Sunday, December 28, 2008

Shelter, by Beth Cooley

When Lucy's father is killed in a car accident, she and her family lose everything, moving from place to place until they end up at a homeless shelter. Things have gotten as low as they can get. But as life hits rock bottom for Lucy, she discovers there is hope. And while she, her mother, and her little brother struggle to rebuild their lives, they also discover new talents and skills.

A light and fast read, but superficial and predictable at the same time. Cooley is an uneven writer. The setting was fresh and the characters engaging, but the dialogue and the narration gets very clunky and artificial at times. Fun enough to read, but don't expect much from it if you do.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Almost Alice, by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor

In the latest installment of the Alice series, Alice is now finishing up her junior year. As usual, there are plenty of adventures (a Sadie Hawkins dance, working for the Gay Student Alliance and the school newspaper, a production of Guys and Dolls, a friend from work choosing to become a priest, etc.) and a few deep issues (mostly dealing with sex and forgiveness). But for the most part, the rather frantic pace of Alice's just continues forward. Long-time readers will be excited that she goes to the prom with Patrick.

In my mind the franchise is mostly treading water at this point. She's a fun character to catch up with and I get the appeal, but aside from chronicling what Alice eats for dinner and the latest goofy adventure she has, Naylor seems to have run out of things to actually say in these books. Some of the installments (Alice In-Between and Alice the Brave, for example) were beautiful stories that just happened to be snapshots of her life. Now, it seems more like we are cramming in a lot of activity, skimping on the reflection, and full speed ahead. Alice seems shallow in comparison to her younger days.

I'll probably get savaged by the multitude of Alice fans out there, but I think it is fair to say that something has truly been lost. I've always been taken by the idea of the project (documenting a single person's life from childhood to adulthood) but I want it to be an emotional journey where I can see the insides of the person, not just a diary account of all her nutty adventures. Let's slow down a little and smell the roses!

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Undone, by Brooke Taylor

Serena has always been drawn to the mysterious Kori and tried to emulate her. But Kori has always lived her life just a bit closer to the edge, being sexier, sluttier, and darker than Serena would ever dare. But when Kori dies in an accident, Serena must try to rebuild her life and identity without Kori. In fulfilling five of Kori's last wishes, she learns as much about Kori as she does about herself.

A striking surprise. I really wanted to hate this book. It combines the worst of YA (death and gloom) with characters who seem terribly stock (outcast goth, snotty cheerleaders, etc.) but Taylor is always one step ahead of you keeping things interesting. The book has a very nasty habit of throwing in unexpected curve balls (some of which seem artificially created just to generate surprise), but there is just so much originality in this book that you have to cheer it on. The plot still annoys me and the characters did not engage me, but the story is just too damned good! Read this book to read one of the truly most original treatments of a tired theme you will ever find. Brooke Taylor is a powerhouse of a good writer.

Saturday, December 06, 2008

Call Me Hope, by Gretchen Olson

Hardly a day goes by where Hope's mother isn't yelling at her, calling Hope "stupid" or a "dumb shit." As Hope turns 12, she has grown so tense that she grinds her teeth at night and throws up her food. Despite her attempts to please her Mom, nothing seems to work and Hope wonders if she can get by. Taking inspiration from The Diary of Anne Frank and from Life Is Beautiful, she draws parallels between her life and the lives of Jews in the Holocaust.

Written more as an advocacy piece for alerting children to the dangers of verbal abuse, there isn't much room for subtlety in this story. Hope herself is well-developed but most of the other characters (Mom, the school counselor, friends, etc.) are basically just talking heads for the cause. That's a bit of a shame because a more nuanced story would have been more compelling. But the target audience appears to be younger middle school readers and Olson probably wanted to spell things out in black and white.

The Life and Crimes of Bernetta Wallflower, by Lisa Graff

When Bernetta's alleged best friend frames her and gets her suspended from school (as well as grounded for the Summer), Bernie is devastated. However, it gets worse. Because of her alleged cheating on a test, she is also going to lose her scholarship at Mount Olive and her parents can't afford to send her there in the Fall without the financial help. How, she must figure out a way to earn $9000 in the Summer to pay for the bills. But how do you do that when you are only 12 years old? Her surprising answer is to become a con artist.

