Monday, June 29, 2009

Ten Things I Hate About Me, by Randa Abdel-Fattah

Jamie is a normal 10th grader in a suburb of Sidney. But she's actually Jamilah, an Arab-Australian. Jamie dies her hair blonde and wears blue contact lenses to hide her true ethnic identity and avoid the brutal racist teasing of her peers. But she has a hard time denying that she's happiest when she's at home and can just be herself, even if she has an overprotective father and a dorky older brother.

The age of the protagonist suggests that this book is being targetted at the YA demographic but the rather pedantic portrayal of racism seems to indicate a middle-reader audience. Or perhaps racism is much more obvious in Australia? Or perhaps Abdel-Fattah simply does not expect her readers to be able to handle subtle? In any case, the whole thing seems a bit artificially constructed and manipulative. It's nice to have a story that explores Arab identity, but it could have been a lot more sophisticated.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

1001 Cranes, by Naomi Hirahara

Twelve year-old Angie spends the Summer in Los Angeles with her grandparents, as her parents go through a separation. During her stay, she learns more about her Japanese heritage, helps her grandparents with their florist business, learns to fold 1001 origami cranes, gives comfort to an ailing neighbor, falls in love, and spends a lot of time observing adults not acting their best. An appendix even offers instruction to the curious about how to fold paper cranes.

The culture lessons come on a bit too fast and thick for me and I enjoyed this book best when it was just telling a story, rather than trying to introduce the reader to Japanese-American culture. Angie makes for an interesting and sympathetic heroine. She makes enough mistakes to believable and has flaws that a reader can relate to, yet her heart is in the right place. That's a strong sell for a book intended for middle readers. I also appreciated the ambiguous ending that didn't attempt to tie up all fo her struggles.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Absolutely Maybe, by Lisa Yee

Maybelline (or "Maybe" as her friends call her) has plenty of trouble relating to her beauty pageant mother, but the final straw happens when her Mom's boyfriend tries to rape her. Tossed out of the house by her suspicious mother, Maybe runs away to California with her two friends Ted (a flamboyant Thai-American) and Daniel (aka "Hollywood"). Hollywood is heading to LA anyway to pursue his dream of making award-winning documentary film and Tim quickly lands a job taking care of an aging movie actress. Maybe wants to find her biological father, who she believes is living somewhere in Southern California now. Along the way, she has to find herself as well.

The publisher claims this book is intended for 9-12 year olds. I don't buy that. Maybe 9th-12th graders, but the themes of this story (rape, homosexuality, abandonment, etc.) are pretty dark, no matter how comedic the story overall is. And that is my overall problem with this book. It has some very funny parts, but it mostly glances over the issues and ignores the ramifications of the actions it portrays. Other reviewers have accused the book of being unrealistic, but that doesn't quite capture the problem. At points, the book is quite realistic, but it's just as if Yee doesn't really want us to take the issues seriously (and if so, why bring them up?).

The story moves along at a good clip, but I found the characters a bit annoying and grating. Maybe and her friends (Ted and Hollywood) are extremely self-centered. Its supposed to add to the comedy, but mostly it fell flat for me -- I just wanted them to shut up. Jess, the girl who runs her own taco truck, is the most interesting character but mostly seemed borrowed from America Ferrera's character in Real Women Have Curves.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

11 Birthdays, by Wendy Mass

It's been a year since Amanda stopped speaking to Leo. The two of them have shared a birthday (and birthday parties) since they were born, but at last year's party, Leo humiliated Amanda. This year, they are having separate parties and Amanda's day is horrible. But the worst part is that the day is never-ending. She wakes up the next morning to discover that the day is repeating itself. Every painful moment is happening all over again! And it will keep on repeating until Amanda (and Leo) can figure out how to make it stop.

Now, Groundhog Day is one of my favorite movies, so one has to have a soft spot for this particular niche genre. And since the target audience of this book probably hasn't (and won't) see Bill Murray doing this shtick, it's worth reading. But, even if the storyline isn't very original (and yes, the ending is pretty much the same as the movie), Mass does lovely work with these sort of supernatural stories (Jeremy Fink is a lovely example). She does great characters too and understands the tween mind well. Finally, the book passes the entertainment requirement: I started this while I was waiting in the dentist's office and completely forgot where I was and what I was doing. Later on, I found it irresistible and managed to finish it on the same day I started it. I recommend it for fun reading!

