Tuesday, January 18, 2011


By Cherie Priest
Ages 16-Adult

The year is 1878, and the place is just on the outskirts of Seattle, Washington, but it’s a Seattle like you’ve never seen before.

In 1850, rumors of plentiful gold in the Klondike brought determined men and women to the frozen land, determined to cut through the treacherous ice and make their fortunes. In 1860, Russia announced a contest: The inventor who could produce or propose the mining machine that would get to the gold the fastest would win 100,000 rubles. Many came with their machines, but none were hardy enough to break through the ice, and Russia was on the verge of handing Alaska to America for a measly sum. Then, Seattle inventor Leviticus Blue came to them with a proposal for the most amazing mining machine ever created: It had precision and strength that would ensure an easy path straight to the gold. After receiving funding for his project, Blue returned home to begin construction. On January 2, 1863, Dr. Blue took the Boneshaker for a test drive, and Seattle would never be the same. The path of the drill took it under the streets of Seattle, tearing up the city and wreaking havoc on the world above. But it was after the dust had settled and the injured were tended that the most catastrophic affect of the drill became known: It released a poisonous gas called the Blight, which turned anyone who breathed it into walking dead. The city was evacuated and an enormous wall was erected around it, walling in the dead and the poisonous gas that still seeped from the ground.

15 years later, the remnants of those forced to evacuate live on the outskirts of the city where thy try to eke out a living in the poisonous climate. Dr. Blue’s widow and son are amongst those scraping by in the town, and it is not a peaceful or pleasant life for them. Everyone is still bitter about Dr. Blue’s destructive actions, and they take it out on Briar and Ezekiel Blue. Determined to prove that his father wasn’t the villain he’s been made out to be—that the destruction caused by the Boneshaker was accidental—15-year-old Ezekiel, or Zeke, decides to venture through a tunnel into the ruined city to find proof of his father’s innocence. When an earthquake collapses the tunnel, and seals off Zeke’s escape from the city, his mother, Briar must find a way to breach the walls to rescue her son.

Full of zombie mayhem and steampunk goodies such as airships, steam-powered inventions, and an alternate American history, this ghoulish adventure is a macabre pleasure from beginning to end.

Hot topics: Zombie violence, human violence, bad language, drug use mentioned.

Areas for discussion: American history, inventions, consequences of drug use.

Here are some discussion questions to get you started: (Warning: Some spoilers.)

    1. We learn that there are people living within the walls of the ruined city. Once you see what the city is like, can you imagine them wanting to be there? They have options of escape: Tunnels, airships. Why do you think they chose to stay? What shared characteristics do you see amongst those who live within the walls of the city?

    2. Despite the evil that lives within the city walls, and despite the unkindness of those who live in the Outskirts, Briar and Zeke encounter many who want to help them. Is this just because of Maynard’s legacy? Does this say something about the people who live within the walls of the city?

    3. In the end of the book when we learn the truth about what happened to Leviticus Blue, what is your response? Do you feel differently about Briar?

    4. At the end, Ezekiel and Briar are debating what they should do and where they should go. What do you think they chose? What would you have chosen?

If you liked this book you might like: Pride and Prejudice and Zombies by Jane Austen and Seth Grahame-Smith, Leviathan by Scott Westerfeld, The Book Thief by Marcus Zusak, Sabriel by Garth Nix.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Candle Man: The Society of Unrelenting Vigilance

By Glen Dakin
Ages 10-13

Theo has met exactly three people in his short teenage life: Dr. Saint, his guardian; Mr. Nicely, his butler; and Clarice, his deaf-mute maid. Theo is made to study Good Manners and children’s fairytales, and is not allowed to learn about the real world—for those things “would only excite and confuse [Theo’s] mind” (Pg. 16). Theo has been told by his guardian that he has a “special condition” and his isolation is important for his well being and the safety of others—an apparently necessary, but uninteresting life.

One night a pair of burglars breaks into the house. They snatch Theo from his room and demand that he lead them to any valuables. Theo is not wearing the protective gloves his guardians require: When Theo grabs one of his attackers in self-defense, the man melts into a puddle of goo.

