Wednesday, December 22, 2010

The Unidentified

Although at first The Unidentified by Rae Mariz seemed like science fiction, I soon realized that this dystopian novel is hauntingly prophetic. Set in the near future, the story profiles a scenario where public schools have failed and big business is now in charge of education. High-surveillance schools are located in converted shopping malls, and students participate in the Game, a mulitmedia experience which is a combination of learning and entertainment. Students are required to carry mobile devices while they are playing, and they are constantly monitored by sponsors who are looking for new trends and opportunities to exploit them. Coincidentally, at the same time I was reading the novel, the Wall Street Journal published an article, "Your Apps are Watching You," by Scott Thurm and Ukari Iwatani Kane, which suggests that people's smart phones are sharing their personal data widely and regularly. Out of 101 apps, games and software applications for mobile phones, that they examined, 56 transmitted the phone's unique device ID to other companies, which allows tracking companies to find the age, gender and location of the user. Michael Becker of the Mobile Marketing Association is quoted as saying, "In the world of mobile there is no anonymity. "

Oddly enough, in the novel students are seeking the attention of advertising agencies in the hopes of being "branded." Branding is somewhat like being sponsored in that students get free products and are invited to exclusive events. Students who set fashion trends or achieve the highest scores in games are branded, thus insuring their popularity and assisting the corporations in advertising their products. The cell phones kids carry include GPS trackers, and they continuously post updates to profile pages, so that administrators and corporate sponsors can monitor their every move. Unlike her classmates, the main character, Katey "Kid" Dade, is an aspiring musician who prefers to fly under the radar. Then Kid witnesses a mock suicide staged by a group of students, calling themselves the Unidentified, who are challenging students to think for themselves. She begins to search for the underground movement's members and comes to the attention of an online-security company that brands her for being a "trendspotter." This alienates Kid's best friend who has been desperately trying to be branded herself. As Kid attempts to adjust to her new popularity, she experiences betrayals by lifelong friends and new relationships with people who previously ignored her. The deeper she gets into her investigation, the more she begins to question the societal structure around her.

The Unidentified suggests what the future might be like for today's technology dependent society and will make readers think critically about their use of Facebook and Twitter. Although I would recommend it for fans of Scott Westerfeld's Extras, Cory Doctorow's Little Brother and Suzanne Collins Hunger Games, I think it will appeal to a wider audience as well.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Fixing Delilah

In my October 23rd Blog I mentioned that I had attended a Barnes and Noble event where nine terrific YA authors talked about the writing process and their new books. One of these up and coming authors, Sarah Ockler, caught my attention, not only because she is involved in Lighthouse Writers Workshops, where I took a screenwriting class with Alexandre Philipe, but also because her first book Twenty Boy Summer, despite its lightweight title, was a complete delight. Now that Sarah Dessen has a young child and has understandably slowed down with her book releases, readers and librarians are looking for writers to fill the void. I would definitely recommend Sarah Ockler's books for these readers.
Twenty Boy Summer is a book about friendship and the grieving process. Anna and Frankie are next door neighbors and best friends. Frankie's brother Matt, who is two years older, is Anna's best friend, who is a boy. The three of them are inseparable. Anna has had a secret crush on Matt for years and on her fifteenth birthday he kisses her and acknowledges that he loves her, too. They are, of course, worried about trying to find a way to tell Frankie. Then Matt dies suddenly and Anna struggles with her grief, as well as the secret she decides to keep. After a year of grieving, Anna goes to California with Frankie for the family's annual trip. Frankie, who has dealt with her grief by becoming boy crazy, decides to set a goal of meeting twenty boys on the trip and flirts with everyone in sight. Ana is much more conservative but ends up falling for a surfer, and she feels like she is cheating on Matt's ghost. Then Frankie finds Anna's journal and freaks out when she discovers Anna's secret relationship with Matt. Now boys take a back seat and Anna and Frankie have to salvage their friendship.
Sarah latest book Fixing Delilah once again navigates the issues of the grieving process. Seventeen-year-old Delilah, whose life has been spiraling into free fall, is suddenly whisked off by her workaholic mother to Vermont to attend her estranged grandmother’s funeral and deal with the family summer home. Delilah has not been to Vermont since her grandfather's funeral a decade earlier, when her grandmother, mother and Aunt Rachel had a falling out. Delilah, who believes her father was a one night stand who died in Afghanistan before her mother could tell him about her pregnancy, cannot understand why her mother would keep her away from her family. When Delilah arrives in Vermont, she reconnects with her friend Patrick with whom she spent idyllic childhood summers. As she and Patrick fall in love, she uncovers the secret of her mother has been harboring. Delilah finds the diary of her Aunt Stephanie, who died under suspicious circumstances when she was nineteen. Suspecting that her family is plagued by problems with depression, Delilah worries that she will succmb herself. Ultimately Delilah realizes that she cannot escape the problems of her past but "some of them can be repaired, piece by piece, rebuilt into something even more cherished and loved and unique."
Although Sarah's Ockler's books are a bit more sexually explicit than Sarah Dessen's, romantic issues are dealth with tastefully. I would recommend them for mature middle level, as well as high school readers who like their chic lit a "cut above."

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Matched

After reading a review of Matched, a dystopian romance by Ally Condie, in the Wall Street Journal, I decided to move it to the top of my reading list. The reviewer, Meghan Cox Gurdon, compares the book, the first in a proposed trilogy, to Stephenie Meyer's Twilight series, saying, "Ms. Meyer, captures the temptation, the mix of longing and self-discipline, felt by passion-swept young people trying to make the right choices for the right reasons. Ally Condie catches the same heart-tugging elements that Ms. Meyer does."

Matched is set in a tranquil, rational futuristic world where choice has been virtually eliminated. Seventeen-year-old Cassia, who is looking forward to her matching ceremony where she will be introduced to her future husband, is also dreading her grandfather's upcoming Final Banquet, where he is scheduled to die. When Cassia is matched with her childhood friend, Xander, she is ecstatic, until she gets home and looks at her courtship microcard and instead sees the face of Ky Markham, an orphan from the Outer Provinces, who was adopted by a neighboring family. He is considered an aberration and is forbidden from matching. She decides to confide in her grandfather, who rather than comforting her by saying that it was just a computer glitch, encourages her to question the Society's dictates. He gives her a forbidden poem by Dylan Thomas, telling her "Do not go gentle into that good night. Rage against the dying of the light."

When Cassia joins a hiking group for leisure time activity, she finds herself paired with Ky, who introduces her to the lost art of cursive writing (keyboarding is the only writing allowed) and surreptitiously begins to share the secrets of his past. The better she gets to know Ky, the more she wishes he were her Match. Although Xander is her best friend from childhood, Ky's creative rebellious personality speaks to her passionate nature that she has been sublimating for years with lockstep obedience to the Society's rules. As the book draws to a close, Cassia's fateful decision sets up the sequel in which she will continue the rebel against societal dictates.

In the Wall Street Journal review Ms. Gruden says, "That Matched works so well is due partly to the author's even, measured prose. The cool clarity of Cassia's voice, eerily suits the watchful, unfree Society she inhabits." School Library Journal compares Matched to Lowis Lowry's The Giver, Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, and George Orwell's 1984. Comparisons to these esteemed novels, should signal readers that Matched is a step above the average teen romance. I would highly recommend this book for middle level and high school readers.

Monday, November 15, 2010

I Am Number Four

Yesterday I picked up I Am Number Four, the new sci fi thriller by Pittacus Lore, whose bio identifies him as a 10,000-year-old alien from the planet Lorien. Lore is, of course, a pseudonym for James Frey and Jobie Hughes. I had been hearing a lot about the upcoming movie and wanted to read the book before the movie's release. Michael Bay brought the manuscript to Stephen Spielberg at Dreamworks, who purchased the film rights in June 2009. The book was released August 3, 2010 and the movie is set for a February 18, 2011 release. The film stars Alex Pettyfer (Alex Rider in Stormbreaker and Kyle Kingston in the upcoming Beastly), Timothy Oliphant (Deadwood) and Diana Agron (Glee).

