The Brothers Torres by Coert Voorhees

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Frankie Towers is a good kid. He helps out at the family restaurant, he’s a loyal friend to his buddy Zach, and he idolizes his big brother Steve. But lately Frankie’s had to cover up for his brother more and more – Steve’s been staying out all night and coming home with black eyes and bruises. Steve’s street cred may be rising, but Frankie’s getting concerned about his brothers’ choices. Frankie’s romantic life is getting complicated, too. He’s been pining over Rebecca for years now – and just when she seems to notice him, the most popular senior in the school is suddenly hanging all over her.

Frankie’s problems are as realistic as the spot-on teen voice used in Coert Voorhees’ novel. Steve’s increasing desire for the “respect” of the local gang, Frankie’s growing relationship with Rebecca, and his need to stand up for himself and his friends are all a catalyst for Frankie’s growth over the course of the story. The small-town New Mexico setting is vibrant, and lends the novel its own language. The realistic language includes frequent casual swearing, but that it is absolutely a contributing factor in the success of the novel’s voice.

Voorhees’ characterization is the strongest aspect of this novel, which one exception. While most of the characters are very well-rounded and show both strengths and weaknesses, the novel’s “bad guy” is almost a caricature of the YA mean jock. Not only does he graphically beat up Frankie and go after his girl, but his very rich family is trying to buy up and homogenize the entire town. He is the one character who is not given a well-rounded personality, and it makes him stand out in the world of the novel.

Great cover art and a story with high teen appeal will make this an easy sell.  Engaging characters, an honest voice, and a classic coming of age story will make teens stick with the novel.

Coert Voorhees on the web

The Brothers Torres on the web

Weekend Links

  • Max Paper Toy!  Yes, it’s a foldable paper pdf of Max from Where the Wild Things Are.  And yes, it’s already on my desk.  (Hat tip Fuse #8)
  • With all the recent chatter about the Newbery Award, I most appreciate A Chair, A Fireplace, and a Tea Cozy‘s response.  Not accepting the study about Newbery diversity at face value, she went straight to the source and compiled her own figures about past award winners.
  • In other goofy Twilight-related articles, can you ever have enough Twilight-themed food ideas?  I don’t have any Twilight parties planned, but that’s not going to stop me from making blood-filled vampire cookies! (Hat tip Reviewer X)
  • Big thanks to Black Threads in Kids Lit for pointing out the lack of coverage of the Coretta Scott King Awards.  Her picks for the award are listed here.  I think the print of Low and Away hanging in my living room is a pretty clear indication of my favorite pick!
  • Shannon Hale’s delightfully named post Let Them Eat Pictures re-emphasizes the importance of learning visual literacy.  More importantly, it reminds us to let kids read what they love.
  • Library Voice shares a thoughtful post on the ways we organize Children’s Rooms as her new library opens.
  • This might be the greatest shower curtain in the history of mankind. (Hat tip Kid Lit Kit)
  • The wonderful Justine Larbalestier is using the month of January to give out free advice on writing.  I highly recommend reading!

Hell Week and Highway to Hell by Rosemary Clement-Moore

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A few short months ago, Maggie Quinn defeated the seriously evil demon that was trying to take over her senior prom. Now Maggie’s back in Hell Week, and she can’t even crack the staff of the Bedivere College newspaper. What gives? But Maggie’s luck suddenly changes when she goes undercover as a pledge to Sigma Alpha Xi, the campus’ most popular – and most secretive – sorority. Her Phantom Pledge articles are a hit, and that’s not the only place where Maggie’s life has taken a turn for the lucky. It’s not long before Maggie starts to question whether there’s something supernaturally lucky about the Sigma Alpha Xis – even beyond their abnormally perfect hair.

In Highway to Hell, which will be released in April 2009, Maggie and Lisa take off on a totally demon-free roadtrip. They’re going to spend Spring Break on the beach at Cabo San Lucas – ironically, of course. But thanks to a middle of the night encounter with a dead cow in the middle of a deserted Texas highway, the girls are stuck in a tiny town with some very unusual characters. (Luckily, one of those characters is a devastatingly gorgeous real-live cowboy.) Things quickly take a totally unsurprising turn for the supernatural, and once again Maggie is hot on the trail of some unusual demonic activity. After making inquiries at the only bar in town about what animal could have gruesomely killed the cow that totaled their jeep, Maggie and Lisa are becoming more and more sure that the mythical chupacabra is very real – and very nasty.

