appeal greatly to fans of Raina Telgemeier's Smile.

One of the bonuses in this book is that Varon's included recipes for some of the treats Cupcake makes in his shop. There are a couple peppered in the story itself, but the bulk are in an appendix at the end of the book. And what would a fair review of this book be without having tried out at least one of the recipes?

I give you Raspberry Bars, followed step-by-step via the instructions:

Preheat the oven to 350 and mix together 2 cups of flour with 2 sticks of melted butter until it turns into a nice dough.

Press into the bottom of a 9 x 13 glass pan. The recipe suggests using wax paper to do it, but I just did it with my clean hands. Easier. That goes into the oven for about 15-18 minutes. Pop it out and let it cool.

While it cools, cut up 2 sticks of room temperate butter into small squares. Mix together 2 1/4 cups flour and 1 1/2 cups unpacked brown sugar, then press the butter in using either a pastry press or a fork (or frankly, I used my hands) until you have a crumbly topping.

Drop a cup of raspberry preserves onto the now cool dough. Leave room along the edges for it to spread out. On top of that, put your crumbly mix of flour, butter, and brown sugar. It'll look like this:

Put it in the oven for 20 minutes or so, until the top is nice and crisp. Then, you will get to enjoy something like this:

And yes, it was delicious. My husband took a bite and loved it, and even though I'm not a baked sweets person, I thought it was really good, too. We talked about how adaptable this recipe could be, too. I'm a big fan of fig, and that would have made a great filling, as would adding a bit of lemon zest to the top and filling.

Although this book is marketed toward younger readers who might not be all that kitchen savvy, I think these recipes are simple enough that it would be easy to get an adult to help and make them possible. What a cool little addition to the book -- something that definitely could take this from being a book in a library collection to a book that inspires an entire library program.

Kimberly Says

Bake Sale is a sweet little book (pun intended). It's a gentle story of friendship with a very simple storyline. This simplicity is reflected in the names of the characters (all are named for what they are - Cupcake, Eggplant, Potato, Turkish Delight) as well as the illustrations. Varon uses a lot of pastels, but doesn't let it get too precious. She relies a lot on basic shapes - circles, squares, etc. The result is a book clearly meant for children, but not done childishly (if that makes sense).

The recipes in the back are equally simple. I chose to make the peppermint brownies, which involves combining your basic brownie ingredients plus peppermint extract and letting it bake twenty-five minutes in the oven. There's also an optional frosting you can whip up in a few minutes - again, it's the basic ingredients (butter, milk, powdered sugar) plus peppermint extract (and some food coloring if you wish). Adult supervision will be required for children, since they'll need to use the oven and the electric mixer, but it's a good beginner recipe. There's nothing fancy here, but the results are tasty and demonstrate that you don't need to go to a whole lot of effort to create something delicious.

I wasn't as enamored of Bake Sale as I was with Robot Dreams. I think Robot Dreams accomplished more with its art and imparted greater meaning. It also holds up to re-readings much better. This is not to say Bake Sale isn't a worthy book. It's meant for a younger audience and it's successful in that regard. And like Kelly mentioned, it's a program in itself - what librarian could resist?

Review copies received from the publisher. Bake Sale will be available to purchase August 30.

Continue reading...

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Peter Nimble and His Fantastic Eyes

Jonathan Auxier opens his debut novel, Peter Nimble and His Fantastic Eyes, with a description of Peter's early childhood: 

"He was nursed on the milk of a wounded mother-cat, whom he met after crawling beneath the local alehouse. The cat permitted baby Peter to live with her in exchange for his picking the lice and ticks from her fur - until one tragic day some months later when the alehouse manager discovered them huddled beneath his porch. Furious at finding vermin in his establishment, the man shoved the whole family in a bag and tossed them into the bay. Using his skillful fingers to untie the bag...he managed to make it back to shore without too much trouble."

Silly and quite sad, no? But then Auxier sums it up for us thusly:

"Until this point, you have been witness to Peter's rather typical infancy - probably not unlike your own."

