Matched by Ally Condie

Oh, how I love dystopian books.  When I saw that it was being handed out at BEA I made sure to make my way to Dutton’s booth well before the designated time.  I lucked out and got one of the ARCs a bit early and didn’t even have to wait on the long line that eventually formed.  Then I lost my job, got a new one, got married, and started all over again- no time to read books!  But ARCs are like magic reading pills and my students are gobbling them up (and then reviewing them on Goodreads!).  I am trying to tear through all the ARCs I have in order to bring them in. Ally Condie’s Matched was next on my pile this week and I almost made it a legitimate #bookaday!  Yes, it is that good.

Rather than spew out a summary, I will let the book jacket do that for you:

In the Society, Officials decide. Who you love. Where you work. When you die.

Cassia has always trusted their choices. It’s barely any price to pay for a long life, the perfect job, the ideal mate. So when her best friend appears on the Matching screen, Cassia knows with complete certainty that he is the one . . . until she sees another face flash for an instant before the screen fades to black. Now Cassia is faced with impossible choices: between Xander and Ky, between the only life she’s known and a path no one else has ever dared follow—between perfection and passion.

I loved, loved, loved Matched!  I’ve already passed it on to my students, who are also tearing through it.  It hasn’t been back in my classroom for more than a period since I finished reading it.  I’m already desperately awaiting the sequel, which HAS to be coming.  (It’s coming, right?  Right?!)  What I really loved is that the characters in Matched are well-developed and believable. I loved Cassia and felt like she was a friend by the end of the book.  She seems like a regular teen tossed into a strange situation, and her reactions are believable, despite the dystopian premise. Cassia is a reluctant heroine for most of the book, one who doesn’t want her world turned upside down and doesn’t necessarily want to know what’s really going on.  But by the end, she has stepped into her new role as hero.  (Again, that sequel is going to happen, right?)

The similarities to The Giver will pull a lot of reader’s in, but the romance aspect will hook those who might find Lowry’s book too tedious for them. (Not me- The Giver is in my Top 10 of favorite books!).  Condie has created a frightening world where Big Brother controls everything while letting the people believe they still have some control over their own lives.  It’s frightening.

This is a coming-of-age story, an awakening, and a fight-for-it-all-never-give-up story.  I couldn’t put it down and can’t wait to read more from Ally Condie.  Her world-building is superior and I love how she fleshed out the minor characters- it allowed me to feel like I was a member of The Society, too.   While the story sometimes seems to move slow, it is all worth it in the end.  Condie masterfully weaves the Society, its rules, and its rulers into a scarily realistic possibility for humanity’s future.  Do not miss out on this one!

Deadline by Chris Crutcher

I’ve been working on catching up on all the YA titles I missed over the last five years or so.  While I read a lot of YA as a sixth grade teacher, there were certain books that I knew did not have a place in my classroom, with my particular students.  Thus, I rarely purchased those books.  (See, I justify buying books because I put them in my classroom library after I read them.  Really, I buy them for my classroom and I just get to read them first!)  Now that I teach freshmen and sophomores, there is a lot of YA I can finally add to my library.  I have been stalking book sales and finally picked up a copy of Chris Crutcher’s Deadline.

At a routine summer sports physical, Ben learns that he has a terminal blood illness.  Without treatment, he will most likely be dead within the year.  With aggressive treatment, he will most likely be dead within a year, and incapacitated for most of that time.  After considering those he loves (a mother with a mental illness, a father with too much on his plate, and a brother who is also his best friend), Ben decides not to seek treatment and not to tell anyone about his diagnosis.  As an 18-year old, he has that right, despite his doctor’s misgivings.  Ben is determined to live, really live, as normal a life as possible while trying to experience as much as he can in the following twelve months.  What follows is an amazing look at life, death, religion, love, immortality, and so much more.

Crutcher tackles a lot of tough topics in Deadline- mental illness, child molestation, death, suicide, trust, censorship, and the meaning of life/living.  But what could be a depressing book is inspiring and full of humor.  Ben’s voice is spot-on for a teenage boy, with just the right amount of self-assurance and lack of that same self-assurance.  Ben’s an 18-year old boy who knows when his life will end.  He wants to accomplish great things: confronting the bigotry in his town, helping his brother secure a college football scholarship, and trying to help his mother heal.  But Ben also wants to accomplish typical teenage boy goals: hooking up with Dallas Suzuki (the girl of his dreams), playing a great game of football, and annoying his least-favorite teacher as much as possible.

Deadline is a fantastic book and one I highly recommend for high school libraries.  It has some mature themes, so I wouldn’t have shared it with my sixth graders, but it definitely has a place in any upper school library.

Before I Fall by Lauren Oliver

For months I have been hearing buzz about Lauren Oliver’s debut novel, Before I Fall.  It never made it to the top of my TBR pile because I had so many middle grade books to read for my sixth graders, but the buzz convinced me to pick up an ARC of her second novel back at BEA.  So last week I grabbed my copy of Before I Fall and sat down to read it.  Boy am I glad I did! I can’t wait to booktalk Before I Fall to my new high school students.  Not only is it well-written but it is also thought-provoking, meaningful, and realistic.

