PictureCourtesy of Simon & Schuster
by Alicia Rudnicki, Library Mix

The Gates, by John Connolly, 2011, Simon & Schuster (paperback),
ISBN 978-1-442-42933-8

Boredom is dangerous. It can cause you to make unfortunate choices, such as visiting a used bookstore and buying a strange, dusty, old book. That’s what happens to prim, proper Mrs. Abernathy in John Connolly’s quirky novel, The Gates. Mrs. Abernathy’s book is written in an obscure foreign language that she doesn’t understand but which compels her to hold an unusual party.

Book in hand, Mrs. Abernathy leads a friendly get-together in her basement during which everyone wears creepy hooded cloaks and chants nonsense. Oops! The ritual is an open sesame command for the gates to damnation. Mrs. Abernathy has helped Hell break loose in her new and formerly peaceful hometown of Biddlecombe, England.

Funny rather than fear-inducing, The Gates is the first installment in Connolly’s Samuel Johnson series, which is intended for tweens and teens, but also appeals to adults.

Eleven-year-old Samuel Johnson is also bored as the novel opens. He decides to combat the doldrums and depression over his parent’s separation by dressing up as a ghost and getting a jump on Halloween by trick-or-treating three days early.

Samuel and his devoted dachshund, Boswell, receive no treats from the Abernathys. Instead, boy and dog sniff trouble — an acrid, boiled-egg stench — emanating from a fiery hole in the Abernathys’ basement.

Samuel and Boswell are off and running to warn whoever will listen that demons have invaded Biddlecomb as well as their neighbors’ bodies.

The petite, bossy Mrs. Abernathy is now inhabited by the powerful chief-of-staff to The Great Malevolence (a.k.a. Satan).  Underneath Mrs. Abernathy’s well-groomed exterior lies Ba'al, an ill-tempered creature with gray, scaly skin and tentacles ending in claws.

Evil, and the battle to overcome it, are persistent themes in all Connolly’s books, including his adult Charlie Parker mysteries. But a heaping dose of irreverent humor lightens the darkness in The Gates.

Similar to the idea that a spoonful of sugar makes the medicine go down, Connolly uses fantasy to make it easier for young readers to swallow a major dose of science education in the Johnson series. The series is a wacky rewrite of Dante’s Inferno that also wrestles with physics ideas, such as conservation of energy and how black holes work.

Europe’s Large Hadron Collider (LHC) plays a major role in The Gates. Buried 300 feet under the French-Swiss border, the real LHC accelerates and smashes subatomic particles. Scientists hope that it will eventually help determine how the universe formed.

In The Gates, Mrs. Abernathy's demon Ba'al steals tiny but explosively powerful bits of the collider’s energy to blast open the portal between Biddlecombe and the universe of Hell.

Connolly demonstrates a love of slapstick throughout The Gates. When Mrs. Abernathy sends a death squad of flying skulls with razor sharp teeth to demolish Samuel and his friends, Samuel’s athletic buddy Tom happily dispatches each skull by swinging his cricket bat at it as if on the playing field.  

Similarly, when a dedicated housewife discovers a 7-foot-tall monster breaking dishes in her kitchen, she beats it with a poker and shouts, “That’s quite enough of that.” 

It isn’t just demons that Connolly skewers; scientists also receive the sharp end of his wit. A central character in The Gates is the bumbling physicist Dr. Hilbert who is in charge of the collider and delights in exploring the puzzle of its lost matter. However, during childhood, the fictional Dr. Hilbert tinkered with toasters and radios but never learned how to reassemble them correctly.

Readers may wonder who ultimately will do more harm, the deranged Mrs. Abernathy who wants to please her devilish boss or Professor Hilbert, who pursues his curiosity into the danger zone.

In real life, it was the work of German mathematician Dr. David Hilbert (1862 - 1943) that led to creation of the Hadron Collider. He was no joke.

But what fun would a teen novel be if it were scientists who saved the day. It is, ultimately, a David-versus-Goliath act of bravery engineered by Samuel and his unlikely demon friend, Nurd, that sucks all the baddies back home, including a hellishly frustrated Mrs. Abernathy.

Frustration, of course, is dangerous. It can cause demons to make unfortunate choices. But that is a matter explored in Connolly's sequel, The Infernals.

