Review: Doll Bones

Doll Bones by Holly Black. McElderry Books. 2013. Reviewed from ARC from publisher.

The Plot: Zach, Poppy, and Alice  get together nearly everyday to play an elaborate game with dolls, action figures, and stories that grow and twist and turn, all related to the “Great Queen” doll that Poppy’s mother keeps locked in a cabinet.

They’re twelve now and things are beginning to change. Zach is playing basketball and his father is telling him he’s too old to play pretend games. Alice is acting different at school.

The game seems over, as does their friendship, when Poppy shares that she’s been dreaming about the “Great Queen” doll and a little girl who died years ago. The ghost of the girl is demanding that her doll be buried with her.

Zach, Poppy, and Alice are about to go on a real adventure.

The Good: A ghost story — is the Great Queen doll haunted?

An adventure, as Zach, Poppy, and Alice find out the background of the “Great Queen” doll, where she was made, and try to figure out who the dead girl is.

And, a story about growing up and, maybe, growing apart, and the intense, physical sense of loss that brings.

Doll Bones is a great book for those in middle school, or about to go in. There is the haunting (though some may argue that it’s all just a story that Poppy has made up, like the stories she makes up for the games she, Zach and Alice play). There is also a terrific adventure, and I liked how the three figured out bus schedules and how much money they had for food and all those sort of details. These three had to investigate and research and do — all great; plus, since this is about growing up, all those things are showing how, yes, these three are getting older and more responsible. Well, more responsible if you ignore the running away (technically) to do so.

Growing up —  what Doll Bones is really about is growing up and growing apart. I adored the game the three played, and I got so mad at Zach’s father for trying to stop his son from playing, and at the same time, I read about the game and the play-acting and knew that what Poppy is fighting is true, no matter what: that they are outgrowing the game. That some of them may be outgrowing it faster than others. That children grow and change and it happens. The ghost that will haunt Zach and Poppy and Alice will not be the ghost of a long dead child, but rather the ghost of their childhood and their games, even if some things (friendships, creativity) will survive. It is also the games, and all they learned pretending, that makes them able to go on a real adventure, and that, also, is growing up, taking the skills practiced in games and doing it for real.

Because there is so much in Doll Bones — on one level, a ghost story and an adventure, on another, about the loss of childhood — this is a Favorite Book Read in 2013.

Other reviews: A Fuse #8 Production.

 

 

 

Review: Why We Broke Up

Why We Broke Up by Daniel Handler, illustrated by Maira Kalman. Little, Brown. 2011. Reviewed from ARC and final copy from publisher. My teaser.

The Plot: Min Green and Ed Slaterton have broken up. She gives him a box: a box, full of objects from the time they dated, from October 5 to November 12. The arty girl (no, don’t call her that) and the jock. Along with the box is a letter, Min’s letter to Ed, explaining — why we broke up. Explaining to Ed, explaining to herself, why they got together and why they broke up.

The Good: This is Min’s story, her long, glorious, honest letter to Ed about how and why they got together, and fell in love, despite — or maybe because of — being so different. Ed, a jock, popular; Min, who loves old films and coffee with friends.

Min sends a box of objects to Ed; and I love that Min does this, that she is the girl who holds onto these items and then sends them Ed and I wonder — will Ed read the letter? Will he go through the box and match the things to the letter, remember as she remembers? Or will the box go into the closet, under the stairs, in the trash?

Each object, each bottle cap and note, is illustrated in full color by Maira Kalman. (More on the book design and the ARC at my teaser). The final copy is gorgeous; the paper, thick and fine and smooth, deserving of Kalman’s illustrations. The attention to detail is stunning –under the jacket, the book cover is scattered rose petals. The endpapers (front and back both unique) are the beginning and end of the story. I first read this in advance review copy; my second time was the final book. Having all the artwork, and all the artwork in color, didn’t just make the book prettier. It also added an element of wonder, of guessing, of wondering just what is the significance of the item shown. Some have great meaning; others do not; and that is part of the reality of life and love and adds to the depth of the book. Sometimes a protractor is just a protractor.

Why did Ed and Min break up? Like the films Min loves, on one level, the reason is surprising and unexpected. On another, the romance is doomed from the start, with all the clues and reasons laid out from the beginning, making one wonder not why they broke up but why they managed to stay together for as long as they did.

Min and Ed are in two different cliques and two different worlds. Since Min is telling the story, it is always her point of view, and Ed’s world of basketball and bonfires and beer seems almost a cliche at times. Min cannot help revealing clues to show that Ed’s life is as three dimensional as her own; because, really, otherwise would she ever have given him a second look? And is her old films and coffee clique any less cliche? But back to Ed —  Min goes to a couple of basketball practices, playing the role of good, supportive girlfriend, and Min tells it to the reader and Ed to say, look what I did, I went to your boring practice, for you I was almost one of those girls who go to practice just to watch their boyfriends. While this is never a book about Min learning to appreciate basketball, the reader sees just how much Ed’s life and identity revolves around basketball, that it takes time and effort and work for him to be co-captain, and the reader wonders, even though Min never does, if a team gives Ed the support and family he doesn’t have at home. Handler gives the reader enough so they can see things Min does not. Or, rather, that Min cannot, because she is both trying to figure out who she is and also working through the hurt of her breakup.

And Min — oh, Min. Min, with her love of movies, not just any movies but old movies. Don’t bother IMDB’ing the films and stars she mentions, because they are films just for the book, vaguely familiar, but not quite. Min loves films and sees her world through them, views life, sometimes, as a film, creating events and parties as if it were a scene. (Ruby Oliver would approve.) It is clear that, even though Min may not realize it, that she watches the films in part to be The  Girl Who Watches Old Films. Refreshingly, Min is no mini expert, has yet to learn terms like avant garde because until a friend lends her a book, she hasn’t read about or studied film. I like how even though this is about how Min and Ed broke up, it’s also about Min growing as a person as shown by her learning more about movies.

