Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Zel, by Donna Jo Napoli

Zel is a retelling of the story of Rapunzel, told from the perspective of the girl, her suitor, and her mother, attempting to explain the motivations behind all three characters.

From the synopsis, this looked like a really good book. I guess I expected it to be a retelling with modern psychological insights. It didn't really live up to this. Instead, the story drifted a bit into magic and fantasy, and dodged the more human qualities of jealousy and insecurity that Napoli begins the story with. Like Sirena, this isn't really a children's book at all. It probably belongs with the Fantasy category instead.

Sunday, June 26, 2005

Kissing Doorknobs, by Terry Spencer Hesser

Tara is pretty, popular, and smart. She has friends and a family who love her. But everytime she walks to school, she has to count all the cracks on the sidewalk. And if she loses count, she has to run back home and start again. And then she has to order her food perfectly. And pray everytime someone swears. And confess every sin she's even thought of. And kiss doorknobs. All of this confuses and humiliates Tara as she and her family try to figure out what is wrong with her.

This somewhat autobiographic and gruelling realistic portrayal of obsessive-compulsive disorder covers ground that Tashjian went at in Multiple Choice which I reviewed a month or two ago. Kissing Doorknobs is a less poetic read, but probably a better portrayal of the disease. Hesser has a somewhat clunky style (a bit reminescent of Judy Blume actually), but the writing is not bad. And her story makes up for it.

This is a good book if you're looking to understand OCD better, not such a good book for entertainment however.

Friday, June 24, 2005

Aimee, by Mary Beth Miller

Aimee commits suicide, and her friend blames herself for helping her do it. So do Aimee's parents and the police. And once the trial is over, and the acquittal, and the court ordered restraint order from ever seeing her friends again, and her parents' move away, then the narrator has to come to terms with every horrifying element of what happened and how she'll ever recover from it.

If I've painted this story a bit bleakly, I've not managed to do it as bleakly as the author has. Aimee is an amazingly depressing read, a painfully depressing one. Not only are problems just piled up (suicide, abuse, drugs, etc etc), but you don't even realize until 20 pages before the end that you've never learned the narrator's name. She's so dehumanized, so lost, that even her name is gone.

I have a tremendous soft spot for stories about suicide (one of my favorite books when I was a teen was Ordinary People) and I of course have my own personal history. This book is a tremendous accomplishment, but it is a grueling experience to read. In some ways, I'll compare it to the movie Thirteen -- both really moved me, but I could never watch/read them again. In the end, I am very moved, but not uplifted. And in the end, I wanted (and needed) something to rescue me.

Is that a strange way of saying a book is good?

Monday, June 20, 2005

Sirena, by Donna Jo Napoli

Sirena is a siren, a mermaid. She and her sisters sing songs to lure sailors in, because they have been handed a promise (and curse) that if a man should love them they would become immortal. Irena grows disgusted at love born from trickery and seduction and seeks a love that she can earn through more honest means. And when she finds it and the immortality it brings, it is not quite what she expects.

This is an extremely ambitious and powerful book, albeit a bit uneven. The book works best when Sirena reveals her adolescent curiosity and longing for love. It works less well when it tries to reach some sort of deep poetic meaning. There are sections that bring tears to the eyes or flush the cheeks, but there are also long interludes that drag on painfully. The story is a stronger concept than narrative. And it is not really a YA book. This doesn't mean that young readers would not enjoy it, but this is a story about grown up love and passion in the long run, and seems more centered on that world.

I rather suspect that most younger readers would find it a bit dull.

Sunday, June 19, 2005

Hannah On Her Way, by Claudia Mills

Hannah still likes to play with dolls, make snow sculptures with her Dad, and braid her long hair. And being only in 5th grade, she feels that should be OK. But after the family's latest move, she's had trouble making friends and when she finds herself befriended by popular Caitlin, she admires her luck. That is, until Caitlin and her friends start pressuring Hannah to cut her hair, talk about boys, and wear make up. Now, she must choose whether to do those things and "grow up" or stay like she was.

I expected this to be fairly formulaic and slight, but it was a nice surprise instead. Hannah's decision is not so cut and dried as one might expect - part of her does want to grow up, so this isn't just the old peer-pressure story. Instead, Hannah has to learn what "growing up" really means for her and find her own path. In that way, the story is actually a really fulfilling pre-coming-of-age story.

Saturday, June 18, 2005

Almost Home, by Nora Raleigh Baskin

OK, so I'm going to have to break from tradition and skimp on the plot description a bit here, because there isn't much I can give away (and even admitting that the book has a twist is giving way too much away).

At the end of the summer, Leah's father picks her up from camp and she finds out that her mother has gone away...to California...with her sister. Now, she must try to make a home - a new home - with her father and her father's new wife Gail. But her new home is also an old home and Leah must struggle with coming to terms with what has happened and finding a space where she belongs. An emotionally precocious boy Will plays a part (but not the part you might think).

Wow. I really liked What Every Girl (except me) Knows, so I was really looking forward to this book, but this completely exceeded mny expectations. I'm used to having a good cry at the end of a book, but rarely in the middle. This was truly incredible. Rich characters, parents that are realistic, kids that are realistic. Lots of meaning, thoughts, observations. Having just published my top ten, I'm loathe to add this right away, but I have a strong feeling that I will do so someday soon.

One interesting observation about YA lit though. Usually, authors write about characters who are slightly older than the target readership. Thus, a middle school book will have a Junior High Schooler, a teen book will have a senior, and so on. This book really goes the other direction and it was quite striking. The book reads like a Teen book (I'm not sure that the average middle schooler would get the nuances), but Leah is in Middle School (she hasn't even hit puberty yet). So, the author is inviting her readers to read about someone younger than themselves. Now, I - of course - do that with every book I read here, but it is unusual in the literature overall. All of which leads me to conclude that Baskin really is a force in literature to watch.

