Chains by Laurie Halse Anderson

Source: Public Library
Hardcover, 316 pages
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Chains by Laurie Halse Anderson is the first in a series of books set during the American Revolution, and Isabel is a young slave who must care for herself and her sister, Ruth, after the death of their mother and their owner.  She quickly finds that the things she had been promised by their owner do not come to pass, and she must prepare herself for new and more harsh owners, the Locktons.  In her new household in New York, where the Locktons have settled from England, she finds that her chores are many and grueling, but that her sister has garnered the special attention of Mrs. Lockton, who dresses her as a doll and requires her to be silent at all times.  New York also is where she meets Curzon, a young black boy working on the side of the rebels, for whom he hopes she will provide intelligence from the Lockton household.

“The bees swarmed again behind my eyes, making the scene grow dim and distant.  The sun was nearing the horizon, casting long shadows across the wharf.  I was a ghost tied to the ground, not a living soul.”  (page 182)

Isabel soon learns that both the British and American rebels are willing to use slaves as they see fit and promise them freedom they have no intention of granting.  Anderson’s young adult novel deftly balances the cruelty of slavery with the sensibilities of young adults, ensuring that the abuse and cruelty is never more than young readers can handle. However, there are some instances that do become graphic, but it is essential to demonstrate the fates that faced a number of slaves, especially those who attempted or even thought about escaping their masters.  Moreover, she easily demonstrates the excess and perfidy of the war and its opposing sides, as the British throw balls in honor of the queen at the same time the rebels are struggling to feed themselves.

“And then, the final triumph.  She used a tiny brush to paint a thin line of glue above each eye.  Madam opened an envelope and shook out two gray strips of mouse fur, each cut into an arch.  Leaning toward the mirror, she glued the mouse fur onto her own eyebrows, making them bushy and thick as the fashion required.”  (page 207)

Chains by Laurie Halse Anderson is the first in a series, and it ends with a wide open ending in many ways, but at least some of the issues are resolved.  Anderson brings to life not only the issue of slavery, but also of the opposing sides in the revolution and the confusion it brought with it on the battlefield and in the cities not immediately touched by the war.  The confusing reports, the captured cities, the changing of power, all of it comes to life.

About the Author:

Laurie Halse Anderson is the New York Times-bestselling author who writes for kids of all ages. Known for tackling tough subjects with humor and sensitivity, her work has earned numerous American Library Association and state awards. Two of her books, Speak and Chains, were National Book Award finalists. Chains also made the Carnegie Medal Shortlist in the United Kingdom.

Laurie was the proud recipient of the 2009 Margaret A. Edwards Award given by YALSA division of the American Library Association for her “significant and lasting contribution to young adult literature…”. She was also honored with the ALAN Award from the National Council of Teachers of English and the St. Katharine Drexel Award from the Catholic Librarian Association.

This is my 4th book for the American Revolution Reading Challenge 2013





This is my 60th book for the 2013 New Authors Challenge.

The Klipfish Code by Mary Casanova

The Klipfish Code by Mary Casanova is a young adult novel set during World War II when Norway was occupied by the Nazis for five years.  Rather than acquiesce to all of the Nazis demands and become indoctrinated, many of them showed their solidarity in small ways, including wearing paperclips on their clothes and not speaking to those in the community who turned into Nazi informers.

Marit is a young girl of ten when the first bombs fall on Norway, which has become a pawn in the war as the Germans seek to control the ports and the British seek to do the same.  Her parents are eager to join the Resistance and help the British as best they can — her father’s knowledge of bridges and roads and her mother’s ability to speak English — but it forces them to break up the family and send their children to Godøy Island to live with their grandfather Bestefar and their aunt Ingeborg.  While Marit and her brother Lars have spent summers there, Marit does not get along well with her grandfather who she finds favors her brother.

“She couldn’t believe he was actually speaking to her.  She didn’t know if he wanted an answer or not, but she gathered her courage.  ‘But Bestefar, if no one fights back, the Germans will be here forever!'” (page 41)

Casanova’s story is based in fact, which can be found in the notes at the back of the book, and her characters are believable as young children caught in a war they do not understand.  Marit struggles with her morals as she’s forced by her peers to not speak to her friend Olaf in school because his parents turned in a Norwegian to the Nazis.  While Marit is brave at the beginning of the occupation, she falters as any young child would in the face of oppression and danger, and she must come to terms with her own convictions and if they are worth the price she and her family might pay.

Unlike other suspenseful young adult novels in which children are the main protagonists and the most important actors in the plot, Casanova has stuck to the real world dynamics of the world in which children do not know everything and are not the main actors.  Marit demonstrates fear as she strives to deliver the klipfish code and when she encounters the Germans up close.  The Klipfish Code by Mary Casanova is a realistic account of Norway’s struggles during the Nazi occupation without being too graphic about the violence that came with that regime.

About the Author:

Mary Casanova is an award-winning children’s author of novels and picture books. Many of her books stem from her life on the Minnesota-Canadian border; yet some of her stories have taken her as far away as France, Norway, and Belize for research. Whatever the setting for her books, Casanova writes stories that matter–and stories that kids can’t put down.

Her book awards include: American Library Association “Notable,” Aesop Accolades by the American Folklore Society, Parents’ Choice “Gold” Award, Booklist Editor Choice, and two Minnesota Book Awards. Her books frequently land on state children’s choice book master lists across the country. “The greatest reward for me,” Casanova states, “is when a young reader tells me she or he loves one of my books. For me, it’s all about communicating writer-to-reader through a character and story.”

This is my 31st book for the 2013 New Authors Challenge.

