This Week in Reviews: August 9, 2011

FICTION

5Q 2P S

Bennett, Cherie, and Jeff Gottesfeld. Amen, L.A. Ember/Random House,  2011. 272p. $8.99 Trade pb.  978-0-385-73188-1.

Teenage Natalie Shelton, the protagonist of this realistic fiction novel, enjoys the comforts of home in her native land of Mankato, Minnesota. She and her two siblings, Gemma and Chad, are used to their familiar friendships and school environment. Natalie’s father is a decent mystery writer for a New York publishing company. Her mother leads the pulpit of their local church. As one thing leads to another, Natalie’s mom becomes known throughout the nation for her ability to lead a church like no other. Ultimately, she accepts an exciting position as the new minister of a church in Beverly Hills, California.

What effect can this have on Natalie and her siblings? Shortly before Natalie leaves, she contemplates how far she should go with her new boyfriend, Sean. This move creates challenges for their new relationship. But this is just one of many challenges. Imagine moving to Los Angeles, California, and rubbing elbows with the rich and famous! This is something most teenagers can only dream of. But beyond the glitz and glamour of romantic and unusual friendships, Natalie experiences a huge cultural learning curve. Subsequently, she and her family must make major life decisions. This novel transforms into a social thriller. It is an awesome read for teenagers and perhaps beyond.—Sharon Blumberg.

3Q 3P J S

Brian, Kate. Cruel Love: A Privilege Novel. Simon & Shuster, 2011. 224p. $9.99 Trade pb . 978-1-4424-0788-6.

Cruel Love concludes the Privilege series, a spin-off of the Private Novels. The book begins with Ariana Osgood’s mantra of “she must die…she must die…she must die” directed toward her former friend, Reed, whom she believes is the cause of all her misfortunes. It is the perfect beginning for a character with a penchant for murder. Reed, however, is not her only target; Ariana sets her sights on anyone, even her friends, that she feels could reveal her hidden identity. As Ariana continues to accumulate achievements, including becoming president of the Stone and Grave, the mental health of those closest to her disintegrates. The presence of her former prison psychologist, Dr. Meloni, forces Ariana to act and save the life she has built culminating in a startling end.

Those who start with this book will not find Ariana a sympathetic character due to her cool and collected tendency to solve problems with murder and her total disregard for her those she calls friends. Brian describes Ariana in the author’s note as “a psychotic murderess teenager,” and the description is certainly appropriate. This character is not often seen in teen literature, and it is interesting to explore her mind and the paths to decisions she makes. Fans of the Privilege spin-off and the Private novels will devour this last installment as it reunites characters from both series.—Kristi Sadowski.

3Q 3P M

Decker-Ahmed, Stasia. The Weirder the Better. Black Heron Press, 2011. 179p. $8.99 Trade pb. 978-0-930773-97-7.

Jamie Smyth wears long sleeves to her first day at Lark Middle School, hiding scars on both arms, the result of a childhood accident. She knows she cannot hide her burn marks forever, but for the first day at her new school—her tenth in seven years—she wants to be “normal” for at least a day. Her mother encourages her to join an extracurricular group, hinting that it might be time to settle their lives in one place, but when Jamie cannot find a club where she would fit, she decides to start the Outcasts. Soon, she is joined by several eccentric students, including a girl with nine body piercings and a boy who lives in an underground bunker. But just as the Outcasts begin to bond, the principal decides to end their unsanctioned group. The fight will go all the way to the school board, and in the process, Jamie begins to sense what home means.

A true strength of this story is its well-drawn characters—who feel real when they could have been reduced to stereotypes—and the portrayal of the relationships among them. Especially appealing is Jamie, who proves tenacious in keeping her group of friends together, even as she is suspended from school. The idea of being an outcast in middle school will appeal to many young teen readers.  The theme of “beating the establishment” seems more likely in a high school setting, but perhaps younger readers need role models like Jamie, too.—Anna Foote.

