Sunday, December 22, 2013

Find Me: Review

Find Me (Find Me, #1)Find Me by Romily Bernard
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Thriller with a cyber twist

“Find me.” Two words written on a post-it note stuck in a diary left on Wick Tate’s doorstep. The diary belongs to Tessa Waye, who used to be Wick’s best friend. Tessa Waye, who jumped (or was she pushed?) to her death. Now what’s a crack computer hacker like Wick to do?
“Find Me” (HarperTeen, 2013) is Romily Bernard’s first novel, and what a thrilling debut! Initially, Wick wants nothing to do with this perverse little game. She’s got enough troubles as it is. She’s a kid from the wrong side of the tracks with an attitude to match. “What can I say?” Wick says. “I’m freaking sweetness and light.”
Her mother’s dead, driven to suicide by her father, a meth dealer and thoroughly nasty piece of work. Dear old Dad has escaped from the slammer. Wick and her little sister Lily live in constant fear that Dad will be back to pay them a visit, even as they are doing their best to fit in with their wealthy foster parents. And then there’s the detective that keeps hanging around the house. She’s got a lucrative hacking business on the side, spying on boyfriends and husbands for women. As she puts it, she’s “Robin Hood with Kool-Aid colored hair.” Is he sniffing into Wick’s hacking activities, or is he after her dad?
But when Tessa’s diary reveals that the girl had been sucked into a toxic relationship with an unnamed man—and that the man has set his sights on Lily—things get personal. As far as Wick’s concerned, the rest of the world can go to hell, but she’s fiercely protective of her little sister. She’s got to find the perv before it’s too late.
She reluctantly accepts the help of Griff, a trailer park boy she knows only casually from school. Turns out Griff is not only a fellow hacker, he’s also pretty great looking. (Let’s hear it for sexy nerds!) Their developing romance is sweet, but doesn’t detract from the growing tension as Wick learns that Lily is not the only one in danger.
Wick may be hard as nails on the outside, but her fiercely protective love for her sister makes her an endearing character. Some readers may figure out the identity of Tessa’s tormenter before the end of the book, but “Find Me” is a fast-paced thriller that delivers.

Sara Latta is a science writer and author of 18 books for children and young adults. You can learn more about her work and link to past reviews at This is her last book recommendation column for the News-Gazette; she will be bidding Champaign-Urbana a fond goodbye when she moves to New York City in January. Thanks for reading.

This review originally appeared in the Sunday, November 24, 2013 edition of The News-Gazette.
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Delilah Dirk and the Turkish Lieutenant: Review

Delilah Dirk and the Turkish Lieutenant (Delilah Dirk, #1)Delilah Dirk and the Turkish Lieutenant by Tony  Cliff
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Fwoomp! Swak! Meet Delilah Dirk

Imagine Lara Croft with Indiana Jones’ sense of humor, and throw in an exuberant love of adventure and disregard for danger.  Place her in early 19th century Constantinople (now Istanbul), give her a flying sailboat, and you’ve got the delightful Delilah Dirk, the take-no-prisoners heroine of Tony Cliff’s new graphic novel, “Delilah Dirk and the Turkish Lieutenant (First Second Books, 2013).
The Turkish lieutenant Erdemoglu Selim is a quiet, unassuming fellow, more interested in quiet conversation and a good cup of tea than swashing any buckles. But when he is sent to interview an imprisoned intruder on the palace grounds, he discovers the indomitable Delilah Dirk, the wealthy daughter of an English ambassador and a Greek artist. She grew up traveling the world, where she learned a variety of survival techniques and became the “master of forty-seven different sword-fighting techniques.” When she escapes her prison, the hapless Selim is accused of conspiring with Dirk and sentenced to death. She saves his life, even as he feebly protests that he is duty-bound to kill her. “Kill me with what?” Dirk asks with characteristic good humor. “That rope? You’ll give me rope burns ‘til I yield?”
Selim throws in his lot with Dirk, of course, and off they go in her flying boat. As it turns out, Selim is a bit of a klutz—he nearly crashes her boat, twice, and lacks Dirk’s sense of adventure. When Dirk announces her plan to raid the coffers of the evil pirate captain Zakul—not all of it, but “enough to send a message,” Selim asks, “Is that message, ‘I have led a sufficiently long life?’”
Cliff’s gorgeous artwork is a perfect complement to the witty dialogue and exciting chase and fight scenes that ensue.  Dirk is just a delightful, kick-butt heroine (with great hair!), and the quiet, self-deprecating Selim is her ideal sidekick.
The American publication of “Delilah Dirk” is one of those improbable success stories that should give heart to any would-be author or graphic artist. It began as a 28-page self-published comic called “Delilah Dirk and the Treasure of Constantinople,” and was expanded and picked up by a French publisher. It appeared as an online comic before being published in the U.S. There are sequels in the making, and a good thing, too, because readers will want to join Dirk and Selim for more rollicking good adventures.  Recommended for tweens, teens, and adults.

