Tag: reviews

Mini-reviews: Spoiled, Wither, Huntress, Divergent, and The Midnight Palace

Argh, I read all of these books ages ago and kept meaning to review them and then didn’t. I’m going to keep these pretty short so I can make myself write them and then have this be done and stop feeling guilty.

The cover of SPOILED by Jessica Cocks and Heather Morgan. The word SPOILED is spelled out in makeup running from the bottom left to upper right of the white cover and a bottle of pink nail polish is spilled in the lower right corner. The tagline reads "You say spoiled like it's a bad thing."Spoiled by Heather Cocks and Jessica Morgan
Poppy, June 2011. 368pp. 9780316098250.

After sixteen-year-old Molly’s mother dies, she discovers that her father is none other than movie star Brick Berlin and goes to live with him in LA, leaving behind her friends and a maybe-boyfriend in Indiana. But Brick already has a daughter, Brooke, an aspiring actress herself, who doesn’t want to share her father’s already limited attention and affection with a Midwestern interloper. Spoiled rises above other rich-and-catty books with its spot-on humor, especially in its observations of the extreme consumerism and self-obsession of Hollywood and its inhabitants. But it’s not all hot yoga and cold shoulders in this story: characters have emotional depth, reasons for their behavior. They change over the course of the story and develop real connections with one another. Most of the major conflicts are wound down by the end, but the last few pages set up a sequel. 3/5.
Book source: sent by publisher

The cover of Lauren DeStefano's WITHER. A girl with styled, ratty hair and makeup that makes her look gaunt wears a floofy dress, looking sadly off to the side. Beside her sits a birdcage. She is wearing a wedding ring.Destefano, Lauren. Wither.
Simon & Schuster, March 2011. 368pp. 9781442409057.

Rhine lives in a future where genetic experimentation gone wrong has limited the lifespan of men to 25 years and women to 20. Women are kidnapped and forced into polygamous marriages to ensure the propagation of the human race. Dystopian stories were my favorite before they became the next big thing in YA and while I’m still finding titles I like, this wasn’t really one of them. It’s not a dystopian tale so much as a kidnapping story set in a dystopian-lite setting. I’m not even really sure that it makes sense that young adults would be so concerned about making babies in such a situation: I think we’d all be more likely to be living hard until we died young. I was also disappointed that so much menace and threat in Wither came from the disturbing ideas of what might be going on in the basement of the mansion where Rhine is imprisoned, but none of that was really resolved and seemed completely left behind at the end. Similarly, the Housemaster was really frightening and it felt like a lot of time was invested in making him scary–but then he’s completely abandoned at the end of the book. Maybe I went into this book with expectations too high, but I felt left down when I finished it. 2/5.
Book source: my library

The cover of Malinda Lo's HUNTRESS. An Asian girl dressed all in black holding a staff parallel to her body in front of her stares out from the cover. Around her, snow is falling. The title appears above her head in a purple script font.Lo, Malinda. Huntress.
Little, Brown, April 2011. 384pp. 9780316040075.

The world is out of balance, and only Taisin and Kaede, seventeen-year-old girls who have been training to be sages (one with great success, the other entirely without), can mend things by traveling to the far reaches of the land and crossing over into the Fairy Kingdom in this tale inspired by Chinese influences. Huntress is very atmosphere-driven: the eerily oppressive feeling of the absent sun, the endless dripping of the rain, and the isolation and numbing quiet of the cold are all companions in their own right in the girls’ quest. The relationship between the girls grows in fits and starts, entirely entwined in the progress of their quest, and the alternating mix of discovery, reluctance, and passion is better developed than many. Unfortunately, the final task the girls must complete felt rushed and tacked-on, emerging and being resolved far after the major climax has passed. In spite of that, Lo still spins a lovely tale set in a rich world. 4/5.
Book source: requested from publisher

The cover of Veronica Roth's DIVERGENT. Above a grey Chicago skyline is an insignia that looks like a flame inside of a circle, all on fire. The title and author's name appear in between the insignia and the skyline.Roth, Veronica. Divergent.
Katherine Tegen Books, May 2011. 496pp. 9780062024022.

In a future Chicago, everyone is in one of five factions that live their entire lives based around a single virtue (candor, selflessness, learning, bravery, friendliness). For the first sixteen years, you live and work in the faction to which you were born, but when you become sixteen, you choose the faction where you want to spend the rest of your life. Beatrice has been raised in Abnegation, but when her time to choose arrives, she surprises everyone by turning Dauntless. She must face a brutal initiation and keep buried a potentially terrible secret about herself she has recently discovered. I think this was another one where I went in with too-high expectations, and while I wasn’t disappointed, Divergent didn’t blow my mind the way I was hoping it might. Am I getting jaded with all of the dystopian titles out now? I hope not because I do love a well-constructed dystopia. Anyway, this one has the brutality of the Hunger Games, if that’s what your readers are looking for, and while Beatrice/Tris was way too slow to catch on to the feelings the initiation leader has for her, their romance at least seemed grounded in respect for one another rather than just falling in love at first sight or for no particular reason or because of fate. Tris isn’t the Chosen One the way you see in a lot of high-action YA fantasy and sci-fi, but is, rather, one of many, and I’ll probably read future books to see how that develops. This is certainly a solid story, but it didn’t wow me the way I wanted it to. 3/5.
Book source: my library

