Efrain’s Secret by Sofia Quintero

“Being brown and broke has been a seventeen-year-test in just how badly I want an average life…  Why does the valedictorian have to choose between my class ring and this SAT prep class?  Why does a clean-cut teenager have to decide between showing up to my minimum-wage job and going to the movies with the most popular girl in school?  Why do I have to fight so hard just for the mere chance to have it all?” (pg. 52.   Quotes taken from ARC – language is subject to change.)

Efrain Rodriguez is the highest-achieving student at his high school in the South Bronx, and despite lots of people telling him that he will never get in (and couldn’t pay for it even if he did), he has his heart set on the Ivy Leagues.  But money weighs heavily on his mind – his mom is working long hours just to get by, and his dad hasn’t exactly taken a strong interest in Efrain’s life since having a baby with his new girlfriend.  Efrain feels like he needs to take his financial situation into his own hands, and his afterschool tutoring job doesn’t cut it anymore.  So when an old friend who deals drugs approaches him with a chance to make a lot of money fast, Efrain thinks about all those choices he is forced to make in his life because of money.  He surprises himself by saying yes.

As Efrain is drawn deeper into the world of dealing, and as his lies to friends and family multiply, the reader can feel the moment when everything falls apart looming over Efrain.  You know that it’s coming, and that the fallout is going to be awful – it’s just a matter of when.  And if that reader is me, the reader will be banging her head against a wall and shouting “No Efrain Stop Stop Stop No!”  Because he genuinely doesn’t want this life, and he really doesn’t need this life if he will allow himself to rely on the people around him.  But when Efrain starts to list the things that are stacked against him, you can feel his desperation and start to understand how he could possibly make this decision that goes against every part of his judgment and his sense of morality.

Efrain’s relationships with his girlfriend, mother, and sister, are well drawn, but his relationships with the men in his life are especially complex.  Efrain grew up with two best friends, Chingy and Nestor, but the group split when Nestor started dealing drugs.  Chingy will no longer have anything to do with Nestor, and his changing relationships with these two boys over the course of the book are one of the most compelling parts of the story.  Nestor, who brings Efrain in to the drug trade, could easily have been a stereotype of the bad drug-dealing kid.  At first glance that is all you see.  But as the story digs down a little bit deeper into his life, he becomes a genuinely sympathetic character – a choice that makes the story much more interesting and less reductive.  Efrain’s relationship with his absentee father follows a similar arc.

I did find the dialogue uneven, especially between Efrain and Chingy – sometimes it flowed freely and genuinely, and other times it sounded a little bit like a skit written by a guidance counselor about getting in to college.  Efrain and Chingy go from slangy, loose conversations to this:

“In order to be as accurate as possible, I couldn’t just develop one code.  I had to create a unique algorithm for each and every college.”

It takes me a second to grasp his point. “Because Hunter College may place more emphasis on your SAT score than, say, Harvard might?”

“Exactly!  And there’s no way to assess that unless you talk to someone at every admissiosn office or, better yet, compile statistics on incoming freshmen.” (pg. 81.  Quotes taken from ARC – language is subject to change.)

Suddenly we’re inside some kind of college admissions manual.  I appreciate that the author is trying to get some information on college admissions into the hands of teens who pick up this book, but it could have been done a little bit more organically.  And honestly, I’m a big fan of letting a story be a story.

While I found that I did have to suspend my belief a couple of times during the course of the novel, Efrain’s voice and his struggles were enough to pull me into the story.

Sofia Quintero on the web

Review copy provided by publisher at ALA Midwinter

Ash by Malinda Lo

“‘Have you ever wanted to be a princess?’ Ash challenged her.

‘That depends,’ Kaisa said.

‘On what?’

‘On whether I would have to marry a prince.'” (pg. 199)

I love fairytale re-tellings, but I find that many of them fall into two camps that make them less rewarding to read: either the author is so faithful to the original story that there is very little mystery and the reader has little new to discover, or the re-telling is so widely divergent from the original story that the reader loses the added depth of meaning that the base of a traditional story can bring to a novel.  Ash is one of the re-tellings I’ve read that manages to walk the fine line between those two extremes, finding ways to make the story fresh and new while expanding and building on the original fairytale’s themes.

