Kate Pentecost’s YA novel has the wonderfully ironic title, Elysium Girls. There’s nothing paradisal about Elysium, Oklahoma, during the 1930s Dust Bowl. One moment it’s a regular town, the next, the goddesses Life and Death use it to play a decade-long game: from next to nothing, the citizens must build a city and a society which is good and responsible, setting aside one-third of all crops as a Sacrifice. If the Elysiums do this, at the end of ten years, their society will continue; if not, everyone perishes. Dust Sickness soon begins to claim lives.
Seventeen-year-old Sal Wilkerson loses her mother and doesn’t fit in, overcome by unfulfilled predictions. As the game’s conclusion draws near, the town’s self-declared witchy leader, Mother Morevna, chooses Sal as the Successor. Finally, it seems Sal’s time has come, but an outsider named Asa arrives and unintentionally upsets things. For me, Asa stole the show as much for his charming personality as for the fact that, even though a nonhuman character, he’s so very relatable. Over the course of the book, his life changes dramatically as he deals with one unknown after another.
Outside the Elysium walls, a band of kick-butt girls survives fire coyotes and other wicked things by using their ingenuity. The different realities are fascinating: inside the walls, outside, above, and blips from the real Depression-era world. In addition, there are many appealing character elements including friendship, girl power, and family. Romance isn’t limited to boy and girl, or human and human. Put it all together and you’ll see why Elysium Girls is as hard to shake as a dusty Oklahoma day.
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Author-illustrator Hanna Cha’s debut picture book, Tiny Feet Between the Mountains, tells the tale of Soe-In, the smallest child in a Korean village. But, being little doesn’t slow her down. Soe-In manages burdensome chores using wit and perseverance. When the sun disappears and the chieftain needs a volunteer, only Soe-in steps forward.
In the forest, she finds the spirit tiger is real, and in really big trouble—he’s swallowed the sun! Like the villagers, the spirit tiger first discounts Soe-In’s ability to help. However, brave, imaginative Soe-In saves the day.
Cha’s art shows the movement and mood of this powerful story. I enjoyed the images of the tiger because feline fluidity is difficult to capture. Her Author’s Note explains tigers are revered by Koreans; their country is shaped like one. The tiger as their spirit animal appears in countless Korean stories as a symbol of respect, strength, and dignity, both as a deity and a threat.
A Kirkus Reviews Best Picture Book of 2019 ★Starred Review – Kirkus An Asian/Pacific American Award for Literature Honor Book 2019
Bilal Cooks Daalby Aisha Saeed is an upbeat picture book about friendship and cooking. When Bilal’s friends wonder why it takes his Pakistani family all day to make daal, he introduces them to the process, letting them choose the color of lentils for the stew they will enjoy together at dinnertime. As the day goes by, Bilal worries a bit that his friends won’t like the taste, but the delicious dish pleases everyone, demonstrating how food brings people together.
Anoosha Syed’s art focuses on the kids enjoying their day of play, a variety of emotions clearly captured. The daal’s vivid descriptions (“small like pebbles, but shaped like pancakes”) come to life through the illustrations. Close your eyes and let the simmering daal awaken your senses.
The Author’s Note explains daal is a staple food in South Asia, but lentils are enjoyed in many other places. Saeed’s recipe for Chana Daal is similar to what I grew up with in my household, bringing back warm memories. In these months of the pandemic where many of us are cooking wholesome meals, this hearty and healthy dish will please while filling the house with amazing aromas all day long.
A Junior Library Guild Selection A Kirkus Reviews Best Book of the Year ★Starred Reviews – Booklist, Kirkus, School Library Journal
Summer Bird Blueby Akemi Dawn Bowman opens with a car crash. Seventeen-year-old Rumi Seto loses her only sister Lea, who’s also her best friend. Their mother, unable to deal, puts Rumi on a plane to Hawaii for an indefinite stay with Aunty Ani, their Japanese-Hawaiian side of the family.
Lea, two years younger, was the outgoing, happy-go-lucky sister. Rumi, the opposite personality type fits her “ruminating” name; often, she’s stuck in her head, turning things over, unable to step forward into everyday life. Though quite different, the sisters, shared a love of music, playing instruments together. They would randomly come up with three words, then write a song about it. (Summer Bird Blue, refers to the unwritten song that haunts Rumi after Lea dies.)
Rumi suffers in the angry and depressive stages of grief, vacillating between lashing out and crawling into bed for days on end. Her new surroundings include neighbors Mr. Watanabe (a grumpy octogenarian who becomes an unlikely companion) and Kai (the too-handsome, too-cheerful boy next door). As Rumi becomes closer to Kai, they go on a date, but kissing surfaces her confusion over her possible asexuality. Believing other teens have easy crushes and romance, Rumi’s self-doubt compounds after losing Lea.