It took me a major act of will to overcome the morally questionable premise (you can undo a wrong by committing many more) and a flimsy righting of those wrongs at the very end. But if you can put those scruples on hold, the book is breezy and fun to read. This is one of those stories that you can pretty much tell what the pay off will be, but it's entertaining.

Lobster Land, by Susan Carlton

Life on an island off the coast of Portland ME is fairly bleak (pun intended) but Charlotte has plans to escape to boarding school. However, there's her boyfriend, hapless (but potentially fugitive and definitely Scrabble-obsessed) Dad, and her siblings with whom to negotiate. And there's the small matter of getting the applications done as well!

A book which scores more from its witty writing than its story. The constant sarcasm gets a bit tired by page 90, but it has appeal (reminding me a bit of Cyd from Gingerbread). I really wanted to like this girl. But the story treads water.

I'll have to also admit that my opinion was impacted more than a little by the liberal use of profanity in the writing. This is a source of intense debate in YA (whether to swear or not). I see how it can add authenticity and emotion to a story (and I'm certainly no prude in my own life) but the rather heavy use of F-bombs and A-words by Carlton dilutes their utility. I think less is more in this case.

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Santa Claus in Baghdad, by Elsa Marston

This collection of eight short stories profile a different young person in a different Middle Eastern country, focusing predominantly on areas which have been beset by violence (Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, etc.). While some of the struggles are familiar YA themes, the setting i scertainly not. So, like last year's In the Name of God, Marston illustrates both what is similiar and what is different.

Marston is a bit overly conscious of her role as an introducer of a culture to the West and some of the stories can get preachy (and politically slanted as well). Moreover, as a collection of stories, there is a wide variety of strength in the work. The first story (which lends its title to the book) is a particularly beautiful retelling of O Henry's Gift of the Magi and is one of the most haunting stories in the collection. Other stories, like "The Olive Grove" (about the Intifada) or "Honor" (about honor killing in Syria), falter under the weight of their political agendas. Politics of course has its place (and novels like the aforementioned In the Name of God or the haunting Tasting the Sky have successfully melded politics and teen angst) but Marston is at her best when she keeps her focus on the kids. And Marston does succeed at times. "In Line" manages to tell a story about friendship while still highlighting class tensions in modern Egypt.

Walking Naked, by Alyssa Brugman

When Megan lands up in detention with the "Freak" (as Megan and her friends call outcast Perdita), she realizes that she has never given Perdita much thought. And as she gets to know Perdita better a la Breakfast Club, she realizes that she actually likes the girl. But now, Megan must try to juggle her position as an It Girl with the social suicide of her new friendship. The effort that this balancing act takes makes her realize that her own perfect world may not be so great after all.

Fairly predictable and tame YA fare from Australia. (Wouldn't it be cool if we had a YA book where the popular snooty girl actually turned out to have a better life than the outcast? Yes, snooty A-List girls don't generally read YA so there wouldn't be much call for such a shake-up in the convention, but wouldn't it be fun to see something a little different?) No major revelations in this one. But if you are looking for a pleasant tale about the importance of being true to yourself and the perils of popularity, this will fit the bill.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Would You, by Marthe Jocelyn

One night during the Summer, while Nat and her friends are having fun sneaking into people's pools, they pass an accident site. Within a few minutes, Nat learns that her sister has been struck by a car and is now in a coma at the hospital. In the days that pass, she and her family (and their friends) come to grips with the idea of losing someone you love, who you never thought you would lose since she was so young.

A thin story, both in length and in development, that struggles to tell the story of grief in a new and original way. This one's in first-person present tense yet somehow manages to avoid any feeling of closeness or immediacy. I never felt connected to the characters nor any real compassion for what they were going through. And the story was so old and undeveloped. People grieve. It's sad. That's basically the story.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

How To Ditch Your Fairy, by Justine Larbalestier

In a parallel world in a the near future, Charlie is a student at an elite sports high school in New Avalon. New Avalon is the best of the best and sports rule this world, making Charlie's place in the school a major honor. But in the world, fairies also hold sway and, while not everyone believes in their powers, Charlie sure struggles with hers. The fairies grant their hosts particular powers and her fairy give her the ability to find the perfect parking place -- a fairly worthless talent for a 14 year-old who hates cars and a dangerous liability when an upperclassman takes to kidnapping her to help him find parking places downtown. If only Charlie could get rid of her fairy and maybe gain a replacement -- like one that would win over all the boys or give her perfect hair....

