Under the Never Sky: A Story of Loss, Betrayal and Discovery As Changeable As the Sky

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In Veronica Rossi’s version of a dystopian future it is the sky with its electrical storms or “Aethers” that is the greatest threat to happiness. Unless, of course, you count all those oh-too-human emotions that just can’t seem to be left behind– no matter how our future selves try. Told in alternating viewpoints, Rossi’s novel starts slowly with what is by now a cliche opener — an adolescent prank gone bad. In this one, a group of Dwellers break out of their over-regulated, over-monitored lives inside the “pods” and go for a jaunt in the wild.  The story picks up speed once it moves outside the pods and we meet the second viewpoint character, the unnaturally gifted, Perry. The dual voices of these two young protagonists take the reader deeply into a tale of survival, betrayal and love.

Aria is a Dweller, a person who has spent her entire life living in the safety of the domed pods, away from the dangers of life on the outside- under the gene-altering power of the Aether. In her world, all activity takes place in the video game-like virtual “realms” where life is lived safely, and risk free. Nothing is left to chance, there, not even procreation.

On the night Aria tags along with a group of teenagers who sneak out of their pod, called Reverie, just for the fun of it, her goals are different than the others. She needs help from one of the group’s more popular members. Aria’s mothers, a geneticist who lives in a distant domed community called Bliss, has not been in contact with her for weeks.  When she and her friends encounter one of the “Savages,” those who live in the unprotected world, and the adventure on the outside turns deadly, Aria is held responsible. Her punishment — to be cast out into the unknown. In short, a sentence of a slow agonizing death.

On the outside, however, Aria meets Perry, the savage who was really responsible for the the pod-dweller’s death. Perry rescues Aria from certain death., but, although he ensures her survival, he does not offer her friendship, or the time and space she needs to grieve for her lost home. Soon it becomes clear that both of these young people are struggling with loss. Perry, a genetically gifted outsider has been cast out of his community, the Tides, as well. He has been held responsible for the capture of his nephew by the Pod-Dwellers. Together, Aria and Perry seek help from the odd but resourceful Marron, who Perry claims can repair Aria’s SmartEye, the device both Aria and Perry believe is the key to finding out what happened to their lost loved ones. In the confines of Marron’s walled compound, Delphi, the two discover the depths of the other’s loss and find consolation in each other’s arms.

The first installment of this dystopian series ends satisfactorily, but with much of the story still to be told. The love story unfolds slowly through well observed emotional and physical detail. The relationship grows organically and with patience, and so feels much more substantial than other YA romances set in dystopian futures. While Perry’s reliance on his sense of smell is reminiscent of another YA love interest of an unnatural kind, Perry never comes across as anything but genuinely human -compassionate, gentle, and very much a warm, flesh-and-blood boy.

Both the love scenes and the necessary violence are told straightforwardly, with emotion and power, but with few graphic details. The action is intense. However, the story also treats loftier questions about empathy, loyalty, family ties, and the inevitability of death and its relationship to life. In this series opener, Rossi provides ample fodder for deeper discussions, and her tale makes a worthwhile read for those inclined toward love stories set in yet another dystopia.

Sexual content – S

Violence – VV

Questionable Behavior – ?

Grade Level – 8th and up

Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe, by Benjamin Alire Sáenz

In this quiet, award winning novel, Benjamin Alire Sáenz explores the poignant depths of friendship and self discovery. In a story that roams among issues of  family trauma, sexual exploration, and love (of every variety) Alire Sáennz’s unceasingly commits to telling the truth. Never does he  sway from drawing his two main characters as anything other than fully conceived and genuine young men struggling with core issues at the center of who they are and who they want to be.

Aristotle (Ari for short) chronicles the events of two pivotal years in his  friendship with Dante. Both are Latino boys in El Paso, Texas in 1987, but their lives are far from alike. Ari’s family is formal and quiet. Dante’s is open and boisterous. Although their relationship begins with the ease and honesty one rarely finds in real life, there is nothing unnatural about the progress it makes in the lazy summer afternoons. When one boy saves the other from being struck by a speeding car, getting his own legs crushed in the process, their relationship strains to the point of breaking, the “hero” doesn’t like being the center of attention; nor  does he want to think about what his willingness to sacrifice himself for his friend means about his feelings for him. He turns inward, away from the world, even as the other one reaches out.

