Saturday, April 23, 2011

What More Could Happen in the FAYZ?

Plague: A Gone Novel
In the ongoing story of the FAYZ, a bubble with a ten-mile radius around the nuclear power plant in California where all adults "poofed" out and left anyone under the age of 15 to fend for themselves, is getting darker and darker with each new book. Plague is the fourth book in Micahel Grant's Gone series, and it doesn't disappoint. Kids are tested time and time again by the supernatural terrors in the FAYZ, but can you stomach them long enough to finish the book?

A lot went down in the months since the FAYZ wall went up, trapping the kids and leaving them to fend for themselves. After finally "burrying" the gaiaphage- a creepy mind-controlling entity that eats nuclear waste- the kids think they have a chance at a normal life. Boy are they wrong. Caine, Diana, Penny, and Bug are living the high life on the impenetrable island (after scooting its multicultural adoptees off the island unceremoniously) with plenty of food and drinking water, electricity, and nothing to bother them. Astrid and Sam were estranged after Astrid tried to kill a girl that convinced the littles to jump off a cliff. The new council is a hodgepodge of kids, including Howard, a known criminal. Edilio is struggle to maintain control of the town, but it is a constant battle, especially since he doesn't have any superpowers himself.

All is bumbling along until Albert, the town business man/banker realizes they are almost out of clean drinking water. He sends Sam, Jack, Dekka, and Taylor out to the other end of the FAYZ to find the large lake he thinks is there. Hopefully it will keep the kids from dying of dehydration, but they have to get there quickly. On their way, they run across Hunter, who got gooped on by one of the flying snakes. Unfortunately, the snake goop seems to carry insect eggs that get into your body and eat your from the inside out. It doesn't hurt, and you don't know they are there at first, because they numb you up while they eat you, but when they find Hunter, he is so far gone they have eaten half his face and is beginning for Sam to finish him off. Sam obliges, but he can't seem to kill the bugs- they aren't fazed by his ultra-hot green lasers, and it takes Jack and Dekka's powers to realize they can at least crush the bugs.

Meanwhile back at town, a plague is sweeping through the community. Kids are coming down with what seems like the flu, but what clearly has supernatural implications and becomes the most violent cough you have ever seen, eventually causing the kid to cough so hard they either break their neck or cough out their lungs (I told you this book was dark). Not even Lana the healer can stop this plague, despite her futile efforts. When the hostile kids who resent not having power decide to take it out on the one man who controls their status in the FAYZ, Albert, everything starts to fall apart. The final straw is when the immortally evil Drake (who bounces between being forceful Drake and plump, innocuous Brittney) escapes and returns to the Gaiaphage to serve his master. In the meantime, the bugs have grown bigger than SUVs and can snip a man in half. The Gaiaphage gives Drake control over the bugs, and Drake immediately sends some to attack the town and takes the rest with him to finally kill Sam Temple. What he doesn't understand is that his murderous rage is nothing compared to the will to live and protect that Sam and the others wear proudly like a badge of honor. But will it be too late to protect the town from the terrifying bugs?

The reading level for this books is the same as the rest of the series- moderate language but some mature situations. I think this is the most adult book so far in an ever-maturing series, and I am constantly shocked at how dark Grant is willing to go. He certainly doesn't pull any punches even though this is a kids series, and he isn't afraid to lay it all out, gory bits and all. I am a huge fan of this series because it is like a modern day Lord of the Flies. Actually, if I had a student who was reading Lord of the Flies in their literature class, I would love to read this with them at the same time as an independent reading book. The comparisons would make for excellent discussions as well as great topics for essays.

My favorite part about this book is that there are no clear heroes- everyone is flawed in some way. It makes the story more real and scarier than if you had some knight in shining armor who rode in and saved the day every time. Sam, Astrid, Edilio, and the other leaders are often tested and they don't always do the right thing. This is a very human story with tons of moral ambiguity- would you lock up a kid who was being eaten from the inside out by indestructible bugs to save other kids in the town once the bugs finished with him? Would you be able to kill an autistic nine-year old if it meant getting out of a place like the FAYZ? Michael Grant is an author who isn't afraid to make the reader feel uncomfortable with the tough questions. In fact, I think he revels in making the reader uncomfortable!

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Because She Stayed

Where She Went
In her first book, If I Stay, Gayle Forman told the story of Mia, a young woman left in a coma by the same car accident that killed her mother, father, and little brother. She tells the story as she watches over her unconscious body and the friends and family who plead with her to stay. We know she chose to stay, but I always wondered where she went. Now we know...

When Mia came back, one of the only reason she returned was for her boyfriend and best friend, Adam. Now, three years later, Adam has become an angry, unhappy man. His band is famous, he is dating a famous actress, and he has the world at his fingertips, but he can't have the one thing he really wants: Mia. After she woke up, Adam stayed with her on the long, painful road to recovery. Her determination to play the cello again was one of the driving forces that kept her going. When she left for Julliard the following fall, Adam headed to the LA with his band. Although they were a continent apart, Adam was determined to stay together. what he didn't understand at first was that Mia needed to move on, from both the accident and everything that reminded her of the accident, including Adam.

After three years apart, Adam is in New York with his band, ready to continue their European tour. On a whim, he decides to stay in New York one more night, and he finds himself drawn to the concert hall where Mia is playing. After her concert is finished, she sends someone to bring him backstage. It is that choice, that instant, that changes their lives forever. The survivor's guilt, the shame, the grief, the loss, all come flooding back to both of them as they spend an awkward night together. Mia convinces Adam to take a farewell tour of NYC with her that one last night before she leaves for Japan on her own tour. He agrees, but he seems to do so in the same punishment-seeking way he is about his entire life- believing he doesn't deserve anything better. Along the journey, Mia and Adam share their deepest pains and find in one another the people they once knew as well as the people they have become.