 
 
PictureCourtesy Atria/Emily Bestler Books
by Alicia Rudnicki, Library Mix

The Infernals by John Connolly, 2012, Atria/Emily Bestler Books (paperback),
ISBN 978-1-451-64309-1

It is so maddening when you come close, but then can’t make progress with a big project. That’s the headache-inducing, tooth-gnashing problem of Hell’s head entity — The Great Malevolence (a.k.a. Satan or the GM) — who failed to take over the world in The Gates, the first novel of John Connolly’s Samuel Johnson series for teens. 

Actually, this is a fun read for anyone who is young at heart and loves silliness.

The inconsolable GM wants to destroy the Earth, because he has “grown weary of trying to corrupt every human being, one by one.” He can’t forgive his most trusted servant, the nasty Mrs. Abernathy, for increasing his workload and blowing his big opportunity to get out of Hell.

Mrs. Abernathy, who is really just the dreadful monster Ba'al in disguise, is desperate to make things right with the GM who has grown “madder even than a colony of bats trapped in a cookie tin.” Otherwise, the GM may take sides with her demonic detractors, who range from power-hungry dukes to low-life “formless entities” made of smoke and glowing eyes. 

Although unable to reopen her old portal from Hell to Earth, Mrs. Abernathy kidnaps her Earthly nemesis, 13-year-old Samuel Johnson. In The Gates, Samuel thwarted Hell’s invasion of his hometown of Biddlecombe, England. Mrs. Abernathy plans to deliver Samuel to the GM for torture, but flubs it again.

On the lam in Hell, Samuel tours its grey, smoky wastelands and views some of the bizarre punishments that the GM has assigned to lost souls. These include a throng of perpetually hungry gluttons who have been participating in a buffet for centuries, but don’t enjoy a bite they eat because the food has no flavor, smell or texture.

Readers may scratch their heads and wonder what substances Connolly imbibed before conjuring his characters and creating such an improbable yet successful plot.

Mrs. Abernathy’s second crucial error, for example, is that while transporting her prey to Hell, she unknowingly snags two policemen, a troupe of pesky dwarfs and a cheerful ice cream truck driver who decides that Hell may be just the right market for frozen treats. All help Samuel’s demon friend, Nurd — an E.T.-like character who loves racing fast cars and eating jelly beans — to rescue Samuel and Bosworth.

But before this madcap troupe can reach Samuel and Bosworth, it is the primal connection between boy and dog that keeps the two from dying. Love and goodness triumph.

Finally, Connolly devises an ending that may tempt many a science teacher to discuss Mrs. Abernathy’s fate when explaining the concept of conservation of matter. But saying more would spoil the story and the lesson in particle physics.


 
 
Picture
Extreme weather is as dangerous as long, deep-freeze winters in S.D. Crockett's "After the Snow." Photo courtesy of earl53 at MorgueFile.
by Alicia Rudnicki, Library Mix

The Elephant Mountains
, by Scott Ely, Orca Book Publishers, 2011, ISBN 978-1-554-69406-8

After the Snow, by S.D. Crockett, Feiwel & Friends (Macmillan), 2012, ISBN 978-0-312-64169-6

Stories of teen survival are attractive to young readers uncertain about their not-too-distant future as grown ups. Scott Ely and S.D. Crockett present fascinating what-if worlds in which teens pit themselves against harsh environments with little help from adults.

Water -- both in the form of massive floods and a new ice age -- is the central menace in Ely's The Elephant Mountains and Crockett's After the Snow.

In Ely's book, floods have submerged the southern coast of America from Texas to South Carolina, and Florida has disappeared like the lost continent of Atlantis.

Crockett's novel depicts a UK locked in snow and ice year round except for a brief spring respite in which snowmelt "like a monstrous beast" rumbles down riverbeds.

The central character of each novel is an admirable teenage boy, each one an orphan at the beginning of his story. They are brave, competent and compassionate amid a harsh, violent world. Here is a brief look at each novel and its author.

PicturePhoto courtesy of Orca Book Publishers.

