Monthly Archives: January 2009

“Wintergirls” by Laurie Halse Anderson


First off, a huge THANK YOU!! to the good people at Penguin Young Readers Group for the wonderful box of goodies they sent, which included an advance copy of Laurie Halse Anderson's "Wintergirls." Laurie just won the American Library Association's Margaret A. Edwards Award for her incredible contributions ("Speak," "Fever 1793," "Twisted," etc.) to teen literature. "Wintergirls," due out in March, is her latest novel, and it is an absolutely haunting, riveting book about a lost girl starving herself to death in slow, painful measures. It is, in a word, stunning.

As the story begins, Lia is a high school senior whose estranged best friend, Cassie, has just been found dead in a rundown motel room. Like Lia, Cassie sought refuge from her many problems by obsessively monitoring her food intake. Cassie binged, purged, and drank quite a bit to dull the pain, while Lia measures and rations every tiny morsel she consumes; when that doesn't help enough, she cuts. Lia's anorexia is so severe that she's twice been hospitalized in an eating disorders facility. Unfortunately, Lia's still so far gone that she hardly eats anything, to the point of dizziness, dehydration, and racing heartbeats. Lia hides under bulky layers of clothes, compulsively exercises all night, and even figures out how to deceive her stepmother during weekly weigh-ins. Lia's anorexia is so grippingly portrayed, from her racing self-destructive thoughts to her physical agony to her frantic need to tally up her meager calories, that it's almost painful for the reader to endure. We see so clearly that anorexia has almost nothing do with food and just about everything to do with control. Lia herself recognizes this, as she knows full well that her goal of 90 lbs. will soon become 85, 80, and 75. There is no point, short of death, where this starvation ends for Lia, and that fact is simply horrible.

So what's so great here? Everything. Laurie's writing is powerful, using descriptions that are at times lyrical and haunting. Whole passages read like poetry. For example, Laurie's portrayal of wintergirls as being caught between life and death is a beautiful metaphor for anorexic girls. Her literary techniques — including striking out Lia's real thoughts in favor of the words she knows she's expected to say — never seem gimmicky. In fact, we are so deeply connected to Lia's broken mind and spirit that we feel her suffocating despair and shame. Teen novels don't get more gripping than this, believe me.

I also loved how every character is so wonderfully fleshed out. Lia's loving, well-meaning parents are flawed and often say exactly the wrong thing, causing her to spiral further into anorexia's clutches; her little stepsister Emma idolizes Lia in private, but is embarrassed to see her at a soccer game; and her new friend Elijah, a lost traveler himself, is both kind and, ultimately, cruelly honest. Even Cassie's ghost — yes, you read that correctly — is as conflicted a friend as ever. Each person here feels and behaves like an actual, complicated person.

The combination of realistic characters, atmospheric writing, and stark insight into one wounded girl makes "Wintergirls" one of the best, most compelling books a teenager could find. While this book is often difficult to read, mature readers will find it utterly engrossing and nearly impossible to put down. I absolutely recommend "Wintergirls" to readers in 8th grade and up. I hope those who need this novel's message of hope most will discover it, too; perhaps the finalized edition will include some resources to aid in recovery? If not, please let me highlight the ANAD site and, more generally, Teen Health's Eating Disorders Resources for those seeking more information. Look for "Wintergirls" in mid-March of 2009. I promise, you will not be disappointed.

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Posted by on January 30, 2009 in Uncategorized


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“Impossible” by Nancy Werlin


"Impossible" is National Book Award Finalist Nancy Werlin's latest novel. Although I thought there were some flaws here — hello, draggy passages and flat characterizations! — overall this is a decent, generally entertaining novel.

Lucinda "Lucy" Scarborough is our girl here, and she's a 17 year-old senior at a Massachusetts high school. Lucy's life with foster parents Soledad and Leo is pretty ordinary. She runs track, has a gossipy BFF named Sarah, one of those "he's only a friend" types (as if!) in Zach, and an eagerly anticipated prom date with sweet band geek Gray Spencer. The only hitch in Lucy's life involves her biological mom, Miranda, a wayward drifter who shadows Lucy, hurling the occasional invective, bottle, or ominous warning her way. Miranda lost her mind around the time of Lucy's birth, and she's never been able to establish any kind of normal relationship with her daughter. As for Lucy's birth father? We soon learn that's an awfully complicated story. And by "complicated," I mean the ancient, generation-spanning curse type of complicated!

