Book Review: All Rights Reserved

All Rights Reserved Cover

Katsoulis, Gregory Scott. All Rights Reserved. Harlequin Teen, 2017.

When teaching poetry, my students and I pause and discuss our favorite (school appropriate) words. There doesn’t have to be a deep, philosophical reason behind the favoriting of a word—perhaps it’s simply fun to say. Some of my favorite words include umbrella, melancholy, and cacophony.

If I lived in the dystopian world of All Rights Reserved, I would likely pay a hefty sum of money for using any of my favorite words.

Speth Jime lives in a world tightly controlled by greedy corporations, litigation happy lawyers, and stringent copyright laws. In Speth’s society, citizens receive a cuff they must wear around their wrist from their fifteenth birthday onward. The cuff records the words they speak and the gestures they make and charges the wearer appropriately. The phrase “find me”, for example, costs over eleven dollars. Citizens are also charged for hugging, holding hands, nodding, and kissing. Corporations own every word and gesture, and debt is seemingly unavoidable. Most teens live alone as their parents enter indentured servitude to pay the money they owe.

On Speth’s fifteenth birthday, her friend Beecher commits suicide moments before Speth is due to give her first speech and plug various sponsors. His actions convince Speth to keep silent and not engage in any gestures or actions that would cost money. Speth’s guardian, friends, and siblings are shocked—Speth will be unable to work or purchase goods if she chooses not to speak. This is further complicated when Speth’s older sister and the family’s bread winner, Saretha, is barred from working outside the home. As Speth strategizes various ways to save her family, she notices a growing movement of “Silents”—fellow adolescents who have chosen not to speak. Will Speth be blamed for their disobedience? Will she find a way to keep her family afloat? Will she be able to maintain her silence?

In a genre saturated with dystopian books, All Rights Reserved manages to stand out as a unique read. I was drawn into Speth’s world immediately, as the various nuances and rules seem eerily similar to today’s world. For example, Speth cannot ring her friend’s doorbell as she would be required to watch and react to an ad beforehand. This reminded me a great deal of watching an ad before a YouTube video or logging onto a website and dealing with many pop up ads. And, as an English teacher, I couldn’t help but smile at the references to classic dystopias sprinkled throughout the novel—Ayn Rand and 1984 are both subtly incorporated.

I had few complaints about Katsoulis’ novel—it was engaging and fast-paced. There were moments, though, where I hungered for more detail and explanation. Some areas of Speth’s world—the park at the book’s opening, for example—seemed to lack sensory detail. And some characters were briefly touched on, then forgotten. I was particularly captivated by Speth’s rebellious teacher, Mrs. Soleman, who is given a pivotal scene and then never mentioned again.

I plan to recommend All Rights Reserved to my students as we prepare for our upcoming dystopian literature circles. Even if you don’t teach dystopia, there are plenty of reasons to include All Rights Reserved in your classroom library or curriculum. The novel can start great conversations about rhetorical devices and advertising techniques—how do advertisers attempt to manipulate Speth and other citizens? How do advertisers manipulate us today? Students will come away from the novel with a greater appreciation for words and our ability to communicate freely, which is an extremely positive side effect.

My Favorite Book(s) of 2017

favorite read of 2017

2017 has been a great year for Young Adult fiction.

I’ve read a wide variety of books—from contemporary romance to fantasy to dystopia. YA authors have tackled important social issues, created new and exciting worlds, and spurred fandoms and film franchises.

It’s been such a great year for YA fiction that I simply couldn’t narrow my favorite 2017 read down to one. It was a struggle, even, to narrow it down to two.

So, without further ado, I am pleased to announce my favorite books of 2017: John Green’s Turtles All the Way Down and Sarah Tolcser’s Song of the Current.

Green’s newest book is all about vulnerability. Turtles All the Way Down presents the gritty reality of mental illness, a reality that extends beyond the narrator’s adolescence. The pacing is perfect, the dialogue smart and funny. During my entire read, I just kept thinking, “Yes. I’ve missed this.”

Tolcser’s pirate adventure manages to weave in moments of humor and fantastic feminist themes. The surprises and plot twists felt genuine. The characterization in Song of the Current was so well done that I was sad to leave Caro and company. As I am normally not a fan of pirates nor fantasy, Tolcser’s novel has been my most pleasant surprise of the year.

Honorable mentions include Angie Thomas’ The Hate U Give and Julia Walton’s Words on Bathroom Walls.

I will, unfortunately, have less time for reading in 2018. I will be working on the completion of my thesis for my MFA, and this coupled with full-time teaching will mean that a once-per-week book review might be a bit of a stretch. I am still planning on reading and reviewing plenty of YA books; however, the blog posts might not be as frequent. I still hope you’ll continue to read my little blog.

