Monthly Archives: May 2008

“Vamps: Vampire American Princesses” by Nancy A. Collins


Nancy Collins' "Vamps" reads like a cross between "Twilight" and "Gossip Girl." That's a compliment! Lillith Todd is the undisputed queen of Bathory Academy, an all-girls prep school for full-blooded vampires from old, established blood lines. While there are flying and shapeshifting lessons at school, there's also ample opportunity for typical bratty high school girl behavior, like making fun of a dorky classmate or crushing on a guy vampire at the adjoining boys' school. I'm not so big on the conspicuous consumption teen novel, where characters' clothes and accessories are repeatedly described in fawning detail, but author Collins doesn't go too far over the top in telling us about the Manolo Blahniks and Prada and such. Once the story gets rolling — a "slumming" expedition to Washington Square Park goes horribly wrong when the old bloods encounter both Van Helsing vampire fighters and a new blood vampire/witch hybrid — the focus turns more to intrigue, backstabbing, and action than the latest pair of shoes. Which, fine by me.

That vampire/witch from the park is Cally Monture, and, if you're at all like me, you'll much prefer her spunky, capable gal to Lillith's me-first character. Also, if you're even remotely paying attention, you'll spot the big secret about Cally's background ages before Lillith does, but that's fine. I'm a huge fan of vampire mythology, and I think Collins has ably created a working universe with consistent rules about vampire history, behavior, and customs. (She even includes a glossary.) Don't laugh, that's important. There's nothing worse than inconsistent, lazy logic within a supernatural construct. Collins stays true to her framework, and there are plenty of twists, turns, and "wow, cool" moments to keep readers interested. When all else fails, just enjoy the seemingly doomed romance between Cally and the kind vampire hunter Peter (by the way, I always love the starcrossed aspect, going all the way back to the days of Buffy and Angel); their deep though buried feelings and simmering passion nicely counteract the all too shallow relationships of Lillith and her popular set.

While there's nothing groundbreaking here, this is a fast, highly readable novel that sets up a compelling premise for future sequels. And, believe me, there will be sequels, as this one ends the very moment Lillith figures out Cally's secret. Truth be told, I'm looking forward to the next installment myself. For high school girls who like either chick lit or vampire sagas — or both — "Vamps" is a solid choice. Just be warned that there are instances of rough language, drug / alcohol references, and sexual situations here, meaning it's most definitely a high school book. "Vamps" is slated for publication in late July. Until then, you can check out the Amazon page for more info.

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Posted by on May 27, 2008 in Uncategorized


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“Audrey, Wait!” by Robin Benway


After she dumps him, Audrey's ex-boyfriend, Evan, writes a killer breakup song, appropriately titled, "Audrey, Wait!" To Audrey's great surprise and humiliation, Evan's local band, the Do-Gooders, records the tune. Before she knows it, the Do-Gooders have scored a gigantic national hit with the song, turning Audrey into an unwilling celebrity. In no short order, she is being stalked by aggressive paparazzi, gossip columnists, overexuberant fans, and even shady musicians seeking to exploit her for their own fame. Oh, but there's also a free BMW and VIP access to great shows, so maybe life isn't all bad.

"Audrey, Wait!" is the kind of frothy, zippy chick lit that most of you female readers will recognize in a heartbeat. Audrey is the typically smart, sarcastic heroine of such books, and she's also got Victoria, the standard no-nonsense best friend; James, the quiet, secretly hot co-worker at the ice cream store; and Sharon, the mean popular girl who undermines her at every turn.

If you can suspend your disbelief — would the subject of a one-hit wonder song really cause such an avalanche of media attention? — and look past the conventional chick lit setup, you should enjoy this one. If the characters and situations are a bit stock, at least there's ample humor, a quick pace, several genuinely sweet moments, a believable romance, and plenty of cool music references. So while nothing here will surprise you, you'll likely find "Audrey, Wait!" to be an entertaining, fun book perfect for the beach.

One quick warning: There's a literal ton of harsh language in this book, which struck me as a touch gratuitous. I'd say this one is definitely for the high school set. Please let us know if you liked it!

