Category Archives: Teen/YA

The definition of dramedy: The Reluctant Journal of Henry K. Larsen by Susin Nielsen

henrylarsenI’ve been in a reading rut the past couple of months, and Susin Nielsen’s The Reluctant Journal of Henry K. Larsen is one of the books that finally pulled me out of it. If you haven’t read it, don’t wait. It is both heartbreaking and funny-bone-tickling – and when I tell you what it’s about, you’ll probably find the promise of funny hard to believe.

Thirteen-year-old Henry and his family face the unthinkable when his older brother Jesse takes his father’s hunting rifle to school one morning and kills the bully who has been making his life a living hell for months. Henry’s family moves to a new city in an attempt to “start over” and there Henry begins seeing a therapist. The therapist wants him to keep a journal. At first Henry thinks this is stupid. Eventually, the journal becomes a place for him to share his thoughts about his new situation, including what he thinks of the oddball group of nerds he finds himself hanging out with at school, and his new neighbours in their apartment building. Henry tries as hard as he can to make sure what happened to his family stays a secret, but it isn’t easy keeping something so awful and life-changing in the past.

It’s Henry’s voice that really gets you and makes this book memorable. Nielsen excels at capturing the mix of emotions Henry feels – crushing sadness and guilt and anger – but she also makes it clear that Henry is a pretty hilarious boy. I loved how Henry speaks in “Robot Voice” when his therapist (or anyone else) tries to get him to talk about anything painful. It is funny, but also incredibly touching, because it’s something so true to what a kid would likely do to protect himself emotionally in such a situation. You can tell that Henry is one bright kid.

I also appreciated that Nielsen doesn’t gloss over the hard stuff in this book. She makes you think about whether or not you’d be like the people in the community who shut out Henry’s family after this tragedy. She makes you sympathize with Henry when he goes to visit the victim’s sister and her dad turns Henry away, horrified, at the same time as you kind of understand where the father is coming from in the moment. Nielsen doesn’t sugar coat, but there is nothing inappropriate in the content for an intermediate reader. She handles the subject matter with perfect sensitivity. I think kids and adults will appreciate her honest but thoughtful scrutiny of this mature and intense topic.

The Reluctant Journal of Henry K Larsen is a book that should make you think about stories you’ve heard in the news a little bit differently. It’s very sad in places, but I promise, there will be moments when you laugh out loud. In my opinion, it takes a unique writer to offer readers such great dramedy. 

The Reluctant Journal of Henry K. Larsen is published by Tundra Books.


The Diviners was SO good, I only put it down for…

…this guy:



And only because he is so good at looking at me with such a cute blend of sweetness and judgment.

divinersIf Libba Bray’s latest can rival my adorable puppy for my attention, you have to know that it is seriously good. I have not read something so gripping and intricately plotted for quite a while. I can honestly say that every single page held my attention, and there were many places when I stopped to reread just to enjoy Bray’s turn of phrase. I will be eagerly awaiting the next installment in the trilogy.

Set in the 1920s in New York City, The Diviners follows Ohio native, Evie, who could not be happier to be sent away to the city after an embarrassing incident in her small town. She has dreamed of the freedom and excitement of New York for as long as she can remember. She goes to stay with her Uncle Will, the curator of a museum of supernatural objects, which is fitting because Evie has an unusual gift. She is able to read people’s past experiences whenever she holds an object that belongs to them. Soon after her arrival, a series of murders rock the city, and it becomes clear that a serial killer is at large. Evie, her Uncle, and his assistant, are drawn into the investigation and it isn’t long before they realize that a terrible force of evil is only beginning its dark work.

An amazingly rich cast of characters is a big part of what makes this book so captivating. There’s Memphis, a young man who has lost the ability he once had to heal people through touch, and his brother Isaiah, who can see the future. There’s Theta, one of Ziegfeld’s chorus girls, who guards her own secrets, Sam, a pickpocket searching for his mother, and Uncle Will’s assistant, Jericho, is not what he seems. I connected to all of their stories. Bray weaves everything together so masterfully that you get just enough of each person’s story to fulfill you but still leave you curious and eager for more in the next book.

