“It Was A Girl”: Lucy Christopher’s The Killing Woods

A review of The Killing Woods by Lucy Christopher

Chicken House (Scholastic), 2014

The Killing Woods Lucy Christopher

by REBECCA, February 24, 2014


Emily’s dad has PTSD, so when he emerges from the woods one night with the dead body of Ashlee, a girl from Emily’s school, everyone points the finger at him. Damon, Ashlee’s boyfriend, has a feeling that something more is going on than meets the eye, and so does Emily. They need each other to figure out what really happened that night, but what if solving the mystery rips everything apart?


Emily has always been close with her father, who taught her everything she knows about the woods behind their house. Even though he’s scared her sometimes, she is positive that he could never kill anyone—even if he were experiencing a flashback. Damon wakes up the morning after Mr. Shepherd carries Ashlee’s body out of the woods with no memory of what happened the night before or where Ashlee is, but everyone at school says Emily Shepherd’s father killed her. When Damon gets the chance to talk to Emily alone, he feels compelled to take it. He isn’t sure what he wants to ask her—just that he needs to talk to her. But what she has to say isn’t at all what he expects. Emily’s certainty about her father makes Damon doubt his own. Because he and Ashlee had been playing a game in the woods that night . . . and he can’t be sure of what he might have done.

The Killing Woods Lucy ChristopherThe chapters of The Killing Woods alternate between Emily and Damon’s perspectives as they both attempt to uncover the truth of what happened that night. The premise of the book really appealed to me—I’m a big fan of a reconstructing-the-past story, especially when it’s a psychological reconstruction. The woods are the perfect backdrop for this story: a foggy, eerie, living world that is both escape and threat. And it’s the book’s atmosphere that does the most work. It facilitates the story of the game that Damon, Ashlee, and their friends play in the woods and the connection that Emily feels to her family’s home even when it would be easier for her and her mother to cut ties and leave town.

The atmosphere was the only part of The Killing Woods that worked well for me, however. That isn’t to say it’s a bad book. It’s accomplished and competent, with nice prose and a plot that unfolds slowly and deliberately. Unfortunately, that wasn’t enough to make me care about these characters, who never come to life. Both Emily and Damon are the children of veterans (Damon’s father was killed in an explosion), and I’m willing to grant that there’s a certain amount of detachment that feels realistic, given their experiences with secondary violence. But we don’t learn anything about these characters beyond what they think about the mystery they’re trying to unravel. And that’s just not enough to sustain the novel.

The distance I felt from these characters was exacerbated by the perspective-switching from chapter to chapter. It’s Damon’s reconstruction of his part in the night Ashlee died that is the crux of The Killing Woods, so it’s his perspective that is required. Emily’s process of working through her feelings about her father is written as a counterpoint, but nothing much happens from her side, so her chapters feel baggy and repetitive—they flatten out the entire narrative structure of the book, removing the peaks and valleys that typify suspenseful narratives.

Lucy Christopher repeatedly cuts away from Damon’s perspective just as he’s on the verge of remembering something, so the chapter shifts read like commercial breaks—purposeful interruptions to extend and heighten the drama. And, while the mental work Damon does to reconstruct that night is mostly interesting, this purposeful stylistic heightening of drama undercuts what actual interest there is by irritatingly stretching it out to fill more space than its content requires. The Killing Woods is a 360-page book with what feels more like a 150-page story. And, while I usually love a slow reveal, this one was both unsurprising, in terms of plot, and unsatisfying, in that the characters don’t seem to be much different at the end of the novel than they were at the beginning. Though, of course, that might be because I never really felt like I knew anything about the characters to begin with.

Overall, The Killing Woods is a totally competent suspense novel, but one without much drama or interest. It definitely does not have enough meat for readers who are looking for a character-driven story, nor is it complex enough for readers who want a mystery novel.

procured from: I received an ARC of this book from the publisher (thanks!) in exchange for an honest review. The Killing Woods by Lucy Christopher is available now.

YA Books With Animal Best Friends

A Book List In Honor of National Love Your Pet Day!

by REBECCA, February 19, 2014

Tomorrow (Feb 20th) is National Love Your Pet Day! Yeah, I know these things aren’t “real” in the strictest sense, but it’s such a perfect opportunity to celebrate my favorite animals of YA. While there are a great number of animals in children’s books—Charlotte’s WebThe Velveteen Rabbit, etc.—and in classic “coming of age fiction”—Where the Red Fern GrowsOld Yeller—there aren’t as many in contemporary YA. Here, then, are some truly delightful instances of loving your pet in YA lit! (All descriptions from Goodreads.)

Meeting Chance Jennifer Lavoie

Meeting Chance, Jennifer Lavoie

Scarred physically and emotionally from a dog attack at age nine, Aaron Cassidy has spent the last seven years breaking out in a cold sweat at the mere sound of a bark in the distance. Days after he receives his driver’s license, he decides to challenge his bone-deep fear once and for all.

Volunteering at the Happy Endings Animal Foundation gives Aaron a new sense of purpose. Here he’ll face his fears and learn to love man’s best friend. When an abused pit bull with scars mirroring his own arrives at the shelter, Aaron cannot even be in the same room without lapsing into his familiar, paralyzing terror. But as he gets to know the wounded animal, and the two learn to trust again, Aaron finds that sometimes all you need is a little . . . Chance.

My full review of Meeting Chance is HERE.

Starting from Here Lisa Jenn Bigelow

Starting From Here, Lisa Jenn Bigelow

Sixteen-year-old Colby Bingham’s heart has been broken too many times. Her mother has been dead for almost two years, her truck driver father is always away, her almost girlfriend just dumped her for a guy, and now she’s failing chemistry.

When a stray dog lands literally at her feet, bleeding and broken on a busy road, it seems like the Universe has it in for Colby. But the incident also knocks a chink in the walls she’s built around her heart. Against her better judgment, she decides to care for the dog. But new connections mean new opportunities for heartbreak. Terrified of another loss, Colby bolts at the first sign of trouble, managing to alienate her best friend, her father, the cute girl pursing her, and even her dog’s vet, who’s taken Colby under her wing. Colby can’t start over, but can she learn how to move on?

My full review of Starting From Here is HERE and our interview with the delightful Lisa Jenn Bigelow is HERE.

Claws Mike and Rachel Grinti

Claws, Mike and Rachel Grinti

In a contemporary fairytale as irresistible as catnip, one girl discovers that some magic cuts deep. Emma’s sister is missing. Her parents have spent all their savings on the search. And now the family has no choice but to live in a ramshackle trailer park on the edge of the forest, next door to down-and-out harpies, hags, and trolls. Emma wonders if she’ll ever see Helena, and if she’ll ever feel happy, again. Then she makes a friend. A smooth-talking, dirty-furred cat named Jack. He’s got a razor-sharp plan to rescue Emma’s sister. He just wants one small favor in return . . .

Tessa’s complete review of Claws is HERE.

Grasshopper Jungle Andrew Smith

Grasshopper Jungle, Andrew Smith

Ok, so Grasshopper Jungle is about animals (bugs) that we do not want to be best friends with, but there is also a dog friend who we do love, and also there’s this picture of my cat with the book that I meant to put in the post where I reviewed Grasshopper Jungle but forgot, and so I must include it. My complete review is HERE.

