Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Quick(est?) Hits - Part III: Of Assassins and Candor

I'm seven five three books behind in posting, not including posts already in draft. A bunch of new books just came in, which is going to get me even further behind. So I'm just going to do a some quick impressions of a few of the books I've recently finished.

Day of the Assassins by Johnny O'Brien
3Q 4P; Audience: M/J

Jack and his mother live together in a small cottage. His father is long gone under circumstances that Jack thinks were never adequately explained to him. He appears in Jack's life only on rare occasions, mostly in the form of an annual birthday present. This year's gift is a history book about WWI. One of Jack's favorite games is Point of Deception, a first-person role-playing game about WWI, but even so, this present doesn't cut it. But when he becomes a pawn between two groups of scientists who have discovered how to travel in time, he begins to wish he’d had more time to read that book. Before he knows what's happening, one side transports Jack to 1914 Austria and the days leading up to the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand. The other side is hot on his heels. Jack has no idea which side to trust or believe. All he knows is that he’s being forced to make a decision that will affect the future of thousands of people. The assassination of Franz Ferdinand was the event that triggered WWI. Should he stop the assassination or let it happen? When two groups of scientists disagree on how their invention should be used, things can get very nasty, especially if you're an innocent caught in the middle.

The non-stop action in this book will make it popular with boys who like action and suspense, but are tired of or have already read all the teenage spy novels. Multiple chases and narrow escapes keep interest high and ratchet up the tension chapter after chapter. Jack's friend Angus and the professor (who rescues Jack from his first close shave in 1914) add bits of humor here and there, which will also be welcome. The science of time travel is glossed over, which probably won't bother the target audience, though it's a bit of a cheat to mention Einstein, Planck, Heisenberg, and Schrodinger and then complete the explanation with, "All you need to know is that the world of subatomic physics is an extremely mysterious one." I also found it contradictory and illogical that the scientists trying to prevent the past from being changed bring weapons and tanks back in time. Isn't that running the huge risk of winning the battle and losing the(ir) war? Many readers will be so swept up in the action that they won't care. Given the subtitle ("a Jack Christie novel") and the open-ended resolution, I suspect that fans of this book will be seeing Jack and Angus again in another.

Candor by Pam Bachorz
4Q 3P; Audience: J/S

When parents get tired of their kids misbehaving, they move the family to Candor. In Candor, the kids don't get in trouble. They aren't disrespectful, and they always do the socially responsible thing. Why? Because that's what the Messages tell them to do. Messages play all day every day in Candor. Everyone hears and obeys them, but only one person knows that: the founder of Candor and creator of the Messages. At least, that's what he thinks. He has no idea that Oscar, his son and Candor's poster child for model citizen, knows all about the Messages. Oscar knows how to counteract them, and he knows how to create his own. He uses that knowledge to protect himself from the Messages and to sneak kids out of town before they're so far gone on the Messages that they wouldn't dream of running, let alone rebelling. Make no mistake about it. Oscar isn't a model anything. He doesn't do it because he cares about any of those kids. He does it because they pay him very, very well and because he enjoys sticking it to his father while making everyone think he's the perfect kid. And that's how things stand until Nia moves to town. Nia, with her goth girl looks, her defiant attitude, and her love of art. Nia, the opposite of nice. Nia, the kind of girl who should never be forced to conform to a place like Candor. Oscar is determined to get her out of town, even if she doesn't want to go. Even though he has to break all his own rules to do it. Even if it costs him in ways he never expected to have to pay.

What a great concept for a book. You can't help but be creeped out by the thought of parents who would use mind control to keep their kids in line. How twisted is that? It certainly makes you want to root for Oscar. On the other hand, Oscar is not a particularly likable person. He's very much out for himself, and as much as he pretends to be humble (the Messages at work), he also very much thinks of himself as superior. It takes meeting Nia for him to begin to approach being the kind of person his father wants him to be and thinks he is (at least in terms of being selfless and thinking of the greater good), and Messages have nothing to do with it. His growth is realistic, with a lot of struggling over what's right for him versus what's right for Nia and debating with himself over the tactics he's using and what he's risking and losing. Father-son issues take on additional dimensions in this novel, with themes of grief, abandonment, and control playing a significant role. Fans of dystopian novels will enjoy this, while those who prefer realistic fiction are likely to find that this science fiction novel goes down pretty easily. Readers who like to chew on the books they've read will find plenty of food for thought in this one.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

New Design

What do you think of the new design? I can apparently do quite a bit more tweaking, but I thought I'd start with this.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Quick(er) Hits: Part II

I'm seven five books behind in posting, not including posts already in draft. A bunch of new books just came in, which is going to get me even further behind. So I'm just going to do a some quick impressions of a few of the books I've recently finished.

