Sunday, December 31, 2006

Accidents of Nature, by Harriet McBryde Johnson

In this autobiographical tale, 17 year old Jean (who has severe CP) spends a summer at Camp Courage - a "crip camp" for handicapped teens - in 1970. Over ten days, she has a few adventures and meets a more experiences (and more bitter) camper named sara who makes Jean question a little her life and her willingness to play her part in it as the cooperative poster child of disabled people.

As a book that raises serious questions about the way that disabled people were (and are) treated, you really want to like this book. If nothing else, it opens your eyes to the way that the "norms" treat disabled people with condescension and it will inspire many thoughtful essays (warning! book report alert!). HOWEVER, it just doesn't have much of a story. And no matter how educational or socially-agitating a book is, if it lacks a story, it isn't good fiction. Yes, in the end, we have a sense that Jean has undergone a life-changing event, but there is no dramatic arc or storyline to explain how this happened. I'm not asking for connect-the-dots, but something more than just presenting day-to-day facts would have made this interesting fiction. Read this book to learn more about a world you probably have never seen, but don't expect entertainment.

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

The Dandelion Garden, by Budge Wilson

In this collection of short stories, Wilson tells of the impact of a divisive family that blows into town, a spoiled older brother, a canoe trip, a boy who dreamed fo being a dandelion gardener, a Mother's pregnancy, and several others stories. The themes are diverse and seemingly unrelated. The jacket claims that each story deals with transformative moments, but that isn't really true, except in the loose sense that every story is about a change of some sort.

Short story collections are usually a bit uneven. This is no exception. The first three stories (including the title story) work very nicely and are quite outstanding. The last couple ones (including a fairly feeble science fiction one at the end) do not work nearly as well. When Wilson is good, she's very very good.

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Looking for Normal, by Betty Monthei

After Annie's mother is killed by her father (who then kills himself), she and her brother have to come to live with their maternal grandparents. Some things there are better, but as grandma reveals her own abusive tendencies, Annie must both learn how to cope with all of her fears and anger, and also how to forgive everyone who is causing her pain.

The first half of this book really drags as Monthei brings us up to speed through the use of flashbacks that don't really do much more than explain how spousal homicide happens. The second half gets better, but seems to be so much of a different story that it is hard to develop a clear coherent story.

The Winter Road, by Terry Hokanson

In the dead of Winter in northern Ontario, Willa takes her uncle's plan to pick up her mother at a remote settlement. The plane crashes in a remote area and Willa has to fight to survive the elements.

The novel is booked as having lots of psychological elements (overcoming grief for a dead brother, problems at school, etc.) but these are fairly unrelated to the story, which is instead straightforward action-survival stuff. That's OK, but the problem I had was that Willa is pretty near perfect and always manages to do just the right things to survive. It strains credulity that someone without significant formal survival training could do the things she does. Beyond that, I just find the action formula a bit dull. As a character, Willa simply wasn't that interesting and I didn't really care if she survived or not.

Sunday, December 24, 2006

Tending to Grace, by Kimberly Newton Fusco

Cornelia has a hard time expressing herself. She loves to read, but she stutters badly and doesn't want to talk. There are plenty of things, though, that she would like to say. She'd like to be in honors English and she'd like to be able to drink coffee again, but most of all, she would like to have her mother come back and reclaim her from her aunt Agatha (with whom she was dumped).

All of which may have you wondering where "Grace" and the book's title come from. You won't be able to figure that out until the last five pages or so of the story. And it doesn't have much to do with the rest of the book.

As for the book, it has some charm to it (requisite memorable characters, some nice individual scenes) but it does not really get to a dramatic payoff. Instead, it sort of meanders to a predictable claimax with Mom and is then completely underplayed. Fusco in fact seems to have trouble writing dramatic scenes and avoids them (using flashback as a means to avoid action). The result is a story that is all over the place and one in which she didn't seem to know what to do with her strong and well-written characters.

Saturday, December 23, 2006

Devilish, by Maureen Johnson

Jane and Allison are best friends and would do anything for each other. When the new girl Lanalee comes between them, Jane knows something is up. There is something that just seems evil about this girl. But when Lanalee turns out actually to be evil incarnate, things take a turn for the weird and the stakes for Jane are raised significantly.

While it may seem a bit Buffy the Vampire Slayer, this is actually a clever original re-telling of the selling-your-soul-to-the-devil story. It's both entertaining and well-written (although it is very poorly edited -- I counted no fewer than three significant typos! -- who's proofing the galleys?!). There's ample opportunity for dry humor (my favorite being the comparison of corporate culture with hell!). Johnson has a great way with characterization and creates a truly multi-faceted Jane who can grow a little but still be very much a teenager. Fun!

Wow! Two really good books in a row...either I got lucky or I've become a softee!

Incantation, by Alice Hoffman

In the midst of Inquisition-era Spain, Estrella discovers two fatal secrets: her secret Jewish identity (hidden behind 100 years of pretending to be Christians) and the depths that jealousy will drive even your best friend to betray you. In the end, love will triumph over hate, but not before a terrible price must be paid.

This is a truly wonderful and beautiful book. It reads quickly, yet is full of some of the most gorgeous prose you will ever read. Even if historical Judaica does not interest you (and I'm not a big fan myself), this is a truly magical book that transcends its ubject to both inspire and entertain. There is nothing more that one could ask of a work of fiction. One of the best books of 2006!

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Shadow Falls, by Amy Kathleen Ryan

Annie is spending her first summer in the mountains of Wyoming with her grandfather since her older brother died in a climbing accident. It's a hard thing to do because Grandpa always was so gung ho about Cody (her brother) climbing. Ironically, for the first time Grandpa is willing to let her start climbing too. But Annie has no interest. All she feels is anger. But her anger doesn't even begin to match what a young boy Zachary and his brother are struggling with. And then there's the strange grizzly bear that Annie keeps coming in contact with and a local Indian.

Perhaps because the story is all over the place or because the characters didn't engage me, but I never really quite got caught up in this story. It's a wonderful setting and follows all the standard rules of novel writing, but left me unsatisfied. The ending is bit too predictable and easy, but in the end it just seems a bit mushy.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

The Life History of a Star, by Kelly Easton

Kristin Folger is dealing with Nixon, Vietnam, our "ghost" upstairs, her best friend Simon who keeps trying to get in her jeans, and her own body betraying her as she hits puberty. It's the 70s and everything you've forgotten (or didn't know because you weren't alive then!) is out with a vengeance. Told in diary form, Kristin relates the pain of a family who don't get along, parents who are separating, and a lost brother (physically present, but emotionally destroyed) who lives upstairs in their home -- a victim of Vietnam.

So very much potential here and so many vivid characters, but absolutely no story line to speak of. For folks who like the modern adult novel where everything is experienced but no story is actually told, this is a fantastic book, but I don't read for art -- I read for a story. There's some lovely details about the era (god help me, I'd completely forgotten about the game Masterpiece!), but it's not enough to save this meandering mess!

Friday, December 15, 2006

Guitar Highway Rose, by Brigid Lowry

Asher has a hard time fitting in at his new school, but he does manage to make a friend there, Rosie. Asher is a bit "feral" while Rosie appears to be a goody-goody (but we quickly learn that she's learning to be a wild girl herself - piercing her nose, smoking pot, etc.). They connect. And when Asher is unjustly accused of stealing, the two of them decide to run away.

The book has a quirky style of constantly-shifting viewpoints and writing styles. You'll either love it or hate it. Some passages are free association, others are dialogs (with none of the speakers identified), and there's some lists and poetry. The narrators shift between kids and adults. As a result, I spent the first 40 or so pages just getting oriented to the style.

The Valley of the Wolves, by Laura Gallego Garcia

Since she was six years old, Dana has been aware that she could see a boy named Kai that no one else could see. But that is only the beginning of her powers. When she is 10, a sorceror arrives at her home and convinces her parents to let her come and be apprenticed. For years she studies to become a sorceror herself. And while she doe, she also wonders about visions she sees of a woman dressed in gold, a legend about a unicorn in the woods, and the threat of wolves in the valley.

This rather complicated and convoluted story meanders in several directions. Plot twist after plot twist occurs without much of any sense of direction. Evil is overcome and good triumphs, but the plot changes so often that this becomes a frustrating story to read. Disappointment after having ead her wonderful Legend of the Wandering King.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

The Sacrifice, by Kathleen Benner Duble

Based on the true story of the with trials of 1692, this historical novel tells the story of the Faulkner family and the struggle to survive as its members are accused of witchcraft and jailed for months, awaiting a trial that they cannot win.

This is a surprisingly engaging novel. I'm not too fond of historical fiction and less so of the period in question, but the author has created a genuinely interesting story that is a lively read. The details of prison conditions in the 17th century are truly horrifying and may gross out younger readers, but the story is actually fairly uplifting and affirming despite its depressing setting. Recommended.

