Review: Team Human

Team Human by Justine Larbalestier and Sarah Rees Brennan. HarperTeen. 2012. Reviewed from ARC from publisher.

The Plot: Mel Duan has lived in the vampire town of New Whitby, Maine her whole life. She is not a fan of the vampires, and is happy that they stay in their part of town. Mel is not happy to find out that vampire Francis Duvarnery (turned in 1867) is going to be attending high school as a Senior. She is especially not happy that her best friend, Cathy, is entranced by Francis.

Vampires may follow strict laws about not killing or turning people, but that hardly makes things safe for humans. Take, for example, her friend Anna. One moment, she has blissfully married parents. The next, Anna’s father has run off with a vampire, barely remembering to text his daughter.

Mel is Team Human, and she’s going to make sure her friends stay that way.

The Good: Team Human is part supernatural (vampires are real), part mystery (why did Anna’s father leave), part romance (that would be telling), part social commentary (vampire / human interactions and prejudices), with humor woven throughout. It’s also dusted with pop culture references, such as Whitby from Bram Stoker’s Dracula and the Bathory River (for Elizabeth Bathory). Team Human is smart; or, rather, expects the reader to be smart. It doesn’t explain the sources of these names.

New Whitby is a vampire town. In Mel’s world, vampires are real and people know about them. “New Whitby was founded by people escaping persecution because they were the blood-drinking undead.” In the present day, vampires keep to their side of town, humans to theirs, except, of course, for things like human tourists seeing the vampire sites or vampires visiting the still-living relatives.

A full world has been created; and along with that, some of the things that happen in current vampire books and films are gently mocked. Why, for example, would a vampire want to attend high school? Why would someone so old (and dead) be interested in someone so much younger (and alive)? Just how cold is a vampire, what with them being dead? For example, “most vampires claimed to have been royalty or one of the Astors or something equally snotty. Astonishing how few peasants and regular people got vamped back in the olden days, when it wasn’t regulated.”

Even before Cathy meets Francis, Mel worries about Cathy’s fondness for vampires: “She likes history more than the news and likes books better than most people. Of course she thinks vampires, since many of them are older than dirt and thus basically history books with legs and fangs, are totally fascinating.” Team Human sets up Mel’s biases very clearly, and the reader is inclined to agree with Mel, because, well, human! Who wouldn’t be Team Human? As the story continues, though, Mel begins to realize that just as humans are a mix of good and bad, so, too, are vampires.

The writing, dialogue and plotting reminded me, in the best possible way, of Joss Whedon. (Is there anything other than good in making a Joss comparison?) People are smart; there are surprises along the way (and no, I’m not going to tell, but wowza on the person who turns out to be Mel’s romantic interest); there is more than one first expects; and, one minute I’m laughing and the next …. I’m crying. I have to say, since this is in part a book poking gentle, loving, we mock because we care fun at the whole vampire genre, I expected to laugh. I expected to see interesting references. Based on the other books I’ve read by the authors, I expected action and good plotting. I did not think I was going to cry; I didn’t think this would be that kind of book. It was. I cried. And it was that — the tears — that made me think most of Joss, who can make someone laugh and cry.

Joss can also make someone think: and Team Human does that. Yes, it’s about vampires. But more importantly, it’s about prejudices and fear and learning to overcome those initial biases. It’s also about, well, balance. For example, the process of being vamped. Mel is shown to be very against the process of a human becoming a vampire, and part of it is because of the changes it makes to a person: the not going out in the sun anymore, frozen in time, losing ones sense of humor (no, really). Part of it is also because sometimes the process doesn’t work, and the consequences of a failed vamping are very real. Mel’s feelings have a factual basis, yes, but should fear be how one lives ones life? How one judges others?

One last part, and it’s an important part. Team Human has a great, diverse group of teens. Mel is Chinese American; one of her friends is black; a couple of characters are gay. Since all to often the “default setting” of books is all white, all straight, it’s refreshing when a book reflects a broader world view.

Other reviews: The Book Smugglers; Joelene Reviews; io9.

Review: Tell Me A Secret

Tell Me A Secret by Holly Cupala. HarperTeen. 2010. Audiobook by Octopuppy. 2010. Narrated by Jenna Lamia. Reviewed from audiobook from author. Available from Audible.

