YA Books To Buy For Your Graduation Gifts

I’m away from the Somewhat United States at the moment, ceilidh dancing in Edinburgh and haunting my old haunts in St Andrews, but high school students all over America are getting ready to graduate within the next few weeks.  Congratulations to you all, especially to the young adults who are regulars at my bookshop.  I’m terribly proud.

It will come as no surprise that I recommend books for everyone’s graduation gift-giving needs.  Buy them from your local independent bookshop!  Fun, fast, creative YA novels are especially good for the end of the school year.  Seize the five seconds of not being a student anymore, before whatever further studies await, to treat your brain to something purely enjoyable.

Here are a few YA books that would make nice presents.  They’re clever, they’re intriguing, and they have wonderful characters.  Buy all three and your local bookseller might even gift wrap them for you.

The Rest Of Us Just Live Here by Patrick Ness

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Not only has Patrick Ness created a group of friends who deserve six seasons of their own television show, he’s put them into a brilliant spoof of popular YA fiction trends.   Mikey and his friends just want to graduate high school and get on with their lives, but the “indie kids” in their school keep having to save the world from vampires or zombies or whatever eerie blue lights keep showing up in the darkness.  Patrick Ness’s subversion of the “chosen one” trend is witty and charming but also tremendously moving. Mikey, Mel, Henna, and Jared all have to fight their own battles in terms of mental health and identity, while the fantastical events around theme act as mere backdrop. I loved the notion of focusing on kids who aren’t the “chosen ones,” but just have to live there, doing their best to fall in love and find their place while the world keeps falling apart around them.  Give this book to someone who has already read a ton of YA – fantasy or realistic or both – and wants something totally unique for the summer.

2. Rebel Of The Sands by Alwyn Hamilton

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For someone who has already read all the fantasy books you can think of, or someone who is tired of Euro-centric settings for their magical worlds, try this new gun-slinging adventure inspired by the 1001 Arabian Nights.  It’s the best of American Westerns (sharp shooters, fights on speeding trains) mixed with Middle Eastern mythology.  Amani needs to get out of her dead-end town, Dustwalk, where her dead mother’s family hates her and the best she can hope for us an unhappy marriage.  In secret, Amani is one of the best shots around, when she’s disguised, sneaking around at night, “not up to no good,” but not “exactly up to no bad, neither.” Her chance to escape comes raging into town in the form of Jin, a fugitive and a foreigner.  Amani sees Jin as a way out.  He looks at her strange eyes and her unusual talents and sees powerful origins that might not yet be known to herself.  Rebel Of The Sands picks up speed and keeps racing across the desert to a rebel camp, creatures from stories, and a clashing of forces that will broaden Amani’s world farther than she used to ever imagine.  I was happily swept away into Alwyn Hamilton’s exciting new fantasy realm.  Amani is a heroine to cheer for, and I think determined graduates who want to get away and see wonders will love her story.  Mythology nerds and action lovers will dig this one.

3. The Raven King by Maggie Stiefvater

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The Raven Cycle is seriously the best YA series I’ve read in over a decade.  The final installment just came out, so buy it for the graduates you know who have followed Blue and her Raven Boys to the ends of the earth and beyond.  If they haven’t started the series yet, do them a favor and buy them all four.  The character development, the intense magic, the sharp dialogue, and the creative use of Welsh mythology are absolutely out of this world.  In this final installment in the quartet, all the mystifying, intricate threads from the previous books come together to weave a web that’s beautiful and heart-breaking.  Maggie Stiefvater is a master writer.  Give her books to the literature devotees in your life, or the kids who made intense groups of friends and can’t imagine a life without them.

 

Book Review: The Accident Season by Moïra Fowley-Doyle

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Star Ratings:

Characters: ***** (5 stars)

Character Development: **** (4 stars)

Plot: *** (3 stars)

Writing: **** (4 stars)

Overall: **** (4 stars)

Age range recommendation: 12 and up. (Dark but not scary, though there’s some troubling emotional and domestic abuse.)

Be it known that I read an ARC of this book, so some details may change before publication.

Wow, guys, sorry for the reviewing slump lately. I’ve been bogged down in the mire of real life, and swimming through a swamp of Things Which Must Be Done. All marsh-y metaphors aside, I’ve been traveling, busy, and just generally uninspired. But The Accident Season was the sort of YA book that could tempt me out of such a slump. It’s a stand-alone contemporary with a bit of fantasy, easy to read and spooky, with good characters and an Irish setting. Honestly, how could I resist blabbing about such a story? The Accident Season is Moïra Fowley-Doyle’s debut novel, and it will be on bookshop shelves in August.

We’re dropped into events with a rhyme and a ritual. Costumed teenagers stomping their feet and chanting inside an abandoned house, being overtaken by some energy they share. It’s October 31st, and they’ve had a bizarre month. The prologue gives us a glimpse of where every strange injury and mysterious encounter will lead: to a party, and a fire, and some alarming revelations. Then the book really begins, and Cara tells us what brought them all to that moment.

The end of October is many things: Halloween, the night of an epic party, and the conclusion of “the accident season” which plagues Cara’s family. Every year, her mother pads all the corners in their house, unplugs the appliances, and makes everyone wear extra layers for the month’s duration. Bad things just happen from beginning to end: scraped knees, car accidents, dead uncles. While Cara and her ex-step brother Sam have just accepted this odd interlude in their otherwise normal high-school lives, Alice is quietly fierce about her skepticism. Even when the accident season batters Alice worse than the rest of her family, which Cara finds strange. There might be something hidden in their childhood memories that explains cool, polished, popular Alice’s propensity for injury, but no one’s thought to dig up those experiences to find out, not when it might be the Season’s fault.

Cara, Sam, Alice, and Bea – Cara’s tarot-reading and brazen best friend – throw their Halloween party in a beautiful abandoned house, and the night is set up to be magical. They’re dressed as these changeling-children Cara saw in what may have been a vision. Even the “haunted” house seems to want their company. The thing is, they found the house while searching for their classmate Elsie, a nervous girl who somehow appears in every single one of Cara’s photos, but hasn’t appeared at school all month. When bad luck from the Accident Season, the abandoned house’s history, and various romantic tensions between the group of friends clash at the end of the month, this might be an even worse accident season than the one that killed Cara’s uncle. Unless Alice is right, and bad luck hits them for more mundane – and therefore more distressing – reasons.

I like contemporary fantasy best when it is strong in one of two ways (or both!). Stories with strange magic and haunting settings like Fiendish drag me to an uncanny corner of our world, where the bent rules of reality are specific to some well-drawn location. Series like The Raven Cycle enchant me with characters who are so real, so intense, as they discover whatever wonderful and frightening things exist around them, it almost doesn’t matter what the plot may be; I would follow them anywhere. The Accident Season sort of falls into a happy medium between my two favorite styles, never quite excelling in either but still shining in multiple places.

I enjoyed reading a YA novel set in Ireland without too big a deal being made of the setting – it felt a little foreign to me, yet totally familiar at the same time. This is a story about people and what haunts them; it could take place almost anywhere, but Fowley-Doyle chose a great place for her characters. The river that seems to call to Cara, behind the school where they all smoke, even the streets of Cork (where they find a mysterious costume shop that I now wish existed) seemed real and effortless.

