Sunday, October 18, 2009

Chains by Laurie Halse Anderson

I recommend this book for: middle school and up

Isabel and her little sister Ruth are slaves in the colony of Rhode Island. Their mother is dead and they were separated from their father years ago, but the lady who owns them has promised to free them in her will. Only when she dies the will is nowhere to be found, so her nephew sells them to the Locktons, a Loyalist couple from New York City. Their liberty has been taken away, to be replaced by hard work and cruelty with no end in sight. In New York, Isabel meets Curzon, the young slave of a Patriot. He offers her the dangerous opportunity to spy on her master and help the rebels gain their independence.

This was a very good book - to be expected from this author. Isabel's story is heartbreaking but hopeful in the end. It asks some very good questions that occur to most young people as they study history, such as "How could the Americans own slaves if they said all men were created equal?" Of course, there are no easy answers, but the exploration is worthwhile.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Audrey, Wait! by Robin Benway

Forgive the short review, I read this months ago!

I recommend this book for: high school

Audrey lives for music, which is why it should be no suprise that her boyfriend is in a band. Then she dumps him, which shouldn't have been a big deal - except that he writes a song about it that propels his band to stardom, and Audrey is launched into the spotlight right along with them. Reporters call her house, photographers find her at school, and the ice cream parlor where she works is suddenly much more popular. Audrey is mortified and angry, but there are perks -like getting invited backstage at concerts and becoming a fashion trendsetter. There are also a lot of annoyances, like being misquoted, feeling like she's losing her best friend, and not being able to go on a date with a new guy without becoming the subject of national interest and hatred.

This is a fun fun fun book about music, getting famous, making a lot of bad decisions and a few really good ones.

Concerned about mature content? Start highlighting here: There is a lot of cursing in this one. Sex is discussed, but all that happens "on-camera" is some intense making out backstage at a concert. Teens and rockstars party with alcohol and drugs. End of invisible print.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Dairy Queen by Catherine Gilbert Murdock

I recommend this book for: grades 7 and up

D.J. works hard on her family's farm over the summer while her father recovers from an operation. Most of what needs doing falls to her because her older brothers are both away at college, and after a huge argument, they don't come home to help out. One chore that turns into her favorite activity is acting as a personal trainer to the rival high school's quarterback, who needs some pushing to do his best. As her relationship with Brian grows she decides to do what will make her happy for once - try out for the football team herself.

This is a fun summer book with substance. D.J. has a lot of problems teens can relate to between her family, friends, romantic interests, and schoolwork, plus the complicated position of being a girl trying out for the football team. There are funny moments and some heartbreaking ones too. Very worthwhile!

Reviews - be careful, there are spoilers in them!

If you're concerned about mature content, start highlighting here (there may be more, this is what I remember): There are a few instances of teen drinking, and one of the major complications in D.J.'s life is that although she is interested in guys, her female best friend wants to be more than friends. End of invisible text.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

A few good books

Okay, so I have an eight-week old baby now. I have lots of time to read while holding and feeding her, but not as much to type. As a result, there's a ridiculous number of books that I read weeks ago and haven't blogged. Due to the mom-brain phenomenon (a lovely combination of sleep-deprivation and hormonally induced memory loss), I don't remember much about some of them. Please note, I take no responsibility for remembering all of the mature content for the books in the next few mini-posts - we'll be lucky if I remember the plots! If you're concerned about content, please check on these books elsewhere before reading! I would suggest starting with the reviews on Amazon, and if your local library offers it, Novelist. On to the books!

Thursday, July 16, 2009

The Queen's Thief Series by Megan Whalen Turner

I recommend this series for: grade 6 and up

I normally review each book in a series separately, but since I'm waaaay behind (who knew that little babies take up so much time? ;-) and I sped through these three books at lightning speed, I'll just do them all together.

In The Thief, Gen is a young man who is rescued from the king's prison by a royal advisor with a vitally important mission. The king wants to marry the queen of Eddis, the neighboring kingdom, and since she has refused him, he needs a gem given by the gods that bestows the right to rule her kingdom. As an extremely talented thief, Gen is ordered to steal it.

I can't say much about the two sequels without giving away major spoilers, but all three books are serious page-turners. There is a lot of political intrigue written on a level that even younger readers can grasp fully. Gen is bold, hilarious, and fallible, which makes him interesting and fun. As a reader, you don't get to see what he is thinking until he puts his plans into action, which makes for a lot of surprises along the way.

What else did I like about the series? The twists and turns, the relationship between Gen and his monarch, the Grecian-esque world, the myths that characters share with one another, the way that characters speak to the gods and receive their answers, romance in the most unexpected places, and how Gen always, always turns out to be smarter than you (or any of the other characters) think he is. This is a must-read series, particularly for fantasy fans, and it would be great for reluctant readers as well - there's a lot of action and some really funny moments. And there's more to come - book four is due in 2010!

