The School for Good and Evil by Soman Chainani

schoolforgoodandevil

“The first kidnappings happened two hundred years before.  Some years it was two boys taken, some years two girls, sometimes one of each.  The ages were just as fickle; one could be sixteen, the other fourteen, or both just turned twelve.  But if at first the choices seemed random, soon the pattern became clear.  One was always beautiful and good, the child every parent wanted as their own.  The other was homely and odd, an outcast from birth.  An opposing pair, plucked from youth and spirited away.”

Agatha is grim and gray and lives in a graveyard, while Sophie dresses only in pink and spends her days doing Good Works-together, they look the perfect picture of Good vs. Evil.  Thus, it’s no surprise when the pair is kidnapped and sent away to the legendary School for Good and Evil.  There, they will learn the fundamentals of fairy tales and what it takes to be the heroine or the villain in their beloved stories.  The very best students end up as stories, penned by the mysterious Storian, which then are  distributed all over the country.  In Sophie and Agatha’s tale, who will triumph?  Good has won for over two centuries…can Evil ever really win?  Furthermore, can anyone ever be all good or all evil?

All right, I have got to tell it to you straight:  for about half of the time while I was reading, I actively disliked this book.  For the other half of the time, I could see its charm.  This is a creative Harry Potter-esque magical boarding school fantasy, and it’s definitely going to appeal to readers clamoring for more fairy tale magic.  However, I took issue with several things.  First of all, it’s nearly 500 pages, and a bit convoluted-I have to say that several times, I needed to flip back to figure out what was going on.  But that’s all right-a more motivated reader could surely sort through the loose plot elements.

More seriously, I was upset with the book’s underlying theme of Good = Beautiful and Evil = Ugly.  There are repeated comments about obesity and physical deformities that I found both unnecessary and hurtful to readers.  When combined with the heteronormative “All Princesses Need is A Prince” message (during the story, the Good Girls are all waiting for their dream prince to ask them to the ball), I lost patience with the book. Really, this could have been great-there is a lovely twist ending that almost redeems the rest of the story, but it came too little, too late for me.

Happy Reading!

Book website (You can apply to the School for Good and Evil here!)

Chainani, Soman. The School for Good and Evil. Harper: New York, 2013. 488 pp. Ages 11 and up.

If it sounds like something you’d like to read (because there are some awesome parts to it, like the great school descriptions and the interesting fairy tale remixes), I’d recommend it with some other great feminist, body-positive texts, like these:

Princess Ben by Catherine Gilbert Murdock

Castle Waiting by Linda Medley (a great graphic novel!)

Ever and Fairest by Gail Carson Levine

and, an oldie but goodie-Ursula K. Le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea

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This World We Live In by Susan Beth Pfeffer

this-world-we-live-in“I thought about the earth then, really thought about it, the tsunamis and earthquakes and volcanoes, all the horrors I haven’t witnessed but have changed my life, the lives of everyone I know, all the people I’ll never know.  I thought about life without the sun, the moon, stars, without flowers and warm days in May.  I thought about a year ago and all the good things I’d taken for granted and all the unbearable things that had replaced those simple blessings. And even though I hated the thought of crying in front of Syl, tears streamed down my face.”

It’s been a year since the asteroid hit the moon, and Miranda and her family are still struggling to survive in the ruins of their small Pennsylvania town.  When Miranda’s father, his wife, their baby, and Alex and Julie Morales (from The Dead and the Gone) show up at the door, the group must make plans for the future. They know the governmental food deliveries won’t continue forever, and with ten people, there’s no way their stored food will last long.  However, finding a safe place to go is a challenge.  There are rumors of safe cities, for governmental officials and other important people, but no one is sure how or where to find them.  As they search for a workable solution, the weather grows increasingly violent; they don’t have much time.  Will they make it to safety?

The final book in the Last Survivors trilogy connects the stories of Alex and Julie, from the second book, with Miranda and her family’s.  There are no good answers to the climate change and food shortages, but the book manages to strike a balance between bleak hopelessness and unrealistic solutions.  In short, Susan Beth Pfeffer continues the tone of the previous two books, giving us a chillingly accurate-feeling story about the end of the world.  If you don’t like the zombie apocalypse stories because you don’t think it would ever happen, this trilogy will give you the end-of-the-world creepiness that feels realer than real.  It’s scarier than some books for adults, even.  I couldn’t put it down, and I bet you won’t be able to, either.

