Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Sixteen, edited by Megan McCafferty

This collection of short stories about turning (or being) 16 covers a wide gamut, from historical to contemporary, both boys and girls (although with a big stress on homosexual over heterosexual). The stories all attempt to portray 16 as a moment of a crossroad, with lesser or greater success.

The best contributions come from Sarah Dessen (of course) and Julianna Baggott. Most of the stories are OK but not exceptional. Sonya Sones (who I tend to like) is a disappointment, as is McCafferty's own contribution. Disappointing overall and uneven.

Saturday, August 27, 2005

Shrimp, by Rachel Cohn

In this sequel to the stunning Gingerbread, we get the next year of Cyd Charisse's (now CC's) life -- her senior year -- as she navigates life back in California and her evolving relationship with her on-again boyfriend and soul-mate Shrimp. The rest of the family is growing up as well and so a lot of learning-to-live-with-changes moments result. But true to form, CC informs us at the end, that this isn't one of those movie stories where the narrator will come on at the end and give use some sort of meaningless conclusion about her "year of learning" etc etc. Instead, we get a nice satisfying twist that is both unexpected, but believable.

Cyd remains a spectacularly well-drawn heroine and Cohn has a great ear for dialog. But the aching question was voiced by Kriss (who read this before I had a chance to): "Why do a sequel?" And in fact, Shrimp does not really give us anything more, just more of the same old. And the appeal of the character and her dialog wears a bit thin in the sequel. By around page 60, Cyd's various ways of describing her objects of lust grow a bit thin. What was clever has become dull. And what was original and fresh is becoming a formula.

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Stealing Henry, by Carolyn MacCullough

When Savannah knocks her abusive drunk stepfather out with a frying pan and takes her younger half-brother with her to flee, she has time to think back on her past and on her relationship with her mother. And interspersed between a story of running away and these reflections on her past, Savannah's mother Alice tells a story about her own teenage years, leading up to Savannah's birth.

This is a fascinating multi-layered story about family and choices, and how those choices change lives forever. At first, the parallel storyline really doesn't gel very well, but as the story continues, things come closer and closer together until an incredible oh shit moment at the end of the book. Truly memorable. Some rough moments in the story keep this from being a must-have classic, but it is still a great read.

Sunday, August 21, 2005

Spinners, by Donna Jo Napoli and Richard Tchen

This retelling of Rumpelstiltskin fills in the story, providing the background and motivations for the legend of spinning straw into gold. The novel portrays a complex multi-generational voyage of jealousy and desire and greed that provides us with sympathy for the villian and hatred for the heroine.

I would not rate this as higher as I did Daughter of Venice but probably better than Zel or her book on Mary Magdalene. And I suppose I should explain why I keep reading Napoli's books, since I don't seem to care for them very much. Napoli has some outstanding story ideas and when I read the synopses for her books, I get very excited, but the actual product in the end seems to disappoint more often than not. Possibly it is the terribly dark quality she puts into her books. they are all about suffering. Possibly it is because her characters are so greedy and mean. But there are also issues of style and her inability to end her books. The ending to this one is particularly odd and strange.

Saturday, August 20, 2005

Looking for Alibrandi, by Melina Marchetta

Josie Alibrandi lives alone with her mother and attends a Catholic school in Adelaide. She's different from the other girls for a number of reasons: she's attending on a scholarship, she doesn't have a father, and she's Italian - a "wog." And in her last year of high school, as she prepares for law school, she juggles a boyfriend from the wrong side of the tracks (Jacob), the pristine John, and the return of her father.

This novel grabbed my attention because (as the jacket explains) "it won every major award for young adult literature in Australia and is on the Higher School Certificate [the Aussie SATs] reading list." So, apparently, they think it's a good book.

