Monday, December 24, 2012

The Raven Boys by Maggie Stiefvater

Since childhood, Blue Sargent has been warned that if she kisses her true love, he will die.  She's long since convinced herself that she wouldn't fall in love--therefore avoiding the problem.  

Every April, on St. Mark's Eve, Blue stands in a chilly churchyard beside her clairvoyant mother, waiting for the spirits of the soon-to-be-dead to appear.  Since she didn't inherit her family's predictive powers, Blue has never seen any of these ghostly figures on St. Mark's Eve--until this year, when a boy steps into the moonlight and speaks to her.  His name is Gansey.  Her mother and aunts all insist that there are only two reasons that a non-psychic would see a spirit on St. Mark's Eve: either he is her true love or she will kill him sometime this year.  For Blue, both explanations seem equally possible.  Even worse, Blue soon learns that the mysterious Gansey is a Raven Boy--a student at the town's exclusive boys' school.  And Blue has always had a rule about the rich, trouble-making Raven Boys: stay away from them.  

But when their paths actually cross, Blue can't help feeling drawn to Gansey and his rag-tag group of strange, secretive, and devoted friends.  There's Adam, the scholarship student struggling with his resentment of the privilege surrounding him;  Ronan, the volatile boy constantly swinging between fury and despair; and Noah, the  mostly silent observer who sees and knows much more than he'll ever share.  And at the center is Gansey, whose seemingly ideal life hides a passionate longing for something greater--and whose charisma has drawn the others into an obsessive quest tracking hidden ley lines in the Virginia mountains to find the resting place of a long dead, wish-granting Welsh king.  Soon, despite her mother and aunts' warnings, Blue joins the boys' quest, growing more and more entangled in the strange and sinister fate pulling them together.

Whew! What a delicious and utterly spellbinding new novel!  Since I first encountered Maggie Stiefvater's writing in Shiver, her first Wolves of Mercy Falls novel, I've admired her many unique talents.  I've found that her work frequently stands out for its strong sense of place and its atmospheric quality.  I read Shiver in the middle of summer but quickly felt enfolded in a midwestern winter;  I remember feeling surprised to look up from the pages and see sweat-inducing sunshine outside instead of downy snowflakes.  Her bestselling Scorpio Races had one of the most intriguing and fully formed settings I've read recently.  Additionally, however, Maggie also creates incredibly rich characters--and portrays their complex relationships with each other with great accuracy.

The Raven Boys combines all these elements to create a compelling tale that plumbs the depths of human connection and emotion, exploring love, death, longing, and friendship.  While the town of Henrietta and the Blue Ridge Mountains stand out as intriguing settings, it is the characters that dominate this novel.  From the creative, doubtful, and fierce Blue and her house full of odd, loving psychic women to intellectual, earnest, oblivious, and passionate Gansey and his crew of loyal misfit Raven boys, each character is fully fleshed out and utterly believable.  I especially enjoyed getting into the heads of Blue, Gansey, and Adam, whose conflicted and tangled relationships with each other reveal fascinating and heart-wrenching truths about friendship, attraction, and social class.  The magical elements feel natural in the environment and world Stiefvater has created and enhance the characters' intertwined stories rather than distract from them.  Her language also continues to be poetic; The Raven Boys is a well-crafted and elegantly written novel.          

Reading The Raven Boys was a wonderful experience; from the moment I began reading, I was immediately immersed in the world and the lives of these characters and when I finished the last chapter, I wanted to go back to the beginning and jump right back in.  I'm very glad that The Raven Boys is a series opener because while I felt satisfied upon completing this novel, I am definitely not ready to leave Blue, Gansey, Adam, and the others behind yet.  I would (and have) highly recommend this novel to a variety of fantasy fans--and perhaps even readers who simply enjoy a rich tale.


Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Teen Read Week: A Rookie's Second Run.

Our "It Came From The Library" display of scary & spooky books.
When I started at my current job last fall, Teen Read Week had not previously been part of the programming schedule in our school library.  Considering I had about a month to pull together a range of activities that work with our very crowded school schedule, I felt that our first ever TRW celebration went really well.  I hit on a few easy but fun programs that work well with our population and started giving the library an even more prominent and (I hope!) positive presence on campus.

This year I knew that the planning and implementation process would be a little different, especially because we now have a Student Library Advisory Board.  Our SLAB (as they've taken to calling themselves) was formed at the very end of the school year in May; I put out an application and was thrilled to get great responses from some fabulous kids.  However, since the group is newly formed and they are all busy kids with a somewhat jammed school schedule, our meeting times have been somewhat rushed and infrequent.  So I knew that Teen Read Week would be a bit of gamble in terms of their levels of involvement, especially in the implementation.  However, despite time crunches, bad weather, and crazy schedules, TRW2012 went really well if I may say so myself.  To perhaps inspire your future TRW programming, here's a little breakdown of what was happening at our humble library during TRW this year!

What makes a good Teen Read Week at our library?

  • LOTS OF SUGAR!  If there's one thing that nearly all the students and faculty now know about me, it's that I love to bake--and I am unafraid to utilize my skills in the kitchen to "encourage" involvement and participation in library-related activities!  One sugar-related activity we held during the week came directly from one of my very enthusiastic SLAB members: Book Checkout Trick or Treating.  We filled a plastic cauldron bucket with candy and kept it at the central desk all week; every time anyone checked out a book (or DVD, etc), she could grab a piece of candy.  Note that using a cauldron bucket instead of a plastic jack o'lantern allowed me to label it the Checkout Cauldron, which satisfied my deep enjoyment of cheesy, alliterative titles.    
  • STUDENT CREATIONS! One of the simplest but most enjoyable activities we've done during Teen Read Week for the last two years combines a couple of our students' favorite things: cookies AND creativity.  I created templates of mini-posters with the following questions on them:
    • What do you read for fun?
    • When do you read for fun?
    • Where do you read for fun?
    • Why do you read for fun?  
 I copied these templates on colored paper and then I proceeded to go home and bake my little heart out!  Several of my students baked cookies as well.  On the appointed day, we ran our Reading Is Sweet campaign from the beginning of classes through the library closing at 5pm.  Throughout the day, students (and faculty!) decorated posters with words and/or drawings in response to one of the questions--in exchange for a delicious homemade cookie.  I've now hung all the posters up as a garland through the library and I see students and teachers suddenly pausing to look up at them all the time--our student tour guides point them out while showing potential students around the school!
Get a taste of the awesome responses we got from this activity! 
  • CONTESTS AND LOTS OF FREE STUFF!  We continued to provide opportunities for students to tap into their creative instincts by running a scary story writing contest, open to both middle and upper school students.   Additionally, I held raffles for copies of several recently released books--a consistently popular and easy to run activity.  
  • MOVIE NIGHT--AND MORE FOOD! As requested by my advisory board, we concluded our TRW celebration with a scary movie night in the library.  One of my board members suggested that we let the upper school student vote on the movies and so we created two short lists--one of traditional horror/scary movie and one of nostalgic, Halloween classics.  Then I sent out a Survey Monkey with both lists about two weeks in advance.  As the same student suggested, we added a bonus question to the survey: students could choose to type in their name and be entered a raffle for a half dozen homemade Halloween cupcakes.  Using our library and a nearby lounge space, we were able to show the winning movies from both categories simultaneously, allowing attendee a choice.  I purchased drinks and snacks--and baked more goodies, of course.  And despite a sudden rainstorm and cancellations of earlier evening sports games, we had around a dozen kids come out to this first ever evening movie night.  Most importantly, all who attended had a wonderful time and the buzz--even from a smaller group of attendees--was highly positive! 
But how do we really measure the success of our Teen Read Week celebration?

