29. August 2014 · Comments Off · Categories: Courtney, Mystery, Teen Books, Thriller/Suspense

The Half Life of Molly Pierce by Katrina Leno, read by Courtney, on 08/28/2014

Here’s one with an unusual premise (for a YA book, anyway). Molly has been losing large chunks of time for the last year and she doesn’t know why. She’ll be doing something and then, the next thing she knows, it will be hours later and she will be somewhere else doing something else with no memory of how or why she’s there. She’s scared to let anyone know about her problem though, so she tries desperately to keep it all to herself. She sees a therapist, but is convinced that if she tells him what’s going on, he’ll give her medication, which she doesn’t want. One day, when Molly has one of her episodes, she witnesses a boy on a motorcycle get hit by a car. She feels compelled to sit with him in the street and later go to the hospital with him. He’s fatally injured, but seems to know who she is, though he initially calls her “Mabel” before calling her “Molly”. Molly is sure she’s never seem him before though he seems equally sure they’re actually quite close. On the ride to the hospital, Molly agrees to call the boy’s brother, Sayer. He too, seems to know who she is and, when he arrives at the hospital, Molly finds herself inexplicably drawn to him. She’s also convinced he knows far more than he’s letting on and she needs some answers.
I kind of had a hard time deciding how I felt about this one, but it ultimately didn’t have much of an emotional pull on me. It will come as no surprise (and thus doesn’t count as a spoiler) that Molly suffers from a Dissociative Identity Disorder. Her “alter” is named Mabel. Molly has no clue that Mabel exists though Mabel seems to come out quite a bit. The narrative does shift from Molly to Mabel. Molly is skittish and depressed; she has a habit of leaving her sentences trailing off in the middle of them and acts awkward around just about everyone. Mabel, on the other hand, is more outgoing, speaks in complete sentences and has the distinct advantage of being able to remember everything, not just the moments when she is the dominant personality. Added to the mix of dealing with two identities is a kind-of mystery – how do Lyle and Sayer know her? Why are they so loyal to her? Why does the family tip-toe around Molly? It all makes sense in the end, even if the memories recovered in the wake of the accident are revealed in reverse chronological order. The end, however, feels a bit cheesy and contrived, so that was a bit of a letdown. Otherwise, the book was swift and compelling and just different enough to keep my interest.

29. August 2014 · Comments Off · Categories: Courtney, Fantasy, Teen Books

Fluff Dragon by Platte F. Clark, read by Courtney, on 08/25/2014

Max Spencer has just finished saving the world from Princess the unicorn, but that was in the future. Now, they’re back in the present, but still in the Magrus, a magical realm. Max and his friends, gaming nerd Dirk, comic shop owner (and dwarf) Dwight and Sarah, the brains of the operation and resident kick-boxer, are would love to go home, but the revelation that there are forces far more dangerous than Princess are at work and will still destroy the future if this rag-tag crew doesn’t take matters into their own hands. Someone is hard at work killing all the dragons and if the dragons go extinct, the Magrus will grow cold and barren. Also, the Codex of Infinite Knowability is on the fritz, and, since they need it to tell them how to perform the magic to get home, they really can’t go anywhere anyway. Not until they can take the Codex to the place where it was written. In the meantime, Max and Co. pick up a few new companions, including the titular Fluff Dragon, Puff and a pair of Fire Kittens named Moki and Loki. Of course, there are also villains galore. Since Princess was defeated in the future, she’s still around causing trouble. Then, there’s Rezermoor Dreadbringer and his zombie duck, not to mention the insidious Maelshadow who’s truly pulling the strings. Max and his friends have their work cut out for them.
So, I really enjoyed the first book in this trilogy, but this one isn’t nearly as funny or engaging. Which is not to say that it isn’t enjoyable; it is. Just not *as* good as the previous one. It may, perhaps, be because there are far fewer excerpts from the Codex, which typically have a kind of Hitchhiker’s Guide feel to them. It may also be because the plot feels murky – there’s a lot going on and much of the humorous world-building is lost in the mix. It is, however, nice to meet some of the creatures that were only mentioned in the first book, but never encountered, like the fire kittens. Other characters don’t get to spend much time with our primary characters, so one can only hope that they’ll be back for the conclusion of the trilogy. This winds up feeling more like a traditional fantasy book (with a sense of humor, of course), rather than the surprisingly clever mashup of fantasy and sci-fi/time travel of the first book. I’m having trouble putting my finger on what exactly is was about Fluff Dragon that didn’t quite do it for me, but I still can’t help but look forward to the concluding book to this trilogy.

