Friday, March 28, 2008

A Field Guide to High School, by Marissa Walsh

Andie lives in the shadow of her overachiever sister Claire, but Claire is leaving for college and Andie and her friend Bess are about to start high school. All very scary, except that Claire is determined that Andie should be all prepared and left her younger sister a guidebook to navigating the wilds of Plumstead Country Day School. In this guide, Claire outlines the do's and dont's of school assuring Andie will know how to avoid the pitfalls.

While billed as a funny book, it actually came across a bit dry. Much of the "advice" seemed either cliche or like an inside joke (like you would get it if you knew the school she was referring to). But it was all fairly harmless and entertaining to read. What was far more annoying was the story around the guide itself (the conversation between Andie and Bess) -- easily identifiable by the bold type. My advice would be to skip all of those sections and just enjoy the guide itself.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Shark Girl, by Kelly Bingham

When Jane loses her arm in a freak shark attack, she must learn to cope with her loss and new life. Convinced that she'll never be able to draw again, she seeks new meaning in her life, while coping with the unwanted attention her loss brings her. As much as she hates the sentiment that she'll rise above it all, she eventually does.

A mixture of free verse, dialogs, correspondence, and miscellaneous media, Bingham has attempted to capture the process of healing. It's a valiant effort and not a badly written first novel, but I found it a bit repetitive. As interesting as the premise was, there just was not much that could be done with the story. There is a satisfying dramatic arc, but Bingham is trying so hard to avoid a feel-good ending (while still reaching some sort of satisfying conclusion) that the story stagnates.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Violet On the Runway, by Melissa Walker

Violet finds her height to be a major liability that keeps her from being popular. And while she mocks the popular and beautiful kids at school with her friends, she secretly longs to be one. When a New York talent agent spots her as a new fashion superstar, Violet gets an opportunity she could never have dreamed of. Suddenly, her earlier ambitions pale beside the life she is living. But in true VH1 fashion, Violet discovers that high fashion is not all fun and glamor, and that fame has its costs.

You can predict the formula from the start and know how this story will end up. In itself, being a predictable formulaic story is not a bad thing in a comfort read like this. However, what bothered me more was how thinly Violet's character was developed. I didn't believe that her motivations were real, finding the plot a bit forced as she dumped her friends and then forced again as she tried to reclaim them. It's fun to see the inside of the fashion world (and I'm sure that a lot of readers will find that to be sufficiently entertaining) but this could have been a better book with some more work on Violet herself.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

The Wednesday Wars, by Gary D. Schmidt

In this (probably) autobiographical series of stories about growing up in Long Island in 1967, Holling recounts the teacher who hated his guts so much that she taught him to love Shakespeare, running, and camping out. While Vietnam wages on and MLK and Bobby are gunned down, Holling is learning that the Bard has a lot of wisdom to impart and that sometimes a mean lunch lady, a shy Vietnamese refugee, two angry rats, and the daughter of his father's competitor can be useful allies in helping you find yourself.

Imagine a really decent episode of The Wonder Years, then imagine nine of them. Except that these are really good episodes (were there any??). Heck, just imagine something like that but multiply it several times over. I'm no fan of historical fiction and any novel that goes off on baseball is guaranteed to put me to sleep, yet I loved this one. Sweet, insightful, and touching, but not overly saccharine. It was a good pick for a Newbery Honor this year.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Mistik Lake, by Martha Brooks

Mistik Lake, in the middle of rural Manitoba, serves as the setting for three generations of people with secrets. These secrets bind the people together but also cut people off from truly understanding the reasons why a series of tragedies have occurred. But as the youngest generation (represented by Odella and Jimmy) fall in love, their elders realize that it is time to come clean on everything.

I enjoyed Brooks's earlier novel True Confessions of a Heartless Girl, which was a more traditional YA novel (with the minor twist that the main character was a bit of a screw-up), but this is a much more ambitious story. The complicated narrative can make the action a bit hard to follow, but everything comes together in the end in a satisfying way. More of an adult novel about teens than a real YA piece, but no less enjoyable.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

If a Tree Falls at Lunch Period, by Gennifer Choldenko

In alternating chapters, the story of Kirsten and Walk unfolds. Kirsten is struggling with her parents' fighting (and possible divorce) and the loss of her BFF to popular girl Brianna. She copes by eating, which exacerbates her problems. Walk is the only African-American kid in the school and trying desperately to fit in. But just as you get a handle on the story and think it is following tried-and-true YA formula, it veers in a totally unexpected direction. And while this initially seems a bit contrived, it raises issues of much deeper importance than normally handled in a novel like this.

A strikingly mature novel, written in a realistic style, that in the end is a winner. The plot twists do seem a bit forced, but it all works out in the end, even if the characters (realistically) do not manage to work out all of their issues. It's rare to find a book about racial (and other) prejudices that doesn't feel the need to preach. That is one of those books. An excellent read with an excellent message: life is all a bit more complicated that we (especially the adults!) want to make it.

Friday, March 07, 2008

Before I Die, by Jenny Downham

Tessa is dying of leukemia. This isn't news to her. She's been fighting the battle for over four years, but now her options are running out. And for the last few months of her life, Tessa has made a list of the things she wants to do before she goes (have sex, do drugs, commit a crime, become famous, etc.). But completing the items on her list proves to not really be the point after all, because dying turns out to be almost as difficult as living.

An unusual YA novel that addresses mortality (and it will spoil nothing to say that she does die at the end, because the point of the book is to explain dying, not living). It won't cheer you up and I recommend a good comedy or two afterwards (I'll have to see what I can find!), but it's a decent book. The dust jacket calls it "uplifting" and "joyous" but I would not go that far. There is hardly anything in this to be happy about, but again that's not the point.

Thursday, March 06, 2008

A Crooked Kind of Perfect, by Linda Urban

Zoe dreams of being Horowitz, awing the masses as a piano prodigy, but first she has to learn to play. And then there's her agoraphobic Dad and workaholic Mom to contend with. Never mind a bully who seems to have taken a friendly interest in her and her ex-BBF who no longer wants her around (who knew that socks were no longer cool?). Life IS complicated and there is no way she'll ever get to Carnegie Hall unless she can figure out how to make the Perfectone D-60 organ become the grand piano of her dreams.

Hooray for an absolute winner of a book! From endearing characters to can't-stop-laughing moments, this is a fantastic first novel. I laughed and I cried, but most of all I cheered for a great set of misfits and some heartwarming moments. Neither cloying nor manipulative, this charming story is a must read! Bravo!

Monday, March 03, 2008

Carpe Diem, by Autumn Cornwell

Vassar is a master of planning (from a family of planners) and she's got it all figured out: HS Valedictorian, attend Vassar College (hence, the name!), get PhD, win Pulitzer, and so on. But when her Grandma Gerd (the family flake) invites her to come to Southeast Asia for the summer for less than two weeks' notice, Vassar gets the surprise of her life when her parents insist that she go! Never mind what plans it will ruin. Something is definitely up, but to find out what it is, Vassar will have to go and learn a lot more about Grandma, Asia, and herself than she could have ever possibly imagined.

Long-ish, but entertaining, with a nice mixture of self-discovery, romance, adventure, and some minor suspense. You know how it is all going to end (especially with the amazingly exaggerated beginning), but you have to credit the book for being a decent read. It doesn't drag and you do get caught up in it. Now, why anyone thinks that going to Vassar is their life-long ambition is beyond me (been there, have the AB cum laude to show for it!), but I guess it is better than calling her Barnard!