Monthly Archives: December 2010

“The Mockingbirds” by Daisy Whitney


Daisy Whitney's new novel "The Mockingbirds" is a great "discussion" book for teens, as it touches upon issues of date rape, consent, silence, punishment, and justice. While I found parts of this book to be a bit preachy, overall it is a compelling, thoughtful exploration of the aftermath of rape.

Alex is a junior at Themis Academy, a private boarding school, when she awakens in water polo player Carter's bed with no memory of the night before. Gradually, Alex pieces together a night of drinking, kissing, passing out, and awakening intermittently to find Carter having sex with her. Alex, who is an exceptional musician, at first keeps the rape a secret. But when Carter begins spreading rumors about her, a humiliated Alex reduces her entire life down to a few safe places. She avoids the dining hall, stays in her room, methodically plots out paths to classes, and otherwise reorders her existence to avoid any interactions with Carter. Eventually, Alex seeks help from a secret campus organization, the Mockingbirds, who investigate and police student infractions. What follows is a sort of secret trial conducted by the Mockingbirds, at which both Alex and Carter are allowed to present evidence and cross examine witnesses.

"The Mockingbirds" is pretty much Alex's story, and it works best when it delves into her fractured memory and presents her conflicting sense of guilt, shame, helplessness, and, eventually, power and hope. Alex's reactions — from hiding out to blaming herself to ultimately reclaiming her person and her freedom — feel completely authentic and are beautifully, unflinchingly portrayed. I especially liked how author Whitney presents the "gray" areas of Alex's behavior, as in when Alex recalls fleetingly abandoning her efforts to push Carter away on the night of the rape. That's important from a social responsibility standpoint — girls should know that silence and a lack of fight do NOT equal consent — as well as from a story standpoint; people's actions are never absolutely one way or another. As such, Alex becomes a fully fleshed out, emotionally resonant character.

Unfortunately, the other characters in the story, including sweet love interest Martin, crusading friend Maia, the lecherous Carter, and his evil buddy Henry, have little if any depth. The heroes are heroic, the villains are villainous, the champions champion … well, you get the idea. I would've liked these high school kids to feel like real kids, with that magical combination of faults, flaws, and goodness that makes YA characters leap off the page. While we have that in Alex, her supporting cast is not nearly as believable.

I also thought some passages of the book read as didactic. Alex's music teacher Miss Dimata, her older sister Casey, best friend T.S., and Mockingbirds Amy and Ilana — although providing encouragement and much-needed support — can come off as if they're spouting public service announcement lines instead of genuine expressions of compassion. These characters provide dialogue that is important for us and for the story; still, at times, their words feel preachy and false.

Leaving these two criticisms aside, "The Mockingbirds" is an effective novel about one girl's pain and recovery. While it can be difficult to read at times, I found myself eagerly turning the pages, hoping that Alex's journey would bring her to a place of transformation and peace. If you stick with "The Mockingbirds" through some of its flimsy characterizations and occasional lapses into preachiness, I think you'll be glad. You will be rewarded with a novel that is willing to tackle the weighty issue of sexual assault and explore some intriguing views of justice.

Although it is not terribly graphic, I think this book's challenging subject matter makes it a better fit for high school readers. See what you think. "The Mockingbirds" is out now.

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Posted by on December 28, 2010 in Uncategorized


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“Demonglass” by Rachel Hawkins


I loved "Demonglass." This is not just a great sequel, but it's a great book on its own. There are so many twists and turns — and so many unexpected events — that I had to keep reading. This is a fantastic book. Make sure you read the first book in the series, "Hex Hall," before reading "Demonglass."


"Demonglass," which as our reviewer said is a sequel to "Hex Hall," arrives in bookstores in early March 2011. Happy reading!

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Posted by on December 17, 2010 in Uncategorized


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“Chime” by Franny Billingsley


I really liked "Chime." It was hard to follow and confusing at first. I'm so glad I stuck with the story, because it made a lot more sense as it went along. This book was an interesting, different type of romance. Once I got past the beginning, it was easy to read and exciting.


Chime, described by its publisher as a "wild, enchanted romance," will be released in March 2011.

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Posted by on December 17, 2010 in Uncategorized


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“Dash & Lily’s Book of Dares” by Rachel Cohn and David Levithan


"Dash & Lily's Book of Dares" is a joint novel by Rachel Cohn and the incredibly fabulous David Levithan (you probably already know this author duo from a little something called "Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist"). While this book is no "Nick and Norah's" — or, my personal favorite Levithan pairing, last year's incandescent "Will Grayson, Will Grayson" — it certainly has a lot in its favor. And as far as smart teen romances filled with quirky characters and narrated in alternating chapters … well, you could do worse, believe me.

