Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Alibi, Alibi, Who Needs an Alibi?

Alibi High by Greg Logsted
3Q 4P; Audience: M/J

Living life on the run, constantly looking over your shoulder for danger, surviving attempts on your life - it's all easier than being in high school. That's the conclusion that Cody comes to when his father sends him to live with his aunt after their narrow escape from a bomb.

All Cody has known from his very earliest memories is the life of a CIA spy. That's his dad's job, and it's his, too. He knows how to tail a suspect and how not to be tailed himself. He knows how to spot suspicious characters in a crowd, and he knows how to keep them from spotting him. He knows five languages and how to fire a gun. He's got black belts in two different martial arts. He knows how to take care of himself.

What he doesn't know is how to be a teenager. He doesn't know how to dress (Baggy pants with all those pockets? What's wrong with a suit and tie?). He doesn't know how not to tick off every teacher he's got (Don't they want to know when they have their facts wrong?). He doesn't know how to make friends with the guys, and he doesn't have a clue how to deal with girls (Cell Phone Girl thinks he's a psycho and he can't even talk to Renee). Why did he think high school would be easy?

As if that's not bad enough, Cody can't shake off the memories of being in that cafe when the bomb went off. Everywhere he looks, there's a Yankees cap. Every strange sound makes him twitch. He can't sleep. He's taken to patrolling the house at night. He can't shake the feeling that he's being watched. He's right. There's someone out there. Who is it, and why is he there?


Readers expecting the constant adrenaline surge of the Alex Rider series may be a little disappointed, but they shouldn't count this book out. The pace and tension build throughout the book.

I appreciated the way Logsted made Cody's training so much a part of his every day life, particularly in the beginning. When he arrives at the airport, he instantly scans the area and people for signs of danger. He's aghast to learn that his aunt is naked - meaning she's not carrying a gun. When an enemy (such as the school security guard) comes too close, he instantly calculates how best to bring him down. A walk isn't a simple walk, it's a reconnaissance mission. Because of those touches, it made it easier to buy the premise that he is, essentially, a born spy.

I also liked the relationship between Cody and Andy, a former Army Ranger who lost his arm while in the service. They each quickly recognize the signs of someone who's been through the wars and bond over nightly surveillance surveys, martial arts, and post-traumatic stress syndrome (the latter unspoken). At the same time, Cody is never quite sure if he can trust Andy.

Okay, it's a cliche to have the gym teacher be a jerk. I liked this storyline anyhow, right down to the martial arts demo and the principal's (eventual) reaction. (I really enjoyed Cody's descriptions of his various meetings with Mrs. Owens. As Cody says, the humor grows on you.)

Logsted hits just the right notes as far as the romance angle is concerned. It's there, with just enough humor, but not enough to put off readers who aren't into it. The junior high dynamics are spot on.

I'm not as fond of the ending as I am of the rest of the book. I don't want to give anything away, so I'll just say that I had a "You have to be kidding me" reaction, mostly relating to the actions and motivations of a particular character. But the nicely-built tension and great action will make many readers overlook that.

I expect this one to be a hit with my sixth-eighth grade boys, and I'm glad to have another book to recommend to the Horowitz, Muchamore, Higson, Sniegoski, and Butcher fans.

Friday, November 06, 2009

Snarky and Sad

Cracked Up to Be by Courtney Summers
4Q 3P; Audience: S

A couple of months ago I was on the hold list for several books that hadn't come in yet (naturally, later about six of them came in at once!) and the books I wanted to read otherwise were all checked out. I was searching desperately for something captivating to read. I was working in the Teen Room when one of my teen regulars started talking about a book from my New Books display she'd been reading, saying it was really funny and very good. She couldn't take it out at the time, so I snagged it. Thanks for the recommendation, Adriana! It was exactly what I was looking for.

