Sunday, September 27, 2009

Cold War Horror

The Year of the Bomb by Ronald Kidd (2009)

Paul and his buddies love horror movies and go to see them every Saturday afternoon, like lots of kids did in the 1950s. It's the Cold War era and in addition to the horror of films, there's the daily horror of expecting an atomic bomb to drop any second. Their social studies teacher, Mrs. Kramer, stokes their fears by telling them that good Americans should be on the watch for Communists, who are feeding secrets to the US's sworn enemy, Russia. Nearly every day she has her students practice "drop" drills--as if hiding under a desk will save them from instant vaporization. Paul's own father has a job building planes that he won't talk about, and Paul suspects it's top secret. Another boy's father can't get a job as a Hollywood sound man--he's been blacklisted because his father, the boy's grandfather, had been a union organizer and a Communist Party leader.

The boys are thrilled to learn that a horror movie, The Invasion of the Body Snatchers, is going to be filmed right in their town of Sierra Madre, California. They're drawn to one of the extras in the movie, a pretty woman named Laura Burke, who's the body double of one of the stars. The boys suspect her friend Darryl is up to no good, and when they nose around, they get caught up in an investigation that includes famous physicist Richard Feynman!

The creepy paranoia of the period compels the characters, and those around them, to act as mindlessly as the pod people being portrayed in the film. The uncanny parallels between the movie under production and the Cold War insanity make this an excellent historical novel for ages 10 and up. The relatively low lexile (500) plus the high interest of the story, with plenty of action and suspense, should put this book on many elementary reading lists. Watch for it to win some awards, too!

Thursday, September 24, 2009

A Few Tips

Tips on Having a Gay (ex) Boyfriend by Carrie Jones (2009)

Tip #1: The list motif is getting old in YA lit.

Tip #2: This much stuff couldn't possibly happen in the course of a single week.

Tip #3: And what happens requires complete suspension of disbelief, and not in a happy fantasy kind of way.

Tip #4 If you're going to move a plot this quickly, supply a neck brace.

The Perks of Being a Wallflower

The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky (1999)

In this stunningly poignant epistolary novel, Charlie pours out all his fears and feelings about his first year of high school to an anonymous "friend," someone who apparently could have taken advantage of a sexual situation and did not. For Charlie, this is important, though the full significance does not become clear to the reader until the novel's end. Charlie seems timid and scared; he weeps often and abundantly, yet he is strong enough to push through all the tribulations and amazing firsts that high school brings--facing down bullies, the cafeteria quagmire, burgeoning sexuality, shifting family dynamics, making friends, facing new social situations. He's a quirky bundle of nerves, wound up tight, swerving erratically over this bumpy road that is adolescence. He's a survivor yet the vastness threatens to overwhelm him at every turn. The clarity of detail, the sheer terror, pervades every word, every sentence. Horror and comedy intermingle; strength of character prevails, yet this novel probes and punctures every adolescent cliche and leaves them all tattered.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Too Much Information?

tmi by Sarah Quigley (2009)

Becca knows that she has a tendency to overshare cringe-worthy details of her own and others' lives. But even she knows she's gone too far when her first boyfriend dumps her for showing her friends a poem he wrote and her own cruel remark about his kissing technique. She vows to change--instead of blabbing, she'll write everything in an anonymous blog. That's her first mistake as her private fantasies become public, for better or worse. Loads of teen angst and drama here--including a high school production of Grease with Becca in the lead role opposite her megacrush and the unplanned outing of Becca's gay guy friend. Some language, sexual situations. OK for grades 7 & up.