Alire Sáenz takes his time, allowing the story to unfold in the natural rhythms of summer. When Dante moves away for a school year, so his father can teach at a prestigious university in Chicago, Ari isn’t quite sure what to think of the honesty, awkwardness, and underlying questions of Dante’s letters. While Dante “experiments” with masturbation, kissing girls, and drugs, Ari struggles to maintain the friendship long-distance (this is an internet and texting-free era, remember). Although few of today’s teens will understand the lack of interest in “broadcasting” one’s life, Ari’s discomfort at communicating with anyone genuinely arises from his own struggles at home and with his peers.

A side story involving Ari’s missing, imprisoned brother, Bernardo, provides an undercurrent of shame, that, at first, seems to bear little relevance to the story. Deep into the novel, however, the price of the family’s silence and  secrecy goes a long way to explaining Ari’s anger, frustration, and fear at what Dante is trying to reveal to him without actually coming out and telling him.

While the language can be strong at times, and the issues are deeply personal, Alire Sáenz handles the emotions and struggle of two boys coming to understand their feelings for one another with honesty and truth, never drawing either character as one-dimensional or stereotypical. This is not a story only for those struggling with their own sexuality. Dante and Ari’s story will feel familiar no matter what a reader’s sexual preference. It’s insights into the friendship and love ring true about all relationships and is well worth reading.

Sex- S

Violence – V

Troubling Behavior – ?

In Darkness, by Nick Lake – For Goodness Sake, Read this book.

2013-02-10 09.05.14Few books stick with me like this one did  — not surprising considering it is the 2013 Printz winner.

Fifteen-year-old Shorty, begins his tale immediately following the 2010 earthquake that devastated Haiti. Buried in the rubble of the hospital, recuperating from wounds he suffered in the ubiquitous gang violence that is Haiti, Shorty recounts the story of how he got there. In the darkness of his living tomb, he begins to hallucinate, and in his ravings, he begins to remember events in someone else’s life: that of Toussaint L’Overture, the legendary liberator of Haiti from French domination in the 18th century.

In chapters that alternate between “Then” and “Now”, Lake recounts the lives of both Shorty and Toussaint moving between the Republic’s hopeful birth in a slave revolt, to the tragedy that is modern Haiti. Lake vividly evokes the horror of events on the island by pulling no punches, laying bare the raw facts of the Toussaint’s life in slavery and the slave revolt, grounding the story in rich sensory details: the sticky heat, the smell of blood, the sound a machete makes when it severs a limb.  The reader cannot look away, as he reveals the face of a dying baby, the effect of bullets on the human body, and the mystery of Voodoo. In addition, Lake explores the precariousness of life, and the power of love.

This is not a book for the faint of heart, but although the violence, despair and pain spring genuinely from the story’s roots Lake offers hope, as well; hope grounded in the love of a mother for her son, a brother for his sister, friends for each other, and a leader for his nation. This book will leave you wrung out, but thankful for the truths it reveals.

Sexual material – S

Violence – VVV

Questionable Behavior -??

Sold, by Patricial McCormick — A tragic tale that should be required reading.

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Patricia McCormick’s novel, Sold, offers an important glimpse into the tragedy of human trafficking and the international sex trade of young girls in Nepal and India. Lakshmi, sold by her step-father to an uncertain fate, leaves her mountain home with the hopeful expectation that she will find employment in the city and will be able to send money back to her family so they, too, can have a tin roof, and a few luxuries like their neighbors who have daughters working in the city. As she journeys far from her mother, her beloved pet goat, her village and her baby brother, despite the signs that all is not what it should be, Lakshmi maintains her faith that her family will benefit from her suffering.

