Teens With Special Abilities? I’m In! The Naturals

A Review of The Naturals by Jennifer Lynn Barnes

Disney-Hyperion, 2013

The Naturals by Jennifer Lynn Barnes

by REBECCA, December 30, 2013

Cassie has an amazing ability to read people—to look at them and piece together the stories of their lives. Usually, she uses this talent to figure out whether someone will want wheat toast or rye, but when a mysterious boy leaves a card for her from an FBI agent, her whole life changes. Cassie is recruited into an experimental FBI program with other talented teens, for the purpose of using their exceptional skills to crack cold cases. When she arrives, it seems like Cassie’s biggest problem will be avoiding a love triangle. But when a serial killer’s victims strike close to home, Cassie finds herself using her skills on a case that’s far from cold—and she might just be the next victim. Duhn duhn duhn!

The Naturals was a joy to read. It’s very fast-paced, exciting, and has just enough mystery to be intriguing. The premise is one that I’m a total sucker for: people with the ability to see more than meets the eye. Sherlock Holmes, Inspecter Dupin, whatshisname from Lie To Me, whatshisname from Psych—I love watching experts at deduction or micro-expression reading or whatever at work. I love the idea that there are people to whom the sum of all our messy parts is deducible! So, basically, I was going into The Naturals already a fan of the concept. Add to it a group of teens who are geniuses at different types of hyper-sensing and they’re living together and trying to solve cases, and I’m on cloud nine.

And, in a lot of ways, The Naturals lived up to the promise of its concept. The mystery that begins once Cassie arrives at the FBI program was engaging, and the reveal felt pretty satisfying. Do I think some people will be able to solve the mystery? Yes. But I definitely always wanted to keep reading and cared about what happened anyway. It is, all in all, a clean, well-paced mystery with some fun characters and plenty of interpersonal teen tension.

For me, though, it was just a little bit too clean. And that cleanness permeated all aspects of The Naturals, from the mystery to the backstory. Most importantly, the characters are pretty solidly dull except for their powers of observation, deduction, and computation. Even Cassie, our protagonist, isn’t an interesting character; her ability  is interesting, but she is only interesting insofar as she possesses it. One thing that was missing (and that would deepen the book a lot) was some insight into how these teens’ abilities had affected their real lives: their interactions with their peers, their relationships with family members, etc. Instead, we got no sense of the characters outside their narrowly defined abilities. Given this, further, I also would have liked a lot more about the ways in which they use their talents.

The whole thing just felt a little bit too slick and moved a little bit too fast for anything but the plot to matter. And I think that’s a shame, because there is so much to like about The Naturals. For example, Cassie’s unique powers of deduction through observation were developed because her mother used to work as a psychic, and Cassie would scout the crowd for her. That’s so cool! Looking for what? Who knows. Was she always so good at it? The title would suggest yes, but who knows. Was her mother good at it too? No idea. Did her ability make her feel . . . anything? Great question; don’t know. There is such potential for really complicated, awesome, deep psychological interest among these characters, but we don’t even know anything about our protagonist, much less the rest of them.

Often, such a lack of development portends the start of a new series, so I wonder if that will be the case with The Naturals. I would definitely welcome a sequel. All told, The Naturals is a totally engaging and enjoyable read—but it had the potential to be amazing. I can’t help but be a bit disappointed that it’s a rather sanitized version of such a gritty, dark concept.

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Wake Lisa McMann Fade Lisa McMann Gone Lisa McMann

Dream Catcher series, Lisa McMann (2008-9). Janie can’t help it: she gets sucked into other people’s dreams. When she falls into a different kind of terrifying nightmare, Janie isn’t just an observer—now she has a part to play.

Dark Visions L.J. Smith Dark Visions L.J. Smith Dark Visions L.J. Smith

Dark Visions series, L.J. Smith (1994-5). Kaitlyn Fairchild is psychic. Sick of people thinking she’s a witch, Kaitlyn accepts an invitation to go study at the Zetes Institute with other psychic teens. She’s told that she can learn the extent of her powers and become friends with others like her. The truth, of course, turns out to be a whole lot more sinister. Not as good as my beloved Secret Circle trilogy, but still enjoyable.

procured from: I received an ARC from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.  Thanks! The Naturals by Jennifer Lynn Barnes is available now.