The Market

The Market by J.M. Steele (2008)

It's every teen girl's nightmare: her social value posted on the Internet for all to see. That's what happens to Kate Winthrop after she gets an anonymous IM that sends her to the homepage of the Millbank Social Stock Market. The bad news: she's ranked 71 out of 140. The good news: she's a smart girl and quickly rallies her forces (her two best friends) to game the market and ramp up her ranking. And she does, but at what cost? It's worth the read to find out. The market analogy gets explained somewhat pedantically but is no less apt to explore the forces at work in Kate's life as she deals with the ups and downs of her manipulations. Some language, sexual situations.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Maximum Ride

Max (A Maximum Ride Novel) by James Patterson (2009)

In this volume of the series, Max has to save her mother from evil criminal mastermind Mr. Chu. Max is also dealing with her romantical feelings for her flockmate, Fang, and a mild rebellion from Nudge, the bird-kid fashionista. The nonstop action makes this a quick read. No cussing, no sex, just lots of action and violence. And fart jokes. Appropriate for boys or girls, 11+.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Fluffy Fun

The Boyfriend League (2007) and Caribbean Cruising (2004), both by Rachel Hawthorne

Looking for a fun teen romance that's perfect for beach reading? Select either one of these. They follow the standard romance formula: Girl meets boy, and she's instantly attracted but comes up with a some flimsy excuses to resist, eventually succumbs, kissing ensues. Lather, rinse, repeat.

Monday, September 14, 2009

An Excellent YA Pick

Willow by Julia Hoban (2009)

Willow is a cutter. It's the only way she can deal with the pain and guilt she feels over her parents' death in a car accident seven months before. Never mind that her parents wanted to have a little more wine at dinner and then made her, a novice driver with only a learner's permit, their designated driver during a terrible storm--Willow still feels at fault. She's living with her older brother and knows that he hates her for killing their parents and ruining his life by imposing herself into it. When the guilt and memories overwhelm Willow, she cuts herself, and that pain somehow allows her deal with everything else.

No one knows Willow's secret until she meets Guy, who somehow insinuates himself into her life. Willow works through some of her issues as her relationship with Guy develops. Yes, it's a little weird to have a novel about cutting overlap with first love, but it works. Is everything tied up neatly at the end? No, but there's hope, and that's enough.

Willow is a beautiful story, compellingly told and is by far one of the best YA novels I've read for a while. Watch for it on all the prize lists in the next year or so! Recommended for high school and older due to intense scenes, sex, and language.

An FBI Thriller

Knock Out by Catherine Coulter (2009)

I have read a bunch of the books featuring Savich and Sherlock, and I did not enjoy this one quite as much as some of the others. The story is quite convoluted, for starters, and there seems to be an incredible amount of gratuitous violence--bombs, blood, shootings, terrorizing of victims, etc. There are two plot lines. In one, Savich is being pursued by an evil teen-aged girl who wants revenge for Savich's having killed her bank robber mother during a heist at which Savich just happens to be present. In the other, a little girl with incredible psychic abilities calls on Savich telepathically to help her and her mother escape the clutches of an evil mad man (who also has some weird psychic abilities). With so much going on, the action is nonstop. As with most of Coulter's thrillers, there is a romance element, but with all the other stuff going on, it's diluted. Action supersedes relationships in this installment. Better luck next time....

11 Birthdays

11 Birthdays by Wendy Mass (2009)

This is a cute little novel for boys or girls, grades 3-5. The main character, Amanda, had a huge fight with her best friend Leo on their last birthday, which they shared as usual. The two of them had been friends since birth--at which time, unbeknownst to them, an old charm was rekindled. Amanda and Leo had not spoken since their tenth birthday and are having their separate parties for their eleventh birthday. Amanda has a terrible day, including her party, and then it gets worse when the day starts repeating, a la Ground Hog's Day! The story unfolds as Amanda and Leo re-establish their friendship and together figure out how to stop repeating the same day over and over.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

I Love Austen!

Prada & Prejudice by Mandy Hubbard (2009)

On a school trip to London, Callie buys a pair of Prada pumps, hoping to pump up her popularity. Instead, she trips and bangs her head—waking up in regency-era England. She wangles her way into a swanky country estate owned by an adorable young duke, who seems to be a bit arrogant. Callie and his cousin Emily become friends and Callie helps Emily avoid an arranged marriage to a much older man. Of course, Callie and the duke end up liking each other, too.

This novel is a fun take-off on Austen and a good read for teen girls. If you like the motif of time travel to Austen's period, try Laurie Viera Rigler's Confessions of a Jane Austen Addict (2007) as well, though this one is definitely aimed at an adult audience (mature themes, ahem).

