Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Pieces of Georgia, by Jen Bryant

Georgia is dealing with a distant father (and a dead mother), chronic heartburn, and a friend who is experimenting with drugs. On a more positive note, she has a talent for art, which is promoted by a anonymous gift of an annual membership at the local art museum, where Georgia falls in love with the paintings of the Wyeths. Through her journal (in prose poetry), she relates all of these events in her life.

Functional and readable, this novel falls on familiar ground with few surprises. That does not mean that it is bad, but there is not much new here. The verse is not terribly poetic (more like disjointed thoughts crammed together), but it works well for being like a journal.

Sunday, December 09, 2007

Angelmonster, by Veronica Bennett

A fictionalized account of the early life of Mary Shelley, the novel traces Mary's life from her acquaintance with Percy Shelley to his death (and her publication of Frankenstein). Rich in period detail, the facts of the harshness of early 19th century life will interest fans of the era.

In my professional life, I have always had a strong interest in William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft (Mary's parents), so a novel which traces their equally-famous offspring is a treat. I found this particular account to be functional and revealing, but not strongly engaging. And I wonder how much interest it will hold for a reader without a previous inclination to learn more about Mary Shelley.

Friday, December 07, 2007

The Boyfriend Rules of Good Behavior, by Catherine Bateson

Millie and her mother relocate and find love, although her mother's boyfriend ends up being a better choice (mentoring Millie in photography and helping her with a school project). But mostly, this is just a collection of random anecdotes about being a teen.

The sheer plot-less and random nature of the story left me wondering what the point was. Ideas are introduced (problems fitting in at a new school, a bully, etc.) but left undeveloped. It basically seemed as if Bateson did not know what she wanted to write. Leaving us with no story at all.

Guinever's Gift, by Nicole St. John

At the turn of the century, Lydian Wentworth, after the death of her overbearing father, receives an invitation to visit the reclusive Arthuria-obsessed artist Charles Ransome. Charles is a family friend with whom her father mysteriously parted ways years before. In a whirlwind, they become engaged and maried. But things turn dark as Charles falls into an obsession with finding the grave of Arthur. The household as a whole goes to madness, murder, and dark secrets revealed. Melodrama ensues.

Not quite sure how this classic romance/mystery ended up on my YA reading list, but it was probably a mistake (perhaps a confusion with a similarly-title YA novel coming out in 2008). I found this older novel terribly overblown and pretentious (and more than a little bit silly). Probably better thought of in retrospect than in the actual reading. Avoid.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Quaking, by Kathryn Erskine

Matt (short for Matilda) has been passed from one relative to another, never quite working out wherever she's been. The experience has made her bitter and angry, but when she comes to live with the Fox family and learns their Quaker ways, she encounters a force that she had not counted on. And as a prejudiced teacher and a bully taunt her, she uncovers the inner strength to stand up for herself and stop being a victim.

For the most part, this is straight by-the-numbers finding-your-inner-self stuff. No major surprises and the bad guys are painted depressingly two-dimensionally. However, it is rewarding and mildly educational.

I was drawn to it by the Quaker stuff (since I am one). The setting in a Quaker family provided a lot of in-joke opportunities and I got a good laugh out of Matt's description of Meeting for Worship. Mostly, I forget that most people don't know this stuff (since I started attending at the age of 9, it was all second nature to me by my teen years). I was a bit concerned that the author would misrepresent Quakerism, but it was actually a fair and decent portrayal.

Guyaholic, by Carolyn Mackler

In this sequel to Vegan Virgin Valentine, we've come a long way. V has been (barely) surviving living with her grandparents, trying to avoid attachments, and dealing with her distant mother. So, when she completely blows it with her latest best thing (Sam) she grasps for something she can do to get away. And, strangely enough, roadtripping to see her Mom in San Antonio makes some sense. Roadtrip ensues.

A rather odd short novel. It has much of the charm of her other novels, but didn't quite grab me as much. V didn't do much for me in the first novel and she has not grown on me much this time around (although if you do like her, I'm sure you'll enjoy the book). There is some decent humor and V remains a realistic character, but I couldn't get into her. Not one of Mackler's best writings (but still a decent read).

Saturday, December 01, 2007

Me, Penelope, by Lisa Jahn-Clough

In some ways Lopi (short for Penelope) has it all together. She's managed to shave a year off of high school and will graduate early this year. She has a good friend Toad and a couple other important folks in her life. But her relationship with her mother is rocky (made worse by the death of her baby brother when she was only 6) and she longs for love - or at least for sex. The latter is a particular struggle for her as she attempts to sort out the meaning of "love" and what she is really looking for.

Touching and insightful, this is a stunning novel and a model of moderation. There is angst (but not too much), there is sex (but neither squeamish nor prurient). We have the expected conflict with Mom and a rapproachment at the end (but handled delicately). We even have some potential melodrama (dead brother), but it is handled gracefully. In sum, Jahn-Clough is an excellent writer, creating a heroine who sounds real and sympathetic. This is not a flashy novel, but it is a beautiful piece and one of the best I have read this year. Strongly recommended.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Between Mom and Jo, by Julie Anne Peters

Nick's family faces a series of challenges: illness, separation, isolation, and alcoholism (to name a few). What makes the family different (and yet also very much the same as any other family that has struggled) is that Nick has two mothers.