The city and the incredibly freaky old mansion where Naughty John, the serial killer, makes his lair, come off as characters in themselves, they are so richly evoked. I love a book with a strong sense of place, where you can really sink into the time and the feeling of the setting. The Diviners has this in spades.

I expect you’ll also be charmed at the way that Bray manages to get some lightness into a very dark and at times, deeply unsettling story. The dialogue is snappy, and Evie, our heroine, is so plucky and peppy that you will “pos-i-tute-ly” love her.

So unless you’ve got an 11-week-old puppy to pull you away from this book, I don’t imagine you’ll be able to do much other than keep on reading once you start The Diviners. One more thing. Don’t read it when you’re home alone. That would be a Very Bad Idea.

The Diviners is published by Little, Brown.

Scaredy Elf meets The Diviners

Folks, have you seen the book trailer for Libba Bray’s The Diviners? Well sheesh, I saw it the other day and I thought, “That is the SCARIEST book trailer I have ever seen!” followed immediately by, “I must get my elfy hands on that book, now.” I guess that is what is called effective marketing. Side note, it is no surprise that I am the sort of person who knows she has no business watching scary things on TV when she is home alone, and yet cannot resist said scary things and so ends up having to check closets and the basement and behind half-open doors before going to bed. For monsters. And/or zombies. And/or bad people.

Even writing a post about this while I am home alone is giving me goosebumps. I’m warning you. Do not watch the following trailer if you are at all inclined to get really afraid of imaginary things, or if you have a tendency to get freaky twisted nursery-rhyme type music stuck in your head, particularly at bedtime.

Thanks Libba. Thanks a lot.

(BTW, the book rocks, and it is very scary indeed. Review soon).

Quite possibly my favourite book of 2012: The FitzOsbornes at War by Michelle Cooper

I am sure I’ve said before that I cannot resist a well-told war story. Add quirky characters, romance, heartbreak, and a sweeping scope, and I’d say you’re talking about my perfect book, or you might well be describing Michelle Cooper’s first class novel, The FitzOsbornes at War. I finished this book, the last in the Montmaray Journals trilogy, this morning, and the moment after reading the final word I wanted to go back to Book 1 and begin all over again. It has earned a place on my all time favourites shelf, right beside the first two in the series (after I get all of them for Christmas, that is).

In the second book, The FitzOsbornes in Exile, the royal family of Montmaray is forced to flee their home when the Nazis invade their remote island kingdom. They found refuge in London, and in Book 3, they discover they cannot escape the war and its tragic consequences. King Toby and his cousin Simon join the RAF, Princess Veronica translates for the Foreign Office, Princess Sophie works (rather reluctantly) for the Food Ministry, and Princess Henry just wants to do anything but go to boarding school. Rounding out the cast are other familiar faces from the first books, as well as famous historical figures. Cooper weaves fact and fiction together into an entirely convincing and deeply satisfying narrative.

The prime reason why this book will take such hold of you is Sophie’s voice. Like its predecessors, The FitzOsbornes at War is written as Sophie’s diary. Sophie FitzOsborne springs off the page, lively and opinionated and yearning for love and happy endings for everyone she cares about. Thanks to her voice, as well as the wonderful level of day to day detail in the story, you leave this book feeling that you have some understanding of what it could have been like to come of age during such a desperately hard period of history.

Finally, do yourself a favour. Do not make the same mistake I did. Do not go hunting around at the back of the book just to see what’s there. If you do, you might find the Family Tree hiding back there and then you may not be able to look away and then your eye will wander until you see things, spoilerish things that you never wanted to see at all. It is saying something about the brilliance of this book that I found said spoilerish things and I still loved every single minute of the story as I read it.

