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Book Review: The Witch Hunter by Virginia Boecker, by teen reviewer Lexi

witchhunter“I’m quiet for a moment, enchanted by the idea of something stealing over you, settling into you, and telling you, with absolute certainty, who you are and what you’re meant to do.”

Summary:

The magic and suspense of Graceling meet the political intrigue and unrest of Game of Thrones in this riveting fantasy debut.

Your greatest enemy isn’t what you fight, but what you fear.
Elizabeth Grey is one of the king’s best witch hunters, devoted to rooting out witchcraft and doling out justice. But when she’s accused of being a witch herself, Elizabeth is arrested and sentenced to burn at the stake.

Salvation comes from a man she thought was her enemy. Nicholas Perevil, the most powerful and dangerous wizard in the kingdom, offers her a deal: he will save her from execution if she can break the deadly curse that’s been laid upon him.

But Nicholas and his followers know nothing of Elizabeth’s witch hunting past–if they find out, the stake will be the least of her worries. And as she’s thrust into the magical world of witches, ghosts, pirates, and one all-too-handsome healer, Elizabeth is forced to redefine her ideas of right and wrong, of friends and enemies, and of love and hate.

Review:

This is one of those types of books that you wish you could reread for the first time again so that you could experience the way you did when you read it the first go round.

This book was absolutely brilliant. The plot was spectacularly planned and executed. The characters had so much life in them that I felt like I knew exactly who they were. The imagery is also phenomenal, it was all so vivid in detail. Every part of this book had me mentally and emotionally attached. I couldn’t put it down once I picked it up, it was that good.

At first, I expected it to be that cliché love triangle where the main girl is so pretty but doesn’t think so and she gets the love interest of not only one boy but TWO!!! and she spends the whole book flipping back and forth between the boys trying decide which one she loves the most. HOWEVER!!, this was not the case. Elizabeth is quite ordinary and plain in the looks department. She at points compare herself to other girls but what girl doesn’t? It was her bravery, her strength, and her love that won her the boy. (Shout out to every girl who doesn’t meet the norm idea of what they should look like.) Elizabeth is a strong character with a flawless character development that blew me away when revealed in the end and in my opinion, we need more characters written like this. She goes through hell and back for the ones she cares about. She let’s go of the one person she had left because she knew she couldn’t hold on forever, that he was no longer good for her. To this I raise my tea cup to her. It is hard to let people go but this display of bravery teaches any person reading the book a valuable lesson about people who hold you back, the people whom assist you in advancing forward in life and what needs to be done to rid your life of the people who will only bring you down.

The last thing I want to touch on is the very first quote that caught my eye in this book: “But then he leaves. I watch him go, wishing more than anything I was the kind of girl who could make him stay.”

Every single friend i showed this to all had the same reaction: ‘Same’ *sad face*. This quote had everyone of us instantly relating to Elizabeth. That’s what the author needs to do in order to make their book a success with the reader. We need to connect to it somehow, relate to the characters, associate with it’s meaning. If we can’t do that then we lose interest. Virginia Boecker managed to get 5 teenage girls to relate and automatically love Elizabeth by one quote. That is amazing.

To end my review I must say that I could have easily wrote one word to sum up every emotion this book evoked. That word would have been WOW. It has been a very long time since I’ve read a fantasy novel this good. After a while it seems like every vampire book is the same and every witch book is the same but this one, this one was like drinking a cold glass of ice tea after going weeks suffering in the sweltering heat.

I hope there’s a sequel!!!

Published June 2, 2015 from Little, Brown Books for Young Readers. ISBN: 9780316327008

Book Review: The Haunting of Sunshine Girl by Paige McKenzie and Alyssa B. Sheinmel, by teen reviewer Lexi

sunshinegirl“Someone has made the next move.”