Winter’s End by Jean-Claude Mourlevat, translated by Anthea Bell

Winter’s End by Jean-Claude Mourlevat, translated by Anthea Bell, is a dystopian young adult novel set some time after a civil war has torn apart an unnamed nation.  If any of this sounds familiar, it should — Hunger Games — and like Suzanne Collins’ book, kids and adults are required to fight in an Arena, though more in gladiator style with swords.  And the similarities do not end there, but there are differences between this world and Collins’ world, with the Hunger Games capital seemingly more dangerous and the world of the districts more stark.

Mourlevat spends a great deal of time on the boarding school and building the characters of Milena and Helen.  These young girls are taken to a boarding school at the edge of the world, where they must memorize and follow 20 rules to stay out of the SKY, which isn’t the sky at all.  During the year, they have three opportunities to meet in the village with their consolers, who basically provide the children comfort and guidance.  The girls’ adventures begin on one such trip they meet two boys, Milos and Bartolomeo.

“The Sky did not deserve its name.  Far from being high in the air above, the detention cell was underneath the cellars.  You reached it from the refectory, down a long, spiral staircase with cold water dripping from the steps.  The cell measured about seven by ten feet.  The walls and floor smelled musty, earthy.  When the door closed behind you, all you could do was grope your way over to the wooden bed, sit or lie on it, and wait.  You were alone in the darkness and silence for hours.”  (page 7)

In the back of the book, the author mentions that the story is based upon the life of Kathleen Mary Ferrier, an English contralto singer.  In some ways the recruitment of Ferrier during WWII is similar to Milena’s mother’s story, but in other ways they are vastly different.  There is a resistance in Winter’s End, but it remains very mysterious to the very end when the network begins to take action against the Phalange.  While the oppressors show no compassion for those different than themselves and shoot down unarmed individuals or send dog-like men against the innocent, the Phalange remain mysterious — their origins, their motivations, and the history with the oppressed.  In many ways, the actions against Milena’s mother and Bart’s father seemed more related to a broken-hearted man, than an over-arching battle between the Phalange and the resistance.

Winter’s End is a thrill ride in the latter half of the book, and it will definitely keep the attention of younger readers.  It’s also aptly named, as the sun seems to be shining more brightly by the end of the novel, though an epilogue about Helen’s consoler and her son was not necessarily needed and seemed like it was tacked on as an afterthought.  Overall a satisfying read, but not near the caliber of other books in this category.

About the Author:

Jean-Claude Mourlevat once wrote and directed burlesque shows for adults and children, which were performed for more than ten years in France and abroad. The author of several children’s books, he lives in a house overhanging the River Loire, near Saint-Etienne, France.

About the Translator:

Anthea Bell OBE is an English translator who has translated numerous literary works, especially children’s literature, from French, German, Danish and Polish to English.

This is my  28th book for the 2013 New Authors Challenge.

Here’s What the Book Club Thought:

Overall, most of us enjoyed the writing in this YA book the most, and there was a great many symbols of French culture, particularly the power of music and symbols to a revolution.  The young lady in the group who selected the book did not like Milena as much because she was too perfect, while another member said she was more like a symbol than a character — harkening to the symbol of the revolution bit that the author seemed to be striving for.  Two or three members were saddened by events that killed off one particular character who had become a favorite, and another member pointed out how there was a lot of build up in the book about the revolution but little action.  One member wanted more of that action, and I think most agreed that the end of the book seemed rushed.  Overall, it was just an OK read for most of the group, with the youngest member planning to give it four stars.

LEVEL 2 by Lenore Appelhans

LEVEL 2 by Lenore Appelhans (aka Presenting Lenore, a blogger I’ve read for a long time and even met a few times in person) is part one of three in the Memory Chronicles.  Appelhans is creating an alternate afterlife to the one many current religions teach, but her afterlife has roots in mythology and a modern twist.  Felicia Ward’s life is cut short, but readers are kept in the dark about that aspect until the end, which really doesn’t impede the story.  Dipping in and out of her memories with her family, friends, and boyfriend, Felicia remains connected with her earth life and to the emotions she felt there.  In many ways, the chamber in which she relives and calls up these memories is her life line to the past, preventing her from examining her surroundings more fully and questioning the new reality she finds herself in.

“And now I can’t sleep.  Except, that is, when I access my memories of sleeping.  You wouldn’t believe how many times I’ve combed through the seventeen years and 364 days of my life, searching for those rate uninterrupted, nightmare-free stretches of slumber.  Because sleep is my only real break from this endless reel of memories, both mine and those I’ve rented.”  (page 1-2)

Felicia’s experiences are guarded and her memories of the traumatic events in her life are revealed slowly in this first-person point of view novel, which provides a sense of suspense that becomes a bit overwrought toward the end as the reader is anxious to learn how she died and what happened between her, Autumn, and Julian, as well as how she met Neil and what happened to him.  However, a lot of the story is focused on Level 2, its structure, and its purpose as it is revealed to her through someone she already had trust issues with on Earth, so information from him is highly suspect from the beginning, which should lead readers to expect or suspect the twists at the end of the novel.

“In moments like this I wonder whether we are bound together by true feelings of kinship or if we’ve merely clung to each other these past ten years out of obligation, fear, or lack of other prospects.  Her huge doll collection made her the ideal friend back when we first met at out post in Ecuador and at our subsequent stint back in D.C., but since we both got to Frankfurt a year ago last summer, after four years apart, I’m starting to think maybe I’ve outgrown her.  That’s what moving so often can do to you.  It makes you continually question your place in the world, and seek out those few who understand what you’re going through.”  (page 120-1)

The hives in Level 2 are reminiscent of the Matrix movies (as well as the elements of a rebellion), which makes them lack some originality, but there is a back story to its creation that was more imaginative and unfortunately is less detailed than some readers may want, though there are more books planned for this series, which could lead to additional description and better world building.  Meanwhile, Appelhans does raise some questions about the reliability of memory and whether it can be manipulated by others or by the owner of those memories to change the outcome or modify the perception of certain events.  This aspect of the story is very unique and psychological, a part of the story that should be expanded.

