Monthly Archives: October 2009

“Shiver” by Maggie Stiefvater


In the simplest terms, Maggie Stiefvater's latest novel, "Shiver," is a werewolf / human teen love story set in chilly Minnesota. Although it's been steadily compared to Stephenie Meyer's "Twilight" (as an example, check out this link), other than the starcrossed lovers angle — which, hello, dates back to at least Romeo & Juliet! — I don't see "Shiver" as a Twilight clone. "Shiver" stands on its own as a memorable novel with great atmosphere, well-drawn main characters, and a pulsating sense of romance.

High school senior Grace, one of those smart, independent girls who are staples of teen fiction, spends much of each winter gazing out her back door toward Boundary Woods, where a wolf pack roams. One wolf in particular, with piercing yellow eyes, has always captivated Grace, especially after she was attacked by the wolves six years earlier. During an illegal wolf hunt, Grace's wolf is shot, causing him to revert to his human form. I'd say it was love at first sight when Grace looks upon the kind, intelligent Sam, but, in all honesty, she loved him as a wolf, too.

There's an interesting hook in this book, which is that temperature dictates the werewolves' form; in warm summer months, they are human, and as the weather turns colder, they revert to animal form. As such, the biting Minnesota chill is a palpable enemy, seeking to encroach upon Sam and Grace's happiness and steal his humanity. We can feel the threat inherent in a blast of icy air or a dark, frigid night. There's also the looming danger of permanent loss. We learn that all the wolves — including Sam — will reach a point where they cannot transform back into their human bodies. Much to Grace's dismay, during one of these long, cold midwestern winters, Sam will become a wolf forever.

In the meantime, Grace basically brings Sam home to live with her family. She keeps him warm, he reads her poetry, and they spend just about every moment together. Of course, Grace's parents fail to notice that a teen boy is sleeping in their daughter's room and cooking breakfast with her each morning. Hrm. Okay. I am mildly annoyed at the invisible / preoccupied parents plot device in teen novels as a whole (I'll admit, this is the one aspect of "Shiver" that reminded me of "Twilight"!), and this book was no exception. Grace can be independent and mature and have parents who are engaged in her life.

With that one bit of minor criticism aside, I can absolutely recommend "Shiver" to older middle and high school students. There is a very discreet love scene, but nothing graphic or trashy. My strong suspicion is that this very romantic and earnest — but not sappy — novel will be more appreciated by girls, but who knows. Sam narrates alternating chapters, so there is a strong male voice throughout. I think "Shiver" is a great novel for fans of the paranormal, romance lovers, and even readers just looking for something unusual yet still meaningful. "Shiver" is the first in a series, so if you like it, keep an eye out for "Linger" in August 2010. Happy reading!

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Posted by on October 29, 2009 in Uncategorized


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“Candor” by Pam Bachorz


"Candor," Pam Bachorz's debut novel for teens, reminded me a bit of Lois Lowry's classic dystopian novel, "The Giver." Both books involve closed, scientifically advanced societies with staggering levels of conformity and social control. The biggest difference? I can actually imagine Bachorz's Candor, Florida, where teens are controlled through subliminal messages, existing right now, in America in 2009. I know, creepy!

Perfect — literally, in this case — high school junior Oscar Banks leads us through the story of Candor, and he's a compelling character. Oscar's dad created Candor after the drowning death of his older brother. Mr. Banks envisioned a utopian community where everyone was kind, respectful, hardworking, clean, and prompt. To ensure all these wonderful characteristics among the populace, all of Candor is bathed in music that contains subliminal messages.

Candor is a haven for families with troubled teens; just a few weeks after arriving, even the most rebellious kid loses his piercings, starts donning khakis and polos, and becomes polite, compliant, and utterly dull. See, that's the problem with Candor — everyone is exactly the same, which is to say, perfect. No one has personality, humor, or a sense of adventure, all of which are far too dangerous not to be stamped out by the messages.