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How To Have A Happy YA Xmas

. . . Even If You Don’t Celebrate It

Nightmare before christmas

by REBECCA, December 25, 2013

I don’t celebrate Christmas and, really, I could do without 95% of the crass commercialism and 100% of anything to do with chipmunks singing carols. That does not mean, though, that I’m immune to the delightful goshdarned cheer of a great Christmas scene. (I missed doing a Chanukah reading list this year since Chanukah began on Thanksgiving, so this year, I am being a traitor to my people and only doing a Christmas post. So be it.) So, here are five of my favorite Xmas scenes in YA books, tv, and movies! Happy, Merry, Cheery reading.

my-so-called-life-so-called-angels

My So-Called Life, “So-Called Angels”

One of the best Xmas episodes EVER! Rickie has left home and is wandering the streets; Rayanne and Sharon are bonding over working a holiday teen helpline, which Brian Krakow calls; and Angela meets a haunting musician who shows her how lucky she is to be alive. Spoiler Alert/The Title: the musician is an angel! Also, she’s played by Juliana Hatfield. My sister and some friends and I watched this episode the other day and I was shocked at how much like Breakfast Club-era Ally Sheedy Juliana Hatfield looked. Omg, here’s a video with her, Jared Leto, and Kennedy (remember Kennedy!?) chatting in a diner HERE. Sidebar: I just googled Juliana Hatfield to make sure I was spelling her name right, and Wikipedia tells me that her father claims to be descended from the Hatfields of Hatfield-McCoy feuding fame. Yowza.

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone: Harry’s First Christmas at Hogwarts

Every holiday at Hogwarts is freaking awesome, but nothing compares with Harry’s first ever happy Christmas. He wakes in his four-poster on Christmas morning and, for the first time, has real presents, including an infamous Weasley sweater and the invisibility cloak, and an amazing dinner:

Harry had never in all his life had such a Christmas dinner. A hundred fat, roast turkeys, mountains of roast and boiled potatoes, platters of fat chipolatas, tureens of buttered peas, silver boats of thick, rich gravy and cranberry sauce—and stacks of wizard crackers every few feet along the table. . . . Flaming Christmas puddings followed the turkey. . . . Harry and the Weasleys spent a happy afternoon having a furious snowball fight on the grounds. Then, cold, wet, and gasping for breath, they returned to the fire in the Gryffindor common room, where Harry broke in his new chess set by losing spectacularly to Ron. . . . It had been Harry’s best Christmas day ever.”

Nightmare before Christmas

The Nightmare Before Christmas

A combination of Christmas and Halloween? I mean, it’s so smart that I can’t believe no one thought of it before 1993. Trust Tim Burton to be the one to see how easily the garish cheer of a holiday to which we all know the rules can shade into total gothic terror when approached by someone who doesn’t. The scene where Jack Skellington does his mad scientist routine to figure out the equation that will produce Christmas is one of the best things ever. Eureka!

Little Women

Little Women: Christmas Morning

I love Little Women in general, but the March family Christmas is particularly good, whether it’s the book version or any of the movie adaptations. From trying to figure out how to buy each other Christmas presents with nearly no money to singing carols as a family, Little Women is probably the best of Xmas: family, togetherness, and sharing. Ok, so involvement with the Hummels doesn’t turn out to well in the long run (cough *Beth* cough), giving them their Christmas breakfast probably taught a new generation of children about generosity each time a new movie adaptation came out (I can still picture Kirsten Dunst’s reluctant dimpled sacrifice). Bonus points for two appearances of Claire Danes on this list!

The Dark Is Rising Susan Cooper

The Dark Is Rising: Dark Is Rising #2

Will Stanton’s solstice slash Christmas slash eleventh birthday are chock-a-block with family, snow, and weird happenings. The first quarter of the book—the Christmasy part—is dark and wintry and eerie and grim and delightful. As the blurb puts it, Will “discovers he is the last of immortal Old Ones dedicated to keeping the world from domination by the forces of evil, the Dark.” NO BIG DEAL AND A MERRY BLOODY CHRISTMAS TO YOU, TOO, WILL!

Let it Snow John Green

Finally, has anyone read Let It Snow, the collection of three interconnected Christmas tales by John Green, Maureen Johnson, and Lauren Myracle? It looks rather charming.