From this moment forward, Theo is launched into an adventure beyond what he could have ever imagined. His world rapidly expands: garghouls, and smoglodytes, ghosts and a villain who collects extinct animals, an evil society inappropriately named “The Society of Good Works”, and a scrappy young girl with an enormous measure of overconfidence. And when Theo learns what Dr. Saint has planned for the city of London, he must make a choice about what role he is to play in this new life: Victim, pawn, or hero?

With breathtaking suspense and fast-paced action, this steampunk tale is a page-turner from beginning to end. Because of Theo’s miserable circumstances, the darkness of the action, and the irony of the mock kindness of the villains, this book is a perfect follow-up for fans of A Series of Unfortunate Events who are ready for the next step in fiction. Theo’s journey from isolated, frightened, well-mannered boy to brave hero willing to die for his friends is a compelling story that will leave readers ready for the next book in the Candle Man series.

Caveats: Gruesome violence, some frightening elements.

Some topics for discussion: Extinct animals, what makes a person a villain, how to make good choices, how to be brave, good vs. evil.

Some questions to get you started:

    1. The members of The Society of Good Works have names such as Saint, Nicely, Dove, and Patience. Why do you think they’ve chosen this name for their society and these specific monikers? Is it out of an attempt to deceive? Or do you think they believe they are doing good?

    2. As with The Society of Good works, many things in this book are not as they seem. How is the Dodo a surprising character? What do you think of the request the Dodo makes of Theo in the end? Is he a villain or a hero? Also, there are several opinions about the nature of Theo’s ancestor. If the Candle Man is responsible for the Eighty-eight, does that make him a villain or a hero?

    3. Is there anything symbolic about the zoo of endangered animals that the Dodo keeps? What do they represent for the society? For the Dodo himself?

    4. Theo makes a transformation in a short amount of time from a boy who is sheltered and isolated to a boy who is over stimulated and longs from the simplicity of home, to a boy who is up for an adventure but insists on literalism and truth-telling, to a brave hero willing to step out on his own. Is this a realistic transformation? Why or why not?

If you liked this book you might enjoy: The Black Book of Secrets by F.E. Higgins, Scepter of the Ancients by Derek Landy, Hunchback Assignments by Arthur Slade, A Series of Unfortunate Events by Lemony Snicket, The Mysterious Benedict Society by Trenton Lee Stewart, Heroes of the Valley by Jonathan Stroud.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Fat Vampire

By Adam Rex
Ages 16-up

Forget everything you think you know about vampires. Forget handsome, brooding, pale young men who sparkle in the sunlight. Forget pale guys with widow’s peaks and foreign accents. Forget emaciated, alien-like creatures with bloated bellies from drinking the blood of dying men.

Instead, picture an overweight, sweaty, horny, fifteen-year-old comic book fanatic who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time while on vacation in the Poconos.

Since being bitten, Doug Lee has been struggling to figure out how to survive as a vampire. The thought of attacking helpless young women and drinking their blood is unappealing to him, so he makes do with drinking cows’ blood while searching for a goth chick who may be into the whole vampire vibe. His best friend, Jay, is in on the secret and between the two of them they begin to search for a solution to Douglas’ sustenance problem.

Enter Sejal, a beautiful Indian foreign exchange student with a secret of her own. Doug becomes obsessed with her and determines to make her his girlfriend, or his lunch…

Meanwhile, he’s trying to fly under the radar because he got caught on camera at the zoo trying to suck the blood of a panda, and now the basic cable show Vampire Hunters is trying to hunt him down to boost ratings and keep their failing program on the air.

Doug is an honestly written character who experiences the struggles of a typical teenager: low self-esteem and lack of success with the opposite sex. But while Doug is a typical teenager, he is a typical teenager who is stuck in time—he will never grow older, will never mature, and that makes it difficult to appreciate his sometimes homophobic, self-centered nature. The way he treats his friends is appalling, especially as he begins to come into his own as a vampire. However, Doug’s attempts to figure out how to survive as a teenage vampire makes for a compelling story. Told with macabre humor, this book gleefully pokes fun at the currently popular vampire genre.

