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!
Sometimes you read a book and you say, “That’s my book.” It seems like the author wrote it just for you, that everything in it was created for your amusement and suspense and pleasure. It is intimate and wonderful and you want to tell everyone you know about it and keep it all to yourself at the same time. I know many of you have felt that way about this book, and this one and this one. And that is how I feel about Diviners by the diabolically funny and utterly fabulous Libba Bray. This is SO my book. It is full of everything awesome and scary and merry and sweet. It is set in the Roaring Twenties in a swanky, swaggering New York City and features a collection of complex, confused teens with mysterious powers, who, one by one, realize that their destiny is to fight an ancient evil that is rising up in their very midst. (My favorite started out as unapologetic party girl Evie, but oh, you are gonna have such a crush on dance hall Theta and moody poet Memphis as well) There is both a haunted house AND a haunted museum. There’s a serial killer who steals body parts and a terrifying religious cult baying for blood. There are speakeasys and rent parties. It is about both big things like Manifest Destiny and little things like sparkly headbands. You get a front row seat to the Harlem Renaissance and a balcony chair to the Ziegfeld Follies. And the frights aren’t just lame-o gross-outs, but deep psychological chills that get under your skin (although there are some pretty good gross-outs, and someone does lose their skin). There’s a diversity of character that without message or pretense, makes you understand that America is and always has been a melting pot and that characters of color or of various sexual orientation can be an intregal part of a story without their background being THE story. There is romance (but not too much), gore (but not too much), loads of suspense and even a Model-T car chase. All things I adore (who knew I loved Model-T car chases but it turns out that I DO). All things I can’t believe are in the same epic voluminous book that despite being over 500 pages is as tight as a proverbial drum. And the only reason that I’m not in deep mourning at having finished it and at never being able to read it again for the first time is that it is just the FIRST BOOK IN A NEW SERIES. THERE WILL BE MORE. And I’m already a hot mess of anticipation for book 2. An exquisitely written, sumptuous affair of a novel that you will want to pull up around your ears and roll around in like a flapper’s mink stole. I can’t wait for you to discover that this is YOUR BOOK TOO when it comes to a library, bookstore or e-reader near you. On your way to the library, check out this hilarious video of LB acting out the first scene of The Diviners with action figures. (Yes, I know. You thought you couldn’t love her more and now YOU DO.)
Mahalia and Mouse are “war maggots,” children orphaned by the violent and ever changing civil war that has ravaged the bleak futuristic landscape of the United States eastern coast, and caused the Chinese peacekeepers to cut their losses and flee. They find temporary safety and shelter with Doctor Mahfouz, a kind physician who works hard helping their small village of civilian survivors stay alive. But when the United Patriot Front, a ragged gang of young men and child soldiers, invade Banyan Town while on the hunt for an escaped genetically engineered canine soldier named Tool (one of my all-time favorite characters), Mahalia and Mouse are dragged back into the danger and chaos of the civil war that destroyed their families and took Mahalia’s hand. In this dark companion novel to the Printz award- winning Ship Breaker, Paolo Bacigalupi paints a terrifying picture of a future that looks frighteningly similar to recent conflicts involving child soldiers in countries like Sierra Leone, Somalia, Sudan and Uganda. Though Bacigalupi’s precise, crisp prose and masterful plotting was as excellent as expected, I had a very hard time finishing this book because Mahalia and Mouse’s situation is so grim, the violence they endure is so pervasive, and any hope they find is brutally snatched away. But I know my reaction is no doubt what the author intended. Because if the readers of this book, and others that chronicle the real lives of child soldiers, are inspired to take action as a result of what they have read, then maybe someday the global epidemic of war and violence against children will end. A piercing, powerful book that will sear itself on your heart and soul.
