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Dorothy Must Die

Danielle Paige. Harper, $17.99 (464p) ISBN 978-0-06-228067-1

A former writer for television, Paige makes her YA debut with this edgy update of Baum's classic series. When Kansas teenager Amy Gumm is carried away by a tornado, she arrives in a nightmarish version of Oz. The Scarecrow is a mad scientist, the Tin Woodman a sadistic military commander, the Cowardly Lion a ravenous beast, and Dorothy a vainglorious tyrant obsessed with stealing the land's magic and enslaving its people. After being thrown in prison for breaking the rules, Amy is rescued by the witches of the Revolutionary Order of the Wicked, who train her in magic and combat, and charge her with a singular mission: kill Dorothy—a near-suicidal task requiring her to go undercover in the Emerald City. While Oz purists may howl with outrage over the subversion of a childhood favorite—with some characters meeting gruesome ends—Paige delivers a solid, intense, and strange narrative that draws deeply on its source material. However, the lengthy buildup and abrupt ending make this installment feel like setup for the planned subsequent novels. A Full Fathom Five property. Ages 14–up. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 04/11/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Summer on the Short Bus

Bethany Crandell. Running Press, $9.95 trade paper (256p) ISBN 978-0-7624-4951-4

When 17-year-old Cricket's self-serving behavior crosses a line (she hosts a party in the riding stables), her father sends her to Camp I Can for two weeks. There, she's removed from her privileged life and thrust into the role of counselor for teenagers with Down syndrome or cerebral palsy—to Cricket, "a bunch of retards." Meeting Quinn, a fellow counselor (and a Zac Efron lookalike), and an intense roommate temporarily distract Cricket from what she's certain is her own worst nightmare incarnate. But her narrow-mindedness and insensitive comments (she refers to the campers as "dog-faced") alienate her few potential friends. In her debut novel, Crandell draws from her experience raising a daughter with cerebral palsy, sensitively conveying the impact of stereotypes and hurtful comments without resorting to moralizing. Uncomfortable moments, unflinchingly conveyed, are gingerly balanced with a sense of humor. Crandell creates a maddening yet sympathetic character in Cricket, who is realistically slow to learn her lessons in compassion and human kindness. Ages 13–up. Agent: Rachael Dugas, Talcott Notch Literary Services. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 04/11/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Dear Killer

Katherine Ewell. HarperCollins/Tegen, $17.99 (368p) ISBN 978-0-06-225780-2

Seventeen-year-old Kit is secretly London's dreaded "Perfect Killer," a nihilistic serial killer trained by her mother to carry out murder as part of a higher calling, choosing her victims from anonymous letters sent to her. As her body count grows, the police remain stymied—until Kit starts losing her focus. From making one murder personal to befriending a victim and outright flirting with the policeman unofficially assigned to the Perfect Killer case, it seems as though Kit's carefully constructed façade is finally crumbling. But she's still committed to carrying out one last assignment, heedless of the consequences. This tense page-turner was a finalist in the 2011 Amazon Breakthrough Novel contest and represents Ewell's debut. She expertly captures Kit's dispassionate yet conflicted state of being, chronicling the chaotic swirl of emotions as the routine breaks down. However, Kit's point of view leads many other characters to feel less developed. The almost hypnotic nature of the storyline doesn't quite make up for moments of implausibility (including Kit's success and general modus operandi) and other plot holes in an otherwise solid thriller. Ages 13–up. Agent: Alice Martell, the Martell Agency. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 04/11/2014 | Details & Permalink

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My Life with the Walter Boys

Ali Novak. Sourcebooks Fire, $9.99 trade paper (384p) ISBN 978-1-4022-9786-1

Novak's first novel—which she wrote at age 15 and posted on social network Wattpad, where it gained a large fan base—is set just after 16-year-old Jackie's entire family dies in a car accident. She moves from New York City to Colorado with her mother's good friend, her new guardian. Now, Jackie will be living on a ranch with a family of 11 boys (including two sets of twins), their sole unfriendly sister, and a pet snake. The chaotic household's constant noise, sibling conflicts, and disarmingly laidback environment leave her disoriented, but also distract her from her recent tragedy. A compulsive organizer by nature, Jackie learns that not everything can be compartmentalized, and a messy romantic entanglement only throws her life into further disarray. Novak spreads the story thin, introducing multiple characters without developing them much. Prosaic descriptions at times undermine the story's emotional depth, and Jackie's response to her tremendous loss comes across as mechanical. Yet the themes of seizing rather than planning each moment and allowing for life's untidiness are explored with energy and humor. Ages 12–up. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 04/11/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Rebel Belle

Rachel Hawkins. Putnam, $17.99 (352p) ISBN 978-0-399-25693-6

Harper is a popular overachiever with the perfect boyfriend, Ryan; she's driven by a need to prove she's not like her sister, who died driving after drinking on Homecoming night. Right before Harper is inevitably crowned Homecoming queen, the dying school janitor breathes an ancient power into her, making Harper a Paladin, protector of the oracle who happens to be David, her archenemy since kindergarten. Harper's priorities quickly shift from maintaining her image to using her new fighting skills to keep nefarious forces from closing in on David. It all culminates at Cotillion, a formal ball where girls are presented and officially recognized as women. Harper's sharp wit and slow coming-to-terms with her imperfections make her fully relatable in a solid series kickoff. Hawkins (the Hex Hall series) strikes a pleasing balance between humor and drama, giving the "chosen one" narrative a welcome dusting of irony and a glowing Southern setting. The Ryan-Harper-David love triangle sizzles, and there are just enough surprises to keep readers on their toes. Ages 12–up. Agent: Holly Root, Waxman Leavell Literary Agency. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 04/11/2014 | Details & Permalink