A strange, quirky, and original setting for a story that combines sport novel with romance with supernatural magic, but never quite does any of these genres all the way. That may be charming, but I actually found it a bit maddening. Add to it all the surreal workload that Charlie and her fellow students allegedly endure and a sadistic system of demerits and I just started to get creeped out. What should have been a funny and entertaining story just got dark. New Avalon just seemed like a dystopia and a depressing place. So, in the end, I was confused about what I was supposed to get from the book. There were little elements of all sorts of things, but in the end, it seemed like a happy fairy tale ending (!) was supposed to wipe away any substantive conclusion. I didn't get much out of this book, despite its originality. Your results may vary.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

The Market, by J. M. Steele

One night, on an anonymous tip, Kate discovers a website that purports to be a market. But this "market" doesn't tade in the usual commodities -- it rates the popularity and desirability of the girls in her high school. When Kate shows it to her friends, the girls are initially disgusted, but ultimately intrigued at the possibility of playing the market by investing in Kate and inflating her value from "junk" to "blue chip" -- with the goal of cashing in on the gain. But as her "value" starts to climb, Kate learns that there are other "investors" who are eyeing her and that speculation -- even in popularity -- can have dangerous side effects.

A bit heavy-handed and simplistic, the premise makes this book worth reading, but just barely. The (anonymous) authors are slick and on a mission to sell their story as a parable on the perils of popularity. In case you don't pick that up from the main plot, they have weaved in some subplots that tell the same message. The overall effect is a book that seems over-engineered -- like it was the result of a focus group rather than the heart and soul of a living writer. That's not to say that the story is formulaic, but the ingredients certainly are.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Bliss, by Lauren Myracle

It is the Fall of 1969 and the big story on the news is the Manson trial. But for Bliss, it is about trying to fit in at Crestview Academy after her parents dump her with her stodgy grandmother as they flee to Canada to avoid the draft. That would make for a pretty interesting story, but there is more: a ghost of a girl who killed herself 80+ years before, a death-obsessed loner, a non-conformist love interest, interracial dating in a time when such things were still dangerous, and mutitudinous quotes from the Andy Griffith Show.

This novel falls seriously into my category of trying-to-do-too-much. I'm not sure how all of the plots were supposed to relate (most of them are just fade away and the ending is amazingly incomprehensible), but I am sure that some sorry book report writer will have to figure it out. Her earlier Rhymes With Witches did a similar job of crossing high school life with the supernatural, but it was wittier and had more focus. This one can't figure out if it wants to be funny, poignant, and just gross-out. All over the place and ugly to boot!

Debbie Harry Sings In French, by Meagan Brothers

Johnny aimlessly drowns his dead-end life in alcohol until an unintended overdose of drugs lands him up in a rehab center. A girl there introduces him to the music (and style) of Debbie Harry and Blondie. It's the early 90s and he's more into 80s New Wave, but something about Debbie totally captivates him and gives him the strength to find a new direction. New directions, however, come with new complications and it takes a girlfriend, a jealous bully, and one fantastic dress to show him the way.

The storyline veers all over the place, but the characters are surprisingly engaging. Moreover, Johnny's journey is unique in YA (which is truly amazing in this day and age of jadedness in the genre). This is hardly classic material, but it is original and it is well-written. Give it a try!

Friday, November 14, 2008

The Isabel Factor, by Gayle Friesen

Right before Zoe and Anna are supposed to go to summer camp, Zoe breaks her arm and can't go. Inseparable as friends ("like crazy glue"), Anna does not know what to do but reluctantly goes alone. The summer promises to be busy as she and her friends from previous summers hatch a plan to finally win the camp competition against their arch rivals in cabin seven. However, there is a new girl (Isabel) who won't play along. Her resistance has striking consequences on old friendships. Soon, Anna is even reconsidering her friendship with Zoe and her priorities in general.