The story’s lovely scenes centering around Rumi’s deep bond with music resonated with me. The moving descriptions include Rumi’s regard for Lea’s guitar, and Mr. Watanabe’s piano and ukulele. When transported into this world, Rumi’s passion ignites. However, anything musical involves Lea, and Rumi cannot process what to do without her sister, which furthers the painful introspection and turmoil.
I appreciate Bowman’s choice to spotlight a troubled, roughhewn protagonist struggling with a complexity of issues. Writing about grief, sexuality, and trying to understand life itself are ambitious undertakings, yet Bowman succeeds in weaving a truthful, heartfelt story that includes both honestly bitter moments and lyrically beautiful ones.
Find out more about Asian/Pacific American Heritage Month hereand here.
CURSED by Karol Ruth Silverstein (Charlesbridge Teen; $17.99, Ages 12 and up)
I loved Cursed, the debut YA novel by Karol Ruth Silverstein, even before I read it because the cover spoke to me, and was perfect. Now, having finished the book, I can confirm how well this cover works. Its dual-meaning title presented in a bold red printer’s-block-style lettering, the warning on the bottom, along with the emojis capture the entire essence of the story. I think you’ll agree once you’ve read Cursed, too.
When I attended the book launch and heard Karol read from the opening chapter I couldn’t wait to find a chunk of time to finally read the novel undisturbed. In so many ways this is Karol’s story, an #ownvoices novel not only in that Karol authored it, but she has also lived with the chronic illness she writes about honestly and creatively using spot on “sarcasm, and bouts of profanity” that you will sorely miss when the novel ends. To give you an idea of what to expect, Karol recently tweeted this:
“Hi, I’m Karol. My book, #Cursed from @CharlesbridgeYA is about 14 year-old Erica (aka Ricky), who’s newly diagnosed with a painful chronic illness and seriously pissed off about it. It’s funny, frank and full of f-bombs.”
With that in mind, join me in Rickyville where the journey of Erica (aka Ricky and annoyingly Ricky Raccoon to her dad) Bloom is presented in 62 brief chapters with teasing titles that will add to your reading pleasure. I know that may sound semi-snarky but it’s so Ricky-like and snarkiness is one of her secret weapons, well not so secret. Six months prior to the story’s beginning, Ricky was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis, an illness of the joints, although she doesn’t immediately share that information with readers. She simply describes the excruciating pain and major inconveniences she has to deal with on a daily basis and that’s a big part of what’s fueling her f-bombs.
The cursing is also what gets Ricky into trouble at school, when she eventually goes. Early on in the novel, written in first person-present tense, Ricky explains how she’s actually been cutting school while hiding it primarily from her father, Dr. Dad (a dentist-doctor), and mother and sister. There’s tons of stuff she can’t deal with at glorious Grant Middle School, one being that as a ninth grader she has to attend a middle school and not a high school. Another reason is that it’s a new school because she’s moved into her divorced dad’s Batch Pad—Ricky gives everything neat nick names including The-Disaster-Formerly-Known-as-my-Parents—in a different part of Philadelphia from her family home. Add to that how difficult it is getting to school and then having to navigate the building when any part of her body can hurt at any given moment with the dagger-like or burning pain usually in her knees, feet and ankles. It doesn’t help matters that when she finally does return to Grant she feels humiliated by the things typical girls her age do “when their biggest worry is looking their best all day.”
There’s a strong cinematic sense conveyed in Cursed because Karol not only hails from Philly where the story is based, but she also has a screenwriting background. It’s easy to picture every place described in the novel. From the city itself and Dr. Bloom’s Batch Pad, the school with its grueling long corridors to the nurse’s office where she spends a lot of time and becomes friends with Oliver. From the waiting room outside the principal’s office, her speech teacher, Mr. Jenkins’ classroom, to the music room where her crush Julio practices, and the doctor’s office where she gets her intravenous medication. Add these strong visuals to the already compelling, engrossing and downright funny storytelling and at once you are totally in Ricky’s head as she tries to cope emotionally and physically with her disability as she approaches age 15.
Once Ricky’s Charade (skipping school) is discovered, she’s got to work her butt off to graduate with her class or risk being held back aka Operation Catch-Up-So-I-Can-Get-The-Hell-Out-of-This-Crap-Ass-School. Helping her accomplish this is the friendship she’s cautiously allowing to blossom with Oliver, a childhood cancer survivor who has such a can-do attitude that some of it has to rub off on Ricky, right? I felt hopeful when Ricky met Oliver. At her old school after having been diagnosed with Juvenile Arthritis and telling her friends “… they all abandoned me. I can’t risk that again.” Oliver is not the abandoning type. But is Ricky?