I confess, after reading Why We Broke Up and put it back on the shelf, I think about Min and Ed as if it were real. What crazy party scheme is Min thinking up now? Doe Ed still drink his coffee the same way Min does? And because of that — because I care both about Min and Ed — this is a Favorite Book Read in 2011.

Review: The Demon’s Surrender

The Demon’s Surrender by Sarah Rees Brennan. Margaret K. McElderry Books, an imprint of Simon & Schuster. 2011. Book 3 in The Demon’s Lexicon Series. Book One: The Demon’s Lexicon; Book Two: The Demon’s Covenant. Reading anything after this point is spoilers for the rest of the series. Personal copy.

The Plot: Sin and Mae have been named as the two potential future leaders of the Goblin market. For Sin, 16, a fourth generation Dancer in the Market, the Market is her life. Life used to be simple. Her enemies were the Market’s enemies: demons and magicians. Tourists, even her own father, are best kept at arm’s length. Take care of your own: those in the Market and her younger siblings.

How can Mae possibly become a leader when she is just a tourist, even if she is able to Dance up a demon? Plus, Mae’s brother Jamie is a magician in the deadly and ruthless Aventurine Circle. It’s not just magicians Mae seem close to; there are also the Ryves brothers. Know it all Alan, so self righteous, who Sin owes because he saved her baby brother. And Nick . . . Nick, whose handsome exterior masks a demon.

Will Sin win leadership of the Market? Or will she lose everything?

The Good: First things first; yes, this is a series, and yes, these books are best read in order. At this point, please check my prior reviews (links above) for The Demon’s Lexicon and The Demon’s Covenant. The bigger question, with this being the last book in the series, is — is it worth it? Should a reader invest their time in reading this series? The answer, I’m happy to say, is “yes.” Those of you who were waiting because you want to read a series all at once will be richly rewarded with this intricate examination of magic, power, politics, choice, family, and love.

Each of the books in the series uses a different point of view to tell the story: first Nick, then Mae, now Sin. This shift in perspectives not only changes the knowledge and emotions motivating the narrator, it also shifts the story priorities and world-view. The Market as Nick and Mae saw it is different than how Sin sees it. Sin’s loyalty to the Market is so great, she hasn’t told her father about her younger half siblings.

As a born and bred Market girl, Sin often sees the trees and not the whole forest. Sin also has secrets of her own, that risk her future. Sin is a good choice to narrate the third book: it bring the reader into the tight, clannish Market world in a way they weren’t before, because the Ryves brothers were visitors with some knowledge and connections and Mae was a tourist overwhelmed with the newness of it all. It makes sense that now that the reader is more familiar with and comfortable with the Market world, that a Market girl tells the tale. It also increases the stakes of what could be lost if the Market is lost, because Sin — unlike Alan, Nick, Mae and Jamie — has no where else to go.

Sin has many different balls to juggle — sister, daughter, Dancer, friend, potential leader, student — much like Rees Brennan has many plot points that need to be addressed to create a satisfying end to this series. What can I say without spoiling the ending? Rees Brennan takes those threads and weaves a fulfilling and exciting story. Like the previous two books there are twists and turns and much plotting and the reader only knows what Sin knows. What Sin doesn’t know is that she’s in a Sarah Rees Brennan book. I know that not everything is as it looks, and people lie and hold back information. I figured out one twist (one of about, oh, a dozen) and I liked finding out I was right about at least one thing. And wrong about others. Further complicating it are certain things the reader has learned: Alan lies, a lot; and demons like Nick always tell the truth.

Sin and Mae’s relationship was refreshing, because they are two strong-willed, opinionated, ambitious women. It would have been easy to make them enemies, but they are not. They are friends who want the same thing. At times, on Sin’s behalf, I wish she got angrier at Mae. Sin recognizes it is better to have the warmth of friendship than the coldness of enmity. Can I also add that I loved that the Sin/Mae triangle was not a love triangle (who will get the boy?) but a power triangle (who will become leader)?

The Demon’s Surrender, like the two books that came before, is full of action and fight scenes: knives, swords, guns, and, of course, magic. People die; people get hurt. I’m not sure why,but the violence in this book really hit home, seemed more real, even though the earlier books had violent deaths. Maybe it was because Sin was not just fighting, as the others fight, but also protecting: a younger sister and toddler brother who depend entirely on Sin.

Oh, I’ll give one spoiler. There is a love interest for Sin. The unlikely Alan. Unlikely, because while readers of the series have adored Alan since the start (or, at least, this reader), Sin did not. It takes her a bit longer to come around to our side.

Alan, Alan, Alan. I have one critical thing to say about Alan, or, rather, the jacket illustration. I’ve been picturing him as Eric Stoltz (circa Some Kind of Wonderful), so the cover made me go “that’s not MY Alan.” But picture in my head aside, I love the colors and illustration: the burning sky, the London skyline (most of this is set in London), Alan and his bow and arrow that hints of battles to come.

I heartily enjoyed The Devil’s Lexicon trilogy and recommend it for its adventure, action, twists, turns, humor, and romance. Sin is a terrific, conflicted, complex character. For all this (and for how the book ended!), this is one of my Favorite Reads of 2011. I’m looking forward to rereading these books one right after another.

Review: Real Live Boyfriends

Real Live Boyfriends (Yes, boyfriends, plural. If my life weren’t complicated, I wouldn’t be Ruby Oliver) by E. Lockhart. Delacorte, an imprint of Random House. 2010. Review copy from publisher.

The Plot: Ruby Oliver is now a senior and has a real! live! boyfriend! Everything is terrific, until Noel goes away to visit his brother for the summer and starts acting strange and distant. Ruby handles the situation with her typical Rubyness, which means plenty of humor with the occasional heartbreak.

