Monday, November 29, 2010

The Mockingbirds

The Mockingbirds by Daisy Whitney (NY: Little, Brown, 2010).

Alex Patrick knows something is off when she wakes up naked. Just that quickly, Daisy Whitney catapults the reader into Alex's elite prep school world, where Alex slowly realizes that she's been date-raped. Initially she can't even remember how she got into this boy's room, let alone naked. He says they had sex. Twice. Alex is horrified that she can't even recall the details of her first time. She confides what little she can recall first to her best friend/roommate and then to her older sister. They ultimately convince her to get help from a secret justice society at the school called The Mockingbirds.

This is an excellent tale, somewhat reminiscent of Speak, that is bound to be both an award winner and a must-read for the YA set. Highly recommended for ages 13 and up.

The Cookbook Collector

The Cookbook Collector by Allegra Goodman (NY: Dial Press, 2010).

This is not necessarily a novel for cooks or cookbook browsers, though they might well enjoy it. Rather, it follows the lives and loves of two sisters in California during the late 1990s through the early twenty-first century as they deal with issues both great and small. The older sister, Emily, is a Silicon Valley CEO leading her company into a major IPO who is involved in a bicoastal relationship with another dot com mover and shaker. While Emily is resolutely moral in her approach to business, her partner seems less so. The younger sister, Jessamine or Jess, is a philosophy graduate student at Berkeley heavily involved in ecological activism and thence with the leader of a tree-saving organization. Jess works at an antiquarian bookstore whose owner, George, is himself a former Microsoft employee, now leading a highly privileged life.

The eponymous cookbook collector is the dead uncle of a woman who needs to sell the collection. George immediately desires the collection and manages to purchase it, so Jess ends up cataloging it and becoming more and more intrigued with the significance of the collection and the mysterious collector.

Goodman masterfully develops the themes and symbols associated with collecting, food, activism, and greed, while also creating a vivid and romantic tale of two sisters. This novel has been compared to Austen, but I found it focused too exteriorly for that, yet when one considers that Austen's world was much more domestically centered than ours, the comparison becomes more apt. In any event, this is an excellent novel, wonderfully readable, and highly recommended.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Diary of a Wimpy Kid: The Ugly Truth

Diary of a Wimpy Kid: The Ugly Truth by Jeff Kinney (NY: Amulet Books, 2010).

Greg Heffley is back, clueless as ever, for yet another hilarious installment of the Wimpy Kid series. He and best buddy Rawley are not on speaking terms, and Greg can't find anyone else worthy of being his best friend. Christopher is only good for attracting mosquitoes, and Tyson has the unfortunate habit of pulling his pants all the way down when he goes to the bathroom. So Greg flies solo through an audition to be the new Peachy Breeze Ice Cream kid as well as more awkward adult interventions meant to instruct Greg about adolescence. Meanwhile, Greg's mom has decided to go back to school, so the family is busy keeping the house spotless for the lazy maid, who proves adept at getting out of work--inspiring Greg to hope for his own slacker future.

Raucous humor and superb illustrations make this book a must-read for grades 3 and up!

Pretty Little Liars

Pretty Little Liars by Sara Shepard (NY: Harper Teen, 2006).

Compulsively readable, Pretty Little Liars spins the tale of a clique of rich girls whose Queen Bee, Alison, mysteriously disappears. And that might not be a bad thing since Alison knew all their secrets and used her knowledge to control her friends. Without the dominant Alison, the group fractures, and the girls move on to create better selves, they hope. Three years later, as the girls are entering their junior year at their exclusive prep school, they all start receiving threatening messages, seemingly from Alison. And their carefully constructed lives start unraveling as the threat to reveal their secrets appears more and more real. But who is it? Even after Alison's body is discovered, the messages continue....

Fabulous lightweight fun with a juicy whiff of nastiness. An excellent choice for fans of The Clique and Gossip Girls series. Lots of sex and language, alcohol and drugs. Age 13 & up.

Milo: Sticky Notes and Brain Freeze

Milo: Sticky Notes and Brain Freeze by Alan Silberberg (NY: Aladdin, 2010).

Twelve-year-old Milo has just moved into yet another new house (his fifth home!), but he hopes this one will be better, even though he is still coping with the loss of mother. He feels he has a grip on the "new school" issues, until he sneezes on the prettiest girl, Summer. His suave alias, Dabney St. Claire, might know what to say, but Milo can only stutter "sorry." While he's crushing on Summer, his neighbor Hillary leaves him endless purple notes, and his best friend Marshall realistically tells him that he's dreaming if he thinks he has any long-term hopes for Summer.

Funny yet poignant with comic and sad moments interspersed, Milo's struggles will strike a chord with many kids who awkwardly long to fit in. That Milo is also dealing with the death of a parent makes his struggles more compelling. Silberberg's cartoonish drawings brilliantly capture Milo's travails. Highly recommended for ages 8 and up (grades 3-6).

Saturday, November 6, 2010

The Ghosts of Ashbury High

The Ghosts of Ashbury High by Jaclyn Moriarty (NY: Scholastic, 2010).

As in The Year of Secret Assignments, Jaclyn Moriarty uses multiple perspectives to excellent effect in The Ghosts of Ashbury High. Manipulation occurs on many levels here. First, the novel largely takes the form of different students' answers to the essay portion of the HSC (Higher School Certificate in Australia) exam plus some IMs, blogs, meeting minutes, and letters. There are two main essays--one on gothic fiction and one on ghost stories, but the format is first person memoir for both. Because it's fiction, the reader can't be sure how much is true and how much is imaginary, which makes the manipulation all the more interesting. The basic plot line is clear: two new students have entered Ashbury High on scholarship from the nearby public high school, Brookfield. How they won the scholarships is itself a mystery as the boy and girl have just been released from juvenile detention. No one knows why they were there, and the scholarship committee was divided about awarding them the scholarships. Slowly, everyone learns more about the mysterious couple, their lives, and deep love.

The eponymous ghosts are figurative and literal. Something or someone seems to be haunting the school. There are noises, odd occurrences, the death of student long ago. Then there are the new students, Riley and Amelia, initially barely shadows at the school but looming larger and larger in every narrative. Eventually all is explained, but the ending is surprising!

Nicely crafted novel though a bit long and repetitious at 480 pages. Mild sexual content, language. Good for ages 12 or 13 and up.

My Life as a Book

My Life as a Book by Janet Tashjian, ill. Jake Tashjian (NY: Henry Holt, 2010).

Twelve-year-old Derek Fallon anticipates a fabulous summer of loafing around interspersed with pranks. He does not plan to crack any book, except maybe his sketchbook or some comics, but the summer reading list and his parents' wishes intervene, and after a particularly messy prank involving a monkey, Derek ends up at an educational day camp--ugh! Despite his resistance, Derek learns some great techniques for making reading more bearable that involve one of his favorite pastimes--drawing. He's been illustrating his vocabulary words all year and notices that they make a great flip book of his summer. Better, a new friend shows him how to create computer animations of his drawings. Derek also learns about the power of stories in people's lives--not the stories they read, but the stories they tell themselves about their lives.

