Saturday, December 31, 2005

Bras & Broomsticks, by Sarah Mlynowski

When Rachel finds out that her little sister Miri is a witch (and that her Mom is too), her first thought is how amazingly unfair it is that she didn't get the same powers, but then she realizes that magic could do wonders for her popularity and maybe even help her keep her Dad from marrying Jennifer (the STB). But quickly, Rachel learns that popularity and magic can have some pretty harsh consequences.

Part recycled Grimms Tale (and what good story isn't?) but with some modern cred behind it, Rachel will remind readers a lot of Cyd Charisse (the heroine of Gingerbread and Shrimp) but a bit younger. She's as boy crazy but maybe not as boy lucky. And the writing is snappy and fast paced. I'm not too bonkers for the story which seems a bit predictable and well-trod, but it's a fun read.

Thursday, December 29, 2005

The Truth About Sparrows, by Marian Hale

When Sadie's family is forced to sell their home and travel in search of a new life at the height of the Depression, Sadie hopes the change will be temporary. She hopes that soon they'll be able to return home to Missouri and to her best friend Wilma. But as time goes by, Sadie realizes that there is no going back, and that she must make a new home on the Texas coast, with new friends and a new life.

Hale's story of coming of age in the midst of economic dispair has all the makings of assigned reading. It's a good story if you're into historical fiction, but one can't help but wonder how many readers end up reading it because they have to write a book report for school. The strengths are the crisp writing and tone that never misses a beat, but there isn't much that will grab and hold you.

My own reading experience was interrupted as I started reading this book a month ago and had to stop because the copy I was reading was missing pages -- so there was a gap in my experience. That said, I didn't find myself gripped with suspense at what I was missing, so while this is a good book, it's no page turner.

Monday, December 26, 2005

Harley Like A Person, by Cat Bauer

Harley think she may be adopted [didn't we just read that two books back?] and it would explain how her eye color differs from the rest of her family, and why her parents have lost her birth certificate and get all weird when she brings up her suspicions. But mostly Harley needs it to be true, to help her cope with the spiraling nightmare of her life which is causing her to lose touch with who she is. Instead, she tries alcohol, smoking, and drugs, climaxing is a last ditch effort to sort everything out which takes her to New York.

This is a pretty dark and melodramatic book. It's not bad. The writing is good, the characters are believable. I bought the motives and all, but the payoff at the end will disappoint as you just hoped for so much more, and the plotlines developed early just seem to die in the end. As far as "mystery of where I came from" stories, this is lightyears ahead of the Face on the Milk Carton.

Sunday, December 25, 2005

Keeping You A Secret, by Julie Anne Peters

Holland Jaeger is the senior class president, on her way to majoring in pre-law at Stanford, and the apple in the eye of her mother. She dates Seth (also on Student Council) and has a great set of friends. But then she meets Cece, a very out-of-the-closet teen lesbian, and Holland begins to have feelings that she has a hard time explaining to her mother, her friends, or herself.

Peters scores again with a touching book about coming out in high school, and the difficulties of being gay, when you're still trying to figure out what you want to major in in college, let alone what your sexual orientation is. It's not instant classic material, but it's a good book. I'll have to fault it slightly for dragging a bit at parts and then speeding to catch up. Maybe some editorial assistance? But these are the type of quibbles that shouldn't lead anyone to not read this book. Peters hasn't really expanded herself very much from Define "Normal" but she's in a very good place.

Saturday, December 24, 2005

The Anybodies, by Julianna Baggott [N.E. Bode]

Fern has been convinced for most of her life that she was raised by the wrong parents. They are dull and boring while Fern is certainly not. They talk endlessly about lawn care, while she is able to make crickets emerge from books, witness a nun turn into a lamppost and an umbrella, and sees evil clouds and watchful birds. Then, much to her delight, her suspicions are revealed to be true when her long lost real father Bone shows up and swaps her for the Summer with the boy who is supposed to be living where Fern is. And she acquires a mission: to find a powerful book called The Art of Being Anyone, before it falls into the devious hands of The Miser. There are angry fairies, dinosaurs, and all of your favorite children's book characters to deal with before Fern is done.

Julianna Baggott (writing as N. E. Bode) has obviously had a great deal of fun with this book, telling a story that will amuse children and put a smile on the face of lovers of kid lit. It's full of references to all sorts of classics (and more than a few knowing jibes at pretentious MFA creative writing programs as well!). Ine wonders if the whole thing isn't a bit too precious, but it's a quick read. Nice if you like fantasy, and a welcome break from so much of the other much-less-clever stuff out there.

Thursday, December 22, 2005

Looking for Alaska, by John Green

Miles Halter comes to Culver Creek, a boarding school in Alabama with few friends and fewer regrets. His great accomplishment so far is his obsession with people's last words. But his life changes as first he meets his new roommate (the colonel) and then he meets the enigmatic and emotionally volatile Alaska -- the young woman who would be the Love of His Life if only she would stop making fun of him for it. In this very touching and insightful look at growing up from a boy's point of view, everything is about Alaska. Everything, that is, until After.

I remain very very torn about this book. I hate boy books, especially books about boys written by boys. So, I really want to hate this book, but I now understand why this book is getting all the buzz this year from the librarians. John Green is truly an outstanding writer and I can see this winning the Printz (at least, it SHOULD win it). You will laugh and you will cry -- I rarely do when I read, but this was a major exception. I'd ding it if I could, but it deserves all four stars. stunning!

Sunday, December 18, 2005

Ola's Wake, by B. J. Stone

Josie and her Mom travel to the Ozarks to attend Great-Grandma Ola's funeral. Josie never met Ola when she was alive, but now she wants to get to know her. Through listening to other people's stories and learning about live in the Ozarks, Josie is able to do so.

It cute and quaint and a fast read. It's also disjointed and never really develops into a real story.

Belle Teal, by Ann M. Martin

Belle Teal is growing up in the South in the late Fifties. Her grandmother is going senile and her mother is studying at secretarial school while trying to support them all, so there's really no one at home for Belle Teal to tell about the new colored boy at school or snooty new rich girl. As she confronts her classmate's blatant racism with the help of her friend and a sympathetic young teacher, Belle Teal does a lot of growing up.

Probably one of Martin's better novels, this one still has some rough spots, almost as if it was rushed and underedited. It is enjoyable enough as a read for middle readers, but gets a bit scrappy at parts. Like other novels about racism in the past, this novel seems suspciously like one of those books you get assigned to read, rather than choose to. Might make a good book report subject but for enjoyment I'd go for something more contemporary and relevant.

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Tae's Sonata, by Haemi Balgassi

Taeyoung is a very self-conscious eighth-grader, but she has reason to be so, as one of only two Korean-Americans in her school. She copes with discrimination (some real, some imagined) and with a sense of isolation and loneliness, struggles with friendship and shifting loyalties, and a growing sense of herself.

A nice, charming, and short book about growing up Asian in America. Nothing terribly deep, but not a shallow book either. A good read.

Sunday, December 11, 2005

See You Down the Road, by Kim Ablon Whitney

Bridget is a Traveller, a group of modern day nomads who travle in trailers, making a living largely by ripping people off and then moving on before they can get caught. But 16 year old Bridget isn't sure that this life is for her. The stealing is part of her concern but it's also her upcoming marriage to Patrick that makes her question who she is and what she wants to do with her life.

Based on a real subculture, Whitney carves out an amazingly fresh landscape to tell her story. And being such an unusual background, the characters operate in ways we aren't accustomed to. How many teens worry about engagements, bride prices, and stealing to make their parents proud of them? I'll give the book high marks for originality and presenting a compelling set of characters.

But I think my reservations come mostly from personal problems with the story. It's hard to care about Bridget's fretting about getting married when she's defrauding and outright robbing people right and left and lives with such a distorted moral compass that this is OK. When you think of how these people live, this is a very difficult group to feel sympathy for.

Friday, December 09, 2005

Quiver, by Stephanie Spinner

Atalanta is a divinely-blessed huntress and athlete, accompanying Jason and his Argonauts on hunts and a favored mortal of the Goddess Artemis. When Atalanta's father, the king, comes to claim her from the woods where she was abandoned, he demands that she marry. And she replies by setting up a contest, a race which every suitor must run (and win) if he wishes to stay alive. Many suitors dies until Atalanta meets her match.

The story is classic Greek myth, with Spinner's psychological interpretation superimposed on the story. The result is uneven. Some scenes (like the boar's hunt) are nicely drawn, but the characters are sketchy and undeveloped. The most interesting parts end up being the squabbles of the gods themselves.

Saturday, December 03, 2005

My Father's Summers, by Kathi Appelt

In a series of short, poetic passages, Appelt tells the story of her childhood, growing up in Houston with a father who went to Arabia to escape his family, returning only to divorce her mother and marry another woman.

This really is not a YA book, but rather a book for adults about looking back on a childhood. The passages are all quite bittersweet, but it is not a tough task to make a brief segment come off that way. And it doesn't really create a story per se, just a collection of ideas. Nice writing, but not really storytelling either.

Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Lucas, by Kevin Brooks

Caitlin's life on the island is fairly quiet. She goes out drinking with her friend Bill and she dreads the return of her older brother Dom from university. But then a strange and cryptic vagrant boy named Lucas shows up and changes everything, threatening the stability and peace of life.

This is a very dark and violent story (and a long one!) -- one of my very infrequent outings into stories written by male writers. There's a reason for that: they tend to be dark and violent. The sheer amount of rapes, assaults, and so on in this book is enough to just disgust. I'll take my mushy heart stories anytime. Is Brooks a good writer? Yes, but you need a strong stomach.

Sunday, November 27, 2005

Anastasia Krupnik, by Lois Lowry

Anastasia loves lists and she's creating a list of things she loves and things she hates. There are lots of things to classify: her soon-to-be-born baby brother, her ailing gradmother, the nutty and seductive Washburn Cummings, and her parents. For a fourth-grader, there's a lot to say.

A little odd to go back to middle reader material again, when I've been doing so much teen reading lately. Weirder to read a book that is actually contemporary with my childhood. The book dates itself in numerous places (teachers and students smoke in Anastasia's father's college classroom), but it has tremendous heart. A contemporary equivalent would be the Judy Moody series and that probably accounts for some of the enduring popularly of Lowry's writing. A nice diversion.

Saturday, November 26, 2005

Joyride, by Amy Ehrlich

Nina and her mother Joyce never seem to spend very much time in the same place. That was fun when Nina was younger, but lately she's begun to yearn for some time to just make friends and have a life. But the more she yearns for that, the harder it becomes, it it all goes very very badly.

