Secrets. We all have ‘em. But at Illington Hall boarding school in Yorkshire England during the Vietnam War, the very air is rife with them. Every student there is concealing something that is at the very least embarrassing, and at the very worst, life threatening. Jenny’s American boyfriend is a solider in Vietnam. Or is he? Oona’s hiding a pretty big secret something from her best friend Sarah, while hunky Nico believes that no one knows about his secret sexy crush on the new teacher. Luke’s private obsession with a local “townie” could potentially put him in the hospital, while Percy’s public obsession with movies and films springs from a private sorrow that is surprisingly close to home. Penelope is always looking for the wrong kind of love and she would rather die than say why, while Brenda’s sneaking out for secret kisses that could lead to the same kind of trouble her sister’s in. It’s not just the bad food at Illington Hall that’s making everyone queasy, but the effort of holding in all those secrets! It’s up to Jenny to take a chance and tell the first truth…if she dares. This spicy, shifting narrative strongly reminded me of the bold, honest Doing It by Melvin Burgess. The ever-changing point of view from one character to the next made this book a rich if occasionally challenging read. I for one definitely needed the names at the beginning of each chapter to keep track of who was who. However, Canadian author Marthe Jocelyn’s briskly paced dialogue is so authentically British that I had to double check and make sure she didn’t grow up in the UK! A perfect read for spring as you shed all your physical and psychological winter layers. Coming to a library, bookstore or e-reader near you April 2014.
“When you’re Gavin and Opal’s gay kid, you always feel like someone is looking at you.” Rafe Goldberg is tired of everyone always looking at him. Ever since he came out in the eighth grade, he’s been “that gay kid.” Which would be fine, except it seems like that’s the only thing people know about him. He also happens to like soccer, “the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and taking photographs of nuns on Segways.” But all people ever seem to care about is who he wants to date. So Rafe convinces his parents to send him to an all-boys boarding school, where he plans to be “openly straight.” Instead of standing out and speaking up, he just wants to lay low and blend in. And it works…at first. But then Rafe starts to get close with Ben. Big sweet Ben who likes to talk both sports and philosophy. Rafe thinks he might be in love. But how can he admit that to Ben when he’s worked so hard to convince everyone how hetero he is? This well-executed leopard-changing-spots story realistically explores what it means to refuse labels, and makes you think extra hard about the folks who don’t have a choice when it comes to hiding part of their identity. Plus it has the sweetest love scene (for me, at least) since I read Forever. If you like this one, be sure to follow it up with Pink by Lili Wilkinson.
World-weary traveler Willem is lost. But not in a GPS sort of way. He knows exactly where he is geographically. But ever since his father’s sudden death and his mother’s consequent withdrawal, he’s been wandering lonely as a cloud, drifting from one European destination to the next, trying to find an emotional anchor. And then for one day in Paris, he does. He meets the charming Lulu, an American girl on vacation who needs a distraction from her life as much as he needs one from his. They spend an amazing twenty four hours together. And then he wakes up in an emergency room, battered, bruised and barely able to remember the girl of his dreams. All he knows is that he wants her back, and he will do anything to find her. Except where does he start when he realizes that Lulu isn’t even her real name? Told in Willem’s brave, tender, tragic voice, this extremely satisfying sequel to the beautifully wrought Just One Day will satiate salivating fans who have been dying to find out what happened to Lulu’s mysterious Dutch crush. If you haven’t encountered Willem and Lulu before, you’ll want to read their twinned accounts back-to-back to get the full experience of their long distance love story. A Just Wonderful romantic adventure for the lucky-in-love and brokenhearted alike.
When Gerald was little, his parents signed his family up to take part in a reality television show called Network Nanny. Instead of helping, the show only exacerbated the issues in Gerald’s home—namely that his oldest sister Tasha was a psychopath who terrorized Gerald and his sister Lisi, and that their mother never did anything to stop it. In retaliation, little Gerald did the only thing he could to get back at his big bad sister: he took televised dumps on her most treasured possessions, earning the charming nickname the Crapper. His parents, unable to face Tasha’s disturbing behavior, blamed Gerald instead and the actress Nanny, the only one who ever called Tasha on her conduct, gave up after Gerald punched her in frustration. Now the Crapper is seventeen years old, and his reputation precedes him everywhere. As a result of his unfortunate television legacy and living under his sister’s reign of evil, he has developed a serious anger management problem that causes him to cut himself off from feeling anything so he doesn’t end up hurting anyone. Because lashing out is the only way he knows how to express himself: “The broken arm in freshman year. And nose. And that time I tried to crush a kid’s neck last year. I memorized the walls of the middle school principal’s office. I memorized every inch of the high school’s in-school suspension room.” But then he meets HER, the one girl who understands how he feels and can maybe even help him turn his life around. But will he ever be able to pull the layers of plastic wrap off his battered heart and learn to trust again? A.S. King’s latest is emotionally exhausting and blisteringly real, unlike the staged shows it’s based on. The story unfolds in a series of little ephiphanies as Gerald slowly comes to realize that he can reclaim his life and even fall in love if he’s brave enough to face down his past and confront his parents. The short chapters and spot-on dialogue make the pages fly. After closing the cover, I felt like I’d been through the psychological wringer—in the best possible way. This is one reality show that tells the truth. For more smart stories of savvy teens who learn to see through adult BS, you’ll want to check out King’s other outstanding titles.