This is a beautiful story full of grief and heartache. Told from Adam's perspective, you can understand how he grieves as much as Mia, although his grief was never realized since they technically weren't his family (although in all aspects but biology they were indeed his family). The reader can also see the grief pattern Mia has experienced where she is simply tired of being treated like the victim. For three years she experienced everyone, from her grandparents to her professors, treating her like she was fragile and would break at any moment. She hated it. She was tired of everyone giving her a free pass because of her family. She just wanted to be seen for who she was: a girl, a cellist, a person who didn't lose everything and at the same time, a person who did lose everything. Together, Mia and Adam heal one another, and it is a story you need to experience to understand.

I not only suggest this story for anyone who read the first book, but I also recommend both books as a great story for struggling readers. The story starts with a traumatizing event and continues in a full story arc through the culmination of the sequel. It is a well-envisioned and beautiful story that will undoubtedly touch anyone who graces its pages. Gayle Forman is a great author, and I am grateful she decided to continue this story.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Will Haunt You Long After You Finish

Some books are haunting and others literally haunt you. This book, both physically (the cover and graphics are amazing) and as literature, will stay in the back of your head for long after you have finished it. I was surprised by the content of this story, as it turned out to be much different from what I expected, but I was absolutely not disappointed. Lauren Myracle really threw herself into Shine. You can tell there is a piece of her soul left on these pages, and you won't be the same once you have read it.

Cat and Peter grew up in Black Creek, NC, a small, rural community that keeps its skeletons in the closet and has no tolerance for anything that might come out of the closet. This is your typical southern community rife with poverty and homophobia. Everyone has "known" Peter was gay, but by not acknowledging it they don't have to confront the issue of their own homophobia.

Over the past few years, Cat and Peter have drifted apart due to her pulling away. She didn't sink into herself to get away from Peter, but rather to escape the shame of a sexual assault by one of her brother's and Peter's friends. When Peter is brutally attacked at the gas station where he works, left beaten almost to death with a gas novel taped to his mouth and a homophobic message left scrawled across him, Cat knows she must come out of her self-imposed exile in order to save her best friend. She knows she is the only one who can find the truth, because the rest of the community is content to assume the attack was made by strangers and move on with their lives. Cat has a feeling Peter was attacked by someone in their community and she will do anything to find out who hurt her friend.

As Cat digs deeper and deeper, she uncovers many nasty details about the lives of the people she grew up with, including her brother Christian. When she learns some of the boys have been dealing and using meth for the local drug dealer, she knows she is treading dangerous waters. As secrets are revealed that were never meant to see the light of day, Cat has to come to terms with her own demons as well as the ones who hurt Peter. Can she find out who hurt her friend without becoming the next victim?

This is a beautiful and ugly story all at once. The ugliness of the community's prejudices are blanketed by the beauty of how Myracle writes such a difficult story. Underneath the pain and shame of the surface story lies one of love, friendship, and loyalty. What happens to Peter is so hard to read about, but Cat's devotion to him and the truth is overwhelming. The beauty of this story is the lesson to the reader that anyone can overcome something ugly. Anyone can overcome hate and ignorance, they just have to believe in themselves. In a world that is still full of homophobia, racism, prejudice, and ugliness of other manners, it is important to realize that just one person can make a difference. One person can change things.

The language in this book can be mature at times, but so can the story itself. While this is a difficult and mature story full of attempted rape and hate crimes, the difficult nature is handled beautifully. This is a story you can share with your children and students and be sure you will both come out of the experience having grown and changed. In a world that can be really ugly at times, we need to have these kinds of conversations with our children. Sheltering children does not protect them from anything, it just leaves them unprepared when the inevitable ugliness of the world pokes its head out. A book like Myracle's Shine can prepare them for what is really out there.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Haunting Cover for a Haunting Story

Wither (The Chemical Garden Trilogy)
The cover and design of this book is so unique and so striking you simply can't ignore it. I was so enamored with the design on the cover pages and throughout the book I just thumbed through it for a while before reading it! When I finally did start reading, I realized it was actually as good of a book as it looked. Lauren DeStefano's breakout dystopia Wither is the start of the Chemical Garden Trilogy, and you won't want to stop reading once you hit that last page!

Modern science has cured all those horrible illnesses and defects that affect children. Unfortunately, it only worked for one generation. The generations that follow find themselves with a severely shortened life span before dying an agonizing death. Women live to be 20 and men to 25, and so far there has been no progress in reversing the process. This has caused many first generation people to accept babies as donations for medical experiments to find a cure. More wealthy people have started collecting wives (and usually kidnapping and buying them) in order to have as many babies as possible. This situation has created a world of orphans where young girls are kidnapped and forced to bear children they will never get to raise.

Rhine Ellery and her brother are barely scraping by, but they still do better than most kids their age. They have some food and are able to work enough to stay safe- until Rhine answers an add for work and finds herself in the back of a van with a large group of girls. She has seen other girls in her neighborhood disappear into the hands of the Gatherers, but she never thought it could happen to her. She is tossed from the van where a man makes his decision to keep three of the girls, including Rhine. Once the man leaves, the other girls are put back in the van and disposed of. The three who were chosen and spared are taken to a magnificent estate, but they have no idea where they are. They are brought to a secure wing where they have bedrooms, a sitting room, and a library. This is where Rhine and her sister wives, Jenna and Cecily, are expected to spend the rest of their days, pregnant with Master Linden's babies.

