When We Wake by Karen Healey

when we wake karen healey“You are not the future I wanted. I can’t believe the same stupid shit is still happening. I wanted you to be better!  Be better!”

I wait for it, you know.  I wait for that minute, that second, when I will become tired of dystopias.  And sometimes it comes to me in a flash.  Sometimes I am in the middle of a book or am scanning the summaries of that month’s new releases and I am stuck in the middle of the same old thing for the thousandth time – it’s the end of the world and it’s all so obvious yet the science has no explanation and look there’s some middling, predictable love triangle and one of the guys SEEMS like the “bad” boy but PROBABLY he’s not and OH SURPRISE everyone’s corrupt and somehow this totalitarian government with complete control over everything has just been easily overthrown by a 15 year old, sure! I just can’t read another word.  I am bored and, worse, I am worn out of the entire genre beyond belief. “NO MORE DYSTOPIAS!” I say to myself.  “I’ll read summaries and reviews and skim so I can be up-to-date for booktalking to teens, but no more!” (because, and this part is SO important for me to always keep in mind, my teens still clamor for dystopias.  They are easy sells, they fly off the shelves, they are constantly requested.  I’ve got to buy them and I’ve got to know them. My HIGH-FALUTIN’ ~FEELS do not enter into the reader’s advisory part of my job.) And I mean it!

But then … then there’s one I have to give a shot.  Someone I trust promises me this one is worth it.  It’s a summary I can’t resist.  So, I give just this one a shot and … I am reminded all over again why I love this genre – these dystopias, the post-apocalyptic worlds where teenagers are fighting for survival and figuring out their identities all at the same time. I picked up When We Wake by Karen Healey for a simple reason: she’s one of my Morris authors.  Karen’s debut Guardian of the Dead was one of the five finalists for the 2011 Morris, the year I was a member of the committee.  So, her books are always meaningful to me and, of course, always instant-reads. But still!  Even loving Karen Healey, I was not prepared for the wonderfulness of When We Wake.

When We Wake begins in 2027 on the last day of Tegan Oglietti’s life.  It begins again when Tegan awakes 100 years in the future, the first person to be successfully revived from cryogenic freezing.  Now Tegan must find out who she is 100 years later, the entirety of her world swept away from her in the blink of an eye, and she must also figure out what kind of world she’s now living in and what her part in it all is.

What I Love About This Book

Where to begin with all I love about When We Wake?  How about here: what a loving, wonderful portrayal of teen activists.  What a glorious thing to find in a YA book, a YA fantasy book at that: teenagers who aren’t just in a story to fall in love, who don’t just topple governments with a single flashy action, but who are there, on the streets, doing the every day work of protesting and organizing for change.  That is true both in 2027 and 2127, the teens we meet are interested in the world, in politics, in issues like immigration reform and justice.  These are teenagers I know and have known, smart and passionate and curious.  And this is a real strength of the book – a future world, yes, but with grounding in the here and now, with sympathetic and realistic characters.

I love that when Tegan awakes she finds herself, yes, in a totally foreign world.  It is, after all, 100 years in the future.  And yet.  And yet it’s still a recognizable world.  That’s another thing that wears me out about round after round of dystopias – it’s 150 years in the future but we’ve lost all previous human language and all live in a complete totalitarian  regime in a landscape almost ruined by plagues and natural disasters but, really, everything’s mostly recovered, well the grass is longer.  Uhhh … well that time table seems slightly off to me. The world Tegan finds in 2127 is different, of course, it has different technology and slang and great strides have been made in a lot of social issues. Yet in many ways, the world is still recognizable to Tegan.  People still play guitar and love music, there are still cliques at high schools, there’s still a voracious media and online world to sink into and be wary of.  Because this is a world where things seem real and familiar it’s a world where it’s much easier to feel the stakes, the real costs and risks of Tegan’s choices.  Again, this is a frankly brilliant take on the futuristic novel and the dystopia.

In fact, note my use of the word dystopia.  There’s plenty right in the world of 2127 – and Tegan, from a time when the world seemed to be tearing apart, can’t help but see all that.  What’s amazing and rich and nuanced about Healey’s work is that, within all of this, within Tegan knowing all of this – there’s still things wrong, very wrong,  in the world Tegan finds herself in.  A lot of what makes the novel IMPOSSIBLE to put down (I ripped through it) is how Healey ratchets up the stakes and the suspense to reveal just how deep this wrongness goes.  Usually in a typical dystopia the bad is so bad and the good is so good that very rarely do readers have a chance to look around at the world the author has built for them and, without having to side with a genocidal lunatic, think  “But, really, is it all bad?” But that’s a real choice Tegan faces, a real puzzle she must untangle.  How bad is the bad and what exactly will I, Tegan Ogiletti, do about it?  What a question!  And, thanks to Healey’s amazing prose, what an answer we are given!

When We Wake is available to purchase now. If you can’t purchase one, go check out a copy from your local library and if they don’t have one, request they add it to their collection!  It is highly recommended for readers aged 13-18 and as a first purchase for public libraries, especially if you have a crowd who eats up end of the world books but also hungers for something new.

I return to the title – this isn’t just a story of When I Wake.  The WE is there for a reason.  This is a story of awakening, coming of age, and, most moving to me, of choosing to pick up the fight when something is unjust.  We are called awake and into this world with great passion and clarity thanks to Healey’s writing.  In a crowded field of books I thought I was all burned out on, When We Wake is special indeed.  It helped reignite my passion for dystopias and, best of all, it gave me something to think about.

(Here’s a Tor review of When We Wake that I absolutely loved and a fantastic Twitterview with Healey by Kim at Stacked.)

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See You At Harry’s by Jo Knowles

What, exactly, is the ever-elusive “middle-grade” novel?

Oh sure, that seems like an easy question, doesn’t it?  It’s a novel written for middle-school audiences.  But middle-school isn’t even the same everywhere.  In my community, middle-school is seventh and eighth grade only.  This is a great example of the larger question: where does “middle grade” fiction begin anyhow?  Where’s the bright-line?

Is it a book where the main characters are 12?  If they’re 13 is it automatically a young adult book?  Is it a book where the main characters are in middle school?  If they are still in fifth grade is automatically children’s fiction?

This, of course, ends us back up at the most basic question, the one that’s really at the heart of it all.  Why are we using “middle grade” anyhow?  Isn’t it basically either a young adult novel or children’s fiction?

Yes, these are the questions we librarians and teachers struggle with all the time, as we attempt to hold on to our readers crossing out of children’s fiction but not quite ready for the young adult world.

“We have something for you,” we want to shout to them as they drift away, “don’t go!   We have a whole genre of books not quite this one thing and not quite the other but they’re exactly perfect for you – just for you!”

To me, that’s what middle-grade should be, what middle-grade can be.  Middle-grade, the best middle-grade, should be a story that takes just the right parts of children’s fiction and young adult fiction and creates from them something that spans that gap – that reaches out to hungry readers looking for a story that is about the complications and challenges of their life as it changes.

