Sunday, July 31, 2005

I Was A Non-Blonde Cheerleader, by Kieran Scott

When Annisa moves from New Jersey to Sand Dune, FL, the first thing she notices is that she's the only non-blonde in the whole school. But that's just the beginning of the ways she doesn't fit it. Before the first day is done, she's alienated just about every popular girl in the school. And when she has the audacity to show up for cheerleader tryouts, it just gets worse. But Annisa never backs down, and in the end she finds that her fighting spirit is what she needs to win it all.

This is a great feel good book about a subject (cheerleading) that I have to admit makes me nauseous. Perhaps understanding that the typical pro-cheerleader demographic is not likely to be reading YA books, Kieran Scott has busted the stereotypes and created a character who is truly interesting and fun to root for. By the end, this is a story where you feel really good inside that it turns out like it does.

Thursday, July 28, 2005

The One and Only Cynthia Jane Thornton, by Claudia Mills

Cynthia Jane is pretty proud of being Lucy's older sister. They may get dressed the same by their Mom, and Lucy may be bright, but Cynthia Jane is the eldest, has more friends, and is a writer to boot! That all changes when Lucy gets promoted into Cynthia's math class and starts to make friends there.

A charming short book about sibling rivalry for middle readers. Nothing deep or earth shattering is learned and the 3rd party narrative style will leave you a bit distanced from the characters and the story, but it is an enjoyable read.

Sunday, July 24, 2005

Daughter of Venice, by Donna Jo Napoli

Donata finds the confines of her position in Renaissance Italy confining. As the second daughter of a noble family, she won't be allowed to marry. But worse, she has never been allowed an education or even to leave (without an escort) the walls of her family's home in Venice. So, she sneaks out of the house, dressed as a boy, and learns what it is to be a boy (and a girl) in her time.

Perhaps, I have a soft spot for the locale and the period, or perhaps the plotline of a cross-dressing Italian in the Renaissance is practically Shakespearian (and thus more accessible), but I found this to be Napoli's best novel that I've read to date. Usually, her works start with great ideas but die in the delivery, long before the conclusion. This story kept my attention and drew me along all the way to the end. An end that might be a bit too convenient and pat, but which is fulfilling and charming nonetheless. A fun read with lovely historical detail.

Thursday, July 21, 2005

Boy Proof, by Cecil Castellucci

Egg begins our story happy to be the weird one (shaved head, colored eyebrows, white cloak). She's on the fast track to being Valedictorian. While she doesn't have any friends, she's happy that way, and her most serious problem is getting her Mom to stop calling her by her real name. And then a new boy transfers in during Senior year, and Eggs discovers that she's not quite as boy proof as she had hoped.

Things tie up a bit too sweetly in this story, but it doesn't detract the way that the book is overall charming. Being placed in Hollywood, with film star parents, makes the story read a bit like Sones's One of Those Hiddeous Books Where the Mother Dies, but this is nowhere near as sentimental. Egg has a nice sharpness to her and watching her screw up in the beginning makes her eventual success that much rewarding.

Tuesday, July 19, 2005

Dead Girls Don't Write Letters, by Gail Giles

A suspense thriller that starts off when Sunny receives a letter from her dead sister. Things just get weirder when her sister comes home, but then it turns out that she's not quite the dead sister after all. Confused? Well, throw in a parallel story about an alcoholoic father and a clinically depressed mother, and you have some harrowing other stuff to sort through.

It's actually a pretty good book, but there really aren't any likable characters in it, and that makes for a tough read. So, I guess it's a matter of whether you mind a good story with dislikeable characters, or you need the characters to be likeable as well. I tend to go for the latter, so I don't really go for the book.

Stained, by Jennifer Richard Jacobson

Stained is a story of Jocelyn, a girl coming of age in the 1970s in southern New Hampshire. Her boyfriend Benny can't see her anymore because his priest has told him that Jocelyn is stained and "of the Devil." Meanwhile, the star athlete gabe has gone missing. through a series of flashbacks, Joss tells the story of her changing relationship with gabe, and a mystery unravels about what happened to gabe and why he disappeared.

