Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Medieval Mystery

The Falconer's Knot by Mary Hoffman
3Q 3P M/J

Ah, what fools these mortals be! If only Silvano hadn't fallen in love (well, lust) with Angelica. If only Angelica hadn't been flattered by his attentions. But he did, and she was, and that's a problem, since Angelica is married (unhappily) to a wealthy merchant much older than she is. Now Angelica's husband is dead, Silvano's dagger is found buried in his chest, and Silvano has blood on his hands. Yes, the blood is Angelica's husband's. But Silvano is innocent of the murder. He merely found the man and tried to help him. But will anyone believe that, when it's known that Silvano was courting the man's wife? Not likely! Before anyone has a chance to arrest him, Silvano is shipped off in secret to take sanctuary in the Franciscan monastery in a city miles away.

Chiara is newly arrived at the convent of the Poor Clares. She has no vocation for such a life, but she also has no father and no dowry. What she does have is a brother who has no wish to share his life and goods with his sister. The sooner he can wash his hands of her, the better. And where else can he send her but to a convent? Chiara is miserable, but has no say in the matter. It is the fourteenth century, and women do as the men in the lives say they must.

As it happens, the convent is next door to the monastery. Chiara is outside when Silvano arrives. Her curiosity is instantly aroused. Who is this novice who arrives on a fine horse with a peregrine falcon on its saddle? He has neither the clothing nor the look of a true novice. But then again, she is hardly a true novice herself. She looks and she wonders, but she has little reason to expect that any of her questions will be answered.

But God does work in mysterious ways. Perhaps it is His hand that directs them both to the color rooms in their respective new homes, where they help make the colors used by some of the master artists of Renaissance Italy. Once made, these colors need to be delivered to the artists. As novices, both Silvano and Chiara are allowed off the grounds, and they are both selected to accompany the brother (friar) and sister (nun) making those deliveries. Of course, the proprieties must be observed. They should not speak to each other. In fact, they should not even look at each other. But of course they do. And they like what they see.

Much to the surprise of both, each is settling into their new lives with comparative ease. Both the brothers and the sisters are strict, but kind. And there is some comfort to be had in the order of the days, though there is also always a desire for freedom to live the lives they wish to live. But soon Silvano's newly calm and supposedly safe life is shattered by murder once again. A merchant visiting the monastery is found dead in his bed, also killed by a dagger to his chest. The monks begin to cast a wary eye on Silvano, for word of his true reason for being there has leaked out. Is Silvano a murderer after all?

But Silvano is not the only one at the monastery with a secret, and the murders don't stop at two. Silvano's sanctuary is no longer safe, for him or for anyone else. Silvano is determined to prove his innocence and discover who is defiling this sacred place, and Chiana is equally determined to help him.

This is an enjoyable blend of mystery and historical fiction, with just enough romance to satisfy those who yearn for it but not so much that it'll turn off those who just want the mystery. Though this book has garnered some excellent reviews, my reaction is a little less enthusiastic. At times, the writing pulled me out of the story, usually because of a sudden change in tone, less than graceful phrasing, or because I had a "told, not shown" feeling. I also felt two characters who fit quite well elsewhere in the story seemed forced into the mystery aspect of it. Some parts of the mystery are more satisfying than others. On the plus side, I thought Hoffman developed situations for her characters that were involving and intriguing. I couldn't help but feel for the plight of Chiara, Angelica, and Isabella, all of whom are at the mercy of the men in their lives, as well as for the falsely-accused Silvano. And Silvano is an appealing character who is worth rooting for. Information about medieval art was smoothly integrated into the story and quite interesting. And even given that the needs of fiction sometimes overtook historical accuracy, I enjoyed immersing myself in fourteenth century life and learning things about it I never knew.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Life as you really, really don't want to know it

the dead & the gone by Susan Beth Pfeffer
5Q 3P J/S

You've got to love Bolivian hats. When they belong to Susan Beth Pfeffer, they hold the key to treasures. See, I'm one of the lucky few who have gotten their hands on an ARC (Advanced Reading Copy) of Susan Beth Pfeffer's next book, the dead & the gone, which will be available in June 2008, all because my email address (and a bunch of other people's) were tucked into that Bolivian hat. It wasn't pulled on the first round. It wasn't pulled on the second round (I pouted!). But it was pulled in the third round. Yay! Once it arrived, I had to wait until the moon was no longer full to start reading it. (If you've already read the companion novel, Life As We Knew It, you'll understand why.) Then I started to read the book. I have two prime reading times in my day: at lunch and just before bed. I soon realized this was not a book to read at either of those times. So I carved out some reading time this past Sunday morning and read the rest of the book straight through. When I finished, I could only say, "Whew!"

I'll say straight out that this is not an easy read. As tough as LAWKI was to read, at least Miranda has her mother with her. She's not in charge of keeping her family together, and she's got someone older to turn to for comfort (or to blame, as she sometimes does). In d&g, Alex has none of that, and because of that, this is an even more chilling read. (Yes, I use that word advisedly.)

Both LAWKI and d&g take place after an asteroid hits the moon, knocking it out of orbit and much closer to the Earth. The result: high tides, tsunamis, earthquakes, erupting volcanoes. Huge chunks of continents are washed away. Communications are disrupted, electricity is spotty at best, and food is scarce and getting scarcer. The sky is so full of ash that the sun's rays can't get through, so the temperatures keep falling and falling.

How do you stay alive in such a situation? Alex is only seventeen years old. His sisters, Brianna and Julie, are only fifteen and twelve. Their father is in Puerto Rico for a funeral, their mother was called in to work at the hospital, and their brother Carlos is with the Marines. At first he thinks he only has to hold things together for a couple of days. But that's before they learn that Puerto Rico was hit hard by the high tides. That's before days go by without hearing from Mami. That's before Carlos calls to tell them that the Marines are being deployed to help with the recovery effort. Soon Alex has to admit to himself that he's in charge, and likely to be so for a long time.

Alex is a scholarship student at St. Vincent dePaul Academy. He's the vice president of his class, president of the debate squad, and he has his eye on the editorship of the school newspaper. In other words, he doesn't shy away from responsibility. But being in charge of his two sisters and running the household is more than he bargained for. Bri isn't so bad. As long as she has her rosary beads and a Bible, she's happy. But Julie is a different story entirely. She's a whiny baby who drives Alex nuts. She fights with him about everything. Most of the time he wants to throttle her. But somehow, these three are going to have to work things out, because they're going to need each other. They don't have anyone else to count on.

At first, their situation doesn't seem so dire. New York City has powerful people who make sure that as many services as possible stay intact. Even the schools stay open. That's a mercy, since they also provide lunch for their students. That's one meal that Alex doesn't have to worry about. But how long can that relative safety last? Not nearly long enough. Brianna gets sick. The food shortages get worse. How do you stay warm when the temperature never gets above ten or twenty degrees? How do you keep your sisters safe when even people become commodities for trade?

What really got to me about this book was how callous Alex, his friends, and Julie have to become. One person's death is another's salvation. As the sense of impending doom got stronger and stronger, it was sometimes hard to keep reading. But what gave me hope was seeing how Alex shoulders his responsibilities and becomes a man. (It speaks volumes about Alex that people he thinks hardly know him reach out to him to offer the kind of help and support that truly means the difference between life and death.) And like Miranda in LAWKI, Julie also grows when the occasion demands it of her. As hard as they may be to deal with, her stubbornness and feistiness prove to be invaluable qualities. This is not a girl who is going to give up.

Faith plays such an important role in this book that it's practically another character. The Catholic church (in particular) is a source of strength, sustenance, and support. It's very fitting that Susan Beth Pfeffer is autographing these books with the words "Never lose faith." When all else fails, having faith in something or Someone may be the one thing that makes the difference between living and becoming one of the dead and the gone.

This is not a comfortable book to read. It's not for those who like cozy reads where everything turns out okay in the end. It's a book for those who want to see people rise up to meet challenges. It's a book for those who know that hard times can bring out the worst in people, but have faith that it can also bring out the best in them. When you finish this book and come up for air (and it will feel just like that), you will not leave this book thoughtlessly behind you. You will live with it, and it will live with you, for days and weeks and months. Like Life as We Knew It before it, the dead & the gone is a life-changing, perspective-altering book.

If you have not already found it, check out Susan Beth Pfeffer's blog. She may write about grim topics (see also The Year Without Michael, but she has a wonderful sense of humor. She has posted both a preview of a truly harrowing chapter of this book and a peek into the mind of an author as she plans her next (this) book.

Here's what I had to say about Life as We Knew It and my booktalk on it.

Edited on 5/2/08 to add a link to my dead & the gone booktalk.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

It's a Runescape Kind of World

EPIC by Conor Kostick
4Q 5P J/M

The teens here are Runescape fanatics. Battleon used to be really popular too. I've been known to play both. When I was younger, I loved the Zork games (boy, does that date me!) and any other adventure game that centered around solving puzzles (as opposed to the ones that feature endless battles). There's something about these games that's addicting and exciting. But what if you had to play? And what if everything you did in the game affected your real life? If you are a sixtieth level warrior with +20 magical weapons and armor, you're golden. In the real world, you'd have enough points to have a pretty good life. But what if you meet a stronger foe with better weapons and more magic? Well, then you die and wind up back as a level one character with maybe a rusty dagger and a leather arm guard to protect you as you scramble to kill anything weaker than you are just to gain a paltry coin or two. Now real life's not nearly such a picnic, because you've lost all your assets there, too. Welcome to Erik's world.

