RSS

Tag Archives: best of 2011

“Between Shades of Gray” by Ruta Sepetys

TEEN LIBRARIAN’S REVIEW:

“In the depth of winter, I finally learned that within me there lay an invincible summer.”
~ Albert Camus

Ruta Sepetys’ “Between Shades of Gray” is one of the most beautiful, evocative pieces of historical fiction I’ve ever encountered, teen or otherwise. It sheds much needed light on a largely hidden moment in history, when Soviet Premier Josef Stalin deported and imprisoned thousands of political prisoners from the Baltic nations of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. These innocent people — men, women, and children — were ripped from their lives, transported like cattle in filthy conditions, only to be beaten, starved, and worked to death at prison camps in remote areas of Siberia. Their only crime? Being deemed a danger to the repressive Soviet regime that had annexed their Baltic nations. Their real crime? Nothing other than being professors, teachers, doctors, army officers, and librarians.

We meet 15 year old Lina on the night in June of 1941 when Soviet NKVD (secret police) officers storm her house in Lithuania, taking her, her mother Elena, and her 10 year old brother Jonas into custody. (Lina’s papa has already disappeared.) Lina’s family has all of 20 minutes to gather their belongings before being herded onto a truck and, eventually, a train, bound for parts unknown. Mind you, they have done nothing wrong. The train car is a true horror: people are packed in with no room for movement and no bathroom facilities other than a hole in the corner of the car. Ona, a woman who has recently given birth, is left bleeding on a plank in the car, her infant daughter dying slowly from starvation. Author Sepetys captures the fear, humiliation, and anger that Lina and her fellow travelers feel, this utterly awful sense of shame and bone-chilling terror at what will happen next.

Eventually, over the course of six weeks, the Lithuanian prisoners make their way to Altai Province, in the southern portion of Siberia. Lina’s family, thin and weak, is thrown into a hut with a brute of a local woman, Ulyushka. Everyone at the Altai camp is forced to work at least 12 hours a day to earn one meager bread ration, which is barely enough to keep a person alive. Lina and Elena are eventually assigned to farm beets and potatoes, while Jonas works with Siberian women making shoes. The mother of the lone teen boy on the trip, Andrius Arvydas (his mother bribed an NKVD guard to have him deemed feeble), is forced into prostitution at the NKVD officers’ barracks. Many nights, the Lithuanians are roused from their sleep at gunpoint and threatened by the sadistic Commander Komorov to sign a “confession” condemning them to 25 years of hard labor. It is a lonely, miserable existence, filled with pain, hunger, and far too much sickness and death.

Lina’s escape from this wretched life lies in her sketches — of Lithuania, Jonas, Mrs. Arvydas, Andrius, her missing papa — and memories of a better life in Lithuania. Lina could be killed for her “treasonous” sketches, which she hides in the lining of her suitcase, but they are a lifeline for her. Many references are made throughout the novel to the works of Norwegian artist Edvard Munch, whose depictions of raw emotional pain are models for Lina’s work. [Click here to see an image of Munch’s most iconic work, The Scream.] Lina is one brave and talented girl.

After nearly a year in Altai, Lina and her family, along with hundreds of Lithuanian and other Baltic peoples, are ferried by train, truck, and ship to Trofimovsk, an absolutely desolate land that lies above the Arctic Circle. Trofimovsk makes Altai seem like a luxury resort. The polar night (continuous darkness) lasts for months on end; dangerously frigid temperatures and continuous blizzards threaten the group’s very survival; starvation, typhus, dysentery, and scurvy are constant killers; and the prisoners’ living conditions — crude, self-built mud huts in a polar region — are subhuman. Without the late appearance of Dr. Samodurov (a real figure, as described here), all the prisoners would have perished during that first miserable winter.