It would be tempting to see that particular twist as a gimmick (either to portray a non-traditional family as being just like a "normal" one, or to get on a soapbox), but Peters does not do gimmicks. Instead, we get a very insightful and moving story about love and family that is unique ofr its setting. She shows us that while people are certainly people, that there are dynamics to same-sex parenting that differ. In the past, I've found Peters's novels to be near misses (Luna and Define
were strong contenders though). Here, she really scores and produces a simply outstanding work. Recommended highly.

River Secrets, by Shannon Hale

In this third installment of the Books of Bayern, the war is over but emotions still run hot - especially in Tira. An embassy from Bayern must figure out a way to promote peace amidst warmongering fanatics and a mysterious case of burned bodies that keep showing up near fire-burner Enna (now allegedly sworn to peace). But front and center to this story lies loyal small Razo, who gets to play a prominent role at last after being only a side character in the first two novels.

While this book does not stand out in any specific way, it is a good read. Hale continues her tradition of providing above-average fantasy. The stories have some action, a lot of romance, but a strong underlying humanism, making them a pleasure to read. Entertaining and enjoyable (but read Goose Girl and Enna Burning before you get to this novel).

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Before, After, and Somebody In Between, by Jeannine Garsee

Martha has a lot of troubles to deal with. She's one of the few whites at her inner city school and been singled out for bullying. But no torture from her classmates can compare to the living hell that her alcoholic and abusive mother puts her through. And when her Mom isn't after her, it's an abusive boyfriend (hers or her mother's) or a jealous girlfriend. Life is simply one nearly uninterrupted hell. Her only respite is her incredible musical talent with the cello.

An incredibly dreary and down read, recommended for masochists only. This is a book which reinforces the notion that YA literature should hurt (see Rules of Survival for another recent example of the genre). The writing is decent but there's not much to recommend a novel which consists of a heroine who has nothing but anger and bad luck and never ever manages to grow. Depressing and unnecessary.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Memoirs of a Teenage Amnesiac, by Gabrielle Zevin

After a fall down the stairs at school, Naomi loses her memory - not all of it, just the last four years. And in that refreshed state (where her last memory was of the age of 12), Naomi reexamines her life (boyfriend, hobbies, and family). The process surprises her and those around her and leads to changes that startle everyone - even the reader.

Zevin's Elsewhere was a refereshingly new type of novel. This one starts with a less-original premise (Regarding Henry, anyone?) but handles it in an amazingly fresh way. There's a bit of melodrama and the story may run a bit long, but Zevin is becoming one of the really great novelists of YA. Recommended.

Saturday, November 03, 2007

Tasting the Sky, by Ibtisam Barakat

In flashback, Ibtisam tells the story of her growing up as a Palestinian refugee after the Six-Day War of 1967. On one side, it is an extraordinary story of survival, but it is also a tale of an ordinary childhood. She plays, she has successes and failure. She struggles with fear and loneliness (an early love for the alphabet, a lost pet, and a few more sinister encounters).

While mostly random anecdotes and with a narrative that speeds up and slows down annoyingly at will, this is still a charming and beautiful book. Barakat is an excellent writer (her early love with words shows through). Her story is engaging and revealing. It won't solve the problems of the region, but it will give you an interesting window through which to view them.

The Lottery, by Beth Goobie

Every year, the school's unofficial Shadow Council would select a student in the Lottery to become the "dud" of the year, condemned to carry out the Council's dirty work, and shunned by the entire school. This year, Sal becomes their victim. But Sal's story is complicated and the choice of her turns out to be less random (and more fateful) than anyone could expect.

An odd mishmash of idea, this novel has a great premise but allows itself to get bogged down in subplots that don't really add to the story (a borderline autistic student, a dead father, an uncommunicative mother). In such circumstances, I am prone to believe that the author needed a better editor. Goobie is apparently well-honored by her native Canada so she can write, but she doesn't apparently know enough to write a trim and taut story (which a thriller like this really wants). As a result, some really interesting conclusions get lost in the haze.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Izzy, Willy-Nilly, by Cynthia Voight

When Izzy loses half a leg in a car accident, she goes through all of the usual stages of grief (anger, tears, etc.), but it takes her a while to come to grips with how it will affect her, her family, and her friends. But life does go on and Izzy must find the strength to restart her life, return to school, and rebuild her friendships. With the help of a persistent new friend Rosamunde, she does that and more.

A charming, if somewhat long, novel about rehabilitation. For the most part, it is predictable, but the characters are realistic and believable, and there is a good pay-off at the end. Good entertainment with redeeming qualities. (Apparently the book is frequently assigned in school, which is a shame, but you could be forced to read worse!)

The Melting Season, by Celeste Conway

Snegoruchkka, the classic Russian ballet, serves as a metaphor for Giselle (another ballet metaphor in itself), a ballerina at an elite dance institute/high school in NYC who struggles to break free of her routine. It is a comfort for her to live in a world where her mother is evil, her late father was a saint, and her toys sit undisturbed on the shelf. But a new boyfriend and a desire to expand herself pushes Giselle into a new world with the unearthing of deeply buried secrets.

With a storyline that juts out in all directions and clunky dialogue, Conway is a mixed bag. The idea of the story is excellent but underrealized. For a story about ballet, for example, one really wanted to read more about the dancing itself. But there is promise here that a future novel might shake out the leaden parts and reveal a real talent.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Enna Burning, by Shannon Hale

In this sequel to Goose Girl, the attention now turns to forest girl Enna whose brother discovers a strange vellum scroll that teaches him the ability to speak fire. When that skill causes his untimely demise, Enna takes on the mantle of fire witch and helps her beloved Bayern defend itself from foreign invaders. But the power of fire is formidable and Enna and her friends must find a way to control this power or Enna will be destroyed.

