Category Archives: Young Adult books

The Prisoner of Snowflake Falls by John Lekich

I really loved Snowflake Falls for about 1/2 or 3/4 of the book.  The main character, Henry, has learned the profession of thievery from his uncle and his associates from a young age.  Although Henry’s mother would be horrified if she knew, now that she is gone (cancer) and his uncle is unavailable to care for him (jail), Henry has been forced to fall back on the casing, lock-picking, and creeping skills he has picked up in order to stay out of foster care.

This first half of the book is absolutely delightful – Henry is living in a tree fort in an old lady’s house, filling in as the neighbourhood burglar for all his “benefactors.”  The only problem is, he has a conscience and doesn’t like to take what people will miss – money for presents are off the list, as are items of sentimental value, and anything from someone down on their luck.  Sometimes all he’s left with is loose change in sofa cushions.  So times are tight for Henry, who is getting very little sleep and food, and who is finding it difficult to evade the authorities and convince his uncle that he’s doing ok.  So it’s no wonder that he gets caught.

Thus starts the second part of the book – Henry’s incarceration in the tiny and sleepy rural town, Snowflake Falls.  He is tasked with reforming himself and going above-board.  This project proves to have mixed results.

The strengths of this book are the amazing characters – Henry’s mater-of-fact deadpan delivery is wonderfully spot-on, and very chuckleworthy throughout the book.  His uncle and associates are similarly fun and quirky, and Snowflake Falls is populated by very singular individuals (some a little too grating at first).  And the idea is charming – a teen thief with a conscience, who has a very sympathetic and unique insight into a lot of different lives.

Unfortunately, the second half of the book let me down.  Not only was it jarring to be taken to a completely different setting (I felt like some things that had been set up were abandoned – like Henry’s relationship with Ambrose, his last benefactor), there also wasn’t enough time to properly develop this new world.  And then, just as the plot had picked itself up and was loping along nicely – the book ended!  There really was no climax – just a sudden left turn and a screeching halt at the finish.  I really wanted more – it felt like the author had to rush and get his manuscript in on time, and I think another draft and 3o more pages would really have helped.  I suspect I wouldn’t be complaining so much if I hadn’t enjoyed the first chunk so much – I was really hoping to have found my favourite funny guy book since Gordon Korman’s Schooled or Son of the Mob.  In the end, Snowflake Falls is still worth the read – but probably won’t rock your world like it had the potential to.

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I’ll Be There by Holly Goldberg Sloan

A publisher sent me an autographed copy of the paperback of I’ll Be There to me recently and I was pretty excited.  It was already on my list because of its great cover (not too girly compared to many recent additions to our store’s YA section), and all the praise it has received: LA public libraries picked it (Best of YA!); Chicago libraries picked it (Best of the Best!) and YALSA picked it (Best Fiction for YA Books!) – not to mention recommendations from the Horn Book Review, SLJ, VOYA and Gayle Forman.  All in all, it seemed like a worthwhile read.

And I think I wouldn’t have had such a strong reaction if not for all this advance praise and hype.  But fairly or unfairly, I didn’t enjoy it as much as everyone else in the world (or at least on the back cover and goodreads) did.

I quickly bristled at the overbearing narrator/voice over that has very few limits on its omniscience.  Not only is the present and past told (with occasional foreshadows of the future), but the narrator dips into almost every character’s head.  This is not a bad thing in itself, but the narrator also intrudes on many of the conversations, often summarising what is said rather than presenting the dialogue for the reader to interpret and enjoy (strange for an author who usually writes screenplays!).

Next (as a practising non-religious person), I found there was a lot of hidden religion in this book.  Not that Sloan mentions God or faith very much – but a decidedly Christian sense of moral goodness and righteousness did permeate the book.  First, there is the god-like narrator with his/her divine plan and omniscient knowledge about every outcome of every action.  Second are the themes of small acts affecting others (which comes off a bit like divine planning), and keeping faith with others no matter what.  Third, the main characters (the good characters) are all extremely wholesome and squeaky clean.  The romance between Sam and Emily (I know – I haven’t even introduced them yet) is purely emotional and ethereal with very few hints of sexual desire or tension.  And of course the first scene happens in a church.

