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This One’s a Winner!: Beauty Queens by Libba Bray (AUDIO)

I take back everything I’ve ever said about authors narrating their own audiobooks (don’t, please, don’t!) after listening to Libba Bray‘s incredible performance on Beauty Queens. She brings to life her own satirical look at advertising and news media, corporate ethics, commercialism, and pop culture, through the darkly humorous story of teen beauty pageant contestants who survive a plane crash onto a jungle island. (Only a small percentage of the original fifty states’ contestants survive. Miss Massachusetts is not among them, although her gown does come in handy at one point.) The airline staff, the camera crew…all dead. As if in a reality show without the show, the girls appear to be on their own with only few supplies other than some waterlogged bags of airline pretzels and a surfeit of beauty aids.

With this year her last chance to win before she ages out, the bold and brassy Taylor Rene Krystal Hawkins, representing Texas, takes charge, insisting that the girls keep up their pageant routines while Adina (Miss New Hampshire) sardonically observes that shelter, food, and water should probably take priority, but is ignored. Each of the main characters has a story that gets revealed as they begin to trust each other, but there’s no time to sentimentalize each girl’s individual discovery of strengths she didn’t know she had, as the author throws the girls into one dangerous situation after another, and not just snakes, tropical storms, slumbering volcanos, or other jungle threats. The author’s wild subplots involving terrorist, politics, reality shows, and more, keep the action and humor going strong. And, yes, some hot boys do eventually come into the picture, so there’s romance too, but with a few twists on the usual YA romance fare.

Like the Miss Teen Dream contestants themselves, who are not all as they present themselves to pageant judges and each other, this young adult novel is more than meets the eye. Under the hilarious satire, skewering everything from product placement to international arms dealing, lie serious themes that readers of both sexes can think about and form opinions on. The salty language, frank talk about sexual desire in teens, left-leaning politics, and the distinctly Sarah-Palin-by-way-of-Tina-Fey voice of Ladybird Hope (former Miss Teen Dream now presidential candidate) might make this book slightly less humorous to social conservatives than to more liberal-leaning readers. But I was impressed by the author’s even-handedness in many parts of the book where she avoided the common pitfall of only being open-minded about opinions that match our own, allowing for the girls from both red and blue states to experience some brief, eye-opening moments of understanding before switching the story over to crazed villains or hot pirates.

The audiobook production – with its distinctive voices for each contestant, sound effects signaling the end of a CD, and Saturday Night Live-worthy “commercial breaks” – is far more than just a reading of the book. It deservedly won this year’s Audie Award for best narration by an author. An interview with Libba Bray at the end of the audiobook is also humorous and enlightening.

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Big-Time Abandonment Issues: Quarantine, Book 1: The Loners

Cover image for QuarantineQuarantine: The Loners, first in a planned trilogy by two screenwriters under the pen name Lex Thomas, may feed young readers’ desires for another book like The Hunger Games (Moms having now moved on to Fifty Shades of Grey) but this action-packed thriller describes its violent fights to the death in more gory detail than The Hunger Games trilogy, and the characters (all high school-aged) are much edgier in language and attitude. Aimed at an audience of older teens who can’t get enough of the popular teens-survive-the-apocalypse stories, Quarantine: The Loners is also likely to thrill younger teens, with its aura of menace from attack by warring factions, and prevalence of casual sex (mentioned, but not described) among the ruins of a school.

Stronger in plot than character development, Quarantine: The Loners starts fast and keeps going, opening with a scene of desperate kids fighting each other in packs for airdropped supplies.

A black military helicopter eclipsed the view of the sky and lowered its giant cargo through the opening. Pallets of food, water, and supplies were lashed together into a single block the size of a school bus. The mass of supplies breached the slash and hung there, suspended by a cable forty feet above them.
The cable detached with a plink. The block of pallets fell. It cracked onto the ground and broke apart, scattering supplies all over the quad. As the helicopter retreated, an unseen mechanism mended the slit in the gray canopy. The kids on the perimeter bolted from the school walls and charged the mound of supplies. Colors collided. All around David kids kicked, clawed, and stomped each other to get at the food.
David never thought high school would be this hard.

On the worst first day of school ever for kids at the new McKinley High School (even worse for the teachers and administrators), David and his younger brother Will have just arrived and found their first classrooms in the gigantic, brand-new school building when the whole East Wing explodes as if from a bomb. Teachers and all other adults die immediate, gruesome deaths as if from some instantaneous Ebola-like virus. As David searches for Will to get him out and away from the scene of the disaster, lines of soldiers surround the school, armed with assault rifles and firing on any students who try to escape. Under armed guard, exit doors are welded shut and the entire building is covered in some type of tarp.

