This Week In Reviews: July 11, 2011

4Q 2P M

Anderson, M.T.  The Empire of Gut and Bone. Scholastic Press, 2011. 336p. $17.99. 978-0-545-13884-0.

Meet Brian and Gregory, two brave, adventurous boys from earth who enter the world of New Norumbega in search of help, only to get caught up in the politics of robots tired of being taken for granted and the murder of a Norumbega leader.  Traveling through this strange land (New Norumbega is literally made up of a large alien body), the boys look for anyone to help their home planet, Earth, from an alien attack.  The boys must travel through the maze of gut and bone to find the empire lost within the organs of the alien.

Science fiction enthusiasts who are able to stay with a book through its many twists and turns will thoroughly enjoy this fast-paced, satirically written novel.  This is a highly imaginative story that will keep serious science fiction fans engrossed, but may be too much creativity for the reader not interested in science fiction.  This highly original book will entertain many and may thoroughly confuse others.—Juli Henley.

1Q 3P M J

Bennardo, Charlotte and Natalie Zaman. Sirenz. Flux/Llewellyn, 2011. 288p. $9.95 Trade pb. 978-0-7387-23198.

Two twelfth-grade students, with completely different personalities and outlooks on life, are paired together as roommates for a summer program in Manhattan.  Shar is a self-proclaimed fashionista with a penchant for pink cashmere; Meg prefers an eclectic, vintage, all-black look.  When trying to find some common ground, these frenemies head to a sample sale and end up fighting over a pair of red, Vivienne Westwood, patent leather heels. Their tug of war triggers a fatal accident which captures the attention of Hades, god of the Underworld, who promises to undo their wrong if they become his Sirens.

Told in alternating chapters from each girl’s perspective, Sirenz falls flat.  Its combination of pop culture trends (fascination with the supernatural, fashion à la Von Ziegesar’s Gossip Girls [Little, Brown, 2002-2004/VOYA June 2002) means it might be a popular pick with young girls.  In theory, it could have been a fun read.   Unfortunately, the fashion details do not ring true; the mythology is not fleshed out enough to be substantial; and both the characters and situations feel completely contrived.  The main characters are not particularly likeable—neither their animosity nor their developing friendship seem genuine. Unlike other series that effectively capture “teen speak” (e.g. Casts’ House of Night [St. Martin’s, 2006-2011/VOYA December 2007]), the authors of Sirenz are trying too hard to be “cool,” and their characters’ colloquial language is simply irritating. When the adventure finally wraps up, it sets up a sequel which hardly seems warranted.  Save your money to purchase other series that will be both popular and well written.—Sara Martin.

Sirenz is an ancient-meets-modern novel that is well-written and entertaining.  The authors use witty, comical dialogue to give the feuding characters (Shar and Meg) depth and personality.  The unexpected turns will catch readers off guard at times, but that adds to the satisfaction of the surprise ending.  Teens who want a new take on mythology, such as Riordan’s Percy Jackson and the Olympians (Disney, 2005-2011/VOYA August 2005), will surely fall for Sirenz. 3Q, 3P.—Raluca Topliceanu, Teen Reviewer.

4Q 3P M J

Jones, Traci. Silhouetted by the Blue. Farrar Straus Giroux/Macmillan, 2011. 208p. $16.99. 978-0-374-36914-9.

Seventh grader Serena Shaw just received great news:  she scored the lead role of Dorothy in her school’s production of The Wiz, but in most every other way, her life is in turmoil.  Her beloved mother died eighteen months earlier, and Serena’s father has fallen into a deep depression as a result.  The care of the family, including her younger brother, Henry, is largely left to Serena, and her dream role has come with a price:  not only does the rehearsal time make it more difficult to hold her family together, but the school might cut the theater department unless a grant is received based on The Wiz production.  How much pressure is a seventh grader supposed to take?

Silhouetted by the Blue provides insights on how a young person can grapple, not just with the expectations of school, but overwhelming responsibilities and struggles at home.  Perhaps what is most noteworthy is how, in Blue, a student’s passion outside of the classroom—in this case, the arts—is what motivates them to attend and excel in school.  It is often through these activities that students meet their best friends and allies; those people who understand them the most and are there for them when they most need it. Serena found her true friend was her rival for the lead in the musical and found first love with an artistic member of the crew.  Students who have a passion for the arts will especially appreciate this book.  Young adults who have to take on the responsibilities of an adult will relate, and maybe even learn to cry for help early, rather than try to cope on their own.—Nancy Pierce.

3Q 3P M J

Leavitt, Lindsey. Princess for Hire: The Royal Treatment. Disney Hyperion, 2011. 272p. $16.99. 978-1-4231-2193-0.

