Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Review of Why We Broke Up by Daniel Handler and Maira Kalman

Little Brown Books for
Young Readers
Why We Broke Up
by Daniel Handler and Maira Kalman
5 Stars

Walk into any high school in America and you can find a couple who really don’t seem to “fit” with one another. Min and Ed Slaterton are like this; Min is an artistic film fanatic, and Ed a handsome and athletic football God.  Everyone is shocked when these two hook up. But when the two start dating they fall hard for one another, and despite their differences it works. It really seems like Ed and Min will make it. That is, until they break up. Now Min is ready to return the box of mementos she’s kept during her relationship with Ed, and with that box, she’s writing him a letter. Once he reads it he won’t have any questions about just exactly why they broke up.

In the past I’ve had reservations about reading a book by two authors. Lately, books like this one have completely changed my mind. Min’s character is so relatable and loveable. She’s your sister, your cousin, your best friend; and, while you can see that perhaps she might be wading into treacherous waters with Ed, you want her to be happy and so you cheer her on, hoping against hope that the splashing motions she’s making after diving in the water aren’t the signs of her drowning. And although I have to say that Min’s constant allusions to vintage films are a bit annoying at times, I completely get Min’s personality and I love her for her quirkiness. Perhaps that’s what Ed feels about Min too—all the way to the bitter, bitter end. This is a realistic story about a girl, who like so many of us girls, sees the best in everyone, or perhaps wants to see the best in everyone, or maybe just wants to see an inner character that matches outer beauty. This is a cautionary tale about sexuality, about passion, about emotion, and about sex. Every girl who has even considered giving her virginity to a boy should read this book. This is a happy tale about friendship, kindness, and about what a boy who loves you is really supposed to be. Perhaps most importantly, it’s a story about what true friends do when they see you drowning—they might go down with you—but they still jump in to save you.  This is perhaps the finest novel about teenaged relationships I’ve read this decade. Read it—and maybe you won’t get caught flailing alone in the deep end.

To share your break up story, check out Why We Broke Up Project here: http://whywebrokeupproject.tumblr.com/share-your-breakup

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Review of A Beautiful Lie by Irfan Master

Albert Whitman Teen
A Beautiful Lie
by Irfan Master
3 Scribbles

Is it ever acceptable to tell a lie?

Ask that question in a crowded room and you’d fracture the crowd into multiple camps of opinion, but ask that same question of Bilal’s best friends, and they would all agree—sometimes a lie is the right thing to protect the one you love. Thirteen-year-old Bilal isn’t so sure, but he’s sworn to control his own destiny. His father is dying of cancer, and it’s 1947. The India they have always known is about to split down the middle along religious and political lines. Hundreds and thousands will likely die, and the proof is in the streets—long time friends are fighting and minor skirmishes abound—India is a literal powder keg of tension. To protect his father from the knowledge that the country they love might also suffer a sort of death, Bilal, with the help of his band of friends, denies his father any visitors who may inform him of the upcoming Partition.  Is this lie of omission the right thing to do?

While this novel is translated into English, there are many universal elements to the narrative. For instance, Bilal’s’ relationship with his friends is one that guys will certainly appreciate. And while the environment might make the day-to-day activities and hangouts of the boys a bit strange to teens in the U.S. of 2012, the banter and harassment between Manjeet, Vickesh, Jaghtar, Saleem, Chota and Bilal, as well as their fierce loyalty is a “guy trait” that boys can recognize and respect despite the distance in time or language.  Secondary characters, like the Doctorji, and Mr. Mukherjee, are also important and well-developed, illustrating India’s heart, and the feelings of those who prefer peace over Partition. The author admirably uses irony, symbolism and humor, especially when Bilal, wise beyond his years, “calls out” the three holy men of the town who seek to scold him for his secrets.  Mature readers will get a laugh out of this scene and at the same time appreciate Bilal’s humility, even though the holy men are clearly deserving of the criticism.  From the first signs of division at the vendor’s stalls to the violent cock fight in the cemetery, readers will be on edge wondering about Bilal’s fate, and the fate of his father and friends. This novel will take readers on a journey to an India they might never experience. Those who are curious about world culture and history, or those who just want a great story about the bonds between boys who live like brothers should definitely add this book to their reading list.

Review of Forge (Seeds of America) by Laurie Halse Anderson

Antheneum Books for
Young Readers
Forge (Seeds of America)
by Laurie Halse Anderson
4 Stars

A soldier’s life is grim, and it was even more so during the Revolutionary War. Often supplies were scarce, conditions were harsh, and death and disease were no strangers. Those who volunteered for this life at least had the pride in knowing that they were among the few and brave who stepped up to fight for their right to exist as a free country.  But what if their service was not by choice? How much worse might the suffering be?