The night before, David, a former football star and good-times guy changed by the recent death of their mother, had made an enemy of the new football team captain (who his girlfriend was cheating on him with) so he is on his own, focused only on taking care of Will who is going to be without his epilepsy medicine in the months-long quarantine ahead. Loners are in grave danger of dying, though, in this new society free of adult supervision, as the high school hierarchy with football players and cheerleaders at the top solidifies into dictatorship and cliques transform into vicious gangs.

With a new school year approaching, Quarantine: The Loners is a good choice for August reading, like a pumped-up Lord of the Flies. Kids already nervous about the first day, though, may want to avoid this nightmarish vision of high school.

Disclosure: I received an advanced reading copy of Quarantine: The Loners from Egmont USA through NetGalley.

Quarantine: The Loners
Thomas, Lex
Egmont USA
July 10, 2012
978-1-60684-329-1
$17.99

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Decade of Decay: The Lola Quartet by Emily St. John Mandel

Cover image of The Lola QuartetIf it’s true that your twenties are the “Defining Decade” – the crucial, formative years that determine how the rest of your life will go – then the troubled young adults in Emily St. John Mandel’s third novel, The Lola Quartet, are definitely screwed. Their lives have all gone off the rails, somewhere along the line. Depression and decay lurk everywhere in the oppressive heat of Sebastian, Florida, the town where they grew up and to which they eventually return.

The third novel by Canadian-American author Emily St. John Mandel, The Lola Quartet is composed of vignettes, whose order at first appears random and tangential, before their connections and intersections gradually become apparent. Ten years after high school graduation, when they dissolved the Lola Quartet and went their separate ways, the four former members of the prize-winning high school jazz ensemble – Gavin, Daniel, Sasha, and Jack – are brought back into tangential contact with each other through their connection to Sasha’s younger half-sister – the tough, vulnerable, and elusive Anna.

The novel’s structure and style seems inspired by the style of quick-shifting gypsy jazz music, as performed by the real-life master guitarist Django Reinhart, who is idolized by Liam Deval, one of the many musicians in the novel. Here’s the description, from early in the book, of Liam Deval’s jazz guitar duo that Gavin is listening to after his life has imploded. Gavin has a sense that these performances he is witnessing are momentous, but doesn’t know that Liam Deval plays another role in his story, as well:

Arthur Morelli was older, an unsmiling man in his late thirties or early forties who played with a heavy swing. In his solos he wheeled out into wild tangents, he pushed the music to the edge before he came back to the rhythm. Liam Deval looked about Gavin’s age, late twenties or early thirties, the star of the show: a perfect counterpoint to Morelli, all shimmering arpeggios and light sharp tones. Gavin had never seen anyone’s hands move so quickly. His skill was astonishing. Jazz slipped into gypsy music and back again, a thrilling hybrid form. Gavin knew it wasn’t new, what they were doing, but it was the first time he’d encountered it live.

The Lola Quartet’s structure of intersecting stories building atmospheric tension reminded me of Dan Chaon’s Await Your Reply. If you liked Await Your Reply, you should definitely add The Lola Quartet to your to-read list. (Just keep in mind the description of Await Your Reply in The New York Times Sunday Book Review: “ambitious, gripping and unrelentingly bleak.”)

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Waiting on Wednesday – Fear by Michael Grant (YA)

“Waiting On Wednesday” is a weekly event, hosted at Breaking the Spine, that spotlights upcoming releases that we’re eagerly anticipating. This week’s pre-publication “can’t-wait-to-read” selection is:

Fear

Michael Grant

Publication Date: April 3, 2012

There are many young adult series of which I have read the first one and left it at that, but not the Gone series by Michael Grant. This is book #5 and I need to find out what’s going to happen to Sam and Astrid and all the other kids in a small California town who were left behind one day when everyone aged 15 and up disappeared suddenly and without warning in the first book, Gone.
Over the course of the series, the kids who were left to manage with no adults and a dwindling food supply have been trying to figure out what happened (a dome/force field of some kind), whether the scary mutations that some of the kids are experiencing can be stopped, whether it’s good or bad to disappear on your upcoming 15th birthday, and, of course, how to fight off the bad (rich) kids, the forces of evil, and the Darkness monster. (There are several plot threads to keep track of, including the role that Little Pete, Astrid’s autistic brother, plays in the whole catastrophe.)
The story seemed to lose a little momentum with book #4, and I wondered if the author had to extend the series past an originally planned trilogy due to the books’ popularity, but I’m counting on the author to answer at least a few questions in book #5!
These books are page-turners that teens looking for action and suspense who don’t mind a touch of science fiction verging on horror will eagerly devour.

