Monthly Archives: August 2009

“Love is the Higher Law” by David Levithan


David Levithan's new novel, "Love is the Higher Law," is one of the few pieces of September 11th-related YA fiction that I can recall. It's an occasionally talky yet emotionally resonant novel that features Levithan's usual mix of multiple narrators, lyrical language, and meditations on the power of music.

Our narrators here are three New York City teenagers. We have sweet, giving high school student Claire, her music-loving pal and classmate Peter, and snarky college guy Jasper, whom Peter is set to date for the first time on September 11th. The kids' responses on the day of the attack, that awful mixture of horror, confusion, dislocation, and longing for normalcy, are superbly depicted. Anyone who lived through that day, particularly in the immediate NYC area, will absolutely relate to the whirlwind of emotions experienced by the teens. Levithan is particularly adept at using small details — Claire steadily lighting memorial candles at Union Park in a driving rainstorm or Jasper desperately picking up scattered papers from the World Trade Center site — to convey the almost overwhelming sense of sadness and powerlessness that followed the attack.

For the most part, the three narrators are an effective device, nicely presenting the wrenching recovery from different perspectives. The boys' voices, especially when describing their terrible first date, are spot-on. We see so clearly the mixed signals, hurt feelings, unspoken words, and, above all, the longing that the characters both miss in the moment itself.

Both Peter and Jasper are so flawed yet cautiously hopeful — so real — that I found myself irritated by Claire's distance from the readers. She seemed too perfect and selfless, too much of an idealized type rather than a human being. At one point, Claire remarks that if she hadn't met Peter and Jasper, she fears she'd be living her whole life inside her head. And that's the problem — too much of Claire's passages are devoted to big ideas and reflections that lack any emotional connection. For me, Claire's thoughts started to feel like weighty abstractions or philosophy lessons, which often undercut the novel's impact.

Still, there are such moments of poetry here, so many lines of text that scream out to be savored and reread, that the intermittent failings of one character can be overlooked. Besides, Levithan's ability to evoke music as a force of nature and present its ability to heal a community or allow one boy to lose himself for awhile is stunning, as always. All the best music-related parts of "Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist," are matched here by the sheer joy and power of a Travis or U2 concert.

I'm somewhat concerned about the audience for this book — how much do today's teens remember about an event from 8 years ago? — but maybe fans of Levithan's other novels will give this one a try. There is ample strong language here, but nothing beyond the ways in which real teenagers talk every day of their lives. Overall, while there's much here for adults to like, I'm hoping there are teen readers out there as well. "Love is the Higher Law" is a somewhat sad, beautiful, and largely optimistic novel about one of the most important moments of our lives. It's definitely worth reading.

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Posted by on August 21, 2009 in Uncategorized


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“Leviathan” by Scott Westerfeld


I picked up an advanced copy of Scott Westerfeld's "Leviathan" at Book Expo back in June and only recently read it. I've never tried a "steampunk" novel before but I figured a Westerfeld book would be a good choice to serve as my introduction. Luckily, I was right!

So what's "steampunk," you ask? Fair question. Wikipedia will gladly give you the full story, but for our purposes here, it's sufficient to imagine the steam era (late 19th / early 20th century) with futuristic sci fi technology. It's a cool mash-up of genres, and being a sci fi geek at heart, I had to give it a try.

"Leviathan" takes place at the dawn of World War I with the assassination of Austro-Hungarian Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his non-royal wife, Sophie. In our parallel version of history (by the way, Westerfeld rocks a thorough explanation at book's end setting the record straight), the Archduke's murder leaves behind one son, Alek, who is spirited away in the night by a small yet loyal group of his father's men. Because there's a chance Alek can inherit the empire, despite his mom's commoner status, he becomes an instant target for the Germans, Austrians, Serbs, and all sorts of other folks who want to plunge the world into chaos.

One other point — and it's a neat one! — involves the German and Austro-Hungarians' technology. They're known as "Clankers" because they've developed and rely heavily upon awesomely advanced machines. We're not just talking about planes and zeppelins but also enormous, mobile contraptions called stormwalkers, which reminded me of the AT-AT Walkers in "Star Wars."

