Thursday, December 22, 2011

Meggie Brooks

Meggie Brooks by Daphne Woods (Princeton, NJ: Heather Press, 2010).

Summary from Amazon.com: Meggie Brooks is the gripping story of a girl growing up in a small rural township in New Jersey, living an almost idyllic life, enjoying the beauty of her country environment, spending time with her sometimes dysfunctional relatives, and uncovering a family mystery. But that is only one side of the story. Although she is an excellent student, Meggie finds out early on what happens when she confronts the politically correct agenda of the schools. A young Meggie is silenced and traumatized for attempting to speak her views about global warming—views she has developed after watching a video on the subject with her parents. After that incident, she becomes wary of speaking out on issues in the classroom, and it is years before she finds the inner strength to defend her own views. She ultimately does, however, even becoming a lawyer in order to defend religious freedom and free-speech rights, and in the end, it is a story of triumph. Meggie's search for truth in her family correlates with her search for truth in the world around her. A young girl's journey into adulthood, a poignant search for love, a family saga full of mystery and intrigue, and a passionate romance—this amazingly rich novel is all these and more.

Yikes!  I wish I had read this description instead of the one that the author sent me before I agreed to review this book, which is filled with horrendous ultraconservative, right-wing claptrap.  Meggie is a self-righteous, whining crybaby whose parents are litigious boors.  Their eagerness to sue the schools belies their contempt for the judiciary as being too liberal.  They get their views from such biased sources as Fox News and Rush Limbaugh and don't bother considering other perspectives although they're quick to criticize all other media outlets as liberals who don't consider alternative views.  This is clearly a conundrum, but then so much of what Meggie spouts is.

The novel itself largely consists of lengthy and ill-informed diatribes thinly veiled as discussions among characters--emphasis on lengthy, for this novel tops out at over 500 dense, narrowly margined pages.  Meggie makes much of her Christian values, but her brand of Christianity is so hateful and vile, Christ Himself wouldn't recognize how twisted His words can become in the mouths of fundamentalist Evangelicals like Meggie who hate homosexuals and poor people. Meggie's frequent run-ins with teachers and other folks who happen to disagree with her are almost comical in their uniformly negative physical descriptions of her tormenters.  Liberals are all fat, ugly, frumpy, greasy and just plain unattractive; truly they are the great unwashed to Meggie. Further, Meggie's endless harping on the weight of other female characters (all of them, not just the liberals) amply illustrates her superficial and judgmental nature.

Meggie Brooks was billed to me as a YA novel, but the long tracts of dull political wrangling can hold little appeal to that audience.  The so-called romances are also mainly opportunities for Meggie to either condemn liberal perspectives or approve ultraconservative ones.  The SAT vocabulary seems highly overwrought  and makes the characters sound like pretentious prats. Reading this novel was truly a painful experience though it did illuminate for me precisely how Washington has ended up in such dire straits.
Not recommended for anything but the recycle bin.

The Loser List

The Loser List by H.N. Kowitt (NY: Scholastic Press, 2011).

Twelve-year-old Danny Shine has the usual problems of a geek in middle school, but he's OK with crushing on a cute girl, avoiding bullies, and hanging with his equally geeky best friend Jasper.  A run-in with tough girl Chantal lands Danny on the dreaded Loser List--written on the wall in the girls' bathroom.  His problems escalate when he tries to get his name off the list, and he finds himself in detention with scary guy Axl. But Axl turns out to be OK, or so Danny thinks until Axl implicates Danny in a shoplifting scam and alienates Jasper. Ah, but revenge is sweet, and Danny triumphs in the end, despite some public humiliation.

This is an excellent pick for the legions of Wimpy Kid fans. Danny's a self-deprecating guy who haplessly lands in a tough situation. He uses his geeky interest in comics and drawing to help himself--a great lesson for kids of all ages about being true to oneself.  The pictures are excellent--except Kowitt should take a look at a pair of whitie-tighties before she attempts to draw one again; there's a reason they're called Y-fronts. Recommended for ages 8 & up. 

The Future of Us

The Future of Us by Jay Asher and Carolyn Mackler (NY:  Razorbill, 2011).

Josh and Emma are best friends and neighbors; at least until six months ago when Josh almost acted on his more-than-Platonic feelings and things got awkward.  Emma is serial dating and Josh is still embarrassed, but he brings Emma the AOL CD-ROM he gets in the mail for her to load onto her new computer.  Dial-up is slow, but they get on the Internet and find...Facebook.  They've never heard of it because it's 1996, yet they quickly discern that they're looking at the future: their future--and everyone else's they care to look up.  That's weird enough, but then they notice that their future changes every time they log on, and they start to think about how the present ripples into the future at the same time as what they're seeing in the future is impacting their present lives.

This is such a wonderful premise, brimming with possibility, and Asher and Mackler do a great job of working with that potential.  The perspective switches off between Josh (Asher) and Emma (Mackler) but the transitions are seamless and there's no confusion. Seeing how Josh and Emma handle their new knowledge and ponder the ramifications of their actions--which they see played out in real time whenever they log in--makes the pages fly.  Highly recommended for ages 13 & up.  Sexual situations, alcohol.

Monday, December 5, 2011

The Jinx

The Jinx by D. F. Lamont (2011). Self-published.  Review copy provided by the author.

Thirteen-year-old Stephen Grayson isn't sure what's going on, but he knows he's at fault somehow.  First he wrecks his brother's bike--spectacularly--on the first day of school, then there's the garage fire and a major explosion in science class, followed by a myriad of minor mishaps, and capped by a car crash.  And it's during the car accident that he connects the weird tingling in his hands and the subsequent disaster.  Once he's sure, he knows what he has to do--leave home.  Trouble follows him on the road, though, and soon he finds himself flung from a bus chasing down gigantic stone-like creatures and misshapen beasts, then kidnapped by some kind of neatnik cult.  The cult's leader explains that somehow Stephen has become the epicenter of a universal battle between the forces of chaos and order, and he must use his special powers to help the forces of order defeat chaos once and for all.  But Stephen's not so sure and when a rebel biker named Daedalus shows up to rescue him, he gladly goes along. Can Stephen and Daedalus come up with an alternate plan--and can it succeed?

The Jinx is quite short at 123 pages, but it packs a nice punch with lots of action and a fast-moving plot.  Stephen is a believable character vaulted into an unbelievable situation.  The creepy cult is actually quite hilarious (they're all albinos with helmet hair that doesn't move, no matter what, and they hate dirt!); Daedalus adds a lovely steampunk element with his goggles, leather gear, and penchant for mechanical devices. The explanation for Stephen's power as well as the whole chaos vs. order battle is a bit cryptic, but more or less plausible. Overall, a fast, fun read, recommended for ages 9 & up.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Scary School

Scary School by Derek the Ghost, illustrated by Scott M. Fischer (NY: Harper, 2011). Review copy provided by the author.

At the Scary School, humans and scary creatures mingle, and lots of the human kids die, though some return in a different guise, like dragons. Many of the teachers routinely eat or otherwise kill students, including Principal Headcrusher, but most notoriously Dr. Dragonbreath.  The narrator, Derek the Ghost, died in a horrendous laboratory fire, but returned as a ghost because he'd always wanted to write a book, and with the Ghoul Games competition against the monster schools ahead in the coming school year, there will be lots to write about. 

Kids are sure to find something funny in this humorous take on school jitters.  Sure, the other students can be mean at any school, but can they eat your brains or slash you to death?  And teachers can be frightening, but will any of them actually eat you, the way Mrs. T (a real T. rex!) does--if she's hungry--during a detention?  The plot stutters episodically as it focuses on different students and events that are only loosely connected, but it gradually leads up to the Ghoul Games, which threaten to destroy the school! Derek tends to tell rather than show and more detail, especially about himself, might have allowed the reader to feel more invested in the story.  He also regularly alludes to future books and events instead of allowing the story to unfold naturally.  The illustrations are excellent! Fine for ages 8 & up.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

The Unbecoming of Mara Dyer

The Unbecoming of Mara Dyer by Michelle Hodkin (NY: Simon & Schuster, 2011).

