Monthly Archives: September 2008

“Living Dead Girl” by Elizabeth Scott


"Living Dead Girl" is such a devastating, stark, painful novel that, almost a day later, I'm still thinking about it. This book about a kidnapped, brutalized teen girl renamed "Alice" by her captor is easily one of the best teen novels to come out in 2008. While the subject matter is incredibly heavy, I think (hope) there is a high school audience out there for it.

When we meet Alice, she's been Ray's prisoner for over five years, since he abducted her at an aquarium while she was on a class field trip. After experiencing Ray's sadistic cruelty for so long — Alice has continually been beaten, raped, starved, and isolated — she is dead in just about every way. Alice feels almost nothing anymore, and she has long since had the last glimmers of hope beaten out of her by Ray. At this point, with Alice fifteen and no longer able to meet Ray's twisted little girl fantasies, she knows he will soon dispose of her. Alice longs for that time when she will, at last, be fully dead.

Ray uses Alice to find his next victim, utilizing the same combination of violence and fear that has enslaved her for years. But while Alice is out scouting potential girls in the park, she discovers that, amazingly, some small piece of herself still wants to live — and still believes that's possible.

For a short, spare novel, the impact of "Living Dead Girl" is incredible. Author Elizabeth Scott has made Alice a believable, haunted, tragic character. She withstands years of torment yet is not depicted as an exceptionally brave or stoic girl. Instead, Alice miserably endures, day after day, as just a shell of a person dragging through life. In other words, she exists because that's all that is left for her, which is powerful stuff. When Alice enjoys brief moments of inflicting pain or wielding power over others (a boy in the park, a little girl looking to retrieve a lost notebook), it really drives home the miserable cycle of abuse.

My only complaint — and it's a minor one, I'll admit — revolves around a bit of Ray's back story. Like many abusers of children, Ray has continually threatened to kill Alice's real family members if she ever tries to escape. (Once, long before, Alice made a desperate attempt at freedom, only to be ignored by a store clerk.) The threat reinforces Ray's power over every aspect of Alice's life, and for most abused children, that threat alone is sufficient. In this novel, Ray has actually killed the family of his first abducted girl years after her disappearance. This bit of characterization struck me as patently false. Ray is enough of a monster solely for the horrific ways he treats Alice, making all his threats of future violence credible enough to stand alone. He's also the worst kind of coward, preying on and terrorizing defenseless children. Making him a murderer on top of all this seemed wholly unnecessary.

If you give "Living Dead Girl" a try, please recognize that the story here is quite intense. While the details of Alice's abuse are not gratuitous, what is revealed, even discretely, can be very difficult to read. Mature teens should be able to handle this novel, and I'm sure they, too, will be thinking about it long afterward.

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Posted by on September 9, 2008 in Uncategorized


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“The Summoning” by Kelley Armstrong


Okay, I could probably stop this review after revealing that "The Summoning" features fifteen year-old Chloe Saunders, who starts seeing ghosts the very day she gets her first period (!) and winds up in a shady group home for teens, where it seems some of the other kids also exhibit special, otherworldly powers. Am I right? From this description alone, some of you will be clamoring to read this first installment in the "Darkest Powers" series, while others will probably roll their eyes and move on. Fair enough!

For those of you hooked from the description, let me flesh it out a bit here. Chloe is the only child of a wealthy, distant father who spends most of his time traveling. She's mostly portrayed as short, young-looking, and a budding film director, which I realize is not much in the way of character development. Yes, I'll be the first to admit that "The Summoning" won't win any awards for the depth and believability of its characters, who are mostly of the cardboard variety (bitchy girl Tori, everyone's best friend Rae, brooding hulk Derek, suave Simon). Still, I promise that's quite alright, as this book is all about the lightning-fast plot and the supernatural elements. I assure you, this one moves at a good clip, and you will get so caught up in Chloe's story (she's a necromancer who can summon the dead!) and her sleuthing with Derek and Simon (they find dead bodies in the crawl space!) that you will readily forgive any shortcomings.

When superman Derek — really, for a big, greasy kid, he's literally superhuman — finally gets Chloe to accept the truth about her talent, the book takes off. We learn all sorts of cool secrets and shady conspiracies, and Chloe, Derek, and Simon team up to escape the evil Lyle House and locate Simon's missing sorcerer dad. Good stuff! Plus, there's a budding love triangle between Chloe, Derek, and Simon — trust me, Derek isn't nearly as gross as he's first depicted — and a shocking betrayal. I'm telling you, fans of supernatural action and romance will eat this one up and anxiously await the second book, "The Awakening." I don't remember anything terribly offensive here, so I'd say fans of this sort of book in middle school and up should give it a try. Enjoy!

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Posted by on September 8, 2008 in Uncategorized


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“Hurricane Song” by Paul Volponi


Paul Volponi's timely novel "Hurricane Song" lets us experience firsthand some of the degradation, fear, and confusion experienced by New Orleans residents who evacuated to the Superdome to escape Hurricane Katrina's devastation. While slim in size, this book leaves a powerful impression.

