Monthly Archives: June 2015

Extraordinary Means

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Extraordinary Means…  This story turns over and over in your head.  I read it a few days ago, but have had to sit on it for awhile.  It’s not a book that you want to rush to judgement on; my feelings for it have been all over the place since picking it up.

Type A-future-Wall Street-investor and super-nerd Lane is 17 years old and dealing with a new diagnosis of TDR-TB, or total drug resistant tuberculosis. He is sent to rehab at Latham House, part hospital and part boarding school, all sanatorium, and the only place where Lane discovers you can actually fail breakfast. And naptime.

On the first day, Lane recognizes a girl from camp. But instead of the brace-faced loner from his early teens, she has transformed in a beautiful, smart-aleck miscreant. She and her group of like-minded troublemakers draw Lane in like a magnet; he, who has never cared whether or not he “belongs” in his lifetime of overachieving, wants to become one of them. After a false start and the correction of a long held, if mistaken, grudge, he is absorbed into the mismatched group, and crosses more lines the first day than he has his entire existence.

Sadie, Nik, Charlie and Martina all have secrets, individually and as a group.  The black market smuggling ring, the illicit trips to Starbucks for butterbeer lattes (who knew?), juicebox vodka martinis and a general disregard for their own health and safety, just to name a few. They are, after all, teens. What could happen?

While normal teenage secrets and activities can sometimes be consequence free (beyond a hangover and a grounding), at Latham House, the fallout can be life-threatening. Lane and Sadie find each other, but TDR-TB has no sympathy for first love or teenage pranks.

Told in the alternating voices of Sadie and Lane, we see both sides of their relationship, and two views of illness. Both cope with love and loss so differently, so authentically.

Author Robyn Schneider has a degree in bioethics, and her knowledge and research are evident throughout the book. I had to do a bit of research myself after reading it, just to make sure it was, in fact, a story, and not real life. Scared the crap out of me, especially after I inhaled my tea by mistake and had a coughing fit lasting 20 minutes.

The story is set in a contemporary alternative reality.  All the terrible diseases we thought were eradicated have returned, and all are resistant to our former wonder drugs.  Polio, tuberculosis, Ebola, you name it. Back with a vengeance. And science cannot keep up.

The novel is dark, it is funny, it is heartbreaking.  It is about unlikely second chances, and what you make of them. It is the difference between being alive and living your life.

I wanted everyone to live happily ever after, with their time at Latham House an ever dwindling bad dream, until it became nostalgia.  But it can’t happen that way.

Read the author’s notes at the end; her explanation of how she came up with the story is fabulous. This novel is appropriate for all teens.

Extraordinary Means is published by Katherine Tegen Books.

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don’t even think about it

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Is it possible for a book to be written in the fourth person? Is there such a thing? Maybe, if you don’t know who is telling the story.  Or maybe, if everyone is telling the story.

Class 10B at Bloomberg High School in Tribeca received their flu vaccines at lunch, October 2.  They were prepared for the usual side effects, maybe a headache or a sore arm.  Worse case scenario, an adverse reaction that required hospitalization.

But by the next morning, a group of them could hear voices in their heads.  Very specific voices.  The voices in their heads were the thoughts of the people around them. The day after, more joined the group, and within days, all 22 that had received the vaccine were experiencing the same condition.

Suddenly, telepathy.  They could hear the thoughts of their friends, parents, their crushes. The group knows that Mackenzie cheated on Cooper, that Olivia is paralyzed with fear and shyness every day she enters the school, that Pi cheated on a test, that Courtney takes Adderall for an edge, and, gross, that Nurse Carmichael used to be a stripper. And they decide to keep it all a secret.

Well, as much a secret as possible when 22 teens know the same information.

How will they all handle this newfound ability?  What will it do to friendships, relationships, ambitions and just day to day living?  What would it do to you? What if you can no longer tell whose thoughts are in your head?

