Monthly Archives: June 2011

“Shut Out” by Kody Keplinger


Teen author — and I mean that literally; she's still a teen! — Kody Keplinger had a big hit last fall with her debut YA novel, "The DUFF." Kody is back this coming September with her sophomore effort, "Shut Out." If you loved "The DUFF," or if you're otherwise a fan of smart, breezy romps, then you'll delight in reading "Shut Out." It's a fun, steamy novel filled with believable girl friendships and some refreshing discussions of female sexuality. Plus, did you see the cover? How cute!

"Shut Out" is a loose, modern retelling of the Greek play "Lysistrata." In "Lysistrata," the women of Ancient Greece banded together to stop the Peloponnesian War by using a pretty ingenious method: they withheld sex from their lovers as a way of forcing the men to put down their weapons and negotiate a peace settlement. In "Shut Out," Lissa — get it!? — is tired of the constant battles between the football players (her boyfriend Randy is the quarterback) and the soccer guys. The sports fighting takes up nearly all of Randy's attention, and when a young soccer player is injured in a prank that goes too far, Lissa decides to take a stand. She gathers the other football girlfriends, as well as the rival soccer player girlfriends, and convinces them to withhold all affection — from kissing to sex — to get the boys to end the feud.

Of course, this being a teen novel, Lissa's campaign does not go exactly as planned. Along the way, Lissa breaks up with the incredibly doofy Randy — he's the worst kind of cheater and cad — and begins flirting with the dreamy Cash, her co-worker at the library (which, yes!) who also happens to be a star soccer player. Lissa had kissed Cash on a starry night the previous summer, when she was briefly broken up with Randy, but Cash never called her afterward. When Lissa starts twisting her honorable intentions around from feud-ending to settling her own score with Cash, the novel really takes off.

I have to say, I was surprised by the fact that Lissa isn't the typical YA heroine (you know what I mean, the smart, confident, sarcastic type). Her mom died years earlier, leaving Lissa with way too much responsibility for her paralyzed dad and older brother, Logan. Lissa is rigid and controlled about everything (Randy, cooking meals, her library job, Logan's whereabouts), and her anxiety — though presented in the book as an eccentricity or quirk — is prevalent enough to interfere with her life. Her counting of objects and excessive planning are manifestations of obsessive compulsive disorder, which, if not thoroughly addressed, is at least acknowledged. It gives her character unexpected dimension.

My favorite thing here is the portrayal of female friendship and, along with it, a frank discussion of teen sexuality as it applies to girls. Good looking out, Kody! Lissa's best friend Chloe is widely viewed as a slut. Rather than shy away from this label, Chloe embraces her sexuality and makes no apologies for the fact that she enjoys sex, even when it's not part of a formal relationship. As Chloe points out, why is it okay for a guy like her hookup partner Shane to have lots of sex, but not a girl like herself? Bitchy Kelsey, one of the football player's girlfriends, is cruel and demeaning to Chloe … until a series of sleepovers help her see beyond the stereotype. We later discover that Kelsey doesn't much like sex at all, while other girls feel pressured to hide their virginity because that's way too uncool. All this girl talk feels real and honest, never preachy or didactic. And when the girls start learning more about each other and forming honest friendships, it feels like an authentic progression in their characters' lives. Nicely done.

As for Cash, he's swoon worthy and kind and funny and … yeah, you know the type. And while there's no story here if Lissa stops overreacting / assuming and simply asks Cash why he never called her after their summer kiss, I can live with the plot device. Cash and Lissa's flirting and makeout scenes — at the library, folks! — are fresh and steamy, and you'll definitely root for this good guy … even if he is a soccer player. 😉

Is everything perfect here? No, of course not. Kody is terrific at portraying teen behavior, language, and friendships, hitting every bitchy and insecure note along the way. And she does a great job of providing some punch and sexual tension in a book that, surprisingly enough, has no actual sex. But her writing style still needs work — how many times can one character "grin" at another? — and she would benefit from some tighter editing.

All that will come in time. For now, read "Shut Out" for what it is — a fast, funny, believable story with an original hook, great female characters, and an honest discussion of female sexuality. It's a shame this book won't be released until autumn, because it'd be perfect for the beach (who doesn't want an effervescent, romantic page turner in the summer?). "Shut Out" is sure to find a wide audience among teen girls (the cursing and sex talk here probably push this one towards 8th grade). One of my teen readers breezed through "Shut Out" and loved it. I'm sure she won't be the last! "Shut Out" will be published in September. Look for it then.

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Posted by on June 14, 2011 in Uncategorized


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“Shatter Me” by Tahereh Mafi


The good people at HarperTeen are beside themselves with joy over debut novelist Tahereh Mafi's dystopian novel "Shatter Me," which publishes in November 2011. Don't believe me? Check out this Publishers Weekly article about the book deal for Mafi's planned trilogy. And they're not the only ones keen on "Shatter Me." Movie rights have already been sold to Twentieth Century Fox, although, in the interest of full disclosure, it should be noted that this particular studio is owned by News Corporation, the same parent company that owns HarperTeen.

