Raven Boys sequel dark, brooding thrill ride

The Dream Thieves (Book 2, The Raven Cycle) by Maggie Stiefvater; Scholastic Press, New York, 2013.

NOTE: This review is based on an ARC provided for free by the publisher.  The publication information is subject to change.   Expected publication date is September 17, 2013.

Continuing the quest for Glendower proves darker, more brooding and definitely more dangerous in book 2 of The Raven Cycle.  Ronan’s back story is featured in this installment, just as we learned more about Adam in book one.  Just when I thought it couldn’t get any more dangerous for Blue and her Raven Boys, more characters with very sinister designs are introduced.  Once again, the book concludes with a moment’s breather for the seekers but we all know it’s a temporary respite.

I am so glad that Blue’s family plays more interesting roles in this story.  I am also thrilled that the character development of the Raven Boys continues.  Blue seems more of a wallflower in this installment, but as the foil, more characters developed around her.  Richly developed characters are but one reason I love the first two books in the cycle.

The Dream Thieves is more sinister than book one.  Characters from the real world as well as the dream realm are heart-thumping scary.  And that’s a good thing.  While book one enchanted me, book two has drawn me further into the world of ley lines, psychics and meddling teenagers.

Without a doubt, Stiefvater’s Raven Cycle is one of my top series.  Since The Dream Thieves was so well-woven, I’ve no doubt the final two books in the series will continue to dazzle.  I half expect to see phantoms from the corner of my eye for the rest of my life!

The down side of reading pre-publication copies of books is that I have that much longer to wait for the next installment to hit my Kindle!
5P     5Q     Grade Level: 8+
The Dream ThievesCover art: Well, at first the cover perplexed me.  I didn’t like it.  But after reading about Ronan and his “gift,” I get it.  Will teens pick it up based on the cover?  Perhaps.  More likely they’ll select it because they’re anxious to learn more about The Raven Boys.

From Reading List: ARC (Advance Reading Copy), The Way It Could Be (Science Fiction or Fantasy)

The Mockingbirds superficial exam of tough subject

The Mockingbirds by Daisy Whitney; published by Little, Brown & Co., New York, 2010; 332 pages.

Themis Academy is home to perfect students preparing for powerful careers, or at least that’s how the administration and staff see it.  When Alex realizes she’s the victim of date rape, she knows she can’t tell any teachers or the headmaster about it.  At the urging of her roommates and her older sister, she turns to The Mockingbirds, Themis’ vigilante student group that metes out justice underground.

I applaud Whitney’s frequent definitions of date rape, including the fact that not saying no does not mean yes. I also commend her and the publisher for including resources for empowering girls at the end of the book.  I was interested in reading that Whitney was a date rape victim in college.  All should add up to a recommendation for this book.

However, the characters are one-dimensional; the victim’s physical relationship with a new boy within weeks of her rape is disturbing; and the Mockingbirds trial is laughable.  Much of the story is told rather than shown and what is told is superficial or superfluous.  Important pieces of information are laid bare and then left lying there, such as the date raper’s disturbing, threatening phone call before the trial.  Perhaps it was just me, but I picked up a few references to Laurie Halse Anderson’s book Speak which eloquently explores date rape and its impact on the victim.  Whitney seems to be taking jabs at Anderson when Alex states she isn’t going to be a victim that goes mute and uses post-it notes to communicate.  Once I read that paragraph, I thought, why would anyone writing about a horrific topic take aim at another author writing about the same topic, especially when the other author is a multi-award winning writer whose book received the Printz honor?

Of course victims of violent crimes react differently.  Perhaps Alex’s reaction is typical for some girls, but does that make it okay to poke at girls who don’t react the same way?  Inexcusable.  Because this book explores a difficult and often silent issue, I would recommend it (reluctantly) but I’d be sure readers had finished Speak before reading this one.

Taking the above issues out of the mix, Whitney’s debut novel includes an interesting premise in the form of the vigilante group.  I was intrigued by the rules imposed on the Mockingbirds and I was impressed by the way the system operated.  For a debut novel, the writing is passable and the premise is interesting.  Beyond that, I don’t see the appeal of this book.