The Good: Ruby Oliver was first introduced to the world in The Boyfriend List (15 guys, 11 shrink appointments, 4 ceramic frogs and me, Ruby Oliver). Ruby was fifteen, suffering from panic attacks, and had just started seeing a therapist. Her school was full of ex-boyfriends and ex-friends. I know, that sounds heavy, but The Boyfriend List was laugh out loud funny because of Ruby, and how she told the story, and her wide range of pop culture references. The Boyfriend List was also a very clear look at high school social politics, of friendships and frenemies and boys and boyfriends.

Next came The Boy Book (A Study of Habits and Behaviors, Plus Techniques for Taming Them). Ruby was now a junior and while less isolated and lonely than in The Boyfriend List, she is still sorting out the complicated emotional baggage ex-friendship brings. Ruby narrates, and part of the joy of each book is how the reader observes things Ruby doesn’t.

The Treasure Map of Boys: Noel, Jackson, Finn, Hutch–and me, Ruby Oliver continued Ruby’s junior year. Ruby (as the titles indicate) continued to be boy obsessed and continued to be sorting out her relationships with family, friends, and boys. Part of Ruby’s charm is her self-absorption,  and her growing awareness of being less self-centered and also of taking ownership of her actions and their consequences. Not in a “deal with the bad consequences” way, no; but in a “don’t pretend you drift through life and stuff just happens way.” I made the infinitely stupid comment in my review of the third book that Ruby’s story felt done.

Ha.

Which brings us to the fourth Ruby book, Real Live Boyfriends. Ruby is a senior and has a real! live! boyfriend! One thing I like about Ruby is how she projects and reacts to things and doesn’t always see the full picture. While the reader doesn’t know why Noel starts acting differently around Ruby — or, rather, stops acting in the way Ruby expects a real live boyfriend to act — the reader can see that some of what is going on is that Ruby has a clear vision in her head of what should be and what should not be. Which can be a bit tricky for those who aren’t in her head. Ruby has to work out two things: one, speaking up about what is happening insider her head and vocalizing her fears and disappointments instead of pretending everything is OK, as well as realizing that how she processes things and interacts with people is not the same way others process and interact and that is OK.

What really struck me with Real Live Boyfriends is how much I’d been taken in by Ruby’s boycraziness and loneliness and wanting friends that somehow I had stopped viewing Ruby’s panic attacks as something serious. This book really hit home that what this quartet of books is about is teens and mental health. This may be one of the few young adult novels out there that honestly addresses mental health issues in a way that is not message-driven and does not make the mental health issue the point of the book. Ruby’s panic attacks are part of who Ruby is, not the sole thing about Ruby.

As is obvious from the start of this, the Ruby books are best read in order. Not because of them being sequential and building on one another, which they are and do; but, rather, because combined they tell one story, of Ruby, as she matures and grows over the course of three years. It’s a true coming of age work and as I closed the book I wished that there was an award for best series, because the strength of some stories are not in their individual volumes but rather in the complete story. I don’t mean to say that the individual books aren’t strong — they are wonderful — but the true magic and genius of what Lockhart has done is revealed by looking at Ruby over the course of the entire series.

And now, for some quotes because I just adore Ruby’s voice:

Even though I know there is no such thing as a happy ending [7], a little part of me thought I had found one . . . . Even though having a real live boyfriend didn’t solve my mental problems or fix my family. Even though life wasn’t a movie. It still felt like a happy ending. It did. Until eight weeks later. [7 You can’t have an ending. It’s impossible. Because unlike in the movies, life goes on. You’re never at the end until you die.” I wasn’t sure how to replicate the footnotes, but wow, I love how Ruby views her life through movie lenses even as she knows that is foolish.

Which brings me to “but life is not a movie, as I continually forced to acknowledge.”

Me too, Ruby. Me too.

Review: The Last Little Blue Envelope

 The Last Little Blue Envelope by Maureen Johnson. HarperCollins. 2010. Review from ARC from ALA Midwinter.

The Plot: In Thirteen Little Blue Envelopes, Ginny Blackstone was left thirteen envelopes by her late aunt, resulting in a tour of Europe that pushed Ginny outside her comfort zone and gave her some insight and understanding into the life of her Aunt Peg. Unfortunately, it all ended with the unopened thirteenth envelope was stolen.

It’s a few months later and Ginny is in her senior year, trying to figure out her future as well as to keep living the lessons she learned over the summer. To her surprise, she is contacted by a stranger who has found the stolen envelopes … and a new adventure begins.

The Good: I’m sure I’m not the only one who threw Thirteen Little Blue Envelopes across the room when the last envelope was stolen. ARGH. And while I understood and it made perfect sense for the book, I still was very ARGH about it. So I was pleased as punch when I heard that there was going to be a sequel and my torment would end.

Yes, this is a sequel, so yes, I recommend reading the first book first. I read the first one when it came out and yes, I forgot some of the key points and no doubt my reading experience would have been richer had I reread the book. But, I didn’t, and I still enjoyed it.

Ginny is hilarious. I love her observations and internal commentary on what is happening. From early on in the book: “She looked at the calendar she had made for herself out of sticky notes on the wall next to her desk. Today’s note read: Sunday, December 12: FINISH ESSAY!!!!! NO, SERIOUSLY, THIS TIME FINISH THE ESSAY!!!!! And a few lines down, the due date: January 5. She pulled it off the wall and tossed it into the trash. Shut up, note. She didn’t take orders from anything that had a glue strip.” The whole book is like this; so if you’re looking for smart humor, read The Last Little Blue Envelope. (Which, for some reason, I keep wanting to call The Thirteenth Envelope.)