Curzon is one such soldier—originally pressed into service by his owner in exchange for freedom—who now faces a second enlistment through no fault of his own. Those who have read the first book in the Seeds of America series, Chains, may remember the Patriot slave-boy Curzon, friend of the main character, Isabel. This installment is told in Curzon’s point of view, and brings new insights into this historical period and into Curzon’s strong character. And where has Isabel gone? Will Curzon ever see her again?

The setting of Valley Forge plays a huge part in this story. Through Curzon’s resilient eyes, the reader sees the brutal, freezing conditions that soldiers lived in during the course of one winter. Deprived of clothing, food, and even shelter, many soldiers died of the cold, starvation or disease, while officers lived in nearby housing with warm clothing and plenty of food.  It’s amazing the soldiers had enough discipline and respect not to mutiny! And yet, through Curzon, the reader begins to wonder which is worse, to live every day with starvation and pain yet live free, or to have plenty of food, warm clothing and safe conditions in exchange for being treated as a possession?  The irony of enslaved soldiers fighting for freedom is dumbfounding. The first portion of the novel does not have a great deal of action, yet reading about the lives of the individual soldiers, learning about their personalities, and seeing how they change is very satisfying and entertaining. Additionally, the historical documents and letters peppered throughout the story add depth and relevance to each character’s tale.  The second half of the novel is also quite satisfying as Curzon schemes against his former master and seeks a means of escape. Most fulfilling is the ironic ending that will make readers either applaud or chuckle—either way, its’ an ending that will satisfy and entertain. This story is so good, readers reluctant to read historical fiction won’t flinch they’ll be so sucked into the narrative. I’m excited to read book three in the series, which is rumored to be entitled Ashes, and which is scheduled come out in Februray of 2013.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Review of Copper Sun by Sharon Draper

Antheneum Books for
Young Readers
Copper Sun
By Sharon Draper
5 Stars

Imagine your whole world and everyone you love disappearing in an instant. You are beaten and dragged away in chains. How would you feel? What would you do? This is Amari’s fate when her village in Africa is visited by strange-looking men the color of “goat’s milk.” At first, the villagers are excited to host a welcome celebration. But their joy is cut short when the celebration turns into a savage and deadly attack. Amari suddenly finds herself shackled and driven on a march to the sea where she is branded and taken aboard a ship, never to see her homeland again. She is now a slave, and her future holds nothing but misery, anguish and grief, unless she can escape.

Perhaps too many Americans think of slavery as a thing of the past, and not the Holocaust that it was—the genocide and enslavement of a people. But through Amari, a character who is far from flat or cliché, the reader can relate to the suffering and loss of the slaves who built America with their blood and tears. Amari is so real, so gentle, and so innocent, that it is hard not to instantly become invested in her fate.  But it isn’t just Amari who makes the story interesting. Each character in the story contributes a perspective to this woeful tale that is different but historically significant. For instance, white characters are not a stereotype. They each represent the perspective of a community that made slavery happen. Even the “kind” whites like Sailor Ben, who occasionally takes mercy on Amari, or indentured servant Polly, who could care less for negroes but comes to sympathize with Amari, or Doctor Hoskins, who like so many whites opposes slavery but remains a bystander and does nothing to prevent the abuse, all share guilt for the deaths of many thousands of slaves. Villians like slave-owners Percival and Clay Derby who are on the front lines of purchasing slaves bring the cruelty of the institution to life even when they aren’t being directly cruel.  Each of these characters, and their historical counterparts, allowed their prejudice and self-preservation to stand in the way of humanity. Even African characters, like the Ashanti who betray Amari’s village, bear guilt for slavery—no angle is left unexamined. Draper truly reveals the complicated social ramifications of the slave trade in a way that other novels do not.

The novel is very well researched. Readers will be shocked to know that slaves in the field rarely lasted more than five years before they died and were replaced, or that the knowledge of slaves often far exceeded the expertise of the master. Perhaps most disturbing is the number of slave women who were raped by masters and other whites with power over them. Yet, despite its gritty detail and shocking truths, the story is as easy to understand, exceedingly interesting, and accessible for readers who struggle.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Review of Legend by Marie Lu

Putnam Juvenile
by Marie Lu
4 Stars

June’s Republican roots go deep, before their deaths, June’s parents were scientists for the Republic of America, and she and her older brother Metias are soldiers proud to serve against the Republic’s main enemy, The Colonies. But when tragedy strikes, June swears revenge, and Day, a gifted street-kid turned most-wanted criminal is at the top of her list—bad news for Day, since June is a prodigy, having earned a perfect score on the Republic’s Trials, and June intends to use every last one of her superior skills to find Day and get some payback. Yet June doesn’t realize that Day didn’t earn his notoriety for being stupid, and she certainly doesn’t figure catching him might be the hardest thing she has ever tried to accomplish.

