You think your after school job sucks? Try being fifteen-year-old Billi SanGreal for a day. After facing down mean girls in the cafeteria and sleeping through most of her classes, Billi has to go home to her London flat, don some chain mail, and head out into the dark to stake some undead with her hard bitten dad. See, Billi is the daughter of one of the last remaining members of the fabled Knights Templar, a mysterious society of Christian crusaders dating back to the 1100’s. Originally a monastic order of impoverished knights who ferried pilgrims back and forth to the Holy Land, the rag-tag modern day Order defends humanity against the supernatural forces of darkness, including vampires, werewolves and the occasional fallen angel. In spite of being a pretty smooth hand with a sword, Billi is sick of cleaning blood off her jeans and landing in detention for late homework because her driven, distant father thinks decapitating demons is more important than long division. Plus, her half Pakistani & Muslim heritage make her feel like a square peg in a round hole in the traditionally Christian fighting force. Tired of the politics and pain that come from being a Templar, Billi tries to leave the Order, but finds herself sucked back in when she discovers that her lapse in judgment concerning a tall, dark and handsome maniacal stranger may have resulted in the Tenth Plague being released on the greater UK. Equally distracting is the fact that her childhood friend Kay has returned from Oracle training in Jerusalem and somehow managed to turn into a total hottie while he was gone. Now Billi has to find a way to mend her relationship with her forbidding father, figure out if Kay is the Templar for her and somehow stop the Angel of Death from frying all of the world’s firstborn. It’s a tall order, but if anyone can do it, Billi can. Move over, Buffy Summers. Billi SanGreal eats vampires for breakfast. What else ya got? This creepy, cheesetastic gore-fest mixes history, fantasy and horror in a compulsively page turning way that will have you screaming for a sequel long before you hit the final chapter. (And yes, there is one coming.) Did I roll my eyes (okay, more than a few times) over some of the over-the-top bits? Sure. But Billi’s showdowns with various versions of The Unholy are truly terrifying and the book’s fighting sequences frightfully well choreographed. This is a must-read for The Da Vinci Code and Buffy fans alike. And don’t blame me if you stay up all night poring over the pages. I warned you–debut author Sarwat Chadda‘s story of the first female Templar is hopelessly addicting.
“My best friend is dead, and I could have saved her.” Caitlin was devastated when her BFF Ingrid committed suicide. Now she struggles with overwhelming feelings of guilt, wondering if there was anything she could have done to halt Ingrid’s gradual and largely secret descent into depression and pain. When she finds Ingrid’s last journal hidden in her bedroom, she only allows herself to read one entry at a time, hesitant to sever this last link. Slowly, she becomes aware of the other people who have lost Ingrid too: their favorite photography teacher who now can’t look Caitlin in the eye, the boy Ingrid had a huge crush on who never even had a chance to ask her out, Ingrid’s incredibly sad family. Slowly, she becomes aware of the other people who have lost HER while she’s been grieving for Ingrid: her terrified parents, new girl Dylan who just wants to be her friend, popular boy Taylor who has liked her since third grade. For a while, all Caitlin could do was hold still so she didn’t fall a part. As Ingrid’s journal comes to end, Caitlin is faced with an enormous decision: hold tight to her grief or dare to let go and move on. This powerful debut, rich with themes of renewal, hope and redemption, will resonate with anyone who ever survived losing someone. (1 weepie)
Valerie thought she knew her boyfriend Nick. He liked Shakespeare and hated algebra. He was smart and funny and angry and sarcastic, just like Valerie. Even though they were both outcasts at their high school, Nick always made Valerie feel like she belonged. Valerie thought she knew her boyfriend Nick. Until the day he walked into the school Commons and killed six students and one teacher, then turned the gun on himself. Until Valerie threw herself in front of Nick’s gun to stop the carnage and sustained a terrible wound to her leg. That was the moment Valerie realized she didn’t know Nick at all–at least, not this empty-eyed person who calmly gunned down their classmates one by one. Valerie is left with the terrible guilt that she possibly helped cause this catastrophic event with her Hate List, a notebook full of names of all the people who ever tormented her and Nick. “Maybe I thought I didn’t mean for those people to die, but somewhere, I don’t know, subconsciously, I really meant it. And maybe Nick saw it. Maybe he even knew something about me I didn’t even know. Maybe everybody saw it and that’s why they hate me so much—because I’m a poser. I set it all in motion with that stupid list and then let Nick do my dirty work.” Now Valerie has to put the pieces of her shattered life back together, and she’s never felt more alone. With the help of a caring psychiatrist, a crazy craft lady and an unexpected new friend, Valerie will slowly make her way out of the darkness and into a future where nothing is certain except the fact that she’s a survivor. Debut author Jennifer Brown has written a book about a complex and uncomfortable topic that is clear, compassionate and compulsively readable, a book that delves deeply into issues of consequence, survival and forgiveness. And if you want to read more about school shootings and understand how and why they occur, check out Dave Cullen’s detailed and meticulously researched nonfiction, Columbine. 2 weepies
