Sunday, December 6, 2015

Realistic Reads: Not If I See You First, The Anatomical Shape of the Heart and Orbiting Jupiter

As an approved professional reader on Net Galley, I have access to advanced copies of more books than I can possibly read.  How do I choose which books make it to the top of my virtual reading pile? Many times my choice is based on knowledge of the authors or word of mouth.  This month I am enthusiastically recommending three new realistic reads.  Not If I See You First by Eric Lindstrom chronicles the tale of a teen who lost her sight, as well as her mother, in a horrific car accident.  The Anatomical Shape of a Heart by Jenn Bennett introduces us to Beatrix and Jack, two unconventional artists who meet on a midnight bus in San Francisco.  In Orbiting Jupiter by two-time Newbery winner Gary Schmidt,  sixth-grader Jackson narrates the story of his foster brother Joseph, a thirteen-year-old who has a child himself.  

In Not If I See You First  Parker Grant, who was blinded in a car accident that took her mother's life, develops rules that are her coping mechanism for life. Don't treat her differently, don't take advantage, and no second chances.   When her father dies and Scott Kilpatrick, the best friend who broke her heart in middle school reenters her life, she needs to rethink the rules.  Trying out for the track team and giving tough-love advice to her classmates keep her busy, but before she knows it, all the emotions she's been avoiding overwhelm her and she implodes.  Now she must relearn to navigate her world and include forgiveness and trust.  Scott and Parker's unconventional love story will have you at hello. 

The Anatomical Shape of a Heart focuses on Beatrix, whose specialty is anatomical drawing and Jack who is a notorious graffiti artist who hides in the shadows in San Francisco. She is hoping to win a drawing competition that will win her a scholarship to become a medical illustrator. He is leaving single gold words of inspiration around the city.  She would love to spend the summer drawing cadavers at the Willed body facility at a San Francisco medical school, but is denied. When she meets Jack on a late night bus and spies a can of gold spray paint in his backpack, little does she know that he will be the key to her realizing her dreams.  When Jack opens doors for her at the medical school, she finds out he is the mayor's son, who is hiding many family secrets.  Together they navigate a plethora of problems to find a future that allows them a chance at love.  These two engaging characters will win readers' hearts through their frank humorous dialogue and heartfelt actions. 

Jackson Hurd, the narrator of Orbiting Jupiter, rises to the occasion when his family takes in Joseph, a 13-year-old foster kid, on their farm in rural Maine.  Joseph has suffered parental and institutional abuse, fathered a daughter and lost the love of his life in childbirth.  As Joseph acclimates to life on the farm and a new school, Jackson tries to help him find the daughter he has never been allowed to see. Not only is this the story of Joseph's redemption, it is also a coming-of-age tale for Jackson. Flashbacks to Joseph's past illuminate his journey, where the present tale shows Jackson's development as he defends Joseph and defines his own code of behavior.  This is a powerful character study that one has come to expect from Gary Schmidt and I highly recommend it.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Mountains and Plans Booksellers' Recommendations: The Rest of Us Just Live Here, Wolf by Wolf and These Shallow Graves

I recently attended the Mountains and Plains Independent Booksellers' Trade Show where I got lots of wonderful recommendations for new books coming out in 2016.  However, I also was alerted to three new novels by favorite authors that have  recently been released.  The Rest of Us Just Live Here by Patrick Ness (The Chaos Walking Trilogy) is a satire of the "Chosen One" genre that focuses on the kids living normal lives while the Chosen Ones battle other worldly beings. Wolf by Wolf by Ryan Graudin (The Walled City) is an alternate history fantasy which focuses on a shape-shifting concentration camp survivor in a world where Hitler won WWII. Finally, These Shallow Graves by Jennifer Donnelly ( A Northern Light and Revolution) is a turn-of-the-century murder mystery about an aspiring reporter investigating her father's death.

In Mikey's town the heroic "indie kids" have battled the undead, vampires, soul eating ghosts and are now trying to keep the Immortals from finding a vessel for their Empress to inhabit, so that they can take over the world.  Meanwhile, Mikey and his friends are just trying to get through senior year.  Mikey, whose dysfunctional family includes an alcoholic dad, a power hungry politician mom, and an anorexic sister, is struggling to overcome his OCD issues and get up the courage to ask his longtime crush Hanna to prom.  Each chapter opens with a brief description about the battle with the Immortals, but then switches to chronicling the trials and tribulations of being a "normal" kid amidst the chaos.  In The Rest of Us Just Live Here, Ness's parodies of the "Chosen Ones" novels are hilarious, with the underlying message being everyone is special in one way or another.

Wolf by Wolf, a story about Yael, a girl who survived Nazi concentration camps, imagines what would happen if Hitler won the war.  Yael, the Jewish subject of Nazi experimentation is now an Aryan looking girl who can shape-shift, assuming other people's identities.  A resistance fighter, Yael is charged with assuming the appearance of a cross-country motorcycle racer, Adele Wolf. Adele won the last Axis Tour, a global motorcycle race, and got to dance with Hitler.  Yael's plan is to pose as Adele, win the race, and kill Hitler during the victory dance.  She doesn't count on Adele's brother Felix accompanying her, nor her former lover Luka alternately helping her, then thwarting her plans. Can Yael keep her identity secret, win the race and carry out her plans?  The action in this alternate history fantasy is wonderfully fast paced, and the ambiguous, yet satisfying, ending will leave readers anxious for the sequel in the duo-logy.

