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“Chain Reaction” by Simone Elkeles

TEEN LIBRARIAN'S REVIEW:

Simone Elkeles' "Chain Reaction" wraps up her "Perfect Chemistry" trilogy with a bang. It has all the steaminess and addictive readability of the first two novels, which kept me eagerly turning the pages even when, frankly, I should've known better. Although this one, too, requires a heavy dose of suspended disbelief — the Latino Blood are once more trying to poach a Fuentes brother for their gang, leading to mayhem and a violent showdown — it's still a fitting end to the series.

Our youngest Fuentes brother, who is the star here, is super smart, wannabe-astronaut Luis. When the Fuentes clan (sans Carlos, who is off in the military) returns to Fairfield, Illinois, Luis finds himself in Mrs. Peterson's chemistry class along with Nikki Cruz, the Mexican-American daughter of a wealthy local doctor. Luis and Nikki had met two years earlier at Alex's wedding to Brittany (see "Perfect Chemistry," if you're confused), at which time Nikki kneed Luis on the dance floor and stole his clothes while he was skinny dipping. Yup, she liked him, y'all. But, you know, hated him, too.

Needless to say, Luis quickly finds himself infatuated with the beautiful, guarded Nikki, while Nikki tries to see Luis as just another potential gang member / liar / felon / player, like her ex Marco. We get the usual bit of will-they-or-won't -they / do-they-or-don't-they, with the usual bit of fire and attraction that can't be denied. The difference in this novel lies in the fact that Luis is the character who is more open and receptive to falling in love, while Nikki is frightened by genuine affection. You probably don't need me to tell you where all this ends up, but the ride is a good one. Along the way, we also get some brotherly bonding as well as an incredibly implausible subplot about the Latino Blood, Luis' true heritage (apparently, the LB is his birthright), and a safe deposit box that Luis can only gain access to by accepting his role in the LB.

"Chain Reaction" is first and foremost a love story, and, like the other novels in the "Perfect Chemistry" series, it works insanely well on this level. There's plenty of tension, lots of make out scenes, moments of yearning and pain, and tender declarations of love and longing. It's good stuff! And if the forces designed to keep Luis and Nikki apart for the bulk of the novel feel a bit contrived, eh, I can live with it. The romance more than makes up for the LB nonsense. Plus, author Elkeles always provides a happy ending, which I love, and even a glimpse into our lovers' futures in her epilogue. What's not to like? 😉

"Chain Reaction" is out now, and it 's a great read for upper middle and high school girls looking for an engaging (and hot!) love story. Be sure to check out the book trailer, too, which I've attached below. Happy reading!

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Posted by on October 6, 2011 in Uncategorized

 

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“The Probability of Miracles” by Wendy Wunder

TEEN LIBRARIAN'S REVIEW:

Another review. Another advanced copy from the great folks at Penguin Books for Young Readers. Life is hard. :-p

"The Probability of Miracles" is a "dying teen" novel, a trend we've seen often the last few years in books like Chris Crutcher's "Deadline," Jenny Downham's "Before I Die," and even Gayle Forman's lovely "If I Stay." Before the gloom frightens you away, I have to say that although our teen protagonist here has terminal cancer, "The Probability of Miracles" is sharp, uplifting, and, dare I say it, funny in an acerbic, biting way. Yes, there are poignant moments and tears — folks, it's *terminal* cancer — but I found most of this book to be an absolute pleasure to read. What a nice surprise!

You know what else I liked? Our girl Cam here is half-Samoan. How rare is that to see in a YA novel? Even better, Cam is an active participant in her culture, particularly in the ancient art of hula dancing. Deep down, Cam is terrified of her future, so she uses sarcasm and emotional distance as her defenses. Despite closing herself off from her family and lone best friend, Cam opens her heart and connects to the world through music and hula dancing. It is where the real Cam shines. The scenes where she tells a friend's story through hula are evocative and beautifully done.

Interestingly, much of Cam's hula is relegated to the Polynesian luau at Disney World. Cam's now deceased father and her Italian-American mom were both Polynesian performers at Disney, where Cam now also works. When Cam's doctors advise her to end treatment — no more children's hospitals or new drug trials — her mom seeks help through an alternative means: the small, hidden town of Promise, Maine. Miracles are said to happen in Promise, and all Cam has left is a miracle. Or so her mom thinks. Cam herself has no more hope, no more joy in discovering the possibilities that life may still offer. Although Cam agrees to stay in Promise for the summer, she's basically just waiting to die.