Probably the most refreshing and perhaps the most disturbing aspect of this novel is June’s character. June is a perfect example of what propaganda and privilege can accomplish when used as a weapon. June feels a sense of entitlement and possesses a hardened nature at the start of the novel which is disturbing and unusual in a protagonist. She turns a blind eye to prisoners of war as they are brutally tortured in front of her and by her brother’s best friend. She clearly believes there has never been a United States, and while half of her country suffers in poverty and with a constant fear of the deadly plague, she shrugs it off, figuring this is of no concern to her since she’s been vaccinated. In fact, a more ruthless and despicable protagonist is hard to imagine. Yet her character changes, and not because she spends time on the streets sympathizing with the commoners; June only begins to change when she discovers evidence that her beloved Republic has been keeping secrets. Less impressive is Day’s character; he is far too forgiving and kind in my opinion, given his circumstances. And while the post-natural-disaster-science-fiction premise is lurking around every corner nowadays, Lu’s work has solid plotting, teeth-grinding action and plenty of intrigue to keep this novel plowing all the way to its fiery conclusion. This action, coupled with unique characters, will have readers excited to read Prodigy, book two in the Legend trilogy, out January 29 of 2013.  

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Review of Where Things Come Back by John Corey Whaley

Antheneum Books for
Young Readers
Where Things Come Back
By John Corey Whaley
2 Scribbles

Since this novel has received so many awards, and since it is narrated in the voice of a teenager stuck in a small town, I was excited to read it. I grew up in a small town and couldn’t wait to escape it! And while I will say that Whaley does capture the feeling of cynicism felt by many teenagers stuck in small towns who have little vision of the future, that feeling of cynicism is pretty much the only thing I could identify with in the novel.

The story is told mainly through the eyes of Cullen, a bored teenager who works at a local convenience store and hangs out with his friends. Cullen and his crew are amused by the current excitement in their hometown, Lily, over the possible reappearance of a long-extinct species of bird named the Lazarus Woodpecker. Alternating chapters are told in third person and describe the lives of Benton, raised to be a missionary by his dictatorial and overly-zealous father and Cabot, college-boy player extraordinaire turned nutcase. Eventually, the bizarre connection between the three narratives becomes clear.

Although the author skillfully weaves truisms into the dialogue that I appreciate as insightful, usually through the words of Cullen or Gabriel, I still have difficulty identifying with characters in the novel. Gabriel’s character is too briefly seen, Lucas and his girlfriend are ever-present, but have little to say, and reading about Cullen is, in the words of his own mother, “like watching someone with multiple personalities.” Even Ada and Alma, Cullen’s female companions for lack of a better description, are barely distinctive—not only do their names have similar meaning—but they both take advantage of Cullen and have little interest in him as a person. In short, the characters are very flat, and none of them (with the exception of perhaps Cabot) are particularly dynamic. Perhaps Whaley is attempting to write a modern Holden Caulfield, and indeed the text does have a literary edge to it, but Cullen is no Holden. The symbol of the Lazarus Woodpecker is a bit over-the-top, and frankly the symbolism of many of the names, for instance Gabriel, while perhaps necessary to incorporate the religious zeal, are overstated. Let’s face it, most teens just want a great story, one they can connect with, one they feel accurately reflects issues and concerns in their own lives, and one that moves. Perhaps teens may connect with Cullen’s feelings of negativity and isolation, but only if they can continue past the first few chapters. Couple the dragging plot with the dull cover, and without those award winning stickers, I doubt teens would pick up this novel, let alone finish or applaud it. Perhaps Whaley’s work would be more appropriate for older readers with more patience to trudge through the heavy handed symbolism and bizarre circumstances that bring this work to its completion.  

Friday, October 5, 2012

Review of Jepp Who Defied the Stars by Katherine Marsh

Jepp Who Defied the Stars
by Katherine Marsh
5 Scribbles
Released October 9, 2012
The lives of dwarves brought to royal courts during the Renaissance were challenging, often filled with humiliation and hardship at the hands of nobles, especially when they were made court jesters. Such is the case for the tender-hearted young dwarf, Jepp, who begins his journey as a boy leaving his beloved mother. Jepp is promised knowledge, status and grand experiences to entice him to leave Astraveld, all things he’s dreamed of, but none of them related to his true desire—to know who his father is—and in this way to know who he truly is and where his destiny lies.