In These Shallow Graves the year is 1890 and the only thing expected of Josephine Montfort is that she marry a suitable upper-class man and settle down; but Jo, an aspiring reporter, has other ideas. When her father dies of wounds supposedly suffered during a gun cleaning accident, Jo is determined to find the truth.  Enlisting the help of Eddie Gallagher, a reporter at her father's newspaper, she risks her reputation and searches for clues in the seamy underworld of NYC.  As Jo learns more about her family's sordid history, she struggles with family and societal expectations and her attraction to Eddie, who is an orphan and self-made man.  The suspense-filled story line moves forward with clues and revelations that keep the reader one step ahead of Jo, and the short chapters make this a satisfying page-turner.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

New YA Series: The Scorpion Rules, Reawakened, Court of Fives, and After the Red Rain

New series in the young adult world are frequently fantasies. If authors are going to go to the trouble of creating a whole new world, they certainly don't want to leave it after one book.  Also, getting book deals from publishers is probably a lot easier if authors promise several books in a series.  This month I will review four new books that kick off new series that I think kids will enjoy.  Erin Bow's The Scorpion Rules: Prisoners of Peace establishes a world where the children of world leaders are held hostage, paying with their lives if their country enters a war. Colleen Houck's Reawakened takes us to the Valley of Kings where three Egyptian princes are reawakened every thousand years to fight off the evil god Seth. Kate Elliott's Court of Fives introduces Jessamy, a mixed-heritage girl who longs to compete in a multi-disciplinary endurance contest known as the Game of Fives. Finally, Barry Lyga's After the Red Rain is a post-apocalyptic dystopian novel about a world destroyed by a toxic rain where the remaining people struggle to survive.

In The Scorpion Rules: Prisoners of Peace, Erin Bow, winner of the Monica Hughes award for Science Fiction and Fantasy, imagines a world where an artificial intelligence named Talis has mandated world peace, by raising the children of world leaders in a U.N controlled enclave called the Precepture.  Should a country go to war, the child of that country's leader dies.  Greta, the crown princess of the Pan Polar Confederacy, is comfortable with the status quo until Elian arrives and defies the machines that rule their lives.  When their to countries declare war, Greta is determined to find a way to save them. Although Elian is not Greta's love interest (Princess Xie is), she cares deeply about this rebellious boy who inspires her to grapple with tough decisions in this world where sacrifices must be made for the greater good. This thought-provoking tale is filled with twists and turns that will keep readers engaged and looking forward to the next installment.

Colleen Houck, author of the best-selling Tiger's Curse series, takes on Egyptian mythology in the well-researched first book of the Reawakened Series. Lilliana Young meets Amon, a live Egyptian prince who has been reawakened after 1,000 years of mummification, when she is visiting the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  Amon cannot find his canopic jars filled with his life's essence and must bond with Lily so that her energy can sustain him while he fulfills his destiny.  She travels with him to the Valley of Kings to find his brothers, also resurrected mummies, who must help him stop the evil shape-shifting god Seth from taking over the world. Lily and Amon's romance takes a back seat to the non-stop battle scenes with other-worldly demons determined to thwart them.  This is a perfect series for readers graduating from Rick Riordan's middle level action adventures.

Kate Elliott, World Fantasy Award finalist for her adult novels, just published Court of Fives, the first in her new young adult fantasy series. The trilogy opener introduces Jessamy, a girl of mixed heritage who longs to compete in a multi-disciplinary endurance test known as the Game of Fives. Her father, a skillful soldier of noble blood, who has four daughters with his commoner wife, is unaware that Jes has been training for the contest.  Masked, Jes participates in the game, but allows Kalliarkos, the nephew of Lord Gargaon, to win, hoping to avoid detection.  When her father's patron dies, Lord Gargaron becomes his patron and breaks up the family, but at Kalliarkos's urging, allows Jes to train at the palace.  Jes, who finds herself falling for Kalliarkos, enlists his help in rescuing her mother and sisters, who have been entombed with the dead patron, During her struggles, Jes realizes the Game of Fives is far more than a game in the history of warring kingdoms, and she tries to determine its significance and her role in it.  This page-turner is an obvious choice for fans of The Hunger Games.

Barry Lyga (I Hunt Killers) has teamed up with Peter Facinelli (Dr. Cullen in the Twilight movies) and producer Robert Defranco in penning After the Red Rain, a post-apocalyptic thriller that is bound for the silver screen.  The story is set after a toxic rain caused by environmental devastation destroys the earth and most of the people who inhabit it.  When Deedra, an orphan, who now supports herself with factory work and scavenging, rescues Rose, a boy struggling to cross a poisoned river, she enters into a unique partnership which may just be key in saving the planet.  Rose, whose true genetic nature is hinted at in his name, has unexplained abilities that are gradually revealed, as he and Deedra fight the powers that be, and in doing so, they become inextricably bound to one another. The unique story line and sympathetic characters make this a dystopian novel that stands out in an overcrowded genre.

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

New Books from Award-winning Authors: Chasing Secrets, Fuzzy Mud, Goodbye Stranger and Another Day

Several award-winning authors have new books out in time for the beginning of the school year.  Jennifer Choldenko (Al Capone Does My Shirts) has penned Chasing Secrets, a new historical fiction about the plague in turn of the century San Francisco.  Louis Sachar (Holes) tries his hand at an issue-driven novel in Fuzzy Mud, about a threatened environmental disaster.  Rebecca Stead (When You Reach Me) explores the limits of adolescent friendships in Goodbye Stranger, and David Levithan (Boy Meets Boy) follows his best-selling Every Day with a companion novel, Another Day, which tells the story from Rhiannon's perspective.

