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“The Yellow Birds” by Kevin Powers

TEEN LIBRARIAN’S REVIEW:

I rarely review books written for the adult market, but I must make an exception for debut author Kevin Powers’ exceptional new Iraq War novel, “The Yellow Birds.” This is a devastating novel about the effects of war, a topic, sadly, that remains ever relevant. Our local high school students read Ernest Hemingway’s WWI novel “A Farewell to Arms” and Tim O’Brien’s Vietnam War short story collection, “The Things They Carried.” “The Yellow Birds” is at least as relevant, at least as gut wrenching, and certainly as timely as those now-classic novels. When our nation’s wars are primarily being fought by teenagers and those in their early 20s, high school students should damn near be required to read a book like “The Yellow Birds.” In my humble opinion, anyway.

Private John “Bart” Bartle, a 21 year old native of Richmond, Virginia, has been deployed to Al Tafar in the Nineveh Province of Iraq in the fall of 2004. This is a volatile region, with streets taken and surrendered in brutal fashion, with random violence, mortar attacks, gunfire, and, everywhere, without end, death. The action flashes back and forth to Bart’s pre-war training in Fort Dix, his drunken despair at a German bar / brothel with the heroic and deeply flawed Sergeant Sterling, and Bart’s lonely disconnection and unraveling at home in Virginia. We know early on that Bart’s closest friend, 18 year old private Daniel “Murph” Murphy, is dead. We slowly discover what happened and how Bart failed to fulfill a spontaneous promise to deliver Murph home safely. What we see clearly, even without knowing the details of Murph’s death, is Bart’s pain, his jagged grief at his perceived cowardice, the disorientation of living in a constant war and adjusting afterward, and the soul-crushing burden that witnessing, causing, and ignoring so much death creates.

There are many scenes that depict the terror and chaos of war: an interpreter is shot on a rooftop in mid-sentence; a disemboweled boy dies in agony after a gunfight in an orchard; a human bomb explodes, raining human matter down on a bridge; and a young girl feebly tries to drag an old woman’s dead body across a dirt road. There is dust and blood and all manner of sickening odors and deafening sounds. Everywhere. All the time. Powers, a veteran himself, does an astounding job of conveying how war floods the senses, overtakes the brain, and strangles even basic human compassion.

There is a stark grace in Powers’ word choice and descriptions. He mainly writes in spare, evocative language. This quiet lyricism is contrasted with long, almost run-on passages as Bart delves into his inner turmoil. In these instances, we are caught in a swirling midst of Bart’s cycling thoughts and his version of psychic tail chasing. These philosophical ramblings — Bart’s breakneck effort to reason out a meaning in memory, guilt, death, and forgiveness — are extraordinary. I had to stop and re-read so many passages in an attempt to distill their larger meaning, digest their emotional weight, and savor the beauty of the words used to describe such ugliness and pain. These are two of my favorite sections, in which an agonizingly depressed Bart has returned to Richmond and is completely broken:

You want to fall, that’s all. You think it can’t go on like that. It’s as if your life is a perch on the edge of a cliff and going forward seems impossible, not for a lack of will, but a lack of space. The possibility of another day stands in defiance of the laws of physics. And you can’t go back. So you want to fall, let go, give up, but you can’t. And every breath you take reminds you of that fact. So it goes …

Or should I have said that I wanted to die, not in the sense of wanting to throw myself off of that train bridge over there, but more like wanting to be asleep forever because there isn’t any making up for killing women or even watching women get killed, or for that matter killing men and shooting them in the back and shooting them more times than necessary to actually kill them and it was like just trying to kill everything you saw sometimes because it felt like there was acid seeping down into your soul and then your soul is gone and knowing from being taught your whole life that there is no making up for what you are doing, you’re taught that your whole life, but then even your mother is so happy and proud because you lined up your sight posts and made people crumple and they were not getting up ever and yeah they might have been trying to kill you too, so you say, What are you gonna do?, but really it doesn’t matter because by the end you failed at the one good thing you could have done, the one person you promised would live is dead …

Powerful stuff. For all barbarity of war and the awful claustrophobia of alcoholism and post traumatic stress disorder, Bart achieves a measure of peace by novel’s end, giving “The Yellow Birds” a kind of quiet victory in simply showing the soul’s ability to survive. Some years later, alone in a mountain cabin, Bart is able to, as he says, become ordinary again. “There are days ahead when I won’t think of him or Sterling or the war.” Yes, that’s a small triumph, but it is still a hopeful note in a novel about how violence ravages its victims, perpetrators, and our larger society.

I think high school students, or those young people with the maturity to handle some incredibly jarring — but never gratuitous — imagery and language, should read, analyze, and discuss “The Yellow Birds.” In a mere 226 pages, Kevin Powers has created what is destined to become a masterpiece of modern fiction. Please read this National Book Award-nominated novel now. You will never forget it. And keep this stunning book in mind the next time some politician somewhere argues for the deployment of US troops.

