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Category Archives: Young Adult

Fangirl, by Rainbow Rowell

Fangirl, by Rainbow Rowell

Most people under thirty (and many people over thirty) are edgy these days; our soft, organic, human curves honed to sharpness by the razor edges of technology. Our minds are edgy, as television and movies are edgy – jumping from thought to thought, chore to chore, channel to channel. Rainbow Rowell is edgy, too, and so is her writing. Rowell manages to skim along that razor with skill, keeping pace with the new way we think. Her writing seems effortless. Her fiction is fresh, exciting, and fun, along with being edgy. It’s also very, very real.

Fangirl (St. Martin’s Griffen, 2013)is a fairly straightforward story – twin sisters go to college. Each of them finds their own way. They have boyfriends, make new friends, work hard, make mistakes, etc. The rub comes as the sister’s co-dependent relationship crumbles. Cath, the painfully shy main character, is stretched to her limit as her sister Wren abandons her for her new friends. Cath buries herself in the world of fiction, particularly the fictional world of Simon Snow: reading it, writing fan fiction, and using it as an escape mechanism. Rowell weaves Cath’s story together with the fictional story of Simon Snow, and then throws in snippets of the fan fiction that Cath writes as well. Taken together, it’s a kaleidoscope of a story, a hall of mirrors in which one plot line is mirrored in another story, and again in another, distorted a bit each time. All of this is sewed together so seamlessly, it’s hard to see the skill involved in making this story sing.

But sing it does. Rainbow Rowell is writing great fiction, with great characters, great plot, and a sincere message. Somehow, she gets it just right. The characters shine as individuals; none of them perfect, all of them human and recognizable as facets of ourselves. There is enough movement to sweep you along, enough jumping to keep you tensed and ready to spring, enough humanity to grab hold of your compassion and tug you away from your own world into that of the characters.

If you are a fan of John Green (The Fault in Our Stars), you’ll likely enjoy anything written by Rainbow Rowell – they have similar messages and writing styles, and they use unconventional and powerful tools in their story telling that makes them interesting to read for people who have grown up in the digital age.

Rainbow Rowell succeeded in making Eleanor & Park one of the best written YA novels of 2013 (see my review here), and she succeeds again with Fangirl. I recommend it for anyone fourteen and up.

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The Here and Now, by Ann Brashares

The Here and Now, by Ann Brashares

You know how a great book sucks you under and keeps you there for hours and you come up sputtering and breathless, wondering where you are? Ann Brashares’ new book, The Here and Now (Delacourt Press, April 2014) is not like that. It is an interesting premise and a fast read, but I skimmed through it. At 256 pages, I couldn’t really dive any deeper.

The Here and Now is a tale of time travel. A faction of people from a harrowing ‘future earth’ come back and colonize the present in order to escape the horrible conditions of the future. They follow strict rules to keep from being discovered: they keep to themselves, avoid ‘intimate’ contact with others, try to fit in as best they can. These rules are enforced (sometimes violently) by the leaders of the group of travelers. Prenna, our teenage protagonist, falls in love with Ethan, a ‘time native’, and the two of them start to unravel the precarious chain of events that lead to the dystopian future Prenna has escaped.

It’s a great plot, if only marginally developed. I was with Brashares the whole way, but it was also flat and lifeless. There was no meat on the bones; no flesh on the characters. They remained cardboard cutouts, manipulated around the plot. Ironically, there was no past or background given for any of the characters, particularly Ethan, the ‘time native’. With no motives and no glimpse into the psyche of the characters, it was awfully hard to become emotionally involved and, at times, to understand the cause and effect of events.

This book could have been great, another Divergent or Hunger Games for YA readers. Instead, it feels rushed and undeveloped. I got something out of it, but it wasn’t the experience I was hoping for. I haven’t read The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants series, the immensely popular YA books by Brashares, but The Here and Now falls short of its potential, despite its great concept and gripping plot. If I could go back in time, I’d advise Brashares to slow down; give us the time to immerse ourselves in this world she has created. But we need the whole world, not just the plot.

 
 

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Dead End in Norvelt, by Jack Gantos

Dead End in Norvelt, by Jack Gantos

As a recently appointed middle school librarian, I’ve been reading quite a bit of middle school fiction, which is different than YA fiction and, it turns out, just as appealing to adults. I laughed so hard reading Dead End in Norvelt that my husband nearly had to begin CPR on me. I went that long without being able to breathe. Seriously.

Dead End in Norvelt (Farrar, Straus, and Geroux, September 2011) was awarded the 2012 Newbery Medal for the year’s best contribution to children’s literature and the Scott O’Dell Award for Historical Fiction, and rightfully so: Jack Gantos is a fantastic writer. He can write a scene, drench it in history, spin it into action, and set in on a plate with a side of laughter. He can create believable, quirky characters that you root for with all your heart despite their oddities. Most of all, though, Gantos knows how to tell a good story, one that’s hard to put down, that keeps you up and night, and that makes you laugh.

