Thursday, February 28, 2008

Song of the Sparrow, by Lisa Ann Sandell

In this verse retelling of the story of the Lady of Shalott, we cover some of the basic foundations of the Arthurian Myth -- Arthur's rise to be king, the drawing of the sword, the marriage of Gwynivere, and more. But the retelling is from the perspective of the women and this creates a different point of view, as they play a much more integral part in the story than usually befalls their characters.

Telling the story in verse is a bit lazy (it saves the trouble of transitions or deep character development) and the research a bit spotty (who ever heard of mending chain mail [!] with a needle and thread?), but the story is decent and the pacing good. As an adventure, this works fairly well and is a quick read. But it is a bit thin though and I would have preferred a meatier story (perhaps like that recent retelling of Orphelia's role in Hamlet?).

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

For Now, by Gayle Friesen

In this sequel to Losing Forever, Jes is still blurting out whatever pops into her head at the most inopportune moments, but her life is evolving. Her Mom has become pregnant and blending Cal and his yoga-meditation fanatic daughter Angela into the family is proving trying. Jes's friend Dell is swept away by a creepy boyfriend and Jes herself needs to figure out if she wants to date boy-next-door Sam or not.

Mildly humorous and generally well-written, the biggest problem with this story is that it really isn't about anything. In a fairly realistic way, events happen and people change, but it is mostly about getting from where the book started to where it ends. In a serial, that would make for a decent book, but taken by itself, this story does not have much of a purpose.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

The Secret Life of Sparrow Delaney, by Suzanne Harper

When Sparrow gets a chance to transfer to a new bigger high school, she jumps at the chance. Anything she can do to get to a place where no one knows her or her wacky family, the better! You see, her family are spiritualists (mediums to the spirit word) who make a living out of contacting the dead. And Sparrow, the seventh daughter of a seventh daughter, doesn't want anything to do with it. She's been hiding her own talents since she was 5 in an attempt to simply be normal. But a boy at school and an annoying ghost are doing everything they can to change all of that.

Clever and funny, with lively characters and a fast-moving storyline, this is a good read. It falls into the category of a guilty pleasure for me, because it does not have a great deal of substance, but it's still fun. While there are a number of underdeveloped elements in the story, nothing will grate on you if you want some light entertainment.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Girl At Sea, by Maureen Johnson

Clio is forced to leave her great incipient job at the galaxy art store, working with boyfriend-to-be Ollie, and spend the summer in Italy on a boat. But before you roll your eyes and tsk tsk about Clio being some sort of spoiled brat, keep in mind that Clio's absent Dad previously got her nearly killed and later on got her a big tatoo on his arm, so he's not the wisest of Dads in the package. And this summer jaunt is some sort of ultra secret mission involving sunken treasure, men with guns, and a love triangle. So, it's not exactly fun in the sun!

Johnson writes well and combines an engaging heroine and a lot of drama into her stories. It's taken me a while to in fact become familiar with her style, which combines typical teen angst (parental conflict, fighting with friends, and insecurities about the opposite sex) with action sequences that start normal and then quickly veer into melodrama. It really shouldn't work and if you tried to explain this book to a friend, they would look at you like you were nuts (too touchy feely for boy readers and too much action for the angsty Judy Blume graduates), but it really does work. A truly enjoyable and fun read with satisfying emotional depth.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

The White Darkness, by Geraldine McCaughrean

Sym has always been a bit obsessed by Antarctica, and under the tutelage of her doting Uncle Victor, she has learned a great deal about it. Victor has little tolerance for formal schooling and a lot of influence with Mum (ever since her Dad died), so when he proposes a trip to Paris in the middle of exams, but that trip to Paris quickly becomes a trip much further south. And, in the land of her dreams, Sym discovers that her uncle is a bit different than she imagined. But inside herself, she her a friend - the ghost of Capt Oates of the ill-fated Scott expedition to the Pole. Will it be enough to save her in the bitter wilderness of Antarctica?

Yes, it's this year's Printz winner, so it deserves a lot of respect, but it's hard for me to take seriously anyone who idolizes Scott (one of the greatest fools who ever explored - a point carefully ignored by the Brits who can't stand the idea that a Norwegian did it better by not being an arrogant twat, but I digress....).

