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Monthly Archives: January 2011

“Shine” by Lauren Myracle

TEEN LIBRARIAN'S REVIEW:

Thank you Net Galley and the good people at Abrams / Amulet Books for the electronic galley of Lauren Myracle's forthcoming teen novel "Shine." Author Myracle is probably most well known for her bestselling IM-speak "Internet Girls" series. In "Shine," she gives us a powerful, evocative novel of a small southern town's secrets.

As the book begins, we're in a rural North Carolina town shortly after the brutal beating of Cat's former best friend, Patrick. Patrick, a charming, easy going teen, was closing up the local gas station / quickie mart when he was pummeled with a baseball bat and left unconscious with a gas nozzle taped inside his mouth. While Patrick lies in a coma, Cat begins searching to discover what really happened. As the town's only known gay resident, Cat believes that Patrick was the victim of a hate crime; the local sheriff, however, wants to blame the attack on outsiders and make the whole mess disappear. During her investigation, Cat confronts older brother Christian's friends — obnoxious Tommy, goodhearted Beef, and drug addled Dupree — as well as Wally, the local meth dealer, and some of his clientele. She also befriends Jason, a local college student who knew and respected Patrick, and learns that Patrick had a secret boyfriend, who may have played a vital role in his attack.

I loved the sense of danger surrounding Cat's investigation. Myracle does a superb job of depicting a secretive, oppressive town with unspoken rules, enforced silence — she finds a severed cow's tongue in her bed — and a toxic subculture of drug and alcohol abuse. This strong undercurrent of violence and drugs, of a sweltering town in a hot summer just waiting to explode, informs everything Cat does. Add to this the fact that Cat has been harboring a secret pain of her own, and you get this constant, creepy tingle of foreboding … which is exactly what you're looking for in a mystery. When a brave Cat rides her bike out to a forest-shrouded meth lab, I truly felt afraid for her. Ok, I will fess up fully: I actually had to stop reading! The town itself, with its bigots, dropouts, and lost, broken people, is so clearly presented that it almost serves as an additional character in the book.

I also really liked the layered portrayal of religion here. Cat's Aunt Tildy drags her to church, where the local ladies are mostly self-righteous and gossipy, and where Patrick's "lifestyle" is condemned. But religion is also shown as a source of comfort and strength, as when Cat recalls the Bible blessing about the Lord's face shining upon you. Indeed, this story is as much about Cat's journey toward finding her own voice and spirit again — her personal shine, if you will — as it is about solving the mystery surrounding Patrick. [Side note: at an Abrams' presentation I attended last November, this book was still entitled, "Speechless." "Shine" is, in my humble opinion, a much better choice.]

Similarly, the characters are developed in nuanced, believable ways. When we first meet Jason, he comes off like a rich, hateful brat, which couldn't be further from the truth. Stoic brother Christian, whom Cat has resented for his aloofness for years, becomes a friend and protector. Even the vile Tommy, who hurt Cat years before, may not be as awful as he first appears. I could give five more examples of this sort of slow unfolding of a character's true nature, which is a testament to Myracle's writing skills. Because so much of this story involves finding the truth beneath people's exteriors, this careful method of presenting folks "from the outside in" works beautifully.

I do have a complaint, though, and it's a fairly big one. I had and have the nagging sense that there is just far too much going on in this story. It's part mystery, part social commentary on abuse and addiction, part love story, part coming of age tale, part discussion of hatred toward gays and the self-loathing that may come with being different … is that one too many parts? The story feels crammed full of varying threads and issues, not all of which fit neatly together or within the flow of the story itself. I found myself wishing for just a little less. If this book was more streamlined, the issues presented here, and the dramatic turns surrounding them, would have even more of an impact.

"Shine" comes out in May 2011, and it's clearly geared toward the high school crowd. (Abrams is recommending 14 and up, which, based on the content and language, seems appropriate to me.) This is definitely one of those books that will stick with you for awhile, and I think it's well well worth reading. Please keep a look out for "Shine" in the spring.

