Monthly Archives: April 2015

Raina Telgemeier (author)

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I think we assume that boys are the reluctant readers, and look to graphic novels to help encourage them to read.  We sometimes forget that there are girls to whom reading does not come naturally, either, or they just flat out don’t enjoy it.  Raina Telgemeier can change that with her autobiographical graphic novels.

These fantastic books for 9-11 year old girls will pretty much guarantee to turn a reluctant reader into one who is always pestering you for more trips to the library or book store.

Smile, Drama, Sisters, and now The Babysitters Club series are waiting for your daughter (and you!).  They are fun to read, and deal with relatable and relevant topics: the pre-teen horror of injuring your teeth and requiring braces, a retainer, and surgery;  all the ups and downs of putting on the middle school play, including budding romance;  and what happens when the baby sister you begged for turns out to be nothing like you imagined.

Read these with your daughter.  They are fun, charming and heartfelt, and you will laugh out loud at the memories they bring back.

Telgemeier’s books are published by Scholastic.

Althea & Oliver

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What happens when what you thought was the truth, what you spent your life expecting, turns out not to be true?  Althea & Oliver leads the reader to an interesting and unexpected answer to that question.

It is the mid-1990s, in Wilmington, NC.  Althea is the 17 year old punk ass bad girl half of the best friend duo who met when they were 6 years old, and have been inseperable ever since.  She is athletic, artistic, impulsive and unsociable; Oliver is all she thinks she needs.  Oliver is the good boy, the conscience and the social half, a studious, serious teen who wants to study astronomy at MIT and one day save the world.

Their junior year in high school, Oliver gets sick.  He is diagnosed with Kleine-Levin Syndrome – he falls asleep and loses weeks, even months, of his life. Althea must learn to deal with blocks of time without her other half, because her life can’t stop, even though it sometimes feels it should.

And life does go on without him, which is hard enough for both to accept.  He wakes up to a different world each time, where he is just expected to fit back in with everyone else. But during one of these extended sleeps, something bad happens; Althea makes a really bad decision and hides it from him.  When she finally gets the nerve to tell, he is devastated. Furious, he ends the friendship and leaves town.

What happens when she follows is the real story.

Althea & Oliver looked like a simple, predicable love story: friends forever, fall in love, hit a few bumps, find each other again, live happily ever after.  It was not.

Teenagers make stupid decisions.  All the time. You just hope the decisions are made in a safe environment.  At that age, we all thought we were smart, we knew more than anyone else.  But let’s be honest with hindsight: we made stupid decisions too.  We were inappropriate and indestructible. And somehow, we survived.  Teenage relationships are  fraught with pitfalls at the best of times. They can be unhealthy, they can break down, and it’s not pretty.

Althea and Oliver and all their friends are those teens. Sometimes their behaviour seemed so real, and other times, I think author Cristina Moracho was forcing the story to get to her desired ending.  There seemed to be no consequences for any actions – heavy drinking, drugs, sex – all just seemed to be part and parcel of the teens’ days.  Although parents were present in the story, they didn’t seem parental at all.  Moracho had to let the teens live lives of their own control in order to make her story happen, and a whole town of uninvolved parents seems hard to swallow.

So, try as I might, I did not love the book.  It was good.  The conclusion was fantastic.  I loved how it did not go where expected.  But there were too many inconsistencies for me to totally believe it.

Appropriate for teens 14 and up.

Althea & Oliver is published by Penguin.

 

More Than This

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This one will play with your head a bit; Patrick Ness is a master storyteller. In More Than This, he creates a maze,  shoves your brain in, and runs away, leaving you to try and find your way through it.  (I also imagine him cackling evilly as he runs, but that’s pure conjecture on my part. I’m sure he is a very nice man.)

16 year old Seth Wearing died.  More specifically, he drowned, purposefully, sadly, all alone.  His parent blamed him for the tragedy that stole his younger brother from them when Seth was 8, from which none of them ever recovered.  They moved halfway around the world to escape the sadness, and when he finally found happiness again, it was brutally yanked away.  So, one day, he went swimming, fully clothed, in the icy winter Pacific.  And he died.

And woke up in Hell.  Naked.  But Hell looked a lot like the town he grew up in England, before Owen was abducted.  Except without the people.  So, Hell is a deserted small town, next to a deserted prison, in rural England.  With scorched earth and rotted food, no electricity, and a lot of overgrown weeds and ash and dust.  So is he dead?  Or dreaming? Or…?