Some of my favorite scenes in Cursed are the ones where Ricky’s vulnerabilities and strengths are exposed like when I learned how much she dislikes her current arthritis specialist, Dr. Blickstein (aka Dr. Blech-stein) because he never speaks to her and treats her like she’s invisible, choosing instead to relay info to her mom. When she finally decides to change doctors and finds one who’s caring and truly interested in her feelings, I wanted to cheer out loud. Another time, when she comes to the aid of a girl who’s part of a clique, I felt her compassion. She may try hiding that side of herself, but as a reader I knew she had a lot of it just by her observations about the people around her. And wait until her final project, the speech in Mr. Jenkins’ class. That’s all I’ll say or I may start sobbing.
Watching Ricky grow from being a teen who feels cursed, “Like you did something horrible in a past life,” and unable to be comfortable in her own skin to one who is more willing to come to terms with her illness and more open to letting people get close to her is what kept me turning the pages. I mean that’s in addition to the dynamite dialogue, witty asides and meaningful insights into living with arthritis. It was a privilege to get to know Ricky. The changes in her arrive slowly and are sometimes subtle, but they do happen making it all the more worthwhile to be on her team. Stick with Ricky and you’ll be rewarded with this read.
Reviewed by Ronna Mandel
Click here to read an interview with Karol by author Lee Wind on The Official SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators) Blog.
Click here to read more on “How Stories about Disability Help Create Empathy” at We Need Diverse Books.
THE SIMILARS Written by Rebecca Hanover (Sourcebooks Fire; $17.99, Ages 14+)
In Rebecca Hanover’s suspenseful young adult novel, The Similars, readers go inside Darkwood Academy, a forward-thinking, elite boarding school. It’s there that Headmaster Ransom gives six clones (teens called the Similars) a chance to attend alongside the student body. This is the first time the Similars will leave their amazing, isolated man-made island where they grew up strictly controlled by their guardian. The Similars are clones of current Darkwood students who had their DNA stolen and only recently met their doppelgängers. The controversial decision to allow the Similars to transfer in ignites the campus as a new school year begins. Only Emmaline “Emma” Chance, a junior, isn’t very interested; she’s still suffering from her best friend Oliver’s recent death. When the Similars are introduced, Emma’s shocked to learn Oliver has a clone named Levi.
The clones are the focus of DAAM (the Darkwood Academy Anti-Cloning Movement) headed by campus celebrity, Madison Huxley. Much to Madison and her family’s dismay, Madison’s been cloned and has to live with that fact daily at school. Though Emma continues to support clone rights, relating with Levi is difficult and confusing as she tries to figure out how he compares with Oliver. When Emma’s roommate and close friend, Pru, is attacked on campus, Emma breaks rules to get behind what’s really going on.
Set in the near-future, The Similarshas cool tech toys, such as the plum devices that kids wear on their wrists; Emma’s is named Dash and interacts with her on a human level. The fast-moving story line leaves you guessing. It also connects on an emotional level, inviting thought about clone rights, and sharing the turmoil of dealing with the death of someone close.
National Book Award Longlist ★Starred Reviews – Booklist, School Library Journal, Shelf Awareness
In Tahereh Mafi’s riveting YA novel, A Very Large Expanse of Sea, Shirin, a 16-year-old Muslim girl living in post 9/11 America, has moved from town to town her whole life. She is constantly berated with judgmental stares and back hand comments from her peers at school no matter what school she attends. When she moves to yet another school, she finally feels able to channel her frustrations through breakdancing, a club her brother, Navid, formed.
Unlike Shirin, Navid tends to become popular in whatever school they go to. Shirin believes the reason she is an outcast is because of her decision to wear a hijab. The siblings bond over their love of break dancing as a way to express themselves. Shirin was impressed that Navid created the club as they had both talked about when they were younger. For Shirin, joining the club allowed her to have a support team during her period of debating whether or not to have a relationship with a boy named Ocean James.
Usually Shirin keeps her head down and never tries to make friends, that is until she meets her lab partner, Ocean.. Shirin does not want to look at people because she knows everyone is looking at her. She believes that if she looks back at them it is an invitation for them to ask her questions which will either be dumb or offensive. On top of that, because she is always moving, she feels that it is hard to form lasting relationships anyway. In the past, she claims she would have friends but would lose contact with them over time, and it was emotionally draining for her to make and lose friends. Ocean feels drawn to Shirin and hopes to start a romantic relationship with her. He finds her different and beautiful. But she is apprehensive that she will draw attention to him, especially because she’s Muslim. “But the harder I fell for him, the more I wanted to protect him.” Will Shirin ignore Ocean’s advances in order to protect him or will she give in to his pursuit?