Summary

Shortly after her sixteenth birthday, Sunshine Griffith and her mother Kat move from sunny Austin, Texas, to the rain-drenched town of Ridgemont, Washington. Though Sunshine is adopted, she and her mother have always been close, sharing a special bond filled with laughter and inside jokes. But from the moment they arrive, Sunshine feels her world darken with an eeriness she cannot place. And even if Kat doesn’t recognize it, Sunshine knows that something about their new house is just … creepy.

In the days that follow, things only get stranger. Sunshine is followed around the house by an icy breeze, phantom wind slams her bedroom door shut, and eventually, the laughter Sunshine hears on her first night evolves into sobs. She can hardly believe it, but as the spirits haunting her house become more frightening—and it becomes clear that Kat is in danger—Sunshine must accept what she is, pass the test before her, and save her mother from a fate worse than death.

Lexi’s Review:

I’m not sure I would even attempt to contact the spirit in my bedroom. I’ll go my way and they can go theirs. But this is not the case for Sunshine Griffith. She is set to figure out what goes bump in the night at her house.

Instantly, after reading the first chapter I could tell the writing was as up to par as other books I’ve read. For me it seemed a little amateur. I can’t figure of it was just the childishness of the main character that made the writing seem lacking or if it was just the writing itself. It was to say that it was not hard to read because of the level it was written but because it lacked that Umph that a book needs to grab the reader’s interest.

Also what didn’t sit well with me is the whole ‘I’m not like other girls’ vibe that sunshine gives off. I’m not a fan of putting other girls down to make one girl more interesting and unique. As girls we have enough criticism coming from every direction that we can’t really afford to be demeaning towards each other. Sunshine seemed to radiate this vibe through the whole book and it pretty much ruined her character for me.

In addition, the use of a teenage girl’s love for Pride and Prejudice to further assist in highlighting her difference from other girls is overused and should be put to rest. I have never met a girl in real life that loves Pride and Prejudice that much. I see it too often in young adult novels and I think it’s time to let it go.

Aside from all this the plot wasn’t too bad. However, I only stuck with the book for the little ghost girl and the mysterious person watching sunshine. Personally I wouldn’t recommend this book if you feel similarly to how I feel about everything I’ve mentioned above. But hey don’t let me stop you from getting your quirky spook on with this book.

Book Review: How to Be Brave by E. Katherine Kottaras

howtobebravePublisher’s Book Description:

An emotional contemporary YA novel about love, loss, and having the courage to chase the life you truly want.

Reeling from her mother’s death, Georgia has a choice: become lost in her own pain, or enjoy life right now, while she still can. She decides to start really living for the first time and makes a list of fifteen ways to be brave – all the things she’s wanted to do but never had the courage to try. As she begins doing the things she’s always been afraid to do – including pursuing her secret crush, she discovers that life doesn’t always go according to plan. Sometimes friendships fall apart and love breaks your heart. But once in a while, the right person shows up just when you need them most – and you learn that you’re stronger and braver than you ever imagined.

Karen’s Thoughts:

I really struggled with this book as a reader because it involved a lot – and I mean a lot – of fat shaming. The MC identifies herself as fat, at one point she says that she has a pair of size 16 jeans, though when I talked to Angie Manfredi* about this book she said she thought the girl was a size 18 or 20. The average female American is a size 14. The MC shames herself for being fat, other classmates shame and tease and shun her. At one point her mother, who is also identified as being fat, is dying from complications of diabetes and the doctor looks at Georgia – as her mother is dying – and says, “don’t let this happen to you.” I raged a lot at this book and the way they talked about being fat.

“Outfit #1: Dark indigo skinny jeans (are they still considered skinny if they’re a size 16?), drapey black shirt, long gold chain necklace that Liss gabe me, and cheap ballet flats that hurt my feet because they’re way too flat and I hate wearing shoes with no socks.” – page 5

Beyond the fat shaming, How to Be Brave is a book about friendship, grief, and finding yourself. When Georgia’s mother dies she creates a bucket list of things she wants to complete in an effort to “be brave”. The list involves things like trying out for cheerleading, skipping school, go skinny dipping and tribal dancing. Along the way they meet Evelyn who introduces Georgia and Liss to drugs and complicates their lives in a variety of ways.