The book is hilarious.  And smart.  But MAN.  Can you imagine this happening at your high school? When someone talked, you knew what they were really thinking…  So much for the little white lie. “You look gorgeous!” (those jeans make your butt look huge) “I’m sure I failed that test!” (as if I would ever) “The food here is disgusting.” (I wonder if he’s going to finish his fries?) “I really like you!” (I thought about my ex while we kissing)

While it is a quick read, it is not a mindless one, and can actually mess with your head a bit. There are fundamental questions of honesty and privacy examined; what does the person next to you, friend or stranger, have a right to know? Or voice an opinion on? Is it ok to read a boy’s mind to find out if he likes you? What if it helps the relationship move along?

Sarah Mlynowski is a well-known YA author for a very good reason.  She knows how to write characters. They are fun and authentically teen, with all the insecurities and boldness that we had in our time.

Have a glass or two of wine, and blast through this novel in one sitting.  Then pass it along to your teens, and see what they think.

don’t even think about it is published by Ember.

Half Brother

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I approach a Kenneth Oppel book with something akin to hero worship. With good reason. EVERY story he writes is different, his voice changes, and each is better than the last. I am an unapologetic fan, and cannot wait to read everything that flows from his pen. My reviews could all be “he wrote it, you read it.”

Half Brother follows this pattern of excellence.  13 year old Ben is moved across the country from Toronto to Victoria, where his research scientist parents adopt Zan, an eight day old chimpanzee they plan to raise as a human.  He becomes Ben’s baby brother, and is dressed in clothes, fed human food, given books and toys, and observed 24 hours a day. Can he be taught language?  Can he live as a human?  Every milestone and action is recorded by a team of research assistants from the University.

What could go wrong?

At first, Ben resists the chimp, and refuses to participate in the experiment.  His parents have turned his world upside down, he misses his friends, he goes to a school he doesn’t like, and it just isn’t going to happen.  In other words, he’s a 13 year old boy.  But over time, he falls in love with Zan, protects and cares for him.  Right around the time his father starts to believe that the whole plan is not such a good idea.

Set in the early 1970s, the story explores the controversy and ethics of chimpanzee research and animal testing. But it is not an animal rights platform. Or, at least, not only. It is, at heart, a story about what makes a family. Is it blood? Language? Species? Or maybe it is just love.

As with every Oppel novel, the characters are authentic. Central to the theme of language, there is constant dialogue throughout the story, rather than description, which allows the characters to develop naturally, and adds to their realism. Ben’s relationship with his mother, his relationship with his father, and the one he develops with his “brother”, Zan, are all carefully crafted through their everyday conversations and recording of Zan’s progress.

Ben’s father and he clash constantly over the raising of Zan.  Ben treats him as one of the family, while his scientist father uses harsher methods, demands obedience, and has a very disconnected, clinical view of the chimp.

Zan learns dozens of sign language words, but does he understand the language, or just mimic what he sees?  The very topic of chimp/human understanding was at the centre of the research at the time.

As Zan gets older and stronger, the humans around him see both the best and the worst of chimpanzee behaviour.  His maturation introduces new complexities into the relationships, and Ben’s own maturity must also keep pace as new ethical concerns arise.  What is best for Zan, and at what expense?

Fast-paced and well-researched, the attention to detail brings back memories for those of a certain age. As a kid in the seventies, I did spend my days on my bike, my friends and I played in the woods and fields behind our house, did the dishes in the sink (while dancing to ABBA and the Bay City Rollers), and dreamed of owning a colour tv (didn’t happen).

This book is appropriate for all teens, animal lovers, and anyone who needs a good cry. Can it have a happy ending?

Half Brother was published January 2010 by HarperTrophy.

Young Bond (series)

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Have you ever wondered how James Bond became 007?  How the man became that intense, unknowable, international man of mystery?  (And yes, I am currently picturing Daniel Craig in Skyfall, after he jumps into the moving train car and adjusts his shirt cuffs….  sigh…) Where was I?  Oh. Right.

Charlie Higson has taken on the monumental task of telling us how a boy became the legend.  And he does a GREAT job of it in the Young Bond series. Titles like Silverfin, Blood Fever and By Royal Command, to name just a few, evoke the mystery and intrigue of a classic Bond thriller.