 
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Posted by on January 24, 2011 in Uncategorized

 

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ALA Youth Media Awards

At a ceremony in San Diego this morning, the American Library Association announced the finalists and winners of its annual Youth Media Awards. These awards, which are divided into different categories like picture books, middle grade literature, and non-fiction, are selected by librarians. Here are a few of the honored books and authors in the area of teen literature:

MICHAEL L. PRINTZ AWARD FOR EXCELLENCE IN YOUNG ADULT LITERATURE:

Winner:
"Ship Breaker" by Paolo Bacigalupi

Finalists:
"Stolen" by Lucy Christopher
"Please Ignore Vera Dietz" by A.S. King
"Revolver" by Marcus Sedgwick
"Nothing" by Janne Teller

SCHNEIDER FAMILY BOOK AWARD FOR BOOKS THAT EMBODY THE DISABILITY EXPERIENCE:

Middle School:
"After Ever After" by Jordan Sonnenblick

High School:
"Five Flavors of Dumb" by Antony John

STONEWALL CHILDREN'S AND YOUNG ADULT LITERATURE AWARD FOR EXCEPTIONAL MERIT IN BOOKS RELATING TO THE LGBT EXPERIENCE:

Winner:
"Almost Perfect" by Brian Katcher

Finalists:

"Will Grayson, Will Grayson," by John Green and David Levithan
"Love Drugged" by James Klise
"Freaks and Revelations" by Davida Willis Hurwin
"The Boy in the Dress" by David Walliams

 
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Posted by on January 10, 2011 in Uncategorized

 

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“Matched” by Ally Condie

TEEN LIBRARIAN'S REVIEW:

By now, you've probably heard about Ally Condie's debut teen novel, "Matched," which was published by a division of Penguin in late November 2010. "Matched" is currently listed at #3 on the New York Times list of bestselling chapter books for children, and it received starred reviews in Publishers Weekly and Kirkus. I even saw it in my local Target store!

So is all the hype deserved? Absolutely. I first learned about "Matched" last spring at a Baker & Taylor publishing preview, and the Penguin folks graciously sent along advanced copies over the summer. Being a good librarian (ha!), I passed those copies to my teen readers, meaning I only recently got a chance to read this wonderful book for myself. Three word review: I LOVED IT!

Ok, let me explain why. "Matched" is a dystopian / romance hybrid, but it's not a "Hunger Games" trilogy clone. Yes, there's a future world in which all behavior — food intake, exercise, vocations, marriage, death — is strictly controlled by the Society, the all-powerful government that monitors and restricts life for its constituents' own safety and security. And, yes, there's a slow-brewing rebellion against the Society's power and lies, although for now it's located in the Outer Provinces, a far away, wild land. And, okay, there's a healthy love triangle here featuring main character Cassia, her childhood friend Xander, and outsider Ky. But, truly, that's where the similarities end. For instead of a bleak tale of violence and misery, we have — oddly enough! — a novel of poetry, light, buoyancy, and freedom.

A quick plot rundown is in order. 17 year old Cassia is matched by the Society with Xander, a strong, sturdy, handsome, all-around great guy. Cassia is beyond thrilled to make a lifelong match with a trusted friend she already knows. Unfortunately, through an apparent glitch in the matching technology, Cassia also briefly sees a glimpse of a second match, a neighbor who had been orphaned years earlier in the Outer Provinces and brought to live with a childless couple. Ky, she learns, is an Aberration, meaning he's something less than a full citizen. He's not even a full person in the Society's eyes. Ky spends long days toiling away in a nutrition disposal facility, and, as an Aberration, he must always remain single. Ky works hard to blend innocently into any situation at work or in the gaming center, but he's an intelligent, thoughtful guy.

On a series of state-sponsored hikes — constructive, regulated leisure time having been deemed very important by the Society — Cassia comes to discover this side of Ky. She also learns about his background and his own secret acts of rebellion. Ky teaches Cassia to write while hidden among the trees; on subsequent hikes, he gives her an outlawed compass and slowly shares his childhood story of war and death in forbidden art and words passed on scraps of napkin. When Cassia's grandfather died at age 80, as all Society residents do, he left her a hidden scroll of Dylan Thomas poetry. The words of "Do Not Go Gentle Into that Good Night" thus become a shared piece of hope and freedom between Cassia and Ky, something that binds them to each other and against the Society's repression. This very striving for creativity, for words and life and richness, runs counter to everything the Society teaches. And yet it feels right, especially once they fall in love, triggering a painful series of events I promise not to spoil.

There's so much more here, including fleshed out parents with their own fears, weaknesses, and acts of bravery. Cassia's folks try for stoicism and submission to the Society, but they are as conflicted as Cassia. It's so rare to see flawed yet supportive parents in any teen novel. Woot! As mentioned, there is also a beautiful exploration of the potency of words to elevate and sustain us. The Dylan Thomas poem, in particular, is expertly woven throughout the story, often tied to images of soaring and flight. So incredibly well done. I also loved how author Condie creates a drab world full of workmanlike grays and browns and then uses touches of vibrant color (nature's hues, red newroses, the Society's three prescribed pills, satin dresses at the Matched Banquet, a tiny scrap of preserved green fabric, memories of long forbidden stained glass) as a striking contrast to the Society's forced conformity. And while all the main characters are well developed, I particularly enjoyed the nuances in Xander's character; the "third wheel" role can be limiting and subject to awful stereotypes, but Xander, in both moments of frustration and incredible heroism, consistently comes across as a thoroughly real boy.

