Tuesday, December 30, 2008

I still exist!

For anyone keeping track, I haven't fallen off the face of the planet! I haven't even not been reading - I've just been doing a lot of re-reading, from the full Harry Potter series to Little Women to The Best Christmas Pageant Ever, so the blog has been languishing a bit. But, more reviews are coming, I promise!

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Un Lun Dun by China Mieville

I recommend this book for: 6th grade and up

Wow. Un Lun Dun takes the prize for the best fantasy I've read this year. It's unlike anything I've read before, and that's a good thing!

Zanna and Deeba are best friends who begin to notice unusual things happening around them. They soon find themselves in UnLondon, an alternate version of the city where buses fly, garbage comes to life, and the inhabitants are the oddest assortment of creatures imaginable - ghosts, tailors with pins for hair, and various animals who have adapted to live in humanlike bodies, to name a few. This strange city is under attack from the Smog, pollution that has gained consciousness and wants to burn everything to incorporate it into itself. The girls find out that Zanna is the Shwazzy, the chosen one who has been written about in prophecies, destined to save UnLondon from the Smog.

And then, this already slightly deviant fantasy gets really interesting - she fails. Zanna is knocked out and the girls return to London. She doesn't remember a thing about the whole adventure, leaving Deeba to decide whether she can forget - or should she return to do what she can to fight the Smog, prophecies or not?

I loved this book. The world-building is amazing, and after so many "chosen one" fantasies, it was refreshing to read a book where the heroine triumphs not because of prophecy, but because she makes the choice to do the right thing and is able to think on her feet. The secondary characters were fascinating as well - Hemi the half-ghost boy, Curdle the milk carton, and the book of (sometimes correct) prophecies were all fantastic allies. Oh, and did I mention how cool the librarians are in UnLondon? Let's just say that it's a dangerous job that requires spelunking equipment. Read this one!

Other thoughts.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Climbing the Stairs by Padma Venkatraman

I recommend this book for: grade 7 and up

World War II is raging in Europe, but India is stifling under British rule. Teenage Vidya is a Brahmin girl with an exceptional, free-thinking father who treats the injuries of Indians hurt by British soldiers and promises his daughter the opportunity to go to college instead of being married off young. Vidya's joy is shortlived - her father suffers a terrible injury that affects his mind as well as his body, and the family must go to live with his father in his far more traditional home. There, the women live on the bottom floor and the men live upstairs, meeting only when the men come down for meals. Vidya and her mother are persecuted by the other women of the house, and they are forced to hear other family members refer to the good man they love as an idiot. Vidya seems destined for unhappiness in this stifling environment - until a refuge appears in the form of her grandfather's upstairs library, and that is not the only door to open to her . . .
This is a beautifully written story. There is enough context given to appreciate the story, even for those who don't know anything about India's culture or history. Vidya is a flawed and sympathetic heroine, and the relationship she forms with her grandfather especially touched me. This novel explores love, loyalty, freedom, and a rich period of history, and I loved every page.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

The Opposite of Invisible by Liz Gallagher

I recommend this book for: high school

Alice is an artsy sophomore in Seattle, and she and her male best friend Jewel do just about everything together. Jewel has always been enough for her, but lately Alice has felt invisible at school, and she wants to be seen - particularly by Simon from the football team. When Simon makes it clear that he does see her, and wants to see more of her, Alice is ecstatic to accept his invitation to the Halloween dance. Which happens on the same day that Jewel makes his move and she has to turn him down. Does dating a popular guy mean she has to lose her best friend completely?

This is a fast read, and it has really great momentum. The descriptions of Seattle are beautiful, and I could almost see the art that Alice and Jewel were creating. Most teen girls can probably relate (or want to!) to the too many boys at one time problem, and Gallagher handles the complex emotions of friendship and crushing very well. A fun high school romance with a happy ending, but it doesn't go on the "squeaky clean" list - highlight to find out why here: SPOILER ALERT! Alice's relationship with Simon moves very fast - almost to the point of having sex before she thinks better of it - she even buys pretty underwear for the occasion! Simon likes to party, and Alice gets drunk once before deciding to never do that again. So in the end, there's a lot of talk and some description of teen drinking and sexual activity, but Alice either learns from her mistakes or decides against making them in the first place. End of spoilers.

The buzz.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Not a Book Review 2: Join our book club!

Ladies interested in a book club - we're ready to get goin'! Check out our new Church Girls Book Club blog for more information!

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Invisible Small Print!

I'm the kind of person who really hates spoilers, and I hate thinking that a book might be ruined for someone by something I put out there. However, I also want to keep presenting "the small print" - details about content that parents and others who recommend books to children and teens may want to be aware of before putting it into someone's hands - which often does give away plot details. So now I'm going to experiment and continue to do the small print, but I'll be using white font instead of small print. That way, if you want the full disclosure, you can highlight the bottom of the post (I'll always label the beginning and end of it with visible text), but if you aren't as concerned about mature content or want to keep yourself in the dark about the plot, you don't have to try very hard to not read the bottom of the post. I'd love any comments readers might have about how this works out - I modified my review of Crushed (below), so you can let me know what you think!

Monday, September 15, 2008

Crushed by Laura and Tom McNeal

I recommend this book for: grade 8 and up

Audrey and her two best friends are outsiders, recently arrived in public school after 4 years in what one might call an artsy fartsy environment. They also all happen to be loaded - or appear to be. Clyde is a quiet outcast who rides a scooter and works at a country club to help pay the medical bills for his mother, who is dying of cancer. The Yellow Paper is a publication that exposes the dirtiest secrets of the school, about both students and faculty. Wickham Hill is the new kid in school, with a Southern drawl and charm that has every girl swooning - but the one he asks out is Audrey.

If you've never read Pride and Prejudice (get to it, it's amazing! Plus, it gives context for this book!), allow me to enlighten you - guys named Wickham are not what they appear to be! In fact, hardly anyone in this novel is what they seem to be at first - friends betray one another, the guilty-looking turn out to be innocent, and even the villain has reasons you can almost understand. The dialogue is fun, and the ending, although not the one I personally was hoping for, was mostly happy.

What the pros said.

You may want to know: Wickham is a drinker (there's a clue that he's not a good kid!), and although Audrey doesn't sleep with him, she does allow him to unbutton her shirt while making out. The dirty secrets revealed in the paper involve plastic surgery, cheating, suspected murder, and manslaughter while driving drunk, but none of these things are portrayed in a positive light. End of invisible text.

Not a book review: Wanna join a club?

So I was talking to some church girls yesterday about our love for Jane Austen and need for a book club. The wheels were already turning in my head, so here's my idea: Let's have a book club! We could do it online - I'd be willing to set up a blog to host it - or, schedule permitting, in person, or maybe some combination of the two - maybe with a discussion of a new book every month, and a "real" meeting every other, or something like that. I'm putting out the call here because I know that some of the avid readers in the ward check in now and then. So, ladies, what do you think? We need not limit ourselves to Jane Austen - we could do other classics, or books that make teenage girls swoon, or books by women, or no theme at all. Please leave a comment if you're interested, with some details about what you'd like to do. (Also, if you have a family blog, would you be so kind as to spread the word? Your readership in the ward is probably much higher than mine!) I'm looking forward to some kind of adventure!

