Friday, June 28, 2013

Susan's Book Review: The Moon and More by Sarah Dessen

 

I have been a Sarah Dessen fan since I was an actual teenager. I followed her blog for years, I’ve driven hours to see her speak, and I read all of her books. I don’t love all of her books (I’m looking at you Lock & Key), but I do love this one! It’s set in the familiar beach town of Colby (fictional, but it gets more fleshed out each time she writes about it) and stars high school graduate Emaline the summer before she heads off to college. Emaline has been dating good guy Luke since 9th grade and works at her grandmother’s beach house rental agency. She is happy with Luke—she loves Luke—but she can’t decide if it’s what she wants, or what she knows.

 

Enter Theo and Ivy. Two New Yorkers in Colby to film a documentary on a reclusive local artist who are renting the newest, biggest, and most expensive beach house. Ivy is the abrasive but genius director and Theo is her 21-year-old lapdog assistant. They are needy renters and it’s her job to keep them happy, so Emaline ends up spending time with Theo to show him around town. Then a misunderstanding involving an accidentally unsent text causes friction with Luke, and suddenly they are broken up. Emaline hardly has time to process it before Theo is trying to take Luke’s place. Add in an estranged birth father, a half-brother named Benji (probably my favorite character), a house constantly undergoing renovation, the busy season and a sister trying to be in charge at work, a mom who wants to spend quality time with her daughter before she leaves for college, and an artist coming out of hiding, and Emaline’s carefree summer is anything but.

 

Dessen’s books have doubled in size since her early titles and sometimes I find them bloated and can almost feel her struggle to piece the story together. This book is the exact opposite—it felt like it was as effortless for her to write it as it was for me to read it. When she is on her game, no one does it better. She is a master of realistic dialogue and creates layered characters (not just the main ones either—I know the backstory of the guy who owns the convenience store) that have chemistry on the page and whose lives you become invested in. I hate when an author tells me two people are in love. I want them to show me, and Dessen does. I know realistic fiction doesn’t really involve world-building, except it kind of does, because I don’t even like the beach, and she makes me want to visit Colby! 

Friday, June 21, 2013

Emily's Book Review: Eve & Adam by Michael Grant and Katherine Applegate

 

 

Evening Spiker is the daughter of a mega-rich pharmaceutical researcher with questionable morality. When Eve steps in front of a car, she is whisked away from the hospital almost as soon as she arrives, with her doctors saying she’ll never survive the ambulance ride home. Miraculously, she makes it to Spiker Biopharm, where she quickly gets to know the only other teenager there, Solo Plisskin. Unbeknownst to Evening, her mother has been Solo’s guardian for the past six years, ever since his parents (top Spiker scientists) died in a tragic car accident.  The novel alternates between Solo and Eve’s points of view, making it obvious that from the start that Solo knows quite a bit more about what is going on with Eve’s body than she does. Perhaps to keep Eve’s mind away from this fact, her mom gives her a project—test out the company’s new learning software by designing the perfect male, her very own Adam. Eve thinks of Adam as a fun art project, but what she doesn’t know is that her key strokes are piecing actual body parts together. Solo knows something is up, though. For years, he has been discovering ways to hack into Spiker’s files, building a case against the company, and he can guess that the billions of dollars being poured into the project aren’t for learning software. As Eve becomes more and more drawn into the project, Solo has to decide whether or not to tell her he’s been seeking to destroy her mother for years.

 

Eve & Adam is fast-paced and full of action from the first page, but the authors still present a satisfying amount of character development, and I never felt like they created action for action’s sake. Solo and Eve bond while escaping from Spiker to rescue Eve’s troubled best friend from some harrowing situations and then escape again when Solo’s hacking catches up to him. I never felt irritated by too much or too little detail at these moments in the story, and the sci-fi aspect of Eve & Adam was similarly satisfying to me. Often, I get irritated with science fiction when there aren’t enough details to explain why things are the way they are (as with The Originals) or I get bogged down when there are more details than I care about. Eve & Adam struck a good balance. I never found myself questioning the science of Spiker Biopharm, but I never got confused by it either.

 

The book also raises some interesting questions about “playing God” and the nature of perfection as Eve creates Adam.  Even as a simulation, the program Eve is using shows the average user what it takes to make a human a human, and the questions Eve is faced with when creating him go far past whether his eyes should be blue or brown. Should she make him genius-level smart, so smart that he might not fit in with his peers, or should she make him average, even if it means he’ll have to try harder to succeed? Should she make him more kind or more courageous? Furthermore, can any human ever really be perfect, and what if our idea of perfection doesn’t turn out so perfect in the end? Though the book never gets that deep, choosing instead to focus on Solo’s vendetta against Spiker and his growing romance with Eve, readers will appreciate the ideas that it raises.

