Dec 3, 2008

13 Little Blue Envelopes

Maureen Johnson, 13 Little Blue Envelopes, 2005, HarperTeen.

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.

My Most Excellent Year

Steve Kluger, My Most Excellent Year: A Novel of Love, Mary Poppins & Fenway Park, 2008, Dial Books.

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.

This was an unusual book as one almost expected it to be a "guy" book despite the title's inclusion of love and Mary Poppins. This was not true. It was more of a book that one could see appealing to teens of both genders, however I do think that probably more girls than guys would read it because of the cover and the format which is popular among "teen girl" books. That being said it was a great read. The characters felt real, relatable, and their lives possible. My only beef is that the story is set in Brookline, Massachusetts and since I live in Brookline it was annoying to try to figure out what his new names for places in Coolidge Corner were. For example, was The Word Shop meant to be The Brookline Booksmith? Things like that irritate me in books, why couldn't he just use the real names? I'm not familiar with the NYC underground music scene but it seemed to me that David Levithan and Rachel Cohn did an okay job with using the real places in NYC as the setting for Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist. The other slighter beef was that Augie's love for show tunes combined with his subsequent coming out seemed a bit too "stereotypical gay teen boy" for my taste. Fortunately the relationship between Augie and his bf transcended anything stereotypical.

I'm not sure the teenage boys I know would like this book, but I would certainly be willing to pull it out as a recommendation to anyone looking for a good fictional book.

Dec 2, 2008

Briar Rose

Jane Yolen, Briar Rose, 1992, Starscape.

"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).

How I Live Now

Meg Rosoff, How I Live Now, 2006, Wendy Lamb Books.

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!

Basically, Daisy's father remarries and sends her to live with her Aunt and cousins in England who live in some sort of ramshackle manor house--think Cold Comfort Farm meets the Burrow--on the eve of a massive war that is about to break out across the country. This conveniently takes place after her Aunt leaves the kids behind to go take part in peace talks in Oslo the result of which make Neville Chamberlain look like a rocking Parliamentary figure. So the kids are left to fend for themselves while a nameless and faceless enemy moves from London to the English countryside. Meanwhile everything in the way of civilization is going kaput! and everyone is channeling World War II sacrifice and victory gardens, and then the cousins get separated and somehow the fact that Daisy is an American citizen means absolutely nothing until the very end.

The fact that this book is a Michael L. Printz award-winner doesn't make sense to me, unless its because it deals with controversial issues like the incestuous relationship between Daisy and Edmond or the fact that Daisy has an eating disorder that is only aggravated by the lack of food available. Even then I think that there are better books out there that deal with societal upheaval or apocalyptic type worlds and the fact that the cover is reminescent of Life As We Knew It isn't doing the book any favors since it makes readers think it will be like that work when in reality, the two have very little in common.

Dec 1, 2008

The Enchanted Forest Chronicles

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.

Paper Quake

Kathryn Reiss, Paper Quake: A Puzzle, 1996, Harcourt Paperbacks.

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?