Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Don't Be Rash! (But read it!)

Rash by Pete Hautman
4Q 3?P J/S

Let's jump ahead about seventy years, shall we? Let's check out the situation in the good old USSA. Because of things like the Child Safety Act of 2033, protective gear is all the rage. You don't just wear a helmet when you're biking, you wear it when you're running track, too. In fact, you might just wear it pretty much all the time, possibly along with knee and elbow pads. You can never be too safe. What sorts of things can get you in trouble with the law, even thrown in jail? Owning large dogs. Driving without a safety web. Body piercings and tattoos. Drinking alcohol. Littering. Road rage. Not taking your medication (which you take to control your moods). Not wearing your safety gear. Throwing a pencil. Shoving someone against the wall. Verbally attacking someone's physical appearance. Guess how many of those things our hero, Bo, has done? Too many.

Bo blames his troubles on his Marsten genes. His proof: five members of his family are serving time. Bo's about to make it six. You see, Bo is crazy about a girl named Maddy. They've been dating for a while, but lately she's been showing some interest in Karlohs, a guy Bo can't stand, so he desperately wants to impress her. Maybe breaking the school's record (13.3 seconds) for the 100-meter dash will do it. Unfortunately, Karlohs destroys him in the race. To make things worse, Bo loses his temper and verbally assaults Karlohs after the race. Dissing someone is a serious offense, and Bo already has two strikes against him, one for throwing that afore-mentioned pencil and one for a shoving incident. Because of the "three strikes and you're out" policy, he's teetering on the brink of being sent to prison. Then Karlohs comes down with a rash, and blames Bo for it. When the rash spreads to other students, Bo is put on home quarantine. Just when Bo thinks things can't get any worse, it does. He winds up in a fist fight with Karlohs at a local mall. That does it. It's jail time for another Marsten male. Bo soon finds himself way, way up north, in a prison run by McDonald's. (Prisons in the 2070s are run by major companies, such as McDonald's and Pepsi. The country's entire labor force comes from the prison system.) Bo is in for a rude shock. The guards use physical abuse! They verbally assault the prisoners! There are unprotected hard surfaces and sharp corners in the prison! Unheard of! People could get hurt! Welcome to the life of a nail.

Bo's life is reduced to thin white coveralls, a whale of a cellmate (400 pounds and counting), and pizza. Hour after hour of making pizza, meal after meal of eating pizza. He's going stir crazy. Then he starts to notice that there are about twenty inmates who don't have to wear the coveralls or eat pizza three meals a day. They wear jeans and gold shirts and get good stuff to eat. What's up with that? Soon enough, Bo finds out. It seems the Warden, aka The Hammer, loves the highly illegal sport of football. The Goldshirts are his football team. They're the fittest, meanest, and toughest guys in the prison. And Bo's about to become one of them. Is this a good thing? Bo's not too sure about that!

Bo's prison life takes another strange turn when Bork, an artificial intelligence program he created for school, suddenly starts showing up on the prison computers. It shouldn't be able to do that, since Bo isn't a very good programmer and Bork was barely going to get him a passing grade. But now Bork could...and does...pass for human, and he's determined to get Bo out of jail free.

Which will get Bo out of prison first, football or Bork? And will that be a good thing, or just another in a series of rash actions?

Musings: (Sorry, I didn't start marking things until I was halfway through the book!)

  • Every time I read the word "Bork" it made me think of The Muppet Show and the Swedish Chef. This is a good thing (to me), and possibly not completely unintentional.

  • I liked the first part of this book the most, because it was the part that really concentrated on telling us about all the ridiculous laws and procedures that have arisen in the future in the cause of keeping people safe. I'm old enough to remember when no one thought twice about a playground with swing sets on asphalt, when playgrounds still had jungle gyms, and when kids could still play tag at recess. (Yeah, there are schools that are forbidding TAG these days, for crying out loud, including California and Massachusetts.) Guess what? Even though we occasionally fell and scraped a knee (or even broke an arm), we survived to tell the tale and our parents didn't think it was a calamity. They just figured it was just something that occasionally happened when kids played. And have you seen the warning labels on products today? "Caution: Will be hot when removed from oven." Well, duhh! Isn't that why we put it in there in the first place? Ridiculous. So I just loved Hautman's taking the overprotectiveness thing over the top like this.

  • A favorite paragraph: "I started thinking again about my last conversation with Bork...He claimed that I was innocent because my assault on Korlohs was an unavoidable consequence of my being human. But if that were true, then everything everybody did was unavoidable, and no one could be held responsible for anything. And if nobody could be held responsible, then who would build the roads and behead the shrimp and make the pizzas? And what would stop violent, undisciplined people like me from running rampant through society?"

  • Another favorite section, but too long to quote in full: pp. 212-214. Bo is talking to Bork. "I'm not happy with you, Bork." "Explain." "You almost got me killed." Bork sat back in his chair and regarded me through his sunglasses. I was pretty sure that behind them his gold irises were spinning. After a few seconds he spoke. "You appear to be alive." "So do you," I said." (Bork is an artificial intelligence program Bo created in school.) In the rest of the conversation Bo tries to explain to Bork what acceptable odds are when putting his life in danger. Bork doesn't quite get it. Fun.

  • How lame is this? It took me half the book before I realized how I should be hearing "WindO" in my head! I kept breaking the word into two distinct parts. Don't. D'oh!

I wasn't a particular fan of Pete Hautman's until a year or so ago. That doesn't mean I didn't like his books. I just hadn't read many of them. Then I read Sweetblood, which has an interesting take on (among other things) what vampires really are. Then I read Invisible, which is a completely different kind of book. I'd heard a lot about Mr. Was, so I ordered and read that. Another completely different kind of book (and a little mind-boggling, too, what with the time travel and figuring out who's who!). Then I read Godless. You guessed it - different again. (I mean, who thinks about worshipping water towers? And how many people could take that and make it logical and thought-provoking, as well as fun?) I enjoy the places Hautman's books take me, almost always with a sense of humor and always more than just a good story. Rash follows that path. In my book, Hautman is always worth a read.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Life as I Never Want to Know It

Life as We Knew It by Susan Beth Pfeffer
5Q J/S

This book made me feel as tense and claustraphobic as What Happened to Cass McBride, even though it's an entirely different kind of book. When I read books like Anne Frank's The Diary of a Young Girl or read articles about people who have lived through horrific experiences like Rwanda, Sarajevo, or the Bataan Death March, I always wonder to myself how they made it through. I marvel when they turn their horrible experience into something positive instead of allowing themselves to become bitter and angry. "Could I do that?" I wonder. "Would I have survived, or would I have just given up?" I'd like to think that I'd survive with my spirit intact, but I don't know if I'm that strong. I hope I never have to find out, but I hope if the situation arises, I discover that I am. In Life as We Knew It, Miranda and her family discover that they are.

Sometimes the biggest events start out as nothing all that special. This is one of those times. Sure, people are talking about the asteroid that's about to hit the moon. This one is a little out of the ordinary because it's bigger than most asteroids that hit the moon. In fact, it's big enough that it can be seen with binoculars, not just a telescope. So it's a big enough event that Miranda's teachers are all giving moon/asteroid-related assignments, but not so big that anyone is worried. But they should have been. Because it turns out that the asteroid is not only bigger than scientists expected, it hits with much more force than expected. It hits with such force that the moon is knocked out of its orbit. It's pushed much closer to Earth than it was before.

So? Is that really significant? You bet it is. In fact, it's catastrophic. For one thing, the moon affects the tides. The first noticeable effect of the collision are the tsunamis that hit the coasts. By the next morning, there are reports of massive flooding all over the eastern seaboard and tidal waves of twenty feet or higher hitting cities as far inland as New York City. The Statue of Liberty is washed out to sea, Cape Cod, Nantucket, and Martha's Vineyard are completely submerged, the barrier islands off the Carolina coast are gone, and so is the entire state of Rhode Island. Hawaii and parts of Alaska are gone, too. And it's not just a United States problem. Similar devastation is happening around the world.