I Am Number Four, which is the first book in the Lorien Legacies series, introduces the story of nine young alien children from the planet Lorien, who escaped with their guardians in a spaceship and came to Earth after their planet was detroyed by the Mogadorians. The Mogadorians followed them to Earth, but not before the Elders put a charm in place that determines that the children can only be killed in numerical order. As the children reach adulthood, they will develop legacies, superpowers that will allow them to stand up to the Mogadorians. They hope to defeat them, save Earth from Mogadorian destruction and return to their home planet.

As the story opens, number three meets his demise, so number four and his guardian are on high alert. They flee Florida and head for Paradise, Ohio where they assume the identities of John Smith and his father Henri. Unfortunately, on his first day of school , John alienates Mark, a football playing bully, whose ex-girlfriend Sarah is friendly to John. To make matters worse, John's legacies begin to surface and his hands begin to glow. Now in addition to his superhuman strength and speed, he is impervious to fire. Although he is supposed to keep a low profile, the bullying gets to him, and he exposes himself by fighting back. In addition to showing his fighting prowess, he allows himself to develop relationships, which he has never done in his previous homes. In addition to being smitten with Sarah, John becomes involved with Sam, a loner who is convinced aliens "walk among us," and a dog named Bernie Kosar, who always seems to have John's back. As the Mogadorians get closer and closer to finding him, John trains with Henri in order to learn to control his powers and encourage the emergence of those that have not yet surfaced. In the climactic battle, number six appears on the scene and they attempt to keep the monsters at bay.

Although I Am Number Four is not great literature, it is great fun. The PR campaign is highly organized. Just as the book was released, hype about the movie hit the internet and a complex website became available at iamnumberfourfans.com. I read all 448 pages in one day, which is testimony to its highly addictive, action packed plot. I'm looking forward to seeing Alex Pettyfrer, Timothy Oliphant and Diana Agron bring these strong likeable characters to the big screen.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Perfect Chemistry

Last week I attended a Booklist webinar,"Reaching Reluctant Readers: Using High-Interest Fiction to Engage and Inspire," which was sponsored by Orca Book Publishers. I was intrigued when Amy Cheney, a librarian who was on the YALSA Quick Picks Committee for 2010, said that Perfect Chemistry and its sequel Rules of Attraction by Simone Elkeles are hot titles for reluctant readers. Beatrice Gerrish, the Monarch High School librarian, had just mentioned that she could not keep up with the demand for these two titles, when I was there to meet with her teen book club. Having read and enjoyed Perfect Chemistry last year, I picked up Rules of Attraction and found it to be a page turner as well. However, I consider these books Chic Lit and found it hard to believe that male reluctant readers were checking them out. Beatrice confirmed that she hasn't seen any guys reading them, but online reviews suggest that the titles will appeal to male and female readers.

In Perfect Chemistry Brittany Ellis, the school's golden girl, and Alex Fuentes, a Latino Bloods gang member, are assigned as chemistry lab partners. Predictably, they clash immediately, but Alex accepts a bet that he can hook up with her, so he begins a flirtation. As they get to know each other, they are suprised to find they have a lot in common, and an undeniable attraction begins to smolder. Complications in their lives find them turning to each other for support and ultimately romance. The story is told from both characters' points of view in alternating chapters, so the reader is aware of their insecurites and yearnings. This steamy romance has some raw language and explicit sexuality that make this a high school read.

The sequel, Rules of Attraction, finds Alex and Brittany attending CU in Boulder, Colorado. When Alex's younger brother Carlos gets into trouble in Mexico, their mother sends him to live with Alex, who finds Carlos more than he can handle. Carlos, who is attending Flatirons High School, is framed for narcotics possession by a fellow student, who works for a drug lord with strong gang ties. Threatened with expulsion, Carlos is sent to live with Alex's mentor, Professor Westford and must attend an after-school program for at-risk teens. Kiara, the professor's nature loving, gear head daughter, finds herself attracted to Carlos, despite his hard headed combative behavior. They bond over a shared interest in fixing up vintage cars and his good natured attentions to her little brother. Unfortunately, the drug lord is lurking in the background, threatening the Westfords, as well as Carlos' family in Mexico, if he doesn't agree to work for him. Once again the story is told in alternating chapters, this time from Carlos and Kiara's points of view, and the romance is fairly explicit.

Although I wouldn't rule these books out for reluctant male readers, I would suggest some alternatives. Will Weaver's Motor Series will appeal to high school readers (see my August 23rd Blog) and Orca Book Publishers has an extensive collection for reluctant readers. Their Orca Currents series is for middle level readers and Orca Soundings is for teen readers. They also have an Orca Sports series, and Rapid Reads is a series for adult readers. The reading levels are between second and fifth grade, and the books are usually around 100 pages long. The plot and sentence structures are straight forward, but the subject matter is suited for the target audience. There are a variety of authors, but I have enjoyed the ones that I have read.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Clockwork Angel and Crescendo

Angels seem to be a hot topic in new young adult literature, especially the Nephilim. The biblical references to Nephilim suggest that fallen angels descended to Earth and mated with humans, producing the Nephilim. Traditionally, the Nephilim are giants, but in YA lit, the Nephilim are usually angels, who have super human powers. Two highly anticipated new novels, Clockwork Angel, the first book in Cassandra Clare's new Infernal Devices series, and Crescendo, the sequel to Becca Fitzpatrick's Hush Hush, find the main characters involved with the Nephilim.
Taking place a hundred years before the Mortal Instruments series, the companion steampunk novel Clockwork Angel introduces Tessa Gray, who has been kidnapped by the Dark Sisters when she travels to London to find her missing brother. She is held captive and trained to use her shape-shifting abilities, of which she was previously unaware. After being rescued by Will, a demon hunting Shadowhunter, she takes refuge at the Shadowhunter’s Institute. There she is introduced to a world of supernatural beings, including demons and half angel Nephilim. She meets Henry, a bumbling inventor, his wife, the head of the Institute, and Jem, a gentle desperately ill Shadowhunter, who are all trying to stop the evil plans of the mysterious Magister in nineteenth century London. In a battle between the Shadowhunters and the Magister, who controls an army of clockwork automatons, both sides are hoping to capitalize on Tessa’s shape-shifting powers. This compulsively readable first book will have readers anxiously awaiting the next installment. According to Cassandra's website, there will be three books in the Infernal Devices series: Clockwork Angel, Clockwork Prince, and Clockwork Princess. She is also adding three more books to her Mortal Instruments series, including City of Fallen Angels, City of Lost Souls, and City of Heavenly Fire. She recommends reading Clockwork Angel before City of the Fallen Angels ( due to be released April 5th), because some of the Clockwork characters appear in it.
Crescendo, the sequel to Hush Hush, finds Nora Grey in love with Patch, who is now her guardian angel; but the archangels have forbidden their becoming romantically involved. In a fit of jealousy, Nora breaks up with him, only to discover she has thrown him into the arms of her archenemy Marcie Millar. As Nora struggles with her lingering feelings for Patch, Scott Parnell, a former classmate and Nephilim vassal, returns and her deceased father's ghost begins appearing to her. Although Nora is still obsessed with Patch, she gets involved with Scott in order to find out more about a secret Nephilim blood society and its Black Hand leader. Meanwhile her friend Vee gets involved with Patch's friend Rixon, who makes Nora question Patch's possible role in her father's death. The deeper her investigation of her father's disappearance goes, the more Nora begins to wonder if her Nephilim bloodline figures into what has been happening to her. As with most second novels, Crescendo leaves the reader with more questions than answers. Tempest, the third book in the series is due out in the Fall of 2011. For those wanting more information, Becca Fitzpatrick's website includes playlists for the books, contests, international fansites, as well as writing tips and a blog.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Ship Breaker

Last week I had the pleasure of attending a young adult author event at Barnes and Noble. There were nine terrific YA authors, talking about the writing process and their new books.
The authors and their new books included
Paolo Bacigalupi - Ship Breaker
Terri Clark - Sleepless
Amy Efaw - After
Lindsay Eland - Scones and Sensibility (retelling of Jane Austen's Emma)
Ingrid Law - Scumble (sequel to Saavy)
Malinda Lo - Huntress (companion book to Ash)
Sarah Ockler- Twenty Boy Summer
Julie Anne Peters - Before You Read This, I'll Be Dead ( see my May 7th Blog)
Denise Vega - Access Denied (sequel to Click Here)
I was familiar with all the authors except Paolo Bacigalupi, who was just nominated for the National Book Award. His book flap bio says, " Paolo is a rising star in the science fiction community. He is a Nebula and Hugo Award nominee for his adult books; Ship Breaker is his first young adult novel. Of course, I bought an autographed copy and dove right in.