Freefall by Ariela Anhalt
4Q 3P; Audience: S

Three boys went up to the cliff. Two came down alive. One didn't. Did Russell fall or was he pushed? If he was pushed, was it on purpose or not? Luke is the only known eyewitness, and everyone wants him to tell what he saw that night. Hayden is his best friend and roommate, but if Luke is being honest, he knows that Hayden pushed Russell that night. But he's not sure what Hayden's intentions were when he did it. Trying to figure out what happened and why is tearing Luke up, and he can't bring himself to talk about it.

This isn't a book you pick up when you want a nice, cozy read. Luke's a mess. Not only is he dealing with the events up on the cliff, he's dealing with his father's suicide and its aftermath. He's angry, he's lonely, he's confused, he's guilty, and he's in a lot of pain. Like Cass and Tim in Give Up the Ghost, he needs help and refuses to ask for it. My heart ached for him, but I also got annoyed, because people do try to help him, and he rejects them every time. That's consistent with his personality and his issues, but it sure was frustrating! I felt the strengths in this book were the build-up of tension (internal and external) in a very narrowly focused storyline, Luke's very realistic struggles with deciding not only what he saw but what is the right thing to do about it, and the characters' interactions. Anhalt is still a college student herself (at Dartmouth), and she's right on the money with the way teens and young adults speak to each other. (People who object to cursing in general or in books should keep that in mind.) This book may not fly off the shelves, but a good booktalk should sell it to readers who enjoy introspective reads and character development over plot.

Crazy Beautiful by Lauren Baratz-Logstead
3Q 3P; Audience: J/S

Lucius blew off his arms in an explosives experiment that went horribly wrong. Instead of replacing them with realistic prosthetics, he's opted for hooks, a pretty clear indication that he intends to keep people at a distance. A very intelligent loner even before his accident, Lucius has come to accept his outcast status. That changes when Aurora steps onto his bus. Not only is Aurora beautiful, but she also is somehow both willing and able to look past his disfigurement to see the person he truly is. That's actually a somewhat frightening prospect, because Lucius has secrets he's not proud of, and the thought that learning the truth about his accident and the kind of guy he used to be might make Aurora shun him scares him. But Aurora knows more about pain and loss than Lucius suspects, and a tentative friendship begins. It's a friendship that doesn't go down well with the popular kids, especially Jessup, who has his eye on Aurora too. Jessup sets in motion a plot to make Lucius pay for attracting Aurora's attention, and soon Lucius finds himself even more of an outcast than he was before. Even Aurora has turned against him. Now what?

This story has some beautiful moments, especially in scenes between Lucius and Aurora. Told in first person by both characters, we frequently see the same scene from both points of view, which can be illuminating. Lucius has enough warts to make him intriguing. He doesn't spill all his secrets right away, so we don't know what happened to him or why. He's clearly intelligent, and he clearly has always felt superior to most of the people around him. He's also guilty about what he did (whatever it was) and how it's affected his family. You get the sense that he's not who he used to be and that he's realized he'd like to be a bit more a part of things, but he doesn't quite know how to go about this business of being friendly, let alone being a friend. For the most part, I thought Baratz-Logsted handled his attempts to grow quite deftly. Aurora is a far more idealized character. She's handling the death of her mother with grace. Immediately accepted into the in crowd at her new school, she is aware enough to realize that she may not want to be a part of it and that Lucius is a more authentic, interesting person to be with. It is impossible not to feel drawn to her. She's the epitome of nice, sweet, and friend. So once Jessup's plot started rolling, I was surprised she didn't see through it and nip it in the bud. This is when the book started to strike some significantly discordant notes for me. I flat out didn't believe the ending. Without saying too much, questions weren't asked by characters who would have asked them, and Lucius becomes some sort of magician in his ability to make people listen to him when they never have before, in situations where they were not at all likely to be willing to listen. I understand that this is supposed to be a retelling of Beauty and the Beast, but this fairy tale ending didn't match the rest of the story.