Through a series of implausible events, all of which are in the spirit of this unconventional tale and family, Cam, her mom, her half-sister Perry, and her bird Tweety find themselves living in a seaside Promise house owned by the family of sweet, patient, handsome (of course!) teen Asher. Cam eventually stops cloistering herself long enough to volunteer for the local veterinarian — cute puppy and, er, baby flamingo alert! — and start hanging out with Asher and the preppy, beautiful people she calls the "catalog kids." When Cam finally opens herself up to Asher, she falls completely in love. There are some magical moments, as Cam does at least as much to "save" Asher as he does to help her live again. Plus, there are some magical moments in general, since Promise is a miracle place with endless sunsets, puppies who come back from the dead, and roving flocks of flamingos. Author Wendy Wunder does a commendable job of balancing the serious elements (Cam is, after all, dying); some lighthearted fun (Cam, Asher, and the catalog kids win a Make a Wish trip to — you guessed it — Disney World); family tension; first love; and the wonder and beauty inherent in everyday, small miracles. I found the mix here to be delightful.

"The Probability of Miracles" comes out in December 2011 (why not a summer release for this tale of one summer, Penguin?). It is an engaging story with plenty of warmth and heart that never loses its sharp edge. I thoroughly enjoyed reading it. I'd say this one is geared for a high school audience, based on the themes here and some teen drinking and drug use, but see what you think. For more information, check out the book's Amazon page or the Probability of Miracles site. Happy reading!

 
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Posted by on August 10, 2011 in Uncategorized

 

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“Perfect Chemistry” and “Rules of Attraction” by Simone Elkeles

TEEN LIBRARIAN'S NOTE:

I'm reviewing together the first two books of Simone Elkeles' "Perfect Chemistry" trilogy. Although the particulars are different, each book is basically a steamy, updated version of the star-crossed love story featured in "Romeo and Juliet" (or "Pretty in Pink" or "She's All That" or "West Side Story" or … well, you get the picture!). I slightly preferred the first book, "Perfect Chemistry," over its successor, "Rules of Attraction," but I'll admit I thoroughly enjoyed both novels. Despite soap opera plots, cliched setups, and mostly flat characterizations, I gobbled both books up … and even re-read some passages. These books may be light and a bit trashy, but they're fast-paced, addictive, and rewarding in their own way.

Ok, so in the barest of plot outlines, both books feature a poor bad boy with a heart of gold who falls in love with an innocent, good girl from the other side of town. The characters resist the unexpected pull, outsiders (and occasionally family members) are opposed, events conspire to keep the lovers apart, a tragic event occurs, and, ultimately, we get our well-earned happy ending. [By the way, I LOVE a happy ending in YA literature!]

In "Perfect Chemistry," Latino gangbanger Alex Fuentes is paired as a chem lab partner with white cheerleading captain Brittany Ellis. They instantly hate each other, bickering constantly, which only masks the intense attraction they both feel. Alex stupidly makes a bet to score with Brittany before Thanksgiving, but in trying to bring the most perfect, popular girl in school down a notch, he actually starts caring for her. A lot. On Brittany's side, her rigid perfection is a cover for a troubled home life, and, despite having a (jerky) boyfriend, she finds herself thinking about Alex and his secret sweet side all the time. Throw in an escalation in Alex's gang involvement, violence, falling in love, vulnerability, rejection, and heartache, and you get the idea here.

Although it can be incredibly obvious at times — of course the tough guy is sweet; of course the popular girl is scared; of course all their fighting is hiding true love; of course Brit's boyfriend is a lout; etc. — "Perfect Chemistry" works because it hits every star-crossed love note perfectly. Yes, this plotline has been done to death, but author Elkeles expertly captures the angst, desperation, and world-shaking importance of first love. She also does a superb job of conveying the sensual, intoxicating side of that love without ever crossing the line into tawdriness or inappropriateness. This is, after all, a teen novel.

