Author: Barry Denenberg
Genre: Preteen, Historical
Pandora is not your average Ancient Greek girl. She really hates doing what girls are supposed to do, like staying inside as much as possible and learning household duties (did I mention she’s betrothed to a very boring man?). When she meets the philosopher Socrates while fetching water from the well one day, her life changes. With the help of a boy and a disguise, Pandora attends gatherings to hear Socrates speak and, ultimately, his trial. After the final verdict is given, Pandora must decide if she’ll stay or if she’ll leave.
When I was younger, I adored the Royal Diaries series. Not only did I enjoy the fictional diaries of famous historical figures like Elizabeth I, Cleopatra, and Marie Antoinette, I read the historical notes over and over again and stared at the family trees. The series encouraged me to learn more about history. Pandora of Athens is part of a series by the same people behind Royal Diaries, called Life and Times. For readers aged ten to thirteen, the the story is a good starting place to learn more about Ancient Greece.
However, as a lover of all things Ancient Greece, I found the plot of Pandora to be rather disappointing. The author obviously did his research, but the facts often overshadowed the plot in that they were not integrated very seamlessly. Adult characters explained wars, mythology, ways of life, and philosophy to Pandora, but few of these things were actually shown. In addition, the story doesn’t really show what it’s really like to be a woman in 399 BC Athens. First of all, Pandora is portrayed as very much a modern girl. While this makes her relatable to preteen girls reading her story, it might be a little misleading with regards to how life was really like for the average Ancient Greek woman. In fact, Pandora becomes a boy so that readers will find her interesting. Women and girls had important roles in Classical Athens. For example, they were very important in the many festivals had by the Ancient Greeks. I just feel like these women did have cause to be admired!
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Author: Jean Kwok
Genre: General, Young Adult
When Kimberly Chang and her mother emigrate from Hong Kong to New York, the change is more jarring than they could have ever imagined. Not only do they have to adapt to a new culture and language, Kimberly and her mother must endure hard work in a Chinatown factory in order to stay living in their vermin-infested Brooklyn apartment. She is caught between two worlds. In her old home, Kimberly was known for her “talent for school.” In her new home, she must overcome numerous obstacles to get her talent back and use it to make a better life.
Girl in Translation, based partially on the author’s life, is an honest story about a girl’s growing up in extraordinary circumstances. In many ways, the story is a typical coming-of-age story (complete with romance), but the interweaving of Chinese culture makes it unique.
While descriptions of Kimberly’s home and factory life were well-developed and added to the richness of the story, her school life wasn’t described in the same detail. Her transition from grade to grade in high school, for example, becomes predictable and the reader is simply expected to believe Kimberly is exceptional at school without really trying. Her valuing education to the extent she does is admirable, but her journey lacks relatable struggle (aside from her having to better her English) and even passion.
Spoilers ahead. I have conflicting opinions about the ending. While I greatly admire Kimberly’s choice and the complexities behind it, I thought that a certain event was included only for added drama and didn’t really contribute to the story because it changed very little. The subplot was very rushed.
In short, I enjoyed the story and wish the ending had been better.
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Author: Ann Brashares
Genre: General, Young Adult
Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants is about four best friends who, while separated one summer, are connected by a pair of jeans that magically fit their different bodies. Lena goes to Santorini, Greece, to visit her grandparents; Carmen visits the father she only gets to see a few times a year; Bridget goes to soccer camp; and Tibby starts a new job at a grocery store—at home. The pants, shared between the friends over the summer, reinforce their childhood friendship and help them find the strength to tackle important life lessons on their own.
The strength of the book was that it portrays each girl honestly. Their personalities are distinct. There are no malicious characters or major external circumstances to overcome; each character develops through facing her own flaws. The often judgmental Tibby, for example, learns how to see different sides of people through her new friendship with Bailey, a twelve-year-old girl dying from leukemia.
“Tibby nodded, feeling equal parts awe for Bailey and disappointment in herself. All she’d ever noticed about Angela were her fingernails.”
