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Gray Skies

posted by: January 30, 2014 - 9:19am

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.


You Will Never Be Younger Than You Are Today

posted by: January 27, 2014 - 6:00am

Sex & Violence by Carrie MesrobianHarrowing and piercingly realistic, Carrie Mesrobian’s Sex & Violence is a tour de force of contemporary teen fiction. Nominated for a 2014 William C. Morris Award for best debut of a book for young adults, this is the story of Evan, a disaffected 17-year-old who has been raised solely by his workaholic father since his mother’s death years earlier. Though clever and handsome, Evan and his father have moved so often that his connection to peers is limited. Evan uses his perpetual new-guy status to bed “left-of-normal” girls, including Collette, a teen who used to date one of Evan’s classmates at the boarding school they attend. When their relationship is discovered, Evan and Collette are brutally assaulted, and his father (at last realizing the seriousness of the situation) moves them to a cottage on a lake in Minnesota, near where Evan’s parents grew up.


After a long physical recuperation, Evan works to pick up the pieces of his shattered psyche. Through a therapist’s help, he slowly confronts the PTSD that he has been experiencing. He meets a group of teens, many of whom are spending their last summer at the lake before heading off to college, and they quickly add him to their group. The summer brings romance, friendship and unexpected turns for Evan, growing into a person his pre-assault version never knew had been inside him. Mesrobian deftly handles a number of themes, among them, the uneasy manner in which Evan approaches sex, the eventual fallout between Evan and his father, the highs and lows of casual drug use and how delicately trust can be won and lost. She weaves these into a concise package that is dark, with no easy answers, but is also not hopeless.   


The author does a phenomenal job getting the voices right, most remarkably that of Evan. The teens, all of whom are well-drawn, are written with pitch-perfect dialogue, and there are few wasted words. Mesrobian’s well-crafted debut novel is a brutally honest work for older teens from an author with loads of potential.


Roommate Drama

posted by: January 10, 2014 - 7:55am

Cover art for RoomiesRoomies by Sara Zarr and Tara Altebrando is a new teen novel set during the summer between high school and college. Elizabeth and Lauren live on opposite ends of the country, so when they’re paired as roommates for their first year of college at the University of California at Berkeley, they begin emailing to get to know one another and make plans for the fall.


Roomies begins in June, as Elizabeth sends her first email to Lauren immediately after receiving her housing information from Berkeley. Her enthusiasm surprises Lauren, who, after sharing a room at home with multiple younger siblings for most of her life, had been hoping for a single room. The girls continue to email throughout the summer, making plans and sharing personal details. At the same time,  Elizabeth feels herself becoming disinterested with her friends at home and caught up in a new relationship with a seemingly perfect yet complicated guy. Meanwhile, Lauren is dealing with the idea of leaving her family behind as she heads off to college, as well as her feelings for her coworker, Keyon. As Elizabeth and Lauren help each other work through their respective problems, the two end up in a fight that puts their relationship as future roommates in jeopardy.


Roomies is a fun, realistic story that deals with many of the issues that arise for teens during the summer between high school and college. The mix of emails and prose makes for an interesting story that teens are sure to enjoy.


To Leningrad, With Love

posted by: December 6, 2013 - 6:00am

The Boy on the BridgeOh, the romanticism of falling in love abroad, even when the city is Soviet-era Leningrad in the 1980s. In Natalie Standiford’s new novel, The Boy on the Bridge, Laura is an eager college student who's had a love affair with Russia since childhood. Studying abroad in Leningrad, despite the hardships of the time, is just another way to immerse herself in the culture and language. During a chance encounter, Laura meets Alyosha, a mysterious young man who defies the profile of the typical Soviet youth. He questions his government, is scornful of the blind devotion Russians have towards their leaders and is fascinated by all things American, including Laura. Unfortunately, all of these qualities make him a target for the KGB, and Laura becomes increasingly afraid for Alyosha’s safety, especially as she falls in love with him. But in a time of strained American-Soviet relations, when many Russians dream of escaping to the West by any means possible, can she really trust Alyosha’s affections?


Beautifully written and peppered with details about Soviet food, culture, manners, housing and customs, The Boy on the Bridge transports readers to frozen Leningrad in all its authenticity. Standiford presents a unique and nuanced love story with realistic characters and an honest look at Soviet Russia with its many complexities and contradictions. Like her main character, she spent a college semester abroad in Leningrad, and photos and information on her website provide context and visuals for what is in the story. In a recent interview in Baltimore magazine, Standiford, a Baltimore native, also answers questions about how this story differs from her own study abroad experience and shares some information about her upcoming books.