Chasing Secrets, which takes place in San Francisco during a little know bubonic plague threat in the early 1900s, introduces Lizzie, who lives with her brother Billy, their widower doctor father, and their cook Jing in a home on her uncle's Nob Hill estate.  Accompanying her father on his house calls, she hears rumors of the plague breaking out in Chinatown.  When Jing disappears, she fears he was caught while doing errands in Chinatown and is now under quarantine. To complicate matters, his son Noah is hiding in their attic.  As the powers that be deny the plague's existence, Lizzie wonders how to rescue Jing, get medicine to the afflicted and follow her dreams of becoming a doctor.  An author's note, time line and bibliography illuminate the historical facts upon which the book is based. This middle level book is filled with mystery and suspense, as well as an exploration of the challenges girls faced who longed to be more than "a proper lady."

Fuzzy Mud,  the new eco-disaster novel by Louis Sachar, includes three story lines.  When  middle-schoolers Tamaya and Marshall take a short cut through the woods to avoid Chad, a bully who is threatening Marshall, they find themselves in a heap of trouble.  Chad follows them, and when Tamaya grabs a handful of "fuzzy mud" to throw at him, she unleashes an environmental disaster. Unbeknownst to her, a nearby factory is trying to create a new bio-fuel and has dumped the "fuzzy mud" waste that is toxic to humans.  As the federal government get involved, the contaminated kids fear for their lives.  This story line is alternated with one that takes place several months after the kids' initial encounter, showing the devastation ahead. The third  recaps Senate hearings investigating the bio-fuel's risks and benefits.  Although the story line is a bit outlandish, readers will be entertainingly familiarized with the very real threat of science experimentation that gets out of control.

Goodbye Stranger focuses on Em, Tab and Bridget, three best friends who have sworn never to fight. However, as they enter seventh grade, problems threaten this pact.  Em's maturing body is attracting boys, and flattered by their attention, she experiments with texting inappropriate pictures of herself, leaving her friends wondering what to do. Tab's new-found interest in feminism and social justice becomes annoying, as she throws herself into activism at the expense of her friendships.  Finally, Bridget, who was involved in a near-death accident when she was eight, wonders at her purpose in life, as her girlfriends grow away from her, and Sherm, her best guy friend, becomes more than a friend.  Interspersed in the day-to-day happenings are a mysterious high school student's second-person chapters that take place on Valentine's Day in the future.  Can the girls navigate the problems they are facing and keep their promise to each other?  This novel about friendship, love and bad decisions won't disappoint Rebecca Stead's fans.

Another Day revisits the story (Every Day) about "A" who wakes up every day in a different person's body.  Learning to adapt, he tries not to get attached or interfere with a person's life.  Then he meets Rhiannon when he inhabits her boyfriend Justin's body and they fall in love.  Another Day tells the same story from Rhiannon's perspective, as she spends each day wondering who A is that day and how they can find each other.  Every Day was one of my favorite books last year.  It is such a creative way to discuss the idea of  "walking in another person's shoes," exploring issues of race, gender, sexuality, obesity and more.  I loved getting a different perspective on A and Rhiannon's story, and I think mature readers will enjoy it, too.

Friday, August 7, 2015

YA Novels Focusing on Parental Abuse: Emmy and Oliver, Everything, Everything, and Awake

Young adult novelists frequently find a way to minimize the main character's parents so that the YA characters can take credit for dealing with their own coming-of-age problems.  However, my recommendations this month focus on books where the parental roles are paramount, because parental abuse causes the conflict in the story. Emmy and Oliver by  Robin Benway (Audrey, Wait!) explores the problems involved when a boy, who was kidnapped by his father, is returned to his mother and her new family after being away for ten years.  Everything, Everything by Nicola Yoon involves a teenage girl who has been diagnosed with Severe Combined Immunodeficiency Disease (SCID) by her physician mother who keeps her imprisoned in their hermetically sealed home, only allowing her to have contact with her and a nurse. Awake by Natasha Preston (The Cellar) introduces Scarlett Garner who manages to escape after being offered up as a cult sacrifice by her parents.

Emmy and Oliver, next-door-neighbors and best friends, are torn apart at age seven when his father kidnaps him. As a result,  Emmy's parents become extremely overprotective, so she hides elements of her life like surfing and a desire to go way for college, which would horrify them. Over the ten years they are apart, she obsesses over Oliver's disappearance, fantasizing about his return.  Meanwhile, he has been living with his father in NYC, unaware that his father, who tells him his mother abandoned him, is actually on the run. When he is fingerprinted on a school field trip, the authorities find him and return him to his mother and her new husband and twin girls.As he struggles to fit into his new family and come to terms with his father's betrayal, Emmy tries to find a way back to their childhood relationship.   Rather than focusing only on the teen romance, the author examines the effects of the abduction and return on not only Oliver and Emmy, but also his mother and family, Emmy's parents and his other childhood friends.  No matter how desperately the people involved would like things to return "normal," they must come to the realization that nothing will ever be the same.

Everything Everything focuses on Maddy, who has "Bubble Baby Disease" and has lived for years inside a sterile environment, having contact only with her physician mother and her nurse Carla.  Then Olly, a gorgeous boy with smooth parkour's moves, arrives next door and everything changes.  After flirting through the windows of their neighboring bedrooms, they connect via email and begin a secret relationship. Finally Carla, who realizes something's up, allows Olly to visit.  As they fall in love, Olly and Maddy struggle to find a way to be together. His abusive alcoholic father and her obsessively overprotective mother are seemingly insurmountable roadblocks to romance.Spot art, emails, instant messaging and medical charts, as well as Maddy's "Spoiler Alert" blog about the books she reads, make this a unique read, but it is the sympathetically quirky characters, that make this story so compelling.

