Saturday, February 25, 2012

Beauty and the Beast Gets a Make-Over

The Merchant's Daughter
I love a repurposed story, like this retelling of Beauty and the Beast. It is a great way to take a classic story and classic themes and make them new again. Melanie Dickerson put "Belle" in Medieval England  to again find the loving man behind the scarred "beast".

Annabel's family were once wealthy merchants, but her father's death and the loss of their ships have left them poor and unable to pay their dues to the lord. Unfortunately, they haven't lost the laziness and assumption of class that accompanies children of money. When they are held responsible for three years of back dues to the lord, one child is required to be in the lord's service for three years. Annabel agrees to go despite her fear of the new lord, who seems fair but gruff at the same time. 

In her time in the lord's service, she begins to realize there is more to the lord than meets the eye. When he asks her to read the Bible to him, she is thoroughly excited to have the opportunity to read the Bible. While the opportunity to read the Bible is overwhelming enough, Annabel didn't expect to also find herself developing feelings for the lord. She can't imagine him feeling the same way, but unbeknownst to her, he struggles with the same desire for Annabel. But Annabel's beauty and demeanor have not only caught the eye of the proper lord. She has also caught the eye of the bailiff who isn't nearly as proper as the law. When he tries to take his liberties with Annabel, she finds herself in a situation that threatens the very people she loves, and she is willing to make any sacrifice to protect them. But will it work?

I really liked this medieval Beauty and the Beast story! It was properly "aged" but still readable and accessible for young readers, and the characterization of Belle and the beast was really wonderful. My biggest observation has to do with the frequent injection of religion into the story. While I accept the amount of religion that would be involved in life during this time, it seemed to occasionally slip into a preachy voice rather than a historically accurate one. I didn't really need the excess of religious undertones, but I am particular about religion in my fiction. I am sure there are many people out there who wouldn't mind this angle on the story. The religion wasn't always overwhelming, but sometimes I found myself wanting to say to the author, "Yes. We get it! You were a missionary! If you want to write spiritual novels, go for it, but stop making Beauty and the Beast anything other than a lovely, romantic story!" Again, I am sure I am not the only one who felt this way, but I am also sure there are many people out there who would enjoy this angle. But if you are comfortable with a lot of religion in your YA fiction, I would choose another book.

Overall, I really enjoyed the story. It was very readable and fun. I found myself content because I know the story and know how it ends, but also excited with the small twists Dickerson made to the story. You will find yourself screaming, "Kiss her, you idiot! She loves you too!" This would appeal to a strong junior high student through a high school student. It reminds me of the historical romances I used to steal from my mother when I was young, but it is perfectly clean and appropriate for the age group. And honeslty, who doesn't need a little love and romance in their lives, right?!

Friday, February 24, 2012

A Compulsion of Clues

The Butterfly Clues
Obsessive Compulsive Disorder is something we all joke about having at times, but none of us really understand the extent of its control over its victims. The need to tap, count, and pay homage to rituals can be completely debilitating, and very few people understand it completely. Kate Ellison's breakout novel The Butterfly Clues explores the life of a girl who is consumed by her compulsions until the murder of a young girl in the wrong part of town becomes her biggest obsession.

Lo (short for Penelope), taps, counts, and believes in the power of numbers, not because she chooses to, but because she has to. She survives life by just getting by and trying to blend in, not letting many people know the true nature of her needs and compulsions. When a young stripper is murdered right in front of Lo, she feels a connection to the girl and a compulsion to find the murderer. Along her path, she can't help but think of her own brother who succumbed to drugs on the very streets the stripper, Sapphire, met her grizzly end. 

As Lo gets deeper into the case, she meets a young homeless guy named Flynt who agrees to help her traverse the mean streets of Neverland. She finds herself in the crosshairs of the killer and despite the warnings and attacks on other people involved in Sapphire's life, Lo can't stop herself from finding redemption for the stripper she had never met. She knows there is more to the story than the police care to investigate, and she refuses to stop hunting until she finds the truth. What she fails to recognize, however, is that the people involved will do anything to keep the truth from coming to the surface.