Well, friends, I hope you all have/have had/will have lovely, cheer-drenched holidays with your assorted families, friends, and pets! Allow me to leave you with a picture of my cat, as you are thus assured at least some cheer. Dorian Gray:

the cutest cat in the world

Contemporary YA for Dog Lovers

A Review of Meeting Chance by Jennifer LaVoie

Bold Strokes Books, 2013

Meeting Chance Jennifer Lavoie

by REBECCA, December 23, 2013

Y’all, it was an apocalyptic 67 degrees here in Philly yesterday, so I thought I’d go with a summer book for today’s review, even though the weather called for a list of Snow Day Reads a mere week ago.

Aaron Cassidy was attacked by a dog when he was a kid, leaving him with visible scars and a deep-seated phobia of dogs. After he gets his driver’s license, though, he decides to conquer his fear by volunteering at the local animal shelter. There, he meets two new friends: Finn, a volunteer who supports Aaron when his other friends have ditched him, and Chance, a pit bull whose scars mirror Aaron’s own. With Finn’s help, Aaron sets about overcoming his fears and learning that sometimes the things we fear are the things that we need the most.

At base, Meeting Chance is a really sweet book about a guy learning to overcome a fear and have compassion for what caused that fear. When Aaron first shows up at the animal shelter even the sound of a dog barking sends him into fits of terror. Little by little, fellow volunteer (and crush) Finn gets Aaron comfortable around puppies and able to be in the same room with dogs. When the police drop off a pit bull that they rescued from being attacked by other dogs, Aaron reacts with fear at first, but quickly identifies with the dog, who he names Chance, and comes to love love love him.

Andy Squared Jennifer LavoieSo, on that level, Meeting Chance succeeds. But that’s not quite enough to sustain a novel-length read, and Meeting Chance feels rather thin. This is something that I’ve found with Bold Strokes Books‘ young adult publications in general. Still, Jennifer Lavoie’s first book, Andy Squared, although the exact same length (a short 264 pages), had better character development and thus felt much more substantial.

For example, there is a sub-plot that involves Aaron’s relationship with his friends. Aaron came out to his parents and friends a while ago, and while his folks didn’t give him any grief about being gay, his two best friends were pretty freaked out and they haven’t been close ever since. Soon after Aaron starts volunteering, one of his ex-buds begins to bully one of the other kids in Aaron’s gay-straight alliance and rejects Aaron explicitly. Lavoie uses this situation to draw a parallel between Aaron getting over his fear of dogs and Aaron’s friends getting over their freaked-outness about him being gay. Aaron’s friends aren’t very well-drawn characters, though, so, in addition to the parallel plot feeling a bit contrived, I found myself hoping that Aaron would just dump them because, homophobia aside, they were both boring and one was a jerk.

But I think it’s really a question of categorization; that is, I think Meeting Chance is simply better suited for a younger audience. If I think of it as a book for high school freshman instead of an audience that’s the same age as Aaron and Finn (a junior and a senior) then it’s more successful. Finn was a more developed character, and the inner workings of the shelter were interesting. Overall, a sweet read for a young reader who loves dogs.

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Starting From Here Lisa Jenn Bigelow

 

Starting From Here by Lisa Jenn Bigelow (2012). Colby’s mom died two years ago, her girlfriend just dumped her, and her long-haul trucker dad is never home. When a dog is hit by a car right in front of her, Colby rushes to save it, and realizes that even though she’s afraid to have her heart broken again, maybe loving someone else is exactly what she needs. My full review of Starting From Here is HERE and our interview with author Lisa Jenn Bigelow is HERE.

Vintage Veronica Erica S. Perl

Vintage Veronica by Erica S. Perl (2010). Like Aaron, Veronica doesn’t have any friends and is about to learn some lessons about life and herself through her summer job. My full review is HERE.

 

procured from: I received an ARC this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. Meeting Chance by Jennifer Lavoie is available now.

Morsels: Delightful little things I’ve recently read.

by Tessa

There are few things more miraculous to me than a really good picture book. It must be economical in prose and relatively bold in picture, but immediately suggest a whole world and character, or cast of characters. It has to have details that mark it as a unique thing, but carry a universal message so it can be quickly resonant to its readers. Comfort and novelty in a well-designed, beautiful package.