In a way, the book is about people’s growth through experiencing different kinds of love. Bridget unabashedly pursues an attractive—and older—boy at camp, Carmen worries her father loves her less because of his new family, Lena realizes she has fallen in love with a local Greek boy, and Tibby forms a life-changing friendship.
The book’s only major flaw was its writing. There is a lack of variety in sentence structure (“Carmen felt… She was… She did… She went…”), which made the story sound overly repetitive at times. In addition, the abrupt switches from character to character were confusing.
Like the movie, I couldn’t read the book without bawling at the end. The story is for young girls, but I think there are aspects of the story that will be inspiring for everyone.
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Author: Margaret Atwood
The Handmaid’s Tale is likely the story that inspired the popular female-driven YA dystopian novels of today. If you’ve read any of Lauren DeStefano’s Chemical Garden series or Caragh M. O’Brien’s Birthmarked series, for example, you will recognize elements of Atwood’s story. However, The Handmaid’s Tale lacks their hope or themes of female empowerment. The grimness of the story inspires you in an entirely different way.
Offred lives in a frightening world. Since the United States government was overthrown by a dictatorship and renamed The Republic of Gilead, women’s lives have become remarkably different. Declining fertility has made women’s bodies valuable. Offred—not her original name—belongs to the class of handmaids, or concubines, whose sole purpose is to serve powerful men and, hopefully, provide them with children. Offred’s life is monotonous. She’s trapped in a world where women are no longer allowed to have her own jobs, money, families. They aren’t allowed to read. Atwood reminds us again and again about the tragedy of Offred’s situation through references to “how it used to be” and flashbacks of when Offred had a normal life—including a husband and little daughter.
Whether the very subtle Tess of the D’Urbervilles references were intentional or not is unknown to me, but they make sense. Offred is subject to men’s double standards and must do whatever is asked of her, even if rules forbid it. When she falls, she is the one who has to pay.
What else is there to say about this novel that hasn’t been said before? This was my first Margaret Atwood novel and, while I agree that is a very good writer, I don’t feel compelled to devour her other books. However, I highly recommend this novel to fans of dystopians or precautionary tales.
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Author: Lauren Oliver
If you haven’t yet read the first book in Lauren Oliver’s Delirium trilogy and plan to, I suggest not reading this review to avoid spoilers. This review will be brief because I read the book so long ago.
Instead of picking up exactly where the first book left off, Pandemonium fast forwards to the new Lena—the Lena transformed by new life in the Wilds as a fugitive. The Lena who is now a resistance fighter against the Delirium Free Association (DFA).
The story alternates between “Now” and “Then” Lena, which, to me, was distracting at times. While telling the story this way helped to explain Lena’s transformation from refugee to resistance fighter, I find that I will always prefer one part of the story over another whenever chapters alternate. I am also finding that second books in trilogies often feel fragmented because of the building action (that will peak in book three). The disjointed storytelling of Pandemonium is a good example of this.
While I was admittedly disappointed by Pandemonium, the ending left me confused emotionally. The ending made me roll my eyes. It made me angry. But it also made me wanting the next book right then. Lauren Oliver is still a master at character development and her writing is still excellent here.
The last book in the trilogy, Requiem, comes out March 5, 2013.
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Author: Maureen Johnson
Genre: Mystery, Thriller
It’s Rippermania 2.0! After leaving her American life for a new start in a London boarding school, Southerner Rory Deveaux finds herself in the middle of a Jack the Ripper copycat’s killing frenzy. And the events are no less mysterious than the events of more than a century ago. The police and investigators have no witnesses and the murderer seems to be invisible… until Rory comes forward and claims to have seen him on the night of one of the murders—and on school property.