Desi Bascomb is in eighth grade in tiny Sproutsville, Idaho. One especially good thing about living in this small community is that junior high students get to try out for the high school plays. Desi is aching to perform in this year’s school play, so she is thrilled when she gets the part of Titania, queen of the fairies, in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, playing opposite Reed, the cutest guy in high school. All this only adds to her very unique life and high stress level. Desi is most nervous about her Betterment of Elite Sub Training (BEST). This is training for her job—as a princess substitute—a stand-in for the rich and famous with royal heritage. Of course, it takes more than a little magic to pull this off. It also takes special training, which Desi receives from her employer, Façade Agency; it takes the Law of Duplicity (a form of time travel); and it requires all substitutes to display a certain natural amount of MP (magic potential). Without MP it would not be possible for Desi to step into her clients’ lives and pretend to be them for a few days. Even with the Law of Duplicity allowing Desi to literally live life in two places at once, tricky situations occur that time alone cannot correct.

This is the second title in the Princess for Hire series. While it might help to read book one first, the reader can follow this story without having done so. Leavitt cleverly weaves the subplot of Shakespeare’s play about players controlled by fairies into her own story of character manipulation. She also manages to blend and compare Desi’s school life (with its very believable characters and teen problems) and her Façade life (with its fabulous adventures and sensational participants). It is a fun fantasy filled with humor, adventure, and even a little angst. Those who loved Meg Cabot’s Princess Diaries (HarperTeen, 2000/VOYA April 2001) will certainly be drawn to this series.—Laura Canales.

3Q 4P M J S

Malchow, Alex, and Hal Malchow. The Sword of Darrow. BenBella, 2011. 372p. $17.99. 978-1-935618-46-1.

This truly epic fantasy tale of good versus evil embodies a theme of self-discovery and hope. The authors present an unlikely hero by the name of Darrow, who encounters murder and mayhem that lead him with a hunger to set things right in his world. During a tumultuous time, the Goblins set out to take over the royal castle after slaying the royal family. Darrow—the boy with a slight disadvantage (a limp)—overcomes his obstacles with determination and the support of his friends, Princess Babette and warrior Scodo. In no time these dubious brave three have the backing of the great army of Sonnencrest and plan to embark on a revolution against the Goblins.

The authors have written a fantasy novel that will pique young adults’ interest. It is packed with colorful characters, like evil goblins, a princess, fairies, sorcerers, and tarantulas, just to name a few. A slight nail biting will keep you turning the page to see what unfolds. Will Darrow and his army overcome the evil Goblins? Will the characters overcome what they feel are their personal limitations? The book, written by a father and son team, offers a unique form to be easily read by individuals with learning difficulties similarly depicted in the character Babette. Anyone who has encountered a hindrance of any kind in their life can relate to this book. It is inspiring.—Mirta Espinola.

4Q  4P  J  S

Miller, Sarah. The Lost Crown. Atheneum/Simon & Schuster, 2011. 448p. $17.99. 978-1-4169-8340-8.

Like all young women on the brink of adulthood, Olga, Tatiana, Maria, and Anastasia have high hopes for their futures. As grand duchesses and the daughters of Tsar Nicholas II, they have grown up in a life of privilege; however, all this changes in 1914 as WWI erupts across Europe.  The Tsar is forced to abdicate the throne and his family is placed under house arrest as the Russian Revolution begins.  The duchesses fill most of their time with nursing their brother Aleksei, sick with hemophilia, and trying to keep their ailing mother in good spirits. Despite the din of bullets in the streets below their windows, the royal family still manages to joke, celebrate, and care for one another.  Their hope for renewed freedom is constant even though the chances of escape remain dismal.

Told in the first-person voices of the duchesses in alternating chapters, readers will undoubtedly feel empathy for their situation.  Although Miller notes this book is a work of historical fiction, an extensive bibliography shows she attempted to create her characters befitting to her subjects.  Students will learn about the Russian Revolution and may be inspired to find out more.  The Lost Crown is a well-crafted and engrossing story that would make a worthwhile addition to any middle school or high school media center.—Amy Wyckoff.

5Q 4P J S

Perez, Marlene. Dead is Not an Option. Graphia/Houghlin Mifflin Harcourt, 2011. 252p. $7.99 Trade pb. 978-0-547-34593-2.

Daisy Giordano is back in the fifth novel from the Dead Is series by Marlene Perez.  Daisy is a psychic sleuth from the town of Nightshade, where vampires and werewolves live peacefully—and sometimes not so peacefully—amongst each other.  For the reader who enjoys a well written mystery with good guys and bad guys who happen to be supernatural beings, this one is a winner.  This novel is darker than the previous four.  While the first four novels were moderately sinister, this novel does not end on a positive note, but it does leave the reader wanting to know what will happen next.