Dead End in Norvelt is set in Norvelt, Pennsylvania in 1962. The book’s 12-year-old narrator (also coincidentally named Jack Gantos) has been grounded for the summer. There are only two reasons Jack can leave the house:

  1. to help his father dig a bomb shelter in the back yard (by hand) and
  2. to help his elderly, arthritic neighbor write obituaries for the town newspaper (which turns out to be an alarmingly busy task, as the older people in the bucolic town of Norvelt are dropping like flies.)

Despite those limiting factors (or because of them), Jack manages to have an action-packed summer, one punctuated by dramatic events, each event triggering an uncontrollable nosebleed in our not-as-tough-as-he-wishes-he-was narrator.

This book is not for the faint hearted – I recommended it to reluctant reader, in hopes that the fast moving plot line and frequent hilarity would entice him to read it. He returned it two days later. “Mrs. Rutten, I could not read this book. I have a gag reflex problem, and every time the main character had a nose bleed, I had to vomit.” He shook his head sadly and dropped it into the return bin.

Okay, so maybe this book isn’t for everybody. But most people, kids and adults alike, will love it.

 

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Eleanor and Park, by Rainbow Rowell

Eleanor and Park, by Rainbow Rowell

Eleanor and Park (St. Martin’s Griffin, 2013) restored my faith in writing. It’s brutally honest, unpretentious. Savagely eviscerating. Exhilarating. Reading it made me lonely and mad and proud; in turns and all at once. Eleanor and Park is a beautiful book – beautiful because it’s true.

It’s a straightforward story: two misfit characters, poor white trash and weird Asian kid, fall in love, but Rainbow Rowell nails it all: plot, character, dialogue, scene. Her characters lay on the page in a spot of sunlight and bloom from spring into full summer in scene after scene after scene. Details strung together make mosaics of story and emotion. Rowell’s writing brings back all the agony of being an imperfect teen. (The bra strap held together with safety pins was the gem that really got me – what woman can’t relate to that?)

The Young Adult rating is just a rating – this book can and should be read by anyone over the age of 14. I wish there was a way to give Eleanor and Park to myself when I was young. As it is, a copy should be given and to every kid out there who is even a little different, and every kid who thinks they aren’t. Whether you are a teen reader, an adult with a teen, or just a citizen of planet Earth, give yourself the gift of reading this book. Eleanor and Park will put you right inside the heads and hearts of two teenagers who are not so different from yourself, and will change you forever.

 
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Posted by on January 26, 2014 in Fiction, Young Adult

 

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Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe, by Benjamin Alire Sáenz

Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe, by Benjamin Alire Sáenz

I read Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe (Simon and Schuster, 2012), by Benjamin Alire Saenz, in under 48 hours. The same 48 hours in which my husband left on a business trip and I started a new job and still had to care for two children on my own. I read so much I barely slept, and sleep is precious to me. Would you go without eating for a day just to read a book?  Same thing for me with sleep.  I don’t give it up easily. So what makes people do that?  Stay up all night over a book?

In the case of Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe, it was the characters. Sáenz made me care about the two boys, their mothers, their fathers, their brothers, and their dogs. I cared so much about every single person in the whole damn book, really.  How does an author get you to care so much about his characters that you will give up things that are valuable and precious to you just to keep reading? Sáenz did it by:

  1. Showing us who his characters are through their actions.
  2. Having his characters tell us they are one thing, but showing us they are another.
  3. Withholding critical information until the end, and then making it worth waiting for.
  4. Having a character change, really change, during the course of the book.
  5. Giving us characters that have flaws as big as alligators, but are still likeable, then letting them wrestle those alligators right before our eyes.  It’s painful, but riveting.

Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe is the story of two boys, both of them outsiders, both of them awkward.  It’s narrated by Aristotle (Ari), a big angry kid who just can’t make sense of anything: his family (especially his father), other boys his age, girls, and life in general.  When he does make a friend (Dante), he isn’t sure about him either, but Ari learns.  He learns so much in the course of this book.  Ari learns the secrets of the Universe. All of them.  He learns about love and loss and friendship and courage and loyalty and, well, everything.

This is LGBT literature (I guess), but it shouldn’t be labeled, because it transcends any label, like love transcends gender.  This book isn’t really about gay love, it’s about love.  It’s not about boys coming of age, it’s about people becoming aware and mature. It’s important that this book find its audience, and I’m still wondering who that audience is.  Older young adults, for sure (with parents who are okay with their kids reading about real stuff, like masturbation and pot and sexuality), as well as anyone looking to know more about what it feels like to grow up gay today.

Oh yeah, and anyone who believes in love and wants to know what the secrets of the Universe are.  Help this book find its audience.  Read it.

