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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 — it’s not at all outdated thematically.]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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“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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“Shelter” by Harlan Coben

TEEN LIBRARIAN'S REVIEW:

And so begin reviews from my Book Expo America haul of ARCs. Woot!

"Shelter," which publishes in September 2011, is bestselling adult author Harlan Coben's first novel for teens. I was thrilled to get an advanced copy of "Shelter" at BEA. I've read a bunch of Coben's adult novels and was excited / anxious to see if his style would translate for YA. Rest assured, he hits this one right out of the park. "Shelter" is a brisk, action-laden mystery with a surprising bit of depth and realism. I was blown away by how much I enjoyed it!

We're following Mickey Bolitar, a tall, muscular 15 year old, who has come to my home state of Jersey to live with his Uncle Myron (Myron Bolitar is the star of his own set of mysteries for adults; check them out!). Mickey's father was killed in a traffic accident in California — Mickey was a passenger and eye witness to the horror — and his mom is an addict in treatment. Myron provides Mickey with plenty of space, which helps the exceedingly independent Mickey grudgingly adjust to his new life. Mickey's folks worked for an international charitable organization called the Abeona Shelter, so Mickey has lived pretty much all over the world and learned long ago to take care of himself.

As a lonely, hurt Mickey starts his new high school, he quickly falls for fellow new student Ashley. Mere weeks later, Mickey is stunned to discover that not only has Ashley vanished, much of what he knew about her was a lie. On his own, Mickey begins to investigate Ashley's disappearance, which leads him to befriend two truly awesome characters: tough goth girl Ema and super nerd Spoon. I cannot overstate how much I loved Ema! Ema's a big girl with a sullen exterior who is lugging around her own set of mysteries (where she lives, how she got so many tattoos, who her parents are, etc.). But she's also fiercely loyal, sharp tongued, and resourceful, making her a perfect partner in crime for Mickey. I absolutely adored the friendship between these two unlikely pals. Their shared insecurities and strengths, and the bond they form, felt utterly real to me. Our boy Spoon, the geeky son of the school janitor, provides comic relief as well as some surprisingly solid detective skills.

Mickey and the gang's investigation keeps leading them back to the Bat Lady, a spooky neighborhood woman who lives a shadow life and whose decrepit house has frightened off children for years. Remember Boo Radley, the boogeyman in "To Kill a Mockingbird"? That's exactly how the Bat Lady is viewed. Because the Bat Lady has told Mickey that his father is alive, Mickey has personal reasons, beyond finding Ashley, for learning more about this strange old woman. With Ema's help, Mickey breaks into the Bat Lady's house and finds an image containing an elaborate butterfly … the same butterfly that marks his father's grave and is hidden within one of Ema's tattoos. Cool! As Mickey teases out more clues, he follows a trail that leads him to a guy with a tattooed face, a violent strip club owner, and a bald government agent who seems to be following him around. Again, cool!

I can't reveal more about the Bat Lady or what Mickey and his friends ultimately discover, because it's a shocker. I can say that the book takes a deep, emotionally wrought turn that grounds the story in one of the most appalling incidents in modern history. There's a theme here about our inherent obligation to help and sacrifice for others that is both thought provoking and beautifully depicted. We're also left with a whiz-bang cliffhanger, which nicely sets up book number two. I cannot wait.

"Shelter" has loads of action — the climactic fight scene alone is a doozy — as well as ample heart, humor, and intelligence. All the clues along the way fit together in a manner I never would have predicted, but which resonated with me long after the story ended. "Shelter" is a perfect novel for boys and girls who are fans of mysteries and adventures, because it nicely meshes the best elements of both genres. I'd put this book squarely into the upper middle school range (solely based on the suspense level and violence), but see what you think. This smart, twisty thriller is sure to gain Harlen Coben a whole new audience of devoted young fans. "Shelter" publishes in September 2011. Until then, you can read an excerpt here. Enjoy!