Rhine is 16, Jenna is 18, and Cecily is only 14. Cecily is the only one who is interested in being Linden's wife, as the life in the estate is better than what she experienced in the orphanage. Young and enthusiastic, she vies for Linden's attention. Jenna is the oldest, and while she despises Linden and everything he stands for (he sister was in the van of girls not chosen), she chooses to accept her fate with unwilling concession. Rhine is the only sister wife who wants to escape. She worries about her brother desperately and beings to grow attached to the young man, Gabriel, who delivers food and answers to the wives on the floor. Her feelings for Gabriel are forbidden, but she can't help but care about him.

Her biggest struggle is that she doesn't actually hate Linden. He turns out to just be a clueless, heartbroken boy, much like his new wives. Just after the wives arrive, Linden's previous wife and only true love, Rose, died in the wives wing. He has never really recovered, and only took the new wives at the urging of his father, the evil Vaughn. Vaughn has given his life over to finding the cure that will save his son, but his methods are far less than ethical. He is a horrible, vile man who is afraid to stop at nothing to help his son and find a cure, even if that means sacrificing the lives of the wives. When Vaughn finds out about Rhine's attachment to Gabriel, he takes Gabriel away. Now Rhine must find the boy she truly cares about and find a way out of the estate. But how can she do that when the estate seems like a fortress with no entrance or exit?

I loved so much about this book, it is hard to pick anything specific. The characters were dynamic and had to be peeled away layer by layer like an onion. The characters you thought you would hate turned out to be sad and broken. The ones you thought you would like were flawed. The story takes turns that you would never expect, and the mast villain, Vaughn, is so beyond evil they would have to make a new classification for him right next to Josef Mengele and President Snow of Panem from The Hunger Games. He gives me the creeps just thinking about him. The beauty of this book lies in the fantastic story telling and the haunting but beautifully written prose. This was a difficult topic to broach- forced marriages and kidnapping- but DeStefano accomplished her goal with ease.

The language is moderate, but this might be a book left for mature 9-12 grades. It has tons of discussion opportunities and can make for a great book to read with your child or student. I am thrilled by DeStefano's breakout novel and can't wait for the next book in the trilogy. We are in a stage of the YA world where young people are contributing as much as seasoned authors, and so far, the experience has been amazing! I can't wait to see what they throw out next!

Bump this off the "To Read" pile

Let me premise this review with a little about my feelings toward mature information in young adult stories- I am not a teacher who feels censorship is right. I am not a person who stops students from reading mature books. I am not an adult who thinks young adults can't handle or will be swayed negatively by difficult topics. The only thing I require is that the mature situations are handled well, or in a way that will help the child see the moral of the scenario. I don't like when serious situations are trivialized or treated as a joke. Sadly, that is how I feel Megan McCafferty handled the terrifying notion of forced teenage pregnancy (mostly for profit) in Bumped.

Harmony and Melody were twins separated at birth. In a world where a virus has made most people infertile by age 18, children are being persuaded to have babies and sell them. Melody was adopted by a couple who instantly recognized the profit to be made by establishing a birthing contract for their daughter. They were pioneers in the "pregg for profit" business where girls score contracts with wealthy parents who desperately want babies. Harmony was adopted and raised by a cult-like religious group called Goodside who encourage marriages as young as 13 in order to produce as many "God-like" babies as possible before the fateful age when the virus kicks in.

Neither situation is perfect, but it is the product of a world where the virus dictates the population. When Harmony abandons Goodside and tracks down Melody, life becomes a little less clear for both sisters. Despite her groundbreaking contract with the Jaydens, Melody has never "bumped" (gotten pregnant) due to their hesitancy in locating the proper father of the baby. In school, she is starting to become irrelevant as girls get younger and younger with their first pregg and her friends work on their second and third deliveries. She desperately wants to bump, but the Jaydens have to pick a guy first. Harmony has come to Otherside to find her sister and bring her back to Goodside. What she isn't admitting to Melody or herself is that she is really running away from life at Goodside where she simply doesn't belong.

When Melody's agent, Lib, contacts her to tell her the Jaydens have scored the ultimate guy for her to bump with, Jondoe, he doesn't realize he is actually talking to Harmony. Harmony then meets with Jondoe and takes off with him, discovering there is more to this beautiful man than just an incredible fertility rate. When Melody finds out, she also begins to see the ugly side of babies for hire. Now she has to decide between her amazing contract and the nagging feeling that selling babies just isn't right. Harmony has to decide between a man she feels more connection to than her own husband and the life and morals she was raised with.

When I picked up this book, I was excited about the premise- it seemed really interesting. When I started reading, I spent the first 50 pages or so completely confused and bogged down by campy jargon that was completely unnecessary and made the book feel very cheesy (e.g. pregging, fertilicious, FunBumps, janky, reproaesthetic, maSEX, etc.). Then the book started to really bother me. At first I thought I was being silly about a book filled with teenage pregnancy when it is clearly trying to show the pitfalls of those pregnancies- not glorify them. I have never had a problem with teenage pregnancy in YA lit in the past, though, so that didn't make sense. Then I realized my problem- it was making a serious situation into a campy joke. The ridiculous jargon, absurd songs trying to get girls to bump and repopulate, and easy talk of drugs that are essentially roofies to "loosen girls up" made a mockery of a tale that could have been very serious and tactfully delivered. I am totally fine with fun, light stories using puns and silliness, but you can't have it both ways. You can't choose a super serious topic and "fun it up" with silly names and outfits.

