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.
View all my reviews

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.
View all my reviews

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.
View all my reviews

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.
View all my reviews

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.
View all my reviews

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.
View all my reviews

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.
View all my reviews