Ingo, by Helen Dunmore

A year ago, Sapphire's Dad disappeared without a trace, lost at sea. But somehow she has always known that he was still alive. Then she meets Faro, a mer-boy, and discovers some of the secrets of Ingo (the world beneath the sea). And while no one can quite say what has happened to her Dad, Sapphire is closer to finding things out about herself.

As fantasy goes, this isn't a bad story. It could have used some serious editing to tighten up the narrative a bit and shorten the length, but it has some nice character development. Still, I never got a clear sense of who Sapphire was (not even how old she was!), and several plotlines seemed to get dropped in the name of keeping the action going. There's something to be said about leaving some things a bit open, but too much of that is not a good thing.

Monday, December 11, 2006

Inside the Mind of Gideon Rayburn, by Sarah Miller

Gideon comes to prep school and falls in with a pair of seasoned potheads, who spend their day getting high and scamming on girls. Gideon starts off awkward, but by mid-semester he's gaining confidence, but he's still undecided about whether to pursue exotic and flirty Pilar or sweet Molly. Given the choice, he'd rather chase Pilar, but his roommates have set up a bet for him to lose his virginity to Molly. So far, so very cliche. We have all the usual trappings of the clueless administrators and the unsupervised horney teens, except for one very important twist. The narrator, a girl, is somehow inside Gideon's head and knows everything that he's thinking; and so gives us some very funny commentary on Gideon's understandings/misunderstandings about the opposite sex. And, somewhat more mysteriously, she's also one of the girls in the story, but we don't find out who until the very end.

It's a very clever plot device, both interesting because we spend the story wondering who she is, and also fun because of the commentary she makes about the boys. I wanted very much to decry the boys as "unrealistic" mostly because they are portrayed as such shallow creeps, but I'll give Miller points for getting "boy" almost right (and probably better than most male writers could do). And I'll also give her points for getting the girls mostly right as well. But there are times when she veers more towards stereotypes and loses some of that realism. Still, this is pretty amazing for a first novel.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Plastic Angel, by Nerissa Nields

Randi is doing her best to be popular at school. Her best friend Angela is on the verge of being a famous model and actress. Together they share a talent for singing and a dream of making it msuically. This is not so far fetched, as Randi's Dad has made a decent career as a singer himself and the girls apparently have talent. But Angela's Mom is adament that Angela stick to modeling and not get sidetracked by a musical career.

This is, of course, Nerissa Nields of the Nields (East Coast trendy folk troubadors with the distinctive warble). And the girls' songs are actually Nields songs (a CD that comes with the book includes the songs on it). That's a clever conceit. While they say that an author should always write from their own personal experience, one might find a bit too much of that in this book. The characters seem a bit unreal and the story flat and predictable. It's a awkward book.

Saturday, December 02, 2006

Diary of an Anorexic Girl, by Morgan Menzie

Based on the diaries of the author, this book reproduces the journals of a girl struggling with anorexia. At first, her weight loss gives her greater health, but quickly it plunges her intoweakness and lack of self-confidence. In near textbook fashion, she reveals the symptoms of the disease, obsessing over caloric intake, becoming less sociable, and battling depression , as she falls in further and further.

There's a maddening quality to the character who is so anti-social that it is hard to feel much sympathy for her, but that's also the realistic element to it. The story has a strong Fundamentalist Christian bent to it (and is published by a Christian publisher) , but the story is actually surprisingly ecumenical (there are frequent Bible quotations but they fit the story) and her struggle with faith actually adds a bit to the character. I wouldn't say that this is the best story of its type (Leaving Jetty Road -- which I just reviewed -- probably does a better job) but this is accessible and revealing.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Being Bindy, by Alyssa Brugman

Bindy starts off eighth grade being abandoned by her best friend Janey in favor of the most popular girl in the class. But that is just the beginnings of her woes, as her former best friend becomes her greatest enemy, and then - potentially - her step sister, when her Dad and Janey's Mom start dating. Bindy's Mom isn't helping matters either as she begins to meddle more and more in Bindy's life. All in all, it's hard for Bindy to just be Bindy!

A bit heavy on the youthful slang, which is a bit hard for someone from this hemisphere to get through (the book is set in Australia), but the story is surprisingly engaging. No major new ground broken here as everyone behaves pretty much as you expect and the ending is similarly predictable, but it's a charming and enjoyable read.

Sunday, November 26, 2006

Get Real, by Betty Hicks

Dez is neat, her parents are messy. Her best friend Jil love's Dez's parents, but Dez would rather live in Jil's neat clean home and take piano lessons from Jil's Mom. But there isn't much to do about one's parents, is there? Except that Jill is adopted and when her birth mother contacts her, Jill gets to choose who she wants to spend her time with. Dez meanwhile watches her friend slip away and wonders what it all really means to be a parent, and to be a friend.

It has humor and strong characters, but the plot developments are a bit too convenient and the ending far too neat. So, a really mixed bag here. You'll like the humorous story of Dez's attamept to babysit her brother, but you'll get annoyed at the stupid mistakes she makes along the way and the predictable resolution.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Leaving Jetty Road, by Rebecca Burton

The story of three girls (Nat, Lise, and Sofia) in their last year at an all-girl's school in Australia. Sofia is the one who's rebellious and sure, Lise is insecure and developing an eating disorder, while Nat just "drifts" through life, jealously watching the others "swim" off. Told from only the viewpoint of Lise and Nat, we never quite learn if Sofia really is together or if that's just the other girls' impressions, but it is clear that they all struggle a bit with relationships (boys, parents, and each other) trying to stumble their way through life. Along the way, there are jobs, parties, and school to deal with.

The story has no real plot per se, but it does have a number of nice observations about human nature. Each of the girls is flawed in painfully realistic ways. It doesn't do much to make any of them likeable, but you will sympathize with their plights and their feelings. It is a bit annoying that we never really hear Sofia's voice. I would have rather liked to have heard what she was thinking. But, all in all, given my incredibly poor luck with Aussie YA, this is a pretty outstanding book. Not as much fun as Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants (which it owes an obvious debt to), but more realistic and true to the heart.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Defining Dulcie, by Paul Acampora

When Dulcie's dad dies in a freak janitorial accident, Mom pulls up their roots and transports Dulcie to the other side of the country, but it's all too much for Dulcie and she runs away back home in her Dad's old red pick-up truck. Back in her old home, she goes to work for her granddad, fixing up the school over the Summer (he's a janitor too) and befriends another girl with a troubled homelife.

It's a story with a lot of promise and some amusing bits (certainly all the stories about cleaning and fixing bring to mind a bit of Joan Bauer's style). It has decent characters and lots of nice anecdotes, so what's the problem? Well, it just doesn't hang together very well. Some of the writing is excellent but other parts drag and the uneveness wears at you. Acampora has promise, but this book doesn't quite reveal it yet.

Saturday, November 18, 2006

Kiss Me Tomorrow, by Susan Shreve

In this sequel to Blister, Alyssa (aka "Blister") has moved on to junior high and subsequent problems of both a romantic and legal nature. Her friendship with Jonah is threatened by his desire to hang out with cool boys, while her mother's decision to move in with her boyfriend Frank threatens her life at home. In short, things are changing and Blister hates change. But when Jonah is accused of shoplifting and runs away from home, Blister knows that some things do not change and she has to help her old friend.

I wasn't too taken by the original book. If I remember correctly, the heroine bothered me because she was stubborn to the point of utter stupidity so I lost sympathy for her. But the sequel suffers from muany more problems -- a plot that is all over the place and very sloppy writing. Even if I was sympathetic with Blister's character (and some folks apparently find her witty and funny), I think this story falls on its face.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Hill Hawk Hattie, by Clara Gillow Clark

In the late 1800s, Hattie and her father eke out a living in the mountains, chopping down trees and floating them down the Delaware to Philadelphia. It's a hard life, but one made much harder by Hattie's anger at her mother for dying, and her father's unwillingness to accept her (in an odd twist, he treats her as a boy, not allowing her to wear a dress).

An unusual historical novel (with way too much to tempt a teacher to assign it for a book report), this shows off a period and a way of life which is probably little known. It's actually a decent breezy read too, but a bit repetitive (the author's favorite metaphor is hawks and she pretty much brings it up every two-three pages or so).

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Pandora of Athens: 339 BC, by Barry Denenberg

Pandora is 13, betrothed to a first cousin she does not love, and bored with her cloistered life in Ancient Greece. But then a chance meeting with Socrates and his servant Phoenix opens up options that may change her life.

On one hand, this book is full of marvelous detail (and the tie-in to a major historical character is clever). It is the type of book that will get kids interested in Ancient Greek history. On the other hand, the book is so tied up with its history lesson, that it really doesn't have much of a story to tell. What story there is quickly falls apart as Denenberg recreates some of Plato's more famous dialogs (Apology, Phaedo, etc.) -- fascinating for a reader like me with a PhD in Ancient Greek Philosophy (yeah, that's why I work in computers now!), but not likely to be so enthralling to a younger reader (yes, I loved the Republic when I was 16, but at 10??).

