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New Books from Alex Award Winners — The Reviews

Mon, 2014-07-21 15:58

Last week Mark put together a terrific list of current books by past Alex Award winners. Today, we offer two reviews from that group.

We begin with the second book by Lisa O’Donnell, Closed Doors. O’Donnell’s debut, The Death of Bees, won an Alex Award just last year. Our reviewer called The Death of Bees a “quick but often uncomfortable read” and noted its “engrossing exploration of relationships.” Closed Doors is equally hard-hitting, but less black humor and more straight coming-of-age. In both novels, the voice of the characters is particularly strong.

Mary Lawson won a 2003 Alex Award for her debut, Crow Lake. The Alex annotation reads, “Now a successful zoology professor, Kate recalls her parents’ death and being brought up and sustained by her older brothers, especially Matt with whom she shares a love of the wonders of nature. An affecting novel about hardship, tragedy, choices, and family relationships.”

Lawson’s new novel, Road Ends, can also be categorized as tragic literary fiction. Give this one to readers who enjoy books about dysfunctional families. It is interesting that in both of these novels siblings sacrifice personal happiness for the well-being of their brothers and sisters.

O’DONNELL, Lisa. Closed Doors. 246p. HarperCollins. May 2014. Tr $26.99. ISBN 9780062271891.  

Eleven-year-old Michael tries to make sense of the world around him by piecing together what he overhears behind closed doors and asking his friends questions. After his mother is raped, she is worried about what people in her small Scottish town will say so she invents a story to cover up the attack. When more women in the community are assaulted, Ma starts to regret her decision to keep quiet, but she fears it is too late to say anything. Michael works his way through the secrecy and overprotection of his parents and Grandma. Michael’s narration here is a cross between Jack from Emma Donoghue’s Room (Little Brown, 2010) and Ajay from Akhil Sharma’s Family Life (W. W. Norton, 2014). Teens will recognize and appreciate his authentic voice, particularly during scenes when he flip-flops between wanting to kiss girls and calling them names or when hunched over a dictionary looking up “intercourse” in order to put context to words thrown around in his house or between his peers. A strong coming-of-age tale from the Alex Award-winning author of The Death of Bees (HarperCollins, 2013).—Carrie Shaurette, Dwight-Englewood School, Englewood, NJ

LAWSON, Mary. Road Ends. 352p. Dial Pr. Jul. 2014. Tr $26. ISBN 9780812995732. LC  2014005691.  

Megan is 21 and lives in a small town in northern Canada. Since she was a child she has kept her large and ever-growing family going. Now she is finally escaping to London to make a life for herself, and she does just that by becoming a successful hotel manager. Her family, however, is falling apart without her. Her father is distant and stays in his study while at home, and has a background and issues that only gradually become revealed. Her mother is going slowly insane, and is compelled to have baby after baby whom she abandons for all intents and purposes once the next one comes along. The other children are just running wild, and Tom, the oldest brother, is struggling with his own demons. While readers will love Megan from the start, it is only through the slow unveiling of the other family members’ tales that they will come to appreciate each person’s place in this troubled home. The novel is told through alternating narratives: Edward, the father, tells his story in first person; Megan and Tom’s tales are told in third person. Compelling and heartbreaking, the work’s conclusion is nothing less than infuriating. Upon reflection, readers will come to accept that this eventuality is very realistic for 1960s small-town women, and for the understanding of mental illness at that time. A great book club choice for older teens, be prepared for impassioned discussion.—Jake Pettit, Enka Schools, Istanbul, Turkey

Categories: Library News

A Few Seconds of Radiant Filmstrip

Fri, 2014-07-18 12:26

I mentioned in our Best Books of the Year so far post that “If I’d had a week longer, I would have been able to list a tremendous memoir which we’ll be featuring here shortly.” Well, it’s been shortly, and here it is: Keven Brockmeier’s A Few Seconds of Radiant Filmstrip. As a mention below, in a lot of ways, this is a pretty risky memoir–focusing on 7th grade, telling it in the 3rd person, and introducing a strange metafictional interlude at the mid-point. But it’s also possible that readers may miss all of this entirely, especially if they don’t realize that it is a memoir, because it reads equally well as a coming-of-age novel. However one reads it, it is absolutely perfect for teens (indeed, perhaps more perfect for teens than adults), especially teens in that tragic part of life called Middle School.

*BROCKMEIER, Kevin. A Few Seconds of Radiant Filmstrip: A Memoir of the Seventh Grade. 208p. Pantheon. Apr. 2014. Tr $24. ISBN 9780307908988. LC 22013031895.

In this masterful memoir, Brockmeier takes three significant narrative risks, any one of which could have opened him up to charges of gimmickry, trivialization, or both, but which together combine to produce a moving portrait of young adolescence. In the realm of gimmickry is Brockmeier’s odd decision to tell his story in the third person—a trick which might have gotten old quickly but for his second strange decision: to limit the scope of his memoir to his year as a seventh-grader. These two narrative tools give the memoir the feel and shape of a novel, but could have resulted in a very trivial book indeed were it not for Brockmeier’s third narrative risk: an incredibly gimmicky break into the realm of metafiction at the book’s midway point, in which contemporary Kevin freezes time to discuss young Kevin’s life, and whether he would have wanted never to have been born. It’s a play straight out of It’s a Wonderful Life, but it works beautifully to give thematic heft to the memoir, showing readers just how crucial this one year in Brockmeier’s life was: his self-consciousness came to a crucial breaking point; almost all of his friends turned on him, bullying him mercilessly; and yet he began to come into his own as a writer. The moment of metafiction represents what truly was a turning point in Brockmeier’s life, and anyone who suffered through middle school in self-doubt or was bullied, will find Brockmeier’s story emotionally resonant and ultimately optimistic.—Mark Flowers, John F. Kennedy Library, Vallejo, CA

Categories: Library News

Language in Speculative Fiction

Wed, 2014-07-16 12:30

Today we review two speculative novels in which language plays an important role.

The Word Exchange by Alena Graedon is all about language and the ways that technology changes words and communication. For teens who are as attached to their devices as to most of their actual body parts, this is ideally relevant literary fiction. (Slate titled their review “When Smartphones Attack.” Brilliant.) Certainly, smartphones have already changed language, communication, and the way we read and think. Graedon takes these changes a few steps further–steps that are not beyond the realm of future possibility.

Our reviewer cites The Word Exchange as good readalike for Max Barry’s Lexicon, which we LOVED on this blog last year. I suspect that fans of Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan should also be directed to this one.

Chris Beckett‘s Dark Eden was published in 2012 in the U.K., where it won the 2013 Arthur C. Clarke award for best science fiction novel. Beckett also uses language, in this case as an element of world-building, to “suggest the unique dialect that would undoubtedly evolve in a small community cut off from Earth for 160 years.” This quote is from an article about creating the dialect (a combination of Brooklyn and London accented English mutated over time) and the subsequent challenge of recording the Dark Eden audiobook. 

Obviously, reading a book that uses language mutations, including made-up vocabulary, can be challenging. Readers have to acclimate to the prose. Fortunately, both of these novels are very engaging and have clear appeal factors for the younger set. The Word Exchange has the technology hook and Dark Eden has teen characters who “struggle to be taken seriously by those dismissive of young people’s ideas.”

*GRAEDON, Alena. The Word Exchange. 370p. Doubleday. Apr. 2014. Tr $26.95. ISBN 9780385537650. LC 2013033165.  