The cover of Carlos Ruiz Zafon's THE MIDNIGHT PALACE. A man dressed in a black cape and wearing a black bowler hat walks toward the camera along a set of flaming railway tracks. The title is superimposed on this image and the author's name appears at the bottom.Ruiz Zafon, Carlos. The Midnight Palace.
Little, Brown, May 2011. 304pp. 9780316044738.

Twins Ben and Sheere have been separated since they were infants, but they’re thrown together when an unknown evil enters their lives, bent on exacting its revenge. Together with Ben’s close group of friends from the orphanage in which he was raised, they must find out what is chasing them and why–and how to defeat it. This is another book that absolutely rocks atmosphere. Check this out:

The shadow of the storm heralded the arrival of midnight as a vast leaden blanket spread over Calcutta, lighting up with every burst of electric fury it unleashed. The fury of the north wind swept the mist from the Hooghly River, revealing the ravaged skeleton of the metal bridge. (227)

The book is just full of sentences and passages that make you feel the sweltering heat; make you see the packed, dirty streets; that make the place a very real thing. And there were some genuinely scary parts to this story. But while The Midnight Palace didn’t have the glaring plot holes of Ruiz Zafon’s Prince of Mist, the motivations of the villain, once they were revealed, still didn’t make a lot of sense to me. Fantastic setting, weak story. 3/5.
Book source: requested from publisher

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4 Comments August 9, 2011

Review: Attack of the Vampire Weenies and Other Warped and Creepy Tales by David Lubar

The cover of David Lubar's short story collection Attack of the Vampire Weenies and Other Warped and Creepy Tales. A sentient hotdog with wings hangs upside down from a tree branch in the foreground, while in the background other Weenies fly, loom just over the horizon, or make menacing faces. A full moon shines in the sky.

Attack of the Vampire Weenies and Other Warped and Creepy Tales
Author: David Lubar
Publisher: Starscape (Tor)
Pages: 224
ISBN: 9780765323453
Publication date: 24 May 2011
Review book source: ARC sent by the publisher

From the publisher: A boy steals a ticket to an amusement park and gets the ride of a lifetime–literally. The first day of middle school turns into a free-for-all when the gym teacher offers a “get-out-of-gym-free” card. Sick of his sister’s vampire wannabe friends, a kid decides to teach them a lesson at their next party. But the tables are turned when some surprise guests show up. […] David Lubar is back with thirty more warped and creepy tales for fans of his bestselling Weenies story collections […]

My thoughts
Lubar’s stories draw on horror story and urban legend staples (ghosts, creepy abandoned houses, skeletons) as well as elements from kids’ day to day lives (school, sports, video games, lame older siblings) and the truly bizarre (mimes turned vampires, ants that become what they eat–and then hunger for more, and the perils of stealing cable from a witch). These elements are blended together with a healthy helping of humor to create a collection that will alternately creep you out and leave you chuckling.

The mix of horror and humor will keep kids reading, and the length of the stories (some as short as three pages) will reward reluctant readers. The shorter stories would also make great material for book talks to tweens, so take this with you when you visit schools to promote summer reading!

With many of the stories, some of the horror is in the initial cold chill when you realize what’s happening, but a lot of it also comes from contemplating what happens to the characters after the story is over. Many of the stories also end in such a way that you could ask, “What happens next?” to get kids telling some great stories of their own.

One of the delightfully silly passages I enjoyed comes from the setup for one of the fractured fairy tales in the collection:

A while ago–however long it actually was doesn’t really matter–a poor couple lived in a shack in the woods. They had enough money for a television, but they couldn’t afford cable. So they settled for watching the few shows they could catch on broadcast. When the wife learned she was going to have a baby, she got restless.

“Look there,” she said, pointing to the high walls that surrounded the witch’s home not far from their shack. “She has satellite TV. And all we have is broadcast.”

“I’ll fix that,” her husband said. He waited until night, then took his tools and sneaked over to the satellite dish. He spliced a second cable into the line and ran it to his shack.

“Now we can watch everything,” the husband said.

“Isn’t that stealing?” the wife asked.

“We’re not hurting anyone,” the husband said.

And so they settled down on the couch and watched the wonderful abundance of available satellite programming until their daughter was born.

Such fractured fairy tales, new urban legends, and stories about strange and freaky things that no one would ever believe happened if you told them are mixed in with the traditional horror or campfire stories. Some are scary, some capture your imagination and stick with you, and some serve as cautionary tales of the dangers of avarice, revenge, and too much reality television. With all of them, I like the possibilities and twists that Lubar sees when he looks at the world–and as a bonus, a section is included at the end of the book wherein Lubar explains his inspiration for each story, which I appreciated and suspect young readers would as well.