Falling in Love in a Day

posted by: November 7, 2013 - 6:00am

Just One YearJust One Year, the sequel to Gayle Forman’s teen novel Just One Day is the conclusion to Allyson and Willem’s whirlwind love story, told this time from Willem’s perspective. Picking up from when Allyson and Willem were separated in Paris, Just One Year follows Willem as he wakes up there, alone, confused and missing Allyson. After their day in Paris, Willem only knows Allyson as Lulu, a nickname he gave her based on her resemblance to actress Louise Brooks. Despite the small amount of time they spent together, their feelings for each other are strong.  Just as Allyson searched for Willem, tried to get over him and find herself in Just One Day, Willem does much the same in Just One Year.


As Willem travels the world, readers are taken along on his physical and emotional journey. Those who read both books will see the number of close misses Allyson and Willem had during the year following their single day together in Paris. But most of all, readers will enjoy learning who Willem really is. His secretive nature in Just One Day kept readers and Allyson second-guessing his motives. However in Just One Year, Willem’s character and his struggles are shown, and Forman makes him a relatable character.


For those who have read Just One Day and patiently (or not so patiently) waited for the conclusion, Just One Year will not disappoint. Forman writes a heartfelt end to Allyson and Willem’s love story, which romance fans will enjoy. As an added bonus, readers will feel like they have traveled the world with Allyson and Willem by the end of the two books. As she previously did with If I Stay and Where She Went, Forman does a fabulous job telling one story from two perspectives.


Debate team, flash mobs and broken hearts

posted by: October 18, 2013 - 7:55am

Cover art for The Beginning of EverythingBefore The Beginning of Everything starts, Ezra Faulkner leads a pretty happy life. He’s the popular star of the tennis team with a beautiful girlfriend. That all changes the day he catches his girlfriend cheating on him at a party. After storming out of the party, he is hit by a car. In an instant, his tennis career ends and he goes from the most popular student at Eastwood High to the most pitied. Robyn Schneider’s new teen novel The Beginning of Everything picks up just after what Ezra calls his “personal tragedy,” as he gives up his tennis racket and joins the debate team, makes new friends, reconnects with old ones and falls in love again.


As Ezra settles in with his new less popular group of friends, he meets Cassidy Thorpe, a former debate champion who dropped out of her old private school, deserting her debate team and leaving a trail of secrets in her wake. Cassidy and Ezra are paired up as debate partners and eventually become friends as they prepare for debate tournaments and participate in flash mobs. It doesn’t take long for Ezra to fall for the mysterious Cassidy, despite his friend Toby’s warnings. Ezra tries to get to know Cassidy despite her reluctance to open up.


Schneider’s story is a funny, realistic teen novel that deals with Ezra’s ability to overcome his “personal tragedy,” and deal with life’s many issues that come after. The Beginning of Everything is perfect for fans of John Green’s novels who are looking for a new book that’s funny, while at times heartbreaking.


A Degree in Fandom

posted by: September 27, 2013 - 7:55am

Cover art for FangirlIn Rainbow Rowell’s latest young adult novel, Fangirl, Cather is a huge fan of Simon Snow, a fictional Harry Potter-like book and movie series. Cath isn’t a casual fan, she’s the definition of a fangirl — she doesn’t just read the books and watch the movies, she goes to midnight release parties, writes well-known fanfiction and interacts with other Simon Snow fans online. The Simon Snow fandom has been Cath’s escape from the problems in her life for years. As Fangirl begins and Cath heads off to her first year of college at the University of Nebraska, she falls further into fandom.


Cath expected to room with her twin sister Wren, as they have all their lives, until Wren tells Cath that she doesn’t want to be roommates anymore. Cath is surprised and understandably upset. When Wren begins partying heavily at school, Cath becomes increasingly worried and feels isolated. Meanwhile, Cath has to deal with her standoffish roommate Reagan and Reagan’s potential boyfriend, Levi, who is in their room constantly and has definitely captured Cath’s attention. Cath also has to deal with the typical college adjustments — the dining hall, classes, meeting new people and romance, all the while maintaining her fangirl status.


Fangirl is a coming-of-age story about a girl enraptured in fandom who has to figure out how to deal with her changing life and how her life as a fangirl fits into it. The novel has excerpts from Cath’s fanfiction, which is an added bonus for anyone who has ever been a super fan. Others will be able to identify with Cath’s adjustment to campus life and her attempts to find her place in the world. Fans of Rowell’s earlier young adult novel Eleanor & Park will find Fangirl lives up to their expectations.


