Wednesday, March 7, 2018

New Fantasy Duologies: Tess of the Road, Between the Blade and the Heart and The Belles

Three new fantasy duologies, that I think teens will like, debuted in early 2018. Rachel Hartman returns to her Seraphina series with Tess of the Road, a tale about Seraphina's stepsister Tess Dombegh, who disguises herself as a boy to seek a legendary serpent.  Between the Blade and the Heart, the first in the Valkyrie duology by Amanda Hocking (Trylle Trilogy and Kanin Chronicles), introduces Malin, a Valkyrie whose job it is to slay immortals and return them to the afterlife. The Belles by  Dhonielle Clayton in her solo debut introduces a world where a jealous God has made everyone gray and ugly. The wealthy  pay women known as Belles to use their magic to transform them into something beautiful, depending on the latest fads and personal ideas of beauty.

In Tess of the Road the main character Tess is recovering from a catastrophic downfall after being seduced and abandoned.  Although she tries to redeem herself, all is lost when she ruins her twin sister Jeanne's wedding by drunkenly punching the groom.  Disguising herself as a boy, she hits the road to help her childhood friend, a quigutl dragon, find a legendary serpent. Along the way she must pose as a priest, work as a manual laborer and fend off robbers, as she slowly makes peace with her past.  At first bitter and self-pitying, Tess ultimately shows her worth through her courage, resilience and empathy. Her triumphant quest to find the serpent allows her to begin to reenter society in this tale of female empowerment.  The first in a duology, this novel sets the stage for further adventures on the road.

Between the Blade and the Heart, the first in the Valkyrie duology, introduces Malin, a Valkyrie-in-training, whose job it is to slay immortals and return them to the afterlife.  When she discovers that her mentor/mother failed to carry out an assignment, resulting in the death of a fellow Valkyrie, Malin joins her son Archer to find the culprit and kill him.  Malin's roommate Oona, a sorceress-in-training, and her ex-girlfriend Quinn come along for the ride.  The story is immersed in Norse mythology and includes many fascinating creatures, making this novel heavy on world-building, but not lacking in action and romance.  The obligatory love triangle has a new twist in that Malin is bisexual. The cliffhanger ending will leave readers thrilled that the sequel From the Earth to the Shadows, comes out April 24, 2018.

In The Belles the God of the Sky in the opulent world of Orleans becomes jealous of the Goddess of Beauty's love for their children, so he curses them with ugliness.  She in retaliation creates the Belles, who have magical powers allowing them to transform people's ugliness.  Camellia and her 5 sisters are Belles who have just finished their training and are about to enter society.  A contest is held to determine which one will get to serve in the royal household.  Although not chosen at first, Camellia ultimately ends up in the palace, where she finds the crown princess in a coma and her younger sister obsessed with power.  As Camellia struggles to unravel the political plot, she uncovers the secret to the Belle's origin in a culture obsess with beauty.  This novel challenges readers to think about their own ideas of beauty and what women go through financially and physically to attain it. The Belles, as well as the other two novels reviewed, are most appropriate for mature readers.