Dinah is a worrywart with a big heart who just wants everyone to get along and everything to be okay. She can’t bear hearing bad news and tries to stay positive even though sometimes she is just so sad about her best friend Skint she can’t take it. Skint is teenage cynic who is angry most of the time about all the bad things that happen to good people, but mostly about the bad thing that has happened to his good family: his smart, generous father is suffering from dementia, and Skint can’t do anything to stop it. When Dinah and Skint befriend a little boy who’s suffering in a way they both recognize all too well, their act of kindness towards him turns out to be a bomb that nearly detonates their friendship. The greatest strength of this character-driven book about real teenagers and real adults with real problems are its long, smart riffs of rich dialogue that just zip off the page, reminding me of some of my favorite titles, like this one, this one and oh, yeah, this one too. The Whole Stupid Way We Are is a sometimes sad, sometimes funny and always moving story about doing the best you can with what you have.
This last volume of the splendidly gruesome Monstrumologist series depicts sixteen-year-old Will Henry rebelling against the authoritarian rule of his mentor and sometimes nemesis Dr. Pellinor Warthrop more than ever before. Through the last three books, Will has continued to spiral down, down, down into a personal darkness from which he believes there is no salvation. Now a stone cold teenager, Will Henry has to fight to feel anything at all, except when it comes to his childhood sweetheart Lilly Bates. When they meet again as teens, he is instantly smitten, and not pleased to be distracted from his courting by Dr. Warthrop’s new obsession with yet another believed-to-be-extinct monster. But Will can never forget the secret that has dwelled in his blood since the beginning, which casts a shadow on his current bond with Lilly. Soon he is embroiled in a convoluted scheme that ends up turning all his relationships to ash, including the one that has defined him his entire life: his complicated connection to Warthrop. After breaking apart in the most spectacular manner, Will and Warthrop meet one last time, each uncertain about his life and legacy and if the world is big enough to contain them both. This concluding title of the Monstrumologist epic is disappointingly thinner than it’s predecessors in plot and page numbers. The beginning is a bit confusing, as it shifts forward and back in time from the events that lead to Will and Warthrop’s break to their final meeting. In addition, Warthrop’s attempts to secure his latest biologically aberrant prize initially devolves into a shaggy dog mystery that is sometimes difficult to follow. However, once yet another beloved character is killed off, the plot becomes clearer and Yancey pulls off a neat slight of hand identity trick near the end that left me both impressed and very, very relieved. And while the ending feels a little too neat, it also feels absolutely true. I am deeply sorry to see Will Henry and Dr. Warthrop go, as this is without a doubt one of my favorite book series of all time. To follow their horrific adventures from the beginning, start here, go there and there and end here when The Final Descent comes to a library, bookstore or e-reader near you.
There are two sides to every story, and stupendously talented author/artist Gene Luen Yang elevates that saying to a whole new level with Boxers & Saints. In this double volume, graphic novel masterpiece, two teenagers become caught up in the Chinese Boxer Rebellion of 1898 on opposite sides, fighting to retain their identity and hold on to their hard won religious values.
Boxers tells the story of Little Bao, the youngest son in a motherless family of farmers from a poor village. When a Catholic missionary priest smashes the statue of one of his village’s gods in front of him, he is devastated, especially since the opera stories he sees during the spring fairs make him feel as though the ancient gods are his close friends and allies. As he grows into adulthood, he begins training with a kung fu master in order to join the rebellion against these foreigners who have their own army and refuse to respect the native Chinese ways. Soon he is heading up his own small army, each member fueled by the angry spirits of the old gods. But as the “Society of Righteous and Harmonious Fist” marches closer and closer to the capital of Peking to “eradicate the foreign devils” once and for all, Little Bao begins to question his rock solid faith as the number of bodies of innocent people build in his violent wake.
