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Between the Covers with Amy Zhang

Cover art for Falling into PlaceHigh school author, Amy Zhang’s first book Falling into Place is filled with twists and turns, taking readers inside the head of high school student Liz Emerson and some of her closest friends. Liz is an unlikable character, a mean girl who has decided that she is going to take her own life, making it look like an accident by driving off a cliff. The book goes back and forth between before and after the crash, unravelling the mystery of what led Liz to such a drastic choice. Before starting Zhang’s book, read what she had to tell Between the Covers about her first novel.
 

Between the Covers: The book shifts back and forth between before and after Liz’s crash, how did you handle writing a book that shifted in time so frequently?
Amy Zhang: Lots and lots of outlines. I drew diagrams and color-coded and made charts before I started writing, I did it again while I was writing, I did it before I revised, I did it after I revised and revised again. The last chart had something like seven colors on it for all of the different “time zones” of the book, and it reached from ceiling to floor when I hung it up.
 

BTC: Liz is such a complex character, where did you draw your inspiration for her struggles?
AZ: I guess when I thought of Liz, the characteristic that stood out was her loneliness. One of the first things I saw when I first began outlining the book was the image of her sitting in her closet on the night before her suicide attempt, and that isolation is what made me understand her. You’re always isolated as a teenager. You feel alone in your thoughts, as though you’re the only one to ever think, really think—you’re afraid to have the opinions you’re developing and you’re afraid to share them. You also feel sort of isolated in time, because you’re not thinking about consequences. You only exist in the moment. I think high school can be one of the loneliest places in the world. For me, being alone was sort of at the heart of Liz’s character, and her other struggles all stemmed off of that in some way. Liz, Kennie and Julia were all hiding some really serious issues, but it was pretty easy for me to relate because it was my reality. I think a lot of parents would be shocked if they knew what their kids were really going through every day, and what they feel the need to hide.
 

BTC: Were you able to draw on your experiences in high school to write about Liz’s high school experience?
AZ: Definitely. The scenes that stand out are Liam’s, which were especially hard for me to write. My school has this horrible tradition of voting people on to dance courts as jokes, and I remember sitting in class and hearing courts announced and just kind of wincing every time. And how do you stop something like that? I was pretty average in high school—I was never really bullied, and I hope I never bullied anyone like Liz did. I had great friends and great Amy Zhangteachers, but up until junior year or so, I never really thought about the fact that I sat around a lot. I watched a lot of crap happen and I didn’t do much to stop it, except push a pencil around, and Falling into Place is an apology for that.
 

BTC: What is your writing process like, as a younger writer who’s still in school?
AZ: Late nights, early mornings, and enough coffee to drown out desire for sleep until the book is done. I write a lot during summer, and, um, during school. At least half of my notes for Falling into Place were scribbled in the margins of my physics notebook. I guess it really just comes down to making a schedule and sticking to it. I have a jar of chocolates on my desk to bribe myself when I need to — one piece per thousand words!
 

BTC: Who are some of your influences as a writer?
AZ: Music is a pretty heavy influence on my writing—before I start a project, I put a lot of effort into tailoring a playlist. For Falling into Place, it was a lot of Bon Iver, Imagine Dragons and Keane. For my current project, I actually have two: one of classical music, and one of mostly Birdy, Regina Spektor, Iron & Wine and Vincent James McMorrow.
 

For Falling, though, I think my biggest influence was the death of a classmate during my junior year. For my grade in particular, I think that was the moment we started realizing that we weren’t invincible, and all of the emotions from that were very influential while I wrote the book.
 

BTC: This is your first book; do you have anything else planned?
AZ: I’m currently working on a project tentatively titled This Is Where the World Ends, which is about a boy who’s obsessed with apocalypses and a girl who’s trying to make the entire world fall in love with her.

Laura

 
 

To Be Young and a Liar

To Be Young and a Liar

posted by:
July 11, 2014 - 7:00am

Cover art for We Were Liars"My full name is Cadence Sinclair Eastman. I live in Burlington, Vermont, with Mummy and three dogs. I am nearly eighteen. I suffer migraines. I do not suffer fools."

 

So begins and ends E. Lockhart’s new book We Were Liars. Yet, by the end, the reader will have a much clearer perspective on the narrator's words. Cadence is part of the powerful and distinguished Sinclair family of New England. Every summer, the extended families vacation on their private island, each family set up in their own beautiful house. Idyllic? There’s been an unchallenged stoicism to the Sinclair family, but modernism with its myriad of issues is breaking to the surface: divorce, debt, addiction, the welcoming of outsiders — and the family hasn’t handled it well.