In this futuristic dystopian thriller, the world has run out of oil and coastal cities have been swallowed by rising seas. Nailer, a ship breaker, is part of a crew who scavenges for metals on abandoned oil tankers. After surviving a near-death experience on a tanker and a class 6 hurricane, Nailer and his friend Pima find a wrecked clipper ship on the shore. Thinking they are about to become rich, they begin pillaging the wreckage and find a lone survivor, Nita, the "swank" daughter of a shipping tycoon. Nailer convinces Pima not to slit the girl's throat and sell her for body parts, a decision which he constantly revisits as he deals with one problem after another. First, his drug addicted abusive father finds them and tries to claim the spoils for himself. Then Nita's enemies, the genetically engineered half-men hired by a corrupt shipping competitor, arrive and complicate the situation. When Nita offers to introduce them to a better life, Nailer and Pima make her swear a blood oath and she becomes part of their "crew." Nailer then decides to head off with her to the submerged cities of Orleans to try to find her family and people who are still loyal to her.
Their harrowing journey is fraught with complications. They are not sure whether to trust Tool, the half man Pima's mother sent with them for protection. Nailer's father is on their trail, as are the shipping company's minions. When they reach Orleans, Nita begins looking for the Dauntless, one of her father's clipper ships whose captain is trustworthy. Nailer convinces her to proceed cautiously, as things may have changed, and indeed they have. Although the ship's captain has changed, Nailer convinces him to help Nita; but before they can board the Dauntless, Nailer's father abducts Nita. Nailer talks the ship's captain into rescuing her, which sends them off on another action packed series of events.
In addition to being a rip roaring post-apocalyptic adventure, this story illustrates the possible results of global warming and oil gluttony. Nita and Nailer are sympathetic characters who find out that the people you call family are those who cover your back. This highly entertaining read will appeal to both sci fi fans and adventure readers. I highly recommend it.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Girl in Translation

I have just returned from a trip to New York City where I attended the New York Musical Festival. In additon to seeing fourteen musicals, I also saw a Matisse exhibit at MOMA and spent every morning walking in Central Park. Whenever I go to NYC, I am reminded of all the wonderful movies and books which are set there. Recently, I read Girl in Translation by Jean Kwok which takes place in NYC and tells a contemporary immigration story filled with predictable struggles and amazing success.
After her father’s death, Ah Kim, 11, leaves Hong Kong in the 1980s and moves with her mother to the US. Her mother’s older sister, who owns a garment factory in Brooklyn, gives Ma a job bagging skirts and an apartment in the slums. Ma winds up working 12-hour-plus days in the factory. Ah Kim, now known as Kimberly, joins her after school hours in this hot and exhausting sweat shop. They return at night to the unheated apartment which is teeming with roaches. When Kimberley starts public school, she speaks little English, but she is a whiz in math and science. The following year she earns a scholarship to a prestigious private school. She does so well in her classes that she's given an oral exam to see if she is cheating. Eventually, she ends up at Yale and then Harvard Med school.
More intriguing are the relationships she develops at school and at the factory. Clearly an outsider without money for the luxuries her classmates take for granted, she finds an understanding best friend, Annette, who gives her advice on how to fit in. She also has an Anglo boyfriend at school who is not her intellectual equal, but is very sweet. Matt, a Chinese-American boy who works at the factory, is her true soul mate, but he is threatened by her academic success. However, her struggle to rectify her new American life with the old world expectations of her mother, are the heart of the story.
The book is based on the author's own experiences as an immigrant from Hong Kong; however, Jean went to Harvard and Columbia, while Kimberly attends Yale. Kwok effectively conveys the hardships of the immigrant experience, yet shows how a character with determination can overcome the odds and succeed. This book would be a great choice for a unit on cultural diversity or the immigrant experience.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Jekel Loves Hyde

I just got back from the Mountains and Plains Trade Show in Denver and am really inspired to start reading and sharing new young adult book titles. With over eighty new books to read, I can't decide whether to start with sequels to popular series, new titles by authors I love, or new authors whose debut novels caught my interest. I can't believe I haven't blogged for a month, but I was out of town at the Telluride Film Festival and then the CU vs Cal game in Berkeley. Although I was still reading, working on my blog did not make it to the top of my To Do List. However, I'm back and excited about Jekel Loves Hyde by Beth Fantaskey, who wrote last year's terrific Jessica's Guide to Dating on the Darkside.


Jekel Loves Hyde updates Robert Louis Stevenson's The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr Hyde, which explores the duality of human nature. Good girl Jill Jekel is attending the funeral for her murdered father, and is shocked to see bad-boy Tristen Hyde in attendance. When he approaches her with words of comfort, she begins to wonder if there is more to him than meets the eye. Then their chemistry teacher suggests that the two should enter a chemistry contest which awards the winner with an impressive scholarship. Tristen, who believes that he is descended from the original Mr. Hyde, is desperately looking to find a way to destroy his evil side that he thinks is beginning to control him. Suspecting that Jill's father had been investigating the original Dr. Jekyll's infamous formula, Tristen talks Jill into breaking into her father's study, where she finds a mysterious old box filled with Dr. Jekyll's notes. Jill and Tristen team up to recreate experiments based on those in the classic novel, hoping not only to win a prize, but to help Tristen fight his violent urges. Then Jill accidentally tastes the new formula, which unleashes her dark side.

The alternating chapters told from both teens' perspectives allow the reader insight into the evolution of their growing romance, as well as the dual natures of their personalities. Paired with the original, this would be a wonderful Classical Connection for students to compare and contrast.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Checkered Flag Cheater

Hailing from Indianapolis, I may have a greater interest in car racing than most, but I can't get enough of Will Weaver's Motor Series. I just finished Checkered Flag Cheater, the third in the series, which finds Trace Bonham racing on the super-stock circuit for Team Blu. His face graces billboards advertising his corporate sponsor’s sports energy drink, and he is the next boy wonder on the track. However, when Trace begins to suspect that his mechanic is illegally juicing his car, he struggles with what to do.

Saturday Night Dirt, the first book in the Motor Series, introduces ten characters of varying ages and ethnicities who all are involved in the world of car racing at Headwaters Speedway, a small dirt stock-car track in northern Minnesota. One Saturday night, when rainstorms at other tracks force cancellations at other tracks, big name racers join the local kids at Headwaters for a night they’ll all remember. Weaver fleshes out each character enough to leave a lasting impression on readers. The track owner is Johnny Walters, a former racer left paralyzed after a severe crash. His 17-year-old daughter Mel struggles to keep her father's track financially solvent. Promising stock-car racer, Trace Bonham, finds that his jealous mechanic has sabotaged his engine. Other racers who are introduced include Beau Kim and Sonny Down Wind. Additional track personnel round out the group. Racing terminology is accurate and the play by play of the races is exhilarating.

