Harmonic Feedback

by Tara Kelly

Drea and her mother are moving.  Again.  This time to the small town of Bellingham and into Grandma Horvath’s house.  Drea isn’t looking forward to yet another new school, especially because she’s always had trouble making friends.  Drea has been diagnosed with ADHD and Asperger’s and she just doesn’t understand some of the social rules that everyone else seem to instinctively know.  Much to Drea’s surprise, Grandma’s neighbor is a friendly, purple-haired girl named Naomi who seems to actually like Drea.  Drea and Naomi connect over a mutual love of music and Naomi isn’t scared off by Drea’s straight-forward manner, but Naomi has some problems of her own, things Drea isn’t quite sure how to handle.

Drea also meets Justin, another new student who shares her passion for music.  She and Justin get off to a shaky start as she tries to figure out exactly who he is and what he wants from her.  Plus, Justin has a few secrets of his own.

Drea, Naomi, and Justin form a band together and a fast friendship but those bonds might not be enough to hold the group together as one of the trio quickly spins dangerously out of control.

Harmonic Feedback is a powerful, realistic, and poignant novel that manages to cover so much ground but do it in such gentle way.  Whether teens have Asperger’s or not they will be able to connect with Drea and share in many of her feelings of uncertainty regarding high school and relationships even if they do not experience these things in the same way she does.  The romance is done beautifully.  My heart just did a little hiccup as I thought about it while typing.  Naomi’s experiences are tough but real and well-done.  Despite all her flaws and all of her mistakes in judgment, readers will be rooting for her until the very end.  For me, this book was such an unexpected, amazing, delightful surprise and has made it to my list of favorites for the year.

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Revolution

by Jennifer Donnelly

Andi is a Brooklyn teenager with more on her plate than she can handle.  She witnessed her younger brother Truman’s fatal accident and blames herself for his death.  Andi’s artist mother has emotionally collapsed and spends most of her days painting endless portraits of Truman.  Andi’s geneticist father is even more absent than he was before Truman’s death, in fact he now lives in a different city altogether.  Andi is struggling to keep it together but she is quickly losing control over the grief and anger that well up inside her daily.  The only thing keeping her grounded is her music.

When Andi’s father unexpectedly shows up in town, he decides that Andi’s mother needs professional help, admits her to a facility and forces Andi to accompany him to Paris over Christmas break.  Andi doesn’t want to leave her mother or her music lessons but has little choice.  In Paris, Andi makes a discovery.  Hidden in an old guitar case is the journal of a teenage girl named Alexandrine who lived during the French Revolution.  Andi is inexplicably swept away by Alexandrine’s story of hardship, love, and loss beyond anything modern Andi can imagine but to which she can fully relate.

Alexandrine’s story touches Andi in a way nothing has since Truman’s death.  Can Andi learn to live again from a girl who lived so long ago?

Revolution is engrossing.  It is quite a long book, 472 pages, but when I sat down to read it time and pages would fly.  The writing is quite exquisite.  Jennifer Donnelly is truly a master.  I’m not often moved by specific passages in books but I marked several quotes that spoke to me in Revolution.  While I couldn’t specifically relate to Andi, I could definitely empathize.  Her emotions and reactions rang true to me.  My only gripe would be that I felt the transitions between Andi’s story and Alexandrine’s, being read by Andi, felt untrue and were jarring, often bringing me out of the story.  If you can get readers past the size, Revolution has appeal for a broad range of teen readers.

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White Cat

by Holly Black

Cassel Sharpe comes from a long line of con artists, and Cassel is no exception, but there is one thing separating him from the rest of his family-Cassel isn’t a curse worker.  Curse workers have many different talents.  Cassel’s mother can change people’s emotions, his brother can break people’s bones, his grandfather can kill, and they all do this with a touch of a bare hand.

Cassel is currently at boarding school while his mom is in jail for a con gone wrong.  He likes his school and is working hard to fit in, but when he wakes up on the roof of a dorm with no idea how he got there, his life is about to change.  Expelled, at least temporarily, Cassel is shipped off to live with his grandfather and given the task of cleaning up his family home.  While digging around in his family’s junk and trying to get back into school, Cassel begins to uncover a sinister plot that leads him to believe his family is running the biggest con of all time…on him!

I love Holly Black and she definitely delivers.  The world of the curse workers is unique and unlike any other fantasy story I’ve read.  The mystery is heart-wrenching.  How hard would it be to learn that the bad guys are your family and that they’ve intentionally kept huge, horrible secrets from you?  It is a fast-paced, quick read that left me ready for the next in the series.