British children must either be incredibly gullible and trusting of adults, or the people who write these books want to believe they are. It seems something of a trademark to have a child who lets horrible things happen to them simply because they believe that the grownups will take care of them. American teens (or the adults who write about them) are more cynical. In a post-Nixon America, no one buys the idea that the grownups will take care of you. Rather, we know that you can't trust anyone over the age of 18. This is no small matter. Much of the story centers around Sym's blind faith in her uncle and the horrible (and utterly telegraphed) fact that he is letting her down. That she finally realizes this around page 307 is utterly unbelievable, but if you can't believe it, the book is a hard slog.

Holding aside that tragic flaw, the book has decent writing and once you get used to Sym's precious dialog with the ghost of Oates (I tended to gloss through it because of the sheer tedium), you do get into a good roll. I'll even admit that I had trouble putting the book down once I hit page 150 or so, but that's because it is a decent adventure story and I'm a sucker for Antarctica.

Decent enough read? Yes. Clever story telling? Perhaps. Best YA book of 2007? Not even close.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Derby Girl, by Shauna Cross

They say that a writer should write about what they know, so if you are a kick-ass roller derby star in L.A. who comes out of the Lone Star state, then your first novel is going to be about a young woman in Texas trying to break out of her parochial small town to become a kick-ass roller derby star. Bliss is said small-town roller wannabee, condemned to years of trying to please her mother on the pageant circuit. And while neither her town or her family understands her, Bliss knows what she wants and with the help of some friends, she is going to get it.

Clever and witty, and written in a very colloquial style, this book is an easy read. It's also fast-paced and manages to avoid tiring you out. The slang and constant cool nature of the characters does run the risk of getting old, but as it does, even Cross makes fun of her heroine's heavy reliance on a few choice words. I will take the author to task for never really showing her character struggle (no problem weighs Bliss down for long), but escape lit is supposed to be fun and this one delivers like a whip.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Bad Girls Club, by Judy Gregerson

In their family, Destiny is the one who keeps things together and protects her little sister from their mother. There's no help from Dad as he cannot accept what Destiny tells him (how Mom tried to kill them) and cannot deal with his problems. Destiny's friends try to help as well, but in the end Destiny knows in her heart that she must fix everything. No one loves a bad girl.

I'm not a big fan of the niche of YA lit that puts the characters through endless suffering and less of what I have to think of as a teen fantasy (what parents really were certifiably crazy?) about abusive/neglectful parents. But what usually bothers me in those stories is the gratuitous depiction of suffering with no attempt to escape -- the literature of victimization. This book is very different.

From nearly the first page, we see that Destiny is a strong and able young woman (maybe sometimes even too strong?) who fights for what she believes in. But we also see how she gets sucked down by trying to care for a mentally-ill parent. We also get a good sense of what she is fighting for and why she endures such a terrible situation. We come to believe in what we are seeing and thus to care for the people involved. The result is extremely moving (and disturbing) reading. I can't say that I enjoyed reading this book but it left me with a better understanding of abuse and mental illness.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Love, Stargirl, by Jerry Spenelli

Stargirl has moved away from Arizona to Pennsylvania. It is a lonely place. She's back to being homeschooled and misses the folks back in the desert. In her loneliness, she starts a letter to Leo that fills the entire book. In this letter she describes her new friends (talkative six-year-old Dootsie, agoraphobic Betty Lou, feisty Alvina, distant delinquent Perry, and others) and her attempts to keep her wagon full of pebbles.

The writing maintains its sweet melancholy, but as the narrator's perspective shifts from Leo to Stargirl, the appeal of the story fades. In Stargirl, there was a worshipful distance between us and Stargirl, a sense of mystery, and a sadness of the narrator realizing that he never really appreciated her. Stargirl may have been put on a pedestal, but it was a beautiful view. Switching the story to Stargirl's perspective in this second book cuts away at that mystery. Instead, Spinelli relies upon quirky outside characters to enliven the story. Stargirl loses much of her quirks as she loses her mystery. In the end, she becomes more than Opal in Because of Winn-Dixie (an excellent book to be compared with, I might note), but she isn't really Stargirl anymore. And even she knows it.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

How To Ruin A Summer Vacation, by Simone Elkeles

Amy has hardly ever seen her Dad (the "sperm donor"). He shows up about once a year but otherwise ignores her. So, it's quite a surprise when he insists that she come with him to Israel for a summer. Amy does not quite know what to expect. She's heard enough about Israel but does not know much about it. And her reception there, meeting her father's family, is pretty rough. But over the summer, she grows out of her selfish American roots as she discovers new friends, new love, and an ancient heritage.

