Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Lucas, by Kevin Brooks

Caitlin's life on the island is fairly quiet. She goes out drinking with her friend Bill and she dreads the return of her older brother Dom from university. But then a strange and cryptic vagrant boy named Lucas shows up and changes everything, threatening the stability and peace of life.

This is a very dark and violent story (and a long one!) -- one of my very infrequent outings into stories written by male writers. There's a reason for that: they tend to be dark and violent. The sheer amount of rapes, assaults, and so on in this book is enough to just disgust. I'll take my mushy heart stories anytime. Is Brooks a good writer? Yes, but you need a strong stomach.

Sunday, November 27, 2005

Anastasia Krupnik, by Lois Lowry

Anastasia loves lists and she's creating a list of things she loves and things she hates. There are lots of things to classify: her soon-to-be-born baby brother, her ailing gradmother, the nutty and seductive Washburn Cummings, and her parents. For a fourth-grader, there's a lot to say.

A little odd to go back to middle reader material again, when I've been doing so much teen reading lately. Weirder to read a book that is actually contemporary with my childhood. The book dates itself in numerous places (teachers and students smoke in Anastasia's father's college classroom), but it has tremendous heart. A contemporary equivalent would be the Judy Moody series and that probably accounts for some of the enduring popularly of Lowry's writing. A nice diversion.

Saturday, November 26, 2005

Joyride, by Amy Ehrlich

Nina and her mother Joyce never seem to spend very much time in the same place. That was fun when Nina was younger, but lately she's begun to yearn for some time to just make friends and have a life. But the more she yearns for that, the harder it becomes, it it all goes very very badly.

In what is ultimately a very sad book, Ehrlich does a wonderful job of creating characters and situations that we really care about. It's a challenge to generate a place full of memorable and believable characters, and she does so several times in such convincing detail that you feel as much wrenched from the setting as Nina does when they are forced to move again. The ending is a bit weaker, but still quite haunting.

Thursday, November 24, 2005

Bringing Up the Bones, by Lara M. Zeises

When Benji dies, Bridget doesn't know how to rebuild her life. They weren't even dating by the time he was killed, but that hardly mattered to Benji's parents who always treated her like a member of the family. And it didn't bring her closer to her distant mother or her doting stepfather. As Bridget tries to make some sense of her life, a new boyfriend Jasper enters the scene as now she tries to balance her ties for the old with her hopes for the future, and comes to realize some strong powerful truths that have more to do with herself and less to do with everyone else in her life.

This is categorically one of the best books I have read this year. I question a little whether it is truly a YA book (the jacket says 14+, but I suspect it's really shooting for an older audience based on its R-rated material at the very least). Yet as a novel in itself, it is a fantastic accomplishment. Zeises hits two major topics: (1) coping with grief; and (2) learning that strength comes from within and not from the people we are with. Two very powerful themes, dealt with realistically and with great heart. Unforgettable and highly recommended.

John Riley's Daughter, by Kezi Matthews

When Clover runs off and disappears, Memphis becomes something of a suspect. And it is true that Memphis and Clover had a fight in which Mephis said some terrible things that she regrets, but over the next three days, a lot of tensions simmering in the family come to the forefront and Memphis has a lot of discovering about where her friends lie and what a home really is.

This is a warm yet heartbreaking story of lost innocence and sufferings that never get quite resolved. It has some rough spots that keep it from being a true classic, but I still consider it a really good book. Some of the scenes don't play very well (Memphis's romance never quite pans out and an encounter with a crazy old woman is an unexplained jumble) but there's great lyrical narrative going on her.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Love Me, Love My Broccoli, by Julie Anne Peters

Chloe is a teenage animal rights activist. And when she meets jock football-playing Brett, it's a case of opposites attract. But eventually, her idealism and Brett's desire to have Chloe be less of a political frebrand come into conflict and Chloe has to choose what is really important to her.

This one had some great promise with observations about the difficulties of being a teen vegetarian and a strong-willed and likeable character, but the plot is all over the place with so many subplots (distant mother, senile grandmother, best friend's crush on teacher, and raids on animal-sacrificing churches!) that you just lose interest after a while. Peters can write good stuff, but this is not one of her best.

Sunday, November 20, 2005

Esperanza Rising, by Pam Munoz Ryan

Esperanza has a beautiful life as the privileged daughter of a wealthy Patron in Aguascalientes Mexico in the 1920s. But then her father is killed and her mother and her are forced to flee to the United States. Settling in the San Joaquin Valley, they become farm workers, harvesting vegetables and fruits for the companies there is back breaking poverty. But despite dealing with her mother's illness and the threat of strikes, Esperanza learns that wealth comes in many forms.

A heartwarming and exciting read. Unfortunately, because of its hispanic themes, it seems to be one of those books that schools use to prove they are multicultural by forcing the kids to read. I suspect that that makes a generation of middle school readers HATE this book. That is sad, because it is a beautiful book, like Gabriel Garcia Marquez for kids. I personally enjoyed all the references to Bakersfield and Kern County Hospital, since I worked there for 14 months. Highly recommended.

Friday, November 18, 2005

A Door Near Here, by Heather Quarles

When Mom gets sick (drinking bottles of vodka after bottles of vodka) and no longer takes care of the kids, eldest daughter Katherine tries to take charge and protect her three siblings. But she must struggle with a nosy teacher and the foibles of her brother and two sisters, the youngest of which is convinced that she can find the door to Narnia and get help from the great lion Aslan.