Nobody knows at first just how bad it's going to get. But Miranda's mother is smart enough to suspect that it's going to get a whole lot worse before it gets better. IF it gets better. She takes Miranda and her younger brother out of school, and the three of them and a neighbor head to the stores. They fill up cart after cart with canned and boxed foods, cat food and kitty litter, toilet paper, and anything and everything they think they could possibly use. Miranda's mother even buys seeds and cuttings, so they can plant their own vegetables. Because they have no way of knowing how long the situation will last or how bad it will get, everything has to be rationed, including their water and heating oil.

How bad does it get? After the tidal waves come the earthquakes. After the earthquakes come the volcanoes. Volcanoes that have been dormant for thousands of years or which are so far underground that they once posed no danger are erupting now. So much ash is thrown into the air that the sun is completely blocked. The first hard frost comes in August. By September, it's not unusual for the temperature during the day to reach a high of 23 degrees. By October, it's below zero. They can forget about growing plants for food. Communication networks break down. It's next to impossible to make or receive phone calls. Mail is disrupted. Electricity is available only an hour or two a day. Soon, it's on for only minutes a day. And then it's not on at all. With no mail, no phone, no television, and no internet, there's no way to get any news at all. They are completely isolated.

Miranda's journal begins on May 7 and ends on March 20. The early entries are typical of a teenage girl worried about her grades, her friends, fights with her mother, worries about her father and pregnant stepmother, and her fan-crush on a local Olympic-caliber skater. But as the crisis deepens, so do the journal entries, and the reader can't help but admire Miranda as she describes their struggles to survive. Though sometimes tempted to give up, she never does. It's inspiring. This is not a novel that's wrapped up neatly at the end. The situation is still dire. But we are left with an image of Miranda standing strong with a new sense of hope that better days are coming.

I highly recommend this book. It is not a comfort read. It will keep you on edge. You'll feel the cold and the hunger. But it will make you appreciate what you've got, both the material things and the people in your life you love. And maybe, like me, it'll make you think about what it takes to survive the tough times and come out stronger for it in the end.

By the way, this is the kind of book I wish would win the Printz. It is possible to have literary quality AND be something teens will actually read.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

To Sing or Not to Sing? Is That the Question?

Diva by Alex Flinn
4Q J/S

This post doesn't do justice to this book, but I'm going to put it up anyhow. When a book talks about going for your dreams, it's worth talking about. Caution: Some people may feel I've included some spoilers in this post. But I think this book isn't so much about what happens as it is about how Caitlin deals with what happens (and has happened).


Loved this line: "...and then I ask if we can sing some more, because I really want to work on this piece I'm doing. It goes up to a high E-flat, and that's the closest I can get to socially acceptable screaming."

I really liked this paragraph, too: "That's the thing about having real friends like Gigi and Sean. You feel like you can tell them the truth about stuff in your life, and they won't rag on you or try and use it against you, or try to talk you out of it because it doesn't fit with what they want." Food for thought.

This book is an object lesson on how NOT to be anonymous on the Web. Caitlin decides that she wants to write about the things she's experiencing, but she doesn't want to keep a journal or diary because she's afraid her mother would find and read it. She figures she'll keep an online journal (strangely enough, she doesn't use the word blog) because that way she can write whatever she wants and nobody will know it's her. Advice to Caitlin: if you really want to write about what's going on in your life but don't want people to know it's you, don't reveal: where you live, what school you go to, your ex-boyfriend's name and the detail that he used to beat you up, and that you used to be fat but lost a lot of weight and became a Homecoming Princess last year. You've just made it incredibly easy to figure out exactly who you are. You've got to pay more attention to those "stranger danger" lectures.

This book is a sequel to Flinn's Breathing Underwater, but you definitely don't have to have read the first book to get something out of this one. (But if you're looking for good books, I recommend you do read Breathing Underwater. It's about the relationship between Nick and Caitlin, told from Nick's point of view in the journal he's forced to keep as part of court-ordered counseling sessions for guys who beat up on their wives/girlfriends.)

Caitlin is anxious to transfer to the Miami High School for the Arts for three reasons: she wants to get away from Nick, her ex-boyfriend who used to beat her up; she wants to get away from her so-called friends, who she doesn't really like; and she desperately wants to go to a school where it's okay to say out loud that you want to be an opera singer.

Caitlin has a few issues. (Don't we all?) For one thing, Caitlin was fat until she went to a fat camp and lost thirty-five pounds. All of a sudden, she's babe material, catching the attention of guys like Nick and getting accepted by the cheerleading crowd. As already mentioned, that didn't exactly work out well for her. She doesn't have an eating disorder now, but she certainly is very conscious of what she weighs and what she eats, and it's hard keeping the pounds off. No matter how good people tell her she looks, she always feels like a fat girl inside. Her mother doesn't help the issue any. She's the really hot girl in their house. She dresses (and sometimes acts) more like a teenage girl than Caitlin does, what with her crop tops, spandex, and four-inch high heels. If that was Caitlin's only mother issue, she could deal. But her mother's taste in men is questionable at best, and that has Caitlin worried and angry. On top of all that, her mother also isn't what you'd call supportive of her dreams. As far as her mother is concerned, opera is just noisy screeching. Caitlin's main issue is that she dreams of becoming an opera star, a diva. But it's easier to dream it than to achieve it, especially when you have more self-doubt than self-confidence.It's a lot to deal with, especially when you add her history with Nick into the pot and stir.

When Caitlin auditions for the Miami School for the Arts, she knows her mother isn't going to go for it. But Caitlin's audition is really impressive, and the school wants her. With a little prodding from her voice teacher, Caitlin decides to force the issue. In fact, she resorts to blackmail, telling her mother she'll go live with her father if her mother won't let her go. They both know her father doesn't want her and probably wouldn't take her, but the threat works anyway. Caitlin enrolls at MSFTA.

The book concentrates on Caitlin's experiences at school, her developing friendships with Gigi (sarcastic Eyebrow Ring Girl with the bright Jell-O red --today, anyhow-- hair) and Sean (talented, possible boyfriend material - but maybe not), and her feelings about her mother's affair with a married man. While most teens may not relate to wanting to sing opera, most people can relate to wanting to be really good at something. A lot of us can also relate to sometimes being a little afraid to go for something. What if we're not as good as people say we are? What if we look stupid? What if we blow it? Sometimes it's easier not to try, because then we won't fail. Then again, then we won't succeed, either.

This is a good book for anyone who has ever questioned their abilities and purpose. And that's pretty much all of us.

An Abundance of Katherines

An Abundance of Katherines by John Green
3.5Q/3P S

Are you a Dumper or a Dumpee? Colin is a Dumpee. He knows this because he's been dumped nineteen times. But this one is the worst. This one hurts more than all the other dumps combined. He didn't love all the other Katherines who dumped him, but he loved this one. He's so depressed that his best friend Hassan decides that the only thing that will help is a road trip to get Colin as far away from Katherine XIX as possible. Colin and Hassan eventually wind up in Shotgun, Tennesee. Enter Lindsey Lee Wells and her mother, Hollis.

Lindsey Lee works at the general store. She's pretty and intelligent, with a sharp wit. If she were only named Katherine (and he wasn't so depressed about being dumped), Colin might be interested. But she's not, and he is, and besides, Lindsey is already dating another guy named Colin. Her mother, Hollis, owns the factory that employs most of the town. She offers the boys a job interviewing the town's inhabitants about the good old days. What the heck. They have nothing better to do, and the road trip thing isn't really working for them. They say yes.