Fleeing anarchy in The Elephant Mountains
At times, The Elephant Mountains feels like a story about surviving guerilla warfare. Brutal anarchy is a daily reality for the novel's characters, including 15-year-old Stephen, who refuses to leave the flooded south until he has searched for his rich, socialite mother. Looters have just killed his survivalist father, with whom he has been living for the summer in the backwoods of Mississippi,

The hot, sticky, jungle-like feel of the story comes not only from its setting but also from the late author's youth in the Vietnam War. A 2009 interview at Rough Road Review quotes Ely as saying, "War is the major experience of my life. It works its way into just about everything in my life."

The impact of Ely's war experiences included his health as well as the stories he told in a number of published novels and short story collections. While writing The Elephant Mountains, Ely was fighting one of many battles with cancer caused by wartime exposure to the chemical Agent Orange, according to the Keen Readers blog. The author, who was also a professor at South Carolina's Winthrop University, died in 2013.

These war experiences go a long way toward explaining the soldier-like toughness that Ely develops in Stephen despite the character's reluctance to kill. Stephen's kindness and generosity sometimes lead him into trouble, but his father taught him to be quick and accurate with firearms when necessary.

As he boats past dead bodies floating in endless bayous, Stephen rescues Angela, whom he guesses to be about 20. Looters also killed Angela's family. She is gentle and friendly but makes Stephen uncomfortable with her religiosity. Yet Stephen tolerates Angela's belief in the afterlife, because she is pretty as well as a quick study at piloting the boat and handling an automatic rifle.

Partners in survival, Stephen and Angela also become partners in bed. So this may be an awkward read for some young teens.

However, Stephen and Angela's relationship grows naturally into a loving one within the unnatural circumstances of their courtship. They are good people who find solace in struggling together toward higher ground. 

PicturePhoto courtesy of Square Fish.
Surviving a new ice age in After the Snow
At first, readers may think the central character of this novel, Willo, is a half-wit hermit, because he speaks to an invisible wild dog and seeks advice from it. But his imaginary conversations with the dog are really his conscience and common sense emerging during a time when there is no one else to guide him.

Willo is the son of a "straggler" family -- survivalists who escaped the bleak hunger and authoritarian government of a faraway city to homestead and hideout in the hill country.

Climate change at some unknown time preceding the story caused the world to slip into a new and icy dark age.

When the story opens, Willo discovers that his family has disappeared without taking along their warm fur coats. He realizes that something bad has happened. His home has become unsafe, so the young teen wraps up as warmly as possible and sets out to find his family. Not far away, but in a similarly well-hidden straggler home, he discovers two starving, abandoned children.

Willo has a kind heart. He takes a detour from his quest in order to find food for the children. When he returns, the younger brother has died from starvation, and the sister, Mary, is nearly mad with grief. Willo takes Mary with him although his invisible dog warns him that it is unwise. Before they can begin their trek to the city, Willo fights off all-too-real wild dogs who are looking for a meal.

After the Snow is Crockett's first published novel. The author identifies Willo's homeland as being based on the otherworldly moors and short, rocky mountains of Wale's Snowdonia region -- a land rich in folklore, including Arthurian legends.

Crockett once worked as a timber buyer in the Caucasus Mountains of Southern Russia and traveled throughout Eastern Europe. In an interview with her publisher, the author says, "I was in Russia not long after the Soviet Union collapsed and I've seen society in freefall." She notes that some of the situations and solutions in After the Snow are ones she experienced in real life.

Readalike Survival Books
I love young adult literature and discovered both Ely's and Crockett's novels by lucky chance at the local public library. Anyone who enjoys After the Snow may want to check their local library shelves for Crockett's prequel to the novel, One Crow Alone, which was published in October 2013.

Teens equally enthusiastic about survival and post-apocalyptic novels may want to check with local public libraries for readalike lists, such as this one published by Virginia's Arlington Public Library

 
 
PictureCourtesy of Penguin Group, Inc.
by Alicia Rudnicki, Library Mix

The Christopher Killer, by Alane Ferguson, Penguin, 2006,
ISBN 0-670-06008-9

The Angel of Death, by Alane Ferguson, Penguin, 2006,
ISBN 0-670-06055-0

The Circle of Blood, by Alane Ferguson, Penguin, 2008,
ISBN 0-142-41267-8

The Dying Breath, by Alane Ferguson, Penguin, 2009,
ISBN 0-670-06314-2




Cameryn Mahoney, the star of Alane Ferguson's teen forensic mysteries, is a modern day Nancy Drew who knows more about body bags and toe tags than she does about shoulder bags and toe rings. She is pretty, but also pretty strange in the eyes of her small town high school classmates in the southwestern Colorado hamlet of Silverton. That’s because she spends a significant amount of time with dead bodies.