 

Overall, Eve & Adam is a book I would definitely recommend. Rather than being set far in the future in some dark dystopia, the book raises questions about science and control in our own time. Though Eve & Adamwasn’t deep or thought-provoking enough to stay in my mind for long after I put it down, I still had fun reading it, and I think teens will as well.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Guide to Teen Summer Reading Weekly Prizes

 

Wondering which of our weekly prizes are still available? Check here! We'll update this list as prizes are claimed.

 

TSR Weekly Prizes:

 

- $75 Barnes & Noble gift card - CLAIMED!

 

- $75 Amazon gift card - CLAIMED!

 

- $75 GameStop gift card

 

- $75 Wal-Mart gift card - CLAIMED!

 

- $75 iTunes gift card - CLAIMED!

 

- $75 QT gift card - CLAIMED!

 

- $75 Best Buy gift card - CLAIMED!

 

- $75 Regal Cinemas gift card - CLAIMED!

 

- $75 Target gift card

Jennifer's Book Review: Arclight by Josin L. McQuein

 

When Arclight begins, it’s during the middle of an attack. The reader is instantly thrown into a scene of teens being rushed to a safe area, while the adults work to deflect the enemy – the Fade. “This is why I like YA fiction,” I think to myself. No opening chapters of needless exposition, no long drawn out backstory. Instead, we have instant action, and I figure the author will throw us information quickly as we need it along the way.

 

But I was wrong; we don’t get information along the way. In fact, it’s not until halfway through the novel that we find out who the Fade are, and we begin to get a few hints about where the main character, Marina, comes from. Marina’s own story doesn’t become apparent until even later. In the first half of the book, we blindly run from point A to point B with a little bit of romance thrown in. All we know is that the world has been taken over by the Fade, whatever they are (Ghosts? Zombies? Vampires? Ghouls? All of the above?), and that the Fade dislike light. Because of this, Marina and her compatriots live in Arclight, an area in which darkness never sets in. Lights surround the compound, and everyone knows it’s not safe to go beyond them, into the Grey, where dark and light meet, or into the Dark, where the Fade live.

 

So how does Marina fit into this story? Marina is a teen girl who is new to Arclight, a sign that the world outside still harbors humans other than those in Arclight. Several of Arclight’s adults were lost in an effort to rescue Marina from the Dark when she was spotted, a circumstance for which many of her fellow teens blame her. And many people believe the ramped up attacks (or at least scouts) from Fade on the compound have something to do with her. Marina doesn’t know herself – she remembers  nothing from before waking up in Arclight’s medical center.

 

 

And the Fade? They’re stronger than five men, they can blend into their surroundings, and they dislike the light. Until exactly halfway through the book, this is all the reader knows about the Fade. Why they’re attacking, what they look like, etc., are mysteries. However, once the secret is revealed, the story instantly becomes less paranormal/dystopian buildup and more science fiction. (Spoiler: nanites and medical experiments gone wrong.) Yet as some secrets are revealed, more are discovered: The motives and history of Arclight’s leader, Honoria, come under scrutiny, and Marina is tasked with finding a missing Fade girl, Cherish, by a captive Fade. Not all is as it seems, and the book makes strong cases for not judging others for their ancestors’ actions, and for not attacking before all the facts are known.

 

In the final third of the book, the building romance between Marina and an Arclight teen ends up becoming a love triangle between Marina, the Arclight boy and a Fade boy. It’s surprisingly sweet, although I was rather disappointed with Marina’s ultimate choice. 

 

If the first half of the book weren’t so darn slow, I’d say this was a good read. However, it’s over-long by nearly 100 of its 402 pages, and my initial reaction of “yay, no long, drawn out exposition” was instantly proven wrong by having absolutely NO explanation for so long. Reading about characters stumbling from one crisis to the next gets tiring after a while, and I just kept turning the page in the hopes I could find out what the heck was going on. That being said, this would still be an enjoyable book for teens who are looking for a new book that varies from the current trends of dystopian/vampires/werewolves/etc.

Thursday, June 06, 2013

Heather's Book Review: Akata Witch by Nnedi Okorafor

 

Sometimes there are books that you like. And sometimes there are books that you love so much, you want to run around the library screaming their praises and wondering why they’ve only been checked out twice because OMG THEY ARE AWESOME and why wouldn’t anyone want to pick them up because OMGTHEYAREJUSTTHATAWESOME,YOUGUYSdssfhsjfjkseyrkjhs !!1!!1@

 

:D

 

This was my reaction to Akata Witch by Nnedi Okorafor.

