Posted in YA Fiction

“The Sleeper and the Spindle”

The Sleeper and the Spindle
Author: Neil Gaiman
Illustrator: Chris Riddell
Publisher: HarperCollins
Publication Date: 2013
ISBN: 978-0062398246
Lexile Level: 830

Wow. Just…wow.

Faerie tale re-imaginings and retellings are a dime a dozen in YA fiction. They’ve exploded in popularity over the past several years, especially with the movie trends of Disney re-imagining their classic animated works into live action showings. And with Neil Gaiman’s expertise in mythology, it’s not surprising that he would have also be putting out work in the faerie realm.

The Sleeper and the Spindle is just…amazing. I think it has to be the BEST re-imagining I’ve ever read. I love it so much I’m not going to tell you anything about it. Seriously, go in blind. Every revelation is worth it. You can probably tell from the title that this is a take on Sleeping Beauty—but that’s not all. And I don’t want to tell you anything about the plot.

Don’t seek out detailed reviews. Don’t look for summaries. Just go in and make the discoveries for yourself. You won’t be disappointed.

Adding to this amazing book are Chris Riddell’s illustrations. They aren’t crucial to the story, so visually challenged readers won’t need them to enjoy the tale. But man, are they awesome. Everything is black and white, with a few splashes of gold. Skulls are a recurring theme, and it all has a wonderful gothic feel. An excellent touch all around.

This is one of those stories that leaves you wanting more. More of the universe, the world that Gaiman has set up. You want to know where the characters have been, where they are going. There’s nothing lacking from the story itself, but the tastes he gives you are like having a bite of a rich dessert—you just want another.

Put this in the hands of any teen who has a taste for fantasy or faerie tales. It could also make a good book club selection, or suggested reading for writing groups. It’s not long, but it will be enjoyed.

And if by chance you should see this, Mr. Gaiman: PLEASE WRITE MORE FAERIE TALES!!!

Posted in YA Fiction

“Hidden”

Hidden
Author: Helen Frost
Publisher: Frances Foster Books
Publication Date: 2011
ISBN: 978-0374382216
Lexile Level: 670
*South Carolina Junior Book Award Nominee 2013-2014
*2012 ALA Notable Book
*VOYA’s “Perfect 10” List
*Kirkus Review’s Best Children’s Books of 2011

To start—the awards listed are just a handful of the ones achieved by this book. I listed some of the most notable ones—and the South Carolina nominee, because that’s where I’m based, so it’s a list I follow pretty close. Anywho, Hidden is a story told through lyrical poetry, alternating between the viewpoints of the two main characters, Darra and Wren.
We start when the girls are eight years old. Wren is in her mother’s van when it is stolen by Darra’s father. As she’s hiding in the back, he doesn’t realize she’s there when he stashes the van in his garage. Darra finds that Wren is hiding, and tries to help her, while coming up with a plan that won’t get her father caught. Wren escapes on her own, and Darra’s father is arrested.

Cut to six years later, and the girls meet each other at summer camp. There are complex feelings between them—Darra blames Wren for her father’s incarceration, and Wren finds that she has unresolved anxiety as a result of her kidnapping. Added to this is the difference in their social standing. The camp is more for rich kids, and Darra is only there thanks to an inheritance from her grandmother. She is instantly shunned by most of the other kids for her lower economic standing. On a side note—okay, I get that the grandmother wanted Darra to experience a few weeks at the camp of her childhood, but given how much money this camp seems to cost…surely Darra’s mother could have put the money to better use? Like, fixing their car? Putting it up for other emergencies? Clothes for the coming school year? The only thing I can think of is that since it was in the grandmother’s will that Darra get four weeks at the camp, maybe there wasn’t a choice in the matter.

We switch between Darra and Wren, as they contemplate their feelings and slowly form a friendship. Darra’s sections are told in long form, with Wren’s in a more traditional poetry format. Eventually the girls come to terms with what happened to them, and learn an even more important lesson: that none of what happened was their fault.