In Erik's world, everything depends on how well you play the virtual reality game called Epic. As the book begins, Erik is supposed to be preparing for what seems to be the equivalent of his final exams. But that doesn't mean cracking the books. It means he has to get online and play Epic to hone his skills and improve his stats. That may sound like fun to us, but to Erik, it's no fun at all, particularly because he knows it's an exercise in frustration. The game is stacked against them. Erik, his mother, and his father are, like everyone else in their village, struggling to meet their quotas and fill their duties in the real world. But in order to do that, they need things they can only get by winning in Epic. And that just isn't going to happen. In fact, it's so impossible that they're about to be reallocated and sent to work in the mines. So instead of preparing for the graduation tournament, Erik is trying to find a way to challenge Central Allocations, the governing body that decides who gets what. A successful challenge is the only way the family will be able to stay where they are. Unfortunately, his characters keep dying.

This last death is the final straw. He has to play, yes. But he's through with playing the game by the rules; he's through with playing strategically. His new character will be different from anything he's ever created before. For one thing, she'll be female. And instead of maximizing all the typical skills, such as fighting or crafts, and instead of trying to get as much magic and the best weapons he can afford, in a moment of whimsy he decides to throw all his attribute points into his character's physical features. She's beautiful. In a game where all the players are gray, angular blobs, Cindella the swashbuckler is going to really stand out.

Stand out she does. The very first time Erik plays Epic as Cindella, he realizes that everything has changed. For the first time ever, the NPCs (the characters controlled by the game, not other players) interact meaningfully with him. In fact, sometimes they even initiate conversations, which is unheard of. But what they tell him is even more amazing. It seems that there's a treasure to be found. If Cindella can find the treasure, she'll be rich. And if she's rich, then Erik is, too.

Erik soon realizes that this is the character that just might survive long enough to be able to mount that challenge against Central Allocations. But if Cindella wants to find that treasure, she's going to need some help. And Erik is going to need help, too. Fortunately, Erik has four very good friends in Bjorn, Injeborg, Big Erik, and Sigrid. Together, they make a formidable team, becoming famous throughout Epic and in the real world. But are they good enough and strong enough to beat Central Allocations, the most powerful people/players in both worlds? They had better be, because Central Allocations doesn't like its power threatened, and the council members are prepared to take whatever steps necessary to make sure that Erik and his friends are put in their proper place. In a world where even the merest hint of violence is outlawed, all disputes are supposed to be solved inside the game of Epic and only through tournament combat. But certain members of Central Allocations think rules are for other people. Erik might not know it yet, but his life is in danger, and not just in the game.

Epic has all the elements of a great role-playing game adventure: a quest, villains, vampires, ogres, trolls, a truly fearsome dragon, treachery, magic, and ::ahem:: epic battles. Some characters turn out to have secrets that have a huge impact in the way the story (book and Epic) turn out. In a sense, this is two treats in one. It's a great read, and at the same time, there are sections when it manages to make you feel as though you truly are participating in the virtual reality world.

I highly recommend this book to teens who like action and adventure. Even kids who are more interested in playing on their computers than in reading will enjoy this one. And when teachers assign their students to read a science fiction novel, this will be one of my first suggestions to the kids who hate science fiction. I think they'll be pleasantly surprised.

The author is planning to write at least one sequel/companion novel to Epic. In fact, I see that it's already been published in the United Kingdom and Germany. I'm glad to see that it doesn't seem to be precisely a sequel, because I don't really think it needs one. (But it does seem as though at least 80% of J/YA fantasies and a significant percentage of J/YA science fiction come with "sequel" or "trilogy" written into the contract!). But sequel, companion novel, or stand-alone novel, I will be buying it for my library.

No quotes this time, because it's not a book that particularly lends itself to that. But here are a few links that might be worth checking out:

Bible Grrrl says Jesus and Darwin Agree

Evolution, Me, & Other Freaks of Nature by Robin Brande
4Q 3P J/S

"...I hoped my first day of school -- of high school, thank you, which I've only been looking forward to my entire life -- might turn out to be at least slightly better than eating live bugs. But I guess I was wrong."

So says Mena Reece, who might have had the first day of high school she'd been dreaming of if she only hadn't written that letter. If she hadn't written that letter, then her friends might be talking to her now. If she hadn't written that letter, her parents would be speaking to her. Her parents would look at her. But she did write that letter, and now she's been kicked out of her church, her parents are being sued, and she's being harassed at school. Mena and her family belong to a strict fundamentalist church. They believe that the Bible is the literal word of God, that homosexuality is a sin, and that anything that involves magic and wizards is of the devil. None of this is negotiable. If you stray from the church’s teachings or question the pastor, you are asking for trouble. Mena “asked” for trouble when she wrote that letter. Is she sorry she wrote it? Not really. It was the right thing to do. But that doesn’t mean she’s happy with the result. She never imagines her salvation will come at the hands of an evolution-teaching biology teacher and a science-loving lab partner.

Biology is not Mena's thing, but her lab partner is Casey Connor, who sweeps her along in his enthusiasm for science and admiration for Ms. Shepherd, a dynamic teacher who teaches her students how to think and observe. Mena can’t help but get interested. Each year, Ms. Shepherd gives her students the opportunity to earn extra credit by creating their own special project. Casey is determined to do the best project Ms. Shepherd has ever seen. Unfortunately, his idea requires going to his house after school almost every day. Mena knows that that just won’t fly with her parents (#1, she’s grounded; #2, she’s not allowed to be alone with a boy for any reason), but she goes anyway. She’ll figure out how to do deal with her parents later. In the meantime, she's trying to deny the obvious: Casey's a pretty cool guy. In fact, Casey's whole family is pretty cool, and very different from her own.

Casey’s sister Kayla is just about everything that Mena is not: excitable, strong, loud, and opinionated. While Mena wishes she'd never called attention to herself, Kayla relishes making waves. As editor of the school paper, she’s about to make a big one: Pastor Wells and his church’s youth group are protesting the teaching of evolution in Ms. Shepherd’s biology class. He wants creationism taught instead. It’s their own Scopes Monkey Trial, and Kayla is thrilled that Mena and Casey are right in the middle of it. They can be her sources on the scene while she blows this story wide open. Casey, Kayla, and Ms. Shepherd know exactly how they feel about evolution vs creationism. But Mena is torn. Ms. Shepherd is a brilliant scientist, and her lectures are very convincing. Still, Mena’s not used to questioning her church’s teachings. And the last thing she needs to do is get everyone in the congregation and her parents even angrier with her than they are now, if that’s even possible. No, she’s not going to take a stand on this one. But Kayla has other plans for her, and almost before she knows what’s happened, Mena has a piece in the school newspaper and her own blog. She’s Bible Grrrl, and what she has to say about the Bible and evolution gets her more attention than she ever dreamed of. Suddenly, people want to know what she has to say.

Just by being who they are, the Connors and Ms. Shepherd make Mena think about things in a new way and question things she's always accepted without much thought. Will having a boy friend (not even a boyfriend!) really inevitably lead to having sex? Can you really be corrupted just by reading a book or watching a movie? How do faith and facts interact? Can you believe in evolution and still believe in God? Can you disagree with your parents and still have them love and respect you and love and respect them in return? Is it wrong to stand up for the things you believe in, even when your stand isn’t a popular one? Is it time she thought for herself?


If I were creating a Best Books List of 2007, this book would be on it. I like books that make me care and make me think. This one did that. I think Brande did a fine job making Mena a well-rounded character. She's not a perfect girl, and she doesn't pretend that she is. Watching her grow and figure out what she believes is as empowering to the reader as it is for Mena to actually do. It's also fun to watch her struggle with admitting that she's not as impervious to Casey's charms as she'd like to think, and I could empathize with her having a hard time believing that he might actually feel the same way about her. Casey and Kayla are great characters, and if Josh's t-shirts ever go on sale for real, I'm there. I do think that Brande does make Pastor Wells too one-dimensional and stereotypical, but on the other hand, his daughter is portrayed as equally sincere in her beliefs, but far more nuanced as a character.

This book has a lot going for it. I suspect that firm creationists won't be happy/satisfied with it, but those wondering how or if faith and science can coexist are likely to find that this book provides them food for thought.

I'm not going to quote anything because
  • I have lost page one of my notes. This proves that 1) sticky notes aren't always the best things to use and 2) reading in bed is not conducive to good organization.
  • Page two of my notes is full of things that are too close to the end of the book to quote.
  • It's already taken me three weeks to get this post up, and it's high time I stopped agonizing and posted it already. Yeah, I know. It doesn't read like something that took three weeks to write (okay, not twenty-one days of writing, but definitely more than one session of "why won't the words I want come?!" frustration). But I tried.

I was going to point to the URL listed in the back of the book, but when I tried to visit it, I discovered that it doesn't really go to anything about Robin Brande specifically. Random House has turned it into a page to promote several authors. You also need a user name and password. Boo! hiss!

Edited on Jan. 11, 2008 to add Robin's web site, thanks to the comment below. This one actually does work! Check out Robin Brande's web site at

Edited on August 30, 2008 to add a couple of missing words. I hope I caught them all, but no guarantees.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

I'm behind!

