Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Dawn of Spies

Dawn of Spies (Crusoe #1) by Andrew Lane (Adaptive Books, 2017, 320pp.) 

In this reimagining of Daniel Defoe’s 18th century classic of shipwreck and survival, Robinson “Robin” Crusoe, a merchant’s son, and Friday, the daughter of a pirate king, are finally rescued from a desert island after three long years as living as castaways. Shortly after they arrive in London, the writer Daniel Defoe offers to buy the rights to their amazing story. In normal circumstances, this close-knit pair of friends would be reluctant to open up to a stranger--however, circumstances have rendered them penniless, and they see no other choice but to agree to a meeting. Imagine their surprise when Defoe later reveals himself to be a spy for the government. He thinks their unique experiences will make them perfect spies, and wants to recruit them for service under King Charles II. Their first mission is to protect the king’s daughter, the Countess of Lichfield, from kidnapping by enemies of the Crown. Of course, despite the valiant efforts of Robin, Friday, and other members of the king’s spy ring, the Countess is kidnapped by masked men, and carried away in a hot air balloon. Things get even more tense when its discovered that she’s been taken by the Circle of Thirteen, an organization dedicated to taking down the entire empire at any cost.

Having already cut his teeth on the “reinvented classic” genre with his Young Sherlock Holmes series, Andrew Lane--for the most part--executes his premise well. I especially like what he did with the role of Friday. In the classical text, Friday is Crusoe’s male servant who swears subservience to the Englishman after the latter saves him from cannibals. In Lane’s work, Friday is Crusoe’s friend and equal, a strong and capable young black woman who is more than capable of holding her own. Although the fast-paced nature of the tale leaves little room for character development (which would have, in my opinion, made it a much better novel), its interesting premise and swashbuckling action sequences make this a good choice for fans of action/adventure. Recommended for Ages 13-15.

Saturday, January 14, 2017

A Charming Series

A Charmed Life by Jenny B. Jones (Thomas Nelson, 2012, 976pp.)

A Charmed Life is an omnibus edition of Jenny B. Jones’s Christian fiction trilogy of the same name. This lovely series documents the hilarious, heartfelt misadventures of privileged New Yorker Bella Kirkwood, a child of divorce who finds herself living on a farm after her mother remarries and moves them to Truman, Oklahoma. To Bella, moving away from New York is a fate worse than death. Where are the fashion boutiques? What about a Starbucks? Not to mention she now has to hitch a ride to school with her obnoxious stepbrother, Budge, who drives an out-dated hearse. But when she ends up on the Truman High School newspaper, she surprises the heck out of everyone with her tenacity, her drive, and above all, her awesome investigative journalism skills. Over the course of the series, she becomes quite the sleuth. Not only does she investigate a malevolent brotherhood of football players and save a prom queen from an exploding tiara, she also joins the circus as a part-time clown so she can solve the murder of a sweet-tempered bearded lady.

I really can’t say enough about this series, for both teens and parents. First off, it’s a clean read, meaning there’s no swearing or other mature content (though Bella does have a boyfriend, so there is a lot of kissing). Second, it boasts a well-developed supporting cast. And third, but importantly, it has a heroine who experiences tremendous personal growth throughout the series. Not only must she face issues left over from her parents’ divorce (in addition to adjusting to a new stepfamily), she must also come to terms with God’s plan for her—a plan that she did not agree to, thank you very much! For those of you who aren’t usually fans of Christian fiction? You should still add this to your reading list. While religion is an important part of the characters’ lives, it’s certainly not the main point of the story. What the story is about, though? It’s about an awesome, spunky teenager fighting her way through life’s sticky situations, and being the best person she can possibly be. This series is recommended for older teens, ages 16-18, though if you’ve got younger teens who don’t mind kissing and romance, it’s a good choice for them as well. Also, check out the excellent audiobook version, read by Brooke Helman.