The plethora of positive responses from our teens! 

We had lots and lots of excited teens passing through the library all that week.  Students continue to look up at the little posters waving above their heads in the library, pointing their own out to friends or giggling at particularly funny creations.  Best of all--the positive student responses have continued.  The recent issue of the school newspaper included TWO articles about the library: a piece about Teen Read Week that included interviews from me and from a couple students and a piece about our Student Library Advisory Board that contained quotes from me and from one of our Board members.  

How did all of you celebrate Teen Read Week?  

And a Happy Thanksgiving to all!

Thursday, October 18, 2012

The Truth Is Still Out There: Adaptation by Malinda Lo

In the skies over North America, large flocks of birds suddenly hurl themselves into planes, causing dozens of deadly crashes and forcing airports to shut down acroos the continent.  Reese Holloway, her debate partner and crush David, and their teacher are trapped at an airport on their way back from a debate competition when the nation enters a state of panicked emergency.  During their harrowing drive home to San Francisco, a bird flies in front of their headlights and the car flips, landing them in a ditch along a dark Nevada road.

When Reese wakes up in a strange military hospital a month later, she finds her body mysteriously and miraculously healed of any injuries and her mind confused and full of questions.  What exactly happened in that hospital?  Why can't Reese or David tell anyone anything they remember about the place? 

And after Reese returns home to California and meets the mysterious and alluring Amber Gray, her questions only grow.
What is the government hiding about the thousands of dead birds? What is Amber hiding? And who--or what--has Reese become since the accident?

A large amount of the science fiction recently published for young adults usually fits into the popular dystopian, futuristic, or speculative fiction molds.  But here, in her first foray into the genre,  excellent fantasy writer Malinda Lo, dives right into more traditional, fierce, and frightening science fiction territory: government conspiracies, medical experimentation, and possible contact with forces beyond our planet.  Adaptation presents a scenerio that could happen anytime in the next few years; it's immediate rather than futuristic and in many ways, this fact automatically increases the suspense and the fear factor.  Additionally, novel has a plot that hits the ground running during the opening pages and doesn't stop twisting and turning all the way up to the book's final lines.  The story is action-packed and full of intertwined mysteries that will keep the reader guessing along with Reese as she struggles to make sense of the strange turns her life has taken.       

However, Adaptation is more than a thrill-ride.  Lo continues to demonstrate her distguished ability to create and maintain a richly diverse cast of characters, without ever making any of them seem like a stereotype or a token representation of multiculturalism.  Her characters live in a much more realistically multicultural world than that frequently imagined in fictional visions of the United States.  None of the characters of color or  LGBTQ characters are defined purely by those pieces of their identity.  And in the midst of a science fiction thriller, Lo paints an excellent picture of the fluidity and process of discovery inherent in identity development for young adults.  Moreoever, her characters and their relationships are complex and emotionally resonant. 

Between conspiracy theories worthy of the best X-Files episodes, non-stop action, and truly interesting characters,  Adaptation is a novel you won't be able to put down once you pick it up! 

Monday, October 15, 2012

Fresh Females of Fantasy

I work in a school library serving girls between the ages of 12 and 18.  While I think that many outside the worlds of youth services and young adult literature continue to associate the genre of fantasy, especially 'high fantasy,' with a male rather than a female readership.  But as a long time fantasy reader,  I have always known this perception to be false.  And now that I work with teenage girls on a daily basis, I know that I am not an exception to a rule in this area.  It's true that large portion of my middle school students continue to demand more dystopian fiction (or as they say: "Do you have something else like the Hunger Games?") and realistic fiction;  I see a distinct growth of interest in realistic fiction, especially with romance as a key aspect or focus, among 8th graders.  High schoolers scatter into an even wider range of interests, including both dystopian fiction, realistic teen fiction, a variety of adult fiction, and non fiction.  But a voracious and vocal group of fantasy fans remains in my middle school and high school populations;  in fact, many of my most demanding and committed readers are among that group.

But also, the fantasy fiction that remains most popular among my students can fit into a more distinct sub-group;  they like to read stories with strong, complex female protagonists.  So I am always on the look out for fresh new fantasy novels featuring richly imagined worlds, exciting plots, and fierce heroines.  And this past year has been a fabulous year for fantasy books featuring girls who kick butt! Here are a few of my favorites:

The Girl of Fire and Thorns by Rae Carson

Lucero-Elisa de Riqueza has grown up knowing that she is the chosen one—marked for some great destiny since birth as the bearer of the Godstone, embedded in her navel.  But so far, Elisa only seems remarkable for how very un-remarkable she is.  She is the younger, less attractive, and more ignored of two princesses; she can’t fit into the royal role or the royal attire like her slender and elegant sister can. She can't imagine ever doing anything remotely special.  Then, on her sixteenth birthday, Elisa is secretly married to a handsome king desperate for the political alliance and potential power that she can bring.  Suddenly, Elisa is traveling far from home into an unknown country on the edge of war and quickly finds herself tangled in a dangerous adventure of political intrigue and magical battles.  Now, Elisa must find her confidence and learn to understand the power within her in time to save a nation and its people, risking both her life and her heart in process.