What a disappontment. It has been a long time since I was so bored by a novel. The story is hard to follow, poorly written (dialog sequences where you can't tell who is talking because they all sound alike), and dull. By the end, I was just beginning to care a little about the revealing of family secrets and thought the story might be becoming interesting, when she dumped in some very unnecessary melodrama that just made my skin crawl. This is an absolutely HIDDEOUSLY written book. And if it is the best that Australia can produce, they have a long way to go. A waste of time.

Thursday, August 18, 2005

Dinah Forever, by Claudia Mills

Last of four. In this last installment of the Dinah Seabrooke series, Dinah discovers that everything ends, including life. She starts off 7th grade by learning that the universe will end in five billion years, and by the end of the story learns that life is much shorter than all that. In between, she frets about the meaning of life and love.

This book proves to be less interesting than the others. Dinah's worries are cute and poignant, but in the end a bit boring, and this book drags a bit with themes already covered fairly well in the other books. Of the four, I think I'd rate the second book the best of the bunch.

Dinah in Love, by Claudia Mills

Three of four. Dinah organizes the first dance -- a sock hop Sadie Hawkins dance. Girls have to ask the boys to the dance. The problem is that Dinah doesn't like boys. And certainly not teh obnoxious Nick Tribble! Add in a debate on capital punishment and a play where Dinah gets the leading role, and there is the usual set of amusing hijinx. With Dinah, you can pretty much guess that the story is going to give us a series of mischief.

OK, so the books are charming and pleasant. Dinah learns to be a little bit flexible about her convictions and thus grows a bit. These are pleasant books and this third one in the series continues the general improvement of the characters and story.

Tuesday, August 16, 2005

Dinah for President, by Claudia Mills

Two of Four. In this sequel, Dinah Seabrooke starts at the Middle School and immediately makes herself noticed by running for class president on an environmental platform, arguing that the school should have a recycling program [apparently, when the book was written, recycling was still a rare event]. At the same time, Dinah befriends an elderly lady and takes on the issue of aging in dignity. A surprise ending leads to a satisfying conclusion.

I actually liked the sequel better than the original book, so I'm hoping the character continues to improve. Having established the various characters and settings in the story, Mills doesn't have to spend as long on exposition. One could quibble over some of the preachiness of the recycling message in the book, but it is not so distracting, as much as dated now.

Monday, August 15, 2005

Dynamite Dinah, by Claudia Mills

Book One of Four. Dinah Seabrooke likes to be in the spotlight and she plays the class clown to make it so. That is, when she's not memorizing the longest poem, competing for the biggest part in the play, or otherwise showing off. But when success eludes her and she has to share the house with her newborn baby brother, life hands Dinah some hard lessons.

Mills likes to tell stories about self-centered and insecure middle schoolers. This isn't the first book in which she's done so. The books are charming in their own right, but one does wish that she'd expand the repertoire a bit. We'll see how this one goes. On to the sequel next....

The Queen of Everything, by Deb Caletti

The story starts off with the big bombshell: Jordan's father has ended up in jail for killing the husband of his lover. Jordan then proceeds to tell how that ending came about, detailing life on an island in the Pacific Northwest, and telling a bit about the story of her life along the way.

I wasn't sure I wanted to read this book as the other book I read by Caletti had been pretty turgid. This was actually a better read. She is still very much in love with her imagery, but about halfway through the story, she gives up on doing it quite as much, and just gets down to the story. Then things pick up. One still wonders if the book could have been better with a good editor that slimmed this 370 page monster down to something leaner. I'd have certainly appreciated it.

Saturday, August 13, 2005

Girl, 15, Charming But Insane, by Sue Limb

Jess Jordan's imagination is a wild one, and often blinds her from the realities in front of her. The result is a complex comedy of errors as her group of friends struggle through relationships and school. The story is lightened by "horrorscopes" that precede each chapter and Jess's self-deprecatory humor.

The book's British slang can be a bit jarring to American readers, but it rings true for the demographic. And the clever humor makes this a brisk and light read. Not a book of huge substance, but funny and amusing.