Friday, February 9, 2018

Colorado Blue Spruce Young Adult Book Award

Yesterday at the CCIRA convention in Denver, the 2017 Blue Spruce winner, Six of Crows by Leigh Barduga, and the 2018 nominees were announced. The winner focuses on six dangerous outcasts in the magic infused city of Ketterdam, who are offered vast sums of money to liberate a scientist from a maximum security prison.  Kaz, who heads the crew, recruits his friends to help him with the heist.  The story is told from multiple points of view and along the way readers find out each person's backstory, which leads them to Kaz's gang.  This page turner ends with a cliff-hanger ending, followed by the sequel Crooked Kingdom.
The 2018 nominees include several previously reviewed in this blog, including Everything, Everything, by Nicola Yoon, The Inexplicable Logic of My Life by Benjamin Alire Saenz, Red Queen by Victoria Aveyard, and The Hate You Give by Angie Thomas. In addition to these titles, the following novels are up for the 2018 award.
Caraval by Stephanie Garber
Two sisters leave their cruel father to attend Caraval-a faraway once-a-year performance where the audience participates in the show.  Along the way one is kidnapped and the other is aided by a mysterious sailor and finds herself enmeshed in a game of love, heartbreak and magic.
 Daughter of the Pirate King by Tricia Levenseller
When the pirate king discovers that a legendary treasure map can be found on an enemy ship, his daughter Alosa knows there is only one pirate for the job - herself.  Leaving behind her beloved ship and crew, Alosa deliberately facilitates her own kidnapping to ensure her welcome on the ship.
 The Forgetting by Sharon Cameron
Canaan is a quiet city on an idyllic world, hemmed in by high walls, but every 12 years the town breaks out in a chaos of bloody violence, after which all the people undergo the Forgetting, in which they are left without any trace of memory.  But Nadia has never forgotten.
 Kill All Happies by Rachel Cohn
Victoria Navarro has one night to throw the ultimate graduation party at Happies, a legendary restaurant that is closing.  She hopes to say goodbye to lifelong friends and make sure her crush never forgets her, but all doesn't go as planned.
The Marvels by Brian Selznik
The author of The Invention of Hugo Cabret, once again employs pen and ink drawings, as well as text, to tell the story of the Marvels, a brilliant family of London actors.
Nyxia by Scott Reintgen
Emmet accepts an interstellar space contract, but learns en route that to win the promised fortune, he and the other recruits face a brutal competition, putting their very humanity at risk.
 Refugee by Alan Gratz
Three teens separated by continents and decades embark on harrowing journeys in search of refuge. Joseph flees Nazi Germany in 1930, Isabel leaves Cuba on a raft to America in 1994 and Mahmoud begins the journey from Syria to Germany in 2015. Surprising connections tie their stories together.
 Turtles All the Way Down by John Green
John Green's latest novel focuses on Aza whose OCD threatens to derail her attempt to get control of her life, as she pursues the mystery of a fugitive billionaire.
Wax by Gina Damico
Poppy Palladino, with the help of a wax boy called Dud, attempts to uncover an evil plot that threatens her hometown of Paraffin, Vermont.
We All Looked Up by Tommy Wallach
The lives of 4 high school seniors intersect weeks before a meteor is set to pass through Earth's orbit with a 66.6% chance of striking and destroying all life on Earth.

 To read more about the award and find book talks for the new nominees go to

Sunday, January 28, 2018

New from favorite authors: Far from the Tree, The Inexplicable Logic of My Life, and The Whole Thing Together

The 2018 edition of my book What's New in Young Adult Novels? and Ideas for Classroom Use is now available. I have added over 80 books from 2017 with recommendations for using them in the classroom.  Many of the books have been reviewed in this blog already, however, before I move on to 2018 titles, I would like to recommend three 2017 novels by some of my favorite authors.  Robin Benway (Emmy and Oliver) won the 2017 National Book Award for Far from the Tree, her saga about three siblings who find each other after being adopted out to different families.  Benjamin Alire Saenz (Aristotle and Dante Discover Secrets of the Universe) follows the senior year of Salvador, who was adopted by a gay Mexican-American man after his mother dies in The Inexplicable Logic of My Life. Ann Brashares (Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants) focuses on two half-siblings who share a room at a family beach house, but have never met each other, in The Whole Thing Together

In Far from the Tree Grace, an only child who was adopted at birth, finds herself pregnant and decides to find her biological family, after giving the baby up for adoption.  She reconnects with her younger sister, Maya, a confident gay teen who was adopted by a well-to-do family who also have a biological daughter, and Joaquin, their stoic older brother who is a product of the foster care system. Grace is much more interested in finding their biological mother than either of her siblings.  Chapters alternate between their third person perspectives, as each teen struggles to navigate personal challenges that they keep secret. Maya's mother is a closet alcoholic, Joaquin's latest foster parents want to adopt him, and Grace is trying to decide if she wants to maintain a relationship with her baby and adoptive family.  This touching family saga is truly deserving of its National Book Award.

