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“The Age of Miracles” by Karen Thompson Walker

TEEN LIBRARIAN’S REVIEW:

As if being an unpopular sixth grade girl isn’t difficult enough, try adding the slowing of the Earth’s rotation — and all its cataclysmic effects — to the mix. That’s the premise of Karen Thompson Walker’s remarkable debut novel “The Age of Miracles.” While I don’t normally review books written for the adult market, “The Age of Miracles” should appeal to teens, as it is essentially a coming of age tale set against a dystopian backdrop. Although more subtle and literary than novels geared directly toward teens, its subject matter and almost cringe-worthy realism should win over many younger fans.

We meet Julia and her family on an ordinary sunny Saturday morning in California. Except, this particular morning isn’t so ordinary after all, as Julia soon learns that the Earth’s rotation has slowed overnight. The slowing will continue to increase to a point where sunlight — and darkness — will last for long days on end. As the Earth slows even more, vegetation dies, animal life is depleted, strange weather patterns emerge, sunlight becomes toxic, and people begin to suffer from “gravity sickness.” If all this sounds terribly bleak, quite surprisingly, it’s not. These events are all filtered through Julia’s sensibilities, and she presents much of the horror in a stark, matter-of-fact manner. Julia’s almost detached observations place the slowing in the background as a quiet force that is never sentimental, overpowering, or showy. The real drama, interestingly enough, occurs among the human beings.

A conflict erupts between “clock timers” (folks who adhere to the dictates of the clock, regardless of sunlight or darkness) and “real timers” (those people who follow the natural rhythms of sunrise and moonrise, regardless of when they occur). It’s a classic “us against them” struggle, with all the attendant fear outsiders can generate in a trying time. A class schism also erupts, as those with money can afford artificial lawns, personal greenhouses, steel shutters, and sunlight radiation shelters. But none of these are the central source of human tension in “The Age of Miracles.” Instead, it is the family interactions and middle school relationships that form the real heart of this novel.

Here’s what I found most amazing about “The Age of Miracles”: middle school kids can be just as horrible, careless, and insensitive as ever, even when life as they know it has been catastrophically altered. Julia is bullied at the bus stop, dropped by her best friend, used by a popular classmate, and excluded from the birthday balloon tradition at school. She pines away for Seth Moreno, the mysterious skater boy who lost his mother to cancer and is alternately warm and indifferent toward Julia. She worries about her unshaved legs and buying her first bra. She tries to mediate the cold hostility between her philandering father and controlling mother, all while seeking her own small piece of independence. Above all, much of “The Age of Miracles” is about one girl’s overwhelming loneliness, which almost trumps the fact that her entire world is, literally, falling apart around her. And you wondered why I called this a “remarkable” novel? Because it is!

I’ll give nothing else away, because Julia’s story should be savored by the reader. Walker is a beautiful storyteller who uses spare language and quiet emotion to convey Julia’s fears, pain, and small triumphs. There is not one moment here that is artificially rendered. Everything is conveyed with an almost heartbreaking honesty and stillness. Although written for adults, aside from a bit of language, minor drinking, and the themes involved, older teens should do just fine with this novel. “The Age of Miracles” is a stunning, haunting book about growing up. Please go out and read it now.

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Posted by on August 13, 2012 in Uncategorized

 

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“The Raven Boys” by Maggie Stiefvater

TEEN LIBRARIAN’S REVIEW:

Man, do I love me some Maggie Stiefvater. If you haven’t read “The Scorpio Races” yet, (a) for shame!, and (b) do yourself a huge favor and get on that immediately. [Read my rave review here if you don’t believe me!] Maggie’s latest book, “The Raven Boys,” will be published by Scholastic in September 2012. Fortunately for me, I was in the right place at the right time during the daily 9 am Book Expo stampede o’ booths and was able to snag an advanced copy. “The Raven Boys” is a story about boarding school boys and a somewhat clairvoyant girl who use magic to wake a sleeping Welsh King. I know. I KNOW! But it’s really a story about friendship and sacrifice, and it is just so phenomenally written — just so expertly conveyed on every possible level — that what may seem like a silly premise underlies a wondrously captivating story.