I'm a bit cold to it, I suppose, because I don't like comedies of errors -- that is, comedy that relies on the characters' unwillingness to tell each other the truth. Such devices make the story too easy to wrap up. After spending a whole novel engaging in stupid acts driven by what each character THINKS the others want, all they need to do is sit down and talk and they realize the error of their ways, and everyone lives happily ever after. That is a bit too easy and not terribly enlightening or uplifting. Never mind the wince factor while the story unfolds.

Tuesday, August 09, 2005

Waiting to Dive, by Karen Rivers

Carly discovers a love for diving and learns to cope when her best friend Montana is injured. Other adventures include dealing with obnoxious siblings and hunting for lost treasure.

The story is written in a rather jumpy first-person style, as if it were part of a diary. Or a writing assignment on "What I Did Last Summer." That makes for some pretty difficult reading. And the story does not really cover any new ground, so the overall effect is a pretty turgid read. Karen Rivers has written Dream Water, which has won a lot of critical acclaim, but this thinner novel really doesn't hold up.

Monday, August 08, 2005

The Secret Carousel, by Claudia Mills

When Lindy's sister gets a chance to leave their small town of Three Churches IA, Lindy starts plotting her own escape. Life with their grandparents isn't terribly exciting and Lindy imagines that she could become a great actress. But while that talent develops, she discovers an old abandoned wooden carousel in a barn.

Very very dull. Some of Claudia Mills's work can be quite fun, but this is an earlier book and not a terribly interesting story. Perhaps middle readers will just enjoy having something to read, but the book lacks drama or humor, both of which are really necessary to keep my interest.

Saturday, August 06, 2005

Vegan Virgin Valentine, by Carolyn Mackler

Mara Valentine is neck and neck with Travis the misogynist jerk to become this year's valedictorian. She's got just the right mix of classes and extracurriculars and she's been already accepted (early decision) with Yale. She's got it made. That is, until her messed up niece (only a year younger than her -- LONG story) comes to live with them. Soon the adventure begins.

Mackler writes good books. The Earth, My Butt, and Other Big Round Things is truly a major achievement. This book will capture interest as well. But it is not in the same class. It has great characters and fun adventures, but nothing really stands out in it. I wouldn't toss it out and I certainly enjoyed reading it, but it won't blow you away either.

The Boyfriend List, by E. Lockhart

The opens with Ruby Oliver seeing a therapist for a series of panic attacks. As part of her therapy, she assembles the "Boyfriend List" which outlines all of the boys that she's had relationships (of one sort or another) with, and which serves as a framework to describe the reason for her fall from grace and the debacle that was the only one of the 15 (#13) that she really cared about.

This is a well-written and heartbreaking story of the way that human relationships ebb and flow. And while those relationships seem more volatile when you're 15, there's very little about Lockhart's writing that isn't true about relationships through life. Add her observations about parents and the way that they mess you up, and this is really an on-the-mark book.

There is an annoying artifice in the book of using footnotes throughout. This is cute and attempts to capture some of the asides that don't quite fit in the narrative, but like sidebars, they are very hard to read and can get quite distracting.

Monday, August 01, 2005

Confession of a Closet Catholic, by Sarah Darer Littman

Justine Silver has decided to give up Judaism for Lent. That's because she's decided to become a Catholic, especially since her best friend is Catholic. But then she starts thinking about her family, and especially about her Grandmother, and realizes that there's a lot more to her faith than a particular name for G-d and a set of rituals. But all this understanding doesn't answer her questions. Instead, it makes her want to know more.

While this sort of story (teen seeking God) has been done before, it is not actually that common of a storyline. For that reason, readers might like the book. It also does a nice job of explaining Judaism to both the neophytes and those with some knowledge. Whether that makes it a good book remains a bit of an open question. What is more likely to make the book appealing is the nice characterizations and a genuinely interesting storyline. Problems are encountered and resolved, not always perfectly. And that always make a book a good read. Not a fantastic read, but certainly something worthwhile.