Happy Reading!

Author’s website

Pfeffer, Susan Beth. This World We Live In. Harcourt: Boston, 2010. 239 pp.  Ages 15 and up.

Looking for more on the end of the world?  After you finish this trilogy, starting with Life as We Knew It and The Dead and the Goneyou might want to try these:

The Age of Miracles

Shipbreaker

How I Live Now

How I Live Now

The Dead and the Gone by Susan Beth Pfeffer

Dead and the Gone“Alex made three columns and labeled them: WHAT I KNOW; WHAT I THINK; WHAT I DON’T KNOW. Under WHAT I KNOW he wrote:

No subways

Floods

Moon closer to earth

Carlos all right

Bri and Julie all right

School on Monday

Under WHAT I DON’T KNOW he wrote:

How long it will take for things to get back to normal.”

 Alex was behind the counter at Joey’s Pizza when the asteroid struck the moon.  The impact knocked it out of orbit, and set into action a chain of catastrophic events.  Tsunamis, earthquakes, and floods, to start.  Then  the volcanic eruptions and climate change-the ash from the volcanoes obscures the sun and turns July into January. The natural disasters exacerbate food shortages, making people more likely to succumb to the flu epidemic, or other diseases making their way through the population at alarming rates.

Worse still, Alex doesn’t know where his parents are.  His father was attending a funeral in Puerto Rico when the asteroid hit, and his mother was working at the hospital in Queens, but no one has heard from them since.  This leaves 17-year-old Alex in charge of his two younger sisters, Bri and Julie.  Overnight, Alex must decide how to find food, protect his sisters from the brutal new reality they are facing, and make a plan for the future: there’s no telling if scientists will be able to fix the moon’s orbit.

This gripping novel is the second in a trilogy; Life as We Knew It told the story from Miranda’s perspective-a young woman living in a small Pennsylvania town.  The Dead and the Gone is set in New York City, but covers the same asteroid strike.  Instead of a first-person diary format like Miranda’s, Alex’s story is told in third-person, which I preferred to the journaling-style.  While I loved the first book in the series, I found The Dead and the Gone to be even more gripping and terrifying.  I’m no stranger to end-of-the-world books; you might even say I have a morbid fascination with How Things End.  However, I can honestly say that this is the single creepiest apocalypse story I’ve ever read-adult or young adult fiction-and it is because of its plausibility.  The entire time while I was reading, all I could think was: “Hey, this could really happen.”  That thought was enough to keep me hooked.  You’ll love it-if it doesn’t scare you to bits, first.

Oh! A mysterious side note-did you know that Susan Beth Pfeffer is a pseudonym?  The real author of this series is Micky Spillane-you can read all about it on the author’s website.

Happy Reading!

Pfeffer, Susan Beth. The Dead and the Gone. Harcourt: New York, 2008. 321 pp. Ages 15 and up.

If you liked this one (and it’s ok to read it first, before Life as We Knew It-they’re companion novels, not books that have to be read in order) you should check out the other two: 

Life as We Knew It

This World We Live In

The Diviners by Libba Bray

diviners“‘Let’s try another question.  Do you have any prophecy for us, Naughty John?  Any fortune-telling?’

The scryer remains still.

‘Do tell us something else, won’t you?’

Finally, there is movement on the board. ‘I…will…teach…you…fear…’ the hostess reads aloud.

‘Sounds like the headmaster at Choate,’ the boy in the fez teases. ‘How will you do that, old sport?’

I S-T-A-N-D-AT T-H-E D-O-O-R A-N-D K-N-O-C-K

I A-M T-H-E B-E-A-S-T.”

Things are not right in New York. The Ouija board spells out a terrifying message for the partygoers, and that is just the beginning. Something sinister is stirring; when dead bodies marked with strange symbols begin surfacing, Evie and her uncle are pulled into the investigation.  What could be killing New York inhabitants in such an frightful way?  Is there something darker at work than a simple murder?

