Monday, September 29, 2008

Toy Dance Party, by Emily Jenkins

In this sequel to Toys Go Out, Stingray, Lumphey and Plastic are still having their adventures, and hanging out with old friends (the washer and dryer) as well as new ones (the mice and a rubber shark). The girl is growing older though and she spends more of her time with the Barbies (who don't talk) and away at sleepovers and soccer practice. The toys are worried that perhaps she is forgetting about them, but they have a wide variety of distractions including a fabulous dance party in the basement!

I was really looking forward to this sequel but really let down by it. Harsh perhaps, but as Toys Go Out was one of my favorite books, the sequel had a lot to live up to. It fails for me for a number of reasons: the stories have gotten much more complex and lack the fun of the first set, a number of the characters have changed (the relationship between the toys and the people, the fact that the dryer talks, and the "naughtiness" of the toys, etc.). I laughed frequently while reading the first book. This time I didn't laugh at all (OK, I cracked a smile here and there but it's not the same thing). It's not that Toy Dance Party is a bad book (I'll probably still give it two stars), but it is such a pale follow-up to its classic predecessor. I think I'll just go curl up with that one instead!

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Alice McLeod, Realist At Last, by Susan Juby

Picking up shortly after the Miss Smithers contest, Alice is now pursuing her dream of becoming an incredibly talented screenwriter. She's also trying to cope with the departure of Goose, having Mom in prison, juggling the attentions of men aged 14-22, finding a job, and deciding whether to stick to her own fashion sense or finally fit it with her classmates. It's a busy agenda but, as usual, she navigates through it all with a mix of style and cluelessness.

Some may say that the novelty of Alice has worn a bit thin in this latest installment, but Juby does a great job of keeping the story original and fast paced. Alice is still an acquired taste and many readers will dislike her arrogance. But I still think she is a lot of fine (as sort of an older Clementine). I will admit that I probably wouldn't like her in real-life, but that's not a prerequisite for finding her adventures interesting enough to read about.

Dirty Work, by Julia Bell

Hope is the lucky one living a sheltered rich girl life, with only a few complaints about a neglectful Dad and an overbearing Mom. Oksana, on the other hand, comes out of impoverished rural Russia, tricked into a career of prostitution by white slavers. But when the two girls cross paths, Hope is kidnapped and they must help each other out.

Meant to be shocking, this novel turns out to be relatively tame (as I find is true with so many other "shocking" Brit-YA books). The back story of Oksana is interesting enough, but old news. And Hope simply doesn't have much of a story. Overall, I found this a bit thin. You'll worry a bit about the danger that the two girls are in, but it's hard to get too engaged.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Dante's Daughter, by Kimberley Heuston

In 14th century Florence, Antonia faces a life of few options. Her situation is made more difficult by the dangerous politicking of her famous father. But in an extraordinary turn of events, she follows her Dad to Paris and then back to Italy, discovering that even if her life options are narrow, that people can make a lot of those options. Along the way, we learn a lot about life in those times, making this both an educational and entertaining read. We also come to understand how happiness is possible under what seem like dire circumstances.

As remarkable of a book as Heuston's earlier Shakeress, this novel benefits from a more colorful era and location, but suffers from being tied to people and events that are more famous. Still, Heuston manages to weave magic out of history and make it seem like less of a lesson than a true coming of age story. She avoids the temptation to give her characters anachronistic modernistic notions about individualism and instead creates characters who are both true to period faith yet identifiably human. This is certainly among the best historical YA literature being created.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

How Not to be Popular, by Jennifer Ziegler

Maggie is tired of making friends and settling in to a new place, only to have her hippie parents decide that it is time to move on. When her boyfriend from Portland dumps her within a few weeks of their arrival in Austin TX, Maggie decides that the key thing is to NOT like a place and NOT to fit in or make friends. That way, when she has to leave, she won't have anything or anyone to miss. The problem is that the more she tries to be unpopular and escape people's attention, the more she finds her popularity growing. At first, she figures that the kids in Austin just don't get how geeky she is being, but soon she realizes that maybe she is the one who doesn't understand popularity (let alone unpopularity).

Alpha Dog and this second novel by Ziegler share in common a great deal of common threads. Both feature a misunderstood girl with a bunch of oddball characters. A certain amount of drama leads to a feel good very happy ending, with everyone doing pretty well. The happy ending stuff reminds me of Meg Cabot and the oddball characters are more like Sarah Dessen. Ziegler isn't as good as either of these YA icons, but she's got a fun writing style and her books are good reads.