Mafiperfectly conveys the emotions and complicated personality of Shirin through her writing. As a Muslim Iranian-American herself, she can identify with Shirin’s struggles and authenticate the experiences within the story. This novel deals with the harsh realities of discrimination and racism towards Muslims, heightened to scary proportions following 9/11 yet still present today. The relevance, detailed descriptions of events, and Shirin’s choices certainly enticed me to continue reading. It’s no surprise this gripping story won numerous accolades and I can easily add mine to the long list.
Rachel Kaufman is a current sophomore studying communications at the University of Southern California. She’s passionate about books and hiking with her dog, Scout. Rachel enjoys how books reshape her imagination of the world around her. Rachel knows firsthand how important books are in aiding children’s futures, working with a reading program, Reach Out and Read, by reading, organizing, and donating over 200 children’s books. In her free time you can find her either reading or thinking about what she might read next.
LOVE & OTHER TRAIN WRECKS Written by Leah Konen (Katherine Tegen Books; $17.99, Ages 12 and up)
★Starred Review – Kirkus,School Library Journal
This twenty-four-hour whirlwind journey in Love & Other Train Wrecks begins with Amarantha “Ammy” West and Noah Adler seated in the same Amtrak car. Their first impressions of one another are stiff and uncomfortable. Noah, eighteen, travels, pink roses in hand, to surprise his ex-girlfriend with fancy dinner reservations and a heartfelt poem. An optimistic, good-looking guy, he attempts to engage Ammy in conversation, but she bristles against his easy-going personality.
Seventeen-year-old Ammy is escaping from the mess her life has become since her father left and her mother plunged into anger and anxiety attacks. Though Ammy’s trying to be supportive of her mother, she seems to hit it off with her new stepsister Kat. Attending her father’s commitment ceremony (before the divorce is even final) tests Ammy’s allegiance to Team Mom. Ammy surely doesn’t want to share any of her personal drama with an annoyingly friendly stranger like Noah.
When the Amtrak train stops due to mechanical error, Noah and Ammy, determined to reach their respective destinations on time, disembark into a snowstorm. GPS makes a bus station seem an easy walk, but, instead, the frozen trek filled with mishaps turns into an adventure of a lifetime.
All the while, Ammy and Noah contemplate their places in the world including what it means to make your own decisions and then face those consequences. Konen’s choice to write alternating viewpoint chapters works well to show what each character shares or conceals. The chapters are also fast-paced and consistently satisfying. As the attraction between the main characters builds, Ammy struggles to come to terms with how romantic relationships can hurt friends and family and how to handle those conflicts of interest. Falling (and staying) in love, while wonderful, isn’t necessarily easy.
WHAT LIGHT by Jay Asher (Razorbill; $18.99, Ages 14 and up)
What Lightby Jay Asher was released in October and was a perfect way to kick off the holiday season, but it’s also a book that keeps the holiday spirit going all year round. In fact, I’d say anytime is a great time to read a romance. It tells the story of teenager Sierra, whose family owns a generations-old tree farm and spends every December in California selling their trees to locals there. Her overprotective father keeps all the worker boys at bay, even though Sierra has no interest in a fleeting romance—that is, until she meets Caleb. Struck by his charming character and smile, Sierra’s feelings for him clash with her high standards for relationships as well as the rumors she hears about Caleb. He has a history that looms over him like the Ghost of Christmas Past, but Sierra tries to lighten the burden he’s carried with him for so long.
Sierra and Caleb share the instant love of Romeo & Juliet (though without the dramatic dual-sacrifice ending). In fact, the title, What Light, is a nod to Romeo & Juliet’s first meeting: “What light through yonder window breaks? It is the east, and Juliet is the sun.” However, the title becomes much more meaningful as the relationship between Sierra and Caleb unfolds.
Given that it is only 186 pages, and given Asher’s ability to instantly make me care about his characters so much that I need to know what happens next, it’s no surprise that I finished this book in one day. What was a surprise (and delight) was just how much my teenaged niece, new to Asher’s novels, loved the book as well. She had told me that she needed a book for her independent reading at school, and I immediately suggested this. She was going on a trip, and I told her it would be perfect for the plane ride. Upon her return, she messaged me immediately and said that she loved the book, could not put it down, and had never been so happy to be “forced” to read a book. She loved the bond between Sierra and Caleb and said, “It’s so cute…. I want this to happen to me.”