Serious Lita and easy going Adam have been BFFs forever. But that doesn’t mean that they agree about stuff, especially when it comes to girl/boy stuff. They each have very different opinions about the best way to go about currying the favor of the opposite sex. So when Adam decides he’s going to write a self-help book for girls that gives them the secret scoop on what boys are really thinking, Lita is more than a little annoyed because a) Adam has NO idea what he’s talking about and b) Lita DOES know what she’s talking about because she advises clueless teens though her anonymous blog, “Ask Miz Fitz.” But she can’t tell Adam that because, well…it’s an anonymous blog. So she continues to fume while Adam continues to write and have no idea why Lita is so angry with him. Meanwhile, Adam develops a crush on a “skank”, while Lita starts dreaming about a “grease monkey” mechanic, but neither one of them is about to ask the other for dating advice. Finally, when Lita discovers that Adam’s research for his book has been collected in questionable ways and that his skank knows her grease monkey, the self-help really hits the fan. This rollicking read by one of my favorite authors reads like the teen version of Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus. Pete Hautman writes some of the sharpest, funniest teen dialogue around, and this title is no exception. Think you know what boys really want? Think you have any idea what goes on in girls’ heads? Think again!
Let’s be clear: Lucky Linderman is NOT lucky. First of all, he’s named after his grandfather, a Vietnam POW who’s presumed dead. Also, because of an ill-worded homework survey intended to liven up the social studies curriculum (“If you were going to commit suicide, what method would you choose?”) he’s on wrist-slashing watch by the assorted powers and teachers-that-be. He’s being seriously bullied by Neanderthal-in-training Nader McMillan, whose blood pressure doesn’t even rise when grinds Lucky’s face into the pavement. And did I mention that his distant parents are too involved in their own middle-aged misery to notice how wretched he is? Lucky hasn’t smiled in over six months, and so far nothing’s tempted him to start up again. The only place where Lucky doesn’t suck is his dreamscape, a humid jungle full of danger where he heroically rescues his grandfather over and over. But he can’t keep hiding in his dreams forever, and when Nader finally goes too far, Lucky begins seeing the ants—tiny heralds who tell him the hard truth about what he needs to do to get his life back. There’s only one problem—Lucky’s not sure he wants it. This darkly humorous book may be one of the best I’ve ever read about how it feels to be relentlessly, aggressively bullied and how adults don’t do nearly enough to protect teens who are being targeted. Lucky’s story is raw, ragged, honest and true and quite possibly happening to you or someone you know. The way to make it end is both the easiest and hardest thing to do—act. Tell. Help. Read. And don’t stop until you see a change.
The third book in the crazy good and wonderfully gruesome Monstrumologist series takes plucky young protagonist Will Henry to a far darker place than ever before, and this time it’s not the monsters outside he fears so much as the monster within. After receiving a mysterious package that contains a grisly nest made of shredded human tissue and bone, Will and Dr. Warthrop are launched on a grim new quest to find and capture Typhoeus magnificum, The Father of All Monsters. This mysterious beast has never been seen, and its only calling cards are the flesh nests it makes of its victims and it’s corrosive spit that if touched, turns men into cannibalistic zombies. Every monstrumologist who has tried to track it down it down has never been seen or heard from again. Naturally, Warthrop has second thoughts about taking Will Henry on such a dangerous mission, and ends up leaving him with his mentor Dr. von Helrung in New York. But when von Helrung receives word that Warthrop is dead, Will Henry decides to take matters into his own young hands and find out the truth—even if it means losing his life. Sailing from America to darkest Africa and meeting such literary luminaries as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (you didn’t know he was such a fan of monstrumology, did you?) and Arthur Rimbaud (with an encore appearance of fan favorite, the dastardly Jack Kearns) along the