Set pre-WWII, the novels set up a strong back story for the Fleming novels, far exceeding my expectations.  I find that prequels can sometimes seem forced, but that doesn’t happen here. The series takes place over James’ years at Eton, beginning at age 13, right up until he is recruited by Her Majesty’s Secret Service in his late teens.  There is the conflict with fellow students and authority, along with excellence in sport, all of which gives us a glimpse of the strength of his future personality.

Everything we already know about Bond is nicely set up: his likes and dislikes, love of family and loyalty to friends, his penchant for fast cars and beautiful women, and the experiences and details which  forever shaped him into Fleming’s top spy.

Also included are the details that make a Bond story a Bond story: mad villians with their henchmen and their fiendish plans, (all with awesomely evil names like Count Ugo Carnifex and El Huracin and Graf von Schlick), crazy car chases, international subterfuge, and even the precursors to the “Bond girls”, independent and beautiful teenage girls, suitably named Wilder, Vendetta and Precious. (Unlike his future interactions with women in the movies and Fleming novels, all action is PG-13.)

The series was sanctioned by the Ian Fleming estate, so you know from page one that you are getting unadulterated Bond. The pacing is everything you expect from a Bond mystery, the action is detailed, and the character development perfect.

These are a must read for every Bond fan, as well as any teen, boy or girl, who dreams of international intrigue, and doesn’t mind a bit of death and gore.  Well, more than a bit.  But done with the elegance you expect from 007.

The Young Bond series is published by Puffin Books.

Made You Up

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Mental illness is such a mystery; I was unsure what to expect when I picked up Made You Up. It is incredible.

17 year old Alexandra has paranoid schizophrenia. Reality is often not what she perceives it to be, but sometimes, it isn’t paranoia if there really is someone out to get her.

This is the story of a high school senior unable to tell the difference between real life and fantasy. It is the story of the trouble with reality.

Alex fights a daily battle against her schizophrenia, trying to determine what is real, and what is a product of her paranoia.  She faces each day with boldness and bravery, along with a camera, a Magic 8-Ball, and her sister Charlie, resolving to stay sane long enough to get into college. Unable to trust her own perception, she photographs her world, checking and rechecking the image, to see if the hallucinations have faded, and reality left behind.

Day one of her senior year, and her first problem arises. How does she know if Miles is real or a product of her delusions? She goes with it, and finds herself, for the first time, having normal teenage experiences, falling in love, making friends.  But that is a problem in itself. Alex is used to being crazy. She doesn’t know how to handle normal.

This stunning novel features an unreliable narrator, and you will find yourself turning pages, re-reading sections, and trying to figure out what is real and what is made up.  You and Alex both. Her voice is fabulous, and will stay with you long after you finish her story.  It was a thought provoking experience for me; I did not expect to walk away from the book so deeply humbled by her bravery and her battles.

Author Francesca Zappia treats the subject with respect and dignity.  Alexandra is not “crazy,” and her behaviour does not seem unlikely. You can see the teen who desperately wants to know what it would be like to trust her brain, but, at the same time, accepts that life will never be that easy.

Her relationship with the troubled and anti-social Miles unfolds naturally and gradually.  I was rooting for them, wanting desperately for him to be real, and for their joy in each other to last.

The way Miles and the club handle finding out about Alex’s schizophrenia is just beautiful and EXACTLY how friends should react.  Love, acceptance and let’s move on, you are still you.

Her relationships with her parents, the contentious one with her ever-present mother and the love and acceptance of her often absent father were elegantly written. I could feel her mother’s desperation, even as her inability to give Alex room to breathe frustrated me.

There is heartbreak, but there is hope to counteract the unavoidable pain.

Appropriate for teens. Subject matter is difficult, but important.

Made You Up is published by Greenwillow Books.

Rook

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Do you remember The Scarlet Pimpernel?  You might want to reread it, before picking this novel up. Sharon Cameron has re-imagined the classic as a dystopian future in Rook.

