Review: The Statistical Probability of Love at First Sight

The Statistical Probability of Love at First Sight by Jennifer E. Smith. Poppy, an imprint of Little, Brown. 2012.

The Plot: Hadley is four minutes late for her plane, the plane to London to take her to her father’s wedding. Now she has to wait for the next one, and if she is lucky, she may be able to get to the church on time. Yes, Hadley should have given herself more time, more time to get to the plane, more time before the ceremony, more time — but. Well. It is her father’s second wedding: the wedding that is happening because when he moved to England for a semester as a visiting professor, he never came back.

No, really. Instead of coming home after one semester,  he divorced Hadley’s mother, stayed in England and now is marrying Charlotte. Hadley has never met Charlotte and doesn’t want to go to the wedding. Which may explain why she planned on flying out at the last possible moment . . .  and now that has changed into the last-last possible moment.

While waiting for the next plane to London, Hadley meets Oliver. He’s handsome and funny and it turns out he is in the seat next to her. The missed flight may just be the best thing to happen to Hadley.

The Good: It was post-Hurricane Sandy, four days without power. I had just finished up reading the National Book Award finalists. I looked over the piles of books and saw a sea of dystopia and survival and loss and just couldn’t.

The I saw The Statistical Probability of Love at First Sight. A romance? Yes, please! Just what the bibliotherapist ordered. Did it deliver exactly what I needed? Yes, and then some! There is so much to love about Hadley, Oliver, and Hadley-and-Oliver, including that they are two smart, funny, bright teens. I love how the two of them were thrown together but it wasn’t sparks from the beginning. Considering half the book is “waiting in an airport” then “sitting in a plane”, a lot depended on the conversation between the two of them, and wow, it worked. And then when the plane landed, and Hadley had to go off to her father’s wedding while Oliver had his own business in London, then what?

Hadley has to go to her father’s wedding; the wedding (and meeting his fiance) that she dreads. Hadley’s anger at her father is even better than deeply felt and wonderfully conveyed. It is entirely justified and pure in its self righteousness. Hadley and her parents were a close family unit before her father left for England; her mother’s own career kept her and Hadley from joining him. He met Charlotte, divorced his wife, stayed in England. Who is in the right here? Who is in the wrong? Simple, right?

No. And yes . . .  Meeting Oliver helps Hadley to come to terms with her family history. He doesn’t help her, he’s not some wise-speaking guru, he’s just a guy who completed his freshman year at an American college, an ocean away from his British family. It’s meeting him, flirting and laughing and talking and listening, and realizing what is important to her, that helps Hadley. OK, this may be a bit spoilerish, but c’mon, you know that a happy ending in all things is guaranteed in this book, right? I won’t explain the specifics; I will say that Hadley learns that sometimes you forgive a past hurt because, well, holding onto a grudge is painful and damaging. I loved that I believed Hadley working out things with her father: it was not simplistic, and it did not ignore or excuse what he had done.

What exactly did her father do? This is where I can’t help my bias as an adult reader who is closer to the ages of the parents than the teen. Statistical Probability gives a nuanced look at what happened with Hadley’s parents while never telling too much, because, frankly, most teen readers wouldn’t care. (That I want the adult book about Hadley’s father is just my own curiosity.) Smith smartly sets this book at over a year since the father left; so while Hadley remembers her heartbroken mother crying, her mother as she is today is a woman with a boyfriend who is supportive of Hadley having a healthy relationship with her father and his new bride. This allows Hadley to work through her own emotions, and what she wants her relationship with her father to be, without having to worry about hurting her mother.

Because this combined a romance with a realistic and beautiful look at family dynamics, this is a Favorite Book Read in 2012.

Other reviews: Emily Reads (haiku); BiblioFile; BookEnds at Booklist; Bookshelves of Doom; Jen Robinson’s Book Page; Stacked.

Review: Broken Harbor

Broken Harbor by Tana French. Viking Adult. 2012. Personal copy. This is my Thanksgiving Holiday Read, a review of something that is not a YA book. (Yes, it’s the day after, but you have the weekend to read it!) Book 4 in the Dublin Murder Squad series. Previous books: In the Woods; The Likeness; and Faithful Place.

The Plot: Patrick Spain is dead, as are his two small children. His wife is in critical condition. They were found in their new house, in a development never finished, one of Ireland’s “Ghost Estates.” Mick Kennedy (nickname Scorcher) is the investigating detective. taking a risk on Richie, the rookie on the team.

Mick takes pride in what he does; and he follows the rules; and he gets the job done. Not many could take a case with dead kids, for instance; Mick does.

The Spains lived in a development called Brianstown. Before the fancy, unfinished, poorly built Brianstown, though, it was called Broken Harbor. Broken Harbor was where Mick’s family spent a week of vacation each summer, back in the day when families where happy with a week in a caravan and the beach and ice cream. Something happened to Mick’s family back then, but Mick isn’t going to talk about that. He’s not going to think about that. He’s going to solve the case, of what happened to the Spains.