In Super Stock Rookie, the second book in the series, Trace Bonham is chosen as the face of Team Blu and now has a hot stock car and his own racing team. Overnight he makes the transition from amateur dirt-track racing to representing a large company as the face of their new sports energy drink. However, he has to go on the road, leaving behind Mel who haunts his dreams, as well as his parents whose marriage is on the rocks. As he questions the legality of his engine and the way his team operates and he is told to just worry about the driving and looking good, he begins to wonder if he made the right choice.

The third book, Checkered Flag Cheater, takes up where the second left off. Trace is now the leader in the competion for points on the Midwest super stock circuit. His romance with Mel is heating up, even as he is tempted by "fence bunnies" while on the road. As he racks up one win after another and the other racing teams begin to protest his car's engine, he begins to wonder what's behind its superior performance. His own racing team continues to tell him just to worry about the driving. When he finally discovers the truth, he must decide whether to look the other way or quit Team Blu and jeopardize his racing career.

According to his book bio, "Will Weaver lives in Bemidji, Minnesota, and is the owner of two Modified cars which he reaces in the WISSOTA circuit in the upper Midwest." He definitely knows his way around under the hood of a car and his insider information about racing strategy and technique seem very realistic. This series would be a great recommendation for reluctant readers. A few non-graphic romantic scenes lead me to caution against giving it to younger students.

Somebody Everybody Listens To

Influenced by my family, I seem to be listening to more and more country music lately, so I was intrigued by Suzanne Supplee's new book called Somebody Everybody Listens To. The main character, Retta Lee Jones, heads to Nashville after high school graduation to pursue her dreams of becoming a country music star. Borrowing her great aunt’s car, she ends up living in it as one catastrophe after another occurs.

First, she runs into a brick wall and has to have her car towed and repaired. However, Ricky,the tow truck driver takes pity on her, and after listening to her sing Tammy Wynette's "Stand by Your Man," offers her a job so she can work off what she owes. He becomes one of her biggest allies as she navigates the Nashville music scene.

After losing all her money in a mugging on Music Row, she ends up living in her car and taking spit baths in public restrooms. She takes a second job singing in the bar at a run down hotel in Franklin. There she meets the bartender, Chat Snyder, a former country singer who at first tries to intimidate her, but then advises her to stop singing covers and sing her own music.

Even more difficult than living in her car and dealing with rejection from people in the music business are the pulls from home where her parents’ marriage is dissolving. As an only child, she struggles not to side with either parent in their squabbles. When Ricky gives her two tickets to the Mockingbird (which is based on Nashville's legendary Bluebird CafĂ©) for open mike night, she sings an original song about her family problems. She touches the hearts of the people in the audience when she sings "I'm not ready to decide which one to choose in your it's over ride."

Retta is inspired, as was I, by the hard knock lives of successful country singers, whose biographies are included at the beginning of each chapter. It is amazing how many country western singers dealt with poverty and tragedy before they made it big. For instance, Shania Twain lost both parents when she was twenty-two and became the guardian of her three siblings. Retta perseveres in looking for that first break to ignite her career and is ultimately rewarded. This book will appeal to fans of country music, as well as any reader who enjoys a good story about a plucky heroine following her dreams.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Paper Daughter

The Nehls and the Lantzys rented a house in Nathrop, Colorado this weekend at the base of the Chalk Cliffs. While the boys headed off to conquer another section of the Colorado Trail on their mountain bikes, Terre and I visited the galleries in Salida. A gallery filled with colorful sculptures of alien beings was probably the most unique artwork we viewed. My favorite piece was an alien mother reading Where the Wild Things Are to her alien baby. As I marveled at the artist's creativity, I began to think about the many connotations of the word alien and a book I read recently. Paper Daughter by Jeanette Ingold is the story of a young girl who discovers her deceased news reporter father was actually the son of an illegal alien.

Maggie Chen, an aspiring journalist who is still mourning her father's death in a hit and run accident, takes an internship at a Seattle newspaper, where she uncovers a story that links her father's death to political corruption. At the same time she is investigating her father's lies about his family's origins. After finding and reading his journals, Maggie discovers his family does not have East Coast blue blood ties, but rather he is the son of Fai Yi, a man who entered the US as a "paper son." Fai Yi and his twin sister's history is interwoven with Maggie's present day story. In a flashback to 1932, Fai-yi narrates the tale of their illegal entry into the United States using a "paper father," a ruse used to avoid the Chinese Exclusion Act.

At the Herald, Maggie and her mentor are investigating a local government scandal that ends in murder. When they find a connection to her father's death, she is taken off the story. Maggie realizes that finding the truth about her father's past will help to clear his name. As the suspense builds, Maggie wonders, "Why would my father, who'd always said a person was only as good as his or her word, have lied about his parents and about how he'd been brought up?"

The historical information about Chinese poverty during this period, which prompted mass immigration to the US and the resulting laws prohibiting Chinese immigration, as well as Maggie's struggle to understand the truth about her cultural heritage will keep the reader engaged. Coupled with the mystery of the government scandal and murder, the story of her search for the truth makes for a real page turner.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

The Drake Chronicles

After seeing Eclipse, the third movie in the Twilight Saga, I have to agree with critics that it is the best one yet. The screenwriter has taken great liberties with the book in order to accomodate the Team Edward/Team Jacob hype, but it works fairly well. Having my appetite for vampire stories whetted, I picked up Hearts at Stake, the first book in the Drake Chronicles, and was pleasantly surprised by how engaging it is. I'm fascinated by authors taking the basic vampire idea and making it their own.

In Hearts at Stake the author, Alyxandra Harvey, has imagined a very complex vampire world complete with a variety of vampire clans whose lineage is explained in great detail on the Drake Chronicles website at www.thedrakechronicles.com. Hearts at Stake introduces two best friends: Solange, who is waiting for her sixteenth birthday when she will change into a vampire, and Lucy, the feisty human, who is in love with Nicholas, one of Solange’s seven vampire brothers. In the Drake clan the vampires are human until their sixteenth birthday when they undergo the dangerous "bloodchange." They are genetically predisposed to be vampires, and when they begin the change, they must drink blood to stay alive. Solange's brothers managed to survive the passage, but she is the first female-born vampire in 800 years and a prophecy foretells that she will become queen and unite all the vampire clans. Lady Natasha, who is currently the queen, is determined that Solange won’t live to celebrate her birthday.

Lucy, Solange’s snarky, weapon-obsessed best friend, is aware of the situation and is determined to help Solange's family protect her. Lucy and Nicholas have been feuding their whole lives, but lately they find their animosity evolving into attraction. When Solange is kidnapped by Lady Natasha's minions, Lucy and Nicholas, as well as the rest of the Drake family, are determined to rescue her. They are aided by Kieran, a Helios Ra vampire hunter who initially attacks the Drake clan, looking to avenge his father’s death. When he discovers that his hatred of vampires is based on lies, he gives in to his attraction to Solange to help save her so that she may fulfill her destiny.

In Blood Feud, the second in the series, the story focuses on Solange's brother Logan and his attraction to Isabeau St Croix, a vampire from the Hounds Clan, who arrived at the eleventh hour to help rescue Solange. Isabeau survived the French Revolution, only to be attacked by the vampire Greyhaven and then buried for two hundred years until the Hounds rescued her. Logan is immediately attracted to her, but although she reciprocates his feelings, she is focused on finding Greyhaven and getting revenge. As Logan follows Isabeau on her quest, the clans are coming together for the coronation of Logan's mother Helena, who will preceed Solange as queen. However, the tenuous peace between the clans is threatened by Leander Montmarte, the 400-year-old vampire, who is the maker of the Host clan. He wants to marry Solange and usurp the throne for himself. Although Solange, Kieran, Lucy and Nicholas make guest appearances in the second novel, it primarily focuses on Logan and Isabeau working together to find Greyhaven.