But the setting and even the supernatural side to the plot weren’t what drew me into the story so thoroughly. The characters and their secrets had me hooked from early on. Cara, Alice, and their mother are three very different women, but each of them has a hint of tragedy they’re trying to cover up, and it’s easy to empathize with their irrational fears or occasional coldness. Since the narrative is from Cara’s point of view, her family can sometimes seem frustratingly closed-off or unreasonable, but she never once loses her grip on the enormous amount of love that holds them all together. Sam isn’t technically her brother, but they grew up together and you can instantly tell how heavily they lean on each other for comfort and support. I loved their constant banter of “I’m not your sister.” “If you say so, petite soeur.” It came as no surprise to me that eventually Cara started to realize why she kept reminding them that they aren’t actually siblings. I usually get put off by romance, and this one could come off as really wrong, but her feelings in this case followed such a logical path and were explained with such heart, I couldn’t help but hope for her happiness. Bea, Cara’s best friend, is a hot shit. She looks to the tarot cards for answers but also refuses to lose her head when things get magical and freaky. When some of Alices’ relationships get dangerously fraught, Bea is there to help mend things with her blend of humor and sympathy.

There’s a sense of humor trickling throughout the whole novel – a witty back and forth that fits well with the Irish high school setting – but it’s not all fun and ghosts. Searching for Elsie opens the door to new sadness. Alice’s strange coldness stems from some nasty relationship problems that made my blood boil. And the history of Sam’s father and Cara’s dead uncle is truly wretched. But strong friendships and one stunningly crazy Halloween party keep things spinning back to life whenever sorrow threatens to take over.

So much of the tension in The Accident Season comes from misunderstandings and painful secrets within this group of friends, and while sometimes I was just begging Cara to wise up about the people around her, there were other developments that surprised and impressed me. Elsie’s appearances, the metaphorical fairy people Cara thinks she sees, and even the reasons behind all those accidents are interesting enough, but if I read this book again – and I think I might – it will be to walk along the river and explore the haunted house with Cara, Sam, Alice, and Bea again.

The Darkest Part Of The Forest is out today! Here’s why I love it.

I am a foolish mortal.*  When I read (and re-read) the galley of The Darkest Part Of The Forest a couple of months ago, I was full to bursting with things to say about it.  The effort it took to not wildly bang my keyboard with exclamation point and dreadful heart symbols may have caused me to physically shake.  Holly Black has a new modern tale of Faerie out!  She’s returned – triumphant as a queen – to the genre that first ensnared me to worship her work when I was but a wee sprite!  Exclamation point!  Heart symbol!  ❤  But, alas, I never got around to rhapsodizing in print, and now the book is out in the wilderness of fine bookstores across the country (independent bookshops, please).

Rather than rushing through a full review and spoiling my chance to go into wayyyy too much detail about Faerie ballads and woodland settings and promises in folklore, allow me to shout a few more not-so-subtle votes of recommendation into the Void That Is The Internet.  Then I can write a more balanced critical review later.  With way more talk about old ballads and symbolic plants.

If I were to start talking about the plot, you’d be reading for days.  Have a quick summary, snagged from the back cover of the galley:

Children can have a cruel, absolute sense of justice.  Children can kill a monster and feel quite proud of themselves.  A girl can look at her brother and believe they’re destined to be a knight and a bard who battle evil.  She can believe she’s found the thing she’s been made for.

Hazel lives with her brother, Ben, in the strange town of Fairfold, where humans and fae exist side by side.  The faeries’ seemingly harmless magic attracts tourists, but Hazel knows how dangerous they can be, and she knows how to stop them.  Or she did, before.

At the center of it all, there is a glass coffin in the woods.  It rests right on the ground, and in it sleeps a boy with horns on his head and ears as pointy as knives.  Hazel and Ben were both in love with him as children.  The boy has slept there fore generations, never waking.

Until one day, he does…

As the world turns upside down and a hero is needed to save them all, Hazel tries to remember her years spent pretending to be a knight. But swept up in new love, shifting loyalties, and the fresh sting of betrayal, will it be enough?  (Quoted from the cover of the advance reading copy.  Little, Brown.)

So, a list.  Reasons I Am Beyond Overjoyed That Holly Black Has Written Another Faerie Book:

  • Beautiful writing It’s mature while still retaining the sharp perspective of teenaged main characters. Tithe, Valiant, and Ironside were wonderful books.  They are single-handedly responsible for my early love of urban fantasy and fantasy stories with rougher, modern, teenaged characters.  That said, they are very clearly the early work of a writer who has access to a well of folkloric knowledge going fathoms deep.  The stories are great but the prose occasionally stumbled.  The Darkest Part Of The Forest contains even better writing.  The plot is delicately knotted but never tangles, and there’s barley any clunky mythological exposition.  Events flow, characters join and leave the story’s dance with logical ease, and even the magic that alters reality follows rules that seem as natural as the moon’s cycles.
  • The characters are complex.  Even the bad faeries.  Even the humans! How tired am I of YA fantasy books that portray non-magical teenagers as vapid peasants who only care about their phones?  Pretty darn tired.  Early on in this book, Hazel attends a party around the glass coffin where the sleeping faerie boy is entombed.   These parties seem to be a generally accepted part of high school life; Hazel sees people she knows – some whom she likes, and some she would rather avoid. Our heroine doesn’t hold herself to be a higher species than her classmates and friends, though.  In fact, she’s got a reputation for kissing an awful lot of people, and has no shame in acting upon it. (Something I also liked about The Coldest Girl in Coldtown.)  The town’s football star has a changeling brother, and is totally not a meat-head about it.  And the Folk who mingle with the population of Fairfold and make the town into some border between the worlds; they’ve got complex motivations too.  Who could blame a mother for protecting her child at any cost – even if humans have to suffer for it?  Why shouldn’t a brother defend his sister’s choice even if it invites the wrath of a cruel king?  And yet, the king’s cruelty isn’t one-dimensional, either.  No matter how badly faeries or humans behave, nobody’s evil just because the story needs a villain.  And the heroes are sometimes the most selfish of all.
  • Strong sibling and family bonds!  There’s nothing that sticks a barb through my heart quite like family members struggling to protect one another.  Hazel and Ben mostly raised themselves when they were younger, thanks to their well-meaning but ill-equipped parents largely neglecting to behave like proper adults.  This is how their roles as knight and bard came to be such a huge part of each sibling’s personality.  Their loyalty to one another – this us-against-the-world mentality – keeps all the supernatural drama feeling very close to home.  Likewise, there are some families in Fairfold who are half-in and half-out of the human world.  When the Folk become a dangerous presence instead of just a novelty attraction, some townspeople get a might uppity.  It’s in those moments that family strengths are tested, and the book makes quite an emotional impact.  The local faerie court has its own share of familial discord.  The Darkest Part Of The Forest reminds us to be very grateful that our parents aren’t faerie tyrants, but also drives home how important it is to stand up for your siblings no matter the cost.
  • Faerie systems that are completely new to the genre.  When you’ve got a story about a half magical town; changelings; and disappearances to which people willingly turn a blind eye, there’s a big risk of recycling old material through a slightly different point of view.  I dig re-told legends, as you may have noticed.  (See my Thoughts On Tam Lin post from the spring for way too much legend-digging.)  The Darkest Part Of The Forest has some elements from oft-adapted ballads and tales woven throughout, but Black is a confident enough writer that she creates a faerie court that could only exist around her fictional town.  The setting and the magic grow as part of one another, with individual characters contributing hugely to the unusual environment.  Complicated curses and tricky rules are important to the action, as they usually are in faerie tales. But in this case I couldn’t predict exactly which twist of a promise would set things into motion.  Black strikes just the right balance between recognizable emblems of traditional faerie-lore and innovative modern fantasy in her newest book.  Not that I would expect anything else.
  • Speaking of things I couldn’t predict: this book had several interesting romantic storylines!  What??  That’s right, not only did I find myself unexpectedly intent upon some of the tentative couples that formed during the course of this adventure, but the development of dreaded feelings didn’t seem to pop up out of the fictional blue without invitation.  Just because a boy and a girl meet in a charged and life-changing situation, it doesn’t mean they’re fated for one another (or a boy and the boy, in some cases).  Characters can want to help one another for reasons that go beyond their hormones, but the hormones aren’t completely ignored.  Trust, friendship, and shared experiences are more effective at bringing young people together than fate or insta-attraction. Huzzah!
  • Wild and dizzying faerie revels.  They’re important to me. (See my review of Thorn Jack, which was an awkward book at times but had great fay parties.) This book did not disappoint.  Time spent with the Folk makes people bloodthirsty, fearsome, brave, and foolish.  That’s the faerie land I know and love.  More, please, Holly Black!  Your books keep getting better and better.