Fascinating, funny, clever--this novel is excellent on so many levels. Highly recommended for boys or girls like Derek--who don't really want to read, but have great imaginations. Tashjian's teen-aged son Jake created the cartoons for this book. Ages 9 and up.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Accomplice

Accomplice by Eireann Corrigan (NY: Scholastic, 2010).

Corrigan rocks the suspense in completely unexpected ways in this novel about best friends Chloe and Finn who decide to stage Chloe's disappearance so they can have unique college entrance essays. That may sound a bit lame, but it's really not. The girls believe they've thought through every possible issue that might arise, but they don't count on how much the situations hurts other people. Finn, as the one left behind to do all the lying, feels particularly horrible because she has to keep up the pretense and watch people's pain--her parents, Chloe's parents, Chloe's autistic brother, and Stuttering Dean, a boy the girls befriended. The outcome is as surprising as the progression of the story itself. The girls knew nothing would ever be the same for them again, but, for Finn at least, it's different in a difficult way, as she remain trapped in the lie.

Great realistic fiction for ages 12 & up.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Beautiful Creatures

Beautiful Creatures by Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl (Boston: Little, Brown, 2010).

Don't bother with this overlong witch saga, unless you enjoy slogging through endless pages of unnecessary plot that goes nowhere and a lukewarm romance. This novel got a lot of hype and the blurbs make it sound interesting. The premise is great--a teen-aged boy in a small Southern town has a mysterious connection with the new girl in town, who happens to be the niece of the town recluse. Unfortunately, Garcia and Stohl could not manage their story at all and it gets completely bogged down in ridiculous details and horrendous stereotypes. So don't waste your time on this nearly 600-page yawnfest.

Ghosthuntress: The Counseling

Ghosthuntress: The Counseling by Marley Gibson (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2010).

This is the fourth installment of the Ghosthuntress series. I read and liked the first one, but wasn't keen on the second, so I skipped the third. This one, though, is as good as the first because Gibson mixes things up a bit. Kendall Moorehead, having recently barely escaped from a close encounter with a ghost, is heading to California for some much needed R&R at a special camp for gifted teens. She's been having dreams about a cute guy, so no big surprise when he turns up at the camp. Gibson develops their romance nicely and has them work together to solve a murder mystery, all while Kendall is coming to terms with how she can best use her paranormal talents.

Overall, a fine paranormal romance, great for ages 13 & up. Sexual situations, violence.

Forget You

Forget You by Jennifer Echols (NY: Gallery Books, 2010).

Zoey already has a lot going on heading into the last weekend of the summer--but then her dad and mom split up because her dad's been having an affair with an employee at his water park and gotten her pregnant. Rather than listening to them fight--and dealing with her fragile mother as she has been all summer anyway--Zoey decides to head to a beach party, where she impulsively has sex (her first time!) with Brandon, a friend and co-worker at her dad's water park, but also somewhat of a cad when it comes to girls. Zoey seems to think things will be different between them, but before she can even deal with that, her mom attempts suicide and ends up in a mental hospital. Worse, Doug Fox, a boy who's been standoffish with Zoey since a 9th grade misunderstanding as well as his stint in juvie, happens to see her at the hospital and find out about her mom. Zoey wants to keep it quiet and is worried Doug will tell everyone. As if all this isn't enough, Zoey has a car accident and can't remember what happened immediately before it. Now Brandon is avoiding her and Doug is acting as if they're more than friends....

If you love teen drama with a realistic twist, this is a great read. Zoey spends much of the novel trying to figure out what happened the night of her accident and dealing with her feelings about her dad, her dad's pregnant fiance, her crazy mom, and her sexuality. Echols develops the romance nicely, highlighting Zoey's conflicts and confusion. Highly recommended for ages 13 & up. Sexual situations, language.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Fallen

Fallen by Lauren Kate

This novel has an interesting premise: Lucinda Price falls inexplicably in love with Daniel Grigori, a boy who seems to hate her at her new boarding school, which is actually a reform school where she's been placed because something mysterious happened to kill the last boy she kissed. Lucinda, known as Luce, has been haunted by dark shadowy figures all her life, to the extent that she had been on antipsychotic medications. Now she's off her meds and the dark shadows are hounding her again. She's pretty sure they killed that other boy, but she doesn't want anyone at her new school to know about that. Although she feels drawn to Daniel, he's sending mixed signals. And some of his cryptic comments intimate that they have known each other before meeting at school. But how is that possible? Meanwhile, Cameron is flirting with her and seems to like her.

I ended up not liking Fallen very much because Lauren Kate does not incorporate a good explanation for the dark shadows. Although the romance is well drawn, the paranormal elements remain murky. In fact, the climax of the novel seems more sketchy than fully portrayed with far too many elements left unexplained or scantily explained. The editor should have asked for more detail, then perhaps the novel could have been more satisfying. There's a second volume due out soon, Torment, but I'm not going to bother with it.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Only the Good Spy Young

Only the Good Spy Young by Ally Carter (NY: Disney/Hyperion, 2010).

In this latest installment in the Gallagher Academy series, Ally Carter pushes Cammie Morgan into more dangerous situations than ever! At the heart of the mystery lies Mr. Joe Solomon--the academy's Covert Operations teacher. Is he the devious double agent others are telling Cammie he is? Or is he a good guy? And what about Cammie's erstwhile boyfriend, Zach? Cammie and her pals have to find evidence that Solomon has planted for them in the Academy, but it's hard going since Cammie is being so closely watched. A terrorist organization that recruits agents solely from other agencies wants Cassie, and she doesn't know why, so she's being kept "safe" at the school. The new Covert Operations teacher seems intent on finding out what Cammie knows, and Cammie has to rely on her friends and her spy skills to find out the truth. Not everything becomes clear by the end, but the story is packed with action and adventure for Cammie.

Excellent spy thriller with a touch of romance! Great read for ages 12 & up.

Sizzling Sixteen

Sizzling Sixteen by Janet Evanovich (NY: St. Martin's Press, 2010).

Some of the books in this series are not as good as others, but this one is excellent with lots of laughs. Stephanie Plum is taking a breather from Joe Morelli, her on-again off-again flame, but he steps in to raise an eyebrow now and again. Ranger is still around as well, and there's plenty of the usual tension between him and Stephanie.

The plot revolves around Stephanie's attempts to save her employer's life by raising the money he owes on a gambling debt. Stephanie doesn't even like Vinnie that much, but he's family and he's given her a job that she actually enjoys, so she, Lula (former hooker and lackluster file clerk), and Connie (busty office manager) plot and scheme to get the money and rescue Vinnie since no one else will and they want to keep their jobs. It turns out that Vinnie has been scammed and, worse, his scammer has been scammed as well, so there's lots of drama, anger, and explosions. Stephanie's grandmother is up to her usual tricks as well--trying to see bodies at funerals even when the caskets are supposed to remain closed.