I really, desperately, want there to be more story, more FitzOsbornes, more Montmaray. Please, Ms Cooper, we’ll read it, we promise. Or at the very least, please, someone out there who produces brilliant British miniseries, get working on this already, so that we will have something to watch once Downton Abbey is done.

You may want to take a look at Michelle Cooper’s blog series, How to Write a Historical Novel in Seven Easy Steps, beginning here. Easy? Right. If you’re Michelle Cooper…

The FitzOsbornes at War is published by Knopf.

(Are you listening, Santa?)

Falling in love with Peter Pan: Tiger Lily by Jodi Lynn Anderson

It’s the time of year when I want to bake a lot of these doughnuts, brew a pot of this tea, cozy up in this sweater, and read a book just like Jodi Lynn Anderson’s Tiger Lily. I am talking about a book that has a richly imagined world, atmosphere to spare, and characters who surprise and intrigue you from page one to the last. When the wind is getting chillier and the dark comes earlier each day, I want a book that pulls me in and makes me forget for a little while that it will be many months before I dive into a lake again.

I confess, I have never read J.M. Barrie’s most famous book. (For shame! It’s something embarrassing like this that makes me feel guilty about the fluff I indulge in sometimes). The only Peter Pan I can claim knowledge of is the fellow brought to life by Walt Disney. Still, that is enough for me to tell you that Anderson’s book is a re-imagining of the original tale, focusing on the life of Tiger Lily, and her love for Peter in the time before Wendy. Tink narrates, and through her point of view, we learn quickly that she too is under Peter’s spell. In the beginning Tiger Lily knows her place in her village, as the adopted daughter of Tik Tok, the shaman. She is proud, brave, and closed-in. She hides her feelings, except with Pine Sap, her closest friend, who understands her better than anyone else. With her betrothal to Giant, the greatest oaf in her village, she struggles to imagine how she will ever be his wife. It is soon after that she meets Peter and his boys and slowly, she loses herself to their wild, homemade life in the forest. Another narrative thread follows the Englishman, Phillip, who is shipwrecked in Neverland and whose religious preachings change Tiger Lily’s community forever. Then there are the mermaids, sharp-toothed, devious creatures with their own agendas, and the pirates, crazy in their desperate search for the Lost Boys. (Smee is one of the more terrifying characters I’ve come across in my YA reading). Wendy arrives, and this tangle of secrets, passion and brewing violence, finally implodes.

Jodi Lynn Anderson manages to create a story that has real emotional force. The ending is perfect – heart-wrenching and true. But at the same time, this is also a wonderful adventure, and a stunning character study of Tiger Lily, the girl we never knew in Barrie’s original tale. Anderson succeeds in evoking the buggy swamps and the terrible heat and the white sand beaches of Neverland, making it seem a much wilder, less romantic and more dangerous place than you ever imagined.

This is a book for everyone. I am always happy to find a YA title that is truly just right for my Grade 7 and 8s. Yes, this is a love story, but it’s a subtler one, a more naive one, than you’ll find in so many teen books these days. An older teen will love it, but you shouldn’t hesitate in giving it to a younger teen too.

Tiger Lily will steal your breath away, and it will make you want to read (or reread) the classic story shimmering behind it.

Jodi Lynn Anderson create a soundtrack, which you can check out here.

Tiger Lily is published by Harper Teen.

Guest Post: Malinda Lo on the making of a book trailer for ADAPTATION

It’s my pleasure to welcome Malindo Lo back to Shelf Elf. Malinda is here to give us a behind the scenes look into the creation of the book trailer for her new release, Adaptation.

Welcome Malinda!

Over the past few years, book trailers have become quite a thing in YA. I’ve never been entirely sure if they succeed in making people want to read a book, but I’ve been fascinated to see how book trailers have developed. They used to be slide shows of still photos with text — remember 2009? But recently, some book trailers have become elaborate productions with casts, crews, costumes, and very! dramatic! music!

