Monthly Archives: March 2011

“Leaving Paradise” and “Return to Paradise” by Simone Elkeles


I read (and kinda loved) Simone Elkeles' Walker Books teen romances "Perfect Chemistry" and "Rules of Attraction." Afterward, I knew I had to dig up the star-crossed love tales she wrote for the Flux imprint of Llewellyn. Hence, in the last week, I rolled through "Leaving Paradise" and "Return to Paradise." Although I didn't enjoy the "Paradise" books nearly as much as the "Perfect Chemistry" novels — they lack intensity and steaminess, two crucial elements for romance! — I'd still recommend them. Yes, there are stock characters and recycled plotlines galore, but these books are still eminently readable, super fun, and incredibly addicting.

In the first book, "Leaving Paradise," one of our narrators is disabled teen Maggie, who was the victim of a hit and run accident by a drunk driver. After multiple surgeries and months of rehabilitation, Maggie still experiences great pain in her injured leg and walks with a severe limp. A former tennis star and popular girl, she's now a friendless, isolated recluse. Maggie is weak and scared, and she's clearly internalized the idea that she will always be a "crippled" loser. The other narrator here is Caleb, the handsome, cocky ex-jock who hit Maggie and has just spent a year in juvenile lockup paying for his crime. You know these two are going to fall in love, right? Just in case this setup isn't outlandish enough, let me add the following soap opera details:

(a) Caleb is Maggie's next door neighbor;
(b) Caleb's twin sister Leah is Maggie's former bff;
(c) Maggie crushed on Caleb for years and told him she loved him the night of the accident;
(d) Maggie has no memory of the accident; and
(e) Maggie's after school job and Caleb's community service are … wait for it … at the home of the same curmudgeonly yet kindhearted old woman, Mrs. Reynolds.

Yeah, it is what it is. While Caleb builds a gazebo for Mrs. Reynolds, Maggie plants flowers. She discovers an inner strength that she thought had died, while Caleb learns to let go of some of his anger and allow others back into his life. It seems to take very little for Maggie to fall for Caleb again, which I had a hard time buying. I'm all for forgiveness, but, really? On Caleb's end, working with Maggie helps him see how kind and beautiful she is and before he knows it, love is in the air. Of course, Caleb is forbidden from having contact with his victim and Maggie's mom would freak, so all the smooching — which is actually not that much! — has to be kept on the down low. And then some things happen, which I won't reveal, and a secret emerges, which is pretty obvious, and the book ends so abruptly I literally checked to make sure no pages were missing. Hrm.

"Leaving Paradise" was definitely not my favorite. I never felt the passion between Maggie and Caleb, and I could not get past the contrived scenario, rapid transformations, and flat characters (besides a cranky but sweet grandmother type we also have the beautiful, bitchy ex-girlfriend and the tough, no-nonsense — but with a heart of gold! — African-American juvy counselor). Having said that, I went straight out and read "Return to Paradise," because I had to know what happened. So take what I just said with a grain of salt. 😉

I much preferred "Return to Paradise" over its predecessor. It's eight months later, Maggie has graduated from high school, and she is embarking on a six-week drinking / drug awareness tour of camps and youth groups. You want to guess who returns to town and unexpectedly joins the same tour? Yup, our boy Caleb. He and Maggie will be in a van traveling the Midwest together, far from their hometown of Paradise. Without giving too much away, these two aren't the best of friends as the trip starts. I liked how the characters are far better developed in this book. Caleb is more wounded, so he's harder and more closed off from the world. His feelings of anger and frustration radiate off him, but inside, he's afraid. Much like the Fuentes brothers in the "Perfect Chemistry" series, Caleb uses arrogance and abrasiveness to mask his pain. Maggie is also more complex. She's much stronger and has found a greater sense of peace here, as she has come to realize that her accident and injured leg do not define or limit her. (Rock on, girl.) Yet she's also still worried and vulnerable.