I’ll try to do some gentle, non-spoily plot summary. We start on St. Mark’s Eve, as teenage Blue and her psychic aunt, Neeve, are recording the names of those who will die in the coming year as their spirits pass by. Blue acts like an amplifier for her aunt’s talents, in much the same way she does for her own mom, Maura, and a houseful of eccentric psychics. Blue is not a seer, so she is startled to encounter the spirit form of a boy from nearby Aglionby Academy. The tormented boy says his name is Gansey and “that’s all there is.” Neeve warns Blue that seeing Gansey can only mean one of two things, that she is either his true love, or that she will kill him. Gah! Because, folks, being Blue’s true love is no great prize either, as it’s been long prophesied that Blue will kill the first boy she kisses. Kinda awkward, right? 😉

Shortly after St. Mark’s Eve, Blue, while working her part-time job at a pizzeria, encounters a very much alive Gansey — think a teenage politician, “shiny and powerful” — as well as his friends: hostile, anguished Ronan, with a neck tattoo and a world of anger radiating off him; stalwart Adam, an off-campus tuition student from the wrong side of the Henrietta, VA tracks who bears abuse and responsibility like he does everything else, quietly and painfully; and the “smudgy” Noah, a sort of loving puppy dog type who always hangs on the periphery of the group. Gansey leaves behind his rather impressive journal detailing his efforts to locate a ley line (a surging line of magical power) and raise the sleeping King Glendower, who will grant him a favor. As Blue befriends the boys — and falls for Adam — she quickly discovers that the Glendower quest is Gansey’s entire life, and, for better or worse, a mission shared with equal zealotry but for very different reasons by Ronan, Adam, and Noah.

Blue is drawn into the quest herself and helps the boys discover where the ley line lies in Cabeswater, an eerie time bubble in the woods. In Cabeswater, thoughts and wishes can appear in corporeal form before your eyes; whole seasons pass while time on the outside remains still; trees communicate (in Latin!), issuing vague warnings and advice; a haunted beech provides visions of the future, including a fatal near-kiss between Blue and Gansey; and if someone performs an unspecified — but deadly! — sacrifice, the long dormant ley line will awaken and Glendower will most likely be theirs.

There’s much more going on in “The Raven Boys,” including the mystery of Blue’s father, who disappeared years before, and the dark magic behind Neeve’s visit to Henrietta. There is also an old, unsolved murder and a villainous Latin teacher who seeks Glendower for his own. If this all seems a bit out there, well, it is. I can’t and won’t argue that point. I will say / shout from the rafters that Maggie crafts this story so beautifully, slowly revealing secrets (Noah!) and adding layer upon layer of complexity to her characters. That’s what I loved the most about “The Raven Boys,” that these characters are compellingly crafted and so stinking real. Ronan, in particular, is incredibly complicated; he’s in so much pain that he has become a powder keg of volatile rage and raw physicality, yet he can break your heart with his tenderness to both his friends and a tiny raven foundling. And Gansey … oh boy, where can I even start? Gansey, the supremely wealthy and capable teen who was nearly killed by hornets as a child, is a strange combination of strength, poise, and fear. Gansey is terrified that he will fail his friends, his family, and his quest, and his struggle to be responsible for everyone and everything ends in disastrous results.

While “The Raven Boys” ends rather abruptly — which, I get, first book in a series, but it’s REALLY abrupt — I can live with it. This book is so achingly beautiful, filled with such evocative descriptions, amazingly rendered characters, and lovely explorations of friendship, that I can forgive the somewhat jarring ending. You must read “The Raven Boys” when it releases in September. Promise me, ok? Then you can join me in this awful anticipation as we wait until 2013 to find out what happens to Blue, Adam, Gansey, and the gang!

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Posted by on July 16, 2012 in Uncategorized

 

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“The List” by Siobhan Vivian

TEEN LIBRARIAN’S REVIEW:

Shame on me, because “The List” was my first introduction to author Siobhan Vivian, who has written three other novels for teens. If any of her other books are even remotely as captivating and incisive as “The List,” then I need to get on them asap, y’all. Because “The List,” about a yearly list of the ugliest and prettiest girls in one high school, is a total winner. I am still thinking about this book a full week after I finished it!