Young, gifted, and. . . ghoulish?
A science geek passionate about studying forensics, 17-year-old Cameryn talks her father, the town coroner, into letting her be his assistant at the beginning of The Christopher Killer, the first in Alane Ferguson’s young adult series of forensic mysteries.

After all, Cameryn reads forensic books voraciously and always helps her father prepare the family station wagon — which doubles as the coroner’s hearse — before he picks up bodies for autopsies.

But rejection by other teens is only a small aspect of the social milieu in Cameryn's forensic mystery adventures. One of the pleasant curiosities of Ferguson’s novels is that they contain interesting adults who are important to the teen detective of the dead. They include a grandmother who disapproves of Cameryn's interests as being ghoulish and inappropriate for a girl, a handsome but brash young deputy who is mysteriously connected to her long-gone mother, and the local medical examiner, who Cameryn admires despite his rudeness.

Scientific skepticism and a paranormal pursuit
Cameryn has a quick mind, a sharp eye for detail, and a sense of scientific skepticism so powerful that it is near religious. Yet her best friend and “pseudo sibling” Lyric is retro new age and a firm believer in the paranormal.

In The Christopher Killer, it isn’t long before Cameryn finds herself  assisting at the autopsy of  a friend who appears to be the victim of a serial murderer.

The sheriff targets pale, gawky Adam, a teenager who always dresses in black, as a prime suspect.  Adam's lone-wolf persona is disagreeable to Cameryn partly because of her own unpopularity. But she feels certain the town’s only emo-Gothic teen didn’t do it, even if he does give her the creeps.

Cameryn reluctantly gives in to Lyric’s plan to rescue Adam by meeting with a famous TV psychic who claims he can contact their dead friend. Meanwhile, Cameryn is wary of everyone from the psychic to the town’s new deputy sheriff who has “dancing” green-blue eyes.

Nancy Drew was never in this much danger
Nancy Drew move over! A new girl — or, as Cameryn would demand, “woman” —  has tiptoed up the hidden staircase and onto the bookshelves of young female readers looking for adventure. Similar to Nancy Drew, she even has two sidekicks, in the form of plump Lyric and gaunt Adam.

Unlike Drew, Cameryn Mahoney never intended to be a sleuth. Instead, the melancholy teen is driven by a compulsion to “speak for the dead” through science and help them find justice. By the end of Ferguson’s fourth novel, The Dying Breath, Cameryn has solved four grisly mysteries and come perilously close to dying each time.

Sequels to 'The Christopher Killer'
The second novel in the series, The Angel of Death, opens with one of Cameryn’s classmates, a handsome athlete and Eagle Scout, discovering the corpse of a popular high school teacher.

The problem of teen girls being forced into polygamous marriages is at the center of the next novel, The Circle of Blood.

By the fourth novel, The Dying Breath, Cameryn is virtually a prisoner in her own home. Family, friends and local law enforcement are trying to protect her from a pathological murderer who just happens to be her former boyfriend.

Ferguson doesn't dumb down forensic science, but makes  the detailed process of a coroner's inquest  understandable and riveting. Young adult readers will find Cameryn Mahoney's life as fascinating as it is frightening.


 
 
PicturePhoto from Harper Collins
by Alicia Rudnicki, Library Mix

I Can’t Keep My Own Secrets: Six Word Memoirs by Teens Famous & Obscure
, edited by Rachel Fershleiser and Larry Smith, HarperTeen, 2009, ISBN 978-0-06-172684-2

Ask young adult, better known as YA, librarians about what memoirs teens like and they may draw a blank. However, ask teachers  about the subject and they will say  that students certainly like to tell their own life stories.

Smith Magazine
After creating the popular Not Quite What I Was Planning: Six-Word Memoirs by Writers Famous & Obscure, the editors of Smith Magazine decided to challenge teens to write their own life stories in six words.

What resulted is a book that Smith bills as having “600 authors.” It is a useful teaching tool for encouraging concise, colorful writing.

Lives in brief
The broad range of subjects in I Can’t Keep My Own Secrets includes frustrations with family, disappointment with achievements, identity and sexuality. Here are some examples:

• Jocelyn wrote that she was, “Defined by numbers: age, weight, SATs.”