The Good: Yes, I skipped the middle two books in this series. It was no problem, really; each book stands alone, loosely tied together by the members of the murder squad, yes, but with shifting main characters. So while I didn’t experience Mick as seen through the eyes of others in the earlier books, it didn’t impact how I read this. I could tell from how Mick treated Richie that Mick could sometimes be a bit of an annoying stick in the mud, particular about things being done the right way and only he, Mick, knowing that way. Of course, now I want to go back and read the two that I skipped!

They mystery is, of course, who killed the Spain family, who left Jenny Spain for dead? Mick is a by-the-book man, who believes that usually people “invite” crime in. There is something, somewhere, that made the crimes happen; it doesn’t come out of the blue; if a family member usually did it, look at the family; and these are what guides his investigation. Richie, younger, questions why Mick isn’t open to more possibilities. The tension between the two, the disagreement on what to look at and what to not look at, creates some of the tension in this novel. Even though this is told by Mick, at times I was sympathetic to Richie’s arguments, or saw the things Mick couldn’t recognize.

The other tension comes from Mick himself. What happened to his own family, years ago, at Broken Harbor, is a secret he slowly reveals to the reader. What is more quickly shown to the reader is Mick’s younger sister, Dina, who is flighty, irrational, mentally unstable, and has only her family to take care of her. Since their other sister has her hands full with her husband and children, it’s up to Mick to caretake Dina while delving into the murders of the Spains.

There are several ghosts in Broken Harbor. The Ghost Estates: the ghost of the broken dreams of posterity and promise, the ghost of success and happiness. It is Mick’s own ghosts, too, of what happened to his family. It may be even more than that. One of the things I loved about In the Woods is that there was a possible fantastical element to it, if the reader wanted to believe in it. Children disappeared, and was it for something a bit unreal, something pagan leftover in the woods? Here, Mick discovers that the house the Spains lived in, like that of their neighbors, was poorly constructed. The Spains tried to hide it with furniture and paint… except for the holes in the walls and baby monitors in odd places and a trap in the attic. What was going on in the Spain house?

Mick grew up in before the success a younger generation knew; the loss of that, perhaps, hits him and his generation a bit less than those who always knew plenty. He and his knew about wearing hand me downs or second hand clothes; for someone like Jenny Spain, though, those things would be a sign of failure. Broken Harbor isn’t just a murder investigation: it is also a look at economic prosperity and it’s loss. It’s a look at what that loss does to a person.

Broken Harbor is also a glimpse at the Ireland before that success, in the story of Mick and his family. Let me tell you: I really liked Mick. When I couldn’t understand his relationship with his sister, Dina, I reminded myself that (while he is roughly my age) his was a culture of  “what would the neighbors say” and “we take care of our own.” That, I could understand, and Mick’s and Dina’s tragedy is that neither of them can move beyond that. Still, they take of their own. That’s something, right? Broken Harbor, or broken people, and which people can put themselves together and which people don’t? What do you do when the wolves are at the door? For all that Jenny Spain doesn’t want to buy used clothing, who am I to judge, because neither do I.

Because this book has just the right mix of elements to intrigue me, because I liked Mick, because I felt sorry for the Spains, because the story haunts me, because I want to read the books I missed, because I want to read more about Ireland and the ghost estates. And because I was reminded of Ken Bruen‘s books. (Note to self: need to catch up with Jack Taylor and see how he’s doing.) This is a Favorite Book Read in 2012.

Other reviews: S. Krishna’s Books; Rhapsody in Books; NPR.

Review: Endangered

Endangered by Eliot Schrefer. Scholastic. 2012. Review copy from publisher.

The Plot: Sophie, 14, is in Congo (the Democratic Republic of Congo) visiting her mother, who runs a sanctuary for bonobos. During the school year, she lives with her father in America.

Sophie saves a young bonobo who she names Otto; she cares for him, beginning to understand, a bit, why her mother does what she does; why, when her American born father’s company transferred him back to the United States six years ago, her Congolese mother chose to remain in her country and not go with her husband and daughter.

Sophie’s mother is in a remote part of the country, leaving Sophie and the sanctuary workers behind caring for the bonobos, when violence breaks out. An armed revolution has begun. Sophie’s American father and American passport may save her, give her a way to escape the violence, but Sophie cannot bring herself to abandon Otto. Sophie decides to stay with Otto. When the sanctuary itself is attacked, Sophie has to figure out a way to save herself and Otto.

The Good: I’ll be honest; this is another book that I was nudged to read because of it being named a finalist for the National Book Awards. Here, the reason is that I looked at the cover and thought, “animal book,” and I am not an animal person. No, really, despite sharing the house with three cats, six chickens, seven hermit crabs, two ant farms and (on a temporary basis) a bearded dragon. Plus, technically, the crickets that the bearded dragon eats.