Jacobson has a rich style and the alternating chapters (one current, one flashback) is an effective device. The story has perhaps a bit too many untied-up moments (so often a habit of modern novels) but it's a good page turner. The target readership may find it a bit odd to read about life in the days of their mothers, but may not even realize the historical context.

Sunday, July 17, 2005

Song of Mary Magdalene, by Donna Jo Napoli

Napoli goes into riskier territory, creating a back story for the life of Mary Magdalene (prior to her meeting Jesus). In Napoli's story, Mariam is an independently minded girl who befriends a cripple and loves to sing songs. Haunted by seizures, she is assaulted and unjustly accused of prostitution, before fleeing her home in Galilee. These and other events gives her the wider mind set and tolerance of diversity that explain her later (and more well-known) acts of charity.

Like Sirena and Zel, Napoli takes a very interesting concept and doesn't quite seem to know where to run with it. The story drags a bit and leaves the reader really wondering why they should bother. I held on to see what would happen when she met Jesus, but that is at the very end and doesn't provide much of a pay-off.

Thursday, July 14, 2005

The Journey Home, by Kathleen Duey

OK, so this is a guilty pleasure of mine. Generally, I dispise series books, but I got hooked on these early.

In the eighth and final installment of The Unicorn's Secret series, Heart finally finds her people, brings the evil Lord Dunraven around to the ways of good, and resolves the mystery of the Unicorns and her own origin and parents.

Duey makes a pretty decent career out of writing books for early readers and all of the books in this series go by fairly quickly (82 pages in 35 minutes!). No major deep thoughts here or personal discoveries, but a fun little read. I'm actually rather more fond of her American Diaries books, but she doesn't write those anymore.

OK, now back to the big kids' books....

P.S. Now reading this book DOES raise one of those age old questions that has been on a my mind a lot in then past: what is it about girls and horse stories? I never quite got it when I was a kid myself, and I really don't get it now. Thoughts? Comments?

Swollen, by Melissa Lion

When Owen, the star jock of the high school, dies of a swollen heart, Samantha has mixed feelings -- glad that he is gone and not able to tell the school about their secret, and sad that there is a gap inside of her. The gap is partly filled by the arrival of exotic Persian Farouk, who leads her into a world of danger and exploration that opens longings.

Yes, it truly is about THAT Harlequin-level of a book. Steamy and occasionally sexy, but mostly very very moody and introspective. Individual chapters might stand well as short stories (and they are maddeningly different in size and shape), with all of their inuendo and subterfuge. But, a novel is a different beast, and the story lacks a true pay off, getting lost in a pretty narrative. I like poetic writing very much, but without any story (nothing truly happens that causes any of the characters to change or grow) this is just not a very satisfying read.

Sunday, July 10, 2005

Gracie: The Pixie of the Puddle, by Donna Jo Napoli

Gracie is a frog, but she doesn't behave like a frog. She has friends, and she believes in helping other frogs, and there's the small matter of having a name. When her friend Jimmy mysteriously allows a young human princess to kiss him, Gracie goes off on a quest to learn the truth about herself, and the other frogs in the pond. The story picks up where the Frog Prince left off and imagines what would come next.

This is another of Napoli's reimaginings of fairy tales (see Nel for another) and geared for a much younger audience. It shoots for a biut of mature wit, but doesn't elicit the chuckles of The Tale of Despereux, although there are similarities. A rather luke warm effort. A quick read and it has a satisfying ending, but there are plenty of better books out there for middle readers.

Saturday, July 09, 2005

Rhymes with Witches, by Lauren Myracle

The Bitches are the coolest of the cool in the High School, even cooler than the cheerleaders or the jocks. And there is only one for each grade. Plain Jane wants, more than anything else, to rise out of her status as a toad and become the Freshman class's Bitch. And when her dream comes true, she's in absolute heaven, until she learns that her popularity has a price. And the fact that their school is overrun with feral cats may not quite be a coincidence.