Just thought I'd write a quick note to say that I have at least six books to blog about (off the top of my head: Evolution, Me, and Other Freaks of Nature; Skin; Epic; The Absolutely True Story of a Part-Time Indian, possibly Neverwhere; and ummm...I know there's something else hiding in my bag). I was doing well when I first started my post on Evolution..., but I had to stop, and then came the ALAN workshops and Thanksgiving, and when I started to work on it again, well, it wasn't pretty. It's a shame I'm struggling so much with it, because the book is really good. So if my eventual post doesn't do it justice, please take my word for it: it's really worth reading. I'm hoping the creative juices flow a little more smoothly for the rest of them!

Thursday, November 08, 2007

The Skinny on SKIN

Skin by Adrienne Maria Vrettos
5Q 3P J/S (for those who need to know, language could be an issue for some)

Karen and Donnie aren't just brother and sister, they're allies. For as long as Donnie can remember, Karen has been there for him. When things got bad between their parents, they'd sit out on the steps (sometimes for hours) while the battle raged inside. Karen would always distract him and keep him company. She's there for him in other ways, too. Donnie is not exactly a popular kid. As he says, he and his friends are "the end of the line...the ones people look at and think, At least I'm not them." Instead of trying to steer clear of her nerdy little brother, Karen often lets him hang with her. She's his best friend.

The first signs of trouble appear about the time that Donnie and his family head to the lake for the summer. That's the first time that Karen refuses to eat. When they stop at a roadside diner, Karen's mother tries to tempt her with fries. Karen throws them out the window of the moving car. Still, nobody actually thinks there's a problem. Karen's just being a moody teenager. On the other hand, when Dad says he has to go back to work in the middle of the summer, they pretty much know that something's wrong. But just as with Karen's eating habits, it's easier to pretend that everything's okay. And actually, things are pretty good for Donnie. After all, he gets to hang out with Karen and her (really hot) best friend Amanda all summer long, and they have a blast together. Life is good, even if Dad's not there.

But then summer ends, and the good times end, too.

Donnie is a good at convincing himself that things are okay. His friends are jerks who don't really like him? Well, at least he isn't eating lunch alone. Dad doesn't come home anymore? Well, at least he calls. Karen's not eating? Well, at first, Donnie tries to pretend it's not a problem. But even he isn't that good at pretending. He can't ignore the dinner-time battles. He can't ignore how it is affecting Karen's friendship with Amanda. He can't ignore Karen's hospitalizations. He can't ignore the tension in the house. He can't ignore that he's turning invisible as far as his parents are concerned. But most of all, he can't ignore the fact that his best friend and ally is dieting herself into nothingness until she's going...going...gone.


I was really moved by this book. It's another one that made my heart hurt. I also got really angry at times. It made me realize how important it is to remember that a crisis for one family member is a crisis for all of them, even if (as in this case) siblings seem to be handling things well on the surface. In the end, I don't know who I felt worse for, Karen or Donnie. I know I wanted to shake them both, and I know I wanted to hug them both even harder. This is a beautifully written book and an achingly painful, poignant read.

Adrienne Vrettos has a web site, a blog, and a MySpace page. She also has a new book coming out. If it's anything close to as good as Skin, it'll be another winner. Here's a link to chapter one of Sight.


I've seen dead things before. I know a dead thing looks smaller than when it was alive. My sister looks like she could fold inside a paper cup. (p. 3)

I hate to see Mom like this. She's like an open wound waiting for salt. (p. 66)

Karen and Mom have been fighting and making up every other day. One day they're screaming at each other, and the next Karen's practically in Mom's lap while she makes tiny braids in Karen's hair. It's like there's a hiccup in the way time works, and they can only live the same two days over and over again...[They] have been circling each other all night...Mom watches Karen closely, and Karen pretends not to notice. I think Mom is having some sort of out-of-body experience. She walks around like she doesn't recognize our house or her family, and what she does see puts dark shadows on her face. (p. 113)

I'm becoming invisible. Every day more and more light shines through me...Once I realized that I was becoming invisible, once I realized that no one really noticed me anymore, I stopped fighting it. (pp. 119-120)

Mom and Karen are still at the table in the kitchen. An hour ago I could tell by the way Karen kept rearranging the rice on her plate that they'd end of sitting like this, Mom's plate empty and Karen's heavy with cold food. When she first got back from the hospital, I felt like I was part of a football team made up of all the people set on keeping her well. Her nutritionist. Her doctor. Her therapist. Mom. Dad. And me-the one that no one had asked to join the team, but who kept showing up to practice. I pictured us all in team jerseys standing firmly with arms crossed in front of us, daring Karen's sickness to try to get past. I thought we'd be strong enough. (p. 121)

When [Karen's] here and we all eat together, every bite is like your teeth don't just cut into the food, they cut into everything that's wrong in this house, and the taste can choke you. (p. 155)

I cheered when Donnie finally yelled, "This is happening to me too, you know!" Everyone around him, from his parents to his teachers, seem so oblivious to the fact that Donnie needs help and support, too. It took a long time for Donnie to stand up for himself and let people know that he is not invisible. If people aren't going to be there for him, I'm relieved that he's showing signs of being there for himself.

My booktalk can be found here.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Silence is Not Golden

The Silenced by James Devita
4Q 3P/ J S

Wow. I just finished this book and even though I have two other books I should be writing about first, I need to write something about this one now, while the feelings are still fresh.

Wow. Talk about an atmospheric book. There are some books you don't want to stop reading because they're so good. There are some books you have to stop reading, even if you don't want to, just to give yourself a chance to breathe and your heart to stop pounding. I put this book down at least six times because I needed a break. I couldn't stand the tension or the fear of what I thought/knew was coming. I needed to do something mindless for a while, so that I could give myself a chance to process what I'd read and what was coming.

No long summary here. In a nutshell, this book takes place in an unspecified future time in an unspecified country (but I still read it as the U.S., though that may be U.S.-centric of me). A war was fought within recent memory, and the Zero Tolerance party is now in power. We're not talking about zero tolerance for teasing, or zero tolerance for drugs, or zero tolerance for weapons in the schools. We're talking about zero tolerance for tolerance. Zero tolerance for individual thought. Zero tolerance for different religious beliefs. Zero tolerance for deviation from the official government line. Zero tolerance for different. In the initial phases of the new government, many of those who fought or protested were "neutralized" - government-speak for killed. But it wasn't enough to hold those people responsible for their actions. Their families are held responsible as well. The families have been sent to readaptation communities all around the country. Suspect spouses are put on house arrest, while the children are re-educated in schools that are nothing more than indoctrination facilities.

Marena is one of those children. She only has brief flashes of memory of what happened the night her mother was taken, but she can remember what her mother believed. And one of the things her mother believed was that you do not have the right to stay silent when evil is happening around you. Marena is already resisting in as many ways as she can: she mouths the words of the anthem and the loyalty oaths they are forced to repeat, she refuses to give up her precious paper, pens, and papers when writing implements are outlawed, and she refuses to believe what she is told to believe. But when a favorite teacher is taken away and a new and stricter administration is brought it, Marena knows that it's time to take a harder stand. She convinces her would-be boyfriend Dex and the new boy, Eric, that it's time to actively rebel. They slash tires. They vandalize the school with slogans. They spread leaflets. They spread the word: The White Rose will not be silent. But their rebellion comes at a very high cost.

Any similarities to the Nazi regime are completely intentional. This book is a tribute to Sophie Scholl, her brother, and the other members of the White Rose resistance group, who fought the Nazis with pamphlets, leaflets, and graffiti, spreading the idea of resistance throughout their university and beyond. It's also, I think, a protest against the people in our own country right now who insist that voicing objections to actions of our political leaders is nothing short of traitorous. But if the people don't remind their government to have a conscience, then we open ourselves to nightmare scenarios. Sophie Scholl, Nelson Mandela, and Marena could testify to that.

Lest I have made this sound like a book that only those of a political bent could enjoy, let me assure you, it is not. Despite its length, I think many teens who don't really like to read could get caught up in this one. Rebellious teens fighting against the authorities. Questions about who you can trust (can you even trust your own father?). Midnight trysts and post-midnight illegal actions. Short, cliff-hanger ending chapters. This is a compulsively readable book that will have many readers riveted to the last page.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

This Skulduggery is very pleasant indeed!

Skulduggery Pleasant by Derek Landy
5Q 5P J/M

I've been reading some really heavy books lately (more on some of those soon), so I was really looking forward to something a little lighter in tone. I was not disappointed. What a thoroughly fun read this book is! And I do believe there'll be more where this one came from, which is truly cause for cheering.

When Stephanie's Uncle Gordon dies, she knows she'll miss spending time with him. Gordon was not, to put it mildly, everyone's cup of tea. The famous author was known for his horror novels, not for his tact or ability to get along with people. He didn't even get along with own brothers. But he and Stephanie clicked. She loved his books, and they enjoyed each other's company. But was that reason enough to put her in his will? Much to everyone's surprise, apparently so.

Stephanie and her parents are summoned to the lawyer's office for the reading of the will, as are her loathsome uncle and aunt. Also present: the strange man Stephanie saw twice after the funeral. This isn't someone you'd overlook or forget. He's tall and thin, with a shock of wild frizzy hair escaping from under his wide-brimmed hat. Even inside, his face is completely hidden by a scarf and huge sunglasses. His coat is fully buttoned. He is wearing gloves. His name is Skulduggery Pleasant, and as Stephanie is soon to discover, he is ...well, let's let that wait for a bit.