First, the characters are great in this story.  Seth, Gudmund, Regine, Tomasz, mum and dad – all come alive in a few vivid strokes of Ness’s pen.  His writing is incredible, and the pace of the book is perfect.  I wanted to know what happened next, but did not want the book to end.  It was an epic dilemma; do I spend the day reading, forgo meals and sleep and ignore those piles of laundry and dishes, or do I put down the book, savour the anticipation of the story, and fulfill my responsibilities…?  Guess what won.

The ending delievers an absolute brainpunch.  Ness constantly takes what you think you know and turns it upside down and sideways.  But at no time is the book confusing, it just keeps you on your toes and has you re-reading and questioning what you just read, what you think you know.

Appropriate for teens, and for moms and dads who want to mess with their kids’ heads. Read it. You will believe that there has to be more than this.

More Than This is published by Candlewick Press.

Wintergirls

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Laurie Halse Anderson does not write books that are easy or comfortable to read.  Speak was terrifying in its honesty and accuracy.  And Wintergirls is the same.  But if I say that I love reading YA fiction for the real way it makes me remember my teen years, the good and the bad, then I cannot shy away from the horrors that can, sadly, also be part of growing up.

Lia and Cassie grew up as the best of best friends.  They did everything together, which became their downfall.  After a summer at drama camp, Cassie came home with a plan to be skinny, and laxatives to help her get to her goal.  Lia followed along half heartedly, until New Year’s Eve and the promise they made to each other to be the two skinniest girls at school.  The pact does more than ruin their bodies; it tears apart their friendship.

Cassie takes it too far; her body is found in a room in a rundown motel, after a weekend of binging and purging.  After not speaking to her for months, she calls Lia from the room 33 times. Lia never picks up, unable to face her.  The next day, she learns of Cassie’s death.

Lia must come to terms with the loss of her former friend, and the guilt from not answering her phone.  Added to that is the guilt she feels for not letting Cassie escape the pact, when she tried to get better. Lia was afraid of doing it alone.

The news triggers her own disordered eating. Calories are counted and punishing exercise taken to burn away every weakness.  It engulfs her, even as Cassie’s ghost taunts and encourages, the way Lia did to her live friend.  But then, Lia is not alive, she “is a ghost with a beating heart.”

At no point in reading this story did I feel that Anderson was forcing her characters into any situation.  Everything flowed naturally and organically, without it seeming to force an ending – the story reached the natural conclusions for the characters. She writes incredibly haunting, real characters, without judgement about their struggle.  The battle for hope, through all the despair, was evident in her first person narrative, while the cross-outs, italics, and blank spaces in her prose evoke the torment that Lia felt in dealing with her own guilt and her own demons.

I cannot say that I liked this book, but can say that I could not put it down.

This is a tough book to read, but I believe appropriate for any teen.

Wintergirls is published by Penguin Young Readers Group.

The Apprentices

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I did not realize that there would be a sequel to The Apothecary, so was thrilled to see The Apprentices.  I read the first about a year ago, so quickly re-read to review, then dove into the follow-up.

The story picks up two years after we left the apothecary and his band of magic wielding fighters-of-all-Cold-War-evil.  Janie is at boarding school in New Hampshire, and Benjamin travels through the Far East with his father, treating the injured in the jungles of Vietnam.  Benjamin also experiments with a magical formula to help him communicate with Janie; it works, but has unintended side effects that threaten their safety.  Pip is a television star in London, and Jin Lo returned to China to confront the ghosts of her past.

Janie studies chemistry at Grayson Academy, trying to perfect Jin Lo’s small scale desalination project.  She is kicked out for “cheating” on a math test, which sets in motion a complicated turn of events that threatens world peace in an already unstable time.  We meet old friends and enemies, and new characters that weave the story together across the globe.

Much the same as in the first book, there is Cold War intrigue and mystery, culminating in a James Bond-esque rescue on the private island of a mildly psychotic billionaire with world domination pretensions.

If a picture is worth a thousand words, the illustrations in this book added multiple chapters to the story.  Illustrator Ian Schoenherr brings the story alive so beautifully, you can almost understand the plot from his sketches alone.

Meloy’s voice in this book is slightly more frenetic, and less about the discovery and wonder that drew me to The Apothecary.  There, there were possibilities and anything could happen.  The plot drew me in and I believed.  This magical understanding was not so present in the sequel.  Meloy knew where she wanted to go with the story, but seemed unsure how to get there.

The story switches from continent to continent; there was trans-Atlantic and Pacific travel, new characters jump in and out of the story without the reader being sure of their ultimate purpose.  The original characters don’t seem to take on any new dimensions; maybe because so little of the book sees them together, we lose out on the wonderful chemistry they all had as they fought to save the world in The Apothecary.

