December 28, 2006

Friends, Family, and One Fabulous Idea

This book was a nomination for the graphic novels category of the 2006 Cybil Awards.

Since I always hated babysitting, I never got into the original Baby-Sitters Club series even though I was at the right age when it came out. However, the graphic novel version of the first book in Ann M. Martin's popular series has been nicely adapted with an all-American "funny papers" style of artwork from Raina Telgemeier. With the same strong storyline dealing with girls' friendships, family relationships, and responsibility, it's sure to be as popular with young girls now—the baby-sitting ones, at least—as it was then.

In The Baby-Sitters Club: Kristy's Great Idea, Kristy Thomas and her three friends—Mary Ann, Claudia, and new girl Stacey—team up to form a baby-sitting business. Since all four are experienced sitters, they advertise in the paper and spend a few afternoons a week manning the phone together. Anyone needing a sitter would only need to call the BSC during their phone hours to reach an experienced baby-sitter. They'd earn money, have fun, and help out their neighbors…right?

Well, it's not quite as straightforward as Kristy expected when she first got her brainstorm. Though Kristy is happy watching her baby brother or other neighborhood kids, she's far more reluctant when the kids she's asked to watch are the son and daughter of nerdy Watson, her mom's boyfriend. Somehow, Watson brings out the worst in her. Meanwhile, Mary Ann has to deal with her strict widowed dad, and Claudia is waylaid by her parents, who want her to get better grades like her genius sister. And Stacey…seems to have a secret she doesn't want anyone to know, not even her new friends.

Each character is distinct and interesting, and though older readers might find it a bit too "sweet" or feel that the story's message is a bit obvious, it's a great pick for under-12 readers. The artwork is expressive and nicely complements the written story. It's both agonizing and heartwarming to watch as Kristy and her friends resolve their differences, deal with their unique family issues, and find, in the end, that none of their problems are so insurmountable after all if they find the inner strength and responsibility to deal with them head-on.

December 27, 2006

Sisters Entwined

This book is a 2006 Cybil Award Nominee for YA Fiction.

She must have stayed awake until I slept. She must have had her sewing scissors tucked into her pocket. Sarah knew where she was going. I woke to no warm place beside me. She’d cut the braid close to our heads, tucked half into my hand –
You / me / sisters / always

The Braid is a clean and poetic narrative told in alternating voices. Scottish sisters Sarah and Jeannie are thrown out of their home in 1850's Scotland, along with their parents and younger siblings because this is the Fuadaich nan Gàidheal - the expulsion of the Gael from their Highland homes by the United Kingdom. In obedience to what is expected, sister Jeannie chooses to go with her parents to Nova Scotia and try to find a new life, while Sarah hides in the woods for three days until she is sure her parents have embarked without her. She then esapes with her grandmother to her family's birthplace.

Though their lives are shorn apart, the girls remain linked through their braided hair. Their stories take differing turns as their futures move in different directions. Jeannie's life is forever changed after losing her youngest siblings and her father in the brutal crossing to Nova Scotia. As a stranger in a strange place, she longs for home, and struggles to accept her lot, her mother's grief, and her place in this new world without her sister. Sarah's life is changed by losing the tight bonds of sisterhood. She is lonely and out of place in a land full of cousins she doesn't really know. She feels she is saved, when she falls in love... but she becomes pregnant and is faced with another mouth to feed in straitened circumstances.

Each sister's heartfelt story is beautifully told in a piece of historical fiction that gives us another emotional picture of a part of Scottish history which is not as familiar as our modern view of kilts, bagpipes and golfing.

Six Months in Hades

This book is a 2006 Cybil Award Nominee for YA Fiction.

Hilly and her brother Ivan are whip-smart, homeschooled kids who have always been close. They share a secret language and their own world which even their parents cannot penetrate. Pilot to Copilot, Ivan is in charge, and Hilly follows. He's the bright sun in the family, and even his parents Ada and Marshall follow his lead, as he explains Hilly to them, and drags her off on various adventures.

Hilly and Ivan aren't exactly the same, though, not really, and they never have been in Hilly's mind. Ivan is smart enough to have recreated himself -- from being just-any-old-run-of-the-mill- Jeffrey, he has become Ivan the strong, smooth and invulnerable. He is smart -- smarter than everyone and when he can't be smarter -- when his stories don't turn out as well as Hilly's, for instance -- he leaps onto something else. She's the writer, after all. He's got more interesting things to do. Ivan is cocky and pleased with himself; smug, jaded, and ultimately bored and vicious. Hilly has betrayed him, he thinks. First she's gone to the public school to be on the paper staff -- a stupid little rag reporting basically nothing. Secondly, when a friend from school jumps off of a roof, she goes into a tailspin that Ivan feels is utterly unnecessary. I mean, come on, right? It was just a pathetic girl from public school. She couldn't have been as smart as Hilly -- or Ivan, obviously. Why can't Hilly get over it and pay attention to him again? Ivan needs Hilly to lighten up already.

Ivan's shallow control issues find a match when he moves Hilly out of one therapist's path into another one. Only this time, Ivan's met his equal. Dr. Roland isn't just a good psychologist. He's a great one. He's amazing. And he's out to let both Hilly and Ivan know. But Hilly doesn't trust him, not from the first second, and she's scared. She won't talk, and now Ivan's lost all patience. He only meant to help Hilly, really. He doesn't mean anything by it when he steals her journal for the doctor to publish. He's only getting back at her, he thinks, for being a complete drag, and raining on his parade. She just needs to realize she's the co-pilot again, that's all. It's Ivan and Hilly -- forever. Nothing should have come between them, nothing. Pilot to Copilot forever, right?

Going Under is a taut and foreboding novel using classical Greek myths in this modern and fast-paced setting. Because no concrete reasoning is given for the creepy and unethical actions of the psychologist, the novel is especially disturbing -- it seems that the siblings were targeted simply because they could be, which brings up some disturbing questions on what readers are meant to take away on the subject of therapy. Still, the trapped, paranoid feel of the alternating narration paints a arresting picture that speaks of betrayal, love, and independence in an interesting way.

Poisoned Ivy

This book is a 2006 Cybil Award Nominee for YA Fiction.

There is nothing like a good gothic tale to make you want to sit with your back to a wall and keep all the lights on. The Love Curse of the Rumbaughs isn't your average run-of-the-mill gothic tale, and no matter how many lights you leave on, its sickly, twisted and perverse story of mother-love, eugenics and freakishness will just... leave you shuddering.

Ivy has spent her life playing around the pharmacy owned by the eccentric set of Rumbaugh twins. Their fascination with taxidermy and their link to genetic experimentation is a story known by most people in town, but it's a disturbing surprise to Ivy, come her sixteenth birthday, to learn that one of the brothers is her father -- but which one? Neither of them will tell, and even her mother doesn't know for sure. It doesn't matter anyway, they tell her. They're just alike. They're two men who loved their mother: and that's really all Ivy needs to know.

A strangeness envelops Ivy, her mother and the whole town. The novel is a clearly told but sick-making story about two boys who were obsessed with their mother to the point of saving her forever -- through taxidermy. Their so-called love curse is passed on to Ivy... through a morbid fascination with taxidarmy, a deranged anxiety about losing her mother, and freakish hysteria labeled as love through science. Is Ivy's fear of death caused by genetics or by the strange atmosphere of hanging out with stuffed dead animals all day? Is her obsession merely a facet of some kind of depression stemming from luxuriating in the grief she feels at imagining her mother's death while being overjoyed at being in her presence?

This will be a book best enjoyed by more advanced young adult readers who can plow through the lengthy sections on biology and genetics. The weirdness will make your skin crawl, the eugenics aspect will make you squirm, and readers who enjoy tales of the simply awful will be hard put to set the book down until its last horrific scene.

Starlet Power

This book is a 2006 Cybil Award Nominee for YA Fiction.

Morgan Carter has stepped away from the blazing lights of celebrity and is living the simple life -- in Ft. Wayne, Indiana. She's been really giving this new role her best shot, but now she's been exposed as a formerly drug-addled screen star by a jealous classmate, and now everything in Ft. Wayne is completely out of control. Her Mom wants her back in LA, but wants to polish up her squeaky clean image by having her try out for the school music. She, who had been nominated for an Academy Award! Her stepfather, who is also her longtime publicist doesn't know the truth about her, and is linking the name of the movie costar who raped her with hers in the gossip columns. Morgan is scared and desperate as she sees herself losing everything she gained in Ft. Wayne -- all the security, all the love, everything. The glitzy life is calling her name, waiting to envelop her -- and she isn't sure where to turn.