To me, that’s why we keep promoting middle-grade, why we keep talking about it, why we keep asking for more and more of it.  Because when we find the right one, when we find a truly special one, that’s what it does.

See You At Harry’s by Jo Knowles is that unicorn, that rarest of creatures: truly great middle-grade fiction.

What I Love About This Book 

See You At Harry’s is one of my favorite books of 2012.  It’s well-written, tightly constructed, and doesn’t waste a single word.  It sneaks up on you and hits you with an emotional wallop that you won’t soon forget.  It’s enormously moving without being maudlin and it’s deep while also still being accessible.  I wouldn’t be one bit surprised to see this book come up in Newbery discussion, in fact, it will be a shame if it doesn’t.

Knowles’s command of craft is superb: she mixes the mundane and profound with grace and clarity.  This is a book where the way you feel about going to your first middle school dance and dealing with the embarrasment of your parents is treated with the same gravity and insight as the biggest tragedies and losses life can throw at you.  There’s something brave about that and, moreover, there’s something honest about it too.  That’s what life is actually like when you’re in middle school, when you’re figuring out the middle ground of who you were as a kid and who you are going to be as an adolescent and, even farther than that, who you’re going to be as an actual grown-up and how both those experiences (childhood, adolesence) shaped you.

 See You At Harry’s is a book unafraid to throw big concepts and big thoughts at middle-grade readers. If there is one thing I know about that elusive middle-grade novel it is THAT’S the most important element of all: middle-grade, maybe even more than young adult fiction, should contain the challenge, and the promise, of more.  It’s THE time, after all, for these readers to start wrestling with those concepts and for fiction to start tackling it in an honest way.  See You At Harry’s not only does that, it does that with an amazing amount of heart.  This is a book you feel in the deepest and truest sense: it’s a book that wrings out the reader’s own sorrows and losses while also reminding the reader of the deepest and truest loves in their lives.

See You At Harry’s is a story about Fern.  It’s a story about her family and her family’s business.  It’s a story about how embarrassing her father can be, how awkward it can be to be the daughter of someone who owns a well-known business in a smaller town.  It’s a story about Fran starting middle school, sorting out her new feelings for her close friend Ran and what that will mean for all her friendships.  It’s a story about all the aches and pains of being 12 and everything that goes along with that.

But, most of all, I think See You At Harry’s is a story about siblings.  It’s the story of how Fern aches along with her older brother Holden, who is bullied at school and trying to figure out his own changing life.  It’s the story of how Fern resents and is puzzled by how her older sister Sarah seems to be drifting away from the family as she gets older.  And it’s the story of Charlie, the youngest sibling, the surprise, a two year old who sticks his fingers up his nose, clings, whines, pesters, and is frequently dirty and sticky in that way only two year olds can be.  Charlie is a realistic child, a realistic toddler, in the way that so rarely exists in fiction written for older readers: he’s that  little kid readers will recognize as their younger sibling, cousin, neighbor, the toddler that 9-12 year old readers find themselves wanting to shout at as patience wears thin.  Knowles’ perfectly captures that believable frustration: the way Charlie wears Fern down simply by being Charlie, by being her younger brother who loves her so.

I don’t want to delve too deeply into the details of the plot because one of the pleasures of See You At Harry’s   is Knowles’ pacing.  Just like in real life things happen in See You At Harry’s that you can’t be prepared for.  I won’t ruin those surprises, because part of Knowles’ real gift in this work is the plotting.  It’s hard to stop reading See You At Harry’s because it feels to readers like real life, immediate and unpredictable.

See You At Harry’s is a work of astonishing grace, a heartbreaker and tear-jerker that’s also full of hope.  It’s a story about the resilience of love and the gifts of family and memory.  This book is highly recommended as a first purchase for public and school libraries.  You should buy a copy or go check it out from your local library today.  If your library doesn’t have a copy, request they add it.

This is a perfect middle grade novel, a novel that bridges that gap, reminds us as librarians why fiction for this age group exists and what it can do better than any other.  Thoughtful readers, middle grade readers, will be immediately drawn to the realism, the emotional wallop, and the strong writing in See You At Harry’s.  It’s a story that will stay with you a long, long time.  And you’ll be grateful for the visit.

(reviewed from an ARC generously provided by the publisher.)
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“Movies really can make it better.” Dani Noir by Nova Ren Suma

Welcome to 2012!!  The blog lives!  Sorry for the absence – I just went through one of those periods when I couldn’t quite get a blog to come out the way I wanted.  I was still reading and tweeting away, but blog just wasn’t happening.  One of the things I love the most about my site is that I never feel pressure to write anything but what I want when I want.  If it’s not right, it’s not right.  I hope there’s still a few people around and reading though!  🙂  I do hope all of you will bear with me through these periods.  And you can follow me on twitter: @misskubelik, where you can always finding me throwing out opinions and reviews.  Anyhow, I’m back and ready to rock 2012 with lots of blogs I’ve had in mind:  reviews of all sorts of stuff I’ve loved, some programming info, basically just things to get me motivated and writing again.

I also have a few announcements!  I want to start by thanking everyone for entering my last two contests and let you know who the randomly selected winners were.  Jasmine, who blogs at A Room With Books, won the copy of Daughter of Smoke and Bone generously provided by Little, Brown.  (have you read Daughter of Smoke and Bone yet??  What are you waiting on?!) and Jennifer won a copy of Rick Yancey’s The Monstrumologist.  YAY…and thanks to all for commenting and entering.  I like spreading the word about awesome books with people.  Share the good news forward, peeps!

Aaaand … I won something too!  I am super-excited to share that I won the Diversity in YA reading/blogging challenge.  Whooo!  The Diversity in YA challenge was a true challenge for me.  I learned a lot from having the chance to really reflect on what books can do and why they matter.  I was happy just to participate and grateful to Cindy Pon and Malinda Lo for hosting the challenge and consistently promoting Diversity in YA.  WINNING the challenge was even more amazing and exciting.  Thanks to all the publishers and authors for donating their books – the ones that my library doesn’t already own will go right on our shelves and the ones we have will find good homes, either with other librarians or my teen patrons.

Now onto the actual blog being alive part!

Movies can do that: make people forget everything that’s bad about their lives, and bad about the world, even make them ignore the fact that they’ve already run out of popcorn. All that matters is what’s on-screen, that world in black-and-white or bright color, the story that’s got its hold on you.  Movies really can make it better.

I read Nova Ren Suma’s middle grade masterpiece Dani Noir a few months ago, but only recently has the true resonance and loveliness of it hit me.  Dani Noir is lots of things.  It’s a story about a teenager dealing with pain and repercussions stemming from the messy breakup of her parents’ marriage.  It’s a story about that awkward summer when a friend has moved away, everything is changing, and you’re not quite sure what your life is going to be like.  It’s a story about a girl growing up and making mistakes and learning that you can survive your own mistakes, even when they are thoughtless and hurtful.  It’s all that.  And all that is lovely and smart and sharp and well-written.  But Dani Noir is something else too.