This well-researched and sophisticated story told through the eyes of the protagonist, Jepp, is a welcome offering for strong young adult and adult readers with a solid interest in historical fiction—especially historical fiction with such rich description and such strong period language. Marsh weaves fiction with real historical events and persons to breathe life into the era with much success. Jepp is an old soul, intent on finding his destiny through his lineage, curious and intelligent well beyond most boys his age. Through his myopic vision early on in the novel, his mother is faultless, loving and warm, anemic, romanticized characters like Lia become great lovers, and giants like Robert robust heroes. The actions of the villains, Don Diego, Pim, and even Tycho, reflect the value of court dwarves of the time; clearly they were little more than slaves to the royals and novelties to entertain. And yet through the seasoning of Jepp’s heart and his fortuitous education, the novel becomes more than just a story of the oppressed, instead it becomes a living experiment, an examination of the idea that one can long for something he has never had. Perhaps more importantly, Jepp’s life becomes a challenge to the idea that our fates or our birthright “constrain[s] us,” and a proclamation that one can “through our will and intellect—and most of all our heart” defy our stars and make our future what we like—a message that, despite the ages, still holds true today.

Review of Unholy Night by Seth Grahame-Smith

Grand Central Publishing
Unholy Night
by Seth Grahame-Smith
5 Stars

Ever wonder what really happened on the night Jesus was born? Of course, you can look to The Holy Bible for details, but the text of The Bible is so old-fashioned and hard to understand. Combine this little hiccup with the fact that not a lot of information is provided outside of the star, three wise men and stable thing, and The Bible version comes out as more of a sketch of what happened the night Jesus was born than the entire story. This is why Grahame-Smith’s version of that night is so enjoyable.

For those devout Christians out there, I’ll admit the tale takes a few liberties with the original story, and may be a bit unorthodox in places, plus it’s a bit edgy what with all the bloody skirmishes and the psychopathic King Herod and his harem and all, so thin-skinned readers may want to pass. But without sounding too blasphemous, I find Grahame-Smith’s version much more entertaining since every moment of the event is meticulously described in living color. The story is told through the eyes of Balthazar, one of the three “wise men,” who is actually an incredibly skilled thief known as The Antioch Ghost. Balthazar is on the lam (no pun intended) from Herod’s soldiers when, through a series of serendipitous occurrences peppered with heavy-handed irony, Balthazar ends up in the stable just after Jesus’s birth. The miraculous birth is so much more entertaining through the eyes of The Antioch Ghost and his companions! For one thing, characters become more rounded and just the tiniest bit cynical. For example, Mary is a real pain in the tuchus, which is to be expected since she recently gave birth on a heap of animal manure (in my humble opinion), and Joseph comes off as sort of naïve and wimpy (Balthazar gets a good laugh when Joseph declares his wife a virgin). Herod, well, they just don’t make villains as vile and disgusting as Herod is in this story, and there’s more to Pilot than what we see at Jesus’s crucifixion. But the best part of the story is not the constant action and superior narrative, but the coincidences that work together to create a rock-solid foundation for the birth, not only of Jesus, but of the Christian religion. For older teens, for the faithful with a great sense of humor, or for those looking for a funny work of historical fiction—this one’s for you.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Review of Dark Star by Bethany Frenette

Dark Star
by Bethany Frenette
3 Stars

To be released, October 23, 2012
Audrey comes from a family of very powerful and unusual women. Her mother is is a superhero, the “Morning Star,” a woman who spends her nights in The Twin Cities preventing crime, her grandmother is a"Seer," and Audrey herself has powerful psychic abilities. So when girls from Audrey's high school turn up murdered, Audrey's figures her mom will stop the killer. But when Audrey's BFF, Tink, is attacked, Audrey uncovers evidence that her mother may be the killer's next victim. Now, Audrey must use her psychic gifts to save the only parent she has left, and in so doing she discovers secrets about who she really is.
In an unusual blend of superhero crime fighting and the paranormal, bored sci-fi readers may find a welcome change. Manga, mystery and graphic novel readers will be attracted to the concept, and if they can stick with the first 70 or so pages of backstory, they will be rewarded. In spite of the slow start, the fight scenes eventually become plentiful, the setting suitably creepy, and fans of Daren Shan will appreciate the gruesome descriptions of the "Harrowers" when they first appear on the scene. Audrey's family dynamic will attract female readers, although the love connection at the end is unneeded and predictable. This will likely be a first in a new series by debut author Bethany Frenette, and readers who want to know more about Audrey's mysterious past will certainly be unable to resist reading a second installment.