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

My Big Sister is So Bossy She Says You Can't Read This Book, by Mary Hershey

Effie Maloney tries to do the right thing, but that's hard when your older sister Maxie is always getting you in trouble. And when Maxie steals money from the Scouts fund (and pins the blame on Effie), she has to figure out a way to set things right. Add to all this mess a mother who is distant, a terrible secret or three, and a struggle to find a new best friend, and you have utter 4th grade hell all over the place (but don't say THAT around Mom if you know what's good for you!).

It is a bit painful getting through the book as Effie goes through a lot of unnecessary suffering, and then the whole thing wraps up a bit too neatly at the end. But moving beyond the torturous plot, there is a bit of charm to the characters. And perhaps what is hard for an adult to read, would actually be fun for a younger reader. There's certainly an honestu and authenticity to this book that makes it charming. And I especially like the portrayal of a religious household that was neither mocking or cloying. It's a book that would please more conservative families because of its stress on morality and godliness, but at the same time Hershey's worked in some good multiculturalism as well (something for everyone!).

Monday, November 06, 2006

The Music Thief, by Peni R. Griffin

Alma has had a tough time since her grandmother died, but the music of Jovita has helped her get through things. Then, Jovita is gunned down in a drive-by shooting and Alma's life seems to fall apart. She struggles with a family trying to stick together amidst an older brother falling into gang life and an older sister who dumps her own daughter on Alma to take care of. But Alma finds comfort next door at the neighbor's house, where she sneaks over while the neighbor is out and discovers a wide world of music.

An oddly amoral story of finding oneself in the midst of the barrio. Things both kind and criminal take place with little acknowledgement of either one. Instead, Griffin keeps the focus tight on this child realizing her own potential and her own failings. Even the ending is left open and ambiguous, as if there was a lot more of a story to tell. I ended up liking this story, but mostly for its originality and vision.

Saturday, November 04, 2006

What Happened to Cass McBride? by Gail Giles

When Kyle's little brother commits suicide, he wants to get back at the girl who he believes pushed him to it: cruel mean Cass McBride. So, he kidnaps her and buries her alive in a box, slowly killing her from dehydration. But as she slowly dies, he extracts her confession and begins to wonder about his own culpability.

Creeping and upsetting, this is not a book for the faint of heart. In fact, it's a rather gross story, but it's also a page turning and if you like psychological thrillers, this is a good book for you. Excellent for its genre.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Evangeline Mudd and the Golden-Haired Apes of the Ikkinasti Jungle, by David Elliott

Evangeline Mudd is brave and strong and she loves to brachiate, but that is a perfectly natural thing to do when your parents are a pair of primatologists. And when the parents go off to the jungles of Ikkinasti to research the Golden Haired Apes and leave you with the CEO of Mudd's Marvelous Minks and his demented retired ballerina wife (who is not letting herself go!) and then all of a sudden they disappear and you have to call in the help of the world's leading expert on Golden Haired Apes to help you find them... well, then you know that you have an adventure!

Lots of fun times and comic adventures in this clever early reader. The illustrations are charming too, but the best part is the cheerful bouncy adventure that everyone is having. A wonderful delightful little story!

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

I Don't Want To Be Crazy, by Samantha Schutz

In verse form, Schutz tells her story of discovering that she has an anxiety disorder which goes through phases of being utterly uncontrollable. It isn't all bad, but when it is, it's pretty harrowing. In between, she has time to go to college, make friends, find love, lose love, and travel in France. But always, the story (and her life) comes back to her anxiety.

It's an interesting story, and made very direct through the verse form. But free verse writing is tricky business and this is a fairly weak example of it. Here it is used in many ways to avoid going into any great reflective depth. Instead, just as she is approaching a deep personal truth or a revealing moment, she just shuts off. So, instead, we are subjected to countless woes again and again and again. By the end of the story, we really are back where we started (a point that she acknowledges explicitly) but unlike what the jacket claims, we really don't get much of a sense of growth. And that really seems to be the point of the whole thing.

Saturday, October 28, 2006

Returnable Girl, by Pamela Lowell

Ronnie has spent the last few years in foster homes, getting passed around as time after time she is rejected as unmanageable and unwanted. And with each rejection, she becomes worse and worse. Still, she is bright and intelligent and wants to make the right decisions. Meanwhile at school, she has an opportunity to join the popular clique, but it means rejecting her friend Cat. And the more she struggles with her decisions, the worse her choices seem to be.

An excellent novel about children in foster care and the various issues of neglectful parenting and child abuse. Lowell is a Clinical Social Worker so she has a bit of a cause here: to describe various aspects of the system. However, the book is not preachy and the material is presented subtly in a way that fits the story. It's not an entirely engaging book, but it is a good read with some substance behind it. Recommended.

Friday, October 27, 2006

It Only Looks Easy, by Pamela Curtis Swallow

On the day before 7th grade begins, Kat’s dog is struck by an old woman driver who suffers from Alzheimer’s Disease. And the following day, Kat makes a fateful decision to cut school and “borrow” a bicycle to see her injured pet. This snowballs into a far worse situation that Kat must dig herself out of.

A rather poorly-written novel that suffers from two problems – unrelated plot lines and unrealistic dialog (what 7th grader uses words like “horrendous” or psychoanalyzes one of her peers?). Add to the mess some sloppy proofreading (who was the editor?) and this appears to be a weak effort. The author’s intentions are admirable (describing Alzheimer’s, showing the bad consequences of stealing), but this is a mess!

Having said all that, I did want to compliment the author for not creating a happily-ever-after story. Unlike I’ll Sing You One-O (that I recently reviewed), we’re not getting any sense that stealing is ever OK or that Kat herself even feels it is justified. Instead, the acts is presented as a mistake from the beginning and it is never OK. Hooray for an author with a moral compass!

In the Company of Crazies, by Nora Raleigh Baskin

Mia has been a girl who gets good grades and makes her mother proud, but then things start to slip, and she starts acting up, eventually trumping it all by getting caught shoplifting. Her parents respond by sending her to a special boarding school for emotionally-disturbed teens. There she finds that she’s the sanest one of the bunch and that, in fact, she’s quite normal.

I’m a big fan of Baskin’s other novels, so I was holding out great hopes for this one, but it seemed either too subtle, or just too uninteresting, and by the time I finished it, I really wasn’t sure what it was about. There doesn’t seem to be much point to the story, except that we get to meet a number of characters who are suffering from various issues.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

I'll Sing You One-O, by Nan Gregory

When Gemma is adopted by her absent mother's family out of a foster home she has lived in for the past couple years, she is devastated. Considering them to be complete strangers, she schemes of ways to return to her foster parents, eventually coming up with a plan to impress an angel with all of her suffering. Despite numerous attempts by both adults and peers to reach out to her, she stubbornly refuses all help, choosing instead to compound her woes by stealing, lying, and cheating her way to create a "great act" that will impress the angels and bring her a miracle.

From my last sentence there, you'll get the sense of how much this story line really pissed me off. I'll give the author credit for creating a set of characters and a story that I believed enough to feel that strongly about. But as I read this story I found myself getting angrier and angrier as a plot became more and more convoluted simply through the artifice of a heroine who is unwilling to get help. It's a cheap trick and easily resolved by having the heroine eventually accept help. And, frankly, by the time she is willing to get help, I had ceased to care about her. Instead, I felt that Gemma was a spoiled deceitful brat who cared only about herself and felt no qualms about hurting people around her for her own ends. I frankly didn't care if she was ever happy, and so I found myself absolutely hating this story.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

After the Wreck, I Picked Myself Up, Spread My Wings, and Flew Away, by Joyce Carol Oates

In the aftermath of a car crash on the Tappan Zee that kills her mother, Jenna goes to live with her aunt. Haunted by survivor's guilt, she has a hard time adjusting to her post-wreck life. Instead, she becomes anti-social and withdrawn, experimenting with drugs and living an edgier life. The exception to her decline is her new found interest in a mysterious biker named Crow who seems to understand her in ways that no one else can manage.

It's a good story, but seems a bit rough at spots (few of the story lines are resolved, characters come and go fairly breezily). It's also a bit long and drawn out. All of which suggests the need for more vigorous editing. That said, this is a good read and worth your time. Oates is a good storytellers with skill at characterization and understanding human behavior.

An Abundance of Katherines, by John Green

Colin is a child prodigy who showed early on an immense ability to learn trivia and digest data, but he is no genius and at the age of 17 he realizes that he never will do anything that matters. Still, it doesn't take a genius to realize that being dumped by 19 girls named Katherine is a bit of a coincidence. In fact, it seems like something one ought to be able to mathematically predict. After the most recent dumping, he sets off on a road trip with his quirky friend Hassan in search of self, anagrams, and the perfect theorem to explain the relationship of dumper to dumpee.