Other little things I enjoyed about this collection: there is a Gretchen in this book! There is a story (“Gee! Ography”) that is entirely built on geography puns! And there are a handful of times when the kids in the stories do something to find information–everything from simple Internet searches to grabbing an encyclopedia because it’s closer than the computer to months of research at the library on smells culminating in the creation of an anti-stink formula. And for the most part, the kids who know how to do research well succeed and the kids who don’t get eaten or meet some other hideous fate. How’s that for library propaganda?

I think my favorite story was “Chirp” (about a boy who can briefly turn into a bird when he says “chirp”) because I didn’t see the twist ending coming at all, but the one that really stuck with me, that really horrified me, was “Family Time,” in which a kid and his family gather for a game and he finds himself completely at a loss as to what the rules are or even the correct vocabulary to learn, despite his family’s insistence that they’ve played before and he must know. To me, that sounded too much like the dementia that I fear will be my fate in old age: I’ll have no idea what’s going on and no way to find out, despite everyone telling me things are totally normal. That’s terrifying.

Lubar’s latest Weenies book is warped and creepy, yes, but also also funny. While not every story is a total slam-dunk (or a home run or whatever other sports analogy you’d like), those that fall flat only seem so because they’re surrounded by clever stories that make you wonder “what if?” or “what next?” A great collection for your tweens. 4/5.

More reviews

Bonus: David Lubar wrote a piece for the Starscape blog on how to write your own Weenies story. He also provided an excerpt from the title story and directions on how to get a free copy of the book (sort of) on his LiveJournal.

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Leave a Comment May 23, 2011

Review: The Time-Traveling Fashionista by Bianca Turetsky

The Time-Traveling Fashionista
Author: Bianca Turetsky
Publisher: Poppy (an imprint of Little, Brown)
Pages: 262
ISBN: 9780316105422
Publication date: 5 April 2011
Review book source: I requested a copy from the publisher

Louise Lambert loves vintage clothing, even if none of her friends and family understand her passion. Since the seventh grade semiformal is just around the corner, the arrival of an invitation to the Traveling Fashionista Vintage Sale is especially exciting. But when Louise visits the strange shop run by its strange owners and tries on a gorgeous dress–who cares if it smells a little of seawater?–she suddenly finds herself thrown into the past, inhabiting the body of Miss Baxter, a famous movie star, who has embarked on a luxury cruise ship on its way to New York from England.

My thoughts
While not a technically excellent book, this story–especially with its illustrations–will appeal to middle grade readers with a love of fashion and a taste for the dramatic.

The plot and the writing of The Time-Traveling Fashionista aren’t super-strong, to be totally honest. Louise’s realization that she’s on the Titanic comes surprisingly late in the book, and her obliviousness and disinclination to ask questions once she finds herself in the past seemed difficult to believe. While her attempts to thwart history were admirable, the obstacles that are placed in her path–especially the villainous ship’s doctor–seem one-dimensional and just thrown in to create roadblocks for Louise. The actual writing itself could also have used some more editing:

“Can I watch TV?” Louise asked, eyeing the room for a television set or a flat-screen.

“What’s Tavee??” Anna repeated, confused.

“Right, never mind,” Louise said with a sigh, remembering what era she was in. (p. 92)

The dialogue also felt stilted at times, more written than spoken:

“But it was only a dress,” Louise began sobbing. “How was I supposed to know that all of this would happen? That I would end up stuck on a sinking ship! Does this concern you at all?”

“Only a dress,” Glenda mimicked, powdering her face with the poofy white powder puff. (p. 200)

The short chapters do help keep the story moving, though, which may especially encourage less-than-voracious readers.

The most disappointing part of this book for me, though, came at the end. Once she returns to the present time, Louise does research (just Internet searches, of course) to find out what happened to the people whom she met on the ship to discover their fates. Yet despite this “real world” follow-up, there’s no author’s note that explains what parts of Louise’s experiences on the Titanic were real and which were fictionalized. Especially since the romance between Miss Baxter’s maid, Anna, and a crew member didn’t actually happen, but are confirmed as “real” by Louise in the book, this lack of historical disambiguation seems disappointing and maybe a little dangerous.

But it’s not the writing or the historical accuracy that’s going to bring readers to this book: it’s the description of each character’s clothing and the twenty-two gorgeous–really, gorgeous–color sketches of different dresses and ensembles that Louise encounters in her present-day life and in her trip to the past. These really make the book stand out and bring to life the parts of the adventure that appeal to Louise herself. The cover is also really appealing and hints at the illustrations within.

In short, The Time-Traveling Fashionista is something of a fluffy addition to the recent historical-fiction-via-time-travel trend, but with a unique addition of especially lovely fashion illustrations that make the book stand out. 3/5.

