Friday, September 30, 2005

Rating the Books

I realized that after a while, it gets a bit overwhelming to find books that I've reviewed in this list. After all, as of now, there are like 83 books here! And that's only in six months....

So, I've created a separate webpage where I'll keep track of their rating using a five step scale. It's going to be a hard call and I'm not sure I'm entirely pleased with the results. But the top books and the bottom books are certainly on the money. We could probably all quibble about the ones with 2 or 3 stars on them.

Four stars, by the way, is the best!

Wednesday, September 28, 2005

The Secret Blog of Raisin Rodriguez, by Judy Goldschmidt

The gimmick of this book is that it is a BLOG written by seventh-grader Raisin Rodriguez (and a few comments from her readership), and basically recounts her days at a new school in a new town. There are some amusing events as Raisin tries out for soccer, has her first period, and deals with a boy dog named "Countess" who has strange dietary habits.

But this is a very boring novel. It is very rare that I run across an author that shares my last name (no relation, by the way), so I really wanted to like this book, but this was dull dull dull. When will YA authors realize that throwing in an account of your first period and other "girly" stuff does not make a story. There's no story arc, barely any character development, and nothing to keep you glued to the page. Sorry, this one's a big fat zero.

Sunday, September 25, 2005

Makeovers By Marcia, by Claudia Mills

Another book is Mills's series about West Creek Middle School (see Lizzie At Last), this one centers on Marcia the fashion-conscious who struggles with two challenges -- getting Alex to invite her to the dance and learning to like the mandatory community service project she's been assigned at a nursing home. But, of course, what seems to be easy becomes difficult and what seemed onerous becomes a joy.

Not having a lot of sympathy for the rather vain and silly Marcia at the beginning of the story handicapped me in enjoying this particular novel. It has few surprises, but fulfills all the necessary prerequisites of Middle School reading. Nothing exceptional, but it is pleasant. Average.

Saturday, September 24, 2005

Pop Princess, by Rachel Cohn

Wonder Blake has everything going for her. At 15, she gets a major recording contract and an opportunity to tour with pop diva Kayla. It's all success and fun, even as Wonder struggles with boys and parents and school and the memory of an older sister who died too young. But she's a witty thing and will figure out a way to survive.

Coming off as a cross between the movie Rock Star and Rachel Cohn's other books, this is a painful read. It has all of the blaring success and fairy tale quality of Meg Cabot, but without the wit or the suspense. Nothing seriously bad ever happens to Wonder in this story, and that makes for some PAINFULLY dull reading. I don't ask for continual pain and suffering (although it would have made for a better story than this!) but some sort of dramatic suspense to keep the story going would have helped.

Wonder is no Cyd and this story will never compete for Gingerbread for my affections. Instead, this is pop schmaltz creation about as interesting as the latest pop music star.

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Kissing Kate, by Lauren Myracle

Lissa and Kate were inseparable best friends until the party where Kate got drunk and they kissed out in a gazebo, and Lissa (who wasn't drunk) realized that she liked it. Beyond the awkwardness of confronting what they did and what it meant, Lissa now comes to terms with who she is and who she wants to be, along with some help from her boss and a social outcast Ariel (who cares more about Lissa's "lucid dreams" than her sexual orientation).

It's a gentle teen story of awakening ideas, with only the slightest intimation of sex. Mostly, in fact, the story is the old chestnut about learning to be true to yourself, and what the real definition of friendship is (tossed in with some familiar cliches about obnoxious little sisters and clueless boys). I give the book high marks for its sensitive depiction of teen homosexuality, but only a moderate review for its otherwise fairly unoriginal storyline.

Becoming Naomi Leon, by Pam Munoz Ryan

Naomi lives in a trailer park with her mildly-handicapped brother and her great grandmother taking care of them. But things change when he long-absent mother reappears and wants to take Naomi away. Rather than be forced to leave her belovewd brother and Gram, they flee south to Mexico and search for her father. Along the way, Naomi discovers Mexico and a little bit of herself.

This is an absolutely charming book. I've been reading so many teen angst books that I've forgotten that children's books don't have to be about falling in love for the first time. And Ryan takes us to territory (not only in a physical sense of the state of Oaxaca, but in the emotional sense) that YA literature rarely goes. This is a deep exploration of the heart and family. It is also a gentle story with a good sense of wit (the chapter titles alone are wonderful), and a with good payoff in the end. Highly recommended.