Mara Dyer doesn't know what's wrong with her, and she doesn't figure it out by the end of this novel, but at least she has Noah Shaw at her side.  The background:  Mara wakes up from a coma to discover that her best friend, her boyfriend, and his twin sister have died in a building collapse that she somehow miraculously survived. She doesn't remember much else, and she's freaked out, plagued by hallucinations and nightmares, and diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.  She and her family have moved to Miami from Rhode Island to help her heal, but Croyden Academy's elite students aren't exactly welcoming, except for devastatingly attractive Noah Shaw who notices Mara right away; she can't resist him, either, even though she knows he's bad news--and she does have this psychotic baggage, too. Plus, she keeps imagining deaths that then happen.

This is a creepy good novel with a magnetic romance.  Really, the romance is the best part (aside from the cover!) because the plot is riddled with sink holes and deep crevasses, but Noah and Mara make a great couple and the pages fly by.  Mara's family, especially her two brothers, are fine secondary characters. Thankfully, Noah doesn't sprout fangs or sparkle in the sunlight. Mara is all over the map and her mother is probably right--she should be in a heavily guarded facility, but that would be a different kind of novel entirely, not a sort-of psychothriller, paranormalish romance.  I will definitely look for the sequel!  Recommended for ages 14 & up.  Sexual situations, intense creepiness, language, completely legal prescription drugs.

Daughter of Smoke and Bone

Daughter of Smoke and Bone by Laini Taylor (NY: Little, Brown, 2011).

Karou is an art student in Prague who draws fantastic beasts which her friends assume roam in her imagination.  Wrong.  They're her family, at least her foster family, and they're all she has aside from her best friend Zuzana. Her principal guardian is Brimstone, a monstrous wishmonger who buys teeth from all over the world. Karou has been running teeth buying errands for him since she was a child, slipping in and out of the secret doors that open from his workshop to almost anywhere in an instant.  But something is happening.  The supply of teeth is dwindling, and black handprints are appearing on the secret doors. Karou wants to know what's going on, but Brimstone won't tell her--and then she meets Akiva, a haunted, beautiful angel, and her world literally explodes.

Taylor builds an amazing world, and Karou is a respectably complex character, the mystery of whose origins puzzles herself and the reader for most of the novel.  The romance between her and Akiva plays out well, but a little oddly, not surprising given that she doesn't know what she is (probably not human) and he's...what he is.  On the plus side, the angel lore doesn't overwhelm the story, and the war between the two worlds is layed out clearly. Prague makes a perfect setting--real, yet magical and steeped in ancient potential. Recommended for ages 13 & up.  Sexual situations, intense situations, violence.

V is for Vengeance

V is for Vengeance by Sue Grafton (NY: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 2011).

Kinsey Milhone is back and taking hits again in this latest (twenty-second!) installment of Grafton's alphabetical detective series. Nominally, she's investigating the probable suicide of a woman she witnessed shoplifting at a high-end department store.  The woman's fiance is sure she's been murdered, and Kinsey's equally sure there's more to the death than is immediately apparent.  After all, the woman looked like a pro in the store and her partner-in-crime tried to run Kinsey down in the parking garage.  Various threads emerge--and merge--as Kinsey deals with some seemingly unrelated situations that end up being oddly related as she digs into a shoplifting ring, its organized crime connections, the family at the heart of it, a dirty cop, and more.

Some detective series diminish severely as they progress, but this one continues to deliver.  Kinsey is sharp, caustic, and complex, and this latest case twists and turns engagingly.  Sadly, Kinsey's neighbor Henry is out of town for much of the narrative, but Rosie and William are present for some comic relief.  The crime boss is creepy yet human, and there's even a bit of romance as he pursues a beautiful woman who's tied to him in ways he hadn't anticipated. All in all, highly recommended for Grafton fans new and returning.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Prized

Prized by Caragh M. O'Brien (NY: Roaring Brook Press, 2011). Reviewed from e-ARC provided by publisher via netgalley.com.

Prized is the second installment in the Birthmarked Trilogy. Gaia Stone has escaped the treacherous injustice of the Enclave and now faces new injustices in the matriarchal community of Sylum, where the infant sister she fought to rescue is immediately taken from her. Like the Enclave, Sylum is a dying community, though for different reasons.  Sylum has a huge imbalance between male and female population, with very few girls being born and many of the men infertile.  Women rule this society and there are strict rules regulating relations between men and women.  Gaia's midwife skills are valued, but she has trouble understanding the rules and makes mistakes, misleading people without meaning to out of ignorance.  Her friend Leon from the Enclave turns up in Sylum, and Gaia has to navigate rules from her old society as well as this new place.

Like Birthmarked, Prized places Gaia in a precarious situation that requires her to use her wits to solve a mystery and find some resolution.  O'Brien creates another fascinating dystopic world in Sylum that has the reader actively wondering what she would do in such a situation under such circumstances as those in which Gaia finds herself, perhaps moreso than in Birthmarked.  Extremely engaging on many levels, Prized is a winner for readers aged 12 & up.  Mild sexual situations, drugs.

3 Willows (Audio)

3 Willows: The Sisterhood Grows by Ann Brashares (NY: Random House-Listening Library, 2009).

This novel shares a setting with and a few tangential connections to Brashares's previous series, The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, but readers (or listeners in the case of the audio version) need not have any knowledge of that series to enjoy 3 Willows. Here three friends, Jo, Polly, and Ama, have grown apart, though they still often think nostalgically of their former closeness--including the time at the end of third grade when they planted their class project willow trees in the woods. They're definitely going in different directions during this summer before they start high school.  Ama had wanted to attend an academic achievement camp, but finds herself heading out west to an outdoors adventure camp that's way outside her comfort zone, facing challenges she never wanted to face, including life without hair products and major blisters from her hiking boots. Jo's parents are separating, and she and her mom are going to spend the summer at their beach house.  Jo has a job bussing tables at a local seafood restaurant plus she's hooking up with one of the waiters who she met on a bus.  Meanwhile, Polly casts about for something to keep her more grounded than her absent mother, faded friendships, and endless babysitting jobs and happens upon a modeling camp that seems to promise exciting changes.

As in her previous series, Brashares presents different characters facing different challenges who somehow engage and help each other in spite of their differences.  I never cared for the magical element of the traveling pants, so I actually liked this novel's focus on the real problems these girls face.  Polly's issues seem particularly poignant, while Ama adds a lot of humor with her distaste for camping and her overachiever's horror at the prospect of being graded for rappelling skills she has no desire to cultivate.  Jo seems the most independent of the bunch, but in the end she finds herself needing the stabilizing connection of an old friendship, too, especially once she discovers the flimsiness of her summer fling.  A fine read for ages 12 & up.  Sexual situations, language, alcohol.

Supernaturally

Supernaturally by Kiersten White (NY: HarperTeen, 2011).

In this sequel to Paranormalcy, Evie is now living a "normal" life away from the International Paranormal Containment Agency (IPCA).  She's crazy about her boyfriend Lend, but he's away at college during the week, and after the thrill of having a locker at a real high school has worn off, Evie finds that she's sort of missing the excitement of bagging and tagging vampires and other assorted paranormal baddies.  Plus she's noticing some weirdness that she's sure means faeries are planning something bad again--or just continuing their previous plan that she never quite figured out.  Thus, she's happy to oblige her old boss Raquel when she makes contact and requests Evie's help again with a few projects that require Evie's special skill set of seeing through paranormal glamours. Unfortunately, the new gig also requires a new guide through the faerie paths--a guy named Jack whose wild and wacky ways bode trouble in more ways than one. 

This is a great sequel, and it's lots of fun to watch Evie's relationship with Lend evolve.  There's also excitement and mystery as Evie starts working with the IPCA again.  Evie's worries about her future with Lend and her own abilities are well done and realistic--quite a feat considering her abilities are way outside the realms of normal! Evie's feisty, spirited responses to her situations make her a fabulous character, and even a role model. Thankfully, there are enough loose ends to suggest another installment (fingers crossed)!  Recommended for ages 12 & up.  Mild sexual situations.  No language issues (Evie says bleep!).

