Dec 3, 2008
Ginny's Aunt Peg died three months ago from a brain tumor, so what's she doing sending Ginny a package with 13 blue envelopes she is to open only as instructed? The first letter sends her to NYC where she picks up a plane ticket to London and an ATM card which her aunt writes will fund her "quest". What follows is an expedition through Europe that asks her to do such things as "ask Piet about Rembrandt's The Night Watch" and "make an offering to the Vestal Virgins at the Roman Coliseum." As Ginny makes her way through the continent she discovers the true story behind her Aunt's last two years on earth and finds herself shedding her shyness and inhibitions with every mile.
While the writing of this story is admittedly weak, the plot proves irresistible. Johnson takes a formulaic "backpack through Europe after high school graduation" story and turns it into something better although she does rely on many of the tropes one usually finds in those stories. Her characters could use some fleshing out, Ginny remains a bland heroine despite her apparent daring yet her interactions with the other characters she meets along the way are realistic which helps move the story along.
This is a good light read but not for teens who want the quintessential "backpack through Europe" story. Instead this is better for those who want a story about how people come out of their shells and make discoveries about themselves.
Written as a mix of school assignments, letters, emails, instant
messages, and diaries this book revolves around the memories of friends Anthony, Augie, and Alejandra who recall their 9th grade year when they each fell in love, fought, and found out who they really were. Anthony finally comes to term with the death of his mother by bonding with a deaf-kid named Huckey, Augie accepts his sexuality and Alejandra realizes she wants to be a Broadway actress rather than follow in the diplomatic footsteps of her entire family. Interspersed with the teenagers accounts are emails between various adult figures in their lives who comment on the changes these teens are going through.
Dec 2, 2008
"I am Briar Rose." Those are the last words that Becca's Gemma (grandmother) says to her granddaughters before dying. Becca's older sisters pass it off as the delirium of an old woman but twenty-three year old Becca feels a nagging sensation that there may be some truth behind these last words, after all growing up, their household version of Briar Rose didn't match other kids versions--not even a little bit.
Going through her grandmother's things Becca discovers bits and pieces of the beginning of her grandmother's life in America that doesn't jibe with what her mother has always believed. For instance, that she [Becca's mother] was born in a European refugee camp in upstate New York. With this, Becca sets off on a journey to discover who her Grandmother and Briar Rose were--one and the same or pure fairy tale? What she finds takes her into the heart of Poland where the townspeople refuse to talk about what happened during the war. Piece by piece Becca learns the story of her Grandmother and that sometimes fairy tales can be more heartbreaking than the truth.
I'm not sure how to feel about this story. I generally like Jane Yolen's work, but I felt like Becca herself had a fairy princess complex going on. Furthermore it was creepy that Becca's thirty-five year old editor was hitting on her while also offering to help her solve her family mystery. The fact that the fairy tale is a metaphor for the Holocaust makes it difficult to read, especially when you know that worse things than what was described in this story took place. Still, Yolen knows that the people reading this may have not yet learned about that part of history in school and so she walks a fine line between too much information and not enough in a way that makes it resonate with the reader. Yet I find it hard to comment on the specific history which inspired this book without asking myself how much is too much and how much is not enough? All I know is that this book doesn't suffer from the same problem as The Boy in the Striped Pajamas which masquerades a a child's "Holocaust fable" but in reality I personally would have a difficult time recommending to a parent (keeping the ending in mind).
What is up with all these apocalyptic young adult novels? First there was Life As We Knew It, then there was Before the War Began and How I Live Now. Now, three books does not a trend make but I wonder how many other end of the world ya novels are out there lurking about? Nevertheless, this apocalyptic novel (or really just some kind of limited to England World War III) felt weird to me, mostly because I had just finished Twilight at the time and everytime they talked about her being in love with her cousin Edmond my brain translated Edmond as Edward and went, oooh vampires!
Dec 1, 2008
Patricia C. Wrede, The Enchanted Forest Chronicles, 1990, Magic Carpet Books.