I struggled with this book a little at the beginning. Vital information was withheld from the reader until a good 1/3 of the way through the book, like what was going on with her brother and her compulsions. I don't think all of it needed to be kept so secret for as long as it did since it was vital to the character development of Lo and the understanding of the purpose behind the story. That being said, once I understood this important background information, the story became really interesting. It opened up and I was able to get invested in Lo's quirky character. The intertwined story of Lo's brother and Sapphire was one that adds something unique and wonderful to the mystery. It truly is the story of a girl who nobody understands finding someone who doesn't care why she is different but loves her differences unconditionally. 

This is a mature story not for graphic sexual content (although Sapphire is a stripper and Lo goes to the strip club a few times to investigate). I think it is a mature book due to the complexity of Lo's character and how she interacts with the people in her life and the world around her. An immature reader will lose themselves in her eccentricities and not get to the heart of a girl with a disorder she cannot control. Also, the confusion at the beginning of the story might lose a weaker reader where a strong reader could barrel through it in order to get to the heart of this interesting story. I really loved Ellison's characters and look forward to seeing more from her. And don't forget, Kate Ellison and Lauren Oliver will be at Oblong Books and Music in Rhinebeck for the Hudson Valley YA Society event on March 2, 2012 at 6pm! I will be there... will you?!

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Creepy Middle Reader

Liesl & Po
How dark can a middle reader book go? If you consider the Grimm Brother's fairy tales, they can be awfully grim (yeah, yeah, bad pun attempted!). In fact, I have often bought these classic fairy tales for baby showers, thinking I was doing a nice thing. After reading more and more of them this year, I realize I have been traumatizing all the young children in my family! So when I started reading Liesl and Po, by Lauren Oliver, I was surprised by some of the darkness, but thrilled by the charming story underneath.

Liesl hasn't left the attic since her father's death. Her stepmother makes her stay there to keep her safe. Safe from what, Liesl doesn't know. Will is the orphaned assistant of a mean and nasty alchemist. His only highlight in running the alchemist's errands throughout the middle of the night is seeing the girl in the window of the attic. That girl is Liesl. She doesn't know he is out there, but he can't stop thinking about her. He thinks about her so much that he accidentally takes the wrong box to the Lady Premiere. He is supposed to bring her a box of the darkest and strongest magic the alchemist has every made, the same magic that has taken away the sun for over 1700 days, but instead he grabs the box of Liesl's father's ashes. The box of magic is inadvertently delivered to Liesl's stepmom instead of the ashes. 

When Po, a ghost boy, comes to visit Liesl in the attic, he helps her connect to her father. There she learns her father wants his ashes brought to their old house where her mother is buried so he can finally cross over and be at peace. Po helps Liesl escape the attic so he can get her to the old house. Along the way, a series of mistakes, switches, misunderstandings, and plain old silliness leads to an adventure where Will, Po, and Liesl try to put her father to rest while everyone else in the countryside is out looking for them. What no one knows is that the magic box might be more powerful than any of them could imagine, but love is more powerful.

Some people might disagree, but I think you can have some darkness to a middle reader, especially if there is an ending where everything works out for the better. I think the Grimm's fairy tales are too dark even for my 30 year old self, of course! But this book had just enough dark and just enough softness to balance it out. You want Will and Liesl to make it to their destination, but all the mix-ups and silliness throughout the story keeps you hanging on until the last page thinking, "What could possibly happen NOW?!" I admit the story was a little hard to get into at first, and some key details weren't revealed until 1/3 of the book had passed. That, sadly, might make it too hard for the reader, especially a younger reader, to get into the book, at which point they would miss this exciting little gem!

As a middle reader, there isn't any sexual content, but there is some death and murder and Liesl is certainly abused by her stepmother. Nothing is too graphic or overdone, so the happy coincidences will balance those out fairly well. It is one of those fun stories where the circumstances change just by chance over and over again, helping the main characters out in ways they couldn't possibly know. It is a great way to make the reader feel most connected to the story- they know more than the characters do! I think this is a fun little ghost story, where the ghosts aren't what you should be afraid of!