Darra’s sections, especially her feelings about her father, struck a pretty powerful cord with me. See…my dad is in prison. I wasn’t a child when it happened, but some feelings are universal. Darra’s mixed emotions, in visiting him and how she can love him even when he wasn’t always a good man…it all rings true. In fact, parts of her story feel so authentic that I have to wonder if Frost has personal experience with this sort of thing. I was glad that at no point is Darra demonized for her affections. Frost does an excellent job at showing that this is a complicated issue, on both ends. Wren had a hard time seeing an abusive man as a dad that his daughter loved, while Darra loved him simply because he was her father.

My father was never physically abusive, so I can’t speak to that. But I can say that having a father in jail for doing a horrible thing, and still having a relationship with him, is complicated. It strains relationships with other family members, it shakes up your view of the past, and you realize that society gives absolutely zero shits about you as a victim. At any rate, I get a lot of where Darra is coming from.

This book is great in a lot of ways. It’s a great introduction for teens to lyrical poetry, especially for units where teens will be writing their own poetry. It is also a good example at how you can play with form—a note at the end of the book revels there is a second part of Darra’s story hidden in her sections. By reading the last word of certain lines, the reader gets additional insight into her story. It’s not essential information, but it is a nice tough.

It’s also a quick read, making it easy to consume for a school assignment. I would recommend this for any teen interested in the form, or for those with incarcerated parents. It’s also good for those dealing with traumatic events in their lives. It may not circulate well without a little marketing, but I would say it’s a good addition to any YA collection.

Posted in YA Fiction

“Fear: 13 Stories of Suspense and Horror”

Fear
Editor: R.L. Stine
Publisher: Speak
Publication Date: Sept. 2010
ISBN: 978-0142417744
Lexile Level: 650

Fear is a young adult anthology of suspense and horror tales, edited by R.L. Stine. It contains thirteen stories by authors such as Meg Cabot, Heather Brewer, and other young adult authors. Stine is perhaps the best known scary story author for those under 18, even if a lot of his works (namely Goosebumps) tends to end up being a little more goofy than truly scary. But given the ages that he writes for, his Fear Street series and other works are usually a great introduction to darker material.

Not so here. This is one of the flattest anthologies I’ve ever read. Worse, can’t even be argued that it is meant to be more for kids, not teens. Most all of the characters are teenagers, not children. But the stories are…maybe not terrible, but certainly not scary or tense. There’s maybe one or two moments that are a little suspenseful, but that’s it. Given the quality of work that most of these authors are known for, it was really disappointing. The first several stories are predictable at best, boring at worst. There’s simply nothing new here.

Stine’s introduction, in hindsight, is downright misleading. The story promos he gives are inaccurate, written in such a way as to make the stories sound scarier than they are. There’s certainly nothing here to invoke screams of horror. Unless one screams at the sight of poor writing.

There is precisely one story in this collection worth reading: “Tagger” by James Rollins. It is not scary in the least, but it is a brilliantly written short story, managing to cram an entire mythology into just a few pages. I honestly would love to read a full-fledged novel or even series about these characters. Sool-ling and Bobby are charming, and I could easily see them leading their own stories.

Stine’s “Welcome to the Club” opens the anthology, and like his Goosebumps series, features a decent setup with a disappointing payoff. “She’s Different Tonight” by Heather Graham, about a boy stalking a date on Halloween, is so predictable I’m fairly certain it could have been plagiarized from any number of TV shows. “Suckers” by Suzanne Weyn is about a family moving to a new settlement on another planet. It features a Twilight Zone type ending—like Graham’s story, I actually think it’s been used before.

“Jeepers Peepers” by Ryan Brown and “Shadow Children” by Heather Brewer do offer a bit of scary imagery, and honestly, I wish these stories had been longer. They felt rushed, and I think the suspense would have been more effective if it had been drawn out a bit more. “The Perfects” by Jennifer Allison, “Dragonfly Eyes” by Alane Ferguson, and “Tuition” by Walter Sorrells are just…depressing. With all of the other stories ending on a relatively up note, these three stories fell out of place. “Tuition” in particularly just feels mean-spirited.

The three stories worth reading are “Piney Power” by F. Paul Wilson, “The Night Hunter” by Meg Cabot, and “Tagger” by James Rollins. All three introduced me to characters I’d like to read more of. These are the best developed of the stories. It’s worth picking up the anthology just for these stories—the rest can easily be skipped.