In discussion materials and an author note afterward, Sepetys describes “Between Shades of Gray” as, ultimately, a love story. The Baltic people survived by using love as their sustaining force. I agree. Despite its devastating subject matter, this novel is warm, uplifting, and hopeful. Lina’s love for Elena and Jonas, for her imprisoned father and lost homeland, and, finally, for the strong, kind Andrius, buoys what otherwise may have been a bleak and depressing tale. There is so much life and love in these pages, so much hope and triumph, that it goes a long way in easing some of the pain. The prisoners continue to maintain their national and familial pride — Lina creates patriotic artwork, the Lithuanians celebrate their holidays in the depths of work camp blight, and the homesick and heartbroken share cherished family photographs that were hastily grabbed after arrests — which is beautiful and inspiring. Even small kindnesses, like the Siberian co-worker who saves Jonas from the ravages of scurvy, add to the impression that although we have seen the worst of humanity, the best of humanity still quietly endures. So, yes, love IS the central theme here. And what a necessary message that is for young people to receive.

“Between Shades of Gray” also impressively tempers even its most beastly characters, including some of the heartless NKVD officers, the stoic native Altains, and the “bald man,” an embittered Lithuanian prisoner who constantly criticizes his fellow detainees. Sepetys uses one NKVD officer, the young Nikolai Kretzky, most dramatically to show the withering effect of these atrocities on a basically decent Russian who is “just following orders.” The real villain here, the one never actually seen, is Soviet Premier Josef Stalin, who masterminded the deaths of MILLIONS of innocents. As a stand in, we get all the people who spared themselves but made that devastation possible — Lithuanians who gave information, Soviets who abided by a culture of fear and secrecy, and NKVD officers who channeled their own personal failings into either wholesale prisoner abuse or, at the very least, willful ignorance of the horrors surrounding them.

I absolutely recommend “Between Shades of Gray” to students in upper middle school and higher. This is a difficult book, and I don’t mean to minimize that in any way. There is violence, death, and depravity, but much of it is handled “off screen” and little of it is overwhelming in detail or presentation. As mentioned above, the sum effect of this novel, the feeling you are left with at the end, is one of joy and promise. Please, give “Between Shades of Gray” a try. You will be glad you did.

between shades

 
Leave a comment

Posted by on August 23, 2012 in Uncategorized

 

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

“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.

legend

 
Leave a comment

Posted by on July 2, 2012 in Uncategorized

 

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

“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!

 
Leave a comment

Posted by on December 20, 2011 in Uncategorized

 

Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

“Where Things Come Back” by John Corey Whaley

TEEN LIBRARIAN'S REVIEW:

Author John Corey Whaley was recently honored by the National Book Foundation as one of its "5 Under 35" young fiction writers. Whaley's first novel, "Where Things Come Back," was placed on the list for my Sleepers discussion group at this year's Book Fest at Bank Street College. [Which, side note, but Book Fest is a great event, y'all. Get on the mailing list for next year!] I can honestly say I would not have read this literary teen novel if not for Book Fest; I can also say that, a full two weeks after finishing "Where Things Come Back," I'm still not entirely sure what to make of it.

In the simplest terms, we have parallel stories with different narrators and points of view. The main thread is narrated by Cullen Witter, the kind of sardonic teen we know well in the world of YA fiction. Cullen's sensitive, endearing younger brother Gabriel mysteriously vanishes one day, shortly after a phony naturalist lands in Lily, Arkansas and announces the reappearance of the long extinct Lazarus woodpecker. The second thread, told in the third person by an omniscient narrator, involves a young, overwhelmed missionary named Benton Sage and his college roommate, handsome, popular Cabot Searcy. After Benton commits suicide, Cabot becomes obsessed with Benton's diary, which leads him to researching fallen angels, reincarnation, the apocalypse, and the Book of Enoch.

Right, so simple, linear plot, huh? 😉 There is much to admire about "Where Things Come Back." Whaley is a wonderful writer, impressively melding two very different storylines into a cohesive unit while maintaining suspense and tension along the way. There are lovely characterizations here — the friendship between Cullen and his loyal, unwavering best friend Lucas is breathtaking in its depth — as well as biting commentary on media hype and social hysteria. Whaley deftly explores the wounds caused by grief, portraying both the unending desperation of pain and the stoicism of survival. Even Cullen's snarky list of possible book titles can be both wistful and incredibly funny.