 
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Posted by on June 11, 2011 in Uncategorized

 

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“Strings Attached” by Judy Blundell

TEEN LIBRARIAN'S REVIEW:

Judy Blundell won a well-deserved National Book Award in 2008 for her noir mystery, "What I Saw and How I Lied." Blundell is back with her latest novel for teens, "Strings Attached." Set primarily in the autumn of 1950, "Strings Attached" is another complex, multi-layered noir filled with striking characters, an evocative sense of time and place, ample secrets and lies, and a more sophisticated level of storytelling than what we normally see in YA fiction. Although I worry it might be a wee bit too sophisticated for its intended audience, "Strings Attached" is a wonderfully written, compelling story.

As the book opens, 17 year old Kit Corrigan, one of the formerly famous Corrigan triplets of Providence, Rhode Island, is narrating her story of life in New York City in October 1950. When we first meet Kit, she is a chorus girl in an awful musical production on Broadway, having quite recently escaped a tumultuous past in Providence. Kit's brother Jamie and her explosive ex-boyfriend Billy both joined the Army after a violent incident outside a nightclub. A heartbroken Kit then fled to New York to start anew and follow her dream of becoming a famous dancer and entertainer.

No sooner does Kit land in New York then mob lawyer Nate Benedict, Billy's dad, shows up outside her stage door. Nate offers a struggling, hungry, homesick Kit a job dancing at the posh Lido Club, a luxurious Manhattan apartment, and a new wardrobe of the latest, high-class fashions. What does Kit have to do in return? At first, not much at all. Just contact Nate if and when she hears from Billy. But over the next few months, Nate exerts an increasingly stronger hold over Kit, using her allegiance to Billy and her sense of duty to force her to spy on gangsters at the Lido Club. Once an apologetic Billy arrives in New York from basic training (and with hopes of marrying Kit before he deploys), Kit realizes she is in way too deep with Nate to walk cleanly away. Even worse, she knows that once the volatile Billy learns of her arrangement with his hated father, he will explode. Throw in a gangland killing, references to the Communist and nuclear scares of the early 50s, backstabbing, rumors, newspaper gossip, and some shocking revelations from the past, and you have the makings of a gripping, twisty tale.

Above all here, I loved the narrative structure. Kit frequently alludes to past incidents in relaying her current life happenings. But these quick mentions are often only elaborated upon far later in the book. Indeed, sometimes long chapters later, Kit will flashback in time — occasionally to events that occurred when she was only a little girl — to fill in the back story. Brilliant! This method keeps us off balance and guessing, as Kit slowly teases out the additional details needed to fully understand the present day occurrences. In this way, we discover that prim, maiden aunt Delia may not be exactly as proper as Kit has previously described, while we also learn the true nature of Kit's original promise to Nate Benedict. We even see firsthand the worst of Billy's temper, as Kit recalls incidents of his pettiness and anger. When we read about Billy throwing Kit's few possessions along the highway in a jealous rage, we better understand the crushing pressure she feels to keep her dealings with Nate a secret from him. It's an incredibly effective technique.

I also adored the precision of the setting — we get all the lingo, music, fashions, fears, food, celebrities, technology, etc., of the early 1950s — as well as the dark smokiness of New York City nightlife. Similarly, Blundell expertly maintains a noir tone throughout the story — Who are those men watching Kit and her neighbors? Has someone been in the apartment? What is Nate really involved in? Is someone following Kit? What happened to the long-missing Delia? Could Nate be a murderer himself? — which underscores the sense of foreboding and intrigue. Well done!

I won't say too much about the characters, other to report that they all, beyond just Delia, have great depth and intricacy. Yes, Billy is wild and tempestuous, but we also see his tender, frightened side. He is a young man terrified of becoming his father, which ultimately colors all his actions. Speaking of which, Nate is calculating and quite possibly evil, but by the end of the story we better understand — but never accept — his desperation. And Kit? She's headstrong, scrappy, and terribly naive, but her dreams of succeeding give the story an undercurrent of optimism and hope.

Ok, so needless to say, I loved "Strings Attached!" It's edgy, complex, and perfectly evocative of its time and place. Is it maybe too sophisticated and subtle for its intended teen audience? Perhaps. But more mature readers will be drawn into this stirring novel of suspicion, obligation, and long-hidden secrets. "Strings Attached" is out now. Enjoy!