For readers looking for action packed escapism, these books are great fun and offer a unique twist to the usual vampire fare. The conflict between the clans makes for an ongoing saga with a wide variety of characters to highlight. So far the romances in the Drake Chronicles follow a Romeo and Juliet formula. I'm wondering if the next book in the series will focus on another brother and his unorthodox love interest in the midst of the feuding vampire clans.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

The Sky is Everywhere

It has been a music filled week! We saw Widespread Panic at Red Rocks, Jesse Cook at the Boulder Theater, and last night we watched The Planets shoot a music video for You Tube at Immersive Studios in Boulder. As we were watching the technicians work out the video logistics, I began to think about people expressing their emotions through music and in particular a book I just read. In the Sky is Everywhere by Jandy Nelson, the main character works through the grief she is feeling over her sister's death through music, poetry and her own sexual awakening.


Lennie, who has always been the "companion pony" to her sister Bailey’s racehorse, is devastated when Bailey suddenly drops dead from a heart arrhythmia. A normally reserved band geek, who has read Wuthering Heights twenty-three times, Lennie is overwhelmed by her grief, which permeates every waking hour. In bits of poetry which Lennie hides under rocks and throws into the wind, she says, "My sister dies over and over again, all day long." Her profound loss awakens unexpected emotions and sexual desire in Lennie. She is utterly confused by a fierce mutual attraction to Bailey's boyfriend, Toby. Their attempts find comfort in each other's arms leave Lennie feeling guilty and ashamed.


Then Joe Fontaine, a brilliant musician who has recently returned from living in France, arrives at school and joins the band. She is amazed at how easily she falls into a relaxed banter with him, but is afraid to feel any happiness. When summer vacation begins, Joe shows up at her house daily with his guitar and breakfast for Lennie and her grandmother and uncle. He helps Lennie regain her love for playing the clarinet, and gently coaxes her to leave her cocoon of grief. When she finally lets go and they fall deeply in love, she again feels guilty because it "doesn't seem right that anything good should come out of Bailey's death." Looming in the background is Toby, whose attentions threaten her relationship with Joe.

The element of this novel that separates it from the chick lit genre is Lennie's poetry. Her missives help the reader connect with the intense pain that Lennie is feeling. She has lived in her sister's shadow her whole life and can't navigate coming out into the sun. She says, "In photographs of us together, she is always looking at the camera and I am always looking at her." Bailey's death forces Lennie to think about her own life and give herself permission to pursue her dreams. Due to the brief scenes of underage drinking and sexual exploration, I would recommend it for the more mature reader.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Ashes

Last Tuesday I enjoyed my first encounter with Broadway in Boulder's musical Grand Hotel at the Dairy Center for the Arts. Based on the 1929 Vicki Baum novel and play, Menschen im Hotel (People in a Hotel), the musical focuses on events taking place over the course of a weekend in an elegant hotel in 1928 Berlin and the intersecting stories of the eccentric guests of the hotel. The cast is made up of talented 15-24 year olds from Boulder County, Arvada and Denver, several of whom are headed to prestigious musical arts programs in the fall.

Imagine my surprise when I started Kathryn Lasky's latest historical novel, Ashes, on Wednesday and found references to People in a Hotel throughout the book! In Ashes, the rise of the Nazis in 1932 Germany is seen through the eyes of 13-year-old Gabriella Schram, who is a privileged German child. Gaby is a passionate reader, whose favorite book is Vicki Baum's People in the Hotel. Blond Gaby looks like the Aryan ideal, but her anti-Fascist family members are called white Jews, because of their political sympathies. Her father, an astrophysicist at the University of Berlin, is a good friend of their neighbor, Albert Einstein, whose theory of relativity is termed Jewish physics by the Nazis. Her mother's best friend is the celebrated Jewish newspaper columnist Baba Blumenthal, whom Gaby adores.

While the intellectuals in her parents' social circle anxiously debate what to do about the looming Nazi rise to power, Gaby observes those around her with Aryan sympathies, such as their pro-Hitler maid who is looking to rise above her poverty; Gaby's elegant literature teacher, who wants her to become a leader in the Hitler Youth group; and her sister, whose boyfriend is an ardent Nazi. Gaby begins a Diary of Shame, listing private moments, where she gives in to peer pressure, such as when a gang of boys forces Gaby and her best friend to return its "Heil Hitler" salute, rather than stand up for what she believes is right.

Each chapter of Ashes begins with a quote from a book that she is reading, by authors such as Mark Twain, Ernest Hemingway, and Jack London, that foreshadow elements of the chapter. The prophetic opening quote, by Heinrich Heine -"Where they burn books, they will end by burning human beings."- sets the stage for this compelling story. When book-burning threatens Gaby's beloved books, as well as free thought in Germany, she and her family must determine how to proceed in the future.

In answering the question, "How did you come to write Ashes?", Kathryn Lasky replied, "What fascinated me most was what led up to the all-time catastrophe, the tragedy of modern times. I did not want the perspective of a Jewish person, but a gentile—in other words not a girl whose life was threatened, but whose sense of humanity was threatened; where she begins on some level—most likely a subconscious level—to question what it means to be human." This well researched portrait of pre-WWII Germany eloquently chronicles this volatile time in human history. When I attend the final performance of Grand Hotel at the Dairy tonight, I will do so with a much deeper understanding of Germany during this era.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Epitaph Road

Band on the Bricks this week featured Paper Bird, an indie folk band with three amazing female vocalists, including Esme and Genny Patterson who were in my class at Southern Hills in sixth grade. Their angelic vocal harmonies are supported by instumentalists playing guitar, banjo, upright bass, trumpet and trombone. Playing to their hometown crowd on the Boulder mall, the girls charmed the audience with their powerful voices and upbeat blue grass sounds.

Speaking of strong females, I just finished Epitaph Road by David Patneaude. This post-apocalyptic thriller takes place in 2097 after an airborne virus has wiped out 97% of the male population. Woman now rule the world and have eradicated poverty, crime, and war, but the remaining men, whose numbers are being limited to 5% of the population, are not happy campers. Fourteen-year-old Kellen Dent is one of the rare males, whose neglectful mother is involved with the ruling Population Apportionment Council. The council is busy trying to thwart an uprising of men, including Kellen's father, who live independent of female rule. When Kellen overhears his mother talking about an intentional resurgence of the virus, he begins to worry about his father's safety, and he and his friends Sunday and Tia decide to take it upon themselves to warn him. In the process they discover a secret about the virus which rocks their world.

Each chapter opens with an epitaph for a variety of males who were killed by the plague, poignantly depicting how some women who are left behind mourn their lover's death, others, whose men were abusive, rejoice in it. This is an intriguing exploration of gender relations, which depicts the dangers of extremism. The ending is satisfying, but does leave an opening for a sequel if the author is so inclined.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Brightly Woven

Wandering through some spectacular gardens Saturday on the Mapleton-Whittier garden tour, I realized how magical nature can be. One garden in particular came with its own fantasy story and transported me to another place and time. A man-made stream meandered through the two acre garden and the lush foliage harbored hidden ponds and statuary that were a complete delight. The garden would have been a perfect place to curl up with Alexandra Bracken's debut fantasy entitled Brightly Woven, which I happened to be reading last weekend. It tells the story of a weaver who accompanies a rogue wizard on a quest through a mystical world to save their homeland.



After Wayland North ends the drought in her village, Sydelle, a 16-year-old weaver, is given to the wizard as payment for his services. She s finds herself accompanying him to the capital in a race to prevent a war with neighboring countries. At first she is furious, but gradually she comes to care for him as she realizes they are together by design, not by accident. They are plagued by wild weather, North's strange illness and a vengeful wizard who is stalking them. Sydelle is mysteriously able to mend North's magical cloaks without disturbing the magic, and she begins to recognize that she has magical powers of her own. As their journey progesses Sydelle discovers that North is harboring a dark secret about their shared destiny.



