Sunday, January 29, 2006

Amy, by Mary Hooper

When Amy loses her best friends, she goes online to find new ones and meets the fabulous Zed, an older boy. Within a few weeks, he invites her to visit him. Knowing what she does about stalkers and the creeps that hang out online, she's wary but takes the leap anyway. Their meeting goes surprisingly well and she's thinking of doing it again, but something feels terribly wrong.

Readers should be able to see the ending being telegraphed from a mile away (not least of which is because the story begins as a police interrogation), but maybe it still has value as a story. At the least, there is a great deal of suspense in the story and that makes it a decent read.

Summer's End, by Audrey Couloumbis

When Grace's brother Collin burns his draft card, their father throws him out of the house. Grace's big birthday party is cancelled and Grace can't imagine a worse state of affairs, that is, until Collin runs away to Canada, and now grace has a set of secrets to hold inside as she and her cousins take sides in a war at home that the adults are playing with each other.

Set in the early 1970s, Couloumbis is attempting to capture the mood of the times as conservative families faced the reality of their own sons going off to war, and had their ideals tested by the experience. Intended to be more of a set of reflections on family, the book falters a bit there, and overall this is a thick and turgid read. I'll admit that I'm not a big fan of historical fiction, but it seems that this particular topic must seem pretty far removed from the minds of young readers today, since the characters of this story would be grandparents by now. And I don't think it helps that the story is so cerebral and not terribly event-filled.

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Number the Stars, by Lois Lowry

In Nazi-occupied Denmark, Annemarie Johansen and her family, help their neighbors escape the Nazi's. At first an effort of only the parents, eventually Annemarie finds that she has a role to play as well in saving her friend Ellen's life.

Suspenseful and intriguing, this book represents the very best in historical fiction. An interesting period, with a fact-filled afterward that explains the history behind the story. This is a very well written, short book, and an unusual exception to my usual rule that Newbery winners tend to not live up to the hype. I'll withold one star simply because the story doesn't captivate me personally, but I'll do so reluctantly because this is really a very good story.


I promised in my last post that I would comment on the award announcements from the ALA on Monday. Mostly, I am glad about the results. I haven't read Criss Cross yet although I intend to do so soon. I love Looking for Alaska so I'm very glad it won the Printz. I don't know the Caledecott winner, but I liked Zen Shorts (one of the honor books). So, all in all, not a bad set of choices. I suppose I'm mostly glad about what didn't win also, but it's better to stay positive, eh?

Sunday, January 22, 2006

The Fashion Disaster That Changed My Life, by Lauren Myracle

On the first day of seventh grade, Alli is hoping to make a big impression. And she does. Unfortunately, it involves static cling and the embarassing appearance of her mother's underwear at school. But what starts as a great humiliation opens doors to stardom that Alli has only dreamed of, and as she becomes popular she has to cope with whether that fame is really what she wants.

Myracle does a really good job with books about middle schoolers. This story doesn't break any new ground. It's the old chestnut about seeking to be popular, winning the chance to be one of the "in crowd," and then discovering that it isn't what it's cracked up to be. It's been done many times before. In fact, another novel of hers, Rhymes With Witches did it much more cleverly for an older audience. But the story is still fun and satisfying.

A special shout out to any authors who are having a restless night of sleep tonight, awaiting the announcements of the Newbery, Caldecott, Printz, Geisel, King, and all the other kid lit books. Tomorrow at 8am in San Antonio. My best wishes to all of you. I'll try to write more tomorrow when the results are announced.

Saturday, January 21, 2006

What I Believe, by Norma Fox Mazer

When Vicki's father loses his job, a series of events ensues where she and her family must cope with a rapidly declining standard of living. They have to sell their house, move into the city, and then cope further when Dad leaves them. As things hit rock bottom, Vicki makes a horrible mistake of her own and has to cope with the consequences of that mistake, learning that even adults are not flawless and that, in the end, family is all we really have.

It has platitudes and it has some good writing, but free-verse novels always seem a bit of a cop-out to me. Sonya Sones writes some good ones, but this one is quite uneven - even if the verse structure is more ambitious. Good technique does not translate to a compelling story.

Friday, January 20, 2006

Luna, by Julie Anne Peters

Regan loves her sister Luna, even though Luna never reveals herself in the light of day, even though Regan can't tell anyone that Luna even exists. And Luna does exist, although their parents would like to ignore her existence. The world isn't ready for Luna, because Luna is also Regan's brother Liam.

As a groundbreaking novel about teenage transgender identity, this is a pretty original piece of work. And once again, Peters hits on a pretty good story idea and does a great job developing her characters to rise to the occasion. But once again, I find myself frustrated. Define "Normal" was a great book. So was Keeping You a Secret. But they always fall a bit flat. This time it is the sheer annoyingly selfishness of Luna which comes off as a barrier more than a character flaw. It's really hard to sympathize with so much co-dependency floating around in the story. A shame, though, because this is otherwise a very good book.

