Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Poseidon Blows This One Out of the Water

Of Poseidon
Have you ever felt like there was something different about you? Something that can't easily be explained? In Anna Banks' Of Poseidon, Emma finds out there is more to that feeling than she ever thought possible.

Emma is enjoying her final summer with her best friend, Chloe, on the beach in Florida, but when she crashes into a haunting stranger with the same strange purple eye color as Emma, she can't help but be intrigued. When a freak accident finds Emma fighting with a shark to save Chloe, she doesn't realize the stranger, Galen, witnesses her ability to talk to fish... because as a Syrena (mermaid), Galen has the ability to cloak himself underwater. 

Galen suspects Emma is a Syrena from the Poseidon clan, but some things don't add up. She can hold her breath for an inhuman amount of time, she has tough Syrena skin, but she can't shift into a fin. And the worst part of it all is that if she truly is Syrena, she must marrying Galen's brother Grom, the royal heir, to prevent an all out war between the two clans. Galen knows he owes this to his people and his brother, but he can't help but be distraught about the idea of Emma marrying another man. But before anything can be settled, they have to first get to the bottom of Emma's origins... Is she really Syrena?

You know that feeling you get when a book surpasses your expectations? Well I totally experienced that with this book! Not only was it a fun, intriguing story, but it was also hilarious! I found myself laughing out loud throughout the entire story! Not only were the main characters good fun, but the supporting characters, Torif and Rayna have such a great story line. They are officially married, but Rayna doesn't want to be married. Torif loves her, but can't get her to admit she really wants him. despite her constant rejections, Torif just cheerily plods on with his affections, even when she splits his lip and threatens to kill him! I loved Torif! He was hilarious and endearing. The characters really do drive this story.

I also really appreciated that the love story between Emma and Galen isn't as "I met you two seconds ago but I know we are soul mates and I would end my life for you" like many YA novels these days. They certainly were intrigued by each other at first, and they grew on each other over time, but Emma wasn't afraid to tell him where to go when he deserved it. I loved that about her. This is a good story for any middle school through high school student. It's fairly clean and appropriate for a wide range of ages.  This was a really fun story, but I warn you, there isn't much of an ending. You will find yourself flipping that last page back and forth looking for more chapters that just aren't there! But there has to be another story... there just HAS to be!

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Last Doesn't Always Mean Finale

The Last Echo: A Body Finder Novel
We have all imagined what it would be like to have a gift- telepathy, psychokinesis, teleportation... those are some gifts I wouldn't mind test-driving! But Violet in Kimberly Derting's Body Finder series has a gift i can thin we would all agree is more "curse" than "gift". The Last Echo shows just how much of a curse Violet's ability to see death echoes- imprints on the murdered and their murderers- can be. 

After Violet's second run-in with a murderer who didn't like the fact that she could identify them, she is approached by a team of kids just like her... well, not none have her exact "gift", but they have gifts of their own. They have gifts that help them solve unsolvable crimes. The police don't exactly know how they do it, but their handler, Sara, organizes them and sends them where they are needed. She also provides access to a therapist since finding murdered people and their murderers isn't exactly soothing on the soul. 

Having people who understand her abilities certainly helps Violet, but she is torn between her partner, Rafe, and her boyfriend, Jay. Both know about her ability, but Rafe knows more about what Violet is going through, and her new job is driving a wedge between her and Jay. When a serial killer starts abducting women, the team is used to find his latest victims. As the bodies of young women start piling up, it begins to affect Violet more than she cares to admit. And the killer isn't about to stop. Not until he gets what he wants... But can the team stop him before he sets his sights on someone a little too close to home?

The Last Echo has just as much excitement and intrigue as the first two books, but the inner turmoil in the main characters has increased exponentially. You really see how the death echoes take their toll not only on her psyche, but also on her relationships with friends and family. It was a necessary development for Violet's character, and I am glad Derting went there. I also love the other members of the team. They are a great addition to the story and seem to level Violet out throughout the story. This book really had all the realistic (serial killer) and supernatural (gifts) creepiness rolled into one interesting package.

This is a great series for a wide range of students. The serial killer stuff was pretty creepy, but I dare you to find a serial killer who isn't. Actually, I thought the murder plot in the second book was a little weak, so this book really brought back the original creepiness. The thing is, I thought this was going to be the last in the series (the title The Last Echo might have had something to do with that), but I warn you, if this is the last book in the series, you aren't going to be happy! Derting had better be planning on a fourth book with the way she leaves this one off!