The second and third books in the Maggie Quinn: Girl vs. Evil series stay true to the super-sarcastic, laugh-out-loud funny voice of Prom Dates From Hell. But now Maggie’s well past her early skepticism. She’s accepted that there are demons hanging out in her neighborhood, and that as the local psychic investigative journalist with a spellcasting best friend and a love interest who studies supernatural mythology, she’s the one who’s going to have to deal with all the evil beasties that pop up in her area. And as Maggie acknowledges her psychic powers and begins to learn how to use them, they no longer feel like a tacked-on plot point – they’re an integral part of both books.

These books start to dig further into the how and why of the demons and magic that are popping up around Maggie Quinn, and the mix of folklore, religion, and superstition are a strength of Clement-Moore’s. Maggie’s boyfriend brings the theoretical knowledge, and her sorcerer friend Lisa brings the practical application. It’s Maggie who pulls it all together, using both her natural curiosity and her psychic Spidey-sense. Highway to Hell brings some traditional brujas into the picture, as well as the intriguing addition of a priest-in-training to their crew of demon-battlers. The young priest is a great foil for Lisa the sometimes-evil sorceror, and he also has his run-ins with Maggie, whose relationship with religion is pretty well summed up in Hell Week:

“Facing Evil with a capital E makes a convincing argument that somewhere, in some shape or form, there was Good with a capital G, too, and I wanted no mistake about which side I was on.

I’m not saying team Father, Son, and Holy Ghost is the only team in the G league, but it’s what I defaulted to when I needed to get my spiritual ducks in a row. Even so, I’m not exactly what you would call a reverent traditionalist.

‘Okay, God.’ I stared up at the dark ceiling. ‘Maybe you could throw me a bone here. I’m going in circles and could really use a signpost.’ I paused, trying to sound at least a little supplicant. ‘So. . . anytime you’re ready, that would be great.'”
Hell Week, page 166

The question of where God falls in all this mix of magic and mayhem is a welcome addition to the world of the books, and I hope that the priest character will be back in future Maggie Quinn adventures.

hellweekWith their fast-paced action, sharp tongues, and quick wit, Maggie and her friends are a great match for any teenage Buffy fans in your life. They potentially have some appeal to readers of the Twilight books – but you might want to make it clear that if Maggie Quinn runs into a vampire in her biology class, that vampire’s going to have a stake through his heart sooner than he can say “I’m madly in love with you!” The teen-friendly covers make these books a pretty easy sell, but it’s the bitingly funny characters and their smart take on some implausible situations that will keep readers coming back. As Maggie puts it, “‘Yes, we’re in over our heads… Maybe there’s someone in the world who actually understands how all this works, who’s fully equipped with the armor of righteousness and the flamethrower of smiting or whatever else is in the arsenal of Team Good. But unless they’re hiding behind a mesquite tree somewhere, me, my freaky brain, my sorcerous friend, and my paladin boyfriend are all that stands between Hell and Texas'” (Highway to Hell, page 293).

This review is cross-posted at The Well-Read Child.

Snitch by Allison van Diepen

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Julia Devino has always steered clear of the gang trouble that surrounds her at school, despite having friends in each of the major gangs. But at South Bay High, sometimes it’s easier to join up than to stay out. When Julia meets Eric Valiente, a seriously hot tranfers student who has big plans for his life and shows no interest in getting jumped in, she falls hard and fast. And when he gets jumped into the Flatbush Junction Crips without telling her, she finds herself thrust into the middle of all the gang action, and is soon labelled a snitch by the Bloods-associated RLB.

First off, the cover of Snitch has enormous teen appeal, and it flies off the shelf here at my library. And while the writing starts off a little choppy, once Julia’s relationship with Eric gets off its feet the book really rolls along. It paints a convincing picture of the many ways that teens can get pulled into a gang lifestyle even when they have no interest in joining. Julia’s loneliness when she’s been ostracized is palpable, and you can feel her relief when she finds a new group of friends (and protectors) in the FJC. And while the beginning of Julia’s time with the FJC is not exactly rosy, it’s not so awful either – the book doesn’t shy away from showing the good things about having a group of people watching out for you.  As Julia sees further into the power-struggles and politics of her new gang it is clear to both the reader and to Julia herself that she has made a decision that could destroy her future.