Readers are going to find this charismatic pair and their breathtaking adventure irresistable. Wayland is an alluring tortured soul, who is curiously devoted to the strong feisty Sydelle, despite her sharp tongue and failure to comply with his wishes. Brightly Woven is a fresh take on an archetypical fantasy story, that will find readers clamoring for a sequel.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Airhead Series

I really enjoyed sharing middle level book ideas at the Barnes and Noble summer reading kick off. Many of the books I suggested were the latest or first books in series, so that readers would have additional book ideas if they liked a book that was introduced. Yesterday, I finished the final book in Meg Cabot's Airhead series entitled Runaway. Although I loved the first book in the series, I did not think Being Nikki and Runaway were nearly as strong.

If you are not familiar with this series, Airhead introduces a video game playing feminist, Emerson Watson, whose brain is transplanted into the body of a super model. Em and her best friend Christopher deal with their outcast status at school by immersing themselves in online video games. When Em's mom makes her accompany her sister to a star studded opening at a Stark Megastore, Em suffers a terrible accident and wakes up in the hospital one month later with her brain transplanted into the body of teen supermodel Nikki Howard. She's dying to tell Christopher who she really is, but to protect her parents from a law suit, Em has to keep her identiy a secret and learn to live in her hot new body. Keeping up with Nikki's modeling schedule and attending school is almost more than Em can handle, and she begins to realize that Nikki was more than just an airhead. Geeky Em's adjustment to her super model body creates an opportunity for hilarious "fish out of water" antics.

In the sequel, Being Nikki, Em aka Nikki, is now the "Face of Stark Enterprises." Unfortunately, Christopher is determined to destroy Stark to avenge what he believes is her death. Then Nikki's brother shows up, demanding that Em help him find their missing mom. At the cliffhanger ending, Christopher discovers Nikki's true identity, and they find out some shocking news that leaves readers clamoring for the final book in the series.

The final book, Runaway, takes up where the second abruptly ends and Nikki/Em is being held captive by Brandon Stark, the son of the Stark Enterprise owner. She learns that Christopher is right about the nefarious plans of Stark Enterprises, and she enlists his help to engineer her escape and expose them to the world.

Without the endearing awkwardness of the girl geek turned supermodel that permeates the first book, the next two enstallments are not as engaging. Nikki/Em seems annoying at times and idiotic at others. However, the reader loyalty that the first book creates makes the next two "must reads" for fans.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Finnikin of the Rock

After a attending a delightful Memorial Day party yesterday, followed by a nap, I picked up Melina Marchetta's riveting new fantasy, Finnikin of the Rock. Marchetta is the Printz award winning author of last year's Jellicoe Road. Five hours later I turned the last page of a very compelling and satisfying read.

The story begins ten years after assassins attack the kingdom of Lumatere and murder the royal family. A curse now creates a magical barrier around the kingdom to prevent those who fled from ever returning. Finnikin, exiled son of a former royal guard, is serving as an apprentice to Sir Topher, the murdered king’s First Man. While wandering in neighboring kingdoms and aiding refugees, they receive a message that leads them to Evanjalin, a novice who says Finnikin has been chosen to take his people home. Evanjalin is able to walk in other people's dreams, and she insists that Balthazar, heir to the throne, is alive and will breach the barrier, once Finnikin leads the refugees back to Lumatere. Along the way Finnikin is reunited with his father who has been imprisoned for a decade. He agrees to reassemble the royal guards to aid in the quest.

Although Evanjalin frequently aggravates Finnikin, he is also strangely drawn to her and becomes more and more worried about her safety. She tells him that their destinies are intertwined and that he will become king through the flow of her blood. He assumes this means her death and is bound and determined to avoid this eventuality.

Filled with mysticism and violent battles, the story is an allegory about the atrocities of war; especially violence toward women. Marchetta creates a believable fantasy world and characters that we care about deeply. The violence and allusions to sexual situations make this a novel for the more mature reader.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Lawn Boy Returns

After spending the last couple of weekends working in my flower garden and planting the pots on our deck, I was motivated to pick up Gary Paulsen's Lawn Boy Returns, which is the sequel to last year's Lawn Boy. For those of you not familiar with the first book, you are in for a treat. In addition to the hilarious story, the chapter titles provide economic lessons about our young hero's rise to fame and fortune. After his ditzy grandmother gives him his grandfather's old riding lawn mower, the twelve-year-old narrator manages to become a lawn service mogul through no fault of his own. He is out mowing his own yard, when a neighbor spots him and hires him to mow his lawn. Come to find out the man who mows the neighborhood yards has angered the neighbors and they all want to hire the young lawn boy. Pretty soon, he has more jobs than he can handle. Then he meets Arnold, a hippie stock broker, who hires him to mow his lawn in exchange for stock tips. He invests the money he would have paid Lawn Boy instead of giving him cash. In a chapter entitled "Capital Growth Coupled with the Principles of Product Expansion," Arnold suggests that Lawn Boy hire migrant workers to help him expand his business. When the investments Arnold has made for him are wildly successful, Lawn Boy finds himself sponsoring Joey Pow, a rising prize fighter, who becomes his muscle. In "Force of Arms and Its Applications to Business," Joey has to help Lawn Boy fend off a villain trying to shake him down. At the end of the day Lawn Boy finds himself a little bit wiser and a half million dollars richer.

The sequel Lawn Boy Returns takes up where its predecessor ends, but Lawn Boy is now experiencing the problems that come with business expansion. In addition to tax problems and an unruly bunch of employees, he now has unwanted fame which is threatening his sanity. All he wants to do is go back to mowing lawns and being a kid, but that now seems to be an impossiblity. For those of you who enjoy fun filled quick reads with some entertaining lessons on the side, these books are a "wise investment" of your time!

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

The Vast Fields of Ordinary

Last Friday I had the pleasure of meeting with the Monarch High school teen book club. I shared a variety of new YA novels with them during two separate sessions. I loved meeting these voracious teen readers and especially enjoyed talking with several of them between the sessions. We bonded over our shared love of GLEE, the sensational new TV series about a high school Glee Club. One of the readers asked me about LGBTQ recommendations. The first book that came to mind was Nick Burd's wonderful debut novel, The Vast Fields of Ordinary.

During the eventful summer before he leaves for college, Dade Hamilton watches his parents' marriage implode, his secret relationship with sort of boyfriend Pablo fizzle, and the media's obsessive coverage of an autistic girl's disappearance unfold. He toils away at a boring job at Food World, feeling lost and invisible himself. Then he meets Alex Kincaid, an openly gay drug dealer, who pulls Dade into his world of drugs, sex and rock and roll. Alex openly adores Dade and gives him the confidence to come out to his parents and the rest of the community. When he sees Dade with Alex, Pablo, even though he has a girlfriend, begins pursuing Dade again. Pablo's increasingly bizarre attempts to reconnect with Dade are disturbing and make Dade wonder why he is still attracted to him, even though he is in love with Alex. As the date of his departure to college nears, Dade's parents take off on a trip to Europe to try to work out their problems, leaving Dade home alone. With the privacy for an idyllic time with Alex and the opportunity to explore his emotions freely, Dade works through the turmoil he is feeling before he begins a new chapter in his life.

