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“The Pact” by Jodi Picoult

TEEN LIBRARIAN’S REVIEW:

So I was on vacation at my very favorite beach in the entire world, sitting under an umbrella, listening to the sounds of the waves … and, duh, obviously reading a book. I am a librarian, after all! I read an absolutely fabulous new novel, “Where’d You Go, Bernadette?,” that is clever, insightful, quirky, and weirdly heartwarming. Check it out! Alas, I do not review it here, because it is an adult novel with little YA crossover. [But the narrator is an eighth grader AND I LOVED IT. Hee. That is all.]

Luckily — or unluckily! — for you good people, I also read Jodi Picoult’s 1998 teen-themed novel “The Pact,” and that, my friends, I am all over in the review department. It’s the story of lifelong friends, teenagers, who become a couple because of love, remain a couple because of expectations, and ultimately confront a promise of mutual suicide. Yeah, that’s heavy stuff, and Picoult, for all her many literary talents, does tend to dip into the old melodrama at times. But, overall, “The Pact” is a gripping novel that deftly explores the complex web of family, friendship, love, hatred, and grief. If it’s a little soapy at times, eh, so be it, because when it’s good, it’s seriously, ridiculously good.

Chris Harte and Emily Gold literally grew up together, as we discover in a series of extended flashbacks. Their moms, Gus Harte and Melanie Gold, are best friends and next-door neighbors who are both pregnant at the same time in 1979. [Remember, folks, this book is a little old, but other than a few jarring technological details — Gus has a beeper! — it’s not at all outdated thematically.] While Chris and Emily begin life as instant friends and constant companions, they eventually fall in, out, and sort of back in love again. I know “The Pact” is a book about suicide — and I’ll get to that issue, I promise! — but I felt that aspect of Chris and Emily’s relationship, that pressure to be something together at almost all costs, was so strikingly real. Emily’s crushing disappointment in not living up to that long-ordained love, in loving Chris but not LOVING him, sends her to a dark place. That pain, coupled with buried sexual abuse, an unexpected occurrence, and a crushing bout of prolonged depression, leads her to contemplate not just her own suicide, but Chris’ as well. Indeed, as the book opens, Emily tells Chris, “I love you,” which is followed by this line:

And then there was a shot.

So the kicker here — and there’s really no way to avoid spoiling it, because it happens at jump — is that following the night of the pact, Chris remains very much alive. While he’s suffering from a gaping but hardly life-threatening head wound in the ER, Emily arrives DOA. As the respective families (and friendships) just about disintegrate from pain, rage, and confusion, we start to learn more about Chris, the survivor at the center of this storm. Chris was the stalwart one, the reliable, smart, kind boy who excelled at two things: swimming and loving Emily. When Chris is arrested for Emily’s murder, it’s not too hard for us to believe that while he may not have killed her out of malice, he clearly could have done so from a toxic mix of adoration and perceived loyalty. Chris’ arrest further rips apart his family and the Golds, while also strangely bringing Chris and his distant, repressed father closer together.

Chris is imprisoned for months while awaiting trial. Picoult flashes back and forth from his prison life, filling in more and more details of Emily’s deepening pain and Chris’ ceaseless devotion. While the jail scenes can play out as a bit over the top, Chris’ pervading sense of fear and heartache is nicely conveyed, and the legal wranglings are easily comprehended. We’re ultimately set up for a splashy trial, complete with surprise witnesses and “shocking” testimony. While perceptive readers will likely view Chris’ confession as telegraphed, the details themselves — and his palpable shame and guilt — trump any obviousness. I saw much of this coming and was still utterly shocked by the depth of Chris’ misguided loyalty and sacrifice.

One of our neighboring school districts requires high school students to read “The Pact” over the summer, and I can see why. From a purely cautionary standpoint, it provides lots of useful information about the warning sides of suicide, and it depicts, with incredible emotion, the devastation left behind in the wake of such a death. Chris and Emily’s evolving relationship — complete with all its joys and disappointments — is also incredibly authentic and will likely resonate with many teens. Perhaps best of all, this book is a page turner, y’all. Beach or no beach, I would’ve devoured it in a day. It truly is that engaging.

“The Pact” is out there, so please give it a read if it now seems interesting. I should note that this one is definitely a high school book, as it contains sexuality, language, drinking, etc. If you really like “The Pact,” the Lifetime network created a movie version a few years back. Check out the trailer below. Happy reading! Wouldn’t you like to be back at the beach right about now? Sigh.

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Posted by on September 19, 2012 in Uncategorized

 

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“The Raven Boys” by Maggie Stiefvater

TEEN LIBRARIAN’S REVIEW:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Posted by on July 16, 2012 in Uncategorized

 

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“Legend” by Marie Lu

TEEN LIBRARIAN’S REVIEW:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Posted by on July 2, 2012 in Uncategorized

 

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“The Book of Blood and Shadow” by Robin Wasserman

TEEN LIBRARIAN’S REVIEW:

In this young adult version of “The DaVinci Code,” a group of teens are drawn into a deadly mystery involving an ancient text, shadowy bands of zealots, and a mystical machine that communicates with God. Um, yeah, you read that last part correctly. Although largely compelling, “The Book of Blood and Shadow” is a bit too bloated and oddly paced overall to be a truly first-rate thriller.

Robin Wasserman might be best known for her “Skinned” and “Seven Deadly Sins” series. Here, she reaches back to Renaissance era Europe to frame a story of friendship, secrets, and betrayal. Nora, a senior at Chapman Prep, begins an independent study working for “The Hoff,” an eccentric history professor. Nora will translate the seemingly inconsequential letters of minor poet Elizabeth Weston. Meanwhile, her college age best friend Chris and Chris’ roommate Max — both master Latin translators like Nora — will help The Hoff translate the newly discovered letters of Edward Kelley, an alchemist to the Holy Roman Emperor who was later imprisoned and killed for treason.