Monday, May 21, 2012

Sometimes Size Does Matter

Kill Switch
Everyone thinks of their grandparents as those innocuous, cookie making, gray haired oldies who always make you feel better when things aren't going well. But what if your grandmother or grandfather had a dark past? And what if that dark past is coming to the surface now that they are suffering from dementia? In Chris Lynch's short novel Kill Switch, he explores just such a terrifying issue.

Daniel is going off to college in the fall, so he wants to spend as much time with his grandfather, Da, as possible. Da's Alzheimer's or dementia makes their "quality time" less quality and more spotty. Still, Daniel has always had a soft spot for Da and is willing to cope with his bad moments for those few, brief, clear moments. When Da starts saying weird things, Daniel just attributes them to the dementia, but the arrival of his past coworkers tips Daniel off to the fact that Da may not have worked in the government's agriculture department as he previously told them.

With Da more agitated than usual, Da, Daniel, and Daniel's stoner cousin Jarrod take off on a road trip to nowhere. They have no destination and no real purpose, but Da seems to think they are being followed, so they continue on. Meanwhile their family is home fretting about their whereabouts. But when the trip hits some strange snags, they worry that Da might be right about his past, and they might be in real danger. But the worst danger might be that Daniel has the ability to follow right in Da's footsteps.

A novella or short novel is a funny thing. It is significantly short than most novels (under 200 pages), but longer than a short story. It has the need to be clear, quick, and concise like a short story, but it has a little more wiggle room like a novel. Still, a short novel has to be pretty lucid in order to accomplish what larger novels do in 400-500 pages. Chris Lynch is usually a master at this, but sadly, he failed miserably with this novel for me. I was stoked to read this book; I mean, the premise is just awesome! But in execution? It really didn't work. The writing was first person narrative, which I usually enjoy, but it was very... how do I put this... nebulous? It was unclear and unfocused and shifted too quickly without any transitions. I found myself flipping back a lot because I missed things despite usually being an attentive and careful reader. It wasn't me, though; it was the strange way tis book was written.

Writing style aside (and mind you, this is not the usual style Lynch writes in, at least from the books I have read), the characters weren't important enough to me either. You had a young boy who loved his Alzheimer's patient grandfather... you want to love this kid, right? Nope. He was odd, punchy, and there was something to him I didn't like that I still haven't been able to put my finger on. The cousin Jarrod was just a putz, but the way they treated him was strange and grating at times. Then comes Da, who you should have sympathized for, and you did... sometimes. The rest of the time I found myself wondering what the hell was going on, and by the time I figured it out, I didn't care anymore.

I am sad to say I wouldn't really recommend this book to my students. I think they would get too lost in the strange storytelling to get anything out of the book, which is frustrating to any reader (including myself). I am sad and surprised to see this caliber of book from Lynch. Usually he nails the short novel and I love them for my emergent, older readers who need a short but fascinating book. maybe next time, Chris Lynch. Maybe next time.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Who Has All the Power?

Shut Out
How do you get teenage boys to listen to you and stop acting like idiots? Well, if you are their girlfriends, you can withhold the one thing they can't live without... nope, not food, but you are close! Kody Keplinger's edgy but adorable novel Shut Out shows exactly what goes on in the heads of teenagers... And you might not always want to admit that you were once exactly like them!

Hamilton High is at war, and while the two rival sides, the soccer team and the football team, seem to enjoy their war, their girlfriends wish it would just end. The war started years ago, but the boys are just as serious about it now as the original teams were when it started. They egg each others cars, they interrupt dates, and they even get carried away to the point of a few guys getting hurt. Lissa made her boyfriend Randy promise to stay out of the war, but when he treats her like a "drive by" on the way to more mischief, she has had enough. She calls the girls together with a plan.

The girls are staging a Shut Out. The football girlfriends and the soccer girlfriends are banding together to withhold all sex and "other stuff" from their boyfriends until the stupid feud is called off. At first the girls are skeptical, but by banding together, they not only learn something about the boys they are dating (and not always something good), but they also learn something about themselves. Can the girls end the rivalry once and for all before it rips everyone apart?