I'm a sucker for stories with strong female heroines, luckily for me Patricia C. Wrede's Enchanted Forest Chronicles series fits that description. Cimorene is NOT your stereotypical princess, growing up she wanted to fence, learn magic, speak Latin, cook, and do hundreds of other things that simply "weren't done" by princesses. So on the eve of her engagement to a prince as silly as her sisters, she runs away to go offer her services as a Dragon's Princess--that being the last repectable role for a princess although one hardly offers to fill the position. Fortunately for Cimorene the dragon Kazul takes her up on her offer instead of eating her. And so Cimorene becomes the Dessert Chef-slash-Archivist of Kazul the Dragon.
The series main conflict revolves around the Society of Wizards of who are attempting to cause trouble by sucking up magic from other magical creatures (including dragons) and the Enchanted Forest itself. The cast of characters are familiar ones with a twist--the witch Morwen looks witchy but is clean, nice, the owner of numerous cats, and holds as her motto "None of that nonsense please" in the middle of a forest where princes are either enchanted or going on a quest, witches grow horrible plants for fun, and princesses are as silly as they always have been in fairy tales. We are taken from Cimorene's pre-dragon days to the ascent of her son to a throne (but I won't say anymore and ruin the story). Although the fourth book was actually written first, the three before it are the most action packed which one imagines will appeal to both die-hard fantasy fans and those who are a bit more skeptical. Of course, this critic could just be talking about herself.
This book is a mix of historical fiction and mystery that revolves around a girl named Violet who after a tremor finds letters literally coming out of the seams of the building her parents new San Francisco floral shop is located in. Reading the letters Violet is startled to find parallels between the life of the girl who is writing the letters and her own: a sick girl who is plagued by cruel twin sisters. She also finds that V, who died sometime around the 1906 earthquake the decimated San Francisco, had dreams of a larger quake striking the modern city wreaking death and destruction--and now Violet is beginning to have those dreams herself. As the days pass and the Bay Area is shook by more tremors, Violet races to comb through the documents left from that time in order to find the answers: when will the big one hit and how can she warn everyone before it happens?
The book was an interesting take on modern day teens attempting to solve a mystery that happened decades before. Although there were some echoes of Caroline B. Cooney's Out of Time quartet, the book relied more on using historical documents than actual time travel in order to solve the mystery. There were some themes which I found unusual in a young adult novel, one in particular, the relationship between Violet and her sister Rose. Namely, Rose treats her sister with an attitude of resentment which often borders on outright hatred, since the healthier triplets are responsible for anything that happens to Violet's health although she has not had any health problems since she was a young child. Usually there is sibling discord in ya books but to see out and out hatred expressed was, for me, a first.
Unfortunately the actual mystery was thin and the solving of it was rooted far too much in pure coincidence than actual investigatory work. And as always we never find out the answer to the real mystery of the story, in this instance: was V murdered or did she die from her own weak heart?
Oct 27, 2008
After Colin is dumped by his nineteenth girlfriend named Katherine, he suffers an identity crisis of sorts. If he is destined to forever be the Dumpee, he believes it must reveal some larger truth about who Colin (a child prodigy) will turn out to be: a failure. After all, he has never had his 'Eureka' moment, the one which would signal the advent of his genius. The only solution to this identity crisis is to take a road trip which leads him and his best friend Hassan to the tiny town of Gutshot, Tennessee. In Gutshot Colin and Hassan find Colin's 'Eureka' moment, a factory that makes tampon strings, and a girl named Lindsey all which share an interesting story.
I couldn't tell if this book was purposely trying to be cool or not. I definitely didn't get a hipster vibe from the tone of the characters, unsurprisingly because both Colin and Hassan are slightly socially inept: still you get the sense deep down that Green was trying to work the nerd chic angle here. He couldn't make his characters without a shred of hope, otherwise even nerdy kids wouldn't want to read it. It is certainly interesting to see the balance the characters strike between nerdyness without hope and nerdyness that promises to become more.