Gone series so far:
Gone
Hunger
Lies
Plague

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The Starboard Sea by Amber Dermont

The Starboard Sea by Amber Dermont could become A Separate Peace for a new generation. But, in a coming of age story, what a difference 40 years make!
However similar in setting (New England prep schools) and themes (friendship, betrayal, guilt) they may be, The Starboard Sea isn’t likely to replace A Separate Peace as assigned reading, except in maybe the most progressive of schools – due to the adult activities of the late ’80s teenagers in this novel, who are more sophisticated and are growing up faster (at least, in some ways) than the prep school boys just before World War II in John Knowles’ classic novel. I don’t want to spoil the author’s careful construction of The Starboard Sea by giving away details of the narrative that are revealed over the course of the story, so I’m just going to speak very generally about the plot in this review.
Jason Prosper has washed up at a third-tier prep school on the Massachusetts coast for his senior year (Class of 1988) after the death of his roommate, best friend, and sailing partner at his last boarding school.

For years, I’d been happy to simply experience my life as an extension of Cal’s. Another limb that picked up the slack. While knowing him, I’d always searched for similarities. For anything that might make us interchangeable. Cal and I looked alike. Both of us had wild brown hair that turned woolly when our mothers forgot to have it cut. Our bodies were trim and athletic. We were sporty sailors, lean and lithe, not larded or buff. We walked with the same crooked swagger and low bent knees. Each of us had a cleft in our chin, a weakness in the muscle that we thought made us seem tough. But there were differences. Cal had broken my nose by accident and joked that my face was asymmetrical, that he had caused my good looks to be a millimeter off. I had to agree that he was the movie star and I was the movie star’s stunt double. My eyes were a dull slate gray, Cal’s were magnetic. His eyes were two different colors. One was green. Not hazel or tortoiseshell, but a rain forest green. The other varied from misty gray to violet: his mood eye. My face received comfortable, comforting glances, but people stared at Cal. He commanded an electric attention. The only other physical difference between us was obvious at the end of a summer’s day. Cal’s skin tanned olive brown, and mine turned red with blisters. Cal belonged on a postcard from the Mediterranean. I, on the other hand, would always be Prosper the Lobster. At least, that’s what he called me.

Jason doesn’t get a completely fresh start at Bellingham Academy  – where, he explains, “If you could pay, you could stay” – because he’s trailed by rumors, and a couple of old acquaintances have landed there ahead of him. Known to be a gifted sailor, Jason is immediately recruited by the sailing coach, but sailing is a pleasure he can’t allow himself, until joining the team becomes a means to an end other than winning races. Jason restricts himself to explaining nautical terms and how to sail to Aidan, a boat-shy fellow student, a girl with no real friends at Bellingham, whom Jason’s jock buddies ostracize and taunt but Jason secretly befriends.
The tension in The Starboard Sea swells gradually, blending events from the present and the past so well that I never got the impatient (“Tell me the secret already!”) feeling that I sometimes get when the first-person narrator holds back something big. (In addition to A Separate Peace, The Starboard Sea is getting compared in blurbs to The Secret History by Donna Tartt, but I think The Starboard Sea is better.)
If you’re in the mood for atmospheric fiction; you don’t mind a book whose characters aren’t unambiguously good or bad; and the privileges of the wealthy won’t make you so outraged that you won’t want to read about them, I highly recommend The Starboard Sea. I hope the author has the draft of a second novel well underway.

Disclosure: I received an electronic advanced reading copy of this book from St. Martin’s Press through NetGalley.

The Starboard Sea
Dermont, Amber
St. Martin’s Press, February 2012
Hardcover
9780312642808
$24.99

Read Janet Maslin’s review of The Starboard Sea in The New York Times.

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How to Save a Life by Sara Zarr & Saving June by Hannah Harrington