Evie thought New York would be a breeze-she was sent away from her boring  hometown to live with her Uncle Will in New York. Evie was excited-the city lights were practically spelling out her name.  The speakeasies! The shows!  Jazz! However, it’s not all she hoped-Will is the curator of The Museum of American Folklore, Superstition, and the Occult, or the “Museum of Creepy-Crawlies”.  Because of his expertise in the subject, Will is needed to consult on the murder cases, and Evie finds herself in the middle of the investigation. Forget shows, short haircuts, and flapper style-now Evie’s life consists of curses, secrets, and racing against time.  Will Evie and Will be able to find and stop the killer before it is too late?

This is one of the rare 500 + page books that doesn’t feel like one at all.  Libba Bray’s Jazz Age New York is full of music, bright lights, and carefree hearts-until the murders begin, at least.  The supernatural elements to the plot are sure to delight fans of the paranormal, while the 1920’s setting adds interest and prevents this from being “just another scary magic book”.  Scary?  Yes, absolutely.  But it’s the very best kind of scary:  eerie, suspenseful, and fresh; you’ll be checking over your shoulder and wondering about old curses as you read.  Libba Bray not only brings us a great historical setting, she also gives us characters that feel like real people.  This winner of a book combines ancient prophecies, Broadway lights, jazz, and murder, all told by a master storyteller.

Happy Reading!

Author’s website: http://libbabray.com

Book’s website: http://www.thedivinersseries.com/

Bray, Libba. The Diviners. Little, Brown: New York, 2012. 578 pp. Ages 15 and up.

If you liked this book, you will probably love Libba Bray’s Gemma Doyle series:

A Great and Terrible Beauty

Rebel Angels

The Sweet Far Thing

Hole in My Life by Jack Gantos

holeinmylife

“The prisoner in the photograph is me.  The ID number is mine.  The photo was taken in 1972 at the medium-security Federal Correctional Institution in Ashland, Kentucky.  I was twenty-one years old and had been locked up for a year already-and I had more time ahead of me.”

Growing up, Jack Gantos wanted to be a writer, not a drug smuggler and a prisoner. His dad could always point out those who had done time before, and warned him repeatedly not to get into trouble.  However, when young Jack finds himself in a terrible job and needing money for college tuition, he decides to take a risk.  He agrees to smuggle a boatload of drugs out of the Virgin Islands with someone he just met.  Not only was the trip itself a disaster, as neither seemed to know much about sailing or smuggling, it was only a matter of time before the two were caught and convicted.

Jack describes his time behind bars as terrifying, stressful, and ultimately transformative.  It was behind bars that he began writing, the first step toward his life as an author.  He crammed his daily entries between the lines of a novel, as prisoners were not allowed to keep diaries.  Upon his release, he vowed never to return, and became the celebrated author of the Rotten Ralph picture books (do you know them??  Give them a try-they’re hilarious) and the Joey Pigza series.  He’s been awarded the Printz honor award and the Robert F. Sibert honor for his memoir, and I can see why.  His short account of the worst year of his life is presented without self-pity or glorification, which is a tricky balance for memoir writers.  This great, quick read should appeal to reluctant readers, aspiring writers, and anyone looking for a harrowing adventure, with a side of “Don’t do this, guys-it was horrible.”

Happy Reading!

Author’s website: http://www.jackgantos.com/

Gantos, Jack. Hole in My Life.  Squarefish: New York, 2002. 200 pp.  Ages 15 and up.

If you liked this book, you might check out these memoirs:

Bad Boy: A Memoir by Walter Dean Myers

King of the Mild Frontier: An Ill-Advised Autobiography by Chris Crutcher

Good Behavior by Nathan L. Henry

Of Beetles and Angels: A Boy’s Journey from a Refugee Camp to Harvard by Mawi Asgedom

The Pursuit of Happyness by Chris Gardner

 

Adaptation by Malinda Lo

Adaptation“She remembered the bird in the headlights, and she remembered waking up twenty-seven days later.  But the more she tried to focus in on that thing that had happened between those events, the more it slid away from her, slippery as an eel.”

Birds all over North America are mysteriously throwing themselves in the paths of planes, causing crashes and widespread mayhem.   No one knows why: some kind of bird plague?  Terrorism? Weather abnormalities?  No matter the cause, the results are scary: flights are grounded, people are hoarding supplies, and conspiracy theories flood the internet.

