Monday, February 27, 2012

Review of Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys

Between Shades of Gray
By Ruta Sepetys

5 Scribbles
It is 38 degrees below zero in Trofimovsk, Russia today. Imagine that you were taken there at gunpoint without time to prepare, with only the clothes on your back, maybe a coat and mittens if you’re lucky. Now imagine that you have only what you can find for food and shelter in order to survive the Arctic winter. Would you live to tell about it?

Stalin, the leader of Russia from 1941 to 1953, decided to take over 3 countries, Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia and to be rid of anyone there who he thought might be a threat to his rule. (At the same time Hitler was on his campaign to erase the Jewish people.) Stalin banished all sorts of the educated—teachers, doctors, lawyers, scientists, librarians—and those accused of being against Stalin—people who helped others escape , relatives of military workers, even children—to prison camps. Many of these camps were in Siberia. All of the camps were brutal places to be and almost assured the death of the prisoner. Lina is 15 when she is deported to Siberia with her mother and brother. Her courage in the face of such unbelievable danger and cruelty are what draws the reader into the story, and the descriptions of Lina’s artwork (accompanied by her love of the artist Munch) come to life through the author’s vivid descriptions. It isn’t hard to have empathy for Lina’s anger at the prison guards, to mourn for Lina’s helpless brother who becomes an old man before he is a teenager, and to adore her angelic mother who tries so very hard to make their suffering bearable and to see the good in others. All of the characters in the novel, even minor characters, become an extension of ourselves when we read, they become our family and we root for their survival while we dread the worst. And while the story is brutal, through the gift of her writing, the author shows us that in even the most despairing of conditions people can exhibit mercy and kindness. Short, powerful chapters with settings that make the reader’s teeth chatter reveal a part of history that previously existed only in whispers; I, for one, am pleased that Sepetys is now raising her voice into a shout so that all may know and learn about these atrocities.

This informative video explains how the author researched & wrote this story. The book becomes even richer once you've viewed this short video.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Review of How to Safe A Life by Sara Zarr

Little, Brown Books
for Young Readers
How to Save a Life
by Sara Zarr
5 Scribbles
When was the last time you took a risk?
For many of us, some of our most exciting, most cherished moments in life happen when we take risks, when we step out of the accepted mold and just…jump. But Jill doesn’t have to take risks. Her life is perfect; she has the perfect boyfriend, perfect friends, perfect parents, and perfect plan for the future—until Jill’s dad dies. Now Jill’s mom, Robin, wants to adopt a baby, and she brings a pregnant girl to stay with them until the baby is delivered. Jill’s voice begins the novel; her fierce rage over her father’s death and her skepticism about Mandy make her an unlikeable character at times, and yet it is just that authenticity that draws the reader to her. Mandy, the pregnant teenager, speaks in alternating chapters, and it becomes clear that this poor, na├»ve, and disused young woman has an odd sort of wisdom. It is not hard to quickly become invested in the characters, from gentle Robin to the perverse Kent. The reader will want wrongs set right, justice done, and villains punished, but like in life, only moving forward and celebrating what is good can heal old wounds. It is this exploration of possibilities, coupled with a very unique conclusion that makes this novel impossible to put down. In the end, for hurt and anger to subside and open hearts to prevail, it isn’t just Jill who may need to jump.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Review of Under the Never Sky by Veronica Rossi

Under the Never Sky
By Veronia Rossi
3 Scribbles (Spoiler alert!)
Aria’s indoor world is divided up into pods, where people spend their days using computer eyepieces to play games all day (how great does that sound?). Outside of the pods, primitive people fight to stay alive in the "Death Shop" where "Aether" storms descend at random and scorch everything in their path, and where cannibals roam free. When Aria is betrayed and condemned to the Death Shop, she meets the savage, Perry, who both fascinates and repulses her. While the main portion of the plot is quite predictable, in particular the changing relationship between Perry and Aria, the action and macabre addition of the cannibals helps to carry the sci-fi/action plot along. Characters face some of the same choices that teens today face, for instance, the death of a loved one, the decision to become sexually active, and the challenge to grow as an individual. A few unique characters stand out and add interest and texture to the story, like Marin who seems to be caught in the middle of two worlds, and Cinder, (who I’ll bet has a secret past), and the handsome Roar. In fact, the characters with their special gifts of the senses, are a strength in the novel. Couple those strong characters with a twist in both worlds at the end, and this first book sets the stage for a hopefully even stronger book two.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Review of Drowning Instinct by Ilsa J. Bick

