Monthly Archives: January 2010

“This World We Live In” by Susan Beth Pfeffer


"This World We Live In" is the third book in Susan Beth Pfeffer's "Last Survivors" series. It's due out in April, but, lucky me, I read an advanced copy right here on my laptop through a cool service called Net Galley. Blogger-reviewer types out there should definitely scan the offerings at Net Galley. You don't need any special gadgets and with a five-second download of Adobe Digital Editions, you're in business.

Right, the actual book review. Sorry, I'm so easily sidetracked at times! I'm going to assume folks are familiar with the back story here, since this is book three. Short version: An asteroid struck the moon, causing a series of cataclysmic events, including tsunamis, volcanoes, and earthquakes. Millions died, cities were destroyed, and life became a fragile, fickle thing. In the first book, "Life As We Knew It," we see the slow destruction of everyday life through the eyes of Miranda, a teenager in northern Pennsylvania. The same series of events is again depicted in "The Dead and the Gone," focusing on the chaos in New York City as it affects a teenage parochial school student named Alex.

This time around, we're back in Pennsylvania and Miranda is once more recounting daily events in her precious diary. Her family — Mom, older brother Matt, younger brother Jon, and pet cat Horton — have all suffered through a thoroughly miserable winter. They've starved, scavenged, fought, cried, and huddled together in their sunroom, but somehow they've managed to survive. They now face a gray, frigid spring with few prospects for food and even less hope.

On a fishing trip to the Delaware River, Matt and Jon return with much-needed shad as well as a big surprise — Matt's new wife, Syl. Syl is pretty much the definition of a survivor, having endured evacuation camps, transient groups of travelers, and some not so great men. Matt falls for her instantly, as she's beautiful and exotic. It's never clear if Syl loves Matt or is just glad to have found, at long last, a measure of safety. And that's as it should be, because Syl herself might not know. Syl is a complicated character, new age-y at times (she leads a sacrifice to Diana, the moon goddess) and jarringly practical at others (scolding Miranda to stop thinking and keep working after a cave-in).

Before the family can adjust to Syl's presence, Miranda's dad, Hal; his second wife, Lisa; infant Gabriel; traveling friend Charlie; and two siblings, Alex and Julie (yes! the same siblings from "The Dead and the Gone") arrive at the house after an arduous, frightening cross-country journey. The new folks set up residence in an abandoned neighborhood house, radically expanding Miranda's tiny world and giving her access, for the first time in a year, to a strange new teenage boy.

I loved the merging of the two main characters from the first two novels. As readers, we know much more about each of them than they do about each other, allowing us to see hidden meanings and motives in their statements and actions. For example, no one knows of Alex's past in robbing corpses and "failing" to save his little sister Briana. As such, Alex's intense, almost zealous efforts to protect Julie play out differently for the characters in the book than for the readers at home. It's an excellent dichotomy.

I hate to spoil any plot points, but let me just say that I 100% believed that Miranda and Alex — like Matt and Syl, and even to some extent, Jon and Julie — could fall so quickly and ferociously into a romantic relationship. In hard, uncertain times, it makes perfect sense for people, particularly young, impetuous people, to grab hold of each other. When there is no promise of tomorrow, folks must abandon caution to, once again, feel alive and less alone.

I also loved how the introduction of new players changed what had been a rigid family dynamic with Mom in charge and Matt as the surrogate dad and disciplinarian. Suddenly, stark fear, plays for power and control, and even flashes of true ugliness over sharing scarce resources, become daily occurrences. Author Pfeffer beautifully balances this darkness with small glimpses of hope and sacrifice. At the novel's end, Miranda twice follows through on nearly impossible, utterly heartbreaking decisions, revealing just how far she has come from the spoiled girl who loved only boys and figure skating. These moments are gut wrenching to experience and will stay with the reader long after the novel ends.

