Archive | January, 2013

The Revolution of Evelyn Serrano

28 Jan

First of all, Sonia Manzano wrote this book. Doesn’t ring a bell? Perhaps you know her as Maria…from Sesame Street. That’s right.

Evelyn “Don’t Call Me Rosa” Serrano is a 15 year old in growing up in Spanish Harlem, NYC at a tenuous time in our nation’s history. But, Evelyn can’t see past the importance of her own life. She is disconnected from her Puerto Rican heritage and embarrassed by her traditional parents, especially “my mother, the slave.” When her mother’s Mother, Evelyn’s Abuela, shows up on their doorstep Evelyn is certain her life will only get worse. Covered in bright make-up, with wild hair and dressed like someone half her age, Abuela is a sight but what’s worse is how she talks – “This whole scene sounded like something on one of the telenovela soap operas on Telemundo.”

At the same time that Evelyn’s familial life is in turmoil, something is brewing in her neighborhood, El Barrio. The Young Lords, a Puerto Rican activist group, have taken space in the church across the street and are challenging the community members to join them as agents of cultural change. With her Abuela on the front lines while her own mother hides at home, Evelyn begins to explore a world much bigger than her own and is inspired by what she discovers.

Situating a coming of age story in a time when the entire country was amidst multiple revolutions leave countless opportunities for discussion and subversion. Manzano taps into that age appropriate couth she honed for years on Sesame Street to produce a novel that is honest enough about the reality of social change but pertinent enough to the experience of the reader, especially those Evelyn’s age. Manzano’s choices also make a strong case for the value of female relationships and the importance of women in leadership. Through her developing relationship with Abuela and a desire sparked by the energy of the Young Lords, Evelyn begins to understand the importance of history and her place in it. As she becomes more aware of herself and the past that has shaped her, her apathy evolves into compassion for her mother and a sense of connection to her community.

There are many ways to categorize what the Young Lords stood for but an essential piece to take away is the power yielded by a group of young people who were motivated to create positive change in support of a marginalized group. Manzano uses their legacy as a metaphor for the revolution that occurs within Evelyn – the discovery of one’s personal identity and how that identity will participate in the world.

Alicia’s rating: 5 out of 5 stars
Author: Sonia Manzano
Publisher: Scholastic (September 2012)
Note: ARC received from publisher for honest review

Congratulations to Sonia Manzano on her 2013 Belpré Honor Award for Text!


24 Jan

Alyssa Gardner is a descendent of Alice Liddell, the young woman who inspired Lewis Carroll to write about a girl following a white rabbit down a hole into Wonderland. Unfortunately, names that start with A aren’t the only things that run in the family. The women in her family have suffered from mental illness for generations, and she is worried that she may be next. When she starts hearing bugs and flower talking, she knows she has to keep it to herself, or else risk ending up in a mental institution like her mother. She doesn’t even tell her best friend or her secret crush, Jeb. But one day on a visit to the institution, she realizes that her mother is hearing the same things she is, and of course if it was only in her head, then how would her mother hear it too? As it turns out, the family has been cursed since the original Alice went down that rabbit hole and messed everything up. After an episode at the mental institution her father decides that they need to move forward with a procedure that Alyssa worries will leave her mother with irreparable brain damage. With the clock ticking, Alyssa must figure out how to get to Wonderland, so that she can right the original Alice’s wrongs, thus breaking the family curse and saving her mother. When she finally figures out how to get there, with a quick thought, she inadvertently summons Jeb to join her on her journey. There the two of them find that the Wonderland in Carroll’s story was not quite a perfect match to the real Wonderland. The real Wonderland is twisted and strange like the original, but is also far darker and mysterious.

When I talked about this book on my radio show, my t(w)een co-hosts gushed about how much they loved Alice in Wonderland (the movies and the books) and how they were dying to read this. Wonderland is fun and inviting in it’s nonsense and chaos. While there have been many adaptations of the Carroll story, some more successful than others, I do salute the author for her bravery in taking one of the most famous fantasy worlds and playing around with it. A. G. Howard does so with respect and creativity, and a penchant for goth. And she isn’t lazy about the world-building. While there are some familiar scenes from the original Wonderland, because the original story doesn’t quite match up with Alyssa’s experience of Wonderland, there’s quite a bit of description of the landscape, characters, and costumes. While the detailed descriptions generally served the story well, at other times they made the action drag a bit, especially towards the end where the story seemed like it might never wrap up.

