Monday, October 29, 2012

Sparking a Transformation

When the people of Ember thought all was lost, a couple of young kids were able to find their way out of the underground, dying city. Now, in The People of the Sparks by Jeanne DuPrau, the people of Ember must find a way to survive in a whole new world.

Lina and Doon knew they couldn't stay in Ember any longer, but they didn't anticipate how life would be aboveground. It was beautiful, full of light and color like nothing the over 400 Ember refugees had ever seen. After three days, they stumbled upon a town called Sparks where life was hard, but people were living. In a world where multiple plagues and world wars had ravaged the land and left only a few survivors, the people of Sparks were survivors. But with only 300 or so residents of the small settlement, the addition of the 400+ ember refugees makes life tough on everyone. Barely able to feed themselves in rough winters, they have no idea what they are going to do now that they have more than doubled their population.

At first people are kind and supportive and even a little amused by the Emberites naivete. They forget the people from the underground city wouldn't know about seasons, mountains, birds, or flowers, but they enjoy teaching them new things. Soon, however, the wear and tear of taking care of people who don't know how to take care of themselves makes charity difficult, and the people of Sparks begin to resent their new arrivals. Doon and Lina know something must be done, but they have very different ideas of how to do it. How do you stop a war between two groups of people who are both right?

There is something magical about this series that when I read it, I feel like I am reading a fairy tale. I don't know how to explain it, and it isn't just the "youth" of the story, but it really does feel like reading a fairy tale full or moral and ethical lessons we all need to learn. It seems like a dark and heavy story for a middle reader, but it surprisingly isn't. It is told in a way that middle readers can relate to and never be overwhelmed by, which is the genius behind this series. 

This is a great second installment to the series, as it takes the people of Ember in a whole new direction. But more importantly are the central themes of outsiders, being different, tolerance, and helping people even when it makes things difficult for you. This is a beautiful series to read in your class with your students or at home together with your child as it has so much to offer as they grow and learn about the world. It should be a staple in every library as well. I am impressed by DuPrau, and can't wait to see where the story takes us!

Rumors and Candidness Bring Keplinger to the Top

Do you remember the unfortunate girl in high school who carried the nickname "slut"? If you think back really hard, can you remember a shred of truth to those rumors? Did anyone actually know for a fact they had happened? Most likely not, and in Kody Keplinger's third novel, A Midsummer's Nightmare, we see a candid portrayal of a girl who starts off wearing that label like a badge of honor and eventually finds a little soul searching is all she needed to get to the root of her choices and actions.

Whitley suffers through each school year in order to make it to the summer- her only time with her father. Now that she has graduated, this summer is even more exciting. It is a chance to hang out with her dad, make cocktails, and relax, as opposed to the misery of living with her mother where her mom ignores her most of the time and only acknowledges her existence to complain about her father. At her last big graduation party, Whitley gives in to her drunken state and meets a guy who she wakes up next to the next morning. He was fun, and certainly good looking, but she is moving on from this place, and she doesn't plan on looking back.

When she gets to her father's place, she quickly realizes things have changed. He moved out of his condo and into a house, and he is engaged. For her father, who goes through girlfriends so fast Whitley doesn't even bother to learn their names, this is a huge development. But even worse, her dad's fiance has two kids. And despite the odds, that new stepbrother-to-be just happens to be the boy from the party the week before! As if things couldn't be any worse, Whitley is now going to be related to her latest hookup.

To drown her miseries in this fresh hell she has found herself in, Whitley submerges herself in the local parties and the local nameless boys. She doesn't care what their names are or who they are because they are just a good distraction, but when that distraction starts to have consequences, Whitley starts to see the ugly side of her reputation. She used to just enjoy the perks of all the male attention it garnered, but now the attention has gotten ugly, and borderline scary. But the one man she wants to notice her has no problem ignoring her for the entire summer- her father. And nothing she has done has gotten his attention. Yet.