29. August 2014 · Comments Off · Categories: Adult Books, Courtney, Fantasy, Graphic Novel, Mystery · Tags: ,

Murder Mysteries by Neil Gaiman, read by Courtney, on 08/18/2014

A young man is stranded in LA around Christmas time. After a brief tryst with an old acquaintance, the man feels like he isn’t ready to go back to the place he’s staying. He sits on a bench for a smoke when an older man walks up to him, asks him for a smoke and then offers him a story. The story is about a time before humans when the angels were still working out things like the concepts of “green” or “love”. The angels all lived in beautiful city in the sky. Each has their purpose as dictated by God. One day, an angel is found dead. It appears that the death is not from natural causes. Some say it might be suicide, but Raguel (the angel of vengeance and justice) thinks otherwise. Who could possibly have killed the angel and why?
This isn’t just any murder mystery. It’s the original murder mystery. The first murder, ever. And since it’s Neil Gaiman writing it, you know it’s going to be tragic and slightly humorous. The artwork is gorgeous and this particular edition has bonus features with commentary by artist P.Craig Russell, as well as early drafts of the artwork. Just because you think you know how it might end, doesn’t mean that there won’t be some completely unexpected twists and turns by the end. It’s a lovely graphic novel, even if it is a touch disturbing.

29. August 2014 · Comments Off · Categories: Courtney, Informational Book, NonFiction

It's Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens by danah boyd, read by Courtney, on 08/17/2014

It’s Complicated is the result of a ten-year study investigating the effects social media has on our nation’s teenagers. danah boyd traveled all around the country interviewing teens and parents. What she found may surprise some. Many of the fears and assumptions held by adults tend to be misguided and/or hyperbolic. The ways in which teens use the technology varies from teen to teen, but much of their use is consistent with the psychological and social needs presented by physical interactions with their peers. It’s important to remember that simply because we adults may use the same social networks, we may use them for different purposes. Most of the things we fear about online interactions, i.e. predators, bullying, etc. tend to be greatly exaggerated and may, in fact, be worse in the physical world. There’s a lot teen psychology here as well, which helps not only in understanding how the software is used, but also why (and which sites, for that matter).
I may have only given this three stars, but a lot of that is because so much of this book feels like common sense if you anything at all about teenagers. It presupposes that you, as the reader, may only have limited interaction with teens (or interaction with a limited number of teens) and thus may not have spent much, if any, time researching their behaviors. I work with teens on a daily basis, so it kind of felt like this book was preaching to the choir. The biggest take-away here can basically be boiled down to: “the more things change, the more they stay the same.” Teens are doing what they’ve always done; they’re just adapting current technologies to do so (mainly because their access to public spaces and unstructured time has drastically increased over the years). Still, for those who may not feel as well-versed in teen behaviors, this is an informative read.

29. August 2014 · Comments Off · Categories: Courtney, Dystopia, Teen Books, Thriller/Suspense

The Violet Hour by Whitney A. Miller, read by Courtney, on 08/15/2014

Harlow Wintergreen is the daughter of VisionCrest’s patriarch. VisionCrest is one of the fastest spreading and most pervasive religions in the world. Fully a quarter of the world’s population adheres to the tenants of the faith. Harlow doesn’t consider herself a believer, but being in the public eye forces her to maintain a semblance of solidarity. Further complicating her life, Harlow also suffers from horrific and violent visions and hears a voice encouraging the violence. She’s been able to hide the visions from her friends and family, but when her father takes a group of high-ranking VisionCrest members and their families to Asia, the visions intensify. On her 17th birthday, Harlow undergoes the initiation and eventually tells her father about her visions. Her father freaks out and calls her an abomination. The next day, the group moves on to China. Without her father. They stay at a high-ranking official’s compound and Harlow quickly discovers that there are factions within VisionCrest that seek to unseat her father. There’s also a resistance faction that believes both groups have strayed from the true faith. Harlow isn’t sure what side she’s on, but she knows it has something to do with the voice and her visions. Either way, things will get worse before they get better.
The Violet Hour has a unique plot and style. The cult is based out of the United States, but the vast majority of the action takes place throughout Japan, China, Vietnam and Cambodia. It’s vaguely dystopian, but the world still looks very similar to the world we are familiar with. Harlow and her BFF, Dora have a sweet, solid friendship. There’s also a bit of romance involving a boy named Alex whose family was kidnapped by unknown forces (as, apparently, many other VisionCrest families have been). Alex was returned, but his family is presumed dead. Their relationship is frustrating, to say the least. Alex is involved with a girl that Harlow hates and acts alternately hot and cold with Harlow. His motivation is unclear until the end of the book. The world building in this falls a bit short. The reader discovers little about VisionCrest, with the exception of a ritual or two and discussion about the politics of its members. What they actually believe and ask of their members is unclear. Nevertheless, many readers will be willing to overlook these flaws since other aspects of the book are relatively strong.

