This Week in Reviews: September 20, 2011

FICTION

3Q 3P M J

Greenwald, Lisa. Sweet Treats & Secret Crushes. Amulet, 2011. 320p. $7.95 Trade pb. 978-1-4197-0029-3.

Friendships change as you grow older.  This has especially been the case for seventh graders Kate, Olivia and Georgia, who share the same apartment building and have been friends since childhood.  Kate has recently become more interested in boys and the popular crowd.  Olivia notices everything around her, but only confides in her journal, and Georgia is so shy that she tends to blend in with the scenery.  Despite their growing differences, one snow day, which also happens to be Valentine’s Day, will change the course of their relationships.  Not only will they recognize the value of this lifelong friendship, but they will also get to know their community, the residents in their apartment building.  The girls manage to accomplish all of this over a few batches of homemade fortune cookies.

This lighthearted story will not win any literary awards or hit the bestseller’s list, but it has definite appeal for middle school girls.  The best way to describe this book is “cute.”  There are no major conflicts or plot twists, and at times the story seems very trivial, but the author manages to hold an audience’s attention.  The fortunes at the beginning of each chapter add a nice touch as well.  Definitely not all readers are interested in cute stories, but young teen girls who are experiencing first crushes will relate to the characters’ dilemmas.—Shanna Swigert Smith.

3Q 3P S A/YA

Littman, Sarah Darer. Want To Go Private? Scholastic, 2011. 336p. $17.99. 978-0-545-15146-7.

Mix Laura Ruby’s cautionary stories and the risqué nature of Lyga’s Boy Toy (Houghton Mifflin, 2007/VOYA October 2007), and Littman’s story is a unique companion that will push boundaries but open dialogue with teens about consequences in the digital age.  The title alone is provocative, but Abby’s actions prove more dangerous. High school is what she feared it would be: a mix of letdowns and changing friendships. So, it was easy. Abby was lonely. It was easy for her parents to disregard her changing personality because they were overworked.  Her friends easily missed it because Abby began lying to cover her tracks. Luke befriends Abby online, and they quite coincidentally like the same music while he empathizes with her freshman quandaries. As he manipulates his way into her heart, she is bait. The building anticipation of what will come of her relationship with Luke is attributable to Littman’s craftsmanship and the knowledge of current events eerily similar to Abby’s situation.

Captivating readers is Luke’s seductive manipulation and shock as Abby connives to finally meet him. The alternating point of views infuriate readers at this crucial juncture when it was tolerable before. Shockingly, Littman illustrates in unsparing detail Abby’s rape and abuse at the hands of this monster while Abby continues to be blinded by love. Careful not to overwhelm, the book’s length is necessary to truly sympathize with Abby’s victimization and learn about predation. At the book’s close, Abby is empowered and becomes a beacon of hope for teens who relate, while providing vigilance to those close to the edge. Because of the message, this book is fodder for cyber danger discussions in both public and school settings.—Alicia Abdul.

3Q 3P M J

Schroder, Monika. My Brother’s Shadow. Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, 2011. 224p. $17.99. 978-0-374-35122-9.

Moritiz is a sixteen year old who must deal with the return of his brother from the war.  Hans is severely injured and forever changed; his bitterness is also a metaphor for Germany’s state of mind at this time in history.  There is hope in Moritz’s life—he works for a newspaper and has a love interest.  The description of rationing, eating turnips as one of the only food options, the growing unrest amidst the populace, including his own mother as a rising socialist leader in the local arena, are all informative but may not hold the interest of today’s teen reader.  Boys will be drawn to it to some degree.

This book covers a little known period in history during the waning days of World War I Germany.   The juxtaposition of the end of the Kaiser’s rule, the seeds of socialism, and the growing anti-Semitic activity in Germany, foreshadowing Hitler’s rise to power, provide a backdrop for the story of Moritz. Schroder captures the gloomy grip of wartime, the sense of loss of country and family, and illustrates the physical and emotional effects of war on a culture.  This book would be a good addition to larger public libraries or middle/high schools with fairly extensive historical fiction sections for teens; most smaller libraries will want to pass on this one, although it does fill in a gap in this genre.—Jane Murphy.

3Q 3P M J

Shaw, Susan. Tunnel Vision. Margaret K. McElderry/Simon & Schuster, 2011. $16.99. 272p. 978-1-4424-0839-5.