Mission (Un)Popular

Mission (Un)Popular by Anna Humphrey (NY: Disney-Hyperion, 2011).

Margot Button is starting seventh grade determined to avoid the social pitfalls she's practically thrown herself into during elementary school.  She just needs to keep her big mouth shut and find the right hair product to tame her wild mane.  But things get off to a bad start even before the first day when she finds out her best friend is going to another school, she won't be getting any new school clothes, and she's going to have to babysit (for free!) her triplet sisters every day.  There's also some weirdness with her friend Andrew who's acting like he wants to be more than a friend, and mean girl Sarah J. keeps bringing up last year's debacle--Margot's attempted shoplifting of a glazed ham--which has earned Margot the moniker of "Hamburglar."  A brash new girl from New York City may help Margot out of the social morass, or her schemes may just land Margot into even more trouble instead of getting her closer to Gorgeous George, her longtime crush.

Plenty of tween girls who feel socially and physically awkward will sympathize with Margot's plight.  Even as Margot tries to fit in, she can't help but dig herself into even deeper trouble, especially through her frequently thoughtless comments and actions, which are usually hilariously funny.  Her family situation--a free-spirited mother, a well-meaning but out-of-touch stepfather, and hugely cute triplet sisters--screams, and delivers, social humiliation. Margot is also a girl of color--her father, long out of the picture, is Indian--, and Margot frequently notes that she's one of the few non-Caucasians at her school.  Humphrey mentions economic realities, too, that will ring true with many readers who can't afford all the latest fashions and gadgets.  Margot's relationships with her best friend Erika, her new friend Emily, and her nemesis Sarah are well drawn and realistic, as is the awkwardness of a boy who's always been a friend and now wants to be more.  Overall, this is a great read for middle grades and is recommended for ages 10 and up. 

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

The Safehouse

The Safehouse by T. Thomas Ackerman (Denver: Outskirts Press, 2011). Review copy provided by author.

Having herself escaped an abusive relationship, Detective Jessie Warren feels a special mandate to advocate for victims of domestic violence.  She uses her community connections at the shelter to give women a means of escape, and if necessary, she knows of an additional safety net for them--a secret safehouse whose location she alone on the police department knows.  Most of her colleagues respect her, but one internal affairs officer seems bent on undermining her, and her own sergeant seems concerned as well when a few too many of the principals in Jessie's investigations meet terrible ends.

The premise for this novel is excellent, but it sadly misses the mark in execution.  Jessie's character is flat and the writing is largely bland, with far too much telling and not enough showing. The plot lurches disconnectedly at first, and much of the dialogue is stiff while descriptions are sparse.  Worse, the vigilante justice imposed at the safehouse is horrifying.  Some might argue that perpetrators of domestic abuse deserve what they get, but as a police officer Jessie should not be abetting such violence.

Lola and the Boy Next Door

Lola and the Boy Next Door by Stephanie Perkins (NY: Dutton, 2011).

Lola's life is great--super parents, a best friend who gets her, an older, rock-and-roll boyfriend, perfect fashion sense, and a fabulous design idea for her winter formal dress.  But then Cricket and his famous figure skating twin sister Calliope move back into the neighborhood, and all of the feelings Lola had thought were gone come flooding back to confuse her.  Lola and Cricket had been the best of friends while growing up and had shared a first kiss when she was five and he was six. She thought there had been more before he moved again two years ago,  but then he left without saying a word.  Now he's back, looming large, and Lola starts watching his bedroom window--which is right across from hers in their adjacent San Francisco Victorian homes.

Lots of romance conventions make this novel somewhat predictable, but Lola is a feisty and interesting enough character to overcome most of that monotony.  On the other hand, her relationship with her twenty-two-year-old boyfriend (she's just turned sixteen!) seems somewhat creepy.  Her parents (a gay couple who have adopted Lola, the daughter of one's sister) allow the relationship to avoid having it take on a forbidden quality, but it seems like a questionable move on their part, as they must know that Lola's having sex with the guy.  This makes it even more remarkable when they completely overreact to catching Cricket in Lola's room, especially given that they've been actively sabotaging the older boyfriend while encouraging Cricket.  Lola's conflicted feelings get a little repetitive, but Cricket is an equally interesting character and their relationship evolves in a romantically realistic way with lots of teen angst and misunderstandings. Fans of Perkins's Anna and the French Kiss will enjoy revisiting Anna and Etienne St. Claire as an established couple in a new locale. Recommended for ages 13 & up.  Sexual situations, alcohol, drugs (marijuana).

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Eight Keys (Audio)

Eight Keys by Suzanne LaFleur (NY: Random House Listening Library, 2011).

Middle school changes everything for Elise. She loves her Uncle Hugh and Aunt Bess, who've taken care of her ever since her dad died when she was three.  She never knew her mother, who died when she was born. She's always loved playing make believe with her best friend Franklin, but now she's starting to feel like she needs to grow up a bit.  Her locker partner makes fun of her from day one and smashes her lunch in the locker every day.  She can't get a handle on the homework either, and then even her home life gets disrupted when a distant relative and her baby move in.  Everything seems off kilter.  Then Elise finds a key with her name on it in the barn that unlocks an attic room, one of eight rooms that have always been off limits to Elise.  The rooms and their contents, left for Elise by her dad before he died, are just what Elise needs to regain her bearings in her widening world.

This novel takes a while to get going, or so it seemed in the audio version.  Another difficulty was distinguishing between Elise's thoughts and her statements as they were being narrated.  It's probably fairly apparent in the text (italics or something like that), but wasn't in the audio.  Still, the story is well worth the effort.  Elise is a wholly realistic character who struggles with her perplexing feelings, especially about her best friend Franklin.  The adults in her life, including her absent father, provide excellent guidance and the overall effect is touching and wise.  Highly recommended for ages 9 & up. 

How Not To Be Popular

How Not To Be Popular by Jennifer Ziegler (NY: Delacorte Press, 2008).

Maggie's free wheeling, hippy parents have moved her all over the country her entire life, and she's managed fairly well, latching onto the popular kids in every school she's gone to.  But leaving Portland for Austin has been more horrible--she misses her best friend Lorraine a lot, and then her first-ever boyfriend Trevor breaks up with her by e-mail before she's even arrived at her new home--so Maggie determines that she needs a new strategy to survive Austin with her heart intact.  She doesn't want to make any friends, so that when her parents inevitably uproot her in a few months she won't have to suffer any more losses.  She will cultivate her inner nerd. She chooses the strangest outfits she can find in the vintage shop her dad is managing and avoids making friends, even subverting friendly overtures from the obviously pretty crowd (called Bippies, for beautiful people).  Still, one odd girl insists on sitting with her at lunch, and then she has to join a club so she'll have something to put on her college application, but she's determined to choose the uncool option in every situation. What can go wrong?  Pretty much everything!

This novel is laugh out loud funny, and Maggie is a great character.  She attacks being nerdy with incredible zest, so that she frequently has to make hilariously oddball choices to maintain the pretense that she's uncool.  Although it's not completely convincing that her plan will backfire the way it does--being uncool becomes cool--it still makes a zany tale, well worth reading.  No language, mild sexual situations.  Recommended for ages 12 & up.

The Pursuit of Alice Thrift

The Pursuit of Alice Thrift by Elinor Lipman (NY: Random House, 2003).