In the Sunken City, history is repeating itself.  Once upon a time known as Paris, the City of Light and centre of culture, it is now under oppressive rule; all who oppose this new revolution are being put to the blade. Let them eat cake, indeed.

Technology has lead to the near destruction of mankind, so is outlawed. Those who try to save the past are punished by death. Horses have taken their place once again for transportation, communication is by paper and ink.  Society has reverted back to the eighteenth century way of life, with arranged marriages and dower fees and ball gowns and powdered hair.

17 year old Sophia Bellamy is engaged to be married to a man she has never met, but he can meet the marriage price.  Her family’s land and home will be saved from repossession. But Sophia has no desire to be a dutiful wife and daughter.  She becomes the legendary Rook, and, along with her brother Thomas and family friend Spear, run an underground railroad of sorts. She frees the doomed from prison, fighting against the oppressors, and leaving a red-tipped rook feather as a calling card when she strikes.

The characters are extremely well drawn; Sophia is a future rebel tomboy, raised with brothers, able to stand up for herself in a society that frowns upon such behaviour. Rene the interesting rogue, definitely intended to be the bad boy love interest. (The repetitive description of his fiery blue eyes was a bit much, but there’s a petty criticism for you.) LeBlanc is completely, believably insane, consulting the Goddess for every decision he makes, while Allemande is frighteningly Napoleonic, down to his stature and megalomania.

The world building is fantastic.  The catacombs beneath Paris, the Channel, and life on the south coast of England are all recognizable in their dilapidated and ancient state. Artifacts like CDs and Nintendo controllers, Underground signs and plastic pop bottles all contribute to a dystopian future that reads like a historical fiction.

Rook is a romantic adventure.  But with all that it is good about it, it does suffer from a slow pace. Cameron gets bogged down in detail and description, with the point of view switching back and forth between characters seemingly randomly. The unnecessary love triangle adds to the chaos, and, unfortunately, what is a great premise for a story suffers for it.

Appropriate for all teens.

Rook is published by Scholastic Press.

The Crossover

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At the top of the key, I’m

MOVING & GROOVING,

POPping and ROCKING

Why you BUMPING?

Why you LOCKING?

Man, take this THUMPING.

For the perfect way to introduce poetry to boys, or any young teen for that matter, pick up Kwame Alexander’s The Crossover. He  has written an epic poem to basketball and brotherly love and heartbreak. I swept through this in one sitting, and am in awe of his style and prose.  It was visual and visceral and punched me right in the stomach.

Each chapter is written in different styles of verse, and the whole book reads like a rap song.

It is a basketball story, but is so much more than that:  friendship and family and courage and sportsmanship and academics and fairness and tears and more.

Josh and Jordan, Filthy and JB to their friends and family, are twin middle school basketball stars.  Their father was a star before them, playing in the NBA and Europe, before a knee injury ended his career. His memories of the glory days inspire and drive his boys to excel.

Alexander’s voice as Josh is amazing.  He is real and vulnerable, confused and angry, impulsive and resentful, and everything else that is a 13 year old boy.

Josh Bell
is my name.
But Filthy McNasty is my claim to fame
Folks call me that
’cause my game’s acclaimed,
so downright dirty, it’ll put you to shame.
My hair is long, my height’s tall.
See, I’m the next Kevin Durant,
LeBron, and Chris Paul.

Filthy and JB have always been two halves of the same whole, doing everything together their entire lives.  But now things are changing, JB is more interested in girls than basketball, and Filthy feels left behind. Add in family conflicts and frustration and helplessness, and Alexander has written a story that you will not be able to set down.

This book is perfect for middle school kids, and is an unintimidating introuction to poetry, grabbing the reader from the first page onward. The chapters are short, just scenes from the Josh’s daily life, and will speak to anyone, sports fan or not.

And the number of awards it has won or been nominated for?  The Newbery, for example.  The Coretta Scott King. So many more. And so worthy of them all. It is an incredibly powerful read.

Be prepared for tears.  They will happen at the most unexpected times. You will be floored.

The Crossover is published by by Harcourt Brace and Company