 

Then there’s Cadence herself. Every summer, she has been with her two cousins – Mirren and Johnny, later joined by Gat, the nephew of one of her aunt’s new husbands. They became known as “The Liars” for the trouble they caused as a group. But something happens on the island at the end of Cadence’s 15th summer, something of which she has no recollection, except that she almost drowned. Plagued by health issues, she doesn’t return until her 17th summer. She tried to reach out to her cousins and friend during her absence but heard nothing. No one else will talk about what happened that year, or what led up to her near death. Everyone tells her she must remember herself. Slowly, she recovers memories of her life that summer and puts pieces together to reveal a much darker family history. By the end, she will be face-to-face with grief and the full horror of events.

 

Told with beautiful poetic lyricism and sparse wording conveying rich description, this book shouldn’t be overlooked by adults or book clubs. Rife with character introspection, family dysfunction and mystery layered with fractured reality, in its final pages, We Were Liars packs a powerful punch. 

Melanie

 
 

Gray Skies

Gray Skies

posted by:
January 30, 2014 - 10:19am

When you are harboring a sinister secret, who better to hear the confession than a convicted murderer on death row? In Annabel Pitcher’s new teen novel, Ketchup Clouds, that’s what British teenager Zoe is doing as a cathartic way of telling what happened when she became romantically involved with two brothers and ultimately was responsible for the death of one of them.

 

To sort out her thoughts and feelings, Zoe begins writing to Mr. Stuart Harris, who killed his wife in a jealous rage and is awaiting execution in Texas. Through a series of letters, Zoe (which is not her real name) chronicles her seemingly typical teen drama of the previous year. There was rising tension at her home, due in part to her father’s unemployment and her mother’s control issues. At a party, she met an amazingly unique guy, Aaron. What she didn’t realize until later was that Aaron was Max’s older brother – Max being the guy she is semi-enthusiastically dating. As the story progresses, her true feelings about Aaron and Max and the series of events leading to Max’s death come to light, as do some missing pieces of her family’s history. Suspense builds as Stuart’s looming execution date coincides with the anniversary of Max’s death.

 

Pitcher’s first novel, My Sister Lives on the Mantelpiece, was highly acclaimed for its down-to-earth approach to a unique premise, and in Ketchup Clouds she likewise employs engaging, candid writing to solve a compelling mystery: Why does Zoe feel she’s to blame for Max’s death? A refreshingly honest character with a unique outlook on the world, Zoe will resonate with teen and adult readers as someone struggling toward resolution after long internalizing her fear and guilt.

Melanie

 
 

A Royal Mystery

A Royal Mystery

posted by:
January 16, 2014 - 7:00am

Cover art for Palace of SpiesSarah Zettel’s Palace of Spies tells the story of Peggy Fitzroy who was orphaned as a child and has lived with her Uncle and Aunt Pierpont and her beloved cousin Olivia ever since. At 16, her Uncle Pierpont announces that she is to marry Sebastian, the second son of Lord Sandford, and a much desired husband by her peers. Peggy is dismayed at the news but reluctantly agrees, despite never having met Sebastian. When they do meet at the social event of the season, he tries to assault her, and she is saved by a man named Mr. Tinderflint. Tinderflint tells her that he once knew her mother and implores her to take a post at the court that he has arranged for her. She refuses and runs back to the party. When Sebastian demands an apology the next day, she refuses and calls off the engagement, leading her uncle to kick her out of his house.
 

Left with no other options, Peggy remembers Mr. Tinderflint’s offer and decides to pay him a visit. When she reaches his address, she finds out that his offer is more complicated than it initially seemed. Her job is to assume the identity of the deceased Lady Francesca Wallingham, to whom she bears a striking resemblance. Francesca, one of Princess Caroline’s maids of honor, and a spy for Tinderflint and his associates Mr. Peele and Mrs. Abbott, passed away while visiting her home, leaving them without their spy at court. After enough training to portray Francesca, Peggy sets off for Hampton Court where she begins to question whether the real Lady Francesca Wallingham died of natural causes, as she was told, or if the lady was murdered. As she investigates Francesca’s demise and the loyalties of the court, readers are treated to a captivating mystery filled with intrigue, suspense and romance.