Alice Thrift is an overworked surgical intern who has expended so much energy on becoming a doctor that she has overlooked the crucial fact that she lacks the people skills to be successful, a fact that's becoming more apparent each day of her internship. Her roommate Leo, a gregarious nurse in the neonatal unit, tries to clue her in, but Alice is socially inept.  She knows she has problems reading cues, so she turns down the overtures of one Ray Russo who comes in for a consult about getting a nose job. He claims to be a lonely widower, and Alice senses that there's something not right, but ends up calling him, just for the company, especially when Leo becomes involved with a midwife and Alice moves into her own studio apartment.  Alice's new neighbor, resident Sylvie Schwartz, also attempts to bolster Alice's social skills, but alas sleep deprivation leads Alice into a horrifying surgical mishap with a nasty surgeon, and Alice ends up on probation.  Meanwhile, Ray is leading Alice into untested carnal waters that are severely taxing Alice's limited social judgment.

This is a hilarious novel with a supremely well-drawn cast of characters.  Alice's complete lack of social skills and over reliance on her intellect put her in many strained situations, where she gives overly forthright answers instead of the socially expected half truths, to great comedic effect.  Her interactions with her mother are particularly fraught, as are her attempts to intellectualize her own social shortcomings.  Highly recommended for adult readers looking for both wit and depth of understanding.

The Invention of Hugo Cabret

The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick (NY: Scholastic, 2007).

In 1930s Paris, young Hugo Cabret tends to the clocks in the large train station, fearful that the Station Inspector will notice that his only relative, his uncle--the man who is supposed to be caring for the clocks--has been missing for months.  Hugo knows that he'll be put in an orphanage, or worse, if he's found out.  But then the old man at the toy shop catches Hugo stealing a small toy mouse that Huge needs for its parts, so he can continue fixing the automaton, a machine that ties Hugo to his father, who had died in a museum fire while working on the automaton.  The old man takes away the notebook of drawings that Hugo's father made to help fix the automaton, and Hugo needs the notebook back.  Luckily, the shopkeeper's granddaughter agrees to help Hugo, and then Hugo ends up working at the shop as well to earn parts for his beloved machine.  He has no idea what the completed machine will reveal--about himself and others--and how much it will change his life.

Selnick spins this magical tale in words and meticulously drawn grayscale drawings that fabulously reveal the hidden details of the story. Just as Hugo must attend to the inner workings of the clocks and the amazing mechanical device he's trying to fix, the reader must attend to the details as well to see the whole picture.  It's a heart rending but ultimately satisfying story, and the combination of words and pictures makes it perfect for reluctant readers of all ages.  Although set in the past, Hugo's dilemma will resonate with present-day children as he struggles to overcome his difficulties and learn to trust--and ultimately help--others. 

Friday, October 21, 2011

The Emerald Atlas

The Emerald Atlas, Book One: The Books of Beginning, by John Stephens (NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 2011).

Fourteen-year-old Kate has always tried to do what her mother charged her to do--take care of her two younger siblings, Michael and Emma--as they've bounced from one orphanage to another in the ten years since their parents disappeared, most likely to save their children.  Now the kids have landed in a strange and dilapidated mansion in the ghostly town of Cambridge Falls, and they soon learn that they have unique powers and a special destiny linked to a magical book with world changing implications.

How many times have you heard a book called "the next Harry Potter" or "Lightning Thief" and rolled your eyes?  Yeah, me too.  But this one is the real deal with all the right components--sad orphans, a kind yet powerful and mysterious wizard, time travel, epic battles, frightening magical creatures, dwarves, a menacingly evil countess, and a plot to achieve world domination. Naturally, Kate and her siblings are the only humans who can foil the countess's plan!  And they'll get to save the inhabitants of Cambridge Falls, too. The time travel gets a bit confusing, but the characters themselves are equally mystified by what is transpiring. The orphans are well developed as individuals and the many supporting characters are equally engaging, with the dwarves' antics meriting special attention for humor. Overall, Stephens has concocted an intoxicating tale, perfect for readers aged 9 & up.  Younger readers may also enjoy it as a read aloud.  Highly recommended.


The School for the Insanely Gifted

The School for the Insanely Gifted by Dan Elish (NY: Harper, 2011).

Daphna Whispers is nearly twelve and composes utterly entrancing music; her best friend Harkin Thunkenreiser (aka Thunk) builds amazing machine, and her other best friend Cynthia Trustwell has starred in multiple Broadway musicals.  They are all insanely gifted and students at the Blatt School for the Insanely Gifted, an institution founded by the extremely colorful entrepreneur Ignatious Peabody Blatt.  Daphna's life had been fine until her mother disappeared two months ago, and she was slowly starting to adjust to her new reality with her neighbor as her legal guardian (her father had died from consuming sour yak milk when she was a baby).  Then a mysterious burglar surprises her in her apartment and she discovers clues that lead her to investigate her mother's disappearance.  Soon Daphne, Cynthia, and Thunk are winging to Africa in one of Thunk's amazing inventions, barely making it to their destination and the startling revelations that will change everything they've believed in!

Elish has crafted an insanely entertaining story full of action and adventure--with some thrills and scary moments, too--that will keep readers turning the pages. One must thoroughly suspend disbelief to manage this novel (the Thunkmobile, created from junked taxis, makes it to Africa with only one refueling stop, for instance), though the main characters' struggles are real enough.  Daphna is a sympathetic protagonist, but many of the other characters, particularly the adults, are cartoonish at best, which is great for undermining the fear factor.  Recommended for ages 9 & up.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Amy and Roger's Epic Detour (Audio)

Amy and Roger's Epic Detour by Morgan Matson (Grand Haven, MI: Brilliance Audio, 2010).

Amy Curry never expected to be moving from her home in California to Connecticut.  Her father has just died, her twin brother is in a North Carolina rehab facility, and her mother has taken a job on the other side of the country, leaving Amy alone for a month.  Amy blames herself for the car accident that killed her dad, so she won't drive any more.  This means her mother has to hire Roger, the son of a family friend, to drive Amy and their car cross country once Amy has finished out the school year. Roger needs to get to Philadelphia where he is supposed to spend the summer with his father to amend for bad grades at the end of his freshman year at Colorado College.  His girlfriend Hadley had dumped him during finals and he feels utterly adrift.  While Amy's mother has mapped out a banal route that includes Terre Haute, Indiana, Amy and Roger, each needing to resolve issues in their lives, immediately strike out on their own therapeutic journeys that definitely do not include Terre Haute.

Another YA road trip of self-discovery, yes, but an excellent one.  Amy and Roger have real problems to ponder and issues to overcome.  Their detour takes them to all sorts of interesting places, too, not least of which is their own relationship which evolves slowly and realistically.  Music lovers with enjoy the play lists and arm chair travelers the vast landscapes, in particular the eerily lonely Highway 50 in Nevada.  Highly recommended for ages 13 & up.  Sexual situations, alcohol, drugs.


Bath Tangle

Bath Tangle by Georgette Heyer (1955; NY: Harlequin, 2004).

Serena, the willful and beautiful daughter of the late Earl of Spenborough, sorely misses her beloved father and expects to live quietly with her father's young widow, Fanny.  Her father, however, seems to want to exert control from beyond the grave and leaves Serena's inheritance in a trust to be managed by the Marquis of Rotherham, the very man to whom Serena had been engaged several years before, but whom she had broken off with a month before the wedding.  Serena claimed he was too arrogant and overbearing to be a suitable husband for her.  Serena and Fanny end up in Bath, and the tangle ensues when Serena becomes secretly engaged to a previous beau and Rotherham announces his betrothal to a shy young debutante.

Heyer is a master of the Regency romance genre, and Bath Tangle is no exception.  While lacking in the social satire and timelessness of Austen's masterpieces, to which Heyer's works are frequently compared, this novel moves trippingly along with strong, well-drawn characters who propel the drama to its inevitable (and utterly predictable) conclusion.  Recommended for lovers of historical romance.


Girl, 15, Charming But Insane

Girl, 15, Charming But Insane by Sue Limb (NY: Delacorte, 2004).