I wasn’t initially planning to make a book trailer for Adaptation because I didn’t think I was up for such a big ordeal. However, when I saw the book trailer that author Nina LaCour shot for her novel The Disenchantments, I thought: Whoa. That is the kind of trailer I would like! So when I learned that Nina and her friend, Amanda Krampf, had launched a mini book trailer production company, Less Than Perfect Productions, I knew that I wanted to hire them to make a trailer for Adaptation. Even better? Nina and Amanda live in the San Francisco Bay Area, so we could work on this in person.

I immediately emailed Nina to see if she was up for it, and I was very excited when she and Amanda said yes. After that, I emailed my editor at Little, Brown to get her input. We talked about different concepts for the trailer, and ultimately settled on a very quick, 30-second video that would act as a teaser for the novel. The goal was not to summarize the whole book in 30 seconds, but to get viewers to want to read the book. That meant the trailer had to convey the hook of Adaptation as well as show (visually!) the mood of the novel.

While many book trailers have text crawling across the screen, I knew that I wanted to have a voiceover narrator. I took the text that is excerpted on the back cover of Adaptation and built the voiceover narration around that, because I thought it expressed the novel’s premise pretty clearly. Then, Nina, Amanda, my editor and I thought about various images that could convey some of the things that happen in the novel.

In one of the scenes in Adaptation, the main character attends a funeral at Cypress Lawn Cemetery in Colma, CA, which is just south of San Francisco. (Notable fact: Colma was founded in 1924 as a necropolis; 1.5 million people are buried there. Also, nobody is buried in San Francisco anymore — they’re all in Colma.) When I was writing Adaptation, I visited Cypress Lawn as part of my research. It has a giant, beautiful mausoleum that looks like a palace. I suggested that we film part of the trailer on location at the mausoleum, where we could shoot the main character running after a man in black within the mausoleum itself. I thought it would not only look gorgeous on film, it would look creepy, and I wanted to make sure the book’s creepy vibe came through.

Additionally, Nina arranged to have some video shot that showed other aspects of the novel: driving down a highway, some scenes in an an airport, and the main character waking up in a hospital gown. Rather than a soundtrack, Nina suggested using the sound of a human heartbeat. I liked this idea a lot because sometimes I find the music in book trailers to be too dramatic; I wanted a minimalist yet creepy (again!) vibe. Continue reading

A love triangle, some Frankensteins, and the Elixir of Life: This Dark Endeavour

I came to This Dark Endeavour with high expectations. Great reviews, an author who never disappoints, and some seriously swoony recommendations from the diehard grade seven girl readers in my library, combined to make me pretty excited to crack this one open. I read it in two days and the sequel, Such Wicked Intent, was the first purchase I made when our school secretary handed me back my library credit card after the summer.

In This Dark Endeavour, Kenneth Oppel offers readers his vision of Victor Frankenstein’s young adulthood in an inventive and wholly satisfying prequel to Mary Shelley’s classic. Sixteen-year-old Victor leads a life of privilege in Chateau Frankenstein, with his twin brother Konrad, their cousin Elizabeth, and the rest of his family. Exploring the castle is a favourite pastime, and one afternoon, by chance, the three teenagers come upon a new passageway behind the library wall. It leads to a strange library in a chamber deep beneath the castle, filled with rows of ancient texts and odd instruments and tools that seem to belong in an apothecary’s shop.  When their father finds Elizabeth and his sons in the library, he makes them promise never to visit the dark place again as he claims they will only uncover corrupt knowledge and wickedness there. Soon after, Konrad falls dangerously ill, and it seems that nothing will cure him. Victor sneaks back to the library for answers and when he discovers a book containing the formula for the Elixir of Life, he knows he must try to create it to save his brother’s life. This leads to a partnership with an enigmatic alchemist and then to seemingly impossible quests to source the ingredients for the elixir. As time passes, Victor becomes more consumed by his desire to succeed, pushing himself, and those he loves, past the point of reason, towards the greatest dangers they have ever faced.