Sara Latta is a science writer and author of 18 books for children and young adults. You can learn more about her work and link to past reviews at

This review was originally published in the Sunday, November 3, 2013 edition of The News-Gazette.
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Coldest Girl in Coldtown: Review

The Coldest Girl in ColdtownThe Coldest Girl in Coldtown by Holly Black
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A vampire novel worth listening to

Do we really need another vampire novel? If the author is the insanely talented Holly Black, the answer is a resounding yes. Black, the best-selling author of a number of contemporary dark fantasy novels and co-author of the wildly popular “Spiderwick Chronicles,” returns with “The Coldest Girl of Coldtown” (Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, 2013), an utterly original take on the bloodthirsty genre.
Tana lives in a world much like our own, complete with social media, reality TV shows, and teenage rebellion. With one major exception: the vampire population, once old-school and discreet in their dining habits, has exploded, thanks to a newly made vamp who went rogue, indiscriminately infecting victims with abandon. That’s right, vampirism is a disease spread by biting, and the primary symptom is an insatiable thirst for human blood. You can beat the disease and avoid becoming a vampire, but only if you avoid drinking blood for 88 days.  Most people don’t succeed.
The government’s solution to the vampire situation was to create Coldtowns—quarantined cities where vampires and their human groupies can co-exist. People on the outside watch video feeds of Coldtown, imagining that life inside is glamorous and sexy. Some scheme to get inside, even though it’s a bit like Hotel California: once you check in, you can never leave. Or, almost never.
As the book opens, Tana wakes up in a bathtub, very hung over, only to discover that all of her friends from last night’s house party are dead, lying in pools of blood. (The squeamish should note that there is a fair amount of gore in this book.) The only survivors are her ex-boyfriend, a charming cad named Aiden who has been bitten but not yet turned, and a swoony vampire, Gavriel.
Aiden may be a cad, but Tana is determined to try to save him, because she’s that kind of gal. She’s got to get him to Coldtown. Gavriel—who is kind of a psychopath with a heart, if that makes any sense—has reasons of his own to go to there. And Tana? Here future is uncertain indeed, and although there is the obligatory romantic attraction to Gavriel, it’s not at all overdone. The ending is perfect, and suggests a sequel, although Black has not announced any plans for a followup.
I listened to the audio version of Coldtown, read by Christine Lakin. The actress manages not only to pull off the voice of a teenage girl with a great deal of credibility, but also makes Gavriel sound as smooth—and irresistible—as a hot fudge sundae. Go ahead, bite into it.

Sara Latta is a science writer and author of 18 books for children and young adults. You can learn more about her work and link to past reviews at

This review originally appeared in the Sunday, October 13, 2013 edition of The News-Gazette.
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The Moon and More: Review

The Moon and MoreThe Moon and More by Sarah Dessen
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Moon and More

There is something magical about the summer between high school graduation and college. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime emotional rollercoaster of a season, when you are saying goodbye to everything that is familiar—your family, friends, maybe your hometown—and looking to your new life with equal amounts of excitement and dread.
Sarah Dessen captures this season beautifully in her latest book, “The Moon and More” (Viking, 2013).  Seventeen-year-old Emaline lives in the resort beach town of Colby with her mother, step-dad, and two stepsisters, and works at the family’s busy vacation rental business. Her best friend Daisy is a super-talented clothing designer, and she’s been dating her handsome and sweet boyfriend Luke for what seems like forever—long enough that their relationship feels like an old sweater. Comfortable, but showing signs of wear.
Life isn’t all sun and sand for Emaline, though. The previous year, Emaline’s biological father—a mostly absentee parent for most of her life—encouraged her to look beyond Eastern U. and apply to Ivy League colleges, promising to pay her tuition. When she gets an acceptance letter from Columbia, she’s overjoyed—until he withdraws his offer and quits answering her emails. It’s Eastern U. for Emaline, where she has a full ride. She’s fine with that—it’s her father’s broken promises and mysterious silence that bother her.
Things get awkward when her father arrives in Colby, with her half-brother Benji in tow. Emaline develops a tender, caring relationship with the boy, a sweet little kid who just craves love and attention. As for her father? Well, he’s a little more problematic.
Throw into the mix the new tenants of her family’s most expensive rental property: a tightly wound documentary filmmaker named Ivy, and her ambitious assistant, a college student named Theo. They are in town to film a documentary about a local artist so reclusive that most of the community has no idea he was once a big-shot in the art world.
Theo’s worldly and sophisticated. You know how this goes. Before you know it, Emaline has ditched Luke (not without some blame on his part) and entered Theo’s frenetic world.
“The Moon and More” goes beyond the love triangle or the bittersweet feelings about leaving behind the familiar for the new. Dessen is a master at detailing the experiences of everyday life, relationships, and the connection to place. Being a permanent resident in a place that many people come to only for a short vacation leads to interesting questions about what it means to belong, and what it means to leave, in that journey to adulthood.

Sara Latta is a science writer and author of 18 books for children and young adults. You can learn more about her work and link to past reviews at

This review originally appeared in the Sunday, September 22, 2013 edition of The News-Gazette.
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Nobody's Secret: Review

Nobody's SecretNobody's Secret by Michaela MacColl
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Emily Dickinson, Girl Sleuth