In Awake, Scarlett Garner does not remember the first four years of her life, until a car accident triggers strange dreams about the past. Her adoptive parents are very evasive and try to explain away her visions of a burning building and a girl named Evelyn. At the same time she falls for Noah, a new student at her school, who unbeknownst to her, has been sent by a cult called Eternal Life to abduct her so she can be sacrificed for their eternal salvation.  The story is told in alternating chapters from Scarlett and Noah's perspectives, so the reader knows his true motivations long before Scarlett. Against his better judgement Noah falls in love with Scarlett, complicating his desire to follow the cult's orders. Unwisely agreeing to take a weekend trip with Noah, Scarlett ends up the cult's prisoner, where her biological parents greet her with open arms and unfinished business.  As her memories become clearer, she realizes that escape is her only hope for staying alive. The story is filled with suspense and romance, as the reader wonders what will happen when she discovers Noah's betrayal and whose side he will ultimately take.

Sunday, July 5, 2015

Romantic YA Reads for Summer

When it comes to romantic teen reads, Sarah Dessen seems to be a genre in and of herself. So many books are marketed for "fans of Sarah Dessen" or as Sarah Dessen type reads.  Readers can always count on her for sympathetic characters, witty dialogue and  exploration of compelling teen issues.  Well, Sarah Dessen, who has slowed down considerably since becoming a mom,  has published a new book!  This month I will be recommending Saint Anything by Sarah Dessen, as well as other romantic reads that are similar in tone. In  Saint Anything  Sydney, whose older brother has been sent to jail for a drunk driving accident, struggles to deal with the family dysfunction that follows. Adi Alsaid (Let's Get Lost) has just come out with a new novel called Never, Always, Sometimes, which is about Dave and Julia, best friends who take their relationship to the next level.  Kasie West's The Fill-In Boyfriend explores the repercussions when high school senior Gia is dumped by her college boyfriend in the parking lot at prom and randomly asks a stranger, who witnesses her humiliation, to pose as her date. Lara Avery's A Million Miles Away focuses on identical twin Kelsey, whose sister Michelle dies in a car accident.  When Kelsey tries to break the news to Michelle's boyfriend in Afghanistan, he mistakes her for Michelle and she can't bring herself to tell him the truth.

Saint Anything introduces 16-year-old Sydney whose brother Peyton has always been the focus of the family's attention and has everything going for him; however, he seems bent on self-destruction. Finally, after injuring another teen in a drunk driving accident, Peyton lands in jail.  Sydney, who has always lived in his shadow at the private school they attend, decides to transfer to public school for a fresh start. After her first day at the new school, she stops by a pizza parlor where she meets fellow students Layla and Mac, whose father owns the shop.  Layla immediately sweeps Sydney into her world and Mac becomes Sydney's secret crush.  In their mother, she discovers a person she can talk to who will listen, unlike her own mother whose entire focus is on Peyton and his incarceration. Sydney's family is a dysfunctional mess, with her mom constantly meddling in Peyton's life and her father immersing himself in work.  Layla and Mac's family also has its problems, with their sister struggling with drug problems and their mother battling MS, but instead of being torn apart, their family has drawn closer.  The contrast between the two families and Sydney's problems with unwanted attention from one of Peyton's friends add tension to the story.  Although Sydney becomes romantically involved with Mac, her friendship with Layla is really the heart of the narrative. Dessen fans will not be disappointed.

Never, Always, Sometimes is a refreshing new offering from the author of Let's Get Lost, which was one of my favorite reads last year.  As freshmen, best friends Dave and Julia agreed to avoid high school cliches and made a "Never" list, including #10 Never date your best friend.  But as "senioritis" hits, they decide to break ALL the rules.  Little does Julia know that Dave has been in love with her since freshman year and is filled with trepidation about #10.  To complicate matters Dave has just starting seeing sporty, popular Gretchen, whom he really likes, and artistic impetuous Julia seems to be jealous. As they break one rule after another, Dave and Julia begin to realize that by skipping the cliches they were missing out on a lot of the fun of high school.  Their banter-filled relationship contains many poignant moments, keeping readers in suspense as to whether romantic love will blossom between the two.

The Fill-In Boyfriend takes the familiar tale of a shallow girl who finds depth through adversity and creates a sweet romantic read filled with witty dialogue and cringe worthy humor.  Gia Montgomery is a self absorbed high school senior who is constantly seeking social media approval.  She arrives at prom with Bradley, the college boyfriend she has been bragging about, but her friends have never met.  Disgusted by her superficial worries about showing him off, he breaks up with her in the prom parking lot.  This is witnessed by Hayden, whom Gia quickly enlists as a "fill-in Bradley." Hayden performs admirably and then disappears.  But Gia finds herself fantasizing about a real relationship with him.  Luckily, his sister Bec, a new student in Gia's history class, asks her to return the favor and pose as Hayden's new girlfriend to make his ex jealous.  Predictably, Gia and Hayden feel a mutual attraction, but trouble ensues when the truth comes out. Although Gia is at first annoyingly self-centered, her journey to self-discovery through her relationship with Hayden and his family is an enjoyable ride.

A Million Miles Away explores the topic of dealing with a sibling's death through a compellingly unique story.  Twin sisters Kelsey and Michelle look identical, but their personalities are polar opposites.  Kelsey is the dance team captain with a steady boyfriend and Michelle is a free-spirited artist with a steady stream of flings, the latest being Peter, a soldier recently deployed to Afghanistan. When Michelle dies in a car accident, Kelsey tries to tell Peter about her death; but when she skypes with him, he mistakes her for Michelle and tells her getting back to her is what he is living for. Kelsey can't bring herself to tell him the truth.  As she continues the subterfuge, she finds comfort in impersonating Michelle and begins falling for Peter.  Wondering what will happen when Peter finds out the truth will keep readers turning the pages.

