Thursday, May 29, 2008

The Shakeress, by Kimberley Heuston

In the late 1820s, tragedy strikes Naomi's family as her parents and younger brother are killed in a fire. Like a period melodrama, they are sent to live in the uncaring arms of Aunt Thankful, but Naomi comes to realize that their salvation lies with joining the Shakers. And while that provides comfort, it only temporarily delays Naomi's own realization that her place lies elsewhere. Through years of searching, Naomi attempts to find that place for herself.

An unusual historical novel and an even more unusual YA story, Heuston walks a fine line between historical accuracy and anachronistic feminine empowerment, but the result is a beautiful piece that is true to both history and character. Nice period details and a heroine who is both strong and believable. As one reviewer noted, the writing also beautifully depicts the spiritual dimension of Naomi's search. That's icing on the cake in the remarkable work.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

The Talented Clementine, by Sara Pennypacker

In this sequel, Clementine is still getting in trouble and having trouble paying attention. Third grade is doing a Talent-palooza and everyone has something to perform except Clementine. But just as the big show cames, Clementine and her teachers discover her hidden talent (and it isn't getting in trouble).

For younger readers, this continues to be a really strong series (in the tradition of Ramona or Judy Moody). It's funny for both younger and older readers, with a gentle and kind world view. For whenever you need a break from the dreariness of YA or adult novels and just want a laugh, Clementine does it for me!

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Sweethearts, by Sara Zarr

In this beautiful and poignant story, Jenna has to confront her past when her childhood sweetheart Cameron returns from the dead and shows up at her school in her senior year. Her friends and boyfriend assume that Cameron and Jenna have a romantic thing going on, but it is much more complicated than that. While never able to adequately explain their emotions, Jenna and Cameron both learn a great deal about themselves and their relationships with others through the experience.

A surprisingly spare yet emotionally intense novel. The beginning and end are notably outstanding. Zarr's previous Story of a Girl was a great (albeit mildly flawed) book, but she is building up her talents. In this case, I found the middle section a bit dull and lacking direction, but the bookends make up for it quite adequately. Anyone who isn't crying through the last chapter has a heart of stone. Highly recommended.

Friday, May 23, 2008

The Girlfriend Project, by Robin Friedman

Reed Walton is a senior and has always been a bit of an outcast, the kind of guy who Marsha Peterson laughed at in freshman year when he asked her out on a date. But Reed has grown two inches over the summer, gotten contacts, and lost his braces. Now he's ready to find his first girlfriend. And with some help from his best friends Ronnie and Lonnie he's having more success than he ever thought possible. Reed has gotten used to his loser-dork status, so the discovery that his new self turns heads is quite a surprise. Moreover, he finds that getting a date is not only no longer a problem, but that he has to pry them away. Now, if he could only get the girl of his dreams!

The strength of this story is the way it brings up so many familiar discussions about dating (the types of questions we have all discussed at one time or another), exploring the unbalanced rituals of the process and exploring what it really is all about. As an actual story, the plot drags a bit at the end but it does pull a last minute satisfying conclusion.

It's also a bit hard for me to relate to the story as I was never much of a casual dater as a teen (although ironically I did a bit much more recently as an adult). But I suspect that for those who have gone through the whole dating scene, there's plenty to recognize here.

Perfect You, by Elizabeth Scott

Kate's life is falling apart. Her father has quit his job to sell stupid vitamins at the mall. As a result, her family is falling into debt, her parents are fighting, everyone at school is making fun of her, and she has to work with her Dad while he does nothing to stop the decline. Worse still, he best friend is not really speaking to her anymore. To make life even more complicated, there's a guy she doesn't like (or maybe she does!) who may like her (but he probably doesn't!). Kate is convinced that no matter how hard she tries to make things work out, that they just won't. And it's not worth trying. This attitude in turn basically creates self-fulfilling prophecies, but she is blind to that effect.

While the characters feel very realistic in their flaws, this does not make them particularly likable protagonists. I would hope that readers will see how destructive and arrogant the depicted behaviors are. I would hope that readers would draw the conclusion that these are not lives to emulate. But I'm not convinced that they will. And having such an anti-hero at the center of the story makes this a hard read.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Peeled, by Joan Bauer

Hildy has a talent for investigative journalism (much like her deceased father). When strange events start to happen in her sleepy Upstate New York apple-growing town, she knows something is rotten to the core. The arrival of ghosts, psychics, and real-estate developers adds no comfort. But what can you do about it when you are just working on a school newspaper?