Author Michaela MacColl’s first two books featured a young Princess Victoria (“Prisoners in the Palace”) and future aviator Beryl Markham (“Promise the Night”). With “Nobody’s Secret” (Chronicle Books, 2013), MacColl once again breathes life into a historical character: Emily Dickinson.
Fifteen-year-old Emily is lying in a field of tall grass and wildflowers, hoping to entice a bee to land on her nose, when she is discovered by a mysterious young man. She is surprised to learn that he doesn’t seem to know who she or her family is—Amherst, Massachusetts is a small town, after all, and her grandfather was one of the founders of Amherst College. Even more surprisingly, the handsome stranger refuses to divulge his name. Emily enjoys her secret flirtation with the “Mr. Nobody” until he is found dead in her family’s pond. None of the townspeople seem to know Mr. Nobody’s identity, and it seems that the mystery man’s body is destined for an anonymous pauper’s grave.
Despite her overprotective mother’s orders (“A dead man is no sight for a young lady!”), Emily is determined to discover the stranger’s identity—and how he died. As it becomes clear that a certain Amherst family had its own very good reasons for wanting Mr. Nobody to become permanently anonymous, Emily finds herself in grave danger.
While the mystery plot of “Nobody’s Secret” is a little thin—our girl sleuth’s dogged style of investigation is much like of Nancy Drew’s, and readers may well find themselves guessing the identity of the murderer well before the end—I enjoyed the rich imagining of Emily’s life.
In an author’s note, MacColl explains how Dickinson’s writing inspired the book’s themes, from Emily’s interest in bees (they appear in more than 50 of her poems) to her preoccupation with death, loss, and loneliness. MacColl uses lines from Dickinson’s poetry as chapter headings and threads them into the text itself, offering readers a glimpse of how the poet’s life influenced her work. Readers familiar with Dickinson’s poems will instantly recognize the lines introducing the opening chapter, “I’m nobody! Who are you?/Are you nobody too?”, which nicely introduces the desire for privacy shared by Emily and Mr. Nobody.
In real life, of course, Emily Dickinson never actually investigated a murder but MacColl makes the reader believe that she just might have, given the chance. A quick read, recommended for younger teens and fans of Emily Dickinson.

Sara Latta is a science writer and author of 18 books for children and young adults. You can learn more about her work and link to past reviews at

This review originally appeared in the Sunday, September 1, 2013 edition of The News-Gazette.
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I Hunt Killers: Review

I Hunt Killers (Jasper Dent, #1)I Hunt Killers by Barry Lyga
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Dexter for YA readers

The YA book world was all a-buzz last year with the release of Barry Lyga’s “I Hunt Killers” (Little, Brown and Company, 2012), the story of Jasper “Jazz” Dent, a charming and handsome teenager boy who also happens to be the son of the most notorious serial killer of the 21st century. Billy Dent, or “Dear old Dad,” claimed 123 (or 124, depending on how you counted) victims, and was determined that his son should take over the family business. Accordingly, Take Your Son To Work Day was year-round in the Dent household.
That all ended the year Jazz turned 13, when Dear Old Dad got sloppy and violated his own rule, “Don’t crap where you eat,” and killed too close to home. That got him sent away for 32 consecutive life sentences. “I Hunt Killers” opens four years down the road; Jazz is 17 years old, a good kid with a girl friend and best friend who don’t care that his dad is Billy Dent. When the bodies begin piling up in his small town of Lobo’s Nod, he convinces the local police force to allow him to help find the serial killer. Because, after all, he knows how serial killers think—and he’s afraid of only two things: “One of them was that people thought his upbringing meant that he was cursed by nature, nurture, and predestination to be a serial killer like his father. The second thing…was that they were right.”
“I Hunt Killers” has been billed as Dexter for YA, and rightly so. It is gruesome and shocking—Lyga does not shy away from the brutal nature of serial killings. It is also surprisingly funny in many places, thanks to his wisecracking best friend, Howie, a tall, skinny wisecracking type-A hemophiliac who bleeds “if you [look] at him too hard,” and his grandmother, who is “hateful, spiteful, and crazier than a wind sock in a tornado.”
What sets “I Hunt Killers” apart from other mystery/thrillers is Jazz’s incredibly complex character. His entire being—even down to his choice of girlfriends—centers around resisting those impulses he’d been brainwashed to feel.
If you enjoyed “I Hunt Killers” and can handle a fair amount of gore, you’ll reach for this year’s sequel, “Game” (Little, Brown and Company, 2013). When a desperate New York City detective comes knocking on Jazz’s door asking for help in catching a new serial killer, Jazz can’t refuse. He and his girlfriend Connie hop on a plane to the Big Apple and get swept up in a killer’s murderous game…while Jazz’s father watches—and waits. The sequel was every bit as good as the second, although the cliffhanger ending will have many readers either frustrated or chomping at the bit for the next installment in the Jasper Dent series.

Sara Latta is a science writer and author of 18 books for children and young adults. You can learn more about her work and link to past reviews at

This review originally appeared in the Sunday, August 11, 2013 edition of The News-Gazette.
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Belle Epoque: Review

Belle EpoqueBelle Epoque by Elizabeth  Ross
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Beauty Foil

