Sunday, July 29, 2007

Converting Kate, by Beckie Weinheimer

Kate's mother is a devout follower of the Church of the Holy Divine and Kate herself always tried to do what her mother told her to do, that is, until her father died and Mom refused to have a funeral for him because he had not embraced the Church. This event an a move from Arizona to Maine prompts Kate with an opportunity to break free of her Mother's grasp and strike out on her own. And with the help of a kindly Aunt, a friendly pastor, a lobster fisherman's grandson, and some friends that she doesn't even know she has, she begins her own emotional and spiritual journey.

This book is as much about growing up and breaking free as it is about the decisions we make about faith and beliefs -- and thus touches deeply on many of the issues of coming of age. And while the endless bickering with Mom gets a bit wearing, especially since Kate seems to have already made her break with the Church from the start, there is much more to this story than simply breaking free. In this way, Weinheimer has created a story which goes the extra mile -- showing us Kate's journey to a place as well as where she is coming from. A tear-jerking and deeply moving story. Highly recommended.

Saturday, July 28, 2007

Zig Zag, by Ellen Wittlinger

When Robin's boyfriend announces that he is going away for the summer - to Italy - she doesn't know what she will do with herself. But then her aunt proposes that she join them (aunt and two cousinlets) on a road trip across the country. And while things do not start off well (and do not get much better!) everyone learns a thing or three during their adventure.

This is actually one of Wittlinger's better books. It starts off slow but grows on you by the end. You will like the characters (even when they are messing up pretty bad) and Wittlinger understands psychological motivation pretty well so she does pretty realistic angst. I'd ding this novel for some unrealistic dialog, but overall it is pretty good.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

What Mr. Mattero Did, by Priscilla Cummings

Mr. Mattero the music teacher is generous and kind to his students and the community. The worst that can be said is that he is a bit forgetful and absent-minded. So when three girls accuse him of sexual abuse, it comes as a shock to everyone, especially to his daughter Melody. As accusations and rumors spread, Melody must face revelations about her father and the conclusion that no matter how it turns out, things will never be the same.

Treading on the same ground as Harmless (right down to the shifting narrative), this is a paler and more shallow work. It is entertaining, but there are few original observations here and (compared with Cummings's other works like A Face First) this is a disappointment.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

The Breakup Bible, by Melissa Kantor

When Max dumbs Jen, she finally understands why those 19th century heroines are always dying from heartbreak. She wishes that she too could die. But when her grandmother gets her a copy of Dr. Emory Emerson's Breakup Bible, Jen still thinks its the silliest thing in the universe. None of this realization saves her from the moping that nearly causes her to miss the opportunity to dig up real dirt on the school district while researching an article on race relations for her school newspaper. No, all she can think about is Max!

A fairly lightweight, but entertaining girl-loses-boy story. The first half drags on as it pulls out the usual romantic angst stuff, but the novel picks up speed in the second half and reaches a satisfactory conclusion.

Stargirl, by Jerry Spinelli

In the town of Mica AZ, kids are pretty normal and Leo is a normal kid. But Stargirl is different. She dresses strange, plays a ukelele in the cafeteria at lunch, cheers for the opposing team at basketball games. In short, she simply doesn't fit in. But somehow in being so very different from everyone else, she brings special magic to Mica and to Leo's life as well. And now he must choose whether he would rather be with her or be a part of the crowd.

This is a hard book to describe or to convey just how deeply moving and inspiring it is. It is more of a fable than a novel, addressing peer pressure, love, and the meaning of popularity. Stargirl is not specific to any particular era and may well remain a relevant book for years to come. Thus, I'll risk calling it a timeless classic.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Bloom, by Elizabeth Scott

Lauren and Dave are the perfect couple and everyday that Lauren walks down the hall at high school, she can tell that all the freshman girls would kill to be in her place. But from the inside, all is not so wonderful. Dave is boring and Lauren longs for something more, for someone she can share her feelings with, for someone she can truly love. And in Lauren's life, there isn't much room for real emotions or for sharing what you truly feel (her friends are distant, her father is distracted, and her mother abandoned her when she was little. And then she meets Evan...

OK, so you can probably guess where the story is going to go and it will win no prizes for originality. Worse still, the plot is full of old tired YA tripes (absent mother, distant clueless Dad, friends who just don't get you, etc.). But there is something to be said for decent writing and a sympathetic complex character. And while you know that reading a book like this is not good for you, it's still a pleasant Saturday summer read.

Monday, July 16, 2007

Listening for Lions, by Gloria Whelan

Rachel was born in Africa near the turn of the century to a missionary family running a hospital in the bush. When both of her parents succumb to the flu, she is taken in by the shady Pritchard family who scheme to have her impersonate their late daughter to get their family back in the good graces of the rich elder Pritchard. Rachel (now Valerie Pritchard) must embark of a trip to England to visit her "grandfather" for the Pritchards and leave behind her beloved Africa.

Combining some of the classic cliches of the orphan genre with some warm dialog and cultural detail, this is a charming book. The book is broken into three parts and, of these, the first two are the most interesting. The third suffers from a drastic telescoping of the narrative as Whelan rushes to the end of her story. One imagines that the third part probably needed another 100 pages or so to tell adequately and one wonders why she chopped it down so brutally, undercutting a fascinating character. A beautiful start but a flawed ended.