Because this is a sequel, More Confessions of a Hollywood Starlet doesn't exactly sing with life as a stand-alone, but the details are common enough to fill in as you go -- star in rehab, escapes to the boonies, is found out, makes a glorious comeback. Or does she? A light and breezy novel guaranteed to make time in the dentist's office blow past quickly, and tells you almost everything you ever wanted to know about the daily life of a movie star. Or something like that.

Plenty of Mystery

This book is a 2006 Cybil Award Nominee for YA Fiction.

Eleven kids is plenty, is what Plenty Porter is told. The youngest of a very poor family who are farming land for a wealthy man, Plenty has a mild suspicion that she wasn't really needed -- or wanted, in her family. Her mother and father are too busy with her other siblings to pay much attention to her, but Plenty doesn't seem to worry about that, or about the fact that she is mostly a strange kind of outsider -- befriending the Coloreds and attending a private school for children of privilege. There is a distance in the voice that makes Plenty seem a little separate from her own emotions, and it makes it difficult for readers to hone in on exactly who they're meant to cheer for as a character.

Also, there are plenty of issues that are more complicated than the home-spun narrative leads us to believe. Things -- lots of things -- are not quite what they seem in this 1950's Illinois town, and Plenty spends a lot of time watching and wondering. When her sister starts going bald, Plenty sees. Though Plenty doesn't seem to have much a story -- it's all about Marcie, really -- it is her voice and eyes which give the setting and pace of the book. I found the ending completely unexpected, surreal and somewhat jarring; somehow the simplistic tone of the narrator did not adequately convey reality in terms of the fact that a murder was committed and an ugliness uncovered in the dreamily simple little town. The details after the murder seem to be unimportant; the guilt of the murdered is a foregone conclusion, and the across-the-tracks set meted out justice in the way they saw fit, the end.

This was an interesting story, though the end was somewhat too fast and left details unexplored. I thought the cover was nicely done; its opaqueness and layered pictures hinted at the cloudy depths of the storyline and the mysteries therein.

Not A Story for Children. Or Anyone.

This book is a 2006 Cybil Award Nominee for YA Fiction.

Synopsis: A 9-year old named Bruno is one day moved away from his home in the bustling city of Berlin, and his three very best friends to a nasty, cold, gray place with smokestacks, soldiers, and thin people in striped pajamas on the opposite side of a barbed wire fence. This novel is a regretable fable-esque tale of a friendship between a Berliner and a Jewish boy, with the requisite tragic ending.

Very rarely am I unable to finish a novel, but The Boy in the Striped Pajamas very nearly ruined my record. At first I had trouble seeing why this book with a nine-year-old protagonist was nominated as a young adult novel... and then about five pages in, I realized with great disgust why middle grade would not work. Or, perhaps, anyone...

May I just ask why "Out-With?!" In what world would a Berliner so misunderstand the name Auschwitz that it was suddenly rendered into English? The idea that what history provides as a clear and true account of an attempted genocide is titled as a fable is in stunningly bad taste. There are so many historical inaccuracies -- including the fact that Bruno, at age 9, would have had no questions on the identity of the so-called "Fury" who was at his dinner table, and the people in striped pajamas would never have been of any interest to him whatsoever. The child was nine, not three. It seems highly implausible that a young boy -- even a sheltered young boy -- would have failed to understand the world in which he lived, even a little bit. Hitler was like a god to the people who supported him. I can see young Bruno being quite firmly punished for being unable to recall or pronounce his name -- after all, fellow Germans were viewed with deep suspicion if they could not produce the proscribed "Heil" at the right time, with the correct amount of patriotic fervor. Bruno stole food for his friend Shmuel, but still expected to see the "town" where people wore pajamas to suddenly sprout cafés and shops. It seems less like this child is nine and more like he is four, and having a dream.

Unfortunately, none of the Holocaust was a dream... and while young adult literature does not always have to deal in reality, I'm not sure that the subject was well served by being so disingenuous.

December 24, 2006

Joy -- And Imagination -- To Your World!

What Peter Rabbit Got Up To When Mr. McGregor Wasn't Gardening.
May you have lots and lots and lots of books in boxes with your name on them! May they be scary, funny, creepy, weird, enjoyable and imaginative. May you read and read and read and read and read!
Joy to Your World! From the Reading Ranters!

We Wish You Whatever You Want...

...whether that be time alone or time with (imaginary)friends; books aplenty or wrestling for the remote, playing video games and watching movies; time to sleep or late night walks to oogle lights; high energy last-minute midnight shopping, or cider and a fire and music on the stereo. We wish you whatever you want, whatever you need...we wish you well.

Joy to Your World from WritingYA!

December 22, 2006


Today is the first day of... holiday for me. I think holiday feeling is almost a choice, like love or sobriety. You just sort of look internally and decide to set aside the grimness for a moment at a time... For some people, the right music, the right cookie, or the best holiday lights help a lot. For others, it's just the right book. What's your favorite thing to read during holidays? Do you return to read the same piece again? Unlike most normal people, I grew up absolutely hating O. Henry's classic Christmas tale, and I wasn't all that fond of Dickens' ghostly tale either (although the less familiar Cricket on the Hearth is easier to bear.) But I was -- and am -- and always will be a Grinch fan. (And you know I mean the real book, or Bob Jones' 1966 animation, not the recent vexatious film.)

Theodor Geisel's family maintains that he was not into the "sentimentality" of the holidays, thus his lying, sneaking, thieving hero. I like that the mean guy is the hero, though Little Susie Who was cute... because it's not how you start out that's important; it's how you end up, which was what Dr. Seuss was saying. So my wish for you: may you end up... where you mean to be.

A title is born: Harry Potter and the What?! Play the game with JK and go into a room, click on an eraser... and after quite a few twists and turns you'll find out the title... getting to the title on the website sounds like it's a lot more fun than writing the last book in the series. Poor JK, she's lived with Harry for years. It must feel like breaking up, knowing she's rounding the corner toward the end for the last time. She reports that she's started dreaming about Harry... and the wait staff in the cafe where she writes. Perhaps she should cut back on the coffee.

I've read Hanukkah books that I've really liked before, but after watching the lighting of the National Menorah this year, I kind of cringed. What's UP with that huge blue dreidel guy!? These guys are much better: Bubie & Zadie are way cool. It's a classic tale that's based on the author's memories of living in Alaska, and though it's gone out of print, it's back with better illustration so that more kids can enjoy it. The idea that children are invited to write letters, email or visit their blog and leave messages gives topping up points to Hanukkah. It's just as cool and full of miracles as any other holiday.

Three cheers: My editor has finally emerged from beneath the piles of things that have occupied her to email me and say that January is my month! I am both ebullient and alarmed by this thought. Cheer two: I have two great heaping bags of books next to my bed, and none of the reading is for Cybils! (although the short lists are due to be posted January 1. Eeeek!) Yay! Cheer three: I have four pounds of cranberries and two pounds of satsumas, and I am thinking of a lovely bread to share with the neighbors. And of making some chutney. And maybe some fruitmince. Ah, the sugary smells in the kitchen! And the tasting! Oh, the tasting! And the gym avoidance! Yes! Excesses and avoidance: It is indeed a holiday!

However, the toilet is now leaking, so I must hie me to the hardware store instead.

Mature behavior.

December 19, 2006

Notes From All Over

Greetings! The long silence was due to the frantic finishing of the Cybils requirements, but now that my top 10 is in the bag, I am resting up for the wrangling ahead. Okay, I'm lying. Actually, I'm jonesing for another book... it's seriously frightening, now that I don't multitask with a book on my lap while doing everything else (eating dinner, watching TV, doing the bills, listening to the sermon) I don't know what to do with my hands. I may have to start reading the paper when it comes and even knitting again, horrors! Just another two weeks before we can happily drop this Cybil stuff in the laps of the judges... and may I say to you, dear ones, be prepared? You have a lot of long conversations ahead of you. Already the YA group is trying desperately to figure out how to narrow our list of books down...

I've been meaning to share something I read in the paper. Did you know that according to German scientists, if you're feeling bad about yourself, you should not read mysteries? No, seriously. If you're already feeling kind of stupid, apparently you should just read something... else. Something with no twists at the end to trip you up.


And, if you can figure out the plot of the mystery you're currently reading? Does that boost self-esteem and cause you to cut people off in traffic with an air of superiority? Does this explain SUV's?

Can I give a little snivel of self-pity? Via Book Moot we learn that yet one more of our favorite comics, Foxtrot, is going off the "air" except for Sundays. Waa! My mornings will not be the same without Paige and Jason's squabbles. Jason is the child I shall never have... much like Calvin was the other child I shall never have. Man! All of the very best comic strips leave before I'm ready for them. The Far Side was one of the first. Yet I'm pretty sure the weird serial manga stuff our paper carries now on Sundays is going to be something nobody remembers ...tomorrow.