The reading of the will does not go well. All Skulduggery gets is a piece of advice, though he seems to accept that with grace. All Stephanie's greedy uncle and aunt inherit is a car, a boat, and a bit of worthless jewelry. They're furious. They get even angrier when Stephanie's parents get Gordon's villa in France. But they get absolutely livid when they learn that Stephanie inherits everything else: all his royalties, all his other property and possessions. What they don't know is that Stephanie also inherits numerous attempts on her life, close encounters with a number of unsavory characters, and the burden of knowing that the fate of the world rests with her ability to solve the puzzle of what else Gordon left for her that these people want so badly.

Of course, Stephanie doesn't know at first that Gordon's bequest is anything other than it seems. But being the intelligent girl that she is, she quickly realizes something is up. Her first clue? By a fluke of circumstance, she winds up spending a night alone in her new home. Also being a very self-sufficient girl, she's fine with that...until she gets a threatening phone call from someone demanding to know her name. When she refuses to give it, he breaks into the house and attacks her. With his hand around her throat, he demands she give him "the key". Enter (dramatically, to say the least) Skulduggery Pleasant, who turns out to be a surprisingly good hand-to-hand fighter. He also turns out (it's hard to stay in disguise in the middle of a brawl) to be a skeleton. In fact, he turns out to be a skeleton who can conjure up flames, among other things. In case you haven't guessed, that's Stephanie's second clue that something odd is going on. What did Uncle Gordon get her mixed up in?

Being the headstrong girl who doesn't take no for an answer that she is, Stephanie decides that it's time for her to learn what's going on. She learns the following:
  • Skulduggery Pleasant was her uncle's (only?) friend.
  • Skulduggery Pleasant is a detective.
  • Skulduggery Pleasant can do magic.
  • Skulduggery Pleasant works for
Oh, come on. You don't really think I'm going to spill ALL the beans, do you? I've gotten you up to page 60. I'm leaving you the pleasure of finding out the rest for yourself. But I will tell you this much:
  • Names are important. Don't give yours out to just anyone.
  • You could be a sorcerer. Yes, I mean you.
  • Fiction may not be fiction.
  • We're talking fate of the world here.
  • Stephanie Edgley is intelligent, self-sufficient, headstrong (but you knew all that already) and determined. Don't get in her way. She's also sarcastic, outspoken, and rebellious. This probably makes her a teacher's nightmare, but it also makes her a reader's dream.
Favorite quotes:

Pick a page, any page. Pick a paragraph, any paragraph. Okay, here are just a few. (I'll try to restrain myself.)

"To be honest with you, it's not even *my* head."
"It's not. They ran away with my skull. I won this one in a poker game. [A few sentences snipped.] You look faintly disgusted."
"I just...doesn't it feel weird? It'd be like wearing someone else's socks."
"You get used to it."

"Stephanie, I'm not altogether sure you're respecting my authority."
"Yes, I'm not."
"I see. Okay then."

"I try not to depend on magic these days; I try to get by on what's up here." [Skulduggery] tapped his head.
"There's empty space up there."
"Well, yes," he said irritably, "but you know what I mean."

Stephanie: "And am I going to be accompanying you?"
Skulduggery: "That depends. Do you need your parents' permission?"
Her parents wanted her to find her own way in life. That's what they'd said countless times in the past. Of course, they'd been referring to school subjects and college applications and job prospects. Presumably, at no stage did they factor living skeletons and magic underworlds into their considerations. If they had, their advice would probably have been very different. Stephanie shrugged. "No, not really."
"Well, that's good enough for me."

"Fashion," said Ghastly with a shrug. "It's life or death."

Ghastly nodded. "That'll teach him to underestimate stupid people."

Stephanie and Skulduggery are discussing the grim realization that it's time to visit the relatives:

Skulduggery: "Being a detective isn't all about torture and murder and monsters. Sometimes it gets truly unpleasant."

A few links:

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Life's a Cabaret, Old Chum!

Dramarama by E. Lockhart
3Q 4P J/S

I'm a drama geek through and through, so I knew I was going to enjoy this book. And I did. Anyone who is into theatre, especially musical theatre, will relate. (Alas, the part I can relate to all too well is the part about loving musical theatre but not being much of a singer!)

Sadye, formerly known as Sarah, is from a small town in Ohio as lacking in character as Cream of Wheat. ("In Brenton, Ohio, where I'm from, committing suicide would be redundant.") She's the only teen in town who cares anything about theater. The only way she can slake her love of the arts is by traveling twenty miles away four times a week to take a decent dance class. Nobody gets her. Until Demi.

Demi goes to Sarah's school, but neither of them realizes they have a mutual interest until Sarah sees an audition notice for Wildewood Academy of the Performing Arts Summer Theater Institute. She has only a week to prepare a song and learn a monolog. She can carry a tune, but truth to tell, she's not much of a singer. And she's never acted in her life. But she is a very good dancer, and she's counting on that to get her through.

The audition is pretty intimidating. Everyone is so GOOD! They can do it all - sing, dance, and act. Even though they Sarah doesn't really know Demi, at least he's a familiar face. Before they know it, the two have bonded, and Demi has even given Sarah a new name to match her new haircut: Sadye. He gives her encouragement, too, and some advice on how to approach her audition. Much to her delight, she actually gets accepted to the Institute. There was no question that Demi was going to be accepted. Not only can he act, sing, and dance, he's seriously good looking. He's a star waiting to be discovered.

And therein lies the problem. What happens when your best friend becomes a star and you have to settle for being a bit player? What happens when you realize you aren't as talented as you want to be?

This being a summer camp full of teens, you know that love is going to be involved, too. Demi is hog heaven, thrilled with being able to be himself, not having to act the straight guy so he doesn't get beaten up. But is he falling in love with the right guy? For that matter, is Sadye? Do any of the guys she has her eye on have his eye on her?

This is a book that I'd have been thrilled to read as a teen, when I prowled the shelves looking for books about acting. Finally, there's a book that deals with the work that goes into putting a show together, something that really focuses on teens honing their talents. But I got a little frustrated with Sadye at times. She knows she's not a good singer, but she really wants to be a performer. So why doesn't she even try to find a way to learn to sing better? So when she's depressed about not doing well with her singing, I can't say I felt all that sorry for her. On the other hand, Sadye gets into a lot of trouble for saying too much in some of her classes, and I did feel sorry for her then, because what she says appears to make sense. I kept yelling her in my head through the last half of my book, so I was quite happy to discover by the end that she'd heard me. ;) I won't say anything more than that!

Overall, I'd say this book veers towards the over-the-top, but doesn't ever really go too far. If you enjoy quick, light reads with a nice blend of romance, humor, suck-it-up-truth, and theater, theater, theater, you can't go wrong with this one.

Billie Standish (the book and the girl) Needs Some Love

Billie Standish Was Here by Nancy Crocker
5Q 3P J/S (mature subject matter, including a rape, makes this a book for older/mature readers)

This is an absolutely beautifully written book that I suspect will not get the attention it deserves. At this point, it's on my shortlist of the best YA books of the year. I would not hesitate to recommend it to adult readers as well as teens. However, it's a book that will be best appreciated by readers who enjoy characterization and setting, rather than those who prefer fast-moving action. I don't think what I say here truly spoils the book. It all happens in the first fifty or so pages. The book is about the journey, not the individual stops made along the way. But you may disagree, so please be forewarned that this review reveals two major events. If you prefer to read something that is more circumspect, check this review/interview from Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast. (This review, from Big A, little a, is the one that got me interested in reading the book. But be aware that this review also gives away those two plot points.)

Billie Standish knows exactly where she stands in her parents' lives. It's pretty clear when your name is William Marie Standish that a girl wasn't what they hoping for. The fact that they rarely talk to her and leave her alone for hours at a time just reinforces their lack of interest. But the morning that eleven-year-old Billie wakes up to find the town deserted really hammers it home. It's not until the old lady who lives across the street tells her that the levee is expected to break and flood the town that she has any idea of the danger she's in. Miss Lydia explains that the only people left are Billie and her parents and Miss Lydia and her son. And her parents never gave her even as much as a warning of what to do if trouble came. Miss Lydia takes pity on Billie and invites her to come to lunch. As Billie says, she'd rather have gone to church in shoes two sizes too small. She's no good at chitchat in the first place, but having to make conversation with someone who could remember when God was a boy? Oh, no.

But Miss Lydia insists, and Billie gives in. It's not long before Billie is over at Miss Lydia's most of every day, doing chores for her and in exchange learning about cooking and crochet and the old days of Miss Lydia's youth. She basks in the feeling of being welcomed and liked. As the weeks pass, Billie realizes she's made her first friend.

The one fly in the ointment is Miss Lydia's son, Curtis. Curtis gives Billie the creeps. She doesn't like the way he treats his mother and she doesn't like the way he looks at her. She knows Curtis's reputation, and she knows that he once killed a girl in a drunk driving accident. But she doesn't know just how bad he can be until the day he brutally rapes her. One horror follows another when Miss Lydia discovers what has happened and takes the law into her own hands. She has seen her son destroy one girl's life. She's damned if she's going to allow him to destroy another.

It is 1968, and rape is a shameful secret that is never discussed. And, of course, neither of them can ever tell what Miss Lydia did. As close as they had been, their secrets draw them even closer together. It is Miss Lydia who helps her deal with the aftermath, sharing her own equally traumatic experiences and assuring her that in time, she will be able to trust, and even love, again. The only person she can bear to be near is Miss Lydia. But when fifth grade starts in the fall, Billie has to go. School has never been her favorite place. The teachers are bad, the girls are clique-y, and she has always been the odd person out. But here, too, Billie finds an unexpected friend. Harlan knows as soon as she enters the room that something bad happened to her over the summer, though he never asks what. He is just there for her in his own quiet way. And soon the twosome becomes a threesome.