I absolutely had a problem with the casual references to drugs to persuade girls to have sex. I was also horrified by the casual references to the masSEX parties that the cheerleaders attend where they literally have sex with tons of guys to ensure they all get pregnant together. These references would have been fine if they had been handled seriously, but they were trivialized. By the end of the story, the main characters started to make some revelations about society, but it was almost too little too late at that point. The damage was done. It was the equivalent of making a fun-spirited musical of the Holocaust- tactless.

So I can honestly say I was not impressed by this book. I am a teacher who has stuck up for books by Patricia McCormick, Julie Ann Peters, Sherman Alexie and others who talk about sex, teenage pregnancy, gay teens, bullying, suicide, eating disorders, masturbation, rape, etc. and I haven't seen anything wrong with those stories, because they handle their topics tactfully. This book was just silly. There is just too much out there in the YA world that is done BEAUTIFULLY to waste a student's time with a book like this one.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

A Brutal Tale of Bullying

There is a great, big beast in our schools that we can't control. Try as we might, as strict as we can be, we can't stop the bullying that happens among our students. I think the greatest feeling of helplessness for a parent or educator is knowing bullying will happen no matter how many conferences we attend, how many times we bring the students together to have an open conversation, how many horror stories we share or how many times we try to appeal to the conscience of our children. I am not a pessimist, but I consider myself a realist. Bullying is out there, and we just have to hope all our preparation and proactive actions will help in the long run. Michael Harmon's Brutal shows how one school had good intentions, but feel far too short to protect one young man.

Poe Holly is the product of some bad decisions. Her mom is an amazing doctor who selflessly goes to South America for a year to help people, but she isn't so great at being a mother. Instead she leaves Poe with her father, the same father Poe has never met and has only spoken to a handful of times in her entire life. When she arrives at her father's house, she realizes not everything is the way it seemed. Her father is the school counselor and he is actually a very kind and understanding man. Despite her previous feelings of abandonment, she can't help but start to care about him.

The same thing happens when Poe meets the students of her new school. Her next-door neighbor is a boy named Velveeta (really Andrew, but he really likes cheese) who seems to be the target of the worst kind bullying. She also meets a cantankerous young man named Theo who seems to subscribe to Poe's exact philosophy of anti-establishment-ness. Turns out, though, Theo is the mayor's son. You would think Theo's particular brand of politics would tick his parents off, but in reality they are just the most happy and bubbly people- nothing seems to phase them (which you would think would be super annoying, but isn't really).

When Poe stops a group of the prized football players beating up Velveeta after a prank they pulled on him, she finds herself on the wrong side of the most powerful students in the school. Now Colby Morris has it in for Poe. When Poe hits his girlfriend in the face for stealing her spot on the Elite Choir, Colby thinks Velveeta did it and spreads the word that he is going to make Velveeta pay. Poe tries to seek help, but no one is listening to her (perhaps because the other times she spoke out were to protest important things like the inequality of the gym uniforms). When the football players pull Velveeta into the bathroom and beat him within an inch of his life (actually put him in the hospital), no one believes it was Colby Morris, even the teacher who heard Poe screaming and came into the bathroom to find Velveeta broken and bloody. now Poe must find a way to prove to the school it was Colby (although they already know who did it) beyond a shadow of a doubt, even if it means putting herself in danger to do it.

This is a book where the characters constantly defy their stereotypes. I thought Poe's father was either going to be completely detached or totally ticked off by her constant need to "poke the bear" or throw injustice in people's faces, but he was supportive of her in a wonderfully constructive way. He called her out when she was being petulant for the sake of it, but he supported her when she was right that the school was created a hierarchy among the students while simultaneously touting that all students were equal. Theo and his parents were a mold-busting group too. His parents seemed fine with his obvious attempts at non-conformity, but at times they seemed a little too disconnected. I expected them to be frustrated with how his actions affected their political aspirations, but they didn't. Even Velveeta was a surprise, as a boy who would fight to protect Poe- his only friend- even if it meant getting beaten half to death and not seeking help or police protection. This story became a stereotype buster for me. No one followed their traditional roles, and while it seemed a little over the top at times, I appreciated this character creation by Harmon.

The sometimes sharp language would probably make this a book best for mature junior high students through high school. This is a great book for any student to open up a dialogue about bullying and life in their own high schools. Sometimes I find myself shocked by what students share with me when they open up. In such a small school, I like to think we are super-connected to what happens with our students, but the truth is, we can't know everything. This book is proof of that. I hope you will give this story a chance and let yourself admit our flaws in order to try and fix them.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Might be Dark but Definitely Isn't Hollow!

The Dark and Hollow Places (Forest of Hands and Teeth, Book 3)
Authors need to stop waiting a year or more before releasing their next book in a series- I almost died waiting for this one! The Forest of Hands and Teeth series has been a roller coaster ride. Zombies, dystopian settings, fenced towns, and lost family and friends- who could keep up?! With the final book, The Dark and Hollow Places, Carrie Ryan exceeds expectations and brings a great series to a bittersweet end.

Annah has survived for three years in the Dead City without Elias. When he left to join the Recruiters, he did it to find Annah's twin sister- the one they left behind in the fences and never found again. Annah survives day to day in the horrible city, but she has never gotten over her guilt for leaving Gabry behind. When she decides Elias is never coming back and she should leave the city, she sees someone at the gate she never thought she would see again- Gabry. She manages to fight her way into to the city just in time to see the gate dogs go after Gabry's companion, indicating he was clearly infected. To Annah's horror, Gabry goes after the Recruiters to help her companion escape into the icy river below.