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Twelve Long Months, by Brian Malloy

As the title suggests, this book tracks a year in the life of Molly Swain as she graduates from high school in rural Minnesota and starts her first year of college at Columbia University in NYC. Through this time, she has the companionship of Mark (her senior-year lab partner and then co-Minnesotan in NYC) who she has a crush on from the beginning. She also has two girls on her hall that she goes out drinking with a lot, and a boyfriend of sorts. Much girl-meets-boy, girl-loses-boy occurs, with the occasional dash of boy-meets-boy to keep things interesting.

In sum, this book contains interesting people who don't do very much that could be considered interesting. The purpose of the book is probably to teach us that friendship is forever, but it takes so long to get there that it really cannot be the reason to read all 300+ pages of this book. I wouldn't exactly call the book boring (because the characters are interesting and you'll want to find out what happens to them), but I wanted there to be a story in all this - in other words, something valuable that happens over those twelve long months!

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Chalice, by Robin McKinley

Seven years of corrupt leadership in their demesne has left the people of the Willowlands with a broken land and without a ruler. Both their Master and his Chalice have perished. Without either a heir for the Master or an apprentice for the Chalice, the choice for a new leader is awkward. The late Master's brother, returned from the priesthood of the flame, is a poor match but at least continues the bloodline. Mirasol, a common woodswoman, is far more at home tending her bees, but when the divinations dictate that she is to be the new Chalice, she has no choice but to accept. With no knowledge of the craft of being a Chalice and the ways of uniting a land and its people behind their new Master, Mirasol feels particularly hopeless. But when outside forces threaten the demesne, she and the new Master must unite to save their people.

A richly drawn fantasy novel, with strong environmentalist undertones. McKinley's delight in building suspense through gravely-intoned (and mildly pompous) narration grated on me quite a bit (although I recognize that others might feel that it simply builds suspense better). That aside, I enjoyed the growth of the characters and have a special place in my heart for the heroics of the bees.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Same Difference, by Siobhan Vivian

When Emily gets the opportunity to attend a Summer program at the Philadelphia College of Fine Art, she goes from excitement to terror as the reality of attending classes in the city (only 30 miles -- but an entire culture -- away from her life in suburban Jersey) and being in classes with students who are seemingly much more talented than she is. She is quickly captivated by a rogue outsider named Fiona who has a flare for unorthodox guerrilla art, and Emily finds herself emulating her new heroine. But as she tried to be more and more like Fiona, she also is drawn away from who she was (and especially from her hometown friend Meg). In the end, Emily feels that she has to choose between the two worlds.

A comfortably predictable storyline, but combined with characters who are interesting enough to care about and follow. This is a stronger book than Vivian's previous A Little Friendly Advice, so if you liked that one, you're bound to like this one. I enjoyed the artsy environment and detailed tour of the Philly arts scene. Vivian is at her strongest though when she just lets her characters interact, so I generally preferred the parts of the book where we weren't traveling about or doing things. Overall, there's not a lot of surprise here, but it's a competent and enjoyable read.

The one thing that really bothered me about this book was the cover. For a reason I find hard to explain, I can't picture the girl on the cover as being Emily (or Fiona). She just doesn't look the part (at best, maybe like Claire - Emily's younger sister). I admit that it's a totally irrational conclusion though!

Twenty Boy Summer, by Sarah Ockler

Anna was always inseparable from her next-door neighbors Matt and Frankie (they were brother and sister she never had), but at her birthday thirteen months ago Matt became something much more. For the next month, Matt and Anna would sneak out of their houses for late-night rendezvous, always hiding their growing feelings from their parents and (especially) from Matt's sister Frankie. Even though Anna and Frankie were best of friends, Matt convinced Anna that it would be best if they waited until Summer vacation to tell Frankie. But then, a car accident leaves Matt dead, Frankie injured and grieving, and Anna unable to ever tell the truth. Bound by her promise to Matt to not tell Frankie, Anna now finds herself supporting her friend grieve.

Now, one year after the accident, Frankie and her family have invited Anna to join them for a summer on the beach (the same vacation that they planned for a year ago and never took). It promises to be a memorable trip -- full of secrets revealed, grief laid bare, and the pursuit of "20 boys."