There is nothing better than discovering a new voice in young adult literature through the publication of a fierce, unique, and fabulous debut novel.  I had heard good buzz about this novel and the jacket flap sounded promising so I snagged our copy when it came in last year and read it in about 48 hours.  It has everything I love in a fantasy novel--and a novel in general.  There's a rich and refreshing world, based more on Spanish history than on the more familiar Northern European cultures usually mined for fantasy world building.  The plot is action-packed but thought-provoking, incorporating realistic questions about religion, politics, cultural clashes, and war into a thrilling adventure.  Elisa is also one absolutely fantastic protagonist.  She starts the novel as an unsure and sheltered young woman; she isn't good at being a royal figure and she turns to food for comfort.  She hopes that her new husband will have some kind of physical flaw so that he won't be too disappointed that he's marrying an overweight and nervous 16 year old.  But thrown into the fire of political games, national unrest, and a possible civil war, Elisa discovers that she has strengths and abilities; when pushed into uncertain circumstances, she struggles but rises to the challenge.  I had this one off to all my fans of Tamora Pierce and Kristin Cashore with great success!   

Bitterblue by Kristin Cashore
It's been eight years since the violent and sadistic psychopath  King Leck was killed by the powerful Gracelings Katsa and Po and so permanently removed from the throne of Monsea.  His ten year old daughter survived and became queen.  Now, at eighteen, Bitterblue is still trying figure out how to rule a long-tramatised and still broken nation.  Suspecting that her advisors have been shielding her from the real problems in Monsea, Bitterblue begins sneaking out of the palace at night, disguised as an ordinary citizen.  In the evening streets of her own city, Bitterblue discovers a whole new world and begins to realize that eight years has not been nearly long enough for her country to escape Leck's grip.  Soon the young queen must risk her life, her heart, and her sanity to unravel her father's twisted secrets and send her nation--and herself-- on the path to true healing.

To be perfectly frank,  I must state openly that I am a MASSIVE fan of Kristin Cashore.  So when I heard that she was publishing her third novel, especially one that revisits the characters from her brilliant debut Graceling, I might have done a fairly embarrassing dance of joy.  Maybe.  The best part?  Bitterblue completely lived up to my expectations.  It is long and less obviously action packed that Cashore's either novels.  But it is just as beautifully composed and elegantly constructed as both Graceling and Fire.  Bitterblue is a rich, multi-dimensional young woman struggling to come to terms with her potentially powerful role in the world, her horrific parentage, and her identity as a woman and a leader.  The story twists and turns and spirals in intricate and elegantly plotted mysteries.  The novel explores the difficult realities of grief, recovery, and healing for both individuals and a nation following a horrific experience.  We get to see familiar beloved characters and discover exciting new characters to love--especially Bitterblue herself.  

Seraphina by Rachel Hartman
Despite forty years of peace, the kingdom of Goredd exists as a divided land; dragons and humans continue to distrust each other and the tension between the two groups remains high.  Dragons fold themselves into human shapes to act as ambassadors and scholars in the human world, lending their superior rational and mathematical skills to the businesses of government and education.  Now, with the anniversary of the monumental treaty between dragons and humans approaching, the capital is buzzing with anticipation--both positive and negative.  Seraphina Dombegh, a brilliant young musician recently hired to work at the royal court, has several reasons to worry in particular--and most of them have very little to do with her new, higher profile job and much more to do with her own deeply hidden secrets.  When a member of the royal family is killed and the evidence appears to point to a dragon as the murderer, Seraphina becomes involved in the investigation alongside the Captain of the Queen's Guard, Prince Lucian.  But will the investigation lead Seraphina too close to the truth behind her extraordinary musical talents--exposing the secrets and past she has tried so long to bury? 

I read this one as an e-galley through Netgalley last spring and I loved it so much that I bought my own, old fashioned hardcover copy as soon as I could!  Dragons have been a standard in fantasy novels for generations and they have been reinvented over and over again in new and exciting ways.  But Seraphina stands out to me as one of the most original conceptions of dragons I've encountered in recent years.  The dragons here can become human in form--yet they remain distinctly draconian in a variety of ways.  Seraphina, as a musical prodigy of sorts, has had extra positive contact with dragons, whose mathematical abilities frequently give them a special gift with music; she has developed a close relationship with her dragon tutor and musical mentor at the university--or as close to a true emotional bond as can be developed with a highly rational dragon.  For this, and other reasons I will not reveal here, Seraphina exists in a confusing and awkward position between the dragon and human worlds. On top of the interesting discussion of prejudice and cultural & racial conflicts, the novel also offers readers a wonderfully complex characterization of Seraphina, a longing-filled romance in the making, a fascinating mystery, and slowly revealed family secrets.  What more could you ask for?              

The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater
Every October, the capaill uisce--water horses with taste for flesh--begin to emerge from the sea surrounding the island of Thisby.  Then every November, the Scorpio Races take place.  Riders attempt to control their recently captured, deadly mounts long enough to cross the finish line.  Some succeed.  Others die.  Only one wins.  Both Puck Connolly and Sean Kendrick are desperate to win this year.  Quiet and solitary 19 year old Sean is the current champion but this year he has to win or he'll lose his chance to keep his beloved water horse.  Puck Connolly never planned to take part in the races but her older brother wants to leave Thisby and since her parents's death, her two brothers are all that Puck has left.  So, determined to prove herself and gain the rewards that might convince her brother to stay, Puck and her cherished land horse begin training to become the only female rider and normal horse to enter the races.  But the race is only part of Sean and Puck's interconnected journeys towards finding independence and a true sense of home.      

I was privileged enough to hear Maggie Stiefvater talk about this thrilling novel during an event at Politics and Prose here in DC.  I have always liked Maggie Stiefvater's work and after hearing her person (twice now), I also like her.  She did a great job describing the origins of this particular novel and, after reading it, I also found that she was especially good at pinpointing the novel's unique aspects.  She stated that she'd wanted to write about the carnivorous water horses in Celtic mythology since childhood but had failed for years.  With this novel, she found herself focusing on the island and its people rather than on the water horses--and as a result, it finally clicked.  And it's true--while the capaill uisce are fabulous, supernatural creatures and a great selling point, the novel is truly about Thisby, its people, and its unique rhythms.  Sean and Puck are great characters; their growing connection with each other and Puck's relationships with her brothers all resonate with emotional realism and sincerity.  And Thisby has become one of my top fictional destinations.  A wondrous new land to lose yourself in and characters you will cheer for from the first page.    

Friday, August 17, 2012

Book Bites: Expectations Failed and Expectations Exceeded Edition

Here's a set of 3 quick reviews in an attempt to catch up on all the reading I've been doing summer vacation!

Island's End by Padma Venkatraman

Uido is thrilled to be chosen as her tribe's next oko-jumu--spiritual leader.   Living on their beautiful and isolated island, the community's connection to and understanding of spirit world is critical to their survival.  But while Uido is excited with her new role, others (like her older brother and her best female friend) do not respond as positively.  Meanwhile, strangers from another island have begun to visit their shore, bringing with them gifts that tempt the tribe to leave in search of different life.  When Uido's little brother becomes deathly ill, she will have to use all her abilities to save him while also finding a way to bring her tribe into the future without losing their past.

