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Book Review: The Girl in the Wall by Daphne Benedis-Grab

“We haven’t found Ariel,” The Assassin says, his words clipped. “Which can only mean one thing. You helped her or you’re helping her now, keeping her concealed from us. She is somewhere on the property, that we know for sure, and so I’ll ask one more time. Where is Ariel?”
A terrible silence follows. I put my hands on my bloated stomach, afraid I might puke.
“you need more incentive I see,” The Assassin says after a minute, his voice compressed fury. “and so we will give it to you.” His upper lip curls as he pauses and I can feel his eyes boring into me, to the others, through his shades.
Bile gathers at the back of my throat.
“It’s simple,” he says, his voice a blade of steel. “You have until midnight to tell us where she is. If we don’t have her by then, someone in this room will be shot.”

Estranged for 9 months and 4 days, former best friends Sera and Ariel are forced into each others’ company when Sera has to attend Ariel’s birthday party- a weekend event that is the MUST-attend event of the social season, kicking off with a private concert by the newest rock star to hit the charts.  Yet, minutes into the concert, terrorists take over the house and take the party-goers hostage, killing Ariel’s dad and who they think is Ariel. Ariel escapes into the tunnels hidden throughout the house. Sera is the only one who knows where she could have possibly gone to, and they must work together in order to rescue themselves and everyone else from danger, both from the terrorists and from others, for the danger started before the party and reaches far beyond Ariel’s father.
Benedis-Grab narrates the story from the viewpoints of both Sera and Ariel through alternating chapters, with nearly every chapter ending in some sort of cliffhanger or tension point that is sure to keep readers on edge.  The action starts off right away, and backstory is woven sporadically throughout the book, which can be hard to catch for a lot of readers, and even harder to mesh into a cohesive whole.  The revelations and romances throughout the book are perhaps lacking logic to readers looking for substance, but those looking for a high adventure read will be engaged. 2 1/2 stars out of 5.
I liked the premise of this book, but it really fell flat to me, and I’m not quite sure why.  I could never really get into the characters or care about what happened to Sera and Ariel.  Maybe it’s because the backstory is all scattered throughout the book, and mixed in with some very unbelievable portions- I just had trouble relaxing into this book and getting into their reality. I never got attached to Sera and Ariel and their world, never got pulled in.  I never put the book down, but I never got the OMG I HAVE TO KNOW HOW IT ENDS feeling that I want from books.
For example, we’re told partway through the book that Ariel was taken hostage before in Mexico, and that’s why the party was hush-hush- if that had happened, then wouldn’t her father have taken EXTRA measures to check out who was coming onto their property before a high profile party with all the high society kids in the area? And, having been in a kidnapping situation earlier, wouldn’t she be a little less likely to form a relationship with a captor, even one who was a double agent? There were a lot of little things like this, things that never really clicked for me personally, but that a reader who was interested only in the action would pass over completely.
And the twists- first, they think that this person was behind it, but they weren’t. Then they find the secret hidden will miraculously placed in a photo album that wasn’t where it was before.  And they’re able to get away from The Assassin and the terrorists using tricks and unusual weapons that are not up to slapstick comedy fare.  And the ending of multiple dangers and deaths and near deaths just seems over the top, even though you know that it can’t end with everyone coming out OK.  It was just a little too unbelievable for me, but that’s because I tend to think through my books. Those who want to just read and go with the story (and I have plenty of those teens, two of whom are sitting in my office as I write this) will be just fine.

What have others been saying:
“Two high school seniors re-evaluate their failed friendship under dangerous circumstances. Benedis-Grab alternates between the two girls’ perspectives; nearly every chapter ends with a cliffhanger, keeping tension high. The action and high stakes should keep readers engaged.” —Publishers Weekly

The Girl in the Wall was published in December 2012 by Merit Press. It has gotten an average of 4 stars on Goodreads. ISBN: 9781440552700. Reviewed by Christie G.

January 2013 Releases

Here’s a look at what new releases I am reading in January 2013

Finding Zasha by Randi Barrow
Hitler’s troops are marching across Russia and 12-year-old Ivan has joined a secret group fighting against the Nazis.  When he meets Zasha and Thor, he knows that he must save them and stop them from becoming weapons of war.