Final verdict: Ugh. Just…ugh. Not worth it in time or money, and given the talent involved, it’s just disappointing.

Posted in YA Fiction

“If You Find Me”

If You Find Me
Author: Emily Murdoch
Publisher: St. Martin’s Griffin
Publication Date: 2013
ISBN: 978-1250033277
Lexile Level: 750
*South Carolina Book Award Nominee—YA category, 2014-2015

Every now and then you come across a book that leaves you basking in an afterglow when you’re finished. These are the books we read in one sitting, that we can’t put down for a minute. We eat without tasting, balancing plates and forks around pages, too drawn in to notice. If You Find Me is one such book.

This YA novel follows 14 year old Carey and her six year old sister Jenessa, as they are rescued from their home in the deep woods of Tennessee. After being hidden away for ten years by her mentally ill mother, the siblings are rescued by Carey’s father and a social worker. Carey was kidnapped by her mother, Joelle, and has been living in a camper in the woods. We never meet Joelle, but we’re told she’s both bipolar and a meth addict. After abandoning the girls, she writes a letter to the state revealing the location of the girls. Carey reveals small details throughout the book painting the picture of an abusive and neglectful relationship. The novel follows the journey of the girls adjusting to the civilized world.

The book is nearly perfectly balanced. I never feel like I’m being deprived of any character, even though it’s all told through Carey’s POV. Despite being in first person, we have a fairly good idea of how this adjustment is being handled by every member of the family. Carey and Jenessa are brought home to Carey’s father, wife, and stepdaughter. Each has their own reactions to what is happening. We see the least out of the dad, but that’s okay—it’s not his story. An underlying mystery of what happened on the “white-starred night” keeps the story moving along at a quick pace.

Carey is written beautifully. Her Southern cadence is perfect—you pick up on it from the very first paragraph. A Southerner myself, this is important to me. You can tell when a dialect isn’t written correctly—it comes across as forced, or worse, like a farce. Carey’s voice never feels unnatural to me.

My one complaint—and it’s more of a nitpick, than a complaint—is that I would have been more comfortable if Carey had been 16. There’s not much in the story that warrants it, but she is making the beginnings of a romantic relationship with a junior, and she does attend a party where there are drugs and alcohol. Carey never feels like a 14 year old—but that’s partially because of everything she’s gone through. The other small thing is that Carey is a little too…not perfect. I mean, the girl has been through hell, and that’s where the focus is most of the time. But she’s a musical prodigy, tests two grade levels above where she should be, and is described as being model levels of beautiful. While some of this is explained (her mother trained her on the violin from the time she was four; they had time to do nothing but study) it still feels a little over the top. Fortunately, these things are barely mentioned, and don’t really detract from the overall story.

I honestly don’t want to give too much away about this one. It is just so fantastic. Your best bet is to go in as blind as possible. Be prepared for a few emotional punches to the gut.

That said, don’t expect to use this for book clubs or library events. The content makes it way too squicky for that. But definitely put it in the hands of any adults who love YA, and any older teens who you think would like it.

Trigger warnings: child abuse, sexual assault

Posted in YA Fiction

“The Chocolate War”

The Chocolate War
Author: Robert Cormier
Publisher: Pantheon Books
Publication Date: 1974
ISBN: 978-0375829871
Lexile Level: 820

The Chocolate War is not only one of the most challenged books of all time, but it is often required reading for middle or high schoolers. I never had to read it as a teen, so I decided to pick it up now. A lot of books that have been around this long have issues, so I wasn’t expecting it to blow me away. But I also wasn’t expecting to hate it.

The story takes place in a boys’ private Catholic school. The time frame is a touch ambiguous, but seems to be based in the 1960s. A secret society known as the Vigils has an iron fist over the school, summoning students for “assignments”—typically pranks against the Brothers who run the school.

During the yearly chocolate sale, a freshman is singled out by the Vigil to refuse to sell. It turns into a revolt, with a torturous teacher, rebellious students, and the society of the school slowly unraveling.

To the book’s credit, it doesn’t feel dated. The clues to the book’s time period are subtle, so it does have an air of timelessness to it. And that’s one of the only good things I can say about the book.

