Archive for the ‘Romance’ category

Plague by Michael Grant

June 29th, 2011

Plague is book four in the Gone series. If I’m telling the full truth (which now there is a mutant kid who can tell if you’re lying), I was a little hesitant to read Plague because I thought that Michael Grant had finally sold out by telling a killer virus story. That story has been told before. The flu does go crazy in the FAYZ, but the bigger plague is like “swarm of locusts” plague.

The Darkness (still one of the cooler YA villains) has summoned bugs that breed like parasitic wasps (National Geographic should be labeled as a horror channel). The bugs, conveniently enough, cannot be damaged by Sam’s laser hands and the residents of Perdido Beach must find some way to survive.

What always impresses me is that Grant can keep the story going full-tilt until it explodes in the last 30 pages. I did know going into the book that this was not the end of the series, so I knew there would be huge gaps left, but that doesn’t take away from the enjoyment.

Amidst all of the superpowers lies a story of teens dealing with tough teen issues. This one is just as edgy as the previous three books. The ironic part is that Grant doesn’t use swearing in the narrative. You’ll see characters say a “rude word” but not read the actual word. I’m glad because the issues that the kids deal with are tough enough without language distracting for some readers. More than one teen battles depression, which is extremely realistic considering how chaotic their world is where life can end unexpectedly. Some have a crisis of faith. The girl running the makeshift hospital has to decide who to treat and who to let die. Tough stuff.

Romance shows up and is used to show the duality theme that runs throughout the course of the series. Sam and Astrid seem to be the perfect couple, but as life hits them hard, they are rocked badly. Caine and Diana are together, but Diana must come to grips with Caine’s true nature (FYI: HE’S CRAZY).

These two relationships are just one example of Michael Grant making comparisons between characters. Computer Jack struggles with his new muscle-bound identity and whether he’s defined by the people around him. Brianna floats between comic book fantasy and grim reality. Astrid has to deal with being the good girl even though she wishes she could ditch her autistic brother. Like I said – tough issues.

My only complaint is the inclusion of throw-away characters. The series has a ton of kids, but that allows Grant to focus on scenes across an entire town. This is more than just Sam and Astrid’s story. Yet the throw-away characters are the ones who Grant names and in the same sentence has a bug eat. “A boy, who people called Buster, oh no – bug eats him.” (My own version of the scene, not Grant’s own words.) Grant was not afraid to kill off characters in the first three books, so I wonder why this book mainly had Red Shirts dying. Not a big complaint, since most authors are afraid to kill off characters they love, but I did notice.

Plague is a very enjoyable read and it always surprises me how quickly the series reads, considering the length of the books. The fourth book sits at 490 pages.

This is a case where you definitely have to read the first three books in order to really get what is going on. Librarians, it is worth the purchase, especially since I know the series is super popular.

Uncommon Criminals by Ally Carter

June 10th, 2011

I received a package in the mail that contained Uncommon Criminals on Wednesday. Since the book doesn’t come out until June 21, I can only assume that this package was connected to a certain con involving a mouse, my library, and large amounts of Italian food.

On Wednesday, I had to put aside reading The Help to read Uncommon Criminals. I had to set down the recently-received book in order to go watch Les Mis performed live at Gammage.

I know. Tough life.

So now I have just completed Uncommon Criminals two days later and can assure you that it’s a great book. That should go without saying, much like any review I could try and give for Les Mis, but it’s nice to know.

This is book two in Heist Society, although I do believe that students could check out this one having not read the first one. (What happens many times with popular novels is that book one always has a huge wait list in my library. Book one definitely is needed for greater depth, but book two can stand on its own unlike some YA series.) Kat is not a thief, despite what her criminal family and resume of heists say. She is approached by an elderly woman who claims to be the rightful heir of the Cleopatra Emerald who wants it brought back to her. Not only is it supposed to be a rare gem, but it also carries with it an ancient curse.

I was glad to see that Carter stayed away from the temptation to make this a paranormal story and instead kept true to her characters. The curse, though, provides a cool backdrop for the developing love between Kat and Hale. Another great overarching idea is Kat’s conflict with herself. No matter who she has to go against or what system she has to trick, Kat’s biggest enemy is her destiny. She does run into a rival thief who represents one possible future for Kat and it’s great to see her face that head-on at different parts of the book.