• Writing a romance for our digital times, Chris recalled, “Met online; love before first sight.”

• Creating a metaphor for the struggle of her life, Amanda said, “I’m army boots. Ready for battle.”

• The reader can’t help but want to send a hug to Traci, who wrote, “Ripped open, sewn back up, healing.”

• Clever Nic commented, “I’m just a simple human. Being.”

• And Martha offered a caution to all who love print a bit too much: “Spent more time reading than living.”

A rare read
I Can’t Keep My Own Secrets is one of those rare books that reluctant readers are guaranteed to crack open during reading and writing classes.

 Here are six final words to consider: I found it at the library.

 
 
PicturePhoto from Candlewick Press
by Alicia Rudnicki, Library Mix

The Brimstone Journals, by Ron Koertge, Candlewick Press, 2001, ISBN 0-763-61742-3

Ron Koertge’s The Brimstone Journals, a novel told in poetry, is a boiling kettle of teenage anxieties, both minor and major. Published shortly after the 1999 Columbine High School massacre in Colorado, its story about the importance of teens speaking up remains timely.

Brimstone is also a good literary vehicle for getting students to consider the storytelling power of poetry.

Voices of small-town America
Nearly 100 years ago, Edgar Lee Masters perfected the art of the novel told in poetry. He wrote about small town America in his classic Spoon River Anthology, in which more than 200 dead residents of the local cemetery share their stories and secrets through free verse poems, which doesn’t rhyme or follow a prescribed pattern.

Masters lived near the actual Spoon River in Illinois and based some of his characters on people that he knew while growing up. Koertge also grew up in small-town Illinois, just across the Mississippi from St. Louis, Missouri.

 It seems appropriate that an excellent online list of teen novels told through poetry also comes from Illinois. The Brimstone Journals is among the excellent choices recommended by Skokie Public Library.

Disquieting thoughts
In Brimstone, 15 fictional, small-town teens share their disquieting thoughts through free-verse poems. All the students attend Branston High, which is popularly known as “Brimstone.”

The novel opens with the chilling comments of Lester, a fat boy who has a semi-automatic pistol tucked in his sock drawer in case he should ever decide to wreak havoc at Brimstone, starting in the gym and making the jocks  who have bullied him “crap their pants.”

In an article published at Goodreads, Koertge said he began writing Brimstone a few months before the Columbine High massacre, which was committed by two disaffected students.

Familiar casting
To some degree, Brimstone is populated by recognizable types, including a totally self-absorbed anorexic girl, a cocky jock who picks on Lester, a preacher’s daughter who is attracted to the bad boy, the teen who loves to play violent computer games but would never imagine hurting anyone, a budding white supremacist, and a sexually active girl with a heart of gold.

Yet it also introduces some surprises such as Carter, an upper middle class African-American, whose parents unwittingly transfer him to Brimstone to avoid inner-city violence.

Fortunately, Carter manages to break through the reserve of another student outside Brimstone's cliques. He befriends Tran, a Vietnamese immigrant who prides himself on paying close attention to the gossipy “buzz” around him but never getting close to any of the students.

When Tran starts musically jamming with Carter, the two of them develop a circle of mutual friends. Tran begins to care about his classmates, and this causes him to tell the police about rumors he has heard concerning a student stockpiling guns.

Speaking up is important
Brimstone demonstrates how disasters such as the Columbine massacre can be averted when students feel like they belong and care enough about the well-being of others to report their concerns.

Tran reflects that “These people are my friends./ Nothing should happen to them/ because of my cowardice or/ indecision.”

It was a YA—short for “young adult”—librarian who first brought The Brimstone Journals to my attention. YA librarians are good people to get to know whether you are a teen, a teacher or a parent. They truly care about young people. It’s obvious from The Brimstone Journals that Ron Koertge also cares.

 
 
Picture
Photo from iUniverse
by Alicia Rudnicki, Library Mix

Teen Guide Job Search, 10 Easy Steps to Your Future, by Donald L. Wilkes and Viola Hamilton-Wilkes,
iUniverse, 2006,
ISBN  978-0-59-539696-2

Getting a job is a year-round concern for many teenagers who either need or want to earn their own money.