So, yes, this is an “animal book” in that Sophie rescues and cares for Otto, a bonobo (a great ape, not a chimpanzee). Endangered will deliver what readers who want animal books want: the bonobos are front and center. The reader learns a lot about bonobos, why they are in danger (the violence in the country they live, as well as hunters and poachers), why a sanctuary is needed for them, why humans (such as Sophie) care for bonobos, how the bonobos interact with one another, and efforts to have the bonobos live in the wild without being in danger from humans. Endangered provides this information but never dumps it on the reader; it is always conveyed as part of the story, of what either Sophie is learning or observing as she takes care of Otto.

The bonobos live in Congo; and the situation there isn’t simple. As Sophie says at the start, “The Democratic Republic of Congo: Where Even the Bullet Holes Have Bullet Holes.” Sophie was born there, raised in the capital of Kinshasa for her first eight years, and now returns every summer. She is half American, and half Congolese, and Schrefer paints a portrait of a girl who is both insider and outsider in both worlds she lives in. In the States, she’d “been the only African girl in the whole school. I’d gotten plenty of looks, with my plastic slippers and hair whose kinkiness I hadn’t decided whether to embrace or fight.” In Congo, she is sometimes called “mundele,” because “any white person was called a mundele. It was a sarcastic way to paint anyone who as white as stuck-up. While my dad is white, my mom is black.”

By having Sophie be part American and part Congolese, Sophie has insider knowledge of what is happening in Congo and the history of that region and language. It also makes her enough of an outsider that when she ends up her own, with Otto, she has to be careful when she meets others Congelese. A revolution is going on, and she knows she is at risk, as a female and as an American. Endangered is a look at a country, it’s history and people and complexities. It’s not all violence and bullets — far from it. More on that below.

When the revolution breaks out, Sophie does not take advantage of the escape offered because of her passport because she refuses to abandon Otto. On one level, it’s because of her tight bond with Otto; go deeper, and it’s Sophie’s sense of responsibility because she fears that Otto has so bonded with her that he will not survive without her; go even deeper, and it’s about Sophie’s own issues from having been “abandoned” by her mother when her mother chose the bonobo sanctuary over moving to America with her husband and daughter. Sophie sacrifices safety and comfort to protect Otto. Endangered is also a coming of age story as Sophie matures, growing in understanding and acceptance of her mother’s own choices (including the realization that the choices weren’t simple) as well as her own choices in deciding to risk so much for a bonobo.

The risks of being in the middle of an armed conflict — Schrefer handles this with a perfect touch. The violence and risks are clear from the first page (bullet holes have bullet holes); and, yes, people are killed. People Sophie cares about are killed. There are scenes that are heart-breaking, but Schrefer knows just what to say and what not to say to portray the danger while not being unnecessarily graphic. For example, Sophie often observes the risks a girl faces alone. At the start she is in guarded areas, and later on she has to figure how to hide from others. Sophie never specifies that what she fears is sexual assault and rape.

Endangered becomes the ultimate survival story when Sophie refuses to leave Otto. The sanctuary is attacked, and Sophie escapes into the bonobo enclosure that is protected by an electrified fence. She is safe from the armed combatants but can hear the gunfire and screams; she has also locked herself into an enclosure with adult bonobos who may see her, a human, as a threat. There is no food, no shelter, and she has to care for Otto. As time passes, the enclosure no longer is safe and Sophie is forced into the countryside, trying to find a way to get to her mother.

As mentioned earlier, Sophie has much to fear, as a young girl traveling alone; as a person travelling with a bonobo that some may view as a food source. Sophie meets people as she travels, people who help, people she has to hide from. The diversity of the people of Congo is shown in her travels, as well as the staff at the sanctuary; while Sophie is caught in the midst of a revolution, it’s quite clear that Congo is more than a place of violence. One of the things I really liked about Endangered is the way it portrayed Congo and its people and its history. Sophie being forced outside the sanctuary and enclosure is another example of how Endangered is has multiple layers: the surface one of Sophie and Otto’s journey; the deeper one of Sophie being forced out of her childhood, having to rely only on herself, not on parents or friends or country.

I don’t want to spoil what happens, or give away the ending, because I know many people read to find out what happens. I will say that I liked how Sophie’s journey ends; I love the woman she becomes; I like that the ending is hopeful but not unrealistic and that what happens with Otto is likewise true to the situation rather than a Hollywood movie.

Endangered is easily one of my Favorite Books Read in 2012, because I adored Sophie even when I was yelling at her about her choices. I’ll be honest, I’d have gotten into the van for the airport and waved good-bye to Otto. This is a favorite book because despite being the non-animal person I ended up caring for Otto, and understanding why Sophie and her mother do what they do. More reasons I love this book: because I learned about the situation in Congo and the impact of wealthy foreigners on that country; because Sophie was smart and a survivor; because of the suspense and tension about what was going to happen to both Sophie and Otto; and because no easy, simple answers were given about Sophie, the bonobos, Congo, or the Congolese.

Other reviews: Educating Alice; A Patchwork of Books; Bookshelves of Doom; and The New York Times Book Review.

Review: Bomb

Bomb: The Race To Build – And Steal – The World’s Most Dangerous Weapon by Steve Sheinkin. Flash Point, an imprint of Roaring Brook Press, a division of Holtzbrinck Publishing. 2012. Edited to add that this is a Finalist for the YALSA Excellence in Nonfiction for Young Adults Award. Edited to add: Newbery Medal Honor book; Sibert Book Award; YALSA Nonfiction Award winner.