Caveats: Bad language (including multiple f-bombs), Doug is a homophobic character and uses some bigoted slurs, references to sex, the teens end up at the raunchy Rocky Horror Picture Show.

Possible discussion topics: Relationships, friendships, Internet addiction, and portrayals of vampires in fiction.

Here are some discussion questions to get you started:

    1. A character makes the statement: “I think sometimes you think you’re the hero of the story, and sometimes you think you’re the victim. But you’re not either.” (Pg. 2.) What do you think is meant by this? Do you think Doug is the hero or the victim? Or is he something else? What does it mean that this particular character said this?

    2. Considering the current popularity of vampires in fiction, this is a unique portrayal of a teenage vampire. What do you think of this book’s depiction of vampires? Do you like it? Or would you rather have a “traditional” type of vampire?

    3. Sejal tells people that she has “The Google.” Do you buy this as a genuine affliction? Why or why not? When does time spent on the Internet become dangerous?

    4. While there are aspects of Doug’s character that are appealing, he is frequently an unlikable character. He treats Jay poorly. Once he gets a girlfriend he treats her poorly. Is there anything positive you can see about him? Did you like him or not? Is he redeemed in the end?

    5. Sejal thinks at one point, that Doug might be her reflection: “There was something familiar about his eyes, his look of distraction. He was lost, maybe missing something, like she was. Perhaps he’d left his heart someplace, too.” (Pg 111.) Is Doug her emotional counterpart? How is his vampirism akin to the form of her Internet addiction?

    6.What do you think happened to Doug at the end of the book? What should have happened to him? Is this a good ending?

If you liked this book you might enjoy: The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie, Thirsty by M. T. Anderson, Going Bovine by Libba Bray, Ananzi Boys by Neil Gaiman, Sweetblood by Pete Hautman and Brooke Williams

Friday, February 19, 2010

Going Bovine

By Libba Bray
Ages 15 up

Mad cow disease sucks—just ask sixteen-year-old Cameron.

Memory loss—check
Personality changes—check.
Involuntarily jerky movements (not to be confused with being a jerk, which Cameron can be)—check.

He’s got all the symptoms, and only a limited time left to live. But the worst part of the disease is that it basically will turn his brain into a sponge, robbing him of the dignity to be himself in his final days. Understandably, Cameron is bitter. He is not popular—doesn’t really fit in anywhere in fact. His relationship with his family has been deteriorating for the past ten or so years, and he’s never had sex. So, yeah, he’s ticked off.

But then hope comes from an unexpected source: A pink-hared punk angel named Dulcie shows up in his hospital room and sends him on a quest to save the world, and hopefully along the way he can save his own life. There are two catches. 1. He has to bring along his hospital roommate: Gonzo, a paranoid, hypochondriac, gaming dwarf. 2. They only have a limited amount of time to save the world before Cameron’s health deteriorates to the point he can no longer function.

This is the trippiest road-trip book since Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.

Cameron, a modern-day Don Quixote, heads for the road in a beat-up caddy called Rocinante, tilting at his own windmills: The Fire Giants. But whom is he really fighting, and what is he fighting for? This book will leave the reader with tons of questions. What determines who lives and who dies? And what is reality anyway?

Full of nods to American pop-culture (snow globes, a garden gnome who may or may not be a Viking god, video games, the coyote and the roadrunner, reality TV, etc.), this book will leave the reader alternately smiling, laughing, crying, nodding in agreement, and scratching her head. This is a tough book to categorize, but for the reader who wants to ponder some of the questions of the universe, it is an amazing journey.

Caveats: Premarital sex, bad language, drug and alcohol use, crude humor, criticism of blind/fake faith.

Possible discussion topics: The nature of truth, the nature of reality, life after death, reality TV, the nature of happiness, Don Quixote.