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Wicked in Love

Born Wicked: The Cahill Witch Chronicles, Book One
What if New England had once been a haven for witches escaping persecution, bringing witches from all around the world to one spot. Then imagine the non-witches of that area launched an attack upon the witches, rooting them out and either imprisoning them or ending their lives. This is the alternate history where the Cahill sisters live in New England at the turn of the century in Born Wicked: The Cahill Witch Chronicles, Book One by Jessica Spotswood.

Cate Chaill is determined to keep her promise to her dying mother- to protect her two sisters from the Brotherhood, a gathering of men who seek out and destroy the lives of witches. Cate and her sisters are witches, but only their mother knew Cate's secret, that she could do the most powerful kind of magic... mind magic. While Tess and Maura love their magic and barely keep it hidden, but Cate uses hers only enough to be able to control it. But her time is coming when every girl must declare their intentions to the Brotherhood: get married or join the sisterhood.

When Cate receives a letter from the godmother she never knew instructing her to find her mother's journal, Cate realizes there is more to their magic than she thought. When she finds the diary, she learns there is a prophecy that three witch sisters will come about and either save the fate of witches, or ruin witches forever. Terrified she and her sisters are the witches in the prophecy, Cate seeks help from people she hopes she can trust despite always keeping her secret to herself. In doing so, she not only finds more to her magic than she had imagined, she also finds that marriage for convenience might not be her only fate. A young man named Finn could be the love Cate never dared to let herself dream about.

This book started a little slow for me at first, but then it picked right up and caught my attention. I loved the old-fashioned feel of the story at the end of the 19th century, as well as the alternate history. The world was so well created that it could have easily been our real history! At first, in fact, I didn't realize it was all that different! And the sisters are an interesting mix of personalities. Cate is your typical eldest daughter, too grown up for her age and the responsibility of the world resting on her shoulders. Maura is the willful middle child who refuses to hide who she really is, even if it means exposing the entire family. And Tess is the youngest sister, in all her wide-eyed innocence and loveliness. The love story behind the magic is really quite sweet, but complicated as these things always tend to be. You want Cate to be with Finn, the son of the bookstore owner who is at the top of the Brotherhood's watch list, but you know her marriage to her childhood friend is the safer choice for Cate and her sisters. But alas, love can not be contained and is not safe or logical. It just is.

The setting of this book makes for a nice story with no violence or sexual content. It feels old-fashioned, which might not be the best fit for some students. It was an interesting story and could be the source of some interesting conversations and creative expression dealing with alternate histories. In fact, I would love to have a student create an alternate history after reading this book. The changes are subtle enough that the book is really quite realistic and easy to read. I look forward to the rest of the series and to see what happens to the Cahill witches!

Thursday, February 16, 2012


After the Snow

I have never, ever, ever written a review for a book that I did not finish. In fact, it goes against everything in me to write a review on a book I did not finish to the point that I have suffered through some pretty bad books to be able to deliver an accurate and complete this book. Who would have though S.D. Corckett's After the Snow would make those books look like Dr. Seuss?!

I read about 30 post-apocalyptic stories a year and I read almost 150 young adult titles last year alone with a lot of PA and YA cross-over. Therefore, I was very excited to read this book that is clearly well within the limits of my two favorite genres- a story about a boy surviving after a huge climate shift that starts a new Ice Age. I opened the book, started reading, and was immediately frustrated and annoyed. I put the book down and picked it back up the next day, thinking maybe it was late at night and I should read it when I was alert and had a cup of coffee to keep me going (this should have been an indicator that the book was off, not me, but I don't give up on books).

The language was through the perspective of the boy who had no real education, making his language broken and barely comprehensible. On page 6, I reached a sentence that is still making me shudder: "My mum got dead when I been a baby still scrieking in my ass rags." Yep. And that wasn't just an isolated instance, that is the whole book. Now, I had trouble with Blood Red Road, another PA YA book with a hard dialect to get used to, but this book makes that book look like an award winner. The language was just so bad, after 2 hours and 3 cups of very strong coffee later, I gave up. I am sad to admit defeat, but i couldn't do it anymore.