Billie Standish Was Here covers years in Billie's life. It is not a book about rape. It is a book about forgiveness and understanding, but most of all, it is a book about the healing power of love and the saving power of friendship. This is a book to be savored and reread often.


I loved this book for many reasons, but I fell in love with its voice and humor. Here are some quotes chosen because they tell as much about Billie as they do about the person she's describing:

For a long time I was mostly invisible. That was okay, though. Once you've figured out you can't do anything right it's just good sense not to call undue notice your way. Why step out of the shadows and get yelled at for blocking somebody's light?

Nothing much bigger than a silent fart can get past the neighbors in a town this size, though, so I suppose I was looked after in a way.

About her mother:
I could see her with my eyes closed, slicing the air with her hip bones and elbows as she crossed me off the list in her head and moved on. Another chore taken care of.

Describing Curtis:
...his manners were neat almost to the point of finicky. Outside of TV, I had never seen anyone raise their pinky as they lifted their glass and I never could have imagined it with a dirty fingernail...For some reason, I remembered the wolf in "Little Red Riding Hood," who put on clothes and talked and was a good enough imitator to pass for a human being.

Describing her teacher:
There just doesn't seem to be enough of a person there to account for half of a couple.

Discovering love:
I don't believe in love at first sight. It might make for an easy shortcut if somebody's writing a movie, but in real life I think it's nothing more than hormones performing a parlor trick. I have come to believe that real love is like learning to read, one letter at a time, sounding things out until it all comes together. It takes time to build, step after step. And I know that was the exact moment Harlan climbed up that first step for me.

About Miss Lydia:
She left me knowing who I am without looking into anyone's mirror.

Printz Committee, are you listening?

Hooray for the Cybils Awards, which selected Billie Standish as one of the finalists in the YA Fiction category.

I have also posted a booktalk for this book. If you like it and use it, I'd love to know how it went over with your group.

(This post was edited slightly on 5/1/08 to reflect the Cybil Award nomination.)

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Boy? Girl? Other? Neither?

Parrotfish by Ellen Wittlinger
4Q 3P J/S

A few years ago, the acronym GLBTQ started showing up all over the place. Suddenly, we weren't just talking about sexuality in terms of straight, gay, or lesbian. Now bisexual and transgender were added to the mix (along with queer/questioning, depending on who you asked about the acronym). I understood what bisexual meant, but what did it mean to be transgendered? If it's confusing for me, how much more confusing is it for teens? I read articles explaining it, and those helped, but I didn't really get it until I read Luna by Julie Ann Peters. And now I can add Ellen Wittlinger's Parrotfish to a very short list of books about being transgendered. Books like these peel the label away to show you the person underneath, and that's incredibly important and valuable. But Parrotfish isn't just an issue book. It's also just a darned good read, which isn't surprising, given its author.

After I wrote that paragraph, I wondered if I should be using the word "issue" at all. Is sexuality an issue? Should it be? As far as Grady is concerned, it shouldn't be. But Grady was born Angela and lived the first fifteen years of his life as a girl, and so he knows that yes, sexuality is an issue for a lot of people. But it bugs him. Why is whether you're a boy or girl so darned important? Why does it have to be a simple answer? One or the other? Not everyone fits so neatly into the category we get saddled with on Day One. Angela always knew she was different somehow. When her teachers told the class to line up in a boys line and a girls line, the other kids never seemed to have any question which line they belonged in. Angela knew she was supposed to go in the girl's line, but inside she knew she belonged with the boys. She also knew she'd get in trouble if she stood there. So for years, Grady allowed people to think of him as a girl. But now he's in his junior year of high school and he's tired of pretending to be someone he's not. Last year he let people think he was just a butch lesbian, or maybe just a freak. But that was pretending, too. He's not a girl, even if that's what his body tells the world he is. He's a guy. He's not Angela, he's Grady. And the world is just going to have to accept that.

Of course, it's not that easy. The reactions are varied, even in his own family. His father is surprisingly okay with it. His little brother is confused, but accepting. His sister Laura is angry. She's afraid that Grady is ruining any chance she has at being popular. And Grady's mother is just plain freaked out by it. She's not angry or rejecting, she's just...avoiding. She can't even look him in the eye or call him by name. When she finally does say Grady instead of Angela, it's a big moment for both of them. And it's not just his family Grady has to deal with. He also has to go to school and face the music there. Grady's best friend, Eve, is even more concerned than Laura about being seen with Grady: "Angie, this is too confusing. I'm not like you. I need to have friends -- I don't want people to think I'm a weirdo...Angela was my friend, but I don't know who Grady is! I'm sorry, but I can't call you that in front of other people. I can't be a part of this whole thing. it's just too bizarre." With friends like that, who needs enemies?

But if old friends and family sometimes let Grady down, he also discovers new friends where he least expects them. He would never have predicted that Russ, one of the most popular boys in school, and his (gorgeous) girlfriend Kita would turn out to be his strongest allies, or that Sebastian, the nerdy guy from her TV Production class, would become her new best friend. Sebastian's reaction to learning that Angela is now a boy named Grady? "Wow! You're just like the stoplight parrotfish!" In the world of stoplight parrotfish, it seems, changing gender from female to male isn't at all unusual, and Sebastian can't see why it should be any different among humans. He's happy to take Grady as he is, whoever that is. It won't surprise anyone to learn that Sebastian is unusual in that regard. Most of the other students think Grady's a freak and treat him accordingly. His high school principal and most of his teachers aren't supportive at all. But Sebastian, Russ, Kita, and Ms. Unger (the gym teacher) always have his back.

But gender identity isn't the only thing on Grady's mind. Like every teenager, he worries about family stuff and romance, too. For instance, he's desperate for a way to tell his father that the rest of the family has outgrown a family tradition he cherishes. This is going to take some delicate negotiating. But that's nothing compared to the tightrope he's walking with Russ and Kita. What do you do when you have the hots for a girl who's going out with your friend? When they're having trouble, do you root for them to work it out or do you root for them to break up so you can move in? And can you move in? Does Kita really see him as a guy, or would it totally freak her out to know that Grady desperately wants to kiss her?

These are things that everyone can relate to. And that's a hallmark of Ellen Wittlinger's writing: her ability to make her stories real and personal. No matter what the overall topic, be it a transgendered teen, a lonely boy who falls in love with a girl he can never be with (Hard Love), or a girl who made some poor choices for the sake of popularity (Sandpiper), the "issue" never overwhelms the story. When all is said and done, it is the characters you remember and care about. You will remember and care about Grady, too.

Wittlinger breaks some stereotypes here. For once, the father is the family member who is the most accepting. That's not a typical scenario. And it's about time a gym teacher is not only not a Neanderthal, she's the teacher Grady can most rely on for help and understanding.

I have to admit that I wasn't a fan of Grady's made up conversations. I understand why they're there, and I think a lot of people do this (I know I do!), but they still felt a little jarring, maybe because the voice used in them seemed too different from the voice used in the rest of the book.

I realized it wasn't just that I became uninterested in girls when I hit puberty and started figuring out sex. I was a boy way before that, from the age of four or five, before I knew anything about sex. On one of the websites it said that gender identity - whether you feel like a boy or a girl - starts long before sexual identity - whether you're gay or straight. In my dreams at night, I was a boy, but every morning I woke to the big mistake. Everyone thought I was a girl because that's the way my body looked, and it was crystal clear to me that I was expected to pretend to *be* a girl whether I liked it or not. (pp. 18-19)

It occurred to me that the male members of my family seemed to be taking this better than the females, and I wondered why that was. Did the women feel like I was deserting them by deciding to live as the opposite sex? Maybe for Dad and Charlie, it didn't seem strange to want to be male, since that's what they were. But Mom and Laura -- and, of course, Eve -- acted like I was betraying them somehow. Would I have to give them up if I wasn't a girl anymore? I hoped not. I hoped that changing my gender wouldn't mean losing my entire past. (pp. 33-34.)

Does a hamlet fish carry around a skull and ponder suicide? (p. 71). Hee.

Sebastian and Grady have a conversation on pages 98-99 that struck me for several reasons, not least of which was that Sebastian helps Grady realize that he's not the only person who feels like a freak. It just his reason that's different. But it also struck me when Grady thinks, "...were there other people who thought I should off myself so their world wouldn't be spoiled by my presence?" Now there's a thought to make you shudder. Later, Grady thinks, "I couldn't imagine what it would be like to be so sure of yourself. To be scornful of anybody who wasn't just like you." Food for thought.

Other reviews on this book: Bookslut and Teen Reads

Cynthia Leitich Smith interviewed Ellen in 2005.

Ellen has an official web site, but it doesn't seem to have been updated with information about Parrotfish yet.

Edited to fix a couple of typos.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

PEAK booktalk

Booktalk for Peak by Roland Smith

As you know from an earlier post, I loved this book. It's a booktalk waiting to happen, so I don't know why it's taken me so long to actually put one on paper. Too many other books to read, too little time to write, I guess! If you've read the book (and if you haven't, what's taking you so long?), you'll see that the climbing sequence is taken directly from the book. See what I mean about the booktalk writing itself?

