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Two Takes on Environmental Destruction

Fri, 2015-01-30 07:00

Today, we review two books that examine the environmental destruction of small towns, and the ensuing fallout in the community at large. In Rene Steinke’s Friendswood, the eponymous town has been the victim of chemical leaks from a nearby oil refinery. Most of the town seems ready to move on once the EPA has cleared the town for redevelopment, but protagonist Lee (whose daughter may have died from exposure to the chemicals) continues to crusade against the refinery, a crusade which leads eventually to tragedy.  Meanwhile, in Christopher Scotton’s The Secret Wisdom of the Earth, a small Appalachian town is being strip-mined for coal, and the opposition (much more organized than Lee’s one-man stand) once again leads to tragic results.

Both novels ask the reader to consider the ways in which rural American towns are seen by urban America: not just as fodder to be used and abused by large corporations, but as essentially worth less than our large “modern” cities.  And both use their broad narrative of environmental disaster as a setting for the more mundane tragedies of daily life in these towns.

STEINKE, René. Friendswood. 368p. Riverhead. Aug. 2014. Tr $27.95. ISBN 9781594632518. LC  2014012106

Many years ago, Lee’s daughter Jess succumbed to a brain tumor that Lee believes resulted from the effects of chemicals left behind by a nearby refinery. Since then, she has been fighting City Hall to create awareness of those chemicals and the damage they have done to the residents of their town, Friendswood, Texas. The protagonist’s research and reports about multiple incidents of cancer, brain tumors, and unexplained rashes have fallen on deaf ears. When the EPA clears the way for new building upon that site, Lee is determined to fight even harder. But to most townspeople the refinery dump-site is not an issue. Hal, a realtor, looks forward to the possibility of selling many homes in the area, and teens Willa, Cully, and Dex are just trying to understand their lives. Told from these five character viewpoints, Friendswood takes readers into the lives of these people who live under the shadow of a resurfacing superfund site. Hal grapples with his faith and ambition; Willa has strange hallucinations; Cully rethinks his life in the aftermath of violent bad choices; and Dex struggles with understanding his family. Lee’s eco-terrorism sparks a climax that allows each character to discover that maybe life has something to offer them, while opening the eyes of this small town to the destruction in their backyard. Young adults can identify with the teen characters and for those who like environmental activism, this book will get them thinking.—Connie Williams, Petaluma High School, CA

SCOTTON, Christopher. The Secret Wisdom of the Earth. 468p. Grand Central. Jan. 2015. Tr $26. ISBN 9781455551927. LC 2014012917.

It’s been two months since Kevin and his mother witnessed the horrific death of his little brother. They have moved to Appalachian Kentucky to spend the summer with Pops, Kevin’s maternal grandfather, with the hope of healing.  This is a tall order as Kevin’s mother is so grief-stricken she can hardly function, and his absentee father, who blames him for the death, provides no support. Luckily, Pops is a wise and lovable man who is the best candidate to aid in the teen’s redemption. The protagonist meets Buzzy whose friendship is immediate and fast. However, there is a dark underbelly to this 1985 coal mining town, including a murder and an evil coal mine owner who is destroying the area. Pops, Kevin, and Buzzy set out for a trip into the remote areas of the hollows to experience the beauty of the region. They see a person watching their every move who soon begins firing at them. Buzzy is convinced the shooter is after him, so he takes off to confront him. Pops is shot and it is up to Kevin to save him. This is a treacherous, page-turning journey and one can only admire Kevin’s pluck and bravery. Overwritten, wordy, and full of caricatures, this debut is also highly readable and has some appealing, authentic characters. Teens might find 14-year-old Kevin overly sophisticated, but the action and setting are intriguing and credible.—Jane Ritter, Mill Valley School District, CA

Categories: Library News


Wed, 2015-01-28 22:06

Descent is my favorite book of 2015 so far, and one I expect to see on best lists come next winter.

Why? Tim Johnston combines edge-of-your-seat suspense with family drama, tragedy, and an unforgettable setting. The characters are real, which is what makes their fates so suspenseful, of course. And it is incredibly well-written. There are beautiful passages throughout. The author is able to turn the narrative from thoughtful to nail-biting on a dime.

Now, I started my review with the word “intense” for a reason. There were moments when I was literally reading with one eye closed. I’ve never done that before! I had to put it down for a couple days about halfway through. I sobbed my heart out at the end, something else I rarely do. This is for mature teen readers who can handle violence, especially the threat of violence including rape. (Thankfully, most of that violence takes place off-stage, so to speak.) I think there are lots of readers out there for this book including teens who ask for crime novels or suspenseful mysteries, and teens who like to read about abduction victims like Elizabeth Smart or Jaycee Dugard.

* JOHNSTON, Tim. Descent. 384p. Algonquin. Jan. 2015. Tr $25.95. ISBN 9781616203047. LC 2014024023.  

This intense, literary thriller begins with a typical American family summer vacation in the Colorado Rockies. Caitlin, 18, is headed to college on a track scholarship, and is excited to practice running at a high altitude. The first morning, Caitlin sets off up a mountain road with her younger brother Sean riding his bike alongside her. Hours later, the local sheriff arrives at the motel to take their parents, Grant and Angela, to the hospital where Sean is in surgery after being run down by a vehicle. Caitlin is nowhere to be found, as if she disappeared into thin air. After weeks of searching, Angela returns home to Wisconsin. But Grant can’t leave. He sets up house on the property of the sheriff’s father’s ranch, helping elderly Emmet with daily chores. After his leg heals, Sean takes Grant’s truck and drives away, finding work as he needs it, coming of age as a drifter pretending to be 18. What became of Caitlin? Chapters in her voice lend the novel a nearly unbearable suspense. The horror of the situation and the power of the writing come together to create something wholly unique, with echoes of Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones (Little Brown, 2002), the beautiful prose of Ron Rash, and the Western setting of Kent Meyers’s Work of Wolves (Houghton Mifflin, 2004). This is family drama, psychological suspense, survival, and coming of age all set in an awesome, vast wilderness where anything can happen. A frightening but also life-affirming read thanks to the love, hope, and determination of these wounded, imperfect characters.—Angela Carstensen, Convent of the Sacred Heart, New York City

Categories: Library News

Alex Award Predictions

Mon, 2015-01-26 07:00


The 2015 Alex Awards–recognizing “ten books written for adults that have special appeal to young adults”–will be named during the Youth Media Awards on February 2. In our annual quest to pretend we know what we’re talking about, today Angela and I are going to make some guesses about what we think might have a chance to pick up one of those Alex Awards.

I’ll start with two personal favorites–less predictions than hoped-for titles. First, I’m going to double (triple? quadruple?) down on Jeff VanderMeer’s fantastic SF mind-blower Annihilation. I’ve been flogging this (and the other two books in the Southern Reach trilogy) all year, and while I acknowledge that it has perhaps a bit less teen appeal (especially the later books which get into a bit of esoteric philosophizing), the pure intrigue and suspense of this first novel make it perfect for literate teen SF fans.

The second book I’ll pick is the graphic novel Above the Dreamless Dead, edited by Chris Duffy. This is another one which should be no surprise to readers of the blog, as I devoted two long blog posts to it, including an interview with Chris Pratt, one of the artists. This graphic adaptation of World War I poetry is a phenomenal exercise in history and literature–making both real for a modern audience and linking them to the present–along with a tremendous outpouring of artistic talent. This one has Booklist’s stamp of approval as an adult book for young adults. The only question is its eligibility, since all of the poems have been previously published. I can’t seem to find a clear answer to that on the Alex Awards homepage. Regardless of that decision, this one is obviously one of the best Adult Books 4 Teens of the year.

How about you Angela–what would you like to see/think we might see from the Alex Awards?


This year I’m trying to keep my own emotions out of it, and force myself to stick to a teen appeal perspective. Please disregard that I’m beginning with my favorite two books of the year!

First, All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr. If ever there was a literary historical fiction title that had the appeal to make it onto the Alex list, I think this is it. I couldn’t keep it on my shelves long enough to booktalk it this fall. “If you liked The Book Thief, you might…” and it was gone.

Second, Everything I Never Told You. I think the way that Ng sets up her plot makes it nearly unputdownable. It’s a mystery inside a dysfunctional family drama that begins with the words, “Lydia is dead. But they don’t know this yet.”

And may I add–I think Annihilation is a long-shot. My science fiction vote goes to The Martian or Lock In. (Not that all three couldn’t end up on the list–there is no balance requirement.) These two are immediately fun and interesting. And teens like to know what happened–getting to the end and still having no earthly idea what the book is about? Not so much. Or is that just me?? And no, my frustration didn’t prevent me from starting Authority, the second in the Southern Reach trilogy, as soon as I could lay my hands on a copy!

Back to you, Mark!


Oh, I entirely agree that The Martian and Lock In are more accessible than Annihilation–but I think that Annihilation is far better written than either of those two. The old quality v. popularity debate. Ideally I’d like to see The Martian *and* Annihilation win an Alex, but I’m not holding my breath.