Ash was brought up on her mother’s tales of fairies – menacing stories that have horrible consequences for the mortals who get involved in the fairy world.  But her father and her new stepmother have no faith in the old stories, so Ash keeps her worries to herself even as she is slowly getting pulled into a strange sort of friendship with a fairy who seems to be protecting her.  Even though Ash is constantly aware of the fact that the stories never end well for mortals, and that every thing she gains from her fairy protector will make her consequences deeper, she almost seems to court the danger of the fairy stories.  And of course her father dies, and of course she is pressed into service in her stepmother’s house.  But then some thing unexpected happens – over and over again Ash finds herself in the company of Kaisa, the King’s Huntress.  And soon she finds herself seeking out Kaisa’s company.

Malindo Lo creates a lovely and atmospheric world, where the woods are deep and full of magic and the important things are often expressed through fairy stories.  The writing is lyrical and has the feel of a traditional fairy tale, but I did find the pacing a bit off – slow in the first half of the book, and then rushed in the second half.  I found myself wishing that the ending, especially the climactic scene between Ash and the fairy Sidhean, had been fleshed out further and given more time to develop.  This was definitely one of those books where you take a look at how many pages are left and wonder how the story can possibly be resolved before you run out of book.  And while it was resolved, it did leave me wanting a little bit more.

The love between Kaisa and Ash is refreshingly not one in which the characters are swept off their feet.  It grows slowly and naturally, starting with curiosity and awkward conversations and moving into a wonderful slow-burning tension between the two characters.  Also refreshing was the lack of any agonized questioning of Ash’s sexuality – while she sometimes seems surprised to be falling in love with a woman, the different genders of her potential lovers do not seem to play in her decision.  All in all, this was a book that I really enjoyed.  I will be looking forward to more from Malinda Lo.

Malindo Lo on the web.

Magic Under Glass by Jaclyn Dolamore

Ever since Nimira came to the country of Lorinar with the intention of making her fortune, she has been leered at, exoticized, and made to feel inferior by virtually everyone she meets.  While dancing with a troupe of fellow dark-skinned “trouser girls” from Tassim who are treated as a salacious novelty act, she dreams of being discovered by a gentleman who will care for her.  Nimira cannot imagine the turns her life will take when it actually happens.

Enter Hollin Parry: handsome gentleman, scholar, rich benefactor to young singers.  Nimira cannot believe her luck when Hollin asks her to accompany him to his manor house to sing along with his automaton, a strangely realistic mechanical man who plays tunes on the piano.  When she arrives, Nimira finds that her life at Hollin’s is not all it seems, and she begins to unearth his many secrets.

I was really excited when I thought that Hollin was going to be the bad guy.  Despite having made a couple of really bad choices in his life, he’s a genuinely likable character who seems to love Nimira for all the right reasons.  And there’s nothing I like better than a well-intentioned bad guy.  But there’s a much bigger villain pulling the strings – one who’s not likable in any way.  Hollin is still a believably conflicted character, both in his thoughts and actions, and I enjoyed seeing him struggle with his decisions.  Interestingly, I feel like I came away from the book with a better understanding of Hollin than either of the romantic leads.

The biggest secret Nimira unearths is the true nature of the automaton, which is really a fairy who is trapped inside a mechanical man by a curse.  It is not a surprise that Nimira, who has been made to feel like something inhuman for most of her life and now feels indebted to a man who she does not love, is immediately attracted to Erris, who is similarly trapped and without agency in this world.  However, I didn’t feel that love develop since their conversations were so short and stilted – for reasons that make perfect sense in the plot, but it still left me wanting more.  And let’s be honest, creating really great sexual tension is tough when one of the characters is made of metal and can’t move.  This was one of a few places where I would have liked a little bit further development, which would certainly have been possible in this very short book.  I didn’t find their budding romance unrealistic, I just didn’t feel like I saw it grow.

Despite the fast-moving pace of this short book, the world-building is really well done.  The reader gets a good sense of both Nimira’s home country and of Lorinar, and they are each given their own specific character and customs.  We haven’t seen much of the fairy world at this point, but I’m sure that it will be similarly developed in later books.  Dolamore did a really nice job of using the characters’ cultural backgrounds as a base for their personal viewpoints and choices – you could see the differences between the countries in the way that characters reacted to a situation, even when they are going against tradition.  I would have loved to hear more about the politics of Dolmore’s world.  Many political intrigues are hinted at in the book, and I hope that they will move to center stage as Nimira and Erris’ story continues.