Colin and Hassan figure they aren't exactly small town Tennessee-type people. Colin is former child prodigy, super-intelligent, a lover of anagrams, a whiz at math, and the former boyfriend of nineteen girls named Katherine. And he's getting more and more worried as the months go by that he isn't living up to his early promise. Prodigies are good at something (like math and languages) at a very early age. Geniuses take known information and take it to unexpected and unexplored areas. Einstein was a genius. Colin was just a prodigy, and he can't bear the idea that he's washed up at eighteen. He is obsessed with the idea of making his life matter. Hassan, on the other hand, has blown off college and plans to continue blowing it off. He's a pudgy guy who just wants to let things happen as they happen. He probably has a lot of company in that in Gutshot. But Hassan is also a practicing Muslim (he doesn't smoke, drink, or date - usually) and there aren't a lot of those in Gutshot. He has a feeling he won't be very welcome here. The boys don't know what to expect from Gutshot, other than not much. Instead, of course, they get much more than they bargained for.

What do you do when you're a perpetual Dumpee? You wallow in your pain for a while, you check your cell phone constantly for messages you know aren't going to come, and every once in a while, you give in to the temptation to call your Dumper, even though you know it's a bad idea. And if you're Colin, you also spend hours working out a mathmatical equation, a theorem, that can predict the rise and fall of relationships. Wouldn't everyone want to know before it began how a relationship will unfold? Maybe this is the thing he'll be remembered for. Maybe this is how he will turn out to matter. The trouble is, he just can't get it right. A good theorem has to work every time, but his only works on some of his relationships, and he can't figure out why. It's Lindsey who gives him the keys. In fact, Lindsey is key to a lot that Colin learns over the summer.

I confess that I like the parts of this book more than I like the whole. There are a lot of individual passages and lines that I really like. There's a smart-*ss sense of humor that's fun as well as some very poignant moments and descriptions. I like and can relate to Colin in many ways. Don't most of us want to matter? But the math thing didn't work well for me. It felt forced and a little too cutesy. I also ran hot and cold on the footnotes. Some of them were fun and/or informative, but again, sometimes they seemed unnecessary or a somewhat clunky attempt to add humor. And here's an issue that nagged at me throughout the book. Colin has had nineteen Katherines as girlfriends. Within a week of meeting her, he bonds with Lindsey. This does not strike me as the hallmark of a boy who has a hard time relating to people socially, and it seems highly unlikely of a boy who has only managed to form one other friendship in his life, yet we keep getting told that he's socially incompetent. I know some of his Katherines lasted merely hours or days, and that they were girlfriends in just the very loosest definition of the word, but others lasted months and were real relationships. Is he only socially inept with everyone not named Katherine or Lindsey Lee? One last thing: I think it's a bit of a problem when the sidekick in the book has a stronger, more interesting personality than the protagonist

What did work for me was the friendship between Colin and Hassan and the development of the relationship between Colin and Lindsey. Hassan is a wonderful character, both warm and funny. Their friendship feels absolutely true, especially because Green tosses a few rough moments and home truths into the mix. Green also shows a deft hand with the Colin-Lindsey relationship. True, there's nothing particularly surprising about it. But I enjoyed watching as they learned that neither was quite all they seemed to be, and I enjoyed the banter between them. Best of all were the scenes in the cave.

Is this another Printz book for Green? I don't think so. Is it a Top Ten of 2006 kind of book? I don't think so. Is it a book that everyone will love? Probably not. But the right audience will enjoy this book for its humor as well as for its more thought-provoking moments. It's worth spending some time with Colin and his friends.

Edited on January 31 to say, "Shows what I know." Congratulations to John Green. KoA was named a Printz Award Honor book on January 22, 2007. Still, this decision is on my list of Things That Make You Go "Hmmmmmm."

Lines that caught my attention while reading:

The missing piece in his stomach hurt so much--and eventually he stopped thinking about the Theorem and wondered only how something that isn't there can hurt you.

Colin: You can love someone so much, he thought. But you can never love people as much as you can miss them.

Colin: Books are the ultimate Dumpees: put them down and they'll wait for you forever; pay attention to them and they always love you back.

Katherine I to Colin: I think maybe you try to be odd on purpose. I think you like that. It makes you you and not someone else.
(This is on page 142, which also has a neat conversation about love and math (and French), which is too long to quote. But I like this quote because I think a lot of us do this at times.)

Colin, after tasting a swig of moonshine: ...Wow. Wow. Man. It's like French-kissing a dragon.

Lindsey: (She's saying that things about her boyfriend, Colin, and Hassan are either true or not true.) But I'm not like that. I'm what I need to be at any moment to stay above the ground but below the radar. The only sentence that begins with "I" that's true of me is I'm full of s*** ." (Green doesn't use asterisks, of course. Sorry. This is a work blog, and I have to observe certain boundaries. This section is too long to quote, but check out pp. 149-151 for the whole thing. I think Lindsey has more company in this than she thinks she has.)

Monday, November 20, 2006

Notes from the Midnight Driver by Jordan Sonnenblick
3Q M/J

Alex is in big trouble. He's really ticked off at his parents, who divorced the previous year. Dad shacked up with Alex's third grade teacher, and Mom's going out on her first date post-divorce. Alex decides to drink some vodka (make that a lot of vodka) and then drive over to his father's house to confront him. He makes it as far as a neighbor's house before crashing the car and running over a garden gnome. He then compounds the problem by throwing up all over the arresting officer's shoes and making a lot of really bad, really drunken jokes. Then there's the little incident at the police station, where he dumps hot coffee all over the desk sergeant's lap. Yeah, Alex is in trouble, all right. He's sentenced to a hundred hours of community service at a nearby nursing home, working with a cantankerous old man named Sol Lewis.

Alex's relationship with Sol starts on a rocky note, since Sol is supposedly quite the terror (he's chased off three or four volunteers already). Sol is a joker with a bit of a mean streak (well, I think his jokes are a little mean), and he's impatient and cranky. But, of course, he also has a soft spot about a half a mile wide. And, of course, he's wise, at least in some ways. For instance, he knows before Alex does that Alex and Laurie are destined to be a couple, not just best friends. When Alex brings his guitar to the home one day and starts to play for Sol, he discovers that Sol loves jazz. Because Alex is more than a little self-centered, he doesn't pick up on the fact that Sol doesn't just love jazz, he knows jazz. Clearly, there's more to Sol than meets the eye. It takes a while, but Alex grows to enjoy his visits to the nursing home and Sol soon becomes much more to him than community service.

Family relationships are another theme in this book, involving not only Alex's family, but also Laurie's and Sol's. I won't go into that, since I don't want to give away too many spoilers. But it's safe to say that forgiveness, talking things out, and accepting that people are complicated are things that more than one character in this book grapple with.

I really enjoyed (and cried over) Sonnenblick's first book, Drums, Girls, and Dangerous Pie. It was tender, moving, funny, sad, and a terrific read. and I thought the voice of the main character was just right. The main character in that book is Steven, an eighth grader dealing with his little brother's cancer. Steven sounds like an eighth grader (not surprising, since the author is a middle school teacher). My problem with Notes from the Midnight Driver is that Alex, the main character, also sounds like an eighth or ninth grader. But he's sixteen. He doesn't talk like a high school junior, he doesn't think like a high school junior, and he doesn't act like a high school junior. That was a stumbling block for me. When I realized he wasn't a high school freshman or sophomore, my mind did a disconnect.

Don't get me wrong. This isn't a bad book. It's a very quick, light, and enjoyable read, and I'm sure I'll recommend it to many readers. But it's also very predictable, and because Alex is written the way he is, teens his age aren't likely to get hooked on his character. And readers who like books with a bit of an edge or more depth of feeling will probably want to look elsewhere. That being said, I think many younger teens will enjoy this book.