Kenneth Oppel has always been very good at getting you to turn the pages of his books. This Dark Endeavour is certainly as exciting as anything he has ever written. The pacing is perfect. I never feel though, like he is sacrificing character development for action. Victor comes across as a passionate, misguided, conflicted risk-taker, and I enjoyed not being sure what he was going to do next thoughout the story. You don’t feel like you trust him – or his motives – and that creates great tension. He’s complicated and certainly not always sympathetic. The love triangle between Victor, Konrad and Elizabeth (who is a distant cousin – don’t get all creeped out), will surely hook YA readers who’ve come to more or less expect to find this element in the adventure / thriller genre. I’d say Oppel gets the romantic aspect of his book just right. It’s sexy enough without ever becoming too blatant or distracting for readers who might be reading more for the thrill of the action adventure than the romance.

Speaking of action, there was one moment at the end of the book when I actually gasped after turning the page. I can’t remember the last time that’s happened to me. The ending is satisfying but also leaves you with that gimmee-the-sequel-right-now feeling that many teens, and adults, crave. Good thing I have the sequel on my desk as I write this. I’ll just have to read it secretly (and quickly) before the grade sevens start stalking me for it every recess.

This Dark Endeavour is published by Harper Collins.


Malinda Lo’s latest, Adaptation, is a Sci-Fi Thriller Romance which means it has aliens and conspiracy theories and kissing. Sound fun? It is. Oh, and if you have ornithophobia (fear of birds), then it might not be for you. There are some scary birds in this book. In fact, that’s where the story starts.

Reese and her debate partner, David, are stranded at the airport with their coach on the way home from a tournament. A series of plane crashes, reportedly caused by large bird strikes, causes all flights to be cancelled and airspace to be closed until the authorities can be sure they understand the circumstances of the crashes. So the three rent a car to drive back home, only as panic builds in the general population, the roads are far from safe. Reese and David end up driving alone on the Extraterrestrial Highway and then another accident happens. A bird flies into their headlights and they crash. When they wake up in a military hospital in Nevada, no one will give them much information about their injuries or the treatment they received, and they must sign nondisclosure agreements before they can go home. They can’t even tell their parents about what happened to them. Keeping everything secret only gets harder when the massive scars from Reese’s injuries fade so quickly she can’t believe it, and she begins to have strange sensations that she has never felt before. Then she meets Amber, who is mysterious and beautiful and a welcome distraction, and Reese begins to have other feelings she’s never experienced, which is confusing enough, but even more so given that until Amber, she’d thought she was crazy about David. What really happened to Reese and David, and what are the implications for their futures, and for society at large?

The opening of Adaptation is super suspenseful and tension builds immediately. Lo does a brilliant job capturing the fear and the increasing panic after the bird attacks. You’ll be turning the pages fast. The pace does slow quite considerably once the romantic plot thread with Amber is introduced, and while you have to adjust to this a little bit, I think that the shift in pacing is true to Reese’s situation. It is entirely believable that she would throw herself into this new relationship as an escape, in order to feel something other than fear and worry. Also, the fact that her relationship with Amber gets a lot of focus makes it more believable and nuanced than I think it otherwise would be if it was introduced only in passing. I was surprised that it took centre stage, but not disappointed, as I think that their relationship mirrors and develops some of the themes Lo explores in the main plot: isolation, self-discovery, secrets, and connection.

There’s a sequel coming next year, and good thing too, because that ending is about as cliff-hanger-y as you can get.

Adaptation is published by Little, Brown.