4Q 3P M J S Graphic Format

Reed, M.K. Americus. Illus. by Jonathan Hill. First Second Books, 2011. 208p. $14.99 Trade pb. 978-1-59643-601-5.

Neil Barton lives in the small town of Americus.  Life in middle school is not exactly enjoyable: Neil is teased for being a bookworm and for his friendship with Danny.  His only refuge is within the pages of the books he reads over and over again.  His favorite series, The Adventures of Apathea Ravenchilde, is his escape from the small town, and the small minds who inhabit it.  Then, Danny is sent away to military school and some citizens object to the library having the Ravenchilde series.  Suddenly, Neil has to find his voice and stand up for what he believes.

This graphic novel is an unapologetic examination of censorship and the harm that comes from keeping readers from books that provide them with solace, role models, and much more that is incalculable.  The censors might be stereotyped—fundamentalists who believe fantasies can lead readers to Satanic activity and who have not read the books in question—but  Neil is a typical middle-school boy trying to figure out the man he will become.  He flounders, fails, and finally speaks his mind at the hearing for his beloved books.  Illustrations convey the emotions, especially during the scenes where emotions are raw and at the surface.  The black-and-white format fits the mood and tone of the story well.  The graphic novel version of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 would make an interesting companion to this book.—Terry Lesesne.

SCIENCE FICTION

4Q 2P M J

Cowing, Sue.  You Will Call Me Drog. Carolrhoda Books, 2011. 282p. $16.95. 978-0-7613-6076-6.

This book starts as a horror story and ends as a middle-school bildungsroman.  After finding a creepy puppet in a junkyard, Parker innocently tries it on and discovers he cannot remove the sentient toy. The puppet declares, “You will call me Drog!”  Then, Drog begins to wreak havoc on Parker’s formerly sedate lifestyle. Mocked by his peers, threatened with military school by his absentee father, and pushed into therapy by his mystified mother, Parker becomes confused, irritable, and combative. Eventually, Parker attends aikido classes, where he learns how to control his behavior and emotions.  Throughout multiple plot twists, Drog becomes less of a possessed puppet demon and more of a sarcastic Id mascot who helps Parker cope with his parents’ divorce and his own emotional needs.

The book begins with a deliciously dark premise, but loses traction as the tale shifts gears.  Cowing uses a healthy dose of amusing dialogue to bridge the gap between the genres, but the transitions still seem choppy.  In addition, a few scenes swerve into unintentional absurdity.  Though parts of the plot appear awkwardly implausible, Cowing creates an authentic voice for Parker; she shows how he matures with a combination of talk therapy, behavioral therapy, and a little bit of magic.  Readers with an interest in exploring odd genre juxtapositions will enjoy this unusual exploration of familial relationships.—Jessica Atherton.

3Q 4P J S

Miller, Kirsten. All You Desire. Razor Bill, 2011. 432p. $17.99. 978-1-59514-323-5.

The sequel to Kirsten Miller’s The Eternal Ones (Razorbill, 2010/ VOYA August 2010) opens with reincarnated soul mates, Haven Moore and Iain Morrow, living their longed-for, peaceful existence in Rome.  It is not long, though, before Haven is overwhelmed with the feeling that they are being watched. Possible sightings of Adam Rosier foreshadow not only his arrival, but the chaos inherent in his very being.   The disappearance of Beau, Haven’s best friend, confirms her suspicions and facilitates their immediate return to New York. Upon her return to the city, Haven is contacted by a mysterious group of sisters, known as the Horae, who instigate a plan to rescue Beau and trap Adam through his one weakness—his obsessive love for Haven.  Can Haven seduce Adam before she is hypnotized by his eerie charm? Will Iain forgive her for trying? And why does Haven have a sneaking suspicion that something like this has happened before?