Graedon’s debut novel is an SAT-prep dystopian masterpiece. Anana works for her father, at the North American Dictionary of the English Language. But the NADEL is dying, along with the printed word.  Americans are so dependent on their memes (wearable smartphones) that they welcome the invention of implants and mind-controlling technology. Unfortunately, corporations (including one helmed by Anana’s ex-boyfriend) misuse the tech, and viral word flu devastates the country. Not only do those affected substitute created words for real words, but they also become nauseous and mentally unstable. Thousands die, riots ensue, and the protagonist must find her missing dad to help solve the mystery of the communication disaster. Anana, her family, and friends speak like a SAT vocabulary prep book, using words like “amanuensis,” “ouroboros,” and “scurf.” That alone makes this book accessible to teens who think the SAT Vocabulary Novels from SparkNotes are an insult. But, Graedon also creates delightful new words, and, though they are slow-going at first, chapters from the point of view of word flu sufferers are stand-outs. Well-read bibliophiles will recognize the literary connections, especially to Lewis Carroll and Samuel Johnson. Give this to teens who don’t mind a slower novel than Max Barry’s Lexicon (Penguin, 2013), and who like to explore dystopian mind games of M.T. Anderson’s Feed (Candlewick, 2004).—Sarah Hill, Lake Land College, Mattoon, IL

BECKETT, Chris. Dark Eden. 400p. Broadway. Apr. 2014. pap. $15. ISBN 9780804138680.  

The community of Eden came to be when Tommy and Angela, astronauts from Earth, were stranded on a distant planet. Their crewmates promised to rescue them from this cold, dark world where animals and plants were the only sources of light and heat. During the long wait for their crewmates’ arrival they began to procreate. Now, 163 years and 532 people later, the Edenites cling to their origin story, still expecting to be taken home by their earthly relatives. Space and resources are getting scarce as their population grows, but the Old Ones refuse to look for other places to live, fearing their rescuers won’t be able to find them. Fifteen-year-old John Redlantern is tired of waiting; he rejects staying still rather than taking action to improve their current existence. He tries to push for the importance of settling new areas and is immediately rebuffed. He defies the elders and takes off alone, soon joined by other young people anxious to move beyond the physical and mental boundaries of their community. Their dramatic journey, the effect of their departure on those left behind, and their eventual discoveries make an incredibly compelling story which will resonate with teens. The struggle to be taken seriously by those dismissive of young people’s ideas, watching fear of change lead to ossified thinking, and seeing missed opportunities for innovation will be familiar to many readers. The brilliant world-building paired with issues of independence give this sci-fi story broad appeal.—Carla Riemer, Claremont Middle School, CA

Categories: Library News

My Salinger Year

Mon, 2014-07-14 07:00

Joanna Rakoff’s wonderfully engaging memoir, My Salinger Year, shares the author’s experiences during the year she moves to New York City straight out of grad school. She sort of maybe wants to be a poet. She knows she wants to work with books. Maybe publishing? She leaves her boyfriend behind, even though he sounds like a good guy (maybe because he’s a good guy?) and takes up with a not-entirely-nice aspiring novelist. It’s that time of life when the decisions we make confound even us.

A placement agency finds her a position at a literary agency that is rather behind the times. Her boss is a much softer version of Miranda Priestly in The Devil Wears Prada. Still, she’s eccentric, unpredictable, and a bit of a mystery. Rakoff lies her way into the job. She doesn’t actually know how to type or use a dictaphone. (And why should she?! They’ve been out of style for years.) But she muddles through, becoming quite good at it. She even places a short story with a small literary magazine and feels triumphant. Her boss is ready to take her under her wing. And that’s the problem–what happens to her own writing if she commits to becoming an agent?

This is for any teen who dreams of a career in publishing or writing (and they’re out there). Or any teen who dreams of escaping their hometown by moving to the big city. Yes, the events in this book took place almost 20 years ago, but the basics haven’t changed. Trying to find livable, affordable housing in Brooklyn (let alone an affordable lunch in Midtown); juggling credit card debt and student loans with going out to dinner with friends; the sadness of high school and college friendships that fade with time; weathering the humiliations of needing to ask for help with the simplest things during your first day(s) at work, like how to turn on the electric typewriter.

Then there’s J.D. Salinger. Even though Rakoff’s boss is losing most of her clients, she is still Salinger’s agent, and dealing with speaker requests, fan letters and Salinger’s own telephone calls is a big part of Rakoff’s job. Salinger remains an enigma, but Rakoff’s reaction to his work is a wonder to read. If you have teens in your libraries who are passionate about Salinger’s books, they need to read this.

Finally, I thought I might mention that this is a rather PG-rated read, as memoirs go. No abuse, no dysfunctional family. It’s a refreshing change of pace.

RAKOFF, Joanna. My Salinger Year. 272p. Knopf. Jun. 2014. Tr $25.95. ISBN  9780307958006. LC 2013026931.  

Rakoff’s affecting coming-of-age memoir of her time spent working in publishing begins when she dropped out of graduate school and moved to New York City to write poetry and find herself. She left her college boyfriend behind and moved to Williamsburg, Brooklyn with a man who lived off of her earnings while working on his first novel. In January 1996, the young woman as an assistant at a venerable literary agency. She hoped this would mean discovering new talent, but mostly she used a dictaphone and hulking old Selectric to type letters and contracts. Her (unnamed) gruff and enigmatic boss was quite old-fashioned about technology. The Agency’s most famous client was J. D. Salinger. Joanna was tasked with typing up form letter responses to his fan mail, and told never to engage him in conversation on the telephone. As time passed, Joanna was increasingly unable to stick to the required form letter, especially in reply to war veterans and young readers changed by The Catcher in the Rye, and these letters haunted her. She also found herself caught up in conversations with Salinger about poetry, and even Agency business. At the start, Joanna was naive, inexperienced, and lacked confidence in her personal and professional life. By the end of this memoir, she has grown enough to leave her freeloading boyfriend and reconsider her place in the publishing world. Teens who dream of living in New York will be enthralled, and Joanna’s overwhelming response to Salinger’s books will have them rushing to re-read them all over again.—Angela Carstensen, Convent of the Sacred Heart, New York City

Categories: Library News

New Books from Alex Award Winners

Fri, 2014-07-11 07:00

Last year around this time I looked at a far-from-complete list of new books by Alex Award winners to see which ones we had reviewed and might be reviewing. Today, I show my compulsive side by trying to put together a complete list of every 2014 book by a former Alex winner. Altogether, I found 29 new books from the 169 Alex winners.  I probably missed a couple, and I purposely excluded a few collections of older work–but all-in-all, a pretty good haul.  The biggest surprise for me is that three of last year’s ten winners are back with new books (as opposed to one 2013 winner who put out a book in 2013–Juliana Baggott, who also has a book out this year).

Probably the best benefit for me of making this list was that it drew my attention to a couple books I probably would have missed, particularly Steve Almond’s Against Football: One Fan’s Reluctant Manifesto and Jeff Lemire’s Teen Titans: Earth One. Feel free to let us know if there are any books here we should be paying special attention to. Anyway, here they are, broken down into similar but not identical categories to last year.

Reviewed:

Reviews to Come:

  • Jean Kwok – Mambo in Chinatown
  • Lisa O’Donnell – Closed Doors

Ineligible:

  • Rachel DeWoskin – Blink (Aug) – Published as YA
  • Gail Carriger – Waistcoats and Weaponry (Nov) – Published as YA

Not reviewed:

  • Barbara Ehrenreich – Living with a Wild God: A Memoir
  • Michael Lewis – Flash Boys
  • Emma Donoghue – Frog Music
  • Jacqueline Winspear – The Care and Management of Lies: A Novel of the Great War

Taking a Look:

  • Stephen King – Mr. Mercedes

Still to be Published:

  • Breena Clark – Angels Make Their Hope Here (July)
  • Conn Iggulden – War of the Roses: Stormbird (July)
  • Mary Lawson – Road Ends (July)
  • Lev Grossman – Magician’s Land (Aug)
  • Steve Almond – Against Football: One Fan’s Reluctant Manifesto (Aug)
  • Lucy Knisley – Age of License (Sept)
  • Joern, Pamela Carter – In Reach (Sept)
  • David Mitchell – Bone Clocks (Sept)
  • Jodi Picoult – Leaving Time (Oct)
  • Rothfuss – Slow Regard of Silent Things (Oct)
  • John Connolly – Wolf in Winter (Oct)
  • James Bradley – China Mirage (Oct)
  • Lynda Barry – Syllabus: Notes from an Accidental Professor (Nov)
  • Juliet Marillier – Dreamer’s Pool (Nov)
  • Stephen King – Revival (Nov)
  • Jeff Lemire – Teen Titans: Earth One (Nov)
  • Wesley Chu – Rebirths of Tao (Dec)

Categories: Library News

Harrowing Memoirs, Part 2

Wed, 2014-07-09 07:00

Back in January, we looked at a pair of memoirs about young lives stolen through abuse and disease, and today we have two more memoirs touching on the same themes, along with a third which looks at the threat of the law. Unlike Elizabeth Smart’s somewhat older story, the tale of the captivity and dramatic freeing last year of Michelle Knight and two other young women–especially the famous role played by neighbor Charles Ramsey–is likely well-remembered by teens. Less well known is precisely what happened to these young women in the home of their captor, Ariel Castro. Knight’s memoir, heartbreaking as it is, is essential reading for those who want to know more about the case.