Monday, September 7, 2009

Ghostgirl #2

Homecoming by Tonya Hurley (2009)

Charlotte Usher is having the same kind of luck in the afterlife as she had when she was alive--no one will pay any attention to her! Her Dead Ed friends are so wrapped up in their reunions with dead family members and their internship activities they seem to stop noticing Charlotte. That's a familiar place for Charlotte, who died trying to become popular. She ends up hanging around with Maddy, another loner who actually seems to be nurturing Charlotte's insecurities. Then Charlotte's best friend (from the real world), Scarlett, needs help only a dead friend like Charlotte can give her. Petula, Scarlett's petulent, self-obsessed older sister, is in a coma after developing a virulent staph infection from a botched pedicure. While Petula waits for death, literally, in a ghost version of a hospital intake office, Scarlett manages to cross over to the dead world, make contact with Charlotte, and then, ultimately snag her sister right before the nurse calls Petula's name! And just in time for Homecoming! Hurray!

This second installment in the Ghostgirl series moves more smoothly than the first and explains some of the information missing from the first, such as Charlotte's lack of family. Homecoming also has more blatantly comic moments than the first volume, perhaps because Petula is such an obvious target for ridicule.

Ghostgirl #1

Ghostgirl by Tonya Hurley (2008)

Charlotte Usher dies an ignominious death; she chokes on a gummy bear right after she gets paired up in Chemistry with the boy she's been crushing on. She spent all summer planning how she could get noticed--following a beautification program and working in the school office so she could have access to the boy's schedule and get in the same classes he was taking. She has felt ignored, invisible, and hoped to change that--be popular for a change--but didn't really get a chance.

Death wasn't much different for Charlotte. Hurley leaves out some important details, like why Charlotte has no family and even her age and year in school. Some of it can be inferred, but the lack of family does not get explained until the second book in the series! In fact, the plot doesn't really jell until Charlotte dies and ends up in Dead Education, or Dead Ed--a class for kids who have to pass a test to move on. At last Charlotte has some interactions with her peers! (But isn't it sad that they're all dead and have their own morose life tales?) They try to tell her to ignore her old life and get on with her death, but Charlotte still feels attached, as if there's a reason she needs to follow her old classmates' lives. Then she finds out that the goth younger sister, Scarlett, of the school's queen bee, Petula, can see her. That's unusual. Charlotte and Scarlett become friends--a first for Charlotte--and bond over their mutual disdain of Petula's selfish actions and immoral values. Charlotte even persuades Scarlett to help her switch places--via possession!--so Charlotte can enjoy some body time with her crush, Damen, who happens to be dating the nasty Petula. Charlotte's goal: to go to the Fall Ball with Damen.

In the end, Charlotte realizes that she can't have a relationship with a real boy, but she can help Scarlett, who has discovered that she and Damen have a lot in common.

In spite of the editorial gaffes, including the missing information mentioned above and numerous proofreading errors, this novel engages the reader. Charlotte's insecurities, while extreme, will resonate with teens who struggle with the same issues. Sexual innuendo, but no language or violence. Good for girls aged 12+/grades 7-9.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Another one by E. Lockhart

The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks, by E. Lockhart, tells the story of geek-turned-beauty Frankie as she traverses her sophomore year at an exclusive (is there any other kind?) East Coast prep school. She's getting noticed now that she's curvaceous and lands a hot senior boyfriend on her first day back on campus, but she has qualms about the whole beauty v. substance dichotomy that the school seems to nurture. The plot thickens when she figures out that her beau belongs to the school's infamous secret society, the very one her father had been in oh-so-many-years-ago. Of course it's only for boys, yet Frankie not only locates the long-lost club history, but also figures out a way to trick the boys into doing her bidding in a series of amazing pranks by impersonating the co-president of the club through an ambiguous email address. He's the "alpha" dog of the pack and ignores her as much as possible. Her fabulous boyfriend never confides in her about the pranks or the secret club and Frankie grows increasingly dissatisfied with their relationship and the "Old Boy" patriarchy rampant at the school.

Yes, it's all fairly predictable, but Lockhart throws in some interesting Foucauldian theory about institutions (the Panopticon!), and Frankie herself is an endearing character coping with normal teen issues. Great read for teen girls. Very mild sexual content.