The Scorpio Races Maggie Stiefvater

The Scorpio Races, Maggie Stiefvater

It happens at the start of every November: the Scorpio Races. Riders attempt to keep hold of their water horses long enough to make it to the finish line. Some riders live. Others die.

At age nineteen, Sean Kendrick is the returning champion. He is a young man of few words, and if he has any fears, he keeps them buried deep, where no one else can see them. Puck Connolly is different. She never meant to ride in the Scorpio Races. But fate hasn’t given her much of a chance. So she enters the competition — the first girl ever to do so. She is in no way prepared for what is going to happen.

My complete review of the amazing The Scorpio Races is HERE.

Harry Potter J.K. Rowling

Harry Potter, J.K. Rowling

SO many animal best friends here (sometimes literally—Catmione, anyone?)! You’ve got Hedwig, Errol, Crookshanks, and Scabbers, of course, but also Mrs. Norris, Buckbeak, and the rest of Hagrid’s vast menagerie. So, so many.

The Golden Compass Philip Pullman

The Golden Compass, Phillip Pullman

When Lyra’s friend Roger disappears, she and her dæmon, Pantalaimon, determine to find him. The ensuing quest leads them to the bleak splendour of the North, where armoured bears rule the ice and witch-queens fly through the frozen skies—and where a team of scientists is conducting experiments too horrible to be spoken about. Lyra overcomes these strange terrors, only to find something yet more perilous waiting for her—something with consequences which may even reach beyond the Northern Lights.

Gah, dæmons!

Straydog Kathe Koja

Straydog, Kathe Koja

A female collie mix, so beautiful, all gold and white and dirty; she’s in the last cage on the aisle, curled up quiet, watching everything—but when I get too close she goes completely crazy, biting at the bars, herself, anything in reach, until I back off and away. Her growl’s like ripping metal, jagged, dangerous, and strong . . . Don’t mess with me, that growl says. I may be in a cage but I can still bite.

Rachel is happiest when she’s volunteering at the animal shelter, especially after she meets the feral collie she names Grrl: they’re both angry and alone. When a teacher encourages her to write about the dog, Rachel finds another outlet for her pain and frustration. Writing about Grrl is easy. But teaching Grrl to trust her is a much tougher task. And when Griffin, the new boy in school, devises a plan to bring Grrl home, Rachel finds that the dog isn’t the only one who must learn to trust.

Sabriel Garth Nix

Sabriel, Garth Nix

Sent to a boarding school in Ancelstierre as a young child, Sabriel has had little experience with the random power of Free Magic or the Dead who refuse to stay dead in the Old Kingdom. But during her final semester, her father, the Abhorsen, goes missing, and Sabriel knows she must enter the Old Kingdom to find him. She soon finds companions in Mogget, a cat whose aloof manner barely conceals its malevolent spirit, and Touchstone, a young Charter Mage long imprisoned by magic, now free in body but still trapped by painful memories. As the three travel deep into the Old Kingdom, threats mount on all sides. And every step brings them closer to a battle that will pit them against the true forces of life and death—and bring Sabriel face-to-face with her own destiny.

Did I miss your favorite YA animal best friend? Tell me about it in the comments. In the meantime, here’s my cat sticking her tongue out at me while crouched in the special space I left her on the bottom shelf of my one rainbow-organized bookshelf:

Dorian Gray!



A YA Celebration of the Winter Olympics

A List of Books Featuring Winter Olympic Sports!

Winter Olympics Figure Skating Winter Olympics Women's Ski Jump

by REBECCA, February 17, 2014

The Cutting EdgeThe Winter Olympics have been rife with scandal, from virulent homophobia to athlete-eating bathrooms. But they’ve also been a snowy, icy, delight to watch. I was visiting friends in Arizona last week, and we were transported from the sunny desert to a veritable ice cave of triple Lutzes, Mctwists, hat tricks, and twizzles. Of course, anyone in their right mind who watches the Winter Olympics immediately watches the 1992 classic, The Cutting Edge. But, once you’ve done that, what should you read? Well, in celebration of the good parts of the Olympics (read: snow, ice, women finally being able to compete in the ski jump and being way better at it, and figure skating), here are some YA books about winter sports! All blurbs from Goodreads. Toooooooeeee Piiiiiiiiiiick:

Girl Overboard Justina Chen

Girl Overboard, Justina Chen Headley

Everybody thinks Syrah is the golden girl. After all, her father is Ethan Cheng, billionaire, and she has everything any kid could possibly desire: a waterfront mansion, jet plane, and custom-designed snowboards. But most of what glitters in her life is fool’s gold. Her half-siblings hate her, her best friend’s girlfriend is ruining their friendship, and her own so-called boyfriend is only after her for her father’s name. When her broken heart results in a snowboarding accident that exiles her from the mountains—the one place where she feels free and accepted for who she is, not what she has—can Syrah rehab both her busted-up knee and her broken heart?

Life on the Edge Jennifer ComeauxEdge of the Past Jennifer ComeauxFighting for the Edge Jennifer Comeaux

Life on the Edge (The Edge #1), Jennifer Comeaux

Nineteen-year-old Emily is new to pairs skating, but she and her partner Chris have a big dream—to be the first American team to win Olympic gold. Their young coach Sergei, who left Russia after a mysterious end to his skating career, believes they can break through and make history. Emily and Chris are on track to be top contenders at the 2002 Winter Games. But when forbidden feelings spark between Emily and Sergei, broken trust and an unexpected enemy threaten to derail Emily’s dreams of gold.

The Ex Games Jennifer Echols

The Ex Games, Jennifer Echols

Hayden and Nick used to be a hot item, but their brief affair ended with a highly publicized breakup. Now the two are “just friends,” excluding the occasional flirtation. When Hayden wins the girls’ division of a local snowboarding competition, Nick is unimpressed, claiming that Hayden wouldn’t have a chance against a guy. Hayden calls Nick’s bluff and challenges him to a head-to-head boarding contest. Their mutual friends quickly take sides, the girls on Hayden’s and the boys on Nick’s, making for an all-out battle of the sexes. This friendly competition is bound to get heated—and they might end up igniting some old flames.

The Hockey Mystery Boxcar Children Gertrude Chandler Warner

The Hockey Mystery (The Boxcar Children #80), Gertrude Chandler Warner

Henry, Jessie, Violet, and Benny used to live alone in a boxcar. Now they have a home with their grandfather and they have become friends with a real pro-hockey player. The Boxcar Children cannot believe it when they meet their favorite hockey star, Kevin Reynolds, while out skating one day. Kevin is coaching a girls’ hockey team and planning to build a huge new skating rink right in Greenfield. Kevin offers Jessie a place on the team and Henry is going to be assistant coach! As soon as practices begin, however, strange things start to happen. Suddenly, equipment is missing and Kevin’s plans for the new rink are almost ruined. Is someone trying to prevent Kevin’s new rink from being finished? The Boxcar Children want to help their new friend and solve this mystery!