That was the first laugh out loud moment of the book, and there were many more to come. The irreverent tone of the omniscient narrator characterizes the book and is its greatest strength. It was refreshing to get away from the first-person narratives that pervade children's books, and especially delightful to read a voice that so consistently caught me off guard (in a good way).

When Peter Nimble was a baby, his eyes were pecked out by ravens. Blind, he made his own way on the streets and was eventually taken in by an unscrupulous man named Mr. Seamus. Mr. Seamus forced Peter to steal for him, keeping him locked up in a basement when he wasn't picking pockets and robbing residences. Peter became a terrific, and terrifically unhappy, thief.

His fortunes change when he runs into a man - a huckster, really - selling magical hats to an eager audience on the street. Peter is picking the crowd's pockets when the man calls him up to the front for a demonstration of a hat that will cure bad odor. The man seems to know quite a bit about Peter, and after the demonstration, he leaves his cart alone with the master thief. Peter can't help but take a look inside, and it is there that he finds the box of Fantastic Eyes. When he pops the first pair of eyes in, he is magically transported to another place. In this place, he meets Professor Cake, who sends him (and Sir Tode, a cat/horse/knight) on a quest to save a faraway kingdom. Numerous exciting and silly adventures ensue.

Auxier's imagination is impressive and tends toward the silly, but he keeps the stakes high. Children are used as slaves, ravens peck out infants' eyes, and monstrous sea creatures threaten to gobble up everyone we have grown to care about. Some plot points are easy to decipher, but others are completely out of left field (and intentionally so). Peter Nimble and His Fantastic Eyes is a bit of a throwback to classic children's fantasies. It reminded me a little of the Oz books, which are also full of imaginative creatures and incredibly strange bits of magic. 

That said, I wasn't ever able to really connect with the story as a whole. I approve wholeheartedly of silliness and a rollicking adventure, but I never felt much heart in the story. I don't mean there has to be a lesson, but I wanted more depth out of the tale - deeper friendships, deeper meaning, something beyond silliness and clever phrases. Auxier almost gets there with the friendship between Peter and Sir Tode, but it never reaches what it could have been.

While I enjoyed Peter Nimble and His Fantastic Eyes, it seemed to lose a bit of steam toward the end. Even younger readers will realize where the story will inevitably end, and watching Peter and his friends get there isn't as exciting when that happens. The narrator remains wonderfully witty, the creatures and people that populate the tale are imaginative as ever, and the idea behind the Fantastic Eyes is wonderfully grotesque and should have great appeal to its target audience. The book is certainly delightful, but I wanted more.

Review copy received from the publisher. Peter Nimble and His Fantastic Eyes is on shelves now.

Continue reading...

Monday, August 15, 2011

And Then Things Fall Apart by Arlaina Tibensky

Karina -- who goes by the nickname Keek -- might be having the worst summer of her entire life. She and her best friend are having a fight because her best friend wronged her. She and her boyfriend are also on the outs because of her virginity (yes, her virginity). Her parents are in the midst of a divorce because her father cheated on her mother with one of his employees, who is hardly older than she is and as a way to "clear her mind," her mother abandons her to spend time across the country with her new-born cousin who may be dying.

It sounds like a recipe for a standard teen drama, but add to this that Keek is also sick with the chicken pox and is living in her grandmother's technology-free zone with her favorite book (Sylvia Plath's The Bell Jar) and her father hiding out in the basement, and you have a book that really stands out -- it's funny, insightful, passionate, and one of the most relatable books I've read in a long time.

Although the premise makes the book sound like it's going to be a serious novel, the book is actually quite funny. Keek's got a strange but powerful sense of humor, which includes avoiding swearing, in favor of using the term "sofa king." But more than that, it's obvious that her being sick with chicken pox, which affects the immune system of teens and adults much differently than it does in younger kids, has given her some perspective on the issues in her life. That, in conjunction with being alone with no way to communicate with her friends, has given her so much space to think.

