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Book Review: The Naturals by Jennifer Lynn Barnes

17-year-old Cassie is a natural at reading people.  Within a few moments she can tell you more about a person than they probably even realize about themselves.  She’s not psychic, just a natural born profiler.  Which is how she gets recruited into an FBI program that seeks to nurture these natural talents of various teens, including human lie detectors, empaths and more.  No one in the program is who they seem to be and Cassie won’t know who to trust when a package arrives at the front door making it clear that the current case they are working is personal.  Cassie’s life is at stake but who can she trust?  And what does it all have to do with her mother’s murder years ago?

Totally irrelevant background information: I am a Criminal Minds junkie, in part because I love Dr. Reid.  I can’t watch the episodes about children or sexual violence, and I definitely watch it less as it has gotten more graphic.  But The Naturals is a great read for fans of CSI, Criminal Minds, Psych, The Mentalist and more.  It is chock full of information that we all seem interested in even when we wonder why we are.  I don’t know about you, but true crime and serial killers are a huge draw at my library.  This is a great read-alike for those fans.  It is also a great read-alike for Sherlock fans.  I was a satisfied reader and definitely recommend this title.  Read on.

Cassie is a great leading female character: strong and confident but realistic and conflicted.  Not perfect in any way, but also not milquetoast.  There is Dean, also a profiler, who keeps his distance, for which it turns out he has excellent reasons.  There is Michael, sarcastic and good at reading emotions, which makes lying difficult.  There are a few other female teens and a couple of adult agents/mentors/teachers.  It was an interesting cast of characters.  They play a mean game of Truth or Dare.  Note to self: don’t play truth or dare when someone in the group can tell if people are lying.  As a side note, it was pretty awesome that these teens had talents that weren’t really paranormal in nature: no viruses (Blackout by Robison Wells), no abilities to literally be unseen (Nobody by, oddly enough, Jennifer Lynn Barnes), and no Buffy-like demon hunting awesomesauce (Every Other Day, also by Jennifer Lynn Barnes).  Don’t get me wrong, I actually love all of those books too.  But these talents are more along the Sherlock vibe of just being super observant and using your intellect than X-men like powers.

This is actually a really well developed mystery/thriller where the dots connect together well.  There are lots of little tidbits in there about serial killers, profiling, etc.  Needless to say, there is blood splatter, bombs, and talk of sex.  You can’t really talk about serial killers without mentioning gore and sex things.  It is not as graphic as Criminal Minds (or even the excellent I Hunt Killers by Barry Lyga for that matter), but you will definitely want to keep in mind that it is about teenagers investigating cold cases and serial killers and recommend appropriately.

There is a little love triangle –  which I am totally over in all YA fiction at the moment – but it didn’t bother me as much in this book because the story itself was so good.  I had not real leanings toward either character for most of the story, but there are definitely some interesting things that happen here and will need to be further explored.  Many readers will probably be choosing teams, because that is apparently what we do when there are love triangles.  But if you are not a love triangle girl (raises hand), there is so much goodness here that it just won’t matter.  Cassie is interesting, the plot is interesting, the discussion of the behind the scenes training is interesting.

The best part: It is set up so that there can be more books in the series and the biggest mystery of all is not solved.  I really liked this book and would love to see it as a continuing series and I think teen readers will as well.  Definitely recommended.  Coming in November from Disney Hyperion. ISBN: 9781423168232

Book Review: Nobody by Jennifer Lynn Barnes

The most dangerous people in the world . . . are the ones you don’t even see.

There are people in this world who are Nobody. No one sees them. No one notices them. They live their lives under the radar, forgotten as soon as you turn away.

That’s why they make the perfect assassins.

The Institute finds these people when they’re young and takes them away for training. But an untrained Nobody is a threat to their organization. And threats must be eliminated.

Sixteen-year-old Claire has been invisible her whole life, missed by the Institute’s monitoring. But now they’ve ID’ed her and send seventeen-year-old Nix to remove her. Yet the moment he lays eyes on her, he can’t make the hit. It’s as if Claire and Nix are the only people in the world for each other. And they are—because no one else ever notices them. (Goodreads synopsis)

Perhaps there is no greater desire in the life of a teen than to simply be noticed, to feel like they belong.  Here, Barnes plays with that theme by creating teens that – quite literally – can not be noticed, there is something in their make up that makes them hard to see and easy to forget.  Claire can list the number of times that her parents have left somewhere without her, and they have even had to put a sign on their door reminding them that they have a daughter.  The beginning scenes where we are first introduced to Claire and her desire to be noticed are strong and palpable.  It draws you right in.

And then there is Nix, sent to kill Claire.  He, like Claire, is also a Nobody, trained from early on to be an assassin.  When we first meet him, he is a brainwashed ruthless killer who thinks his only purpose in life is to carry out the directives of The Society; He is, after all, a Nobody.  Soon the two are falling in love and plotting to take down The Society. 

The Society is a secret, nefarious organization that has motives and powers Nix comes to understand far too late in his life.  To them, Nobodies are simply puppets or targets.  They also employ other interesting characters such as Sensors and Nulls.  It’s an interesting world to dip your toes into.