More reviews

Bonus: the book has a surprisingly active Facebook page (it pulls items from Bianca Turetsky’s Twitter feed). You can also “take the fashionista quiz” on the book’s official site.

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4 Comments April 30, 2011

Review: I AM J by Cris Beam

The cover of Cris Beam's YA Novel I AM J. The cover shows what looks like a grey hoodie half-zipped over a blue-green shirt. On the triangular part of the shirt, "I AM" is written in light grey block letters. The hoodie has a large graffiti-style "J" on it in the same shade of grey, and the author's name appears in the lower left corner.

I Am J
Author: Cris Beam
Publisher: Little, Brown
Pages: 352
ISBN: 9780316053617
Publication date: 1 March 2011
Review book source: review copy I requested from the publisher

From the publisher: J always felt different. He was certain that eventually everyone would understand who he really was: a boy mistakenly born as a girl. Yet as he grew up, his body began to betray him; eventually J stopped praying to wake up a “real boy” and started covering up his body, keeping himself invisible–from his family, from his friends… from the world. But after being deserted by the best friend he thought would always be by his side, J decides that he’s done hiding–it’s time to be who he really is. And this time he is determined not to give up, no matter the cost.

My thoughts
Let’s talk about the writing and structure of this story first and then we’ll get to the content. One of the most striking things in the telling of J’s story is that because it’s written in the third person, the reader really feels the disconnect when J is referred to as a girl. We hear “he ambled down the street” and “she cast him a glance”–and then suddenly, jarringly this “he” and “him” is Jenifer or is a daughter or a she. With this third-person narration, there’s never a question about what gender J really is: it’s as obvious to the reader as it is to J that he’s a boy and always has been.

While I Am J does feel like a throwback to the problem novel sometimes, with certain scenes feeling a little heavy-handed (especially when J remembers going to the boardwalk with his dad as a child and encountering transkids, whom his father finds repulsive), J’s interest in photography and his plans for college late in the book helped mitigate this to some extent. The book is still about the struggles J faces in starting his physical transition and finding acceptance among friends and family, but he’s a whole person within that narrative. Secondary characters are also often multifaceted, or at least have distinct personality traits to make them more than just stock characters. That being said, J’s best friend Melissa is a dancer and a cutter, and her cutting was occasionally a distraction from what was going on with J; it felt at times as if there were just too many things rolled up in this story.

The only other thing that irked me was that when J decides to run away from home, it felt a little like a privileged kid experimenting with what life would be like if he had real problems. There was nothing that was really driving him away from home at that point. Later, though, his mother insists he continue staying with Melissa and her mom long past the date she’d originally suggested as a cooling off period for their family, and later still J feels betrayed when he finds out that it’s his mom who doesn’t want him coming home, not his father like she’s been saying. Those scenes of rejection and separation felt more real than J’s initial motivation in running away.

So now we can get to the content. Whenever someone writes about a character from a minority group or a disadvantaged segment of the population, I think we need to raise the question of authenticity. Beam addresses this in the afterword: while she herself is not transgender, she has a trans foster daughter, and her partner also defies the gender binary–and she’s made a career in working with the trans community. She acknowledges:

Of course, it’s scary to take an imaginative leap and write a character who is not you. I have known and loved several people who are like J, but J is not me. I’m not of trans experience, and I know what tricky territory this is, partly because there are still not enough published works by transgender authors, proclaiming their lived experience.

We still desperately need transpeople to tell their own story, but until then, I Am J helps fill the enormous gap in stories on transkids in YA lit.

I Am J not only tells one transkid’s story, but also tackles and hints at other issues around the trans community and the process of transition. Medical consent is a problem at first for J when he wants to start taking testosterone. Not everyone at his GLBT high school is supportive of one another or of each segment of the queer community. J himself is a little homophobic at the start of the story, although he grows out of that by the end. A couple different straight characters at first think J is intersex when he tells them he’s transgender (and then he’s forced to explain the difference). Different characters have different opinions on whether one should out him or herself as trans when beginning a new relationship. J’s family and friends–new and old–react very differently to his coming out and his physical transition. Through these scenes and discussions, the reader gets to see a detailed picture of the trans experience.

I especially liked that I Am J gives readers a picture of the trans community. Parrotfish kind of falls short in comparison here, since Grady is defining himself entirely on his own with no real precedent or support group of other transpeople. At some point (I can’t remember this exactly), I think the gym teacher says something like, “We had another transkid a few years ago…” but there’s no sense of connection to that person who came before. J gets to tap into a community, and being able to see different people and stories and histories through his eyes, we get a fuller picture of what it can mean to be transgender. I Am J also explores the physical transition with testosterone injections and not just modifying one’s dress and appearance to pass, something Parrotfish also doesn’t really do. (I haven’t read Luna, so I can’t compare it to I Am J–and I think that these three books are just about all YA lit has to offer right now when it comes to trans characters.)