In the end, I liked The Apprentices, but did not love it the way I did the first instalment.  It was good, not great.  But big points for having heroes and heroines in fairly equal numbers; it is appealing to boys and girls both.  As with the first, it is appropriate for all ages.

The Apprentices is published by The Penguin Group.

The Apothecary

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“A dose of magic can save the world.”  I didn’t write that, it’s the subtitle of the book.  But it encapsulates the entire story in those eight little words better than I can in 500.  My work here is done.

Which, of course, is total and utter crap.  I love to talk about any book, even if someone else can say it more eloquently than I.  So talk I will.

The Apothecary is fantasy and magic.  Maile Meloy makes turning into a bird and running invisible (and naked) through post-war London completely believable.  Of course smelling an herb which was picked at noon (solar, not the one we see on the clock), then ground and brewed into a tea will make you incapable of lying.  And haven’t we all seen an invisible polymer net contain a nuclear explosion?  Alchemy at its best.

It is the mid-1950s, and Janie and her television writer parents have fled the United States for England, under threat of interrogation for Communist ideals.  London is a stark change for 14 year old Janie; used to the sunny beaches and excesses of California life, she has trouble adjusting to the still-rationed food and clothing of a London that bears the physical and psychological scars of WWII.

Meeting Benjamin helps.  Janie notices the intelligent, engaging and authority-challenging would-be spy at her new school, and follows him home, just to learn more about him.  He is the son of the local apothecary, who, it turns out, is more than that.  Mr. Burrows is the latest in an ancient family of alchemists who work for kings and labour to save the world.  He guards the Pharmacopoeia, the leather bound bible containing the research and notes of 700 years of family study and experimentation in the healing arts. It must be kept out of enemy hands.

What follows is a Cold War spy thriller with teenage protagonists whose mission it is to help save the world from nuclear destruction.  Without their parents’ approval or knowledge, of course.

Meloy employs meticulous research and a great sense of humour throughout this completely captivating story.  It has scientific interest and Cold War mystique, and while I cannot say whether or not the author’s use of alchemy is accurate, it is intriguing.  There is great wonder and discovery in this novel, something that is lacking in so many stories.

Meloy’s character development is perfect.  Janie is a modern girl in post-war times, and the relationship between her and Benjamin is real and believable.  I laughed at the testing of the truth serum, and cringed on behalf of them both.  Pip and Sarah were great additions, although they were a bit more predictable than I would have liked, given the rest of the novel.  The resolution to the story is surprising and suspenseful.

Everyone, no matter his or her age, who wants to allow for the possibilities, should read this book.

The Apothecary is published by Puffin Books.

 

Looking For Alaska

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John Green’s first novel is my favourite of his books.  And I like them all. But this one is AWESOME.  There are twists and turns and suspense and angst and it leaves you feeling like you have been kicked in the stomach.  It. Is. GREAT.

Looking For Alaska centres around the Culver Creek Boarding School, and Miles “Pudge” Halter.  Miles rocks. He is the very reason I love this book.  He is clueless and smart and a bit of a social zero.  He is obsessed with famous last words, and craves the “Great Perhaps” (Francois Rabelais, poet).  He wants boring and safe, but gets the very opposite, becoming attached-at-the-hip friends with the Colonel, and not so secretly in love with Alaska.

Alaska is snarky and full of herself and self-destructive and sexy and so so alive.  She chooses her name and her friends the same way: impulsively and immediately.  Green builds Alaska so wonderfully, so vibrantly, with all her strengths and weakness, that you feel her joy and pain.  She proves to Miles it is worth it to leave behind his minor life for grander maybes.

Together, the two of them search for the meaning of the labyrinth, and the way out.  Alaska finds it.  And Miles realizes that maybe he is meant to remain in it.

Green’s writing is poetic and evocative.  “She was the type of jeans that you wear when you want to look nice but don’t want it to look like you tried to look nice…”  It never occurred to me that men understood that concept, until Green wrote it.

He writes authentic, fantastic characters.  I loved Alaska, but equally so Miles and the Colonel.  I was them, once upon a time, trying to figure everything out, all at once.  Feeling everything so much more than anyone else.  Green does not reach for the happy ending, but he does allow the characters to resolve their challenges and come to their own conclusions.  “Coming of age” is a term I feel is overused and miss-used, but here is a book that is the very definition.

Looking For Alaska did not make me cry.  But it did make me pause and remember what it was like to be that teen.  I loved the use of the before/after countdown; the days leading up to the event and the ones following as the friends came to terms with it were real and familiar.

This is a good book for teens.  I would say the themes are too mature for the younger readers, but those 14 and up will enjoy.

Looking For Alaska is published by Speak.