Boys of Blur

by N. D. Wilson

First sentence: “When the sugarcane’s burning and the rabbits are running, look for the boys who are quicker than flame.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Content: There are some intense moments, some violence, and some reference to abuse. It’s pretty intense, so while it’s in the middle grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore, I’d hesitate giving it to the younger part of that age range.
There’s so much going on in this slim book, that it’s difficult for me to know where to start. 
There’s Charlie Reynolds, who had an abusive father, but whose mother was strong enough to leave and who found Mack, a former professional football player from a small town in Florida, to help keep her and Charlie safe. They got married and had an adorable little girl, Molly.
There’s Cotton Mack, the homeschooled son of one of Mack’s cousins, whom Charlie meets when he’s in Florida to attend the funeral of Mack’s former football coach.
It’s after that funeral that things start getting weird for Charlie and Cotton. Like ancient mythical men on mounds wielding swords weird. Like panthers that are tame and the zombie-like Stank (aka Gren) who feed off of envy and greed. And somehow it falls to Charlie and Cotton (well, mostly Charlie) to stop the Gren from rising and destroying their town.
In many ways, this one is reminiscent of The Dark is Rising: an ancient force pitted against a boy, who didn’t know he had it in him to face that ancient force. The difference is that this one is very southern, and is liberally scattered with African Americans. Which brings me to my one problem: why did the white kid have to be the one to save the world, in the end? Why did Cotton have to be taken out of commission? Although I really liked the book, with its mix of football and mythology and family, I was disappointed by this.
I don’t know how much that affected my enjoyment in the end, because Wilson does know how to pace a book, and he’s incredibly tight in his timing, and he knows how engage a reader. So, overall, I’d consider this one a win. 

Fairest

by Marissa Meyer
First sentence: “She was lying on a burning pyre, hot coals beneath her back.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Others in the series: Cinder, Scarlet, Cress
Content: There are some sexytimes, but it’s entirely off-stage and only vaguely alluded to. It’s in the YA section (grades 6-8) of the bookstore, like the rest of the series.

This wasn’t the Marissa Meyer book I was expecting to review this year. I wanted Winter, the final installment in my series, the one that will hopefully bring everything to a satisfying conclusion. So, I kind of jokingly asked our Macmillian rep when he was here a couple weeks back if he had an ARC of it for me. His response? “Oh, you haven’t heard? They’ve pushed that off in favor of telling Queen Levana’s backstory.” Me? “WHAT?”

This one goes back an unspecified number of years (10? 15? 20?) to when Levana was 15, the younger sister of a very beautiful, and very cruel princess. A princess who used her mind-manipulation powers to control Levana. To make Levana do things she wouldn’t usually do. To hurt Levana. It’s also the story of the damaged (emotionally and physically) Levana trying to find love in inappropriate places (ie, with a married guard), and manipulating people to get what she wants. And, it’s the story of how Levana became queen (mostly by an accident of fate), and how she ended up with Winter.

Sometimes, going back and telling a character’s backstory works. Say, like Kristin Cashore’s Fire. It was needed to fully understand what she was going to tell in Bitterblue. But this? I enjoyed Levana as a cardboard villain, the fairy tale Bad Queen. I really wasn’t looking to find her sympathetic, to understand Why she was the Bad Guy.

But I read this anyway. And I still feel the same: I’m not sure it was a necessary diversion, but perhaps I’ll be proved wrong when Winter finally comes out.

All the Bright Places

by Jennifer Niven
First sentence: “Is today a good day to die?”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Content: There’s teenage smoking and drinking and some off-screen sex. Not to mention the several f-bombs, and the weighty subject matter. All this puts it squarely in the Teen (grades 9+) section of the bookstore.

Finch is just coming out of a two month’s “sleep”, as he calls it. Violet is dealing with survivor’s remorse, being the only survivor in a car accident that killed her sister. Both find themselves at the top of the school’s bell tower one wintery day, contemplating the idea of jumping off, ending it all.

It’s a weird way to start a relationship, saving each other from suicide, but Finch can’t get Violet off his mind. And slowly, through a class project and sheer determination, he wins her over.