Code Name Verity

Goosebumps. Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein is an unforgettable story that will leave you tingly it is so remarkable and heart-wrenching. On the one hand, I’m glad that I read this during the summer, when I wasn’t distracted and could give it my full attention. On the other hand, looking ahead at the next two months of reading time, I know it’s going to be very hard to equal this book so I’m having a tricky time of it choosing what to pick up next. First and foremost, I like this novel so much because it is just a ripping good yarn. There is nothing gimmicky here, rather an honest, exciting story, rooted in history and in characters that spring off the page. It’s a war story and a portrait of friendship and heroism. I think the stylish book trailer gets it right:

Set during WWII, the bulk of the book is told from Verity’s point of view. After she has been captured by the Gestapo, she makes a deal, promising to reveal the truth of her mission in exchange for more time. She writes on scraps of paper, telling about her past, her training, and most of all her friendship with the pilot, Maddie, who flew her to France. In the second part, Maddie takes over and continues the narrative, adding her perspective and providing new insight into Verity’s situation and character. There are many surprises along the way, and the tension mounts all the way to the most dramatic, cinematic, and emotionally powerful climax I’ve read in a long time. It is so refreshing to read a young adult novel where female friendship takes complete center stage. This is not another wartime romance. Don’t get me wrong, I love me a little wartime romance, but we need more young adult books where the relationship between friends is explored and portrayed with the sensitivity and depth that you’ll find in Code Name Verity. The plotting is spot on, the historical detail impressive and evocative, and most of all, the two girls at the heart of this novel are unforgettable – full of pluck and intelligence and humour. I can say that this book has earned a place on my shelf of favourites.

Read Code Name Verity and pass it on to everyone you know. It’s that good.

Code Name Verity is published by Doubleday Canada.

the story of us

This weekend I read the story of us, the first book from my summer list, in the summeriest of places, up on Georgian Bay. It felt like a good cottage book: long enough to sink into for at least a day, descriptive, great sense of place, images that linger as you swing in the hammock or stretch out on your towel with a swim in the back of your mind.

The story takes place over one week at a beach house, where Cricket’s mom is finally planning to get married after a series of almost weddings. The whole family comes together at Bluff House for what should be a perfect celebration of love. It’s not so easy for Cricket, however, because she has left behind her longtime boyfriend Janssen after she did something she wishes she could undo. She’s trying to work it out, but she struggles to know what she should do now. The week brings out secrets and worries and desires that complicate the situation with plenty of drama and doubt. Times are changing, and Cricket has never been good at change.

I’d say this one has all the trademark Deb Caletti elements: an articulate and reflective main character, secondary characters so interesting you think they deserve their own novels, humour that feels exactly true to life, sweet, non-drippy romance, and many lines about how things are that are so wise they make you wonder if you should create a little book of wisdom for life entirely made up of sentences Deb Caletti wrote. This is feel good fiction that isn’t insulting to an intelligent reader – teen or grown-up.

One aspect of the book I loved most, because I wasn’t expecting it to be so prominent, were all of the parts where Cricket writes to Janssen about Jupiter, her dog, and the awesomeness of dogs in general. Dog love is a big part of this story, how it’s the same and different from people love, what it can teach us, and how it’s pretty much the best thing going. If you’re a dog person, you’ll be reaching for the tissues, guaranteed.

There were moments when I wondered if there was too much crazyness going on with all of the family drama. At times it reminded me of one of those romantic drama/comedy movies when a cast of kooky relatives with complicated lives and secrets galore come together for a weekend at the cabin and things build to the breaking point when it seems like everybody is going to lose it, but then it’s okay and they come together and go on being neurotic but content. It’s a bit hard to keep track of it all as it’s happening, but it’s still kind of fun to get caught up in. As I write this though, I realize that I think the book succeeds brilliantly at this kind of story. It could easily be a movie.

I think that one of the strengths of Deb Caletti’s books is how she offers readers so many opportunities to connect to her characters and stories. At some point, you will see yourself in her books. We all flounder. We all want to find love and aren’t always sure when it’s there right in front of us. Some of us are lucky and have people who keep us from going over to the crazy side, and dogs who know exactly when a canine chin resting on your knee is exactly what you need. If you’re after a book that will make you grateful for the perfect parts of your imperfect life, I’d say the story of us is just right.

the story of us is published by Simon Pulse.