Like Goose Girl and Princess Academy, this is a rich tale full of lots of adventure and strong characters. But Hale also includes some nice subtle lessons about friendship and the anxieties of growing up. All very wonderful stuff. Her stories do tend to wander on and a story that simply went from beginning to end might have been better, but even Tolkein had trouble finishing his novels.

Friday, October 19, 2007

Looking for JJ, by Anne Cassidy

Six years ago, Jennifer made a horrible decision and brutally killed her best friend. Both she an her victim were only ten years old. Now she's been released and everyone is obsessed with finding "JJ" and only a few people know where she is. One of those people is Alice - who know because she is JJ's new identity. In the story that unfolds, Alice both tries to carve out a new life and avoid a past that some want her to forget and for which many more want her to atone.

An interesting premise and an engaging read. British authors like Cassidy seem to feel an overriding need to connect all of the dots, but by the book's mid-point, this novel picks up some steam. I was disappointed that the book never reaches any sort of catharsis, but that didn't make it any less interesting.

Monday, October 15, 2007

The Rules for Hearts, by Sara Ryan

Battle is spending the summer before college at a coop in Portland. What she knows (and her parents do not) is that her long-estranged older brother is there too. It's been years since they've seen each other, but any reunion of the sublings is upstaged by a production of Midsummer's Night Dream in which everyone in the house is participating, and by Battle's relationship with the older Meryl.

A mildly incoherent novel full of lots of talk (but not much action), this book drifts from one story to another, but doesn't really go anywhere. I found it a difficult story in which to become engaged, but there will be some folks who like it. I found it overly random and a bit too obtuse. I prefer a more straightforward narrative.

Girl of the Moment, by Lizabeth Zindel

When an internship at MOMA falls through, Lila gets a last minute opportunity to spend the summer working as an intern for superstar Sabrina Snow. As the summer progresses, Lila struggles with the demands of the job, with the fame of being in Sabrina's shadow, and with staying true to her own values under pressure from Sabrina.

Utterly predictable, this story follows in the fun escapist vein of a Meg Cabot novel, with the exception that Lila is far from perfect. Her mistakes make Lila more approachable, but they are the types of mistakes you can see from miles away, so it's hard to see them as credible. Some humor ensues and this is fine entertainment, but I'd still rather pick up the latest Cabot novel when I'm in the mood for this stuff.

One Whole and Perfect Day, by Judith Clarke

Lily hopes that she can make Daniel notice her. Her brother stays estranged from the family until a chance encounter with his grandfather makes him decide on impulse to bring his Chinese girlfriend home. Grandmother talks endlessly to her imaginary friend Sef. And grandfather surprises everyone by befriending an old Chinese woman. And then a magical and perfect day brings everyone together in perfect harmony.

Had I remembered how much I detested Kalpana's Dream, I almost certainly would never have picked out this book. Like that novel, this meanders incoherantly from one POV to another, making observations that intended to be profound but which basically make little or no sense. I imagine that there are (non-librarian) people out there who will enjoy this book. But I found it dull and unengaging.

Sunday, October 07, 2007

Do-Over, by Christine Hurley Deriso

Elsa could really use her mother around, especially now that she has transferred to a new school in the middle of seventh grade, but her mother is dead. Then, in an act of supernatural magic, her mother visits her one evening and gives her a special locket that allows her to rewind time 10 seconds and redo the moment. Elsa learns to take advantage of this to deal with a popular bully and change her social status. And she also tries to correct the wrongs she sees around her. But in the end she learns that this magic is not what she really needs.

Mildly predictable, but a satisfying and quick read. A bit of a YA-version of Groundhog Day with all of that feel-good factor thrown in. The characters are engaging, if a bit too perfect, but there is plenty to relate to. Recommended for middle school readers.

Saturday, September 29, 2007

Just Ask, by Melody Carlson

In the first book of a new series, we are introduced to Kim, adopted Korean daughter. And while she flirts briefly with the idea of practicing Buddhism, she finds the Lord after watching The Passion of Christ at a friend's church. But the story is also framed around a teen advice column that Kim writes for her dad's newspaper, handing out rather mature advice (much of it advocating prayer) for addressing teen issues.

Somehow (and you may find this hard to believe) I did not quite clue in on the Fundamentalist agenda of the writer until I was halfway through the book. Mostly, I was annoyed at the meandering plot and the sanctimonious advice column (let's just say that Kim's perspective on things is a bit unrealistic). By the end, I had pretty much had enough of the character and the writer. I'm sure the series is popular with the converted, but otherwise give this a pass. If you want to read a more honest examination of faith (and other important topics), go back to classics like Judy Blume.

My Lost and Found Life, by Melodie Bowsher

Ashley is a rich, beautiful, and shallow high school senior when her mother disappears, accused of embezzling millions from her employers. Suddenly, Ashley's life is turned upside down and she loses everything and everyone around her. And for the first time in her life, she has to learn how to survive on her own, starting off with finding a job and a place to live.

A promising dramatic beginning gets bogged down mid-way as Bowsher runs out of story to tell. Various subplots and twists get muddled with rambling conversations that seem unrelated to the story. And by the end, Bowsher resorts to melodrama to create a climax. As a result, I found myself tempted to flip forward to the end for some payoff. It comes, but it's awfully rushed. The author shows promise, but she ran out of steam after the first 100 odd pages.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Skin, by Adrienne Maria Vrettos

As his parents separate and the family disintegrates, Donnie's sister slips into anorexia. Donnie focuses his energy on trying to keep the peace and keep his sister alive as she grows thinner. But the pressure of it all is eating away at him and his ability to keep things together.