Towards the end of the book Georgia and Liss have a major falling out over boys, Eveyln attempts suicide, and Georgia has almost completely withdrawn from the world around her and immersed herself in her art. Slowly things begin to head in the right direction, but not without a lot of pain and missteps along the way.

“What you say ‘that’, you mean my weight, right? You don’t think I can be a cheerleader because I’m a senior, or because I’m fat?” – page 29

I know that for me this book definitely suffered because I couldn’t help but compare it to Dumplin’ by Julie Murphy as it has a lot of the same plot points and themes: a fat main character journeying towards body acceptance, a grief stricken teen trying to honor the memory of someone they loved and lost, friendship and new love. The problem is that Dumplin’ hits on all these themes in equally or more successful ways, especially the part about the main characters journey of self-acceptance. But, more importantly to me, Dumplin’ does the body acceptance journey in healthier ways with far less outright fat shaming.

One thing that I did really like about this book is that it touches a lot on income inequality and the effects of that on the life of Georgia in very successful and realistic ways. Georgia’s father is the owner of a struggling Greek restaurant and that, on top of the medical bills the family faces, put them in a very tight financial situation.

In the end, I can’t wholeheartedly recommend How to Be Brave because as a former anorexic and the mother of a teenage girl, I feel that the explicit and implicit messages of How to Be Brave feeds into our toxic culture of fat and body shaming and doesn’t really successfully resolve or address those issues in a way that won’t leave many readers feeling the toxic effects of that.

*Do look for Angie Manfredi’s review of this book. I had a great conversation with her about it because I wanted to know how she interpreted it.

Lair of Dreams by Libba Bray

16060716I waited almost 2 years for this sequel to the genius The Diviners, but it was so worth it. It follows a group of young people with exceptional abilities as they navigate life in New York City in the 1920s. Each character has a thread in the story, which somewhat crossed in Diviners, but all weave together to form a more complete picture by the end of Lair of Dreams.

Following closely on the end of The Diviners, we see Evie O’Neill living the life of a party girl after her break with her Uncle Will and her self outing as a diviner. She’s living on her own and working as “America’s Sweetheart Seer” at a radio station where she does a show reading objects for audience members. Behind her devil may care facade, Evie is struggling to deal with both the recent trauma of defeating ‘Naughty John’ and the more distant loss of her beloved brother.

Underground work in the city disrupts a spirit who walks through the dreams of the living and steals their life force. To the living, the symptoms appear to be some sort of sleeping sickness, as the victims never awake and a hive-like rash spreads across their bodies. Because it began in the immigrant Chinese community, they are blamed for it and find themselves increasingly isolated, persecuted, and at one point rounded up for who knows what treatment – internment, deportation? Many, if not all, of those rounded up are American citizens.

In the midst of this, Henry, who can walk in dreams, meets another dream walker, Ling Chan. Together they search for Henry’s lost love, Louis, whom he had to leave behind in Louisiana. As they explore the dream world they can access together, they delve deeper into the mystery of the sleeping sickness. In this dream world, Ling Chan meets a young girl who is on her way from China to San Francisco, then New York, to be married. They develop a close friendship and she teaches Ling much about manipulating the dream world.

Meanwhile, Memphis is manipulated into healing someone with the sleeping sickness and exposes his renewed abilities. He is still wooing Theta, who is still hiding her true identity and her diviner ability. Meanwhile Sam, in trying to help Jericho save the museum in Uncle Will’s extended absence, is manipulating Evie through the advantageous misunderstanding of the media that he and Evie are betrothed. To both Evie and Sam’s dismay, they begin to have feelings for each other. As Sam and Jericho delve deeper into Uncle Will’s past to try to save the museum, they begin to uncover some of the mystery behind the diviners and the secret government program set up to use them. Sam and Evie spend some time investigating and learn more of what happened to Sam’s mother. We see glimpses of these government agents and what is going on behind the scenes, including their use of eugenics tents at fairs to identify possible diviners. Sam also inadvertently reveals his own diviner ability in a desperate moment.