While noshing on the ever-available cookies, I browsed a tabloid-esque paper to discover that there's something new in lit'triture. In the beginning there was audio... I think. Maybe. Or maybe it was movies. But nowadays, the big thing isn't necessarily to have your book made into a movie, or to have an online chapter-by-chapter adaptation of it. Now to be really cutting edge? You have to break into graphics. Or so it is said by those fans of Stephen King, who are excited that his Dark Tower series is being unveiled with Marvel Comics on February 7th.

In more news, Disney has got its fingers on Enid Blyton's classic Famous Five series, and reactions are pretty mixed. Some are cheering, but I'm not sure how great it is that once again folks aren't looking for new creativity, but trying to recreate the wheel, which is rolling along just fine. Of course, the new Five are going to be the offspring of the original characters, and the series will allegedly be cartoonized, but one wonders if Mickey + Enid Blyton = Better Blytons or make them better or worse than some people already fear they are.

Via Fuse #8, you now have everything you need to write an epic novel -- huzzah! You know you want to begin one right now, during the school break! Of course, should you actually manage to write one including ALL of these fine stock characters, I will be ever so interested in reading it! Probably no editors will be, but hey -- you take what you can get, right?

December 18, 2006

Korman Rocks On

This book is a 2006 Cybil Award Nominee for YA Fiction.

Another great band book, this fast-paced novel is actually also about destiny -- and how often our parents really have nothing to do with ours. Leo Caraway is a straight-laced guy who is pretty sure that he's got some wicked weirdness within him due to the fact that his former Wall Street guru Dad isn't his biological father. Every time he's tempted to act outside the code of Young Republican Buttoned Down Gentleman, he squelches what he calls that McMurphy gene bequeathed to him by one Marion X. McMurphy, the sperm-donor guy his mother won't talk about. (And please don't get her started -- she gets upset and starts doing puzzles on every horizontal surface. EVERY horizontal surface.)

Leo is shocked out of his socks when he discovers his Goth-girl best friend Melinda is grooving on the punk music of the band Purge, whose lead, one King Maggot, is really named... Marion Xavier McMurphy. Leo is freaked -- and feels he is a freak -- as he's known all along. How could he not be? He got it from that McMurphy gene.

After losing out at his chance to go to Harvard when a scholarship falls through due to a misunderstanding of sorts, Leo determines that he's going to find his old man and milk him of some of his megabucks. After all, the leader of the punk band, Purge, is part of the angriest band in America -- and one of the richest. Leo's family, after all, so he knows he can pull it off -- meet the guy, get the money, and blow off back to his Young Republican lifestyle.

So, what happens when Leo gets the roadie gig -- then finds out that it's not that easy blowing King off?

In that great Gordon Korman tradition, Born to Rock is truly hilarious with the best first three pages of a novel that I've read in ages ("The thing about a cavity search is this. It has nothing to do with a dentist. If only it did."), a fast-paced style, great voice and hilarious character quirks like the puzzle-playing Mom. Enjoyable on every level and much reccomended, even if you're not a punk person and know nothing about 80's bands.

The Punk Beat Goes to Infinity & Beyond

This book is a 2006 Cybil Award Nominee for YA Fiction.

"Fuse: lit.
"Fuse: burning.

Five minutes would be all it would take for Nick to avoid seeing Tris see him seeing her. At least, that's all he thinks it'll take, and what's more, he's not looking much further ahead than that. There's a girl sitting at the bar, wearing a flannel shirt, and when he asks her to be his girlfriend for five minutes -- he's not looking much further ahead than that.

Norah sees that whipped look in his eyes. This guy must be another one of Tris' victims, and she knows Tris's ways all too well. All Norah really needs is somebody with wheels to take Caroline -- drunk, and getting ready to run into another wall with yet another punk rock bandmate -- home, and off her hands. So, she says yes to that five minutes, pulling Nick's head down to block her view of Caroline making a fool of herself -- again.

Myriad motives abound, but just one intense kiss -- pouf! -- changes both Nick and Norah's world. Well, okay: one kiss, one all-nighter filled with jags of talk and near-bouts of tears, one kiss and maybe one more and a little more, one kiss and a night of loud, loud music, expletives, love between friends, Playboygirl Bunnies, random clubs, dead cars, borscht, and spontaneous, painful honesty. Set against the backdrop of the pulsatingly all-night-live city of New York, told in alternating voices, this one night is sometimes magical, sometimes maddening; filled with some 80's references that may miss with some young readers, but a fast-paced, attention-getting, whirlwind only-in-fiction love story. Even the title sounds like a movie: Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist: a fast-talking, fractured, witty, wish-fullfillment romance.

A Drop-Everything Friendship

This book is a 2006 Cybil Award Nominee for YA Fiction.

Debbie Badowski doesn't know what to do when her best friend, 21-year-old Maeve, leaves her a cryptic message then disappears. With Maeve, Debbie is alive. She isn't just a 17-year-old leftover from her newly successful mother's previously unsuccessful life. When she is with Maeve, Debbie becomes Tallulah Addy, a platinum blonde bombshell with a tattoo who lives life to the fullest, just like Maeve does. She takes chances, drinks drinks, and laughs like there's no tomorrow. Maeve has promised never to lie to Debbie, and has an intuitive understanding of the breaks left in her heart, so when Maeve seems to be in trouble, Tallulah drops everything to go after her. That's what Maeve would do for her, right?

But soon, Tallulah's the one in trouble. She's made a dumb choice about who to trust, and has been robbed and abandoned in rural Tennessee. She's been walking in painful shoes, and now it's pouring. She just can't call her mother, not this time. Everything Debbie does is wrong in her mother's eyes, and even her best plans look shot full of holes under her scrutiny. So, what would Tallulah do? Debbie's salvation comes in the form of a dog that's been left for dead on the side of the road, whom she knows Maeve would expect her to care for. In a turn of fortune, after a night in jail, the folks at the vet have given Tallulah a bed and a place to work, and Tallulah is on her way toward getting the money she needs to dust this place off of her boots and get back on the road, or she would, if it weren't for Kyle, who's wormed his way into her thoughts.

Tallulah's work in the veterinary hospital is realistic and detailed. Pet messes and snappy dogs are hourly issues, and Dr. Poteet, the cranky vet, pushes her toward doing more than the half-job she'd counted on. Dr. Poteet is found to have a slightly softer side as he alternately bludgeons Tallulah toward going home and facing her particular music, and encourages her to expand her horizons to be someone other than just a runaway who drops things when they get difficult. Tallulah is just on the cusp of making a decision that could change everything when Maeve finds her. Suddenly, nothing is the way Tallulah thought it would be, and she finds that Maeve's zest for life hides a darker drive. Debbie must make the decision to face up to her truths, and Maeve's too -- or else no one will be left standing when Tallulah Falls.

To Forgive -- isn't Divine.

This book is a 2006 Cybil Award Nominee for YA Fiction.

When I read the cover copy for Jacqueline Thomas' Simply Divine, I thought it was something like Alfre Woodard's 1998 Down in the Delta for the young adult set. Divine Matthews-Hardison is a brat, and her fast-talking, high-bling lifestyle of the rich and diva-esque set my teeth on edge, as did her shallow friends, name-dropping and whining personality. The lives of her mother, Kara Matthews and her actor father Jerome Hardison could be the lives of any A-list celebrities, and the predictable crash-and-burn of that highlife scenario which ends with Divine living in Georgia with her pastor-Uncle goes right along the Delta storyline... but there the comparisons mostly end.

Fortunately, Divine doesn't turn out to be a completely warm and cuddly character who always does right, nor is she a completely rude and out of control schemer out to wreak total havoc, either. Needy and desperate for approval, she lands somewhere in between, and her actions are more like those of a confused, hurt, and grieving little girl. Divine's time in the middle-class suburban home of her aunt and uncle is not the magic that somehow makes her entire family whole. That job is left to the Almighty.

There is a surprising amount of emotional realism in this novel. The character of Divine is by turns shallow and snotty, prideful and pitiful , as she weeps for her mother, and rages at how she hates her father, whose insistence on her calling him by his first name already hints at his reluctance to parent or associate himself with her too closely. The details of her parent's drug addiction, a surprising murder and her father's infidelity make Divine's isolation as poor-little-rich-girl possibly more poignant to adults than to the teen readers at which it is aimed.

The religious aspect of the story also got a little heavy, as the need for forgiveness and renewal through spirituality is spelled out almost phonetically. However despite the Christian tie-in, young readers will be relieved that Divine doesn't give up her taste for Gucci bags and the good life just because of becoming a Christian. Though the conversion story veers heavily towards telling instead of showing, the give-it-all-to-God cliché that so often attends this type of fiction is mercifully absent, as Divine still struggles in the day-to-day.

Fans of Jacqueline Thomas will enjoy her first book for young adults, and look forward to its sequel.