Dani Noir is a book about how loving art can not just enrich your life but make it easier too.  More than that though: Dani Noir is a book about being a fan, a book about how being a fan can be an important, productive identity in your life.

Now how cool is that?

Dani is a cinephile.  In fact, this is central to the plot of the novel and her character.  Dani loves film, particularly old films, particularly films starring Rita Hayworth, and particularly the genre of film noir.  (see title.)  During her confusing, lonely summer Dani will find comfort and solace in film.  She will see her story in film, though not always in the most positive way, and she will try to use film to make sense of her life.  This is what we cinephiles do, you see, this is what we look to the big screen for.  In this summer of growth and pain, Dani will come to understand that film, that art, can be a tether to what’s good in life and a way to find like-minded friends and conspirators, people who speak your language and want in on the conversation.

I can’t remember the last time I read a YA/MG novel that was so sharply accurate about the power of that connection.  Maybe, frankly, never.  I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop: for an overwrought scene where someone shouts at Dani that “LIFE ISN’T LIKE THE MOVIES, WAKE UP ALREADY!” In this scene, the character would completely misunderstand what it means to take refuge in art, what it means to let movies take you into another world.  Dani would eventually come to see how wrong she was about everything, how real life is so much more satisfying than anything you could ever see on some old screen!  And yet that scene never came.  No, not at all.

In fact, the opposite happened.  Dani came to understand that her mistakes, her thoughtlessness and single-minded fixations, were her own.   Dani learned that life was not a film noir movie that she could act as director of regardless of anyone else’s feelings.  And yet she retained her love for film, her ability to see her life in it, her true kinship and connection with the medium. And that’s part of what makes Suma’s characterization of Dani so rich and true: here is a character who changes and grows, makes mistakes and pushes people away, yet retains her passions and interests, is the same character we met at the beginning but a more realized, more mature character at the end.

Even if I didn’t already love everything else about Dani Noir, from the unflinchingly honest way it looks at the emotional impact of divorce and remarriage to the feather-light but still consequential mystery at the core of Dani’s puzzle-solving, I would love this book for one simple reason.  Dani doesn’t have to “give up” film, because film is part of who Dani is.  In fact, Dani gets to share film with the people her world has now expanded to include.  She gets to try new films, new actresses, maybe even new genres.  This love opens her life up, helps her share her fandom and start conversations.  That is what it means to be a fan, the very best, most true parts of it.  Dani Noir and Nova Ren Suma get that and that makes this book truly unique and truly special.

Dani Noir is highly recommended for all middle-grade audiences, it’s particularly suited for middle grade readers who are looking for something truly different and worth their time. The novel takes place over the summer before Dani’s eighth grade year, but there’s definitely lots of early teen appeal here – ages 11-15 are the sweet spot for this book, especially if you know any curious, bright, passionate kids who are fans and fans-in-the-making.  You should buy a copy or go check it out from your local library today.  If your library doesn’t have a copy, request they add it.

Dani is so right: in those moments when you feel alone, on those days when you just need to escape, movies really can make it better.  And so can books as good as Dani Noir.

(Dani Noir will be re-released as Fade Out in June, 2012.  Personally, I’m not exactly crazy about the new title or cover but if it gets more people reading the book – hooray!)

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Leviathan and Behemoth by Scott Westerfeld (or: perfect books are perfect)

There comes a moment when you’re reading Harry Potter when you stop thinking about Quidditch, about quaffles and beaters and chasers and bludgers, and you just know it.  Which is not to say that, suddenly, you have every single rule figured out and know exactly what’s happening in every second.  It’s that you just accept Quidditch – you know enough to know enough and then, like that, you’re sailing along in a match.

I think this is the moment when you well and truly fall in love with Harry Potter – when you become fully immersed in Rowling’s universe in a way that you never really shake after that.

I thought of that moment when I stopped trying to figure out every single scientific and anatomical detail about how the giant, genetically created flying airship/animal known as the Leviathan works or was created.  At some point, and I don’t remember exactly when it was because it never works like that, not really, at some point, I stopped concentrating and worrying about all that and was, instead, just aboard the Leviathan.  I just knew.

And that’s the moment I fell well and truly and permanently in love with Scott Westerfeld’s Leviathan trilogy, a steampunk, historical alternative universe set in 1914, and the richly dense fictional world he’s created: a world filled with fantastical beasties and brave girls disguised as boys and labyrinth political intrigue and revolutions and exiled princes on the run and danger and adventure and huge, elaborate mechanical devices and, of course, true love.

Sure, I’m still waiting for my letter from Hogwarts.  But now?  Just as much?  I’m waiting for my recruitment papers from the Royal Air Service.

I’ve talked a little about how hard I tried to love Leviathan and how, time and again, it just didn’t work for me.  (and how it was the superb audiobook versions that really pulled me in) But my teens?  They have loved Leviathan from the beginning and the love it, passionately, across every reading demographic you can imagine: boys who are into steampunk, girls who love romance, reluctant readers, advanced readers, readers who hate sci-fi, readers who’d never try historical fiction.  And while that made me very happy, it still wasn’t doing for me.  Too much jargon,  too hard to really get into.  But I kept trying, because my teens kept insisting.  They would entreat me time and again:  “Please, we need to discuss it!”  So this is the series, above all other I have encountered in my 4 years working with teens, that the teens had to sell me on first, simply because they had to talk about it.

And that, I think, speaks to the key of the appeal of the Leviathan series.  There’s all this complicated world building, advanced machinery, behind the scenes political machinations, and feats of great derring-do and adventure.  Not only are those things that get teens turning pages, those are things that get teens talking.  Those are the things that make Westerfeld’s Leviathan universe one that feels lived in and the things that make you want to live there.

I don’t particularly want to spend this whole post going over the minutiae of the plot.  For one thing, no explanation really does the rich plot justice; it really is the kind of book that unfolds in the best ways like a puzzle with each detail weaving a larger picture.  For another thing,  because of the complexity of this universe, you’d just get caught up in a boring plot-point recitation.  “And then she, but then he, but also don’t forget in this universe that …”

But I do want to talk, briefly, about our two lead characters: Deryn “Dylan” Sharp and Prince Aleksandar Ferdinand of Hohenberg.  And what utterly lovely lead characters they are!  How fully rounded, how realistically flawed, they are!  How easy it is to care for them, to root for them, to feel for them!  Deryn, the common girl who pretends every day to be something she isn’t, who changed her name and joined up with the Royal Air Service so she could fly.  Deryn, who is an excellent midshipman, always up for dangerous missions and routine duties. Deryn, who must learn to rely on others, to temper her recklessness with thoughtfulness, who like so many teens struggles with who she is and who everyone thinks she is.  Deryn, who finds herself immediately drawn to Alek from the moment they meet, who becomes his best friend and fierce ally because it’s the right thing to do as she also finds herself, much to her great surprise, falling in love with him.  And who wouldn’t love Alek?  Alek, who is brave and loyal and good in the best sense of the word.  Alek, who opens his mind to the new world of the Darwinists and wants justice and right to prevail.  Alek, who has no idea that his best friend is a girl in love with him.  Alek, the Prince on the run who is learning that whatever his destiny might be, he has control over it, he doesn’t just have to sit passively and let the world happen around him.  (again, another plot line that is particularly resonant to teens.)