There is so much more going on in this 613 page work of art. It is a complex and extremely detailed imagined world with multiple plots, motives, and themes. In some ways it struck me as almost X-Files like in that it has multiple ‘monster of the week’ plots as well as an overarching conspiracy of epic proportions. But this is both a compliment and a simplification. Libba Bray has created a masterpiece in this work.

When a coworker asked what I was reading and I tried to describe it, I was somewhat overwhelmed. It’s easier to explain the surface plot of what is going on than the themes behind it, but this is what I ended up telling her. At it’s heart, Lair of Dreams  is an excoriation of the ideology behind ‘American Exceptionalism.’ This ideology that asserts our unique values of democracy and personal liberty has historically only been within the reach of those white, heterosexual, neurotypical males with access to either property or education through family heritage. What Bray has created exposes the many ways in which this ideology either ignores or twists so much of our history as a nation. In Lair of Dreams, she exposes all of the damage and evil we have done to our people over the course of our history as a country. In many ways, despite all of our advances, it is the damage and evil we continue to do.

I cannot sing high enough praises in recommending this book to any collection serving both Young Adult and Adult readership. I wholeheartedly wish I could send multiple copies to every high school in the nation.

 

Book Review: All We Have is Now by Lisa Schroeder (Reviewed by Teen Reviewer Lexi)

allwehaveisnowSummary:

What do you do with your last day on earth?

Just over twenty-four hours are left until an asteroid strikes North America, and for Emerson and everyone else who didn’t leave, the world will end. But Emerson’s world already ended when she ran away from home. Since then, she has lived on the streets, relying on her wits and on her friend Vince to help her find places to sleep and food to eat.

The city’s quieter now that most people are gone, and no one seems to know what to do as the end approaches. But then Emerson and Vince meet Carl, who tells them he has been granting people’s wishes—and gives them his wallet full of money.

Suddenly, this last day seems full of possibility. Emerson and Vince can grant a lot of wishes in one last day—maybe even their own.

Lexi’s Thoughts:

‘“But there’s a million stars.

   Maybe I want to be the

   One and only moon instead.’”

When I first saw this book I immediately loved the cover but for the life of me I couldn’t jump into it. The plot itself is very interesting but I felt the writing didn’t really execute it well.

For such a short book it took me forever to finish it and I even at one point almost quit. One of the characters, Emerson, I couldn’t stand. Usually I can relate a little bit to the characters in some way but with her I was constantly banging my head against the wall. I had a problem with how much she whined about how the situation and especially her regularly pushing Vince aside because she feels like it would complicate her life. Like, HELLO, the world is ending yet you are ignoring your own heart because you think dating a guy would cause you more troubles. She had too many traits that I couldn’t even try to like. This made her a bad character for me.

On a good note i really liked the structure of the book. The short chapters make reading the book really easy . The alternating between normal chapters and poem form chapters was fantastically done. I liked how the poems would give information that wouldn’t really fit into the main gist of the chapter but by utilizing poetry the author managed to inform the reader of what has happened or what is going on. Another thing I enjoyed was the point of view. The author uses third person point of view but the reader can still feel that personal attachment to things that you usually only get when written in first.

All in all the book was decent. I recommend it to anyone who is looking for a romantic little story with a plot twist ending.

Publisher’s Information: From Scholastic, July 2015. ISBN: 9780545802536

ARC provided by publisher in exchange for an honest review

Book Review: The Art of Secrets by James Klise

Art-of-Secrets-copyHigh school sophomore Saba Khan, her parents, and her young brother Salman are at her school team tennis match when their apartment catches fire and they lose everything they own. Saba and her family are not rich. Her parents came to the U.S. from Pakistan and are working hard to provide a good life for Saba and Salman, but her father earns a modest living working in a Chicago factory packing boxes. They are a close family of devout Muslims living in a friendly immigrant community. When the fire turns out to be a result of arson, they are confused – they have no enemies, only friends.