Lost in the Labyrinth, by Patrice Kindl

In this retelling (and combination) of several Greek myths, we get the story of the ancient Manoans, the Minotaur and the "hero" Theseus, Daedalus and Icarus, and an obscure princess Xenodice -- who unites all the threads together through her love for her half-brother (the Minotaur) and the young clever Icarus.

The myths are well-enough known, so no real surprises on the story, but much like the way that the novel Orphelia expands on a well-known story, Kindl riffs on Greek mythology in new ways, breathing life into the story and creating an engaging story about the brave princess Xenodice. It's a fun read, albeit neither suspenseful nor nourishing to the mind -- a good summer read (especially if you like Greek myths).

Dangerously Alice, by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor

In this latest (and 22nd) installment, Alice is doing the first half of her junior year. She has a new boyfriend and takes a few more risks (some of them major errors). But most of all, she tries to break free of her Miss Goody Two-Shoes (MGT) image and prove that she's a bit more nuanced as a person (even if she isn't quite sure what that will mean). More concretely, she rides a motorcycle, gets busted at a party by the cops, and goes just a bit further than her girlfriends have gone with a boy.

I've always been a fan of the Alice series (and it's the only series that I read religiously), but what worked well when Alice was 12 or 13 gets a bit old as she becomes an adult. No matter how old she gets, Alice remains terribly sheltered and innocent, more prone to mischief than real trouble. Naylor appears to understand this and has made an effort to create an edgier episode, but (like an overprotective parent) she really isn't willing to let go of her character. Alice makes errors in judgment which are quickly corrected for before even the reader can identify the mistake. In the end, she really is an MGT -- far too prim and proper to be believable. The truth about Alice is that she's always worked better as a character for middle school readers. While there is some pretty explicit sex in here, this book (like the others) will really appeal to the 12-14 year olds (as long as their parents don't find out what they are reading!).

In the Name of God, by Paula Jolin

In contemporary Syria, Nadia seems like the perfect daughter -- kind and generous to beggars, pious and respectful of her elders, but very very angry. Her anger is directed towards the way that the US treats Muslims, the way the leaders of her country treat the common people, and about the way her cousin Fowzi has been arrested. And one day when she is angry enough, she encounters a persuasive young man named Walid who gives her the opportunity to make a real difference in the world -- as a suicide bomber.

The extremely unusual YA story explores a part of the world that is certainly on people's minds but is largely misunderstood. I'm sure that purists could find flaws with it, but the descriptions of Arab culture ring true. So, as a glimpse of an alien world, the book is groundbreaking. As a novel, it is a bit thin at points, but the ending is immensely satisfying and dramatically gripping. A fine example of the potential of YA literature to transcend both the inane and the politically correct. Stunning!

Saturday, July 14, 2007

Beige, by Cecil Castellucci

Katy and her mother have always been a close team and done everything together, but this Summer, Mom has to go do research on her own and Katy is being sent from her home in Montreal to her Dad in LA. Katy's Dad isn't your typical geeky Dad. He's the drummer for the legendary punk rock band Suck. Katy knows very little about music, so the culture shock is immense. But Katy's bigger problem is finding her inner strength to stand up for what she believes in and what she wants.

Castellucci writes good books about young women finding themselves and finding their inner strength. The characters of her books tend to be engaging and quirky and a bit off-beat. Katy is no exception to the mold and there are strong similarities between this book and her previous novels. As such, there is not a lot of novelty here. The book also suffers from a pretty lame ending which won't really surprise anyone. Those two drawbacks make the book a bit disappointing, but for decent strong characters who are admirable and do cool things, this is a decent book.

Friday, July 06, 2007

When It Happens, by Susane Colasanti

Sara spends the Summer before her senior year waiting for Dave to call her, while Tobey spends the Summer trying to build up the guts to ask Sara out. So, things get complicated in the Fall when Dave asks Sara out before Tobey can make his move. But things will work out in the end, because when it happens you just know that it is right...and Sara and Tobey are soul mates. Misunderstandings ensue and the young couple work through applying to colleges and deciding whether to have sex.

And that basically sums up this story. It has a nice realistic quality to it (and Colasanti does a fairly decent job of portraying her male characters -- a real challenge as the novel is told in alternating narration from Sara and Tobey), but the story has very little in the way of surprises or drama. You basically know where the story is going. In fact, the story is so predictable that even Colasanti decides to drop most of the plot lines before she concludes them. That makes for a brisk read, but not for anything you can get your teeth into. Good characterization, but really thin story.

Oh, and please save me from another YA novel where the kids have unusually ancient tastes in music. In this one, they swoon over The Cure, Bob Seeger, REM, Chicago, and even James Taylor! I can understand a few retro tastes, but give me a break! Those are my favorite bands, but I'm old enough to be a Dad in this book! I'll cast my vote right now for fictional pop music. Either that or we require all authors to actually learn some current pop culture before they publish (and a few gratuitous references to the White Stripes or Coldplay - so yesteryear! - does not qualify).