Thursday, September 28, 2006

Blind Faith, by Ellen Wittlinger

After Liz's grandmother dies, her mother falls into a depression, which is only broken by her visits to a strange "church" where the attenders claim to talk with the dead. While this helps Mom feel better, Liz feels more and more cut off, especially when her Father announces that he can't take it anymore and he's leaving. And add to all of this the two kids who move in next door and their dying mother.

All of which makes this sound a lot more melodramatic than it actually is. In fact, all of these elements work pretty well together, allowing Wittlinger to spin some magic about family and loss, and the ways that people cope with change. The characters are vivid and engaging. The only problem might be the ending where everything gets a bit too neatly tied up. A good read.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Where I Want To Be, by Adele Griffin

In alternating chapters, two sisters (Jane and Lily), tell their stories. The twist is that Jane is schizophrenic and Lily isn't. And Jane is dead.

In a bit of a cross between What Dreams May Come and The Sixth Sense, we get a meandering story of the two girls recounting what life was like with each other. It sounds poetic and the jacket blurb speaks breathlessly of a "spellbinding book" but in the end this is a novel without a story (hence my lack of a plot synopsis above). People talk, events happen, but none of them add up to much.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Breathing Underwater, by Alex Flinn

When Nick's ex-girlfriend Caitlin gets a restraining order against him and the judge orders him into a family violence counseling group, Nick has to take a hard look at how he got there and what he can do about it. Initially quick to blame his ex-, Nick gradually accepts his own role in the process.

Slightly better than last year's overrated Inexcusable, this book still goes for the sledgehammer approach to explaining the cycle of abuse. Flinn worked for years in the courts, so she is pulling from her experience, but a bit more subtlety would have improved the story. From the very first page, we know what makes Nick a bad person and what he needs to acknowledge about himself, so reading this novel becomes an exercise in seeing how long it will take Nick to come around. That's a pretty weak dramatic device and a bit of a disservice to the reader. With that caveat, Flinn goes much further into showing a bit about why Caitlin would put up with the abuse and in showing how the community around them responds to it. In doing so, she creates a fuller picture than similiar problem books have done.

I will, however, reiterate my concern (expressed in my Inexcusable review) about all these simplistic depictions of relationship-based violence. It's far to easy to present these evil guys who do evil things. I remain convinced that the story that really needs to be written is about the "nice" boy who does evil things. Given what a monster Nick was, you'd have to be a complete idiot to want to date him. What young people (girls especially) need to understand is that these monsters are not always so easy to spot. The world is full of greys and that is what makes domestic violence such a terrible problem. In the real world, the Caitlins of the world don't always have as clear of an idea that they are in danger.

Monday, September 25, 2006

How I Live Now, by Meg Rosoff

In what starts off within the familiar confines of a typical YA story, Daisy is sent to England to live with her Aunt and cousins when her father and stepmother don't want her around anymore. But in the background, there is a war starting to form, and when it blows up this novel take s a very unusual and dark turn as the children must now struggle to stay alive in a hostile environment against a vaguely understood enemy.

There is a very Annoying Style in this novel to Capitalize Words and create the most amazingly long Run-on Sentences that just leave you Gasping For Breath and wondering when the End will come and as if that wasn't enough, there is the Whole Issue of the War Itself which remains a mystery throughout the whole story. But what starts as tedious and annoying slowly grows on you and the vagueness of the story actually leaves things a bit more open to interpretation than the typical novel, inviting the reader to insert their own version of what happened. I found the characters a bit flat, but the idea of the story is original and quite chilling.

Sunday, September 24, 2006

A Brief Chapter in My Impossible Life, by Dana Reinhardt

Simone has always known that she was adopted, but even so, she is surprised when her parents start pressuring her to contact her birth mother. The surprises continue as Simone gets to know this woman and begins to learn about herself in the process. Romance and friends provide subplots.

A book that veers close to brilliance. The last twenty pages go for tear jerking pathos and are beautifully written. The first fifty pages read like bright witty YA humor. In between, the novel isn't really sure what it wants to be. The romantic subplots never quite seem to be part of the same story and one gets a feeling that Reinhardt was cutting and pasting different ideas together. Good read, but flawed. Be on the lookout for better works from her in the future.

Monday, September 18, 2006

Shug, by Jenny Han

Shug is a twelve year old who goes through all the sorts of things that 12 year olds go through in YA novels, from friends drifting apart to getting her first period, all the usual trademark moments of these novels are present. But the central point of the story is her boy-next-door friend Mark who she desperately wants to be her first kiss.