Oddly, toward the end, Evanovich seems to be hinting that this might be the last of Stephanie's adventures. Stephanie says she's getting tired of bounty hunting, and she and Morelli appear to be getting back together as the novel closes. Could this be it? I hope not!

Saturday, September 11, 2010

The Mysterious Benedict Society

The Mysterious Benedict Society by Trenton Lee Stewart (NY: Little, Brown, 2007).

Many children's books portray their young protagonists in life threatening situations over which they must triumph to save the world. Here puzzle master Reynie Muldoon, supersmart Sticky (George) Washington, intrepid and resourceful Kate Wetherall, and whiny little Constance Contraire all pass a special test that takes them to the home of Mr. Benedict. He has a unique mission for them: to infiltrate the Learning Institute for the Very Enlightened that has been using children to transmit secret brainwashing messages all over the world via television, radio, and other media. These odd messages act subliminally, and Mr. Benedict suspects they are at the root of the present "Emergency" state of the earth.

The Institute is located on Nomansan Island (yes, the book is full of these funny little word games) and the children immediately notice many strange contradictions--you can go anywhere on the island, but you must stay on the paths. You can stay up as late as you want as long as you go to bed at 10 p.m. You can eat whenever you want as long as it's during prescribed meal times. It's an odd school where students hear the same contradictory-sounding lessons over and over, and the best students become "messengers" who have privileges associated with transmitting messages dictated by Mr. Ledroptha Curtain, the Institute's founder and the evil genius who plans to take over the world--unless Reynie and his crew can stop his nefarious plan!

Stewart creates engaging and humorous characters to whom children will relate well. The plot moves along trippingly at the beginning, drags a bit in the middle, but ends dramatically--and happily, with obvious room for a sequel! Boys and girls will enjoy the camaraderie of the children and the way they have to figure out what to do with minimal adult supervision. Excellent, though extremely long, read at nearly five hundred pages; fine for ages 8 and up, or read aloud in smallish chunks to a slightly younger audience.

Nobel Genes

Nobel Genes by Rune Michaels (NY: Athenium, 2010).

Told in the first-person from the perspective of a boy who is never named,this novel intriguingly plays on the concept of self-discovery--a common enough theme in YA fiction. The boy is living with his manic-depressive mother who has always told him that he's the product of a sperm donation by a Nobel laureate. She expects he will great scientist, and has had him tested and tutored from an early age. He's a bright boy, but not particularly gifted, and he devotes hours to pondering a book of Nobel Prize-winners, wondering which one he looks like, which one's gifts he has inherited. As his mother's illness, progresses, the boy has to deal with other pressures as well.

Michaels portrays the world of a boy living and dealing with a disturbed individual with a poignancy that evokes empathy. It's a sad story with a sad ending, but the reader is left with the sense that the boy has the strength to overcome his difficult beginnings. Recommended for grades 7 & up. Some mature themes, situations.

The Musician's Daughter

The Musician's Daughter by Susanne Dunlap (NY: Bloomsbury, 2009).

Fifteen-year-old Theresa lives in eighteenth century Vienna, the daughter of a court violinist and the goddaughter of the Kappelmeister, Franz Joseph Haydn. The discovery of her murdered father's body near the gypsy camp on Christmas Eve launches Theresa into a thrilling investigation as well as self-discovery. Dunlap magically recreates this long-ago world, its customs and mores, in a way that will delight readers, even those (like me!) not normally attracted to historical fiction. Theresa's relations with her mother and little brother as well as her father's fellow musicians are charmingly and realistically rendered, as are her dealings with her mother's sordid uncle, Theresa's would-be sponsor who has more nefarious ideas in mind for Theresa.

This is an excellent mystery adventure with a frisson of romance. Dunlap brings life and grace to the past. Recommended for grades 6 & up.

Graceling

Graceling by Kristin Cashore (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2008).

Killing and romance--a proven combo in YA fiction--triumph again in this thrilling debut novel from Kristin Cashore. And she does it without vampires or werewolves!

Graceling is set in a fantasy world of seven countries ruled by seven kings where some people are born with special gifts--called graces. Some graces are less useful than others, but once a person is known to have a grace--marked by the eyes becoming distinctly different colors, usually at a young age--he or she is sent to the king, who may choose to exploit that grace. Katsa, the king's niece, is a killer, and her uncle has been exploiting her grace to control his subjects for years. The strong-willed Katsa has also formed a secret Council that allows her to use her grace for good, for she frequently despises her uncle's commands, and this bit of rebellion helps assuage her conscience.

As the novel opens, Katsa and two of her fellow council members have traveled to another kingdom to rescue the grandfather of another king. No one is quite sure why he's been kidnapped, but he is old and infirm and needs help, so Katsa has set out on this mission en route to another official one for the king. It is imperative that she keep her unofficial work a secret from the king, who would become enraged if he knew that Katsa was using her grace for purposes he has not condoned. The mission goes well--Katsa is able to dispatch all the guards without killing them, her preferred method, and rescue the grandfather. The only glitch: she happens upon an unexpected person, a man graced with exceptional fighting skills who sends Katsa mixed messages. She opts not to kill him, though he would be able to identify her. This man turns out to be Prince Po, who is also seeking the grandfather--his grandfather! When they meet again, Po has sought the help of Katsa's king, and Po and Katsa become sparring partners, and eventually much more.

Throughout the novel, Katsa is honing her grace, coming to terms with her power, and deciding how best to deploy it. Katsa and Po embark on a dangerous mission that could alter the lives of everyone in the seven kingdoms, for the kidnapping of the grandfather was indeed part of a grand plan to conquer all the land. Cashore masterfully weaves the themes of control--on a macro and micro level--throughout the novel, as Katsa must not only learn to control her grace, but how to deal with others who are trying to control her use of it. There is also the control dynamic woven into the culture of the kingdoms--of kings controlling land and people, and men controlling the lives of women.

This is a fabulous, exciting, breathtaking novel with strong characters and themes--grand and rewarding on many levels. Highly recommended for grades 7 & up. Violence & mild sexual situations.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Mockingjay

Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins (NY: Scholastic, 2010).

The somber tone that begins this novel, the conclusion to The Hunger Games trilogy, resonates throughout as the characters grapple with just what it means to rebel and reform society. While there are moments of exaltation, the times of fear, despair, and grim determination dominate. The fire that started in book two has to run its course.

Katniss is recovering from a severe concussion at District 13, wandering the compound with her bracelet declaring her mentally disoriented in a world where regimentation and schedules predominate. District 13 depends on strict rules to maintain itself, and Katniss chafes at following the daily schedule that's imprinted on her forearm every morning. So she ignores it, wanders, and worries about Peeta, who is still in enemy hands, undoubtedly suffering unimaginable torture. As far as Katniss is concerned, the strategy of the Quarter Quell game is still on--save Peeta. Her handlers have other ideas, of course, ones that involve Katniss stepping into her role as the Mockingjay, the symbol of rebellion for the people.