This is the third book I have read by Keplinger, and I continue to be amazed by her candid writing style that puts the BS aside and focuses on the topics young adults really want to talk about. She isn't afraid to say things adults might be taken aback by or uncomfortable with, because her books aren't for adults- they are for the same teens they are written about. I find it a beautifully honest way to write and applaud Keplinger for sticking to her target audience with brutal honesty. I am sure most people will say these books are appropriate only for older teens because of the sexual content and alcohol use, but I challenge that premise by saying it is a candid picture of teen life that might make some teens think twice or at least encourage them to think differently about their lives and the lives of the people around them.

This book dealt with some hard situations, but the idea of being labeled a slut and publicly humiliated via social media was hard to bear witness to. Therefore, it should make you, the reader, uncomfortable. And the idea of a girl acting out, resorting to alcohol and bad decisions with boys to get her absentee parents to acknowledge her existence? That is the hardest thing to watch because you know how often it happens. Whitley certainly has a chip on her shoulder, and her selfishness is hard to reconcile with, but she is just the kind of flawed heroine we find ourselves relating to. This is another important book from Keplinger that tells the stories you might be too uncomfortable to tell to your teenaged girl. Keplinger isn't afraid to say what everyone is thinking, and I am grateful to have her books out there in the YA universe because of that fearlessness.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

The Fabulous and Snarky Prince

The False Prince: Book 1 of the Ascendance Trilogy
Wherever there is royalty, there is jealousy. No one is ever content with the king or queen, and everyone wants to live the life of royalty. But in The False Prince, by Jennifer A. Nielsen, we get a taste of just how difficult life as a crowned prince can be form the perspective of three former orphans training to fool the kingdom into believing they are the kingdom's long lost prince.

Sage has never been someone people felt sorry for or took pity on. Instead, more people want him dead than you can imagine, but that is life as an orphan who must lie, cheat, steal for a meal. When an obviously wealthy man comes to the orphanage to buy Sage, it doesn't take long for him to reveal his unwillingness to be sold as someone's servant (aka slave). But something seems fishy about this man, especially when he also collects three other orphans who look rather similar to Sage. What does he have planned for them?

Sage and the other boys soon learn Conner's plan, and it is a dangerous one. As the King, Queen, and crowned Prince have all been murdered and secretly hidden away under the guise of traveling to a nearby country, Connor plans to groom one of the boys into passing as Prince Jaron, the royal family's youngest son whose ship was attacked by pirates four years earlier, but whose body was never found. Unfortunately, Connor is ruthless in his plans to control the throne through fake Jaron, and he isn't afraid to go to great lengths to be sure to control the boy he picks for the assignment. For Sage, the boy whose reputation for defying authority precedes him, that doesn't make him the frontrunner for this competition. But Sage doesn't care!

This was an excellent story that would be great for any middle reader through young adult reader who likes stories like King Arthur. This is a great story of treachery, betrayal, and the determination to fool and punish your enemies. I think it is a marvelous beginning to a series that is going to keep us hooked, and I can imagine many of my students who would love to start this trilogy. 

Sage is a fabulous character. He makes no apologies for his behavior and he is the epitome of defiance. I think a lot of teen readers would look up to Sage for sticking to his guns and not giving in to pressures. Even though they probably won't relate to his life as an orphan, I don't know many teens who wouldn't relate to defiance against authority. And Sage is the kind of character you can't help but love even though he refuses to do anything just because it is "the right thing to do"! So if you know that kid who just can't seem to follow the rules and has a bit of a chip on their shoulder, give them this book. It will do them good to see a character with a need for defiance!

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Viola in Not So Reel Life

Viola in Reel Life
Ninth grade is tough enough without being shipped off to a boarding school in Indiana when all you have ever known is life is your parents and Brooklyn. But Viola can adapt, even from behind a video camera in Adriana Trigiani's Viola in Real Life

Viola has no interest in going to an all girls' school and even less interest in being shipped off to Indiana. But she can still talk to her BFF Andrew via instant message when she needs to and her video diary is her one stable outlet. When she meets her roommates, she realizes just how out of her element she is. The girls are nice, but she is not ready to really let them in.