29. August 2014 · Comments Off · Categories: Children's Books, Courtney, Fiction, Teen Books

Escape From Mr. Lemoncello's Library by Chris Grabenstein, read by Courtney, on 08/12/2014

The town of Alexandriaville, OH has been without a library for 12 long years, but they’ve just built a new one that will, quite possibly, be the most fascinating (and fun!) public library ever. That’s because it’s being built to celebrate the birthday of one of the town’s most famous residents: master gamemaker, Luigi Lemoncello. When it is announced that 12 lucky 12-year-olds will be given the opportunity to spend the night in the new library, Kyle jumps at the chance. He’s a huge fan of Mr. Lemoncello’s games and cannot wait to see what what’s inside. Naturally, Kyle becomes one of the 12 lucky kids to be the first to enter the library. The night is full of fun games, but little do any of the kids know that the real game hasn’t even started yet. As the lock-in draws to a close, a new and more exciting contest is announced: the first one to escape the library will win the prize of a lifetime. They can only use the resources within the library and cannot go out the way they came in. Since the library used to be a bank, it seems pretty impenetrable. Kyle teams up with some of the nicer kids so that they can be the first to exit and share in the prize.
Now, don’t get me wrong, this book is a lot of fun. The library itself sounds like an extremely cool (and extremely expensive) building. The narrative is peppered with references to popular children’s and teen books. There are puzzles here and there that the kids in the book have to solve and the reader gets to go along for the ride. Unfortunately, readers aren’t given a chance to solve anything on their own (something my middle schoolers were anxious to do), so it feels like a bit of a let-down when the answer comes right away. The prize is one that, to me, doesn’t feel very appealing, but perhaps to a 12-year-old, it might be. The characters aren’t particularly well-developed and most of their actions are predictable. There’s a definite “Willy Wonka” vibe to this book, except you would replace “chocolate factory” with “library” and “Willy Wonka” with “Luigi Lemoncello”. And instead of golden tickets, you have winning essays. This is an entertaining read, but I can’t help but think it could have been better executed.

29. August 2014 · Comments Off · Categories: Contemporary Fiction, Courtney, Teen Books · Tags:

Friday Never Leaving by Vikki Wakefield, read by Courtney, on 08/10/2014

Friday Brown has lived her entire life on the road with her mother and in near-constant fear of the family “curse” of the women all dying in or near water on a Saturday. She’s never had an actual home to call her own. When her mother dies of cancer, Friday is left on her own. Her mother tried to get Friday to stay with her wealthy grandfather, but Friday isn’t comfortable there. Friday runs away to the city where she finds a silver-haired boy that doesn’t speak. He goes by the name of Silence and agrees to take her to the spot where he’s living. As it turns out, he is part of a community of homeless teens who all live in a squat and answer to an older teen known as Arden. Friday suspects that Arden might be manipulative, but she also makes Friday feel as though there is someone looking out for her. Still grief-stricken over her mother’s death, Friday decides to make life with these kids work. All of them live beneath the radar and get by on busking, turning tricks and petty theft. Things go relatively smoothly until Arden decides it’s time for the group to move. To a ghost town in the middle of the outback. A ghost town that’s been abandoned with good reason.
This Australian import offers the reader a rare glimpse into the lives of disenfranchised, homeless teens without feeling like a “problem novel”. None of these kids have had what amounts to an ordinary life. Most of them have experienced some kind of abuse, which actually sets Friday apart from the rest of the kids. While Friday hasn’t lived an enviable life, she did have a mother who loved her, something the kids in her new “family” dream of. These kids live their lives at the mercy of those around them. Friday and Silence have a beautiful and unique friendship that centers itself around protecting each other’s well-being. Arden, the “matriarch” of the group, is both fascinating and intimidating. She cares for the kids on a certain level, but is also manipulative and controlling. This character-driven novel may not move quickly, but the lure of the characters will draw readers in. The writing is lovely, which somehow seems to be endemic to all the authors I’ve read who hail from Australia (seriously, what is it about that country that produces such amazing YA authors?). The emotional pain and discomfiting nature of Friday’s circumstances feel uncomfortable, but her growth as a person is palpable. Readers will be hoping and praying that these kids make it into adulthood unscathed.