Eileen Cronin’s memoir tells a very different story of broken youth, traumatized by physical and emotional disabilities. The physical disability was her own–born with legs ending right around her knee (an impairment possibly caused by the infamous pregnancy drug thalidomide)–while the emotional impairment was her mother’s mental illness, sometimes resulting in hospitalizations, and her father’s urge to draw away from the drama brought on by these problems. Nevertheless, Cronin was able eventually to flourish and write this extraordinary memoir which should captivate teens.

Finally, we have Jose Angel N.’s “Reflections of an Undocumented Immigrant”. Jose is not physically impaired in the way McKnight and Cronin were and are, but he is virtually limited in all he can do by the long arm of the law. As and undocumented immigrant, Jose is constantly on the look-out for ways in which he may be deported. His story brings a much needed face and voice to the far too abstract debate over immigration reform.

KNIGHT, Michelle with Michelle Burford. Finding Me: A Decade of Darkness, a Life Reclaimed. 249p. Weinstein Bks. May 2014. Tr $24.99. ISBN 9781602862562.

Horrendous is a word too mild to describe Knight’s 11-year ordeal with convicted Cleveland kidnapper and rapist Ariel Castro. Knight’s story, unlike those of Elizabeth Smart (My Story; St. Martin’s Pr., 2013) and Jaycee Dugard (A Stolen Life; S. & S., 2011), was horrendous even before she was kidnapped. Rarely going to school, often hungry, she grew up living with 12-15 extended family members, drug activity, and daily molestation. She ran away and lived under a bridge until a drug dealer “hired” her in exchange for a place to live. At 16, Knight became pregnant—she believes by a popular football playing teen who befriended and betrayed her—and gave birth to her son. It was the memory of her son that kept her sane during her traumatic experience with Castro. This memoir is more graphic (yet not gratuitous) than Smart or Dugard’s books in her descriptions of the abuse: multiple chains around her body at all times, padlocked to a pole in the dark basement, moldy socks in her mouth, a motorcycle helmet on her head and left for days in the dark, unable to shower or bathe for eight months. It’s the stuff of nightmares.  The straightforward accounting will engage teens who love gritty and gory details. The brief information about her rescue at age 32 and her transition to a new life will pique teen interest and will have them following this survivor’s tale, especially if she continues to go public about her experiences.—Amy Cheney, Alameda County Library, Juvenile Hall, CA

CRONIN, Eileen. Mermaid: A Memoir of Resilience. 336p. W.W. Norton. Jan. 2014. Tr $26.95. ISBN  9780393089011. LC 2013036717.

Back in 1960, who knew that thalidomide—even one dose—could cause serious birth defects? Certainly not Cronin’s mother, who may (or may not) have taken a dose (or more than one) in Germany (or possibly under her ob/gyn’s direction in the United States).  Eileen is the only one of the 11 Cronin children to have been born with physical problems—her legs are stubs—and as a result grew up resourceful (“squiddling” around the house) and bratty. Complicating family life was her mother’s mental illness, so severe it led to several hospitalizations, and her father’s growing need to get away from the drama. It is to Cronin’s credit that she looks at her childhood unflinchingly, not glossing over her own behavior but showing how, as she grew, she changed.  It’s clear that leaving Cincinnati and her family for Boston was the making of her; here is where she grows as a person, developing the confidence to live independently, and then finally confronting the issue of whether or not she was a thalidomide baby. Teens today may not know about the drug and how, in the rush to bring this “miracle” to pregnant women, testing was slipshod and as a result, thousands of children were born with some deformity, ranging from limbs to malformed hearts and heads.  This memoir will increase empathy in teens as well as inform them about the need to fully investigate new medicines.—Laura Pearle, Miss Porter’s School, Farmington, CT

N., José Ángel. Illegal: Reflections of an Undocumented Immigrant. 136p. (Latinos in Chicago and Midwest). Univ. of Illinois Pr. 2014. pap. $19.95. ISBN 9780252079863. LC 2013032194

An undocumented immigrant tells his story of crossing the Mexico/United States border as a teen. N. found his way to Chicago where he worked and lived in the shadows—in factories, yards, and restaurants. Taking ESL classes, he obtained a GED, bachelor’s, and master’s degree, along with a well-paying job as a professional translator. This isn’t so much a feel-good, rags-to-riches tale as it is an exploration of living underground in fear of being found out as “illegal.” Without legal identification, N. continues to live constantly on edge, fearing traffic stops, going into a bar and getting carded, or getting on a plane. He would love to vote and was invited to President Obama’s inaugural speech, but turned down the invitation for fear of having his ID inspected too closely. At his job, he waits for the other shoe to drop and his irregular social security card to be discovered. “A constant fugitive, I take shelter in the lofty flight of imagination.” This memoir is insightful and poetic. A philosophy major, N. writes poignantly about his existence in the shadows.  He watches the slow and frustrating process of immigration reform from the sidelines. Teens—some of whom may have undocumented parents or relatives, or be undocumented themselves—will be interested in the author’s journey and explorations of belonging, alienation, language, race, and class, and the ironies and contradictions of living in the U.S.— Amy Cheney, Alameda County Library, Juvenile Hall, CA

Categories: Library News

The Queen of the Tearling

Mon, 2014-07-07 07:00

Is The Queen of the Tearling the next Harry Potter? It is certainly one of the big debuts of the summer.

The first in Erika Johansen’s fantasy trilogy releases tomorrow, but many readers are already aware of the book. This is largely thanks to movie news–Harry Potter alumni Emma Watson and David Heyman committed to the film project back in 2013. Watson is set to both star and executive produce.

Early notoriety is also due to Harper’s vigorous marketing campaign, featuring a striking advanced reader copy. Library Journal’s Barbara Hoffert interviewed the author back in April, and that interview is available on the Harper website or Youtube. It includes discussion of crossover potential.

With a 19-year-old protagonist fighting for her birthright, there is no question of the book’s teen appeal. There are “mature scenes” that caused our reviewer to recommend it for older teens. Younger Hunger Games and Harry Potter fans may catch the bug, especially once the movie comes out, so it may be a good plan to read it for yourself in preparation for high interest.

You can start now–Tor.com has posted an excerpt.

JOHANSEN, Erika. The Queen of the Tearling. 448p. illus. maps. (Queen of the Tearling: Bk. 1). Harper. Jul. 2014. Tr $26.99. ISBN 9780062290366.  

