Monday, October 31, 2005

Myrtle of Willendorf, by Rebecca O'Connell

Myrtle is an overweight sophomore in college with artistic talents, a largely unsympathetic roommate, and memories of a coven that she used to share with her weird high school friend Margie. Now that high school's over, she avoids Margie, but somehow thoughts of what they shared together stick with her.

This is a very witty and fast read (I made it through the 106 pages in under 40 minutes!). The descriptions are wonderful (although her graphic descriptions of needing a new pad, biting her fingers until they bleed, and barfing might be a bit much for those with gentler dispositions) and there's a bunch to keep you chuckling. It also helps if you're familiar with Wicca. Fun!

A very appropriate read for Halloween.

Sunday, October 30, 2005

Conditions of Love, by Ruth Pennebaker

Sarah loves her father unconditionally, because that's the way he loved her before he died. But as time has gone by, she is starting to learn things about him (and about herself) that make her question her beliefs. Her best friend Ellie is struggling with a mother who can't cope with her divorce and with a sister who is moody and trouble, but Sarah just wants to escape into a world of romance with Ben and dating tips from her new friend Stephanie. And then there is her opinionated and negative grandmother Nana who makes life a terror for Sarah's mother.

If you get a sense that there's a lot going on in this book, you're right. In fact, there are a number of storylines here, very few of which actually interrelate in any meaningful sense. That spells trouble. Editor?? Is there an editor in the house? Pennebaker has good material here and has an excelent sense of how teens talk (although not necessarily what they talk about), but really needed to find a focus for this novel, that is basically all over the map.

The narrative also suffers from a problem that I find often in YA books. Sarah is an odd mixture of highly-observent (much wiser than her years) yet unaware of her own feelings. She casually observes everyone else's body language, while remaining ignorant of her own needs. I suppose that one could argue that teens can get this way, but it seems to me far more likely the opposite is true: real teens are more likely to be self-aware than other aware. Basically, Pennebaker is putting her adult words into Sarah's mouth (although sometimes Sarah will credit her mother with an observation). That is rough, giving the novel the sort of preachy quality one finds in Judy Blume books. Again, an editor would have helped.

Saturday, October 29, 2005

Empress of the World, by Sara Ryan

OK, the digested review: girl meets girl, girl loses girl, girls try boys and decide that girl friendship is better....

Nic comes to The Siegel Institute (a summer school for gifted teens) expecting to focus on learning archeology. Instead, she discovers romance with Battle, the oddly named but enchanting. The summer becomes a story of struggling with emotions and desires, and wondering whether she is gay, bi, or just experimenting. Along the way, she discovers some great friends and more than a few lessons about human attraction.

Obviously, this is a great concept for a book and Ryan does a wonderful job capturing angst and the difficulties of struggling with sexual identity. What chills my review is actually the rest of the book, which gets a bit dull. If this was an Issue Book that just stuck to the whole teenage homosexuality theme (which, by the way, is really nicely done!), it would be excellent, but every 20 pages or so, we plung into a couple pages of fairly unrelated and inane dialog that caused my attention to flag. I really want to like this book, but it really needed to tighten up a bit.

One of the reasons I really liked the book was because I could relate to it. I was pretty convinced of my bisexuality when I attended the PA Governor's School for the Arts, but I can relate both to the hot house atmosphere of a gifted summer program and to that search for sexual identity. Ryan hits both of those right on. The most intense memory of PGSA was how intense we felt everything was. We were convinced that this was IT. We were the cream of the crop, the true experts, the new generation. None of us had gone to college yet, but we spoke of things that summer like it was an end. Certainly, spending weeks with kids who are as good as you are (and no longer being the lone star in your classroom) really boosts a person. But there is something almost explosive in combining those feelings with that teenage hormones and emotions. Remembering all this makes me want to go out and read a book just about that!

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

P.S. Longer Letter Later, by Paula Danzinger and Ann Martin

When Tara moves away to Ohio, she and Elizabeth are forced to carry on a correspondence through letters, and this book reproduces the first year of those letters. With each author penning one of the girl's letters, the story of an exciting year with various family traumas comes out one letter at a time.

It's a pretty cheapo way to write a book: writing pretend letters back and forth, with one author not quite knowing where the other one will take the story. The trouble is that it's more of a writing exercise than a coherent book. And the story is a big yawn too -- coming out in letters, we never get too see much of what is going on in the character's hearts. Superficial fluff.