Doing two overdue reviews in one post today! How to Save a Life by Sara Zarr and Saving June by Hannah Harrington are both realistic young adult novels that deal with grief after sudden death, so it actually makes sense to review them together. They’re not all that similar, but both have several scenes that might make tears spring to your eyes, so have tissues handy while reading if you’re a crier like me.
It’s refreshing in How to Save a Life, to have at least one of the two mother-daughter relationships in the book not be completely dysfunctional, and see it improve over the course of the story. Seventeen-year-old Jill MacSweeney is grieving for her father who died in an accident ten months ago, and still angry at the drunk driver who killed him, when she finds out that her mother has (insanely) decided to adopt a baby (sight unseen) from a pregnant teen she connected with online. To make matters worse, the pregnant girl, Mandy – just a little bit older than Jill – is traveling from Omaha to Denver to stay with Jill and her mother for a few weeks until the baby is born.
As readers, we get to know Mandy (naive and a little dishonest) from Jill’s point of view, and Jill (prickly and unappreciative of her friends and family) from Mandy’s perspective, as they sort out their mixed feelings while waiting for the baby. Mandy is afraid she’ll be as bad a mother as her own mother has been to her, sure that her baby will be better off with Jill’s mother. Jill, whose life and plans have already been upended once by the death of the parent she felt closest to, isn’t sure what she thinks of Mandy’s situation, but she’s sure she doesn’t like the idea of her mother starting over again with a newborn baby daughter.
Saving June is edgier than How to Save a Life, and the grief is more immediate. Just after her sister’s funeral, when the book begins, sixteen-year-old Harper Scott’s shock and sadness over her sister’s suicide is raw and new. No one knows why Harper’s seemingly perfect older sister June committed suicide right before graduating from high school. There were no warning signs, even in retrospect. Her mother wouldn’t allow her to go to college in California – a longtime dream of June’s – and there was boyfriend trouble, but June had still seemed to be okay.
The only clue to June’s state of mind that Harper finds is a mysterious mix tape filled with an earlier generation’s music that Harper never knew her sister listened to. When Harper, a prickly girl with Goth leanings (like Jill in How to Save a Life, by the way) hears at the funeral that her divorced parents plan to divide June’s ashes between them, she knows what she has to do.
After running into a brooding guy outside her house after the funeral who’s not the sort of person June would normally hang out with (i.e. not a prom king type), Hannah discovers a connection between June and this musically opinionated, annoying, but somehow sexy guy, Jake Tolan. She swallows her pride and asks him to drive her and her best friend Laney and the stolen urn of June’s ashes to California.
It’s a strange premise for a road trip novel, maybe a little unrealistic, but the book has definite teen appeal, with sparks of both sorts flying between Harper and Jake, the best-friend issues of Harper and Laney, passionate arguments over music, politics, and religion, and the partying that fills the trip. When they come to the end, they’re all a little more ready to face the void that June has left.

How to Save a Life                                           Saving June
Zarr, Sara                                                         Harrington, Hannah
Little, Brown, 2011                                            Harlequin Teen, 2011
978-0-316-036061, h.c.                                    978-037321-024-4, soft.
$17.99 U.S.                                                      $9.99 U.S.

DIsclosure: I received electronic advanced reader’s copies of How to Save a Life from the publisher Little, Brown (Hachette Book Group) and Saving June from the publisher Harlequin Teen through NetGalley.

Other opinions about How to Save a Life (all good):
The Compulsive Reader
The Readventurer
Rhapsody in Books

Other opinions about Saving June (all good):
Adventures of 2.0
My Books. My Life
Popcorn Reads

Zombies All Around: Rot & Ruin by Jonathan Maberry (Audio)

Here’s one to recommend to guys who steer clear of the young adult books because of all the girls dressed in long, flowing gowns on them (as observed by Stephanie at Read in a Single Sitting).
Rot & Ruin, the first YA book by horror author Jonathan Maberry is set in a near-future dystopia. Familiar, yes, but this YA dystopian novel has ZOMBIES. Plus, none of this killing somebody only by accident because you aren’t the kind of person who can kill somebody even when you’re fighting for your very life. Rot & Ruin has real fighting, with swords, guns, knives, rocks, and pitchforks (if necessary). There is dismemberment and worse in this human coming-of-age story, but also a flinty romance and a family reconciliation. So it’s not all body parts and zombies!
Fifteen-year-old Benny Imura and his friends – Nix, Chong, and Morgie – are normal teens growing up in the town of Mountainside, needing after-school jobs. Benny is regretting his vow to Chong not to date within their crew, now that he’s been seeing Nix (the only girl) with new eyes and knows that Morgie didn’t make the same vow. Normal teen stuff, except that if Benny and his friends don’t find jobs after turning fifteen, their food rations get cut in half. Also, their job options include fence tester, carpet coat salesman, and zombie spotter (excellent vision required).
As Benny eventually realizes, the “town” he’s always known is really just a frightened band of humans who fenced themselves in after the zombie apocalypse known as First Night – tightly rationing resources ever since, living in fear of the hungry zombie hordes beyond the fence, in the no-man’s land known as the Rot and Ruin.
The Recorded Books audio version of Rot & Ruin, narrated by Brian Hutchison, was hard to get through my library, but I recommend reading this one instead of listening to it, anyway. With the audio, I noticed lo-o-ong stretches of other characters’ explaining things to Benny, filling him (and us) in on the backstory. I think if I had been reading instead of listening, these long breaks in the action wouldn’t have stuck out so much. Also, the narration on the audiobook sounds very adult, not like a fifteen-year-old boy, as The Guilded Earlobe points out.
Recommend this one to teens looking for something to read while waiting for the next in The Ranger’s Apprentice series, or for something after The Hunger Games trilogy, if they’re not afraid of zombies. There’s action, adventure, a reluctant romance, and…a sequel! (Dust and Decay)

Other opinions on Rot & Ruin (mostly good):
The Guilded Earlobe
Milk and Cookies
Paperback Dolls

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