Monday, April 8, 2013

Code Name Verity

Code Name Verity
Written by Elizabeth Wein
Genre: Historical Fiction
Pages: 368
Publisher: Disney-Hyperion

I haven't posted for a while. That's because I was reading Code Name Verity. Usually I'm able to coast through YA novels in a day or two, or really any book really, but a few will make me slow down and ponder. Code Name Verity did that to me. It demanded more time.

The book is written in two parts. The first is the narrative written by "Verity," a Resistance spy captured in France during the Second World War. In exchange for two weeks of life, she agrees to write all she knows. Her character is full of grit and wit, and she manages to stretch out her time by writing her information as a story of how she and her best friend, Maddie, became involved in the war. Her story is so engaging that her captor/torturer names her "Scheherazade" and lets her live until she finishes writing.

The first half is gripping and emotional and moving, but the second half is when it really gets good. The second half is Maddie's diary, which picks up where Verity's leaves off. In an almost Dickens-esque literary twist, small details from the first half become major plot points. It contains moments that made me laugh and moments that made me cry. Parts of this book are truly heart-wrenching. This is a book that'll stick with ya.

As a historical fiction novel, I enjoyed the female protagonist view. With many war books, men are the heroes, and women merely the nurses, or cooks, or messengers (not that those weren't important roles). But Code Name Verity shows two brave young women as a pilot and a spy. They are exceptionally heroic (but not annoyingly so), and I enjoyed the twist on typical historic fiction plots. However, part of what slowed my reading down was the history. There's a lot. Like a lot a lot. Lots of pilot and plane lingo, lots of details. That is part of what makes it great, since it contributes to the validity of the story, but it does drag a bit. I never feel guilty for skimming parts of a book, and there were a few plane paragraphs I skipped. Overall, a fabulous, well-researched historical novel.

Here are a few shining quotes:

"The anticipation of what they will do to you is every bit as sickening in a dream as when it is really going to happen.” 

“Nothing like an arcane literary debate with your tyrannical master while you pass the time leading to your execution.” 

“And I envied her that she had chosen her work herself and was doing what she wanted to do. I don't suppose I had any idea what I 'wanted' and so I was chosen, not choosing. There's glory and honor in being chosen. But not much room for free will.” 

“Von Loewe really should know me well enough by now to realize that I am not going to face my execution without a fight. Or with anything remotely resembling dignity.” 

Here's the link to the official book trailer:

Friday, March 22, 2013

The Madness Underneath

The Madness Underneath
Written by Maureen Johnson
Genre: Mystery, Thriller
Pages: 304
Publisher: Penguin Books

"Ahhhhh!" is the sound my mouth made more times than I would like to admit while reading this book.

The sequel to The Name of The Star was So good. I mean the first one was good. But this one. Dang. Rory's adventures continue and deepen. I can't give too much of a plot summary for fear of spoilers, but I can say that Rory spends some time with her parents before coming back to school, and then stuff really starts happening, like more people die and more mysteries show up.

While the first book was more plot driven, the second is definitely more character driven. Rory has some real struggles with her friendships and relationships, and she's faced with some major life choices. Gah! I can't tell you about it or it will spoil it. It's just good, ok?

There's one part at the end that Maureen Johnson called The Thing. When I got to it, I yelled. Out loud. Then I fell on the floor. *plop* I was infuriated and distraught.

More great quotes:

"I like to talk. Talking is kind of my thing. If talking had been a sport option at Wexford, I would have been captain. But sports always have to involve running, jumping, or swinging your arms around. You don’t get PE points for the smooth and rapid movement of the jaw.” 

“Don't get stabbed. It makes everything awkward.” 

“I try to shake it loose-but these ideas, they cling. It's like I'm shackled to them with an iron chain. They rattle along behind me, dragging against the ground, always reminding me of their presence.” 

This is a great read if you need something short, funny, a little romantic, scary, intense, and awesome.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

The Name of the Star

The Name of the Star
Written by Maureen Johnson
Genre: Thriller, Mystery
Pages: 400
Publisher: Speak

I've long been a fan of Maureen Johnson. She's always got delightfully authentic and quirky characters, unpredictable plots, and plenty of funny one-liners. But this book may very well be my favorite of hers.

Maureen Johnson takes a step away from her girl-coming-of-age-in-an-awkward-and-funny-way books with this mystery novel set in London. Rory is a senior in high school from Georgia, and her parents take a sabbatical in England, so Rory goes along to attend a boarding school there. The day she arrives, a series of Jack the Ripper re-creation murders begin to happen not a mile from her school. Naturally, Rory gets caught up in the web of mystery.

This is perhaps one of the few books that's ever kept me awake at night. Maureen uses an age-old literary technique by taking the real and giving it just a little twist into the unreal. The story is so grounded in the present and the believable characters that I found myself believing the fantasy as well. The subtle blending between truth and fiction really brings this book above a standard thriller.

