Tuesday, February 27, 2007

A Certain Slant of Light, by Laura Whitcomb

In this unusual novel, Helen has spent her years attached to writers, artists, and teachers, following them wherever they go. But no one would accuse her of being clingy, because no one can actually see her -- she's actually dead and a ghost. But then one day in her host's English class, a young boy named James surprises her by talking to her. Romance and many complications develop.

I'm not entirely sure that this is my cup of tea, but it is certainly an original piece. The characters are strong, the story sufficiently compelling, and the action moves well. There were times when things could have been written a bit smoother, but this is a good first novel. I'd recommend this story if you like books with a supernatural twist to them.

Monday, February 26, 2007

The Bermudez Triangle, by Maureen Johnson

A story of three girls: Nina, Avery, and Mel. The story opens at the beginning of the Summer when Nina goes away to leadership camp and meets Steve, while Avery and Mel stay home and discover each other. Yes, it's girl meets boy and girl meets girl (combined with the ever popular girl loses boy and girl loses girl to keep things dramatic). By the end of the novel, there will be plenty of love lost and friendships gained.

I'm probably making it sounds like this was a bad novel (it isn't). It's just terribly long and has a storyline that just keeps going and going without much regard for a dramatic arch. It is also a bit uneven in style and quality throughout (some sections really suck you in and others just drag on and one). But there is something to say about a novel about freindship that treats teen gays as really just normal teens (neither freaky nor unusually sophisticated). I'm beginning to really appreciate Johnson as a writer but this earlier novel is eclipsed by her later work. It's good, but not great.

Saturday, February 24, 2007

Good Girls, by Laura Ruby

When someone takes a picture of Audrey going down on Luke at a party and sends it around the school so that everyone sees it (including Audrey's Dad!), you would think that her life has come to a complete end, but Audrey's a fighter and she's determined to show that the difference between a "good girl" and a "bad girl" is not so big after all.

A feel good novel with some very hillarious moments, as well as some great soul searching. The story can veer a bit, but overall this is witty and fun and strikes a very true note (the parents, in particular, come off very real; but I think it is safe to say that Ruby has just about everyone's number!). Some people might have problems with the explicitness of several chapters in the book (some readers might actually seek this out for them!), but I think that even those scenes add something to this story. A very good read and recommended for those who've grown tired of the depressing angsty literary novels (you don't have to be dry or politically-correct to have something important and empowering to say!). Hooray!

Sunday, February 18, 2007

The Alison Rules, by Catherine Clark

Alison has a lot of rules. These rules help here stay safe and protected so she doesn't have to think about things. And it doesn't matter how hard her best friend Lindsey or the new boy Patrick try to change things. But then a horrible chain of events rock her world and destroy the safe cacoon she has created.

For the first 174 pages, this story chugs along as a pretty unsubstantial novel and I wouldn't be surprised if some readers didn't give up on it before then. There's the usual predictable YA cliches of love triangle, pranks, conflict with teachers and parents, etc. But then the story turns very dark, very quickly, and basically becomes something else altogether. In this respect, it reminded me of Nicholas Sparks (and I noticed that a lot of people who like Sparks like this one). But in my mind, taking a mediocre story and turning up the volume on the violins at midpoint by an out-of-the-blue tragedy is a cheap way to rescue the story. Yes, you'll cry for the second half of the book, but I'd rather have a single coherant plot line (or at least have the tragedy be sufficiently foreshadowed -- see Looking for Alaska or Almost Home).

Saturday, February 17, 2007

Seven Tears into the Sea, by Terry Farley

Seven years ago, when Qwen was 10 years old, she went sleepwalking out on the beach and thought that she met a gypsy. But at the time, people figured that she was either making it up or had been molested. After the incident, she and her family moved away. Now at 17, she has returned to the beach to help her grandmother, and also to face her past and figure out what happened -- a mystery that is intensified when she encounters a young man who claims to have been that "gypsy" on the beach.

