Wednesday, January 25

Going Underground

by Susan Vaught  
Bloomsbury 2011

Three years after a school incident turns him into a felon, can Del find love and a life outside the graveyard where he works?  

Yeah, I said graveyard.

Del is seventeen, and digging graves isn't just the only job he can find that doesn't do background checks, but it gives him plenty of time to think about how he got here. With a parole officer checking to make sure he tries to get into a college, and a therapist helping him sort out his issues, you would think Del was a hellion who had gone on a murderous spree.  

His crime: sexting with his girlfriend when they were fourteen.  

At the time of the original incident Del was a straight-A kid, an athlete, with a good future ahead of him. And when he and his girlfriend sent each other pictures of themselves naked they thought, well, they thought they were being responsible by doing that instead of having sex. Turns out they probably should have had sex, because according to the law his girlfriend was under the age of consent (a few weeks shy of her fourteenth birthday) and that made what Del did a sex crime. As in, sex offender. As in, on your permanent record for decades.  

For three years since Del, more than any of his friends, have had to deal with the taint of this offense. Del wasn't the only one participating in sexting. At an overnight event on school grounds Del and his friends were talking about the images their girlfriends had sent them when they had their cell phones confiscated. The teachers who took the phones saw the images and, by law, reported what they found to the police. The next thing they knew they were at the police station being questioned. Despite Del's parents, and his girlfreind's parents, refusal to press charges in favor of dealing with it themselves it was the local DA who was going to use this case, and Del, as an example. In the fallout, his girlfreind's parents decided to move away from the town in protest, Del's friends kept their distance, and Del was reduced to the pariah status of a predatory sex offender.  

And, again, all because the kids thought they were being responsible by sending each other naked photos of themselves instead of having sex.  

Del does manage to find a new girlfriend who doesn't think what he did was wrong, and he does manage to find a college willing to take a chance on a kid willing to be frank and open about his situation, but the central questions about whether what Del and the other kids was right or wrong is one the reader can mull over and discuss with friends.

Vaught's style is breezy and unobtrusive, it gets the job done without being preachy and without fully taking the stand that what Del did was okay. The story does lean toward the idea that prosecuting minors as sex offenders is harsh and underscores how much damage can be done to teens in an effort to  "crack down" on bad behavior through excessive legislation. It would probably make a good stating point for a lively classroom discussion, though in places where it would probably be beneficial the book will no doubt be offensive to some adults and get a school or teacher in trouble for using it as a legitimate classroom tool.

Monday, January 23

Guantanamo Boy

by Anna Perera
Albert Whitman   2011

On a family vacation to Pakistan sis months after 9/11 a teen boy is picked up as an enemy combatant and taken to Guantanamo Bay where he is tortured, all the while wondering how he got there...

This is one of those stories you want to like, want to be able to recommend, have a hard time not putting too many eggs into your basket of hope, because it's a solid idea that just dies on the page.

Khalid is a typical Pakistani-British teen boy. Okay, maybe not entirely typical, he does seem a bit naive, but down the road he's just one of his mates when it comes to soccer and all. And like many a teen boy everywhere he's very much into online gaming, particularly with his worldly cousin Tariq. When Khalid's grandmother dies his parents decide they are going to visit the family in Pakistan during Easter break. Form there it's a drawn out hop, skip, and a jump before Khalid finds himself in a wrong-place-wrong-time situation and he's in Gitmo wondering why and how he got there.

This book was a slog unlike any I've endured in some time. If I didn't already agree with the politics of the detention center at Guantanamo – or rather, if I didn't agree that Gitmo was and is a terrible violation of human rights with little to justify it – I couldn't have managed past the first chapter. Written in a stilted and distancing first-person, with characters that fall flat and a plot that has to be sifted from the silt of information this book is crammed with, I kept hoping that soon, soon, it would turn a corner and pry my eyelids open. I know there's a good, and important, book in here somewhere, but it would take a team of gifted surgeons to find it.

So this story is out there, still, waiting for someone to tell it so that young readers can see what's really been going on in the name of The War on Terror. This book simply isn't it though.