As she watches the Recruiters drag Gabry off, she knows she must find a way to save her sister. On her way home, Annah is surprised by the same guy who Gabry protected: Catcher. Catcher tells Annah he was sent to find her by Elias. He also tells her he is an Immune. Catcher was bitten, but didn't die- instead he can walk among the Unconsecrated (zombies) without being bothered, but the virus is still inside him. When the Unconsecrated start piling into the city, madness begins that is not unlike the horrors of when the virus first broke out. The Recruiters are holed up on their island, the only defensible part of the city, and when Elias is reunited with Annah, the three of them decide to make there way to the island where they assume Gabry is being held.

What Annah doesn't realize is that to get onto the island, Catcher must give himself to the Recruiters. The Recruiters love having Immunes to do their dirty work and get food and supplies where the others can't go. They know, however, the only way to keep an Immune is to hold onto someone they love. In order to get onto the island, they must accept that they are prisoners. The island, full of dangerous Recruiters and a leader who can barely keep them from murder and rape (and sometimes doesn't), is almost as bad as the Dark City, now overrun with zombies. Together, Elias, Gabry, Annah, and Catcher must find a way to get themselves off the island and to a safe place where they can be together... but how can they do that when even the river is filling up with the Unconsecrated and the Recruiters put people in cages with zombies for fun?

This was an amazing follow up to the first two books, and I think the primary reason for its success is that none of these books are true "sequels". They do not pick up where the story last left off or continue with the same characters, although they are all connected in very important ways. Master Plot Weaver Ryan has the ability to tell completely different sides of the story without losing her audience. She knows how to make you love the characters, even though the characters are flawed and damaged. Catcher was my favorite reprise in this story, as he struggles with loving Annah, feeling responsible for Gabry, and fearing even the slightest kiss will infect the woman he loves. He brings guilt to a whole new level!

The language and violence in this book is slightly more mature than the previous books. I would say this was the most dark of the three stories. The Recruiters are simply evil, and there are things that happen on that island I can't seem to forget no matter how hard I try! This is a great series for any student, male, female, young, older. It will appeal to a wide range of students, and it really matures with each book, giving the reader a chance to grow along with the story. I absolutely loved this story and am sorry to see it end!

Fallen Angels: The New Vampires

Torment (Fallen)
I had a tough time getting through Lauren Kate's first story, Fallen. It was a long book that wasted hundreds of pages being vague and didn't get to the point until the last 50 pages. The premise was good, but the execution was too slow. Therefore, I had great hopes that once the secret from Book One was out (Daniel was a fallen angel and Luce is his only love, but they were cursed and every time their love is realized, Luce dies and the cycle begins again), the story could progress a little faster. I was right, and the sequel, Torment, is an even better book than its big sister.

After the story of Daniel and Luce's history comes out, and the curse seems to be broken (usually the first kiss leads to Luce's smiting), they have to figure out what comes next. Unfortunately, there are a lot of creepers out there who don't want them to be together- namely the Outcasts. The Outcasts are fallen angels who never chose a side and found themselves cast out of both Heaven and Hell. For their betrayal, they were all blinded, but that only succeeded in making them creepier and more deadly. Now they are hunting Luce, and Daniel must go to great lengths to protect her. He makes a truce with Cam, the evil fallen angel (demon) who vied for Luce's attention. Together they decide to put her in a special school, Shoreline, to protect and shield her while they hunt the Outcasts.

Shoreline turns out to be educational on many levels for Luce. First, she realizes the school is populated by Nephilim, the children of angels and mortals who are left in a weird state of limbo that leaves them with diluted power and no place in either the angel or the mortal world. The school is disguised as a legitimate school filled with mortal students, but all the Nephilim attend a special "honors" program which is really training for how to brave the world at large. It is run by an angel and a demon who teach them a new curriculum once Luce arrives.

They begin to teach Luce, along with her friends Miles and Shelby and the rest of the class, about the Announcers. The Announcers are the same shadows Luce has seen all her life. They are shadows that allow the viewer to see glimpses of their past, although they don't always show what the viewer wants to see. As soon as Luce realizes what the Announcers can do, she begins investigating her former lives, with and without Daniel. She has been so consumed by Daniel's love that she never realized her love for him not only ended her past lives, it also ruined the lives of her past families. As she explores the people her former selves left behind, she sees the true costs of the curse that ends her life every time she finds her true love: the family who lose her.

With the pain of her families in her heart, and Daniel's refusal to tell her why she was banished to Shoreline and what is after her, Luce sets off on a dangerous and headstrong path. After putting herself in danger, the disappearance of a friend and almost drowning of another friend makes her realize there is more to the threat than she realized. Will the continued secrets and the weight of the curse be too much for Luce? Will she be able to get beyond everything in order to continue to love Daniel? Or will the kindness of another boy lead her from her destiny?

This was a vast improvement over the first book. While this installation still leaves much to the imagination and does not give so much away that you won't buy the third book, it doesn't leave the reader confused the entire time either. If you have read the first book, there is enough background knowledge already established to keep the reader intrigued yet informed. The new characters are really great additions to the story, and the old favorites from Luce and Daniel's previous school make appearances throughout the story. This was definitely a great follow-up to a mediocre first story that left me excited for the next book.