Felicia is a strong character at some points and weak at others.  She’s especially weak when navigating the Level 2 environs with someone she does not trust, and says more than once that she is too weak to go off on her own, even when she really isn’t as weak as when she first woke.  However, her fear of the unknown is something that propelled her on Earth and still seems to propel her in this new environment, so it is at least understandable and will hopefully be explored/overcome in future books.  Autumn is a bit one-dimensional, which makes it hard to see why Felicia is so torn about the friendship, though that could be attributed to the memories Felicia reveals to the reader.  Felicia’s relationship with Julian and Neil are both explored, though there really isn’t a love triangle.  LEVEL 2 by Lenore Appelhans is a solid debut, young adult fiction novel that hovers around bigger issues of memory and anchoring oneself with self-confidence without overtly addressing them.  It is fast-paced and suspenseful, but some readers may prefer a deeper exploration of these themes and/or a more linear story line than the dipping in and out of Felicia’s memories.

About the Author:

Lenore Appelhans’ novel, LEVEL 2, will be published by Simon & Schuster in fall 2012.  She blogs at Presenting Lenore about books and loves to travel.  She’s been to 55 countries so far, and she currently lives in Frankfurt, Germany, with her 3 fancy Sacred Birman cats and her husband.  Check out her interview during Dystopian August, a video discussion, the Reader’s Guide.

This is my 14th book for the 2013 New Authors Challenge.

Shadows by Ilsa Bick

Shadows by Ilsa J. Bick is a better book than the first in the series, Ashes (my review), (if you have not read the first book, beware of spoilers in this review) as the writing is more descriptive and less reliant on the cliffhanger factor for each chapter than it was in the first book.  An EMP blast has caused much of the human race to change, leaving the elderly to rethink their lives and focus on the best survival plan they have.  Meanwhile, the young are scared that they will change into flesh-eating monsters like so many others and struggle to keep away from bounty hunters and others who would use the Spared for their own nefarious gains.

Alex, Chris, and others are thrown into a whirlwind fight for their lives as they are separated and sent on their own journeys where they will uncover the truth and learn more about the Changed than they ever expected.  Unlike the first book where readers follow Alex’s point of view for most of the novel, Shadows is made up of more than just some of the main characters’ points of view from the first book, but several others.  At first this can be disconcerting given that the chapters move quickly are immersed in nearly constant action and are very short in some cases.  However, once the reader adjusts to the constant shifts in POV, they are swept up in the action and the chase — and in some cases, merely speeding through certain aspects of the 500+ page book to get to the story lines they really want to uncover.

Oh God, help me, please, help me.  Alex felt her mind begin to slip, as if the world was ice and begun to tilt and she was going to slide right off and fall away into forever if she didn’t hang on tight.  Her heart was trying to blast right out of her chest.  She was shaking all over, the hay hook in its belt loop bouncing against her right thigh.  The pyramid, row after row of skills, loomed at her back:  all that remained of those who’d stumbled into this filling field before her.  And of course, there was the smell — that familiar reek of roadkill and boiled sewage.”  (page 21)

Minus a prologue in the beginning, the novel takes off right where Alex was left in the last book.  And readers who were looking for more horror and death than they got in the last book will get their just desserts here, with a little nasty sex thrown in for good measure.  It’s hard to believe this is a young adult novel, and readers should beware that this is a novel for older teens, rather than younger readers.  Bick’s writing is much improved over the last novel, and it helps to garner readers’ emotions and attachments to the characters of Alex and Tom.  However, there are still so many unanswered questions from the last book that are left unanswered.  Not only that, more questions and riddles are raised and left unanswered in this novel.  Bick is treading a fine line here, and unless the final novel in the series addresses a great number of these questions and mysteries, readers could be disappointed.

Shadows by Ilsa J. Bick is an adrenaline rush that pushes readers to not only think about the heat of combat and the survival skills they would need in a post-apocalyptic world, but also about the concept of trust and family.  When is our best efforts to save those we love and help them enough and when is it time to let go and move on?  Do you trust those who are nicest to you or do you still treat them with a degree of suspicion?  For Alex and Tom, there is never enough effort, and a healthy dose of suspicion is what keeps you alive.  The horrifying aspects of this novel are likely to turn off some readers, while attract others, but there are deeper themes at work here, and it is clear that Bick is attempting to tell a story that pays homage to those soldiers racked with guilt and still living daily nightmares of war.

About the Author:

Ilsa J. Bick is an award-winning, best-selling author of short stories, e-books and novels. She has written for several long-running science fiction series, most notably Star Trek, Battletech, and Mechwarrior:Dark Age. She’s taken both Grand and Second Prize in the Strange New Worlds anthology series (1999 and 2001, respectively), while her story, “The Quality of Wetness,” took Second Prize in the prestigious Writers of the Future contest in 2000. Her first Star Trek novel, Well of Souls, was a 2003 Barnes & Noble bestseller.