Sunday, January 8, 2017


What Light by Jay Asher (Razorbill, 2016, 272pp.)

Sierra is always bummed to leave her friends behind when she and her parents leave for a month every year to tend their out-of-state farm in California. On her latest stay, she meets a cute boy named Caleb. Caleb is charming and gentle, a selfless young man who buys up discounted Christmas trees and delivers them to families in need. In any other scenario, Sierra knows the two would be a perfect pair—but alas, the couple already have two strikes against them! First, Sierra doesn’t believe in long-distance relationships. Second, Caleb once attacked his sister with a knife, an attack that locals still gossip about. Although Sierra accepts Caleb’s explanation that he was acting under extreme duress at the time, and that his sister has since forgiven him, all the townspeople, including her parents, still look upon him with suspicion. As Sierra passionately defends their budding relationship, she risks alienating both friends and family. Will their love survive, or will it prove to be simply a fruitless season fling?

I have to admit, I really expected more from the author who wrote Thirteen Reasons Why. That novel, which explores the reasons why a teenage girl killed herself, contains a romantic subplot that’s thwarted before it really can even begin, all because one of the potential lovers has already committed suicide. The insurmountable reasons that keep What Light’s two lovebirds apart? An endless line of naysayers spouting simple-minded prejudice. Also, Sierra’s personal wariness of long-distance relationships—but that’s easily overcome once she realizes her feelings for Caleb. VERDICT: In this season’s banquet of literary morsels, consider this a sweet but sugary snack. Hand to those looking for a simple, seasonal romance, while those looking for a meatier story should look elsewhere. With no drug use, swearing, or sexual content present, I’d recommend this for romance lovers, Ages 13-15.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

A Gripping, Suspenseful Crime Novel

Source: Author Website
With Malice by Eileen Cook (HMH Books for Young Readers, 2016, 320pp.)

When Jill, an American teenager, wakes up in a hospital with no memory of the past two months, she learns several disturbing things. One: while she was on a school trip to Italy, she crashed a rental car and was rushed to a hospital back home. Two: Her best friend, Simone, was killed in the crash. Three: the Italian police say that the crash was a deliberate act of murder/suicide. Now they want her back in Italy to stand trial. Fortunately, she’s given permission to stay in America until she completes rehab, but she has to wonder: why was she driving a car on a school trip? What exactly happened?

Twist and turns abound in this suspenseful novel, which proves gripping to the very end. What makes the novel better than average is the author’s inclusion of police interviews and media transcripts, which allow us to see the story in the broader scheme of things, and thus provides for a more compelling reading experience. Recommended for older teens for language, and discussions of intimate situations.

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

"The Bachelor" Meets the Dystopian Fantasy Genre

Source: Author Website
The Selection (The Selection #1) by Kiera Cass (HarperTeen, 2012, 336pp.)

Decades in the future, the United States is no longer a democracy. The government is ruled by a monarchy, social castes are the norm, and teen girls everywhere are obsessed with a government-sponsored competition known as the Selection. This months-long televised event documents the struggle of 35 young women to win the hand of the next prince.

Against this backdrop, America “Mer” Singer, the daughter of poor musicians, reluctantly submits an application for the competition after Aspen, the love of her teenaged life, breaks up with her. She knows that her chances of getting chosen are infinitesimally small, but the promise of a generous stipend, but the opportunity to vault their family into prestige and power, is too much for her ambitious mother to let her pass up.

Against all odds, America’s application gets pulled for the running. She’s not really interested in Prince Maxon, of course. She’s still in mourning for Aspen. So when she sits in for her requisite interview with the prince, she confesses that she’s really only in the competition “by accident,” and really isn’t ready for romance again so soon. To her surprise, Maxon is impressed by her honesty. Instead of sending her home, he makes her a proposal: he will agree to a platonic relationship if she will act as his eyes and ears among the girls. He is, he admits, a bit bewildered by the female sex (especially when they cry!), so any help navigating the waters of this unusual dating environment would be most welcome. Intrigued by his offer, she agrees, and looks forward to helping select the next princess. This arrangement works splendidly for the next few weeksuntil her ex, Aspen, gets a job at the palace, and begs her to take him back. This is a major problem, since the Selection rules dictate that any contestant found guilty of “illicit” romantic interloping will be charged with treason and sentenced to death. And then, of course, there’s the unexpected matter of America’s newly developed feelings for Maxon...