On to other books. I suppose technically Above the Dreamless Dead is “nonfiction” because it might be shelved in the 811s for Poetry, but I would love to see a real nonfiction book make the cut, and there are some strong contenders. Kevin Brockmeier’s memoir A Few Seconds of Radiant Filmstrip made out Best of list, and The Underground Girls of Kabul made Booklist’s. I’d love to see either of those make it, but the nonfiction book I’d put my money on is The Griots of Oakland, edited by Angela Zusman. Very much in the same vein as Richard Ross’s Juvenile in Justice–in that it is heavily pictorial, centered on underserved (all or mostly black) youth, and was discovered for us by reviewer Amy Cheney–Griots is one of the most powerful books I read this year, and absolutely required reading for anyone who cares about race relations in this country (which should be everyone).

For my second book of this round I’ll go with a book I haven’t read: Lev Grossman’s The Magician’s Land. I’ve heard nothing but rave reviews for this one, and it’s one of a handful of books that this blog and Booklist agreed on. I don’t know whether the fact that the first in the series, The Magicians, received an Alex has any bearing on the finale’s chances, but from what I’ve heard, The Magician’s Land is every bit as good, if not better than The Magicians, so I’m going for it.

Last year you put me on the spot for coming up with an outlier or two. This year I’m returning the favor: any out-of-left-field candidates you could see making a run?


First, I have to respond to The Magician’s Land. Yes, please! In my post about this book, I mention how funny and big-hearted it is. Grossman is also generous in sharing just what fans of this series want–more about Fillory and the “villain”’s origin story. And he has lots to say about growing up. Nothing would make me happier than to see Grossman’s trilogy honored once again by the Award committee.

Now, to that out-of-left-field possibility. Really out there because I didn’t even review it. Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel is a masterpiece of a post-apocalyptic story that centers around the life of an aging actor who dies in the very first scene. I booktalked it to a few classes in November, right after reading it, and no one checked it out. So I decided that it just didn’t have the teen appeal for this blog. But now I hear it’s become a bit of a favorite in my library. Students read it over the holiday break. Huh. So, this would be one of those 40-1 bets, but it could happen. One of the things that makes this special is the tie-in to the arts. It follows a group of survivors who travel around the Lake Michigan area performing Shakespeare and classical music. One of their wagons is painted with the quote “Because Survival isn’t Sufficient.”

Which leads me to another possibility, which we did review but did not place on our Best list–The Vacationers by Emma Straub. This became a real favorite in my library this fall. Both teachers and students were recommending it to each other. Its humor and compassion for difficult family circumstances remind me of Where’d You Go, Bernadette (as did the cover design), so I wouldn’t be surprised to see this one show up on the Alex list.

Mark, I love your prediction of Griots of Oakland. In addition to Juvenile in Justice, it brings to mind another pictorial Alex winner from a little further back–The Oxford Project, by Stephen G. Bloom, photographed by Peter Feldstein.

So rather than ask for an outlier, let me ask–is there anything we’re skipping because it’s just too obvious?


Hmm . . . a book we’re skipping because it’s too obvious? I don’t know if “obvious” and “Alex Awards” really go together–as we’ve established over the last couple of years of our pitifully off-base “predictions”.  But if there is an obvious book it’s probably All The Light We Cannot See, which you already picked. Among books we haven’t mentioned yet, I can’t really see Megan Abbott’s The Fever as “obvious”–it’s a bit slow to start, and it took me some time to come around to its greatness.  But it was one that Booklist agreed with us on, and it’s by an established author of adult books for teens (see our review of Dare Me)–and, oh yeah, I ended up loving it and giving it a starred review, so I guess it has that going for it–so I’ll go ahead and take that one.

That’s nine titles. Angela, do you want to round us off with one more pick?


Sure. I’m going to answer my own question about the obvious. My first guess would be Pierce Brown’s Red Rising. It certainly has the appeal. Second–there is a lot of love out there for Adam by Ariel Schrag. I haven’t read either, though they’ve been on my TBR pile forever. Sigh… But just like my Oscar predictions improve the fewer movies I’ve seen, maybe I can see more clearly when I haven’t read… 

You can follow the Youth Media Awards live, 8:00 a.m. Central time on Monday, Feb. 2 in a couple ways. The webcast will be here. The twitter handle is #ALAyma. The Alex Awards are the very first announcement, and then the winners are repeated later in the show.

Meanwhile, please, share your predictions with us in the comments!

Categories: Library News

The Heart Does Not Grow Back

Thu, 2015-01-22 07:00

The tagline plastered on the back of Fred Venturini’s debut novel–”Every superhero needs to start somewhere”–may draw in readers, but it may mislead them as well. It is true that the novel’s protagonist, Dale Sampson, has a superheroic ability to regenerate his limbs, but the novel is much less of an origin story than it is a quirky coming-of-age story. And as our review states, the balance between these genres can lead the book astray at times. Nevertheless, it’s a fast paced book with lots of teen interest, especially teen fans of Venturini’s mentor, Chuck Palahniuk.

VENTURINI, Fred. The Heart Does Not Grow Back. 272p. Picador. Nov. 2014. pap. $16. ISBN 9781250052216; ebk. ISBN 9781250052223.

Dale Sampson has always been a loser. His star ballplayer best friend, Mack, is the closest he came to popularity in high school. One fateful night, the only girl he’s ever been interested in, Regina, is murdered, and he and Mack are injured. Mack’s athletic future is over due to his injuries. Dale’s strange destiny is just beginning, as his hand heals super-fast and his lost ear regenerates itself. After high school, Dale continues to hide his ability from others and works just enough to get by, when he reconnects with Regina’s shy twin Raeanna. He realizes she is a victim of domestic abuse and tries to help, but soon becomes the husband’s target. Dale heads to Hollywood to star in a show about his ability, all to gain fame in a greater plan to help Raeanna, but her secrets may bring her to ask Dale to sacrifice more than he can. This is an interesting, bizarre, and depressing story, and suspension of disbelief is necessary, especially regarding the unexplained organ regeneration. Dale’s sense of honor is admirable, but overshadowed by his frustrating inability to act, which permeates the story. The ending is hopeful, but less realistic in context. A high concept read for teens interested in superheroes, sports, Hollywood, quirky fiction.–Kelly Jo Lasher, Middle Township High School, Cape May Court House, NJ

Categories: Library News


Tue, 2015-01-20 15:12

Here we have a new kind of apocalypse, one in which humans are at war with ants, joined later by cats, dogs, and more. Just what is going on??

Robert Repino’s debut lands somewhere between Animal Farm and those B-movie sci-fi thrillers with giant, mutated insects. Give this to teens looking for something different. Maybe Grasshopper Jungle fans looking to take their science fiction fandom to the next level. Or readers whose humor would embrace pets who rebel against their owners. The cover art alone should garner some interest.

There are so many dystopian and post-apocalyptic novels being published right now. This one stands out in the crowd.

REPINO, Robert. Mort(e). 352p. Soho Pr. Jan. 2015. Tr $26.95. ISBN 9781616954277.  

Imagine a world where an ant Queen rules a Colony of ants that are the size of school buses.  The Queen has developed a chemical that will make all animals larger, capable of speaking, and gives them hands (with opposable thumbs).  Finally, this Colony and these animals wage war on humans… and win. Sebastian is a housecat, the defender of his home and the humans inside; Sheba is the dog next door, who comes to visit Sebastian when her male comes to “visit” Sebastian’s female.  The day before the Change, their worlds collapse as Sebastian’s male kills Sheba’s newborn puppies and kicks her out of the house. Post-takeover, Sebastian becomes Mort(e): a mercenary cat who helps wipe out the remaining humans and create an animal-run society, all the while seeking his only friend, Sheba.  Realizing that this new society is no better than the human one, he allows himself to become a spy for the human resistance—in no small part because they’ve told him he’s part of a prophecy that includes Sheba.  The final scenes will make readers cry.  The earlier chapters will make any reader within 10 feet of an animal (ant, spider, cat, or other) very nervous.  This is the perfect companion title for George Orwell’s 1984, and a very interesting twist on dystopian societies.—Laura Pearle, Miss Porter’s School, CT

Categories: Library News

The Rosie Effect: A Sequel That Delivers the Goods

Thu, 2015-01-15 13:05

When I read Graeme Simsion’s The Rosie Project, I loved it (and reviewed positively)–funny, charming, sweet, with something real to say about humanity. But I had some doubts about it’s teen appeal, which was the only reason I didn’t give it a starred review. So I was pleasantly surprised when one of our other reviewers nominated it for this blog’s Best of 2013 list.

Nevertheless, when I picked up the sequel, and subject of today’s review, The Rosie Effect, the same doubts nagged at me, especially since this book is about marriage and parenthood, rather than dating–a topic farther removed from teens. But I was once again proved wrong–this time by a real live teen. I took my ARC of The Rosie Effect on a plane flight to Arizona (don’t ask why I would want to go to Arizona) and sat next to two teen brothers. The younger of them–maybe 12 or 13–proceeded to spend the entire flight reading over my shoulder, laughing along with me, and asking me questions about where I’d gotten the book (he was quite disappointed to find out that it wasn’t out in print yet).

So without further ado, or further doubts about teen appeal, here’s our review of Simsion’s wonderful sequel to The Rosie Project.

SIMSION, Graeme. The Rosie Effect. 344p. S. & S. Dec. 2014. Tr $25.99. ISBN  9781476767314. LC 2014034569.