Jess Jordan has a crazy wild imagination that amplifies ordinary situations into hilarious comedies.  She's obsessed with the size of her rear end (massive) and her chest (minuscule) and loves her best friend Flora dearly--except that Flora's so beautiful Jess is sure she looks like a baboon in comparison. She rarely sees her father, but he sends her made-up horoscope text messages every day.  Her mother works as a librarian by day and an activist the rest of the time, so she doesn't even notice that Jess is creeping out to a party one evening with her brassiere padded out with baggies full of minestrone soup.  Disaster ensues when a secret camera catches Jess cleaning up after the inevitable leakage, but fortunately Jess's long-time pal Fred heroically rescues her from certain social leprosy that a wide viewing of the film would cause.  Now Jess just has to figure out how to attract the stunningly good-looking Ben Jones.

Jess is a zany character who makes this novel cover-to-cover laughs.  Admittedly, some of the misunderstandings that drive the plot are contrived and Jess, while bright, manages to ignore clear evidence that Fred likes her while Ben Jones, although handsome, is kind of vapid and not a good match for her. Still, this is an excellent read, highly recommended for fans of Louise Rennison's series about Georgia Nicolson. 

Also recommended is the prequel, entitled Girl, Barely 15, Flirting for England (2008).  Here Jess and her friends are involved in a foreign exchange with a school in France.  Jess's partner is a boy named Edouard who is incredibly short and can barely speak any English. The physical humor in this novel is great as the kids go on a disastrous camping trip in the English countryside and Jess has to borrow clothes from the aunt of one of the kids.





There are also two sequels, both likewise funny and recommended.

 Girl, Nearly 16, Absolute Terror (2005)  

 Girl, Going on 17, Pants on Fire (2006).



My Not-So-Still Life by Liz Gallagher

My Not-So-Still Life by Liz Gallagher (NY: Wendy Lamb-Random House, 2011).

Vanessa is an artist who believes her body is her canvas. Her mom won't let her get a tattoo, so she plays with her hair color, makeup, and clothing.  Of course she's labeled a freak at school, but she has her best friends Nick (who's gay) and Holly (a dedicated musician who goes to a different high school).  Above all, Vanessa longs to be grown up and free to be herself, away from the pettiness of high school.  Her new job at the art supply store, some new, older friends, and a crazy new art project should help her break away, but is she really ready?

No, she's not ready.  Not by a long shot.  And by the end of the novel, she's learned that, but not until she's (barely) made it through some cringe-inducing situations.  These occur throughout the novel, but most especially all the times Vanessa tries to act older than she is and inevitably gets caught out.  She also has a tendency to meddle where she shouldn't, like her friend Holly's love life.  Although Vanessa escapes serious harm, she's very lucky because of the risks she takes, especially with an older guy.  Gallagher takes on interesting and realistic scenario--the crazy-haired artsy type girl stuck among normal kids--and tries to show how she can survive and thrive during this trying period.  She does a fine job, but nothing stellar. OK for ages 13 & up.  Sexual situations.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

The Lonely Hearts Club

The Lonely Hearts Club by Elizabeth Eulberg (NY: Point, 2011).

Penny Lane Bloom is named after a Beatles' song but is pretty sure money can't buy her love after she disastrously discovers the boy she's always loved half-naked with another girl. And that's after a string of dating disappointments that leave her thinking she's better off without boys.  For her junior year,  she decides that instead of dating, she'll focus on her own needs and her friends.  She's tired of watching how girls ditch their friends and change their personalities for the sake of male attention.  Little does she know that her initiative will become a club--the Lonely Hearts Club--that will set her school's social world into a tailspin.  And even though she's sworn off boys, she starts to wonder if there might be a few good ones out there, even one for her.

Oh, the irony.  Why, why, why does a fine girl power story have to be undermined by romance, as though getting the guy is the only possible happy outcome?  That's my main complaint about this otherwise highly readable YA tale.  Penny is a strong character who rightly notes that boys have way too much power over girls, so she takes a gutsy and unpopular stand that gets her more attention than she anticipated. She learns that shades of gray have to penetrate her black-and-white views. It's awesome to watch the girls support one another and become more self-aware. While there are some stereotypes at play in the novel, the main characters are well done and the story's central point is well taken despite the romantic capitulation.  I found this novel by searching for E. Lockhart readalikes on my library's NoveList database, and it is similar to The Boyfriend List and The Boy Book in having a strong female character who learns life and love lessons. Penny is nowhere near as funny as Ruby, though!  Recommended for teens 13 & up.  Sexual situations, language, alcohol.

Saving June

Saving June by Hannah Harrington (NY: Harlequin Teen, 2011). Reviewed from e-galley provided by the publisher via netgalley.com.

Harper is struggling in the aftermath of her sister June's suicide.  Her mother is devastated; her father is typically absent; her aunt is intent of the proper placement of June's urn on the mantle.  Harper just wants to understand why June took her own life, and more importantly how she could've stopped June--classic survivor's guilt. Now she knows she must save June from stagnating on the mantle.  A chance encounter with an enticing guy who June had tutored propels Harper and her best friend Laney on a road trip to California to launch June into the Pacific.

The road trip of self-discovery is getting a lot of play in YA literature these days, and Saving June is a good one to add to that shelf.  Harrington depicts Harper's raw grief well and realistically, especially her distaste for her relatives' hackneyed expressions during and after the funeral.  Harper's relationships with her best friend Laney and the enigmatic Jake Tolan complement the story well and purposefully, and these characters contribute meaningfully to the story rather than being half-baked scaffolding.  Recommended for teens, 13 & up.  Language, sexual situations, alcohol, drugs.


Quest of the Demon

Quest of the Demon by M. L. Sawyer (n.p.: Smashwords, 2010). Review copy provided by author.

Darci is an average teen who enjoys basketball and hanging out with her best friend.  Investigating an odd noise in the night, she pokes at a curtain only to find herself transported to a land called Nahaba, somehow summoned by an apprentice wizard named Taslessian.  He has no idea how to get her back to her world,and then it turns out that there's a larger purpose to her arrival--she is needed to save this world from an evil demon.  A wise dragon equips Darci, Taslessian and three others--an elf, a taciturn female warrior, and an intrepid knight--for their quest to rid the world of this demon. Their perilous journey takes them over land and sea where they meet many foes intent on foiling their quest, but they persist until Darci meets the demon.

Quest of the Demon is a fantasy story that uses many standard fantasy devices, like dragons, magical creatures with unpronounceable names, smelly villains with ugly features,  fabulous weapons endowed with fantastic powers, and kids who somehow succeed despite enormous odds.  It's a fine story if you like fantasies, and I would recommend it for fantasy readers, but don't expect anything extraordinary.  It reads well enough (British spellings) and has some lukewarm romance elements, too. It's far too violent and bloody for younger readers, but fine for tweens & teens, ages 12 & up.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Unforeseen Fears

Unforeseen Fears, An Armis Ambros Mystery, by H. William Gruchow. Self-published.  Review copy provided by author.

Armis Ambros and his friend Jake like to make bets, small and large, especially on the outcomes of criminal cases they read about in the newspaper.  They're very interested when a body gets dredged out of Emerald Lake, answering the question of what happened to Retha Demond twelve years ago--at least in terms of her ultimate location.  But the sheriff seems to be sweeping the case under the rug awfully quickly, and then another case, this time two adults shot and a child missing and found dismembered, is equally ignored, so Armis gets a little more involved than he usually does.  Digging into old records and asking questions leads Armis into a dangerous world of political corruption that may just land him in the lake, too.

This novel jumps around a lot at first, making it somewhat difficult to follow before it settles into a more linear pattern. Gruchow more or less reveals whodunit in the first chapters, which I personally did not like. I'd rather be allowed to guess along the way in a mystery than have the reveal up front and then have the story show how things turned out this way.  Yes, there are some elements left unstated, and a few more people get killed, but corrupt investigators are shown right away and that's the solution.  Armis and his friend Jake seem to be two old guys meddling around where they shouldn't be.  Their bets are supposed to be humorous, I think, but did not appeal to me that much.  Jake's character is left fairly undeveloped as he mainly functions as a sounding board for Armis, who is supposed to be the brains of the duo--because he's a college professor, after all. Overall, this mystery wasn't to my taste, but others may enjoy it.


Sign Language

Sign Language by Amy Ackley (NY: Viking, 2011).