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Trick of the Mind, by Judy Waite

Erin loves Matt and Matt loves Kirsty and Kirsty is going out with Billy, who has a mean temper. And since Erin and Matt are sort of losers anyway, and Kirsty and Billy are popular, neither of them have much of a chance, except maybe with each other, but the games that they will play (compounded by numerous misunderstandings) ensure that everything gets pretty messed up in the end.

The story is told in two voices, shifting back and forth between Matt and Erin, and that is a clever (although not-too-original) idea. However, it is also painfully distracting. And what on earth is with these morbid British YA books where people get killed? The homicide rate in these books rival an episode of 24! Anyway, a drudgery to get through. Not worth the effort in the end.

Monday, January 16, 2006

Sixth-Grade Glommers, Norks, and Me, by Lisa Papademetriou

Allie enters sixth-grade at an elite magnet school with her best friend Tam, but as these things have a way of doing, she and Tam start to drift apart. And as the year progresses, Allie struggles with her identity, as she starts playing offense in soccer (after being on defense all the time), becoming friendly with geeky Orren, and learning to do things because SHE enjoys them, rather than to be cool. Still, she struggles with what she really wants.

This is pretty much a by-the-numbers book about changing friendships. It's got a terribly clever thing going with made-up words like "glommers", "norks" and so on. You'll be able to predict where the story is going, but that doesn't diminish it's fun. So, a good book, but nothing outrageously original.

Sunday, January 15, 2006

Girl, Nearly 16, Absolute Torture, by Sue Limb

In this sequel to Girl, 15, Charming But Insane, we get the further adventures of Jess a few months later. She and Fred are no a regular number and looking forward to a romantic summer together, when her Mum announces that they are going away on a surprise holiday for the whole summer. Will Jess survive? Will Fred still be waiting for her or will he be swept away by Flora? Will he text her everyday on his mobile? And, oh yeah, there's visiting her Dad and finding out what dark secret he's hiding from her.

It's clever, it's funny, and it's very very British stuff. Not just the slang or the heavy reliance on text messaging, but also the social interactions and the insecurities. While book starts off very clever and even stronger than the first, Jess comes off terribly insecure in this sequel, to a point where you start to lose sympathy for her. I found the book a bit tiresome and dull, and the ending a bit too tidy.

Saturday, January 14, 2006

Inexcusable, by Chris Lynch

Keir "the Killer" is a senior, football player, and all round "good guy." He's popular, has lots of friends, a great relationship with his Dad, and two wonderful sisters. So, why is Gigi accusing him of raping her? Doesn't she understand that "good guys" can't be rapists? It doesn't make any sense, and Keir now has to prove to her, us, and himself that he really is a good guy.

This is apparently Newbery material this year, so I had pretty high expectations, but I'm going to nix it the same way I did A Room on Lorelei Street. I wanted a story about a sympathetic guy who makes a terrible mistake. I wanted a novel that would show that people who are "good" people can do horrible things to each other. But this isn't that novel. Instead, we get a creep and a jerk who does a horrible thing, we can pat ourselves on the back and say, "See! Only creeps are rapists!" That isn't the message we need repeated in this day and age. And with all the hype this book is getting, that is the message that is going to come out.

The story has plausibility and it had a good sense of what makes Keir tick and why he did what he did, but it was way too obvious and way too convenient. And since he was the only mind we ever got a chance to look at, we get a pretty simple story. And I wanted the story to be more complex, more subtle, and more nuanced. For example, give me a story where the reader - even for a moment - believes that the guy is in the right. Create that moment. And then let the reader be as crushed with guilt as the guy when they realize what they've done. I didn't for a minute sympathize with Keir and I held him (and the book) at arm's length.

A lot to say: but if you've read my other entries, you know that I care a great deal about how sexual violence is portrayed.

Friday, January 13, 2006

The Doll People, by Ann M Martin and Laura Godwin

Annabelle is a doll, a real one, and she and her family live in a doll house in Kate's bedroom. While Kate isn't there, they come out and act like a real family, trying to avoid the traumas of the family cat and Kate's little sister. The adventure begins when two events occur: a new family of dolls moves in next door and Annabelle goes to search for her long-lost Aunt.

Obviously with a debt to Toy Story, this is the "girls" version of that same story. There are a few clever commentaries (Barbies, we learn, are the one consistently literally lifeless dolls!) but mostly this is pleasant bedtime reading. Instead of the adventures of Buzz Lightyear, we get a pleasant story about friendship and family (how stereotypical!). Amusing, but nothing spectacular.