I know what you are going to say. This is too provocative and too sexual for a young adult novel. You would be both right and wrong. Yes, it is provocative and sexual, but no, it isn't too much for the older end of this age group. I probably wouldn't give it to a young middle school student, but for the older YA crowd, this is a really well done novel that discusses the sexual intentions and understandings of teens. And not all girls are monogamous, not all are virgins, but not all are sexually active either. Some are embarrassed by their lack of experience, and some are ridiculed for being open about enjoying sex. There is a wide variety of girls and experiences, but they have one thing in common... they are all unsure in themselves and the world around them. Yes, this is a provocative and sexual novel, but it has a wide variety of young women our YA readers can relate to and look up to. I liked this. It is important to speak candidly to teenagers, and Keplinger never fails to do so. It may be her age (total lack of jadedness that comes with advanced age), but Keplinger doesn't hesitate to write about REAL teen issues, and sexual experience and pressures are a common issue. 

And that is where this novel works for me. It isn't sex for the sake of having sex, it has a purpose. Girls doubt themselves, they succumb to pressure, and they do things they are unsure of. The mixture of girls in this story really represents any clique of girls out there in the world, and they can all be different and still make it work. I also love the strong message that sex isn't something to be ashamed of, but also isn't something to keep your boyfriend around and not cheating either. In fact, when they were still planning the Shut Out, one girl expressed she was worried the boys would cheat on them if they Shut them out. Another girl responded by saying that if they did cheat, they weren't worth their time anyway and they should be happy to learn about that side of their boyfriends if it was there. Shut Out really had strong characters and ideals behind the mature and realistic topic.

I would probably give this to a high school student, although I can't imagine many boys would want to read it (or want their girlfriends to read it for fear of them getting any ideas!). I really like Keplinger's books. They combine realistic issues with fun stories, and always a little romance! You can root for the characters because you always see a little of yourself in at least one of them. I am impressed with this author's candor and look forward to seeing more of her writing. She knows how to speak to young adults in a way that neither patronizes them nor trivializes their issues. I wish I had an author like Keplinger out there when I was a young adult! 

Monday, May 14, 2012

Struck by Lightning

Thunderstorms can either terrify you or fascinate you. But what if they were drawn to you? What if you were basically a conductor for the storms, and the threat of lightning and what you could do with it was so terrible, you moved to Los Angeles, a place where lightning and thunder rarely come? In Jennifer Bosworth's Struck, we watch a young girl who runs from the very energy that runs through her veins.

Mia and her mother and brother, Parker, survived the earthquake that all but destroyed Los Angeles, but they haven't done so unscathed. Their mother teeters on the edge of full blown mental illness, Parker is struggling to find his path and Mia is struggling to keep her family fed and alive. When the school is finally reopened, they struggle with the idea of leaving their mom home all day, but one full, square meal is more than just slightly tempting. At the school, though, Mia encounters two groups of people who want to get their hands on her.

The Followers are devoted to Prophet- the man who claims to have seen the end of the world and claims to be able to save those who devote themselves to him. The Seekers are people with the Spark (ability to harness and use energy like Mia) who devote their lives to stopping Prophet from ending the world. Mia doesn't want anything to do with either side, but a mysterious boy named Jeremy makes her reconsider everything she thought she knew. Now, with Parker going with the Seekers and her mother obsessed with the Prophet, Mia has to figure something out to save her family, especially with the storm of a lifetime heading straight for her. 

I have to say this was a strange and sometimes confusing story, but I can't say I didn't like it. In fact, I really did like it, but it took me right to the end with some big questions and confusions. The clash between the cult-like Followers and the avenger-like Seekers was an interesting one, but you don't get to really know the true story behind either. Well, that's not entirely true. You get more about the Followers, but the Seekers are still left a strange little mystery. There was enough of their back story to at least help you to understand what was happening, but it still left me scratching my head at times. I also wanted to know more about the Spark. What caused this? How many people have it? What are the side-effects? There were quite a few unanswered questions by the end of the story.

Still, it was very interesting. I loved the idea of the Spark and the people who can harness and attract energy like the lightning. Mia was clearly unhappy with her power, but seeing her meet others like herself was fascinating. Unfortunately, you didn't get enough time to see that interaction before everything spun out of control again. I wonder if Bosworth plans on continuing this story. It ends with a good deal of finality, but there could be room to continue if she wanted to. This is a great story for the typical young adult sector, late middle school through high school students. There is a hint of the supernatural, and a good deal of creepy cults and depressing disaster, but Mia is a character you want to learn more about. So consider continuing, Bosworth! I want to see more of Mia and Jeremy!