Don Tillman is back, and fans of The Rosie Project (S. & S., 2013) won’t need any persuading to snatch up this sequel. Don and Rosie are settled in New York, where Rosie is going to grad school and Don is working as a visiting professor at Columbia. Then everything changes: Rosie announces that she’s pregnant and simultaneously, Don’s friend Gene from Australia, gets thrown out by his wife and arrives on Don and Rosie’s doorstep. After a brief meltdown, Don goes into his normal logical mode and initiates The Baby Project, researching pregnancy, childbirth, and child care (including observing and videotaping small children at a playground, a tactic that gets him noticed by the NYPD and referred to counseling). Don wants to protect Rosie from stress during her pregnancy, but as a result he fails to provide the kind of support she needs and wants, and Rosie withdraws into her schoolwork, failing to face up to the realities of what a baby will mean in their lives. Despite (or because of) his quirks, Don manages to gather around himself some genuine friends to help him through this time of uncertainty—and he does his own share of helping his friends through their own relationship problems. With laugh-out-loud moments and touchingly sweet ones, this will appeal to teens who like funny books and those who appreciate a somewhat sideways look at modern customs and mores, especially those surrounding relationships and families.—Sarah Flowers, formerly of Santa Clara County (CA) Library

Categories: Library News


Mon, 2015-01-12 10:20

Two books that follow professional stage magicians, or illusionists, top our week.

I was completely entranced by The Magician’s Lie, a terrific historical yarn that reads like a modern thriller. The title magician is a young woman, and the only woman making the circuit in the first decade of the 20th century. It is her life story as she tells it (and it’s difficult to know how much is truth and how much is fabricated to garner sympathy from her jailer), that is particularly suspenseful.

As I sat down to write this post, I thought it might be fun to come up with a list of books about magicians that teens enjoy. I mention The Night Circus and Water for Elephants in my review, and both of those work as readalikes for certain elements of The Magician’s Lie. Others books about magic we’ve reviewed here include Vaclav & Lena by Haley Tanner and The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake by Aimee Bender (which won an Alex Award in 2011). I reviewed a fantasy novel last year that shares a few elements, but is much more for the fantasy crowd than this one–The Oversight by Charlie Fletcher. It includes a great contest between magicians that is very dramatic. We wrote a post reviewing three magical novels in 2013. And there’s The Prestige, which I haven’t read, but what a great movie.

The Disappearance Boy by Neil Bartlett is another for the list. (And note, it made the Booklist Editors’ Choice, Adult Books for Young Adults 2014 list a couple weeks ago.) Reggie is an outsider. Not only does he work on the fringes of society, but he is an orphan crippled by childhood polio and beginning to realize that he is gay. As a reading experience, this has a more old-fashioned feel. The narrator often addresses readers, as if to take them into his confidence. But, like many books about magic, there are secrets, surprises, twists and turns ahead.

MACALLISTER, Greer. The Magician’s Lie. 320p. Sourcebooks/Landmark. Jan. 2015. Tr $23.99. ISBN  9781402298684. LC 2014036974.  

It’s 1905 and famed illusionist, the Amazing Arden, is accused of killing her husband with an ax on stage during her most notorious act—the Halved Man. She is apprehended only hours later by Officer Virgil Holt, a serious and dedicated policeman in his early 20s (only a year or two older than Arden herself). He takes her to the station and interrogates her through the night. Ada (her real name) maintains her innocence, and insists on telling Virgil her life story from the beginning. She begins with her single mother’s marriage that moved them to rural Tennessee when she was 12. Her stepfather’s nephew, Raymond, had a fascination with hurting things—himself, animals, then Ada—so she ran away a few years later and found work at the Biltmore. There she met Clyde, who helped her get to New York City but broke her heart. She found work assisting the Great Madame Herrmann, who taught her about performing illusions before retiring and passing the company to Ada. Success and fate brought both men back into Ada’s life. The story of her past is so engrossing that the interruption by shorter chapters taking place in the present will make readers feel like they are emerging from a dream into harsh reality. The present has its own intensity, like a game of cat and mouse. Virgil struggles to maintain his disbelief and objectivity in the face of Ada’s magical storytelling. What should he (or readers) believe? This book is being hailed as Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus (Doubleday, 2011) meets Sara Gruen’s Water for Elephants (Algonquin, 2006), but Macallister combines the stagecraft of illusion with a passionate love story to concoct a fully new creation.—Angela Carstensen, Convent of the Sacred Heart, New York City

BARTLETT, Neil. The Disappearance Boy. 278p. Bloomsbury. Oct. 2014. Tr $26. ISBN  9781620407257. LC 2014456273.  

Title character Reggie Rainbow, 23, assists his magician boss, Mr. Brookes in “disappearing” the lovely assistant, Pamela, from a box on stage each night through a series of intricately designed steps. Orphaned and crippled by polio, Reggie’s life has been one of hardship and loneliness, exacerbated by the mean-spirited Mr. Brookes. It is 1953 and other forms of entertainment are replacing magic shows. Jobs come further and further apart so when they are given a longer run in Brighton, and an opportunity to highlight the new Queen’s coronation day, Mr. Brookes thinks that his luck may change. But for Reggie and Pamela, who have each fallen victim to the illusionist’s self-centered actions, this longer run, and the new act, may actually provide them with a new kind of future. Told by an unknown narrator who speaks in a spare voice that toggles between characters, this book could appeal to mature teens who like writing that holds back information, parsing it out in bits and pieces. A magician confuses his audience with “misdirection” and the narrator applies a bit of this too, taking readers into Reggie’s world of stage magic that appears to be headed in one direction only to end up in a completely different place. England in the 1950s is one with limits for those who are different, and readers will feel for Reggie because of the roadblocks placed his way. But in spite of his weaknesses, both physical and emotional, Reggie never shuts himself away from the possibility of a better future.—Connie Williams, Petaluma High School, CA

Categories: Library News

The World of Ice and Fire

Thu, 2015-01-08 13:24

As this blog’s resident Game of Thrones reviewer (again, despite having never read the novels), I took it upon myself to read the newest entry into the world of The Song of Ice and Fire, a “nonfiction” companion to George R.R. Martin’s epic world. The book has Martin’s name above the title, but the smaller print points to Elio Garcia and Linda Antonsson as the true auteurs behind this magnificent work. As I state in my review below, Garcia and Antonsson are experts among experts about the “World of Ice and Fire” as this new book is titled, running the best website about the books, and often called upon by Martin himself to answer questions about his own world.

Going in, I was expecting something a little on the dry side–but I was pleasantly surprised by the ease of Martin, Garcia, and Antonsson’s prose, and their facility in conjuring epic conflicts and romances in the few sentences allotted to them in various entries. More than that, this book is a treasure in itself–beautifully bound, and lushly illustrated with paintings, maps, and more. I read this somewhat unwieldy book on an airplane and found many of my fellow passengers looking over my shoulder to see the exquisite object. Highly recommended to Game of Thrones fans everywhere.

MARTIN, George R.R., Elio Garcia & Linda Antonsson. The World of Ice and Fire: The Untold History of Westoros and the Game of Thrones. 326p. glossary. illus. index. maps. Bantam. Oct. 2014. Tr $50. ISBN  9780553805444. LC 2014013093.

When Martin has a question about the world he has created in “A Song of Ice and Fire,” he asks Antonsson and Garcia, proprietors of and possibly the two people who know most about Martin’s fantasy epic (apparently even more than the author himself). So it is no surprise that Antonsson and Garcia are the brainchildren behind this answer to J.R. Tolkien’s Silmarillion. Like that famously difficult work, The World of Ice and Fire is intended as a “nonfiction” companion to the “Song of Ice and Fire” novels, describing the political and social history of the worlds of Westeros, Essos, and Sothoryos. And a rollicking history it is. After a relatively brief walk through the prehistory of the world, the coming of the First Men, and the invasion of the Andals, the bulk of the book’s first half is taken up by a reign-by-reign account of the Targaryen dynasty, starting with the legendary exploits of Aegon the Conqueror and culminating in the rebellion which sets the stage for A Game of Thrones (Bantam, 1996). The second half sketches each of the Seven Kingdoms, along with accounts of the ruling families. This half has less narrative drive, but goes a long way towards explaining the political state of affairs in the novels. Overall, this work shares many of the novels’ weaknesses—in particular Martin’s peculiar sense of time, in which millennia can go by without changes in language, customs, or political power.  But it also shares the novels’ strengths—sure-handed storytelling, fast-paced action, political intrigue—and will be required reading for all Game of Thrones buffs while they await the sixth novel.—Mark Flowers, John F. Kennedy Library, Vallejo, CA

Categories: Library News

Inspirational Memoirs

Mon, 2015-01-05 09:15

One of my favorite books of 2011 was Little Princes by Conor Grennan. It made that year’s AB4T best list, and Grennan is in demand around the country at schools and colleges where his book is a great Common Read choice.

I say all of this to give context to the first of today’s books. Gail Gutradt’s In a Rocket Made of Ice is a most welcome readalike for Little Princes. The author works with children in Cambodia who have lost at least one parent to AIDS. Her own story is less appealing than Grennan’s, but for teens inspired by service, her writing about the individual children she has worked with, and other Wat Opat volunteers, is equally inspiring and moving.