Here are some questions to get you started:

    1. There’s some question about whether or not this road trip is real. Does it matter to you one way or another. What does it mean if all of it is just a hallucination? Is Gonzo just a figment of his imagination? Is Dulcie? What difference would that make to you? Cameron experiences some major moments of redemption on his road trip. If this is all a hallucination, is this real redemption? Or it is just wishful thinking.

    2. Music plays an important part of Cameron’s journey. (Initially mocking the Great Tremelo. going to see Junior Webster, The Copenhagen Interpretation’s connection to saving the world). What do you think Bray is trying to say about the importance of music?

    3. Lots of images and ideas are replayed through Cameron’s life prior to diagnosis and during his road trip. (Snow globes, garden gnomes, Don Quixote.) What does each of these mean—both to Cameron and symbolically.

    4. Schrödinger’s cat is mentioned in the very beginning, before Cameron’s diagnosis. What does this reference have to do with Cameron’s experience on the road.

    5. Cameron says at one point, “There is no meaning but what we assign. We create our own reality.” Do you agree with that? Is there truth beyond what we assign? Why or why not?

    6. There are many allusions to Don Quixote within Libba Bray’s novel, and many similar themes (love, sanity vs. insanity, a tall, thin hero and a world-weary short sidekick, the flawed heroine, the decrepit steed, a satire of truth). There has been debate about what Don Quixote is: Is it a comic novel? A satire? A social commentary? A heroic novel? Bray’s novel is similarly difficult to categorize. How would you define Going Bovine? If you are familiar with Don Quixote, what other connections do you see?

If you liked this book you might enjoy: Deadline by Chris Crutcher, Jellicoe Road by Melina Marchetta, The White Darkness by Geraldine McCaughrean, The Adoration of Jenna Fox by Mary Pearson

Monday, January 25, 2010


By Amy Efaw
Ages 14 up

It is the most heinous crime imaginable: A mother murders her own child moments after the baby is born. We’ve heard on the news these horrifying tales of infantacide.

But in this story, the infant survives.

A man taking his dog for an early morning walk is frustrated when his determined dog drags him toward a dumpster. But when he draws closer, he hears something stirring within the depths of the garbage. After removing multiple black trash bags, he finds the one the noise is coming from, and inside is a tiny newborn baby—still covered in blood and vernix, with a jaggedly cut umbilical cord.

The police investigation leads to Devon’s house. She is home from school with a fever and body aches she doesn’t understand, and she is hemorrhaging from giving birth. After being patched up at the hospital, Devon is transferred to a juvenile detention center.

In the detention center Devon must not only face the consequences of her actions, she must face the reality of her actions. Devon doesn’t remember the night her daughter was born. She doesn’t remember the night the child was conceived, and she certainly doesn’t remember any nefarious plan to murder her helpless child. Or does she? Things are not so cut-and-dried in this thought-provoking novel. The reader learns with Devon what happened that led to that morning the infant was thrown into the trash. Written in the present tense, this book doesn’t allow for distance—the reader is right there with Devon, experiencing her anguish as she peels back the layers to get to the heart of her own story.

Further, as the truth is revealed, the reader is unsure whether to hope Devon receives a favorable ruling or that she is punished for attempted murder. And because Devon is herself a child, the reader begins to look for excuses. One almost wants the pregnancy to be the result of something traumatic so Devon’s actions might be excused—but it is not, and the reader cannot. It is also difficult to root for Devon: She is frequently disagreeable and self-absorbed, and if she planned what she is accused of, it is unforgivable.

Though it is not possible to excuse her actions, the reader will come to understand Devon through her journey of self-discovery, and grace for Devon is possible.

Possible discussion topics: Consequences of one’s actions, making good relationship choices, the importance of support.

Caveats: Premarital sex, emotionally charged material, vivid description of the birth and subsequent abandonment of the baby, bad language, self-mutilation.