Thirteen-year-old Danielle Callanzano knows that real life isn’t like the movies. If it was, she wouldn’t be stuck in her boring upstate New York town suffering the after effects of her parents’ recent divorce with no one to call and no cell reception even if she did. (Her best friend Maya moved to Poughkeepsie three months ago.) Luckily, the Little Art movie theater’s theme this year is “Summer of Noir,” so Dani can escape the pain of her mom’s depression and her dad’s deception by sneaking into Theatre 1 and watching Rita Hayworth slink her black and white way across the screen. But the thing about movies is that they end, and when they do, Dani is right back to having to deal with her feelings. Until she notices the mysterious girl in the polka-dot tights who seems to be hanging around the projection booth of the Little Art–the projection booth where cute, seventeen-year-old Jackson works. Jackson is dating Dani’s beloved older babysitter Elissa, but the girl in the polka-dot is definitely NOT Elissa. Determined to find out if Jackson is cheating on Elissa the way her father cheated on her mom, Dani launches her own investigation, trusting no one to tell her the truth. “If there’s anything I’ve learned from noir movies it’s that everyone lies about something. And if you lie about one thing, what’s to say you didn’t lie about it all?” The only problem is that if you don’t trust anyone, it’s pretty hard to make friends. As she gets closer and closer to the truth, Dani has to decide if solving the mystery is worth alienating her neighborhood peeps in the process. Instead of asking, “What would Rita Hayworth do?” Dani needs to ask herself some hard questions about privacy, friendship and forgiveness. Because “this is what’s happening in my real life, right now, the one I’m living. I don’t want to miss a thing…” This delightful debut novel had me at hello, with Dani’s snarky and endlessly quotable narration that begged to be Twittered. I had to restrain myself from tweeting lines like “Rita Hayworth would have eaten Jessica Alba alive,” or this astute observation of a femme fatale: “A femme fatale would have a sleek black phone…she’d set the ringer to silent. And she’d get calls all the time, but she’d rarely answer. What femme fatale would?” I welcome this original voice with open arms, and I can’t wait to see what Nova Ren Suma does next!
When she was a little girl, Grace was dragged off the tire swing in her Minnesota backyard one winter by a starving wolf pack who had every intention of having her for dinner. But one yellow-eyed male stopped the feeding frenzy and saved Grace’s life. So instead of being afraid of the wolves, she becomes their defender, especially the amber-eyed one she calls her own. Flash forward: Grace is a junior in high school when one of her classmates is attacked and killed by the pack. Armed, angry townsmen head into the woods to get rid of the wolves once and for all, and Grace throws her self into their line of fire in an attempt to save her wolf. Imagine her surprise when a bullet grazes the animal and he turns into a stunning young man named Sam right before her eyes. She acts quickly, saving his life as he saved hers all those years ago, and soon a passionate romance blossoms between them. Sam reveals to Grace that the pack are actually werewolves, who remain human for the most part as long as the weather is warm, but are forced to succumb to their wolf state when the temperature drops. To make matters worse, as the seasons turn, the pack remain as wolves for longer and longer periods of time until they stop becoming human altogether. Sam is eighteen years old, and knows that this is his last year as a human. Once he turns again, he will stay a wolf for the rest of his life. The shock of being shot caused Sam to revert to his human state, but the weather is growing frostier by the day, and despite all her efforts to keep Sam warm, Grace is terrified that she will lose her first love to his wolfish nature forever. Meanwhile, there are two renegade wolves on the loose who are determined to return Sam to the pack even if they have to kill Grace to do it. Can Sam protect Grace from their murderous means in his weakened human condition? Can Grace find a way to defy the laws of nature and keep their love from growing cold? Twilight fans, HERE is the worthy successor to your fav series. There is abundant romance, a little sex (mostly off page), a gorgeous, swoon-worthy boy, some suspenseful fight scenes and best of all, a strong, smart heroine who puts passive Bella to shame. I have to admit I rolled my eyes a little over Sam’s near-perfection (a song-writing literary werewolf who loves Rilke’s poetry and can read it in the original German? REALLY?), but even cynical old me got a little misty on the last page, which may be my favorite ending in recent history. A lovely Fall-into-Winter book for now, and a great romance anytime.
