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 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 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


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.