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Review: Heist Society

by Ally Carter

Kat thought she was out of the family business after pulling one last con, getting herself accepted to Colgan School, one of the most prestigious boarding schools in North America, but she’s wrong.  When you descend from a long line of thieves, it’s hard to stay away for long.  Someone has stolen some very precious paintings from a very pissed off, very deadly Italian gentleman named Arturo Taccone.  Taccone is convinced that Kat’s father is responsible for the heist since her father is one of the only thieves skilled enough and crazy enough to steal from Taccone.  Kat believes her father when he says he didn’t do it; he couldn’t have been stealing Taccone’s paintings in Italy when he was stealing a statue from a gallery in Paris the same night.  Taccone is not as convinced of Kat’s father’s innocence and demands that the paintings be returned in two weeks time.  Kat’s father doesn’t take the threat seriously, but Kat has met Taccone and knows he means business.  Determined to save her father, Kat assembles a crack team of teen thieves to help her find and steal back Taccone’s paintings, but things are never as they seem and Kat will have to call upon everything she’s ever learned about thieving to get those paintings back without getting caught.

Reaction: I was previously unaware of the awesomeness of Ally Carter but I have now been thoroughly schooled.  Heist Society was exciting and fast-paced.  It had many of the elements I love in a teen book: travel, interesting character relationships, strong family bonds (however weird), a bit of mystery, and a few wild card elements.  I really enjoyed the relationship between Kat and Hale, a billionaire’s son turned thief.  Both try to pretend to be indifferent to each other but it is obvious there is real affection, friendship, and possibly more between them.  Hale seems to realize it but Kat is slow on the uptake when it comes to her feelings for Hale.  I loved the interplay between the family.  While they all obviously still love each other, Kat is seen as a traitor and no longer completely accepted into the fold because she’s left the family business.  I love that while Kat is determined to no longer be a thief she is mad at herself when some of her thieving skills are rusty and her accents detectable.  I also really enjoyed the historical twist with the artwork.  It turns out that Taccone’s paintings were actually stolen from their original owners by the Nazi’s during WWII and haven’t been seen since.  Kat’s situation with Taccone is further complicated when she realizes he is not the rightful owner of the paintings that were stolen from him.  A great combo of mystery, intrigue, action, adventure, and attraction, Heist Society is a winner.

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Review: Academy 7

by Anne Osterlund

Aerin barely escapes slavery on the planet Vizhan, fleeing in her father’s broken down ship, the Fugitive.  Knowing nothing of her past and having no answers since her father died when they crashed on Vizhan years ago, Aerin has no where to turn.  Luckily, a friendly captain takes her onto his ship and secures her a place at a prestigious school, Academy 7.  Aerin knows that she doesn’t really belong at Academy 7, doesn’t belong to the Alliance — the governmental body that supports the academy, and is at a disadvantage since she has had no formal education, so she works extra hard to prove herself, to prove that she belongs and give no one a reason to question her presence.  Dane is the son of the Alliance’s military commander.  His father is powerful and rich but a very hard man.  Nothing Dane does can measure up to his father’s standards.  When Dane is accepted to Academy 7, he only excepts the invitation because he knows his father would not approve, his father having some sort of falling out with the academy years ago.  Dane is famous because of his father’s name and his own bad boy reputation, but behind it all is a cunning mind and he is determined to stay at Academy 7, at the very least to annoy his father.  Aerin and Dane are very different but have more than they can expect in common.  They both have tough, questionable pasts.  They compete for top honors in every class.  They both have secret pasts.  Aerin and Dane are drawn together but will secrets and their own self destruction keep them apart?

Reaction: I found Academy 7 a quick, satisfying read.  While the setting is technically sci-fi, with different habitable planets, easy interplanetary travel, artificial living environments, and more, readers who are not fans of sci-fi will still enjoy the story because at its center is simply two people with complicated lives trying to get by.  I think teens will find themselves able to easily relate to both Aerin and Dane.  They are both prickly because of their pasts and not very trusting of others.  Aerin spent years fighting for her life as a slave.  Dane’s father, while highly revered, abuses Dane both verbally and physically.  What they don’t know is that they are connected by more than just similar experiences and attitudes, but by their family’s shared pasts.  While secondary to their overall connection, finding out the truth about their pasts is an important part of Dane and Aerin’s story.  Readers who like character driven stories with scarred but healing characters will enjoy Academy 7.

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The 2009 Cybils Winners

The winners are probably old news by now but, even though I’m announcing late, I still want to give recognition to the awesome winners of the 2009 Cybils awards. Below are the winners in the Young Adult categories:

Non-Fiction

The Frog Scientist
by Pamela S. Turner; illustrated by Andy Comins
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Nominated by: Laurie Thompson

The Frog Scientist covers the ongoing research of biologist Tyrone Hayes into the effects of atrazine on frogs. Atrazine is the most commonly used pesticide in the United States, but Hays has discovered that exposure to atrazine causes “some of the male frogs to develop into bizarre half-male, half-female frogs.” His careful development, both in the lab and the wild, of experiments researching diminishing frog populations is an example of science at its best.