This is a heartrending story, as you can imagine, since it opens with the sister dying and then backs up to trace the events that lead up to his death. The writing is sharp but the plot is strangely undeveloped. As much as this is intended to be a story about Donnie, we never quite get that story, and the pressure he is experiencing is something we can only surmise (rather than see). That's surprising as there is certainly enough pain in here. Overall, this is not a pleasant read, but a decent illustration of what it is like to have an anorexic sibling.

My Almost Epic Summer, by Adele Griffin

The summer starts off badly for Irene as her own Mom fires her from a job at the beauty salon, crushing Irene's plans to create a hair stylist business that specializes in reproducing the fashions of famous literary heroines. But Irene's new job (babysitting) gives her the opportunity to meet the obsessive and gorgeous lifeguard Starla and Starla's jealousy-guarded ex-boyfriend.

A fairly light and entertaining read. You could fault it for skipping blithely from one scene to another, but Griffin creates strong fun characters and the overall theme of the book is sufficiently fun. No great depth, but a pleasant read.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Evolution, Me & Other Freaks of Nature, by Robin Brande

Mena has gotten in a lot of trouble. Because of her whistle-blowing, her church and its members have been sued and she fears that her parents will lose their business. None of her old friends are speaking to her. But a new lab partner in her biology and her ex-friends' campaign against the teaching of Evolution in that class, trigger a series of changes and a crisis as she struggles with questions of faith and values.

The story makes very clear who the good guys and the bad guys are and never really lets up. The mean kids are just mean and the good ones good. The parents are not just annoying, they are as abusive and mean as the Evil Stepmother of a Grimms Tale. In sum, the story may be a breezy read, but you don't really buy any of it. I found that in itself annoying enough to not recommend this. There was plenty of conflict to make good drama here without painting the bad guys as cruel as Brande felt the need to do.

Polly, by Amy Bryant

Polly tells her romantic and sexual biography from early teen years through early college, detailing her eight most significant relationships (some good, some not) and her parallel interest in music and art. Her relationship with her mother and step-father play a minor role, but the focus is definitely on Polly's development as a person as she struggles through the minefields of teen romance.

Strikingly realistic, one suspects that this is autobiography. It certainly rings true for the era (which I can say with some authority as I am nearly the same age as Polly the character and I grew up in the same area). And the details of the relationships and what she goes through will also ring true.

I understand that writers should write about what they know, but I have to take Bryant to task for not attempting to pull her story out of its era. Even with the strong interest in 80s hardcore punk, a more enterprising writer could have pulled the story into a more contemporary context. To really measure if Bryant is a good writer, I'd like to see her tackle less familiar territory (and with her bio saying that she now is writing short stories about life in NYC -- where she happens to live now -- I don't get the sense that she can grow). As a result, I'll give this novel a mixed review (realistic, interesting, but ultimately a lazy autobiographic exercise).

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

How It's Done, by Christine Kole MacLean

Grace grew up in a state of awe and fear of her father, but at 18 she is not so willing to follow his commands anymore. When she falls in love with a young college professor, her father disapproves. But rather than obey his order to break off the relationship, she decides to marry the man instead. As much as she hopes this is a good decision to spite her father, she slowly begins to realize that getting married is just transferring one prison for another. If she is going to find out what makes her special, she needs to start thinking - and desiring - for herself.

In this fairly catchy story, Grace's search for self has a realistic tone. Still, while it may be a comfort to the reader to always be a few steps ahead of the heroine, it's hard not to notice how terribly naive she is. This is hardly a feel-good novel, but it is affirming and portrays both decency and flaws.

I haven't yet mentioned the religious thread at all (Grace's family is Fundamentalist Christian). It's far from subtle (there's a great deal of Scripture-quoting in the book), but it also makes sense and fits in the story quite seamlessly. The family's faith is drawn with very little sensationalism - its just another factor of who they are. Given how easy it would have been to demonize the family's religious beliefs, MacLean has definitely taken the high road.

A Swift Pure Cry, by Siobhan Dowd

In a quiet Irish village, Shell tries to keep her family together -- younger brother and sister and alcoholic father. It's been hard since her mother died, but they have managed. But then things go horribly wrong and rumor, ambition, and pride make them worse. To make things right again, Shell must confess truths to her family and the people she has grown up with -- a terrifying prospect that she cannot face.

Written more as an adult novel with its elliptical style, thi is a hard slog for an allegedly YA story. The characters grow on you as you read, but it is still a maddening read (I'm not a big fan of dramatic tension that is based upon human stupidity). I'd suggest giving this one a miss.

Saturday, September 01, 2007

Ruby Parker Hits the Small Time, by Rowan Coleman

Ruby has been on the popular soap Kensington Heights since she was six. But now that she's 13 and "frumpy" and "awkward," she fears that they may jettison her from the show. But far worse, her parents have announced that they are getting divorced. But when it seems that things are really headed downward, suddenly they take a turn up.

This rather strange and unpredictable novel promises us from the start that things will go bad, making us expect a tragedy. Instead, it never does so you end up wondering what all of the fuss was about. What we do get is a lot of uptight people breaking through their insecurities and talking to each other (the nasty girl turns out to simply be misunderstood and once that is established everyone becomes close friends!). But in the end, there is no dramatic payoff to match the hype. Manipulative and ultimately dull.

