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

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.