A bit clunky and hard to follow, this fantasy romance brings in lots of nice color and strong characters, but the plot veers all over the place and, by the end, becomes difficult to follow.

The Taker, by J. M. Steele

Carly is a good student with plans of going to Princeton, but when she gets the results of her SATs, she has a nasty surprise with a 1710. And then, just as she is receiving this news, she is contacted anonymously by the "Taker" who promises that he can fix her problem. And now she has to choose whether to accept the offer or not.

This is a passingly good story but excruciatingly predictable, packed full of every YA cliche you can imagine. The authors ("J. M. Steele"), the blurb tells us, are a "pseudonym for two New York entertainment industry professionals" and the novel reads likea formula (picture a bunch of TV producers pitching a concept!). It's harmless (aside from its questionable ethics), it won't bore you, but it is mindless entertainment with a "surprise" ending that you will see coming by the time you're even half-way through the book.

Monday, February 12, 2007

Ophelia, by Lisa Klein

As one of the greatest classics of English Literature, Hamlet has been not only remade in every possible way, but the subplots and characters of the tragedy have spawned many stories of their own. Ophelia's story, though, has really remained underappreciated. She loves Hamlet and seeks to console him as he grows mad, and then goes mad herself and finally kills herself. BUt her name has spawned an entire metaphor for adolesecent femininity. Thus, it is only in small irony that it should all come round and Ophelia's own story should become the subject of a YA book.

This novel picks up many years before the Bard's Hamlet, and continues for many years after -- a subject of some confusion as Ophelia dies in the more well-known version of events. And between this back story, the tale that follows, and a different viewpoint on the events in Elsinore, we get a story that expands upon Hamlet, adding details that change no fact of the narrative but which cause us to rethink the meaning of the tragedy itself.

It will probably shock the more cultured people to hear me say that I always picture Helena Bonham Carter in this role (as it is Mel Gibson's Hamlet that I most clearly remember). So, I'll take a special delight in seeing her story expanded and I enjoyed this novel a great deal.

All of which is not to say that I think this is a perfect book. I found the after story (the last 100 pages or so) to be completely unnecessary. It added so little to the understanding of Ophelia. If anything, it cheapened her a little by adding political correctness and anachronistic visions of gender roles to her character. But I understand Klein's purpose in doing so (having Ophelia's life end as a suicide was such a dramatic disappointment).

I think this novel can serve two purposes: it can serve as an entertaining novel in its own right, or it can help readers appreciate Hamlet more, opening up an interpretation of that story that might otherwise go uncovered. Fascinating!

Vive La Paris, by Esme Raji Codell

Continuing with the same semi-autobiographical setting as Sahara Special, we now shift focus to the story of Paris, who is dealing with a brother who keeps letting himself get bullied by a girl in Paris's class. And Paris also has an eye-opening introduction to history throug piano lessons with a Holocaust survivor.

While this book does not carry the novelty value of either Sahara Special or the autobiographical Educating Esme, it is still a special story. It is made a bit more poignant than its predecessors by the decision to bring up the Holocaust (a hot topic of discussion not so long ago on the CCBC list). Throughout, we get an admirable respect for life and education. A winner!

Sunday, February 11, 2007

The Braid, by Helen Frost

An alternating prose poems, interspersed by short praise poems, Helen Frost tells the story of two sisters separated by the forced emigration of the Western Scots to Canada in the 19th century. One goes to Canada, while the other moves south to more remote sections of Scotland to avoid deportation. But they manage to stay connected despite the distance.

This is a fairly sophisticated piece of writing (both in terms of structure and content), but the story falters a bit in maintaining engagement with the reader. As a piece of art, I appreciated the style and the effort, but as literature I found it lacking. As a younger reader, I would have maybe even found it a bit dull. A mixed review.

Friday, February 09, 2007

The Foretelling, by Alice Hoffman

Rain is a warrior princess of the Steppes, ostracized by her mother for being the offspring of a gang rape, and feared/ignored by her tribe. But in the harsh world of the ancient world where her group of Amazon warriors defend themselves on horseback against greedy men, Rain is finding the strength to lead and the ability to interpret a prophecy to make her world a better place.