The absence of adult involvement really struck me in this book. While Julia’s dad and her teacher Ms. Ivey both clearly cared about Julia and were concerned about her, neither one of them made much of an attempt to reach out, and they certainly didn’t take any steps to help her.

Julia’s character is a strong, independant young woman, but she is sometimes incredibly naive for a person who’s grown up with gangs all around her. The most compelling characters to me were Eric and Black Chuck – two young men who are smart and funny and full of potential, but have been pulled into gangs because of family involvement.  Eric’s back story, which is hidden from Julia for most of the story, adds both a wonderful twist to the story and additional depth to van Diepen’s novel.

Cycler by Laura McLaughlin

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Identity, romance, controlling parents – these are tough issues for any teenager to deal with.  Turns out they all get a whole lot tougher when your body can’t decide whether you’re a boy or a girl.  Four days a month, Jill McTeague turns into Jack McTeague – and neither one of them is very happy about it.  Science can’t explain what is happening to Jill, and no one is quite sure what to do about her condition.  So instead of subjecting her to a barrage of tests and baffled scientists, Jill’s mother hides Jack away and explains Jill’s regular absences with a lie about the need for a periodic blood transfusion.  Using self-hypnosis and the constantly-repeated phrase “I am all girl,” Jill is able to erase her memories of “Jacktime,” although he sometimes communicates with her by writing notes – usually requesting porn or his preferred peanut butter.

Jill’s mother has a need to be in constant control, and her father has removed himself from their lives almost completely.  It is difficult to know which parent’s reaction to Jill’s condition is more harmful.  While her Mom does everything she can to help Jill deal with her transformation, her treatment of Jack is terrifying cold.  As the book goes on, it becomes clear that she does not see Jack as her son, and that she is absolutely willing to abuse Jack in order to keep Jill’s life in order.  While the father clearly cares about both Jack and Jill, he has no idea how to deal with the situation and turns all control over to his wife.

Since the changes began when Jill was in middle school, her mantra of “I am all girl” has spread into all parts of her life.  Jill stops playing sports, loses touch with her dad, and tries to erase anything that she identifies with boys from her life, totally paranoid that anything about her might be perceived as masculine.  This insecurity is especially interesting when the boy Jill has been crushing on – and who has been showing signs of interest – reveals that he’s bisexual.  Combined with Jack’s lust for Jill’s best friend Ramie, Cycler delivers a completely original love triangle.  Or is it a square?

Lauren McLaughlin’s plotting is so completely new, which makes up for a few of the novel’s shortcomings.  Ramie and Jill speak in their own personal slang, with the words “deeply” and “mal” used constantly in their dialogue, which is distracting and does not ring true.  And the pacing sometimes feels rushed, although I think this is because most of the novel is told from Jill’s point of view, and Jill has a very limited capacity for self-reflection.  Jack does not block out Jill’s experiences from his memory, and that is part of what makes him a much more compelling character.  Jill is so terrified of associating herself with Jack that she will not reflect on any part of her life.  Like her mother, she makes constant plans to control Jill’s (and Jack’s) life.  And like her mother’s plans, they often come with unintended consequences.

This review is cross-posted at The Well-Read Child.

Trickster’s Choice, by Tamora Pierce

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Aly’s only ambition in life is to be a spy, like her father, but her parents won’t allow it. So when she is kidnapped and sold into a life of slavery in the Cooper Isles, Aly is prepared to collect imformation for her spymaster father, and then to escape back to her family. But when a God appears to her and makes a deal, Aly accepts. She is bound to stay with her captors and to protect the Balitang family’s children for one year. As Aly learns why the Balitangs are in exile from court and works her way into the family’s trust, she discovers that she is in the middle of a burgeoning rebellion. Aly is swept up in the excitement and intrigue, as well as the friendships and romantic relationships she establishes in the Copper Isles. She makes herself indispensable to the Balitangs and to the rebellion, and at the same time finds her own destiny.

Aly is a clever, engaging heroine, and Pierce’s world is full of excitement and intrigue. It is obvious that Pierce’s work on her earlier books set in the same world have led to a very complex, well thought out fantasy setting for the book. While Aly does sometimes come across as much more talented and clever than anyone has a right to be, she has her share of flaws. These flaws, along with her humanizing relationship with Nawat and her sassy humor, help keep her from becoming a too-good-to-be-true heroine. The fast moving plot and the strong female characters will make this book especially popular for girls who enjoy fantasy.