Like Fallen, the language is average, but the story requires a little staying power from a reader. I probably wouldn't recommend this series to a struggling reader, based on the length and will power needed to complete it. Once the story starts to progress, though, there is a lot to talk about and sink your teeth into. Don't give up on this series before you read Torment. You will be missing out if you don't keep with it!

Extraordinary and Power-Filled Fun

The Extraordinary Secrets of April, May, & June
AAhhhh... sisters. No one really understands the relationship between sisters unless they have them. I happen to have a younger sister who is also the middle child- talk about a therapists dream come true (just kidding!). When we were younger, we didn't hate each other, but we weren't the great friends we are today. Don't get me wrong, we still snipe, annoy, and nudge one another on a regular basis, but the sisterly bond is one no outsider or non-sister can understand. Now add newly realized "super" powers to sister rivalry and you have the fantastic and fun book The Extraordinary Secrets of April, May, and June by Robin Benway.

April is the careful, driven oldest sister. May is the middle child who often gets lost in the flurry and sometimes feels forgotten. June is the impetuous youngest sister who just wants to be popular. When their parents get divorced, the girls move with their mother to a new school. As if that weren't traumatic enough, they begin to develop abilities that will test both their sisterly bonds and their futures.

April realizes she can see the future. She can't command the visions to appear, but when she is around a place or person involved in the future event, she can get snippits. May develops the ability to disappear. Not literally, of course, but she becomes invisible and no one can see her (a typical middle sister power). She can't control when it happens, and often finds herself in precarious situations. June learns she can read people's minds- even her sisters' minds. She chooses to use her power as a way to gain popularity and be part of the cool clique.

When the girls realize what is happening to them, April tells them they can't use their powers for self-serving purposes, but June refuses to follow April's orders. When April starts to see a future where a horrible accident occurs and Julian, a cute boy from school, and June are somehow involved, she decides to get proactive. In order to protect her sister, she starts spending time with Julian in order to keep him away from her little sister. Meanwhile, May is in the middle of her own personal crisis as a school mandated history tutor, Henry, challenges both her intentions and her (sometimes) self-imposed invisibility. At first May refuses to deal with Henry, but his persistence and odd charm cause some exciting moments as she gets flustered and her body parts (usually feet first) start to disappear. When June refuses to listen to April, her older sisters do everything they can to make sure she doesn't get hurt by using both their super powers and their sisterly powers.

The story is told from first-person perspective from all three girls. The chapters rotate between the three girls, giving the reader a glimpse of how all three are dealing with their new lifestyles. At first, this can get a little confusing, but the reader quickly gets used to April's controlling and concerned tone, may's snarkiness, and June's flakiness. Eventually, you can figure out which sister is talking without even reading the chapter headings. At first I thought the personalities of the three sisters were a little cliche and hokey, but it seems to work. The story is very interesting, and Benway doesn't disappoint with a formulaic story. There is enough surprise within the plot to keep the reader interested.

There is some adult language throughout the story, but it isn't overwhelming or distracting. The story itself is a lot of fun and appropriate for mature middle school students through high school. It would appeal primarily to girls, especially sisters, but you might find the occasional male student who enjoys this story. This was the first book of Benway's I have read, and I liked it enough to buy her previous book, Audrey, Wait! I will let you know how that one turns out!

Mermaid Fun and Full of Fishy Puns

Forgive My Fins
Tera Lynn Childs entertained me her fun Greek God stories, and now she does the same with a new mythology- Mermaid Lore! What better for a fun, quick read than a story of mermaids and oceans and teenage angst! Forgive My Fins is a fun-filled story full of some goofy puns, but at the heart of the story are great characters and an interesting new world.

Lily is a mermaid, but she lives on land with her aunt and attends high school like a normal girl. As the princess of her underwater kingdom, she has a lot riding on her time as a terapod (person with legs who lives on land). She must find the boy who she wants to spend the rest of her life with. When she kisses him, they will be bound together forever and he will transform into a mermaid. Her crush, Brody, is finally single and she is ready to tell him all her secrets... and ask her to join him at the bottom of the sea.

When Lily's annoying neighbor Quince offers to help her catch Brody, something goes terribly wrong. Instead of meeting Brody in the dark library, Quince comes and gives Lily her first and fateful kiss. No she must explain to him why he keeps coughing and craves salt water like a dried up jellyfish. She takes him back home to her kingdom with the hopes that her father will break the bond. It must be undone quickly so Lily can go back to the boy she really wants. But when she gets home, her father surprises her by insisting she remain bonded to Quince for a week (then another week) to be sure she wants to be unbound from him. Lily and Quince resurface and Lily must face the glaring truth about her feelings for both Quince and Brody. When she finally returns to sea, her father agrees to the unbinding, but it means they must go through a series of tests before it can be completed. Will Lily recognize her feelings for Quince or hide them beneath an unrequited crush for Brody and lose Quince from the ocean forever?

At first, I am not going to lie, I was completely annoyed with the cheese factor of this book. The first few chapters are completely riddled with lame fish puns and ridiculous ocean cliches. In fact, I didn't think I was going to make it through the book at first, but I am glad I stuck with it. As soon as the story really begins, the fish nonsense dies back a bit (or becomes less annoying) and the story gets really, really cute. Granted, it isn't the most unique story out there (boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy fights to get girl back), but it is a really fun, flirty story that just makes you smile. This story won't be bulldozing over any awards panels anytime soon, but it will certainly keep the reader engaged and interested.