And finally, I really liked that J isn’t just trans–he’s also Puerto Rican and Jewish. At YALSA’s YA Lit Symposium, one of the points that kept coming up (for example, during the talk on disability in YA lit) is that people want to read “and” books: books about kids who are black AND gay, or disabled AND poor. I Am J offers that, and I’m glad.

In short, I Am J is excellent addition to the too-slowly growing number of titles about trans kids that explores new territory in new ways. 4/5.

Bonus: Cris Beam’s nonfiction book Transparent: Love, Family, and Living the T with Transgender Teenagers was a Stonewall Honor Book and the 2008 winner of the Lambda Literary Award for best transgender book.

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2 Comments March 13, 2011

Review: I AM NUMBER FOUR by Pittacus Lore

The cover of the YA novel I AM NUMBER FOUR, written under the pen name Pittacus Lore. The cover shows a design with concentric circles in white and yellow ringed in fire, the rest of the cover orange. The title and author's name appear on the front as well as the tagline, "Three are dead."

I Am Number Four
Author: Pittacus Lore
Publisher: Harper (an imprint of HarperCollins)
Pages: 448
ISBN: 9780061969553
Publication date: 3 August 2010
Review book source: my own copy

From the jacket flap: Nine of us came here We look like you. We talk like you. We live among you. But we are not you. We can do things you dream of doing. We have powers you dream of having. We are stronger and faster than anything you have ever seen. We are the superheroes you worship in movies and comic books–but we are real.

Our plan was to grow, and train, and become strong, and become one, and fight them. But they found us and started hunting us first. Now all of us are running. Spending our lives in shadows, in places where no one would look, blending in. We have lived among you without you knowing.

But they know.

They caught Number One in Malaysia. Number Two in England. And Number Three in Kenya. They killed them all. I am Number Four. I am next.

My thoughts
I thought I was going to like this book. At least, I thought I was going to like this book when I saw it in a book store and remembered reading some favorable reviews and purchased it; after I learned that it was a product of James Frey’s YA lit book packager, I was more skeptical. I already owned it at that point, though, so I gave it a read. So I thought I was going to like this, but I didn’t. That’s not to say this book is objectively bad: I think it fulfills what it’s trying to do pretty well. It’s just that what it’s trying to do isn’t very interesting or skillful.

From the start, once I actually started flipping through the book, it just feels like it’s trying too hard. The cover with the super-intense tagline! The embossed symbol on the cover under the dust jacket! The printing on the edges of the pages that spell out “LORIEN LEGACIES”! The integration of a symbol on the spine into the QR code on the back jacket flap! The Lemony Snicket-like author photo and bio! The book being “written by” a character from the universe in the book! (Only the actual narration is done by the protagonist and not the character who is supposedly the author.) Each of those pieces might not have been so bad, but when you put it together, it just seemed like the marketing department threw everything but the kitchen sink onto the book in the hopes that it’d grab as many people as possible.

When you get to the actual content of the story, there’s not much new here. Giving aliens credit for humanity’s achievements, the idea that aliens are walking among us but look like us and pass for us every day and have secret superpowers, most elements of the plot (including the former cheerleader who was dating the quarterback and has now sworn off her former ways, vowing to be nice to everyone–including the new kid, of course!), the dumb name of the evil race out to kill everyone (Mogadorians? Really?) and the fact that every representative of that race is completely one-dimensionally pure evil, the way the ending just turned into a big aimless battle–not much here felt fresh or interesting or like someone wanted to create this world and tell this story. There’s nothing complex in who the Loric people are, in who the Mogadorians are, in their conflict.

The writing is also awkward and strange at time, especially in the inconsistent use of contractions. One short example from page 224:

“[…] I don’t even know if he is there.”

He nods. “Do you think he’s okay?”

It’s not that the writing is bad, just that it’s inconsistent and not very interesting–and both of those were really distracting for me.

However, for as much as I don’t like the packaging and think a lot of the ideas and tropes are too familiar and didn’t care for the writing, the plot is tight and moves quickly and is full of action. The bad guys are surprisingly sadistic. The charm that requires the Mogadorians to kill the Loric teens in the order of their numbers intensified things. The emergence of John’s abilities isn’t at all surprising, but it’s the stuff that action story dreams are made of.

This book feels exactly like an action movie that’s shiny and full of explosions on the surface but doesn’t have much going on underneath. But it does do the action movie thing very well. 2/5.

Bonus: a movie adaptation is due out next month. At least I know they’re not going to mangle the book in the adaptation.

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2 Comments January 11, 2011

Review: BASEBALL HEROES (Good Sports series) by Glenn Stout

The cover of Glenn Stout's juvenile nonfiction title BASEBALL HEROES, part of his new Good Sports series

Baseball Heroes
Author: Glenn Stout
Publisher: Sandpiper
Pages: 128
ISBN: 9780547417080
Publication date: 27 December 2010
Review book source: requested from publisher via

Stout presents short biographies and career descriptions of four baseball pioneers: Hank Greenberg, Jackie Robinsonson, Fernando Valenzuela, and Ila Borders. He explores what drew each player to baseball, the opposition and sometimes discrimination that they faced, and the impact that their careers had on baseball and its fans.

