Friday, October 31, 2014

My True Love Gave to Me: Twelve Holiday Stories edited by Stephanie Perkins

My True Love Gave to Me:  Twelve Holiday Stories edited by Stephanie Perkins 
(St. Martin's Griffin, 2014)

Summary from publisher:
If you love holiday stories, holiday specials, holiday episodes of your favorite sitcoms, and, especially, if you love holiday anthologies, you're going to fall in love with My True Love Gave to Me: Twelve Holiday Stories by twelve bestselling young adult writers, edited by the international bestselling Stephanie Perkins.  Whether you enjoy celebrating Christmas or Hanukkah, Winter Solstice or New Year's, there's something here for everyone.  So curl up by the fireplace and get cozy.  You have twelve reasons this season to stay indoors and fall in love.

Short story anthologies are usually not my favorite books.  I rarely find an anthology where I enjoy almost every story enough to recommend the book as a whole.  Imagine my surprise when I found myself finding reasons to keep reading this one.  Perkins did a great job of putting together an eclectic mix of some of today's hottest YA authors.  While most of the stories are realistic fiction, there are some fantasy ones in there too.  The stories are well-written and have just enough romance to last through a holiday vacation.

Readers who enjoy contemporary YA literature are sure to enjoy this one.  It's a real treat.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

A Mad, Wicked Folly by Sharon Biggs Waller

A Mad, Wicked Folly by Sharon Biggs Waller (Viking, 2014)

Summary from publisher:
Welcome to the world of the fabulously wealthy in London, 1909, where dresses and houses are overwhelmingly opulent, social class means everything, and women are taught to be nothing more than wives and mothers.  Into this world comes seventeen-year-old Victoria Darling, who wants only to be an artist -- a nearly impossible dream for a girl.
After Vicky poses nude for her illicit art class, she is expelled from her French finishing school.  Shamed and scandalized, her parents try to marry her off to the wealthy Edmund Carrick-Humphrey.  But Vicky has other things on her mind:  her clandestine application to the Royal College of Art; her participation in the suffragette movement; and her growing attraction to a working-class boy who may be her muse -- or may be the love of her life.  As the world of debutante balls, corsets, and high-society obligations closes in around her, Vicky is torn.  Just how much is she willing to sacrifice to pursue her dream?

I've made no secret of my love for historical fiction, and the Victorian/Edwardian eras are two of my favorites.  Add to that a strong female character who is bucking the rules of her time, and I'm sold.

Here's the thing... for some reason many teens DETEST historical fiction.  I can see their point to a degree; if you don't know much about a historical era, it can be hard to figure out what's going on in the story for what reason and it can be hard to connect to a character whose life is so very foreign.  This is where A Mad, Wicked Folly is different.  Even though it is set in a time where there are few cars, no personal electronic devices, and no electricity, the characters, with their hopes and desires, are completely relatable.  Because really, human nature doesn't change much, no matter the historical era.  Vicky wants to feel relevant, like she's made her mark on the world.  However, in order to do this, she had to go against everything her parents believed in: status, society, and wealth.  It's not until Vicky realizes she has to be true to herself in order to be truly happy that she is willing to take the risk.

Hand this book not only to girls who love historical fiction with a sassy main character, but convince a tried-and-true realistic fiction lover to give it a go.  I think she'll be surprised by how much she likes it.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Prisoner of Night and Fog by Anne Blankman

Prisoner of Night and Fog by Anne Blankman (Balzer + Bray, 2014)

Summary from publisher:
In 1930s Munich, danger lurks behind dark corners, and secrets are buried deep within the city.  But Gretchen Müller, who grew up in the National Socialist Party under the wing of her uncle Dolf, has been shielded from that side of society ever since her father traded his life for Dolf's, and Gretchen is his favorite, his pet.
Uncle Dolf is none other than Adolf Hitler.  And Gretchen follows his every command.
Until she meets a fearless and handsome young Jewish reporter named Daniel Cohen.  Gretchen should despise Daniel, yet she can't stop herself from listening to his story:  that her father, the adored Nazi martyr, was actually murdered by an unknown comrade. She also can't help the fierce attraction brewing between them, despite everything she's been taught to believe about Jews.
As Gretchen investigates the very people she's always considered friends, she must decide where her loyalties lie.  Will she choose the safety of her former life as a Nazi darling or will she dare to dig up the truth --even if it could get her and Daniel killed?