Speaking of the novel's end, this one finishes up on a bit of a cliffhanger, as the surviving characters are forced to leave Pennsylvania and seek safety elsewhere. What will happen on their trip? Who will survive? Oh, Susan Beth Pfeffer, you'd better have another book up your very capable sleeves! Until then, middle and high school readers can look for "This World We Live In" in April. I'm sure they'll love this fast-paced, compelling story as much as I did. Enjoy!

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Posted by on January 31, 2010 in Uncategorized


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“Just Listen” by Sarah Dessen


I recently realized I've read (and loved) many a Sarah Dessen book in my time, yet had somehow overlooked 2006's "Just Listen." Forgive my omission!

I really enjoyed "Just Listen." Do I think it's Sarah's strongest book ever? No. Did I have some issues with it? Yes. Would I recommend it to a teen girl? In an absolute heartbeat.

There's some jumping about in the timeline of "Just Listen," which I found quite effective. We meet Annabel straight off knowing that something happened at an end of school year party, something that destroyed her friendship with the bitchy diva Sophie and made Annabel a popular topic for the rumor mill. For much of the novel, we just don't know what it is. As the new school year begins, Annabel feels completely ostracized, to the point where she spends her lunch hour sitting on a bench — a safe distance away — from the violent loner Owen Armstrong. While Owen intently listens to his ipod, Annabel just wishes for time to pass. Because this is a teen novel — and I say that with love! — one day Owen and Annabel start talking, shortly after Annabel is harassed by Sophie.

Owen and Annabel slowly form a friendship that revolves around music and honesty. Yes, you read that correctly. Owen isn't really violent, although he does have some history with the fisticuffs. Now he's a disciple of a court-ordered anger management program, meaning he doesn't let Annabel use the half-truths and evasions she usually employs to cover up her pain. Owen is flat-out honest, opinionated, and pretty much the type of friend any girl would love to have. He also basically lives for music of all genres and types, as long as it's not the popular bubblegum stuff. It's not surprising then that Owen's early Sunday radio show features tracks of chanting monks and industrial noise.

So what doesn't work so well here? I found Annabel to be a bit of a blank slate. I never felt a connection to her. Part of this is because for much of the book Annabel holds so much of herself back. Yes, she's hanging onto a tough secret, but it extends beyond that. Annabel is always agreeing to her mom's modeling gig requests or refusing to take the extra step to engage a long ago friend. She is forever tentative, leaving too much unspoken. It is only in her scenes with the patient, bold Owen, who challenges her repeatedly, that she truly blossoms as a living, breathing character. I often only understood or related to Annabel's character when she was paired with Owen.

Ok, so that was the major glitch for me but also, oddly, a strong point, because Owen is a fully developed character. He went way beyond the stock sweet-kind-secretly awesome YA love interest who lives in many a teen novel. Instead, Owen seemed like an actual boy. He could be obnoxious in his honesty — particularly about the purity of music — and demanding as a friend, but he was also caring without being cloying or earnest. Plus, he displayed a believably goofy (and, yes, endearing) side around his kid sister, especially for a tough guy. Indeed, as we learn in the end, Owen's not quite so cured with the whole anger management issue. Yay for flawed characters!

I also liked the family dynamic and how Annabel's older sisters play subtle roles in her own self-growth. In particular, Annabel's beautiful, broken sister Whitney serves as a quiet inspiration in doing small things like growing herbs in ceramic pots. Whitney's recovery from anorexia develops mostly offstage, which is how it should be. This is Annabel's story, and its depth is only increased by smartly inserting these small, telling moments with her family.

Lastly, I must again commend Sarah Dessen for continually showing that girls work better as friends than as enemies. (See my review of Sarah's "Along for the Ride" for more discussion of this topic.) It's just plain gratifying to see girls portrayed so positively. I loved in "Just Listen" how two different female characters, both one-time friends of Annabel's, had completely different interpretations of how those friendships ended and where they now stood. Those kinds of mixed signals among girlfriends are frustratingly real and, as such, a wonderful addition to the story.