On Kelsea Glynn’s 19th birthday, she is seated in a tree awaiting the arrival of the horsemen she hears approaching. On this day she will begin her journey to Tear to become Queen. Whisked away as a child into the deep recesses of the forest as her mother, Queen Elyssa, lay dying, Kelsea grew up under the tutelage of the cold but capable Carlin and kindhearted Barty. For all of those years, the evil Red Queen of Mortmesne searched for her, but failed to find her. Kelsea is now ready to claim the throne that is rightfully hers. Along the way, Kelsea learns to trust the men of the Queen’s Guard as they encounter battle with Mort assassins, hide from killer hawks, and suffer capture by the dangerous, but mesmerizing Fetch, leader of a band of thieves, faithful to no one but Tear. Led by Lazarus, each member of the Guard must decide for himself if this young woman is worthy of wearing the crown. Upon arrival, Kelsea confronts the slave trade that keeps Tear in bondage to the Mort Queen and immediately takes action against it, setting the stage for future battle. Johansen has created a fantasy world that hints at the history of our world gone awry. Mature teen readers will devour this book for its strong characters, excellent plotting, and satisfying ending that leaves them knowing that obtaining the throne is only the beginning of Kelsea’s story.—Connie Williams, Petaluma High School, CA

Categories: Library News

A Morning with John Searles

Thu, 2014-07-03 13:10

Last Sunday in Las Vegas, on a ridiculously hot morning which eventually made it up to 108° F, I had the pleasure of attending the 2014 Alex Award Program. Ordinarily–as say, last year–at least 3 or 4 of the winning authors manage to make it to the program, but this year, after a brief introduction by Alex Committee Chair Danielle Dreger-Babbitt, we were graced with the presence of only John Searles, author of one of this blog’s favorite books of 2013, Help for the Haunted. John made it clear from the beginning, though, that “the reason the other Alex Awards winners aren’t here is because I killed them and buried them in my back yard.” So they had a pretty good excuse.

Personally, I knew we were in for a treat before the program began, when John made his way off the podium and started introducing himself individually to the 60 or so of us who were there. Considering that he ended the program by giving personalized autographs, chatting and joking, and taking pictures with all of us, it hardly would have mattered what he said in between.  But while I’m sure we would have loved to hear from some of the other winners, having only one speaker gave the audience the chance to hear John give an amazing thirty-minute speech, rather than the brief 10 minutes usually allotted on the Alex Program.

John regaled us with stories of his awkward days on the road with his trucker father–designed to “make a man of him”, instead an opportunity to read Sidney Sheldon, Stephen King, and John Irving, all of whom, John claimed, made their way into Help for the Haunted. We heard plenty of gossip from his days working for Redbook, Cosmo, and The Today Show, as well as a story about some poor publicist claiming a bizarrely inappropriate read-a-like for John’s book (too blue for this blog–check my twitter feed to get the goods).

And we learned his secrets for keeping nosy airline travelers from reading his new work over his shoulder: Step 1) put everything in tiny font that no one can read. Step 2) when asked “Are you a writer?” answer, “No, I’m a dentist.”

Most poignant was John’s heartfelt description of how important it is for him to have teen readers, as he told us about his own lonely, bullied teen years, and how his “safe haven was my little town library.”

In the Q&A session after his speech, John was asked for some book recommendations, which I thought I would pass along:

Most importantly (to us) was Karen Joy Fowler’s We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, another of this blog’s favorites of 2013.

He also recommended:

  • The Bird Box by Josh Malerman (Ecco, 2014)
  • The Winter People by Jennifer McMahon (Doubleday, 2014)
  • and (sheepishly) The Husband’s Secret by Liane Moriarty (Amy Einhorn, 2013)

Finally, be sure to check out John’s 50 Book Clubs, 50 States Challenge–where he’s trying to meet with one book club in every state.

Thank you to John for the amazing speech, and thanks again to the wonderful Alex Committee!

Categories: Library News

Lives of the Rich & Famous

Wed, 2014-07-02 21:25

We’re covering both coasts today — from a novel set in New York City high society to a memoir by a Los Angeles paparazzo.

Perhaps all I need to say about The Heiresses is the name of its author, Sara Shepard. Given the success of her novels and of the television series based on them, teen fans are sure to be seeking out her latest adult book. Like Pretty Little Liars, The Heiresses is a mystery. Members of a very wealthy and famous family are being murdered — and there’s a curse involved! Pure summer escapism.

Readers fascinated by celebrity culture will be interested in Shooting StarsJennifer Buhl‘s memoir of her years working as a paparazzo in L.A. As controversial as her (now former) profession is, there are different sides to the work. Some stars invite the attention, others work hard to avoid it. For teens curious to know more, this is the book!

SHEPARD, Sara. The Heiresses. 308p. HarperCollins. Jun. 2014. Tr $25.99. ISBN 9780062259530. LC 2014015748.  

Four heiresses to a diamond company live a privileged New York City life, but when the favorite daughter turns up dead, it appears that the sisters are being targeted one by one because of some questionable family behavior. There is a storied history behind the Saybrook jewel dynasty, which became especially prosperous after World War Two, and there is no shortage of people who feel bitter toward the family whose actions can often be found on “Page Six”. Shepard writes in a breezy style, covering the scandals of the heiresses and the mystery of who might want them dead. Teens who enjoyed the gossipy plotlines of the author’s “Pretty Little Liars” books (HarperCollins) will gladly graduate to a similar, if more grown-up, story. While it may come at the expense of elements like character development, the novel will be enjoyed by those who crave to know more about luxurious lifestyles and will particularly appreciate the details about extravagant parties and the label dropping. With no shortage of despicable personalities to choose from, details are slowly and carefully revealed, implicating each character and leaving readers on the edge of their seat trying to figure out who has the greatest motive in wanting the heiresses dead. A doozy of a cliff-hanger hints at more to come in what is sure to be a hugely popular series.—Carrie Shaurette, Dwight-Englewood School, Englewood, NJ

BUHL, Jennifer. Shooting Stars: My Unexpected Life Photographing Hollywood’s Most Famous. glossary. maps. 326p. Sourcebooks. Apr. 2014. pap. $14.99. ISBN 9781402297007. LC 2013046457.  

For a few years, Buhl served as one of the very few female paparazza in Hollywood. This memoir, if not quite a tell-all, is a “tell-quite-a bit” of her years on the glamorous celebrity beat. The author had an interest in photography, but not much of one in taking snapshots of the stars. But she had a keen sense of adventure and experience, so when she stumbled into a shoot, she decided to give it a try. In the ensuing chapters, readers learn how celebrity weeklies get their pictures, why the “upscale” ones don’t publish unattractive shots, and which celebrity is a “get” and who “never gives it up.” Buhl recounts how she wrestles with the ethics of what she’s doing, but mostly justifies her profession as part of the system that keeps the stars famous. She tells tales of actors who alert the “paps” to their every move, and know how to pose when the cameras get there. Ultimately, after a few profitable years, the tick of Buhl’s biological clock drowns her desire to continue on this adventure. This is a behind-the-scenes look at the Hollywood system as it exists today, and the symbiotic relationship between the stars and the paparazzi —with guest appearances by tipsters and the police. Most pop culture fans will enjoy the read, and will be excited to discuss whose side they’re on. An interesting point of discussion for a journalism classes.—Jamie Watson, Baltimore County Public Library, MD

Categories: Library News

A Nightmare that Walks like a Girl

Mon, 2014-06-30 12:27

Is Melanie a monster or a prodigy? The title of this post refers to the first of our thrilling reads of the day, The Girl with all the Gifts, in which one character, Sergeant Parks, thinks of Melanie as “the nightmare-that-walks-like-a-girl.” He’d rather deal with blood-thirsty zombies than with something that walks and talks like a polite girl, but isn’t quite human. The reader, on the other hand, becomes completely enamoured with Melanie–she’s smart and sweet and loves to learn.

It’s hard to gush about this book without giving too much away, and it’s the twists and turns that make it a lot of fun. That said, the characters and their development make it excellent. This is a postapocalyptic novel with elements of gory horror–human (Dr. Caldwell’s cruel single-mindedness) and zombie (wait ’til you get to the feral children!) and fungal. It is also a contemplation of what makes someone (or something) human. I think teens will appreciate the thriller pacing as well as Melanie’s search for self-acceptance, identity and place in the world.

Robogenesis is the sequel to Daniel H. Wilson’s blockbuster, Alex Award-winning hit, Robopocalypse. (In between, he published Amped, a standalone also recommended for teens.) Rumors are swirling around Steven Spielberg’s intentions to get down to work on the movie version of Robopocalypse. It has been on hold since 2011.