How much, though, can you relate to a girl who is popular and loved no matter what she does? THAT could get more than a bit annoying (yes, everyone will get the message of this book -- be yourself and you will be happy -- but I doubt that that is really going to work in the real world). So, this story works in a fantasy sense and perhaps in some adult's view of what high school is like (although are cliques really ever as simple as they get portrayed in books like this?), but the moral of the story probably isn't all that useful. IMO, read this one for fun and avoid any deeper take-home message.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Cheating Lessons, by Nan Willard Cappo

When Wickham High wins first place in a state-wide classics lit test and a berth in the televised Classics Bowl, Bernadette is certainly happy enough and she looks forward to squashing the competition. But she is also suspicious that their performance seems too good to be true. Things are not quite adding up, despite the assurances of their team's advisor Mr. Malloy. Sure, they are goo, but are they that good? But even if she can prove that the whole thing has been fixed, what should she do about it?

A functional and entertaining story, but with some odd rough spots. The beginning and end are surprisingly weak and don't really fit the characters developed in the rest of the book. Motivations are a bit muddy throughout and the whole thing needed better development. Not bad.

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

What Erika Wants, by Bruce Clements

When Erika's mom brings her to a custody hearing to get the judge's sympathy, the judge surprises them both by assigning Erika a lawyer. At first, she doesn't think she needs one (she's certain that she wants to live with her mother), but soon Erika discovers how useful a lawyer can be and how little she truly understands about what she wants. With the help of her attorney, she starts to sort this out.

Written with the obvious purpose of praising the work of a child's advocate in family court (by an author who works with them), this book can get a bit pedantic at times. It's a valiant aim, but perhaps the author would have scored more honesty points by simply writing the non-fiction he wanted to. The lawyer character is far too good to be true -- tirelessly sacrificing personal life without a concern or complaint. The other characters, while nuanced, are similiarly two-dimensional. Everything just goes a bit too cleanly. If this is supposed to be fiction, it needs more realism.

The Otherworldlies, by Jennifer Anne Kogler

Fern is considered a freak by her classmates as she looks strange and keeps to herself. But her secret abilities (talking with her dog, moving liquids with her mind, and teleportation) would scare them worse. As her powers grow stronger, she cannot hide them and soon powerful strangers start to appear. Some of them want to help, but others threaten her, her family and friends, and the world as we know it. Middle school never looks so tough for a would-be vampire.

This is not really my genre (vampires and magic), but this book turned out to be a lot better than I expected it to be. It did seem a bit long-winded (did it really need to be nealy 400-pages long?), but as an adventure story, it worked pretty well. And young readers will probably enjoy the story of a wallflower who has lots of magical powers to save the universe (sort of an American Harry Potter without the hype).

Saturday, September 06, 2008

The Eyes of Van Gogh, by Cathryn Clinton

Jude has been dragged around a lot in her first 17 years as her mother bounced from one man to another [I seem to be reading a lot of these wandering Mom books lately!]. And in that time she has never been able to find friends and feel at home. As she sees her mother's anger, she realizes that neither has her Mom. But when they move to Ellenville, Jude hopes things will be different. Her grandmother is there and Jude makes two new friends and finds a boyfriend. But when things go wrong and fall apart, Jude gets swept away in depression that nothing will ever change. And looking at her artistic hero (Vincent Van Gogh) she becomes convinced that that is just how life is.

It's hard work to write a book about depression that doesn't make your character appear whiny. Clinton does a good job there. In fact, the characters are overall quite well developed. Even the story is nicely paced and interesting. So, why did I hate this book (and geez, I've been reading a lot of goose eggs lately, haven't I?)? I think it is because the writing is positively clunky. At first, I thought it was a stylistic thing (writing in a young person's voice) but this is just a poorly written book.

The Vanishing Point, by Louise Hawes

In the late 16th century, Vini is an unusual young woman. The only surviving child in a family of a successful Bologna painter, she too shows signs of promise. But her father cannot see her talents as he remains obsessed with having a son inherit his mantle. Can she get him to open his eyes and see what she can do? Based on a real person, this historical novel imagines the early life of the Renaissance painter Lavinia Fontana.

While the story picks up to end with a satisfying conclusion, this was a hard slog to read through. The characters are interesting, but the pacing is awkward and the story lacks suspense making it dull.

Outside Beauty, by Cynthia Kadohata

Life with Mom has always been an adventure for Shelby and her three sisters. It seems that they are always on the run from someone. But Mom is glamorous and has an ability to land on her feet with a new man. But then an accident puts Mom in the hospital and the four girls are split up to live with their fathers (each girl has a different father). Somehow, the girls must learn to live apart.

Starting a bit slow, this story picks up after a while, before ending in a rush and sloppy conclusion. The book itself is a muddle. What was Kadohata trying to do with this story? Was it about family ties? Or seeing inner beauty? Several themes are brought up and worked on, but never fully developed. It felt like Kadohata just lost interest in her story.

Monday, September 01, 2008

Where People Like Us Live, by Patricia Cumbie

In the summer before high school, Libby's family moves to Rubbertown WI. Within two weeks, her Dad in on the picket line and Libby is helping her mother make ends meet cleaning houses. But she still finds the opportunity to make a new best friend. At first, this girl (Angie) seems exciting and brave, but when Libby learns that Angie is being abused, she has to decide whether to be loyal to her friend or to stand up for what she believes to be right. She comes to realize that her decision is very much like her father's choice to strike.