John Green scores again with a lively and original novel. While the territory (boy dynamics, special lingo, and unusual idiosyncracies) is familiar from Looking for Alaska, it is still very good. Perhaps because it is such familiar territory, I won't quite give this the same glowing review as his first book, but I still have to admire his talent. He has once again created one of the very few "boy books" that I consider readable.

Monday, October 23, 2006

Amazing Grace, by Megan Shull

As the story opens, Grace Kincaid has reached utter burnout. She is a rich and successful tennis pro and at the top of her game, but she has had enough. No worries though as her mother has an escape plan all figured out and Grace is off to the Alaskan wilderness with a new look, new name, and a chance to have a new life -- one where she can be all the things she never got to be when she was rich and famous.

Where Meg Cabot's novels end, Megan Shull picks up. You won't find more than a few minor road blocks between Grace and her happiness, but dramatic tension isn't really the reason for this novel. Instead, this is a fun romance where people are generally nice and things work out pretty well, beyond a few tears and cheers. Good escapism and a quick breezy read. Fun!

Sunday, October 22, 2006

The Ordinary Princess, by M. M. Kaye

Delightful story of the seventh daughter of King Huldebrand and Queen Rodehesia, who is given the "gift" of ordinariness by a grumpy fairy godmother. But the Princess Amy benefits from this gift and goes out to seek her fortune, discovering a joy and happiness that a thin, milky white, long blonde haired sister could never have found.

Magical and enchanting, with strong similiarities to another favorite of mine (Ella Enchanted) but shorter and less compliacted and probably targetted to a younger demographic. The drawings are particularly nice and I understand that the currently-available reprint mangles them badly, so you'll want to read this in its original edition. Fun and recommended.

Friday, October 20, 2006

The Geography of Girlhood, by Kirsten Smith

In a series of verses, we cover two years of Penny's life growing up, covering the usual topics of 14, 15, and 16, with a bit of drama thrown in for good measure. So, we get stories of sibling rivalry, dating, feminine hygiene, sleepovers, and loud drunken parties, along with death, running away, and a mental breakdowns. The verses don't really tell a story, but rather provide a series of snapshots of the Penny's life.

With positive blurbs on the jacket from Sarah Dessen, Sonya Sones, Ann Martin, Deb Caletti, E. Lockhart, and a bunch of others, Smith's publicist is working overtime to give this book the highest possible profile. Does it match the hype?

Verse novels is a dicey genre. Some of them transcend to become truly great works, but many more fall into predictable melancholy. As a rule, they are terribly uneven. This is a prime example of that uneveness. Several individual poems in this collection really stand out ("The Thing About Boats", "Going Together") but so many more as just wistful phrases. My favorite game is to read just the final line of each poem and move on. If it sounds like a Hallmark card, then you basically are dealing with tripe. Too often, Smith falls into that trap.

One of the reviewers wrote that "these are the poems that every teenage girl ... would love to write." I'd believe that, and I won't question the honesty of the writing. But what I have to wonder is whether you'd really want to read it? Too much of what I wrote in adolescence really wouldn't have interested anyone but myself.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Accidental Love, by Gary Soto

Marisa is quick to anger and not the type to waste her time on wimpy boys, so it comes as a surprise to her that she falls for the geeky Rene. But sometimes love is like that, Marisa is discovering. And meanwhile, she is losing weight and improving her grade, discovering self-confidence in the barrio. The writing is heavy with Spanglish for atmosphere and features a glossary at the end to guide the reader.

Middle readers are far too often written in an awkward 3rd person narrative style that drives me nuts. This is a prime example of the style. The author (either intentionally or not) copies the disconnected style that one would expect from a 6th grader where dramatic events just pop up and fade away with little or no significance to the story. There is some character development, but it is sort of accidental. As a result, you could basically pick up this book at any point and start reading and be basically set. That doesn't speak very highly of Soto's ability to create a dramatic arch. A weak novel.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

The Rules of Survival, by Nancy Werlin

Matthew is the eldest in a family in deep trouble. Their mother Nikki abuses and tortures her children, while Matthew tries to outwit her to protect himself and his sister. But as the abuse gets worse and worse, Matthew must seek outside help. In the resulting chain of events, Matthew struggles with conflicting feelings of love, hatred, loyalty, and malice towards his Mom.

Well-written but ultimately gut wrenching and terribly depressing novel about child abuse. On the one hand, you have to aplaud an accomplishment like this. The characters are very well developed, the story is engaging, and the fact that it will turn your stomach is testament to the power of Welin's writing. But one doesn't read a book like this for enjoyment. You might see this as educational and perhaps entertaining, but it is a miserable book to read.

Monday, October 16, 2006

Fairest, by Gail Carson Levine

In a story that takes place in the same world as Ella Enchanted, Aza is a kind-hearted but homely innkeeper's daughter. But through a series of events, she is transported to the royal castle and befriends the newly-wed queen, a woman with more than a few secrets to hide. Aza not without her own talents and skills, but will they be enough to save her and her kingdom when the shadow of evil appears?

Yes, it's a fairy tale. So, it will have a decent happy ending and things will be resolved, but being a modern fairy tale things don't end so predictably. And that is part of the charm of Levine's writing. The story doesn't have all of the magic of Ella, but it is still a decent tale and a fun one for readers. The characters are interesting and unusual and the story has numerous twists and turns to keep you flipping the pages.

Gender Blender, by Blake Nelson

When they were younger, Tom and Emma were best friends but as they got older, that wasn't cool anymore. Now, in 6th grade, they are forced to do an assignment together in health class where they have to report on the differences between the genders. But nothing can prepare them for the surprise of being swapped and finding themselves in each other's bodies!

A clever idea handled a bit awkwardly. Admittedly, this book is targetted to a younger reading audience, but it is still awfully clunky. A blurb on the back compares Blake to Judy Blume and that seems like a fair comparison, but not in a way that I would consider complimentary. Like Blume, Nelson doesn't really trust his audience to figure things out. Instead, he force feeds the story to the reader. It might have read a lot better in first person (third-person narrative is a deadly tool to use in what should be such a highly personal experience).

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Invisible Threads, by Annie Dalton and Maria Dalton

In alternating chapters, Carrie-Anne tells the story of going to the coast with friends from school to search for her biological mother and Naomi tells about growing up in an abusive house and the steps that led her to become an unwed mother. Both narrators outline a series of events that help to explain what they did and what they are searching for.

While the two storylines are supposed to interrelate, they never quite do so, and they are written with jarringly different styles. Naomi's story is by far the most interesting but it's a depressingly familiar tale of distant parents (what's with this British obsession with abusive and neglectful parents -- are they just crap at parenting in the UK?) so nothing outstanding. The book started out with great intentions but never quite rose to them.

Friday, October 13, 2006

Rules, by Cynthia Lord

Catherine struggles to have a normal life and befriend the new girl who has moved in next door, but her life is complicated by her little brother David, who is autistic. When David isn't acting up in some way that embarasses her, she is trying to train him with a set of "rules" to help him get through life. These rules, however, reveal more about Catherine's own issues than David's, as becomes clear when she befriends Jason who has his own struggles to deal with.

Ironically, the CCBC list is discussing books about the depiction of handicapped children in children's literature this week, so I'm a bit hypersensitive to the depictions here. While they are generally respectful, there is a bit of the "child as a burden" theme going here that Catherine's acceptance of her brother at the end cannot really overcome. And while there are many other issues being portrayed here (parental neglect, etc), it is clear that autism is the major dramatic obstacle to overcome. A small step forward for the depiction of disabilities, but not quite there yet.

That said, the story itself is functional. It is engaging enough and has some subtlety in it, but there's not a lot of new ground here, although Catherine is able to stand up for herself a bit, which is a pleasure to see. A mixed book.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Sing a Song of Tuna Fish, by Esme Raji Codell

Subtitled as "Hard-to-swallow stories from fifth grade," this memoir of growing up in Chicago describes Esme's experiences of crime, religion, love, parents, and death in a way that rings true and avoids all the self-censorship that imbues many modern stories from younger children. Adults will get a chuckle over familiar moments while children will enjoy the universality of the experiences.

In an act of high praise, I'll compare this to Dylan Thomas's A Child's Christmas in Wales for its similar whimsy and deadpan telling (I'm sure that the audio book must be a hoot!). If I was to fault it, it might be for the length or for the lack of a central core theme to tie the stories together, but overall each chapter is a gem in itself.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Sweet 16, by Kate Brian

Teagan Phillips is determined to have the ultimate Sweet 16 party and thanks to Daddy's unlimited financial support, she can have exactly what she wants. In fact, anything that money can buy, Teagan can have. Unfortunately, there are a few things that don't come with a price tag and a mysterious visitor at the party helps to open Teagan's eyes to what those things are.

A little too sickly sweet for me, this modern remake of Dickens casts a selfish 16 year old in the Scrooge role with terribly predictable results. The book won't bore you and it does have its moments of humor, but anyone who can't see where this story is heading after page 100 hasn't been paying attention. You will get tired of all the branding going on, but that's the rage these days.