On the other hand, Colin's constant thought and conversation tangents were half amusing, half down right annoying. However I must stress this one thing. I did not believe for ONE minute that the kids in Gutshot would let Lindsey go from freak of the week to a member of the in-crowd. I'm from a small town myself and sorry John Green but that just does not happen. Ever. Furthermore Lindsey was your stereotypical nerd boys wet dream: a hot girl who used to be nerdy once upon a time and secretly has a thing for skinny nerd boys like Colin. Why is it that in teen movies and books the nerdy girl has to be a "hot" nerdy girl? Can't she ever just be plain or so-so, or unconventionally beautiful? I felt like it sent a message that its okay to embrace your nerdyness if you're female, but only if you're pretty too. Ugh.
Oct 20, 2008
In Israel when you turn 18 you enter the Israeli Defense Forces even if you are a woman.* Although Valerie immigrated with her family from France to Israel when she was 12, like her friends she will enter the IDF where she will serve for two years. Once she arrives at her basic training base she realizes that nothing has prepared her for the regimented and difficult life of the defense forces. And she must still deal with her life on the outside, knowing that she won't always be in the military.
One of the most intriguing aspects of this book is the interplay between society's and the military's expectations when it comes to the women serving in the IDF. Valerie and her friends have always known that they would enter the military upon graduation [unless they were Orthodox Jews or got married]. This is something which the average American female will not experience. Even though most males in this country are required to register for the draft upon their eighteenth birthday, there has not actually been a draft since Vietnam. So chances are they have not had that experience, unless they are planning to enter the military after high school graduation. As the book progresses we see the strain that Valerie undergoes as she attempts to reconcile the civilian aspects of her personality with the emerging military aspects of it. She experiences a thrill at becoming a member of the radar team who track pilots from neighboring Arab countries, listening in to them over the frequencies all day and learning practically every inch of her country and the ones that surround it.
Valerie comes to find herself at odds, she is proud of her service in the IDF but she is also counting the days until her release. She serves her adopted nation of Israel and yet yearns to return to France someday. An especially poignant scene centers around a bus trip back to the base which takes her through Gaza where the bus is stoned by Palestinians. Instead of being angry and indignant, Valerie is afraid and lets the reader know she understands why the Palestinians are angry at Israel. At one point in the book, she and many other soldiers question the purpose of the patriotic materials that make up part of their training. Some soldiers even debate the validity of Israel's occupation of Palestine with their superiors.
Although much has changed in that corner of the world since Zenatti wrote this book, at its very heart the unusual situation of a teenage girl serving in the military will be a draw for teens who want to see what it is like to live in a country where such service is required.
*You are not required to serve if you are a married woman, prohibited by your religion from serving, or have a physical or psychological reason which prevents you serving. Men serve three years and women two. (IDF)
Oct 19, 2008
When Sofi Mendoza sneaks off with her friends to a Memorial Day party in Rosarito, Mexico she doesn't expect any trouble getting back into the United States once the weekend is over. Unfortunately for Sofi, her parents (both Mexican immigrants) never replaced the green card she received at age 4 when they crossed the border. Stuck in Mexico indefinitely until her parents can get things straightened out, Sofi must go stay with her Aunt's family in Rancho Escondido. Life there is completely unlike the life she has experienced on El Otro Lado as just another American teenager. As the days pass Sofi finds herself changing in subtle ways as she discovers how her life might have been had her parents not taken the risk and brought their family to the United States. Yet Sofi is worried, will she ever return home to graduate and go to UCLA?