Sunday, January 08, 2006

Riding Freedom, by Pam Munoz Ryan

Based on a true story, orphan Charlotte Parkhurst can ride horses better than any of the boys at the orphanage she grew up in, but the simple fact that she is a girl in the mid-1800s means that she will never be allowed to. When her best friend Haywood gets adopted and she is told that she will never be allowed to ride again, she runs away and takes on a new identity as "Charley." Charley becomes a legendary coach driver who eventually moves out to California, realizing her dreams and becoming one of the first women to vote.

This engaging and true story is a fascinating piece of history. The stuff that Hollywood movies are made of (and it would make a spectacular movie), it's hard not to root for everything that Charlotte overcomes in her life. If the story had been written for adults, the author might have spent more time on what Charlotte had to forgo to live her life as she did, but Ryan wisely sticks to just a few episodes that hint at this, providing instead a heart-warming and inspirational tale for middle readers. Strongly recommended.

Saturday, January 07, 2006

Gathering Blue, by Lois Lowry

Somewhere in the distant future, Kira (who has always been an outcast in her village because of a bad leg) must find a new future when her mother suddenly dies. Miraculously, not only does she find a means to support herself, but it as as the honored embroiderer of the Singer's gown that he wears each year to sing the history of the people. But as Kira becomes more familiar with the new world she is in, she also begins to suspect that things are not quite as they seem.

This interesting piece of fantasy, deep with metaphors, is a companion to Lowry's The Giver. It's an original and fully-developed world that we get to see, so fans of fantasy literature will like it. I'm not much of a fan myself, but moreover, I tend to find the style (which is written in a rather distant 1st-person narrative) hard to relate to. There are characters and they do interesting things, but you never quite end up caring what they are doing.

When Jeff Comes Home, by Catherine Atkins

At the age of 14, Jeff is a rising baseball star, revered older brother, and the jewel in his father's eyes, but then he is kidnapped and held captive for two and a half years. When he returns "home" to his family, he has to learn to come to grips with what he lost and what he has become. And his family must also learn that his return is only the beginning of a long recovery.

A gripping and unusual story. Not as strong as Atkins's later writing, but original and compelling. There are no simple solutions and no punches pulled (although I am personally a bit maddened that the family never seeks professional counseling!). In some ways, the lack of easy answers makes the story a bit harder (and more mature) than even YA lit usually is. Definitely for older readers, but a book for everyone to talk about.

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

A Heart Divided, by Cherrie Bennett and Jeff Gottesfeld

When Kate's family moves from New Jersey to a suburb of NAshville TN and tears her away from her fledgling playwright training, Kate is sure that she will hate it. At first every stereotype of the South seems to come true -- from her rich antebellum boyfriend to the Confederate flag flying overhead. But as Kate tries to understand her new ome well enough to write a play about it, she discovers that the more she learns, the less she knows.

I'm inherently distrustful of books about the South. They are either written by Southerners and depict romantic views, or they are written by Yankees, explaining either the superiority or inferiority of the South. Neither approach really gets at the truth and I leave dissatisfied. But this novel gets at the greater complexity of things (and deals with the whole Confederate flag issue to boot!). It tosses in a nice romance story as well. Surprisingly good and recommended.

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Homeroom Exercise, by Jana Striegel

Regan is a dancer and a good one. In seventh grade, she wins an audition to host a morning aerobics class broadcast on closed-circuit TV. The program is a success and catapaults her into city-wide fame, and gets her noticed by the in-crowd. But then her joints start to hurt and she starts to suffer from fevers. As her pain brings on a nightmare of tests, hospital visits, misdiagnosesm, and uncertainty, Regan has to face a possibility that she might not be able to dance again.

Much better than My Brother Made Me Do It, Striegel creates a nice middle reader book on Juvenile Rheumatoid Arthritis. It gets a bit preachy towards the end and just starts downloading facts about the disease (a common occurrence in these illness-books where the author feels rushed to tell the story) but there is a nice introduction to JRA here and young readers will like that. The subplots make the story interesting and believable but don't distract.

Amalee, by Dar Williams

Amelee doesn't have any friends at school that she's comfortable with, and she has a pretty unusual life at home. Her father and his friends are raising her and she spends much of her time with them. Things change when her father gets sick and she has to rely on others for help, discovering unusual and unexpected allies, and making a new friend or two.

Being a big Dar fan, I'm trying (with some difficulty) to ignore who the author is, but you can certainly see the similiarity between the book and her songs. Full of optimism about the strength of kindness, and full of complicated thoughts about human nature and seeing the world through other people's eyes, this is a warm story. However, it is also a bit preachy for many of the same reasons, and more about the adults than the kids. There are nice lessons here but it will be a bit hard for younger readers to relate to them. Amalee never quite comes alive and things pop out of her mouth that just don't seem in character. So, I guess this was something of a disappointment.