Category Archives: Book Review

Book Review: Hit by Lorie Ann Grover

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Tragedy, family, love, and loss collide in Hit by Lorie Ann Grover, a story told in two voices about a teen girl and the teacher she’s in love with, and what happens when a car accident lands her in the hospital.

hitAfter receiving a full-ride scholarship to Mills College for Girls, it appears Sarah’s future is all laid out before her that is until she walks into a poetry class led by Mr. Haddings, a student teacher from the nearby University of Washington. Suddenly, life on the UW campus seems very appealing, and Sarah finds herself using her poetry journal to subtly declare her feelings for Haddings. Convinced Mr. Haddings is flirting back, she sets off for school in the rain with a poem in her back pocket one that will declare her feelings once and for all.

Mr. Haddings has noticed Sarah’s attention; the fallout from any perceived relationship with a student is too great a risk, and he has decided to end all speculation that morning.

But everything changes when Mr. Haddings feels a thud on his front bumper when he glances away from the road, and finds Sarah in the street with blood pooling beneath her.

What sets this book apart from other novels about student-teacher relationships is how well Grover focuses on everything else in these people’s lives. It’s not just about a potentially illegal relationship. It’s about a girl deciding her future, about her friendships, about her relationships with her family members. It’s about a young man and his career, his education, his family.

In many ways, Hit is a book that focuses very little on the would-be relationship between Sarah and Mr. Haddings. The story is more about what happens to this young woman when she is hit by a car — and the repercussions for the man who was driving the car. It’s about family and love and strength and weakness. It’s about forgiveness and moving on.

Hit is in stores October 7th.

 

Book Review: Love is the Drug by Alaya Dawn Johnson

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A political thriller full of social commentary about race and class are the focus of Alaya Dawn Johnson’s newest YA novel, Love is the Drug.

love is the drugFrom the author of THE SUMMER PRINCE, a novel that’s John Grisham’s THE PELICAN BRIEF meets Michael Crichton’s THE ANDROMEDA STRAIN set at an elite Washington D.C. prep school.

Emily Bird was raised not to ask questions. She has perfect hair, the perfect boyfriend, and a perfect Ivy-League future. But a chance meeting with Roosevelt David, a homeland security agent, at a party for Washington DC’s elite leads to Bird waking up in a hospital, days later, with no memory of the end of the night.

Meanwhile, the world has fallen apart: A deadly flu virus is sweeping the nation, forcing quarantines, curfews, even martial law. And Roosevelt is certain that Bird knows something. Something about the virus–something about her parents’ top secret scientific work–something she shouldn’t know.

The only one Bird can trust is Coffee, a quiet, outsider genius who deals drugs to their classmates and is a firm believer in conspiracy theories. And he believes in Bird. But as Bird and Coffee dig deeper into what really happened that night, Bird finds that she might know more than she remembers. And what she knows could unleash the biggest government scandal in US history.

The mystery behind what is truly going on in Love is the Drug is compelling, and is a driving force behind moving the plot forward. But sometimes a book tries to be too much, and tries to address too many subjects — and I think that is ultimately the downfall of Love is the Drug, which often became bogged down by too many elements.

Johnson clearly has a lot to say about race and class — but with a political and medical thriller unfolding alongside these issues, Love is the Drug felt like a book with split personalities. Johnson’s decision to tackle so much within this one book is admirable, but ultimately I think it was a mistake that made the book difficult to read.

I wanted to know what happened, and was compelled to keep reading — but at the same time, I felt frustrated that the mystery did not unfold more smoothly. It felt like the medical/political thriller aspect of the plot was repeatedly put on hold for the social/race aspect of the plot — and the latter was definitely more about social commentary than it was about moving the story forward.

The issues Johnson bring up in Love is the Drug are certainly worth discussing, and worth writing about — especially in YA lit. I just don’t think the combination works in this case, given how much the quality of the book itself suffers for it.

Love is the Drug is in stores September 30th.