The basic story is that teenage Emily sees teenage Sam and it is love at first sight (of course).  Even more than usual, their relationship is based on an unexpected, unexplained connection that draws them together despite improbable odds and significant obstacles (I really believe the author is talking about souls recognising each other).  The main hitch is Sam’s family.  His father is a crazy criminal (literally insane) and has kept Sam and his younger brother Riddle secluded from the world in his paranoid flight from town to town since he kidnapped them from their mother years ago.  Sam begins seeing Emily despite the danger of his father discovering her and of her family finding out about him, and despite the fact that it takes him away from the 24-hour care of his vulnerable, sweet, but very odd younger brother (an admittedly very attractive character).

Overall I gotta say that Sam’s character could have used a few less perfections: he is stunningly handsome, incredibly kind, impeccably honest, completely morally good, very intelligent, and one of the best guitar players alive (if Emily’s music-teacher father is to be believed).  Sure he’s had every disadvantage with his crazy abusive father, no friends, schooling, or meaningful connection to the outside world – but this doesn’t humanise him for me – it makes him even more inexplicable.  Again, I can’t help but think religion, souls and Jesus must be resorted to to explain such perfection in a character that grew up with so much pain and abuse.

Without going into the plot too much, I must also complain that Sloan seems to take the cosmic vengeance she wreaks on her unsavoury characters a little too far.  The prideful, uncaring, and materialistic boy who makes a play for Emily in Sam’s absence is punished with a sunburn, bad fake tan, ticketed and towed vehicle, broken arm, injured foot, and total humiliation at the prom (I many have forgotten some others).  It all seems a bit much, especially because Sam and Emily are entirely guiltless for all of these injuries.  I can’t help but feel their hands are clean because Sloan taking care of all the dirty work for them.  Mostly I think she relishes the bloody vengeance a bit too much (I enjoyed the first couple of scenes – but by the end, I was feeling a little ill on this boy’s behalf).

These complaints aside – I did enjoy the general themes of the world working in unexpected ways.  The plot and characters (though often annoying) were enough to keep me intrigued, and I didn’t abandon I’ll Be There at any point.  I see how those who like Nicholas Sparks or Jodi Picoult would really go for this book. I found it to be very much like the Jackson Five song it is named for – cloying and sentimental, but appealing if that’s the kind of thing you are into.

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The Drowned Cities by Paolo Bacigalupi

Complex.  Important.  Staggering.

Is how I would describe Drowned Cities, a companion novel to Bacigalupi’s earlier Ship Breaker.  Not a strict sequel, Drowned Cities follows Tool, the fearsome and compelling man/dog/hyena/tiger hybrid we met in Ship Breaker, as well as two new young characters: Mahlia and Mouse.

When I reflect on it, I think I liked Drowned Cities even more than the first in this series.  Like Ship Breaker, it encompasses a marvellously complete and complex world – the detail is incredible, and somehow Bacigalupi makes his novel feel rooted in a place, but manages to hint that there are equally rooted, complex places throughout his futuristic world.  Set after the flood/global economic collapse/environmental disasters, these books traverse a nightmarish future United States.  Drowned Cities in fact brings us to the capital itself, Washington DC – now part jungle, swamp, war zone, and scrap heap.  Mahia and Mouse are two “war maggots” – refugees that have managed to escape the violence and have been taken in by a kind-hearted doctor living in one of the villages in the Drowned Cities area.  Mahia is a half-breed – her father was part of the Chinese peacekeeping force sent to tame the Drowned Cities and bring an end to the violence.  The Chinese peacekeepers have left, but their “castoffs” like Mahia were left behind, though few have survived the wrath of the Drowned Cities residents looking for revenge on their former occupiers.  Left with only one hand, Mahia is a survivor.  When she happens upon Tool – almost dead after an epic battle with a swamp monster on top of an escape from prison – Mahia sees an opportunity.  She nurses the monstrous creature back to life and then asks his assistance in leaving the Drowned Cities.  Though he has no master (unlike the rest of his kind), Tool agrees to help her escape the war zone and the soldiers who continue to hunt him.  However, when her best friend Mouse is captured and recruited by these boy soldiers, Mahia has to decide whether to risk everything and follow him into the heart of the Drowned Cities and enemy territory – or whether to take her chances with Tool and flee.

