Staff Picks: Books
Staff-recommended reading from the
Beach reads can be great, but they imply a certain amount of fluffiness that simply doesn't come to mind when I think about Huntley Fitzpatrick's My Life Next Door. Not that you'd know that just from a quick glance at the cover art and brief description... so I was surprised when I quickly discovered that My Life Next Door is most definitely not a turn off your brain and settle in for a comfy, sedate ride kind of book. Instead, it was filled with angst, painful decisions, and intense romance and friendship and family drama.
The characters of My Life Next Door are one of the best aspects of the novel. Each has a very distinct personality, so, despite there being quite a few children running around in various passages, each character was easily identified. I felt like I knew these characters... like maybe I lived on the other side of the Garrett's growing up and we all happened to be neighbors. I found myself tightly wrapped in the emotional ups and downs of these characters.
The main character, Samantha, is not perfect, though she's spent much of her life trying to fit the image her mother so carefully cultivates. I cheered each of Sam's rebel moments, proud of her for doing something for herself rather than her mother. And I appreciated the fact that Sam really didn't do anything that would be harmful to herself. Her rebellion wasn't full of drugs, alcohol, and sex, but rather the bravery to accept the sometimes messy, but rewarding parts of life outside of one's comfort zone.
Huntley Fitzpatrick is a talented writer and I can easily imagine her novels gaining a healthy following, much like Sarah Dessen and Deb Caletti's novels. I, for one, am anxiously awaiting news of her next project!
My Life Next Door
Every time I stumble across a book like Kathleen O'Dell's The Aviary, I'm amazed that more readers - of all ages - don't read middle grade. The Aviary is very Gothic in setting and tone and simultaneously bursting with colorful characters, a unique combination. There are secrets and magic, plus a good dose of realism and a lesson or two as well. It actually reminded me a bit of Ransom Riggs' Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children.
The main character, Clara, is a delightful character: headstrong, adventurous, and incurably curious. I would have enjoyed The Aviary based solely on the premise and setting, but Clara made me love it. Her curiosity was engaging and infectious, ensuring that the reader was never plagued by a dull moment or stale passage, simply because Clara herself was always plotting her next move and going off on some adventure.
Since The Aviary is in many respects a mystery, there are many great elements I feel I can't really comment on in much depth. I can, however, say that every detail in The Aviary comes together quite elegantly and I was left completely satisfied by the ending. I spent much of the novel hypothesizing about how everything fit together... I liked that the mystery wasn't ridiculously easy to solve, but all the pieces of the puzzle were there, waiting to be put together by the reader and the intrepid Clara.
The Aviary is one of wonderful titles that can be enjoyed by a wide variety of readers. It is, plain and simple, a wonderfully written and imagined novel and didn't feel at all confined to one specific reading level. It could easily be a read for the whole family and will appeal to those who usually read young adult or adult titles.
Me, Him, Them and It by Caela Carter is definitely one of the best literary takes on teen pregnancy I've read. Carter tackles the subject with a deft hand, and while it can be said that she pushes her heroine, Evelyn, in some directions more than others, I felt that the novel presents a well-rounded and realistic portrayal of a teen faced with an unexpected pregnancy.
Evelyn is a smart girl who makes some reckless decisions in an attempt to both punish and draw the attention of her very absent parents. While she used to have a relatively strong relationship with her father and at least a passably good relationship with her mother, that all changed when her father had an affair. Instead of her parents splitting up, her mother decided to take her father back and stay together, but things are far from normal. The house is always tense and silent and Evelyn rarely see her parents who are so busy avoiding each other they forget she's even around.
Evelyn takes what one might consider the stereotypical route and begins rebelling. She quits her extracurriculars, starts lying, distances herself from her friends, and decides to lose herself in meaningless sex. Except for what starts out as meaningless sex turns into more when Evelyn finds herself falling for Todd. And then finds herself pregnant.