Rayshawn Wilson may have grown up in the United States, but his coming-of-age was no less full of danger and drama than Gutradt’s Cambodian orphans. Lionheart is Wilson’s self-published memoir about going from child of a crack addict, through a life of crime and prison, to college graduate and respected professional. He is currently the Director of Supportive Services at Columbus Urban League, OH.

GUTRADT, Gail. In a Rocket Made of Ice: Among the Children of Wat Opot. 322p. photos. Knopf. Aug. 2014. Tr $25.95. ISBN  9780385353472. LC 2014006731.  

In 2001, ex-Marine Wayne Dale Matthysse and Vandin San founded Wat Opat as a hospice for Cambodians dying from AIDS. What Matthysse discovered was that the children left behind after their parents died needed a safe and secure place to grow up. Matthysse redirected his work to building a community at Wat Opot to provide a stable home for those children and for the many who came to him later seeking comfort, shelter, and care. Author Gutradt volunteers each year at Wat Opat, bringing her own perspective, talents and presence to the community. She tells the stories of this hospice with simplicity and a grace that allows the humanity of each child and adult to shine. Recounting Matthysse’s spiritual journey from soldier to caretaker along with her own inner-seeking, Gutradt describes how each child brings a joy and a challenge to the volunteers, helping them understand how to best aid the kids to create their very best future. She uses each child’s story to trace the growth of Wat Opat from its humble beginnings into a thriving community that continues to provide a home for the many children afflicted with disease and extreme poverty. Reading about the culture of modern Cambodia reveals a world perspective that is completely different from our own Western view; and American teens will find from these stories that while all children want the same things—love, parents, safety, and a future worth working for—the road to getting there can be very treacherous for some. A good readalike for Conor Grennan’s Little Princes (Morrow, 2011).—Connie Williams, Petaluma High School, CA

WILSON, Rayshawn. Lionheart: Coming From Where I’m From. 232p. Legendary. Oct. 2014. pap. $15. ISBN  9780982786321.  

Wilson grew up in Columbus, OH, knowing how to cook up a batch of crack, steal food from the grocery store in order to survive, and lie as a matter of course. When he was six years old, his house was invaded by the police, guns drawn. He was put into the backseat of a police cruiser, terrified, watching as his crack addicted mother was handcuffed and taken away.  Thus began a journey that too many African American and Latino teens in this country have experienced: foster care, sexual abuse, running away, breaking into people’s homes (Wilson would eat cereal before he left) and finally, dealing drugs. “Crime was as constant as breathing and provided more promise than tomorrow,” Wilson writes. After serving two years for a crime he did not commit, Wilson became the first person in his family to graduate from college. How he went from his beginnings as a child of a crack addict (a woman who is shown to be so much more than the stereotype) to multiple college degrees among many other accomplishments, will keep teens engaged and turning pages. Self-published, the book is well written with a forward-moving narrative and just the right mixture of the action-filled kid and teen years balanced with his later, more adult transformations. There is too much type on the page and not enough white space, but that’s about the only downside of this terrific memoir.—Amy Cheney, Alameda County Library, Juvenile Hall, CA

Categories: Library News

First Frost

Fri, 2015-01-02 13:42

Happy New Year!

Given the frost on the ground in my usually balmy California home, I thought we would ring in the New Year here with the appropriately titled First Frost by Sarah Addison Allen–our first 2015 title, to boot.

This book is an example of one of my favorite parts of this blog: when a reviewer finds a book that neither Angela nor I had heard of, and reviews it all on her own. Makes my part of the job much easier, and more importantly, brings great books to my attention.

First Frost sounds like a fabulous teen recommendation–a family of magical women; a 15-year-old girl not sure what to do with her magic, or with the 18-year-old boy she knows she’s supposed to be with; and magical hair and candy–what more could you ask for?

ALLEN, Sarah Addison. First Frost. 307p. St. Martin’s. Jan. 2015. Tr $25.99. ISBN  9781250019837. LC 2014032166.

All of the Waverly women have a special kind of magic. Sydney does hair—and she can make your day (or week) better or worse because of the style. Her sister Claire takes after their grandmother Mary, and makes food and candies from the edible flowers that grow in the yard—food that makes everyone feel better. Even distant cousin Evanelle has the ability to give people exactly what they need—whether they know it or not. Fifteen-year-old Bay, Sydney’s daughter, has the gift of knowing what things (and people) belong together. So she knows that she is somehow meant to be in the life of 18-year-old Josh—rich kid, soccer player, and basically, high school royalty. At the beginning of the school year, she even writes Josh a note telling him so, but it only succeeds in making Bay more of a pariah in school than she already is. Meanwhile, Sydney wants a baby, Claire isn’t sure that her candy-making business is the right thing, and a stranger arrives in town, a con man who has some sort of interest in the Waverlys. First frost is always a time of upheaval for the Waverly women, and as that day approaches (coinciding this year with Halloween), all of these issues come to a head in this delightful novel of magical realism that will appeal to fans of Maggie Stiefvater’s “Raven Boys” cycle (Scholastic) and Alice Hoffman. Bay is an extremely likable heroine who will appeal to teens who, like her, are trying to find out where they belong in the world.—Sarah Flowers, formerly of Santa Clara County Library

Categories: Library News

Two Very Different Memoirs

Tue, 2014-12-23 08:22

When I picked up An Age of License a couple months ago, I had not read Lucy Knisley’s Alex Award-winning graphic novel Relish. (We did not review Relish for AB4T last year–we thought it was a YA publication.)

I read An Age of License all in one sitting, and basically fell in love with it. The next morning I checked Relish out of my library. Admittedly, Relish speaks to me a little less, but I definitely see the teen appeal. An Age of License is a perfect New Adult book. It is about that stage in life when independence is still new, yet the commitments of adulthood are beckoning. It is a time when it is not too late to try out different priorities and lifestyles. Brilliantly, An Age of License takes the form of a travelogue. Traveling is the perfect opportunity to free one’s mind from the routine–to be open to new possibilities.

European travel and food are two of my very favorite things, so I had to carefully examine my personal preferences versus teen appeal here. Was I projecting my own appreciation onto teen readers? Obviously, in publishing this review–and starring it–I decided our tastes collide in this case! Many of the teens that I work with travel during vacations. Several go on exchange to France, Spain or Australia for a number of weeks of months. I also think that teens like to imagine what it will be like to have more freedom to make their own decisions. And teen artists will love this book. It has a beautiful simplicity. It is honest and straight-forward–qualities that teens appreciate.

Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer has a history of popularity with teens. It also made the rounds as a required text in schools, and was made into a movie by Sean Penn in 2007, starring then up-and-comer Emile Hirsch. (This is not to be confused with Into Thin Air, the Everest disaster book that won Krakauer a 1998 Alex Award.)

Into the Wild is the story of Chris McCandless, who left his family and friends, abandoned all material things, and ended up in Alaska, where he was found dead of starvation. Krakauer traced his route and those he encountered in the months before his death, trying to figure out why his life ended as it did. In The Wild Truth, Chris’s sister Carine answers some of the questions that continue to haunt readers of Into the Wild. I think the key to appeal here may be the idealism that many teens feel they share with Chris McCandless. And she reveals the inner workings of their very dysfunctional family.

* KNISLEY, Lucy. An Age of License: A Travelogue. illus. by Lucy Knisley. 189p. Fantagraphics. Sept. 2014. pap. $19.99. ISBN  9780345544926. LC 2014023994.  

This short, absorbing travelogue is based on a journal the graphic novelist kept during her travels through Europe and Scandinavia in September 2011. Heartbroken after ending a relationship, Knisley accepted an invitation to participate in a Comics convention in Norway, which inspired a month of visiting friends and family. Shortly before leaving, Knisley met a boy from Stockholm, Henrik, who invited her to visit him, too. Knisley chronicles her pre-trip jitters (traveling “unhomes” you), as they vied with excited anticipation of a new perspective on life. The conference went well, as did her time with Henrik. So well that he accompanied her to Berlin for a few days, and arranged to meet her in Paris for a romantic finish to her adventures. It was while visiting a friend in Bordeaux that she met an older man who termed this period of her life “L’Age Licence”—a time of exploration before familial or career obligations make experimentation impossible, a time to decide what kind of life you want to have. As in the Alex Award-winning Relish (First Second, 2013), friends, family and food continue to be Knisley’s preoccupations. Predominantly black & white panels are punctuated by full-page color paintings of a pretty view, a delectable snack, the portrait of a friend, or a dress in a shop window. The many teens who travel for exchange programs, volunteer activities, or family trips will recognize Knisley’s nervousness about leaving the familiarity of home, the freedom and pleasures of exploration, insecurity about the future, and the revelations afforded by time away from routine. This ingenuous and wise travel narrative will charm readers of any age.—Angela Carstensen, Convent of the Sacred Heart, New York City

MCCANDLESS, Carine. The Wild Truth. 304p. HarperOne. Nov. 2014. Tr $27.99. ISBN  9780062325143. LC 2014011106.  

