Teen Novel Soars On Wings of Quirkiness, Love and Friendship

If you are sick and tired of reading – or even just hearing about – teen novels centered on vampires, zombies, suicide, and alienation, here’s a fresh and extremely worthwhile alternative: The Summer I Learned to Fly, by Dana Reinhardt.

The star is Drew Robin Solo, sometimes known as Birdie, a cautious and loner-ish adolescent trying hard to separate from her ADD mom who runs a trendy cheese shop in a sleepy town on the California coast. Drew has a pet rat, her dead father’s Book of Lists, and a big crush on Nick, the surfer guy who works at the cheese shop. The sweet, steady, engaging action of this novel takes place the summer Drew is going into eighth grade. When Drew meets enigmatic Emmett Crane in the alley behind the cheese shop, her life changes subtly and enormously, as she moves swiftly towards more confidence and the first real friendship of her life.

I couldn’t put this coming-of-age novel down until all 216 pages had been flipped. Now I’m eager to read Reinhardt’s other books, The Things a Brother Knows, How to Build a House, Harmless, and A Brief Chapter in My Impossible Life.

Teen Fiction Turns To Television

J.L. Smith's The Vampire Diaries and Sara Shepard's Pretty Little Liars are popular teen novel series that have been made into successful television series. The shows are enjoyed by both adults and young adults, so don’t let the word “teen” scare you.

The Vampire Diaries TV series, now in its third season, takes place in Mystic Falls, Va., a small town haunted by supernatural beings. Two vampire brothers start at Mystic Falls High, one good and one evil, and both end up vying for Elena’s soul. The show focuses on the adventures of this love triangle and their friends as they deal with their dark pasts.

The television series Pretty Little Liars is set in the fictitious town of Rosewood, Pa. Now in its second season, the show follows four friends as their little group falls apart following the disappearance of their ring leader, Alison. A year after Alison's disappearance, the friends start receiving messages from someone called “A.” This mystery person threatens to reveal the clique’s dark secrets. Is it Alison? And if not, then who? The girls are on a mission to find out.

The Informationist

This is a gritty, dark mystery with the incomparably corrupt Equatorial Guinea used for a backdrop. Reviewers of Taylor Stevens' debut novel have touted The Informationist as similar to The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. Let the comparisons between Vanessa Munroe and Lisbeth Salander end here. While both stories are fast-paced and intriguing, this is unlike any other thriller you have read.

Many portions of The Informationist are so raw the reader may have to stop and process it to try and understand where such powerful scenes come from. One minute the fugitives are discussing the variety of West African coup attempts from the past three decades, and the next, Munroe conceals herself on a rooftop to suffer the religious diatribes pounding in her head.

The author’s personal history may be the source for these powerful sections. Stevens was born into the Children of God cult, from which she escaped with her family at the age of 28. For two decades she was constantly uprooted and moved to various countries to do the groups bidding; at no time was she outside the cult’s control. Even after escape, her life was deeply affected by her upbringing. Combining her life experiences with her previously untapped storytelling talents resulted in the creation of the Vanessa Munroe series.

Teen Book: The Future of Us

This hilarious, meaningful, romantic comedy is set in 1996, before Facebook was even invented. But teens Josh and Emma -- who have been neighbors and best friends almost their whole lives -- suddenly are able to log on, and presto, their Facebook pages show their lives 15 years in the future, in about 2011. This very clever sci-fi-ish idea makes for highly entertaining reading. In the course of the novel, Josh and Emma realize that decisions they are making now will affect their lives down the road (great life lesson!).

This mostly lighthearted and delightful story comes to us from Jay Asher, author of the bestselling Thirteen Reasons Why, and Carolyn Mackler, author of The Earth, My Butt, and Other Big Round Things, which was chosen a Michael L. Printz Honor Book. Hooray for these two awesome authors! Together they have created a wonderful new book. It's a quick read in which I found myself caring about these two teens, their relationship, and their world -- and cheering when they logged off and spent more time in the non-Facebook universe.

Life In A Day, on DVD

Life In A Day is a documentary made up of footage submitted by YouTube users from around the globe. It depicts each user’s day as it happened on July 24, 2010. The independent film includes scenes selected from over 4,500 hours of footage in 80,000 submissions from 192 nations. Roughly 25% of the content is not from YouTube, but from cameras that were mailed to developing countries, as the filmmakers wanted it to be a representation of the whole world. Director Kevin Macdonald and producer Ridley Scott focused a single day, "because a day is the basic temporal building block of human life—wherever you are."

It is an amazing concept to use the giant online video-sharing community as a tool to capture a pool of co-directors to tell the story of human life. There are moments of happiness, sadness, and boredom as people are working, celebrating, mourning, and going about daily chores in a variety of cultures, from morning until evening. The film is a deeply moving story of a single day on earth that celebrates humanness.

Life In A Day received rave reviews at the Sundance Film Festival. In addition to being released on DVD and Blu-ray, the film is viewable in its entirety for free on its own YouTube channel.

Betrayal: History Repeats Itself

With the recent re-release of both the original Star Wars trilogy, as well as the three prequels on Blu-ray, interest in what has been called an "American epic space opera" has shot through the roof. Most people are familiar with the classic story of a band of rebels trying to overthrow an evil empire and bring peace back to the galaxy, but not many know much about the back stories of the characters or about the plethora of books, often referred to as the "expanded universe," that tell those stories.