Saturday, November 18, 2006


What Happened to Cass McBride? by Gail Giles
5Q 5P S (language, violence)

"Sticks and stones may break your bones, but words can never hurt you." Bull. You know it and I know it. Words are powerful things. As a character in the book says, "Words are teeth". We all know that sometimes words hurt even more than a physical blow. Most of us have said things about someone and thought they'd never find out. Sometimes we've said whatever it was just to be funny. Sometimes we've said it just to be nasty. Sometimes we know we're being unkind and we don't care. And sometimes we say something thoughtlessly, not really thinking about what we're saying at all. Does it matter what we say, if they're never going to know we said it? But what if they do find out?

When David Kirby asks Cass McBride out on a date, she can't imagine what in the world he was thinking. David is a loser with a capital L. No, David is a LOSER - full caps required. David isn't a wanna-be. He's a never-gonna-be. Why would this total nonentity think he was on her radar, let alone in her dating sphere? Cass is running for Homecoming Queen, so she doesn't give him the withering turndown he deserves. She smiles winningly and tells him that she's kind of tied up right now. But then she sits down at her desk and writes a scathing note about it to her best friend, Emily, who will be sitting in the same desk in the next period. She doesn't realize that David must have been watching her all through class. She doesn't realize he must have seen her write the note and put it under her chair. When she does realize it, it's too late: at the end of class, instead of leaving, David heads for her desk and reads the note before she can stop him.

That night, David takes a rope and hangs himself from a tree in front of his house.

The day after his funeral, when Cass wakes up, she's not in her warm, comfortable bed. She's buried who knows how far underground in a narrow wooden crate with a walkie-talkie strapped to her hand. Kyle Kirby, David's brother, intends to make Cass pay for her thoughtless, nasty words.

If you like reading books that stick a fist in your solar plexus and just keep pushing, if you like books that make you sweat, if you like books that put you in a place you never, ever want to be in -- this is your book. It's harsh. It pulls no punches. You will not like these people. But by the end, you will sympathize with them, at least a little bit.

It's a bit of a trademark with Gail Giles that the endings of her books leave a question in your mind. This one is no exception. I'm looking forward to comparing notes with other readers to see what they think is going on.

This isn't a book for everyone. The situation, the language, the violence all mark it as a book for older readers who like reading dark things. But for those readers, whew! This is another winner. You can read Gail Giles's Brain Droppings and blog or check out more of her books on her official web site.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Two Voices Are Better Than One

Scrambled Eggs at Midnight by Brad Barkley and Heather Hepler
4Q J/S

I enjoyed reading this book. I'm not so sure that the voices ring quite true (Eliot seems just a little too poetic), but I'm ignoring that little quibble. How can I resist a book that begins My mother is a wench?

Calliope has spent the last several years bouncing around from place to place around the country. She and her mother never stay in one place for long, and each time they leave, Cal's expected to cull through her stuff to keep only the essentials. (Of course, her idea of essential and her mother's don't exactly match.) Cal's mother makes jewelry, which she sells at Renaissance Faires around the country. Since that doesn't bring in much money, she also plays the role of a wench and sells food and beer at the Faires. For those of you who don't know, a Renaissance Faire recreates a medieval village, complete with a King, Queen, royal court, fools, villains, and townspeople, and you can play games and watch entertainment similar to that of the era. During the Renaissance, a waitress/serving girl was called a wench. Depending on the wench and the establishment, beer and food might not have been the only thing she sold. Cal's mother sticks to the food and beer, at least in terms of things she sells. Cal and Delores are on their way to North Carolina, where they're going to spend the summer at a huge Faire. Cal's hopes for this gig are no higher than they were for any of the other gigs her mother has dragged her to.

Eliot lives with his mother and father in a fat camp called Sonshine Valley Christian Camp. Before Eliot's father found religion and got carried away with it, the family was very close. But now Eliot's father spends his time writing cookbooks like What Would Jesus Eat? and running his Get Thin With Christ camps. He keeps his family far from the town and far from people in general. This is not how Eliot wants to live. Eliot rebels in little ways, such as buying a Jesus is a Liberal t-shirt (which he wears, but not exactly openly) and making fireworks (illegally, since he's neither licensed nor old enough).

The day Cal and her mother come to town, Eliot just happens to be in town. As Cal and her mother drive by, Eliot catches a glimpse of Cal and he knows he wants to know this girl. But that doesn't seem likely to happen, especially after his father (aka "God Guy") turns down their request to rent one of his cabins. But of course, they do meet. Unfortunately, Eliot's lips are bright green at the time. Also unfortunately, he doesn't know it. Fortunately, Cal happens to be the kind of girl who is intrigued by guys with green lips (and good taste in books). And so it begins.

But Cal and Eliot are not the only two who are deep into romance this summer. So is Delores. Cal's totally disgusted when her mother falls for Phineus, one of the jousters at the Faire. Phineus (Phi) is soooo full of himself. He's the kind of guy who just loves to strut around shirtless, putting the moves on all the women because he knows he's just sooooo handsome they won't be able to keep their eyes or hands off him. Ugh, ugh, ugh. But Delores has never been one to put someone else's needs or wants above her own, so she doesn't much care what Cal thinks of Phi. And when Phi decides that he wants to blow off this Renaissance Faire and head West, Delores sees no problem with that. Cal, on the other hand, doesn't want to leave. She's used to being told to leave things behind, and she usually does. But North Carolina has some essentials she's not going to leave without a fight.

This book is told in two voices, which seems to be increasingly common these day (Nick and Nora's Infinite Playlist, RobandSara.com, Snatched, to name a handful). I enjoyed the writing, and the two voices are distinct. As I noted above, I think Eliot's voice is sometimes a little too full of imagery to be fully believable as a fifteen-year-old boy, but Eliot's got enough going on in his head and in his life that I'm willing to cut him (and Brad Barkley) some slack on that. Eliot and Cal are two people you can really care about, and the secondary characters of Delores, Eliot's mother Linda, and Abel (who I loved as much as Cal does) are well drawn and more than just mere foils for Eliot and Cal. Eliot's father is a little more two-dimensional, and people who are tired of religious people being portrayed negatively aren't going to happy with this book. But his inflexibility and obsession are two characteristics that shape people and events, so the characterization is not gratuitous.

If you are looking for a good romance read with characters you can really care about, I recommend this book. And it's got a sense of humor to boot. What more could you ask for?

Thursday, November 09, 2006

What if it wasn't a coyote?

Desert Crossing by Elise Broach
4Q 4P, J S

Okay, I admit I have a little issue with this book. But I talked to a few people about my issue, and they don't agree, so it'll be interesting to see if I'm in a vast minority! Still, I liked it overall, so I'm giving it a thumbs up.

Lucy Martinez is on a road trip from Kansas to Phoenix with her older brother Jamie and his friend Kit. She is not enjoying it. For one thing, it's a long trip, and she's been stuck in the back seat the entire way. For another, Kit is a total jerk (also a total babe, but the jerk thing pretty much cancels that out). For a third, they're driving through a long, desolate section of New Mexico desert. It's way too hot and way too boring. So she's already not in a very good mood when Kit pulls out the beer that the guys bought to drink in their hotel room. What if a cop sees them and pulls them over? They're underage. Kit scoffs at that. What cop is going to be out here in the desert? Before the argument can get much further, a sudden thunderstorm whips up. It's inky black, and the rain is pouring down. They can barely see a foot in front of them. And then they feel it. The bump. The big, hollow kind of thunk that means you've hit something.

The boys are all for assuming that all they hit was a coyote. They want to keep going. But Lucy isn't so sure. She can see a patch of yellow light in the distance: a house. What if they hit someone's dog? Much to Jamie's annoyance and Kit's disgust, she insists that they go back to check.