What the Eclectic Bookworms Thought (BEWARE of SPOILERS):

Shadows by Ilsa Bick was the book club selection for February.  With the multiple perspectives in this book, the members expressed a hard time following all of them and/or whether all of them were necessary.  While some preferred to keep the perspectives to a manageable number, another observation was that with Alex, the main protagonist, in a different area and experiencing things outside of Rule, it would have been difficult to keep the book from only her perspective.  The gore did not bother most members, which made the second book in the series read more like horror and less like science fiction or fantasy; some were taken aback by the sexual chapter, with the youngest member of the group not reading those sections at all.

The member who nominated Shadows was angry that the book left readers hanging about the fate of some characters, but it was pointed out that cliffhangers are often the case in second books when a third book is planned.  One member really enjoys Alex as a character, while two others pointed to Tom as their favorite.  Meanwhile, the group members all speculated about where the third book would go with most of us agreeing there would be a battle between Rule and the other Amish-like society mentioned, as well as a possible three-way dual between Chris, Wolf, and Tom or at least Chris and Tom in a sort of romantic gesture to win Alex’s affections.

The group seemed split on whether the overall reason would be explained for why some kids changed into cannibals and some did not.  We’ve speculated that the brain chemistry of the changed had been closer to normal levels than those that did not change, though Lena — one of the characters pointed out as most annoying — seems to have fallen in the camp of the changed with this book.  Overall, it seemed as though at least two members liked the second book in the series more than the first, while three or four members liked it even less with a couple people giving it one star.  Two members were not interested at all in reading the third installment, while two expressed an interest in one member reading it and telling the rest of us what happens, and a few others considering the option of reading the third book.

This Totally Bites! by Ruth Ames

This Totally Bites! by Ruth Ames, part of the Poison Apple series of books from Scholastic, is for children in grades 4-6, though it would more likely appeal to girls.  Emma-Rose Paley turns 12 and her life becomes something out of a fantasy novel, and readers will have to suspend disbelief, which shouldn’t be too hard with kids who haven’t lost touch with their imaginations.  Emma likes things dark and wears black, she likes the rain, and she loves rare meat, but her friend Gabby is her polar opposite, wearing pastels, always punctual, and a vegetarian.  In typical seventh grade fashion, there is gossip, hiding from the popular crowd, and navigating peer pressures, but Em’s mother is a curator at the New York Museum of Natural History and her great-aunt is staying with them while helping out with a museum exhibit on bats.

Despite her recurring nightmare of darkness and red eyes, Em tackles her homework and navigates the preteen world with a sense of self unlike most 12-year-old girls.  She’s got her small network of friends, but really only one strong girlfriend, Gabby, while her other two friends tend to waver at the first sign of peer pressure.  In many ways, this dynamic group resembles the truth of school-age kids.  Ames has created a believable world, and even the supernatural elements are believable as the girls research the truth of the matter.  It’s great to see Em come out of her shell, voice her opinion, and become a peer that others can look up to, even when she’s hoping to fade into the background.

There are school girl crushes, bickering, and boy gossip, but what makes Ames’ story memorable is the character of Em, who demonstrates a mature ability to think logically about her situation and at the same time remain vulnerable and stubborn when it comes to arguing her point with her friends.  This Totally Bites! by Ruth Ames is a fun story that younger girls will enjoy and learn about how to be themselves in a world that thrives on peer pressure and fitting in.

About the Author:

Ruth Ames is the author of This Totally Bites, one of the inaugural spine-tingling Poison Apple books. She has written several best-selling young adult novels under another name. Ruth loved reading spooky stories as a child. She now lives in Manhattan.

This is my 5th book for the 2013 New Authors Challenge.

Ripper by Stefan Petrucha

Ripper by Stefan Petrucha is not the gory thriller that many readers may expect, and rightly so, given that it is a young adult, historical fiction novel with a young main protagonist.  Carver Young is an orphan in New York City in the late 1800s, who is thrust into the care of an older Albert Hawking, a former Allan Pinkerton detective.  Carver is dragged into a fantastical world of secret agencies and cloak-and-dagger moments, all while the police are investigating some very real and grisly murders.  He’s joined by some rather eccentric characters, from his adoptive father, Hawking, and his home in the asylum, to Septimus Tudd, the current leader of the secret detective agency.

“Surrounded by unsettling sounds, Carver Young struggled to keep his hands still.  He had to focus.  Had to.  He could do this.  He wasn’t some infant, afraid of the dark.  If anything, he loved the dark.  But the cracks in the attic let the wind run wild.  Old papers fluttered like hesitant birds.  Musty clothes rustled as if touched by spirits.  And then the cleaver, wedged in the ceiling right above him, wobbled.”  (page 6)

Carver is a young man on the cusp of adulthood who has had little, if any, mild guidance in his life given his years at Ellis Orphanage.  When Hawking adopts him, he’s given the chance of a lifetime, to uncover the truth about his parents and to become a detective, with the help of some expert tutelage.  Petrucha’s prose and short chapters are built for mystery novels and suspense, but in some cases, the suspense build-up gets to be too much as it drags on a bit long with the “big reveal.”  Even younger readers could see the reveal coming a mile away in this one.  However, the real crux of the novel is not the reveal, so much as the journey Carver takes from childhood to adulthood and from inexperienced boy to amateur detective.

With help from his former orphanage friends and school crush Delia, Carver is able to overcome his fears and uncover the mysteries surrounding recent murders in New York City.  Petrucha does well to stick close to the true and well-known attributes of Teddy Roosevelt, who was once a police commissioner in the city, and the relatively well-known attributes of his eldest daughter, Alice.  There is intrigue, corruption, and a Hardy Boys-feel to this novel, with additional historical tidbits and extraordinary gadgets to provide a steam-punk atmosphere.