Ok, so Alek and the gang are escaping via stormwalker to a safe house (er, safe castle) hidden away in the Swiss Alps. Meanwhile, in alternating chapters, we follow British girl Deryn's story. Disguising herself as Dylan, the brave and street smart Deryn has become a midshipman in her majesty's royal navy. Of course, the navy in this case involves giant, hydrogen-excreting creatures that sail across the sky. See, the Brits are Darwinists (named after Charles Darwin, the father of the theory of evolution). The Darwinists have learned how to separate out "threads of life" (what we know as DNA) and fabricate all manner of exotic beasties, from hydrogen-sniffing dogs to bats that can release metal spikes as weapons. Deryn is deployed to the great airship Leviathan — a massive flying whale! — which is the Darwinists' crowning achievement.

So even from this slight description, you might be able to see what's coming, right? Yup, at some point Alek's Clanker world and Deryn's Darwinist world are going to collide, with all sorts of unexpected results. What works here? First off, the authenticity of the characters. Deryn reminded me of a Jacky Faber type, a tough, good-hearted, adventurous girl living a boy's life and having a grand time doing so. Alek is more reserved, cultured, and stoic, a teen weighed down by the twin burdens of his parents' deaths and his own importance to the emperor. I totally believed each of these characters, and I loved watching their initial, mutual suspicion become a true friendship.

Westerfeld's descriptions of machines and interlocking ecosystems are also wonderfully evocative … and, admittedly, kind of gross, too! What's most important is that we readers can vividly see these otherworldy beings and metal monsters in our own minds. In fact, there were times I felt I could just about smell the hydrogen myself!

"Leviathan" is a great action story, but one populated with characters who feel, talk, and act real. The mixture of technological marvels, world history, fantasy, and loads of adventure is unlike anything I've read before. I also loved how Westerfeld discussed the political maneuverings behind the outbreak of war and the often unwarranted, wholly fear-based wariness that different cultures can have for each other. My only complaint? I had no idea this novel was the first in a series! It's going to be tough waiting another year for the second installment.

"Leviathan" will be out in October, and I'd absolutely recommend it to all readers in middle school and higher. It's completely clean, language-wise, and I think there's a little something here for you regardless of your preferred genre. I hope you'll give it a try when it comes out. Happy reading!

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Posted by on August 18, 2009 in Uncategorized


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“The Awakening” by Kelley Armstrong


I'm back to reviewing books after taking some time off for our summer reading program. Even better, I'm back with a great book, Kelley Armstrong's "The Awakening," the second book in the "Darkest Powers" series. If you missed the first book, "The Summoning," you'll definitely want to start there, because "The Awakening" assumes you already know everything that happened to Chloe Saunders, our budding teen necromancer, once she was sent to Lyle House, the mysterious group home for "troubled" teens with supernatural powers.

"The Awakening" starts off the very morning after Chloe's ill-fated escape from Lyle House. She's been recaptured by the Edison Group and seemingly betrayed by her Aunt Lauren, while pals Simon and Derek are still on the lam. What follows is mostly an extended chase sequence, in which Chloe and bitchy, spoiled housemate Tori outsmart the bad guys, meet up with the boys, and go on the run to find Simon's dad, a fairly powerful wizard in his own right.

What works here? Interestingly, while reading "The Awakening," I got caught up in the breathless pace and near-constant action and tension. Looking back, I realized just about nothing of substance had occurred! I mean that as a compliment to author Kelley Armstrong, because, almost by definition, the middle book in a trilogy must act as a bridge, setting the stage for the big climax in book three; here, Armstrong hides that intrinsic plot stagnation behind strong writing, cool twists and betrayals, surprisingly complex character development, and a drumbeat pace.

Yes, we do get some crumbs of information about the Edison Group and a bit of back story on demi-demons, but, for the most part, this is a standard chase story that lays the groundwork for a final showdown. Granted, the folks doing the chasing range from witches to werewolves, with a smattering of street toughs thrown in between to spice things up. I don't care. I loved nearly every second of this book; loved how we learned more about Chloe and the smart, brooding, protective Derek; loved how their relationship evolved; loved how the kids were believably smart and creative in staying one step ahead of their pursuers; loved the spooky reanimated corpses (hello, BATS!); loved the paranormal elements (hello, talking ghosts!); loved the creepy, weirdly paternalistic Dr. Lyle … in other words, I loved it! 🙂

Aside from some of the scary, otherwordly stuff, there's nothing offensively harsh here. I'd say "The Awakening" is a great late middle school choice, particularly for those readers who, like me, feel the vampire genre has played itself out. I think you'll get a kick out of this one. Enjoy!

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Posted by on August 11, 2009 in Uncategorized


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