No one, that is, except Oscar Banks. Oscar long ago figured out what his dad was up to in Candor, and he devised a way around it. Oscar programs his own messages into his personal music, which he plays at nearly every possible moment to counteract Candor's official messages. For a hefty fee (payable in money, goods, or sex), Oscar will also save newly arrived teens before they're completely brainwashed, providing them with his own message-blocking CDs and safe passage out of Candor. For obvious reasons — there's a horrible place called the Listening Room where minds and memories can be erased — Oscar has to carefully hide his secret persona from his dad and peers. To the rest of Candor, Oscar is the charming, handsome, smart, perfect hero; by himself, he's cunning, shallow, occasionally weak, and a risk taker. In this way, Oscar represents many "real world" teens who often feel they have to act differently to fit in at different moments in their lives.

When Oscar meets Nia, a free-spirited artist newly arrived in Candor, he sets out to prevent her from being ruined (er, perfected) by the town's messages. But Oscar falls so hard for Nia that he doesn't want her to leave town. Instead, Oscar provides her with some of his CDs, specially designed for Nia, which he believes will be strong enough to prevent her assimilation. Nia soon falls for Oscar, too, although even Oscar, in his darkest moments, must wonder whether her feelings are real or just an after effect of Oscar's messages. Bachorz very subtly — and very effectively — raises the issue of Oscar's own selfishness and need for control, allowing the reader to judge for herself just how much Oscar resembles his dad. I was surprised at how complex a character Oscar turns out to be. Similarly, Mr. Banks is never shown as purely evil; he's more a hurt, self-deluded man stubbornly convinced he knows what's best.

"Candor" is an engaging, disturbing tale of difference and forced conformity. Today's teens should find much to relate to here. I'd say that some of the language and situations gear this book toward older middle school and high school students, but you all know yourselves best. I found "Candor" to be smart and troubling, and I'm sure it will raise lots of discussion among its readers. Enjoy!


Posted by on October 8, 2009 in Uncategorized


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“Have a Little Faith” by Mitch Albom


Mitch Albom is the Detroit-based sports reporter famous for his two hugely bestselling books, "The Five People You Meet in Heaven" and "Tuesdays with Morrie." Since both these titles are staples of high school reading lists everywhere, I figure some teens will check out Albom's latest non-fiction work, "Have a Little Faith."

True to its title, in this book Albom explores questions of faith. When Albom's lifelong NJ-based rabbi, affectionately dubbed "The Reb," asks him to write his eulogy when the time comes, Albom is floored. The Reb was a towering figure of Albom's youth and a fixture in his rare temple visits back in NJ, but, beyond that, the two had no relationship. Albom agrees, and over the course of the next six years, he makes regular visits to the Reb when he's in the NY area. Although initially designed to provide material for the eulogy, the visits quickly become larger discussions of life, religion, family, love, marriage, forgiveness, and, of course, God.

In recounting lessons learned from the Reb — a feisty, goodhearted man who often breaks into song — Albom also relates the story of Pastor Henry Covington. Henry, a recovered drug addict, former dealer, and convicted felon, is the leader of the I Am My Brother's Keeper Church in downtown Detroit. He oversees a small congregation in his gritty neighborhood, providing food and shelter to the homeless and compassion to worshipers who have been badly battered by life. Henry's church has little money, few congregants, and a gaping hole in the roof, but he still manages to do God's work and help people transform their lives. As with the Reb, Albom begins visiting Henry for a specific purpose — here, to consider making a donation from his homeless foundation — only to develop a much deeper relationship.

"Have a Little Faith" is another "small but mighty" book from this well-liked author. It's written in a folksy, conversational manner, meaning teens should gobble up the short chapters and gently imparted lessons. Although there's nothing earth shattering here, the book invites readers to examine their own faith and ponder the questions Albom poses to the Reb and Pastor Henry. It's also a nice character study of these two figures, as Albom does a lovely job in presenting the complexities of the Reb and Henry. Both come across as lively, real men whose very real heartbreaks and fears cannot shake their respective faith. As such, the book serves as a touching tribute to the Reb and a nice reminder for all of us about the role of faith in our lives.

PS – I listened to the audio book of "Have a Little Faith," which is narrated by a very capable Mitch Albom himself. Well done!

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Posted by on October 7, 2009 in Uncategorized


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