Monday, September 19, 2005

Saint Jude, by Dawn Wilson

Too messed up for the outside world, but not sick enough for an institution, a groupf of misfit teens find a home at saint Jude -- a psychiatric half-way house. There taylor learns a little about love and a little about love, as one by one, each of them move on to the real world and graduate.

Looking beyond the shoddy production (rarely do I notice how badly typeset and edited a book is), Wilson has a lot of neat things to say. This is sort of a cross between One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and The Breakfast Club, with much of the charm of both stories. There's a love story that never quite goes anywhere and teen pranks. No real story, but at least a satisfying conclusion. Not a classic, but a good read.

Sunday, September 18, 2005

If You Come Softly, by Jacqueline Woodson

A story about true love between teens, with a twist: Jeremiah is Black and Elsie is Jewish. But they have a lot in common and this isn't a stereotypical Guess Who's Coming To Dinner story (although the novel includes a reference to that one).

A big warning: the book concludes with a massive whammy that is only faintly foreshadowed in the book. That will feel a lot like a cheat, as if Woodson couldn't bring herself to end the book in the way its dramatic arc was heading. But moreover, the characters are terribly mature for a pair of 15 year olds. And maybe just a bit too perfect. I really longed for some sign of self-centeredness or some mistake or something to go wrong, but that never happens in books where the message is political rather than literary.

And I guess that brings me to a side comment about race books. I find that I don't tend to enjoy them and, in fact, try to avoid them. At first I figured that is because of an affluent white who can barely relate to the milieu. But I think it is more than that. When a book becomes an issue book (be it race, sexual orientation, disease, etc), it loses something. When characters get sacrificed for the sake of an issue, the story suffers. Why couldn't Elsie or Miah be a bit imperfect? Because that would have suggested that interracial dating was imperfect and Woodson couldn't risk that. Too much riding on the issue to allow for some human imperfection here. Or maybe Woodson can't imagine the world of a living teen, but she seems like a better writer than that.

Saturday, September 17, 2005

Unexpected Development, by Marlene Perez

Megan lusts after Jake Darrow, but unfortunately Jake has a serious girlfriend. That is, until they break up and now Jake is available. But that is the least of Megan's worries as she struggles with learning to trust Jake's interested in her, and not just in her ample bosom.

Perhaps I've read too many of these, but this novel is terribly dull, basically an account of boring life in nowhere Iowa in the summer as teens drink and party and hook up. There are lecherous adults and lecherous teenagers. There are a lot of dialog scenes that don't amount to much, and characters who we're kept terribly distant from. Perez has some great ideas, but I'd have found Megan to be a much more interesting character for a Middle School book (the flashbacks to her coping with the attention her breasts get her as she was growing up are lightyears more interesting than her Junior year in high school). A disappointment.

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Define "Normal," by Julie Anne Peters

Antonia the straight-A good girl volunteers to be a peer counselor and gets saddled with Jazz the troublemaker and punk rocker. But as the two girls try to stumble through peer counseling together, they discover that their lives are strikingly similar, and that the counselor might be in just as much need of counseling.

A good read and a heart-warming story, without any sacharine bits to ruin the fun. This isn't deep reading, but it is a good book and enjoyable. The characters surprise us, but in ways that are believable, and that makes turning the pages so enjoyable.

Monday, September 12, 2005

The Blue Mirror, by Kathe Koja

Maggy doesn't really "do" school, and living with her alcoholic "mother" is not much of a life, but at least down at the Blue Mirror she can express herself with her drawing, especially with the fantasy of Cole, a charismatic street child. But when Cole steps out of fantasy to become her boyfriend, Maggy discovers the dangerous side of the streets and has to grapple her way back to reality.

For the first third of this book, I was pretty certain this was going to rank down at the very bottom of my list, but it slowly redeems itself...slightly. Koje writes in an annoying train-of-consciousness style where things are half-answered and storylines jump about chaotically. That makes for pretty tedious reading, and really makes it hard to relate to the characters.

