Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Colorado Teen Lit Conference recommendations: The Alex Crow, Masterminds, and Tesla's Attic

The Colorado Teen Literature Conference in April featured Andrew Smith, author of Printz Honor Book Grasshopper Jungle, as the keynote speaker.  Predictably his talk was funny and irreverent, yet revealing, in his honesty about his road to becoming a published author.  Smith, who is being called "the spiritual heir to Kurt Vonnegut," also spoke about his latest book, The Alex Crow. As with his first book, his latest is provocative and profane. The tale blends multiple story lines which include an adopted refugee, a schizophrenic bomber and 19th century explorers on a failed expedition. Other books highlighted at the conference that I would like to recommend include Gordon Korman's Masterminds, the first book in a new series about clones, and Eric Elfman and Neal Shusterman's Tesla's Attic, the first in a series about a boy who finds Nikola Tesla's last magical inventions in the attic of his new house.

The Alex Crow focuses on Ariel, a refugee from an unnamed country, who is adopted by an American family. Ariel and his adoptive brother Max are sent to the Merrie-Seymour camp for boys with technology addictions, solely because their dad works for the company and it's free. His adoptive dad works for the Alex Division which experiments with resurrecting extinct animals and creating biodrones (beings with surveillance chips in their heads).  The boys at the camp seem to be somehow involved with his research. Flashbacks chronicle Ariel's journey which includes periods of tagging along with soldiers in his war torn nation, as well as time spent among abusive teens in a refugee camp. Meanwhile, Lenny, a weird guy who hear voices which prompt him to do violent things, is transporting a truck load of bombs to the camp. Finally, chapters chronicling the story of the first scientists in the Alex division, who are exploring the Arctic in the 19th century and experimenting with "de-extinction," are interwoven.  When the story lines finally come together, they evoke an intriguing statement about society, extinction, and life itself.  This book is only recommended for mature high school readers.

Masterminds takes place in idyllic Serenity, New Mexico, population-185, where all the adults are employed, the children are well-behaved, and the community members are congenial.  However, when 13-year-old Eli and his buddy Randy try to leave town on a lark, Eli is paralyzed with pain and nausea. After Eli recuperates, he finds Randy is being sent away, the factory which employs most of the townsfolk is a sham, and their internet is sanitized, excluding anything unpleasant.Telling the tale from alternating points of view, Eli and his friends Tori, Hector, and Malik begin to investigate the sinister happenings in Serenity, unraveling a mystery that shows the whole town is a gigantic lie. The truth about the kids' parentage threatens their very lives.  Their attempted escape is action packed and lays the groundwork for the sequel.  Middle level readers will find this a real page turner.

Tesla's Attic, the first book in the Accerlerati Trilogy, introduces Nick who has moved with his younger brother and father to a Victorian house they inherited after their home burns down, killing his mother.  Wanting to move into the attic, Nick has a garage sale to get rid of all the junk stored up there.  But this is not ordinary junk. The reel-to reel player records what is said but plays back what the speaker is thinking.  The See 'n Say predicts the future and the wet-cell electrodes can reanimate dead insects.  Nick and his new friends Caitlin and Vincent investigate and discover the  objects are Nikola Tesla's last inventions that have magical properties. When mysterious men show up looking for the objects, the kids decide they have to get the objects back. The men are from a secret society of physicists, the Accerlerati, who want to stop the kids and use the objects for their own devious plans. Plausible scientific explanations for the fantastic happenings add to the fun of this gadget filled mystery. Middle level readers will look forward to the next installment of this fast paced series.

Friday, April 17, 2015

Historical Fiction: Catch Ya Later Traitor, The War that Saved My Life, and I'm Glad I Did

Reading historical fiction is my favorite way to learn history, but it is generally a tough sell with young readers. Colorado author Avi, who has been more successful than most in this field, has a new book Catch You Later, Traitor, which is about the Red Scare in the United States during the 1950s. Kimberly Brubaker Bradley has written a lovely WWII story, The War that Saved My Life, about two British children who find love when they are evacuated from London and end up with a grieving recluse. Grammy award winning songwriter Cynthia Weil, fictionalizes elements from her past in her debut novel I'm Glad I Did. These well-researched new novels offer up delectable bites of history, filled with rich period detail, as well as suspense.