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Pretties by Scott Westerfeld

I recommend this book for: grade 8 and up
Tally Youngblood is now a Pretty. The biggest problems she has are deciding what to wear to which party and trying to get into the Crims, the hot clique known for the semi-criminal behavior of its members. She's been reunited with Shay and Peris, and Zane, the leader of the Crims, is showing a lot of interest in her - but even through her now-damaged brain, the past is tugging at her. When a Smokey arrives with the letter she wrote to herself at the end of Uglies and two pills, she has to choose between staying Pretty and ignorant or getting a serious reality check.
It's been over 2 years since I read Uglies, but I wasn't lost for a second. Maybe just because the story was so memorable, the world so facinating, the characters so interesting - I don't feel like I forgot anything other than the names of minor characters, and they came back rather quickly. This one was exciting in a different way - Tally and Zane have to navigate the Pretty world while trying to keep their minds above it, which they call "staying bubbly." There is action, a romantic plot, more betrayal, and a stellar cliff-hanger at the end which sets up perfectly for Specials, volume 3. If you liked Uglies, read this one. If you haven't read Uglies - what are you waiting for?

Some readers may disapprove of the Pretty lifestyle - lots of drinking is involved, although it's very clear that alcohol is one of the things that keeps Pretties from realizing how controlled and senseless their world really is. You're supposed to disapprove! There is no explicit sex, although Tally does stay at her boyfriend's place a good bit of the time - no further details are mentioned.

Monday, September 8, 2008

Book of a Thousand Days by Shannon Hale

I recommend this book for: middle and high school

This was my first Shannon Hale, and I loved it! In a fantasy world reminiscent of central Asia, Dashti becomes a maid to Lady Saren. On her first day on the job, Saren's father locks his daughter up in a tower for refusing to marry the powerful man he has chosen, and Dashti is locked in with her. At first it doesn't seem so bad to practical Dashti - there is enough food for seven years, and she has plenty of time to write in her journal - but then rats, extreme temperatures, and a visit from Saren's angry suitor combine to make conditions extremely uncomfortable. Even when the man Saren wants to marry, Khan Tegus, comes to visit, the noble girl is too frightened to speak to him and orders Dashti to take her place. You can probably guess where that goes!

The story comes from a little-known Grimm fairy tale, but it reminded me of a cross between Cinderella and Cyrano de Bergerac. This is a great one for fans of fairy tales, fantasy without dragons or wizards, or chaste romance.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Terrier by Tamora Pierce

I recommend this book for: grade 8 and up

Beka Cooper was raised in the Lower City, the home of thieves and scoundrels of every description. Her crime-solving skills got her and her family out of the poor district and into the household of the Lord Provost when she was 8 years old. Now 16, she is following her dream of becoming one of the guards who patrol the city and keep order - they're called the Provost's Dogs. Although she has a good head on her shoulders and likes a good brawl, being a Puppy (guard in training) is more difficult than she had anticipated. Her partners are among the most respected Dogs, but they seem to resent being saddled with a trainee. She makes beginner's mistakes and is ridiculed for her inability to speak in public. Worst of all, Beka feels drawn to a murder case - that of her friend's little boy - but she could be getting in way over her head trying to solve it.

I suddenly remembered why I like Tamora Pierce's work so much as I read this one. Beka is one tough young lady, but her weak points and the feelings she grudgingly admits to in her journal make her very real. It's easy to relate to her, even though her world is one of magic and she can hear the voices of dead spirits. It has action, mystery, a touch of romance, and magic. I'm so upset that I have to wait until April for the sequel, Bloodhound.

Read some reviews and an excerpt here.
Not much fodder for the tiny print in this one. There are some non-explicit references to body parts (i.e. "my peaches"), and to characters sleeping together. Probably more disturbing is the criminal plot, which involves many dead bodies.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Breaking Dawn by Stephenie Meyer

I recommend this book for: high school and up

The Twilight saga ends . . . sigh. It's definitely a more grown-up book than previous volumes, and not quite as satisfying. I really feel that I can't do much of a review without completely spoiling the plot - and if it's spoilers you want, they're all over the Internet elsewhere by now! Suffice it to say that the major loose ends are wrapped up neatly (although you never do figure out who Embry's father is!), the ending is happier than I could have guessed, and although I threw a minor temper tantrum when I first read about Jacob's fate, I was happier with it by the end of the book. I didn't love this volume like I did Twilight and New Moon, but I liked it well enough. I don't feel the need to buy it, but it was definitely worth reading.

A rather scathing, spoiler-ific review from PW, plus the copy from the flap: Don't say I didn't warn you!

Small print contains some spoilers!
This volume is different from the previous three, in that there is sex between married characters - not explicit, but there's no question of what's happening, and there is quite a bit of discussion about the love lives of several characters. The graphic description of a human giving birth to a half-vampire child was rather scary - bones breaking, etc. There also seemed to be more profanity in this one, possibly because Jacob narrates the middle third of the book!

Three Bags Full: A Sheep Detective Story by Leonie Swann

I recommend this book for: high school/grownups

In the small Irish town of Glenkill, a flock of sheep investigates the grisly murder of their shepherd.

I picked this one up because I read a good review . . . and I stuck with it because I wanted to find out what happened, but I wasn't thrilled with this book. Trying to figure out the motivations of the humans as viewed through the eyes of the sheep was difficult, and I found many parts of the book confusing. This could have partly been because of the translation (or partly because this is the first adult book I've read for some time!), but it threw me off. It was an interesting read, but I doubt I'll be picking up the author's next title.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

On the Road

The previous post is going to be my last book review for a while - it's vacation time! Since we're going on a road trip and I get very sick if I try to read in the car, there won't be much reading happening for the next three weeks, and I won't have much computer time either. Don't worry, I'll be back - with a review of a grownup book, no less! Happy summer!

The Oracle Betrayed by Catherine Fisher

I recommend this book for: middle and high school

In a world somewhat based on Ancient Egypt, nine priestesses serve the god, who by turns takes form as a scorpion, a snake, and inhabits the body of one man, known as the Archon. The highest priestess is the Speaker, who communicates with the god through the Oracle - and the current Speaker is involved in a plot to replace the Archon with a puppet who can be controlled by herself and the general, her lover. The current Archon knows of the plot, and warns Mirany, the newest and meekest of the Nine, putting the fate of the nation in her very unsure hands. From doubting the very existence of the god, Mirany is suddenly risking her life to find and protect his new incarnation, a 10 year old boy, and making very unlikely alliances along the way.

The premise is fantastic, and this came highly recommended - so I was disappointed when I read this one. The world is well-built and interesting, and Fisher clearly spent a lot of time developing the culture and religion. The characters, however, left something to be desired. Mirany's change is very swift, and Rhetia, another priestess, seems to completely change motivations midway through the book. One plot point that bothered me was the law that a priestess who betrayed the Oracle was to be sealed alive in the tomb of the Archon. It works out here because the Archon has just been sacrificed - but what do they do if a priestess betrays the Oracle at another time? Kill the Archon off so she can be buried alive? Dig up the last one and throw her in? It just didn't fly with me. There were also a few places where I was unable to tell whether what was happening was actually happening or happening in a vision - and maybe that's what Fisher was going for, but I found it confusing. So overall, pretty interesting, but not a favorite, and I don't see myself reaching for the sequel anytime soon.

But hey, everyone else seemed to like it . . .

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

A Girl Named Disaster by Nancy Farmer

I recommend this book for: middle and high school

Nhamo, whose name literally means "Disaster", lives in a small Shona village in Mozambique with her grandmother and aunts and uncles. Her mother was killed by a leopard when she was young, and she has never met her father. When a corrupt healer promises her family that the sickness in their village will end if they marry Nhamo to a cruel man who already has 3 wives, her grandmother tells her to flee to Zimbabwe, to find her father. She makes it sound simple, but the journey is far longer and more difficult than either of them could have imagined.