Carolrhoda YA
Drowning Instinct
By Ilsa J. Bick
3 Scribbles
Things will be different at Turing High School, Jenna’s controlling father assures her. At Turing High, no one will know that Jenna has a history of cutting herself, that she has been hospitalized for a nervous breakdown, that her father is a bully who is having an extra-marital affair, or that her mother is an alcoholic. Jenna can remake herself anew at Turing; but will she take this opportunity to heal, or will she become a shadow and write letters to her brother who is serving in Iraq? From the start Jenna’s character has difficulty blending into the shadows. In fact, Jenna seems to be a magnet for dysfunction; it quickly becomes apparent that Jenna has been a victim her entire life, from authorities, friends, and even family. At Turing, nothing really changes. She becomes the enemy of an equally confused student, Danielle, who is jealous of the relationship that develops between Jenna and the chemistry teacher, Mr. Anderson. Jenna is betrayed by family, friends, and her home life deteriorates at a rapid-fire pace; yet, Jenna’s life seems to be on the mend with the help of Mr. Anderson. It doesn’t take a psychologist (did I mention that Bick is a psychiatrist?) to see where the slow, but engaging plot is taking the reader—a modern-day Lolita, with edginess that parallel’s R.A. Nelson’s Teach Me—the reader groans to see Jenna fall prey once again—or does she? Although it seems every character in the story is severely broken in some way, which comes off as mildy annoying, the ending, laced with just enough truth and unanswered questions to make the reader crazy, makes up for the and melodramatic characters. In fact, while the pacing is slow during the first half of the novel, this work is perhaps the most honest, and disturbing tale about dysfunctional relationships that I have ever read.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Review of Dead End in Norvelt by Jack Gantos
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Dead End in Norvelt
by Jack Gantos
4 Scribbles
Won the Newberry Award in 2012.
Jack’s a super-nice kid, but he breaks a rule that gets him grounded for the entire summer! His only reprieve from endless yard chores and reading is to help the nutty old neighbor lady, Mrs. Volker, write obituaries for the town’s quickly-dying elderly population. What the two journalists don’t realize is that something creepy is happening in Norvelt, and the deaths of Norvelt’s elderly may not just be a coincidence. Part memoir, part historical fiction, middle-grade readers will be transported back in time to the 1960s where life was simpler—and a lot funnier. It’s easy to admire Jack’s tenderness, how he risks personal punishment rather than hurt another living creature, his patience with parents who are constantly feuding at his expense, and the tender way he cares for Mrs. Volker. Girls and Guys alike will laugh at tricycle-riding Mr. Spitz, Jack’s constantly bleeding nose, his tough-as-nails BFF, Bunny, and the obligatory bit of bathroom humor. One of the major themes in the story is how history is still a part of, and helps to shape, the present—a point illustrated via the setting of Norvelt, Pennsylvania, the real town where Jack grew up. In fact, Norvelt was founded in the 1930s by the U.S. Government during the Great Depression to help laid-off Coal Miners, and it is still there! To see pictures of Norvelt and learn more about Jack’s hometown, check out this website.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Review of Rotters by Daniel Kraus (audio version)

