06. October 2014 · Comments Off · Categories: Courtney, Fiction, Mystery, Teen Books

Far From You by Tess Sharpe, 352 pages, read by Courtney, on 09/25/2014

Nine months. Two weeks. Six days.

That’s how long recovering addict Sophie’s been drug-free. Four months ago her best friend, Mina, died in what everyone believes was a drug deal gone wrong – a deal they think Sophie set up. Only Sophie knows the truth. She and Mina shared a secret, but there was no drug deal. Mina was deliberately murdered.

Forced into rehab for an addiction she’d already beaten, Sophie’s finally out and on the trail of the killer – but can she track them down before they come for her?

06. October 2014 · Comments Off · Categories: Courtney, Fiction, Science Fiction, Teen Books

Glory O'Brien's History of the Future by A.S. King, 320 pages, read by Courtney, on 09/20/2014

Glory O’Brien has just graduated high school and she has no idea what her future holds. Her mother committed suicide when Glory was just five years old and Glory is worried that she’ll end up like her mother. They already have a lot in common. Glory’s mother was a famous photographer with an offbeat worldview. Glory prefers to hide behind the camera and doesn’t even particularly like her best and only friend. Everything changes when Glory and her friend, Ellie, drink a concoction consisting of a powdered, dessicated bat and some beer. It’s a strange thing to do, but the aftermath is even stranger. The morning after the bat-drinking incident both girls begin to see visions whenever they meet another person’s eye. They see that individual’s past, present and future. Not just that of the person in question, but that person’s ancestors and successors. It is in these visions that Glory begins to see a pattern of events that will eventually lead to a horrifying future. The future she sees indicates that a second civil war will take place. Women will lose all of their rights. Glory is having a hard enough time seeing a reason to live beyond tomorrow, but if this is the future she has to look forward to, what’s the point?

This is a fascinating experiment in form and genre. A.S. King is easily one of my favorite YA authors. Her work is never, ever ordinary. Her newest novel is no exception. The characters are unique and well-developed. Glory is maudlin, but never overly depressing. Her friend Ellie is the daughter of hippies who live in a commune across the street from Glory and her father. Ellie continually gets herself into terrible situations that Glory has trouble reconciling. Glory’s father is still mourning the loss of his late wife. He’s a painter who hasn’t painted since she died. There’s history between Glory and Ellie’s parents that slowly reveals itself. Everything is significant in the worlds of King’s novels, even the smallest details. I honestly had some difficultly believing in the future world presented here, but thematically, it makes for an interesting thought experiment. The discussion of feminism is prevalent throughout, but never feels heavy-handed. I genuinely enjoyed this book, even if I didn’t totally love the “History of the Future” part. This book is just so delightfully strange and emotionally compelling to be angry about the technicalities.

06. October 2014 · Comments Off · Categories: Courtney, Memoirs, NonFiction

Tibetan Peach Pie: A True Account of an Imaginative Life by Tom Robbins, 384 pages, read by Courtney, on 09/18/2014

I’ve been a Tom Robbins fan since the age of 15, when I picked up a copy of Half Asleep in Frog Pajamas at an airport gift shop. It was the only thing that wasn’t a thriller/mystery/romance and I’d heard of Robbins before, so it seemed like the thing to do. As it turned out, that book was something of a revelation; it was unlike anything else I’d ever read. So I began acquiring his other novels. And read and reread them. Naturally, when I heard that Robbins had a memoir/autobiography out, I felt almost obligated to read it. I felt I owed it to myself and to Robbins to meet the brain behind the fiction. I was not disappointed. Robbins has lived a fascinating life and his anecdotes are laced with his trademark wordplay and sense of humor. I’m not sure that someone who had never heard of Robbins would enjoy this particular book, but those who are fans will find this quite entertaining. My only real issue with this memoir is the lack of a structured narrative. Each chapter is more a short story or vignette detailing a specific period of time in Robbins’ life. They’re more or less arranged chronologically. It’s best not to go into this expecting the traditional memoir/autobiography format, because, much like Robbins’ novels, experimenting with the form is par for the course. The stop-and-go nature made it very difficult for me to read this in a short period of time. Rather, I just read a few chapters and would then put it down for a few days. Needless to say, it took me an eternity to read and, while I more or less enjoyed the process, it did get tedious from time to time. For those wanting to know more about Robbins’ early life and works, this is an ideal place to start.

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

Rumble by Ellen Hopkins , 560 pages, read by Courtney, on 09/14/2014

Matthew Turner is an atheist. He might have believed in God if his brother was still alive. But his brother committed suicide after the persistent harassment and hostility he faced when he came out as gay. In Matthew’s mind, if there really was a God, that God wouldn’t have let such terrible things happen to his brother, who was, by all accounts, a kind and wonderful human being. In fact, when it comes right down to it, Matthew doesn’t have faith in anything. His parents don’t get along; his father is a philanderer. His girlfriend is deeply religious, which causes serious problems when she decides she needs to get closer to God instead of Matt. School is even a bit of a mess; his essays raging against Christianity get him in trouble. What’s a kid to do when there’s nothing to believe in?

