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."

Saturday, August 04, 2007

Wizards and Warriors, Part II

In my review of The Warrior Heir, I said that a sequel was due out soon and that I was looking forward to reading it. Well, the sequel is out now, and it's just as good a read as the first.

Very briefly:

Seph knows he's a wizard, but he doesn't know much else. He knows the story he's been told about his parents is false, but he doesn't know why he's been fed a pack of lies or what, if anything, is the truth about them. More important for the story, however, is that he knows that he has power, but he doesn't know how to control it. He's been kicked out of multiple schools because his uncontrollable bursts of power have created some very uncomfortable and unfortunate situations. But the worst situation of all is what happens one night when he goes to a nightclub to party with some friends and meets Alicia (who we met in the first book). When she spikes his drink, Seph loses any semblance of control. Several people die as a result, and Seph's guardians (a law firm) have to get him out of town fast. He is sent to the Havens, a small school in a remote part of Maine. Unknown to him (but is it unknown to the people who sent him there?), the school is run by a wizard who has set the school up specifically to collect as many wizard around him as possible. His goal isn't to train them, it's to link to and control them. When Seph resists, he is mentally and physically tortured. After months of this, he is finally able to get a call for help out. A significant character from the The Warrior Heir arrives to rescue him, but he's merely jumping from the frying pan into the fire. Many wizards are angry about the changes made at Raven's Ghyll, and they aren't going to accept them without a fight. Little does Seph know how central a role he's playing in that fight.

Jack, Ellen, Linda, Hastings, Niko, and several others from the first book appear in this one as well (though it takes a while). But we also meet several other new characters, notably Seph, Maddie (who has a fascinating power we haven't seen before), Jason, and Gregory Leicester (Jessamine Longbranch and Geoffrey Wylie don't hold a candle to this guy).

Cinda Chima's web site has a bio, a list of books she's read over the past few years (fun to browse), and pages on the two books in this series that include lists of characters, information about places in the books, and a FAQ. Dragon's Heir, the third book in the series, is scheduled to be published in the spring of 2008.

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Doing a little updating

For my handful of subscribers out there, if your RSS feed is alerting you to multiple new posts and you look at the posts' dates and wonder why a post from a couple (or more) months ago is being sent as new, it's because I'm doing a little blog post tweaking. (Or is it post-blogging tweaking?)

Basically, over the next few days, I'll be editing some old posts to add links to authors' web sites, blogs, or interviews. (Graham Joyce, I'd link to your web site, but it's not exactly geared to your teen audience.) I'd also like to show the book covers on this blog, but I'm reluctant to single out any one online book seller, and we don't have a local independent in this area. (I hate to say it, but publishers' web sites often don't do their authors justice, so I'm not linking to them unless they're worth your time.)