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Monthly Archives: April 2012

“Darth Vader and Son” by Jeffrey Brown

TEEN LIBRARIAN’S REVIEW:

Cutest. Thing. Ever. Seriously!

“Darth Vader and Son” is a new board book from Chronicle Books, and it’s just about the most darling, hysterical gift book I’ve seen in ages. If the hail of giggles coming from everyone who has seen it are any indication, I’m not alone in my judgment. The book’s 60+ pages each feature a single, full-color illustration of a bitingly funny take on a scene from one of the “Star Wars” movies. So, yeah, it helps if you are a bit of a “Star Wars” geek like me.

Darth Vader is depicted here as the doting, well-meaning, somewhat hapless dad of four year old Luke Skywalker. Ol’ Darth is no Sith Lord here; instead, he does all the typical father / son activities — albeit while wearing his mask and cape — including soccer, ice cream, story time, bike riding, tickle sessions, and hide and seek. He even feigns delight at Luke’s gift of a tie (thought bubble: “I can’t wear this”), nervously handles potty time issues and birds and bees questions, and has to sort through Luke’s potential playmates (Leia: yes; Han Solo: no). Without losing its humor, the book maintains an overall sense of warmth and affection.

Kids will think this book is adorable, but the real market is probably teens and adults, who will understand all the humor and “Star Wars” references and fully appreciate the sweet tone. “Darth Vader and Son” is a perfect little gift for Father’s Day or birthdays (hint!). Thank you Chronicle Books for sending along such a lovely surprise. I can’t wait for the rest of the world to see what a treasure you guys have here. Enjoy!

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Posted by on April 26, 2012 in Uncategorized

 

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“The Best Night of Your (Pathetic) Life” by Tara Altebrando

TEEN LIBRARIAN’S REVIEW:

I know I’m dating myself with this reference, but it’s actually not a secret that I’m old, y’all. OLD. But do any of you remember that 90s high school graduation night flick, “Can’t Hardly Wait”? It was a fairly generic film about having a best night of your life experience — partying, falling in love, having sex, drinking, changing who you are; you know, the whole deal — as a way to celebrate freedom from high school. Cliques were busted, unspoken loves were revealed, and shenanigans ensued. It was certainly not a great (or even good) movie, but it made enough of an impact on me to stick in my brain all these years later.

I’m pretty sure “The Best Night of Your (Pathetic) Life,” Tara Altebrando’s new novel for Penguin Teen, aspires to the same “let loose / there are so many possibilities / anything can happen in one night!” vibe that permeated “Can’t Hardly Wait.” It probably tells you everything you need to know about “The Best Night …” that it fails miserably at achieving even these meager heights. “The Best Night …” is just so tame and tired, and it features such a thoroughly unlikeable protagonist, that I found myself wishing for more of the fun and freedom of, gulp, “Can’t Hardly Wait.”

The concept here is absolutely killer, which makes it even more of a shame that “The Best Night …” sputters out so quickly. Check this: teams of seniors participate in an all-night scavenger hunt on a quest for fame, glory, and a Yeti statue. The clues are both clever and silly (everything from a “find a #1 foam finger” to “shuck a Mary on a half shell”), requiring the teens to drive all over to acquire more booty and gain more points. [Although, in an indication of this book’s lameness, the *illegal, unsanctioned* hunt must end by 12:30 am. Um, seriously? Because kids have never lied about where they are to stay out all night? Oh boy.]

Our protagonist here is Mary, who, along with her fellow math nerds, musicians, and drama geeks, has vowed to win the hunt and finally, FINALLY!, be taken seriously by Barbone and the other popular kids. Mary is so resolutely fixated on winning the race that she’s often incredibly obnoxious to her own teammates and friends. She’s especially rude to her alleged best friend, insanely smart, suspenders-wearing, uber geek Patrick, who made a poorly received pass at her at prom. Patrick is clearly in love with Mary, who instead of showing any bit of warmth or compassion for her alleged best friend, instead ignores him, belittles him, and otherwise treats him like a dog. Meanwhile, her other best friend Winter is sullen and moody throughout the initial stages of the hunt, and it’s clearly telegraphed that there’s something going on between Winter and Mary’s crush, this boring rich kid named Carson. That’s the problem with “The Best Night …”, that everything outside of the clues — all the human relationships and feelings and revelations — is so stinking obvious. There is absolutely nothing unique here, from the standard jock stereotypes to the unworthy crush to the wholly unbelievable ending, in which we must buy that a high school senior is more afraid of being grounded than of committing grand theft auto.

