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review: “life, after” July 17, 2010

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Life After by Sarah Darer Littman.
Scholastic Press // ARC // 288 pages.
Reviewed from ARC provided by Traveling ARC Tours.

Dani lives in Argentina with her family – father, mother, and little sister. She has friends, and a boyfriend but her life is nowhere near perfect. Seven years ago, a terrorist attack took the lives of her aunt and unborn cousin. Right now, her family is struggling financially since they lost their family store and Dani’s father is depressed and angry. Many people are leaving Argentina and Dani’s family soon plans a move to America, for a new chance at life. But Dani and her family aren’t the only ones suffering from the aftermath of a terrorist attack – some of the students at Dani’s new school have personal ties to the recent September 11th attack in New York City.

I really enjoyed “Life, After.” I thought that it was a fairly realistic portrayal of grief and the struggle to return to normal after such catastrophic events take place. The story has great layers – parallels between the AMIA building in Buenos Aires terrorist attack and the more well-known (coming from a United States perspective) 9/11 terrorist attack that will really have readers relating to both teen’s struggles.

This novel covers a lot of difficult subjects (terrorism, immigration, poverty, autism spectrum disorders, grief, depression) without coming off as heavy-handed in terms of lessons or morals. And even though it might seem like those are a lot of topics to cover, the novel has great rhythm and flow. I didn’t feel overwhelmed by the subjects at all.

My favorite parts of the novel were actually the scenes in Argentina, and I was sad to see us move from an unfamiliar place and setting to the very familiar contemporary United States. (My suspicion is that teens will have the opposite reaction.) I’m not sure how accurate the portrayal of Argentina is (just looked it up and the author has never been to Argentina, but did a good amount of research) – but I absolutely loved the setting and thought it came to life. I could see the streets and trees. I could imagine Dani’s apartment.

The characterization was awesome, and I thought Dani was full of life. Definitely enjoyed this one and can see a lot of different kinds of angles to sell it to teens. Looking forward to reading more of Darer Littman’s books! (Like “Purge” which is already on my TBR pile.)

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Sarah Darer Littman

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review: “flash burnout” April 19, 2010

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Flash Burnout by L.K. Madigan.
Houghton Mifflin // Hardcover // 336 pages.
Reviewed from library copy.

Blake was just doing his photography homework. He didn’t expect to find anything other than a cool subject for a photo shoot. But when he finds Marissa’s drug-addict mother, his — and her — world change. Now, he’s torn between helping Marissa and his girlfriend, Shannon. (Not to mention his conflicting feelings about both girls, his family, and the world around him.) Will he be able to put what’s really important first?

I was pleasantly surprised by “Flash Burnout.” I thought the voice was pretty authentic, and that Blake sounded a lot like some of my teen boys at the library. But what really impressed me about this debut was the heart of the story. Blake’s seemingly light tone and joke cracking had me thinking that the book would be a quick, light-hearted story. I was wrong — this book has real depth to it.

My favorite part of the story had to be Blake and his home life. I thought his mother, father, and brother were among the best, most well-developed families I have ever encountered in YA literature. And I think that the family was presented as a very relatable family — I think teens will find a lot of things in common with all of the characters.

There were some minor problems with teenage slang. (And yes, it drew me out of the story even though I’m surrounded by teenagers five days a week.) And this is a novel for older teens by far. But overall, I thought this was a very strong debut novel. While it wasn’t my favorite of the Morris Award nominees (a YALSA award for best debut author basically), I thought that it definitely deserved the win. It’s already in my library and I would absolutely recommend it for public libraries.

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L.K. Madigan

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review: “boys, girls, and other hazardous materials” March 31, 2010

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Boys, Girls, and Other Hazardous Materials by Rosalind Wiseman.
Putnam // Hardcover // 288 pages.
Reviewed from purchased copy.

After a horrible eighth grade year, surrounded by frenemies and pressured to do what they want, Charlie Healey is certainly ready to make a fresh start at a new high school. But when she arrives at the school, she finds out that her past isn’t so easy to escape — there’s her childhood best friend Will, and Nidhi, one of the girls that the popular crowd tormented at her old school. And that’s not all that’s going on — Charlie’s got to figure out who her friends are and what exactly Will is hiding from her…before it blows up in her face.