Saints tells the story of Four-Girl, a lonely child who is considered a bad luck devil by her family no matter how much she tries to win their approval. The only person who shows her kindness is the village acupuncturist, who is also a Christian. He tells her Bible stories that fire up her imagination, and she begins having recurring visions of Joan of Arc. Soon she decides to become baptized and join the church. She gets a new name, Vibiana, and leaves home to work at a Catholic orphanage, followed by her visions of Joan. When Little Bao’s army comes to her village’s doorstep, Vibiana decides that God is calling on her to be His warrior maiden like Joan of Arc. The tragic, unpredictable result of Little Bao and Vibiana’s final meeting will haunt you long after you close the covers on Saints.
The earthy/monotone palate of both volumes perfectly conveys the rural landscape and hardscrabble life of the peasants, only exploding into vibrant color when Little Bao’s pantheon of Chinese gods arrive on the scene, with their rainbow robes and elaborate masks, or Four-Girl’s golden vision of Joan of Arc shimmers between the trees outside her home. While this exceptional work will no doubt help gazillions of readers understand the complexity behind religious wars and personal freedoms, it can also be appreciated as a swiftly paced adventure peopled with men, women and gods who bring this fascinating period of Chinese history to bloody life. I was blown away by both the richly illustrated package and the timeless message. Read them in the order the title suggests, (first Boxers, then Saints) and then pass them along to everyone you know.
Revenge of the Nerds meets Mean Girls in this high-sterically funny GN drawn by the author of The Adventures of Superhero Girl and Friends with Boys. Charlie is a basketball jock. Nate is a robotics nerd. But somehow they manage to be best friends–until Charlie’s ex-girlfriend Holly proposes using school funds earmarked for the robotics team to instead finance her cheerleading squad’s new uniforms. Furious, Nate decides to try and take over the student council by any means necessary so he can have some say in how the funds are allocated. This incites an all out war between the nerds and the cheerleaders that involves everything from a hijacked scoreboard to copious amounts of weed killer and places Charlie unhappily in the middle. And while it’s not fun being pulled between the two factions, at least it helps distract Charlie from the fact that his divorced parents are making him miserable. But when Nate discovers an original way to solve both funding problems (two words: Robot Rumble) Charlie finds himself in the unlikely role of peacemaker between his best friend and his ex-best girl. Can he find a way to broker peace between his parents as well? This story of high school high jinks crackles with energy fueled by Faith Erin Hicks‘ bold, blocky artwork and Prudence Shen’s chuckle making dialogue. The trash-talking alone at the Robot Rumble had me snorting in my subway seat. You’ll want to throw this in your beach bag pronto. (Want a sneak peek at the panels? Read the webcomic version here.)
Do you remember the first time you realized you were no longer a kid? Maybe it was when your best friend started “going out” with someone and never had time for you anymore. Maybe it was at your middle school “moving up” ceremony when your principal shook your hand instead of hugging you and your parents asked if you would rather get a job instead of going to camp this summer. It’s tricky, that moment. One foot is still on the playground, while the other hovers uncertainly over adulthood. For twelve year old Zach, that moment comes when his father decides the time has come for Zach to retire his “action figures” and throws them away while Zach is at school. Devastated but determined not to show it, Zach tells his two best friends Poppy and Alice that he simply doesn’t have time anymore for the elaborate fantasy game they’ve played for years using dolls and their imaginations. But Poppy can’t let go. She insists that the creepy doll locked in her mom’s china cabinet that has loomed large in their imaginations as the evil Queen of their fantasy land is possessed by the ghost of a girl who needs them to return her to her grave site. Zach and Alice are skeptical until Poppy tells them, “Did you know that bone china has real bones in it?…She’s made from human bones. Little-girl bones.” And the doll does seem to have sack of what looks like ashes inside her. So the three friends go on a quest to return the Queen to her grave, encountering spooky circumstances that may or may not be the result of the dead girl’s ghost. Is there really a ghost, or is this just Poppy’s attempt to keep them believing in magic just a little longer? And what are these new feelings brewing between Alice and Zach? Secrets are revealed between the three that begin to tip the balance from believing that everything is possible to understanding that life isn’t always fair. “I hate that everyone calls it growing up but it feels like dying.” says Poppy passionately, sounding exactly like you, me and any other person who’s been twelve, thirteen, thirty, sixty five or eighty. The feeling that sometimes growing up sucks is universal, and it doesn’t necessarily get any easier as you start hitting the numbers that stop ending in “teen.” Holly Black so gets that in this beautifully melancholy book about endings and beginnings that will speak to readers of all ages. Without a doubt, one of the best books of the year.
