The Plot: Two children in ancient Greece strive against the fate into which they were born. Melisto is an aristocratic girl who struggles against the conventional path of womanhood that her mother wants for her. Rhaskos is a slave boy who works against punishing circumstances to free himself. Both children question their role in the roiling society of Greece and Athens and seek more than just the limited roles prescribed to them.
My Take: This is a powerful book that kept me interested from the first page. The suffering endured by Rhaskos captures the reader early on and we find ourselves yearning for this boy to attain some sense of healing and freedom. I was also interested in Melisto’s anger towards her mother and even her recalcitrance when a member of the cult of Artemis. The supporting cast of characters is also interesting, notably Rhasko’s mother who bears an extraordinary amount of suffering.
Laura Amy Schlitz clearly did a great deal of historical research in writing this novel and it shines through without slowing down the story. I felt that I learned so much about ancient Greece and Athens and what it was like living in those times.
My library shelves this book in the Juvenile Fiction section, but this is clearly a book for Teens/Young Adult. There is animal sacrifice, a great deal of ‘body awareness,’ as well as indirect mention of rape. 13 and up is probably the right age to read and appreciate this wonderful book.
One Interesting Note About The Author: According to her agent’s info page, Laura Amy Schlitz continues to work as a lower school librarian. I am astounded (and jealous!! J ) that she has the ability to work as a librarian and craft a masterpiece like ‘Amber and Clay!”
The Plot In 5 Sentences Or Less: Jesse Alderman is the hook up man at Wakefield High, the guy who can get you anything–for a price. But when a big shot jock wants a shot at dating school hottie Bridget Smalley, Jesse’s real troubles begin. He ingratiates himself into her life and becomes good friends with her brother Pete who suffers from cerebral palsy. But as Jesse gets closer to Bridget and Pete, demons from his past begin to surface. The walls begin to close in on him as he understands that simply being smooth and untouchable is not enough.
My Take: Well, I just loved this book. Jesse Alderman is such a jerk-ass and an intriguing character at the same time that I couldn’t put this book down. More than anything, he is convincing. Spears has a talent for writing humorous, caustic dialogue that simply rings true.
I also appreciated that she has written a frustrated love story that is palatable for boys. Bereft of any hint of sentimental romance, this book features wounded characters that struggle for hints of humanity in the Darwinian jungle that is high school. I can certainly understand why this book was starred by Kirkus and School Library Journal. I would rank “Sway” as one of the best Young Adult books that I have ever read.
One Interesting Note About the Author: According to her website, Kat Spears has worked as a “bartender, museum director, housekeeper, park ranger, business manager, and painter.” She has also worked as a gift shop attendant at St. John’s Church where Patrick Henry made his famous “Liberty or Death” speech in 1775.
The Plot in 5 Sentences or Less: Alfred Bunce and his apprentice Birdie work in Victorian era London as boglers, a kind of early ghostbusters that traps and kills nasty monsters and demons that haunt the dark places in cities and eat children. Their boggling business runs smoothly enough until the high class folklorist Miss Eames begins following them on their appointments and makes the recommendation that Birdie, for her safety, should not be used as bogle bait. Also, the local pick pocket madam Sarah Pickles importunes Alfred to investigate the cause of some of her boys going missing. Helping Sarah will take Alfred, Birdie, and Miss Eames on the most dangerous bogling mission yet.
My Take: This was an excellent read, not so much for the page turning action, but rather for the evocation of Victorian era England. Jinks has a knack for picking up the dialect of high and low class society and bringing them all to life. Readers will learn about lusherys, mudlarks, and a dozen other things that are foreign to 21st century America. Any teen interested in reading about catching nasty beasties on the dark streets of bygone London should read this book.
One Interesting Note About the Author: On her website, Catherine says that she became a writer because she like reading so much. A sequel to “How To Catch A Bogle” is due out next year!