There is very little dialog in this book. It's all told from Keek's point of view, and it's told through diary form. When Keek moved into her grandmother's tech-free zone, her grandmother gifts her a type writer (hence the cover), and it's what keeps Keek occupied during her two weeks of the pox. But as much as it's a diary she's keeping, Keek is also aware that it's not private. She's sharing this story much like an author writes a book -- for an audience of outside readers to consider, appreciate, and take from it what they need. Her grandmother's been paging through it (Keek figures this one out through a few conversations she does have with her grandmother) and as much as it bothers her to know her grandmother is reading about the fight between her and her boyfriend over her virginity, she's also a bit flattered someone wants to read about her life.

See, the key part of this story is that it is a love story to writing and to literature. Keek is passionately in love with Sylvia Plath's classic The Bell Jar. Like any teen book worm, she rereads it, over and over again, and she commits to memory many of the passages and moments in the story that she relates to. She often asks herself what Esther Greenwood would do in a situation and, at times, she considers what Plath herself would do, given that The Bell Jar is semi-autobiographical. For me, this theme of the story was key to what made this book so relatable and such an enjoyable read; I got Keek completely. She wasn't a loner by any means, but she really found passion in the written word and she wanted to grasp it and live it in any way she could. She didn't hide behind books, but rather, she let them become a part of who she is and let them help guide her in figuring out how to solve the problems in her life.

I've read books before where the character becomes so enamored with another fictional character that they allow that literary figure become their role model and their moral compass. But in Tibensky's story, Keek is completely her own person. She's extremely different from Esther Greenwood, and yet she's able to relate to that character and consider the actions that character would take in her situation and adjust accordingly. Whereas Esther traps herself in a bell jar, Keek wants to break free from hers, and she takes the steps possible to make that happen. I thought this device was employed well, and I thought that the use of The Bell Jar as an obsession for a 15-year-old girl couldn't be more spot on. At 15, it was one of those books for me, so I understood Keek's passion and devotion. Those feels still resonate for me when I read the right book, and I think any reader will get this completely.

Voice is easily the strongest element in this story, and it has to be, since the story is focused entirely on Keek's internal thoughts and observations of life around her. Besides being funny, she's a real, honest 15-year-old. She fixates on things that aren't important, and as readers, we know she needs to do that to solve the broader issues and gain perspective on them. For instance, one night near the end of her sickness when she's finally able to get out of her room and wander her grandmother's house, she heads to the basement where her father's living, and she fixates on the couch from her old house. It brings up a million memories and it triggers a host of emotions within her. But it's that couch that causes her to delve a little deeper into her father's room and discover that everything she thought about him and his actions that caused the decline of his marriage may have had a deeper reasoning behind them. Perhaps her mother wasn't as innocent as she thought. I loved this way of giving us insight into the issues of Keek's life because it felt authentic.

As much as I enjoyed this book, I did have a little bit of a challenge with how smart the book was. I don't mean how smart Keek was, nor how smart the way she unraveled the underlying issues around her were. The book itself was a little too smart in its use of literature and writing, and at times, it bordered on too meta. Sometimes I wanted to be able to get it for myself, but instead, it was handed to me on a philosophical level that didn't quite ring true to the voice and understanding of a 15-year-old, no matter how much a book worm she was. I don't think this will be a turn off for readers, though, as I suspect many teens who will relate to Keek will think they're just as deep as she is, despite a lack of life experience and perspective to prove otherwise to them.

I think this would be a good book to hand to fans of Leila Sales's Mostly Good Girls because of the voice, but it's one that I think most teen girls who like to read will appreciate. If this one had been around when I was 15, I could see it becoming a bit of my own Bell Jar. It was the little things -- the setting in suburban Chicago, the passion for reading, the family issues -- that resonated with me on a real personal level, and I can't wait to start talking this book up with my big readers. Teen readers of classics will enjoy this one, too, as will your fans of Sylvia Plath (and you know who those kids are!). This is the kind of book where your passionate readers will underline passages and soak them in, mimicking Keek's actions with Plath's novel. Even I admit to underlining and noting a few really good lines in her, including my favorite, "This is the thing about great literature. It reads like truth and sticks to you forever and lets you know you're not alone." What a knockout debut.

Copy received from the publisher. And Then Things Fall Apart is available now.

Continue reading...