One of my favorite aspects of Me, Him, Them and It is how real Evelyn felt. There are moments when she's brave, moments of realization, and moments of undeniable immaturity. At first, she's terrified of what will happen to her life and what people will think of her. Not only is she pregnant, but she doesn't have a boyfriend, which she knows will create all kinds of gossip. Her aunt, who she looks up to and considers one of the only reliable adults in her life, lives far away and has no idea how much she's changed and Evelyn fears disappointing her. Along with the fear of what others will think, come Evelyn's fears about losing her freedom, gaining weight, her grades slipping, and her entire future. Overwhelmed, Evelyn shuts down and attempts to push all the decisions regarding the pregnancy and the baby onto her parents and every other adult she comes in contact with. But the author doesn't let Evelyn off the hook that easily, which I feel is extremely important. Evelyn's mother would be more than happy to make all the decisions, but she doesn't. Instead, she stresses to Evelyn how important it is that she make the decisions because, ultimately, it is her life and nobody can live it for her. This doesn't mean that our heroine is left all alone to figure things out, after all, she's only sixteen. There are many great secondary characters that form a support system for Evelyn that are integral to her decision making process.
In addition to Evelyn's parents, she also gains insight from her aunt, her partner, a counselors, and doctors. Despite her negative view of her parents, it's clear that they care a great deal for her and, though they've both made mistakes, are determined to be there for her no matter how she decides to proceed. Evelyn's aunts, who she lives with during the decision making process, are a fantastic support system, as one provides much needed understanding and the other provides structure, while they both provide plenty of love.
One character who is notably absent from the decision making process is the baby's father, Todd. While he does have some input, more or less saying that the decision is completely Evelyn's and that he doesn't want to participate in the baby's life if she chooses to keep it, he is otherwise absent when it comes to the pregnancy. I came to appreciate this detail as Evelyn struggled internally with her feelings for Todd and the idea of the baby being a catalyst for them to start a family. I'm so glad that Todd wasn't physically near Evelyn as she sorted through her options because it would have been entirely too easy for her to succumb to that fantasy, but it was fantasy and his distance allowed her to see that.
I also appreciated that Me, Him, Them and It touched on every available option to consider when faced with an unexpected pregnancy and the pros and cons. Adoption, both open and closed, teen parenthood, alone and with help or the father, and abortion are all discussed and explored. Furthermore, Planned Parenthood, religion, and family opinion are all considered. I truly felt that all options were fairly represented.
In the end, I feel that Evelyn not only made an educated decision, she also made the decision that was best for her. Of course, I can't say much more without spoiling the ending, but had come a long way by the conclusion of the novel. Her situation, though not ideal, forced her to think about her future, change her lifestyle, and her take some time away from a pretty unhealthy environment to figure things out. Though the novel did wrap up neatly, I wasn't left feeling that things were too calm or perfect. The Evelyn at the end of Me, Him, Them and It is clearly different than the one at the beginning and that, for me, allowed for a satisfying conclusion.
Me, Him, Them, and It
Kiersten White's Paranormalcy books missed the mark for me, but I was pleasantly surprised by her newest offering,Mind Games, which achieves a maturity the Paranormalcy books did not. I think it was actually the UK version title, Sister Assassins, that really caught my attention - as I'm obsessed with assassins, especially female assassins - though, after reading, I feel that Mind Games is a more fitting title. I was also drawn by the description, found below:
Fia was born with flawless instincts. Her first impulse, her gut feeling, is always exactly right. Her sister, Annie, is blind to the world around her—except when her mind is gripped by strange visions of the future.
Trapped in a school that uses girls with extraordinary powers as tools for corporate espionage, Annie and Fia are forced to choose over and over between using their abilities in twisted, unthinkable ways…or risking each other’s lives by refusing to obey.
A detail that I feel I should touch on is that the book has been marketed as an "intense psychological thriller about two sisters determined to protect each other," and while this may be technically true, I felt that the older sister, Annie, wasn't focused on nearly as much as Fia. I knew she was there in the plot, doing things, but I simply wasn't as concerned about her and I certainly wasn't as invested in her character.
