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Archive for the ‘YA books’ Category

Review: The Lord of Opium

“Whatever you may wish, you’re a drug lord now and must learn to behave like one.”  –Celia to Matt, page 11.

(warning: contains spoilers for The House of the Scorpion)

Published eleven years after The House of Scorpion, I finally find out what happens to Matt in Nancy Farmer’s sequel, The Lord of Opium. Now that El Patrón is dead, Matt Alacrán is no longer a lowly clone but the new Lord of Opium, and along with El Patrón’s vast resources and power, he has inherited a boatload of problems. El Patrón’s death–and his convenient murder of all his funeral guests, including the Dope Confederacy’s drug lords and the entire Alacrán family–has left Opium in lock down and the surrounding drug countries in a power vacuum.

Not only must Matt prove to El Patrón’s men that he’s capable of ruling Opium, he must rely on their help without being sure of whether he can fully trust them. Cienfuego, head of the Farm Patrol–Opium’s thuggish security force–knows far too much about border defense. And just outside, super creepy drug lord Glass Eye Dabengwa is itching to invade. Dr. Rivas is the only medical doctor left in Opium, but is clearly keeping secrets of his own. Meanwhile, Matt wants to disband his entire sordid drug empire. That means finding a way to free the eejits who work the poppy fields by removing the microchips implanted deeply in their brains. But the more Matt learns about the process, the more impossible his task seems. (more…)

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Review: Rose Under Fire (Spoilers!)

Cover_of_Rose_Under_Fire_by_Elizabeth_WeinUnlike most of you, I couldn’t finish Rose Under Fire in a day or even a week. It took me months to read it, thanks to an unfortunate incident involving Jen’s temporary ownership of an ARC on a busy weekend for me, which meant I got to read the first half of the book in June but couldn’t finish the rest until it was published in early September. Needless to say, I barreled through the end as soon as I got my copy. Maybe that will teach me to resist future ARC temptations. Or not.

Rose Under Fire is a companion novel to Code Name Verity. You don’t need to read Verity to understand it, but it helps, since some of the same characters appear, and there are a lot of (seriously depressing) references to Julie’s fate. Bonus: I correctly predicted that Anna Engel would show up long before the book was published. I just didn’t expect her to play as large a role as she did.

Plot: Nineteen-year-old Rose Moyer Justice is an American pilot flying Allied planes in England. She joined the Air Transport Auxiliary because she wants to be useful, but England is a harsh change from her idyllic childhood in Pennsylvania. While Rose was eating pink-frosted birthday cakes and writing poetry at school, girls her age in Europe were delivering bombs and joining the Resistance. Rose befriends some of these women when she ends up at the Ravensbruck concentration camp, and their friendship literally saves Rose’s life.

Those friends–Roza and Irina and Karolina and Elodie–felt as real as Julie and Maddie, even though they had far fewer pages to tell their stories. The grind of daily life lacks the glamor and mystery of Code Name Verity, but that doesn’t make Rose and her friends any less brave. Their small acts of defiance, from messing up the roll call to composing poems in the dark, are as exhilarating as any covert operation, and probably more dangerous, since the guards don’t see them as individuals, just numbers to be counted. And even though Rose is writing in her journal so you know early on who survives and who doesn’t, every flashback feels like it’s happening in real time, and I panicked along with the characters. In one scene–when the guards had Rose and Irina and the Rabbits trapped against the fence–I nearly threw the book across the room because I couldn’t cope with the suspense. (more…)

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Cybil-ing!

cybils

I’m thrilled to be participating in this year’s YA non-fiction panel for Round Two of the Cybils! I’m especially looking forward to some great reads and stimulating discussions with fellow panelists Terry Doherty, Brenda Kahn, Teri Lesesne, and Susan Van Hecke, as well as YA non-fiction organizer Gina Ruiz.

Last year, the very worthy Bomb: The Race to Build–and Steal–the World’s Most Dangerous Weapon, was declared the winner. Who will take home the prize this year?

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susan_cooperBeloved and best known for her The Dark Is Rising fantasy sequence, legendary author Susan Cooper introduced her latest novel, Ghost Hawk, to audiences at Porter Square Books yesterday evening.

