As I write this, snow is falling in the Puget Sound area. After the December holidays, February is a great time of year to tuck in with a chilling story‚ for its cold-weather setting‚ or one that will get your heart beating‚ featuring unforgettable characters, a knife-edge plot, or the throes of first love.
Emond, Stephen. Winter Town. Little, Brown. 2011. 315p. ISBN 9780316133326. $17.99.
Every winter break, buttoned-up Evan is eager to catch up with his oldest friend, Lucy. After her parents’ divorce, she moved away from their snowy New England town and now only returns over the holidays. This year is different. Lucy’s open and intelligent demeanor has been replaced by a scowling Goth with a cigarette habit. Evan cannot help but want to fix her angry heart and rediscover the Lucy he once knew‚ a sure recipe for romantic disaster. On her part, Lucy longs to connect with Evan but fears he is out of his depth, having never experienced anything like her family’s emotional isolation. The author of Happyface (2010) intersects their story with Evan’s adorable comics, which mirror he and Lucy’s journey in Aelysthia, the magical land of their childhood.
Green, John. The Fault in Our Stars. Dutton Juvenile. 2012. 336p. ISBN 9780525478812. $17.99.
The release of any book by Green is eagerly anticipated by teen and adult readers alike. Drawing even more attention to his latest offering, the popular author determined to autograph all 150,000 copies of the book’s first print run, making it an Amazon best seller over a month before its publication date. Lofty expectations, and Green delivers; this story of two teens fighting end-stage cancer may be his best book to date. Hazel is alive (but depressed) thanks to a miracle drug that has bought her more time with her lungs that suck at being lungs. At support group she meets Augustus Waters, who has lost a leg to osteosarcoma. He is struck by her sharp wit and resemblance to Natalie Portman and invites her home to watch V for Vendetta, beginning a relationship that will take them from the ICU to Amsterdam, exploring the joys and despairs of first love when there may not be a second chance. The author’s experience as a chaplain in a children’s hospital informs the story, so that it avoids the becoming maudlin, even as Hazel’s and Gus’s every dignity is stripped away by their respective cancers. An unforgettable story with more than just two unforgettable characters.
O’Connell, Mary. The Sharp Time. Delacorte. 2011. 240p. ISBN 9780385740487. $17.99.
Set in the cold week of Epiphany, O’Connell’s debut novel tells the story of Sandanista (!), an 18-year-old high school senior who has lost her mother and her will to stay in school. Free-spirited Mom named her daughter for the seminal Clash album, ensuring that Sandanista would be nothing if not stylish, but with Mom gone, she has spiraled into a deep depression made worse by the bullying of her math teacher. Fed up, she walks out of class and finds a job at her favorite vintage clothing store, the Pale Circus. Behind the register is the charismatic Bradley, whom, she discovers, has his own grief to bear. Part of the novel’s appeal is its urban Kansas City setting‚ the store’s neighbors include a pawn shop, a monastery, and an erotic bakery. It is through the kindness of their proprietors that Sandanista comes to find faith in herself and the world once more.
Sedgwick, Marcus. Revolver. Square Fish: Macmillan. 2011. 204p. ISBN 9780312547974. pap. $8.99.
I touted the merits of Marcus Sedgwick’s 2011 Printz Honor book in an earlier column as a way to stay cool through the hottest days of summer. Teenaged Sig is minding the frozen body of his father when a menacing stranger knocks on the door, demanding a fortune in gold. Sig’s only resource is the family’s ancient Colt revolver, hidden in the cabin’s storeroom. Set 100 miles north of the Arctic Circle, this tense drama fits every definition of the word “chilling.” Now its publisher has brought out the paperback edition (the hardcover appeared in 2010 under the Roaring Brook imprint), with a cover right out of a Coen Brothers film, an author interview, and a sneak peak at Sedgwick’s latest book, the creepy White Crow . This sleek new edition leaves no excuses to miss one of the best stories to come out of the cold since Jack London.
Sepetys, Ruth. Between Shades of Gray. Philomel Bks. 2011. 344p. ISBN 9780399254123. $17.99.
Every year, there are stories published about the Holocaust, but this may be the first for teens about the genocide that coincided it: the Soviet purge of the Baltic States. Beginning in 1941, this novel follows the story of Lina as her family is taken from their home in Lithuania and transported to a labor camp in Siberia. They are forced from one camp to another, each farther north, until they reach the brutal top of the world. The love of fellow prisoner Andrius gives Lina the will to survive the incredible conditions and return to their homeland over a decade later. The daughter of a Lithuanian refugee, Sepetys wrote this first novel to honor the 20 million killed by Stalin during his reign of terror.
Stiefvater, Maggie. The Scorpio Races. Scholastic. 2011. 409p. ISBN 9780545224901. $17.99.
Every year there is a book that rightly deserve a place on my Best of the Year list but misses the honor because I read it after deadline. Twenty pages into Stiefvater’s magical tale of killer horses and their desperate riders, this book became a Top Five favorite. Here, Sean Kendrick is the man to beat. The groom has won the Scorpio Races four times and hopes that a fifth win will allow him to purchase his beloved steed, Corr, one of the deadly capaill uisce, from the stable owner. Orphaned by the man-eating horses, 16-year-old Kate Puck Connolly enters the race to keep from losing her family home. Through their alternating viewpoints, the reader is swept up in the breakneck excitement of the race‚ the only source of income for the residents of the small, cold island of Thisby. The cruelty of Sean’s and Puck’s circumstances is matched only by their determination to make a better life in this dire and beautiful place. In this year’s crowded field of exquisite fantasy, The Scorpio Races may yet pull away and win by a furlong.
Wolf, Allan. The Watch That Ends the Night: Voices from the Titanic. Candlewick, 2011. 466p. ISBN 9780763637033. $21.99.
The year 2012 marks the centenary of the sinking of the Titanic. Here, Wolf gives poetic voice to two dozen passengers and crew‚ including John Jacob Astor, the unsinkable Margaret Brown, a baker, and a Lebanese immigrant‚ as the iceberg breaches the ship’s starboard hull and sinks it into the cold North Atlantic over the course of one fateful night. The voices are mostly based on real people, and Wolf concludes the book with extensive character notes, Titanic miscellany, and a bibliography. Plugged by no less poet than Ted Kooser, this dramatic re-creation sets a high watermark for the batch of books that are sure to appear this coming year.