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...