Monday, June 1, 2015

Boulder Barnes and Noble Summer Kick Off

Barnes and Noble in Boulder is hosting a Summer Reading Kickoff Saturday June 6th at 11 AM.  I will be doing teen summer reading book talks at the event.  Although some of the books will include realistic novels dealing with serious issues, a fair number of my suggestions will be "summer escape reads," which, of course, include new fantasy books.  Here are a few I will be recommending.  Red Queen by Victoria Aveyard introduces a world split into two factions depending on blood color. Silvers are elites whose blood gives them supernatural powers and Reds are born to service and conscription. Dove Arising by Karen Bao is set on the Moon, which has been populated after wars and pollution make the earth almost uninhabitable. Undertow by Michael Buckley focuses on a race of ocean dwelling warriors, who are half fish and half human, who show up on the beach in Coney Island. Finally, From a Distant Star by Karen McQuestion involves an extraterrestrial who crashes to earth just in time to save a boy dying from cancer.

Red Queen introduces Mare Barrow, a lower caste thief living in a world of elite Silver bloods with magical powers and Reds who are born to conscription.  When Mare is taken to serve in the Silver castle, she unwittingly displays powers of her own, and the royals claim her as a long lost silver princess and betroth her to their younger son.  As she becomes a royal insider, she still conspires to help the Scarlet Rebellion, whose goal is to dismantle the caste system and put an end to the wars waged by the Silver royalty. The problems in the story reflect many of today's social issues including political corruption, ethnic and class inequality, pollution, warfare, and the power of the media to manipulate the truth. Of course, there are potential love interests for Mare, but these take a back seat to the action at this point in the trilogy.  With the book already optioned for a movie, and two sequels on the way, this is a hot YA read!

Dove Arising, focuses on Phaet, a young moon colonist who hopes to become a bio-engineer, but finds herself volunteering for the military when her mother is quarantined and she and her siblings need a means of earning money.  If Phaet can finish at the top of her class, she will earn enough to keep her family out of the "Shelter," a filthy, poverty stricken district.  Learning all she can from Wes, a boy who excels in their training exercises, Phaet struggles to save her siblings, free her mom and find meaning in the military life she never wanted. Discoveries of corruption in the government and a budding romance between Phaet and Wes will entice readers to pick up the sequel when it's available.

In Undertow a race of ocean dwelling Alpha warriors complicate Lyric Walker's life when they arrive on the beach near her home in Coney Island. Her mother is actually an Alpha who arrived with an exploratory party, married Lyric's dad and is now blending as an earthling.  When six Alpha youth integrate her high school, Lyric is recruited to help Fathom, the Alpha crown prince, assimilate. Little did she know she would fall for him just as violence breaks out between the Alphas and the group of townspeople who resent their arrival. Sinister government plots, warring Alpha factions and forbidden attraction make this a page turner that will leave readers anxiously awaiting the sequel.

From a Distant Star opens with high school senior Emma anticipating her boyfriend Lucas's death from cancer.  When he makes a miraculous recovery at the same time a UFO lands on his family farm, she is overjoyed but suspicious.  The recovered Lucas is nothing like the boy she knows and loves.  When Emma and Lucas's brother realize an alien has possessed and healed Lucas's body, they struggle to come up with a solution to get the alien home so that Lucas can re-emerge. Then government agents arrive asking questions, and she decides she and Lucas must escape their watchful eyes and find a way to figure things out on their own. This cross between E.T. and Starman is a fun summer read by the author of the Edgewood series.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Colorado Teen Lit Conference recommendations: The Alex Crow, Masterminds, and Tesla's Attic

The Colorado Teen Literature Conference in April featured Andrew Smith, author of Printz Honor Book Grasshopper Jungle, as the keynote speaker.  Predictably his talk was funny and irreverent, yet revealing, in his honesty about his road to becoming a published author.  Smith, who is being called "the spiritual heir to Kurt Vonnegut," also spoke about his latest book, The Alex Crow. As with his first book, his latest is provocative and profane. The tale blends multiple story lines which include an adopted refugee, a schizophrenic bomber and 19th century explorers on a failed expedition. Other books highlighted at the conference that I would like to recommend include Gordon Korman's Masterminds, the first book in a new series about clones, and Eric Elfman and Neal Shusterman's Tesla's Attic, the first in a series about a boy who finds Nikola Tesla's last magical inventions in the attic of his new house.

The Alex Crow focuses on Ariel, a refugee from an unnamed country, who is adopted by an American family. Ariel and his adoptive brother Max are sent to the Merrie-Seymour camp for boys with technology addictions, solely because their dad works for the company and it's free. His adoptive dad works for the Alex Division which experiments with resurrecting extinct animals and creating biodrones (beings with surveillance chips in their heads).  The boys at the camp seem to be somehow involved with his research. Flashbacks chronicle Ariel's journey which includes periods of tagging along with soldiers in his war torn nation, as well as time spent among abusive teens in a refugee camp. Meanwhile, Lenny, a weird guy who hear voices which prompt him to do violent things, is transporting a truck load of bombs to the camp. Finally, chapters chronicling the story of the first scientists in the Alex division, who are exploring the Arctic in the 19th century and experimenting with "de-extinction," are interwoven.  When the story lines finally come together, they evoke an intriguing statement about society, extinction, and life itself.  This book is only recommended for mature high school readers.