Friday, June 17, 2005

My Favorite Books: An Interlude

A short break from the book reviews to list out my favorite books (not all of which are reviewed here). These really are stunning books that each deserve to be read by everyone:

E. B. White, "Trumpet of the Swan"
Gail Levin, "The Wish"
Sarah Dessen, "Dreamland"
Sarah Dessen, "Someone Like You"
Dianne E Gray, "Holding Up the Earth"
Priscilla Cummings, "A Face First"
Joan Bauer, "Hope Was Here"
Karen Cushman, "Catherine, Called Birdy"
Sonya Sones, "What My Mother Doesn't Know"
Rachel Cohn, "Gingerbread"
Kate DiCamillo, "Because of Winn-Dixie"

The Bravest Thing, by Donna Jo Napoli

Laurel loves animals, but doesn't have the greatest of luck with keeping them alive. However, she works hard to do what she can to breed her pet rabbit. She also has to deal with a mother who is distraught over an ailing sister and she has been given a diagnosis of scoliosis.

These ingredients make up a story that breaks no new ground, but is a pleasant read. Laurel is a strong character who works hard for what she achieves. The story doesn't bear a lot of dramatic tension and the characters are a bit shallow, but this makes a nice read for a younger child (maybe 8-9 years old?).

Thursday, June 16, 2005

Standing Up to Mr O, by Claudia Mills

Maggie doesn't want to do dissections. At first, it is because she doesn't want to touch the worm she is supposed to dissect, but as she searches her feelings, she realizes that she doesn't want to harm other living creatures. Thus evolves Maggie's conversion to Veganism. Along the way, she discovers that adults can do unfair things and that romance can make you do some dumb things as well.

This is a good read and it raises some nice issues in a context that middle school readers would enjoy. Mills teaches philisophy and this book has a good share of ethics crammed into it, but not in a way that a reader would object to. Maggie can be a bit more insightful about human behavior than a seventh-grader probably is capable of, but that makes her a bit more endearing.

A pleasant book.

Tuesday, June 14, 2005

Make Lemonade, by Virginia Euwer Wolff

The first of a trilogy of books, Make Lemonade is the story of LaVaughn and her babysitting job taking care of two children or a teenage mother. It's a dark and gritty story of adolescence in urban poverty, where gang crime and drugs and danger are pretty much a fact of life.

This is not a bad book, but not really to my taste. For better or worse, I tend to prefer my stories of privileged middle class white kids in the suburbs over these stories of disadvantaged kids in the Projects. Partly because stories like this are much more about survival, without any time to explore the psyche.

Wolff has a nice style -- train of conscious free verse poetry -- that causes the narrative to spin by pretty quickly. So, when I say this isn't my sort of book, it doesn't mean that it's bad. Although I do get a feeling that this is the type of "socially conscious" book that is likely to be assigned for book reports, rather than the type that kids read for fun.

Sunday, June 12, 2005

Leap Day, by Wendy Mass

Leap Day is a pretty much a by-the-numbers story of a girl turning 16 and what she does on her birthday. Each chapter covers about two hours out of her day. And the adventures (crushes on older boy, getting her driver's license, worrying about her body type, etc.) are fairly typical YA material. What makes this story different isn't that Josie's birthday falls on February 29, but what goes on in alternating chapters. Between each chapter (told first person) from Josie's point of view, is a chapter where all the characters she interacts with get to give their view of what happened. Thus, we get to read not only what Josie thinks people think, but what they really are thinking, and what they think about her.

This is an interesting and original literary device. It is also an interesting tool for observing how we tend to misconstrue other people's thoughts. And it also reveals a bit about Josie as we see how she allows her own thoughts and fears to prevent her from seeing what other people are thinking.

In many ways, though, this is a book that works better with older readers than its target audience. Mass takes some of these observations of others far into the future. A character might comment that he didn't ask Josie out, but that ten years from now he will when they run into each other at a reunion. I'm not sure how many teen readers will find that interesting. As an adult reader, I found it fun and fascinating. Sort of like Mass was playing God a bit.

Tuesday, June 07, 2005

Perfectly Chelsea, by Claudia Mills

Again, it's nice to intersperse the tough teen books with something lighter.

Claudia Mills is a recent discovery and Perfectly Chelsea is a charming book for young middle schoolers. Chelsea is nine years old and has a lot of questions about God and about herself. She has to learn to tolerate obnoxious Danny, make up with Naomi, and - most important of all - forgive herself for making mistakes. Mills particular interest (at least in the books I've read so far) is change and learning to accept change.

These are nice themes and this is a nice book. It takes on the religion topic that Judy Blume attacked in Are You There God? It's Me Margaret but leaves out all the sexy stuff. That's quite OK for the audience of this book. In Chelsea's world, things are still pretty secure and safe and Chelsea can learn about the world (and share her feelings with the readers) without fear.

This would be a cozy book for a bedtime reading.

Saturday, June 04, 2005

Gingerbread, by Rachel Cohn

Like, totally cool. Cohn has the whole kid talk down utterly, you know?

Gingerbread is the story of Cyd Charisse and her trip back East to meet her biological father. It's also about coming to terms with growing up too quickly and learning to trust those you should and stay away from those that you shouldn't.

And unlike a lot of YA novels, the book doesn't preach. Cyd learns her lessons when she's ready to and she makes fun and mocks just about every adult's attempt (including the author's) to straighten her out. This is a character that feels so real and is so spunky, that you imagine her just taking over the narrative. A truly enjoyable young woman.

All of which raises an issue that it is so hard to find YA books that aren't preachy but still have important lessons to impart. And this is what makes the book stand out.