I picked up Island's End earlier this month as part of a hunt for middle grade/young YA books with young female protagonists taking traditionally male roles.  The summary blurb sounded as though it might fit into my general theme and the setting was unique and intriguing.  However, I found that my overall reaction to this novel was disappointment.  Venkatraman writes elegantly, providing rich and loving descriptions of Uido's world, bringing the lush island's diverse landscapes and Uido's visions of the spirit world to life for the reader.  The series of events portray the issues of cultural growth and shifts and the need to balance the values of long established traditions with survival in the modern world without harshly villifying or deifying any particular group.  Yet despite the technically exciting events that form the plot, the novel's pacing felt a bit off to me.  The climax and conclusion felt rushed, especially since the situation had the potential to be very thrilling.  Finally, I also had a little trouble feeling fully connected to Uido despite her first person narration.  Overall, the interesting setting didn't add up to an equally thrilling story.  

Deadly by Julie Chibbaro

Prudence Galewski wants something more out of life.  She wants more than her education in feminine refinement offered by Mrs. Browning's School for Girls and more than the meal ticket of a job as proper governess, secretary, or (ideally) wife that education will buy her.  Prudence is not like other girls; she's fascinated by the human body, by the emerging science of disease, and by the reasons that some people survive illness or injury while others do not.  When she takes a job as secretary at the growing Department of Health and Sanitation, Prudence gets her chance to be part of something bigger than her own limited daily grind.  Soon Prudence finds herself entangled in the Department's revolutionary and complex investigation of New York's quickly spreading typhoid outbreak.  

I'm a lifelong fan of historical fiction so I was intrigued by Deadly from my first glance through the inside flap summary.  A novel exploring the lesser known details of a significant historical event through the eyes of a unique protagonist?  Yes, please! In some ways, Deadly lived up to my hopes.  Prudence is an exciting protagonist, a young Jewish woman in early 1900s New York City with an interest in science and a determination to challenge the status quo.  As a librarian at a girls' school, I'm a big fan of interesting stories about women in science.  The diary format works well generally, especially because Prudence's anatomical sketches are woven into the novel as well.  The elements of real historical events including the experimental methods of the Department of Health and Sanitation to track the spread of disease and the experiences of the real 'Typhoid Mary' are fascinating and provide a decent amount of tension throughout the narrative.  However, despite all of these positive aspects, I would have difficulty recommending this one to a large number of students.  The pacing occasionally felt off, especially during the conclusion.  The narrative wound up too abruptly and much of the potential excitement was lost.  The promising premise just didn't pan out into a consistently interesting reading experience.  I might recommend this to some historical fiction fans or young scientists.                

Close To Famous by Joan Bauer

Foster McFee has big dreams: she dreams of becoming the next big celebrity chef and having her own inspirational cooking show.  Her mom Rayka dreams of using her big voice for more than backup singer gigs and they both dream of finding a new life after Foster's dad's died in Iraq.  But so far, neither of their dreams seem to be working out.  After fleeing Memphis in the middle of the night to escape Huck, Rayka's mean Elvis impersonator ex-boyfriend, the McFees find themselves starting over in the tiny town of Culpepper, Virginia where nearly everyone seems to have a big, unfinished dream.  Now, Foster's undefeated optimism and exceptional baking skills will truly be put to the test as she works to make her--and everyone else's--dreams come true.

As my username here may indicate,  I have a pretty big cupcake obsession.  I spend as much time trolling my favorite baking blogs and messing around in my very tiny kitchen as I do reading YA novels or prepping book talks.  So I was obviously drawn to Joan Bauer's newest middle grade novel from the moment I spotted the cover.  However, I soon found that the story and the character were even more delightful than the baked goods on the cover!  Foster is a great young protagonist whose narration illustrates her unique combination of optimism and realism;  she's already experienced some really difficult, frightening, and discouraging parts of life but although she recognizes that happiness and personal success aren't easy, she remains firm in her belief that both are possible.  Foster's embarrassment about her dyslexia and her worries about her mother are achingly real; she jumps right off the page as a wonderfully complex and likable middle school heroine.  The plot is full of interesting little twists and turns and emotional highs and lows; the supporting cast of characters are quirky and diverse, as usual with Bauer's work.  I thoroughly enjoyed Close To Famous and am working on a book trailer of it to share with my 7th graders this fall!        

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

The Kids Are Not Alright: Some Girls Are by Courtney Summers & Wringer by Jerry Spinelli

photo from
From the surface, these two books appear to have more differences than similarities.  Courtney Summers' Some Girls Are was published more recently and it focuses on the intense social world of high school girls while Jerry Spinelli's Wringer is a middle grade novel exploring boyhood and boys.  If I hadn't happened to read these novels within a week of each other, I likely would never have connected the them.  However, reading one after the other, I couldn't help be see a relationship between these two novels: both stories clearly explore gender and bullying behavior among children and young adults in different but equally disturbing ways.

Only a few days ago, Regina lived an ideal life.  She was second in command of the Fearsome Fivesome, the most popular and powerful girls at Hallowell High; she had a boyfriend Josh and a best friend, Anna--queen of the school.  Then one night, at a party she didn't even want to attend, something happens.  And on Monday, Regina finds that her whole life has fallen apart, shattered by nasty rumors about her and Anna's boyfriend.  Having her friends completely freeze her out of their lives is horrible enough.   But worst of all, the rumors about what happened at the party aren't true--in fact, they don't come anywhere close to the terrifying reality.  Suddenly Regina finds herself on the receiving end of the kind of relentless daily torture her former clique has perfected from years of practice.

This mean girls tale is a chilling and intense examination of high school power dynamics, especially the complex relationships between young women. Exploring themes similar to those woven through both the now ubiquitous film  Mean Girls and Lauren Oliver's popular novel Before I Fall, Some Girls Are stands out as a dark and starkly realistic demonstration of how delicate and poisonous the intense power structure within groups of girls can become.  Regina is the ideal character to demonstrate the anxious tightrope teens might walk to maintain power among their peers; she has been on both sides of the popularity line and she has a full knowledge of the torture in store for her as Anna's designated enemy--because she has been the torturer in the past.  She understands that the bullying will be carried out through strategic silence and cruel actions carried out by Anna's allies; she knows that she will be erased.  Regina's narration is key to the novel's intensity and emotional power;  her painfully clear perception and her realistically turbulent emotions immerse readers in her experience immediately and allow us to empathize with her, especially as she confronts her own mistakes and her inability to completely correct them.  In very positive ways, her voice reminds me of Melinda from Laurie Halse Anderson's Speak, another great novel dealing with some similar topics.   

