Tuesday, August 31, 2010

A Star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, by Brenda Woods

Nine tenth-grade students in an urban high school in Los Angeles are taking Ms Hart's creative writing class. To get them thinking about alternative concepts of fame, she gives them an assignment to imagine a world in which stars on Hollywood Boulevard are handed out for lots of reason (beyond just acting) and to describe what they might do to earn one. During the two week period in which they have in order to complete the assignment, the rough life of these kids frequently intervenes to color their perceptions on how to answer the question.

As a child of the suburbs, I generally prefer to read about kids growing up in the suburbs (or in rural areas). Also, books like this always seem a bit calculated to win acclaim from politically correct suburban librarians. My cynical mind sees marketing ploy, and Woods' array of awards reinforces rather than dispels those biases (I'm a fervent believer that the Coretta Scott King award was designed to ghettioize non-white literature to justify not considering books like this for a Prinz... but I digress).

While it is true that there is a bit of the usual static (tough kids, well-meaning liberal middle-class teacher, cue the "Stand By Me" music?), this book shines on its own merits. Woods has a great ear for dialog and the characters speak in an angst that sounds (to my privileged ears) like the real thing. With a very large cast of characters in a wafer-thin book, it would have been easy to create identical voices (or fall back into stereotypes), but the kids in this book really come forth as individuals, each one of them truly shining like a star.

The ending is a bit heavy-handed and pedantic (as if the author doesn't trust the reader to get the gravitas of the story without having it shoved down their throat), but I can indulge her a bit because I enjoyed the ways in which this book both met and exceeded my expectations.

Turtle in Paradise, by Jennifer L. Holm

In the midst of the Depression, eleven year-old Turtle and her mother struggle to get by. And so, when Mom finds work as a housekeeper for a woman who doesn't like children, Turtle gets shipped off to Key West to stay with her aunt and cousins. The children are surprisingly resourceful and have a number of adventures. For her part, Turtle learns to appreciate the joys and problems of large families. And the reader learns a lot about Key West in this much earlier era.

This nice gentle middle reader covers a little-known world of the Keys before they were a major tourist destination and when the place and times were a bit more innocent. I always have a soft spot for books that take me places I have never been, so I'll have to recommend this book on that basis alone.

But this book has much more going for it. The characters are vivid and interesting. Many of them break stereotypes (for example, who would have ever dreamed up a babysitting service run entirely -- to many humorous results -- by a gang of boys?). The inhabitants of the Keys are obvious quite quirky and Holm delights in showing them off to us (and we, in turn, delight in learning about them). A fascinating historical end note from the author explains how much of the story is based on fact and may make readers want to learn more. For actual young readers, the scenes where the children have to weather out a hurricane may be a bit scary.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Fat Cat, by Robin Brande

Cat is a brilliant science student. She's just completed an internship on insects and is hoping to spin that work into an science fair award-winning project for Mr Fizer's honors class. But instead she gets assigned a topic in pre-historic hominins (early humans). She has no idea what to do with the topic until she gets an inspiration. Musing that prehistoric women are never depicted as fat (and as she's grown tired of her weight and body shape), she decides to copy their diet (or, at the very least, an organic diet) and see what effect it has on her.

The physical impact of switching to such a diet can certainly be expected to be major and over several months, she loses a good deal of weight. But what this does for her social life is completely unexpected by her. Boys are coming out of the woodwork and noticing her. Now, if she could only get her ex-friend (and now sworn enemy) Matt to leave her alone. After betraying her cruelly four years ago, he keeps acting as if they were friends!

In many ways, this is a charming story about how a concerted effort to change your life can be empowering. Cat is a mostly endearing character (see below) and her self-discovery is interesting to read about. No one is particularly deep, but Brande understands good dialog and realistic staging.

So, why my reticence and restraint in reviewing this book? Well, there are simply major issues with the characters. Cat's hatred towards Matt is so painfully and stubbornly adhered to that even a preschooler would recognize its unhealthy stupidity. It's hard to feel sympathy for a character who you know is behaving like an idiot. And a mean one to boot!