Do you like faerie stories?  Buy this book.  Do you like unapologetic and morally complex teen characters?  Buy this book.  Want to spend hours making notes about every reference to ballads and folklore you see?  Buy a pad of paper, and then buy this book.  Want to just tear through a fun and electrifying story to take your mind off of mundane woes?  Head to your bookstore and then settle down with this book.  THIS BOOK, FOLKS.  I’m so excited that it’s out in the world.

Five very obvious stars.

*Definitely foolish.  Other parts of that statement are under debate.

Book Review: Beware The Wild by Natalie C. Parker (coming out soon!)

Star Ratings:

Characters: **** (4 stars)

Character Development: **** (4 stars)

Plot: *** (3 stars)

Writing: **** (3 stars)

Overall: **** (4 stars)

Age range recommendation: 12 -18

I read an ARC of Beware The Wild and some details may change before publication!

I seriously dig swamp magic.  I mucked around writing half a novel about swamp faeries one Spring, and it was good fun.  The bayous down South hold me in dreadful fascination, even though I’ve never really explored that part of the country and would probably quit after an hour because of the insects.  Swamps make a great setting for mysterious or threatening otherworldly activity, with weird creatures and secrets hidden down below the slime.  Hence my excitement for this new YA novel set in Louisiana, where ghostly girls come out of the bayou and local legends mix with memories which may or may not be trustworthy.  Beware The Wild is Natalie C. Parker’s first book, and I’m excited to see it in bookstores because there can never be too many creepy swamp stories.  This is a good one.

Sterling is distraught that her older brother, Phineas, will be leaving their tiny Louisiana town for college soon.  She’s always looked to him for protection, but now he’s just going to disappear.  That is, she’s sad about him leaving until he really disappears into the spooky swamp that haunts the borders of town – the swamp that’s home to all sorts of unhappy legends, where no one dares tread and which no one will admit has something sinister at its heart.  Once Phin crosses the border, Sterling becomes terrified that her brother won’t ever return in one piece.  And things only get weirder when a girl comes out of the swamp and takes his place, quite literally replacing Phineas in everyone else’s memories and even in physical evidence.  No one believes that Sterling had a brother; not her parents, not her friends, no one except for Heath. Because Heath lost his best friend to the swamp, too, and has been carrying Nathan’s memory on his own ever sense.  Even while false memories of a sisterhood with this mysterious Lenora May threaten to take over Sterling’s desperation to save her brother, she and Heath hang on to what they know is true and try to face the twisted magic which makes the swamp so dangerous.

Wow, so, the plot of Beware The Wild really hits the ground running.  Phin has disappeared by page three, and the swamp demands our attention from the very first sentence.  The girl who comes out of the swamp – Lenora May – establishes herself as a mysteriously compelling tangle in Sterling’s suddenly messed-up life before we even see inside of the high school.  And that’s only chapter one!  The family drama, friendship dynamics, and past romantic tensions come to light gradually, as Sterling grapples with her memories.  She thinks she’ll have to rescue Phin on her own at first, which would obviously be difficult, and the swamp’s background gets clearer as she struggles to come up with a plan. Sterling’s own history solidifies gradually, too. Her voice is well-defined, and the town’s spooky ambiance is believable, so I was able to accept each revelation as it came. The magical solutions which Sterling and Heath use to save their friends were dishearteningly simple in their execution, but the magical logic behind their attempts was sound enough to keep me reading.

The legends connected to the swamp took on different cadences depending upon who told them.  Mrs. Clary at the general store is a bit mystical, so her superstitions had me convinced that something awful lives beyond the boundaries.  Candy – Sterling’s best friend – is a hardcore skeptic who just happens to love telling the local scary stories.  A good mix of very American characters from all perspectives – on matters magical as well as sociable – made for a realistic, modern variety of of attitudes towards whatever danger lies just beyond rational belief.

As Sterling and Heath soon come to understand, the line between memory and belief can get fuzzy when no one else can remember the truth.

For the most part, the characters were developed nicely.  None of them will become favorites of 2014 for me, but they were fun and passionate; likable products of such a cool setting.  I thought that the villainous figure could have been developed much further, though with so much going on and quite a few twists I guess there wasn’t much space for even more exposition.

The writing was fairly strong, especially for a debut. First-person present-tense narratives usually bug me, but the pacing and narrative worked well together, here. I loved how certain details were allowed to slip through the cracks for a little while, until the reader could suddenly realize that something (or someone) was missing at the same time that Sterling notices.  The suspense took on the logic of dreams at those moments, in a consistent way that created a uniquely alarming effect.  Rather than being a jumpy or gory horror novel, Beware The Wild sustains a vaguely sinister tension up through its conclusion, with a few light breaks for awkward dates and emotionally fraught snack attacks.

On the subject of snacks: anyone struggling with an eating disorder might want to give Beware The Wild a miss for now, since Sterling has many a Bad Food Thought. Her decisions and motives are clearly influenced by starvation in several instances.  Other characters definitely act as the voice of reason against Sterling’s worrying behavior, but, as in Brandy Colbert’s Pointe (which I enjoyed but also deals with an ED) the main character’s inner narrative is very prevalent.  Therefore, whenever Sterling throws out a meal or lies about what she’s eaten, her rationalizations become part of the story.  All that sound advice from Candy, Phin, Heath, and other healthy characters comes after a strong emotional aversion to feeding herself properly. For most readers, this will just be an interesting point of character development.  And, rest assured, Sterling does change her attitude towards food as the book goes on.  Unfortunately, for those of us who have also looked for reasons not to eat – especially those of us who thought not eating could make us stronger, somehow – the element of starvation here could easily be a trigger.  So proceed with caution, please!

I recommend Beware The Wild to fans of American ghost stories and superstition junkies.  People who like intriguingly claustrophobic settings for their paranormal drama.  Teenagers with complicated feelings about their families, and anyone who daydreams about how they’ll be remembered when they’re gone.  (I, for one, have spent many an hour wondering how best to achieve immortality through other peoples’ stories.  Even if it’s just, “Don’t do that or you’ll end up like Sarah.”  A cautionary legend, if you will.  The impact of forgetting in this book hit my dreamy side hard.)

Beware The Wild has an atmosphere and themes in common with Beautiful Creatures and (Don’t You) Forget About Me, even though I liked Beware The Wild much better than either of those.   The rich setting and bizarre twists were comparable, but Parker managed to make her characters and magic more accessible, even when we have to get to know them on the fly.  It wasn’t quite so stunning as Franny Billingsley’s Chime, but honestly I can’t imagine anything replacing Chime in my affections. This book has found a place on the high end of my bog-magic list, nonetheless.