These are great characters, the kind you feel like you truly know, the kind that feel real.  Deryn and Alek take alternating chapters to tell their stories and this is another brilliant move on Westerfeld’s part.  Besides the fact it’s yet another element that keeps the pages turning, it also gives their stories and characterization freedom to grow independently and gives readers a chance to really live inside each of their perspectives.

Today is the publication date of Goliath, the final volume in the trilogy.  I was lucky enough to get my hands on an ARC back in June (there might have been crying and flailing involved…) but I won’t spoil the ending here except to say that it’s a fitting conclusion: full of everything that makes the series great, as well as new characters, a particularly salient “big” question for teens to ponder, and a few surprises too.  In case it wasn’t clear enough, this series is highly recommended as a first purchase for all public libraries.

And now it’s YOUR chance to dive into this world for the first time and I hope you’ll feel the same immersion and exhilaration I did, that same love.  Go to your library or local bookstore and pick up a copy of Leviathan  today – now the series is complete, so you have no excuse to jump right in.  You won’t regret it.

While it’s true that I might not be able to tell you everything about how the Leviathan works as an airship, I know how it works as a story, as a fictional universe that springs to life and lives in your heart.

I know that it flies.

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“Bitter End” by Jennifer Brown

Cole is a nice guy.  And Alex is lucky to have him for a boyfriend.  He’s a sports star and charming and likable; he encourages Alex’s poetry and thinks she’s special and he’s not afraid to pursue her or embarrassed to let her know how much he likes being with her.  Loves being with her, actually, wants to be with her all the time.  It’s flattering, really, how much Cole likes Alex.  That’s the way love is supposed to be, after all, and that shows how much Cole likes her, how really into her Cole is.

Isn’t this what every girl wants?

TRIGGER WARNING: This post contains an excerpt from Jennifer Brown’s Bitter End, a book about a teenage girl in a physically abusive relationship.  The excerpt, like the book, depicts graphic domestic abuse.  Due to the potentially triggery nature,  the rest of this post is under a cut.

That would never be me.

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[Read more…]

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Oh, Canada! Great Canadian Reads

As most of you know, I LOVE CANADA.  Oh, how I love Canada.  (Canadian publishers and libraries looking for employees: hit me up.)   The past two years I have spent my annual long vacation in Toronto, attending the Toronto International Film Festival and wishing I lived there.  I spend a lot of time waiting in line, which is great reading time, and lots of time in-between movie screenings (I saw 34 movies in 9 days last year…hoping I can get to 40 in 10 days this year!) hanging around Canadian bookstores.  In this way, I’ve found some real treasures.

So, in this first YAY, CANADA! blog, I wanted to share some of the amazing middle grade titles I’ve found and really enjoyed, titles that I think will circulate like crazy with American patrons.  Upcoming YAY, CANADA blogs will look at young adult titles and take a look at one of the coolest initiatives I’ve ever seen: Indigo Books’ Teen Read Awards. (there are lessons, MANY LESSONS, I think YALSA’s Teen’s Top Ten could learn from Indigo’s initiative, though it’s been sadly suspended this year …)

I hope to regularly review and spotlight Canadian titles and authors (for all ages) and I eagerly solicit suggestions from my Canadian librarian friends and readers!  (two blogs and resources worth checking out: the fantastic librarians at CLASY: Canadian Libraries Are Serving Youth and Erin Walker, a Canadian YA librarian who blogs at Erin Explores YA)

I want to start with Prinny.  OH, PRINNY.  Where to begin with this almost perfect middle grade novel?  OK, I’ll just go with the part I liked the best.  It’s a novel where a character discovers strength and kinship in literature and, better still, that literature is a contemporary YA novel.  Yes, really.  I know there’s been some discussion about why don’t more characters in YA books read YA books?  It bothers me too.  That’s why this story, wherein a YA book helps Prinny find her voice and see herself, felt so true to me.  I’ve seen teenagers find themselves in books, the way Prinny does here, cling to them like lifelines, and I know that so has author Jill MacLean.  BETTER STILL is the novel that Prinny, a girl from a rural area in Newfoundland, connects to is Virginia Euwer Wolff’s Make Lemonade, a book that is about teenagers struggling with poverty in an urban inner-city.  But MacLean knows that when you see yourself in a work of  literature the way Prinny sees herself in Wolff’s text, you go beyond things as basic as setting and look and feel deeper.  This is great, great stuff!  In the course of the narrative, Prinny finds her voice through many avenues, but hearing LaVaughn’s voice is key.  This book covers several underrepresented in MG experiences: Prinny and her family are very much part of the working class poor.  Prinny is surprised by the existence of Amazon.ca (you can buy books and have them mailed to you?) not because she’s stupid but because the concept of buying books for pleasure is completely foreign to her.  There’s also the believable friendship between Prinny and Travis (Travis is the main character in MacLean’s fine novel The Nine Lives of Travis Keating) which is a totally platonic friendship, based on the things they have in common (a love of nature and an interest in animals) and the way they are outsiders at their school.  AND there’s Prinny’s strained relationship with her mother, who is well-known in their small town as the town drunk.  Yet another outstanding (and utterly believable) element of the story is the way Prinny deals with this, painfully and awkwardly, filled with love and frustration.  The way Prinny and her father deal with the situation with her mother, the way their whole family learns to be honest with each other and try – it’s all very true.  I think by now it might sound like there’s too much happening in the narrative and it’s busy – but the opposite happens.  Everything ties together, everything works together to tell the story of a very real character coming into her own.  This is truly splendid book and, along with The Nine Lives of Travis Keating, it’s highly recommended for public and school libraries.  Give your patrons a chance to hear Prinny’s voice – I think that she’ll speak to them the way LaVaughn spoke to her.

Next are the two titles I think are probably best known in the USA, Susin Nielsen’s Word Nerd and Dear George Clooney, Please Marry My Mom.  These are two of the best middle-grade/tween novels I have EVER read.  If you were looking for an example of what a middle grade/tween novel should read like, as a genre example, you couldn’t do better than these two books.   If you’re looking for more MG books?  Get these.  Right now!