 Catch You Later Traitor introduces Pete Collison, a seventh grader in Brooklyn 1951, who becomes an outcast when his father is suspected of being a Communist sympathizer.  Even his best friend Kat is forbidden from associating with him and an FBI agent is trying to get him to divulge family secrets.  Pete, a fan of hard-boiled detective stories, decides to take matters into his own hands to find out about his father's past and discover who would inform on him.  There are several elements to the book that are historically significant, one being the information about the Red Scare.  Another subplot involves the Dodgers' and Giants' rivalry and their famous playoff game.  Pete's hero, Sam Spade, was created by Dashiell Hammet, who was jailed for refusing to testify against communist friends.  Throughout the book there are digressions where Pete mentally rewrites mundane observations with hard-boiled hyperbole.  This element of the book could be a wonderful teaching tool for a mystery unit and really ramps up the suspense.

The War that Saved My Life by the author of Jefferson's Sons takes place in London during WWII. Ada, who was born with a clubfoot, has been imprisoned by her abusive mother in their one room apartment her whole life.  She longs for the freedom enjoyed by her younger brother Jamie, but her mother, who is embarrassed by Ada's disability hides her away. When the British government decides children should be evacuated from London, Ada sneaks out to accompany Jamie to the countryside where they are taken in by Susan Smith, a grieving recluse. Ada flourishes in this new environment where not only is she allowed outside, but she also teaches herself to ride a pony, learns to read, searches for German spies and discovers what it's like to be loved.  Although at first Susan is not sure she wants the responsibility, she learns to loves the children who give her a reason to get on with her life after a devastating loss. But will the kids' vindictive mother turn up and reclaim them, returning Ada to a life of emotional and physical abuse?

Cynthia Weil and her husband, who wrote alongside Carole King at the Brill Building, are known for writing such songs as "On Broadway," and "You've Lost that Loving Feeling" among others.  Having recently seen the musical Beautiful based on King's life, I couldn't wait to read Weil's  I'm Glad I Did, which, although not specifically autobiographical, incorporates a lot of Weil's insider knowledge about the songwriting business in the 60's. The summer of 1963 in NYC finds aspiring songwriter JJ Green accepting an internship in the Brill Building at Good Music Publishing.  Her parents, who want her to become a lawyer, have agreed she can pursue a songwriting career if she gets a song published by summer's end.  Enter Luke Silver, a boy with instant connection to her music and Dulcie Brown, a fabulous, but troubled, black singer who is now a Brill Building custodian.  Dulcie has just the right voice for JJ's music and Luke's lyrics, but before they can record their song, Dulcie is murdered. JJ and Luke, determined to find the culprit, discover shocking revelations about her music industry mogul uncle and Luke's father, who was his former partner, as well a the music industry itself.  Weil's eye for 60s detail and incorporation of historical figures such as Medgar Evers and Bob Dylan, make this romantic murder mystery something special.  Although the first two books are fine for middle level readers, I'm Glad I Did is more appropriate high school readers and adults.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Realistic Fiction: Mosquitoland, My Heart and Other Black Holes, The Unlikely Hero of Room 13b, and Every Last Word

With readers experiencing dystopian novel genre fatigue and YA films such as The Fault in Our Stars doing well at the box office, there is a new enthusiasm for realistic young adult novels with quirky main characters.  This year's most popular Sundance Film Festival film, Me, Earl and the Dying Girl, based on a YA novel by Jesse Andrews, won both the grand jury and the audience award. The Duff, another YA film, based on a novel by Kody Keplinger, is a box office hit as well. This month I would like to recommend several new realistic YA novels that may soon be making it to the silver screen. Mosquitoland by David Arnold chronicles a teen's odyssey from Mississippi to Cleveland and the odd assortment of characters she meets along the way.  My Heart and Other Black Holes by Jasmine Warga tells the story of two teens who meet on a suicide website.  The Unlikely Hero Of Room 13B by Teresa Toten introduces Adam Spencer Ross, a teen plagued by OCD, who finds himself trying protect those his loves. Finally, Every Last Word by Tamara Ireland Stone, also explores the life of an OCD suffer who is trying to cope.