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Adventure Back in Time

Chronal Engine
You name me one kid who wasn't fascinated with dinosaurs as a kid and I will show you a fibber! Remember the first time you went to a museum and saw a dinosaur skeleton? Or watched one of those Discovery channel specials like "Walking with the Dinosaurs"? I am not going to lie, but I still have nightmares when I watch "Jurassic Park"! So who wouldn't love a story about a bunch of kids who end up back in time running from dinosaurs, right?! Well Chronal Engine by Greg Leitich Smith doesn't disappoint!

Alex and his brother and sister, twins Kyle and Emma, are being shipped off to their crazy, reclusive grandfather's house for the summer while their mother trots off to the far reaches of the earth to dig for bones. This is the same house where Tyrannosaur footprints were found fossilized in a creek bed. But their grandfather cut the prints off to the public years ago and now the kids get to see how the crazy old man really lives. Once there, things don't stop being strange. Their grandfather showed them his prized possession- the Chronal Engine.

The Chronal Engine is a time machine. The kids think it is just a large and rather strange decoration, but when their grandfather predicts his own heart attack and gives the kids a cryptic message, they suspect it isn't as useless as they once thought. When Emma is kidnapped and *poof* disappears into thin air, they know she has been taken back in time. Their only hope for saving their sister is to follow her, but that means a whole host of giant creatures that want to eat them, squash them, or just plain terrify them. Can they get to Emma before she becomes dinosaur food?

This was a really quick, fun little middle reader. It is definitely for the younger crowd, most likely late elementary to early middle school students. The story is fun and adventurous, and the characters are interesting. The story is relatively short, so there isn't a lot of background knowledge or a huge amount of character development, but for this age-group, that isn't a problem. You really don't want a cryptic, complex story for a middle reader. There are some plot holes as well, or things that aren't fully explained or resolved, but I imagine a younger student would be so wrapped up in the dinosaurs to notice!

The dinosaurs are really cool. In fact, I love that Alex is a dinosaur buff (shocker when his mom is a paleontologist, right?!). He is that great little kid who knows everything about dinosaurs and isn't afraid to hide it! The beauty of this kind of story is that it can show a kid that knowledge is cool! Without knowledge, the kids never would have saved Emma and gotten back home! I love a book that shows kids how being interested and smart is an asset, not something "nerdy"! So put this books on your shelves, teachers and librarians, because it is a fantastic middle reader and will be great for boys and girls alike. But be very, very still... there is a T-rex right behind you!

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Bitterblue is Our Queen

Bitterblue (Graceling)
In a world where people are Graced with special abilities and a man controlled his kingdom in a thirty-five year reign of terror, how is an average eighteen year old girl supposed to run her kingdom? And how can she and the rest of the kingdom ever recover from the terror her father imposed on so many people? In Bitterblue by Kristen Cashore, we get to see how the main character, Bitterblue, is fairing eight years after that fateful day Katsa and Po saved her from her psychotic father in Graceling.

Bitterblue became queen at the age of ten, so she has spent her adolescence relying upon the help of her advisors to run the kingdom. Now that she is older, she feels like something is missing. She trusts the men who advise her, but at the same time she thinks they are keeping things from her to protect their young queen. Not one to sit idly by, she decides to take matters into her own hands and explore the city. Dressed in disguise as a young boy, Bitterblue hits the streets where she encounters a pair of young men, one of whom is Graced. The Graceling, Saf, is a bit cantankerous, but his friend Teddy is delightful and trusting. Through the unlikely pair, who don't know Bitterblue's true identity and refer to her as Sparks, Bitterblue learns more about her own kingdom in a few short meetings than she has in years in the castle. 

When Katsa and Po return from their mischief and mayhem in the world at large (actually overthrowing tyrannical kings, but they like to think of it as mischief), they find Bitterblue in a state of confusion. It is clear people have been lying to her, and there are things going on in her own city, let alone the entire kingdom, that she won't accept, but she doesn't know where to seek the truth. Bitterblue knows her father's 35 year reign will unlock the keys to everything that is happening in her kingdom, but no one wants to talk to her about the atrocities her father made them commit with his mind control. Slowly, Bitterblue uncovers the truths everyone has worked so hard to hide, but that doesn't necessarily mean she will want or need to know those truths to be the queen her kingdom needs.