"Just Listen" has been wildly popular at my library since its release, so I recognize I am preaching to the choir here. While perhaps not Sarah's best book, it stands quite well on its own merits. Read it for the lyrical passages, the quietly touching moments, the cool music references (watch out, David Levithan!), the important message about revealing your heart's truth, and, of course, for the small butterflies created by Owen and Annabel's relationship. There's a bit of strong language here, but, as with Sarah's other books, nothing that should bother most middle schoolers. I'm glad I finally got around to reading "Just Listen." I hope you enjoy it, too!

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Posted by on January 30, 2010 in Uncategorized


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“Linger” by Maggie Stiefvater


I scored a copy of Maggie Stiefvater's "Linger" from the Scholastic folks at NCTE back in late November. As some readers of this blog may know, I have since suffered an injury and will shortly have surgery. Before I dive into my review, let me say I've had a difficult time concentrating of late, making reading much more challenging than it has ever been in the past. So when I say that "Linger" held my attention, that deserves to be underlined, starred, and otherwise highlighted!

As YA lit lovers already know, "Linger" is the sequel to Maggie's first werewolf romance, "Shiver." I won't reveal key plot points of the new book, which won't hit bookstores until July, but I've got to reference some "Shiver" moments. So be forewarned, dear readers, and run screaming from this blog right now if that's going to create an issue for you. Still here? Rad.

Ok, so at the end of "Shiver," rich, bratty Isabel Culpepper and tougher-than-she-appears Grace Brisbane infect two werewolves, Isabel's brother Jack and Grace's beloved Sam Roth, with meningitis. The illness causes an incredibly high fever, which, in Sam's case, forever banishes his wolfy self. (Alas, poor Jack simply dies a second ignoble death.) Fast forward to "Linger," and Grace and Sam are the same moony lovers, trading poetry, songs, heartfelt gazes, and long nights in her bedroom. I'm sorry, I still find Sam a bit too earnest for my taste, but I fully buy his relationship with Grace. Eh, maybe I'm inconsistent. I've been called worse! Meanwhile, Isabel is storming about as an angry, bitter shell, hating herself for "killing" her own brother and reaching out, in her own jagged way, to Grace and Sam, the only two people who know what truly happened.

We quickly meet one of three new wolves Beck brought back from Canada. (Beck himself, due to his advanced age, is now forever a wolf.) One of these newbies is Cole, the former bad boy lead singer of a teenage band. Cole's choice to become a werewolf is a pseudo-glamorous, wholly pathetic version of suicide: he no longer wants to feel or remember a life where he used up girls, drugs, family, friends, and fame like they meant nothing at all. Hence, wolf. Cole is an incredibly layered character. His obnoxious antics are slowly — and I do mean slowly! — peeled away to reveal his broken humanity. Every piece of the real Cole, every insight into who he was and what he could someday become, is fought like a battle and earned with no less hardship. You will not soon forget his mixture of chaos, pain, and guilt. Brava, Maggie Stiefvater! You've created one heck of a character here.

Likewise, our formerly snobby Isabel evolves in "Linger." The once superficial rich girl recognizes she's broken but is so grandly, utterly po'd by the torment that she turns to manic action instead of apathy. I'm not sure how else to describe a girl who frantically pores over decades old medical tomes on meningitis. I loved how Isabel becomes fiercely protective of her small group of bruised and battered souls. I also loved the dangerous attraction she shares with Cole, which I hope we'll see more of in the third novel. FOR WHICH I WILL HAVE TO WAIT UNTIL 2011!! Heh … sorry, that's my own issue. Advanced copies can be a mixed blessing. :p

I can't leave this review without describing how Grace becomes … well … "ballsy" is the word that comes to mind. In calling out her folks for their superficial parenting or in staunchly defending her love for Sam (Grace's longed for red coffee pot is a great symbol), Grace never comes across as a whiny, lovestruck teenager. She fights like an adult — at times, like a wounded mother bear — to save the relationship that matters most to her. I suspect many teens who read "Linger" will absolutely embrace her message.