Nhamo sets out with a boat and supplies for a few days, but she gets set adrift and lost. She discovers islands where she can find supplies, but they are also inhabited by dangers both physical and spiritual. Her struggle to survive and get to Zimbabwe is complicated by damage to the boat, baboons, a witch named Long Teats and other African spirits, landmines, and Nhamo's own fears - and leaving a small traditional village for a city in 1981 provides its share of culture shock. She pulls through using her own intelligence, the help of spirits and her ancestors, and by telling stories to pass the time - one of my favorite parts of this book. A great read.


Sister Spider Knows All by Adrian Fogelin

I recommend this book for: grade 5-8

Fun and moving. Rox is 12, and she lives with her grandmother (Mimi) and 23 year old cousin John Martin, who is very smart but is still in college because he has to work full time to try to support the family. Mimi and Rox do their part on weekends, selling grapes, pumpkins, and all sorts of odds and ends at a fleamarket. They struggle, but they're surviving. Life gets very shaken up when John Martin brings Lucy home - she's the rich daughter of a doctor, and she gets a big kick out of 'redneck' things like riding in the back of John Martin's truck and learning how to make fried chicken. Mimi can't stand her at first, but what Rox sees in Lucy is a big sister, someone to confide in.

There is a lot of story here, but I felt that the main focus was the relationships - between Rox and Lucy, Lucy and the family, Rox and the people at the fleamarket, and especially between Rox and the mother who ran off when her daughter was just 3 months old (that one is facilitated by a diary Rox finds in the attic). It was just a fantastic exploration of family, and a girl trying to figure out what it means for her.


Just a few things here, and they are spoilers: Rox's mother was only 17 when her daughter was born, and her diary reveals that she was rather wild as a teenager - not in detail, but some parents might be uncomfortable with it.

Lock and Key by Sarah Dessen

I recommend this book for: high school

Ruby is 17 and has been living alone for months. Her mother is an alcoholic who frequently disappears, but this time she doesn't come back. Ruby is working and going to school, managing just fine - or so she thinks until her landlords realize the situation. Suddenly Ruby is taken from her home and put under the care of her older sister, who she hasn't seen since the day Cora left for college almost 10 years earlier. Cora is now married, practices law, and has a huge house in an exclusive neighborhood. Ruby is also enrolled in private school, and the adjustment she has to make is huge. And then there's Nate, the attractive and extremely popular neighbor who insists on driving Ruby to school and being Mr. Nice Guy, but there's a lot more going on his life than he's letting on.

I'll admit, I didn't like this one as much as The Truth About Forever or Just Listen, but it was everything a Sarah Dessen book should be, and that's saying a lot. The characters are complex people in difficult situations, and Ruby comes out as a strong young lady. Not all of the issues are resolved by the end, but they're manageable, and you get the feeling that this group of people can handle whatever else might come their way. Definitely a good read!


Some spoilers here! You knew there was going to be small print on a Dessen book! This one obviously deals with the alcoholism of Ruby's mother, and Ruby and her friends drink and smoke pot in the beginning of the book. Ruby is semi-dating a drug dealer as the book opens. However, Ruby leaves all of that behind her after a discussion with Cora in which she realizes that she's becoming too much like their mother. There's one scene where sex is implied, but it happens "off-camera", and Ruby mentions that her mother sometimes brought home strange men. One of the characters has a physically abusive parent.

Monday, July 7, 2008

A Stone In My Hand by Cathryn Clinton

I recommend this book for: middle and high school

Malaak is 12 and lives in the Palestine of 1988. Occupying Israeli soldiers are everywhere, the Palestinian flag is banned, and unrest and violence are everywhere. Malaak's own father has disappeared, and her older brother's activities make her worry that he will be harmed as well. This is a detailed look at what war in the Middle East really means for people old and young (although Clinton makes note that she is writing a historical novel and not attempting to comment on the current political situation, certainly many of the details hold true in the present conflict) - school closings, barricades, terrorist attacks, disrupted funerals, broken families, and fear. Some of the scenes are difficult to read, but not gory, and it's definitely a worthwhile book.


Saturday, July 5, 2008

The Twenty-One Balloons by William Pene Dubois

I recommend this book for: grades 4-6

Professor Sherman is ready to retire, and since he likes nothing better than hot air ballooning, he decides to retire in his balloon. Equipped with supplies for a year, he sets off over the Pacific with the intention of leisurely circumnavigating the globe. What he actually does is get rescued a mere 3 weeks later in the Atlantic Ocean, amidst the wreckage of not 1, but 20 hot air balloons. And despite the burning curiosity of everyone from the boat captain who rescues him to the President of the United States, Professor Sherman absolutely refuses to tell his story until he gets back to San Francisco, to the Explorer's Club of which he is an honorary member. As such, I wouldn't feel right revealing the details here ;-), but I can tell you that it involves the island of Krakatoa, a different restaurant for every day of the month, bumper couches, a fortune in diamonds, and a very, very big volcanic eruption. A charming and fun adventure that far exceeded my expectations, because I find that many of the older Newbery winners are a bit dull - this one was great!

Noman by William Nicholson

I recommend this book for: middle and high school

Have you ever been looking forward to something so much, that your expectations are ridiculously high, and even though it's pretty good when it comes, you're still disappointed? That's what happened to me with this book. I can't rave enough about how fantastic Seeker and Jango are . . . and this one was just alright.

As it opens, Seeker is tracking the remaining savanters to finish his mission to kill them. But the Old Ones are crafty, and it's proving more difficult than expected. Meanwhile, Morning Star is getting fed up with the Wildman and life in the spiker army and sets out for home. When she gets there, she finds that everyone has abandoned the village and joined the Joy Boy, a young man who promises eternal life and joy to anyone who joins him - and his following has become huge. Although she is skeptical at first, Star quickly begins to believe him and sets out to bring him what he wants. And what he wants is Seeker.

The world is still beautiful, the thoughts on belief and religion thought-provoking, but I found the characters somewhat disappointing. Seeker has become so powerful that it's hard to empathize with him, and I found the glimpse into his future more confusing than enlightening. As for the romance, it seemed a bit too predictable in the end, and the ending was too neat for the group of characters who destroyed and then recreated the world order.

No real reviews on Amazon, but you can read an excerpt.

Monday, June 30, 2008

The Secret Under My Skin by Janet McNaughton

I recommend this book for: grade 7 and up

In a future where the planet has been ravaged by pollution and extreme weather and the people fear technology, a girl who can't even remember her name gets the chance for a new life. Blay grew up on the streets, under the care of an older girl and master thief, protected by one of the tribes of homeless children who roam the city. She now lives in a work camp, picking through a dump for anything useful, and reading poetry in her spare time. It is the reading that gives her a new chance - the opportunity to help Marella pass the tests to become a bio-indicator (someone who is sensitive to the pollution in the environment and helps to protect the people). But there's more here than a tutoring assignment - there's a whole revolution, and everything Blay has learned about the past (of the nation, and her own personal history) is called into question.

This complex setting is actually explained much better than this in the book. Blay is an interesting character, and although the environmental message can be somewhat preachy, the story was still compelling enough to keep me reading. Not a favorite, but not bad, either.

They liked it!