The Name of the Star is a very well-written and intelligent book. The blurbs have all the right words: “chilling” and “atmospheric” and “will leave you [...] dreaming of London.” Maureen Johnson brilliantly captures and even mocks the sensationalism that latches on to tragic events steeped in the unknown. Her descriptions are well-researched—everything from Rory’s dorm room to characters’ accents to the London Underground to the gritty facts and myths of Jack the Ripper’s Victorian murders. The story, with its wonderful London history-ness, is perfect for history lovers.
The characters are also very well-developed. Even the pasts of secondary characters are explained to give readers a broader understanding of their motives. Cockney girl Boo was probably my favorite character!
Stop reading if you want to know nothing about the ending. The one thing that could have been better-crafted was the ending. Rory is a courageous character, but the ending did not prove this as well as it could have. In fact, what happened was deus ex machina-esque.
The next book in the series, The Madness Underneath, will be released January 2, 2013.
I don’t usually pair songs with books, but I couldn’t stop thinking about how perfect Florence + The Machine’s “Seven Devils” goes with the story.
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Author: Markus Zusak
Genre: Mystery, Humor, Inspirational
Ed Kennedy is a nineteen-year-old taxi driver with no real sense of purpose and a disconcerting acceptance of monotony. His mother dislikes him, his dream girl is seemingly oblivious of his feelings for her, and his friends are just like he is—not at all determined to make something of themselves. When Ed accidentally becomes a local hero after stopping a bank robbery, he begins to receive playing cards with addresses and people’s names. Although he is unsure of what to do with them, he senses their importance. He knows he has been given important missions to complete. With nothing but his head and heart to guide him, Ed sets out to impact the lives of complete strangers.
I Am the Messenger will be enjoyed by fans of the author’s more known novel, The Book Thief. Like that book, the prose is unique and clever and pretty. Every so often, there are sentences worth writing down for later. Although this book is not as exciting as The Book Thief, the profoundness of Zusak’s writing almost makes up for it. This is a story about a young man’s mundane life after all—or so it begins that way. It isn’t the kind of book you cannot put down, but it’s the kind of book you think about afterwards. Your patience will be rewarded, I assure you!
The first chapter deserves much praise and recognition. It’s perhaps the most exciting chapter of the entire book, but it’s probably one of the best attention-grabbing first chapters I have ever read. Markus Zusak is a gifted writer.
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Author: Ruta Sepetys
Many 1940s-set stories of oppression in the YA genre are about the Holocaust. I know because I’ve read many and have been touched by many. Because of these stories, however, younger me viewed Soviets only as saviors and liberators. Between Shades of Grey, which concerns the Soviet oppression of the Baltic states, proves that, in war, there is no one good side. Stalin’s reign was not unlike Hitler’s reign. It’s important to realize that evil does not originate from any one people or country or part of the world. But good is found everywhere as well—and that’s even more important.
The novel tells the story of fifteen-year-old Lina, a Lithuanian girl who is transported to Siberia with her family and other supposed criminals. The book, with its short chapters and uncomplicated plot, is very easy to read. In a strange way, the simplicity adds a certain depth. Readers unfamiliar with the history of the Baltic countries and what happened there during World War II might be confused due to the lack of detailed explanations (there is a historical note at the end, but I think there are spoilers there). But, then again, so is Lina. She is also in the dark about the facts and the reasons and the whys. She doesn’t know where her father is and she doesn’t understand why her family and countless others have to suffer.
The narrative alternates between past and present—Lina’s old, normal life and her new life of hardship working for the Soviets in the cold north. The flashbacks emphasize the hardship and heartbreak. While the reality faced by many real people is there, much of it is watered down. It’s a hopeful read and the emphasis is on human strength, not victimhood. This strength is perhaps best shown by Lina’s mother, who, when Lina resents too much, acts as her role model for kindness and empathy.
Lastly, Lina is an artist and expresses herself and attempts to communicate to her father through her drawings. For anyone interested in reading the book, you might want to look up paintings by the artist Edvard Munch. His “The Scream” is referred to numerous times and it might enhance your reading experience if you’ve seen the painting.