The Plot: Miranda — Rand — is the good daughter. Xanda — dead Xanda, whose name isn’t spoken aloud by her family — was the bad daughter, the daughter of late nights and fast boys and cars, until the accident that took her life five years ago. Xanda had secrets that Rand could only wonder at; Xanda had a life that seemed exotic and wonderful. Who Xanda was, and her death, has shaped Rand and fractured her family. Rand was twelve then; she is now the age Xanda was.

Five years later, Rand has a secret of her own.

She’s pregnant.

This secret will force Rand and her family to finally look at the truth about themselves, about Xanda, and about her death.

The Good: Rand tells the story, and Jenna Lamia, the audiobook narrator, does a terrific job of conveying Rand’s confusion and hopes and fears. The reader does not always get the whole story. For example, in Rand’s eyes, Xanda seems the perfect older sister: perfect in a “she’s too cool to live” way. This, however, is not the whole story, not the whole Xanda, and glimpses of the real sister bleed through Rand’s thoughts and memories.

Rand broke my heart. No, that’s not right. It’s not that Rand broke my heart; honestly, at times I just wanted to give her a shake and say “snap out of it!” (More on that later). What broke my heart was just how many people failed Rand, especially the people that Rand should have been able to rely on. It would have been nice if the people in her life, her parents and friends, had supported her, been there for her, helped her. But, then, this would have been a different book. Instead, it’s a book about secrets and the damage they do, especially the secrets about ourselves that we keep from ourselves. Rand may think her secret is her pregnancy, but the real secret is she’s not being honest with herself about her choices, the choices she made in living up to the image of a dead girl.

Rand keeps much to herself, not in an unfriendly way but in a not sharing what she’s thinking or feeling way. Maybe that is her nature. Maybe it’s because her mother raised her children with a “be careful what the neighbors will think” attitude, so Rand keeps her true self secret so that the neighbors will only see her outer self. Whatever the reason, Rand often stays silent when she could speak up and should speak up. Take, for instance, her boyfriend Kamram and her pregnancy. She loves him; she doesn’t know how to tell him. So she doesn’t. She delays, and delays, and delays. And because of that, she also distances herself from him. On the one hand, she tells the reader about her love for him and their wonderful relationship, and on the other, Rand also says it’s been almost a week since she’s spoken to him. Rand doesn’t seem to be able to put the pieces together, that either she and Kamram are not the couple she thinks they are, or that she is sending him mixed signals about what she thinks and feels. He’s not a mind-reader, I wanted to tell her. Thinking about him, loving him, wanting him, is not enough if you’re not calling him. I understood why she didn’t; I understood why she delayed. Understanding Rand just made it that much worse.

It would have been easy for Tell Me A Secret to be all about how family and friends fail Rand. Tell Me A Secret takes the harder road, the better road, by making the failures mutual. This is not a sob-fest about poor, pregnant Rand (even though I did cry at times because of all that happened to poor, pregnant Rand. Hey, I don’t have a heart of stone!). Rand doesn’t always realize it, and the reader may take some time for recognition to sink in, but Rand isn’t innocent, and not just in getting pregnant or delaying telling anyone. She does a few things that really shifts the perception of what happened, so that some of what her friends did and did not do make more sense. And here is what I liked best about Tell Me A Secret (if one can say “like” about something so sad): people fail Rand, and Rand fails herself, and Rand fails others, and it’s an endless cycle, it seems, of expectations and being let down. It would be nice if people were always kind and compassionate and understanding. It would be nice if people could see beyond their own needs and hurts and wants. But that’s not the world that Rand lives in; and I’m sure that for many readers, it’s not their world, either. By the end, Rand doesn’t let these failings define herself; she doesn’t let it control her future.

Review: Ascendant

Ascendant by Diana Peterfreund. Harper Teen, an imprint of HarperCollins. 2010. Review ARC provided by publisher.

The Plot: When last we left our intrepid unicorn hunter Astrid Llewelyn, she discovered she was a unicorn hunter when her then-boyfriend was attacked by one, got shipped to unicorn hunter school in Rome where she battled many a unicorn and was injured, defeated an evil medical empire, and was dating a totally hot, smart guy who not only loved her strength but also was cool with the whole “I have to stay a virgin to fight unicorns” thing.

Sounds great? Not really. Astrid’s connection to the unicorns means she is realizing that they are more than monsters. Her cousin Phillippa, now in charge of the unicorn hunters, agrees and wants to create some type of unicorn preserve. Problem is, the unicorn menace is now publicly known. Back in the US, Astrid’s mom is giving interviews right and left to the press. The danger is so well known that no one wants their daughter to join the unicorn hunters. Injury and sickness means the existing unicorn hunters are spread very thin. To make it worse? Giovanni, the world’s best boyfriend, is going back to college, in New York City!