Alyssa is an interesting character, especially in contract to Lewis Carroll’s Alice. First, the reason for their journeys differ significantly. The original Alice heads to Wonderland purely as a result of her boredom and curiosity, whereas Alyssa is on a mission to save her mother. This adds an urgency to Alyssa’s time in Wonderland. She’s aware that she has things to get done, right some wrongs, and figure out how to get home in order to prevent her mother from undergoing electroconvulsive therapy. Then there is the fact that the original Alice had no way of expecting the nonsense world of Wonderland, whereas Alyssa would have been much more prepared for the madness. And then of course there is the age and class difference. With the original Alice, she’s a child who flaunts her class privilege throughout her journey. With Alyssa, she’s a teen, who is not as well off as her ancestor, due in large part to her mother’s illness, and is much more withdrawn, at least in the beginning. During her journey in wonderland, she gains self-confidence and learns to stick up for herself.

Now there is a love triangle here, and I have mixed feelings about it. In a way it works. There’s the friend from back home who she has feelings for, but who has a girlfriend (who she hates), and she’s not sure how he feels about her, and then there’s the mysterious, fantastical man, who she’s known on some level (i.e. through her dreams) since she was a child. It works in a way, because it’s clear that she’s always committed to Jeb, not only because she cares about him, but also because he’s on this journey with her. Morpheus seems like more of a fantasy attraction for Alyssa. She’s drawn to him and attracted to him on some level, but it didn’t seem that she ever seriously considered him a contender for her heart on more than a friend level. That being said, there was a bit too much attention focused on these relationships for my liking. The romantic and/or sensuous scenes started to feel a bit forced the more they happened. And it didn’t help that both Jeb and Morpheus were so controlling and protective of Alyssa, in a way that felt patronizing at times. I didn’t really care if she ended up with either of these guys, as long as she was able to help her mother.

While I have some critiques, all-in-all this was a fun read, that was surprising, exciting, and imaginative. I enjoyed A. G. Howard’s writing and her world-building both in the fantasy world and in the contemporary setting, and I will definitely keep my eye out for future books from this author. I highly suggest this book to lovers of fairytale retellings, and especially to those who love detail-rich, contemporary fantasies.

Em’s rating: 3 out of 5 stars
Author: A. G. Howard
Publisher: Amulet Books (January 1, 2013)
Note: ARC received from publisher for honest review

Level 2

16 Jan

Felicia died in an accident just shy of her 18th birthday. Ever since, she has been passing her time in Level 2, the space between our world (Level 1) and heaven. There she spends her time in her memory chamber visiting and revisiting memories from her life on earth, as well as the rented memories of other inmates of Level 2. One day, a girl disappears from a neighboring chamber and Felicia seems to be the only one who is concerned that she is gone. In fact, no one else seems to remember that the girl even existed in the first place. As it’s becoming clear that something is wrong in Level 2, a boy shows up, and not just any boy, but a boy from her past – a part of her past she had hoped to leave behind. When he offers to break her out of Level 2 with the promise of helping her find her boyfriend Neil, she leaves the hive, sets off on an adventure, joins a rebellion, and finally visits memories that she has avoided all her afterlife.

What I liked most about Level 2 was the focus on memories and how we are able to learn about Felicia through both her memories of her life on earth and her responses to these memories now in the afterlife. The world of Level 2 is very sci-fi/fantasy, but the memories are pure contemporary, so there is a nice balance between these different genres. As a sci-fi lover, I’m fascinated by the memory pods and the world that is Level 2. As a lover of contemporary fiction, the memory scenes are what in the end are the most vivid and memorable scenes in Level 2, aside from possibly the end scene. While this is the first book in the series, the story ends at a logical and fascinating place. It’s the kind of ending that both allows the book to work as a stand-alone, but that will also lead you wanting more.

I’m guessing that a lot of readers will be drawn to the tension of the Felicia and Julian dynamic, while also loving Neil, our memory boyfriend, because he’s so gosh darn lovable. For me, however, the anger directed at Julian was a bit too much. It’s a bit of a pet peeve of mine when a character start to sound like a broken record in expressing their hatred for another. I liked Julian and I liked Felicia. I just didn’t like the way that she talked to him. While it sounds like this book brings us yet another YA love triangle, with the bad boy and the good boy battling for the young lady’s heart, that’s really not the case, at least in this first book in the series. Felicia and Julian have a past, Felicia and Neal have a past, but because these pasts don’t coincide, it isn’t really a triangle. To me, this was extremely refreshing. While I wasn’t especially fond of Neil, because he seems a bit too perfect, I appreciate that all we know of him is through Felicia’s memories that she visits. These of course are likely the best of her memories of Neil rather than memories of their biggest arguments or his worst habits or that time he hurt her feelings. I’m curious to see what more we get of Neil in the 2nd book, and in general what on earth (or wherever) comes next.