Booklist, Kirkus Reviews and School Library Journal all gave The Vast Fields of Ordinary starred reviews and I would agree. However, I would definitely recommend it as a high school read, because of the frank sexuality and drug use that are explored in the story.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Gone

I was gone for five days last week visiting my sister and her husband in Port Aransas, Texas. They recently retired from their jobs in Austin and moved to the beach. He is now the chief of police in Port Aransas and they just moved into their fabulous new beach house. While there, I consumed mass quantities of seafood, helped them with their house warming party, and read Gone, the final book in Lisa McMann's Wake trilogy.
For those of you not familiar with the Wake trilogy, it is a really unique paranormal series about Janie Hannagan, a girl who is a dream catcher. The first book, Wake, introduces Janie who has been inexplicably pulled into other people's dreams since she was eight years old. Through a patient at the Heather Nursing Home where she works, Janie finds out she has the ability to help people resolve their nightmares. Exhausted by being constantly pulled into the dreams of fellow students who are napping at school, Janie seeks to find a way to control the dreaming. She gets involved with Cabel, a former bad-boy who has hellish nightmares, and Janie realizes her ability may be a blessing and not just a curse.
In the second book, Fade, Janie is now working undercover for the police, using her abilities to help them solve crimes. Janie and Cabel are investigating teachers suspected of drugging and abusing students at class parties. Janie sets herself up as bait, and her relationship with Cabel is strained as he feels unable to protect her. The physical toll her dream catching will ultimately exact is also revealed, and Janie is faced with deciding how much she is willing to sacrifice in order to continue her undercover work for the police.
In the final book, Gone, Janie discovers her long lost father is also a dream catcher. When she meets him for the first time, he is in a coma in the hospital. As Janie is pulled into his hellish nightmares, she realizes that he chose a life of isolation, rather than face the debilitating side effects of using his abilities. However, if she makes the same choice, it means abandoning her undercover work and, more importantly, Cabel, whom she loves more than life itself.
Lisa McMann, in a note to readers, admits that she procrastinated in writing the last book of the trilogy, because she didn't want it all to end. When she finally finished the first draft of the book, she sent it off to her editor, thinking all it need was some "polishing." Her editor sent it back with notes telling her it wasn't strong enough. Lisa realized she had been holding back and Gone needed to be completely rewritten. With only three weeks before she went on a book tour to support Fade, she found a theme song for Janie, Dido's "Here with Me," and listened to it over and over until she had the courage to begin again. I was fascinated by the Morton's Fork (a situation involving choice between two equally undesireable outcomes) concept, which Lisa used to characterize Janie's dilemma. The result is a very satisfying resolution to a terrific series.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Coffeehouse Angel

For Mother's Day my guys granted my heart's desire and took me to a chick flick, Letters to Juliet, and out to dinner. Letters to Juliet takes place in Verona, Italy, where Sophie (Amanda Seyfried) travels with her fiance (Gael Garcia Bernal), for a prewedding honeymoon. When he gets consumed with plans for his new restaurant and neglects her, Sophie gets involved with the secretaries of Juliet, who respond to letters to Juliet seeking romantic advice. It reminded me of a couple YA books I read in 2008, The Juliet Club by Suzanne Harper, which is about an American girl who goes to a summer program in Verona and as a class assignment answers letters to Juliet, and Saving Juliet by Suzanne Selfors, where a girl travels back in time to Verona and tries to save Juliet from her fate.
Suzanne Selfors' latest book Coffeehouse Angel is one of my favorite chick lit books that I've read recently. This book taps into the latest trend of stories involving angels. 16-year-old Katrina Svenson leaves coffee and a Danish for a vagrant, who is sleeping in the alley behind her grandmother's coffee shop, and later finds out he's an angel who is a messenger from heaven. For her kindness he must grant her heart's desire. But what does she want-love, fortune or fame? While Katrina is busy trying to decide, her grandmother's coffee shop is failing, her best guy friend is dating her nemesis, and her cat becomes famous for killing a giant rat in the coffeehouse. To complicate matters, she is falling for the angel and would like for him to stick around. Details of Scandanavian culture lace this supernatural romance and make it an engaging read for anyone looking for a bit of escape.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Whirlwind Trip

I just returned from a whirlwind trip to San Francisco where I watched my son Chris compete in the Golden Shovel competion between Berkeley and Stanford. The two schools' teams are given a location (this year's was a strip mall in Walnut Creek) to develop, and a panel of judges determines which team has the better plan. Both teams came up with a plan for senior housing developments, but Berkeley's was deemed the superior project. They got custody of the revolving trophy which is a life size golden shovel, as well as $2000 for their favorite charity. It was great fun!
There was lots of down time for the visiting mom during the judging process, so of course I brought a book - BY THE TIME YOU READ THIS, I'LL BE DEAD by Julie Anne Peters. After many failed suicide attempts, Daelyn signs into an interactive website, "Through the Light," which guides people through the suicide process, including pain and effectiveness ratings for various methods for killing oneself. She gives herself 23 days until her "Date of Determination." Then she meets Santana, a quirky cancer patient who wants nothing more than to live. Despite her hostility, he is determined to befriend her and change her view of life.
Daelyn, who is mute from her last suicide attempt, describes her daily life in a journal. As she slowly reveals the issues that led her to her suicidal frame of mind, the reader begins to realize that this damaged teen is a highly unreliable narrator. In additon to suicide advice and thought provoking questions for the user, the site provides a forum where users can tell their incredibly painful stories. When Daelyn finally spills her guts, she realizes no one in the forum is really listening; whereas Santana never quits trying to engage her. The ambigous ending is highly effective and the author provides discussion prompts, information on bullying and anti-bullying websites, as well as suicide prevention hotlines and websites. Although this is a disturbing read, I would recommend it for high school readers. It might be especially effective in counseling situations.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Heist Society

Having been mesmerized by Aaron Johnson's performance as the young John Lennon in Nowhere Boy at Sundance, I couldn't resist going to see his latest film Kickass. It was great fun; more exciting than a bike ride in Bali. Although Aaron was great in the title role, Chloe Mertz totally stole the film with her performance as Hit Girl. Seeing her in her plaid skirt uniform reminded me of the covers of the Gallagher Girls series. (I'd Tell You I Love You, But Then I'd Have to Kill You, Don't Judge a Girl by Her Cover, Cross My Heart and Hope to Spy.) The fourth in the series, Only the Good Spy Young, will be released June 29th. If you haven't had a chance to read them, they are about a private high school for girls who are spies. A film of the first book is in development.
While you are waiting for the fourth installment, I would recommend Ally's new series, Heist Society. After a childhood spent in the family business stealing jewels, Katarina Bishop decides to retire and cons her way into an exclusive boarding school, leaving her life of crime behind. However, when Hale, her former colleague and crush, shows up with the news that her father's life is in danger, she is lured back into the fold. A powerful mobster has been robbed of his priceless art collection and her father is the number one suspect. Together with her crew of teenage thieves, Kat must find the art collection and return it, before her father is killed. They travel across Europe and plot the biggest heist in the family's history. The details of thieving tools and techniques, famous artworks, and lavish settings make this a highly informative and entertaining read. I can't wait for the sequel!

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Back from Bali - We Were Here

I am back from my Backroads biking trip in Bali, where it was hot, hot hot! I now refer to the experience as Bikram biking. The accomodations and cultural experiences were wonderful, the biking was not. There are three million people in Bali; two million of them are on motorbikes, the other million are driving big trucks and playing chicken with them on the roads where we were biking.
During the four plane flights to get there, I read Matt de la Pena's We Were Here. Having met Matt at the Colorado teen lit conference, I was looking forward to reading his latest book and it did not disappoint. Matt charmed me with his sincerity and earnest passion for YA lit. We talked about stories with a soundtrack and he told me one of his favorite musicians was Elliott Smith, who did the music for Good Will Hunting. He was particularly impacted by Smith's suicide- he is thought to have stabbed himself in the heart. After reading the book, I now better understand Matt's fascination with Smith and his comment that good writers lie, cheat and steal.
Matt was born in the barrio in San Diego to teenage parents (17 and 15) and basketball was his ticket out. Although We Were Here is not a sports story, basketball did play a role. The book is supposedly a court ordered journal that Miguel Castenada is required to write while in a group home in San Jose. Fed up with the group home environment, Miguel and two other inmates, Mong and Rondell, break out and attempt to flee to Mexico. Miguel continues to chronicle their adventures in the journal, slowly revealing the stories leading to each boy's incarceration and the tragic event that changed Miguel's life forever. The suspenseful pacing will keep readers anxiously turning pages to find out about the boys' survival, as well as the mystery of Miguel's crime.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Colorado Teen Literature Conference - Tricks