I was saying … ? Right, so there's already a whirlwind of buzz surrounding "Shatter Me," which I was lucky enough to read in ARC form with a copy obtained at Book Expo America. Should you believe the hype? Yes and no. This is a powerful dystopian thriller / love story that is written in a unique, if at times overwrought, style. It can be quite gripping and chilling, and the consistent pace makes the pages fly by. My biggest problem here is how much of the concept and plot of "Shatter Me" is lifted straight from the "X-Men."

We meet 17 year old Juliette in an insane asylum, locked away silently in a room with a tiny, murky window. Juliette has had no companionship — has not even spoken aloud — for 264 days. Suddenly, a new inmate is tossed into her room. Juliette, who has spent her time keeping a secret journal and counting tiles, meals, and steps, is frightened by the newcomer, despite his strange familiarity. Over time, we realize that the handsome boy is her old schoolmate Adam Kent, the son of an abusive alcoholic.

The asylum scenes are spellbinding. We completely understand Juliette's pervasive, all-consuming fear at her terrifying conditions and her depraved, unseen captors. We also share in her overwhelming sense of isolation and her bone-deep loss of humanity, both of which have resulted from her accidental killing of a small boy. The asylum and its murderous psychological effects constitute the very definition of terror. It's powerful stuff to read.

So is Juliette a monster, as she has long believed? Hardly. This broken, unloved, exiled girl is just profoundly different, somehow able to harm people through her mere touch. If you're a fan of the "X-Men" comics or films, then you may immediately think of the mutant Rogue, whose touch can drain the very life from another individual and who must, accordingly, always wear gloves and remain distant from other humans. In Juliette's future world, where a savaged, fractured society is being "reestablished," she is seen as both a threat to be controlled, and, later, as a potential weapon to further terrorize a frightened populace. (Like, ahem, Rogue in the "X-Men." Just saying.)

The brutal young dictator Warner, who seems to run a small fiefdom in this new world, takes on Juliette as his pet project, goading her into succumbing to the evil within. He and a battalion of soldiers — including, surprisingly enough, Adam — take Juliette to an opulent mansion within a protected compound. Here, Juliette's every need is catered to … while she is also constantly monitored, tested, and manipulated. I have to admit that I got a huge kick out of the creepy Warner. There's something intoxicating about his malevolence, something charming in the sick way he idolizes Juliette. Warner alone understands the part of Juliette that enjoys the rush and power of harming someone with her own hands, a feeling Juliette won't even admit to herself. Warner is handsome and thoughtful but also unbelievably cruel and violent, killing a soldier and torturing a toddler without a moment's hesitation. He is, above all, a deeply compelling character whose "love" for Juliette is striking and disturbing. Because so much of the ravaged society is never revealed to us, Warner must represent all the danger, violence, and despair of this future world. He does so, in spades. (Side note: For a dystopian novel, there is precious little worldbuilding in "Shatter Me." We are told about, but rarely shown, the infertile land, apocalyptic weather patterns, and decimated animal species that have so frightened people and led society to cede so many basic rights to this shadowy, militaristic government.)

The bulk of the novel involves a clandestine love affair between Juliette and Adam — c'mon, you had to see this coming — and the planning and execution of the pair's escape from the compound. Adam is one of those super compassionate, sexy, understanding, perfect guys who always show up in YA novels, dystopian or otherwise. If you're a fan of romances with lots of "I love you's" thrown into the mix, then you'll probably adore this relationship. I personally found the Adam / Juliette scenes somewhat repetitive — how many times can they secretly kiss and exchange whispered sweet words? — but I might just be jaded. 😉 Considering these two characters never sleep together, there is a surprising amount of steaminess in their makeout scenes. At least that part isn't boring!

By novel's end, Adam and Juliette — along with a young surprise character (I won't spoil!) and a fellow soldier named Kenji — end up in an underground lab that is, spot on, a ripoff of the "X-Men." Without spoiling too much, I'll say that Juliette isn't alone in her unusual talents. A revolutionary force is amassing under the leadership of a caring, extremely intelligent leader (hello, Professor X!) who wants to harness these strange abilities for good. Yup. Bunch of kids with otherworldly talents, ostracized by society and now being led to stand with each other and save the world? If that's not the "X-Men," I'm not sure what is.

As I said, I found the entire concept here, despite its smart execution, to be utterly derivative. When you're simply repeating a story — even when you're doing it well and adding your own touches — it loses its freshness. As such, we readers can never really be transported away. That's a shame. What perhaps sets this book apart and saves it — though not fully — is author Mafi's writing style. Much of Juliette's narrative is told in a stream of consciousness style, with run-on sentences, evocative metaphors, and the regular use of strikethroughs for unwanted or unacknowledgeable thoughts. While Mafi can sometimes use one too many over the top descriptions ("My throat is a reptile covered in scales" or "I'm a cumulonimbus existence of thunder and lightning"), these literary devices wonderfully convey the rich, ethereal, and fractured world within Juliette's own mind. That's a powerful technique, and it helps further develop this captivating, wrenching main character. Does it compensate for the "X-Men" retelling? Probably not. But this writing style, coupled with a truly original concept, could create an absolutely groundbreaking novel. Maybe that's something to look forward to?