I have to admit, for someone who hates love triangles I was surprised by how much I liked this novel. Cass makes a wise decision by keeping America and Maxon’s relationship (mostly) platonic, at least for this first volume of the series. The fact that they get to know each other as friends first, and love interest second, puts their relationship on an interesting level, and allowed me, as a reader, to take their budding romance seriously. In addition, the author manages to bypass most of the requisite melodrama that accompanies love triangles by keeping Maxon and Aspen separated for most of the story—until nearly the end, that is. On the downside, the supporting cast was pretty undeveloped, but I’m hoping that will be amended in the next book. (A final note to potential readers: a lot is set up during this founding installment, but the ending leaves a lot unresolved. If you pick this up at your local library, make sure you have the sequel, The Elite, close at hand.) Recommended for female teens of any age.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Guest Post: Cassie from Culture Coverage Suggests 5 Free E-Books for Teens

5 Free E-Books to Encourage Your Teenager’s Reading Habits
I would like to thank Liz for publishing this article. She provides detailed and thoughtful reviews that cover the gamut of genres from graphic novels to children’s books. If you want to support independent authors, check out her self-published and small press category.
In today’s digital world, teenagers are more connected than ever before, thanks to the prevalence of smartphones and fast network connections. Besides networking with friends on social media networks, they’re also exploring and discovering new apps and technology that seem interesting or entertaining. With so much content and information available, sitting down and reading a physical book might seem like a hassle. Luckily, e-books provide a digital solution for your busy teenager. Plus, you can find hundreds of books for free!
Of course, before joining free e-book sites or providing your teenager with an Amazon account, you’ll want to set up a Virtual Private Network (VPN). These services not only protect private information by hiding your IP, but they also provide improved security control by preventing certain types of files from being downloaded or uploaded. While not foolproof, it adds another layer of security.
If you’re looking for ways to encourage your teen’s reading habits, suggest these amazing YA books.
The Forgotten: The Lux Guardians, Book 1
Saruuh Kelsey
Source: Goodreads
After the death of their genius father, the Ravel twins find themselves thrust from Victorian London to a London in shambles after a solar disaster. They quickly learn their father’s invention caused the disaster and must find a way to prevent it from happening. The book combines dystopian elements with Steampunk for a unique perspective. The intrigue and action keep the plot advancing at a quick pace. There are multiple points of view, which can be confusing to follow at least in the beginning. Still, once they start reading, it won’t be long until they ask for the sequel.

Glimpse: The Zellie Wells Trilogy, Book 1
Source: Author Website
It seems fated that Zellie should fall in love with Avery. He’s the son of her mom’s high school sweetheart. When she learns the feelings are mutual everything seems perfect, until a jarring vision of his death shakes her to her core. She learns these visions are hereditary and will come true if the two stay together. Zellie has to decide whether to stay away from Avery to save his or life or risk everything and find out how to change the future. Although the teen dialogue comes off as a bit stereotypical, the characters themselves are developed, and the emotions ring true. If you're looking for a paranormal book for your teen with a strong heroine and no vampires, try out this book.

The Contamination Series, Books 0-3
Source: Author Website

This isn’t the R.L. Stine books you might have enjoyed when you were younger. Piperbrook adds a new layer to the horror/suspense genre. A strange virus has mysteriously infected almost everyone in the tri-state area turning them into mindless killing machines. It’s up to a band of survivors to fight back the horde and find the answer to how this plague started. Piperbrook weaves a plot full of conspiracy and action while also developing rich and likable characters. While it might not be a thought-provoking story of redemption, it is definitely a page turner.