Yet, despite these obvious strengths and my genuine respect for Whaley's talent, I never felt very connected to Cullen. His detached, ironic manner — and his distance from his own emotions — made it difficult for me to feel invested in his story. For me, Cullen only came alive during his interactions with Lucas, as Lucas' profound love for his friend humanized this otherwise aloof character. The story itself (a brother physically lost, a troubled man lost to his own obsessions) also failed to maintain its intensity, as long passages would pass in fantasy or intellectualism. Until its finale, when Cabot emerges as a deranged monster, I was impatiently waiting for *something* compelling to happen.

With its bland folk art cover and truly bizarre plot points, I can't imagine a teen willingly selecting this novel. I felt as if I had to slog through long portions of this book, leading me to believe that teen readers would surrender long before the conclusion. In my Book Fest discussion group, several people actually raised the question of whether "Where Things Come Back" is even a teen book at all and, instead, perhaps an adult novel featuring teenage characters. Maybe this was my main issue, that this otherwise worthy novel is simply aimed at the wrong audience?

If you read "Where Things Come Back," please know it is most definitely not intended for very young readers. There are casual references to drinking, drug use, and sex, and Cullen (like many teenagers) regularly uses profanity in his daily dialogue. "Where Things Come Back" is out now. Hopefully you'll enjoy it more than I did.

 
Leave a comment

Posted by on November 1, 2011 in Uncategorized

 

Tags: , , , , , , ,

“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.

 
1 Comment

Posted by on August 30, 2011 in Uncategorized

 

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , ,

“Divergent” by Veronica Roth

TEEN LIBRARIAN'S REVIEW:

Everyone remotely involved in teen literature knows that pretty much every dystopian novel is touted as the next "The Hunger Games." Sure enough, I heard that exact pitch for Veronica Roth's debut teen novel, "Divergent," which takes place in a desolate, fractured Chicago of the future. You know what, though? "Divergent" actually has some of the spark — the great hook, feisty lead character, and intense scenes of desperate survival — that made "The Hunger Games" such a phenomenon. While it lacks Suzanne Collins' precise worldbuilding, complex love story, and overall literary skill, it's still a compelling, highly enjoyable read.

Dystopian Chicago — the lakes have dried up, buildings are hulking shells — is divided into five factions, each based on a desired human trait. Amity folks are friendly and personable; Erudite is comprised of cold intellectuals; Abnegation members are selfless, plain people; Candor-ites are blunt and, perhaps, far too honest; and the Dauntless are strong, fearless fighters. The factions were created as the antidote to the human complexity that lead to power struggles, infighting, wars, and the near destruction of society. Teenagers now take an aptitude test, after which they must choose to remain in their birth faction or join the faction for which they show an innate ability. As such, society remains properly ordered, separated, and safe.

Smart, resourceful teen Beatrice has always felt out of place in her Abnegation family. Try as she might, she cannot seem to hold her tongue, quietly accept her circumstances, and selflessly offer up her time and possessions. Her aptitude test reveals a shocking result: Beatrice shows a talent for three separate factions. Such Divergence is considered so explosive and dangerous that Beatrice must keep the results secret from everyone, including her parents and beloved brother Caleb. (To be honest, we're never actually told why Divergence is such a threat, although we get hints late in the novel.) At her Choosing Ceremony, Beatrice selects the Dauntless group, seemingly betraying her family. She is plunged into an underground world of darkness, tattoos and piercings that is also a place of camaraderie, physical and mental strength, and bravery.

The bulk of the novel encompasses the Dauntless initiate training, which Beatrice — rechristened Tris — initially undergoes with others who were likewise born into other factions. The training is grueling, which should be expected from a group that leaps off buildings and jumps onto moving trains. We're talking beatdown fights (think UFC!), mental torture, firearms, bloodshed, daredevil feats, and knife throwing. There is plenty of action throughout "Divergent," and the training sequences, even after the Dauntless-born initiates are added to the mix, are riveting in their sheer physicality and emotional duress. We see Tris come alive during this process, emerging from a mousy Abnegation girl to discover her inner strength and calm resolve. It's a coming of age tale on steroids!

I also loved how the Dauntless competition splinters Tris' new group of friends, much like any rivalry with dire consequences inevitably reveals human flaws. (Losers here are relegated to the Factionless and forced to live apart from society as outcasts.) Tris' friends Will, Christina, and Al are all perfectly content to like her when she's the weakling "Stiff," but are offended and threatened when she emerges as a viable competitor. The wicked hazing of several initiates, including Tris, also reveals the ugly human underside of stress and cutthroat competition. Tris' horror and panic at this violence, including her post-traumatic stress reaction, are gripping and terrifyingly real.