It's Christmas time in New York City, and our anti-hero Dash stumbles upon a red moleskin journal in the legendary Strand bookstore. Inside the journal, Dash finds a little Strand scavenger hunt created by someone named Lily. Intrigued, Dash adds his own clues to the journal, taking the mysterious Lily out of the Strand and into local neighborhood haunts. Lily then returns the favor, sending Dash along a trail of bread crumbs that eventually includes Santa's lap (at Macy's Herald Square!), Madame Tussaud's wax museum, and the brightly lit houses of Dyker Heights; he returns the favor with a matinee movie, FAO Schwartz's Muppet factory, and a late night Klezmer show at a downtown club. Along the way, the two exchange favorite quotations, musings, and secret confessions, and they kind of-maybe-just possibly fall in love without ever having met. But what will happen when they do meet in person, away from the safe confines of the journal? I will spoil nothing, dear reader. :-p

What works here? Dash is an interesting character. Although he is cut very squarely from the John Green mold — clever, sarcastic, introspective, music-loving, literary, too old for his years — he has some sharper edges. Dash's combative relationship with his distant father factors into several scenes and cuts against the guarded optimism he shows by engaging in Lily's dares. Indeed, it is in Dash's relationships with his friends, especially endearingly loyal best pal Boomer and wise ex-girlfriend Sofia, that we learn more about his true nature than in any of his philosophical journal entries. Lily, on the other hand, works better as a character away from her sometimes cloyingly eccentric family, where we can see her quiet confidence, hopefulness, and individuality play out in a more authentic fashion. I loved the scene were Lily, wearing her great aunt's majorette boots, dances with abandon to the Klezmer music, not caring who is looking or judging her. Lily's increasing independence from her family and her ability to grow into herself — and open this new person up to new friends — makes her romantic journey all the more believable. It also makes us want to root for her at every turn … even when she's acting like a complete knucklehead.

On a somewhat related note, I think teens will find the nearly absolute freedom of the two teens — Dash's divorced folks are away and each mistakenly think the other is watching him; Lily's parents are on an anniversary trip to Fiji while her beloved Grandpa is proposing to his lady friend in Florida — intoxicating. Both are free to flit about the city with few rules or restrictions, although Grandpa does eventually show up to sorta put his foot down. Snowy New York City, in all its holiday grandeur and grotesqueness, provides a wonderful backdrop to the burgeoning teen romance, adding a sense of wonder to what is, after all, an enchanting experience. The authors do such a beautiful job connecting the magic of the city to the magic of falling in love.

I adored the dares, so I was sorry to see those fade in the book's final third, when the characters meet, misunderstand each other, meet again in delightful fashion, move apart, come back together, try again, and so on. Some of this "keep the lovers apart until the end!" felt contrived to me, but I understand the need for tension and I kept eagerly turning the pages. I also thought the story got a bit bogged down in the weight of Dash and Lily's esoteric ideas about friendship, love, expectations, and connections. I'd rather experience what they're feeling — fears, dreams, and all — than be told about it. But it rebounded nicely with a screwball Dash and Lily second chance encounter involving a snowball fight, a wanted poster, a mammoth dog, and the NYPD. (Of course!) And, without giving anything away, the subtle, rather open-ended conclusion felt right for this offbeat, often charming love story.

If you're looking for a smart take on the traditional teen romance, "Dash & Lily's Book of Dares" is a very good choice. Although it has some flaws, the richly created main characters, as well as the humorous touches and New York City travelogue, make this one an engaging, fun, thoughtful read. There is some harsh language and some veiled sexual references here, so I'm thinking maybe 8th grade and up? Hope you like it … and happy holidays!

PS – "Dash and Lily's …" is being adapted into a film. Keep your eyes out for it sometime in late 2011 or 2012.

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Posted by on December 12, 2010 in Uncategorized


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“Beautiful Creatures” by Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl


"Beautiful Creatures," released in 2009, is the first book in the "Caster Chronicles." So, yes, if you're thinking paranormal romance trilogy — just like every teen novel out there today! — you would, in a sense, be correct. But thankfully "Beautiful Creatures" isn't just like every other teen novel around; it has a male protagonist (woot!), a lushly detailed Southern setting, a pervading sense of family, a bevy of Civil War references, and an intriguing cast of secondary characters. To me, it reads more like a Southern gothic novel than generic teen paranormal fiction … and that's a very good thing.