3P   2Q     Grade Level: 11-12

Cover Art: I read the paperback version with the washed out partial face of, I assume, Alex, wearing bright red lipstick and with the title scrawled in red like it was written in the same lipstick.  Maybe I’m a little cranky about this book, but the fact that this girl’s face is washed out but appears to be looking seductively out of the corner of her eye (not to mention the bright red lipstick) sends a horribly mixed message about date rape.  Wish the original cover with the blue bird had been used for the paperback version.

From Reading List: Keepin’ It Real (Realistic Fiction)

Beautiful Creatures entertaining but relies on stereotypes

Beautiful Creatures by Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl; published by Little, Brown & Co., New York, 2009; 563 pages.

Although Ethan has been biding his time before escaping from his stuck-in-Civil-War-reenactments South Carolina town, he finds escape in his friendship with the new girl in town.  Lena lives in the suspiciously haunted house on the outskirts of town with her reclusive Uncle Macon.  Ethan and Lena have a connection, a supernatural extrasensory bond.  They dream about each other, even waking wet or muddy or in some way physically affected by the environment of the dream.  They hear each other’s thoughts.  Obviously, they are not typical kids next door.  Nothing in this town is like it seems.  Together, Ethan and Lena have to work to save her from her family’s curse.

Beautiful Creatures is full of stereotypical Southerners obsessed with the Civil War.  It is also full of stereotypes of witches and other paranormal creatures.  And yet, I was entertained.  I was swept to the end of the book.  When it was done, I felt kind of cheated as several strings of story line were left dangling, never fully fleshed out and never resolved.  Even so, I thought it was better written than other paranormal romances intended for teens and has potential in the sequels.

This is the first book in a new Not Just for Teens adult book discussion group I created with two coworkers.  I’m curious to hear what patrons have to say about this in comparison with, say, Twilight.

5P     3Q     Grade Level: 9+

Cover Art: The black, silver and purple cover is blatantly witchy.  Paranormal romance fans will snatch this up.

From Reading List: The Way It Could Be (Science Fiction or Fantasy)

The Fault in Our Stars complex, tragic, hopeful love story

The Fault in Our Stars by John Green; published by Dutton Books, an imprint of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., New York, 2012; 313.

Hazel Grace Lancaster is a typical 16 year old: obsessed with reality TV and obsessed with finding out what happens to secondary characters in her favorite novel.  One major difference between her and her friends is that she’s post-Miracle, having earned a few extra years from her terminal cancer diagnosis by an unexpected trial medication.  Her mom keeps her social life “active” by taking her to a cancer kid support group at a local church.  It is during a group session that she meets Augustus Waters, former high school basketball star with a prosthetic leg thanks to osteosarcoma.  Their love story packs in a lifetime of memories in the time they have left together.

A love story where the boy and girl meet at Cancer Kid Support Group can’t be good, right?  Oh, you couldn’t be more wrong.  Hazel Grace and Augustus Waters live more in between the covers of this book than most people live in a life that runs decades.  John Green’s genius is that he misdirects us from the cancer with a touching, fully realized love story between a boy and a girl as well as their quest for the answers left unwritten in their favorite novel.  I rarely cry while reading novels.  This is only the second story that has brought me to tears in the last four years.  Beware, you may need a box of tissues for this one, even though the story is never maudlin.

Once again, I find myself struggling to do justice to a book in a review.  Like Amy Goldman Koss’ Side Effects, I was not anxious to read a book about a teenager with cancer.  But just like the first book, Green’s story transcends the tragic and brings the essence of a life well-lived into focus.  Do. Not. Miss. This. Book.

5P     4Q     Grade Level: 10+

ImageCover Art: Blue, black and white with a splash of yellow; not much graphic to recommend the book.  But don’t let the cover fool you.  Pick this one up!

From Reading List: Keepin’ It Real (Realistic Fiction), Survival in Love, War or Sports

Finnikin eclipsed by Froi of the Exiles

Froi of the Exiles (The Lumatere Chronicles, Book 2) by Melina Marchetta; published by Candlewick Press, Somerville, Massachusetts, 2011 (2012 first U.S. publication); 593 pages.