The mysterious Oliver contacts Ginny about the found letters; he is all and “come to London now if you want your letters back.” Kind of like Aunt Peg was to Ginny: “do what I say in the blue envelopes.” Ginny takes her winter holiday break to go to London, stay with her Aunt Peg’s husband, and, honestly, to see Keith, her “kind of something” flirty-kissy friend she met in the first book. And, yes, to get the envelope. It all turns out to be exactly what Ginny planned… and nothing like Ginny planned. The last envelope contains new directions that send Ginny to a mix of new and old places, and this time she has friends to keep her company. 

By the end of this book, I was resolved to start saving my money immediately to go to London, Paris, Dublin, and the other places Ginny visits. Johnson does a spectacular job of conveying a range of settings, in a way that makes you wish you were there. Except, I wouldn’t stay in hostels. Unless I had my own bathroom and my own bedroom.

Oliver and Keith are two very different, very interesting boys with a realistic mix of good and bad characteristics. Both, at times, do things that make you want to hit them — you know, a back of the head “thwap.” Both, at times, do things that make you go “awwww”. Neither is perfect. To say much more would give away those things I enjoyed learning for myself, so I will leave other readers the joy (and sorrow) of reading it themselves.

One quibble I had about the first book was that the free-spirited, artsy Aunt wanted to shake up her niece’s world and make her niece more free-spirited and artsy and did so by providing specific rules and “to do”s. On one level, it worked in that Ginny is the type of girl who needed that push and needed, well, those specifics. Also, since Aunt Peg wasn’t going to be around to do it in person — to take Ginny on a spontaneous tour of Europe — she was trying to do the next best thing. At the time, I told myself “this is the conceit of the book. Accept it, move along.” Still, it was a bit too “planned spontaneity.”

I was really pleased that halfway through The Last Little Blue Envelope, one of the characters raises some of the exact questions I had: “”Those rules, they were a bit mental.” “Did you ever think that she expected you to break some of them?”Maybe you like all the rules, the backtracking, the games.” I liked someone in text thinking what I had, and also leading me to new answers, such as Aunt Peg knowing Ginny would enjoy the game-aspect of the letters. Ginny didn’t just need that guidance; she wanted it. Aunt Peg knew her niece. And knew how to reach out and give Ginny what she needed and wanted.

I had forgotten how much of the first book was about art, creation of art, and the way an artist looks at the world. Aunt Peg’s last letter to Ginny is as much about giving Ginny a quest as it is about giving Ginny some training and education on art. Actually, I have a theory about that… when more people have read, let’s discuss.

Review: White Cat

White Cat (The Curse Workers, Book One) by Holly Black. Margaret K. McElderry Books, an imprint of Simon & Schuster. 2010. Review copy from publisher. Also listened to the audiobook version, copy from the library.

The Plot: For Cassel Sharpe, 17, life is about family, curses, and the con. His family is full of curse workers — people who with a touch of the hand can curse you. Make you fall in love, invade your dreams, alter your memory, even kill you. Cassel is the lone non-worker in a family of workers.

As Cassel knows from helping his family, all criminals of one degree or another, you don’t have to be a worker to run a con. You don’t have to be a worker for people to be afraid of you. You don’t have to be a worker to kill someone.

When Cassel was 14, he killed his best friend, Lila. The daughter, and heir, of one of the big crime families. His family sent him off to a fancy boarding school, to protect him and to hide him and keep him out of the way. He keeps his hand in the game by doing a little bit of bookmaking.

One night Cassel almost dies: he has slept walked onto the roof of his school while having a disturbing dream about a white cat eating his tongue. He goes home and notices that his brothers are keeping things from him. Is he being kept out of the family’s biggest con because he’s not a worker? Or, even worse — is he being used? Is he being worked?

In a life full of lies, where even memories and emotions can be manipulated, Cassel has to figure out the truth.

The Good: This is an amazing mash-up of genres and I am head over heels in love. Maybe an emotion worker touched me with an ungloved hand while I wasn’t looking, but no, I think my love for White Cat is real and true. It’s difficult enough to write about a con, to write a mystery, to write about the supernatural or the mafia or family or friendship. To write about them all at once? For each to be spectacular? For all of them to be woven together flawlessly into one story? Amazing and impressive.

Any con caper has to balance two competing storytelling techniques: it must be simple enough for the reader to understand, and it must be unpredictable enough for the reader to be surprised. The reader, in a way, is the mark. I confess, the TV show Leverage has spoiled me because it balances these two perfectly, which means that I began White Cat with high expectations. It has to be at least as good as the TV show. Usually, that type of expectation put on a book is a problem and slightly unfair to the book. Not the case here, because White Cat is note-perfect in how it plays the con. In White Cat, the reader feels like they are in on the con, as smart and clever as Cassel and his family, yet as surprised and fooled as any mark when the full con is played out. As a reader, I love having a book not just meet but exceed high expectations.

If the structure of White Cat is a long con, at it’s heart, White Cat is a murder mystery. Did Cassel kill Lila? Why? Will he kill again?

In Cassel’s world, curses are real, and Black has created a realistic, detailed universe that is not just about the logic of curse work but also the consequences of curse work on society and culture. Since a touch of the hand can curse a person, glove wearing becomes the norm. A naked hand in public is a shocking thing; a naked hand in private is the ultimate show of trust. Consequences to curses exist: after a curse, the curse worker experiences blowback. Play with someone’s memory, lose a bit of your own. Cassel’s grandfather is a death worker, and he has lost a finger for each death curse.

All curse work has been banned. At different times, in different places, prejudice and discrimination have resulted in terrible acts against curse workers. Making curse work illegal, which basically criminalizes curse workers themselves, has created and strengthened organized crime. At one time, people feared curse workers because of the ability to cause harm; now, it’s combined with a fear of the criminal world. Cassel’s family is all involved, in one way or another, in crime. His brother Philip has the markings that show he owes his allegiance to one of the big families. These crime families involve themselves in illegal acts beyond curse work, but curse work is used to assist the illegal actions. Being outsiders have created a sense of family amongst workers, but the family activities include murder and drug dealing. White Cat manages to be both sympathetic to the criminals and to paint them in a horrifying, chilling light.