When Saba’s classmates at her prestigious but struggling private school (which she attends on scholarship) band together to hold an auction to provide support for the family, they are incredibly grateful. Many people in the school community have provided immediate support, including clothing and a temporary apartment. Her classmates and fellow outsiders Kevin and Kendra Spoon take the lead in the auction, even going so far as to scour neighborhood alleys for furniture and other items people have thrown out to add to the auction. During these efforts, they find a notebook of sketches that turns out to be the work of famous Chicago outsider artist Henry Darger, worth approximately $350,000 to $450,000. Kevin and Kendra, along with their mother, insist on including the notebook in the auction for the Khan’s, but are persuaded to at least take out insurance on it until the sale.

When the notebook goes missing a few weeks before the auction, everyone is a suspect. Was it the school’s principal, who obviously wanted the money from the sale to go to the school? Or the art teacher who was acting suspiciously? Was it one of the students, or one of the many curious onlookers who came to see the notebook before the auction?

Told from multiple points of view, through Saba’s journal, her father’s visits with his imam, and multiple interviewers including a newspaper reporter, police officers, and insurance investigators, James Klise has created a detailed and intricate view of the workings of a small private high school. The theme of ‘outsiderdom’ is carried throughout the novel. Saba’s outsider status, due to both her presence as a scholarship student and her family’s religious faith and immigrant background, is explored throughout the novel. From suspicion that her family somehow set the fire, to the principal’s obvious prejudice and lack of empathy for her family, to the incredibly creepy way her suddenly interested new boyfriend Steve refers to her as ‘exotic,’ we see Saba’s life (beyond her close knit family) as she struggles to belong in her school and community. Kevin and Kendra Spoon are outsiders in a different way. With their all-american blond good looks and high powered businesswoman mother, they should naturally fit in to the school community. Unfortunately, their mother’s job has had them move frequently, and they are newcomers to the school. In fact, we find out that one reason they have thrown themselves into the auction to support Saba’s family is to ingratiate themselves with the school community. An additional outsider point of view is provided by the foreign exchange student who is living with Steve’s family for a year. He is immediately suspect when the art goes missing simply due to his ‘otherness.’

In addition to being a brilliantly crafted mystery, this novel is a brilliantly told story of the personalities and prejudices of a small high school community. I highly recommend including this in any collection serving students in 7th grade and up.

The Art of Secrets is a 2015 Edgar Award winner for Best Young Adult Novel. A copy of the novel was provided for review by the publisher.

Book Review: Rebel Mechanics by Shanna Swensdon

 rebelmechanicsPublisher’s Book Description:

A sixteen-year-old governess becomes a spy in this alternative U.S. history where the British control with magic and the colonists rebel by inventing.

It’s 1888, and sixteen-year-old Verity Newton lands a job in New York as a governess to a wealthy leading family—but she quickly learns that the family has big secrets. Magisters have always ruled the colonies, but now an underground society of mechanics and engineers are developing non-magical sources of power via steam engines that they hope will help them gain freedom from British rule. The family Verity works for is magister—but it seems like the children’s young guardian uncle is sympathetic to the rebel cause. As Verity falls for a charming rebel inventor and agrees to become a spy, she also becomes more and more enmeshed in the magister family’s life. She soon realizes she’s uniquely positioned to advance the cause—but to do so, she’ll have to reveal her own dangerous secret.

Karen’s Thoughts:

Rebel Mechanics is a fun steampunk novel that features magic, awesome inventions, and has just the right amount of swoon. Set in an alternate history version of the early U.S., a group of rebel mechanics are trying to start a revolution to tip the balance of power and income inequality that is held by the magisters (the people with magic in this world). The rebel mechanics believe that if they can create their own machines to provide things like light and locomotion, then the balance of power will be tipped in their favor as they will no longer have to rely on the magic of the magisters.