Some discussion questions to get you started:

    1. Devon is initially derisive of her mother. She is critical of her mother’s choice in men, her clothing, her jobs, that her mother treats her like a friend instead of her child, and that Devon’s mother had her as a teen. Later she is disappointed by her mother’s failure to show up at the juvenile detention center. What part, if any,—do you think Devon’s mother played in Devon’s actions. Is she a bad person? A weak person? Or just a broken person?

    2. Karma is an interesting minor character in this book. Why do you think she responds to Devon the way she does? What is her role in Devon’s journey of self-discovery?

    3. Since the reader is involved in Devon’s journey of self-discovery, we’re invited to make to a judgment about Devon’s guilt or innocence. Which do you think she is? Why? Can you excuse her actions? What should be the consequence for her actions?

    4. This book has a definite conclusion, but it also leaves some room for the reader to contemplate the future of the characters. What do you think will happen next to Devon? What would be an ideal scenario? What is a likely scenario?

If you liked this book you might enjoy: Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson, Wintergirls by Laurie Halse Anderson, Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes by Chris Crutcher, Looking for Alaska by John Green, Cut by Patricia McCormick, Rules of Survival by Nancy Werlin.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Scones and Sensibility

Ages 8-12

Do you hear the quotation “My life is a perfect graveyard of buried hopes” and clasp your hands to your breast, knowing exactly who said this and what she meant?

Instead of a best friend do you have a bosom friend?

Do you realize the importance of a concluding “E” in the spelling of some names?

Do you hear the name Fitzwilliam Darcy and sink into a swoon?

If you answered yes to any of these questions, this is the book for you.

Polly Madassa is a “twelve-year-old, nineteenth-century girl trapped in the twenty-first century.” Captivated by the ideals of Anne of Green Gables and inspired by the romanticism of Pride and Prejudice, Polly is convinced that she must no longer be “a material girl living in a material world,” but instead she must “become at once a young lady of impeccable breeding, diction, and manner.” Polly’s family owns a bakery which allows her to interact with and observe a number of different people in her small town, and what she sees speaks to her romantic heart: There are people all around her desperately in need of her help in matters of love.

Polly steps in to play matchmaker and to find the perfect love for her sister, Clementine; her bosom friend, Fran’s, father; the dear old widower who owns the kite store; and the curmudgeonly spinster with the vicious little dog. But by meddling in their love lives, she may actually be hampering the course of true love and ignoring her own heart.

Readers will get a kick out of this modern story of a girl who is swept up in the romance of L. M. Montgomery’s classic tale and is trying to live out the ethos of Jane Austen. And any girl who would rather slip on a lovely frock and a hat with a ribbon than pull on a pair of jeans and a t-shirt will identify with young Polly’s sensibilities.

As an added bonus this book is well written. Other than a few too many instances of the word “delicate” the dialogue is great: Polly consistently speaks as though she were in the nineteenth-century, except in times of genuine emotional distress when she convincingly slips into modern speech. And there is a fantastic juxtaposition between modern and old-fashioned. Polly wants to rely upon fate to find the perfect romantic partner for Fran’s father, and she is horrified when he takes the more practical approach of Internet dating. While this is a gentle story, there is real-life crisis between the pages. For example, Fran’s mother left her family for someone she met on the computer. So Polly’s railing at the modern world is at once humorous, convincing and moving.

Very sweet, often funny, and nicely paced, this book is a worthwhile read for any romantic soul.

Possible discussion topics: Changing values, idealized notions of romance, relationships, Anne of Green Gables and Pride and Prejudice.

Some discussion questions to get you started:

    1. Polly struggles with the notion of Internet dating because of its lack of romance as well as the fact that Fran’s mother left her family after she met someone online. What are your thoughts about online dating versus meeting people in other ways?

    2. Anne of Green Gables and Pride and Prejudice are beloved classics. What are your thoughts about Lindsay Eland using them as the basis for Scones and Sensibility?

    3. Polly feels like she was born in the wrong century. In what situations do you feel out of place? Have you ever felt like no one understood where you were coming from? What was that like?

    4. Polly is a hopeless romantic who believes in “enduring love.” What are your thoughts on romance? Is “happily ever after” a realistic concept? Why or why not?