In what is ultimately a very sad book, Ehrlich does a wonderful job of creating characters and situations that we really care about. It's a challenge to generate a place full of memorable and believable characters, and she does so several times in such convincing detail that you feel as much wrenched from the setting as Nina does when they are forced to move again. The ending is a bit weaker, but still quite haunting.

Thursday, November 24, 2005

Bringing Up the Bones, by Lara M. Zeises

When Benji dies, Bridget doesn't know how to rebuild her life. They weren't even dating by the time he was killed, but that hardly mattered to Benji's parents who always treated her like a member of the family. And it didn't bring her closer to her distant mother or her doting stepfather. As Bridget tries to make some sense of her life, a new boyfriend Jasper enters the scene as now she tries to balance her ties for the old with her hopes for the future, and comes to realize some strong powerful truths that have more to do with herself and less to do with everyone else in her life.

This is categorically one of the best books I have read this year. I question a little whether it is truly a YA book (the jacket says 14+, but I suspect it's really shooting for an older audience based on its R-rated material at the very least). Yet as a novel in itself, it is a fantastic accomplishment. Zeises hits two major topics: (1) coping with grief; and (2) learning that strength comes from within and not from the people we are with. Two very powerful themes, dealt with realistically and with great heart. Unforgettable and highly recommended.

John Riley's Daughter, by Kezi Matthews

When Clover runs off and disappears, Memphis becomes something of a suspect. And it is true that Memphis and Clover had a fight in which Mephis said some terrible things that she regrets, but over the next three days, a lot of tensions simmering in the family come to the forefront and Memphis has a lot of discovering about where her friends lie and what a home really is.

This is a warm yet heartbreaking story of lost innocence and sufferings that never get quite resolved. It has some rough spots that keep it from being a true classic, but I still consider it a really good book. Some of the scenes don't play very well (Memphis's romance never quite pans out and an encounter with a crazy old woman is an unexplained jumble) but there's great lyrical narrative going on her.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Love Me, Love My Broccoli, by Julie Anne Peters

Chloe is a teenage animal rights activist. And when she meets jock football-playing Brett, it's a case of opposites attract. But eventually, her idealism and Brett's desire to have Chloe be less of a political frebrand come into conflict and Chloe has to choose what is really important to her.

This one had some great promise with observations about the difficulties of being a teen vegetarian and a strong-willed and likeable character, but the plot is all over the place with so many subplots (distant mother, senile grandmother, best friend's crush on teacher, and raids on animal-sacrificing churches!) that you just lose interest after a while. Peters can write good stuff, but this is not one of her best.

Sunday, November 20, 2005

Esperanza Rising, by Pam Munoz Ryan

Esperanza has a beautiful life as the privileged daughter of a wealthy Patron in Aguascalientes Mexico in the 1920s. But then her father is killed and her mother and her are forced to flee to the United States. Settling in the San Joaquin Valley, they become farm workers, harvesting vegetables and fruits for the companies there is back breaking poverty. But despite dealing with her mother's illness and the threat of strikes, Esperanza learns that wealth comes in many forms.

A heartwarming and exciting read. Unfortunately, because of its hispanic themes, it seems to be one of those books that schools use to prove they are multicultural by forcing the kids to read. I suspect that that makes a generation of middle school readers HATE this book. That is sad, because it is a beautiful book, like Gabriel Garcia Marquez for kids. I personally enjoyed all the references to Bakersfield and Kern County Hospital, since I worked there for 14 months. Highly recommended.

Friday, November 18, 2005

A Door Near Here, by Heather Quarles

When Mom gets sick (drinking bottles of vodka after bottles of vodka) and no longer takes care of the kids, eldest daughter Katherine tries to take charge and protect her three siblings. But she must struggle with a nosy teacher and the foibles of her brother and two sisters, the youngest of which is convinced that she can find the door to Narnia and get help from the great lion Aslan.

I am so tired of reading YA books about alcholic parents who let their children fend for themselves and the terribly dreary disintegration of life as these kids attempt to manage on their own. It becomes the same tired exercise as the author cooks up one crisis after another as life gets worse and worse. In this case, half of the crises end up just being non-events (in one case, the youngest disappears in a grocery store - presumably lost - then suddenly reappears as if the author forgot her own story -- continuity, anyone??). *sigh* Perhaps I would have enjoyed this book if it had been the first child-abandonment piece I had read. But it wasn't and I'm tired of them...

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

The Tail of Emily Windsnap, by Liz Kessler

Emily's fear of her first swimming lesson take a backseat when she discovers that her body transforms into a mermaid's when she enters the pool. And that's just the beginning of the fun as she discovers the alternate world of merfolk in the sea and attempts to see her father, and confronts Neptune.

This is no Little Mermaid, but rather a quirky and unusual story about an uncommon teenager. The book is at its best (and funniest) when it compares mer-teens and human teens. It drags a bit towards the end as Kessler seems to struggle with how to wrap up the story, but it has enough charm to make it an overall good read.

Monday, November 14, 2005

A Corner of the Universe, by Ann M Martin

When Hattie's summer begins, it seems like it will be just like any other: hot and quiet. Her best friend has left for the summer and she is free to hang out with her adult friends. But then two things happen: the carnival comes to town and her uncle Adam comes home for the summer. She's never met Adam, and in fact never even heard that she had an uncle Adam, but that's because Adam is special and of course he has some lessons to teach Hattie.

I was initially sceptical about this book. I don't like period pieces much and the character just didn't seem interesting, but the book grows on you and by the time I reached the end, I had a much better feeling about the book. No major life lessons learned, no major sob fests when you get to the end, but a pretty good book overall.

Saturday, November 12, 2005

Don't You Dare Read This, Mrs. Dunphrey, by Margaret Peterson Haddix

When Tish's Englishteacher, Mrs. Dunphrey assigns a journel, Tish knows it is a bogus assignment, especially since the teacher has said that they can write whatever they want and put "Don't Read This" on the entry and she'll respect their privacy. But when Tish starts to test that promise by writing about what is really going on at home, she acquires a mirror that shows her just how much her life is falling apart.

This is another of those stories about a teen trying to survive with disfunctional parents (See Room on Lorelei Street for example). They are harrowing stories of neglect and abuse and make for good melodrama, but I'm not sure what purpose they serve otherwise. The plot certainly sucks you in and the conclusion is a tear jerker, but in the end, what have we learned?

ttyl, by Lauren Myracle

Three ten graders (Maddie, Angela, and Zoe) struggle through the first half of tenth grade, dealing with crushes, flirty teachers, parties, and the usual misadventures of a YA novel, with the twist that the entire story is told through their IMs.

It's a cute concept, but hard to read. It took me about 40 pages to really get comfortable with the format, and then get somewhat familiar with the three characters, who have a tendency to merge together in the mind until they start really doing different things. The trouble with IM is that it establishes a lot of distance from the characters so that you really don't establish much of a connection with any of them. Basically, you're reading a long conversation, without ever really getting inside their hearts and heads.

Monday, November 07, 2005

Risky Friends, by Julie Anne Peters

Kacie notices that Skye, a new girl, is having trouble during their Algebra test. In a fateful moment, she sneaks Skye the answers and sets in motion a "friendship" that turns sinister as Skye reveals a deceitful and manipulative side. Kacie has to make the right decision and re-gain control over her life, before Skye destroys all of her former friendships.

How's that for a melodramatic synopsis? Well, it isn't quite that bad, but it isn't good either. This is pretty weak formula stuff, with dialog that sounds way too grown up. I'm not even sure anymore how I found this book, so perhaps we'll just this one slip by.

Sunday, November 06, 2005

After Fifth Grade, the World!, by Claudia Mills

Heidi (or HP as she likes to be called) has the meanest fifth grade teacher in the world, a friend who won't talk to her own parents, and parents herself that are the biggest slobs. But HP won't falter at a challenge. Instead, she develops schemes to change the world and learns some lessons about change and working with people.

A charming and functional middle school read. Very dated, but enjoyable. Like many of Mills's books, the adults seem a bit overly mean (ironic since exaggerated adults are more a trademark of teen reads) and that can be a bit distracting. But HP is a typical Mills heroine -- strong willed and brave.

Saturday, November 05, 2005

My Brother Made Me Do It, by Peg Kehret

Julie Welsh gets an assignment to write to an elderly pen pal in a nursing home. We never see any of the replies she gets, but we get plenty of news about Julie, her nine year-old brother who's always getting her in trouble and has an obsessive fascination with memorization, and Julie's struggle with rheumatoid arthritis.

I suppose I was hoping for a book that would really help readers understand rheumatoid arthritis, but we never quite get that. Instead, the story is a bit broken up, as one would expect from a storyline driven by letters. I'm just not sure that it works in this case. A weak book on an important topic.

Friday, November 04, 2005

A Room on Lorelei Street, by Mary E Pearson

Just when living with her alcoholic mother is becoming too much for Zoe, she discovers a room on Lorelei St that she can rent. And while she has very little money, and must fend off unsupportive teachers and family members, she manages to get through.

This is a very dreary and long book. I suppose all the train of consciousness writing is supposed to be artistic, but I just found it tedious and PAINFUL. Ugh! A heroine who suffers throughout, never manages to solve her problems, and runs away at the end of the book does not make me feel uplifted or enlightned or entertained or educated. It just leaves me feeling tired and exhausted. I'm not saying a story has to be light and airy, but somehow something needs to be learned in 266 pages. Or else, why did we bother???

Monday, October 31, 2005

Myrtle of Willendorf, by Rebecca O'Connell

Myrtle is an overweight sophomore in college with artistic talents, a largely unsympathetic roommate, and memories of a coven that she used to share with her weird high school friend Margie. Now that high school's over, she avoids Margie, but somehow thoughts of what they shared together stick with her.

This is a very witty and fast read (I made it through the 106 pages in under 40 minutes!). The descriptions are wonderful (although her graphic descriptions of needing a new pad, biting her fingers until they bleed, and barfing might be a bit much for those with gentler dispositions) and there's a bunch to keep you chuckling. It also helps if you're familiar with Wicca. Fun!

A very appropriate read for Halloween.

Sunday, October 30, 2005

Conditions of Love, by Ruth Pennebaker

Sarah loves her father unconditionally, because that's the way he loved her before he died. But as time has gone by, she is starting to learn things about him (and about herself) that make her question her beliefs. Her best friend Ellie is struggling with a mother who can't cope with her divorce and with a sister who is moody and trouble, but Sarah just wants to escape into a world of romance with Ben and dating tips from her new friend Stephanie. And then there is her opinionated and negative grandmother Nana who makes life a terror for Sarah's mother.