Ripper by Stefan Petrucha is a fast-paced, entertaining coming-of-age story with a detective story as a backdrop of sorts.  It’s about what it means to be a father, and how family can sometimes be a little less than ideal, and even disappointing.  However, it also about the inner perseverance one needs to overcome “the abyss” and still know what is right and true.

photo by Sarah Kinney

About the Author:

Born in the Bronx, Stefan Petrucha spent his formative years moving between the big city and the suburbs, both of which made him prefer escapism.

A fan of comic books, science fiction and horror since learning to read, in high school and college he added a love for all sorts of literary work, eventually learning that the very best fiction always brings you back to reality, so, really, there’s no way out.

An obsessive compulsion to create his own stories began at age ten and has since taken many forms, including novels, comics and video productions. At times, the need to pay the bills made him a tech writer, an educational writer, a public relations writer and an editor for trade journals, but fiction, in all its forms, has always been his passion. Every year he’s made a living at that, he counts a lucky one. Fortunately, there’ve been many.

This is my 86th book for the New Authors Reading Challenge in 2012.


What the Book Club Thought:

Most of the book club enjoyed Ripper for what it was, though two members would like to have seem more of the gross and grisly murders than were shown in the novel.  There is one moment in which Carver nearly vomits upon seeing a dead body, but there are not a lot of details revealed to the reader about the scene.  The big reveal didn’t seem to be much of a surprise to anyone in the book club, though one member expressed that he would have preferred if there had been two killers instead of one.

Some members were glad that the book didn’t delve too much into the gadgets of the underground detective agency, while one member likened the team of three kids (Carver, Delia, and Finn) to Harry Potter and his friends.  The shift from killing prostitutes in England to socialites in New York was something that the group thought had to do with the target audience of young adults.  However, our youngest member says that she’s read more gory books than this one.  One member also indicated that they noticed about 1/3 of the psychology of the Ripper was examined in this book, and could signal sequels to come.  Some suspect there could be two other books after this one, which is why the ending was so open-ended.

Overall, this was a good read for most of the group, though some indicated about 75 pages or so could have been edited out to make it shorter than 400+ pages.

The Realm of the Lost by Emma Eden Ramos

The Realm of the Lost by Emma Eden Ramos is a middle-grade fantasy novel about a 13-year-old girl, named Kat Gallagher, who is feisty and responsible.  She’s got younger siblings, Ellie and Colm, and a home life that is not what it once was, but she takes it on her own shoulders to care for her little brother whose sick a lot of the time.  Her and Ellie, on the other hand, act as sisters should, especially sisters who share a room.  They bicker over space, and one day on the way to school, all of the tension boils over on the streets of New York City.

An accident changes everything for Kat, and she finds herself in a place that is disconcerting to say the least.  Here, she meets Rosario and Mikey, her brother and sister in the realm, and she must contend with Miss A, her realm mother.  Between the Tallyman, the mysterious forests, and the creepy dark mists that come out at night with Apate, Kat must navigate a strange and frightening world.  What makes this world believable is Ramos’ ability to ground her characters in a place and time, despite their strange surroundings.

“Before she died, Grandma Rose gave me a sterling silver necklace bearing the Celtic triskele.  ‘This,’ she explained, pointing to each swirl that extended from the symbol’s triangular middle, ‘will bring you knowledge, power, and, someday, a safe passage.'” (from ebook, location 27)

Grandma Rose is like Kat, a feisty Irish woman who immigrated to the United States, and she is reminiscent of the grandmothers who tell tall tales from the past and generally dote on their grandchildren.  Unfortunately, we don’t see much of this relationship, but a glimpse is enough to get the gist that she’s an important part of Kat’s upbringing.  The relationship between Ellie and Kat is clear, though the relationship with their mother is a little less developed.  However, Ramos offers the right balance of plot and description to see where Kat is and when, allowing the suspense and tension to build to the twist.

The four realms and what they signify are interesting, and could bring additional inspiration for a series of novellas, if Ramos is so inclined — the possibilities are endless.  But what is truly engaging is the parallels between The Realm of the Lost and Kat’s real life, only in the lost realm, Kat is forced to take on the role of younger sibling.  The Realm of the Lost by Emma Eden Ramos is an adventure that teachers Kat that there are more important things than just whether you have your own room.

***I wanted this to be longer!***

About the Author:

Emma Eden Ramos is a writer and student from New York City. Her short stories have appeared in Stories for Children Magazine, The Storyteller Tymes, BlazeVOX Journal, and others. Emma’s novelette, Where the Children Play, is included in Resilience: Stories, Poems, Essays, Words for LGBT Teens, edited by Eric Nguyen. Three Women: A Poetic Triptych and Selected Poems (Heavy Hands Ink, 2011), Ramos’ first poetry chapbook, was shortlisted for the 2011 Independent Literary Award in Poetry. Emma studies psychology at Marymount Manhattan College.  Please visit her Website.

This is my 5th book for the 2012 Ireland Reading Challenge.

Ashes by Ilsa J. Bick

Ashes by Ilsa J. Bick is part one in a trilogy of dystopian young adult books in which an EMP (electromagnetic pulse) wipes out all electronics, including pacemakers and other devices inside people’s bodies.  Alex is a 17-year-old girl with a brain tumor, who also has lost her parents in a horrific accident and has undergone numerous traditional radiation and experimental treatments.  She decides to leave her Aunt Hannah’s house near Northwestern University and head to the Waucamaw Wilderness of Michigan to determine what to do next — whether to go on fighting the tumor or move on.

While in the woods, she meets Ellie, her grandfather, and their dog Mina.  The 8-year-old Ellie is sarcastic and bit angry since her father’s passing in Iraq, but when the EMP hits, the only one left to rely on is a stranger and her dog, a dog that reminds her of all she’s lost.  Granted, she has a right to be angry and sad, but she whines just a bit too much and readers may find that they would be glad if Alex were to ditch her in the woods alone.