There’s really not much else to the plot. I’m sure this one will get huge comparisons to Fault in Our Stars (teens fall in love in spite of Obstacles) or Eleanor & Park (teens fall in love in spite of Differences in background and in spite of Bad Circumstances), but I didn’t feel like it was as good as either of those.  I wanted to like Finch and Violet, but didn’t connect with either one. I felt like Niven was throwing WAY too much at me: suicidal thoughts, car accident deaths, neglectful parenting, abuse, depression, bi-polar, actual suicide, and bullying, with a smattering of eating disorders in there as well. It’s like all the crappy things that could happen to anyone in life were happening to Finch and Violet. And that was just too. too. much.

What I did like, however, were Finch and Violet’s trips exploring the state of Indiana. I enjoyed seeing the state through their eyes, exploring the nooks and crannies and off-beat places that people don’t usually go.

But that wasn’t enough for me to truly enjoy this book.

I Love I Hate I Miss My Sister

by Amélie Sarn, translated from French by Y. Maudet
First sentence: “The women walk slowly, heads down.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Release date: Augst 5, 2014
Review copy snagged from the ARC shelves at my place of employment.
Content: There is violence, some mild swearing, and some teen drinking and smoking. I’ll probably put this in the Teen (grades 9+) section of the bookstore, though I wouldn’t hesitate to give it to a 7th- or 8th-grader who is interested.

Sohane Chebli is many things: 18 years old, a daughter, a sister, a scholar, French, and a Muslim. She lives in an apartment complex full of others of  Algerian heritage, and mostly she and her younger sister (by 11 months), Djelila, get along with their neighbors, schoolmates, and each other just fine.

Then, during Sohane’s senior year, a few young Muslim men take it on themselves to start harassing Djelila because she dresses in jeans and tighter shirts. Because she wears makeup. Because she smokes with her friends. And Sohane, whose path has become more conservative — she wears the hijab — doesn’t step in to defend her sister. Partially because Sohane thinks her sister is wrong for following a path away from Islam. And partially because Sohane’s been expelled from school, due to a French law banning all religious symbols, for wearing the hijab.

I’m going to spoil a bit — it’s not too bad, because from the beginning,  you know this — but Djelila is killed by the Muslim boys for her refusal to conform to their expectations. And it’s that paired with the other side of the coin: Sohane’s constant discrimination for wearing the hijab. (Not that I mean to compare murder with discrimination.) But it got me thinking: why do we feel a need to tell others how to behave? Why did these boys feel compelled to not only shame, but eventually kill a girl for not following her/their religion to the letter? Why did people refuse to see Sohane’s hijab wearing as an expression of her religion, instead interpreting it as an act of repression? It’s a thought-provoking book.

And it’s written well, in tight, short chapters. It took a bit for me to catch the rhythm of the book because it’s translated, but once I did, I was hooked. And I wasn’t disappointed, in the end.

Half Bad

by Sally Green
First sentence: “There’s these two kids, boys, sitting close together, squished in by the big arms of an old chair.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Review copy pilfered from the ARC shelves at my place of employment
Content: There’s talk of imagined sex (none actual), and some (mostly mild) swearing. But the talk of the abuse Nathan takes is hard to get though, even for me as an adult. It’s in the teen section  (grades 9 and up) because of that. Be wary of giving this one to an overly-sensitive person.

I was talking this book up in January to a group of educators, saying to look for it, that Green turns the whole “white=good and black=bad” thing upside down. How little did I know.

It does do that: sure. But to say that’s all this first in a trilogy does is to woefully underestimate it.

Nathan is the illegitimate child of a White Witch — his mother — and the baddest of all Black witches. Marcus, Nathan’s father, has alluded the White Hunters for years. And so, to say that having his kid in their midst irks them is a gross understatement. So the council imposes Codes — restrictions — on all Half Bloods. They start mild, with yearly assessments, but get increasingly more restrictive as Nathan gets older. It ends with him being held in a cage for two years. This is partially because of a vision Marcus saw that Nathan would kill him. The White Hunters want to make that happen: he’s ostensibly being “trained” to murder his father. Not that he has any say in the matter.