Return to Me by Justina Chen
Tagline: And there it was again, the troubling notion that I barely knew the people I loved.
Rebecca’s life is upturned when her family moves and dad takes off.

Gabriel Stone and the Divinity of Valta by Shannon Duffy (Middle Grade)
The first title from Month9Books, a new YA imprint focusing on speculative fiction.  Gabriel Stone finds a crystal that transports him to strange new worlds, literally.

The Dead and the Buried by Kim Harrington
This line really says it all: “I was living in a murder house.”  There are ghosts, mysteries, swoony guys and a cute little brother.  Christie G. has read and is writing her review as we speak.

The Fire Horse Girl by Kay Honeyman
It is 1923 and Jade Moon is a headstrong, reckless girl; something that is not valued in Chinese girls.  But when her father and her find the chance to move to America, they discover that freedom isn’t always what they think it is, especially for Chinese immigrants.

Catherine by April Lindner
Chelsea sets off to New York to try and find her missing mother, Catherine.  In a dual voice narrative, we learn about the great and obsessive love of Catherine and Hence while Chelsea tries to understand what could make a mother leave her daughter.  A modern day mystery, this is a play on Wuthering Heights.

Victoria Rebels by Carolyn Meyer
Princess Victoria is destined to be the queen of England.  Meyer bases this work of historical fiction off of Queen Victoria’s own diaries.  This is not only a sweeping love story, but an intimate look at one of England’s most beloved queens.

Whatever After: If the Shoe Fits by Sarah Mylnowski (Middle Grade)
Mylnowski continues her Whatever After series with a little twisted Cinderella.  What’s Cinderella going to do with a broken foot? The Tween and I love this series and can’t wait to read this next title.

Altered by Jennifer Rush
Tagline: When you can’t trust yourself, who can you believe?
Anna lives with a group of genetically altered boys who are poised to be secret government weapons. They soon find themselves on the run, fleeing for their lives and Anna has discovered she has a secret connection to one of them, Sam. They must find out what that connection is in order to survive.

Falling for You by Lisa Schroeder
Tagline: Love found her. Now it won’t let her go.
Rae has always dreamed of having a boyfriend like Nathan, but is he really the dream guy she thinks he is?

Then You Were Gone by Lauren Strasnick
Two years ago Adrienne’s best friend walked out of her life.  One week ago she left a desperate message asking for help.  Adrienne never called her back.  When Dakota disappears and leaves behind a rumored suicide note, Adrienne can’t help but wonder.  Can Adrienne find and help Dakota, or is it really too late?

Other titles I can’t wait to read this month:
Prodigy by Marie Lu, the sequel to Legend
Through the Ever Night by Veronica Rossi
Shades of Earth by Beth Revis
Archived by Victoria Schwab
Paper Valentine by Brenna Yovanoff
Prey by Andrew Fukuda, the sequel to Hunt

What are you looking forward to in January?

Best or Favorite? A look at the NPR “Best” Young Adult Novels list

I watch So You Think You Can Dance every week without fail.  Here is a show where you can call in and vote for your “favorite” dancer.  This favorite part is important, every year they make a point of making this distinction: it is not the best dancer, but your favorite.  Because that’s how voting works usually, it’s subjective.

Best implies perhaps the highest quality while favorite implies the most popular.  And, truthfully, if you are asking the people to vote you are going to end up with the most popular.  So when NPR puts out it’s list of the Best 100 Young Adult Novels that have been voted on by the public, what you are really getting is some combination of both the best and everyone’s favorites.

NPRs Best Young Adult Novels
Did your favorites make the list?

One look at the list and you see the truth of this statement.  The Twilight series by Stephanie Meyers appears at number 27.  Had the vote been taken just a few years earlier, before it became fashionable to hate Twilight, I am sure it would have appeared in the top 10.  But still, in terms of quality of writing and storytelling, even 27 seems incredibly high when you compare it to some of the other books that made the list farther down – and some of those that didn’t make the list at all.  My favorite comment on Reddit: “List totally invalidated by the presence of Twilight.”