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Posted by on May 23, 2008 in Uncategorized


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“Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince” by JK Rowling


Yes, I realize I am coming awfully late to this party. Point taken! I've just never been a fantasy fan, and my only experience with Harry Potter was with the movie versions. I also have to be painfully honest and admit that I thought the "Goblet of Fire" film was absolutely dreadful, so much so that I never bothered to even see "Order of the Phoenix." Recently, I did catch "Order," and I was pleasantly surprised (shocked?) that I really, really liked it. I mean, we're talking enjoyed it to the point that I desperately needed to find out what happened afterward. Conveniently for me, the two books that complete Harry's story have been out for quite some time. 😉

You all probably know what happens in the "Half-Blood Prince," because I assume you've read it ages ago. Fair enough. Besides, I can't recount all that much of the plot, because lots of exciting stuff happens (secrets are revealed! beloved characters die! betrayals are exposed!). I will say that, if you've seen the movies, you can safely jump in here with only a minimal level of confusion. There are more characters in the book, so you may need to get reacquainted with folks who made only cameo appearances in the films (Tonks and Fleur come right to mind). No worries, though; if you've seen the movies, you should be fine.

As I said, I don't want to divulge plot details, because I hate when reviewers spoil all the good parts. Yuck! Even if the book has been out a few years, there's still someone somewhere who will be disappointed to discover all the juicy details in a blog review. Basically, just know that Harry stumbles upon the potions textbook of the self-proclaimed half-blood prince, which is chuck full of original spells and recipes. Suddenly, Harry is a potions genius, much to Hermione's disgust. Despite some romance in the air, there's also — obviously — trouble afoot, as Lord Voldemort's dark forces are gathering. During a series of trips through the pensive, we learn much more about Voldemort's past, including how he first came to Hogwart's and how his spirit managed to survive the death of his physical body. Very cool. Overall, there is so much true feeling and heart on display here — I tell you, I had actual tears! — which meshes incredibly well with the action, magic, and thrills.

I hope some of you non-Harry Potter addicts and casual fans of the movie will give this one a try. I think you'll really enjoy it. Happy reading!


Review #1 (Summer 2008):

It was suspenseful, exciting, and funny. It had me on the edge of my seat! I can't wait for the movie!

Review #2 (Summer 2009):

Rowling never fails to produce another spectacular book in the series. "The Half-Blood Prince" was filled with adventure, romance, humor, and tragedy. In short, it has everything you need to make a great book.

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Posted by on May 23, 2008 in Uncategorized


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“Sunrise Over Fallujah” by Walter Dean Myers


If there's another teen novel about the current Iraq War — is there? — I don't know of it. That's why I was so excited when I heard the venerable Walter Dean Myers had written "Sunrise Over Fallujah," since I knew he'd handle the subject with his usual combination of raw power and sensitivity. I was not disappointed.

We're right at the start of the war, in April 2003, when Robin "Birdy" Perry, a new Civil Affairs (CA) Army recruit from Harlem, is in Kuwait with his squad waiting to make the arduous drive into Iraq. Birdy is right out of high school, and he joined the Army out of a sense of duty and a desire to have his life matter. Birdy's letters and emails to mom and his Uncle Richie (from Myers' Vietnam War saga "Fallen Angels") are interspersed with first-person recounting of the initial formation of his CA squad and their collective experiences in Iraq.

Birdy's CA squad is accompanying an Army Infantry unit, the idea being that the infantry guys will make the area safe for the CA group, which will then try to make a human connection with the Iraqi civilians. (You know that whole bit about "winning hearts and minds"? That's the deal here.) While Birdy and his mates are not supposed to encounter any violent resistance, the instability created by the initial American strike and the subsequent insurgency make every encounter a potentially deadly one.

Birdy quickly makes friends with two of his squad mates, the friendly, blues-loving Jonesy and the steely, worldly Marla (ok, he's also kind of crushing on Marla). Their banter during terrifying Humvee rides in hostile areas adds a nice sense of camaraderie and even humor to the story. There's a large cast of characters in the novel, some of which you may at times confuse; I know I did. One of the other important players in the story is the physician's assistant Captain Miller, whom Birdy comes to deeply respect. Miller tries valiantly to retain her sense of compassion and her faith in the fundamental goodness of people despite some truly awful experiences. Birdy, too, ends up seeing and even doing things that he has a hard time believing are right, despite the reassurances of his military superiors. We see firsthand his sense of confusion — both literal and moral — as life in Iraq becomes more and more frantic and chaotic.