Reviews for The Thief, The Queen of Attolia, and The King of Attolia. Beware of major plot spoilers in the reviews for Queen and King.

Mature content - there are a few instances of mild swearing, and a reference or two to "the king's wedding night" in book 3 that are never made more explicit than that.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Airborn by Kenneth Oppel

I recommend this book for: grade 6 and up

This is probably my favorite book of the summer so far. Matt Cruse was born in an airship, a giant blimp-like vehicle, and has never felt comfortable on the ground. Now a teenager, he works as a cabin boy on the Aurora, a luxury liner, to support his widowed mother and two sisters. He rescues an old man in a hot air balloon who claims to have seen some kind of fantastic winged animal. He nearly forgets about it until the man's granddaughter arrives on the Aurora. Kate deVries is rebellious, beautiful, and determined to find real evidence of her grandfather's creatures. Although they are from vastly different spheres, Kate and Matt are drawn to one another as he tries to help her in her quest. Then, the pirates attack!

This book has something for just about everyone - a wonderfully built fantasy world, a sympathetic narrator who just wants to follow in his father's footsteps, a rich and spunky heroine who does exactly what she wants, pirates, a mysterious desert island, the beautiful creatures, and all the swashbuckling you could ask for. A definite winner - and I've already put the sequels on hold!

Sunday, July 5, 2009

The Last Olympian by Rick Riordan

I recommend this book for: grade 6 and up

In this final volume of Percy Jackson's adventures, Kronos and the Titans make their attack on Olympus. With the gods tied up fighting battles elsewhere, it's up to the halfbloods to defend Manhattan.

This book had some great moments - but on the whole, I wasn't as impressed as I was with the previous four. Maybe I just have trouble when a good series comes to an end? It certainly had lots of good points - resolution of the Percy/Annabeth/Rachel love triangle, background on the Oracle and Luke's troubled past, clever chapter titles, and another quest for Percy that takes him down a path few heroes have been brave (and foolhardy) enough to travel. Definitely read it if you've enjoyed the others.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Specials by Scott Westerfeld

I recommend this book for: grade 7 and up

In this sequel to Pretties, Tally has become a Special. She's Shay's lieutenant in a unit under Dr. Cable's control, dedicated to destroying the Smokies once and for all. She is fast and strong, and completely dedicated to her mission - except for when she starts thinking. When she's forced to choose between Shay and the now-crippled Zane, she picks him - and chooses a path that leads her to a new city to prevent a war.

I absolutely loved Uglies and Pretties. This installment had all of the futuristic technology and ethical questions of the first two, but it didn't excite me as much even though it had hoverboard chases and explosions. It's definitely a worthwhile read for anyone who has enjoyed the series, but not as good as the first two.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Bloodhound by Tamora Pierce

I recommend this book for: grade 8 and up

Sequel to Terrier.

Another fantastic adventure. When counterfeit money pouring into Corus threatens the livelihood of rich and poor alike, Beka and Goodwin are sent to the city of Port Caynn undercover to try to find the source. Disguised as a corrupt guard and her young protege, they make connections in the gambling world. Among Beka's new friends is a very charming gambler who seems very interested in her, but might be one of the very criminals they seek. Her new enemy is Port Caynn's very dangerous Rogue.

As always, Pierce's characters are superbly well-drawn and entertaining. The lines between good guys and bad guys are often blurry. Beka, who is so tough and so very good at her job, is very clueless about love and relationships, adding another layer to her character. This was a great follow up to Terrier, and it'll be another painful wait for Mastiff, book 3.

If you're concerned about mature content, start highlighting here:This one is a bit more mature - Beka enters into a sexual relationship in this one - no details are given (as she writes in her journal, who'd want to read that stuff anyway? :-) While undercover, Beka and Goodwin gamble and drink as well as cavort with the criminal element. End of invisible print.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Coraline by Neil Gaiman

I recommend this book for:  grade 4-8

Coraline is a girl who loves to explore and is many times dissatisfied with her parents.  When they move to a flat in a very old house, there are a few rather odd neighbors (including two former actresses gone to seed who keep lots of dogs and a man working very hard on his mouse circus), but no other children.  To entertain herself, she explores the house and the yard - discovering a door that is sometimes bricked up and sometimes is not.  Going through it, she discovers an even stranger world where everyone has buttons for eyes, animals talk, and her "other mother" wants her to stay for good.  