Yes, indeed, Lucy is fated to become an eternal possession, the icky "true love," of a swanky, mystical creep known as the Elfin Knight. In what struck me as an exceptionally jarring passage, Lucy is raped by an Elfin Knight-possessed Gray on prom night, later discovering that she's pregnant. (Don't even get me started on the Elfin Knight switching Lucy's morning after pills or Lucy's glossed-over acknowledgment that raising a child presents nearly insurmountable obstacles for most teens; there are vaguely distasteful messages sent to teen girls in this novel that I'd prefer not to dwell upon.) Long story short, Lucy decides to keep the baby, despite knowing that upon the infant's birth, she, like Miranda before her, will surely lose her mind.

Of course, because this is a novel, there is an escape clause. While I doubt many members of this book's audience have even heard of the old pop/folk duo Simon & Garfunkel, their hit song "Scarborough Fair" plays a central role in the story. Well, I should correct that; a version of their song, with modified lyrics, is the star here. If Lucy can complete three impossible tasks highlighted in the song — among them, weaving a seamless shirt with no needles and using a goat's horn to plow an acre of seaside land … you know, the usual! — she will break the Elfin Knight's curse and hang onto her life, happiness, and sanity.

There's a cool, clever premise here, as Lucy, her foster folks, and the dreamy, sturdy Zach race against time to crack these puzzles. I liked how none of the characters needed too much convincing to buy into the ancient curse. We're already suspending reality here as readers; there's simply no need to delay the good stuff with forced incredulity, as too often happens in stories with fantastical elements. The Elfin Knight is both equally charming and repulsive, making him an interesting foil for Lucy's gang. I also found myself caught up in the tangible sense of danger here, as Lucy's pregnancy amounts to a ticking clock on her own survival. The whole premise of "Impossible" is so interesting and unusual that it almost makes up for the book's flaws.

Yup, I said "almost." While there are many strong elements, my attention wandered at some points. Whole passages were painfully tedious, particularly in the beginning, and I felt little connection to Lucy throughout the story. She seemed like more of a superteen — smart, pretty, athletic, kind, heroic — than a real person. Even in the aftermath of her rape, with teen motherhood looming before her, she never changed much. Lucy is this wonderful, special girl before these life-shattering events, and afterward she's just more of the same. To be honest, this idealization is the same issue I had with Zach, who, naturally, becomes the pregnant Lucy's love interest. Zach is an older college student and longtime family friend now living with Lucy's folks. He is so irritatingly perfect, from his chiseled body and tousled hair to his strong, caring, and respectful nature, that he, too, seemed utterly artificial. The stretches where Lucy and Zach repeatedly express their love to each other just about set my teeth on edge, not unlike any number of "Oh, I love you, too, Bella!" moments throughout the entire Twilight Saga, but especially in "Breaking Dawn."

In the end, I was hoping for a bit more twisty, engaging fun from such a strikingly original premise, and I was disappointed. If you can get past some of the draggy sections and overlook the one-note characterizations — not to mention the bizarre shifts in tone relating to sexual violence at several junctures in the story — then you'll probably be just fine with "Impossible." As I said on top, this story is essentially a good read. For me, it simply could have been so much better. If you give "Impossible" a try, I'd say the themes and sexual references here indicate more of a high school audience. I hope you like it more than I did!

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Posted by on January 22, 2009 in Uncategorized


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“How I Live Now” by Meg Rosoff


Meg Rosoff's "How I Live Now"won the American Library Association's Printz Award back in 2005 as that year's outstanding novel for young adults. Ok, I realize I am a little late in reading this one — hey, I have a pretty big "to-read" stack! — but since I thought this novel was so striking and original, I just had to write up a review for our blog readers.

Quick summary: Daisy is a 15 year-old American sent away from New York City by her apparently exasperated dad and stepmom. She arrives in rural England to stay with her eccentric Aunt Penn, a slew of cousins (precocious 9 year-old Piper, 14 year-old, seemingly empathic twins Isaac and Edmond, and 17 year-old would-be-man Osbert), and a healthy assortment of sheep dogs, goats, and other animals. Aunt Penn quickly departs for a vague peacekeeping task in Oslo, leaving the kids the run of their country house and surrounding farmland. Daisy, a cynic who struggles with anorexia, finds herself quickly opening up to her cousins, especially compassionate, insightful Edmond. While she recognizes it's technically wrong — they are, after all, first cousins! — she falls into an obsessive, all-encompassing love with Edmond, which makes her days fly by in sheer bliss. Even after a London bombing leaves thousands dead, plunging England into chaos and war and preventing Aunt Penn's return, Daisy can't help but savor the delicious freedom inherent in her new, unsupervised life. One glorious day, all the kids, including the aloof Osbert, spend a magical afternoon picnicking and frolicking by the river.