 The Good: Any sequel that is worth reading gives the reader both what they want (more of the same things the reader loved!) and what they need (different things so the story remains fresh!).

Ascendant gives the reader some of the “same”: Astrid, unicorns, battles, the continuing struggle between duty and want. Ascendant then throws in some new challenges: make the boyfriend long-distance, remove Astrid from the support of her family and fellow hunters, and give her a new ethical struggle.  Astrid tries to have it all (a “normal” life of school, while still fulfilling her destiny) by leaving Rome to help researchers in France who are trying to find the Remedy. The Remedy, you may recall, is a cure-all and is somehow made with unicorns but no one knows the exact formula. If you’ve read anything of animal testing, you can imagine what happens to the unicorns. Astrid rationalizes that she is using her talent for destruction for good; plus, the unicorns being used by the researchers are kept in ap reserve, and isn’t that what her cousin Phil wants?

Astrid cares for unicorns yet is helping those who see them as an ingredient in medicine. She connects with unicorns on a deep level yet also has to battle them. Astrid’s new position serves to isolate her even further than before — at least in Rome, there was her cousin Phil and the other hunters! Being the only unicorn hunter amongst several unicorns allows Astrid to work on her ability to connect with unicorns and to realize that “unicorn magic” can mean more than destruction. Life isn’t as simple as killing unicorns; unicorns may be capable of monstrous acts, but are they monsters? Abraham Maslow said, “if you only have a hammer, you tend to see everything as a nail.” Have the hunters been treating their gifts as a hammer? 

Do you need to read Rampant before Ascendant? I strongly recommend it; not only do you get the full picture of Astrid’s world, but you also get to appreciate Astrid’s growth as a character. Rampant is about becoming a unicorn hunter; Ascendant is about what happens once you are one.

What else? In Rampant and Ascendant, Peterfreund provides a diverse cast of characters. She also knows to not tell everything to the reader all at once; some things aren’t revealed until they have to be. I’ll take my cue from Peterfreund and keep mum about some of the surprises in Ascendant. Questions that were raised in Rampant are answered in Ascendant, and, of course, new questions are raised in Ascendant. And if there isn’t a third book, I swear I will go all killer unicorn on you!

Finally, confession. I hate Astrid’s mother. Oh, I understand where she is coming from and why she does what she does. She’s a minor character, but Peterfreund has fleshed her out so she is as fully developed as the major characters. Astrid’s relationship with her mother affects her relationships with others, so I always understood Astrid’s choices even though I disagreed with them. I wouldn’t change one line about Astrid’s mother. Still? I cannot stand her. I just wanted to reach into the pages of the book, sit her down, and say “what the hell are you thinking”?

Review: You

You by Charles Benoit. Harper Teen. 2010. Reviewed from ARC from publisher

The Plot: You.

The Good: You are you. You are Kyle Chase.

OK, enough of writing in the style of You!

Told in second person, Benoit pulls you into the story, makes the story about you and your choices and your friendships. Your slacking off (why?) in middle school, so you didn’t go to High School with your friends from the gifted program, and you began hanging out with the hoodies and drinking and getting Cs and you liked Ashley but couldn’t tell her and now you’re standing there, with shattered glass and blood and screaming won’t help because it’s already too late and how did you get here?

Some people say the teen books that scare the hell out of them as parents are the books where bad things happen to teens.  Me, – while not a parent, I’m an aunt, and a friend of many a parent – I am scared by the books about kids who get lost. Not literally, but figuratively.

Like Kyle, lost without any real reason. In the first chapter, with the blood and knowing it is already too late, Kyle thinks, “You’re just a kid. It can’t be your fault. But then there’s all that blood. So, maybe it is your fault, but that doesn’t make things any better. And it doesn’t matter one way or the other. Think. When did it go wrong?” When did it go wrong? Is it one thing, the sum of many things, or nothing at all? What were Kyle’s choices that led him here? You takes you along on Kyle’s journey. It’s not just Kyle’s journey. It’s yours. What choices have led you to where you are now? Can you change where you are at?

