Tuesday, July 31, 2007

The Miner's Daughter by Gretchen Moran Laskas

I recommend this book for: high school, advanced middle school readers

Wow. I started reading this one this morning at breakfast, and I found myself unable to put it down until I was finished (ahh, I love neglecting housework!) - and that doesn't happen often with historical fiction, so I give this one top marks.

Willa and her large family live in a West Virginia coal mining town during the Great Depression. Times are difficult, particularly when the company closes the mine and Willa's father and older brother have to go out of town to find work, leaving Willa to take care of the other children and her mother, who has just given birth. There is one brighter spot for Willa - the mission library run by newcomer Miss Grace. As Willa studies and devours every book she can get her hands on, life becomes more tolerable and new doors start opening for her - but some of the ones open to her are closed to people she cares about, and she has to choose how and when she will fight for them.
This was a beautiful story of family, first love, and survival during one of America's most difficult periods - and not just surviving, but blooming.

Feathers by Jacqueline Woodson

I recommend this book for: 5th grade and up

Frannie is a 6th grader who lives on the black side of the highway in 1971. The title comes from Emily Dickinson's poem: "Hope is the thing with feathers/ that perches in the soul," which Frannie studies in school and ponders throughout the story. Her family situation has the potential to be rocky - a mother who is pregnant and at risk to lose the baby, a father who is away from home a lot because he drives a tractor trailer, and an older brother who is deaf and struggles with the prejudices of the hearing people around him - but the family is loving and happy together.

One day a long-haired white boy joins Frannie's class and announces that his name is Jesus. He is an instant target for persecution, but Frannie's friend Samantha seems to believe that the Jesus Boy is the real deal - she reasons that their neighborhood has as much need of God's son as anyone else.

This was a great novel that I devoured in two sittings - it explores the complicated issues of race, family, religion, belief, friendships in middle school - and makes it interesting. The time period also hooked me, since I haven't read much that takes place in the 70s. Frannie is a great narrator, and her story is one well worth reading.

What the experts said.

Friday, July 27, 2007

Story of a Girl by Sarah Zarr

I recommend this book for: high school

Deanna is 16 and still suffering for the night when her father caught her having sex with an older boy. Tommy was 17 and a friend of her brother's - she was 13, and branded as the town slut before she ever hit high school. As the story opens, Deanna has her share of trials - the fact that her father hasn't looked at her since that fateful night, the stress of having her brother living in the basement with his girlfriend and their baby, the growing jealousy she feels because her female best friend is dating her male best friend - and Deanna wishes it was her instead. Then she gets a job at a pizza place - and Tommy is her coworker.

A realistic, beautiful story of what a girl can do when she faces the truth and takes life into her own hands.

Enter Three Witches by Caroline B. Cooney

I recommend this book for: middle and high school, fans of historical fiction, Shakespeare, the medieval world

I'm not normally a big Caroline B. Cooney fan, but I'm a huge Shakespeare fan, so I gave her take on the Scottish play a whirl. It wasn't the greatest thing I've ever read, but I liked it far more than any of her other books. Enter Three Witches is the tale of the doomed Macbeth, told through the eyes of three young people his story touches: Fleance, the son of Banquo; Seyton, a young lord who will do anything to advance; and Lady Mary, the 14 year old daughter of the Thane of Cawdor, who is learning how to run a castle - also, she is Cooney's invention, not Sheakespeare's.

For those unfamiliar with the play: Macbeth is a Scottish thane (earl) who yearns for greatness. After a battle where he defeats a traitor to the Scottish king, Macbeth and his friend Banquo meet 3 witches who tell them that Macbeth will gain more lands and titles and eventually become king, and that Banquo's descendants will become kings. Their first predictions about Macbeth's increased status come true, so he and his ambitious wife murder the king so Macbeth can take his place. Then a lot of bad things happen to the Macbeths and their supporters, as they have to keep killing people to keep their position, and eventually they die horrible deaths and the natural order is restored. Bloody? Oh yes.

Lady Mary is a great protagonist because she gives the reader insight into the daily life in a medieval Scottish castle as well as a feminine perspective on the situation - two things that Shakespeare wasn't really interested in portraying in the original. Cooney also created some characters in the lower class - a cook and a lady who was supposed to be a companion to Lady Macbeth and ended up as her maid. It's nice to see some minor characters like Fleance fleshed out, and to see the realities of what all these wars and battles mean. However, there were also a lot of things that were a bit of a stretch, like how Lady Mary always happened to be wherever Macbeth was during crucial moments in the plot. Cooney attempted to put snippets of the actual Shakespearean dialogue into her character's mouths, which I respect, but it sometimes came out sounding awkward and it didn't fit the style of the rest of the speech - after all, the Bard never worried about whether his characters sounded realistic. More successful was the inclusion of quotes at the beginning of each chapter, but I felt like they didn't always fit the content of the chapter, and that some of them were so severely cut that they didn't flow/weren't really Shakespeare. But hey, the book overall was an interesting read, and I enjoyed it.

