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Monthly Archives: August 2011

“How to Save a Life” by Sara Zarr

TEEN LIBRARIAN’S REVIEW:

Author Sara Zarr, a National Book Award finalist in 2007 for "Story of a Girl," is back in October with her third novel, “How to Save a Life.” The nice people at LB Teens gave out advanced copies of "How to Save a Life" last May at Book Expo. At LONG last, I finally got a chance to read this beautifully written, at times heartbreakingly lovely book.

Less than a year after her father’s accidental death, Jill MacSweeney has completely shut herself down from the world — from her still grieving but positive mother, from her patient boyfriend Dylan, from her old best friends at school. With her dyed black hair, gobs of dark eyeliner, and bulletproof attitude, Jill has effectively armored herself against the pain of living. Or so she thinks. The one place where Jill still can muster up some of her old kindness and warmth? At Margins, the local chain bookstore where she works part-time.

Jill’s life is about to change radically. Her mom, Robin, has decided to adopt the unborn baby of an Omaha teenager who contacted her on the Internet. Mandy, with her fluffy blonde hair, polyester dresses, and naïve ways, seems horribly out of place in hip Denver. Yet here she is, spending the last months of her pregnancy living with Jill and Robin. Jill, who is vehemently opposed to the open adoption Robin has arranged, either ignores Mandy or scolds her for the slightest perceived violation. Mandy, meanwhile, is a socially awkward, terribly lonely girl starving for some compassion and love. She is utterly lost. (Mandy’s letters to her former seatmate on the train west from Omaha — a man who clearly wants nothing to do with her — perfectly show her vulnerability and awkwardness; they are a wonderful device.)

We soon discover that Mandy is a whole lot tougher than she first appears, as we learn more about her shrill, uncaring mother and her mom’s abusive boyfriend, Kent. Kent had been raping Mandy for months before she left and is likely the baby’s father, yet Mandy still had the courage to steal his gold watch, arrange the open adoption, and leave for Denver. Once she has the baby, Mandy hopes to start a new life by pawning the watch and somehow locating Christopher, the Native American boy she met on one glorious day at the state fair.

As Mandy’s due date draws near, she increasingly doubts her decision to give her baby up. Can Robin be trusted when all other adults have failed her in the past? Would Mandy make a terrible mother, like her own mom? At the same time, Jill begins to thaw slightly from a tentative friendship with Ravi, the gentle loss inspector for Margins. But is life even worth living again when the old Jill is gone forever? I’d rather not give anything away about the conclusion, which is unexpected (and, to be honest, a bit pat). Part of the joy of this novel is discovering what path Jill, Mandy, and Robin ultimately end up walking upon together.

Mandy and Jill each narrate their stories in alternating chapters, so we get tremendous insight into their motivations, fears, and hopes. Jill knows she should follow her father’s old advice to “try a little tenderness” sometimes, but she’s too wounded and frightened to fully believe in anyone — or herself — again. Mandy, raised by a mom who constantly reminded her she was an unwanted burden, hopes for something better for own daughter, yet fears that surrendering her might not be the best choice. Both of these characters are so resilient and brave in their own ways that their small triumphs — Mandy trusting Robin enough to reveal Kent’s abuse, Jill exposing her pain to Ravi and daring to live again — are a joy to read. We want to root for these complex, flawed, yet hopeful girls. By novel's end, we feel like we've come to know them so well. How could we wish anything for them but happiness and peace?

Zarr is a wonderful, lyrical writer. She is a master at depicting small moments of raw emotion and painful revelation. Some of these scenes delight the reader, some make us squirm away, yet they are laid bare here, in all their stark authenticity: the perplexed discomfort of Mandy’s train companion; the excessive politeness of Dylan toward a fragile Jill; Jill’s reflexive anger (and profound regret) toward Mandy and Robin; Mandy’s tentative efforts to console a sobbing Jill, second guessing herself all the way; Robin’s heartfelt embrace of Mandy after learning of the abuse; Jill’s moments of unbridled hope with Ravi. These scenes are imbued with such incredible depth and feeling that they are — sometimes in equal measure — beautiful and wrenching to read.