The language is fairly simplistic, although a few made up words (like terapod) might be confusing to a younger student. The book is completely appropriate for a much younger student, but will definitely be great for an older, low-skilled student who isn't as mature as her peers (or just likes a good, cheese-tastic story). It is more of a girl book than a boy book, but I am pretty sure the cover will not appeal to most boys anyway. My favorite part about Childs is that she isn't afraid to invoke the Gods of Cheese and Romantic Comedies- in fact, she even throws them a party with each of her books. I am looking forward to the sequel for some fun, easy reading that makes me want to swim out to a kingdom in the sea!

A High Seas Adventure

Who can resist a story full of cheeky pirates and sword flailing adventure? I was a little hesitant about this story at first, because I generally don't like time travel stories, but Carrie Vaughn rocks this fun pirate story. Steel is a great story with a strong female lead who takes things as they come, even when she is tossed onto a pirate ship centuries before her time.

Jill is a champion fencer, but when she loses the most important match of her career, her world changes in more ways than one. After the loss, her parents decide to take a trip to the Caribbean to lift her spirits and get her out of her room. While on vacation, though, she refuses to pull out of her funk. When she finds the rusted, corroded tip of a rapier on the beach, she feels inexplicably drawn to the sword fragment. Her pull to the sword makes her take it with her on a boat ride with her parents. When she accidentally falls overboard, she and the sword are transported back in time to a pirate ship where the sword tip is more than just a cool artifact- it is the object of a deadly feud between the Diana's Captain Marjory Cooper and her nemesis, Captain Blane.

Aboard the Diana, Jill gets a quick lesson in pirate life. She is forced to swear an oath to the ship or be put in the gallows. When she chooses to sign the oath, she becomes part of the crew- most of which involves endless scrubbing of the deck and seriously hard work. At first she is terrified of the crew and their fearless female captain, but quickly she begins to see they are more of a family. At one point, they even take over a slave ship and deliver the slaves to safety. Jill grew up thinking all pirates were thieves and self-serving, but she quickly finds out there is more to the story. Despite her desire to get back home in any way possible, Jill begins to care for her crew and captain.

But the issue of the broken rapier still exists. Captain Cooper tells Jill it is the piece of Captain Blane's sword she threw in the ocean. Blane used the evil and mystical sword to try and form a pirate empire in the Atlantic- one that would ensure terror and evil controlled the sea and no one would escape. When she defeated Blane, she destroyed the sword, but now that the piece has come back, Blane is chasing the Diana in a murderous effort to reclaim it. Jill must help the crew of the Diana defeat Blane, but ultimately, Jill must find her way home. Will Blane's defeat help her get home or is she stuck on this pirate ship forever?

I love when historical fiction brings strong messages with an exciting story, and that is exactly what Vaughn did with Steel. She showed a world where women should have been second-class citizens, but instead they were captains of mighty ships and revered like any other fair and just captain. On the ship itself, Jill became an equal to the other men (although it required a little time and proof that she was worthy of their respect). This is a strong book with strong characters who I would be proud to share with my students, male and female alike. In fact, although the main character is a girl, this is a great book for both boys and girls. Nothing about it is "girlie" and who doesn't love a girl who fences anyway?!

The language is moderate and there are no inappropriate circumstances. The violence is limited and not overt or gruesome. This is a great book for any high skilled 6-7th grader through a high school student. It has great characters and plenty of action to keep anyone hooked. While it would certainly appeal to a kid who enjoys pirate stories (Pirates of the Caribbean wholeheartedly included) it also would appeal to someone who knows nothing of pirate lore. Vaughn knocked it out of the park with this fun adventure, and I can't wait to see what she does next!

Sunday, April 10, 2011

A New Dystopia Emerges

Divergent (Divergent Trilogy)
A dystopia is a strange thing. We want the world to be perfect, without pain, suffering, or oppression, but can such a thing exist? Veronica Roth's new dystopia comes out of a world that hoped to eliminate certain parts of human nature and focus on other parts. Divergent is a story of dystopian Chicago where people think a focus on one great quality of society can eliminate all the bad aspects of human nature. While seeking a utopia, they find themselves living in a dystopia, complete with the control and oppression they sought to avoid.

Beatrice Prior is part of the Abnegation faction- a group of people who devote themselves to selflessness to better the world. Because of their devotion to selflessness, they are in charge of the government, a fact the other four factions aren't always comfortable with. Erudite (knowledge), Dauntless (bravery), Amity (friendship), and Candor (honesty), along with Abnegation, make up the five factions in Chicago. When a kid comes of age in this society, they must choose which faction to join. Most kids follow the faction in which they were raised, but some jump to a new faction. First they take an aptitude test that gives them guidance as to which faction would fit them best, but the choice is all theirs. When Beatrice's brother Caleb chooses Erudite over Abnegation, their parents are shocked. When Beatrice chooses Dauntless and reinvents herself as Tris, her father is devastated, but her mom seems oddly proud. What they don't know is that her aptitude test was inconclusive- leading the tester to believe she was a Divergent. Luckily for Tris, the tester knows how dangerous it is for Divergents and warns Tris to hide the fact vehemently.

Immediately Tris must report to the Dauntless headquarters and before they even arrive, they are tested with death-defying stunts. Whether jumping from a train or leaping from a building, the Dauntless initiates are instantly thrown into the world they chose. When they get to the headquarters, they learn their initiation will consist of three stages and by the end, only ten initiates will remain with Dauntless. The rest will become Factionless castaways- sent to live in the margins of society, a fate worse than death for most.