This is a scary book - many children no doubt fantasize at times about having other parents or having their own parents disappear, and the story plays on what that might really be like.  It's not for very sensitive children.  With that being said, it's also very fun! Coraline is a brave, resourceful, kind of odd girl, and the cat is completely delightful.  Kids who like scary should definitely give this a try.        

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Princess of the Midnight Ball by Jessica Day George

I recommend this book for: middle and high school

I confess, my decision to read this one was more than a little influenced by the cover illustration - just look at that glorious dress!

In this retelling of the Twelve Dancing Princesses, the twelve sisters are forced to dance every night for the King Under Stone, a ruler full of dark magic and evil plots. The curse is such that they physically cannot tell anyone what is happening to them or why their shoes wear out so frequently. Galen, a young soldier returning from war, finds employment in the palace garden and a friend in Rose, the eldest princess. Determined to succeed where princes have failed to save the sisters, Galen tries to find out the secret. He does have some things going for him, that the princes do not - for instance, his military training, the trust of the princesses, and the ability to knit with magical yarn.

I enjoyed this one. Galen is not a typical hero, what with his knitting hobby. The King Under Stone is a sinister character, but there are threatening political forces at work here too.  If you enjoy Donna Jo Napoli's books (or any fairytale retellings, for that matter), give this one a try!

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Heroes of the Valley by Jonathan Stroud

I recommend this book for: middle and high school

Halli has grown up with the legends of the great hero Sveinn, his ancestor. Long ago, Sveinn led the other heroes to defeat the Trows, beasts who emerged from underground at night to devour humans. Thanks to him, the Trows stay out of the valley, which is still protected by the graves of the heroes and all their descendants, but there is no safety beyond the line of cairns. Anyone who leaves the valley will be devoured.  In the valley, there is peace - swords have been outlawed, and any disputes between the families are settled by the Council. Crimes are punished with the transfer of land between the families.

A born troublemaker, Halli wishes he had lived in the time of the warlike heroes. When his beloved uncle is murdered before his eyes, Halli wants more than land for his family to repair the breach - he wants revenge. He sets off on his own to become a hero and finds that it isn't nearly so easy as Sveinn made it look - and that even Sveinn wasn't all he was cracked up to be.

This was a great book.  It has a lot of funny moments, the tiniest hint of romance (but nothing that would turn off boys who still think girls have cooties), and a lot of character development.  The stories of Sveinn that preface chapters give insight into the culture and Halli's mentality. Halli himself is a great character - you can see his flaws, but that doesn't stop you from admiring his cleverness and eventually, his nobility. This would be a great choice for readers of historical fiction (it feels very medieval) or fantasy - but be warned that it does get a bit scary and somewhat gruesome toward the end.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Wuthering High by Cara Lockwood

I recommend this book for:  grade 7 and up

In a twist on the "bratty girls at boarding school" genre, Mia is sent to Bard Academy after wrecking her father's car and treating herself to a shopping spree on her stepother's credit card.  Not only is the school depressing and strict, but strange things are happening.  Mia is convinced that her room (which she shares with a devil worshipper who has taken a vow of silence) is  haunted by the ghost of a girl who disappeared years earlier.  Also, it seems that the strange boy named Heathcliff is following her - a boy who claims to be from a place called Wuthering Heights.

I have to admit, this is not my kind of book.  I picked it up because I thought the premise of "all of my teachers are really famous dead authors" was cool, but the execution left a lot to be desired.  The writing is not great, and Mia's character is so shallow that I wasn't really interested in her at all.  I think it's a problem of audience - people like me who actually enjoy the Brontes will get really annoyed by the teen characters, and readers who are interested in the poor little rich girl aspect probably won't know or care who Virginia Woolf was.  I could be wrong, but that's how it seems to me.  

This title could be good as a clean alternative to the Gossip Girl books or similar series - no sex (there is mention of an attempted date rape in Mia's past, but she got away) and only minor cursing.  Otherwise, though, I'd recommend teens who think fictional characters running around in the real world sounds cool read Jasper Fforde's excellent Thursday Next books (The Eyre Affair is the first) and leave this one alone.  

No reviews on Amazon, but you can read part of the first chapter.  

Cassandra's Sister: Growing Up Jane Austen by Veronica Bennet

I recommend this book for:  middle school and up

First of all, the subtitle is a bit misleading, since Jane is already around 17 when this novel opens.  The storyline focuses on Jane, her older sister Cassandra, and the family joys and heartaches that could have inspired Jane's writing.  

This book didn't do much for me.  While the details of Austen's family life were interesting, there seemed to be very little emotional connection, even when people were taking drastic measures.  Even the romance seemed pretty distant, perhaps a side effect of the time period - but then, social rules and all, Mr. Darcy never seemed to have that problem. 

