I don’t know how honor students in high school today manage not to have nervous breakdowns on a regular basis. I went to a school that had a fairly good “enrichment” program starting in elementary school and followed that program straight through taking AP level classes in high school. Perhaps it is only because I attended a relatively small school (with a graduating class of just under 100 students), but I never felt any extreme pressure to work the system for the highest possible GPA. We were all encouraged to do our best, to take AP exams to save on time/money in college, to apply for college and scholarships based on our interests, and to also participate in other extra-curricular activities. My classmates and I had the general knowledge that extra-curricular activities could impact our college applications, but we didn’t spend every waking moment calculating which activities would look best on college applications — we just chose the activities that supported our interests. (What a concept!)
Reshma Kapoor is a fictional character, but my experiences in working with teens over the last decade or so have shown me that she is absolutely based on reality… I wasn’t even working with teens who attended super elite schools, and many of them were still beyond stressed about which classes they needed to take and which activities would best round-out their college applications. (Some of them actually started worrying about college in middle school!) In addition to the fact that Reshma attends an über elite and highly competitive school, though, she also faces a lot of pressure from her Asian-American parents who believe that studying and doing well in school are of the utmost importance. For nearly her entire life, she has focused on academic achievement with an end-goal of becoming a doctor. Now that senior year is here and Reshma is *this* close to graduating, she is fully dedicated to keeping her position as valedictorian and getting accepted to Stanford. Especially now that Reshma has a literary agent who is interested in helping her publish a book, she is certain that she has an edge on the competition. If only she wasn’t so lacking in life experience and knew more about “typical” teenagers, she might have an easier time writing that book… So, she’ll just have to make a friend and get a boyfriend to get some plot points. How hard could it possibly be?!?
Nina Barrows doesn’t like to sleep at night. A few hours right before school and then a cat nap during the day is fine, but that is about all she is comfortable with. Why? Because falling asleep gives her the ability to connect with the mind of a serial killer who calls himself the Thief. Nina is familiar with his family, his home, his work, and his methods of stalking and killing his prey. When she was little, Nina tried to tell her mother about her connection with this older boy, but her mother just thought she had an imaginary friend. As she got older, Nina realized that people might simply think she was crazy, so she decided not to talk about it any more. But she wonders whether she might be able to stop him; if there might be some way to use her “power” for good. There are just two problems with that, though… One is that she needs to convince her former best friend, Warren, to help her track down the Thief. And the other, of course, is the fact that she may be putting her own life in danger if she manages to find him.
Warren is not so sure that he believes in this psychic connection, but he admits that there are an awful lot of coincidences and he doesn’t want Nina to go off completely on her own. Nina starts to doubt herself, once Warren has sown some seeds of doubt, but she is insistent on following through to see if this man really is the dangerous sociopath, the Thief, she has seen in her dreams. This psychological thriller has so many twists and turns that it will surely keep you guessing all the way until the end.
Imagine how difficult life would be if your dad walked out when you were still a little kid and your mom is a druggie who keeps ending up in jail. Now, imagine that your younger siblings are in danger of being sent to foster care because you’re only 17 and would need to be at least 18 before you could legally take guardianship. And then, finally, imagine your mom’s sister — your own aunt — won’t take you all in unless you agree to pay her more money than you can actually afford to stay in her tiny, dirty apartment. As horrible as that may seem, it’s pretty much just another day for Michelle. She has been doing the best she can to stay on track for high school graduation and she works as many hours as she can at Taco Bell so that she can take care of her family, but Michelle feels like she is about to reach her breaking point. And that, of course, is when a strange guy walks in during her shift at Taco Bell and informs her that her biological dad, Buck, is dying. Is it too much to hope that Buck, despite having left all those years ago, might be able to help Michelle and her siblings in their time of need? And will the sudden appearance of Tim (the guy at the Taco Bell) and his step-sister Leah (who is actually Michelle’s half-sister) make things better or worse? Only time, and a cross-country road trip, will tell.
Though it may seem like an awful lot to tackle, LaMarche does a fantastic job showing how love and friendship can transcend socio-economic and racial differences. Though this book was rather heartbreaking at times, it also had moments of hilarity, and I found that it left me with an overall feeling of hope.