There’s an exceptional quote towards the middle of the book in a conversation between Hale and Kat:

“Someone did them first, Kat. Don’t forget that. Someone, somewhere did them first.” He shrugged. “So we’ll do something first. Who knows? Maybe a hundred years from now, two crazy kids will be debating the merits of the Kat in the Hat.”

And this, my friends, is what Young Adult fiction is all about. Faced with a task larger than themselves and adults that are all too fallible, the teens must forge their own path and give the readers hope that they, too, count for something in the world. A Wall Street Journal article recently stereotyped YA fiction by one tiny slice of the genre and this hope is the perfect response to that article. Another memorable line from Kat is when she wonders if it’s true that love is the greatest con. For many YA readers, both teen and otherwise, this is a fear that has creeped in at least once and we cheer her on hoping that it’s not just one big lie.

Granted, the book isn’t all just internal *cough* Matched *cough* conflict. There are enough helicopters, rappel lines, and even a yacht to keep me interested. This series more than Gallagher Girls is great for the Long Con developing well over time in the course of one book.

Do your best to purchase multiple copies of Uncommon Criminals from legitimate booksellers on June 21. And librarians, if you no longer have a budget for books, let’s have a little chat about the benefits of the Paul Bunyan versus the Jack and the Beanstalk. You know what I’m talking about.

Matched by Ally Condie

March 25th, 2011

Dystopian stories are popular right now. You would think that would make me excited, the abundance of super-controlling societies being overthrown by the underdog. I love The Giver, Uglies, and all their Fahrenheit 451-esque classic cousins.

But once Hunger Games (another of my favorites) made it big, publishers began taking in Katniss clones like they were loveable wizards vampires zombies.

Matched by Ally Condie does follow some of the genre formula. The utopia promises a perfect existence (utopias are notorious for this) and main character Cassia has to break from what she has always known and forge a new path into the larger world around her.

There is the love triangle. One boy, the one the government matches her with to marry, is a childhood friend and a great guy. The other is an Aberration and is only introduced as a matching glitch. Cassia is torn and spends most of the book sorting this out.

It’s told from first-person perspective and I don’t think it would work any other way. There are not big action scenes. There are no hoverboard fights, crazy sled rides, or rats attached to her face. (The rats? 1984. Read it, kids.) The most physical activity from the protagonist is to go on a hike.

What grabs your attention is the person vs. self conflict. Cassia progressively realizes that the government actually has only a tiny thread of control over society. Even though I love books with cool machines, the technology in Matched is very subtle. Like in The Giver, there are pills for residents to take. Unlike The Giver, residents are given a choice. This adds to the suspense since there are some pills that no one has taken before. Cassia risks swallowing a lethal dosage.

The characterization in Matched is great. The parents are believable and work as a good team. My favorite scene is when Cassia realizes just how human and mortal her parents are. This is a big moment in anyone’s life.

Ally Condie did a great job creating a believable world. If you want a romance story with a tinge of sci-fi, Matched is a good choice. Crossed, book two, comes out this November.

24 Girls in 7 Days by Alex Bradley

March 4th, 2011

This one’s been out since 2005, but if you haven’t read 24 Girls in 7 Days, I think you need to. It has a great balance of humor and romance, as well as a realistic protagonist.

Jack Grammar (and he likes words…imagine that) is looking for a date to prom and his friends decide that they’ll help him out. They put a classified ad in the school’s newspaper with his e-mail and make it sound like he wrote it. Jack gets 200 responses and filters it down to 24 girls that he will go on a date with over the course of a week. After a date, he hopes to know which one to go to prom with.

The real appeal of the story is Jack’s narration. His comments on situations, especially when he’s super-nervous, are pretty funny. The opening scene sets the tone well. Jack is psyching himself out before talking to a girl about prom. The girl seems like she’s going to go with him, but then Jack starts talking about the “transgenic forces of springtime” and she freaks out.