In 1899 Texas, girls are expected to know how to knit, sew, cook and clean in order to make some lucky man a good wife. But Calpurnia Virginia Tate, the only daughter in a family of six rowdy brothers, couldn’t be less interested in the domestic arts. “I had never classified myself with other girls. I was not of their species; I was different.” Instead of stitching away on samplers for her hope chest, Callie Vee prefers tromping around in the woods and wading in the creek with her blustery grandpa, a Civil War veteran and amateur naturalist. Together they collect various & sundry samples of flora & fauna, even discovering a new species of hairy vetch. As Callie discovers the wonders of the natural world, she begins to consider becoming a scientist, especially after reading Mr. Darwin’s controversial book The Origin of the Species. But is there room in Callie’s proscribed society for that oddest of creatures, a female scholar? Callie begins to notice all the ways in which men are encouraged to dream big while women are expected to limit their hopes to hearth and home. When she asks why her sibs get paid for some chores while her labor comes free, older brother Lamar scoffs, “Girls don’t get paid. Girls can’t even vote. They don’t get paid. Girls stay home.” As the new century looms large, with it’s astonishing new inventions of telephones, automobiles and Coca-Cola, it begins to dawn on Callie that these amazing technological investigations are for men alone. “I was expected to hand over my life to a house, a husband, children…There was a wicked point to all the sewing and cooking they were trying to impress upon me…My life was forfeit. Why hadn’t I seen it? I was trapped.” Can Callie draw inspiration from the intrepid female innovators who came before: Mrs. Curie, Miss Anning, Miss Kovalevsky, Miss Bird? Or is she doomed to a lifetime of darning and dusting? This delightfully detailed read, full of fascinating facts about nature and biology and imbued with all the excitement and optimism people felt as they entered a new age, is far deeper than its sweet and gentle cover implies. Like A Northern Light’s sassy little sister, ECT explores themes of feminism, racism, and gender roles with equal aplomb. And, it’s just a really, really good STORY. Anyone who ever dared to dream beyond their means are bound to get along splendidly with Miss Calpurnia Tate.
In the summer of 1995, D, Neeka and our unnamed narrator (we’ll just call her “Me”) are trying to figure out what it means to be “grown” in their Queens, NY neighborhood while the music of their idol, Tupac Shakur, provides the soundtrack to their unusual friendship. Neeka and Me have lived on the same block forever, but D just appears one day, a foster kid with the wrong kind of shoes and the wrong color eyes. D likes to “roam,” taking the subway and bus to new neighborhoods, meeting people and gathering experiences. Neeka and Me are suspicious of her at first, but soon D’s sweet half smile and easy demeanor win them over. Something clicks between them and before they know it, they are “Three the Hard Way.” D convinces them to venture off the block, slipping out from under the watchful eyes of their mothers and into everyday adventures. They share pizza, secrets, and the pain that comes from worrying about their favorite rapper who seems to understand exactly how they feel yet can’t keep him self out of harm’s way. Ironically, D and Tupac slip out of Neeka and Me’s life around the same time, and the girls realize that while they loved them both, they didn’t really know either of them at all. For D, all that mattered was that Neeka and Me cared about her, and she cared about them. “I came on this street and y’all became my friends…I talked about roaming and y’all listened. I sat down and ate with your mamas and it felt like I was finally belonging somewhere.” When the time comes to say goodbye, they all understand that their lives are better for having known each other. This gentle story about faith, friendship and family being the people you chose will sit quietly in your heart and head long after the last page is turned.
Robot Girl meets Ghost Boy. Robot Girl falls for Ghost boy (sort of). Ghost Boy holds Robot Girl at arm’s length due to emotional trauma suffered since childhood. Robot Girl understands until she doesn’t. How long before Ghost Boy disappears or Robot Girl has had enough? In this unconventional love story, Cindy Sherman wanna-be Beatrice (aka Robot Girl) finds herself drawn to caustic, pale-to-the-point-of Albino Jonah (aka Ghost Boy), an angry loner at her new Baltimore school. Bea, forced to move her senior year because of her dad’s job, is wondering if she’s becoming a robot because she feels nothing as she observes the disintegration of her parents’ marriage. Jonah, withdrawn to the point of hermit-ism since the death of his twin brother, refuses to have anything to do with the classmates who dubbed him Ghost Boy, because of his tendency to, well, haunt the halls without ever interacting with anyone. These two oddballs end up bonding over their shared love of a melancholy late night radio show called Night Lights where a group of lonely callers phone in their secret hopes, fears and insecurities. Not only have Bea and Jonah found each other, but they have found a tribe in the Night Lights and for the first time they both feel as though they finally belong. All is well until other boys at school start paying more attention to Bea, and Jonah discovers a horrifying secret about the death of his brother. Both of these things begin to wear on the fragile cloth of their unique relationship. Can a Robot Girl find true love with a Ghost Boy? Or is her heart too hard and his too insubstantial? I know I am in true love with this idiosyncratic little book and do not hesitate to dub it one of the best YA debuts of the year. It is moving and funny with whip smart dialogue and reminds me in the best possible way of the most under appreciated of John Hughes’s movies, Some Kind of Wonderful. Bea and Jonah were just so INTERESTING, with their meaningful conversations about everything from John Waters films to the mental state of Icelandic hairdressers, that when I finished the book I was just SICK about the fact that they weren’t real. Everyone, everyone, EVERYONE should read it because, like it or not, we all have a little Robot Girl or Ghost Boy deep down inside. Check out this Entertainment Weekly article about more “Quirky Love” on film, and this awesome video of author Natalie Standiford on the guitar with fellow YA rockstars Libba Bray, Daniel Ehrenhaft and Barnabas Miller in their cover band Tiger Beat.