On her first day in the big city, Verity stumbles into a group of rebel mechanics and is drawn into their cause. She becomes a valuable asset when she is hired as a governess to one of the most powerful magister families in the city. At first somewhat naive, she has no idea for example how both groups of people feel about children born of a commoner and magister couple (what we would call a mudblood in the Harry Potter verse), Verity quickly comes to understand the righteousness of their cause. She also doesn’t understand at first how high the stakes really are, but as she is drawn into the ongoing battle she is forced to make a variety of personal decisions that may have long lasting implications.

Part of the fun of steampunk is seeing the different contraptions that are built, and that is done in a fun way here with underground competitions and journeys through the night sky on the steampunk version of a magic carpet. In fact, author Shanna Swendson recently said that she kept singing the Aladdin song A Whole New World while writing this scene and it will surprise no one who reads it.

When reading alternate history tales, it’s fascinating to see the various ways in which the author chooses to tweak a familiar narrative. For me, the author includes some fun steampunk elements, a couple of interesting twists on Colonial American history, and adds in some compelling characters. I’m not going to lie, I am a big fan of Verity. She is naive and slightly overwhelmed in this new place, but she is never meek or trembling with fear. She is, in some ways, reminiscent of Anne Shirley, one of my favorite characters of all times.

The only thing I struggled with while reading Rebel Mechanics is the concept of time. The first 60 or so pages involve Verity’s first day in the city. A lot of stuff happens in that first day, so much stuff that I wondered if it all could in fact happen in just one day. In fact, later in the book, when I realized that all this had happened in just a course of a few days, I wondered if I was misreading the timeline in some way. The concept of time just seemed too compacted to me as a reader, with too much happening and too many feelings/ideas being developed in what seemed like an unrealistically short amount of time.

Overall, I really liked this book. It features a strong female main character who is intelligent, driven, and takes big personal risks because it is the right thing to do in her opinion. This steampunk/alternate history version of the early U.S. is fascinating and engaging. And if you have a book discussion group, there are a lot of fun activities you can do while discussing this book. From the simple, tying a gear to a red ribbon, to the more complex, creating a Rube Golberg machine, there is no shortage of fun to be had.

Definitely recommended. I look forward to reading more about Verity and the Rebel Mechanics.

More Steampunk at TLT

You Are Now Approved to Read, Economic Hardship in More Happy Than Not by Adam Silvera

morehappythannotApproved

When I use my debit card at the grocery store, I always breathe a deep sigh of relief when this work pops up on the little thingy ma bob letting me know that my transaction has been approved. I usually call the bank before I go, getting an idea of how much I can spend. And if I have to go to a business lunch or dinner I get cash out before I go, fearing that my card will be rejected in front of others, people that I care about. This all comes with the territory when you live paycheck to paycheck, this moment when you’re sweating bullets and hoping beyond hope that the magical words “approved” will appear on the tiny little screen before you.

Which bring me to the book More Happy Than Not by Adam Silvera.

More Happy Than Not is one of the most creative, jaw dropping, holy crap did that just happen books I have read in a long time. It is also one of the more authentic portraits of living in poverty or near poverty that I have read in a very long time.

Aaron Soto, our main character, is a young man growing up in a single parent home after his father’s suicide. Money is tighter than tight. He and his brother share a room in the small apartment with the four walls barely staying up that his family lives in. He has a job and a girlfriend and is struggling with his own issues, especially since it turns out that he might be gay and isn’t likely to get a lot of support on this topic from his friends and neighbors.