What else works better here? Lenny, one of the other kids on the trip, is a great character. He's obnoxious, gross, and generally a pain in the neck, but we soon learn there's a lot more going on with this guy. His plight, as well as Caleb's estrangement from his family and his own longing for a home, added some much needed emotional depth to the story. I also liked this more focused and confident Maggie, as she's now able to take Caleb's barbs and throw them right back at him. Her tenacity made their verbal sparring more compelling. Most importantly, we get some much-needed steam back in this novel. I'm not talking about tawdriness — we are given ample foul language but not much explicit sex at all — but more about the fire of this forbidden romance. And author Elkeles is a master at turning up this kind of heat and keeping it appropriate for a teen audience. Plus … we end on a happy note.

Over all, I'd say to expect some limitations with the plot and characters in "Leaving Paradise," but work your way through it and get to "Return to Paradise." You'll be rewarded with an engrossing teen romance with better characterization, stronger emotional intensity, and some real romantic tension. Both books are out now. Enjoy!

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Posted by on March 28, 2011 in Uncategorized


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“Badd” by Tim Tharp


Tim Tharp was a runner-up for the 2008 National Book Award (Young People's Literature) for "The Spectacular Now," his fantastic novel about a teenage alcoholic in extreme denial. Tharp is back with "Badd," another novel featuring an unreliable teen narrator with a precise, rich voice who faces some very serious issues. While "Badd" lacks the charismatic lead and disarming buoyancy of "The Spectacular Now," it is still a compelling read.

In a hot summer in a small town, high schooler Ceejay McDermott is playing paintball with her crew, crushing on her friend Tillman, and counting the days until her idolized older brother, Bobby, returns from the Iraq War. Ceejay is a tough, no-nonsense girl. From her descriptions, her steely reserve and bad ass approach to life are nothing compared to Bobby. Before he left for Iraq, Bobby was a wild, charming tough guy willing to (literally) fight for the little guy and raise plenty of hell along the way. When Ceejay spots Bobby in a car weeks before his planned return, she and goth girl best friend Brianna track him down to a stoner buddy's apartment. Turns out Bobby was discharged early for drug possession. The vacant man who has returned home — at times enraged, skittish, and lost — is nothing like the brother Ceejay remembers. Bobby is jumpy and troubled, freaks out at the smell of grilled meat, has flashbacks of exploding IEDs and dead friends, and numbs his pain with booze, drugs, and women.

Inexplicably, Bobby soon hooks up with the town's most eccentric resident, Captain Crazy, a man who lives in a trailer surrounded by huge sculptures designed to ward off evil spirits. The Captain lost his own brother back in Vietnam, so despite his childlike exterior and odd behavior, he knows full well the heartbreak of war. Bobby recognizes something of himself in the Captain — or maybe finds in the Captain something worthy to protect — and so, despite encountering scorn and negativity, embarks on a mission with the Captain to build a flying contraption (an "aero-velocipede") named Angelica.

Too weird? Maybe. "Badd" is a strange juxtaposition of gritty reality — the town people's casual drug and alcohol abuse, violence, and infidelity; the wasting death from cancer of Ceejay's grandma; Bobby's post-traumatic stress disorder and suicidal behavior; the Captain's mental illness — and fanciful notions of unseen good forces, a misfit revolution, and the redeeming freedom of flying unfettered through the sky. I'm not entirely sure it all meshes together, and I haven't even touched Ceejay's growing romantic relationship with Padgett (Mr. White), a sensitive, compassionate teen who wears all white as a sign of hope.

