Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Queens of All the Earth

Queens of All the Earth by Hannah Sternberg (Baltimore: Bancroft, 2011) [reviewed from e-galley supplied by publisher via netgalley.com].

Inspired by Forster's Room with a View, Queens of All the Earth tells the story of a troubled young woman standing on the brink of her life and coming to terms with the disorder she'll have to face while on a trip to Europe. The novel quickly draws the reader into Olivia's perspective as she has a nervous breakdown on the day she is supposed to move into her dorm to begin her college career at Cornell. Her older sister Miranda tries to coax her out of her catatonic state to no avail, and even after months of rest and therapy, Olivia is still fragile. Miranda decides a change of scene in the form a trip to Barcelona will recharge Olivia. Traveling does not phase Olivia while it completely stresses Miranda who wants to control every detail. Olivia doesn't mind that their hostel accommodation is a large, co-ed room rather than the private room her sister reserved. When Miranda complains, loudly, a kind older gentleman and his broody teen son offer to switch. Miranda reluctantly agrees and does not like feeling obligated to these strangers. Olivia feels immediately drawn to the silent, broody son. Miranda befriends a bossy know-it-all named Lenny who confirms that the man and his son Greg are odd--apparently because the father is a minister and the son is quiet. Miranda also finds a sympathetic ear with Marc, who claims to be a future priest from Peru.

Sternberg's captivating descriptions of Barcelona and its impact on Olivia's mind unfold in metaphors of sunlight and physical discomfort, a somewhat surreal combination well suited to teen angst, even in the extreme form Olivia has. The poetry of e.e. cummings also infuses the novel, in the chapter titles and quotations in the text. The reasons for Olivia's breakdown become clearer as she contemplates her distant, academic mother, her older sister who is attempting to compensate for their mother, her recently dead father who left not long after she was born, and her own path as she has muscled her way toward a goal that might not even be hers without giving herself time to grow up. Her trip abroad ironically brings her closer to her true self and she is capable of making choices of her own rather than those others would push on her. Her relationship with Greg marks a new beginning for her, though Sternberg fails to develop it well and, in fact, the novel ends abruptly. Indeed, it ends so abruptly that I immediately reread Room with a View to see how it ended--much more satisfyingly, to be sure!

Overall, while Queens of All the Earth begins strongly with captivating, lyrical prose and a promising arc, it ultimately falls flat. It leaves too much undeveloped and shuts down right at the point where it should open up, especially given the portals it introduces in the first few chapters. Fine for ages 13 & up, it would make a good companion for a class studying Room with a View.

By the Time You Read This, I'll Be Dead

By the Time You Read This, I'll Be Dead by Julie Anne Peter (NY: Hyperion, 2010).

Daelyn Rice is known as a freak at her latest school, a private girls' academy. She can't talk and she wears a neck brace--she's recovering from reconstructive surgery on her esophagus that she damaged in her latest in a string of botched suicides. Now she's determined to succeed and, with the help of a countdown website for "completers" called through-the-light.com, organizes for her final suicide attempt. She answers questions, selects her method, and even journals about the bullying and abuse she's endured her entire school career that have contributed to her death wish. Her parents blithely believe that monitoring her web access will stop her from visiting suicide boards, but Daelyn enlists the aid of a boy who happens to live next to her school and who persistently sits with her while she waits for her ride after school every day. He loans her a netbook and also becomes something to her, a friend? Daelyn doesn't really know since her life has been devoid of friendship. She's likewise unsure about the one girl among the usual crowd of mean ones at the school who is actually nice to Daelyn.

None of these topics is particularly new, but Peters's matter-of-fact presentation cuts deeply. Daelyn isn't crying for help, yet she elicits sympathy, even as she dispassionately evaluates various suicide methods. Her parents' apparent blindness to their daughter's suffering seems oddly believable. Although the book ends on Daelyn's last day, her ultimate end is left unstated, a fitting conclusion to this sad, sad story.

Recommended for teens, ages 14 & up. Intense situations & disturbing content.

Fall for Anything

Fall for Anything by Courtney Summers (NY: St. Martin's Griffin, 2010).