Monday, June 23, 2008

Seeker by William Nicholson

I recommend this book for: middle and high school

A re-read for me, and so worth it! I summarized the first book in my review of Jango, so I won't go into much detail here, but allow me to recommend the Noble Warriors series for fans of fantasy and adventure. I love the fast pace of the plot, the banter between the characters, and the way Nicholson follows a well-known formula but makes it feel fresh and exciting. Even on the second read, I devoured this one and the sequel, and I'm biting my nails waiting for Noman to come in for me!

Read it from the pros.

Quaking by Kathryn Erskine

I recommend this book for: grade 8+

Matt was abused as a child, and has been shuffled from relative to relative for years. Every time, her attitude and emotional damage have been enough to make them send her on. She's now on her last chance, a Quaker couple who have already adopted a mentally retarded five year old boy. Sam and Jessica are kind and peace-loving - in fact, Sam is in charge of weekly peace demonstrations in their community. This puts him in danger, as a series of attacks have been hitting churches, the mosque, and other organizations that do not support the war in Iraq. Matt takes flak at school from a bully she calls the Rat and the civics teacher she dubs "Mr. Warhead" because of his propaganda-filled lessons, simply because they don't think she is 'patriotic' enough. They're completely ridiculous, and unfortunately, that makes them more believable these days.

Despite her normal M.O. of not getting attached to anyone, Matt finds herself beginning to care about her new family and what happens to them, and tempted to join the peace club at school to make a stand against the violence and repression she sees. Definitely a thought provoking book, although it had a few problems. The one thing that really annoyed me was the fact that Matt never used contractions - it was definitely a bold choice for her character, but many times it made her sound like a sarcastic, emotionally damaged robot. Despite that, her voice was interesting and her growth was wonderful to watch. The best part of the book was the developing relationship between Matt, Sam and Jessica, and the little boy they adopted.


* The parental stuff: There is a lot of violence in the community, as well as in Matt's past, which gets described in flashbacks. She frequently talks about God - sometimes reverently, and many times not. She often observes the group of bullies drinking and smoking.*

Friday, June 20, 2008

The Homework Machine by Dan Gutman

I recommend this book for: grades 3-5

What kid doesn't dream about having a homework machine? Probably even before Shel Silverstein's poem planted the idea in millions of heads, kids have been looking for ways to escape homework without getting into trouble. This book explores what happens when a team of four unlikely companions get stuck together in their 5th grade classroom. At first there is a lot of tension between the new kid, the smart girl, the not-so-smart girl, and the genius/loser (they're definitely archetypes, but each character is interesting and not just a stereotype) - until genius Brenton tells them about his homework machine. Suddenly he's much more popular - but is it really a good idea to share his invention? What happens if they get caught?

A fun read, with the interesting premise and the growth of the characters and their relationships. One I definitely recommend to the older elementary crowd!

- but there are important spoilers in the first one, so I wouldn't recommend reading that!

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Going Under by Kathe Koja

I recommend this book for: high school

Hilly and her older brother Ivan have always been very close, pilot and co-pilot. They've been home schooled by their (largely clueless) parents and have always depended on one another. This novel is narrated by both of them, and as it progresses the reader comes to understand that the one who seems to be the unreliable narrator is really the one who has it together.

Unfortunately, the storyline was only so-so. Hilly is plunged into darkness when a friend from a public school commits suicide. She wants to deal with it in her own way, by writing privately in her journal, but she is forced into counseling by her parents, then forced to switch therapists by her brother. The new therapist sounds brilliant, but his main goal isn't helping teen girls to heal - it's exploiting them, and Hilly is his new target. It wasn't really believable, but it had good points, such as the extended metaphor of Persephone in the underworld, and the rich and complex relationships between Hilly, Ivan, and to a lesser extent, their parents. And Hilly's poem at the end is chill-inducing. This isn't my favorite Koja book - if you really want to see what she can do, try Kissing the Bee instead.


*I already mentioned that teen suicide plays a role in this book - other issues you may want to be aware of are language, teen smoking (Ivan), and sexuality (Ivan again!)

Monday, June 9, 2008

Araminta Spookie: My Haunted House by Angie Sage

I recommend this book for: grades 1-3

A fun fun fun start to the series! Araminta Spookie (isn't that a fantastic name?) lives in a haunted house, where she has a different bedroom for every day of the week, her uncle has a large tower to keep his many bats, and they both agree that their home is perfect. Unfortunately, Aunt Tabby feels otherwise - she's tired of bats and spiders, and most of all she's tired of fighting with the boiler, which likes to throw tantrums and soot frequently. Aunt Tabby has decided that the house is going up for sale. Araminta, however, has other plans, which involve fiendish stares, impersonating ghosts, and scaring away anyone who has an interest in the house. The crisis comes when a family comes to look at the house and everything she does to scare them away makes them more interested. And did I mention the real ghosts?

This one was great! There were a few things that may need to be explained to children (like what a boiler is, the role of a real estate agent, and a few British-isms), but it was very enjoyable with a strong plot, interesting characters, and a situation that many kids can understand - not wanting to move. This one gets an A!

Hmm, not everyone loved it . . .
Don't read the first review if you don't want the ending ruined!

Sunday, June 1, 2008

Rules by Cynthia Lord

I recommend this book for: grade 4-7

Catherine is 12, and her little brother David is a problem. He can't help it, because he is autistic, but that doesn't make it any easier to explain why he won't keep his pants on if they get wet, or why the first thing he does when he goes to anyone's house is to tear through it and make sure the basement door is closed. Or why he quotes extensively from Frog and Toad Are Friends rather than using his own words. She loves her brother, but their parents have little attention to spare for her, and now Catherine is afraid that he's going to hurt her social life when a new girl who's sure to be popular moves in next door.

Her vision changes a bit when she meets Jason at the office of David's therapist. Jason is a few years older than Catherine and in a wheelchair, and he can't physically speak. He communicates by pointing to words printed on cards in a binder. As Catherine starts making new words for him and they become friends, she's forced to make choices about how to spend her time and what is most important. This is a great book, with real characters, funny moments, and a protagonist who does the best she can.

Read it from the pros.

Just So Stories by Rudyard Kipling

I recommend this book for: age 4 and up

One of my favorite books from childhood, Just So Stories is a collection of tales that explain why things are the way they are - how the camel got his hump, how the alphabet was invented, where the elephant got such a long nose, and more. Children will meet a mariner with suspenders (which are very important - take care not to forget the suspenders!), a very naughty Elephant's Child, a Camel who says "humph" so much that he earns one of his very own, and a Cat who walks by himself. What makes these tales really special is Kipling's diction - the stories got their name from his daughter's insistence that he tell them over and over just so, with not a word left out . . . and what words he uses! Some of my favorite phrases include "the great gray-green greasy Limpopo River" and a very wise, very verbose "Bi-Colored Python Rock Snake." Many of the words might be challenging or require explanation, but these tales are meant to be read aloud, and even young children need to hear wordplay like this and will enjoy the funny sounds of the words. The strange word choices form oddly lyrical prose, and my guess is that there is more than one child who will beg to hear them over and over - as I did.

Reviews, Best Beloved - have you forgotten the suspenders?