I have mixed feelings on this one. I really liked its potential, but it didn’t really achieve it throughout the course of the story.

The first half of this novel is about Charlie and high school; typical freshmen issues — finding friends, joining clubs, classes, lockers. There’s little to no plot. And when Nidhi shows up, I thought, plot! But their differences are quickly gotten over and Nidhi becomes one of Charlie’s friends.

I was interested in Charlie’s life, and pleased to read a YA novel about freshman year. But the plot doesn’t really show up until more than midway through the novel when Charlie discovers that there’s more than meets the eye to the peer pressure and bullying around her.

And then, the plot moves quickly until the end of the novel, which does have a nice wrap-up, without leaving readers wondering what happens.

Charlie also annoyed me sometimes. I was frustrated when she started sounding like a mouthpiece for anti-bullying campaigns instead of a real teenager. (It didn’t happen often, but when it did — whoa.)

The supporting characters (Nidhi, Michael and Sydney) wound up being my favorites. And I did root for Charlie and Will to figure out that they needed to date, but only mildly.

Overall, this is a cute fun (slightly flawed) read that I know will find a place in YA literature. Public libraries would definitely benefit from having this in their collection.

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Rosalind Wiseman

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review: “an off year” March 30, 2010

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An Off Year by Claire Zulkey.
Dutton Juvenile // Hardcover // 304 pages.
Reviewed from purchased copy.

Cecily had a plan — after graduating high school, she was set for college. But when she arrived at college for her move-in day, her plans changed. Cecily didn’t want to be there. So, she moved back home for a year, planning on taking a year off to figure out exactly what she wanted in life. The problem is she has no idea what she wants and no idea how to get it. For now, she’s content with sitting around.

This novel really surprised me with its honesty about one of the hardest transitions for teens — the transition from teenagedom to adulthood. And I think this is an area of YA that is just beginning to be explored; one that needs to be explored further.

I also thought that the novel might get to be a little boring if all Cecily was doing was waiting to figure things out. But outside influences in her life (her family, her friends, a therapist) really to the story, making it well rounded and not a completely internal dialogue.

I really connected with Cecily as a character. I feel like everyone has that moment in their lives when they look as the expected path laid out for them and wonder why they’re doing what they’re doing. I didn’t take any years off between high school, college, and graduate school — sometimes I really wish I had!

And it has to be mentioned — the novel takes place in Chicago and I still get a thrill out of reading books that are written in my hometown. Zulkey did a great job describing the area and I definitely felt like I was around the Rogers Park/Evanston area…even if the novel doesn’t come right out and say it.

Younger teens will probably be less interested in this title, but I definitely think this will work well with high school seniors/college freshmen.

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Claire Zulkey

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review: “by the time you read this, i’ll be dead” March 26, 2010

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By the Time You Read This, I’ll Be Dead by Julie Anne Peters.
Hyperion // Hardcover // 224 pages.
Reviewed from purchased copy.

Daelyn Rice has tried to commit suicide multiple times. The latest attempt has left her unable to eat solid food and to talk without pain. And Daelyn still wants to die — so she finds an online community to support her during her next attempt; the attempt that Daelyn wants to be her final success. But as much as Daelyn wants to die, others want her to live and they’re reaching out to her, trying to keep her alive.

It’s hard to review this book for me. I thought it was amazingly well-written, but the whole time I wanted to shake Daelyn and remind her that people cared about her. I was so utterly frustrated with her character and the seemingly unending hopelessness that she had — I really struggled to finish the book.

There are also pretty detailed descriptions on the methods that people chose to commit suicide, something that I almost wasn’t comfortable with in a YA book. And I have to say that I’m pretty open-minded when it comes to difficult subjects in YA literature. But when the descriptions were making my stomach turn? It was too harsh for me, and too harsh for a lot of the teens I know.

Daelyn does has reason for being truly unhappy — she’s been bullied her whole life for her weight. I don’t want to say it justified her depression and suicide attempts, but I felt like she had been truly abused.

[Spoilers for the end, run away if you don’t want to know!]

And the most frustrating part about the novel was that the ending was open — we don’t know what Daelyn did; if she did attempt suicide, if she was successful; or if the few people in her life were enough to convince her otherwise.