Some of the dialogue is strained, acting more as a set-up for a punchline than advancing the plotline, although I still enjoyed it. The romance is interesting as the reader keeps having to guess who he will spend prom with.

If you’re a fan of Gordan Korman’s Son of the Mob or Meg Cabot’s Princess Diaries, I think you’ll enjoy the similar 24 Girls in 7 Days.

I Am Number Four by…[cough]…Pittacus Lore

February 28th, 2011

Half-way through I Am Number Four I decided to research the fictional author Pittacus Lore (the author bio said that he’s an Elder on Lorien, so the cynic in me was suspicious).

It turns out it’s James Frey teaming up with Jobie Hughes. Jobie Hughes is just starting out, with no titles out right now on his own (as of the time of this writing according to his website). James Frey is the author of the controversial A Million Little Pieces (controversial since most of the book was fabricated, including his involvement in a real train accident that killed two teens).

That knowledge did influence my reading of the book. Lore’s (I’ll go with the pseudonym) descriptions of high school are, for the most part, realistic. As John Smith, alien Number Four, navigates the hallways of a small school in Ohio. He has to try and blend in so that no one will realize he’s an alien. It’s very Clark Kent/Smallville in its concept. A distraction for me was that the football team/cheerleaders were the mini-antagonists until the bad aliens showed up. In every high school, are all football players jerks? It’s a nitpick, though, because I know it’s a common element in Young Adult fiction.

A fun author reference is when Number Four gets fake IDs. The names are James Hughes and Jobie Frey.

The Mogadorians, the real villains of the story, are an evil race (I’m sure there’s got to be one or two good Mogadorians, right?) of polluters who use nightmares as weapons. They are always one step behind the survivors of Lorien and want to kill Number Four. The cool concept of the book, though, is that a protective spell-ish thing has been set on the Loriens. They can only be killed in order and have a tattoo on their ankle to let them know where they are in line. When Number Four has three burn marks in his tattoo, he realizes he’s next to be hunted.

Henri is his Lorien mentor, fulfilling the Gandalf/Ben Kenobi role seen in other hero stories. Henri instructs him in the ways of the Force Legacies, powers that develop as John/Number Four gets older. Stories that involve this element are a great picture of stepping into the unknown as you mature from child to adult. While we’ve seen many stories use this technique, Lore does it well.

Fans looking for alien fights will have to wait until the very end or be satisfied with quick flashbacks to when the Mogadorians invaded Lorien. I found myself enjoying the high school sequences more than the final boss battle and that may be an indication of James Frey’s influence. He does drama well.

Yes, I do have some complaints, but those do not outweigh my enjoyment of the book. It’s a story we’ve seen before, although I Am Number Four proves that it’s all in how you tell the story.

Reckless by Cornelia Funke

December 6th, 2010

I used to be a huge fantasy fan and then in recent years my interest dwindled. It seemed like in every book we saw the same plotline: the kid discovered a magical world and then found out that they were the chosen ones and/or had the real magic inside them the whole time (see also Dumbo’s Feather).

Reckless starts out that way and I got nervous. There’s a wardrobe mirror that two boys go through that links to another world, appropriately named Mirrorworld. The first chapter goes very quickly through the kids discovering Mirrorworld and growing up a little. More than one student who has read the book got confused by the first few chapters. When I booktalk this on Wednesday, I’m going to summarize the first chapter so they don’t get lost. (One kid who previewed the book for me was perplexed. “I know there’s a mirror and I know there’s a guy named Jacob. How old is he? There’s a world in the mirror?”)

Once the protagonist is older, though, the book rocks.

Jacob Reckless is probably going to be the chosen one. His father has been missing but we see that he has brought inventions from our world into Mirrorworld and has tilted the balance of power in the war between the humans and the Goyl, a race of gargoyle-esque stone warriors.

Jacob is a treasure hunter whose brother has been struck by a Goyl. The curse is that Will’s skin will turn to stone and go from human to Goyl. Jacob wants to find a cure.

As Jacob and friends quest for a cure, they encounter Mirrorworld variations on old fairy tales. Sleeping Beauty in Mirrorworld never got rescued; mummified hands of failed suitors reach out through the thorns surrounding her tower. Snow-White ends up running off with a Dwarf because that’s the life she’s grown accustomed to.