The Inexplicable Logic of My Life introduces Salvador, whose gay Mexican-American father adopted him when he was three, after his mother, who was Dad's best friend, dies. Sal finds his world turned upside down when his adoptive grandmother Mima is diagnosed with cancer, his best friend Samantha moves in with him after a family tragedy, and his streetwise gay friend Fito is kicked out of his home by his drug addicted mom.  Complicating matters, Sal uncharacteristically gets into several fist fights and wonders if he inherited violent tendencies from his biological father. When his adoptive dad gives him a letter his mother left for him, Sal hesitates to open it, thinking it might be better to leave that chapter of his life closed.  In short journal like chapters and text messages, this novel reveals a story of love, loss and the value of family.

After Robert and Lila bitterly divorce, in The Whole Thing Together, they and their three daughters take turns sharing the family's Long Island beach house every summer. The parents remarry and each have another child, Ray and Sasha, who share the same bedroom in the beach house on alternate weeks.  Although they share toys, books and even a bed, they have never met, until they unexpectedly run into each other at a NYC party and feel an instant attraction. When their stepsister Mila gets engaged, the two families decide to bury the hatchet for an engagement party at the house, with disastrous results. Then a family tragedy initiates a truce, and they begin to deal with long standing issues and healing begins.  This exploration of split family dynamics is both funny and tragic with a little romance thrown in as well.

Thursday, December 14, 2017

New YA Fantasy/ SciFi Recommendations: Warcross, All Rights Reserved and Rosemarked.

It's time for holiday gifts and my thoughts turn to fun YA reads, which provide a break from assigned reading.  Fantasy novels immediately come to mind, so this month I will recommend three books that introduce new series that I think teens will enjoy. Warcross by Marie Lu (Legend series) focuses on Emi Chen, a bounty hunter who hacks into a popular virtual reality game tournament.  All Rights Reserved by Gregory Scott Katsoulis is set in a world where every word and gesture are copyrighted and must be purchased for use.  Rosemarked by Livia Blackburne takes place in a plague ridden world where Zivah, a healer, and Dineas, a rebel, join to fight a mutual oppressor.

Warcross is the first book in a new high tech sci/fi series by acclaimed author Marie Lu.  Emi Chen is a hacker who makes a meager living working as a bounty hunter, tracking down people who bet illegally on a popular virtual reality game known as Warcross.  When she hacks into a Warcross tournament game to scavenge, she is discovered by the game's creator, Hideo Tanka.  He flies her to Tokyo and hires her as a hacker spy in order to find a villain known as Zero, who is after him.  She poses as a player on one of the tournament teams, but in this virtual world filled with double crosses, it is hard to know who to trust.  A former video game artist herself, the author's attention to game detail makes this a very believable futuristic read. The bombshell revelation and cliffhanger ending will leave readers clamoring for the next book in this thrilling new series.

The clever premise in All Rights Reserved sets up a dystopian world ripe for rebellion.  In the future all words, gestures and sounds are trademarked, cataloged and monetized, and everyone over the age of 15 is required to wear a cuff that charges them for every word they speak, causing many to go bankrupt. When Speth is about to give her last day speech and be inducted into the paying world, her boyfriend commits suicide, rather than work off his family's crippling debt.  Shocked and distraught, Speth refuses to read her speech and elects to remain silent.  Her defiance of tradition incites a media frenzy and inspires others to follow her lead and rebel against the powers that be, who have a stranglehold on communication.  Speth is a reluctant hero, who pays a high personal price as the figurehead of  the "Silents" movement. The ending, although satfisfying, sets up the upcoming sequel. I would recommend this to fans of Scott Westerfeld's Uglies and other series about teen rebellion against a repressive dystopian society.