It wasn't a dog. It wasn't a coyote. It was a girl. And she's dead.

There's nothing for it. They can't leave her there and pretend that nothing happened. Kit and Lucy head for the patch of light, knowing it means a house and someone who can call for help and the police. Enter Beth Osway, an artist in her thirties. Enter major complications.

Three underage kids in a car that reeks of beer. One dead girl with no identification at the side of the road. Jamie, the driver, is in serious trouble. The police take him to jail, and Kit and Lucy stay with Beth while things get taken care of. Over the next couple of days, Lucy's life is rocked with bombshell after bombshell. The police are deciding what to charge Jamie with. Kit is making moves on her, and she doesn't know how she feels about that. Jamie is making moves on Beth, who doesn't mind at all - but Lucy does. And there's something that doesn't quite add up about the dead girl. Where did she come from? Where was she going? What was she doing out in the middle of the desert with no backpack or anything? The only clue is something that the police don't know that Lucy has: a tiny charm she found near the victim's body. Lucy becomes convinced that there's more to the story, and she's determined to clear Jamie's name. She convinces a very unwilling Kit to help her figure out who the girl was and how she got into the desert. This is a trail that leads them straight towards danger...and straight towards some sort of strange romantic interlude, too.

There's no doubt about it, this is a book with a good hook. You're going to want to keep reading. I did, anyhow. The relationships in this book are what made it most interesting to me, not so much the mystery. Beth is an interesting character who clearly has moments in her past she'd prefer to forget. She's clearly not a people-person, so I was surprised by how she evolves. The art storyline really worked for me in helping to define characters, though I thought Beth's critique of Lucy's art work was too obviously a harbinger of things to come. Lucy drives the story, though, and she's worth spending time with. But I'm still having trouble buying the Lucy-Kit thing, even though there's no denying that the hot factor can overwhelm even the most sensible of people. It just doesn't seem consistent with Lucy's character. On the other hand, traumatic events can make people do things that are out of character, so there you go. And again, there is that hot factor!

Friday, November 03, 2006

The Murder of Bindy Mackenzie by Jaclyn Moriarty

The Murder of Bindy Mackenzie by Jaclyn Moriarty
3Q 3P

I'm so sorry to write what I'm about to write. I loved Jaclyn Moriarty's Feeling Sorry for Celia and liked her Year of Secret Assignments. I was so looking forward to reading this one. And now I have a terribly letdown feeling, because frankly, it was just not fun to read. At almost 500 pages, it was a long slog, even though it's written in journal format, which usually means a book reads more quickly.

Bindy Mackenzie is an extraordinarily intelligent girl in what would be her junior year in high school if she lived in the U.S. instead of Australia. She is also one of the least liked girls in her school, although she tries to be helpful and friendly to everyone. The trouble is, Bindy's people skills aren't as well developed as her study skills, so her fellow students don't see her as being friendly and helpful. They see her as being condescending, overbearing, too smart for her own good, and at least a little strange. And you know what? She is. As I read this story, even hearing it from Bindy's point of view, I agreed with her classmates. If I'm going to read 500 pages of a novel, I want to like the person I'm reading about. And I didn't. Now, don't get me wrong. I didn't hate her. I just found her irritating and remarkably clueless about herself and her family. We often hear that journaling helps people find clarity and understand themselves better. But Bindy occasionally writes things in her journal (particularly in a section she calls her life story) that are pretty revealing if you have the least bit of ability to read between the lines. Apparently, as good a student as she is, this is not one of her skills, because things that raise flags for the reader (which include six fellow students in her FAD - Friendship and Development - group, not just the person reading the book) don't trigger any sort of reaction in her at all. She truly is clueless about herself and her family, and frankly, that was as annoying as it was (to me) unlikely. She's too smart not to pick up on such obvious clues.

Bindy has always been a top student - until this year. This year, things have changed. Not only has she moved in with her aunt and uncle, but her grades are plummeting and she often feels tired and sick. She refuses to see the doctor. Among other reasons, she's afraid he'll tell her she has glandular fever [aka mononucleosis], and only teenagers get that. Bindy believes she isn't a teenager. Bindy's school is trying a new class this year for Year Eleven students. It's called Friendship and Development, and it's supposed to be a support group for students, since Year Eleven is such a difficult year (like junior year here!). Bindy thinks the group is a total waste of time (and writes to the education authorities to say so - three times). Included in her FAD group are Elizabeth (from Feeling Sorry for Celia and Emily (from Year of Secret Assignments, Toby, who she used to be friendly with in elementary school, Astrid (who Bindy has an unpleasant history with), and Finnegan, a new student and her assigned buddy. (On page 430, I was still waiting for her to admit that she has a crush on Finnegan and to find out if the feeling was mutual.) On the first day of FAD, the class is asked to write a sentence about each person in the class. Bindy is crushed and angry to see what they write about her, and she doesn't handle it well. Her methods of retaliation backfire on her big time, and she eventually realizes she needs to apologize. She also realizes she hasn't done some assignments for her FAD teacher. To make up the work, she writes her life story for her FAD teacher. It is this assignment that her fellow FAD students later find, read, and decide is evidence that someone is trying to murder Bindy. (The evidence: she's tired, she can't concentrate, those plummeting grades, a strange mania for the word Cincinnati). After all, they reason, a lot of people have reason to want her out of their lives, including 1) the student she ratted out for drug use, 2) the students who can no longer use the school's intranet to share files because Bindy ratted them out, 3) the teachers she overheard having an argument that turns physical, 4) the principal, because he's tired of all the messages she sends him, or 5) her aunt and uncle, who need her room for the new baby. Is Bindy's life really in danger? Is she really being poisoned? It could be.

But this book isn't really a mystery, let alone a murder mystery. In Australia, where it was first published, the book is titled Becoming Bindy, and that really is what the book is about. Bindy understands so little about herself at the beginning of the school year, and she learns so much about herself (and other people!) by the end of it. She has become a new person.

Does this book have the same trademark humor that marked Moriarty's previous two books? I didn't think so. But reviews on Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.com disagree with me. They found a lot more humor in it than I did (I did find some, though!). Overall, they like it more than I did. I'm really interested to hear what other people thought about this book, especially teens. In the meantime, I want to go back and read the other two books again, and I will still wait impatiently for the next Jaclyn Moriarty book!

Saturday, October 21, 2006

RAIDER'S NIGHT by Robert Lipsyte

Raider's Night by Robert Lipsyte
4Q, S (Senior High School)
Strong language, drinking, language, sexual situations, and a graphic scene of sexual hazing

Peer pressure. Father pressure. The pressure to be the best. Steroids. Knowing what's right and having the courage to do it. "You have to get past the past to go forward." Being a leader means being responsible to and for others, even when you don't want to be. Whew. This book covers a lot of ground, and it's not pretty. But it is involving reading.

Matt Rydek is co-captain of the Nearmount football team. Matt's a good player, though he can never be good enough for his father. Truth to tell, Matt would rather play baseball, but according to his father, he has to play football, because that's where the scholarship prospects are. The co-captaincy is bait to get him to accept losing baseball. Another truth to tell: Matt would say "Scr*w the scholarship, I'd rather play baseball" if only he dared to outright defy his father. But he only dares to defy his father in little ways, because his father is not a man who takes defiance well. But Matt does try to be a good captain. He leads the workouts in the gym intelligently, and when tempers flare, Matt is good at keeping things from exploding. And tempers do tend to flare in this book, in part because Matt and the rest of the team are regular juicers at the gym. Once their workout is finished, they all troop into the gym owner's office, drop their shorts, and get their steroid shots. The steroids help bulk them up, but are the side effects worth it? Matt thinks they are.