Miles is a transplanted New Orleanian, having only recently come to the city to live with his jazz musician father, Doc. Unlike his dad, who lives and breathes jazz, Miles is more interested in football. He's only come to New Orleans because his newly remarried mom has literally run out of living space for him. While in New Orleans, Miles rarely sees his dad, even while living in the same apartment, and they struggle to make any meaningful conversation. Miles often suspects his dad will never love him with the depth and passion that he reserves for jazz.

As Hurricane Katrina approches New Orleans, Miles, Doc, and his Uncle Roy try to drive out of the city in search of a safe haven up north. After the car dies while idling for hours in traffic, the three end up in the Superdome, a covered football stadium hastily converted to house storm evacuees. While the National Guard is supposedly in charge of the facility, it quickly becomes apparent to Miles and his family that mob rule is in effect. Roving gangs — including several of Miles' football teammates — set fires, vandalize the building, commit assaults, and rob and terrorize the other evacuees. At the same time, the stadium is plunged into repeated darkness, clogged bathrooms overflow and become stench-filled swamps, dead bodies are left to fester in the brutal indoor heat, and there is little if any food to be found. In the midst of all this chaos and violence, a mentally deranged man leaps to his death from the upper deck seats, much to the horror of his daughter and grandchildren. Doc, Uncle Roy, and a local preacher organize a modified jazz funeral for the man, with Miles banging away on an African drum his father gave him. Later, Miles and Doc leave the Superdome only to discover that conditions in the city are even worse than they feared.

Author Paul Volponi does a masterful job of conveying the suffocating horror experienced by Hurricane Katrina evacuees at the Superdome. He provides harrowing descriptions of the rank conditions while also exploring the issues of race and class that combined to make Katrina a disaster on so many levels. "Hurricane Song" would be a wonderful novel and gripping piece of social commentary only for these reasons. Even better, though, Volponi gives us great insight into both the worst of human nature (the Superdome thugs and the twitchy, hostile National Guardsmen) and the best (the dignity of the preacher and the bravery of Miles in standing up to the mob). By the end of this short novel, Miles and Doc have begun to find common ground in both music and family, and they start to form the bonds of a real, lasting relationship. Their personal journey in the shadow of one of America's most shameful incidents will be appreciated by both boys and girls in grades seven and higher.

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Posted by on September 8, 2008 in Uncategorized


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“Unraveling” by Michelle Baldini and Lynn Biederman


"Unraveling" is a provocative, amazingly realistic story of how one girl regrettably trades her sexuality for fleeting popularity. Honestly, this is one of the most gripping, stunningly accurate depictions of teenage life that I've come across in ages, and I think high school girls should read it both as entertainment and, perhaps, cautionary tale.

High school sophomore Amanda Himmelfarb is blessed with a curvy body and lots of natural sex appeal. A member of her school's swim team, Amanda exists in that netherworld of invisibility between popularity and geekdom. In the summer before tenth grade, Amanda performs a sex act on a crush while her family is staying at the shore. Although the boy never speaks to her again and her overbearing mother punishes her, Amanda chooses instead to focus on those precious few moments when she was important to that boy. Back at school, after a hot jock starts to secretly sneak around with Amanda — he has a girlfriend he sees in public — she again can't help but recognize the power she possesses in her sexuality. In a bit of flirting that gets way out of hand, Amanda offers to sleep with the dreamy Rick Hayes if he will escort her to the homecoming dance. Rick, as you might expect, agrees.

What makes "Unraveling" work so well is that we as readers understand exactly why Amanda would enter into such a demeaning bargain. Her own mother was an overachiever with plans for college and a career when she unexpectedly got pregnant with Amanda as a teen. Amanda's mom, whom she labels "the Captain," constantly criticizes, scolds, nitpicks, and otherwise hassles Amanda, all under the mistaken belief that such actions will help Amanda achieve her full potential and avoid her mom's past errors. Instead, Amanda sees herself as an unwanted mistake, a constant burden, and as someone who can never seem to do anything right. Naturally, then, Rick's hideous offer makes perfect sense to Amanda, as now she can finally become someone. Amanda believes that when she walks into homecoming on Rick's arm, her life, at long last, will be perfect.

It's refreshing to read a novel that portrays loveless teen sex in a straightforward, non-moralizing manner. Amanda's fractured self-esteem and sense of shame, as well as the utter frankness of this novel's depiction of the consequences of sex for teen girls, reminded me of Sara Zarr's "Story of a Girl" and Ellen Wittlinger's "Sandpiper." This blunt — but not at all lewd! — novel features a complex, fully realized mother/daughter relationship, some harsh but believably conveyed life lessons, and deeply personal and moving poetry. I recommend it to high school age readers.


Posted by on September 8, 2008 in Uncategorized


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