There is a scene where Arron and his girlfriend go to a comic book store and when he swipes his ATM card to buy a comic, it is declined. His girlfriend offers to go ahead and buy it for him, but pride leads him to shake off the offer. It’s a brief scene, but it’s an important one that helps us establish many things about Aaron, including how desperately poor he and his family really are. It’s a brief glimpse into the very real struggles of not having enough cash on hand to buy even the most basic, simplest of pleasures. It’s not a huge amount, just a few dollars, but Aaron can’t even swing this small amount.

And then there is Aaron and his brother’s room situation. They are a family of three living in a one room apartment. Thing 2 is friends with a girl who are a family of 7 living in a 3 bedroom apartment since their family had to move in with grandparents after losing everything. Two teenage brothers on my street share a full mattress that rests on the floor of their room since having to move after their father lost his job and they lost their home to foreclosure in another state. And these are just a few of the very real scenarios of friends, families and neighbors who, like Aaron, are counting pennies and standing before that card reader at the cash register praying to see the word approved pop up on the screen.

Just yesterday I shared on Tumblr what I thought the greatest threat to the American family was today, and it’s not the issue that my preacher has been preaching from the pulpit about or that conservative media is putting in the headlines. Tonight 1 in 5 children will go to bed hungry. Tonight there are teenagers sleeping on a mattress on a floor in a barely furnished apartment while their hard working parents get food from the local food bank to supplement what they are able to purchase at the store. As someone who cares about, works with and advocates for teens, I stunned every day by the stories they share about the struggles their families are facing to barely survive. And I am grateful to the literature that reflects those stories in the little details, like we see here in Aaron’s story. More Happy Than Not succeeds on so many levels, but what I appreciated most was that in the midst of this fabulous and quite frankly mindblowing storytelling, author Adam Silvera was able to authentically portray real world teenagers struggling with impoverishment.

Aaron’s story is moving because even in the most fantastical details of this story, we know that there are teens facing many of the same struggles that Aaron does every day.

My verdict on More Happy Than Not: Approved (and highly recommended)

More on Teens, Hunger and Poverty in our Teen Issues series:

See also Stacked: Socioeconomic Class in Contemporary YA Lit: Where Are The Poor Teens? Guest Post by Librarian Faythe Arrendondo and Kate Brauning: Writing Poverty in YA

 

 

Book Review: Saint Anything by Sarah Dessen

In Sarah Dessen’s latest novel, Saint Anything, we meet main character Sydney at a turning point in her life. Her brother Peyton, in and out of trouble since middle school, has just been sentenced to time in prison for a drunk driving accident that severely injured another teen boy. Sydney’s parents, especially her mother, are devastated that their son will have to spend time in prison. Sydney is devastated that because of her brother, a young man her age will never walk again. Unable to face returning to her private day school where everyone knows both her brother and his fate, Sydney has decided to enroll in the local public school for her junior year. Adrift in a sea of new faces and reluctant to head home to an empty house after school, she chooses to go for a slice of pizza at a local restaurant, where she meets and is quickly befriended by the Chatham family, who own the pizza parlor. Two of the Chathams, Mac and Layla, are fellow students at Sydney’s new school, and she is quickly enfolded into their circle of friends, which includes an entitled, self-styled musical genius, and a giant young black man who plays football. The Chathams know nothing about Sydney’s life or family and she initially prefers it that way. Gradually, she reveals more about herself and is relieved to find that the Chathams still warmly accept her, having family issues of their own.

Honestly, this novel seemed much longer than it was, in the best of possible ways. Dessen is a gifted author with the ability to speak volumes through her characters’ brief observations and opinions. She brilliantly to shows us how intensely creepy the ‘bad guy’ (Ames) of the story is, not through describing him but through other characters’ reactions to him. Much of the undercurrent of Sydney’s story – one of a girl who has lived in the shadow of her older brother’s magnetic personality her whole life finally realizing herself as a person – revolves around the complex Ames. A former addict himself, Ames became friends with Peyton during one of his stays in a rehabilitation facility. He worms his way into every aspect of Sydney’s family’s life through manipulation that her parents seem not to see until it is almost too late.