I could go on, but you get the point. It’s hard to care at all about a selfish, petty, wholly juvenile main character with an annoying best male friend, a pouting best female friend, a dull crush, and a night filled with very few hijinks and no real sense of risk or danger. Overall, I wish “The Best Night …” was just more FUN than it ultimately turns out to be, because isn’t that the whole point of a “one wild night” story? [Or even a “one wild day” story. Hello, “The Breakfast Club!”]

If I haven’t dissuaded you, “The Best Night of Your (Pathetic) Life” will be published in July 2012. I think an older middle school audience would be fine, as there is only a bit of harsh language and one example of off-screen drinking. See what you think this summer … and please let us know!

 
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Posted by on April 25, 2012 in Uncategorized

 

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“The Lions of Little Rock” by Kristin Levine

TEEN LIBRARIAN’S REVIEW:

I hope that even my younger blog readers have learned about Brown vs. Board of Education, the landmark 1954 Supreme Court decision outlawing segregation in public education. Maybe you’ve even heard about the “Little Rock Nine,” brave students who began attending all-white Little Rock High School in Arkansas during the fall of 1957. The Little Rock Nine, despite the Supreme Court decision several years earlier, required the assistance of armed National Guard troops to protect them from violence while going to school.

But did you know what happened the next year in Little Rock, in the fall of 1958? Did you know that the Little Rock Board of Education voted to close ALL the high schools in the district to prevent further integration of black and white students? I didn’t either, not until I read Kristin Levine’s poignant new novel “The Lions of Little Rock.”

“Lions” is narrated by twelve year-old Marlee, a painfully shy, largely silent girl who excels at math but is rendered mute with fear when called upon in class. Marlee has a few friends, bossy Sally and her follower Nora, but barely speaks to either of them. Thankfully, Marlee is much more comfortable at home talking to her school teacher parents and older sister Judy. When her folks decide to send Judy away so she can start attending high school again, Marlee is left more alone than ever.

Enter new classmate Liz, a brash, outspoken girl who immediately befriends Marlee. Liz is a smart girl herself, and she recognizes a kindred spirit in Marlee. The two join up for an oral presentation on Native American history, with Liz offering Marlee a magic square math book — the holy grail! — if Marlee promises to speak during the presentation. Liz patiently works with Marlee to overcome her fear of speaking in a pretty ingenious manner, bringing her to the Little Rock Zoo to talk to all the animals.

Marlee blossoms in believable ways through Liz’s friendship and encouragement, and it’s just lovely to see this self-doubting girl begin to recognize her own courage. Except, on the day of the big class presentation, Marlee arrives at school to find Liz gone. [Awesome note: Marlee does the entire presentation herself anyway.] The real shocker? Liz isn’t coming back. Ever. Turns out Liz is a black girl whose light skin allowed her to “pass” as a white student and attend Marlee’s still all-white middle school. Classmates and parents are outraged at Liz’s “deception,” which adds another undercurrent of danger and unrest to an already volatile situation in Little Rock.

Marlee and Liz try to maintain a clandestine friendship, despite the pervasive threat of violence and against the expressed wishes of their respective families. But there is real danger lurking in Little Rock, especially now that Red, a total loose cannon and older brother of Marlee’s classmate JT, has made it his goal to punish Liz. Red has already threatened and terrified Marlee. Now he’s stolen some dynamite, hidden it in his trunk, and seems to be waiting for the right moment to strike.

Instead of accepting racial segregation and fear, Marlee instead uses her newly discovered voice to join a women’s education committee (!), speak out to her classmates, canvass her neighborhood, and help prepare for a crucial Board of Education vote. I won’t reveal any further details, but, trust me, “Lions” is a beautiful, touching exploration of Marlee’s growing bravery, which unfolds in a gradual, authentic manner. It’s also completely age appropriate for a middle school audience, as even scary or complex events are presented with a gentle hand.