Does the government know more about the crashes than they will admit? When they crash in the Nevada desert in the middle of the night and wake up in a government facility nearly a month later, Reese and David realize there may be some truth to the conspiracy theories.  Both received medical attention, but even the doctor won’t tell what kind of treatment, and they are forbidden from telling even their parents.

Back home in San Francisco, the mysteries continue: Reese is plagued by recurrent dreams, and David is having strange symptoms.  The pair are also quite sure they are being followed, but by whom?  Who could possibly be interested in the boring lives of two SF teenagers?   In the midst of the confusion and anxiety, Reese must also sort out her feelings for a new friend, Amber.  Sure, they like each other, but does Amber know more about the bird crisis than she will admit?  Can she be trusted?

Meet Malinda Lo’s third book! Her first two, Ash and Huntress were companion fantasy novels, and were fantastic in themselves, but made even more so by Lo’s treatment of GLBT characters.  In Adaptation, she does what she does best: placing a realistic cast of characters with diverse ethnic backgrounds and sexualities in the midst of a great story. Here’s a cheer for having a super-rare bisexual character in a YA story! (And here’s what Lo herself has to say about bisexuality and young adult literature.) Lo subtly educates her readers about queerness: coming out, what terms could be hurtful, how to support a questioning friend-absolutely fantastic information that is hard to come by in the real world.  She gives us a rainbow of characters and then shows us how to treat them all with respect, all while avoiding preachiness.  Bisexual teens, gay and lesbian teens, questioning teens, all plopped in a world where it is safe to be queer.  I read her stories and am awash with gratitude.  I am so grateful for her writing stories that make queerness a non-issue, and books that help questioning teens find their way.  Seriously-it’s a desperately-needed public service, friends.   *Dusts hands, climbs off soapbox*

Aside from the diversity-awesomeness, this is a captivating thriller, full of plot twists and secrets and speculation.  She’s already working on the sequel, due this fall.  I can’t wait!

Happy Reading!

Author’s website: http://www.malindalo.com

Lo, Malinda. Adaptation. Little, Brown: New York, 2012. 386 pp.  Ages 15 and up.

This is the part when I tell you what books you might like to read if you liked this one!  But friends, I’ve got to tell you-I’ve been hunting for at least an hour and you know what?  There aren’t too many!  Here are some that feature GLBTQ characters and fall into the speculative fiction (sci-fi and fantasy) category.

Cycler-A fantasy about a character who switches gender, featuring a bisexual boyfriend!

Vintage-a gay ghost story

The Beckoners-I have it on good report that this is a good non-coming out queer novel.

Sister Mischief-an all-girl hip hop band featuring a bisexual character! You’ll love this one!

The Water Wars-no queer content,, but plenty of excitement and conspiracy.

 

 

Hunger by Jackie Morse Kessler

hunger“Lisabeth Lewis didn’t mean to become Famine. She had a love affair with food, and she’d never liked horses (never mind the time she asked for a pony when she was eight; that was just a girl thing).  If she’d been asked which Horseman of the Apocalypse she would most likely be, she would have probably replied, “War.”  And if you’d heard her and her boyfriend, James, fighting, you would have agreed.  Lisa wasn’t a Famine person, despite the eating disorder.”

This is the story of how an anorexic seventeen-year-old became one of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, along with Death (bearing a strong resemblance to Kurt Cobain) and their companions Pestilence and War.  One day-actually, the same day of her attempted suicide- the delivery man shows up, bearing a set of scales.  She accepts the scales, and finds herself newly employed as Famine, complete with menacing horse waiting for her in the garden.  (Ok, well, he’s not so menacing-he prefers eating pralines to shedding blood, but Lisa’s not your typical Famine, either).

Lisa’s new job takes her far away from her troubles at home: a concerned boyfriend, a self-destructive friend, her constant struggle with food.  As Famine, she sees firsthand the devastation of hunger, and learns about her terrifying new powers.  Famine, it seems, not only has the power to kill and destroy, but also heal and nourish.  Is it possible that Lisa’s job as Famine will give her the strength to recover from her eating disorder?