Masterminds takes place in idyllic Serenity, New Mexico, population-185, where all the adults are employed, the children are well-behaved, and the community members are congenial.  However, when 13-year-old Eli and his buddy Randy try to leave town on a lark, Eli is paralyzed with pain and nausea. After Eli recuperates, he finds Randy is being sent away, the factory which employs most of the townsfolk is a sham, and their internet is sanitized, excluding anything unpleasant.Telling the tale from alternating points of view, Eli and his friends Tori, Hector, and Malik begin to investigate the sinister happenings in Serenity, unraveling a mystery that shows the whole town is a gigantic lie. The truth about the kids' parentage threatens their very lives.  Their attempted escape is action packed and lays the groundwork for the sequel.  Middle level readers will find this a real page turner.

Tesla's Attic, the first book in the Accerlerati Trilogy, introduces Nick who has moved with his younger brother and father to a Victorian house they inherited after their home burns down, killing his mother.  Wanting to move into the attic, Nick has a garage sale to get rid of all the junk stored up there.  But this is not ordinary junk. The reel-to reel player records what is said but plays back what the speaker is thinking.  The See 'n Say predicts the future and the wet-cell electrodes can reanimate dead insects.  Nick and his new friends Caitlin and Vincent investigate and discover the  objects are Nikola Tesla's last inventions that have magical properties. When mysterious men show up looking for the objects, the kids decide they have to get the objects back. The men are from a secret society of physicists, the Accerlerati, who want to stop the kids and use the objects for their own devious plans. Plausible scientific explanations for the fantastic happenings add to the fun of this gadget filled mystery. Middle level readers will look forward to the next installment of this fast paced series.

Friday, April 17, 2015

Historical Fiction: Catch Ya Later Traitor, The War that Saved My Life, and I'm Glad I Did

Reading historical fiction is my favorite way to learn history, but it is generally a tough sell with young readers. Colorado author Avi, who has been more successful than most in this field, has a new book Catch You Later, Traitor, which is about the Red Scare in the United States during the 1950s. Kimberly Brubaker Bradley has written a lovely WWII story, The War that Saved My Life, about two British children who find love when they are evacuated from London and end up with a grieving recluse. Grammy award winning songwriter Cynthia Weil, fictionalizes elements from her past in her debut novel I'm Glad I Did. These well-researched new novels offer up delectable bites of history, filled with rich period detail, as well as suspense.

 Catch You Later Traitor introduces Pete Collison, a seventh grader in Brooklyn 1951, who becomes an outcast when his father is suspected of being a Communist sympathizer.  Even his best friend Kat is forbidden from associating with him and an FBI agent is trying to get him to divulge family secrets.  Pete, a fan of hard-boiled detective stories, decides to take matters into his own hands to find out about his father's past and discover who would inform on him.  There are several elements to the book that are historically significant, one being the information about the Red Scare.  Another subplot involves the Dodgers' and Giants' rivalry and their famous playoff game.  Pete's hero, Sam Spade, was created by Dashiell Hammet, who was jailed for refusing to testify against communist friends.  Throughout the book there are digressions where Pete mentally rewrites mundane observations with hard-boiled hyperbole.  This element of the book could be a wonderful teaching tool for a mystery unit and really ramps up the suspense.

The War that Saved My Life by the author of Jefferson's Sons takes place in London during WWII. Ada, who was born with a clubfoot, has been imprisoned by her abusive mother in their one room apartment her whole life.  She longs for the freedom enjoyed by her younger brother Jamie, but her mother, who is embarrassed by Ada's disability hides her away. When the British government decides children should be evacuated from London, Ada sneaks out to accompany Jamie to the countryside where they are taken in by Susan Smith, a grieving recluse. Ada flourishes in this new environment where not only is she allowed outside, but she also teaches herself to ride a pony, learns to read, searches for German spies and discovers what it's like to be loved.  Although at first Susan is not sure she wants the responsibility, she learns to loves the children who give her a reason to get on with her life after a devastating loss. But will the kids' vindictive mother turn up and reclaim them, returning Ada to a life of emotional and physical abuse?

Cynthia Weil and her husband, who wrote alongside Carole King at the Brill Building, are known for writing such songs as "On Broadway," and "You've Lost that Loving Feeling" among others.  Having recently seen the musical Beautiful based on King's life, I couldn't wait to read Weil's  I'm Glad I Did, which, although not specifically autobiographical, incorporates a lot of Weil's insider knowledge about the songwriting business in the 60's. The summer of 1963 in NYC finds aspiring songwriter JJ Green accepting an internship in the Brill Building at Good Music Publishing.  Her parents, who want her to become a lawyer, have agreed she can pursue a songwriting career if she gets a song published by summer's end.  Enter Luke Silver, a boy with instant connection to her music and Dulcie Brown, a fabulous, but troubled, black singer who is now a Brill Building custodian.  Dulcie has just the right voice for JJ's music and Luke's lyrics, but before they can record their song, Dulcie is murdered. JJ and Luke, determined to find the culprit, discover shocking revelations about her music industry mogul uncle and Luke's father, who was his former partner, as well a the music industry itself.  Weil's eye for 60s detail and incorporation of historical figures such as Medgar Evers and Bob Dylan, make this romantic murder mystery something special.  Although the first two books are fine for middle level readers, I'm Glad I Did is more appropriate high school readers and adults.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Realistic Fiction: Mosquitoland, My Heart and Other Black Holes, The Unlikely Hero of Room 13b, and Every Last Word

With readers experiencing dystopian novel genre fatigue and YA films such as The Fault in Our Stars doing well at the box office, there is a new enthusiasm for realistic young adult novels with quirky main characters.  This year's most popular Sundance Film Festival film, Me, Earl and the Dying Girl, based on a YA novel by Jesse Andrews, won both the grand jury and the audience award. The Duff, another YA film, based on a novel by Kody Keplinger, is a box office hit as well. This month I would like to recommend several new realistic YA novels that may soon be making it to the silver screen. Mosquitoland by David Arnold chronicles a teen's odyssey from Mississippi to Cleveland and the odd assortment of characters she meets along the way.  My Heart and Other Black Holes by Jasmine Warga tells the story of two teens who meet on a suicide website.  The Unlikely Hero Of Room 13B by Teresa Toten introduces Adam Spencer Ross, a teen plagued by OCD, who finds himself trying protect those his loves. Finally, Every Last Word by Tamara Ireland Stone, also explores the life of an OCD suffer who is trying to cope.