Some of the writing is beautiful and evocative. I'm not going to quote widely here, but here are two sections that I marked:

I feel as though my whole body could explode at her touch. Nobody ever touches me if it can be avoided. And, for the most part, I have been content to keep the world at this distance; at arm's length, if you will. But not now. This is the first time that anyone outside my family has touched me in a very long time, and my entire body feels it, enjoys it, fears it. (p. 119)

This is, I think, what it must mean to be human: to want something good for someone else. (p. 126)

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Quick Hits: Part I

I'm seven books behind in posting, not including posts already in draft. A bunch of new books just came in, which is going to get me even further behind. So I'm just going to do a some quick impressions of a few of the books I've recently finished.

Once a Witch by Carolyn MacCullough
3Q 4P; Audience: J/S

Tamsin is the only unTalented person in her family, even though her grandmother predicted when she was born that she would be immensely powerful and a beacon for all. She's felt like an outsider her entire life, which partly explains why she agrees to take on a "finding" task even though she's not the person the request is intended for. As she works to find the item, a lot of things change: she discovers she truly is very Talented indeed, she gets reacquainted with her best friend and sparks fly, and she puts her family into the gravest danger they have faced in over a hundred years.

Magic, romance, time travel, and danger: it's a great mix. Tamsin is a very relatable character. I felt very positively about this book right up until the climax, where it fell apart a bit. It wasn't clear to me what the villain actually needed to do in order to achieve his objective, but somehow our protagonist (Tamsin) knew exactly what he planned. Predictions about the future are an important element in this book. It's made clear that "the future is like water", so a foreseen future can still change. But we should at least see the branching point where things could go one way or the other. There's at least one prediction about what will happen if Tamsin Travels into the past that has her mother in a panic, yet I don't recall any situation where Tamsin actually finds herself confronting that likelihood or any slight change that prevents it from occurring. It would appear from the ending that there will be a sequel, so perhaps that prognosticated event has yet to happen. But if that's the case, why is it so prominently mentioned now? I also thought Tamsin adapted to her new-found Talent and power awfully quickly. But overall, I liked the characters (though some of the family members and their Talents push the edge of twee), especially Tamsin and Gabriel, and I was caught up in the story most of the way through. It was a good escape-reading book.

Give Up the Ghost by Megan Crewe
4P 4P; Audience: J/S

Ever since her sister Paige died, Cass can see and talk to ghosts. For years, she's used this ability to gather dirt on her classmates, particularly the ones who have been giving her grief ever since middle school. Very much the loner, she doesn't know how to react when Paul, one of the guys who hangs with that group, asks her for help contacting his dead mother. She makes a deal with him: she'll help him if he'll help her get the goods on her ex-best friend's boyfriend. What she doesn't count on is how very messed up Paul is. What she doesn't expect to do is let someone see the real her for the first time in a very long time. After years of allowing only ghosts into her life, interacting with a live human being is difficult and frightening.

Ghosts aside, this is a keeping-it-real novel. Cass is dealing with the loss of her sister, a mother who seems to want to be anywhere but with her, and a betrayal by her best friend that has left her a social outcast. She's unhappy, angry, and unable to trust anyone. Paul is in a world of hurt. He's as angry at his friends as Cass is. None of them seem to understand or care how he feels about his mother's death, and he feels totally alone. These are two people who need to reach out to someone else and who are equally unwilling or unable to do so. Certainly they have no intention of revealing their pain to each other, and it's a surprise to both when it happens.

Minor quibble: Middle school can certainly be a miserable experience, but people generally move on from its petty backstabbing and casual cruelties a little better than Cass and her one-time friends do. I found it a little hard to believe that she was still persona non grata four years later. Danielle's dirty work and Paige's death (and Cass's new-found ability to see and talk to ghosts) came almost simultaneously, so we're asked to accept that the two together set Cass on her leave-me-the-hell-alone path. Mmmm...okay, I'll go with it, but with a raised eyebrow.