Word Nerd is the story of a bullied 12 year old named Ambrose Bukowski.  Ambrose’s mother has begun to homeschool him after one incident of bullying too many.  Ambrose, in all his awkward glory, befriends the 25 year old son of his landlords, Cosmo.  Cosmo, like Ambrose, loves words and loves Scrabble.  The two form a Scrabble Club and a friendship … except Cosmo is an ex-con and Ambrose’s mother doesn’t approve.  I know, this sounds simplistic.  But Cosmo and Ambrose have such a great friendship.  Cosmo is a rarity in MG/teen fiction – a young-adult who has made mistakes but is trying to change his life.  Ambrose sees that and so do we.  It’s a funny, original book with a great protagonist.  (in my dreams, this is adapted into a movie with Jesse Eisenberg as Cosmo.  I need you to make this happen, Hollywood.) George Clooney is about Violet, whose father has left her, her little sister, and her mother in Vancouver while he heads off to LA with a new wife and kids.  Violet is tired of the losers her mom is dating and decides, obviously, the answer is to get George Clooney to marry her mother, so she no longer has to date guys like Dudley Weiner.  Like Word Nerd what works here is the mix of very specific humor (both these books are very funny and about kids who are, well, quirky) and an achingly accurate depiction of the struggles of being 12.

Nielsen is also particularly good at writing believable parental figures.  This is not to say they are beyond compare or perfect, but they are parents that are trying and sometimes, well, failing.  They keep trying though!  Ambrose and Violet’s mothers want what’s best for them, but Nielsen understands that figuring out what that is isn’t always easy.  I think the parent/kid relationship is even more important in middle grade than YA fic.  That’s not to say parents don’t need to be present in the YA narrative, but they take a different role in the middle grade novel.  I think the best middle grade novels are the ones that reflect this and manage to write believable parents who are believable adults too.  Nielsen does that not just with the parents but with the other adults, like Cosmo in Word Nerd. That adds to the authenticity of tween life, which is the overall hallmark of both of Nielsen’s books.  These are great, funny, special middle grade novels.  I can’t recommend them enough.

There you have it: four great middle grade novels from Canada … go out and get them, or request your library buy copies, today.  More Canadian goodness soon!

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Fiction As A Lifeline -“The Piper’s Son” by Melina Marchetta

I use fiction as a way to interpret my life and survive my hurts

I was going to try to get to that, like, eventually.  I was going to make a bunch of big grand allusions and metaphors and then, ta-dah, I would reveal it all cryptic-like.  Ooooh, everyone would marvel I see what she did there!  So clever! But really, what’s the point?  Let’s just go ahead and say it: I use fiction as a way to see myself and my life.   I think the best fiction not only does that, not only helps us see ourselves, but helps us see beyond that, see more than ourselves.

And this is maybe what I love the most:  when I connect with a piece of fiction I connect with the world.

I was reading Melina Marchetta’s new novel The Piper’s Son in a restaurant and when the waitress came over to my table to ask if I needed a refill she was startled when I looked up and had tears rolling down my face.  I wanted to tell her, “Hey, it’s OK, don’t worry, I’m just here with my friend Tom and he’s going through a hard time and I really relate and -”

Because Tom Mackee, the main character in The Piper’s Son feels like a friend to me.  More than a friend, he is so real to me as a character that he is not a character any more – he’s just a guy I know.

Except now he doesn’t know what kind of family they are.  What word would define them?  What would they call his family in the textbooks?  Broken?  He comes from a broken home.  The Mackees can’t be put back together again.  There are too many pieces of them missing.

To be succinct: The Piper’s Son is a story about a family dealing with grief.  That’s that.  Someone died unexpectedly and it tore a hole in their family and no one quite knows how to recover.  And, of course, anyone reading that sentence knows how that might sound simple but real grief is the opposite of simple and thus so is this text.  Real grief sneaks up on you, grabs you around the throat when you’re least expecting it, real grief finds you on sunny days in the middle of joy, real grief rearranges everything good in your life and makes you feel stranded.

Tom’s uncle died and his close-knit family couldn’t quite bear the strain of it.  His parents became estranged, his father fell into a bottle, and his extended family, including his aunt Georgie, came unglued too.  Where the story gets particularly interesting, especially for teen readers, is that Tom himself unravels everything good in his life.

Tom had a great group of friends, a band he played with, a girl he was absolutely crazy about and finally going to be with.  But grief, bone deep grief, has pulled Tom away from all that.  (Tom doesn’t know it but his grief, as grief sometimes does, has made him think he’s not worthy of anything good, anything joyful.  Marchetta is such a skillful writer that she never expressly states this, she just lets the reader feel how wrong Tom is –  feel that and want, so madly, for him to realize how wrong he is.)  He shuts out his friends, quits the  band, drives away the girl.  He is alone in a sea of hurt and loss and anger because, of course, this is a book smart enough to know that grief makes you so damn angry sometimes.

This is a book about grief, yes, and how grief blows your life apart.  But this is also a book about how you pick up the pieces from that, how the tidal wave of grief can knock you over but how we find our way back to life again.  At the end of the book one of the characters realizes “I need happiness.  I deserve it.” This seemingly simple statement is, instead, a profound declaration

We begin with everything in Tom’s life in shambles.  The Piper’s Son isn’t the story about how all of this fixes itself and Tom stops feeling bad and he gets the girl.   It is the story of how life goes on, about how your best friends will always come for you and never give up on you, about how grief doesn’t stop but it can lessen enough to let joy in, about how when you love the right girl and she loves you back, well, that can get you through a lot of shit.

I feel like … no matter what I do, I’m not doing this story justice.  Because besides all these ~BIG PLOT POINTS WITH EMOTIONAL LESSONS~ this is just a book that grabs you and doesn’t let go.  It’s funny (Tom is sarcastic and smart and mean and charming too) and real and romantic and passionate.  People in this book  care so much and Marchetta makes you care too.  There’s not a single wasted line in this book, it’s all brilliantly constructed, from the metaphor of Tom losing his interest in creating music to the very subtle and strongly drawn story about fathers and sons that runs through the entire narrative.  Tom’s father, a gregarious fellow everyone loved, lost himself in his grief and we learn the story of his family, how his father went off to fight in Vietnam and never came home and he was raised by his father’s best friend, the man who became his step-father.  All of this becomes part of Tom’s family legend, the grandfather whose body never made it back from war, and it haunts Tom’s relationship with his father.

This is very much a story about family – about how our families shape us and hold us up and even, sometimes, let us down when we think we can’t bear it.  Tom is taken in by his aunt Georgie, who narrates some parts of the book.  I know there might be some concern that teen readers won’t find themselves as interested in Georgie’s story as Tom’s, but I think that the two are inseparable.  It’s important to Marchetta’s larger story about grief to show how it’s an equal opportunity monster: adults, like Georgie, don’t have magical coping skills that make them more able to handle bad things.  And not just grief, Marchetta uses this Georgie’s story to let teens in on the great secret.  We adults don’t have all the answers, you know. We fuck up too.  This is an important point for teens and it’s resonant – we’re all figuring this out, we’re all doing the best we can and making mistakes and trying to go on with it.