Matt can't wait to get away to football camp. A whole week away from both his father and his girlfriend. A whole week of nothing but football and the guys. But things go terribly wrong at camp. There's a new guy, a sophomore tight end, who is really good. This is not good news for Ramp, the other co-captain, who is also a tight end. The trouble is, Ramp isn't all that good, and he can see that Chris is going to be a threat. And so Ramp (who is also pumped up on steroids, besides just being a garden variety jerk) decides to make things difficult for Chris. He humiliates him at every opportunity and tries his best to make him look bad as often as possible. And then he really crosses the line. Hazing of freshman isn't supposed to happen, but coaches know it does and many of them look the other way. It's no different for the Raiders. Chris isn't a freshman, but Ramp maneuvers things so that Chris is right with the freshmen when the hazing begins on Raiders Pride Night, the last night of camp. Though Matt has been able to keep Ramp more or less in line until now, this time, there's not much he can do without making things worse for Chris. But Matt has no idea just how far Ramp intends to take his harassment. When Ramp brutally takes the hazing to a sexual level, neither Matt nor the rest of his crew can react in time to prevent it. As horrific as that night is, what happens...or doesn't happen...after that night could be considered even worse.

Chris keeps trying to get in touch with Matt, but Matt can't face him. He doesn't know what he should say or do, and he really doesn't want to do anything. He wishes the whole mess would just go away. It's pretty clear to see that the coaches and even his dad know that something happened on Raiders Night. It's also pretty clear that they don't want to know the details. It's obvious that they just want Matt to help keep the lid on things. All his life, Matt's been told that team comes first. You do what's good for the team, even if it isn't good for you. Steroids are bad, but you need to be big to make the team bigger? You take the steroids. Hazing is bad, but it "helps to build team spirit"? You go along with the hazing. A teammate does something seriously harmful or against the law? Cover it up. You don't blow the whistle on a teammate. The team comes first. So he ignores Chris's calls and emails.

Matt doesn't want the responsibility. He never wanted to be captain in the first place. He doesn't know what to do or how to handle something this big. Maybe if he just pretends that nothing happened, nothing will happen. But life doesn't work that way. Matt didn't think things could get any worse, but they do.

There's a reason why Pete Hautman's books get starred reviews. He can tackle tough issues, but in a very approachable way. That being said, this is a quick read, but it's not an easy read. These are not easy subjects, and they are not presented glibly. This is a book that will at various times make you feel angry, helpless, repulsed, shocked, and sorry. You'll read it and hate some of the characters, particularly the adults who look the other way when they know rotten things are going down. Ultimately, I liked Matt and felt for him, even when I was upset about some of his decisions. It would be a fascinating discussion to sit in a room with a bunch of people and talk about Matt's actions in this book. Just what is he responsible for and why? Is he a likable character or culpably spineless? And it would be interesting to hear people's take on the parents and coaches, as well as Matt's teammates, some of whom are the epitome of the privileged athlete who run roughshod over any "lesser" beings and some of whom are waiting for someone to lead them in the right direction. Raider's Night is a book I think I'm going to have a pretty difficult time getting out of my head.

Edited to include a link to a column Robert Lipsyte wrote for ESPN Magazine about reactions to this book and the issues it raises.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

CIRCLE THE SOUL SOFTLY by Davida Wills Hurwin

Circle the Soul Softly by Davida Wills Hurwin
4Q 3P J/S

Katie O'Connor is starting a new school, thanks to her mother's upcoming marriage. Katie is desperately hoping that at this school, she won't be the clumsy, uncool girl she was at her old school. But pretty much as soon as she walks into the school, it appears that's made herself some enemies. The cool girls obviously don't like her. The situation only gets worse when Katie auditions for the school play and knocks everyone's socks off. That means she gets the part that Stacie (nasty cool crowd girl) thinks should have gone to her, or at least to one of her cool crowd friends. Getting the part does great things for Katie's self-esteem, but not much at all for her social life. But she does meet David while doing the play. At first it seems as though that's going nowhere, but after the play is over and she's pretty much given up all hope of having friends, let alone a boyfriend, the two start dating.

Over the next few months, David and Katie gradually grow closer. One of the things that brings them together is discovering Stacie's diary, which helps them understand why Stacie gets drunk, makes out (and more) with pretty much any guy, why she took too many pills at a party one night, and why she's so nasty and angry all the time. David knows the right thing to do. They turn the diary over to their drama teacher, Tess, who can get Stacie the help she needs. David is good at knowing the right thing to do. He knows how to sweet talk Katie's mom and, most of all, he knows how to romance Katie just right. Katie is sure he's the one for her. She's definitely sure that she wants to make love for the first time with David. But for some reason, when they try, Katie freezes. It's almost like she goes into a shell. She doesn't understand why. She loves David. She wants to make love to him. Why does her heart say one thing and her body and brain another?*

There's something called the Actor's Nightmare, which consists of dreaming that you're alone on stage and unable to remember a single line of your part. It's terrifying to realize that you don't remember something you know you ought to remember. It takes Katie a long time to realize that there are things she ought to remember and doesn't, that there are missing pieces in her life, and that she's living a real-life version of the actor's nightmare. When she finally does realize it, she doesn't know what it means. But little by little, she starts putting the pieces together, and she's devastated by what she discovers. Maybe she and Stacie have more in common than either one of them could have ever guessed.

Hurwin handles this story sensitively and well. From what I've read about this situation, characters react in realistic ways (well, except perhaps for David at times...see my * note below). I like the way that Katie's relationship with her brother changes over time, and it's nice to see a stepfather who is a good guy. Katie's relationship with her mother feels real, in that there's a good balance between bickering and love. When the truth comes out, that relationship takes a hit, but both women are strong enough to withstand it. As Hurwin has shown before (A Time for Dancing), she has a delicate touch with her writing. She knows how to press the buttons, but she caresses them, she doesn't stomp on them.

* (This is where David is just a little too good to be true. He's very, very understanding about this, where most adolescent boys would probably be very frustrated and angry.)

TEMPING FATE by Esther Friesner

Temping Fate by Esther Friesner
3Q 3P?

If you're looking for a quick, fun, light read, try this one on for size. Ilana Newhouse has been having a hard time finding a good part-time job. Maybe she should have paid a little more attention to her guidance counselor or newspaper articles that tell kids how to get a job. She might have thought twice about wearing that: ORC: The Other Green Meat T-shirt. And That Attitude Thing certainly hasn't helped, either. Ilana doesn't suffer fools gladly. (Well, she doesn't suffer fools at all, really.) And her sense of humor can be a little...odd (see ORC, above for proof). All things considered, she doesn't really fit all that well into her tiny, conservative, tourists-love-our-little-Connecticut-town-by-the-shore. And that's why she's wound up at D.R. Temp, Incorporated. This is her last-ditch, all-other-bridges-burned, last hope chance at getting a job this summer. If she doesn't get it, her parents have promised to come up with "something" to get her through the summer. And if that doesn't spell trouble, what does? (Well, "D.R. Temps, Inc.," maybe, but Ilana doesn't know that. Yet.)

Despite her best intentions (she even wore khaki, for heaven's sake!), things don't go well when she arrives for her interview. She's a little early, but still, this is a place of business, right? Surely somebody should be here? But no, nobody seems to be there, and nobody answers her knock. She knocks again, a little harder. She begins to doubt if she's gotten her appointment time right. But she confirmed her interview. Of course she's supposed to be here! She knocks again. And this time, she hears it. No doubt about it. Somebody is inside, giggling. Ilana does not like to be laughed at. She starts to get mad. She demands to be let in. More giggling. Ilana's had it. She takes out her credit card and starts to break in. Nobody is going to laugh at her! And that does it. The door suddenly opens, and Mrs. Atatosk, the head of the agency, is there welcoming her in with a "Well done!" Ilana, it seems, has earned points for her initiative and fortitude. She's just like her dear sister Dyllin (like that is something Ilana wants to hear!). But oh, dear...khaki? It's so...inoffensive!
But wait...is that a skull on her cheek? Maybe she'll do after all.

