Category Archives: Teen/YA

Grave Mercy: a speedy public service announcement of awesomeness

I am in the middle of reading Robin LaFevers first YA novel, Grave Mercy, and I thought it was worth pausing for two minutes to tell you that it’s the first book I’ve read in a long, long time that has been literally too good to put down.

Poison, political intrigue, girl assassins, and Romance with a capital R. (Actually, maybe all-caps ROMANCE).

I can’t say more because I have to keep reading. I can say it has 4 starred reviews (Kirkus, SLJ, Booklist, and Publisher’s Weekly).

I quite like the trailer, but it only hints at the awesomeness of this real thing:

Why indeed? Gotta go read now.

The Scorpio Races

I’m not going to be shy about this, The Scorpio Races is the best YA book I’ve read in a long time. I love it. It made me want to pat a pony and visit a bakery for a pastry oozing with honey and go after something that seems impossible. It also made Maggie Stiefvater one of my favourite writers for teens (and smart grown ups).

We should start with the pretty trailer. (Made by Maggie. I told you she was something).

So you get it right? Boy. Girl. Horses. Ocean. Celtic Vibe.

What the trailer cannot reveal is that Maggie Stiefvater is a story wizard. Last month I heard Nancy Pearl speak about how best to recommend books to library patrons. She shared how her system is based on considering books in terms of four elements: story, character, setting and language. Nancy says that all books have these four elements in different proportions and that every reader often enjoys books that have a particular ratio of the four elements. I think that I’m someone who loves a book that is equally strong on character, setting, and plot, but that doesn’t skimp on language either. That is Scorpio Races. The island of Thisby will feel as real as any place you’ve ever loved, and the two main characters will stay with you long after reading. At its core this book is an adventure, with twists and dramatic chapter endings and a finish that is absolutely right in every way. I think it’s true that when you read some books, you can tell that the author loved writing the story, and cared deeply about every part of it. You can feel this with Scorpio Races. It seems like every other new YA book these days is the first in a trilogy. I only wish this were true for Scorpio Races.

I’m going to wrap this up by paraphrasing a comment I read for the trailer on youtube. Someone over there wrote that Maggie is probably going to find a way to be “even more awesome” with whatever she does next. I think we can count on that. I should be happy reading The Scorpio Races over and over again until then.

The Scorpio Races is published by Scholastic.

Matched

First off, good news! My pooch is home. He was home for Christmas. He has spent the bulk of the past five days sleeping in front of the tree (good boy!) in his fleece-lined doggy hoodie, being patted and whispered to and told that he is wonderful and wise and brave. The other day the tree nearly fell on him (good thing he had the quick reflexes to leap out of the way at the last moment), which was scary, but otherwise, it’s been a quiet Christmas. He needs some serious fattening up, so we’re working on that, one tiny liver treat at a time.

Having my hound back home again providing premium contented background snores has cheered me up for hours of happy holiday reading. Matched is the first book I finished and the last before moving on to my Christmas books. I’d say it is the perfect curl-up-on-the-couch-and-go-nowhere book because you’re pulled quickly into the dystopian world and the love triangle at the heart of the story.

Cassia has always been a good girl, a rule-following member of the Society, trusting and happy to have so many of life’s most important decisions made for her, like who she will marry, for instance. At her matching ceremony, Cassia is thrilled to learn that her match is Xander, her long-time friend. It makes sense and it feels right. But when another boy’s face flashes on the screen for a moment before it blacks out, Cassia does not know what to think. Is the other boy, Ky Markham, her true match? This so-called “glitch” changes Cassia’s perspective forever, leading her to wonder what it would be like to have the freedom to make her life her own, to read whatever she wanted, to go where she wished, to write the words she keeps inside her head.

I’d say that anyone who liked Divergent should enjoy Matched. There’s less action and more romance, but it’s just as compelling and the dystopian society is immediately intriguing. I liked how Condie weaves in Dylan Thomas’s poetry without making this element seem forced or emo. My only quibble is that it is perhaps too focused on the Ky + Cassia romance, with Cassia swooning over Ky fairly constantly, which I found tiresome in a few places. However, I suppose it makes sense that she is completely focused on love and her romantic future at the time in her life when she is being matched. (Also, try not to mind the weirdly squished green girl in the bubble on the cover. I get the symbolism, but I’m not loving the design). I am curious to see where Condie takes this story in the second book, which I believe is told from both Cassia and Ky’s perspectives.

There’s a website devoted to the series. I’m expected Crossed to show up sometime in the next six months at my library, given that I’m 126 out of 400 people waiting for it. I’ll be excited when it’s my turn.

Matched is published by Penguin.