A Sharp Minor

posted by: September 17, 2013 - 7:00am

Cover art for The Lucy VariationsNational Book Award-finalist Sara Zarr is known for her spot-on portrayals of contemporary American teens. In The Lucy Variations, Zarr once again writes teen characters with pitch-perfect voices and concerns. While in her previous work she dealt mostly with middle-class families, this novel is a bit of a departure, looking at the rarefied world of a family of classical music prodigies. As a child and young teen, Lucy was a top concert pianist who was known among this elite group of musicians. But suddenly everything changed, and Lucy stopped playing altogether. Now, will her younger brother Augustus (“Gus”), a pianist prodigy himself, take up the family mantle?

Zarr is a master of plotting and examining family dynamics. Lucy’s grandfather, the patriarch of this musical family, shows utter disappointment and disbelief that his granddaughter with so much promise throws it all away when faced with adversity. Meanwhile, Lucy’s father has to recalibrate his life after having been her de facto manager for so many years. And Lucy and Gus have a supportive, intelligent sibling relationship, a nice change from the often-adversarial portrayal of siblings in books for teens.

Glamorous whirlwind tours of European concert halls, backstage intrigue and grand parties contrast with Lucy's desire to simply be a normal teen. Her friendship with down-to-earth Reyna provides grounding. The possibility of reclaiming her former glory comes in the appearance of Gus’ new piano teacher, who encourages Lucy to sit behind the keys again. Readers will be drawn in to the often unfamiliar world of a teen whose love of classical music is lost and regained.


Choice and Consequences

posted by: September 6, 2013 - 7:00am

If You Could Be MineAt its heart, Sara Farizan's contemporary coming of age novel If You Could Be Mine is a love story about the romantic relationship between two teenage girls from Iran and the complex decisions they face. In the Islamic Republic of Iran, there are no public displays of affection between the sexes, no Facebook, no women in football stadiums. But for best friends Sahar and Nasrin, it never mattered. They had their stolen kisses and untested promises. They had each other. Since they were small, Sahar never doubted she wanted to marry her best friend, Nasrin.


 Unfortunately, relationships like Sahar and Nasrin’s must be kept secret in a country where any one gay is an enemy of the state. So, when 18-year-old Nasrin decides to do what society expects and marry a young male doctor because "he makes sense," Sahar can hardly breathe. She searches for a way they can be together openly. She believes she has found it with sexual reassignment surgery, a legal option in Iran. The problem is that Sahar is not even sure she wants to be a man. "She needs to know this isn't a game. It isn't something you just try on," a transgender acquaintance she meets through her cousin explains.


Farizan, an Iranian American who was born in the U.S., exposes in her simple writing style the absence of choices for young women while weaving in historical perspective. She does not condemn Iranian culture. "I respect a woman's decision to cover up as long as it is the woman's decision," Sahar says. It shows the naïveté, impulsiveness and self-deprecating humor that define youths who are still defining themselves. Mature teens and adults alike will find a tender yet compelling read in this fresh debut.


A Summer of Change

posted by: August 23, 2013 - 7:55am

Cover art for When You Were HereDaisy Whitney’s When You Were Here is a realistic teen novel that takes place during one particular summer of Danny’s life. All Danny’s mother wanted was to see him graduate from high school, but she succumbed to cancer two months before the momentous day. As he faces graduation, and college after, Danny is all alone in the world; the only exception is his loyal dog, Sandy Koufax. His only human comfort since his mother's passing has been his ex-girlfriend, Holland, whom he still loves. This only causes him more trouble and heartbreak. A few days after graduation, a letter from the caretaker of the family’s apartment in Japan convinces Danny that he needs to travel to Tokyo to learn more about his mother’s life and cancer treatments.


When Danny arrives in Tokyo, he meets Kana, the caretaker’s daughter, who was friends with his mother. Kana shows Danny what his mother did during her last months in Japan, taking him to his mother’s favorite places, and eventually to her doctor. Meanwhile, the two become friends, with Kana becoming someone Danny can confide in about his love for Holland and his grief from losing his beloved mother. As the story progresses, Danny learns that his mother wasn’t entirely truthful with him, and that there are secrets he needs to fully uncover.


When You Were Here is a coming-of-age novel dealing with the changes that most teenagers go through after high school. In this case there is the added drama of Danny’s loss, which adds another layer to the story. Older teens that are fans of realistic fiction will enjoy Whitney’s latest novel.



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