One More Time With Alice

This book is a 2006 Cybil Award Nominee for YA Fiction.

I hadn't read an Alice story in awhile, so I was happy to pick up this one. Alice is getting ready to be a high school junior, and finds herself immersed in a busy, active life, though without as much family as she wishes she had around her. A new job gives her a chance to see how the working world works, and Alice is excited that her twenty-four year old brother is confiding in her a little. He's even invited her over to dinner while his girlfriend is there. Alice is spinning sugar-plum fancies about the wedding that she is sure will come between her brother and his "woman of color," which she is so fond of saying -- and thinking about. Alice's random black/white wedding plans come crashing down around her when the "woman of color" says no. The fianceé is quickly taken out of the picture, so readers never find out why the girl was dating her brother when her family would have been so upset had she married him. Since Alice is the type of girl who would've asked, I found this lack of information intriguing. Is Naylor saying that this is the type of questions that girls are not supposed to ask?

A period that begins in public, a friend contracting leukemia, being stalked by drunks, and being mortified by an email prank are the things that make up Alice's busy summer. In the end, Alice finally gets her fill of family, but it certainly doesn't happen in the way that she had dreamed it would, as they are brought close again by acatastrophicc illness. Alice lives and learns as always, leaving her readers better informed as well as entertained.

These little slice-of-life vignettes are priceless, as young adult readers can easily put themselves into the place of the characters and feel the feelings right along with them, inwardly determining what they will and will never get themselves into. Alice is a great character to learn from, as always, and Naylor keeps the lessons brief and light and not too cautionary.

Twenty-one books into the series, Phyllis Reynolds Naylor's Alice is still the same average, funny, quirky girl-next-door. Because this is the twenty-first book, however, there were myriad references to people and places that I wasn't really up on. While it's not necessary to have read all twenty previous books in the series, I did not find Alice in the Know to be particularly engaging as a stand-alone novel, however, this book alone was pleasantly diverting enough to encourage readers to go back and pick up a few more of this incredible series and get back up to speed.

A Life in Two Halves

Jenna Abbott will always separate her life into two parts: before the wreck, and after. Before the wreck, she lived with her mother, whom she loved but who really could work her nerves. Before the wreck, she lived in New York, and knew where everything was, including her worthless father who had left them. After the wreck, she was left with nothing but a broken body, a face full of scars, and a father who said he wanted her, but who was more likely to shake her when she didn't agree with him. Before the wreck, they were driving over the Tappan Zee bridge, when Jenna saw... something. Something. And reached for the steering wheel. After the wreck, the car met a huge truck head-on and her mother was halfway though the windshield, and they dangled from the bridge by their two back wheels for hours and hours and hours.

She had grabbed the steering wheel. Why had she grabbed the steering wheel?! Jenna is haunted and guilty and afraid. Her father believes her mother almost killed her, but Jenna is convinced otherwise. She cannot connect with anyone and moves farther and farther away from any kind of reality her mother would have condoned. Though she feels inside that she is trapped, Jenna moves with a kind of dumb sureness toward the worst people and worst actions. She is completely out of her element, but then she meets a gorgeous biker boy - who fixes everything.

Well, not quite. But the enigmatic Crow provides an excuse for Jenna to acknowledge herself again and face her fear. After the Wreck, I Picked Myself Up, Spread My Wings and Flew Away, is a somewhat predictable novel but without the fairytale ending that I was expecting. Fans of Joyce Carol Oates will enjoy this latest offering.

Last Year...

This book is a 2006 Cybil Award Nominee for YA Fiction.

Kay, thirteen, has a goal for her school year: to get noticed and to get a boyfriend. She's been crushing on Justin forever, but Justin has always just been slightly out of reach, in the middle of a circle of popular kids like Lexy, and Kay is tired of waiting. When a guy plows into her friend Jules at the skating rink, it seems fated that Kay has found the boy of her dreams. Never mind that he's sixteen and already drives, and that Kay's life so far has been dreaming of boys and spending her weekends babysitting. That she's dating a high school student is going to be her little secret... something else she doesn't tell her mother.

But Jamie Barnett isn't going to be a secret for long. By the time she turns fourteen, a series of tragedies bring the Barnett family to the attention of the whole town. Kay thought that her first kiss was going to be the biggest thing that happened to her this year. She was wrong.

There is too much going on in the story, and the characters and activities seem to fly right past. Author Kitt Raser Kelleher gets the breathless, pre-teen feel of this time of life right, though, and produces a piece which might better be enjoyed by middle-graders striving to move into the high school crowd more quickly.

This Time Last Year is a predictable look back at an atypical year in the life of a young girl.

A Savvy Anti-Nancy: Mystery at the Coroner's Office

This book is a 2006 Cybil Award Nominee for YA Fiction.

Cameryn Mahoney, daughter of Silverton's only coroner, wants more than anything to follow in her father's footsteps. Not as a coroner necessarily, but as a forensic pathologist, a person who puts together the disparate pieces of clues to recreate the facts surrounding a death. Cameryn is big on facts... science is the only thing she knows that doesn't get emotionally crowded and crazy when the going gets tough. Even death can be boiled down, in a manner of speaking, to science. When Cameryn's Dad allows her to be his on-the-payroll assistant, Cam jumps at the chance to get her hands dirty. Only -- she hadn't counted on her first case involving someone she knows... and she also hadn't counted on finding herself in the path of a serial killer in Silverton, Colorado, where nothing ever happens.

The Christopher Killer is a serial killer; he always leaves a St. Christopher Medal on each one of his victims, according to television psychic Dr. Jewel. He's coming to Silverton to help out the police -- and Cameryn's crystal-gazing best friend, Lyric, and her mother Daphne are determined to make a believer out of scientist Cameryn. Dr. Jewel is right about so many things... what if he really knows more about Cameryn than she thought?

This is definitely not your mother's Nancy Drew. The fast-paced, novelized mystery definitely aimed at teens who are familiar with crime scene shows and pathology detail from television. Some characters are left virtually undefined and the author uses a heavy reliance on scientific terms and techniques, showing her personal knowledge from attending autopsies. The detail and exciting-things-per-page quotient is high; the story is in some places implausibly thin, and personal issues are left unresolved (What is the deal with Deputy Justin and Cameryn's mother?), but all in all this is a quick-paced, riveting read which would be great for young adults who aren't that interested in books. And anyway, the unresolved personal issues leave no mystery that interested readers will be able to find more novels featuring Cameryn Mahoney in the future.

December 15, 2006

The Darker the Bird, the Sweeter the Song?

This book is a 2006 Cybil Award Nominee for YA Fiction.

Jeeta is not like the rest of her family in Mumbai (Bombay), India. She's the youngest of three daughters, and has two brothers, too, and her whole life, unlike her mother's, does not revolve around finding a suitable husband and marrying well. She's watched her mother barter off her oldest sister, with her bad eyesight, to an orphan -- which is not an adventageous match, but the best they can do, since her sister has a degenerating eye condition -- and her beautiful middle sister to an American whose only good qualities are that he's an American -- nobody knows him well enough to say much else, and Jeeta's mother, Purnima, is anxious to make a good match for her daughter, and will not hear questions on the matter.

Jeeta isn't sure what she wants out of life, but she's sure it's not to just be married - pouf! - and out of the house. After all, she can't even bring her mind to thinking about marriage: she's dark, and too dark to marry well, in her mother's opinion. It's an opinion that has colored her own perception of herself. "Your tongue is too sharp, and your skin is too dark," is the constant refrain ringing through Jeeta's ears. She doesn't want to live at all the way her mother wants her to, and no wonder, with such a narrow chance of success, in her mother's mind, pushing her to make her daughter wed just anyone. "Say yes to the first one," she warns her daughter, not realizing, perhaps, that she is crushing her feelings with her blunt tongue. But Jeeta has been gifted with a strong backbone. If nothing else, she is going to have her say before she lives the life her mother is pushing her to lead.

When she befriends Sarina, the daughter of an ophthalmologist and a judge, Jeeta begins to see the fuzzy shape of a life ahead of her. She could do better in school, she decides, and begins to study with great seriousness. She could maybe be a judge, a lawyer, someone other than a wife -- like Sarina's mother. Her mind begins to reach for new heights even as her heart is tugged toward Sarmina's cousin, Neel, who is both smarter and kinder than any other boy she's met. Her mother, she knows, would never, never, ever let her out of the house again if she knew that Jeeta was meeting Neel at Sarina's house. So, is there any hope for them? Is there hope for Jeeta's life at all?

When things come crashing down for her sister in America, Jeeta's focus is refined, and she has just one more secret to keep from her mother. But how long can it last? Can she force her distant father to come to the rescue and speak up for once? Will her darker skin and outspoken mouth drive anyone who wants to marry her away? Does she want to marry anymore? And how long will the family meekly submit to what their mother wants, and what their caste and society say? With its beautiful cover picture and deft descriptions, Koyal Dark, Mango Sweet explores the line young adults from every culture must walk between obedience, obligation, and independence as they find their own way through the world.

