Criminal: A Review

Criminal by Terra Elan McVoyNikki knows her life isn’t a dream come true. Even the thought of seeing her mother makes Nikki’s skin crawl. Her step-father is in jail. Nikki is a high school drop out.

But she has her friend Bird and her job at the hair salon.

More importantly, Nikki has Dee. Everyone tells her that Dee is no good but Nikki doesn’t believe that. Not really. How can Dee be anything but perfect when he looks so good and makes Nikki feel like this? He even has her initial tattooed on his chest.

When Dee does the unthinkable, Nikki is drawn into a crime that will shatter everything Nikki had taken for granted in her less-than-perfect life. After spending so much time wrapped up in Dee’s world, Nikki isn’t sure what it will take to stand on her own in Criminal (2013) by Terra Elan McVoy.

Criminal is a finalist for the 2014 Edgar Awards for Young Adult Mystery.

In a departure from her lighter fare, McVoy presents a gritty, evocative story of life in the wake of a shocking crime. The novel bends notions of right and wrong while also artfully exploring the idea of complicity as Nikki comes to terms with her own role in Dee’s crime.

Nikki is a flawed, often naive, heroine who has tried to make the best of the blessed little life has given her. She turns a blind eye to Dee’s many faults. She makes mistakes. She is impulsive and quite foolish.

Despite these shortcomings, Nikki’s growth throughout the novel is impressive. While she does not always make the smartest decisions, Nikki is a survivor. Although Criminal is touted as a mystery the main story here is really one about a girl trying to find her way. Even with all of the obstacles she has to face, readers will close this book with a sense that Nikki will make it through.

Possible Pairings: Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson, The Midnight Dress by Karen Foxlee, Blank Confession by Pete Hautman, Boy Toy by Barry Lyga, How to Lead a Life of Crime by Kirsten Miller

All Our Yesterdays: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

“You have to kill him.”

All Our Yesterdays by Cristin TerrillLocked up in a government facility, Em marks time by staring at the drain in her center of her cell or talking to her fellow prisoner through the wall between their cells. Then, of course, there are the interrogation sessions with the Doctor. But Em tries not to think about those. Or the Doctor.

The only thing keeping her going is the list of instructions written in Em’s own handwriting. Em has tried everything she can think of to prevent the completion of a time machine that will break the world. The list proves that well enough.

But none of her attempts have worked and now Em is left with one last, terrible option.

Marina has loved her neighbor James since forever. More, even, than she loves herself sometimes. Quiet, focused James finally might be seeing Marina as more than a friend when one disastrous night changes everything. Everything Marina previously knew will be thrown into question as she struggles to protect James at any cost.

Em and Marina stand on opposite sides in a race to protect time. Only one of them can come out alive in All Our Yesterdays (2013) by Cristin Terrill.

All Our Yesterdays is Terrill’s first novel.

Alternating between Em and Marina’s narratives, Terrill has created a story that intertwines and connects in clever, unexpected ways. The time travel elements here are wonderfully plausible and key to the plot and all of its surprise reveals.

In addition to an action-packed adventure, All Our Yesterdays is a well-paced, meditative story about the strengths (and limits) of friendship. At the same time Terrill offers a thoughtful, subtle development as Marina come into her own and starts to learn to love herself.

With light science fiction (time travel) elements All Our Yesterdays is a great starting point for readers looking to give sci-fi a try as well as veteran readers. The other arcs regarding friendship and causality promise that this book has a lot to offer every reader. Highly recommended.

Possible Pairings: Tiger Lily by Jodi Lynn Anderson, Wintergirls by Laurie Halse Anderson, Guardian of the Dead by Karen Healey, Fire and Hemlock by Diana Wynne Jones, Jellicoe Road by Melina Marchetta, Hourglass by Myra McEntire, Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein, Paper Valentine by Brenna Yovanoff

*This book was acquired for review from the publisher at BEA 2013*

My Basmati Bat Mitzvah: A (Rapid Fire) Chick Lit Wednesday Review

My Basmati Bat Mitzvah by Paula J. Freedman (2013)

My Basmati Bat Mitzvah by Paula J. FreedmanThis is one of those books that can skew as either middle grade or a younger YA. Either works and either is appropriate. Tara, our narrator, is a lot of fun with a breezy voice that sounds authentic and true without being bogged down in vernacular or otherwise “talking down” to the reader. I also loved that Tara had supportive, understanding, present parents as well as friends.