Slowly but surely, the girls worming their way into Viola's life. It takes a few false starts, but eventually, they are able to make her realize they are there for her. Once she lets them in, she sees just how much she missed having a friend to share everything with, especially now that Andrew has a girlfriend and isn't available like he used to be. But a dance at the local boys' school finds Viola with a boyfriend, and amazingly enough, a boyfriend who is into films as well! But Reel Life isn't always what you expect it to be.

When I first started this book, I didn't realize it was about a 9th grade girl. I thought it was more young adult than the middle reader it turned out to be, so I think my misconception made it difficult for me to enjoy this book fully. I like a good middle reader, but sometimes this book felt too juvenile and too cliche for me. For instance, Viola's roommates are too mature, clear-headed, and rational for 9th grade girls. I can buy one, maybe two girls, but all of them? I have spent time in the girls' dorm at our school. I have never seen that many rational girls that age in one place! Girls that age get their feelings hurt and snipe at one another and hold grudges. They don't rationalize and openly discuss each other's shortcoming without some relational aggression thrown in for good measure. I guess sometimes I felt like these characters were more caricatures than representations of real people. 

And Viola herself was hard to really like. I saw her transformation and how she grew up over the course of the year, but some of her "big lessons" were too rushed or improperly explained. Mostly she seemed very young and very naive about life (like how her parents' financial situation really was). I think this book would be good for a young girl, mostly middle school to a super immature 9th grader. I think most older girls are going to see through these characters too easily to care much about the book. Although, the film aspect is certainly interesting, it doesn't float the whole novel.

Monday, October 22, 2012

A Promising Conclusion

Promised (The Birthmarked Trilogy)
Gaia is a strong woman who was raised to be a midwife in a land where babies were taken to supply the walled city with offspring. When everything fell apart, she left the city to take her chances in the wasteland where she happened upon a town that worshipped women and their very few offspring... a little too much. But having decided to leave Sylum with over a thousand members (mostly male) of its population, she returns to the one place that she never thought she'd see again. Caragh O'Brien's Promised concludes the dystopian trilogy with the final transition for the Gaia, the humble midwife turned leader.

Gaia has taken a huge risk leaving Sylum, and an even larger risk taking her people to Wharfton, but she doesn't have many choices, especially since "her people" includes the crims (criminals). When they arrive, the people of the Enclave are understandably on edge about their presence, but a lot has changed in Wharfton. The inability to reproduce is the least of the worries of the people inside and outside the walls as hemophilia rampages through the new generations, leaving the people as vulnerable as they were when Gaia left them... maybe even more so.

The one person greedily happy to see Gaia is the Protectorate. With his civilization on the brink of extinction, he knows Gaia and her rare DNA hold the key to survival (and the reinsurance of his reign). With her people camped out in Unlake, Gaia depends on the Protectorate to give them the water they need to settle and survive, but what she doesn't expect is how far he is willing to go to get what he deserves. And Gaia takes her position as the leader of New Sylum very seriously...

This has been such a strong dystopia, so it was bittersweet to get the final book in the mail. I wanted to read it, but I also didn't want the series to end. And after having the lovely opportunity to meet Caragh O'Brien at a local bookstore, I was mesmerized even more by this trilogy (she is a DELIGHTFUL woman!). And I have to say, this book did not disappoint. It took Gaia's story, which has had a number of transitions and transformations, and it ended in a way I couldn't imagine. I loved it!

Gaia went from a festering novice full of anger for the establishment to a strong leader who wasn't willing to give up, and it was great to watch. My one complaint was that she simply couldn't stop going back into the Enclave! She gets tortured, threatened, imprisoned, etc., and still she marches, slinks, and crawls her way back in time and time again. I wanted to smack her by third time she went in after Leon. Sure, this series has many darks corners, but its dystopic web is unmatched. I really loved this series, and this conclusion doesn't disappoint. But beware... it is going someplace you might not be ready to travel!