In the small town of Waymar, the annual Family Fest's pigeon shooting contest is the highlight of the year and the day a boy turns ten years old is the greatest moment of his life.  Because when a boy reaches his tenth birthday, he can at last become a wringer--a boy trained to run onto the field and wring the neck of injured pigeons at the annual event.  Being a wringer is the ultimate honor and tradition of Waymar boyhood.  But unlike his classmates, Palmer LaRue views his approaching tenth birthday with intense dread.  Because Palmer has a secret: he absolutely does not want to become a wringer.

After being mostly immersed in the world of older teenage characters, entering the world of children on the verge of adolescence through Jerry Spinelli's skilled writing was a simultaneously exciting and heartbreaking experience.  As Courtney Summers is able to delve into the adolescent female experience with great clarity in Some Girls Are, so Spinelli provides the readers of Wringer with a painfully realistic window into the experience of children as they begin to understand the ways that gender affects their lives.  Palmer is both a very universally relatable kid and a unique boy.  He wants to be part of a group--to be a 'normal boy' with a solid and safe place in his social world.  Yet Palmer is also unique because he has begun to question the way the people in his town define boyhood.  He struggles to balance his internal disgust for the wringer tradition with the continuous external pressure from others (especially his 'gang') about joining the tradition.  Spinelli's focused third person narration gives Palmer a very genuine voice, intelligent and perceptive but still very much shaped by a child's developing understanding of the world.  The other characters are equally well crafted and Palmer's relationship with his parents is a particularly wonderful piece of the story.  Wringer is ideal middle grade literature--a meaningful story with great character development and very relevant themes told with an elegantly simple writing style.

While Regina and Palmer's stories differ in many key ways (their ages and genders, for example), their experiences have more in common that it might appear on the surface, especially when viewed side by side.  Both Regina and Palmer have worked hard to fit into powerful, gendered peer groups; Regina found safety within the Fearsome Fivesome while Palmer gains some form of acceptance within the local gang of boys.  Some Girls Are begins when Regina makes a fatal mistake--trusting another ambitious member of their clique--and leaves herself open to attack; she loses her place among the powerful girls and slides to the outer edges of the social hierarchy.  The novel depicts Regina's struggle to deal with her unwilling dislocation and carve a new place in the world.  Meanwhile Wringer mostly deals with the earlier phase of the toxic group dynamic, describing Palmer's attempt to gain and retain a place among the boys in the neighborhood before he moves towards a decision to voluntarily transgress the established social order.  Additionally, both characters act as aggressors towards weaker peers at certain times before finding themselves as victims of harassment or bullying.  Through emotional resonant and technically well crafted storytelling, both novels demonstrate the cycle of bullying and the ways in which our peers enforce rigid expectations (especially those related to gender roles and behavior).  

Both Some Girls Are and Wringer would be interesting books to use for discussions among teens in high school and middle school respectively;  they also might be fascinating discussion starters for faculty or youth services staff book groups.  

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

The Spell of Sisterhood: Born Wicked by Jessica Spotswood

Cate Cahill made a promise.  She promised her dying mother that she would protect her sisters--no matter what.  The task would be a lot easier however if their family didn't have quite so many dangerous secrets.  Their small New England town already finds the Cahill sisters' over-education and reclusive behaviors suspicious but if anyone were to discover that the three girls are honest to goodness witches, their lives would be over.  The priests of the Brotherhood are rounding up more and more girls accused of witchcraft to be sent away to the asylum and their nosy neighbor has convinced their absent father to hire a governess.  

As if that weren't enough to preoccupy Cate, her seventeenth birthday is fast approaching, which means that in just a few months Cate will have to decide if she's going to get married or join the Sisterhood.  Neither option seems appealing right now, especially since both might separate her from her sisters.  

Then the discovery of her mother's diary throws Cate's world even more off balance: it turns out that being witches isn't the Cahill girls' biggest secret.  Now Cate must race to discover the truth about her family's destiny before powerful forces find ways to use her or her sisters for their own interests and in the process perhaps finally take the time to discover the desires of her own heart.

I didn't quite know what to expect from Born Wicked.  I heard pretty good buzz and the brief publicity summaries sounded interesting but I still didn't have a clear picture of its particular hook or genre.  So I started reading without many preconceived ideas or expectations.  The story begins a little slowly but I was quickly pulled into Cate's world.  As teenager facing the transition into adulthood and a sudden, unusual influx of responsibilities, Cate will be a familiar figure to many readers, both young and old.  She tries so hard to balance and protect her sisters' safety and happiness but she's also forced herself to ignore her own desires and potential.  But Cate is limited by more than her own family responsibilities and worries; she lives in society where women's power and independence have been extremely curtailed by a male dominated religious order led by the Brotherhood priests.

The world imagined by Jessica Spotswood is one of the highlights of the novel.  She seeds the information about the society and history into the narrative, allowing the full picture to emerge gradually and through the characters' pertinent experiences.  This method, as usual, works well and avoids weighing down the pace of the story with too lengthy descriptions of traditions or historical events.  My only problem was that I found the fictional world so intriguing that I keep wanting more detail!  Born Wicked takes place in an alternative universe in which witches and magic truly exist and the United States began when witches left other areas of the world to avoid persecution and colonized the eastern coast of the current U.S.  As a result, the population is even more ethnically and racially diverse.  However, the religious Brotherhood gained influence and wrested control from the female-run  Daughters of Persephone; now, women must either get married or join the female monastic branch of the Brotherhood, in order to control their potential evil.

However, it was not just the intriguing setting and the strong protagonist that drew me into this novel.  The supporting characters and the relationships between the characters are well drawn; the complicated relationship between the three sisters is especially realistic in its portrayal.  The plot's mysteries and tension grow increasingly exciting as the story moves forward and the novel's pacing pulls the reader in quickly.  The romance is sweet and swoon-worthy; Cate's understanding of her own romantic and sexual desires emerges naturally and her realizations happen as part of her larger awakenings about her world, her magical abilities, and her options for the future.  The tension reaches a dramatic peak near the novel's conclusion that will leave readers eager for the next installment of Cate's tale.

I would recommend Born Wicked to readers who enjoy supernatural or paranormal tales (especially those with witches) and fantasy, especially historical fantasy.  It might pair well with other historical fantasy novels such as A Curse Dark As Gold by Elizabeth C. Bunce and The Faerie Ring by Kiki Hamilton or with fantasy novels depicting similar family situations (Entwined by Heather Dixon springs to mind).