Wilson also edited a short story collection in partnership with John Joseph Adams that published in April titled Robot Uprisings. Another great choice for teen collections, especially given the list of authors included–Hugh Howey, Ernest Cline, Cory Doctorow, Julianna Baggott, Nnedi Okorafor and Robin Wasserman, to name a few.

CAREY, M. R. The Girl with all the Gifts. 416p. Orbit. Jun. 2014. Tr. $25. ISBN 9780316278157. LC 2013945113.  

In this thought-provoking postapocalyptic zombie novel, Melanie lives with other children her age, one to a cell. They go to school in a single classroom down the hall. To get there they are muzzled and tied into wheelchairs at gunpoint. Melanie loves school, especially the days when Miss Justineau is the teacher. Sergeant Parks doesn’t approve of Helen Justineau’s affection for her students. To make his point, one day he rolls up his sleeve and puts his skin close to a couple kids. They begin drooling, losing all ability to think beyond the need to bite him. The children live on an army base where Dr. Caldwell is researching the key to what makes these subjects different from the mindless, animalistic flesh-eating hungries that took over the world 20 years earlier when most of humanity was infected by a virulent fungus. When the base is attacked, Sergeant Parks, Miss Justineau, Dr. Caldwell, and Melanie flee together toward Beacon—a haven where most of England’s uninfected live. As they travel through the devastated countryside, Melanie learns about the larger world, and understands that she is a danger to her companions. Miss Justineau tells her she is not a monster, but Melanie’s new self-awareness is heartbreaking. At the same time, Melanie discovers new powers and skills within herself that prove critical to the group’s survival. Just what is she? Could she be the answer that will save humankind? This unpredictable novel goes beyond genre expectations thanks to its characters, especially Helen Justineau and Melanie, and one doozy of a twist ending.—Angela Carstensen, Convent of the Sacred Heart, New York City

WILSON, Daniel H. Robogenesis. 384p. Doubleday. Jun. 2014. Tr $26.95. ISBN 9780385537094. LC  2014000720.  

Just when you thought the world was safe from the AI-driven robot revolution that failed to destroy all humans in Robopocalypse (Doubleday, 2011), a sequel has arrived to let us know we are not safe—not at all. The robs are still out there and so is the super intelligence that organizes and programs them to kill, or in some cases, take over human bodies and turn them into…ZOMBIES. The first robot war is over and the super intelligence is disabled, but somehow the robots have gone rogue, human survivors have turned against each other, and neither is safe from the manipulations of the new super intelligent computer AR8, who knows the destruction of all humankind will ensure its own domination of earth. Human survival depends on a coalition of ragtag veterans of the first war and the children called modifieds, who during the war were implanted with supersensory robotics and now possess unusual powers of communication and strength that may bring down AR8. But it seems the only thing truly capable of destroying AR8 is an even greater intelligence. Teens who enjoyed the first book will find the tense action, fast pace, and the imaginatively clever robot creations totally satisfying.  However, those who have not read the previous title might find it challenging to decipher the circumstances and characters in this entry. Best to put both on the sci-fi summer reading list.—John Sexton, Greenburgh Public Library, NY

Categories: Library News

Steal the North with Author Interview

Wed, 2014-06-25 07:00

Every other month you can find an AB4T debut author interview in the SLJ Teen Newsletter. Last week featured an interview with Heather Brittain Bergstrom, author of Steal the North. I thought I would include some excerpts from that interview here, but it is definitely worth reading in its entirety.

One of the central themes of Bergstrom’s short work is escaping from Eastern Washington state, where she grew up. In this novel, she features a character who does the reverse–she returns to the place she was born, the place her mother left in search of a better life. In her SLJ Teen interview, the author writes,

“I realized how much, like it or not, I had been shaped by the landscape of my childhood. I had left it, but it had not left me. Returning for visits, I began to see beauty where before I only saw ugliness. I had to accept the starkness of my homeland, and once I did, the place captivated me. Emmy is my first fictional character to yearn for eastern Washington. Hers is the first migration north, rather than south.”

So many teens yearn to leave their hometowns, to discover the larger world. They will empathize with Emmy’s mother. But they will also understand Emmy herself, as she finds love and belonging in the North.

The boy she falls for, Reuben, lives on a Native American reservation. This is a novel told in multiple voices, and Reuben’s chapters “practically wrote themselves.” Bergstrom wanted to bring Indians out of the past:

“My novel shows them as they are nowadays: kids in high school, struggling with algebra and playing football; health-care worker; dancers at powwows; riders at rodeos; teenagers cruising in trucks and eating gas station nachos; old people waiting at medical centers; all ages drumming at churches; elders wearing Nikes and praying beside creeks for the salmon to return.”

BERGSTROM, Heather Brittain. Steal the North. 336p. Viking. April. 2014. Tr. $27.95. ISBN 9780670786183.  

At 16, Emmy learns that her mother, Kate, has been keeping secrets. Emmy’s father didn’t really die in a tractor accident. And Emmy has an aunt living in Eastern Washington state who once loved the teen as a mother. Kate had her reasons for leaving that part of their lives in the past, but now Aunt Beth needs Emmy. After years of tragic miscarriages, Beth is pregnant again. Her church minister is proposing a healing ceremony that requires a virgin to lay hands on Beth’s womb. Kate is reluctant to send Emmy from their Sacramento home, fearing her daughter’s exposure to Beth’s Baptist fundamentalist beliefs. Emmy, for her part, knows that she is not a virgin. Nevertheless, Emmy settles into life with Beth and her husband, Matt, in their trailer park. But her placid life is shaken when she meets Reuben Tonasket, a Native American boy who often stays with his family next door. The two have an instant connection. For romance fans, the growing tenderness between Emmy and Reuben will propel them through the book. The strong sense of place then transforms the story from a family drama to an exploration of history and landscape, focusing on walls that still exist between Native American and white people. Equally important is the focus on a fundamentalist religion that holds Beth secure and comforted, but drives her sister Kate away. Fans of Jodi Picoult and Sara Zarr will enjoy this coming-of-age novel with multiple social issues.—Diane Colson, Nashville Public Library, TN

Categories: Library News

Best Books of the Year so far, 2014

Mon, 2014-06-23 07:00

How can it be June already?? With ALA Annual right around the corner, and summer reading well underway, it is just the right time to offer our round-up of the Best Books of 2014–so far. We asked our reviewers to nominate the best adult books for teens that were published between January and June 2014.

This is the fourth year in a row we’ve compiled a list of the best books through the first half of the year, and this is a strange one. Most interestingly, every book mentioned below is fiction, and only one (BJ Novak’s story collection) is not a novel. No nonfiction, no graphic novels, no poetry. Weird. It’s also a much shorter list than we’ve had in past years: in 2011 we had 25 titles, and in both 2012 and 2013 we had 28 titles. This year, 20.

So what’s going on here? Well, for one thing, the shorter list is probably explained by the lack of variety: the number of fiction titles has been: 18, 19, and 21. But that doesn’t explain the lack of anything but fiction. I can’t speak for the rest of the reviewers who nominated titles, but for me, most of this is just timing. If I’d had a week longer, I would have been able to list a tremendous memoir which we’ll be featuring here shortly. And I’ve already read a best-worthy graphic novel, but it comes out in August. I also got caught reading a lot of wonderful nonfiction that just didn’t have quite enough teen appeal.  So, if I had to guess, I’d say our end of the year list will have much more variety.

But enough with what we don’t have–what do we have? Some clear trends emerged in the first half of the year. Science Fiction makes a big splash this year, with over a third of the titles. And Historical Fiction almost matches SF with six books. Add in several moving stories about immigrants, and a few entries in trilogies and you’ve got plenty of trends to think about.

We would love to hear from you — what books would you nominate? What are your favorites so far this year? What have your teen patrons enjoyed? Join us in the comments!

Adam by Ariel Schrag
An unexpected and entirely original love story. Laugh-out-loud hilarious, tender, and insightful—an all-around brilliant romp of a coming-of-age story.

All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
This page-turning, suspenseful novel cuts back and forth between time periods and between the storylines 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?

Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer
VanderMeer’s rich, multi-layered novel–the first in a trilogy–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.

Archetype by M. D. Waters
This fast-paced dystopian thriller opens with Emma waking up in the hospital after a terrible accident. Her memories are gone. As she heals, she realizes that her dreams and nightmares may actually be flashbacks, which hint at a world in which nothing her charming husband has told her is true.

Bellweather Rhapsody by Kate Racculia
The Bellweather is an old Catskills resort hotel that hosts the annual New York State high school music festival. 15 years ago a murder/suicide took place in Room 712, the same room from which Alice’s famous roommate goes missing.

Brutal Youth by Anthony Breznican
As brilliantly hilarious as it is poignant and heartrending, this satiric novel tracks the life of freshman Peter Davidek through a story that confidently rips through tangles of high school insanity.

Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng
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.

The Fever by Megan Abbott
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..

The Flight of the Silvers by Daniel Price
Six people—the Silvers—are pulled from ordinary America and deposited into AltAmerica, where they are able to manipulate time. The Silvers struggle to sort out their relationships and their new abilities while trying to outrun government agencies and the mysterious group that wants them dead.

Hyde by Daniel Levine
A magnificent retelling of The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, from the perspective of Edward Hyde, which may even improve on Stevenson’s original novella.

The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd
This powerful historical novel spanning 30 years tells the stories, in alternating chapters, of Sarah Grimke and a slave named Hetty, focusing on their a complex relationship–beautifully brought to life via the dual points of view.

The Martian by Andy Weir
After a freak dust storm, Mark Watley 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.

The Museum of Extraordinary Things by Alice Hoffman
Coralie is barred from visiting her father’s museum of freaks and grotesqueries until her 11th birthday, when she and her deformity become part of his collection. Hoffman’s thoroughly researched novel evokes the sights, smells, and sounds of New York City and Coney Island in the early 20th century.

My Name is Resolute by Nancy E. Turner
Ten-year old Resolute spends her days filled with love and tales of charms, spells and magic shared by the Jamaican slaves who serve her family. But no spell can ward off the pirates who come one September day in 1729 and destroy their home, kill her mother, and throw her family into the hold of a slave ship.

On Such a Full Sea by Chang-rae Lee
In a dystopian future America, 16-year-old Fan leaves the cloistered world of labor enclave B-More and ventures into the unknown chaos beyond to find Reg, her lover and the father of her child-to-be.

One More Thing: Stories and Other Stories by B.J. Novak
Novak’s “Stories and Other Stories” are by turns funny, moving, and funny again, but they are always challenging and extremely well-written.

Red Rising by Pierce Brown
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.

Runner by Patrick Lee
Retired special forces agent Sam Dryden is compelled to help Rachel, a young runaway, escape her pursuers in this exemplary “military-experiment-gone-wrong” thriller. They survive breath-taking near-escapes only to realize that Rachel herself may be the greatest danger.

The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin
A. J. Fikry, a man in his 40s who lives above his bookstore on a tourist island, is mourning the death of his wife. Surprisingly, he becomes the accidental father of an abandoned child, Maya, and raises her to become—surprise, surprise—a reader and a writer in this hopeful, funny and poignant novel.

The Weight of Blood by Laura Mchugh
In this suspenseful dark mystery set deep in the Ozarks, 17-year-old Lucy decides to investigate her best friend’s murder, which seems to connect to her own mother’s disappearance when Lucy was just a baby.

Categories: Library News

Bellweather Rhapsody

Fri, 2014-06-20 07:00

A mystery that takes place during a high school music festival set in an old resort hotel during a snowstorm? The Bellweather is certainly less terrifying than The Overlook of The Shining fame, but it holds its own secrets–especially room 712.

In the introduction to her novel’s playlist on Largehearted BoyKate Racculia shares that she played the bassoon in high school, and attended the New York State School Music Association All-State conference. It was an uneventful year, but her novel definitely isn’t. She describes it as, “a mystery, a comedy, a ghost and a love story … it’s stuffed full of band nerds and conductors, CD wallets and Discmans, crushworthy college a capella clubs, orchestral performances, one hellacious blizzard and one missing, possibly murdered, flute prodigy.” In that same interview, she explains how she conceived of her novel as a piece of music in four movements. Your teen musicians are really going to love this one!

As Mark mentioned on Wednesday, we are on a roll with starred reviews this month. Sometimes a year just hits its stride. I look at my TBR pile of late summer/fall titles and think this is very, very promising year for AB4T. 

Speaking of which — come back on Monday for our annual Best of the Year So Far list!

RACCULIA, Kate. Bellweather Rhapsody. 352p. Houghton Harcourt. May 2014. Tr $25. ISBN 9780544129917. LC  2013026339.  

Rabbit Hatmaker has been working towards one goal for years: making it to Statewide. The typically reserved small-town high school senior is thrilled to unpack his bassoon for the first time at the prestigious music conference with peers from around New York. His twin sister, drama queen and vocalist Alice, hopes her second year affords her the chance to be a social butterfly and show others the ropes. But neither knows about the murder/suicide that happened 15 years ago at the festival’s Catskills venue, the faded Bellweather Hotel, in the very room to which Alice is assigned. At the weekend’s outset, Rabbit gains instant popularity by speaking up to the arrogant orchestra conductor, while Alice is left in the shadow of her famous roommate, a preternaturally talented flutist and daughter of Statewide’s notorious director, diva Viola Fabian. ­­When that roommate goes missing (Alice swears she saw her hanging from the ceiling pipes) and a snowstorm bears down, tensions heighten as long buried secrets and sublimated desires are forced to the surface for those gathered in the sprawling, atmospheric Bellweather. Racculia tells her multilayered coming-of-age/mystery/suspense novel from a variety of viewpoints, successfully intertwining the haunted past of the world-worn adults with the hopeful future of the gifted teens. Laced with dark humor and remarkable insight, this smart page-turner offers an insider’s look at the competitive nature of high school music performance, the higher stakes professional world, and the complex relationships that lie within both.—Paula J. Gallagher, Baltimore County Public Library, MD

Categories: Library News

Adam

Wed, 2014-06-18 07:00

Another post in June, another starred review–hopefully, we’re filling up your to-read pile quickly. Today’s starred review is Ariel Schrag’s debut novel Adam, a book which seems pretty much tailor-made for our blog. Schrag is a long-time graphic novelist and comic artist who is already beloved of teens. And her novel is a classic coming-of-age story for the twenty-first century: boy meets girl, girl turns out to be a lesbian, lesbian thinks boy is transgender, lesbian falls for boy, hijinks ensue. Throw in some shameless profanity and a heavy dose of comedy and you have a book that could easily have been marketed directly to teens. Instead, it was published for adults, so we get the honor of featuring it here.

* SCHRAG, Ariel. Adam. 320p. Mariner. June 2014. Tr $13.95. ISBN 9780544142930.

A story set in 2006 against a background of gay-marriage demonstrations and the rise of transgender rights. The opening chapter of Schrag’s debut novel finds Adam climbing a tree leading to Kelsey’s bedroom window in Piedmont, California, hoping to score. He doesn’t, and his shame follows him to the cafeteria the next day where all of his friends are paired up and discussing summer plans. How to be cool and avoid more shame? He decides, too quickly, to visit his older sister, Casey, a lesbian, in New York for the summer, and this geeky awkward straight boy is put into even more geeky awkwardness. “This is my shithole,” Casey welcomes him, “And this is June.” June is wearing a T-shirt that reads: I WON’T GO DOWN IN HISTORY BUT I’LL GO DOWN ON YOUR SISTER.  Adam notes to himself, in a wry and sarcastic voice,   “Just in case the shaved head and bull nose ring hadn’t tipped me off that she was gay.”  Thus begins a summer that will change his life forever: he falls in love with Gillian, a lesbian, and she falls in love with him, believing him to be transgender. This unexpected and entirely original love story is laugh-out-loud hilarious, tender, and insightful—an all-around brilliant romp of a coming-of-age story. Teens will feel they have hit the jackpot when they find it.—Amy Cheney, Alameda County Library, Juvenile Hall, CA

Categories: Library News

Mixed-Race Relationships

Mon, 2014-06-16 07:01

Today we have two stand-out novels involving race and immigration that are told from multiple points of view. Both involve the weight of parental expectations.