We loved Graceling because of Katsa and Po and their amazing graces and incredible world. We loved Fire because of Fire herself and the fascinating and morbid lives of the monsters in the Dells. Now we love Bitterblue for an entirely different reason. While the world and the graces are still there, this is a very different kind of story. It is the story of a young girl who has the weight of responsibility crushing her and she doesn't know how to survive it. She knows her father was to blame for all the evils in her kingdom, but she can't handle the fact that atrocities are still being committed in his name even after his death. The beauty of Bitterblue is that she wants to be a good queen. She wants her people to be well fed and well educated, and most important, she wants them to heal. I love how caring and determined she is and I just wanted everything to work out for her... in particular, where Saf is concerned. This young girl has a lot of horrible circumstances to deal with, but she isn't going to lose herself in them. And that is what makes me love Bitterblue. She is a great female character for all our young girls to read about.

I have heard people scoff at the relationships Cashore portrays in her novels, saying they are too mature for YA audiences, but I totally disagree. She has men loving men, women loving women, and men and women having caring relationships without marriage. To be honest, to Cashore, the emotion of love transcends an official "marriage" and focuses on something deeper and more pure. I love how tactfully she does this and think those nay-sayers should pipe down and appreciate the strong, caring, multi-dimensional relationships Cashore has created. I appreciate this diversity! I also appreciate the understanding that students are surrounded by relationships beyond the typical "man/woman/marriage" and should see such reality reflected in the books they read.

But mostly I just love this series. This is certainly a more realistic and less fantastic story, although the fantasy is still there, around the edges. You may be surprised by the differences in this story vs. the first two books, but I suspect you will be pleasantly surprised. I also had the privilege of meeting Kristen Cashore last week at our local indie bookstore and was absolutely blown away by her! She was so honest and humble about her writing process, and meeting her made me love her stories even more than I had before! So if you haven't started this series yet, good god(desses), what are you waiting for! But be sure you have some time to devote to the series because once you start, you won't be able to stop!

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Guaranteed to Spark Your Interest

Spark: A Sky Chasers Novel
In Amy Kathleen Ryan's first book, Glow, we saw two fundamentally different ships full of people hurtling towards an unknown planet in the hopes of continuing the human race that was doomed on a destroyed planet Earth. Desperate people will take desperate measures to survive, and the two ships, New Horizons and Empyrean were no different. In Spark, we see just how far they will go to survive.

Waverly managed to get the girls back from New Horizons in a brave escape, but they had to leave people behind: their parents. Now Empyrean is being run by Kieran, who even though he was supposed to be captain, is being questioned about every decision he makes. He has locked Seth in the brig for attempted mutiny without a trial and is keeping an eye on Waverly. Although he means well, Kieran's paranoia about another mutiny is causing him to do things he normally wouldn't do.

But the ship has another problem. Someone is sabotaging the ship, changing its direction, poisoning kids, and has mixed some chemicals in the lab. The kids assume the stowaway is from the New Horizons, but they have no idea who he is or what he wants. Seth knows the only way to prove he isn't working with the stowaway is to capture him, but to Kieran, that would make Seth guilty of treason as well. With the kids left alone on the ship to fend for themselves and no adults to guide them, Empyrean is struggling to stay afloat both internally and externally. Can the kids' ship continue on their mission to the New Earth?

Glow was a really interesting story with a lot of background information into the world of the story. Now Spark takes the story to the next level in an attempt to get them closer to their physical destination: New Earth, and an attempt to make the kids grow up in a difficult situation. Some of the issues on the ship are very typical of young kids trying to work and live an adult life forced upon them, but some of the situations would have arisen in this situation regardless of how old the crew was. It was interesting to see Kieran struggle with his grasp on the ship and just how far he would go to keep order. The most intriguing characters were Waverly and Seth. We saw both of them pushed to the brink in the last book, but both handled the stress in very different ways. Waverly, in particular, found herself struggling to remember who she was and willing to do anything she could, even murder and torture, in order to protect the other kids on the ship. It was a very interesting examination on human nature and what we will do when threatened.

This is a very interesting series for anyone interested in lighter science fiction, but it could also appeal to kids not usually tempted by Sci-Fi. The characters are 3 dimensional and will keep you hanging on to see their most recent evolution. The story is clean enough for a wide variety of ages, but some of the deeper parts of the story, like the interesting examination in human nature, would be lost on a younger reader. Also, the idea of kidnapping young girls to harvest their eggs and repopulate New Horizons is pretty horrific. This book may be best left for more mature middle school students with strong reading skills through the high school crowd. And a little warning... Ryan leaves you on quite a cliff-hangar. You aren't going to be happy to wait a whole year for the next book!