Em’s rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Author: Lenore Appelhans
Publisher: Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers (January 15, 2013)
Note: Review copy received from publisher for honest review

Top Ten Tuesday: 2013 Debuts (1st quarter)

15 Jan

Top Ten Tuesday is an original feature created at the fabulous The Broke and the Bookish, featuring weekly top ten lists on a variety of bookish topics. This Tuesday’s topic is Top Ten 2013 Debuts We are Most Excited For. If the first few months of 2013 set the standard for the rest of the year, it looks like I’ll be reading a lot of debuts! Here are my top ten anticipated debuts of January through March 2013:

The Tragedy Paper by Elizabeth LaBan
Knopf Books for Young Readers: 1/8/13

Uses for Boys by Erica Lorraine Scheidt
St. Martin’s Press: 1/15/13

The Madman’s Daughter by Megan Shepherd
Balzer + Bray: 1/29/13

Nobody But Us by Kristin Halbrook
HarperTeen: 1/29/13

The Ruining by Anna Collomore
Razorbill: 2/7/2013

Pivot Point by Kasie West
HarperTeen: 2/12/13

Dualed by Elsie Chapman
Random House Books for Young Readers: 2/26/13

The Murmurings by Carly Anne West
Simon Pulse: 3/5/13

Pretty Girl-13 by Liz Coley
Katherine Tegen: 3/19/13

If You Find Me by Emily Murdoch
St. Martin’s Griffin: 3/26/13

Not included in this list, are Splintered by A. G. Howard and Level 2 by Lenore Appelhans – two debuts that I’ve already read and enjoyed. Splintered follows Alicia, a descendent of Alice (in Wonderland), on a journey to Wonderland, where she must right the original Alice’s wrongs in order to break the family curse and save her mother’s life. Level 2 takes place in a place between our world (Level 1) and heaven. Felicia has been spending her days in Level 2 revisiting favorite memories, so she’s surprised when a boy from her past shows up at Level 2 offering to break her out and help her find her boyfriend who she left behind on Earth.

What debuts are coming out this year that you’re excited to read?

What We Saw At Night

10 Jan

cover image for What We Saw At Night
Allie Kim and her friends, Rob and Juliet, the tres compadres, live in darkness. They suffer from a rare genetic disorder called xeroderma pigmentosum (XP) which makes exposure to ultraviolet light dangerous. While most people’s bodies can repair the damage caused by UV exposure, this is not the case for those with XP. So these “Children of the Night” go about their day-to-day activities at night, while the rest of the daytimers get their beauty rest. Luckily for the three friends, they live in a town that is home to an XP clinic and so they have each other, as well as an informed support system of doctors and families, to help them lead lives that are as close to normal as possible. When thrill-seeking-you-only-live-once Juliet takes up the stunt-sport of parkour, Allie and Rob follow and soon they are scaling and leaping off tall buildings…in the dark. On one late night parkour mission, Allie finds herself looking in an apartment window and what she sees doesn’t seem right. What she sees looks like the aftermath of a murder, and as bad luck will have it, Allie’s not the only one who sees something that night; the murderer sees her too.

Have you ever reached the end of a book and realized that what you thought was a stand-alone was actually part of a series? Well, I think this was actually a first for me. Soho Teen really committed to their focus on YA mysteries with this surprise (non)ending. So be forewarned: there will be a sequel. If I had known this going into reading, I think the cliffhanger ending would have worked better for me. Unfortunately, because I was gearing up for a finale with some closure, the final moments ended up falling flat for me. Ah well. I’ll recover.

The suspense is well developed without being drawn out, and the mystery is definitely, well, mysterious. I honestly have no idea what is real and what isn’t when it comes to the mystery (in a good way). At times, some of the action seemed a bit too dramatic, but since there is still, presumably, resolution to come in book two, I’ll save my judgment of that for later. The parkour aspect of the novel was both less believable and less exciting for me. The teens seemed to attempt and master, except for a few slips here and there, stunts that would take extremely agile folks months if not years to master, and they were doing it in the dark in what seemed like no time. Perhaps my imagination got the better of me and visualized far more impressive stunts than were intended, but it did seem a bit hard to believe at times.