She is a common enough character in YA novels—and sometimes, in real life. You know the type: not quite thin, rich, or pretty enough to be the Queen Bee in that hierarchical hive called high school. But the Queen Bee loves having a Plain Jane friend by her side, because the comparison only makes her look better. It’s a fairly nasty way of using people, but Queen Bees aren’t known for being nice.
Now imagine being a professional Plain Jane, a young woman paid to enhance the appearance of her wealthy patrons. This is the idea behind Elizabeth Ross’s debut novel “Belle Epoque” (Delacorte Press, 2013), set in Paris, 1888.
Sixteen-year-old Maude Pichon runs away from her little village in Brittany to Paris when she learns that her father plans to marry her off to a fat old butcher twice her age. (For readers unfamiliar with Brittany, it’s kind of like fleeing a small fishing town in Maine for New York City.) Her romantic dreams of life in the big city quickly fade, as she struggles to pay her rent with the money she makes from a dreadful job working in a laundry. Desperate, she answers an unusual ad: “Young women wanted for undemanding work. Propriety guaranteed.” Maude soon learns that her new job is to be a “repoussoir.” (One of the weaknesses of the book is that we often find Maude musing about the meanings of French words, as if French were not her native tongue: “Could the name come from the verb ‘repousser?’ To push away, to repel or repulse.” It’s a not-very-convincing device to explain something to the reader.)
The Countess Dubern hires Maude to be the repoussoir for her headstrong daughter Isabelle, soon to be making her debut in Paris society. “A light ornament of plainness,” her boss tells the Countess. “She would complement Isabelle very nicely, I think. Nothing too flashy for her Paris debut at the Rochefort ball.” She is hired, but the catch is that Isabelle must not know that Maude is a repoussoir. Rather, she is to be the poor relative of one of the Countess’s friends, making her own, decidedly less glamorous, Paris debut. Maude’s job, the Countess makes clear, is not just to make Isabelle shine, but also to spy on her intractable daughter. As the girls become close, Maude must decide between her professional obligations and her friendship with Isabelle.
“Belle Epoque” is an engaging story about recognizing beauty, whether it be conventional or unorthodox, and pursuing your dreams. In an author’s note, Ross says that she was inspired by a short story called “Les Repoussoirs” by Emile Zola. Ross made a smart decision to set her book in 1888-1889, when the Eiffel Tower was being built for the Exposition Universelle. It was widely reviled by many Parisians as a monstrosity, the work of a lowly engineer, and certainly not beautiful. How times change.

Sara Latta is a science writer and author of 17 books for children and young adults. You can learn more about her work and link to past reviews at

This review originally appeared in the Sunday, July 21 2013 edition of The News-Gazette.
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Wednesday, July 3, 2013

The Where, the Why, and the How: 75 Artists Illustrate Wondrous Mysteries of Science (Review)

The Where, the Why, and the How: 75 Artists Illustrate Wondrous Mysteries of ScienceThe Where, the Why, and the How: 75 Artists Illustrate Wondrous Mysteries of Science by Matt LaMothe
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Artists and scientists ponder the mysterious of science

One of my favorite books from 2011 was Lauren Redniss’ “Radioactive” (itbooks/Harper Collins). Combining dazzling artwork with the scientific research and love story of Marie and Pierre Curie, “Radioactive” was a treat for lovers of art, science, and compelling narrative.
In somewhat the same vein, editors Jenny Volvovski, Julia Rothman, and Matt Lamothe have created “The Where, The Why, and the How: 75 Artists Illustrate Wondrous Mysteries of Science” (Chronicle Books, 2012), a book that will delight lovers of both art and science. (The two books even have a similar “look” and smell—perhaps it’s the ink?). The editors asked working scientists to address 75 scientific mysteries, from the profound (What existed before the Big Bang?) to the whimsical (Why do pigeons bob their heads when they walk?). The short essays occupy the left side of each spread, with illustrations, literal or imaginative, by artists on the right.
One of my favorite pairings is the essay “How does gravity work?”, written by Terry Matilsky, a professor of physics and astronomy at Rutgers University, illustrated by a design team called The Heads of State (the book gives websites for the artists, for those who are interested). Matilsky begins the essay with a reference to the apple that supposedly fell on Newton’s head (probably apocryphal), leading to a theory of gravity that could be used to predict the motion of planets and other bodies. He goes on to describe Einstein’s theory of general relativity, the curvature of space, and the remaining unanswered questions about gravity. The illustrator’s answer to the essay is brilliant: a rendering of a galaxy within the curved space of a black apple.
The editors purposefully asked the authors and illustrators to address scientific questions that have yet to be fully answered. An epigraph by the late physicist Richard Feynman sums up the book’s attitude: “But I don’t have to know an answer. I don’t feel frightened by not knowing things, by being lost in the mysterious universe without having any purpose—which is the way it really is, as far as I can tell. It doesn’t frighten me.”
We all “know” what causes us to blush—or do we? It’s more complicated than you may think, and scientists are still trying to answer the question. Gilbert Ford’s accompanying illustration, by the way, is particularly amusing.
“The Where, the Why, and the How” would be a great book to bring along on a family vacation or road trip. Pondering the question “What is earth’s hum?” together with family members beats the usual boredom and squabbles every day.
Sara Latta is a science writer and author of 17 books for children and young adults. You can learn more about her work and link to past reviews at

This review originally appeared in the June 30, 2013 edition of The News-Gazette.