If you get a sense that there's a lot going on in this book, you're right. In fact, there are a number of storylines here, very few of which actually interrelate in any meaningful sense. That spells trouble. Editor?? Is there an editor in the house? Pennebaker has good material here and has an excelent sense of how teens talk (although not necessarily what they talk about), but really needed to find a focus for this novel, that is basically all over the map.

The narrative also suffers from a problem that I find often in YA books. Sarah is an odd mixture of highly-observent (much wiser than her years) yet unaware of her own feelings. She casually observes everyone else's body language, while remaining ignorant of her own needs. I suppose that one could argue that teens can get this way, but it seems to me far more likely the opposite is true: real teens are more likely to be self-aware than other aware. Basically, Pennebaker is putting her adult words into Sarah's mouth (although sometimes Sarah will credit her mother with an observation). That is rough, giving the novel the sort of preachy quality one finds in Judy Blume books. Again, an editor would have helped.

Saturday, October 29, 2005

Empress of the World, by Sara Ryan

OK, the digested review: girl meets girl, girl loses girl, girls try boys and decide that girl friendship is better....

Nic comes to The Siegel Institute (a summer school for gifted teens) expecting to focus on learning archeology. Instead, she discovers romance with Battle, the oddly named but enchanting. The summer becomes a story of struggling with emotions and desires, and wondering whether she is gay, bi, or just experimenting. Along the way, she discovers some great friends and more than a few lessons about human attraction.

Obviously, this is a great concept for a book and Ryan does a wonderful job capturing angst and the difficulties of struggling with sexual identity. What chills my review is actually the rest of the book, which gets a bit dull. If this was an Issue Book that just stuck to the whole teenage homosexuality theme (which, by the way, is really nicely done!), it would be excellent, but every 20 pages or so, we plung into a couple pages of fairly unrelated and inane dialog that caused my attention to flag. I really want to like this book, but it really needed to tighten up a bit.

One of the reasons I really liked the book was because I could relate to it. I was pretty convinced of my bisexuality when I attended the PA Governor's School for the Arts, but I can relate both to the hot house atmosphere of a gifted summer program and to that search for sexual identity. Ryan hits both of those right on. The most intense memory of PGSA was how intense we felt everything was. We were convinced that this was IT. We were the cream of the crop, the true experts, the new generation. None of us had gone to college yet, but we spoke of things that summer like it was an end. Certainly, spending weeks with kids who are as good as you are (and no longer being the lone star in your classroom) really boosts a person. But there is something almost explosive in combining those feelings with that teenage hormones and emotions. Remembering all this makes me want to go out and read a book just about that!

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

P.S. Longer Letter Later, by Paula Danzinger and Ann Martin

When Tara moves away to Ohio, she and Elizabeth are forced to carry on a correspondence through letters, and this book reproduces the first year of those letters. With each author penning one of the girl's letters, the story of an exciting year with various family traumas comes out one letter at a time.

It's a pretty cheapo way to write a book: writing pretend letters back and forth, with one author not quite knowing where the other one will take the story. The trouble is that it's more of a writing exercise than a coherent book. And the story is a big yawn too -- coming out in letters, we never get too see much of what is going on in the character's hearts. Superficial fluff.

Sunday, October 23, 2005

Falling Through Darkness, by Carolyn MacCullough

When Ginny loses Aidan, her life basically ends, and anything that was meaningful before isn't now. She rejects her friends and cuts herself off from her father. Her only source of comfort and communication is the new border Caleb, with whom she shares some painful common background, and feels that maybe she has found a replacement for Aidan or at least a soulmate. But the sceret that tears apart her life is that when Aidan died that night, it wasn't an accident....

MacCullough does a nice job of jumping around through the narrative timeline telling us just what we need to know when. This is good storytelling with some wonderful observations (about growing up, the nature of children of all ages, and grieving). It is a TERRIBLY depressing book though, so don't expect any happy ending or feel good moments.

Thursday, October 20, 2005

The Steps, by Rachel Cohn

When Annabel is abandoned at Xmas by her Mom and Grandmother in NYC, she gets sent halfway around the planet to Melbourne to spend the holidays with her father and his new family. At first Annabel hates everything she sees there, but most especially the way her father is so happy with his new life. With time, however, she grows to like it more and even appreciate the joys of having an extended family of "Steps."

Rachel Cohn created a wonderful character with Gingerbread but it seems like she is in a rut. Annabel comes off as being a slightly younger version of the heroine of that other novel. In fact, for allegedly being about three years younger, Annabel doesn't sound all that different. Add to that the way this story treads through familiar ground and chug along to a far too sweet happy ending, and you have a pretty dreary story.

Monday, October 17, 2005

Cally's Enterprise, by Claudia Mills

When Cally breaks her leg, she starts to imagine melodramatically that she is going to die of the complications or be an invalid for life. Instead, the experience (with some help from a brave and energetic boy and a strong teacher) helps Cally to realize that she can do all sorts of things. It teaches her to stand up for what she wants, rather than doing what her parents or other people want her to do. And it teaches her to be brave in the face of adversity.

Mills write lovely concise books for tweens (probably why I've reviewed so many of them over the past months). This one touches on all sorts of subjects (self-expression, responsibility, believing in yourself) and it avoids getting too preachy about it. Cally is her own teacher, relying on adults from time to time for advice, but generally understanding that only she can change herself. That is a wonderful lesson to impart to children (whether they read this book on their own or have an adult to read it with).

Saturday, October 15, 2005

The Color of Absence, Edited by James Howe

In this anthology, twelve different YA authors give their take on the meaning of loss, and how we cope with it. "Loss" is a loosely defined concept, so it ranges from a stolen bicycle to a dead father to a lost memory. Howe's own contribution "Enchanted Night" turns out to be the strongest of the pieces, as it retells a daughter's coping with the grieve of losing her father, her boyfriend, and her sense of accomplishment with the flute (all at the same time).

I know that short stories can often be quite good, but this anthology is overwhelmingly weak and shoddy. Howe is definitely a good writer, but his editing skills leave something to be desired as many of the contributors just seem to be going through the motions, with some chapters reading as unfinished chapters from something else. In one case (Myers's piece on baseball), the story isn't even a YA story! So, a great concept and Howe definitely had a good contribution to make, but he should have found 11 other people who could rise to the challenge. (In all fairness, Nye's "Shoofly Pie" was also a good piece, so they weren't all junk)

Thursday, October 13, 2005

Alt Ed, by Catherine Atkins

Susan is fat, unpopular, and invisible. Invisible, yet she can hear the scorn of her peers at everything she does. When Susan has to attend a special after-school group therapy or be thrown out of school, though, life changes. And as life changes, she comes to terms with her grieving father, her jealous brother, a prank caller, and a life only half lived. Not all of the other kids in her group are so lucky to learn so much, but everyone takes a powerful journey towards learning self-respect.

I'm very torn about this book. It's probably one of the best books I've read recently, but not quite going to make my must-go-out-and-buy-it list. Atkins really gets at you in all angles. She explores shyness, eating disorders, anxiety, bullying, teenage homosexuality, and a whole lot more. The narrative is gripping and it is a hard book to put down. Maybe I just don't want to read it again, because it was so intense. Still, truly a heart warming book where people grow older and wiser and lessons are shared with the reader. Highly recommended.

Monday, October 10, 2005

Eleven, by Lauren Myracle

This is the story of Winnie's life at eleven, running from her birthday until the day before she turns twelve, each chapter recounted a memorable event in each month. It's a story about being between things, having some friends go boy crazy and try to act grown up, while other friends hold back and act "babyish."

Myracle certainly has a good feel for what being 11 is all about. The problem really is that not an awful lot of interesting stuff occurs when you're 11, and this is really a series of anecdotes about being a tween. Good anthopology, not terribly gripping fiction. In other words, adults who want to be reminded what it was like to be 11 might get a kick out of it, but I can't imagine that middle readers would find the stories all that interesting.

Saturday, October 08, 2005

Dancing in Red Shoes Will Kill You, by Dorian Cirrone

Kayla has worked hard to become one of the best ballet dancers at FARTS (the Florida High School of the Arts) and so she is very surprised when she is passed over for the starring role in the Senior-year production of Cinderella. But the bigger surprise is when she finds out taht it is all because of the size of her chest! So, then she has to decide if she'll pursue breast reduction surgery or potentially give up her career dreams.

Cirrone occasionally gets a bit preachy (stuffing words into her teenage characters about self-empowerment that just don't sit well), but overall this is an enjoyable book with decent payoff. And the story stays a bit surprising, not taking the easy solutions.

Friday, October 07, 2005

The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, by Ann Brashares

Four girls, close since their birth, head off in separate directions for the Summer, but not before discovering the magic Pants and forming their Sisterhood. Now, they stay connected with letters and sharing the pants around, each one getting the pants for a week (and sharing them around as needed for special occasions). And so connected, their simultaneous adevnetures of their 15th summer unfold.

Since the movie came out, this first book of the series has become even more of a classic, so I am long overdue in reading it. I loved the Prologue. I loved the Epilogue. I loved each of the individual stories. But I found the constant jumping from one narrative to another quite jarring and frustrating. And, I think, that is basically the prime determinate of whether you'll like this novel or not. Because the rest is perfectly fine.

Tuesday, October 04, 2005

Who Needs Boys? by Stephie Davis

Rich princess spends summer on the farm and grows to love farmer boy who thinks she's stuck up at first. You can basically see Reese W playing the lead role (or maybe someone like her). Anyway, Allie is boy crazy and big into looking good, and has to come to terms with the facts that boys don't necessarily notice the same things that girls do. Meanwhile, she also has an absentee Mom to work through and some anger at her absent Dad.

It's an OK read, but terribly trite and predictable, and everything gets neatly wrapped up in the end. If you want a good feel-good book where you end up all happy that everyone got what they wanted (except the villian), then this is a book for you. No major literary value, but good entertainment.

Sunday, October 02, 2005

The Amazon Papers, by Beverly Keller

When Iris's mother goes away on vacation, Iris (normally the perfect straight-A, top athlete, overachiever daughter) makes one uncharacteristic and fateful decision to go out on a date with Foster. And it's all downhill from there, as the house, the car, and the friendships all take a beating, and Iris striggles with huge dogs with agressive bladders, leaky diapers, and a babysitter who saves the day again and again, even though she's younger than Iris.