Author Roth nicely conveys the full gamut of emotions felt by an alternately exhausted and exhilarated Tris. We clearly perceive Tris' delirium at destroying her old Abnegation bonds and soaring down a rip line or running breakneck along the edge of a cliff. There is an intoxicating freedom in living so dangerously, which we experience right along with Tris. The paintball game, in which Tris climbs the dilapidated ferris wheel at Navy Pier, is both frightening and pretty darn fun. At the same time, Roth richly depicts every last bit of pain and turmoil from Tris' many beatings and sufferings, including some harrowing scenes in which Tris must face her biggest fears in an all-too-real simulation. (Hello, hordes of pecking, smothering crows!) That's potent stuff.

There's also a love interest here, a stern trainer nicknamed Four (Tobias), who is one of those protective, compassionate, kind — and super cute! — guys we tend to see in YA fiction. Four has some secrets of his own, which he slowly shares with Tris. There's supposed to be a forbidden love angle going on with Tris and Four, but we never sense enough of the danger, passion, and longing that we should. I actually felt more intensity and steam — not all of it good! — from Four's rival, young, masochistic leader Eric. Eric is a great character, charming and seductive one minute and lethal the next. His undercurrent of malevolence really drives the story, since there is no real villain (an Erudite leader named Jeanine appears late in the book, but she's basically a one-dimensional poster girl for evil). Eric's edginess and volatility work particularly well towards the end of the book, when Four and Tris uncover a plot that I found silly and unbelievable. Remember the zombie army from "Attack of the Clones," after Emperor Palpatine executes Order 66? All the clone troops became mindless killers, decimating the Jedi Knights and other peace-loving folks. "Divergent's" conclusion is exactly like that. It's a bit of a cheap plot device. At least Eric grounds the story in a tangible, believable menace.

If the love story and ending are a bit wonky, Eric's still an excellent foil, Tris rocks, and there's a cool mystery brewing beneath the whole Divergent idea, which we finally (finally!) begin to glimpse by story's end. Throw in some exploration of the larger notions of group dynamics, weakness, greed, power, sacrifice, and bravery — as well as unexpected cameos and shocking revelations during the climax — and you have the makings of a surprisingly deep action novel. Could the ending be better? For sure. Is too much of this novel simply laying the foundation for book two? Probably. Will I be back for the sequel? YES. 🙂

"Divergent" is out now, and I think it's a good choice for boys and girls who like action, sci fi, or adventure stories. I'm thinking the audience here is later middle school and up, since there's some mild language and, as I mentioned above, some fairly intense scenes of violence and torture. Please let me know what you think!

 
Leave a comment

Posted by on May 20, 2011 in Uncategorized

 

Tags: , , , , , , ,

“Okay for Now” by Gary D. Schmidt

TEEN LIBRARIAN'S REVIEW:

I'm already in love with Gary D. Schmidt for writing 2007's Newbery Honor book, "The Wednesday Wars." In his forthcoming novel, "Okay for Now" — which I scored in advance through Net Galley; huzzah! — we follow one year in the life of Doug Swieteck, a minor character in the Vietnam era "The Wednesday Wars." "Okay for Now" is just about a perfect middle school novel. It's filled with endearing characters, heartwrenching coming of age incidents, plenty of self-deprecating humor and laughs, and such rich, honest emotion that I found myself smiling through tears several times. If this book does not receive, at the very least, another Newbery Honor, there is truly no justice in the world of children's books!

The Vietnam War is still raging in the summer of 1968 when the troubled Swieteck family moves from Long Island to the tiny upstate town of Marysville, New York. Doug's father is a drinker and a bully, his older brother (unnamed through much of the story) is a budding thug, and his beleaguered mom is doing her best to keep on a brave face, especially while oldest brother Lucas is off fighting in the war. To supplement the family's very modest earnings — dad is hanging on to a menial job in the local lumber mill — Doug begins a weekly Saturday morning job delivering groceries to Marysville residents. Among other residents along his route, he meets the eccentric playwright Mrs. Windermere, who has a fondness for ice cream, a yearning for the god of creativity, and a soft spot in her curmudgeonly heart for "skinny delivery boys." The passages depicting Doug's journeys with his grocery-laden wagon, particularly in the steamy summer months and frigid winter ones, are alternately hysterical and deeply touching … and sometimes both!