The magic in this particular swamp is unique in its function, but hauntingly familiar in the way that it seeps into the sort of fears we try to ignore: that of forgetting, but also of loving too hard, and giving up hope.  A good swamp story is fertile ground for those worries, playing them back to us on a seemingly natural stage, where something unnatural lurks under every root and rock.  Natalie C. Parker’s threatening but lovely swamp has drudged up a ghost story, and a couple of love stories, which will be a welcome addition to the Southern Gothic YA genre.

Book Review: 100 Sideways Miles by Andrew Smith

Toot-tootle-oo! (That’s that medieval trumpet sound of oh-hey-big-news, but you’ll have to imagine it sounding more impressive than the phonetic sounds I just typed out…)  The National Book Award’s long list for Young People’s Literature has been announced!  I’ve read three of the books already: Skink – No SurrenderBrown Girl Dreaming (I reviewed it here), and 100 Sideways Miles.  I really badly want to read The Greenglass House (after reading the Book Smugglers’ praise of it), Revolution, and Port Chicago 50.  In celebration of these books getting recognized – congratulations to one and all, by the way – I think I should write a quick review of 100 Sideways Miles, which I actually read on Thursday, not knowing it would be on the list.  I read an ARC of the book, but you should check out the hardcover if you can because the inside jacket has a cool little picture for curious peekers.

Star Ratings for 100 Sideways Miles

Characters: **** (4 stars)

Character Development: *** (3 stars)

Plot: *** (3 stars)

Writing: **** (4 stars)

Overall: ***1/2 (3 1/2 stars)

Age Range Recommendation: 14 + (Lots of language, talk of sex)

Andrew Smith is a weird-ass writer.  He writes weird-ass books, and they’re not for everyone.  Personally, I think they’re pretty funny.  He has a talent for embodying the voice of a certain type of teenage boy, and he continues to do it well.  Those teenage boys are usually in wack-attack-y situations, think Grasshopper apocalypses and rough boarding school experiences, in some of his earlier books.  And the supporting characters tend to be really, erm, memorable.  100 Sideways Miles continues in this fine tradition, and will probably appeal to fans of John Green’s more outlandish novels or the surprisingly relatable books by Meg Rosoff.

I don’t really know how to go about describing the plot of 100 Sideways Miles.  Finn has seizures, sometimes, and he has an always-inappropriate best friend who has everyone in the palm of his hand, and he has a dad who once wrote a SciFi novel with a cult following.  He has a crush on this beautiful new girl at school, a powerful need to beak free from his father’s literary shadow, and a big scar on his back from when a dead horse fell from the sky and crushed him and killed his mother.  Finn measures time in distance, because in the space of one second the Earth hurtles 20 miles through space, so basically every little thing that happens on the surface moves very little in comparison.  Finn and Cade and Julia break into abandoned buildings, camp drunk, and make terrible dirty jokes.  Finn tries to find a way to free himself from his father’s book, because he feels like too much of that weird story about alien visitors coming to Earth and then eating people is based on him.  Or he’s based on it. Or something.

Even though everyone’s always worried about the possibility of Finn “blanking out” and getting hurt, he and Cade plan a trip to go see a college, but the trip doesn’t go as planned.  The become unlikely heroes, sort of, and come to understand life better, maybe.  The plot doesn’t matter so very much; it’s not what kept me reading.  I liked the strength of friendship between these two rather different boys, and the witty banter.  I’ll remember the occasional striking moment when all of Earth seems to slow down for just a second and make a little bit of sense, just because one confused teenage boy looks at how far it’s carrying us in the grander scheme of things.  There’s a lot of swearing, because that’s how high school boys can be honest with each other without sounding like utter tools.  There’s some awkward condom buying and bizarre sexual favors, because, um, hormones exist.  If it weren’t for the strange parallels to Finn’s father’s writing, or the weird turns of events near the end of the story, I would call this a very solid work of realistic teen fiction.  The stuff about “getting out of the book” seemed a little forced to me, and the pacing was slow in the beginning and then rushed at the end.  Still, it’s fun to read about the comical (and sometimes profound) interactions between characters in situations which are almost like the ones regular teenagers have to face all the time, just skewed a little to be surprising and entertaining.

Grownups aren’t entirely absent in 100 Sideways Miles, and some of them are pretty interesting (Cade loves to torture this one history teacher who dressed up like a Nazi to make history “come alive”, and eventually stresses the guy to death), but they’re not important.  Julia is a very realistic girl, not necessarily quirky or “special” or “not like other girls”. She is like other girls, for the most part, but she happens to be the one that Finn falls in love with.  I liked that.  She’s also black, and the two of them talk about that without making it a big issue.  I liked that too.  She has an unhappy event in her past which I thought could have been treated a little more thoughtfully, and their quick feelings for one another grew out of almost nothing, but I appreciated the natural interactions between the two of them.

Anyway, the relationship that matters most is that between Cade and Finn.  Cade is…well… he honestly steals the show a lot of the time.   Which is kind of the point: he makes people laugh and makes things happen and Finn is ok with that.  Aside from the distasteful jokes and his weird obsession with certain body parts, I can see why people like to be around Cade so much.  He keeps things lively.  And the friendship between the two boys is what keeps 100 Sideways Miles lively, too.  They look out for one another.  They humiliate one another, which made me laugh to remember how much of high school I spent cringing in embarrassment around my own friends.  People and conversations are what Andrew Smith is best at. Luckily, I think that there are plenty of teens who like those qualities to shine in the books they choose.  So this will be a book for them; the readers who write down quotes and see their friends as characters.

I’m still rooting for Brown Girl Dreaming to win the National Book Award, but I’m glad to see that Andrew Smith got some recognition for this fresh and entertaining book.  I’ll leave you with a quote I particularly liked, to prove that there are some real winners scattered throughout the text.  (It’s quoted from the ARC and may have changed slightly since publication.)

“Worry and regret are both useless weights that provide no drag.  They never did anything to slow down the planet for one goddamned second.”

And good luck to anyone who closes this book and would rather forget that the planet is careening through space at a sickening speed.  It took me hundreds of miles to even finish two sentences.  I think that however far the Earth takes you while you’re reading this book, it’ll be a trip worth taking.

Book Review: The Young World by Chris Weitz

I intended to review The Young World a month ago, but it seems to have slipped my mind.  Oops!  Then, last night I went to see The Purge 2: Anarchy. I must say that it was a surprisingly enjoyable film.  Lots of violence and a scary concept, but there wasn’t too much gore and it inspired some lively conversation when my friend and I left the cinema.  The lawless city streets, the roving bands of violent figures, and the fearful distrust of other people all reminded me of The Young World.  It got me thinking about the book again.  There was even a group of teenagers in scary masks, terrorizing people who would have been right at home in Chris Weitz’s book.  Now that my memory’s been jogged, here’s what I thought of The Young World, which will hit shelves at the end of this month.

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Star Ratings for The Young World:

Characters: *** (3 stars)

Character Development: *** (3 stars)

Plot: **** (4 stars)

Writing: **** (4 stars)

Overall: ***1/2 (3 1/2 stars)

Age range recommendation: 14 and up (violence, sex, language)

Be it known: I read an advanced reading copy of The Young World, and some details may have changed by the time of publication.

All the adults are dead.  The Sickness killed off everyone over 18, and all the little kids, leaving only teenagers alive to pick up the pieces.  It didn’t take long for New York City to lose all semblance of order, as survivors form tribes and gangs based on where they once lived with their families.  Without adults to keep the cogs and wheels of the world turning, money means nothing and food is getting scarce.  There is no law on the street, and very little reason to maintain a safe or healthy lifestyle.  Because the sickness isn’t done with them, and around someone’s 18th birthday their body starts to grow up.  Their hormones think they’re becoming an adult, and they die.

