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The Fault In Our Stars

17 Apr


Hazel has terminal cancer and has to wheel around an oxygen tank. Gus lost a leg to cancer, and appears to be in remission. They meet at a cancer support group which, prior to Gus showing up, consisted of Hazel sharing eye rolls with a boy named Isaac and ticking off the frequent deaths of the group members. Gus is clever and beautiful, and Hazel is determined not to let him love her, as she doesn’t want to cause any more pain in the world than necessary.

A love story between two teenagers with cancer is not exactly a promising topic. Unless one enjoys melodrama, and the Jodi Picoult quote on the cover does little to dispel this notion, reading about cancer and dying can be, well, unappealing. However, the humor and realism John Green injects into his characters makes the book funnier and much more interesting and complicated than one would think.

Gus, Hazel, and Hazel’s parents are well-imagined, complicated, and filled with humor and truth. Hazel’s friendship with Isaac rings true, and is exactly the type of friendship that forms out of a common sense of humor about something ridiculous and tragic (in this case cancer). The only issue I had with the book was the framing device of a book written by a grumpy man from Amsterdam. Hazel loves the book, and Gus is determined to use his “wish” (referring to a make-a-wish type organization – Hazel wasted hers on Disneyland) to get her to meet the author. I found this part a bit boring, and wanted to get back to the relationship between the characters.

Overall this is a great read, and is as good as all of Green’s other books. Sometimes I wonder if I would have been ready as a teenager to see how real and accurate he is with regards to the young adult experience, or if having some distance from my youth has helped me see things more clearly. Green is one of the best YA voices out there, and adults really need to read his work.

Nora’s rating: 5 out of 5 stars
Author: John Green
Publisher: Dutton Juvenile (January 2012)

Flip

6 Jan


Alex is a somewhat nerdy and average teenager living outside of London and attending high school. He goes over to the house of a friend, and the next morning he wakes up unable to remember anything. Alex doesn’t recognize his room or body, and it suddenly becomes clear that he is no longer himself. He has turned into Flip, a semi-posh and popular teenager from another part of England.

While this book could easily be a Freaky Friday type farce, it is actually pretty well done. It ponders questions of the soul, and makes the switch pretty believable. The subplots involve girls and other people who have switched souls. The girl subplot, in which popular player Flip suddenly likes a nerdy girl, could have been better developed. However, the friendship Alex has with the head of the soul switching message board online is very interesting. Namely, it serves to point out how impossible it would be to live someone else’s life.

The book goes quickly, and contains a lot of good detail about the British school and social class system. I did wish the book would get a bit grittier in parts, as Alex always seems a bit too controlled. I also would have liked his love interest to be more believable and more developed. Still, the book is fun and interesting. It goes into a sci-fi theme that isn’t all that overdone recently, and the addition of technology (Internet, cell phones, etc…) gives it new life.

Nora’s rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Author: Martyn Bedford
Publisher: Wendy Lamb Books (April 2011)

Divergent

19 Nov


Beatrice has lived her entire life as a part of the Abnegation faction of her city (a ruined dystopia which was formerly Chicago).  Abnegation values thinking of others before the self, and everything is about forgetting selfish needs and desires.  The other four factions are Candor (the honest), Dauntless (the brave), Amity (the peaceful), and Erudite (the intelligent). Beatrice longs to escape the confines of selfless living, and she knows on her sixteenth birthday she will be able to choose another faction.  The only problem is that if she chooses to leave Abnegation she can never come back, and she will almost never see her family again. The day comes for her to choose between staying with her family and being true to herself, and her choice leads her to a competitive and grueling initiation where she must figure out who her friends are and keep the truth about herself a secret.

The Hype

Nora: So Divergent is hyped as the next Hunger Games, and for the most part I thought it lived up to the buzz.  It isn’t as powerful or resonating as Hunger Games, but it is almost as exciting.  

Em: I think this new series has great potential, but I’m not sure if it will rival The Hunger Games for me (which is ok, not all books have to be that good). The big difference between the two first installments of these two dystopian YA series is that Divergent felt more like a set up for the series than a solid book in itself, whereas The Hunger Games could stand alone without the next two books. So much of Divergent was focused on initiation and it wasn’t until the very end that we get deep into the conflict. It is a great lead up to the second book, but I guess I wish it was a great lead up to the middle of the first book instead.  