Thursday, August 26, 2010

My Name Is Memory, by Ann Brashares

Best known for the Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants series, Ann Brashares ventures into strikingly different territory with this broadly-scoped story of reincarnation, revenge, and undying love.

In her final year of high school, Lucy feels strongly drawn to a loner named Daniel. But she never works up the nerve to even speak to him, until in a very awkward moment, they get the opportunity to confess their feelings. This potentially romantic moment goes very wrong when Daniel insists on calling her "Sophia" and doing so, for some reason not quite understood by her, scares her off. He flees away and Lucy, while initially relieved, becomes obsessed with finding him again.

There is a reason to this madness. They are both reincarnated souls. As it turns out, many people are, but Daniel is special: he remembers all of his previous lives. And he knows that he and Lucy have repeatedly been lovers in the past. Lucy, for her part, has no such memory but is open to the idea. Lucy slowly learns the truth and puts the pieces together. Will they be able to be together in this life and end a millennium of searching and loneliness?

Brashares is a good writer and her rather lengthy story manages to keep the reader's interest throughout. But I'd still have been happier with some more judicious editing (there is only so much angst and ponderous statements of endless love that one can take!). The tropes (love at first sight, love never dies, etc.) that fill the book are pretty traditional old material. But for lovers of romance novels, this pretty much has everything, including a little bit of action. And it hangs together well as Brashares paces everything beautifully. The book is pitched in such a way to appeal to all ages. The characters are young enough to make this YA, but old and mature enough to bring in adult readers.

The beautifully open ending (and a significant number of unresolved questions) invites the inevitable sequel. With its supernatural themes, this is Brashare's answer to the Twilight franchise. Who needs vampires, when you can be reincarnated instead?

I Now Pronounce You Someone Else, by Erin McCahan

Bronwen has always had trouble feeling wanted. She can't manage to communicate with her mother. Her stepfather, while nicer, has never wanted her (proof: when Bronwen was 13 years old, he promised that he would adopt her but then failed to do so without ever bothering to explain why). She's just about convinced that she was switched at birth and really belongs to another family.

In her senior year, she starts to date Jared and falls in love with both him and his warm family. Overwhelmed by their kindness, she doesn't hesitate a minute to accept when Jared proposes marriage to her. But as time passes and the wedding day approaches, Bronwen finds that marriage -- far from giving her a new family in which to develop -- will actually mean sublimating her individuality. She begins to wonder if it is really the right decision for her.

This book, which is really about identity and finding oneself, seems oddly packaged. The book's title suggests a humorous book, while the blurb stresses her sense of being a changeling. Neither is really the point of the story. The tale is in fact rather sad and the ending almost tragic (although a lengthy prologue forces an eventual happy ending on to the story). The overall effect is cloying and difficult to follow. I spent the first half of the story trying to figure out where we were going with this girl. It is only after the proposal occurs that we figure out the point and by then it is pretty obvious where we will end up. Even with what should be a fairly interesting material, McCahan doesn't spin a very interesting tale. My sense is that the book is at least partly biographical, which may make it a cautionary tale, but the writing is very factual and lacks the lyricism that Bronwen's struggles call out for.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Every Little Thing in the World, by Nina de Gramont

After screwing up one time too many, Sydney's mother gives up on trying to control the girl and ships her off to her father. Dad has his own idea of what Sydney needs and decides to send her to Northern Ontario for a month-long Outward Bound canoe trip.

Sydney, however, has deeper problems: she's pregnant and doesn't know what to do about it. There are practical issues (where to find the money to pay for an abortion, whether to tell her parents, etc.) but she also simply doesn't know what she wants. In those weeks on the water, Sydney gains perspective about her life so far and about her relationships with others.

