Monday, May 31, 2010

When Breaking the Rules Is Good

Product Details
Elizabeth Scott has been a hit or miss author for me. I read Stealing Heaven and it was so good, I immediately bought everything she had written. Her earlier novels weren't as good, though. They were very dark and creepy, and the writing wasn't as engaging. So when I saw the most recent release, The Unwritten Rule, I was excited because it looked like she had gotten back to her Stealing Heaven writing.

The story is about a girl named Sarah who has a crush on her best friend's boyfriend, Ryan- the ultimate defiance of the biggest unwritten rule of friendships. You would think this would make you hate Sarah, but her friend Brianna is the more disgust worthy of the trio. Sarah tries to avoid Ryan at all costs, but Brianna is constantly dragging her with them on dates and making her amuse Ryan while Brianna flits about. After a while, it is hard to deny that Ryan has feelings for Sarah too.

Brianna is the worst kind of friend. She is the type of attractive, popular girl who sees her friends as accessories that will make her more attractive. In particular, accessories that are clearly not as wonderful as Brianna is, thereby making Brianna look better. At times, the things Brianna says to Sarah, like "Don't worry, I know the guys like me aren't exactly interested in you, but maybe a freshman will really like you for who you are" make me want to strangle her. In fact, despite the "unwritten rule" I wanted Sarah to not only take Brianna's boyfriend, but clock her as well.

This novel was OK, not stellar, just OK. It wasn't the best I have read, but certainly not the worst either. Unfortunately, in a genre that has exploded with amazing fiction, I have a hard time recommending something that is just OK. I think this would be a good choice for any middle school to high school girl who reads a lot and won't be detracted by the mediocre plot and writing. The writing isn't complicated and the plot is fairly simple. The characters, however, will defy any impressions you may have started the book with!

Which Day Would You Repeat Over and Over?

Before I Fall
There is nothing better than an author with a powerful breakout novel, and that is just what Lauren Oliver delivers with Before I Fall. In the young adult scene, it is difficult to portray real adolescent situations without being too campy or cheesy. Oliver manages to blow the lid off popularity with this bittersweet novel.

The story starts with Samantha Kingston, number two in the most popular foursome at school. It is Cupid Day at school where the most important thing is to get as many roses as possible, proving to the rest of the school just how powerful and loved you really are. The day winds down with a party at Kent McFuller's house- a boy who isn't worth their time until he gives them a place to party. At the party, Juliet Sykes, who the girls refer to as Psycho Sykes, approaches Sam and her friends to tell them just what she thinks of them- that they are horrible people. After the party devolves and they humiliate Juliet, Sam and her friends get into the car to drive home. All of a sudden, a white streak flashes in front of their car, sending it careening into the woods. Sam knows she is dead.

But then she wakes up the next morning, but it isn't tomorrow- she is reliving the same day over and over again. Each morning, Sam wakes up after the same day knowing she has to change things. She tries not going to the party, stopping the horrible events that unfolded, even giving up and doing whatever she wants because she knows the day will just restart. Nothing can fix what happens to her, her friends, or Juliet. But each day she learns a little more about her life, how she treats others, and the things she used to think were important. She even starts to see Kent in a different light.

This was a gripping story that I simply could not put down. I loved how she lived and learned a little bit more from each and every day. I also loved how Sam began to realize just how fragile her entire existence was. Her friends weren't what they seemed, her popularity was more fear than friendships, and her family was basically foreign to her. It is very hard to examine the social hierarchy of high school without crossing a line and stereotyping. The layers of this story allow the social scene to be peeled back slowly so as to avoid any over-critical analysis.

This is an excellent book for high school aged girls. There is some drinking, talk about sex, although more implied than described, and the car crash and suicides that make the content a bit mature. I might give this to a mature middle school student, but I would be very selective as to the type of student I did give it to. The examination of popularity and social hierarchy are very important for girls especially to see a different view of. Give this book a chance and watch for the next Oliver book to grace the shelves!