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The Chance You Won't Return

Annie Cardi. Candlewick, $16.99 (352p) ISBN 978-0-7636-6292-9

In Cardi's candid and multilayered debut, high school junior Alex Winchester already has a full plate when her mother begins to believe she is Amelia Earhart, writing letters to an imaginary family, studying maps, and building makeshift aeronautical devices for her "around-the-world tour." Overwhelmed by the transformation, which appears to have been sparked by the death of Alex's baby sister, Alex's father mismanages the situation and makes Alex responsible for sheltering her two younger siblings. With her own anxiety mounting, Alex begins to play into her mother's fantasy world, recognizing the immense hold that it has taken on her mother and believing that it may be the only means through which to reach her. Alex's crush on a senior provides some brightness, but it's eclipsed by her fear that he'll discover the truth about her home life. Alex's voice is caustic, honest, and studded with humor. Cardi weaves elegant metaphors and incisive dialogue throughout her chapters, concluding with a wrenching sentiment about the necessity of sometimes allowing a lost loved one to find her own way home. Ages 12–up. Agent: Taylor Martindale, Full Circle Literary. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 04/11/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Breakfast Served Anytime

Sarah Combs. Candlewick, $16.99 (272p) ISBN 978-0-7636-6791-7

Combs's debut introduces a vivid, self-aware protagonist at a significant juncture in her life. A sensitive introvert with a penchant for believing in signs, Gloria spends the summer before her senior year on a college campus at a four-week camp for gifted students. There, she enrolls in "Secrets of the Written Word," offered by eccentric Professor X, who challenges his students to leave all "technoparaphernalia" at home, resulting in a very small class of willing participants. Gloria surrenders herself to the immediacy of her surroundings, untethered from social media, immersed in literature, and experiencing independence for the first time. She quickly bonds with fellow students who cause her to question her political, social, and philosophical values, as well as her desires for the future. Infused with romance and intellectual energy, Combs's story eloquently captures the euphoria and transformation that can arise from an intense period of personal introspection. Gloria's Whitmanesque quest for visceral experience is exciting and inspiring, as is her ability to recognize the significance of quiet moments as they unfold. Ages 12–up. Agent: Elizabeth Kaplan, Elizabeth Kaplan Literary Agency. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 04/11/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Curiosity

Gary Blackwood. Dial, $16.99 (320p) ISBN 978-0-8037-3924-6

In a brisk historical novel set in the early 19th century, a young hunchback named Rufus lands a job that makes use of his chess abilities after his father is thrown into debtors' prison. Rufus controls an automaton called the Turk, secretly crawling inside a cramped cabinet to play matches against challengers at exhibitions. He is practically a prisoner: Maelzel, who owns the exhibits, initially refuses to pay him, and he only lets Rufus leave the workshop at night, fearing someone will discover the Turk is a trick. References to automatons, phrenology, and an early roller coaster give depth and context to Rufus's story, and appearances by historical figures like P.T. Barnum and Edgar Allan Poe (who the author casts in a nefarious role) add fun. Blackwood (Around the World in 100 Days) cleverly blurs the line between machine and human. Trying to throw a match, Rufus gets a "disturbing feeling... that the Turk has somehow taken over"; later, the boy begins wearing a back brace that makes him "look a bit mechanical." The layered narrative should appeal to history buffs, gadget lovers, and fans of The Invention of Hugo Cabret. Ages 9–11. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 04/11/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Alien Encounter

Charise Mericle Harper. Holt/Ottaviano, $12.99 (208p) ISBN 978-0-8050-9621-7

In this big-hearted, fast-paced, and deadpan first book in the Sasquatch and Aliens series, Harper (the Just Grace books) introduces a pair of nine-year-old boys who are propelled into an adventure that may or may not involve otherworldly creatures. Anxiety-prone Morgan first meets new kid Lewis as Lewis is hanging from a tree by his underwear. After Morgan reluctantly rescues Lewis (whose family just bought a creepy motel), a tentative friendship is born. When the boys return to the scene of the "killer wedgie" for an "underpants picnic," they are terrified by a slimy alien life form. Harper introduces a crackling cast that includes parents, siblings, and a next-door neighbor who provides a possible explanation for the unexplained phenomena. Harper's journal-like blending of short chapters with humorous titles, comedic drawings, and lists succeeds to great effect, especially Morgan's penchant for creating acrostic poems in response to uncertain situations (an acrostic for "motel" begins "Murders could have happened here"). There's no tidy resolution, leaving room for discovery in the teased sequel. Ages 7–10. Agent: Amy Rennert, Amy Rennert Agency. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 04/11/2014 | Details & Permalink

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The Promise

Nicola Davies, illus. by Laura Carlin. Candlewick, $16.99 (40p) ISBN 978-0-7636-6633-0

A message of hope infuses Davies's story, which opens with a child whose urban home mirrors her bleak internal life. "I lived by stealing from those who had almost as little as I did," she explains, seen pickpocketing from a woman's coat. "My heart was as shriveled as the dead trees in the park." When the girl steals an elderly woman's purse, she discovers that it contains only acorns; the woman's request that the girl promise to "plant them" immediately (and somewhat unrealistically) washes away her more immediate needs and concerns: "I forgot the food and money. And for the first time in my life, I felt lucky, rich beyond my wildest dreams." In her first picture book, Carlin creates a chalky, ashy landscape, which she gradually peppers with specks of color as the girl plants the acorns: "I pushed aside the mean and hard and ugly, and I planted, planted, planted." A chance encounter with another thief perpetuates the cycle of redemption and goodwill. Davies's parable-like narrative leaves a quietly powerful impression while avoiding preaching. Ages 5–9. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 04/11/2014 | Details & Permalink

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