My favorite twist of fairy tales was a scene involving killer unicorns. Those beasts have horns for a reason.

The pace is decent in the book. It’s one subquest after another that leads Jacob into the bigger picture of influencing the war. Funke avoids the fantasy writer trap of describing a flower for an entire page and I appreciate that.

The character dialogue is great. I just wish Clara, Will’s love interest, was more than an accessory. She takes a predominant role in the middle of the book as there is a question of if she loves Jacob or Will, but the only times she’s mentioned in the last third of the book she’s either fainting or distressed. Fox, a shapeshifter who transforms into a badger (just kidding…she transforms into a fox), provides a stronger female character who tries to bail out Jacob on more than one occasion. It shows their friendship and a possible romance between the shapeshifter and the treasure hunter.

Funke does a great job of sticking to the rules of her world, which is important even if it is a fairy tale land. Every magic token has some law governing it, working almost like technology. Only one character was able to summon magic off the top of her head and she was one of the main villains, the White Witch Dark Fairy.

Reckless is a great read and I recommend it to students who like fantasy stories and/or can appreciate irony in storytelling.

Nightlight by the Harvard Lampoon

November 19th, 2010

I haven’t read the Twilight series.

Yes, I know.

Even though I haven’t read the books or seen the movies, I’m familiar enough with the plot of the series to understand the jokes in the Harvard Lampoon’s Nightlight.

Most of the book plays off of Stephenie Meyer’s writing style and how Bella is characterized. In Nightlight, Belle Goose stalks a boy named Edwart because she thinks that he is a vampire. The plot line revolves around her being clueless to the world around her as she acts out most cliches found in supernatural romances, thinking that every boy is super-obsessed with her and that she is smarter than anyone around her.

Here’s an example of her oblivious nature as she considers another possible vampire at the school:

I thought back to the tables in the cafeteria: Edwart’s table, Jocks, Populars (my table), Arty Kids, Vampires. He must have sat at the last one.

On top of her cluelessness, random events will be thrown in for humor (it’s a parody, after all). Belle loves having a big truck because she can make slushies by throwing snow in the back and driving like crazy. Supporting characters (what English teachers would call flat characters) don’t have names and Belle makes a point to say that the character has some forgettable name like “Lululu” and is not important at all.

Nightlight frequently steps out of the narrative to make a book joke, one that is only funny while reading. Belle says something in italics and comments that she learned at an early age to say things in italics because people listen better. A scary foreshadowing is that something scary will happen in chapter ten. It literally says chapter ten.

For being the Harvard Lampoon, it’s actually pretty clean. I think students would enjoy it (I know they would because it’s students who asked me to read it in the first place). I’m not going to booktalk it simply because I haven’t found an Accelerated Reader test for it yet. Once there’s an AR test, I’ll work it into my lineup.

Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins

August 27th, 2010

Usually I give some plot points in my reviews but I will deviate from that for Mockingjay. I also try to recommend books for librarians to put on their shelves and this is a no-brainer, so we’ll get that recommendation out of the way.

What I will say is that Mockingjay is dark. Kat has always struggled with the isolation of life in a very tangible way. I love that, even though she may fight it, there are people who are willing to do the right thing to help her out. Yet, the sacrifices that have been made and will need to be made for peace compound in the final book of the trilogy, leaving her trying to figure stuff out on her own.

I’m intrigued to hear more reactions from students about the differences in this book from the other two. There’s no more glamor of the Capitol. There’s no “good guy group, bad guy group”. There’s war.

Mockingjay is a good end to the trilogy, maintaining the themes of the fragility of life and the lingering consequences of choices made. Both concepts were building in the first two books and, when added to Collins’ skillful characterization, we have a lot of emotions riding on the ending.

I enjoyed it. It met my expectations. I’m trying to think which one of the trilogy is my favorite.

Oh, yeah, and Kat ends up with… just kidding. No spoilers here.

Only the Good Spy Young by Ally Carter

July 4th, 2010

I finished Heist Society a few minutes before 2010 began, so it’s fitting that I finish Only the Good Spy Young on July 4.