In the future, the superrich are able to buy their way out of punishment by sponsoring a “proxy,” a impoverished individual who, in exchange for education and basic medical care, agrees to face the consequences of his or her rich patron’s actions. If your patron is a law-abiding citizen, your punishments are few and far between. Unfortunately for Syd, his bad boy patron Knox is always in trouble. Syd has been tasered, beat, worked nearly to death and placed in solitary confinement more times than he can count. But now Knox has committed the ultimate crime. While joyriding in his father’s fancy car, Knox got in an accident and his passenger, a girl named Marie, died. And Syd will have to pay the price: seventeen years in a forced labor camp that few have ever left other than in a body bag. But Syd is a wily “swamprat,” a scavenger child who grew up in the dumps of the Valve. He’s not taking Knox’s knocks this time. Instead, he plans to escape the system or die trying—even if it means taking his patron down with him. But what Syd doesn’t know is that he carries a secret weapon that could change everything… and he’s just unintentionally passed it to Knox. Whew! I dare you to try and put this novel down before turning the last page (and let me tell you, that LAST page is a doozy!) and I guarantee you will find it darn near impossible. Not only is this sci-fi suspense thriller highly entertaining, it is also chock-full of thought provoking ideas about socio-economic class, race, environmental concerns and morality development. That’s a lot to pack in between car chases, hovercraft explosions, escaped zoo animals and the end of the world as we know it, but somehow London manages it with ease. Want to start your summer off right? Nab this book when it comes to a library, bookstore or e-reader near you, then follow it up with this one.
Who’s afraid of vampires, werewolves or zombies anymore? These former baddies have totally lost their fear factor by becoming sparkly, hunky and objects of our affection. Luckily for those of us who still like to get our scare on, there’s a new fright in town. And it’s coming from the sky. Famous astrophysicist Stephen Hawking said, “If aliens ever visit us, I think the outcome would be much as when Christopher Columbus first landed in America, which didn’t turn out very well for the Native Americans.” Cassie should know. She’s barely survived the first four waves of the alien invasion of Earth. First, the worldwide loss of electricity, then the massive tsunamis, followed by a fatal plague and finally the outright assassinations by roving drones of any humans left alive after all that. She’s lost everyone but her little brother, lost everything but her iron will to live. When men claiming to be American military separate her from her brother Sammy, Cassie decides she will do anything to get him back, even if it means sacrificing the only thing she had left—her life. But her mission is compromised when she joins forces with a mysterious stranger who has a secret agenda that could derail Cassie’s journey before it’s even begun. And the 5th Wave is silently rolling out, even more deadly than the the first four. This tense, high wire, sci-fi thriller could only come from the terrifying mind of Rick Yancey, author of my deeply beloved Monstrumologist series. While this new series opener is not quite as ooey gooey gory as The Monstrumologist, Yancey doesn’t shy away from the visceral violence of an unfriendly alien invasion and the nearly nonstop action is super intense. I could barely sit still while reading this juggernaut of a book, surely annoying everyone around me with my tapping toes, jiggling feet and chattering teeth. Cinematic, epic and downright addictive, The 5th Wave reminded me of one of my fav Stephen King stories, The Stand. Get ready to be swept away when The 5th Wave crashes into a library, bookstore or e-reader near you!
Autumn and Adonis couldn’t be more different. Autumn is a top wrestler, one of the few girls in the league. She’s always a winner on the mat, but when report cards come out, her weakness is revealed: she can’t read on grade level. “I’m a great cook and wrestler…but reading—that’s gonna take me down. I try not to think about it. Or read too often. That way I feel better about myself.” Adonis is a straight-A student, who volunteers in the library and is constantly called on to tour officials and administrators around the school. He’s always a leader when it comes to grades, but when he comes out from behind his desk, his weakness is revealed: he can’t walk. A birth defect left him without legs but not without resilience. “I know who I am. I know what I am capable of accomplishing. I do not dull my light so other people will feel better about themselves.” But despite their differences, Autumn is determined to make Adonis hers. And Adonis is equally determined to keep his wheelchair as far away from Autumn as possible. “I do not like aggressive girls.” But after Autumn is cut from the team because of her failing grades and starts volunteering in the library, Adonis sees another side of the “dumb” girl he scorned, and wonders if he was wrong about her. “Autumn does not cheat. She speaks to everyone. Besides wrestling, smiling is her favorite activity.” It’s possible that there’s hope for these polar opposites yet. Sharon Flake turns the stereotypes of the school jock and the scholarly nerd on their heads with this sensitive portrayal of two teens trying to fulfill their destinies in spite of their physical and mental deficits. Because of Flake’s uncanny ability to write the way teens really speak, you’ll be pinned by PINNED before you know it!