It's got wit and it's got funny moments. The writing is funny and the situations just keep piling up, but there isn't much character development going on here and that may leave folks a bit disappointed. It was a quick read, but I found myself getting lost and not quite understanding the motivations that drove Iris to make some of the decisions that she makes. She's a strong heroine but a not-all-that-believable one.

Saturday, October 01, 2005

Bound, by Donna Jo Napoli

Set in ancient China, Bound is the story of Xing Xing, the stepdaughter of a sometimes cruel stepmother and half-sister. Called "lazy one," she tends for them but she is hardly the worst off. Instead, she gets to run errands to town, while her uglier half-sister must endure painful foot-bindings. But whether physically, emotionally, socially, or spiritually, all of them are truly bound in one way or another. That is, until the local prince announces a festival at which he will choose a bride, and Xing Xing discovers a wondrous secret left for her by her long-dead mother.

This retelling of Cinderella, in what turns out to be a more authentic source, actually works surprisingly well. So many of Napoli's books suffer from being great concepts but lousy applications. But this one works and works well. Napoli has captured a great understanding of Chinese culture and lifestyle, and meshed it to a familiar story, creating something quite original. I will continue to maintain that her stories are too dark and morbid (and full of very scary concepts) that make them a bit age-inappropriate for the middle reader audience she is shooting for, but this is a good book.

Friday, September 30, 2005

Rating the Books

I realized that after a while, it gets a bit overwhelming to find books that I've reviewed in this list. After all, as of now, there are like 83 books here! And that's only in six months....

So, I've created a separate webpage where I'll keep track of their rating using a five step scale. It's going to be a hard call and I'm not sure I'm entirely pleased with the results. But the top books and the bottom books are certainly on the money. We could probably all quibble about the ones with 2 or 3 stars on them.

Four stars, by the way, is the best!

Wednesday, September 28, 2005

The Secret Blog of Raisin Rodriguez, by Judy Goldschmidt

The gimmick of this book is that it is a BLOG written by seventh-grader Raisin Rodriguez (and a few comments from her readership), and basically recounts her days at a new school in a new town. There are some amusing events as Raisin tries out for soccer, has her first period, and deals with a boy dog named "Countess" who has strange dietary habits.

But this is a very boring novel. It is very rare that I run across an author that shares my last name (no relation, by the way), so I really wanted to like this book, but this was dull dull dull. When will YA authors realize that throwing in an account of your first period and other "girly" stuff does not make a story. There's no story arc, barely any character development, and nothing to keep you glued to the page. Sorry, this one's a big fat zero.

Sunday, September 25, 2005

Makeovers By Marcia, by Claudia Mills

Another book is Mills's series about West Creek Middle School (see Lizzie At Last), this one centers on Marcia the fashion-conscious who struggles with two challenges -- getting Alex to invite her to the dance and learning to like the mandatory community service project she's been assigned at a nursing home. But, of course, what seems to be easy becomes difficult and what seemed onerous becomes a joy.

Not having a lot of sympathy for the rather vain and silly Marcia at the beginning of the story handicapped me in enjoying this particular novel. It has few surprises, but fulfills all the necessary prerequisites of Middle School reading. Nothing exceptional, but it is pleasant. Average.

Saturday, September 24, 2005

Pop Princess, by Rachel Cohn

Wonder Blake has everything going for her. At 15, she gets a major recording contract and an opportunity to tour with pop diva Kayla. It's all success and fun, even as Wonder struggles with boys and parents and school and the memory of an older sister who died too young. But she's a witty thing and will figure out a way to survive.

Coming off as a cross between the movie Rock Star and Rachel Cohn's other books, this is a painful read. It has all of the blaring success and fairy tale quality of Meg Cabot, but without the wit or the suspense. Nothing seriously bad ever happens to Wonder in this story, and that makes for some PAINFULLY dull reading. I don't ask for continual pain and suffering (although it would have made for a better story than this!) but some sort of dramatic suspense to keep the story going would have helped.

Wonder is no Cyd and this story will never compete for Gingerbread for my affections. Instead, this is pop schmaltz creation about as interesting as the latest pop music star.

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Kissing Kate, by Lauren Myracle

Lissa and Kate were inseparable best friends until the party where Kate got drunk and they kissed out in a gazebo, and Lissa (who wasn't drunk) realized that she liked it. Beyond the awkwardness of confronting what they did and what it meant, Lissa now comes to terms with who she is and who she wants to be, along with some help from her boss and a social outcast Ariel (who cares more about Lissa's "lucid dreams" than her sexual orientation).

It's a gentle teen story of awakening ideas, with only the slightest intimation of sex. Mostly, in fact, the story is the old chestnut about learning to be true to yourself, and what the real definition of friendship is (tossed in with some familiar cliches about obnoxious little sisters and clueless boys). I give the book high marks for its sensitive depiction of teen homosexuality, but only a moderate review for its otherwise fairly unoriginal storyline.

Becoming Naomi Leon, by Pam Munoz Ryan

Naomi lives in a trailer park with her mildly-handicapped brother and her great grandmother taking care of them. But things change when he long-absent mother reappears and wants to take Naomi away. Rather than be forced to leave her belovewd brother and Gram, they flee south to Mexico and search for her father. Along the way, Naomi discovers Mexico and a little bit of herself.

This is an absolutely charming book. I've been reading so many teen angst books that I've forgotten that children's books don't have to be about falling in love for the first time. And Ryan takes us to territory (not only in a physical sense of the state of Oaxaca, but in the emotional sense) that YA literature rarely goes. This is a deep exploration of the heart and family. It is also a gentle story with a good sense of wit (the chapter titles alone are wonderful), and a with good payoff in the end. Highly recommended.

Monday, September 19, 2005

Saint Jude, by Dawn Wilson

Too messed up for the outside world, but not sick enough for an institution, a groupf of misfit teens find a home at saint Jude -- a psychiatric half-way house. There taylor learns a little about love and a little about love, as one by one, each of them move on to the real world and graduate.

Looking beyond the shoddy production (rarely do I notice how badly typeset and edited a book is), Wilson has a lot of neat things to say. This is sort of a cross between One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and The Breakfast Club, with much of the charm of both stories. There's a love story that never quite goes anywhere and teen pranks. No real story, but at least a satisfying conclusion. Not a classic, but a good read.

Sunday, September 18, 2005

If You Come Softly, by Jacqueline Woodson

A story about true love between teens, with a twist: Jeremiah is Black and Elsie is Jewish. But they have a lot in common and this isn't a stereotypical Guess Who's Coming To Dinner story (although the novel includes a reference to that one).

A big warning: the book concludes with a massive whammy that is only faintly foreshadowed in the book. That will feel a lot like a cheat, as if Woodson couldn't bring herself to end the book in the way its dramatic arc was heading. But moreover, the characters are terribly mature for a pair of 15 year olds. And maybe just a bit too perfect. I really longed for some sign of self-centeredness or some mistake or something to go wrong, but that never happens in books where the message is political rather than literary.

And I guess that brings me to a side comment about race books. I find that I don't tend to enjoy them and, in fact, try to avoid them. At first I figured that is because of an affluent white who can barely relate to the milieu. But I think it is more than that. When a book becomes an issue book (be it race, sexual orientation, disease, etc), it loses something. When characters get sacrificed for the sake of an issue, the story suffers. Why couldn't Elsie or Miah be a bit imperfect? Because that would have suggested that interracial dating was imperfect and Woodson couldn't risk that. Too much riding on the issue to allow for some human imperfection here. Or maybe Woodson can't imagine the world of a living teen, but she seems like a better writer than that.

Saturday, September 17, 2005

Unexpected Development, by Marlene Perez

Megan lusts after Jake Darrow, but unfortunately Jake has a serious girlfriend. That is, until they break up and now Jake is available. But that is the least of Megan's worries as she struggles with learning to trust Jake's interested in her, and not just in her ample bosom.

Perhaps I've read too many of these, but this novel is terribly dull, basically an account of boring life in nowhere Iowa in the summer as teens drink and party and hook up. There are lecherous adults and lecherous teenagers. There are a lot of dialog scenes that don't amount to much, and characters who we're kept terribly distant from. Perez has some great ideas, but I'd have found Megan to be a much more interesting character for a Middle School book (the flashbacks to her coping with the attention her breasts get her as she was growing up are lightyears more interesting than her Junior year in high school). A disappointment.

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Define "Normal," by Julie Anne Peters

Antonia the straight-A good girl volunteers to be a peer counselor and gets saddled with Jazz the troublemaker and punk rocker. But as the two girls try to stumble through peer counseling together, they discover that their lives are strikingly similar, and that the counselor might be in just as much need of counseling.

A good read and a heart-warming story, without any sacharine bits to ruin the fun. This isn't deep reading, but it is a good book and enjoyable. The characters surprise us, but in ways that are believable, and that makes turning the pages so enjoyable.

Monday, September 12, 2005

The Blue Mirror, by Kathe Koja

Maggy doesn't really "do" school, and living with her alcoholic "mother" is not much of a life, but at least down at the Blue Mirror she can express herself with her drawing, especially with the fantasy of Cole, a charismatic street child. But when Cole steps out of fantasy to become her boyfriend, Maggy discovers the dangerous side of the streets and has to grapple her way back to reality.

For the first third of this book, I was pretty certain this was going to rank down at the very bottom of my list, but it slowly redeems itself...slightly. Koje writes in an annoying train-of-consciousness style where things are half-answered and storylines jump about chaotically. That makes for pretty tedious reading, and really makes it hard to relate to the characters.

Sunday, September 11, 2005

At the Back of the Woods, by Claudia Mills

When Emily moves to the neighborhood, she astounds the other girls (and Clarisse in particular) by her fearlessness. Emily fears nothing, least of all crazy old Mrs Spinelli, who everyone else is convinced is a witch. But when Emily encounters something that is afraid of, Clarisse realizes that there is a big difference between Emily's fearlessness and true bravery.

I've now read a good number of Claudia Mills's books, and this may well be the very best of the bunch. Although pitched at middle readers, this charming little book creates a wonderful little world of 10 year olds and their shifting loyalties and friendships, and revels in the type of emotional growth that children go through before adolescence. And it rather sharply criticises adults who don't trust children enough to tell them the truth. A beautiful book.

The Rise and Fall of a 10th Grade Social Climber, by Lauren Machling and Laura Moser

When Mimi flees her Mother and her Mom's new lover in Houston for her easy-going Dad and a private school in NYC, she imagines her life is going to get more exciting. But she's not quite prepared for life in the fast lane with her rich and exotic new friends. And she learns the rules of the game in NYC are much more complicated than they are back in Texan 9th grade. Despite the odds, she takes off and rising to great social heights until the lies and deceptions that got her to the top come crashing down on her.