Although the story deals with Tara understanding the two sides of her heritage she is largely comfortable in her own skin. Which is huge. There is just so much to like here from the light, fun story to the cover model who looks just like you’d expect Tara to look. This is a story about acceptance and identity but also about more than that. Recommended.

*This book was acquired for review from the publisher at BEA 2012*

How to Love: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

howtoloveBefore everything went to hell, Reena Montero had loved Sawyer LeGrande for as long as she could remember. Watching Sawyer and wanting him from afar in their small Florida town came as natural as breathing. Sawyer always seemed so distant, so unattainable until one day he suddenly isn’t. After circling each other for years, Reena and Sawyer are finally together for a torrid, messy moment before it all falls apart. Sawyer blows out of town without a word and Reena is left behind. Pregnant.

Almost three years later and Reena has finally made sense of what a life without Sawyer should look like. Her dreams of college are long behind her but most days her daughter Hannah more than makes up for that. Then, quick as he left, Sawyer is back and supposedly a changed man. Reena has her doubts. As these two circle once again all of the ugly parts of their past are brought to light but in the midst of all the painful memories there are some beautiful ones too.

It’s taken Reena years to get over Sawyer LeGrande and make a new life for herself. With so many other changes is it possible to leave all of that past behind for a new future with Sawyer in it in How to Love by Katie Cotugno?

How to Love is Cotugno’s first novel. Chapters alternate between Reena’s “before” as she and Sawyer first get together (told in past tense) and her “after” with Sawyer coming back into town and finding Reena and daughter Hannah. Although the book ostensibly contains two stories (one YA and one more Emerging Adult  since Reena is a mother now) Cotugno expertly blends the two plots together to create one larger narrative that spans years.

This book is extremely well-written. Cotugno is a prize-winning writer and her skill here shines through every page. Reena is a dimensional, realistic narrator. Even with her flaws and extremely poor decisions, Reena is mostly a heroine readers will want to like and want to succeed. Cotugno’s descriptions of Reena’s Florida landscape are evocative and vibrant.

Outside of the lovely writing, How to Love is a book riddled with barely developed secondary characters, a poorly paced plot and a tragically unsympathetic love interest.

Cotugno does a good job conveying the difficulties and stigma Reena faces as a teen mother and also shows the complexities of Reena’s family life. However, many aspects of Reena’s story are presented in a one-sided way. It is never quite explained how this responsible girl winds up pregnant except for her to say that she had thought she and Sawyer were “careful.” The possibility of abortion is explained away with Reena’s religious family but the idea of adoption is never once discussed even in passing.

There is also a strange correlation throughout the story between Reena standing up for herself only to have to face dire consequences (in one instance her father, who has a bad heart, has a heart attack after Reena yells at him). By the end of the story, Reena gains a bit of agency and is able to move past her role as a teen mother to try and make a better life for herself and her daughter. The problem is that all of this agency comes from finding out that Sawyer came looking for Reena before he left town years ago. Reena’s relationship with her best friend is also handled strangely. Allie shifts from an obstacle, coming between Sawyer and Reena’s flirty budding relationship, to a plot device as she becomes part of an inciting incident that brings Reena and Sawyer together.

A lot of how you feel about this book will depend on how you feel about Reena and Sawyer and their supposed epic love that looks a lot like standard lust. Basically Sawyer is a train wreck. He brings out the absolute worst in Reena at every turn before the pregnancy and leaves an impressive wreckage of mistakes in his wake. He is a user in every sense of the word and even Reena knows at the peak of her infatuation that it is only a matter of time before Sawyer implodes.

How to Love is marketed as a story of one couple falling in love twice. The problem is that Sawyer getting even a first chance with Reena makes no sense much less him getting a second one. The fact that Reena is continuously drawn to Sawyer after seeing him at his worst again and again exhibits the worst kind of self-destructive behavior.

Possible Pairings: The Secret Life of Prince Charming by Deb Caletti, Something Like Fate by Susane Colasanti, The Moon and More by Sarah Dessen, Such a Rush by Jennifer Echols, Golden by Jessi Kirby, Blue Plate Special by Michelle D. Kwasney, The Infinite Moment of Us by Lauren Myracle, The Unwritten Rule by Elizabeth Scott, Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea by April Genevieve Tucholke, Unbreak My Heart by Melissa C. Walker, The Secret Sisterhood of Heartbreakers by Lynn Weingarten, Paper Valentine by Brenna Yovanoff

Belle Epoque: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Belle Epoque by Elizabeth RossWhen Maude Pichon ran away to Paris she expected a brand new life far away from her provincial home in Brittany and her overbearing father. Instead, her money is running out and work is harder to find than she had imagined.