Book Review: Brutal Youth by Anthony Breznican

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An “un-coming of age” story told with gruesome honesty, Brutal Youth by Anthony Breznican is a dismal but truthful look at the worst parts of adolescence.

brutal youthThree freshmen must join forces to survive at a troubled, working-class Catholic high school with a student body full of bullies and zealots, and a faculty that’s even worse in Anthony Breznican’s Brutal Youth

With a plunging reputation and enrollment rate, Saint Michael’s has become a crumbling dumping ground for expelled delinquents and a haven for the stridently religious when incoming freshman Peter Davidek signs up. On his first day, tensions are clearly on the rise as a picked-upon upperclassmen finally snaps, unleashing a violent attack on both the students who tormented him for so long, and the corrupt, petty faculty that let it happen. But within this desperate place, Peter befriends fellow freshmen Noah Stein, a volatile classmate whose face bears the scars of a hard-fighting past, and the beautiful but lonely Lorelei Paskal —so eager to become popular, she makes only enemies.

To even stand a chance at surviving their freshmen year, the trio must join forces as they navigate a bullying culture dominated by administrators like the once popular Ms. Bromine, their embittered guidance counselor, and Father Mercedes, the parish priest who plans to scapegoat the students as he makes off with church finances. A coming-of-age tale reversed, Brutal Youth follows these students as they discover that instead of growing older and wiser, going bad may be the only way to survive.

Though written for adults, Brutal Youth ‘s main characters are all teenagers — and their journey is not what most YA readers would come to expect. They are all optimistic, hopeful individuals — who, through the course of one torturous freshmen year of high school, come undone in the worst ways possible. It’s a blessing that Breznican has injected his story with so much dark humor; I can’t imagine getting through such horrific events without each little dose of laughter.

It’s sad that Breznican’s story is so honest. After all, the lesson these kids learn is one most of us have learned: that honesty and goodness is rarely rewarded; that deceitfulness and lies are often necessary to survive and to get ahead. Brutal Youth is not an uplifting story, but instead a raw reflection of society today. The optimistic side of me hopes it can serve as a wake-up call to the world that we have to do better; the pessimistic side wonders if that’s even possible.

Called “a Rebel Without a Cause for the twenty-first century” by Stephen King, Brutal Youth is in stores now.

Book Review: Hook’s Revenge by Heidi Schulz

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Peter Pan is kind of a jerk, and there’s no one better to let you know why than Jocelyn Hook, the daring (and, let’s admit it, much more kind-hearted) daughter of none other can Captain Hook. Her saga of surviving (and escaping) finishing school, and her quest to avenge her father’s death against the Neverland’s tick-tocking crocodile make up the rollicking adventure, Hook’s Revenge by Heidi Schulz.

hook's revengeTwelve-year-old Jocelyn dreams of becoming every bit as daring as her infamous father, Captain James Hook. Her grandfather, on the other hand, intends to see her starched and pressed into a fine society lady. When she’s sent to Miss Eliza Crumb-Biddlecomb’s Finishing School for Young Ladies, Jocelyn’s hopes of following in her father’s fearsome footsteps are lost in a heap of dance lessons, white gloves, and way too much pink.

So when Jocelyn receives a letter from her father challenging her to avenge his untimely demise at the jaws of the Neverland crocodile, she doesn’t hesitate-here at last is the adventure she has been waiting for. But Jocelyn finds that being a pirate is a bit more difficult than she’d bargained for. As if attempting to defeat the Neverland’s most fearsome beast isn’t enough to deal with, she’s tasked with captaining a crew of woefully untrained pirates, outwitting cannibals wild for English cuisine, and rescuing her best friend from a certain pack of lost children, not to mention that pesky Peter Pan who keeps barging in uninvited.

The crocodile’s clock is always ticking in Heidi Schulz’s debut novel, a story told by an irascible narrator who is both dazzlingly witty and sharp as a sword. Will Jocelyn find the courage to beat the incessant monster before time runs out?

Schulz has captured all the joy and magic of J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan story, and reconfigured Neverland for an all new set of adventures through Jocelyn. Schulz writes with a witty tone, her cantankerous narrator imbuing the story periodically with even more color and humor — as Jocelyn navigates the trials and tribulations of finishing school, pirating, and revenge.