While the story ingredients are old and familiar, Han spins them in an unusual way, making this story a real stand-out novel. There's more than enough angst to please the intended audience, but there's a great depth to the characters that makes this a truly outstanding addition to the genre.

Sunday, September 17, 2006

Sand Dollar Summer, by Kimberly K. Jones

When Lise's Mom is injured in a car accident, she knows that there are some changes that will need to be made, but spending the entire summer on the ocean in Maine is not exactly in her plans. But over that summer, Lise has a series of experiences that change her and her family, and her "boring" summer becomes transformative.

This by-the-numbers coming of age story won't throw too many surprises at you but it has that winning combination of strong characters and just enough adventure to keep things interesting. The ending gets a bit melodramatic, but the drama has a purpose and serves to tie up the story nicely. A winner.

Friday, September 15, 2006

Into the Labyrinth, by Roderick Townley

In this sequel to The Great Good Thing, the book has not only been republished, but has also now been uploaded to the Web, a fact which causes no end of confusion for the storybook characters as they go from having only a few readers, to having hundreds and thousands. But it all grows a bit worse when words in the story start to change and characters start to disappear. Princess Sylvie will need lots of help to save her story!

Still one of the more creative concepts out there for a story (although with all the internet stuff, it has a bit of a Tron feel to it). It remains one of those stories that makes more sense the less you think about it. Clever (but do read the first book first or it won't make any sense at all!).

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Hard Love, by Ellen Wittlinger

A bittersweet story of an emotionally stunted zine writer who finds his first love - a lesbian and fellow zine writer. While she's very clear about her lack of interest, he can't quite get the idea/hope out of his head that maybe she'll like him. And all is not rosy with her either, so the two of them struggle with their feelings and lack thereof, making the discovery that love is very hard.

A nice earlier work by Wittlinger and definitely a good one. In some ways, the characters never quite grabbed me, but I found them very realistic and true. It's certainly worth reading and a good depiction of how irrational love can be.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Alice in the Know, by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor

In this latest installment of the Alice series, she is in her summer before her Junior year of high school. She has her first job (outside of her Dad's store), a vacation with friends, deals with some racism and peer pressure, and has a few more embarassing incidents. In sum, we're just passing a couple of months with our old friend.

I'm a loyal follower of Alice (having read all 21 of her books) but I do it now more out of that sense of loyalty than out of literary interest. The books have never been High Literature, but they have an innocent charm to them. I was a bit surprised to see Naylor actually include some mention of smoking (tobacco and marijuana) in this installment. I can only suppose that someone (other than me!) has pointed out that she is awfully sheltered from the world that most teens live in. She still is, but so are many popular YA heroines.

What is a bit more disappointing with this series is how much it just treads water. The earlier books (I think Alice In Between is probably my favorite) made an attempt at a story arch. But now, it mostly seems as if we're just being fed a series of anecdotes, as if Alice was writing us a long email of what she's been up to. That is charming, but just not very substantive.

Monday, September 11, 2006

Two Steps Forward, by Rachel Cohn

In this sequel to The Steps, Annabel and Lucy meet up in LA, where they are joined by heartthrob Ben and their ever-confusing family relationships. All of which get confused a bit further by their complex romantic relationships.

The first book never captured my heart the way that Gingerbread did so reading a sequel was bound to be disappointing, but this book could really have used a list of the characters (the way that the original cover of The Steps had a diagram on it) to help keep the characters straight. More so, because so little actually happens in this book. Jumping from one character's POV to another helps sort things out a little bit, but this is mostly a book about kids getting angsty about doing stuff rather than actually doing it. If you like the characters, then this can be amusing, but there is little humor and less story here to capture your attention otherwise.

Sunday, September 10, 2006

The Legend of the Wandering King, by Laura Gallego Garcia

In pre-Islamic Arabia, a proud prince hosts a poetry competition to prove that he is the best poet in his father's kingdom, but when he is bested by a lowly carpet weaver, the prince vows for vengeance with disastrous results. In the aftermath, the prince seeks to make amends and learn what it is to have a heart and be a truly great poet.

A fairy tale which steadfastly refuses to fall into typical stereotypes and defies expectations, it nonetheless encompasses the beauty of The Arabian Nights and a Grimms Brothers tale. Bits of realism expose a view of a life that few Western readers will know and carefully sewn with fantastic elements, it will stir the imagination as well. A truly enchanting book that will delight younger children with its adventures and older readers with the wisdom that it contains. Highly recommended.