However, I really enjoy Fia as a character. She's a dangerously broken individual that has the potential to turn dark, but she's inherently good. Because she sometimes lapses into immaturity and shows unexpected emotion, emotion that is the very opposite of the cutthroat assassin she's been trained to be, it's easy to see the Fia she could have been if her life hadn't been hijacked by the mysterious group that runs the "school" she and Annie attend.
The atmosphere of this novel (i.e. Fia, her boss, love interest, and the group that controls the sisters) are reminiscent of the characters and plot of shows like ABC's Alias and The CW's Nikita, which I love... and which probably contributed to my liking Mind Games as much as I did. Many of the characters are more than they seem, hiding something, or have the potential to give into the power they yield and use it for evil rather than good.
I feel that Mind Games is a great introduction to Fia and Annie's world. The action really picked up by the end of the novel, which I think bodes well for the next installment.
Michigan author Laura Ellen's Blind Spot left me emotional and confused. For me, Blind Spot is one of those unique novels that gains power over the reader by causing intense emotional turmoil and frustration. Basically, this book made me so angry and frustrated that I haven't been able to banish it from my thoughts.
The main character, Roz, suffers from macular degeneration, leaving her legally blind. She constantly struggles to make up for this deficit as she maneuvers her way through high school, but her eyesight is, unsurprisingly, always on her mind, making her self-conscious and lowering her self-esteem. Constantly frustrated from feeling helpless and out of her element in many situation while still wanting to be able to handle everything herself and without help, Roz has a tendency to jump to conclusions and snap at those around her, even those with the best intentions. This aspect of the novel felt very realistic to me. My younger sister was born with glaucoma and I think she'd identify closely with Roz. I can't say what goes on inside my sister's head, but I do know how she reacted to things when she was in high school and, from my point of view, Roz had similar reactions and thoughts. In the novel, Roz points out that people don't realize how poor her vision is and are constantly asking why she doesn't just get glasses. She can't drive and isn't able to play sports because she's a liability. These are all things my sister struggled with. Also like Roz, my sister could be a bit angry. She didn't like wearing her glasses, which improved her vision but left her feeling dorky and unattractive (which is not fun for anyone, let alone a high school-aged girl), and new situations were extremely stressful because she couldn't see to figure things out.
This is where the similarities between my sister and Roz end, right along with my positive feelings regarding Blind Spot. My biggest issue? I absolutely loathed all of the characters. The teachers, the police, Roz's friends, her mother, her boyfriend: all horrible, mean people motivated by self-interest and unwilling to see things from any point of view other than their own. I know it's a strong word, but I was truly disgusted. Realistically, I know that there are people like this in real life, people that let power go to their head and exploit others, but to have an entire novel populated with them was sometimes overwhelming.
I will say that I actually did enjoy the character Tricia, but she's dead from the first page (the focus of the book is, primarily, her disappearance and murder). Tricia, however, was the only character who, though monumentally messed up, actually seemed to do some genuinely nice, even protective, things for Roz without expecting anything in return.
So, despite feeling extremely frustrated with the characters as I read Blind Spot, I can't really say my strong negative feelings were necessarily a bad thing. Yes, I was disgusted and unhappy and wanted to stop reading because I felt like what was happening on the page was terribly unfair, BUT I didn't. And I can't help but talk about about this book and the messed up characters to anyone who will listen... so disliking the characters of this book isn't the worst thing that could have happened. Having no opinion of the characters or easily forgetting them would be even worse than hating them. In this case, hating the characters is a good thing.
Despite being very unhappy with pretty much all of the characters, I kept reading because I really wanted to know what happened to Tricia. It really bothered me that the one person who wasn't completely horrible ended up dead and I had to know what happened to her.
From the moment I finished Blind Spot, it hasn't been far from mind and I'm still trying to sort out all of my feelings about it. In the end, I want you to read this book. It isn't long and it clips along at a quick pace, but it isn't an easy read. I think it's good to challenge your perceptions and ideas though and Blind Spot allows for this in very interesting ways.
My goodness, where should I even start when talking about Megan Shepherd's debut, The Madman's Daughter...