Parrotfish, by Ellen Wittlinger

Angela has always been struck by the obsession that the world has about dividing everyone into boys and girls. And even more trouble understanding why it bothers her and why she has always wanted to join the boys. When she figures out that she is really a boy and changes names to Grady, a brave voyage begins. While Grady realizes that he will face resistance and misunderstanding, his new friends and enemies show up in surprising places. But in the end, it is really all about discovering yourself.

It is no coincidence that the jacket bears an endorsement from Julie Anne Peters, whose Luna covered the TG world (much better!) from the other direction. This book is a bit preachy, relying on author intervention rather than a strong narrative to tell its story. That makes it a bit more ungainly than Wittlinger's other books. I also found the ending overly convenient and corny, but I'll admit that a book with such a heavy topic probably needs some lightening up. I'll give this a qualified recommendation -- good topic, good characters, but it needed a tighter story.

Thursday, August 30, 2007

Twelve, by Lauren Myracle

In this sequel to Eleven, Winnie has turned twelve and twelve turns out to be an eventful year, ranging from getting her first bra and period to overnight camp and bee stings. A good boy and some fall-out with her best friend add more adventure.

I wrote that Eleven was good but boring because not too much of interest happens at that age. Holding aside the predictable menarche-inspired anecdotes (which, as important and dramatic as they are can be something of a predictable plot development in a book like this), the book simply is not very engaging. Part of the problem is that it is written as thirteen disconnected vignettes, as if Winnie was writing in a diary and only managed to do one entry a month. The anecdotes are well-written, but I never felt that interested in the character.

And as for the gratuitous name-dropping of Judy Blume in the November chapter, let's say that it was about as blatant as most of Blume's writing. Subtle it isn't. So, in case there is a young reader out there not familiar with Judy Blume, I'm sure that this will inpire them to pick up her ouevre. Or maybe not....sigh, I need to go back to teen books...

Monday, August 27, 2007

Alpha Dog, by Jennifer Ziegler

Spending the summer taking college classes in Austin couldn't have come at a better time for Katie as her boyfriend has just dumped her. But spending the sumer away from the kids at school and her overbearing mother isn't quite working out the way she planned. Her roommate is throwing wild parties. As a whim, Katie has adopted a dog who has turned into a holy terror. All of this has made Katie realize that the only way that she can ever truly be happy is if she learns to become the alpha dog.

Satisfying, but utterly predictable. The story has decent pacing and some good humor. Ultimately, it is an entertaining read, but no great literature. For a summer read, that is probably sufficient.

Rock My World, by Liza Conrad

In the summer before her senior year, Livi and her best friend Cam get dragged around with Livi's Dad. But it's not what you think: Dad is the lead singer of the legendary Baby Dolls and the summer is a whirl-wind trip of the world through a series of money-making nostagic gigs. As Livi interviews the band members for a journalism internship she has snagged, she also struggles with her growing attraction for the lead singer of the supporting act.

The book didn't do much for me on so many levels: crass materialism, flat characters, a rushed plot, cheap sentimental and contrived ending....I could go on. It also suffers from a major pet peeve of mine: Livi's taste in music is conveniently 10 years out of date, allowing the author to insert her music sensibilities into the story. Would it really kill a YA writer to do some research on what teens listen to now? OK, I'll withdraw my fangs but you should really give this one a miss....

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Better Than Yesterday, by Robyn Schneider

Charley and Skylar have been in academic competition during their years at Hilliard Prep, but the quest for academic excellence has not made them happy. Charley is trying to convince his ambitious parents to let him pursue his dream of music, rather than theirs (medicine). Skylar is living down a reputation acquired in freshman year. Both of them (against their preconceptions) are fighting their attraction for each other. In the background are Marissa and the troubled Blake.

The book is engaging but suffers from what I call the first-novel syndrome. Schneider has a lot of good ideas and want to cram them all into the same book. That leaves a lot of plot undeveloped and also subjects the reader to a bunch of random thoughts and musings. These ideas are frequently clever but they strain the narrative. Finally, skip the last chapter. While the book is enjoyable, Schneider feels an unnecessary obligation to tie everything up at the end with a rushed afterward. You'll be happier if you skip it and use your imagination instead.

Monday, August 13, 2007

True to Form, by Elizabeth Berg

In the summer of 1961, Katie is thirteen and in the throes of a series of changes. By good fortune, she wins a radio contest that allows her to visit an old friend in Texas and she makes some wonderful new friends back home. But a series of tragedies (some of which she causes, while others are out of her control) leave her struggling to re-evaluate herself and her priorities.

Historical fictional memoirs don't tend to appeal to me and non-YA books about teens tend to score low as well, but I'll give this a qualified endorsement for rising a bit above the genre. The story rambles a bit and never develops a plot, but it is warm and well-meaning. Also, ditch the insipid discussion guide at the back of the book (you can save those for your unimaginative teachers!). Instead, enjoy this timeless (despite its repeated mention of contemporary miscellanea) story about priorities, friendship, and setting yourself right.

The Two Princesses of Bamarre, by Gail Carson Levine

Of the two princesses, Adele is the shy one and it is Meryl who is brave. But when the Gray Death strikes Meryl, it is Addie who must rise to the challenge of finding a cure for the dreaded disease. In the space of a few weeks, Adele will have to battle ogres, specters, gryphons, and dragons to rescue her sister. But first, she must overcome her fear of spiders!

A fairly typical offering for Levin in a world not that much unlike Ella Enchanted or Fairest, but without much of the magic of those books. IT's an entertaining read, but never quite captures the imagination. Addie is more reliant on others for help and grows less than Ella did. So, while those other books explored the development of magic within, this one never quite goes there. More of an action adventure than human development story.