It’s About: One nice thing about non-fiction titles: they tell you up front what a book will be about. This is about the invention of the atomic bomb, told through three stories: the scientific journey from the discovery of nuclear fission to the creation of and use of the atomic bomb; the spy story, as various people in different countries provide information on the American program to the USSR; and the military story, as commandos worked behind enemy lines in Nazi held Europe to stop the Nazis from being the first to create an atomic bomb.

The Good: One of the reasons I like non-fiction is it shows why spoilers don’t matter. Most readers will know that the Americans were indeed the first to create and use the atomic bomb; so it’s not about whether it happens, but how and why. Because there are three story threads, there is even a possibility that one of those three (the spy story or the commando story) may be new to the reader, providing the suspense some readers need in their books.

One of the reasons I like reading the National Book Award finalists after they are announced is that I can read the book looking for why a title got the nod. Here, I think it’s because of the way the three stories are twined together and complement each other, as well as make each story stronger. It’s also that (like Sheinkin’s Benedict Arnold) the writing style puts the reader in the moment, with the real life characters and events being told.

For those who are aware of the historical events depicted, Sheinkin provides information (or doesn’t provide information) that is enlightening. For example, the details on the raids on Nazi-held plants and planned kidnapping of German scientists; or that Julius and Ethel Rosenberg play such a minor role in the spy ring that they appear on only a few pages and aren’t even mentioned in the index. As a personal aside, when I was growing up the guilt of the Rosenbergs was still hotly debated. (For more on the Rosenbergs, see, for example, The Rosenbergs: A Case of Love, Espionage, Deceit and Betray[al] at the Crime Library.) (As an aside, I would love a book on American Communists for younger readers, especially about things like red diaper babies, with both sympathy and honesty.) While the Rosenbergs don’t figure much in Bomb, many other dedicated Soviets who spy based on various personal and political reasons are mentioned, including both men and women and parents with young children.

See what just happened there? How I wondered about other things, even did a bit of research? That’s one thing I love about a good book: that it satisfies me, yes; but that it also makes me think and want to know more.

Because Bomb shows just how exciting science can be. Because Bomb juggled an amazingly large cast of characters, and it was always clear who was who. Because of the exciting narration and pace. This is one of my Favorite Books Read of 2012.

Other Reviews: BookEnds, a Booklist blog; Educating Alice; at Heavy Medal at SLJ, Nina’s Take and Jonathan’s Take.

Review: The Crown of Embers

The Crown of Embers by Rae Carson. Greenwillow Books, an imprint of HarperCollins. 2012. Sequel to The Girl of Fire and Thorns.

The Plot: Elisa, 17, is the Queen of Joya d’Arena following the death of her husband, the King. Her stepson, the Prince, is too young to reign.

Being a Queen isn’t easy:  she may bear the Godstone, have access to its power, have led the desert rebels and defeated the armies of the Invierne, but to her Quorum of advisers she is just a young girl, not a ruler. Assassination attempts reveal she has enemies but who are they? The Invierne? Or someone who wants her throne?

Elisa has the Godstone but isn’t quite sure how to use it. When she learns an ancient secret about the Godstone, she decides to risk everything to capture that power to lead her country. What will be the cost?

The Good: First things first: if you haven’t read The Girl of Fire and Thorns, please, do so. It’s necessary to understand where Elisa is now, how she became such a young queen, the different countries, the relationships between the people around her.

For those who have read the first book and are wondering about the second – yes, so good! If the first book was about Elisa growing up and gaining maturity, the second is about Elisa no longer being a girl and becoming a woman and Queen. “Becoming” is the key part; it’s not an easy path. It’s not about age or even about what she’s accomplished. It’s about Elisa taking responsibility: for what she has done and what she has not done, as both a queen and a woman.

Elisa is a queen, first. Carson writes about the reality of ruling, not the fairy tale. Crowns are heavy and uncomfortable. There is little or no overlap between what is best for the country, best for the Queen, and what is best for Elisa. Not only that, but as Elisa observes at one point, “being a queen means being strategic.” Elisa is pretty good at being strategic, but it’s still a learning process for her because there is nothing done without a cost. She may have been able to lead a group of close-knit rebels with one common goal, but ruling a country? With diverse interests? Who don’t know her? Such a different story. What strategies to follow? What is the right step? What is the least wrong step? Who can she trust?

Also: so much action! Assassination attempts and palace intrigue, an adventure in the desert, a ship, romance — well, I won’t give too much away.

One last thing: the last chapter. For what happens, what is revealed, and what is set up for the next book –it’s almost perfect. Why only “almost”? Because of the unbearable pleasure of having to wait for the next book. I particular liked what Carson didn’t tell the reader, what I – like Elisa – figured out on my own.