I suppose I could start by saying that I picked it up while reading Ann Radcliffe's The Italian, which was published in 1797 and is considered one of the very first Gothic thrillers. Reading these two novels, while simultaneously researching the Gothic novel as a genre, gave me an interesting vantage point from which to view The Madman's Daughter as a Gothic novel and, I think, in the end, it may have deepened my love for Shepherd's debut (and for The Italian, which was boring me to tears at the time)!
The setting and atmosphere of a Gothic novel is of utmost importance. In fact, the setting is so important it must act as a character itself. For me, the island where Juliet's father has been secretly living and conducting his "research" more than fulfills this requirement. From the moment Juliet learns of the island (and meets the islander accompanying Montgomery, her father's assistant), the reader knows this isn't going to be an island with gorgeous white-sand beaches and hammocks casually strung between trees. While the island's history isn't explored in extreme depth, the reader knows that it is no stranger to misfortune and, perhaps, even sinister death. Plus, it's the home of a mad scientist who was run out of London after performing horrid experiments on living subjects... it's hard to imagine such a man living in a bright, sunshine-y place.
The Madman's Daughter might remind readers of Frankenstein as it deals with themes of science versus nature, experimentation for the purpose of creation and life, the meaning of humanity and life, and features a scientist that believes he is doing something good, but whose opinion may be a tad (or a lot) biased. One of the things that I absolutely loved about this novel was how often it made me question: is this wrong? Some of the experimentation itself is wrong, but, after Juliet learns what her father is doing, essentially merging and manipulating different parts of animals to create humanoid creatures, she refers to them as monsters. While I do see how such creatures could be viewed as monstrous, I also grew to care deeply about many of them as the novel progressed. At more than one point, I was actually moved to tears as these creatures suffered. I get a little bit weepy just thinking about it now, weeks after reading.
As far as Juliet's father is concerned, I have very strong negative feelings. Though, as a product of the 21st century, I'm not sure that I see his scientific mind and quest for innovation as mad, I definitely still see him as a madman on many other levels. He may have begun as a scientist searching for truth and knowledge, but, by the time the reader meets him, he's off-his-rocker-crazy. The power has gone to his head and, for someone who is obsessed with the secret of creating life, he cares very little about preserving life. Still, after some secrets from Juliet's past are revealed, I couldn't help but take a longer look at Dr. Moreau and consider what he might have been like before.
The Madman's Daughter also incorporates some very pro-feminist vibes as Juliet fights against a very anti-woman world, culture, and father. She strong, determined, and courageous despite nearly everything being stacked against her. She rebels against her father who sees her primarily as something to use and manipulate and secondly as a burden to marry off. She doesn't take no for an answer when Montgomery tries to prevent her from going to the island nor does she accept the simple answers she's given when she knows there's much more to be learned. I can't imagine any reader calling Juliet Moreau weak.
And, to round out an already fantastic plot, there's more than enough romance to satisfy readers who like their heroine's distracted by a guy while fighting their mad father and considering philosophical questions about humanity. In fact, there's a rather intense love triangle featuring two very unique men... but following this tangent would require multiple paragraphs and more than a few spoilers.
I could go on and on about The Madman's Daughter, but I'd say it's in your best interest to read this fantastic novel yourself. Luckily, you'll find a copy downstairs at Central and another at our Oshtemo Branch! And, while The Madman's Daughter might technically be classified as Young Adult, I feel adults will fully enjoy it as well!
The Madman's Daughter
There’s been a lot of talk in the book world about this teen title: Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein. This is the summary from the library catalog: “In 1943, a British fighter plane crashes in Nazi-occupied France and the survivor tells a tale of friendship, war, espionage, and great courage as she relates what she must do to survive while keeping secret all that she can.” It’s a complex, poignant, horrific, and deeply moving story, told from the perspectives of two incredible characters.
Code Name Verity
Teens and zombie fans will love this look at the lighter side of the cannibalistic undead in Michigan author Carrie Harris's debut Bad Taste in Boys.