What I remembered from the first book was the incredible detail and complex world.  These things also struck me in Drowned Cities, but so did the characters and the almost non-stop action driving the plot forward.  Not only is the world believable – the characters and their decisions are real also.  Again, even more than in Ship Breaker, I found myself making comparisons with our own world: the factional warfare fought for no end but the glory of self-appointed “generals,” along with the unyielding hostility to occupiers promising to do good, struck me as familiar from Afghanistan, Iraq, and just about any other country the world has tried to interfere in.  The recruitment of boy soldiers comes straight out of accounts I have read of civil wars in Africa, and the jingoism and xenophobia permeating the society seems reminiscent of areas of present-day America (and many other parts of the world).  As is the case with all great science fiction, Drowned Cities reflects (and requires one to reflect) on our world: a world where privileged elites are separated from those they exploit, a world where people are too busy fighting to survive to help one another.

Though the main characters of these novels chose to act decently when pushed to the limit, most of the population of Bacigalupi’s world is predatory and violent in response to a predatory and violent world.  Tool himself is warfare personified – the most dangerous and destructive tendencies of humanity given life – and even this biological killing machine manages to show more humanity than those surrounding him.  True to his dark vision, Bacigalupi does not give us any easy escapes from the world he envisions.  Although he allows some to leave Drowned Cities, the place itself persists, a mire of death and destruction with no safe havens.  Even more so than Hunger Games and the like, Ship Breaker and Drowned Cities send a shiver up my spine because of its unconquerable reality.  If you are working your way through the mass of dystopias currently available, please don’t miss these startling and important contributions.

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Changeling by Philippa Gregory

Everyone is writing YA books these days – and the latest authors to jump on board are Jodi Picoult and Philippa Gregory.  I admit, I’ve rather been dreading what both these successful (though repetitive, to my taste) authors have to offer.

I was pleasantly surprised by the first half of Changeling.  Though not exactly a literary triumph, it had some engaging characters and an interesting enough story line.  Gregory certainly knows her history.  The novel follows Luca Vero, a brilliant young man with a scientific mind who has been expelled from his religious order for heresy (he calculates that all the nails that various religious orders have claimed to have preserved from THE cross cannot possibly be true – they would outweigh the cross itself).  He is recruited by the The Order of the Dragon, a secret organisation commissioned by Pope Nicholas V to track down the inexplicable occurrences appearing throughout the land during this end-of-days time.  Assisted by a scribe/spy and a mouthy kitchen boy, he sets out to investigate strange events as they present themselves (or are presented to him).

The other main character is Isolde, a seventeen-year-old noble girl who should have inherited her father’s estates.  However, her brother has managed to conspire to rob her of this legacy – leaving her to chose between an unspeakable marriage or taking her vows and becoming the head of a nunnery.  With no real alternative, she reluctantly enters the convent.

Luca and Isolde’s paths join when he is sent to investigate charges of witchcraft at Isolde’s nunnery.  Without getting into spoiler details, there is a conspiracy in the convent, and confusion about whether god’s work or evil is being done.  At the 11th hour Luca solves the case, though he seemed to have no idea about what to do up to the very moment.  I admit, my credulity was stretched to its breaking point in this climactic scene (imagine deranged, bald nuns attacking like creatures from night of the living dead).  Even more puzzling was the fact that this climax came only halfway through the novel.  I was wondering what could possibly be next – another climax? a denouement lasting 100+ pages?  In fact, the end was a second, almost entirely discrete, episode taking place in another village.  The second half of the novel was fine – but very strange.  It felt much more like Gregory had put two books into one, with an odd little bridge to join them.  Of course, there promises to be more adventures for the little group, but I am not sure who will be venturing out to join them.

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Please Ignore Vera Dietz by A. S. King

If you haven’t heard of A. S. King, I hope you will soon.  She is a wonderful YA author that I have just discovered, and am thinking of starting a campaign for her (though many of the awards committees like the Prinz, Kirkus, etc. etc. have started without me).