If you are on the Yalsa-bk listserv, then last week you saw a really informative post by author David Lubar.  He took a quick moment to do a Google search and found that many authors and fans actively campaigned for others to vote for their favorite books.  As someone who spends a lot of time on the Internet, this is not surprising to me at all.  But it does remind us all that the Internet voting is not a perfect mechanism for developing lists, unless of course your goal is popularity.  So perhaps if they had just changed what they called the list, not the “best” but “favorite”, it would have been an accurate statement.

I’ll be honest, I did not vote.  Not because I don’t care, I obviously care very much about teen literature, but because as soon as I realized the mechanism they were employing to create the list I realized that it would be a deeply flawed list.  Compare the idea of the NPR Best Young Adult Books list to the Teens Top 10s put together each year by Yalsa – and voted on by the public.  The Teens Top 10 list explicitly states that it is a “teens choice” list where teens nominate and then vote on their favorite books from the previous year.  You see the distinction there?  They aren’t saying they are the best, but that the teens declare these their favorites.  Semantics are important.

If you have looked at the NPR list you probably will have noticed what Debbie Reese, Laurie Halse Anderson and others have noticed: the list is incredibly white.  I mean super white.  There are only a couple of titles that have a main character that it a person of color. I won’t talk a lot about that because the previously mentioned people have covered it so well, but it is disappointing.  And not at all reflective of the literature that I see on my shelves.  Don’t get me wrong, I think there needs to be a lot more diversity on our library shelves, but this list totally neglects longstanding popular authors like Walter Dean Myers and Sharon Draper and Jacqueline Woodson.  In fact Monster by Walter Dean Myers is a groundbreaking – and award winning – book and definitely deserves to be on this list.

I haven’t seen it mentioned elsewhere, but the list also doesn’t seem to include many LGBTQ titles at all.  Where is Boy Meets Boy by David Levithan? How about Annie on My Mind?  A brief look at the list shows that it includes The Perks of Being a Wallflower (without a doubt an amazing read), Will Grayson Will Gryason and the Dangerous Angels series.  Is the lack of LGBTQ and POC titles representative of who votes, what we read, or what gets published?  Whatever the issue, it is clear that we need to work harder on reaching diversity goals.  (Side note: I actually think that the problem novel, one of the classic mainstays of young adult literature, is under represented on this list as well.  I know right now that fantasy and dystopian is super popular, but where are the problem novels?  Thankfully Speak made the list.)

My other question regarding this list would be around the voting mechanism, which I can’t actually speak about because as I mentioned, I didn’t vote.  But I would have loved for them to have kept track of the age of voters and created separate lists.  What does the list look like if only teens vote?  What does the list like if only librarians and educators vote?  What does the list look like if all adults – including educators and librarians – but no teen votes are counted?  It would be interesting to compare the various lists, and I suspect there would be some major differences.

And finally, I am interested in some of the titles that they classify as young adult.  To Kill a Mockingbird is without a doubt one of my favorite books and I would say one of the best books written, but is it young adult?  I would ask the same of The Lord of the Rings series?  Something can be popular with young adults but not be actually a young adult book.  We can all look back at what we read as a teen, and look at what our teens often read now, and recognize that a lot of teens like to read adult authors, which is cool.  Just because something is popular with young adults doesn’t mean that it is in fact a young adult novel.  Of course what, exactly, constitutes a young adult novel is probably the guts of an entirely different post and is further complicated by the introduction of the New Adult genre.

Overall, I think the list is a great starting place for new readers of young adult books to begin reading; it definitely is a good look at what is popular with my teens over the last few years.  As much as I love John Green, I would knock a couple of his books off the list – leaving The Fault in Our Stars and Looking for Alaska – and add some multicultural authors.  I was ecstatic to see the Delirium series and Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children on the list.  I kind of felt that Miss Peregrine didn’t get the love that it deserved when it came out.  There is some good stuff on the list.  There is some fun stuff on the list (I LOVE the Gallagher girls series).  But is this list representative of THE BEST? I guess it depends on how we are defining the best.

So here’s my question to you: If we made the list again in 10 years, what titles from 2012 do you think will stand the test of time and make an appearance?  And what diversity titles do you think should have made the cut this year?
Also, what is the most surprising title on the list for you?  For me it is The Bartimaeus Trilogy by Jonathan Stroud.