Unfortunately, there is a shortage of books on the topic available through libraries and booksellers.

But one useful title that teens and their parents or teachers may want to access is Teen Guide Job Search: 10 Easy Steps to Your Future, by Donald L. Wilkes and Viola Hamilton-Wilkes.

Consider what pleases you
First published in 1991, Teen Guide Job Search is now in its sixth reprint. The first chapter offers one of the most important pieces of advice that adults can offer young job seekers: think about your likes and dislikes before job hunting.

The authors suggest considering a number of questions regarding this issue, including whether you like working (1) outside, (2) with children or (3) with computers. Also, they say it helps to identify your favorite school subjects and whether you like to be alone or surrounded by people.

Other chapters cover topics such as creating a resume, looking for job openings, dressing for interviews, filling out job applications correctly, knowing what behaviors to avoid during interviews and being aware of all the various kinds of paperwork involved in getting hired.

Short and to the point
The book is only 104 pages long, so each chapter is short and to the point. Also, each chapter is followed by review questions and answers.

There is nothing like finding work to boost morale, and there is nothing like preparation to impress a potential employer.

Finally, the authors conclude, “Once you get a job, you need to know how to keep it!” To find out their eight-point list of dos and don’ts on the job, look for Teen Guide Job Search at your local library.

 
 
PicturePhoto from Back Bay Books
by Alicia Rudnicki, Library Mix

Winter's Bone, by Daniel Woodrell,
Back Bay Books, 2006
ISBN 0-316-06641-9

Fierce, desperate, and relentless as a force of nature, 16-year-old Ree Dolly spins into action and unthinkable trouble in Daniel Woodrell’s novel Winter’s Bone, a novel for older teens as well as adults.

Ree is chopping wood on an icy winter day when a sheriff’s deputy arrives unwelcome at her home in the fictional Rathlin Valley of southern Missouri’s rolling, hilly Ozark plateau.

He tells Ree the bad news that her father, Jessup, has skipped a court date concerning his most recent arrest for cooking crystal meth—the main industry of her extended family and community.

Large, menacing dilemma
Ree last saw Jessup in the autumn when he paced the porch as walnuts “were thumping to ground in the night like stalking footsteps of some large thing.”

The “large thing” begins to take shape as the deputy explains that Jessup put up their house and woods as bond. Ree, her mentally ill mother, and her two small brothers will soon be homeless if she doesn’t find Jessup.

So begins a treacherous backwoods journey on foot from one threatening relative to another through frigid winter storms so intense that Ree’s hoody becomes “an ice hat and her shoulders a cold hard yoke.”

When no one in the large Dolly clan reaches out to help, Ree begins to suspect that her loving, yet ever-disappearing father has vanished forever and in the worst way .

Woodrell owns the Ozarks
Woodrell lives in the country he chronicles and has written a number of novels in a style that some refer to as hillbilly noir. According to an interview by John Williams in the London newspaper, The Independent, Woodrell lives near where he was born, which is West Plains in southern Missouri.

Nearby, Williams writes, is “a valley lined with down-at-the-heels houses. There’s an air of gypsy camp about this place: Collinsville, the inspiration for Winter’s Bone.”

Woodrell is to modern-day, backwoods Missouri as William Faulkner was to small-town Mississippi in the early twentieth century. It has been said that Faulkner’s fictional Yoknapatawpha County was his “postage stamp.” Similar to Faulkner, Woodrell is developing the Ozarks as his own postage stamp. As Williams notes in his interview, Woodrell “brings the region and its people vividly to life.”

A tangled logic
Woodrell does this in fine detail, such as when he explores the bizarre logic of men's names in the Dolly clan.  Ree considers this as she hunkers down in an ice storm outside the house of Thump Milton Dolly, who is considered the leader of her large, tangled family.  Ree waits in vain for hours, hoping for an audience with him.

“To occupy her mind, she decided to name all the Miltons: Thump, Blond, Catfish, Spider, Whoop, Rooster, Scrap…Lefty, Dog, Punch, Pink-eye, Momsy…Cotton, Hog-jaw, Ten Penny, Peashot…enough. Enough Miltons. To have but few male names in use was a tactic held over from the olden knacker ways…. Let any sheriff or similar nabob try to keep official accounts on the Dolly men when so many were named Milton, Haslam, Arthur or Jessup…. But the great name of the Dollys was Milton, and at least two dozen Miltons moved about in Ree’s world. If you named a son Milton it was a decision that attempted to chart the life he’d live before he even stepped into it, for among Dollys the name carried expectations and history.”

