Mosquitoland, by David Arnold, a journey from despair to hope.


(Be warned –spoilers ahead)

In his debut novel, Mosquitoland, author David Arnold showcases a finely tuned talent for writing with the voice of a modern young person. He deftly drops the names of popular and imagined cultural references to his mixture to keep his story real. He sprinkles his character’s language with the requisite swear words, from the mundane to the explicit. He even produces a pervert –a child molester who preys on young people in fast food restrooms — to keep readers on our toes as we follow the story of Mary Iris Malone (Mim for short) as she journeys toward Cleveland from Mississippi. She’s on a desperate trek to reach her mother after she suddenly goes silent.

Arnold’s story has all the ingredients of a success, including a love story and a Native American character of ambiguous ethnicity (Go Viking Books for Young Readers #WeNeedDiverseBooks). Mim’s voice comes through loud and clear, as do the voices of every character in the novel. For me, however, what was less clear was Mim’s emotional center. Her problem and its resolution felt pat.

Mim’s father, newly married after a quick divorce, has moved his new family from Ohio to Mississippi, the Mosquitoland of the title. As the story unfolds through both live narration and journal entries –letters to a mysterious “Isabelle”–the reader slowly begins to uncover the depth of Mim’s pain. We learn she has been prescribed an antipsychotic drug to prevent symptoms of a mental illness. We hear about her less-than-magazine-perfect life with her parents before the divorce. We learn about her soft spot for people in need. (Mim draws people to her like honey on waffles.) In that way, Mim’s heart and Arnold’s writing shine.

Mim’s odyssey is laced with strangers and diversions, including a gay gas station owner, a cookie-scented elderly woman (grandmother of said gas station owner), a knife-wielding schizophrenic, a “devastatingly handsome” college dropout, and a homeless boy with Downs Syndrome. This lovingly drawn supporting cast charges the narrative with humor, compassion and genuine emotion. But the abrupt and seemingly complete transformation of Mim’s attitude toward her stepmother, perpetrator of all evil done to her family in the previous six months, mars the narrative.

This is a fun, emotion-packed read, and readers will thoroughly enjoy the antics and adventures of Mim and her sidekicks. It will definitely entertain young adult readers. But its emotional truth, especially for those who know what it’s like to have a family riven by betrayal or illness, misses the mark. Otherwise, the humor, romance, and characters will keep readers turning pages to the final revelation.

Violence- minimal but present

Sexual tension –innocent and believable

Questionable behavior  –minimal – other than disappearing without a trace, which of course is necessary for the story to get moving.

For Grades 7th and up.

Fantasy Throwback Review – Jordan’s (and Sanderson’s) Wheel of Time Series, well worth the investment.

Robert Jordan’s epic fantasy adventure, The Wheel of Time series, offers readers much to appreciate beyond fantasy and adventure.  Begun in 1990, and brought to its monumental conclusion fourteen volumes later in 2012 by Brandon Sanderson, a fantasy icon in his own right, this wide-ranging narrative touches on questions of free will, destiny, the nature of evil, and the power of love, all while never flagging as a wild, world-bending, fantasy.

The story follows the lives of childhood friends, Rand al’Thor, Matrin Cauthon, Perrin Aybarra, Nynaeve al’Meara, and Egwene al’Vere who flee their small village in a hinterland outpost of the kingdom of Andor, under the protection of Moiraine Damodred, an infamous channeler of the One Power. As they journey away from their home, chased by the agents of the Dark One, a being who personifies the forces of evil, these five are joined by a cast of characters as diverse and interesting in their own right that the reader is soon immersed in a world so fascinating and unusual, that the thousands of pages it takes to read their story fly by.

Wheel of timeWhat is most interesting, however, is how Jordan and later Sanderson manage to make this enormous tale feel deeply personal. With each chapter or chapter segment, they remain firmly in the head of one point-of-view character, both the evil and the honorable, offering the reader a rare glimpse into the workings of an enemy’s heart, in addition to his or her mind. As Rand and his friends move closer with each page toward the inevitable Final Battle, the authors manage to explore topics as important as life’s purpose, the question of freedom in the face of duty and destiny, and the purpose of power. At the same time, the work contains enough humor, bloody battles and flirtatious romance that it will keep even the most demanding readers happy.

Volumes have been written by fans on wikis and fan-sites to help keep the labyrinthine tale straight, so this series needs no detailed summary from me. Well worth the effort.

Violence = +++

Sexual Tension = only mildly overt. All sexual encounters occur off camera.

For readers 12 and up.

Quicklit review: The Here and Now, by Ann Brashares

Brashares Here and NowIn her latest novel, The Here and Now, Ann Brashares offers a new twist on a familiar trope. Prenna, along with her mother and friends live closed off from the world of the early 21st century. Having  traveled back from a post-plague, climate-ravaged future, they intend merely to live out the remainder of their lonely lives in peace. No one can know who they are, or from where they have come. There’s just one problem, someone —Ethan Jarves, the sweet and gentle boy in the school Prenna has enrolled in– saw them arrive. Now as she struggles to understand what the homeless man Ethan has befriended has to do with her community’s safety, she and Ethan must struggle against time to prevent the disaster that sent time spiralling down the wrong path in order to create a better, safer future.

Once again, Brashares offers keen awareness of young adults as her characters grope through the darkness dealing with unfamiliar emotions and situations, navigating first love and the loss of loved ones. The situation she creates, hovers on edge of science fiction– the reader will find no long-winded explanations of the possibilities of time travel here– and offers just enough mystery and tension to keep the reader guessing about how/if the star-crossed “lovers” will find a life together.

