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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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The Economy as Villain in The Year of Shadows by Claire LeGrand (Book Review)

The economy went bust in 2008 and people everywhere are struggling.  The news keeps reminding us that more and more people are making less and less money, children are going hungry, and recovery has been slow.  But you wouldn’t know it from a lot of the books being written for middle grade and teen readers; there it seems to be business as usual. In fact, I rarely read about teens and their families struggling financially in the teen lit I read, unless it is a dystopian or post-apocalyptic book, which is an entirely different deal.  If anything, there seems to be a flood of titles where teens are actually being raised in affluent homes with gated communities or being sent to boarding schools.  See Winger by Andrew Smith and When You Were Here by Daisy Whitney for just a few examples (both good books).  Don’t get me wrong, there are teens growing up in wealthy families and they deserve to see themselves in ya lit, but is the literature representative of the reality?  Of course you could also ask the question, do teens struggling with a life of poverty want to be reminded of their poverty in the books that they read or do they want to escape reality for a little while?  An equally interesting question.

And then I came across The Year of Shadows by Claire LeGrand.  I am, in fact, a LeGrand fan.  Her debut work The Cavendish Home for Boys and Girls has a great eerie, gothic vibe to it that just creeps you out (a great October read by the way).  And it seemed clear from the title and cover that The Year of Shadows promised more of the same.  It did not disappoint.

The Year of Shadows is the story of Olivia, whose mom has left her without a goodbye or a forwarding address.  Her father is a musical conductor of the local failing symphony and in a last ditch ever to save the concert hall, he moves Olivia and her Nonnie (grandmother) backstage.  Gone is their lovely house full of warm family memories, now they are sleeping on cots in a concert hall with no shower and eating of food prepared on a camp stove.  It soon becomes clear that the concert hall is full of shadows, much like Olivia’s life itself is, but together they might just find a way out of the darkness and into the light, but not into too much light because this is, after all, a gothic story.

The Year of Shadows is a delightfully depressing tale; it tells a beautiful story about a resourceful young girl who is struggling with a very real darkness – both the darkness in her life and the darkness inside her heart as she wrestles with the emotions that come from literally losing everything.  It’s definitely more Tim Burton than Disney, but still manages to end on a hopeful note.

There are many great things about this book:

1) Olivia herself is a dynamic girl with an artistic soul that burns with a variety of complex and fiery emotions.

2) There is what has to be the best cat ever since the Cheshire cat in this book that goes by the name of Igor, that Olivia has the most fun conversations with.

Igor: “When will you stop talking so I can go back to sleep” (p. 78)

3) Olivia explores what it means to be a friend and a family with a delightful cast of characters, many of whom happen to be ghosts. (This is the only thing I struggled with as a reader of this book, I have apparently watched too many episodes of The Ghost Whisperer in syndication and sometimes couldn’t help comparing the two.)  All of the relationships in this book are interesting, the supporting characters developed, and I loved seeing everyone wrestle with their pasts.

4) There is a love and celebration of the arts, something that can often get lost in our STEM focused culture. 

5) LeGrand has a tremendous talent for writing creating a rich atmosphere, beautiful sentences, and characters that grow and experience a wide range of  emotions.

But my very favorite thing is how LeGrand chooses not only to let the economy be realistically portrayed in this story, but how she personifies it in a way that helps us better understand the world our kids are living in today.  In fact, Olivia always refers to it as “The Economy”, making it clear that it is a real and important thing in her life.  It is clearly a villain, one of the causes of her many woes.  She doesn’t fully understand what it means, what its implications are (as most adults don’t), but she understands that it is important and, in her view, bad.  Because of The Economy she is living in a place that is not a home and fears that soon her home will be a cardboard box under a bridge.  She shops at the local charity store.  And she is mortified when she fills in all of the pages of our sketch book and is forced to draw on discarded napkins and old sheets of paper.  The effects on The Economy in the life of Olivia are real and visceral and immediate, just as it is in the lives of many of our kids.  By recognizing the villainy of The Economy in the life of Olivia and giving it this presence and voice, LeGrand is speaking to the hearts of every one of those children out there who are wondering whether there will be dinner on the table tonight or if they will soon be forced to live in a cardboard box somewhere.  This fear has a presence, a weightiness to it, that can not be ignored and LeGrand gives it the voice that it deserves.  Many kids will read this book and be thankful to know that they are not alone and that there may be a light at the end of the tunnel.