Friends, I’ve read a lot of books about eating disorders.  Most of them follow the same girl gets sick-girl denies sickness-girl forced into treatment-girl gets better arc; it’s not necessarily a bad plot, but the focus on disordered eating behaviors and calorie counts and weights can be triggering and counterproductive.  This is absolutely not one of those books, though-it is definitely shortlisted for Shanna’s “Great Books about Eating Disorders that Won’t Make You Nuts with Incessant Calorie Counts” Prize.  Kessler infuses the novel with gallows humor, witty dialogue, and great twists.  What I loved most was the underlying message, delivered in the least preachy way possible: Lisa finds that she must care for herself so that she can care for others.  This short, clever novel is one that will appeal to reluctant readers, fans of fantasy, and anyone who’s struggled with similar issues.

Happy reading!

Author’s website: http://www.jackiemorsekessler.com/

Kessler, Jackie Morse.  Hunger. Houghton Mifflin: New York, 2010. 177 pp.  Ages 15 and up.

If you liked this book, she’s got two more in the Riders of the Apocalypse series:

Rage

Loss

and another one coming soon!

Jasper Jones by Craig Silvey

Jasper-Jones“‘It’s through here,’ he says.

‘What? What is?’

‘You’ll see it, Charlie.  Shit.  You’ll’ve wished you dint, but you’ll see it.  it’s not too late but.  Are you sure you’re gonna help me?’

‘Can’t you just tell me? What is it? What’s through there?’

‘I can’t.  I can’t, mate. But I can trust you, Charlie.  I reckon I can trust you.’

It isn’t a question, but it seems like one.

And I believe if I were anyone else, I would choose to step back and turn away right now…I would never look past Jasper Jones to reveal  his secret.”

Jasper Jones is Corrigan’s Troubled Boy: alternately beaten and neglected by his alcoholic father, notorious for petty theft and truancy.  Charlie is bright, uncoordinated, and not-so-popular; he and Jasper occupy opposite ends of the social universe. So when Jasper shows up at Charlie’s window in the middle of the night, Charlie is stunned enough to follow him into the woods without question.  Jasper needs Charlie’s help, and what he shows him  in the forest will change everything. In that hot summer, right in the middle of the Vietnam War, Jasper’s secret becomes Charlie’s secret.Jasper Jones

 As the summer progresses, the two try to conceal what they know as the town reels in shock.  The tragedy exposes Corrigan’s ugly underbelly; racial tension reaches a fever pitch and paranoia reigns.  Charlie tries to quell his rising panic, avoid angering his volatile mother, and awkwardly manage his first love.  It’s a summer of change, of lies exposed, and painful truths realized.

This Australian novel is a riveting combination of mystery, excellent writing, and Big Questions; it’s no wonder it was a 2012 Printz honor book.  The Vietnam War setting offers the perfect backdrop to explore matters of race and prejudice, and the tragedy exposes a multitude of ugly secrets in a town where everything looks nice on the surface.  Jasper’s philosophizing on human nature, evil, and fear is well-crafted and sticks with you long after you finish the story.  This is one of those rare books that pulls you in with a thriller and leaves you thinking about life and death.  Also, enjoy the literary references and sentence-crafting; Silvey’s masterful writing makes this so much more than just a plot-driven mystery novel.

Happy Reading!

Silvey, Craig. Jasper Jones. Alfred A. Knopf: New York, 2009. 312 pp.  Ages 15 and up.

If you liked this book, you might like these:

Everybody Sees the Ants

Mister Death’s Blue-Eyed Girls

The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, Aged 13 3/4

Nothing (this is one of my favorites!)

Paper Covers Rock

Catalyst by Laurie Halse Anderson

catalyst“At my lab table, I review the experiment:

Step 1. Hypothesis-I am brilliant. I am special.  I am going to MIT, just like my mom did.  I am going to change the world.