My fingers were numb. My nose was running. I didn't have a free hand to wipe my nose, or enough rope to rappel about five hundred feet to the ground. I had planned everything out so carefully, except for the weather, and now it was uh-oh time. A gust of wind tried to peel me off the wall. I should have waited until June to make the ascent, but no, moron has to go up in March. "Moron!" I shouted.

Option #1: Finish the climb. Two hundred sixty-four feet up, or about a hundred precarious fingerholds (providing my fingers didn't break off like icicles

Option #2: Climb down. A little over five hundred feet, two hundred fifty fingerholds.

Option #3: Wait for rescue. Scratch that option. No one knew I was on the wall. By morning (providing someone actually looked up and saw me) I would be an icy gargoyle.

Up it is, then.

I timed my moves between vicious blasts of wind. The sleet turned to hail, pelting me like a swarm of frozen hornets. This is it, I told myself. Fifteen more handholds and I've topped it. I reached up for the next seam and encountered a little snag. Well, a big snag, really...My right ear and cheek were frozen to the wall.

To reach the top you must have resolve, muscles, skill, and...a FACE! Mine was anchored to the wall like a bolt, and a portion of it stayed there when I gathered enough resolve to tear it loose. Now I was mad, which was exactly what I needed to finish the climb. Cursing with every vertical lunge, I stopped about four feet below the edge, tempted to tag this monster with the blood running down my neck. Instead, I took the mountain stencil out of my pack, slapped it on the wall, and filled it in with blue spray paint.

And that's when the helicopter came up behind me and nearly blew me off the wall. "You are under arrest!"

Busted. Hey, I'd rather have been climbing a mountain, but there aren't many of those in Manhattan, so I've had to settle for climbing skyscrapers. I had no idea how much trouble that could get me into. They wanted to send me to juvenile detention for three years! I don't know what shocked me more, the idea of a three year prison sentence or the fact that it was my father who rescued me. I hadn't seen Josh since I was about seven. What was he doing here?

See, Josh is a big time mountain climber. He's famous. But all his climbing has left him with no time for me. He's never even sent me a birthday card or answered the letters I've sent. I'm not sure I can remember the last time we talked on the phone. So having him show up at my trial and offer to become my guardian and take me out of the country really blew my mind. I should have felt great about being with my father again, but I had a feeling there was more to this than met the eye.

I was right. My father didn't come get me because he was being a good dad. He came for me because now that he knows I can climb, he wants me to be the youngest kid to ever scale Mount Everest. Now here I am, sitting at Base Camp, wondering what I should do. Things here are really tense. Nobody in the group he's leading wants me here. Josh barely pays attention to me. Instead, he's got an old Buddhist monk training me. A nosy reporter is watching my every move, and so are the Chinese officials, who think we're up to something. Maybe we are. Preparing to climb Mount Everest is grueling. I can barely breathe and I feel sick all the time. Still, it would be cool to be the youngest kid to climb Mount Everest. But I don't I really want to make my father's dream come true?

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

No Deposit? No Return!

Returnable Girl by Pamela Lowell
5Q 4P, J S
(for those who need to know, some swearing, some sexual situations involving secondary characters)

I seem to be on a run of this-makes-my-heart-ache books right now, and this book is right up there at the top of them. The writing is strong and you'd have to be made of granite not to feel something when you read Ronnie's story. This is one of two books I've read recently where the voice is so strong and authentic it makes you forget it's actually being told by an adult writer, not the teenager who is supposedly telling it. (The other book is Billie Standish Was Here, which I will write about soon.)

When I think back on the times my parents left us alone for a few hours, I don't remember ever being scared. We never had a doubt that they were coming back soon. Ronnie isn't so lucky. The first time she remembers her mother leaving her, she was five years old. When I was five, my older brothers watched over me. At five, Ronnie was taking care of her little brother. Whew.

Flash forward seven or eight years. Ronnie isn't taking care of her little brothers anymore, because her little brothers and her mother are all the way across the country, in Alaska. When they packed up and left, there was "no room" for Ronnie, so she was left behind. That probably had something to do with her mother's boyfriend Kenny, since Kenny hated Ronnie and the feeling was mutual. Ronnie knows her mother is an alcoholic drug abuser, but she doesn't care. She desperately wants to be with her mother and brothers. But instead, Ronnie has been shunted from foster home to foster home. Alison is her tenth placement, her eleventh if you count the time she stayed with her uncle and aunt. She's been returned from all of those placements, because nobody would put up with a girl who throws things, lies, steals, and says hateful things. Nobody will put up with a girl as angry as she is. But maybe, just maybe, Alison will be different.

Alison has strict rules for Ronnie. No throwing, no lying, no stealing. But Alison has something else for Ronnie, too: love and understanding. No matter how much trouble Ronnie gets herself into, Alison is there for her. In fact, Alison would like to adopt her. Ronnie is all mixed up. Her mother constantly makes excuses for why Ronnie can't come join them. She's in and out of halfway houses and therapy. She promises not to drink or do drugs, and then does. She makes appointments with Ronnie and then breaks them. On the other hand, Alison is rock solid. She doesn't make promises she doesn't intend to keep. And Ronnie, even though she's afraid to trust anyone, knows that Alison would never leave her. Still, she longs to be with her mother. Should she let Alison adopt her, or should she hold out for the day when her mother will send for her?

As if this wasn't enough for her to deal with, Ronnie also has to deal with a typical problem of an eighth grader: friends and popularity. Cat, her only friend, lives down the road. She's plump, a little dirty, and definitely considered odd by all the other kids, especially the popular ones. But Cat gets Ronnie, and Ronnie gets her. It's pretty clear from the things Cat tells her that she knows about messed up families. But Ronnie desperately wants to be part of the in crowd. She wants to be best friends with Paige, the most popular girl in eighth grade. But a friend of Cat's has no chance of ever being allowed into Paige's inner circle, so Ronnie distances herself from Cat and works her way into Paige's good graces. The thing is, the way Paige and her gang treat Cat (and make her treat Cat) makes Ronnie feel guilty. And the more she hangs around with Paige, the more ugliness she sees in her. Is being popular worth feeling guilty and doing things she knows are wrong? At least for now, the answer is yes.

In a book that is all about relationships, Ronnie's relationship with God is not to be overlooked. The one good thing her aunt Raylene gave her was a belief in God and in the power of prayer. Ronnie finds comfort in going to church, and its teachings are often in the back of her mind, even if she doesn't always manage to live by them. But when Francis, a youth minister she once knew, comes into her life again, it is a shining moment. When she doesn't dare trust Alison, when her mother disappoints her, Francis is there for her. And it suits her just fine that Francis is there for Alison, too.

The book (written in journal form) takes place over just about a year, and in that time, Ronnie goes through quite a bit. She is betrayed and betrays herself, and she learns to forgive. She learns what it means to be a friend. She begins to trust, and she even begins to allow herself to love and be loved. Most importantly, she discovers what she wants and where she belongs.

Musings: (Some examples of why I liked Ronnie's voice so much. I've found half a dozen things I'd like to quote dealing with her relationships with Alison, Cat, and Paige, but to get the full effect, I'd need to quote four or five paragraphs. Instead of giving you the main course, these shorter passages will have to act as appetizers.)

It didn't surprise me in the least that she would threaten to send me back; eventually, it seems, they all do. Even Alison, with her long, graying hair and her plump stomach that looks soft and cushiony like a broken-in sofa you might want to curl up on someday.

Paige's eyes are her best feature (when they aren't judging you). [It's clear throughout the book that Ronnie knows things she doesn't want to admit to herself. The truth about Paige is one of those things.]

Britnee and Sarika are always with Paige. I mean *constantly* because they are the three most popular girls at school. Sometimes it's like they are one person instead of three. I stood off near the curb, hoping that they wouldn't notice me -- or maybe hoping that they *would*, but in a nice way for a change.

I hadn't realized anyone was keeping track [of how many times she wore her Tshirt last week]. Of course she wouldn't know that wearing this shirt make makes me feel close to my mother, who sent it to me for my birthday last year. It has a picture of Mount McKinley on it and the words, "The Great One." I don't care if it's oversized, stained, and faded -- it's one of my favorites.

Cat gets made fun of by just about everybody at school and it must get to her pretty bad. Sometimes after they tease her I swear there's a deep, sad emptiness in her eyes, right where the happiness is supposed to be.

Midge [her social worker] was right. I won't [use a suitcase]. That's because people who use suitcases are coming back home. It would mean I had a place to come back *to*. And I don't. Not yet. (I wonder if I ever will.)

That's when I made a deal. If Alison would let me stay, then I promised God I would try to be a better person. I would try to be good again, just like I used to be...I would figure out a way to be so good that all that goodness would make its way all the way up to Alaska, and my mother would feel it and know it deep in her heart, and then she would come to get me and take me there to live with her forever (or at least until I was eighteen).

What I didn't tell him was how much I hate [my mother] sometimes. How I imagine myself going up there to her stupid, not-big-enough apartment and punching her in her lazy pot-smoking fact -- until she's black-and-blue and begging for mercy. I hate her so much for putting me through this. For not caring enough to even try.


It's more factual than chatty, but Pamela Lowell has a web site. (She has a MySpace page, too.)

Here's an interview with Pamela Lowell from Little Willow on her blog, Slayground.