29. August 2014 · Comments Off · Categories: Contemporary Fiction, Courtney, Teen Books, Thriller/Suspense

Just Call My Name by Holly Goldberg Sloan, read by Courtney, on 08/07/2014

I was so surprised when I met Holly Goldberg Sloan and she told me that there would be a sequel to I’ll Be There. It had felt like it wrapped up all the loose ends and, since it didn’t end of any sort of cliff-hanger, I didn’t even suspect that a sequel could be in the works. Since I adored its predecessor, I was definitely excited to read Just Call My Name. And then, lucky me, I got an ARC from the good folks at Little, Brown.
So, our story left off with Clarence Border in jail and his sons being taken care of by the Bell family. Sam and Emily are now an established couple. Riddle is starting to settle into the Bell household, much to the chagrin of Jared Bell. Sam lives on his own in an apartment while he takes summer school classes to prepare for college courses in the fall. Things seem pretty solid until a new girl comes to town. Her name is Destiny and she is the type of girl that seems to attract trouble. She’s tiny, bubbly, large chested and charismatic. She latches on to Emily, Sam and Robb (formerly Bobby, Emily’s unfortunate prom date from the last book). Emily can tell that the boys are attracted to her, even if they don’t want to admit to themselves. Sam can tell that Destiny is attracted to him and he becomes desperately afraid of being in her presence, lest he do something that will ruin his relationship with Emily. Robb seems infatuated with her and quickly finds himself finding a place for her to stay as it is established early on that she’s something of a transient. With Destiny disrupting the peaceful calm that the crew had found in the absence of Clarence Border. In the meantime, we watch Clarence plotting and scheming until he finds the perfect opportunity for escape. He’s got a score to settle with the Bell family and his boys. And he knows exactly how and where to find them.
So, I had some trouble figuring out what to rate this book. On the one hand, it was totally engaging, especially since I was already familiar with the vast majority of the characters and their circumstances. The idea of Clarence re-entering the picture is dreadful, but it’s what gives this story its sense of urgency. On the other hand, I’m not entirely certain that I’m loving the Destiny angle. The name “Destiny” and her characterization winds up feeling a tad heavy-handed in the context, though she is absolutely a compelling character. She represents the first major challenge for Emily and Sam’s relationship and acts as a distinct foil to Emily’s character. Otherwise, it’s a true pleasure to be back in the heads of these characters. We’re learning a bit more about Emily’s brother Jared, who’s having trouble sharing his space with this strange new kid, Riddle. Bobby, rechristened Robb, is almost exactly the same as he was went we saw him last in spite of his efforts to reinvent himself. Other than Clarence, the adults are mostly absent from this story. The characters are ultimately what make this pair of books shine and, in that sense, this sequel is a pleasure to read.

29. August 2014 · Comments Off · Categories: Adult Books, Courtney, Fantasy, Teen Books · Tags: ,

The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman, read by Courtney, on 08/02/2014

Gaiman wins again with this gorgeous little gem of a book. The story opens with a man on his way to a funeral in Sussex, the town of his youth. Upon his return, he is inexorably drawn to a house at the end of his lane. A house that he didn’t really remember until he was already walking up to it. As he gets closer, the memories resurface and he recalls a past so strange and mysterious that he can’t really fathom how he forgot it all in the first place.
You see, an evil was released in this sleepy little English town and the only person who could help our young narrator was a girl who lived at the end of the lane. Her name is Lettie Hempstock. She lives with her mother and grandmother. Lettie insists that the pond behind her house is, in reality, an ocean. Our narrator slowly recalls the details of this strange episode in his past as he sits by Lettie’s “ocean” as a grown man.
I don’t even really want to give away any of it, since this book is such a delightful journey to make on one’s own. Fans of Gaiman will naturally love this one. I sensed echoes of Sandman, Neverwhere and Coraline throughout and since these are works that I love through and through, these likenesses only served to make me even more enamored. Gaiman is such a wonderfully skilled writer, he doesn’t need hundreds of pages to create a fully realized tale. Indeed, this can easily be read in one or two sittings, though the atmosphere of the novel will linger long after the last page is turned.

29. August 2014 · Comments Off · Categories: Courtney, Fantasy, Teen Books

To Bear an Iron Key by Jackie Morse Kessler, read by Courtney, on 07/31/2014

During a childhood Midsummer’s Eve, Bromwyn defies her grandmother’s orders and finds herself face to face with the fairy king. He offers her a place within his kingdom, but she refuses. Her refusal is a slight to the fae and it will come back to trouble her in the future. A few years later, Bromwyn is a teenager and has been training with her indomitable grandmother, the town’s witch, for most of her life. She is now engaged to marry the blacksmith’s apprentice in a betrothal arranged by their families. She would prefer to be the master of her own fate, but does little other than argue about it with her mother. Bromwyn would rather go about her business and hang out with her best friend, Rusty, the baker’s son. On that fateful day, Rusty, who has a nasty habit of pickpocketing, manages to pick the pocket of Bromwyn’s grandmother. As it turns out, Rusty has unwittingly stolen the Iron Key that locks the door between their world and the world of the fae. As such, Rusty is now the Guardian and therefore responsible for locking the door at the end of Midsummer Eve, the one night of the year that fairies are allowed in the human world. Bromwyn quickly discovers that her grandmother has set them up; Bromwyn is about to have her abilities tested as she takes on her grandmother’s role of setting the terms and conditions of the fairy visit, a tricky endeavor as the fae tend to find loopholes in just about everything. If Bromwyn and Rusty fail, the door will remain open for an entire year during which the fairies will be allowed to steal children and kill or maim the adults. Rusty takes it all in stride and quickly makes a mistake, causing the fairies to challenge the pair for the right to walk the earth.
This is a great take on the fairy theme. These aren’t cute or pretty fairies; they’re mischievous at their best and deadly at their worst. Bromwyn and Rusty make a great pair. Bromwyn is stubborn and slightly arrogant while Rusty is charming and slightly irresponsible. Together, they’re wholly entertaining. The action mostly takes place over the course of one evening (save for the prologue), which adds a sense of immediacy to the action. For some reason, the structure of the novel feels unusual which, for me, adds to the appeal. There are a lot of elements here that we’ve seen before, but they’re presented in a way that makes this novel feel fresh and unique. Action, romance, fairies, witches and a great sense of humor make this a good choice both for all ages.