Davey's Blue-Eyed Frog by Patricia Harrison Easton

I recommend this book for: grades 1-2

Davey is playing by the pond, catching tadpoles with his neighbor Becky when he finds something even better than a tadpole. He finds a frog – and it talks! She claims to be an enchanted princess who needs to be kissed soon to change back, but Davey isn't so sure . . . and if she is telling the truth, he wants the frog to put on a good show for his friends before he smooches her. What could have been an interesting fantasy for low-level readers becomes essentially a moral dilemma - should he kiss her and free her, or wait to show her off for his friends and take the chance that the time allotted by the spell will pass?
This is certainly a serviceable story, but it really didn't do much for me. One thing I hated was how Easton kept hitting the reader over the head with the fact that Davey wasn't very responsible about pets, to create fear for what was going to happen to Princess Amelia. I'd still recommend it, especially to boys who are ready for early chapter books, but it's not a favorite.

But the pros sure seem to dig it . . .

Brevity is the soul of book reviews

FYI - some of the reviews might be very short for a while. I don't think I ever go on and on and on about a book (okay, maybe a few of the really juicy ones!), but I'm trying to catch up now on blogging a month's worth of reading. I've been reading almost exclusively from my library's summer reading list to prepare for booktalking, so my apologies for what will probably result in very short reviews for a while. At least I'm back!

Kiki Strike: Inside the Shadow City by Kirsten Miller

I recommend this book for: grades 5-9

What do you get when you mix Eastern European royalty, a secret city below the streets of New York, a band of rogue girl scouts, and a little espionage? You get the Irregulars, a band of very talented young women led by the mysterious, elf-like Kiki Strike.

Ananka Fishbein has more brains than she knows what to do with and is an outsider at her exclusive private school. Life gets interesting for her when she sees a city park collapse to reveal an underground room, and a mysterious figure fleeing from it. With a mystery to solve, Ananka starts to seek out answers and finds the Shadow City, a complicated network of tunnels and rooms that were a haven for thieves, smugglers, and undesirables of every variety in New York's history. When she meets Kiki Strike and is offered the chance to explore the Shadow City and possibly find wealth beyond her wildest dreams, Ananka finds it difficult to say no. But is Kiki really who she says she is, or does she have a more sinister purpose than any of the Irregulars could guess?

This was a very fun, fast-moving book. It requires a lot of suspension of disbelief - many of the young characters are either too smart or too evil for even adolescent girls - but the storyline is compelling and exciting. I loved Ananka's narration, particularly when she gave out tidbits such as this:
The Boy Scouts were onto something when they advised their members to "Be Prepared." They understood that those who prepare will prevail. Why they chose not to share that bit of wisdom with their sister organization is anyone's guess. Maybe they couldn't handle the competition (83).
Ananka also gives out handy lists of tips for girls embarking on their own adventures, such as "How to Care for an Injured Colleague", "How to Foil a Kidnapping", and "How to Be a Master of Disguise." Major fun, with a serious dose of girl power.

How to Read Reviews of a Fabulous Book.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Bella at Midnight by Diane Stanley

I recommend this book for: grade 4-7

In this reworked Cinderella tale, infant Bella is sent to live with peasants by her cruel father, a knight who can't deal with the death of his wife. Prince Julian is the insignificant fourth son, who was nursed by Bella's new foster mother and frequently comes to visit "Princess Bella." The wicked stepmother thinks only of herself and her daughters, but she has suffered hard times of her own and does what she must to make a life for them. The fairy godmother is Bella's maternal aunt, who isn't magical in the slightest but does possess some beautiful clothes and some very interesting glass shoes.

There is more at work in this story than the traditional rags to riches love story. Julian's kingdom has been at war with a neighboring realm for 100 years, and stories of the brutality exhibited by the other nation run rampant - and are wonderfully proved to be false when circumstances force Bella to make a journey there. There is also a great deal of faith exhibited by the characters, who frequently speak of God and hope for better times, then act on their faith. And there is magic. I found it refreshing to read a book where religion and magic went hand in hand explicitly. Bella is a wonderful heroine, who exhibits doubts but ultimately does what she knows to be right and saves the day. Older readers will probably realize the big twist at the end, but it shouldn't keep them from enjoying it. Despite the somewhat scary cover, this is a worthwhile read for fans of fairy tales and strong girls.


The Entertainer and the Dybbuk by Sid Fleischman

I recommend this book for: ?

Freddie is a struggling American ventriloquist working his way through Europe post-WWII. His act isn't fantastic until a dybbuk (a possessing spirit from Jewish folklore) shows up in his closet and makes him an offer he can't refuse - fame and fortune in return for the use of his body. Suddenly Freddie is one of the most sought-after entertainers in the trade, because not only is the dybbuk funny, but he can speak while Freddie drinks a glass of water and performs other 'impossible' stunts. Audiences everywhere are amazed. But the dybbuk doesn't just want to make people laugh - he wants to tell them some ugly truths about the Holocaust, and he wants help in tracking down the SS officer who killed him just before his 13th birthday.

I wasn't exactly sure what to make of this book. It certainly showed a familiar topic in a different light, and the relationship between the two main characters was interesting. However, I'm not sure where it should fit as far as age group is concerned. Freddie is in his early 20s, the dybbuk was nearly 13 when he was killed, and that would normally indicate YA to me, as would some of the grisly descriptions. However, much of the language and explanation seems targeted to a younger crowd, and the resolution is somewhat tidy and reassuring. An interesting read, but not a favorite.

The pros.

Sunday, May 4, 2008

Your Own, Sylvia: a verse portrait of Sylvia Plath by Stephanie Hemphill

I recommend this book for: high school and adults (particularly poetic types)

Novels in verse are becoming more common, and this one marries the form to the subject beautifully. Hemphill applies extensive research and a clear love for Sylvia Plath's poetry to a fictionalized account of the poet's stormy life. The collection begins with a poem by "A Reader" in Spring 2007, then moves back to Sylvia's mother on the day of the poet's birth. Using the voices of Plath's family, friends, and others who came into contact with her, an idea of her life comes into focus. There are also poems with the heading "Imagining Sylvia Plath" - each of these takes the form of one of Plath's famous works and expresses what may have been her thoughts and emotions as she moves through school and boyfriends, marriage, motherhood, and her various episodes with depression and suicide attempts.

Beautifully written, this is really an engrossing read. At the bottom of each poem is a short blurb with information about Plath's real life, and most of them are related to the topic of the poem. I found myself torn between reading the poem first or reading the information - both were informative and interesting. A definite winner.


*Plath lived a rocky life, struggling with depression. This book doesn't flinch away from the ugly feelings and events, including sexual abuse, her husband's infidelity, and Sylvia's suicide attempts - the last of which succeeded.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Dear Blog . . .

I know I've been ignoring you. I hope you don't take it personally, as my husband, my journal, and my housework are all suffering from similar cases of end-of-the-semester neglect. What it comes down to is the fact that my final paper is due on May 22nd and I have yet to firmly nail down a topic, what with doing all of the other assignments for this class . . . I know, excuses don't make it right, but I really am very sorry, and we'll have a whole summer together to catch up before the fall semester starts. I hope you'll understand.

Apologetically yours,

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Unwind by Neal Shusterman

I recommend this book for: grade 7 and up

Sometimes teens feel like the world doesn't respect them or treat them like real people, and they have a point. But just wait until they read this . . .

In a future America, abortion has been banned. The population explodes, and to make up for it, unwinding has been introduced. Everyone has the chance to live up to age 13. Between the ages of 13 and 18, legal guardians have the option of having their children unwound - sent to a harvest camp to be essentially recycled for parts. Instead of fixing medical problems, surgeons replace the organs and limbs of adults with healthy young parts from unwinds. An unwinding order is irreversible, and there's an entire force of juvie cops dedicated to finding runaway unwinds and bringing them in to serve their useful purpose.