That being said, Roth did a great job of creating characters and conflict that I want to see further developed in Insurgent (the next book in the series). And I enjoyed the world-building even though I didn’t buy the premise. I still want to learn more about how this society works (or doesn’t work) and what the world outside of the city is like. I’m also hopeful that Roth won’t turn the series into a love-centered storyline – I loved The Hunger Games, but once it became all Team Gale vs. Team Peeta, I kind of gagged a little. 

Nora: I agree that the love triangle part of The Hunger Games is one of the weaker parts of the story. I do think that it will work better in the movie…sometimes I need a visual to get the story. With Divergent I actually like the romance element. I think the boys are way more interesting than Peeta and Gale.

Characters

Em: Tris (Beatrice) is a solid protagonist. She’s complex. She has flaws. She’s tough, but not without her soft-side. And I love her relationship with Four – it seems natural and not too soppy – no insta-love here. All the other side characters are pretty fascinating too – from Tris’ parents and brother to friends Christina and Will and of course Peter who could prove to be a favorite character (not in a let’s be friends kind of way). Character development is a real strong point in this series thus far, and I am excited to carry forward with those that made it through book one (yup, Roth can be brutal, and I appreciate that!).

Nora: Beatrice is a little too self-doubting for me. I would like it if she got angrier, and was more complex with her actions and emotions. I also think it is a weakness that the characters can’t really interact with their families after they divide into factions. I just didn’t feel like Roth did a good job justifying why they had to separate completely from their families.

The Sorting Hat

Nora: My favorite thing is the Harry Potter-esque way in which one can sort oneself and their friends into the different houses – sorry I mean faction.  I think I am either Amity or Erudite. I could NEVER be Dauntless – all those paths that lack railings and jumping on and off of moving trains would kill me instantly – my ankle still hurts after spraining it horseback riding six years ago, so there is no way I could make it through combat training and all the other stuff they do. And Abnegation? Well, the details make Abnegation seem like a crazy religious cult where there aren’t any mirrors and people wear gray sack-like outfits. Not for me. 

Em: We can be faction roomies! If I had to choose a faction, I’d either go Amity or Erudite (though I think factions are stupid). But I’m definitely Divergent. When I take those Myers-Briggs style tests, I’m always split down the middle on the various traits. But Myers-Briggs says I’m an ideal teacher, so I guess I should go Erudite and then secretly be true to my Divergent self.

Nora: Let’s go for Erudite. We can just be nice on the side when we feel like it, but it won’t be a constant requirement.

Final Words

Em: While the story is at times reminiscent of previous dystopian novels (The Giver and The Hunger Games in particular), the writing, character development, and overall action make Divergent stand out. This is an impressive debut from Veronica Roth with great potential for being an exciting series. I will definitely pick up Insurgent and highly suggest that you give Divergent a try, if you haven’t already. 

Nora: I agree. I think it is worth reading, and is for the most part exciting and engaging. I wish more boundaries were being pushed though.

Em’s rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Nora’s rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Author: Veronica Roth
Publisher: HarperTeen (May 2011)

Note: ARCs received from April at Good Books and Good Wine and from publisher for honest review.

One Crazy Summer

18 Aug


One Crazy Summer by Rita Williams-Garcia focuses on the mature-beyond-her-years Delphine and her two younger sisters-Vonetta and Fern. It is the late 1960’s and the Black Power movement is gaining momentum. Of course, living their day-to-day life with Big Ma (their grandmother) and their father in Brooklyn, the girls aren’t aware of the Panthers. In fact, Big Ma’s biggest concern is that the girls don’t make “grand negro spectacles” of themselves. It is only when the girls go to visit their mother out in Oakland, CA that they directly experience emotional and social change of this time period.

The biggest conflict is that their mother abandoned the three girls, and this is the first time they will see Cecile since she left to work on her poetry and to be alone. She shows no love for her children, but she did agree to let them come visit, so Delphine knows there must be something there. However, on their first day in California the girls are shipped off to free breakfast and camp at the Black Panther People’s Center. When the girls are at their mother’s house, she stays locked away in the kitchen working on her poems.