Despite all resistance, Ree persists. In the harsh yet hopeful end of Winter's Bone she proves to be just as indomitable as Thump Milton.

 
 
PicturePhoto from Tor
by Alicia Rudnicki, Library Mix

The Web of Titan, A Galahad Book, by Dom Testa, Tor Books, 2010,
ISBN 0-765-36078-0

Spaceship commander Triana Martell and her super-smart crew of 250 teenagers are space pioneers.  They have been specially selected to flee Earth where everyone over the age of 18 is succumbing to a fatal virus caused by the infectious dusts of a strange comet.

Dom Testa’s The Web of Titan, A Galahad Book is the second novel in the author’s popular Galahad series about a perilous voyage to the far edge of the universe to find a new home and perpetuate humankind.

Triana and crew have been in space for less than a year and are still adjusting to the loss of their families and recovering from a near collision with tragedy. During the first novel, The Comet’s Curse, they thwarted a suicidal, middle-aged stowaway intent on destroying the crew and Project Galahad.

As it zooms toward deep space in Web of Titan, the crew is worried about its  mysterious, upcoming assignment to retrieve a “transport pod” orbiting Saturn’s largest moon, Titan. The pod was launched by a research station that lost contact with Galahad after requesting help.

Concern turns to puzzlement when Triana and her council discover there is only a kitten aboard the pod in a tiny cryogenic chamber. The larger cryogenic chamber intended for the cat's owner is empty.

Puzzlement becomes fear when a bizarre illness and other unusual occurrences begin to cripple Galahad.

Testa, who is also a well-known Denver radio personality, has created a likeable cast of responsible, competent teens. While the story touches on loneliness, attraction, and romantic longing, it is the crew’s work and dangerous challenges that drive the plot.

The author has also created a fascinating spaceship environment, which includes farms located under clear domes that allow gardeners to view the stars as well as a recreational track for “airboarding,” which is like airborne skateboarding.

After self-publishing his Galahad series beginning in 2005, the success of Testa’s novels attracted science fiction publishing house Tor, which is reissuing his work. The third book in the series, The Cassini Code, A Galahad Book, is now available for pre-order from Amazon and is due out in November.

It appears that the self-published copies of Testa’s books are becoming collectible. In particular, used copies of Galahad 3: The Cassini Code, which originally sold for $8.95, are being sold by three major online booksellers for prices ranging from about $50 to well over $100.

Readers who have to wait until November for the new Cassini, may enjoy visiting Testa’s Club Galahad site, which includes Triana’s ongoing journal entries as well as space and science news.

Another site to visit is the Big Brain Club of Testa’s Big Brain Foundation, which the author says he began “to help young people overcome the peer pressure to dumb down.” It contains reading, writing, math, and science activities for students as well as articles for adults.

 
 
PicturePaperback cover photo from Hyperion
by Alicia Rudnicki, Library Mix

Perhaps you know someone like Ethan, Julius, Jake, Lizzie, Hannah, Amanda or Maggie. Perhaps after you read about them in Claudia Mills’ insightful tween-to-teen novels, they will seem like some of the kids on your block or at school.

They are the boys and girls next door worrying about problems including absentee dads, bad grades, cruel classmates, first love and intolerance.

Kids caught in the middle
Mills specializes in telling stories about children in the middle—kids from third grade through middle school and kids caught in the middle of the proverbial rock and a hard place.

Although Ethan doesn’t like Lizzie writing lovesick poetry about him, he doesn’t know how to make her stop without hurting her feelings in the worst way.

Julius has decided to define himself as a slacker. He has given up trying to do well in school, thinking that nothing he does will gain his parents’ approval.

Hannah wants to make friends, yet she fears that by fitting in she will lose herself.

Amanda is caught between two parents she loves but whose bickering has created civil war at home.

And Maggie knows she shouldn’t be falling for bad boy Jake, but fall she must into life-changing trouble.

Creating likable characters
In addition to having published more than 40 books, ranging from picture books to novels for young teens, Mills is an associate professor of philosophy at the University of Colorado at Boulder. Philosophers excel at pondering problems about making choices.