The characters are flat. There are so many names thrown at the reader that it’s hard to keep them straight. Only a few are given any amount of characterization. Which is a shame, because the ones who are given some character are fascinating. I would love to learn more of Archie, Brother Leon, and Jerry. There is clearly a deeper story here than what we see on the page.

The structure of the story is well done, building tension and suspense. Unfortunately, every time you get a hint of something deeper, the story backs away from it. We’re hinted at motivations for characters, but it’s never followed through on.

All of the characters are male—which I don’t have a problem with. However, the handful of times females are featured, it is as objects. One of the boys even describes watching a girl as “rape by eyeball.” When another character’s mother is talking, he describes how he’s trained himself to hear nothing by gibberish. When Jerry brings himself to call up a girl he’s seen on the bus (seen, never spoken to) he is put off by her use of the work “crap.” It ruins his perception of her, and he hangs up. Altogether, these instances read as deeply misogynistic, and they do nothing to serve the overall story.

Formatting also hurts the story. There are chapters where we jump from one group of characters to another with nothing to separate the scenes. A break in the text would go a long way to keep the reader from getting confused.

If the story followed one character, such as Jerry, and stuck with them, a lot of the problems with the narrative would solve themselves. It would even work with an alternating narrative between Jerry and Archie (or another character). There is a good, even great story, trying to get out in this novel. But too many ideas are tossed around (like Obie’s desire for revenge, or Leon’s money troubles) that are dropped without any sort of revolution.

Final verdict: unless you have to read this one, stay away. There are better stories out there. Maybe try Lord of the Flies instead.

Trigger warnings: violence, masturbation

Posted in YA Fiction

“M is for Magic”

M is for Magic
Author: Neil Gaiman
Illustrator: Teddy Kristiansen
Publisher: HarperCollins
Publication Date: April 2008
ISBN: 978-0061186479
Lexile Level: 880L

M is for Magic is a collection of short stories from Neil Gaiman. The stories are generally considered to be more child-friendly than many of his works, and most of the pieces had been previously published in other works.

Neil Gaiman is one of my favorite fantasy authors, and I especially love his short fiction. You never quite know what you’re going to get with Gaiman–he runs the gamut of humor to sci fi to fantasy and occasionally even touches on horror.

There’s a bit less variance in this collection than some of his others, but as it is shorter and generally meant to be for a younger audience, that can be forgiven. That said, Gaiman doesn’t talk down to his audience, no matter their age. In this, he reminds me of Roald Dahl–seeming to share the mindset that children can handle a great number of things in their stories. However, Dahl felt that children need the assurance of a happy ending, whereas Gaiman is often ambiguous than comforting.

The collection has an overall theme of faerie tales. “The Case of Four and Twenty Blackbirds” is a detective noir piece set in a world of such characters. The mix of language from the two genres is incredibly entertaining, and it makes me wish Gaiman would write more detective stories.

“Troll Bridge” gives a twist to a classic villain, and I admit, I’m a sucker for such tales. “Don’t Ask Jack” stems from childhood fear, playing on the element of children knowing something that adults do not.

“How to Sell the Ponti Bridge” is a fun story about the ultimate twist to a classic con. “October in the Chair” presents the months of the year in a way you’ve never seen before–and gives you a hint at the stories they tell. “Chivalry” is about an old lady finding the Holy Grail, and what comes after.

“The Price” is an unsettling tale that illustrates why it’s good to be kind to animals. “How to Talk to Girls at Parties” has the hints of a cautionary tale against youthful indiscretion. “Sunbird” is an…odd story, about a group of people searching for new culinary adventures.

“The Witch’s Headstone” is actually an excerpt from The Graveyard Book, which was published after this collection. It is a tale of a boy who lives in a graveyard, and the lengths he goes to to try and help a ghostly friend. Finally, there is “Instructions,” a poem that details how to behave if you find yourself in a faerie tale.

These are short descriptions, but then, the stories themselves are fairly short. It is difficult to summarize them without giving anything away.

Final Thoughts: This is not my favorite collection of Gaiman’s (that honor goes to Fragile Things) but it is a good one, and worth the read. It is classified by my library as a Young Adult book, so you may not find it with the majority of his works. It is well worth the read, especially if you’re a fan of Jane Yolen or faerie tales in general.

Rating: 4 out of 5
Trigger Warnings: None