Dull. That basically sum s up my review. Misidentified in every review (including my own summary above, but it's hard to find much else of substance to summarize) as a book about friendship and loyalty, the great test that Libby must endure is not even introduced until 80+ pages in and is resolved with very little heartbreak. What this book really is is a mood poem -- a depiction of an environment. It's got vibrant characters but Cumbie avoids any dramtic development. That basically spells out sheer boredom to me.

Love & Lies, by Ellen Wittlinger

In this sequel to Hard Love, the focus has switched to Marisol and things have moved on. Marisol and Gio have learned how to just be friends. Gio has a girlfriend and Marisol is meeting people. Marisol is taking a year off before college and working on his first novel, but she has distractions. At first, she is taken by the shy Midwestern girl Lee but Lee is quickly outshone by the fantastically beautiful writing teacher Olivia and things take off. The relationship with Olivia becomes complicated and Marisol finds that she has trouble balancing it with her friendships and being true to herself.

Hard Love, while Wittlinger's most famous work, is not actually my favorite and sequels will always have an uphill battle with me proving their right to exist. The story is functional but a bit slow. Even a not-so-good Wittlinger book is a decent read, but this is basically a girl-meets-girl story with a better-than-usual conclusion. No groundbreaking work.

Ever, by Gail Carson Levine

In this unusual fairy tale, a mortal girl Kezi is courted by the young god of the winds Olus. When Kezi is condemned to die as a human sacrifice, Olus must find a way to save her. But will it succeed? And if it does work out, will the costs be too high for Kezi? While strongly reminiscent of Arab folklore and customs, this story is set in its own original world with two distinct cultures -- the polytheistic Akka contrasted with the monotheism of Kezi's people in Hyte.

Like Levine's other works, this story has a rich setting and memorable characters. As is typical in her books, Levine combines mythic archetypes with unusual twists giving this romantic epic a truly original flavor while staying rooted in familiarity. A good read.

Saving Juliet, by Suzanne Selfors

Mimi is the fourth generation of an acting dynasty and none too happy about it. She'd rather be getting ready to go to college (pre-med) and not stuck doing Romeo and Juliet with shallow pop idol Troy Summer. And then things take a turn for the weird when a magic charm transports her and Troy into Verona itself. To escape, they end up rewriting the greatest love-tragedy of all time.

I imagine that books like this exist on two planes -- to provide an author with a cute setting to tell a story and also to entice young readers to read classics. But like Ophelia, this story transcends its Shakespearean setting to become both a decent adventure and a heartfelt coming-of-age story. I liked this story a lot, except for a far too conveniently tied-up ending (I would actually recommend skipping the last too chapters altogether -- what was her editor thinking?!).

Exodus, by Julie Bertagna

In under a century, Earth has been almost entirely submerged under water from the melting of the polar ice caps. As Mara's island shrinks away, she becomes convinced of the existence of sky cities where the people of her island can find a new home. But leading her people to this promised land, she finds a situation this is horrifying. And now she has a mission to do more than just save her people -- she must find a way to right a historical mistake.

A great premise with an imaginative vision of what the world could become. But like that old Kevin Costner gem Water World, this novel suffers from incoherent storytelling. Bertagna is obviously impatient to get her story from one dramatic turn to another, and she sacrifices character development to do so. The result is reader confusion and exasperation. A missed opportunity.

All We Know of Heaven, by Jacqueline Mitchard

Bridget and Maureen were both cheerleaders in their small Minnesota town and also best friends, until an accident claims the life of one of them. A case of mistaken identity causes the town and the families to mourn the passing of the wrong girl. And the aftermath of this second tragedy tears apart friendships and kindles new ones.

Billed as a YA novel, this really isn't one -- it has teen-aged characters but the story is neither specific to adolescence nor told in an adolescent voice. This is not in itself a problem, but for me the story mostly fails for being plotless. Instead of telling a story, Mitchard starts with the seminal climax and just wanders for a year or so afterwards, bringing up interesting vignettes. It's a popular modern writing convention, but one that doesn't work for me. I was left wondering what was the point of the story?

The Patron Saint of Butterflies, by Cecilia Galante

Agnes and Honey are close friends but have been growing apart. Agnes still adheres to the rules of the religious commune in which they grew up, while Honey is straying from the path. A surprise visit from Agnes's grandmother leads to an equally unexpected trip and causes both girls to confront their pasts and what they really want in their future lives.

The not-so-kind portrayal of religious fanatics is probably a bit too much, but it sets up an interesting background for this fairly by-the-numbers adventure. Suspense is kept to a minimum and the plot twists are predictable, but this is a decent read and we can look forward to more from Galante.