Matteo Alacran was not simply born; he was implanted in and later harvested from a cow that was designed to incubate clones. And not only was Matteo a clone, but he was a very special case. Most clones were lobotomized at birth and simply existed to provide organ transplants to the people from whom they were cloned. Matteo was the clone of a man called El Patron, the dictator of a land called Opium. El Patron was born to a poor family in a very poor town and lived a decidedly difficult life, but he worked his way up to be one of the richest and most infamous people in the world. Though he couldn’t go back in time and change his own childhood, El Patron was able to provide Matteo with tutors and music lessons and to watch a version of himself have the things he never did.
Matteo was so sheltered that he didn’t even know that he was a clone until he was nearly a teen, but then he felt somehow protected from the fate of the other clones because of the time and money El Patron had put into raising him. After all, who would waste all that time and money on a clone they only planned to kill later? Even setting that fear aside, though, what else is impacted by his status as a clone? Can Matteo possibly attain any sort of personal freedom, or will he always “belong” to El Patron? And, if he does, in fact, belong to El Patron, is he entitled to set any of his own goals or focus on his own happiness? Readers who enjoyed thought-provoking books of the Unwind Dystology should definitely check this one out.
Children in the land of Quill are raised in a perpetual state of fear. They are expected to live by very rigid rules and too many instances of rule breaking could get them labeled as an Unwanted. Being told that you are “unwanted” may sound cruel in and of itself, but it’s actually much worse than that. There is an annual Purge, and the 13-year-olds are separated into Wanteds, Necessaries, and Unwanteds. All of the Unwanteds are then rounded up and sent to the Death Farm. So, what are these infractions that are worthy of getting a child sentenced to death? Anything creative, for starters — drawing and singing are absolutely not allowed. It is also particularly bad if a child displays any curiosity or, worse yet, questions authority and/or the status quo. After all, “Quill prevails when the strong survive.”
Alex has known for a long time that he was an Unwanted and that his twin brother, Aaron, was a Wanted. Though he knew that Aaron could have been labeled Unwanted right along with him, he accepted the blame for his brother’s drawing to keep him safe. Imagine Alex’s surprise, then, when he got to the Death Farm and discovered that it was actually a ruse. Mr. Today pretended to be the executioner of the Unwanteds, but he was actually a wizard who created a hidden land, Artime, in which the Unwanteds were encouraged to find their happiness and express their creativity. Had he only known the truth, he would have turned his brother in and actually saved him! Sadly, he is now forbidden to have any contact with his brother. They are ALL forbidden from returning to [or even contacting anyone in] Quill because it would surely endanger the entire land of Artime and all the people living there if the leaders of Quill learned that they had been fooled. But, how can he simply leave his brother in that terrible place? Especially knowing that another boy in Artime is looking for a way to sneak back into Quill to get revenge on Aaron. Surely there must be a way to save him…
John “Smoke” Conlan is serving time at a juvenile detention center known to most simply as the Y. He’s there because he was convicted of murdering two people — but he didn’t really kill his teacher, Mrs. Cruz, and the boy he killed was an accident. That boy, by the way, happened to be the only other witness to Mrs. Cruz’ murder. Ack! (John feels so guilty about both of those deaths, though, he doesn’t really feel like he deserves any better than the Y.)
John earned the nickname “Smoke” because he seems to have the ability to go anywhere and see anything. No one knows quite how he manages to get all the information he does, but they’re more than happy to enlist his services. In truth, people probably wouldn’t believe him if he told them. You see, ever since his near death experience, John has had the ability to separate himself from his body and to navigate through the world in a ghostly form. That was how he witnessed Mrs. Cruz’ murder in the first place, and that is how he gets information for other people at the Y. If it wasn’t for a run-in with a girl he calls Pink, who can see and communicate with him, he probably would have given up on himself completely. But, because Pink seems to believe in him — and because he wants to protect her, since she wound up in danger after visiting him at the Y — John finds the courage to search a little harder and to try and clear his name…
Although Vivian Apple never really believed in the teachings of the Church of America, she was forced to re-evaluate when her beliefs when her parents disappeared — especially after she found holes in their bedroom ceiling the morning after the predicted “Rapture.” She always thought that The Book of Frick (named after the man who created the Church of America) was a bit over the top — especially considering the fact that it touted conservative behaviors and traditional gender roles but claimed that God loved America best because of its capitalistic tendencies. At times, it was hard to tell if this book was intended to be a parody or simply an exaggerated to make a point. What I know for sure, nevertheless, is that I’ve never read anything quite like it. A strong female character who is examining her beliefs while navigating through changing friendships, a developing romance, and the end of the world? Sign me up!