Saturday, July 14, 2012

A Complex Cowgirl Comes of Age: The Miseducation of Cameron Post by Emily M. Danforth

The moment twelve year old Cameron Post learns that her parents have been killed in a car accident, her initial reaction is relief: relief that now they will never find out that only a few hours ago she was kissing her best friend Irene.   Somehow the two seemingly unconnected events become intertwined as they mark the simultaneous moment when everything in Cameron's life shifts forever.  Her beloved parents are dead and her old fashioned grandmother & her Christian evangelical aunt become her guardians.  And while Cameron & Irene's friendship falls apart, Cameron can't forget how right it felt to be kissing a girl.  A few year later and Cam has survived her grief and started to quietly figure out the girl she's becoming when the arrival of beautiful cowgirl Coley Taylor throws her tenuously balanced world out of whack.

 After reading a variety of reviews, including an extremely positive one by great YA lit author and blogger Malinda Lo, I was highly curious and eager to read this coming of age novel from debut author Emily M. Danforth.  Happily, my high expectations were far from disappointed.  Miseducation is a gorgeous, heartbreaking, and hopeful story about girl stumbling her way through adolescence and into the brave new world of adulthood.  Every piece of Cameron's life growing up in Miles City, Minnesota during late 1980s and early 1990s comes to life through Danforth's evocative and detailed prose.  From the first page, the reader is fully immersed in the sounds, smells, images, and emotions buzzing through Cam's external and internal worlds.  Danforth excels at capturing moments and moods; the whole novel evokes the experience of looking through a series of beautiful, spare photographs--sepia toned with slightly curled up edges.

Cam is a wonderfully developed character with fresh and unique voice.  She is perceptive, sarcastic, defensive, sensitive, and passionate;  I loved her from the novel's opening chapter and found myself completely absorbed in her story, cheering for her fiercely the whole time.  The supporting cast of characters are all equally well crafted but it's Cam's story through and through.

While the Miseducation has been marketed as a young adult novel, it reads more like adult fiction with a highly authentic adolescent protagonist and narrator.  This fact can be viewed as both an advantage and a disadvantage.  The novel might be more challenging to promote to a mass audience of teen readers or it might instead simply have a great deal of crossover appeal to adult audiences.  However, I feel sure that for the right readers--both teens and adults--Miseducation's complex characters, rich story, and emotional depth will resonate powerfully.


Monday, May 7, 2012

A Kitchen Interlude: Gingersnaps

Gingersnaps are one of my all time favorite cookies for a whole bunch of reasons.  They work in all seasons; their cinnamon-ginger-molasses goodness tastes just as delicious at a summer tea with lemonade as it does with hot cider at cool autumn picnic or chilly winter cookie swap.  When they're just right, they are simultaneously soft, chewy, and crisp.  I also love gingersnaps because, like many of my best cookie recipes, I learned to make them with my dad--a master cookie baker.  Recently, my gingersnaps had not been up to snuff.  They were too flat or too hard and they simply could not compare to my dad's perfect batch of fluffy and chewy cookies I munched on over the winter holiday.  But, at last, after consultation with the cookie master himself, I finally sorted out the correct flour amount and crafted the most gorgeous gingersnaps.

For a BIG batch of several dozen cookies:

3 sticks of butter (softened to room temperature)
2 cups sugar ( + 1/2 cup for coating cookies)
1/2 cup molasses
2 eggs
2 tsp. cinnamon
2 tsp. ginger
2 tsp. cloves
4 tsp. baking soda
4 3/4 cups flour

1.) Blend together butter, sugar, and molasses with an electric mixer (or if you're so lucky to possess one, a standing mixer) until fluffy and fully mixed.
2.) Add eggs and blend in.
3.) Add and blend together cinnamon, ginger, and cloves.
4.) Add and blend in baking soda.
5.) Gradually add in the flour, pouring in a 1/2 cup to a whole cup at a time and mixing between additions.
6.) Cover the bowl with plastic wrap or transfer the dough to a plastic bag.  Place the covered dough in the fridge to chill for a few hours.
7.) When you're ready to bake, heat the oven to 350 degrees F.
8.) Cover your trays with parchment paper.
9.) Form dough into balls and roll them in sugar until fully coated.
10.) Arrange the balls of dough on the trays in rows, usually about a dozen per tray.
11.) Bake the cookies until they puff up and become mostly solid but do not get too dark on the bottom. Take them out and let them cool on a cooling rack before storing them.

These can be frozen for weeks or months or stored in covered containers at room temperature for a week or so--if they last that long!

Monday, April 23, 2012

Making Latin Translation Sexy & Scary Again: The Book of Blood & Shadow by Robin Wasserman

"I should probably start with the blood." After all, there was so much blood on the night that Nora's suddenly perfect life crumbled and twisted into a nightmare.  Before that night, Nora had two best friends.  She had a fresh new storybook romance of her own.  She was working on a senior year independent Latin project at the local college with a quirky professor and one of her best friends, Chris, now a college freshmen.  Everything in Nora's life was finally falling into place.  Now Chris is dead and  his girlfriend and Nora's other best friend Adrienne has withdrawn into a state of catatonic shock.  Max, Chris'  sweet and nerdy roommate and Nora's new boyfriend, has disappeared and the police are convinced that he's the killer.

Determined to prove that Max is innocent, Nora begin to immerse herself in the strange occurrences and cryptic clues surrounding the Book of Blood and Shadow--the mysterious manuscript at the center of their shared research project.  Nora's search for the truth leads her deep into a dark world of ancient secrets spanning centuries of bloodshed and terror as she traces the clues hidden in another desperate young woman's centuries old letters across the ocean and into the twisting street of Prague.

This new novel has been described as the YA Da Vinci Code and rightfully so.  Full of mysterious documents, hidden history, elaborate codes, secret societies, and thrills & chills galore, The Book of Blood and Shadow has all the necessary pieces for an excellent intellectual thriller.  However, Wasserman goes several steps further than just gathering all the pieces;  she's combined those pieces with interesting characters, rich description, and elegantly built suspense.  It has all the compulsive readability of The Da Vinci Code but with better writing and more sexy, on the spot Latin translation.  Nora is a smart, sarcastic, and fierce narrator.  Her relationships with Chris, Adrienne, and Max are complex; she consistently keeps an emotional distance from both Chris and Adrienne yet remains intensely loyal and somewhat dependent on their threesome's stability--especially after Chris' murder.  Her romance with Max is sweet and thrilling, which makes the confusing web of revelations about him and his potential involvement in the Book's mysteries even more emotionally fraught. Elizabeth Weston, the stepdaughter of a medieval alchemist who devoted his life to decoded the mysteries within the Book, emerges as an equally fascinating character through Nora's revelatory translation of her letters.

