A Cautionary Tale, Because Teens Need Advice, Too

It didn't sound like a novel I would like, but Panic by New York Times bestselling author Sharon Draper turned out to be gripping and powerful. Written for ages 14 and older, the novel centers on a close-knit dance troupe and bad decisions made by two young dancers -- with horrible, undeserved consequences.

When Diamond goes to the mall with a friend, she leaves, alone, with a stranger who promises to make her a film star. She is kidnapped and held captive
by the man, who makes porn. Meanwhile, the other dancer, Layla, clings crazily to her sexy boyfriend, Donovan, who abuses her physically and emotionally. The story seems alarmingly realistic; once begun, it is hard to put down. Four alternating narrators tell the tale, adding richness to character development and plot.

In an article on Shelf Awareness.com, Sharon Draper allows that her latest book is "a little edgier than anything I've written, but I think it could save a life. . . .We tell our six-year-olds not to talk to strangers, not to talk to a man with a nice dog. We don't tell our teens anything. They think they're smart enough and mature enough to tell the difference between a nice guy and a bad guy."

Teen Fiction: Boy21

Boy21 is a novel about basketball and so much more, encompassing male friendship, poverty, the Irish mob, grief, and love. I highly recommend this fast read by Matthew Quick, who became one of my favorite teen authors with his 2010 book Sorta Like a Rock Star.

Quick's latest novel, published in 2012, opens in ugly, tough Bellmont, Pennsylvania, where quiet, obedient Finley lives with his wheelchair-bound grandfather and widowed father. Finley -- whose childhood is a mystery until late in the book -- is flourishing as the only white kid on the high school basketball team. When the coach asks him to mentor a hot new -- and very mysterious -- player from California, Finley does, but suddenly luck and life seem to turn against him and toward the new guy. Nonetheless, Finley continues to support his friend, "Boy21," and their friendship grows, until Finley's girlfriend Erin is injured and Finley can't stand it anymore.

This book offers strong characters, action, dialogue, and -- hard to believe with all the bad luck going around -- a semi-happy, if old-fashioned ending. Particularly appealing to me were the threads of responsibility, loyalty and friendship among two extraordinary young men.

Another Big Winner from Jon Klassen

This is Not My Hat is a clever, gorgeous picture book, a 2013 Caldecott Medal book, and a must-read for anyone connected with children in preschool through first grade and beyond. Jon Klassen repeats the theme from his 2011 bestseller I Want My Hat Back and adds a smart twist. The story opens with the memorable lines "This hat is not mine. I just stole it," spoken by a brave little fish who has lifted a blue bowler hat from a big sleeping fish. Little fish swims quietly to a hiding place, not knowing -- but we know -- that the big fish is chasing him. When the two fish vanish into seaweed, the words stop, and big fish reemerges with the blue hat on his head. The story is simple and works beautifully.

A six-year-old Amazon reviewer echoes what many people, young and older, are saying about this gem of a book: "I liked the story and I liked the big fish. The bubbles create movement. The little fish was bad and the big fish was just a big fish. You don't steal from a big fish."

5 Broken Cameras on DVD

The critically-acclaimed documentary 5 Broken Cameras is one man’s view of his village’s fight against encroaching development. Palestinian farmer Emad Burnat buys his first camera to document the birth of his fourth son. Over time he also begins filming the non-violent protests that take place in Bil’in, a West Bank village in Palestine, that begin after Israeli developers erect a separation fence and begin taking over part of the land in and near Bil’in.

The film documents the village’s five-year struggle to get the barrier taken down and development stopped. During this time,as Burnat is shot at and his cameras are destroyed during the protests, we see events unfold through one camera after another. Viewers not only witness the growth of Burnat’s youngest son, who is one day a baby and by the film end is attending the protests, but also the daily struggle of the community and Burnat’s family as they band together against military action. They are brutalized, arrested and defeated daily, but are led by such passionate leaders that they don’t give up, despite their sadness and anger. Burnat’s film is a touching, disturbing, personal account of the Bil’in residents and their part in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

5 Broken Cameras, by filmmakers Emad Burnat, a lifelong inhabitant of the Palestinian village of Bil'in, and Guy Davidi, an Israeli documentary filmmaker and teacher who was born in Jaffa, is a nominee for this year's Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature.

Sleepwalk With Me on DVD

Mike Birbiglia directs and stars in the indie comedy Sleepwalk With Me. Loosely based on Birbiglia’s life, his best-selling book, and his off-Broadway show, the film tells the story of the aspiring comedian as he struggles with his comedy act, drags his feet in his relationship, and battles a severe sleep disorder that spins out of control as he continues to ignore it. While trying to avoid committing further to his girlfriend of eight years, Mike hits the road for several comedy gigs. Along the way he finds adventure, freedom, jokes that are actually funny (revolving around his girlfriend), and a bit of joy that was missing from his life. Reality hits when Mike has a sleepwalking episode one night while sleeping and jumps through a second story window -- an event which actually happened to him.

From the producers of the public radio show This American Life, the critically-acclaimed Sleepwalk With Me is both funny and heartwarming, with a comedy style that is similar to Woody Allen films -- a humor that is personal, self deprecating, and deadpan. It’s the kind of film that has you laughing at moments of this man’s life, but at the same time feeling sympathetic toward this character, is truly suffering. I don’t know about Birbiglia’s future as a stand-up comedian, but he definitely has a strong film presence and a wonderful mind for storytelling.