She's Dating a Goyim? Meshuggenah!

This book is a 2006 Cybil Award Nominee for YA Fiction.

It's not every day that a boy comes along who is... well, reasonable. Rachel Lowenstein has been paired with all of the Jewish guys in her immediate family circle -- even her next door neighbor, Howard, and none of them think she's that great. Rachel is tired of seeing girls with bigger bra sizes score dates and partners at the Bar Mitzvah's in the neighborhood. When she sees Luke Christensen bussing tables at her cousin's wedding, she realizes that what she really wants is to date out of her safety zone. She wants to date a "goy."

Her parents have never said she couldn't date a gentile, but Rachel knows enough -- she's seen enough signs to make an assumption all right -- plus her brother has turned into this Yeshiva scholar practically, and her parents can't get enough of him. On top of everything else, Rachel's nana told her once not to go with the goyim, not to hook up with people outside of the tribe -- and now her grandmother is dead, and Rachel is stuck... Luke Christensen definitely doesn't fit the parameters of a safe non-goyim bet (His "Jesus is my Homie" t-shirt is sort of a tip-off). He's so not in the tribe, but he's so cute, and he seems to really like Rachel... and she likes him. And so the lies, evasions and worries begin. After all, what's a good Jewish girl to do when she's gone Goy Crazy?

Melissa Schorr has written a lighthearted comedy about a serious issue -- interracial dating. This fast-paced book, sprinkled with Yiddish, will leave readers wanting more.

Beyond the Veil

This book is a 2006 Cybil Award Nominee for YA Fiction.

When her grandmother Bunny dies, Liz Scattergood's life changes in more ways than one. Not only because she has lost someone who truly loved her and saw her, Liz is grieved and afraid because she has also lost her mother, someone who has always loved being someone else's child, but has never truly stepped into her role as a parent. Liz's Mom is so unhappy that she only gets out of bed to reconnect with reality to find her mother. A woman at the funeral encourages her to come to her spiritualist church to contact her mother again, and it throws the household into chaos.

How hard is it to resist hope when hope is offered? Liz's father has the strength to resist -- angrily. Raised in a fundamentalist home, and now an atheist, he resists having his entire household ruled by yet another religion, and eventually finds it too hard to live at home. Liz is interested, but skeptical, then hurt and depressed when her mother grasps so hard at straws that she is taking in what sounds like just gabbling and nonsense. Her mother sees Liz's skepticism, and reacts as if she is rejecting her, angrily pointing out her lack of love for her grandmother. Matters come to a head when the cranky across-the-street neighbor's daughter and grandchildren move in, one of whom is Nathan, a broody sixteen and his little sister, Courtney. Nathan might be good for Liz, in that she has a distraction from her homelife, but unfortunately, Nathan and Courtney's mother is dying of leukemia, and though no one wants to tell Courtney the truth, the stress in that household lets everyone know something terrible is wrong. Liz's mother offers Nathan and his mother a kind of twisted hope in the form of her spiritualist church. But is it really helpful? And is it real hope, and not Blind Faith that someone is out there, still listening, still mothering an immature woman who is too scared to grow up?

In the end, Liz begins to speak the truth that can save her; she can only hope that she is opening her eyes to what is, and what will have to be in time to salvage something of a relationship to her mother, and to her own self-respect. A sad and troubling story with no clear resolution about the questions in the world that have no easy answers.

The Way of the Warrior

This book is a 2006 Cybil Award Nominee for YA Fiction,

Halfdan is the son of a thrall and a 9th century Danish clan chieftan, Hrorick, and believes that nothing exists in his life but the drudgery of work. Impatient with his mother, Derdrui's, tales and deaf to the world of women in general, Halfdan never really listens to his mother's tales of being a princess of Ireland, her stories of the White Christ, and all that she lost when she became as she was. Only when she is gone does Halfdan realize that he might have learned more if his heart had not been so intent on the lives of the warriors around him, and on the quest for Vallhalla. But how else could his life have gone?

The Viking world is a man's world, and Halfdan longs to be the kind of man his half-brother, Harald is, the kind of Viking Warrior thralls and soldiers alike look up to. Through a twist of fate that brings Halfdan his freedom, he has the chance to enter that hard, man's world where thralls don't speak unless spoken to, and where mead flows and big talk is all part of the rough cameraderie of warriors. Halfdan has a family when he's never truly been part of one before. But the web of fate is still being spun. Halfdan's life is going to change again -- and this time, it's up to him to decide what he has left.

This is a work of historical fiction wide in scope and mesmerizing. The harsh, bloody life of the Vikings is told with an eye to detail about the weapons and foods of the people, and their practices, and with a realism that can make the reader flinch, but the world is depicted in its reality. Because this is only Book 1 of the Strongbow Saga, it is somewhat frustrating to have met so few characters and have spent so little time with the characters, but this in time will turn out to be a praiseworthy saga which shows evidence of a love of the subject and meticulous research.

Bad Dresses, Awful Bands and Family Affairs

This book is a 2006 Cybil Award Nominee for YA Fiction.

quinceañera...1. traditional party (one that I refuse to have). According to my mom, a girl's fifteenth birthday is supposed to be the biggest day in her life. The quinceañera is like a huge flashing neon sign for womanhood. Back in the olden times, it meant that a woman was ready to get married and have babies. 2. The way I see it, it's just a lame party with cheesy music and puffy princess dresses.

Welcome to the world of Estrella Alvarez, who is a funny, distracted 14-year-old with a lot on her mind. The speech-robbing horribleness of the dress on the cover of this book prepared me for the story I found within -- that of a girl being raised in a strict and loving home, trying to find her own identity and having it sort of plopped onto her, like an awful dress, and smoothed out over her frame. Estrella is so conflicted about who she is that she can't even decide on her name -- she's Estrella at home, but at her swanky private school, she's Star. At home, her grandmother makes her menudo, the tripe-rich soup that she believes cures all ills. With her Caucasian friends, she stuffs down sushi, even though she hates it, and it never leaves her feeling satisfied and full. Obviously, there's a problem with how Estrella is living her life, and that kind of division can't last. Now her best friends from babyhood who are expected to be her damas -- attendants -- at her party are no longer speaking to her, and even the boy she likes realizes that she's splitting in half -- and he doesn't know which half is his friend. Her father won't even allow her to talk to boys, much less party with them like her other friends do, and all her mother and aunt can do is point to her sister, Marta, who got pregnant before she was married, and "shamed" the family name.

Meanwhile, Estrella's mother and aunt plow full-speed ahead for a party that Estrella's sure she doesn't want, while her father worries about expenses. Estrella/Star blows off her parent's plans for what she thinks is a cheesy quinceañera in favor of her school friends' party for her birthday -- which ends disasterously. Worse, as Estrella tries to get around everyone with strings of half-truths and deceptions, it all explodes -- her parents blow up at her, at each other, and the party falls to ruins. Her brothers slink around the house unhappily, and Estrella feels all the blame shift to her shoulders. The be-true-to-yourself theme is laid on pretty thickly as Estrella works within her community to restore a cultural celebration to its former glory. With a bit of sweet, though predictable conniving, the story wraps up neatly and all is well, as the party goes on, and everyone is reunited in love.

This super-sweet book will work well for the 12-14 year old set, and the glossary will be educational for anyone who hasn't a single clue about Latin American culture.


This book is a 2006 Cybil Award Nominee for YA Fiction,

"I'm telling you this because you didn't ask. I've got it all here, growing like a tumor in my throat. I'm telling you because if I don't, I will choke on it. Everybody knows what happened, but nobody asks."
Donnie has a story to tell, and from the first chapter you know it's not as easy one to hear. The phrases he uses are so evocative, so compelling, that you are forced by his desperateness to listen to him, whether you want to hear him or not. Skin, by Adrienne Maria Vrettos is a novel about being strangled, slowly, by someone you love. Anorexia is the culprit, and as all eyes turn to it, and a loved one disappears, often, so do the ones who love.

Arctic Pepperoni

This book is a 2006 Cybil Award Nominee for YA Fiction, and was reviewed earlier by a.fortis.

Pete Hautman's Rash presents a darkly humorous dystopian future where everything is ... safe.
It's hard to imagine a place of safety as a dystopia, instead of as the happiest place on earth, but it is dystopian -- because safety doesn't necessarily connote freedom, or fun.