Ally’s writing keeps getting better with each book, which is something that I’ve mentioned in other reviews. She’s not a slacker author and works to make each installment of the series memorable. I keep saying, “This one’s my favorite” only to have the next one be my favorite.

Only the Good Spy Young will answer a lot of your questions. But, like with any decent covert operation, with more answers comes more questions. Zach does return, so I know my girls at school will be excited. A new staff member at Gallagher shows up: Agent Townsend, a member of MI6 (you know, like James Bond and Alex Rider). He adds his fair share of complications and leaves you wondering if he’s there to help Cammie or not.

Anyone who has talked with me for an extended length of time knows that I cheer for the villains in any story. It’s a strong villain that brings out the hero’s qualities and tempts them to compromise what they believe in (see also Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight). The Circle of Cavan returns. We find out that their connections reach deep into the CIA and other clandestine organizations.

Cammie doesn’t know who to trust and it’s for this main reason that I love the series. Junior high and high school students are surrounded daily by situations that break their trust. The books frame that dilemma in a spy context. It’s also during junior high and high school that we start to view our parents as real people and not idealized portraits. Cammie is searching for what happened to her father. Throughout her adventure she sees good and bad examples of parents (a moment where she chats with Bex’s father was so simple and yet so awesome) and tries to make sense of her situation.

The boy trouble returns. These two quotes sum up how Cammie has regular teen drama on top of life-and-death situations:

“I didn’t know whether to hug him or hit him (a feeling that I frequently associate with Blackthorne Boys, to tell you the truth)”

“‘He’s a guy, Cam.’ Macey pushed past me and led the way down the hall. ‘And a spy. He’s a guy spy. There’s always going to be something he’s not telling.'”

Readers are able to realize that other people are struggling with the same issues they are and that they are not weird. Cammie has a believable balance between confidence and doubt. She is maturing, though. Gone are the training missions. Every time the Gallagher Girls take on a mission now, it’s a risk.

I remember a conversation I had with Ally when she visited my library (librarians, you need to have her come talk with your students!). I told her how I love spy stories and how there’s a prerequisite for helicopters. Only the Good Spy Young met my helicopter quota. Something else I mentioned, though, was that I respect any YA author who can threaten her characters. Many times there’s too much suspension of disbelief.

I appreciated Mikaelsen’s Touching Spirit Bear because when Cole tries to stab a bear, he gets worked over. Moral of the story? Don’t stab bears. When spies are in the field, there’s a decent chance of them being captured, tortured, and shot. Saying anything more will reveal too much plot from Only the Good Spy Young.

Students, you might want to buy the book on your own. I will have multiple copies, but I can tell you that there will be a wait list. If you are new to the series, I recommend starting with Love You, Kill You. You’ll appreciate the growth of the characters and the depth of what being a Gallagher Girl means.

Ally, keep ‘em coming. I’m excited for senior year.

Girl to the Core by Stacey Goldblatt

March 8th, 2010

This is proof that I can and do read books that don’t have giant monsters and/or helicopter chases.

Girl to the Core is a simple story of Molly, a high schooler from a strong Irish family. Her mom passed away when she was little, so she has been raised by her dad and her uncles. Molly must stand up to a controlling boyfriend and a pushy best friend and figure out who she is.

This is a similar plot for many books.

But what makes this one stand out is that her boyfriend pushes her too far at the beginning of the book. Most books have this towards the middle to end of the plot arc. By having Trevor be a jerk up front, we now follow Molly on a journey of how to continually stand up to someone (more realistic than a single confrontation) while she redefines herself.

Another perk is Molly’s Irish family. Many different personalities try to give her differing advice on life with the common theme that they care for her. The family members are written in such a way that you want to be a part of their family.

An added bonus to the book is the collection of journal questions at the end of the book. Molly starts to journal and learn more about what she truly believes. Goldblatt gives readers questions to get their journal writing processes started.

This book is a sleeper hit. You won’t see big publicity for it but Girl to the Core is a necessary read for junior high libraries in modeling how to peacefully/respectfully stand up for yourself.