For anyone who was convinced in High School that the popular kids had sold their souls to the devil, this book let's you know that you were probably mostly right. It's witty (maybe not quite as much as Speak but as much fun) and it's an entirely different way to combine teen angst with horror novel. Think of it as a black-comedy Buffy.

So, is it a good novel? Well, it's a good read. I won't be scampering to own a copy, but for a taste of something different, it's a wonderful relief.

Monday, July 04, 2005

Cut, by Patricia McCormick

Callie gets sent to Sea Pines (or "Sick Minds" as she calls it) for cutting, and spends the next month learning first to speak again, and then speak about how she ended up in treatment, and why she cuts in the first place.

The book actually ends up being more about in-patient psychiatry than cutting, which was something of a disappointment, but it is overall a good look at mental illness, and finding strength to overcome it. In many ways, it reminded me of a book I read when I was in 6th grade called I Never Promised You a Rose Garden, about a much-more disturbed young woman. This is nowhere near as harrowing a story, but it shares a familiar path into insanity and back again.

A classic.

Sunday, July 03, 2005

Friends Everywhere, by Donna Jo Napoli

Patricia moves to the city, after growing up on a farm with her Uncle and Grandparents. Living in apartment is a tough change and Patricia finds it hard to make friends. A problem which is exacerbated by being deaf, and having deaf parents.

This is the first book in Napoli's Angelwing series which appears to involve young angel children "earning their wings" by helping a human child through a difficult situation. It's probably a good concept for the 7-10 year old demographic that she's shooting at, but the whole set-up seems a bit complicated. There really isn't much need to involve angels in this story, that otherwise could be a fun story about a resourceful group of children who learn to overcome a handicap and discover friendship.

Love and Other Four-Letter Words, by Carolyn Mackler

Sammie gets uprooted from her life in placid Ithaca and deposited on the Upper West Side of Manhattan with her depressed mother, and has to learn to take care of the house, find friends, and cope with her parents' separation. It's a bit much for a girl to deal with, but with a chain of events through the Summer and a new friend or two, Sammie begins to find herself and take control of things. Along the way, she discovers that the people she thought were her friends, aren't. And she finds that choices and decisions can lead to unexpected outcomes.

This is Mackler's first book, and a bit rougher than The Earth, which I read a month or so ago. It doesn't have the horribly convenient happy ending of that second book, and so is a bit more satisfying, but it doesn't flow as smoothly, and it is nowhere near as funny. With time, the book will not age well (references to REM, Jewel, and The Real Life) are unlikely to make sense in a decade or two, but it is snazzy and contemporary (in spite of a slightly rare obsession with 60s folk music). It's a good book, but not her best.

Reading it has also brought me to thinking a bit about YA lit. I'm reading a lot of young woman authors these days writing about younger women protagonists. And a theme is emerging: the characters in these novels are rarely typical for their age. They have a teenager's life and fears, but the wisdom of a 20-something (i.e., the author). And it's almost as if the authors are trying to send a message back in time: if I had known what I know now, this is what I would have done differently when I was a teen. It feels like they are hoping that by telling these stories, they can reach and change their young female readership. Whether that works or not, I'm not so sure. The classic mistake of adults is to imagine that they can create a world where teen's no longer make mistakes. Making mistakes is part of growing up.

Friday, July 01, 2005

Getting Near To Baby, by Audrey Couloumbis

When Willa Jo and Little Sister lose Baby, their bossy Aunt Patty suggests that the two girls come and spend time with her while their mother recovers from the death of the youngest. The story opens, however, with the two girls sitting up on the roof in protest, and the details come mostly from flashbacks, flashbacks that tell a story of loss, but mostly children struggling to be heard in an adult world.

This is a Newberry Honor book from 2000 and unfortunately about as dull as those books tend to be. There are some lovely anecdotes and the whole thing is beautifully written, but it drags on and on and so little actually happens in the story. A disappointment.