The story has its moments, but the book is entirely too long (at around 290 pages, it would have been better chopped down by a third) and overall covers fairly familiar territory. We have angst, we have friendships, we have finding out that the popular girls have faults too, we have the crush on the gay guy, we have the clueless parents, and we have the revealing moment of truth at the end. Let's go someplace interesting with this story, OK?

Saturday, September 10, 2005

A Mango-Shaped Space, by Wendy Mass

For her entire life, Mia has seen colors when she reads and when she hears sounds. When she was little, she tried to explain his vision to others, but when she realized that she was alone and that admitting what she saw made her a "freak" in their eyes, she kept it to herself. By then things change and her condition comes out and she discovers that, while rare, that Synthesia is something that is not unique.

It's been a bit of a dry spell lately since I found a really good book. And it's a good thing to find. Mass's Leap Day was interesting and original, but this story is truly a much better read. The book appeals on all sorts of levels, not just as a story about Synthesia (which I knew nothing about before reading this book), but also as a coming-of-age story and a story about the bond between cats and their owners (an important part of the plot I sort of skipped above). This is truly an excellent book.

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

Here Today, by Ann M. Martin

It's 1963 and Ellie lives in the shadow of being an outcast Witch Tree Lane, and being the daughter of her flamboyant and restless mother Doris Day Dingman. When Doris decides to pursue her star in New York City and abandons her family to do so, Ellie has to take care of her siblings and find inner strength to be the adult her mother never quite managed to be.

Ann Martin is probably best known for her formula Babysitter Club books, and maybe somewhat less well-known for her A Corner of the Universe. This book turns out to be less of a YA book than an adult novel about being a child with a mother who is more of a child. It's an odd paradoxical book: fascinating and detailed, yet dull and plotless at the same time. I can honestly say that I've never been so bored by a book that was such a breeze to read. So, if you want a book that (at 308 pages) still took under 4 hours to read, I guess you could do worse.

Monday, September 05, 2005

Fat Chance, by Leslea Newman

When Judi's class gets an assignment to keep a diary for the semester, she is certain that she'll have nothing to write about. But as Judi's obsession with losing weight develops (alongside some up and down attempts at romance), her diary entries start to reveal a deadly problem.

At times, the narrative is a bit dull and there are some Judy-Blume-like moments of adult preachiness thrown in (if I were to improve the book, I'd try to let Judi tell her own story without all the extras tossed in). That said, there won't be a dry eye at the ending, so if you can manage your way that far, you will be rewarded. A bit rough and irregular then, but a great topic.

Friday, September 02, 2005

The Summer of the Swans, by Betsy Byars

Sara has trouble dealing with her older sister, her aunt, her absent father, and most of all, her retarded brother, whose needs always seem to outweigh her own. But then one night, her brother disappears and she must hunt for him.

It's a Newberry Award book, but it has aged badly. And beyond the references to a life long passed (operator assisted calls, anyone?), the whole psychology of 14 year olds has changed tremendously since this story was written. It's a pretty little book, but terribly trite and boring.

Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Sixteen, edited by Megan McCafferty

This collection of short stories about turning (or being) 16 covers a wide gamut, from historical to contemporary, both boys and girls (although with a big stress on homosexual over heterosexual). The stories all attempt to portray 16 as a moment of a crossroad, with lesser or greater success.

The best contributions come from Sarah Dessen (of course) and Julianna Baggott. Most of the stories are OK but not exceptional. Sonya Sones (who I tend to like) is a disappointment, as is McCafferty's own contribution. Disappointing overall and uneven.

Saturday, August 27, 2005

Shrimp, by Rachel Cohn

In this sequel to the stunning Gingerbread, we get the next year of Cyd Charisse's (now CC's) life -- her senior year -- as she navigates life back in California and her evolving relationship with her on-again boyfriend and soul-mate Shrimp. The rest of the family is growing up as well and so a lot of learning-to-live-with-changes moments result. But true to form, CC informs us at the end, that this isn't one of those movie stories where the narrator will come on at the end and give use some sort of meaningless conclusion about her "year of learning" etc etc. Instead, we get a nice satisfying twist that is both unexpected, but believable.

Cyd remains a spectacularly well-drawn heroine and Cohn has a great ear for dialog. But the aching question was voiced by Kriss (who read this before I had a chance to): "Why do a sequel?" And in fact, Shrimp does not really give us anything more, just more of the same old. And the appeal of the character and her dialog wears a bit thin in the sequel. By around page 60, Cyd's various ways of describing her objects of lust grow a bit thin. What was clever has become dull. And what was original and fresh is becoming a formula.

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Stealing Henry, by Carolyn MacCullough

When Savannah knocks her abusive drunk stepfather out with a frying pan and takes her younger half-brother with her to flee, she has time to think back on her past and on her relationship with her mother. And interspersed between a story of running away and these reflections on her past, Savannah's mother Alice tells a story about her own teenage years, leading up to Savannah's birth.

This is a fascinating multi-layered story about family and choices, and how those choices change lives forever. At first, the parallel storyline really doesn't gel very well, but as the story continues, things come closer and closer together until an incredible oh shit moment at the end of the book. Truly memorable. Some rough moments in the story keep this from being a must-have classic, but it is still a great read.

Sunday, August 21, 2005

Spinners, by Donna Jo Napoli and Richard Tchen

This retelling of Rumpelstiltskin fills in the story, providing the background and motivations for the legend of spinning straw into gold. The novel portrays a complex multi-generational voyage of jealousy and desire and greed that provides us with sympathy for the villian and hatred for the heroine.

I would not rate this as higher as I did Daughter of Venice but probably better than Zel or her book on Mary Magdalene. And I suppose I should explain why I keep reading Napoli's books, since I don't seem to care for them very much. Napoli has some outstanding story ideas and when I read the synopses for her books, I get very excited, but the actual product in the end seems to disappoint more often than not. Possibly it is the terribly dark quality she puts into her books. they are all about suffering. Possibly it is because her characters are so greedy and mean. But there are also issues of style and her inability to end her books. The ending to this one is particularly odd and strange.

Saturday, August 20, 2005

Looking for Alibrandi, by Melina Marchetta

Josie Alibrandi lives alone with her mother and attends a Catholic school in Adelaide. She's different from the other girls for a number of reasons: she's attending on a scholarship, she doesn't have a father, and she's Italian - a "wog." And in her last year of high school, as she prepares for law school, she juggles a boyfriend from the wrong side of the tracks (Jacob), the pristine John, and the return of her father.

This novel grabbed my attention because (as the jacket explains) "it won every major award for young adult literature in Australia and is on the Higher School Certificate [the Aussie SATs] reading list." So, apparently, they think it's a good book.

What a disappontment. It has been a long time since I was so bored by a novel. The story is hard to follow, poorly written (dialog sequences where you can't tell who is talking because they all sound alike), and dull. By the end, I was just beginning to care a little about the revealing of family secrets and thought the story might be becoming interesting, when she dumped in some very unnecessary melodrama that just made my skin crawl. This is an absolutely HIDDEOUSLY written book. And if it is the best that Australia can produce, they have a long way to go. A waste of time.

Thursday, August 18, 2005

Dinah Forever, by Claudia Mills

Last of four. In this last installment of the Dinah Seabrooke series, Dinah discovers that everything ends, including life. She starts off 7th grade by learning that the universe will end in five billion years, and by the end of the story learns that life is much shorter than all that. In between, she frets about the meaning of life and love.

This book proves to be less interesting than the others. Dinah's worries are cute and poignant, but in the end a bit boring, and this book drags a bit with themes already covered fairly well in the other books. Of the four, I think I'd rate the second book the best of the bunch.

Dinah in Love, by Claudia Mills

Three of four. Dinah organizes the first dance -- a sock hop Sadie Hawkins dance. Girls have to ask the boys to the dance. The problem is that Dinah doesn't like boys. And certainly not teh obnoxious Nick Tribble! Add in a debate on capital punishment and a play where Dinah gets the leading role, and there is the usual set of amusing hijinx. With Dinah, you can pretty much guess that the story is going to give us a series of mischief.

OK, so the books are charming and pleasant. Dinah learns to be a little bit flexible about her convictions and thus grows a bit. These are pleasant books and this third one in the series continues the general improvement of the characters and story.

Tuesday, August 16, 2005

Dinah for President, by Claudia Mills

Two of Four. In this sequel, Dinah Seabrooke starts at the Middle School and immediately makes herself noticed by running for class president on an environmental platform, arguing that the school should have a recycling program [apparently, when the book was written, recycling was still a rare event]. At the same time, Dinah befriends an elderly lady and takes on the issue of aging in dignity. A surprise ending leads to a satisfying conclusion.

I actually liked the sequel better than the original book, so I'm hoping the character continues to improve. Having established the various characters and settings in the story, Mills doesn't have to spend as long on exposition. One could quibble over some of the preachiness of the recycling message in the book, but it is not so distracting, as much as dated now.

Monday, August 15, 2005

Dynamite Dinah, by Claudia Mills

Book One of Four. Dinah Seabrooke likes to be in the spotlight and she plays the class clown to make it so. That is, when she's not memorizing the longest poem, competing for the biggest part in the play, or otherwise showing off. But when success eludes her and she has to share the house with her newborn baby brother, life hands Dinah some hard lessons.

Mills likes to tell stories about self-centered and insecure middle schoolers. This isn't the first book in which she's done so. The books are charming in their own right, but one does wish that she'd expand the repertoire a bit. We'll see how this one goes. On to the sequel next....

The Queen of Everything, by Deb Caletti

The story starts off with the big bombshell: Jordan's father has ended up in jail for killing the husband of his lover. Jordan then proceeds to tell how that ending came about, detailing life on an island in the Pacific Northwest, and telling a bit about the story of her life along the way.

I wasn't sure I wanted to read this book as the other book I read by Caletti had been pretty turgid. This was actually a better read. She is still very much in love with her imagery, but about halfway through the story, she gives up on doing it quite as much, and just gets down to the story. Then things pick up. One still wonders if the book could have been better with a good editor that slimmed this 370 page monster down to something leaner. I'd have certainly appreciated it.

Saturday, August 13, 2005

Girl, 15, Charming But Insane, by Sue Limb

Jess Jordan's imagination is a wild one, and often blinds her from the realities in front of her. The result is a complex comedy of errors as her group of friends struggle through relationships and school. The story is lightened by "horrorscopes" that precede each chapter and Jess's self-deprecatory humor.