I just read a slew of good, short books. Some are picture books, some are books with  pictures. But they all share a talent for attention-catching. Here are my morsels:

1. Herman and Rosie by Gus Gordon

hermanandrosie

I was tipped off to this title by super-librarian Betsy Bird’s Fuse No. 8 review on SLJ. As usual, her review covers all the bases illuminatingly, but I’ll add my personal likes.  The basic plot is that Herman and Rosie love similar things (Herman: “potted plants, playing the oboe, wild boysenberry yogurt, the smell of hot dogs in the winter, and watching films about the ocean” Rosie: “pancakes, listening to old jazz records, the summertime subway breeze, toffees that stuck to her teeth, singing on the fire escape. . . and watching films about the ocean.”), and live near each other. They both are sustained by their music and their routines despite feeling sort of lonely. . .until things fall apart. Will they find each other?

I’m not a NYC-fetishiser, but I do enjoy a city-in-the-winter, lonely-in-a-crowd vibe, and this captures it. Gordon’s palette ranges from bright blue piercingly sunny winter days to muted brown snowy nights. Nothing’s ever too bright; he brings the duality of neon and worn down floorboards of ajazz club to the picture book. He plays around with the page, repeating formats occasionally, but not over and over. Because the story is about 2 characters who are experiencing similar life journeys (and who obviously must meet by the book’s end!) there’s a lot of mirroring going on, in a seamless fashion. The art itself is full of collage and faux-scribbly elements, with a base of watercolory wash.

2. Fata Morgana by Jon Vermilyea

fatamorgana

Koyama Press and I both described this as “a feast for the eyes” . . . independently! Actually, I said “visual feast” and they said “feast for the eyes and mind”. Potato potahto. The day after I read this I looked up what Fata Morgana means, and listen to this: according to the Oxford Dictionary of Weather, 2nd ed. (by STORM DUNLOP!!), Fata morgana is a specific type of mirage, “in which the image of the actual surface appears in the form of a wall. The effect occurs when the temperature profile has an inflection, but is also relatively gentle. The atmosphere exhibits lensing properties but these are astigmatic, resulting in a redistribution of brightness within the image, often creating the effect of light and dark arches, and distant buildings.” and, according ot the Oxford Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, 2nd ed., comes from “a mirage seen in the Strait of Messina between Italy and Sicily and attributed to Morgan le Fey, whose legend and reputation were carried to Sicily by Norman settlers.” And if you don’t know, now you know.

Jon Vermilyea‘s Fata Morgana is a wordless, mostly plotless book of not-quite-psychadelic fever dreamscapes. So I’d say the title is apropos. Vermilyea’s cartooning suggests the weight of its characters. It has a real density to it, and he covers every landscape with intertwining details that push to the forefront of the page, forming a wall of round, drippy lines forming trunks and faces and bridges and who knows what. The coloring is bright, mixing pastels with bold, almost neon tones. It’s disorienting at times, and my only wish is that it were a series of fold-out posters so the gutter hadn’t gotten in the way.

3. The Bramble by Lee Nordling & Bruce Zick

thebramble

Fun fact: It turns out that Lee Nordling was the comic strip editor for Nickelodeon’s Rugrats comic. It’s not apparent right away, but after knowing that, I can see the influence of the Rugrats in the human characters of The Bramble. But the kids in this story skew more towards older picture books. They could exist anywhere from the 70s to now, and that’s what I like about them, with their skinny limbs, bulbous noses, and giant heads.

The Bramble is printed in blues and browns, and concerns a boy, Cameron, who bravely tries to make friends by crashing a game of tag, but is obliquely muscled out of his notions of friendship by the other boys refusing to play along with him. Instead, they just shout “You’re It!” over and over. Dehumanizing, no? Funnily enough, there’s a giant bramble patch right at the edge of the park. A creature is spying on the failed tag game, and Cameron catches a peek of it. In its haste to hide itself, it leaves its necklace behind. So Cameron follows it into the Bramble to return the necklace.

Thus follows a not-so-vaguely Wild Things type adventure. Cameron ends up defeating a weird sentient blob/tongue/wave thing by using the same bullying Tag tactics that were used by him, which endears the creatures of the Bramble to him and makes him more confident and able to leave the Bramble and befriend the bullies.

Clearly I have issues with that part of the story. What resonated with me was the wordless sequences where Cameron opened himself up to rejection, was rejected, entered a new, strange situation, and this time found acceptance. The emotional tone was spot on there, and it’s worth taking a look at the book just for that. I’m excited to see more picture books take a darker tone at times, since the shelves can sometimes feel glutted with pastel bunny love fests (they have their place, for sure,  but shouldn’t be the only thing out there.)