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Saturday, June 15, 2013

The 5th Wave (review)

The 5th Wave (The Fifth Wave, #1)The 5th Wave by Rick Yancey
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The summer reading season has arrived! What better way to kick it off than by reading a terrific (not to mention terrifying) post-apocalyptic survival story that could very well be the next “Hunger Games?” Rick Yancey’s newest book, “The 5th Wave” (Putnam Juvenile, 2013) is a harrowing rollercoaster ride of through a world turned upside down by an alien invasion.
Sixteen-year-old Cassie (“Not Cassie for Cassandra. Or Cassie for Cassidy. Cassie for Cassiopeia, the constellation…”) Sullivan is just an ordinary teenager, living an unremarkable life. Unremarkable, that is, until an alien mothership begins to orbit the Earth. In the 1st Wave, the aliens sent a massive electromagnetic pulse ripping through the atmosphere, knocking out the entire power grid and killing half a million people. The 2nd Wave was a giant tsunami that wiped out entire coastlines around the world. Goodbye to another three million. The 3rd Wave was a deadly plague spread by birds, killing 99 percent of the remaining population—including Cassie’s mother. The 4th Wave brought the Silencers—aliens (or The Others, as Cassie calls them) implanted inside the bodies of humans who stalk and kill the few remaining people.
After Cassie’s father is killed and she is separated from her adorable five-year-old brother Sammy during the 4th Wave, Cassie goes into full survival mode. Armed with an M-16, she is determined to find her brother, but is wounded by a Silencer. She is rescued by the hunky Evan Walker (who looks like a “teenage version of the Brawny paper towel guy”), a farm boy with curiously soft, well-manicured hands. Meanwhile, Cassie’s high school crush and star football player Ben Parrish has been recruited to lead a unit of child soldiers (echoes of the kids in the “Ender’s Game” books) to fight the aliens.
“The 5th Wave” might have been yet another YA dystopia novel were it not for the emotional depth in Yancy’s writing. The main characters—Cassie, Evan, and Ben—have to make some heart-wrenching decisions, and I found myself really rooting for them. The many action scenes make “The 5th Wave” a natural for the big screen, and indeed actor Tobey Maguire has optioned the novel for a Sony Pictures Film trilogy.
As for the 5th Wave? To tell you would be giving too much away. You’ll just have to find out for yourself.

Sara Latta is a science writer and author of 17 books for children and young adults. You can learn more about her work and link to past reviews at This review originally appeared in the Sunday, June 9, 2013 edition of ,a href="The" target="_blank" rel="nofollow">">The News-Gazette.

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Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Hammer of Witches: review

Hammer of WitchesHammer of Witches by Shana Mlawski
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Magic, Monsters, and Christopher Columbus

“My uncle Diego always said there was magic in a story.”
In Shana Mlawski’s debut novel, “Hammer of Witches” (Tu Books, an imprint of Lee & Low Books, 2013), stories are magic—quite literally. Fourteen year-old Baltasar Infante has grown up listening to his bookmaker uncle’s stories—tales about imps who ruin the work of scribes, giant clay creatures that can be summoned with a word, and most of all, Amir al-Katib, the legendary Moorish sorcerer who turned traitor to Spain. But Baltasar always thought they were just that—stories—until he gets into a tight spot and accidentally summons a golem.
The creature saves his life, but he soon finds himself on the run from the Malleus Maleficarum, the sinister witch-hunting arm of the Spanish Inquisition. Along the way, he picks up a genie (although she doesn’t grant wishes; “[o]nly attention-starved genies do that, and I am not attention-starved!”) and pays a visit to Baba Yaga, the witch of Russian folklore, who tells him that his true mission is to find al-Katib and prevent the destruction of the world as they know it.
He finds himself on a ship named the Santa Maria, captained by one Cristóbal Colón (Christopher Columbus), heading into unchartered waters. Along the way, Baltasar masters his powers as a Storyteller, even summoning the Biblical Leviathan, with near-disastrous results.
Mlawski spins a terrifically entertaining tale, but her writing can sometimes be awkward and clunky (“In the middle of the room sat a large table carved from a single piece of wood, and in the corner lounged a fur-covered bed.” One can lounge on a bed, but I have never seen a bed lounge.). Baltasar can sometimes be annoyingly clueless. “So you’re saying there are spells that can make girls look like boys?” he asks one character, who responds, “Yes! In fact there are about a thousand stories that can do that. Because there are about a thousand stories about women dressing up as men to get the respect they deserve!” Well, knock me over with a feather duster.
These quibbles are distractions, but they shouldn’t be deal-breakers for most readers twelve years and older, especially if they like fast-paced historical fiction with a generous helping of fantasy. There is also a terrific author’s note at the end in which she explains which events and characters are historically accurate and which are products of her imagination (she acknowledges that while the people upon which the characters Baltasar and Pedro are based are real, they were most likely not wizards).

Sara Latta is a science writer and author of 17 books for children and young adults. You can learn more about her work and link to past reviews at This review originally appeared in the May 19, 2013 edition of The News-Gazette.

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Saturday, May 4, 2013

The Diviners (The Diviners, #1)The Diviners by Libba Bray
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Jazz-era New York City comes to live in supernatural thriller