This novel approaches the time leading up to Hitler's full command of power in Germany from a very different perspective, one that I've not seen in a YA book before.  While it was uncomfortable to have a main character who is so fully immersed in the beliefs of the NAZI party, I could see how - for this girl at least - it was easy to fall victim to Hitler's charisma.  Fairly early in the story, though, Gretchen starts to see cracks in her well-ordered life.  She quickly learns that she has more to fear in her own home than she ever knew.  The tension in the plot grows quite intense, especially in the last third in the book, after Gretchen realizes how wrong she was about everything she believed.

Hand this one to readers who enjoy historical fiction or those who tend to read mostly realistic fiction but would be open to a change.  This one is not so heavily historical that it reads like a textbook.  The romance between Daniel and Gretchen is just enough to move the story along, but it's not the main focus.  The pre-WWII political intrigue would be a draw for both boys and girls who enjoy reading about that time period.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Guy In Real Life by Steve Brezenoff

Guy In Real Life by Steve Brezenoff 
(Balzer & Bray, 2014)

Summary from publisher:
It is Labor Day weekend in Saint Paul, Minnesota, and boy and girl collide on a dark street at two thirty in the morning.  Lesh, who wears black, listens to metal, and plays MMOs; Svetlana, who embroiders her skirts, listens to Björk and Berloiz, and dungeon masters her own RPG.  They should pick themselves up, continue on their way, and never talk to each other again.
But they don't.
This is a story of two people who do not belong in each other's lives, who find each other at a time when they desperately need someone who doesn't belong in their lives.  A story of those moments when we act like people we aren't in order to figure out who we are.  A story of the roles we all play --at school, at home, with our friends, and without our friends -- and the one person who might be able to show us who we are underneath it all.

Guy In Real Life is a romance of sorts, told in not one, not two, but three perspectives (kind of).  From the beginning the reader gets Lesh's side, Svetlana's side, but also Svvetlana's - the character Lesh invents in his MMORPG game online.  For someone who doesn't particularly enjoy role-playing games such as Dungeons & Dragons or Magic: The Gathering, I wondered if I would have the patience to stick with the gaming parts of this story.  In reality, it gave me a window into the world inhabited at times by my brother and others I know who play these types of games.  Where I use books to take myself out of reality from time to time, players of these games use the quest and adventure of the games.  Two different kinds of getting lost in stories.

Brezenoff does a great job of writing about a teenage boy who is just trying to figure himself out.  Most of the romance elements in the book are told from Lesh's perspective, and I thought that Brezenoff did a great job of not making Lesh too stereotypical, which would have been easy to do.  He also, though, did not make Lesh completely cheesy, which sometimes happens when trying to avoid the teen-boy stereotype.

Hand Guy In Real Life to your middle and high-school readers who enjoy realistic fiction.  It's a story that seems sweet on the surface, but underneath gives readers lots to think about.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Love Letters to the Dead by Ava Dellaira

Love Letters to the Dead by Ava Dellaira 
(Farrar, Strauss, Giroux Books for Young Readers, 2014)

Summary from publisher:
It begins as an assignment for English class:  write a letter to a dead person.
Laurel chooses Kurt Cobain because her sister, May, loved him.  And he died young, just like May.  Soon, Laurel has a notebook full of letters to the dead --to people like Janis Joplin, Heath Ledger, Amelia Earhart, and Amy Winehouse -- though she never gives a single one of them to her teacher.  She writes about starting high school, navigating the choppy waters of new friendships, learning to live with her splintering family, falling in love for the first time, and, most important, trying to grieve for May.  But how do you mourn for someone you haven't forgiven?
It's not until Laurel has written the truth about what happened to herself that she can finally accept what happened to May.  And only when Laurel has begun to see her sister as the person she was -- lovely and amazing and deeply flawed -- can she truly start to discover her own path.

This book has been on my radar since earlier this summer when I saw it appearing on friends' Goodreads timelines and, most importantly, my daughter read it and promptly filled her iTunes playlist with Kurt Cobain, Amy Winehouse, and Guns N Roses.  I wasn't sure what could account for her sudden change in musical taste until she started talking about how much she loved this book.

She was right... it's a great book.  At times hard to read, Dellaira weaves a tale that is at once heartbreaking and mysterious.  From the very first page, I knew that Laurel was broken inside, but I didn't know exactly why.  Of course, she was mourning the death of her sister, but I knew there was more to it.  Dellaira leaves little clues.... breadcrumbs.... for the reader to notice and follow until there is that gasp moment where everything comes together.

