Monday, April 30, 2007

If I Have a Wicked Stepmother, Where's My Prince?, by Melissa Kantor

It's rough to be left by your Dad on the East Coast with his new wife (the witch) and her snotty daughters (princesses #1 and #2). Worse, you are either ignored or forced to slave away for the family. It makes you think of Cinderella. But life is not really a fairy tale and when the cutest guy at school starts to notice you, you have to get a bit suspicious that it's all too good to be true.

Borrowing a bit of Meg Cabot's it's-to-fabulous-to-be-real-but-boy-ain't-it-fun-to-read-about style, Kantor steers treacherously through realism and fantasy, creating an engaging heroine and a promising dramatic story. Lucy is pleasantly cynical and witty. The stepmother is both vile (in Lucy's descriptions) and strikingly realistic. But the ending falls apart as things fall too conveniently into place. This is a guilty pleasure read (quick and funny) but having set up a great conflict with a difficult family situation, Kantor doesn't seem to know how to resolve the issue and side-steps her way out. So, a disappointing ending on an otherwise promising story.

Razzle, by Ellen Wittlinger

Kenyon isn't exactly thrilled to be permanently relocated to Cape Cod from Boston by his retiring parents. It does not exactly help that the first person he meets there -- Razzle -- is so weird either. But over time, the two of them develop a friendship and an understanding that helps Kenyon blossom as he never has before. But another relationship with a promiscuous girl named Harley and far more damaging revelations about Razzle's past threaten that friendship.

I would not consider this novel to be one of Wittlinger's better books. The characters seem flat and unsympathetic, and the story plods along. Razzle herself is an interesting invention, but overall there isn't much in this story to recommend it.

Saturday, April 28, 2007

The Parallel Universe of Liars, by Kathleen Jeffrie Johnson

Robin is a big girl - a piggy- but that's far better than living in a universe of liars like the grown-ups around her (who are almost all cheating on each other and even leching after her). The one bright spot is a multi-racial friend Tri who may or may not be a boyfriend, but seems to genuinely like her either way.

The novel has some complexity and artistry (and even some clever layout and design), but it is not a terribly interesting experience. None of the characters really grow (I'm big on character transformation!) and you end the voyage wondering why you started. A book that neither changes the reader nor the characters. What's the point?

Easy, by Kerry Cohen Hoffman

Jessica's talent is photography, but it isn't enough. As she prepares for an upcoming national contest, she realizes that she needs something more: to be noticed and loved by others. And, although she is only 14, she knows there is one way she can get that attention. And while she fully realizes the danger of flirting with men, it is simply so easy to do and it provides her with the attention she craves.

This is an absolutely stunning book. Obviously, I don't know from any first-hand experience, but Hoffmann seems to have truly captured the eseence of adolescent feminine desire -- brilliantly balancing lust, insecurity, anxiety, love, and loyalty. It may help that she's a counselor, but a writer this good has to have both an ear and a heart. I was extremely impressed and highly recommend this book.

The book does raise a number of issues for adults. It's quite explicit (we've come a long way since Judy Blume!) and some parents may have second thoughts about kids reading it, but I would urge careful consideration. The sexual explicit scenes in the book are realistic and show respect for the readers (depicting both a strong sense of consequences -- one might even accuse the book of preachiness -- and a respect for life and self-worth). This novel is completely removed from exploitative trashiness. Part of me still is uncomfortable recommending it to its target audience of 13 and 14 year-olds, but I think the story it has to tell is important and true for that age group.

Monday, April 23, 2007

The Year of Secret Assignments, by Jaclyn Moriarty

At the beginning of the school year at prestigious private school Ashbury, Lydia, Emily, and Cassie are assigned pen pals at the nearby public high school. At first, the correspondance goes very badly as everyone gets off on the wrong foot. But gradually, as the weeks and the letters go by, the three girls get to know three buys (Seb, Charlie, and Matthew) who may be from the other side of the tracks, but are hardly anything like these privileged girls ever imagined.