McCormick heightens the tragedy Lakshmi suffers by preceding the scenes of her degradation with those of family love and the simple joys and challenges of her life in the mountain village of Nepal. Through it all Lakshmi’s voice, never falters, always sounding genuinely young and hopeful. It is that hope, and the small kindness of friends and strangers, some of them from the very men who come to the “Happiness House” brothel, that prevents the reader from being swallowed by the despair that permeates the story. When her situation seems almost too much to bear, McCormick provides just the right sliver of genuine friendship that begins to deliver Lakshmi, and the reader, out of the pit of hopelessness. Although the afterword offers information about how real girls like Lakshmi, those who have escaped the life of forced prostitution and slavery, work to free others from their fate, one aches at the prospect that Lakshmi will never be reunited with her beloved mother, and that far from being a fictional character, thousands of women and girls suffer far worse all over the world everyday.

Finally, although the story is one that must be told, the work leaves the reader with the strong impression that women and girls are despised, degraded, and unwanted throughout the region. The book leaves little room for true insight into the rich cultural heritage of India and Nepal. Reading Sold leaves one begging for another story to balance out the negative impression left behind by the tragedy recounted in this beautifully written but disturbing tale.

Sexual material — SS

Violence –VV

Questionable behavior – 0

Hatelist, by Jennifer Brown, a powerful, if ultimately unsatisfying tale of hate forgiveness and redemption.

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In Jennifer Brown’s novel, Hatelist, Valerie Leftman’s boyfriend of three years, Nick, opens fire one morning in their high school’s crowded commons. At first his targets are the names listed in Valerie’s notebook, the “Hatelist” of the title: classmates who have made their lives  miserable in big ways and small. Within a few seconds, the dead and wounded include innocent by-standers and guilty alike — and those who would stop the shooting at the cost of their lives, including Valerie herself. But the victims of the shootings aren’t the only causalities of this act of wanton, inexplicable violence. We soon witness the crumbling lives and lingering pain of those who survived, as well.

Brown’s portrayal of a school and a community trying its best to pick up the pieces after a tragedy that comes painfully close to real-life headlines delves deeply into the psychology and trauma of the victims of bullying. Her novel also raises serious questions about just who is really a victim, as characters slowly reveal the back-story to the reader. We meet the sports hero who is insecure and jealous of the attention his girlfriend pays another boy; the cheerleader who rises above the mean-girl stereotype to befriend and include the outcast; the mother whose depth of agony forces her to impose harsh restrictions on her child, not because of mistrust and anger, but from powerlessness and fear.

Although the story offers readers valuable insights into “the other side of the story,” and Brown is to be commended for not offering us a pat “happy-ending” with everyone healed and forgiven, the breakthrough for Val feels too contrived. She is an artist, and the quirky-art teacher-cum-fairy-god-mother-like Bea offers her a place to express her pain, and discover her truth. In actuality it is Val’s psychiatrist Dr. Heiler, the most endearing and relatable character in the entire book, who helps her say goodbye to her past and rejoin the living. The story works when it shows the kind of effort it takes to overcome the very real consequences of gun violence; as a portrait of a girl struggling with the daily challenges of life as an “untouchable” are less well observed. I just didn’t believe that Val had the amount of strength it would take to walk back into the school where her boyfriend shot innocent people. While scenes of bullying demonstrate a keen ear for the tones and nuance of adolescents, the climatic scene when Valerie herself is threatened with a gun feels less genuine. Only the reproach by the gun-toting bully’s friend who says, “Come on, Troy. I’m losing my buzz. That thing isn’t even loaded,” rang true to me.

Young people can be cruel, we know this. Where Brown’s novel soars, though is in demonstrating the power of forgiveness to heal.

Sexual Content — O

Violence — V

Questionable behavior – ?

Perks of Being A Wallflower – Get a life, and don’t read this

Although Stephen Chbosky’s novel has achieved every novelist’s dream- being made into a move- for me, this coming of age story was not worth the effort. Graphic in detail, it reads more like an instruction manual for unsafe sex, and how to avoid responsibility for even the most obvious errors in judgment. Charlie, the Freshman in high school protagonist, seems awkward and painfully naive.When two seniors take him under their wing, his education begins. While the story and situations will appeal to YA readers, there is little in the way of plot to provoke real discussion nor is there any real redeeming message.

Sexual content – SSS
Violence – 0
Questionable Behavior –???