 
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Posted by on August 17, 2013 in Fiction, Young Adult

 

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The Night Circus, by Erin Morgenstern

The Night Circus, by Erin Morgenstern

Le Cirque des Rêves (The Circus of Dreams), as imagined by Erin Morgenstern in The Night Circus is both real and imaginary at once, an illusion that tempts all the senses and mesmerizes its patrons (and readers) with a seemingly endless array of curiosities and spectacles.  It is a circus unlike any other.  It appears and disappears in the night, and is only open from dusk to dawn.  Everything in it, down to the dirt on the ground, is rendered in shades of black and white.  Its marvels include contortionists and mazes and blooming gardens of ice. But Le Cirque des Rêves is not just a circus; it is a battleground.  The story opens with two aged magicians each choosing a child as a champion, each of them to be set against each other in some mysterious ‘challenge’.  Le Cirque des Rêves is the arena.

Like the circus Morgenstern describes, her novel is an astonishing feat of magic.   If J.K. Rowling and Steven King (both influences cited by Morgenstern) collaborated on a novel, the result might feel like this.  Immediately reminiscent of Harry Potter, with young sorcerers as protagonists, it quickly morphs into something completely original.  It is both dark and light, as is the concept of a circus that shines in the night, but there is no childish demarcation of good or bad here.  Those lines are blurred, and the reader is immersed in the grayness of the in-between.   Morgenstern’s vision is more subtle than good and evil, she aims instead to pit passion against apathy, idealism against calculated effort for personal gain, and, of course, love against anything that might stand in its way.

The Night Circus is so deep and gorgeous – so wildly imaginative – it took my breath away.  The fantastic details that Morgenstern uses to paint this very vivid and strange world are like tiny jewels on a Fabergé egg – a perfect world in miniature.  Morgenstern seems to know instinctively how to use words to create the very atmosphere within which the circus and its characters live. The scenes and language Morgenstern uses to paint them are evocative of dark streets and pools of lamplight and slithering things just out of sight.  The sense of wonder is there, but so, too, is the sense of spectacle, and the sense that just underneath all of the showmanship is a rotting corpse, a stinking thing that we are all afraid to look at.

Morgenstern is relatively young, and this is her first novel.  At 34 years old, her writing is hip, edgy, and dark.  The Night Circus is a joy to read, and would be appropriate for young adults, as well as the rest of us, although the darkness that simmers below the surface might be lost on the youngest reader.  Fall under the spell of The Night Circus – it’s worth the price of admission.

 
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Posted by on January 26, 2013 in Fiction, Young Adult

 

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Goblin Secrets, by William Alexander

Goblin Secrets, by William Alexander

Before Goblin Secrets, by William Alexander, won the National Book Award in 2012 for Young People’s Literature, it was pretty hard to find.  I tried the library and local bookstore, but no copies were (or ever had been) in stock.  I finally found a copy in the Minneapolis airport a few days after the awards were announced.  I was hoping for a fantastic story, terrific characters, emotional depth, or astonishing writing.   In that sense, I was disappointed.  I never came across any of those things.  Instead, I found the characters to be confusingly flat, the book to be disappointingly short, and the universe that Alexander creates to have a faint shimmer rather than a solid mass.  Rather than give it a so-so review, I decided to bring in an ‘expert’ on middle grade fiction, since I don’t read a ton of it myself.  My ‘expert’ prefers to remain anonymous, even though I have raised her from infancy.  At eleven years old she reads constantly; everything from horses to Harry Potter, Nancy Drew to Narnia.  While on a long road trip recently, we collaborated on the following interview:

Q: What is Goblin Secrets about?

A: Goblin Secrets is about a young boy named Rownie whose brother used to be an actor and now Rownie finds goblins that teach him theater.  Rownie has searched his whole life for his brother, Rowan, and finally finds him turned into a puppet.  Rownie takes Rowan to the Goblins and tries to save him.

Q: Where does the book take place?

A: Goblin Secrets takes place in the world of Zombay.  It is different from the real world because it has goblins and some of the characters, like the guards, are half mechanical.

Q: What did you like about the book?

A: I liked reading about the plays and the different masks the goblins talked about.

Q: On a scale of 1 to 10 (ten being the best), how would you rate this book?

A: I would give it a 7.

Q: Was there anything about this book that you didn’t like?

A: I think there should be a sequel.

So there you have it- I just wasn’t in the target age group for this work, apparently.  And, lucky for eleven year olds across the land, there will be a sequel (of sorts).  It will be released in 2013, and is still untitled.  According to Alexander, it parallels the story in Goblin Secrets, sharing the same setting and borrowing a few characters.  In fact, he says, you can see one book happening in the background of the other.

Congratulations to Alexander on winning the National Book Award on his first novel!

 
 

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