The Year of Shadows is one of my favorite MG titles of 2013.  It is an entertaining ghost story that resonates with some rich undertones about family, forgiveness and survival.  The overall vibe is melancholy (yet occasionally hopeful) and Gothic. Enter into The Year of Shadows with Olivia, you won’t be disappointed.  Fair warning, I cried.  4.5 stars out of 5.

Top 10 Tuesday: From Beyond the Grave

In the end, life inevitably always ends in death. Death and taxes you know.  A lot of teens can avoid the taxes part, but they often get to the death part too early, especially in teen fiction.  But death is a funny thing, and you don’t always stay dead.  Or you hang out in limbo while you wait to learn life’s GREAT LESSONS.  So here, for your reading pleasure, is a list of books that tell their stories from beyond the grave, where teens come back to make things right, fall in love, or just haunt the people who made their lives miserable.  They are not always ghost stories, because you don’t have to be a ghost to haunt someone.

Before I Fall by Lauren Oliver

“Maybe you can afford to wait. Maybe for you there’s a tomorrow. Maybe for you there’s one thousand tomorrows, or three thousand, or ten, so much time you can bathe in it, roll around it, let it slide like coins through you fingers. So much time you can waste it.
But for some of us there’s only today. And the truth is, you never really know.” (Lauren Oliver)

The idea for this Top 10 list came as I was reading Before I Fall the other day.  Here, Samantha Kingston dies in a car accident on her way home from a party, and yet she keeps waking up to repeat this day over and over again.  The question she must ask herself is why: What happened on this day that she is supposed to change?  Before I Fall is an interesting book because in the beginning, our main character is really not that likeable.  And yet, as she relives this day over and over again she comes to understand who she is and tries to find a way to make it right while she still has a chance.  It is an interesting story about bullying and how we affect those around us. (3.5 out of 5 stars)

The remaining books on our Top 10 list involve teens telling their stories from beyond the grave through unique storytelling devices or living as ghosts to continue their tale . . .

“You can’t stop the future
You can’t rewind the past
The only way to learn the secret
…is to press play.” (Jay Asher)

“Sometimes you make choices in life and sometimes the choices make you.” (Gayle Forman)
“You can obsess and obsess over how things ended- what you did wrong or could have done differently- but there’s not much of a point. It’s not like it’ll change anything. So really, why worry?” 
(Jess Rothenberg)
“New Orleans is a city that’s defined and therefore haunted by its past.” (Paula Morris discussing Ruined at http://www.bookdivas.com/interviews/2010/03/interview-paula-morris)
“Dear sir: twelve hours is as twelve years to me. I imagine you in your home, smiling, thinking of me. That I am your heart’s secret fills me with song. I wish I could sing of you here in my cage. You are my heart’s hidden poem. I reread you, memorize you, every moment we’re apart.”  (Laura Whitcomb)
“and if we can change
things that have
already happened
if those planes can fly in
uneasy formation
if that splinter moon
can blow away the shadows
then anything,
anything at all.”  (Jaclyn Moriarty)
“Great. Not only do I have an angry spirit guide, but an angry spirit guide with a vindictive streak and an unnatural knowledge of show tunes. Better and better already.”  (Stacey Kade)
“I started wondering about how someone would feel if they got a letter from a dead girl; what if the relationship between the two had been bad? Then my head was off into why had the relationship been bad. The novel started to form.” (Gail Giles discussing Dead Girls Don’t Write Letters at http://www.cynthialeitichsmith.com/lit_resources/authors/stories_behind/storygiles.html)
“My name is Salmon, like the fish; first name, Susie. I was fourteen when I was murdered.”  (Alice Sebold)
Now it’s your turn, tell us your favorite stories of teens speaking beyond the grave and trying to right wrongs.  Don’t forget to tell us what your favorite title on the list is.