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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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More Speed Dating with Must-Read MassBook Authors, Part 1

Authors wait as they are introduced

Authors appear a little nervous waiting for their first table assignments.

Speed Dating with the Authors sponsored by the Massachusetts Center for the Book was a big hit for the second year in a row, with over a hundred attendees on the opening day of the Massachusetts Library Association conference. Twelve finalists for Massachusetts Book Awards have been selected as Must Reads in each of four categories – Fiction, Nonfiction, Poetry, and Children’s/Young Adult. Six intrepid Must-Read authors agreed to take part in matchmaking with a roomful of librarians eagerly looking for their newest favorite book. All of the authors were great sports about being rotated around the six packed tables to talk about their books, their writing process, and themselves.

Photo of Kimberly Marcus

Author Kimberly Marcus drew on her knowledge as a clinical social worker to write Exposed, her first YA novel.

The action of Kimberly Marcus‘s first young adult novel, Exposed, set in Cape Cod and Martha’s Vineyard, begins when 16-year-old Liz – a gifted photographer – learns that her brother is accused of raping her best friend. How did she come to write the entire novel in free verse? A friend suggested writing a scene she was stuck on as a poem to get unstuck. That advice helped her get unstuck, and later on, it helped again. That’s when she realized “the idea of snapshots and verse really worked” and she wrote the whole book that way. Kimberly Marcus has also written a children’s picture book, Scritch-Scratch A Perfect Match. A North Dartmouth resident, she lives near the beach and has set Exposed in a fictional town on the Cape.

Cover image of In Search of Motif No. 1

In Search of Motif No. 1 by L. M. Vincent

L.M. Vincent’s “quirky” new book, In Search of Motif No. 1: The History of a Fish Shack, intrigued librarians with its eye-catching cover art and Rockport theme. Comfortable with an audience, Lawrence Vincent (a multi-talented humorist and playwright, as well as radiologist in a Boston hospital) talked about how he came to write about the iconic Cape Ann shack lost in the Blizzard of ’78 and later rebuilt. “I didn’t even know what a fish shack was when I moved to Massachusetts,” he said, but he became curious about the proliferation of paintings and photographs – good and bad – with the shack as their subject. Researching the “truly fabulous pieces” that came out of the heyday of the artists’ colony there (1920-1946) led him to write the history of the shack, which is, he says, “in many ways, the history of small-town America.”

Blurry photo of Laura Harrington

Alice Bliss, Laura Harrington’s first novel, is getting a lot of buzz.

Laura Harrington, author of Alice Bliss, her first novel, is also a playwright. She made instant friends at the table I was at by sitting down and declaring, “Librarians are my favorite people.” A Gloucester resident and native of Rochester, New York, Laura said that her own family’s history (Her father fought in World War II and her two brothers in Vietnam) led her to write about the war in Iraq. “I want to get people thinking about the war,” she said, “but I hope the book will also get people thinking about a girl. Alice Bliss, centered around a 15-year-old daughter’s relationship with her father, is about the Iraq War but is “really a classic coming-of-age story,” she said. Alice Bliss has also been named a Best Adult Book for Teens by School Library Journal.

All six of the authors were friendly and engaging to talk with, and all were open to a second date, i.e. being invited to libraries to speak. Part Two of this blog post will talk about Jef Czekaj, author/illustrator of A Call for a New Alphabet; D. M. Gordon, author of the poetry collection Nightly, at the Institute of the Possible; and Leonard Rosen’s literary thriller All Cry Chaos.

Photo of Must-Read Books Banner 2012

Must-Read Books selected by Massachusetts Book Awards judges

The full list of Must Read authors will be posted soon by the Massachusetts Center for the Book, and all Massachusetts libraries will be receiving a copy of the beautiful poster that premiered at the Speed Dating with the Must Read Authors yesterday.

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Waiting on Wednesday – Storm: The Elemental Series #1 (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:

Storm

Brigid Kemmerer

Publication Date: April 24, 2012

I’m reviewing Storm, the first in the new Elemental series by Brigid Kemmerer, for VOYA Magazine, but I have to alert YA paranormal romantic suspense fans out there to this upcoming publication, if they haven’t already heard of it. Storm is a fast-paced, edgy, debut paranormal that I think is going to be big with a lot of teens, as well as those adult readers of YA lit that Joel Stein criticized in the New York Times recently.
“Four hunky guys on the cover? Isn’t that going a bit far with the whole love-triangle thing?” was my first thought on seeing the cover of Storm, but the female lead, 16-year-old Becca holds her own pretty well, practicing her new self-defense techniques and hiding her fear when she gets caught up in the dangerous and mysterious events involving the three Merrick brothers she knows from school, including freak storms, fires, and earthquakes they’re somehow able to control. Becca is drawn to Chris Merrick, who is vulnerable under his bravado, but the sexy new guy in school, Hunter, also has his attractions, and is a lot nicer and less prickly than Chris…
(So, it’s actually just a love triangle, not a love pentagon. This book is edgy, with some “adult” language and underage partying, but it’s not that edgy!)

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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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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

Team Zombie or Team Unicorn?: Zombies vs. Unicorns (Audio)

I hope authors of young adult fiction who didn’t get invited to write a story for Zombies vs. Unicorns didn’t feel left out or unpopular. It seems the coolest young adult authors were recruited by editors Holly Black and Justine Larbalestier to contribute either a zombie or a unicorn story, depending on preference, for this anthology of short stories. Holly (Team Unicorn) and Justine (Team Zombie), on whose blogs the original argument took shape, contribute cheers and jeers before and after each story.
Listening to the razzing from the two co-editors on the Brilliance Audio edition, I kept picturing a boisterous party with Holly and Justine and cool authors Meg Cabot, Garth Nix, Diana Peterfreund, Libba Bray, Cassandra Clare, Maureen Johnson, Carrie Ryan, Scott Westerfeld, Naomi Novik, and other less-well-known authors (but who must be cool, because they were invited) all having a great time arguing over which make for better stories: zombies (disgusting creepy corpses, or powerful metaphors for the human condition) or unicorns (wimpy play ponies, or powerful mythical creatures.)
A female perspective is noticeable in many of the stories, but the stories should appeal to male fantasy readers, as well, and romance in the stories is not confined to heterosexuals. Many of the stories are darkly humorous – an immortal unicorn bent on suicide in one; a passel of adopted zombie children in another. The audience for the book is older teens, with graphic language and details in some of the stories, so this isn’t a good choice of audiobook for the family car trip.
I enjoyed most of the stories, but Meg Cabot’s story Princess Prettypants was my favorite of the humorous ones. It takes familiar elements of young adult chick lit (the girl with a cheating ex-boyfriend, the boy next door, the unpopular but faithful friend, the high school party in the house with no parents) and throws in a stately, live unicorn with a cringe-worthy name for Liz to deal with on top of having no car, no boyfriend, no money, and no invitation to the biggest party in town.
Professional narrators Ellen Grafton, Nick Podehl, Kate Rudd, Julia Whelan, and Phil Gigante read the stories, which is good, because, although the editors’ trash talk is amusing, you can definitely tell the difference when the professional voices take over.

Other opinions about the audio version of Unicorns vs. Zombies (all good):
Alaskan Bookie
The Opinionated Me
Presenting Lenore

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