29. August 2014 · Comments Off · Categories: Adult Books, Apocalyptic, Courtney, Fiction, Teen Books

The Reapers are the Angels by Alden Bell, read by Courtney, on 07/22/2014

Temple has been on her own for a long, long time. She’s been living on an island lately, but the season is changing and it’s only a matter of time before the will have to move on. The zombies will come. So Temple takes off. She starts off attempting to stay with an established community, but accidentally kills a man in the process of defending herself from his advances. She is then forced to flee before the other men retaliate. Temple decides it’s better to move on her own. She picks up a companion, a man with special needs that she finds and feels compelled to help care for. Together, they embark upon a journey that takes them across the American South. They’ll meet a variety of other people and groups who have all adapted (or not adapted, as the case may be) to this post-apocalyptic and unforgiving landscape. All the while, the brother of the man killed by Temple is determined to track her down to exact his version of justice.
This book was amazing, particularly for a zombie novel. I’ve read a fair amount of zombie-related fiction, but nothing has ever had quite the same emotional impact that this book had. Of course, it’s really not so much about the zombies in the first place. It’s definitely Temple’s story. Temple is tough, street-smart and has the soul of a poet. The book opens on a moment that captivates Temple and fills her with a sense of wonder. Moments later, she’s smashing in the head of a zombie with a large rock. She’s compassionate to an extent, but survival is her primary motivation. And then there’s the fact that this book starts years after the zombie infection has taken hold. Temple doesn’t know who her parents were, she’s never seen the inside of a school. She doesn’t know how to read. She does, however, know how to survive. There’s also a running theme of religious imagery that is both poetic and thought provoking, particularly since it shares space with a setting that seems almost entirely devoid of happiness and hope. Highly recommended.

29. August 2014 · Comments Off · Categories: Courtney, Teen Books

Starbird Murphy and the World Outside by Karen Finneyfrock, read by Courtney, on 07/19/2014

Starbird Murphy has spent her entire life on the Free Family Farm, headquarters to one of the longest-running intentional communities in the country. Starbird has never used a cell phone, watched TV or attended school. When forces conspire to send Starbird off to the city to be a waitress at the Family’s restaurant, Starbird is less than thrilled. Everyone tells her that working in the restaurant must be her “calling”, but Starbird is certain that waitressing cannot possibly be considered a true “calling”. She has no desire to leave the Farm, even though it could provide an opportunity for her to reunite with her brother who has been “lost” to the community for years. She doesn’t really enjoy her current work with the chickens all the much either, but everything and nearly everyone she loves is on the Farm. Members of the Family don’t question the posts they’re assigned and they always embrace their calling, or, they didn’t until their leader, EARTH left on a mission three years prior and never returned. Now, the population of the Family is dwindling and it’s getting harder and harder to keep things afloat. When the boy Starbird is crushing on turns out to have his attention elsewhere, Starbird grudgingly agrees to go work at the restaurant. Following this path, however, means that Starbird will have to live in a city, go to a public school and even (gasp) handle money. Starbird is about to find out that not everything is as it seems; the Family has serious issues while the Outside may not be nearly as bad as the Family’s elders made it out to be.
I couldn’t help but be interested by the premise of this novel. I had recently seen a documentary about the Source Family and the parallels between the Free Family and the Source Family are striking: both had similar structures and values. Both were run by a charismatic man. Both attempted to keep themselves afloat by running organic restaurants in large cities. The primary difference between the two is time. The Source Family didn’t last much longer than a decade, while the Free Family has at least 3 generations of devotees. Starbird and her brother were born into the cult life and thus knew no other sort of life. Starbird does not, however, come across as terribly naive, as one might expect. She is devoted to her life within the Family, loves its leader and is suspicious of the world outside. Things are not perfect, even on the Farm, and Starbird is much like any other teenager when she’s around her mother and “siblings”. It is only once she is able to gain some distance (and get over extreme homesickness) that she is able to start seeing the cracks in the Family’s foundation. While the storyline is not surprising, Starbird’s journey is still fascinating and well-written. There is just enough world-building to make the Family seem like more than some silly cult, even it does turn out to be ethically questionable. No one is forced to stay against their will and the brainwashing is far more subtle than expected. Starbird fights assimilation for her first several weeks outside of the Farm, but eventually begins to accept friendship from outsiders. Readers will understand what is happening with the Family long before Starbird does, but watching her grow as a person is more than satisfying enough.