With a life expectancy of no more than six years remaining for all the survivors, it’s no wonder kids turn to violence and despair.  Clan warfare turns the city into a battleground, even though most kids just want to protect themselves and their friends for a few more years of canned food and remembered music.  The teenagers living in Washington Square Park try to keep things pretty peaceful, even though gangs like the once-spoiled, once-rich kids from Central Park like to come around and exchange bullets now and then.  But living to see another day doesn’t mean much when you’ve got so few days remaining.  Someone needs to find a solution, a way to bring back the possibility of a future.  A small group of friends follows an improbable hypothesis on a quest through New York City, hoping to discover a cure and find a reason to re-build society.

Right off the bat, I’m going to admit that I’m predisposed in favor of this book. I love stories about young people facing peril without any adults around.  I wrote my dissertation on how the violence in books like Peter Pan and Lord Of The Flies springs from the sudden freedom from grown-up intervention. I’m a huge nerd about this sort of thing. So even when The Young World fell into tired cliches or leaned too heavily on cinematic action sequences, I had a good time reading it.  This is the sort of story that launches itself at its readers, more than anything.  You’ve got to just watch the action unfold without trying to read too deeply into every character and event. 

Christopher Weitz directed several big-screen adaptions of popular books.  His writing shows that he’s very comfortable with the genre, and the story holds together through the whole book.  But it’s the action scenes and snappy dialogue which really keep the pages turning.  Yeah, there are moments which will be predictable to anyone who has been to the cinema in the past twenty years.  A character seems to die and comes back to kick some ass and rescue our heroes later.  There’s a lot of stumbling around in the dark.  Huge and scary wild animals – escaped from the zoo, don’t ya know  – appear with teeth a’ gnashin’ in unexpected places. This is a YA post-catastrophe thriller, packed with action scenes described in such a way that the inevitable film practically writes itself.  While some readers might find the relentless hostilities and constant one-liners wearisome after a while, there’s just enough character development to keep the story grounded even as it makes full speed ahead.

The Young World is narrated in alternating chapters, both told in the first person.  Jeff (Jefferson) finds himself in a stressful leadership position after his older brother Wash (short for Washington, poor fellas) turns eighteen and quickly succumbs to the sickness.  Jefferson wants to bring order and hope back to the clan of teens who live in Washington Square.  Someone needs to protect them from the vicious Uptowners, but he isn’t nearly so cut out for the job as his charismatic brother was.  Donna was friends with the brothers, possibly a little in love with Wash, so his death hits her hard.  She’s got a bit of medical expertise – invaluable knowledge in this life without trained professionals – and tries not to let herself get shaken by any of the horror they have to face.  But times are weird, and Donna’s the first one to admit that.  While Jeff’s chapters show his attempts to remain measured and calm, she is very real; conversational and up-front about her own needs and fears and doubts.  I felt like I could really get inside both Jeff and Donna’s heads during their chapters.  Having two unique perspectives on the hard decisions ahead of them created a good sense of balance and tension.  They can admit their own inherent prejudices and self-centered concerns to the reader in ways they don’t dare say out loud.  I also liked the way that both our narrators (but especially Donna) would point out the obvious connections between the sort of apocalypses we fantasize about nowadays – in our shows and books and video games – and their reality after The Sickness.  She knows they’re living through a cheesy trilogy and can almost laugh at the irony in their desperation.  But not too loudly, ’cause laughter might draw enemy fire.

Some supporting characters were a little one dimensional, mostly because our band of protagonists encounter so many groups of kids on their journey.  Of-bloody-course the tiny Asian girl is a martial arts whiz.  The younger kids who live underground are bedecked in Hot Topic and cling to pop culture.  The rich offspring of Manhattan’s wealthy elite behave like entitled assholes even while they try to establish some sick form of order, but the only given reason for their douchebaggery is the fact that they used to be rich.  But maybe that’s how it would really be?  Maybe the fear of losing privilege, in a world where money suddenly means nothing and resentments abound, could turn teenaged jackasses into violent pimps and racist tyrants.  I guess that isn’t so far-fetched after all.  

Then there were a few nifty twists on the usual stereotypes in this sort of story.  The NYPL should be a safe haven for those characters who believe in the powers of knowledge and reason, but something’s horribly wrong – really downright spooky – within those hallowed shelves.  The kids in Harlem have re-purposed police cars to suit their own needs, now that the grown men who liked to bully them for years have finally died off. I was super excited when a boating excursion made up part of their adventure, and thought the Captain was super cool. (He is delightfully uninhibited in pointing out that sheltered kids like Jeff and Donna are wrong to assume that black kids from harsher neighborhoods wouldn’t know how to sail.)  Add some hyped-up pre-teens, armed to the teeth and bent on commandeering the boat, and I’m entirely on board.  (Ugh, pirate puns.  I’m not actually sorry.)

I don’t usually go for the apocalyptic, dystopian, catastrophe, bio-terrorism stuff.  It doesn’t really interest me, and sicknesses are gross.  But the premise of The Young World – bands of teenagers facing off against each other and their own quickened mortality – was unique enough to keep me engaged.  It’s interesting to wonder how quickly we would slide into chaos if the millions of adults who move gasoline through pipes, electricity through wires, and seeds through the soil – all those other imperatives for everyday life – suddenly disappeared.   It’s interesting to witness what the violence might look like, when growing up is a literal death sentence and the future of humanity looks to have around six years left.  Interesting, and exciting, but not necessarily pleasant.  The book sets up for an obvious sequel after a (too) big twist at the adventure’s climax.  Nonetheless, I had fun reading The Young World.  I got drawn into the action and really wanted our heroes to succeed on their far-fetched quest for a reason to keep hoping. 

I recommend The Young World to anyone who likes their scary visions of the future to be action-packed rather than political.  People who liked the Purge movies might like it, as the aesthetics are quite similar.  (I still can’t get that bone-chilling masked kid with the machete out of my mind.  He would have fit into this book world very well.)  So would anyone who likes to read post-catastrophe novels to see how different authors envision the end of society.  The teen characters have authentic voices, and characters come from all walks of life.  The gore and language and depravity don’t stop the book from making some interesting points about what we take for granted, so while it’s not for squeamish readers I wouldn’t call this a gratuitously horrific book, either.

All the references to movies and iphones and fashion trends will surely sound old-fashioned in even a year or two.  But the notion of kids facing their own natures – chaotic, despairing, or hopeful natures – when there’s no adults to regulate them has inspired writers for over a century.  I hope it continues to be a subject people write about, whether it includes kids flying around fighting pirates in their pajamas, or teenagers shooting their way through hostile city streets.  And also fighting pirates.

Book Review: Conversion by Katherine Howe

Star Ratings for Conversion:

Characters: **** (4 stars)

Character Development: **** (4 stars)

Plot: **** (4 stars)

Writing: ***** (5 stars)

Overall: **** (4 stars)

Age range recommendation: 12 and up

This YA novel by Catherine Howe (author of The Physick Book Of Deliverance Dane) is about quite a few subjects I like. Catholic school! Teenage hysteria! Mysteries! Witchcraft! Friendship! Katherine Howe took some fairly common subjects in YA and made them original through some plausible plot twists and good historical detail.

