YA Fiction

THE GRAVEYARD BOOK by Neil Gaiman

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The man Jack had always completed his assignments thoroughly and efficiently.  His knife dispatched the man, the woman, and the little girl before even a scream could pass their lips.  So it comes as a great surprise to him when he discovers that the toddler has somehow escaped into the night.  The man Jack follows the little boy’s scent up the hill and into the graveyard, but there he loses the trail as a mysterious, black-velvet-clad man named Silas escorts him from the graveyard, persuading him that he never saw the child there in the first place.  The inhabitants of the graveyard, the ghosts of all of those laid to rest within its gates over the centuries, offer the child their protection.  The ghosts Master and Mistress Owens adopt the child, whom they name Nobody (Bod), and Silas, who is neither living nor dead and can therefore leave the graveyard to procure food for the child, agrees to be his guardian.  Bod is given the freedom of the graveyard, seeing as the dead see, moving through walls, fading into shadow, and exploring worlds on the border between life and death.  He grows up safe inside the graveyard, but outside its gates, the man Jack has not abandoned his search for child.

The Graveyard Book won the 2009 Newbery Medal, which is somewhat surprising given the book’s subject matter–the dark, fantastical world stands out from typical Newbery winners–but fully deserved.  Gaiman builds a vivid world in the graveyard and explores themes of life, death, family and friendship, love and loyalty, identity, and morality.  He weaves these themes into his brilliantly imagined storyline, which keeps readers engaged in characters and plot from beginning to end.  Fair warning: you will reach a point in the story where you will become unable to put this book down.  Plan your time accordingly.

I highly recommed this book for upper elementary, teen, and adult readers who can handle dark fantasy and murder mysteries. I also cannot recommend highly enough Neil Gaiman’s audio book performance of this book!  It is one of my top two favorite audiobooks of all time–an absolutely stunning performance.  It is great to listen to, whether you are experiencing the book for the first time or reading it again.  You should definitely check the audio book out!

THE BAR CODE TATTOO by Suzanne Weyn

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Kayla has always been suspicious of the bar code tattoo.  Most people have switched over to the tattoo, throwing away their credit cards and driver’s licenses and allowing all of their bank accounts and important identifying information to be encoded on their arms for easy scanning and retrieval.  As Kayla’s seventeenth birthday approaches, her friend Amber tries to convince her to get the tattoo, but Kayla’s father has been acting strange ever since he got the tattoo himself.  When he commits suicide, her whole world turns upside down.  As her mother slips away into depression, and Amber’s parents are inexplicably fired and forced to move their family across the country, Kayla begins to get involved with Project Decode, a grassroots resistance movement run by an attractive, enigmatic boy named Zekeal who Kayla can’t help but fall in love with.

This book is a fast-paced dystopian suspense story, along the lines of The Hunger Games and Uglies.  It was recommended to me by a fifth-grader, but I think it would appeal most to middle and high school age teens.  Thanks for the recommendation, Laura!  It was a very fun read!

FOUND by Margaret Peterson Haddix

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The letter only had six words, and though they didn’t mean anything to Jonah, he found them somehow disturbing: “You are one of the missing.”  When he learns that his friend Chip received the same letter, they realize that something strange is definitely going on.  As more mysterious letters arrive, the two friends and Jonah’s sister, Katherine, begin to investigate the situation, which seems to have some connection to the FBI, and the fact that Jonah was adopted.  But if things weren’t strange enough, level-headed Katherine claims she’s seen a ghost, and Jonah may have seen a mysterious intruder vanish from his bedroom.  As matters get increasingly complicated, the teens begin to suspect that they are caught up in something much bigger than they realized, and perhaps beyond anything they ever imagined to see in this world.

Found is a suspenseful sci-fi mystery that starts off Haddix’s “The Missing” series.  It is followed by Sent and Sabotaged, and four more books are likely to join the series in the coming years.  It’s a fast, fun read for teens!

THE DEATH COLLECTOR by Justin Richards

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“Four days after his own funeral, Albert Wilkes came home for tea.”  This sentence begins a novel that is part mystery, part historical fiction, part science fiction, and part horror–with a healthy dose of Victorian London fog.  Although few people believe the widow who claims her dead husband came home for a visit, Albert’s coworker George soon begins to suspect that someone murdered the old man to get their hands on a fragment of a scientist’s diary.  A top-secret organization recruits George to help them investigate the situation, but George begins doing some sleuthing on his own as well, with the help of a theatrical young woman named Elizabeth, who met when they both had their wallets stolen by a plucky young pickpocket.  Eddie, the pickpocket, of course gets mixed up in the mystery as well.  The trail of their individual investigations always seem to lead back to the same sinister old man in his mansion.  And there may be more than one zombie on the prowl.  The question is: can they figure out what is really going on before the maniac’s henchmen catch up with them?