What the ...? It's not surprising that Ilana finds her head reeling a bit, with an introduction like that. It reels a bit more when Mrs. Atatosk informs her that the skills she needs to work at D.R. Temps are "imagination, innovation, motivation, and the ability to run away. Fast. Often. A lot." "From what?" Ilana asks. "You'll know it when you see it. Or you won't, and then it will be such a pity. Oh, but don't you fret. It's all covered in the Waiver." Gulp. Maybe this wasn't such a good idea after all.

But Ilana winds up taking the job at Divine Relief Temp Agency. And that's when she discovers just how literal that name is. Ilana isn't temping at the local insurance company or dong clerical work for some law firm. She is working for the gods. You know, the gods...Zeus, Hera, Athena, those guys. In particular, she is working for the Fates, the three sisters who spin, measure, and cut the life-threads of every human being on the planet. To be precise, she's typing out Death Receipts. Ilana is not at all convinced this is the job for her, desperate or not. The job is weird enough. The sisters are very much weird enough. Oh, and we can't forget Arachne, the huge talking spider. (Do you remember Arachne? The girl who seriously pissed off Athena when she said she could weave as well as she could? Girl, you just don't challenge a god and walk away unscathed! Walk away on eight legs maybe, but that's not exactly unscathed, is it?)

And so Ilana's temping job begins. What has she gotten herself into?

If you enjoy humorous books with a dash of romance and fantasy, give this one a try.

Saturday, September 30, 2006

Absolutely DROWNING in spies! (KIKI STRIKE)

Kiki Strike: Inside the Shadow City by Kirsten Miller
4Q 4P M/J

Of all the girl spy books, this is the one that's getting the notice and getting the raves. Maybe I'm more lukewarm on it than others because it was the third in the genre that I read pretty much right in a row. It's a good idea to mix things up a little so that books stand out from each other and things don't run together so much, and I didn't do that well this time. There is a lot to like about this book. It's just that it didn't stand out for me the way I expected it to after hearing so many excellent reviews of it.

Ananka Fishbein 's life changes the day she looks out the window of her New York City apartment to see that a sinkhole has appeared in the park next door. She also sees a small figure crawling out of the hole. The small figure turns and waves to her. It's a girl! Ananka has to know more about that girl and the sinkhole. She runs downstairs to explore the hole and discovers a hidden door that she eventually learns leads to the Shadow City. What's the Shadow City? It's a city of passages, tunnels, and secret rooms that lead all over the city. What's down there? Dead bodies, rats (big ones!), and treasure. But Ananka doesn't learn any of that until she discovers who the girl is: Kiki Strike.

Kiki, it turns out, is a student in her own school, but Ananka has never noticed her before. That's a surprising, because Kiki has the kind of looks that make her stand out in a crowd: she's only about four feet tall (but she's at least fourteen) and she has absolutely white hair. She also carries herself with a confidence few other teens can match. Kiki soon introduces Ananka to several girls with unusual talents: there's Betty (a master of disguise), Luz (an electronics genius), Dee Dee (a chemist who's great at explosives), and Oona (an excellent forger and thief). Together they form the Irregulars, and together they explore the Shadow City. All of those unusual skills come in very handy when you're doing something you don't want anyone else to know you're doing.

But Kiki has secrets she isn't telling the others, and when one of their explorations ends in disaster, Kiki disappears and the Irregulars break up. But that's not the end of the story. Ananka keeps getting glimpses and information that lead her to believe the Kiki hasn't gone far. Two years later, Kiki is back, and this time, things are serious. Kiki doesn't need them just to map out and explore the Shadow City. This time, teenage girls are disappearing, and the Irregulars know why and what the kidnappers want. They also know they have the means and skills to get the girls back and stop the kidnappers. But they don't know everything. And they most definitely don't know everything they need to know about Kiki Strike.

This book is chock full of girl power and advice for would-be spies that just happens to be potentially useful in real life, too. Check out the end of most of the chapters for items such as:

"The Benefit of the Doubt: Most people are willing to give young girls the benefit of the doubt. Girls are too sweet and innocent, they think, to be up to no good. A clever story--generally one involving a missing kitten--can get you out of trouble in nine out of ten situations. Remember, a tear or two will make any tale more believable." (page 16)

"Duct Tape: Take a roll with you whenever you travel. It can be used to immobilize criminals, fix essential equipment, and make a cute skirt if you're in a bind." (page 86)

You've got to like a book that can mix strong characters, a sense of humor, and adventure and do it well. This book does. Really. I admit it, it's not ever going to be on my favorite books list, and it's not likely to wind up on my Top Five or Top Ten of 2006 list (as it has appeared on others' lists already). But I will happily recommend it to readers who enjoyed the Sammy Keyes books and to kids who like interesting characters doing interesting things.

Spies, Spies, and More Spies!

Girl spy book #2: I'd Tell You I Love You, But Then I'd Have to Kill You by Ally Carter

I liked this book, too, but it's less focused on actual spying than it is on how difficult it is to conduct a romance when you're a teenage spy in training.

One of the things that's most fun about this book is the description of the Gallagher School for Girls, which is where the story takes place. We just don't know the half of it out here in the "real" world. For instance, who knew about the first assassination attempt on Abraham Lincoln? You know (well, no, I guess you don't!), the one foiled by Gillian Gallagher, who killed the assassin with a sword. Who knew someone once planted a bomb in the White House that a Gallagher Girl defused...with her teeth? The Gallagher School is deep undercover, as befits a school for spies. The locals think it's a school for rich, spoiled girls. It is very, very exclusive. But every now and then, someone breaches the defenses one way or the other. When that happens, as it does when a senator, his cosmetic heiress wife, and their very, very disaffected daughter, Macey pull up to the front gates, a Code Red sounds. Instantly, walls turn around, displays disappear into the floor to be replaced by something more innocuous (sports trophies and the like), "Vote for Emily" banners appear, and so on. We learn later on that the school has numerous secret passages, too, also befitting a school for spies. The girls' curriculum is, of course, geared to those things that spies need in order to get by: foreign languages, Culture and Assimilation, Countries of the World (COW), Covert Operations (the professor is seriously hot), and P&E (Protection and Enforcement). In short, this school is just plain fun to picture, and the description of the Code Red and the various courses help set the tone for the rest of the book. Which it might be a good idea for me to finally get around to talking about!

Cammie Morgan is the fifteen-year-old daughter of the school's headmistress. She speaks fourteen languages fluently, including Portuguese, Mandarin, and Farsi, and she knows seven different ways to kill a person, one involving a piece of dry spaghetti. She's known as the Chameleon, because she has a real talent for blending in to the background. She has two good friends, Bex and Liz. Since Cammie, Bex, and Liz are long on spy knowledge and short on boy knowledge, the addition of Macey (reluctantly, on both sides of the equation) to their group becomes important, since Macey, while totally lacking in spy knowledge, is a fount of information on boys.