Monday, August 06, 2007

The Diary of a Teenage Girl, by Phoebe Gloeckner

In this highly original story of growing up in San Francisco in the 1970s, Phoebe tells the (presumably autobiographical) story of Minnie, the daughter of an alcoholic and abusive mother who sleeps with one of her Mom's boyfriends, takes lots of drugs, and fails her way through her junior year of high school. It's a disturbing and dark story with some very believable moments and motivations (especially Minnie's misguided search for affection through having sex with older guys). As such, the work is groundbreaking for its honesty.

It is also so gross and removed from most adolescents' experiences that it is a hard sell. Sure, we've all experimented, but the sheer depth to which Minnie falls to will turn off many readers. And the explicitness of the story (and its drawings) certainly turned me off. Still, if cult comix are your thing and you like some pervo graphic novel stuff, there may be something here for you. A strange combination of exploitation and empowerment by an author who couldn't quite decide which she was more interested in. Complex like life.

Sunday, July 29, 2007

Converting Kate, by Beckie Weinheimer

Kate's mother is a devout follower of the Church of the Holy Divine and Kate herself always tried to do what her mother told her to do, that is, until her father died and Mom refused to have a funeral for him because he had not embraced the Church. This event an a move from Arizona to Maine prompts Kate with an opportunity to break free of her Mother's grasp and strike out on her own. And with the help of a kindly Aunt, a friendly pastor, a lobster fisherman's grandson, and some friends that she doesn't even know she has, she begins her own emotional and spiritual journey.

This book is as much about growing up and breaking free as it is about the decisions we make about faith and beliefs -- and thus touches deeply on many of the issues of coming of age. And while the endless bickering with Mom gets a bit wearing, especially since Kate seems to have already made her break with the Church from the start, there is much more to this story than simply breaking free. In this way, Weinheimer has created a story which goes the extra mile -- showing us Kate's journey to a place as well as where she is coming from. A tear-jerking and deeply moving story. Highly recommended.

Saturday, July 28, 2007

Zig Zag, by Ellen Wittlinger

When Robin's boyfriend announces that he is going away for the summer - to Italy - she doesn't know what she will do with herself. But then her aunt proposes that she join them (aunt and two cousinlets) on a road trip across the country. And while things do not start off well (and do not get much better!) everyone learns a thing or three during their adventure.

This is actually one of Wittlinger's better books. It starts off slow but grows on you by the end. You will like the characters (even when they are messing up pretty bad) and Wittlinger understands psychological motivation pretty well so she does pretty realistic angst. I'd ding this novel for some unrealistic dialog, but overall it is pretty good.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

What Mr. Mattero Did, by Priscilla Cummings

Mr. Mattero the music teacher is generous and kind to his students and the community. The worst that can be said is that he is a bit forgetful and absent-minded. So when three girls accuse him of sexual abuse, it comes as a shock to everyone, especially to his daughter Melody. As accusations and rumors spread, Melody must face revelations about her father and the conclusion that no matter how it turns out, things will never be the same.

Treading on the same ground as Harmless (right down to the shifting narrative), this is a paler and more shallow work. It is entertaining, but there are few original observations here and (compared with Cummings's other works like A Face First) this is a disappointment.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

The Breakup Bible, by Melissa Kantor

When Max dumbs Jen, she finally understands why those 19th century heroines are always dying from heartbreak. She wishes that she too could die. But when her grandmother gets her a copy of Dr. Emory Emerson's Breakup Bible, Jen still thinks its the silliest thing in the universe. None of this realization saves her from the moping that nearly causes her to miss the opportunity to dig up real dirt on the school district while researching an article on race relations for her school newspaper. No, all she can think about is Max!

A fairly lightweight, but entertaining girl-loses-boy story. The first half drags on as it pulls out the usual romantic angst stuff, but the novel picks up speed in the second half and reaches a satisfactory conclusion.

Stargirl, by Jerry Spinelli

In the town of Mica AZ, kids are pretty normal and Leo is a normal kid. But Stargirl is different. She dresses strange, plays a ukelele in the cafeteria at lunch, cheers for the opposing team at basketball games. In short, she simply doesn't fit in. But somehow in being so very different from everyone else, she brings special magic to Mica and to Leo's life as well. And now he must choose whether he would rather be with her or be a part of the crowd.

This is a hard book to describe or to convey just how deeply moving and inspiring it is. It is more of a fable than a novel, addressing peer pressure, love, and the meaning of popularity. Stargirl is not specific to any particular era and may well remain a relevant book for years to come. Thus, I'll risk calling it a timeless classic.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Bloom, by Elizabeth Scott

Lauren and Dave are the perfect couple and everyday that Lauren walks down the hall at high school, she can tell that all the freshman girls would kill to be in her place. But from the inside, all is not so wonderful. Dave is boring and Lauren longs for something more, for someone she can share her feelings with, for someone she can truly love. And in Lauren's life, there isn't much room for real emotions or for sharing what you truly feel (her friends are distant, her father is distracted, and her mother abandoned her when she was little. And then she meets Evan...

OK, so you can probably guess where the story is going to go and it will win no prizes for originality. Worse still, the plot is full of old tired YA tripes (absent mother, distant clueless Dad, friends who just don't get you, etc.). But there is something to be said for decent writing and a sympathetic complex character. And while you know that reading a book like this is not good for you, it's still a pleasant Saturday summer read.