Maureen's characters also help this book stand out in a sea of mystery novels. The protagonist is typically American-in-London, but not annoyingly stereotyped. The supporting characters are vividly drawn, like the field hockey teacher who shakes hands like she's crushing a bunny, and the quiet roommate who plays the cello and loves Cheese Whiz. Instead of a brave, indestructible hero typical of mystery and thriller novels, Rory's just a typical person with a bit of spunk. These characters really invest the reader in the book, making it even more of a page-turner.

The book just wouldn't be Maureen Johnson without her great one-liners. (Also, if you don't follow the woman on Twitter, you're making a poor life choice. @maureenjohnson)

“Keep calm and carry on. 
Also, stay in and hide because the Ripper is coming.” 

“And if we get caught, I will claim I made you go. At gunpoint. I am American. People will assume I'm armed.”

“Welsh is an actual, currently used language and our next-door neighbors Angela and Gaenor spoke it. It sounds like Wizard.” 

“I looked at the stained-glass image of the lamb in the window above me, but that only reminded me that lambs are famous for being led to slaughter, or sometimes hanging out with lions in ill-advised relationships.”

“Fear can't hurt you. When it washes over you, give it no power. it's a snake with no venom.” 

See what I mean? It's fantastic all the way through. 

Friday, March 15, 2013

Everybody Sees the Ants

Everybody Sees the Ants
Author: A.S. King
Genre: Social Issues, Violence
Pages: 320
Publisher: Little, Brown Books

This is honestly a life-changing book. It's a story of sadness, despair, weakness, strength, triumph, and family.

Everybody Sees the Ants  is a story of Lucky Linderman, a sophomore in high school. He's got a POW MIA grandfather, a squid mother, a turtle father, and a relentless bully. After a particularly bad experience, his mother packs him up and flies across the country to visit his wack-o aunt and uncle.

 The book powerfully and honestly deals with grief, weakness, dysfunctional families, bullying, sexual maturity, parental abuse, infidelity, and coping. It sounds like quite the downer, but I promise it's not. The characters and plot certainly bring the reader into Lucky's head and create a black moment, but the story is Lucky's journey from weakness to strength. It's full of hope and triumph and healing, and it's got a great ending.

The book rings true in many ways, on every page.

“The world is full of assholes. What are you doing to make sure you're not one of them?”  

“She's like a kindness ninja. Sneaking around in order to help people.”   

“I bring my hand to my face and pull away tiny pieces of the jagged scab. My face reflects in the rounded airplane window, and I see it is now a tiny Massachusetts, with Cape Cod curling toward my ear. In only a few more days it will be gone. I feel the fresh, smooth parts and marvel at how soft they are. New skin amazes me. New skin is a miracle. It is proof that we can heal.”  (Ok, that one's more than a line. But it was really good!)

Everybody Sees the Ants  is in no way a light read, but it's a good one. It's a book to read and ponder.

Word of Caution: The F word is used liberally. There's one detailed scene of sexual assault. Scenes of bullying. Read it before you give it as a gift.

Monday, March 11, 2013

The Good Stuff

I base my criticism on 5 principles of good YA fiction. Tell me what you think in comments. What makes you keep reading a book? What counts as "good"?

  1. An engaging protagonist. All YA novels have protagonists that are 12-21 years old, but that's just a guideline for the genre. The protagonist in a really good novel will be fundamentally likable for starters. For example, Clary, the protagonist in City of Bones isn't always likable because her spinelessness and dullness is frustrating to the reader. In contrast, Katniss Everdeen is a likable character because of the way she treats her younger sister and her determination and bravery. An engaging protagonist must also have faults. Teenagers feel vulnerable, even if they pretend not to, so a character with a weakness or flaw will feel authentic to the reader.
  2. A fast-paced plot. YA fiction often starts with an inciting event: something that creates a before and after scenario. Also, YA novels usually tell a story in a short period of time. Before I Fall takes place in seven days, Harry Potter is only during the school year, Hunger Games is less than two weeks. Unlike adults, who tend to think in long-term consequences and timelines, teenagers usually only see the immediate effects and events. A good YA plot will move quickly from event to event, without a lot of background information, discussion of the future, or explanation. 
  3. Underlying Morals.  A really good YA novel will show the protagonist turning away from childhood and stepping into adulthood, without telling the reader to "grow up." The moral should be there, but not on a billboard with flashing lights.  
  4. Few sub-plots, if any. YA novels are very non-Dickens. There should be one protagonist, one antagonist, and one climax. Adult characters tend to take a backseat, as do other less important characters. Just like teenagers think the world revolves around them, so the plot centers around the protagonist. Writers are often tempted to try too many things in their 300 pages, and it always ends poorly. 
  5. Good writing. I need to have just the good bones of writing. A nice balance between showing and telling. Authentic dialogue.Vivid descriptions. Fresh metaphors. Compelling chapter endings. The book should be great on the holistic level, the chapter level, and the sentence level. I'll be posting about Maureen Johnson's book soon, and she's a great example of brilliant writing at the sentence level. 
So there you have it. What would you add?