The premise of this book is admittedly outrageous, but the story is truly engaging.   I definitely recommend it to those readers who are willing to put the absurdity aside and enjoy a great steampunk suspense story.  I know I did!

I listened to the audio book, narrated by Steven Pacey, which was a great performance!

THE ABSOLUTELY TRUE DIARY OF A PART-TIME INDIAN by Sherman Alexie

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Junior was born with “water on the brain,” an excess of spinal fluid which caused brain damage and physical problems, including having an abnormally large head, occasional seizures, and very poor eyesight.  Despite these disadvantages and the poor treatment he receives from many of the other kids on the Reservation, however, Junior has a witty sense of humor and great talent at expressing himself through his cartoon drawings.  He is also very intelligent and frustrated by the inferior education he receives in the poverty of the Rez.  When he has the opportunity to attend a school off the reservation, Junior suddenly finds himself in an unfamiliar environment where everyone else is white.  As he struggles to fit in with his new classmates and make peace with the traditions, pressures, and familial dysfunction he faces on the Reservation, Junior comes to a better understanding of his own identity and the new potential he sees in his future. 
 
Alexie’s novel is a perfect balance of comedy and tragedy.  Based on his own experiences growing up on an Indian Reservation, he paints an harsh and unapologetic portrait of teenage life amid poverty, alcoholism, and racism.  But it is the narrator’s endearing and sarcastic sense of humor that makes the novel irresistible.  I highly recommend this book to teens and to adults!
 
There is an audio book read by the author; the story is enhanced by Alexie’s great performance, but also somewhat lacking, since the cartoons illustrations which appear throughout the novel cannot be experienced in the audio format.

RAPUNZEL’S REVENGE by D., S., & N. Hale

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Rapunzel’s mother, Gothel, raised her in a beautiful home surrounded by luscious gardens–the product of Gothel’s growth magic–and a high stone wall which separated them from the outside world.  When Rapunzel grows old enough to wonder what lies beyond the wall, she disobeys her mother’s orders and climbs to the top.  There she sees the barren wasteland outside her mother’s protected garden, land stripped of all fertility by the witch’s powers and peopled by laboring peasants, Gothel’s slaves.  Rapunzel also learns that one of the peasants is her true mother, from whom Gothel stole her in infancy.  When Rapunzel confronts the witch with her new knowledge, Gothel takes her to a far off forest and imprisons her in the hollow of a tall, tall tree.  Gothel expects that her “daughter” will eventually come to her senses and choose to support the system of slavery that keeps them living in luxury.  Instead, Rapunzel grows increasingly bitter in her isolation.  Gothel’s growth magic that made the tree tall also makes Rapunzel’s hair grow quickly and soon she has enough to create a lasso to help her in her escape.  Teaming up with a young thief named Jack, Rapunzel adventures across the desert countryside, trying to devise a plan to destroy Gothel’s empire and using her hair to bring vigilante justice to the lawless towns she passes through.

This adventurous Wild West retelling of Rapunzel is tons of fun.  The graphic novel format is perfect for the story’s fantastic action sequences.  Plus, it is very, very funny!  I highly recommend this book to middle grade and teen readers.

The sequel Calamity Jack came out recently and I am very excited to read it!

JERSEY TOMATOES ARE THE BEST by Maria Padian

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Henry and Eva have been best friends since childhood, and they have bonded over their intense, over-involved parents.  Eva’s mom, Rhonda, is classic nightmare stage mother whose idea of supporting Eva’s ballet career sometimes involves slashing the tires of a director who didn’t cast Eva as the lead.  Henry’s father, Mark, works her hard practicing tennis and doesn’t hesitate to trash-talk her opponents in tournaments.  But when both girls have opportunities to attend summer camps–Eva at the New York School of Dance and Henry at a tennis school in Florida–they leave their parents behind and get to do the activities they love full time, with no one looking over their shoulders.  Although the girls work hard to maintain their friendship across the distance, Eva begins struggling with an eating disorder, and Henry can tell that her friend is hiding something from her.  Henry must decide which is more important: her development as a tennis player and her new boyfriend in Florida or the friendship she left behind in New Jersey.

Although this book has a somewhat awkward, fluffy beginning, it ends up painting an accurate picture of tense relationships with parents, competitive sports, dating, and eating disorders.  The chapters alternate between Henry’s and Eva’s perspectives and sometimes the chronology can be a little bit confusing.  But if you like chick-lit about sports and friendship, it is an engaging story.