Twelve-year-old Abby's dad is sick and getting sicker.  First he has his kidney removed, then he has to start treatments.  Abby thinks he'll get better, but then there are more treatments and he's sicker and tired all the time, and he has to quit his job, but she still thinks he'll get better.  No one really tells her that it's cancer, and that it's spreading. And terminal.  Or maybe her mom did tell her but she didn't believe it.  She wants to think about normal problems, like how her brother ignores her, how she wishes Logan Pierce would notice her, how much fun she and her best friend Spence can have when he's not working. Even when she faces the reality of her dad's imminent death and the death itself, Abby just wants to hide from everyone. If only God or her eight ball could give her the answers she needs.

Abby's denial is difficult to understand at first, but it's certainly realistic.  What kid wouldn't just deny the possibility of a parent's death rather than face it head on?  Abby's desire to keep what's happening at home a secret from everyone at school is likewise realistic. Ackley does a little too much telling and not enough showing at first, but once the story gets going, it starts to flow a lot better.  Abby is an endearing character and her experience is truly heartbreaking.  Her mother and brother, and especially her friend Spence, are well drawn.  This would be an excellent book to recommend to a child who is facing similar issues at home or is trying to understand what a friend is going through.  Recommended for ages 12 & up.

The Darlings in Love

The Darlings in Love by Melissa Kantor (NY: Hyperion, 2012). Reviewed from e-galley provided by the publisher via netgalley.com.

In this second installment of The Darlings are Forever series, Natalya, Victoria, and Jane are settling into their new high schools while maintaining their close friendship and trying to survive bumps in their love lives.  Natalya is still crushing on Colin who has refused to speak to her, even though she's apologized, until they see each other at the park and start communicating again.  But things are more complicated than the chess matches they enjoy, and Natalya turns to her friends frequently for advice.  Meanwhile, Victoria is in the throes of new love with her boyfriend Jack until misunderstandings arise and she starts to question their relationship.  Jane thinks she should stick to advising her two friends until she's asked to play in a love scene with the cutest boy she's ever seen.  That angel face could never deceive her, right?

This is a wonderful continuation of the series and actually reads much more smoothly than the first volume.  Maybe it's because the characters are established, but I enjoyed The Darlings in Love more than I did the first one. Kantor does a superb job of showing the girls' sometimes awkward and painful forays into the world of romance and love. Drama, yes, but not over the top, and really well done.  Highly recommended for ages 11 & up. 

My Lunatic Life

My Lunatic Life by Sharon Sala (Memphis, TN: Bell Bridge Books, 2011). Reviewed from e-galley provided by publisher via netgalley.com.

Tara Luna and her aging hippie uncle, Pat, have just moved to Stillwater, Oklahoma, in time for the start of Tara's senior year in high school, and naturally she's overjoyed. Not really.  While she's grown accustomed to the constant moving occasioned by her uncle's restless nature, and she deeply appreciates the care he's taken of her since her parents died when she was a baby, she's hoping they'll stay put this time.  Aside from Uncle Pat, the two constants in her life--her best friends really--are ghosts, Millicent and Henry, who have been with her as long as she can remember.  She can see them (Millicent usually takes the shape of a pink vapor, Henry a grayish form) and talk to them. Oh, and she's psychic, too, so she can sense what people are feeling, read their auras, and hear their thoughts.  It may not be normal, but it's her normal.

Now that she's a senior Tara's decided she's not going to try to blend in, the way she has in the past.  Whatever happens, happens.  Unfortunately, she tangles with the cheerleader clique on the first day of school and even attracts the attention of  Flynn O'Mara, the hottest guy she's ever seen.  Plus she feels compelled to help people when she senses they need help--like the teacher whose babysitter is stealing from her, or the guy who nearly dies in the boys' bathroom.  Then there's the dark spirit in her house who seems to need something and the head cheerleader goes missing. 

Tara is a super character to read about; Sala handles the paranormal elements deftly and with great humor. The ghosts pull ghostly stunts, but also have their own distinct characters as well. Millicent's malapropisms add some laughs and her text messages are funny, too. The romance moves along nicely, plus there's the mystery of figuring out what's going on with the dark spirit and trying to locate the missing cheerleader.  All in all, My Lunatic Life is a great start to what looks to be a fun series.  Recommended for teens 13 and up.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Reel Life Starring Us


Reel Life Starring Us by Lisa Greenwald (NY: Amulet Books, 2011); reviewed from uncorrected e-proof provided by publisher via netgalley.com.

New girl Dina has just moved to Long Island from Massachusetts.  She was cool there, so she'll be cool here, too, right?  Instead she keeps discovering potato chips smashed in her backpack--something called being chipped at this new school, Rockwood Hills Junior High.  She notices the cliques, too, that seem to be based on relative wealth.  With her trusty video camera, Dina starts recording what she sees, and even lands an assignment to make a video for the school's 50th anniversary celebration; even better, her partner is the most popular girl in school, Chelsea.  This can only help Dina's social status, of course. Only it doesn't really, and slowly Dina learns that there's more to everything than appearances, and maybe being in the most exclusive clique isn't worth all that much compared to having real friends who value her for herself.

Ah, the dangerous waters of middle school!  Who can ever forget the scrupulous navigation they require, and how fruitless the entire experience is in the end.  As in My Life in Pink and Green, Greenwald has created engaging characters with real problems that are serious, yet not enough to ruin a funny story.  Dina's relentless optimism and charming insight infuse the novel with a cheerful glow, while Chelsea's struggles with keeping her father's unemployment and family's struggling finances a secret add a shade of gray. This is an excellent read for middle grades, highly recommended for ages 10 & up.  

Drums, Girls, and Dangerous Pie

Drums, Girls, and Dangerous Pie by Jordan Sonnenblick (NY: Scholastic, 2004).

Steven is a typical, and talented, eighth grader in NYC.  He cooperates with his teachers--even writing on the assigned topics in his journal, most of the time. He plays the drums for the All City Jazz Band, has an hopeless crush on the cutest girl in his grade, and wishes his little brother Jeffrey could be less annoying.  Funny how one day can change everything.  It starts out so ordinary--making "moatmeal" for Jeffrey--but ends with Jeffrey being diagnosed with leukemia and having to go for more tests, and then treatment, in Philadelphia.  Suddenly Steven's world is shattered.  At first he doesn't tell anyone.  He stops doing his homework and writes about anything he wants to in his journal.  And he practices his drums all the time because that helps him forget, just for a little while, what's happening to his family.  His dad won't even talk to him.  His mom is distraught and focused on Jeffrey's treatments.  As his world unravels, Steven has to learn how to deal with the seemingly incomprehensible situation.

If Steven weren't such a humorous character, this novel probably would have been a total downer.  As it was, I cried. A lot.  But there are plenty of comic interludes, and Steven uses humor as a coping mechanism to great effect for everyone in his family, especially Jeffrey. And Jeffrey is an adorable character--brave and goofy despite his ordeal. Overall, this is an excellent quick read for middle grades.  Highly recommended for ages 9 & up.

The Candymakers

The Candymakers by Wendy Mass (NY: Little, Brown, 2010).

Out of hundreds of entries, four contestants in eight regions will compete to win the Annual Candy Contest sponsored by the Confectionary Association. In Region Three, Logan Sweet would seem to have a special advantage as the son of the owner of the Life Is Sweet Candy Factory--he rarely even leaves the factory and can differentiate among types of chocolate by touch. The other three contestants who will come to the factory have their own stories--Miles is obsessed with the afterlife; Philip wears a suit and is laser-focused on winning, no matter what the cost; and cheerful Daisy has unusual strength. They have two days to learn everything they need to create their own confections, but it turns out there's more to this contest than candy.

Mass has crafted an engaging, lovely tale for middle grades with The Candymakers.  Initially it appeared to be derivative of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (or its movie equivalent), but that's because it starts with Logan's perspective and then proceeds to the other contestants' perspectives, which changes the story completely.  All of the contestants have something to hide--and something to learn.  Friendships develop even as the children selectively reveal their motivations for entering the contest. The sweet descriptions will make readers' mouths water, and the mystery makes the pages fly.  Highly recommended for ages 9 & up. 