I was immediately drawn into the story, both by the appealingly human characters and the ever increasing mystery.  The plot was full of twists and turns that kept me guessing right up to the final page.  I would heartily recommend The Book of Blood and Shadow to readers of intellectual thrillers and mysteries (such as The Da Vinci Code), especially Latin students and Indiana Jones fans.  


*review written based on an advanced e-galley obtained from the publisher via Netgalley

Friday, April 20, 2012

Space Age Cinderella: Cinder by Marissa Meyer

Once upon a time, in a distant future where Earth's borders and technologies have shifted after a devastating Fourth World War, a young orphaned cyborg named Cinder trudges through life trapped under the thumb of her unkind stepmother.  Cinder, who holds a lesser place in society because her human body has been augmented with robotic parts, happens to be one of the best mechanics in New Beijing but she never expected that her reputation would lead the handsome heir to the throne,  Prince Kai, to visit her booth at the market and ask for her help fixing a broken android.  Then the mysterious and deadly plague sweeping the nation infects two very important people: Prince Kai's father, the emperor, and Cinder's beloved younger stepsister Peony.  Suddenly Cinder becomes intimately involved in the dangerous international and interplanetary struggle for power that forces her to dive into her unknown past and its connections to the plague and the entire future of the planet Earth.

I first came across this futuristic Cinderella retelling when I signed up for the 2012 Young Adult & Middle Grade Debut Authors Challenge and began browsing around the connected Goodreads list.   The premise alone was enough to get me interested: Cinderella is a cyborg with a dark past in a future Chinese-influenced empire? Sign me up!

Generally, Cinder lives up to its fun premise.  It combines popular sci-fi/futuristic fiction concepts (another world war, cyborgs, interplanetary/alien communication, unknown plagues, etc.) with the ever popular fairy or folk tale retelling.  The result is a fresh and enjoyable novel with broad appeal to a variety of readers.  The setting of New Beijing is unusual and absorbing, combining elements from different time periods and cultures in a way that fits into the version of the future Meyer has sketched out.  The traditional fairytale royal family and special ball seem a little out of place in a world where cyborgs and robots exist and the government is negotiating with a civilization from another planet but somehow it works.  Cinder is a lovely protagonist, determined and smart but also vulnerable and intensely aware of her subhuman status in society.  The mystery of the plague and its connections to Cinder and the extraterrestrial Lunars are full of exciting, if occasional predictable, twists and turns.  Overall, a delightful debut novel that will have all your fantasy, fairytale, and dystopian fans begging for the sequel!


Monday, February 20, 2012

Booktalk Breakdown: Secrets, Lies, and Spies

So when I'm not wandering around the internet, reading young adult books, or indulging in my many random t.v. obsessions, I'm a librarian working with 7-12 grade students at an independent all girls school.  As part of my job, I visit both the 7th and 8th grade classes during their weekly grade-level meetings approximately once every three or four weeks with a booktalk.  As I say in my little bio in the sidebar here, I am a rookie librarian; I finished my graduate program in August and started my job a few weeks later.  Booktalking, when librarians or teachers use their creativity and wits to tease and sell books to students, is a standard tool in the youth services librarian's tool belt.  So I was fairly nervous for my first booktalks this fall.  However, I've been pleasantly surprised at how well most of my booktalks have gone so far this year.  Now that I've settled in a little bit, I wanted to try and change up my pretty basic booktalking methods.  Ally Carter's fabulous and fun novels are incredibly popular with our 7th and 8th graders; her newest Gallagher Girls novel comes out in March so it seemed like perfect opportunity to try out a more ambitious booktalk.  Since I'd like to include more library programming posts here, it also seemed like a great opportunity to try out a new occasional blog feature, breaking down my process of developing, creating, and implementing a booktalk.

The Gallagher Girls series, for those who might not spend lots of time with 12 and 13 year old girls, is about an elite school for young women with unique gifts--specifically, gifts for international intrigue. Cammie "The Chameleon" Morgan, our protagonist and narrator, is the headmistress' daughter, a CIA legacy, and a specialist in disappearing into the crowd--hence, her nickname.  So, first I gathered together other fun novels with spies, mystery, and intrigue.

I settled on three novels, all of which are the first in series.

The Liar Society by Lisa and Laura Roecker

As I noted in my review a few months ago, this debut is a fun if imperfect mystery that combines elements from E. Lockhart's The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks (elite private school with secret societies) and Veronica Mars (angry outcast teen sleuth searching for the truth about her dead best friend).  It opens with a great hook--a cryptic email from the protagonist's dead best friend.  I typed up the email on my own account and took a screenshot, which I placed into the Power Point slideshow that I used with the booktalk.  A little set up, flash the email up on the screen, and then a final hook sentence and this book was sold!

Inside The Shadow City (Kiki Strike #1) by Kristen Miller

Ananka Fishbein lives a very ordinary life--until one day she sees someone or something creeping out of a sinkhole across the street from her family's New York City apartment.  Ananka decides to investigate and discovers a hidden city underneath Manhattan's streets, an awful lot of rats, a group of renegade girl scouts, and the mysterious Kiki Strike.  Suddenly Ananka's life has been transformed from ordinary to extraordinary.  I did a second person sell with this novel, starting: "You have lived an very un-extraordinary life..."  It certainly helped that as soon as I held the novel up and clicked my slideshow to the cover image, a student yelled out: " Oh my God, I read that--it's soo good!"   

A Spy in the House (The Agency #1) by Y.S. Lee

After a sudden rescue from the gallows, young orphan Mary Quinn is surprised when she's offered an unusual opportunity: an education at Miss. Scrimshaw's Academy for Girls.  Now seventeen years old, Mary learns that her education has prepared for more than a career as a mere governess.  The Academy is actually a cover for The Agency, an independent group of female investigators who take advantage of the Victorian assumptions about women to solve cases when the police can't.  For Mary's first case, she must infiltrate the household of a wealthy merchant suspected of international smuggling and dig through his family's many dangerous--and deadly--secrets.  I was a little unsure about the reception I would get for this novel; historical fiction is frequently a bit of a gamble with a mixed group of middle schoolers.  But I was happily proved wrong and this one sold quite well!