Much of what I just wrote can be applied to "Rules of Attraction," which is set three years later. Middle Fuentes brother Carlos is sent from Mexico (where he's joined a gang) to Colorado to live with reformed older brother Alex. Carlos is exactly like Alex in the first novel — sexy, arrogant, smart, confident, undisciplined, and hotheaded. Following an arrest, Carlos moves in with classmate Kiara Westford's family. Professor Westford agrees to supervise Carlos in an attempt to help him straighten out his life before he ends up in jail or dead. Unlike the beautiful, popular Brittany, Kiara is a tomboy who can fix cars, hike mountains, and play soccer. She also stutters when nervous, which causes her bitchy classmates to ridicule her. Kiara begins to fall for Carlos when she sees his shy, kind side, although Carlos at first insists they be only fake boyfriend and girlfriend. Naturally, this doesn't last long! Much like Alex, Carlos is also stalked by the perils of gang life and must risk violence and death to be with the girl he loves. That's heady stuff!

The biggest difference in "Rules of Attraction" lies in Kiara's family. While the Ellises are cold and distant, Kiara's folks are warm, involved, and compassionate. Kiara's dad is one of the few truly well-rounded characters in either novel, as this mild mannered, bleeding heart psychologist has a hidden past, a tough streak, and secrets of his own. I loved the relationship Carlos develops with Professor Westford and how Carlos matures under the Professor's patient care.

Again, despite the flaws here, the essence of the story — that true love among teens is powerful, frightening, uplifting, and so worth dying for — is captivating. There is a real sense of urgency behind Carlos and Kiara's relationship, which is fueled by the palpable deadline of Carlos' impending, coerced drug deal. If the resolution of Carlos' gang predicament is both laughable and wholly unrealistic, so be it. It takes nothing away from the raw energy that pervades this book. Just check out the scene depicted on the book's cover, when Carlos and Kiara lean out of car windows in the rain after an emotional night, and you'll get a sense of what I'm talking about here.

Neither "Perfect Chemistry" nor "Rules of Attraction" are going to win any awards for literary merit. So what? These books work wonderfully as intense teen romances. Even if I rolled my eyes at times, I raced through both books, re-reading, sighing, laughing, and, on one occasion, even crying a little. If that's not the mark of a great teen romance, I don't know what is.

Final note: although both novels are sensual, they aren't graphic. The sex takes place "off camera." There is a great deal of strong language, but that's to be expected in books that star gang members. If the language doesn't put you off, I don't see any problem with 8th graders (maybe even mature 7th graders?) reading these books. And if you love them as much as I did, the third book — yay for another Fuentes brother! — comes out in August 2011. Enjoy!

Here's the book trailer for "Rules of Attraction," which I think captures the smoking hot intensity I've been trying to describe!

 
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Posted by on March 13, 2011 in Uncategorized

 

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“Close to Famous” by Joan Bauer

TEEN LIBRARIAN'S REVIEW:

Thanks as always to the brilliant folks at Penguin Books for Young Readers, who can always be relied upon for truly excellent swag. (And I read today they are joining Net Galley; yay!). I loved my advanced copy of Newbery Honor author Joan Bauer's latest middle grade novel, "Close to Famous." In fact, I read it in one sitting!

When we meet 12 year old Foster McFee, she and her mom are fleeing Memphis and mom's abusive, Elvis impersonator boyfriend. The pair end up in the small town of Culpepper, West Virginia, home to a mammoth prison, a dying downtown, and a host of eccentric residents. Foster and her mom find free lodging in an airstream trailer owned by a kind older couple. In short order, mom has a job at the local hardware store while spunky Foster has negotiated a deal with diner owner Angry Wayne (ha!) to supply a daily order of home baked goods. See, Foster is a Food Network superfan — her idol is a fictitious ex-military food host named Sonny Kroll — and she loves nothing more than practicing her own kitchen cooking show while perfecting her already scrumptious cupcake and muffin recipes. When Foster meets local legend Charleena Hendley, once a famous Hollywood star but now a bossy recluse, her most closely guarded secret is revealed. Seems that underneath her optimism and seemingly boundless spirit, Foster views herself as a stupid, hopeless loser. She has accepted a cruel teacher's label of being "limited." Why? Because, as only her mom knows, Foster cannot read.

If you think a story about illiteracy and cupcakes seems either tedious or manipulative, I can assure you, it's not. Foster sees baking as a way to spread love and kindness, and that warm spirit envelops the whole story. Indeed, this novel has a homey, comforting tone even when dealing with potentially gritty issues like domestic violence, poverty, and grief. There is also plenty of humor, much of it provided by the over the top Charleena and Foster's new best friend, a short, controlling filmmaker named Macon. Yes, many of these supporting characters are outsized personalities, but in the scope of the story, it works. Because Foster is so realistically portrayed — she is very middle school, alternating between shy, engaging, funny, sullen, hopeful, impatient, etc. — she grounds the story, allowing the bigger personalities to shine without becoming irritating.