In 1975, Arn Chorn-Pond was a carefree and enterprising Cambodian kid who snuck into movies with his brother, listened to the Beatles and played games of chance on the street to make money for candy and coconut cake. Then the Khmer Rouge came to town. The rebel military group had won control of Cambodia, and they began ordering Arn’s family and neighbors to pack up and leave because the Americans who had been at war with Vietnam were now coming to bomb them. The rebels would protect them and bring them back to their homes in three days. Frightened, but also a little excited, Arn joins the mass exodus out of the city of Battambang. But what he doesn’t know is that the Khmer Rouge are lying. There are no attacking Americans. What waits for him and thousands of other children in the country and fields outside of town isn’t salvation but fear, starvation and death at the hands of the brutal Khmer Rouge who believe that in order to build a new Communist society, they must first destroy the old one. So begins Arn’s horrific odyssey through a Khmer Rouge work camp, training as a child soldier and eventual escape to the United States. He quickly learns that showing emotion can be deadly: “I make my eye blank. You show you care, you die. You show fear, you die. You show nothing, maybe you live.” But while he finds physical safety, will he ever be able to forget the friends and family he was forced to leave behind? “…after all the thing I been through, now being rescue is something I also have to survive.” This true story of heroism and fortitude was related by Arn himself to the award-winning author Patricia McCormick, who wove his words into a fictionalized account of real events. The result is a harrowing but ultimately uplifting narrative that demonstrates humanity’s enduring tendency towards hope, even in the darkest of circumstances. I was completely undone by the simplicity and power of this book, couldn’t stop thinking about it for DAYS and already anticipate that it will be wearing several shiny metals on it’s cover come YA book award season. In other words, an absolute must read! (To see an interview between Arn and McCormick and to find out more about the Khmer Rouge and the Cambodian Killing Fields, click here)
Chester Kates is a hardscrabble teenage orphan who lives on whiskey, pancakes and fistfights in a desolate corner of the Old West. It’s not much of a life, so when a shady railroad exec offers him 40 bucks to burn down a ghost town called Whale that sits in the railroad’s future path, Chester jumps at the chance. But when he gets there, he finds that Whale is not entirely deserted. It is still home to a few souls who were fortunate enough to have survived the mysterious fatal plague that laid waste to Whale’s meager population. Chester teams up with Caroline, the pretty daughter of a crazy miner named Whitley Barber who may or may not have hidden a valuable treasure somewhere in Whale. Together they try to convince Barber to uncover his loot and leave the doomed township before Chester burns it to the ground. But the old miner won’t budge, and when Chester discovers the evil reason why, he is forced to make a terrible decision between love and justice. This imaginative graphic novel is a bone-chilling blend of horror, mystery and Western that will keep you guessing until the very last page. JT Petty’s dark story has more twists and turns than a bucking bronco, while Hilary Florido’s sketchy manga-light artwork conveys the inhospitable bleakness of home on the range–which is quickly shown to be the opposite of the cozy cowboy song. If you find your appetite whetted for more menacing Old West/horror mash-ups, try The Sixth Gun or American Vampire.
There are handful of authors who never disappoint me, and Kenneth Oppel is one of them. This splendid sequel to This Dark Endeavor proved to be just as satisfying, if not even a bit more so, than its predecessor. Victor’s twin Konrad is barely cold in his grave before the young Frankenstein is trying to raise him from the dead. Of course, for any one else this would be utter madness, but Victor’s hubris knows no bounds. He’s sure that if he just had the right formula, he could defy even Death. Led by enigmatic clues that appear in a self portrait of his famous ancestor Wilhelm Frankestein, Victor finds his way into a shadow world of his family’s vast mansion where his brother still lives. Accompanied by his cousin-crush Elizabeth and best friend Henry, Victor travels to this strange purgatory frequently to search for a way to bring Konrad back to life. But what he doesn’t know is that there is malevolent presence that is invested in not only keeping his beloved brother right where he is, but drawing Victor, Elizabeth and Henry closer and closer to death as well. If I tell anymore, it will give too much away, but the way Oppel inventively reinterprets the classic Frankenstein monster will just floor you. Perfect pacing, non-stop action and complicated characters make Oppel’s writing an absolute pleasure to read. I adore brilliant, headstrong, jealous Victor and his raging ego. And Cousin Elizabeth is no shrinking violet, regularly kicking Victor to the curb every time he tries to convince her that it is really him and not his dead twin she is in love with. While you could easily read this title without having paged through the first one, why would you? And since SWI won’t be coming to a library, bookstore or e-reader near you until August 2012, you have plenty of time to go back to the beginning of this fantastic Frankenstein re-boot!