Once again, Libba Bray has sprinkled whatever magical fairy dust she employs onto her computer keyboard and come up with something utterly new and compelling. In the past, she has written Gothic fantasies (the Gemma Doyle trilogy), a book about a dying teenager who goes on a road trip with a loopy punk angel that somehow manages to be both wacky and heartbreaking (“Going Bovine”), and a novel about teen beauty queens stranded on a desert island (“Beauty Queens”). While her subject matter appears to be all over the literary map, her books have this in common: they are wildly inventive.
Libba Bray’s latest, “The Diviners” (Little, Brown and Company, 2012) is no exception. That said, “The Diviners” strikes me as even more ambitious in its attempt to make a statement about the American psyche in a particular place and time: New York City in the jazz age.
Seventeen-year-old Evie O’Neill has a party trick lands her into trouble: she can divine information about people from their personal objects. When she reveals an inconvenient secret about the son of a well-to-do family in their Ohio town, she is sent to live in New York City with her uncle, who runs The Museum of American Folklore, Superstition, and the Occult. Not that Evie, a party girl and would-be flapper, minds leaving her boring hometown for the bright lights, nightlife, and shopping of the big city; she’s “pos-i-toot-ly thrilled.”
But when a paranormal serial killer (“Naughty John, Naughty John, does his work with this apron on. Cuts your throat and takes your bones, sells ‘em off for a coupla stones.”) begins to terrorize the city, Evie uses her power of divination to help catch the murderer—if he doesn’t get her get her first.
Bray brings 1920’s-era New York to sparkling life, from the slang of the era (Gossip is “chin music,” and a gullible young woman “was a real tomato who was not hitting on all sixes.”) to the speakeasies. But Bray brings in larger issues as well, touching on eugenics and the uneasy and sometimes ugly race relations of the time, the aftermath of World War I, and the intense interest in the spiritualist movement of the late nineteenth century. What brings it all to life are the amazing characters, many of whom, like Evie, have some supernatural power. There is Memphis Campbell, a seventeen-year-old numbers runner who once had the power to heal; a con man named Sam Lloyd who can make himself disappear; Theta Knight, a Ziegfeld girl who falls in love with a certain Harlem poet; and Henry Bartholomew Dubois IV, possibly the next George Gershwin.
“The Diviners” is the first in a planned series, made evident by the many dangling threads Bray neglects to wrap up by the end of the book. They only serve to make you tap your foot impatiently until the next installment in the series appears.

Sara Latta is a science writer and author of 17 books for children and young adults. You can learn more about her work and link to past reviews at This review originally appeared in the April 28, 2013 edition of The News-Gazette. (

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Monday, April 8, 2013

PoisonPoison by Bridget Zinn
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A fresh rom-com adventure

A lot of YA literature is about dystopia, dysfunction, and darkness. I’m not knocking dystopia, dysfunction, and darkness—some of my favorite books are pretty grim. But sometimes a funny, action-packed fantasy with just the right amount of romance thrown in, the kind of book that you devour with a silly grin on your face, is a very welcome breath of fresh air.
Let me introduce to your next breath of fresh air: “Poison” (Hyperion, 2013), by Bridget Zinn. Sixteen-year-old Kyra is a highly skilled potion master. She is also a would-be assassin who tried—and failed—to kill her former best friend, the Princess Ariana. Kyra knows that someone is intent on destroying her kingdom, and that somehow, Ariana is involved.
But when Kyra, a master sharpshooter, somehow fails to kill Ariana with her poison dart, she goes on the lam. Now, with the Princess in hiding and the king’s soldiers and her former business partners on her trail, she sets off to find her former friend and finish the job.
A book about a girl who tires and fails to kill her best friend is not dark? Indeed not! In her quest to find her friend, she acquires an adorable little pink, Rosie that can track like a bloodhound. She encounters a charming, funny, and outrageously handsome young man named Fred and his dog Langley as she is fording a river wearing only her embarrassingly frilly underclothes.
The two develop one of those classic, screwball romantic comedy relationships over the course of the book: they flirt, they quibble, they stomp off in anger, and yet…they can’t stay away from each other. She can’t tell him her secret, but, as it turns out, Fred has a secret of his own.
Full of twists and turns, cliffhanger chapter endings, evil characters and people who are distinctly not what they appear to be, “Poison” is a rollicking adventure from start to finish. Kyra and the Princess are strong female characters, and Fred is the kind of very cool guy who isn’t threatened by independent chicks. The ending is happy but not in the least bit sappy.
Sadly, readers who enjoyed “Poison” and look forward to this debut author’s next book will be disappointed. Bridget Zinn died, far too young, before she got a chance to see her book published. So cherish “Poison,” because it’s all you’re going to get from this talented young author.

Sara Latta is a science writer and author of 17 books for children and young adults. You can learn more about her work and link to past reviews at This review was originally published in the Sunday, April 7, 2013 edition of the News-Gazette.

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Friday, March 29, 2013

The Book of Jonas (review)

The Book of JonasThe Book of Jonas by Stephen Dau
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The lives behind collateral damage

Fifteen-year-old Younis is injured and orphaned when a U.S. military raid gone awry hits his village in an unnamed Muslim country that resembles Afghanistan. With the aid of an international relief organization, he is sent to the U.S., where he is assigned to a well-meaning but rather clueless foster family in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He changes his name to Jonas on the plane: “He suspects this will cause trouble; he does it anyway.”
“The Book of Jonas” (Blue Rider Press, 2012), Stephen Dau’s debut novel, is a powerful story examining the human costs of war. Younis—now Jonas—attends high school in Pittsburgh. He is a brilliant outcast, finding refuge in the school library, “an oasis of wooden bookshelves and learning.” The target of merciless bullying, Jonas at last snaps and hands one of his tormenters a savage beating. Jonas is sent to a counselor named Paul, who helps him work explore the trauma that destroyed his family and home.
Jonas is awarded a full scholarship to the University of Pittsburgh, where he makes friends and falls in love with a beautiful pre-med student from India. “Where do you go in your mind,” Paul asks Jonas repeatedly. In dreamlike fragments that punctuate the present-day narrative, the story of what happened in the days following the attack unfolds. Jonas’s story is interspersed with that of Christopher Henderson, an idealistic American soldier who found him in a remote mountain cave and nursed him back to health. Christopher’s story is told in excerpts from his diary; one of the entries tells the story of a baby gazelle that was adopted by a lioness—a parable that encapsulates the heart of this novel.
Jonas meets Christopher’s mother Rose, who has dedicated her life to finding her son, now missing in action. As she presses him for answers about the disappearance of her son, Jonas is forced to confront his emotional trauma and the knowledge of what really happened to Christopher.  Things begin to disintegrate as he begins to drink, often to the point of blackout. The ending is both heartbreaking and emotionally honest.
The book’s structure recalls a church service or mass, with short chapters within sections titled “Processional, Invocation, Remembrance, Communion, Confession, Atonement, Benediction, Recessional.” And in fact “The Book of Jonas” is a kind of prayer for the survivors of “collateral damage,” soldiers and civilians alike. Recommended for older teens as well as adults, this brilliant and timely novel is a must-read for anyone who wishes to understand the consequences of war.