Delecourte Books
For Young Readers
By Daniel Kraus
5 Scribbles
Macabre, morbid, monstrous…and mesmerizing…this is Joey’s life from the first chapter of Rotters, when Joey’s beloved mother dies, to the last page. Sentenced to live with his father, Ken Harnett, who is apparently employed as some sort of "garbage man," Joey quickly becomes a smelly social outcast, a starving orphan, and the target of every bully at Bloughten High. It doesn’t take long for Joey to realize that his father has an extremely dark and tremendously disturbing secret that is the reason for Joey’s martyrdom and why Joey’s future is about to change. Joey is a character that readers will embrace and love, for his weakness, for his innocence, and ultimately for his deplorable revenge. Kraus’s tale of woe challenges some works of YA described as "dark" and ups the ante. Kraus crosses moral boundaries that some may think should not be crossed, and takes the protagonist, Joey, to the very brink of insanity. This story, inspired by the "Resurrection Men" of world history, is written in graphic, visceral prose. Indeed, Kraus’s Poesque descriptions give writers like Andrew Smith of the Marbury Lens and Rick Yancy of The Monstrumologist Series a run for their money, and leave readers reluctant to enjoy the story while dining. The audio production of this edgy tale was the recipient of the Odyssey Award for the producer of the best audio book in the United States and Europe. Kirby Heyborne narrates a tale that sounds like it is told by a myriad of characters, skillfully and seamlessly switching from voice to voice without disturbing the listener’s experience. Kudos to Listening Library for their stellar production and most deserved award.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Lauren Oliver Contest

Lauren Oliver Posted the Following Contest on Goodreads. Check it out!
The winner will get a copy of Delirium and a box of exotic chocolates from Vosges, a Chicago-based chocolatier that makes some of the most deliciously unique candies in the world. They mix ingredients like star anise, paprika, curry, chiles, and even bacon with chocolate and it's just delightful. As an added plus, I'll even send you a copy of Pandemonium as a late-February "dessert" companion to Delirium.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Review of The Way We Fall by Megan Crewe

Hyperion Books
The Way We Fall
By Megan Crewe
3 Scribbles
Like many great adventurers, Kaelyn starts a journal at the beginning of her junior year. Her goal is to recreate herself; no longer will she be the shy and awkward nature lover who eschews conversation with others; from now on, Kaelyn will be outgoing, charming, and have many friends. But when a deadly virus invades the island where she lives, gaining friends is the least of her worries. Now her focus is on survival, not celebrity. Kaelyn’s voice is very simplistic for an obviously intelligent junior in high school, and on the positive side of this voice, it is impossible not to like her. She is very responsible, conscientious, and caring but never comes off as a braggart. Additionally, it is easy to relate to her insecurities when moving from her comfort zone of introvert to the more risky, extrovert. What is less believable is her reaction to the tragedy that surrounds her. Perhaps a failing of the journal format, when devastating deaths and murders occur right in front of Kaelyn her reactions are grossly understated, and inadequate. It isn’t simply that Kaelyn is numb to the pain of loss, it is that somewhere in the prose, the reader doesn’t connect with Kaelyn’s horror and (assumed?) pain. The premise of the novel is not unique, and so at the onset the writer has a challenge to rise above similar work in the apocalyptic genre. A valiant effort, but for stronger works that relate to viruses try Code Orange by Caroline Cooney or The Forest of Hands and Teeth by Carrie Ryan. For more riveting survival stories try Life as We Knew It by Susan Beth Pfeffer, or Ashfall by Mike Mullin.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Review of The Woman in Black by Susan Hill

P.S. Love to hear posts about what readers think of the movie!
Vintage Books Cover

The Woman in Black
by Susan Hill
(Not marketed specifically for young adults)
4 Scribbles
Do you believe in ghosts?
Attorney, Arthur Kipps does not. But when his boss sends him to a remote corner of England to handle the will of the elderly spinster, Mrs. Drablow, he begins to wonder if ghosts really do exist. The novel is told in Arthur’s voice when he is much older, and he tells it via flashbacks. This adds to the sense of foreboding and foreshadowing of some evil to come. The atmosphere of the novel, set in eerie, misty marshlands filled with treacherous bogs, life-sucking quicksand, and deceptive sounds, makes the reader feel as if they are there with Arthur as he both admires the beauty of the marshes and feels suffocated by the sudden changes the marsh constantly undergoes. He is drawn to the land, and feels attracted to Eel Marsh House, where Mrs. Drablow lived before her death; yet, at the same time he cannot explain the strange things he hears, sees, and eventually feels while staying at the house. The dialogue, which sounds much older than the early nineteen hundreds, adds a very Gothic feel to this dark mystery, which once resolved, gives Kipps no peace. The conclusion of the novel will leave the reader shocked and shaken—and sure that not believing in something doesn’t mean one is protected from it. More accessible than Poe, but just as creepy, Hill will have readers looking over their shoulder for months—all in fear of the Woman in Black.