I found "Sunrise Over Fallujah" to be a gripping, troubling coming of age story. The Iraq War is presented here in all its contrasting nobility and ugliness, and we discover just how harrowing its consequences can be on Birdy and the rest of his squad. I realize the subject matter may be a bit heavy for some folks. However, while the issues raised here are challenging, the book itself moves at a fast pace and is fairly straightforward. Birdy is so believably portrayed that you'll be frightened, disgusted, hopeful, and angry right along with him. If you're looking for a serious and timely read as we move into summer, I think "Sunrise Over Fallujah" is an excellent choice. It's an easy enough book to read, but it's one of those that will remain with you afterward. Recognizing the war-related violence depicted here — even just the weight of the subject matter — I'd recommend this novel to readers in grades 8 and up.

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Posted by on May 8, 2008 in Uncategorized


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“The Dead and the Gone” by Susan Beth Pfeffer


Luckily, I had snagged an advance copy of "The Dead and the Gone" a few months back. Good thing, because as I mention in the review directly below this one, I loved "Life As We Knew It" and was eager to read the follow-up novel. Yay me!

Full disclosure: I assumed "The Dead and the Gone" was a direct sequel to the first book, so I was all psyched to find out what else had happened to Miranda and her family. I must've missed the fact that it's actually a "companion novel" chronicling the aftermath of the same moon-related disaster on 17 year-old New York City resident Alex Morales and his two younger sisters, the religious Briana and the bratty Julie. Having read the first book, I obviously knew exactly what was in store for the unfortunate residents of NYC, since Miranda told us all about the earthquakes, tsunamis, volcanoes, and all-around wicked climate changes caused by the asteroid strike. This knowledge, for me at least, undermined some of this story's impact. While everything was so unsuspected and thus chilling in the first novel, the second had a bit of a "been there, done that" element to it.

I also found this novel to be a bit wordier than the first one. I enjoyed Miranda's first-person perspective, as she detailed her slowly disappearing way of life in her journal. "The Dead and the Gone" is told in the third person, so while Alex's fears, stubbornness, anger, and occasional stupidity are described to us, again, the filtering lessens some of the impact. I never felt as connected to his character as I did to Miranda.

On the plus side, I thought integrating themes of religion, ethnicity, gender, and privilege into a disaster story was genius. Alex is Puerto Rican, the son of a building superintendent and an operating room technician — both of whom quickly go missing — and a scholarship student at the prestigious Catholic school DePaul. In the months following the moon disaster, life in NYC becomes truly awful. Much of Lower Manhattan has been washed away, temperatures plummet as the sun is obscured by volcanic ash, and corpses pile up in the streets or are displayed for viewing at Yankee Stadium (note: Alex's visit to Yankee Stadium is an absolutely gut-wrenching scene and one of the best I've seen in a YA novel in quite some time). Eventually Alex and a school friend, the wealthy troublemaker Kevin, must go "body shopping" (i.e., steal valuables from corpses) to purchase black market food. Even in the midst of all this chaos and horror, Alex realizes that some of his wealthier classmates are able to use their social status and connections to make their lives better. As examples, we learn that the business centers of Midtown Manhattan still have heat, electricity, and security, and special bus convoys shuttle only the children of the wealthy and powerful to the relative safety of the south.

Here, we also have a deeper discussion of why a seemingly benevolent god would inflict so much pain on people. Briana is able to maintain her strong Catholic faith throughout the tragedies that follow the moon disaster, but Alex finds it ever harder to rely on religion to get him through these dark times. Alex also questions his own actions, which are necessary for his family's survival but which frequently run counter to church doctrine. I thought this focus on both religion and social class gave "The Dead and the Gone" a weightier, almost philosophical feel than that of the first novel.

In the end, while I enjoyed the first book more, I think there's lots to like about "The Dead and the Gone." I figure fans will want to look at the moon disaster from a different perspective, and newbies can jump right in here as well. I'd recommend it to middle school readers, again in grade 7 or so and up.