The story in Conversion unfolds in two different timelines. Most prominently, in modern times, are the events surrounding St. Joan’s Academy, where teenage girls are falling ill with no rhyme or reason. It starts out in Colleen’s homeroom, where the popular and (usually) utterly poised Clara suddenly dissolves into violent twitches and tics. Soon enough, Clara’s friends and then dozens of other girls fall victim to the strange disease which seems to defy all classification and remedy. A media storm and internal drama won’t let Colleen’s already stressful last year of high school continue on as usual, but she’s a focused and driven main character who tries not to buy into the sensationalism all around her. Until one of her own best friends gets sick. While the drama unfolds around her, Colleen is reading The Crucible for extra credit, assigned to her by the mysterious substitute teacher. She starts to see parallels between historical Salem and the events unfolding on the same land right now. Could the afflicted girls be faking it, or truly suffering from something outside their control?

source: youtube

Then there are “interlude” chapters throughout Colleen’s narrative, which take us back to 17th century Salem Village. Same place, different time, and an utterly dreadful chapter in American history. The interludes are told from Anne Putnam’s point of view: one of the girls who was instrumental in accusing the condemned women and men. In the aftermath of the infamous trials, after she’s had years to reflect on her actions, Anne Putnam wants to confess that their accusations were false. (This really happened, by the way.) She describes the events leading up to the girls’ testimonies: their lives at home, how the younger girls first came to act possessed, and the encouragements heaped upon them by devout authority figures. Anne wants to be understood, and maybe along the way she can come to understand what inspired her friends and herself to ruin so many lives. In the past and in the present, nobody has clear motives, and even the best intentions can lead to serious harm.

Being from Massachusetts myself, I already knew quite a lot about the witchcraft hysteria. But Howe describes it vividly – without unnecessary embellishment – so that even readers who are less familiar with the subject will become immersed in the action quickly. Katherine Howe is a lecturer in American Studies at Cornell, so I trusted that her portrayal of events would be laced with careful research, even if creative liberties changed the plot a bit. She actually drew inspiration from the mystery sickness in Le Roy, NY (2012), deciding to set it near Salem to show similarities to historical events. This was a neat touch, but the book is easily enjoyed even without that bonus fact. The Salem history is much more important. I really liked how Colleen’s teacher encouraged her to look at a character who was written out of Arthur Miller’s play, in order to get a clearer picture of the social and historical context of very real events. Enigmatic teachers are always a good addition to YA set in schools, and Ms. Slater is no exception.

It takes some creepy anonymous text messages and one nosy little brother to get Colleen really immersed in the similarities between her classmates’ behaviors and the famous trials, but soon enough she’s drawing conclusions that range from almost too easy (they must be faking) to utterly far-fetched (is one girl causing these afflictions with her mind?). Different theories seem likely as the disorder weaves its way through the girls at school, and I was never quite sure if the story would follow through with the occultish vibes which start to build. The uncertainty was a good thing, though. No one knows what’s going on; not the teachers, not the girls, not their parents, not the media. And it’s in the ways that people deal with potential disaster that we see how easily fear can take hold of an entire community.

The plot of Conversion was interesting, and the mystery took a suitably windy course to the (slightly anti-climactic) conclusion, but my favorite aspect of the book was definitely the main characters. Colleen and her friends aren’t saints or detectives, they just want to get through their last year of high school and find some certainty in their futures. Colleen is agonizing about college next year. Anjali’s intense relationships with both her boyfriend and her close friends are shaken when she gets sick. Deena is a beacon of sanity in tough times, but she has her own future to think about while everyone else loses touch with what matters. And Emma, Colleen’s oldest friend, is bothered by something secret and painful that Colleen can’t quite figure out. The other girls at school aren’t developed nearly as well as these four. I do wish Clara’s popularity had been explained a little better, and that punk-y “The Other Jennifer” had become a major character rather than just hovering in the periphery. There’s a bit of romance (surprisingly likeable romance!!), and some people aren’t nearly what they seem, but all these extra attachments are secondary to Colleen, Anjali, Deena, and Emma. Their worlds revolve around each other. Or so Colleen would like to think.

In books about school scandals, it’s easy to see how adults could be simple stereotypes filling in required roles. Some of the adults are rather shallow, but the teachers especially are sympathetic portrayals of people struggling to make the right decision when they’re in way over their heads. I love it when children’s and YA books make it clear that grown-ups are just as confused as kids are, only they’re often responsible for so much more than just themselves. The calamity at St. Joan’s brings out noble qualities in some characters, selfish ones in others, and the stakes just keep getting higher. Kind of like what happened in Salem, eh? I started reading Conversion because the plot caught my attention, but it was the characters who kept me reading.

I recommend Conversion to both teenaged and adult readers, especially those who like private school stories and small town drama. I really liked the historical interludes, but the modern story is compelling enough on its own that you don’t need a previous interest in the witch trials to read the book. Conversion takes a tense and sympathetic look at stressed-out teenagers in a weird situation without ever turning into an out-of-control melodrama. No matter if they’re lairs, cursed, or sick: you’ll want to stick with these girls ’til the end to figure out what’s going on.

Some books to read if you liked Conversion:

The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane by Katherine Howe

The Fever by Megan Abbott

A Break With Charity by Ann Rinaldi

The Witch Of Blackbird Pond by Elizabeth George Speare

Witch Child by Celia Rees

Summer Camp Rec: Say What You Will by Cammie McGovern (if you liked The Fault In Our Stars)

Oh, right, summer camp is a thing… And the season is upon us! All of a sudden, school is out and young people are being shipped off to learn how to despise teamwork, or shoot arrows at hay bales, or bathe in bugspray to no avail. At least, that’s what I remember about my own experiences at Girl Scout camp so very long ago. I also remember the one hour of “me time” each afternoon, when we would hide in our mosquito netting and write letters to other friends at other camps, read, or nap. I always ran out of books halfway through the week and had to write my own stories for the remaining muggy, buggy days. There’s a strange joy in hiding in one’s sleeping bag – nearly suffocating – to read with a penlight after everyone’s supposed to be asleep.

These past few weeks I’ve had a parade of kids, teens, and parents coming to the bookshop to stock up for a week or month of summer adventures away from home. I guess quiet breaks are still part of daily life, and electronics aren’t encouraged at a lot of camps, so entertaining books are in high demand! Huzzah! Occasionally, I get asked for recommendations, either by kids who just don’t know what to read next or by parents who aren’t sure what would fit comfortably with their child’s interests. This is pretty much my favorite kind of question to get at work.

So, if you’re not sure what to pack for a few weeks away from home, I’ve got some suggestions. I always ask, “What’s the last book you/your kid really liked?” before I recommend something.  (Tip to parents: talk to your damn kids!  Find out what they’ve actually enjoyed reading!  You might find that they’re not such mysterious creatures after all.) Over the next few days, I’m going to post some of my favorite books to add to kids’ overstuffed backpacks, based on the most popular requests.

 

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If you liked… The Fault In Our Stars by John Greene

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Ok, so this book is absurdly popular right now.  I liked it very much when I read it a couple of years ago (though I like Green’s An Abundance of Katherines better, because it’s so freakin’ funny).  But it’s a little weird that everyone is either heading straight for this book or looking for something just like it.  I guess this means the movie was good?  (I haven’t seen it yet but I should.)  Or a lot of customers have heard all about it and just have to know what made their friends talk so passionately about fictional teenagers.  When I’m asked for a book similar to The Fault In Our Stars I try not to limit my suggestion to only more John Green books.  People can work that out on their own.  My current favorite book of a similar theme and genre is Cammie McGovern’s book Say What You Will.

a.k.a. Amy & Matthew for all you British readers

a.k.a. Amy & Matthew for all you British readers

It’s another realistic YA novel with an actual believable romance between characters dealing with real-life stuff beyond the average high school drama.   In his senior year, Matthew gets a job helping out a girl in his grade with cerebral palsy.  It’s a big deal for him to do something like that, since his unrecognized OCD symptoms make certain parts of daily life really difficult.  But Amy liked the fact that he wasn’t so falsely up-beat around her as most everyone else, and asked him to give it a try.