The story follows mostly familiar plotting and presents few surprises, but it is pleasing to read and well-written. Sydney's voice is far too mature for her age and sounds more as if she were writing the story in her adulthood with the wisdom of hindsight. This makes her thoughts insightful but unrealistically sober and clear-headed. Also, for allegedly being such a screw-up before the story begins, she makes almost no bad choices in the course of the novel, so that her bad-girl reputation seems unearned. This also makes the story a bit unbelievable.

Putting these concerns aside, the book makes fine summer reading. The characters are complex and interesting. I particularly like the youth-at-risk Mick, who proves both sympathetic and repulsive at the same time. Romantic relationships form and break with a stunningly realistic ease that rings true and also serves to underscore the plot of self-discovery.

The Extraordinary Secrets of April, May, & June, by Robin Benway

In this mixture of YA angst and supernatural powers, April, May, and June are three sisters (named after the months in which they were born - exactly 13 months apart) who are struggling with a new school after their forced move after their parents divorce. What makes them unusual are the powers that they have acquired (April can see the future, May can make herself invisible, and June can read other peoples' thoughts). At first these powers are simply useful tools for coping with school, but when April forsees a tragedy coming, the girls must band together to prevent it. Can they bond as sisters or will their jealousies and distrust doom them?

Of the two components, this book is much bigger on the YA angst (boy trouble, sister trouble, BF trouble, etc.) than it is about the supernatural. There are hints that the powers may be hereditary and there is some discussion about trying to tame the powers, but for the most part this book is really about boys and about sibling bonding. It would even be a bit fair to say that the entire supernatural powers thing probably could have been removed altogether and the story would still hang together. That doesn't mean that it's bad, but that it was unnecessary to add the magic. Perhaps, Benway left it undeveloped so there would be room for a sequel?
In any case, I'm always far more interested in human interaction than magic and I think that the relationship that these girls have is more interesting that the rest of their talents.

Friday, August 13, 2010

The Heart Is Not a Size, by Beth Kephart

One day Georgia finds a flyer posted on the wall calling for teen volunteers to go down to Anapra (a squatter's village outside of Juarez) to help build a bathhouse. For a reason that she cannot explain, Georgia feels strongly drawn to the opportunity and she talks her friend Riley into joining her. Living fairly privileged Main Line lives, neither girl knows truly what to expect. But while there is plenty of culture shock and the work is far more difficult than either one of them imagined, it is what the trip does to their friendship that is the most surprising.

Kephart writes beautiful dream-like prose. Her novels work best when there is a strong story to provide the framework for it. But in this book, she struggles with finding that story.

As she explains in her acknowledgments at the end of the book, she wrote this book as a response to her own actual trip to Anapra. It is thus no surprise that the parts of the story that describe the location and the people are particularly moving. Similarly, the emotions that Georgia feels are heartfelt and come across clearly. But the story upon which these sections are framed is sketchy and underdeveloped.

The Kind of Friends We Used To Be, by Frances O'Roark Dowell

This sequel to The Secret Language of Girls picks up pretty much where the former left off. Kate and Marilyn are entering seventh grade. They've learned from the past year to not take their friendship for granted, but they still struggle with maintaining it. AS the girls slip further and further away from each other, they find their friendship based more upon nostalgia. Simultaneously, they find themselves drawn into new friendships with both girls and boys as they struggle to make the transition into adolescence.

Along with trying to keep the flame of their friendship burning, they also are carving out they sense of identity. Marilyn is sure that cheerleading and becoming popular are what she wants from life while Kate is drawn to a riot-grrl persona. But they find themselves constantly questioning their choices.

As before, the story is told in first-person alternating points of view, which allows us to get inside the girls' heads clearly. This brings the necessary immediacy, but it also exposes a flaw: the author's voice frequently imposes a level of self-realization that seems out of keeping with any person (let alone a typical tween). This is necessary to provide the poignant angst that the author is shooting for, but it also makes the story a bit less realistic.