A hard-hitting well-written YA novel. I had trouble moving past the subject matter. And I think librarians should be careful to recommend it to teens who can handle the material.

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Julie Anne Peters

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review: “the vinyl princess” March 23, 2010

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The Vinyl Princess by Yvonne Prinz.
Harper Teen // Hardcover // 320 pages.
Reviewed from purchased copy.

For most teens, summertime is the time to relax. Not for Allie. Summer means she can work twice as much as Bob & Bob’s Records — a local independent music store — and that’s perfectly all right with her. Allie loves music and is convinced that vinyl is the only way to go. Reaching out to other vinyl lovers, Allie starts a blog and a zine to document her reviews and playlists. While her blog begins to flourish slowly, her love life and the music store aren’t doing as well. Will Allie’s summer be the perfect one she imagines?

I loved this book! Between the blogging, music loving, and Allie’s fabulously snarky authentic teen voice, I was in love from the beginning of this book.

With such an awesome protagonist, it should come as no surprise that the supporting characters (Allie’s mom, best friend, boss, potential love interests) are also well-developed and equally as awesome.

The plot of the book is fast-paced, and moves steadily without stalling — which is something I wondered about because the novel appeared to be just about Allie’s summer from blurbs/reviews that I read. There is so much here — romance, crime, intrigue!

And speaking of the romance, I thought it was spot-on. Allie makes some typical romance mistakes before finally winding up with the right guy (which I knew from the start), but it was such a great journey to take with her as she romantically fumbled.

The blog entries were a great way to not only get to know Allie through her passion, but also to introduce teens to classic rock and folk. I will not be surprised when my teens ask me for a playlist for this novel. (And I just checked — our copy is checked out with an additional hold placed on it, yay!)

A great YA realistic/romance, with a fabulous protagonist. Highly recommended for public libraries.

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Yvonne Prinz

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review: “tangled” March 21, 2010

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Tangled by Carolyn Mackler.
Harper Teen // Hardcover // 320 pages.
Reviewed from purchased copy.

Four teens, four very different lives. Jena, the girl next door with self-esteem issues; Skye, the beautiful girl with a dark secret; Dakota, the bad boy; and Owen, the geek. Their lives become tangled together after they all inadvertently meet while on vacation. What the teens don’t realize is once they’ve met, their lives will all change as a result.

“Tangled” really surprised me — I expected a soft chick lit romance novel by the cover, but instead got a nicely balanced realistic novel.

Mackler alternates chapters between the four protagonists. At first, this was jarring for me because I had immediately connected with Jena and wanted to read more about her story. After I finished the novel, I did wind up liking the switch. I still wished I had been better prepared for it. (Though, that’s my fault for avoiding summaries and spoilers like the plague!)

Skye, Dakota, and Owen were all fleshed out characters and I did enjoy reading about their struggles. I don’t want to talk about their problems, because some of them are shrouded in mystery in the book, but I also enjoyed the realistic portrayals of these issues.

While I still like Jena the most, I really liked the way that the stories were woven together. These were very real teenagers with different obstacles and issues, blended together to tell one complete story of acceptance and understanding.

This book was a quick, fast read — and I think it was incredibly unrated. I did not see it get as much coverage in the blogosphere and library world as I thought the novel deserved. I would definitely recommend this book to teens and fans of realistic fiction. The book does read a bit like Sarah Dessen and Elizabeth Scott, so if you have fans of those in your library, this is the book for you.

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Carolyn Mackler

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review: “some girls are” March 19, 2010

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Some Girls Are by Courtney Summers.
St. Martin’s Griffin // ARC // 256 pages.
Reviewed from an ARC copy, from LibraryThing’s Early Reviewer program.

When Regina is almost raped by her best friend’s boyfriend at a party, she confides in Kara who swears never to tell Anna. But what Regina fails to realize is that Kara wants to be Anna’s best friend — and wants to ruin Regina’s life. Now instead of being Anna’s favored friend, Regina is the outs with everyone at school, and is physically and emotionally paying for it. Because Anna and Kara are some of the meanest girls ever and their only goal is to make Regina suffer.

It’s hard to say that I liked this book, because it’s such a difficult subject matter. But I did!