way, Will’s gripping globetrotting journey is nothing compared to the long bleak road he is walking within. As Warthrop slowly begins to give his humanity more airtime than his burning ambition in this most excellent third volume, Will disturbingly begins to slide the other way. “I thought I knew the cost of service to the one whose path lies in the darkness. I did not.” Always pure of heart in the past, now Will finds himself committing not one but two desperate and irrevocable acts that will have consequences he can’t quite understand, but that the world weary Warthrop knows all too well. Will has always served as Warthrop’s moral compass (“You are the one thing that keeps me human”) but now it may be the egotistical but ultimately good doctor’s turn to help Will expunge the darkness that has begun to take deep root in his soul. Oh, how I love these books! Oh, how I wish there was a real Society for the Advancement of the Science of Monstrumology, and that I could sit down and have Darjeeling tea with Will and Dr. Warthrop! Like The Historian
What would you do if you had a fear that was bigger than you were? Run away? Hide? Or would you call for help? Thirteen-year-old Conor is keeping a terrible secret about his mother’s illness, one that is so awful he doesn’t dare speak it aloud. So when a giant monster shows up outside his window one night and threatens him, he isn’t even scared. Because no monster is equal to the rage and sorrow he has locked away inside. But when the monster tells Conor that the reason it’s there is because Conor called it, he doesn’t understand. How could he have brought the monster without knowing? And is the monster there to help or to hurt him? As the monster continues to make its nightly visits and Conor’s mother gets sicker, Conor becomes desperate to put an end to the mystery of the monster’s presence. When the truth is finally revealed, it is both wonderful and terrible. This intriguing modern day fable about the lies we tell ourselves in order to survive tragedy was actually thought up by British author and activist Siobhan Dowd, who died before she could complete it. It was then passed into the hands of her colleague Patrick Ness, who in his own words, “took it and ran with it.” The result is a lyrical, melancholy tale, lushly illustrated with haunting images by debut illustrator Jim Kay, that provides no easy answer to the question of human suffering, but is full of hope nevertheless.
Literary Fun Fact: Victor Frankenstein had a twin! Well, at least Kenneth Oppel imagines so in this brilliant, twisted prequel to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Victor, his twin Konrad and their distant cousin Elizabeth live the good life in Chateau Frankenstein outside of Geneva, Switzerland around the mid-1790’s. The Frankenstein family is wealthy, their digs are humongous, and the teenagers, along with their best bud Henry spend their summer days hiking or riding around the Jura Mountains and Lake Geneva. Then Konrad falls mysteriously ill, and no doctor from miles around seems to know how to help him. So Victor takes it upon himself to secretly employ a dodgy local alchemist to assist him in concocting the Elixir of Life from a recipe he finds in an ancient book hidden in the Frankenstein library. Victor is determined to use the Elixir to save his brother’s life, though his motivation is not entirely pure: he also hopes to win great acclaim for his discovery, while capturing the romantic admiration of his beautiful cousin Elizabeth–who just happens to be in love with Konrad. Soon, Victor, Elizabeth and Henry are lying like rugs and sneaking out at night to track down the rare, obscure ingredients that the Elixir requires. They are willing to break every taboo known to science and religion in their race to save Konrad. But will Victor’s own selfish nature undo all their desperate efforts in the end? And how will this experience shape the man who ends up creating the most famous monster of all time? As usual, Oppel is a master of pacing, taking readers on a freaky cool adventure that starts off with a BANG on the very first page. In addition, all the characters are fully realized (especially tortured Victor, who tells the dark tale in first person), the love triangle is loads more exciting and bitter than this one, and the action never stops. I have no doubt that you will enjoy this incredibly well executed Gothic/horror/historical novel immensely.