Collins masterfully orchestrates the suspense here, with plenty of twists and turns that keep readers guessing. Politics predominate and the reader, like Katniss, has to attempt to penetrate the intrigue. Gamers will enjoy the first-person shooter elements as the war progresses in various terrains and landscapes with booby traps (called pods) galore. The novel ends satisfyingly, yet realistically. Katniss's confusion about her future--including her relationships--slowly moves toward a natural conclusion.

Extraordinary YA read, highly recommended for grades 6 & up. Violence, mild sexual situations, no language.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

The Hunger Games & Catching Fire

The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins (NY: Scholastic, 2008).

I wasn't sure I'd like this one--despite all the rave reviews, awards, and prizes. It sounded so brutal--a game that has kids killing kids? On TV? I do not like reality TV, especially the survival shows, but with Hunger Games Collins adds enough dystopic and critical elements--not to mention romance!--that I could abide it. This is a great story, very well told, with characters who are worth caring about.

The setting is a post-apocalyptic United States renamed Panem with twelve districts and a Capitol. Some kind of evil dictatorship oversees a brutal regime that has wiped out a thirteenth district at some point and demands "tributes" to its authority in the form of two children from each of the remaining twelve districts who must fight to the death in an annual event called the eponymous Hunger Games--broadcast live on national television and required viewing for all citizens. The districts and their residents have regimented lives dominated by work and survival. The government controls everyone and limits access to food and other necessities. Our heroine, Katniss Everdeen, illegally hunts in the woods outside the boundaries of district 12. After her father's death in a mining accident, she has needed her skills to keep her mother and little sister alive. When her little sister's name is drawn to compete in the Hunger Games, Katniss naturally volunteers to go in her place and while assuming she will die, fights to survive. Her relationship with the other competitor from her district, a boy named Peeta who has been kind to her in the past, develops in ways she never anticipated, and the Hunger Games takes on a new twist with Katniss as a competitor.

Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins (NY: Scholastic, 2009).

Catching Fire takes the survival elements of The Hunger Games to the next level in an excellent sequel that will have fans agonizing to know what will happen in the final installment, Mockingjay.

Katniss and Peeta are in a difficult position, unlike any other victors in previous Hunger Games. They've manipulated the system so that two have survived instead of the customary one. And the government is not happy about it. Katniss tries to think of a way to escape but in the end has to go along to the next event, a special Hunger Game for the 75th anniversary that involves two past victors from every district competing in a spectacularly brutal game. The President himself is threatening Katniss and all those she loves, and the intrigues and alliances are so intricate it's hard to tell what is happening. Events in the real world merge with the game in the end, and while Katniss survives it's not clear whether any part of her world will in the end.

Violence, mild sexual content, no language. Grades 7 & up.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Intelligence

Intelligence by Susan Hasler (NY: St. Martin's Press, 2010).

Maddie James weathered the 9/11 debacle and remained in her analyst position at the CIA--with the help of drugs for the physical and mental ailments that resulted from the stress of helplessly watching something happen that she felt she could have--and should have--prevented. The signs were there. She even had portentious dreams. And now, she's having them again. And again she's meeting endless resistance and can see how the almost inevitable failure to stop the next attack will simply result in another unnecessary military involvement. But she tries. She manages to get a special team together and nearly succeeds in stopping the attack.

Hasler plots her novel well and casts it with a fascinating array of characters from whose varying perspectives the story evolves. Maddie is hysterically funny in the way of middle-aged women who have been overlooked and ignored yet remain persistently intelligent, realistic, confident, and defiant.

This novel recalls all those tired jokes about "military intelligence" and magnifies their kernel of truthiness to an alarming magnitude. As an ex-CIA analyst, Hasler has the inside knowledge to indict the so-called intelligence gathering mechanisms that are supposed to protect the U.S. and instead get used to promote political agendas. And she does an awesome job, with such flair, verve, and humor that this novel goes down smoothly despite its fearsome message. Progressive readers will undoubtedly nod their heads in agreement, whispering "I knew it, I knew it," over and over. Fox news fans should just avoid this one.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Evermore

Evermore, vol. 1 of The Immortals, by Alyson Noel (NY: St. Martin's Griffin, 2009).

Evermore introduces sixteen-year-old Ever Bloom, an intriguing heroine who has recently lost her family in a terrible car accident. She is now living in California with her aunt and struggling with psychic powers that developed after her accident. She can see people's auras, hear their thoughts, intuit their lives with a simple touch. The noise is almost unbearable for Ever, who tries to block it out by hiding beneath a hooded sweatshirt with her iPod ear buds firmly in place and blasting. The highlight of her days: frequent visits from her dead little sister. While she was popular at her old school in Washington, she purposely seeks the outcasts in her new one. She knows that most of her classmates consider her a loser freak--she can hear what they're thinking after all--, but then a new boy transfers in and Ever's world shifts again. She can't read his thoughts and when he's around, the noise stops. Not only is Damen Auguste gorgeous by everyone's standards, but he seems drawn to Ever. She tries to resist, but .....

Super new paranormal romance series for fans of Twilight.

Insatiable

Insatiable by Meg Cabot (NY: William Morrow, 2010).

Meena Harper writes dialogue for a soap opera, and she is not at all pleased when not only does a slacker co-worker get promoted to head writer instead of her, but the story line will become dominated by vampires! Too trendy! Besides writing, Meena has special talents--she can see how people she meets are going to die, which has wreaked havoc on many of her interpersonal relations and definitely put the kibosh on her last romance. Meena's nosy neighbor is constantly trying to set her up with new men, but Meena is taking a break after her most recent love calamity. An odd encounter with bats and a mysterious stranger while she's out walking her dog one night and then a chance reacquaintance with the same stranger--who turns out to be a princely relative of her neighbor no less--nudge Meena back into the relationship game. And then things get really strange!

This is supposed to be an anti-vampire novel, right? And there are lots of digs at the Twilight series, but it's a romance, so it shares many of the same conventions, including the addle-brained heroine and the fabulously good-looking and conflicted hero who are immediately attracted to one another but must resist their attraction, etc. Then there's the other guy, a vampire killer associated with the Vatican, with the same attributes, plus he carries a sword that he has nicknamed Senor Sticky. Who will win the heroine? See what I mean about romance conventions? Cabot is a great story teller and spins an excellent plot, so this is a good read, but it is not anti-vampire! There's a lot of silliness as well with coveted handbags and vintage dresses. The climactic battle scene riffs on Twilight to highly comedic effect.

Although this novel aims for an adult audience, YAs will also enjoy it. High school & up.

So Cold the River

So Cold the River by Michael Koryta (NY: Little, Brown, 2010).