There's no presto-chango magic fix in this book. Change is slow and painful, and there's not much of a tidy wrapping up at the end. I was left with a sense of life going on as a work in progress. Grieving and forgiving and learning to trust are all things that take a while, and this book acknowledges that. I appreciated that.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Happy About After Ever After

After Ever After by Jordan Sonnenblick
4Q 4P; Audience: M/J

I laughed and cried my way through Drums, Girls, and Dangerous Pie, and I was eager to enter that world again. I was not disappointed. When we last saw Jeffrey, he was a five-year-old fresh out of the hospital tackling his brother with a great big hug. It seemed as though he was out of the woods, and readers were left with a picture of a happy family celebrating his brother Steven's graduation from eighth grade. But what happened after that? Now we know. After Ever After jumps to Jeffrey's own eighth grade year, when his graduation prospects are a little more tenuous than his brother's. After included two more years of leukemia. After included chemotherapy. After included learning to cope with the after-effects of that chemotherapy: he's slower to process things than he used to be, he has trouble paying attention, mathematical concepts slip from his brain as quickly as a monkey eats a banana, and his drop foot keeps tripping him up.

Now Jeff is crushing on the new girl (Lindsey) and wondering if she's crushing
on him too. Now Jeff is trying to keep his best friend and fellow cancer survivor (Tad) from imploding, exploding, or causing all kinds of mayhem with his take-no-prisoners attitude. Now Jeff is enduring hours of tutoring each week in the hopes it will help him pass the state math test, because if he doesn't pass, he won't graduate. Now Jeff is missing his lifeline Steven, who is off playing drums in Africa. And just like then, nothing is going to keep Jeff down for long.


Now Jeff is every bit as captivating and indomitable as he was eight years ago, and it's a pure pleasure to catch up with him again. Just as he did in Drums, Girls, and Dangerous Pie, Sonnenblick shows a deft touch in blending the lines between humor and and tears. Jeff is a real kid. At times he's a little more mature than most boys his age, and given what he's been through, that's hardly surprising. But he's also an awkward, insecure, slightly goofy thirteen-year-old who sometimes puts his foot in his mouth and makes bad decisions. He's utterly charming, and I can't think of many readers who won't enjoy getting to know or get reacquainted with him.

A few of the things I really liked:

  • Jeffrey's determination and courage, which brings me to:
  • the training scenes in the gym (Jeff would make a great personal trainer)
  • Jeff learning what this girl thing is all about
  • Jeff's friendship with Tad, with all its bickering and truth-telling and deep understanding
  • that to balance Jeff's glass half-full character, Tad is dark and prickly and not always likeable
  • lines like "Lindsey has a sprig of mistletoe over her bedroom door. Just sayin'."
  • Jeffrey's journal articles and (unsent) emails to Steven: he writes as affectingly as Steven did
  • Jeff. You just can't help liking this kid.

I was under the impression that the effects of cancer treatment on young children is fairly recent research, so I was a little surprised to discover just how much this book focuses on that. I gather that Jordan Sonnenblick had both a student who really influenced him in the writing of this book and Drums and some nurses who encouraged him to write about the issue. It's certainly something new in YA literature, and I'm sure it's welcome to the patients and families who want people to know that the cancer story isn't necessarily over after a patient goes into remission.

I'm looking forward to introducing both Steven and Jeff to my younger teens and sharing their stories with them.

(For my take on Sonnenblick's Notes from a Midnight Driver, see this post.)

Tuesday, March 09, 2010

A Joy Ride + a Fair Day = Something Much More

The Miles Between by Mary E. Pearson
4Q 3P; Audience: J/S)

October 19th has always had a special significance for Destiny Faraday. It's her birthday. It's her mother's birthday, too. It's the day she first got sent away to boarding school (that was ten long years ago). It's the day that her aunt always comes to visit her. Since her family has virtually ignored her for all of those ten years, the visits from her aunt are highly anticipated events. Or at least, they're as anticipated as Destiny will allow herself to be, since she's practiced for years not to let herself expect or hope for anything. But this year, her aunt can't come, and Destiny lets herself get angry enough to wish, just for once, for one fair day, a day where everything happens the way it should happen. When a pink convertible with keys in the ignition (and money in the glove compartment) appears on the school lawn, it seems as though it's practically inviting her to jump in. The problem is, she can't drive. But she knows somebody who can, and he's already in trouble. So...