This is also a love story.  A big, romantic, heart-stopping love story.  First, it’s a love story between a group of friends who won’t give up on each other, even when things are hard, a group of friends who stick together.  (I think teens are going to love that element.)  But it’s also the love story of Tom and Tara Finke, the girl he pushed away as he slipped into sorrow, the girl he can’t forget.  Tom and Tara are inexorably drawn to each other, through the hurts, through the miles that now separate them.  They reconnect through electronic communications and their stumbling, often acerbic reconnection is awkward and sharp and sweet all at once.  Tom loved Tara Finke but even before grief laid him low he was afraid of his feelings for her – because they were BIG and scary and new.  Now he has to decide what to do with all those feelings, if it’s too late to face up to what they mean to him, to what she means to him.  And Tara, because she is a fully-realized character all on her own, has to see if she can find a way to forgive how badly Tom has hurt her.  Of course, I don’t want to spoil it but I will say the scene between the two of them in the airport is one of the most breathtakingly true and heartachingly awesome things I’ve simply ever read.

Who is the target audience for this book?  Tom and his friends are high school graduates, in their early 20s.  Some parts of the story are narrated by 42 year old Georgie.  Adults could easily read (and enjoy) this title.  So is this a YA book?  Absolutely, without a doubt.  This is a story with lots of teen appeal: a story about figuring out your parents aren’t perfect but you can love them anyway, a story about friends that like you even when they see the worst in you, a story about how being an adult doesn’t mean you have all the answers, it just means you get to get an equal chance at trying to figure it all out.  This is a quintessential YA novel, an exemplary example of what the genre can do when it really tries.

The Piper’s Son is a highly recommended first purchase for all public and high school libraries.  You should go purchase one for yourself today.  And if your library doesn’t have a copy, request they buy one.

Maybe strangers enter your heart first and then you spend the rest of your life searching for them.

Tom Mackee was a stranger to me at first.  But by the end of the book, I’d found him and, better still – he’d found me.  He connected me to the world, he let me cry out some deep hurts, and he reminded me that sadness isn’t the end of the story.  The best fiction shows you the truth of the world and The Piper’s Son is that kind of story.

[must read: Liz’s review of The Piper’s Son.
Reviewed from a copy generously provided by the publisher]

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A Chance to Win Flash Burnout & Love for L.K. Madigan

Flash Burnout by L.K. Madigan won the 2010 Morris Award.  As most of you reading this blog probably already know, the Morris Award is, and always will be, dearly close to my heart, as I just finished my first ever selection committee work on the 2011 Morris Award Committee.  I heard, first-hand, the way the Morris Award, which is given to a debut novel, changes authors lives.  This year’s Morris reception was immensely moving to me, seeing our three authors in attendance (winner Blythe Wolstoon and honorees Lish McBride and Barbara Stuber) and hearing them talk about what writing meant in their lives and knowing that they the Morris Award recognition was going to make their publishing even a little bit easier, well, it was significant to me.

Knowing that Flash Burnout is in that company, that author L.K. Madigan had a similar journey with the Morris Award, that makes it special to me too.  I think Morris books will always be in my favorites because, in a way, they represent all the struggle and hope and work that goes into getting a book published that very first time.

But Flash Burnout is also special to me because it’s a truly great novel.  This book has high teen appeal and is a good read-alike for John Green and Maureen Johnson fans. Flash Burnout is highly recommended for teens aged 15 and up interested in realistic fiction and books about the artistic process.

Here are six things that make Flash Burnout special and worth your time:

1. a boy narrator.  Yes, it’s true.  Here’s a book with a funny, smart, realistic male lead character.  Blake is a great lead character, you feel for him and care about his choices.  He’s goofy and easily embarrassed and he likes girls and thinks a lot about sex and is perfect for all those boy readers out there some people don’t think exist.  Blake has a realistic, believable arc in the book, you’re rooting for him even as he messes up.   Blake is authentically BOY.

2. no werewolves/vampires/ghosts in sight.  For all those times you need a breather from the world of the supernatural, where vampires sparkle and ghosts can’t wait to date you.  (Don’t get me wrong, I love this genre.  I love that teens love this genre.)  Sometimes you just feel like a story that feels so possible… sometimes stories like that can  really connect with your first-hand experience and mean something in your life.  This is an outstanding example of contemporary, realistic YA fiction.

3. art.  Another outstanding element of the story is the use of photography throughout.  Not only does it provide a thoughtful metaphor for the story of Blake figuring out how he “frames” himself in the world, it also incorporates a lot of photography technique and terminology seamlessly into the plot.  Blake is serious about photography as an art and a craft and it’s really good to see that passion and curiosity for creation and art in a YA novel.  This is perfect for teens that are looking for stories about artists and any that might be interested in photography in general.

4. the tone.  This book has a really unique tone that mixes serious stuff (Blake’s friend Marissa’s desperate search for her meth addicted mother) with funny stuff (Blake’s near constant thoughts about sex and girls) very well and very realistically.  It makes for a really compelling read and the way Madigan masterfully balances the tone keeps you reading.

5. the not a triangle-triangle. Another huge thread in the book is how Blake feels torn between his romantic relationship with a girl named Shannon and his close friendship with Marissa.  In lesser books, this would be some kind of very obvious triangle, with Shannon as a controlling bitch or Marissa as clearly not right for him, but Madigan goes past that – into a deeper more realistic place.  Who hasn’t been in an awkward situation like that?  Who hasn’t wondered if they’re with the right person, if a friend could be something more? This makes Blake’s feelings, his indecision and his confusion, so much more significant, so much more believable.  It’s harder but it’s more true and, in my opinion, that’s something all YA novels should strive for, plot-wise.

6. the family ties.  Yes, this is a book about a girl who is searching for her estranged, drug addicted mother.  But wait, don’t despair that you’re reading yet another dysfunctional family YA novel.  This is also the story of Blake’s family – Blake’s funny and loving and kind of weird and very supportive family.  Blake’s parents trust him and support him and talk with him and want to help him but also believe he can make the right choices.  IT’S KIND OF A MIRACLE OF AWESOME, basically.

Sounds pretty great doesn’t it?  I hope you’re bumping it to the top of your to-be-read list.  I hope you’re reserving a copy at your local library right now.  Do you want a copy of your own?  Then today is your lucky day!  All you have to do is comment on this entry for a chance to win a paperback copy of L.K. Madigan’s Flash Burnout! (The lucky winner will be chosen at random.)

So why the sudden love for Flash Burnout, you might be asking?  Sadly, last week L.K. Madigan announced that she was recently diagnosed with stage IV pancreatic cancer.  This is a devastating blow to the YA fiction community.  A group of librarian-blogger friends decided we’d all post something about Lisa’s work and offer giveaways of her books on our sites.  Some of us (me included) are also making donations to the American Cancer Society in her name. You can visit these other posts and contests at GreenBeanTeenQueen, GalleySmith, YA Librarian Tales, and Stacked.

We thought this would be a good way to let Lisa know what her work has meant to us as teen librarians and lovers of YA lit.  We also thought it would be a chance to get her books in more hands so more people could share the beauty and power of her words and work.

One of the goals of the Morris Committee is to help debut authors receive more recognition.  I’m not sure I would have ever read Flash Burnout if it hadn’t been for the Morris.  I am so glad I did.   I hope you give Flash Burnout (or her second book The Mermaid’s Mirror, a delicious fantasy) a read so that you can share in the power of her work.  For L.K. Madigan, I think (I hope) that this is the best way to spread some the blessings and gifts of her life – through getting her writing out far and wide.

