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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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“The Fault in Our Stars” by John Green

TEEN LIBRARIAN’S REVIEW:

Cassius:
“The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars,
But in ourselves, that we are underlings.”
Julius Caesar (I, ii, 140-141)

John Green is a rock star in the world of YA lit and likely needs no introduction from me. [But, side note: I seriously cannot overstate my love of both “An Abundance of Katherines” and “Will Grayson, Will Grayson,” so maybe it did need some saying!] I was at a Penguin Young Readers preview back in October 2011 when I first heard about “The Fault in Our Stars” (hereinafter, for the sake of my typing, “TFiOS”). Mentioning a new John Green title to a room full of librarians and educators created a bit of a frenzy, as you might imagine; we’re talking sharks with blood in the water, only with books. Penguin placed a strict embargo on “TFiOS,” which was finally released last Tuesday. Y’all, this is a book. Lev Grossman, a legit bestselling author in his own right, labeled “TFiOS” an “instant classic” in a blog post, and I agree wholeheartedly. Just go out and read it, already.

Hrm. Not sufficient, you’re thinking? You need to know more? Fine, I will oblige.

At the most basic level “TFiOS” is a cancer book. But it’s also not, not really. You’ll just have to trust me on this, ok? It’s not morbid or cloying or otherwise uplifting in an icky, artificial way. It is, rather, deeply touching, meaningful, flat-out hysterical, and just so achingly lovely that I kept going back to savor passages again and again. It is a remarkable novel for any genre or audience, let alone as a piece of teen literature.

16 year old Hazel, a pretty average teen living with her folks in Indianapolis, had thyroid cancer that spread to her lungs. Although technically in remission — Hazel survives on an experimental drug — her lungs were so badly damaged that she can only breathe with the aid of an oxygen tank. Hazel dropped out of high school and got her GED when she was gravely ill, although she does take some classes at the local community college. Depressed and sort of isolated, Hazel mostly watches bad television with her mom, reads (and re-reads and re-re-reads) her favorite book, “An Imperial Affliction,” and attends a weekly teen cancer support group at a neighborhood church. Lanky teen Isaac, left with one functioning eyeball after contracting a rare eye cancer, is the only saving grace at these meetings, as he alone seems to share Hazel’s sense of sarcasm and irony at the whole miserable experience. When Isaac brings along his gorgeous, athletic friend Gus, a survivor of a type of bone cancer that resulted in the amputation of his leg, support group suddenly becomes a lot more interesting. Gus is handsome, charming, smart, kinda nerdy / cool, sensitive … you know, typical John Green protagonist. He’s also deeply into Hazel from jump, which, flutter. Even sick girls can fall in love.

At first, Hazel tries to resist Gus’ advances. He’s the very picture of health (er, minus the leg), just so vibrant and athletic. Meanwhile, Hazel, weak and lugging around an oxygen tank, worries that she will be a “grenade,” ultimately exploding in Gus’ life, dying, and wounding him irreparably. But Gus isn’t so easily deterred. He’s into Hazel and knows the risks. Gus uses his old dying kid wish (think Make-A-Wish Foundation) to take Hazel to Holland to visit Peter Van Houten, author of “An Imperial Affliction.” Hazel and Gus are determined to find out what happened to the characters after the novel’s mid-paragraph end, and the reclusive Van Houten, they believe, holds the key. Except, nothing goes as planned, Van Houten is an embittered shrew, and, oh yeah, Hazel and Gus fall totally in love amidst the canals and tulips and just about the most spectacular meal ever created. It’s pretty awesome. Or, as Hazel says, “I fell in love the way you fall asleep: slowly, and then all at once.”

I hate to give away huge plot points, so can we still be friends if I give you a SPOILER ALERT? Because I’m going to do it anyway. Consider yourself warned. Here’s some SPOILER SPACE, just in case you were skimming:
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And here we are. Strong, healthy Gus gets incredibly sick, incredibly quickly. He becomes, for all intents and purposes, the grenade that Hazel so feared she would be. Gus’ cancer, long in remission, unknowingly returns and invades his entire body. Probably the most brilliant portions of “TFiOS” involve Gus’ physical degradation. This isn’t pretty soap opera dying; it’s vomit, pee, confusion, messy dying, and it’s not easy to witness. But it’s always true, which makes Hazel and Gus’ continued, doomed romance all that more authentic and beautiful. I can’t think of a better, funnier, more touching scene than Gus’ “pre-funeral,” in which Isaac and Hazel eulogize Gus while he watches. Hazel begins by discussing infinite sets of numbers and says:

Some infinities are bigger than other infinities. A writer we used to like taught us that. There are days, many of them, when I resent the size of my unbounded set. I want more numbers than I’m likely to get, and God, I want more numbers for Augustus Waters than he got. But, Gus, my love, I cannot tell you how thankful I am for our little infinity. I wouldn’t trade it for the world. You gave me a forever within the numbered days, and I’m grateful.”