Awaken: The Sorcha Series, Book 1
Source: Author Website
After the death of their father, twins Lucas and Lily realize that they have a special gift. Years later when they enroll in college, they learn their true identities as Sorchas—warriors of light that fight against evil—and they learn they are not alone. There are ten others, each with their own different spiritual gifts. Alford and Smith breathe life into their characters by introducing unique personality traits and quirks. By the time the action starts, you are already invested in their lives and choices. The character development makes the suspenseful plot and sudden twists more dramatic.

Source: Publisher Website
Nariko’s Map: Legends of the Kunoichi, Book 1
Alex Redwood
After samurais attack and kill her family, Nariko finds herself on a farm full of girls who arrived under similar circumstances. She soon learns the farm is a training ground for an all-female ninja army. As she improves her skills as a kunoichi, Nariko must dive into the war that destroyed her family and search for answers about her past. While Nariko might not be real, the all-female ninja army is based on history. Mochizuki Chiyome, a feudal Japanese noblewoman in the sixteenth century, created a group of all female ninja agents.  The women she recruited were prostitutes, victims of the civil war and young orphaned girls. Not only is this a great read, but it might also pique your teen's interest in Japanese history!
Do you have any other suggestions for great fee eBooks for teens? Tell us in the comments below!
About the Author: Cassie loves anything related to literature and technology. She can’t wait to begin teaching her own children the joys of reading using modern technology!

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Positively Squee-Worthy

Source: Author Website
Carry On by Rainbow Rowell (St. Martin’s Griffin, 2015, 528pp.)

Remember much Harry Potter and Draco Malfoy hate each other in the “Harry Potter” series? Imagine if they were forced to be roommates. Imagine if they were forced to work together! Now, imagine that, despite their intense mutual dislike, they’re both secretly crushing on each other! Now: put them into a situation that forces them to both work together, and confront their undeniable attraction. Now change their names from Harry and Draco to Simon and Baz, and you have Rainbow Rowell’s Carry On. That’s essentially what it is: a Harry Potter slash fiction rip-off. But oh, what a magnificent rip-off it is! Here’s the plot in a nutshell:

Simon Snow, an eighth-year student at Britain’s Watford School of Magicks, is the most powerful magician of his generation, and the one prophesied to defeat the Insidious Humdrum. His latest year at school isn’t going so well. His headmaster and mentor, the Mage, normally lets him in on his battle-plans against the Humdrum, but now he’s being all cryptic and leaving him out of the loop—despite the fact that Simon’s been fighting evil since he was eleven! To top that off, he’s losing touch with Agatha, his long-time girlfriend, and his evil roommate, Baz (who constantly plots against him) has mysteriously disappeared. That should be a good thing, right?

Well, maybe. Even with the Mage acting all mysterious, and his love life on the skids, Simon still can’t get Baz out of his head. What is that tosser up to? Is he off plotting with his aristocratic family to unseat the Mage? Preparing for the inevitable final battle for Watford? Or is it possible that Baz himself is in life-threatening peril?

Obviously, Carry On touches on a lot of what you’d find in Harry Potter, though it’s not as fast-paced as its source material. Rowell chooses the slow and steady approach, and manages to bring new meaning to old genre tropes. It’s also got fantastic characters, including Simon, who wrestles with the existential crisis of being “chosen” as much as he does the Insidious Humdrum; Penelope, his fiercely smart best friend; and Baz, an angsty anti-hero with enough snideness and dry wit to make him this year’s teen heartthrob. Carry On may be a rip-off, but it’s also more than that. It’s a funny, moving tribute to the British fantasy saga that made reading cool again. In the words of any fan-girl: it’s positively squee-worthy. Recommended for Ages 16-Up for some language and some suggestive material.