Yes, it’s a Favorite Book Read in 2012, because I just adore Elisa. (Though I have to say, I wish for a different cover. Elisa is brown skinned with brown hair, and I realize the cover is showing Elisa reflected in a gemstone, but, still.) I loved that this is a look at a “real” Queen, not a figure head or a “happy ever after” fairy tale. I loved that it’s about politics and trust as well as adventure and courage. I loved that not only is Elisa smart, but Carson expects me to be smart, also. I loved how this continues to be about Elisa becoming herself, growing into her own power and strength. And I love that I cannot guess where it will go.

Other reviews: Poetry to Prose; Leila Roy at Kirkus; Mimosa Stimulus review.

Review: Never Fall Down

Never Fall Down by Patricia McCormick. Balzer & Bray, an imprint of HarperCollins. 2012. Review copy from publisher.

The Plot: Cambodia, 1975. Arn, eleven, lives with his sisters and brother. The family is poor, yes, but they are close and have each other.

The are about to lose even that.

The Khmer Rouge seize power. Arn and his family and other inhabitants of the cities are sent into the country to work rice fields. It is part of Khmer Rouge’s politics and attempts at social engineering, but all Arn knows is that the Khmer Rouge kill people for any reason and no reason; that anyone who is educated is a target; that people are dying. That anyone, including Arn, could be next.

The children are separated from their families; like the other former city dwellers, they work long hours growing rice and only eat what they can grow. Luck touches Arn when the soldiers ask for musicians and Arn volunteers. It’s risky: attention from the Khmer Rouge often means death.

Arn’s goal is to survive, and despite the death and horror and killing around him, he does, day by day, moment by moment. Will he survive? And at what cost?

The Good: Never Fall Down is the fictionalized story of Arn Chorn-Pond, who, like Arn, survived the Khmer Rouge and the Killing Fields; became a musician and kept those around him alive; was a boy soldier. Chorn-Pond is now a humanitarian. At the end of the book, in addition to an Epilogue about what happened to the characters, McCormick relates Chorn-Pond’s involvement in the writing of the book,  her own interviews with people in Chorn-Pond’s life, the decision to make his life story a novel rather than a work of non-fiction, and the method the story is told.

When Arn leaves his aunt, she tells him, “Do whatever they say. Be like the grass. Bend low, bend low, then bend lower. The wind blows one way, you blow that way. It blow the other way, you do, too. That is the way to survive.” He listens to her, and her parting gift to him — to bend, to survive no matter what — saves his life. It also puts him in terrible situations, as witness to the brutalities of the Khmer Rouge. When the Vietnam invade the country, Arn fears them more than the Khmer Rouge so he takes up a gun, fighting on the behalf of the Khmer Rouge, even though he is a child himself. He takes up a gun, yes, but he has little choice — he has to follow the wind to survive.

Arn’s story is chilling. It is one of physical survival, day in, day out, with little food and comfort. It is also about mental and emotional survival. He’s torn from his family, so remakes his family, looking at those around him as his brothers. Arn is not sentimental about this, and while he takes risks to get extra food, for example, it is always calculated risks. This group that he soon looks at as people he needs to care of, who care for him, who are substitute brothers and father, become necessary for Arn’s own survival as a human being.

What Arn does, and does not do, is told in a rather matter of fact way. Yes, Arn is horrified by the things he sees but at the same time, “in just one day a person can get use to seeing dead body.” Each day, each month, there is more for Arn to get used to. Along the way he has to maintain his sense of self, to not become what he sees around him, and in addition to the “brothers” he helps is the music he learns. The Khmer Rouge may want music for their own political purposes, but it gives Arn a goal, a community, connections. As the reader learns at the end of the book, part of Chorn-Pond’s humanitarian work includes founding the Cambodian Living Arts group to preserve traditional Cambodian arts.

One thing that terribly impressed me was how this story is told. In some ways, I was reminded of Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt, because of the way the child’s point of view is always maintained and not influenced by adult remembrances. During Never Fall Down, one is always in the moment with Arn. Nothing is softened because of the passage of time; no wisdom is shared from the future Arn who knows how things will work out. And, only the details that matter to Arn are told. For example, the last couple of chapters are about teen-aged Arn finding a home in the United States. As an adult reader I had so many questions — but McCormick doesn’t answer them, instead keeping the story strictly to how Arn sees things and what matters to him.

I confess, even though this book was recommended to me by several people, I avoided reading it until it got the National Book Award Finalist nod. I knew Never Fall Down would be an emotional read, and I wasn’t ready for it. I am around Arn’s age; I remember reading about this in the news and magazines but I don’t remember any books for children about it. I am so thankful it was named a finalist, giving me the push I needed to read it. Yes, it is heartbreaking. Yes, it relates some terrible things. Yes, the way people treat others is distressing. Death and bodies and killings. Arn survives; Arn triumphs; but it’s not in expected ways. I can see why this is a finalist. In one word: Arn, because Never Fall Down gives Arn a voice, and it’s a spellbinding voice that cannot be ignored. I’m also adding it to my Favorite Books Read in 2012.

Reviews and links: Reading Rants review (which includes link to an interview with McCormick and Chorn-Pond, including Chorn-Pond playing Cambodian music); The New York Times Review; NPR Author interview; TeenReads review.