Malin Alegria clearly understands and has experienced for herself many of the same things her protagonist experiences in this novel. Sofi lives on the border both literally and figuratively speaking. Although her parents are immigrants Sofi's life is mainly that of the average American teenager. Her parents constantly strive to assimilate, with the stark contrast that while their ethnic identity does them no favors at work, Sofi is seen as interesting and even exotic by her classmates. This is turned on its head in Mexcio where because Sofi cannot speak Spanish and she is clearly Mexican, she is looked down upon. The bulk of the book concentrates on the irony that Sofi who has lived in the United States for as long as she can remember and is due to graduate from a U.S. high school in a couple of weeks, must now either wait to get back home legally or join the thousands of people who everyday attempt to cross La Frontera illegally. The book also has Sofi dealing with the universal experiences of being a teenager: disobeying your parents, figuring out how to get your crush's attention, falling in love, and becoming more aware of the inequalities of the world that surrounds you as well what parts of your life you should feel blessed to have.
Sep 22, 2008
I know I haven't read much YA non-fiction yet but I feel inclined to say this book is my new YA-non fiction fav. As in, I'm a total Jack Gantos fan-girl omg!!! Er, well sort of. I DID really like this work and when I become a Young Adult Librarian this book is going on my list of recommended reading. Read on and you'll see why . . . .
When you think of what makes a children's author I'm sure the words 'ex-con' don't exactly come to mind. Nevertheless Jack Gantos is a well-known children's author who once upon a time (as in back in 1973), was a nineteen year old who got busted by the Feds for taking part in smugging hashish into NYC from St. Croix. That's not his whole story though. Jack tells us about the period of a couple years where he went from high school graduate to one-time drug smuggler to his decision to become a children's author. Unlike other stories of getting in with the wrong crowd and how teenagers go bad, this isn't a problem novel; and Jack isn't about to tell you he regrets his behavior. Jack doesn't BS the reader, he knows you'd probably feel the same way if you did the same thing and got caught.
I'm kicking myself now because when I helped out at an awards ceremony for YA student writers last spring, Jack Gantos was the Guest of Honor. In fact, the people in charge gave out this book to the winners and Jack signed the copies. I should have bought a copy and got him to sign it, but oh well. In writing this book Gantos has done a superb job. While his character does engage in recreational drug use and some months of crime to smuggle that one load of hashish, he neither condemns his actions nor glamorizes them. They are what they are, his experiences, his decisions, his past. You may identify with it or else find it completely alien to your own life experiences. I haven't read anything else he has written (children's or otherwise) so I can't say how it compares to that. I can say that the style of his writing is engaging. You don't read it because it keeps you on your seat nor because you're secretly hoping Jack gets shot by the drug smugglers, it is the way he tells his story that draws you in and keeps you there even though you know all along how the story will end.
The year Eleanor Ramrath turned ten, her parents moved the family back to Germany practically on the eve of Germany's invasion of Poland, and the subsequent outbreak of World War II. What was supposed to be a two year stint for her father to work as an electrical engineer turns into the family being forced to remain in Germany until the war is over. Living in Berlin, the family experiences the war firsthand, undergoing nightly bombing raids by the Allies, rationing, fear for their status as enemy aliens, and the constant hope they will emerge from this war able to return to America.
This book is one of my first forays into Young Adult Non-Fiction. I thought the plot was an interesting spin on the war-time memoir. Instead of the experience of an American living in the United States or a German living in Germany, Ramrath has the unique story of the experience of living as a German-American citizen in Nazi Germany. From the beginning you wonder if the parents will be allowed back into their adopted nation when the war is over (Ramrath and her older brother Frank were both born in the United States, her father was a naturalized citizen but her mother still had German citizenship).
The part of the book Ramrath does best are her vivid descriptions of how her physical environment changes over the years, months, and even hours of the war. You will not be able to forget the fates of those trapped under a neighboring apartment building. Nor will you fail to appreciate how devastating the bombings were to the city of Berlin. What Ramrath does NOT do well is to write about the physical and verbal abuse her father subjected his children to. She glosses over these aspects of her childhood as though it were the standard for anyone growing up during that time, which frankly I'm skeptical about. Ramrath also does poorly in describing what was happening to the Jewish citizens of Germany at this time. There is only one anecdote that deals with the treatment of these citizens (Her brother gives up his seat to an elderly Jewish woman and is screamed at by a fellow subway passenger). At a later point in the book she claims to have stumbled upon a "slave labor" camp, yet at the end of the book she makes the statement that she thought what happened to millions of people was a rumor until she was taught about it in history class upon her return to the US.