“How to Save a Life” is, in the end, a joyful, expertly crafted novel exploring the concepts of family, friendship, hope, trust, grief, and love. Calling this an “issues” book about teen pregnancy or parental loss does a huge disservice to this thoughtful, touching story. It is so much more. FYI, regarding content, there is nothing graphic or gratuitous here — no drinking or “onscreen” sex — so I’d say students in 7th grade and higher should be fine. "How to Save a Life" will be published in October. Be sure to look for it then.

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Posted by on August 30, 2011 in Uncategorized

 

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“Crossed” by Ally Condie

TEEN LIBRARIAN'S REVIEW:

Unless you've been living under the proverbial rock, you know that "Matched," author Ally Condie's dystopian thriller, was a big hit in the YA market. Not only was it a bestseller, but "Matched" was featured on several year-end Best of 2010 lists, including Publishers Weekly's Best Children's Books of 2010. I quite liked it myself! At Book Expo, the good people at Penguin Books for Young Readers gave out autographed copies of the sequel to "Matched," which is titled "Crossed." Does "Crossed" avoid the second-book-in-a-trilogy curse? Surprisingly, it largely does. It's styled differently than Matched — both Cassia and Ky narrate alternating chapters — and set largely outside the Society, but it is still a gripping, engaging read.

I'm going to try to avoid spoilers, but I think that's a bit inevitable, no? This is one of those read it at your own risk reviews, but, just in case, here's a bit of spoiler space:

Ok? Good. 🙂 We first see Ky in the Outer Provinces burying a young man and reciting part of Tennyson's "Crossing the Bar." The Society has sent Ky — and many other young male Aberrations — off to the provinces as decoys, designed to lure the remaining resistance fighters out of the shadows. The Society will then attack and destroy the rebels, although it's actually many of the unarmed Aberrations who die at the Society's hands. It's a terrifying, bleak job with little chance of survival, but Ky and a stalwart fighter named Vick endure it better than most. One night, Ky, Vick, and an innocent newbie named Eli make a run for the Carving, a remote area replete with rock structures and deep canyons where Ky once lived as a child and where free communities are rumored to thrive.

Meanwhile, Cassia, who is still assigned to a work detail and still searching for Ky, impulsively jumps into a line of girls being flown by the Society to the Outer Provinces to serve as the initial round of female decoys. Upon arrival, Cassia learns that Ky was in the same area days earlier, so she, another girl from the work detail named Indie, and a young male decoy escape to the Carving. While Cassia hopes to find Ky — she dreams about him; recites all their poetry; composes new lines for when they are reunited — Indie wants only to reach the Rising, the rebel group whose stronghold was once in the Carving.

From there on out, we have two parallel stories, with Ky and his group and Cassia and hers racing through the Carving, all facing different dangers, both from the outside world, and, occasionally, from each other. I doubt I'm spoiling much by saying that Ky and Cassia ultimately meet up before leaving again on their respective journeys. I mean, you really didn't think they'd get together in book two, did you? 😉

So enough with the plot outline. What works so well? In no particular order:

* The characters. Ky has a harder edge here, and while he's still crazy in love with Cassia, we see more clearly how his pain, fears, and doubts color everything, including his relationships. I loved Ky's complexity, how all his strength and resourcefulness often cover such incredible inner turmoil and fear. (For example, Ky struggles with accepting his decision to leave the decoy soldiers, seeing not bravery but cowardice.) To me, "Crossed" really feels like Ky's story more than Cassia's, and, let me tell you, following such a rich character is not necessarily a bad thing. Other characters also have impressive levels of depth and shading, especially the naive yet brave Eli and Indie, who is at turns jaded, hopeful, cunning, and kind. I'm still not entirely sure whether to trust her!

* The action. I had a teen read "Crossed," and her biggest response was about the action. I agree. The pacing, the looming threat from the Society — which is largely unseen here but remains a sort of dark, amorphous presence — and the palpable sense of fear and desperation surge the plot forward beautifully. I had to keep reading. I had to! Along these lines, the mystery surrounding the existence of the Rising and their alleged leader (known only as the Pilot) adds to the intrigue and further underscores the tension.