After several reviewers mentioned Mosquitoland as a "must read,"  I took a leap and was not disappointed by the oddball road trip story narrated by a wacky heroine in episodic chapters interspersed with flashbacks and letters addressed to the mysterious Isabel. Fifteen-year-old  Mim, whose parents divorced, moves with her father and step-mom from Cleveland to Mississippi, aka Mosquitoland. When she finds out her mother is sick, Mim steals money, hops a Greyhound bus and begins a thousand mile adventure to see her mom.  Along the way she meets a variety of offbeat characters, including Beck, an older boy on whom she has a crush, and Walt, a homeless boy with Down's syndrome, who end up accompanying her on her quest. As the truth is gradually revealed about her mother's illness, the identity of Isabel and Mim's fragile mental health, the reader is endlessly entertained by Mim's humorous musing and reflections on the life lessons she is learning.

In My Heart and Other Black Holes, 16-year-old physics nerd Aysel meets good-looking athletic Roman on a suicide website.  Haunted and ostracized because her father brutally killed one of her classmates in his convenience store, Aysel decides she can't go on.  She enters into a suicide pact with Roman, who is guilt ridden over his sister's drowning death a year earlier.  Together they plan their date with death, but as they get to know one another, Aysel thinks there might be a reason to reconsider their plans. She decides "he is no long the person I want to die with; he's the person I want to be alive with."  These two depressed teens' journey is filled with poignant realizations, as Aysel struggles to convince Roman to take a chance on healing through a future together. The author, who was impacted by a friend's suicide, includes a note urging teens with suicidal thoughts to seek help from a list of suicide hotlines and prevention websites, which is provided.

Adam Spencer Ross, The Unlikely Hero of Room 13B, is plagued by OCD.  He joins a support group where he meets and falls for Robyn Plummer.  Each member of the group must assume the role of a superhero, and Adam, who is constantly striving to protect his loved ones, decides as Batman, he can save Robyn.  As he struggles to overcome his ritualistic counting habits that derail his life,  he attempts to navigate the complexities of hiding his mother's hoarding habits, placating his half-brother who also has obsessive tendencies, and wooing Robyn, who may or may not need his help. Adam is smart, funny and sensitive, yet perceptive enough to realize the first person he needs to save may just be himself.  Winner of the 2013 Governor General's Award for Children't Literature in Canada, this book can be enjoyed by mature middle level and high school readers.

Although it won't be published until June 15th, I would like to also recommend another book focusing on a teen with OCD, Every Last Word.  Samantha McAllister masterfully hides her purely obsessional OCD, which is manifested by a stream of dark thoughts that she can't stop. Her friends in the popular mean girls group would turn on her if they knew about her problems.  Then Sam meets Caroline, who introduces her to the Poet's Corner, a tight-knit group of misfits who hide out at lunch and share their poetry and music.  Sam is particularly drawn to a guitar player whom she and her friends bullied mercilessly when they were in elementary school.  Gone is his stuttering that made him an outcast, and she finds herself falling in love with him.  But now she must choose between her new friends and her lifelong attachment to the popular girls, whose friendships are quickly becoming a toxic element in her life.  The beautifully drawn characters and the poetry and music they share, as well as the surprising reveal near the end of the story, will keep readers eagerly turning the pages as they follow Sam's journey toward self-acceptance.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

2015 Blue Spruce Award winner and more

Cinder, the first book in Marissa Meyer's Lunar Chronicles, won this year's Colorado Blue Spruce Young Adult Book Award.  This re-imagining of the Cinderella story set in a futuristic dystopian world introduces Cinder, a cyborg who is a gifted mechanic on a plague ridden planet which is under attack by  ruthless aliens led by Queen Levana.  When Cinder is called in to work on one of Prince Kai's droids, her life becomes intertwined with his, and she finds herself at the center of an intergalactic struggle and a forbidden romance. The sequel, Scarlet, a retelling of Little Red Riding Hood, introduces new characters, Scarlet and Wolf, to the tale and Cress, a retelling of Rapunzel, adds Cress and Thorn to the mix.  In January Fairest, a prequel that tells Queen Levana's story was released and the final book Winter will come out in November 2015.   If you haven't already enjoyed this series, you have some entertaining reading ahead.

The 2016 Blue Spruce nominees include three new fantasy series that I would highly recommend.  Falling Kingdoms by Morgan Rhodes paints a complex world where three kingdoms are vying for power, as Hawks known as Watchers survey the conflict from above. Snow Like Ashes by Sara Raasch introduces Primoria, a world where the kingdom of Spring has defeated Winter and enslaved all but eight of the surviving Winterians. Those eight are hoping to regain the slain Winterian Queen's magic locket and restore her son to the throne. In The Winner's Curse Marie Rutkoski crafts a world of aristocrats and slaves, where a general's daughter falls in love with a slave with royal heritage.