I told you, it’s a lovely book. I will add that “TFiOS” can be ridiculously, wonderfully funny, as when Isaac and Hazel play voice-activated video games, trying to get the characters to do all manner of filthy things, or the teen support group meets in a church location that the kids call the Literal Heart of Jesus. It’s also full of some pretty sharp social commentary about the celebrity of mourning, including Facebook postings of glorified dead kids, which are so far removed from the ugly reality that they’re almost, sadly, laughable. Throw in fully developed parental figures, admirably complex secondary characters, and a gentle exploration of such larger, philosophical ideas as making an indelible mark on the universe and, somehow, being remembered, and you have a damn good novel.

I loved just about every aspect of “TFiOS” and would gladly recommend it to teen readers (and adult readers!), all genders, really from older middle school and up. There’s some language here and a discreet sex scene, but if you can handle the difficulties of death, then you’re good to go. “TFiOS” is such an unbelievably good novel. I can’t see you being disappointed. Now will you go out and just read it already? :-p

 
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Posted by on January 18, 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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“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.

 
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Posted by on November 1, 2011 in Uncategorized

 

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“Bird Lake Moon” by Kevin Henkes

TEEN LIBRARIAN'S REVIEW:

This sweet little novel tells the story of a friendship between two somewhat broken boys. Or, perhaps I should amend that, since we only get the very start of that friendship and the promise / hope that it will continue to survive after one summer at a Wisconsin lake.

"Bird Lake Moon," Kevin Henkes' latest book for young adults, is told in alternating chapters by Mitch Sinclair and Spencer Stone. Mitch's folks have just split up, and he's living with his shattered mom at his grandparents' small lakeside cottage. Mitch spends the beginning of the summer hiding under the stairs of a seemingly abandoned neighboring cottage in a spot where he's made a personal refuge for himself. His parents' breakup has pretty much destroyed Mitch's world, and that dank, cramped area below the stairs at least feels safe and protected. When Spencer's family shows up and inhabits the cottage, Mitch initially tries to scare them off with silly pranks (stolen swimming goggles, the image of a soccer ball painted in white sugar). Unfortunately, Spencer is the only one affected by the pranks, which he thinks may be signals from the ghost of his long dead older brother Matty. It turns out that Matty drowned at this very lake years back, and this is the first summer that Spencer's broken-hearted mom has been able to return.

After all the confusion and distrust at the beginning here — and after Mitch does something really stupid to the Stones' dog Jasper — he and Spencer quickly become good buds. They go swimming with Spencer's little sister Lolly, toss a football, and play card games. Mitch loves it over at the Stones' place, where there's usually so much laughter and warmth; when his grandparents and mom aren't being strangely silent, all they seem to do is fight. The only thing standing between Mitch and Spencer now is Mitch's reluctance to fess up to all his misdeeds that summer. When Mitch finally discovers his courage, it might just be too late.

"Bird Lake Moon" is one of those quiet, touching, almost poetic novels that are probably enjoyed more by librarians than kids in the target audience. I think that's still okay. There should be enough here to grab the attention of middle school boys, as the prank scenes and the football / swimming scenes may reflect some events in their own lives. If some of the subtleties of the novel — the hidden hurts that threaten to swallow whole lives, the small victories achieved along the way, the ambiguous yet optimistic ending — are lost on them, so be it. As for the more sensitive middle schoolers out there, they'll be rewarded with a rich, hopeful story.

 
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Posted by on July 15, 2008 in Uncategorized

 

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“Someday This Pain Will Be Useful To You” by Peter Cameron

TEEN LIBRARIAN'S REVIEW:

"Someday This Pain Will Be Useful To You," author Peter Cameron's first novel for teens, appears on a few "Best of 2007" lists, including those put out by Publishers Weekly, Horn Book, and Amazon.com. Needless to say, I had pretty high expectations for this dark, ironic, yet oddly sincere story of 18 year-old James Sveck. Sadly, those expectations weren't quite met. Maybe it was just too much hype?

Ok, so here's the basic plot outline, although, be warned, not too much happens in this story. Basically, James is spending the summer before his freshman year at Brown University working in his mom's NYC art gallery. The gallery, by the way, features garbage can art produced by an artist who has renounced names, and, not too surprisingly, James has lots of free time on his hands. At night, James roams the Internet looking at Midwestern houses (of all things!), envisioning a life away from college, NYC, and, above all else, people his own age. See, James is a true introvert, and he often feels so uncomfortable around his peers that he's reduced to what honestly can be described as terror. As the story unfolds, we learn that during an American Classroom trip to Washington, DC, James freaked out from the sheer pressure of having to be social and engage the other teens on the trip. In fact, as becomes clear, James is suffering from not just a stifling depression but also a severe and nearly complete sense of alienation from all people and things.

While this novel is beautifully written (among others, there's a wonderful passage where James describes the purity of thoughts and the compromise of language), the bottom line is that the entire story takes place in James' head. What we have is essentially a series of observations, reminisces, frustrations, and fears, very few of which are grounded in any real action. As such, although James is a fascinating character, this book is often challenging — if not downright boring — to read. I can't imagine there are many teenagers who would be interested enough to even finish the book, which is a shame. If there are some older, high school age teens out there interested in a sort of "Catcher in the Rye" style story, you might want to give this book a try. However, for those looking for a story about a teen boy facing the challenges of depression, Ned Vizzini's "It's Kind of a Funny Story" is, in my opinion, a much stronger choice.

 
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Posted by on January 3, 2008 in Uncategorized

 

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