Here’s to plenty of great books in 2018! What were your favorites this year?

Book Review: Children of Eden

children of eden cover

Graceffa, Joey, and Laura L. Sullivan. Children of Eden: A Novel. Keywords Press/Atria, 2017.

As has already been insinuated on this blog, I love dystopias. But even my favorite dystopias can be a bit formulaic. A power-hungry dictator rises to power and dismantles society. A lone, disobedient protagonist challenges the powers that be, and an epic struggle ensues.

In many ways, Joey Graceffa’s Children of Eden fits neatly into this formula; however, it has an added facet that I found intriguing—the inclusion of many environmental and global warming issues.

In Children of Eden, human beings polluted the Earth and burned through resources at a breakneck speed. This led to a mass extinction: most humans, animals, and plants perished. Only a handful of human beings persevered and were placed in a community known as Eden, a haven devised by the benevolent visionary Aaron Al Baz. In Eden, everything is carefully monitored, recycled, and regulated, lest society slip once more into wastefulness and gluttony. This stringency is seen even in reproduction: couples are allowed only one child, and must terminate any subsequent pregnancies.

This is bad news for the protagonist, Rowan, as she is a second child. While her twin brother, Ash, enjoys going to school and socializing with friends, Rowan must stay hidden within her home. Rowan’s information about the outside world comes from Ash’s stories and careful peeks over a tall stone wall. Venturing out into Eden would be extremely dangerous—all citizens have eye implants that verify their identity, lenses that Rowan doesn’t have. But Rowan’s mother shares some shocking news—she has found a doctor who will implant Rowan’s lenses. Afterward, Rowan must live with a different family and begin life anew. Will Rowan go through with her mother’s plan? Will she ever be permitted to freely roam the streets of Eden? Is she the only second child in existence?

Children of Eden is a book with extremely strong imagery. Readers never lack for a description of Eden’s intricacies or operations. There were several exquisite details that quickly burrowed into my brain—the electric footprints left by citizens of Eden, the kaleidoscope eyes of human beings before the implantation of their lenses, and the glittering rock and crystal formations that exist underground.

That said, I found the narration dizzying. The conflict begins immediately, within the first chapter, and I felt as though I had no chance to get to know Rowan or to care deeply about her. Rowan experiences some major trauma early in the story, but she reflects on it very little. In short, I wanted to see more ways that Rowan was affected by the secrecy and shame that permeated most of her young life.

This book would be a perfect fit for a dystopian unit because, as I mentioned, it hits many standard dystopian attributes. Furthermore, the author, Joey Graceffa, is a popular YouTube personality, making Children of Eden a smart addition to a classroom or school library. As the book discusses the after effects of environmental pollution and global warming, it might be of interest to Science teachers as well.

Book Review: The Love that Split the World

love that split the world cover

Henry, Emily. The Love That Split the World. Razorbill, 2016.

Kentucky isn’t a glamorous state. The weather changes frequently–you can go to work sporting a cardigan on a frigid morning and find yourself sweating as the temperature rises at day’s end. While there are certainly beautiful natural landmarks and caves and hiking trails, there are none of the big tourist attractions you might find in other states.

I’ve lived in Kentucky my entire life. While I love to travel and experience the bustle and chaos of larger, notable locations, I have a profound love for and loyalty to the Bluegrass State. That’s why I felt both proud and giddy as I began Emily Henry’s The Love That Split the World. Set in Union, Kentucky, the novel highlights many Kentucky and Appalachian attributes–rich cultural history, oral storytelling, and strong familial ties–without falling into overused tropes and stereotypes. And the Kentucky native in me squealed at the sprinkling of Kentucky-specific details: mentions of the University of Kentucky, Northern Kentucky University, and Ale-8 One (a soft drink sold only in Kentucky and a small number of surrounding areas).

Natalie Cleary is closing the book on her high school career. While she participates in the traditional parades and Senior Nights that the end of the school year entails, she is also looking to what lies ahead. She has been admitted to Brown University where she hopes to study history and learn more about her heritage. Adopted at birth by doting parents, Natalie is Native American and feels out of place beside her blonde, blue-eyed siblings. She is also feeling a lack of connection toward the activities and people she once loved–her ex-boyfriend, Matt, friend Rachel, and her high school dance team.

Natalie’s race isn’t the only thing that makes her feel different. Since childhood, she’s had nightly visits from a phantom–an elderly woman she has come to call Grandmother. Grandmother imparts wisdom in the form of fables and tall tales, and Natalie is comforted by her presence. After a visit with a psychologist, Natalie fears Grandmother has finally disappeared; however, as high school ends, Grandmother reappears with a chilling message: Natalie has just three months to save him. She doesn’t specify who him is, and Natalie is on-edge. Shortly after the visit, Natalie’s world begins to change. Sporadic flashes reveal a second, strikingly different Union than the one that Natalie has known her entire life. While her friends and family exist in the new Union, she does not. While in this new world, Natalie encounters Beau, a boy who does not exist in her world. As she and Beau try to sort out their unique predicament, Natalie is frantic to decipher Grandmother’s cryptic warning. Will she be able to save the mysterious him?