I hate to needlessly reveal plot points, but there’s simply no way around it here. Turn away, dear reader, if you don’t want to know!

Spoiling …

In short order, The Hoff is attacked; Chris is murdered; Chris’ girlfriend Adriane is rendered catatonic; and Max disappears. A grief-stricken Nora is left to figure out what really happened and how a secret letter she stole from The Hoff factors into everything. Nora’s investigation takes her to Europe, with a recovered Adriane and Chris’ smart, resourceful cousin Eli. The crew races across Prague, frantically deciphering Elizabeth Weston’s clues to the location of the Lumen Dei, the alchemical machine Edward Kelley — and later Elizabeth Weston herself — was inventing to speak to God. The teens are hunted by two secret armies, both ruthless and intent on capturing the Lumen Dei for themselves: the Hledaci, an ancient Czech religious group hoping to acquire the machine for its own aims of power and glory, and the Fidei Defensor, church defenders who want to destroy it as heresy.

There’s a lot of darting about, running down alleys, looking over shoulders and such, which I’m all for in a thriller. Bring on the action! We are also treated to some pretty neat ciphers and clues, plenty of double and triple crosses, and the rare revelation of Latin translation (of all things!) as something gripping and — dare I say it — sexy. But Wasserman just cannot sustain the breakneck tempo and pulsing beat of danger that should accompany such a novel. Instead, we are left to muddle through lumbering descriptions, confusing bits of history, cumbersome exposition from main and secondary characters, and long passages that feature nothing but Elizabeth’s increasingly ponderous letters. This book would have benefited from some judicious editing as it stops, starts, and meanders more than it ever sustains a consistent, driving pace.

I guess there’s a love story here between Nora and Max? Or Nora and Eli? Or Nora and Chris? I never felt much of anything between Nora and Max, as their romance felt rushed and convenient. While Eli is a solid, interesting character — he clearly is withholding an awful lot of information, yet remains somehow trustworthy — the spark between he and Nora never really develops. Maybe this is because Nora, this sort of broken, withdrawn girl, always remains a bit elusive herself. Of all the characters, I actually loved petulant Adriane the best; I bought every minute of this complicated girl’s “frenemy” relationship with the other kids.

“The Book of Blood and Shadows” was released this week. There is some violence and suspense, so maybe older middle school is the early range of the target audience. While I wasn’t completely sold on this novel, I definitely think it has appeal for fans of smart, twisty thrillers. Please let us know what you think!

PS ~ Thanks Net Galley for access to the advanced copy. You guys rock!

 
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Posted by on April 13, 2012 in Uncategorized

 

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“Blank Confession” by Pete Hautman

TEEN LIBRARIAN'S REVIEW:

Pete Hautman is the author of the National Book Award winner "Godless," as well as last year's super popular (well, at least at Kinnelon Library!) "How To Steal a Car." In his latest teen novel, "Blank Confession," Hautman relates the story of high school student Shayne Black, who walks into a police station one night and confesses to murder. The story is part mystery, part character study, as we slowly discover more about secretive newcomer Shayne and his escalating tensions with drug dealing bully Jon Brande. While there's a real level of implausibility here — which, incidentally, I came to accept! — this is a powerful book about abuse, power, and responsibility.

The story is told in alternating chapters, with a third person narrator giving us insight into Shayne's long confession to Detective Rawls, while Shayne's lone friend, the part Haitian, suit-wearing Mikey Martin, fills us in on the back story. Seems that Jon has been dating Mikey's flighty older sister, Marie. Jon forces Mikey to hide a bag of drugs in his locker, which Mikey has to ditch in the boys' room when police sweep the school. After Jon beats up Mikey and demands a $500 replacement fee, Shayne intervenes. Mikey is his friend, and he wants to stand up for him. As importantly, Shayne has drifted through a lot of schools (he tells varying stories of who his parents are and where he came from). Bullies like Jon violate Shayne's code of ethics, and he simply cannot let them act without challenge. So, despite being outnumbered — and facing a psychopath! — Shayne intervenes, with disastrous personal consequences. For although Shayne has a steely toughness and some wicked martial arts moves, he's no match for Jon and his testosterone-laden buddies. Shayne's sense of responsibility for Mikey and his meth-using sister ultimately leads him to a violent encounter at Jon's party.

"Blank Confession" is written in short sentences and has a rapid pace. I can easily see it holding the attention of even the most reluctant reader. And Mikey is a great character. While Shayne can seem a bit removed with his stoicism and quiet courage, Mikey is a witty fireplug; he's fun to be around, even as his situation becomes ever more precarious and his actions more dangerous. Other characters have unexpected depth as well. We clearly see how Jon became so violent and ugly, while also discovering, in a surprising fashion, that one of his thuggish pals has more heart than expected.

My only gripe with this novel lies in the fact that it may be hard to buy Shayne as a roving crusader, a kind of lone wolf traveling from town to town, saving people. He's a teenager, for cripe's sake! Where is he staying? Who is paying for his clothes and food? How is even registering for school with no documents? As I mentioned above, I was able to put these issues aside and just enjoy this short, compelling story of honor and sacrifice. "Blank Confession" is a great book for boys, in particular, as it is chuck full of believable male characters and engrossing action sequences. I'd recommend this one for older middle school readers; there is some level of violence and drug use here, although none of it felt gratuitous to me. Give "Blank Confession" a try. I think you'll be riveted by it!

 
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Posted by on January 4, 2011 in Uncategorized

 

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