Austen fans will probably find this worth looking at, but it won't have much appeal to teens who haven't enjoyed at least one of her novels.  

Thursday, April 9, 2009

The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

I recommend this book for: middle and high school

Katniss lives in a future world where life is bleak. Twelve districts occupy the continent that was once North America, surrounding a capital that keeps the people in line by oppression and hunger. The dirtiest trick of all is the Hunger Games, a yearly event in which a teen boy and girl from each district are forced to compete in a survival contest - all televised for the entire country to watch. The winner gets fame and privileges for his or her district, while the losers all die. The story begins on the day when the tributes are chosen by lottery, and the girl tribute turns out to be Katniss' beloved 12 year old sister. Katniss immediately volunteers to go instead, knowing it means almost certain death.

This was a fantastic book. The concept of reality tv gone really really wrong should strike a chord with most readers - and if not, the realistic characters will. Katniss is an interesting heroine - the breadwinner for her family, determined to win at any cost but willing to risk her life for others she comes to care for - and still as confused as any teenager about her emotions.

I haven't read many books recently that made me immediately look for the sequel's release date, but this was one. It's also one I can unreservedly recommend to teens of all ages - other than the violence you should expect from the plot, it's a good clean read. I can't rant enough - just read it!

Reviews - watch out, they contain some spoilers, particularly the last one by Stephen King.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Little Brother by Cory Doctorow

I recommend this book for: high school

Marcus is just your average teen tech geek - he knows how to get around school surveillance, build his own laptop, and do some neat tricks with his cell phone and alternatives to the Internet. But everything changes when terrorists blow up the Bay Bridge in San Francisco, and Marcus and his best friends are arrested by the Department of Homeland Security. They're innocent, but treated like they're guilty, and Marcus has a big problem with that. So what's a teen to do when his liberties are taken away? Take them back!

So starts the story of Marcus and his fight against those who try to convince the city that they're trading liberty for security without actually providing that security. Doctorow does a good job of explaining all of the technology and what it does in terms that non-geeks can understand. Marcus is brilliant, not just when it comes to computers, but in the connections he makes between his social studies class and his current situation.  

A great book that gives teens and adults plenty to think about - why is that we're content to be under surveillance everywhere?  What does the Declaration of Independence mean in today's world?  How do you go about proving that you're not a terrorist?  It is definitely for mature audiences - the violence isn't graphic, and the message of thinking for yourself is applicable for everyone, but there's also a good bit of rather frank sexual content.

Don't trust anyone over 25!  Trust these reviews . . . 

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Hero Type by Barry Lyga

I recommend this book for: grade 8 and up

Kevin is a hometown hero after he saves a classmate from being abducted by a killer responsible for rapes and murders all over the country. Instead of a nobody, he's suddenly being followed by reporters and making appearances on national tv. He receives the key to the city and a new car. Then, a photographer publishes a picture of him removing the "Support the Troops" magnets from his bumper and throwing them away. Suddenly, everyone in his small town is against him, and Kevin finds himself defending not only his actions, but free speech in its many forms to a town that just isn't listening.

I loved this book.  It was complex - Kevin knows that saving Leah wasn't the heroic act everyone thinks it was, and what he calls his "inner Catholic" causes him guilt over a lot of his actions. What makes a hero or a villain was discussed without being preachy, and the debates Kevin has with John Riordan (and just about everyone else) over free speech vs. patriotism - and whether those two things are mutually exclusive or not - are fantastic. Was it entirely realistic for everyone to jump all over Kevin? Maybe not, but I can certainly understand him feeling like the whole world was against him.

Side characters were well-developed, although Kevin was certainly the most complex - he does things that you know are despicable, but he's still a sympathetic narrator, and his growth is impressive. The Fools are fun, and Fam is especially great for bringing out Kevin's cluelessness.  A very worthwhile read!  

Some mature content that includes plot spoilers - for details, start highlighting here:  Kevin and his friends drink, smoke pot, and play some pranks that could be considered vandalism.  There is talk about sex and some references to male anatomy.  Here's the big plot spoiler - you find out that Kevin was actually following Leah and videotaping her without her knowledge.  But he's not actually a crazy stalker - he feels bad about it, stops, and tries to make amends.  End of invisible text.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Bog Child by Siobhan Dowd

I recommend this book for: high school

Fergus lives in the troubled Ireland of the 1980s. His brother is in prison because of his involvement with the freedom fighters, hunger strikers are dying regularly, and violence can explode suddenly and without warning. His biggest dream is to do well on his exams, get into medical school, and get out of Ireland. Then he makes an amazing discovery while digging peat with his uncle - the body of a child. Suddenly he has a new dream - all about this Iron Age girl and how she came to be in the bog.