Bunheads

Snowflakes are falling here on the blog. Christmas cookies have been made. The nog is brewing. You can practically hear the Sugar Plum fairy floating around in her tutu, right?

Well then, I’d say it’s just the right time for Bunheads, the perfect novel for any balletomane, no matter the time of year. Plus, you know you want it just for the cover. If you have an ounce of girly-girl inside of you, all of those tutus will surely set your heart a-flutter. Former professional dancer Sophie Flack’s debut is a rare glimpse inside the highly competitive and supremely physically challenging world of a top tier ballet company. It’s the story of Hannah, one dancer in the corps de ballet, and her struggle to be noticed and hopefully promoted to the role of principal dancer.

The extreme, grueling physical discipline required of any professional dancer really comes through in Flack’s writing. She manages to achieve a balance of not romanticizing what it means to be a dancer and still communicating the passion and the artistic rewards of ballet. It’s fun learning many behind the scenes secrets of the dance world. You’ll feel like you’re standing in the wings watching the magic happen. I think that the novel also has the potential to speak to readers who are not bunheads, since it’s really about making choices about the direction you want to head in life, deciding what you value most, taking risks, and not being afraid to go for something you’d never considered.

I kept on waiting for Hannah to go over to the dark side, you know, like she did:

But she doesn’t. She’s one of the pretty, non-psycho ballerinas. Perfect for Christmas. Now for the requisite reading music:

And if you want, here’s the cutie author showing you how to create your very own bunhead:

 

Bunheads is published by Poppy.

The Name of the Star

Boy was I excited about this book.  Thriller + Maureen Johnson + London setting = this is a GREAT idea. Right? Right. Plus, I wish you could see how the cover is a little bit iridescent so that it looks just like a creepy, foggy, ghostly street. When the book arrived in the library I practically sprinted to go get it. Some days, the library just feels like the best place on earth, doesn’t it? I skipped home with my book and I read it, just like that. I gobbled it up. Honestly.

What’s not fabulous about Maureen Johnson’s books? Um… nothing as far as I can tell. Her characters are funny and clever, but not so much that you want to smack them upside the head for being unbelievable. Her concepts are always intriguing and The Name of the Star is no exception. Louisiana native Rory Deveaux ends up in London to attend private school because her professor parents get jobs for a year in Bristol. Unluckily for Rory, she arrives on the very day that a copycat Ripper-type killer begins a series of brutal murders. Soon the whole city gets swept up in the drama and the terror of the grisly crimes, and it seems that nobody has seen anything that could lead the police to find the murderer. That is until Rory sees a mysterious man who turns out to be the prime suspect. What’s strange is that her roommate, who was with her at the time, saw nothing. This inexplicable fact leads Rory to learn about the secret ghost police of London, and pulls her straight into the killer’s twisted plan.

Of course I enjoyed the excitement of the plot. Johnson finds room for humour in what is in places a pretty gory and scary tale. I particularly liked how she builds up the idea of the “Rippermania” that overtakes London. At one point in the story on one of the nights when the whole city knows that a murder is scheduled to take place, everybody is in front of their televisions watching the Ripper reports, waiting for it to happen in order to see it unfold “live.”  It was interesting to think about how the media in Johnson’s narrative capitalizes on the terror to create a weird form of entertainment, and just about everyone is ready to participate. Could this happen? Probably. I think that the media’s role in reporting crime would be a complex discussion topic for a group reading this book. I won’t give away any of the cool plot points, but let me say that I like the creativity of the supernatural element Johnson imagines. There’s just enough introduced that you’re eager to catch up with whatever happens in the next installment. Fun and freaky and atmospheric.

The Name of the Star is published by G.P. Putnam’s Sons.

Bumped

Megan McCafferty’s Bumped is the sort of book you want to talk about at every stage of the reading experience. It’s got such an eyebrow-raising premise that I think I’d also be pretty interested to just listen in to other people talking about it. Here it is in a nutshell: What would the world be like if a virus caused almost all people over the age of 18 to become infertile and so teenagers were encouraged to / paid to have babies for themselves and for others? Of course this leads to another question: What would it be like to be one of those teenagers?

Some premise, huh?