Friday, August 12, 2011

Want to Go Private? by Sarah Darer Littman

I didn't get the internet at home until I was 13. Back then, chatting was what we know as social networking now, and most of my gaming/chatting was limited to a few writing forums on AOL and Neopets (anyone honest would admit to that sort of thing!). But today, most kids have had internet as part of their entire lives, and that's the topic that Littman chooses to explore in her powerful and important new novel, Want to Go Private?

Abby Johnston is 14, and she's been best friends with Faith since second grade. They do everything together. The thing is, Abby feels like she's been growing away from Faith lately, as well as growing apart from her family and the support structures that have always been in her life. They're beginning high school, and while Faith has taken this opportunity to explore who she is and what she looks like, Abby remains comfortable being the quiet, shy, unflashy girl. Unfortunately, though, this means that their friendship's been a bit strained lately, and now Abby feels that the extent of her friendship with Faith now exists in their online chats through the new social networking site ChezTeen.

But unlike a lot of people who use these sites to meet new people, the two of them mostly keep to themselves and talk with one another. Abby knows she's not supposed to talk to strangers, but all of those rules start to change when one guy -- BlueSkyBoi (real name: Luke) -- begins to take a shine to Abby on this website. He gets to know her through their private ChezTeen chats, and he offers her the sympathetic and understanding ear that no one else in Abby's life seems to want to lend. Before she realizes it, she's fallen into the belief that Luke really cares for her and that she knows him well enough to trust that meeting him in person might be a good idea.

But that's not going to end up being a good idea.

Want to Go Private? is powerful and cautionary tale, perfect for middle and high school students. Although so much of what's explored here feels like it's fairly obvious, it's not. Though today's teens have grown up with the internet as an extension of themselves, the fact of the matter is so few have real experience with how to detach that digital world from the real, physical world. Moreover, many are unaware how dangerous taking things from the digital world to the physical world can be. Abby, who is going into high school, falls into what so many teens can easily fall into: trusting someone who says and does all the right things online and pursing an opportunity to meet him.

But this isn't just about what happens when the online goes into the real world, this is about what happens when someone invests too much in their online world, too. Abby gets caught up in feeling very comfortable with Luke -- so comfortable, she takes photos of herself without clothing and in vulnerable manners for his pleasure. She does it to please him and to feel like she belongs to someone. Like so many teens today who do things like this and who engage in sexting, Abby dives in with trust and with the belief that she is invincible. The problem is, of course, that she isn't, and no one really is. And it's here that Littman's story becomes cautionary and scary.

Littman sets up her novel quite smartly. It's told through Abby's voice initially, and her voice is so likable and relatable, she is easy to immediately buy. I trusted her when she began talking with Luke, and like her, I thought Luke was a nice guy. My adult instincts kicked in, of course, when he began soliciting her for photos and then suggested meeting somewhere, but I could really understand why Abby wanted to do these things. She felt alone and vulnerable, and in talking with Luke, she felt understood and she felt valued, even if it wasn't necessarily for the right reasons.

Then Littman shakes up the narrative. It's not just Abby we hear from. We get the chance to hear the story through Faith's voice, through the voice of Abby's sister Lily, and through the voice of Billy, a boy from Abby's school who has a true and genuine crush on her. This structure works well because it gives a great view into how something that seems innocent can have a huge impact on an entire network of people. I found all of the voices here well written and compelling, and they added a lot to Abby's story. Whereas I believe the entire book could have been told from Abby's point of view, getting the story from the other characters tightened up the story and provided an opportunity to may not feel entirely sympathetic for Abby. That's not to say we don't, but the trick in a story told through one perspective is that we only get that single story; getting it from a couple perspectives here works, since we can see something from a different, less biased eye.

Want to Go Private? is not an easy book to read, as it left me feeling creeped out more than once. Moreover, Abby is taken advantage of in a manner that is extremely difficult to read, and it happens more than once. The thing is, these scenes are absolutely vital to the story line; while they could have been done off page, they wouldn't have the impact that they have on page. The beauty of this method is that those who are uncomfortable with reading the graphic scenes can skip over them and grasp the impact as much as someone who wants/needs to read them.