The book's British slang can be a bit jarring to American readers, but it rings true for the demographic. And the clever humor makes this a brisk and light read. Not a book of huge substance, but funny and amusing.

I'm a bit cold to it, I suppose, because I don't like comedies of errors -- that is, comedy that relies on the characters' unwillingness to tell each other the truth. Such devices make the story too easy to wrap up. After spending a whole novel engaging in stupid acts driven by what each character THINKS the others want, all they need to do is sit down and talk and they realize the error of their ways, and everyone lives happily ever after. That is a bit too easy and not terribly enlightening or uplifting. Never mind the wince factor while the story unfolds.

Tuesday, August 09, 2005

Waiting to Dive, by Karen Rivers

Carly discovers a love for diving and learns to cope when her best friend Montana is injured. Other adventures include dealing with obnoxious siblings and hunting for lost treasure.

The story is written in a rather jumpy first-person style, as if it were part of a diary. Or a writing assignment on "What I Did Last Summer." That makes for some pretty difficult reading. And the story does not really cover any new ground, so the overall effect is a pretty turgid read. Karen Rivers has written Dream Water, which has won a lot of critical acclaim, but this thinner novel really doesn't hold up.

Monday, August 08, 2005

The Secret Carousel, by Claudia Mills

When Lindy's sister gets a chance to leave their small town of Three Churches IA, Lindy starts plotting her own escape. Life with their grandparents isn't terribly exciting and Lindy imagines that she could become a great actress. But while that talent develops, she discovers an old abandoned wooden carousel in a barn.

Very very dull. Some of Claudia Mills's work can be quite fun, but this is an earlier book and not a terribly interesting story. Perhaps middle readers will just enjoy having something to read, but the book lacks drama or humor, both of which are really necessary to keep my interest.

Saturday, August 06, 2005

Vegan Virgin Valentine, by Carolyn Mackler

Mara Valentine is neck and neck with Travis the misogynist jerk to become this year's valedictorian. She's got just the right mix of classes and extracurriculars and she's been already accepted (early decision) with Yale. She's got it made. That is, until her messed up niece (only a year younger than her -- LONG story) comes to live with them. Soon the adventure begins.

Mackler writes good books. The Earth, My Butt, and Other Big Round Things is truly a major achievement. This book will capture interest as well. But it is not in the same class. It has great characters and fun adventures, but nothing really stands out in it. I wouldn't toss it out and I certainly enjoyed reading it, but it won't blow you away either.

The Boyfriend List, by E. Lockhart

The opens with Ruby Oliver seeing a therapist for a series of panic attacks. As part of her therapy, she assembles the "Boyfriend List" which outlines all of the boys that she's had relationships (of one sort or another) with, and which serves as a framework to describe the reason for her fall from grace and the debacle that was the only one of the 15 (#13) that she really cared about.

This is a well-written and heartbreaking story of the way that human relationships ebb and flow. And while those relationships seem more volatile when you're 15, there's very little about Lockhart's writing that isn't true about relationships through life. Add her observations about parents and the way that they mess you up, and this is really an on-the-mark book.

There is an annoying artifice in the book of using footnotes throughout. This is cute and attempts to capture some of the asides that don't quite fit in the narrative, but like sidebars, they are very hard to read and can get quite distracting.

Monday, August 01, 2005

Confession of a Closet Catholic, by Sarah Darer Littman

Justine Silver has decided to give up Judaism for Lent. That's because she's decided to become a Catholic, especially since her best friend is Catholic. But then she starts thinking about her family, and especially about her Grandmother, and realizes that there's a lot more to her faith than a particular name for G-d and a set of rituals. But all this understanding doesn't answer her questions. Instead, it makes her want to know more.

While this sort of story (teen seeking God) has been done before, it is not actually that common of a storyline. For that reason, readers might like the book. It also does a nice job of explaining Judaism to both the neophytes and those with some knowledge. Whether that makes it a good book remains a bit of an open question. What is more likely to make the book appealing is the nice characterizations and a genuinely interesting storyline. Problems are encountered and resolved, not always perfectly. And that always make a book a good read. Not a fantastic read, but certainly something worthwhile.

Sunday, July 31, 2005

I Was A Non-Blonde Cheerleader, by Kieran Scott

When Annisa moves from New Jersey to Sand Dune, FL, the first thing she notices is that she's the only non-blonde in the whole school. But that's just the beginning of the ways she doesn't fit it. Before the first day is done, she's alienated just about every popular girl in the school. And when she has the audacity to show up for cheerleader tryouts, it just gets worse. But Annisa never backs down, and in the end she finds that her fighting spirit is what she needs to win it all.

This is a great feel good book about a subject (cheerleading) that I have to admit makes me nauseous. Perhaps understanding that the typical pro-cheerleader demographic is not likely to be reading YA books, Kieran Scott has busted the stereotypes and created a character who is truly interesting and fun to root for. By the end, this is a story where you feel really good inside that it turns out like it does.

Thursday, July 28, 2005

The One and Only Cynthia Jane Thornton, by Claudia Mills

Cynthia Jane is pretty proud of being Lucy's older sister. They may get dressed the same by their Mom, and Lucy may be bright, but Cynthia Jane is the eldest, has more friends, and is a writer to boot! That all changes when Lucy gets promoted into Cynthia's math class and starts to make friends there.

A charming short book about sibling rivalry for middle readers. Nothing deep or earth shattering is learned and the 3rd party narrative style will leave you a bit distanced from the characters and the story, but it is an enjoyable read.

Sunday, July 24, 2005

Daughter of Venice, by Donna Jo Napoli

Donata finds the confines of her position in Renaissance Italy confining. As the second daughter of a noble family, she won't be allowed to marry. But worse, she has never been allowed an education or even to leave (without an escort) the walls of her family's home in Venice. So, she sneaks out of the house, dressed as a boy, and learns what it is to be a boy (and a girl) in her time.

Perhaps, I have a soft spot for the locale and the period, or perhaps the plotline of a cross-dressing Italian in the Renaissance is practically Shakespearian (and thus more accessible), but I found this to be Napoli's best novel that I've read to date. Usually, her works start with great ideas but die in the delivery, long before the conclusion. This story kept my attention and drew me along all the way to the end. An end that might be a bit too convenient and pat, but which is fulfilling and charming nonetheless. A fun read with lovely historical detail.

Thursday, July 21, 2005

Boy Proof, by Cecil Castellucci

Egg begins our story happy to be the weird one (shaved head, colored eyebrows, white cloak). She's on the fast track to being Valedictorian. While she doesn't have any friends, she's happy that way, and her most serious problem is getting her Mom to stop calling her by her real name. And then a new boy transfers in during Senior year, and Eggs discovers that she's not quite as boy proof as she had hoped.

Things tie up a bit too sweetly in this story, but it doesn't detract the way that the book is overall charming. Being placed in Hollywood, with film star parents, makes the story read a bit like Sones's One of Those Hiddeous Books Where the Mother Dies, but this is nowhere near as sentimental. Egg has a nice sharpness to her and watching her screw up in the beginning makes her eventual success that much rewarding.

Tuesday, July 19, 2005

Dead Girls Don't Write Letters, by Gail Giles

A suspense thriller that starts off when Sunny receives a letter from her dead sister. Things just get weirder when her sister comes home, but then it turns out that she's not quite the dead sister after all. Confused? Well, throw in a parallel story about an alcoholoic father and a clinically depressed mother, and you have some harrowing other stuff to sort through.

It's actually a pretty good book, but there really aren't any likable characters in it, and that makes for a tough read. So, I guess it's a matter of whether you mind a good story with dislikeable characters, or you need the characters to be likeable as well. I tend to go for the latter, so I don't really go for the book.

Stained, by Jennifer Richard Jacobson

Stained is a story of Jocelyn, a girl coming of age in the 1970s in southern New Hampshire. Her boyfriend Benny can't see her anymore because his priest has told him that Jocelyn is stained and "of the Devil." Meanwhile, the star athlete gabe has gone missing. through a series of flashbacks, Joss tells the story of her changing relationship with gabe, and a mystery unravels about what happened to gabe and why he disappeared.

Jacobson has a rich style and the alternating chapters (one current, one flashback) is an effective device. The story has perhaps a bit too many untied-up moments (so often a habit of modern novels) but it's a good page turner. The target readership may find it a bit odd to read about life in the days of their mothers, but may not even realize the historical context.

Sunday, July 17, 2005

Song of Mary Magdalene, by Donna Jo Napoli

Napoli goes into riskier territory, creating a back story for the life of Mary Magdalene (prior to her meeting Jesus). In Napoli's story, Mariam is an independently minded girl who befriends a cripple and loves to sing songs. Haunted by seizures, she is assaulted and unjustly accused of prostitution, before fleeing her home in Galilee. These and other events gives her the wider mind set and tolerance of diversity that explain her later (and more well-known) acts of charity.

Like Sirena and Zel, Napoli takes a very interesting concept and doesn't quite seem to know where to run with it. The story drags a bit and leaves the reader really wondering why they should bother. I held on to see what would happen when she met Jesus, but that is at the very end and doesn't provide much of a pay-off.

Thursday, July 14, 2005

The Journey Home, by Kathleen Duey

OK, so this is a guilty pleasure of mine. Generally, I dispise series books, but I got hooked on these early.

In the eighth and final installment of The Unicorn's Secret series, Heart finally finds her people, brings the evil Lord Dunraven around to the ways of good, and resolves the mystery of the Unicorns and her own origin and parents.

Duey makes a pretty decent career out of writing books for early readers and all of the books in this series go by fairly quickly (82 pages in 35 minutes!). No major deep thoughts here or personal discoveries, but a fun little read. I'm actually rather more fond of her American Diaries books, but she doesn't write those anymore.

OK, now back to the big kids' books....

P.S. Now reading this book DOES raise one of those age old questions that has been on a my mind a lot in then past: what is it about girls and horse stories? I never quite got it when I was a kid myself, and I really don't get it now. Thoughts? Comments?

Swollen, by Melissa Lion

When Owen, the star jock of the high school, dies of a swollen heart, Samantha has mixed feelings -- glad that he is gone and not able to tell the school about their secret, and sad that there is a gap inside of her. The gap is partly filled by the arrival of exotic Persian Farouk, who leads her into a world of danger and exploration that opens longings.