Friday, March 8, 2013


By Colleen Hoover
Genre: Romance, Death
Pages: 352
Publisher: Atria Books

So I've bashed several books here, and I was starting to lose faith the the YA genre. But then I read Slammed. Wow.

Slammed is the story of Layken, an 18 yr old high school senior with a mom and a brother. After her father dies, the family moves from Texas to Michigan. There she meets Will Cooper, and her world gets slammed.

I honestly haven't stopped thinking about this book since I finished it a week ago. Colleen Hoover does a wonderful job of showing the process of grief and the ability we have to feel joy even in the midst of pain. Layken is delightfully authentic; she displays the capacity for great maturity and great immaturity typical of 18 yr olds.

Hoover allows the reader to cry and laugh along with Layken, showing her in vulnerable, relatable situations.

"When I wake up it's midnight. I lie there a moment, hoping I'll come to the conclusion that this was all a bad dream, but the clarity never comes. When I pull back the covers, my hair clip falls from my hands and lands on the floor. this small piece of plastic, so old it's probably covered in lead-ridden paint. I think about how I felt the day my father gave it to me, and how all the sadness and fears were eliminated as soon as he put it in my hair. I lean forward and retrieve it from the floor, pressing down in the center so that it snaps open. I move a section of my bangs to the opposite side and secure it in place. I wait for the magic to take effect, but sure enough, everything still hurts. I pull the clip from my hair and throw it across the room and climb back into bed."

Besides the beautiful story of a family coping with grief, I loved Layken's relationship with Will. They have struggles and challenges because they're both flawed characters. Their relationship shows the fluidity between love and friendship, the conflict between loving two things at once, and hope for a brighter future.

It's just a beautifully written, thought-provoking book. The plot moves quickly with some unexpected turns but still allows some resting places to stop and absorb the emotion-laden characters.

A few bonuses I enjoyed were the slam poetry sprinkled throughout and the Avett Brothers quotes at the beginning of every chapter. I've included a video of each if you're unfamiliar.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

City of Bones

City of Bones
Author: Cassandra Clare
Genre: Fantasy
Pages: 512
Publisher: Margaret K. McElderry

I should have known what to expect from a book with a Stephenie Meyer quote on the front and a bare male torso. The book isn't terrible, but a few more edits would have made it really great. My guess is that the author and publisher were trying to capitalize on the Twilight wave. It's playing off the vampire/werewolf in real life, the love triangle, and the weak female protagonist themes of Twilight. 

The book follows Clary, a fifteen-year-old girl living in Brooklyn. She has the ability to "see" -- meaning she can see the supernatural around her when other humans can't. Her life flips upside down when she goes a club and witnesses a murder.

"Isabelle tossed her hair. "Kill it, Jace," she said. "It's not going to tell us anything." Jace raised his hand, and Clary saw dim light spark off the knife he was holding. it was oddly translucent, the blade clear as crystal, sharp as a shard of glass, the hilt set with red stones. The bound boy gasped. "Valentine is back!" he protested, dragging at the bonds that held his hands behind his back."All the Infernal Worlds know it -- I know it -- I can tell you where he is --" Jace turned the knife in his grasp, the edge sparkling like a line of fire. Clary could take no more. She stepped our from behind the pillar. "Stop!" she cried. "You can't do this."
If it wasn't for the pacing, the plot, and the characters, this would be a really great book. Clary learns most of her information about the other world from explanations -- not experience. Because of this, the action only happens in brief bursts followed by pages and pages of description. Enough stuff happens to keep the story moving, but it still requires too much patience for a young audience.

The plot is all too predictable and fragmented. The reader guesses Clary's past about 150 pages before she figures it out. Besides the lengthy explanations, the plot also takes frequent birdwalks that may be exciting, but do little to propel the story or characters. The love triangle is perhaps the only constant in the plot, and Cassandra Clare does a great job of slamming that door shut at the end.

The Twilight-esque love triangle theme is only emphasized by Clary's complete inability to take care of herself. After spending weeks at what is essentially Hogwarts, she still doesn't know enough to even attempt at self-defense. She doesn't even have the wits figure out the painfully obvious. She's completely dependent on the two boys who fight for her affections. The boys, Clary, and the adults are all very static characters. The hiccuping plot line is the only thing driving this book to the painful end.

Read this if you liked Twilight, but if not, spend your time somewhere else. Also, a movie is being made this summer. Watch it if someone else buys your ticket.