The book is well written but I found it hard to relate (or sympathize) with Amy, who is fairly self-centered and rude. And her transformation comes so easily that it seems either fake or simply wishful-thinking from the author. That made it hard to like the book.

Saturday, February 09, 2008

Book of a Thousand Days, by Shannon Hale

When Dashti, a mucker from the steppes with the gift of singing the healing songs, comes to serve the Lady Saren, she does not realize the cruel fate that awaits her. Saren has been sentenced to live seven years in the tower for refusing to marry the evil Lord Khaser, and for holding out for Khan Tegus. But their days in the tower are simply the beginning of an epic that will take every skill and talent the girls have to survive.

A satisfying but predictable fantasy. Based on a Grimms brothers tale, but transplanted to a pseudo-Mongolian setting, the book has a pleasing combination of familiar and exotic elements. The biggest thing in an adventure book, of course, is whether it holds your interest. I found this one hard to put down, grudgingly setting it aside and eagerly returning to see what happened next. Even if the ending was pretty easy to figure out far in advance, sometimes that's a comfort and getting there is the fun.

Thursday, February 07, 2008

Clementine, by Sara Pennypacker

Clementine is a third grader who doesn't understand why adults are always accusing her of not Paying Attention. She's paying attention, butjust maybe not to the things the adults want her to pay attention. And while she has a series of accidents (like cutting her friend Margaret's hair or coloring her own hair with indelible ink), she also has some pretty good ideas about pigeons.

A delightful wonderful little book, admittedly for a younger age group than I normally read. But when you need a break from the doom and gloom of YA, it's time to crack open this book. And while parents, babysitters, and teachers may cringe a bit through some of Clementine's adventures, this is a funny read. Highly recommended.

Monday, February 04, 2008

21 Proms, ed by David Levithan and Daniel Ehrenhaft

I figured that a collection of 21 stories about going to your Prom would get pretty repetitive really quickly. Boy was I wrong. From the sweetness of the poetic "Off Like A Prom Dress" to the weirdness of a teenage bacchanalia plotted by the Latin Club in "In Vodka Veritas," there's an amazing variety in these visions. Best of all, they are all short stories so (good or bad) they are over quickly and this gives the authors an opportunity to really shine. There are unusual points of views ("Shutter") and odd characters ("Mom called, she says you have to go to prom"). There are surprisingly touching stories ("How I Wrote to Toby") and pieces of social protest ("Primate the Prom"). In all there are 21 stories here and every one of them is different and strangely unique.

Short story collections can be a rough bunch and there are definitely weaker/stronger stories in this collection, but as a whole this is a wonderful collection of stories that loosely centers around a single topic. A strong recommendation. If nothing else, it provides a great view of the variety among contemporary YA writers.

Saturday, February 02, 2008

Leap, by Jane Breskin Zalben

Krista has liked Bobby since third grade (when he gave her a box of chocolates), but she's always been closer friends with Daniel. Now that they are all older, Krista finds her friendship with Daniel inconvenient as she tries to attract Bobby's attention. When an accident handicaps Daniel, Krista finds that he needs her help and that changes everything. Many subplots ensue, including Daniel's mother abandoning her family, a science project, and a trip to the city to get a tattoo. Told from the perspective of Krista and Daniel in alternating chapters.

I really wanted to like this book (it came with strong recommendations) but there are so many problems with it. For an award-winning author, it was surprising how poorly written the work was. The dialogue is clunky, important background is excluded, and the plot veers dangerously all round. Zalben seems to understand what people do, but she has little-no interest in describing how they feel. At first, I thought she was simply more interested in her adult characters than the kids, but I grew to realize that she simply had no interest in any of them. There's a lot going on in this story, but I felt distanced and shut out by the lack of depth in the characters. A disappointment.