After several reviewers mentioned Mosquitoland as a "must read,"  I took a leap and was not disappointed by the oddball road trip story narrated by a wacky heroine in episodic chapters interspersed with flashbacks and letters addressed to the mysterious Isabel. Fifteen-year-old  Mim, whose parents divorced, moves with her father and step-mom from Cleveland to Mississippi, aka Mosquitoland. When she finds out her mother is sick, Mim steals money, hops a Greyhound bus and begins a thousand mile adventure to see her mom.  Along the way she meets a variety of offbeat characters, including Beck, an older boy on whom she has a crush, and Walt, a homeless boy with Down's syndrome, who end up accompanying her on her quest. As the truth is gradually revealed about her mother's illness, the identity of Isabel and Mim's fragile mental health, the reader is endlessly entertained by Mim's humorous musing and reflections on the life lessons she is learning.

In My Heart and Other Black Holes, 16-year-old physics nerd Aysel meets good-looking athletic Roman on a suicide website.  Haunted and ostracized because her father brutally killed one of her classmates in his convenience store, Aysel decides she can't go on.  She enters into a suicide pact with Roman, who is guilt ridden over his sister's drowning death a year earlier.  Together they plan their date with death, but as they get to know one another, Aysel thinks there might be a reason to reconsider their plans. She decides "he is no long the person I want to die with; he's the person I want to be alive with."  These two depressed teens' journey is filled with poignant realizations, as Aysel struggles to convince Roman to take a chance on healing through a future together. The author, who was impacted by a friend's suicide, includes a note urging teens with suicidal thoughts to seek help from a list of suicide hotlines and prevention websites, which is provided.

Adam Spencer Ross, The Unlikely Hero of Room 13B, is plagued by OCD.  He joins a support group where he meets and falls for Robyn Plummer.  Each member of the group must assume the role of a superhero, and Adam, who is constantly striving to protect his loved ones, decides as Batman, he can save Robyn.  As he struggles to overcome his ritualistic counting habits that derail his life,  he attempts to navigate the complexities of hiding his mother's hoarding habits, placating his half-brother who also has obsessive tendencies, and wooing Robyn, who may or may not need his help. Adam is smart, funny and sensitive, yet perceptive enough to realize the first person he needs to save may just be himself.  Winner of the 2013 Governor General's Award for Children't Literature in Canada, this book can be enjoyed by mature middle level and high school readers.

Although it won't be published until June 15th, I would like to also recommend another book focusing on a teen with OCD, Every Last Word.  Samantha McAllister masterfully hides her purely obsessional OCD, which is manifested by a stream of dark thoughts that she can't stop. Her friends in the popular mean girls group would turn on her if they knew about her problems.  Then Sam meets Caroline, who introduces her to the Poet's Corner, a tight-knit group of misfits who hide out at lunch and share their poetry and music.  Sam is particularly drawn to a guitar player whom she and her friends bullied mercilessly when they were in elementary school.  Gone is his stuttering that made him an outcast, and she finds herself falling in love with him.  But now she must choose between her new friends and her lifelong attachment to the popular girls, whose friendships are quickly becoming a toxic element in her life.  The beautifully drawn characters and the poetry and music they share, as well as the surprising reveal near the end of the story, will keep readers eagerly turning the pages as they follow Sam's journey toward self-acceptance.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

2015 Blue Spruce Award winner and more

Cinder, the first book in Marissa Meyer's Lunar Chronicles, won this year's Colorado Blue Spruce Young Adult Book Award.  This re-imagining of the Cinderella story set in a futuristic dystopian world introduces Cinder, a cyborg who is a gifted mechanic on a plague ridden planet which is under attack by  ruthless aliens led by Queen Levana.  When Cinder is called in to work on one of Prince Kai's droids, her life becomes intertwined with his, and she finds herself at the center of an intergalactic struggle and a forbidden romance. The sequel, Scarlet, a retelling of Little Red Riding Hood, introduces new characters, Scarlet and Wolf, to the tale and Cress, a retelling of Rapunzel, adds Cress and Thorn to the mix.  In January Fairest, a prequel that tells Queen Levana's story was released and the final book Winter will come out in November 2015.   If you haven't already enjoyed this series, you have some entertaining reading ahead.

The 2016 Blue Spruce nominees include three new fantasy series that I would highly recommend.  Falling Kingdoms by Morgan Rhodes paints a complex world where three kingdoms are vying for power, as Hawks known as Watchers survey the conflict from above. Snow Like Ashes by Sara Raasch introduces Primoria, a world where the kingdom of Spring has defeated Winter and enslaved all but eight of the surviving Winterians. Those eight are hoping to regain the slain Winterian Queen's magic locket and restore her son to the throne. In The Winner's Curse Marie Rutkoski crafts a world of aristocrats and slaves, where a general's daughter falls in love with a slave with royal heritage.