If you liked this book, you might like:

The Year of My Miraculous Disappearance by Catherine Ryan Hyde

Cynnie's mother is nearly always passed out drunk. If she's not passed out, she's working on it. That leaves Cynnie to care for her three-year-old brother, who has Down's Syndrome. But Cynnie loves Bill to death, so she doesn't mind taking care of him. She does mind that her mother doesn't take care of either of them, and she does care when her grandparents take Bill away. In fact, she cares so much, especially about the latter, that she can't deal with him being gone. The only thing that makes her feel better is alcohol. It makes everything blurry and takes away the pain. But it never takes away her longing for Bill, so she is determined to get him back. How she goes about this and what happens as a result is heart-wrenching but ultimately hopeful.

You can find out more about this book on Catherine Ryan Hyde's web site or read a review at

Boot Camps Mess With Your Head

Boot Camp by Todd Strasser
3Q 3P, J S

Chilling. Disturbing. Horrific. Tense. Disheartening. Gripping.

Garrett admits that he is skipping school, stealing money, and having an affair with his (former) teacher. He doesn't see why is parents are so angry, though. Does it matter that he's not in class every day? Even attending school two or three days a week, he is still easily maintaining an average that will allow him into almost any school. Yes, he has taken money from his parents. But that's because they've refused to give him any sort of allowance because they disapprove of his girlfriend. What else is he supposed to do? And it's not like they can't afford the $20 he takes here and there, since his mother runs her own crisis management company (protecting an image is everything to her) and his father is a corporate lawyer. And yes, he is dating his teacher. He and Sabrina connected almost from the first day he walked into her class. Despite every obstacle thrown in their paths, he is not willing to give her up. For these crimes, Garrett is sent to a boot camp to straighten him up.

He is taken to the camp in handcuffs. When he arrives, he's strip searched and manhandled at every opportunity. And he's told,
"Your parents have signed and notarized a consent form allowing Lake Harmony to use restraint whenever necessary. The type and degree of restraint administered shall be at the discretion of the staff. Lake Harmony and its employees will not be held liable for any injury sustained by you during the administration of restraint as it is understood that such injury is the result of willful disobedience on your part."

The introduction to the camp's Bible (information for inmates) reads:
You are now a member of the Lake Harmony community. You will be released when you are judged to be respectful, polite, and obedient enough to return to your family. During your stay here you will have no communication with the outside world, except for letters to your parents. After six months your parents may visit you for a day if they choose.

The treatment that Garrett receives at the camp is brutal. His "father" (each group of campers is assigned a "father" or "mother" leader) is determined to break him down and make him admit that his actions were wrong and that he is sincerely sorry for causing his parents so much trouble. Higher level campers are used to keep lower level students in line, and there are no lines drawn at how they can do this, with the exception that any bruises can't be in a place that shows. (The same holds true for the staff.) Another common punishment is TI, Temporary Isolation, where the inmate is forced to lie facedown on a cold concrete floor for twenty-four hours a day.

Garrett is a very strong-minded boy. He knows that some of his actions were technically wrong, but he refuses to admit that loving Sabrina is wrong in any way. He also knows that it is wrong to stand idly by while kids are beaten by thugs and bullies, and he can't help coming to their defense (in particular, he stands up for a boy named Paulie). He also refuses to suck up to the staff. For these infractions and insubordinations, he is often sent to TI, and he is often beaten. Still, Garrett refuses to give up. He listens during group meetings as kids on higher levels say things like, "I'd be dead if it weren't for Harmony Lake" and "I deserved every punishment I got" and can't imagine those words ever coming out of his mouth.

There are two other inmates who have also refused to get with the program. Sarah has been at the camp for two years. Paulie has been there for well over a year. Both are still at Level One, meaning they've made no progress in accepting their guilt or misbehavior. When Garrett first arrives, Sarah is still defiant, but as the weeks go by, both she and Paulie begin to lose their will to fight. They know if they don't get out of the camp, they'll die. But neither will give in to get ahead, so their only chance is to escape the camp. And their only chance to escape successfully is if Garrett comes with them.

I thought that Garrett's situation couldn't get worse, but I was wrong.


As I said above, I found this book chilling to read. I also have to admit, though, that I kept asking myself if Strasser wasn't exaggerating the conditions of camps like this. But he provides a list of resources he used to research this book, and he certainly has evidence on his side.

I did find, though, that the villains of the piece were too one-dimensional. Almost every staff member is rotten any way you look at him (we meet only one female staff member), never having even a moment of doubt about what he's doing and never having even a moment of looking at these kids as though they're fellow human beings. I can easily believe that there are a few people on staff who glory in sanctioned bullying and sadism, but I find it harder to believe that every staff member is like that. And of the teens, only Garrett, Sarah, and Paulie are developed in any way. Only three or four other teens are even named, and they exist only to perpetuate and perpetrate the bullying. I think the book would have benefited by having more shades of gray in these characters.


To learn more about Todd Strasser, check out his web site.

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Did you miss me?

The five or so of you who subscribe to this blog may have wondered where I've been lately. Well, after summer reading ended, I decided to go visit the mouse. Yeah, that mouse. :) Actually, I didn't see Mickey, but I did get my picture taken with Piglet and Tigger (mostly because friends insisted!). And I rode a Segway, challenged myself to ride Thunder Mountain without closing my eyes (it took several tries, but I almost did it) and Splash Mountain without ducking to put my face somewhere around my ankles when the big drop came up (ditto), and in general had a really good time despite the fact that some pretty heavy thunderstorms cut short a couple of days in the parks. They did at least give me time to get some reading done, so I have about half a dozen books to blog about over the next few days. It'll take me some time to get my thoughts together on them, but you can expect to read my thoughts on Billie Standish Was Here by Nancy Crockett, Parrotfish by Ellen Wittlinger, Returnable Girl by Pamela Lowell, Boot Camp by Todd Strasser, Dramarama by E. Lockhart, and I think at least one other. And I hope to post a booktalk on Peak by Roland Smith, too. Whew!

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Predator or Prey?

Tantalize by Cynthia Leitich Smith
3Q 5P J/S

Among the reviews I'm more or less giving up on (see previous post) is one on this book, which I had mixed feelings about. Interesting characters, intriguing setting (a vampire-themed restaurant in the middle of Texas?), a cup of murder, a dash or two of romance, a pinch of humor, and some seasonings you don't find in your typical recipe...I mean book!...those would seem to be the ingredients of a terrific read. It's gotten really good buzz on the blogs I read, but when I finished the book, I wasn't really sure how I felt about it. I'm still not sure. It's not so much a liked it/didn't like it dilemma. It left me feeling...unsettled, I guess, and a little creeped out. I've read other vampire/werewolf books and liked them, even though it's not my favorite genre, so that's not what got to me. This one had an element or two that made me more uncomfortable after I read it than while I was reading it, and I guess that's what's throwing me. Anyhow, I can't wait to hear what my patrons think of it, and if you're reading this and have read it, please tell me what you thought of it.

You can find information and other bloggers' thoughts about Tantalize

on the author's web site


on Required Reading (This site has a review of the book and a "Five Lists of Five" interview with Smith that I enjoyed reading. Gotta like her taste in vampires and authors!)


on Bookshelves of Doom


on Talking Teen Books

What Bookmoot says! and also

Right here in her blog. I can relate. ::sigh:: Boy, can I relate!

The Wednesday Wars, briefly

The Wednesday Wars by Gary Schmidt
4Q 2P M/J

For a few reasons, I'm not going to try to write a full review of this book. Instead, I'm posting a few thoughts and reactions.

1) I think it's a book that, like the author's Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy, will generally resonate more with adults than kids.

2) Some kids will really enjoy it.

3) The publisher did the book no favors with the cover design.

4) I love Mrs. Baker! She has got to go down as one of the best teachers in the annals of children's (YA included) literature.

5) Did I love Holling's dad? Yeah. Um. Not so much. And Mom needs a backbone for Christmas. (I think Santa might just see to that.)

5) Holling is a thoroughly likable kid. He's funny and sensitive. I enjoyed watching him mature throughout the book. My heart pinched a bit seeing just how perceptive he is about what is likely to be coming down the pike at the Perfect House. But I am confident that he's going to be just fine. (But probably not an architect.)

6) There are a couple of character arcs that I didn't quite buy. It's not that I didn't like where they wound up, it's just that I found the changes too fast and somewhat unlikely.

7) I'm a sap, again. The lump in my throat during the scene at the bus station was the size of a Granny Smith apple. It was back during the scene at the airport at the end. Frankly, from the bus station on, the lump was pretty much camping out right next to my tonsils.

8) I laughed, too.

Things I'll remember: yellow tights with feathers, skinned knees and sneakers, peace signs and face paint flowers, a lit candle, a gym that isn't empty, rats, Yankee Stadium, cream puffs, a dried up rose tied with a ribbon, strawberries.

(I shouldn't say "I'm a sap" when a book makes me emotional. That's what books should do. I think I need a new tag.)

Thursday, August 09, 2007

The Miner's Daughter, briefly

The Miner's Daughter by Gretchen Moran Laskas
5Q 3P M/J/S

In 1932, the United States was in the midst of the Great Depression. Bread cost five cents (eight if it was sliced), a quart of milk cost a quarter, and you could buy a two pound jar of peanut butter for fifteen cents. Those prices seem incredible to us today, but what is even more incredible is how hard it was then for people to pay them. It was even harder if your livelihood depended entirely on someone else.