 

In Akata Witch, Sunny is a girl who just doesn’t fit in. She’s composed of dramatically conflicting opposites. She was born in bustling New York City, but now lives in quiet Nigeria. Though she looks West African, she differs in one big way—She’s albino. Because of this, she stands out everywhere she goes. She’s also super-sensitive to the sun, so much so that she can’t play soccer during daylight—which is even more frustrating because it’s her favorite sport, and she’s a fantastic athlete. She’s a fantastic student, too, but her teacher seems determined to punish her for it by having her strike the hands of students who don’t score as well on their work. The other students hate her. They call her “akata witch,” “akata” being a word meaning “bush animal” (and being equivalent in insult to a racially-charged term familiar in the US). She hates being different. But one day, she has a vision of the end of the world, and she learns that she may be different for a reason: She is a Leopard Person, and a special one at that.

 

Leopard People go by many names throughout the world, but all are people with magical abilities. Sunny is a special sort of Leopard Person known as a free agent—a Leopard Person without Leopard relatives, who, thus being a seemingly random creation, possesses magic of unpredictable strength. She must learn to use her magic well and fast, for the area has been riddled with a series of mysterious and gruesome child murders, and she may have a closer connection to them than she realizes…

 

Much of my love for this book, I actually attribute to Pottermore.com. I read chapters of Akata Witch between messing around on chapters of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone on said site because—let’s face it—as exciting as J.K. Rowling’s Big Announcement was a few years ago, Pottermore is all kinds of boring unless you’re, like, ten. Or a Fanatical Harry Potter Nerd. But I am only a Moderately Fanatical Harry Potter Nerd, and in my 20s, so Pottermore is boring. (Now can we please have the Harry Potter MMO that everyone wanted Pottermore to be? Thanks.) Anyway, breezing between chapters of Pottermore and Akata Witch led me to the following series of realizations: “OMG Leopard Knocks is totally Diagon Alley! OMG These textbooks are like mini-monsters, too! OMG The juju knives are totally wands! They’re even divas about who gets to use them! OMG the Leopard People love brainy people like Hermione! OMG The Zuma International Wrestling Finals are totally Leopard Quiddich! OMG The Funky Train is totally the Knight Bus!” (You laugh, but admit it—you’d ride the Funky Train if you had the chance, solely because of its name.)

 

With these similarities, one would think “Oh, this book is just a ripoff of Harry Potter!” But the truly magical thing about it is this—it’s not. The similarities between Akata Witch and Harry Potter, ironically, evolve into distinct differences because of the way Okorafor treats them.  In fact, in addition to borrowing many of the things that I love about Harry Potter, it takes a lot of things that I hate about Harry Potter, and then turns them on their ear and does them better. It even takes the things Harry Potter does well and does them better. “How?” you may ask. And then you may add, “WHAT IS THIS BLASPHEMY?” But read on…

 

Let’s start with one of its subtler similarities, which is the series’ integral and vivid sense of setting. Harry Potter crossed hundreds of cultural boundaries to gain its popularity, but ultimately it remained a very British series. Take away the scarves; heavy, snowy winters; and dark, castle-like boarding school and you simply do not have the same reading experience. That said, just as Harry Potter could not take place in a non-British-inspired setting and still render the same story, Akata Witch could not be set anywhere but Nigeria and work. It is the African elements, combined with the sheer imagination surrounding them, that make this novel a great read.

 

As for the similarities that Akata Witch improves upon, the biggest is this: Both series clearly value the pursuit of knowledge. Harry Potter would have died in book one if Hermione Granger’s brain hadn’t been there to save him, and Sunny’s friend Orlu perfectly expresses the Leopard People’s opinion when he says, “Knowledge is the center of all things.” This is why the Obi Library is a respected place and why its Head Librarian, Sugar Cream (Yes, really), is the most revered and powerful Leopard Person in Nigeria. That’s about where Harry Potter’s appreciation of knowledge ends—“Libraries are awesome and can teach us things that help us when we’re getting into wizard trouble!” Akata Witch values its library, but also takes its love of knowledge further than that. It’s reflected even in the Leopard People’s system of currency. When a Leopard Person learns something new, chittim—that is, the money used by Leopard People—magically materializes in front of them. The more a Leopard Person learns about magic, the more chittim they earn, and the only way to earn chittim is to continue to learn. But it’s not the chittim, or the awesome result of an all-nighter that Leopard People value. It’s the very process of learning itself, and the practical, and sometimes even moral value of the magical discovery that was made. All of the characters are expected to study, too, for reasons further explored below. They can’t be hapless heroes leaning on a Hermione crutch. And the mini-monster textbook mentioned earlier? It doesn’t move and growl because it wants to look cool and wizardly and foreboding. It moves because it wants to be read.