Liza Wellington, sixteen, walks into an underpass tunnel filled with a crowd of rough, noisy men on her way home from school. Her mother waits at the other end, but as Liza exits the tunnel her mother screams and pushes Liza to the ground. Thus begins the unraveling nightmare for the Wellington family. Liza’s mother, who was shot protecting Liza, dies on the way to the hospital. Before the teen and her father can absorb their grief, a second attempt is made on Liza’s life and they are whisked into the Witness Protection Program when it is determined that Liza, unbeknownst to her, witnessed a mob hit in the tunnel and her mother took a bullet meant for her. Exacerbating the U.S. Marshals’ efforts to hide Liza and her father is Liza’s height (she was a star basketball player) and her beautiful red hair that she is loathe to dye, and a national media blitz on the missing pair. Efforts to protect the Wellingtons are clumsy at best, oddly lax at worst, and certainly thwarted by some cavalier actions on the part of both father and daughter.

If one can get beyond the unlikely scenario on page one of a young teen willingly walking through a poorly lit tunnel choked with loud men, and if one can ignore the seemingly quick dissipation of shock and grief at the major upheaval of their lives, then the suspense of their desperate cross-country road trip, and the peek into just what it is like to face a life with no stable sense of security ever, makes for a good, quick read.—Beth Andersen.

3Q 4P M

Walters, Eric. The Money Pit Mystery. Fitzhenry & Whiteside, 2011. 224p. $9.95. Trade pb. 978-1-55455-123-1.

Three years have passed since their annual trips to Oak Island abruptly ended.  Now Sam, age eleven, his older sister Beth, and their mom are aboard a ferry headed to the island.  Sam is eager to spend time with his grandfather again, and yet concerned about the phone call that triggered his mom’s sudden decision to return to her childhood home.  The three arrive to discover the devastating result of the senior Samuel’s mental decline.  An island mystery and favored bedtime tale has turned into an obsession that threatens to tear apart their family.  Sam’s passion for magic tricks leads him to uncover the island’s secret and to help the man he is named for and loves so much.

Walters has taken the true legend of pirates’ treasure being buried on Oak Island, Nova Scotia, and crafted an exciting page-turner.  Originally published in Canada in 1999, the story and the characters are still relevant.  Walters’s teaching experience brings depth and believability to his young adult characters.  The flirting relationship between Beth and Buzz, an old friend, and Sam’s subsequent exasperation will resonate with siblings everywhere.  Scenes of suspense and danger are sure to keep even reluctant readers enthralled.  Walters deftly handles the issues of hoarding and early-onset Alzheimer’s to support and educate readers.  The open-ended conclusion is sure to leave readers hoping for further adventures with Sam, Beth, and Buzz on Oak Island.—Jeanine Fox.

SCIENCE FICTION/HORROR/FANTASY

4Q 4P J S

Bunce, Elizabeth C. Liar’s Moon. Scholastic Press, 2011. 368 p. $17.99. 978-0-545-13608-2.

Bunce brings back Digger, the clever thief/con artist from Starcrossed (Arthur A. Levine, 2010/VOYA February 2011), after leaving readers wondering what her fate would be once she departed from the Nemairs’ castle.  Digger returns to Gerse, her hometown, and her previous way of life but is caught and thrown into a cell with Durrel Decath.  Decath once saved her life, so Digger feels compelled to help him when she discovers he has been framed for his wife’s murder.  The investigation into the murder makes Digger a player in a complex plot involving bribery, poison, magic, and family secrets.  The bigger picture involves her brother, the Inquisitor, the prince she helped rescue who is now charging the city, and the ill king who struggles to hold onto his throne.  The best part is that just when readers may think Digger’s adventures are over, a rather startling surprise is thrown at them in the last lines.

As with Starcrossed, Bunce excels in weaving together several plot points and characters without weighing down the novel.  Fan of Cashore’s Graceling (Graphia, 2009/VOYA October 2008) will greatly enjoy Digger’s unique voice and strength of character, along with Bunce’s ability to fully immerse readers in a finely crafted world.  This book, along with its prequel, should be on most library shelves as both have a wide appeal, not just with the fantasy crowds, but also with readers who have the patience to savor the brilliant world and characters Bunce has created.—Amanda Fensch.

3Q 5P M J

McMann, Lisa. The Unwanteds. Alladin/Simon &Schuster, 2011. 400p. $16.99. 978-1-4424-0768-8.

The land of Quill is a bleak and desolate place ruled over by High Priest Justine. It was she who decided that the people of Quill would be sorted into the Wanteds (the best and highest class), the Necessaries (those who do more menial tasks), and the Unwanteds (those who have no place in Quill). The Unwanteds are sent to the Death Farmer to be thrown into the boiling lake of oil. It comes as no surprise to Alex Stowe that he is an Unwanted, having several infractions on his record; what does comes as a great surprise to him and the other Unwanteds is that they are not killed. They are instead brought to the land of Artime, a place of creativity and magic overseen by Marcus Today. Alex and his friends are swept away in classes tapping their creativity and preparing them for the day that Quill discovers them.