This book makes it clearer than any history textbook ever could just how deeply and inextricably miners' families were trapped in their hand-to-mouth existence. They were entirely at the mercy of mining company. What work there was to be had was at the whims of the company. What goods were to be had were available only at the company store. Nobody had the means to go elsewhere if they didn't like the prices or the products. Many of the people never traveled outside of their own town. Most of the children quit school after just a few years, because their help was needed in the mines or at home. And when it came to elections, "free" and "choice" weren't words in the company's vocabulary. They expected the miners and their families to vote for who and what was good for the company, not for themselves.

This is life as Willa Lowell knows it. She desperately wants to go to school and learn more, but she is needed at home. Her mother is pregnant again, and the pregnancy is not going well. Willa is deeply afraid that her mother's life is in danger. She struggles to do as many of the chores as possible so that her mother can rest. Since there is no running water in the town, that includes several daily trips to the water pump in town to haul back pails of water. The feeling of quiet desperation hangs over her home and the town. But a gleam of light comes when Miss Grace comes to town, bringing with her a whiff of the outside world, a sense of possibilities, and books. Miss Grace and new books to read open up Willa's world in ways that she could never have imagined.

As the months pass, her mother gives birth, her father and brother leave town in search of work, and Willa cuts her hair and dresses as a boy in order to get a job picking fruits and vegetables on nearby farms. She also falls in love. Through it all, Miss Grace remains a powerful influence on Willa, encouraging her to read books and to write down her thoughts. It is through Miss Grace that Willa and her family are made a life-changing offer. It will get them out of the mining town and give them a home of their own. But it means leaving her best friend and the boy who wants to marry her behind, and Willa is deeply unhappy about that, not just because she will miss them, but also because the opportunity is only available to white, Anglo-Saxon Protestants. Not only does this exclude her best friend and boyfriend, Willa believes it is anti-American, even if it is a government-sponsored program. Miss Grace and her family convince her to go, but Willa can't help expressing how she feels about the injustice that comes with this wonderful opportunity. She never expects that what she writes will open yet another whole new world for her. Her life may have started out without hope or prospects, but it will not end that way.

The writing is lyrical and moving. Moments of beauty and tenderness alternate with moments of despair and heartrending poignancy. I recommend this to teens who want to read historical fiction set in the United States. And while it isn't a classic romance story, it has enough romance in it to satisfy those fans, too, I think.

You can read more about the author and this book on her web site.

Monday, August 06, 2007

Don't Judge a Girl by Her Cover

Does My Head Look Big in This? by Randa Abdel-Fattah
3Q 3P M/J/S

Amal describes herself and her situation like this:
I'm an Australian-Muslim-Palestinian. That means I was born an Aussie and whacked with some seriously confusing identity hyphens. I'm in eleventh grade and in four days' time I'll be entering the first day of my third term at McCleans. My Jennifer Aniston experience couldn't have come at a worse time. I mean, it's hard enough being an Arab Muslim at a new school with your hair tumbling down your shoulders. Shawling up is just plain psychotic.

"Shawling up"? "Jennifer Aniston experience"? Hunh? What does that mean? Okay, let's backtrack just a minute. Over winter break, Amal watched a Friends rerun in which Rachel (played by Jennifer Aniston) is a bridesmaid in her ex's wedding. Her dress is hideous, and at first, she's embarrassed and lets the teasing get to her. But midway through the event, she decides the heck with that and jumps up to sing "Copacabana" in front of all the guests. Seeing Rachel/Jennifer refuse to be intimidated by what anyone else thinks is a turning point for Amal. It's what makes her decide to become a "full-timer" -- to wear the hijab (headscarf) all the time, not just at the mosque or as part of a school uniform.

Wearing the hijab is not an easy decision. Amal knows it's going to make her a target for scathing comments, prejudiced remarks, and curious glances. And she's scared about all of that. But at the same time, wearing the hijab just feels right. It's taking a stand for her beliefs. It will make her feel closer to God. She's proud of who she is, and her religion is very important to her. And too many people think that Muslim women are downtrodden and repressed. She wants them to know that Islam honors women and encourages them to live full and complete lives. Wearing the hijab is one way that she can honor her belief and send a signal to those who don't understand. But that doesn't mean it isn't a scary thing to do. Anything that marks someone as Arab or Muslim, whether it be the hijab, a name, or physical characteristics, makes him or her a target. Is she ready to deal with that?

Wearing a hijab isn't just about wearing a headscarf. Wearing the hijab sends another kind of signal, too. It means that the wearer is modest in all things, from dress to romance. And that means that not only will a devout Muslim girl not have sex before marriage, she also won't have a physical relationship of any kind. That means no hugging and definitely not kissing. That doesn't mean that a girl can't fantasize, though, and Amal is really good at fantasizing over Adam. Mmmmmmm...Adam! Yeah, he's got a bit of acne and a tendency towards a unibrow, but those muscles! That hair! Not only that, but he's a popular jock who is also an excellent student. Of all the kids in school, she's most worried about what Adam will think about her wearing the hijab. Unfortunately, even though they were chem lab partners last term, Amal knows she isn't really on Adam's radar. So it surprises and delights her no end when, instead of dividing them, wearing the hijab actually attracts Adam's attention. They soon become good friends, and Adam joins her group of friends. Amal savors his IMs and phone calls at night and their deep conversations during the day. But does Adam really understand what wearing the hijab means? What if he doesn't understand the line between friend and girlfriend?

There's a lot to like about this book. For one thing, I enjoyed the peek inside a culture that isn't my own (it's a far cry from my own, in fact). Amal often has to deal with people who think of her as a foreigner, even though she's lived her entire life in Australia. Abdel-Fattah does a nice job showing that Amal and her family and friends are no different from anyone else, while at the same time showing us what is unique about their culture. Another plus is that the book manages to be quite funny while still dealing with some serious and significant topics. Amal has a great sense of humor and a wry eye towards her family and friends, which makes for several laugh-out-loud moments. It's also refreshing to read a book where the relationships between the main character and her parents and friends are honest, caring, and supportive. You won't see any backstabbing here. And for parents and teens who prefer books with minimal swearing, sex, and drinking, this one is right up your alley.

Abdel-Fattah takes great pains to be inclusive and to show a well-rounded view of a typical Australian-Arab teen. Amal has two very good friends who are also Muslim, and all three girls are very different. Yasmeen is the worldly girl, very into shopping and fashion. Leila is determined to be a lawyer, but her mother comes from a culture which expects the girls to sublimate themselves to the men in their lives (the girl's brother comes off looking like a real jerk), and there's no reason for a girl to be educated, let alone go to college, as far as she's concerned. A girl only needs to know how to maintain a home and keep her husband happy. She's desperate to marry Leila off now, before she gets too old (say, 18). Amal/Abdel-Fattah makes it clear that this is a cultural thing, not a religious thing. The way Leila's mother is bringing up her daughter reflects the culture of her village, not Islam. This is obviously something the author wants us to understand, but I wish she had been more subtle about it.

Amal also has several good friends who are not Islamic. There's Josh, who is Jewish and understands what it feels like to be an outsider. So does Amal's friend Eileen, who is of Japanese descent. A significant subplot in the book involves their friend Simone's body image issues. Eileen is round and voluptuous instead of model-thin, and it's a serious problem for her and for her mother. Despite all evidence to the contrary, she can't believe that a boy would actually find her attractive, when she is (as far as she and her mother are concerned) so fat. Abdel-Fattah and her characters come down squarely in the "be comfortable with yourself the way you are" corner, and reading those scenes feel like a big warm hug. Amal and all her friends are people you would like to hang out with.

I do have some reservations, though. At times, Amal had an anxiety attack about wearing her hijab in situations where it felt odd to me. In the middle of a tense debate, would people really be concentrating on what she's wearing, not what she says? Would it really be her main reason to be nervous about beginning her section of the debate? I didn't think so. (On the other hand, the scene in the mall when she applies for a job made it very clear that Amal has reason to be wary about people's reactions.) There's a subplot with a Greek neighbor that not only plays out predictably, but somewhat unrealistically. My biggest problem, though, was that I found that what started out as one of the book's strengths became a weakness. I frequently found myself reading a scene and thinking first that the conversation was very interesting/fun/whatever, then that it was informative, and finally that it felt as though it was in the book so that Abdel-Fattah could make something clear to her readers (culture vs. Islam, romance in Islamic culture, female empowerment issues in the Muslim community, etc.). I would have rated this book a 4Q 3P if this had happened less often.

Overall, I definitely recommend this book. I don't know if it's a book that everyone will love, but I think it's a book that may do very well by word of mouth.


Here are a few lines that made me smile:

"Who cares what normal is, Simone? Let's protest. From now on we're the anti-normal, anti-average, anti-standard. You can eat what you want to, I'll wear what I want, and we'll die with a bag of chips in our hand and a tablecloth on our head."

I can't bear to sit through another night manicuring my nails with Justin Timberlake, so I say yes.

The way I see it, I'd rather follow God's fashion dicates than some ugly fake-tanned old fart in Milan who's getting by on a pretty self-serving theory of less is more when it comes to female dress.

About reading Cosmo:
According to Cosmo, Adam and I are perfectly matched, although June's edition gave us a low score on physical compatibility so I threw out that issue. All my Cosmo are stacked under my bed because my mom hates me reading such "filthy magazines with nothing but sex and skinny girls." She think that if I read them I'm going to spend my Saturday nights bouncing away in cars and throwing up my lunch.

(This is Simone speaking:)
"You think that's my dream? To get checked out my guys? Guys would check out a streetlamp if it had boobs."