In Falling Kingdoms three kingdoms, Auranos, Paelsia and Limeros, are struggling for supremacy. A prophecy foretells the birth of a powerful sorceress, ancient legend tells of a ring that provides mastery over the Kindred, four elemental crystals that give their owners god-like power, and Hawks oversee the struggles, hoping to find the Kindred and reclaim power for themselves. Cleo, an Auranian princess who sister is dying, travels to a dangerous land looking for magic to cure her. Jonas, a Paelsian rebel who brother was killed by Cleo's fiance, leads the people's revolution in that land  and is looking for revenge.  Prince Magnus and his sister Lucia live in Limeros where people are plotting to overthrow Cleo's father, who temporarily is in control. War is on the horizon and these four young people are caught in the middle of it.  A quest to find the Kindred, as well as the sorceress who can control all the elements ensues.  As the book draws to a close there are many tantalizing questions left unanswered. Rebel Spring and Gathering Darkness, the next two books in the six book series are available.  Fans of complex fantasy series will want to read all six.

Snow Like Ashes finds Meira, an orphan who is a Winterian warrior-in-training, in hiding with six other warriors and Prince Mather, the heir to the throne. Meira is in love with Mather, but is deemed unworthy to be his queen. Sixteen years prior to the opening of the book, King Angra of the kingdom of Spring defeated the kingdom of Winter, enslaved its people and stole the Royal Conduit, a locket used by Winter's female ruler to magically aid her country. Meira is able to reclaim half the locket from its hiding place (the other half is around King Angra's neck) but leads Spring scouts back to the Winterian camp. The refugees must flee to the kingdom of Cordell where Meira meets the delightful Prince Theron and discovers she has been betrothed to him in exchange for Cordell's help in killing King Angra.  There is a dramatic twist at the end that is both believable and unpredictable and will leave readers clamoring for the sequel Ice Like Fire which is due in 2015.

The Winner's Curse is the first book in the Winner's Trilogy. When Kestrel, the daughter of an Valorian general, buys Arin, a handsome Herrani slave, at an auction, she is not quite sure what motivated her to do so.  She soon finds that Arin is cultured, musically gifted, and involved in plotting a Herrani uprising. As they spend more and more time together, they cannot deny their mutual attraction. Tables turn when the Herranis take over the city and Kestrel becomes Arin's prisoner. She uses her skills as a military strategist and gambler in a risky plot to free herself and negotiate peace. The satisfying ending allows this book to be read as a stand alone; however, unfinished elements of the love story will entice readers to pick up The Winner's Crime which comes out in March 2015.

To read about the rest of the 2016 Blue Spruce nominees go to

Thursday, January 15, 2015

New YA Novels Dealing with Mental Illness: Belzhar, I Was Here, and All the Bright Places

Young adult novels can help teens dealing with mental health issues in several ways. First, they can help readers understand that they are not alone. The novels can present realistic portrayals of mental illness and offer helpful ways of dealing with it. A common theme in YA literature is searching for a sense of identity, which mental illness tends to derail. Reading about characters wrestling with this issue can help not only teens with mental illness, but also their friends and family who search for ways to be supportive.  This month I would like to recommend three novels that explore these issues in thoughtful and compelling reads. Meg Wolitzer's Belzhar chronicles the story of mentally unstable teens who attend a therapeutic boarding school. Gayle Forman's new novel, I Was Here explores the feelings of guilt and grief experienced by a girl whose best friend commits suicide. Finally, Jennifer Niven's All the Bright Places follows two teens who are wondering "Should I stay or should I go?"

In Belzhar Jam Gallahue is sent to a therapeutic boarding school, after a trauma with a high school relationship, because she is unable to deal with her grief. She finds herself in a mysterious class called Special Topics in English, where she and four other traumatized students are reading works by Sylvia Plath.  The students are given special red leather journals in which to record their reactions to the assigned readings.  When she and her classmates, all of whom have endured debilitating losses, begin writing in their pages, they are transported to their former lives where they can each inhabit the past and work through their problems.  The teens bond over their experiences in what they call Belzhar and are able to share their stories and look out for and protect one another.  As the semester progresses and the notebooks begin to fill up, they must each confront some inner struggles and make some tough choices about their future paths. Adult author Meg Wolitzer's (The Interestings) debut YA novel is terrific and could be paired with readings from Sylvia Plath for a poignant thought-provoking reading experience.

I Was Here introduces Cody and Meg, who have been best friends since childhood, but are separated when Meg gets a full scholarship to a small college in Tacoma and Cody is left behind to clean houses and attend community college.  When Cody gets news of Meg's suicide, she is understandably confused and upset.  Why hadn't she seen the warning signs?  She travels to Tacoma to collect Meg's belongings and finds there are many things she didn't know about her friend with whom she thought she shared everything.  Determined to get to the bottom of her suicide, Cody searches Meg's laptop and finds she was involved with a suicide website and in particular a Pied Piper type character who encourages suicide as a way out.  With the help of Ben McAllister, one of Meg's friends with an agenda of his own, Cody searches for a way to come to terms with her friend's death. Gayle Forman's latest novel is sure to be a hit, not only with fans of If I Stay, but also with any readers looking for a suspenseful eye-opening investigation into teen suicide.

Theodore Finch and Violet Markey meet when they are on the bell tower at school, each contemplating suicide.  After saving each other's lives, they pair up for a social studies project where they have to discover the Natural Wonders of Indiana. Although from different social strata, she is a popular cheerleader and he is a manic outsider, they challenge each other in ways that soon blossom into love. As they spend more and more time together, they find that it's only with each other that they can be themselves.  But will that be enough to save them from their demons?  All the Bright Places, soon to be a major motion picture starring Elle Fanning, will appeal to fans of John Green and Rainbow Rowell or anyone looking for a quirky compelling story.