Delphine, despite the enormous responsibilities and pressures she faces is determined to get their mother to acknowledge her and her sisters. Delphine has a strong narrative voice, and she and her sisters have a humorous and complex relationship. The author brilliantly uses the historical setting to advance the relationships between the characters. She really captures what it is like to be a child being introduced to new concepts and trying to figure out her own beliefs about the world and her family. The book won a lot of awards for good reason.

One negative comment, though, the cover art makes the book look like it was written for very young children – it reads more first grade than middle grade. Will this cover attract its target audience?

Nora’s rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Author: Rita Williams-Garcia
Publisher: Amistad (2010)

Spoiled

4 Aug


Spoiled is exactly the kind of YA I look forward to reading, as it is escapist fun without being ridiculous or over the top. Being spoiled isn’t really the focus of the book – I am sure someone just thought it would sell more books with a title like that. Basically sixteen-year-old Molly Dix has always lived a normal boring life in some fly-over state. When her mother dies prematurely, it is revealed that her father is a famous movie star (Brick Berlin) and Molly is given the opportunity to move in with Brick and her half-sister Brooke. Molly is unprepared for the pressures of living in L.A. and going to private school, and she is surprised by the distant and distracted manner Brick exhibits.

Brooke isn’t surprised that her father isn’t there for her, as it has been this way her entire life – plus she was abandoned by her mother, so she is especially bitter. The last thing Brooke wants is some half-sibling taking away from her what little attention she gets from her father. Therefore, Brooke sets off to destroy Molly’s reputation and self-esteem. But Molly is stronger than Brooke realizes, and when Molly teams up with Brooke’s arch enemy, things get interesting. Of course, Molly is also developing a more-than-friends relationship with a boy, but she has a boyfriend back home, so its complicated.

If you are a fan of The Clique series (which I am totally obsessed with), there is a familiar Claire/Massie thing going on here. However, the content is a bit more mature, and Molly is way cooler than Claire. I like that Molly is both fashionable and a good person…that it doesn’t have to be the either/or thing that Alloy-type entertainment tends to push. Spoiled is a fast and fun read, and I look forward to the inevitable sequel. It is also well-written and has more emotional depth than these series tend to have. Not to discredit all the awesome shallow YA reads out there.

Nora’s rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Author: Heather Cocks and Jessica Morgan
Publisher: Poppy (June 1, 2011)

Fallen Grace

16 Jun

Fallen Grace by Mary Hooper takes place in a Dickensian 1861 London. Grace and her older sister Lily are orphans trying to survive by selling watercress, and it doesn’t help that Lily is mentally impaired. In addition, Grace just suffered through a pregnancy and the birth of a stillborn child. The midwife recommends she bury the child in the casket of a rich lady, and instructs her to go to the necropolis railway and find a suitable corpse. She meets both a kind lawyer (and brother to the dead woman whose grave Grace secretly hid her bundle in) and an unkind funeral business owner – Mrs. Unwin – at the graveyard. Both give Grace their cards, and this is where the story really takes off.

When Grace and her sister are forced out of their boarding house, Grace is forced to work as a “mute” (a pretty, grim, silent person who attends funerals) for the crooked Unwin family business. Her sister Lily is sent to work as a maid. Little do they know that the Unwins have terrible ulterior motives for employing the girls. In addition, there is more to the birth of Grace’s child than expected.

Fallen Grace is an interesting and well-researched read. The historical period works well, and the book is full of surprises and great details. For example, just the Victorian obsession with death and mourning is fascinating. The clothing rules alone – black for full mourning, purple for half-mourning etc…were complex and surely an example of successful marketing by the funeral business. It was also considered “unlucky” to keep mourning clothes, so they were to be thrown away, and new clothes were to be bought when a new death occurred.

This all sounds much more grim than it is – Grace is strong and smart, and even when faced with terrible circumstances she perseveres. The romance element of the book is good without being a central focus. Grace is an excellent character, and the author manages to tell a tragic story in a way that isn’t melodramatic or overdone.

Nora’s rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Author: Mary Hooper
Publisher: Bloomsbury (2010)

Turtle in Paradise

22 May


Turtle is an eleven-year-old girl living through the Great Depression. Her hopelessly romantic mother works as a live-in housekeeper, and when she takes a job with a mean lady that hates children, Turtle is sent to live with her relatives in Key West.