Yes, it truly is about THAT Harlequin-level of a book. Steamy and occasionally sexy, but mostly very very moody and introspective. Individual chapters might stand well as short stories (and they are maddeningly different in size and shape), with all of their inuendo and subterfuge. But, a novel is a different beast, and the story lacks a true pay off, getting lost in a pretty narrative. I like poetic writing very much, but without any story (nothing truly happens that causes any of the characters to change or grow) this is just not a very satisfying read.

Sunday, July 10, 2005

Gracie: The Pixie of the Puddle, by Donna Jo Napoli

Gracie is a frog, but she doesn't behave like a frog. She has friends, and she believes in helping other frogs, and there's the small matter of having a name. When her friend Jimmy mysteriously allows a young human princess to kiss him, Gracie goes off on a quest to learn the truth about herself, and the other frogs in the pond. The story picks up where the Frog Prince left off and imagines what would come next.

This is another of Napoli's reimaginings of fairy tales (see Nel for another) and geared for a much younger audience. It shoots for a biut of mature wit, but doesn't elicit the chuckles of The Tale of Despereux, although there are similarities. A rather luke warm effort. A quick read and it has a satisfying ending, but there are plenty of better books out there for middle readers.

Saturday, July 09, 2005

Rhymes with Witches, by Lauren Myracle

The Bitches are the coolest of the cool in the High School, even cooler than the cheerleaders or the jocks. And there is only one for each grade. Plain Jane wants, more than anything else, to rise out of her status as a toad and become the Freshman class's Bitch. And when her dream comes true, she's in absolute heaven, until she learns that her popularity has a price. And the fact that their school is overrun with feral cats may not quite be a coincidence.

For anyone who was convinced in High School that the popular kids had sold their souls to the devil, this book let's you know that you were probably mostly right. It's witty (maybe not quite as much as Speak but as much fun) and it's an entirely different way to combine teen angst with horror novel. Think of it as a black-comedy Buffy.

So, is it a good novel? Well, it's a good read. I won't be scampering to own a copy, but for a taste of something different, it's a wonderful relief.

Monday, July 04, 2005

Cut, by Patricia McCormick

Callie gets sent to Sea Pines (or "Sick Minds" as she calls it) for cutting, and spends the next month learning first to speak again, and then speak about how she ended up in treatment, and why she cuts in the first place.

The book actually ends up being more about in-patient psychiatry than cutting, which was something of a disappointment, but it is overall a good look at mental illness, and finding strength to overcome it. In many ways, it reminded me of a book I read when I was in 6th grade called I Never Promised You a Rose Garden, about a much-more disturbed young woman. This is nowhere near as harrowing a story, but it shares a familiar path into insanity and back again.

A classic.

Sunday, July 03, 2005

Friends Everywhere, by Donna Jo Napoli

Patricia moves to the city, after growing up on a farm with her Uncle and Grandparents. Living in apartment is a tough change and Patricia finds it hard to make friends. A problem which is exacerbated by being deaf, and having deaf parents.

This is the first book in Napoli's Angelwing series which appears to involve young angel children "earning their wings" by helping a human child through a difficult situation. It's probably a good concept for the 7-10 year old demographic that she's shooting at, but the whole set-up seems a bit complicated. There really isn't much need to involve angels in this story, that otherwise could be a fun story about a resourceful group of children who learn to overcome a handicap and discover friendship.

Love and Other Four-Letter Words, by Carolyn Mackler

Sammie gets uprooted from her life in placid Ithaca and deposited on the Upper West Side of Manhattan with her depressed mother, and has to learn to take care of the house, find friends, and cope with her parents' separation. It's a bit much for a girl to deal with, but with a chain of events through the Summer and a new friend or two, Sammie begins to find herself and take control of things. Along the way, she discovers that the people she thought were her friends, aren't. And she finds that choices and decisions can lead to unexpected outcomes.

This is Mackler's first book, and a bit rougher than The Earth, which I read a month or so ago. It doesn't have the horribly convenient happy ending of that second book, and so is a bit more satisfying, but it doesn't flow as smoothly, and it is nowhere near as funny. With time, the book will not age well (references to REM, Jewel, and The Real Life) are unlikely to make sense in a decade or two, but it is snazzy and contemporary (in spite of a slightly rare obsession with 60s folk music). It's a good book, but not her best.

Reading it has also brought me to thinking a bit about YA lit. I'm reading a lot of young woman authors these days writing about younger women protagonists. And a theme is emerging: the characters in these novels are rarely typical for their age. They have a teenager's life and fears, but the wisdom of a 20-something (i.e., the author). And it's almost as if the authors are trying to send a message back in time: if I had known what I know now, this is what I would have done differently when I was a teen. It feels like they are hoping that by telling these stories, they can reach and change their young female readership. Whether that works or not, I'm not so sure. The classic mistake of adults is to imagine that they can create a world where teen's no longer make mistakes. Making mistakes is part of growing up.

Friday, July 01, 2005

Getting Near To Baby, by Audrey Couloumbis

When Willa Jo and Little Sister lose Baby, their bossy Aunt Patty suggests that the two girls come and spend time with her while their mother recovers from the death of the youngest. The story opens, however, with the two girls sitting up on the roof in protest, and the details come mostly from flashbacks, flashbacks that tell a story of loss, but mostly children struggling to be heard in an adult world.

This is a Newberry Honor book from 2000 and unfortunately about as dull as those books tend to be. There are some lovely anecdotes and the whole thing is beautifully written, but it drags on and on and so little actually happens in the story. A disappointment.

Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Zel, by Donna Jo Napoli

Zel is a retelling of the story of Rapunzel, told from the perspective of the girl, her suitor, and her mother, attempting to explain the motivations behind all three characters.

From the synopsis, this looked like a really good book. I guess I expected it to be a retelling with modern psychological insights. It didn't really live up to this. Instead, the story drifted a bit into magic and fantasy, and dodged the more human qualities of jealousy and insecurity that Napoli begins the story with. Like Sirena, this isn't really a children's book at all. It probably belongs with the Fantasy category instead.

Sunday, June 26, 2005

Kissing Doorknobs, by Terry Spencer Hesser

Tara is pretty, popular, and smart. She has friends and a family who love her. But everytime she walks to school, she has to count all the cracks on the sidewalk. And if she loses count, she has to run back home and start again. And then she has to order her food perfectly. And pray everytime someone swears. And confess every sin she's even thought of. And kiss doorknobs. All of this confuses and humiliates Tara as she and her family try to figure out what is wrong with her.

This somewhat autobiographic and gruelling realistic portrayal of obsessive-compulsive disorder covers ground that Tashjian went at in Multiple Choice which I reviewed a month or two ago. Kissing Doorknobs is a less poetic read, but probably a better portrayal of the disease. Hesser has a somewhat clunky style (a bit reminescent of Judy Blume actually), but the writing is not bad. And her story makes up for it.

This is a good book if you're looking to understand OCD better, not such a good book for entertainment however.

Friday, June 24, 2005

Aimee, by Mary Beth Miller

Aimee commits suicide, and her friend blames herself for helping her do it. So do Aimee's parents and the police. And once the trial is over, and the acquittal, and the court ordered restraint order from ever seeing her friends again, and her parents' move away, then the narrator has to come to terms with every horrifying element of what happened and how she'll ever recover from it.

If I've painted this story a bit bleakly, I've not managed to do it as bleakly as the author has. Aimee is an amazingly depressing read, a painfully depressing one. Not only are problems just piled up (suicide, abuse, drugs, etc etc), but you don't even realize until 20 pages before the end that you've never learned the narrator's name. She's so dehumanized, so lost, that even her name is gone.

I have a tremendous soft spot for stories about suicide (one of my favorite books when I was a teen was Ordinary People) and I of course have my own personal history. This book is a tremendous accomplishment, but it is a grueling experience to read. In some ways, I'll compare it to the movie Thirteen -- both really moved me, but I could never watch/read them again. In the end, I am very moved, but not uplifted. And in the end, I wanted (and needed) something to rescue me.

Is that a strange way of saying a book is good?

Monday, June 20, 2005

Sirena, by Donna Jo Napoli

Sirena is a siren, a mermaid. She and her sisters sing songs to lure sailors in, because they have been handed a promise (and curse) that if a man should love them they would become immortal. Irena grows disgusted at love born from trickery and seduction and seeks a love that she can earn through more honest means. And when she finds it and the immortality it brings, it is not quite what she expects.

This is an extremely ambitious and powerful book, albeit a bit uneven. The book works best when Sirena reveals her adolescent curiosity and longing for love. It works less well when it tries to reach some sort of deep poetic meaning. There are sections that bring tears to the eyes or flush the cheeks, but there are also long interludes that drag on painfully. The story is a stronger concept than narrative. And it is not really a YA book. This doesn't mean that young readers would not enjoy it, but this is a story about grown up love and passion in the long run, and seems more centered on that world.

I rather suspect that most younger readers would find it a bit dull.

Sunday, June 19, 2005

Hannah On Her Way, by Claudia Mills

Hannah still likes to play with dolls, make snow sculptures with her Dad, and braid her long hair. And being only in 5th grade, she feels that should be OK. But after the family's latest move, she's had trouble making friends and when she finds herself befriended by popular Caitlin, she admires her luck. That is, until Caitlin and her friends start pressuring Hannah to cut her hair, talk about boys, and wear make up. Now, she must choose whether to do those things and "grow up" or stay like she was.

I expected this to be fairly formulaic and slight, but it was a nice surprise instead. Hannah's decision is not so cut and dried as one might expect - part of her does want to grow up, so this isn't just the old peer-pressure story. Instead, Hannah has to learn what "growing up" really means for her and find her own path. In that way, the story is actually a really fulfilling pre-coming-of-age story.

Saturday, June 18, 2005

Almost Home, by Nora Raleigh Baskin

OK, so I'm going to have to break from tradition and skimp on the plot description a bit here, because there isn't much I can give away (and even admitting that the book has a twist is giving way too much away).

At the end of the summer, Leah's father picks her up from camp and she finds out that her mother has gone California...with her sister. Now, she must try to make a home - a new home - with her father and her father's new wife Gail. But her new home is also an old home and Leah must struggle with coming to terms with what has happened and finding a space where she belongs. An emotionally precocious boy Will plays a part (but not the part you might think).

Wow. I really liked What Every Girl (except me) Knows, so I was really looking forward to this book, but this completely exceeded mny expectations. I'm used to having a good cry at the end of a book, but rarely in the middle. This was truly incredible. Rich characters, parents that are realistic, kids that are realistic. Lots of meaning, thoughts, observations. Having just published my top ten, I'm loathe to add this right away, but I have a strong feeling that I will do so someday soon.