"Shatter Me" will be released in November 2011. I'm sure you'll see loads of promotion, since the folks at HarperTeen are geniuses at marketing a YA book. While I have my reservations, I think there's a vast audience of primarily teen girls — based on the main character and the love story here — who will eagerly scoop up this novel. In fact, one of my teen readers in Kinnelon, who also read the ARC, completely — and I mean completely — LOVED this book. So take my opinion with a grain of salt.

PS – I have no cover photo to insert in this entry, since the cover art is still being designed. Check back to the Amazon page. I'm sure they'll post the cover image as soon as it's ready. Until then, enjoy the book trailer below!

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Posted by on June 11, 2011 in Uncategorized


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“Shelter” by Harlan Coben


And so begin reviews from my Book Expo America haul of ARCs. Woot!

"Shelter," which publishes in September 2011, is bestselling adult author Harlan Coben's first novel for teens. I was thrilled to get an advanced copy of "Shelter" at BEA. I've read a bunch of Coben's adult novels and was excited / anxious to see if his style would translate for YA. Rest assured, he hits this one right out of the park. "Shelter" is a brisk, action-laden mystery with a surprising bit of depth and realism. I was blown away by how much I enjoyed it!

We're following Mickey Bolitar, a tall, muscular 15 year old, who has come to my home state of Jersey to live with his Uncle Myron (Myron Bolitar is the star of his own set of mysteries for adults; check them out!). Mickey's father was killed in a traffic accident in California — Mickey was a passenger and eye witness to the horror — and his mom is an addict in treatment. Myron provides Mickey with plenty of space, which helps the exceedingly independent Mickey grudgingly adjust to his new life. Mickey's folks worked for an international charitable organization called the Abeona Shelter, so Mickey has lived pretty much all over the world and learned long ago to take care of himself.

As a lonely, hurt Mickey starts his new high school, he quickly falls for fellow new student Ashley. Mere weeks later, Mickey is stunned to discover that not only has Ashley vanished, much of what he knew about her was a lie. On his own, Mickey begins to investigate Ashley's disappearance, which leads him to befriend two truly awesome characters: tough goth girl Ema and super nerd Spoon. I cannot overstate how much I loved Ema! Ema's a big girl with a sullen exterior who is lugging around her own set of mysteries (where she lives, how she got so many tattoos, who her parents are, etc.). But she's also fiercely loyal, sharp tongued, and resourceful, making her a perfect partner in crime for Mickey. I absolutely adored the friendship between these two unlikely pals. Their shared insecurities and strengths, and the bond they form, felt utterly real to me. Our boy Spoon, the geeky son of the school janitor, provides comic relief as well as some surprisingly solid detective skills.

Mickey and the gang's investigation keeps leading them back to the Bat Lady, a spooky neighborhood woman who lives a shadow life and whose decrepit house has frightened off children for years. Remember Boo Radley, the boogeyman in "To Kill a Mockingbird"? That's exactly how the Bat Lady is viewed. Because the Bat Lady has told Mickey that his father is alive, Mickey has personal reasons, beyond finding Ashley, for learning more about this strange old woman. With Ema's help, Mickey breaks into the Bat Lady's house and finds an image containing an elaborate butterfly … the same butterfly that marks his father's grave and is hidden within one of Ema's tattoos. Cool! As Mickey teases out more clues, he follows a trail that leads him to a guy with a tattooed face, a violent strip club owner, and a bald government agent who seems to be following him around. Again, cool!

I can't reveal more about the Bat Lady or what Mickey and his friends ultimately discover, because it's a shocker. I can say that the book takes a deep, emotionally wrought turn that grounds the story in one of the most appalling incidents in modern history. There's a theme here about our inherent obligation to help and sacrifice for others that is both thought provoking and beautifully depicted. We're also left with a whiz-bang cliffhanger, which nicely sets up book number two. I cannot wait.

"Shelter" has loads of action — the climactic fight scene alone is a doozy — as well as ample heart, humor, and intelligence. All the clues along the way fit together in a manner I never would have predicted, but which resonated with me long after the story ended. "Shelter" is a perfect novel for boys and girls who are fans of mysteries and adventures, because it nicely meshes the best elements of both genres. I'd put this book squarely into the upper middle school range (solely based on the suspense level and violence), but see what you think. This smart, twisty thriller is sure to gain Harlen Coben a whole new audience of devoted young fans. "Shelter" publishes in September 2011. Until then, you can read an excerpt here. Enjoy!

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Posted by on June 11, 2011 in Uncategorized


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