Mills’ characters are good thinkers who strive to do the right thing, especially after they do what is wrong.  The author succeeds not only at tuning in to the concerns of young teens but also at creating likable characters who seem real and really nice. That is why Mills has won many awards, including the 2008 Colorado Book Award for The Totally Made-Up Civil War Diary of Amanda MacLeish. See Library Mix's May 8, 2010 Mix & Shake Blog for more about this powerful book.

Here are five quick peeks into the lives of some of Mills’ characters beginning with Ethan, Julius and Lizzie, all of whom live in the same neighborhood and inhabit three of the author’s novels. Mills classifies these novels as being among her "oldies," but they are certainly goodies.

Losers, Inc., by Claudia Mills, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1997,
ISBN 978-07-8-681274-5
Ethan would like to be an academic and sports all-star similar to his older brother, but he never feels like he measures up in his accomplishments or his height. Peter always towers over him. So Ethan begins detailing his shortcomings in a book titled Life Isn’t Fair: A Proof. His best friend, Julius, suggests that they celebrate their mediocrity by forming a club called Losers, Inc. But Ethan disappoints Julius by deciding to become an excellent student when he develops a crush on his new student teacher. Then he dismays the ever-kind Julius by participating in a mean prank intended to get his lovesick classmate, Lizzie, to stop writing poems about him.

You’re A Brave Man, Julius Zimmerman, by Claudia Mills,
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1999, ISBN 978-0-37-438708-2
There is no time for Julius to give in to the temptations of summer. His mother has developed an ambitious plan to improve him. It includes lots of reading, a summer job babysitting a difficult preschooler, and daily French lessons with the dreaded Madame Cowper who mortifies him by making everyone do “le Hokey Pokey.” Poor Julius can’t understand when to put his right foot in, take it out or shake it all about. It also really stinks that he has to potty train little Edison Blue or spend the summer changing diapers. Worse yet, he would like to appear manly to Edison’s beautiful and mysterious neighbor, Octavia, but she teases Julius for playing in the sandbox with Edison and his potty chair.

Lizzie at Last, by Claudia Mills, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2000,
ISBN 978-0-37-434659-1
Lizzie loves school but dreads the beginning of seventh grade. She just doesn’t fit in. Classmates make fun of the romantic, old-fashioned dresses she loves and criticize her for being a brainiac in all her classes.  Lizzie’s Aunt Elspeth treats her to a shopping spree at The Gap to help Lizzie take the first step toward fitting in. Then Lizzie seeks advice from her nemesis, mean Marcia, about how to make Ethan like her. That’s when Lizzie learns how to giggle, flirt, and act like she doesn’t know all the answers in math. The only problem is that while Marcia’s boyfriend begins to like her, Ethan grows more distant.

Hannah On Her Way, by Claudia Mills, MacMillan Publishing Company, 1991, ISBN 0-689-71754-7
At ten years old, Hannah still loves to play dolls and wear her long, blonde hair in a braid. She enjoys building ice sculptures with her parents and spending long, solitary hours sketching her cat. Unlike the popular girls, Hannah isn’t interested in make-up or talking about boys. But she has no friends. It bothers her when the noisy, new girl, Caitlin, must sit next to her. What bothers her more is the ease with which Caitlin befriends the popular girls. Then Caitlin surprises Hannah by trying to become her friend. Of course, the surprises don’t stop there, and some are uncomfortable for Hannah.

Standing Up to Mr. O, Farrar, by Claudia Mills, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, paperback by Hyperion, 1998, ISBN 0-786-81404-7
Similar to Lizzie and Hannah, Maggie is an excellent student. Her favorite teacher is Mr. O., the biology instructor who always cracks corny jokes at the beginning of class. Normally the best student in his class, Maggie gets in trouble with him when she expresses her moral aversion to cutting open a live worm. Instead of participating in the dissection, she chooses to earn an “F” on her lab assignment. When the class tough guy, Jake, joins in the protest, things start getting ugly yet romantic at the same time.

Contacting the author
Claudia Mills is becoming  increasingly popular, so chances are good that you will find her books at your local library. Although she enjoys all the awards that she has won, Mills says the greatest reward is hearing from students who have enjoyed her books. To send her a note or learn more about how she became a writer, visit Mills homepage.