You provides a –well, a villain, of sorts. I won’t tell you who, among Kyle’s friends, family, and acquaintances, is the bad guy. Maybe it’s Kyle. Maybe it’s you. But it is chilling – and honest – and truthful. Because sometimes, motivation for action is not that someone wants to do good or to do bad. Sometimes, the motivation is just that they can. So they do. And that is also scary. A person who pulls a string for no reason other than to see what happens. Or, because the person knows what will happen and does it anyway, to see if people are really that predictable. So a person takes an action, suggests, hints, and does it something simply to get a reaction. It is so much softer and more potent than simply manipulation. And being that person, that puppet master. That, too, is a choice, a result of choices.

Review: Rampant by Diana Peterfreund

Rampant by Diana Peterfreund. HarperTeen, an imprint of HarperCollins. 2009. Review copy from publisher.

The Plot: Astrid Llewelyn, sixteen, is minding her own business, making out with her cute boyfriend, when they are attacked by killer unicorns. Turns out, all the “you are descended from mighty unicorn hunters” and “unicorns aren’t friendly they are monsters and killers” stories her mom told her growing up? Were totally true. So now Astrid’s on her way to Rome to train to be a unicorn hunter, instead of being where she wants to be: at home, going to school, studying to be a doctor, and having a boyfriend like a normal person.

The Good: Why did I not read this last year? The only good thing about reading it now is that I then immediately read the sequel, Ascendant (September 2010).

I am a huge fan of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Joss Whedon; so I can think of no higher complement than to say that Rampant is Buffyeseque in the best possible way. Talk about girl power!  Astrid and her fellow unicorn hunters (all female) are fast and strong when they are hunting and fighting unicorns. When a girl isn’t hunting a unicorn? No super powers. So unless there is a unicorn waiting at the end of the track, a unicorn hunter is not also going to be super human at sports.

Not just anyone can be a unicorn hunter; one is born to it, like Astrid and her cousin, Philippa. Only women can be hunters. In addition to the super-skills, a hunter can sense a unicorn and a unicorn can sense a hunter. That explains why Astrid and her boyfriend were attacked: the unicorn sensed her.

Rampant raises questions of destiny and duty versus choice.  To decide not to be a unicorn hunter is simple. Only virgins can be hunters. Yet if Astrid takes that step, decides to become “normal,” who does it help except Astrid? There are still unicorns, killing people. It just means there is one less person to do so, and in all honesty, there aren’t that many unicorn hunters around. First is the virgin requirement; but second is that the only girls who are unicorn hunters are all descended from a handful of families (who, according to myth, are all descended from Alexander the Great). Given that is, oh, several thousands of years and tons of generations and people moving hither and yon and last names changing and all sorts of things like that, most of the families are lost. A girl from such a lost bloodline would only know she is a unicorn hunter when she is confronted with an actual unicorn. Which (see above, Astrid and her boyfriend being attacked) is not a pleasant experience for anyone.

Actual unicorns, until recently, had been a bit hard to come by because (if you believe Astrid’s mother) about 150 years ago Clothilde Llewelyn killed the last unicorn. Except, given the attack on Astrid and others around the world, it’s soon clear that the unicorns didn’t become extinct, they just disappeared from view, and now they’re back. Back to a world that doesn’t believe in them, to a world where no girl has trained to hunt them for over 150 years.

Somehow, though, a small group of girls are assembled to start training. To reference  Buffy one more time – Rampant is what Buffy Season Seven should have been. Different girls of widely different backgrounds, interests, living together, training together, trying to figure out their roles when there are very little rules. I loved it! Forget vampires, the CW should sign this up as the next teen series.

What else? Peterfreund has created an entire mythology and manages to convey it all the reader without any info-dumps. It’s all woven into the story, helped by the fact that Astrid and her friends are also all discovering this anew. There are lots of real world concerns, like funding the whole boarding-school-for-unicorn-hunters, as well as people trying  to figure out, hm, if unicorns are real, what else is real? Turns out there is also a mysterious “Remedy,” somehow made from unicorns, that can cure anything. The story in Rampant is so new, so fresh, so fun, so scary, I just want to keep sharing with you all the awesomeness “and there are five types of unicorns! And the einhorn! And…and…and.”

And the battles! If part of you is thinking of My Pretty Unicorns and giggling at the thought of those pretty princess rainbow unicorns doing any damage, think again. There is blood and gore and death, and exhaustion and scars and recovery.

Oh! And there is Giovanni. Remember Astrid’s boyfriend at the beginning of the book? That’s not Giovanni. Giovanni is the hot guy Astrid meets in Rome. She likes him, they have a good time – and if she needs an out, he’s there…

So in one book: intricate mythology without any distracting dumps of information; scary adventure; family, friendship, love; and killer unicorns. What’s not to love?