Growing up in England during WWII, Cooper studied English under professors J.R.R. Tolkien (who mumbled during lectures) and C.S. Lewis (who had a flair for Renaissance literature). Because the Oxford curriculum extended only to 1832, she “inhaled myths” at university and read lots of Beowulf, Malory, and Spenser. As one friend put it, “they taught us to believe in dragons!” This, combined with her childhood experiences of being read to in bomb shelters during air raids and walking to school with a schoolbag and a gas mask slung over her shoulders, imbued her writing with a strong sense of place and Good & Evil–no surprise to anyone who’s read The Dark is Rising.

The concept for her “most challenging book yet” hatched from Cooper’s interest in place–this time, the woods surrounding her house in Marshfield, Massachusetts. After a trip to the library, she discovered the land she lived on was once inhabited by the Pokanoket tribe before the English deeded it to a man who was, of all things, a cooper.

ghost_hawkFrom there, she started to wonder how local relations between English settlers and Native American deteriorated so rapidly between the first Thanksgiving dinner and King Philip’s War just sixty years later. “I became obsessed with knowing what went wrong,” Cooper said, but “I wasn’t going to write a history book. I’m a storyteller. I make things up.” So she invented the characters of Little Hawk and John Wakely, who, despite their circumstances, develop a genuine but dangerous friendship.

That’s not to say Cooper’s research wasn’t extensive. She read piles of books and archival materials and all of Roger Williams’ letters. The process of writing Ghost Hawk became as mucha voyage of discovery” for herself as Little Hawk and John Wakely’s story is for us. As for the shocking turn of events midway through the book, Cooper assures readers that despite her penchant for brooding myths and her wartime upbringing, because she writes for children, she always leaves the last line of everything not in despair but with hope.

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Black_ColdestGirl_HCEvery generation has a plethora of vampire lore, and there never seems to be room for another vampire tale until someone comes along with the latest re-imagining. This is what Holly Black kept telling herself as she worked on The Coldest Girl in Coldtown, the book she promoted last night during a talk at the Cambridge Public Library (the event was hosted by Porter Square Books). Yes, there are vampires in Coldtown, and it’s a good thing I didn’t know that until she started reading aloud, because otherwise I might never have gone. But Black’s book seems to be the World War Z of vampire books, more concerned with vampirism-as-a-disease and the societal implications than fanged love. She read a suspenseful, chilling excerpt, and like any good author, stopped just before Something Really Important happened, which means I’ll have to read the whole thing now. No arguments here.

Black has a long, obsessive history with vampire books and movies. When she was little, her mother terrified her with so many vampire stories that she turned her Barbie dolls into vampires, the better to vanquish her fear (there’s nothing like an army of good plastic vampires to beat back the blood-sucking monsters under the bed). Later, when she asked the audience to share their favorite vampire books, she seemed to recognize them all. Since the only ones I’ve read are Bunnicula and Team Human, I got a bit lost, thought it was fun hearing people’s attempts to describe the plots of books whose titles they’d forgotten (there’s a babysitter! who’s a vampire! and his remains get washed up on shore! etc.)

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scorpionAlready a big fan of Nancy Farmer’s The Ear, The Eye, and the Arm, when The House of the Scorpion came out in 2002, I sat down at Barnes & Nobles to speed-read all 380 pages in one sitting while my parents did their Costco shopping. Wolfing a book down is no way to read, but I remember leaving the bookstore in a chilled daze that had nothing to do with the strong air conditioning. Clones grown in cows’ stomachs, a criminal empire controlled by a man who wants to live forever, people made obedient to the point of automation–The House of the Scorpion was unlike anything I had ever read.

Fast-forward eleven years, where futuristic dystopias are a dime a dozen, and Scorpion still holds up brilliantly. Its world is unkind and full of secrets, as six-year-old Matteo Alacrán discovers when his isolated but comfortable existence under loving Celia’s care is shattered by the public realization that he is El Patrón’s clone. Reviled by El Patrón’s family and household, life as the ruthless drug lord’s clone does have its privileges, such as El Patrón’s keen attention, a first rate education, and a canny bodyguard named Tam Lin. In return, Matt adores the old man and wants desperately to prove himself as worthy of taking over the family business as El Patrón’s natural born heirs–even as he uncovers secret after damning secret concerning El Patrón’s empire, true nature, and plans for Matt’s future.

