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)

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

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)

The Disenchantments strike a common chord

The Disenchantments by Nina LaCour; published by Dutton Books, New York, 2012; 320 pages.

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 February 16, 2012.  Part of this review originally posted on LibraryThing.com and follows.  

How do you transition from high school to life-after?  For these four friends, they hit the road with the all-girl band, The Disenchantments, on their way to drop one off at college.  Colby, the only guy on the road trip and our narrator, has borrowed his uncle’s vintage VW Van (named Melinda) and will be the girls’ roadie.  His best friend since, like, forever, is Bev, lead singer of the band.  Sisters Meg and Alexa round out the power trio and it is Meg who will be staying in Portland to attend college.  Alexa will return to San Francisco to finish her senior year of high school.  Colby and Bev will be heading to Europe to backpack for a year, realizing their four-year-old dream of seeing amazing island chains, art, and Colby’s mom.  But, life has a way of mixing things up and the four teenagers discover this in the cramped interior of Melinda and in cheap motel rooms.  Disappointments, secrets and the unexpected threaten all of their plans.  Can their friendship, and even romance, survive?  I was smitten by all of the characters and grew to care about each of them, even the quirky tattoo artist, Jasper.  As realistic fiction goes, this is an easy read full of heart, heartbreak and the chance to follow where the heart leads.  As coming of age fiction, it hits all the points of self-discovery, growth (and outgrowing), and saying goodbye.

I’d like to add that I was very happy to read about Alexa and Meg’s “two dads” in a very matter-of-fact way.  Also, the marriage troubles that plagued other adults were handled in a way that reflected real life.  It was refreshing to read about problems that were subtext to the main plot.  Every teen or young adult will relate to at least one of the characters.  Everyone struggles with family, friends, and future issues just like the protagonists in The Disenchantments.  One line in the book summed up the whole “coming of age” struggle faced by high school (and even college) seniors: “In just a little while we will forget all the things we used to want and adjust to the lives that we’re given.” (page 146 in the ARC edition)

4P     3.5 Q     Grade Level: 10-12+

Cover art: I guess this is supposed to be Bev, wearing Colby’s sunglasses.  I assume it’s meant to attract its target audience with the real person look.  However, after reading so much about Colby’s logo for The Disenchantments, I believe a black cover with the silver logo would be far more interesting than this one.

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

SNEAK PEEK PREVIEW: Winter Town

Winter Town by Stephen Emond; published by Little, Brown and Company, New York, 2011; 336 pages.

NOTE: This review is based on an ARC (advance reading copy) provided for free by the publisher.  The publication information is subject to change.  Expected publication date is December 5, 2011.

Evan and Lucy have been best friends since childhood.  The past few years have meant that they only see each other over winter break because Lucy’s parents have divorced.  Now they’re on the brink of graduating high school.  Maybe they’re the proof that opposites attract; everything about them, from family to future plans, diverge.  Evan’s bound for an Ivy League school while Lucy has become “New Lucy” who scowls and cuts school.  Evan misses “Old Lucy” but will he be able to find her under the choppy black hair and nose stud?  Lucy wants Evan to pursue his artistic side rather than follow the path his father has cut for him.  After this final high school Christmas break, they may not see each other again.  In their own ways, they work hard to make the most of the time they have.

Emond has created a dual-diary style story using comic strips, sketches and narration from both main characters.  It works so well because we first feel Evan’s frustration then ache with Lucy’s losses.  This realistic, coming-of-age story will find it’s audience relating to one or both of the characters as they find themselves on the brink of making decisions that will affect their adult lives.

The use of comic strips adds a unique insight into the characters.  When Evan and Lucy alternate drawing panels in their comic strip game, we get glimpses into Lucy’s internal struggles as Evan narrates.  Through the Aelysthia comic strip, we see Evan’s struggles and vision (or lack of one) of the future.  Even the chapter titles, often quoting Beatles lyrics (Evan’s favorite band) let’s us in on what’s to come.  Everything in the books is well thought out and works together to tell the whole story of Evan and Lucy.

By the way, Emond includes a bonus section at the back of the book.  Sketches of the characters as he tried different looks for them is included, as is his thoughts on the creative processes for writing and art.  It was an interesting look at the author, the characters and how the story developed.

4P     4Q     Grade Level: 9-12

Cover Art: The ARC I received has a great, artistic cover featuring a dark blue wintery sky with snow falling; the snow lands in drifts of paper-punch rounds as a white silhouette plows through the storm, head down and a little battle-worn.  I read this book in a variety of locations, including a waiting room and high school student center.  Well, I shouldn’t say “read” because I was interrupted so often I finally put it away to read in private.  Almost every teen that passed (and some young adults) asked me what the book was.  Catchy cover, to be sure.