As with the first four novels this book can stand on its own without having to be supported by the other novels.  Each novel is as good alone as they are when read together.  This title will be a favorite for those already a fan of the Dead Is series or someone reading Marlene Perez’s work for the first time.  Once you start reading, you will be hooked on Daisy and the town of Nightshade.—Juli Henley.

4Q 4P M J S

Schroeder, Lisa. The Day Before. Simon Pulse, 2011. 320p. $16.99. 978-1-4424-1743-4.

Schroeder can capture a day and make it feel like a week of adventures, similar to Cohn and Levithan’s Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist (Knopf, 2006/VOYA April 2006). For Amber, family pressure has pushed her to the brink. The discovery that she was switched at birth has been unearthed, and her birth parents are battling for joint custody of a girl they barely know. Amber’s anger is aptly directed at them for disrupting her life, so the day before the court-ordered visitation, Amber plans an escape to ruminate. Enter Cade, who parrots Amber’s bitterness because of his own issues of mortality. His decision to donate a kidney to his father is producing the mopey behavior that intrigues her. The coffee shop, the boat, a restaurant, and his house all begin to unravel the mystery behind his buried past as Amber and Cade immediately and unconvincingly bond over their unwillingness to talk about their pasts.

While Schroeder tries to create drama, Cade’s actions are melodramatic. The whirlwind romance is enough to enchant, but the connection between them is contrived. The verse format is as accessible as her debut novel, I Heart You, You Haunt Me (Simon Pulse, 2008/VOYA February 2008), and as melodic, yet Schroeder gradates to another level, interspersing letters about Amber’s feelings of the newsworthy legal battle. The hopeful ending could be the start of a sequel but finishes completely enough to stand alone, yet the budding romance will leave teens wanting more. It is worth the investment for romantics, verse fans, and teens who would like to live one day completely free from troubles.—Alicia Abdul.

Orca Currents. Orca, 2011. PBL $16.95. $9.95 Trade pb.

4Q 3P M J

Cassidy, Sara. Windfall. 117 p. PLB 978-1-55469-850-9. Trade pb.978-1-55469-850-9.

Peterson, Lois. Beyond Repair. 121 p. PLB 978-1-55469-817-2. Trade pb. 978-1-55469-816-5.

The Orca Currents series is designed to provide high-interest fiction for middle grade students who are reading below grade level. Windfall begins with Liza, her younger brothers, and her single mom receiving news of the death of a homeless man whose gentle presence has quietly steeped into the community. While Liza is dealing with this loss, which she feels deeply, the beloved old apple tree in the family backyard falls and must be removed. With her Girls for Renewable Resources group, Liza wants to work for a sustainable environment, but her plans to create a garden on school property are poorly received by the school’s inflexible principal.

In Beyond Repair, Cam feels the burden of suddenly being the “man in the family” after the death of his father in a traffic accident. While his mother works a night nursing job, he is responsible for his young sister and for the daily running of the house. The family’s pain is ratcheted up when the man who killed his father seems to be stalking them.  Cam is filled with worry and self-doubt, but he locates and confronts the man who turns out to be trying allay his guilt by “helping” the family. With new found maturity, Cam tells him that some things cannot be repaired and that he should leave the family alone to find their own way.

Both these books should be successful with reluctant readers as the characters are sympathetic and well-drawn; the dialogue is realistic; and the situations interesting and believable.  Windfall will allow students a glimpse of a life seldom seen in current YA fiction: a Canadian sensibility, a successful single mother raising her children well, and a strong “green” message presented respectfully throughout.  Community matters in Windfall, and though Liza’s pain feels real and important, we know that she will deal with her losses and emerge stronger.   Cam’s pain in Beyond Repair is greater because his loss is greater, but he finds strength and grows as he confronts the man who killed his father. From resignation, even resentment, at his new responsibilities, he learns that he can do more than cope; he can become more involved and aware than his father ever was, and make a worthwhile contribution to his family’s well-being.  These two well-written short stories are available with teachers’ guides (www.Orcabook.com) and are a real contribution to the frequently insipid canon of books for reluctant readers, as well as other students who may pick them up for a quick read.—Rayna Patton.

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  1. BenBella Books Press Room — The Sword of Darrow press says:

    […] * August 11 – Voice of Youth Advocates magazine: http://www.voyamagazine.com/2011/07/12/this-week-in-reviews-july-11-2011/ * September 2011 – Cincinnati Family * September 7 – Seminole Chronicle: […]

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