It’s very appropriate that this debut novel was inspired in part by a Sufjan Stevens song, as this story has the same melancholy and bittersweet tone of that indie bard’s music. Cullen Witter is a suspicious, sarcastic seventeen-year-old who works at a gas station, fills his journal with the titles of books he might write (“Book Title #73: You May Feel a Slight Sting”) and hopes to someday leave his hometown of Lily, which “was like Arkansas’s version of a black hole; nothing could escape it.” He’s suffering from unrequited love for a girl who’s already taken and a deep-seated annoyance with the fact that all his neighbors have become bird crazy over a woodpecker, long thought to be extinct, that was sighted near the town river. One of the only people Cullen really likes is his younger brother Gabriel, who disappears without a trace one summer day. Once Cullen loses the compass of his brother, the only things that keep him from a quick downward spiral into anger and depression are his best friend Lucas’s bad jokes and a brief affair with a married woman. He tries to have hope that Gabriel will be returned safely while resenting the fact that everyone seems to be more interested in finding the bird than in finding his beloved brother. Meanwhile, on the other side of the world, an eighteen-year-old missionary named Benton Sage decides that spreading the Good Word is no longer for him, and returns home to his father’s great disappointment and rage. Benton trades his Bible for a textbook and enrolls in college, but his father still can’t forgive him. Unable to deal with his father’s disappointment, Benton commits a shocking act, setting into motion a series of events that eventually lead to Gabriel’s disappearance and Cullen’s unexpected redemption. This strange, everything-but-the-kitchen-sink story shouldn’t necessarily work, but it does, bringing to mind aspects from one of my favorite books and one of my favorite movies. The connections between Cullen and Benton, which seem tenuous at first, end up coalescing in a way that illustrates just how much of our lives are dependent on chance and the kindness of strangers. Weird, wonderful and rare, this unusual book is just as unique as the Ivory-billed Woodpecker mentioned in its pages.
In a violent, post-Civil War Old West, natty but naughty gunslinger Drake Sinclair is on the hunt for a mythical weapon that shows the future to it’s owner. It’s part of a scary set of six revolvers that some say were forged by the Devil himself, and belonged to a bloodthirsty Confederate general named Hume, now long in his grave. Each gun never has to be reloaded and each one has a sinister power: to strike with the force of a cannon, throw flames, spread disease, raise the dead and provide eternal youth. Sinclair knows that in order to stop Hume’s still living cronies, he will need to overpower them with Hume’s personal weapon, the sixth gun. But when he finally discovers the whereabouts of the prophecy gun, complications arise in the form of a beautiful young farm girl and the frightening fact that Hume is not exactly dead (not quite alive, either) and he will recover his property even if it means releasing hell on Earth to do it. Hume also knows a nasty little secret about Sinclair that could be the gunslinger’s undoing if it comes to light, so it’s even more important that Sinclair gets to the gun before Hume does. It’s a race to the bloody finish, and I was absolutely riveted to each and every full color page of this inventive GN. I’m particularly fond of westerns, and I’m really liking this trend of tucking a little fantasy and horror in between the saloons and gunfights (see also: Cowboys and Aliens and American Vampire). The Sixth Gun has all that and more, including a masterful sequence of panels that pits a zombie army against an army of golems. Brilliant! Brian Hurtt’s full color art is ripe and rich, with blood, bile and steel bursting off every page. A little gory and a lot exciting, The Sixth Gun serves up some hardcore graphic novel gun play.
There have been so many adaptations of Sherlock Holmes lately, you knew it was just a matter of time before we met up with Sherlock Holmes, age fourteen. The year is 1868, and Young Master Holmes has just been informed that due to his army officer father’s deployment to India, his mother’s illness and his big brother Mylock’s busy lawyer schedule, he won’t be going home for the summer holidays from school. Instead, he’ll be staying with a little known aunt and uncle in the English countryside, far from civilization and anything remotely interesting. Fortunately, his boredom is quickly eased by his new acquaintances: brash and brilliant American Amyus Crowe, who will be his summer tutor, Amyus’s beautiful red-headed daughter Virginia, and scrappy river rat Matty Arnett, an orphan boy the same age as Sherlock who lives off his wits and what he can steal. The four of them form an unlikely detective team when a body is discovered on Sherlock’s uncles’s property. The corpse is lumpy and swollen, and rumors of plague soon blanket the countryside, throwing everyone into a state of panic. But by using the powers of deduction that Amyus Crowe is teaching him, Sherlock soon realizes that while the stranger’s death was caused by something carried on the air, it wasn’t germs or disease. Another body was discovered in the nearby village in the same condition, and Matty claimed to have seen a mysterious black cloud hovering over the house where it was found. Could the two deaths be linked? If so, what was the black cloud and how did it cause two different people to drop dead miles from each other? As he digs deeper into the mystery, Sherlock discovers from a series of mostly innocuous clues a diabolical plan created by an evil genius mastermind to strike at the very foundations of the British Empire. Sherlock’s first foray into investigation becomes a terrifying adventure that threatens to end his life on more than one occasion. But he must prevail, or his entire country could be lost. Great period detail, loads of interesting scientific facts from the time, and the methodical, logical plotting that we expect from a traditional Sherlock Holmes novel are all here, plus some pretty heart-pounding fight scenes. My only issue is the odd cover–since when does Sherlock Holmes have Justin Bieber hair? A fun read nevertheless, and who knows? Maybe they’ll tap the Biebs to play Sherlock in the teen movie version. Stay tuned for the sequel, Rebel Fire, coming out November 2011.