In alternating chapters, Unwind tells the story of three teens sent to be unwound. Connor ran away from home when he found out that his parents were sending him to harvest camp because of his problematic behavior. Along the way he encounters (and kidnaps) Lev, a 13 year old who has been prepared for unwinding from his childhood - his parents are offering him as a tithe, as prescribed by their religion. Then there's Risa, an orphaned piano player who was deemed by the state not quite good enough to justify the cost of keeping her in one piece. The three band together to face the challenge of staying alive to 18, and the difficult process puts them in the path of the law, terrorists, and outlaws who help unwinds in a modern day Underground Railroad. This is a chilling and fascinating book, with characters who are as complex as the world in which they live. I became deeply attached to the three main characters, and the various story threads are woven together beautifully. I'll be recommending this one to older fans of Shadow Children and scary stories, but not to kids who can't handle a bit of the disturbing. This is a story that will stay with readers.

Really? No reviews on Amazon? There is an excerpt of the first chapter, though!

A Mango-Shaped Space by Wendy Mass

I recommend this book for: middle and high school

Mia is 13 and sees colors - words, names, sounds, and numbers all have colors for her. She has kept it secret since she figured out that she was the only one, but the truth has finally come out. She has synesthesia, and although it is rare, she's not the only one. Life is suddenly different in a big way - she has an online community of people who understand how she sees things to support her and recommend ways of coping with and celebrating her uniqueness, but on the other hand, her best friend is furious with her for keeping the secret, her parents don't understand, and her failing math grade isn't getting much better. Can she balance these two worlds?

This was an intriguing book that really showed what it might be like to live with synesthesia and provided good information without sacrificing the storyline. Mia's withdrawal from the people who loved her most in favor of those she thought would understand her better was believable, and the trigger that brought her back equally so. The characters were mostly well-drawn and realistic, and the relationships compelling. There was really only one problem I had with the book - I find it difficult to believe that any licensed professional would provide acupuncture to a 13-year old without a parent's permission. Otherwise, though, this was a completely engrossing read.

What the pros said.

Sunday, March 30, 2008

Leaving Paradise by Simone Elkeles

I recommend this book for: high school

Maggie had a crush on Caleb a long time ago - before he was arrested for driving the car that hit her, ruining her leg, her tennis career, and her life. He was drunk, and the accident was a hit and run. After nine months she's finally going back to school, and he is being released from juvenile detention. As they come into contact again, all of their hurt and other emotions come out, ending with the most surprising one of all. Maggie's normal life has been wrecked by the accident, but so has Caleb's, and the story of their friendship and more is thrilling to read. I really appreciated Maggie's strength, the complexity of Caleb's character, and (although it upset me for about 30 seconds when I first finished the book), the lack of a traditional happy ending. A few plot threads weren't tied up as neatly as I would have liked, but then, that's real life. Compelling stuff!

Professional reviews.

So, there's obviously teen drinking in this one, although Caleb does not drink after his return from prison - but his friends do. Caleb does continue to hook up with his ex-girlfriend, who is now dating one of his friends.

The small print

If you read reguarly (I'm not sure that anyone does, but if so, thanks a lot!) you've probably noticed that I've started discussing the content of books that some might find objectionable in small print at the bottom of each post. I'd like to clarify my intention in doing this. I am in no way attempting to censor these books or to suggest that young people should not read them - it is the job of individuals to determine what they should or should not read for themselves, and of course parents have the right to determine what is appropriate for their children.

What I'm trying to do with the small print is to let people know that if they object to strong language, some of these books may not be for them - ditto for sexual content, drug use, lots of violence, etc. I know some parents are very concerned about these issues, so I'd like to be able to give a heads up - I think that's part of good reader's advisory, as I certainly don't want to send anyone home with a glowing recommendation for something he or she will find offensive. One of the more frequent questions I get asked about teen literature is "Will this book be appropriate for my middle schooler?" and I'd like to be able to answer that question by letting parents know what is in the book and letting them decide for themselves. Consider it fair warning. If it's not important to you, you can skip the small print from now on. I hope that makes my intentions clear.

Harmless by Dana Reinhardt

I recommend this book for: high school

Mariah is the coolest girl in the freshman class at a small private school. Anna and Emma have been best friends since 3rd grade, but they're practically nobody until Mariah starts hanging out with them. Then she invites them to spend the night with her at her older boyfriend's house - no parents, and public school guys enough for everyone. They lie to their parents, thinking no harm will be done, but when they get caught, they concoct a story about being attacked by a man with a knife. Suddenly the three girls are heroes in their community, the center of attention at safety assemblies and rallies to take back the streets. Then a man is arrested for the crime, and the girls have to face what they have done.

This was an interesting book that brought up a lot of issues about honesty and the consequences of actions. I had a hard time getting completely into it for a few reasons - one was that all of the male characters (with the exception of the police officers, and to a degree, Emma's brother) seemed to be almost completely centered around sex. The other was that Mariah seemed very one dimensional up until the point where the homeless man was arrested - then she had misgivings about what she had done and began pondering the consequences of her actions, but not before. Not a favorite.

But hey, they liked it . . .

Okay, now for the small print stuff - as you probably gathered from the part above, sex plays a huge part in this book. There's the made-up sexual assault, but there's also the party where Emma loses her virginity to a boy she has just met, and Mariah's older boyfriend is just using her for sex. Nothing more graphic than hickeys gets described, but the attitude is very casual. There's drinking and swearing as well.

Re-gifters by Mike Carey, Marc Hempel, and Sonny Liew

I recommend this book for: middle and high school

This one is a definite winner! Dixie is a Korean-American girl who practices hap ki do, but her balance is completely thrown by Adam, a cute boy in her dojang. She blows the money she was supposed to use to enter the national hap ki do championship to buy him an expensive birthday gift, only to have him toss it aside in favor of a Superman Returns dvd from a popular girl. Her family is too poor to pay for her entry now, and a lot rides on her doing well in the tournament. Several twists follow, which made for a story that fit together perfectly and a climax that made me want to laugh out loud and cheer (okay, I really did laugh out loud, but I managed to keep the cheering inside my head. . . I think.) I studied hap ki do in college, and I was happy to see that the authors used the Korean terms accurately - at least, as far as I could tell. The characters were lively and enjoyable in both the art and the dialogue, and I was left hoping for more volumes chronicling the life of this heroine who literally kicks butt.


Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Rucker Park Setup by Paul Volponi

So I just found this one in my manage post sections and realized I had never posted it . . . I read the book months ago, but here's what I remember about it!

I recommend this book for: high school

Mackey and his best friend J.R. live and breathe basketball, spending most of their time playing at legendary Rucker Park. They can't wait to play in the huge championship there, which could mean hitting the big time for both of them. Then J.R. is stabbed on the court, and Mackey, feeling immensely guilty, has to choose how he will go on.

This was a gritty book, full of basketball and street violence, rappers and gangstas. The narration puts the reader inside Mackey's head, which isn't always a pleasant place to be. Readers may not agree with all of his choices, but they certainly could generate discussion - what would other people do if they were in Mackey's sneakers?

No professional reviews on Amazon, but there is some more info.

*Contains violence and mature language

Diary of a Wimpy Kid by Jeff Kinney

I recommend this book for: grades 3-6

One of the true tests of popularity for books is when the holds list reaches 20 or more (due to at least one kid asking for it daily). This book has it, at least in my system.