Why would an author write a novel in such broken and incomprehensible language that their target audience, young adults, couldn't possibly read it? This makes absolutely no sense to me, and quite honestly, the editor who allowed them to publish a book in this language should be admonished, fired, then banned from the field. I am fine with a book having accurate dialogue for the time and circumstances of the character, but the idea of keeping the whole book in this language because it is told in the first person is not just bizarre and poor decision making, it will also put your book right out of business. If an adult who reads between 150 and 200 books a year can't make it through your story, what hope is there for a young adult who has not yet fully come into their own in terms of language and an appreciation for reading. I teach dyslexics, and I can honestly say I would rather have them NOT read than to give them this horrible book.

So I am sad to say this review is of a book I couldn't finish despite hours of trying to get into it. I tried, I really did. If you think you can power through bad writing to find what might be a great story, by all means, give it the old college try. I admit defeat and have put this book and myself out of our misery. I sincerely hope the author will go back to the drawing board and fix the language of the novel. There is nothing worse than language that literally prevents people from reading your book.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Missed the Mark

Carrier of the Mark
With all the supernatural or paranormal stories out there, it is really hard to be original these days. You can make your vampires sparkle or have kids kill each other in an area. Or you can use a supernatural element no one has ever used before, like Leigh Fallon's elements in Carrier of the Mark.

Since Megan's mother died, she and her father don't stay in one place for very long. She has learned not to get attached or make friends since she won't likely stay for very long. When they move to Ireland, it is more than just an adjustment to a new school and a new country, she also finds herself drawn to the guy in school whose family is rumored to be witches. Megan can't stop thinking about Adam, but strange things seem to happen when she is around him. When a sudden tornado saves her from two drunken attackers, she thinks Adam caused the wind storm. What she wasn't prepared for was the truth- that it was her who created the tornado.

Adam has to explain to Megan that they, along with his brother and sister, are the Marked Ones. They carry the four separate elements and Megan carries Wind. The elements were given to them by the Celtic goddess Dura. She wanted the elements to live in harmony and the Order continues that work. Now Megan must either accept her element or deny it and leave the world to continue on in chaos. In the meantime, a fringe group has infiltrated the Order and wants to stop the balance the alliance of the elements will bring. Megan has big decisions to make, but none of them are easy or clear cut. Not to mention the powers she can barely control!

I know people always compare new books of the same genre to uber-popular stories like Twilight, Harry Potter, and Hunger Games. I don't make those comparisons often, and usually only when the similarities are too blatant to ignore. I have to say, this book is eerily similar to Twilight. In fact, the similarities are too obvious to ignore and go way beyond just the basic plot elements. It is sad to see, especially since the idea of the elemental beings is so unique (although really confusing). Forget the setting (South Fork vs. West Cork), but the angry sibling who doesn't want the heroine to take on the powers, the surrogate/adoptive parent, the absentee/oblivious father, the ridiculously quick "could never live without you" love, etc. was just too much for me! In fact, the way Megan and Adam just all of a sudden (two weeks go by) are madly in love was not only unrealistic for me, it was just plain absurd. I wish Fallon had taken the elements and created the original story the potential was there for. 

This is a book best left for someone who likes paranormal romance and hasn't read Twilight. If they have, they will most likely be plagued with the same thoughts I had- the overwhelming similarities to Meyers' stories. I think it would also be best left to those "head over heels" kind of girls as the romance is a bit too much for most people. Not that I am not a romantic, but once in a while I need to see a healthy relationship between characters- not the kind where she will just melt into a puddle of tears and snot bubbles because she lost the love of her life... who she met two weeks ago. Where are my strong female leads already! So, sadly, I would suggest giving this one a pass. It wasn't a bad story, but the similarities are too numerous and too blatant to overlook. Especially now that I have mentioned them!

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Fallen Angels in Love

Fallen in Love: A Fallen Novel in Stories
Lauren Kate's books are more than just a pretty cover, although the covers are so beautiful they are hard to stop looking at. She has some really captivating stories, too. The Fallen series is a few months away from the release of the final novel, but in Fallen in Love, Kate gave us four love stories that tie to the series as a little Valentine's treat. Although, in the world of fallen angels and demons, we know love can't always end happily...