While I feel strongly about my critiques I also realize that the reason she glosses over much of this is because of her audience. She probably feels that it was not appropriate to discuss such topics as child abuse and the Holocaust to her projected audience. It brings up an interesting question to my mind, how much is too much discussion of such difficult issues in YA literature? I'm not sure myself as of yet. Probably once I read more I'll have a better answer for you.
Sep 17, 2008
Thomas J. Ward is the seventh son of a seventh son who has the (mis)fortune to be able to see and hear things most people, excluding his Mam, cannot. It is because of his birth and gift that he is apprenticed out to the local Spook who goes about the County ridding it of witches, boggarts, and ghosts among many other evil things. The problem is Tom finds himself getting into worse and worse trouble after he strikes up a friendship with Alice, a girl with pointy-toed shoes, the kind of girl the Spook has warned him to avoid. And there's the problem with Mother Malkin, the witch imprisoned in one of the garden pits who Tom accidentally helps escape.
To say I'm not a horror fan would be the understatement of the year. When it comes to horror films I absolutely cannot watch them. Now, books of the horror genre are another story. Yeah, I can still spook myself if I'm reading the stuff at night (which is why I tend to save my occaisional forays into horror for daylight reading) but generally my mind doesn't linger on what happened the way it does when the blood, gore, and things that go bump in the night are presented on a movie or tv screen. Plus I was a total R.L. Stine Fear Street series junkie as a kid. This book is not like any of R.L. Stine's work. It is a clever mix of horror, adventure, and fantasy that creates a world similar to but set apart from the picture of England you have or know.
Delaney's characters are complex creations who make it difficult to predict where the plot will go despite the supernatural elements. We are not given all the insight and background needed to fully understand them but the reason for this is that the book is only the first in a series, so the author would not want to give us all the information right away. While there is hidden potential for a romance between Alice and Tom, the friendship is a curious one that alternates between a need for friendship, convenience, mutual admiration for the abilities of the other, and suspicion of what each is capable of doing and in Alice's case what she is capable of growing up to be. This is by far the most interesting relationship in the book and it will be fun to see how it plays out in the sequels.
The book itself has the appropriate amount of supernatural terror, gore (the description of Mother Malkin's cakes especially!), suspense, and plenty creatures of the night which will put a definite chill in the readers bones without giving them nightmares, even if I am a wuss who only read this book during the daytime. You'll want to call Mother Malkin, Madam Malkin after the Robes Shop owner in the HP series, but this witch isn't anything like the ones in JKR's popular world. Fantasy fans will enjoy the book but it has wide-reaching appeal that really should be enjoyed by any young adult (male or female) who likes to read.
Sep 15, 2008
Paul has known he was gay since kindergarten. Noah's the cute artsy guy who just moved to town. Tony must revert to bible study subterfuge to get out of the house. Joni&Chuck can't be separated. Kyle may or may not hate Paul. And Infinite Darlene (formerly known as Daryl) makes juggling the dual title of star quarterback/homecoming queen look effortless. Set amongst a backdrop of a semi-utopian community that made even this liberal skeptical, the book tells the love story between Paul and Noah set against the sub-plots of their friend's dramas, duels, and Dowager dancing. You may not know better than the school bookie what the odds are Paul & Noah end up together but the journey to what may be is a well-written escape that should appeal to fans of Levithan's prior work.
As sweet and fun this story reads, it's setting in a sort of liberal utopia makes even this reader skeptical. Like Nick and Norah's Infinte Playlist it is really hard to believe that teenagers (even wealthy ones) talk, think, and act like the characters in this work. That being said, the book is a safe space and thus it feels revolutionary. The fact that Levithan includes a transgender character (Infinite Darlene) is pretty amazing considering that this group of teens rarely get mention even in books on teenage sexual health and sexuality. I could see this book potentially being challenged because of it's loving and accepting language about the varieties of sexuality however it is for that very reason that it is vital to include it among ones young adult fiction collection.