Greg Heffley is keeping a journal - NOT a diary, even though that's what it says on the cover - and not because he wants to, but because his mom thought it would be a good idea. In it he chronicles his (largely unsuccessful) quest for popularity and his adventures with his best friend Rowley, which include getting chased by high school kids on Halloween and hosed down by Greg's father, performing as a singing tree in the school musical, and trying to avoid a really old and smelly piece of cheese on the basketball court.

I can see why kids like this book - it has really funny moments, and Greg is fairly clueless, which makes him an interesting character. He's also ridiculously self-centered (which you could argue is an adolescent trait, but I'd like to think that most kids have a conscience, which Greg doesn't seem to develop until the last few pages), and some of his antics are more mean-natured than oblivious. I really couldn't like him as a character, which kept me from being a huge fan of the book - but the kids are dying to read it, particularly some of the reluctant boys, which I am a huge fan of, so yay Jeff Kinney!

Reviews that are less conflicted.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

His Dark Materials and an informed public

Right, so I started off on a tangent from my last post about The Ruby in the Smoke, and just kept going, so although I intended to just ignore the whole controversy and take the high road, it seems my dander is still up. Here we go!

I loved His Dark Materials. I am a Christian. I was not offended - in fact, I admired the characters in the novels who were strong enough and sensible enough to recognize the difference between what was the right thing to do and what an organization that was abusing its power to keep the rest of the population under its strict control said was the right thing to do. I think the whole debate that broke when the movie came out is ridiculous. If you want to read it or watch it, do so. That goes for any book, film, tv show, etc. If you don't want your kids to read it or see it, I respect that, but do the world a favor and develop an informed opinion by actually reading it for yourself first. How else will you know what you think of the material? You can always stop if you find it inappropriate. You can prevent your children from reading it or watching it- that's your right as a parent. What you do not have the right to do is say that because you find something inappropriate, no child should have access to it. That takes away the rights of other parents and their children. We often hear in library land that if we removed everything that offended someone, there would be nothing left on the shelves, and it's quite true. Need an example? I hate Elmo. But I respect that others want to experience Elmo, so I haven't checked out all of the Elmo videos and destroyed them. I haven't complained to the administration. I choose not to watch Elmo myself, but I don't keep others from having the opportunity to do so. This is how a public library works.

Intellectual freedom aside, I would say that Pullman wasn't maligning religion in his books at all - he was condemning the kind of organization (and I personally think it could be religious, governmental, what have you) that keeps people in ignorance. "Don't read that, it could hurt you!" Of course, I'm just a crazy liberal librarian who doesn't believe in banning books, but it seems to me that standing up against something just because you got a chain email about it or there was a notice in the church bulletin, without having any personal knowledge, is dangerous. For one thing, where did the folks writing that get their information? How far along the chain would you have to go before you found someone who had actually read the material firsthand? It makes me think of the Middle Ages, where nobody could read the Bible except for the priests, and sometimes not even them . . . people just had to blindly follow whatever the priest said was in the scriptures, and I don't think I need to go into detail about how much corruption there was in those days because of it. That's the kind of thing the characters in His Dark Materials are fighting against - keeping people in the dark. And how do you get out of the dark? Personal knowledge. Read the book - unlike all of those unfortunate serfs, we have the option (and I might even add, the responsibility) of finding out for ourselves. Don't just take anyone's word for it.
Develop your own opinion.

End of rant. For now.

The Ruby in the Smoke by Philip Pullman

I recommend this book for: grade 7 and up

Before there was Lyra, there was Sally Lockhart. I picked this up thinking, "Victorian mystery? Feisty heroine? What's not to like?" And I'm rather pleased with this one, overall.

Sally Lockhart is the 16 year old daughter of a recently deceased merchant. Within the first couple of pages she accidentally kills a man with a few words - "the seven blessings." What does the message mean, and who sent it to her after her father's death at sea? As she investigates she learns that her father was murdered and that, somehow, a ruby famous for causing destruction is her inheritance - if she can find it before the others who want it do. A fun mystery and adventure in the underbelly of London, complete with street children, opium addicts, betrayal, and yes, a bit of romance.

But don't take my word for it . . .

*This is a very clean read - sex mentioned only obliquely, only a few instances of profanity, and for those Golden Compass-haters out there, no portrayal of religion** - but opium is a huge presence in the novel. Although the effects of the drug are clearly portrayed (a few characters are completely ruined as a result of their addiction, and realistically so), there is also an important plot point that hinges on Sally having an opium dream. She uses it only once, and fearfully, but it is portrayed as the only way for her to get a crucial answer to one of her questions. Just thought you might like to know!

** See the next post for my rant about the His Dark Materials controversy - it became longer than my original post, so I decided to make it a separate post.

Sunday, March 2, 2008

Emmy and the Incredible Shrinking Rat by Lynne Jonell, ill. by Nathan Bean

I recommend this book for: grades 4-5

Emmy is miserable, and for good reason. Although she gets good grades and has won 2 whole shelves full of awards and trophies, nobody notices her. Not her classmates, not her teacher, and not even her parents, who recently inherited a large fortune and now spend all of their time taking expensive vacations. Emmy spends all of her time in the care of Miss Barmy, a nanny who enrolls Emmy in every kind of class imaginable, forces her to take all sorts of vile medicines and see the school psychologist regularly, and is generally cruel. Emmy is upset about her life but fairly resigned to it until the first conversation she has with the class pet - a rat who sneers when students make mistakes and bites any finger that comes into his cage - about the merits of being bad. That's when the excitement begins . . .

As it turns out, rodents have special powers. They can all talk, but the Rat's bite can make humans understand rodent speech, among other curious effects . . . Emmy's experiment with being bad leads her to some new friends - human and rodent - who help her to find out what is really going on in her house, and how to save her parents and herself from Miss Barmy's clutches.

I thought this was a fantastic book. It reminded me of Roald Dahl mixed with the Rats of NIMH, and it made a delightful combination. The rodent and human characters are interesting and . . . perhaps believable isn't the right word, but their relationships work. The names of the adults are silly and reveal something of their character (in addition to Miss Barmy, there is Cheswick Vole and Professor Maxwell Capybara). My only complaint is the openness of the ending - after enjoying these characters so much, I really wanted to know what became of all of the rodents, whether Joe and his father managed to get along better, and what family life was like for Emmy and her parents in the end. Overall, though, this is a very fun read!

Reviews from the pros.

Friday, February 22, 2008

A Lifetime of Secrets by Frank Warren

I recommend this book for: high school and adults

If you're not familiar with PostSecret, do yourself a favor and check it out.

Frank Warren began PostSecret as an art project, asking people to make post cards with their secrets written on them on them and mail them to him. This simple project has turned into a phenomenon, with hundreds of postcards pouring in daily, and Warren has exhibited them all over the country. This is the 4th collection of PostSecret cards to be published in book format, and it's wonderful. You can read straight through or browse at your leisure. Arranged by the approximate age of the person with the secret, the cards range from beautifully artistic to scrawled on the back of an envelope, messages of despair, grief, hope, and above all, honesty. Some of the contributers have written because they have no one to tell, or nobody will believe them, and it's amazingly cathartic to read the secrets of strangers. Some of the secrets are a bit dirty (in more than one sense of the word), so recommended for high school and up. This should be of special interest to those who love art and people with secrets of their own - and really, who doesn't?

More PostSecret fun: go to the video for Dirty Little Secret to see some more featured secrets. The Yahoo! music player worked best for me.

Hmm, no real reviews for the book on Amazon, but you can look at the intro and some sample cards and see how you like them!

