Monthly Archives: February 2011

“Wither” by Lauren DeStefano


Lauren DeStefano's upcoming "Wither," the first book in her Chemical Garden Trilogy, is (yet another) teen dystopian novel. Here, we have a future world where the United States is the lone remaining country, Manhattan is a hardscrabble city of industrial skyscrapers, and, because of wickedly disastrous genetic engineering, all women die from a virus at age 20 while men live to the ripe old age of 25. Gah! Interesting hook, right? For the most part, first time author DeStefano delivers the goods, with effective world building, evocative descriptions, some suspenseful moments, and an engaging romance.

As the book begins, 16 year old Rhine has been kidnapped by a Gatherer, who has stolen a fresh group of girls to be sold as child brides. Because the virus kills the young — only the pre-engineered "first generation" survives to old age — reproduction / repopulation is a preeminent concern, especially for the wealthy. With parents dying so young, there is a staggering population of orphans that can be stolen and sold as either servants or brides. Here's where the Gatherers come in; these ruthless men snatch children for profit, selling the special ones and killing those deemed unworthy. Rhine is incredibly savvy and a true survivor (she and twin brother Rowan have lived for years after their first generation parents' accidental deaths), but, nevertheless, she finds herself caught by a Gatherer. Rhine's blonde beauty and heterochromia (different colored eyes) save her life, as all but three girls herded into the Gatherer's van are executed.

Rhine's ultimate destination is the house of Linden Ashby, a fragile, vulnerable 21 year old whose current wife, 20 year old Rose, is fast succumbing to the fatal virus. Rhine, world weary 18 year old prostitute Jenna, and naive 13 year old orphan Cecily are destined to be the three brides of Linden, as orchestrated by his ruthless father Vaughn. You read that correctly. Three brides. Did I forget to mention that the wealthy dabble in polygamy? I know. Ick.

So that's the setup. Rhine is kept captive in a spectacular, isolated Florida mansion with the reserved Jenna and bubbly, buoyant Cecily. Housemaster Vaughn monitors the girls every movement, so running away — let alone, for some time, even opening a window — is impossible. The mansion is surrounded by long miles of orange groves, trees, and even distorted holographic images to prevent escape. Vaughn is cunning and evil, a madman scientist with a secret stash of corpses in his basement who controls every aspect of the girls' lives, from food to entertainment to clothing. In other words, cross him and die a torturous death.

Oddly enough, Rhine becomes friends with Linden's wife Rose before she dies, and she and her "sister wives" grow close as the months pass, spending each day together reading, playing music, or swimming in the pool. The rather pathetic and heartbroken Linden is generally tolerable, and when Rhine assumes privileged "first wife" status, she begins attending lavish galas and parties. But it's all still no more than a very pretty prison. Rhine bides her time, slowly building Linden's trust as a means to enable her escape. When Rhine falls for one of her attendants, kind, nurturing teen Gabriel, she decides to risk everything to regain her home, her twin, and her freedom.

The characters are well conceived and nicely developed. Rhine is brave, stalwart, and fiercely loyal, a smart girl with a heap of courage. I couldn't help but root for her. We also discover that Jenna is a keen observer and, in her own way, as rebellious as Rhine, while the young, hopeful Cecily, so easily dazzled by her new glamorous life, is perhaps stronger than she first appears. I was quickly caught up in these girls' lives, their interactions, and the strange family they create, full of companionship, love and occasional jealousy. Vaughn is a great villain, sweet on the surface with a terrifying, murderous core. I completely believed he would do anything to further his nefarious goals. Even some of the secondary characters, from a young attendant to a crotchety cook, are beautifully rounded.

My major problem? If DeStefano was trying to create tension through a romantic triangle involving Rhine, Linden, and Gabriel, she fails miserably. There are many scenes where we're supposed to see a tender, loving side of Linden, and he is repeatedly presented as an innocent pawn manipulated by his cruel father. When Linden finally takes Rhine out on the town — after months of laying and holding her in bed at night — he is so affectionate and attentive that Rhine must constantly remind herself that it is an illusion. But are we supposed to forget the part where Linden impregnates 13 year old Cecily and regularly has sex with Jenna, a woman for whom he has no feelings? Are we not supposed to be repelled by Linden's inherent complicity in keeping these children prisoners (and virtual sex slaves) in his house? Really? Maybe it's just me, but I could not get past viewing Linden as a lonely creep exploiting a bunch of vulnerable girls. Meanwhile, Gabriel, this amazing, thoughtful boy, is in love with Rhine, in a real, honest way. Why on earth would she choose Linden over him? As such, the many passages in the latter portion of the book detailing Rhine's growing feelings for Linden struck me as patently false. I got to a point where I wanted her to either flee with Gabriel or have Vaughn finish her off already.