This was a powerful book - the exploration of Ireland both of ancient and modern times and the different sacrifices people make. Difficult decisions abound. Fergus' friendship with a Welsh soldier who guards the border was a fantastic element. I loved the intense part in the middle where Fergus gets wrapped up in transporting illegal packets across the border - especially the resolution of it. One problem with this book though, is that it doesn't give much background on Ireland at this time, or explanation of the various acronyms (RUC, IRA) that are tossed around, so a reader who doesn't know anything about Ireland's history would be really lost.

Content makes this a high school book - it includes strong language, talk about sex and some sexual situations (although not the actual act).  

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Snoring Beauty by Bruce Hale, ill. by Howard Fine

I recommend this book for: older kids and grownups

It's a picture book, but I'm not sure how much kid appeal this one has. In a twist on the Sleeping Beauty story, Princess Drachmina Lofresca Malvolio Margarine (Marge for short) is cursed to be run over by a pie wagon and die when she turns 16. But all is not lost - a slightly deaf fairy changes the curse so that she'll merely turn into a sleeping dragon until she is awoken by a quince.

I found this book to be funny in an off-beat sort of way, but young kids won't get the jokes. The pictures are lovely, and although I couldn't figure out why the story was narrated by a frog, I liked him.  This title could be useful for older students studying fractured fairy tales, or just for a good laugh as a read-aloud.  

1, 2, Buckle My Shoe by Anna Grossnickle Hines

I recommend this book for: preschool

The traditional rhyme is illustrated by gorgeous quilted illustrations. Each panel with a number features both the arabic form and the corresponding number of buttons, and the details and colors of the picture panels are gorgeous and add interest. The last page is a double spread featuring the numbers and colorful hands with buttons on the fingers to represent the numbers.  The rhyme would be great for sharing with a group, and the pictures make this a great one to share one on one.  
Simple and fun!

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Wake by Lisa McMann

I recommend this book for: high school

Janie has an alcoholic mother, a burning desire to go to college, and a secret she's never told anyone. Whenever she's in a room with a sleeping person, Janie sees into that person's dreams.  The results of this are sometimes comical and sometimes terrifying, and she has no control over it. Now in high school, Janie has learned to manage her condition to a degree - she blacks out but can usually ride out a person's dream safely and get back to life. Then one nightmare really gets to her - and it turns out to belong to someone who's starting to matter to her.

A fast-paced, exciting read. The intense pace is supported by the format of listing a date and time before each short section. A lot of the action seems to be based more on character development and relationships than on actual events, but Janie's world is so complex and interesting that it works. The final third of the book is where most of the actual action happens. A major theme is that things aren't always what they seem - with the dreams Janie stumbles into, with Cabel, and even with Janie's mother.

This is definitely a book for high school because of content - without spoiling the plot I can say that there is very liberal use of the f-word, teen drinking and partying, drug use, and sex (after all, she gets sucked into the dreams of teenagers . . .) It's also a novel that doesn't shy away from society's problems - in addition to Janie's alcoholic mother, there is a character who has suffered from physical abuse, a drug dealer, etc.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Mary Had a Little Lamp by Jack Lechner ill. by Bob Staake

I recommend this book for: preschool to grade 2

This quirky tale tells of Mary and her beloved gooseneck lamp, who goes everywhere with her. It follows the meter of 'Mary had a little lamb', but has a lot more pizzazz! The illustrations are mostly fantastic, featuring oddly-shaped people who reminded me a bit of Tim Burton's The Corpse Bride, but much more colorful. Mary and her lamp have a lot of personality, and the perplexed faces of Mary's parents and classmates are priceless.

But - there's virtually no explanation of why Mary leaves her faithful lamp behind in favor of another appliance, which bugged me. Also, there's one picture of a swingset where the swing would clearly be lying the ground if it wasn't forward and up in the air - shattering the laws of physics gets on my nerves, too!

Final verdict - a few issues, but lots of fun!

Sunrise Over Fallujah by Walter Dean Myers

I recommend this book for: grade 7 and up

In 2003, 19 year old Robin Perry leaves Harlem to serve his country in Iraq. His father is upset at his decision, but Robin feels compelled to make a difference. This book chronicles his experiences as part of a Civilian Affairs unit - the people who go in when the shooting is supposedly over to deal with the people and help them see that Americans are the good guys.

I'm not a war book person, really, but this one had good points. The men and women in Robin's unit (who dub him "Birdy") are interesting, and their banter is entertaining to read. Myers portrays the immediacy of the war well - one minute the soldiers are just riding to the market, the next a car explodes. Birdy has to face his fears, particularly of himself and what he will become as a result of what he sees and does.  The letters he sends home - cheerful, hopeful, and reassuring - make an interesting counterpoint to the confusion and doubt he actually feels.  

