Sunday, June 8, 2014

A Blind Spot for Boys by Justina Chen

Sixteen-year-old Shana Wilde is left to pick up the pieces after Dom, a handsome college boy, shatters her heart. Instead of mourning her loss and moving on, she decides to "do unto others as has been done unto her." She becomes a jaded serial dater, showing no mercy with a trail of broken hearts left in her wake. She's perfected the game until a chance encounter brings her face-to-face with Quattro, an enigmatic lacrosse player whose attraction is unsettling. Just as she begins to rethink her boy moratorium, her family is dealt a blow: Shana's father is going blind.

With the loss of her father's vision, Shana's family finally decides to go on their dream vacation since it will be their last chance. The first leg of the trip includes hiking Machu Picchu where Shana runs into none other that Quattro. Unfortunately, as Shana begins to lower her walls, Quattro seems to reinforce his by pushing her away. As the trek up the mountain intensifies, and mudslides threaten to take lives, Shana learns that loss is inevitable; however, little stolen moments are worth the pain.

One reviewer criticized this novel as being cliche and lacking depth of plot. Maybe. At the same time, Shana symbolizes the emotions and fears that many adolescent young women feel after a particularly traumatic breakup. Any time someone makes herself vulnerable to another, it's extremely scary that rejection might be looming. As a result, this novel is a rite of passage for Shana, but it's also a rite of passage for many of the other characters: 

Quattro: He must come to terms with his mother's death.
Shana's Dad: He must come to terms with going blind in 90 days.
Grace: She must grieve the loss of her husband and learn to live again.
Helen: She must reevaluate the love of a man who saves himself and leaves her to die.

This novel incorporates sarcasm and humor to address the age-old conflict of love and trust. Although Shana and Quattro are the focus, secondary characters show the multifaceted nature of love as well as obstacles that make us second-guess ourselves. 

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

The Diviners by Libba Bray

It's 1926, and seventeen-year-old Evie O'Neill has been sent to stay with her stuffy, old Uncle Will in New York City after a parlor trick goes awry. Determined to make a name for herself, she maneuvers her way into the nightlife wrought with speakeasies, chorus girls, and underground parties. She quickly learns that New York City is the perfect place for a small-town girl like her to reinvent herself. The only problem is that New York City is also the perfect place for evil to prey on innocent victims. Pretty soon, as bodies start piling up, Evie's "parlor trick" becomes the only thing that can stop a serial killer.

Bray's masterful portrayal of Prohibition Era Manhattan pulls the reader into a world of flappers, speakeasies, and propaganda. The novel is full of murder and suspense that plays off of the supernatural and occult. As multiple subplots collide, readers gets introduced to unique urban legends and historical information.

Bray effectively uses New York City and the Harlem Renaissance as backdrops that address larger social issues facing America during the 1920's: racism, religious fervor, decadence of youth, police corruption, aftermath of WWI, and feminism. Through characters such as Theta Knight, Mabel Rose, Sam Lloyd, Memphis Campbell, Henry DuBois, and Jericho, social issues come to life and humanize struggles people faced. Unfortunately, with so many characters and so many subplots, it takes a long time to set up each context. There were times that remembering information about each character and plot was challenging. So much build-up (and flipping back-and-forth between stories) runs the risk of readers losing interest. Sometimes less is more.  

Revolution by Jennifer Donnally

Andi Alpers knows tragedy. After the sudden death of her ten-year-old brother, she’s watched her family systematically fall apart. Her mother coped by slipping into a deep, vegetative depression; her father coped by falling in love with his twenty-five-year-old colleague; and Andi coped by drug abuse, suicidal thoughts, and music. When she faces possible expulsion from a prestigious school, her father decides to reenter her life. As a last-ditch effort to save his family, he checks Andi’s mother into a mental hospital and takes Andi with him on a business trip to Paris, where he’s supposed to conduct DNA tests on a child’s heart to see if it belongs to Louis-Charles, the missing son of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette.

While in Paris, Andi finds a journal written by Alexandrine Paradis, a girl her age who lived during the French Revolution. As Andi reads Alexandrine’s journal, truths about the revolution unfold and reveal the cruelty performed on the young prince. Drawing parallels between Louis-Charles and her little brother, Andi slowly finds a new way to cope with her brother’s death. She starts to make friends, fall in love, and care about living again. While exploring the catacombs one night, Andi finds herself transported to 1795, and she has one, last chance to save the prince…and herself.

This book needs a prologue. The entire time I read this novel I felt as though pertinent information was missing. I never developed a connection with Andi, her brother, or their story. A connection between reader and characters would be much stronger if the reader had a glimpse of the family before the tragedy to create perspective.