“The buzz on the plane faded and the quiet descended again like a bell jar over the forest.”  (Page 13)

Bick’s writing is suspenseful and clear, but the end of each chapter reads like a cliffhanger.  After 30 chapters, readers will be singing the equivalent of DUN DUN DUN.  Not every chapter ending needs to be this dramatic especially when there are no major plot twists revealed.  In addition to the EMP and the dramatic chapter endings, Bick introduces the Changed (aka the zombies/cannibals), those who survived the EMP, but turned primal and become cannibals.  This being a trilogy, there was no explanation of what changed these people into cannibals, nor why some kids, like Alex, Ellie, and Tom, do not change.

“She didn’t know if the tightness in her throat or the fullness in her heart meant that he was there; that they were connected somehow.  Maybe all that she saw and felt was the sensual fullness of memory:  that which abided and was nothing but the ghost of a touch, the whisper of a word, the lingering of a scent.”  (Page 374)

Ashes by Ilsa J. Bick is an action packed novel that reads like horror with all the graphic details about the killings and eating, but what it lacks is a cohesive story.  In one half of the book, Alex seems like a strong young lady interested in taking charge, but in the latter half of the book, she becomes mush.  Once in Rule, she no longer physically tries to fight or escape her captors once they’ve set her up in a house and she begins work in the hospice, and of course, meets a kind boy her own age.  The novel becomes less about the EMP and the zombies than it is about the cult-like settlement of Rule in which surviving women are passed off like chattle and are only good for propagating the species.  In many ways, it is like the author could not decide what story to tell, and whether the character was to be strong and a main catalyst or merely a weak pawn in a larger chess board.  At more than 400 pages, readers may find that editing could have compacted the story more and maybe the plot could have been tied up a little better, with fewer loose ends — even for a trilogy this has too many.  However, if you are looking for something entertaining and fast-paced, this is for you.

About the Author:

Ilsa J. Bick is an award-winning, best-selling author of short stories, e-books and novels. She has written for several long-running science fiction series, most notably Star Trek, Battletech, and Mechwarrior:Dark Age. She’s taken both Grand and Second Prize in the Strange New Worlds anthology series (1999 and 2001, respectively), while her story, “The Quality of Wetness,” took Second Prize in the prestigious Writers of the Future contest in 2000. Her first Star Trek novel, Well of Souls, was a 2003 Barnes & Noble bestseller.


This is my 62nd book for the New Authors Reading Challenge 2012.


Book Club Thoughts (Beware of Spoilers):

This selection was from one of the male members in the group who reads a great deal of young adult dystopian fiction.

Most members enjoyed the book for what it was, a fast-paced thrilling dystopian novel, but two of us disliked it because the zombies were implausible and the main character was too weak by the end.  One member said that the portion of the book in Rule was “bungled.”  While I felt that Chris in Rule was a cardboard cutout of a “good guy,” one other member liked him more than Tom, the earlier love interest for Alex.  The youngest member of the group hopes that Tom is still alive in book two, Shadows, because as of now, his fate is unknown.

Most of us agreed that should the world end as we know it that a marshal law would be necessary to keep people civil to one another and that controlling information — even about super senses — is an essential part of that.  However, I disagreed that Alex would have become as complacent as she did and merely though about squirreling away supplies; I wanted more from her — maybe more recon or attempting to find out how the town of Rule operated and why.  The information that she does glean is told to her by some rather chatty members of the town, and she learns the information with little effort on her part or very little help from her super smell.

In the final cliffhanger of the book, Alex learns that the town of Rule has been feeding the teen cannibals, but she doesn’t know why.  One of our female members suggested that maybe the teen cannibals were once some of the town’s own children that became the Changed and the members could not bring themselves to kill their own kids.  Another member said that feeding the enemy is incredibly stupid and that the town should be cutting off the food supply; at this point the town is merely aiding in their own doom.  There also are quite a few loose ends in the book that some of us noticed, and it would have been nice if some of them were tied up by the end of book one so that new mysteries could be revealed and unraveled in book two.

Five of us, which is a majority, said they would read the second book to find out what happens, but three of us were not interested in reading book two at all for a variety of reasons.  However, looks as though we’ll all be reading Shadows as it was selected from the nominations by the member who selected Ashes.

Small Damages by Beth Kephart

There are books that pump your adrenaline for you and there are books, like Small Damages by Beth Kephart, that seep deep into your being, settle there, making their mark on your emotions, your perceptions about other cultures, and your own world view.  Kephart has a skill unlike other young adult authors in that she never sees her younger readers as incapable of understanding or of deep emotion.  She trusts them to follow her characters in their unusual circumstances and settings and garner a deeper understanding of what it means to mature from a child into an adult and the responsibilities that weigh on them even now when they are so young in this modern world.

Kenzie Spitzer is an 18-year-old pregnant girl who struggles with the loss of her father and the silence of her mother every day, and she keeps secrets from her friends, her family, and herself.  Kevin Sullivan, the boyfriend, is on his way to Yale in the fall, and she had planned to attend Newhouse film school after a summer on the New Jersey shore in a rented house with her boyfriend and friends.  To say the least, her life is turned upside down by the pregnancy news, but what’s worse is the decision to have the child and give it up for adoption is taken out of her hands when her mother makes arrangements for her to go to Los Nietos (the granchildren) ranch in Spain where she will be cared for by her mother’s friends Miguel and Estela until the baby is born.