Review: The FitzOsbornes at War

The FitzOsbornes at War, the Montmaray Journals, Book III by Michelle Cooper. Knopf Books for Young Readers. 2012. Sequel to Sequel to A Brief History of Montmaray and The FitzOsbornes in Exile. Reviewed from ARC from publisher.

The Plot: Life in Great Britain during World War II, as told by Sophie FitzOsborne. The FitzOsborne story began in the mid 1930s in A Brief History of Montmaray, centering on life on their small, island kingdom and how and why the Germans invaded and took over Montmaray. The family fled their home, and The FitzOsbornes in Exile was about their adjustment to life in England as well as what was happening in the years leading up to World War II.

The war touches Sophie, her siblings and cousins in many ways. Her brother Toby and family friend/cousin, Simon, are in uniform, as are many of their friends. Sophie and her cousin, Veronica, both find civilian ways to help the war effort. Family issues don’t stop just because a country is at war: younger sister Henrietta rebels against tutors and boarding schools, their aunt is concerned with money and status and her nieces’ possible marriages, and the question of the recovery of Montmaray looms over everything.

The Good: I have adored this series from the first page, when we met Sophie as she wrote in a castle on an island, surrounded by family and nothing else. A princess with no money or resources and a mad uncle.

The FitzOsbornes at War is both what I wanted and what I needed from this series’ conclusion, but also not what I expected. It tells the story of what it was like, being a young woman during the war: the fears, the desire to do something, the dangers, the rationing, the bombings, the worries over loved ones. Going in, I knew one thing for certain: people would be hurt. People would die. It would be dishonest for anything other to happen in a book about a war, a book where the main characters are young adults in their late teens and early twenties who are in the armed forces or in places being bombed nightly. Cooper is not dishonest. She does not hold back.

Sophie, as ever, is an engaging storyteller. This is her journal, and it jumps ahead, sometimes, but it’s always smoothly written. I adored not just the details of daily living, and a civilian’s view of historical events, but also the inclusion of real people such as Kathleen “Kick” Kennedy. Sophie is energetic, she is enthusiastic, she is wonderful. She goes through a lot; she suffers great loss; but she remains Sophie. The perspective is of someone who is trying, trying, trying so hard despite it all to be young, and to enjoy dances, and to fall in love.

Nope, I’m not going to give much more in terms of spoilers than that. Well, yes, the general history of World War II is hardly a spoiler, but the day to day things?The details? And how it all impacts Sophie and her family? That’s for a reader to discover, and to cry over. And, sometimes, even, to be happy about. As with the two previous books, when it comes to the real history and historical figures, it’s a mix of things a reader will recognize and things that will be new (did that really happen?).

The only thing I was disappointed about? I wish there had been more about Montmaray; there is some, don’t get me wrong, and I like what happens with that storyline and the resolution, but part of what drew me into the storyline was Montmaray so I wanted more. That said, I’ll be clear: I love this look at World War II.

As for who was hurt, who died, who lost, who loved? Oh. My. Goodness. I was shocked and I cried. And one of the resolutions was so perfect and yet so unexpected that all I could think was, well played, you. Perfect. This is the end of the trilogy,  yes — but am I the only one who wants more? Perhaps what is happening to the contemporary FitzOsbornes, the descendants of the ones who survived the war? (See how I did that, not giving anything away?)

Because this series, read in its entirety, is a wonderful whole story of Sophie’s life as a teenager and young woman. Because of the look it takes at the 1930s and 1940s. Because it’s not what I expected and it took wonderful risks that paid off. This is a Favorite Book Read in 2012.

One last point: in part because of how Sophie and her siblings and cousins and friends age, this book easily crosses over, with appeal for both adults and teens. It also would make a terrific miniseries.

Other reviews: Oxford Erin; Read Alert blog from State Library of Victoria.

Review: The Opposite of Hallelujah

The Opposite of Hallelujah by Anna Jarzab. Delacorte Books for Younger Readers, Random House. 2012. Reviewed from ARC from publisher.

The Plot: Caro Mitchell’s older sister, Hannah, left home eight years ago, when Caro was eight. Hannah was nineteen; it’s not unusual for kids to have older sisters go off for college or to make their way in the world. So why has Caro, at best, pretended to be an only child? Or, at worst (like four years ago, when she was twelve), say her sister was dead? Because Hannah didn’t do what most older siblings do: leave home to live her life in a way people would understand. Hannah joined the Sisters of Grace convent, a contemplative order where the only direct contact members have with family is a half-hour meeting via an iron grill. How do you explain that to your friends? Luckily, Caro doesn’t. Hannah is far away.

Until the phone call comes. Hannah is leaving the order; Hannah is coming home. Caro isn’t happy about it. She barely remembers Hannah. Caro reacts poorly to Hannah’s return, and ends up creating trouble with her friends and boyfriend. Neither Hannah nor their parents are dealing with Hannah’s return much better. Caro realizes that she needs to understand — to understand both why Hannah left the convent and why Hannah joined the convent in the first place. These are questions that Hannah and their parents don’t want to think about, so Caro is left on her own to try to sort out what happened.