I was shocked, only a few months after the cover change to Justine Larbalestier’s Liar, to see Bloomsbury publish another book featuring a dark-skinned, black-haired protagonist with a very white-looking girl on the cover – especially since this looks like it is a cover that was created with a dedicated photo shoot rather than using stock photos.  (I could, of course, be wrong about this not being a stock photo.)  I think it’s probable that the cover for Magic Under Glass was finalized before that controversy took place, but it’s still truly disheartening to see. I hope that we will see changes when the paperback comes out.

Review copy provided by publisher.

Jaclyn Dolamore on the web.

Lockdown by Walter Dean Myers

Walter Dean Myers has written a new novel that will strongly appeal to teens who loved Monster.  I don’t really have to say anything else, do I? You’re going to buy this book and put it in your libraries and share it with your teens.  I know I can’t wait to do exactly that.

Like Steve in Monster, Reese is a kid who made a mistake and is facing consequences that are much bigger than he ever anticipated.  Now he’s finding out firsthand how one mistake can spiral into a lifetime of them.  Reese is in a juvenile prison for stealing prescription pads from a doctor and selling them to a local drug dealer.  He’s a good kid who was in a tough situation, trying to care for his younger brother and sister while also trying to keep any money he made out of his drug-addicted mother’s hands.  And he has committed what he saw as a victimless crime – if all went well, the doctor might never even notice that the pads were missing.

Reese is a pretty self-aware young man, and even considering his difficult family life he recognizes that it is ultimately his own choice that put him in his current situation.  What he did not anticipate is the repercussions of ending up in a jail system that seems designed to drag inmates further down.  And it’s not just the dimmed job prospects and difficulty of finishing high school after he gets out – so many decisions he must make every day do not have a good option.  Should Reese ignore it when gang members brutally beat up a defenseless younger kid, or defend him?  Reese cannot be passive in situations like these, and by trying to do the right thing he ends up making enemies of other prisoners while also getting himself labeled a troublemaker by guards and risking being sent to a more dangerous facility.  Reese is quickly finding out the truth behind some of his dad’s words: “One time when my pops wasn’t being too stupid he said the streets were like quicksand covered with whip cream. You knew when they were slowing your ass down, but it always came as a surprise when you got sucked under” (pages 98-99).

At least one person in the prison system recognizes some potential in Reese and presents him with an opportunity to keep from getting sucked under.  When Reese is selected for a program that sends young, nonviolent prisoners into the workforce during the day, he makes a connection in the nursing home where he is assigned to work.  Like Steve in Monster, Reese is starting to look at his life and experiences through a new lens – not through the literal lens that Steve used in his screenwriting and movie planning, but the lens of another person’s life experience.  Reese and Mr. Hooft, a grumpy old man who at first pushes Reese away with racist comments and needling remarks about prison, are both surprised by the similarities they discover in their lives.

And while Reese’s relationship with Mr. Hooft is illuminating, it is in his interactions with his younger sister Icy that he really shines.  Even in the times that Reese is most hopeless about his own future, he is determined to protect and support his funny, precocious baby sister in achieving her goals.  And we’re not talking about just any goals – we’re talking Princeton, following that up with the White House, and finally stopping war by giving everybody free food.  This girl is going places – and her big brother is going to make sure of it.  Reese’s life never feels hopeless as long as he sees the promise in this little girl who he loves so much.

Walter Dean Myers’ ability to channel the voice of urban black teenagers is second to none, and it is this skill even more than his choice of subject matter that makes his novels appeal so strongly to urban teens.  The really astonishing thing is that he doesn’t do it by using lots of slang or dialect, which would date the book quickly – it’s almost entirely in the rhythm of his writing, and it comes through both in the dialogue and in Reese’s narration.  The reader can hear Reese’s voice, and it makes his story so much more immediate and compelling.  And Reese’s voice and story are both worth hearing.

Walter Dean Myers on the web.

Review copy provided by publisher.

Ice by Sarah Beth Durst

IceA conversation about metaphysics between a teenage scientist and her husband, who is a giant talking polar bear.  Right now you’re either pulling a face at me or you’re hooked, right?

I was pretty hooked.  This is not a story that pulls punches with the absurdity of it’s premise.  Durst’s novel is a re-telling of the fairy tale East of the Sun and West of the Moon.  Now, the original is a strange and compelling story that leaves a lot of strange gaps in the plot – gaps that are just begging to be filled in and explored by an enterprising YA author.  So it’s no surprise that this story has already been tackled multiple times, most memorably in Edith Pattou’s exquisite East. The strangeness of this particular story is brought into sharp relief by Durst’s choice of a modern setting, and it can be jarring – both for the reader and the characters.  But if you’re willing to suspend a little disbelief, you will find a wonderful love story and an epic adventure in Ice.