And thus begins an unplanned and unauthorized car trip. Just Destiny and three of her classmates: the new boy who intrigues her, the always-rational boy who exasperates her, and the too-cheery dormmate who is always friendly despite Destiny's attempts to push her away. They, too, feel a need for one fair day. What they get is a day full of surprises, some small and some shocking. At the end of the day, what Destiny gets is more than she dared let herself hope for. From now on, October 19th will be the day her life started again.

This was a quick read, but I think that's a little deceptive. This is probably a book that would be worth going back to read a second time, just to notice the small details and nuances that were easy to miss the first time through. Like Christopher Wooding, there have been times when I just haven't gotten Mary Pearson (David v. God and Scribbler of Dreams). But The Adoration of Jenna Fox deserved most of the acclaim it got, and I absolutely loved (and cried over) A Room on Lorelei Street. I'm becoming a convert.

Who can't relate to wanting a day that everything goes right, especially when so much is actually going wrong? The book has a good hook right there. I liked the feel of this book. I really enjoyed some of the quiet moments, particularly those when Destiny and Seth were beginning to connect. The lamb (oops, my bad: the lambadoodle) purely and simply made me smile. And I thought the gradual bonding, coupled as it was with Destiny's gradual realization (mostly through watching Aiden and Mira interact) that her perceptions of the way things are may need to be adjusted, was well done. Those lighter moments were nicely interwoven with darker tones. It's clear that there's something disturbing going on in Destiny's life. What, after all, could a seven-year-old girl have done to make her parents send her away and refuse to let her come home for all these years? Why is she so overwhelmingly guilty and so desperately determined not to let herself get close to anyone? To be honest, I was ahead of the game figuring out at least some of that. But seeing how it all played out was still quite satisfying and cathartic. I appreciated how everything that went into this one fair day, whether it was something as big as meeting the President or as small as a touch of a hand, helped bring Destiny to the point where she could begin to accept the truth and move on in a healthier direction.

While I'm going to tag this as realistic fiction, that's not strictly accurate. There's just enough of a hint of the supernatural, or something akin to it, to intrigue. At the very least, destiny is at work in this story of the carefully-named Destiny Faraday.

On Keeping One's Distance, Purposely and Not

I'm really far behind in posting on books I read in January and February, so I'm going to try to toss up a few slightly shorter posts. (Of course, with me, slightly shorter generally means five or six paragraphs instead of seven or eight! So shorter is definitely a relative term!)

How to Say Goodbye in Robot by Natalie Standiford (4Q 3P) has already gotten all kinds of attention in blogs and review journals. It seems to be one of the hot books of the season so far. While I enjoyed reading it, I don't think it's going to be on my top ten of 2010 (technically, it's from late 2009, but I read it in January).

Bea is accustomed to moving, but this time, things are different. Nobody wants to start a new school in their senior year. And her mother is acting very strangely. She's crying at the drop of a hat and fixating on chickens. When Bea refuses to cry when a gerbil that isn't even theirs dies, her mother calls her a robot for being so heartless. Bea decides being robot-like isn't such a bad idea. Things hurt less when you don't feel anything. so she decides not to feel anything. She meets Jonah at school, where she's purposely keeping her distance from everyone. Jonah's been called Ghost Boy for years, both because of his albino-like appearance and because he keeps such a low profile that he's practically invisible. For some reason, Jonah will talk to Bea, and he's the one person she lets into her life in any meaningful way. Jonah finally reveals the tragedy that's been the driving force in his life: the death of his mother and twin brother in a car accident. When Jonah discovers that his father has been lying to him about the accident and its aftermath for years, he and Bea go on a seemingly hopeless quest to find the one thing that can fill the hole in his life.


Bea and Jonah keep people at arm's length, and that's pretty much how I felt about them too. I didn't connect to them at the level I wanted to, even though Jonah's situation was infuriating and very sad. Bea's story might have been more compelling for me if it had continued to develop in the direction it seemed to be going. But ultimately, the issues surrounding her mother didn't hold together for me. I couldn't buy the reactions that resulted from the cause. I did like the use of the late-night radio show and its quirky loyal followers to give them a place they could fit in and be accepted. Those sections were a welcome relief from the cold, like cuddling up with an afghan and cocoa after being outside on a dreary February day.