Legacy

Legacy by Cayla Kluver (2009; NY: Harlequin, 2011); reviewed from e-galley provided by the publisher via netgalley.com.

Princess Alera has one year to make up her mind about who to marry.  She doesn't particularly like the egotistic man her father has selected, and she doesn't really know what to do.  She gets to know a young, handsome prisoner almost on a whim, but since he hails from her country's principal enemy, she knows any relationship would be forbidden.  Even when it turns out that Nerian is from her country, but was abducted and raised by enemy forces, he's still not a suitable choice for her despite what her heart is telling her.

I don't read a lot of fantasy, especially the fake medieval kind, but this one was all right.  The cover doesn't match the content at all (imho!); the hair, the dress, the jewelry are all more nineteenth century than thirteenth or fourteenth or whatever century was being described. The novel seems way too long with far too much superfluous detail, but perhaps that's part of the genre. *shrug*  The love story dragged a bit, too. The court intrigue adds some interest, but really Alera's dad, the King, is a chauvinist who wants to bully his daughter into marrying the man he's selected no matter what so he can retire and avoid the war that's sure to erupt any time now.  The book ends in a cliff hanger, which I won't spoil here, and there are some mysteries about the enemy country that need explanation, so I do want to read the next installment.  Recommended for ages 12 & up.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Beauty Queens (Audio)

Beauty Queens by Libba Bray (NY: Scholastic Audiobooks, 2011). Read by Libba Bray.

When their plane crashes on a seemingly deserted tropical island, the surviving Miss Teen Dream beauty pageant contestants consolidate their talents to stay alive, continue their pageant preparations, and bravely wait for what they assume will be a speedy rescue. But no one comes. And maybe they're not alone on the island. That volcano in the distance? It's actually the evil Corporation's clandestine headquarters for plotting nefarious activities, like complete world domination and arms dealing with the brutal dictator MoMo B ChaCha of the Republic of ChaCha (whose advisor is a stuffed lemur named General Goodtimes). Miss Texas channels the pageant's chief sponsor, Ladybird Hope and organizes the girls into teams (Lost Girls and Sparkle Ponies) to gather useful items that wash ashore (curling irons!), build huts, forage for food, and practice their dance routines. Miss New Hampshire, an undercover journalist who wants to expose the seamy underside of the pageant world, attempts to educate the other Teen Dreamers about the evils of objectification. Things get really crazy when the cast members of the pirate reality show Captains Bodacious crash their ship nearby and the girls and guys start interacting.

As many other reviewers have noted, Beauty Queens hybridizes such disparate sources as Lost, Lord of the Flies, Survivor, Heart of Darkness, Gilligan's Island, etc., but it's still highly original and hysterically funny. Libba Bray's narration in the audio version is superb. Her voice for Ladybird Hope sounds a lot like Tina Fey's impersonation of Sarah Palin, and she nails all the different accents and inflections of contestants' home states. Commercial breaks and footnotes lampoon America's materialist, consumerist culture. The girls themselves start out as types, but quickly become engaging individuals, and they all have secrets that are gradually revealed. Liberal injections of action--snake attack! flash floods!--keep the plot tripping speedily along. Some of the situations may seem over the top (Ladybird's collaboration with the ridiculous dictator of ChaCha, for instance), but overall the effect is a wildly hilarious satire. Highly recommended (in the audio format!) for ages 13 & up. Sexual situations, alcohol, hallucinogenic berries.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Uncaged

Uncaged by Paul McKellips (NY: Vantage Point, 2011). Review copy provided by author.

Animal rights activists are conspiring to shut down biomedical research in the United States just as terrorists have weaponized the bubonic plague with the help of Russian and Korean interests. Two military officers who are themselves medical researchers, "Camp" Campbell and Leslie Raines, reluctantly join forces to thwart the terrorists and reinstate animal research before a deadly flu virus can kill thousands of Americans. With help from a crack team, Camp and Raines must investigate an intricate web of international alliances to uncover the truth.

No doubt about it, this is an extremely complicated novel, not just because it deals with politics, espionage, and medicine, but because it's spread out all over the world--the U.S., Algeria, Korea, Japan, Russia, and Costa Rica, to name a few locales. Because of all the various threads that have to come together, the story jumps around a lot through the first half, and it's a bit hard to follow. There's a lot of political shenanigans and shady dealings, some of them less than believable. It seems highly unlikely, for instance, that all animal research could be suspended by an executive order of the US President. Many of the characters seem more like types than real characters, including the main characters. However, since the novel focuses more on action than individuals that may be fine for most readers, especially those who like military types, such as Clancy fans. The second half of the novel really picks up the pace and becomes truly compelling. Overall, Uncaged is a highly readable medical thriller.

Tangled

Tangled by Carolyn Mackler (NY: HarperTeen, 2010).

Jenna, Dakota, Skye, and Owen are four teens who happen to be at a Caribbean resort called Paradise over spring break and whose lives couldn't be more different, yet they become unpredictably tangled. The four-part story moves chronologically through each of their perspectives as they navigate difficulties in their lives. Jenna is insecure, especially about boys, and her brief encounter with Dakota in Paradise doesn't build her confidence, especially when the gorgeous and confident Skye decides to spitefully butt in, just because she can. Still, simply moving out of her comfort zone helps Jenna take another step later on. A skilled actress, Skye is definitely hiding something from everyone in her life. Dakota just wants to forget about the recent death of his girlfriend and overcome the guilt he feels, but he also has to learn to deal with situations in ways that don't hurt others. His brother Owen is more like Jenna and needs to learn to live life rather than just observe others.

I enjoyed the way the narrative moved from one perspective to the next one but remained chronological. It was interesting to see the characters as others saw them, especially once they'd given their own perspectives. Jenna was my favorite character because she's shy and has to force herself to do things she doesn't want to do, even though she might get hurt. She also learns that you can't always trust appearances as Dakota and Skye, who both seem confident and attractive, both have difficult issues they needs to face. Jenna plays an interesting role in helping all the other characters, too. As much as I liked the changing perspectives, they also kept characters from being as developed as I might've liked, especially Owen (whose part is last). Since some parts of the other characters' lives wouldn't (or couldn't) necessarily be included by the current narrator, that made it hard to follow the details of everyone's lives. Overall, though, this is a great read, recommended for ages 13 & up. Sexual situations, language, alcohol.

The Duff: Designated Ugly Fat Friend

The Duff: Designated Ugly Fat Friend by Kody Keplinger (NY: Little, Brown, 2011).

Bianca Piper hates Wesley Rush. Yes, he's hot, but he's a total player who's constantly hitting on every girl at school. Plus, he told her she's a DUFF, and now he keeps calling her Duff or Duffy. Bianca knows she's not as pretty as her friends, and she's a bit overweight, but she doesn't need the constant reminders. But when things go south at home, Bianca needs a distraction and Wesley is happy to step in.

Keplinger's novel delves into the brutal world of teen insecurities and body image. Bianca is like many teen-aged girls and has doubts about her appearance, constantly comparing herself to her friends and classmates. Her self-esteem suffers a further hit when her mom and dad divorce and her dad starts drinking. Hooking up with Wesley takes her mind off her troubles, but also adds to them as she feels compelled to hide her actions from her friends, just as she's hiding her family situation. I enjoyed the way the story not only played on Bianca's insecurities but also showed that everyone has the same doubts, including the wealthy and popular crowd. The novel likewise demonstrates the hurtful power of words and labels. Highly recommended for ages 14 and up. Sexual situations, alcohol, language.

Don't Stop Now

Don't Stop Now by Julie Halpern (NY: Feiwel and Friends, 2011).