Sixteen-year-old Bo, who in his protective shoes, knee pads, elbow pads, neck brace, tooth guard, wrist monitor and sports helmet loves to run on his school's padded indoor court, isn't doing that well with fitting into the world he knows, but he blames it on his genes -- his Dad and older brother have all been sent away to work camps for losing their tempers. Even with the emotionally suppressing drugs they have to take, the Marsten men make gestures, raise their voices, and Bo's brother even got into a fistfight at an unauthorized graduation party. He's doing three years for that because he was a still a minor. Dad got five years for the road rage incident.

Anyway, it's probably just as well. Prison labor makes everything move in this new world order -- after all, 24% of the adult population is in prison, and without that labor pool, society would collapse. And, since genes are everything, and really, free will isn't that big an issue, Bo knows it won't be long before he is following in their footsteps, his mother wet-eyed and wailing, and his grandfather, a cynical old man born in 1990 who is wistful about a past that includes such things as legal french fries and jail for things like murder and drugs, scowling and muttering along behind them.

And sure enough, following the fallout from a verbal brushup with his arch-nemesis at school, Karlohs Mink, the work camp Bo is sent to introduces him to tundra, arctic cold, polar bears, and pizza. It's the McDonald's Rehabilitation and Manufacturing conglomorate that specializes in "hand-made" pizza for the hoi polloi, since it's retro-popular this year. Bo is also introduced to organized thugs, a criminally negligent warden, and a sport so violent it's illegal in the new world order. Realizing that no one really cares what happens to him gives Bo the time to think about his life -- and that just might be his salvation. The conclusions Bo reaches about his life and his society make this a shrewd look at our own current society, and might give readers some surprises. With Bo's quirky, rouge AI, some relentlessly bad food and some truly scary polar bears, Hautman leaves his readers with new ways to think about personal responsibility, self control, and the options they have on how to live their lives.

December 14, 2006

What's Wrong With This Picture?!

This was forwarded to me in an email this week:
Memo to All English Faculty
Tentative Summer Reading List of Nameless High School

Prep: A Novel (Paperback) by Curtis Sittenfeld
From Publishers Weekly: A self-conscious outsider navigates the choppy waters of adolescence and a posh boarding school's social politics in Sittenfeld's A-grade coming-of-age debut. The strong narrative voice belongs to Lee Fiora, who leaves South Bend, Ind., for Boston's prestigious Ault School and finds her sense of identity supremely challenged. Now, at 24, she recounts her years learning "everything I needed to know about attracting and alienating people." Sittenfeld neither indulges nor mocks teen angst, but hits it spot on: "I was terrified of unwittingly leaving behind a piece of scrap paper on which were written all my private desires and humiliations. The fact that no such scrap of paper existed... never decreased my fear." Lee sees herself as "one of the mild, boring, peripheral girls" among her privileged classmates, especially the über-popular Aspeth Montgomery, "the kind of girl about whom rock songs were written," and Cross Sugarman, the boy who can devastate with one look ("my life since then has been spent in pursuit of that look"). Her reminiscences, still youthful but more wise, allow her to validate her feelings of loneliness and misery while forgiving herself for her lack of experience and knowledge. The book meanders on its way, light on plot but saturated with heartbreaking humor and written in clean prose. Sittenfeld, who won Seventeen's fiction contest at 16, proves herself a natural in this poignant, truthful book. Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

HARRY POTTER AND THE HALF-BLOOD PRINCE By J. K. Rowling. Illustrated by Mary GrandPré.
In this sixth volume of the epic series, the Dark Lord, Voldemort, is wreaking havoc throughout England and Harry, now 16, is more isolated than ever.
From School Library Journal: Grade 5 Up–It's no surprise that everyone's favorite teen wizard is still battling Voldemort. What does perplex the young hero is a forgotten textbook with secret writing that brings together Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (Scholastic, 2005). J. K. Rowling returns Harry, Hermione, and Ron to Hogworts amidst troubling signs that the Dark Lord and the Deatheaters are gaining strength. Fortunately, Headmaster Dumbledore is helping his apt pupil prepare for an expected showdown by taking Harry to remembered incidents in the life of his old enemy. Less dangerous, but still disturbing, Ron and Hermione have put Harry in the middle of their incessant bickering. Then there's Slytherin Prefect Draco Malfoy who's under orders to commit murder–but who is his intended victim? Finally, Professor Snape is now teaching the Defense of the Dark Arts class, but he appears to be doing some dark deeds of his own. A blossoming relationship with Ginny Weasley is a bright spot for Harry, but another personal loss forces him to make some grave decisions by the novel's end. - Barbara Wysocki, Cora J. Belden Library, Rocky Hill, CT: Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha (Paperback) by Roddy Doyle
In Roddy Doyle's Booker Prize-winning novel Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha, an Irish lad named Paddy rampages through the streets of Barrytown with a pack of like-minded hooligans, playing cowboys and Indians, etching their names in wet concrete, and setting fires. Roddy Doyle has captured the sensations and speech patterns of preadolescents with consummate skill, and managed to do so without resorting to sentimentality. Paddy Clarke and his friends are not bad boys; they're just a little bit restless. They're always taking sides, bullying each other, and secretly wishing they didn't have to. All they want is for something--anything--to happen.
Throughout the novel, Paddy teeters on the nervous verge of adolescence. In one scene, Paddy tries to make his little brother's hot water bottle explode, but gives up after stomping on it just one time: "I jumped on Sinbad's bottle. Nothing happened. I didn't do it again. Sometimes when nothing happened it was really getting ready to happen." Paddy Clarke senses that his world is about to change forever--and not necessarily for the better. When he realizes that his parents' marriage is falling apart, Paddy stays up all night listening, half-believing that his vigil will ward off further fighting. It doesn't work, but it is sweet and sad that he believes it might. Paddy's logic may be fuzzy, but his heart is in the right place. --Jill Marquis
From Publishers Weekly: Doyle's Booker Prize-winning novel, told from the perspective of Irish, working-class 10-year-old Paddy Clarke, was a seven-week PW bestseller.

The March: A Novel (Paperback) by E.L. Doctorow
From Publishers Weekly: Starred Review. Sherman's march through Georgia and the Carolinas produced hundreds of thousands of deaths and untold collateral damage. In this powerful novel, Doctorow gets deep inside the pillage, cruelty and destruction—as well as the care and burgeoning love that sprung up in their wake. William Tecumseh Sherman ("Uncle Billy" to his troops) is depicted as a man of complex moods and varying abilities, whose need for glory sometimes obscures his military acumen. Most of the many characters are equally well-drawn and psychologically deep, but the two most engaging are Pearl, a plantation owner's despised daughter who is passing as a drummer boy, and Arly, a cocksure Reb soldier whose belief that God dictates the events in his life is combined with the cunning of a wily opportunist. Their lives provide irony, humor and strange coincidences. Though his lyrical prose sometimes shades into sentimentality when it strays from what people are feeling or saying, Doctorow's gift for getting into the heads of a remarkable variety of characters, famous or ordinary, make this a kind of grim Civil War Canterbury Tales. On reaching the novel's last pages, the reader feels wonder that this nation was ever able to heal after so brutal, and personal, a conflict. -- Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved

ON BEAUTY, by Zadie Smith.
From Publishers Weekly: Starred Review. This is a superb novel, a many-cultured Middlemarch, but it's a rough one for an actor. James juggles a large cast of Brits and Yanks, middle- and working-class white, African-American, West Indian and African men and women, as well as street teens, wannabe street teens and don't-wannabe street teens. James has a beautiful, deep voice that at first seems antithetical to Smith's ship of fools, but he enhances the humor and pathos with vocal understatement. He helps give characters their rightful place in the saga. The parade of characters swirl around two antagonistic Rembrandt scholars in a Massachusetts college town. Howard Belsey is a self-absorbed, working-class British white man married to African-American Kiki and father to three cafe-au-lait children. Monty Kipps is a West Indian stuffed-shirt married to the generous Carlene, with a gorgeous daughter, Veronica. The book is funny and infuriating, crammed with multiple shades of love and lust, midlife and teenlife crises. Class, race and political conflicts are generally an integral part of a story that occasionally strays from its center. The theme of beauty as counterpoint to individual, family, cultural and social foibles and failures ribbons through the novel and wraps it up, perhaps to say that Beauty is, finally, the only Truth. -- Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc.

The Painted Drum: A Novel (Paperback) by Louise Erdrich
From Publishers Weekly Starred Review: Though Erdrich's latest lyrical novel returns to Ojibwe territory (Four Souls; Love Medicine, etc.), it departs from the concentrated vigor of her best work in its breadth of storytelling. Erdrich essays the grief that comes when the sins of parents become mortal for their children. Native American antiquities specialist Faye Travers, bereaved of her sister and father, ambivalently in love with a sculptor who has lost his wife and loses his daughter, stumbles onto a ceremonial drum when she handles the estate of John Jewett Tatro, whose grandfather was an agent at the Ojibwe reservation. Under its spell, she secrets it away and eventually repatriates it to that reservation on the northern plains—the home of her grandmother. The drum is revived, as are those around it. Gracefully weaving many threads, Erdrich details the multigenerational history surrounding the drum. Despite her elegant story and luminous prose, many of the characters feel sketchy compared to Erdrich's previous titans, and several redemptions seem too pat. But even at low voltage, Erdrich crafts a provocative read elevated by beautiful imagery, as when children near death fly off like skeletal ravens.