Nobody is part paranormal thriller and part romance.  The concept is intriguing, the thriller aspect is well done, and the romance leaves me feeling conflicted.  It is very romantic, but in the you quite literally complete me way that I worry can send unhealthy messages, but then we are dealing with paranormal elements here.  But then, he did try to kill her recently so – see, conflicted.  If we remove the paranormal elements, this would be a prime example of an unhealthy relationship.  BUT, 1) it is a paranormal and 2) you are dealing with a main character who was raised to be an assasin and another character who literally can’t be seen by other people; Nix is literally the first person she has ever met that can truly see her and, perhaps more importantly, can understand what it is like to be her.

“You can’t tell me I matter and then leave like I don’t.”
Jennifer Lynn Barnes, Nobody

And to be fair to Nix, once he realizes that he has been operating in a world of lies created by The Society, he sets out to make different choices.  They are not overnight, but it is hard to undo that type of lifelong nurture.  So I think readers can step back and see this relationship as the complex thing that it is.  In fact, there are some great moments of character growth here.  And some interesting points for discussion.

Nobody is told in alternating points of view between both Nix and Claire, and it really, really wants you to understand the “nobodyness” that haunts them both.  Although it is an interesting concept, it can create a depressive and, at times, slow pace.  It is atmospheric in tone and reminds me most of Masque of the Red Death by Bethany Griffin.  There is a melancholy that, understandably, haunts the pages and weighs the words down.  It is repeated time and again: you are nobody, you aren’t supposed to feel, you aren’t supposed to think, you aren’t supposed to ask questions, you don’t matter.  The beauty is in how the two main characters come to stand up against this message and choose to matter.

Nobody is flawed, but I think teen readers will be drawn into the concept and the malaise.  There are some interesting scientific discussions about matter and anti-matter, which would put this on the Weird Science booklist3 out of 5 stars, recommended.  It has a strong start and a strong finish, the middle gets muddied a bit but not enough that readers won’t be intrigued and want to finish.  Paranormal and thriller readers should find it intriguing.

One last, totally librarian quibble, with the book – Claire steals books from the library! Actually, there are aspects of being a Nobody that allow them to go in and out of buildings unseen and it causes them to engage in some morally questionable behavior – see the library books above – but I think that is also an interesting discussion.

Booktalk This! Spy stories

I’ve had spies on the mind this week, as one of my favorite books of last year, Code Name Verityby Elizabeth Wein, received a Printz Honor (an award recognizing excellence in teen literature). In Code Name Verity, a young female spy writes for her life, sharing secrets with her German torturers in France during World War II. She confesses codes and airbase locations, but makes her captors find those details in a story of a friendship between two women who never would have met if not for the war. Catch glimpses of a side of WWII you don’t hear about often – female pilots and spies, the regular citizens who risked their lives helping the French Resistance, awful torture methods used on prisoners of war – but stay for a heart-wrenching story of friendship.

What if you’d like a spy story, but could do without the history?  Try The Recruit, by Robert Muchamore (Mission 1 of the CHERUB series). An organization created because “Adults never suspect that children are spying on them,” CHERUB agents are all under seventeen, and now includes eleven-year-old James, who was recruited after his mother’s death. But is he ready for the intense training, and for his very first mission?
Like the history but want to go further back? How about 1850s London? Saved from execution for thieving and given a place in a school for girls, orphan Mary Quinn thinks she’s being groomed to be a teacher, but discovers, much to her delight, that she’s instead meant to be: A Spy in the House by Y.S. Lee.
Want to know more about that iconic spy, Bond, James Bond? Try SilverFin, the first of Charlie Higson’s Young Bond series, in which we find James Bond as a teenager at boarding school, not yet the confident master spy, but one who still manages to get caught up in mysterious and deadly adventures.

Is spy school your fondest wish? Read your way to the Gallagher Academy with Cammie Morgan, the heroine of Ally Carter’s I’d Tell You I Love You, But Then I’d Have to Kill You. Cammie’s mom is headmistress of the school, which pretends to be for geniuses but teaches its students code-breaking, covert operations, and martial arts…so, yeah. It’s a spy school. And it’s rad.

But what about the spies who have kids? In Jack Higgins’ and Justin Richards’ fast-paced Chance Twins series, beginning with Sure Fire, fifteen-year-old twins Rich and Jade are often drawn into their spy father’s thrilling and dangerous missions. How far would yougo to help the dad you’ve never known?
Does the phrase “spies disguised as cheerleaders” make you strangely curious? In Jennifer Lynn Barnes’ The Squad: Perfect Cover, computer hacker Toby is surprised to receive an invitation to a Spirit Squad meeting…and even more surprised to discover a secret message encoded in the invite. Could this squad of perfectly coiffed and manicured popular girls be hiding something?
And finally, maybe you’re interested in a spy story written by someone who really knows what he’s talking about. Traitor – in which seventeen-year-old soldier-in-training, Danny, must find and capture his grandfather (a spy-turned-traitor) in order to clear his own name – was co-written by Andy McNab and Robert Rigby. McNab has written several books about his own highly decorated experiences in the British military, but because of security reasons, he can’t be photographed face-on for his own author photo! Cool, huh?