One Monday in September, Mount Washington High School is plastered with an official, embossed copy of The List, designating which girl is the most and least attractive in each grade. The List is an annual tradition at Mount Washington, and, aside from it bearing a Mount Washington seal, no one knows who is behind it or how the girls are chosen. All anyone knows for sure is that inclusion on The List dramatically changes each girl’s life. What we learn in this novel is that those changes, for the favored and the ostracized both, can be surprisingly complex.

Throughout the novel, we follow the eight girls’ lives as they intersect in the days following publication of The List. Of these eight characters — loners, freaks, popular girls, a homeschooled transfer student, brats, athletes, etc. — four-time ugliest designee Jennifer Briggis is one of the most intriguing. Jennifer was once best friends with the beautiful, popular Margo Gable, who is, of course, the prettiest girl in the senior class. After a freshman year meltdown at being named ugliest, in each succeeding year, Jennifer has tried to make it seem like she’s in on the joke here and thus unbothered by The List. But when Margo’s friends reach out to Jennifer in sympathy and include her in shopping trips and parties, we start to see how clingy and, perhaps, devious this perpetually bullied girl is. It’s shocking stuff, frankly, and one of the most compelling portraits of a teen bullying victim that I’ve ever encountered.

The other girls are depicted in equally nuanced manners. We have freshman swimmer Danielle DeMarco, who had always prided herself on her strength and athleticism but who now sees herself as ugly and mannish. When Danielle’s boyfriend becomes distant and avoidant post-List, Danielle is devastated. She tries to become stereotypically feminine, but ultimately reacts in a more powerful, life-affirming way. Junior Bridget Honeycutt is the most heartbreaking character. Bridget views her “prettiest” label as a validation of the eating disorder she had developed over the summer, and so she plunges headfirst back into the world of starvation and juice “cleanses.” Bridget’s final push to wear a smaller dress size — and her emptiness at achieving this awful goal — is gut wrenching.

Then there’s Sarah Stringer, the ugliest girl in the junior class, who is really just an outsider with a punk edge and a fake aura of toughness. The night before The List’s publication, Sarah had slept with her best friend, the quietly attentive Milo. After The List, Sarah pushes everyone away in just about the most effective manner ever: she stops bathing, brushing her teeth, and changing her clothes. The mythic List makers and popular kids will have to literally suffer her existence. Sarah’s attempt to strike back really amounts to her donning an extra layer of armor in protection against further hurt. When Milo finally breaks through Sarah’s defenses and reaches the vulnerable girl inside … oy! Didn’t I say this was a compelling novel?

Author Vivian perfectly captures the impact of labeling teen girls in both seemingly positive and negative ways, and shows how that labeling can quickly create pressure to fulfill false expectations in either direction. She also expertly conveys the fragility of each girl’s sense of self worth, but never in a didactic fashion. I especially loved the ambiguous ending here. What is the real cost of popularity? Of anonymity? And is either worth it? While there are few neatly tied bows to the individual stories, you will think — A LOT — about each girl long after you’re finished reading. If that’s not the sign of a good book, I don’t know what is.

“The List” is most definitely geared toward high school girls. There is age-appropriate language, some drinking scenes, and sexuality. I wholeheartedly recommend this timely, thought-provoking novel, which will resonate with so many young women. “The List” is out now. Read it!

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Posted by on July 11, 2012 in Uncategorized

 

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“Legend” by Marie Lu

TEEN LIBRARIAN’S REVIEW:

“Legend,” the debut dystopian novel written by Marie Lu, was published last November by the good people at the Penguin Young Readers Group. I’m not entirely sure why it took me ages to get around to reading “Legend” (too many books, too little time?), but I’m so glad I finally did. Although there’s nothing genre busting or terribly unique about “Legend,” it’s a fast-paced, engaging dystopian thriller that will leave most readers breathless for book number two. (Which, Penguin, again, you rock, because I just so happen to have an advanced copy of “Prodigy,” the second novel in the “Legend” trilogy. WOOT!)

We start out in a future version of Los Angeles, where fifteen year old Day, the Republic of America’s most famous outlaw, is on the run with his best friend, shy orphan Tess. Day and Tess have been secretly watching Day’s mom and brothers and are horrified to discover that Republic soldiers have quarantined their house. A deadly plague has been springing up periodically in the Republic — yet only in the slum sections; interesting — and now Day’s little brother Eden has fallen ill. In a desperate bid to steal lifesaving meds for Eden, Day breaks into a Republic hospital, with disastrous results.