Being Sloane Jacobs Lauren Morrill

Being Sloane Jacobs, Lauren Morrill

Meet Sloane Emily Jacobs: a seriously stressed-out figure-skater from Washington, D.C., who choked during junior nationals and isn’t sure she’s ready for a comeback. What she does know is that she’d give anything to escape the mass of misery that is her life.

Now meet Sloane Devon Jacobs, a spunky ice hockey player from Philly who’s been suspended from her team for too many aggressive hip checks. Her punishment? Hockey camp, now, when she’s playing the worst she’s ever played. If she messes up? Her life will be over.

When the two Sloanes meet by chance in Montreal and decide to trade places for the summer, each girl thinks she’s the lucky one: no strangers to judge or laugh at Sloane Emily, no scouts expecting Sloane Devon to be a hero. But it didn’t occur to Sloane E. that while avoiding sequins and axels she might meet a hockey hottie—and Sloane D. never expected to run into a familiar (and very good-looking) face from home. It’s not long before the Sloanes discover that convincing people you’re someone else might be more difficult than being yourself.

The White Gates Bonnie Ramthun

The White Gates, Bonnie Ramthun

When Torin Sinclair’s mom gets a job as the town doctor in Snow Park, Colorado, Tor can’t wait to learn to snowboard. But on Tor’s first night there, a member of the high school snowboarding team dies. “It’s the curse,” everyone whispers. Tor’s new friends Drake and Raine explain that there’s an old Native American curse on the doctors of the town. Snow Park can never get a doctor to stay. Tor and his friends must piece together a mystery involving an old mine, a Ute curse, the entire snowboarding team—who just might be blood doping in order to win competitions—and an attempt to save the wild river otters of Colorado. But to complete the puzzle, will Tor have to ride the deadly White Gates? And how will he survive the avalanche that follows?

Podium Finish Beth Pond

Podium Finish, Beth Pond

With six months until the Olympic Games, seventeen-year-old Harper’s life is pretty much perfect. She’s fighting for the starting spot on Team USA Women’s Hockey, and for the first time ever, she has a crush on a guy who likes her back. She feels like the luckiest girl in the world, until she runs a risky play at practice and breaks her knee, thereby sentencing herself to six weeks in a cast and possibly ending her Olympic dream before it even starts.

For seventeen-year-old Alex, being anything less than the best is unacceptable. That’s why, after a miserable debut season at the senior level, the former junior national singles champion switches to ice dance. Her skating partner, Ace, is an “all skating all the time” type of guy, which would be fine, if he’d stop keeping secrets about the real reason he and his former partner broke up. Now is not the time for second thoughts, but how can Alex skate her best if she can’t trust her partner . . . or herself?

As the pressure to make the Olympic team builds, the girls must rely on each other, because if there’s one thing they both know, it’s that the only thing harder than skating to the top is staying there.

The Next Competitor K.P. Kincaid

The Next Competitor, K.P. Kincaid

It’s the all-important Olympic season and eighteen-year-old American figure skater Alex Grady is discovering that there are many obstacles along the way on his quest to win a gold medal. For starters, he has to get through endless hours of practice under the watchful eye of his stern and slightly terrifying Russian coach. Then he has to contend with his all-American rival, Tanner Nielsen. Tanner has the talent, looks, poise and picture-perfect girlfriend that make him the ideal poster boy for United States figure skating.

Alex has the talent and his looks aren’t bad, but the filter between his brain and his mouth is missing, and he definitely doesn’t have a girlfriend. He doesn’t have a boyfriend either, although he finds himself thinking far too much about pairs skater Matt Savelli, which is ridiculous, since goody two-shoes Matt is totally not his type. Besides, Alex doesn’t have time to worry about dating, not with the Olympics looming, right? Can he find a way to go for the gold and still remain true to himself?

Flying Camels and Tiger Mothers Andy Schell

Flying Camels and Tiger Mothers, Andy Schell

The only thing sharper than a skater’s blade is her mother. Mei Chen, an elite-level figure skater trying to qualify for the Olympics, is the daughter of an intensely focused Chinese immigrant mother, Ming. Raised in a hot-house environment, Mei’s life is a torturous combination of practice on the ice and the piano bench, as she is required by her mother to not only skate to Rachmaninoff’s Concerto #2 in C Minor, but to play it on the piano as well. When her mother’s zeal causes her to cross the San Francisco Bay and practice at a different ice rink, in the town of Berkeley, a skating rivalry begins.

Norma Gardner is a struggling single mother whose daughter, Tonya, is named after Tonya Harding. Cleaning houses in Berkeley and selling home-baked cookies on the side, Norma is determined to provide her daughter with all she needs to win the national title and fulfill her destiny at the Olympics. But when Norma sees a new skater on the ice at her daughter’s rink, she’s prepared to do anything to protect her daughter’s interests. Told through the eyes of one teenager and one adult, the drama of the white ice and its sparkling sequins is contrasted with its darkly comedic shadows.

Breaking the Ice Melissa LowellThe Ice Princess Melissa LowellSIlver Blades Going for the Gold Melissa Lowell

Breaking the Ice (Silver Blades #1), Melissa Lowell

Nikki, Danielle, Tori, and Jill are four talented skaters who share one special dream: competing in the Olympics someday. And they’re going to try to make it all happen in Silver Blades, the best skating club around!

Ice In My Veins K.M. Sullivan

Ice In My Veins, K.M. Sullivan

When a 16 year old, small town girl, Christine Matthews, from Dryden, Michigan gets a shot at playing semi- professional hockey on a boys hockey team she jumps at the opportunity. Christine wants one thing in her life, hockey. Nothing would ever mean more to her than that. She had worked so hard for it without the support of her friends and family. When she meets Alex her world starts to change.

Face-Off Stacy Juba

Face-Off, Stacy Drumtra-Juba

Brad’s twin brother T.J. has gotten himself out of the fancy prep school his father picked for him and into the public high school Brad attends. Now T.J., the bright light in his father’s eyes, is a shining new star on the hockey team where Brad once held the spotlight. And he’s testing his popularity with Brad’s friends, eyeing Brad’s girl and competing to be captain of the team. The whole school is rooting for a big double-strength win . . . not knowing that their twin hockey stars are heating up the ice for a winner takes all face-off.

Snowboard Twist Jean Craighead George

Snowboard Twist, Jean Craighead George, with illustrations by Wendell Minor

It’s snowboarding season in the Teton Mountains, and the snow at Glory Bowl is fresh. But as Axel and his father, Dag, well know, new snow settling on top of old snow can also mean the risk of an avalanche. While Dag surveys the landscape for signs of danger, Axel and his snowboarding rival, Kelly, rashly begin showing off their moves, until . . . Whoomph! Crack! Bang! A fast-moving snowslide suddenly takes shape. Axel, his dog, Grits, and Kelly must all act very quickly to avoid disaster.

Did I miss your favorite Winter Olympic sports YA read? Tell me about it in the comments!

Cover Reveal: J.C. Lillis’ We Won’t Feel a Thing!

by REBECCA, February 13, 2014

J.C. LillisFellow readers, I am so excited to do a cover revel for J.C. Lillis’ forthcoming YA contemporary romantic fantasy, We Won’t Feel a Thing!

the blurb!