Eric Shaw is down on his luck. He failed as a cinematographer in LA so he moved to Chicago and started creating family videos. His speciality is funeral memorials. He uses his intuition to select photographs and clips that represent the lives of the deceased, sometimes drawing gasps for spectators. That's why Alyssa Bradford came to him with a special request: create a biography of her father-in-law, Campbell Bradford, who is about to die. She wants Shaw to travel to French Lick, Indiana, home of the famous mineral water spas that had their glory days before the Great Depression, but had recently been renovated. Bradford's mysterious roots are there--and she gives him an old bottle of the water--Bradford's only memento of his childhood.

It seems like an interesting assignment--maybe even the start of something big, so Shaw accepts the task and the generous payment. Almost immediately the work gets complicated, drawing Shaw into a complicated family mystery with supernatural elements that explode when past and present collide!

This is a super thrilling, excellent read, and it's nearly impossible to put down, so be sure to block out time for reading. Koryta creates wonderful characters and a creepy, suspenseful atmosphere that just keeps building up. Since I live in Indiana and have visited the area described, I found the novel that much more enjoyable, especially the small town establishments and people. If you haven't been to French Lick, you'll probably want to go after you read this book, just to see the beautiful West Baden resort. Koryta lovingly describes the wondrous splendor of the dome and grounds of the resort and weaves the details to marvelous effect into his story.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Spaceheadz

Spaceheadz by Jon Scieszka with Francesco Sedita. Ill. Shane Prigmore. (NY: Simon & Schuster, 2010).

This is the first volume in a smoking new series from the superfunny writer Jon Scieszka (Time Warp Trio series, Stinky Cheeseman, etc., etc.). Loaded with wacky pictures and sight effects (like sound effects but for your eyes!), the book introduces the reader to Michael K. who has just moved to Brooklyn, New York, and is starting at a new school--P.S. 858. Wouldn't you know that he'd be stuck sitting with the other new kids--and he's sure these two will doom him to the bottom of the social ladder in a nanosecond. They seem to speak in advertising jingles! Worse, they say they're from outer space and must recruit 3,140,001 kids to be SPHDZ or the earth will "turn off," whatever that means. Michael K. tries to ditch them, but instead gets sucked into their wild antics. Meanwhile, a klutzy agent from the top-secret AAA (Anti-Alien Agency) is literally knocking himself out as he attempts to locate the aliens that are being reported...but all he sees are these kids!

Quick and easy read for ages 6 & up. Great for reluctant readers! Companion websites, too.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Anything but Normal

Anything but Normal by Melody Carlson (Grand Rapids, MI: Revel, 2010).

17-year-old Sophie Ramsay wishes she'd never seen Dylan Morris, let alone allow herself to be fooled into breaking her purity pledge. And at a summer church camp, of all places. Now she's pregnant and not sure what to do about it. First she ignores it, but eventually she has to fess up and tell her family and friends. As she repairs her relationships, including that with God, she feels her growing not just out but up.

Great teen read that deals realistically with difficult issue. Language, sexual situations. Ages 13 & up.

The Mostly True Adventures of Homer P. Figg

The Mostly True Adventures of Homer P. Figg by Rodman Philbrick (NY: Blue Sky Press, 2009).

In this engaging historical novel set during American Civil War, Homer P. Figg follows his underage brother from their meager home in Pine Swamp, Maine, to the Battle of Gettysburg. Their mean uncle Squinton Leach has sold his Harold, illegally, into Union Army and Homer just can't bear to be without his brother. Their parents are both dead, and Harold has always taken care of Homer. Homer tries to be truthful, but fanciful tales have a way of popping into his head and out of his mouth. He shows both great humor and great courage as he faces con men, stern military officers, and even the horrors of war.

Newbery Honor Book. Great for ages 9-12.

The Not-So-Great Depression

The Not-So-Great Depression, in which the economy crashes, my mom goes broke, my sister's plans are ruined, my dad grows vegetables, and I do not get a hamster by Amy Goldman Koss (NY: Roaring Book Press, 2010).

9th grade Jacki is irrepressibly optimistic and cheerful. All sorts of bad things are going on in her life, but she remains upbeat and positive. She's the ultimate glass half full, silver lining, lemonade girl. Her mom says she's like her dad, and her sister Brooke calls her "Miss Sweetie Pants Happy Face." Mom and Brooke are Type As, so they're both pretty upset about financial issues, but Jacki sees the bright side--no private school next year--great, she'll be at the public school with the cute guy she likes. Have to move away and downsize? Fine, move to the area where her best friend lives. Broken ankle? Awesome--no more track team or piano lessons! Quick fun read for ages 11 & up.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Purge

Purge by Sarah Darer Littman (NY: Scholastic, 2009).

Sixteen-year-old Janie detests vomiting, but she's firmly in the Barfer camp, as opposed to the Starvers, at Golden Slopes, the treatment facility for eating disorders. After causing a scene at her perfect stepsister's wedding, Janie has been shuttled here for the summer to get fixed. Not that she wants to get fixed or even thinks she needs fixing. She's fine, really. She likes writing in her journal and she can lie with the best of them to her psychiatrist. She just wants to get back home, where she can pee in peace. And puke, of course.

In spite of her resolve, Janie is forced to face some hard truths. Eating disorders can kill people. One of the Starvers actually dies--practically right in front of Janie. Talking about her feelings and learning strategies for coping, without purging, can be useful. Dealing with conflicts works better than burying them. Don't assume that the story in your head is the truth since it could be just that: a story in your head.

Littman spins a vivid tale of a teen's struggle with a common eating disorder. Janie's relationships with her family, friends, caregivers, and fellow inmates are well developed and realistic. Highly recommended for teens, ages 12 & up.

Seth Baumgartner's Love Manifesto

Seth Baumgartner's Love Manifesto by Eric Luper (NY: Balzer + Bray, 2010).

Talk about a bad day. Seth's girlfriend dumps him--at Applebee's--and he sees his dad out on what seems to be a date at the same time. Big surprise that he gets fired for being late when he finally makes it back to work at the mall french fry kiosk. Seth takes his wallowing public, albeit anonymously, in a podcast he calls his Love Manifesto. He wants to get to the bottom of this thing called love and he figures other people will want to come along for the ride. He likes the irony, too--his mom hosts a radio show that caters to romantics who call in for special dedications of favorite love songs. He also gets a job at the pro shop of his country club. Better--his best friend Dmitri gets hired, too, and Dmitri's sister Audrey is working food service for the summer as well.

In spite of the tired golf jokes, this is a funny novel, well worth reading. Seth plays the hapless male quite well, and Dmitri is hilarious. You can imagine how long the pod cast remains anonymous. Sex and language, of course. Recommended for teens, 13 & up.

Falling In

Falling In by Frances O'Roark Dowell (NY: Atheneum, 2010).