All the lessons here about believing in yourself and your potential, persevering through hardship (one character is even named Perseverance Wilson), and opening yourself up to life's possibilities are gently delivered. They seem to spring organically from the story itself, so it never feels like the narrative is being interrupted. And for a novel directed primarily at younger readers, there are some truly lovely, nuanced scenes — in particular, I'm thinking of Foster's "re-graduation" ceremony after learning to read and her final pretend cooking show — that deliver quite an emotional punch.

"Close to Famous" is a charming, heartfelt story with a delightful main character, plenty of heart and humor, some easily conveyed life lessons, and enough mouth watering descriptions of food and cooking to make you hungry. I don't see how you can miss with that combination! I'm sure "Close to Famous" will be as beloved by middle schoolers as all of Joan's previous novels. "Close to Famous" is out now. My recommendation: read it. 🙂

PS – I was so pleasantly surprised to see that the cover image, which is meant to depict Foster, is that of a girl with light brown skin. Foster is multiracial, so it was refreshing to see that accurately reflected on the cover. Well done.

 
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Posted by on February 15, 2011 in Uncategorized

 

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“Good Enough” by Paula Yoo

TEEN LIBRARIAN'S REVIEW:

I thoroughly enjoyed "Good Enough," which tells the story of high school senior Patti Yoon. Patti, who is Korean-American, is an exceptional violinist and a straight-A student. She's also got a killer sense of humor (you know, the bone dry, cynical, self-deprecating wit that absolutely slays me). As you might imagine, being the All-State concertmaster for the previous three years, taking all AP classes, and spending free time at Korean church youth group doesn't exactly make Patti the most popular girl in school. Still, she seems to have made peace with her low standing in the high school hierarchy, as she's totally focused on acing her makeup SATs, maintaining her sky high GPA, and getting into — as her mom calls it in one hushed breath — HarvardPrincetonYale.

Yes, as you might have guessed, Patti's first-generation parents place a heavy emphasis on Patti's academic success. What Patti sees as an almost suffocating pressure her parents view as mere support and encouragement. Patti's future is the most important thing in the world to them, and if getting her into an Ivy League school means constantly nagging her about SAT vocabulary words and practice tests and such, then so be it. The thing is, Patti has internalized her folks' high expectations, and she's just about the most dedicated, conscientious student around. It's only when Patti befriends a cute, rock-loving classmate that she takes her first small steps away from the rigid structure of her life and toward freedom and even rebellion. Before long, Patti is regularly sneaking off to Ben's house for jam sessions, ducking out of a church lock-in to hit a punk show, and even secretly sending an application off to (gasp!) Julliard, NYC's famous music school.

Besides providing candid insight into a Korean-American household, "Good Enough" is smart, charming, realistic without being overly gritty or heavy-handed, and just so much fun. I loved Patti's character, from her amazingly true teen voice to the dignified, respectful way she starts to challenge her parents' expectations and fulfill her own dreams. Even Patti's overachieving youth group pals are revealed as real kids with their own quirks. "Good Enough" is a lively, quick read, and I recommend it for all middle school girls. It's also a great choice for those interested in music, as Patti's descriptions of being transported away while playing her violin should be warmly received by all you budding musicians out there. (And if you like that aspect of the novel, please check out Virginia Euwer Wolff's "Mozart Season" for another peak into a violinist's world.) I hope you enjoy this story as much as I did!

 
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Posted by on August 12, 2008 in Uncategorized

 

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“Down to the Bone” by Mayra Lazara Dole

TEEN LIBRARIAN'S REVIEW:

In theory, an energetic, upbeat novel about a Cuban-American teenager struggling with her sexuality while being supported by an offbeat set of friends seems like a great idea. Unfortunately, "Down to the Bone," while easy enough to read and mildly entertaining, doesn't leave much of an impact.