From that description, this book looks like light schlock, and on its surface this book is a bit formulaic and predictable. It also has a habit of pulling on your heart strings in a way that left me a bit suspicious. But there is a lot going on in this story and it resists easy solutions. Ockler is respectful of her characters and plays them well, allowing no one to escape blame yet never finding fault completely in any court. Each one is flawed in their own way. The result is a story that feels surprisingly real and has something meaningful to say about friendship and grief (in a way that all ages can appreciate). The plot may sound a bit melodramatic, but the characters never are. For a first novel, it is an extraordinary accomplishment. This is a book that is well worth seeking out.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

The Noah Confessions, by Barbara Hall

When Lynne turns 16,she is shocked to find out that her father has not gotten her a car (everyone at her high school gets a car when they turn 16!). But the bigger shock comes when her Dad hands her a letter that her Mom (dead now for the past 8 years or so) wrote when she was 16 herself. In this letter, her Mom confesses to being an accomplice in a terrible crime committed in the past -- a crime which led directly to meeting her father and having her. Lynne tries to cope with this shocking news and deal with the news that her mother may not have been as perfect as she imagined. And meanwhile struggle to learn how to surf and date her first boyfriend.

There's a complexity to this story that is good, in that it keeps things interesting. However, it also overwhelms the reader. There are too many timelines at play here and few of them really matter (despite the claims of the narrator that we need to understand everything). Secondly, I grew tired of being told by the narrator what was important (I prefer to figure that stuff out for myself). Too much build-up guarantees that the story never quite pays off fully. The secret is supposed to be so shocking and Lynne (over)reacts so strongly to the news, while we're left spinning trying to figure out what the big deal is. I'll admit that the story did not drag, but I did find myself wanting to skim over the exposition to get to the real story.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

What Would Emma Do? by Eileen Cook

The town of Wheaton IN is a pretty small place, and a tight community where everyone knows each other. So, when Emma makes the mistake of kissing her best friend Joann's boyfriend (and gets caught in the act by Joann's Mom), life is pretty much at an end. At first, Emma could officially not care less. She's dying to get out of town and, thanks to her running times, she may just get a scholarship at Northwestern that will take her away. But everything gets thrown into chaos when the pastor's daughter and her friend fall ill and accusations of "terrorism" and "Satanism" start to spread around the school. As people start to get falsely accused, Emma (who unwittingly knows the truth) must decide whether to stand up and bear witness or take the easier path and escape.

Surprisingly engaging and exciting, by the point I was half way through, I found it hard to put this book down. Cook takes a lot of cheap shots at organized religion and small towns, but this serves the purpose of ratcheting up the drama and making the story interesting. While the blurb compares the Cook to Judy Blume, I think the fairer comparison is Joan Bauer and this book reminds me strongly of one of my faves (Hope Was Here) in the way it rights the wrongs in a very empowering way. Emma is a funny and insightful character -- a bit too wise for her years and environs to be believable, but still quite enjoyable. Also, while the stars align a bit too neatly at the end, you really want a story like this to have a feel good ending and the payoff is welcome. A fun read for the beginning of summer!

Tuesday, June 09, 2009

Ghostgirl: Homecoming, by Tonya Hurley

In this sequel to Ghostgirl, Charlotte and her friends from Dead Ed have passed over, but to what? The Afterlife, it seems, is a huge call center where people in this world call in seeking help from the next. The problem, though, is that Charlotte isn't getting any calls and her so-called friends seem to be abandoning her as well (except for a new girl named Maddie). Charlotte doesn't entirely trust Maddie at first but she's all that Charlotte has, until her old friends from the living world Damen and Scarlet call out to her for help again. This time, it's Scarlet's vain sister Petula who's in desperate trouble -- on the verge of death with little chance of making it to Homecoming queendom -- truly a fate worse than death!

The original was clever and funny, which gave the sequel a lot to live up to, although Hurley more or less manages. The death jokes have worn a bit thin by now and Hurley wisely avoids them, in favor of telling a more complicated story about both Homecoming and coming home. This provides the story with a bit more depth than the original novel (which is a Good Thing). The plot itself was a bit hard to follow and I would recommend re-reading the first book again before tackling this one, but this installment is a pleasing continuation of a truly original and exciting franchise.