4. The Hole by Øyvind Torseter

thehole

“The Hole has simple, expressive drawings created by pen and computer, and there’s a hole punched right through the book, so it exists in real life, even if it can’t be explained.” – Enchanted Lion Books description

So, apparently Enchanted Lion Books has been around since 2003 and I’m just learning about it via The Hole. Now I have a whole backlist to discover!

The guy in The Hole has moved into an apartment. It has a hole, and the hole keeps moving. Of course, the hole is not moving, the drawings are moving. But the drawings are reality, if the reader accepts it, so the hole is moving. We see the dude realize what’s happening, call someone about it, capture the hole, and take it somewhere (I won’t spoil it, ha ha.) The one simple conceit is magical in and of itself, and Torseter’s simple lines and open spaces make it more charming, like you’re watching someone drawing the story for you (very Harold and the Purple Crayon!) There are some good photos of the art at the Brain Pickings review.

5. Hilda and the Troll by Luke Pearson

hildandthetroll

Hilda’s been around a while. This is the Flying Eye Books edition of Nobrow’s Hildafolk. Luke Pearson also wrote and illustrated Hilda and the Bird Parade and Hilda and the Midnight Giant, the former I’ve read and really liked, the latter of which I am looking forward to reading. He says that The Midnight Giant is “a follow up to Hildafolk, my 24-pager of one year ago, but it’s more of a reboot than a sequel and is hopefully the first of a series of albums exploring the same world.”

I had no trouble reading them out of “order” – Hilda is a self-assured girl and goes about her world so matter of factly that I couldn’t help but folow with a sympathetic attitude. (As in, my brain tuned into her vibes or something).

In this adventure, Hilda goes out to draw rocks, finds a troll rock (a troll that is in rock form), puts a bell on its nose for safety, and falls asleep instead of getting back to her house. The troll wakes up, and Hilda has to find her way home and also find a way to make things right with the troll. Trolls hate bells and she has set it up for eternal torment, because its arms can’t reach the bell on its nose to remove it.

The magical Scandinavian world here is a delight. It’s our modern world, but a more tuned into things like trolls and horned foxes and tree men. I love Hilda -she’s serious about her self and her interests, and still realistically a kid. She learns to see a bit more about her assumptions in this book, and her carelessness, and in the Bird Parade this learning continues. And she knows the value of being cosy in a rainy tent:

hil5

I hope all of you have something nice to read while sitting on a couch or in a tent, watching the snow fall or the rain drizzle or the breeze blow things around.

Snow Day! A List of Snowy YA Reads

Blizzard

by REBECCA, December 17, 2013

It’s winter! I know to a lot of people that means shivering and schlepping, but I love the winter. It’s so magical and cozy, and I like nothing better than to curl up in my half-busted reclining chair by the window and reading as the snow falls. The last two winters in Philadelphia have been unseasonally warm with no snow at all, much to my disappointment. I grew up in Michigan, and as a kid I adored playing in the snow; later, in middle and high school, every time there was a big snow storm, I would listen to the radio, hoping for a snow day.

So, in celebration of winter, and in an attempt to conjure some snow, here is a list of young adult books sure to bring about a snow day! All blurbs are from Goodreads.

Made of Stars Kelley York

Made of Stars, Kelley York

“When eighteen-year-old Hunter Jackson and his half sister, Ashlin, return to their dad’s for the first winter in years, they expect everything to be just like the warmer months they’d spent there as kids. And it is—at first. But Chance, the charismatic and adventurous boy who made their summers epic, is harboring deep secrets. Secrets that are quickly spiraling into something else entirely.

The reason they’ve never met Chance’s parents or seen his home is becoming clearer. And what the siblings used to think of as Chance’s quirks—the outrageous stories, his clinginess, his dangerous impulsiveness—are now warning signs that something is seriously off. Then Chance’s mom turns up with a bullet to the head, and all eyes shift to Chance and his dad. Hunter and Ashlin know Chance is innocent . . . they just have to prove it. But how can they protect the boy they both love when they can’t trust a word Chance says?”

My full review of the deliciously snowy Made of Stars is HERE.