Laura

 
 

Going, Going, Gone

Going, Going, Gone

posted by:
November 5, 2013 - 7:00am

The Rules for DisappearingDancer, Daughter, Traitor, SpyLife on the run might appear glamorous. Travelling to new places, assuming new names and identities, and trying out new living arrangements all seem like obvious perks. But as the young heroines of two new teen novels learn, the truth is far from that.

 

In The Rules for Disappearing, by Ashley Elston, “Meg” (her latest identity) and her family have been in the Witness Protection Program for eight months, and have already lived in six different places. She is tired of the subpar housing and lifestyle, but mostly she is worried about the toll the program is taking on her family: her mom is drowning her anxieties and depression in alcohol, her little sister is a shell of her former self, and her father seems oblivious to it all. Mainly, Meg just wants to know what her father did to land them in the program in the first place. Elston creates grounded characters, realistic depictions of small-town high school life and a suspenseful mystery that draws the reader in.

 

In Elizabeth Kiem’s debut novel, Dancer, Daughter, Traitor, Spy, Marina is a young dancer living in the lap of luxury in the Soviet Union, thanks to her famous ballerina mother’s connections. But when her mother disappears, Marina and her father must defect to the United States to protect themselves. As Marina tries to continue her dance training, she must also juggle more practical responsibilities, navigate Manhattan and Brooklyn and adapt to the new capitalist culture. At the same time, Soviet secrets are casting a long shadow from halfway around the world, and what her family knows about the government cover-ups becomes the crux of this dark tale. Kiem brings the 1980s landscapes of gritty Brooklyn and frozen Moscow to life with a suspenseful story of overprotected teenager meets international intrigue.

Melanie

 
 

A Poetry Inspired Mystery

Nobody's SecretMichaela MacColl’s Nobody’s Secret, based on Emily Dickinson’s poem, “I’m nobody! Who are you?” creates a fictional story as background for the poem. In doing so, MacColl tells an intriguing story that is part historical fiction, part mystery, and filled with allusions to Dickinson’s poetry.

 

In 1846 when Nobody’s Secret begins, Emily is laying in a field trying to get a bee to land on her nose when she is approached by a man she’s never seen. The two have a brief conversation discussing the best ways to get a bee to land on Emily’s nose, after which he departs. They never exchange names, only referring to themselves as Mr. and Miss Nobody. The two run into each other the next day, and Emily’s fascination with the enigmatic stranger grows. They discuss their families without revealing too many details. She even confesses her deepest secret—that she writes poetry. The real mystery begins when Mr. Nobody turns up dead in the Dickinson’s pond the following day, just two days after he and Emily first met. Having never exchanged names, Emily is determined to find out his identity so he can have a proper funeral. During her investigation, she realizes that his death was no accident, and then she sets out to find the killer.

 

MacColl’s fictionalized Emily Dickinson is a fascinating character, whose determination is admirable. Readers are quickly charmed by Mr. Nobody’s relationship with Emily, leaving them rooting for her to figure out who he was, and why he was murdered. Nobody’s Secret is a great pick for teens interested in historical fiction and mysteries, while those who enjoy poetry will enjoy the bits of Emily Dickinson’s poems interspersed throughout the novel.

Laura

 
 

Living in the Dark

Living in the Dark

posted by:
April 16, 2013 - 8:59am

What We Saw at NightA deadly allergy to the sun, and a sport which involves jumping off skyscrapers  - what at first glance may appear to be a work of science fiction, is actually Jacquelyn Mitchard's new teen novel What We Saw at Night. Allie Kim and her two best friends, Rob and Juliet, have a rare disease known as Xeroderma Pigmentosum. This is an inherited genetic disorder which manifests as an extreme sensitivity to ultraviolet light, and in some cases neurological complications. The three teens must spend their waking hours at night because exposure to the sun can be lethal. It is an isolated kind of existence that fosters a tight bind between the friends. When Juliet, the most adventurous of the trio decides to take up Parkour, her friends join her in learning this extreme sport which involves climbing, jumping, and tumbling between buildings. A dangerous sport during normal daylight hours, it takes on a new level of risk as they work to master the techniques at night.

 

During one evening of building jumping, the friends see something that changes everything. After landing a particularly difficult jump onto the balcony of an apartment building, they see what appears to be a murder. Tension develops as Allie and her friends have different ideas regarding what was actually witnessed.  The tone of the novel takes on a sinister feeling as Allie tries to uncover if a young woman was actually killed at the hands of a man in the vacant apartment. Her inquiries have attracted the attention of someone who could prove to be even more deadly than her disease. Learn what life is like with Xeroderma, discover the exciting sport of Parkour, and relish What We Saw at Night.