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

C for Creepy and D for Disturbing!

Product Details
In a literary world where YA has come leaps and bounds (especially since I was a kid!), it is surprising to find a much older book within the genre that can compete with the great fiction that is out there right now. Z for Zachariah by Robert C. O'Brien is a really great post-apocalyptic novel that was written for the YA genre decades ago; it is a trailblazer as far as I am concerned!

The story begins with a girl named Ann Burden who has been left alone in a small valley on her parents farm to survive the aftermath of nuclear war. She is surviving well enough between the fresh food from the farm and the dry and canned goods at the local general store. When her parents, brother, and owners of the store left last fall to find other survivors and never returned, Ann knew she had to keep going as she had in order to survive.

Her lonely but peaceful existence was shattered, however, when she spotted a campfire coming her way through the barren, destroyed landscape. When the mysterious man in a big plastic suit enters the valley, she hides, afraid of what kind of man he is. When he impulsively jumps into a contaminated creek and becomes sick with radiation poisoning, however, Ann decides to abandon her hiding place in order to help him. But after she nurses him back to health, she realizes he is not happy to just share the valley with her- he wants it all, including Ann.

I have read a lot of post-apocalyptic fiction in the last 12 months, so it is hard to surprise me these days in this genre, but when the man gets better and starts actually hunting Ann, it was just so disturbing! The way it was written, the way he hunts her, and the sheer magnitude of being the last two alive in this second horror scenario, got to me! It was truly unnerving to see his calculation and deception as he ties up her dog to use for tracking her, locks the store where she is getting her supplies, and takes the keys to her tractor.

This was a really interesting story and quite easy to read with low vocabulary level and comprehension levels. But I don't think this would be a great story for middle schools students- it is just too creepy in a subtle way that gives you the shivers! It would be a GREAT book for an older student who has a low reading level but seeks mature reading material. Now I am going to have to stockpile a HAZMAT suit along with my canned goods, shelter, and ark! I have got to find some cheerier books!

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Who Worries About the Moon?

I have been addicted to post-apocalyptic and dystopia fiction lately. In my literary travels, it has been hard to find too much PA or dystopian YA fiction, but I found a really great series with Susan Beth Pfeffer's The Last Survivors series. She has the sensitivity and understanding of a young adult author combined with the hard, stark truth of a post-apocalyptic author. It is a wonderful combination!
Life As We Knew It

In the first book, Life as We Knew it, the story begins with a family in Pennsylvania. A meteor is scheduled to hit the moon, and the whole world is excited to witness the phenomenon. However, something goes terribly wrong, and scientists misjudged the size, density, and power of the meteor. When it hits the moon, it knocks it closer into Earth's orbit, causing a host of problems the world couldn't have fathomed. The pull of the closer moon on the tides causes tidal waves and tsunamis that ravage the coastal cities. The increased gravitational pull causes the earth's crust to weaken in spots where earthquakes ravage the world and volcanoes are created. The volcanoes are so numerous and powerful that they spew such acrid ash into the sky with such enormity that the sun is even blocked out, eventually changing the climate of the world.

Miranda tells the story of the meteor and her family's survival through a journal she is keeping. The family sticks together and manages to gather as much canned food as possible before the world really takes a nose dive. Thanks to the resourcefulness of Miranda's mother and her disciplined use of the food, they are able to make it through the summer and into the early winter, but they quickly start to run out of food. A flu epidemic ravages through the town and Miranda is forced to take care of her mother and both her brothers. But when they begin to run out of food, it looks like they will all starve to death...
The Dead and the Gone (The Last Survivors, Book 2)

In the second book, The Dead and the Gone, the story follows the impact of the moon's shift upon a family in New York. Alex Morales is forced to take care of his sisters, Bri and Julie, in anyway possible since his parents are presumed dead. His incredible faith and involvement in the church is both integral in his family's survival, and in the death of his sister. He must do things that go against everything he believes in to stay alive, but he does it with great burden and guilt. New York is slowly dying, and the people left inside might never be able to flee. The government is keeping the city alive long enough to save the dignitaries, the priceless artwork and artifacts, the history, but they aren't nearly as concerned for the people left behind. Finally, Alex realizes they have to get out, in anyway they can...