Seventeen-year-old best friends Rachel and Riley are in forbidden love.

Their situation’s . . . complicated. And their timing couldn’t be worse—in just one month, he leaves for California and she starts college in New York. The absolute last thing they need is a reckless secret-love confession mucking up their perfect plans.

There’s only one logical option: scientific intervention.

Desperate for a quick fix, they sign up for WAVES, an experimental self-help program led by mysterious scientist David A. Kerning. He swears his Forbidden Love Module can turn passion back to safe platonic friendship in ‘six easy steps.’

But when you arm yourself with an untested program, side effects are unpredictable.

And sometimes when you fight love—love fights back.

the cover!

We Won't Feel a Thing J.C. Lillis

I really like this cover; it’s simple and clean, and it has a kind of cut-paper aesthetic that I dig. Here’s what J.C. Lillis has to say about it.

“I had this cover idea in my head pretty early on—the waves are a recurring image, and there’s also a Significant Umbrella in the story. I worked closely with my awesome cover designer, Mindy Dunn, who took the basic idea and made it beauteous. The book is whimsical and romantic (and hopefully funny), and I think the cover captures the tone really well. I hope you like it!”

How To Repair A Mechanical Heart J.C. LillisMany of you will remember how much I adored Lillis’ first book, How to Repair a Mechanical Heart, and its cover. I love thinking about the cover to We Won’t Feel a Thing as a companion piece to that one, which is bold and graphic and comic, just like the book itself. My full review of How to Repair a Mechanical Heart is HERE, and my interview with the lovely J.C. Lillis is HERE.

expected publication: March 31st, which will give everyone who hasn’t read How to Repair a Mechanical Heart a chance to have their minds blown with tender, hilarious, geeky, romantic awesomeness before it comes out!

bonus: you can check out more about We Won’t Feel a Thing HERE and HERE.

“Good Books Are Always About Everything”: Grasshopper Jungle

A review of Grasshopper Jungle, by Andrew Smith

Dutton Books, 2014

Grasshopper Jungle Andrew Smith

by REBECCA, February 10, 2014


Best friends Austin and Robby didn’t mean to get their asses kicked by the local yahoos. Austin didn’t mean to fall in love with both Robby and his girlfriend, Shann. And Austin and Robby certainly didn’t mean to witness the beginning of the end of the world. But it all happened. That’s history. And that’s the truth.


Our narrator, Austin, tells us, “good books are always about everything,” and Grasshopper Jungle certainly comes close (76). One day, Austin and Robby get beat up; that night the kids who did the beating accidentally let loose a plague of six-foot-tall praying mantises on the town of Ealing, Iowa. In between attempting to fight these laboratory-made “Unstoppable Soldiers” before they take over the world, Austin has to do battle with his own hormones, is concerned that maybe something’s wrong with him because he’s in love with both Robby and Shann, and untangles the history of his Polish ancestors to understand the vagaries by which he ended up in Ealing, Iowa, fighting Unstoppable Soldiers, in love with his two best friends.

The Chocolate War Robert CormierGrasshopper Jungle also contains: one oft-shitting dog, multiple grinning lemur masks, a house with doors that lead nowhere, the acute anxiety of losing one’s balls, a real dynamo of an Iowa name, one small-town gay bar, The Chocolate War, a heck of a lot of corn, a heck of a lot of semen, and one of the more awesome main characters out there.

There is nothing I can say about the delightful plot of this spec-fic romp that will really matter, so I won’t describe it any more. Grasshopper Jungle, Andrew Smith writes in his acknowledgements, is a book that he felt free to write because he believed no one would ever see it. It certainly reads that way: free to explore its own obsessions; free to cross genres and evade expectations.

Austin is smart, caring, and hyper-aware of his own libido, and it’s his obsessions that drive the book (alongside, you know, those six-foot-tall praying mantises). Austin is also an historian of his own life, daily chronicling the truth of everything that he experiences. He is necessarily aware that there is no way to accurately record everything, since that record would be longer than experience itself. Something is always necessarily left out, jettisoned like the extra consonants in the Americanization of his family’s Polish names (Szczerba –> Szcerba). As you might imagine, then, this is a book about connections—those among people and those across history. Crux, revision, elision, repetition: these are the modes of history.

The narrative is recursive, zig-zagging back and forth through space and in time to show those connections. It is a quivering, vertiginous take on the story that unfolds in the present, hatching from the constellation of history like the bugs of the novel’s title. As in all of Andrew Smith’s novels, the prose is perfectly suited to the subject matter, by turns lyrical and taxonomic, lending poetry to Austin’s repetitive cataloguing of people, places, and themes.

Grasshopper Jungle Andrew Smith

This lemur might be able to kill a 6-foot-tall bug.

Grasshopper Jungle is hilarious, disgusting, sexy, and bizarre. If ever you doubted that history could describe the intimacy between a six-foot-tall praying mantis and a sixteen-year-old boy, this book will assuage it. Austin’s worldview is oriented to history, and he tells the truth, even when those are not the same thing. Indeed, it’s in the gaps of official history that lives are lived and personal histories played out. So, as Austin watches a major historical event unfold before his eyes (the end of the world, NBD), he turns ever backward, pulling himself through time to excavate this world event from his family’s personal history. But this is not fatalism; this is just the consequence of paying attention to details, connections, and the ways we cross our own stories, even as we live them.

In addition to being an interesting treatise on history and a smashing end-of-the-world story, Grasshopper Jungle is a real dynamo of a love story. Austin’s love for both Robby and Shann causes him grief—does it mean he’s gay? bisexual? how can he love them both without hurting anyone? Even with very few words, Smith communicates the dynamic between Robby and Austin and, particularly moving, Robby’s reaction to the realization that he might have a chance at romance with Austin in addition to friendship. Austin’s attention to the romances of his ancestors and the problems that being gay posed for some of them gives him context for his feelings, if not answers to the questions they pose.

Anyone who reads C&M knows Andrew Smith is one of my all-time favorite authors. His books are smart and tender and they tell truths. Grasshopper Jungle lives up to every promise Smith’s oeuvre has made, and it does it all while wearing lemur masks, fighting enormous bugs, and constantly contemplating the uses for semen. Beat that.


I really can’t think of any readalikes for Grasshopper Jungle, so I’m just going to make an impassioned plea that you read all of Andrew Smith’s books. Here, I’ll help you get started:

WInger Andrew Smith

Winger (2013). From my review: “Winger scores a solid five out of five snort-laughs on the Rebecca Peters-Golden goddammit-I-can’t-read-this-in-public-because-I-will-humiliate-myself-and-scare-the-parents-of-small-children index of reading reactions! (you’ll get it once you read the book). Note: “Catastrophic Fucking Penis Injury”—yes, that is a quote from the book—will be my new band name. We will be a death metal klezmer band and we will serve pastrami finger sandwiches at our concerts. Come early and come often.” Check out the full review HERE.