There are other problems, mostly in terms of pacing, and the book would have benefitted from tighter editing. But the story here is a good one, and if you can stomach the polygamy angle and at least tolerate the artificial romantic drama, I think you'll be pleased. Rhine is a great character, a tough, crafty fighter, and author DeStefano uses lush descriptions to depict the posh mansion, sumptuous gardens, swirling snowflakes, sparkling gowns, colorful crystal candies, and, on the uglier side, the darkness and desolation of Manhattan. Her detailed, evocative descriptions alone make the book worth reading. Throw in a truly thought-provoking premise, a nasty villain, and a swoon worthy love interest, and you have the makings of an enjoyable page turner.

"Wither" comes out in late March (by the way, thank you Simon & Schuster for the e-galley; you guys rock!). This one is definitely for the high school crowd — sex, violence, disturbing images — and should be a good fit for fans of darker fantasy and dystopia (think Cassandra Clare and Holly Black). Let me know what you think!

PS – LOVE the bird in the gilded cage cover!

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Posted by on February 23, 2011 in Uncategorized


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“Pink” by Lili Wilkinson


"Pink" is an Australian import, originally published Down Under in 2009 and recently released in this country by one of my favorite teen publishing houses, HarperTeen. In the interest of full disclosure, I read "Pink" primarily for two reasons:

(1) The goth girl / girly girl lip cover. Look below. It rocks!
(2) There are so few teen novels with a bisexual main character, so I was dying to see how author Lili Wilkinson portrays what still seems like a taboo subject in teen literature. (Which, FYI, it really shouldn't be taboo.)

What I found is a funny, witty, heartfelt story about a high school student who transfers to a private school to reinvent herself. Gone is black haired, loner Ava, the one with acerbic goth girlfriend Chloe and no interest in school activities; in her place, we have pink cashmere sweater Ava, she of the lustrous brown hair, impractical shoes, and a sudden interest in both the school musical and one of its handsome lead actors. Much of this story is about Ava's desire to be someone else, someone more like Alexis, the cute, perfect, popular girl who immediately befriends her. Following Alexis' lead, Ava tries out for the school musical (a gangster show called "Bang! Bang!"), with disastrous results. Wanting so much to belong to the theater crowd, even tangentially, Ava joins Screw, the unpopular stage crew composed of lovably geeky misfits like nerdy Trekker Jen, sweet schlump Jacob, gay (with an h!) performer Jules, and ginger-haired wiseguy Sam.

So that's basically the story. Ava reluctantly becomes friends with the Screw kids, while trailing after Alexis and her crowd whenever she can. She hooks up a few times with gorgeous actor Ethan, but it's all a lot of work being perfect for the popular kids, hiding Chloe, her bisexuality, and pretty much her entire life. She also sort of, maybe, kind of starts feeling something for Sam, the outcast Screw leader who challenges her at every turn.

The lessons here go down gently. We learn that many of the other characters — Sam, Jen, Alexis, Ethan — are also hiding their own painful secrets. But none of these revelations are done in a horribly heavy handed, after school special manner. The themes of acceptance and being true to yourself are usually conveyed in a charming, enjoyable way. Trust me, this is so not an issues book!

Instead, "Pink" is breezy and very readable, with plenty of humorous moments provided by the Screw kids. I loved the sense of camaraderie among the Screw members; these were the truest, most fully developed friendships in the book. By comparison, it was hard for me to understand why Ava twisted herself around for boring, toothy Ethan and nihilistic, one-note (that note being bitchy) Chloe. Both characters felt incredibly empty — almost impersonal — to me, while the Screw kids and Ava were leaping off the page with complexity. While I appreciate the efforts to show some vulnerability and soften Ethan and Chloe, for me, they just never progressed beyond cardboard stereotypes. Unlike Alexis, Sam, Jen, and many of the other characters, neither Chloe nor Ethan ever seemed real, and so I had a hard time caring about or understanding Ava's attraction to either of them.

Because of that vacuum at the center of the story, Ava's explorations of her bisexuality seem more discussed than actually explored. Yes, she considers / ponders / analyzes the issue, but it remains mostly a cerebral exercise. And, since Sam is so beautifully shaded — he can be sweet, sullen, charming, shy, boisterous — it is natural for us readers to favor him in any romantic triangle. We just know him better. Having said that, the romance angle largely goes nowhere. I was disappointed in how "Pink" ultimately shies away from really embracing Ava's bisexuality. The love story ends on a vague, unsatisfying note, with some cliched lines about life being messy and confusing and that no one should ever force you to choose. Yes, bisexuality is a perfectly normal orientation that should be accepted like all the others. We can shout that one from the rooftops until the rest of the world understands! But in a novel about one bisexual teenager, I need a more definitive conclusion. I was let down by the ending, plain and simple.

