Tag Archives: teen

Prequel? Do I care?

pearl thief cover USA_0Well, it depends.  This one, a prequel to Elizabeth Wein’s excellent Code Name Verity, was one I waited for, wondering if it would really match up with what I remembered of a character, her situation, and a time period.  Then, about five chapters in, I realized I didn’t really care if it was a prequel or not.  It’s just a good story.

Why?  The mystery involved in a missing man, a body, the Water Bailiff, and a family of aristocrats reminds me of great English mysteries where thin layers are peeled back, one after another, to reveal all kinds of ugliness, bitterness, secrets, and even good.  Julia Beaufort-Stuart is bold and afraid, cautious and confident, aware of her privilege but limited by its demands, too.

This book may explain a lot about the character she becomes in Code Name Verity, but while the connection is wonderful, it’s not necessary.  Julia and the story are enough.   Wonderfully enough.

The Pearl Thief by Elizabeth Wein

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Anger. Grief. Bitterness. Oh, and some fun.

optimists“This group…it’s like a twisted version of The Breakfast Club.

Hmmm.  I was just thinking the exact same thing.  And the author has now taken care of my whole intro to the book.  Whew!  That was hard work.

Petula’s art therapy group is an emotionally bruised group of kids which she would rather not be a part of.  If only she hadn’t thrown that cup at the other counselor…  They snipe at each other and make rude remarks, yet are somehow  exactly the kind of people she needs.  It’s only with Jacob’s arrival that they really begin to pull together and trust each other, however.

Adults are often making life miserable for Petula, but even the principal, her parents, and the goofy and well-meaning art therapist have their moments.  I loved the way the author took these wounded and struggling people and made them real, bringing their joys and sorrows into the light.  There is sadness galore, but there is also hope.   And it is funny, at least in the way that people joke after death or screwing up their lives or alienating their families.  Oh, and there are Canadians in it.  That’s a bonus, too.

Optimists Die First by Susin Nielsen

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When your whole world is complicated

goldfish boyOne line on page 79 is what did it for me.  Matthew is watching the neighbor’s grandchildren playing outside.  Casey, the little girl, has drowned her doll in a wading pool.

“She is one scary kid,” I said to the Wallpaper Lion.

Matty talks to a scrap of wallpaper, but he’s judging Casey?   Excellent.

To Matty, world outside is maddening.  His Wallpaper Lion and obsessive hand-washing make sense.  Others in the neighborhood also have their quirks – Old Nina leaves a light on all the time, Melody saves notes to the dead and so on.  It turns out, Matty understands more about what’s really going on than most of the neighbors do.

There are more moments like this throughout the book, moments when Matty calls out the crazy in other people while clinging to his own as if his beliefs are rational and the others aren’t.  It’s done so well that you find you’ve entered into Matty’s world completely, and it does make sense.  Maybe he’s on to something?

Take a look.

The Goldfish Boy by Lisa Thompson

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What’s personal is political

dreamlandWill and Rowan are separated by close to a hundred years, but their efforts to confront racial discrimination and adapt to society’s expectations for them are strangely similar.  In the 1920s, Will has a tough time resisting the verbal and physical threats of Ku Klux Klan members who will eventually burn down the African-American part of Tulsa.  In the present day, Rowan isn’t sure she’s the right person to stand up, either.  Both characters make mistakes, alienate friends, and eventually find their way.

I’ll be interested to hear how readers who are African American or Native American see this book.  For me, it started a little slow, but became very compelling, especially since both sections mirror real history and current events.  I don’t know a person who hasn’t messed up something in adolescence, immediately regretted it, but then struggled with how to fix it.  It could provide a great starting point for discussions on race, expectations, and how we make choices.  The parallel lives also do a nice job of illuminating how much and how little changes over what seems like a long time.  It worked for me.  Give it a look.

Dreamland Burning  by Jennifer Latham

For another perspective, see this review at American Indians in Children’s Literature.

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A priest, a doppelgänger and a gorilla go into a bar…

murderers-apeActually, it’s mostly just the gorilla.  But while reading this book, I was reminded so strongly of two other great, complicated, similar stories that I’m including all three in my intro.  This one’s just for me, people.