As much as I loved Marlee, the other characters are wonderfully developed as well. Marlee’s seemingly stoic, cold mother is painstakingly revealed to be a far more warm and layered woman nursing her own doubts. Popular JT, who bullies Marlee into doing his math homework, is later shown to have his own fears about Red’s potential for violence. Even some members of an anti-integration group are not depicted as cardboard villains, but rather as basically decent people who are too afraid or ill-informed to do what is right.

“The Lions of Little Rock” is a masterful piece of historical fiction that melds drama, actual events from the civil rights movement, friendship, and family. It is an absolute gem of a novel, and one that deserves a wide readership. So, yeah, I loved it. Please go out and read it now. 🙂

 
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Posted by on April 25, 2012 in Uncategorized

 

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“The Book of Blood and Shadow” by Robin Wasserman

TEEN LIBRARIAN’S REVIEW:

In this young adult version of “The DaVinci Code,” a group of teens are drawn into a deadly mystery involving an ancient text, shadowy bands of zealots, and a mystical machine that communicates with God. Um, yeah, you read that last part correctly. Although largely compelling, “The Book of Blood and Shadow” is a bit too bloated and oddly paced overall to be a truly first-rate thriller.

Robin Wasserman might be best known for her “Skinned” and “Seven Deadly Sins” series. Here, she reaches back to Renaissance era Europe to frame a story of friendship, secrets, and betrayal. Nora, a senior at Chapman Prep, begins an independent study working for “The Hoff,” an eccentric history professor. Nora will translate the seemingly inconsequential letters of minor poet Elizabeth Weston. Meanwhile, her college age best friend Chris and Chris’ roommate Max — both master Latin translators like Nora — will help The Hoff translate the newly discovered letters of Edward Kelley, an alchemist to the Holy Roman Emperor who was later imprisoned and killed for treason.

I hate to needlessly reveal plot points, but there’s simply no way around it here. Turn away, dear reader, if you don’t want to know!

Spoiling …

In short order, The Hoff is attacked; Chris is murdered; Chris’ girlfriend Adriane is rendered catatonic; and Max disappears. A grief-stricken Nora is left to figure out what really happened and how a secret letter she stole from The Hoff factors into everything. Nora’s investigation takes her to Europe, with a recovered Adriane and Chris’ smart, resourceful cousin Eli. The crew races across Prague, frantically deciphering Elizabeth Weston’s clues to the location of the Lumen Dei, the alchemical machine Edward Kelley — and later Elizabeth Weston herself — was inventing to speak to God. The teens are hunted by two secret armies, both ruthless and intent on capturing the Lumen Dei for themselves: the Hledaci, an ancient Czech religious group hoping to acquire the machine for its own aims of power and glory, and the Fidei Defensor, church defenders who want to destroy it as heresy.

There’s a lot of darting about, running down alleys, looking over shoulders and such, which I’m all for in a thriller. Bring on the action! We are also treated to some pretty neat ciphers and clues, plenty of double and triple crosses, and the rare revelation of Latin translation (of all things!) as something gripping and — dare I say it — sexy. But Wasserman just cannot sustain the breakneck tempo and pulsing beat of danger that should accompany such a novel. Instead, we are left to muddle through lumbering descriptions, confusing bits of history, cumbersome exposition from main and secondary characters, and long passages that feature nothing but Elizabeth’s increasingly ponderous letters. This book would have benefited from some judicious editing as it stops, starts, and meanders more than it ever sustains a consistent, driving pace.

I guess there’s a love story here between Nora and Max? Or Nora and Eli? Or Nora and Chris? I never felt much of anything between Nora and Max, as their romance felt rushed and convenient. While Eli is a solid, interesting character — he clearly is withholding an awful lot of information, yet remains somehow trustworthy — the spark between he and Nora never really develops. Maybe this is because Nora, this sort of broken, withdrawn girl, always remains a bit elusive herself. Of all the characters, I actually loved petulant Adriane the best; I bought every minute of this complicated girl’s “frenemy” relationship with the other kids.

“The Book of Blood and Shadows” was released this week. There is some violence and suspense, so maybe older middle school is the early range of the target audience. While I wasn’t completely sold on this novel, I definitely think it has appeal for fans of smart, twisty thrillers. Please let us know what you think!

PS ~ Thanks Net Galley for access to the advanced copy. You guys rock!

 
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Posted by on April 13, 2012 in Uncategorized

 

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