I laughed in the beginning, too. I enjoy a good bit of snark, and Parker Faraday is very, very good at snark. But as I read on, the more it became apparent that this is no light-hearted book, and Parker is not a happy girl. In fact, Parker has been on a downward spiral for months. She's gone from being the straight-A's captain of the cheerleading squad to flunking her classes and alienating all her friends. She's having panic attacks. She's come to school drunk and attempted suicide. What we don't know is why any of this happened. And that is only revealed little by little, mostly at times when Parker is desperately trying (and failing) not to remember.

Parker makes no effort to be a nice person. She gets a charge out of her ability to manipulate people. Crying and alluding to her suicide attempt are good ways to get her parents and guidance counselor to back off. She uses sarcasm, brutal honesty, and downright unkindness to push everyone close to her away. She sets her former boyfriend Chris up with Becky, the new captain of the cheerleading squad who sets her teeth on edge, then proceeds to rub Chris's obvious preference for her in Becky's face. When a new boy asks stops her to ask where the art room is, she tells him she can't stop to talk since she's late for class. Ten minutes later, he walks into the art room, only to find her sitting there waiting for him.

That new boy is Alex, and much to her chagrin, he isn't easy to push away. First of all, he's her partner on an art project. Secondly, he's intrigued by her. As hard as she tries to alienate him, he keeps coming back. Chris and Becky, too, refuse to go away. And the more they hang around, the harder it is for Parker to lie to herself, to forget what she's trying to forget. She's trying to hold it together long enough to graduate and get out of this town forever, but the memories and the guilt keep coming back.


I was very surprised at the turn this book took. The first few pages didn't prepare me for the guilt, aching sadness, and desperate fear that lie underneath Parker's facade. I think that's way Parker would want it, and it's a really effective way of mirroring what's going on with her.

The push-pull of Parker's relationship with Alex is very well done. When Parker decides that at some level she wants Alex in her life, she's very upfront with him: she kiss him and maybe even sleep with him, but she'll never be his girlfriend, and she'll never say she loves him. He's free to use her, too. But underneath it all, what she won't admit to herself is that she's relieved he won't go away. Alex's reactions to all of this are honest and believable. I hurt for him, but I had to admire his own inner strength as he seems to understand at some level Parker's need to use him as a punching bag.

While the actual events that lead up to Parker's crash and burn are fairly easy to guess at after the first few flashbacks, what I found truly fascinating was what got her into the situation in the first place. What we often look at as a positive personality trait can in fact be very destructive, a truth that's often not apparent until the situation reaches a crisis point. I think a lot of people (not just teens) will relate to the pressure Parker feels and the panic and anger that follow when she realizes that trying to live up to her own and everyone else's expectations just isn't possible. What follows may be extreme, but by the time I learned the whole truth, I was willing to follow wherever Summer led me.

This is not a light read. Alcohol plays a big role in Parker's downward spiral, and she's matter-of-fact about her sexual experiences. The emotions and sometimes the language are rough. Parker may not be forthcoming about what happened in the past, but she's not pulling her punches about how she sees things in the present. Older teens who like books with an edge will appreciate all of this. Younger readers and those who prefer a softer picture of adolescent life would probably prefer to look elsewhere. As for me, I'm looking forward to reading Summers's upcoming book, Some Girls Are.

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Choose This

The Chosen One by Carol Lynch Williams
5Q 4P; J/S

At thirteen, Kyra is just beginning to realize that there are two things she loves almost as much as she loves her family: books and Joshua. But she needs to keep both of those loves secret, since both are strictly forbidden in her religious community. Books bring the outside in and expose readers to Satan's teachings. Boys...well, boys and girls aren't to look at each other or talk to each other unless the Prophet allows it. If a boy and a girl are found together, even if they are doing nothing but talking, the punishment will be swift and severe. Kyra and Joshua are doing more than talking. They are sneaking out at night to be together. They are sharing books and music. They are kissing and dreaming of being together forever.