The Murderer’s Ape is shelved with the teen books in our public library, but I don’t remember any teens or children in it.  (It’s kind of unusual to have a middle grade or teen novel populated almost entirely by adults.)  The book is narrated by Sally Jones, a gorilla who understands human languages and is something of a mechanical genius.  She also plays chess, reads and writes, types, and appreciates Portugese Fado music.  She travels the world and solves tricky and dangerous mysteries.  In 588 pages, there is a lot to keep track of – political intrigues, lost loves, the majaraja’s wives and mother, untended graves, how to build an accordion.  I could feel the real world falling away as I read, leaving Sally Jones and her friends and the quest to free an innocent man.

It was a bit of a slow start, but once it got going, it reminded me of Timothée de Fombelle’s Vango series, which I happened across a few years ago and was just thinking of re-reading not long ago.  Between Sky and Earth begins with Vango (a seminarian about to become a priest) escaping from the police just as he’s about to make his vows in Notre Dame de Paris.  It’s an absolutely wonderful adventure, crossing oceans in zeppelins, avoiding Nazis, protecting the innocent, revealing corruption and honoring friendship.  The story continues in A Prince Without a Kingdom.  Find them if you’re looking for an epic escape.

And then there’s an even more obscure story, The Saxonian Affair.  Some years ago, my husband told my son stories during the time they spent together commuting, always coming to a cliffhanger as they pulled into the garage.  In it, a detective who isn’t really a detective finds out he looks exactly like Prince Ruprecht of Saxonia.  Marco’s adventures take him across several continents at different points.  We finally self-published the first group of stories just for us.  Once in a while, I tell my husband he should really write down the rest of them, since the world (mostly me) is really missing out on the lesser known characters of Alice Dodds and General Tostito.  But at least we’ve got Marco, Princess Marie, and all the others – it means I love the Vango stories and The Murderer’s Ape even more.  So, I might be biased.  No, really, I am biased, but I still think you’ll love this one. 

The Murderer’s Ape by Jakob Wegelius

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For friends of Jane

secrets-in-the-snow-coverMurder.  Social climbers.  Love.  Jane Austen references.

Jane Austen is one of my go-to authors if I’ve just had too much of anything – teen drama, fast-moving action thrillers, strange stories that start off one thing and end up another.  Once in a while I enjoy reading the various offshoots of her work, which either use Jane as a character or set stories in the world of her characters.  There are modern romcom versions, graphic novels, zombies.  Death Comes to Pemberley by P.D. James is a favorite of mine. The Stephanie Barron Jane mysteries and Curtis Sittenfeld’s updated Pride and PrejudiceEligible— are also good examples.

Secrets in the Snow is a new addition to this collection, focusing on a teenaged Jane Austen.  Michaela MacColl has taken bits and pieces of Jane’s life and her books and thrown in a murder, and it works.  There are lies and secrets and love… everything you’d expect.  It’s a good read for a cold, snowy day (which would match the cover) when you need a break from the real world.

Secrets in the Snow by Michaela McColl

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Re-Counting by 7s

countingSometimes books just hit us at the perfect moment.   There’s something in our past, our present, or what we think might be our future, something that a book or a character or even just a phrase captures precisely.  That, my friends, is Willow Chance and Counting by 7s in a nutshell.  Willow is obsessive, awkward, analytical and an outsider.  But somehow, she’s all of the things we know ourselves to be, too.  She’s trying to find her way.

I don’t do much re-reading – there are always too many new books to get to– except for my annual trips to Hogwarts in French and German, which is my way of reminding my brain of its many and varied pathways.  But my book club decided to read Counting by 7s, and after trying to listen to it in the car unsuccessfully (some books work that way for me and other just don’t), I scrounged up my son’s copy. (He rereads it regularly.)

Holly Goldberg Sloan’s writing is just incredible–direct, powerful, illuminating, wonderful.  Switches of perspective happen seamlessly, although the characters don’t seem to share very much.  Willow is an oddball genius, as labeled by Dell Duke, her school counselor who lies about having a cat and can’t throw things away.  Her new friends, Mai, Quang-ha and Pattie probably have a few issues, too.  Mai would like to have bunk beds; Quang-ha would like to be left alone; Pattie thinks about nail polish a lot, maybe too much to realize what her life is really about.  Then there’s Jairo, a cab driver who becomes convinced Willow is his personal angel.

In the end, all of these oddballs form a family. It’s a happy ending, but it doesn’t feel sappy or cloying.  And passing through their lives reminded me of so many painful and happy days of my own – experiencing soul-crushing grief, seeing a garden grow, and finding a new friend who is completely different but perfect for me.  It’s a trip you should take, too, whether you’ve been there before or not.

Counting by 7s by Holly Goldberg Sloan

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2016 – Finally over?