There's no summer fun for Eddie Reeve this year. Her senior year is ahead and she's hanging out with her best friend Milo every day, but she's mired in sadness after her father's suicide and obsessed with knowing why. Her mother is nearly catatonic, and her mother's pesky best friend Beth has actually moved into their house. Eddie sneaks out every night and rides her bike to the old warehouse from whose roof her dad leaped to his death. It's where Eddie found him and where Milo found them both. Eddie's fuzzy on some of the details of that horrible day, yet remains sharply focused on discovering why her dad, an acclaimed photographer who fled the art world at the height of his fame, left her and her mother.

Eddie chances to meet Culler Evans on one of her visits to the warehouse. He claims to be a former student of her father's and he does seem to have some inside knowledge. He's a bit older than Eddie and she feels attracted to him, despite Milo's warnings that there's something off about the situation, especially when Culler starts showing Eddie cryptic messages her father allegedly left carved in the walls of the last places he photographed.

Summers is an extraordinary YA author who is highly skilled at interweaving dark realism with bordering-on-hopeful outcomes. Fall for Anything (plus Summer's previous novels, Cracked Up to Be and Some Girls Are) is highly recommended. Sexual situations, language, alcohol. Ages 13 & up.


Countdown by Deborah Wiles (NY: Scholastic, 2010).

The Cuban Missile Crisis and the Civil Rights Movement directly impact the life of this story's protagonist, 11-year-old Franny Chapman. At school there are regular air-raid drills even before the crisis and the fearful, nearly paranoid, atmosphere of the era permeates the novel. Wiles enlivens her narrative with documentary-like footage from primary sources that show the reader Franny's world as she is living it. Not just the duck-and-cover drills, but pivotal moments such as Kennedy's televised speech and Walter Cronkite's reporting are well integrated as well as cultural trends such as rock and folk music (Pete Seger, Bob Dylan, the Beatles). Franny's sister is directly involved in campus activities and the Civil Rights movement, so she's not home much, and Franny worries for her well being. Her dad is on high alert at the Air Force, and Franny frets that he'll be killed. Her uncle Otts, a WW II veteran, has a breakdown of some sort, triggered by current events dredging up memories of heavy losses during that war.

Franny is dealing with more mundane problems as well--her crush on the new boy, a squabble with her best friend, embarrassment and misunderstandings at school, and her middle child feelings of neglect as she's overlooked between her college-aged older sister and perfect angel younger brother.

Overall, this is an excellent historical novel that will find a large audience well beyond its juvenile target. Highly recommended for ages 10 & up.

Pies & Prejudice

Pies and Prejudice (The Mother-Daughter Book Club) by Heather Vogel Frederick (NY: Simon & Schuster, 2010).

This installment of the excellent Mother-Daughter Book Club series finds the girls starting high school and facing the loss of one of their friends. Emma is moving to England for a year! Luckily, videoconferencing will enable their discussion of this year's book--Pride and Prejudice. Frederick does an excellent job of incorporating elements of Austen's classic into this modern rendition as hockey player Cassidy overcomes her initial dislike of ice dancer Tristan, whose family has moved to Concord for the year and is living in Emma's house through a house exchange program. Emma loves Austen and England, but clashes with snooty Annabelle, who happens to be Tristan's distant cousin and dance partner. As a surprise, the girls in Concord decide to start a pie business to make enough money to bring Emily home for spring break, hence the book's title (and the name of their business).

Good clean fun for younger teens. Recommended for ages 11 & up.

Violet in Bloom

Violet in Bloom: A Flower Power Book by Lauren Myracle (NY: Abrams, 2010).

I missed the first installment of this cute tween series, but had no problem following this adorable story about a diverse group of friends who share flower names and computer savvy. Their new website, Luv Ya Bunches, is up and running and now they want to devote their FFF (Flower Friends Forever) power to good projects. The nasty cheese crackers at school become their focus as they decide to protest the poor nutrition and rally for healthy snacks. The girls also have individual problems to overcome, including boy troubles, social embarrassment, pushy classmates, and an institutionalized parent. Perfect tween reading material! Recommended for ages 9 & up.

Friday, March 4, 2011


Choker by Elizabeth Woods (NY: Simon & Schuster BFYR, 2011).