We're in the tiny town of Gatlin, South Carolina, where 16 year old Ethan Wate lives with his grieving father (mom died last year in an accident) and nanny / housekeeper / cook / surrogate mother Amma. Dad spends most of his time locked in his study, so Ethan must deal with his pain on his own, with a stern yet loving hand from Amma. Ethan is a popular basketball star with a charmingly goofy wannabe rock star best friend, Link. Gatlin's restrictiveness — people's roots go back hundreds of years, causing some very fixed opinions and outlooks — frustrates Ethan, who longs to get away from a place where everyone knows (and judges) everyone else.

Enter Lena Duchannes, the niece of eccentric loner Macon Ravenwood, who moves into town. Macon owns the last surviving plantation house in Gatlin — also named Ravenwood — but is never seen around town. Macon is a ghost, a whisper, an eternal source of gossip, the kind of spooky outsider reviled in a small town. (Heh … clearly, Macon understands this; his dog is named Boo Radley!) Lena drives Macon's hearse, and with her curly black hair, Converse sneakers, and overloaded charm necklace, she's as different as possible from her prim Southern belle classmates.

Ethan is immediately drawn to Lena, because, among other things, he's been dreaming about her for months. Before he ever met her. When Ethan discovers that Lena has been dreaming about him, too, Ethan begins to learn just how different Lena and her family are. Turns out Lena is a Caster — in the simplest terms, a kind of witch — while Uncle Macon is an Incubus who feeds on hope and dreams. Members of Lena's family are claimed light or dark when they turn 16, which for Lena is mere months away. Lena's impending Claiming freaks her out — cousin Ridley went to the dark side and is an evil siren now — so as Ethan and Lena become closer, he spends a lot of time reassuring her that she will be claimed light. Admittedly, this becomes a wee bit tedious. But Ethan also helps Lena research other methods of avoiding her Claiming, including an old family locket that transports the two back to the Civil War, when neighboring plantation Greenbrier was burned by Union soldiers. Throw in a creepily foreboding song, the shadowy Book of Moons, Macon's erratic behavior, Amma's secret powers, Link falling under Ridley's spell, Mom's messages from beyond the grave, a shocking betrayal, and a hidden supernatural library, and you've got a textured, lively story that goes way beyond the "boy loves supernatural" trope.

Speaking of which, Ethan — the boy! — is our narrator here, which is so unbelievably rare in a teen novel, let alone a teen paranormal novel, that I'm still kind of shocked. In a good way! Co-authors Garcia and Stohl absolutely nail a teen guy's voice, and they perfectly portray the quiet rules of male friendship in developing Ethan and Link's relationship. They also make Ethan believably strong yet vulnerable in his burgeoning romance with Lena. I really dug how hard it was for Ethan to express his feelings for Lena, even when they were so ridiculously obvious. His hesitation and uncertainty rang true.

I loved the precise details of the Southern setting, including Amma's decadent food; the smells (rosemary and lemons figure prominently in the story); the local traditions, including a Civil War reenactment; the courtly manners; and the unique use of language. The setting grounded this magical story, adding layers to the plot and shading the characters — many of whom have their own Southern quirks — in believable ways. Indeed, the minor characters, including Ethan's batty great aunts and a whip smart, empathetic librarian, give the book a depth and vitality that often make the words leap off the page.

My only complaint is that I was a bit let down by the ending. After spending hundreds of pages creating three-dimensional characters, suddenly the authors have them acting like complete knuckleheads in service of the plot. (Fiercely protective Uncle Macon is easily duped, Ethan constantly does the wrong thing, powerful Lena suddenly becomes weak and cowering … huh?) The authors' use of a Claiming "loophole" also frustrated me, as it seemed like a contrivance to justify another book in the series. Since I've just started the sequel, "Beautiful Darkness," I guess I'll find out if I'm being too harsh on this point.

I absolutely recommend "Beautiful Creatures" to fans of paranormal romances, as well as those looking for an intriguing, rich story of Southern life, family, loss, and love. This book is remarkably clean, so unless you're put off by the magical elements, I'd say older middle schoolers should be fine. And please don't be turned off by the book's considerable length. Truly, the pages fly by. Enjoy!

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Posted by on December 8, 2010 in Uncategorized


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