While a bit heavy on the macho images of brutal warrior women (is there a feminine version of macho?), this estrogen-packed action fest has a lot to offer. A bit more intellectual than Xena, but maintaining much of the appeal, this is a pretty brisk read. I did grow tired of the heaviness, but the cultural details were fascinating and it made for good storytelling. Hoffman has a stylistic rut in which she operates, but it's a good one to be in.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Side Effects, by Amy Goldman Koss

When 15 year-0ld Izzy finds a lump in her neck that turns out to be cancer, all of the everyday concerns of her life take second place as she enters a new regimen of blood work, labs, chemo, and endless sickness. But rather than be a story about a dying teen, this is one about survival and pulling through.

Unfortunately, this is about all the book is. I had been hoping for some sort of uplifting text about the power of human spirit and overcoming the odds. Or maybe about living a normal life in spite of the sickness. Instead, Koss is more interested in spelling out all the technical details of treatment and teen cancer (if I wanted that, I'd read non-fiction!). We know that Izzy doesn't like needles and can't swallow pills and that her Mom cries a lot, but none of these issues are really ever addressed. Nor is Izzy's romantic interests or her relationships with family and friends. In a word, almost all of the character development is wasted and become nothing more than windowdressing for a blow-by-blow description of cancer treatment and recovery. A major disappointment.

Sunday, February 04, 2007

Letting Go of Bobby James, or How I Found Myself of Steam, by Valerie Hobbs

Atthe age of 16, Jody has made the decision to leave her husband after he hits her in a fit of anger. She has nothing to her name, but a good head on her shoulders and some luck. And those two ingredients help her set out on her own.

Told as a series of serious digressions in a letter to the owner of a grocery store chain (in order to complain about the store's coleslaw), Jody is an engaging character with an amusing ability to mix up her words (as someone - myself - who once wrote "intensive purposes" on the first draft of his dissertation, I can relate!). What Hobbs shows very nicely is that decent people come in many shapes and sizes, and that being a decent person amongst decent people can take you a long way. A good uplifting read.

Indigo, by Alice Hoffman

In this very short fable, a town that is afraid of water, a girl who wants to leave it, and two boys with a strong attraction to the sea all serve as metaphors for longing and insecurity.

In such a brief book (84 pages of very large type), it isn't really possible to develop much of a story and while Hoffman does relate a complete narrative, this is more of a novella, than a novel. My preference would have been for a longer book (and thus more to review).

Dairy Queen, by Catherine Gilbert Murdock

In DJ Schenk's family, people don't talk much and, when they do talk, they get pretty angry with each other. That's easy for them to do because they have a lot to be angry about. DJ's father is angry to be injured, her Mom is angry that Dad drove away his sons. Little brother Curtis doesn't say much to anyone. And DJ spends a lot of time taking care of the farm and the family, doing her best to please everyone, just like one of the cows on the farm. However, things change when she spends the summer training Brian (the aspiring QB of arch rival Hawley's football team). And then she decides to go out for football herself.

In honor of today's "big game," let me come clean and say that I'm not a big fan of sports or sport fiction, but this novel really hines as something of a notable exception. From strong, realistic characters to an interesting narrative voice to good plotting, Murdock has a talent with writing that I really hope to see much more of (and will soon, as her next novel comes out this summer!).

On a negative note: I really DO wish that writers would do their homework or stick to subjects that they know. It's hard to read a book like this and not be bothered by the factual inaccurancies. For example, no dairy farm in the US (let alone in WI) could survive if the barn wasn't clean because the dairy inspectors would shut it down. Secondly, a high school with 120 students per class would hardly be considered "small" in rural Wisconsin. To the contrary, any high school up near Eau Claire with that many students would be one of the largest in the area. And any school that size would have no problem fielding a large football team. These are sloppy mistakes that a few hours on the Internet could have prevented.