Monthly Archives: April 2010

“Heist Society” by Ally Carter


I've never read Ally Carter's "Gallagher Girls" spy series, but I did meet Ally at Book Expo last year and found her absolutely charming and adorable. Heh … I wonder if that counts as the kind of "full disclosure" we bloggers are supposed to be giving from here on out. :p

I was so pleasantly surprised by Ally's latest novel "Heist Society," which I figured would be a teen caper with exotic locales, a snarky female protagonist, and maybe a tinge of a love story. Oh, don't get me wrong. It was all of these things. What threw me for a loop — in the best way possible! — was the book's examination of widescale Nazi art theft during the Holocaust and its continued repercussions more than a half century later.

In case I'm getting ahead of myself, let me lay out the plot framework. Teenager Kat Bishop comes from a long line of thieves, including fearsome Uncle Eddie, gorgeous teen cousin Gabrielle, and her own father. Kat is a skilled thief and con man — er, woman? — but she's forsaken the criminal life to enroll at the elite Colgan School. When Kat is wrongfully blamed for a prank and subsequently expelled, she ends up staying with her friend / boyfriend / secret love interest (take your pick!), the wealthy, mysterious Hale. Around the same time, a powerful, truly menacing international crime boss named Arturo Toccone threatens Kat's father. Toccone believes Kat's dad is the only thief in the world capable of having stolen his priceless, secret art collection from its hidden fortress location. If the paintings are not returned, Toccone will have Kat's dad killed.

Gah! Interestingly, Kat's dad is actually innocent of this particular crime, but Toccone will not be persuaded otherwise. Since her dad is under constant Interpol surveillance for an unrelated theft, Kat takes matters into her own hands. Ignoring a warning from Uncle Eddie, she and Hale assemble a sort of "Ocean's 11" crew of teen thieves, including twin brothers, a tech geek, cousin Gabrielle, and a young pickpocket Kat meets in a Paris street. Together, the kids have to (a) figure out what was stolen from Toccone; (b) suss out the items' new hiding place; and (c) steal them back, preferably without getting caught.

For folks who remember either version of "The Thomas Crown Affair," there are definite parallels here. And, obviously, the "Ocean's 11" comparison is unmistakable. Still, this book felt fresh to me. Maybe it's the teen spin, the amiable characters, or the super clever final heist that give the book an appealing newness. Just as likely, it's the Nazi looting subplot, which gives a flighty, frothy caper some unexpected depth and emotion. Oh … and the romantic tension between Kat and the dreamy Hale certainly doesn't hurt either!

"Heist Society" is remarkably clean in terms of language, sex, and drug / alcohol references. Unless you're put off by the moral implications of a band of teen thieves, I'd say the audience for this one is easily middle school and up. Try it for the sharp dialogue, European jetsetting, gentle humor, and smart plotting. But be sure to also read Ally's endnote and think a bit about the lasting injustice of the Nazis' looting of priceless artwork.

Leave a comment

Posted by on April 13, 2010 in Uncategorized


Tags: , , , , , ,

“Before I Fall” by Lauren Oliver


Lauren Oliver's "Before I Fall" immediately landed on the NY Times Children's Bestseller list, an impressive feat for a first-time author. This book was another ARC that I received back in November but only recently read. I can't believe I was so dumb! "Before I Fall" is "Mean Girls" meets "Groundhog Day," a potent, tragicomic look at high school cliques, friendship, bullying, regret, and forgiveness. It is every bit as devastating as Jay Asher's suicide novel "13 Reasons Why" and as touching as Gayle Forman's life after death story, "If I Stay," yet it's wholly unique in its own right. "Before I Fall" is, for me, the first great teen novel of 2010, which makes me again want to kick myself for waiting so long to read it!

Sam Kingston wakes up late on "Cupid Day," the pre-Valentine's day ritual when students at her Connecticut high school give and receive roses as symbols of friendship, love, and, above all, popularity. Sam has no worries in that last regard, since she is a member of the four-girl clique that basically rules her senior class. Dominated by the brash, bitchy Lindsay, Sam, Ally, and Elody run roughshod over dorky classmates, bully their way into choice parking spots, spread rumors about a slutty underclassman, painfully ignore their inferiors, and essentially torture school freak Juliet Sykes on a daily basis. Sam is just as harsh and cruel as her friends, which makes it difficult to like or even sympathize with her at first … this despite the fact that Sam dies in a car accident the night of Cupid Day after a party at nerdy, offbeat Kent McFuller's house.

Yes, you read that correctly. Sam dies the first night we meet her. Her painful death is followed by a strange, otherworldly falling sensation, after which she wakes up in her bed on the morning of Cupid Day. That's right. For the next six days, Sam relives Cupid Day, always retaining the knowledge from each previous day while her friends, family, and classmates blindly move about the day for the first time. It's an intriguing premise, and it's expertly developed by author Oliver. She knows just when to immerse us fully in all aspects of a Cupid Day and when to gloss over details to maintain the tension and avoid any trace of tedium. I really loved how Sam tried different strategies each day, at first frantically attempting to play it safe only to later try life as the ultimate bad girl, giving in to a skeevy teacher's advances, stealing her mom's credit card for a shopping spree, and drunkenly crashing Kent's party. This reckless behavior contrasted beautifully with the quiet, almost mournful Cupid Day Sam spends with her often-neglected younger sister and her folks.