Perhaps if the character leading us through this story was more open or displayed some more vulnerability, "Badd" would've had a stronger impact on me. But Ceejay is so blankly inexpressive and so unwilling to examine her own pain and fear that it leaves a gaping hole at the center of the story. Yes, Ceejay's voice is strong and clear and I know exactly who this rough, brave girl is. She bullies Brianna, beats up a drunken lout, worships her heroic brother, hides her true feelings, and is convinced in her heart that she will never be pretty, popular, or loved. That's a deeply rendered character. She just never fully grabbed me. So while I liked how Ceejay's own issues color her views of and decisions toward Bobby and his behavior, I simply could not connect with her, even in her softer moments with Padgett or younger sister Lacy.

None of this is to say that "Badd" isn't a good read. It is. Bobby is so traumatized and lost that I couldn't help but get pulled into his suicidal descent and fragile recovery. As bizarre as it is, Bobby's relationship with the Captain, full of sacrifices and kindness, is touching and believable. I wanted them both to survive. I was even glad to see Angelica soar across the sky, as this sweet if somewhat pat conclusion felt well earned. I guess I just hoped (er, expected) a bit more from the great Tim Tharp. In the end, although "Badd" never reaches the transcendent heights of "The Spectacular Now," it's a still an intense, worthwhile book.

PS – "Badd" is definitely intended for a high school audience. We're talking about loads of strong language, ample drug and alcohol use, sexual references, and the kind of painful emotional distress that is probably best suited for teen readers.

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Posted by on March 23, 2011 in Uncategorized


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“Across the Universe” by Beth Revis


When I heard last year that a big teen sci fi trilogy would be published beginning in early 2011, I was super excited. Being a sci fi geek (I love me some Star Wars and Star Trek), of course I'd be stoked to read about teens in outer space. Beth Revis' "Across the Universe," which was released by Razorbill / Penguin in January, isn't so much a sci fi novel as it a dystopian novel set in a claustrophobically insulated community on a spaceship. Once I accepted that fact — and despite one huge misstep, which I'll elaborate on below — I really enjoyed this creepy, suspenseful, love-tinged view into a strange future.

The story kicks off with an absolute bang. Modern teen Amy describes in brutal, terrifying detail the cryogenic freezing of her parents and then — ack! — herself. Amy and her folks are being frozen for a long journey aboard the space vessel Godspeed, which will take over 200 years to reach a habitable planet. Getting frozen is excruciatingly painful, involving all manner of tubes, suffocating liquids, and nearly unbearable pain. Even worse? Amy never fully loses consciousness, so as hundreds of years pass, she floats in and out of nightmares, confused and alone. It's wrenching to read!

While Amy is in frigid hell, we fast forward 200+ years to life on board the Godspeed. Apprentice leader Elder narrates here, detailing a world of monoethnic people, divided labor forces (there are "Feeders" and "Shippers"), unquestioning compliance to the rule of Eldest, forced medication of allegedly insane people, and some vague talk about an upcoming "Season." Elder is the lone teenager currently on board, and he's being groomed by the ruthless Eldest to someday take his place as ruler. Elder is lonely, curious, and defiant, so when he accesses a hidden basement and discovers Amy's thawing coffin, he is enthralled by the pale girl with flaming red hair.

Amy is disoriented upon waking up too early — without giving anything away, Godspeed is still *very* far from what's now being called Centauri Earth — and shattered to learn that she will likely outlive her parents. Amy's heartbreak at the futility of her situation is devastating to read. Moreover, our girl now lives in a stifling community in which everyone is the same and no one argues, questions authority, or expresses any independent ideas … and, as a bonus, they all think she's a dangerous freak. Well, everyone but two people: Elder and his best friend, twentysomething mental patient / artist / free spirit Harley. As more cryogenic boxes are mysteriously pulled from stasis and the bodies within allowed to die, Amy, Elder, and Harley struggle to find out who is behind the murders and what is really happening aboard this ship of lies, secrets, and manipulation.