Food for thought: Are Bea and Jonah good for each other? Is Jonah what Bea needed at the time, or did their friendship reinforce her robot responses to everyone else around her? Would it have been healthier for Jonah if Bea had encouraged him to handle his discovery of his brother and his father's decision differently? Are Jonah's actions at the end selfish or self-preservation?

Tuesday, March 02, 2010

With MALICE Aforethought

MALICE by Chris Wooding
4Q, 3P; J/S

Kids are going missing. Sometimes they show up again weeks or months later, but they can't remember where they were or what they did. The police and their parents are baffled. If they knew about the existence of Malice, their questions might be answered. What is Malice? It's a really creepy comic book set in a place called Malice. In its pages, kids fight for survival against strange, terrible creatures. But it's not just a story. Malice is a real place, and everything in Malice is real. You won't find Malice in most comic book shops, and most shopkeepers will claim they have no idea it even exists. But if you're really determined, you can get your hands on a copy. You might even be tempted to go to Malice, to have a few adventures yourself. You might be tempted to gather the materials and perform the ritual that will get you there: "Tall Jake, take me away! Tall Jake, take me away!".... But you'd almost certainly regret it.

Luke is one of the kids who disappeared. Only three people know that Luke had a copy of Malice. Only they know that he did the ritual. Only they know that Tall Jake did take Luke away to Malice. Only they know that Luke isn't coming back. How do they know? Because they saw him die in the pages of the comic book.

But is it really true? Is Luke really dead? Seth is determined to find out. He knows it's dangerous, but he's always hated the dull, predictable life his parents lead, and he's always been afraid he'll wind up just like them. He's always liked to push the edge and get the thrill that comes when you're really up against it. What better place to do that than a place like Malice, where there's no room for error and your life is always on the line? Seth too does the ritual ("Tall Jake, take me away...") and becomes one of the missing kids. Within minutes of his arrival, he has narrowly escaped his own death and witnessed another's at the hands of one of the vicious mechanical inhabitants of Malice. It only gets worse from there.

Left behind by Seth, Kady sets off on her own quest to get to the truth. Her search leads her into just as much danger as anything she'd find in Malice. Because what Kady finds are the people deeply, evilly connected to Malice. And they know who she is and where she lives.

Their search for answers leave Seth and Kady staring death in the face and the readers of Malice on the edge of their seats.


The decision to tell this story partly in prose format and partly in graphic novel format was brilliant. Each time the story moves to events in Malice, the book shifts into graphic novel mode. In effect, the reader takes on the role of one of the readers of Malice (the comic book) who is watching the events unfold before his eyes. It takes the reading experience to a different level.

In the past, I've had a hard time getting into Chris Wooding's books. I don't think that had a thing to do with the author. The books just weren't right for me. I found this story to be a more comfortable fit, though a book this dark is certainly far from a comfortable read. I was intrigued by the premise.
I thought Wooding did a particularly good job creating the aura of Malice. Its bleakness and hopelessness is emphatically punctuated by bursts of terror and rushes of adrenaline. I'd never want to go there, but I can understand its appeal to someone like Seth or Justin.

I am not skilled at reading graphic novels, which meant that I occasionally had some trouble interpreting what was happening in the illustrated portions. That was somewhat frustrating for me, but I think the majority of the target audience is more familiar with the format and will have less trouble.

As well-developed as parts of the novel are, I do have some quibbles with it. The role of the various villains and how they are connected to each other is very murky. There doesn't appear to be any particular reason for their actions, and even a bad guy ought to be given some motivation for doing the things he does.
As Tall Jake makes clear on the last page of the book, he will be back in a sequel soon, so I expect the holes will be filled in a bit then. But while it's true that when a book is intended to be a part of a series there have to be things you still want to know at the end of the first book, it 's also true that the book should still be complete unto itself. I think Malice falls a bit short in that department.

I will recommend this book to readers who like dark, atmospheric books, graphic novels, and suspense, and readers who don't mind unanswered questions.