The highlight of the Colorado Teen Lit Conference for me was hearing from Matt de la Pena, author of Mexican Whiteboy, and Ellen Hopkins, author of numerous novels in verse. On Friday evening I was fortunate to be invited to a dinner where I met both authors. On Saturday each author gave a keynote speech. I have always wondered what led Ellen Hopkins to the dark topics she addresses. She shared the anguish she experienced when her beloved daughter got involved with meth and ultimately ended up in jail. She said her first novel in verse, Crank, was her way of working through the turmoil she felt. She received such a positive response to the novel that she knew she had found her niche. Her latest book, Tricks, chronicles the lives of kids driven to prostitution. The story is narrated by five teens whose lives finally converge in Las Vegas. Seth, an Indiana farm boy, is kicked off his family farm when his parents find out he's gay. He follows a controlling sugar daddy to Las Vegas. In Boise, Eden's first romantic relationship leads her Pentecostal parents to declare that she is possessed by demons. They send her to Tears of Zion reform camp, where ironically she turns to prostituting herself to engineer an escape. In California Whitney, who yearns for male attention any way she can get it, ends up involved with a pimp who takes her to Las Vegas. Ginger, realizes that the rapes she's endured as a child, were arranged by her mother in exchange for cash. They all end up in Las Vegas where Cody, who has a gambling addiction he pays for with money he's earned selling his body, is attempting to deal with his grief when his stepfather dies. Hopkins does a wonderful job helping the reader understand the desperation that leads the teens to prostitution, as well as how difficult it is to extricate themselves once they've traveled down that road.
I'm off to Bali tomorrow. I have Matt de la Pena's latest novel, We Were Here, on my Kindle and plan to read it on the trip. I will share my thoughts about it with you soon.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Colorado Teen Literature Conference - Tangled

Tomorrow I am presenting at the Colorado Teen Literature conference, which is my favorite conference of the year. I am going to talk about new book bundles, which are YA novels that are grouped thematically. In addition to talking about 25 new books, I will also suggest classroom activities for each bundle. One of the bundles involves books that have multiple narrators. Caroline Mackler's Tangled is one of the books in this group. Told from the points of view of four different teens, the story chronicles the time they spend together at a Caribbean resort, as well as the four months that follow. The story is narrated in a linear fashion, beginning with Jena's story. She is a hypercritical girl, who is her own worst critic. She accompanies her mom and her mom's best friend and daughter Skye to the resort. Skye is a gorgeous young actress who doesn't seem to want to give Jena the time of day. Little does Jena know, that Skye, who narrates the next section, is struggling with emotional problems. They both meet Dakota, a boy who seems confident and sexually aggressive. He initially spends time with Jena, but dumps her when he meets Skye. He narrates the third section which takes place when he returns home. Finally, we hear from Owen, Dakota's introverted brother, who spends most of his time working on his blog "Loser with a Laptop." Jena begins following his blog and they ultimately meet in NYC. As the story progresses through the vacation, and its aftermath, the reader begins to realize that the facade these kids present to the world hides a very different person on the inside. I loved these characters and think kids will really connect with their insecurities.
Although I'm really looking forward to my presentation, I am most excited about the two visiting authors, Matt de la Pena, the author of Mexican Whiteboy, and Ellen Hopkins, the popular author, who writes cutting edge novels-in-verse. I am also profiling her latest novel, Tricks, in my novels-in-verse bundle. In my next blog I will let you know about the conference and meeting these two authors.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Flash Burnout

I just got back from Berkeley, CA, where I visited Amoeba Music on Telegraph Avenue. I was delighted to be able to envision Allie (The Vinyl Princess) behind the counter talking up vinyl records with customers. The vinyl record library there is phenomenal.
My latest recommendation is Flash Burnout by L.K. Madigan about Blake, a boy who struggles to balance his relationships with Shannon, his girlfirend, and Marissa, a fellow photographer who is a friend who is a girl. Although the story involves more about photography and struggling with a parent's addiction than music, I couldn't resist mentioning it in my soundtrack unit because the end of the book includes two broken heart playlists with Blake's commentary. One is a mad/sad playlist and the other is a sad/sad playlist including songs like "Here Without You" by 3 Doors Down that he characterizes as an "I haven't moved on" song and Hemorrhage by Fuel of which he says, "Anytime you mention blood and love in the same sentence, it's not going to have a happy ending." Another terrific element of the book is his "pleas to Houston" (as in Houston we have a problem) for relationship advice. I would highly recommend spending some time with Blake and his problems.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Struts and Frets

The playlist at the end of John Skovron's Struts and Frets, which identifies the songs in the book, includes an eclectic variety of music from the Pixies to John Coltrane. All are referenced by Sammy Bojar, the main character, who defines himself through his music. Sammy's grandfather, a jazz musician whose mind is clouded by dementia, encourages him to follow his dream of becoming a rock star. However, his mother, who watched her own mother die of a drug overdose, urges him to pursue a more stable lifestyle.
When Sammy's band decides to compete in a battle of the bands, Sammy waffles between excitement at winning a chance to record in a studio and dread of the band imploding in public. The lead singer can't remember the lyrics, the bassist is not ready for prime time and Sammy has a serious case of stage fright.
Added to his anxieties about the band, Sammy worries about his relationship with his art obsessed best friend Jen5 (there are 5 other Jennifers in their class), who wants to take their relationship to the next level. As they explore romance, she agrees to help him be more of a "kick-ass combat ninja" and he encourages her to show her vulnerable side. At her urging, he agrees to perform solo at her first art show, and totally loses himself in performing a song he wrote for her. The battle of the bands doesn't turn out quite the way he had hoped, but it definitely is a turning point in his music career. This fresh coming-of-age story not only includes recognizable music, but also Sammy's orginal songs and an inside look at what it's like to write and perform them. It's a great read that will appeal to a wide audience.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Speaking of Soundtracks

Speaking of soundtracks, I have been enjoying the playlist Maggie Stiefvater created for her book Shiver. It is very Twilightesque. If you have not read Shiver yet, I would highly recommend it. The first book of a trilogy introduces Grace who for years has been fascinated by the yellow-eyed wolf that saved her from its pack when she was attacked as a child. Sam, who was bitten by a werewolf as a boy, is that wolf. He spends the summer months as a human and the cold months of the year as a wolf. When they finally meet, they fall deeply in love, but their romance is threatened by many challenges, including the fact that Sam may soon lose the ability to become human. The author's take on werewolves is interesting and original, and Sam and Grace cleverly handle the ordeals they face. I can wait for Linger, the sequel which is due out July 10, 2010.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Welcome

Welcome to my blog spot! I am looking forward to blogging about new young adult novels. I have written a book, What's New in Young Adult Novels? and Ideas for Classroom Use and am continually reading new YA novels in hopes of finding gems to add to my next revision. The 2009 book is available on Lulu.com.

One of the units in my book is entitled Stories with a Soundtrack. I am always looking for new books that will lend themselves to exploration of the music referenced in them. Last year's Audrey Wait! was really popular with teens and I had a ball listening to all the songs that Robin Benway used in her chapter titles. The songs that book characters listen to really define them as individuals and help the readers get a clearer picture of the characters.

Yesterday I read The Vinyl Princess by Yvonne Printz. I absolutely loved it! Allie, the main character, works at Bob and Bob's Records, a vinyl record store in Berkeley, CA. My oldest son just started business school at Berkeley, and having helped him move there this summer, I am somewhat familiar with the setting. I envisioned Bob and Bob's Records on Telegraph Avenue and all the hippies that populate the area. The music that permeates the story is classic and I began making a playlist in my head as I read about Allie's adventures.

If you have any thoughts on either of these books or have books to recommend, I'd love to hear from you.