My thoughts

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Leave a Comment December 26, 2010

Review: TRICKSTER’S GIRL by Hilari Bell

The cover of Hilari Belli's YA novel TRICKSTER'S GIRL. The cover shows a young woman's face with an image of a raven superimposed on the left side. The image is high-contrast and is in shades of grey.

Trickster’s Girl
Author: Hilari Bell
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Books for Children
Pages: 288
ISBN: 9780547196206
Publication date: 3 January 2011
Review book source: requested from publisher via

From the publisher: In the year 2098 America isn’t so different from the USA of today. But, in a post-9/11 security-obssessed world, “secured” doesn’t just refer to borders between countries, it also refer to borders between states. Teenagers still think they know everything, but there is no cure for cancer, as Kelsa knows first-hand from watching her father die.

The night Kelsa buries her father, a boy appears. He claims magic is responsible for the health of Earth, but human damage disrupts its flow. The planet is dying.

Kelsa has the power to reverse the damage, but first she must accept that magic exists and see beyond her own pain in order to heal the planet.

My thoughts
The post-9/11 world of high security and the “humans ruined the earth” thing seemed like two separate messages trying to share a book. Having to worry about identification as they move across state borders an into Canada makes Kelsa and Raven’s quest more difficult, but there doesn’t seem to be a reason for these security precautions other than to throw up barriers as they try to heal the leys.

Futhermore, the plot gets a little wandery at times, the danger doesn’t feel consistent or real (the primary dangers come from border guards and a pack of bikers, but the bikers only appear when it’s necessary for the action to get a little injection of scariness), the mission to heal the leys isn’t focused enough, and oh man did the ending not clean up the mess Kelsa made throughout the book. (A sequel seems planned, but this feels more like one story stretched over two books rather than two whole and complete narratives.) Honestly, this book was kind of disappointing, especially since I’ve really liked other books Bell has written.

However, Raven’s characterization is strong; his personality is distinct and his secrecy and unusualness are intriguing. He felt different than a lot of the characters I’ve been encountering in YA lit recently–and I was really glad no romantic subplot developed between him and Kelsa.

But what really makes this book stand out is its incorporation of American Indian lore. I would have actually liked to have seen more of an exploration of the relationship between Raven and the other gods and all of the spirits and humanity over history. However, as much as Bell’s taken on American Indian spirituality lent this book its flavor, I can’t comment on the authenticity of its portrayal–but I’m hoping Debbie Reese will on American Indians in Children’s Literature.

Some serious flaws in structure and pacing and plot, but the inclusion of Indian spirits at least makes this stand out from other books with an environmental message. 2/5.

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Leave a Comment December 24, 2010

Review: ENTER THE ZOMBIE by David Lubar (Nathan Abercrombie, Accidental Zombie series)

The cover of David Lubar's middle grade novel ENTER THE ZOMBIE, the fifth and final book in the Nathan Abercrombie, Accidental Zombie series. The cover is a cartoony depiction of a boy with rotting green fingers and neck against a blue background removing his head from his body. He wears a tshirt that reads "TEAM MOOKIE". The title, series name, and author's name also appear on the cover.

Enter the Zombie
Author: David Lubar
Publisher: Starscape (Tor)
Pages: 192
ISBN: 9780765323446
Publication date: 4 January 2011
Review book source: I requested an ARC from the publisher

From the publisher: When Mr. Murphy finds out that evil organization RABID is using a student academic and athletic competition to recruit agents, he asks Nathan, Abigail, and Mookie to form a team and enter the contest. Things go terribly wrong when Nathan’s nemesis, Rodney the bully, forms his own team to go up against Nathan. Soon Rodney and his pals start to notice some very odd things about Nathan. Will they discover Nathan’s secret and expose his zombie identity to the entire world?

My thoughts
The vivid, so-gross-it’s-great puke-and-farts scenes that gave the first four books their character make fewer appearances here as Nathan is confronted with the escalating peril of his life as a zombie. The stakes have never been higher as he himself becomes a part of the mission to destroy RABID, but he’s also realizing that BUM’s interest in him is as a tool and not a person. In fact, about two thirds of the way through the book, Nathan recognizes that while they helped harden his bones, BUM–and Mr Murphy–have no intention of helping him un-zombify himself. Nathan muses to Abigail, “I don’t think it will ever be enough. […] There’ll always be more to do. I’ll be carrying out missions for them until I rot apart.” Nathan must decide if he’s willing to sacrifice himself and his life for the greater good–or if he has the right to live life as just a normal kid.