godless by Pete Hautman

I recommend this book for: middle and high school

I love Pete Hautman's books. He does a great unreliable narrator who you really want to listen to, great characters, and situations that are believable and easy to relate to even if they sound ridiculous. Case in point:

Jason is an overweight teen with few friends and parents who are obsessed with him being a good Catholic, even though he doesn't really believe in God at all. His best friend is Shinn, a skinny nerd obsessed with collecting and studying snails. One day they decide to begin their own religion, and their deity is the town's water tower - the Ten Legged One. It's just a game at first, but as they begin to win converts, things rapidly spiral out of Jason's control, with some pretty serious consequences. That might sound ridiculous when you read my description of it, but Hautman makes it into a compelling, fast-paced novel. Each chapter begins with an excerpt from the sacred text Shinn writes for the new religion, which foreshadows the contents and adds more flavor.

It made me think of my middle school days, when someone decided to start a group that proclaimed themselves Aliens. Someone else decided they would start a group of Alien Fighters, and soon the whole 7th grade was waiting in line to be chosen as one or the other. I don't think that got really out of control beyond determining who you sat with at lunch, but it made me think of what power kids who are leaders have over their friends - a major theme of godless. If the girl who had started the aliens thing hadn't had that power, nobody would have jumped on - in fact, it died out when the head Alien Fighter decided she'd had enough and passed off the title to me, one of the geeky powerless ones. Thought-provoking and interesting, godless is a definite winner.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by J.K. Rowling

I recommend this book for: middle and high school

Okay, so I don't want to be one of those obnoxious bloggers who spills all of the details, but . . . wow. The book was not quite what I was expecting (most of my predictions were completely wrong, alas!), but I found it deeply satisfying. The only real complaint I have is that there are so many wonderful characters who are left with no real closure, although I understand that Rowling had to do it that way so the last chapter didn't feel like the end of a corny war movie:

"Rufus Scrimgeour realized the error of his ways and committed the rest of his life to serving Harry's needs as his butler. . . Luna Lovegood lived to the age of 203 and married 7 times . . . The Order of the Phoenix was disbanded due to the fact that Voldemort decided he'd rather pursue a career in film than try to take over the world . . ." Still, I'm excited for the encyclopedia it's rumored that Rowling will be working on to tie up those loose ends.
Do I really have to post professional reviews? You can't make me!

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Bound by Donna Jo Napoli

I recommend this book for: middle and high school

I tend to read most of Napoli's books - I always love the idea behind her retellings of fairy tales, even if I'm less than crazy about the product as a whole. I'd have to say this is my favorite of her novels at the moment. Ever since I first saw it in picture book format, I've loved the Chinese tale that is possibly the earliest Cinderella story - hence the preoccupation with small feet. This retelling is lovely. Xing Xing (pronounced "shing") is an orphan left in the care of her father's second wife. She does all the menial chores for her stepmother and her sister Wei Ping, who is in constant pain because her feet have been bound in an effort to shrink them so she can attract a good husband. There is no fairy godmother in this story - just a very beautiful carp which Xing Xing believes to be the reincarnated spirit of her mother. Napoli writes beautiful prose, as always, and the presence of the Wu family ghosts gives the story enough of a fairy tale sense about it that the unexpected behavior of the prince in the end makes sense. I also enjoyed the details about Ming dynasty culture that were almost always seemlessly woven into the story. Great for fans of historical fiction, China, or fairy tales.

Hey, they like it!

Monday, July 16, 2007

Ouran High School Host Club (volume 1) by Bisco Hatori

I recommend this book for: middle school and high school

This is a new series to my library system (thanks for recommending it, Teen Advisory Board!), and I thoroughly enjoyed the first volume. Haruhi is a scholarship student at a very prestigious school - the kind where your status is determined by your grades, your lineage, and the size of your wallet. Already feeling left out because she's not filthy rich, she accidentally breaks an $80,000 vase that belongs to the Host Club - a group of 6 handsome boys who entertain young ladies (sort of the same idea as geisha, without all the makeup!). Since she could never repay them, they agree to have Haruhi work off her debt by becoming a host . . . only they think she's a boy! When her secret comes out, they keep it to themselves, which leads to all kinds of antics. The stories play with the conflicts between Haru and the boys, the necessary romantic tension (it is shojo, after all!), crazy or interesting clients, and the conflict between rich and poor - one of my favorites was when the boys developed a taste for her "proletarian noodles", since being rich, they'd never had instant ramen!

This is definitely aimed at teen girls, and I think it hits the mark admirably. The storyline is fun, the art is lovely, and I appreciate the author's sense of humor. Granted, there are some homosexual situations due to the basic premise of the story, so if you're uncomfortable with that this probably isn't a series for you, but there's nothing more graphic than flirting and one innocent kiss involved. Definite fun!

Amazon page - sorry, no reviews!