This story is one of family and friendship, understanding and forgiveness, love and loyalty, and, most of all, hope. My niece has been passing this book around to her friends, and I have been passing it along to those of my students who are avid young adult readers and enjoy a spark of love and hope in their lives. In a world that offers so much darkness at times, Asher’s latest novel offers us some well-needed light.
THE CRUELTY by Scott Bergstrom (Feiwel & Friends; $18.99, Ages 14 and up)
Initially, seventeen-year-old Gwendolyn Bloom’s worst things in life include being bullied by rich girls at her “diplobrats” school and aching from the tenth anniversary of her mother’s brutal death. Gwendolyn’s worldview is soon upended when her father’s kidnapping propels her to action.
With the help of friends (including a blossoming first love), Gwendolyn escapes to Paris in pursuit of her first lead. She discovers that cruelty has no borders as she travels through the underbellies of France, Germany, and the Czech Republic. Surviving in the shadows using intrigue and deception, Gwendolyn perseveres.
The Cruelty by Scott Bergstrom is a fast-paced read; with each chapter, Gwendolyn grows more deeply involved in gambling, arms smuggling, and human trafficking. She sacrifices everything in the hope of freeing her father—then finds bigger causes to fight for.
While this modern-day spy book exemplifies female strength and independence, the life of this spy is rarely glamorous. The title tells all: cruelty rules. Opting for activism means becoming tougher and craftier than her enemies. Gwendolyn learns there’s no going back from these irreversible choices.
ENTER TITLE HERE Written by Rahul Kanakia (Hyperion; $17.99, Ages 14 and up)
Just in time for back-to-school comes ENTER TITLE HERE from Hyperion. Rahul Kanakia’s debut YA novel examines the fierce competition for college admissions in a fresh, surprising, and funny package, with a bonus meta element for those of us readers who are also writing our own novels. The main character is Reshma Kapoor, a Silicon Valley high school senior who employs unhealthy and unsavory means to achieve her all-consuming end: admission to Stanford.
Reshma is convinced that her application — with its stellar grades but average-after-several-tries SAT scores — needs a hook in order to stand out in the admissions slush pile. She thinks she’s found her “in” when an essay she published in the Huffington Post earns her an email from a literary agent: “If you were to someday write a novel, I’d love to read it.” Boom, goal-oriented Reshma has a new aim: secure a contract with this agent, and write a novel to be under submission (or maybe even sold) in time for Stanford’s Early Action deadline.
And that novel is ENTER TITLE HERE. Or is it? I enjoyed the argument in my head as I read: is this really happening, or is this just for the novel? Reshma the narrator certainly encourages the confusion. She scopes out a brief synopsis in her head, epiphany and all, and then writes a “SEPTEMBER TO-DO LIST” of the experiences she needs to have to write the novel convincingly: make a friend, go on a date, attend a party, get a boyfriend, have sex. In the pages that follow, she sets about checking off each item. Oh, and this isn’t on her list, but no way is she going to loosen her grasp on her school’s valedictorian spot. She won it by hook and by crook, and keeping it is as essential to her plans (and her self-image) as writing the novel is.
You may have guessed by now that Reshma is not a very likable person. When she writes, for school assignments, newspaper articles, or her novel, she maintains two versions: an honest one and a pretty one. But when she meets people face-to-face, “…they start to hate me. That’s because when I speak, I find it hard to create a pretty version.” But even as we dislike much of what Reshma thinks, says, and does, we keep reading. Why?
For one thing, I was curious to find out which of her many enemies deserved the title. There’s her mother, who thinks Reshma should lower her sights from Stanford. There’s her “perfect” classmate Chelsea, who couldn’t possibly be as nice as she pretends to be. And then there’s Alex, Reshma’s Adderall supplier. Reshma blackmails Alex into being her friend (item number one on the TO-DO LIST) and then wonders if she can trust Alex to have her back. Meanwhile, will Reshma ever notice that George, whom her parents allow to live in the basement so he can go to a good school, consistently behaves like a real friend?
Kanakia keeps us rooting for Reshma, in spite of all her faults. We want her to figure out how to stop the train before the wreck. Her mother tries to help her, sending her to a therapist. As a writer, I found some of the funniest moments of the book occurring in Dr. Wasserman’s office. He’s not just a therapist; he’s also an unpublished novelist, and his line of questioning is familiar to any fellow striver: “…you’ve mentioned your agent…Who is she, if you don’t mind me…?” He has lots of advice for Reshma, but it’s never clear. Are the ideas for the novel, or for her life? Does Reshma imagine Dr. Wasserman’s decline into obsession with her plot line and character arcs? Or is he a horrible therapist but a pretty good editor?