It was an adventure of self-discovery gone tragically wrong, and the compelling story of Chris McCandless’s trek into the wilderness of Alaska that Jon Krakauer pieced together in his best seller, Into the Wild (Anchor, 1997), left readers with many questions about motives. As a recent college graduate who left home, he ceremoniously burned his money, abandoned his automobile, and took odd jobs under an assumed name as he traveled across America. Was McCandless searching for himself or was there something more—something from which he was fleeing?  That he was unprepared for living off the land was obvious, but was he reckless to the point of being self-destructive?  His sister, Carine, who provided Krakauer with information she asked be kept confidential, now reveals the dysfunctional family dynamics that shaped McCandless and impelled him to seek refuge in solitude and purpose in an authentic and truthful life. She recounts the secrets, lies, manipulations, violence, and bullying of her parents that caused Chris to leave home and cut himself off from their destructive behaviors.  His only remorse was that he was leaving Carine behind to fend for herself. Much of the memoir recounts her personal grief journey and her struggle to find healing with her parents as the years passed and the book and movie made of her brother a cultural icon.  But the light she shines on family dynamics that Krakauer only hinted at will attract and satisfy teens fascinated by the mystery behind the tragic, brief life of Chris McCandless.—John Sexton, Greenburgh Public Library, NY

Categories: Library News


Thu, 2014-12-18 14:48

It’s mid-December and that means there are lots of lists coming out. Last year, I made an exhaustive spreadsheet of all of the major journals’ best-of lists to show you what made multiple lists and which ones we’d reviewed. This year, I’m . . . not going to do that. Instead, just a few thoughts. But first, the lists:

  • Library Journal has a top ten list, plus additional favorites, here
  • Booklist has a favorite book from a variety of genres, followed by an extensive list of all their starred reviews, here
  • Kirkus‘s list appears to be simply all of there starred reviews
  • And PW, like LJ has a top ten, plus more extensive lists broken out by category

You want thoughts? One of the books that seems to be getting the most attention in Marlon James’s A Brief History of Seven Killings, which made both the top ten lists. It is on our list of books to review, but we haven’t gotten to it yet, so we may just have to try to fit it in soon. And I was very pleased to see Lorrie Moore’s story collection, Bark, get some recognition. It was a book which we wanted to review here, but didn’t feel had quite the teen appeal for this blog.

Other than that, many of our favorites this year were recognized on one or more lists, including All The Light We Cannot See, which seems to be shaping up as one of the year’s favorites; Everything I Never Told You; and The Southern Reach trilogy, which everyone seems to have loved as much as me.

Take a look at all these lists and tell us what we should be reading as the year draws to a close.


Categories: Library News

Social Justice and Inequality

Tue, 2014-12-16 08:25

Two passionate nonfiction books top our week.

Just Mercy is a memoir by Bryan Stevenson, a lawyer and activist, which focuses on his work as a co-founder of the Equal Justice Initiative–”a private, nonprofit 501(c)(3) organization that provides legal representation to indigent defendants and prisoners who have been denied fair and just treatment in the legal system. We litigate on behalf of condemned prisoners, juvenile offenders, people wrongly convicted or charged with violent crimes, poor people denied effective representation, and others whose trials are marked by racial bias or prosecutorial misconduct.” 

This is a timely, important, and effective look at the justice system in the United States, and it can be found on various 2014 Best Books lists, including the New York Times, Time, Kirkus, the Washington Post and more.

The Underground Girls of Kabul may be even more intriguing for young readers, as it focuses on a phenomenon about which most teens will be unaware–Afghan girls who pose as boys, known as bacha posh. Author Jenny Nordberg is an investigative journalist who was looking for the more nuanced realities of female lives beyond the well-trodden facts of Taliban suppression of women, and she found them. Take a look at the excellent interview with Nordberg in the Christian Science Monitor.

* STEVENSON, Bryan. Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption. 316p. notes. Spiegel & Grau. Oct. 2014. Tr $28. ISBN  9780812994520.  

Only a handful of countries condemn children to death row, and America is one of them. What is the one commonality of people on death row? The race of the victim. If the victim is white, the perpetrator is 11 times more likely to be condemned to die than if the victim is black.  In heartbreaking and personal details, Stevenson interweaves these statistics with real stories and his fight to change the injustices. He was 23 years old, studying law at Harvard when he was called to an internship in Georgia where his first assignment was to deliver a message to a man living on death row. This brought him face to face with what became his calling: representing the innocent, the inadequately defended, the children, the domestic abuse survivors, the mentally ill— the imprisoned. This fast-paced and relentless book, told in short chapters featuring different people’s stories, reads like a John Grisham novel. Walter, who was at a barbecue with over 100 people at the time of the murder he was accused of, spent more than six years on death row. All Jenkins wants from Stevenson is a chocolate milkshake, as he cannot understand what is going on. The stories include those of children, teens, and adults who have been in the system since they were teens. This is a title for the many young adults who have a parent or loved one in the prison system and the many others who are interested in social justice, the law, and the death penalty. A standout choice.—Amy Cheney, Alameda County Library, Juvenile Hall, CA

NORDBERG, Jenny. The Underground Girls of Kabul: In Search of a Hidden Resistance in Afghanistan. 348p. index. maps. notes. Crown. Sept. 2014. Tr $25. ISBN  9780307952493. LC 2014000295.  

The title and cover give no real hint as to what is inside. The girls portrayed are not resisting with weapons or spying, they are simply living their lives as boys.  The reasons are varied. The family may need help in a store, and will dress a female child as a boy to allow them to do this. Female relatives, not allowed outside unaccompanied, may need this “male” relative to walk them on errands. Frequently mentioned is using their status as a “boy” as a type of magic—by showing that the family is ready for a boy, a real male child may arrive. Often, members of the community know the child is really a girl, but accept this gender switch and go along with the ruse. Nordberg was given access to a few of the girls in this story, but the main character becomes adult Azita. Her father actually educated her, but once she reached her prime childbearing years, she was married off to a rural, illiterate cousin as his second wife. Somehow, Azita manages to win a government seat in her new rural district. Western readers will undoubtedly root for Azita to find a way out of this fiercely patriarchal arrangement, but Nordberg is astounding in her ability to elicit sympathy and rage for the women portrayed, while also attempting to explain why more elaborate female resistance may not yet be possible. Teenagers, who are often finding their passion regarding social injustice and gender differences, will find a great deal to think about in this well-researched and readable piece of reporting.—Jamie Watson, Baltimore County Public Library, MD

Categories: Library News

Three Debuts

Fri, 2014-12-12 07:00

One of my favorite reader’s advisory tools is Amazon’s “Customer’s Who Bought This Item Also Bought” feature. I know, I know, Amazon’s a big evil company engaged in a fight against the absolutely tiny publishing firm of Hatchette (note: Hatchette is not tiny), but what can I say? The algorithm they use is great. You want examples? Take a look at the three books under review today, all debut novels by women, incidentally: for all three of them, Amazon recommends at least two books from AB4T’s Best of 2014 list, along with a raft of other AB4T-recommended titles.

Emmi Itaranta’s dystopian novel Memory of Water brings back recommendations for all three books in the Southern Reach trilogy, as well as Andy Weir’s The Martian, and Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See. Meanwhile, Tania Malik’s Three Bargains, a novel about family, love, and class, also draws readers of All the Light We Cannot See, along with The Book of Unknown Americans. Finally, Pamela Moses’s The Appetites of Girls, a mulit-generational novel of friendship brings up recommendations of Megan Abbott’s The Fever and Celeste Ng’s Everything I Never Told You.

So if you or your teens liked what we had to say about the best books of 2014, you’re probably going to like at least one of these fabulous new novels. At least according to Amazon . . .

ITÄRANTA, Emmi. Memory of Water. 272p. HarperVoyager. Jun. pap. $14.99. ISBN 9780062326157. LC 2014023078.

There’s a new subgenre of dystopias, climate fiction (aka “cli fi”), and Memory of Water is a poignant example of how to do it well. In the not-too-distant future, global warming has led to the ice caps melting, something has poisoned much of the oceans, and wars are being fought over water and water rights; geopolitical changes have led to a Scandinavian Union ruled by China, here known as New Quian, with the usual dictators and rigid rules and rationing that populate dystopias. The inhabitants of Noria’s village live increasingly constricted lives, while Noria and her best friend Sanja frequently play among piles of old tech (some of which will be instantly recognizable to readers as current modern technology).  Noria’s mother is a scientist looking for ways to find more water, while her father is from a long line of tea masters—and Noria is planning to follow in his footsteps. As she learns the slow, deliberate pace of the tea ceremony and attendant rituals, she also learns that the family has access to a hidden source of pure water— a source that becomes increasingly problematic when her father dies and her mother is on the other side of the continent doing research. Ultimately, Noria must leave her village, but will it be as a prisoner of the state or as an escapee to the so-called Lost Lands?  Perfect for readers thinking about climate change or interested in a unique dystopian view of the future.—Laura Pearle, Miss Porter’s School, CT

MALIK, Tania. Three Bargains. 358p. W.W. Norton. Aug. 2014. Tr $25.95. ISBN 9780393063400.  LC 2014011419.