Unfortunately, the once unseen and distant war soon reaches into Daisy's life. An occupying army, never identified for the reader, lands in the countryside, and the few remaining British forces commandeer Aunt Penn's house as a barracks for their troops. Daisy's newfound family is wrenched apart, and she and the gentle, resourceful Piper are left on their own to make a long, arduous journey back home.

I'm not sure if my plot synopsis conveys it, but "How I Live Now" is a fantastic read for so many reasons. First, Daisy's narration, which occurs in an almost frantic, run-on manner, is captivating. This is the way a teenager thinks, with intense, sometimes jumbled ideas rampantly speeding along. Daisy's description of her intoxicating affair with Edmond is portrayed in a dreamlike, hazy fashion. It's as if she and Edmond share a bond that transcends the mortal and physical, which we soon learn may be the case; Daisy can literally feel Edmond in her mind during their painful separation. I also loved Daisy's unrepentant honesty and brashness, which, again, make her such a realistic teen character.

What else was great? Hrm, where should I start!? The ruthlessness necessary to endure hard times is beautifully portrayed, particularly during Daisy and Piper's struggle to reach home. Yet, despite the often brutal conditions, both dignity and humanity survive in, say, the brotherly attention of a soldier or the knowing advice of an army major. These small touches of compassion have so much more meaning in a landscape of brutality. I also thought Rosoff's depiction of England encountering a faceless enemy and a war with no stated purpose or goals was absolutely brilliant, giving the story a futuristic feel while glancing back to Britain's history of self-sufficiency during two world wars. Rosoff's subtle descriptions of Daisy's eating disorder are similarly wonderful, including the climactic moment when a starving Daisy realizes just how hungry she has been for so long. Finally, the mutually protective relationship between Daisy and Piper is believable, lovely, and occasionally heartbreaking; Daisy mentions holding an exhausted Piper's "paw" on the night their lost dog returns, which is simply beautiful. Readers may find this relationship similar to the touching bond that developed between jaded Katniss and the doelike young tribute Rue in Suzanne Collins' stunning novel, "The Hunger Games."

"How I Live Now" is a compelling, unique, fast-paced novel that has a little something for everyone (love, self growth, action, danger). It is written in an exceptional manner, with insight, hard-earned emotion, and a gripping sense of drama and tension. I would definitely recommend this short novel with a powerful impact to teen readers, both boys and girls, in grades 8 and higher. While there is both sex and violence present here, neither is depicted in a gratuitous manner. Although this novel may challenge you, I think it's a worthy, rewarding read.

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Posted by on January 21, 2009 in Uncategorized


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“The Spectacular Now” by Tim Tharp


Tim Tharp's "The Spectacular Now" was a finalist for the National Book Award for Young People's Literature (please click here to read an interview with Tharp on the NBA website). After reading this almost stream of consciousness peek into the last few months of one teen guy's senior year of high school, I can definitely see why. "The Spectacular Now" is authentic, lively, and ultimately disturbing in a way I can't identify.

Sutter Keely is the senior guy in question, and he's quite literally the life of the party. Sutter is so precisely portrayed that I understood exactly who he was. You know that charming, exuberant, scruffy, kinda lovable screw-up that girls always think they can tame or protect or somehow fix? That's Sutter. He can talk to anyone, making that person feel special and magical for those few moments in his spotlight. He's all about fun and adventure and maybe even a little danger. Sutter's problem? He's also a closeted, mostly functioning alcoholic ("god's own drunk," as he says), driving around Oklahoma City with a Big Gulp 7UP generously laced with whiskey. Sutter drinks constantly, from the time he wakes up right on through the day, even getting loaded for his job at Mr. Leon's men's clothing store and before a dinner at his uptight sister's house. Sutter's easy, natural charisma helps deflect many of the consequences of his drinking, and he's in full-on denial mode about any other problems it might be causing. See, Sutter's all about "embracing the weird," and he's hit on something so many anti-drinking crusades miss: drinking can be a lot of fun. That's why kids do it. So while we as readers see all the scary issues raised by Sutter's drinking, he thinks he's living it up right in the moment. In the spectacular now.