Here’s the author talking a bit about the book and her inspiration for the story:

The way that the book is told in alternating chapters from each of the sisters’ perspectives really brings you deeper into the complex and sometimes contradictory opinions that exist in this imagined society. There were times when I agreed with Melody and other moments when I felt more in line with her sister, Harmony, but it was never straightforward enough to “take a side.” I liked the way that the parents (and all adults) stay more or less on the fringe of the story because it reinforces the division that exists in this new world. I think it’s smart that McCafferty is framing the novel as being less about teen pregnancy and more about how her characters discover the power of making difficult choices to be true to themselves. I agree with her. I don’t think that this is just a marketing angle or an attempt to make her potentially controversial book more palatable to some. You’ll be laughing too. There are plenty of preggy-themed jokes and I loved how McCafferty infuses all sorts of pregnancy-related language into the lingo that the teens use. She certainly succeeds at presenting an unsettling situation to readers while leaving room for humor, which I’m sure was not a simple balance to achieve. I’m curious to see where she goes with all of this in book two, which comes out next spring. I hope school libraries stock it even thought it could prove to be controversial because I’m sure that teens will be intrigued and inspired to start sharing their opinions after reading this book.

Bumped is published by Balzer & Bray.

The Rites & Wrongs of Janice Wills

This is going to be a much speedier review of The Rites & Wrongs of Janice Wills than this book deserves, because today was the first day of school and this librarian is tired right down to her bones. Yes siree. How many books can one girl shelve all alone? A kazillion. That’s how many. My wrists actually hurt, if that’s possible. But enough kvetching. I should be happy because now I have a library full of books to poach from.

I know that my library needs a copy of  Joanna Pearson’s YA debut because it is fun and witty and tightly written. It has a similar tone to Maureen Johnson’s books. It’s not showy. It stars a pretty ordinary nerdy girl, insecure but hopeful, who dreams of becoming a star anthropologist and gets a lot of practice by observing her peers and the strange rituals of high school life. But Janice uses her anthropology passion to hide from life a little bit. It gives her an excuse to not put herself out there and experience things that many other teenagers try out and mess up and learn from. For instance, her town’s Miss Livermush pageant, which Janice’s mother is dying for her to be involved in. Janice finally agrees, deciding that being involved is really just all in the name of science. Of course along the way there is some romance and there are lessons to be learned, and Janice finds herself living the ritual in ways she hadn’t ever expected.

Sure to make anthropology cool (not that it wasn’t already), The Rites & Wrongs of Janice Wills is a sassy, feel-good, back-to-school read.

The Rites & Wrongs of Janice Wills is published by Arthur A. Levine Books.

 

I’ll Be There

Just about the only downside I experienced through reading Holly Goldberg Sloan’s debut novel, I’ll Be There, is that I’ve been walking around since I’ve finished it with the Jackson 5 playing very quietly inside my head over, and over, and over. (And there are days when I like the Jackson 5. Just not everyday). I suppose it says something about how much I admire this book that I am willing to let the Jackson-5-a-thon go, and tell you that you’d be crazy not to get your hands on this outstanding story as fast as you can manage. It’s evocative, thematically-rich, exciting, and touching. It has characters you’ll remember for a long time. It’s what a book should be, but often isn’t.

Emily Bell is not a good singer. She knows it, but her father doesn’t seem to know it, or else because he’s a music professor he doesn’t want to believe it. Either way, he insists that she sings a solo in the church choir. But if he hadn’t insisted she might never have seen Sam, the strange guy at the very back of the church who was never there before. The fact that Emily sings, and that Sam witnesses her humiliation, and what he does after she runs out of the church – all of this is the beginning of their story. From this small moment which seems to be based so much on chance, these two are intertwined.

Throughout their lives, Sam and his little brother Riddle haven’t lived in one place for long. Their father is mentally unstable and he’s a thief, a combination that makes him frightening and difficult to oppose. After Sam and Emily fall for each other, it isn’t long before his father gets wind of it and sets events spinning towards danger for the boys and for Emily and her family.

Holly Goldberg Sloan has a lean writing style. There isn’t excess descriptive fluff anywhere really, and this gives the narrative a sense of urgency and immediacy from the start. There’s a taut feeling that makes you expect that some hard things are going to happen in the not-so-distant future. This makes compelling reading. I liked that for a story that was pretty close to a “love at first sight” scenario, you really do believe in Sam and Emily’s relationship from the very beginning. It’s hard for an author to convince the reader that there is something there that is strong enough to make that kind of connection natural and credible. Another impressive thing about the book is the way that the author creates these perfect little moments when a character does something small, but that is so significant and has such emotional power, that it brings the reader to a much richer understanding of the character’s inner life and motivation. I don’t want to give any of these moments away, but she did a particularly good job characterizing Riddle this way. He is a hugely memorable character. The only character who feels a little off is Bobby, the guy who falls for Emily and tries in his bumbling way, to win her. He seemed a little too close to a caricature, and for a novel as intense and as sad in places as this one, it didn’t feel right to have someone who bordered on clownish feature so prominently in the story. At times, it upset the tone.