Wintergirls: A Chilling Look Into A Waking Nightmare

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Lia starves herself. Lia cuts. This is not a book for the faint-of-heart. Lauri Halse Anderson’s novel, Wintergirls, will scare the living daylights out of you. For girls who are brought up in today’s media-saturated culture, the crown of being the skinniest, the prettiest, and the most popular, this novel will sound way too familiar. Maybe reading it will do teens and their parents some good by making us all more aware of the dangerous and unhealthy messages we send every minute of everyday about food, appearance, and success.

(Spoiler Alert)

Lia Overbrook made a pact with her friend Cassie Parrish that they would be the skinniest girls in the school, but the pact’s toll has gotten way too high. Cassie is dead, her esophagus having ruptured as the result of repeated purges, and now Lia is seeing Cassie’s ghost, who cheers on Lia’s efforts to get down to the magic weight of 85 pounds. This tale of impossible expectations, unhealthy relationships, and finding one’s way out of the fog of self-destructive behavior ends with a sense of hope, but Lia’s relentless counting of calories and crunches will resonate in your head long after you finish reading it.

Grade Level = 8th – 12th

Sex (S) = O

Violence (V) = V

Questionable behavior (?) = ???

The Raven Boys, by Maggie Stiefvater, A Haunting Tale of Friendship, Family, Privilege, and the Supernatural

At the heart of Maggie Stiefvater’s latest work for young adults, The Raven Boys, lies a haunting tale that delivers so much more than a mere story of the supernatural, as Stiefvater’s fans have come to expect. This intricately woven novel explores the depths of friendship, the true meaning of family, the mystery of life after death, and the lengths some people will go to achieve the impossible.

Sixteen-year-old Blue Sargent’s clairvoyant mother and “Aunts” have warned her against falling in love for as long as she can remember. But these warnings come not from the the jaded wounds of the women’s own experiences, but from their reading of her future. Each has “seen” Blue’s fate: one day she will kill her “true love” with a kiss. The prophecy looms over the story like a mythical combination of the fruit just out of  Tantalus’s reach, and a precarious Sword of Damocles hanging overhead. With each page readers will find themselves alternately cheering for and worrying over the Raven Boys of the title, students at the prestigious Aglionby Academy, a private college-prep school of the rich, famous, and spoiled. The boys themselves, however, have something other than romance and mischief-making on their minds. Led by the charismatic, charming, and notably not stereotypical rich kid, Richard Gansey, III, the boys are hunting for the final resting place of the legendary Owen Glendower, a medieval Welsh noble, and “freedom fighter” who fought against the English occupation of his homeland. According to myths told about the knight, his body was brought to the Americas and buried where the mysterious powers of ancient Ley Lines have preserved him in a perpetual sleep. To the one who awakens him, Glendower will grant a wish.

But make no mistake, this is not a story of forbidden love and fairy tale quests. The boys of Aglionby, along with Blue, embark on a search for the sleeping knight that puts them all directly in the path of others searching for him, whose motives for awaking the knight involve dark secrets and revenge. Using the arts of a master storyteller, humor, imagination, and a keenly observed ear for the voices of young people, Stiefvater takes her readers deep into the individual psyches of her characters, revealing the painful truth of their longing, their losses, and the complexity of family dynamics, both the love and the hate. Along the way, Stiefvater leaves a trail of clues that point straight to the inevitable revelations about the boys’ friendships, lives, and one not so restful afterlife.

While the story hints at sexual tension, it barely moves beyond flirtatious glances between Blue and Adam, the Raven Boy who attends Aglionby on scholarship and works three jobs to pay  the hefty tuition. Mild incidents of “questionable” behavior include drinking, neglect of school work, and the practice of witchcraft. The two most violent scenes grow organically out of the story and involve the beating of Adam by his own father, and some gun play, that, while tense, spare the reader gory details.

The conclusion of this first volume of a series will leave you eager and anxious to return to the quest in the next volume.

Sex – 0

Violence – V

Questionable Behavior – ?

Daughter of Smoke and Bone: What would have happened if Romeo and Juliette were something other than flesh and bone.