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Author: Caragh O’Brien
Please read no further if you have not read the first book in the series, Birthmarked. Unless, of course, you don’t care about spoilers.
We pick up where Birthmark left us hanging. Gaia Stone is wandering the wilderness with her baby sister, Maya. She has nothing but hope to cling to. She is looking for her grandmother. When her sister is at death’s door, they’re both rescued and taken to a new community, Sylum.
In the matriarchal Sylum, baby girls are a rarity and Maya is immediately taken away. Gaia is trapped and forced to work as a midwife once again. Her skill is recognized, but the Matrarc, Sylum’s leader, has her under her firm control. Gaia must unravel the mystery of why the people of Sylum are unable to leave and, in the process, fight to find herself and what she believes in again.
First of all, I very much respect the wisdom the characters are written with. Gaia’s decisions are explored sensibly; she really is a strong female character. Every character is written with their thoughts, motives, backgrounds, wants, emotions, and more in mind. Caragh O’Brien makes you care deeply for her characters.
The story is not as fast-paced as Birthmarked. As well, the first half of Prized was more interesting than the second. The politics and rules of Sylum are fascinating. A few controversial issues were addressed (abortion, for example) and Gaia handles them all like an intelligent teenager. The second half devotes itself almost too much to a rather complicated love square, which made me lose interest somewhat—but! The events that unfold as a result are important to the story.
The Birthmarked trilogy is, in my opinion, one of the better YA dystopian trilogies out there at the moment. I am excited for book three!
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Author: Orson Scott Card
Genre: Science Fiction
The Buggers are coming for Earth again. Seventy years after Earth’s last victory, mankind is determined not to ever lose that battle—so much so that they’ve tampered with human genetics in order to breed genius children. These children are monitored from birth and, if they are deemed suitable, placed in battle school in outer space to determine their potential as soldiers. In the midst of impending alien war and Earth’s own political conflicts is Ender Wiggin, a six-year-old boy recruited by Colonel Graff because he has the perfect balance of violence and compassion.
Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game is seemingly for children—but only because it’s about children. The young characters, however, are burdened with adult responsibilities and decisions. They aren’t treated like children; they’re treated like instruments. Buried under the book’s intense action scenes, where Ender must partake in simulated war, or training games, are philosophical questions that require closer examination and reflection. In Ender’s world, children come of age before they’ve had the chance to have a childhood. Ender, for example, at six and seven years old, learns to question the rights and wrongs of his superiors. He discovers quickly that he can only be the soldier they want him to be if he follows his gut. But does he want to become that soldier?
The story, published in the 1970s, reflects the Cold War tensions of its time. It poses questions concerning governments’ use of fear to control people, propaganda, violence—issues that are still lurking in our society today. As well, issues about religion and race are not ignored. When Ender, for example, is told that the Buggers will never return and that America is using this threat to maintain order, he realizes that the seed of doubt has inhibited leaders’ ability to control him completely.
The book poses even more important questions: When does violence go too far? At what point does it become justified? Is it the actions themselves, or is it just the intent? When does the game become real? When does war become genocide? The internal conflicts of Ender’s Game are the most important conflicts in the story. Ender is afraid of his violent tendencies. He fights to defend himself, even beating a boy after he is down to prevent him from ever bullying him the future, for example. His decisions in the games disturb him. Why does he shoot? Why does he kill? He is afraid of being too much like his sadistic brother Peter, who tortures and kills squirrels for fun. And then there’s his sister Valentine, the only person Ender really loves, and her internal struggle. She’s a talented writer and she loves Ender and his humanity, but she finds herself drawn to Peter’s plans for world domination, which begin with their masquerading as adults and posting radical political opinions in international debates. She hates that she enjoys manipulating people into wanting what she wants.
The story was first published in the 1970s, but young readers today will recognize many of the gadgets that were fictional at the time. Before the laptop, the internet, and enhanced video games, this book made people imagine them. The action, strong female characters, philosophical questions, and dramatic twist will ensure that most people will find something to appreciate about the story.