BOSS TWEED: The Rise and Fall of the Corrupt Pol Who Conceived the Soul of Modern New York By Kenneth D. Ackerman.
From Bookmarks Magazine
For historians, Tweed "is worth his weight in gold" (New York Times). Ackerman, who has written previous books on Gilded Age excesses, focuses on the years after 1870 when Tweed hopscotched between court and jail. Critics agree that Tweed, his cronies, and the crusading journalists responsible for his spectacular downfall come alive. Colorful details and a clear-eyed approach to both Tweed’s great leadership and even greater crimes highlight his opportunist philosophy and antics, though his formative years remain a mystery. A poor sense of chronology, combined with failures to address revisionist claims that Tweed was an "honest grafter" and examine his effect on the "soul of modern New York," weaken the book. Despite these flaws, Boss Tweed is an excellent history with modern-day parables.

...These are the books passed along to me by an English teacher at a high school which shall remain nameless... she is bemused and somewhat horrified by what is seen as a "contemporary" summer booklist, or the beginnings of such. Contemporary, meaning... ? We're not sure.

I'm not questioning the value of the books themselves. I've read a couple of these, and what I have read is quite good. There are several really strong authors, etc., that interest my more adult tastes, but as hard as it is to get some teens to read, I think, to put it mildly, some other choices could have been made. I suppose the department head was trying to be sure that minorities were represented, and women, and military personnel, and rich kids and beleagured wizards... Honestly, I am looking, but I can't figure out what else was going on in their head. I cannot imagine being the English teacher required to have a discussion with high school freshmen about any of these texts.

Forgive my snark for saying so, but sometimes I am glad I opted not to teach English for a living. This would give me such a headache.

December 13, 2006

Holiday thoughts from Our Jane

This foggy, dim, and rainy weather is the best time of all to go down into the basement of your favorite independent book re-seller(dear old Copperfield's) and browse among that sweet, dry, used-bookish smell. Normally, I love old books, and have found some great treasures I missed by not being born in the 1960's, including books by Dodie Smith and some great old Joan Aikens -- and I am always trying to palm off my favorites from bygone eras on my poor hapless siblings, niece, former students, and random strangers on the street. UK author Sarah Burnett also found some great old books at a charity sale, and blogs about her old faves - reading them, and discovering that they are racist, classist and sexist. Um, what they? Do you still try to get people to read them?


Meanwhile, in my continual and timid adoration of Jane Yolen (timid in that I have yet to actually speak to her, continual, in that I plan months ahead to attend a conference where she will speak [psst! don't forget to REGISTER, guys!]) I continue to haunt her online journal (or, I guess they call that lurking), and this week found quite a funny screed about her work habits vs. the work habits of the rest of the world, and how writers simply cannot just assume that because they work a particular way, they are going to be a good writer or a bad one. However something else caught my particular attention, and in light of the fact that sometimes writing seems like a rather frivolous occupation in view of the continuing situations in myriad locations around the globe, I've been thinking about it. A reader asked her the question, "How can a fantasy writer help innocent people dying on another continent?" Her reply is excellent:

Alas, just the way anyone else does -- by sending money to the Good Guys, like Doctors Without Borders, or clothing and food through recognized charities; writing your congress critters, voting your conscience.

Oh, perhaps you mean how to help
using one's writing? We fantasy writers, like all writers, are the unacknowledged legislators of the world. Our words can make people think, can change minds, can influence opinion. But our job as fiction writers--as opposed to sermon writers--is to do all this through the medium of story.

So how can you help, etc? Work hard, BIC, write characters who sing and don't preach. Make landscapes that replicate in odd ways the underlying passion of your literary creations. Remember "May the metaphors be with you." Don't be fooled into thinking you are just an entertainer. But don't be fooled into thinking you are more than one, either

Hm. Well, here's to making people think.

December 11, 2006

Life—More than Just Manga

This book is a nomination for the graphic novels category of the 2006 Cybil Awards.

I have to admit—I didn't think there was any way that a manga about a manga convention could possibly be good. It sounded like way too high a dose of geekiness for me. That'll teach me to judge a book by A) its cover, and B) the blurb on the back. I really enjoyed Svetlana Chmakova's Dramacon Vol. 2, which turned out to be much more than a story about a manga convention. It's a story about friendship, love, growing up, and pursuing your dreams.

It is, though, a story set in the world of comics and manga. If it were only about those topics, it would be far less likely to gain readers outside of the otaku set, and frankly, the cover blurb seems written to appeal to that set of fans. But I was very happy to have my first impressions be proven wrong. I'm far from expert on either comics or manga, but this is a charming, funny, surprisingly deep ongoing tale about two young women who are creating their own comic and promoting it at a big comics and anime convention.

In many ways, this story is about defying certain expectations that dominate the world of comics and manga. The two young women meet their idol, a female comic artist named Lida, who fills them in on the obstacles that face women trying to break into the male-dominated industry. They encounter sexism, racism, and crazed fans who insist that only Japanese can produce "real" manga, and manga produced by and for an English-language audience isn't legit. However, Christie and Bethany are good--really good—and even the most militant of manga fans are able to see that.

Unfortunately, Bethany's not sure she can get her parents to realize that drawing comics is a viable career option, even when a famous manga company offers her a job as an artist. Meanwhile, Christie is preoccupied by Matt, a guy she met at the convention the previous year. He'd been a real friend, with the potential for something more, but this year he shows up with…a girlfriend. This title has a bit of soap opera about it, keeping the reader hooked and eager for the next volume. But above all it's very cute and very funny. It's a great example of the manga style done well: nicely rendered artwork that uses manga conventions effectively but not excessively; that uses subtlety as well as it uses comic exaggeration.

Evidently Dramacon's creator, Chmakova, also does a comic in the back of CosmoGIRL magazine. Her work gives me hope for the increasing popularity of comics for female readers—and for increasing opportunities for female comics writers and artists.

Tradition, Honor, Excellence... and Nonsense

This book is a 2006 Cybil Award Nominee for YA Fiction.

15-year-old Reed Brennan has given up her old life to be one of Those Girls: one who attends Easton Academy, yet another snobby, rich kid school that is so private that even signs don't clearly point the way there. Reed's home life is so dismal that even being locked out of the society of the "it" boys and girls at a prestigious school seems like a better, more hopeful option that going on with her pain-killer addicted, alcoholic mother, her helpless father, her gray school and her drab, friendless life.

Though the premise is set up well enough in the first scenes, it soon changes to questionable, then ridiculous. For some reason, Reed seems to expect Easton to be something similar to her high school back home, though she knows just from driving up the steep uptick of money and prestige, just by looking at the car lines of limos and Mercedes that line the drive. Reed admittedly doesn't know how to make friends; she's made a point of not learning back home, since girlfriends seem to be more interested in checking out houses and parents than guys are, and she's made a deliberate choice to keep people out of her life and away from her toxic mother. Reed is normally friends with guys, who don't care about such things, but for some unexplained reason, it doesn't occur to her to make those safer friendships here. Inexplicably, Reed longs to be a girly-girl for once. Then, to further add to the unbelievable storyline, she then zeroes in on longing to belong to of the most exclusive girl's groups on campus: the Billings Girls, who not only are the wealthiest and most socially accelerated girls on campus, but the only girls who have their own dorms, and who seem to answer to no one. Of COURSE Reed wants to belong this group, in a complete and utter departure from her previously stated personality. She has no idea how to make friends, so why not try for the group who will most likely reject her?

Leaving aside all common sense, Reed tediously watches and waits for her chance to get in. Every rebuff only strengthens her resolve to gather more blow-offs and sneers to herself, as if they are gold medals. Not because she wears them down with her puppy dog eyes, Reed is eventually taken into the fringes of the group by the meanest girls in the group and permitted to do their chores, steal their tests, and be their go-fer, in return for a false and hollow friendship which could end disastrously at any time, as she observes when another girl is expelled.

Not only that, Reed's dreamboat boyfriend time on a guy she discovers is the school drug dealer -- to which she reacts with a surprising amount of overdone, though brief horror, -- and her bright academic scores which brought her there are in danger of sinking her onto academic perdition. All the teachers are faceless gorgons, reflecting the same prep school mirror as so many other novels of poor, maligned students. Reed, though she has the right kind of name, is in over her head.

