Tag Archives: Young Adult

The Vinyl Princess by Yvonne Prinz

I have been told to read this book a few times, but had never really gotten around to it until the other week when the straw finally broke the camel’s back.  I gave in after a friendly customer insisted it was great, and took it home from the store.  A week later I finally started reading it.  And I’m very glad I did – it is a very fun (and funny) read.

At sixteen Allie is the ultimate music aficionado: she has a huge vinyl record collection, an encyclopedic knowledge of music, and a long-standing job at Bob & Bob Records in Berkeley, California. As you may have sensed already, this is High Fidelity for teen girls, complete with the music snobbery (Allie regularly refuses to help customers locate their CD’s alphabetically – if they don’t know the alphabet, they have no business leaving home, let alone appearing in her store), strange but wonderful personalities, and exquisite humour (though not as exquisite as Nick Hornby’s – please please read his books if you haven’t already – High Fidelity, About a Boy and Long Way Down are all fantastic).

I particularly love Prinz’s characters: each one is detailed, real, and very odd. Allie is remarkably (and refreshingly) self-possessed and at home in her skin.  Though she does worry about her various flaws, she doesn’t suffer from agonizing teen angst like so many female characters in YA fiction.  The interaction between her and her loveable but befuddled mother is fantastic, as is her solid relationship with her outgoing fashion-junkie best friend, Kit. Every character is imbued with loveable quirks, and the setting is home to all these quirks.  I’ve never been to Berkeley, but in Prinz’s hands in becomes a funky neighbourhood, full of off-the-wall incense sellers, drugged-out drag queens, friendly falafel sellers, and everyone in between.  The crazy vibe of the place pulses through the novel.  It is hip, urban, and dingy enough to be both edgy and comfortable.

What makes this summer of Allie’s life different is that a) she’s started a blog and a zine about vinyl records (titled “The Vinyl Princess”); and that b) her record store is robbed, and she knows the guy who did it.  There are a few other source of drama, but the conflict in this novel is so mild that it really won’t trouble you.  Not to give too much away, but the zine and blog fairly quickly take off, and the robbery leads to serious, but not too major soul-searching.  She never breaks up with her best friend, disowns her mother, or contemplates leaving home/doing drugs/shagging the wrong guy/becoming a kleptomaniac/etc. etc.  It doesn’t take too much intuition to sort out a) who the “baddy” is; b) which guy she’ll end up with; c) which guy her mom will end up with; and d) what she’ll do with her life after her boss’s big announcement.  Some might be annoyed by this predictability, but I always find that in a well-written book, with great characters and scenes it doesn’t matter.  I can sit back and enjoy the ride, even though I know exactly where it’s going – truth be told, I kind of enjoy the comfortable predictability.

While it’s not full of world-ending drama, this book is funny and smart, and made me: a) ashamed that I’ve ever downloaded music; b) want to listed to the albums and playlists she describes; c) envious of her obvious blog success; and d) wishing I could know either Allie or Yvonne Prinz a whole lot better (I suspect it doesn’t matter which – Prinz is the co-founder of a record store in San Francisco, and I think she’s writing what she knows and loves).  It’s a perfect summer read, and I’m so glad I finally gave it a chance.

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Divergent by Veronica Roth

Divergent was just published in April 2011, and yes, it is another YA dystopian thriller. A few of my co-workers had read it and loved it (loved it!), and one insisted that I check it out.  And I have to say – I’m very glad I did.  I’ve just emerged from two straight days of reading (it would have been faster if I didn’t have a 6 month old to look after)… one of those marathons where I feel itchy and cranky when I’m not reading.  I love when a book sweeps me away like this, even though it makes me grouchy or completely useless for anything else.