RECKLESS by Cornelia Funke

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After his father disappeared, twelve-year-old Jacob sneaked into his study searching for answers.  Instead he found a magic mirror.  For twelve years, Jacob journeyed back and forth from his own world to the Mirrorworld, a parallel dimension where dark fairy tales became real: questers can sell magical objects on the black market, dangerous fairies seek human lovers, and sleeping princesses decay in eternal sleep, waiting for princes who never arrive.

For Jacob, the Mirrorworld is an escape from everything that he does not want to face in his own world.  But when his younger brother, Will, follows him and is wounded by a stone Goyl, everything changes.  As Will begins to turn to jade stone, Jacob and the fox-girl who loves him have to guide Will and Will’s fiancee, Clara, through his dangerous world, hoping to find a cure, though he is fairly sure none exists.  Meanwhile Goyl army, led by the Dark Fairy, race to find the jade Goyl who has been prophesied to protect their king and lead them to victorious dominion over the human empire.

Based in a German fairy tale tradition that is already fairly dark, Funke’s Mirrorworld is chilling and grotesque.  The book is marketed for teens, and will certainly appeal especially to an older teen audience, although adults who enjoy these kinds of twisted fairy tale fantasies will find the characters very accessible as well.  I enjoyed reading this book very much.  

If you liked Reckless, you might like Dreamwood by Heather Mackey or Breadcrumbs by Anne Ursu (both for a slightly younger audience).

EYES LIKE STARS by Lisa Mantchev

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Bertie has grown up in the Theatre Illuminata.  She doesn’t really know how she ended up there, except for some vague memories about a Mistress of Revels bringing her to the door as a toddler.  But from that moment on, she has spent her life in the living theater, surrounded by the Players—all of the characters from all of the plays ever written.  Some of them are annoying, like the fairies Peasblossom, Moth, Cobweb, and Mustardseed who never seem to leave Bertie alone.  Others are just odd, like Ophelia who drowns herself ever night and seems to enjoy it.   And then of course there is Nate, the young, burly sailor from The Little Mermaid who Bertie is just a little bit in love with.  But the problem is, Bertie is not a Player.  She isn’t in the Management or Stage Crew either.  Bertie is just a girl who seems to get into mischief when left to her own devices.   When the Theater Manager threatens to throw her out, she must find a way to become indispensible—and try to stop The Tempest’s Ariel from thwarting her plans.

Although the writing is clunky and many of the characters flat and predictable, the concept of Eyes Like Stars is engaging, especially for someone who has done theatre and knows many of the plays (mostly Shakespeare) from which jokes are drawn.  One moment I particularly enjoyed was Macbeth contemplating a buffet table (“Is this a doughnut which I see before me?”), then running off shrieking at the sight of raspberry jelly.  Mantchev also takes advantage of the complexities of Shakespeare’s characters, particularly Ariel the fairy-slave, when weaving her plot.  Aside from the quirky theatre-based humor, Eyes Like Stars is a coming of age story, as Bertie tries to discover and cultivate her talents to make a difference in her world.   Her story is concluded in the sequel, Perchance to Dream.  Both books will primarily interest an audience of junior high and high school girls.

THE REPLACEMENT by Brenna Yovanoff

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Mackie Doyle’s father has always taught him to avoid attention.  If he keeps a low profile, no one will notice his unusually dark eyes, or his severe allergy to iron, or his inability to set foot on the consecrated ground of the church.  No one will notice that he is just a replacement, a changeling left by the faerie folk when they stole the real Mackie Doyle from his crib and offered him up as a blood sacrifice.  Of course Mackie’s parents and his sister Emma realize the truth, and others certainly suspect, but the people of Gentry are used to turning a blind eye every seven years when another child is taken.  It is just the way things are.

Unlike most replacements who die in infancy, Mackie has survived to the age of sixteen, but as his allergic reactions and difficulty breathing become more acute, he doesn’t know how much longer he can live.  When his sister Emma takes a terrible risk to save his life, Mackie finds himself suddenly caught up in the world of the “others,” the creatures he once belonged to and the only ones with the power to save his life.  Unfortunately, it is the year for the blood sacrifice, and they have stolen his friend Tate’s little sister.  When Mackie learns that young Natalie is still alive, he must decide where his loyalties lie, and how much he is willing to risk to protect those he cares about.

This book is exciting, incredibly creepy, and brilliantly imagined!  Yovanoff combines the world of Celtic folklore with the world of modern high school seamlessly and believably, with a great balance between the fantasy conflict and Mackie’s struggles with friendships, love, and identity.  I enjoyed every minute of this book, and highly recommend it to fans of dark fantasy, or just creepy gothic literature in general!