 

As for an element that I (and many critics) dislike about Harry Potter—One common complaint about the series is that Harry tends to break the rules and benefit from it, or either have the rules bent so they don’t apply to him. First year students aren’t allowed to fly on broomsticks? Pssh! Harry does it and gets a place as the youngest person ever on the quiddich team! Akata Witch doesn’t pull that. When Sunny uses her Leopard abilities in front of a lamb—a huge no-no, just like it is for wizards and magic—she doesn’t get a threatened punishment that is then revoked for Plot Reasons. She gets flogged, and then she loses her highly sought-after chance at becoming Sugar Cream’s mentee. Some of her companions suffer similar punishments for similar foolishness. Of course, while it hurts to see pain befall our heroes, I liked that there were actual consequences for infractions, rather than fortunately-placed plot twists. It adds a realistic sort of tension, in contrast to the tensions present because of the fantasy elements.

 

There’s also the whole Boy Who Lived-slash-Chosen One thing—a common element in many fantasy novels— where a particular character is, for whatever reason, destined to defeat a particular baddie. I hate Chosen One storylines no matter where they show up because in real life, I’ve only met, like, two people to whom I would confidently entrust the fate of civilization. Even that’s reaching a bit (‘cause, you know, saving all of humanity is a HUGE task for one person). Also, neither of these people were angsty, hormonal, pubescent teens, despite what YA fantasy novels would lead me to expect. (Granted, this is where suspension of disbelief comes in handy when reading YA fantasy.) Expectations of realism aside, there’s also the lack of suspense inherent in the typical Chosen One storyline. We know who’s going to live and defeat the baddie because the story type has already told us. Sure, Harry Potter had the whole and Neville-Longbottom-having-a-similar-backstory-and-therefore-being-a-candidate-to-defeat-Voldemort thing to keep us on our toes-slash-distract us to the end. But come on. Harry Potter’s name is in the title of the series. Of course he’d be the Chosen One. Of course he’d live and beat the bad guy. That’s how Chosen One stories work. (But maybe I’m just spiteful because I was Team Neville.)

 

Akata Witch doesn’t pull this either. While it’s said that Sunny and her companions’ abilities complement each other in a fortuitous, Chosen One-like way, they are frequently reminded of their absolute mortality: “There will be danger,” says their mentor, Anatov, “Some of you may not live to complete your lessons. It is a risk you take. The world is bigger than you and it will go on, regardless.” And as for that subliminal reader assurance that this rule won’t apply to our protagonists, that surely some mentor or deus ex machina will come to their aid? That hope is shot down by something as innocent as the Leopard People’s favorite sport, about which Sunny asks: “Why didn’t they stop [the match]?” And her mentor replies, “Because life doesn’t work that way. When things get bad, they don’t stop until you stop the badness—or die [italics mine].” Leopard People don’t get rescued, even if they are the protagonists. They take care of themselves, and if they get themselves into bigger messes than they can handle, they’re dead (which makes the act of studying magic a whole lot more appealing). Because the novel doesn’t play the protagonists up as prophesied victors, too, readers fully believe that death is a possibility for Sunny and friends, which makes reading about the danger that they put themselves in all the more suspenseful.

 

Now, I’ve placed a lot of emphasis on the book’s Harry Potter-like successes, but the novel does possess several great points on its own. For example, though the Leopard People have almost constant access to money (as long as they’re learning), they do not place great value in money, viewing it more as a tool to achieve goals than a goal to be reached in itself. (Granted, this is a theme that has been seen before, but it’s still refreshing to see it approached in a way that isn’t flagrant anti-consumerism). Leopard People also take traits that “lambs”—that is, non-magical people—view as imperfections and view them as strengths. Sunny is albino, Orlu is dyslexic, and other friends Chichi and Sasha were both notorious for being hopeless troublemakers in lamb school, before it was realized that they were actually gifted students bored with the unchallenging world around them (like teens falsely diagnosed with ADHD). All of these traits, regarded as flaws in the lamb world, contribute to their strengths as Leopard People, and it was cool to see characters with “disabilities” benefit from them in a semi-realistic way. (Kudos to Rick Riordan for giving Percy Jackson dyslexia, but to this day I haven’t met a dyslexic teen whose brain can understand the writing of their first language without effort, much less Ancient Greek.)

 

Of course, the book has flaws as well. The main conflict in the book revolves around the child murders mentioned earlier, and though child murder is awful, and though the crimes become a special concern for Leopard People late in the novel, Okorafor doesn’t spend much story time making us fear the ritual serial murderer Black Hat Otokoto. She’s more interested in showing us Sunny’s entry into the Leopard People world—which, in its defense, is hugely interesting—but I do wish that more time had been spent on the larger threat hanging over the characters’ heads. Ultimately, though, that flaw is overshadowed by the novel’s wonderfully imaginative world-building, and it’s not going to stop Akata Witch from being one of my favorite YA novels of the past several years.