I am so tired of reading YA books about alcholic parents who let their children fend for themselves and the terribly dreary disintegration of life as these kids attempt to manage on their own. It becomes the same tired exercise as the author cooks up one crisis after another as life gets worse and worse. In this case, half of the crises end up just being non-events (in one case, the youngest disappears in a grocery store - presumably lost - then suddenly reappears as if the author forgot her own story -- continuity, anyone??). *sigh* Perhaps I would have enjoyed this book if it had been the first child-abandonment piece I had read. But it wasn't and I'm tired of them...

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

The Tail of Emily Windsnap, by Liz Kessler

Emily's fear of her first swimming lesson take a backseat when she discovers that her body transforms into a mermaid's when she enters the pool. And that's just the beginning of the fun as she discovers the alternate world of merfolk in the sea and attempts to see her father, and confronts Neptune.

This is no Little Mermaid, but rather a quirky and unusual story about an uncommon teenager. The book is at its best (and funniest) when it compares mer-teens and human teens. It drags a bit towards the end as Kessler seems to struggle with how to wrap up the story, but it has enough charm to make it an overall good read.

Monday, November 14, 2005

A Corner of the Universe, by Ann M Martin

When Hattie's summer begins, it seems like it will be just like any other: hot and quiet. Her best friend has left for the summer and she is free to hang out with her adult friends. But then two things happen: the carnival comes to town and her uncle Adam comes home for the summer. She's never met Adam, and in fact never even heard that she had an uncle Adam, but that's because Adam is special and of course he has some lessons to teach Hattie.

I was initially sceptical about this book. I don't like period pieces much and the character just didn't seem interesting, but the book grows on you and by the time I reached the end, I had a much better feeling about the book. No major life lessons learned, no major sob fests when you get to the end, but a pretty good book overall.

Saturday, November 12, 2005

Don't You Dare Read This, Mrs. Dunphrey, by Margaret Peterson Haddix

When Tish's Englishteacher, Mrs. Dunphrey assigns a journel, Tish knows it is a bogus assignment, especially since the teacher has said that they can write whatever they want and put "Don't Read This" on the entry and she'll respect their privacy. But when Tish starts to test that promise by writing about what is really going on at home, she acquires a mirror that shows her just how much her life is falling apart.

This is another of those stories about a teen trying to survive with disfunctional parents (See Room on Lorelei Street for example). They are harrowing stories of neglect and abuse and make for good melodrama, but I'm not sure what purpose they serve otherwise. The plot certainly sucks you in and the conclusion is a tear jerker, but in the end, what have we learned?

ttyl, by Lauren Myracle

Three ten graders (Maddie, Angela, and Zoe) struggle through the first half of tenth grade, dealing with crushes, flirty teachers, parties, and the usual misadventures of a YA novel, with the twist that the entire story is told through their IMs.

It's a cute concept, but hard to read. It took me about 40 pages to really get comfortable with the format, and then get somewhat familiar with the three characters, who have a tendency to merge together in the mind until they start really doing different things. The trouble with IM is that it establishes a lot of distance from the characters so that you really don't establish much of a connection with any of them. Basically, you're reading a long conversation, without ever really getting inside their hearts and heads.

Monday, November 07, 2005

Risky Friends, by Julie Anne Peters

Kacie notices that Skye, a new girl, is having trouble during their Algebra test. In a fateful moment, she sneaks Skye the answers and sets in motion a "friendship" that turns sinister as Skye reveals a deceitful and manipulative side. Kacie has to make the right decision and re-gain control over her life, before Skye destroys all of her former friendships.

How's that for a melodramatic synopsis? Well, it isn't quite that bad, but it isn't good either. This is pretty weak formula stuff, with dialog that sounds way too grown up. I'm not even sure anymore how I found this book, so perhaps we'll just this one slip by.

Sunday, November 06, 2005

After Fifth Grade, the World!, by Claudia Mills

Heidi (or HP as she likes to be called) has the meanest fifth grade teacher in the world, a friend who won't talk to her own parents, and parents herself that are the biggest slobs. But HP won't falter at a challenge. Instead, she develops schemes to change the world and learns some lessons about change and working with people.

A charming and functional middle school read. Very dated, but enjoyable. Like many of Mills's books, the adults seem a bit overly mean (ironic since exaggerated adults are more a trademark of teen reads) and that can be a bit distracting. But HP is a typical Mills heroine -- strong willed and brave.

Saturday, November 05, 2005

My Brother Made Me Do It, by Peg Kehret

Julie Welsh gets an assignment to write to an elderly pen pal in a nursing home. We never see any of the replies she gets, but we get plenty of news about Julie, her nine year-old brother who's always getting her in trouble and has an obsessive fascination with memorization, and Julie's struggle with rheumatoid arthritis.

I suppose I was hoping for a book that would really help readers understand rheumatoid arthritis, but we never quite get that. Instead, the story is a bit broken up, as one would expect from a storyline driven by letters. I'm just not sure that it works in this case. A weak book on an important topic.

Friday, November 04, 2005

A Room on Lorelei Street, by Mary E Pearson

Just when living with her alcoholic mother is becoming too much for Zoe, she discovers a room on Lorelei St that she can rent. And while she has very little money, and must fend off unsupportive teachers and family members, she manages to get through.

This is a very dreary and long book. I suppose all the train of consciousness writing is supposed to be artistic, but I just found it tedious and PAINFUL. Ugh! A heroine who suffers throughout, never manages to solve her problems, and runs away at the end of the book does not make me feel uplifted or enlightned or entertained or educated. It just leaves me feeling tired and exhausted. I'm not saying a story has to be light and airy, but somehow something needs to be learned in 266 pages. Or else, why did we bother???