It’s been three years since the car accident that changed Mia and Adam’s lives forever. Mia lost her entire family and nearly died herself. Adam stayed devotedly by her side during her recovery. As soon as she was well enough, Mia went to Julliard in New York while Adam stayed in Oregon to finish school and play with his band, Shooting Star. They were committed to making their long distance relationship work. Then, without warning, Mia cut off all communication with Adam. Stunned, Adam sank into a deep depression that resulted in the creation of his band’s breakout record. Now Adam is a reluctant rock star and Mia is an accomplished professional cellist. But Adam still thinks about Mia everyday, and by chance, attends one of her concerts in New York on his way to a tour in London. What happens next brings to mind one of my favorite movies, Before Sunrise, as Adam and Mia finally meet again and spend a memorable night walking around New York, catching up and reminiscing. But does Adam have the courage to confront Mia about why she left him? And is he strong enough to handle her answer? “I’ve blamed her for all of this, for leaving, for ruining me. And maybe that was the seed of it, but from that one little seed grew this tumor of a flowering plant. And I’m the one who nurtures it. I water it. I care for it. I nibble from its poison berries. I let it wrap around my neck, choking the air right out of me. I’ve done that. All by myself. All to myself.” This incredibly satisfying sequel to If I Stay is written from Adam’s POV, and is just as full of longing, heartbreak and gorgeous writing as its predecessor. I flew through it in a single day, dying to see what Mia’s mysterious reasons were and hoping against hope that the two star crossed lovers would get back together. Do they? Well, you better race to your nearest library or bookstore, or grab your Kindle, iPad, or Nook to find out! (And dudes, please don’t mind the gorgeous girl on the cover, this book IS written from a guy’s POV, even if it doesn’t look like it.)
When world-weary ghost wrangler Frank Gallows accidentally zaps terminally ill Garth Hale into the in-between dimension of Ghostopolis, the boy finds himself with a new lease on life—or death, as the case may be. As a human being in this spirit world, Garth discovers he has incredible powers that are capable of overthrowing Master Vaugner, the evil Goth dictator of Ghostopolis. But Garth just wants to get back home. Aided by Skinny, his skeletal Nightmare and the friendly ghost of his dead grandfather, Garth almost gets his wish when Frank Gallows and the beautiful ghost mechanic Claire Voyant show up with a machine that can zoom him back into the land of the living. But Vaugner isn’t letting Garth leave until he finds out the secret of his strength and takes it for himself. Soon Garth, Frank and Claire find themselves caught up in the midst of an epic battle for the heart and soul of Ghostopolis. Folks, this is one of those “kitchen sink” books (as in, author and illustrator Doug TenNapel threw in everything but the kitchen sink) that shouldn’t work but it does. There’s action, giant lightning bugs, adventure, a mysterious Tuskegee Airman named Joe, romance, the ghost of Benedict Arnold, side-splitting humor, and a farting werewolf. Somehow, it all comes together and makes perfect sense. I enjoyed every manic moment of it. Don’t believe me? Check it out for yourself—it should be widely available at your local library as it was one of ALA’s 2011 Top Ten Great Graphic Novels for Teens. You’ll also want to be in the know before the planned feature film hits theaters!