White Cat is also a fascinating take on alternate history. No, really! Cassel’s world is ours. He lives in New Jersey, and the details about Trenton, Princeton, the Pine Barrens all add dimension to the story and make it real. Yet at the same time it’s not our world, because it’s a history where curse workers have always existed and impacted history.

Cassel has been taught that in a world of liars and cons and curses, family is the only thing that matters, the only people who you can trust. After that, well, it’s all just part of the con. “Actually trusting someone when they have nothing to gain from me just doesn’t make sense. All friendships are negotiations of power.” The power, control, and structure of the different criminal worker families demand their own version of loyalty, including loyalty exhibited by the blood and ash of keloid necklaces.

Black’s use of language is delightful. I kept on marking passages, like this one, where Cassel thinks back on his childhood friendship with Lila: “I couldn’t tell if [Lila] hated me half the time, even when we spent weeks hiding under the branches of a willow tree, drawing civilizations in the dirt and then crushing them like callous gods. But I was used to brothers who were fast and cruel and I worshipped her.” Or, this: “I can’t trust the people I care about not to hurt me. And I’m not sure I can trust myself not to hurt them, either.”

Because White Cat explores loyalty and love as Cassel negotiates the criminal and curse workers world and realizes that he cannot trust what he was taught or how he was raised. Because I was up till two in the morning reading it. Because I immediately began reading the sequel, Red Glove. Because Black has created a world and a group of people that has made me care so much, and intrigued me so much, that after I finalize this post I’m off to find the fanfiction to give me a fix until the third book comes out. For all these reasons, this is a Favorite Book Read in 2011 (and is why I don’t limit my favorites to books published in one year!)

I’m not sure I did a good enough job conveying just how much I enjoyed this book. As usual, Reading Rants has a terrific review. And after reading White Cat I promptly began listening to the audiobook version, which gave me an even better appreciation for the scattered clues and delicate plotting.

Review: The Piper’s Son

The Piper’s Son by Melina Marchetta. Candlewick. 2011. Reviewed from ARC from publisher.

The Plot: Tom was aiming for oblivion and he got it. Along with ten stitches, and a concussion, and Francesca Spinelli, who used to be his friend, staring at him in the hospital room, staring not in judgment, but worse, with compassion and empathy. Five years ago, would anyone have guessed that the tight group of friends and family that surrounded Tom would become so fragmented and distant?

But that was before. Before a bomb killed his uncle, not leaving a body to be buried. Before his mother and younger sister left. Before his father started drinking too much. Before his father left. He would see his friends and it would be all tears and crying and Tom didn’t want that and so he dropped out of university, dropped his friends, found flatmates who didn’t care, and found that weed dulled his senses, and helped him to not remember. “And suddenly the room is spinning and when he hits the ground, headfirst off the that table, his life doesn’t flash before his eyes because Tom can’t remember his life. Can’t remember the last year, anyway.”

Now his flatmates have thrown him out and the only place he can go is his Aunt Georgie’s who has her own problems. At work, he’s forced into seeing those people who used to be his friends.

Slowly, Tom and Georgie discover that even though people and friendships and family can be broken, they can be mended.

The Good: The Piper’s Son left me breathless with heart pounding — it is a beautifully written love song about the flaws and strengths of family and the long journey of grief, about the love and laughter and disappointments that tie people together.

Marchetta weaves together two stories: Tom, just entering his twenties, floating through his life because what he loved, what he valued, is gone. What isn’t gone he threw away, better to leave it behind than risk the hurt of more loss. Georgie, twenty years older, is single and pregnant with mainly Tom for support. If Jellicoe Road was a puzzle, and Finnikin of the Rock a rough immersion into an unknown world, The Piper’s Son is an onion, something known but full of layers and secrets.

From the first pages, we know Tom’s hurts: “memory taunts him and he’s back at the cemetery where they’re burying his uncle in an empty grave” and “that was a world before dropping out of uni and parents splitting and two nights of everything with a girl whose face you can’t get out of your head and relationships falling apart and favorite uncles who used to call you Tom Thumb being blown to smithereens on their way to work on the other side of the world.” Tom, Tom, the Piper’s Son…. Tom is hurt and hurts others. He admits he can be a bit of a bully.  He gets angry. He can use words, use them cruelly. He can lash out. Tom is not a perfect young man, but he is real — he’s the boy you pass on the street.

For the next 300 pages, the layers of Tom’s life are explored, the past years, to feel the hurt as if it happened the day before. All of these events are safely in Tom’s past, if any loss can ever be safe or in the past, so Marchetta can concentrate on the heart of the matter — not what one does in the first hour, the first week, the first month, but how one lives the rest of their life. It’s also about how nothing happens in isolation. This is not just about Uncle Joe’s death. It is also about how Tom’s father, his hero, the “piper” who was the leader of his friends and family, proceeded to disintegrate and fall apart, not because Joe died (how easy an answer that would be!) but because we are all the sum of our lives, not one incident or day, and the “piper” was not as strong as everyone liked to believe No, needed to believe.

Sharon Hancock, Executive Director of School & Library Marketing for Candlewick, says “no one does families like Marchetta.” The Piper’s Son is about families, three generations, of love and hurt. Tom’s family is not idealized or romanticized, but it is real with its angers and hurt and also love and laughter and support. Healing from loss isn’t easy, and it can be selfish, and that selfishness can keep others at arms-length which just creates more rifts. We know the plot going in: what happened in Tom’s life over the last few years and that this book will be about him putting his life back together as he restores relationships with friends and family. While “will Tom get the girl back?” may be a bit of a page-turner, the real reason for turning the page is the deep, complex, familial relationship explored in these pages, including the family that is made from good friendships. For all their flaws and sorrows, a reader cannot help but fall in love with the entire Finch-Mackee clan and want to be part of that family.