As Tris continues her training, she gains a few friends, a few enemies, and a particularly interesting attachment to her trainer- a mysterious guy named Four. Training is brutal for the fearless. They must overcome their physical fears as well as their emotional fears before they can be considered Dauntless. Unfortunately, this leads to a lot of fierce competition, especially when a girl like Tris keeps coming out on top. But her budding friendship with Four helps her not only realize important things about herself, but also about the world they live in. More and more, Tris feels like something is happening between the five Factions that could lead to dangerous consequences. Together, they must get to the bottom of what is happening outside the Dauntless headquarters, even if it means risking everything they know and love.

This was an A.MAZE.ING story. I could not put it down and read all 500 or so pages in one day. I am sure it will be compared to Hunger Games because it is a YA dystopia in the wake of Suzanne Collins, but that is not enough for this story. It is the kind of story that holds its own in a world of similar stories and will keep the reader engaged and begging for the sequel. I know it is a long book, but I am sure this story will keep even the most reluctant readers hooked.

My only concern for this book is the vocabulary, but it isn't really a concern. Actually, there is something more to the fairly impressive vocabulary in this book. I think this book is not only excellent for entertainment value, but can also serve a greater purpose. The vocabulary in this story is a great starting point for SAT preparation. As a teacher, we all know vocabulary instruction means the most when a student encounters it in context, but it is hard to find a book with enough vocabulary to be useful in preparation for those dreaded SATs... but Divergent does it effortlessly! Unfortunately, what the book gains in vocabulary for older students may preclude it from being a great book for younger students. The vocabulary is very mature and I guarantee the context will keep these words with the student, no matter what. Just make sure the student is ready for such adult vocabulary.

This was a fantastic debut by Veronica Roth. I can't believe she is only 22, but I am blown away by the world she created. It is so original and well-developed, and the characters have so much depth. I love this story and can't wait to share it with my students, family, friends, and colleagues. This is one you won't forget (especially with a sequel in the future!).

Always Strings Attached

Strings Attached
Historical fiction is a funny subgenre. It all gets lumped under one heading, but it could be anything from incredibly distant history to a mere couple decades ago. Strings Attached by Judy Blundell is a story set in New York City during the late 1940's and early 1950's. This is a time when my mother and her family lived in NYC, and I was anxious to read about the time period.

Kit Corrigan was a the last triplet born, and she was the triplet who killed their mother in childbirth. Her father found a way to make ends meet: he made the triplets into the Corrigan Three, a mildly talented trio who travel to state fairs, do endorsements, and bring in enough money to get the family through tough times. Now that Kit is all grown up, she wants to pursue her dream and move to NYC to be famous, even if that means leaving her boyfriend, Billy, behind.

At first she can't get much work and finds herself in a doomed performance. When that show goes under, Nate Benedict finds her. Nate is Billy's father, and Nate is known in Providence for being a lawyer with mob ties, no matter how much he denies it. Nate convinces Kit to stay in an empty apartment he owns and even sets her up with an audition at the Lido, a nightclub famous for its "Lido Girls". At first Kit is uncomfortable with everything Nate does for her (including buying her an all-new wardrobe, complete with intimates), but he insists he is doing it all for her and Billy. With Billy recently enlisted, Nate hopes the dream of coming home to Kit will keep him safe in Korea.

It all seems fine until Nate starts asking Kit for small favors, like delivering a package or keeping him informed on the guests at the Lido at night. When one of Kit's "favors" for Nate leads to the man being the target of a hit right in the Lido, Kit knows her information was what got the man killed. She knows Nate is a dangerous man, and when the story breaks about the mob hit, nothing can stop him. Then the papers start speculating that Nate and Kit are having an affair. She tries to explain to Billy that it isn't true, but with the apartment and the fancy clothes, it is hard to convince him she hasn't been Nate's mistress. Quickly, everything falls apart for Kit and it starts to put her family in danger. She must find a way to protect her family and get the truth out, even if it means risking her own life.

This was a very difficult story to get through. I actually had to put it down halfway through, read another book, and pick it back up again. I wasn't sure if it was the time period at first, but then I realized it was the lack of dynamic characters that really made it a difficult book for me. Kit is not a very likable lead, which would be fine if you could invest in any of the other characters. Nate is supposed to be creepy and controlling, but her interactions with him are so limited you can't even get yourself to dislike him (even though you know you should). Billy was the one who really drove me nuts, though. Were we supposed to want her to get together with Billy? Hate him? I couldn't bring myself to feel much about him, except his striking resemblance to an early Michael Corleone before he was dragged back to the family business.

That was the other difficulty with this book. It was supposed to be a young adult novel and yet I can't imagine a young adult getting through this story. It isn't just that they won't be able to relate to the time period (which they won't through this particular narrative), but also that there is nothing at all they can relate to. If the characters were at least a little interesting or familiar, some kids might stick with this story, but that isn't really the case. If I even mentioned the Corleone connection I noticed, most of my kids wouldn't even understand the reference! In fact, I wouldn't even recommend this book to an adult (although it seems to be written more for adults than young adults).

If you are going to pass this on, the best bet would be that student who is really into historical fiction. Unfortunately, the interesting parts of the story, like the war and the mob, are so drowned by Kit's annoying musings, it makes it hard to pinpoint the type of student this book would be best for. The vocabulary is modest and there isn't anything graphic or inappropriate in the story. For sheer dryness, I would suggest this story for strong readers only, especially those who are good at wading through some dry parts to get to the meat of the story. I was sadly disappointed with this story, but maybe Blundell's next one will be more of a hit... I know it would be great to have exciting historical fiction to get our students and children to read!