The Plot In Five Sentences Or Less: Standish Treadwell tries to fade into the background by giving a blank stare from the back of the class. But when his friend Hector climbs the wall behind the house and discovers what’s on the other side, Standish can no longer be inconspicuous. Now he’s being hauled into the principal’s office, interrogated by the leather coats, and beaten by his new stooge of a teacher Mr. Gunnell. After Hector and his family disappear and a strange visitor appears at his house, Standish seeks an opportunity to strike a blow against the heart of a diseased system.
My Take: This is excellent dystopian YA literature. Gardener drops the reader into the middle of Standish’s life with no explanation or exposition, allowing us to slowly piece together the story. What starts as a typical tale about a middle-schooler being sent to the principal’s office, turns into so much more. Gardener slowly develops the nightmare world, until the reader is fully invested in cheering for Standish to subvert it. Great writing and a great book by Sally Gardner! Parents and librarians should be aware that the language in the book is not for younger readers. Ages 15+
One Interesting Note About the Author: Much like Standish, Sally Gardner is dyslexic. As a student, she was branded “unteachable” and expelled from various schools. She is now a spokesperson for dyslexia.
Fallout by Todd Strasser
The Plot in Five Sentences or Less: Recounts the experience of one middle American family during the nuclear standoff of 1963. The plot alternates in time between the family preparing a nuclear fallout shelter and then actually using it during a nuclear strike. 9 people make it into the shelter and tensions run high as time passes. The story is told from the point of view of a teenage boy whose father constructs the shelter.
My Take: Fallout is enjoyable and also educates readers on the widespread fear during the early sixties of a nuclear strike. Strasser does an excellent job of building up the anxiety and claustrophobia in the fallout shelter. He also does not dodge the difficult topics of burgeoning teenage sexual feelings nor the bathroom issues involved with 9 people trapped in a room. This cannot be considered strict historical fiction as there was never a nuclear strike on American soil during the 1960’s.
One Interesting Note About the Author: Fallout is based on Strasser’s father constructing a bomb shelter in the family’s backyard in 1962. Strasser revisits this in the author’s note at the end of the book.
The Plot in Five Sentences or Less: During the Summer of Love in 1967 in the Haight District of San Francisco, Joanne falls in love with a hippie named Martin. Their relationship develops as Joanne watches her family and world change around her. Her sister Denise enters a loveless marriage and is sexually harassed at work while her brother Dan is interested in joining up and going to Vietnam. As Joanne’s relationship with Martin develops, she experiments with drugs and protesting against the war while also carving out time to excel at her piano practice.
My Take: Against my own predictions, I enjoyed this book and believe that young adult females interested in the 1960’s will get a kick out of it. When I began this book, my fear was that it was going to simply be about a silly, moon-eyed girl pining over a boy. Janet smartly puts in the side plot of Joanne’s burning interest in the piano and, because of this, I felt much more interested in this character. My one quibble was the placement of the characters at the assassination of Bobby Kennedy. The scene was too short and inserted rather desultorily into the narrative. Other than that, I was pleasantly surprised by this story of young love in the 1960’s. Ages 13+ due to drug use and profanity.
One Interesting Note About the Author: Music plays a big part in Janet’s life. She has been taking piano lessons since the age of 7. She plays guitar as well, but feels most inclined to play classical piano. Find out more about at her website.
The Plot in 5 Sentences or Less: Red O’Sullivan is a senior at Hatley High School in a mining town in Arizona in the fall of 1950. He is also the quarterback for the Hatley Muckers, who haven’t made a push for the title since 1941, when Red’s brother Bobby was QB. Bobby’s death in World War II exacerbated his father’s drinking and his mother’s loss of sanity. Red hopes to redeem his school and his family by leading his team to the championship cup. But larger forces at work; the Korean War is raging, the mine is closing, and the school is shutting down.