Aaron Allston's Star Wars : Legacy Of The Force, Betrayal, book one in a series of nine, takes place 35 years after Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi and follows some of the characters from the movies, as well as introducing some new faces. Han Solo and Princess Leia have married and are the parents of three children. Luke Skywalker has married Mara Jade (reformed smuggler and aid to Emperor Palpatine) and they have a son. Betrayal follows these characters as they deal with trouble within the Galactic Alliance, resistance from The Corellian system, and a rift in the Jedi Order. The series also contains a side plot involving the bounty hunter Boba Fett and his culture's (Mandalorian) role in the Galactic conflict.

With well-known characters and an exciting plot, Betrayal is a good read and an easy entrance for those looking to get into the huge world of the Star Wars expanded universe.

The Princess Curse by Merrie Haskell

In her very clever debut novel The Princess Curse, author Merrie Haskell recasts the classic story of The Twelve Dancing Princesses and comes up with a highly entertaining mix of of fantasy, history, snappy dialogue, plants, classical references, and intrigue. Once begun, this novel is almost impossible to put down.

The Princess Curse stars 13-year-old Reveka, an herbalists' apprentice in a cursed castle in 15th century eastern Europe, who shows fierce intelligence, wit and grit as she battles what she sees as “the stupidest curse in existence! So what if the princesses are sleepy during the day, and their slippers are holey in the morning? It’s a curse of shoes and naps.” Breaking it, however, turns out to be quite a challenge, even for extraordinarily plucky Reveka. On her quest to win a huge reward, she meets a shadowy stranger, travels to the Underworld, and encounters a terrifying "zmeu," a dragon with a human form. The book is for readers about age 10 and up.

Happily for us around Ann Arbor, the author lives here and “works in a library with more than 7 million books, “ according to the book jacket, “and she finds this to be just about the right number.” She recently did a local reading at the U-M Harlan Hatcher Graduate Library. I hope she does more readings and writes more books.

When Popular Books Become Popular Movies

You’ve probably heard many folks say, “the book is always better.” I won’t speculate as to whether that is true or not, but there’s definitely chatter. Sometimes it’s quite fun to see how a book is translated into a movie. At times it’s pretty true to the book, while other times it seems like more of an adaptation with added elements for dramatic flare. Then there are the instances where the book gets butchered and we declare “what have they done?!” It’s quite common for Hollywood to take bestselling books and turn them into blockbusters. Two adaptations recently released on DVD include the love stories Water for Elephants and One Day.

Water for Elephants, starring Reese Witherspoon and Robert Pattinson, is the story of a veterinary student and a circus performer who fall in love during the Great Depression while sharing an interest in an elephant. The film is not only a love story, but also the tale of the circus people surrounding the couple.

In One Day, Emma (Anne Hathaway) and Dexter (Jim Sturgess) begin a friendship that spans two decades after spending one day together, July 15, 1988. We catch a glimpse into their lives every so often on the anniversary of that day. Over the course of ups and downs and many life changes, Em and Dex realize they were meant to be together.

Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children

Ransom Riggs' first novel, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, is a sci-fi/adventure/fantasy novel as weird and wonderful as the cover, on which a young girl is levitating. As the story begins, 16-year-old Jacob Portman is lonely, alienated, and bored in coastal Florida, unaware he is a “peculiar“ with an undiscovered gift. He adores Grandpa Abe, the only member of his family to have escaped the Nazis, and spends hours listening to Abe’s stories about having lived among weirdly gifted children on an island.

When Grandpa Abe is murdered, Jacob comes mentally unhinged, is sent to a psychiatrist, and travels with his dad to the island off Wales where his family hopes he will learn there is no basis for Abe’s crazy-sounding stories. Instead, Jacob’s home life -- in which he is the sole heir to a chain of SmartAid stores -- fades fast toward a spectacularly strange and infinitely dangerous new one. Jacob befriends other peculiars suspended in a time loop, while learning the truth about Abe’s past and his own remarkable future.

The novel is fast-paced, darkly strange, entertaining, and filled with compelling characters and exciting scenes. I enjoyed the bewitching black-and-white photographs throughout, although the story would have been great even without them. The novel is recommened for teens and young adults.

Dance With This

After finishing George R.R. Martin's A Dance With Dragons, the fifth installment in the Song of Fire and Ice saga, my only thought was “I wish I had the next book in my hands right now.” The Song of Fire and Ice series is nothing short of fantastic (and this is coming from a staunch non-fantasy reader). If you haven’t started reading the books yet, begin with A Game of Thrones and get to it.

I hadn't heard of George R.R. Martin until the HBO television series, “Game of Thrones”, made its debut. The show was incredible, but left me with a sense that the story had been altered. I read the first book to get a sense of what was missing; the writing drew me in until I finished all five volumes.

What makes this saga different from the typical fantasy novel is its initial portrayal of a civilization similar to our own. There are no supernatural elements to consider. Politics have become irreversibly complicated. The government is ineffectual at best. Religious factions are in competition to recruit followers. Magic is non-existent in daily life. But, in Martin’s world, the magic is slowly seeping back into society. Each kingdom is feeling the metaphysical shift, whether through dragons hatching or fires showing the future.

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