Monday, October 09, 2006

Enthusiasm, by Polly Shulman

In this clever tribute to Jane Austen, Julie and Ashleigh play the typical role of the young women set on finding eligible suitors but who get thrown off course by a series of misunderstandings and misconceptions. In the end, it all turns out fine. The twist is that the setting is contemporary and takes place in New York. And the characters are both Austen-fanatics (Ashleigh, the more enthusiastic of the two) who make a conscious decision to asct like Austen-heroines without realizing how much their lives are emulating art.

It's clever storytelling and will delight anyone who likes Jane Austen (I'm not a fan, myself, but I'll happily note that the same thinks that annoy me about Pride and Prejudice also annoy me about this book -- so it must be good!). The characters are all a little quirky but there is not a lot of new YA ground being covered here. Instead, the links to Austen are really what makes this novel shine.

Sahara Special, by Esme Raji Codell

When Sahara was little, they caught her at school writing letters to her absent father. Taking the letters away and putting them in her file, they labeled her a "special needs" child. From the experience, Sahara learned to never write a word in school again. Now a new teacher comes to school with an ability to reach Sahara, trouble-maker Darrell, and kids like them. Can this teacher succeed in helping Sahara display her specialness?

Autobiographical in nature and largely based on the pedagogical techniques that Codell outlined in her first book Educating Esme, this is a nice story about an unusual teacher and a student struggling to learn how to trust others and herself.

Friday, October 06, 2006

Wait for Me, by An Na

Mina has been living a lie: fooling her mother into thinking that she is a perfect student and bound for Harvard. In fact, her friend Jonathan has been forging her grades in return for favors that she no longer willingly provides. But then a new worker (Ysrael) comes to help at her family’s store and makes Mina confront how she has been living her life.

This is one of those “arty” novels where poetry flows by, but things are rarely stated clearly. Na alternates chapters between Mina and her sister Suna. However, Suna really doesn’t have much to add to the story, so these alternate chapters really don’t serve any purpose (although if they were deleted this “novel” would barely reach novella length!). That may sound overly harsh, but readers of this Blog will recognize that I have very little patience with authors who consider obliqueness to be art, and for post-modern cleverness to replace storytelling.

Avalon High, by Meg Cabot

Every seven years, Ellie has had to endure being dragged off with her Medieval Historian parents on their sabbaticals. This time, they’re off to Annapolis where she enrolls at Avalon High – a place not only named after King Arthur’s final resting place, but where a group of kids bear a striking resemblance to the primary characters of that epic. Myth and the modern world interact as the kids find that the story repeats.

Engrossing and entertaining as all of Cabot’s books are, Avalon High combines the regal fantasies of Princess Diaries with a touch of Harry Potter for a fun ride. As always, the awkward heroine easily wins over the boy and the day is saved in fantastic ways (all of which sometimes seems a bit too easy), but you’ll enjoy this story nonetheless and cheer when it all ends happily ever after.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

The Boy Book, by E. Lockhart

I just got this yesterday and had to finish it up quick so that Kriss could read it too...

In this sequel to The Boyfriend List, life picks up the next year as Ruby continues to battle with her panic attacks and her concerns about boys. She's still trying to figure out the whole thing, her writing is still heavily footnoted, and she still has that wonderful dry humor. There's a lot of coming to terms with the events of the first book, but this is generally in the same territory we were before.

It sounds like it should be pretty boring and dull, but it actually works. Unlike Rachel Cohn's sequel to Gingerbread (Shrimp), Lockhart has managed to keep things fresh even while trawling through familiar waters. This is partly because Ruby is a so much more flawed individual (and thus more approachable and likeable), but also because the novel launches off from familiar territory without repeating it. As Ruby reveals, Lockhart knows her movies and she knows how to make a sequal shine.

As always, Lockhart scores again and, as Ruby would put it, I can't crank about this book enough...

Thursday, September 28, 2006

Blind Faith, by Ellen Wittlinger

After Liz's grandmother dies, her mother falls into a depression, which is only broken by her visits to a strange "church" where the attenders claim to talk with the dead. While this helps Mom feel better, Liz feels more and more cut off, especially when her Father announces that he can't take it anymore and he's leaving. And add to all of this the two kids who move in next door and their dying mother.

All of which makes this sound a lot more melodramatic than it actually is. In fact, all of these elements work pretty well together, allowing Wittlinger to spin some magic about family and loss, and the ways that people cope with change. The characters are vivid and engaging. The only problem might be the ending where everything gets a bit too neatly tied up. A good read.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Where I Want To Be, by Adele Griffin

In alternating chapters, two sisters (Jane and Lily), tell their stories. The twist is that Jane is schizophrenic and Lily isn't. And Jane is dead.

In a bit of a cross between What Dreams May Come and The Sixth Sense, we get a meandering story of the two girls recounting what life was like with each other. It sounds poetic and the jacket blurb speaks breathlessly of a "spellbinding book" but in the end this is a novel without a story (hence my lack of a plot synopsis above). People talk, events happen, but none of them add up to much.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Breathing Underwater, by Alex Flinn

When Nick's ex-girlfriend Caitlin gets a restraining order against him and the judge orders him into a family violence counseling group, Nick has to take a hard look at how he got there and what he can do about it. Initially quick to blame his ex-, Nick gradually accepts his own role in the process.

Slightly better than last year's overrated Inexcusable, this book still goes for the sledgehammer approach to explaining the cycle of abuse. Flinn worked for years in the courts, so she is pulling from her experience, but a bit more subtlety would have improved the story. From the very first page, we know what makes Nick a bad person and what he needs to acknowledge about himself, so reading this novel becomes an exercise in seeing how long it will take Nick to come around. That's a pretty weak dramatic device and a bit of a disservice to the reader. With that caveat, Flinn goes much further into showing a bit about why Caitlin would put up with the abuse and in showing how the community around them responds to it. In doing so, she creates a fuller picture than similiar problem books have done.

I will, however, reiterate my concern (expressed in my Inexcusable review) about all these simplistic depictions of relationship-based violence. It's far to easy to present these evil guys who do evil things. I remain convinced that the story that really needs to be written is about the "nice" boy who does evil things. Given what a monster Nick was, you'd have to be a complete idiot to want to date him. What young people (girls especially) need to understand is that these monsters are not always so easy to spot. The world is full of greys and that is what makes domestic violence such a terrible problem. In the real world, the Caitlins of the world don't always have as clear of an idea that they are in danger.

Monday, September 25, 2006

How I Live Now, by Meg Rosoff

In what starts off within the familiar confines of a typical YA story, Daisy is sent to England to live with her Aunt and cousins when her father and stepmother don't want her around anymore. But in the background, there is a war starting to form, and when it blows up this novel take s a very unusual and dark turn as the children must now struggle to stay alive in a hostile environment against a vaguely understood enemy.

There is a very Annoying Style in this novel to Capitalize Words and create the most amazingly long Run-on Sentences that just leave you Gasping For Breath and wondering when the End will come and as if that wasn't enough, there is the Whole Issue of the War Itself which remains a mystery throughout the whole story. But what starts as tedious and annoying slowly grows on you and the vagueness of the story actually leaves things a bit more open to interpretation than the typical novel, inviting the reader to insert their own version of what happened. I found the characters a bit flat, but the idea of the story is original and quite chilling.

Sunday, September 24, 2006

A Brief Chapter in My Impossible Life, by Dana Reinhardt

Simone has always known that she was adopted, but even so, she is surprised when her parents start pressuring her to contact her birth mother. The surprises continue as Simone gets to know this woman and begins to learn about herself in the process. Romance and friends provide subplots.

A book that veers close to brilliance. The last twenty pages go for tear jerking pathos and are beautifully written. The first fifty pages read like bright witty YA humor. In between, the novel isn't really sure what it wants to be. The romantic subplots never quite seem to be part of the same story and one gets a feeling that Reinhardt was cutting and pasting different ideas together. Good read, but flawed. Be on the lookout for better works from her in the future.

Monday, September 18, 2006

Shug, by Jenny Han

Shug is a twelve year old who goes through all the sorts of things that 12 year olds go through in YA novels, from friends drifting apart to getting her first period, all the usual trademark moments of these novels are present. But the central point of the story is her boy-next-door friend Mark who she desperately wants to be her first kiss.

While the story ingredients are old and familiar, Han spins them in an unusual way, making this story a real stand-out novel. There's more than enough angst to please the intended audience, but there's a great depth to the characters that makes this a truly outstanding addition to the genre.

Sunday, September 17, 2006

Sand Dollar Summer, by Kimberly K. Jones

When Lise's Mom is injured in a car accident, she knows that there are some changes that will need to be made, but spending the entire summer on the ocean in Maine is not exactly in her plans. But over that summer, Lise has a series of experiences that change her and her family, and her "boring" summer becomes transformative.

This by-the-numbers coming of age story won't throw too many surprises at you but it has that winning combination of strong characters and just enough adventure to keep things interesting. The ending gets a bit melodramatic, but the drama has a purpose and serves to tie up the story nicely. A winner.