The Conchs of Key West live in poverty, but food grows everywhere, so at least they aren’t hungry. Turtle’s many cousins (all boys) quickly take her in, but they still won’t let her join in all their fun – she has to work to be a part of things.

Turtle in Paradise is intended for middle readers, but the writing is excellent and will appeal to older readers as well. There are tons of great details about the Great Depression and Key West, and the author (of Conch descent) provides an inside view into the culture.

Turtle herself is a dry and witty narrator, and the book is both realistic fiction, historical fiction, and an adventure novel. There are a couple of parts that seem far-fetched, but the author always manages to bring everything back to reality. A great read and highly recommended.

Nora’s rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Author: Jennifer L. Holm
Publisher: Random House Books for Young Readers (May 2010)

I Am J

16 May


J is half-Jewish, half-Puerto Rican, and he was born a girl. Growing up in New York City in a small apartment, J’s parents always encouraged him to do well in school, and they don’t really mind that he is a lesbian. However, J is not a lesbian – he is a boy, and he knows his parents are not going to be happy when they find out.

J decides the cure to all his problems will be testosterone shots, but he doesn’t understand why he has to legally go to a therapist to get permission to transition. Of course, in therapy (and eventually a support group and a specialized high school for GLBTQ teens), J learns much more about being trans, the GLBTQ community, and himself. His discovery that he can openly apply to college as a trans person is especially heartening.

J’s best friend is self-centered and annoying, but she does care for J, and is ultimately supportive. J himself is a complicated and not always a likable character – therefore there is finally a book about a trans person that doesn’t show the trans person as a completely selfless saint. While some of the book can feel somewhat heavy-handed and formulaic, like there is a checklist of things that a trans teen will go through and the author had to make sure she included all of them, mostly the book is a real story and well-written. J is a genuine character, and overall his story is a fast and interesting read.

Nora’s rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Author: Cris Beam
Publisher: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers (March 2011)

Revolver

9 May


Revolver by Marcus Sedgwick has been compared to a one act play, and this seems pretty accurate. A mystery and thriller, the book takes place in the Arctic Circle in both the present and the past. Sig Andersson is a young boy on the brink of becoming a man. His father has dragged Sig and his sister around the top of the world, almost starving and freezing to death on multiple occasions. When the story begins in the present, we discover that Sig’s father is dead on the ice. In the past, we learn of the hardships (including the death of Sig’s mother) and the happiness Sig and his sister experienced as children.

When (in the present) a horrible man named Wolff comes to seek what he believes is rightfully his from Sig’s father, Sig is alone with his father’s dead body. The tension and fear quickly begins to escalate, and Sig is forced to make choices based on the lessons of his now-dead parents.

The story is well-paced, and the historical setting of gold/iron-rush Alaska and other Arctic towns are nicely detailed. Sig is a believable character, and his actions are unexpected. Overall this is a great read for someone who wants something quick and page-turning. It really forces the reader to think about questions of morality, weaponry, fear, and free will.

Nora’s rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Author: Marcus Sedgwick
Publisher: Roaring Brook Press (April 2010)

The Time-Traveling Fashionista

19 Apr


The Time-Traveling Fashionista is a sweet tale of Louise, a vintage-clothes-loving twelve-year-old. Louise feels like no one understands her obsession until she receives an invitation to an exclusive vintage sale. At the sale she finds the perfect pink dress, and has to try it on. Once Louise puts on the dress, she is magically transported back in time onto a gilded age cruise. Louise deals with romance, the role of women, and issues of class in an innocent, but spunky manner. Mostly she has to learn how to be Alice, a famous and aloof actress, and the owner of the pink dress. However, once Louise realizes exactly which boat she is on, the adventure and suspense begins.

Overall this book is not your typical rich-girl clothing/shopping fantasy. So yes, it actually has some values attached, and it makes a good case that being into vintage fashion is about creativity and having an artistic eye, not lots of money. This book is really more of a middle-school/early high-school level book, so it may be a bit too innocent and straight-forward for adult readers of young adult. However, if you are looking for a fun fairy-tale with pretty illustrations and some fashion history thrown in, this would be a good choice.

Nora’s Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
Author: Bianca Turetsky
Publisher: Poppy (April 2011)
Received from publisher for honest review