The Good: I adored Jarzab’s first book, All Unquiet Things. In my review, I called it “pure brilliance.” I was so excited to hear about Jarzab’s second book, The Opposite of Hallelujah, but I was afraid, also. A second book can be like a second date: what if the guy isn’t that funny, cute, or smart after all? I almost didn’t want to request a copy from NetGalley. Wowza, I am so, so glad I did!

Caro’s life seems almost perfect: good friends, a cute boyfriend, doting parents and then Hannah comes back and ruins it all. Caro and Hannah barely know each other; not only was Hannah in the contemplative community, Caro refused to go for the half-hour visits for the past few years. I’ll be honest: at times I thought Caro was being a spoiled brat about Hannah, and lacking in any type of empathy about Hannah’s homecoming. When I reread my review for All Unquiet Things, I saw this: “Jarzab does something that is quite daring for a book: she makes characters unlikable.  . . . [I]t is because they each are at times unlikeable that the book is so strong. They are not perfect; they are human; they have failings.” That, in a nutshell, describes the two Mitchell sisters and it is why this book is so wonderful. Caro and Hannah are painfully honest in their reactions to situations, and sometimes, what people do is less than perfect.

While there is a bit of a mystery here (why Hannah entered not just a convent, but a contemplative convent) this is more a story of family, and a coming of age, as Hannah’s return forces Caro to grow up. Or, rather, it forces her to think outself her narrow world of only daughter. One minute Caro’s practically an only child; the next, there is someone else in her house, someone with her own history and memories with the family that have nothing to do with Caro. It’s not just that Hannah is her sister who has returned; it’s that Hannah is eleven years older, so there is eleven years that had nothing to do with Caro. As Caro admits, “I’d never liked being reminded that my family had once existed quite happily without me in it.” That may be ugly, but it’s honest and raw and honesty is what I want in my books. The beatuy of The Opposite of  Hallelujah is how Caro moves beyond that initial response.

I have to say, I am usually hesitant about books that deal with religious themes. I’m picky; I don’t want a religious tract pretending to be fiction, but I also don’t want a book where religion is not something smart people do because, well, smart people are too smart for religion. Those are extremes, yes, but as I said — I get leery.

The Opposite of Hallelujah treatment of religion, belief, and religious people is almost perfect. Hannah’s reasons for joining, and leaving, are treated with respect and sympathy; the complexity of religious life is shown.

Just as wonderful as the sensitivity with which The Opposite of Hallelujah treats the subject matter is the language. I know I’ve made this sound intense — religious convents and returned sisters, families and secrets and ugly feelings — but it’s also funny and insightful. Here is Caro, on an ex (and haven’t we all felt this way?): “It was amazing how differently you saw some people once the fog of flattery and attention had burned away.” Caro has good friends; there is an interesting love interest; and the full story of Hannah broke my heart. This, at the end, is why I adored this book: “The past doesn’t disappear, but it doesn’t have to define your future.”

For all these reasons, The Opposite of Hallelujah is a Favorite Book Read in 2012.

Other reviews: YA? Why Not?

Review: Adaptation

Adaptation by Malinda Lo. Little, Brown. 2012. Reviewed from ARC from publisher.

The Plot: Reese and David are returning home from nationals for debate  (they lost, don’t ask) when the world seems to go crazy. They are at the airport when birds begin attacking planes; a series of crashes forces the shut down of all air travel. Their teacher manages to rent a car for the long drive home from Phoenix to San Francisco, but panic on the streets has led to traffic, road closures, evacuations, and worse.

The car hits a bird and crashes; twenty-odd days later, Reese wakes up on a military base. She and David are lucky to be alive. They return home, to relieved parents, to a world that is has recovered from the panic but still has some measure, such as curfews, in place.

All seems normal; even Reese’s best friend, Julian, still believes in conspiracy theories. Only thing is now his theories involve birds and what’s been happening after the crashes. Things even start looking up for Reese personally. After a disastrous encounter with her crush, David, before nationals (don’t ask), Reese meets someone new. All seems normal.

Seems normal.

Except, it’s not. What happened with the birds? And what happened to Reese and David in the military hospital? Why did they have to sign confidentiality agreements about their treatment? Reese is noticing strange things, having strange dreams —

It all comes together in a way Reese couldn’t imagine, couldn’t predict, when she saw the first birds die outside a Phoenix airport.

The Good: So many twists and turns! Just when I thought, aha, THIS is what is going on, BAM, twist, BAM, secret, BAM, not what you think. Why would I ruin this roller coaster adventure ride for you by telling those secrets?

As you can imagine, from that, Adaptation has action and adventure and romance and science fiction, along with other things, and it’s all woven together wonderfully. More than wove together; sometimes, those elements are almost red herrings for what is “really” going on. One minute, birds are attacking and Reese and David are in a horror-type movie, taking a road trip from hell to get back home; the next, they are in a hospital wondering just what happened during the previous month. Next thing, Reese is home and adjusting to being back home, and part of that includes meeting Amber Gray, the girl who sets Reese’s heart racing, so things slow down, a bit, to a cute romance.