Stick Andrew Smith

Stick (2011). From my review: “Stick is also a beautiful exploration of very different types of masculinity. Throughout the book, we get many examples of how Stick and Bosten’s father thinks men should be, down to his conviction that men don’t wear pajamas or use shampoo. Bosten and Stick don’t agree with their father’s notions, but, as Stick says, they never even thought about the rules. It’s just the way things are. Throughout Stick, then, Stick is exposed to multiple models of all the other ways to be a man there are besides his father’s, some violent, some desperate, some generous.” Check out the full review HERE.

The Marbury Lens Andrew Smith

The Marbury Lens (The Marbury Lens #1) (2010). From my review: “The Marbury Lens asks what it would feel like to suddenly become aware that the world you have thought to be all-encompassing actually breaks apart quite easily to reveal another world touching it.” Check out the full review HERE.

procured from: I received an ARC of this book from the publisher (thanks!) in exchange for an honest review. Grasshopper Jungle by Andrew Smith will be available tomorrow!

Grasshopper Jungle Andrew Smith

Fists Up: Phoenix Island

A review of Phoenix Island, by John Dixon

Gallery Books (Simon & Schuster), 2014

Phoenix Island John Dixon

by REBECCA, February 5, 2014


Carl Freeman beats up bullies to protect the underdog and it’s landed him in trouble. A foster kid who no one will miss, he’s shipped off to Phoenix Island to be “rehabilitated,” military-style. But Phoenix Island is no rehabilitation; in fact, the people there are like nothing he could have imagined.


“A champion boxer with a sharp hook and a short temper, sixteen-year-old Carl Freeman has been shuffled from foster home to foster home. He can’t seem to stay out of trouble, using his fists to defend weaker classmates from bullies. His latest incident sends his opponent to the emergency room, and now the court is sending Carl to the worst place on earth: Phoenix Island.

Classified as a terminal facility, it’s the end of the line for delinquents who have no home, no family, and no future. Located somewhere far off the coast of the United States and immune to its laws, the island is a grueling Spartan-style boot camp run by sadistic drill sergeants who show no mercy to their young, orphan trainees. Sentenced to stay until his eighteenth birthday, Carl plans to play by the rules, so he makes friends with his wisecracking bunkmate, Ross, and a mysterious gray-eyed girl named Octavia. But he makes enemies, too, and . . . endures a string of punishments. . . . But that’s nothing compared to what awaits him in the Chop Shop: a secret government lab where Carl is given something he never dreamed of.” (Goodreads)

I’m deleting the rest of the blurb because I really, really wish that it didn’t GIVE AWAY the twist of the entire second half of the book. What were they thinking? Anyway, you can read the rest on Goodreads if you want it spoiled for you, but I’d highly recommend reading Phoenix Island without it.

Phoenix Island is John Dixon’s first novel and is the inspiration for CBS’ upcoming show, Intelligence, to which it seems to bear only a passing resemblance, but which I’m still curious to check out. Either way, Phoenix Island is an interesting, fast-paced read and I hope it doesn’t get looked over in the public’s rush to watch Josh Holloway.

G.I. JaneThe first half of the novel is about the trials and tribulations that Carl faces when he arrives on the island along with a bunch of other end-of-the-liners. Like any good military school, people are expected to follow stupid orders, are denigrated for having individuality, and are generally forced to follow the kinds of rules that would make me go on a killing spree. Carl doesn’t like it there, either. Most of all, he hates Parker, the idiotic drill sergeant who torments anyone who steps out of line, and has taken a particular dislike to Carl, whom he calls Hollywood, seemingly because in expressing an opinion, Carl must be a showboat; ergo, a movie star? Who knows; the guy’s a first-rate toolbag.

What quickly becomes clear to Carl is that Parker and the other powers that be on Phoenix Island can do anything to them, including kill them, and no one will ever know about it. When Carl finds a diary entry from a kid who used to live on the island hidden away, he realizes that he and the other kids are about to begin the next phase of their training—a phase where many of them will die, and some of them will never be the same again. And I’m not going to say anything about what happens after that because, again, I think it’s a real mistake to go into it knowing the plot of the second half.

Beauty Queens Libba BraySo, here’s the deal. This is a compelling read with an interesting plot. It’s well-paced and the reveals are done skillfully. However, it is was an extremely frustrating read for me in precisely the same way that being on Phoenix Island is a frustrating experience for Carl: there’s simply no recourse for these poor kids, and no good option. They are living in a world of lose-lose, and for anyone who was lucky enough not to grow up that way, it is infuriating to be forced to occupy a space where every option is a bad one. In fact, I spent a lot of the time while I was reading this book thinking about how incredibly lucky I was not to feel the way Carl and the other orphans (not to mention large numbers of real people) feel. (I also spent a lot of time thinking how awesome it would be to do a compare-contrast read of Phoenix Island and Beauty Queens . . .)

Lord of the Flies William GoldingThere’s no gaming the system on Phoenix Island; no success that helps you and no failure that saves you. It’s a claustrophobic world of torment exactly like I imagine the military to be. There are a number of scenes that are reminiscent of Lord of the Fliesin that the kids are pitted against one another and choose to sacrifice one another to save themselves instead of attempting to stand together. There is also a bit of Ender’s Game to Phoenix Island, in that Carl is being watched and, despite what I’ve said about there being no gaming the system, he manages to act in a way that brings him to the attention of the one person with the power to take him out of the game—even if that does deposit him smack dab in the middle of another one.

I enjoyed Phoenix Island even when it got gritty and disgusting (like, bugs crawling into wounds, sharks eating corpses, noses smashing disgusting). Dixon, his bio informs me, used to be a Golden Gloves boxer, and his fight scenes are some of the best I’ve read. He manages to capture both the feeling of fighting and it’s strategy in a way that feels very realistic and indicates things about the characters. The plot takes a sharp left in the second half, but this later plot is clearly what we have been leading up to. It’s an interesting choice and the way it plays out looks like it’s gearing up to be the first in a series, so I imagine the later books will balance out the slightly-awkward first versus second half issue of pacing.

The major issue with the novel for me was the lack of character development. Dixon relied on the characters’ actions to communicate nearly everything about them—Carl defends bullies, so he’s our de facto hero, etc.—rather than giving them much internal complexity. His use of third person limited POV doesn’t do him any favors in this regard. For the most part, we follow Carl, but Dixon’s third person isn’t revelatory; rather, it’s mostly factual, so I don’t feel like I know much even about the main character.

Ender's Game Orson Scott CardThe sudden, clumsy intrusion of Octavia’s POV seven chapters into the book exacerbates this problem. It is clearly done out of necessity, as the reader needs to know things that are happening while Carl is elsewhere, but because Octavia’s character isn’t terribly developed and she’s only used as a pair of eyes to see through when Carl’s not around, it is jarring and unsatisfying. It also creates a problem when Carl and Octavia interact because sometimes the narrative voices seems unsure whether to default to Carl’s POV as the majority of the book does or take an opportunity to make it more balanced and go with Octavia so she gets more screen time. Either way, it feels forced and would have worked better if Octavia were at all developed as a character.

The lack of character development puts Phoenix Island firmly in the category of plot-based action story, for me, but it was a solid plot-based action story with just enough perversity to hold my interest. I’m hoping we get some better character development in the rest of the series.