Monday, July 16, 2007

Listening for Lions, by Gloria Whelan

Rachel was born in Africa near the turn of the century to a missionary family running a hospital in the bush. When both of her parents succumb to the flu, she is taken in by the shady Pritchard family who scheme to have her impersonate their late daughter to get their family back in the good graces of the rich elder Pritchard. Rachel (now Valerie Pritchard) must embark of a trip to England to visit her "grandfather" for the Pritchards and leave behind her beloved Africa.

Combining some of the classic cliches of the orphan genre with some warm dialog and cultural detail, this is a charming book. The book is broken into three parts and, of these, the first two are the most interesting. The third suffers from a drastic telescoping of the narrative as Whelan rushes to the end of her story. One imagines that the third part probably needed another 100 pages or so to tell adequately and one wonders why she chopped it down so brutally, undercutting a fascinating character. A beautiful start but a flawed ended.

Lost in the Labyrinth, by Patrice Kindl

In this retelling (and combination) of several Greek myths, we get the story of the ancient Manoans, the Minotaur and the "hero" Theseus, Daedalus and Icarus, and an obscure princess Xenodice -- who unites all the threads together through her love for her half-brother (the Minotaur) and the young clever Icarus.

The myths are well-enough known, so no real surprises on the story, but much like the way that the novel Orphelia expands on a well-known story, Kindl riffs on Greek mythology in new ways, breathing life into the story and creating an engaging story about the brave princess Xenodice. It's a fun read, albeit neither suspenseful nor nourishing to the mind -- a good summer read (especially if you like Greek myths).

Dangerously Alice, by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor

In this latest (and 22nd) installment, Alice is doing the first half of her junior year. She has a new boyfriend and takes a few more risks (some of them major errors). But most of all, she tries to break free of her Miss Goody Two-Shoes (MGT) image and prove that she's a bit more nuanced as a person (even if she isn't quite sure what that will mean). More concretely, she rides a motorcycle, gets busted at a party by the cops, and goes just a bit further than her girlfriends have gone with a boy.

I've always been a fan of the Alice series (and it's the only series that I read religiously), but what worked well when Alice was 12 or 13 gets a bit old as she becomes an adult. No matter how old she gets, Alice remains terribly sheltered and innocent, more prone to mischief than real trouble. Naylor appears to understand this and has made an effort to create an edgier episode, but (like an overprotective parent) she really isn't willing to let go of her character. Alice makes errors in judgment which are quickly corrected for before even the reader can identify the mistake. In the end, she really is an MGT -- far too prim and proper to be believable. The truth about Alice is that she's always worked better as a character for middle school readers. While there is some pretty explicit sex in here, this book (like the others) will really appeal to the 12-14 year olds (as long as their parents don't find out what they are reading!).

In the Name of God, by Paula Jolin

In contemporary Syria, Nadia seems like the perfect daughter -- kind and generous to beggars, pious and respectful of her elders, but very very angry. Her anger is directed towards the way that the US treats Muslims, the way the leaders of her country treat the common people, and about the way her cousin Fowzi has been arrested. And one day when she is angry enough, she encounters a persuasive young man named Walid who gives her the opportunity to make a real difference in the world -- as a suicide bomber.

The extremely unusual YA story explores a part of the world that is certainly on people's minds but is largely misunderstood. I'm sure that purists could find flaws with it, but the descriptions of Arab culture ring true. So, as a glimpse of an alien world, the book is groundbreaking. As a novel, it is a bit thin at points, but the ending is immensely satisfying and dramatically gripping. A fine example of the potential of YA literature to transcend both the inane and the politically correct. Stunning!

Saturday, July 14, 2007

Beige, by Cecil Castellucci

Katy and her mother have always been a close team and done everything together, but this Summer, Mom has to go do research on her own and Katy is being sent from her home in Montreal to her Dad in LA. Katy's Dad isn't your typical geeky Dad. He's the drummer for the legendary punk rock band Suck. Katy knows very little about music, so the culture shock is immense. But Katy's bigger problem is finding her inner strength to stand up for what she believes in and what she wants.

Castellucci writes good books about young women finding themselves and finding their inner strength. The characters of her books tend to be engaging and quirky and a bit off-beat. Katy is no exception to the mold and there are strong similarities between this book and her previous novels. As such, there is not a lot of novelty here. The book also suffers from a pretty lame ending which won't really surprise anyone. Those two drawbacks make the book a bit disappointing, but for decent strong characters who are admirable and do cool things, this is a decent book.

Friday, July 06, 2007

When It Happens, by Susane Colasanti

Sara spends the Summer before her senior year waiting for Dave to call her, while Tobey spends the Summer trying to build up the guts to ask Sara out. So, things get complicated in the Fall when Dave asks Sara out before Tobey can make his move. But things will work out in the end, because when it happens you just know that it is right...and Sara and Tobey are soul mates. Misunderstandings ensue and the young couple work through applying to colleges and deciding whether to have sex.

And that basically sums up this story. It has a nice realistic quality to it (and Colasanti does a fairly decent job of portraying her male characters -- a real challenge as the novel is told in alternating narration from Sara and Tobey), but the story has very little in the way of surprises or drama. You basically know where the story is going. In fact, the story is so predictable that even Colasanti decides to drop most of the plot lines before she concludes them. That makes for a brisk read, but not for anything you can get your teeth into. Good characterization, but really thin story.