29. August 2014 · Comments Off · Categories: Adult Books, Courtney, Graphic Novel, Teen Books

Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann, read by Courtney, on 07/14/2014

It’s hard to even know how to describe this graphic novel. It takes some of the cutest illustrations you’ve ever seen and turns them into something utterly chilling. A community of storybook-esque characters find themselves marooned in what appears to be a giant forest. The reader, of course, knows that the characters are actually tiny and have sprung from the head of young girl’s corpse. Because it’s that kind of story. Situations that would normally be adorable in a fairy tale setting wind up having unspeakable consequences and every turn of the page can yield either clever or maudlin humor. This juxtaposition makes for a totally engrossing experience than can really only be seen/read to be truly understood.

06. August 2014 · Comments Off · Categories: Courtney, Paranormal, Teen Books

Dark Metropolis by Jaclyn Dolamore, read by Courtney, on 07/13/2014

Thea’s father died in battle and her mother suffers from a magic curse known as “bound sickness”, so keeping the small family afloat has fallen to Thea. She and many other young women work at as waitresses at a high-end club called “The Telephone Club”. It is here where she met her one and only friend, Nan. It’s also where she meets a boy her age named Freddy, with whom she has discovered an odd connection: when she touches him, they both drop into a vision of Thea’s father being raised from the dead. If this is the case, it would certainly explain the bound sickness her mother, among others, suffers from. In this version of 1930’s Berlin, the more provincial residents still engage in a practice where husband and wife are magically bound until death. The binding is supposed to go away when one of the pair dies, but for many, the belief that their spouses are alive has caused a form of madness to take over their lives. Thea is intrigued by this connection to young Freddy, but is quickly far more concerned with the inexplicable disappearance of Nan. In the meantime, the reader is treated to Freddy’s point of view, where it is revealed that Freddy is being used by other, more powerful men to raise the dead for purposes that are not, at the outset, entirely clear. Freddy believes they are being returned to their families, but the vision he shares with Thea indicates that this is not the case. Together, Freddy and Thea begin to investigate and discover that there is far more going on behind the scenes than they ever could have thought possible.
Dark Metropolis certainly has an intriguing setting and some great, if not entirely unique, characters. The world building could have been stronger, particularly since we are experiencing an alternate history where many of the rules that govern our experience in our world do not apply in this one. I honestly just wanted to hear more about what this version of Berlin (ostensibly modeled loosely on Fritz Lang’s Metropolis) would look and feel like. Additionally, there is some sort of political discontent that winds up feeling generic since we never really find out what issues at the heart of it are. Thea, Nan and Freddy are interesting enough characters. Thea is the long-suffering, keeps-the-family-together sort. Freddy is a boy with a mysterious past who is suffering for his magical talent. Nan is the rabble-rousing, spirited best friend who does, admittedly, wind up in very unusual circumstances. They’re all likeable and fun to read, but I’ve seen characters very similar to these before and their trajectory is fairly predictable. Overall, though, this was a fun spin on zombies/necromancy with a really cool setting.

06. August 2014 · Comments Off · Categories: Courtney, Teen Books, Thriller/Suspense

Complicit by Stephanie Kuehn, read by Courtney, on 07/11/2014

When Jamie Henry’s sister, “Crazy Cate” Henry went to jail a couple of years ago, everyone was happy. Cate had been notorious on a number of levels. Guys loved her, girls hated her, parents were uncomfortable around her. The final straw was a horrific fire at the barn where many of the town’s wealthy stabled their horses. The fire destroyed the barn, killed horses and left a girl in the ICU. Cate plead guilty and went to jail. Jamie and his adoptive parents were left to rebuild their family in the aftermath of the terrible crime. Now, however, Cate is out of jail and everything that Jamie has worked for, namely, a sense of normalcy in the face of a town that holds him almost as responsible as his sister for the crimes committed, is about to go out the window. Jamie’s had a tough time dealing with his sister’s absence, even if it does make life easier for the rest of the community. Jamie suffers from a condition that sounds an awful lot like a form of anxiety/panic and causes his hands and arms to lose all sensation. He even has special accommodations in place to get through a school day without the use of his arms. It had gotten better while Cate was in jail, but now that she’s out, the symptoms are back. Worse yet, Cate is calling Jamie and implying that she’s coming for him. Jamie is panicking – what does she want with him? Complicit is a short novel that packs quite a punch. Readers only have a small inkling of the circumstances surrounding Cate’s crime and the sibling’s past. Both Cate and Jamie are adopted and troubled, since their mother was killed before their eyes when they were young. They both see/have seen the same psychiatrist who has attempted to help both of them deal with their respective problems. As the novel unfolds, the reader gains insight into not only their past, but their relationship as well. The more we learn about Cate, the more we suspect that there’s more to her than meets the eye. Other mysteries pop up that apparently discredit the current interpretation of events. Then there’s the twist, and oh, what a twist. I had some suspicions regarding how things might play out, but I was still surprised by the end. This is an intense psychological thriller that doesn’t really feel like a thriller, which makes things all the more shocking in the end.