 
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Posted by on April 12, 2011 in Uncategorized

 

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“The Last Little Blue Envelope” by Maureen Johnson

TEEN LIBRARIAN'S REVIEW:

Maureen Johnson's insanely delightful "13 Little Blue Envelopes" is one of my favorite teen books EVAH. And, believe me, I've read a lot of teen books. So I was beyond stoked to have the opportunity to read an e-galley of its sequel, "The Last Little Blue Envelope," courtesy of the good folks at HarperTeen and Net Galley.

I feared "The Last Little Blue Envelope" might suffer in comparison to the wholly original premise of the first book. In "13 …," high school (Jersey!) girl Ginny follows her deceased, super eccentric aunt's clue-laden letters on a solo tour throughout Europe. "13 …" is a magical novel about discovering yourself, growing up, and creating your own identity while experiencing the wonders of European art and culture. Plus, it's a mystery — where do the clues lead?! — and a love story and a travelogue and … well, if you haven't read it, please stop what you're doing right now and go seek it out. I will wait. 😉

I was saying … ? Right, the sequel. It is difficult to follow up such a clever and brilliantly executed concept. And, yes, "The Last …" doesn't quite reach the incandescent heights of its predecessor. But that's cool. It's still a lovely, highly readable novel with a winning combination of funny, sweet, sarcastic, and touching moments. So while it didn't move me in quite the same way as "13 …," I'd still recommend it without hesitation. And I still plowed eagerly through it. And I'm still thinking about reading it again!

I hesitate to give away too much of the plot, because — and I'm thinking particularly of my difficulty in reviewing Suzanne Collins' "Hunger Games" sequel "Catching Fire" — part of the interest here is in seeing how Ginny ends up back in Europe again following Aunt Peg's cryptic, art-related clues. I will say that this journey is more personal for Ginny and has a deeper sense of finality to it.

Here's what else I can safely reveal: Ginny; a mysterious loner named Oliver; our old pal, wacky theater boy Keith; and a charming, posh Londoner named Ellis traipse through Paris, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Ireland puzzling out the details in Aunt Peg's final, long missing letter. Some of the adventures are hilarious. The gang's Paris caper is an absolute hoot, barely edging out their night in a Belgian inn populated by a truly odd caretaker and his dozens of affectionate cats. I laughed — out loud! — several times. Yet, some parts of the trip are certainly more bittersweet and emotional, including one pivotal scene where Ginny is alone in the Irish dusk with her memories of Aunt Peg. The richness of that scene and its aftermath are stunning. As in her prior novels, Maureen is masterful at conveying a full range of emotion — everything from lighthearted screwball whimsy to "lump in your throat" pangs — and smoothly managing those shifts in tone without unsettling the reader.

I also really enjoyed how much more mature — sometimes in small, subtle ways — Ginny has become. It's great to see a beloved character evolve and grow while still retaining her core essence. It's Ginny, version 2.0. Ginny's quiet relationship with her "uncle" Richard, in which so many important ideas are conveyed through soft gestures and unspoken sentiment, is a fine example. Her changing relationship with former / sorta / maybe boyfriend Keith, whose clownish antics frustrate her one minute while his tender warmth draws her further in the next, also felt real. Any first love — let alone a transcontinental one! — can be a fragile, conflicted thing, making Ginny's love / hate struggles with Keith resonate. A newly perceptive Ginny can also detect the hidden depth, complexity, and secret compassion in our new teen, the elusive outsider Oliver, keeping us interested in what could otherwise be a potentially loathsome character.

So, yes, GO READ IT!! when "The Last …" is released by HarperTeen in April. Although it falls a bit short of the original, there's still so much to adore here, putting this novel miles ahead of much of current YA literature. It's real. It's heartfelt. It's funny. It's entertaining. It's touching. Really, what more can I ask for!? FYI, aside from a drinking scene, there is very little here to offend even the most sensitive reader. "The Last …" is a perfectly appropriate novel for older middle schoolers. Even better? It's a pretty great novel for them, too. Happy reading!

