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Sondheim: The Man Who Changed Musical Theater

Susan Goldman Rubin. Roaring Brook/Porter, $21.99 (192p) ISBN 978-1-59643-884-2

Musical-theater lovers will devour this detailed exploration of Stephen Sondheim’s productions, beginning with his earliest attempt: a musical he wrote at the age of 15 about campus life at his boarding school in Bucks County, Pa. Rubin (Music Was IT) writes in her introduction that her goal is to offer readers “a glimpse of Stephen Sondheim’s process”; she also presents a brief look at his childhood and adolescence. Based on personal interviews with Sondheim and many of his collaborators, as well as his memoirs, the book is filled with Sondheim’s voice, reflecting on the joys and challenges of composing, writing lyrics, and collaborating with the likes of Leonard Bernstein, Jerome Robbins, and Hal Prince. Readers hoping for a biography that digs into the multifaceted composer/lyricist’s psyche and creative spirit may be disappointed, but those interested in behind-the-scenes stories of his landmark productions will appreciate the comprehensive accounts, historical photography from Sondheim’s shows (as well as of Sondheim and other musical-theater luminaries), and back-matter listings of all his works. Ages 12–up. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 08/21/2015 | Details & Permalink

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Placebo Junkies

J.C. Carleson. Knopf, $17.99 (304p) ISBN 978-0-553-49724-3

Teenage Audie and her roommates make rent by serving as human test subjects. In their world, “your value lies in your blood, your waste, and your mitochondrial minutiae,” and Audie is trying “to squeeze every possible cent” out of the system in order to take her cancer-stricken boyfriend on a dream vacation for his birthday. When Audie starts several test drugs at the same time, life gets muddled, and it becomes increasingly hard for her to sort fantasy from reality. A somewhat jarring twist arrives two-thirds of the way into the story, but Audie—a chatty, clever narrator with a twisted sense of humor—grounds the story even as it changes gears. Carleson (The Tyrant’s Daughter) gives Audie believable motivation for undergoing tests that range from practice gynecological exams to taking psilocybin (“Once you get the chance to control your own fate, set your own schedule, it’s too hard to give it back), while raising challenging questions about medicine, ethics, and the true cost of big breakthroughs. Ages 14–up. Agent: Jessica Regel, Foundry Literary + Media. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 08/21/2015 | Details & Permalink

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One of Us

Jeannie Waudby. Running Press Teens, $16.95 (320p) ISBN 978-0-7624-5799-1

This provocative thriller, Waudby’s debut, is set in a modern society divided between everyday citizens and the minority Brotherhood, a quasi-religious group that is the target of discrimination and institutionalized oppression. As the two sides move toward Reconciliation, terrorist attacks from the Brotherhood threaten to destabilize such efforts. After narrowly surviving a bombing, 15-year-old orphan K is recruited by the police to go undercover with the Brotherhood in hopes of ferreting out its radical elements. Instead, she finds acceptance and another side to the story, as well as the beginnings of romance. Increasingly distrustful of her handler, K—now known as Verity—tries to break free in order to dictate her own destiny. In making the details of K’s world generic, Waudby draws on universal themes that can speak to almost any “us vs. them” conflict, be it religious, ethnic, or cultural. However, knowing so little about the setting—such as why the conflict exists in the first place or what makes the Brotherhood distinct—also distracts from the story, weakening an otherwise compelling narrative with a strong protagonist, relatable characters, and tense plotline. Ages 13–up. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 08/21/2015 | Details & Permalink