I actually really hate editions of books that blast COMING SOON TO A THEATRE NEAR YOU ZOMG!!! on the cover. In fact I've been known to not buy a book even though I really wanted it simply because it's got annoying amounts of promotional advertising on or in the book itself. I made an exception for this book because my local library didn't have a copy I could take out and for the love of all YA novels that look snarkily hip and fresh and a million other things I wanted to read the darn book.
Man, was that a bad choice. I have a confession to make to you all. I wanted to like this book. Badly. Namely the previews for the forthcoming film adaption make it look so bad ass that I expected said bad-assery to have originated with the book. That SO did not happen. But instead of complaining ahead of time about my personal feelings regarding this novel, let us move on to the review.
NICK is a whiny, broken hearted bassist in a queercore band. Having just been dumped by his girlfriend Tris, he's naturally less than pleased to see her show up at his gig with her latest guy in tow when he's got no one. So what else can he do but ask the girl standing next to him to pretend to be his gf?
NORAH is a snarky rich girl from Jersey with no other plans than to keep her bff Caroline safe from the clutches of sketchy guys, and oh yeah, go work in the same South African kibbutz next year as her terminal ex-bf Tal. She happens to be standing next to Nick when he sees Tris headed his way and thus decides to ask a random stranger to be his gf for the next five minutes.
What follows is a night that takes these two from a punk-rock club in Lower Manhattan to all around the hipster circuit of New York City. Evading ex significant others, trying to keep tabs on your friends, watching transexual nuns in burlesque perform The Sound of Music and happening on a surprise show by mutual favorite band Where's Fluffy? may just turn a five-minute pretend relationship into something real.With this formula one would think the book is set up for success, sure to please the reading needs of any YA reader. And while I have seen many gushing reviews of the work on the Visual Bookshelf app through Facebook, I've gotta say something tells me you either love this book or you hate it. With all the name-dropping of NYC clubs, hotspots, and retro music the characters feel a bit plastic. My biggest problem with the book was the lack of chemistry between Nick and Norah who were supposed to be beginning like, THE most significant relationships of their young adult lives. I'm actually convinced that Nick and Norah were written to be David Levithan and Rachel Cohn but in their teenage years. I haven't read any of Rachel Cohn's previous work so I cannot speak for how this compares with that, and I've only read one other David Levithan, Boy Meets Boy, but compared with that I think DL did a better job in that book.
What do you think?
Back in middle school this was THE book to check out among my friends of the female sex. In fact we were pretty impressed that our school library even had this book and let us check it out. Although I may be under the impression that everyone and their mother has probably read this book at some point in their pre-teen or adolescent life, for the purposes of my YA Literature Class this will be the first book I write about. I'm still a Judy Blume fan and even now when I am no longer a teenager, I cannot bring myself to dislike this book. My friend, if you do not like Judy Blume then you probably ain't gonna like this book.
Kath and Michael are high school seniors who begin dating after a New Year's Eve party. Despite having relatively little experience in dating and the physical side of it, the two plunge into their relationship without thinking what the future (namely graduation) will bring to it. As the months pass Kath and Michael precariously navigate their way through the varied emotions and complications that a physical relationship between two teenagers brings. Nevertheless Blume's novel is a gentle introduction into the pleasures and perils of the emergence of teenage sexuality.
As I said before, I'm a JB fan. This book is a book that when I read it today, it still resonates with me; not because it is what I am currently experiencing but rather because it reminds me how it felt to be a teenager making dating and relationship decisions. Unlike Seventeenth Summer, Blume's Forever is well-written enough that the material doesn't seem so out-dated that you feel like you're reading a historical fiction.
For more Judy Blume go to her website: http://www.judyblume.com