Insignia S.J. Kincaid

Insignia (Insignia #1), by S.J. Kincaid (2012). Fourteen-year-old Tom Raines trails after his itinerant gambler father, hustling virtual reality game rooms to pay for their hotels. He wants to be important, to be respected, but even his school teacher thinks he’s going nowhere fast. That all changes, though, when a military higher-up recruits Tom to an elite military academy to train him as a strategist for the war (World War III). But in a world run by corporations and microcomputers, how will Tom know what he’s really fighting for? My full review is HERE.

Beauty Queens Libba Bray

Beauty Queens, by Libba Bray (2011). In some ways the opposite of Phoenix Island—a lot of characterization; a LOT of satire; a LOT of hilarity—Beauty Queens is also about a group of people stuck on an island who must contend with evil overlords who want to change the world for the ahem not-better. My full review is HERE.

procured from: I received an ARC of this book from the publisher (thanks!) in exchange for my honest review. John Dixon’s Phoenix Island is available now.

Phoenix Island John Dixon

45 Days: Suicide Notes, a Novel

A review of Suicide Notes by Michael Thomas Ford

HarperTeen, 2008

Suicide Notes Michael Thomas Ford

by REBECCA, February 3, 2014


Fifteen-year-old Jeff wakes up in a psych ward on New Year’s Day, committed for 45 days of therapy. But it’s a total mistake, because Jeff wasn’t actually trying to kill himself; not really. And, obviously, it’s the other kids in the ward with him who are crazy. Right?


Michael Thomas Ford’s Suicide Notes takes place over the course of Jeff’s 45 days in the psych ward, and the backstory of how he ended up there is revealed slowly, as he gets to know the other kids in the ward with him, talks to his therapist, Dr. Katzrupus, whom he calls Cat Poop, and eventually confronts his parents. Like the circumscribed ward in which Jeff finds himself, Suicide Notes is a book that knows its limits. It tells a very particular story and does it well, but it’s a bounded story; one that doesn’t attempt to break those boundaries, but instead takes advantage of them to explore its small scope.

Girl, Interrupted Susanna KaysenOne of the things Suicide Notes does best is show how Jeff moves, psychologically, from being in denial about his suicide attempt at the beginning, to finally accepting not only what he did but why he felt the need to do it. When we first meet Jeff, he’s cloaked any vulnerability in aggressively smart-ass banter. He listens to the other kids in his therapy group with pity, thinking how messed-up they are. There’s Alice, who set her molester on fire, Juliet, who’s delusional, Bone, who doesn’t say anything, and Sadie, who was saved from a suicide attempt by a stranger. Jeff insists he doesn’t belong there, but little by little, he realizes that they don’t seem crazy, either.

Jeff makes friends with Sadie, since they both are up late at night, and, as they get closer, he finds himself thinking about his best friend, Allie. When Jeff’s sister tells him that Allie hasn’t asked about his absence from school, Jeff is forced to consider what role Allie and her boyfriend, Burke, had to play in his feelings the night he tried to kill himself.

After Jeff has been in the psych ward for two weeks, two new kids come: Martha, a twelve-year-old who has been through horrific trauma, but seems to take a shine to Jeff, and Rankin, a jock-y football player. It’s Rankin’s confusing behavior that finally shakes loose the fears and feelings that Jeff hasn’t been able to acknowledge. When Jeff finds himself in over his head with Rankin, he is forced to confront his suicide attempt and everything that led up to it.

I Never Promised You A Rose Garden Joanne GreenbergSuicide Notes follows in the footsteps of novels like I Never Promised You A Rose Garden (1964) and Girl, Interrupted (1993). As I said, it’s a small, short, focused novel, and Jeff’s voice is the star. He is hard to like at first, since he keeps people—himself included—at such a distance. As he warms to himself, though, I did too. The other characters are a bit sketchy, whether because they’re not particularly developed or because Jeff only encounters them in an artificial way, during group therapy. Similarly, Jeff’s life outside the psych ward is sketchy, and we only get the briefest of descriptions of who he was in that context. All of this, combined with the book’s short length, makes for a slice-of-life feel. We learn a lot about some things and virtually nothing about anything else. This approach seems to match Jeff’s experience of being in an unfamiliar place where he feels out of sync with his real life, but it also left me wanting to know more about Jeff—more particularities about who he was, instead of just what he felt. 

Suicide Notes kind of set the standard of the new generation of teen psych ward fiction that would follow. And, as such, it’s a solid, enjoyable, and touching read. But, while it’s a solid starting point, it just doesn’t have the wow-factor of a novel like Last Night I Sang to the Monster, by Benjamin Alire Sáenz, which has a similar narrative structure of using the group therapy setting to reconstruct memories, or the staying power of Ned Vizzini’s It’s Kind of a Funny Story. That doesn’t make it a bad book at all—it’s a basic book, and it does what it does very well.


Last Night I Sang To The Monster Benjamin Alire Sáenz

Last Night I Sang to the Monster, by Benjamin Alire Sáenz (2009). This is one of the most beautiful and sad books out there. Sáenz is also a poet, and it absolutely shows in his command of prose. The combination of such gorgeous prose and a difficult story, narrated by a character who is dealing with the aftereffects of some horrible events adds up to a book that changed the way I thought about first-person narratives. My full review of Last Night I Sang To the Monster is HERE.

It's Kind of a Funny Story Ned Vizzini

It’s Kind of a Funny Story, by Ned Vizzini (2006). Inspired by the author’s own brief stay in a psych hospital, It’s Kind of a Funny Story tells the story of Craig, whose anxiety and depression as he attempts to get into prep school make him want to kill himself, and lead to him checking himself into a psych hospital instead. See Tessa’s complete review HERE.

OCD Love Story Corey Ann Haydu

OCD Love Story, by Corey Ann Haydu (2013). Bea knows she’s a bit messed up—ever since “the incident” last year, she’s been seeing a therapist—but she thinks she’s got things pretty much under control. Heck, she even met a boy at a school dance recently! But now Dr. Pat wants her to join a therapy group for teens with Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder. As Bea starts a relationship with Beck her own OCD begins to spiral out of control. My full review of the wonderful OCD Love Story is HERE.

procured from: the library

A Polar Vortex of Winter YA Covers!

Cat In Snow

by REBECCA, January 22, 2014

Friends, it snowed all yesterday and last night here in Philly, and my cat and I watched it pile up with glee. I love, love, love the snow! Here, in snowlidarity, is a big old igloo of snowy YA covers.

The Golden Compass Philip Pullman      Made of Stars Kelley York

The Snow Garden Christopher Rice      The Tragedy Paper Elizabeth La Ban

Winter of Fire Sherryl Jordan      Shiver Maggie Stiefvater

Trapped Michael Northrop      The Death Cure Maze Runner 3 James Dashner

Ice Sarah Beth Durst      Kiss of Frost Jennifer Estep

Winter Town Steve Emond      The Winter Witch Paula Brackston

Winter Damage Natasha Carthew      Winter's Bone Daniel Woodrell

The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe C.S. Lewis      Let it snow John green maureen johnson lauren myracle


In Honor of MLK Day, Books About Fighting Oppression

A List of Books With Messages of Fighting For Social Justice

martin luther king jr martin luther king jr

by REBECCA, January 20, 2014

Today is Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, and in its honor I’ve compiled a list of YA books about fighting injustice and oppression, both the small scale and large.