So, yes, Greene is turning good and evil upside down; how can the “good” people treat someone who is different from them so atrociously. (And believe me, it’s worse than bad.) But, the black witches don’t fare so well, either. Marcus, from all reports (granted, they’re  untrustworthy) is a despicable person. And the one time we see him, he doesn’t entirely acquit himself either. And the only other black witches we see aren’t that much better. Perhaps it’s more a treatise on how power corrupts, and how differences become so ingrained that we can’t see those who aren’t the same as us.

And even though it was difficult at times to get through, emotionally, it did give me a lot to think about. I’m quite interested to see where she goes with this series, and if she can keep up the complex nature of the characters.

Lifesaving Lessons

by Linda Greenlaw
First sentence: “Confrontation was imminent.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Content: There’s some swearing, including a number of f-bombs. Plus some discussion of sexual abuse of an adult and a minor.

I read a few of Linda Greenlaw’s books way back when and although I didn’t keep up with what she was doing, when I found that she was coming to the store for the paperback version of her latest memoir, I snagged at the chance to both see her and read the book.

This one is a memoir of how she became a mother, of sorts. It’s the story of a girl who came to the island from an abusive family, with an uncle who was seen as a savior. That is, until she escaped one night, and the truth came out: her uncle was sexually and emotionally abusing her. It’s not a pleasant story to read; Greenlaw pulls no punches when talking about the abuse. She’s not graphic either, but rather giving us the full emotional heartache that her daughter — and the island — went through because of this. And how she ended up the legal guardian — and eventually feeling like a mother figure — of the girl.

It’s a hopeful book in the end, though. It’s not an easy road, with a lot of ups and downs, but Greenlaw takes us along for the ride in her frank, yet engaging way. I was drawn into her island way of life again, and worked through her problems with her. I wanted things to work out the best for Greenlaw and her ward, and it was that desire that kept me plugging through what usually would be considered Other People’s Problems.

I’m not sure it’s a book for everyone. But I did find the journey interesting.

Speak

by Laurie Halse Anderson
ages: mature 12+
First sentence: “It is my first morning of high school.”

I was wandering through the bookstore a couple months back, and I chanced upon a display with the 10th anniversary edition of this book. Some part of my brain recognized it (aside from “Hey, that’s the woman who wrote Chains!”) as an important/noteworthy book, and willed me to stop. I picked it up, read the back and the first section, and was hooked. I didn’t walk away with it that night (ah, self control!), but went home and put it on hold at the library. (I think I may have to go buy it now, though.)

Melinda is beginning her freshman year as a complete and total outcast because she called the cops on a party a few weeks prior to the beginning of school. And the year goes downhill from there. Melinda spends the year trying to survive (and not always making it), while her grades fall and she spends more and more time locked inside her head. As it turns out, calling the cops wasn’t so much a tattling thing (as one might initially suspect) but a real cry for help from Melinda, who was raped at the party. As the year progresses, Melinda comes to terms with what happened to her that night, as well as the person who did it to her.

Jen Robinson pointed out two things in her review that I thought were worth mentioning. One, that it’s a scarily accurate portrayal of someone who is monumentally depressed. Melinda is hopeless, and while she spends much of the book living in her head, and trying to escape her world, it’s not a hopeless book. She’s funny on occasion, and her powers of observation are keen, especially about the stupidity of the high school world. Secondly, Jen mentioned that Anderson hopes that teenage boys will read this book, if only to get a sense about what a young woman who has been raped would possibly go through. One of the things I liked most about the book was realizing that while Melinda was suffering in silence, she wasn’t necessarily the only one suffering; her actions caused her parents, teachers, and, yes, even old friends (at least the ones who noticed) worry, and while that worry was often misdirected and misapplied, they were affected by her.

But the thing that got me most was that Anderson was able to take something as harsh as rape and put a human face on it, and make you feel something (depression, anger, triumph) for Melinda. That’s a mark of a good writer. And a good book.