Sam Kingston is popular.  She is pretty.  Her friends are pretty and popular.  Once upon a time, Sam was a loser, way back in middle school.  But now she isn’t.  Now she is one of the chosen few.  She is also pretty oblivious to how her actions and those of her friends affect her classmates.  Sam isn’t particularly likeable.  I didn’t even love her at the end of the book.  But she is realistic.  So are her friends.  Oliver has captured high school perfectly.  A lot of seniors are selfish, they do think the world revolves around them.  Being popular is important, and sometimes that means stepping on those around you, as Sam explains.

But everything changes for Sam when she hears, “a horrible, screeching sound—metal on metal, glass shattering, a car folding in two,”  and then everything turns to nothing.  The victim of a car crash, Sam is convinced she has died.  Until she wakes up again then next morning.  Only it is not the next morning.  It is the same day.  A cross between Mean Girls and Groundhog Day, Sam is forced to relive her last day over and over, changing her actions a little more each time.

Lauren Oliver takes a fascinating concept and turns it into a thought-provoking novel.  How does bullying affect our lives?  Directly? Indirectly?  How do our actions influence those around us?  Can we influence them consciously?  At first, Sam lives with reckless abandon, doing all the things she never had the nerve to do when she was alive.  But slowly she begins to realize that she is meant to do something else.

What I really liked about this book was how realistic is, despite the premise.  When Sam begins to relive her last day she doesn’t immediately transform into a perfect teen.  Instead, she rebels more than she ever did as a living teen- seducing her teacher, smoking pot, cheating on her boyfriend.  She slowly begins to realize that something has to change in order for her to move on completely.  But even at the very end of the book, she is not a perfect angel.  She does change and she matures, but she remains a teen at heart.  While some people might not appreciate this unwillingness to become perfect, I love it.  It is realistic.  And teens will identify with it.

Some people mentioned being apprehensive about reading 480 pages about the same day over and over, but the story is not redundant at all.  I found myself completely enthralled by the book, despite the fact that Sam was reliving the same day.  Each choice she makes impacts the outcome at the end of the night.

Highly, highly recommended.  Perfect for high school.

*my own copy

Hate List by Jennifer Brown

Jennifer Brown’s Hate List has been on my radar for a while. I finally got a chance to read it a few weeks ago and WOW. Why did I not pick this book up months ago? Brown has woven a powerful and intricate story of the ramifications of a school shooting that left me in tears for the last third of the book. We are talking real tears, not just a little weepy, people. I finished reading the book the night before my wedding and stayed up way too late because I couldn’t stand to put it down until I finished the story.

At the end of their junior year, Valerie’s boyfriend Nick did the unthinkable. He brought a gun to school, where he killed six students and a teacher. Valerie was hit in the leg by a bullet while trying to stop him. Nick took his own life before the shooting was over, leaving a fractured and fragile student body behind. He also left Valerie behind to answer for what he had done, and what everyone assumes she was involved in planning.

Now, it’s time for school to begin again and Valerie’s therapist thinks it’s best for her to try and go back to school. Though she could transfer, she doesn’t want to force her younger brother and her parents to start over again because of her involvement with Nick so she heads back to school. But as the killer’s girlfriend, she isn’t exactly welcomed with open arms. Her friends believe she knew Nick was planning to kill, her classmates blame her because she helped make the “Hate List” that Nick used to pick his victims, and even teachers and administrators have a hard time looking at her.

I’ve read other books about school shootings but Hate List is at the top of the list.  Brown presents realistic characters and draws the social archetypes of high school perfectly.  She captures the reality of the social hierarchy in American high schools to a tee.  Each and every character is well-drawn, from the main characters to the smallest secondary character.  And the sign of true realism?  I didn’t know if I believed Valerie for a good portion of the book.  No one was innocent, but no one was to blame, either.  Hate List is the most accurate look at school violence that I have ever read.  And because this looks at the aftermath of the shooting, I saw a lot of the social interaction that happens in schools.  Kids do fall back into the same routine, and adults have a hard time admitting that.  Cliques exist and you won’t ever eradicate them because cliques are friends and we want our kids to have friends.  Hate List brought up a lot of issues and I think it would make a great book to read as a school, class, or book club.  This books BEGS to be talked about.  This is an extremely powerful story and I spent the last third of the book in absolute tears.

Highly, highly recommended for teens and adults.

*my own copy

Pretty Little Liars Series (Books #1 and #2) by Sara Shepard

I’ve had students begging me to read this series for the past few years.  For some reason, I never got around to it.  (Not sure how I feel about 6th graders reading it, but their parents bought them!)  When I saw that ABC Family was making the series into a TV show, I decided to read them this summer.  So far I have read the first two in the series, Pretty Little Liars and Pretty Little Liars #2: Flawless.  I have to admit- they are addicting!  No one would ever accuse them of being high-brow literature, but they are certainly fun.  Like a cross between Desperate Housewives, Mean Girls, Law & Order, The Real Housewives, and I Know What You Did Last Summer, they are pure fluff and brain candy.  Even a little trashy.  But I found myself furiously turning the pages!