* Its unexpected beauty. I'm a sucker for the lyrical passages, recitation of poetry, and musings on love and longing that are as central here as they were in "Matched." The joy and hope of Cassia and Ky's romance is contrasted effectively by the desolation and death that constantly surround them in the Carving. It's interesting that a novel that can be bleak and troubling also has its moments of purity and beauty. Incidentally, I'm not entirely sure that the conflict between Ky and Cassia worked as well as it should have — I guess I never really believed this pair wasn't destined to be together — but that's a minor point.

"Crossed" is a compelling entry in the "Matched" series, and it reads quite well on its own as a standalone novel. With that said, I cannot wait!!! for the concluding book in this trilogy, which I assume will be published sometime in 2012. "Crossed" will be released on November 1, 2011. Read it for its heart-pounding action, complex characterization, and poignant moments of raw emotion. I think it's a great book for older middle schoolers who will find so much to adore here.

 
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Posted by on August 11, 2011 in Uncategorized

 

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“The Probability of Miracles” by Wendy Wunder

TEEN LIBRARIAN'S REVIEW:

Another review. Another advanced copy from the great folks at Penguin Books for Young Readers. Life is hard. :-p

"The Probability of Miracles" is a "dying teen" novel, a trend we've seen often the last few years in books like Chris Crutcher's "Deadline," Jenny Downham's "Before I Die," and even Gayle Forman's lovely "If I Stay." Before the gloom frightens you away, I have to say that although our teen protagonist here has terminal cancer, "The Probability of Miracles" is sharp, uplifting, and, dare I say it, funny in an acerbic, biting way. Yes, there are poignant moments and tears — folks, it's *terminal* cancer — but I found most of this book to be an absolute pleasure to read. What a nice surprise!

You know what else I liked? Our girl Cam here is half-Samoan. How rare is that to see in a YA novel? Even better, Cam is an active participant in her culture, particularly in the ancient art of hula dancing. Deep down, Cam is terrified of her future, so she uses sarcasm and emotional distance as her defenses. Despite closing herself off from her family and lone best friend, Cam opens her heart and connects to the world through music and hula dancing. It is where the real Cam shines. The scenes where she tells a friend's story through hula are evocative and beautifully done.

Interestingly, much of Cam's hula is relegated to the Polynesian luau at Disney World. Cam's now deceased father and her Italian-American mom were both Polynesian performers at Disney, where Cam now also works. When Cam's doctors advise her to end treatment — no more children's hospitals or new drug trials — her mom seeks help through an alternative means: the small, hidden town of Promise, Maine. Miracles are said to happen in Promise, and all Cam has left is a miracle. Or so her mom thinks. Cam herself has no more hope, no more joy in discovering the possibilities that life may still offer. Although Cam agrees to stay in Promise for the summer, she's basically just waiting to die.

Through a series of implausible events, all of which are in the spirit of this unconventional tale and family, Cam, her mom, her half-sister Perry, and her bird Tweety find themselves living in a seaside Promise house owned by the family of sweet, patient, handsome (of course!) teen Asher. Cam eventually stops cloistering herself long enough to volunteer for the local veterinarian — cute puppy and, er, baby flamingo alert! — and start hanging out with Asher and the preppy, beautiful people she calls the "catalog kids." When Cam finally opens herself up to Asher, she falls completely in love. There are some magical moments, as Cam does at least as much to "save" Asher as he does to help her live again. Plus, there are some magical moments in general, since Promise is a miracle place with endless sunsets, puppies who come back from the dead, and roving flocks of flamingos. Author Wendy Wunder does a commendable job of balancing the serious elements (Cam is, after all, dying); some lighthearted fun (Cam, Asher, and the catalog kids win a Make a Wish trip to — you guessed it — Disney World); family tension; first love; and the wonder and beauty inherent in everyday, small miracles. I found the mix here to be delightful.

"The Probability of Miracles" comes out in December 2011 (why not a summer release for this tale of one summer, Penguin?). It is an engaging story with plenty of warmth and heart that never loses its sharp edge. I thoroughly enjoyed reading it. I'd say this one is geared for a high school audience, based on the themes here and some teen drinking and drug use, but see what you think. For more information, check out the book's Amazon page or the Probability of Miracles site. Happy reading!