What was most interesting for me about this story was the focus on young people living with XP. I first learned about XP last summer when an interview aired on our community radio station with the two founders of Camp Sundown, a camp in a nearby town that is designed specifically for young people with XP and their families. What struck me in the interview, aside from my first learning about XP, was that because this genetic disorder is so rare, many of the campers are meeting others with XP for the first time at camp. The situation for those campers during most of the year greatly contrasts the setting of What We Saw At Night where the existence of a clinic brings families together who deal with the same, or at least similar, health concerns. This contrast made Allie’s community seem that much more comfortable and almost “normal” (not counting, of course, the whole potential murderer out to get them bit). Perhaps it is largely because of their supportive community and the companionship between Allie, Juliet, and Rob, that the tres compadres are able to live for the moment, living life to the fullest. This includes their risk-taking via parkour, but also interestingly involves a very open and encouraging discussion about sexual experience between Allie and her mom. The focus on XP was what held my attention all the way through, and if I decide to see where the mystery takes us in the next book, that will likely be what brings me back as well.

Em’s rating: 3 out of 5 stars
Author: Jacquelyn Mitchard
Publisher: Soho Teen (January 8, 2013)
Note: ARC shared by publisher for honest review

The Forsaken

7 Jan

Alenna Shawcross, the protagonist of Lisa M Stasse’s debut novel The Forsaken, is inevitably going to be compared to Katniss Everdeen. Before reading The Forsaken, my copy sat staring at me from my desk where I continued to ignore it. I was sure it would be just like The Hunger Games. I don’t know when I got so closed-minded, people.

Alenna is like Katniss in so much that she is a teenage girl in dystopic new world about to embark on a hero’s journey. That and the three of us totally would’ve been friends in high school. Designated an orphan since the current government, U.N.A., raided her house and kidnapped her parents, Alenna has survived in obedient solitude. When a U.N.A. mandated test marks her as “brutally violent” she is exiled to The Wheel, a mysterious island of deviant teens. In The Hunger Games, Katniss knows she is a hunter; while her confidence may still be shaky, she is aware of her skill and how it will serve her in battle. In The Forsaken, Alenna doesn’t know what her skill is; she doesn’t understand how she is valuable. It is the promise of this discovery and the process by which it is made that makes her journey worth reading about.

Stasse has a cerebral tone and it is Alenna’s analysis of her situation plus the actions it motivates that kept me engaged. Her journey is one of self-discovery motivated by discovering the truth about her parents and the inevitable life changes that come with being 16, no matter who or where you are. The adolescent angst of belonging is exacerbated by the extreme reality in which these characters exist. An internal battle exists among The Wheel’s inhabitants, the power divided between a violent dictator calling the shots from behind a wooden mask and a young couple offering a pretense of normalcy. Alenna is immediately protected and befriended by another girl, Gadya, and joins what seems to be the more humane camp.

Stasse tributes The Lord of the Flies in The Wheel’s savageness but offers us hope in Alenna’s friendship with Gadya and her protection of David, the first person she meets on the island. Oh, and there is a boy. The mysterious boy who spoke to Alenna through the TV, the boy she believed in before she knew what she was going to be fighting for, the boy with the blue eyes.

No longer allowed the privilege of not participating, Alenna is stimulated by a circumstance greater than her that forces her into relationships, into action and into the process of becoming a fully realized human being.

Thank God, it’s a trilogy.

Alicia’s rating: 5 out of 5 stars
Author: Lisa M. Stasse
Publisher: Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers (July 2012)
Note: ARC received from author for honest review

13 New Releases To Start Off 2013 In Style

1 Jan

2013 is getting off to a lovely start with several new and exciting releases coming out this month! With many promising debuts (the first six titles listed below) and diverse offerings from seasoned authors, it should be a busy month for reading! The books listed below are those that I’m hoping to read this month. Wish me luck!

Splintered by A. G. Howard
Amulet Books, January 1

The Tragedy Paper by Elizabeth Laban
Knopf Books for Young Readers, January 8

Level 2 by Lenore Appelhans
Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, January 15

Uses For Boys by Erica Lorraine Scheidt
St. Martin’s Griffin, January 15

The Madman’s Daughter by Megan Shepherd
Balzer + Bray, January 29

Nobody But Us by Kristin Halbrook
HarperTeen, January 29

What We Saw At Night by Jacquelyn Mitchard
Soho Teen, January 8

Just One Day by Gayle Forman
Dutton Juvenile, January 8

Then You Were Gone by Lauren Strasnick
Simon Pulse, January 8

Crash by Lisa McMann
Simon Pulse, January 8

Shadowlands by Kate Brian
Hyperion Books for Children, January 18

The Archived by Victoria Schwab
Hyperion Books for Children, January 22

The Prey by Andrew Fukuda
St. Martin’s Griffin, January 29

There are also several books in series coming out this month that I know folks will be excited about (Through The Ever Night Shades of Earth, Boundless, Everbound, Asunder, and Prodigy). Since I still need to read the first books in the series, the new releases didn’t make my TBR for the month, but have fun in there y’all!