And while the gross-out bits are reduced mostly to a few choice emissions from Mookie, the real heart of the series–Nathan, Abigail, and Mookie working together to solve problems in their world and in their lives–beats strongly in this final installment. Abigail especially is in high form, tracking down a cure for Nathan, but it takes unique contributions from all three of the friends to advance in the Mind and Body competition. Abigail must draw on every ounce of her intelligence, Nathan’s got to push himself as hard as possible to do well in physical challenges without tipping anyone off to the source of his strength and endurance, and Mookie has to provide comic relief and encouragement at key points. More than in the first four books, teamwork and propping each other up in dire situations are what save our heroes.

And look! There’s an entire page wherein Abigail explains to Mookie that research without the Internet is totally possible:

“I haven’t found a single thing about the anima flower on the Internet,” Abigail said.

“That’s not good. So it isn’t real?” I was glad I hadn’t gotten my hopes up about a cure.

“I didn’t say that. Not everything is on the Internet. There are some books I can check. There are all sorts of old newspapers and magazines that aren’t on the Internet.”

“Then how can you search them?” I asked.

“They have indexes,” Abigail said.

“On the Internet?” Mookie asked.

“No, in other books,” Abigail said. “People did research before there was an Internet. And even before there were any computers at all. They looked things up. They found information. It will be fun. I’ll go to the county library after school tomorrow.”

It may be pandering (and Lubar’s mom was a school librarian), but c’mon, how can you not support a book that sneaks in some indoctrination into the “libraries are awesome” cult?

In Enter the Zombie, Lubar deftly wraps up the loose threads, persistent concerns, and primary conflicts he established through the first four books. While he faces off against RABID for a final time, Nathan’s also grappling with the responsibilities his unique abilities and involvement with BUM confer and whether or not he can find a balance between those responsibilities and his own life. After all, as much as Nathan wants to go back to a life of eating, sleeping, and not rotting apart, to abandon an exciting life of spying and destroying evil entirely would be such a disappointment.

Ending on a strong note, the Nathan Abercrombie series is a perfect mix of gross-out moments and slapstick humor, great spy work with a twist, and a good heart beneath it all. Highly recommended.

More reviews
No other reviews seem to be available at the time of this writing. Keep your eye on Goodreads for reviews to come after the book is published.

Check out my interview with David about the Nathan Abercrombie, Accidental Zombie series.

My reviews of the first four books in the series, My Rotten Life, Dead Guy Spy, and Goop Soup and The Big Stink.

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1 Comment December 9, 2010

Short reviews: BRIGHT YOUNG THINGS by Anna Godbersen and DARK PARTIES by Sara Grant

The cover of Anna Godbersen's YA novel, BRIGHT YOUNG THINGS. The cover shows a young woman with blonde, chin-length hair reclining in a silver dress. The title is superimposed on this image.

Bright Young Things
Author: Anna Godbersen
Publisher: HarperCollins
Pages: 389
ISBN: 9780061962660
Publication date: 12 October 2010
Review book source: my library

In 1929, Letty Larkspur and Cordelia Grey set out from their Ohio town for glittery New York City. Though the two friends escape their bleak Midwestern lives together, each has her own ambitions: Letty to become a famous actress and singer, and Cordelia to find her father. The story is occasionally difficult to swallow–Cordelia is too readily accepted by her father once she finds him–and it takes until nearly the end of the book to pick up. Godbersen’s narrative also follows a third person, society girl Astrid Donal, but Astrid’s disaffected languor sometimes translates to just being boring, and the three girls’ lives only fully intertwine in the last scene. However, there are plenty of parties, nights at speakeasies, and handsome young men, and the story ends with a stronger set-up for the sequel. This first book in a new series by Godbersen reveling in the last summer of the Jazz Age lacks the foreshadowing and urgency (and thus the hook) of her Luxe books, but fans of the kind of historical fiction that is a period piece, the setting a backdrop against which romances blossom and are cast aside, fortunes rise and fall, and the lives of bright young girls making their way in the world are lived will be waiting with bated breath for the next installment. 3/5.

The cover of Sara Grant's YA novel, DARK PARTIES. The cover shows a red snowflake dripping down the cover, which is in blacks and greys and has a ghostly image of a person's face with his or her eyes covered by someone else's hands. The title and author's name are above the snowflake.