I enjoyed ENTER TITLE HERE and recommend it as a work of evil genius that will be especially appreciated by students currently competing in the college admissions rat race. Their parents will like the novel too — though it may send some of them searching their kids’ backpacks for stray Adderalls.
THE LOVE THAT SPLIT THE WORLD Written by Emily Henry (Razorbill; $17.99, Ages 12 and up)
The Love That Split The World by Emily Henry is an extraordinary and intriguing tale with a mystery and love story wrapped in one.
Natalie Clearly is a teenage girl with a promising future ahead of her, but she struggles with both her present and her past. She grapples with her identity as an adopted child and as a Native American child, always looking for where she fits into the world and how she fits into her family. She also battles hallucinations and nightmares that have plagued her since childhood and have caused her own parents to believe she needs therapy.
Throughout Natalie’s childhood, an all-knowing character she has come to call “Grandmother” has continually visited her, telling her cryptic Native American tales that hold clues to the answers she’s looking for in life. While she believes Grandmother is merely a hallucination, she also trusts her implicitly and must decipher her stories and the clues embedded in them to figure out how to handle situations she faces.
Grandmother gives Natalie one of the most pivotal messages of her life: “You have three months to save him.” Natalie is not sure if that means her father, her brother, her first love Matty, or the mystery man Beau who has blinked into her life. She begins to see “the wrong things,” as details of her town and the people in it that aren’t quite the same. It’s like she’s seeing a parallel universe, consisting of a boy named Beau, whom she falls deeply in love with and then wonders if he’s the one she’s supposed to save.
The author dabbles in time travel, alternate universes, and a cryptic web of intrigue that is mystifying and intense. Also intense is the passion between Natalie and Beau, completely love struck and tuned into each other in a heated teenage romance that seems far beyond their years. But in a world in which time travel is possible, so is genuine teenage love at first sight that could last the ages.
The storyline has a Time Traveler’s Wife sort of feel as Natalie races against the clock to be with Beau and save the ones she loves. While the author gives a glimmer of closure in the end, I would have liked much more, but such is the case with any good love story. With the debut of the riveting The Love That Split The World, which you’ll want to add to your summer reading list, Emily Henry joins the growing list of my must-read YA authors.
GLASS SWORD Red Queen; Volume number 2 by Victoria Aveyard (HarperTeen; $19.99, Ages 14 and up)
Glass Swordby Victoria Aveyardis the next installment of her riveting series Red Queen. The story picks up right where we left off in the previous book. Mare and Cal are now fugitives, having fought their way out of their own executions. Maven, now king after using his mother’s power to force Cal to kill his own father, is in pursuit of Mare and Cal aided by his entire army and a society of Silvers, who have been manipulated to believe in his lies. Mare realizes that the only way to win this fight is to find others like her, those they call “new bloods.”
Aveyard brings in a little bit of an X-Men feel as the “new bloods” are slowly found. They are Reds with Silver abilities but are stronger than the Silvers themselves. They learn how to control and use their powers while preparing for war against Maven. However, Mare is constantly torn between her need to save others, her own self-doubt, and the betrayal that surrounds her. Two things are always constant in this book, lives are always at stake and you never know whom to trust. As Julian, Mare’s former teacher and Cal’s uncle, said repeatedly in Mare’s lessons, “Anyone can betray anyone,” and this mantra remains true as the story progresses.
Mare is searching for the new bloods, but Maven is too, so every venture out to find them is a risk of her life and that of her team. Maven sets trap after trap in order to catch the new bloods and, more importantly, to try and catch Mare. Throughout the novel, the relationship between Mare and Cal is ever intriguing, but it’s not clear what their future holds. This book is hardly predictable, but the one entirely foreseeable element is betrayal, right up until the end. It will be tough to wait an entire year to see what happens next, but I will be on the edge of my seat, eagerly awaiting the next book and what is sure to be an exciting conclusion.
REBEL OF THE SANDS Written by Alwyn Hamilton (Viking BYR; $18.99, Ages 12 and up)
Join the rebellion!
Rebel of the Sands is an amazing journey through a fantastical world that YA author Alwyn Hamilton has so vividly created. On the cover the main character, Amani, is described as “…more gunpowder than girl.” Well, that was just enough to get me interested, and I’m so glad that my curiosity paid off big time. This is a terrific book!