Like John Green, A. S. King creates fantastically compelling and memorable characters to tell her stories.  Her latest, Everybody Sees the Ants came close to being an all-time favourite with me, mostly on the strength of the main character, Lucky Linderman, and his wry look at those around him and his own struggles.

I just finished King’s second book, Please Ignore Vera Dietz, and I was not disappointed.  Like Ants there is a teen facing insurmountable odds and a heartbreaking situation – and in both the details are doled out slowly, keeping the reader in suspense.  Also like Ants, there is an inexplicably surreal element running through the story.  I suspect some readers will be put off by it, but I think King does a remarkable job of weaving the fantastical (and we’re not talking vampires or werewolves) into the real.

To give you an idea: Vera’s best friend Charlie has just died.  Except that when he died, she was angry at him, and now Vera is struggling with the conflicting emotions of losing a life-long best friend, and also a worst enemy.  As the novel progresses, the crack-lines that permeate her life and that tore apart Charlie’s become increasingly apparent.  Him from a family with an abusive father.  Her with a runaway mother and a father incapable of expressing emotion.  Him having fallen in with a bad crowd and a psychotic girlfriend.  Her with a drinking problem that is a repeat of her dad’s as a teen.  Him as a ghost by her side – haunting her and helping her.

The story telling is gorgeous and spins out beautifully – Vera’s past intertwines with the present and is interlaced with chapters told by her father, Charlie “the dead kid,” and the local landmark “the pagoda” (yes, an inanimate building).  Your heart will break for Vera and Charlie and her father, and will swell when it sees what she might make of her future, and the kind of person she is and might become.  I’ve never read a love story/friendship quite like this one – and especially in the YA genre (where every permutation is hashed to death) that is saying something.

This book was sophisticated and meaningful.  Like Ants it was not without its flaws, but it was top-notch, and deserves attention.

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The Right and the Real by Joelle Anthony

This review originally published in Island Tides, Volume 24 Number 9, May 3-16.

Reading the Right and the Real, I am already a fan of Joelle Anthony. When her first young adult novel, Restoring Harmony, came out two years ago, I read it with great relish.  Not only was it a story rooted in a place I know well (the main character starts out on a Gulf Island much like Gabriola, where Anthony lives, and travels down to Portland) – it was an all-too-real version of the future, circa 2041.  With convincing detail, Anthony turned our familiar West Coast into a bleak and chaotic landscape, populated by believable characters struggling to make their way. 

With The Right & the Real Anthony has once again proven her ability to make a big issue immediate.  Here her focal point is religious cuts, as represented by “the Right & the Real Church,” headed by the loathsome “Teacher.”  The novel begins at Jamie’s father’s wedding, where she is unexpectedly asked by the Teacher to sign the Pledge committing herself to the organisation.  Though her father has been taken in by the Church’s dogma, Jamie has remained aloof.  Yet it is only when she refuses to sign the pledge that the true nature of this organisation becomes apparent. She is summarily cast out of the church, her house, and her father’s life.  Anthony creates a keen sense of frustrated helplessness, as Jamie’s old life is inexorably stripped away from her. I find myself fuming at the unfairness of it all.

Unable to access her father, and refusing to be sent to live with her estranged mother, seventeen-year-old Jamie ends up on the street with few options.  Outside of fantasy or thriller fiction, teen authors rarely force their characters into such desperate straights, though many teens are one argument away from leaving or being kicked out of home. Jamie’s story illuminates everything these teens face: the petty day-to-day struggles to feed oneself, the looming threats of danger and violence on the streets, and the desperation of watching potential futures slip away. Thankfully, Jamie is a tough and resilient heroine, and she is helped by a guardian neighbour, LaVon.  Though LaVon is almost too perfect as a character, it is impossible not to love this gigantic black ex-con trying to kick addiction and live straight, who also knows his way around a hot plate and has an unshakable environmentalist ethic.

As with LaVon, the novel’s main weakness is when it tips towards what we would like to happen in this situation, rather than portraying what is real, particularly in the final act, where a fun but over-the-top caper dominates the action.  Nevertheless, with Anthony’s tight command over detail, character and suspense, The Right and the Real remains a compellingly right portrait of the anguish of losing a loved one and finding oneself without options in a hostile world.