The story, while well constructed and paced, stumbles due to a lack of detailed description that would have made the read more immersive. Also, the dialogue lacks the character of the speaker, giving it a flat or overly scripted feel. Where Unwanteds really shines is in the creativity of Artime and the conflict at the end, full of action and several twists. This is a great fantasy title that is perfect for Harry Potter fans, younger fans of the Hunger Games, or those too young for that series.—Susan Hampe.

3Q 2P S A/YA

Price, Kalayna. Grave Dance. Roc, 2011. 371p. $7.99 Trade pb. 978-0-451-46409-5.

The second installment of the Grave Witch series, Grave Dance, finds Alex Craft recovering from the Blood Moon battle.  Still reeling from revelations of her heritage and the emergence of her new powers, and caught between her attraction to Death and her feelings for the Winter Queen’s knight, what Alex needs most is a vacation.  Rest, however, is not an option; an apparent serial killer is loose in Nekros, leaving only the severed left feet of the victims behind.  Then murderous constructs start appearing in the city, seemingly out for Alex herself.  The closer she gets to answers, the more dangerous it becomes for herself and those she loves.  When her best friends are taken captive, it is up to Alex to save, not only them, but also Nekros City.

Grave Dance is a fun, fast-paced fantasy romp.  Though not specifically targeted for teens, many young adult readers will find the protagonist engaging, not only for her strength and fierceness, but also her wit and sense of humor.  Fans of fantasy will not be disappointed with the parade of mythological creatures in this second installment; while faerie mythology is emphasized, readers will meet a hydra, dragons, a barghest, harpies, and a gargoyle, among others.  Each chapter unlocks new clues that move Alex and the reader closer to solving the mystery, but the novel ends with just enough loose ends to leave the reader clamoring for book three.  It is an entertaining read for both adults and older adolescents.—Courtney Huse Wika.

NONFICTION

3Q 2P M J

Hunter, Zach. Be the Change: Your Guide to Freeing Slaves and Changing the World. Zondervan, 2011. 176p. $9.99 Trade pb. 978-0-310-72611-1.

Social action is often a welcome goal in secondary schools, as teens reach beyond themselves and their immediate surroundings to find ways to impact the world. Teen abolitionist Zach Hunter’s revised and expanded edition of Be the Change serves as both a significant example for youth and a how-to manual. When the author was twelve, he began a campaign called Loose Change to Loosen Chains to encourage young people to fight against modern-day slavery.  The book has not been altered much from the version Hunter started writing when he was fourteen years old. Each chapter highlights a theme or quality (e.g., inspiration, courage, or passion) and individuals (e.g., John Rankin, Rosa Parks, Harriet Tubman, and William Wilberforce) who embodied that theme. Motivational passages from the Bible, and quotes from thinkers as diverse as Maya Angelou, Helen Keller, and Ralph Waldo Emerson join “Just the Facts” sidebars that offer alarming statistics about modern-day slavery in the United States and abroad, adding to the book’s informative but quick pace. Discussion questions that spur the reader to think and act end each chapter.

There are occasional lapses in editing, but teens who enjoy Christian materials will certainly be inspired to take on a cause they believe in and be the change.—KaaVonia Hinton.

Be the Change was an okay book. The tone was strange at first:  it seemed like the writer was trying too hard to have a conversational writing style, like he was telling me the facts sitting down right next to me. It grew on me after a while. Some of the topics and themes in this book, like modern-day slavery and helping the needy, were very interesting and got me thinking about poverty in America.  3Q, 2P.—Tony Johnson, Teen Reviewer.

SERIES NONFICTION

Essential Health: A Guy’s Guide. ABDO Publishing, 2011. 112p. $34.22. Glossary. Index. Further reading.

4Q 3P M J

Heiden, Pete. I Love U 2: Understanding Relationships and Dating. 978-1-61613-541-6.

Teen and preteen boys looking for relationship advice will find plenty of helpful guidance in this latest volume in the A Guys Guide series. Information on all kinds of relationships, including family, friends, and of course, romantic, is presented here. Each of the ten chapters follows the same basic format: a brief introduction of the topic, a case study, followed by commentary from Dr. Robyn Silverman—a child and teen development specialist—and a short wrap-up by the author. Inserted in the case studies are text boxes with questions inviting the reader to “Think About It.” The questions encourage critical thinking and further exploration of the topic at hand, but give the narrative a textbook feel, as do the stock photos and illustrations.

The book’s best feature is the balance between professional counsel from Dr. Robyn and the informal, “older brother” kind of advice from “Pete.” Readers will also be sure to appreciate the case studies, which feature a nice representation of adolescents dealing with common relationship issues from breaking up to gossip.  Overall, this is a nice basic resource for middle school and junior high boys who are trying to figure out how to get along with those they care the most about.—Heather Christensen.

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