Meanwhile, fifteen year old June is one of the Republic’s shining stars. A prodigy with a perfect 1500 on her Trial, June is the top student at prestigious Drake University. June is on the fast track to assume a top position in the military, much like her beloved brother Metias. And then everything falls apart. Stalwart, noble Metias is killed the night of Day’s hospital break in, allegedly by Day’s own hand, but you can smell a government coverup a mile away. Except, June cannot, because she has been so thoroughly indoctrinated by Republic propaganda, and so thoroughly insulated from society’s ravages by her deceased parents’ wealth, that she blindly accepts the Republic version of events. Commander Jameson — in my mind, a meaner version of Captain Janeway from Star Trek: Voyager! — personally recruits June to go undercover as a street person, find Day, and bring him to justice. Needless to say, June is all in, because she can’t wait to exact revenge.

So, of course, undercover June will meet Day-with-an-assumed-name, they’ll fall for each other, their real identities will be revealed, and betrayal / heartbreak / chaos will ensue. Guys, this is a teen novel, and, as I mentioned, we’re not breaking any new ground here. But that’s absolutely okay, because the romance is believable, the government conspiracy is gripping, the secrets are appropriately troubling, and the relentless pace keeps the story moving along quite nicely. Need more? The dual narration makes “Legend” more easily accessible for girl and boy readers, which is always a good thing in my book, and the characters are well crafted. I especially loved all the shadowy Republic figures, like Metias’ oily, conniving friend Thomas and the lethal Trial director Chian. If the Republic is truly an awful, repressive force, then its minions should convey a real sense of danger, which they do in spades here. I’m all about a villain, y’all. 😉

“Legend” also exhibits some surprising emotional depth, which is a bit unexpected — but welcome — in an action-based novel. Day’s longing for his mom and brothers, June’s grief over Metias’ death, and the pair’s affection for the sweet Tess help the story find its humanity and move us from the level of secrets and chases and lies to something a bit more real. Throw in some hardcore sacrifice — ah, the bravery! — and you end up with a thrilling story that wields some real emotional pop. Well done.

“Legend” is out now. Read it, already! And keep an eye out for the sequel in (gulp!) early 2013.

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Posted by on July 2, 2012 in Uncategorized

 

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“Skinny” by Donna Cooner

TEEN LIBRARIAN’S REVIEW:

Donna Cooner’s debut novel, “Skinny,” is a timely, gripping story about an obese girl’s struggle to control her weight and, as importantly, to control the destructive, self-critical voice in her head, which she labels Skinny. It is as good a debut novel as I’ve read in years, and one that ALL teens should find relevant. This is NOT an obesity novel; it’s a beautiful, universal story of learning to accept yourself.

When we meet Ever, she is 15 years old, weighs 302 pounds, and is absolutely miserable. Despite having a loving, supportive father and stepmother and a pretty cool best friend in Rat, Ever is crushingly lonely and angry at just about everyone: her thin, cool stepsister Briella; her seemingly carefree classmates, including crush Jackson and super popular Whitney; her parents; Rat; and, especially, herself. Ever’s entire world is veiled in hatred of herself, her body, and her peers. It’s an exhausting, isolating way to live.

After the most humiliating public experience on record during a school assembly, Ever bravely decides to undergo gastric bypass surgery, despite the very real risks involved. The surgery severely restricts the amount of food and liquid Ever can consume without becoming physically ill, so over the course of one summer, she begins to lose a dramatic amount of weight. Rat is Ever’s cheerleader and coach during this time, carefully charting her weekly weight loss and exercise (and her choices of music ;-)). Unexpectedly, Briella also slowly becomes involved in Ever’s transformation and starts to become actual friends with both Rat and Ever.

When school resumes in the fall — and with the help of a makeover from Whitney, of all people, who takes Ever on as a project — Ever starts to turn heads and gain acceptance from her peers. Ever, who has always kept her singing talents hidden, even decides to try out for the school musical, Cinderella, finally turning toward the spotlight she has continually shunned. But Skinny, the voice that constantly criticizes and demeans Ever, is alive and well, despite Ever’s physical makeover. So when her dream date with Jackson results in something other than a fairy tale ending — leading to a cascade of self hatred — Ever finally realizes that she must start loving the person she is on the inside, lest she never escape Skinny’s grip.