Thursday, January 19


by Harlan Coben
A Mickey Bolitar Novel
Putnam  2011

When his girlfriend goes missing, and no one else seems to notice or care, Mickey begins to dig around and finds himself caught up in a web of... human sex trafficking!

His dad is dead, his mom is in rehab, his girlfriend of three weeks has gone missing, and the neighborhood crazy lady has scared the pants off Mickey... all in the first sentence of this mystery. The details will come in short order, but what is clear from the very beginning is that Coben isn't pulling any punches when it comes to ratcheting up the tension in what looks to be the promising beginning of a new mystery series for YA readers.

Mickey isn't some kid who starts out with aspirations to become a detective or with any particular skill-sets that tip of he's something special, he's just a typical kid who's been forced to bum around the world with his parents while they did their various humanitarian missions. But with his dad killed (under not-so-accidental conditions as Mickey will learn) and his mother in rehab over the loss, Mickey's been foisted onto his uncle in his dad's old home town where the family name draws ire in some quarters. Being the new kid, befriending the heavy goth girl because he's the only one with some decency, finding himself with a nerdy sidekick, and not taking any crap from the bully-jocks sets Mickey up for the reluctant anti-hero mold, but things don't start rolling until his girlfriend of three weeks – also a new kid in town – goes missing without a trace. With a little deviousness, and a lot of chutzpah, Mickey suddenly discovers that no one in the town is who they seem, not even his parents.

That Coben takes us from local to global by making the mystery at the heart of the story about human sex trafficking is, I think, a bold recognition that teen readers looking for mystery stories don't talk down to them while maintaining their human scale. There's real danger involved as kids are dealing with scary gun-toting adults but there are no unbelievable super-heroics and no sense that the story elements are really that far-fetched. It also doesn't hurt that Coben knows how to dump twist after twist into the story, including turns that you had no right to expect out of the middle of nowhere. It reads faster than a lot of adult beach reads and is twice as smart.

In the recent trend of adult writers who dip into writing for middle grade and YA, Coben is the first I've read who really seems to understand the value in creating books that build an audience base. Just because you like Rick Riordan's Percy Jackson books or Lemony Snicket doesn't mean you're going to like those author's adult books. Even Elmore Leonard, who I thought would make a perfect crossover writer, didn't get it, but Coben does. It's a smart move, because any teen who likes this can probably jump to Coben's adult titles pretty quickly.

This is how you do a YA to adult crossover.

Tuesday, January 17

Mister Creecher

by Chris Priestley
Bloomsbury 2011

The creature walks the streets of London, with the Artful Dodger, hunting down the mad doctor!  No, Boris Karloff does not make an appearance.

The scene is London, 1918, and there in the darkened, fog-damp streets is Billy, pickpocket and petty thief. Billy starts off in a spot of trouble with the local thugs when is hide is saved by an enormous monster of a man who Billy comes to call Mister Creecher. An odd and uneasy bond develops between them as Mr. C convinces him to come along on a bloody (literally) little trip to the country in search of the true monster, the man who made Mr C what he is, one Doctor Victor Frankenstein. While in the country Billy sees a bucolic side of life, something better than being a street rat, and he pretends to be a poet to win a young lady's affection. Ah, but the good Doctor has his eye set on creating a new creature, a companion for Mr C if you will, and suddenly all paths converge in a way that sends Billy back to the comforts of London's rough and tumble street. It's there that he'll start to go by his grown name of Bill... Bill Sikes.

What? How did Dickens end up in all this?

For a new take on Frankenstein's monster this is an interesting idea, the blending of two fictional characters in one setting. But if you have a familiarity with Frankenstein and Oliver Twist it's hard to see the mash-up without your thoughts getting trapped in a corner of literary logic. How could these two worlds exist at the same time? Worse, I found while reading that I was starting to hear bits of the musical Oliver! play in my mind while scenes played out like an old 1930s movie staring Boris Karloff. Which is to say that Priestley does a good job catching the mood but the mood in this book feels borrowed at every turn. I did like that Creecher was articulate, almost aristocratic in bearing, and he makes an interesting "mentor" if we are to believe that this particular Billy will become, in manner at least, like his Dickensian namesake.

So for the idea in general, I like, but I don't know that it's going to stick with me over time.