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Da Vinci’s Tiger

L.M. Elliott. HarperCollins/Tegen, $17.99 (304p) ISBN 978-0-06-074424-3

“I beg your pardon, I am a mountain tiger.” This is the only surviving sentence from the poetry of Ginevra de’ Benci, who posed for a portrait by Leonardo da Vinci in the late 1470s. The creation of this portrait is the subject of Elliott’s (Flying South) delicately beautiful novel. Ginevra, a well-educated and intelligent young woman, seeks intellectual and romantic fulfillment in the aristocratic circles of Florence. Her arranged marriage, while friendly, is dull, and the ambassador from Venice, Bernardo Bembo, wants her to be his Platonic muse—a Renaissance form of romance in which a man idealizes a woman, declaring that he will meditate on her beauty, grace, and virtue to guide his soul to God. Bembo’s love can give Ginevra access to the sparkling life of the court, but she finds the painter he hires for her portrait very distracting indeed. Elliott’s novel is thoroughly researched, portraying three-dimensional characters in a lively atmosphere of love and art. Renaissance Florence breathes through this book, bringing readers to a fuller understanding of the portrait, the era, and an indomitable young woman. Ages 13–up. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 08/21/2015 | Details & Permalink

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Tell the Story to Its End

Simon P. Clark. St. Martin’s Griffin, $18.99 (208p) ISBN 978-1-250-06675-6

Offering a spiral of stories within stories, this atmospheric first novel features a boy searching for truth, who gets sidetracked by a remarkable discovery. Narrator Oli is whisked away from London to a country town, where he and his mother pay an extended visit to Oli’s aunt and uncle. Oli doesn’t know why they left home or why his father didn’t accompany them, and no one will give him a straight answer. Everyone seems to have secrets, including Oli: he has met a creature named Eren in the attic, whose very survival seems to depend on hearing the stories Oli tells him. Philosophical musings about the purpose of storytelling can be a little overplayed and abstract (“Stories are the truth beyond the flat, stone world”), but Clark does an admirable job of conveying Oli’s wonder, confusion, and frustration as he strays farther and farther from reality. Echoing the surreal quality and settings of David Almond’s books, this novel adeptly mixes fantasy with reality and leaves some pressing questions unanswered. Ages 12–up. Agent: Molly Ker Hawn, Bent Agency. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 08/21/2015 | Details & Permalink

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An Inheritance of Ashes

Leah Bobet. Clarion, $17.99 (400p) ISBN 978-0-544-28111-0

This superb fantasy takes place in a grim world that readers will come to recognize as a future North America. Reasons for society’s collapse aren’t given, but civilization is at a roughly 19th-century level. Guns are considered relics, but no one thinks twice about having Hmong neighbors. Months ago 16-year-old Hallie’s brother-in-law, Thom, marched away from the farm she co-owns with her sister, Marthe, to fight the Wicked God Southward, an entity that traveled through a rent in the universe and, accompanied by its Twisted Things, was turning their world to ash. The ragtag human army defeated the Wicked God, but Thom, like many others, did not return; those who did have been badly damaged. When Hallie finds another Twisted Thing on the farm, the horror seems ready to return. Bobet (Above) is an accomplished stylist (a survivor of the war “carried the distance between us, five feet back and steady, like the borders of a whole universe”), and she insightfully examines the corrosive dangers of sibling rivalry in a story filled with impossible choices and unknowable ambiguities. Ages 12–up. Agent: Caitlin Blasdell, Liza Dawson Associates. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 08/21/2015 | Details & Permalink

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Winter

Marissa Meyer. Feiwel and Friends, $22.99 (832p) ISBN 978-0-312-64298-3

At twice the length of Cinder, Meyer’s 800-page conclusion to her Lunar Chronicles is daunting both in its immensity and in its narrative breadth, shifting among every major character from the series and some new ones. But readers who have invested in Cinder and its sequels won’t be disappointed: this final installment abounds with nail-biting action, suspense, and romance. As Cinder plots a revolution against the exquisitely evil Lunar Queen Levana, readers meet Levana’s stepdaughter, Winter, whose debilitating visions are kept in check by Jacin, her beloved personal guard whom she is forbidden from marrying. Meyer stays true to the fairy tales that underlie this series with several references to Snow White but continues to keep things fresh with her futuristic setting and many delightfully unexpected twists. Winter is not quite as formidable as her predecessors, and her innocence and vulnerability can be grating. That said, the explosive final confrontation with Levana is gratifyingly tense, and Meyer expertly ties up any and all loose ends, allowing readers to leave behind this saga with a contented sigh. Ages 12–up. Agent: Jill Grinberg, Jill Grinberg Literary Management. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 08/21/2015 | Details & Permalink