Few books have affected me the way Laini Taylor’s Daughter of Smoke and Bone did. Beginning with the opening lines, “Once upon a time, an angel and a devil fell in love. It did not end well,” this story surprised me with its inventiveness, razor-sharp insights into the ways of the heart, and truth-telling.

Despite Karou’s mysterious background and history, and the tattoos of eyes on her palms, she is, for all she knows, a normal human art student, studying in Prague. Okay so she was raised by Brimstone, a half-beast, half who-knows what else, with ram’s horns, who deals in teeth and wishes. Written in close-in third-person narration, the beauty of this story resides in its ability to keep the reader, and the protagonist guessing about Karou’s truth. Interspersed with the story of Karou, who using enigmatic magic portals to other locations on the globe, Taylor introduces a character of ethereal background, Achiva, whose sole purpose initially seems to be to thwart Karou’s errands to collect teeth for Brimstone.

With each reveal, the story becomes more and more intriguing, drawing the reader into the world of the Chimera and its battle against the Empire of “Angels.” But this story is no mere fantasy concerning forbidden love. This complex tale explores the nature of war, the process of empire, and the slippery definitions of good and evil in a world where truth seems to depend on one’s personal perspective and the vagaries of a war dependent on tightly controlled knowledge. In Taylor’s story of betrayal and redemption, hope and despair, the final, devastating passage drives a shattering wedge between Akiva and Karou’s that makes waiting for the next installment (due out November 2012) feel something akin to the torture the two deeply drawn protagonists experience themselves.

The frank discussion of passion, sex, and love make this appropriate for older YA readers, but most of the “action” takes place off screen and the love relationship at the center of the story involves a deep exploration of the joy of intimacy, trust, and the giving of oneself to another.  For your fantasy lovers, this is a must read in the vein of Kirsten Cashore’s Fire.

Sex = S
Violence = V
Questionable Behavior = ?

A Certain Slant of Light, Laura Witcomb’s supernatural exploration of the possibility of second chances and the endurance of love.

(This review is from a now defunct website I previously published, but I found myself thinking about this book recently, and thought I’d resurrect the review in order to let older readers in on this gem.)

Deliberately crafted and deliciously written, A Certain Slant of Light, by Laura Whitcomb offers a of sensual exploration and emotional complexity that stands out for its literary quality and grace, although who it’s intended audience is may confuse you. The story follows Helen, a spirit, or being of light, of uncertain age who spends 130 years tying herelf to the living. By doing so she is able to continue her tenuos hold on her memories and life as one of the quick. When she encounters James, another being of light who has managed to take over the body of a living boy, she is overjoyed to find someone with whom she can communicate, and begins a relationship that quickly changes her “life.” When she is seduced into inhabiting the empty shell of a human girl, the love affair that follows seems mostly about reveling in her new found body and the exploration of the senses. The two formerly light spirits commandeer the bodies of teenagers whose lives seem destined to end sooner rather than later, but the two spirits seem determined to “live” again. When James abruptly discovers the reason for his long banishment from heaven. Helen is left to struggle to uncover her own reason for exile.

Although the lives of the people whose bodies they take over seem almost too complex and dreary to believe, Whitcomb does manage to tie their tragedies into the plot by forcing the body “snatchers” to live within the complex parameters of their hosts, and in this way the story literally allows both the characters, and the reader, to live within another’s skin

Although Helen finally comes to terms with the reason for her own private hell, though stunningly painted, feels too laden with adult knowing (she has lived for over 130 years, after all) for it to have any real impact on a young reader. Although I did enjoy a cathartic cry at the grand reveal at the end, it is not likely to be read by many of the in tended audience with the same emotional impact. However, the graphic sex scenes and genuine voices of the characters will certainly keep them reading.

The stark contrast between the beautiful prose and the modern day language of the spirit’s two young hosts, if nothing else, casts an uncomplimentary spotlight on the crassness of modern culture.

Recommend this to your older, more literary-minded readers and they will thank you.

Violence – V

Sex – SS

Questionable Behavior – ?? (expect discussions of rebelliousness, parental neglect, drugs and suicide.)