Yes, “love yourself” is a fairly cliched message, but it’s handled here so deftly that you won’t mind. You will absolutely understand the relentless nature of Skinny’s criticism and how thoroughly it corrodes Ever’s sense of herself. Seeing Ever discover a more positive inner voice is incredibly gratifying for us readers. Plus, there’s so much more here: a believable love story, blossoming girl friendships, small and large triumphs, an opening night of Cinderella that had me reaching for tissues again and again … seriously, what’s not to love?

Scholastic is releasing “Skinny” in the fall of 2012. [Thank you for the advanced copy at Book Expo, awesome people of Scholastic!] My friends, please be on the lookout for this remarkable novel. You will not be disappointed. Happy reading!

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Posted by on June 29, 2012 in Uncategorized

 

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“Code Name Verity” by Elizabeth Wein

TEEN LIBRARIAN’S REVIEW:

Y’all, summer reading preparations have kept me from writing up my book reviews. But, I promise, I have been reading! Scout’s honor. :-p

Here’s a review of one of the BEST books I’ve read this year, Elizabeth Wein’s intriguing, twisty, deeply engaging World War II novel “Code Name Verity.” When was the last time a book was part history lesson, part spy game, and part emotional drama? Yeah, I thought not. How about that same book also featuring two FEMALE leads, one a British spy and one a young British pilot? That’s right. Unique concept, beautifully written … read on for more, friends.

The novel is divided into two sections with two separate narrators, and it’s up to us as readers to piece the overall story together and decide how much is truth and how much is a lie. In the first section, we have aristocratic Scot Julie (Verity) who works as a spy for the British. Julie was captured inside occupied France and is being held by the ruthless Gestapo (the Nazi secret police) as a prisoner of war in a commandeered hotel. Julie has been starved, terrorized, and tortured for information, which she is finally revealing in a confession written daily on recipe cards, prescription pads, and other leftover reminders of normal life. Julie’s confession is structured as the story of her friendship with a young British pilot named Maddie (Kittyhawk), and throughout her discourse, Julie interweaves secret details of British planes, airstrips, codes, and missions. Repeatedly, Julie laments that fact that the Gestapo have broken her and that she is now the worst kind of coward and traitor for revealing these details of the British war effort. But is she?

In the second half of the novel, we hear much of the same story from Maddie’s point of view. Maddie’s plane, carrying Julie to her mission, crash landed in occupied France, and she’s now being kept hidden by some French Resistance folks. Maddie records the story of her pilot training, her friendship with Verity, and the crash landing, as well as details of the Resistance effort to return her and other downed British pilots safely to England. Maddie figures her British superiors will want a full recounting, and the writing helps her maintain her sanity as whole days pass with her trapped in a claustrophobic barn loft. Straight off, we notice some striking differences in Maddie’s account, most tellingly her repeated conviction that Julie is the bravest, strongest, and smartest young woman she has ever met. Interesting. Even Julie’s staged meeting with an appeasing American journalist is markedly different here than in Julie’s version.

I really cannot reveal more plot details — I won’t ruin it for you! — other than to say that “Code Name Verity” ultimately becomes an absolutely heartbreaking story of friendship, honor, and sacrifice. The two lead characters, Julie and Maddie, are both believably terrified while also being believably brave, feisty, and selfless. The secondary characters are also well developed, especially the Gestapo Captain von Linden, Julie’s captor, who is strangely kind and charming while also being incredibly sadistic. I think teens will be drawn in by the spying, codebreaking, planes, secrecy, and adventure, all of which keeps the story flowing even when we’re not exactly sure what’s happening. And the big reveals at the end — when the whole truth (?) is finally revealed — are staggering. I wanted to go back and reread everything again to catch all the clues!

“Code Name Verity” is a brilliant novel that is perfect for boys and girls who are older middle schoolers. Although there is torture and violence in this story, the majority of it is very discreetly presented and entirely age appropriate. I adored this beautiful, gut-wrenching novel, which will surely be one of the best books published for teens in 2012. Please check it out.

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Posted by on June 25, 2012 in Uncategorized

 

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“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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