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A Year in the Life of a Complete and Total Genius

Stacey Matson. Sourcebooks Jabberwocky, $15.99 (272p) ISBN 978-1-4926-2074-7

Arthur Bean, a highly self-confident Canadian seventh grader, chronicles his school year through entries in his reading journal, email exchanges, and writing assignments in this humorous coming-of-age novel, Matson’s debut. Arthur hopes to kick off his career as a famous author by winning a citywide contest for young writers, but he is stumped for actual ideas. Meanwhile, Arthur’s teacher forces him to tutor his nemesis, Robbie. As the boys come to understand each other, Arthur sees that Robbie has some excellent story ideas underneath his poor grammar skills, though both boys have a crush on Arthur’s writing partner, Kennedy. Underlying these familiar middle-school dramas is Arthur’s grief over the recent death of his mother. Kennedy’s exuberant personality shines through her LOL-dotted, exclamation-point-laden emails, while Arthur’s writing makes plain his prickly brand of egotism (“Of course, there were a few poems that stood out in the sea of banality,” reads his review of an eighth-grade poetry reading). Arthur may finish the year as persnickety and opinionated as he started, but he also learns a few things about compassion, open-mindedness, and fairness. Ages 10–up. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 08/21/2015 | Details & Permalink

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Finding Fortune

Delia Ray. FSG/Ferguson, $16.99 (288p) ISBN 978-0-374-30065-4

After Ren catches her mother flirting with another man (Ren’s father is a soldier stationed in Afghanistan), the 12-year-old runs away to a dilapidated school turned boardinghouse in Fortune, a virtual ghost town on the Mississippi River. There, she finds strange characters and an irresistible mystery. Former beauty queen Hildy Baxter, the establishment’s elderly owner, is eager to chronicle Fortune’s history by opening a pearl button museum, if only she can find the treasure box her brother hid years ago. Assisting Hildy is Mayor Joy, his donkey, and jack-of-all-trades Garrett, who is building a labyrinth of shells in the backyard. Together with friends Hugh and Tucker, Ren helps with the museum and searches for Hildy’s lost treasure, despite threats of closure. Ren’s confusion over her parents’ troubled relationship is lovingly handled through Ray’s whimsical characters and heartfelt moments between Ren and her mother. Ray (Here Lies Linc) expertly incorporates the forgotten history of shell harvesting towns along the Mississippi in an absorbing and well-written story that recalls Kate DiCamillo’s Because of Winn-Dixie. Ages 10–12. Agent: Laura Langlie, Laura Langlie Agency. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 08/21/2015 | Details & Permalink

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The Peddler’s Road

Matthew Cody. Knopf, $17.99 (368p) ISBN 978-0-385-75522-1

In this first book in the Secrets of the Pied Piper trilogy, Cody (Villainous) seeks to answer some of the mysteries surrounding the famous legend. Did it actually happen? Who was this enigmatic piper? And what became of the children he led away? The book opens with 10-year-old Carter and his older sister, Max, reacting very differently to their trip to the German town of Hamelin, where their father is researching the folktale. Despite his clubfoot, Carter wants to explore with his sister, while Max would rather sulk and dye her hair pink. After the siblings are magically transported to an enchanted island where the long-missing children from the tale still live, they must embark on a perilous journey to fulfill a prophecy in hopes of returning everyone home. Shifting among various characters’ perspectives, this engaging story introduces a world filled with human-size rats, magicians, kobolds, elves, ghosts, and more. Cody weaves an inventive fantasy that spans time and space in its exploration of the lighter and darker sides of magic. Ages 8–12. Agent: Kate Schafer Testerman, KT Literary. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 08/21/2015 | Details & Permalink

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