Three years after coming to Lumatere, Froi has pledged his bond to Isaboe and Finnikin.  Refugees from Charyn are amassing on Lumatere’s border.  In an attempt to prevent another imposter king from taking over their beloved homeland, Froi is sent to Charyn as an assassin spy to kill their king.  Pretending to be Olivier, a “last born” consort of the king’s mad daughter Quintana, Froi learns that things are not always as they seem.

It’s been a long time since I’ve blogged a review.  This book, and the book reviewed in the next post, are the reasons.  I’ve needed time to process what I’ve read.  Oh, but don’t let that comment, or the length of the book, prevent you from reading Froi of the Exiles!!!  You’ll miss one of the best books I’ve read in a long time.

Marchetta’s ability to weave a story has grown exponentially as this book exemplifies.  Finnikin may have been the narrator of Finnikin of the Rock but it was really Isaboe’s story.  So it is with Froi of the Exiles: Froi is the narrator, but this is purely Quintana’s story.  Subplots involve the stories of characters we were introduced to in the first book of The Lumatere Chronicles.  Through them all we get a view of the tragedies of war from multiple perspectives.  We are also reminded that there are always at least two sides in every war.  Is Lumatere completely without blame in their battles with Charyn?  Is Charyn the breeding ground of everything evil or could there be enlightened citizens there?  Many of these questions could be explored in real life current events.

I was most affected by Marchetta’s exploration of corruption in many forms (political, spiritual and personal) and the subsequent ripple affect.  At times, her subject matter was very difficult to read.  She was restrained in her descriptions and left much to the imagination; so for me (as an adult), the abuse of women was thought provoking and disturbing.  For teens, or young adults, the subject matter is delicately handled but might need to be discussed with younger teens.  In my opinion, this book puts Marchetta on the cusp of young adult vs. adult author.

Read. This. Book.  In my experience, reading Finnikin of the Rock, the first book in The Lumatere Chronicles, is mandatory.  The first few chapters of Froi of the Exiles will offer subtle reminders of the first book (a nice refresher asit’s been awhile since I read Finnikin) and help establish the direction of Froi’s story.  Marchetta’s ability to describe setting is at its best in this book as well and takes up much of the detail in the first third of the book.  Infrequent pauses in Froi’s story are offered in chapters which relate the experiences of certain Monts and Lumaterans which help drive the theme.  By about the middle of the book, I was on a slippery slope of reading without sleep as I desperately needed to know how the story ends for all of the characters.  Alas, the cliffhangers are breathtaking and demand resolution.  But the next installment is not due to be released until October, and that’s just the Australian release; we’re talking 2013 in the U.S.  I need the third book, Quintana of Charyn, and I need it NOW.  Anyone know how I can get my hands on a coveted ARC of this?  Anyone in Australia willing to mail me a copy in October?  Please?  Please?  Please?

Is it possible for a companion novel to be considered for the Printz award?  I don’t think I’m going out on a limb here predicting that Froi of the Exiles will be considered for multiple awards in 2012.

4P     5Q     Grade Level: 11 and up

Cover Art: I was slightly repulsed by Froi’s face–his eyes are too creepy, too corrupt.  But that’s how he is described by those in Lumatere and Charyn alike.  And once again, one shouldn’t judge a person by appearances.  The medieval looking sword and tumultuous sky together with Froi’s visage are intriguing.  Fans of the genre will be intrigued.

From Reading List: The Way It Could Be (Science Fiction or Fantasy)

Are you ready to visit The Night Circus?

The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern; published by Doubleday, New York, 2011; 387 pages.