Dark Parties
Author: Sara Grant
Publisher: Little, Brown
Pages: 320
ISBN: 9780316085946
Publication date: 3 August 2011
Review book source: requested from publisher via NetGalley

Generations ago, Homeland closed its borders, sealing its citizens within the Protectosphere. In the years since, supplies have started running out and the limited gene pool has erased most physical differences between people. The government strictly controls everyone’s lives, and sometimes people go missing, leaving no trace behind. Neva and Sanna can’t stand living under that kind of control anymore, so to recruit others to their cause, they stage a Dark Party. But when Neva and Sanna begin their rebellion and the government lashes back at them, Neva thinks she may be on her own, and too deep to be saved. The title of Grant’s story is puzzling: there is only one dark party and while the book opens with it, its importance seems disconnected from the rest of what follows in Neva’s story. Some elements in Grant’s vision of the future are to be found in other dystopian stories–the protective dome over the country also appears in The Sky Inside and The Other Side of the Island, the missing citizens can be found in The Other Side of the Island, and the dwindling resources and need for recycling is prominent in The City Of Ember–but she does introduces new ideas (everyone looking the same from years of inbreeding, and there’s a disturbing twist at the end when Neva discovers that girls are exploited for their reproductive capabilities). Fans of dystopian lit will enjoy these new twists and another tale of government control gone too far, but Dark Parties fails to stand out from other offerings in the genre. 2/5.

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2 Comments December 1, 2010

Review: THE MOCKINGBIRDS by Daisy Whitney

The cover of Daisy Whitney's young adult novel, THE MOCKINGBIRDS

The Mockingbirds
Author: Daisy Whitney
Publisher: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers
Pages: 339
ISBN: 9780316090537
Publication date: 2 November
Review book source: I requested an ARC from the publisher

From the publisher: Themis Academy is a quiet boarding school with an exceptional student body that the administration trusts to always behave the honorable way–the Themis way. So when Alex is date-raped during her junior year, she has two options: stay silent and hope someone helps her, or enlist the Mockingbirds–a secret society of students dedicated to righting the wrongs of the student body.

My thoughts
Daisy Whitney is herself a rape survivor, and that makes the story feel so real, especially as Alex struggles to define what Carter did to her as rape even though she can’t remember it at first and didn’t fight back every moment throughout. But this book isn’t dark and soul-crushing in the way some books about rape or abuse are: Alex only remembers bits and pieces of that night, and her recollection of it unfolds as the rest of the story does. The Mockingbirds is about Alex understanding what happened to her, but moving forward and not defining herself by it. It’s about her becoming strong enough to stand up against not just her attacker, but against all of the horrific things women are told–that she was asking for it; that she deserved it; that she didn’t say “no” so there’s an implied “yes;” that if she chose to sleep with one guy, there’s no way she can say no to another.

And really, Alex only very reluctantly wants to move forward with the case, but by the end of the book, she’s doing it for people who will come after her, not for personal vengeance, and she learns to understand the importance of seeking justice for others, too. Occasionally the book felt like a vehicle for a message, but given that this is an issue-driven book and that Alex’s story is inspired by Daisy Whitney’s own, that’s not surprising and it’s not heavy-handed. Additionally, the writing’s natural and moves along at a good pace, and the dialogue especially flows well.

The one thing that didn’t sit right for me with this book was the Mockingbirds’ methods leading up to the case. Using the attendance system, they take away Carter’s off-campus privileges, they deny him birthday cake, and they conspire to have his water polo match against the school’s biggest rival canceled–all before he’s determined guilty. They justify this by saying that if he’s found innocent, they’ll reinstate all of his privileges and even give him a voice within the Mockingbirds, and I can understand how Alex would want to see him immediately punished, but especially since such a big deal is made of the checks and balances the Mockingbirds have instituted, their treatment of the accused seemed wrong.

However, I think that this dissonance in how justice was carried out will actually make this a better book for book group discussions. Not only will participants be able to engage in conversation about rape and date rape and consent and respecting one another and how girls and women are sexualized, they can also cover topics like vigilante justice and what makes a fair trial and what just punishment is for people who are found guilty of sexual assault. Because really, I was also bothered by how light Carter’s punishment was. I’m not even sure that he’ll see what he did to her as wrong; he may just always think of her as the girl who forced him off the water polo team, you know? If this was going to be a clear-cut right and wrong issue book, I would have liked to have seen Carter grow, too, not just Alex.

I’ve seen complaints in other reviews about how there were no adults for Alex to turn to and that that isn’t realistic or something we want to tell teens, but just drawing on my own experiences as a teen, I think it’s easy to feel completely alone with no adult who would understand and help, even if that’s not actually the case. And while some reviewers have expressed incredulity that adults wouldn’t spring forward to help Alex, the truth is that getting justice in on-campus rape cases is still difficult.

The Mockingbirds derive their name from Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, and there are references to it and parallels between the books throughout, so this would be a good choice for high school classrooms or for book groups who want to read two related books and discuss them. And if you’re looking for another book where a teen rape survivor uses the piano to move past what happened to her, check out Safe by Susan Shaw. It’s more about the emotional trauma the character served and her initial denial that anything’s wrong and then her slow recovery process rather than examining rape, consent, and justice in a societal context, but there’s nothing explicit in it.

I think that The Mockingbirds has some flaws, but I think it’ll transcend those flaws to become a favorite of discussion groups and classrooms, and I can definitely see it even going on to win awards.

More reviews

Check out this interview with Daisy Whitney about the cover and this more general interview.

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5 Comments October 16, 2010

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