Sunday, October 23, 2005

Falling Through Darkness, by Carolyn MacCullough

When Ginny loses Aidan, her life basically ends, and anything that was meaningful before isn't now. She rejects her friends and cuts herself off from her father. Her only source of comfort and communication is the new border Caleb, with whom she shares some painful common background, and feels that maybe she has found a replacement for Aidan or at least a soulmate. But the sceret that tears apart her life is that when Aidan died that night, it wasn't an accident....

MacCullough does a nice job of jumping around through the narrative timeline telling us just what we need to know when. This is good storytelling with some wonderful observations (about growing up, the nature of children of all ages, and grieving). It is a TERRIBLY depressing book though, so don't expect any happy ending or feel good moments.

Thursday, October 20, 2005

The Steps, by Rachel Cohn

When Annabel is abandoned at Xmas by her Mom and Grandmother in NYC, she gets sent halfway around the planet to Melbourne to spend the holidays with her father and his new family. At first Annabel hates everything she sees there, but most especially the way her father is so happy with his new life. With time, however, she grows to like it more and even appreciate the joys of having an extended family of "Steps."

Rachel Cohn created a wonderful character with Gingerbread but it seems like she is in a rut. Annabel comes off as being a slightly younger version of the heroine of that other novel. In fact, for allegedly being about three years younger, Annabel doesn't sound all that different. Add to that the way this story treads through familiar ground and chug along to a far too sweet happy ending, and you have a pretty dreary story.

Monday, October 17, 2005

Cally's Enterprise, by Claudia Mills

When Cally breaks her leg, she starts to imagine melodramatically that she is going to die of the complications or be an invalid for life. Instead, the experience (with some help from a brave and energetic boy and a strong teacher) helps Cally to realize that she can do all sorts of things. It teaches her to stand up for what she wants, rather than doing what her parents or other people want her to do. And it teaches her to be brave in the face of adversity.

Mills write lovely concise books for tweens (probably why I've reviewed so many of them over the past months). This one touches on all sorts of subjects (self-expression, responsibility, believing in yourself) and it avoids getting too preachy about it. Cally is her own teacher, relying on adults from time to time for advice, but generally understanding that only she can change herself. That is a wonderful lesson to impart to children (whether they read this book on their own or have an adult to read it with).

Saturday, October 15, 2005

The Color of Absence, Edited by James Howe

In this anthology, twelve different YA authors give their take on the meaning of loss, and how we cope with it. "Loss" is a loosely defined concept, so it ranges from a stolen bicycle to a dead father to a lost memory. Howe's own contribution "Enchanted Night" turns out to be the strongest of the pieces, as it retells a daughter's coping with the grieve of losing her father, her boyfriend, and her sense of accomplishment with the flute (all at the same time).

I know that short stories can often be quite good, but this anthology is overwhelmingly weak and shoddy. Howe is definitely a good writer, but his editing skills leave something to be desired as many of the contributors just seem to be going through the motions, with some chapters reading as unfinished chapters from something else. In one case (Myers's piece on baseball), the story isn't even a YA story! So, a great concept and Howe definitely had a good contribution to make, but he should have found 11 other people who could rise to the challenge. (In all fairness, Nye's "Shoofly Pie" was also a good piece, so they weren't all junk)

Thursday, October 13, 2005

Alt Ed, by Catherine Atkins

Susan is fat, unpopular, and invisible. Invisible, yet she can hear the scorn of her peers at everything she does. When Susan has to attend a special after-school group therapy or be thrown out of school, though, life changes. And as life changes, she comes to terms with her grieving father, her jealous brother, a prank caller, and a life only half lived. Not all of the other kids in her group are so lucky to learn so much, but everyone takes a powerful journey towards learning self-respect.

I'm very torn about this book. It's probably one of the best books I've read recently, but not quite going to make my must-go-out-and-buy-it list. Atkins really gets at you in all angles. She explores shyness, eating disorders, anxiety, bullying, teenage homosexuality, and a whole lot more. The narrative is gripping and it is a hard book to put down. Maybe I just don't want to read it again, because it was so intense. Still, truly a heart warming book where people grow older and wiser and lessons are shared with the reader. Highly recommended.