Shelby and Miles are stuck in the past after having followed Luce through the Announcers. Now they must find an angel to get another Announcer to take them home, but first they can't stand out like sore thumbs. In their efforts to blend in, they come across Luce, the Luce of a different time who has yet to meet her fate for her love for Daniel. They know they shouldn't tamper with the past, but they can't help but try to give Luce even a few moments of the love that has spanned centuries.

Roland may seem like a curmudgeon, but there was a time when he was ready to do anything just for a few short years in his immortal life to be with the woman he loved, the mortal woman he knew he couldn't really be with. He broke her heart five years earlier, but now he knows he can't live without her.

Arriane finds herself in the ultimate of star-crossed love. As a fallen angel who is still loyal to heaven, she isn't sure what drew her to Tess, a fallen angel who has aligned herself with Lucifer. Tess is one of Lucifer's chosen soldiers, making it even more dangerous for them to spend time together, not to mention the stigma of two women in love. They know no good can come of their love, but they aren't prepared for the scars that will last for lifetimes.

Finally, Daniel and Luce. In this past self, she was a farmer's daughter while Daniel was a knight- two classes that can never come together. She knows she shouldn't put any faith in the fact that he might overlook her lot in life, but at the same time, she can't help but think about him. She feels there is something more powerful drawing them together, and that feeling can't be tempered by something as trivial as social class. That is a love that lasts, over and over again.

This was a fun little book to tide anyone over until the final book in the series comes out this summer. The timeline is muddled between the Luce of that time and the angels and Nephilim of the present day. But what I liked the most was that they all tied in together to this specific time and this specific Valentine's Day. It felt like they weren't separate short stories, but rather that they had a purpose in the scheme of the whole series and as a stand-alone book. It was a bittersweet tale of love and love lost... just in time for Valentine's Day!

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Something's Going on in Norvelt

Dead End in Norvelt
If you have ever read the Joey Pigza books, you know Jack Gantos is a funny guy. He is the kind of  spazzy, funny-because-I-can't-help-myself funny that makes you crack up. In Dead End in Norvelt, he fictionalizes his own life story for even more goofy antics. 

Jack is grounded for mowing down his mother's corn field. He did it because his father made him do it, but nonetheless, he is grounded. His mother decides part of his punishment will be loaning him out to Ms. Volker, one of the few original residents of Norvelt. Ms. Volker writes the obituaries for the other original Norvelters and wants to be the last one to go, but her arthritis means she can no longer write. So Jack becomes her scribe. For a boy who is afraid of blood, whose nose gushes every time he is scared, and who always finds him in trouble, there is no more perfect partner-in-crime than Ms. Volker. 

A summer's worth of grounding should mean a pretty boring time for Jack, but when the old ladies start dropping like flies, he and Ms. Volker get pretty busy. Not to mention the Hells' Angels who burn a house down, Ms. Volker's creepy admirer who is the only adult alive who rides a giant tricycle, and Jack's father who is building a runway and putting back together a plane to fly around town. When the old ladies keep dropping like flies, though, people start to get suspicious. Is someone killing off the old ladies of Norvelt?

This book had moments where I found myself laughing out loud and other moments where I was honestly a little bored. I am actually very surprised to learn this book won the Newbery Award. I am not saying it was a horrible book, because it certainly isn't, but after reading Inside Out and Back Again and The Fault in Our Stars, I can't help but think there were better books out there that deserved this prestigious award more than this one. It was an interesting book and there were some funny things going on, but it was also a little morbid at times. For instance, Ms. Volker makes Jack clean up the rodent massacre in her basement when she poisons them with tons of rat poison on the chocolates her admirer brings her. And for some reason, everyone in the book seems to think these old ladies should just die already. They aren't all prepared to "do something about it", but they seem relieved when these perfectly fine little old ladies are bumped off one by one. Their deaths are just another thing to comment on like the changing weather. It was honestly both strange and highly depressing. 

