Thursday, March 29, 2007

I'd Tell You I Love You, But Then I'd Have to Kill You, by Ally Carter

Cammie Morgan goes to the elite Gallagher Girl where she studies 14 languages, covert operations, and how to kill people twice your size. But don't let the trappings of her elite school fool you: she's a typical sophomore girl with a crush on a townie boy and an endearing awkwardness. And even with the high tech trappings of spy gadgets and espionage tricks, the most dangerous mission is putting your heart on the line.

At times clever and other times silly, Carter has created a concept that she hopes to make into a profitable commercial enterprise. Combining spy novel cliche with high school cliche, this novel never really rises above either genre. Yes, I laughed the first couple of times Cammie and her friends did something James Bond and then immediately topped it off with a Gilmore Girls moment, but the joke wears thin and the conclusion got pretty muddy. It's a concept that may improve with the sequels, but we'll need to work on the story and come up with better jokes.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Jeremy Fink and the Meaning of Life, by Wendy Mass

Jeremy is a bit obsessive (he only eats PB sandwiches and never travels far from home) and his best friend Lizzy is a kleptomaniac. Just before his 13th birthday, a mysterious package arrives for him. In it is a box that his father (dead for the past four years) left him to be opened on his birthday. The problem is that the box is locked and needs four keys to open it, and the keys are missing. Inside the box allegedly lies the "meaning of life" and now Jeremy and Lizzie must search to find those keys and open the box.

I've really enjoyed Wendy Mass's other books. This one does not disappoint. The characters are quirky and original and the story is well thought out. I do find that her characterization are not very deep, but for a younger teen reader that is probably fine.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Psyche in a Dress, by Francesca Lia Block

If you ever thought that the Greek Gods were a pretty dysfunctional family, this verse novel won't change your opinion to the contrary. Placing the characters of Psyche, Echo, Aphrodite, Eros, and others in a modern urban context, Block explores the meanings of those myths (both as story and as metaphors). Surprisingly, it generally works.

This is not, however, a story (but more of a series of reflections and meditations). I'm not a big fan of that (see a couple of my Alice Hoffman reviews to get a sense of that!) but it is an interesting literary device to take characters whose names are metaphors and then dissect them (what does it mean, for example, to love Eros?). The modern references are a bit jarring, but this is a highly original book.

Harmless, by Dana Reinhardt

One night, Emma, Anna, and Mariah sneak out to a party with some older boys. And when their parents find out that they aren't where they are supposed to be, the girls panic and make up a story -- a lie that quickly escalates and grows bigger until it threatens everything around them: friends, family, and even their own sanity and perceptions of self-worth.

This chilling and engrossing second novel is a complete score for Reinhardt. Her first novel (A Brief Chapter in My Impossible Life) was good, but here she improves many times over. I tend to get annoyed by stories based on shifting narrators, but this tired device worked well in this case and gave far more punch than a single voice could have delivered. An excellent sophomore effort and highly recommended!

Saturday, March 17, 2007

The Higher Power of Lucky, by Susan Patron

Lucky spends her days in the desert town of Hard Pan, CA hanging out with her knot tying friend Lincoln, being pestered by young Miles, and eavesdropping on the SA, GA, and AA meetings that take place at the Found Object Wind Chime Museum and Visitor Center. It is from these meetings that she learns of the "higher power" and all the things it can do. Lucky would like to find her own higher power so that she could convince her homesick French guardian Brigitte to not abandon her.

This touching and affirming story, full of quirky and fun characters, got a lot of press for its use of the word "scrotum" on its very first page. That criticism probably was levelled mostly by people who didn't bother to read any further. As anyone who's hung with my Blog knows, I tend to hate most Newbery winners as being either too trite or too political, but this one scores really strongly and surprised me. It's good storytelling and well worth reading! Recommended.

This Is All: The Pillow Book of Cordelia Kenn, by Aidan Chambers

In this huge book, broken into six parts, Cordelia and her friends provide an exhaustive revirew of her teenaged years and thoughts for her daughter. It wraps from how she met her daughter's father to a series of woes (romantic, comic, and tragic). Included throughout are various thoughts, facts, and "moans", as well as drawing and poetry.

At 808 pages, this is probably the largest YA book I have ever read, and it is not really a YA book. The explicitness of the sex alone would probably get it banned out of most school libraries, but the real issue is that the perspectives are adult perspectives, the worries and fears (money, jobs, future, etc) are the worries that an adult looking back on adolescence has. Missing are the insecurities and hopes and dreams (as a young person herself would see them).

It is also a very British book, not simply in terms of language but also in outlook. Everyone takes themselves very seriously in this story and hold themselves so tightly that tragedy (and the inability to deal with it) is simply a forgone conclusion. American readers may not be able to pinpoint this problem, but you'll sense it when you read this book that people are just a bit too uptight and stuck on themselves.