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Fantastical Fantasy!

Throne of Glass
Who would imagine that the most dangerous person in the world could be a young woman? Well, the King did, which is why he put her in the most dangerous prison in the land. In Sarah J. Mass's Throne of Glass, we watch a young woman transform from a nameless prisoner to the prince's champion, but she never becomes any less deadly.

Celaena was put into the work camp in the mines with the expectation she wouldn't last long, but she is always underestimated. Trained by the King of Assassins, she counts on being underestimated. But when the prince comes to the prison, she isn't expecting to be brought back to the castle for a competition. In an effort to find the ultimate assassination, the king has devised a diabolical competition between the toughest (and the most dangerous) thugs and criminals in the country. Each competitor is sponsored by a member of the court, and Celaena is the prince's tribute. 

Throughout her earliest training, Celaena is advised to keep her true identity and her true abilities a secret. She struggles with keeping her deadliness a secret with some of the other, less refined, competitors mock her, but winning her freedom is worth swallowing her pride. But when the competitors start showing up dead, and not just dead but disemboweled and partially eaten, it becomes clear the competitors aren't the only deadly creatures in the castle. Celaena is sure she is on the list for whatever is skulking about at night, but she won't let it frighten her. And she certainly won't let it convince her to give up the fight for her freedom.

This was a fabulous fantasy for anyone who has read and enjoyed Graceling, Finnikin of the Rock, etc. It is that mild fantasy that has an otherworldly feel, but isn't too out there to discourage the realistic readers. it is a great book for any strong middle readers through young adults. There is a little violence, but it isn't too graphic. But most of all, the books is tremendously exciting. You won't be able to put it down, it is so exciting!

The thing I like most about this story is Celaena herself. Sometimes when an author writes a truly strong female lead, they can feel artificial. Sometimes they are too mean, too aggressive, too disconnected, or even just plain unlikable. But Celaena is different. She has the ability to kill a man three times her size with her bare hands, but she is still someone you find yourself wanting to root for. She is an assassin, yet you find yourself wanting to know her better. Celaena is an awesome female lead who can inspire oodles of young girls out there. So pass this on to a girl you know, and let her bear witness to one fierce and fabulous leading lady!

Monday, October 8, 2012

When the Game Gets Real

Insignia (Insignia Trilogy)
I hear adults complain all the time about kids playing video games. But what if the world's safety rested in the hands of kids who were essentially gamers, but who were given control of military space ships fighting an interstellar World War? Would you want to pry them off the couch then? Or would you recognize their skills for what they are: soldiers on the front like. S.J. Kincaid takes teens and makes them heros (and villains) in Insignia.

Tom Raines doesn't live your normal life. An invested gamer with an addicted gambler for a father means he bounces from city to city with nothing in the way of stability except his Virtual reality games. His mom left his deadbeat dad for a corporate snake, and on a larger scale, the world in embroiled in an war fought in the stars and controlled by private companies. The times of governments fighting governments and ravaging Earth's precious resources are gone, but the war in space still has its casualties. With the world split in two, companies controlling the world will stop at nothing to win, even if that means implanting computers in the brains of teenagers.

Tom has watched the space war rage on, but he never thought he'd ever have a chance at getting to know Camelot Company from the inside. When he is recruited to join the ranks, he sees it as his one ticket out of his pathetic nomadic life. What he doesn't expect is to become part computer and be transformed into a super human. Add to that the ability to actually make friends and the government becomes the driving force that Tom needed to change his life around. But he is different from his fellow plebes. They are all decorated with special achievement after special achievement, so why is Tom, poor, achievement-less Tom, here in the first place? And how far are these companies willing to go to win this war?