Halfway through the book there is a fight between Georgie and her mother, one that is about “now” and “then” and Georgie reminds her mother of something said years ago, “That’s what you said to me and those words killed me more than anything.” Her mother replies, “Oh, you’re a cruel girl, Georgie, to remember that over everything else.” That, there, is the brilliance of Marchetta: in two sentences she shows a lifetime of hurt, and continuing hurt, and misunderstandings,  in a family.

Georgie’s story– OK, I’ll admit that part of the reason I loved Georgie’s story is I’m an adult in the same age bracket as Georgie. Georgie’s story is a bit of a surprise, with a few more twists than Tom’s. Georgie is pregnant and single. Her brother Dominick, Tom’s father, her twin, had been the leader of a group of friends whose friendship goes back almost twenty years: Dom and his now estranged wife; Lucia, her husband, her sister; and other friends, Jonesy and Sam. Sam…  Georgie’s ex. Georgie may be older than Tom, but hurts are hurts and age does not give wisdom in terms of how to handle love and betrayals and reunions and what does forgiveness really mean, anyway? What is the reality of day to day living it, rather than just saying it?

This is a book about love — so yes, there is healing and the hurt that comes from healing but it is also about love. Love between family, between friends, between lovers. So there is love and tenderness also; and there is laughter, from sibling jokes (an email is signed “love, the better-looking sibling“) and teasing to laugh out loud moments.

What age is The Piper’s Son for? Tom and his friends are in their early twenties, still at university (or having dropped out of university). Georgie and her friends are in their early forties. Is this is a young adult book or an adult book? Both. This is the perfect crossover book, to be bought and shelved in both the adult and teen fiction sections of the library and bookstore. The readers of young adult books are getting older, into their early twenties. For those still in their teens? The appeal is Tom and his story of being broken and put together. It doesn’t matter that he is 21 and not 15. Does a sixteen year old want to read about someone just a few years older, to see that the “real life” of post-high school is complex and messy? I say yes. I also say Georgie will be of interest, because she may sound older (and, well, she is) but for all her years she is dealing with an unexpected pregnancy, handling both as wisely and poorly as any teen mother. I think, also, that teen readers are smart enough to want a book that shows adult lives as being as messy and full as their own.

Every now and then, someone complains about parents not being in young adult books. The Piper’s Son gives a whole extended family: parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles. To make those adults real, and not caricatures of either good or evil, they come with their own stories, their own strengths and weaknesses and flaws. Does the inclusion of adults as something other than villain or saviour make that book one just of adults? I don’t think so. If anything, it tells the teen — your family is normal. It’s not just you. No family is “normal” or “typical.” Here, in The Piper’s Son, is the story of one family. Are teenagers interested in books about families, when they are at a time and place in their lives to begin to realize “not all families are like mine”? I say yes.

The Piper’s Son is a companion, a sequel of sorts, to Saving Francesca. Francesca, the main character in Saving Francesca, is one of Tom’s group of friends. Tom was a character in Saving Francesca, but not a main one. The Piper’s Son takes place about five years after Saving Francesca, and stands alone quite nicely. Because Tom hasn’t seen some of his friends for a year or so, he is getting re-introduced to them in a way, so the reader is also getting introduced to them.  For those who haven’t read Saving Francesca, I find the covers and descriptions don’t do it justice. It’s a book about depression, really; about finding oneself; and about how one thinks they see things and how they really are can be two different things.

The Australian cover is quite different from the US one; I guess I should add that Tom is a musician and playing and singing music is one of those things that connected him to his family and friends, so, of course, it is one of the things he abandoned.

Review: Lockdown

Lockdown by Walter Dean Myers. Amistad, an imprint of Harper Collins. 2010. Copy borrowed from friend.

The Plot: Maurice “Reese” Anderson will be fifteen in a month. For the last twenty-two months, he’s been at the Progress Center for young offenders aged twelve to sixteen. He’s on a special work-release program a few days a week and hoping to be able to get out several months before his release date. Getting out means going home — but what does home offer? Is he destined to be one of those young men who only “visit” home between arrests?

The Good: Reese tells his own story. He owns his past and doesn’t make any excuses. He stole prescription pads from a doctor’s office, sold them to a local drug dealer, and when that drug dealer was arrested, so was Reese. Reese is incredibly real; his voice echoes in your head long after his story ends.

After almost two years in Progress, Reese has a fatalistic approach to life: “What was happening was just happening. That’s the way life was. Shit just came together, and if it rolled in your direction you got messed up.” Right now a lot is rolling in Reese’s direction. Back home, his brother Willis may be getting into the same trouble as Reese while his mother may be using drugs again. Younger sister Icy has big dreams, but she’s without adults who will help make them real. At the facility for senior citizens Reese is working at, crotchety old Pieter Hooft is giving Reese a hard time, making racist statements and accusing Reese of stealing. Most challenging of all is life within Progress. Reese wants to get out, but he can’t help getting in fights. Toon, only twelve and in Progress for being truant, is being targeted by older boys. Helping Toon means putting his own freedom and life at risk.

Pieter Hooft is an interesting addition to Reese’s life. He’s cranky and lonely and sick and, it turns out, has more in common with Reese than one would think. As a child, roughly Reese’s age, Hooft was in a Japanese prison camp in Dutch Indonesia. Hooft’s stories of how prisoners acted, how they treated each other, gives Reese some insight into not only his own life but into the other prisoner’s. Insight into the urge to fight, to hit back: “Because fighting is good. When you fight you’re alive, you’re somebody. You’re not standing in the corridor with your hands behind your back. Maybe that’s it, that you’re free, swinging your fists, letting people know who you are. Even if you’re going to die. . . . Maybe he knew he was going to die but needed to be somebody for that minute.”