What works well here? Amy and Elder are great characters with distinctive voices. Amy's tough survivor streak, strength, and independence create plenty of conflict within the oppressively orderly world of the Godspeed. Her brave confrontations with Eldest and one of his cronies, Doc, are riveting, and as a feisty newcomer, she helps voice our own bafflement at life on the spaceship. Considering this is a sci fi / dystopian novel with little basis in our current reality, Elder, as a boy of the future, is remarkably believable as a real teenager. He can be proud, petulant, childish, bold, and occasionally heroic as he struggles to balance the responsibility of his impending leadership with his weaknesses as a regular kid. Author Revis is particularly adept at showing Elder's internal conflict in challenging Eldest and the rules that have been ingrained within him since birth.

I also loved the ship's setting, with its "big brother" monitoring and stifling atmosphere of order and control. There is no authentic outdoors, no view of space, and everything from the air to the sunlight is artificial. We get a palpable sense of living within an elaborate metal box. The repressiveness and danger spike up the tension factor and help give the mystery even greater weight. Indeed, much of this book is so taut and suspenseful that I was actually worried to read on and discover what would happen next! We're also treated to some truly thought-provoking issues about time and sacrifice; freedom (Harley's drug of choice becomes staring through a forbidden portal at the long-hidden stars); and the balance between individual expression and society's basic need to function properly. Plus, there's some romance. 😉

Ok, so you're wondering what exactly my issue is. UGH! I hate to even bring it up, but reproduction among the inhabitants of Godspeed is limited to the Season, a brief mating period on a designated schedule. And when I say "mating period," I mean exactly that. You know, people behaving like animals in heat? Outside? In public? Indiscriminately? Whoa. I get how structured repopulation is critical for plot purposes (fixed generations are integral to the story's functioning), but, for cripe's sake, you usually don't see rampant nudity and random, group sex in a teen novel. And an attempted gang rape scene? Good lord. I'm no prude, but in a book essentially written for children, I wish the author would have figured out another way to ensure the existence of specific age groups aboard the ship. The method she chose was both distasteful and, in my view, wildly inappropriate for the intended audience.

If you can get beyond that issue — which, admittedly, gave me a great deal of difficulty — "Across the Universe" is a riveting, thrilling, often troubling tale of life in a repressive future society. The story contains plenty of secrets, a compelling mystery, and some epically shocking revelations, all of which should keep readers galloping through the pages. There are even some heavy emotional moments — oh, Harley! — and the beginnings of a sweet romance. In other words, there's plenty to enjoy in this first installment. If you're a high school aged fan of dystopian tales like "The Giver" (or Ally Condie's recent "Matched"), you should check out this dark, troubling tale.

PS – "Across the Universe" has its own site. And here's Penguin's book trailer:

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Posted by on March 16, 2011 in Uncategorized


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“Perfect Chemistry” and “Rules of Attraction” by Simone Elkeles


I'm reviewing together the first two books of Simone Elkeles' "Perfect Chemistry" trilogy. Although the particulars are different, each book is basically a steamy, updated version of the star-crossed love story featured in "Romeo and Juliet" (or "Pretty in Pink" or "She's All That" or "West Side Story" or … well, you get the picture!). I slightly preferred the first book, "Perfect Chemistry," over its successor, "Rules of Attraction," but I'll admit I thoroughly enjoyed both novels. Despite soap opera plots, cliched setups, and mostly flat characterizations, I gobbled both books up … and even re-read some passages. These books may be light and a bit trashy, but they're fast-paced, addictive, and rewarding in their own way.

Ok, so in the barest of plot outlines, both books feature a poor bad boy with a heart of gold who falls in love with an innocent, good girl from the other side of town. The characters resist the unexpected pull, outsiders (and occasionally family members) are opposed, events conspire to keep the lovers apart, a tragic event occurs, and, ultimately, we get our well-earned happy ending. [By the way, I LOVE a happy ending in YA literature!]