As the novel starts, Laura is expelled from her strict Catholic high school after it's discovered that a confiscated love letter was written to her by another girl. Laura refuses to reveal the identity of her girlfriend, Marlena, since both are closeted and come from strict Cuban-American families. In fact, both Laura and Marlena initially don't even label themselves as lesbians; they just know they're in love. Mami, Laura's unyielding mother, throws Laura out of the house without a second thought, leaving Laura to take shelter with her wild best friend Soli and Soli's big-hearted new age mom, Viva. Despite Mami's awful treatment — among other things, she calls Laura immoral and a degenerate — Laura wants desperately to be allowed back home so she can again see her younger brother Pedri. But Mami is firm about her conditions, and if Laura remains a lesbian, she wants nothing more to do with her.

While this description might make "Down to the Bone" seem weighty in its tone, it's actually very light and buoyant, perhaps too much so. Laura relates her story in a frantically paced dialogue that barely pauses to acknowledge the seemingly life-changing events that are occurring around her. Everything is quickly glossed over as Laura seems more intent on weaving Spanish words, Cuban food, and silly nicknames into this whiplash-inducing account of her life. Because of this writing style, all of Laura's interactions with her friends, including the transgendered Tazer, come off as woefully artificial. What a shame.

So, yes, there's a fantastic message in here about accepting yourself for who you are, whether that's gay, straight, bisexual, or transgendered. That's definitely a message worth spreading around. And it's admirable that a book that could have been depressing is quite fluffy in tone. I'm not crazy about "issue" books, which typically include those discussing sexual orientation, that are overly serious and grim, as if gay teens can never be happy. That's simply not true. Here, as I said, the entire book just never grabbed me with any emotion, relationship, or situation that felt authentic, despite the fact that elements of the author's own life were the background for this story. If you give this book a try, please know that its language and several references probably make it a better choice for high school age readers. Hopefully, you'll enjoy it more than I did.

 
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Posted by on July 9, 2008 in Uncategorized

 

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“Hurricane” by Terry Trueman

TEEN LIBRARIAN'S REVIEW:

Author Terry Trueman is well known in summer reading circles for "Stuck in Neutral," his gripping tale of a boy in a vegetative state. In "Hurricane," he explores the devastation wrought by 1998's Hurricane Mitch by focusing on one 13 year old boy in one tiny pueblo (or town) in Honduras. When we first encounter Jose, he is helping his older brother Victor tear down an outdoor barbecue. Jose, as a typical young teen, soon abandons the hard work to play soccer in the main road with his friends, while the good-natured Victor completes the task. It's a lovely opening scene, as we readily discover that Jose has a normal life with friends, caring neighbors, loving family, and even a loyal dog. This is important because (a) it helps us immediately identify with Jose, and (b) since the novel is set in Honduras, a country possibly unknown to younger readers, it instantly makes the story seem connected to our own lives.

Flash forward six months, and Category Five storm Hurricane Mitch is bearing down on Jose's pueblo of La Rupa. While the rain is pounding and the winds are battering his small house, Jose, his mom, and three siblings huddle together under tarps. Even as the storm slowly passes, they become increasingly worried by the absence of Jose's dad and two older siblings (including Victor), who were traveling when the storm hit. Jose is also upset because his beloved dog, Berti, has gone missing. Just as the storm seems to have subsided, Jose hears a violent, ear-shattering roar, which turns out to be a mudslide. As the pueblo endures a torrent of mud from a nearby deforested mountainside, most of La Rupa's houses are destroyed. Worse, many residents are instantly killed and what little remains of the town lies completely buried in mud. By sheer luck, Jose's house is spared, and it soon becomes a makeshift shelter for his few surviving neighbors.

In the days that follow, Jose, scared yet determined, has to grow up quickly and assume the responsibilities of his father and older brother. This means rescuing trapped people; unearthing dead neighbors; literally scraping through mud for stores of food; searching for medical care for his desperately ill little brother, Juan; and, finally, making a lonely, dangerous trip along mud-buried roads to locate his missing family members. Throughout his journey, Jose is believably brave and frightened at the same time, as any young boy would be.

In typical Trueman style, the impact of this novel far outweighs its slim size. While it's a quick read, "Hurricane" is the type of story that will linger with you long afterward. I'll add that it's also great to find a novel set outside the United States that is still so accessible for young American teens. Indeed, I'm sure most middle school readers will easily identify with Jose and his struggle to protect his family in the face of devastating conditions. "Hurricane" is a powerful and inspiring story, and I recommend it for all middle school readers.

 
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Posted by on April 21, 2008 in Uncategorized

 

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