Readers who appreciate paranormal romance will delight in Miller’s refreshing take on the genre. As in the first novel, Haven flip-flops like a fish out of water trying to decide who to trust, and her lack of agency causes frustration rather than adding to the mystery. Haven’s flashbacks and Iain’s stories of past reincarnations are the true gems of the novel, and Miller shines in these moments of historical fiction. They deliver a sense of authenticity to Haven and Iain’s relationship, which somewhat makes up for a forced love triangle. Expect a third book in the series.—Allison Hunter Hill.

3Q 2P M J S
Wrede, Patricia C. Across the Great Barrier. Scholastic, 2011. 352p. $16.99. 978-0-545-03343-5.

In an alternate 19th-century United States, Eff Rothmer is finally at peace with being the “unlucky” thirteenth child, but she is still unsure about what she wants to do with her life.  As her twin brother and best friend head East for college, Eff decides to continue honing her magic and wait for an opportunity to go scouting out West.  That opportunity comes more quickly than expected and Eff finds herself traveling in an expedition to record new species of plants and animals in the unexplored frontier.  It is dangerous work and both Eff’s inner strength and her magical ability are tested. As Eff and her team head further into the wilderness, they stumble upon evidence that some terrible creature is turning living animals to stone.  Eff’s willingness and ability to use different types of magic together becomes essential to their survival.

Across the Great Barrier is Wrede’s follow-up to The Thirteenth Child (Scholastic, 2009/VOYA October 2009) in her Frontier Magic series.  Though her magical world is interesting, the story moves slowly, and never elicits the wonderment that JK Rowling and Phillip Pullman’s worlds do so effortlessly. Wrede has loyal fans who loved her previous series The Enchanted Forest Chronicles, so most libraries will want to carry this one, too, although it is unlikely to be in high demand for readers unfamiliar with Wrede.— Stephanie L. Petruso.

NONFICTION

3Q 2P M

Warren, Andrea. Charles Dickens and the Street Children of London. Houghton Mifflin, 2011. 160p. $18.99. 978-0-547-39574-6. Endnotes.  Illus. Photos.

This resource concentrates on one facet of Charles Dickens’ robust life and how it relates to the social issue of street children in the nineteenth century.  The author takes us through the life of Dickens, including how his father was in and out of debtor’s prison, and how his lack of financial wisdom forced Dickens to become a common laborer at a factory as a boy. It also relates the social themes he touched on in his seminal works such as Oliver Twist and The Pickwick Papers to the social change they caused.

The book is written at a very accessible level for all readers.  It is well researched and paced rather quickly for material handling such niche subject matter. The points brought up would be of great interest to someone passionate about Dickens or homeless children. The illustrations are interesting and do a good job of breaking up the pages, to keep the text from becoming overwhelming, but the ties to the content are tenuous on a few occasions. Although it would be difficult to argue that impoverished children are a good thing, the author occasionally inserts her bias and asks some leading questions. This is a good resource for a middle school student interested in doing a report on a Victorian author, famous author, or homeless children.—Devin Burritt.

REFERENCE

4Q 2P M J S

Crossman, Anne. Study Smart, Study Less. Ten Speed Press, 2011. 128p. $ 10.99 Trade pb. 978-1-60774-000-1.

This little book packs a powerful punch—an academic punch, that is. The book is organized into chapters where a breakdown of information identifies different types of learners, and it includes a quiz readers can take to reveal their mode of learning. Some may find they do not fit one specific type. It is important to know how you learn before you begin studying for an exam or assignment. The book teaches many note-taking strategies and skills, like using underlining and mnemonic devices, and includes illustrations to help the student make the most out of a study session. The book also includes useful information for students on how to set up study sessions. As an added bonus, Crossman identifies additional suggestions for students with learning disabilities, adding in-depth and valuable suggestions for readers.

A book compact enough to fit in your purse or your backpack, Study Smart, Study Less offers a quick and easy way to get on the right track during study time. From start to finish, it is fluid and zeros in on specific strategies to help students use their time without spinning their wheels. It is a definite “how to” on getting the most out of studying. To add to its appeal, Crossman offers clear and concise examples and utilizes bullets and bold font to organize important information. It is an educational gem.—Mirta Espinola.

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