Friday, September 15, 2006

Into the Labyrinth, by Roderick Townley

In this sequel to The Great Good Thing, the book has not only been republished, but has also now been uploaded to the Web, a fact which causes no end of confusion for the storybook characters as they go from having only a few readers, to having hundreds and thousands. But it all grows a bit worse when words in the story start to change and characters start to disappear. Princess Sylvie will need lots of help to save her story!

Still one of the more creative concepts out there for a story (although with all the internet stuff, it has a bit of a Tron feel to it). It remains one of those stories that makes more sense the less you think about it. Clever (but do read the first book first or it won't make any sense at all!).

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Hard Love, by Ellen Wittlinger

A bittersweet story of an emotionally stunted zine writer who finds his first love - a lesbian and fellow zine writer. While she's very clear about her lack of interest, he can't quite get the idea/hope out of his head that maybe she'll like him. And all is not rosy with her either, so the two of them struggle with their feelings and lack thereof, making the discovery that love is very hard.

A nice earlier work by Wittlinger and definitely a good one. In some ways, the characters never quite grabbed me, but I found them very realistic and true. It's certainly worth reading and a good depiction of how irrational love can be.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Alice in the Know, by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor

In this latest installment of the Alice series, she is in her summer before her Junior year of high school. She has her first job (outside of her Dad's store), a vacation with friends, deals with some racism and peer pressure, and has a few more embarassing incidents. In sum, we're just passing a couple of months with our old friend.

I'm a loyal follower of Alice (having read all 21 of her books) but I do it now more out of that sense of loyalty than out of literary interest. The books have never been High Literature, but they have an innocent charm to them. I was a bit surprised to see Naylor actually include some mention of smoking (tobacco and marijuana) in this installment. I can only suppose that someone (other than me!) has pointed out that she is awfully sheltered from the world that most teens live in. She still is, but so are many popular YA heroines.

What is a bit more disappointing with this series is how much it just treads water. The earlier books (I think Alice In Between is probably my favorite) made an attempt at a story arch. But now, it mostly seems as if we're just being fed a series of anecdotes, as if Alice was writing us a long email of what she's been up to. That is charming, but just not very substantive.

Monday, September 11, 2006

Two Steps Forward, by Rachel Cohn

In this sequel to The Steps, Annabel and Lucy meet up in LA, where they are joined by heartthrob Ben and their ever-confusing family relationships. All of which get confused a bit further by their complex romantic relationships.

The first book never captured my heart the way that Gingerbread did so reading a sequel was bound to be disappointing, but this book could really have used a list of the characters (the way that the original cover of The Steps had a diagram on it) to help keep the characters straight. More so, because so little actually happens in this book. Jumping from one character's POV to another helps sort things out a little bit, but this is mostly a book about kids getting angsty about doing stuff rather than actually doing it. If you like the characters, then this can be amusing, but there is little humor and less story here to capture your attention otherwise.

Sunday, September 10, 2006

The Legend of the Wandering King, by Laura Gallego Garcia

In pre-Islamic Arabia, a proud prince hosts a poetry competition to prove that he is the best poet in his father's kingdom, but when he is bested by a lowly carpet weaver, the prince vows for vengeance with disastrous results. In the aftermath, the prince seeks to make amends and learn what it is to have a heart and be a truly great poet.

A fairy tale which steadfastly refuses to fall into typical stereotypes and defies expectations, it nonetheless encompasses the beauty of The Arabian Nights and a Grimms Brothers tale. Bits of realism expose a view of a life that few Western readers will know and carefully sewn with fantastic elements, it will stir the imagination as well. A truly enchanting book that will delight younger children with its adventures and older readers with the wisdom that it contains. Highly recommended.

Friday, September 08, 2006

Klepto, by Jenny Pollack

In this heavily autobiographical story set in NYC in 1981, Julie and her best friend Julie navigate the challenges of friendship, love, and an obsession with shoplifting from the tony stores of the Big Apple. Set at the NY HS for the Performing Arts (Fame, anyone?), all of the classic YA cliches are here, but older readers like myself will enjoy the period details.

For younger readers, I'm not sure that this story has that much going for it. We never learn much about shoplifting except that it's scary and makes you feel a bit icky, and that you might get caught. And I doubt that all the references to Toto and Culture Club will be that interesting.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Kalpana's Dream, by Judith Clarke

A rather odd story about a great grandmother from India, a girl whose teachers include a woman who may be dating Count Dracula, a boy who loves Australian Football, and a boy who can fly (on his skateboard). There's an essay to write ("Who am I?"), a family relationship to reconcile, and skateboarding to learn.

This one will probably be one of your favorites if you liked Criss Cross or other stories with odd (post-modern) narratives. For people who like traditional stories based on characters developed in more standard ways, I'd suggest taking a pass on this. It's a tedious book to work through.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Bass Ackwards and Belly Up, by Elizabeth Craft and Sarah Fain

When Harper gets rejected by NYu she can't bear to tell the truth to her family or friends. Instead, she tells them that she's taking the year off to follow her dreams and write the Great American Novel. And they surprise her by ditching their plans and taking off for their dreams as well. Kate goes off to Europe to explore. Sophie goes to LA to become a movie star. Only Becca decides to go ahead with her plans to go to Middlebury and be an important member of the ski team. But what starts as a change of plans alters each of their lives.

The formula (four girls, four storylines that occasionally interact) should seem pretty familiar -- all the way down to the young sidekick of the girl who stays at home, and the trip to Greece (with admittedly different results). It's hard not to draw comparisons to Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants and the authors realize but claim theirs is about more mature girls (hello? anyone reading the Sisterhood sequels??). In terms of comparisons, this is a little less cuter than Brashares's novels, but I don't think it is all that much improved. If you're starved for a similar story, this is not a bad choice, but it doesn't have the depth or the humor.

Monday, September 04, 2006

Becoming Chloe, by Catherine Ryan Hyde

Jordy and Chloe meet in a basement in NYC, where Jordan is recovering from being beat up by his father and Chloe has just been gang raped. That rather dark and depressing beginning morphs into a cross-country road trip where the two of them catalog the beautiful and ugly parts of the world, discovering that there is a great deal of both out there.

I have very mixed feeling about this book. From the beginning, I really wanted to hate it as it has one of those horrible dark natures to it that seem to infect YA some books, but unlike so many other books I've read, it grew on me to an ending that really was a touching "unforgettable, redemptive story of beauty, pain, and unquenchable hope" (as the jacket blurb makes it out to be). So, if you start this book and want to put it down, give it a chance and see if it grows on you. It did for me.

Sunday, September 03, 2006

What Have You Lost? by Naomi Shihab Nye

In this anthology of poetry about loss, over a hundred authors reflect on the many things we can lose and how we adapt to that loss. As could be expected, the subject elicits a good deal of angst and sadness, but a few of the writers transcend any wistfulness to achieve a more transcendent view of loss as a form of transition.

As with most anthologies, the quality is uneven and the styles sometimes jarringly different. The book include photographs from Naomi's husband which are strinking and sometimes related to the poems they neighbor. This isn't really a YA collection. Older teens may relate to some of the loss of childhood or loss of parents/grandparents themes, but overall this is a work that adults are more likely to connect with.

Friday, September 01, 2006

Singer in the Snow, by Louise Marley

Mreen and Emlee are gifted with psi powers that give them the ability to sing magical songs that simultaneously provide heat and warmth that keep the inhabitants of their planet (Nevya) alive through its five year winters. Emlee, however, struggles with a memory of a past the prevents her from using her powers. But through a trip with Mreen to a distant city, she will learn how to use those powers as well as how to change the lives of a stableboy and his sister.

I'm not really much of a fantasy novel fan anymore, but this is a beautiful tale with superb detail, as well as a serious subplot about spousal abuse. The characters have great depth and capture you and the reading goes very quickly. I found the naming convention (Emlee = Emily and Mreen = Maureen, in case you couldn't figure it out) a bit distracting, but that's a gimmick of the genre so I would imagine that if you like fantasy books, this one (which is the fourth in a series) will please and delight.

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

You, Maybe, by Rachel Vail

Josie is an unusual girl. She's sure of herself and able to stand up on her own. And she sees no reason to have a boyfriend. Instead, she enjoys hooking up with boys as friends, and who cares that they make out a little. But then the cutest guy at school shows an interest in her and makes her question her priorities and decisions, and she discovers that she really can't play the game as cooly as she would like. Rather, that the deck is very much stacked against her.

This is one of those truly brutal books that reminds you of what really sucks about adolescence (if you're old like me) or just seems like another day in the life (if you're in the right demographic). And while Vail has created a character who can be wise beyond her years at points, there are moments of sheer self-recognition here (like she totally gets it). The ending starts to go a bit off kilter and probably has a bit too much melodrama in it, but the rest of the story is fantastic.