But Eiffel’s unsightly tower keeps climbing higher as construction continues buoying Maude’s perseverance. Paris is her city and she will find her place in it.

An add seeking girls for easy work seems innocent enough. Until Maude realizes exactly what kind of work she is meant to do. Working as a repoussoir Maude, with her plain face and ugly features, is meant to make real young women of society look more attractive.

The work repels Maude in a visceral way. But with bills to pay and desperation slinking closer, she takes the job with few expectations. Working in secret as a repoussoir, Maude slowly begins to befriend her client. Soon, Maude herself begins to lose track of her lies and where–in the midst of so much luxury–her real life actually lies in Belle Epoque (2013) by Elizabeth Ross.

Belle Epoque is Ross’ first novel and a finalist for the Morris Award for debut authors which is given by YALSA.

Ross’ writing is a delight as she brings 1888 Paris to life on the page with evocative scenes that are sure to dazzle. The book itself is stunning with an elaborate design fitting of the period as well as a beautiful cover (and a surprise under the dust jacket of the hardcover) that while deceptive in some ways is also very in keeping with the theme of beauty that runs through the novel.

Maude’s journey is a realistic one that many young people striking out on their own will find familiar. Her evolving conceptualizing of her own looks and her own worth without or without physical beauty is fascinating. The message here, to quote an old cliche, reminds readers with varying degrees of finesse that beauty is only skin deep.

While it is never meant with malice of any kind, the fixation throughout the story on looks and weight (Maude’s best friend at the repoussoir agency is overweight) began to feel uncomfortable as readers are reminded at every single appearance of a character’s flaws. Again, this technique reflects Maude’s own perceptions but that motif doesn’t make it easier to process.

Unfortunately, the pacing did not enhance Maude’s coming into her own or add much to the story. Instead Maude plods through a variety of beautiful parties and events before taking a hard fall that is broadcast for most of the story. At one point Maude also seeks to “debrief” a friend–a valuable activity but one that didn’t go by that name until 1945.

There are moments of ugliness and beauty in Maude’s story and Ross looks on all aspects of the plot with a careful eye and rich prose. That said, plot and premise aside, the thing that really shines throughout Belle Epoque is Maude herself–a lovely heroine in a story ripe for discussion to say the least.

Possible Pairings: Graceling by Kristin Cashore, Hard Times by Charles Dickens, The Clockwork Scarab by Colleen Gleason, The Bride’s Farewell by Meg Rosoff, I Rode A Horse of Milk White Jade by Diane Lee Wilson

A Trick of the Light: A Review

A Trick of the Light by Lois MetzgerMike Welles thought his life was pretty great. He did well in school, he played on the school baseball team. He and his best friend Tamio have a great time talking about stop motion animation and watching old movies.

Everything was fine.

That was before things started going wrong at home. Mike’s parents started to act strangely. Especially his mom. And his dad is just gone for huge chunks of time.

Mike thinks he can still handle all of the changes–even talking to a beautiful new girl at school–but it just keeps getting worse. He’s out of shape. He’s losing control. It’s all just so wrong.

Mike keeps hearing a voice that wants to help him. The voice says that Mike can be stronger. Better. But no one else can hear the voice. And the voice never tells Mike what that kind of strength can cost him in A Trick of the Light (2013) by Lois Metzger.

At a slim 208 pages (hardcover) it is really hard to talk about this book without spoiling some of the twists Metzger has skillfully created. Suffice it to say, Mike is in trouble.

What I can tell you is that despite touching on some familiar territory, Metzger comes at the issues in A Trick of the Light in a very clever and original way. Mike is not the typical protagonist in this type of story.

The narrator of this book is not typical either. (It’s not a spoiler to say it is not Mike but I’ll leave it at that.) Metzger’s choice of narrator is extremely interesting and makes for a very creepy read. At the same time it also adds a lot of distance between Mike and the reader as Mike’s story is told at a remove. The technique works but it does make the book a little confusing at first.

That said, once you get into the rhythm of the story this book really takes off. Metzger expertly draws readers into Mike’s struggles without ever coming across as heavy-handed or preachy.

A Trick of the Light is a subtle, engrossing read that would be ideal for reluctant and avid readers alike.