There is much to say about Hook’s Revenge, but I’ll start with this: it’s a delightful story, filled with charm and wit, endearing characters, imaginative plot twists, and plenty of humor. Schulz’s charming storm is lovingly enhanced by John Hendrix’s wonderful illustrations — each one filled with action, emotions, life, and all the tiny details that bring moments from the text to life.

Hook’s Revenge is simply a delight to read. Funny and charming and magical — everything a book should be. It is in stores now.

Book Review: Firebug by Lish McBride

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Dear Lish McBride,

firebugThank you. Thank for hearing my repeated pleas for more magical mafia stories in YA literature.

Thank you for writing Ava, a strong female character who breaks the mold of what a “strong female character” has come to represent. For writing a character who has weaknesses as much as she has strength. Who possesses a power she’d rather not. Who loves deeply and truthfully, despite being scared and uncertain of her place in the world.

Thank you for writing Ava’s friends and loved ones, characters who I can rally behind as a reader. Who I can fall in love with. Who I wish I could hang out with.

Thank you for writing a wickedly delicious villain.

Thank you for writing the first book in a series that wraps up the main plot by the last page, while still leaving agonizing loose threads open for the next installation. (But seriously, can I have that next book now?????)

Thank you for weaving together a plot that is clever and twisty and engaging. Thank you for writing a smart, thoughtful storyline that never lags. Thank you for writing a book that I simply could not put down.

Thank you for writing a book that gave me a major book hangover, and made reading anything else after it incredibly difficult.

Thank you for Firebug. It’s amazing and is everything I ever look for in a YA novel.

Love,
Sara

Firebug is in stores September 23rd. Here is the official synopsis:

Ava can start fires with her mind . . . but is it a blessing or a curse?

Ava is a firebug—she can start fires with her mind. Which would all be well and good if she weren’t caught in a deadly contract with the Coterie, a magical mafia. She’s one of their main hit men . . . and she doesn’t like it one bit. Not least because her mother’s death was ordered by Venus—who is now her boss.

When Venus asks Ava to kill a family friend, Ava rebels. She knows very well that you can’t say no to the Coterie and expect to get away with it, though, so she and her friends hit the road, trying desperately to think of a way out of the mess they find themselves in. Preferably keeping the murder to a minimum.

Book Review: Afterworlds by Scott Westerfeld

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A YA novel, about a YA author publishing her first novel, featuring a book-within-a-book — written by a YA author. Afterworlds by Scott Westerfeld is so meta – and maybe those unfamiliar with the YA industry will miss some of the subtle nuances he has crafted, but it’s easily one of the most unique novels to hit bookstore shelves in a long time.

afterworldsDarcy Patel has put college and everything else on hold to publish her teen novel, Afterworlds. Arriving in New York with no apartment or friends she wonders whether she’s made the right decision until she falls in with a crowd of other seasoned and fledgling writers who take her under their wings…

Told in alternating chapters is Darcy’s novel, a suspenseful thriller about Lizzie, a teen who slips into the ‘Afterworld’ to survive a terrorist attack. But the Afterworld is a place between the living and the dead and as Lizzie drifts between our world and that of the Afterworld, she discovers that many unsolved – and terrifying – stories need to be reconciled. And when a new threat resurfaces, Lizzie learns her special gifts may not be enough to protect those she loves and cares about most.

The beauty of the alternating chapters — half about Darcy, the author; the other half following Lizzie, her character — is that you not only get the cool paranormal book Westerfeld has created for his author-character Darcy, but you get to see the way her experiences in editing shapes the book.

It can be confusing to describe the alternating realities of Afterworlds – but the reading process itself is easy and breezy. In Darcy’s world, it’s fun to experience the author’s side of the YA world: writing sessions, editorial letters, and cocktail parties with fellow authors. With Lizzie, you get an expertly written paranormal romance.