Lillian and Josh are best friends, just friends, though Lillian thinks she wants more. Newly graduated from high school, they are planning a lazy summer before Lillian heads off to college and Josh does...something. Maybe a band, maybe a job. That's Josh's deal--his rich and largely absent dad doesn't really provide much structure and Josh simply drifts. Lillian wishes he'd drift more toward her. Then a sort-of friend, Penny, goes missing and she's left a phone message clue for Lillian that leads Lillian and Josh on a road trip. It's a sign, right? The perfect opportunity for Lillian to get together with Josh in a whole new way, even if the vehicle happens to have no air conditioning.

Lillian is supposed to be smart, but somehow she can't see that Josh is pretty aimless and lame. Thankfully, the road trip helps her figure it out, but it still doesn't explain why it took her four years to see it! The road trip from Chicago to Seattle and back again is by far the best part of this novel as Josh and Lillian make some fun stops along the way. Perhaps Penny's faked abduction and the piecemeal revelation of her sad situation with an abusive boyfriend is supposed to add some interest, but it really doesn't. It's just sad. Overall, not a bad read, but not fabulous either. Recommended for ages 13 & up. Sexual situations, alcohol.

Smokin' Seventeen

Smokin' Seventeen by Janet Evanovich (NY: Bantam, 2011).

The latest installment of Stephanie Plum's adventures finds Stephanie, Luli, and the rest of the bond agency working out of Mooner's RV parked near the lot where Vinnie's building burned down. Then bodies start turning up where a foundation should be going, and the killer suggests that Stephanie will be next! On top of that, Morelli's grandmother has hexed Stephanie with a wild sex drive that has her hopping between Morelli and Ranger in what Lulu call's a bake-off that should help Stephanie decide which one she'll settle down with. Meanwhile Stephanie's mom and grandmother are trying to set her up with a former high school football star who wants to cook for Stephanie--and more!

If you like this series, you will like Smokin' Seventeen. Yes, some of the jokes are getting old, like Stephanie's perpetually exploding cars and Grandma Mazur's funeral home antics, but Stephanie and Lulu's misadventures in bounty hunting remain entertaining. At times it seems like Evanovich is stretching the limits of the series in a bad way--going for funny situations rather than advancing the plot and solving the mystery--but overall this is a good read, well worth a look. It is an adult novel.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Mercy

Mercy by Rebecca Lim (NY: Hyperion, 2011).

The jacket blurb proclaims that Mercy is "an exile from heaven," but that is not immediately clear when the narrative starts. Mercy has awoken in yet another new body, this time of a teen named Carmen, a gifted, though timid, soprano who is on her way to a two-week choir collaboration in a neighboring town with the ironic name of Paradise. Mercy can remember two or three bodies back in time, but not much more, and is not even sure that her name is "Mercy," just that she thinks it might be. She gleans information about her true self from her dreams, especially those of a special person named Luc, who often gives her cryptic warnings about what she can and can't do--and the dangers that may be lurking. She's not sure what she's supposed to do for Carmen, but as in her previous incarnations, she uses her powers to figure things out. She can feel others' pain and see their pasts with a touch. As Carmen, she's living with a family ravaged by the abduction and presumed death of a daughter, Lauren. Lauren's twin brother Ryan insists that Lauren is still alive, and Mercy comes to believe that her mission is to help find Lauren.

Lim has crafted an engaging tale with a missing person mystery that drives the plot. The romance is underwhelming--both with Mercy's dream man Luc and with Ryan, the boy she's helping in her current incarnation. The mystery of Mercy herself is in some ways more compelling than that of the missing Lauren. Her dreams give some answers, but she also seems to be recovering more memory of her past, especially what has led to her current peripatetic existence. The word "angel" is never used in the novel, but she's clearly a spiritual entity, and the cover art shows her wings. She also exerts some supernatural power to save Lauren in the end. It will be interesting to see where this series goes. Recommended for ages 13 & up.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Anna and the French Kiss

Anna and the French Kiss by Stephanie Perkins (NY: Dutton, 2010).

Anna's all set to enjoy her senior year in Atlanta, but then her dad decides she should go to boarding school. In Paris! She doesn't want to leave her best friend, or her job at the multiplex theater, or Toph, the guy she's been crushing on and who seems to have noticed her--finally! But her father insists, and she quickly finds herself alone in her dorm. Luckily her neighbor rescues her from a crying jag and introduces her to friends, including the immediately entrancing Etienne. Yes, he has an older girlfriend, but surely all his attention means something. Plus, Anna has to step outside her comfort zone and learn to explore a foreign city.

This is a great summer read. The romance is well developed with a dishy boy and a smart, funny heroine, and the setting is magnifique, of course! Highly recommended for ages 13 & up. Sexual situations, alcohol.

The Beginning of After

The Beginning of After by Jennifer Castle (NY: HarperCollins, 2011). Reviewed from e-proof provided by publisher via netgalley.com.

Summary from publisher:
Laurel’s world changes instantly when her parents and brother are killed in a terrible car accident. Behind the wheel is the father of her bad-boy neighbor, David Kaufman, whose mother is also killed. Now, Laurel must navigate a new world in which she and her best friend grow apart, boys may or may not be approaching her out of pity, overpowering memories lurk everywhere, and Mr. Kaufman is comatose but still very much alive. Through it all, there is David, who swoops in and out of Laurel’s life and to whom she finds herself attracted against her better judgment. She will forever be connected to him by their mutual loss, a connection that will change them both in unexpected ways.

Castle's novel poignantly and unflinchingly examines how Laurel deals with a cataclysmic loss. One minute she's studying vocabulary for the SAT and the next she's burying her family. After the initial numbness wears off a bit, Laurel tries to go back to school, but she feels like everyone's watching her, pitying her, even judging her. For instance, her best friend Megan wants her to go to prom and even knows someone who will ask Laurel, but Laurel is sure it would be a pity date since Joe has never seemed to notice her before. Also, weird rumors are swirling about Laurel and David, the son of the man who was driving the car in the accident that killed her family. Laurel goes to prom with Joe and is having a good time until David shows up at the after party and confronts her, at which point Laurel has a breakdown. From there, Laurel tries a bunch of different coping tactics, including a grief counselor.

Kudos to Castle for tackling a highly fraught topic and showing grief as a long process rather than a quick romantic adventure. Feelings, especially grief, are mercurial and unpredictable, and the feelings examined include those of all the characters, for as Laurel comes to realize, it's not all about her--her grandmother, her friends, her friends' families, her teachers--everyone in her life is dealing with the loss in their own ways, too, and her relationships will never be the same as they were before her loss, no matter how much she wishes they can be. Recommended for ages 13 & up. Language, sexual situations, intense situations.



Misfit

Misfit by Jon Skovron (NY: Abrams, 2011). Reviewed from e-galley provided by publisher via netgalley.com.

Jael has known she's different since she was eight years old and her dad told her she was half demon. Her mother, a demon, had died when she was three months old, and Jael and her father had led an itinerant existence, moving from one place to another to protect Jael from the demons who felt threatened by her existence. Jael understands her dad's motivations but feels hemmed in by his overprotectiveness. On her sixteenth birthday, Jael's dad gives her a special necklace from her mother, and Jael starts to learn more about her demon heritage--and all the dangers and powers associated with it.

Skovron has a lively writing style, and Jael is a feisty character, so overall Misfit reads well. However, the plot shifted around too much between the past and the present. Also, there was a huge disconnect between Jael's dad's character in the past and what Jael sees in the present. He and Jael's mom had a passionate partnership and battled demons all over the world, yet he seems timid and fearful in the present. Some of this is explained, but not too convincingly. Jael's romance with Rob is not well developed, a surprising contrast to Jael's parents' relationship. Uncle Dagon, a gigantic fish-like creature, is a great character, gross and funny simultaneously. All the shifts in the plot made the story harder to follow than it should've been. The end was somewhat abrupt and the resolution somewhat easy. Perhaps there's a sequel in the works that will explain Jael's special role in vanquishing the demons and continuing the Reclamation that is hinted at but never fully explicated in this novel.

This is a good read for paranormal fans, ages 13 & up. Language, sexual situations, and violence.