As for Amy, she wants to have a year of school without an adult aide following her around everywhere. Matthew was right: it keeps her from making real friends.  Amy needs help with her mobility and uses a computer to communicate, but she’s smart and funny and tired of being “an inspiration” to people who don’t really know her.  With Matthew and her other new helpers, Amy hopes to make actual friends who could get to know the real her. High school social life isn’t so straightforward as Amy imagined, though, and the characters she meets through Matthew and the others are all going through their own difficulties, some more nicely than others.  Amy’s knack for understanding other people makes her want to help Matthew work through his mental illness and confront the parts of himself he tries to silence.  As they reveal more of their true selves to one another, Amy and Matthew run the risk of falling too hard and shattering the most important friendship in their lives.

I like Say What You Will for several reasons.  First of all, disabled characters as actual characters!  And not only does Amy have a vivid personality, she expressly reacts against peoples’ pity and falseness around her when they don’t know how to behave through their discomfort.  Reading her thoughts makes it clear that patience and effort are the most important thing when trying to relate to people – not false cheeriness.  The interactions between Amy (whose disability is immediately apparent), and Matthew (who tries to hide his inner turmoil) are honest; with all the hidden angst and sharp humor you would expect between two smart teenagers.

In fact, pretty much everyone seems real and human.  There are no real villains in this book, just people who make the wrong choices, or (even worse) people who are doing things for all the wrong reasons.  Teenage characters totally steal the show, like they do in John Green’s books, but the grown-ups have their own moments and mistakes here, too.  It’s a great illustration of how everyone’s just trying to get by the best they can, and how important it is to tell people that they’re important to you.

But it’s not just an introspective character study: there’s drama and miscommunication, prom disasters, smuggled booze, cinema hide-outs, and embarrassing technological malfunctions.  A great deal of Amy and Matthew’s communication exists through e-mail and text, since they’re often separated and talking doesn’t always come easy to the couple.  Near the end of the book, one crisis after another makes it seem like everything might fall apart.  But, unlike in everyone’s favorite Tragedy Of The Summer up there (even though The Fault In Our Stars actually came out in 2012), the stars are a little kinder to our sweet couple in Cammie McGovern’s book.

Teens who liked the complex teenagers making their own damn [hard] decisions in TFIOS will probably appreciate the imperfect but thoughtful characters in Say What You Will.  Those of you who want to read more about young people struggling through difficult experiences – doing so without the author throwing them a pity-party – will find a careful and heartfelt depiction of what it’s like to live with extra obstacles in every single day.  Say What You Will takes place over a year and then some, so it’s not technically a summer book.  But it would make a great camp read because the characters are addicting – readers will want to hang out with them some more and find out what they do next – but the story is realistic and touching and fun.

No unexpected horrors lie within these pages, so you won’t be hearing scary noises outside your cabin at night unless there really is something out there.  (Sorry, campers. Noises are part of the fun, but your books don’t have to make it worse.)  And the summer scenes are pretty wonderful: lots of sneaking around behind  meddlesome parents’ backs.  So, you know, real stuff.  Just written into a touching, funny, strong story.  Pack a second book if you’re heading away for a week or more, though, because Say What You Will is a fast read which will be over too soon once you become a part of Amy and Matthew’s friendship.

Book Review: Talker 25 by Joshua McCune

Star Ratings (out of 5):

Characters: *** (3 stars)

Character development: *** (3 stars)

Plot: ***1/2 (3 1/2 stars)

Writing: **1/2 (2 1/2 stars)

Overall: *** (3 stars)

Age range recommendation: 12 and up

In the not-too-distant future, America has a dragon problem.  No one knows how or why they arrived, but the enormous creatures destroy towns and eat humans.  The medieval fears weren’t myths after all, but instead of knights in metal armor, mankind now faces the threat with special military divisions and dragon-slaying reality TV.

Sporty, sullen Melissa Callahan has always hated the dragons; they killed her mother and present a constant threat to her military town.  When some friends convince her to join them on a prank – breaking into the “rez” and taking photos with the big blue dragon there – she unwittingly sets off a chain of events which will jeopardize her family’s lives and shatter her illusions about the war between man and monster.  Melissa can hear the dragons talking, and it’s hard to see a creature as nothing but scales and teeth when it knows your name and wants to chat.  Soon enough, she finds herself set up, trapped, and caught in a battle between a group of renegade pro-dragon insurgents and the military “D-men.”  Both sides want to exploit her talents as a “talker,” and every choice seems to drag Melissa deeper into moral quandary of deceit, double-dealing, and political turmoil.

This debut YA novel caught my attention for several reasons.  Most importantly, it’s been too long since I read a great new dragon book for teenagers.  I’ve got old favorites from elementary and middle school, and there are obviously some exciting adult fantasy books with plenty of dragon action. But what with the futuristic bent of Young Adult literature these days, my scaly friends have been unjustly ignored.  So when an action-packed, modern dragon story came into my sights, you can bet I sank my claws right into it.

I was also intrigued by the concept of dragons in America, set on a “reservation”, inaccurately thinking that this would be a story which featured Native American protagonists as well as dragons.  It’s old news that fiction for children and teens still needs way more diversity amongst characters and authors. A mythology largely inspired by European folklore transported to a modern American reservation could have been a really excellent blending of worlds, if written well.  Alas, though certain characters could conceivably have Native American heritage, the “reservations” had nothing to do with tribal lands.  The military-suburban town where Melissa lives and attends school is fairly commonplace for white suburbia, except for the fact that everything is painted black (since dragons have trouble seeing that color when looking from the sky for prey) and everyone’s parents are professionally invested in some sort of national security. The later settings of the novel — which include rugged secret hideaways, unreal reality TV sets, and terrifyingly remote military camps — are much more exciting than Melissa’s hometown but strangely less vivid.  McCune’s descriptive style definitely lost steam as Talker 25 progressed, though the plot was charged enough to keep me interested in how things would turn out.

My favorite part of Talker 25 was unquestionably the dragons themselves.  All the flying around and inter-species alliances were interesting enough, like a more inventive Eragon (with much better writing).  But it was the different voices for each draconian character, and the various personalities Melissa encountered as she navigated the frightening world as a “talker”, which really made a good impression.  Conversations between Melissa and the of-course-he’s-handsome rebel lad who befriends her sounded very canned  now and then.  Even amongst military personnel and the rock-stars of the dragon slaying media, dialogue felt stunted at times.  Luckily, this is not the case with the dragons.  Some really are bloodthirsty nightmares full of spiteful fire.  Some are old and tired, just wanting to be left in peace on their comfortable mountain tops.  Fans of Patricia C. Wrede’s Enchanted Forest Chronicles will be pleased to meet more than a few devastatingly sarcastic creatures.  A few young dragons can only communicate through feelings and physical expression, and one baby in particular will probably win the hearts of even the most skeptical readers.  Human characters’ bonds with various dragon are significantly more emotional than their bonds with each other, in this book.  Maybe in the coming sequels I will care more about Melissa’s discoveries about her family, and perhaps in further books the fraught romantic elements might make a little more sense.  But based on McCune’s debut, I hope that he plays to his strength in future writing and gives us a lot more dragon dialogue and fewer formulaic human characters.