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Posted by on May 7, 2008 in Uncategorized


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“Life As We Knew It” by Susan Beth Pfeffer


Ok, "Life As We Knew It" is an "end of the world" type novel, which I realize is not everyone's cup of tea. Admittedly, it's also a bit of a downer, as you might expect of a chronicle of life after an asteroid knocks the moon out of its orbit, creating devastating volcanoes, tidal waves, earthquakes, and climate events. Still, 16 year-old Miranda, who keeps a diary of the time leading up to and following the disaster in her northern Pennsylvania neighborhood, gives us great insight into a world where even basic survival becomes threatened. I literally could not put this book down. I loved the gradual descent of Miranda's life from worries about boys, figure skating, swimming, and high school to waiting in food lines, foraging for kindling, severely restricting her food intake, and, finally, trying desperately to save her flu-ridden family members from death. Miranda believably transforms from a typical self-centered, sort of bratty teenager into a strong, brave young woman willing to sacrifice herself to save others. It's a compelling, thrilling, highly readable story that left me hanging on just about every word.

I don't want to give too many plot points away, because I think much of the impact of this novel lies in the slow disintegration of Miranda's entire way of life. I will say that Miranda is a fully realized, complex character, and you will absolutely follow her struggle every step of the way. The relationship between Miranda and her mom is full of the kind of sniping, backtalking, and bruised feelings that you'd expect in a real mom-teen relationship. In other words, it's perfect because it's so real. And while the book is a touch depressing — let's face it, millions of people die after the asteroid hits — it's also inspiring, as Miranda and her family fight against insane odds to survive in heartbreakingly brutal conditions. In their struggle, there is hope, as Miranda discovers that a life where one is cold, hungry, lonely, and afraid can still be a life worth living. I wholeheartedly recommend this wonderful novel, which is sure to generate lots of discussion among readers. While it's a "clean" book (no swearing, sex, etc.) know that the general themes included here are disturbing. I'm thinking about 7th grade and up for this one, although you folks know yourselves best.

PS – The sequel, "The Dead and the Gone" is due out in June.


Posted by on May 6, 2008 in Uncategorized


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“Ghost of Spirit Bear” by Ben Mikaelsen


"Ghost of Spirit Bear" is the sequel to "Touching Spirit Bear," which is a staple of many school summer reading lists. In the first book, high school student Cole Matthews is sent to a remote Alaskan island as alternative punishment after brutally beating a weaker classmate. Over the course of that story, Cole, very begrudgingly at first, learns to survive in the wilderness and begin to let go of his anger. His victim, Peter, joins him on the island, and the two gradually become close friends.

The sequel, which will be released in June, continues to follow Cole's journey. While it doesn't have the survivalism and outdoor adventure of the first book, it's still an entertaining and thought-provoking story. Both Cole and Peter are making a rocky transition back to life in Minneapolis. School bullies are still torturing Peter, and Cole can't seem to find a way to fight back without actually fighting. It's a believable struggle, how basically good but damaged kids grapple with incorporating huge life lessons into their everyday existence. It's one thing to embrace meditation and release anger in healthy ways in wilderness solitude; it's an entirely different one to remain calm when a vicious gang is kicking you in the ribs or assaulting your best friend.

After the suicide of a classmate, Cole works with his new principal, Peter, and other students to turn his violent, apathetic school around. I won't reveal Cole's plan, but it relates back to his Alaskan experience. It's the type of small but symbolic change a teenager really could make in his school. I liked that this book shows you what happens after a life-changing moment — which is where so many books leave the story — and how incredibly difficult it can be to make yourself and your life not just different but better. Cole is an authentic, flawed character with moments of bravery, heart, and weakness. His successes are all that more meaningful for the reader, because we do so badly want him to change. While there isn't any outdoor adventure here, Cole's fight to overcome violence and improve himself and his world should be enough to grab readers. Knowledge of the first novel makes this one richer, but "Ghost of Spirit Bear" is an engaging, inspiring standalone novel for middle school boys or any readers interested in social activism.

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Posted by on May 1, 2008 in Uncategorized


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