Sunday, September 11, 2005

At the Back of the Woods, by Claudia Mills

When Emily moves to the neighborhood, she astounds the other girls (and Clarisse in particular) by her fearlessness. Emily fears nothing, least of all crazy old Mrs Spinelli, who everyone else is convinced is a witch. But when Emily encounters something that is afraid of, Clarisse realizes that there is a big difference between Emily's fearlessness and true bravery.

I've now read a good number of Claudia Mills's books, and this may well be the very best of the bunch. Although pitched at middle readers, this charming little book creates a wonderful little world of 10 year olds and their shifting loyalties and friendships, and revels in the type of emotional growth that children go through before adolescence. And it rather sharply criticises adults who don't trust children enough to tell them the truth. A beautiful book.

The Rise and Fall of a 10th Grade Social Climber, by Lauren Machling and Laura Moser

When Mimi flees her Mother and her Mom's new lover in Houston for her easy-going Dad and a private school in NYC, she imagines her life is going to get more exciting. But she's not quite prepared for life in the fast lane with her rich and exotic new friends. And she learns the rules of the game in NYC are much more complicated than they are back in Texan 9th grade. Despite the odds, she takes off and rising to great social heights until the lies and deceptions that got her to the top come crashing down on her.

The story has its moments, but the book is entirely too long (at around 290 pages, it would have been better chopped down by a third) and overall covers fairly familiar territory. We have angst, we have friendships, we have finding out that the popular girls have faults too, we have the crush on the gay guy, we have the clueless parents, and we have the revealing moment of truth at the end. Let's go someplace interesting with this story, OK?

Saturday, September 10, 2005

A Mango-Shaped Space, by Wendy Mass

For her entire life, Mia has seen colors when she reads and when she hears sounds. When she was little, she tried to explain his vision to others, but when she realized that she was alone and that admitting what she saw made her a "freak" in their eyes, she kept it to herself. By then things change and her condition comes out and she discovers that, while rare, that Synthesia is something that is not unique.

It's been a bit of a dry spell lately since I found a really good book. And it's a good thing to find. Mass's Leap Day was interesting and original, but this story is truly a much better read. The book appeals on all sorts of levels, not just as a story about Synthesia (which I knew nothing about before reading this book), but also as a coming-of-age story and a story about the bond between cats and their owners (an important part of the plot I sort of skipped above). This is truly an excellent book.

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

Here Today, by Ann M. Martin

It's 1963 and Ellie lives in the shadow of being an outcast Witch Tree Lane, and being the daughter of her flamboyant and restless mother Doris Day Dingman. When Doris decides to pursue her star in New York City and abandons her family to do so, Ellie has to take care of her siblings and find inner strength to be the adult her mother never quite managed to be.

Ann Martin is probably best known for her formula Babysitter Club books, and maybe somewhat less well-known for her A Corner of the Universe. This book turns out to be less of a YA book than an adult novel about being a child with a mother who is more of a child. It's an odd paradoxical book: fascinating and detailed, yet dull and plotless at the same time. I can honestly say that I've never been so bored by a book that was such a breeze to read. So, if you want a book that (at 308 pages) still took under 4 hours to read, I guess you could do worse.

Monday, September 05, 2005

Fat Chance, by Leslea Newman

When Judi's class gets an assignment to keep a diary for the semester, she is certain that she'll have nothing to write about. But as Judi's obsession with losing weight develops (alongside some up and down attempts at romance), her diary entries start to reveal a deadly problem.

At times, the narrative is a bit dull and there are some Judy-Blume-like moments of adult preachiness thrown in (if I were to improve the book, I'd try to let Judi tell her own story without all the extras tossed in). That said, there won't be a dry eye at the ending, so if you can manage your way that far, you will be rewarded. A bit rough and irregular then, but a great topic.

Friday, September 02, 2005

The Summer of the Swans, by Betsy Byars

Sara has trouble dealing with her older sister, her aunt, her absent father, and most of all, her retarded brother, whose needs always seem to outweigh her own. But then one night, her brother disappears and she must hunt for him.

It's a Newberry Award book, but it has aged badly. And beyond the references to a life long passed (operator assisted calls, anyone?), the whole psychology of 14 year olds has changed tremendously since this story was written. It's a pretty little book, but terribly trite and boring.