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!

Thursday, June 15, 2006

The Great Good Thing, by Roderick Townley

Sylvie lives in a fairy tale world -- a real fairy tale -- in fact, she lives within the pages of a book. When the book is closed, she's free to explore the pages and go where she likes. But when the book opens and the Reader appears, she has a role to play and a story to tell. She may be a princess, but she's only a character in a book. All of that changes when she violates the rules and meets the Reader. And when disaster strikes her world, Sylvie leads her people on an epic voyage into the world beyond.

This is a clever, although a bit surrealistic fantasy book. Geared towards middle readers, it has some pretty tricky plot twists that may confuse some younger readers and turn them off. But for those who enjoy thinking-person's fantasy, this is a fun little read.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Boy2Girl, by Terence Blacker

When the nice quiet Burton family in London gains custody of Sam, the son of Mrs. Burton's late sister, it's pretty obvious he doesn't fit in. Angry and wound up and terribly "Yank"-ish, he fights and curses at anyone who gets close to him. But then he accepts a dare to show up at school for the first week dressed as a girl -- a disguise that is surprisingly effective. Yet "Mrs. Doubtfire" this most certainly isn't. Sam makes a strange girl, not even trying to act feminine. That's when the fun really starts.

It's clever and funny and surprisingly revealing for a popular novel. Blacker is trying to get at some of the stuff that defines gender identity, without getting too preachy about it, and he largely succeeds. Characters can be a bit two dimensional, but this is one of those odd books where a constantly changing narrator (just about everyone -- except, notably, Sam himself -- gets a chance to tell the story) actually works pretty well. A clever original.

Sunday, June 11, 2006

Pretty Things, by Sarra Manning

In ultra hip and trendy London, four young people take part in a summer staging of Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew. There's the vacuous fashion-obsessed Brie; gay friend Charlie; swarmy womanizing Walker, and angry dyke Daisy. And, as the story opens, Brie has an unrequitted thing for Charlie, Charlie finds himself attracted to Walker, while Walker decides that he wants Daisy. And, as implausible as any of these infatuations seem likely to bear fruit, things start to get a bit wild and a lot of unimaginable things happen.

The book is way too trendy and current. Not only is it terribly regional (American readers will occasionally find the dialogue and references just a bit off-putting), parochial (London IS apparently the center of all things cool), and temporal (the references to Justin Timberlake and George Bush will not age well), it just grates on the nerves for the first half or so. Then the book does something interesting: Manning stops trying to impress us with how hip she is and starts telling a storr - a very interesting story about sexual identity and the fluid and flexible nature of that identity. By the end I was actually hooked, but first I had to get through the first 140 pages or so to get there.

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

How I Survived Being A Girl, by Wendelin Van Draanen

In a series of anecdotes, Carolyn tells us about her neighbors, the pranks she plays with her brothers, and the trouble she gets in to. Some of the anecdotes are funny, while others are revealing, and some are even both. As for an actual story, there isn't much here: she spends the summer getting into trouble and the school year butting heads with mean teachers and giggly girls. And her mother is having a baby.

I liked Flipped a lot and was hoping for more of the same, but this is an earlier work and not quite as polished. And it is also a bit dated. Although published in 1997, it references vinyl records several times as if anyone born in the last twenty-five years has had any significant exposure to them. The writing style has a nice folksy down home feeling to it and the settings are warm and friendly so it's a good read, but not exactly classic literature.

One other thing that dates the book is a mention of a spanking early in the book. Corporal punishment doesn't find its way into many children's books anymore (much the same way that smoking has largely disappeared from movies). While statistically speaking, most children have experienced getting hit by their parents, it strangely never occurs in literature. I understand the reasons to paint such an idealistic vision, but I found Van Draanen's inclusion of it (neither graphic nor particularly long) a realistic touch and the sort of thing that real 8-11 year old readers (the target audience) would relate to.

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Julep O'Toole: Confessions of a Middle Child, by Trudi Trueit

Julep has the most obnoxious little brother you could imagine, and an older sister with a heart of ice, and she knows that she's the most invisible girl in the universe (or at least in sixth grade!). So, when Danica (the most popular girl at school) invites her to her Halloween party, Julep can't believe her good fortune, but then disaster strikes!

A bit uneven (maybe a few more revisions would have helped), but amusing story with a heroine with some spunk and great misadventures. I didn't really buy the "invisible" part but the siblings were definitely obnoxious enough to elicit sympathy.

Sunday, June 04, 2006

Red Ridin' in the Hood, by Patricia Santos Marcantonio

When Jaime and Gabriela are left in the desert to die, they find a house made from pan sweet bread and tamales. Red goes to visit her abuelita and ignores her mother's warning and takes Forest St where she runs into Lupo. Lazy Juan drives his mother nuts when he trades in their delapidated old car for a handful of magic pinto beans. And the vain Emperador is tricked into showing off his new designer clothes to an entire school assembly. Yes, these are classic tales, some from Greek myth, some from the Brothers Grimm, retold with a distinctly Mexican bent.

Some of the stories are more clever than others, some are more interesting, but they're all just moderately updated and altered. Blanca Nieves (Snow White) proves to be worthless as a cook, but she makes a good ranch hand. Red doesn't need a woodsman to rescue her, she's plenty good at dealing with the wolf on her own. But with retelling and a changing of contexts, one of the really neat results is that you'll spend a lotr of time thinking about what these stories are really about.

I'm giving this book very high marks, despite my knee-jerk desire to hate its PC qualities. There is an obvious mission here to create a "multicultural" book that will help school districts and public libraries prove how "culturally sensitive" they are, but the reality is that this is a book of distinctly Mexican retellings of these fairy tales, and to ascribe a "Latino" label to the book ignores the diversity of the cultures encompassed by the word "Latino." I don't get the sense that the author had that intent, rather it seems more like a slick plan of some PR person at the publisher who came up with the selling angle. But the hypocrisy of it does twitch me.

Saturday, June 03, 2006

The Illustrated Mum, by Jacqueline Wilson

Marigold has always been an unusual mother. For one things, she's practically covered in tatoos. But she also has her moods. And Dolphin and Star have to be careful when their mother gets into her mood swings and starts freaking out. As Star gets older, she's less and less willing to put up with her mother or with trying to protect her younger sister, and when Star's father appears and offers to take care of both girls, the delicate balance of their family is tipped.

Not entirely sure why I picked this book out as it is the old (very) tired plot of the mentally-ill mother and the co-dependent children who refuse time-and-time-again to get help from any other adults. Frail thin subterfuges are invented by the author so that page after page we are presented with one harrowing incident after another, and the children needlessly suffer. I've grown to believe that this plot device is sadistic and exploitative and not dramatic at all and I wanted seriously to throw this book against the wall and burn it in the grill out back. What rubbish!

Thursday, June 01, 2006

Fly on the Wall, by E. Lockhart

Gretchen Yee feels completely unnoticed, an outsider, yet also obsessed with that alien race of BOYS at school. In sum, she is your stereotypical teen. But then, for some mysterious reason, she becomes something special. One days she tells her friend that she would love to know what the boys are saying about them, that she would love to be "a fly on the wall of the boy's locker room." And then she wakes up the next morning to discover that her dream has been answered!

An extraordinarily clever and funny story from the fabulous writer who gave us The Boyfriend List (already one of my fav books of 2005). Lockhart gets better and better. I was all laughter with her description of grading the boys' bodies and their "gherkins." And while the idea of a heroine who spends half of the book as a bug is a bit hard to take (even with its great Kafkaesque forerunner), this book really runs with the idea to reach for some higher greatness. Definitely recommended. A breezy and really fun read!