It would have been easy for Westerfeld to simply write Lizzie’s story alone — but combining it with Darcy’s perspective is what takes Afterworlds to a whole new level, and makes it something wholly original.

The middle of the book gets bogged down a bit by Darcy’s story — but then, isn’t that the whole point? To shed some light on the true nature of the publishing world — which is, most certainly, bogged down by bureaucracy and process.

An unexpectedly twisty ride through the world of publishing and the underworld of Westerfeld’s imagination, Afterworlds is a treat for lovers of YA lit, and those who follow the world so closely. It is in stores September 23rd.

Book Review: Vault of Dreamers by Caragh M. O’Brien

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Vault of Dreamers by Caragh M. O’Brien is an edgy new YA with an intriguing science fiction premise.

Vault of DreamersFrom the author of the Birthmarked trilogy comes a fast-paced, psychologically thrilling novel about what happens when your dreams are not your own.

The Forge School is the most prestigious arts school in the country. The secret to its success:  every moment of the students’ lives is televised as part of the insanely popular Forge Show, and the students’ schedule includes twelve hours of induced sleep meant to enhance creativity. But when first year student Rosie Sinclair skips her sleeping pill, she discovers there is something off about Forge. In fact, she suspects that there are sinister things going on deep below the reaches of the cameras in the school. What’s worse is, she starts to notice that the edges of her consciousness do not feel quite right. And soon, she unearths the ghastly secret that the Forge School is hiding—and what it truly means to dream there.

The idea behind Vault of Dreamers is truly extraordinary — but the execution is less than exceptional. The book’s fast-paced start bogged down in the later chapters, as potential plot twists and subplots became dead-ends. And ultimately, the ending was far from satisfying — and in many ways, felt as if the author had written herself into a corner and had to scramble for a conclusion to the story.

If Vault of Dreamers is the first in a series, there is certainly potential for things to improve — but the ending of this book was not just disappointing, but felt like a cheat. When I read a book, I want to feel rewarded — and that never happened with Vault of Dreamers.

The real disappointment is that the book had such potential. The concept alone is massively intriguing — and O’Brien’s characters are entirely likeable. I would have happily spent more time with Rosie and her friends — had the circumstances of their story been different.

Vault of Dreamers is in stores September 16th.

Book Review: Jackaby by William Ritter

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I was sold on Jackaby by William Ritter by the publisher’s description alone: “Doctor Who meets Sherlock” — but when the book held-up to this comparison and far-exceeded my expectations? Well, you can call me a fan – a BIG fan.

jackaby“Miss Rook, I am not an occultist,” Jackaby said. “I have a gift that allows me to see truth where others see the illusion–and there are many illusions. All the world’s a stage, as they say, and I seem to have the only seat in the house with a view behind the curtain.”

Newly arrived in New Fiddleham, New England, 1892, and in need of a job, Abigail Rook meets R. F. Jackaby, an investigator of the unexplained with a keen eye for the extraordinary–including the ability to see supernatural beings. Abigail has a gift for noticing ordinary but important details, which makes her perfect for the position of Jackaby’s assistant. On her first day, Abigail finds herself in the midst of a thrilling case: A serial killer is on the loose. The police are convinced it’s an ordinary villain, but Jackaby is certain it’s a nonhuman creature, whose existence the police–with the exception of a handsome young detective named Charlie Cane–deny.

Doctor Who meets Sherlock in William Ritter’s debut novel, which features a detective of the paranormal as seen through the eyes of his adventurous and intelligent assistant in a tale brimming with cheeky humor and a dose of the macabre.

With a macabre crime investigation, witty banter, unexpected humor, and distinctly likeable characters, Jackaby won me over from the first page to the very last.

The publisher’s Doctor Who/Sherlock description is apt — with Jackaby’s Sherlock-like crime-solving skills and quirky Doctor-esque mannerisms, with Abigail serving as a sort of Watson/Doctor’s companion role with aplomb. And yet, as referential as Jackaby is to these comparisons — the book remains wholly unique. Jackaby, as a character, is fully realized — as is his plucky companion and our assertive narrator, Abigail, a thoroughly modern woman trapped in the 19th century.