People will definitely be touting Talker 25 as “The Hunger Games with dragons,” and it’s not an entirely inaccurate label. This book checks off several themes which are getting pretty repetitive in popular, futuristic YA fiction. The violence against conscripted young people; the omnipresent government spooks; the teenagers working under captivity; the gore and mental trauma; even the shock-factor reality TV angle are all present here.  I found several of these elements to be rather unnecessary, though they did make way for some big plot points in the second half of the book, when style and pacing started to lag and something had to keep the story going.

Even though Talker 25 has trouble containing McCune’s energetic ideas, and despite some flaws with style and pacing, I had lots of fun reading this new futuristic YA adventure story.  It was gritty and stressful, and I’m intrigued enough to think that I’ll try to read the inevitable sequel.  My advice to would-be readers is this: try to see this debut novel as a modern fantasy story instead of just another grim teenage thriller with the odd magical creature thrown in.  If you focus on the dragons and the fresh take on knights training  for battle, then the gratuitous make-over scenes and underdeveloped government goons might just fade into background noise.  Because the dragons are great and the concept is fun. If you’re after an exciting series with a few unexpected twists then give McCune a try.  Ever since finishing the book I’ve been gravitating towards my collection of great dragon books from a decade ago, and if this starts a new scaly trend in YA fiction I’ll be happier than a hungry wyvern in a field full of slow-moving cattle.

High School Books Part III: The Basic Eight by Daniel Handler

I loved this book so much I took selfies with it.

Star Ratings

Characters: ***** (5 stars)

Character Development: **** (4 stars)

Plot: **** (4 stars)

Writing: ***** (5 stars)

Overall: ***** (5 stars)

Age recommendation: 16+

The Basic Eight was definitely my favorite of the three high school books I read last week.  In fact, I think it might be my favorite novel set in a high school of all time.  And I really like books about young people behaving badly, so that’s saying quite a lot.  I know that July’s not over yet, but I’d venture to say that this was the top book of my month.

The premise of The Basic Eight was exactly the sort of thing I love: a bitterly funny tale about the delusions of youth and shocking acts of violence, told with some really excellent narrative sarcasm.  Flannery Culp is part of a rather self-obsessed group of pretentious and creative friends – eight of them in total – who think that their dinner parties are the social events of a lifetime and who have a “Grand Opera Breakfast Club” which meets in the French classroom.  Their lifestyle, which starts out as merely decadent, soon spirals out of control when feelings of romantic betrayal seize control of our young narrator and she turns into a “murderess.”  The story is told through Flannery’s edited diary entries, which she prefaces and annotates from jail, in order to produce her own version of events as she tries to win the public’s sympathy; dispel rumors of satanic influence; and paint herself as the literary heroine of her own perceived drama.  Right from the novel’s beginning, we know that Flannery is in jail for killing a classmate, so the tension is carried by a truly magnificent cast of characters and a twisting plot.  What begins as a sharp satire of coming-of-age stories soon builds into a nightmarish storm of violence, wealth, and absurdity.  The fact that the novel’s major event is revealed straight away does not ruin the book’s momentum, either.  On the contrary, I found that the format lulled me into a false sense of security, and near the end of the book I actually slammed the book on the table and shouted, “WHAT?!?”.  The plot isn’t necessarily realistic, and the characters are  larger than life, but I was completely hooked by The Basic Eight a few pages in and couldn’t get it out of my head.

Some readers will recognize Handler’s sarcastic style reminiscent of his pseudonym Lemony Snicket from the children’s series A Series of Unfortunate Events, and I think that  The Basic Eight, as his first novel, was where he tested out some of his stylistic techniques.  A study guide follows some sections of Flannery’s diary, with a list of vocabulary words and questions like: “Is it rude to bring an uninvited guest to a diner party? Should you be excused if it’s your boyfriend? What if he’s dumb?”.  This trick in one of the more obvious instances in which Handler points out the ridiculous trends in high school, and books about high school, and the way the world treats high schoolers in general.  When the characters are involved in the play Othello, too, Flannery immediately points out the parallels between the play and the events in her own life in her commentary.  So many YA books hide literary allusions and parallels to whatever the characters have to study in their English class in the course of the narrative, and I love how Daniel Handler laughs at that trend by making it absurdly obvious.  The book is pretty scornful of how adults handle teenage troubles, and includes some absolutely laughable adults who try to analyze the group’s actions after the crime in an obvious parody of celebrities like Oprah Winfrey and best-selling child psychologists.  I love it when books show how out of touch figures of authority can be with young people, and even though these characters are unrealistically inept the real-life associations are pretty on point.  The Basic Eight might be about a group of larger-than-life figures in an extreme situation, but it also deals with some very real problems that teenagers face in high school: feeling threatened by teachers, not knowing whom to trust, trying to keep up appearances when your whole world is falling apart.  Handler faces these issues with an arsenal of wit and cynicism, and I wish I had read this book when I was in high school myself.

I will only fail at explaining how funny this book was despite the grim subject, because I’m not a funny enough person to do the humor any justice at all.  Let me just say that I could not stop laughing.  I laughed when Flan and Natasha couldn’t find tomato juice so they made Bloody Marys with marinara sauce to cure their hangovers.  I laughed when the entire school had to fill out an anonymous survey about their relationship with Satan.  You will laugh at the egotistical group of friends but you’ll also laugh with them and around them and near them.  The San Francisco Chronicle compared the book to an inside joke, and even though I always felt one step behind the antics of the Basic Eight, I loved trying to catch up with the group of friends who I now feel like I know personally.  You will laugh even when blood is flying and kids are getting sick on way too much absinthe.  Handler’s sense of humor may not be for everyone, but I can’t get enough of his sardonic wit and clever style.

I would recommend The Basic Eight to so many people.  In fact, I’ve already shouted at three of my friends to go and buy it immediately.  I picked it up because in an interview Handler said that invented the name Lemony Snicket while he was researching the extreme conservative organizations who liked to get involved in “satanic panic.”  I’ve been a fan of his children’s books and his infectiously funny style of writing for over a decade, so I figured it was time to dive into the source. (I also recommend Adverbs, which is the only other of Handler’s adult novels which I’ve read.)  If you liked the self-aware and hilarious style of A Series Of Unfortunate Events but want a more grown-up story, buy this book.  I would also recommend The Basic Eight to high school teachers all over the country, because it actually serves as a good example of all sorts of literary themes and techniques. Flannery is the quintessential unreliable narrater: she’s completely untrustworthy but she also doesn’t trust her readers.  There are allusions to Shakespeare, opera, poetry, and classic literature all over the text.  The narrative structure in the novel is creative and intricate; Flannery’s editorial touches to her diary entries fade in and out depending on what she’s revealing, and there are moments when its difficult to separate her wiser (but incarcerated) later self from the earnest voice with which she writes as the events unfold. The structure keeps you on your toes and merits serious consideration, and I bet I’ll catch onto things I missed entirely when I read the book again.

If high school teachers were to assign The Basic Eight as summer reading, I think that it would have a generally positive reception from the students, and the fact that their parents might take offense at the subject matter just makes Handler’s observations all the more suitable.  At times the book was witty and charming, I could compare it to John Green’s Paper Towns, but then there are other sections which contain all the confused boredom and rage of Brett Easton Ellis’s Less Than Zero.  I heartily recommend it to fans of both genres.  I would recommend it to anyone who thought they were the only classy and intelligent person in their own school, because reading it gave me a chance to laugh at what a self-involved moron I had been in high school.  Really, if you want to read about high school this summer, just read this book.  I can’t wait to read it again.