Proxy Alex London

Proxy (Proxy #1), by Alex London (2013)

As a Patron, Knox has and does anything he wants, as if there were no consequences to his actions. Because there aren’t. Well, not for him. Syd is Knox’s Proxy: any transgression of Knox’s is taken out of Syd’s hide. It’s been this way since they were boys, and Syd has learned to deal with the nerve-spasming pain of shocks, the beatings, and the manual labor. But when Knox kills a friend, Syd’s punishment may as well be a death sentence. But there are things brewing that are larger than Knox and Syd. In this future, where everything has a price, two boys will set out to see if they can take down the system. Great commentary on the crux of class and race in capitalism’s trash-economy with a kick-ass gay protag of color. My full review is HERE and the sequel comes out this Spring.

The Rock and the River Kekla Magoon

The Rock and the River (The Rock and the River #1), by Kekla Magoon

“The Time: 1968. The Place: Chicago. For thirteen-year-old Sam it’s not easy being the son of known civil rights activist Roland Childs. Especially when his older (and best) friend, Stick, begins to drift away from him for no apparent reason. And then it happens: Sam finds something that changes everything forever. Sam has always had faith in his father, but when he finds literature about the Black Panthers under Stick’s bed, he’s not sure who to believe: his father or his best friend. Suddenly, nothing feels certain anymore. Sam wants to believe that his father is right: You can effect change without using violence. But as time goes on, Sam grows weary of standing by and watching as his friends and family suffer at the hands of racism in their own community. Sam beings to explore the Panthers with Stick, but soon he’s involved in something far more serious—and more dangerous—than he could have ever predicted. Sam is faced with a difficult decision. Will he follow his father or his brother? His mind or his heart? The rock or the river?” (Goodreads).

Shadoweyes Ross Campbell

SHADOWEYES Ross CampbellShadoweyes, vol. 1, by Ross Campbell (2010)

In a dystopian society, humans live on garbage heaps and there isn’t much protection for those who can’t protect themselves. One day, Scout becomes able to turn into a blue superhuman creature with claws and the ability to protect the downtrodden. Along with her best friend, Kyisha, Scout embraces her new form and tries to protect her neighbors from those who would take advantage of them. For Scout, this means everything from stopping muggers to befriending her offbeat classmate Sparkle . . . and rescuing her. Tessa’s full review is HERE, and you can read Shadoweyes on Campbell’s website HERE.

Moxyland Lauren Beukes moxyland Lauren Beukes

Moxyland, by Lauren Beukes (2008)

Moxyland “follows the lives of four narrators living in an alternative futuristic Cape Town, South Africa. Kendra, an art-school dropout, brands herself for a nanotech marketing program; Lerato, an ambitious AIDS baby, plots to defect from her corporate employers; Tendeka, a hot-headed activist, is becoming increasingly rabid; and Toby, a roguish blogger, discovers that the video games he plays for cash are much more than they seem. On a collision course that will rewire their lives, this story crackles with bold and infectious ideas, connecting a ruthless corporate-apartheid government with video games, biotech attack dogs, slippery online identities, a township soccer school, shocking cell phones, addictive branding, and genetically modified art. Taking hedonistic trends in society to their ultimate conclusions, this tale paints anything but a forecasted utopia, satirically undermining the reified idea of progress as society’s white knight.” (Goodreads)

Beautiful Music For Ugly Children

Beautiful Music For Ugly Children, by Kirstin Cronn-Mills (2012)

Shy trans guy Gabe is a huge music fan (Elvis in particular) and an aspiring DJ. The summer after high school, Gabe gets the chance of a lifetime from his musical mentor, John: a chance at his own radio show, “Beautiful Music For Ugly Children.” In high school, Gabe was stuck as Elizabeth, hiding who he really was. On the air, though, Gabe is able to be himself and let his B-side play, inspiring others to do the same. With his newfound attention, though, come threats, and Gabe must decide whether to stand by his message of radical acceptance or go off the air. My full review is HERE.

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix J.K. Rowling Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix J.K. Rowling

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, by J.K. Rowling (2003)

Possibly my favorite Harry Potter book! At the end of book four, Voldemort returns. Now, in response to those rumors, the Ministry of Magic is threatened by Dumbledore’s power at Hogwarts. In Ron, Harry, and Hermione’s fifth year at Hogwarts, the Ministry sends Delores Umbrage to check Dumbledore’s power. Little by little, she strips away the students’ rights, including the ability to meet in groups or use magic to defend themselves, so the gang forms Dumbledore’s Army to teach themselves. I think this book is such a genius installment in the series, because it takes a brief break from the direct threat of evil overlord Voldemort and turns to the bureaucratic evil that occurs as a result of fear of evil, and can be just as oppressive.

Santa Olivia Jacqueline Carey

Santa Olivia (Santa Olivia #1), by Jacqueline Carey (2009)

“Loup Garron was born and raised in Santa Olivia, an isolated, disenfranchised town next to a US military base inside a DMZ buffer zone between Texas and Mexico. A fugitive ‘Wolf-Man’ who had a love affair with a local woman, Loup’s father was one of a group of men genetically-manipulated and used by the US government as a weapon. Loup, named for and sharing her father’s wolf-like qualities, is marked as an outsider.

After her mother dies, Loup goes to live among the misfit orphans at the parish church, where they seethe from the injustices visited upon the locals by the soldiers. Eventually, the orphans find an outlet for their frustrations: They form a vigilante group to support Loup Garron who, costumed as their patron saint, Santa Olivia, uses her special abilities to avenge the town. Aware that she could lose her freedom, and possibly her life, Loup is determined to fight to redress the wrongs her community has suffered. And like the reincarnation of their patron saint, she will bring hope to all of Santa Olivia.” (Goodreads)

The Chocolate War Robert Cormier

The Chocolate War, by Robert Cormier (1974)

Cormier’s often-banned book is a classic now, but was rather radical in its time. At Trinity, Jerry’s school, there is an annual fundraiser and all the students sell chocolates. As part of a hazing ritual, Jerry is told to refuse to sell chocolates for ten days. This is bad enough, in the eyes of the Brother Leon, the chocolate-zealot in charge of the sale at Trinity. But, after ten days, even though his hazing is over, Jerry keeps on refusing to sell chocolates. And what started as a silly prank turns into a full-scale civil disobedience. Tessa’s full review is HERE.

Little Brother Cory Doctorow

Little Brother (Little Brother #1), by Cory Doctorow (2008)

Hacker Marcus and his crew are gaming in the wrong place at the wrong time—in San Francisco after a terrorist attack. After being taken into custody by the Department of Homeland Security, they’re placed in a secret prison and interrogated mercilessly. After their release, Marcus realizes that the city has become a police state, with limited access to internet resources, surveillance of private citizens, and civil liberties violations up the wazoo. Marcus sets out to free the people (and the information), bending his not inconsiderable skills toward taking down the DHS himself. Awesome example of kids using the resources available to them to change the world. And Doctorow practices the freedom of information he preaches; you can download Little Brother HERE.