Once I had selected these readalikes, I began working on the other portion of my booktalk.  Recently, I've been working on creating my own book trailers using iMovie.  This booktalk proved the ideal opportunity to try and work in one of my experiments.  I didn't want to do a traditional booktalk for the Gallagher Girls books because so many of the students have already read at least the first novel in the series.  So instead I made this little trailer that acts as a introduction to the premise of the whole series, with a hook at the end for the new title coming out in March.

I then embedded the Youtube version of this trailer into a Power Point presentation.  I decided to add slides with the cover images of each book as well, a practice that I might try to use in many of my future booktalks since it allows more students to see the cover and cover images are key selling point with my students.  The room used for the seventh grade class meetings has a Smart Board and I just hooked my laptop up, tested everything out beforehand, and got the presentation cued up for the start of the meeting.  Considering this booktalk was my first with any kind of media other than my own voice, I was more nervous than usual.  However, it went incredibly well and I had even more trouble than usual deciding how to distribute the one or two copies of each book among the ten to twenty kids who wanted it.

So there's my first Booktalk Breakdown!  I'm beginning to work on another slightly more adventurous booktalk on dystopian fiction for my Hunger Games-obsessed eighth graders and if it comes together, then I'll post another breakdown!


Friday, February 10, 2012

The Faerie Ring by Kiki Hamilton

It's 1871, Queen Victoria is on the throne, and in an abandoned building near Charing Cross Station in London, Tiki and her adopted family of street orphans are just trying to get by picking pockets.  Then one day, Tiki hitches a ride on the back of a cab and ends up in gorgeous house, where she sees a compellingly beautiful gold ring.  Tiki can't resist and she pockets the ring.  However, it turns out that her cab went to one of the most important residences in the country and the ring Tiki's just stolen belongs to the royal family.  Even worse, the ring is the key to maintaining a very important treaty--an agreement to keep peace between the human world and hidden realm of Faerie.  Now that treaty is on the verge of collapsing and it's up to Tiki to fix it.  With the help of the mysterious thief Rieker and curious Prince Leopold, Tiki must try to save the treaty--and her family--in time.

A unique little subgenre of fiction combining either actual historical facts and setting or strong historical elements with magic appears to be emerging from the sometimes overwhelmingly diverse area of fantasy novels.  I've taken to calling books that fall into this group, 'historical fantasy'--a name I'm blantantly borrowing from wonderful author Elizabeth C. Bunce, whose first novel A Curse Dark As Gold fits into this category quite nicely.  As a huge fan of both historical fiction and fantasy, I'm thrilled to see more novels coming out that manage to meld these genres.  The Faerie Ring, Kiki Hamilton's debut novel, is a delightful and thrilling addition to this growing subgenre!

Blending together elements from fairy tales like Cinderella with Dickensian street orphans and a unique take on darkly powerful fairies, Kiki Hamilton has created a throughly original and enjoyable tale.  Tiki is an appealing heroine: a spunky, sturdy survivor with quick wits and big heart.  She's tough yet vulnerable and she will do anything to protect the family of other orphans that she holding together.  The supporting characters are also interesting, especially the mysterious Rieker.  From the gritty streets of Victorian London to the glitter of the royal residences, the historical setting is rich with detail and deeply enjoyable to get lost in.  The magical elements blend well into the world of Victorian England, where superstitions and fairy stories exist alongside emerging technological and social change.  The multiple mysteries surrounding the ring and both Tiki and Rieker's identities are full of exciting and unexpected twists and turns and although the novel's plot winds to a satisfying conclusion, Hamilton definitely leaves enough interesting loose ends to keep the way for a sequel wide open.   I definitely look forward to the possibility of reading more of Tiki's adventures.

The various takes on fairies/faeries, such as the Wings series by Aprilynne Pike, have been popular among my 7th and 8th graders recently and in my first post-Winter Break booktalk to the 7th grade, The Faerie Ring was one of the most demanded options.  This enchanting debut can appeal to fantasy fans, faerie tale fanatics, and historical fiction lovers of a wide age range and I look forward to seeing more from Kiki Hamilton!

4 1/2 STARS

Friday, February 3, 2012

Amy & Roger's Epic Detour by Morgan Matson

Sometimes in the middle of winter, you just need to read a sun drenched summer road trip novel and Morgan Matson's delightful debut Amy & Roger's Epic Detour fits the bill perfectly.  The best part, of course, is that in Amy & Roger Matson takes the elements of a classic road trip novel and uses them to create a complex and enjoyable story about grief, loss, healing, friendship, family, and romance.

Amy does not want to go on a cross-country road trip this summer.  But her mother has decided that they're moving to Connecticut to California.  Her twin brother is in North Carolina at camp (AKA rehab) and her mother has already begun her transition to a new life on the East Coast.  But Amy and their car are still on the West Coast and now Mom demands that both of them make their way across the country to start the summer in their new home.

 What's the problem with this situation?  Since her father's sudden death a few months ago, Amy hasn't been able to get behind the wheel of a car without panicking.  The solution, it turns out, is nineteen-year-old Roger, the son of an old family friend whom Amy supposedly played with as a kid (although she definitely doesn't remember him being this attractive as a seven year old).  Roger also needs to switch coasts for the summer and has agreed to drive the car--and Amy--across the country.  It turns out that Roger has plenty of his own emotional baggage and both of them need a chance to take a detour from their lives.  Soon a simple drive becomes an unforgettable adventure as Amy discovers that getting lost in between California and Connecticut might be exactly what she needs to find her way back home. 

This novel combines several types of stories (including the roadtrip, life after the loss of a loved one, friendship evolving into love, etc) into a lovely debut novel exploring both physical geography of modern middle America and the complicated emotional geography of loss and recovery.  Amy, as our narrator, is intelligent, sarcastic, bitter, and a little bit broken and her narration is both sharply observant and emotionally conflicted.  Roger remains somewhat mysterious at first but slowly develops into a very sympathetic three-dimensional character;  the reader's understanding of Roger shifts as Amy's does, with more and more information revealed through their increasingly close friendship.  The diverse quirky cast of supporting characters add another wonderful layer to the narrative and the descriptions of the places Amy and Roger pass through on their trip are full of unique details that bring their beauty and weirdness to life.  The relationship between Amy and Roger evolves slowly and realistically and their increasingly strong bond becomes as satisfying for the reader to observe as it is for the characters to experience.  The novel also incorporates images from Amy's travel scrapbook and both characters' playlists into the regular textual narrative. 

This refreshing roadtrip of a debut novel would be a great fit for fans of quirky musical romances like David Levithan and Rachel Cohn's Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist or stories about finding love after loss, such as Jandy Nelson's The Sky is Everywhere or Sarah Dessen's The Truth About Forever.

4 1/2 STARS