A bit of a rough read and treading on familiar ground, this story does not offer a lot. The ending is strong and some ambitious themes about peer pressure are approached, but this is overall pretty average stuff.

Heaven Looks A Lot Like the Mall, by Wendy Mass

When a freak dodgeball accident lands Tessa in a coma at the hospital, her life flashes before her eyes. However, each episode is seen through the context of a store at the mall where her Mom and Dad work. While this may sound like an absurd basis for a story, it turns out to be an effective device to allow Tessa to revisit her life and realize that she hasn't always made the best of choices.

This is one of those free-verse novels: a genre that is overly prone to navel gazing, especially in YA. Sometimes, it works well. This time, the results are mixed. Some of the chapters (particularly early on) coalesce nicely, but others drag or fall into cliche (do we really need one more prom disaster story?). A decent-enough read, but disappointing in the end.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Another Kind of Cowboy, by Susan Juby

Taking a break from her successful Alice, I Think series, Juby gives us the story of Alex -- a horse-obsessed boy with a talent for riding and a small secret that he keeps from his alcoholic father. Add in a spoiled and self-centered rich girl from an elite girls' riding academy, his two nosy little sisters, and a variety of other characters and you get a charming story about finding out who you are, coming clean, and competitive dressage.

Spoiled rich girl Cleo never quite appealed to me, but Alex is a winner and a nice hero (Juby has created another character worthy of a few more books). The setting (rural British Columbia) is a bit off of most people's radars, but the story is a winner, not really following a traditional arc but still managing to deliver a good payoff. Worth reading!

Monday, November 10, 2008

Suite Scarlett, by Maureen Johnson

Scarlett lives in a famous old hotel in the heart of Manhattan with her family. It sounds terribly exotic unless you realize that the hotel is an economic failure (a pale shadow of its former glory days) and her family is a mixture of dysfunctional types. But everything changes when the exotic and eccentric Mrs Amberson arrives and takes an instant liking to Scarlett. Staying in the fanciest suite in the hotel and throwing money around like crazy, Mrs Amberson looks poised to change everyone's fortune until things go terribly wrong. Now, Scarlett must rise to the occasion and save the day.

An uneven work. Thoroughly fun and enjoyable in the first 250 pages, the final 100 pages become muddled as the plot treads water and losings its dramatic edge. Things aren't helped by one of the most boring romances to grace YA in a while. It was so bad that it took me totally by surprise, because I really was enjoying the book and couldn't put it down. But it just failed to deliver. In addition to the romance that isn't, there's a number of improbable plot turns, a major dramatic moment that isn't (when Mrs Amberson's secret conflict with her nemesis is revealed), and all sorts of rough ends. Johnson writes some good books and most of them are quite entertaining, but this one just bombs out. Disappointing!

Friday, November 07, 2008

Living Dead Girl, by Elizabeth Scott

Alice lives in a hellish world that centers around pleasing Ray. It wasn't always like this and somewhere in the back of her mind she remembers the girl who had a family and a different life. But that was before Ray took her away and made her his and name her Alice. And she isn't even the only Alice. Before her there was another Alice who Ray killed when she turned 15 and was too old to love him anymore. Now that Alice herself has turned 15, she knows it won't be long before Ray replaces her as well.

ICK! It's a quick read and an engrossing story, but you have to be one very sick puppy to enjoy a book like this. And I realize that that review is not going to scare anyone off (I read the same sorts of reviews myself and it only made me want to read the book), but this is a story that really exists only to exploit. You won't learn anything more than there are people in the world sicker than you (for even wanting to read this) and that a slick advertising campaign and a lot of hype can make the difference between schlock and must-read YA. Nasty!

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Clementine's Letter, by Sara Pennypacker

Clementine's world is thrown into chaos when the principal announces that her third grade teacher Mr D'Matz may win a chance to go away on a trip to Egypt for the rest of the year. Mr. D'Matz is her favorite teacher ever and he promised that he would be with them for the entire year! So, Clementine hatches a plan to make sure he stays. Simultaneously, she is working out a plan to buy her Mom a present and continues her search for new names for her little brother.