Andi was supposed to be a musical prodigy writing her senior thesis on the composer Malherbeau. Although research was necessary to add to the depth of this novel, it was steeped in unnecessary information that broke the flow of the plot and dulled the interest of the reader. All of the musical references and descriptions grew monotonous and made me want to set the book down and not pick it up again.

Another frustration with the book was the romance between Virgil and Andi. This entire relationship was forced and artificial, and it needed to be omitted. I understand that Virgil was supposed to mirror Virgil from Dante’s Inferno as he led Andi through the catacombs of self-discovery, but it failed. I despised this plotline.   

Overall, I gave this novel three stars because I loved learning about the French Revolution. I wish the author had eliminated Andi’s plotline and focused entirely on Alexandrine, Louis-Charles, and the events of the French Revolution. 

Sunday, November 11, 2012

The Whole Stupid Way We Are by N. Griffin

Dinah and Skint are best friends. Dinah is flighty while Skint is moody. Dinah worries about the beauty of things while Skint worries about Monks being tortured in Burma and people starving to death. While Dinah is worried about matching her stripy skirts and leggings, Skint refuses to wear a coat in the Maine winter as a form of self-punishment for having luxuries while others suffer. Dinah has two loving parents who adore her while Skint’s father suffers from dementia, and it’s ripping his family apart. All Dinah wants to do is help Skint. All Skint wants is for Dinah to mind her own business.

The basic premise of this novel is unique. I like the idea that it’s not enough to care about injustices; we need to DO something about them. If we aren’t part of the solution, we are inadvertently a part of the problem. I don’t think enough YA communicates this important message.

The plot is slow-moving and boring. Part of this is due to the disjointed sub-plots that are never developed as well as the shallowness of the characters (all of them). The voice of each character is unique; however, it isn't believable. For instance, there are times that Dinah speaks like a woman from the Victorian era instead of a fifteen-year-old from 2012. To offset this, Skint curses a lot, which seems a bit overused. I know that the author uses this technique to convey emotion, but most of the scenes are flat, so it isn't very authentic.

The scenes are repetitive, poorly developed, and monotonous. Nothing interesting happens until 80 pages before the end of the book (the novel is 349 pages). By then, the reader has lost interest. In fact, I had to force myself to finish it. As a result, I would not suggest this novel to any of my students.

Monday, July 30, 2012

The Raven Boys by Maggie Stiefvater

Gansey, Ronan, Adam, and Noah are Raven Boys, boys who attend the exclusive Aglionby Prep School, on a quest. Blue Sargent is the daughter of a psychic who’s made it a policy to stay away from pretentious Aglionby boys…that it, until she foresees Gansey’s tragic death. What’s worse is that she knows she’s the cause.

When fate ensures that their paths cross, Blue decides to help these Raven Boys pursue the Legend of Glendower, the legend that promises a single wish to whoever wakes the king from his centuries of slumber. The closer that they get to finding the king, the more they realize that the legend is real and they aren’t the only ones looking. A sacrifice has to be made to wake up the ley lines to continue the quest, and certain people have no qualms about spilling innocent blood.

No novel should ever take 300 pages to get interesting. Ever. This novel moved so slowly that I had to make myself continue reading with the hope that the climax would be worth it. It wasn’t.  Granted, there were a few creepy parts (i.e., murder and paranormal activity), but not enough to sustain the droning plot.

Another aspect of this novel that was left wanting was the legend. To me, the legend is the life of this story, and it needed to be developed more so that it was more interesting. So, people find a sleeping Welsh, wake him up, and get a wish. Um, so what? Where’s the detailed folklore? Was this king evil or good? Are there warnings and consequences once a wish is granted? What happens once he wakes up? Does he go back to sleep again after a certain time or does he become immortal? These are things that needed to be developed in book 1 because it is the foundation of the series. The details were so sparse and superficial that I didn’t buy into it.

There was very little suspense throughout this novel despite the potential for some seriously scary scenes. Part of this was because many of the scenes were repetitive and underdeveloped. As a result, the characters were shallow and boring. Any attempt at suspense fell flat because instead of letting the reader connect the dots on her own, the author felt as though she had to spell everything out for her (this involves spoilers, so I won’t give specifics here). Then, there were other times that the author drew the reader’s attention to a subtle nuance, only to leave it hanging (Ashley’s interest in Glendower, Neeve’s witchcraft, Ronan’s secret).

All-in-all, I was bored with this book, and I won’t read the others in the series. I really loved the premise; I just wish that the execution had been more effective. 