Ok, the story.  I was actually not completely sold on the premise, as it seemed to be too overwrought when I first heard it.  But I’m learning that there might be no such thing as too implausible in this genre.  In this world, the people of the city (a future Chicago) are separated into five factions, each reflecting a virtue: Candor (honesty), Abnegation (selflessness), Dauntless (bravery), Amity (peacefulness) and Erudite (intelligence).  Fair enough – but my mind immediately went wondered why anyone would do this.  How does it make sense to organize a society in this way?  Who does it benefit – and if it’s meant to be fair and functional, then is it really a dystopia?  Moreover, the central point of the novel – that everyone is a mix of these virtues, or that they should be mixed, seems so obvious as to defy comment.  I mean, shouldn’t a good dystopia point out something that’s wrong with our society?  Take something that’s true of us today and exaggerate it?  Or point to a path we seem to be on, and show how it could lead to evil?  For example: destruction of the environment (Chrysalids, City of Ember, The Dirt Eaters); rule by a stifling dictatorship (1984, Hunger Games), or stifling people’s creativity and human spirit (The Giver and most of the above).  No one has ever actually proposed dividing society up by virtues – so I wasn’t sure what exactly Divergent was a critique of.  It must be just another grab at a crazy premise to get a book published, I thought.

Then I started reading, and within the first three pages, I pretty much forgot all my objections.  The writing is great – tense and terse.  The economy of language perfectly captures this character who begins as a member of the ascetic Abnegation faction:

“There is one mirror in my house.  It is behind a sliding panel in the hallway upstairs.  Our faction allows me to stand in front of it on the second day of every third month, the day my mother cuts my hair.”

Immediately gripping – and as it went on, I realized that it doesn’t suffer from the same problem as many of the books I’ve been reading have.  Roth doesn’t tell us who the character is, and what her hidden side is right away – she lets us discover it through details.  And the same for the other characters.  Usually we realize something before the main character does because of the careful placement of these clues.  In some cases the giveaway is too obvious (as in the love story), but on the whole it works very well.  It’s the old rule of showing not telling, and I wish more YA (and other) authors would remember it.

So the plot: the main character Beatrice is a sixteen-year-old member of the Abnegation faction, though she’s never felt selfless enough to completely fit in with her family or faction.  At age sixteen, everyone in her society is tested to see which of the five factions they belong in – then they must make a choice about which one they want to spend the rest of their lives in.  For some, this might mean leaving their birth faction and their families forever. But Beatrice is an exception – she is divergent, and displays the qualities of multiple factions: Abnegation, Dauntless and Erudite.  She must now keep this dangerous secret and choose which of these faction she will belong to.  Despite the pain of leaving home, Beatrice chooses Dauntless, and launches herself on a truly challenging path to become an initiate in a society that prizes bravery and danger above all else.  To succeed, she must face her greatest fears, but always hide her true self.

And of course there’s a love story.

So there you have it – great action, great writing, great driving plot (the ending was a little weak: there were all the usual questions about how villans always manage to let the good guys slip out of their grasp), and fantastic characters.  Definitely get this one if you are looking for a Hunger Games follow-up – so far it’s hands-down the best alternative I’ve read.

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The Predicteds by Christine Seifert

A huge wave of dystopian novels aimed at teens is making its way on the market, attempting to cash in on the popularity of The Hunger Games.  The Predicteds is one of the most recent offerings in this genre (available Sept 2011).  I was actually kind of excited by this one’s arresting premise: imagine a test exists that can tell you who will commit a violent crime or become a drug addict, or become a teenage mom. How would we treat people who are predicted for these actions?

Daphne Wright has just moved to a small town whose high school students have recently been profiled with just this kind of test (which is an amazing co-incidence given that her mom helped create the test, but left the project because of moral objections over how the test was being used.  You think she’d want to avoid the selected communities where the test was piloted).  Not only is the town full of rednecks and a fair portion of narrow-minded citizens, all hell breaks loose once the predicted lists are released.  The kicker is that Jesse, the tall, handsome guy Daphne has fallen in love with, is predicted as a violent offender.  Added to that are the rumours that he stalked a former girlfiend, and accusations that he was involved in the violent assault of another girl (actually a very close friend of his).  Daphne is (of course) torn between her feelings for Jesse and her fear that the charges might be true.