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Posted by on October 20, 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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“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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“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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“The Scorpio Races” by Maggie Stiefvater

TEEN LIBRARIAN’S REVIEW:

You probably already know Maggie Stiefvater from her “Mercy Falls” werewolf series, which includes “Shiver” and “Linger.” She’s a phenomenal writer who is able to take otherworldly topics and give them grounded, touching depth. Maggie’s latest novel, “The Scorpio Races,” has already accumulated an impressive list of “best of” accolades, including one from the venerable New York Times. I had an advanced copy of “The Scorpio Races” literally forever, since Book Expo last June. I thought, “It’s a book about water horses that eat people. Yeah, not so much.” I was, I’m not ashamed to admit, dead wrong. It’s a book about people, an unforgiving land and its creatures, sacrifice, forgiveness, courage, family, and love. It is, in one word, remarkable.

What, you need more? Fine. :-p

Puck Connolly is the middle child in an orphaned family living on Thisby, a rocky, isolated island. Older brother Gabe is leaving Thisby for life on the mainland, abandoning Puck and her younger brother, the quirky, sensitive Finn. Puck and Finn decorate pottery for the local tourist shop, but without Gabe’s income, they’ll never be able to keep their heavily mortgaged home and its small bit of farmland. Faced with an impossible set of choices, Puck decides to enter the island’s Scorpio Races, in which capaill uisce (predatory water horses that emerge from the sea each fall) are raced against each other in a vicious, life and death game with a huge payoff for the winner. The water horses are aggressive, untamed creatures drawn, alternately, by the call of the ocean and their desire to feed on blood and flesh. So what will happen to Puck when she decides to race her beloved Dove, an ordinary mare who also happens to be her best friend, against these unpredictable, deadly beasts?

Enter Sean Kendrick, a nineteen year old orphan who has won multiple Scorpio Races on the back of Corr, a wild, crimson-colored water horse with whom he has an incredible bond. Corr is owned by the wretched Benjamin Malvern, Sean’s employer and owner of the largest stable on the island (and, incidentally, the mortgage holder on the Connolly family property). The quiet, steady Sean is a resourceful trainer with an intuitive understanding of — and a deep love for — all the water horses, but most especially Corr. When Sean rides Corr, it’s as if the two are one being, connected by a strange mix of respect, love, and fear. Sean hopes that by winning this particular Scorpio Race, he will finally earn the right to purchase Corr for himself.

As the races approach, Sean begins to admire Puck’s grace and courage in being (a) the only female EVER entered in the Scorpio Races, and (b) the only rider EVER to challenge the capaill uisce on an ordinary horse. The two become friends, riding together on the jagged cliffs overlooking the shoreline and sharing observations and warnings on the other riders. They also fall in love, but it’s not the cheesy, melodramatic deal that such love can often be in a YA novel. Like everything else in this extraordinary book, it’s quiet, subtle, and yet still heart wrenching.

I will reveal no more about the races or the ultimate outcome, other than to say that we want both Sean and Puck to win, which is an untenable position. Maggie has created two incredibly well-realized characters. Puck is rough around the edges and bit churlish at times, but she’s also brave, smart, and big hearted. Sean is stoic and strong, but he shares with Puck the same boundless love for a harsh, unforgiving land, a hardscrabble way of life, and the magnificent horses (both tame and wild) who share the island. The scenes with Sean and Corr, in which we feel the potent, magnetic connection between the two, thoroughly humanize both man and beast.

The secondary characters are also impressively shaded. Gabe is weak and cowardly, but we begin to understand why this young man must leave Thisby and his siblings to survive. George Holly, a wealthy, handsome American visiting for the races, starts off as a sort of patsy and emerges as a far more generous, perceptive man. And Peg Gratton, the local butcher’s wife, is a plain homemaker and a raging feminist / mystical horse goddess during the pre-race festival. Rock on.

Maggie also provides many evocative descriptions of the island, the rocky coast, the turbulent waters, and the sleek, deadly horses. The scenes of Puck racing across Thisby on Dove’s back, literally throwing caution to the wind, are breathtaking. Same with the scenes involving Sean and the surging strength of Corr as he gallops forward, torn always between the lure of the sea and his own deep affection for Sean. We even get suspense and terror, as when Puck and Finn must hide from a bloodthirsty water horse in a rickety lean-to during a raging storm. The writing as a whole is often beautiful and heartrending, filled with so many lovely passages like this one, when Sean remembers the first time he saw the capaill uisce:

[They] plunged down the sand, skirmishing and bucking, shaking the sea foam out of their manes and the Atlantic from their hooves. They screamed back to the others still in the water, high wails that raised the hair on my arms. They were swift and deadly, savage and beautiful. The horses were giants, at once the ocean and the island, and that was when I loved them.

“The Scorpio Races” is, without a doubt, one of the very best books I’ve read this year, teen or otherwise. If you can get past the violence — which is organic to the story and serves to make the water horses a viable threat — then I’d say this book is fine for older middle schoolers. Also, since Puck and Sean alternately narrate the story, this novel should appeal to both boy and girl readers. “The Scorpio Races” is a thrilling, emotional, stunningly crafted book that I absolutely loved. I hope you, too, will give it a try. Happy reading!

 
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Posted by on December 20, 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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“Shelter” by Harlan Coben

TEEN LIBRARIAN'S REVIEW:

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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