In Falling Kingdoms three kingdoms, Auranos, Paelsia and Limeros, are struggling for supremacy. A prophecy foretells the birth of a powerful sorceress, ancient legend tells of a ring that provides mastery over the Kindred, four elemental crystals that give their owners god-like power, and Hawks oversee the struggles, hoping to find the Kindred and reclaim power for themselves. Cleo, an Auranian princess who sister is dying, travels to a dangerous land looking for magic to cure her. Jonas, a Paelsian rebel who brother was killed by Cleo's fiance, leads the people's revolution in that land  and is looking for revenge.  Prince Magnus and his sister Lucia live in Limeros where people are plotting to overthrow Cleo's father, who temporarily is in control. War is on the horizon and these four young people are caught in the middle of it.  A quest to find the Kindred, as well as the sorceress who can control all the elements ensues.  As the book draws to a close there are many tantalizing questions left unanswered. Rebel Spring and Gathering Darkness, the next two books in the six book series are available.  Fans of complex fantasy series will want to read all six.

Snow Like Ashes finds Meira, an orphan who is a Winterian warrior-in-training, in hiding with six other warriors and Prince Mather, the heir to the throne. Meira is in love with Mather, but is deemed unworthy to be his queen. Sixteen years prior to the opening of the book, King Angra of the kingdom of Spring defeated the kingdom of Winter, enslaved its people and stole the Royal Conduit, a locket used by Winter's female ruler to magically aid her country. Meira is able to reclaim half the locket from its hiding place (the other half is around King Angra's neck) but leads Spring scouts back to the Winterian camp. The refugees must flee to the kingdom of Cordell where Meira meets the delightful Prince Theron and discovers she has been betrothed to him in exchange for Cordell's help in killing King Angra.  There is a dramatic twist at the end that is both believable and unpredictable and will leave readers clamoring for the sequel Ice Like Fire which is due in 2015.

The Winner's Curse is the first book in the Winner's Trilogy. When Kestrel, the daughter of an Valorian general, buys Arin, a handsome Herrani slave, at an auction, she is not quite sure what motivated her to do so.  She soon finds that Arin is cultured, musically gifted, and involved in plotting a Herrani uprising. As they spend more and more time together, they cannot deny their mutual attraction. Tables turn when the Herranis take over the city and Kestrel becomes Arin's prisoner. She uses her skills as a military strategist and gambler in a risky plot to free herself and negotiate peace. The satisfying ending allows this book to be read as a stand alone; however, unfinished elements of the love story will entice readers to pick up The Winner's Crime which comes out in March 2015.

To read about the rest of the 2016 Blue Spruce nominees go to

Thursday, January 15, 2015

New YA Novels Dealing with Mental Illness: Belzhar, I Was Here, and All the Bright Places

Young adult novels can help teens dealing with mental health issues in several ways. First, they can help readers understand that they are not alone. The novels can present realistic portrayals of mental illness and offer helpful ways of dealing with it. A common theme in YA literature is searching for a sense of identity, which mental illness tends to derail. Reading about characters wrestling with this issue can help not only teens with mental illness, but also their friends and family who search for ways to be supportive.  This month I would like to recommend three novels that explore these issues in thoughtful and compelling reads. Meg Wolitzer's Belzhar chronicles the story of mentally unstable teens who attend a therapeutic boarding school. Gayle Forman's new novel, I Was Here explores the feelings of guilt and grief experienced by a girl whose best friend commits suicide. Finally, Jennifer Niven's All the Bright Places follows two teens who are wondering "Should I stay or should I go?"

In Belzhar Jam Gallahue is sent to a therapeutic boarding school, after a trauma with a high school relationship, because she is unable to deal with her grief. She finds herself in a mysterious class called Special Topics in English, where she and four other traumatized students are reading works by Sylvia Plath.  The students are given special red leather journals in which to record their reactions to the assigned readings.  When she and her classmates, all of whom have endured debilitating losses, begin writing in their pages, they are transported to their former lives where they can each inhabit the past and work through their problems.  The teens bond over their experiences in what they call Belzhar and are able to share their stories and look out for and protect one another.  As the semester progresses and the notebooks begin to fill up, they must each confront some inner struggles and make some tough choices about their future paths. Adult author Meg Wolitzer's (The Interestings) debut YA novel is terrific and could be paired with readings from Sylvia Plath for a poignant thought-provoking reading experience.