In the quiet suburb of Rosewood, Pennsylvania there are 5 best friends.  Ali, the ringleader, brought them all together in middle school.  Inseparable, they rule the school until suddenly Ali disappears.  One minute she is there, the next the police are mking pleas for her return on TV.  Hanna, Spencer, Aria, and Emily are in the midst of it all. Right before 7th grade begins, the girls are thrust into a manhunt.  But now the years have passed, Ali has never been found, and the girls have all drifted apart.

Then, each girl starts receiving IMs, notes, and text messages from someone named “A”. This person knows secrets, things about each girl that no one else knows.  No one except Ali.  Ali, who they have each realized was manipulative and powerful, knew the deepest and darkest secret of every girl. So who could be sending these messages? And why are they threatening to spill the secrets?

Drawn together again, the girls slowly begin to rebuild a very fragile friendship. While the story is fluff and a little over-the-top, I think a lot of teens (and adult women!) will recognize themselves and their own friends in story.  We all grow up and grow apart, while wishing it wasn’t happening.  Shepard’s characters are realistic and the more you read the more you begin to understand why they are the way they are. Each girl looks like she lives the perfect life, when the reality is very different.

Like I said, these are very quick reads.  I flew through the first two books and look forward to finishing the series.  I can see why ABC Family picked this up a series- it makes for great TV.  (Appropriate for teens)

*my own copy used for review

Cum Laude by Cecily von Ziegesar

I read von Ziegesar’s Gossip Girl books as a teen and loved them.  I am a huge fan of the TV show.  Are they silly and fluffy?  Of course!  And I would never say they are the best written books.  But they were fun.  While the characters were sometimes (ok, a lot of the time) loathe-able, I found something to like about them over the course of the series.  So when I saw that von Ziegesar had a new book, Cum Laude, I didn’t even read the reviews. Well, I should have.

Ugh, I hated this book. I’m not sure if the publishers are aiming it at the YA audience or adult audience, but I think that’s a non-factor. It’s just UGH. I finished it, but just barely. I couldn’t stand a single character. Maybe that that was the point- they are spoiled kids who attend a small, liberal-arts school in Maine. But come on- shouldn’t they at least have some redeeming qualities? They all whine nonstop. They hate their lives. No one is happy. And even worse? We never really get to know any of the characters that well.

Don’t waste your time with this one. It isn’t even a fun, fluffy read. I felt like I just wasted my time reading it.

Secret Society by Tom Dolby

First of all, you need to know right off the bat that I read the last sentence of Tom Dolby’s Secret Society and yelled, “You have got to be kidding me!”  This ends on  a cliffhanger and I immediately went to the internet to see if there will be a secret.  According to Tom Dolby’s blog, he is working on the next Secret Society book as we speak.  Phew!

Books about New York City’s Upper East Side teens are a guilty pleasure of mine.  (So are TV shows about the same- I adore Gossip Girl and even watched a few episodes of that painfully awful Prep show on Bravo).  I picked this one up as a fluff read over the Christmas break because I knew I would enjoy it.   I have to admit that I didn’t love the whole thing.  At times the characters felt more like archetypes then real people.  Because the point of view switched between the four main characters, I felt like I didn’t really get to know any of them.  However, then I got to the last chapter.  BAM!  I could not put the book down and I am dying for the sequel now.

It’s hard to summarize this book.  Phoebe is the new girl at Chadwick School, having just moved to New York City with her artist mother. Lauren is one of the rich girls of Chadwick. However, she hides her family secret, the fact that her mother is a raging alcoholic and slowly losing all of her clients.  Then there are Nick and Patch.  Childhood friends who grew up in the same building, but worlds apart, they both attend Chadwick and have managed to stay close.   Nick’s family is wealthy and powerful, but he feels like a failure to them.  Patch lives downstairs in a tiny apartment with his grandmother. His mother is in a psychiatric institution and his father died when he was much younger.  He doesn’t have the money or power to make it big in society, so he hopes that his talent with film will land him a reality show.

When Nick, Lauren, and Phoebe receive mysterious text messages while clubbing, they find themselves being initiated into the Society.  Nick and Lauren have always heard rumors of this powerful and secret group, while Phoebe feels like an outsider in the wrong place.  While the initiation is strange and over-the-top, they learn that membership in the Society comes with great privileges.  Suddenly, Lauren’s jewelry line is picked up by a major designed, Nick gets hooked up with a major club promoter, and Phoebe gets an art show at a prestigious gallery.  But are the privileges worth the price?  When one Society member is found dead and another does missing, the three friends start their own investigation.

Meanwhile, Patch sets forth to infiltrate the Society, hoping to land his reality show pilot with any footage he shoots.  But will he survive his attempts?

Again, there were times when I felt this was slow-moving and almost like a copycat Gossip Girl. But I finished the book and really enjoyed it.  Secret Society is one of those like-it-but-don’t-like-it books.  Fans of Gossip Girl and The Luxe series will enjoy Secret Society, though I would recommend The Luxe series as better guilty pleasure books.

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