Don't get me wrong. I'd still recommend "Pink." It's a fun, often lighthearted romp that touches upon some universal issues of identity, acceptance, understanding, and friendship. The pages fly by and, with the exceptions discussed above, the characters have plenty of depth and the ability to convey genuine emotion. They will draw you in! The screwball antics at the "Bang! Bang!" show and the gross-out "would you rather" games played by the Screw kids provide plenty of levity and lots of laughs. "Pink" is a book that I can see being read by many high school girls, regardless of their sexual orientation, since it has wide appeal (and, again, that killer cover). I just feel the potential was here for this novel to have been so much more.

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Posted by on February 22, 2011 in Uncategorized


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“Close to Famous” by Joan Bauer


Thanks as always to the brilliant folks at Penguin Books for Young Readers, who can always be relied upon for truly excellent swag. (And I read today they are joining Net Galley; yay!). I loved my advanced copy of Newbery Honor author Joan Bauer's latest middle grade novel, "Close to Famous." In fact, I read it in one sitting!

When we meet 12 year old Foster McFee, she and her mom are fleeing Memphis and mom's abusive, Elvis impersonator boyfriend. The pair end up in the small town of Culpepper, West Virginia, home to a mammoth prison, a dying downtown, and a host of eccentric residents. Foster and her mom find free lodging in an airstream trailer owned by a kind older couple. In short order, mom has a job at the local hardware store while spunky Foster has negotiated a deal with diner owner Angry Wayne (ha!) to supply a daily order of home baked goods. See, Foster is a Food Network superfan — her idol is a fictitious ex-military food host named Sonny Kroll — and she loves nothing more than practicing her own kitchen cooking show while perfecting her already scrumptious cupcake and muffin recipes. When Foster meets local legend Charleena Hendley, once a famous Hollywood star but now a bossy recluse, her most closely guarded secret is revealed. Seems that underneath her optimism and seemingly boundless spirit, Foster views herself as a stupid, hopeless loser. She has accepted a cruel teacher's label of being "limited." Why? Because, as only her mom knows, Foster cannot read.

If you think a story about illiteracy and cupcakes seems either tedious or manipulative, I can assure you, it's not. Foster sees baking as a way to spread love and kindness, and that warm spirit envelops the whole story. Indeed, this novel has a homey, comforting tone even when dealing with potentially gritty issues like domestic violence, poverty, and grief. There is also plenty of humor, much of it provided by the over the top Charleena and Foster's new best friend, a short, controlling filmmaker named Macon. Yes, many of these supporting characters are outsized personalities, but in the scope of the story, it works. Because Foster is so realistically portrayed — she is very middle school, alternating between shy, engaging, funny, sullen, hopeful, impatient, etc. — she grounds the story, allowing the bigger personalities to shine without becoming irritating.

All the lessons here about believing in yourself and your potential, persevering through hardship (one character is even named Perseverance Wilson), and opening yourself up to life's possibilities are gently delivered. They seem to spring organically from the story itself, so it never feels like the narrative is being interrupted. And for a novel directed primarily at younger readers, there are some truly lovely, nuanced scenes — in particular, I'm thinking of Foster's "re-graduation" ceremony after learning to read and her final pretend cooking show — that deliver quite an emotional punch.

"Close to Famous" is a charming, heartfelt story with a delightful main character, plenty of heart and humor, some easily conveyed life lessons, and enough mouth watering descriptions of food and cooking to make you hungry. I don't see how you can miss with that combination! I'm sure "Close to Famous" will be as beloved by middle schoolers as all of Joan's previous novels. "Close to Famous" is out now. My recommendation: read it. 🙂

PS – I was so pleasantly surprised to see that the cover image, which is meant to depict Foster, is that of a girl with light brown skin. Foster is multiracial, so it was refreshing to see that accurately reflected on the cover. Well done.

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Posted by on February 15, 2011 in Uncategorized


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“Okay for Now” by Gary D. Schmidt


I'm already in love with Gary D. Schmidt for writing 2007's Newbery Honor book, "The Wednesday Wars." In his forthcoming novel, "Okay for Now" — which I scored in advance through Net Galley; huzzah! — we follow one year in the life of Doug Swieteck, a minor character in the Vietnam era "The Wednesday Wars." "Okay for Now" is just about a perfect middle school novel. It's filled with endearing characters, heartwrenching coming of age incidents, plenty of self-deprecating humor and laughs, and such rich, honest emotion that I found myself smiling through tears several times. If this book does not receive, at the very least, another Newbery Honor, there is truly no justice in the world of children's books!