Our thoughts are with you, Lisa, and we’re so grateful for your gifts.

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The DUFF (Designated Ugly Fat Friend) by Kody Keplinger

The DUFF: the designated ugly fat friend.  The one girl in a group that’s just not “as pretty” as the others.  DUFF: it’s a “real” thing, you know.  You can look it up on Urban Dictionary, where it’s been an entry since 2003.  The DUFF, the girl in any group who’s just not as pretty, not as skinny, not as noticeable, not as special as the friends she’s with. And, regardless of the group, regardless of the situation, you already (and always) know who the DUFF is…don’t you?  She’s you.

“For a girl with such a fat ass, I felt pretty invisible.”

FINALLY, you are saying to yourself SHE’S GOING TO WRITE ABOUT A FAT BOOK (AS PROMISED) AT HER FAT BLOG.  IT’S ABOUT TIME!

Well, about that . . .

But!  But!  It says “fat” right there, in the title!  Yet one of the things that works about The DUFF is that we don’t really know if our protagonist, Bianca, is “actually” fat.  And one of the things that doesn’t just work but that makes The DUFF brilliant is that it still manages to be about the complicated and often painful politics of body image.  Bianca might be fat.  She might not be.  The DUFF challenges readers to ask: what does fat look like and what does fat mean anyway?

The DUFF starts one night out when Bianca is out with her friends.  She is approached by Wesley, school hottie and well-known player, who attempts to chat her up so her friends will like him.  Why would that work?  Because, as Wesley explains, Bianca is The Duff among her friends.  She knows it and they know it, he assures her.   If they see him talking to her, why, they’ll think he’s sensitive and kind for deigning to talk to her and probably make out with him.  Bianca, naturally insulted, throws her Cherry Coke in his face and stalks off.

Of course, you can probably guess where this is headed.

One of the things that works the best about this book is that though many plot developments seem inevitable and predictable (Bianca and Wesley’s hostility is also chemistry?  You don’t say!) Kiplinger still manages to give them an extra dimension, something just a little different than what you thought you guessed.

Like I said, we don’t know “how fat” Bianca is, but we do get to hear some of her thoughts on how fat she feels.  She refers to herself as having “big thighs” (p. 12), as being “chubby” (p.39),  and as having a “fat ass” (p. 139). But, again, Kiplinger knows that everyone feels that way sometimes, that feeling like that doesn’t always describe how we actually look.  Is this a book about a fat girl?  Kinda.  But it’s also a book about how society sometimes makes you feel like “a fat girl” by making you feel like “fat” is the worst of who you are.

Another nice touch: Bianca’s best friends, Casey and Jessica, also have insecurities about their looks.  Though Wesley opens by telling Bianca she’s the DUFF, Casey and Jessica are only human.  At one point, Casey protests SHE’S the DUFF.  Casey thinks she’s “Sasquatch” (p. 44) … but tall girls are all models, right?  They never have anything to worry about! Kiplinger knows that’s not true, and she knows that’s the heart of the DUFF.  One particularly nice, subtle moment comes when Bianca says something dismissive to Casey about the girls on the cheerleading squad, a squad Casey happens to be a member of:

“…He wouldn’t even date a girl on the Skinny Squad–“

“I really hate it when you call us that.” (p. 190)

Such a nice touch!  Slamming of the other cheerleaders who have “skinny” bodies doesn’t pass without comment.  Casey lets Bianca know that makes her uncomfortable, that the language is reductive and hurtful.  In less than 20 words and without beating you over the head with it, Kiplinger gets the point across, loud and clear.

So, Bianca finds herself pulled into a quickly escalating physical relationship with Wesley in an attempt to get through some rough personal times. (again, an refreshingly honest detail: sometimes, we use physical and sexual intimacy in a way that’s not always healthy or fair.  But it feels good and it makes us feel connected.)  They banter, bicker, have sex, and start to scratch each other’s surfaces.  But can they ever be more than just “enemies-with-benefits?”

(This is one of the book’s less believable parts: it’s so honest about sex that when the plot starts to veer off to “and the guy you have random hook-ups with could totally turn into awesome boyfriend material if you just stick it out and give him a shot!!!” it feels a little unrealistic.  Yeah, that happens, but, in my experience, not that often.  But this is, in many ways, a romance novel so it’s not entirely jarring or unexpected within the genre.)

The relationship between Bianca and Wesley is good, don’t get me wrong.  For one thing: their sexual relationship is sizzling and integral to their relationship as a whole. (This is one of very few YA book I can think of that discusses cunnilingus.  [maybe the only non-lesbian one?] And discusses it in a way that seems totally believable and real to a teenage girl’s mind.) No hand-holding here, Edward Cullen!  The way the book deals with sex is definitely for mature readers but it’s also good to see YA fiction moving beyond the billowing curtains.  And Bianca and Wesley’s banter is good too: natural, unforced, and kind of mean in all the best ways.  So are the moments when they start to really connect.  She stands up to him, calls him on bullshit, and doesn’t let him treat her like crap.  He likes her more because of that.  That’s believable, that works.

But, for me, what makes The DUFF really work is Bianca’s relationship with her girlfriends, some other girls at school, and herself.  This is a feminist book.  It’s a book about owning your identity, about not feeling bad for feeling good about sex, a book about rejecting “sexist” labels and words that tear girls down.  (yes, Kiplinger uses the word sexist!  HURRAH!)

Reading The DUFF and not knowing how ugly or fat Bianca “really” is doesn’t just show how subjective and individual measures like that are.  Keplinger knows it helps readers understand that everyone feels like the DUFF sometimes.  Perhaps that seems a little simplistic, but I think it’s a message teen readers NEED to hear.

Hell, I think it’s a message we ALL need to hear.

Recommended for: Language and sexual situations make this one for older teens only.  I recommend this as a first purchase for public libraries and for teens in grades 10-12.  I think this has the potential to be one of those books teen girls pass around from friend to friend.

A NOTE ABOUT THE COVER!

You’ll note that my post features two covers.  The one of the left is a picture I took the ARC cover.  The one one the right is the one that’s shown on Amazon, Kiplinger’s site, etc.  I IMPLORE YOU, POPPY, PLEASE USE THE ONE ON THE LEFT.  Not because the girl on the left is “fat” (maybe she is, maybe she isn’t…which fits the text!) but because the cover on the right seems all wrong for the book.  Funky eyeshadow?  Blowing a bubble with bubblegum? What does that have to do with anything?  It seems almost tween-ish.  AND THIS IS NOT A TWEEN BOOK.  That model looks almost flippant and uninterested.  The girl on the left is looking right at you: up close and unblinking.  I can practically see the smirk on her lips.  She’s Bianca.

Comment for a Chance to WIN A COPY OF THIS BOOK!