Rosemarked, the first book in a new fantasy series, introduces a plague ridden world where the authoritarian rule of the Amparans tyrannizes the people they subjugate.  The story is told by Zivah, a Daran healer, who has contracted the rose plague when she treats infected occupying Amparan soldiers, and Dineas, a Shidadi soldier rebelling against Amparan rule. He has survived the plague and is now umbertouched or immune, but she is highly contagious and can expect a shortened life span. Because Zivah saved the life of the Amparan commander, she is invited to live in the Capital to heal other plague stricken Amparans.  When the Darans ally with the Shidadi, the two are engaged as spies in order to find a weakness in the Amparan forces. Dineas infiltrates the Amparan military to learn the empire's plans for dealing with the rebels and then reports to Zivah in the Capital.  As they join together to fight a mutual oppressor, Zivah and Dineas develop a deep affection for each other. The detailed world building and complex characters will engage readers in this tension filled page turner.  The unresolved ending sets up the sequel Umbertouched, which will be released in 2018.

Saturday, November 18, 2017

Quirky Teens: 36 Questions, Speed of Life, What to Say Next and Holding Up the Universe

Although the books I am recommending this month could be characterized as quirky teen relationship novels, they all involve teens who are dealing with the loss of a parent in unusual ways. 36 Questions that Changed My Mind About You by Vicky Grant weaves a story around the real life psychological study where strangers develop relationships after asking each other 36 questions designed to create intimacy. Speed of Life by advice columnist Carol Weston involves a teenage girl who begins corresponding with a teen advice columnist after the death of her mother.  What to Say Next by Julie Buxbaum (Tell Me Three Things) explores the relationship between an autistic boy and a popular girl, who has just lost her father. Finally, Holding Up the Universe by Jennifer Niven (All the Bright Things) focuses on a girl who gains several hundred pounds after her mother's death. All of these books involve characters, who are quirky, yet sympathetic, and engaging stories that I did not want to put down.

Inspired by the 1990 psychological study "The Experimental Generation of Interpersonal Closeness," which was popularized in The New York Times36 Questions is the story of two strangers, Hildy and Paul (aka Betty and Bob), who show up to participate in a PhD student's experiment and collect $40 for their trouble. All they have to do is ask and answer 36 questions of each other, to see if it fosters affection between them.   However, making it to the end of the questionnaire is a major challenge for these two volatile characters.  Paul, the "bad boy" artistic loner, is only there for the money, and answers the questions in a caustic, snarky, manner.  "Good girl" Hildy's nervousness is manifested by earnest oversharing, which Paul taunts, resulting in Hildy exploding, throwing a tropical fish at him (it's complicated), and stomping out. Although they aren't supposed to know each other's true identity, Paul finds her on Facebook and messages her about meeting and finishing the experiment.  Attracted to him, but wary, she agrees to answer the questions online. By the end of the book they've laughed, cried, lied and discovered each other's secrets, but have they fallen in love? Their witty authentic dialogue, complemented by Paul's drawings, make this a fun read with serious undertones, which I highly recommend. I found myself marveling at the way the author wove the story around the study's questions and thinking about my own answers as I read. Rights for publication have already been sold in 19 countries!

Speed of Life focuses on Sofia Wolfe, who is still struggling with the death of her Spanish mother, almost a year earlier.  When teen advice columnist, "Dear Kate," speaks at a school assembly, Sofia talks her dad into attending Kate's talk for parents.  Sofia begins corresponding with Kate, who seems to be the only one she can turn to for solace.  When she finds out Dad has begun dating Kate, with whom he has rekindled a former acquaintance,  Sofia initially feels betrayed, but ultimately adjusts.  Complications ensue when Sofia goes to live with Kate and her angry daughter Alexa for the summer, and Sofia falls for Alexa's former boyfriend, Sam. Then an unexpected change in the family's dynamics creates a bond between the soon-to-be stepsisters. The struggles of changing schools, blended families, first love and grieving are dealt with sensitively by the author whose advice column "Dear Carol" appears in Girls' Life magazine.