Most of Bauer's stories are the same (hard-working teen outsmarts corrupt elders and usually gets a boyfriend in the process). All that changes from novel to novel is the overallarea of interest (waiting on tables, growing squashes, selling shoes, etc.). This recent novel is particularly reminescent of Hope Was Here. Why mess with success? And, admittedly, Peeled is a satisfying story. So, file this in the Guilty Pleasures category. If you like her other stories, you'll like this one. But if you've never read anything by her before, start with Hope Was Here or Squashed instead.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

The Girl I Wanted To Be, by Sarah Grace McCandless

Presley (named after Elvis) has always idolized her Aunt Betsi, even though Betsi is only a few years older and has more than a few noticeable flaws (alcoholism most noticeably). But in this period coming-of-age novel, Presley comes to realize that the adults around her have much bigger issues than she does. As she witnesses the collapse of her perfect world, she gains appreciation for her own strength.

No one can deny that this is an unusual YA novel, focusing far more on the adults than the kids, and playing around with the narrative to shift the usual dramatic arc (conclusions coming first, timelines rejigged, etc.). The book gets high marks for originality and even for writing. However, I found it to still be a hard book to engage me. The characters did not appeal and I felt like they were keeping me at arm's length. I just didn't care. I realize that that is a particularly personal reaction and others may find this to be absolutely fantastic.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Just for You to Know, by Cheryl Harness

When Carmen's family moves to their new town, she can't imagine anything worse than the embarrassment that her large family causes her. As the eldest and the only girl, her brothers are an endless source of pain and suffering. But then the arrival of a baby sister and a tragic loss raises the stakes and Carmen comes to realize that life can be a lot worse and there are bigger issues to worry about.

Set in 1963, the novel is speckled with gratuitous historical references (not to the culture or mores of the time, but just headlines) that seem designed to make the book educational (in the dull sense). The story itself is fine, but not outstanding, and this is mostly an average read. Since I'm not a big fan of historical fiction (and this one doesn't really need its historical setting for anything), I did not enjoy this one very much.

Friday, May 09, 2008

Safe, by Susan Snow

Tracy can divide her life into two halves: the first half when everything was normal and the second where nothing feels safe anymore (as a result of a sexual assault). The event leaves her afraid and vulnerable, scare that her assailant could be around any corner. Agoraphobia drives her indoors and causes her to shut herself off from her friends. But she finds comfort in music and slowly pulls herself together.

While a compelling idea (to write about the healing process), this is a difficult story to tell. Healing is a subtle process and Shaw is wise to avoid any quick fixes. But in shooting for realism, she ends up with a slow and sluggish story. I admire the effort but I never felt engaged by the story. A valiant, but ultimately failing, effort.

Remembering Raquel, by Vivian Vande Velde

After Raquel is struck by a car and dies, various people (friends, schoolmates, teachers, family, etc.) gather for her memorial and share their thoughts -- not aloud, but rather to themselves. And, in each short chapter, those inner thoughts are given voice, creating an image of the world that Raquel lived in.

The concept is a good one, but never quite pans out for me in this novel. Some of the chapters are poignant and meaningful (even revealing) but most are stereotypes (shallow popular girl, geeky nerd, etc.) and some are even trite. The resulting work seems disconnected and random (with both good and bad parts). An overall miss.

Sunday, May 04, 2008

Lock and Key, by Sarah Dessen

Ruby almost made it to her 18th birthday without anyone finding out that she was living on her own since Mom left her. She would have made it if the dryer hadn't broken down and the landlords noticed that she was alone in the house and then called social services. But this set-back has striking good fortune attached to it as Ruby is reunited with her older sister (who left home ten years before) and her new family. And as Ruby adjusts to her new school, new friends, and new life, she explores the meaning of the word "family" and everything it encompasses.

As long-time readers of this BLOG know, I'm not a big fan of the parents-abandoning-children motif, but if someone could rescue this boiler-plate, it would be Sarah Dessen. It's been pointed out to me that Dessen is one of the best developers of characters (each of hers have depth and personality, no matter how small of a role they have), but I've always been more of a fan of her wistful language. There's less of that here than I would like, but the novel is certainly a good one. It won't rank up with Dreamland or Someone Like You (my favorites) but it is still an excellent addition to her pantheon. There are even a few Easter Eggs in this one (as she has done in most of her recent novels) to reward the loyal readers. And, in keeping with current trends as well, this novel's theme (family) is fairly consistently played throughout, albeit sometimes with a bit of a sledgehammer.

What kills me though is how poorly Dessen gets treated by YALSA and the professional librarian clique. I guess it is because she doesn't have a lot of multicultural characters in her stories or perhaps it is bias against the commercial success of her work, but it seems grossly unfair. Without a doubt, Dessen is one of the best YA writers currently working. Her books are not fluffy Gossip Girls trash nor even as lightweight as Meg Cabot (now, don't get me wrong, I like Cabot too, but she's a guilty pleasure) and she deserves some recognition for them. But while I see her novels get nominated on the YALSA BBYA lists, it never goes further than that.