The Tragedy Paper Elizabeth LaBan

The Tragedy Paper, Elizabeth LaBan

“Tim Macbeth, a seventeen-year-old albino and a recent transfer to the prestigious Irving School, where the motto is ‘Enter here to be and find a friend.’ A friend is the last thing Tim expects or wants—he just hopes to get through his senior year unnoticed. Yet, despite his efforts to blend into the background, he finds himself falling for the quintessential ‘t’ girl, Vanessa Sheller, girlfriend of Irving’s most popular boy. To Tim’s surprise, Vanessa is into him, too, but she can kiss her social status goodbye if anyone ever finds out. Tim and Vanessa begin a clandestine romance, but looming over them is the Tragedy Paper, Irving’s version of a senior year thesis, assigned by the school’s least forgiving teacher.”

My full review of The Tragedy Paper is HERE.

Tell the Wolves I'm Home Carol Rifka Brunt

Tell the Wolves I’m Home, Carol Rifka Brunt

“1987. There’s only one person who has ever truly understood fourteen-year-old June Elbus, and that’s her uncle, the renowned painter Finn Weiss. Shy at school and distant from her older sister, June can only be herself in Finn’s company; he is her godfather, confidant, and best friend. So when he dies, far too young, of a mysterious illness her mother can barely speak about, June’s world is turned upside down. But Finn’s death brings a surprise acquaintance into June’s life—someone who will help her to heal, and to question what she thinks she knows about Finn, her family, and even her own heart.

At Finn’s funeral, June notices a strange man lingering just beyond the crowd. A few days later, she receives a package in the mail. Inside is a beautiful teapot she recognizes from Finn’s apartment, and a note from Toby, the stranger, asking for an opportunity to meet. As the two begin to spend time together, June realizes she’s not the only one who misses Finn, and if she can bring herself to trust this unexpected friend, he just might be the one she needs the most.”

My full review of Tell the Wolves I’m Home is HERE, and my interview with the lovely author, Carol Rifka Brunt, is HERE.

Shiver Wolves of Mercy Falls Maggie Stiefvater

Shiver (The Wolves of Mercy Falls #1), Maggie Stiefvater

“For years, Grace has watched the wolves in the woods behind her house. One yellow-eyed wolf—her wolf—is a chilling presence she can’t seem to live without. Meanwhile, Sam has lived two lives: In winter, the frozen woods, the protection of the pack, and the silent company of a fearless girl. In summer, a few precious months of being human… until the cold makes him shift back again. Now, Grace meets a yellow-eyed boy whose familiarity takes her breath away. It’s her wolf. It has to be. But as winter nears, Sam must fight to stay human—or risk losing himself, and Grace, forever.”

Harry Potter J.K. Rowling Harry Potter J.K. Rowling

Harry Potter, J.K. Rowling

The winters at Hogwarts are so magical!

His Dark Materials Philip Pullman

The Golden Compass (His Dark Materials #1), Philip Pullman

“Here lives an orphaned ward named Lyra Belacqua, whose carefree life among the scholars at Oxford’s Jordan College is shattered by the arrival of two powerful visitors. First, her fearsome uncle, Lord Asriel, appears with evidence of mystery and danger in the far North, including photographs of a mysterious celestial phenomenon called Dust and the dim outline of a city suspended in the Aurora Borealis that he suspects is part of an alternate universe. He leaves Lyra in the care of Mrs. Coulter, an enigmatic scholar and explorer who offers to give Lyra the attention her uncle has long refused her.

In this multilayered narrative, however, nothing is as it seems. Lyra sets out for the top of the world in search of her kidnapped playmate, Roger, bearing a rare truth-telling instrument, the compass of the title. All around her children are disappearing—victims of so-called “Gobblers”—and being used as subjects in terrible experiments that separate humans from their daemons, creatures that reflect each person’s inner being.”

Winter of Fire Sherryl Jordan

Winter of Fire, Sherryl Jordan

“Elsha is one of the Quelled: a branded people, doomed always to mine coal to warm the ruling class, the Chosen. But Elsha has strange visions that set her apart—and a strong spirit that condemns her to death. Her life is saved when she is called to be Handmaiden to the Firelord, the most powerful being on the planet. Elsha is the first of her kind ever to be so honored—and both the Chosen and her fellow Quelled are stunned. But her powers and visions grow ever stronger, even in the face of extreme prejudice. Yet Elsha must learn the hard way that you can’t play with fire without getting burned.”