Twelve-year-old Madan, his mother, and his sister leave their small town to join the father they hardly remember in the slums of Gorapur, India. Their father is an angry man hiding a secret life of brutal violence and corruption. When his father introduces him to his boss, Avtaar Singh, Madan impresses him so much that Avtaar Singh insists that Madan attend Gorapur Academy—the school he founded.  Avtaar Singh’s interest in education for the young hides a gangster with a tight grip on life in Gorapur, including Madan’s father. When his father arranges for Madan’s sister to be sold into prostitution, the protagonist makes his first bargain with Avtaar Singh who ensures the subsequent dispatch of Madan’s father and the safe return of his sister.  Working for Avtaar Singh means that Madan is involved in questionable dealings and even though the gangster treats him like a son, he is still from the slums; so when Madan falls for the wrong girl, he is forced to strike his second bargain resulting in barely escaping from Gorapur with his life. Away from Avtaar Singh’s grip, Madan finds peace, marriage, a family and a thriving business.  When life shifts again, bringing great tragedy to Madan’s life, he must return to Gorapur to seek answers, and bargain again; this time to discover the truth he left behind.  India in the 1980s will seem like a lifetime away to many teens, yet young adults will root for Madan as he struggles to understand how to be an honorable man in a chaotic environment.—Connie Williams, Petaluma High School, CA

MOSES, Pamela. The Appetites of Girls. 372p. Putnam. Jun. 2014. Tr $26.95. ISBN 9780399158421. LC 2013037701.

No one would have expected such a mismatched group of personalities to meld, but Ruth, Francesca, Setsu, and Opal have stuck together since their freshman year at Brown University. As the book opens, the four are meeting to celebrate Ruth’s pregnancy, 11 years after graduation. The distinct paths that each took to reach this assured friendship is what makes up the bulk of the story. Ruth begins, describing life as a young adolescent in a close-knit Jewish family. Francesca’s story is set in her wealthy family’s New York apartment, while Opal relates the downside of life with her glamorous, restless mother. Setsu, adopted as child from Japan, suffers the intrusion of a demanding older brother. As the title indicates, each girl develops a relationship with food: Ruth uses it to soothe herself; Francesca takes forbidden food in a bold move for attention; Opal cannot eat or allow herself to feel; while Setsu denies herself the nourishment which will make her whole. In each case, the appetite for food also reflects the girl’s need for approval, or attention, or love. After introducing each protagonist in adolescence, readers meet them again during college, as their lives twist together and apart. While adult readers may feel that the characters are a bit too stereotypical (of course the Asian girl plays the violin!), teens will be intrigued by the intimate connection each experiences between food and other, more ephemeral desires. There are plenty of opportunities for “aha” moments awaiting the right readers. Think of Ann Brashares’s The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants (Delacorte), the college years.—Diane Colson, Nashville Public Library, TN

Categories: Library News

Funny Celebrity Memoirs

Wed, 2014-12-10 08:18

Need I say more?

I’m not sure I need to. We all know that teens love humorous books, and both of these also fall in the category of books that are very fun to browse through. Brief excerpts from Poehler’s book are available from her NPR interview, and NPH’s website offers a nice intro to the Choose Your Own concept, headlined with “Tired of memoirs that only tell you what really happened?” Ha!

POEHLER, Amy. Yes Please. 329p. photos. reprods. Harper/William Morrow/Dey St. Oct. 2014. Tr $28.99. ISBN  9780062268341. LC 2014037161.  

Poehler is best known for her work on Saturday Night Live and as the star of Parks and Recreation. She’s funny, and teens will find many sentences to highlight in this memoir. Much like her good friend Tina Fey’s Bossypants (Little, Brown, 2011), this isn’t a chronological autobiography. It’s divided into three parts: “SAY whatever you want,” “DO whatever you like,” and “BE whoever you are.” In all three sections, she discusses her childhood, her career, and the people close to her, while purposely or unintentionally spilling out advice for readers. Poehler confesses what SNL skit made her most ashamed, and the steps she finally took to ask forgiveness, as well as her battle with divorce and her looks. Her early improv experiences in Chicago and New York City are heartbreaking and hilarious. She didn’t instantly become famous—she made connections and worked her way up from her lower-middle class Boston background. The work is printed in full-color on glossy paper and teens will be drawn to the photographs of celebrities and artifacts that Poehler included.  A lot of love and graphic design went into its production. Give this to teens who want to make it big on the stage or on-screen or those who enjoyed other celebrity memoirs, such as Mindy Kaling’s Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (And Other Concerns) (Crown Archetype, 2011).—Sarah Hill, Lake Land College, Mattoon, IL

HARRIS, Neil Patrick. Neil Patrick Harris: Choose Your Own Autobiography. 294p. photos. Crown Archetype. Oct. 2014. Tr $26. ISBN  9780385346993. LC 2014016637.  

Cultural icon Harris (or NPH as his fans have affectionately named him) takes a clever premise and runs with it in his autobiography written in the same format as the “Choose Your Own Adventure” series. Along the way, readers get to choose in which order to experience the events of NPH’s life, from his first stage role as Toto in The Wizard of Oz to his invention of the post-awards show musical number. “To watch the Emmys from a different perspective, turn to page 259. To win your first major competition, report to page 8. Bring a pressed suit, your cutest smile, and a $25 entry fee.” The format can be a bit confusing at times with fake endings sprinkled throughout (beware of Dustin Diamond!), but all the flipping back and forth to sort out the time line is part of the fun. With magic tricks, recipes, a crossword, and invented TV movie plot lines, the varied format will keep teens engaged. However, aside from the amusing gimmicks, there is also an honest and moving story of a child actor who managed to break beyond his Doogie Howser character to build an entertainment career that spans TV, movies, and theatre, all while spending time reflecting on his sexual identity as a gay male in the public eye. Fans of other humorous biographies like Tina Fey’s Bossypants (Little, Brown, 2011) will eat this up.—Carrie Shaurette, Dwight-Englewood School, Englewood, NJ

Categories: Library News

Best Adult Books 4 Teens 2014

Wed, 2014-12-03 10:09

Every fall the Adult Books 4 Teens reviewers come together to nominate, discuss, and winnow the best titles of the year into a list that guarantees a combination of excellence and appeal to young adults. All of these books were originally reviewed here on SLJ’s Adult Books 4 Teens blog.

Science fiction tops the trends: one dystopian (Red Rising), one hard-core (Lockstep), one humorous (The Martian). Trust John Scalzi to come up with a combination of all three (Lock In), and Jeff VanderMeer to defy categorization altogether (Annihilation).

In our more realistic fiction offerings, teen girls don’t have it easy—from the victims of the mysterious title illness in The Fever to Rainey Royal set on the streets of 1970s Greenwich Village, and to Lydia, who suffers her parents’ disappointment in Celeste Ng’s Everything I Never Told You. But we lighten it up with young musicians in 2 A.M. at The Cat’s Pajamas (jazz) and The Bellweather Rhapsody (classical), and humorous writing in Ariel Schrag’s Adam.

On the nonfiction side, there is nothing but diversity: a graphic novel of war poems; a treatise on juvenile incarceration; a photo-essay by and about Black youth; two extremely different memoirs; and the bizarre history of Dr. Mütter’s Marvels.

Many thanks to reviewers Amy Cheney, Georgia Christgau, Meghan Cirrito, Diane Colson, Vicki Emery, Sarah Flowers, Paula Gallagher, Sarah Hill, Ryan Paulsen, Laura Pearle, Jake Pettit, Jane Ritter, Carrie Shaurette, Jamie Lee Schombs, John Sexton, Karlan Sick, Jamie Watson, and Connie Williams for their enthusiasm and discernment, and for sharing their expert knowledge of teens and books in the making of this list.


ABBOTT, Megan. The Fever. Little, Brown. Tr $26. ISBN 9780316231053.
High school girls are beset by a mysterious fever, causing the entire community to panic about HPV vaccines, teen sex, and any and everything else, in this powerful, thought-provoking novel.

BERTINO, Marie-Helene. 2 A.M. at The Cat’s Pajamas. Crown. Tr. $25. ISBN 9780804140232.
Three narratives converge, leading up to New Year’s Eve at a Philadelphia jazz club. In one, Madeleine dreams of singing at the club after being expelled from school for retaliating against a bully.

BROWN, Pierce. Red Rising. Del Rey: Ballantine. Tr $25. ISBN 9780345539786.
Darrow is a Red, lowest in the caste-system of laborers tasked with transforming Mars into a habitable planet. When his wife is executed for a simple defiance, Darrow is taken in by rebels who persuade him to infiltrate the Golds, the ruling class, in order to avenge her death.

CANTERO, Edgar. The Supernatural Enhancements. Doubleday. Tr $26.95. ISBN 9780385538152.
When a young man inherits a distant relative’s remote Virginia mansion, he finds that it holds many mysteries, among them a secret society, at least one ghost, and a family curse. This story is told via dream journals, video transcripts, letters, photographs, and other writings.

DOERR, Anthony. All the Light We Cannot See. Scribner. Tr $27. ISBN 9781476746586.
This page-turning, suspenseful novel cuts back and forth between time periods and among the story lines of three main characters–two young people on opposite sides of the war and one Nazi officer searching for precious jewels–who are bound to intersect, but exactly how and when?

FRANCIS, Patry. The Orphans of Race Point. Harper Perennial. pap. $15.99. ISBN 9780062281302.
In this multigenerational story about community, orphans Hallie Costa and Gus Silva are two teenagers who fall more deeply than most, as the theme of love expands into the filial and spiritual realms.

GROSSMAN, Lev. The Magician’s Land. Viking. Tr $27.95. ISBN 9780670015672.
Grossman finishes his celebrated trilogy by bringing a banished Quentin back to save Fillory after his friends are unable to prevent its collapse.