As we, as a society, become more and more "teched-in" we find ourselves trying to juggle the world we once lived in compared to the world we currently live in. Teachers complain about video games the same way teachers when I was young complained about comic books as source of "intellectual decay" amongst our children (ironic if you think about how socially accepted comics and graphic novels have become by now!). And it is no secret that many of our kids love to play video games, so how do we navigate this new plugged in world? We start iPad programs and use apps for "educational" games (because those are deemed acceptable). We have teacher websites and communicate with parents via email and use our SMART Boards. If we have recognized the need to be tech-savvy, why to we begrudge our students the opportunity to play their video games for entertainment? Well, Kincaid wasn't afraid to ask those tough questions in this book.

Insignia isn't just a fun a science fiction novel. It was also an examination into the high-tech lives we lead. How far is too far when it involves our children and technology? Are video games ok? iPads as a means to keep your kids occupied when you need them to be quiet? Video games? Installing super processors in their brains to help fight our wars? We know that is wrong, but it is also hard to find the exact line where we reach too much technology. By using an extreme example like making teens into super-soldiers, Kincaid has invited us to have this conversation, and I can guarantee you it is one children and adults alike will speak of with strong opinions. 

As a non-gamer (barring a small college obsession with Snood and Tetris) who is married to a gamer (I so dread the new World of Warcraft expansions), I can see the constant struggle between generations who have never enjoyed video games and generations who do. Like any generational gap, there is tension and people don't see eye to eye. That is the reason I liked this book as much as I did. If you took out the tech and war and "cyborg" effect, you have a simple story about a boy who has never fit in until he found his purpose. Sound familiar? I bet it does, as it is an age old story told in an infinite amount of ways. But that doesn't make this story trite, by far. Instead, it is retold in a way that will get your video-game playing children reading and engaged. The characters are relatable and the story is familiar, but the message is modernly universal. So, ask yourself. How much technology is too much?

Saturday, October 6, 2012

A Triumphant Crown

The Crown of Embers (Girl of Fire and Thorns)
Elisa is a survivor. She has been married off to someone she had never met in a sham marriage to consolidate his power. She was kidnapped and dragged across the desert. She fell in love. She watched her love and her husband murdered. All this and she still has the courage to rule her new kingdom. But In Rae Carson's The Crown of Embers, nothing is easy for Elisa. But Elisa is a survivor.

As a young, new, foreign-born queen, Elisa isn't being taken seriously. Her court ignores her on a good day and mocks her on a bad day, her people think she is ineffectual, and her country's leaders and using her weakness to take advantage of the people. She is barely hanging on when an attempt is made on her life. Luckily, her guard Hector was able to stop the attack, but not without almost losing his own in the process. Elisa has always known her Godstone had magical powers, but she had never been able to tap into those powers until she almost lost Hector... it is then she realizes her feelings for Hector are more than just friendly, even if it is an impossible love.

As the assassination attempts continue, it becomes clear Elisa must do something drastic. When she learns of a source of power than can finally give her the power to protect her people from the sorcerer spies, she knows she must make the journey. But the journey is paved with spies, assassins, traitors, and danger. And if there is one thing Elisa struggles with, it is the loss of innocent lives at the expense of her safety. 

No sophomore slump here! Girl of Fire and Thorns was such a phenomenal story, and I hate to admit it, but I was worried this sequel wouldn't stand up to it. But have no fear! Crown of Embers is incredible. It picks off after the tragedy Elisa suffered and elevates her even further. And to think she started off the series a lost, frumpy girl who didn't get any respect from anyone despite her divine calling. Now she is a queen. A true queen. A queen who doesn't back down from danger and is willing to risk her life for the people she rules over. It is wonderful to see such a strong female role model like Elisa in young adult stories.

This is a fantastic series for anyone who like Kristen Cashore or Melina Marchetta. It is fantasy in the lightest sense, but contains so much depth you will be blown away by the world Carson built. Elisa is the kind of protagonist any young woman could look up to. And Hector? Holy Moses, Batman. Hector is an upstanding, respectful, amazing lead male who will make you have a Whitney and Costner moment! There is place for this series to go but up. It really is that good!