Durst’s take brings in some unexpected elements.  Myth and science are married in many ways in this novel – most literally in the actual marriage between Cammie, an 18-year-old arctic scientist, and Bear, a giant mystical polar bear.  Durst also throws an interesting touch of religion into her explanation of Bear’s strange powers.  It’s a wonderful mix, especially when Cassie and Bear find an elegant way to bring their talents together, using Cassie’s scientific expertise to help Bear’s magical purpose along.

In the original story, the heroine saves the polar bear through her exceptional laundry skills.  Cassie brings a little bit more to the table.  She is a dedicated scientist even at 18, and her passion for the arctic is palpable even at times when the brutal wilderness is moments away from killing her.  She is a risk-taker who will throw herself whole-heartedly at a problem, usually without much of a plan.  But her determination and ingenuity see her though, making her a pleasure to read.

I did sometimes find the plot of the book fragmented.  Cassie’s goals change several times over the course of the novel, and some of those goals feels much more urgent and are better at driving the story.  I felt this most in the parts of the story that dealt with Cassie’s mother, who Cassie is so dedicated to saving in the book’s beginning, but who never becomes an important part of the story after she has been saved.  I would have liked to see more growth in that relationship.  The second half of the novel gives Cassie one clear goal – to find Bear and bring him home.  This brings the story into sharper focus, and also brings Cassie’s best qualities – her determination and fortitude – to the forefront.  Cassie is a kick-ass girl, and she gets to show her grit when this thoughtful story turns into an epic survival adventure in the frozen north.

Sarah Beth Durst on the web.

Review copy provided by the publisher at the author’s request.

Once Was Lost by Sara Zarr

Once Was LostKidnapping.  Alcoholism.  Loss of faith.  Budding romance.  Distant parents.  Distant friends.  Depression.  All in a novel that’s about as thick as my pinky finger.  Sounds sort of awful, doesn’t it?  Luckily, this novel was written by Sara Zarr, who is more than capable of packing a lot into a slim volume – both in terms of content and emotional impact.

In Once Was Lost, Zarr parallels the many small tragedies in one person’s life with a larger tragedy in the community.  Sam is hurting, and the religion that has been a comfort to her for so long has turned confusing and constricting.  But where can Sam take her questions?  Not to her dad, the local pastor, who seems to have time for everyone’s crises except Sam’s.  Not to her youth group friends, who can’t help seeing Sam as the pastor’s kid and don’t include her in social activities that Pastor Charlie might frown on.  And certainly not to her mother, who hasn’t called Sam once since being forced into rehab after a drunk driving accident.

While Sam is dealing with her own difficult issues, a young member of the congregation goes missing.  Jody Shaw’s disappearance brings the church and town communities together in many ways, and Sam throws herself into the search efforts.  While the mystery of what happened to Jody may seem like it would be the center of the book, in reality it acts more as a catalyst for Sam’s personal issues.  By pushing her dad even further into his work and bringing a sense of immediacy to Sam’s questions about her faith, this tragedy becomes a major part of Sam’s internal struggle.

Perhaps the saddest and most fully realized part of Zarr’s novel is Sam’s relationship with her father.  Every time Pastor Charlie dashes off to help a member of his congregation, leaving his struggling daughter to fend for herself in questions of faith and questions of what to have for dinner, my heart broke a little bit.  Sam’s pain is so obviously visible, but the person who has always been closest to her cannot see it – or chooses not to.  The difficulties Sam faces in the community and in relating to her dad are handled exquisitely in the novel.  This seems to be a story that hits close to home for Zarr, and in writing it she has given us her best book so far.

Sara Zarr on the web.

Review copy provided by publisher at BEA.

The Blonde of the Joke by Bennett Madison

blonde of the jokeNo one has ever looked at Francie without doing a double-take.  Everything about her is big – her hair, her make-up, her boobs.  Francie’s the kind of girl who ends up wearing the “whore’s raincoat,” an ankle-length lime green coat that is doled out to cover up inappropriate clothing, on her first day at a new school.  No one has ever looked at Val twice.  Why would they?  She’s practically invisible, her hair “brown like something you looked for and looked for and couldn’t find until your mom told you to check under your bed, and there it was, crumpled in a dusty corner where you couldn’t reach it” (pg. 4-5.  All quote taken from ARC – language may change.)  But Francie notices Val.  She sees something in her, and soon Val is drawn into Francie’s orbit.