I’ll Be There is part survival story, part romance, part family drama. It’ll make you think about how a little choice might have the power to change your whole life, and that sometimes we’re connected in ways that we will never even see. It is one of my best reads of this summer.

I’ll Be There is published by Little, Brown.

(This post is cross posted at Guys Lit Wire).

Uncommon Criminals

A new Ally Carter book is news that is sure to put me in a good mood. Uncommon Criminals is the next in the series that began with the oh-so-clever Heist Society. I showed uncommon restraint in not rushing to the cash register to buy this one as soon as I saw it in the bookstore, instead opting for the always patience-testing exercise of putting it on hold at the Toronto Public Library. I think I was 65 out of 66 in line for it, so I sighed and tried to forget I’d even seen it. Then, of course, it showed up for me the day before I left for Paris. I considered taking it along, even though that would have broken my no-hardcovers-in-carry-on rule. So I left it behind. It was pretty nice to come home to, I tell you.

If you’re reading Ally Carter, then you know you’re in for funny, great plotting, clever characters, and twists. Really, you could sum it up in three words: So. Much. Fun. Ally Carter’s books are the sort of books that as soon as I start reading, I could be tempted to stick a post-it on my forehead that says I CAN’T TALK TO YOU RIGHT NOW… READING.

After her incredible heist at the greatest museum in the world, Katarina (Kat) Bishop is back for some more criminal-ish behaviour. This time her sights are set on the Cleopatra Emerald, an infamous jewel that is notoriously difficult to nab, and also happens to be cursed. Kat and her crew hope to chase down the emerald and return it to its rightful owner, which would be simple for such gifted thieves if only they weren’t playing against some pretty tricky con artists. Is Kat in over her head? Definitely. But she isn’t about to let that stop her.

I enjoyed this book even more than the first, probably because from the beginning of this one, the situation Kat faces seems even more impossible than what she was up against in the first book. You can’t believe that she will find a way to come out on top, which jacks up the tension. Carter builds on the theme she began exploring in book one around whether or not there is ever a justification for theft. Can there ever be such thing as a good thief? All of the different cons that get introduced and explained in this book are fun, and you still get a lot of the great heist-planning details that were there in book one. I liked that Carter didn’t let the budding romance between Hale and Kat take over. It makes Kat a lot more interesting that she’s thinking about more than just kissing. After all, she has some pretty big things on her mind. She’s one cool… Kat. (Couldn’t resist, sorry!)

Big news for the first book: Heist Society is set to become a film produced by Drew Barrymore. No surprise there really. Another reason I love both of these books is that Carter’s writing really encourages you to see it all in your head as you read. It should translate well to the screen I imagine.

Uncommon Criminals is pure fun and you’d be nuts to pass it up. It is published by Disney Hyperion.

The FitzOsbornes in Exile

It’s hard to resist a great British family story. Those types of stories make me want to curl up on the couch, tuck my legs under a blanket, grab my cat, and read for hours. I may have actually hooted when The FitzOsbornes in Exile arrived at the library for me after so long I’d forgotten about it completely (love it when that happens!). Michelle Cooper’s first book in The Montmaray Journals, A Brief History of Montmaray, was wonderful. It swept me up. The narrator, Sophie, had such a believable and engaging voice that she came to life for me completely. I loved discovering that book because when I read it, I knew instantly that it was a book I would have adored when I was about fifteen. This made me savor it all the more. I had high hopes for the second title in the series. I think the second one is even stronger than the first.

In The FitzOsbornes in Exile, Sophie and the rest of the royal family have had to flee to England to live with their aunt after the dramatic Nazi invasion of Montmoray. Sophie is both terribly homesick and a little thrilled to be in London. She and her cousin Veronica are expected to make their debut in society, and it seems like nothing is destined to work out properly. Her little sister Henry is wreaking havoc and refusing to submit to a governess. Toby is still not buckling down at school or acting anything like the King of Montmaray. Veronica is getting caught up in politics, making enemies, and generally behaving in a very unladylike manner. Will they ever find a way back to their beloved home? I’m not telling because there’s too much pleasure in the journey for me to spoil it for you.

The family dynamic is brilliant here again, as it was in the first book. There’s just the right balance between love and frustration as the siblings struggle to find some kind of comfort in this new situation. It works well how the unsettled position of the family mirrors the events unfolding in the larger political arena. Cooper succeeds in creating a book that is serious and sad in places and then is funny and charming in others. I think she’s able to manage it because of the eccentric cast of characters. They are memorable and complex. A wholly satisfying read. Lucky you if you haven’t read the first one yet. Find a couch and a cat and an afternoon and get started!

The FitzOsbornes in Exile is published by Knopf.