Or should I say hot romance? “[Amber] pulled at her hand, like a girl tugging on the string of a balloon that has floated nearly all the way up to the sky, and just like that balloon, Reese felt herself drawn downward, half-floating, half-sinking, towards Amber.”

Reese is dating Amber, adjusting to the realization that she likes girls (but she also likes David), but that doesn’t stop Reese’s nightmares or concerns about what went on while she was at that military base.

Reese, Amber, David — let me say this is one of my favorite love triangles in a YA book. Reese is attracted to both Amber and David; there are no good or bad guys. Yes, Reese likes boys and girls (well, at least one boy,  David, and one girl, Amber), and that’s another aspect about Adaptation. It’s multicultural and diverse, in a casual way, meaning it’s no big deal. It’s not a thing. The teens and adults in Adaptation are straight, bi, and gay; they are white, African American, Asian American. Except, it is a big deal to YA readers because too often the “default” for books is all white, all straight.

Because Adaptation is as diverse as our society. Because it kept twisting and turning, from adventure to romance to love triangle to conspiracy theories. Because I didn’t realize just where it was going to go, even though all the clues were there. Because Reese is smart and vulnerable. This is a Favorite Book Read in 2012.

Review: The Raven Boys

The Raven Boys by Maggie Stiefvater. Scholastic. 2012. Reviewed from arc from publisher. Official website.

The Plot: Blue Sargent, sixteen, is part of a family of psychics in Henrietta, Virginia. Since she can remember, the same prediction has been made about her: she would kill her true love. With a kiss. Blue keeps people at arms length, to make sure that prediction doesn’t come true or is at least delayed.

Richard “Dick” Campbell Gansey III attends Aglionby Academy, an exclusive boys school in Henrietta Virginia. He’s on a quest to discover Owen Glendower, a Welsh king who led armies against the English and disappeared in the early fifteenth century. He’s pulled his friends into his search: Ronan, Adam, Noah.

Blue stays away boys like Gansey, rich, spoiled, Raven boys. When their paths cross, she knows she should stay away from them. Gansey, rich and driven. Adam, the scholarship student with a chip on his shoulder. Ronan, lost and angry following the death of his father. Noah, quiet, watching, observing. Blue knows she should stay away —  but she cannot help it. The adventure of finding Glendower, of discovering the magic in the world, the laughter and trust of friendship, and, maybe, love.

Oh, those Raven boys.

The Good: This book is better than a hot fudge sundae. With whipped cream. No, really.

Blue knows the supernatural is real. She’s in a family of psychics, remember? She’s not one; her gift is to make the talent of those around her stronger. Gansey hopes the supernatural is real. Yes, he’s good at finding things, and yes, he’s spent years and trust fund money on the search for Glendower. It’s not the burial place he wants. Gansey is convinced that Glendower is only sleeping and can be woken. Gansey’s belief is so strong that he’s persuaded Ronan and Adam and Noah to join him on his quest. Part of the fun of The Raven Boys is how Blue and Gansey and the others meet up. How they form a team. No, more than a team, a friendship.

Oh, and if you’re thinking if Blue’s family is psychic why don’t they just look into the future and see everything —  that’s not quite how it works. As Blue explains at one point, it’s “a realization that even if you had discovered the future, it really didn’t change how you lived in the present. They were truth, but they weren’t all of the truth.” Perhaps that is the reason why, despite the prediction that Blue will kill her true love, she doesn’t keep the boys at arms length. She even finds herself falling for one of them. So easy to think, before it happens, oh, she’ll stay away from boys and so keep herself and her true love safe. So different when the boy you want is real, rather than a hypothetical.

While raving about this book on Twitter, someone asked if there was a cliffhanger ending. No, not really. The Raven Boys is the first in a four part series; and this part is about a necessary step that needs to be taken in the search for Glendower. There are twists and turns, and surprising things happen, and there are hints that there are more layers to the supernatural than is shown. There are the secrets and references — for example, I’m convinced that Stiefvater refers to a geis, just not by name. Which, if true, shows that for all the reader thinks they know by the end of The Raven Boys, there is so much more to learn.

I loved this book; and yes, it’s a Favorite Book Read in 2012. Unfortunately for you, and frustrating for me, some of the things I want to gush over are, well, spoilerish. (My definition of spoiler — things I wouldn’t want to know before reading.) So, alas, this book review is short except to say — Blue, Gansey, Noah, Ronan, and Adam are all wonderful characters. No, not characters, people, they are that real. The myth and magic and supernatural woven into the real world is just the type of fantasy I adore, and I can’t wait to see how much more is shown in the next books. There are turns and twists and reveals that made me reread this book right away, because I wanted to stay in this world but also because I wanted a better appreciation of how The Raven Boys was put together. What was told when? What was shared when?

How’s that for a lovefest with few details? Like I said: a hot fudge sundae of a book.