Friday, June 22, 2007

Yes, They Really Are Out to Get You

True Talents by David Lubar
4Q 4P, M J

The gorilla who clung to the ceiling was wearing a Princeton t-shirt.

I don't know about you, but that's the kind of first line that hooks me right into a book! As it turns out, there is no gorilla on the ceiling. And the walls aren't rippling, either. But when you've been drugged and you're just coming out of it, you see some mighty strange things.

The man who wakes Eddie (aka Trash) up wants to play a game with him. But this is no ordinary game. It has something to do with marbles, making those marbles float in the air or roll across a table. This man knows what Eddie has been trying to hide: his hidden talent, his ability to move things with his mind. How could he possibly know that? What is Eddie doing in this horrible place?

You may have met Trash before, in Lubar's Hidden Talents. Eddie was one of the delinquents sent to Edgewood School to straighten them up (or take them off their parent's hands). As far as most of the world is concerned, the kids at Edgewood are beyond hope. But Eddie's group weren't delinquents. They were misunderstood, even by themselves. Until Martin arrived, none of them knew they had hidden talents. Eddie can move things with his mind. Cheater can read minds. Flinch sees things a split second before they happen. When Torchie gets excited, things around him go up in flames. Lucky has a knack for finding things. And Martin somehow knows the thing a person is most proud of and what they are most ashamed of. They already know how much trouble these talents can get them into. How much trouble can they get them out of?

The boys have all left Edgewood now, but they've all tried to keep in touch. But they really miss Eddie. It's hard to accept that he died in that accident last year.

Wait a minute. Eddie is dead? Didn't we just see him drugged and locked up in that lab? We sure did. There's a good reason that the boys decided to keep their talents a secret. They were afraid that if anyone ever found out what they can do, they'd be studied, probed, and tested, and they'd have nothing to say about it. They were right. Months ago, Eddie made a possibly-fatal mistake. All he'd wanted was a little money to buy some art supplies. If he used his talent to help him get it, and he was really careful about it, nobody would ever find out. Right? Wrong. Two weeks later, he was attacked by two goons with a gun. If they hadn't already known what he could do, his efforts to get away would have blown his cover. He'd killed one of the men, using just the power of his mind. No matter how badly he's drugged, Eddie will never be able to forget the image of the blood pouring out of the man's mouth as he gasped for his last breath. Now he's paying for that in spades, locked up, drugged, and playing these games for the man he comes to know as Major Bowdler.

Major Bowdler is a piece of work. He's the kind of guy who likes to teach people lessons. Does a little kid run into his house, leaving his toy soldiers behind? Careless boy. If he's going to leave his toys out, should he get to keep them? Of course not. Does one of his men fail to do his job properly? Get rid of him. Permanently. As Eddie discovers, Major Bowdler is very, very interested in people like the boys, people who have special talents. As he sees it, these people should be happy to use their talents in service to their country (and make Bowdler very rich in the process). Whether or not the boys want to use their talents in this way is immaterial. What Bowdler wants, Bowdler gets.

Except...Eddie isn't about to roll over and play dead for Bowdler. When he gets the chance to escape, he grabs it. But what then? Where can he go? He has no money, and no way to contact anyone. And then, of course, there's the little matter of discovering that everyone thinks that he's dead. Who can he trust? There's only one answer for that. It's time to get the boys all together. And when these boys come together, they are a force that even a guy like Major Bowdler may not want to reckon with. Their hidden talents give them a boost in the first place, but when they are coupled with their true talents, watch out!

This is not my favorite of Lubar's books, but I think his fans will be glad he wrote it. I'm afraid this is a long, rambling review for a book that's just the opposite. The book reads very quickly most of the time, with more focus on action and suspense than in the first book. I found it a little confusing to follow the specifics of what Bowdler was up to, but I decided not to worry about it and just go with the flow. One of the things I enjoyed about the book was its mix of tension, action, and humor. Lubar has a great sense of humor, and that's what I always look forward to in his writing. In this book, I kept wanting to share the parts about Torchie serenading his neighbors with his accordion and his delight when they take up a collection to send him to music camp. (Anything to get him out of earshot!) And when a smart, cute older girl enters the mix and a little manly romantic rivalry results, well, that's fun too. This book will please younger teens who like to laugh as well as those who like action.