Although the story starts off slowly, (Brashares includes just a bit of overt moralizing about how the “time natives” of 2014 could knowingly ignore the science that proves humanity is on a crash course with climate disaster) and Prenna’s marose initial personality put me off at first, Brashares ably overcomes those slight weaknesses by the end. When Prenna finally acts she proves herself to be a worthy heroine, leading the reader through an emotional journey from despair toward hope.

Well worth recommending to readers 12 and up.

Sexual content = 1/2 S  — mildly open discussions about sex.

Violence = V several violent deaths.

Questionable behavior = 0


Quicklit Review: Pierce Brown’s Red Rising is not for the squeamish.

Image    Darrow is a Hell Diver. He is one of the elite on the mining station of Mars who have been sent as an advance team to prepare the Red Planet for human habitation. When he risks his life to boost his team’s prospects at winning the Laurel, which translates into better and more abundant rations, he is surprised, but not overly upset when he finds out that the competition is rigged. The powers that control the lives of the miners manipulate and suppress the colony for their own purposes. What finally gets Darrow’s attention, though, is the unjust execution of a loved one. A single act of rebellion launches his life into a new trajectory in which he must erase all traces of his former life and hide in plain sight as a rebel against the political and social elite. Physically and mentally enhanced so that he can compete among the  sons and daughters of Mars’ elite, he fights to secure his place among the top commanders of the Mars forces so that as a mole in the governing body’s closed society, he can undermine the planet’s governing system. Darrow is thrown into a world of murder, torture, hunger, rape and deception as he and his fellow “students” compete to survive the bloodiest, most maddeningly unfair competition in Young Adult fiction I’ve read in a long time.
This heavily hyped futuristic story set on Mars combines the best and most gruesome parts of The Hunger Games, while also taking the “school” competition to a whole new level. The violence and raw aggressiveness of the plot, the setting, and the characters themselves, make this dystopian novel appropriate for older teens only.

Violence – VVV

Sex – SSS

Appropriate for High School age readers.

The Scar Boys, by Len Vlahos — A rather over-long look at the heart of an anti-hero

Image  Len Vlahos’s novel, The Scar Boys, written in the guise of an extended college admissions essay, recounts the story of Harbinger (Harry) Robert Francis Jones, who was struck by lightning as a child leaving him horribly disfigured. When a new kid at school befriends him, everything changes. They form a band, and thus begins the story of his first step toward living, rather than waiting around for things to get better. The novel offers a few bright glimpses of insight into the life of an outcast, but mostly the story is about Harry being forced to really look at himself and recognize that most of what has happened to him is the result of his own unwillingness to try. Throughout the story his down-in-the-dumps, expectation of rejection made me want to scream along with his shrink, “You are such a schmuck, Harry.” The climactic confrontation with his friend feels a little contrived but nevertheless provides him with the understanding necessary to move him beyond self-pity and fortunately, the lessons he needs to learn finally sink in . A story of friendship, self-discovery, and a nod to the redemptive force that music can offer, The Scar Boys will appeal to boys, fans of music from the 1980s and those who think they have it bad, and need to be ‘slapped” back into reality.

Sex = 1/2 S

Violence = 0

Questionable Behavior = ? (mild drinking and drug use, swearing)

QuickLit Review: Richelle Mead’s Vampire Academy – These teens will make your blood run cold

Vampire AcademyWith the upcoming release of the film adaptation of Richelle Mead’s popular The Vampire Academy series, many young people will be clambering to read the books. Like vampire tales of the past, these titles might best be reserved for mature readers.

Told from the perspective of Rose, a half-human, half-vampire bodyguard-in-training to Lissa, a vampire from a royal bloodline, the details of the pair’s lives are told in all their scintillating detail. Rose and Lissa share a psychic connection that allows Rose to see the world through Lissa’s eyes. The two spend most of the book talking about, thinking about, and engaging in normal teen activities, such as hooking up, partying, and avoiding school work. While the story follows the outline of other boarding school tales, the vampire conventions take their antics to a whole new level. The discussions and the depictions of school life (i.e. cliques, clothes, sexual encounters, double-standards about those encounters, sexual shaming, and the use of humans to satisfy both sexual and dietary necessities) will add to the popular teen appeal. Be prepared for some questions if you give this to anyone under 12.

Sexual activity –SS

Violence- V (The bodyguards train and fight in several well-written but brutal scenes.)

Questionable Behavior –  ??

QuickLit Review: DARIUS AND TWIG – Friendship, Struggle and Triumph in Harlem — Walter Dean Myers’s 2014 Printz Honor Winner

Dariusw and TwigWalter Dean Myers’s 2014 Printz Honor winner, Darius & Twig, joins Myers’s long list of works featuring straight-talking, genuine characters dealing with real life struggles. In his latest novel, two high school friends encourage each other’s dreams as they fight to rise above the violence, and dream-killing streets of their neighborhood in Harlem. Darius, an aspiring writer, searches for his place in the world and his voice as he explores alternative lives through his fiction.  Darius’s best friend, Twig, battles a different set of problems: family and outsiders’ demands that he settle for less and forget about going to college, despite his conviction that he has what it takes to compete nationally as a long distance runner. Myers’s skill at crafting intimate portraits of young men facing high stakes in difficult situations, invites us to see the world of guns, crack, and random crime through a different set of lenses. Instead of moralizing about the effect of the mean streets of New York on young black and Latino males, Myers paints a world of loving families, wise and caring neighbors, and the true value of friends.

Sex  = 0

Violence = V (Although the boys witness drive-by shootings, fistfights and domestic abuse, Myers keeps the descriptions PG -13 with little graphic detail.)

Questionable Behavior = ? (Darius and Twig see and hear about drug abuse and gun play, they themselves do not participate.)