“We scatter the herd, break the bulls out of the shade until they are near, running beside us — fast in a straight line, awkward on the turns, annoyed.” (Page 14 ARC)

Like the scattering of the bulls when she arrives, Kenzie’s life has been derailed and those of her friends and of Kevin are moving parallel to her and from her point of view cased in blissful ignorance as her life is the only one changed.  She even ruminates on how even though a child conceived is the doing of man and woman, it is the woman’s life that is changes irrevocably.  Kenzie’s thoughts are very similar to teenage girls, vacillating between the past and what the future could have been — analyzing each moment over and over.  Unlike other novels on this topic, Kephart’s kind hand guides the narration without judgment allowing the character to reveal her own maternal love for the child and her confusion without the harsh lens of blame and resentment.

“I stay where I am, halfway in, halfway out, the moon and the stars bright behind me.”  (Page 172 ARC)

Forced into a decision that is not her own — but is in a roundabout way a compromise with her mother — Kenzie is left adrift in a foreign land with people she doesn’t know or understand, wondering through silences and asking endless questions that are unanswered more often than not.  She meets Esteban with whom a connection is born as they share a tragic parental past, even though for a long while all Kenzie wants is to be someone else, somewhere else.  Like the birds in Seville and at Los Nietos, they are there guiding Kenzie, showing her the color as Kevin had done when her father died.  She is alive, and they remind her.  There is one passage in the novel in which Esteban talks of how one particular bird always comes, but that he brings the others with him — reminiscent of The Conference of the Birds (my review) and the faith they need to find what they seek.

“‘Only to the earth do I tell my troubles,’ Arcadio sings softly, ‘for nowhere in the world do I find anyone to trust.’

‘If my heart had windowpanes of glass,’ Bruno sings the next line, ‘you’d look inside and see it crying drops of blood.’

‘These Gypsies, they are the famous,’ Miguel says.  ‘They are starting very young; they played for Lorca.  They had duende. Have duende. ?'”  (Page 165-6 ARC)

Small Damages by Beth Kephart is about the courage we must find within ourselves to face the past, our tragedies and losses, and our fears about the future.  Kenzie is a young woman on the verge of her new life when it is turned upside down, and while the decision to go to Spain is not her own, she finds the courage to make her own decisions for herself, her baby, and her future.  Through the chords and melodies of gypsy music, Kenzie must peel the tough, bumpy rubber skin of the orange in her journey through Spain to reveal the prized juice and supple pulp beneath the skin.  While damages may seem large and insurmountable when they are first scored through our hearts and skin, they heal and become the small scars that make us who we are and how we learn to be better than we were.

About the Author:

Beth Kephart is the author of 14 books, including the National Book Award finalist A Slant of Sun; the Book Sense pick Ghosts in the Garden; the autobiography of Philadelphia’s Schuylkill River, Flow; the acclaimed business fable Zenobia; and the critically acclaimed novels for young adults, Undercover and House of Dance. A third YA novel, Nothing but Ghosts, is due out in June 2009. And a fourth young adult novel, The Heart Is Not a Size, will be released in March 2010. “The Longest Distance,” a short story, appears in the May 2009 HarperTeen anthology, No Such Thing as the Real World.

Kephart is a winner of the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts fiction grant, a National Endowment for the Arts grant, a Leeway grant, a Pew Fellowships in the Arts grant, and the Speakeasy Poetry Prize, among other honors. Kephart’s essays are frequently anthologized, she has judged numerous competitions, and she has taught workshops at many institutions, to all ages. Kephart teaches the advanced nonfiction workshop at the University of Pennsylvania. You can visit her blog and my interview with her.

My other Beth Kephart reviews:

Have you seen this book trailer?

Wonderstruck by Brian Selznick

Wonderstruck by Brian Selznick is a quick read even at 600+ pages, and is a middle grade novel that pairs words and images to tell a heartfelt story of family, discovery, and understanding.  Ben, who has one good ear, has lost his mother in a car accident in 1977 Minnesota and is thrust into his aunt’s home with his cousin Robby, who isn’t too keen on sharing his room.  Ben by all accounts is a curious and shy boy, whom his mother showered with love and attention, encouraging him to scavenge for mementos along the way, which he kept in his museum box.  The loss of his mother weighs heavily on him, and upon discovering his other cousin, Janet, in his mother’s room, he decides to remain behind and feel closer to her.

Meanwhile, Rose’s story is told in drawings set in New Jersey and New York City.  The narration shifts from the present (1977) and Ben’s story to Rose’s story in 1927.  Their stories parallel one another at various points after Ben makes the fateful decision to run away to find the father he has never known.  Wolves, nature, and the Big Apple loom large in both stories as Ben and Rose make their way into the unknown.

Selznick’s prose has an easy flow between the illustrations and the text, and given that both stories are told in separate mediums, it is easy for younger readers to keep them straight. Most readers will note the parallels in the two stories and likely will uncover the final destination long before the last page is turned. The illustrations are detailed in some cases, but there are moments where the illustrations seem to be just filler pages to increase the suspense associated with Ben’s story of self-discovery. Rose’s story could have been told in fewer pages and more sparsely spaced throughout the book and the connections would still have been present.

“The curator then must decide exactly how the objects will be displayed.  In a way, anyone who collects things in the privacy of his own home is a curator.  Simply choosing how to display your things, deciding what pictures to hang where, and in which order your books belong, places you in the same category as a museum curator.” (page 98-9)

Additionally, readers may find that they wanted more about the teasing Ben endures as a boy with only one good ear and who does not know sign language, as well as more about Rose’s story as a young deaf girl in the late 1920s who is sheltered a little too much by her parents.  However, Selznick doesn’t always need a pencil to paint a picture of readers, especially when he can do it so well with words.