Review: Stranded by J.T. Dutton

Stranded by J.T. Dutton. HarperTeen, an imprint of HarperCollins. 2010. Reviewed from ARC from publisher.

The Plot: With great reluctance, fifteen year old Kelly Louise and her mother are leaving Des Moines for her mother’s hometown of Heaven, Ohio.

Kelly Louise — named for Tina Louise, of Gilligan’s Island fame — tells of being dragged back to the small town her teen mother escaped from years ago, to live with her cleaning-obsessed Nana and religion-obsessed cousin Natalie. Natalie, fifteen,  loves unicorns and Jesus equally. Her mother promises it’s just a temporary move, but it’s the middle of the school year! Why is her mother doing this to her? Doesn’t her mother realize that it’s going to make it that much harder for Kelly Louise to get a boyfriend?

The Good: Kelly Louise tells this story; and her voice makes this fresh and different; she’s funny and amusing, self-centered and a drama queen, and, like Lola from Confessions of a Teenage Drama Queen and Alice from Alice, I Think, you’re going to alternate between cringing, laughing, and loving Kelly Louise. She’s a riot; at times delusional, as she convinces herself that her big-city ways (high heeled boots and beret) will make all the the boys think “hot new girl at school!” Instead, they look at her and think “strange girl.”

Here is Kelly Louise talking about a conversation with her mother: “I asked questions about Mom’s happy golden teenagehood. Sometimes you have to bolster a single parent by taking an interest in what they seem to want to go on about.”

Don’t let Kelly Louise fool you: her story may be told funny but it is serious, because Heaven is best known for the recent news story about Baby Grace, an infant abandoned in a cornfield.

Dutton’s story of the unthinkable — a baby left to die — is told against a setting of lost family farms, alcoholism, and second generations of teen pregnancies. Single parents raising kids. Kelly Louise’s voice brings humor, and she thinks of herself, first, most of the time. But she also thinks about Baby Grace, and family secrets, and what it means to do the right thing.

Kelly Louise is discovering the reality of Heaven — neighborly and small town cute, while lost and struggling. People who can be both caring and cold. And, always, family secrets. Look back to that quote of Kelly Louise, seemingly indulging her mother about a past “happy golden teenagehood,” and remember that it ended with a teen pregnancy, single parenthood, and a lifetime of economic struggling. This is the beauty of Stranded: dead seriousness wrapped up in humor.

Kelly Louise’s mother got pregnant when she was barely older than her daughter is now. Aunt Denise, cousin Natalie’s mother, is an abusive alcoholic who lost custody of her daughter to her mother, Nana. Their grandfather, dead for ten years, was an alcoholic who lost the family farm. Kelly Louise doesn’t know who her father is; Natalie’s father is never mentioned. The family stories of others in Heaven aren’t too different.

By page 45, Kelly Louise’s mother tells her the truth. Natalie, of Church youth group and virginity pledges, got pregnant, hid the pregnancy, and gave birth to Baby Grace. Kelly Louise’s mother tells her, “we have to pretend this never happened.” Kelly Louise veers between denial and continuing her life (trying to make friends, flirting with boys) and not quite believing that Natalie has done this and will be getting away with it.

Kelly Louise is stranded in Heaven; and so are others, stranded both physically but also emotionally, by desperation and secrets and the walls that such secrets make. Kelly Louise may view things selfishly, she may be over-obsessed with getting a boy and having sex, she may be self-obsessed and funny, but she also has a true heart and a belief in the truth.

This is a working class world, far different from the middle class suburbs of Lola and Alice and the typical young adult book that has a Kelly Louise narrator. Kelly Louise’s single mother struggles to pay the rent and at first Kelly Louise believes their return to Heaven is financially based. On page 229, Kelly Louise observes the class bad boy: “He was wearing a plaid shirt that made him look more like a farm kid than an asshole. In an earlier generation, and one before large, industrialized harvesting methods nudged the family farms out, he would have been one. Me, too, probably.”

And so, there is the bad boy, being raised by a meth-dealing uncle; Kelly Louise and Natalie, who have the possible inheritance of alcoholism and teen pregnancy; other teens, whose main concerns are parties, music, and escaping by religious fervor or drunken binges (or both).

Why should their stories only be told in darkness or dreariness? Why not have a Kelly Louise tell it, the way she sees it, with humor and laughter and caring?