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.