Monday, June 08, 2009

Bird, by Rita Murphy

Miranda is a small girl. So small that she is easily picked up by the wind and blown around. How she came to be at Bourne Manor, under the guardianship of the widow Wysteria Barrows, is a mystery to her as she can't quite remember how she got here. But the mysteries just keep getting bigger: there's the fact that Wysteria locks all the rooms at night, or the protective dogs who prowl the house, and the secret rooms on the third floor filled with books and beautiful kites that Miranda discovers. It is only when Miranda befriends a young sailor and Wysteria is sent to a hospital for a month that Miranda begins to unwind the mysteries.

A fascinating blend of fantasy, ghost story, and self-discovery novel, Bird operates as something of an extended metaphor. Miranda's search for herself and her "wings" to fly away from her nest plays out very nicely and the story twists and turns enough to keep thuings interesting. The ending gets a bit rushed and might have benefitted from some fleshing out, but this does not distract from the charm and originality of the novel.

Thursday, June 04, 2009

The Year the Swallows Came Early, by Kathryn Fitzmaurice

Eleanor (or "Groovy," as her Dad calls her) lives in San Juan Capistrano (a part of California where large flocks of swallows nest each year) and loves to cook. All of which would make for an unremarkable story except for the fact that her father gets arrested on page two. At first, Eleanor is convinced that it is all a mistake, but when she finds out that it isn't, she struggles with accepting the situation and forgiving her father for his errors. Her friend Frankie struggles similarly with forgiving his own mother for abandoning him.

A gentle middle reader. The pacing is glacial, making the story a bit dull (it takes 100 pages just to find out why the father got arrested!), but the overall message of forgiveness and the corrosive effect of carrying anger is a winner. What the book does need is more of a hook -- if not more story, then at least more character and more humor.

The Ghosts of Kerfol, by Deborah Noyes

In the early 17th century, a cruel baron is murdered. His young wife is accused, although she claims he was mauled to death by dogs -- or rather, the ghosts of dogs that he himself strangled. Flash forward two hundred years and an aspiring artist visiting the estate sees apparitions of dogs and a young lady. Go forward another hundred years, and a young woman is mysteriously strangled by another apparition. Sixty years later, a couple on a lark are tortured by visions that seem to be after them. Finally, another twenty years in the future, a deaf gardener has a strange evening where he hears a series of ghosts.

Apparently based on an Edith Wharton story, Noyes has basically retold the original and then developed a riff on it with the flash forwards. I'm not familiar with the Wharton story, so I can only judge this book on its own merits. For me, the first part of the story (i.e., the part based on Wharton) is the most interesting. The rest seems rough and unfinished, and -- in the end -- not very engaging. This literary experiment didn't work for me.

Tuesday, June 02, 2009

The Summer I Turned Pretty, by Jenny Han

Every year, "Belly" (short of Isabel) has spent the summer at the beach with her Mom, brother Steven, her Mom's friend Susannah, and Susannah's two sons Conrad and Jeremiah. And each year, Belly has nurtured a crush on Conrad, even though the boys have never shown much interest in her. But now that she is 16, something seems different. For the first time, she's no longer interested and she's certain that she's outgrown Conrad. So, why does it feel funny when she meets a new boy and starts spending time with him? And why does Conrad seem so distant and sullen? Is it jealousy or is something else going on?

At first, this novel felt like it was just a light summer romance (albeit a well-written summer romance) with a healthy dose of flashbacks and some better-than average character development. But, by the end, Han has woven a lot more into the story, creating a far more complex romance than you might expect. Han's first novel (Shug) was funny and original. Her second outing shows that it was not a fluke.

Tiger Moon, by Antonia Michaelis

In Colonial India - a world of both Western influence and multiple religious traditions - a young bride needs to be rescued and a neer-do-well thief and swindler named Farhad has been tasked by the gods to rescue her. He won't be alone. He'll have a magic sacred tiger to carry him faster than the wind. But along the way, the hero and his unusual steed will have a series of exotic adventures and they will struggle to accomplish their task. The ending will surprise everyone!

An unusual adventure/fantasy epic, full of familiar tropes and expected plot complications, but then utterly original by the end in how it resolves everything. Perhaps the originality is due to the fact that Michaelis is German (the novel was translated into English) or perhaps it is the exotic setting of the story. Either way, the story twists in unusual ways! I particularly liked the way that India's multiple religious traditions are worked into the story, making this as much a story about a culture as a series of fantasies.