Reese feels like he has no choices. But does he? And if he believes he has no choices, does that mean that once he’s released something will happen and he’ll just wind up back in Progress? If he believes fighting is freedom, will he ever be free? Myers brings you into Reese’s world and the limitations, offering no easy answers. I read somewhere that any good book ends not with an ending but a beginning. Lockdown ends with the beginning of Reese’s life.

Review: Beautiful Darkness

Beautiful Darkness by Kami Garcia & Margaret Stohl. Little Brown. 2010. Reviewed from ARC from ALA. Part of the Novel Noise blog tour.

Spoilers for Beautiful Creatures. This is the type of series best read in order; so if you haven’t read Beautiful Creatures, here is my review and interview with the authors from last year. Read Beautiful Creatures then come back.

First, my review. Then, my short question & answer with the authors.

The Plot: This sequel picks up almost immediately after Beautiful Creatures ends. Ethan Wate and Lena Duchannes battled the odds and won! Or, so it seemed. Lena is haunted by the death of her uncle, and Ethan is hearing new, strange songs that warn that the danger is far from past. In her grief, Lena pushes Ethan away. If she doesn’t want his help, what should he do? Can Ethan walk away from the girl of his dreams?

The Good: Wowza. That is review-speak for “I liked Beautiful Creatures, but I love Beautiful Darkness.” Of course, much like Skechers and a Prada backpack, I thought I loved Beautiful Creatures until I read Beautiful Darkness.

In Beautiful Creatures, Lena’s sixteenth birthday loomed as the day when it would be decided whether she was a light Caster or dark Caster; whether she was good or bad. While it seemed a matter of predestination or fate, Lena’s family, including her dark caster mother and cousin Ridley, tried to influence the proceedings. Lena wasn’t claimed, and now Ethan is hearing ominous songs about what will happen on Lena’s seventeenth birthday.

In Beautiful Creatures, Lena and Ethan were kept apart because of the fear of her sixteenth birthday and because she was a Caster and he a mortal. It was “electrifying,” and not in a good way, when things got too hot and heavy between them. In Beautiful Darkness, Lena’s grief over Uncle Macon’s death, and the events that led up to it, succeed in doing what her mother and cousin could not do: it forces Lena to look inside at the darkness within. Beautiful Darkness shows that we all have that darkness within us; the question becomes, how do we handle it?

Lena deals with her anger, guilt, and hate by pushing Ethan away and taking on some of the traits (and fashion sense) of her dark siren cousin, Ridley. Ethan is puzzled and hurt by Lena’s actions, especially when she also begins to spend time with the mysterious John Breed, who could be either a Caster or Incubus. And at this point, I’ll confess something — I really, really wish that I reread Beautiful Creatures before reading this book. Garcia and Stohl have created a wonderful supernatural world, and I forgot half of it. They give enough to follow and enjoy (and love!) this sequel, but I should have reread the previous book.

Ethan’s journey to save Lena becomes literal: he further explores the mysterious Caster tunnels, winding up in some unexpected places and getting some new allies. You may recall I kept thinking of Beautiful Creatures as Dangerous Creatures, because even though there was beauty there was danger and that danger was what most impressed me. Guess what? That danger is still there, except instead of thinking of this as Dangerous Darkness (cause that is just silly!) I keep wanting to call it Beautiful Danger. The danger, the darkness, is so attractive and seductive and as Lena discovers, so easy….

Seriously, I love this story yet have a mental block against the real titles. If I ever get on Jeopardy (YA books for 800, Alex) I’ll get this question, I’m sure, and look like an idjit. However, my bad memory tells you something important: this book, like the first, is full of danger and real-life risks.

And now, for the question and answer part of our program!

Liz B: Beautiful Creatures was a 2010 Finalist for YALSA’s The William C. Morris YA Debut Award. In addition to being popular in the United States, it has also been translated into other languages. How many languages/countries is it in? What has been the most surprising thing about the translation process?

Kami:  Currently, Beautiful Creatures will be published in 36 countries, in 27 different languages.  It hasn’t actually come out in all of those countries yet, but the rights have been sold. 

Margie:  Since Beautiful Creatures has so many regional Southern references and dialects, we get a lot of questions from translators about food, expressions, and the Civil War.  One German editor asked if he could cut down the book slightly because German words are so much longer than English words. Otherwise, the book would have been about 900 pages! 

Liz B: Have you had a chance to meet with your international fans?

Kami: We went on tour in France and Spain this past May, which was incredible! Our fans were so wonderful there. We had great events in Paris and Lille, Madrid and Barcelona.

Margie:  I’ll be doing three more events in Paris, Lyon and Grenoble in November; 16 Lunes is doing really well in France. When I spoke at a book festival in Rome last summer, the Italian Castergirls were amazing! I’ve also met our German publishers, who are incredibly supportive. All the international fans we’ve met have been so enthusiastic about the book — starting fan sites, talking to us on Facebook and Twitter. We can’t thank them enough. 

Liz B: Did having an international readership impact the writing of the sequel?

Kami:  We don’t think about the book in those terms when we’re writing. We only think about the story and what makes sense for our universe and our characters. And we have such amazing translators that we don’t have to worry. They really find a way to make the story accessible to the readers in their specific countries. 

Margie: I don’t know so much about Asia and Eastern Europe, but the EU readers are very sophisticated, and YA is a growth market there as well. Our European readers have these genre-born attitudes about “American high schools” and “American families” and “American Cheerleaders” that come from YA books and American television; it’s very funny to sit down with bloggers and talk about it all. So our EU readers are fairly well-versed in what to expect from a YA book. Our book is a bit longer and more regional, but the sense of place seems to be one of the things our foreign readers are enjoying.