From the black and white striped end pages and the hypnotic black and white pages that demarcate each section of the book, you know that this is not going to be a traditional story.  Le Cirque des Rêves, The Circus of Dreams, has magically appeared in a field where there was nothing before.  Over the gate is the name and the hours (from nightfall until dawn) and within are a series of black and white tents.  The scents wafting within are of apples and cinnamon and other warm memories.  All the performers are dressed in shades of blacks and whites and grays.  Their feats are almost too good to be true.  However, their stories are far more interesting than their performances.  The stories of the how the circus was formed, over midnight dinners, are as interesting as the stories of how the performers are selected and how the future of the circus will be secured.  Unbelievably, this wondrous show was created for one purpose: to settle a bet in which only one contestant will survive.

Morgenstern helps set the transcendental nature of the story by helping readers time travel from the late 19th century to the early 20th century in each chapter.  Time and place are set in the chapter titles (as are magical words to help foreshadow the action).  At first I was confused and had to pause to figure out where I was and which character I was following, but soon that was no longer a distraction but rather a part of the storytelling.  By mid-book, the divergent storylines came together and began to make sense and I could predict the conclusion, to a degree.  Perhaps my favorite aspect of the book was the author’s ability to draw me in using all of my senses.  At times I could almost smell the caramel popcorn and hot cider!

Fans of steampunk will enjoy this tale of magical competition.  Although it’s not really steampunk, it has the same Victorian sensibility, supernatural feats, and bizarre mechanical contraptions.  There’s romance, mystery and fantasy working together in The Night Circus.

The Night Circus  is an adult novel that won a 2012 Alex Award.  The Alex Awards recognize adult books that would be of particular interest to teens.  While I think older teens will enjoy the book, I don’t think its complex plot will appeal to younger teens.  I will be talking about it with young adults.

3P     4Q     Grade Level: 11+
Cover Art: The paper circus tent will make sense to readers but will also generate interest to see what the circus is about.

From Reading List: Alex Award Winner (adult books that appeal to young adults) 2012

Okay for Now. Do you know how that feels?

Okay for Now by Gary D. Schmidt; published by Clarion Books, an imprint of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, New York, 2011; 360 pages.

Doug Swieteck’s family has just moved to Marysville, New York because his dad has found a job to replace the one he lost.  With his older brother serving in Viet Nam, Doug’s mom is the only buffer he has between his abusive father and another brother who picks on him.  So what kind of life will eighth grader Doug have in this new community?  Chance encounters bring him a new best friend who also helps him get a Saturday job; a librarian who mentors his artistic talents through a collection of Audubon images; a couple of inspirational teachers who encourage his curiosity and discover that he can’t read; a community leader who shares his love of baseball and subtly becomes a father figure for him; and an eccentric grocery store customer who unknowingly helps Doug meet his idol, Joe Pepitone.  Do you know how that feels?  It feels like everything’s okay for now.

The abusive father, the bully brother, and the silently suffering mom were awfully hard to read about.  At times I had to put the book down because I didn’t want to know what would set Dad off this time.  However, the juxtaposition of caring adults surrounding him in the community made it easy to pick up the book again.  I quickly realized that this was not so much a book about a boy surviving abuse, this was a book about hope and small kindnesses that make a difference.  This is one of those very rare books that will stay with me for a long, long time.

Doug’s narrative voice is compelling.  Schmidt has captured an eighth grader’s perspective and conversational tone remarkably well.  The author also created a character so fully fleshed that I expect him to come in to my library.  Including Audubon prints with their descriptions and plate numbers as chapter titles is ingenious.  Each bird invokes a different reaction from Doug; the birds are then presented in an order that reflects or foreshadows events in the story.  All of the subplots are not resolved in the end; but isn’t that how life is?  Isn’t it enough to know that Doug is obviously okay for now?

4P     5Q     Grade Level: 5-8

Cover Art: An unraveled baseball lies at the feet of a middle schooler with a bag over his head.  The bag has a big smiley face drawn on it and the boy is giving the thumbs up.  The traditional yellow of a smiley face logo is used in the title balloon over his head.  Everything’s on sky blue background.  Yes, this is a tough book to read at first because of the abuse alluded to, but the happy face and sunny-day-blue background are a big hint that everything will work out in the end.  It is an attention getter, and feels appropriate to the middle-school audience.

From Reading List: Keepin’ It Real (Realistic Fiction)

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