In "Perfect Chemistry," Latino gangbanger Alex Fuentes is paired as a chem lab partner with white cheerleading captain Brittany Ellis. They instantly hate each other, bickering constantly, which only masks the intense attraction they both feel. Alex stupidly makes a bet to score with Brittany before Thanksgiving, but in trying to bring the most perfect, popular girl in school down a notch, he actually starts caring for her. A lot. On Brittany's side, her rigid perfection is a cover for a troubled home life, and, despite having a (jerky) boyfriend, she finds herself thinking about Alex and his secret sweet side all the time. Throw in an escalation in Alex's gang involvement, violence, falling in love, vulnerability, rejection, and heartache, and you get the idea here.

Although it can be incredibly obvious at times — of course the tough guy is sweet; of course the popular girl is scared; of course all their fighting is hiding true love; of course Brit's boyfriend is a lout; etc. — "Perfect Chemistry" works because it hits every star-crossed love note perfectly. Yes, this plotline has been done to death, but author Elkeles expertly captures the angst, desperation, and world-shaking importance of first love. She also does a superb job of conveying the sensual, intoxicating side of that love without ever crossing the line into tawdriness or inappropriateness. This is, after all, a teen novel.

Much of what I just wrote can be applied to "Rules of Attraction," which is set three years later. Middle Fuentes brother Carlos is sent from Mexico (where he's joined a gang) to Colorado to live with reformed older brother Alex. Carlos is exactly like Alex in the first novel — sexy, arrogant, smart, confident, undisciplined, and hotheaded. Following an arrest, Carlos moves in with classmate Kiara Westford's family. Professor Westford agrees to supervise Carlos in an attempt to help him straighten out his life before he ends up in jail or dead. Unlike the beautiful, popular Brittany, Kiara is a tomboy who can fix cars, hike mountains, and play soccer. She also stutters when nervous, which causes her bitchy classmates to ridicule her. Kiara begins to fall for Carlos when she sees his shy, kind side, although Carlos at first insists they be only fake boyfriend and girlfriend. Naturally, this doesn't last long! Much like Alex, Carlos is also stalked by the perils of gang life and must risk violence and death to be with the girl he loves. That's heady stuff!

The biggest difference in "Rules of Attraction" lies in Kiara's family. While the Ellises are cold and distant, Kiara's folks are warm, involved, and compassionate. Kiara's dad is one of the few truly well-rounded characters in either novel, as this mild mannered, bleeding heart psychologist has a hidden past, a tough streak, and secrets of his own. I loved the relationship Carlos develops with Professor Westford and how Carlos matures under the Professor's patient care.

Again, despite the flaws here, the essence of the story — that true love among teens is powerful, frightening, uplifting, and so worth dying for — is captivating. There is a real sense of urgency behind Carlos and Kiara's relationship, which is fueled by the palpable deadline of Carlos' impending, coerced drug deal. If the resolution of Carlos' gang predicament is both laughable and wholly unrealistic, so be it. It takes nothing away from the raw energy that pervades this book. Just check out the scene depicted on the book's cover, when Carlos and Kiara lean out of car windows in the rain after an emotional night, and you'll get a sense of what I'm talking about here.

Neither "Perfect Chemistry" nor "Rules of Attraction" are going to win any awards for literary merit. So what? These books work wonderfully as intense teen romances. Even if I rolled my eyes at times, I raced through both books, re-reading, sighing, laughing, and, on one occasion, even crying a little. If that's not the mark of a great teen romance, I don't know what is.

Final note: although both novels are sensual, they aren't graphic. The sex takes place "off camera." There is a great deal of strong language, but that's to be expected in books that star gang members. If the language doesn't put you off, I don't see any problem with 8th graders (maybe even mature 7th graders?) reading these books. And if you love them as much as I did, the third book — yay for another Fuentes brother! — comes out in August 2011. Enjoy!

Here's the book trailer for "Rules of Attraction," which I think captures the smoking hot intensity I've been trying to describe!