I Was Here introduces Cody and Meg, who have been best friends since childhood, but are separated when Meg gets a full scholarship to a small college in Tacoma and Cody is left behind to clean houses and attend community college.  When Cody gets news of Meg's suicide, she is understandably confused and upset.  Why hadn't she seen the warning signs?  She travels to Tacoma to collect Meg's belongings and finds there are many things she didn't know about her friend with whom she thought she shared everything.  Determined to get to the bottom of her suicide, Cody searches Meg's laptop and finds she was involved with a suicide website and in particular a Pied Piper type character who encourages suicide as a way out.  With the help of Ben McAllister, one of Meg's friends with an agenda of his own, Cody searches for a way to come to terms with her friend's death. Gayle Forman's latest novel is sure to be a hit, not only with fans of If I Stay, but also with any readers looking for a suspenseful eye-opening investigation into teen suicide.

Theodore Finch and Violet Markey meet when they are on the bell tower at school, each contemplating suicide.  After saving each other's lives, they pair up for a social studies project where they have to discover the Natural Wonders of Indiana. Although from different social strata, she is a popular cheerleader and he is a manic outsider, they challenge each other in ways that soon blossom into love. As they spend more and more time together, they find that it's only with each other that they can be themselves.  But will that be enough to save them from their demons?  All the Bright Places, soon to be a major motion picture starring Elle Fanning, will appeal to fans of John Green and Rainbow Rowell or anyone looking for a quirky compelling story.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

New action adventures: Princess of Thorns, Exquisite Captive and The Walled City

It's winter break for students and teachers and time for some escapist reading filled with action and adventure.  Three recent reads that made my Top Titles for 2014 list include Princess of Thorns, a re-imagining of the Sleeping Beauty and Swan Lake fairy tales, by Stacey Jay, Exquisite Captive, the first book in the Dark Caravan Cycle by Heather Demetrios, and The Walled City, a tale that focuses on three desperate teens in Hong Kong, by Ryan Graudin.

In Princess of Thorns, Sleeping Beauty's children, Aurora and Jor, have been in hiding with the fey for ten years, since their mother's assassination by the Ogre Queen.  When Jor is kidnapped, fairy blessed Aurora disguises herself as a boy (Ror) and hopes to hire an army to help her rescue him. Then she meets Prince Nikklas, who is cursed to turn into a swan on his 18th birthday unless he can marry a princess.  The Prince promises Ror his help in exchange for an introduction to his "sister" Aurora. With ogres pursuing them tirelessly as they travel across lands filled with enemies, Nikklas and Ror struggle to reach Jor and free him before he dies. Their mutual attraction is fraught with problems as Aurora tries to find a way to tell Nikklas the truth without losing his support. Told from both characters' points of view, this compelling story, filled with adventure and romance, is sure to appeal to fantasy/thriller fans.

Exquisite Captive introduces Nalia, a victim of the dark caravan, a lucrative jinni slave trade between Earth and the jinni world Arjinna.  Although she has great powers, Nalia is tied to Malek, her master who possesses her bottle which enables him to use her to sustain his lavish Hollywood lifestyle.  When she meets Raif, a leader of Arjinna's revolution, he promises to help her break free of her master and rescue her brother who was imprisoned during the revolutionary coup in Arjinna that killed nearly everyone she loved.  Although she should hate him, she finds herself attracted to Raif, but needs to convince Malek she loves him in the hopes of getting close enough to him to steal back her bottle which he wears around his neck. Only then can Riaf perform the unbinding ceremony to free her. This story blends traditional Arabian jinni lore with modern fantasy to create a riveting tale filled with magical political intrigue and romance. Readers will be anxiously awaiting the next book in the series. 

The Walled City takes inspiration from Kowloon Walled City, a Hong Kong slum destroyed in the 1990s. Three teens are struggling to escape their dire fates before the city is leveled.  Jin, a girl disguised as a boy, is searching for her sister who was sold into prostitution by their father.  Mei Yee, her sister, languishes in a brothel run by the Brotherhood of the Red Dragon.  Dai Shing, a drug trafficker, is hoping to obtain the brothel's ledger so he can exchange it for his freedom. The three stories are entwined to create one fast paced narrative, as Dai solicits Jin's help in a drug deal while at the same time establishing a connection with Mei Yee in the hope of convincing her to help him find the brothel's ledger. As their paths cross, they help each other achieve their individual goals and in the process become family. This thriller takes readers into a world of fear, danger and intrigue that will keep them turning pages until the last triumphant chapter.