Kate Grable is a smart, butt-kicking heroine who spends her days focused on getting into an awesome school and making medical history as Kate Grable, M.D., dreaming of catching the eye of her quarterback crush, Aaron, and making hilarious observations about the world around her. Little does she know, a virus is about to sweep through her school, leaving many of her peers with zombie-like tendencies. With all the limbs and body parts people keep losing, she'll be lucky if she doesn't end up literally catching Aaron's eye.
It seems impossible that a book could make a reader gag and laugh within the space of a paragraph, but Bad Taste in Boys proves it's entirely possible... and surprisingly likely. Kate's life might be a complete - and often gory mess - during the novel (ya know, zombies and all), but the reader can't help but laugh as Kate describes the ridiculous things happening around her.
Kate has just the right amounts of confidence and insecurity to make relating to her easy. She's obviously got a lot going for her, but she doesn't see it herself. She's smart and, though she's sure of her abilities, she's not cocky. She doesn't realize she's got beauty in addition to brains, but Carrie Harris doesn't portray this in an annoying, false way. Kate doesn't put herself down about not being conventionally beautiful. I was thankful that I never once thought to myself: I feel like this character is constantly talking about how ugly she is just so I'll think in my head, "no silly, you look great!" Kate might sometimes feel self conscious when she considers her looks, but she doesn't dwell - she's got way more important things to worry about. Like that zombie over there.
When I read that Kate's crush is a popular football player and her best friends are equally popular, I was worried that Bad Taste in Boys would suffer from Horrible Best Friends and This Guy Is Way Too Good For Me Syndrome, but I was wrong! Instead, Kate's friends, though they didn't play a super huge role in the novel, were pretty fantastic, and Aaron was adorable. Plus, he's a super fantastic guy that doesn't suffer from an overly inflated ego. Big shoutout to supportive secondary characters!
In conclusion, don't be a bad, be good! And by good, I mean read Bad Taste in Boys sooner than later!
Bad Taste in Boys
The summer of 1962 in a small town Norvelt, PA is off to an iffy start for 11 year old Jack in Dead End in Norvelt. He accidentally fires off his father’s World War II Japanese rifle, and, Jack’s mother “grounds him for life” (or at least the summer.) The one exception to his not leaving the house is to help Miss Volker, whose arthritic hands make it impossible for her to type the newspaper obituaries. She can’t drive, either, so she gives Jack driving lessons and with Jack at the wheel, they careen around town trying to discover if a Hell’s Angel really put a curse on the town, or if the Girl Scout cookies are laced with rat poison. Eccentric and colorful characters abound in this book. It also provides a glimpse into actual historical events, an added plus. (There really was a town called Norvelt, created by Eleanor Roosevelt, and based on communal land ownership.)
A wonderfully readable book with non-stop action for older children, Dead End in Norvelt won the Newbery Award for 2012. It joins a long list of other great titles by popular author Jack Gantos, including the Joey Pigza chapter book series and the Rotten Ralph picture books.
Dead End in Norvelt
Some say that prostitution is a “victimless crime,” because presumably everyone involved participates willingly. Rachel Lloyd, in Girls Like Us, demonstrates that many girls and young women recruited and trafficked into the commercial sex industry are clearly victims of the system.
Lloyd, the executive director of GEMS, Girls Educational and Mentoring Services, was once a victim of commercial sexual exploitation (CSE.) She was eventually able to escape, through the support of a caring church community and some adults—surrogate parents, in essence-- who reached out to her, offering her a chance for educational and professional success, beyond the life she knew.
In Girls Like Us: Fighting for a World where Girls are not for Sale, an Activist Finds her Calling and Heals Herself, Lloyd breaks it all down: how the neglect and abuse most girls experience prior to exploitation sets them up to become victims of CSE; the methods pimps use to keep the girls from leaving; the stigma that surrounds girls, once they’ve become commercially sexually exploited. She also describes in detail what factors must be present to support someone leaving and successfully thriving, after living ‘in the life.’
Lloyd, along with several of the girls served by GEMS, successfully persuaded the New York State legislature to enact the Safe Harbor for Exploited Children Act, which aims to protect –rather than prosecute—children subjected to sex trafficking.
Girls like us: fighting for a world where girls are not for sale an activist finds her calling and heals herself