The transition from high school to adulthood is a complex time, and Henry does a fantastic job capturing all of Natalie’s angst and confusion. Natalie wants to maintain relationships with the people and traditions she has come to love while, at the same time, she knows she must assert her own independence and find her place in the world. All the characters are round and multi-faceted. I especially enjoyed NKU professor Alice Chan, Natalie’s twin siblings Jack and Coco, even Natalie’s Saint Bernard, Gus.

While the characterization, imagery, and plot in The Love that Split the World were all fantastic, I often found the rules and nuances of Natalie’s time-bending abilities confusing and difficult to follow. Perhaps this will be clearer for readers who are more familiar with time travel fiction or media. In my case, I simply had to accept Natalie’s abilities as the story unfolded.

I would love to introduce this book to my students–positive portrayals of Kentucky are increasingly difficult to find. That aside, this book would be relatable to graduating seniors, adopted students, or anyone who is facing a big transition. The Love that Split the World discusses what it means to love deeply and unconditionally, a topic worth thinking about and discussing.

 

Book Review: The Upworld

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Frantz, Lindsey S. The Upworld. Line by Lion Publications, 2017. Print.

Appalachia is my home, but depictions of the area in movies and books haven’t always been kind.

In recent years, I’ve been happy to see a surge of writing that celebrates Appalachia by acknowledging its flaws but also highlighting its beauty, knack for storytelling, and strong community ties. That’s why I was excited to begin reading Lindsey Frantz’s debut YA novel The Upworld, set entirely in Kentucky.

In a dystopian future, Appalachia has been divided into three distinct factions: those who dwell above ground in communities, those who dwell in caves below ground, and the Wylden, dangerous savages who travel in packs. Erilyn spent her early life below ground until a shameful accident wrought by her telekinetic abilities forced her to move “up world”. There, she met and befriended a woman named Rosemarie who taught her to forage and live off the land. After Rosemarie’s death, Erilyn lives alone in a pine tree with only her large feral cat, Luna, for company. Everything changes when a boy from one of the communities, Finn, runs into the forest, pursued by Wylden.

After assisting Finn via her supernatural abilities, Erilyn nurses him back to health. The two develop feelings for one another, but as Winter looms closer, Erilyn knows that she cannot forage enough food to sustain two people. She convinces Finn to return to his community of Sunnybrook, but Finn refuses unless she accompanies him. It’s been so long since Erilyn was around others—will she adjust? Will the citizens of Sunnybrook discover her abilities? Does Finn’s ex, Morrigan, have it out for Erilyn? Is the mayor of Sunnybrook, Cillian, as innocent and friendly as he seems? And will Erilyn ever face the damage she caused below ground?

Frantz masterfully builds tension and suspense in The Upworld. Whether Erilyn, Finn, Luna, and company are running from Wylden, fighting their way out of Sunnybrook, or crawling through underground caverns, a sense of urgency is continuously present. Erilyn’s abilities are plainly stated and readers can easily put themselves in her shoes. The characters are multi-faceted—like Erilyn, we aren’t entirely sure who to trust. And the cover is beautiful—this is certainly a book you’ll want to display on your bookshelf and photograph for Instagram.

I desired more spark between Finn and Erilyn, perhaps more scenes of them growing together during their time alone in the forest. I also didn’t care for the nickname “Eri”—but I’m never a fan of shortening a main character’s name.

This novel would be a perfect addition to a dystopian unit. I’m using the prologue of this story (found in this anthology) with my classes this school year. Students who are fans of The Hunger Games and other books featuring powerful female protagonists will certainly be enthralled with both Erilyn and The Upworld.

Book Review: Song of the Current (June Uppercase Box)

song of the current cover

Tolcser, Sarah. Song of the Current. New York: Bloomsbury, 2017. Print.

Sometimes, being wrong is a good thing.

I’ve never been a big fan of pirate stories. The Pirates of the Caribbean movies admittedly lull me to sleep. Novels set at sea or within a boat have never been my first choice of reading material. So, when I saw a copy of Sarah Tolcser’s Song of the Current in my June Uppercase Box, I steeled myself for disappointment.

And I’m happy to report I was wrong. Very wrong. Tolcser’s novel is quite possibly the best book I’ve received from Uppercase and one of my favorite reads of 2017 (so far).