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Fall Reading List

The end of summer/early fall always brings a huge list of book releases, and here’s what I’m looking forward to in the next few months:

9780374379940_p0_v1_s260x420The Boy on the Porch by Sharon Creech (Sept. 3): The premise reminds me of Ruby Holler, one of my favorite Creech books.

The Dream Thieves by Maggie Stiefvater (Sept. 2): fingers crossed for the sequel to The Raven Boys, which had wonderful writing.

From Norvelt to Nowhere by Jack Gantos (Sept. 24): road trip with Miss Volker! This could get even crazier than its prequel.

Lockwood & Co.: The Screaming Staircase by Jonathan Stroud (Sept. 17): a new series from the creator of Bartimaeus.

slightlyHeroicCover250The Problem with Being Slightly Heroic by Uma Krishnaswami (Aug. 13): I heard about this through Educating Alice. So glad Dini is back, with all the silliness of her favorite Bollywood star and her wacky entourage.

Sorrow’s Knot by Erin Bow (Oct. 29): I’m a big fan of Plain Kate. I hope the world and character building are just as good in this one.

The Surprise Attack of Jabba the Puppet by Tom Angleberger (Aug. 6): I would’ve preferred Jabba the Flat, but oh well. A showdown over the principal’s plan to cancel the arts…gee, I wonder who Jabba is supposed to be.

Zombie Baseball Beatdown by Paolo Bacigalupi (Sept. 10): worth reading for the title alone.

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Hole in My Life

842087Katherine Applegate may be the first Newbery award winner who’s written romance novels, but I bet Jack Gantos is the only one who spent time in a federal prison. Hole in My Life tells the story of how Gantos smuggled 2,000 pounds of hashish to New York and his resulting prison sentence—”the bleakest year of my life.”

It all starts when Gantos is 19 and living on his own with no adult supervision. Faced with unlimited freedom, Gantos takes to drinking and smoking weed. When he’s sober, he tries to write. But nothing he writes sounds good, so he looks for inspiration in famous literary haunts. He doesn’t find it at Hemingway’s old house, and nothing changes when he rejoins his family in St. Croix, or when he helps a crazy man sail to New York with contraband drugs. Gantos tries to keep a ship’s log, then becomes depressed when he realizes he’s achieved nothing great in his life. He doesn’t start writing in earnest until he’s locked in a cell wth no paper but the blank space between the lines of The Brothers Karamazov. (more…)

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Fourmile_01…because Fourmile by Watt Key is not cuddly, comforting or pastoral, despite the faithful dogs and the rural Alabama  setting. If you’re a dog fan and enjoy cheerful farm stories of hard-working families who get through the tough times with music and kindness (I’m looking at you, Little House on the Prairie and Sarah, Plain and Tall), reading Fourmile may require kleenex.

After Foster’s father dies in an accident, Fourmile Farm falls apart.  Twelve-year-old Foster is too young to run the place himself, and his mother Linda, a post office worker, wants to sell the farm and move to Montgomery. Foster clings to the farm because losing it would be like losing his Dad all over again. And he’s not thrilled with Linda’s new boyfriend, Dax, either. Tensions between Dax and Foster are near breaking point when Gary, a wandering army veteran, arrives at Fourmile. Gary is happy to stay in the barn in exchange for fixing up the farm. Foster trusts him implicitly, especially because Gary takes his side against Dax. Soon enough even Linda wants nothing to do with Dax, and from there the stage is set for a final showdown. (more…)

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There’s a certain type of book, the one that suddenly all the cool kids are reading. Even before it’s published, it generates lots of buzz as an ARC. Then enough stars are heaped upon it to form a major constellation. Maybe it’ll win an award or two. By the time you actually get a copy from the library (and there are 349 requests on the first returned copy and only five copies in circulation), you’re so excited you start reading it on the spot. And you know what, now that you actually have your hands on it, you can’t see what all the fuss is about.

Most recently, I experienced this with Eleanor & Park, by Rainbow Rowell. I was all set to like it. A tale of two high school misfits and their down-to-earth progression from dislike to friendship to first love? A shared obsession of comic books? Not a single head-scratching ominous prophecy of epic proportions in sight? A big fat stamp of approval from John Green and the Boston Globe-Horn Book Awards? And not to be superficial, but a stylized book jacket as sleek as an Apple product? Yes, yes, yes, yes, and yes!

(more…)

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