Sara Latta is a science writer and author of 17 books for children and young adults. You can learn more about her work and link to past reviews at

This review originally appeared in the March 17, 2013 issue of The News-Gazette (Champaign-Urbana, Illinois).

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Monday, February 25, 2013

Tell the Wolves I'm Home (review)

Tell the Wolves I'm HomeTell the Wolves I'm Home by Carol Rifka Brunt
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Love and grief in the time of AIDS

“Tell the Wolves I’m Home: A Novel” (Dial Press, 2012), by Carol Rifka Brunt is a coming of age story of love, grief, and renewal as two lonely people become unlikely friends. The only person who really understands fifteen year-old June Elbus is her uncle and the renowned painter Finn Weiss. June is shy at school; her older sister Greta, with whom she was once close, has turned mean and nasty. Finn, her godfather, confidante, and, to her shame, secret crush, shares her love of the medieval era and introduces her to the glories of Mozart’s Requiem.
June’s world is turned upside down when Finn dies of a terrible disease that her mother initially talks about only by tracing the letters A-I-D-S onto a table. At the funeral, June glimpses a strange man lingering at the edge of the crowd. June soon learns that the man, Toby, was Finn’s “special friend,” as her mother puts it.
Despite her initial mistrust, June forms a clandestine friendship with her uncle’s partner, since her family hates Toby and blames him for Finn’s illness. They work through their grief, talking about Finn’s art and passion for life. June comes to learn more about Finn, herself, and the nature of love.
Rifka Brunt absolutely captures the attitudes toward AIDS and the gay community in the mid-to-late 1980s: the homophobia, the stigma surrounding AIDS, the ignorance, and of course the pain of losing so many loved ones. Readers today who are not old enough to remember the AIDS crisis may shake their heads at June’s worry that Finn might have infected her by kissing her on the top of the head, but it’s important to remember that misinformation about the transmission of the virus was rampant at that time.
It was international news in 1987 when Princess Diana visited an AIDS hospital and shook hands with one of the patients without wearing gloves, to make the point that the virus could not be transmitted though normal contact; that same year, however, police wearing long yellow rubber gloves arrested protesters at an AIDS conference.
Tell the Wolves I’m Home is a 2013 winner of the Young Adult Library Services Association’s Alex Award, given to books written for adults that have special appeal to teens. Be forewarned: this beautiful book may very well have you doing the ugly cry.

Sara Latta is a children's science writer and author of 17 books. You can learn more about her work and link to past reviews at

This review originally published in Sunday, February 24, 2013 edition of The News-Gazette.

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Sunday, February 3, 2013

The Fault in Our Stars (review)

The Fault in Our StarsThe Fault in Our Stars by John Green
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A Stellar Read—or Listen

I hadn’t originally intended to write a review of John Green’s “The Fault in Our Stars” (Dutton Juvenile, 2012).  Not because I don’t adore John Green (I do) or his books (ditto), several of which I’ve reviewed for this paper. But I like to spread the love to authors who may not have received the attention they deserve. John Green’s fans, a.k.a. nerdfighters, are legion. I thought I’d give some other deserving authors a few column inches.
Sorry, other deserving authors. I’ll get to you later. You might say it was in the stars that this week’s review is for the audio version of “The Fault in Our Stars” (produced by Brilliance Audio, 2012; narrated by Kate Rudd). I generally write about print books in this column, but I had hardly removed the earbuds after listening to Green’s most recent gem when I learned that it had just won the American Library Association’s Odyssey Award for best audiobook produced for children and/or young adults. Well done, judges, well done.
Hazel Grace Lancaster, the narrator, is sixteen. She has cancer, and must carry an oxygen tank with her wherever she goes. Despite an experimental drug that has bought her a few years, she is terminal. She meets Augustus Waters, who has lost a leg to cancer (“I had a little touch of osteosarcoma a year and a half ago…”) at a support group. The two kindred spirits, sharing an irreverent sense of humor and a searching intelligence, eventually fall in love.
Augustus manages to arrange a trip to Amsterdam so that Hazel Grace can meet the author of her favorite book, “An Imperial Affliction,” to find out what happens to the characters after the book’s abrupt ending. What happens during the trip should remain a surprise, but it’s significant.
In the hands of a lesser author, a story about two teens with cancer would be sentimental and maudlin. While “The Fault in Our Stars” deals quite honestly and often heart-wrenchingly with the problems of kids with cancer, it is also filled with Green’s trademark humor and intelligence.
As any listener of audiobooks knows, the narrator can make or break the listening experience. Kate Rudd does a wonderful job of bringing the characters, especially Hazel Grace, to life. At 31, she is young enough to sound quite convincing as a teenager. In an interview, she admits that there were at least 100 pages where she is actually crying as she’s reading. So that explains Hazel’s very convincing breathlessness and the frequent catches in the voices of the parents.
Listen to this book in a place where you won’t mind if anyone catches you weeping or laughing out loud. If they do, just share one of your earbuds.