Possible Pairings: Wintergirls by Laurie Halse Anderson, Skinny by Donna Crooner, Everybody Sees the Ants by A. S. King, The Beautiful Between by Courtney B. Sheinmel, Paper Valentine by Brenna Yovanoff

Exclusive Bonus Content with a SPOILER: This book is a fascinating read about eating disorders but I can’t stop wondering if it could be a trigger or a workbook for kids who are at risk for eating disorders. Lots of stuff to unpack with this one. I think it’s a totally great book but I feel like it’s one that really begs to be discussed.

You can also read my exclusive interview with Lois Metzger!

Beautiful Decay: A Review

Beautiful Decay by Sylvia LewisWhen Ellie Miller touches things–people, furniture, paper–they begin to rot. Her bare hands can leave trails of mold of spawn infectious bacteria. She doesn’t know why she has this condition or how to control it. All she knows is that she is dangerous and, as far as everyone is concerned, has an “immune disorder.” Right.

Compared to her anti-septic house and terrified parents, school could almost be considered a relief. At least it could if Ellie wasn’t simultaneously bullied and ostracized. Luckily, the Internet can keep Ellie’s secrets so she is able to have online friends like Mackenzie who loves her unconditionally. Although Mackenzie also doesn’t know the details of Ellie’s condition. No one does.

Except a new guy shows up at school and he does seem to know about Ellie. Instead of being afraid or dismissive, Nate acts like he wants to know her. Nate seems to recognize what she can do and maybe even know what how to control it, that is if Ellie can even stand to talk to him in Beautiful Decay (2013) by Sylvia Lewis.

Beautiful Decay is an interesting take on the world of necromancers and their rarer counterparts viviomancers.* There is definitely a lot more to both Nate and Ellie than raising the dead or hanging out with zombies.

A slow start only serves to underscore just how much action there is in the latter parts of the story as Ellie learns more about herself and begins to connect more with Nate and Mackenzie. Although the pacing is off–the story could easily have started fifty pages in and added somewhat more closure at the end–the plot is solid and fairly entertaining.

That said, descriptions of the decomposition left in Ellie’s wake is disgusting. Beautifully written but also very gross. While it was a turn off for me at times, it will likely be very appealing to readers who might otherwise shy away from a book that hints at romance (or has a female narrator). References to the Harry Potter fandom, recent Marvel movies and Tumblr might also draw readers in. These elements also have the potential to date the novel fairly quickly.

Beautiful Decay is a thoughtful, often clever novel that hints at more to come about Ellie, Mackenzie and Nate.

*According to this book anyway. I have no idea if viviomancers are a real thing. Although it would be cool if they turned up in other books.

Possible Pairings: The Tragedy Paper by Elizabeth LaBan, Shatter Me by Tahereh Mafi, Alchemy by Margaret Mahy, The Beautiful Between by Alyssa B. Sheinmel, Pivot Point by Kasie West

*This book was acquired for review from the publisher*

Just Being Audrey: A Picture Book Review

Just Being Audrey by by Margaret Cardillo, illustrated by Julia Denos

Just Being AudreyAs the title suggests, this picture book is about Audrey Hepburn–her early life, her aspirations to become a ballerina, her success in Hollywood and her later-life work with UNICEF.

I love Audrey, who doesn’t? Cardillo’s text was an interesting insight into the background of an actress who many still remember as the epitome of style and elegance. The text offered an interesting but slightly unbalanced look at Audrey’s life from her childhood to her old age. (A timeline at the back details key events that were not mentioned in the narrative.) However there are very few transitions with each page spread seeming to have little connection to the pages that come before or after. The overall effect was a very choppy story albeit one filled with interesting tidbits.

Denos’  illustrations are gorgeous with beautiful details and color. The pictures all have a lovely sense of movement as Audrey “glides” through the pages.

There is certainly enough here to pique a child’s interest about Audrey Hepburn but fans looking for more thorough information will have to find a different book.

This would be a fun addition to a “non-fiction” or “biography” themed storytime with it’s large, bright pictures and relatively short text.

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Sound good? Find it on Amazon: Just Being Audrey

Keep Holding On: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Noelle is marking time until she can escape. In a year and a half she can get away from her mother’s erratic behavior and neglect. The torment she’s been suffering since middle school will finally stop. She’ll be able move away to the City without looking back. Her life can really start.

Before that can happen Noelle has to make it through the rest of her junior year. Not to mention senior year.

Some days Noelle isn’t sure she’ll last that long.

It’s hard enough being the poor kid in a rich suburb. Being harassed and humiliated and feeling completely alone makes it a lot harder. Even Noelle’s best friend doesn’t know how bad it is. No one does.