Trapped Michael Northrop

Trapped, Michael Northrop

“The day the blizzard started, no one knew that it was going to keep snowing for a week. That for those in its path, it would become not just a matter of keeping warm, but of staying alive.

Scotty and his friends Pete and Jason are among the last seven kids at their high school waiting to get picked up that day, and they soon realize that no one is coming for them. Still, it doesn’t seem so bad to spend the night at school, especially when distractingly hot Krista and Julie are sleeping just down the hall. But then the power goes out, then the heat. The pipes freeze, and the roof shudders. As the days add up, the snow piles higher, and the empty halls grow colder and darker, the mounting pressure forces a devastating decision. . .”

Enjoy the snow!

Sex & Violence, a Strong YA Debut

A Review of Sex & Violence, by Carrie Mesrobian

Carolrhoda Lab, 2013

Sex & Violence by Carrie Mesrobian

by REBECCA, December 11, 2013

review

Evan Carter has moved around a lot his whole life, bouncing from school to school as his father moves for work. And, though he never stays in one place long enough to make close friends, his transience (alongside his profile of The Girl Who Would Say Yes) lends itself to getting lots of action before he and his father move again and he deletes their phone numbers. But, when Evan finds himself at Remington Chase boarding school sleeping with the wrong girl, Collette, everything changes.

After Evan is violently attacked in the showers by his roommate and Collette’s ex-boyfriend, his father takes him to the family cabin in rural Minnesota to recover. Now, Evan is afraid all the time: every man threatens violence; every woman threatens to bring it upon him; he can’t even take a shower without being triggered. But Evan isn’t going anywhere, so, for the first time, he has to really get to know people—especially girls—more deeply than he has before. And what he finds is that perhaps his problems began long before Remington Chase.

I’ve been looking forward to Sex & Violence since February, when the seemingly always right about stuff Andrew Smith wrote about it on his blog. I love complex, fucked up, traumatized, smart, confused, flawed characters, so Sex & Violence seemed like it would be right up my alley. Also, I was uncharacteristically conflicted about the title—usually I know immediately whether I love something or hate something: it’s so descriptive, so literal, that it seems kind of silly, but at the same time, since “sex and violence” is kind of a cliché already, then maybe it’s kind of meta? Like, not a description-of-the-themes-of-the-book title, but the concretization of two themes as one to describe the way they’re necessarily entwined. Then I thought, hey, Rebecca, it’s really not that important; get on with your life/reading the damn book.

Sex & Violence by Carrie MesrobianBut, upon reading the book, the question of the title seemed important once again. Because Sex & Violence, despite its aggressive, titillating title, is a very quiet, subtle book, more like the white-on-white ghost of the shower tiles that haunt the novel than the vibrant blue and red at its center. The novel takes place in the space of Evan’s vulnerability, post-trauma, and Mesrobian attends to this vulnerability with such subtlety that, at times, we almost forget about it. But it’s then, right then, that it rears back into play: a muscular boy standing a little too close; taking a shower; the smell of a girl’s shampoo. Like Evan, we are forced to be hyper-aware of all the details that once seemed meaningless but are now fraught.

And that’s where my investment lay: with Evan and his interiority. The rest of the cast of characters, mostly other teens that Evan makes friends with, did nothing for me. They aren’t interesting or memorable—and I’m not necessarily sure that they need to be. Because I feel generous toward Sex & Violence I choose to read it that way: that Mesrobian is intentionally placing Evan in the unfamiliar waters of navigating the interpersonal relations that are normal to most of us. But, if I felt less than generous, or was less taken by the subtlety of her portrayal of Evan, I could easily write off the rest of the cast, especially Baker, the girl Evan has feelings for, who I think is, of everyone, supposed to interest us.

Sex & Violence is at its strongest in its quiet moments of introspection and its moments of dark humor, and that’s a tall order, I think, especially for an authorial debut. I really enjoyed the book, but more even than that, I’m exciting for more from Carrie Mesrobian, whose second novel, Perfectly Good White Boy, will be out from Carolrhoda Lab in 2014.

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Winger Andrew Smith

Winger, by Andrew Smith (2013). Ryan Dean West’s trials and tribulations at boarding school include: being a fourteen-year-old junior, being in love with his best friend, Annie, who thinks of him as a kid, and getting close to his gay friend on the rugby team, which brings about trials of its own. My full review of Winger (in which Ryan Dean inspires my new band name, “Catastrophic Fucking Penis Injury”) is HERE.