Everything I Never Told You is Celeste Ng‘s debut novel, and our starred review joins other stars from LJ, Booklist and PW.  This is a dysfunctional family story in which the struggles and insecurities of the parents (a Caucasian mother and a Chinese American father) are visited on the children, most dramatically their favored middle daughter. The author does a particularly good job of writing about the way a teenager can have completely different concerns than her parents–or siblings–realize.

Shelf Awareness offers a full Maximum Shelf issue on the novel, which includes an interview with the author. Everything I Never Told You is on many of the Best Summer Books lists out now, some which are listed on Ng’s website’s “News” page.

The Book of Unknown Americans finds itself on many of those same Summer Best lists, and focuses on the plight of recent immigrant families in the United States. Cristina Henríquez centers her novel on the romance between two teenagers, a Mexican girl and a Panamanian boy. But it is also full of the voices of their neighbors, immigrants from several Latin American countries who all live in the same apartment complex in Newark, Delaware and express themselves in a chorus of short first-person chapters.

* NG, Celeste. Everything I Never Told You. 304p. Penguin Pr. Jun. 2014. Tr $26.95. ISBN 9781594205712.  

Lydia is dead. So starts this compelling tearjerker that is a mystery buried inside a painful family drama. Set in 1970s Ohio, readers experience first-hand the racism felt by Asian Americans and mixed-race families, as well as the sexism and bourgeoning women’s movement of the time through the alternating narratives of members of this dysfunctional family. Mom and Dad are trying to live vicariously through their teen middle child, Lydia. She is pressured to pursue a medical career, and to fit in socially; both things that were lacking in the mother and father’s lives respectively. The older brother, who is just on his way to Harvard, and the younger sister are relegated to non-favored status by the parents, and we watch the effects of that dynamic and others as this family struggles with secrets, guilt, and the pain of mourning and not knowing the truth. Readers will find themselves mentally screaming at and crying for these characters, turning page after page, and hoping for solace and answers in this narrative. Not until the very end will they find out the truth about what caused Lydia’s demise, and gain some understanding of the motives for the torturous actions of the protagonists. The somewhat hopeful ending seems a bit forced, but teen girls especially will flock to this book. Hand this one to fans of Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones (Little, Brown, 2002), and tell them to read it with a box of tissues close at hand.—Jake Pettit, American School Foundation, Mexico City

HENRÍQUEZ, Cristina. The Book of Unknown Americans. 304p. Knopf. June 2014. Tr $24.95. ISBN 9780385350846; ebk. ISBN 9780385350853.  

Alma and Arturo leave their family and friends in Mexico to bring their brain-damaged daughter, Maribel, to the United States in search of better schools.  They settle in Newark, Delaware, near other émigrés from Central and South America. As the narrative unfolds through the words and thoughts of the main characters, readers come to know them well. A sweet friendship and then a budding romance develop between Maribel and Mayor, the younger son of a Panamanian family. Both families eventually oppose the romance and, without spoiling the story, it does not come to a good end.  There is richness to the details of thought and action that the author uses to develop each character.  The everyday struggles that often overwhelm families trying to make ends meet on minimum-wage salaries in a culture where they do not speak the language and where the indigenous people often lack a basic understanding of their intentions are vividly portrayed. Henríquez offers a powerful story revolving around universal coming-of-age themes to which teens in any culture can relate.  She also makes some fictional “unknown Americans” very real.–Vicki Emery, Lake Braddock Secondary School, Fairfax County, VA

Categories: Library News

Maya Angelou

Wed, 2014-06-11 07:00

In tribute to Maya Angelou, we offer the words of one of our reviewers who shares the way the author influenced her life, and the way that encounter shapes her work today. Amy Cheney is a librarian at Alameda County Library, CA, where she serves teens incarcerated at the Alameda Juvenile Hall. One of her primary goals is to connect teens with authors, and she organizes an extensive author visit program.

When I was a teen I met Maya Angelou. At the time, I couldn’t have cared less, in fact, I was outwardly indifferent about it. A neighbor was friends with her, and they invited me  to hear her speak in a church basement.  I didn’t want to go (I didn’t want to go anywhere), but there I was. It smelled of the old water they used to mop the floor. The windows were around the top of the room, and I stood in the back of the room, watching the feet of the people walking by on the downtown street. My anger grew as I saw the disparity between the high heels, shiny shoes and then dirt encrusted swollen ankles with shoes of rags.

It was a transformative experience for me: I remember clearly not wanting to be there, and yet, as she spoke, her words and, even more, her passion made their way through the hard armor around my heart and it began to crack. I was shocked by this. I had no idea that I was not this hard armor, that there was something underneath this, a soft part of myself, a place that cared deeply and yearned for poetry and expression.  I felt such a deep connection with her as a result of this inner experience, I read every book she wrote as it was published.

Because of Maya, when authors come in and talk with my teens now I know that regardless of their outer expression, there may be something much much deeper and transformative going on inside. When they do express their encouragement, enthusiasm and interest I am thrilled.

I still have a heartfelt connection to Maya Angelou. We were able to have her son, Guy Johnson, come in and speak with the youth about his books. Her protege, MK Asante, is currently the most popular author here, bringing alive Maya Angelou and her legacy.

I also recommend Barbara Hoffert’s wonderful article over on the LJ site, Book World Remembers Maya Angelou, which notes the importance of a small-town school library early in her life.

Categories: Library News

Brutal Youth

Mon, 2014-06-09 07:00

“A violently active, dominating, intrepid, brutal youth–that is what I am after. Youth must be all those things. It must be indifferent to pain. There must be no weakness or tenderness in it. . . . I will have no intellectual training. Knowledge is ruin to my young men.” – Adolf Hitler, quoted by Hermann Rauschning, The Voice of Destruction

Anthony Breznican’s debut novel–which follows in the footsteps of such great, pessimistic boarding school novels as The Chocolate War, A Separate Peace, and The Lord of the Flies itself–crystallizes the rage of the genre in its title allusion to Hitler. The school he writes about is not merely bad for or indifferent to its students, but actively hateful and anti-intellectual. While we might debate the plausibility of such schools existing, there is no doubt that many students feel precisely this way about their educations–that their teachers and fellow students are there to torment them of force them into being something they are not. Breznican brilliantly plays on these fears, in this, already our second starred book of the month.

For those, like myself, planning on attending ALA Annual, you have a chance to meet Breznican on Sunday, June 29.

* BREZNICAN, Anthony. Brutal Youth. 416p. St. Martin’s/Thomas Dunne Bks. Jun. 2014. Tr $25.99. ISBN 9781250019356. LC 2014008498.

At St. Michael High School’s open house, prospective freshman Peter Davidek huddles behind a car on the parking lot, watching a deranged student topple statues of saints off the rooftop. Nearby, one boy has been hit, blood pooling under his head. When Davidek decides to brave a rescue attempt, he is joined by Noah Stein, who thus becomes Davidek’s sole friend and ally at this terrifying and surreal high school. Stein, marked by a scar covering the side of his face, seems to know no fear. While the entire freshman class suffers from the school’s traditional yearlong hazing rituals, Stein takes pleasure in baiting upperclassmen and teachers alike. Stein’s weakness is his love for Davidek and for Lorelei Pascal, a classmate whose beauty earns her especially vicious torment from older girls. Breznican’s debut novel is filled with tortured characters, from the devious Father Mercedes, gambling away precious school funds, to the despised Hannah Kraut, who has a notebook reputedly filled with everyone’s secrets. Davidek serves as our bewildered navigator through a story that confidently rips through tangles of high school insanity. The author molds real characters out of high school stereotypes, most notably the misfits, all struggling for a humble slice of dignity within St. Michael’s wretched, bleeding walls. The satiric narrative is as brilliantly hilarious as it is poignant and heartrending.—Diane Colson, Nashville Public Library, TN

Categories: Library News

A Fabulous New Novel From Megan Abbott

Fri, 2014-06-06 12:13

As promised, today we have a review of Megan Abbott’s new novel, The Fever. When last we saw Abbott she was wowing us with Dare Me, which got her a starred review and a place on our list of 2012′s Best Adult Books 4 Teens.