HENRÍQUEZ, Cristina. The Book of Unknown Americans. Knopf. Tr $24.95. ISBN 9780385350846
Alma and Arturo leave Mexico for the U.S. in search of better schooling for their brain-damaged teen daughter, Maribel. They settle in Newark, DE, in an apartment full of other struggling families from Central and South America. A sweet friendship and then a budding but ill-fated romance develop between Maribel and Mayor, the son of a Panamanian family.

LANDIS, Dylan. Rainey Royal. Soho Pr. Tr $25. ISBN 9781616954529.
Rainey, the daughter of a famous jazz musician, grows up in a dysfunctional family in the cool, seedy 1970s Greenwich Village scene.

MCCULLOCH, Derek. Displaced Persons. illus. by Anthony Peruzzo. Image Comics. pap. $17.99. ISBN 9781632151216.
During the Great Depression, a loving father, pressed by economic forces he’s unable to control, makes a shady deal to keep his loved ones together, hurling into turmoil three generations of one family, whose connections are symbolized, and realized, by a house in the hills of San Francisco. A part-mystery, part-sci-fi graphic novel.

NG, Celeste. Everything I Never Told You. Penguin Pr. Tr $26.95. ISBN 9781594205712
By turns a compelling tearjerker, a mystery, and a painful family drama, Ng’s debut novel follows the lives of a dysfunctional family, focusing on the trials of middle child Lydia as she deals with racism and sexism in 1970s Ohio.

RACCULIA, Kate. Bellweather Rhapsody. Houghton Harcourt. Tr $25. ISBN 9780544129917.
The Bellweather is an old Catskills resort hotel that hosts the annual New York State high school music festival. Fifteen years earlier a murder/suicide took place in Room 712, the same room from which Alice’s famous roommate goes missing.

SCALZI, John. Lock In. Tor. Tr $24.99. ISBN 9780765375865.
Scalzi’s latest is a science-fiction thriller in which the world has been changed by Haden’s syndrome, a virus that left one percent of its victims “locked in”—fully aware and conscious, but unable to move their bodies. An FBI homicide investigation delves into the corporate greed controlling research on the epidemic.

SCHROEDER, Karl. Lockstep. Tor.  $26.99. ISBN 9780765337269.
After being lost in space, in deep hibernation for 14,000 years, Toby McGonigal wakes in the orbit of a planet that is part of the Lockstep, a civilization in which members spend 360 months in hibernation for every one month awake. Toby learns that the Lockstep has been ruled by his family since its creation and is shocked to discover that its rulers, his brother and sister, want him dead.

SCHRAG, Ariel. Adam. Mariner. Tr $13.95. ISBN 9780544142930.
Geeky, inexperienced Adam decides on a whim to spend the summer before senior year visiting his older sister, Casey, in New York City. He falls for Gillian, a lesbian, and she falls in love with him, believing him to be transgender, in this brilliant romp of an original romance.

VANDERMEER, Jeff. Annihilation. Bk.1. 208p. (Southern Reach Trilogy). Farrar. pap. $13.00. ISBN 9780374104092.
This rich, multilayered novel follows a scientific expedition into the mysterious Area X, a region that has been utterly abandoned following an unexplained Event and in which the laws of physics seem to break down.

WEIR, Andy. The Martian. Crown. Tr $24.95. ISBN 9780804139021.
After a freak dust storm, Mark Watney is left behind on NASA’s third manned mission to Mars, believed dead. He uses his problem-solving ability (and mechanical engineering and botanist training) to survive the unsurvivable, which he tracks in near-daily, often hilarious, log entries.


APTOWICZ, Cristin O’Keefe. Dr. Mutter’s Marvels: A True Tale of Intrigue and Innovation at the Dawn of Modern Medicine. Gotham. $27.50. ISBN 9781592408702.
Dr. Mütter’s larger-than-life, showman’s personality and incredible medical advancements pair thrillingly with Aptowicz’s enthusiastic writing to deliver many unbelievable facts that readers will need to share with friends.

BERNSTEIN, Nell. Burning Down the House: The End of Youth Prison. Free Press. Jun. 2014. ISBN 9781595589569.
Bernstein’s provocative book takes readers through the history of juvenile “reform” schools, the rise and fall of the rehabilitative model, and the reality of what happens behind bars to already traumatized teens: further physical, sexual, and mental abuse. Ultimately, she calls for the complete abolition of youth imprisonment.

BROCKMEIER, Kevin. A Few Seconds of Radiant Filmstrip: A Memoir of the Seventh Grade. Pantheon. Tr $24. ISBN 9780307908988.
This gutsy memoir focuses on a single, seemingly unimportant year of Brockmeier’s adolescence to highlight the true significance of every moment of our lives.

DUFFY, Chris, ed. Above the Dreamless Dead: World War I in Poetry and Comics. illus. by Various. First Second. Tr $25.99. ISBN 9781626720657.
A haunting graphic novel in which modern cartoonists have illustrated outstanding poetry of World War I. It’s a reimagining of some of the wonderful verses of the early 20th century for those who have already encountered them, and an ideal introduction to the facts and the literature of the era for teens who have not.

RAKOFF, Joanna. My Salinger Year. Knopf. Tr $25.95. ISBN  9780307958006
Rakoff recounts the year she dropped out of grad school to move to New York City and write poetry. To make ends meet she worked as the assistant to a venerable, traditional publisher whose most famous client was J.D. Salinger.

ZUSMAN, Angela Beth. The Griots of Oakland: Voices from the African American Oral History Project. Story Bridges. Tr $59.99. ISBN 9780988763111; pap. $14.99. ISBN 978-0988763104.
After two years of training, several young African American men in Oakland, CA conducted research, crafted questions, and conducted more than 100 oral-history interviews with African American males ages six to 24. The result is this book, at once gorgeous to look at and challenging to readers’ views of African American men.

See the pretty SLJ version here.

Categories: Library News

Mystery & Truth

Mon, 2014-12-01 08:54

As we launch head-first into the busy holiday season, two family mysteries begin our week. The ever-popular Jodi Picoult is back with another title that mixes animal behavior and human drama. (I say “another” given 2012′s Lone Wolf, which we recommended here.) Leaving Time focuses on elephant research and a mother’s disappearance.

Diane Chamberlain is back with a second mystery with teen appeal. We reviewed Necessary Lies last year. In The Silent Sister she follows a young woman searching for the older sister she thought had died as a teenager.

Come back on Wednesday for the announcement of our Best Adult Books 4 Teens, 2014!!

PICOULT, Jodi. Leaving Time. 416p. Random. Oct. 2014. Tr $28. ISBN  9780345544926. LC 2014023994.  

Jenna, age 13, desperately wishes she could remember the details of her mother’s disappearance 10 years ago.  What she does know is that her mother Alice, an elephant researcher, was found unconscious a mile from a dead body. She also knows that her mother regained consciousness in the hospital and vanished. Jenna spends a lot of time on missing person websites looking for some mention of her mother and wondering if she is alive and why she would leave her behind. She enlists the help of Serenity, a disgraced psychic, and Virgil, a police detective turned private investigator. Chapters told from the points of view of Jenna, Serenity, and Virgil, as well as excerpts from Alice’s research journals, reveal details of the elephant sanctuary as the trio joins forces to find the truth. Alice’s fascinating research focused on elephant mothering and behavior while grieving, a clear metaphor for the love and pain Jenna experiences throughout the novel. Captivating, engaging, and at times humorous, this book ends with some major surprises. Teens who are fans of Picoult, or those who love a well-written mystery with dynamic characters, will find much to savor and ponder here.—Jane Ritter, Mill Valley School District, Mill Valley, CA

CHAMBERLAIN, Diane. The Silent Sister. 343p. St. Martin’s Press. Oct. 2014. Tr $26.99. ISBN  9781250010711. LC 2014021144.  

Twenty-five-year old Riley is preparing to sell her childhood home after the death of her father. Her mother died years earlier, and years before that, her older sister Lisa’s suicide ended a promising career for the young violin prodigy, bringing with it years of devastating grief to her family.  Feeling incredibly lonely, Riley reaches out to her brother Danny, an Iraq war veteran who is psychologically ravaged and angry, rendering him unable to connect with his loved ones. Now as the protagonist sorts through a myriad of household items she feels more alone than ever. When a neighbor hints that Riley was adopted, the young woman is certain that the claim is a lie, but when she finds an old box filled with news articles stating that Lisa murdered her music teacher and hinting that Lisa committed suicide in order to escape prison, Riley discovers that her childhood was built on lies; and in fact, there are strong indications that her sibling didn’t die. Determined to fill in the gaps of her childhood, and possibly find the sister she never knew, Riley begins a search for the truth. Told in alternating chapters, the story also includes Lisa’s point of view as Riley searches every clue to gain insight and understanding of her own identity. Teens will identify with Lisa, Riley, and Danny as victims of adult actions and decisions. The broad range of emotions that Riley faces ring true.–Connie Williams, Petaluma High School, CA

Categories: Library News

Magical Trilogies

Mon, 2014-11-24 07:50

Today we review the first books in three new speculative fiction series.