This third installment of the series remains as charming as the first two and it stands as one of the few series books that I've enjoyed enough to rate all of the books with my highest (****) rating. While I still would find Clementine a bit of a pain to take care of as an adult (and maybe a bit obnoxious as a classmate/playmate), reading about her is a delight!

Savvy, by Ingrid Law

Living in the boondocks of Kansaska-Nebransas is a good idea for the Beaumonts, a quiet farm family with a secret: when a Beaumont turns 13 they develop their savvy (a special supernatural talent). Mibbs's grandfather can move land, her older brothers cause storms and electricity, and her mother is just perfect. Now Mibbs is turning 13 and she wonders what her talent will be. But rather than have the wonderful celebration she wants, there is a cloud over the family as her father lies in the hospital after a terrible accident, her mother is gone from the house attending to her, and the nosy pastor's wife insists on putting on a huge party. Chaos and a frantic roadtrip through Kanasaska-Nebransas ensues.

Clever and a mildly funny, this quick read will appeal to younger readers for just being fun, while older readers will get the whole puberty metaphor. Both will hopefully enjoy the funky characters and wild adventure. There's not a lot to the story and it moves along in a fairly predictable fashion, but that won't take away from the enjoyment. Did I mention it was a fun read?

Friday, October 24, 2008

Paper Towns, by John Green

One night toward the end of his senior year, Quentin's sleep is interrupted by the girl-next-door Margo, who wants Quentin to join her on an all-night prank fest. He consents and after the evening is over, she disappears. In the weeks that follow, Quentin becomes obsessed with finding out what happened to her and starts to assemble clues about her disposition. As his last year in high school closes, Quentin realizes that time is running out. Assisted by his odd assorted friends, he embarks on a desperate road trip to save Margo before it is too late.

John Green is a major powerhouse in YA writing and Looking For Alaska ranks in my all-time top ten. However, he seems to be in a rut. While still very funny and endlessly capable of creating quirky and memorable characters, Green's stories end up sounding much the same -- horny but sensitive loser-boy longs after mysterious girl. It's a lovely formula and it rings true (as the male version of the teen angst novel), but it's really time for Green to move on and write a new book. I don't really need to keep reading the same one over and over again.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Hot Lunch, by Alex Bradley

When too-cool-for-you Molly gets into a destructive food fight with new girl Cassie, their initial punishment is being forced to work in the school cafeteria for Mrs. Zetz the lunch lady. But when the two girls drive Mrs. Zetz into early retirement, they are ordered to run the place for themselves. Now they must overcome their dislike for each other and simultaneously turn out decent school meals. It will be a long journey!

Another fun book with a good dramatic arc, but also some strange subplots that just sit out there and some really clunky character development. Molly is so unsympathetic at first that the author has trouble turning us around to liking her (almost as if he realized that he had gone a bit overboard with making her mean). As a result, we get all sorts of out-of-the-blue revelations (example: major crush that is only revealed about 90! pages in). The subsequent attempts to give Molly a heart of gold did not work for me.

Oh, and I totally can't get the Fame song "Hot Lunch" out of my head...

The Possibilities of Sainthood, by Donna Frietas

Antonia Lucia feels she has some pretty good ideas about sainthood, whether it is for a new saint of fig planters (to help her in winterizing the family trees) or a saint of pasta makers (for when Mom and Gram have her covered in dough to feed every Italian in Providence). She also hopes that some day she'll become the first living saint (she doesn't want to die in order to do so!). This is especially important because she hasn't even had her first kiss yet!

A funny and charming book that is mostly about being a boy-crazed 15-year-old Catholoic schoolgirl (which is probably about as far removed from my personal experience as you can get!), but the story is also about a quirky young woman going for what she wants. It's a romance novel with just a little bit of intellectual ambition thrown in. A great read with a satisfying ending, and also a nice book about growing up Italian.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

The Glow Stone, by Ellen Dreyer

After her uncle dies, Phoebe seems to be the only one who still feels close to him. Her mother in particular is withdrawn and distant. She even insists that Phoebe sell her much-loved desk that her Uncle gave her! So, when an aunt offers to take her spelunking, Phoebe jumps at the opportunity to do something new and different. The trip into an old cave, however, brings Phoebe face to face with the truth behind her uncle's death and reveals a secret about her family.