When Noelle’s long-time crush starts talking to her, she isn’t sure what to do. Sure, she likes Julian. But what happens when he realizes she is the punchline in almost every mean joke at school? What happens when Noelle starts thinking she doesn’t deserve him?

Noelle tentatively reaches out to new and old friends but the bullying just gets worse. Holding on to her dreams about her future aren’t enough anymore. It might be time to focus on what she deserves here in the present instead  in Keep Holding On (2012) by Susane Colasanti.

At 224 pages, Keep Holding On is one of Colasanti’s shorter novels. It is inspired by Colasanti’s own experiences with bullying.

This book is a short, achingly honest read. Noelle’s experiences are horrific not just because of the abuse she suffers but because so many people see parts of the neglect and the bullying but choose to look away instead of helping.

Being so short, there isn’t a lot of room to expand the story or fully examine secondary characters. That said, Colasanti focuses on what’s important presenting a tight narrative about Noelle’s growth over the course a school year.

While parts of Noelle’s story will break your heart, Noelle’s resilience will help mend it. While Colasanti is known for writing about soul mates finding each other, Keep Holding On focuses more on Noelle’s own transformation as she realizes she deserves to feel safe and loved. More importantly, as the story progresses, Noelle realizes she is in control when it comes to finding those safe places–and love too.

Keep Holding On also has a list of resources for anyone who is feeling alone and wants to find people ready to help available at the end of the book and on her website: http://susanecolasanti.com/keepholdingon.html

Possible Pairings: Dear Bully: Seventy Authors Tell Their Stories edited by Megan Kelley Hall and Carrie Jones, Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson, 13 Reasons Why by Jay Asher, Leverage by Joshua C. Cohen, Graffiti Moon by Cath Crowley, Boy Toy by Barry Lyga, Looking for Alibrandi by Melina Marchetta, Mostly Good Girls by Leila Sales, A Map of the Known World by Lisa Ann Sandell, How to Say Goodbye in Robot by Natalie Standiford, This Song Will Save Your Life by Leila Sales

*This book was acquired for review from the publisher at BEA 2012

Deadly Pink: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

When Grace’s mother pulls her out of class Grace knows something is wrong. What she never would have guessed is that it’s Grace’s smart, talented, generally better sister Emily who is in trouble.

After working at Rassmussem as a game programmer for college credit, Emily has inexplicably decided to go into the game she was building. According to the note she left behind, Emily doesn’t plan to come out. Ever.

With time running out before the immersive reality game equipment does permanent damage to Emily, Rassmussem is running out of options to get Emily out of a game she clearly doesn’t want to leave. They hope Grace might be able to help.

But inside the game is nothing Grace expected. Her sister has taken refuge inside a game designed for little girls complete with frilly dresses and unicorns. Worse Emily wants nothing to do with Grace and she definitely doesn’t want to leave.

Grace always considered herself the average sister compared to Emily. But with her sister in real danger, this average girl will have to think her way out of this problem before it’s too late in Deadly Pink (2012) by Vivian Vande Velde.

Deadly Pink is Vande Velde’s third novel featuring Rassmussem games with the first and second being Heir Apparent and User Unfriendly respectively.

Fourteen-year-old Grace is an authentic narrator with equal parts sarcasm and (especially later in the novel) ingenuity. While the game itself is not the most interesting, or well-developed, setting Vande Velde does an excellent job presenting Grace’s complicated relationship with her older sister.

Unlike Heir Apparent the focus of this book is more on the characters than the game play. With most of the non-playing characters playing minor roles in the plot, most of the story deals with Grace trying to convince Emily to leave the game.

While both sisters are well-rounded characters, the lack of setting and secondary characters for the majority of the novel is a major weakness. The game is never explained to Grace or the reader giving the effect of Grace running blindly through the game with little understanding of where she is supposed to go or how she is going to save Emily. Grace’s constant plodding through the game while never asking advice from anyone makes for a plodding plot that drags.

The story picks up in the last third of Deadly Pink as Grace comes into her own. Finally embracing her strengths andalso using the limitations of the game’s play to her own advantage, Grace proves at last that she is a heroine worth reading about. If the entire book had been like this small part, it would have been a definite winner.

Unfortunately the story falters once again with a rushed ending to explain Emily’s motivations to go into the game as well as a hurried explanation of what happens after the game is over.

If there are more Rassmussem stories to be told, one can only hope they will return to the style of Vande Velde’s earlier novels.

Possible Pairings: Boy Proof by Cecil Castellucci, Dramacon by Svetlana Chmakova, Alter Ego by Robbie Cooper, Missing Abby by Lee Weatherly