Author Pamela S. Turner shows the control Hayes and his assistants exert over their experiments so there can be no questions when their results are determined. For this real-world example of textbook standards alone, The Frog Scientist would be a winner. That Turner makes the biologist’s very compelling personal story key to the book’s narrative raises it above similar titles in the field. Teens will find the heavily illustrated volume visually appealing but more significantly be intrigued by this powerful example of significant science at work. It’s nonfiction writing (and photography) at its best, and incredibly inspirational to boot.

Graphic Novel

Gunnerkrigg Court: Orientation
by Tom Siddell
Archaia Press
Nominated by: Paradox

Strange happenings at a mysterious British boarding school involving magic. A talented student who seems to have unique and special abilities. And the dark past of the characters’ parents has come back to haunt them all. These elements, which may on the surface seem so familiar, are brought together in fresh and inventive ways in Gunnerkrigg Court. Tom Siddell has published nearly 300 pages of his webcomic in this first collection, and the length really allows for the reader to absorb the entire spectrum of adventures presented here: protagonist Antimony Carver and her growing assortment of friends have humorous, creepy, action-packed and mysterious storylines, all of which allow us to see the different facets of Annie’s complex and fascinating world. It also puts lots of meat on the bones of those seemingly overly familiar story elements, to tell tales both unexpected and new.

Fantasy & Science Fiction

Fire
by Kristin Cashore
Dial
Nominated by: Jenny Moss

As her homeland of the Dells descends into civil war, Fire struggles with changing relationships and her own dangerous powers. If she misuses her gifts, she runs the risk of turning into her psychotic and amoral father. But if she doesn’t use them at all, her beloved kingdom and the royal family she has come to love may be lost forever. Nobody combines the fantasy and romance genres like Kristin Cashore. With preternaturally beautiful monsters and unruly children, psychic powers and very human power struggles, her masterfully crafted worlds are close enough to ours to make sense and different enough to captivate.

Fire herself is a dynamic character, a mix of vulnerability and strength, and she is surrounded by others who challenge and support her, especially in the character of Brigan, one of the few who sees beyond her stunning beauty to the complex young woman beneath. Throughout the book, Fire learns to see the people she loves in shades of grey, and in the process learns to accept her own virtues and flaws. Out of all the books we read, this is the one at the top of everybody’s list. It’s great, start to finish, with appeal for both boys and girls, and the moment you finish it you’ll want to read it again.

Young Adult Fiction

Cracked Up to Be
by Courtney Summers
Macmillan
Nominated by: Robin Prehn

Cracked Up to Be, Courtney Summers’s debut novel, is a page turner that is sure to please. Once a model student and cheerleader, Parker Fadley has given up that life and turned instead to drinking and failing classes. But what could have caused this sudden change? Spare writing, carefully placed flashbacks, and strong character development create an intense and fascinating read, while the mystery unfolds. Whether or not you fall in love with Parker, her story will not soon be forgotten.

A list of all winners, including those in the children’s and middle grade categories, can be found here.

Thank you to all the hard working panelists and judges.  I know I really enjoyed the opportunity to judge for the graphic novel category and I’m looking forward the book offerings of 2010.

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The Order of Odd-Fish Extravaganza/Gallery Show

James Kennedy wrote an extremely quirky, hilarious book called The Order of Odd-Fish (my review).  As most quirky, hilarious things do, the book has developed quite a cult following and has inspired artists from all over to create The Order of Odd-Fish art work of all sorts.  Check out the gallery here.  To celebrate his talented fans, James Kennedy is hosting a gallery show of The Order of Odd-Fish art which will open with an extravaganza.  Here’s how he describes the event:

It’ll be not only an art show, but also a costumed dance party and theatrical extravaganza. I’m working with a Chicago theater group called Collaboraction to do this. They’re going to decorate their cavernous space to portray scenes from the book (the fantastical tropical metropolis of Eldritch City, the digestive system of the All-Devouring Mother goddess, the Dome of Doom, etc.).

Opening night will be a dance party where people dress up as gods and do battle-dancing in the Dome of Doom. In the weeks afterward, we’ll bring in field trips from schools. They’ll browse the fan art galleries, be wowed by the elaborately decorated environment we’ve created, take in some performances from the book, and participate in an energetic writing workshop.

The big event will be taking place in Chicago in April BUT deadline for submissions in March 15.  So if The Order of Odd-Fish gets you’re creative juices flowing, go here to learn more about submitting your art piece for the show.

And if you haven’t read the book, definitely check it out.

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