My one criticism of the book comes at the end of the story. Once Abby has been through hell and back, she's been given the opportunity to become a spokesperson of sorts at her school (much in the way she becomes a bit of a spokesperson through the novel itself). In these moments, she feels almost a little too preachy, too experienced. Although her life changed in unimaginable ways and certainly she became an "adult" far before she was ready, I didn't believe she'd talk to her peers in the manner she did. That said, I think younger readers won't necessarily believe this is too preachy -- it's sort of the tone they'd expect to hear in a novel like this. Older teen readers, though, will likely not buy into some of the lessons. They picked them up throughout the story and don't need them laid out so bluntly at the end.

Littman's book would make a great addition to book discussions or classroom discussions, as there is so much to work with. When I presented this book as a potential title for my teen book group, they were extremely interested in reading it. There is a layer of appeal to this story because this story is one that is such a part of this age group's lives.

Although there are some hard-to-read scenes, I wouldn't have a problem selling this one to middle schoolers -- I almost think the shock factors would be the lesson many sort of need to see played out to understand how important internet safety truly is. This is the kind of book anyone who wondered "what if" will appreciate. It's a well paced book, and one that tackles a topic that's been important for quite a while but not necessarily approached. It's a title with quite a bit of staying power, as I think the storyline is something that will be relatable to teens for a long time to come. Bonus: Littman's created an entire website,, to talk about the issues her book presents, and it's approachable for teens, teachers, and other educators.

ARC picked up at Book Expo America.

Continue reading...

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Bad Island by Doug TenNapel

Reese’s dad is forcing his family to go on a boating trip together. This is the last thing Reese wants to do. In fact, Reese has been so upset with his family lately that he’s planning on running away. Now that his dad is dragging him on the family vacation, his plans have to be postponed.

Despite a forecast of clear skies, the sea is choppy and unfriendly. The family’s boat is wrecked, leaving Reese, his parents, and his little sister stranded on a strange island. Luckily, Reese’s father made sure they were prepared for something like this, so they have the supplies to survive, but they still need to find a way off the island. Oh, and they need to somehow avoid being killed by the strange creatures that are hunting them – creatures no one in the family has ever seen before, in real life or in pictures. Accomplishing these goals requires that the four of them work together, not such an easy task for a bickering family.

I appreciated two things most about Bad Island: the creative story and Reese’s family. The narrative is actually divided into two alternating parts. One part follows Reese and his family’s adventures on the island, and the other involves a robot-like creature, his rebellion against his own father, and a possible war against invaders. The two stories are, of course, connected. When all is revealed near the end, I was surprised and gratified by TenNapel’s bizarre and interesting explanation.

It should come as no surprise that Reese and his family do figure out how to work together to save themselves from the island’s creatures and find a way off the island. TenNapel portrays this emotional journey in a moving way, but he doesn’t hit you over the head with it. Best of all, both Reese and his father grow throughout the course of the story. Character growth shouldn’t be just the province of the young protagonist, and it’s nice to see the two contentious family members come together and grow in respect for each other.

I’ve read TenNapel’s other graphic novel for kids, Ghostopolis, and enjoyed it, although I wasn’t especially impressed. Bad Island is a distinct improvement. Ghostopolis was full of gross-out humor that didn’t necessarily add to the story. Bad Island keeps some of that humor that TenNapel (and his readers, no doubt) are so fond of, but it’s toned down slightly and seems much less random.

For example, a thread TenNapel carries throughout Bad Island involves Reese’s sister’s pet snake, which meets an unhappy end during the shipwreck and which she insists on keeping around, despite its growing stench. TenNapel very funnily illustrates this snake with exes for eyes and brown smoke around its body to illustrate the smell – but it’s not just a running gag. The snake, despite being dead, has a part to play in the story.

The art here is wonderful. It’s just the kind of art I love to see in graphic novels – firm lines, bold colors, clear facial expressions, and well-executed action full of energy. The natural environment of the island is a feast for the eyes and the various creatures pulled from TenNapel’s imagination are a delight to pore over. This is a winner.

Copy borrowed from my local library.

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