ARC courtesy of ALA 2012
Publication: September 2012

When You Wish Upon A Rat by Maureen McCarthy

3.5 Checks

Ruth Craze is an eleven-year-old girl living in Australia with her eccentric family. Life seemed more bearable with her Aunt Mary Ellen to even things out, but since her death, Ruth feels frustrated and disgusted with her life. One of the last gifts that Mary Ellen gave Ruth was a magical rat and the warning not to “let him rule you.” Now that Mary Ellen is gone, Ruth has nothing to lose. She gets three wishes and she plans to make the most of them.

Although this novel is considered middle grade (6th-8th), it’s really geared for eight to twelve year old children/tweens. In fact, any audience older than twelve might find the plot babyish and boring. However, I read this novel with my nine-year-old daughter and she really enjoyed it. As a result, my review is based upon her reaction, not mine. After all, the novel was written for her demographic, not a 33 year-old professor.

McCarthy does a good job of addressing some very real issues that exist for tweens: sibling rivalry, cliques, parental favoritism, physical abuse, and friendship. By giving Ruth the opportunity to create “the perfect life,” she learns the importance of family, loyalty, and kindness. Because the novel is set in Australia, young readers will struggle with most of the slang and references. In addition, even though the novel is told from Ruth’s perspective, her voice isn’t very authentic; it reads like an adult trying to sound like a child.

Advanced young readers might find this book enjoyable if they have an adult present who can explain vocabulary and historical information to them (i.e. how children were forced to be right-handed when they were left). Otherwise, many will probably give up on this 281 page story, which drags in a several places. 

ARC courtesy of VOYA
Publication: September 2012

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

PASSENGER by Andrew Smith

Jack, Connor, Griffin, and Ben break the Marbury lens, catapulting each of them into various versions of Marbury with various levels of chaos. The only problem? They can’t get out. Not only that, but Jack didn’t “mind the gap” and he’s somehow changed the course of their futures. Now, the boys have to find each other to figure out a way home, and to correct their tampering of the gap, before the hunters find them.

Smith recreates the high intensity, action-packed world of Marbury, but instead of giving the reader glimpses, he allows us to visit it for 400+ pages. PASSENGER fills in all of the gaps left from THE MARBURY LENS. As a result, readers really need to read book one before diving onto book two; otherwise, they will be lost. As a result, THE MARBURY LENS is more of an appetizer to prepare the reader for his journey into Marbury while PASSENGER is the main course. (In fact, I felt as though I was the passenger on Jack’s journey to make it home.)

This novel is so well written that the reader finds himself emotionally invested in the lives of the main characters. Through each suspenseful and thrilling scene, the reader tenses to find out if all of the boys will make it home. Unfortunately, among all of this greatness, I do have one pet peeve to express; then I’ll go back to how amazing it is.

I get very frustrated when novels incorporate romantic elements when they don’t need them. For instance, THE MARBURY LENS (Book 1) needed Nickie to move the plot along, so having that storyline made sense; however, the focus of PASSENGER had shifted so that Nickie wasn’t needed in PASSENGER (book 2). As a result, when she was referenced, it broke up the intensity and flow of the plot to the point that I was literally yelling at the book, “Oh, come on! Forget her. I want more hunters, harvesters, and worms!”


Having expressed my views of unnecessary romantic elements within strong plotlines, I can’t say that I didn’t see the love interest between Connor and Jack happening. In fact, it was alluded to so heavily throughout both books that I wondered if their friendship ran much deeper than “bromance.” However, I feel as though it was still unnecessary. For me, the focus of the novel was the survival of four boys in a savage world where they didn’t belong. They showed undying commitment, sacrifice, and bravery to make sure everyone made it out okay. For me, the book should have ended once all of the boys made it home because that was the focus of the book. When the romance between Jack and Connor took place, the entire focus of the novel shifted and it detracted from the focus of the main point. Some may argue that the author needed to include this information to tie up loose ends, but, “Hello?!” The entire novel is full of loose ends. There are still questions that I have that will probably never be answered.


I loved the action and intensity of THE MARBURY LENS and PASSENGER.  I devoured these books, and I’m not a sci-fi fan. I fell in love with these books. I fell in love with the characters. I didn’t want the books to end. In fact, Mr. Smith, will you PLEASE write a third? I would like to have it from Henry Hewitt’s perspective.

Concerns: From an educator’s perspective, these books contain a lot of language, violence, and sexual references. As a result, be aware of these issues and possible concerns that parents may have, but don’t withhold them from your libraries. Some students will be mature enough to handle the content, and some may not. Basically, you need to read the novels yourself to decide how you will incorporate them into your classroom. 

ARC courtesy of ALA 2012
Publication Date: October 2012