There is a delicious hint of magical realism in Madison’s version of suburbia, but it’s not a pretty kind of magic.  It’s slippery and sneaky, and a little bit dangerous.  The book’s magic centers on two things: Francie and shoplifting.  When Val is with Francie suddenly anything is possible, and the Montgomery Shoppingtowne Mall may just hold the most beautiful thing in the world.  And the magic changes Val, as she pulls on her stolen motorcycle jacket and uses  a heavy layer of eyeliner like armor.

Bennet Madison’s character descriptions shine.  He has the ability to sum a person up in one biting line.  Not much time is spent on Val’s mother, but when she is described as “the kind of person who saw that there was a thunderstorm and went out without an umbrella anyway, because it seemed futile trying to stay dry so why bother” (pg. 75), the reader knows exactly what kind of person she is.  And since she is the center of Val’s world, the descriptions of Francie are exquisite:

You should understand that she was not exactly a supermodel. I mean, she was beautiful, but she wasn’t. Yeah, she was tall and blond and booby with amazing legs, but there was something a little funny about her jawline – something square and sharp and almost masculine. Her shoulders were too broad; one eye was just the tiniest bit wonky; her nose had a slight hook; and if you looked closely you could see small blossoms of acne under the crust of her caked-on makeup. It didn’t matter. There was just something about her. If you thought too hard about it, she was almost ugly. But then you looked again, and your jaw would drop.

She was a more perfect body pieced together from spares and defectives. From day to day, her appearance was never quite the same. No picture resembled the last. And sometime I wondered if she was replacing her own parts with things she had lifted, one by one. A rhinestone where her left eye should have been. A fist-sized crystal paperweight for a heart. It’s possible that she was a robot or a hologram. But aren’t those things real, too? (pg. 66-67)

And the descriptions aren’t just evocative – they’re something Madison uses to drive the plot.  It’s through Val’s shifting descriptions of Francie that we start to see the chinks in her armor and to recognize Val’s growing independance from her friend.

I’m always fascinated by a good writer’s ability to make something important by leaving it out.  It’s a tough line to walk – how to bring up a subject just enough that the reader recognizes that it is important, but skirt around it so that it is clear that the narrator is avoiding the subject.  Val refuses to so much as think about her older brother, Jesse, for much of the book – but she does it in a way that makes it very clear just how important Jesse is. 

I have seen several mentions of the language in this book.  And while I don’t have a problem with the swearing, which I think is used effectively in the narrative, I did cringe at the casually homophobic language.  Is it realistic to have a teenager call something they don’t like “gay”?  Absolutely.  And I certainly recognize that Val and Francie are supremely flawed characters.  I think teen readers will recognize that, too.  But I do wonder why the author thought it was necessary.  (A side note: Am I feeling a little bit uncomfortable calling out an openly gay author about homophobic language?  Yep.  I really would like to hear his input on this.) 

Since reading this book I’ve been thinking about why I have such a strong reaction to homophobic language in YA literature.  I think it comes down to this: when teens read about Val and Francie shoplifting, they recognize that what the girls are doing is wrong.  When a character in a book uses racist language, just about every teen I know is going to recognize that the author is making a choice in using that language, and is going to recognize that the language is hateful and hurtful.  From the conversations I hear every day, I don’t think that’s true with homophobic language.  To keep my library a safe and comfortable space for all patrons, I regularly try to talk to my young library users when they use homophobic language.  In my experience from these conversations, the understanding of why it is wrong just isn’t there yet with a large number of kids and teens.  I hope that parents, teachers, and librarians will use this book as a starting point for having these important conversations.  And I would love to hear everyone’s input on this issue.

The Blonde of the Joke on the web.

Bennett Madison on the web.

Liar by Justine Larbalestier

liarUsually an unreliable narrator creeps up on you.  You notice an inconsistency here and there, something about the story doesn’t feel quite right, you start to get suspicious.  It’s almost a game – you look for the clues that prove you’re being lied to.  But Justine Larbalestier changes the rules of the game.  It’s right there on the cover, staring at you in capital letters: LIAR.  There’s no need to look for the proof – it’s admitted from the first time you see the book.  But there’s a different game being played here.  It’s a game of teasing admissions and sly winks.  When Micah admits that something she said earlier in the novel was a lie, what do you believe?  The title puts the reader on notice – you’re on your toes looking for the truth from the very first sentence.  It makes for a frustrating reading experience in many ways.  But it’s that delicious, thought-provoking kind of frustration that I love.