To the end of the world...

Maria Semple's Where’d You Go, Bernadette is a witty, satirical and highly entertaining novel. The story follows the antics of Bernadette Fox – best friend and mother to 15-year-old Bee Branch, opinionated and idiosyncratic wife to Microsoft-guru Elgin Branch, and enemy to all meddling and annoying "gnats" of Seattle private-school society – from the Emerald City to the Great White Continent.

When Bernadette's daughter Bee aces her report card and makes plans to collect her promised reward – a family trip to Antarctica – her mother is forced to face the unthinkable: a three-week trip on a boat full of strangers, across the most treacherous body of water on earth, to an unforgiving land of ice and snow. Days before the trip Bernadette disappears, sending Bee on a journey to find the one person on whom she could always depend.

Where’d You Go, Bernadette is told in a flowing collection of emails, FBI documents, letters, faxes, and newspaper article clippings gathered by Bee to tell the tale of how the agoraphobic Bernadette, a once brilliant and revered architect, haunted by the past and unsure of the future, escaped her quickly deteriorating life to find herself – at the end of the world.

A Book with Heart....and Braaains

A girl typically wants to find a guy who is more interested in her brain than her looks… and in Warm Bodies, Julie Grigio finds just that. Unfortunately, the boy is dead. Well, UNDEAD, actually. Isaac Marion’s debut novel is a zombie book with a twist: love.

The narrator, R, wanders around the ravished earth after a global epidemic has robbed him – and hordes of others – of life (and normal dietary needs). Feeding on brains, R experiences his victims' memories, and after dining on the brains of teen Perry Kelvin, R meets Perry’s girlfriend, Julie. R, full of Perry’s memories of Julie, gets to know her and finds that the virus may not have robbed him of everything human after all. Convinced that R is losing his zombie traits and gaining back human qualities, takes him to the city of the living in an effort to nourish his evolution back from the land of the undead.

A perfect read for the zombie-lover for Valentine’s Day, Warm Bodies puts a spin on the traditional views of flesh-eating, soulless zombies, and shows that with love, anything is possible. Check out the movie adaptation of Marion’s, just released on February 1.

The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel on DVD

The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel follows seven retirees who decide to chance their retirement to spending time in a less expensive resort community in India. They arrive expecting lavish amenities, but find that the Marigold Hotel is not quite up to par, and the young, energetic owner does what he can to keep his first guests happy and at the hotel. Many of the guests make the most of it and try to enjoy the life in India, while others yearn to get back home.

The film features an all-star British cast of actors, including Judi Dench, Maggie Smith, and Bill Nighy, as the adventurous group whose lives are forever changed after their visit to India. It's full of laughter, warmth, and touching moments as the characters evolve and grow into new lives. While the film’s goal is to entertain, not necessarily to inspire or awe, it does go to show that life can begin at any age. To quote the young hotel owner, “Everything will be all right in the end and if it's not all right, then it's not yet the end.”

Wonderful New Picture Book: 'Waking Dragons'

When illustrator-author Derek Anderson visited the Malletts Creek Branch of the AADL in October, I watched as Ann Arbor children and adults fell under his spell. Sketching shapes looked like such fun! Anderson even talked a bit about his life and career. Afterwards I was drawn to buy his book, Waking Dragons and to have it signed for my son. I took the book home, read it, and stole it back for myself.

This picture book, written by master storyteller Jane Yolen, is beautiful and magical, and brought to life by Anderson's gold-washed paintings. After the dragons "bumble" and "tumble" out of bed, the determined boy-knight who is in charge of them prepares a delicious breakfast of waffles -- served from a catapult -- in time for the dragons to fly the boy off to Knight School. As you read the rhymes, don't miss the humor, such as the sign on the fire extinguisher, "In Case of Dragon Breath."

Anderson probably is best known for his Little Quack books, but I'm also a fan of Gladys Goes Out to Lunch. For more good reading for adults, go to Derek's web page, and read "In the Studio: A Creative Journal." Fascinating.

A Shining Debut

M.L. Stedman's debut novel, The Light Between Oceans, is at once touching, tragic, and full of hope. After returning from four traumatic years on the Western Front, Tom Sherbourne takes up the post as lighthouse keeper on Janus Rock, a remote island off the coast of Australia. On his way to the island he stays in a small coastal town and meets and marries Isabel – vivacious, beautiful and impulsive. Years later, after suffering two miscarriages and a stillbirth, Isabel is lost in grief.

One morning, Isabel hears a baby's cry and she and Tom find a small boat carrying a dead man and a baby girl. Tom wishes to report the boat, but Isabel is reluctant. She convinces Tom to "adopt" the baby as their own daughter. Two years later, the Sherbourne family – Tom, Isabel and little Lucy – return to the mainland to find that Lucy’s birth mother has been searching for her missing husband and daughter since their disappearance.

The Light Between Oceans is a haunting and heartbreaking novel of a couple's struggle for the healing power of family, and a mother's unwavering devotion in a world where one person's fortuitous "find" can mean another person's catastrophic loss.

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