“Jamie came and sat next to him as the sky filled with shooting stars.  The projector rotated, the view changed, and the boys found themselves inside a meteor, hurtling across the sky.  They flew to the moon and bounced between craters.  One by one, the planets drifted into view, and soon they were out beyond the solar system, gazing down on the universe like ancient gods.  Ben thought of the glow-in-the-dark stars in his room, and the Big Dipper, and the quote about the stars, and his mom.  The glowing lights above him spun and swirled, tracing endless patterns against the perfect dome of the ceiling like a million electric fireflies making constellations in the dark.”  (page 406)

Wonderstruck by Brian Selznick definitely will appeal to younger readers and illustrators, but it should not be discounted as a fluffy YA novel.  There is a deeper message about finding one’s place outside your own family, about discovering new places and wonders, and about finding the courage to take chances.

What the Book Club Thought (beware of spoilers):

Wonderstruck was the selection of our youngest member, The Girl from Diary of an Eccentric. She prepared discussion questions ahead of time to see what everyone thought of the entire book, the way the two stories were told, and whether anything surprised us. We also discussed what each of us would put in our own museum boxes, and answers ranged from coin collections and shells to Red Sox and Patriots stuff to pictures, stuffed animals, and other sentimental items.

We had an interesting discussion about the “Captain Obvious” nature of some of the prose (The Girl’s words, not ours), and about whether who Rose was or how the stories came together surprised any of us. Most of us were not surprised to find out who Rose was, but I was surprised to learn who Walter was. Many of us agreed that Rose’s ability to cut up a book for the deaf and create a paper replica of NYC was fantastic, and I particularly liked how one of the buildings she made had the picture of the mouth on it from the book. One of the male members liked elements of the story individually, but not how they came together as a whole. Overall, it seemed like most of us enjoyed the book, though two members were absent from the discussion this time around.

Next month is my selection, When She Woke by Hillary Jordan, and one of our members has already finished it and is itching for discussion.

About the Author:

Brian Selznick is the illustrator of “Frindle” by Andrew Clements, “Riding Freedom” and “Amelia and Eleanor Go For A Ride,” both by Pam Munoz Ryan; as well as his own book “The Houdini Box,” winner of the 1993 Texas Bluebonnet Award. Mr. Selznick lives in Brooklyn, New York.


This is my 47th book for the New Authors Reading Challenge 2012.

The Time It Snowed in Puerto Rico by Sarah McCoy

The Time It Snowed in Puerto Rico by Sarah McCoy is a coming of age novel about a young girl, Maria — also known as Verdita — in Puerto Rico during the debate about whether or not the nation should become a member of the United States or remain independent.  Part of Maria Ortiz-Santiago’s family lives in the United States and part lives on the island in a little barrio, and readers get a taste of the differences between the two lives when Omar, her cousin, comes back to visit.  As the two grow older and grow apart, Verdita continues to ramp up her competitive spirit when he’s near to retain her hold on her father.  She’s always had a fear that a boy would usurp her father’s affections, especially after her mother becomes pregnant.

“For my eleventh birthday, Papi made piraguas.  He left balloons of water in the freezer until they were solid, then peeled the plastic off like bright banana skins.  On the veranda, he used his machete to shave the globes into ice chips.  Hard bits of cold spit out where the ball and blade met, landing on my arms and legs, cheeks and nose.  Papi said it was a Puerto Rican snowfall, and laughed long and deep.”  (page 1)

Verdita is a willful girl and very curious about everything around her, including the independence debate, the cock fights at the local bar, and the United States.  Readers will find that she’s obsessed with the United States and how different it is from her home in the barrio.  She wants to be blond, listen to Elvis, and learn English.  She wants to remain close with her father, but push her mother away.  All this mixed up emotion and desire in one girl is so vibrant on the page, female readers especially will remember what it was like to become a senorita and leave girlhood behind and all of the mixed and high emotions that brought with it.

“I ate until my stomach pushed into the table ledge.  I didn’t even really like the hamburger, but I liked that it came from America — that I was eating like an American.  It made me feel bigger than my finca on the mountain, bigger than the whole island.  I’d seen the States, even if I hadn’t seen President Kennedy.  My stomach was full of America.”  (page 59)

Even as she sees the goodness in her roots and her family, she still longs for the foreignness of the United States.  She becomes accustom to sharing her life with a sibling, but still longs to break break free.  She’s struggling between the desire to grow beyond her roots, deeply earthed in Puerto Rico, but barely realizing that she can grow taller and broader by taking the leap without having to sever her ties to home.

McCoy’s choice of first person point of view is spot on for a coming of age story, and while filtered through Verdita’s eyes rather than the other characters, readers will not feel as though they have missed anything.  She’s observant, opinionated, curious, and eager to explore.  The Time It Snowed in Puerto Rico is not only about growing up, but about taking chances and spreading wings to find out who we are, who we want to be, and how we can make the best of everything we are given in terms of familial support and available opportunities.

This was a book I just had to pick up at the Gaithersburg Book Festival when Sarah McCoy was in town.  She’s a lovely writer and woman, and it was great to see her again and get another autograph.  I cannot wait to read her next novel.

About the Author:

SARAH McCOY is author of the novel, The Time It Snowed in Puerto Rico. She has taught English writing at Old Dominion University and at the University of Texas at El Paso. The daughter of an Army officer, her family was stationed in Germany during her childhood. She calls Virginia home but presently lives with her husband and dog, Gilbert, in El Paso, Texas. The Baker’s Daughter is her second novel. She is currently working on her next.