I have to say – part of me hated this book, and part of me very much enjoyed it.  I have a feeling it will appeal to a lot of teen readers – if you liked Numbers, or series like Prettys or Gossip Girl, this might be the right read for you.  The writing is uneven, but has some very nice moments like this one:

“It’s a bright Friday morning with only two weeks of school left, the briefest hint of summer freedom already in the air.  The month of May is always better than real summer, because when the day is done, when the sun sets, there will still be as many summer days left as there were in the morning.”  Isn’t that a nice thought?  Oh – and I’m not really supposed to quote that until I check it against the completed manuscript, but I can’t be bothered.

What really rubbed me the wrong way was the obviousness of it all.  Once the mystery was cleared up, there weren’t any questions, or profound thoughts to hold on to.  It essentially was another example of segregation – something that’s been covered by other books, but much more effectively. Moreover, the test made no sense.  I accept that in a dystopian novel one has to let some improbabilities go – and just assume that in the future things work differently, or that they’ve found technological fixes to certain problems.  But I honestly can’t imagine a test that would tell you someone is destined to become a teen mom.  Isn’t that more down to the frailty of birth control sometimes?  Whatever happened to chance?  Unfortunately, I found it all very muddled and poorly explained.

I also found the book to be infuriating in terms of the judgements it cast out.  The main character believes (and the plot seems to bear out) that these small town yokels are narrow-minded and quick to ostracize.  Maybe that’s how it is in small towns – but aren’t there good things too?  It seemed unrelentingly negative to me.  Also, the main character is extremely critical of shopping and clothes, but is constantly supplying us with details about people’s clothing and how their style works or doesn’t work.  In general, she has a massive superiority complex, and I have a hard time imagining why some of these people would give her the time of day.  She is constantly snipping at them in her head, but still spends all her time with them.  I’m quite sure that in another book the character would realize a) that these people are aweful and not worth spending time with, even if they are popular; or b) that they’re not so bad, and that she’s being a conceted ass for thinking so.  She sort of comes to both realizations – but again, I found it muddled.

Bottom line is, if you’re looking for a dystopian book with a nice romantic storyline, I would recommend Matched by Ally Condie well before this one (that a was a very clever book!).

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Wolf Blood by N. M. Browne

Another young adult Bloomsbury UK title, this one released in July.  I actually very much enjoyed Wolf Blood.  It’s set in the first century AD when the Romans are trying to conquer the British Celtic tribes (for those interested: they succeed despite widespread rebellion by Boudicca and others only to have their power slowly eroded over the next few centuries as Rome falters and finally falls).  The main character is Trista, a very strong female warrior and seer who is plagued by horrifying and violent visions of the future.  While escaping a Roman attack, Trista meets Morcant, a Roman soldier whose mother was a tribeswoman.  Trista quickly recognizes Morcant’s dual nature – he is part man and part wolf.  He is at first unaware of this duality, and subsequently refuses to accept the animal side of his nature. They are of course drawn to each other and end up traveling together as outcasts in this most dangerous land.

So it’s werewolves and historical fiction rolled into one – which, honestly, is a kind of refreshing mix.  Admittedly, I’m a bit of a sucker for historical fiction, and I spent enough time teaching in Britain that this era is particularly familiar to me.  I’m not sure how it will play out in North America – but I suspect that werewolves and Celts will be welcome wherever they roam.