How would you like to open a closet door expecting to find a mouse and instead fall into another world? That's what happens to Isabelle Bean. She's surprisingly nonplussed. She'd been hearing a buzz all morning as she'd ignored the monotony that is sixth grade. She believes she's different from other kids, so she doesn't care that she has no friends, though she wonders what it would be like. She doesn't care at all when she gets sent to the office for not paying attention in class, and that's where she opens the door to another world.

In this place, the children believe there's a witch that systematically travels around eating children. To avoid the witch, the children must journey to camps by themselves and stay there until the dangerous time has passed. This is what Hen, a girl who has gotten separated from her group, tells Isabelle somewhat cautiously when they meet in the woods. Those red boots Isabelle is wearing? They're like a sign that screams "I'm a witch!" to Hen, who nonetheless follows Isabelle on a road that Isabelle hopes will lead to the very witch who is eating children!

Excellent fantasy adventure for younger readers, ages 8-12. Odd authorial interruptions may disconcert some, but they're easily ignored.

Wild Things

Wild Things by Clay Carmichael (Honesdale, PA: Front Street, 2009).

Fiercely independent Zoe trusts no one, and with good reason. Largely neglected by her mentally ill mother, Zoe has grown up for eleven years without much guidance, other than that provided by her mother's lackluster bunch of boyfriends. Then, when her mother dies, Zoe ends up with an uncle she's never heard of, the half-brother of a dead father she never knew. Henry Royster may be a famous cardiologist and metal sculptor, but he's a match for Zoe in terms of stubborn independence. Zoe resists connections at first, except with the largely feral cat that lives on Henry's property in rural North Carolina. Exploring the land, she happens upon an abandoned cabin that holds a secret. No spoilers here, but this is a great read about finding family and love in unexpected ways and places. Recommended for ages 8-12.

Scones and Sensibility

Scones and Sensibility by Lindsay Eland (NY: Egmont, 2010).

Entranced by the romantic world of Pride & Prejudice, 12-year-old Polly Madassa sets out to find happy endings for many of the people in her life. She uses her summer job of delivering pastries for the family bakery to spy out potentials matches which she then nurtures with romantic suggestions--and chocolate danishes! Polly soon learns certain enduring truths about the bumps along the road to true love and has to force a dose of realism into her romantic daydreams.

This is a fun, engaging read for girls, ages 8-12.

Big Nate in a Class by Himself

Big Nate in a Class by Himself by Lincoln Peirce (NY: Harper, 2010).

Yes, it's blatant imitation of Diary of a Wimpy Kid, but Peirce's book is a fun read and worth handing to reluctant readers who need that extra push to try a book. Big Nate is superconfident and expects greatness in his life, so he's always surprised when he gets less than stellar outcomes for his efforts. When a fortune cookie indicates that "today you will surpass all others," he's sure he'll be a millionaire--or maybe something better. Little does he consider that "surpass" can go two ways, and while his day certainly spins wildly out of control in hilarious directions as he tries repeatedly to fulfill the cookie's prophecy, he has to admit he does surpass everyone in the end!

Super drawings and goofy situations makes this a great read for boys and girls, ages 8 & up.

The Outlandish Adventures of Liberty Aimes

The Outlandish Adventures of Liberty Aimes by Kelly Easton (NY: Wendy Lamb, 2009).

10-year-old Liberty Aimes leads a fairly harsh life. Nominally homeschooled, she cooks, cleans, and does anything else her evil father, appropriately named Mal, orders her to do, including digging up bricks! Meanwhile her obese mother sits on the couch, eats, watches stupid TV shows, and gets heavier day after day. Despite all of this, Liberty is a happy, hopeful sprite of a girl. She manages to escape one day with the help of a magical potion she finds in her father's basement laboratory and plans to locate the Sullivan School, a fancy boarding school where she believes she will lead a blissful existence. Of course, the road to Sullivan is paved with many funny adventures, and the story lives up to its title.

Even though it has a happy ending, the first few chapters are so grimly oppressive that sensitive youngsters may find it frightening. Recommended for grades 3-5 (ages 8-10).

Friday, June 25, 2010

Some Girls Are

Some Girls Are by Courtney Summers (NY: St. Martin's Griffin, 2009).

Painfully realistic in all senses, Some Girls Are depicts the raw underside of mean girl cliques gone way way bad. Regina Afton does whatever queen bee Anna Morrison says. She destroys people, makes them wish they were dead. Then it happens to her when she tells the wrong person about a horrifying near-rape experience with Anna's boyfriend. Frozen out of her social safety net, Regina becomes an outcast, seeking solace from two people who have every reason to hate her.

The level of violence in this novel is shocking, yet rings true. Regina's feelings and fears, the abuse she suffers and apparently has doled out, paint a stark yet vivid picture of contemporary teens' struggles to fit in.

Language, sexual situations. Grades 9 & up.

Brilliant

Brilliant by Rachel Vail (NY: HarperTeen, 2010).

Brilliant is the third in Vail's trilogy about the three Avery sisters. Although the novels share characters, it is not necessary to have read the first two to enjoy this one. (I'm pretty sure I've read Lucky, but I don't really remember it!) Quinn Avery seems perfectly calm and collected--her two younger sisters call her Zen. She gets good grades, practices her piano, and lives a safe life. Then she comes home to find her room painted white. What happened to her red refuge? Her mother had it painted without even telling her--because the house has to be sold. Financial ruin and legal woes are upon the Averys--some kind of hedge fund chicanery that Quinn assumes her mother is taking the fall for, since she could not possibly have done anything wrong. So now everything is changing--like her room. And even Quinn changes--no more Zen--she steals a pair of her mom's shoes and starts acting out--kissing the wrong boys, going to wild parties, skipping school, abandoning the piano. Where will it end?

Great teen read for grades 7 & up.

Savvy

Savvy by Ingrid Law (NY: Scholastic, 2008).

In this Newbery Honor book, Mississippi Beaumont--nicknamed Mibs--discovers she has a secret talent--her savvy--on her 13th birthday. This has happened to everyone in her family--it's in her genes. She knows her life will change once she has her talent, but she doesn't know what it will be. Her mother's talent is doing everything perfectly. Her grandmother used to jar music; her grandfather can move mountains. One of her brothers (mis)manages electricity, and the other's moods influence the weather--usually in dangerous ways! Her family had to move away from any body of water when that happened, since water seemed to trigger treacherous climactic developments. Learning to master one's savvy--rather than it mastering you--was something that took time, so Mibs knew she'd have to stay home from school, like her brothers, once her savvy took hold. And she could hardly wait!

Only Mibs's poppa doesn't have a savvy. If he had, maybe he wouldn't have gotten into the horrible car accident. Now, just two days before Mibs's birthday, Mibs's mother and electrical brother are traveling to the city to be at poppa's side.

Early on her birthday, Mibs becomes convinced that she can influence people's actions--that is her savvy she believes. This means she has to get to poppa and make him wake up. First, though, she has to get through the birthday party the well-meaning pastor's wife has decided will cheer her up while her mother and father are gone. Instead, the advent of Mibs's true savvy unleashes a wacky chain of events involving a wild journey on a traveling bible salesman's bus with a bit of romance thrown in.