Amani is living in a town she is dying to get out of. Every day spent in Dustwalk is a day further from her dream of leaving. Amani is amazingly quick and precise with a gun though, and after meeting a handsome stranger at a shooting contest, her life quickly takes a turn towards adventure. Amani’s idea of a better life consists of reaching the town that her deceased mother’s sister lives in, but this girl of the desert has a much bigger life ahead of her. She has a role to play that only she can take on.
In the world that Hamilton has created, the dreams are big, the stakes are high and first beings called immortals are rumored to still roam the earth. There are stories that maybe even djinn are still working magic in the desert. Amani has heard some wild stories in her time, but I don’t think that any of the stories she has heard will ever quite measure up to the one that she gets to live. This adventure tale had me so hooked that I was determined to read it in one day. It’s true, I simply couldn’t put it down. Rebel of the Sands has so much to offer: romance, handsome strangers, girl power, gun powder, shooting contests, secrets, magic, fairy tales, politics. I’d call it a mix of the Wild West meets the Middle East, show downs meet genies in a wonderful, exciting re-imagining of two different worlds united by a desert life. It definitely lives up to the hype it is receiving, and a sequel is in the works! Yay! If you are a fan of Rae Carson’s books or frankly any book where a downtrodden girl finally gets to live her dreams, then this is a great book for you.
Alwyn Hamilton is an amazing author. Awesome just rode into town and I think she’s not going anywhere! What a debut book! Rebel of the Sands is such a gripping read that I think if you start reading it, someone you love will try to get you to take a break. Don’t listen. While you know you love them, it’s okay to love this book a lot, too. Make plans for sandwiches and snacks before diving into this novel because it’s truly one book you won’t be able to put down!
In Finding Forever, E! News Correspondent and SoCal resident, Ken Baker, has used his entertainment news background to enthrall readers with a riveting fictional tale of life inside the celebrity scene and its fascination with Hollywood’s Holy Grail, the elusive fountain of youth. His main character, a teen blogger named Brooklyn Brant, covers celebrity news in her blog Deadline Diaries, but in her latest quest she uncovers more than she bargained for.
When sixteen-year-old celebrity sweetheart Taylor Prince goes missing from her birthday party in L.A., tabloid blog STARSTALK splashes headlines that Taylor is in rehab for drug addiction. Taylor’s assistant, Simone, enlists the help of Brooklyn Brant to help find the missing starlet, as she insists Taylor is not on drugs and this is more of a conspiracy. However, with Simone’s shady past, it’s hard to know whom to trust. Brooklyn must use her sleuthing skills to uncover the truth before time runs out on Taylor.
While the mystery behind Taylor’s disappearance had my attention, what really drew me in was Brooklyn’s backstory, including her late father’s mysterious death and his legacy she is trying to uphold. As a police officer, Brooklyn’s father believed in getting at the truth. Ever since his death, Brooklyn has tried to follow in her father’s footsteps, finding the truth and revealing it with integrity, but as a journalist not a cop, trading the gun for a pen. Her blog Deadline Diaries began as an outlet for her to cope with his passing, but it grew into a passion and potential future. And the story of Taylor Prince’s disappearance, in all its web of secrets and lies, is perhaps the big break in her budding career that she’s been looking for.
Using a dual narrative, bouncing back and forth between Taylor’s and Brooklyn’s points of view, Baker kept me wondering what was going on and what would be revealed next. The more I read, the more I began to see that the rehab place was suspect and almost cult-like, and its head, Dr. Kensington, creepily Peter Pan obsessed. I found myself rooting simultaneously for Taylor to escape and for Brooklyn to save her. While the ending seemed a little rushed, it still provided the satisfying closure I would expect as a reader, and reinforced the fact that eternal youth is as much a façade as a Hollywood set.
If you’re a YA reader and haven’t read Grasshopper Jungle by Andrew Smith yet (in trade paperback as of February 2015, Speak; $10.99) — in spite of all the buzz, like a 2015 Michael L. Printz honor and news of an Edgar Wright movie adaptation — get to it! Maybe you don’t like science fiction. No problem; the six-foot tall man-eating praying mantises come off as campy rather than horrific. Maybe you don’t like troubled narrators who use expletives every other word. Well, if Holden Caulfield didn’t help you get over that, maybe Austin Szerba will do it for you. Austin’s horny all the time, smokes most of the time, and often breaks rules just for the heck of it. But in spite of the trouble he gets into and the bad decisions he makes, he’s likable and sincere, and his adolescent mistakes provide a thought-provoking contrast to the nightmares the full-grown adults in his world engender — in their personal lives, in politics, and in ethics-impaired science.