Micah is a compulsive liar, just like her dad.  When she started at her school, she had everyone convinced that she was a boy for several days.  No one believes much of anything that she says anymore, if they pay her any attention at all.  But when Zach, a popular boy from Micah’s class, is found dead in a suspected murder, the eyes of the school are suddenly back on Micah.  Micah was Zach’s “after-hours” girlfriend – which comes as a shock to the unbelieving student body and Zach’s other girlfriend, Sarah. From these basics, Larbalestier leads us down some unexpected twists and turns.

Now, of course, any kind of plot description is not something you can take at face value.  Is any of what I just said true?  No idea.  Go ahead and dive in – see if you can separate fact from fiction.  And if you figure it out, let me know.  There’s also the question of why Micah lies.  She’s got her version:

“Really, according to the shrinks, I am angry at everyone.  Especially them.

I am all anger and resentment all the time.

Not one of them has ever suggested that maybe I lie because the world is better the way I tell it.” (pg. 266. Quoted from ARC – text may change.)

It’s an interesting question, and there are a lot of possible answers hinted at in the text.  But if the world really is better the way Micah tells it, I would hate to live in her world – this is a dark book.  Many of her lies stem directly from Zach’s death – this is not just a story about lying, but also a story about grief.  The reader is privy to Micah’s extreme reactions to Zach’s sudden death, and also gets glimpses of how his girlfriend Sarah and his best friend Tayshawn deal with the loss of a friend.  Their reactions are appropriately complex, often touching, and occasionally kind of creepy.

My favorite thing about this book is Micah’s uneasy relationship with her lying.  At times, I was absolutely convinced that she desperately wants to be able to tell the truth.  Sometime she believes her own lies, especially those lies that really do make her world easier for her to live in.  At other times her lies are manipulative, and sometimes they are just because she doesn’t feel like telling the truth.  She uses frank admissions about her previous lies as a way to throw the reader off balance, or as an attempt to gain trust.  It’s fascinating to watch, especially later in the book when she has dug deep into many half-truths and flat-out lies.  She begins keeping a tally of lies to the reader that she has admitted to:

“How many lies is that now?  I’m losing track.

But surely it’s not so big a lie, really?  I don’t think I’ll include it in the official tally.  It was just to Sarah and Tayshawn.  And you.

Now I’m telling the truth.” (pg. 284, reviewed from ARC)

Micah’s mind games are as internal as they are external.  Her machinations and her complex relationship with truth and lies made this book compulsively readable.

One more thing: this cover is gorgeous, no?  I love it on it’s own.  I love it a lot less after reading the book.  It’s a whole lot more playful looking than the book actually is, for one thing.  But also, it looks nothing at all like Micah – her very short hair, her mixed race, and her ability to pass as a boy are mentioned several times in the novel.  Unless Micah was lying about that, too…  One more thing to think about, I guess.  (Edited to add: this is definitely not the case!  If you haven’t yet, please read Justine Larbalestier’s thoughts on the cover of Liar here.)

Justine Larbalestier on the web.

Justine’s excellent blog.

Liar on the web.

Review copy provided by publisher.

Kendra by Coe Booth

kendraIt’s taken me a long time to read one of Coe Booth’s books.  Not because I didn’t want to – because I cannot pry them out of the hands of the teens in my library. A time or two I’ve tried to squirrel away our copy of Tyrell, but every time some teen girl will end up standing over my desk staring at the cover so longingly that I have to hand it over.  These babies do not stay on the shelves, and rightly so.  Just look at that great, high-urban-teen-appeal cover. And I was glad to find that what’s inside the cover lives up to it.

Kendra was born when her mom was only 14 years old.  While her mother Renee pursues a PhD at Princeton, Kendra is left at home with her strict grandmother.  She feels abandoned by Renee, who pretends that Kendra is her sister when they are around her college friends.  And while her Nana clearly loves her fiercely, the ways that she shows it are usually stifling.  Nana sees Kendra as a way to undo any mistakes she made with Renee.