 
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Posted by on March 10, 2011 in Uncategorized

 

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“Shine” by Lauren Myracle

TEEN LIBRARIAN'S REVIEW:

Thank you Net Galley and the good people at Abrams / Amulet Books for the electronic galley of Lauren Myracle's forthcoming teen novel "Shine." Author Myracle is probably most well known for her bestselling IM-speak "Internet Girls" series. In "Shine," she gives us a powerful, evocative novel of a small southern town's secrets.

As the book begins, we're in a rural North Carolina town shortly after the brutal beating of Cat's former best friend, Patrick. Patrick, a charming, easy going teen, was closing up the local gas station / quickie mart when he was pummeled with a baseball bat and left unconscious with a gas nozzle taped inside his mouth. While Patrick lies in a coma, Cat begins searching to discover what really happened. As the town's only known gay resident, Cat believes that Patrick was the victim of a hate crime; the local sheriff, however, wants to blame the attack on outsiders and make the whole mess disappear. During her investigation, Cat confronts older brother Christian's friends — obnoxious Tommy, goodhearted Beef, and drug addled Dupree — as well as Wally, the local meth dealer, and some of his clientele. She also befriends Jason, a local college student who knew and respected Patrick, and learns that Patrick had a secret boyfriend, who may have played a vital role in his attack.

I loved the sense of danger surrounding Cat's investigation. Myracle does a superb job of depicting a secretive, oppressive town with unspoken rules, enforced silence — she finds a severed cow's tongue in her bed — and a toxic subculture of drug and alcohol abuse. This strong undercurrent of violence and drugs, of a sweltering town in a hot summer just waiting to explode, informs everything Cat does. Add to this the fact that Cat has been harboring a secret pain of her own, and you get this constant, creepy tingle of foreboding … which is exactly what you're looking for in a mystery. When a brave Cat rides her bike out to a forest-shrouded meth lab, I truly felt afraid for her. Ok, I will fess up fully: I actually had to stop reading! The town itself, with its bigots, dropouts, and lost, broken people, is so clearly presented that it almost serves as an additional character in the book.

I also really liked the layered portrayal of religion here. Cat's Aunt Tildy drags her to church, where the local ladies are mostly self-righteous and gossipy, and where Patrick's "lifestyle" is condemned. But religion is also shown as a source of comfort and strength, as when Cat recalls the Bible blessing about the Lord's face shining upon you. Indeed, this story is as much about Cat's journey toward finding her own voice and spirit again — her personal shine, if you will — as it is about solving the mystery surrounding Patrick. [Side note: at an Abrams' presentation I attended last November, this book was still entitled, "Speechless." "Shine" is, in my humble opinion, a much better choice.]

Similarly, the characters are developed in nuanced, believable ways. When we first meet Jason, he comes off like a rich, hateful brat, which couldn't be further from the truth. Stoic brother Christian, whom Cat has resented for his aloofness for years, becomes a friend and protector. Even the vile Tommy, who hurt Cat years before, may not be as awful as he first appears. I could give five more examples of this sort of slow unfolding of a character's true nature, which is a testament to Myracle's writing skills. Because so much of this story involves finding the truth beneath people's exteriors, this careful method of presenting folks "from the outside in" works beautifully.

I do have a complaint, though, and it's a fairly big one. I had and have the nagging sense that there is just far too much going on in this story. It's part mystery, part social commentary on abuse and addiction, part love story, part coming of age tale, part discussion of hatred toward gays and the self-loathing that may come with being different … is that one too many parts? The story feels crammed full of varying threads and issues, not all of which fit neatly together or within the flow of the story itself. I found myself wishing for just a little less. If this book was more streamlined, the issues presented here, and the dramatic turns surrounding them, would have even more of an impact.

"Shine" comes out in May 2011, and it's clearly geared toward the high school crowd. (Abrams is recommending 14 and up, which, based on the content and language, seems appropriate to me.) This is definitely one of those books that will stick with you for awhile, and I think it's well well worth reading. Please keep a look out for "Shine" in the spring.

 
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Posted by on January 24, 2011 in Uncategorized

 

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