This is one ride you won't want to miss! Law's whimsical language and spellbinding storytelling will engage readers aged 8 & up.

Friend Is Not a Verb

Friend is Not a Verb by Daniel Ehrenhaft (NY: HarperTeen, 2010).

The title of this novel leaped out at me from the library book shelf! How funny--and true--in this age of social networking. The story focuses on Henry, or Hen to his family and friends, Birnbaum's investigation of his sister Sarah's disappearance. Well, she has actually come back home after disappearing for a year, and Hen's pretty sure his parents knew where she was. Now that she's back, Hen assumes the circumstances will be revealed, but no. So he picks up his excellent bass rig and taxis to the loft of Gabriel Stern, one of Sarah's co-conspirators, on the pretense of taking bass lessons, but really to try to ferret out the reason for the top secret flight from NYC. Instead, Hen ends up stealing a manuscript diary that reveals mainly Gabriel's obsession with Sarah and some of the odd details of their foreign exodus.

There are other things percolating in Hen's life. His first-ever girlfriend, Petra, has dumped him, but he's eventually allowed to stay in her self-named band. He's thankful for the sympathy of his best friend and neighbor Emma who willingly gives her thoughts on all things Sarah, Petra, VH1 junk series, and their eerily synchronized dreams. He can't fathom the wacky popularity of the "Steal Your Parents' Money" campaign that has everyone talking. He even gets a job walking dogs for a rude British ex-pat. Where is all this heading? Hen wants answers, and his zany quest will keep readers turning the pages and laughing out loud while cheering him on to victory!

Great read for teen boys and girls, grades 7 & up. Language, sexual situations.

The Man of my Dreams

The Man of My Dreams by Curtis Sittenfeld (NY: Random House, 2006).

Make no mistake, despite the title, Sittenfeld writes top-notch realistic fiction. With Prep, she established a scathingly honest voice for adolescent turmoil in the prep school world. The Man of My Dreams begins in a similar world--fourteen-year-old Hannah Gavener's attempts at understanding how love will fit into her life. She's convinced that it should--she follows the love lives of celebrities and sees her cousin through a succession of relationships. Her own parents' relationship is tumultuous. Her father's controlling ways contribute to the demise of the marriage, and Hannah isn't sure what to believe about sex, love, or marriage, though she remains sure they're something she should want. The novel follows her journey through her twenties, skipping through to the choices Hannah makes in her relationships with men, while continuing to learn about love through others' experiences as well. Hannah's struggles will touch anyone who has wondered if there is any grain of truth in the cultural fantasy of a happy, enduring relationship. Who benefits from the fantasy? Or is it a trap?

Deeper than standard chick lit fare, The Man of My Dreams is great read for women--and men--who ponder the place of relationships--and the cultural myths surrounding them--in their lives.

The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest

The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest by Stieg Larsson, trans. Reg Keeland (NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 2010).

If you've been following this series, you know that this, sadly, is the last book in the trilogy that began with The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. This one picks up where The Girl Who Played With Fire left off: Lisbeth Salander (the eponymous Girl) is fighting for her life in a hospital after sustaining serious injuries from her deranged father (a sociopathic former Soviet agent named Zalachenko aka Karl Axel Bodin) and his maniacal henchman Ronald Niedermann. Meanwhile, intrepid journalist Mikael Blomkvist is left to deal with incompetent police who not only allow Niedermann to escape--and ultimately disappear--but persist in believing that Lisbeth Salander is responsible for the deaths of the two journalists who were killed in the previous novel. If Lisbeth survives her brain injury, she'll have to stand trial. Mikael keeps working at the difficult knots in the case, which seems to involve a top-secret section of the Swedish intelligence agency and possibly upper levels of the government as well. Deceit, deception, conspiracy--all going back to the year when Zalachenko defected to Sweden--swirl in a dangerous, turbulent game of espionage, murder, and more.

This will undoubtedly go down as the final book in the must-read series for 21st-century crime fiction. It's an absolute page-turner, deftly plotted, elaborately detailed, and stunningly told. If only Larsson had lived to write a few more....

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Irresistible!

The Irresistible Henry House by Lisa Grunwald (NY: Random House, 2010).

Henry House starts his life in 1946 as a "practice" baby in a college home economics course designed to give students real life experience in babycare. As Grunwald explains in an afterword, this was a real part of college curricula, including Cornell University, until as late as 1969. In Grunwald's version, the students take turns living for a week in the "practice" house, where the orderly, rule-driven Martha Gaines presides. Henry is the tenth baby she's brought to the house, and he's a bit younger than most of the previous babies. And then there are his eyes, that draw her in, and his engaging smile. Martha falls in love. Henry proves irresistible to most of the women in his life and learns early to manipulate his power.

Further complicating the situation, Betty, one of the students in the class, the college president's daughter, in fact, turns out to be Henry's biological mother. She had him extramaritally, while her husband was on military duty, so initially she gave Henry up. Taking care of him in the house starts to change her mind, but when her husband, who everyone thought had died, turns up AWOL in Australia, she abandons the idea of keeping Henry altogether. Strict, orderly Martha gives in to her desires and adopts Henry, so he grows up surrounded by an endlessly changing cast of women and babies, yet unable to feel attached to anyone in particular as they leave after a year. Martha tells Henry that his mother is dead, and when Betty turns up divorced and wanting a relationship with Henry, Henry feels betrayed by Martha, who lied out of her own need to possess Henry. His relationship with Martha, already strained by her excessive neediness, is hopelessly mangled. He stops talking to her, and then stops talking altogether.

The story follows Henry's relationships with women first in a school for troubled youth, then when he runs away to New York to live with his mother, then on to California and a job at the Disney studios, then to London to work on the animation for Yellow Submarine. As the world changes--from the fifties to the sixties--the iconic Henry changes, too. Grunwald weaves a colorful, engrossing tale of self-discovery as Henry struggles with conflicting desires and his own creativity. This is a must-read novel for 2010!

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Phobias Begone!

School of Fear by Gitty Daneshvari; ill. Carrie Gifford (NY: Little, Brown, 2009).

What's a phobic kid to do? Enroll in the mysterious School of Fear! This quirky class of frightened children with a frightful teacher in a frightening setting earns high marks for originality--and silliness. Madeleine is a veil-wearing girl who douses herself and everyone around her with insect repellant. Theodore Bartholomew freaks out when he cannot ascertain that every member of his family is alive every hour of the day. Lulu Punchalower checks every room for large windows because she's scared of confined spaces, and Garrison Feldman may be a fearless athlete, but he breaks out in a cold sweat whenever he's near water. Their teacher seems like a wacky old lady who can't let go of her beauty queen past. She even refers to the kids as contestants rather than students! And what's with the industrial strength comb-over of the school's caretaker?

The School guarantees successful elimination of crippling phobias, and this novel, while somewhat predictable, is a guaranteed laugh.