Jeanne

 
 

Truth and Consequences

Truth and Consequences

posted by:
April 16, 2013 - 7:55am

Period 8Prolific author Chris Crutcher turns the old adage "appearances can be deceiving" upside down in his latest novel Period 8. For many teenagers, lies come easily. Bruce “Logs” Logsdon, a teacher at Heller High School, does his best to counteract this fact by running Period 8—a lunchtime class open to students each year. The rules of Period 8 are simple: Talk about anything, do not hurt others, and tell the truth. It becomes a sanctuary for many kids as the one place they can share their thoughts and feelings without fear. When one of the Period 8 kids goes missing, the group dynamic is threatened. It turns out that everyone has something to hide, even the seemingly perfect ones, and the truth soon turns ugly.

 

On his website, Crutcher labels himself "Author and Loudmouth", so it is no surprise that his writing is often controversial. Period 8 is full of rough, blunt language and the idea of sexuality as a biological imperative rather than a choice drives much of the action. His writing is introspective and revelatory in a slow, deliberate way. Ultimately, the crux is that truth lives outside of the black and white, balancing precariously atop places that often cannot be talked about.

Sam

 
 

Jon Scieszka…In the Old Abandoned Pickle Factory…With Today’s Hottest Authors

Who Done It?It’s not every anthology that can be described as a spirited game of Clue in literary form. Yet Who Done It?: an Investigation of Murder Most Foul, offers precisely that gift to readers. The scene is set in the Old Abandoned Pickle Factory, where the despicable Herman Mildew, the most callous, evil editor known to author, has just met his all too timely end. How did he perish? Who is responsible for this reprehensible, yet strangely justified crime? Author and editor Jon Scieszka presents the reader with an abundance of suspects: over eighty of the crème de la crème of teen and children’s authors.

 

Each had motive. Most had the means. Every last one has an alibi. Your task: Scour their alibis, discern truth from deceit, and glean clues about the real killer of the loathsome Herman Mildew. The formats, ranging from inner monologues and illustration to Twitter feeds and poetry, are as varied as the authors and artists they defend. 

 

Hilarious, smart, and as accessible to adults as to kids, Who Done It? is the perfect diversion for an idle hour, or even a few minutes of reading. The alibis are succinct, highly entertaining, and utterly addictive. A remarkably cohesive collaboration, it is important to bear in mind that the book features contributions from over eighty authors. For this reason, the anthology is best digested over multiple reading sessions. Readers are well advised to keep an eye out for subtle clues that pepper the suspects’ respective alibis. Together, these breadcrumbs may lead to some startling conclusions, as YOU, The Reader, and editor Jon Scieszka unravel the mystery of murder most foul.

Meghan

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Fifty Shades of Crime

Fifty Shades of Crime

posted by:
October 23, 2012 - 8:01am

CrusherHigh school dropout Finn Maguire spends his days selling pseudo-food at the Max Snax and his nights watching tv with his stepdad, an unemployed actor trying to write his own perfect role. When Finn arrives home from work one night, he finds his stepfather bludgeoned to death with his 1992 Best Newcomer award. The pursuit of the killer drives the story in Crusher, the debut novel by Niall Leonard. 

 

In working-class London, corruption is rampant and Joseph McGovern (a.k.a. The Guvnor) rules the streets with an iron fist. Finn’s stepfather was using The Guvnor as a springboard for his script, spinning a loosely-fictional yarn about the crime lord and his subordinates, one of whom plots a violent takeover. The police seem doggedly-focused on Finn as the main suspect in the murder, so he decides to launch his own investigation. He fears that the script may have hit too close to home, so he begins at the Guvnor’s mansion. Playing dumb, he bumbles his way into a job so that he can keep searching for clues. He soon begins uncovering secrets and revealing connections that turn his world upside-down.

 

Leonard, husband of best-selling author E. L. James, has written for many British television series including Wire in the Blood and Ballykissangel. He packs Crusher with heart-pounding action, leaving the reader as breathless as a boxer in the final round of a bout. The raw language and violence make the novel an appropriate read for older teens and young adults. Recommended for fans of true crime or gritty realism such as Sons of Anarchy.

Sam