Monday, August 28, 2006

Solstice Wood, by Patricia A. McKillip

A fantasy story about a bookstore owner who returns home to Upstate NY for her grandfather's funeral and is invited to join her grandmother's sewing circle, where we discover that the women are busy maintaining the stiches that seal off the fairy world from the human one in the woods that surround the house. Jumping from one character to another, events spin quickly out of control until family members reveal secrets and come face to face with the fairy queen.

A bit of a departure for me, but originally inspired by the human story about family that underlaid the rest of the novel. Unfortunately, the plot (both real world and fairy world) is a jumble and largely incomprehensible. As a result, I got very lost very quickly trying to figure out what was going on. The characters never really stand out and the result is a tangled mess. Disappointing.

A Funny Cartoon

Very appropos of the theme of this Blog. This came from this week's Isthmus.

Monday, August 21, 2006

Endgame, by Nancy Garden

Gray Wilton is a bully magnet -- attracting unwanted attention from the meanest guys at school. After an incident at his former school where he pulled a knife, his family relocates and Gray hopes things will work out better. But they don't. After the bullies go after him, his girlfriend, and his dog, he's basically pushed to the limits and responds in the only way he feels is left to him.

From the preface, it is apparent that this book was written as an attempt to explain the emotional motivation behind the Littleton CO shootings, but the events are only vaguely similiar. What is chillingly familiar is the account of bullying and ostracism, the general inability of the adults to rise to their responsibilities, and the sense of helplessness that infects the victim until they become the aggressor. What is more than a bit disturbing is that very little remains tied up at the end, except for Garden to suddenly jump the fence in the last four pages and demonize her hero herself. I don't mind that she didn't want a happy ending, but I resent being made to like Gray and then have this last minute dessertion.

I'll respond at a sheer emotional level to the story since I was a victim of bullying and felt many of the same frustrations that the character Gray felt. I even once pulled a knife on the bullies once (with somewhat less traumatic results since the 70s were more forgiving than the 00's), but reading this rekindled many of those older angers and a realization that very little has ever changed. Levels of harassment that would never be tolerated in adult workplaces are regularly smiled at by the alleged authorities (while token cases of overreaction -- usually directed at the victims since the real agressors are too closely tied to the power structure -- create an illusion of control). *whew* That sure was a visceral reaction wasn't it? Anyway, it's a good book in the sense that it will outrage you, but I never want to read it again...

Saturday, August 19, 2006

Black Juice, by Margo Lanagan

In a diverse set of ten short stories and ten different worlds, we are introduced to a family executing their own daughter, a girl who can't make it to the church on time, and a series of different people suffering through plagues, storms, and other calamities. In short, each story provides a snapshot of a young person coming to terms with their environment.

Some of the stories are outstanding but it is the laziest form of storywriting to create a short story in an exotic locale. Langan creates characters with backstory and settings with deep culture, but as each one is a fantasy setting, it is fairly easy work. The difficulty would have been in expanding any of these stories into a novel, and from this collection, we have no indication that she could pull that off. Beyond that, it become tiresome to have to plod through so many different settings and characters in one book. If the stories had stood out as different from each other, it wouldn't be a problem (after all, any anthology presents the challenge), but these stories just sound the same after a while.

The Goose Girl, by Shannon Hale

In this retelling of the classic Grimms tale, the betrayed princess with the skill of communicating with nature struggles to win back her rightful legacy through perseverance and character, making her allies one at a time and suffering significant set backs along the way. It's a modernized tale, where the princess fights for herself and makes her own tentative decisions, struggling to become assertive against an upbringing in passivity.

The modern touches can be a bit jarring but if the purpose of a fairy tale is to instill values as well as entertain, this rather long-ish book does both. As with Princess Academy, Hale creates an engaging heroine whose struggles capture the reader and have you rooting for her against absent-minded old men, greedy and violent warriors, and brave peers.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Orphea Proud, by Sharon Dennis Wyeth

When Orphea's older brother and guardian catches her and her girlfriend making out, he flips out and attacks her (sending the girlfriend fleeing into the night, where she crashes her car and dies). In the aftermath, the brother decides that Orphea should be sent off to their aunts in the country to straighten her (!) out. But while the brother can't handle the idea of her sexual orientation, Orphea learns that her family has a long tradition of doing things their own proud way.

A bit thin on the characterization, the story meanders a bit and we never get a lot of real depth. But it's not a dull book. So, I'll give this one a mixed review: it is a pleasant enough read but maddening in being such a near miss at greatness.

The Book Thief, by Markus Zusak

Narrated by Death, we learn of the story of Liesel Meminger, growing up with her foster parents outside of Munich in Nazi Germany as WW II unfolds around her. The book's title comes from Liesel's method of procuring reading material, but the story is about the people she befriends more than the books she reads, although stories make up a great deal of the plot.

An extremely long and complicated book that has more to do with adult relationships than coming of age or adolesence, it is hard to see why this is being marketed as a YA book. It's definitely good literature, but even if the vocabulary and the post-modern narrative doesn't turn off younger readers, it's hard to see what would attract them to this book. I can see librarians and teachers liking it, but it doesn't belong in the teen section.

The Queen of Cool, by Cecil Castellucci

Libby is one of the cool kids who sets all of the trends and rules her school's social scene, but secretly she is bored with her success and fame. Her friends are shallow, she is undermotivated at school, and her life seems to be on constant repeat mode. But then, on a whim, she volunteers to intern at the zoo and gets paired up with Tina - a midget geek from her high school. And in that chain of events, a world of new possibilities are opened to her.

A lazingly fast read with a predictable plot that wraps up just a bit too easily. But, like she did in Boy Proof, Castellucci shows great wit and a good sense for dialog. The story may be devoid of substance but it is pleasurable and in the Summer that may well be enough!

Thursday, August 10, 2006

Played, by Dana Davidson

Ian wants to pledge into a secret fraternity at his inner city high school, and all he has to do is trick a Plain Jane girl named Kylie into giving it up within the next three weeks. But what starts as a simple exercise in teenage deceit grows complicated when Ian realizes that his feelings for Kylie are genuine.

Moderately predictable traditional plot, but with decent characters and some nice twists (Ian's sister Kim shines out as a particularly good role model and a device for the author to articulate her feelings about the characters). Some readers may find the whole thing a bit preachy, but younger readers might enjoy the message and the story.

Sunday, August 06, 2006

Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist, by Rachel Cohn and David Levithan

In alternating chapters (written by alternating authors), Nick and Norah tell the story of meeting at a club and fumbling with whether they like each other (and whether the other person likes them). Interspersed with a good sense of alternative music and a bit of the NYC flavor, the story unfolds over a single evening.

The most fascinating part of the novel is not the alternating viewpoints in the chapters but the alternating authors. This reads very much like the old party game where someone tells a story and stops and the other person picks up. Sometimes the author leaves his/her partner in a corner and sometimes they try to spell out what is going to come next, but the next chapter always subverts the storyline to what the new author wants. So, it's very much fun to watch Rachel and David wrestle for control of their characters and quite revealing of the gendered differences in writing.

But is it good fiction? No, not really. It's not bad, but Cohn and Levithan are giants in YA and this experiment is more of a one-off for them. It probably won't win any awards, but its a pleasant diversion.

Thursday, August 03, 2006

Born Confused, by Tanuja Desai Hidier

Dimple Lala has lived her entire life in America, but as the daughter of two Indians, she doesn't really know if her sense of self somes from the US or from India. And with her best friend being a blonde goddess and her parents anxiously trying to set her up with a "suitable boy," she's more confused than ever. It's easy at first to hate her parent's choice for a match, but when her friend falls for the boy, Dimple begins to realize that she really likes him after all and now she must worry about whether she is going to lose everything in her confusion.

It's a story way too much in need of an editor (at 500 pages, this gigantic tome is about 250 pages too long). There are some charming parts, but many that could have been trimmed out to make a better story. And the ending is way too neat and convenient. These rather major flaws aside, there's lots of fun in this book to recommend it and its unusual setting makes it charming and memorable.

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Donorboy, by Brendan Halpin

Following the same formula as Breakfast with Tiffany, we have the story of Ros, who lost her two Moms to "a tragic accident involving foodstuffs." And while that sounds a bit like a joke, the story is actually a pretty serious one about learning to adjust to a new family, as Ros goes to live with her biological father (the sperm donor). There she must cope with her grief, some annoying kids at school, some even more annoying administrators, a few bad decisions, and an overly anxious new Dad. Dad, meanwhile, has to cope with Ros. Told through emails, journal entries, IMs, and random other media, the story unfolds through multiple viewpoints.

It's clever without getting saccharine and insightful without trying to be too cool. Again, it's hard to say what younger readers will think of it, but adults (and parents in particular) will enjoy the father's attempts to cope with his feelings and failures. So, maybe not a good YA book, but a good book all the same.

Saturday, July 22, 2006

Stay With Me, by Garret Freymann-Weyr

Leila's sister killed herself and now each family member must deal with the loss. For Leila, this means looking for a reason to explain the event. She believes the answer must lie with a mysterious man her sister was with before she killed herself. But that search opens other doors as Leila meets Eamon, a man 14 years older than herself, who offers things that Leila had never considered before.