Finally, Cassia's path toward rebellion, presented in small, measured steps — including the slow unfolding of her love for Ky — is pitch perfect. I believed every second of this obedient girl's journey from compliant citizen to patient rebel. Condie masterfully chips away at the Society's exterior, carefully revealing not just a strict control of history and culture but, more ominously, forced suicide, conscription, and exile. All this is presented carefully, allowing the reader to feel like she is following a trail of clues and uncovering a mystery.

So, yeah, did I mention I loved it? This is an obvious sell to Suzanne Colllins or Lois Lowry fans, as well as poetry lovers and anyone who enjoys a compelling romance. But I think the appeal of "Matched" is even broader. My sole complaint is that I cannot wait to read the next installment, "Crossed," which doesn't come out until Fall of 2011. Gah! The reviews I've read suggest a high school reading level here, but I don't understand why. Sure, the themes are troubling, even disturbing at times, but there is literally nothing offensive here in terms of language or situations. I'd say older middle school is just fine, but see what you think. "Matched" is out now. I hope you love it as much as I did!

PS – How awesome is the cover art?

 
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Posted by on January 9, 2011 in Uncategorized

 

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“Blank Confession” by Pete Hautman

TEEN LIBRARIAN'S REVIEW:

Pete Hautman is the author of the National Book Award winner "Godless," as well as last year's super popular (well, at least at Kinnelon Library!) "How To Steal a Car." In his latest teen novel, "Blank Confession," Hautman relates the story of high school student Shayne Black, who walks into a police station one night and confesses to murder. The story is part mystery, part character study, as we slowly discover more about secretive newcomer Shayne and his escalating tensions with drug dealing bully Jon Brande. While there's a real level of implausibility here — which, incidentally, I came to accept! — this is a powerful book about abuse, power, and responsibility.

The story is told in alternating chapters, with a third person narrator giving us insight into Shayne's long confession to Detective Rawls, while Shayne's lone friend, the part Haitian, suit-wearing Mikey Martin, fills us in on the back story. Seems that Jon has been dating Mikey's flighty older sister, Marie. Jon forces Mikey to hide a bag of drugs in his locker, which Mikey has to ditch in the boys' room when police sweep the school. After Jon beats up Mikey and demands a $500 replacement fee, Shayne intervenes. Mikey is his friend, and he wants to stand up for him. As importantly, Shayne has drifted through a lot of schools (he tells varying stories of who his parents are and where he came from). Bullies like Jon violate Shayne's code of ethics, and he simply cannot let them act without challenge. So, despite being outnumbered — and facing a psychopath! — Shayne intervenes, with disastrous personal consequences. For although Shayne has a steely toughness and some wicked martial arts moves, he's no match for Jon and his testosterone-laden buddies. Shayne's sense of responsibility for Mikey and his meth-using sister ultimately leads him to a violent encounter at Jon's party.

"Blank Confession" is written in short sentences and has a rapid pace. I can easily see it holding the attention of even the most reluctant reader. And Mikey is a great character. While Shayne can seem a bit removed with his stoicism and quiet courage, Mikey is a witty fireplug; he's fun to be around, even as his situation becomes ever more precarious and his actions more dangerous. Other characters have unexpected depth as well. We clearly see how Jon became so violent and ugly, while also discovering, in a surprising fashion, that one of his thuggish pals has more heart than expected.

My only gripe with this novel lies in the fact that it may be hard to buy Shayne as a roving crusader, a kind of lone wolf traveling from town to town, saving people. He's a teenager, for cripe's sake! Where is he staying? Who is paying for his clothes and food? How is even registering for school with no documents? As I mentioned above, I was able to put these issues aside and just enjoy this short, compelling story of honor and sacrifice. "Blank Confession" is a great book for boys, in particular, as it is chuck full of believable male characters and engrossing action sequences. I'd recommend this one for older middle school readers; there is some level of violence and drug use here, although none of it felt gratuitous to me. Give "Blank Confession" a try. I think you'll be riveted by it!

 
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Posted by on January 4, 2011 in Uncategorized

 

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