The Fever has gotten her another starred review, and (spoiler alert) a spot on our upcoming list of the the Best Adult Books 4 Teens of 2014, So Far. But it did have to fight me a little for that position. It’s a strange book, and a little hard to pin down. In particular, the tone was a bit tough for me to place. With a plot about an unexplained illness affecting high school girls, which may or may not have to do with either their sexual activity or their HPV vaccines, this is a novel that has to grapple with a lot of very tricky political and social issues.

At times I thought it was veering towards satire, sending up the hysterical reactions of parents towards teen sex. But Abbott is altogether too fair to her characters for satire to truly set in. In fact, at other times, her fairness towards her characters made me nervous that she was putting too much credence in anti-vaxxer claptrap. In the end, it became apparent that she is not out to make a specific political or social point so much as to engage in a sensitive discussion about the ways in which these political and social issues affect all of us. And for that, she very much deserves a starred review.

* ABBOTT, Megan. The Fever. 240p. Little, Brown. June 2014. Tr $26. ISBN 9780316231053.

Abbott’s provocative new novel masterfully dissects mass hysteria brought on by a community’s collective revulsion toward female sexuality. The trouble begins when Deenie Nash’s best friend, Lise, has an unexplained seizure–in full view of her high school classmates–that lands her in the hospital in a semi-conscious state. Soon, other girls, first close friends, later total strangers, begin exhibiting similar symptoms, and school, parents, and students alike believe they are in the grip of a full-blown epidemic. The fact that doctors cannot explain what the disease is or why it only affects girls only encourages gossip, which quickly coalesces around accusations that the “fever” is a result of the HPV vaccines that all high school girls have been required to take. The novel alternates viewpoints among Deenie, her brother Eli, and their father, who is a teacher at their school. And even though none of the Nashes believes the vaccine rumor, even Deenie and Eli begin to believe that the source lies with what they see as the troubling sexual behaviors of the afflicted girls. Abbott’s prose is a smoldering slow burn, allowing each excruciating minute of unease to unsettle into readers, even as the author carefully lays down clues to the ultimate solution. And her indictment of the mindless panic of a community leads readers to wonder just who is afflicted by the fever of the title. Teens will be drawn to the mystery trappings, the high-school setting, and the frank discussion of the sometimes-quite scary terrain of sex.–Mark Flowers, John F. Kennedy Library, Vallejo, CA

Categories: Library News

The Bees

Mon, 2014-06-02 20:23

Laline Paull‘s debut novel, The Bees is different from any I have read before. She uses the life cycle of bees and the workings of a hive for inspiration, and in doing so points out fascinating equivalents to modern society. One ordinary bee, Flora, guides the reader through the novel’s mysterious world.

Flora’s story takes place over the course of one year, taking advantage of the inherent drama of the seasons–from rich foraging in summer, to desperation as pollen sources disappear in the fall (the “Age of Austerity”), to the hunger of winter, hibernation, and the utter joy and release of spring.

Danger lurks everywhere. The encroaching town limits the number of blossoms within safe flying distance, so Flora takes risks for the sake of the Hive. She enters a warehouse, lured by a sneaky wasp. Later, she cannot resist the flowers in a greenhouse–not as idyllic as it seems. Most dangerous of all is her own body’s insistence on producing offspring when breeding is punishable by death.

Shelf Awareness published a Maximum Shelf feature on The Bees and I just love its comparison to The Game of Thrones. Political maneuvering, secrecy at the highest levels, and beheadings are likely the reasons behind that one. The article’s author also teases out strains of Greek mythology, Aesop’s fables and religious ritual. The feature includes a great interview with the author.

For all that, I find the novel can be read as a straight-forward thriller, albeit one set in a truly unusual place. Paull was inspired by an obsession with bees, including current environmental threats to their survival. She did the research to make her world as scientifically accurate as possible.

I would like to end with a quote from Emma Donoghue’s New York Times review, “Forward-thinking teachers of high school environmental science and biology will add “The Bees” to their syllabuses in a flash. Not only is this novel a gripping story of a single bee’s life, it is also an impossibly well-observed guide to the important role bees play in our human lives.” Here, here!

PAULL, Laline. The Bees: A Novel. 352p. Ecco. May 2014. Tr $25.99. ISBN 9780062331151.  

In this unique novel of intrigue, Flora 717 is born a lowly sanitation bee. All bees live by the central commandment of the Hive, Accept, Obey, and Serve. A flora serves by cleaning. She is not allowed to make wax, or forage, or tend the nursery, and certainly not breed. (None but the Queen, the Holy Mother, may breed.) But Flora is exceptional in ways that allow her to bypass the restrictions inherent in the Hive hierarchy without detection (thanks to her ability to hide her thoughts from the police). She sees the Hive from all angles, and witnesses the forces that threaten it, from pollution to political maneuvering to bombastic, demanding Drones. While out foraging for pollen, Flora encounters the Myriad, creatures like Wasps and Spiders who attack and plot against the Hive. She even reads the prophecies in the Library’s story panels, senses that the Sage—the priestesses surrounding the Queen—are being secretive, and discovers the treachery and sickness at the heart of her world. Paull’s world-building is extraordinary: in the Hive itself and the outside world from a bee’s point of view. Flora is like an adolescent who longs to figure out where she fits in and find her true identity. She is celebrated by some and considered a monstrous deviant by others, but only through her deviance is she able to fulfill her destiny. The controls on procreation bring to mind Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (1985) while the strict societal roles echo the factions in Veronica Roth’s “Divergent” trilogy (HarperCollins).—Angela Carstensen, Convent of the Sacred Heart, New York City

Categories: Library News

A New Take on Sleeping Beauty (No, Not *That* One)

Fri, 2014-05-30 07:00

You all know how much I love fairy tales. Indeed, it almost physically hurt me to assign Elizabeth Blackwell’s While Beauty Slept to another reviewer, but I just didn’t have time in my reading schedule to get to it. Now that I’ve read our review, I’m going to make time. Blackwell’s entry-point is a character of her own invention–a palace servant who is perfectly placed to view the action, and eventually comes to the center of it.  “Dark twists and turns not found in Disney versions”?  A “kingdom of intrigue and evil”? Sounds right up my alley. Beautiful cover too.

BLACKWELL, Elizabeth. While Beauty Slept. 424p.Putnam/Amy Einhorn Bks. Feb. 2014. $25.95. ISBN 9780399166235. LC 2013030337.

What more is there to know about “Sleeping Beauty” that hasn’t been covered exhaustively in popular culture? Blackwell adds another voice to the oeuvre with Elise Dalriss. The protagonist is a farm girl turned palace servant whose loyalty and discretion bring her into the service of Queen Lenore. She quickly becomes privy to the intimate secrets of the Queen and those around her, including Millicent, the twisted aunt of King Ranolf. Elise witnesses the long-awaited birth of Rose, an heir to the throne, followed quickly by the banishment of Millicent for her moves against the King. But the villainess does not go quietly. She curses Rose and the kingdom as she departs. As Elise transforms from a girl into a woman within the palace walls, she puts Rose at the center of her world, sacrificing her own desire for love in order to protect the royal family. The author vividly creates a kingdom of intrigue and evil as the backdrop for Rose’s and Elise’s stories to emerge. Teens will appreciate Elise’s longing for her passion and love and they will relish the drama and tension of living under a witch’s curse. Thanks to the upcoming Maleficent film and popular television shows such as Grimm and Once Upon a Time, this novel is a wonderful fit for readers with a renewed interest in fairy tales who also appreciate the dark twists and turns not found in Disney versions.—Meghan Cirrito, formerly of Queens Library, NY

Categories: Library News