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.