This World We Live In (The Last Survivors, Book 3)
In the final book of the trilogy, The World We Live In, Miranda and Alex's stories come together. Miranda's father had left the east coast with his new wife to find her parents in the first book, but they return to Pennsylvania with other survivors: Alex, Julie, a friend named Charlie, and Miranda's new half-sister. Now the families must try to survive together, especially when there is barely enough to feed Miranda, her mother, and her two brothers. But they all come together and vow to make it work. However, Alex has other plans to take Julie to a convent in New York and leave her there. When everyone protests, he insists they stop being a burden on the family and seek out their own destinies. What he didn't expect was to fall in love with Miranda.

This is a great story, and I loved how the first two books are totally different stories that come together in the final installment. I liked the fact that the story was Miranda's journal in the first and third books, but I had to adjust to Alex's story being told in the third person. I was also skeptical of the strong religious aspects of the second book, but since their presence only revolved around Alex and his family, I think it was Pfeffer's representation of a faithful Latino family. I definitely liked Miranda's story more than Alex's, but that was because I could relate to Miranda's situation in rural Pennsylvania more than Alex's life in NYC. Overall, however, this was a great series for a variety of ages. It is talked about in many post-apocalyptic circles by adults, but it is written in a way to be appealing yet not overwhelming for the younger crowd. I think this is appropriate for a high-skilled middle schooler up to high school aged students. The books are fast reads and very interesting! But you may never look at the moon the same again...

Also, if you are interested, Pfeffer has a cute blog at

Imprisoned by Supreme Fantasy

Product Details
Young adult fantasy novels have always been "light fantasy": the characters were easy to understand, the scenario or world was not terribly complex, and the plot was easy to follow. Incarceron by Catherine Fisher defies that generalization with gusto.

The story begins with two characters separated by what seems to be two entirely different worlds. Claudia is the daughter of the Warden of Incarceron. Incarceron is a prison that started as a hopeful experiment and centuries later is a heavily guarded secret of the true failure the living, breathing, vindictive prison has become. Centuries prior to the story, the prison was created and a group of intellectual and spiritual leaders entered with the prisoners, knowing the prison would then be sealed with no one to ever go in or out. The world then decided technology was the detriment of their society and forbid all technological advances and thrust themselves into the medieval ages.

Finn is in Incarceron and knows somehow that he was born outside the prison. He just knows he doesn't belong there. One of the spiritual leaders, a former slave, and Finn's blood brother join him in his quest to find a way out of the prison. But the prison knows everything. It hears them, taunts them, and tries to stop them. When Finn gets a key that creates some kind of portal to the outside, and Claudia steals the identical key from her father's office, they find out Finn might actually be right: he might have been the prince Claudia was once betrothed to, who was supposed to have been killed in a riding accident.

If this story sounds complex, you are spot-on. This is no whimsical fantasy novel for the light-hearted. This is for kids who made it through Lord of the Rings or Abarat. This is a very complicated story, and I had a lot of trouble following it at first. It is confusing how a key can throw a hologram, yet the Warden's daughter is riding horses to her arranged marriage. The whole abandonment of technology is confusing at first, but it makes sense when one sees a fearful society that is willing to do anything to survive. In fact, this story almost seems like two entirely different stories that don't even belong together: a self-imposed dystopia and a whirlwind fantasy. But eventually, they come together and make sense.

I would not recommend this for most students, especially those who don't particularly enjoy reading, because it is very difficult to follow at first. This is a great book, however, for a kid or an adult who really enjoys hardcore fantasy. It is truly a creative masterpiece of Fisher's imagination. I cannot even imagine being able to come up with a story like this!