I’m ultimately kind of split on how I feel about Hopkins’ latest effort. On many levels,Rumble is great. On others, it feels heavy-handed and slightly contrived. The discussion of guilt and culpability is an important one for teens to read about, but Matthew is not a likeable character. He’s full of vitriol when it comes to the religion issue and he’s incredibly disrespectful of the faith of others. Of course, this really only pertains to Christianity, not other faiths. I’m honestly not sure that I buy the relationship between Matthew and his girlfriend. I have a lot of trouble believing that a girl so deeply religious would want to be around someone so exceedingly hostile toward a major aspect of her life. I might have bought it if one of the characters was more middle-of-the-road, or at least in a questioning phase. In this case, it feels like she exists more as a plot device and foil rather than a fully-realized character. That all having been said, I still found the overall message of the book to be a good and necessary one. While I saw the ending coming, I’m sure it will still satisfy many readers and give them plenty of food for thought.

06. October 2014 · Comments Off · Categories: Courtney, Historical Fiction, Mystery, Paranormal, Steam-punk, Teen Books

The Rithmatist by Brandon Sanderson, 378 pages, read by Courtney, on 09/09/2014

Joel has always wanted to be a Rithmatist, but he wasn’t chosen. He still gets to go to the prestigious Armedius Academy and, while he can’t take the courses that the Rithmatist students do, he can still sneak into the occasional class. His obsession with Rithmancy earns him a summer assistantship with his favorite Rithmancy professor, Fitch. When students studying Rithmancy start disappearing with no trace save for some drops of blood, the whole school is in an uproar. It’s believed that someone or something is targeting Rithmatists. The likely weapon is a set of oddly drawn Chalklings that have the ability to attack physical forms rather than chalk lines, the sort that are typically only seen far away on the war-torn isle of Nebrask. Professor Fitch is charged with assisting in the investigation and Joel is eager to help. The artistically-gifted-but-geometrically-disinclined Melody, also assigned to help Professor Fitch over the summer, teams up with Joel as they work to solve the mystery of their missing classmates.

Author Sanderson has created a fascinating and original world where battles are drawn in chalk. A working knowledge of geometry is every bit as important as a steady hand. Joel excels in geometric strategy, but ultimately can do little more than watch from the sidelines. The ability to become a Rithmatist is not one that can worked towards; either one is a Rithmatist or one is not. The setting is the United Isles of America (a detailed map of which appears at the beginning of the book). The Rithmatist is interspersed with illustrations featuring chalk-drawn defenses and Chalklings. Joel and Melody both break the mold of the middle-grade magic novel. Joel has no magical abilities. Melody, while a Rithmatist, is at the bottom of her class. She doesn’t particularly enjoy being a Rithmatist either. She is, however, an excellent artist, which winds up being far more useful than she had previously believed. This book works on a number of levels: it’s a mystery/fantasy/steampunk/action/adventure story. And it does all of these things quite well.

06. October 2014 · Comments Off · Categories: Courtney, Fantasy, Fiction, Teen Books

Sabriel by Garth Nix, 292 pages, read by Courtney, on 09/07/2014

Sabriel has been living on the safe side of the wall, far from the flowing free magic and the undead denizens of the Old Kingdom, for many years. She’s in training to be a mage and her mettle is about to be tested. Sabriel’s father, Abhorsen, has gone missing. Ordinarily, this wouldn’t worry Sabriel too much, but her father sent her his bells and sword. Which means he’s either dead or trapped in the underworld. Which means there’s now nothing preventing the dead from rising back up and wreaking havoc on both sides of the wall. Sabriel at once decides she needs to go and find her father, which means not only crossing the wall, but facing some of the biggest undead threats she’s ever encountered. Armed with her father’s bandolier of bells, each of which holds its own type of power, and her wits, Sabriel heads off into the unknown. She’s eventually joined by a cat-like creature, Mogget, and a young man she’s recently freed from the mast of a long-docked ship.

I’m a big fan of the Abhorsen trilogy, but there’s naturally a soft spot in my heart for Sabriel. Nix does a fantastic job with his world-building. The magic in this trilogy is one that must be learned and directed. Sabriel is clever and self-possessed, in spite of her absentee father and her longing to be on the other side of the wall where she was born. Her bitterness turns to determination as she navigates the river of the underworld and the dangers of the Old Kingdom. Sabriel is a richly imagined and original fantasy suitable for a wide audience.

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

The Half Life of Molly Pierce by Katrina Leno, 231 pages, 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, 384 pages, 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, 112 pages, 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, 296 pages, 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, 312 pages, 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, 304 pages, 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, 352 pages, 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, 352 pages, 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, 181 pages, 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, 250 pages, 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, 294 pages, 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, 384 pages, 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, 96 pages, 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, 304 pages, 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.