I hope you can’t wait to read this book!  It doesn’t come out until September 7, but after ALA I ended up with two advance reading copies.  (thanks to Little & Brown!)  I knew that meant I had to give one away!  So, as I did with Some Girls Are, I’m going to use random.org to select a random winner from the comments.  It could be you!

All you have to do is leave a comment with your thoughts about the word DUFF and you’re entered. (details: contest is open until August 12, US entries only please, don’t forget to use an e-mail address when you comment so I can contact you.) And if you don’t win,  don’t forget to go into your local library and request they buy a copy.

In the meantime, I suggest everyone take a moment to embrace their inner DUFF, the first step in working towards letting go of any power a word like that might have over you.

We *are* all The DUFF.

And that’s OK.

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The Replacement by Brenna Yovanoff

This was life in Gentry — going to school every day, blending into a world where everyone was happier to ignore the things that didn’t fit, always willing to look away as long as you did your part.

Otherwise, how could they go on living near their neat suburban lives?

When I was little, all I really wanted to be was my sister.  I wanted to wear her clothes and her earrings and listen to her music and do what she did.

Most of all, I wanted the things in her world that were forbidden to me, specifically the shelves of books in her collection that were literally out of my reach, on a high shelf  in her room.  Those were her “grown-up” books, the ones I wasn’t old enough for yet.

Of course, eventually, I managed to sneak one off the shelf and out of her room.  I was 11 years old.  It was the biggest book I had ever seen and my first “grown-up” book.  I settled in one summer afternoon with my sister and mother out of the house and started reading It by Stephen King.

Naturally, I had nightmares for weeks after, got in trouble for stealing my sister’s book, and never looked at sewer grates or clowns in the same way.  That was the first time I understood what horror fiction was, how different it was from every book I’d read before: how exciting and frightening and weird and challenging it was.  Twenty years later, that summer afternoon and that creeping, crawling fear in the pit of my stomach and back of my neck came back to me in a rush when I sat down with Brenna Yovanoff’s The Replacement and found myself pulled, entirely, into her fictional world of Gentry, where very bad and very scary things happen while the citizens pretend not to see.

What I Love About This Book

Yikes.  I loved that this book scared me.  I loved that this book freaked me out.  I loved that this book stuck intense, vivid images in my head that wouldn’t go away.  I loved that this book wasn’t messing around.  I loved that this book had a messed up, complicated romance but wasn’t a paranormal romance.  I loved that this book was about the power of love, fierce, angry, insistent love, that can keep you alive against all odds.  I loved that this book got under my skin.

The Replacement of the title is Mackie Doyle.  Mackie was left in a crib in place of a human child but instead of dying like most replacements, Mackie lived.  Now 16, the human world is slowly poisoning Mackie, because he was never meant to live this long amongst humans.

Let’s look a little closer at that description, shall we?  One thing I love about Yovanoff’s universe is the fact that everyone in Gentry knows that something is wrong in their world: there’s no dancing around the fact that horrible things happen there.  It adds to the sense of impending doom, of something ominous and terrible happening.  Yovanoff knows it’s worse, it’s so much worse, to know that something is wrong but to not make that something explicit.  So, Mackie is a replacement, his family knows it, his friends suspect it, and everyone in Gentry knows that replacements exist, that sometimes human children go missing and other things, other creatures, not meant to live long in the world show up in their place.  Why the citizens of Gentry are OK with knowing this happens and why they don’t really do anything about it, well . . . finding that out is part of tension of the story.

Now onto the “human world” part.  Yes, another thing that makes this book so special is the seething, teeming other world that exists alongside Gentry, a place called Mayhem.  Mackie will, of course, eventually find his way to Mayhem and confront the many creatures who live there, those that are both kin and enemies of his.  Yovanoff’s writing really takes off here, Mayhem is a fantastic, upsetting place, where things are both threatening and familiar.  My favorite part of Mayhem is definitely the ruler: the Morrigan, a little girl you won’t soon forget.  The Morrigan is cruel and kind, helpless and powerful, playful and lethal.  She springs to life off the pages, fully formed and feral.  Like Mackie, you find it hard to understand or resist her.  Besides Mackie, the Morrigan is  probably my favorite character in the book.

And, oh, Mackie.  I LOVE YOU, MACKIE DOYLE.  Mackie’s a great character, that strange boy from school who was oddly out of pace with everyone else, something was off about him, but you never knew what.  The world literally hurts Mackie, but he can’t help but want to be a part of it, to feel and taste and experience rock shows and hanging out with his friends and flirting with a popular girl at a party.  But the lingering wrongness of Gentry, of what Mackie is and how he’s lasted so long, makes that almost impossible.  In other words, all this is really a clever, sharply drawn metaphor for adolescence itself: the pain of growing up, of fitting into a world that sometimes hurts, of feeling you’re a freak in a  literally hostile world.  But it’s also a story of rejecting the status quo of “looking away” and pretending that everything in Gentry (in the world) is just fine.  Mackie’s existence proves that’s a lie and now, finally, he’s got to confront what that means and just how far he’s willing to go to look the truth of his town, of his life, in the eye.  Terrible things happen in Gentry, you see, but now it’s time for Mackie to decide what price he’s willing to pay to make them stop.

Yovanoff’s writing is intense and unsparing: there’s violence and gruesome descriptions.  All of this makes Gentry and Mayhem seem very real and very present, that’s what creates good horror fiction, after all, the unsettling, persistent  feeling that all this could maybe happen to you.  And, wow, is this good horror fiction!  Creepy, intense, gross, exciting: characters with claws, characters with slit throats, characters with a mouth full of razor sharp teeth, characters who demand awful sacrifices…this is great, graven, shocking stuff!

I can’t stop talking about The Replacement and one day, while I was babbling about it to one of my teen employees, she threw up her hands and said, “How can you read such scary books?!”

Because when they are as good as The Replacement such scary books are so much fun, that frisson of fear running down your spine, because they keep you constantly on edge, desperate to know what happens next.  The answer, I think, is because such scary books, horror novels, invoke primal reactions, things that ping our “reptile” brains.  The best ones reassure us scary things, monsters, and horrors, might exist, but so do other things, like best friends that stick by you, sisters who love you, good rock and roll songs, odd girls who challenge you, and the ability to stand up and not look away.

The Replacement is one of the best ones!  Perfect for teens looking for intense, quick reads, seriously creepy horror, and something truly original in the YA pack.  It has romance, action, mystery, and dead girls who smell like rotten meat.  I highly recommend it for grades 9-12, it’s going to be a book that gets them talking and keeps them up!

The Replacement doesn’t come out until September, my review copy was picked up from the Penguin Booth at Annual. I’d be giving mine away now, except I plan to make it an end of summer giveaway for my teens, who are already salivating for it after hearing me talk about it. (don’t forget to buy a copy or request your library order one come September!)

In the meantime, you can check out some of Brenna Yovanoff’s awesome short fiction online at the LiveJournal Merry Sisters of Fate,  where she writes with Maggie Stiefvater and Tessa Gratton.

And get ready to stay up late for Mackie Doyle!

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