While marketed as a YA book, this lacks the humor and insight to really be one. Not only is it not YA, but it's also not terribly interesting as a read either. Instead, it's full of numerous (largely pointless) subplots and inner dialogs of the type that tend to plague modern adult fiction as "clever" and "intellectual" but isntead are just dull and tedious. Not worth the read!

Every Time A Rainbow Dies, by Rita Williams-Garcia

Thulani has lived in a child's world, caring only about the pigeons he keeps on the roof and dreaming of his long-gone mother. But when he rescues a girl who is being raped, his life begins to change in subtle and then major ways. In the process he explores who he is and what he wants from the world, and how his life could be very different. The story doesn't end with any answers, but plenty of possibilities.

I tend to not care for books set in urban settings (preferring more familiar suburban and rural places) but this is a nicely woven tale with plenty of color and details. It's also a mature and respectful story that can open doors to readers (like me) who don't know much about Haitian and Jamaican culture. Recommended.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Heartbeat, by Sharon Creech

Annie loves to run and loves to draw. Through a series of prose poems, she describes her runs, the 100 apple drawings she has made, her grandfather who sometimes forgets who he is, the boy she runs with, and the baby her mother is having. By the end, her mother has had the baby and her running partner has discovered the secret to running well from the grandfather.

Another YA poetry story. Sometimes these work well but this one really doesn't stand out much. There are some cute plays on words with footnotes and a thesaurus, but nothing so dramatically different or original. Average.

A Long Time Ago Today, by Sally Warner

Six years ago, Dilly's mother died, leaving her a place in the Adirondacks that she and her father return to every summer, reenacting rituals that her father believes that Mom would have wanted them to do (Dilly isn't so sure). But when an old family friend tells Dilly that she has a letter that her mother wanted Dilly to have when she was older, Dilly struggles with whether she wants to read it and have her understanding of her Mom changed forever.

Poignant and moderately engaging for a a book in which very little actually happens. The setting (Upstate NY) resonates with me personally because my family had a country place in the area, not so much unlike Dilly's when I was growing up. But the story suffers from its plot, in which lines never really connect and not much memorable occurs. In the end, we are left with a bit of emptiness.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

I Am the Wallpaper, by Mark Peter Hughes

Floey has always lived in the shadow of her popular older sister. But when her sister gets married and her Aunt drops off two bratty cousins to live at their house for a few weeks, Flooey has a brush with fame that changes the way she views herself, her friends, and her perception that she is "wallpaper."

This is a pretty much by-the-numbers coming of age story where the quiet neglected one realizes that she has a lot more going for her than she thought. There's a few clever twists but no major surprises. Satisfying and engaging, so worth the read.

Sunday, July 09, 2006

Make Me Over, edited by Marilyn Singer

In a series of 11 short stories, the authors explore the many various meanings of remaking ourselves and changing who we are. The highlights include a wallflower who gains confidence by tricking a group of cheerleaders into imagining that he's French; an owl that transforms itself into a human being to win the love of an Indian maiden; and a newly arrived immigrant at Ellis Island who must choose what parts of her past to keep as she pursues her future.

As with all collections, some of the stories are stronger than others, but what I was impressed with overall was the very different interpretations each author took of the collection's theme. I expected to read 11 angst-ridden stories of young women doing make-overs. But instead was treated to some amazingly creative visions of the various ways that people (and animals!) can change themselves to become something better. Inspiring reading.

Saturday, July 08, 2006

A Bad Boy Can Be Good for a Girl, by Tanya Lee Stone

In a series of poems told by different people, three girls dish up the dirt on "T.L." -- a guy who knows all the right moves and buttons to push to get what he wants. In sum, he's a jerk, but each of these girls has to learn that lesson on their own, convinced as they are that they will be different.

It's fairly well-trod ground (both the format and the story) although Stone does a decent job of explaining how passion, hormones, and dreams can cloud your judgment and make you do stupid things that you learn to regret. And she adds a nice piece of sisterly solidarity at the end to underline for the readers which side they should be on. Functional, but hardly earth shattering.

Friday, July 07, 2006

Climbing the Rainbow, by Joy N. Hulme

After years of struggling with muteness, Dora Cookson gets a chance to attend school for the first time. Kept back for four years, she has a lot of catching up to do. In a series of anecdotes, she retells the highlights of that first year, as her family adapts to its second year of homesteading in New Mexico.

A story that seems to be largely based upon the life of a woman the author knew, this makes for interesting history but not terribly interesting story telling. There is little suspense here and no drama. Small children might like the fact that not much happens (and what does happen is fairly benign) but older readers will find the whole thing terribly dull.

Sunday, July 02, 2006

Light on Snow, by Anita Shreve

Another adult lit book with a teen character....

When Nicky and her father find an abandoned baby in the woods behind their house, it triggers a series of events and a visit from a young woman with a secret which cause them to confront the delicate balance in their own relationship.

Unlike the Picoult book I just finished before this one, this novel is more likely to appeal to younger readers. The story is a bit slow, but it reads quickly and has interesting characters and a satisfying conclusion.

My Sister's Keeper, by Jodi Picoult

All of her 13 year life, Anna has had to be there to take care of her sister. In fact, this is the reason she exists: when Kate gets sick, Anna donates bone marrow, blood, and other body tissues to fight off the effects of Kate's leukemia. But as their mother asks Anna to donate a kidney, something breaks, and Anna turns to a lawyer to get legal permission to say "no."

Picoult is an adult lit writer with a great grasp of how adults interract, but really not much of a sense of what makes teens tick. Anna and Kate swing between being portrayed as petulant brats and being simply young (but very well-spoken) adults. They talk like (very intellectual) grown ups and have very adult motivations for their behavior. Picoult has a great story here (albeit with a contrived ending) but no real sense of her younger characters. Read this as an adult book, not YA. And I'll wait for a good YA version of the story.

Claiming Georgia Tate, by Gigi Amateau

In a lyrical narrative, Georgia tell us about life with her grandparents, growing up in rural MS in the 1970s. About finding jesus, the truth about her absent mother, and her ability to make friends and rise above adversity. But this is not a story for the faint of heart, because Georgia will also have to endure being molested, humiliated, and raped before she can return to her loving family.

It's a beautifully told story, but really very intense and not intended for younger readers. One might even argue that it's not a YA book at all. But beyond that, I was frustrated by the many loose ends and a bit too much melodrama for my tastes, so I'm not sure that I'll give it a perfect rating, but it is a near miss and I'll look forward to Amateau's next novel.

Saturday, June 24, 2006

Sixth Grade, by Susie Morgenstern

Margot describes the highlights of her sixth year of school in Provence. From the harder grading, to the critical teachers, to her unsympathetic older sister, Margot struggles with being a good student and wanting to be popular at the same time. She experiences a boy with a crush and boys who want to crush her backpack over her head. And, in the end, she manages to survive the year.

A rather disorienting novel for American readers who will find the cutthroat nature of French schooling (and its overly bureaucratized character) a bit of an anathma. This is actually a translation of an apparently highly popular French YA book, but apparently the key issues for French children involve dealing with teachers. Their peers and their parents don't seem to play nearly as central of a role -- at least as far as the novel's focus is concerned. Odd.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

A Greater Goode, by Amy Schor Ferris

Addie is a pretty average 12 year-old and nowhere as bright as her friend Luke who is going away for a summer program for six weeks. But when she encounters a lone pregnant woman in an abandoned church, she gets an opportunity to do something special and to rise above everyone's expectations, including her own.

Moderatly interesting story set in rural PA with a sort of hillbilly twang to it that might make more sense in Western PA than the Poconos where it allegedly takes place. The book's real shining part is its rather matter-of-fact portrayal of various minorities without much significant comment. As if Ferris wanted to make a point that just because a character is a lesbian, doesn't make that particular characteristic vital to the story. But beyond that small niceness, there isn't a lot in this story.

Monday, June 19, 2006

The Au Pairs, by Melissa de la Cruz

It's Summer in the Hamptons and Mara, Eliza, and Jacqui have been hired to look after the children of an excessively wealthy couple. But they don't spent much time looking after the kids (except maybe the sweet and humble Mara). Instead, it's party after party is hedonistic excess as the rich and famous party every night and shop all day. Oh, and somewhere along the way the girls will each learn a lesson that will help them grow up a little...but not so much that they can't be a bunch of fun-loving girls!

OK, I think when the book carries a blurb from Seventeen on its cover and a picture of three nubile young bods that would make a die hard forget that ol' Britney video, you basically know what you are going to get and deserve all of it. This is pretty light on the substance. It's also a bit repulsive the way it glorifies materialism as much as it does. In sum, it's the type of book that librarians love to hate but which goes out the door faster than anything they'll offer. It will annoy the heck out of your parents. But in the end, it's not terribly good for you either. Whatever!