My Take: The Korean War. The mine closing. The school shutting down. The alcoholic father. The insane mother. The dead brother. The corrupt priest. Wallace piles on a mountain (no pun intended) of trouble onto the protagonist. By the middle of the book, I began feeling like perhaps this was all too much, as if the book were a parody of some blue collar nightmare set in the southwest. Or perhaps this was Friday Night Lights in Arizona. I believe that a tighter focus on fewer problems may have yielded a more powerful read. However, I commend Wallace for offering the reader an unfamiliar time and place in history. Sports fans and history buffs may enjoy this book. Ages 12+
One Interesting Note About the Author: Sandra Neil Wallace was for many years an ESPN sports announcer. According to her website, her favorite ice cream is Tiger Tiger (a mix of licorice and orange sherbert!). It is a flavor easily found in Canada but not the United States.
The Plot (in 5 sentences or less): The year is 1946 and 13 year old Jack Baker from Kansas is sent to the Morton Hall Academy for Boys in Maine after his mother dies and his father returns to the Navy. At his new school, Jack feels like an outsider but soon meets Early Auden, an eccentric boy who has a genius for such things as mathematics and small boat craft and is also constructing an elaborate story around the number pi. As their friendship develops, Jack learns that Early is also mourning his brother, who was reported dead in France in World War II. Over fall break, the two boys push off into the Kennebec River and go on a mysterious journey that will bring them closer to their lost loved ones.
My Take: From the midpoint of the book until the end, Vanderpool injects a strong dose of magical realism, involving such things as pirates, anthropomorphic bears, and a volcano. I was initially skeptical of these fantastical elements, but, towards the final chapters, I decided that the author had pulled it off. I would consider this a very special book that explores the mysteries of grief. There is a great deal of symbolism and meaning and Vanderpool draws heavily on fairy tale and archetypes to add depth to the narrative. I found Navigating Early to be a profound exploration of how we search for answers in our bereavement. (ages 12+)
One Interesting Note About the Author: Vanderpool researched Navigating Early by visiting Maine and exploring lighthouses, a boarding school, and even taking a hike on the Appalachian Trail. She did not see any bears.
The Plot (in 5 sentences or less): Set in 1959 Memphis, Tennessee, an 11 year old takes over a friend’s paper route for a few weeks during the summer. The young man suffers from stuttering and it colors his entire life. As he slowly makes his rounds, he becomes involved in the lives of his customers which opens up greater questions. What should he do, for example, about the possible domestic abuse suffered by one lady or the riddles scribbled on a dollar bill given to him by one erudite man? Events come to a violent head when his housekeeper confronts the local homeless man about some items stolen from the household.
My Take: Credit should be given to Mr. Vawter for using a protagonist with a speech impediment. Any teen with a stuttering challenge should absolutely read this book. The author does an excellent job of showing the reader what it is like to live daily with this problem.
Vawter has a restrained writing style that allows him to slowly construct the characters and the plot. Because of this, Paperboy may be too slowly plotted for some young readers. Much of the book is committed to the narrator’s cautious approach to building relationships with adults in his life. Still, towards the end of the book, I did get some goosebumps, that visceral test of any work of art.
One Interesting Note About the Author: Vince Vawter’s first memory of his stutter is just before the age of 5. Despite his stutter, he has had a rewarding career in newspapers. As he tell it in the author’s note, “have I been cured of my stutter? No. Have I overcome it? Yes.”
The Plot (in 5 sentences or less): Leven Thumps is a 14 year old boy in Oklahoma whose life changes when he meets Clover, a small fantastical furry creature. Through his time with Clover, Leven finds that he has the power to summon lightning and also to see into the future. They soon meet a girl named Winter, who is blessed with the ability to change anything into ice, and Geth, a shape shifting being that was once a king.
In time Clover and Geth reveal to them that their powers are to save a magical world named Foo which is being threatened by the evil Sabine. The four set out to find the doorway to Foo before Sabine and his shadows can find and kill them.
My Take: This is a YA fantasy that gets the job done. It is paced quickly enough to keep the plot going without sacrificing character development. Fans of Harry Potter and of that ilk will appreciate the first in this 5 book series. Ages 11+
One Interesting Note About the Author: According to his website, Obert Skye “currently lives indoors and near a thin, winding road.” Now that IS interesting!