Cara Lange sits with her track teammates at lunch, but doesn't really connect with any of them. She still misses her best friend Zoe from when she was younger. She and Zoe lost contact after Cara's family moved to a different house in 5th grade, and Cara has never really made another friend, just acquaintances. So when Zoe shows up on Cara's doorstep and asks to stay for a few days, Cara is delighted to reconnect and have someone to talk to about what's going on at school, where she is being bullied by the mean girls. Just having Zoe around boosts Cara's confidence and she starts standing up for herself more, even when the mean girls are calling her "Choker" after a cafeteria mishap where super hotty Ethan, who Cara's been crushing on all year, saves her life. Zoe sympathizes and talks Cara out of her doldrums. Cara's parents are never around, so it's easy enough to keep Zoe hidden in her room, and Cara would be totally happy, except that first one classmate and then another is killed. Could Zoe be a murderer? As the few days of Zoe's visit lengthen into weeks, Cara becomes more and more suspicious.

Elizabeth Woods has crafted a suspenseful psychological thriller that's sure to keep readers turning the pages. The characters are well drawn and engaging, even the stereotypical mean girls. Highly recommended for teens, ages 13 & up. Sex, alcohol, language.


Wanted by Sara Shepard (NY: HarperTeen, 2010).

This is the final installment in the Pretty Little Liars series, and it's as compulsively readable as its seven predecessors. Lots of snark and snotty label name dropping from these teen queen wannabes. As the novel opens, Ali's killer is finally behind bars and the new drama is that Ali's secret twin sister Courtney has moved in with her family after years in a mental hospital. Should Aria, Hanna, Spencer, and Emily befriend her? Well, duh! Of course they should! Only Aria puts up much of a struggle as she recalls Ali's duplicitous nature and has qualms about trusting her lookalike twin. Courtney says all the right things, but Aria feels as though there's something off. And what about the Polaroid pictures she finds in the woods? The face doesn't really look like the killer who's being held. It looks more like a girl....but who is it?

Nothing deep here, but great easy reading. Recommended for teens and tweens, ages 12 & up. Sexual situations, drugs, alcohol, narcissism, greed.

Real Live Boyfriends

Real Live Boyfriends by E. Lockhart (NY: Delacorte, 2010).

I loved all the previous Ruby Oliver novels, so it's no surprise that I enjoyed this one, too. There are some side splittingly hilarious scenes involving Ruby's hapless parents, especially her dad's howler of a Halloween costume that Ruby's mom expects him to wear on public transportation (since neither of their costumes will allow them to drive). Despite the title, Ruby does have some boy troubles--mainly a huge misunderstanding with her main squeeze Neil that takes the whole novel to get straightened out. Most interesting is Ruby's realization that she's no longer as crazy as she had been. Yup, Ruby is growing up, leaving some (but not all, thankfully) of that crazy teen drama behind her. Highly recommended for teens, ages 13 & up. Sexual situations, alcohol, language.


Room by Emma Donoghue (NY: Little, Brown, 2010).

This is a chilling novel told from the perspective of a five-year-old boy who has spent his entire life confined to a room with his mother, who was abducted at age 19. Jack's voice is captivating, and the scenario is absolutely heart rending. Don't start this book unless you have time to read it straight through because you will not want to put it down. And you will cry at the end. It's like Plato's Allegory of the Cave in a contemporary, ripped-from-the-headlines setting. Definitely for adults only.

Three Quarters Dead is DOA

Three Quarters Dead by Richard Peck (NY: Dial, 2010).

Ugh. Don't bother with this one. I mean, look at that lame cover, just for starters. I guess the story is supposed to be scary, but honestly, it was just lame. The main character Kerry is a pathetic sophomore with no friends who sits alone at lunch (boo hoo!) but then miraculously gets selected to be friends with a ruling clique. There's no rhyme or reason for this sudden elevation, except her very lameness, as it turns out. The writing is dry (of all things) with plenty of telling, but no showing, and I never connected with Kerry. She felt more like someone's wrong-headed idea of a a real teen-aged girl than an actual girl with whom one could empathize. There's not even any romance to redeem this novel. I've read some of Peck's other novels, and they're plenty lively, so who knows what happened here. It's a desultory attempt at catching the paranormal wave that falls flat. Not recommended.