Friday, September 08, 2006

Klepto, by Jenny Pollack

In this heavily autobiographical story set in NYC in 1981, Julie and her best friend Julie navigate the challenges of friendship, love, and an obsession with shoplifting from the tony stores of the Big Apple. Set at the NY HS for the Performing Arts (Fame, anyone?), all of the classic YA cliches are here, but older readers like myself will enjoy the period details.

For younger readers, I'm not sure that this story has that much going for it. We never learn much about shoplifting except that it's scary and makes you feel a bit icky, and that you might get caught. And I doubt that all the references to Toto and Culture Club will be that interesting.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Kalpana's Dream, by Judith Clarke

A rather odd story about a great grandmother from India, a girl whose teachers include a woman who may be dating Count Dracula, a boy who loves Australian Football, and a boy who can fly (on his skateboard). There's an essay to write ("Who am I?"), a family relationship to reconcile, and skateboarding to learn.

This one will probably be one of your favorites if you liked Criss Cross or other stories with odd (post-modern) narratives. For people who like traditional stories based on characters developed in more standard ways, I'd suggest taking a pass on this. It's a tedious book to work through.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Bass Ackwards and Belly Up, by Elizabeth Craft and Sarah Fain

When Harper gets rejected by NYu she can't bear to tell the truth to her family or friends. Instead, she tells them that she's taking the year off to follow her dreams and write the Great American Novel. And they surprise her by ditching their plans and taking off for their dreams as well. Kate goes off to Europe to explore. Sophie goes to LA to become a movie star. Only Becca decides to go ahead with her plans to go to Middlebury and be an important member of the ski team. But what starts as a change of plans alters each of their lives.

The formula (four girls, four storylines that occasionally interact) should seem pretty familiar -- all the way down to the young sidekick of the girl who stays at home, and the trip to Greece (with admittedly different results). It's hard not to draw comparisons to Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants and the authors realize but claim theirs is about more mature girls (hello? anyone reading the Sisterhood sequels??). In terms of comparisons, this is a little less cuter than Brashares's novels, but I don't think it is all that much improved. If you're starved for a similar story, this is not a bad choice, but it doesn't have the depth or the humor.

Monday, September 04, 2006

Becoming Chloe, by Catherine Ryan Hyde

Jordy and Chloe meet in a basement in NYC, where Jordan is recovering from being beat up by his father and Chloe has just been gang raped. That rather dark and depressing beginning morphs into a cross-country road trip where the two of them catalog the beautiful and ugly parts of the world, discovering that there is a great deal of both out there.

I have very mixed feeling about this book. From the beginning, I really wanted to hate it as it has one of those horrible dark natures to it that seem to infect YA some books, but unlike so many other books I've read, it grew on me to an ending that really was a touching "unforgettable, redemptive story of beauty, pain, and unquenchable hope" (as the jacket blurb makes it out to be). So, if you start this book and want to put it down, give it a chance and see if it grows on you. It did for me.

Sunday, September 03, 2006

What Have You Lost? by Naomi Shihab Nye

In this anthology of poetry about loss, over a hundred authors reflect on the many things we can lose and how we adapt to that loss. As could be expected, the subject elicits a good deal of angst and sadness, but a few of the writers transcend any wistfulness to achieve a more transcendent view of loss as a form of transition.

As with most anthologies, the quality is uneven and the styles sometimes jarringly different. The book include photographs from Naomi's husband which are strinking and sometimes related to the poems they neighbor. This isn't really a YA collection. Older teens may relate to some of the loss of childhood or loss of parents/grandparents themes, but overall this is a work that adults are more likely to connect with.

Friday, September 01, 2006

Singer in the Snow, by Louise Marley

Mreen and Emlee are gifted with psi powers that give them the ability to sing magical songs that simultaneously provide heat and warmth that keep the inhabitants of their planet (Nevya) alive through its five year winters. Emlee, however, struggles with a memory of a past the prevents her from using her powers. But through a trip with Mreen to a distant city, she will learn how to use those powers as well as how to change the lives of a stableboy and his sister.

I'm not really much of a fantasy novel fan anymore, but this is a beautiful tale with superb detail, as well as a serious subplot about spousal abuse. The characters have great depth and capture you and the reading goes very quickly. I found the naming convention (Emlee = Emily and Mreen = Maureen, in case you couldn't figure it out) a bit distracting, but that's a gimmick of the genre so I would imagine that if you like fantasy books, this one (which is the fourth in a series) will please and delight.