One interesting observation about YA lit though. Usually, authors write about characters who are slightly older than the target readership. Thus, a middle school book will have a Junior High Schooler, a teen book will have a senior, and so on. This book really goes the other direction and it was quite striking. The book reads like a Teen book (I'm not sure that the average middle schooler would get the nuances), but Leah is in Middle School (she hasn't even hit puberty yet). So, the author is inviting her readers to read about someone younger than themselves. Now, I - of course - do that with every book I read here, but it is unusual in the literature overall. All of which leads me to conclude that Baskin really is a force in literature to watch.

Friday, June 17, 2005

My Favorite Books: An Interlude

A short break from the book reviews to list out my favorite books (not all of which are reviewed here). These really are stunning books that each deserve to be read by everyone:

E. B. White, "Trumpet of the Swan"
Gail Levin, "The Wish"
Sarah Dessen, "Dreamland"
Sarah Dessen, "Someone Like You"
Dianne E Gray, "Holding Up the Earth"
Priscilla Cummings, "A Face First"
Joan Bauer, "Hope Was Here"
Karen Cushman, "Catherine, Called Birdy"
Sonya Sones, "What My Mother Doesn't Know"
Rachel Cohn, "Gingerbread"
Kate DiCamillo, "Because of Winn-Dixie"

The Bravest Thing, by Donna Jo Napoli

Laurel loves animals, but doesn't have the greatest of luck with keeping them alive. However, she works hard to do what she can to breed her pet rabbit. She also has to deal with a mother who is distraught over an ailing sister and she has been given a diagnosis of scoliosis.

These ingredients make up a story that breaks no new ground, but is a pleasant read. Laurel is a strong character who works hard for what she achieves. The story doesn't bear a lot of dramatic tension and the characters are a bit shallow, but this makes a nice read for a younger child (maybe 8-9 years old?).

Thursday, June 16, 2005

Standing Up to Mr O, by Claudia Mills

Maggie doesn't want to do dissections. At first, it is because she doesn't want to touch the worm she is supposed to dissect, but as she searches her feelings, she realizes that she doesn't want to harm other living creatures. Thus evolves Maggie's conversion to Veganism. Along the way, she discovers that adults can do unfair things and that romance can make you do some dumb things as well.

This is a good read and it raises some nice issues in a context that middle school readers would enjoy. Mills teaches philisophy and this book has a good share of ethics crammed into it, but not in a way that a reader would object to. Maggie can be a bit more insightful about human behavior than a seventh-grader probably is capable of, but that makes her a bit more endearing.

A pleasant book.

Tuesday, June 14, 2005

Make Lemonade, by Virginia Euwer Wolff

The first of a trilogy of books, Make Lemonade is the story of LaVaughn and her babysitting job taking care of two children or a teenage mother. It's a dark and gritty story of adolescence in urban poverty, where gang crime and drugs and danger are pretty much a fact of life.

This is not a bad book, but not really to my taste. For better or worse, I tend to prefer my stories of privileged middle class white kids in the suburbs over these stories of disadvantaged kids in the Projects. Partly because stories like this are much more about survival, without any time to explore the psyche.

Wolff has a nice style -- train of conscious free verse poetry -- that causes the narrative to spin by pretty quickly. So, when I say this isn't my sort of book, it doesn't mean that it's bad. Although I do get a feeling that this is the type of "socially conscious" book that is likely to be assigned for book reports, rather than the type that kids read for fun.

Sunday, June 12, 2005

Leap Day, by Wendy Mass

Leap Day is a pretty much a by-the-numbers story of a girl turning 16 and what she does on her birthday. Each chapter covers about two hours out of her day. And the adventures (crushes on older boy, getting her driver's license, worrying about her body type, etc.) are fairly typical YA material. What makes this story different isn't that Josie's birthday falls on February 29, but what goes on in alternating chapters. Between each chapter (told first person) from Josie's point of view, is a chapter where all the characters she interacts with get to give their view of what happened. Thus, we get to read not only what Josie thinks people think, but what they really are thinking, and what they think about her.

This is an interesting and original literary device. It is also an interesting tool for observing how we tend to misconstrue other people's thoughts. And it also reveals a bit about Josie as we see how she allows her own thoughts and fears to prevent her from seeing what other people are thinking.

In many ways, though, this is a book that works better with older readers than its target audience. Mass takes some of these observations of others far into the future. A character might comment that he didn't ask Josie out, but that ten years from now he will when they run into each other at a reunion. I'm not sure how many teen readers will find that interesting. As an adult reader, I found it fun and fascinating. Sort of like Mass was playing God a bit.

Tuesday, June 07, 2005

Perfectly Chelsea, by Claudia Mills

Again, it's nice to intersperse the tough teen books with something lighter.

Claudia Mills is a recent discovery and Perfectly Chelsea is a charming book for young middle schoolers. Chelsea is nine years old and has a lot of questions about God and about herself. She has to learn to tolerate obnoxious Danny, make up with Naomi, and - most important of all - forgive herself for making mistakes. Mills particular interest (at least in the books I've read so far) is change and learning to accept change.

These are nice themes and this is a nice book. It takes on the religion topic that Judy Blume attacked in Are You There God? It's Me Margaret but leaves out all the sexy stuff. That's quite OK for the audience of this book. In Chelsea's world, things are still pretty secure and safe and Chelsea can learn about the world (and share her feelings with the readers) without fear.

This would be a cozy book for a bedtime reading.

Saturday, June 04, 2005

Gingerbread, by Rachel Cohn

Like, totally cool. Cohn has the whole kid talk down utterly, you know?

Gingerbread is the story of Cyd Charisse and her trip back East to meet her biological father. It's also about coming to terms with growing up too quickly and learning to trust those you should and stay away from those that you shouldn't.

And unlike a lot of YA novels, the book doesn't preach. Cyd learns her lessons when she's ready to and she makes fun and mocks just about every adult's attempt (including the author's) to straighten her out. This is a character that feels so real and is so spunky, that you imagine her just taking over the narrative. A truly enjoyable young woman.

All of which raises an issue that it is so hard to find YA books that aren't preachy but still have important lessons to impart. And this is what makes the book stand out.

Tuesday, May 31, 2005

All the Living, by Claudia Mills

Karla and her brother Jamie are spending a summer at their late uncle's cottage in Maine, and Karla can't cope with all the death around her. Her brother's problems are more immediate: an abusive and bullying father who sees his son as a complete failure. Mom sits on the sidelines and tries to cheer everyone up. This being a middle school book, no one is going to go through serious emotional trauma but there is a fair amount of self-discovery and tears.

This story had tremendous potential to become something hard hitting, but Mills steps back at each point that things get heavy. And even the fairly dramatic climax comes out of nowhere and departs pretty much without having changed much in the lives of its characters. It makes for an OK read, but one wishes that Mills had put more teeth into the story.

Monday, May 30, 2005

Changing Tunes, by Donna Jo Napoli

I had picked up this book because I had had another book by Napoli (Sirena) recommended to me and the synopsis of this one actually looked more interesting.

Changing Tunes is about a ten year old girl named Eileen who has to deal with her parent's divorce. An only child, Eileen doesn't have a lot of sources of comfort: she can't bring herself to tell her best friend Stephanie that it's even happened, every time she brings up the subject with her parents, they tell her to "accept it," and her piano has been taken away by her father. Throughout the story, piano playing is a constant theme that Napoli comes back to to explain Eileen's feelings and discoveries.

The story is a bit jumpy and the narrative tends to drift -- partially a result of having too much going on (a subplot about babysitting really doesn't add much to the story) and partly because this is a middle-school book, designed with shorter chapters and for shorter attention spans. Napoli has some of the lyrical poetic quality of Seven Kisses in a Row, but there's a lot going on here and it is a bit distracting.

Sunday, May 29, 2005

Alice On Her Way, by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor

The Alice series was one of the first YA books I read when I started my adult rediscovery of children's books....

The charming part of the series is that Naylor takes us very slowly through the life of a young woman growing up in Bethesda, giving us the continuity of her experiences and friends, and doing so at only a few months at a time. Counting the prequels, we've watched Alice grow from 8 to 16, and this is simply the latest continuation of her life.

In Alice On Her Way, Alice McKinley takes a school trip to NYC, falls in love with Sam and then decides to break up with him, goes through a church-sponsored sex education class, and gets her driver's license. There's some realizations of her new life with a step mother and watching her older brother grow a more independent life.

When I first started reading the books, they seems so amazingly revealing and revolutionary, but I really didn't know much about the genre. Now that I've read more, they are not nearly as appealing anymore. Naylor, like Judy Blume, has a big mission to talk about sex as much as she can. And while teens are interested in the subject, Naylor really has a crusade on -- one which even her protagonist seems to find a bit over the top! And while Naylor has her story up to date (with the girls IM'ing each other, for example), there's a certain flat innocence to the story. In Alice's world, there are no metal detectors in schools and no drugs. There is sex, of course, but it has an innocence to it, that belies reality even in a posh suburb like Bethesda. Again, YA lit has gotten grittier and it is hard to imagine teens reading these books. Maybe for the pre-teen market, Alice would still be fun.

Wednesday, May 25, 2005

Faultline, by Janet Tashjian

Having enjoyed Multiple Choice, I looked up other tashjian books and found this one about dating violence. It's hard to read the book without comparing it to Sarah Dessen's Dreamland (one of my all-time favorite books).

Becky Martin is a high school senior in San Francisco, working on a budding career in stand up comedy, when she meets Kip, a very talented young comic with issues. Before she knows it, she's swept away into a torrid relationship with him that becomes emotionally abusive and eventually physically abusive as well. But Becky is no passive victim and she has the strength to break off the relationship as it goes bad, until she finds out that she isn't as strong as she thought she was.

The story is a powerful one of course, but I wish that Tashjian had kept the focus more on Becky's feelings and emotional state (which is basically how Dessen treated the story) and less time on the side story of Becky's comedy career (which is more of a Joan Bauer-esque way of handling the story). There is too much going on in this thin book (transvestite nanny, comedy practice, being a tour guide) and it keeps distracting the reader from the meat of the story itself.

Tashjian does make the powerful decision to include Kip's personal musings at various points through the story. As she relates in the afterward, she does this to avoid demonizing the boy. This adds a degree of subtlety to the book that other abusive-boyfriend stories have lacked.

A mixed review then. Excellent potential, strong writing, but needed a tighter focus.