Sara Latta is a children's science writer and author of 17 books. You can learn more about her work and link to past reviews at

This review originally appeared in the Sunday, February 3, 2013 edition of The News-Gazette (Champaign-Urbana, Illinois).

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Wednesday, January 16, 2013

The Vanishing Act (review)

The Vanishing Act

Near the beginning of Mette Jakobsen’s debut novel “The Vanishing Act” ( W.W. Norton, 2012), Minou, the story’s 12 year old narrator tells the reader “You might not believe my story. You might read it as a fairytale, a fable straight out of my imagination.”
            Despite what Minou says, this quiet, slim novel is very much a fable, a tale of love, loss, and aching loneliness. Minou, her father; a kind, mad Priest; a magician named Boxman; and a dog called No Name live on an island “so tiny that it can’t be found on any maps.” One year earlier, her mother walked out into the cold morning with her umbrella and a turtle and disappeared from their lives. While everyone else on the island has given up hope of finding Minou’s mother, the girl is convinced that she is alive, off on an exciting adventure from which she will soon return.
            Jakobsen throws the reader into Minou’s world with the novel’s opening sentence: “It was snowing the morning I found the dead boy.”
Minou, and her father carry the frozen boy to their house, laying the body out on the mother’s empty bed for three days until the delivery boat could come to pick him up. The boy, Minou is sure, holds the secret to her mother’s disappearance, and she confides in him, a silent confessor.
So, too, does her father, a philosopher who believes that he is a descendent of Descartes. Logic and reason, in his mind, is the key to finding the ultimate truth—a belief that Minou has adopted and fervently hopes will help her untangle the mystery behind her mother’s disappearance. In flashbacks, we learn more about her mother, an artist who arrived on the island with just one red suitcase filled with “five dresses, eight jars of paint, two brushes, and a white enamel clock that didn’t work,” as well as a peacock nestled in a golden bowl. Both Minou’s mother and father were scarred by a war that, although unnamed, seems very much like World War II.  
The other characters in this sparse narrative are equally enigmatic. There is Priest, who performs Tai-Chi like exercises every morning, bakes pretzels that no one wants to eat, and sends out origami animals during his sermons to Minou and No Name.  The Boxman, a retired magician, now makes the boxes the magicians use when sawing women in half. All are a part of the story of the disappearance of Minou’s mother.
Jakobsen’s writing is lovely and captivating. After reading this book, you may find yourself revisiting Minou on her island “so tiny that it can’t be found on any maps.”

This review originally published in the Sunday, October 21 edition of The News-Gazette.


Beautiful Creatures (review)

Beautiful Creatures (Caster Chronicles, #1)Beautiful Creatures by Kami Garcia
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Southern Gothic Fantasy Hits the Big Screen

I always prefer to read the book before seeing the movie. I think it’s more fun to imagine what the characters look like before some casting directors do it for me. If the filmmakers do a good job of bringing the book to the big screen, it adds to the fun. Harry Potter, anyone?
So when I saw that the movie “Beautiful Creatures,” based on the book of the same name (Little, Brown and Co., 2009) by Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl, was coming out this year just in time for Valentine’s Day, I knew I had to read the book first.
All I can say is this: if the movie lives up to the book, I’m going to enjoy it.
Sixteen-year-old Ethan Wate lives in the small southern town of Gatlin, South Carolina, where nothing ever seems to change and old folks still refer to the Civil War as “The War of Northern Aggression.” The biggest event in town is the yearly Civil War reenactment that everyone—save Ethan and his family—seems to relish.
Nothing changes, that is, until Lena Duchannes comes to town. She is, literally, the girl of his dreams. For months, he had dreamed of a beautiful girl he had never met. She is falling, and he must save her. When Ethan meets the mysterious Lena on their first day of sophomore year, he knows it’s her. It is also clear that she is no ordinary teenager. She moves into the town’s oldest and most infamous plantation with her uncle Macon Ravenwood, the town recluse.
Ethan falls for this strange new girl who is unlike any of the perky, blonde, fake-tanned cheerleader types who dominate the school’s social scene. She’s dark-haired, pale, wears all the wrong kind of clothes, and drives a hearse to school. Yes!
As Ethan quickly discovers, Lena’s differences go way, way beyond her looks. She is a Caster, which is something like a witch. Although, as Lena points out, “That’s such as stupid word, really. It’s like saying jocks. Or geeks. It’s just a dumb stereotype.” Ethan and Lena begin to fall for each other, even as they learn that their pasts are inextricably bound together. And Lena is struggling to conceal her power and a curse that has haunted her family for generations.
Authors Garcia and Stohl do a terrific job of describing the atmosphere, culture, and secrets of a small southern town, creating a gripping ending that will have you wishing for more. Wish granted: there are of course sequels—not to mention the movie!

Sara Latta is a children's science writer and author of 17 books. You can learn more about her work and link to past reviews at This review originally published in the Sunday, January 13 edition of The News-Gazette.

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