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A Long Long Sleep by Anna Sheehan

There is a distinct potential for cheesiness in the concept of A Long Long Sleep – a sleeping beauty/dystopia mash-up.  However, I found that the writing was excellent, and that the issues raised were so compelling that there was no hint of cheesiness.  It actually had unexpected depths and an extremely compelling story.

Rosalinda Fitzroy is the daughter of the most powerful corporate leader there is.  She has just woken up from a sixty-two year sleep in stasis.  Waking up was hard – her body is wasted and barely functional after her long sleep.  The world into which she emerges is even harder to face – her loved ones are long dead, and the catastrophic Dark Times and subsequent Recovery have altered her world drastically.  Though she is heiress to her father’s empire, Rose finds she doesn’t fit in anywhere, and that her only escape is through her art that is augmented by the vivid stasis dreams she has been immersed in.

However, as Rose faces the painful aspects in her past, she slowly begins to recognize the source of her alienation and timidity.  Helped by Brendan, the young man who woke her up with a kiss (mouth-to-mouth resuscitation), and a genetic oddity, Otto, Rose slowly confronts what has happened to her, and questions the memory of her devoted parents.

The themes Sheehan touches on in this story were deeper than I had expected: corporate control; inequitable distributions of wealth; the dangers of genetic engineering; the allure of drugs as an escape from reality; parental neglect and abuse of power; and the process of aging or staying young while the world ages around you.  Without giving anything away, the relationship between Rose and her childhood love Xavier was touching and heartbreaking – beautifully drawn out and agonizing in a very compelling way.

I’m sure Long Long Sleep will not be for everyone, but I was pleased to find that it had appeal beyond the fluffy romance crowd.  Though nowhere near as gritty and dark as dystopias like Ship Breaker or Elephant Mountains, it had issues that cut to the core of our society and psychology.  I hope many people read and enjoy this most excellent book.

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Ship Breaker by Paolo Bacigalupi

Dalí claimed that “the only difference between me and the surrealists is that I am a surrealist.”

The difference between Ship Breaker and other YA dystopias is that Ship Breaker is a dystopia.

And no wonder this is a darker read: Paolo Bacigalupi is the author of The Windup Girl, an award-winning and bestselling adult novel.  More so than other YA dystopias, Ship Breaker hovers on that increasingly narrow precipice that separates teen and adult fiction.  Say what you will about the violence of Hunger Games, or the bleak plot of Blood Red Road, Ship Breaker is a much more complicated, grown-up world.  Many other YA dystopias that I have read (Divergent, Matched, Hunger Games) are built on an interesting premise as a kind of “what if our world were like that?”  Whether it’s teens who must choose a vocation or partner for life at a certain age, or even a more complex hierarchy of cities all serving a privileged core, these worlds all have boundaries.  They exist simply within the bounds of the novel, and it feels like the whole society can be encapsulated and explained within these pages.

Ship Breaker does not have this same feel at all.  Rather, it feels like a vast world full of unexplained technologies and social structures.  Why  are there half-dog-half-men creatures?  Where do they come from?  We have a glimpse into the main character, Nailer’s world, and it is filled with so much detail and complexity, that one can only guess at what the rest of the world must be.  So whatever else it is, Ship Breaker is a gritty and startlingly intricate vision of the future.

It begins with Nailer, a teen who is probably fifteen but doesn’t really know his own age.  Because he’s so small, he can still work the light crew, stripping old tanker ships of their copper wiring to make his scavange quota.  He lives on a beach somewhere in America’s Gulf Coast region, an area polluted by poisons excreted by rotting tankers, and populated by impoverished and desperate people.  Life is cheap here – those who can’t make quota, who are too big for light crew or who are too weak for heavy crew must fend for themselves.  All too often this involves selling themselves – their organs or reproductive materials – for enough money to survive.  Everyone dreams of a Lucky Strike and loyalty to one’s crew is the only type of fellow feeling there is.

Though he is a dreamer, Nailer always makes quota and he has a family of sorts in his best friend Pima and her mother.  His own mother is dead, and his father Richard Lopez is a violent drunk at the best of times.  The opening pages include Nailer’s near-death in a vat of oil and a deadly tropical storm that wrecks the settlement and kills several people.  It is immediately clear why Nailer’s people place their faith in luck; although for his part, Nailer vows to be smart and lucky.