Overall, "Linger" is more complex and, for me, more haunting and devastating than the first novel. I mentioned the new dimensions to the characters, which gave the story more impact. Using four narrators (Grace, Sam, Cole, and Isabel) and having the point of view shift in the same scene or conversation is another wonderful device; it allows us the immediacy of seeing how each character thinks in the moment itself. Brilliant. The themes themselves also had more depth, as the consequences of betrayal, sacrifice, guilt, loneliness, responsibility, heartbreak, and, of course, love were brought fully to life by the characters' actions and, occasionally, their inactions. Add the chaos and urgency of the final, shocking scene — the frenzied need to act RIGHT NOW — which absolutely floored me, and you can see why I'm such a fan.

Read it for the graceful writing, the layered characters, the haunting love story, the exploration of heartbreaking issues … whatever your motivation, I assure you, "Linger" is a total winner. I'd say the audience for this one can go as low as middle schoolers (there are no overt sex scenes and just some real minor language) and may include boys as well as girls (after all, there are two major male characters taking turns narrating the story). "Linger" comes out in July. Look for it then. I'm sure you'll love it!

PS – Kudos on the divine cover art!


"Linger" was "in-between" for me. If you read the first book, "Shiver," and loved it, then you will enjoy this one as well. If you didn't, I'd suggest you not even open this book. There is not much of a plot and the climax doesn't occur until the last few chapters. At least it leads into the third book. For me, the good ending was worth the boring beginning, but other people might not feel the same way.


Posted by on January 29, 2010 in Uncategorized


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“Marcelo in the Real World” by Francisco X. Stork


I know! I am so late to the party in reading and recommending "Marcelo in the Real World," which has been on "Best of 2009" lists produced by everyone from The New York Times to But, in the spirit of that old better late than never motto, herewith I give you my two cents. 🙂

For those who don't know, our title character here functions at the high end of the autism spectrum. If you're familiar with Mark Haddon's "The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time," Marcelo reminded me a bit of Christopher Boone, in that he can function capably in the world despite being separated from it. While Marcelo is a smart, thoughtful, meticulous teenage boy, he clearly relates differently to other people and the larger society around him. Marcelo sometimes does not understand what emotion he and others are expected to experience in a given situation or why a person would react with laughter, anger, or lust when faced with a specific set of actions.

The remarkable thing about this book is that Marcelo is so brilliantly portrayed that we understand perfectly why he perceives the world the way he does. More incredibly, we realize that Marcelo's interpretations are not just acceptable adaptive techniques, but, at times, purer or more honest responses than those of the "normal" characters. Francisco Stork expertly maintains Marcelo's voice throughout the novel, never once wavering or offering us false moments, in what I can only describe as an incredible triumph of writing.

I won't reveal too much of the story, other than to say that the novel revolves around the pivotal summer before Marcelo's senior year of high school during which he works at his father's Boston law firm. Over the course of a few months, Marcelo befriends hard-edged mail room clerk Jasmin, who opens his eyes to a world filled with the beauty of music and the pain of compromise and failure. Marcelo also confronts an entitled bully and seeks out rogue justice for an injured plaintiff, along the way challenging his father's livelihood and his own long-held beliefs about family, religion, ethics, and fairness.

I hesitated in reading this book for far too long. I only wish I had believed the hype and read it sooner! "Marcelo in the Real World" is a poignant and meaningful novel that gives us one of the richest characters to emerge from a teen novel in years. It is, without a doubt, the finest piece of teen literature I have read in 2009, and I would recommend it wholeheartedly to teens and adults. There is a minor bit of language and some thematic elements, but nothing an older middle school student couldn't handle. Look for "Marcelo in the Real World" to win the ALA's Printz Award in a few weeks; if it doesn't, there are going to be an awful lot of angry readers around!

UPDATE 1/26/2010: As you may have heard, Libba Bray's trippy "Going Bovine" won the Printz Award. Fair enough. Although it absolutely wasn't for me — I gave up around page 100 — Libba rocks. With no disrespect to the other honorees, I simply cannot believe my precious "Marcelo" was overlooked as a finalist for the same award. Bah! Please don't let that oversight sway you from giving this wonderful book a try.

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Posted by on January 8, 2010 in Uncategorized


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