Sutter's life is already careening pretty far out of control when he meets the shy, nerdy, sci fi geek Aimee. Well, "meet" might be too strong a word for what actually happens. Sutter blacks out after a night of drinking, waking up to discover that he's in an unfamiliar neighborhood — sitting on someone's front lawn! — and being roused by a quiet newspaper delivery girl. Sutter initially takes on Aimee as a kind of project, thinking he can boost the confidence of this gentle, meek girl and really do something right in his life. Along the way, he learns that Aimee is pretty spectacular herself, despite — or perhaps because of — her love of horses and Commander Amanda Gallico and her unquenchable, maybe naive capacity to dream big dreams. Unfortunately, Sutter, in "helping" Aimee, also introduces her to the lure of near-constant drinking. All this leads to a climax that is touching, real, and unexpectedly sad.

I'm not entirely sure this book will be fully appreciated by its target audience of high school age readers. As a (cough) somewhat older reader, I recognized Sutter's character and knew exactly how pathetic he'd be with another 10 or 15 years of "partying" under his belt. While Tharp capably conveys this very point when we meet Sutter's estranged dad in Fort Worth, I'm still not convinced those without the life experience will fully appreciate the utter depth of Sutter's impending decline.

Regardless, this is a real "wow" kind of book. Sutter's voice is so compelling that I felt like I was strapped into some sort of amusement park ride run amok. That's what the narration of his life feels like. You will absolutely root for this terribly flawed but well-intentioned guy, who will disappoint you and surprise you in equal measure. Plus, Sutter's relationship with Aimee is so hopeful and tragic (at the same time!), that it's reason alone to read this outstanding novel.

Please know there are lots of drinking (well, duh!), drug, and sexual references here. Even beyond that, I think the somewhat subtle nature of this story lends itself more to high school age readers. Finally, although my description here might make "The Spectacular Now" seem like a dull "issue" book, nothing could be further from the truth. The great feat of this novel is how it manages to make self destruction seem so incredibly attractive. Truly, although it may sound odd, this is an energetic, almost bouncy story of one boy's slow descent into real despair and heartbreak. It is definitely worth reading.

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Posted by on January 5, 2009 in Uncategorized


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“Scat” by Carl Hiaasen


I love the snarky satires Carl Hiaasen has written for adults, and I got a huge kick out of his delightful "Flush." Naturally, I figured I'd adore his latest book for young people, "Scat." I was right!

"Scat" is a typical Hiaasen book … and I mean that statement in the best possible way! It takes place in Florida, has a strong pro-environment theme, features plenty of laughs, and, my personal favorite, allows the good guys to triumph while ensuring the bad guys get their hilariously fitting comeuppance. The advanced copy of "Scat" I have is nearly 400 pages long, and I consumed it in basically one long sitting. I was actually sort of sad to see it end, which tells you just about everything you need to know.

Oh, what's that? You'd like some actual plot details? Fair enough. Our young hero is Nick Waters, one of those genuinely good (though not smarmy or self-righteous) kids who tries to do the right thing, even when that means standing up to ultra-demanding biology teacher Mrs. Starch. When Mrs. Starch and class delinquent Duane "Smoke" Scrod both disappear after a school field trip to Black Vine Swamp, Nick and his pal Marta decide to investigate. While searching Mrs. Starch's house — which, incidentally, is a taxidermy paradise — the kids meet Twilly Spree, a back-to-nature guy (think a sort of eco-crusader) out to, among other things, prevent the shady Red Diamond Energy company from drilling in Black Vine Swamp. Also, as a total side note, if you've read Hiaasen's "Sick Puppy," you'll remember Twilly; I was half expecting another old Hiaasen favorite, the roadkill-eating Skink, to make an appearance!

Anyway, I'm leaving loads out, including Nick's dad, a National Guard captain serving in Iraq; the blowhard owner of Red Diamond and his sidekick, Jimmy Lee, who, let's say, should definitely know better; Smoke's macaw-loving, beaten-down dad and wealthy, streetwise grandma; and, maybe best of all, the endangered Florida panther herself. Hiaasen weaves all these characters and plot elements together and delivers a satisfying, funny, warm, and charming tale. I especially loved how Hiaasen showed each character's innate humanity, including the once-feared Mrs. Starch, the reformed arsonist Smoke, and even the greedy Jimmy Lee. Fully realized, three-dimensional characters help ground what might otherwise have been an almost slapstick story.

I would absolutely recommend this book to middle school readers, both boys and girls. "Scat" has abundant humor, realistic — if admittedly eccentric — characters, plenty of adventure, and a big old heart. I hope you all like it as much as I did!



I liked how "Scat" had a lot of information about nature and endangered animals. It was a great mystery!


Posted by on January 5, 2009 in Uncategorized


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