If you liked this book you might enjoy: The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle by Avi, The Penderwicks: A Summer Tale of Four Sisters, Two Rabbits, and a Very Interesting Boy by Jeanne Birdsall, Princess Academy by Shannon Hale, Fairest by Gail Carson Levine, The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks by E. Lockhart, The Mysterious Benedict Society by Trenton Lee Stewart

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Top Ten!

Here are my top ten books of 2009:

1. The Young Inferno by John Agard
With the help of Aesop, a hoodied hero braves the circles of Hell to find his true love.

2. Wintergirls by Laurie Halse Anderson
Cassie and Lia were best friends who competed to see which of them could be the skinniest. But now that Cassie is dead how is Lia to compete with a ghost?

3. Geektastic: Stories from the Nerd Herd ed. Holly Black and Cecil Castellucci
Every self-proclaimed geek will find at least one character with whom to identify in this collection of short stories about everything nerdy from Klingons to bookworms, baton-twirlers to LARPers.

4. All the Broken Pieces by Ann E. Burg
In this moving story told in verse, 12-year-old Matt Pin is a Vietnamese boy who was adopted by a white couple after the Vietnam War.

5. Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins
Even though Katniss and Peeta survived the The Hunger Games, their troubles with the capitol have just begun.

6. The Magician’s Elephant by Kate DiCamillo
When a fortuneteller tells Peter an elephant will lead him to his sister, he can't believe it. After all, his sister is supposed to be dead, and where would he get an elephant anyway? But then, an elephant appears...

7. Scones and Sensibility by Lindsay Eland
In the tradition of Anne of Green Gables, and in the romantic spirit of Sense and Sensibility; this sweet novel tells the story of Polly, a 21st century girl who wishes she had been born earlier.

8. Heroes of the Valley by Jonathan Stroud
Halli Sveinnson is an unlikely hero in a land where heroes are revered.

9. Creature of the Night by Kate Thompson
The story of a modern troubled teen and the fading mythology of Ireland.

10. Leviathan by Scott Westerfeld
A steampunk WWI adventure where the conflict is between Clankers and Darwinists.

And my top ten of the decade:

2000 – The Body of Christopher Creed by Carol Plum-Ucci
Everyone at school has an "I beat up Chris Creed" story, so when the suicide note appears and he disappears, it looks like everyone is to blame. But if he is dead, where is his body?

2001 – Feeling Sorry for Celia by Jaclyn Moriarty
This charming Australian epistolary novel follows the story of Elizabeth and her tumultuous best friend, Celia.

2002 – Lucy the Giant by Sherri L. Smith
Lucy leaves her violent home life behind and passes as an adult in order to obtain a job on a crabbing boat.

2003 – A Northern Light by Jennifer Donnelly
Mattie has a summer job at a fancy hotel in the Adirondacks. When the drowned body of a young female guest is discovered, Mattie must decide whether or not to reveal the letters the woman gave to her and asked her to burn. Based on the real-life murder that inspired An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser.

2004 – How I Live Now by Meg Rosoff
Anorexic Daisy is shipped to England to live with her cousins in the hopes that a change of scenery will be good for her. While she is there, World War III begins. Suddenly Daisy is struggling for her life in a way she never expected.

2005 – Dark Sons by Nikki Grimes
This novel in free verse tells parallel stories of Ishmael from the Old Testament, and Sam, a modern-day teen whose father has married a younger white woman and has a new baby.

2006 – Book Thief by Markus Zusak
Death narrates this haunting novel about WWII and the Holocaust.

2007 – The Absolutely True Story of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie
Alexie's first foray in the world of Young Adult literature gave us this semi-autobiographical account Arnold Spirit, a Spokane Indian who leaves the reservation for a better education.

2008 – The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
In a future dystopian America, twelve districts are controlled by an all-powerful capitol. Each year two teens from each district are randomly chosen to participate in a televised fight to the death.

2009 – Leviathan by Scott Westerfeld

Looking forward to 2010!