 
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Posted by on August 10, 2011 in Uncategorized

 

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“The Future of Us” by Jay Asher and Carolyn Mackler

TEEN LIBRARIAN'S REVIEW:

Finally done with summer reading at our library. Woot!

So I read "The Future of Us," which I obtained as an ARC at Book Expo, way back in June. I'm only able to review it now because, folks, summer is a busy time at your local public library. Don't get me wrong! That's actually a good thing. But it does tend to push everything else aside for a few months. Now, onto the review …

In the simplest terms possible, I was underwhelmed by this novel. Jay Asher wrote the phenomenal, deeply touching "Thirteen Reasons Why," while co-author Carolyn Mackler is responsible for witty, heartwarming books like "Vegan Virgin Valentine." Pairing up these two fab authors seems like a sure thing, right? Throw in a cool, time-traveling / destiny concept and this book should be an absolute joy to read. Except? It's kinda not. It's enjoyable enough and certainly not terrible. But it was also nothing special, and, believe me, I wish that wasn't true.

As I mentioned, the setup is genius. It's 1996, and Emma and Josh are next door neighbors and former BFFs. Emma is smart and athletic, but also sort of bossy and emotionally shut down, keeping her boyfriend at arms length and cutting off the vulnerable parts of herself. Josh is one of those dorky / sweet guys who tend to populate YA fiction. He's a skater with a self-deprecating sense of humor and a keen awareness of how low he sits on the high school totem pole. When Emma gets a new computer, complete with one of those AOL cd-roms that, for real, used to be everywhere, she doesn't just get an Internet connection. Through some funky mojo, Emma is able to log onto a crazy site called Facebook (!), where older versions of she and Josh post random musings about their lives. Despite their estrangement, Emma lets Josh in on the secret, and the two quickly realize that their actions in 1996 affect their future selves. Seemingly harmless events as teenagers lead to cataclysmic Facebook updates in 2011 involving spouses, occupations, and overall levels of happiness.

It's a neat concept, which should open up all sorts of clever avenues to explore the "butterfly effect." Can a chance encounter with a popular girl or a hook up with a dreamy track star really affect who you become? Can a fight with your best friend truly make you unbearably miserable 15 years down the road? These intriguing questions about fate and our role in our own destiny are raised, swept away, and never fully explored. Emma wants to change an unappealing future, regardless of the consequences, while Josh takes bold steps in the present to secure what looks like a fabulous future life. And that's all that happens in the plot. Eventually, after some mishaps, we get a pat resolution about living in the moment and letting the future evolve on its own. Eh. Even worse, I felt the internal logic here was shaky. If an action or inaction has fixed, finite consequences 15 years from now … well, doesn't the same apply to what we do 5 or 10 years from now, too? How could the kids ever be sure that their future lives were statically, perfectly preserved by happenings in 1996? Will they never do anything again to alter their destinies? Doesn't this contradict the very foundation of the butterfly effect theory?

Aside from a lackluster execution of the core concept, I also found some of the characters to be a bit flat. Kellan and Tyson, Emma and Josh's bickering friends, seem like nothing more than comic relief. Cody, Emma's perfect jock crush, never becomes more than the arrogant, slick cheeseball he first appears to be. Even Emma, who is so controlled and closed off, doesn't really leap off the page; when she inevitably realizes her buried feelings for Josh, I felt rather blah about the whole development. So while there are some nice moments here of heart and humor, I never felt connected enough to care as much as I should have.

I'm sorry! I wanted to love this book and, despite some cute 90s references, a handful of sweet scenes, and plenty of snarky humor, I just didn't. But I didn't hate it, either. It's perfectly pleasant and readable … and, well, forgettable. Sigh. "The Future of Us" will be released in November 2011. To see what others think, check out more info and reviews on this book at Good Reads.

PS – I hope you like "The Future of Us" much more than I did!

 
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Posted by on August 5, 2011 in Uncategorized

 

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