Austin’s story takes place in small-town Ealing, Iowa in the early twenty-first century U.S. His brother is fighting in Afghanistan, and the economy is failing. The Ealing Mall, along with the neighboring field that Austin and his best friend Robby named Grasshopper Jungle when they played there as younger kids, has turned mostly into a junkyard. When Austin and Robby sneak into a locked office in one of the few remaining stores, they discover specimens from a 1960’s era Department of Defense research project. The specimens, accidentally unleashed by Austin (or, one could argue, by the bullies who steal the specimens after Austin finds them), develop into Unstoppable Soldiers, the aforementioned monstrous bugs that do indeed look more like praying mantises than grasshoppers, in spite of their provenance in Grasshopper Jungle.
Keeping notebooks with drawings and text about everything he experiences, Austin defines himself as a historian. His voice is fresh and humorous but also full of pain and sadness for his own hurts and those of generations past. Although he frequently uses an Anglo-Saxon term for “excrement” and drops a few f-bombs, Austin enjoys speaking eruditely and notices when anyone else uses even slightly elevated language, too. “She used words like moment,” he says about his girlfriend Shann. “The way she talked made me horny.”
That’s Austin in a nutshell. Almost everything makes him horny, but the way he reports this feels natural, not uncomfortable. Austin doesn’t consciously focus on sex. It’s just there, all the time, whether it’s convenient for him to be thinking about it or not. And he’s dealing with the fact that he’s overflowing with sexual feelings not just for Shann, but also for Robby, who is gay. Austin is confused, “…wondering how it was possible to be sexually attracted and in love with my best friend, a boy, and my other best friend, a girl…. There had to be something wrong with me. I envied Shann and Robby both so much for being confident in who they were and what they felt.”
Readers who identify with Austin’s confusion — whether over sexuality or one of the many other dilemmas he deals with — will enjoy this book. Readers who love the outrageous visuals of low-budget sci-fi horror will relish the scenes with huge bugs hatching out of human beings and feasting on what’s left of them, alongside destroyed cop cars and exploding bridges; there’s also a really cool underground bunker. Readers looking for a philosophical take-away will think about science, and responsibility, and history.
Author Andrew Smith is a social studies teacher, and for me the biggest growth in Austin and the biggest takeaway from Grasshopper Jungle is a developing understanding about the purpose of recording history. Austin tells us history has “to be an abbreviation. Even those first men…who painted on cave walls in Lascaux and Altamira, only put the important details down. We killed this big hairy thing and that big hairy thing. And that was our day. You know what I mean.” The novel circles back to this idea again and again, asking the questions: which details are the important ones? And what should we do about them if we ever figure that out? These are important questions, and Smith’s book is a satisfying way to explore them.
Author Mary Amato is also a songwriter, just like the protagonist of her new YA novel, Get Happy (Egmont USA, October 28, 2014, $16.99, Ages 12+ ). This fact provides a fresh hook: readers who get curious about the songs soon-to-be seventeen year-old Minerva writes when she’s working through her feelings can go to thrumsociety.com and listen to performances of the actual songs.
A funny moment in the book rings true and reflects Amato’s musical background: Minerva wants a ukulele for her birthday. She thinks she’s made this clear to her mother, but the two are rarely on the same page. So when Mom doesn’t come through, what does the uke-less Minerva do? She spends so much time practicing on the instruments at the music store that the store manager bans her!
The friendships in Get Happy also feel very real. Finnegan is a real BFF whom Minerva can count on when she’s down. He also pushes her to do things that are good for her. Notably, he gets Minerva to audition for a job with a company called Get Happy. The job entails, well, a tail! Minerva has to dress up as a mermaid, following a script to entertain at birthday parties. The job generates some funny and poignant moments and also turns out to be a place to meet new friends. Fin and Min meet Hayes on the way to the audition, and convince him to try out, too. Hayes is tall and friendly, and a cowboy — at least when he’s dressed for work. Cassie is the perfect princess, so perfect that her clients love her. Minerva notices every moment Cassie shares with Hayes, and finds herself feeling jealous. She even stalks Cassie on-line, leaving nasty comments on her blog.
The main conflict in the book feels less completely realized, but definitely adds suspense, and a sense of commonality for readers dealing with separated or divorced parents. Minerva’s father left when she was just a baby, but now he’s trying to get back in touch. If he’s as bad as Mom says, he’s not worth knowing, but Minerva can’t help wondering about him. Who is he, really? Should she try to contact him? Will Mom find out about the package he sent Minerva on her birthday?
Reading Get Happy is a good way to discover different paths for self-discovery — art, work, friendship — and will be especially enjoyed by younger YA readers.
Learn more about Amato’s books for younger children and educational resources for her books at www.maryamato.com.