This is a weird book that is not really sure if it wants to be a family drama or a supernatural thriller (or maybe both?). The overall result is just odd. Dreyer has a number of interesting ideas but in a short book like this there is not enough space to develop them. The ending comes up a bit too abruptly leaving the reader confused. The overall result is a book to skip.

The Comeback Season, by Jennifer E. Smith

It's been five years since Ryan's father died, but Ryan is philosophical about these things because she is a Cubs fan. And being a Cubs fan means having to deal with 100 years of loss and dashed hopes. For Ryan, rooting for the Cubs will always be linked to spending time with her Dad. On the anniversary of her father's death (which also happens to be Opening Day), Ryan finally musters the courage to return to Wrigley Field and revisit the site of her memories. While there she meets Nick (a boy from school that she barely knows) who is drawn to Wrigley for similar yet different reasons. With Nick, she is destined to learn new lessons about struggle and hope.

I'm not a sports fan (if I had to root for a baseball team, it would be the Phillies) and I'm even less into novels written in the third person (which this one is). So, I figured that I would simply hate this book, but I don't. That should give you an idea of how great this author must be. But Smith is much more than the writer of a good book, she is a phenomenal spinner of words. Using baseball as an analogy of life is hardly new, but she takes it much further than I've ever seen before - combining good observation with a way to make you sit back and nod. This is a beautiful book with a lot to say about life. Even if sports are not your thing, this is a book that is well worth your time to read.

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Audrey, Wait! by Robin Benway

When Audrey breaks up with her boyfriend Evan, she has no idea that it will inspire him to write a song. Or that The Song will become an international pop sensation and rocket both of them into fame. But it does. And as the pappazzi descend and life goes crazy around her, Audrey manages to discover a great deal about herself even as the rest of the world has trouble seeing it.

A nice light read, full of plenty of convenient plot twists that eventually wrap up better than fine in the end. And while Benway gives profuse kudos to Rachel Cohn (and has a debt to Meg Cabot as well), this is a much better indy-rock themed book than The Book About Two Teens in the Indy Rock Scene That Recently Became A Movie. Unfortunately, it will age about as poorly (as much as I would like to imagine that kids will be rocking to Death Cab for at least another decade!). Escapist fun!

Imaginary Enemy, by Julie Gonzalez

Jane struggles with life. She means well, but lacks discipline, leaving her homework undone and managing more often than not to screw things up. But it's OK, because these things are not her fault -- they are caused by her imaginary enemy Bubba. Ever since second grade, Bubba has persecuted her and gotten her into trouble. Now, as she is growing older, the trouble seems to take on bigger dimensions, just as things are starting to work out for her.

A rambling mess that reads more like a series of reminiscences than a real story. This novel covers some ten years of Jane's life, just briefly touching on the highlights. There are of course a few cute moments, but no real point to the overall story. Jane's flaws will endear her to some readers but I found her irresponsible behavior hard to take. She seemed mean and selfish. So, the novel lacked even a character that I wanted to read about.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Toy Dance Party, by Emily Jenkins

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

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

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Alice McLeod, Realist At Last, by Susan Juby

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

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

Dirty Work, by Julia Bell

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

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

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Dante's Daughter, by Kimberley Heuston

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

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

Sunday, September 21, 2008

How Not to be Popular, by Jennifer Ziegler

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

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

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

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Cheating Lessons, by Nan Willard Cappo

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

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

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

What Erika Wants, by Bruce Clements

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

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

The Otherworldlies, by Jennifer Anne Kogler

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

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

Saturday, September 06, 2008

The Eyes of Van Gogh, by Cathryn Clinton

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

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

The Vanishing Point, by Louise Hawes

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

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

Outside Beauty, by Cynthia Kadohata

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

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

Monday, September 01, 2008

Where People Like Us Live, by Patricia Cumbie

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

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

Love & Lies, by Ellen Wittlinger

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

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

Ever, by Gail Carson Levine

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

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

Saving Juliet, by Suzanne Selfors

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

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

Exodus, by Julie Bertagna

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

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

All We Know of Heaven, by Jacqueline Mitchard

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

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

The Patron Saint of Butterflies, by Cecilia Galante

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

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

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Hush, by Donna Jo Napoli

In this sprawling epic, based loosely on a real Irish princess of the Tenth Century, Melkorka goes from Ireland to captivity as a slave in Russia to a new life in Iceland -- a grand journey indeed! But she is also an unusual heroine: finding strength (and her "voice") through silence even as she loses everything around her that she values and everyone that she loves.