I have developed a strong bias against Australian YA (because so much of it basically sucks!), so I steered clear of this novel for over a year. But it kept coming up in other people's "best of" lists, so I overcame my bias and dove in and was pleasantly surprised. I did find a few parts dull and the ending a bit too convenient (and silly), but there was some wonderful clever moments and some great observations on what being a teen is really all about. It had a good combination of emotion, adventure, and character development. It won't make my own "best of" list, but it was a decent read.

Monday, April 16, 2007

Aquamarine, by Alice Hoffman

Claire and Halley are spending their last Summer together ever. Calire is moving away at the end of the season. And, it's not just that. Their favorite place, the Capri Beach Club is also going to be demolished at the same time. In fact, it seems like everything will come to an end soon. But then the girls discover a surprise in the deep end of the Capri's abandoned swimming pool - a mermaid!

A very short book with a great deal of potential, but this one falls flat. Too many ideas left undeveloped and characters who just seem to be killing time, waiting for something more. Hoffman is maddeningly erratic in quality. This little novella needed more work and comes off as something that she just phoned in.

Friday, April 13, 2007

13 Little Blue Envelopes, by Maureen Johnson

Ginny gets a letter from her late aunt telling her to pack her bags and fly to England. And somehow, although she is shy and reserved, Ginny does what she is told. What unfolds is a series of adventures travelling across Europe, meeting people and having experiences that she otherwise would not have. And at each stage, there is a new envelope (13 in all) for her to open to guide her on her quest.

This is a fun and lively book about the search for self (and also about learning some about your family). There's lots of local color and detail and most of us who have been to Europe (on our own) will recognize a bit of ourselves in the story. I liked this book a lot more than I expected to and can see why it has been so popular.

Better Than Running at Night, by Hillary Frank

Ellie arrives for her first year of art school and immediately meets the devil (and Elvis!) at a party. Actually, it's a guy named Nate, but in the end the relationship she develops with the clingy (yet unfaithful) Nate will become a sort of unhealthy association. Meanwhile, Ellie is also struggling to express herself artistically and grapple with the fact that her father is not her biological Dad.

This is a messy book, but has an element of realism to it, in the sense that life is not a convenientdramatic arc. The problem is that life can be dull too and there were sections of this story that truly put me to sleep (of course, reading the book on my 7am flight doesn't help!). I give the story high marks for realism and strong characterization but I wanted a more coherent story.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Goose Chase, by Patrice Kindl

Alexandra the Goose Girl has hair that looses gold dust when brushed, she cries tears that become diamonds, and her face is as fair as dawn. While these gifts might seem like blessing, they are the Goose Girl's curse as they also bring her the unwanted attention of the King and a Prince. When she runs away, aided by her geese, it sets in motion a series of events that change the course of the kingdom and help to right an ancient wrong.

This is pretty much a by-the-numbers fairy tale. A bit convoluted and long, but enjoyable with enough twists to hold your attention. Not fine literature (and I'd more highly recommend Hale's Goose Girl in its stead), but good reading. The Goose Girl is resourceful, her sidekicks amusingly dim witted, and the geese manage to save the day on more than one occasion. No surprises, but entertaining.

Sunday, April 08, 2007

Story of a Girl, by Sara Zarr

When she was 13, Deanna's father caught her in the back seat of a car with a Junior named Tommy. Three years later, she is still struggling with the reputation of being the school skank and a father who won't look her in the eye. But three years is a long time for healing and Deanna decides it is time to reinvent herself.

This novel has gotten a lot of hype and comes with an assortment of high-power endorsements (John Green, E Lockhart, etc.) -- all of which both made me look forward to reading it with anticipation and also scepticism that it would be able to live up to the hype. The truth lies somewhere in between. Did I buy the story and think it was something special? Yes! Did I think that Sara Zarr is a pretty cool writer? Yes again! That said, the story itself didn't completely grab me on a personal basis, but it was still good writing (and I'm fair enough to admit that I don't ahve to like something for it to be good). So, it might not make my "best of" list but I'm sure that Zarr's second novel will have my full attention. Recommended.