The Vietnam War is still raging in the summer of 1968 when the troubled Swieteck family moves from Long Island to the tiny upstate town of Marysville, New York. Doug's father is a drinker and a bully, his older brother (unnamed through much of the story) is a budding thug, and his beleaguered mom is doing her best to keep on a brave face, especially while oldest brother Lucas is off fighting in the war. To supplement the family's very modest earnings — dad is hanging on to a menial job in the local lumber mill — Doug begins a weekly Saturday morning job delivering groceries to Marysville residents. Among other residents along his route, he meets the eccentric playwright Mrs. Windermere, who has a fondness for ice cream, a yearning for the god of creativity, and a soft spot in her curmudgeonly heart for "skinny delivery boys." The passages depicting Doug's journeys with his grocery-laden wagon, particularly in the steamy summer months and frigid winter ones, are alternately hysterical and deeply touching … and sometimes both!

Each Saturday after finishing his route, on the only day it is opened each week, Doug visits the Marysville Public Library. He is intrigued by John James Audubon's striking picture of a crashing arctic tern and its "terrified eye." Kindly librarian (woot!) Mr. Powell notices his interest and patiently, slowly teaches Doug how to draw the tern and other majestic birds from the glass-encased Audubon book. Each chapter of "Okay for Now" begins with an Audubon plate and relates a theme from the given picture to Doug's own life, his family, and his burgeoning artistic talent. If this sounds horribly boring, I swear it's not! It is a charming device, completely original, and a lovely, subtle way of depicting Doug's journey of growth and self-discovery. Along the way, we learn that cash-strapped Marysville is selling off pages from the priceless Audubon book, leading to a subplot where a determined Doug vows to make the precious book whole again.

Why should you care about a boy from the 1960s who spends his free time drawing Audubon birds? I understand your skepticism! But Doug is such a superbly crafted character that you will eagerly turn the pages to follow his story. Doug is a total middle school boy in his love of baseball (and the Yankee's Joe Pepitone!), his sense of humor, his blossoming affection for the grocer's spunky daughter, Lil, and his quiet protection of his mom and family. But Doug is also presented as a real, multidimensional kid, so he often retreats into a petulant dislike of "stupid" Marysville; he doubts his own talents and abilities; he mouths off to the gym teacher and school principal (although it's deserved in both cases!); and he abandons projects as soon as obstacles appear. In other words, he's relatable and flawed. Doug is also special, as he stubbornly, fiercely guards the kinds of secrets no 8th grade boy should have to carry. Doug is a great combination of bravery, heart, and humor, and he possesses both a rebellious nature and an optimistic spirit. I ADORED HIM!

What else works here? I loved how gently encouraging so many of the adults are toward Doug, who is in a world of pain from his father's drinking and abuse. Besides Mr. Powell and Mrs. Windermere, the lumber mill owner, grocer, and two teachers take a keen interest in Doug, while the seemingly sadistic gym teacher (later shown to be a tormented Vietnam veteran) eventually plays a pivotal role in Doug's life. So much of the story involves cultivating the hidden promise and potential in people — not just Doug, but his wounded brother Lucas, spit upon and rejected by war protesters and small-minded neighbors; his older brother, finally revealed as Christopher, who is so much more complex than his sullen exterior and criminal reputation suggest; and even his sweet yet steely mother, who looks upon a gifted orchid like it's a treasure. Along these lines, there is also a wonderful theme about life being full of incredible possibilities — this is the era of the moon walk, after all — such that even a poor, uneducated kid like Doug with, frankly, a brutal home life, can imagine himself free and soaring. Rock on!

So, yeah, there's also a bit of romance, some babysitting adventures, a Broadway play, a plastic toy rocking horse named Clarence, and some truly quirky, almost screwball elements thrown in. Does all of it work? For the most part. By the time Doug's hero Joe Pepitone shows up at Jane Eyre on Broadway, I was fully prepared to suspend any and all disbelief and just go along for the sweet ride. I think you will be, too. Read "Okay for Now" for its insight into the late 1960s, its realistic characters, its many laugh out loud scenes, its incredibly heartfelt moments — I dare you not to cry when Doug plays on the skins basketball team for the first time! — and its lovely depictions of friendship, hope, redemption, and possibility. In the story, Doug immediately relates to the nobility of Audubon's brown pelican; for me, this wonderful, funny, uplifting novel has a beautiful nobility all its own.

PS – My one criticism: I can live with the so-so title, but the cover featuring a boy with a bag on his head? Really? Oh, Houghton Mifflin, I know you can do so much better.

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Posted by on February 1, 2011 in Uncategorized


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