Caroline “Caro” Oresteia has spent her life on the river aboard her father’s wherry, Cormorant. She assists her father in delivering cargo and the occasional shipment of smuggled weapons. Caro’s father converses heavily with the god of the river, and Caro hopes that someday she too might have an experience with the divine. In the meantime, Caro’s focus is singular: she wants to take the reins of Cormorant upon her father’s retirement.

Caro’s life changes when she and her father sail into the town of Hespera’s Watch. There, the duo learns that a group of outlaws known as the Black Dogs have destroyed wherries in pursuit of an important piece of cargo. When officials in Hespera’s Watch cannot convince Caro’s father to carry this cargo to the intended recipient, he is jailed. Caro, in exchange for her father’s freedom, decides to sail Cormorant on her own and make the delivery. Caro is given a letter of marque and strict instructions not to open the box she is transporting. But, after a close scuffle with the Black Dogs, Caro can no longer resist—she has to open the box. What is inside? Why are the Black Dogs determined to confiscate it? Will Caro free her father?

Song of the Current’s strengths lie in its pacing and characterization. Whereas most novels that take place at sea tend to feel slow, the urgency behind Caro’s mission keeps the action moving. And Caro Oresteia is an intriguing, multi-faceted protagonist. Her love of the water, fierce loyalty to her family, and desire to converse with the gods will have the reader rooting for her from the book’s very beginning.

There is little to dislike in Tolcser’s tale. Those unfamiliar with sailing (like me!) might struggle with the nautical terminology, though Tolcser’s website contains a glossary. There is also an undefined though clearly burgeoning romantic relationship at the book’s end, and I wanted a bit more clarity. There is a sequel slated for next summer, though, so I’m hoping to receive answers then.

I am excited to recommend this book to my students, particularly those who enjoy novels with lots of action and suspense. Song of the Current makes some great social commentary as well—there are themes of political coercion, class warfare, and revolution. I can only hope that discussing Tolcser’s novel with my students will hold me over until the release of the sequel.

Book Review: Caraval

caraval cover

Garber, Stephanie. Caraval. Flatiron, 2017. Print.

As an aspiring author, I am always eager to hear how today’s popular writers overcome rejection and adversity.

I was fortunate to see many great young adult authors at this year’s BookCon, among them Stephanie Garber. Sitting on a panel with other YA authors, Garber talked about the sacrifices she made while penning her novel Caraval, including moving back in with her parents and dealing with various rejections from publishers. This surprised me as I’d seen Caraval’s beautiful cover on bestseller lists and Instagram posts. The humility and friendliness Garber displayed made me even more anxious to get my hands on Caraval.

Scarlett Dragna and her sister Donatella have grown up hearing fantastical stories of Caraval. A mixture between a carnival, scavenger hunt, and circus, Caraval takes place at a different location each year and is orchestrated by a mysterious man named Legend. Although Scarlett has longed to attend the event since childhood, she remains planted on her home island of Trisda, carefully watched by her cruel and abusive father. When her father orchestrates a marriage between Scarlett and a mysterious Count, Scarlett feels the remainder of her life has been mapped out. She might not ever get to see Caraval, but the marriage will present her with the opportunity to get away from her father and take Donatella with her.

Just as Scarlett has accepted her fate, she receives a personal letter and invitation from Legend himself. She at first resists the idea of attending, but after some forceful persuasion from her sister and Julian, a mischievous sailor, Scarlett finds herself heading to Caraval. Participants are tasked with solving a mystery using various clues spread throughout the island. After Scarlett and Donatella are separated, Scarlett is horrified to learn that, this year, the game will revolve around locating her missing sister. Scarlett must work quickly in order to locate Donatella and return to Trisda before her upcoming wedding. Will the sisters ever be reunited? Can Scarlett trust Julian? And why did Legend request Scarlett’s presence?

Although fantasy is not my favorite genre, I have read a few novels with such fantastic world building that I’ve suspended my disbelief: the Harry Potter series, Alice in Wonderland, and now Caraval. This novel is drenched in imagery—rich descriptions of clothing and jewelry, vivid landscapes and interiors, various magical items and people, etc. Like all well-written fantasy novels, readers will believe the possibilities are endless for Scarlett. It is feasible that she would find a hidden passageway or take a potion that turns her world black and white or bring the dead back to life.

There are moments, however, when the descriptions in Caraval teeter toward ridiculousness. For example, a book in the novel is described as being “the color of dark fairy tales”. Two of the main characters are also extremely flat: Scarlett’s father and Scarlett’s fiancé.

Still, Caraval is a truly magical read from beginning to end, and students will be enraptured by Scarlett’s tale. There are a variety of ways to use this novel in the classroom. I’m planning on having my students annotate passages from Caraval when teaching imagery. With such lush, fantastic writing, there are few texts better suited for the job.