Oh, and please save me from another YA novel where the kids have unusually ancient tastes in music. In this one, they swoon over The Cure, Bob Seeger, REM, Chicago, and even James Taylor! I can understand a few retro tastes, but give me a break! Those are my favorite bands, but I'm old enough to be a Dad in this book! I'll cast my vote right now for fictional pop music. Either that or we require all authors to actually learn some current pop culture before they publish (and a few gratuitous references to the White Stripes or Coldplay - so yesteryear! - does not qualify).

Saturday, June 30, 2007

Looking for Lucy Buick, by Rita Murphy

When Lucy was a baby, she was found abandoned in a Buick that one of her "uncles" had won in a card game. When no one could find her real family, the uncles and aunts of the Sandoni family raised her. Now nearly grown up, Lucy longs to find her real family and fortune (in the form of a fire at the Sandoni factory when Lucy is presumed to be inside) provides her the opportunity to make a break. Her search brings Lucy to Iowa where she befriends a kind old lady, a Japanese butterfly breeder, and a storm chaser -- all of whom (along with the ghosts of Lucy's past) guide Lucy in her search.

A tale of searching for one's roots has a lot of potential. Add in some eccentric characters and a touch of the supernatural and yoy should have a pretty good story. However, this one falls flat, mostly because the story is so thin and the characters are poorly developed. A disappointment.

Friday, June 29, 2007

Sugar Rush, by Julie Burchill

When money gets tight, Kim's father has to pull her from her private girl's school and send her to the loacl public comprehensive - a place with a very poor reputation. Kim quickly falls under the spell of sexy alcoholic Maria ("Sugar") and falls in love with her. But their on-and-off lesbian flirtations combined with drugs and alcohol spell trouble.

The book is tough going because of all of the Brit slang, but even once you get used to that, you realize that the author is complete shite. Intoxicated with clever overblown prose, Burchill seems to think that writing about teens doing drugs and sex is a sufficient substitute for story. Shockingly badly written, skip this one with a vengeance!

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Dramarama, by E.Lockhart

Sadye and her gay black friend Demi have never quite fit in at their high school in Benton OH. Far too dramatic and theatrical! But then they both apply to go to a summer drama school and get accepted. For Demi, it is a dream come true and he flourishes in the environment, but Sadye doesn't do as well. And as the summer progresses, their friendship undergoes stress and strain as the life-changing experience of living amidst other dramaramas takes its toll.

As you may already know, I am an intense fan of E. Lockhart's writing. All of her books to date have gotten my four-star rating. It may be a bit churlish of me then to not give this one the same (I'm giving it three stars). Dramarama is an excellent book and light years better than many of the books you will read this year, but it was slightly less funny, slightly less poignant, and just sightly less spectacular. But only slightly! You will thus waste no time reading this book and you will enjoy it, but it is still not as great as her previous outings (they're a hard act to follow).

Tender, by Valerie Hobbs

After her grandmother dies, Liv has to go live with her father - a man she has never met before, the man who walked out when she was born. And Dad is not an easy man to get to know. He's silent and unreadable, gone all day out to sea fishing for abalone. But what starts as a living hell for Liv slowly becomes a new life and she begins to realize that her family ties are stronger than she thinks.

Hobbs is a good writer with a decent sense for strong and believable characters. The story itself breaks no new ground or reveals any new deep truths, but it is a decent read. You could easily do worse, and would have a hard time doing better.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

What My Girlfriend Doesn't Know, by Sonya Sones

Picking up exactly where What My Mother Doesn't Know ended, but switching viewpoints from Sophie to Robin, this sequel tells the continuing story of the romance of the unlikely beauty-and -the-beast pair of teenaged artists. It is hardly a happily-ever-after story as Robin gets an opportunity to audit an art class at Harvard and discovers that there is life after High School. And both of them must struggle with the problems of a popular girl dating an unpopular boy.

The first book is among my very few four-star books and my absolute favorite of Sones's books. Sequels always have a tendency to disappoint (or at least lack the novelty of the originals). But what really killed this book for me was the change of perspective. Sophie was a fascinating character, Robin simply is not. I think there are two reasons for this. One is that Sones really doesn't have as good of a hold over adolescent boys (as she does on adolescent girls). But I also think that the teenaged male psyche doesn't lend itself as well to free verse poetry as her girls do. A stereotype to be certain, but it is honestly hard to find Robin's voice to be plausible. It's an interesting experiment and a lot braver writing than Sones has done before, but it falls flat.

Saturday, June 23, 2007

Gracie's Girl, by Ellen Wittlinger

Bess's mother is so busy helping the homeless down at the shelter that she doesn't have any time for Bess at all. Worse still, she wants Bess to come down and help as well. Bess can't stand the idea. She's much rather be planning her transformation to popularity as she starts middle school. But when she goes to the shelter and meets Gracie, her life changes and she realizes that there are more important things in life.

Fairly predictable and lacking an authentic voice, this story is not one of Wittlinger's best works. I'm a minor fan, so I was disappointed that Bess turned out to be such an uninspiring heroine. I suspect that Wittlinger herself didn't find the story all that exciting. It certainly doesn't seem that way. The dialogue is flat, plotting is erratic and uneven, and there isn't much that is new here. Give it a pass.

Saturday, June 16, 2007

Crushed, by Laura and Tom McNeal

Audrey's life changes when the new boy at school shows an interest in her. Complications ensue, including a school bully, an infidelity and a friend's betrayal, a rumor monger, and her father losing his job and their house.

This is a novel with too many characters and plot lines to make much sense. Ostensibly, the authors are writing a story about committing mistakes and making amends, but since that is a generic part of any dramatic storyline, we are really stuck with a mess of incoherency. Give it a pass!