Let’s begin with Charlie Holmberg‘s The Paper Magician series. We review the first, The Paper Magician, Holberg’s debut, published in September. The second in the series, The Glass Magician, is already available. Both are published by Amazon’s fantasy, science fiction and horror imprint, 47North.

Some of you might know Charlie Fletcher from his middle grade Stoneheart trilogy. The Oversight is his first adult novel. It is a terrific readalike for Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere, with a similar dark London setting. (Bonus–a British friend who knows London well assures me that it’s geographically accurate.) This is darker than The Paper Magician, but still perfectly appropriate for teen readers. The second in the Oversight trilogy, The Paradox, is expected in 2015.

Radiant is another debut, which launches Karina Sumner-Smith‘s Towers Trilogy. It is an interesting mix of fantasy and dystopian science fiction, combining magic and technology. At it’s core is a strong female friendship that grounds the world-building and the action. Next up? Defiant in 2015!

HOLMBERG, Charlie N. The Paper Magician. 224p. (The Paper Magicians: Bk. 1). Amazon/47North. Sept. 2014. Tr $14.95. ISBN  9781477823835. LC 2014930971.  

This series opener is tailor-made for teen readers who love Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus (Doubleday, 2011) and the “Harry Potter” books. Ceony is a recent graduate of the Tagis Praff School for the Magically Inclined. Unfortunately for 19-year-old Ceony, she is apprenticed to Emery Thane, a paper magician, after graduation. She is not particularly interested in paper magic, considered to be an irrelevant form by most. She soon finds she has a knack for it and enjoys working with the brilliant but mysterious magician. What begins as an apprenticeship turns into a love story and adventure when Magician Thane is attacked by his ex-wife, an Excisioner who practices dark magic. Ceony must literally enter his heart on a quest to restore it to his body. The romance that develops between Ceony and Emery Thane is extremely chaste—nary a smoldering look passes between them—making The Paper Magician a safe choice for any YA or high school collection. Holmberg borrows heavily from “magic school” books, so the familiar tropes she employs will appeal to younger or reluctant readers. Readers will anxiously await for the next offering to find out what’s next in life, love, and magic for Ceony.–Meghan Cirrito, Brooklyn Public Library, NY

FLETCHER, Charlie. The Oversight. 436p. (The Oversight Trilogy). Orbit. May 2014. pap. $15. ISBN 9780316279512. LC 2014932198.  

This atmospheric fantasy effectively combines rich world-building, appealing characters, and fast pacing. The Oversight is an ancient order that regulates interactions between humans and the “supranatural.” Members enforce the Law and Lore that prevent the Sluagh and other creatures from preying upon humans. The Oversight have supernatural powers themselves, from communicating with animals to hiding in plain sight. Their ranks of have been diminishing for some time, and they are desperate for new members. When Mr. Sharp rescues Lucy, a nearly feral teenager, from being sold into servitude and brings her to the Oversight safe house in London, Sara Falk and Cook are excited to realize that, like Sara, she is a Glint—she can see into the past by touching an object with her hands. They promise to teach her to control her abilities. But that night Lucy breaks into the Red Library, which holds objects of value to the Oversight. She steps into a mysterious series of mirrored passageways, stumbles, and falls through into a circus tent in northern England. Short chapters follow these and several other characters who work to either forward or thwart a plot to use the Sluagh to dispense with the Oversight once and for all. This first in a trilogy leaves more than one character in deep peril at its conclusion. Recommend to teens who enjoy Neil Gaiman’s books, specifically his Neverwhere (Avon, 1997), which is clearly an inspiration for Fletcher’s Dickensian London and dark magic.—Angela Carstensen, Convent of the Sacred Heart, New York City

SUMNER-SMITH, Karina. Radiant. 386p. (Towers Trilogy: Bk. 1). Talos Press. Oct. 2014. pap. $15.99. ISBN  9781940456102.  

In a dystopian world where magic is currency and a status symbol, Xhea has none. What she does have is a strange ability to see ghosts—invisible to magic-wielders—and the tethers that bind them. Xhea uses this ability to make a living, taking control of ghosts for a brief period to give the haunted a respite. When Xhea takes control of Shai’s ghost, the protagonist soon discovers that the young woman is not an ordinary ghost. She was a Radiant, one of the rare people who produces excess magic for the families that control the City’s great Towers. Shai’s home Tower will stop at nothing to regain control of her powers, and as Xhea and Shai struggle to avoid a fate that is literally worse than death, they develop a strong friendship and discover that Xhea’s lack of magic is a strength she’d never imagined. Radiant is fast-paced and very readable. The dichotomy in class between the Towers and the Low City is a new take on a common theme, and the primary characters are well developed and nuanced. The combination of strong female characters, paranormal activity, and dystopia makes this a good choice for fans of Veronica Roth and Cassandra Clare. The plot is very complex, a bit more exposition may have been helpful, and including zombies may have been trend overkill. Overly formal language will occasionally jolt readers out of the story.  However, teens will likely respond to this story of friendship and adventure and look forward to the second installment in the trilogy.—Karen Brooks, Pierce County Library System, WA

Categories: Library News

A Debut Novel for Lovers of (or Newbies to) the Greek Classics

Fri, 2014-11-21 07:00

Natalie Haynes’s debut novel is a fascinating mix of Haynes’s diverse interests and talents. A stand-up comedian, television panelist, journalist, and author of a nonfiction book on the Greek classics, Haynes brings all these sources to bear in creating a complex and satisfying narrative. As our reviewer notes, the novel is structured, as a traditional Greek play, into five acts, and offers both perspectives on the teaching of Greek classics: that of the teacher, and that of the student. I haven’t had a chance to read The Furies yet (published in Haynes’s native Britain as Amber Fury), but this review has definitely piqued my interest.

HAYNES, Natalie. The Furies. 304p. St. Martin’s Press. Aug. 2014. Tr $25.99. ISBN  9781250048004. LC 2014016596.

Drawing upon the subject matter from her first nonfiction book, The Ancient Guide to Modern Life (Overlook, 2011), Haynes creates a page-turning portrait of grief set in the modern day. After experiencing a personal trauma when her fiancé is murdered, Alex drastically alters her life by leaving her job as a play director in London and moving to Edinburgh to teach troubled teens drama therapy. Using the Greek classics as course material, the group discusses themes of violence, revenge, and retribution, all issues that parallel the teens’ real lives. An enigmatic element is added to the narrative when diary entries and letters from one of Alex’s students are interspersed with her account, and readers get a dual perspective of what is being taught and what is actually absorbed by the student. Organized into five acts, the flashback structure adds mystery and intrigue to the story, though the tragic ending comes as no surprise. While the five students in Alex’s class often make rash, unwise decisions, teens will relate to the social predicaments they must navigate. This will be especially popular with teens that have difficulty regulating their emotions. As a good introduction for students unfamiliar with the Greek classics, teachers will also appreciate the curriculum connection.—Carrie Shaurette, Dwight-Englewood School, Englewood, NJ

Categories: Library News

A Debut Novel by Indie Rock Darling John Darnielle

Wed, 2014-11-19 07:00

As a (and often the only) member of the indie rock band The Mountain Goats, John Darnielle is responsible for some of the most literate music of the 2000s and early 2010s. This year he turned to the in-no-way-guaranteed-to-succeed extension of that literate nature: a novel. But succeed it does, and I’m not the only one to think so: Wolf in White Van was long-listed for the National Book Award for Fiction. I can’t say I’ve read the rest of NBA’s longlist, but if Darnielle’s book is indicative of their quality, then I’ll have to get to them quickly.

This is a truly remarkable novel, which I’ve decided not to give a starred review to only because I think the teen audience will be fairly limited. Some teens (and some adults, for that matter) will be turned off by the elusive nature of the narrative, as Darnielle keeps pulling away from revealing key facts. And others by the slim plot. But those who stick with it will be greatly rewarded by a tremendous piece of prose, and a very thoughtful exploration of deep themes about violence, responsibility, and the nature of reality. Do yourself a favor and read this book. And while you’re at it, pick up some of Darnielle’s music.

DARNIELLE, John. Wolf in White Van. 207p. Farrar. Sept. 2014. Tr $24. ISBN  9781250048004. LC 2014015427.

Darnielle’s preposterously assured debut novel winds its plot around two tragic incidents. The first, copiously hinted at but not revealed till more than halfway through the novel, results directly in the permanent facial mutilation of the narrator, Sean, at age 17; and indirectly in Sean’s creation of a mail-order role playing game called Trace Italian, designed in part to help him escape from the real world. The second tragedy involves two teen players of Trace Italian taking the game too far into reality, leading to the death of one of the players. The ironic bookends of these two events might seem too programmatic if not for Darnielle’s deft handling of nonlinear storytelling. Sean’s narration is structured around free-associative flashbacks to before and after each tragedy, as well as meditations on Trace Italian, including snippets of gameplay—Sean’s game instructions and the moves of various players. The plot as such is fairly scanty, but the protagonist’s meditations on the events in his life vibrate with intensity and inner depth. And though Sean is an adult in the story’s present day, Darnielle’s psychologically complex portrayal of Sean’s childhood and adolescence, along with the intriguing glimpses at the game, should be more than enough to bring mature teens to this masterful novel.—Mark Flowers, John F. Kennedy Library, Vallejo, CA

Categories: Library News