The title of Julie Buxbaum's latest novel, What to Say Next, refers to a helpful hints notebook, David Drucker's sister has created for him. David is brilliant, but on the spectrum, and typically responds inappropriately in many social situations. The book is especially useful when popular Kit Lowell begins sitting with him at lunch, after the death of her father in a car accident.  Kit finds it difficult to reenter her high school social circle and finds David's quiet ways and blunt honesty refreshing.  As they grow closer, David's social awkwardness is further exposed when the notebook, which also contains his commentary on peers, is stolen, and many of his comments are posted on the internet.  In trying to help him navigate this disaster, Kit's own secrets are revealed, bringing their relationship to a poignant resolution.  The author uses split first person narration to give the reader insight into each character's perspective. David's insensitively direct comments are frequently hilarious, but troublesome. Kit's journey through grief and recovery makes for an interesting vehicle for this quirky love story, which I think readers will enjoy.

In Holding Up the Universe, the main character Libby Strout is known as the girl who had to be cut out of her house.  After her mother's unexpected death, Libby took solace in eating and became morbidly obese.  A medical intervention helped her go from 600 to 300 pounds, and she decides to reenter public school.  There she meets resident cool boy Jack Messelin, who is peer-pressured into bullying Libby and ends up with a bloody nose for his actions.  They end up in detention where they develop a fragile friendship.  He confides in Libby that he has prosopagnosia (face blindness) and is hiding it from the world. She encourages him to seek help and let people know that his insensitivity is frequently inadvertent, because he doesn't know who people are when he sees them. Together they navigate a new friendship, helping each other meet their problems head on.  Written in short chapters of alternating perspectives, this is a story of two understandably flawed characters, learning to love themselves, as well as each other. 

Thursday, October 19, 2017

Cultural comparisons: Auma's Long Run, You Bring the Distant Near, and Piecing Me Together

Young adult novels about kids from different cultures lend themselves to teaching the writing of comparison contrast essays.  Depending on the students’ level of sophistication, the essay can range from a simple four paragraph essay to a fully developed paper, where each topic is explored in great detail. As students are reading their novel, they should be noting similarities and differences between their own culture and the culture represented in the book. This month I am recommending three books that would lend themselves to this project. Auma's Long Run by Ecabeth Odhiambo chronicles the story of a young girl growing up during the AIDS crisis in Kenya.  You Bring the Distant Near by Mitali Perkins is a multi-generational story that captures the immigrant experience of an Indian-American family. Piecing Me Together by Renee Watson explores the conflicts felt by an African America girl who is a scholarship student at an elite private school in Portland. 

Set in a Kenyan Village during the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s,  Auma's Long Run is about a 13-year-old track star, who dreams of becoming a doctor.  After her parents die of the affliction, Auma is left with the responsibility of caring for her family.  Feeding her siblings and grandmother becomes more important than track practice and good grades, even though she is hoping to get a track scholarship to continue her education and follow her dreams.  The author draws from her own experiences of growing up in Kenya at the beginning of the AIDS crisis, in this poignant exploration of a girl conflicted between family responsibilities and her desire to find a cure for the disease that is killing her people. 

Told in alternating voices over three generations, You Bring the Distant Near follows the immigration of the Das family from Ghana to London to NYC in the 1970s.  Tara and Sonia are excited to embrace the American way of life, whereas their mother Ranee has traditional Indian expectations of her daughters.  However, Tara's interest in acting and Sonia's social activism are encouraged by their father. Twenty years later Tara is a Bollywood star and Sonia is a New York reporter married to her African American high school love.  Their daughters Anna and Chantal, echo their mothers' ideals and ultimately bring their grandmother around to a new way of thinking.  Nominated for the 2017 National Book Award for Young People's Literature, this heart-warming story is inspired by the author's own immigrant experience. 

In Piecing Me Together Jade, an African American scholarship student at a private high school in Portland, aspires to be invited on a study abroad week to use her Spanish skills. Instead, she is invited to join Woman to Woman, a mentor-ship program for poor black girls. Jade's mentor Maxine is black, but she is from a wealthy family and is just looking to pad her resume. Although Jade is grateful for the opportunities she receives, she is also resentful that she is stereotyped as  the "at-risk girl from a bad neighborhood." Through her collage art Jade is able to express her reflections on the complexities of race and gender, as well as her loyalty to her community and family, and bridge the gap between her and Maxine.  In short poetic chapters, preceded by a related Spanish word or phrase, this thought-provoking novel inspires discussion and consideration of the issues of race and privilege in a prejudiced world. 