What I did like about this book was the feel of a boy growing up during this time, decades ago, and doing things kids can't and won't do now- like help a little old lady. He drives her around town to run errands and even though he is just a kid with no license, no one bats an eyelash. It is an interesting contrast to the kinds of lives kids lead today where they can't just run around as they please in the summer. There really is no such thing anymore as playing in the neighborhood all day and just making sure you are home by dinner. I think this is a good book for any middle reader. The deaths aren't particularly gruesome (actually, they are barely questioned), but there are a lot of them. It isn't a hugely exciting or fast paced book, but it is interesting enough to hold the attention of middle readers. I just wish there had been more of the Jack Gantos goofiness I love so much!

Monday, February 6, 2012

Partial Extinction

In a land where technology has become the very life force that keeps us functioning, have we ever thought about how that technology could backfire? I am not just talking about how its absence will leave us vulnerable, but what if that technology which we made so very smart, turns on its maker. In Partials, Dan Wells explores a world where engineered "Partial" humans turn on the hand that created them and take over the world.

Kira is training to be a medic. She decides to work in maternity because there is no better place to fight the RM virus than where it strikes- in babies who never live to see a week. The Partials, engineered part-humans designed to fight wars for us, took over the world eleven years ago and released RM. It destroyed the human population leaving only about 40,000 people clustered on Long Island. The people left are immune, but in those eleven years, no immune baby has been born. Now there is a directive from the Senate that requires girls 18 and older to get pregnant time and time again, knowing their babies will die, just so the medics can record data about how the virus spreads and try to find a cure.

Watching babies die and finding out her best friend is pregnant is enough to motivate Kira to do something no one has ever done before- capture a Partial to study for a cure. She convinces a few friends and soldiers to go along with her, but it is clear as soon as they enter Manhattan that the Partials are closer than they have ever been. Kira and the others are immediately attacked, but they manage to bring a Partial home. Unfortunately, the Senate just wants to destroy it. Kira convinces them to give her 5 days to study it, but more takes place in the laboratory than just blood samples. Kira realizes the Partials, Samm, is just like her. He not only looks like a human, he talks to her, he clearly doesn't want to die, and he has a secret too. The lives of the Partials are in just as much danger as the lives of the humans. It seems extinction is not just a human threat. Now the Partials and the humans must work together to find a way to save each other, but how can mortal enemies ever get over their own feud to save their biggest enemy?

There are many scary scenarios for the future, but most of them deal with the elimination of the human race. We don't want to go anywhere! Whether it be by zombies or plague or half-human robots we created, extinction isn't a pleasant future. Wells created a world that was not only in dire straights, it was downright creepy. The government had good intentions in trying to save the few people left, but the way they were going about it with forced pregnancies was terrifying. Even the fight between the rebels on the island and the official civilization where the last humans alive were willing to kill each other over ideals and territory was scary. The scariest part? They weren't anything people don't do already! Maybe not to this extreme, but there are plenty of comparable instances out there that would make for interesting discussions with a student who read this book. 

The two main characters, Samm and Kira, were most interesting. Samm seems a little "blah" but I think it was an attempt to show the control and calculation of a being that is not human. It was a little too heavy handed at times (the term cyborg comes to mind), but eventually, you found yourself a cheerleader for Samm! Kira was a different story. I liked her a lot. She was that young woman who knew what she had to do and was willing to risk her own life to do it. You can tell Kira "no", but it won't do much good if she has set her mind to something. And she wasn't brash or impulsive, she just did what she needed to do without worrying about her own safety. Kira is a young woman you can be proud of.

This story has a number of military clashes and battles, human vs. human, Partial vs. human, and Partial vs. Partial. It isn't gratuitously violent, but violence is certainly a part of Wells' new world. The book is quite long and has a few slower spells (although as a whole it was quite exciting), so it might be best for a stronger reader. There is no sexual content or adult language. This is an exciting story, and you can almost see it translating to the Big Screen. I hope someone buys the rights and puts Kira out there, because I really liked this first installment of the series!