I know that I read this book differently than my 13-year-old daughter did.  I kept wondering if as a mom I would have noticed the signs that May was troubled and that something was going on with Laurel as well.  I hope I would have.  I'm not sure.  Molly loved this book because it gave her a look into a teenager's life that is very different from her own. She liked how the story was unpredictable but also realistic.

Hand this book to older readers who like realistic fiction with a bit of mystery and romance.  Read it yourself.  It's one of those books that appeals to both teens and adults.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Threatened by Eliot Schrefer

Threatened by Eliot Schrefer (Scholastic, 2014)

Summary from publisher:
When he was a boy, Luc's mother would warn him about the "mock men" living in the trees by their home -- chimpanzees whose cries filled the night.
Luc is older now, his mother is gone.  He lives in a house of mistreated orphans, barely getting by. Then a man calling himself Prof comes to town with a mysterious missing.  When Luc tries to rob him, the man isn't angry.  Instead, he offers Luc a job.
Together, Luc and Prof head into the rough, dangerous jungle in order to study the elusive chimpanzees.  There, Luc finally finds a new family -- and must act when that family comes under attack.

In this companion to Endangered, Eliot Schrefer introduces his readers to a group of chimpanzees in the wilds of Gabon.  I was kind of afraid to read this one, knowing how much I loved Endangered; what if this one wasn't as good?   I shouldn't have worried.  This is a different story, in many ways less harrowing than the first, but just as good.  I find, having read both these books, that I want to learn more about chimpanzees as well as learn more about how Schrefer conducted the research for this book.

This, is not just a story meant to raise awareness of the problems of chimpanzees in the wild.  It is also the story of Luc, a boy whose mother died of AIDS and who is left orphaned and beholden to a moneylender due to his mother's debts.  Forced to live in squalid conditions by an abusive master, Luc is desperate to get away, and when offered the opportunity, jumps at it.  He knows, though, that in some ways this new life is too good to be true, and he is always on the lookout for those who would wish to return him to virtual slavery.  I can't help but think that Luc's story, while fictional, is not that far from the real-life stories of so many children orphaned throughout Africa by disease, famine, and civil war.

Schrefer takes a difficult topic and makes it approachable for young readers.  Hand this book to a middle or high school reader who enjoys realistic fiction with a bit of adventure mixed in.  Use this in conjunction with a study of endangered or threatened animals or as the starting place for a research project that might result in student activism.  The possibilities here are endless.

Monday, October 13, 2014

100 Sideways Miles by Andrew Smith

100 Sideways Miles by Andrew Smith 
(Simon & Schuster, 2014)

Summary from Goodreads:
Finn Easton sees the world through miles instead of minutes. It’s how he makes sense of the world, and how he tries to convince himself that he’s a real boy and not just a character in his father’s bestselling cult-classic book. Finn has two things going for him: his best friend, the possibly-insane-but-definitely-excellent Cade Hernandez, and Julia Bishop, the first girl he’s ever loved.

Then Julia moves away, and Finn is heartbroken. Feeling restless and trapped in the book, Finn embarks on a road trip with Cade to visit their college of choice in Oklahoma. When an unexpected accident happens and the boys become unlikely heroes, they take an eye-opening detour away from everything they thought they had planned—and learn how to write their own destiny.

I honestly wasn't sure what to think about this book when I first started reading it.  My 13-year-old daughter absolutely loved it - she loves every book she's read by Andrew Smith.  That doesn't necessarily mean, however, I that I will.  She often reminds me that I am not the target audience for YA fiction.  She's right.

I should not have doubted her, however.  Though not as strong as Winger, 100 Sideways Miles lets the reader inside the head of a teenage boy at a turning point in his life.  In this case Finn is finishing his junior year of high school and figuring out what's ahead.  He feels trapped in his life, both by his epilepsy and by the fact that his father wrote a wildly popular book and used his name for the main character.  When Finn meets Julia, a new girl at the school, he begins to see the world in a different way.

In some ways, Finn and his best friend Cade are stereotypical high school boys.  They both have one thing at the forefront of their minds, and yes, you can probably guess what it is.  I've never been a high school boy, but I'm guessing Smith didn't exaggerate with this particular character trait.  It would be easy to not go any deeper than that, however.  Finn and Cade both have deeper motivations, and as the reader gets farther into the book, those motivations become clear.

This is definitely a book for older readers.  It has language and sexual situations that would have kept it out of my seventh grade classroom library.  Hand this one to kids who enjoy realistic fiction.  It's a satisfying read that is sure to not only engage teen readers, but will also spur some conversations.