Leverage Joshua C. Cohen

Leverage, by Joshua C. Cohen (2012). Leverage is a beautiful meditation on masculinity, violence, and the overlap between them. My full review of Leverage is HERE.

procured from: the library

I Couldn’t Ignore ‘Please Ignore Vera Dietz’

A Review of Please Ignore Vera Dietz, by A.S. King

Knopf, 2010

Please Ignore Vera Dietz A.S. King

by REBECCA, December 9, 2013

review

Reality Boy A.S. KingA.S. King is one of those authors who’s been on my to-read list for years but who, somehow, I never got around to. On a library run to pick up my reserved books, I saw Please Ignore Vera Dietz‘s vibrant green cover sticking out in an otherwise underwhelming sea of picked-through YA (ah, the agony and the ecstasy of a neighborhood branch of the illustrious Free Library of Philadelphia) and grabbed it. I am so glad I did, especially because I have an ARC of King’s new book, Reality Boy, which (upon peeking at the first chapter) looks freaking awesome.

Vera Dietz is reeling from the death of her best friend, Charlie Kahn. That would be bad enough, but Vera was also kind of in love with Charlie, and he had been acting like a beast to her for months before he died.  Now, she can barely make it through a shift as a “pizza delivery technician” without the vodka she keeps under her seat. That would be bad enough, but now Vera keeps seeing Charlie. And he wants her to do something for him.

Please Ignore Vera Dietz is told mainly from Vera’s perspective. She’s smart, independent, and very much grieving for Charlie—the loss of him because of his death and the loss of his friendship that she didn’t fully understand. Vera lives with her father (her mother left a long time ago) and, while they love each other, they both have trouble expressing themselves. Her father expresses his love by trying to make Vera be as responsible and practical as possible (he insists that she work a full-time job while going to school so that she won’t end up a pregnant teen stuck in this small town, like her mother was), but Vera uses how busy she is to avoid dealing with Charlie’s death and the emotional mess it left behind.

The narrative structure is one that I really like: we begin at Charlie’s funeral and then the past is revealed, starting from Vera and Charlie’s childhood and moving forward, working toward the revelation of the events surrounding Charlie’s death. This allows for great character development and builds suspense in to an introspective and psychological story. There is a real mystery here, too, though: why did Charlie stop hanging out with Vera and become friends with the Detentionheads? And what really happened the night Charlie died? Only Vera knows, but she’s kept it secret—until now.

I am a pagodaOne of my favorite things about Please Ignore Vera Dietz is the way King plays with genre. I mentioned that Vera sees Charlie (multiple Charlies, actually, as if he were a bunch of paper dolls). The chapters that are from Charlie’s point of view are in the present—that is, after he is dead. There are also a few brief chapters from the perspective of the Pagoda where some of Vera’s most significant memories happened. From this perspective, we get a long view of the history of the town, since the Pagoda has been there for generations.

None of these narrative choices shift the book out feeling like contemporary realism; rather, they function to open the story up, making it less insular to Vera. The few chapters told from Vera’s father’s perspective do this in particular. It’s rare in YA books to have an adult perspective (especially a parent’s) alongside the protagonist’s, but in this case, it’s poignant because it shows that Vera’s father, though he loves her, doesn’t really have any more answers than she does, even though he reads Buddhist self-help books and has drafted flow charts of life choices to convince himself he does.

Beautifully written and understated, Please Ignore Vera Dietz is a really solid contemporary YA read that confirms the rightness A.S. King’s over-representation on my to-read list. I’m doubly excited for Reality Boy now, too.

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Last Night I Sang to the Monster Benjamin Alire Saenz

Last Night I Sang to the Monster, by Benjamin Alire Sáenz (2009). When Zach wakes up in rehab he has no idea how he got there . . . or where he was before. How can he figure it out when he doesn’t want to remember? Last Night I Sang to the Monster is a gorgeous book that also works through a psychological mystery. My full review of Last Night I Sang to the Monster is HERE.

Shine Lauren Myracle

Shine, by Lauren Myracle (2011). Shine begins a week after Cat’s best friend, Patrick, is gay bashed and left for dead at the gas station where he works in their small, North Carolina town. While Patrick lies in a coma in a nearby hospital and the police do nothing, Cat sets about solving the mystery of who hurt her friend, and reveals a lot about the town and its inhabitants in the process.

procured from: the library

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