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

Sara Zarr knows How to Save a Life

How to Save a Life by Sara Zarr; published by Little, Brown and Company, New York, 2011; 341 pages.

NOTE: This review is based on an ARC (advance reading copy) provided for free by the publisher.  The publication information is subject to change.  The book was released in October, 2011.

Jill’s dad died in a tragic car accident.  She’s not over her grief even a year later.  Her mom, Robin, has found a crazy way to get past her grief: adopt a baby.  On a website dedicated to open adoption, matching babies with families without legal intervention, Robin has chosen Mandy’s child to become part of the family.  Mandy comes into the MacSweeney home with a whole lot of baggage; lies, manipulation and a couple of big secrets.  Whose life will be saved by the end of the book is anyone’s guess.

Wow.  I’m impressed.  It didn’t take me long to get to suspension of disbelief (online message board? picking a birth mom and bringing her into your home sight unseen? really?).  Zarr’s ability to tell the story from both Mandy and Jill’s perspectives is remarkable.  Mandy’s paradox of innocence and manipulation actually endears her.  I liked that her narration is printed in a sans-serif, non-traditional font; it suits her.  Jill, too, is a believable character, hiding in silent grief then slowly melting into a concerned friend and loving daughter.  Her narration is told with a more traditional, Times New Roman looking font.

Teen girls will love this book.  Teen pregnancy is not glorified.  The tortures of deciding whether or not to keep a baby are also realistically covered.  Other issues, which I will not divulge, are also handled in a realistic yet sensitive manner.  Character development is believable; no uninspired moments of unexpected growth here.  Zarr has captured and delivered a realistic story with believably likable characters.  She also captures the blurred definitions of family, friends and parenthood, revealing the most altruistic definitions of them all.

I expect big things for this book, which has already received a number of starred reviews.

5P     5Q     Grade Level: 10-12+

Cover Art: The ARC cover and the final cover don’t appear significantly different, but I think they are.  Both are cold, lonely snow scenes, with empty benches and lots of blankness.  Two sets of footprints appear in the snow on both covers.  However, the addition of a seated blond (obviously Mandy) on the final cover detracts from the fact that multiple lives are saved in this story; that Mandy’s is not the only story revealed.  However, I do think the blurred edges of the title are appropriate to the fuzzy lines between what friends, family and parenthood really mean.

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

Advanced Reader Copy cover

How to Save a Life final cover

Dazzled by Virtuosity

Virtuosity by Jessica Martinez; published by Simon Pulse, New York, 2011; 290 pages.

NOTE: This review is based on an ARC (advance reading copy) provided for free by the publisher.  The publication information is subject to change.

The prestigious Guarneri competition looms for Carmen Bianchi.  Her life is consumed by one thing: violin.  That drive has made her a nervous wreck and an anti-anxiety medication addict.  In an effort to scope out the competition and ease her anxiety, Carmen checks on Jeremy King (her only real competition) by waiting outside the concert hall then sneaking in to watch his performance.  Jeremy catches her and invites her backstage.  Their shared passion for violin and drive to win the Guarneri competition make them instant yet inconceivable friends.  Jeremy also reminds Carmen of what it’s like to feel the music, not just play it.  When friendship leaps into so much more, what will survive–drive to win, love of violin, or their relationship?  And can Carmen overcome her fears and addictions to recover the way music makes her feel?

Martinez transplants readers into Carmen’s world of classical music and competition seamlessly.  I’m not much of a musician but I easily related to Carmen and her world.  Virtuosity reads like music sounds: A flow of highs and lows, elation and sorrow.  The dual story lines kept me turning pages in a non-stop marathon read.  The romance is authentic, taking Carmen and Jeremy from distrust and chemistry to its culmination (won’t give that away).  But the inner turmoil Carmen struggles with, the anxiety and addiction, rang most true to me.  In her world as a music prodigy, the coming of age issues of all teens is magnified and scrutinized.  Her ultimate decision to be her own woman (throwing away the pills and exerting her independence from a domineering mother) is a step into adulthood that we all have to take.

Anyone who enjoyed Mia and Adam’s story in Gayle Forman’s If I Stay and Where She Went will enjoy Carmen and Jeremy’s contemporary tale of music prodigies.  I like the introduction of classical music Martinez and Forman have delivered.  Try creating a playlist of the music in Virtuosity and get a complete picture of Carmen’s world.

4P     4Q     Grade Level: 9-12

Cover Art: The black, white and hot pink color scheme is a definite attention-getter.  The silhouette image of a girl also works to get teens to pick it up.  I like the stark white upper page and the sans serif text of the title.  Any guesses why the “o” in the title is hot pink?  I have my theory….

From Reading List: Keepin’ It Real

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