All three titles are recommended for the more mature reader.  Although there are disturbing situations in each narrative, none of them is overly graphic. However, parents may not want their younger precocious readers exposed to topics of drugs, violence and sexuality.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Engaging Voices in YA novels

The distinct personality, style and point of view or "voice" in young adult novels is what keeps many readers engaged.  Many YA novels are written in first-person, which allows the character to believably present an unsophisticated and unchallenged view of herself and the world around her. The insights are frequently charmingly witty, if somewhat off base.  This month I want to suggest four new novels whose main characters had me at "What's up?"  Buzz Kill by Beth Fantaskey, author of the hilarious Dating on the Dark Side vampire series, stars a plucky heroine who is channeling Nancy Drew.  Noggin, by Printz Award Winner, John Corey Whaley, features a cancer victim who dies, has his head cryogenically frozen and then reanimated and placed on a donor body.  Anatomy of a Misfit, by adult author Andrea Portes, explores the emotions of a Nebraska teenager in the orbit of a queen bee. Finally Love and Other Unknown Variables by Shannon Lee Alexander is about a math genius who gets involved with a girl who is anything but predictable.

In Buzz Kill teen journalist Millie Ostermeyer tries to model herself after her literary heroine Nancy Drew in solving the mystery of the unpopular high school football coach's murder.  There is a long list of suspects and her father, the assistant coach and town mayor, is at the top of the list.  During her investigation, she discovers the mysterious new quarterback, Chase Albright, has ties to the coach that may help her find the murderer.  Their flirtatious banter, her self-deprecating humor, and the short chapters with cliffhanger endings make this a real page turner.  Millie is always asking herself, "What would Nancy do?" As she and Chase work together to solve the mystery, they find themselves falling in love, but his tragic past may just be a roadblock to a shared future.

Travis Coastes, aka Noggin, gets a second chance at life when his cryogenically frozen head is attached to the body of a well-built sixteen-year-old who died of brain cancer. His excitement over his hot new body lasts just long enough for him to realize his friends are now 21, and he is still sixteen and having to navigate high school without them. Travis refers to himself as "Mary Shelley's nightmare come true" but new friend Hatton dubs him Noggin. When Travis tries to reactivate his old life, he finds his friend Kyle, who came out to Travis on his deathbed, is back in the closet, and his girlfriend Cate is engaged to someone else.  His sophomoric efforts to win her back are cringe worthy.  Hatton acts as Travis's wingman, as he struggles with issues of life, love and death, and helps him realize that everyone has moved on and he may just have to begin again.  This book, by the author of the award winning Where Things Come Back, is a National Book Award finalist.

Anna Dragomir, the protagonist in Anatomy of a Misfit, is struggling to reconcile her head with her heart.  The third most popular girl, she finds herself a slave to the queen bee's ("the dark side of the force") prejudices, but Anika is secretly in love with ("nerd-ball turned goth romance hero") Logan McDonough. Their midnight rendezvouses and his romantic poetry make her heart throb, but she knows dating him is social suicide. Then Jared Kline ("God's gift to Nebraska") begins courting her and she feels compelled to go out with him. As she navigates romantic and ethical problems, as well as family issues with her stepdad, annoying siblings and demanding professor father (a "Romanian who looks like Count Chocula"), Anika wonders how to be true to herself. Her razor sharp analyses of the people around her and her quirky reflections on high school drama make for an entertaining read.

Math geek Charlie Hanson looks at the world through the eyes of a scientist in Love and Other Unknown Variables.  In beginning the story, he acknowledges there are an infinite number of ways to start but the ending will always be the same. After striking out in three attempts to get a girl's attention in elementary school, he reflects,"In each failed experiment, I kept changing the girl, when it was myself I should have taken out of the equation." Then he falls head over heels for Charlotte Finch, who is not only his sister's best friend, but also his English teacher's sister.  Charlie is Ms. Finch's arch nemesis and when he finds out Charlotte is gravely ill and her sister's attention is smothering her, he decides to launch a prank campaign against Ms. Finch to distract her.  Nothing goes quite as he plans. Charlie's mathematical analysis of all aspects of his life make for a hilarious, yet poignant read.