After the destructive storm, Nailer finds what should be his Lucky Strike – a wrecked clipper ship with a fortune of scavenge.  However, he also finds a half-dead girl named Anita on board.  Tying his fate to hers will be the biggest risk of his life, but he finds himself compelled to help this wealthy “swank” who seems truthful despite the lies she tells about herself.  Together they undertake the most dangerous of adventures.

There are people today who make a living breaking ships to recycle materials and scavenging on top of enormous landfills.  In many ways Nailer’s world, with its oil shortages and population surpluses, is only a few steps away from ours.  In other ways – in the genetically engineered monsters that are a combination of man/dog/tiger/hyena – I found it came entirely out of left field.  Nailer’s existence is described in intricate detail – the slang, the code of honour, the tattoos and world view.  We also  get a glimpse at Anita’s swanky world – full of luxury items, bodyguards and comfort – not too dissimilar from what it  is to be a billionaire heiress today.  Bacigalupi does a beautiful job in capturing these existences and hinting at a richly complex world that exists in between these extremes.

The plot and action of Ship Breaker move along well.  True to the YA form, there is not a lot of waste in this novel, and we move reasonably quickly into the meat of the story and drive towards the finish.  The strongest element (and the most enigmatic) of the story is Tool, a gigantic dog-man creature.  He is supposed to have an overwhelming loyalty built into his genetic code, but Tool serves no master except for himself.  Instead, Tool chooses to help those around them as it suits him.  He serves as an unlikely ally for Nailer, who is initially terrified of him.  And when he decides the risk is no longer worth it, Tool departs.  It is no surprise that the sequel to this novel begins with Tool’s fate (a first chapter is helpfully included at the end of Ship Breaker).  Tool somehow reminded me of Asimov’s robots – designed to serve humanity, though exhibiting a will to live of his own.  He was compelling, and I am keen to hear more of his fate.

The rest of the characters were quite well described (particularly Nailer), but were not the strong point of the novel.  In particular, I was frusterated by Richard, Nailer’s father.  As a drunk, drugged-up and abusive father he was terrifying and all-too believable.  The scenes between him and Nailer were heartbreaking in their emotional and physical violence.  What I could not believe is that this monster of a man was somehow capable of masterminding a complex and sustained criminal conspiracy.  His portrayal as a substance abuser with long blackouts just didn’t translate consistently to his identity later in the novel as a respected leader of evil men.  As a result, the conflict between Richard and Nailer – so crucial to novel – was undermined because it felt forced on the story as a plot and thematic device.  That said, the father/son conflict still managed to be fairly compelling and powerful.

I very much enjoyed Bacigalupi’s creation – it felt gritty and real, and a departure from others in the genre that come off feeling shiny and tidy in comparison.  That said, I’m not sure everyone reading these YA dystopias will love it as much.  There was no love triangle in Ship Breaker and no easy answers.  Like House of the Scorpion or Oryx and Crake there are nightmares in this world and very few safe havens.  Unlike the middle-class ethos of some YA dystopias (all will be well if you just conform to society’s demands – a precept the main characters universally reject), there is no safety in Ship Breaker.  Normal is painful and marginal – the only possible escape from an already precarious existence is to risk everything.

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Bunheads by Sophie Flack

After watching Black Swan and The Company and reading Ballet Confidential and Bunheads in the past year, I’m coming to the conclusion that all stories about serious ballet dancers have the same themes.  Driving ambition, punishing work, all-consuming competition, incredible discipline of mind and body, and inevitable breakdowns of both.  Apparently being a ballet dancer is one of the most punishing and un-glamerous careers possible.  So glad I’m short, ungraceful and clumsy – I just never had to face this painful existence.