Napoli continues to be one of the strongest writers of YA historical fiction (and also myth/fairy tale retellings), combining rich details about the epoch and its customs with good storytelling. While this particular novel never really rises above the genre to make a significant point, it is an entertaining read and an engrossing story. As fair warning, the events in this novel may be a bit intense for younger readers, but even at those moments, Napoli is never exploitative.

The Missing Girl, by Norma Fox Mazer

There are five girls in the Herbert family, which is a lot of mouths to feed and times are not good. But as the family struggles with money and the girls go through typical sibling issues, no one notices the man in the gray coat who is watching them. He's the kind of person you pay no mind to until it's too late. One day, one of the girls goes missing.

There are two reasons I ended up really disliking this book. The first reason is the Ick Factor. The entire premise of the story (kidnapping and child molestation) was totally unnecessary. The second problem for me was the pointlessness of the story. Made up of unconnected ideas and undeveloped plotlines, the story (such as it is) meanders around. What was the point? Entertainment? (that's a sick thought, although the book is actually just boring) Education? (no lesson is ever taught -- neither characters nor reader learn anything) Message? (hardly present, beyond the ol' don't-talk-to-strangers chestnut) Pass!

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Wake, by Lisa McMann

Since she was eight years-old, Janie has been able to see other peoples' dreams. But it isn't just about knowing what people dream about, she actually gets sucked into the dreams. And what started as an annoyance on sleepovers has become a serious liability now that Janie is 17 and getting ready for college. Then an encounter with an elderly lady and a friendship with a stoner-outcast boy (who has an uncanny ability to directly communicate with her in his dreams) sends Janie off in a new career direction with fascinating potential.

A strange and interesting premise that veers into weird territory in the end. Things are not helped by the writing style, which is intended to simulate dreaming, but comes out clunky and awkward. The characters never really develop and I found myself feeling cut off from any emotional connection with them. Great idea but the story just didn't deliver. But if you like this one, you can look forward to the sequel coming out in 2009.

What Happened to Lani Garver, by Carol Plum-Ucci

When the majorly androgynous Lani shows up in the Jersey Shore island of Hackett, his looks raise a lot of suspicion. It is only a matter of time before the rumors and accusations start to surface. But Claire doesn't believe any of it and, as she expresses doubt, the hostility she encounters from the people she grew up around leaves her wondering why all of the fuss is happening and leads her to question events from her past. Far too quickly, things come to a deadly head.

This is an ugly story with a nasty edge. It is hard to not come to the conclusion that the author hates small towns with her demonization of the people of Hackett. The characters are overwhelming weak or repulsive and the story shies away from any moments of redemption. There are some nice observations about group think and denial, but they are drowned in an unrelenting mean streak. The subplot about angels becomes rather meaningless in the end, and is largely used as an excuse to temper the horrific ending with fuzziness.

Friday, August 08, 2008

Alive and Well in Prague, New York, by Daphne Grab

When Matisse's father gets so sick with Parkinson's that he can no longer do his sculpture, her parents decide to move out of New York City and go Upstate to the tiny town of Prague, where excitement is a hayride and the art teacher does not know the difference between Matisse and Monet. It's a rough transition for Matisse and she does little to ingratiate herself into Prague's cliques. But then, she is also struggling to accept her father's condition and deal with her mother's denial.

As with the last book I reviewed, this one has a good premise for a story, but Grab's novel lacks subtlety. The narrator's voice (which never sounds authentically adolescent, but rather borders between selfish and jarringly reflective) does not quite work for me and the resulting story is clunky. I liked what the author was trying to do, but I can't really recommend the book.