The writing is absolutely amazing — real and gritty. I cannot even say how many times I wound up flinching while reading this book. The physical torment that Anna, Kara, and the rest of the clique put Regina through is horrifying and turned my stomach on occasion. This book is not for the faint of heart and is definitely an upper YA read.

What makes this book amazing and memorable is Regina’s development, her journey to move past this former mean girl who can’t even stand up for herself.

Regina’s parents and teachers seem utterly clueless about what’s going on in her life. I was convinced that someone had to know what these girls were doing — and rather than stopping it, they allowed it to happen.

Michael, Regina’s only companion throughout most of the novel, is a well-developed supporting character and I really liked what his character brought to the novel and offered to Regina’s own development.

I would definitely recommend this book to teens, but I would caution the teen about the heavy subject matter before putting the book in their hands.

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Courtney Summers

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review: “the heart is not a size” March 16, 2010

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The Heart Is Not a Size by Beth Kephart.
HarperTeen // ARC // 256 pages
Reviewed from ARC provided by Traveling ARC Tours.

Georgia has always been known as the reliable teenager – she is the one parents point and say, “Why can’t you be more like Georgia?” But her life isn’t perfect, and being reliable means keeping secrets, secrets about her friends and secrets about herself. When Georgia finds out about a service opportunity to visit Anapra (a village in Mexico), she convinces Riley – her best friend – to come with her. While in Anapra, the group works to build a community bathroom and Georgia is faced with new challenges – including figuring out exactly which secrets she should be keeping.

Like “Nothing But Ghosts,” I regretted closing the book because it meant that I had to leave the world that Kephart created. Where “Nothing But Ghosts” is a book about grief, about moving on – “The Heart is Not a Size” is about friendship, finding one’s place in the world.

Georgia and Riley are this wonderful pair of friends, very different, each with their own struggles, and very human – they do not have a perfect friendship by any means. But what they do have is this underlying sense of loyalty to one another. Even when their friendship is tested, I feel like they each still care about one another.

The supporting characters in the novel are varied, distinctive. While some are stronger than others, they still add a great dynamic, bringing Georgia’s world and Anapra to life. Riley, in particular, is a truly multilayered, complex character. I almost wished I could get inside her head and really figure her out.

I felt very connected to Georgia – I was always the responsible friend and I felt a lot of parental pressure. It doesn’t surprise me that one of the secrets Georgia is keeping (no spoiler here, Georgia states this very early on in the novel) is her own panic attacks. While I was going to college, I had several friends who admitted that they had struggled with panic attacks in high school. I even had some friends who continued to have attacks throughout college. It really surprised me to see a main character in YA who had such attacks. (Sidenote: let me know if you know of other YA that has panic attacks in the novel.)

I’ve already pre-ordered this book for myself and for my library. I cannot wait to connect readers with this story.

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Beth Kephart

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review: “positively” March 3, 2010

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Positively by Courtney Sheinmel.
Simon and Schuster // Hardcover // 224 pages.
Reviewed from library copy.

Emmy’s always known that she was HIV-Positive — she got the disease from her mother during pregnancy. And at age 13, Emmy’s mother passes away leaving Emmy to an unsure new world, living with her father and stepmother. Unsure, scared, and angry Emmy acts out against her new world. Her father and stepmother try to help as best they can and finally decide to send Emmy to Camp Positive — a summer camp for those fighting HIV/AIDS.

I was convinced that this book would be a downer. What surprised me most about it was the hopeful nature of the book. I think that Emmy ultimately grows a lot throughout the book and is on the way to emotionally healing when we leave her.

Other great things about this book include the realistic way that AIDS/HIV talk was handled. Perfectly age appropriate, accurate information. None of the characters were talked down to, and Emmy’s concerns were ones that I felt all teenagers would be concerned about.

Sheinmel also masterly crafts an authentic young teenage voice. I was so drawn into Emmy’s words and world that having to put the book down left me wondering what was going on in the book while I was away. I also definitely had flashbacks to when I was younger teen.

This is such a better alternative to Lurlene McDaniel books. (Not that those don’t hold a special place in my heart — they were the only books that I could read after my Gram passed away from cancer as a young teen.) But Emmy’s story feels much more real, and way more contemporary than older books.

The book definitely got me to think and also to cry a little. But again, it wound up being a very hopeful and truthful story.

Definitely recommended for public libraries.

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Courtney Sheinmel

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