Finally, there is the style of the book. Chambers has been writing for some time and there is an impressive variety of styles in this book. I'm not too fond of them as most of them seem done to be clever and literary (as if the audience was a bunch of English teachers rather than a young reader) and often distract from storytelling. Still, it is extremely impressive to create a work of this size and this complexity. By the end, you really truly do know Cordelia in a way that most authors never quite have an opportunity to do.

After reading this work (it took an entire trip out to Seattle and back and an additional hour or two this weekend), I want to sing its praises and intimate that you have to read this book and that it will truly change your life (as some over-the-top Borders reviewer did), but I really cannot. There are some lovely passages in this book, but size and complexity do not make a book great, they merely make it long. I would give it a serious pass. In the time you spend on this novel, you could easily read three really good books that would change your life.

Saturday, March 10, 2007

Soccer Chick Rules, by Dawn Fitzgerald

Tess lives for sports, whether it's soccer or basketball. In fact, sports are about the only reason that Tess shows up for school. So when they announce that a new tax levy is needed or the after school programs (including sports) are going to be cut, Tess jumps into the game and gives it her best effort to save the sports programs.

As my loyal readers know, I'm not a big fan of the sports genre but I'll be fair here and say that if you like good sports action (and love soccer) there's some good action scenes in this book. And since there are surprisingly few good soccer books out there, this book serves an important niche. That said, I'm also not a fan of first-person present tense writing (it's exhausting to read and tends to get really clunky) so I found this a bit of a chore to get through. Combine the style with a character that I found stuck-up and arrogant, and this was a hard slog.

Sunday, March 04, 2007

The True Meaning of Cleavage, by Mariah Fredericks

When the geeky sci-fi fan Jess sees her best friend Sari going psychotically in-love with David Cole, she knows there will be trouble. David is not only a senior but part of the inseparable duo of David and Thea, and there is no way that Sari will ever succeed. But when Sari and David start fooling around on the side, Jess realizes long before her friend that there is a dangerous game being played and tries to do what she can to save her friend.

I could personally relate to this story on all sorts of levels (from Jess's sci-fi obsession to the alternative school she attends). I even noted with amusement that - like E Lockhart and Nora Raleigh Baskin - she also attended my alma mater Vassar. This was, in sum, a book I wanted to like a whole lot. Most of the time I really do like it and I'll give it a strong recommendation, but it is also true that this is just a bit short of greatness. Perhaps because it is too tied to YA cliches (geeky girl rises above popular in-crowd) rather than reaching for total greatness. You'll enjoy the book and it may even become a favorite, but I wanted something a bit more.

Oh yeah, and the title is actually appropos of nothing at all (perhaps a slight reference in the middle of the novel). Perhaps it made the book sound more like chick-lit, but it seemed a bit inappropriate.

Saturday, March 03, 2007

Green Angel, by Alice Hoffman

When her parents and sister leave her at home on market day to take care of the farm, Green is so angry that she won't say goodbye to any of them. But then a cataclysmic event burns the cities and plunges her world into ash and gray. Grieving from her loss and unable to adapt to her changed surroundings, she must learn to heal and rebuild.

The fire-analogy parallels Hoffman's watery Indigo and folls many of its structures: being more of a meditation than a story. As a result, it's pretty enough, but not terribly substantive. More of a novella than a novel. More of an exercise in pretty prose than an interesting story.

Plan B, by Jenny O'Connell

Vanessa has planned out her life: finish senior year, and then go to Yale to be with her high school boyfriend. Her life looks pretty set and that makes her happy. But then a series of surprises occur: she finds out that she has a half-brother, that that brother is none other that then seriously hunky Reed Vaughan, and that he is coming to live with her family.

A fairly formulaic and predictable read, but entertaining nonetheless. O'Connell has crafted a heroine who is so amazingly rigid that when she breaks it won't really come as a surprise and you can basically guess whre the story is going. Think a B-List Meg Cabot. A sufficiently engrossing guilty pleasure but zip surprises or drama.

Scrambled Eggs at Midnight, by Brad Barkley and Heather Hepler

In alternating chapters, written from the perspective of Cal (Hepler) and Eliot (Barkley), we get a story of two teens meeting in a sleepy southern town. They come from different backgrounds: Cal is the daughter of a restless jeweler who follows the Ren Faire circuit, while Eliot has been relocated from California by his God-huckstering father. Their relationship develops and is threatened by Cal's mother's decision to move on.

Joint-authored novels (especially boy-girl projects) tend to suffer from a tension of styles. Usually, the two authors start off pretty compatible, but by the end of the project, the authors are visibly fighting each other over the plot line. This is a classic example of the problem. To their credit, Barkley and Hepler try very hard to avoid messing up each other's stories, but they are diverging so far by the end, taht it is like reading two separate novels (but with the same characters). Ideas developed by one author are frequently ignored by the other. The result is distracting. I think both authors could have written a decent story (although I found Barkley's writing to be stronger), but together it is a mess.