Step 2. Procedure-Acquire primary and secondary school education.  Follow all rules.  Excel at chemistry and math, ace standardized tests.  Acquire social skills and athletic prowess; maintain a crushing extracurricular load.  Earn national science fair honors.  Apply to MIT. Wait for acceptance letter. ”

 

Kate Malone is a Dream Daughter: a straight-A student, a minister’s daughter, a long-distance runner.  She makes sure her brother takes his asthma medication, and that everyone has healthy meals.  She seems like the perfect student, too.  She has her heart set on MIT, and is doing everything she can to make it happen.   But it’s not easy; in fact, her life is grueling.  The only way to manage everything is with strict organization, by following The Plan.  However, when Kate’s neighbors’ home catches fire, Kate finds herself the unwilling host to a surly schoolmate and a little boy, making it difficult to keep up her routine.   And then everything starts spinning out of control,

This book is set in the same community as Speak, and it is exactly as compelling.  Laurie Halse Anderson is spectacular: she’s great at creating these nuanced, realistic characters, setting them down in gripping situations, and then telling us what happens.  This story is tragic and Kate’s voice is so natural and tense that it is a difficult book to put down.    Also, Laurie Halse Anderson  is really wonderful at producing accessible, interesting stories with excellent literary elements.   Do you remember how the main character, Melinda, had trouble with her voice and speaking, a symbol that was woven throughout the story?  In this story, Kate struggles with her vision, and readers can start to explore symbolism with the changes that happen to Kate when she switches between  her glasses and contacts.  Quality literature for the win!

Happy Reading!

Anderson, Laurie Halse. Catalyst. Speak: New York, 2002.  231 pp. Ages 15 and up.

If you liked this book, you will probably like other books by the same author.  Try Speakor Wintergirlsbut know they (like Catalyst) are about some rough stuff, and be prepared!

 

Where Things Come Back by John Corey Whaley

where things come back“When I asked him the meaning of life, Dr. Webb got very quiet and then told me that life has no one meaning, it only has whatever meaning each of us puts on our own life.  I’ll tell you now that I still don’t know the meaning of mine.  And Lucas Cader, with all his brains and talent, doesn’t know the meaning of his either.  But I’ll tell you the meaning of all this.  The meaning of some bird showing up and some boy disappearing and you knowing all about it.  The meaning of this was not to save you, but to warn you instead. To warn you of confusion and delusion and assumption.  To warn you of psychics and zombies and ghosts of your lost brother.  To warn you of Ada Taylor and her sympathy and mothers who wake you up with vacuums.  To warn you of two-foot-tall birds that say they can help, but never do.”

The woodpecker showed up  just about the time that Cullen Witter’s little brother disappeared.  The small Arkansas town sees the return of the long-thought-extinct woodpecker as the gift of salvation, hoping the excitement of the bird’s sighting will draw people in and revitalize the local economy.  Cullen is sick of the bird already, and wishes everyone would stop being so awkward around him since his brother’s disappearance.  He also wishes his mom would stop crying and listening to his brother’s old music and reading his books.  This summer, Cullen negotiates relationships with others, tries his best to take care of his grieving family, and searches for meaning in it all.

First of all, I love books that take teenagers seriously: the ones that validate young people by including them in the  exploration of beliefs and the full spectrum of emotions and experiences.  Grief?  Of course. Love?  Absolutely.  Fear of the unknown?  Everyone is afraid, I promise.  It is just that nobody talks about it openly, except in books like these, which is why they are so great! To me, not only do these books say that young people are fully able to participate in the human search for meaning, but they actually offer the vocabulary for expressing such ideas-tools to be used in real life.   Where Things Come Back is one of those books.

You’ll love it because Cullen is a great narrator: his elaborate daydreams include zombies, soundtracks, and miracles.  You’ll love being able to read all his thoughts, especially because he is such a complex character-portrayals of characters like this do a lot for breaking down stereotypes about young men and women.  And I think you’ll also love it because it makes you think about important things.

Happy Reading!

Author’s website

Whaley, John Corey. Where Things Come Back. Athenum: New York, 2011. 228 p.  Age 15 and up.

If you liked this book, I think you’d really like Looking for Alaska, which has the same setting, tone, and some similar plot elements.  If you liked the summer setting and the elements of religion, Pete Hautman’s Godless might be perfect for you!  If the mystery and small town setting was what grabbed you, try Shine by Lauren Myracle. If you want a book about missing loved ones, check out Please Ignore Vera Dietz.  

And one more! Remember when I talked about using book covers to help you pick books that were alike?  Check out John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars.  It’s another meaning-book, with a lot of the same Big Questions.  But careful with that one-it’s heart-wrenching!