A reader might ask, "what's the point?" Why attend a school so Private and exclusive that they don't seem to want you? Who knows? Perhaps the answer is in the sequel.

A novel that is the mirror reflection of every 'poor scholarship girl makes bad choices to get popular in rich private school' storyline, there is little or no character development here, some major plot holes, and a very annoying take on popularity: the author writes as if all popular people are inherently evil, and popularity itself is prize enough to encourage all girls to turn into backstabbing beeyotches, and sacrifice self-esteem and personal pride, which is simply, tiresomely, not true. A surprisingly shallow novel.

Roadtrips with Hustlers

This book is a 2006 Cybil Award Nominee for YA Fiction.

Jordan is a hustler, a seventeen year old who has the perfect, pretty features older men want. He has friends who give him what he wants, what he needs, to get by. He takes care of no one but himself, and he knows he could live a lot better than he does, if he were willing to give up what little self he has left, but he refuses to be anyone but his own man. For this reason, he lives in an abandoned cellar in New York, and is an unwilling witness to a rape. He scares off the attackers, and is left with what they left behind -- a girl named Wanda who seems a little simplistic, a little childlike, a little strange. Jordan worries for this innocent, knowing that she could be ill, and takes her to a free clinic. She bites him in the arm like a dog, and he ends up with a rabies shot himself.

This is the basis for a powerful friendship.


Drifting, with a need for affection that is missing from his cash-encounters and his fractured family, Jordan, his own head barely above water, latches inexplicably onto 18-year-old Wanda, whom he has renamed as Chloe, with deep affection. She sleeps with him innocently, and he cares for her with filial affection, protecting her from people who hit on her, or people who would hit her. Jordan gives up his burgeoning sexuality, his older male partners, and his gigilo lifestyle for the powerful drug of being needed. In return, Chloe is his constant, cheerful companion, almost simple minded in her sweet serenity, though she holds a terribly secret, which is hinted at darkly as having the power to destroy her.

Jordan, trying to get her help for her unstated mental illness, decides to show her that Life is Beautiful. In the most enjoyable portion of the book, Jordan takes Chloe on a cross-country trip in an old Chevy truck, and together they discover the beauty of the natural world, the satisfaction of the smallest beauties and some major ones like the Grand Canyon. They also encounter drunk people, mean people and tough people who beat them up and take what they have. In a way, this story reads more like a parable, a "do unto others" philosophy with a story molded to fit. Many things are not explored, including Jordan's sexuality, and Chloe's mental illness and her past, leaving the reader with questions. However, the travelogue is enjoyable, and readers get a genuine vicarious joy from 'seeing' all of the places Jordan and Chloe see through their eyes.

Though the story was difficult to get into and truly stretched believability with its saccharine sweetness, Becoming Chloe is very simply a "what if" kind of story for people who dream of a world more straightforward -- and much better -- than it is, and it encourages an appreciation of the real America that is, made up of people who really are, for the most part, helpful and kind.

An imaginative summer

This book is a 2006 Cybil Award Nominee for YA Fiction.

Charlena thinks her small-town is all the home she'll ever know, and her Dad, Mike, and her best friend Sam are all the family she'll ever need. She wants to go far on her writing talent, but she's shocked into a wall by hearing her work critiqued -- seriously critiqued -- by her favorite English teacher. She's been coasting, he tells her, and she'll get a C- if she doesn't redo her last assignment. Rather than feeling challenged and flattered by the attention her teacher is paying her, Charlie's angry and impatient, knowing the story she wanted to tell, but seeing herself fail miserably to reach that perfect place. She thinks she's doing the best she can, and she's weary of the way the end of the year has gone. Imagination, her creative writing teacher tells her, you've got to use yours. Charlie thought she had been doing that, and the criticism stings more than she can take.

NOTHING is going her way -- her Dad, a widower for eight years, is finally starting to date again -- and he's dating this Barbie with whom she has nothing in common, who has three teen boys who stink up the place. And, Charlie's best friend Sam is gone -- to Australia -- and probably will never come back. When Charlie's grandma asks her out to Lake Ringrose for the summer, Charlie decides to go, to spite her father. It's basically a shack out there in the woods, she knows, and she fully expects to be bored and miserable. Charlie hopes her Dad worries about her.

It turns out that Charlie doesn't have time to worry about him. There's something up in that little town -- something weird. People double-take when they see her, and Charlie's never been closer to the memory of her mother in her life. She's everywhere, and Charlie feels by turns jealous and guilty that she didn't know her better.

A cute boy named Kerry take to Charlie immediately -- and she to him -- they have a chemistry that Charlie's never felt before with anyone, not even Sam, whom she truly loves. Why is it that her grandmother keeps warning her away from Kerry? Why can't someone just be straight with her, just once? Family history, one sunlit summer, and a slightly predictable love story produces Grist - just the kind of things needed to write the great American novel. Or something.

Atypical Band Geek

This book is a 2006 Cybil Award Nominee for YA Fiction.

Frank Portman is in a band - which really tells you all you need to know about his cool quotient. He's created a guy who has a deeply interesting theory about Holden Caufield as a cult figure beloved by AP English teachers everywhere, and then he's sort of recreated the character into a cultist figure himself: a socially skill-less, disaffected, eccentric, awkward, uber intelligent every guy, who believes that high school is the "penalty for crimes yet unspecified." The novel is far more than the eclectic sum of its parts -- it is quite funny -- funnier than it ought to be, by turns wise and innocent and a wryly honest look back at high school for the fringe folk.

High school: a place that is by turns a landfill of ennui, and a deadly concentration of violence, humiliation and random doses of shame. People who don't even know you can be out to get you, especially the jocks, who bloodletting to let off steam, and the popular girls, who come up with several mean games of Makeout/Fakeout, and the Dud/e Chart to further humiliate their already socially zeroed counterparts. From masochistic vice principals to boring classes with teachers who mispronounce vocabulary words, to thugs who do violence in bathrooms, Hillmont High School seems like a badly run psychotics association. However, our dorky protagonist, Tom Henderson, assures us it all goes better if you're in a band. It doesn't matter if you're King Dork, a complete loser in the social landscape of high school, bands are cool. They attract hot to semi-hot girls and the possibility of random acts of amorousness. They make you seem smarter than you are. In short, probably everyone should be in a band, if they can find a decent drummer. It's how Tom stays sane. (Well, as sane as a guy whose nickname is Child Molester can be, anyway.)

While Tom tries to stay alive and avoid Catcher in the Rye, he's also trying to maneuver the shoals of living at home with his hippie-geek stepfather, his angry little sister, and his vague, grieved semi-hippie mother. Mostly Tom wants to be left alone to get into his music, but he's not a bad family member -- he goes so far as to do his best not to mock his goofy stepdad, and to give his Mom a break, even though most of the time they're clueless and completely intrusive and nutty, to boot. And then there's the lies his mother has told he and his sister -- lies about the way their father died. There's something to this lie, and here Portman introduces a deep, darker and scarier subplot that is all the more odd because the the spooky coincidences and connections brought up by Tom's only friend, Sam.

No one has ever explained what happened: Tom's father was a policeman, he was parked by the side of the road and struck by a car? He committed suicide? Tom tries to figure it out, with the most roundabout assistance possible: a series of cryptic clues in the back of a book his father owned. Ironically, one of the books is a battered copy of Catcher, which Tom starts carrying around -- just like the other Caufield cultists. He wants a connection to his father. He wants a connection to the world in which he's floating. He wants... to mess around with a girl. Or two. On opposite days of the week. He gets all of that, an far more than he bargained for.

The vocabulary, disparate plot strands and braniac voice in this novel will endear this novel to older readers; the myriad band names and philosophizing on punk vs. Goth vs. rock may charm others. An interesting first novel; writers and band types alike can't wait for more.

December 08, 2006

The Twelve Days of Whining

Ah, 'tis yet again the season:

The joy continues tonight with both sibs in elementary/junior high holiday programs, tomorrow night a benefit concert at the nonprofit early childhood center for which I volunteer, the morning of the 19th is the brunch and concert for the adult chorale, and the 21st is the concert date for the smallest kids to sing out of key and ring triangles and jingle bells for their parents' camcorders. My fellow Cybil-ites can be sure that I'll be lugging along a book bag to each and every one of these concerts -- except to the one I'm singing in -- theoretically -- and eventually I'll get in the spirit, perhaps put up a few decorations... eventually...
I'm just not yet in the mood for all of this! But, the holidaze continue, whether you're in the mood or not. At least it is raining and I am eschewing the dubious joys of the mall for making my UPS guy work that much harder... One of the funniest things about the Cybils is the daily book drops via UPS and FedEx. The guys are looking at me like I'm crazy. "What are you ordering?!" one of them asked me the other day.
They will be crushed to know that I have not yet begun to shop... heh heh.