06. August 2014 · Comments Off · Categories: Adult Books, Courtney, Graphic Novel, Science Fiction

FBP: Federal Bureau of Physics, Vol. 1: The Paradigm Shift by Simon Oliver, read by Courtney, on 07/08/2014

For all your physics-related emergencies, there’s only one entity to call: the FBP. Whether it’s just a localized loss of gravity or a full-blown bubble universe threatening to consume an entire city block, the FBP is there. Or they were until a mission goes horribly wrong and the political forces pushing for privatization get the perfect opportunity to discredit the FBP. Now, there are only a handful of dedicated agents left and the private industry is taking over. Adam Hardy has been dutifully serving FBP for years, but when he and his partner get caught up in a collapsing “bubbleverse”, Adam begins to realize that a conspiracy is at play and has been for years. Adam’s father died in a similar situation and the dots are now starting to connect for Adam.
This new comic series has a fantastic premise that is, by and large, well executed. The artwork is lovely and has a very organic feel to it, in spite of its somewhat unusual color palette. I didn’t really feel like I got to know Adam as a character very well, but there’s plenty of time for his character to develop. Adam’s new partner, Rosa, is a welcome addition to the otherwise predominantly male cast. FBP also gets bonus points for having not just one, but two POC main characters.

06. August 2014 · Comments Off · Categories: Courtney, Fairy Tales and Folklore, Fantasy, Teen Books

The School for Good and Evil by Soman Chainani, read by Courtney, on 07/08/2014

Sophie really, really wants to get kidnapped. As the rest of the town prepares to hide away their children before the School Master shows up to make his selection, Sophie is busy pulling the boards off the windows and readying her things. Every so often, the School Master sneaks through the small town, taking two children at a time; one good, the other evil. The kidnapped children are transported to The School for Good and Evil, never to be seen by their loved ones again. Unless they turn up in the storybooks that magically appear in the local bookstore. Agatha doesn’t believe in The School for Good and Evil. She’d much rather keep a low profile and continue living in the cemetery. Naturally, Agatha is a bit surprised when she sees a shadow whisking her only friend, Sophie, away. Agatha grabs onto Sophie and finds herself transported as well. Sophie is elated, until she is dropped off at the Evil school. Agatha is again surprised to find herself delivered to the Good school. Convinced that there’s been a clerical error of some sort, Sophie tries everything in her power to get herself into the School for Good. She doesn’t fit in with the Evil kids; Sophie would never dream of wearing black, after all. Agatha is in a similar situation. She’s uncomfortable with the frilly pink uniform and can’t fathom why all the other girls are so fixated on meeting their princes. It would appear, however, that once the decision has been made, there’s no going back, no matter how badly Sophie wants to end with her chosen prince. Poor Agatha wants nothing more than to go back home to her graveyard where she won’t have to deal with other people or wear pink everyday. Together, they try to find ways to either get back into the “correct” schools or go home.
This was such a cute book. It could easily have felt like a HP spin-off, but it never does. It incorporates tons of fairy tale tropes, but uses them in new or unconventional ways. The twist of the girls being in the “wrong” schools wasn’t a huge surprise, but it poses many interesting questions regarding the nature of good and evil. It’s obvious to the reader that Agatha is anything but evil, in spite of her appearance. Sophie is slightly more ambiguous. She comes across as shallow and inconsiderate, sure, but not necessarily evil. In fact, most of the “good” kids have very similar character traits. The Good school in general emphasizes the appearance of good while the Evil school seems more focused on mischief rather than anything truly evil. The point, of course, is that the kids are fulfilling the traditional roles in fairy tales, but the school presents its dual nature as a preservation of balance. I read this one for my middle school book group and the kids unanimously agreed that it was tons of fun. They loved the sense of humor and the offbeat plot. Frankly, I found it to be a refreshing change of pace in the magic/fairy tale genre.

06. August 2014 · Comments Off · Categories: Courtney, Paranormal, Teen Books

Croak by Gina Damico, read by Courtney, on 07/06/2014

At one point in time, Lex was a good kid. Now, she’s turned into a rage-filled delinquent. At a loss for what to do with her, Lex’s parents decide to send her off to her Uncle Mort’s place for the summer. Lex hates to part with her twin sister, but is given no choice in the matter. When Lex arrives in Croak, the small town Mort lives in, she discovers that any and all preconceived notions regarding her uncle were misplaced. As it turns out, Croak is a town exclusively for Reapers and her uncle is the mayor. Lex quickly discovers that not only does she have the ability to fulfill the role of a reaper, she’s actually quite talented at it. Just as she’s beginning to settle into a routine with her new partner, Driggs, something unusual begins to occur. Many of the lives Lex and co. have been sent to reap have an inexplicable cause of death. Lex and Driggs, along with their friends and Uncle Mort, make it their mission to find out more.
Croak was fairly amusing. The setting utilizes puns to a staggering degree and virtually every character is as sarcastic as the protagonist. The narrative moves quickly due to its sense of humor, but also suffers some when the humor starts to wear thin. I never felt like the characters were very well-developed. Lex’s “acting out” in the beginning feels antithetical to her character even before there’s any hint that being a violent kid somehow equates to a future as a reaper and, while she ceases to be particularly violent, there’s little other change in her character as the book progresses. Other characters are scarcely developed at all, particularly Lex’s twin sister, who appears to be included strictly for her scene at the very end. Most of my teens, however, loved this one. It was fun, but not fantastic.