There were also bad points. I felt some of the dialogue was a bit overdramatic.  Also, I knew without a doubt pretty much as soon as all of the characters from Birdy's unit were introduced who was going to die, which really lessened the impact when it happened.

Parental stuff - as you might imagine in a war book, there is some bad language and violence.  It doesn't get terribly gory, but there are descriptions of severed body parts and a somewhat graphic scene where two men are killed at point blank range.  There are a few sexual innuendoes ("I want to see what she's got under those fatigues"), but it's all talk.  

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Graceling by Kristin Cashore

I recommend this book for: high school

In a world where some people are born with Graces - special gifts for anything from baking to mind-reading to predicting the weather - Katsa serves her uncle, the king of the Middluns. Her Grace is fighting, and she uses it at the king's command to threaten, hurt, or kill his enemies - or sometimes just subjects who have ticked him off. She despises herself for it. But Katsa has a secret - the Council, a group that she and sympathetic friends have started to fight the kinds of abuses she herself is forced to lay on the common people. It is on a Council mission that she meets Po, the prince of another kingdom - and another Graceling fighter. His grandfather has been kidnapped and they have to find out why, because it could have ramifications not just for his family, but for all of the seven kingdoms.

This book blew me away. The world was original and lovely, and Katsa was a fantastic heroine. She grows a lot during the course of the book, but she has certain principles that she holds to and will not sacrifice. The development in the other main characters was also great. The ending wrapped up a little too quickly for me, but the story was definitely well-plotted. As in real life, there were no easy answers about why the villain is doing what he does. The love story was completely engrossing. Definitely one of the better fantasies I've read!

If you're concerned about mature content, highlight starting here:  There is sex in this book! One scene makes it very clear what is happening, and there are a few other references to lovers sharing a bed and some innuendoes.  A medicinal form of birth control is used - I know that might reassure some parents and offend others, so I thought I'd bring it up.  The villain is a very bad man who takes pleasure in the pain of others - the book describes how he cuts up animals, hurts servants, and it is implied that he wants an inappropriate relationship with his daughter.  End of invisible text.    

Monday, March 2, 2009

The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks by E. Lockhart

I recommend this book for: grade 8 and up

Frankie was a freshman at her exclusive boarding school last year - a geek, a nobody. This year, she's getting noticed, in particular by the popular senior Matthew Livingston. But Frankie isn't just a pretty girl who will be contented with being Matthew's girlfriend. When she realizes that he has a secret, she does her homework and finds out about the Loyal Order of the Basset Hounds - an all-male secret society bent on causing mayhem. A society that Frankie's father belonged to in his own boarding school days. A society that is at a total loss for some good prank ideas. Which is where Frankie comes in . . . and the resulting hijinks involving ladies' undergarments, vegetable sculpture, and statue abduction are hilarious.

This was a fantastic book. Frankie is a strong girl who applies what she learns to real life, with pretty amazing results. She is passionate about what she believes in, regardless of how silly other people think she is.  She's brilliant and creative, and very fun to read about. The other characters are also drawn very well, particularly Matthew - the reader can see what he's really like and still understand why Frankie likes him. The ending is also fantastic - I don't want to give too much away, but I will say that I respect Frankie's independence and that it remains intact. A very fun read!

A fairly clean read, but read the invisible text if you're concerned about content: Although Frankie does not drink, she does attend a party with lots of teens drinking beer, and the boys in the Loyal Order do a lot of drinking when they get together. Frankie's relationship never progresses beyond making out, but there is (non-graphic) discussion of other characters having sex. No bad language to speak of. Oh, and Frankie definitely makes war on the administration, so  if you find rebellion against adults offensive, this one may not be for you/your child. End of invisible text.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Snow Falling in Spring: Coming of age in China during the Cultural Revolution by Moying Li

I recommend this book for:  middle and high school

This memoir covers moments in the life of Moying Li, from the time that she was 4 years old until she left China as a university student.  The Cultural Revolution was a time of upheaval and uncertainty in China, and life was spent trying to conform to the standards demanded by the government so as not to be labeled an enemy of the people.  It didn't seem to take much to deserve that label - long hair or the wrong style of clothes could put you under suspicion, not to mention fondness for Western literature or joking about the wrong things.  Some of the details she shares are absolutely appalling - family members hauled off to labor camps, persecution of teachers by their own students, people driven to suicide, near starvation.  Among all these ugly events, Li was able to get a good education and commit small rebellions against the madness.  