The Prophet and his Apostles run everything in the Compound. They make the rules, and the God Squad makes sure they are enforced. The Prophet also decides who will marry whom, and there is no arguing with his decision. So when the Prophet decrees that Kyra is to marry Apostle Hyrum, her uncle, the family is in despair. Try as Father may, there is no way to avoid the inevitable. Kyra is devastated. Her family can only understand part of her anguish. There is no way to tell them that as much as she's revolted by the idea of marrying her sixty-year-old uncle and becoming his seventh wife, she's also shattered at the thought that she and Joshua can never be together. She wants to refuse, to say she just won't do it. But defying the Prophet means bringing his wrath down upon her family, and that thought is just as painful. She loves her father, her three mothers, and her twenty-one (soon to be twenty-three) brothers and sisters fiercely. What will the Prophet do to them if she runs away with Joshua, as she so badly wants to do? And what will he do to her?

Favorite quote:

(Kyra has just been informed that she and her mothers are going into town to buy fabric for her wedding dress. It's the final confirmation that there is no way out of this wedding.)

Outside, it is a lie of a morning. Everything is beautiful: The air fresh. The sky so blue it hurts my eyes.


I've had the pleasure of reading a few beautifully written books lately, and this is another to add to that list.

Polygamist communities have been in the news lately. The idea of plural marriages is certainly foreign to most of us in this country. Among the things that struck me as I read this book was that although she fights against this kind of marriage for herself, Kyra doesn't actually seem to mind being part of a polygamous family. She views her family as loving and supportive and derives a lot of her strength from all of her parents and siblings, making  little or no distinction between them.

Family relationships in plural marriages must be very complicated things. Imagine having three (or more!) mothers to listen to and have to please! Mother Sarah, Kyra's birth mother, is caring and understanding, but her difficult pregnancy leaves Kyra as her caretaker rather than the other way around. And though Kyra views Mother Clare as "the mean mother" and sometimes resents her, it's Mother Clare who most clearly understands Kyra's feelings and tries to help her accept her fate. The moments she shares her own story with Kyra make her surprisingly sympathetic. (Mother Victoria rather fades into the background between Mother Sarah and Mother Clare.) I particularly liked the contrast between Kyra's relationships with her sisters Laura and Margaret. The love Kyra has for both sisters is undeniable, but they are very different people. Laura is the voice of the status quo and Margaret ...well, I suspect that Kyra is not the only  sister in the family who will give the Prophet fits. She's going to be a formidable woman.

I wonder how Kyra's story might have played out under a different Prophet. Would she still have hated her life and wanted to run? It's this Prophet that Kyra says she'd like to kill and leave for the termites to eat. He has very narrow and rigid ideas of what is godly, and he disallows many things (such as freedom to leave the Compound) that the previous Prophet allowed. He is running off the younger men and marrying the young girls to much older men. But the previous Prophet was not that sort of man, and the compound was not always run that way. I wonder if Kyra would have been content to stay under a Prophet who allowed his followers more freedom and allowed her to be with Joshua, even given that she would still have had to share him with other women.

Being a librarian, naturally I love that books give Kyra comfort and support and a means of escape in more ways than one, and I honor Patrick as a true hero.

While I wouldn't classify this as a violent book, there are violent incidents that were shocking and troubling to read. Those images stuck with me for a long time. I am frankly in denial about at least one probable death. Message received: It's hard to think this way about religious groups, but there's no denying that it can be dangerous to take a stand against them.

There are several important issues left unresolved at the end of this book. I found myself wondering what the fallout of Kyra's decision would be. I have no idea if Carol Lynch Williams intends to write a sequel, but I think it would be fascinating to explore the "what happens next?" in a situation like this.

To be honest, this wasn't a book I was dying to read. But I was curious to see if I agreed with all the positive, even glowing, reviews I'd seen and heard, so I decided to read it anyhow. I was caught at the very first page, and my interest never waned. I absolutely believed the people and the situation. I cared, and I think many of my teens will too. I highly recommend this book for both pleasure reading and as an excellent choice for a book group.