Saturday, April 16, 2016

Review Revision: Red Queen by Victoria Aveyard

OK. I was wrong. Red Queen isn’t as terribly awful as my first review claims. My dear readers, I have a confession to make: sometimes I make the mistake of reading and judging a book as an adult writer, instead of considering the literary needs of teenagers. Sometimes, after dashing off a hasty adult-biased review, I’ll find myself thinking about the offending story-world long after I’ve finished the book, and I’ll think, “Maybe I’ll give it another shot.” (This happens more times than I care to admit.)

Red Queen was one of those books. I think the reason why I initially didn’t like it the first time around was due to the novel’s audiobook version. The reader had a perfectly fine voice, but for some reason, every time she took on the condescending tone of one of Mare’s enemies (mainly to say something like, “Watch yourself, little lightning girl”) it drove me up the wall. After suffering through several hours of this, I finally just had to turn off my car’s CD player three-quarters of the way through. Which brings me to my second encounter with the story: not as bad as the first. Instead of the listening to the audiobook again, I checked the book out from the library. Without the reader’s voice in my head, the “little lightning girl” insults didn’t bother me quite so much, and I actually found that I didn’t really mind the love triangle—considering that it doesn’t end like you think it will! By finishing the book, I was also able to learn that Aveyard allows Mare to see that not all Silvers are terrible people, in fact, some of them are kind and generous. She even allows one of the story’s major antagonists to die with a kind of redemptive grace.

However, that does not mean I don’t still stand by some of my original criticisms. The story has obviously been done before: misunderstood heroine, polarized dystopian society, political situation cobbled together from historical events, etc. But you know what? Teens aren’t going to care. The fact that the story reminds me of The Hunger Games isn’t going to bother them. In fact, they’re probably going to be thrilled to find a new favorite read. So, Ms. Aveyard: I’m sorry for giving your book a bad review the first time around. Let’s hope that the sequel doesn’t disappoint!

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

A Well-Meaning But Ineffective Tragedy

Source: Author Website
This is Where it Ends by Marieke Nijkamp (Sourcebooks Fire, 2016, 288pp.)

During a welcome-back assembly at a rural American high school, Ty Browne, a former student, slips inside the auditorium and locks the doors, trapping everyone inside. When the staff and students realize that something is wrong, he pulls out a gun and starts shooting. The ensuing horror is seen through the eyes of four students, each of whom struggles valiantly to live through the next fifty-four minutes. Unfortunately, not all will survive.

Although this is unfortunately going to be a negative review, I have to start off by applauding the author’s effort to mine an incredibly painful topic. She was also very creative with the way she interspersed blog posts, Twitter feeds, and text messages throughout her prose. However, I’m afraid that’s where my praise is going to stop, because overall, I found Nijkamp’s debut novel to be pretty shallow. What else do you call a story where non-descript students and staff are dispatched shortly after being introduced? Where friends still manage to keep up their regular, witty banter while fleeing for their lives? In addition to this, there’s an annoying amount of speech-making that allows the shooter to indulge in a long-winded bad-guy monologue. At another point, one of the protagonists manages to claim the moral high ground by delivering a brief but impassioned speech:
    “You think you’re something, don’t you? […]” [Ty] says. “Are you afraid now? This time, I’m in control, and there is nothing you can do about it.”
    “You’ll kill me. That’s that. So no, I’m not afraid.” I shrug while sweat runs down my back and my arms. “Funny thing, though, that still means I am in control.”
    He pulls the trigger, and I flinch. The bullet buries itself in the wall beside me. Tyler’s gloating makes me want to charge him. But I refuse to give him that pleasure.
    “You’ll kill me on my terms,” I say... (239)
Essentially, This is Where it Ends is a well-meaning, but ineffective tragedy that tries to soften the blows of character loss by leaning on the laws of Hollywood fiction. Recommended for Ages 16-Up.