More than the history, however, I enjoyed the rather fresh take on werewolves.  Morcant is not just a sexy human who can take on wolf form (see Twilight); nor is he a man who changes into an uncontrollable beast once a month (Harry Potter and most other werewolf stories).  From the start, Trista can see the wolf alongside the man, and the man alonside the wolf, alternating between who is in control.  In the course of the novel, Morcant goes even further and becomes a wolf and surrenders his human side.  The story is in fact a love triangle between Trista, Morcant, and the female she-wolf who becomes his mate.  The treatment of his senses and thoughts as a wolf was particularly singular.  He is truly an animal, not a wolf-like monster; though there is sometimes a human impulse guiding him.  He and his mate also behave like real wolves – they hunt and enjoy the night, but also avoid humans as a rule (I remember hearing that there have been zero confirmed wolf attacks on humans in Canada.  Ever.  They are not the big bad wolves of fairy tales).  Wolf Blood is certainly the most fascinating treatment of the division between wolf and human that I have read – it felt far more like Call of the Wild than it did Twilight or its many clones.

I admit I did get a bit bogged down in the middle in battles and contant travels through desolate landscapes.  There were also far too many incidents of them gaining clothing and armour and then losing it again, then gaining more and having it taken, etc., etc…  The end also had a rather disapointingly obvious lesson-of-the-week-sum-up-the-message from a Druid (they’re such know-it-alls).  However, despite these flaws, it was honestly worth it for the fantastic writing, the excellent wolf dynamic, and the very strong central female character.

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Gamerunner by B. R. Collins

Continuing my blitz of fall 2011 Bloomsbury UK titles, I just finished Gamerunner, a sci-fi dystopian thriller.  Rick is a teenage boy who has spent more of his life in the virtual world of the “Maze” than out of it.  He is a champion – able to run missions no one else can.  While the Maze is a rich and interactive 3D world (operated through Avatars – think Avatar), the real world is a grey wasteland with poisonous rain and a toxic atmosphere.  The early pages of the novel show off Rick’s prowess in the Maze, and reveal his rather privileged existence inside Crater’s skyscraper (Crater is the company that owns and operates the Maze).  But the mood soon turns to suspense/thriller as Maze designer and Rick’s dad, Daed, gives him an almost impossible assignment to go to the roots of the Maze.  Daed wars Rick to under no circumstances finish the Maze, but because Daed doesn’t inspire trust, and because Rick can’t resist the challenge, he does.  This puts Daed’s career in jeopardy, as well as their continued safety in the confines of the company’s compound.

And so it goes.  At every turn, Rick does something stupid to make a bad situation worse – harming those around him, or causing Daed to harm someone in order to protect Rick (or so it seems – Daed is a very well-drawn, enigmatic character who is either a sarcastic but devotedly self-sacrificing father, or a psychopathic control-freak protecting his own glory).  One of the characters even asks Rick to please “stop doing stupid things.”  But he can’t – as he proves over and over and over.  It’s kind of cute, but as a plot device, a character who can’t stop himself from doing stupid things only gets you so far.

The best bits of this novel are some of the secondary characters – Daed, etc.  Also interesting is Rick’s inability to operate or understand the real world after so much time spent in the Maze.  And the action is good.  What’s unfortunate and tiresome is the constant waffling.  The plot is basically RIck wandering back and forth through the compound (I would have liked more Maze scenes) wondering what to do, and invariably choosing the worst option.

In the end, Gamerunner has a a fascinating premise reminicent of Ender’s Game or Avatar, some good characters and an interesting moral greyness about everything, but is rather ruined by the lack of action and plot.

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David by Mary Hoffman

I am finally finished this book (I usually read a YA title in a day or two; this seemed to drag out over half a week).  I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I really found this one a tough slog.  Not that it wasn’t well written, and about an interesting subject (to me): it was.  But somehow all the intrigue wasn’t very gripping, and the character himself was just not that engaging.  We’re in Florence in 1501 and a young and handsome Gabriele has just arrived in the city to seek his fortune as a stonecutter.  A childhood friend of the famous Michelangelo, David not only becomes the model for the famous David sculpture, but he entangles himself in the fiersome politics of the city.  Along the way he meets Leonardo and seduces several ladies of the city.  Maybe would have been better as a graphic novel?

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