Besides the incredible insight into high school life — Oliver absolutely nails how teens talk and act — we also get an intriguing mystery. Sam is repeating Cupid Day for a reason, and it involves poor Juliet Sykes, the willowy outcast who suffers a "Carrie"-like moment at Kent's party. When Sam finally uncovers Juliet's middle school friendship with queen bee Lindsay, she starts to understand and even appreciate Juliet's behavior. The book's keen view into the fickleness of popularity — Sam herself was plucked from nerdom by a chance encounter with Lindsay at a pool party — and its sharp portrayal of how popularity both empowers and enslaves those who possess it is truly remarkable. Because we see so many different sides of the characters as Sam repeats each Cupid Day, we cannot help but feel a pang of sympathy not only for the have-nots, but also for the haves, even the seemingly ruthless Lindsay.

I'd prefer not to give anything away on this point, so let me only briefly mention that I'm glossing over a romance that is so unexpected and so tenderly portrayed that it completely blew me away. Besides her wicked insight into the teen mind, Oliver writes lyrical, emotionally charged passages that are as good as anything the great Sarah Dessen has put forth. There are so many reasons to adore "Before I Fall" — the quality of the writing, the multi-faceted characters, the unflinching look at high school life, and the powerful secret at the heart of the story — that a lovely romance is a wonderful bonus.

"Before I Fall" is, in a word, fabulous. I absolutely recommend it to high school age readers, or any middle schoolers mature enough to handle the very strong language and references. My only regret here is that I didn't dive into this book last autumn! Don't make my mistake and wait. I promise, you will love it.

Leave a comment

Posted by on April 7, 2010 in Uncategorized


Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

“The Reckoning” by Kelley Armstrong


"The Reckoning" is the final installment in Kelley Armstrong's Darkest Powers Trilogy, following "The Summoning" and "The Awakening." I had an ARC of this book forever but only read it last week. Weird, right?

So here we have the further adventures of the gang from Lyle House, all of whom are teens with genetically modified supernatural powers. Chloe is the necromancer (she can raise the dead!); sorcerer Simon and witch Tori can both cast spells, although with different degrees of proficiency; brooding Derek is a burgeoning werewolf; and Liz … well, Liz is dead, but her ghost still rocks on.

When we last left the kids, they had — again! — escaped the clutches of the evil Edison Group, the doctors, scientists, supernaturals, and all around bad guys who created the kids and then freaked when their powers began to blossom in unexpected ways. The teens have taken refuge with Andrew, a friend of Simon and Derek's dad and a former member of the Edison Group who became disgusted by their tactics. While everyone regroups, other disgruntled ex-Edison Group-ers are brought in by Andrew to help the kids learn more about their powers. At least, that's the explanation Andrew provides.

Yes, as in the other books, there are plenty of crosses and double crosses, which is rad. I like to be kept guessing. I particularly enjoyed the sense of urgency driving the story, powering the scenes of action, scheming, planning, escaping, and hiding. The Edison Group may be a one-dimensional villain, but it's still a powerful and believable one. It was also cool to see Chloe and the gang expand their powers, although, to be honest, some of the scenes of Chloe raising the dead, with their shlocky horror movie images, became a bit tedious. We get it. Zombies. Move on.

What did I like? I know, I'm such a girl, but I got a huge kick out of seeing the tentative romance develop between werewolf Derek and necromancer Chloe. This was a long time coming! If you've read the first two books, you know how far the character of Derek has progressed, transforming from an angry, sullen, sweaty bully into a kind, protective, heroic man. Derek's awkward physicality — the biggest guy in the room now must also deal with harnessing the wolf within — was wonderfully portrayed. Because we see Derek struggling mightily with his inner wolf, we have a deeper appreciation for the scenes where Derek has to lower his defenses and trust Chloe during the Change. Indeed, Derek's vulnerability, his desire to share himself while still fearing rejection, meshed beautifully with Chloe's sometimes scared, sometimes jaded, always wary personality. So while the magic gives this story its edge, the romance was, for me, the real draw.

Not giving anything away, but this book ends on a bit of a cliffhanger, despite it being the final chapter in the trilogy. With so many questions about the Edison Group left unanswered, I wonder if we can expect another set of books with Chloe, Derek, Simon, Tori, and Liz. Until then, fans of the series should devour "The Reckoning." You'll find all the supernatural action, snarky dialogue, and rapid pace of the first books, plus — finally! — the development of a romance that's previously been simmering in the background. I felt the book was a smidge long (again with the overdose of zombie scenes), but see what you think. Like the other books in this series, "The Reckoning" features no offensive language, alcohol / drug references, or sex scenes, so the age range here really depends primarily on your tolerance for mild gore and horror. I have no hesitation recommending this book for fans of supernatural stories, romances, or both genres. "The Reckoning" is officially released on Tuesday, April 6th. Enjoy!

Leave a comment

Posted by on April 3, 2010 in Uncategorized


Tags: , , , , ,