Enjoyable read for ages 8 & up. Added bonus: great line drawings that help bring the characters to life.

Confetti Girl

Confetti Girl by Diana Lopez (NY: Little, Brown, 2010).

Lina Flores loves colorful socks--they are her fashion statement, necessary for distracting from her gawky height and plain brown wrapping, she thinks. She'd love to be as beautiful as her best friend Vanessa who easily snags good-looking Carlos to be her boyfriend. Lina is crushing on geeky Luis, but worries about her book-loving dad's escapist tendencies and even Vanessa's mom's man-hating statements and obsession with making cascarones--decorated hollow eggs stuffed with colorful confetti. Her dad just wants to read and doesn't even know that Lina loves science and is failing English. If only Lina's mother were still alive, but she's not, and Vanessa's mom's sympathetic whispers of pobrecita wearing thin.

Lopez has created a warm novel with bilingual and bicultural dimensions that reads well and easily. Great for girls ages 9-12.

Zombie Kid

My Rotten Life: Nathan Abercrombie, Accidental Zombie by David Lubar (NY: Tom Doherty, 2009).

Nathan Abercrombie is ten years old and dwells near the bottom of the social ladder at his elementary school. He's not invited to parties or readily picked for teams in gym class. In fact, he's taunted for his mediocrity. Sigh. Then a lab accident turns him into a semi-zombie. It's weird and gross, but not totally awful either. He can deal with the sleeplessness since it allows him to sneak computer time and become an expert at the games his classmates love to play. Sure it's a little nasty nearly losing a thumb and having to graft it back on with miracle plant food. But he can get some revenge on the class bully and earn some respect in gym since he feels no pain at all when running or doing 239 pull-ups. Still, he wants to be human again...until it means a choice between saving himself and helping a friend.

Great story with enough disgusting details to engross (!) reluctant readers. Recommended for ages 8-12, but OK for younger and high-low readers as well.

The Case of the Case of Mistaken Identity

The Case of the Case of Mistaken Identity by Mac Barnett; ill. Adam Rex (NY: Simon & Schuster, 2009).

This hilarious mystery adventure introduces readers to detective wanna be Steve Brixton, who does not have a brother, but who knows from his vast experience reading detective fiction that all detectives have fraternal sidekicks. He constantly consults The Bailey Brothers' Detective Handbook as well as his encyclopedic knowledge of their many adventures, gleaned from multiple readings of the fifty-nine books in the Bailey Brothers Mysteries series. Sure, Steve may not have the boxing experience or electrical skills of his heroes, but he knows where to find information--at the library! Oddly enough, the librarians seem to be the villainous foes as Steve's first brush with detecting evolves. Who knew checking out a book on quilts for an eight-page English paper could lead to hidden treasures, cryptic symbols, and dangerous night-time bike rides with a bookmobile in hot pursuit?

Laugh out loud funny with superb illustrations. Highly recommended for boys and girls, ages 8-12.

Thirteen Plus One

Thirteen Plus One by Lauren Myracle (NY: Dutton Children's Books, 2010).

This novel is latest installment in The Winnie Years series that began with Eleven. I've not read any of the previous books, but had no trouble becoming engaged in the life of just-turned-fourteen Winnie Perry. She's a southern girl with big plans; for her summer before high school she has a to-do list that includes being spazzy and doing something to help the world. With the latter goal in mind, she signs up for an ecological-themed beach camp that monitors sea turtles. Her best friends end up coming along for the ride, and Winnie also deals with a long distance relationship with her boyfriend Lars.

Myracle once again produces the perfect package of fun, humor, and life lessons that is sure to engage preteen girls. Great summer read for grades 4-7.

Make a Wish

The Wish by Gail Carson Levine (NY: Harper Trophy, 2000).

What middle schooler wouldn't want the opportunity to have a wish granted? It's the ultimate fantasy, and Levine allows readers the vicarious thrill of accompanying 8th grader Wilma Sturtz on her wish-propelled life of popularity. When Wilma helps an old lady on the subway, she gets one wish, and after a year of friendless invisibility, she desires not just to be popular, but to be the most popular girl at her middle school, Claverford. Too late, she realizes the limits of the wish, with only three weeks remaining of school.

Entertaining read for girls, ages 8-12.

As Easy as Falling Off the Face of the Earth

As Easy as Falling Off the Face of the Earth by Lynne Rae Perkins (NY: Greenwillow, 2010).

Right off the bat, let me say that I liked this novel so much better than Criss Cross, Perkins's Newbery Medal winning effort. It succeeds where Criss Cross failed, namely in conveying the serendipitous nature of self-discovery, largely through the power of adventure story. The main character, a likable teenager named Ry, has incredibly bad luck from page one, when he steps off a train trying to find cell reception and ends up stranded in the middle of Montana. He has just read a letter from the summer camp he's supposed to be attending telling him NOT to come--the program is cancelled. Meanwhile, there's bad luck on other fronts as well--his parents, on a Caribbean sailing adventure, encounter mechanical problems and lose their cell phones, so they're out of contact. The grandfather who is supposed to be minding the house and dogs, has a fall and ends up with a concussion, so he's off the radar, too. Luckily Ry literally runs into Del, a stubborn handyman who doesn't mind an adventure and offers to drive Ry back across the country to find out why his grandfather isn't answering the phone. Del then accompanies Ry on a trip to the Caribbean as well to suss out Ry's parents.

All in all, this is one marvelous adventure; the plot-driven nature of the story will keep all readers turning the pages. Highly recommended for grades 6 & up.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate

The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate by Jacqueline Kelly (NY: Henry Holt, 2009).

Don't let the dated looking cover art put you off this novel--it boasts extremely timely themes and a thoroughly engaging character in the eponymous Calpurnia Tate. Set in turn-of-the-century Texas, the novel stunningly captures the gritty, soporific heat that Calpurnia blithely ignores to tramp along side her grandfather to engage in scientific exploration. Learning about the natural world attracts her so much that she overcomes her fear of her grandfather to become his companion, and their relationship becomes just one of the "evolutions" in this novel. She is thrilled when he hands her his own copy of Darwin's The Origin of Species when the local library doesn't have it. Calpurnia records her observations and discoveries in a special notebook given to her by the eldest of her six brothers. At nearly twelve, Calpurnia is also starting to deal with the constraints of being a girl at this time period--why should she learn to cook and sew, for instance, when she could be out discovering how the world works with Grandaddy? Her failures in the domestic arts provide much of the humor in this novel, as well as her daily dealings with her brothers and mother.

Kelly vividly evokes Calpurnia's frustrations but without smothering all hope that Calpurnia can veer from the expected course of her life. I can imagine Calpurnia riding the progressive currents of her time into the university career she so desperately wishes for herself. Contemporary readers will come away with a renewed sense of possibility for their own futures--in science and all areas.

This is a wonderful novel--great for girls and boys, grades 5& up.