I was enchanted by every moment in Jackaby, and when I wasn’t reading it, longed to return to its pages. And much as I couldn’t wait to find out what happened next — I wanted to prolong the reading experience as much as possible, so as to savor Ritter’s world and his characters all the more.

Jackaby is in stores September 16th.

Book Review: The Witch’s Boy by Kelly Barnhill

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A charming new middle grade adventure from author Kelly Barnhill awaits readers within the pages of her latest book, The Witch’s Boy.

witch's boyWhen Ned and his identical twin brother tumble from their raft into a raging, bewitched river, only Ned survives. Villagers are convinced the wrong boy lived. Sure enough, Ned grows up weak and slow, and stays as much as possible within the safe boundaries of his family’s cottage and yard. But when a Bandit King comes to steal the magic that Ned’s mother, a witch, is meant to protect, it’s Ned who safeguards the magic and summons the strength to protect his family and community.

In the meantime, in another kingdom across the forest that borders Ned’s village lives Áine, the resourceful and pragmatic daughter of the Bandit King. She is haunted by her mother’s last words to her: “The wrong boy will save your life and you will save his.” But when Áine and Ned’s paths cross, can they trust each other long enough to make their way through the treacherous woods and stop the war about to boil over?

With a deft hand, acclaimed author Kelly Barnhill takes classic fairy tale elements–speaking stones, a friendly wolf, and a spoiled young king–and weaves them into a richly detailed narrative that explores good and evil, love and hate, magic, and the power of friendship.

A powerful story about family and friendship, love and magic, The Witch’s Boy is as delightful for adult readers as it will be for younger audiences. Barnhill weaves an enchanting story in a fantastical realm that readers will love discovering, with plenty of adventure and intrigue mixed in for good measure.

The writing itself is smart, beautiful, and lyrical — drawing in the reader with each careful turn of phrase. And that’s good, because the story itself starts out slow — so as Barnhill’s writing hooks you, it takes a while for the pace to catch up. But once it does, the characters and the magic of the story will really keep you hooked, as each new chapter unfolds.

Get bewitched by The Witch’s Boy, when it hits stores on September 16th.

Book Review: I’ll Give You the Sun by Jandy Nelson

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Tragedy and triumph collide in Jandy Nelson’s exhilarating new novel, I’ll Give You the Sun — a captivating and magical read. This was a book that captured me from the very beginning, and refused to let me go until I’d followed twins Noah and Jude through the rest of their incredible journey.

i'll give you the sunA brilliant, luminous story of first love, family, loss, and betrayal for fans of John Green, David Levithan, and Rainbow Rowell

Jude and her brother, Noah, are incredibly close twins. At thirteen, isolated Noah draws constantly and is falling in love with the charismatic boy next door, while daredevil Jude surfs and cliff-dives and wears red-red lipstick and does the talking for both of them. But three years later, Jude and Noah are barely speaking. Something has happened to wreck the twins in different and divisive ways . . . until Jude meets a cocky, broken, beautiful boy, as well as an unpredictable new mentor. The early years are Noah’s story to tell. The later years are Jude’s. What the twins don’t realize is that they each have only half the story, and if they could just find their way back to one another, they’d have a chance to remake their world.

This radiant, fully alive, sometimes very funny novel from the critically acclaimed author of The Sky Is Everywhere will leave you breathless and teary and laughing—often all at once.

I have not felt so captivated by a novel in a long time. I’ll Give You the Sun is a book that took hold someplace deep inside of me while reading — and refused to let go, even after I’d finished the last page. It has stuck with me, and I continue to marvel over the beauty of Nelson’s writing and the enchantment of her characters and their stories.

It’s hard to put into words just how magical it was, the experience of reading I’ll Give You the Sun. It’s a story about love and family and truth; about art and expression. About finding out who you are, both as an individual and as part of a family, and as part of the world.

I’ll Give You the Sun is the kind of book that sweeps you away, and leaves you changed for the better having read it from start to finish. Look for it in stores on September 16th.