Catching Fire Hunger Games Suzanne Collins

Catching Fire (The Hunger Games #2), by Suzanne Collins (2009)

While Mockingjay (The Hunger Games #3) takes the Rebellion as its subject, I’m more interested in the political messages in Catching Fire. [Spoiler alert, in case there's anyone on the planet who hasn't read it or seen the movie] Rather than depending on a hero, as in so many YA dystopias, in Catching Fire, the Rebellion recognize the effect that Katniss can have on their efforts and realize that they must preserve her so she can serve as their symbol after the quarter quell is over. Tributes from multiple districts unite against the Capital to do so, risking their own lives to get Katniss out of the arena. Bloody genius.

Inside Out Maria V. Snyder Inside Out Maria V. Snyder

Inside Out (Insider #1), by Maria V. Snyder (2010)

“I’m Trella. I’m a scrub. A nobody. One of thousands who work the lower levels, keeping Inside clean for the Uppers. I’ve got one friend, do my job and try to avoid the Pop Cops. So what if I occasionally use the pipes to sneak around the Upper levels? The only neck at risk is my own . . . until I accidentally start a rebellion and become the go-to girl to lead a revolution.”

And, finally, for our little brothers and sisters in struggle:

A is for Activist Innosanto Nagara

A is for Activist, by Innosanto Nagara (2012)

A board book for the next generation’s fight for justice.

Let’s keep dreaming a better world into being, my friends.

“A World Without Magic or Miracles”: The Sea of Tranquility

A Review of The Sea of Tranquillity, by Katja Millay

Antisocialite Press, 2012/Atria Books (Simon & Schuster), 2012

The Sea of Tranquillity Katja Milla

by REBECCA, January 15, 2014

Though I got an ARC of The Sea of Tranquility more than a year ago, I put off reading it because I was worried it would be one more story of a high school romance that gave the characters past traumas instead of character development, insecurities instead of plot. The blurb sounded intriguing, but like it could go either way:

I live in a world without magic or miracles. A place where there are no clairvoyants or shapeshifters, no angels or superhuman boys to save you. A place where people die and music disintegrates and things suck. I am pressed so hard against the earth by the weight of reality that some days I wonder how I am still able to lift my feet to walk.

Former piano prodigy Nastya Kashnikov wants two things: to get through high school without anyone learning about her past and to make the boy who took everything from her—her identity, her spirit, her will to live—pay.

Josh Bennett’s story is no secret: every person he loves has been taken from his life until, at seventeen years old, there is no one left. Now all he wants is be left alone and people allow it because when your name is synonymous with death, everyone tends to give you your space.

Everyone except Nastya, the mysterious new girl at school who starts showing up and won’t go away until she’s insinuated herself into every aspect of his life. But the more he gets to know her, the more of an enigma she becomes. As their relationship intensifies and the unanswered questions begin to pile up, he starts to wonder if he will ever learn the secrets she’s been hiding—or if he even wants to.” (Goodreads)

It turns out, The Sea of Tranquility, Katja Millay’s amazing debut, was everything I was hoping it would be. First off, it’s not a romance, genre-wise—as in, it’s not a book where the narrative arc is set by romantic developments between the characters. It’s good, old-fashioned literary realism that happens to feature teenagers but could just as easily be marketed as adult literary fiction. Told in chapters that alternate between Nastya and Josh’s perspectives, this is a story about how our scars and traumas of the past affect our present.

F5B7633BF84D4E55BB7A4D9FA3BE1B7DBefore she was attacked, Nastya only cared about playing the piano perfectly. When she moves to a new town to live with her aunt and start a new school all she wants is to disappear. She dresses to keep people at arm’s length and, if that isn’t enough, she hasn’t spoken in over a year. Josh’s entire family has died, one by one, and he spends his time woodworking in his garage to shut the world out. Both are buried in worlds of their own making. Josh is convinced that if he lets anyone in he won’t be able to bear it when they leave him. Nastya is eaten up with the poison she feels toward the world and knows that speaking might let it out; and she needs it, because someday she plans to have her revenge.

What happened to Nastya to end her piano career is revealed slowly, petals unfurling throughout the book, and the facts of her attack aren’t particularly important. The point is that it changed her worldview and her voice is boiling over with vitriol and fear. The only way she manages to keep it together is exercise and baking. Every night, when her aunt and all her neighbors are asleep, she runs until she can’t run any more. One of those nights, her run takes her to a garage lit against the night: Josh’s. Slowly, in silence, they learn to be more comfortable with each other, to trust one another when they aren’t able interact with others.

The characterization in The Sea of Tranquility is spot-on. The characters’ circumstances aren’t wholly unique—there are certainly other books about a girl remaking herself after an attack, or about a boy shutting the world out after the death of his family. Still, they are particular in just the way good litfic manages. Nastya is hiding a whole life behind her heavy makeup and her silence and Millay strikes just the right balance between what Nastya reveals to the reader but keeps from Josh and what she lets him know.

At first, Josh’s character seems less complex than Nastya’s, as if he’ll be the proverbial safe-haven character, the warmly lit garage where she can land. But Millay does a masterful job of slowly revealing, as he gets more comfortable with Nastya, who Josh is when he’s not clenched so tight that no emotion can escape. Also, I love anything about an expert, and the scenes about Josh’s woodworking were awesome. The only friend Josh has is Drew, school golden boy with a perfect family and not a care in the world. Though they don’t acknowledge each other at school (to allow Josh to maintain his invisibility), Drew’s family is all Josh has left. Some of the most interesting dynamics occur when Drew is in the picture. Rather than being obnoxious, Drew is hyper-conscious of his picture-perfect life and behaves as if he can bring Nastya and Josh into it.

Little by little, everything that Nastya has slowly built in her new home unravels—after all, its foundations were so very tenuous—and both she and Josh have to face the fact that scars don’t go away. And sometimes, they don’t even heal. The Sea of Tranquility is long for YA (about 450 pages) but it never drags. The prose is beautiful and (one of my favorite things) Josh’s and Katya’s voices sound very different, and both are galvanizing. If you’re in the mood for a piece of beautifully-crafted psychological drama, The Sea of Tranquility is definitely for you. I can’t wait to see what first-time author Katja Millay comes up with next.


Forbidden Tabitha Suzuma

Forbidden by Tabitha Suzuma (2010). Lochan and Maya have been acting like parents to their younger sibs ever since their father left. But, now, things have gotten really bad. As their family spirals out of control, Lochan and Maya turn to each other for support and care, and begin to realize that their feelings of love are romantic as well as familial. Can they keep their family together and still have a chance to be together when everything seems to be against them? My full review is HERE.

Made of Stars Kelley York

Made of Stars by Kelley York (2013). Hunter and his half-sister Ashlin have been friends with Chance since they were all kids, but haven’t seen him in a few years. Now, back together, they realize that there are things about Chance they’ve never realized. And they will change everything. Great character-building from a great author. My full review is HERE.

procured by: I received an ARC of this book from the publisher (thanks!) in exchange for an honest review. Katja Millay’s The Sea of Tranquility is available now.


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