1,165 books later, we’re almost to 2017.  Or was it 1,265?  I lost count and either added or dropped 100 in my count, and that’s sort of how the year seemed to go sometimes.  I don’t feel like going back and re-counting, though.  It was a long year any way you look at it.

I didn’t read all of those – some were for my family, some were books I was taking to show kids at school, some of those items were DVDs, and some just never got read, even if I renewed them a time or two.

Although I mostly write about picture books and middle grade these days, some others for teens and adults also stood out to me.  So here, finally, is the last of my favorites of 2016:

March, Book 3 by John Lewis, Andrew Aydin and Nate Powell

Outrun the Moon by Stacey Lee

A Study in Charlotte by Brittany Cavallaro

Learning to Swear in America by Katie Kennedy

Snow White: a graphic novel by Matt Phelan

Secrets in the Snow by Michaela McColl

Cloud and Wallfish by Anne Nesbet

How to Hang a Witch by Adriana Mather

A Great Reckoning by Louise Penny

The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend by Katarina Bivald

Britt-Marie Was Here  by Frederik Backman

 

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Friendship in gray zones

cloud-wallfish“It was like going from a color movie into a black and white one.”

If I sat down and made a list of reasons I loved Cloud and Wallfish by Anne Nesbet, this line would be right at the top.  Why?  It’s such a simple thing, this description, but it fits 1980s East Berlin perfectly.  Nesbet goes on to talk about how gray it seems to young Noah/Jonah, and that’s true, too, or at least that’s how it felt to me when I was there in 1987, just a few years before the Berlin Wall fell and Germany was reunified.  The grayness was almost a physical presence lingering around you: buildings, people, sky, things you could buy in the store.  I only stayed a day, but it was long enough.  On the way back through the checkpoint, when the guard questioned me about why I didn’t look anything like my passport – really, I didn’t? – I was unsettled enough that I took it as a good omen when the sun shot through a cloud and almost blinded me for a moment when I got back to the West Berlin side.

Noah goes there willingly, too.  His parents pile him into the car one day, announcing that they are leaving immediately for East Berlin, and that his life in the U.S. must be reshaped into the life of a child his age named Jonah so that his mother can complete her doctoral research.  What?  Something fishy is going on, but Noah, now Jonah, gamely complies.  He follows the Rules, never talking about anything important inside, keeping quiet, laying low.  He manages to make a friend in Claudia; her parents have died or disappeared or something.  He’s never really sure of anything – his parents’ motives, who he can trust, why his teacher doesn’t want him to talk, what those tiny pieces of paper his dad keeps dropping are.

The questions pile up and eventually Jonah’s friendship with Claudia causes problems for both of them. No matter how pure their feelings for each other are, the edges blur when outsiders look in.  What is right?  What is the truth?  How can Jonah keep everyone safe?  Or can he?  Read on.

Cloud and Wallfish by Anne Nesbet

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Of bullies, witches, and serendipity

Once in a while, without any particular plan, I come across two books which seem to go strangely well with each other, despite being different genres or about completely different characters.  So it is with Samantha Mather and Queen.

A Boy Named Queen is a short middle grade story.  Queen arrives in Evelyn’s fifth grade class with a sense of style that is completely out of the ordinary – brogues, a pink t-shirt, occasionally sparkly clothing.  He’s immediately the target of bullies because of his name and clothing choices, but Evelyn becomes his friend anyway.  She’s not one to take many chances, but there is something about Queen she wants to learn more about.  Evelyn’s transformation makes this book a great discussion starter for kids.

How to Hang a Witch  is a teen fantasy, but at its heart is another kind of bullying – the kind where everyone stands around and lets someone be attacked while doing nothing to stop it.  Samantha Mather is the descendant of someone tied to the Salem Witch Trials, and when she and her stepmother move back to Salem following her dad’s health crisis, Samantha is instantly thrown into the middle of 300-year old curses and intrigues.  You’re not quite sure until the very end who the good guys are – is it the ghost, the crazy neighbor, the mean girls, someone else?  And Cotton Mather in a teen novel?  Who’d have seen that one coming?

Both are worth a look, and if you have time, you might even read them one after the other and see if the connections strike you the same way.  Standing up to bullies is tough, whether you’re an average fifth grader or a savvy New York teenager transplanted to a new community.  Having allies can change the whole dynamic.

How to Hang a Witch by Adriana Mather

A Boy Named Queen by Sara Cassidy

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