Want to do some fun CSI/Spy related activities? Check out this TPiB: Follow the Evidence
What are you favorite spy stories?

Being the “Slayer” Every Other Day: Book Review of Every Other Day by Jennifer Lynn Barnes

“If I had a nickel for every time I almost died, I would have been driving to school in a Ferrari and flying off to Bora-Bora on the weekends.”

You all are seriously in trouble with me.  All those times I said, “What books should a Buffy fan read?” and not once did you say EVERY OTHER DAY by Jennifer Lynn Barnes.  Well I am here to tell you because no one told me, go read Every Other Day by Jennifer Lynn Barnes right now!

Here’s the premise: Every other day Kali D’Angelo is a  . . . um, well, she’s not exactly sure.  But Buffy fans might say she is this world’s version of a slayer.  A hunt lust comes over her and in a world where supernatural creatures are known to exist, and killing them is against the law, Kali’s hunt fever is kind of a problem.

For 24 hours she is a skilled, supernatural hunter.  The blood coursing through her veins changes and becomes a poison to the supernatural.  Her senses heighten. She is da bomb baby!

The problem is that there is always the next 24 hours, when she is a regular teen age girl.  It is on one of *those* days that she realizes the girl standing before her has been marked for death by a supernatural creature known as the chupacabra.  It’s like a tapeworm that gets inside you and eats you from the inside out.  Yummy.  But unfortunately, it’s happening on the wrong day.

Soon Kalie finds herself with a group of people (a psuedo Scooby gang if you will) being hunted down by a shady scientific organization (think The Initiative).  And – oh yeah – the Chupacabra inside her seems to be talking to her, which is not what they do at all to normal people.

“Well,” a female voice said. “What have we here?”

“Here,” Bethany said, responding to the woman’s rhetorical question, “we have a teenager. And she’s pissed.” (Bethany is Cordelia, but the later deeper Cordelia, not the early Cordelia.) 

Kali is a fun, well-developed, angsty, conflicted character with the perfect mix of heart (that she tries to keep hidden) and snark (a “slayer’s” preferred method of self protection):

“‘Well’, I said, smiling at the blade as I tore if from Thing 3’s throat, ‘let’s get this show on the road.’ The fact that I was talking to a knife probably said something revealing about my character and/or mental state, but the way I saw it, my weapon and I were in this together.” – p. 9

“Left with nothing but my own bloody fingertips, I let out a war cry of my own, raked my nails over its face, and fought like a girl.” 

Like Buffy, our Kali has family issues.  Her mother disappeared when she was 3, which is kind of an issue because she is probably the only one who can help explain to Kali what she is:

“Most of the time, it felt like my father and I were completely different species. Possibly literally, depending on the day and whether or not I actually qualified as human at the time.” 

As much as Every Other Day is a fun, entertaining, demon hunting save the world romp, it is also a book that explores self-identity, family dynamics, and there are even some scientific ethics issues that come up: Just because something is different does that mean we have a right to lock them in a cage and dissect them?  It seems easy to say yes if we’re talking about Hellhounds and Zombies, but we would probably feel differently if we were talking about you or someone you loved.

“My little sister snuck out of the house carrying a circular-saw blade and a can of Mace. I couldn’t exactly let her come alone.” 

So look, I love this book.  It was a fun read.  It was a fast read.  And although we won’t be sitting around years from now discussing the intellectual merits of Every Other Day and trying to present it as a piece of literary scholarship, it is not totally devoid of substance and it has subtle themes relatable to the teenage life.  I mean, what teen hasn’t sat in the back of a pep rally and tried to make themselves so small they hoped they could just fold up inside themselves and disappear because they realized that High School was some bizarre version of hell: “Sometimes, I felt like if I could just fold up into a small enough ball, my body would collapse on itself like a star, and I could supernova myself into a new existence.”  And to be clear, it is in fact well written and has some amazing descriptions and turns of phrases. Also, there is an ice dragon.  4 out of 5 stars and you should go read it now.  This will appeal to a lot of teens (and non teens, too).

One final note: There is a character named Skylar (important, well-developed, and often steals the show) who claims to be a psychic – which everyone says is impossible because psychics don’t exist.  I love that they live in a world where monsters are known and recognized but they find it hard to believe that someone could be psychic.

Every Other Day by Jennifer Lynn Barnes (EgmontUSA ISBN: 978-1-60684-169-3) is now tied with Hold Me Closer, Necromancer by Lish McBride as my favorite ever Buffy read-alike.  A nicer person would give away the signed copy that I just got on Saturday at the Austin Teen Book Festival, but I am not that nicer person.  But if I had known it was going to be so awesome I would have gotten every copy and sent it to all the libraries.  Be sure to check out our other The Sunnydale Project posts for more Buffy read-alikes.

Tell us your favorite Buffy read-alikes in the comments! Have you read Every Other Day? Tell us what you think.