This book would make a good introduction to this period of history for middle or high school students (or adults for that matter!), as it uses a young person's perspective.  Li shares essential historical  background for understanding this period, and the details really bring it to life.  A sad but fascinating story - and ultimately, a hopeful one.  

Cat and Mouse by Ian Schoenherr

I recommend this book for: preschool

So cute! This book combines 3 nursery rhymes (I love little kitty, Hickory Dickory Dock, and Eeny Meeny Miney Mo) and illustrates them with the antics of a very quick mouse and a generally stressed out cat. The pictures have lots of motion and dominate the pages, which would make it great for preschool storytime, and the cat's facial expressions are priceless. The fact that the rhymes are well known (2 of them, anyway) also makes this a good read aloud. Fun fun fun!

Thursday, February 19, 2009

The 3 Bears and Goldilocks by Margaret Willey

I recommend this book for: age 4-6

A kind of bland retelling. Not enough is different from the traditional tale to make it stand out, and there isn't much sense of place (other than the first page stating that she lived "in the farthest reaches of the far north"). The pictures do a lot to characterize Goldilocks - for example, she's always losing things and helpful forest creatures are cleaning up after her. However, some of the illustrations are confusing - the one where she flees the bear's house features 6 bears, 4 little girls, and two of the same bird carrying her scarf. The bear's house is relatively interesting - less humanized than one might expect from bears who eat porridge, the floor is covered in fish bones and the beds are made of pine needles and feathers covered in a blanket. Far from wanting to eat Goldilocks, they are angry at the meddling in their home but feel sorry for the furless, clawless creature they find asleep in Baby Bear's bed. That doesn't stop her from running home as fast as she can! The moral of this version seems to be "listen to your parents", but I'm not sure kids would grasp it.  Overall, it seems to be lacking in kid-appeal, which means it only gets a so-so rating from me.  

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Chalice by Robin McKinley

I recommend this book for: grade 7 and up

A totally engrossing fantasy for the right reader. Mirasol is a simple beekeeper in the Willowlands who has just been named Chalice - a leader second only to the Master of the land, responsible for keeping balance. Her job is complicated by her complete lack of training to be Chalice (she simply has to listen to the earthlines and do what feels right), the turmoil in the land after the excesses and violent death of the previous master, and the upheaval of a new one taking power. The new Master is the brother of the previous one, but he has been away for years studying to become a priest of elemental fire - and as such, is no longer quite human. The people fear him, and there is even a plot to remove him from power and replace him with an outlander - which would have disastrous consequences for the land.

This is definitely a book for sophisticated readers - not because of content, but because of structure. There are frequent flashbacks, and there are no epic battles to move the plot along. There is intrigue and romance, but they are quiet. There is magic, but it is related more to listening to the earth than saying the right spell. There is a great deal of ceremony, and a lot of character and world-building. The result is a fascinating place where people and land are so tied together that political upsets can cause natural disasters. I say it's a winner, but those who prefer their fantasy with a hearty helping of dragons or wand-waving may not be as interested.


Monday, February 2, 2009

Sovay by Celia Rees

I really really wanted to like this book. The cover is beautiful (let's face it, we all judge by that, right?), and the storyline sounded fantastic. Unfortunately, the execution was mostly ridiculous.

Sovay is a rich and privileged young woman living in England while the Reign of Terror rages in France. She dresses as a highwayman and holds up a carriage to get revenge on her unfaithful fiance, and continues to do it for kicks. The game turns serious when she finds papers calling for the arrest of her father, a sympathizer with the French revolution, among her takings.

Sovay is beautiful and independent, both qualities which get her into and out of all sorts of scrapes as she travels to London and beyond to try to save her father. The plot is complicated by various men who fall madly in love with her but are perfect gentlemen about it (even when invited not to be), a villain who seemed to be a combination of Inspector Javert and Dr. Frankenstein, a brothel full of boys, and intrigue at every turn.

In the end, I only finished this one because I wanted to see how bad it would get. Some fans of historical fiction and spunky heroines might receive this one better - particularly if they don't mind extremely awkward dialogue. Anyone else should probably skip it.

No professional reviews on Amazon, but there are some rather mixed ones from customers.

You should probably also avoid this book if you object to content that includes: (begin invisible text here) boys who work as prostitutes, a secret society whose initiation includes sexual acts (neither aspect described in detail), or a scene where a girl practically asks a highwayman to sleep with her - he refuses. (End invisible text here.) But really, the most offensive part was probably the awkward dialogue and narration.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Ever by Gail Carson Levine

I recommend this book for: middle and high school

Another winner from Gail Carson Levine! Like Fairest, this book has echoes of old stories put into a new fantasy world, and the results are brilliant.