Each Saturday after finishing his route, on the only day it is opened each week, Doug visits the Marysville Public Library. He is intrigued by John James Audubon's striking picture of a crashing arctic tern and its "terrified eye." Kindly librarian (woot!) Mr. Powell notices his interest and patiently, slowly teaches Doug how to draw the tern and other majestic birds from the glass-encased Audubon book. Each chapter of "Okay for Now" begins with an Audubon plate and relates a theme from the given picture to Doug's own life, his family, and his burgeoning artistic talent. If this sounds horribly boring, I swear it's not! It is a charming device, completely original, and a lovely, subtle way of depicting Doug's journey of growth and self-discovery. Along the way, we learn that cash-strapped Marysville is selling off pages from the priceless Audubon book, leading to a subplot where a determined Doug vows to make the precious book whole again.

Why should you care about a boy from the 1960s who spends his free time drawing Audubon birds? I understand your skepticism! But Doug is such a superbly crafted character that you will eagerly turn the pages to follow his story. Doug is a total middle school boy in his love of baseball (and the Yankee's Joe Pepitone!), his sense of humor, his blossoming affection for the grocer's spunky daughter, Lil, and his quiet protection of his mom and family. But Doug is also presented as a real, multidimensional kid, so he often retreats into a petulant dislike of "stupid" Marysville; he doubts his own talents and abilities; he mouths off to the gym teacher and school principal (although it's deserved in both cases!); and he abandons projects as soon as obstacles appear. In other words, he's relatable and flawed. Doug is also special, as he stubbornly, fiercely guards the kinds of secrets no 8th grade boy should have to carry. Doug is a great combination of bravery, heart, and humor, and he possesses both a rebellious nature and an optimistic spirit. I ADORED HIM!

What else works here? I loved how gently encouraging so many of the adults are toward Doug, who is in a world of pain from his father's drinking and abuse. Besides Mr. Powell and Mrs. Windermere, the lumber mill owner, grocer, and two teachers take a keen interest in Doug, while the seemingly sadistic gym teacher (later shown to be a tormented Vietnam veteran) eventually plays a pivotal role in Doug's life. So much of the story involves cultivating the hidden promise and potential in people — not just Doug, but his wounded brother Lucas, spit upon and rejected by war protesters and small-minded neighbors; his older brother, finally revealed as Christopher, who is so much more complex than his sullen exterior and criminal reputation suggest; and even his sweet yet steely mother, who looks upon a gifted orchid like it's a treasure. Along these lines, there is also a wonderful theme about life being full of incredible possibilities — this is the era of the moon walk, after all — such that even a poor, uneducated kid like Doug with, frankly, a brutal home life, can imagine himself free and soaring. Rock on!

So, yeah, there's also a bit of romance, some babysitting adventures, a Broadway play, a plastic toy rocking horse named Clarence, and some truly quirky, almost screwball elements thrown in. Does all of it work? For the most part. By the time Doug's hero Joe Pepitone shows up at Jane Eyre on Broadway, I was fully prepared to suspend any and all disbelief and just go along for the sweet ride. I think you will be, too. Read "Okay for Now" for its insight into the late 1960s, its realistic characters, its many laugh out loud scenes, its incredibly heartfelt moments — I dare you not to cry when Doug plays on the skins basketball team for the first time! — and its lovely depictions of friendship, hope, redemption, and possibility. In the story, Doug immediately relates to the nobility of Audubon's brown pelican; for me, this wonderful, funny, uplifting novel has a beautiful nobility all its own.

PS – My one criticism: I can live with the so-so title, but the cover featuring a boy with a bag on his head? Really? Oh, Houghton Mifflin, I know you can do so much better.

 
Leave a comment

Posted by on February 1, 2011 in Uncategorized

 

Tags: , , , , , , , , ,