Remember that seriously hot Covert Operations professor I mentioned earlier? The caper begins when he assigns Cammie, Bex, and Liz to tail one of their professors to a local street fair and determine what he drinks with his funnel cake. This professor is so paranoid that he gets plastic surgery every year to completely change his looks, so their chances of succeeding on this mission are about zero. Sure enough, Bex and Liz get spotted almost immediately. But Cammie, chameleon that she is, manages to evade the professor's notice. She does not, however, escape the notice of a very cute boy, who happens to find her just as she's taking the professor's Dr. Pepper bottle out of the trash can. If Josh were a master villain, Cammie would have no trouble taking him on. But he's a fifteen-year-old boy who's a cross between a young George Clooney and Orlando Bloom, so Cammie's tongue-tied and awkward. She manages to blurt out that the bottle is for her cat, Suzie, who likes to play with bottles (lie!). When he says he'll see her at school, she can't think what to say, leaving him with the impression she's home schooled for religious reasons. (lie! But she can't tell him where she really goes to school, of course!) And, oh yeah, she just barely remembers to tell him her name and get his. She's so addled by Josh that all she really knows is that she really, really wants to see him again. But that's easier said than done. All of her spy skills are going to be needed here, not just to see him again, but also because it's possible that Josh isn't who or what he says he is. Is he just a cute teenage boy, or is he really an enemy agent trying to compromise the school? The girls don't know, but for the sake of true love, they're determined to find out. The rest of the book revolves around how Cammie can sneak out of school (this is a spy school, so that's supposed to be difficult) to meet Josh and how she can avoid letting him figure out her real story.

This is another fun book, but definitely one that goes over the top here and there. This is a top-notch spy school, but one of the professors is seriously deficient in any kind of spy skills (I guess he's a desk man, not a field operator!). Another professor we don't really meet is apparently a scientific genius, but very prone to having major explosions and other catastrophes in his lab. That's really fun to read about, but it leaves you wondering how good he really is. And Cammie seems to be able to sneak in and out of the school at will, despite the fact that this school is supposed to be loaded with every kind of security device and run by experts in their fields. These top operatives don't know how to keep a proper eye on teenage girls? They'd surely know all the tricks, and they ought to know at least as much about the secret passages as Cammie does. But no, these adults are clueless. According to Amazon.com, this book has been optioned for the movies. It'll be interesting to see what they do with it. I hope they don't dumb it down the way they did The Princess Diaries and Ella Enchanted.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

There are spies EVERYWHERE!

I have recently read Michael Spradlin's SPY GODDESS #1: Live and Let Shop and Ally Carter's I'd Tell You I Love You, But Then I'd Have to Kill You, and I am almost finished with Kirsten Miller's Kiki Strike: Inside the Shadow City. Wow. Spy books for girls! It's funny that all three have come out at the same time, when there probably haven't been three other spy girl titles published in the last three years. Anyhow, I'll be happy to recommend all three, though they all address the issue a little differently and the three might not all satisfy the same reader.

First, Spradlin's Spy Goddess. I might be in the minority, but frankly, I think I enjoyed this one the most. Rachel Buchanan, the protagonist, has a smart mouth (which is one of the many reasons she's in big trouble as the book begins), and it makes her fun to read. Rachel's the daughter of wealthy parents who (stereotypically) don't have the time or interest to pay her any attention. Consequently, Rachel has been upping the ante for a while now, hanging out with kids who are bad news, shoplifting, joyriding, anything to get the attention and the goat of her parents. When Rachel and her friends are caught joyriding (the friends take off), Rachel is sentenced to at least a year at Blackthorn Academy, a private school on the East Coast. If she doesn't stick it out, she'll get a year in Juvie instead. Rachel's pretty sure she's not going to stick around, and when she gets to Blackthorn, she's certain: no Internet? No phone? PE every day?! She's outathere! But her escape attempt is foiled by a sprained ankle (wrist?), confusing woods, and the headmaster, Mr. Kim. Mr. Kim puzzles Rachel. He seems to know everything about her (and even what she's thinking), and nothing she says or does pisses him off, even when she's trying her very hardest. He convinces her to give the school a one month trial. Despite herself, Rachel agrees.

Blackthorn Academy is not like most schools. All the kids have some connection to the justice system, there's a top-secret off-limits floor, and the classes are in things like Code Theory, microelectronics, and the martial arts. Rachel is a little intrigued, and she does make a couple of friends. But still, at the end of the month, she decides she's heading back to California, even if it does mean Juvie. She's on her way down to tell Mr. Kim so when the weirdness gets racheted up a couple of notches. The FBI are in the school, talking to Mr. Kim, who doesn't look happy. Then Mr. Kim disappears. Well, Rachel is not one to let her curiosity go unsatisfied. She's determined to figure out what's going on and what happened to Mr. Kim. This leads her and her friends to a secret passage, a secret room, and the biggest secret of all: somebody named Mithras is out to take over the world, and they've just put a major wrench in his plans. And he doesn't like that one bit. Game on!

I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book. I liked the blend of humor and tension. Is it realistic? No. Is the plot a little thin? Yes. Is the villain paper thin and stereotypically whacko? Yes. But I didn't care. Rachel and Mr. Kim are interesting characters I'd like to read more about (Rachel's friends need more development, which I think might be coming in book two). And just when you want to roll your eyes at something Rachel says or does, she does it for you with a snarky comment. All in all, it was a quick and fun read that I happily recommend. I will be ordering the next in the series.

This is really long, so I'll post about the other two books separately.

BECOMING CHLOE - final thoughts (at last!)

Okay, I guess it's time for me to finish up my thoughts on this book! But I guess it's a good sign that almost three months later, I can still remember a lot about the book and why I liked it. There are books I finish that I can't talk about three days later.

I liked this book a lot. I liked it enough to recommend it to several people and to pass the title on to one of the high school media specialists, in the hopes that they'll add it to their summer reading list. I know the first part of the book might cause eyebrows to raise, but I hope people who might do so read the whole book before they react to it one way or the other. My teen book discussion group is interested in reading it, so in a few months, I'll get to hear some feedback. (One of them is a girl I already recommended it to, and she helped convince the group it was worth reading.)

I love the sense of hope that this book gives. These two kids have had some rotten things happen to them, and you know it would be easy for them both to give up all hope. I love that he doesn't give up hope, and I love that not only does he help Chloe find the beauty in life, but that she is open to finding it. Yes, some might say this book is too simplistic, that it paints too rosy a picture. I don't care. I love the thought of somebody going through a really rough spot, finding this book, and finding some comfort and hope in it. And I think that that will happen. Catherine Ryan Hyde is paying it forward when she writes books like this.

Monday, July 17, 2006

BECOMING CHLOE by Catherine Ryan Hyde

I am really liking this book. I like the idea of searching for joy and identifying it in the little things we see every day and take for granted. Here's another paragraph that struck me:

I look around, breathe, close my eyes. See Randy's face and experience this briefly for him. Then I look around at the view again. And I realize that for all the joy we've seen so far, I've allowed it all to remain outside of me. It's always been over there. Look, over there. Some joy just went by. A little more just flew by. And when I realize that, I let it into me. And I become the joy. Just for a split second, I think I do. (p. 158)

I can relate to that. Noting things that are pretty or someone doing something nice for someone else, but not necessarily taking the time to fully appreciate it. This book is reminding me to appreciate.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

BECOMING CHLOE by Catherine Ryan Hyde

I'm in the middle of this book, so I'm not ready to post a complete review yet. But I just came across this section, and I want to remember it because it really hit me the right way.

Jordy is burying Bruno, the dog that belongs to his landlord, Otis. He says :

As I shovel dirt onto it, I actually notice a lump in my throat. I haven't cried for so long. I can't even remember the last time. Maybe I'm regaining my ability to feel things. Which I absolutely refuse to do until someone can guarantee me it won't be retroactive.

"Jordy," Chloe says. "You're crying. That's so nice."

Judging from the next few pages, both Jordy and Chloe are beginning to heal emotionally from some of the really bad stuff they've gone through over the past few years, though I don't think Jordy realizes that's happening to him yet. Maybe heal will turn out to be the wrong word to use, but at the very least, they seem to be getting to a better place emotionally. Anyhow, I just loved the line I typed in purple. It just says volumes about where Jordy has been and what he's afraid of, yet Hyde does it so subtly. Whew!