Saturday, September 23, 2017

Novels with a British Flavor: Murder, Magic and What We Wore, That Inevitable Victorian Thing, and Genuine Fraud

Having just returned from a trip to London, I have found myself gravitating toward books related to that area of the world.  London is steeped in history that is a gold mine for authors, looking for a colorful setting. Murder, Magic and What We Wore by Kelly Jones is a Regency novel, involving spies and a young protagonist who finds she is a "glamour artist." She can turn any item of clothing into a disguise.  That Inevitable Victorian Thing by E.K. Johnston is a revisionist novel which supposes the British Empire never fell. The Crown Princess, Victoria- Margaret, opts for a summer of freedom before undertaking her royal duties.  e Lockhart's new novel, Genuine Fraud, about a young orphan who imagines herself as a superhero, is reminiscent of Patricia Highsmith's The Talented Mr. Ripley. Told in reverse order, the suspense is palpable, as the truth is revealed.

A Regency novel is one which was written during or set within the Regency era between 1811 and 1820, when George IV was the Prince Regent in England and Napoleon was dominating Europe.  In Kelly Jones' Regency mystery, Murder, Magic and What We Wore, Annis Whitworth's father has died and left her and her guardian aunt penniless. Determining that he was a spy, Annis longs to find out the truth behind his death.  When she attempts to alter a gown for her mourning period, she discovers she has the magical ability to quickly turn any article of clothing into whatever she wants it to be. In need of money to pay off her father's debts, she disguises herself as Madame Martine, a "glamour modiste,"  and sets up shop as a seamstress.  Meanwhile, she is trying to convince the War Office that her abilities lend themselves to her becoming a spy.  Her maid Millie, who helps her with her disguise, as well as her quest to find her father's murderer,  is actually much more  suited to the task. In getting to the bottom of her father's death, Annis discovers a great deal about her parents' lives as spies, as well as a plot to help Napoleon escape from prison. The fiercely independent female characters, creatively detailed fashions and quirky humor in this novel are great fun and a wonderful introduction to the Regency novel for young readers. 

That Inevitable Victorian Thing introduces Victoria-Margaret, who is in line to become Queen of the British Empire, which never lost the Revolutionary War.  Genetic matchmaking technology now determines one's mate, so she asks to be allowed to disguise herself as a commoner, Margaret Sandwich, so that she can spend a summer in Toronto among people she will one day rule.  There she meets Helena Marcus, whose parents are geneticists, and her best friend, Augustus Callaghan, at a debut party.  Augustus is  heir to his family's Canadian/Hong Kong lumber business which is plagued by American pirates. He makes some questionable business decisions in trying to thwart the piracy. Although not a genetic match, Helena and Augustus hope to one day marry.  After Helena and Margaret quickly fall into a flirtatious friendship, they decide to spend the summer together at the Marcus cottage up North at Lake Muskoka, where Augustus' family also owns property. There the three grow closer and ultimately discover one another's secrets in this light revisionist history set in the near future. Chapter headers, including maps, gossip columns, and correspondence, flesh out this alternate world and make this a uniquely entertaining read. 

Genuine Fraud is a psychological thriller which is told in reverse order, and focuses on a young anti-hero who is on the run after her best friend supposedly commits suicide.  Jule West Williams narrates her story as if she is a super hero.  A capable fighter and master of disguise, she inserts herself into once situation after another, pretending to be something she is not. After a series of social maneuverings, Jule makes friends with Imogen Sokoloff, a rich adopted heiress, who flits through life befriending people and then casting them off.  When she tires of Jule, Imogen finds leaving her behind is not so easy. She owns a flat in London, which Jule takes over, along with Imogen's identity. The narrative twists will keep readers guessing as to what is real and what is merely a fabrication Jule has created to live a "heroic life."   Fans of e. Lockhart's previous novels, such as We Were Liars and The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks, will love this captivating new novel that reveals one surprise after another until the very end.