Monday, October 10, 2005

Eleven, by Lauren Myracle

This is the story of Winnie's life at eleven, running from her birthday until the day before she turns twelve, each chapter recounted a memorable event in each month. It's a story about being between things, having some friends go boy crazy and try to act grown up, while other friends hold back and act "babyish."

Myracle certainly has a good feel for what being 11 is all about. The problem really is that not an awful lot of interesting stuff occurs when you're 11, and this is really a series of anecdotes about being a tween. Good anthopology, not terribly gripping fiction. In other words, adults who want to be reminded what it was like to be 11 might get a kick out of it, but I can't imagine that middle readers would find the stories all that interesting.

Saturday, October 08, 2005

Dancing in Red Shoes Will Kill You, by Dorian Cirrone

Kayla has worked hard to become one of the best ballet dancers at FARTS (the Florida High School of the Arts) and so she is very surprised when she is passed over for the starring role in the Senior-year production of Cinderella. But the bigger surprise is when she finds out taht it is all because of the size of her chest! So, then she has to decide if she'll pursue breast reduction surgery or potentially give up her career dreams.

Cirrone occasionally gets a bit preachy (stuffing words into her teenage characters about self-empowerment that just don't sit well), but overall this is an enjoyable book with decent payoff. And the story stays a bit surprising, not taking the easy solutions.

Friday, October 07, 2005

The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, by Ann Brashares

Four girls, close since their birth, head off in separate directions for the Summer, but not before discovering the magic Pants and forming their Sisterhood. Now, they stay connected with letters and sharing the pants around, each one getting the pants for a week (and sharing them around as needed for special occasions). And so connected, their simultaneous adevnetures of their 15th summer unfold.

Since the movie came out, this first book of the series has become even more of a classic, so I am long overdue in reading it. I loved the Prologue. I loved the Epilogue. I loved each of the individual stories. But I found the constant jumping from one narrative to another quite jarring and frustrating. And, I think, that is basically the prime determinate of whether you'll like this novel or not. Because the rest is perfectly fine.

Tuesday, October 04, 2005

Who Needs Boys? by Stephie Davis

Rich princess spends summer on the farm and grows to love farmer boy who thinks she's stuck up at first. You can basically see Reese W playing the lead role (or maybe someone like her). Anyway, Allie is boy crazy and big into looking good, and has to come to terms with the facts that boys don't necessarily notice the same things that girls do. Meanwhile, she also has an absentee Mom to work through and some anger at her absent Dad.

It's an OK read, but terribly trite and predictable, and everything gets neatly wrapped up in the end. If you want a good feel-good book where you end up all happy that everyone got what they wanted (except the villian), then this is a book for you. No major literary value, but good entertainment.

Sunday, October 02, 2005

The Amazon Papers, by Beverly Keller

When Iris's mother goes away on vacation, Iris (normally the perfect straight-A, top athlete, overachiever daughter) makes one uncharacteristic and fateful decision to go out on a date with Foster. And it's all downhill from there, as the house, the car, and the friendships all take a beating, and Iris striggles with huge dogs with agressive bladders, leaky diapers, and a babysitter who saves the day again and again, even though she's younger than Iris.

It's got wit and it's got funny moments. The writing is funny and the situations just keep piling up, but there isn't much character development going on here and that may leave folks a bit disappointed. It was a quick read, but I found myself getting lost and not quite understanding the motivations that drove Iris to make some of the decisions that she makes. She's a strong heroine but a not-all-that-believable one.

Saturday, October 01, 2005

Bound, by Donna Jo Napoli

Set in ancient China, Bound is the story of Xing Xing, the stepdaughter of a sometimes cruel stepmother and half-sister. Called "lazy one," she tends for them but she is hardly the worst off. Instead, she gets to run errands to town, while her uglier half-sister must endure painful foot-bindings. But whether physically, emotionally, socially, or spiritually, all of them are truly bound in one way or another. That is, until the local prince announces a festival at which he will choose a bride, and Xing Xing discovers a wondrous secret left for her by her long-dead mother.

This retelling of Cinderella, in what turns out to be a more authentic source, actually works surprisingly well. So many of Napoli's books suffer from being great concepts but lousy applications. But this one works and works well. Napoli has captured a great understanding of Chinese culture and lifestyle, and meshed it to a familiar story, creating something quite original. I will continue to maintain that her stories are too dark and morbid (and full of very scary concepts) that make them a bit age-inappropriate for the middle reader audience she is shooting for, but this is a good book.