Ask the Passengers Review + Giveaway

1 Jan

Ask the Passengers by A.S. King Book Cover

“She leans in to kiss me good-bye, and when she does, I wish I lived on the right planet where kissing Dee Roberts wasn’t a big freaking deal. Where it didn’t mean I have to affix a label to my forehead so people can take turns trying to figure out what caused it or what’s wrong with me. And I wish I didn’t have to lie so much. I don’t think Frank Socrates would approve of all this lying. I think Frank would want me to cause a lot more trouble.” (78)

Astrid Jones has a lot of love to give but doesn’t know who to share it with. She has secrets, but isn’t sure who she can confide in. Her relationships with her parents and sister are strained; her mom is always working or stealing away for mother-daughter sessions with her sister, her father is stoned most of the time, and she and her sister aren’t as tight as they once were. She has a secret girlfriend, although she’s not sure if she’s ready to accept that label yet, or if she even identifies as gay. Her best friends are also closeted gay teens (her best girl and boy friends are believed to be the hot couple at school), but opening up to them about her feelings for her girlfriend would mean accepting a label and she’s not sure that she’s ready to be boxed in. So instead of confiding in family or friends, she often finds herself lying outside and sending her love to passengers flying high above, or seeking guidance from her buddy Socrates.

Astrid has read books where there are gay/straight alliances in schools. Because these are fictional books and because there is nothing of the sort in her town, she believes GSAs must be fictional as well. The bigotry in her town ranges from her mother’s referring to a a non-gay bar as a “normal bar” to her classmate joking about how the Nazi’s at least got one thing right when the class learns that the Nazi’s targeted homosexuals during the Holocaust. Her sister calls Astrid’s girlfriend’s field hockey team a “dyke picnic” and compares homosexuality to an infectious disease (“it’s like, spreading”). Even with such an unsupportive, judgmental environment, Astrid does have gay friends who she could confide in, but she’s not questioning her sexuality and feelings so much as her need to label them and she worries about coming out even to those who would most support her decision.

And this is where Socrates comes in. Her favorite class is humanities where they are studying philosophy. While she’s not a fan of Zeno and his (crazypants) theory that motion is impossible, she is quite fond of Socrates. She even gives him a first name, Frank, because she wants him to feel more familiar (having a first name “makes him more huggable”). Yes, she and Socrates are tight. He shows up at home, at school, he’s there for her when she needs him. He is her hero and her confidant. As her class enters into a Socratic Method project, her teacher explains that “‘this will be a time of asking questions and not rushing to answer them. A time of poking holes in your own theories. A time of thinking and not knowing.'” (44) As “the not knowing queen” she’s ready to keep asking questions and not worry so much about the answers. She feels a lot of pressure from loved ones to come up with answers though, and she recognizes that for whatever reasons they have needs around her self-indentification. Still, she’s determined to do things on her own terms.

Astrid frequently escapes to a picnic table in her backyard, lies down, and sends her love and questions to the passengers flying in airplanes up above. As readers, we get the opportunity to witness brief scenes with the airborne recipients of Astrid’s love and questions. While these scenes are diversions from the general plot, the experiences of the passengers add a feeling of universality to the themes of love, self-acceptance, self-discovery, and belonging. These vignettes are charming, touching, and in some cases quite powerful.

I think A.S. King might be the perfect author for me. I love her writing style, her characters, her use of magical realism, and the quirkiness of her characters and dialogue. She has a gift for making seemingly ordinary characters both realistic and highly memorable. With each book, she manages to delve deep into a character’s experience, creating an emotional read that’s also joyous and fun. In a year filled with amazing reads, Ask The Passengers was easily my favorite.

Em’s rating: 5 out of 5 stars
Author: A.S. King
Publisher: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers (2012)
Note: Review copy received from publisher for honest review

I loved this book so much that I want to share the wealth, so here’s a nice little giveaway to start off the new year! One winner will be chosen at random on January 9, 2013 to win a copy of Ask the Passengers by A.S. King. One entry per person, US mailing addresses only, 13 years of age or older. Winner will be contacted by email.

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