I picked up Bunheads because of the beautiful cover, and because in honour of a well-loved former co-worker, I scope out interesting ballet books (she is a dancer).  While Bunheads was nowhere near as dark as Black Swan, I did find myself thinking of that movie a lot as Hannah, the main character, subsumed her life, emotions and health to being a ballet star and achieving the elusive solo.  Hannah is a nineteen-year-old dancer in the prestigious Manhattan Ballet.  For the past ten years she has dedicated herself to this life of constant rehearsals and nightly performances, and she has loved it.  However, when she meets a handsome college student, Jacob, Hannah begins to question why she can’t have a life, and begins to wonder about all the things she might be missing out on.

When an instructor suggests that she lose weight (she is still willowy and thin, but has begun to develop – gasp – breasts!), Hannah is thrown into further conflict – and experiences severe embarrassment at needing a bra.  Through the book she alternates between fanatic devotion to dance – working out constantly to lose weight and develop her stamina and perfect ballerina figure – and a frustration with all the outrageous demands from the unyielding directors who see her as little more than an object.

The author, Sophie Flack, apparently spent nine years with the New York City Ballet, and this novel is clearly based on her experience.  It’s a certainly well-described experience.  I was sunk right into the world of aching muscles, bone-tired exhaustion, and the exhilaration that comes with performance and completing a dance beautifully.

In particular, her characters were well-realized.  Hannah was complex and the conflict she felt between her dance ambitions and desire to experience real life was palpable.  I also loved and hated Zoe, her best friend.  Though Zoe is petty, often mean, and self-centred, she is also a loyal friend when it really matters and an extremely hard worker.  Her family is ridiculously wealthy, but she is almost entirely neglected by her mother, and though she is priviledged, she earns her dance recognition through hard work.  Flack created a wonderful character here – one that you can’t help but hate on occasion, but one who is clearly damaged and ultimately caring beneath her hostile shields.

All in all, this was quite an enjoyable book.  Perfect for aspiring dancers, but also a well-drawn coming-of-age book for a world completely different from the norm.

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Outlaw by Stephen Davies

Outlaw goes on sale in a couple of weeks.  It’s another book passed on to me by a publisher’s rep a couple of months ago, with a promise that it is an absolutely fantastic boy book.  Action, adventure, the whole deal.

And, you know, it was pretty good.  Davies tells the story of Jake Knight, a fifteen-year-old completely bored with his stuffy British boarding school.  To spice up his life he creates urban adventures with his friends – elaborate games of “find the thimble” using GPS and parkour skills to find and hide objects in improbable areas around town.  When he breaks into a local prison to retrieve an item, Jake is kicked out of school for the rest of the semester.  To his delight, he is sent back to his current family home – in Burkina Faso in West Africa.  His dad is the British Ambassador there, and as Jake arrives he fantasizes about the adventures he could have in Africa.

Because this is a novel, Jake’s desire is granted with a vengeance – he and his younger sister are kidnapped from an elaborate dinner.  They are taken to the desert and find themselves among thieves, terrorists, outlaws, and at the centre of a large military conspiracy.

What I liked:

The action is well done.  I liked the parkour and building hopping.  Technology was well-integrated into the story and rather believable.  The evil gold companies and Robin Hood themes running through the story were fun and appealing.  The character of Yakuuba Sor, the outlaw they run into, was absolutely fantastic; it is impossible not to fall in love with him a little.  The use of African languages and a bit of French added depth, and I so enjoyed all the African proverbs.  Finally, I was won over a bit by the fact that this is an honourable book, written by someone who lives in Africa, used actual places and cultures, and who is concerned to educate and inform people about the issues of the region.

What I didn’t like:

The simplicity of some of the supporting characters, like Jake’s rather one-note mom.  The inconsistent reading level was also frustrating.   Except for a shocking bit of violence, Outlaw would be fine for ages 10 or 11 and up; because of that one scene, I wouldn’t want to give it to anyone under 12 or 13, even though the story and writing level is generally pitched younger.  Jake’s sister frequently bothered me – I wanted either more or less from her.  She obviously had stuff going on (like a crush on Yakuuba, I think), but she came off as rather flat all the same.

Overall, a good action-adventure.  I would probably recommend buying it in paperback rather than hardcover.  But the setting and story combine to make it a relatively unique and fun read, with important enough themes to make it a somewhat thoughtful book.

 (The much-superior British cover)

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Filed under Just Read, Middle Grade Fiction, Young Adult books