Like all of Dessen’s novels, there is so much to this story – and so much of it happens so subtly as to almost go unnoticed. This work, in particular, is very quiet. Characters are so well developed that they are as familiar as one’s own family and friends. Most readers will easily see themselves in Sydney, a girl who feels invisible and is brought into her own by the love and acceptance of her flawed but wonderful new friends. It has been quite some time since I’ve read a novel where I was so easily absorbed into the story and felt so much as if I were there, one of Sydney’s new crowd, along for the ride. It is the work of a gifted story teller.

It is also a novel I am eager to put into the hands of my students. My hope is that many of them will be able to relate to one or more of the main characters and see the others for the well drawn portraits of familiar people in their lives. As well, I hope that the realistic but nonjudgemental portrayal of the issues that teens must deal with will help them to both navigate their own lives successfully and have empathy for others who are navigating their own issues. I highly recommend this book to any collection serving teen readers. Dessen has earned her star reputation for good reason.

Full disclosure, Sarah Dessen is local to me and I had the opportunity to see her at my local book store for this book tour. She is just as lovely and real in person as her books suggest. If you haven’t had a chance to read her recent essay in Seventeen Magazine, please go do so now. Also, we have an extra copy to give away! Enter our drawing for your own copy of Saint Anything!

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Book Review: The Shadow Cabinet by Maureen Johnson

Look, it’s no secret that I’m a huge fan of Maureen Johnson. You didn’t know? Do you live under a rock? I follow her everywhere – Tumblr, Twitter, etc. She has a fantastically skewed sense of humor that I find appealing, and I love how much she cares about the young people for whom she writes and the issues that affect their daily lives. But more than her online persona, I love her novels. And her Shades of London series is well written, inventive, tightly paced, and gripping.  The most recent installment, book three of four in the series, more than lives up to expectations set in the first two.

Closely following the events of Madness Underneath, book three, The Shadow Cabinet, details the events of the days following Stephen’s untimely accident. Also BE DO BE DO BE DO! *spoiler alert* if you haven’t read books one and two, please stop here. You should scroll down to the bottom of this post, enter the Rafflecopter giveaway for The Shadow Cabinet, then proceed directly to your local bookseller, library, or best friend with discriminating taste in YA literature to obtain copies of the first two books in the series.

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Okay, so if you’ve read the first two books, you know that book three starts with Rory, Callum, and Boo searching for Stephen’s ghost. Unfortunately, he is nowhere to be found. They are also working closely with Thorpe, their government agent/supervisor/babysitter to locate Rory’s classmate, Charlotte, who has been abducted by the same cult that attempted to abduct Rory. Thorpe is doing his best to keep Rory safe from the cult – and she is doing her best to put herself in harm’s way. And, in the midst of all of this, Stephen’s body is taken by an unknown agency.

There are so many twists and turns in this novel, I’m reluctant to get into too much detail for fear of spoiling the book for those who haven’t read it. I do want to say, though, that those of you who missed Rory’s friends from school will be pleased to find that Jerome plays a much larger role in book three than he did in book two. Also, if you were worried about how the series would proceed without Stephen…um…never fear? I suppose that’s all I can say?

Finally, there is an entirely new character, named Freddie, who plays a large part in the book. Often introducing a new character at this juncture might be seen in a ‘cousin Oliver’ light. This one, however, is my favorite insertion of a new character since Dawn. And, for those of you who understand both of those references, *fistbump* you are my people.

This series hits so many interest points for my students that I have a difficult time keeping copies in stock in the library. I think it’s the mix of the ghosts, cults, and mythology of the series and the quirky characters and sense of humor that combine to make it so appealing. I also enjoy giving my book talk for it that includes detailing the near-death experience Rory has that causes her ability to see ghosts. What can I say, middle schoolers love gross stuff.

Want a chance to win your very own copy of The Shadow Cabinet? Enter our Rafflecopter giveaway! Giveaway is open to residents of the United States.

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