Kendra is a heartbreakingly sweet, lonely girl.  She is so desperate for a real mother/daughter relationship with Renee, who constantly pushes her away.  Kendra’s relationship with her mother affect every part of her life, and her moods change depending on her last interaction with Renee.  When Kendra attracts the attention of Nashawn, a very attractive young man who she’s had a crush on for years, she has no one to confide in.  Her lecturing Nana is out of the question, Renee is never around when Kendra needs her, and Kendra’s best friend/aunt Adonna is also crushing on Nashawn – an added complication.  Things move fast between Kendra and Nashawn, and their relationship is secretive and messy.  With no real guidance from the important people in her life, Kendra makes some mistakes in judgment, both in her growing relationship with Nashawn and in her interactions with her family.

Booth’s character’s are complex in their motivations and actions, and in their realistic relationship with Kendra.  The family dynamic feels so true-to-life, both in the good and the bad.  I loved reading Kendra’s interactions with her completely charming young father, Kenny, who is doing his best to make an independent living and provide as much support as he can to Kendra.  The emotional connections between these characters are strong.

This is a novel that addresses a teen girl’s sexuality without pulling punches – we see both the terror and the pleasure that come out of Kendra’s first sexual relationship.  She is a smart, self-aware young woman who recognizes that she is not making good choices – she is just caught up in the moment, and caught up in getting attention from such a desirable young man.  She’s confused and elated and terrified all at the same time, and the reader is right there with her inside her head.  There is no question that older teens who are grappling with similar questions will relate to Kendra – as is evidenced by the empty spot on my YA shelves where Coe Booth’s books should be.

Coe Booth on the web.

Kendra on the web.

Fire by Kristin Cashore

fireThe protagonist of Kristen Cashore’s second book has a lot in common with Katsa, the main character from her debut novel, Graceling. Both are enormously powerful women who are terrified of using their own great talents, and even more frightened of having their powers exploited by others.  But the ways that their powers manifest is very different.  While Katsa’s Grace is extremely physical, and her struggle to hold herself back was always concerned mainly with her body, Fire’s struggle is primarily a mental one.  Fire is a monster, which means that she is unbelievable beautiful and can control other people with her mind.  She is the only human monster left in the Dells.  Fire chooses not to use her power, constantly fighting to keep from becoming like her father, who greatly misused his ability.  She must also deal with the suspicion, hate, and lust that her stunning beauty and her power inspire in others.  But her father’s machinations have left the country approaching war and ruin, and Fire’s reluctant use of her abilities may be the only thing that can save the Dells.

While I, personally, didn’t connect with Fire as well as I did with Katsa, that did not stop this book from being a rip-roaring good story.  (And really, is it much of a surprise that it is harder to relate to someone who is so perfectly gorgeous and powerful?)  And as much as I’m sad to have left Katsa and Po behind, it was delightful to meet this new group of wonderfully complex characters.  The royal family is a treat – every member constantly surprises with new layers.  And Prince Brigan rivals even my beloved Po as a love interest.

There is one holdover from Graceling – we meet King Leck as a boy.  His monstrosity, as a human who can control minds through his Grace, provides a foil for Fire’s humanity, as a monster who struggles to use her powers wisely and well.  I do wish we were given a little bit more insight into why Leck is so inhuman – I assume that it is just as a result of always being able to get what he wants.  But he is so extreme.  And since we only see him as a child through the eyes of his father, whose mind Leck has controlled for many years, the reader doesn’t come away with a very clear picture of how he becomes so warped.  Unlike the other characters we meet in Cashore’s worlds, Leck feels very one-note.

Cashore is masterful at using little movements and changes in posture and bearing to show a character’s thoughts.  It’s a little thing, but it’s done so consistently well – she’s got show-don’t-tell down to a science.  The little descriptions are constant, especially during dialogue between Fire and Brigan, but they never feel extraneous or distracting from the action.  Each character has their own little vocabulary of movement, just as they each have their own patterns of speech.  It’s just one example of the many ways that Cashore brings the characters’ subtext to the surface.  This was one of the things I enjoyed most about Graceling, and I was pleased to see it continue in Fire.  I think it’s one of the reason’s that her romances are SO good – we actually see them developing not just through words, actions, and thoughts, but also through the characters’ physicality.

Kristin Cashore is an enormous talent.  Once again, her book swept me away with wonderful characters, sweeping adventure, and a sizzling romance.  I will be waiting impatiently for Bitterblue, the third book set in this world.

Fire on the web.

Kristin Cashore on the web.

Review copy provided by the publisher at BEA.