NYC teens Claire, Jasper and Peter find their lives intersecting in unexpected, meaningful ways after the tragedy of September 11 brings them together. When the planes hit the Twin Towers, Claire is starting her day at school, Peter is skipping homeroom in favor of snagging the new Bob Dylan album, and Jasper is sound asleep. After the attack, Claire is sleepless and anxious, Peter searches for meaning in music, and Jasper shuts down. Peter and Claire know each other from school, and each make a connection with college freshman Jasper after 9/11—Peter asks Jasper out, while Claire runs into him when they are both wandering around Ground Zero, trying to comprehend what has happened to their city, their country and their lives. Slowly, as the three of them muddle through their complicated feelings, they each come to a place of healing that they never would have made it to without each other. And that’s about it. This quiet meditation about the effects of 9/11 on three different individuals isn’t so much about what happened as it is about what happened next. It’s about how we got through and how we continue to get through, and it is full of David Levithan’s trademark thoughtful observations about human nature that always get me right HERE. Like this one attributed to Claire: “If only I still had my faith in old books and reruns. They are among the things I feel have been taken from me, along with humor and hope and the ability to savor.” Or Peter’s thought about the power of music post 9/11: “We all understand that this is just music. We all understand that these songs were written Before—there is no way the band could have known how we would hear them After. But the songs ring true.” As a New Yorker who was working downtown on 9/11, I kept reading this book and saying to myself, “Yes, I remember feeling that way.” But you don’t have to have been in New York on that day to understand the feelings Levithan writes so eloquently about, because in many ways I think we all continue to share the pain and the hope that was generated world wide by the events of September 11.
Set in an alternate-history America right after the Civil War, Patricia Wrede’s frontier fantasy details an Old West where magicians expediate westward expansion by maintaining a great spell wall that keeps the giant woolly mammoths and steam dragons at bay. Everyone learns basic spell casting in school, with the exception of the Rationalists, a group that is philosophically opposed to using magical means to make life easier. Born into a large magically inclined family, Eff is child number thirteen, generally considered not only unlucky but downright evil. Eff is neither, though she fears every moment that she is destined to “go bad.” Opposite in reputation is her twin brother Lan, born the seventh son of a seventh son and therefore destined to develop into a naturally powerful magician. When their father, a professor of magic, is given the opportunity to teach in a borderland school, he moves the whole family west where Eff and Lan both face situations that test their mettle. Soon Eff has to decide whether to embrace her questionable power or deny her magical heritage altogether. This leisurely paced fantasy has all the hallmarks of an authentic frontier journal. Like a real pioneer would, Eff mostly relates the events of her unusual family’s life with little fanfare, only wavering occasionally when confessing her insecurities about being a thirteenth child. Whole seasons pass in a few sentences if there’s nothing important to impart. Eff assumes any reader of her journal would know all about the casually mentioned steam dragons and different magical traditions, so she doesn’t go into a lot of description. This is both interesting and frustrating, as I wanted to know more so I kept reading to see if there was more! Alas, there was not. Wrede challenges you to make your own pictures of her whimsical Western world with just enough details to jump start your imagination. In addition, Wrede draws neat parallels between ideas prevalent in our Old West and her fantasy version, including the philosophy of Manifest Destiny, the concept of the American melting pot, and the age old battle between book learnin’ and common sense. This odd little tome won’t be for everyone, but having said that, if you enjoyed how Wrede and her co-author Caroline Stevermer recreated Regency England with evil wizards in the charming Sorcery and Cecelia or The Enchanted Chocolate Pot, then you will most definitely want to hit the trail with Eff and Lan. And for more alternative history fun, be sure to check out Scott Westerfeld’s Leviathan.