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Posted by on March 13, 2011 in Uncategorized


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“The Last Little Blue Envelope” by Maureen Johnson


Maureen Johnson's insanely delightful "13 Little Blue Envelopes" is one of my favorite teen books EVAH. And, believe me, I've read a lot of teen books. So I was beyond stoked to have the opportunity to read an e-galley of its sequel, "The Last Little Blue Envelope," courtesy of the good folks at HarperTeen and Net Galley.

I feared "The Last Little Blue Envelope" might suffer in comparison to the wholly original premise of the first book. In "13 …," high school (Jersey!) girl Ginny follows her deceased, super eccentric aunt's clue-laden letters on a solo tour throughout Europe. "13 …" is a magical novel about discovering yourself, growing up, and creating your own identity while experiencing the wonders of European art and culture. Plus, it's a mystery — where do the clues lead?! — and a love story and a travelogue and … well, if you haven't read it, please stop what you're doing right now and go seek it out. I will wait. 😉

I was saying … ? Right, the sequel. It is difficult to follow up such a clever and brilliantly executed concept. And, yes, "The Last …" doesn't quite reach the incandescent heights of its predecessor. But that's cool. It's still a lovely, highly readable novel with a winning combination of funny, sweet, sarcastic, and touching moments. So while it didn't move me in quite the same way as "13 …," I'd still recommend it without hesitation. And I still plowed eagerly through it. And I'm still thinking about reading it again!

I hesitate to give away too much of the plot, because — and I'm thinking particularly of my difficulty in reviewing Suzanne Collins' "Hunger Games" sequel "Catching Fire" — part of the interest here is in seeing how Ginny ends up back in Europe again following Aunt Peg's cryptic, art-related clues. I will say that this journey is more personal for Ginny and has a deeper sense of finality to it.

Here's what else I can safely reveal: Ginny; a mysterious loner named Oliver; our old pal, wacky theater boy Keith; and a charming, posh Londoner named Ellis traipse through Paris, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Ireland puzzling out the details in Aunt Peg's final, long missing letter. Some of the adventures are hilarious. The gang's Paris caper is an absolute hoot, barely edging out their night in a Belgian inn populated by a truly odd caretaker and his dozens of affectionate cats. I laughed — out loud! — several times. Yet, some parts of the trip are certainly more bittersweet and emotional, including one pivotal scene where Ginny is alone in the Irish dusk with her memories of Aunt Peg. The richness of that scene and its aftermath are stunning. As in her prior novels, Maureen is masterful at conveying a full range of emotion — everything from lighthearted screwball whimsy to "lump in your throat" pangs — and smoothly managing those shifts in tone without unsettling the reader.

I also really enjoyed how much more mature — sometimes in small, subtle ways — Ginny has become. It's great to see a beloved character evolve and grow while still retaining her core essence. It's Ginny, version 2.0. Ginny's quiet relationship with her "uncle" Richard, in which so many important ideas are conveyed through soft gestures and unspoken sentiment, is a fine example. Her changing relationship with former / sorta / maybe boyfriend Keith, whose clownish antics frustrate her one minute while his tender warmth draws her further in the next, also felt real. Any first love — let alone a transcontinental one! — can be a fragile, conflicted thing, making Ginny's love / hate struggles with Keith resonate. A newly perceptive Ginny can also detect the hidden depth, complexity, and secret compassion in our new teen, the elusive outsider Oliver, keeping us interested in what could otherwise be a potentially loathsome character.

So, yes, GO READ IT!! when "The Last …" is released by HarperTeen in April. Although it falls a bit short of the original, there's still so much to adore here, putting this novel miles ahead of much of current YA literature. It's real. It's heartfelt. It's funny. It's entertaining. It's touching. Really, what more can I ask for!? FYI, aside from a drinking scene, there is very little here to offend even the most sensitive reader. "The Last …" is a perfectly appropriate novel for older middle schoolers. Even better? It's a pretty great novel for them, too. Happy reading!

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Posted by on March 10, 2011 in Uncategorized


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