The Sea of Monsters by Rick Riordan

I recommend this book for: grade 5 - high school

The return of Percy Jackson! Our favorite son of Poseidon is doing great as this sequel to The Lightning Thief takes off, but unfortunately, his year of not getting into trouble at school comes to an abrupt halt when a gang of monsters comes to attack on his last day and burns down the gym. And it doesn't get better - Camp Half Blood is in danger, Chiron has been sacked, and if Percy's dreams are correct, Grover has gotten himself into a lot of trouble with a wedding dress and a cyclops while searching for the lost god Pan.

This is another fun romp through ancient mythology in the modern world. The only complaint I had was that it wasn't as original as the first - the fate of most sequels. Riordan's take on figures like Circe (who runs a day spa in the Bermuda Triangle) and Chiron (who spends his early retirement partying with a bunch of centaurs who reminded me of a college frat house) is refreshing and hilarious - moreso if you've read the originals, as most middle schoolers probably have in school. Another A+ for Percy, and I'm excited to read the third . . . in my copious spare time!

Survey says . . .

I Am the Messenger by Markus Zusak

I recommend this book for: high school

Not my usual style of book, and a big switch from the author's The Book Thief (which I completely loved!) but I enjoyed it immensely - I actually finished this one in one sitting! Ed, a 19 year old cab driver happens to stop a bank robbery. A few days later he receives a mysterious message - 3 addresses written on the ace of diamonds. At each address is someone who needs his help, and Ed assumes the role of "messenger" - finding out what message each person needs to receive and delivering it. As his new calling begins to take over his time, he finds a sense of purpose and direction in his life. (Don't worry, it's not quite that warm and fuzzy!) The ending is a twist that I'm not entirely sure I understand after only one reading, but it was a kind of magical- realism-make-you-think-about-it thing that I enjoyed nonetheless.

The characters were all well-drawn, from the stingy best friend with a big secret to the girl with whom Ed is simultaneously best friends with and so in love with he doesn't know what to do with himself, to the varied people who receive his messages, to Ed's friendly yet smelly dog. Their relationships are complicated and utterly realistic, and that keeps this from being a middle school book in my eyes. The Australian setting might throw some readers off at first (it's hot on Christmas, over 30 degrees!), but it's an interesting change from the U.S. without being totally alien. A fantastic read!

What the experts thought.

Monday, July 9, 2007

The Professor's Daughter by Joann Sfar and Emmanuel Guibert

I recommend this book for: high school

This bizarre little romp through Victorian London reminded me of Tim Burton, but without his style. Imhotep IV, despite being dead for several centuries, falls in love with the daughter of professor who discovered him and they fight the odds to be together - including the fact that Lillian poisoned several police officers to hide the mummy, and her subsequent inexplicable kidnapping at the hands of Imhotep III, who seems to have left his afterlife in favor of piracy . . .

I picked this one up because of the mummy theme, but I found it more confusing than anything else. There are multiple murders which nobody seems terribly concerned about (other than the police, and they just don't want to lose face), including that of the titular professor, and the weird factor doesn't really do much for me. The one scene I found funny was Imhotep III's forced entry into the palace to see Queen Victoria, and her subsequent dunking in the Thames. It's possible I've missed something, but I thought this one really wasn't all that good.

But hey, what do I know?

Sunday, July 8, 2007

What Happened to Lani Garver by Carol Plum-Ucci

I recommend this book for: high school

I didn't die, I've just been reading Harry Potter almost exclusively in preparation for the release (it's almost July 21st!), so I haven't finished any new books recently. Okay, on to Lani Garver:

My reaction to this book was an interesting mix of "Dude, that's awesome!" and "You've got to be kidding me!" with a little "Yuck, that's so disgusting it rings true" thrown in. Claire lives on Hackett Island, a vacation resort for rich Philadelphia people, but it's the off-season. She runs with the popular, dangerous crowd, but doesn't quite fit in because of her love for the guitar and the fact that she had leukemia in junior high. None of her friends have ever had something so serious happen to them. Throw in divorced parents, an alcoholic mother who thinks she's still one of the cheerleaders, and Claire's growing fear that she might be having a relapse. Basically, she's about to explode. Enter Lani Garver.

Nobody can tell if Lani is a boy or girl (although he says he's not a girl, he doesn't own up to the other option either), he can talk philosophy like nobody's business, and a small-minded community like Hackett is completely unready for him. Ugly gay-bashing words follow wherever he goes. But is Lani really just a gay kid, or is he something more? Claire is forced to wonder as he helps her through her crisis - could he be an angel?

The premise of the book is really interesting, and the action is definitely well-written, as is the dialogue. My main problem with it is that the conversations about angels wear a bit thin - Claire has to have it with every new character she meets, and that made it feel overdone. All in all, though, a great, unsettling, sometimes funny, triumphant story.

Parent note: lots of cursing, drinking, drug use, and references to sex and homosexuality - although the ugliest thing in the book is the things people do to one another.

What the experts thought.