Liz B: Thanks, Kami & Margie!

Links you may be interested in:

Kami Garcia & Margaret Stohl & The Caster Chronicles at www.BeautifulCreaturestheBook.com

Caster Girls & Boys fansite at www.CasterGirls.com

Little, Brown’s Beautiful Creatures website, www.SomeLovesAreCursed.com, has extras such as excerpts, downloadables, and a map of Gatlin

This is part of a Beautiful Darkness tour organized by Novel Noise. Other stops on the tour:

The Compulsive Reader, October 1

Boy With Books, October

The Story Siren, October 12

Steph Su Reads, October 14

Green Bean Teen Queen, October 18

Wastepaper Prose, October 20

Frenetic Reader, October 22

Late Bloomer, October 26

Page Turners Blog, October 28

Bookalicio.us, October 31

Good Books and Wine, November 3

Page to Premiere, November 6

A Chair, A Fireplace & A Tea Cozy, November 8 (that’s here, today!)

Mundie Moms, November 11

Photo credits:  Alex Hoerner (top author photo), Vania Stoyanova (second author photo)

Review: The Replacement

The Replacement by Brenna Yovanoff. Razorbill, an imprint of Penguin. 2010. Reviewed from ARC from ALA.

The Plot: Mackie Doyle, sixteen, knows he’s different from the other teens in Gentry.

On page five, Mackie admits that during the school blood drive “I could smell the blood — sweet, metallic. I could taste it in the back of my mouth and my stomach was starting to feel iffy.” Oh, the reader thinks, he just doesn’t like the sight or smell of blood. Four pages later, and Mackie tells about iron: “it hurts in a slow, exhausting way.” A couple of pages later, and Mackie explains how his kind preacher father told a five year old Mackie the story of Kellan Caury, a man lynched in the 1930s, back when the town had a bad spell and many children were disappearing and someone had to be blamed. The person who was “different” and noticed was blamed. The message is clear: don’t be different. Don’t be noticed.

By the end of the first chapter, Mackie shares something his sister told him. When Emma was four, she saw a baby taken out of her brother’s crib, and something else left.

That something else was Mackie. Mackie is not a teen who thinks he is different from those around him — he really is different.

The Good: Despite the number of details shared in the first chapter — Mackie’s appearance (“pale, creepy“, “how dark my eyes were,”sometimes, people got uneasy just looking at me“) and fear of being different, of being seen, of being noticed, the death of a classmate’s younger sister and the seemingly cavalier view of the tragedy by his classmates (“so, are your parents freaked out about the latest drama“) — the confirmation that something is wrong in Gentry, that Mackie is a changeling exchanged with a human child, that dark entities live beneath his town, doesn’t come for several more chapters. Rather than plunging into the action, Yovanoff takes her time to establish setting and characters.

Setting — Gentry. A town where a small child’s death is “the latest drama.” At first, I thought this was a brilliant line to show how Alice, the pretty girl Mackie was crushing on, was shallow. It was that, yes, but as the reader learns more about the relationship between town and the underworld, including the spilling of a taken child’s blood every seven years, the reader realizes it wasn’t an immature teen speaking. Gentry is the town where people see things out of the corner of the eye and ignore what is right in front of them. Alice isn’t being shallow, Alice is just born and raised in a town where a child’s death is the “latest drama” to be seen sideways and dismissed.

Character — Mackie, a castoff child of the underworld left in a human child’s crib. Usually these non-human children sicken and die, with everyone believing (or at least acting as if) it was the real human child. This, we learn, is what happened to Tate’s baby sister Natalie, the dead child. Or, rather, the dead changeling. Why is Mackie different? Why he is still alive? What world does he belong in?

Mackie seems cautious and distant from those around him, but he isn’t alone. His sister Emma loves him. His parents create a home without iron or metals. Mackie has friends, a girl he likes, a girl (Tate) who may like him. Don’t draw attention to yourself, he is told. His dizziness, his sickness, from being part of this world is getting worse and worse and his only salvation may be going underground to the Land of Mayhem and learning more about who he is. The reader needs to see Mackie’s struggles, see his loyalty to his human family and friends and their loyalty back to him, see the strange acceptance and salvantion offered in Mayhem. The reader needs to know Mackie as well as Mackie knows himself to understand, later, the dilemmas he face once the action starts:  who does he stand with? Where does his loyalties lie? Is it possible to save Tate’s baby sister who has been taken but is still alive underground? 

Because of the time Yovanoff takes with setting and character, when the action starts the reader understands and knows the stakes. Mackie’s dilemma is real, and the strange town of Gentry is less strange.

Horror! I enjoy horror, real, old-fashioned horror. Children, stolen and sacrificed ever seven years. At first I thought, oh, no, it won’t go there. It does! Yovanoff doesn’t take the safe out of showing a human child raised underground. Blood sacrifice is demanded, blood sacrifice is made.

The underworld, Lands of Mayhem and Mystery, is complex and ugly. Dark bargains are made. If something is different, if someone is ugly, is it necessary wrong or evil? Yovanoff takes all this and adds a sense of  morals and ethics. It’s just not the morals and ethics of those above ground. The horror is even scarier, because once Mackie goes underground and meets the Morrigan we realize (perhaps as reluctantly as Mackie himself does) that those from the Land of Mayhem are not evil. They are — different. Long ago gods who are now something less, who may become something more. That something more and something less is dependent on belief and the power of story: extreme feelings that can come from joy, happiness, misery, fear, — and music. (And for more of that, check out The Replacement playlist from the author.)

Yes, this is a Favorite Book Read in 2010. And fingers crossed, I’m hoping to see it on the Morris shortlist.