The prior book was groundbreaking for its insights into the troubles of tweenhood, for the dexterous way of navigating the choppy seas of tween friendships, and for so respectfully tackling the painful transitions. For the target audience, it probably provided some consoling empathy. For older readers, it gave a painful reminder of a past best forgotten. The sequel doesn't really try to do more. With the exception of introducing the volatile territory of girl-boy friendships/jealousies into the mix, the sequel is basically more of the same. To many readers that is probably more than sufficient.

The draw of both books is the clear-eyed way that the author shows how very decent children, with capable moral compasses, can still hurt each other. That they are such good kids makes us sympathetic to them, and makes the hurting all that more difficult to observe.

Sunday, August 08, 2010

Numbers, by Rachel Ward

In this unusual mixture of supernatural and hard gritty urban reality, Jem is the daughter of a heroine addict whose been kicked around her share of foster homes. Her biggest problem is not her difficult homelife but the fact that whenever she looks a person in the eye, she sees a date -- the date when that person will die. This terrible piece of knowledge has prevented her from making friends until she meets Spider - a trouble youth with his own baggage (not least of which is the date which Jemma sees when she looks at him -- only a few weeks away!). But everything skews dramatically off course when Jemma and Spider find themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time (a fact that Jemma knows because every person she sees has the same date hanging over them -- today's date!).

This book is many things: a taut suspenseful story, supernaturalism with some nice religious commentary, and a story of two troubled youths who battle with themselves, with each other, and with a system that has given up on them. It's not an easy book to read. Given the high stakes that are riding on them, you'd rather they were more valiant, more mature, and more together, but that would not be realistic. Instead, Jemma and Spider are every bit the screw-ups that society has ordained them to be. The irony that society has already determined their future when it is Jemma who can actually predict the future is just one of the nice subtleties of this story. Refreshingly original!

For Keeps, by Natasha Friend

Sixteen years ago, Paul (the boy who got Josie's mother pregnant) moved away without a second thought. It was hard on her mother to raise Josie on her own, but it also brought mother and daughter very close together. All of that is thrown into jeapardy when they spot Paul's parents (Josie's grandparents) in a local grocery store and Josie learns that they have moved back into the area. This discovery sets off a chain of events that irrevocably changes their world and challenges everything Josie thought she understood about her mother, her father, and the nature of love itself.

On its face, this is fairly predictable YA fare and will not offer any major surprises, but Friend has a particularly strong talent with depicting complex familial interaction (as seen in her previous novels like Perfect). It's easy to find parallels to Gilmore Girls here but Josie and her mother Kate's relationship is far more realistic and nuanced. In a similar vein, Josie's relationship with her BFF Liv (and with Liv's Dads) is also refreshingly honest.
I randomly picked this up off the shelf at my local library, but I think it deserves a good buzz, so I'd recommend it to others.

Sunday, August 01, 2010

Nuts, by Kacy Cook

One day, Nell and her brothers find a baby squirrel lying in their back yard. Its mother has abandoned it and the kids decide to rescue it and adopt the squirrel as a pet. Pretty soon thereafter, they find a second baby and the work of raising two baby squirrels goes into full swing. Nell does some research on the internet and finds out that she is supposed to hand them over to a professional wildlife rehabilitator. But instead, she lies to her parents and claims that she knows how to take care of the animals. Against the odds (and basic common sense) she succeeds in raising the animals but then suffers from the difficulties of breaking her bond and letting the animals go free.

This is an educational middle reader in several senses of the word. For one thing, you can learn a lot about squirrels by reading it, but there is also plenty here about wildlife conservation and various moral lessons about the costs of deceit. It is a very easy book to use in pointing out to young readers what they should not do when they find a baby wild animal.

The moral compass though is a bit skewed. In the end, everyone regrets the bad choices they have made (and the author reiterates that message in her acknowledgments), but since the consequences of these decisions are so minor, it doesn't really seem like the typical reader would take home that message. Instead, it seems more likely that reading a book like this would make you want to raise a baby wild animal of your own.