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Emma and Mansfield Park by Jane Austen

I did it! One of my goals in life was to read all of Jane Austen's novels, and I'm done! I'm not going to do extensive reviews on either of my final two, but here are my thoughts: Emma has supplanted Pride and Prejudice as my favorite Austen novel - Emma herself is so complex, and she grows immensely during the story. It was fantastic and funny. Mansfield Park is very different from the other books - darker, slower-moving, and the protagonist is much more timid than any of Austen's other heroines, but still enjoyable. Now what classics shall I turn to for breaks from the kid/teen lit world?

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Sara's Face by Melvin Burgess

I recommend this book for: high school

Sara Carter is destined to be famous - that's what she believes. She's a complex, scary 17 year old who sees ghosts, becomes different people for weeks on end, and self injures. She sees plastic surgery as a way to make all of her dreams come true, and meeting Jonathon Heat is her big chance. Heat, a pop star/cultural icon whose face has collapsed after too many surgeries, offers her the chance to get the work she wants done and make her big debut with him - but once she's moved into his mansion, Sara and the people around her begin to realize that the deal is not exactly what it appears . . . Heat is desperate to get a new face, but would he stoop to stealing one from a teenage girl? Or has he already tried it before . . .?

Burgess covers a lot of territory in this novel written in the style of a true crime narrative. The narrator is an unnamed journalist who frequently quotes his interviews with Sara's boyfriend, best friend, mother, nurse, and other people around her. Sara herself is absent except for in excerpts of her video diary. A compelling read that deals with celebrity, body image, reality, and how far people are willing to go for what they want.

*Note: The plot centers around a teen girl in a celebrity's house, and there's a good bit of the scandal you might imagine involved. The sex and drinking aren't graphic, but they are definitely present, and there's a good bit of profanity.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Dramarama by E. Lockhart

I recommend this book for: high school

Sarah lives in a boring small town in Ohio but longs for glamour. She fills up her lonely hours with watching musicals and tap lessons, trying to find a release for the "lurking bigness" inside her. Then she goes to an audition for a summer theatre camp and meets Demi - a boy who plays as straight as they come at school but really likes boys and Liza Minelli. From the day of the audition, they're inseperable, and Sarah (now dubbed Sadye) knows they're destined for stardom. They go to camp together convinced their dreams are all about to come true, using a tape recorder to document the experience "for posterity."

Now of course, drama camp isn't that easy - there's always rivalry, backstabbing, romantic tension, big fights, poor directing, and huge decisions to deal with, as well as a colorful array of characters. I loved every minute of reading this book, and every time I was compelled to put it down, I walked away wondering what would happen next. The climax was one I definitely didn't predict, and although I was disappointed at first, the ending turned out to be perfect. This is a fantastic read for teens who love theatre (it does help to be somewhat familiar with Guys and Dolls, although Lockhart does a good job of explaining the necessary points) or anyone who is curious about what happens behind the scenes. Fun fun fun!

Note: There is a good bit of profanity, some teen drinking, and mention of sex in this book. Don't say I didn't warn you!

Evolution, Me & Other Freaks of Nature by Robin Brande

I recommend this book for: grade 7 and up

Mena is an only child who used to go to church with her parents and all of her friends. Then she got kicked out because of something she did - something she was sure was right, but the result is that the church is being sued by a young man and his parents. No longer welcomed by her church family, largely ignored by her disappointed parents, and persecuted by the youth group that made up her circle of friends (they call her Judas), Mena is not enjoying the beginning of her high school career. One bright spot turns out to be biology class, which is taught by the brilliant Ms. Shepherd, and where her lab partner is a smart, funny, and pretty cute boy whose biggest problem with her is that she's never seen Lord of the Rings (sorcery isn't allowed in her house).

And then Ms. Shepherd begins the evolution unit, and the church group decides to fight against it. As the drama unfolds in Mena's classroom she has to choose where she stands on science and faith, how close to get to Casey and his family, and how to relate to her parents in the aftermath of her big decision.

What made this book for me? The characters were wonderful, from nerdy/cute Casey and his bossy, activist sister to the youth group girl who wears her Jesus Freak shirt two sizes too small to show off her chest. Mena's narrative voice is dead on, funny but making you feel for her at the same time. Watching Mena's life evolve is fantastically satisfying, and the themes of questioning faith and friendships are applicable to the lives of many teens.

The pros. The first two chapters are excerpted after the review, and if they don't make you want to read this book, I don't know what will!

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! Voices from a Medieval Village by Laura Amy Schliltz, illustrated by Robert Byrd

I recommend this book for: grade 6-9

This one was so cool! As a theatre person, I appreciated the monologue form, which gave the characters their own voices to tell about their lives. It also gave the reader a sense of the interconnectedness of the small village, how everyone depended on the others. There were great details (including gross ones like kidneys and fleas that the boys are sure to appreciate), and the background essays that give context to some of the monologues were well-written, informative, and interesting without ever taking up more than two pages. This would be a solid choice for historical fiction assignments, pleasure reading for kids interested in the time period, or for a reader's theater performance (oh how I hope that wouldn't be copyright infringement - it begs to be read aloud for an audience!) My personal favorite was Giles the beggar, who gets the last word in the book and makes the most of it.

Thursday, January 31, 2008

The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick

I recommend this book for: grade 4-7
Wow and a half. I was slightly skeptical when I found out that this one won the Caldecott, but now I'm a definite supporter.

Hugo Cabret is an orphan, the son of a clockmaker who has inherited his love and dexterity for fixing things. He now lives in a train station in Paris, where he keeps the clocks running for his uncle - but his uncle has disappeared, and Hugo is forced to turn to stealing to get enough food. The other thing he has to steal is parts to finish the project his father was working on when he died - an automaton, a mechanical man with a pen. Hugo is sure that if he can make the man write again, he'll get a message from his father. Then the man who runs the toy booth realizes Hugo is stealing from him and takes away his book of drawings of the automaton - and with it Hugo's every hope of being able to repair it.
This is just the beginning. The story is incredible, and it takes you on a tour of Paris in the 1930s, especially when it comes to early films. The presentation is amazing as well, as there are quite possibly more pages of (gorgeous black and white) pictures than there are of text. It's not quite a graphic novel and not quite a picture book, but the pictures tell a good portion of the story very clearly - you don't even have to pore over the details to understand what is happening. And the ending? It was so perfect that I gasped.
Don't trust me or the Caldecott committee? (There's a letter from the author at the top of the page, but keep scrolling down for the reviews.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Revolution Is Not a Dinner Party by Ying Chang Compestine

I recommend this book for: grade 6 and up

Compestine drew on her own experiences growing up under Chairman Mao to write this novel. Ling lives with her parents, both doctors, in a complex with other hospital staff. Her father studied under an American doctor, and so comes under suspicion of being an enemy of the government. An official named Comrade Li moves into their apartment, and although he is friendly with Ling and plays games with her, she soon sees him arresting her parents' friends and tormenting anyone who does not fully support Mao. Over the four years that the book covers, Ling's father is demoted from surgeon to janitor and eventually jailed. Her best friend is forced to become part of the Red Guard, and Ling herself is tormented at school for her long "bourgeois" hair and her anti-revolutionary parents. Between food shortages, Comarade Li, and the gang of young Red Guards who terrorize her at school, Ling is fighting for survival. This is great historical fiction, the kind that puts the reader right into the time and place. The senselessness and fear that reigned at this time in China are palpable, and Ling's rebellions made me want to cheer. A fantastic novel.