Kezi loves to dance and knot rugs, but she does not realize how much she loves life until a vow made by her father threatens to take it away from her. He promised a sacrifice to Admat, the god of their land, not realizing that his daughter would be the one to meet the criteria. She has thirty days to live.

Olus is the god of the winds, worshipped in a neighboring land. However, he is lonely among the gods (his closest brother is 412 years older than he is) and poses as a mortal shepherd, renting land from Kezi's father. Watching the family, he falls in love with the girl and determines to save her.

More than a simple love at first sight story, this book explores some really interesting questions about religion and what it takes to be a hero. I really appreciated that Kezi made her own decisions about faith and rescued herself when she got into trouble. Fans of fantasy and good clean love stories should eat this one up!

Tell me more!

Sunday, January 18, 2009

White Sands, Red Menace by Ellen Klages

I recommend this book for: middle school and up

I was very excited to see a sequel to The Green Glass Sea, and it doesn't disappoint! Although a little slow in the beginning, things quickly pick up. Which is strange, because not much actually happens - it covers the time after the end of WWII, with America settling down and figuring out what "normal" is again.

Dewey is still living with the Gordons, in a small town in New Mexico. She is worried about fitting in at her new school - not easy for a girl who would rather take shop than the required home ec course - but it turns out that Suze has more problems when she echoes her mother's anti-bomb philosophies. Mrs. Gordon is running an awareness campaign about the effects of the atomic bomb and trying to prevent it from being used ever again. There is tension at home as well, since her husband is still working on rockets for national defense and to try to beat the Russians into space.

This is a relatively quiet book, but there is a lot happening on the personal level - Suze's jealousy over Dewey's relationship with her mother, the tension between the adult Gordons, new friendships for both girls, a fantastic piece of art/machinery, and a little romance. As in the last book, the characters feel real and the writing is lovely. Klages gives a feeling for what it was like to live in this period, and it's a must-read for fans of historical fiction. Just make sure you start with The Green Glass Sea first!

Tell me more! But don't be fooled by the product description - Rita's appearance is nowhere near the focus of this book.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card

I recommend this book for: grade 7 and up

I don't read a lot of science fiction, but this is my husband's new favorite book, so I made a deal with him to read it. (I can't say what he's reading in return, but it's one of my favorites that he'd never have picked up on his own.) And I enjoyed it!

Ender Wiggin is 6 years old when he becomes humanity's last hope. Twice, a race of insect-like aliens has tried to invade Earth and wipe out the human race. Earth needs a brilliant military leader to prevent them from coming a third time, and Ender looks like the best bet. He leaves his family and enters Battle School, where in addition to lessons and military strategy, he spends the next years of his life fighting mock battles in zero gravity against other armies of students. He is different from the others, he is a target for bullies, and he is absolutely brilliant.

There were some things I really liked about the book - the major plot twist was beautifully written, in that I completely didn't see it coming, but as soon as it had happened I realized all the foreshadowing that came earlier and that I should have seen it coming. Card has a talent for making you want to read just one more chapter, and the reader gets to see several sides of the more complex characters. All of this was really good.

However, I had trouble relating to Ender - it was difficult to remember that most of the characters were under the age of 12 for most of the book because of the way they spoke and interacted, but Ender was so brilliant it was almost like he wasn't human. No matter what he was up against, he was able to find the answer quickly, and he won far more than he lost. He had some major character flaws as well, so it wasn't that he was perfect - just scarily smart.

Anyway, this was a pretty enjoyable read. The vocabulary and concepts are a bit higher level (I had to look up Hegemon to see what it meant), and parts of the book are political. There are also a few pretty gross/violent moments, which may be a turn-off for some readers, but it's a great choice for anyone even mildly interested in science fiction, and the beginning of a still-growing series.

Other thoughts, plus the first chapter.

The Tales of Beedle the Bard by J.K. Rowling

I recommend this book for: middle school and up

The book that Harry Potter fans have been eagerly awaiting, ironically, makes almost no mention of Harry at all. Not that it's a bad thing. These 5 stories from the wizarding world are entertaining and magical, and not just because they're about wizards. Interestingly, the wizard you do learn a lot more about is Dumbledore, through his written commentary following each story, supposedly discovered among his papers after his death. He reveals tidbits of wizarding history as well as anecdotes from his personal life (who knew that Nearly Headless Nick was a victim of witch hunts?) This is a quick read (my 13 year old brother-in-law and I read the same copy on the same night), but enjoyable.

A word to the squeamish - story #3, "The Warlock's Hairy Heart" is a bit gruesome, and the reason for the middle school and up recommendation. The other stories would be fine for younger readers, although the last one, "The Tale of the Three Brothers" as featured in Deathly Hallows is also rather dark.

Amazon page.