06. August 2014 · Comments Off · Categories: Contemporary Fiction, Courtney, Teen Books

Torn Away by Jennifer Brown, read by Courtney, on 07/03/2014

Jersey’s life changes forever as a massive tornado bears down on her hometown of Elizabeth, MO. Jersey’s mother and sister are at dance practice when the sirens go off. Jersey makes it down to the basement in the nick of time. After the storm, Jersey discovers that most of her neighborhood has been completely demolished; the roads are impassible and all means of communication have been disrupted. A day or two later, she finally finds her step-father, only to be told that her mother and sister are both dead. Even worse, her grief-stricken step-father wants nothing more to do with her and quickly dumps her off on her long-estranged father; the father who walked out years ago and never came back. Jersey has no real desire to get to know him or his side of the family, but she really has no choice. As it turns out, her father is still a drunk and has remarried (to another drunk) and lives with his parents, his sister, and her family. Jersey is given a “bedroom” on the screened-in back porch. She is almost immediately taunted by her cousins, neglected by her father and largely ignored by her new grandparents. There is no love in this house and certainly no sympathy for a girl who has just lost all the family she’s ever known. Things only continue to get worse at her paternal grandparent’s house, so Jersey tries to run off, only to be sent off to her maternal grandparents instead. Jersey has never met this set of grandparents either; they had disowned Jersey’s mother long ago. All Jersey wants is to go back home and try to rebuild with her friends and even her step-father, but, once again, it’s out of her hands. Now, still grieving and nursing the wounds of her time at her father’s, Jersey feels more isolated than ever. Her mother kept these people out of their lives for a reason and Jersey is convinced that her mother would not have wanted her to live with them. The longer Jersey stays there, however, Jersey begins to discover that there really might be more than one side to the story of her mother’s upbringing.
So many terrible things keep happening to poor Jersey. As though losing one’s home isn’t enough, losing nearly all the family she’s ever known and then being sent to live with strangers who have exactly zero empathy make this a pretty depressing read. Even the step-father suddenly turns into a massive jerk, taking himself out of Jersey’s life altogether and preventing her from attending the funerals. There’s a bit of light at the end of the book, but by the time it appears, readers will wonder whether Jersey is even capable of perceiving it anymore. Few of the characters are particularly well-developed and Jersey’s mother’s motivations behind isolating the family are never made explicitly clear. Nevertheless, readers will still pull for Jersey to make it out of this mess without it destroying her.

06. August 2014 · Comments Off · Categories: Contemporary Fiction, Courtney, Teen Books

The Vigilante Poets of Selwyn Academy by Kate Hattemer, read by Courtney, on 07/01/2014

A group of friends, Ethan, Elizabeth, Jackson, and Luke, are all seniors at Selwyn Academy, a prestigious art school and the filming site for the current season of “For Art’s Sake”, a competition-style reality show. No one in the group is competing in the show, but that doesn’t stop the show from interfering in their lives in a number of frustrating ways. Ethan, the narrator, accidentally witnesses the show being filmed and realizes that not only is the show impeding actual learning and creativity, it’s also mostly scripted. Ethan doesn’t hesitate to share this information with the group. When Luke’s critical review of the show is rejected by the school newspaper for being unfavorable to the show (and the school’s participation in it), the group decides they ought to do something to make a statement. It’s not until they begin studying Ezra Pound that they figure out how they’re going to make their statement. Inspired by Pound’s Cantos, the group creates the Contracantos, a delightfully funny and scathing long poem. They then illustrate, hand-letter, print, and distribute the first installment of the Contracantos. Then they wait for a reaction. Imagine their surprise when Luke, the poet of the group, is approached by the show’s producers and subsequently added as a contestant. With Luke gone and not speaking to the rest of the group, Ethan and his friends must find a way to carry on. Good thing they’ve got the help of a gerbil named Baconnaise, who will prove to be surprisingly heroic for a rodent.
I enjoyed this one quite a bit. Ethan and crew are an intelligent and sarcastic bunch. I can’t help but feel that the secondary characters could have been better developed, but they may also have been a stylistic choice as the narrator has difficulty viewing others as much more than an archetype. The idea of a reality show essentially taking over a school, no matter how artsy, is abhorrent to me. Of course, I’m not a fan of the reality show genre in the first place, so this book may have been preaching to the choir in that sense. It definitely has a satirical tone to it. The whole “vigilante” artist thing is quite clever even if it’s hard to imagine someone who writes poetry as being fodder for a reality show. A fun and engaging read, complete with amusingly-named house pets.