Monday, June 18, 2007

I'm With Murphy and Stein

What My Girlfriend Doesn't Know by Sonya Sones
5Q 4P, J/S

Just to catch you up on things, in the prequel (What My Mother Doesn't Know) to this book, Sophie finds her true love...several times. The magic dies with Dylan, the first guy. Chaz, her chat room friend, turns out to be the kind of guy you're warned about when people start talking about the hazards of Internet romances. And then there's Murphy. Murphy...the guy who is such a nerd that when someone does something stupid, the kids say, "You're such a Murphy!" Not the kind of a guy most teens want to be seen with, including Sophie. But there's more to Murphy than meets the eye, which Sophie discovers when she goes to the museum to see her favorite painting and finds Murphy there, too. Now this is true love.

What My Girlfriend Doesn't Know takes up where the first leaves off. Winter break is over, which means that Sophie and Murphy have to go back to school. What will Sophie do when she gets to school? Will she sit with her friends and pretend she doesn't know Murphy, or will she put her social life in jeopardy by joining Murphy at his lunch table? Murphy is sure he knows the answer. Any girl in her right mind would never be seen with him. So he is shocked when Sophie does it - she sits down with him! In front of the entire cafeteria! The room gets dead silent. All eyes focus on them. And then they turn away, as though the sight is too disgusting to tolerate. Even Sophie's best friends turn away. They refuse to be seen with her. Sophie and Murphy are determined to stay strong and stay together. But is their love strong enough to survive being ostracized, teased, and harassed?

There's another wrinkle, too, and Sophie doesn't know anything about this one. Well, she knows that Murphy has been invited to participate in an art class at Harvard. But she doesn't know the details. This is a mind-blowing experience for him. Not only is he Robin* here, not Murphy, but nobody thinks he's a Murphy, either. Here, everybody thinks he's just another kid. In fact, they seem to think he's another college-aged kid. And here, girls call him "babe" and invite him to join them for a snack after class. Would that be cool with Sophie? Maybe she'd think it was fine. After all, some of the guys are in the group, too. But would she be fine with the nude models? Would she be fine with the way Murphy thinks about those nude models? Sophie always says that "sometimes (she) just knows things", but maybe this is the kind of thing she'd be better off not knowing.

I love Sonya Sones's writing. With most verse novels, I read them and wonder why the author didn't just write it in prose instead. But when Sonya Sones writes a free verse novel (as all of her books are so far), I never find myself thinking that. It's very difficult to make characters in a free verse novel as three-dimensional as they are in well-written prose novels, but if anyone can do it, Sones can. She also develops the story arc well, so each poem builds on the one before. But the beauty of her writing is that she uses the form so naturally. She uses similes and metaphors (not all verse novels do that very well), and the cadence of the lines fit the character and situation. There's nothing artificial or forced about it, and the stories are deeply involving. This one is no exception.

*Robin is Murphy's first name.

Musings: Some lines I especially liked

    Murphy describes himself:
    Let's face it
    I'm the type of guy
    who doesn't even have any buddies
    on my buddy list

    When We Finally Come Up for Air

    Sophie's eyes/are smiling into mine.

    And it's amazing, really,/because all she has to do is look at me

    and my lump of a nose/straightens out

    the muscles on my arms/start to sprout

    the circles fade/under my eyes,

    my ears shrink down/to a normal person's size...

    If only everyone else/could see

    what Sophie sees/when she looks at me

    From I Crack Open the Front Door

    My parents are great listeners./Which is why I never tell them/anything.

    From Tuesday Morning

    "Why didn't you pick up?" Rachel says.
    "We were way worried about you."
    "And we still are," Grace says.
    "Friends don't let friends commit social suicide."

    And when I hear these words,
    my heart detonates in my chest.

    From I'm Just About to Leap on Their Offer
    (note: Students from Murphy's college art class have invited him to join them in an after-class outing.)

    And a second later, I'm racing down the stairs,
    my feet in a Road-Runnery blur,
    when this real bizarre feeling comes over me --
    like I'm the male equivalent of Cinderella,

    and if I don't make it to Mom's Volvo
    before the clock strikes twelve,
    it's gonna turn back into a pumpkin.

    And *I'm*
    gonna turn back
    into Murphy.

    From Saturday Afternoon

    I've been lying on my bed for hours,
    feeling as demolished as Van Gogh must have felt
    right before he slashed his own ear off

    My Heart Catapults Up Into My Throat

    Then boomerangs
    right back down
    into my feet.

    I never knew a person could feel
    like jumping for joy
    and jumping off a bridge

    at the exact

    There's a section in the book where Murphy feels that he has to break up with Sophie for her own sake. It's killing him to think about it, so he tries to put it off by avoiding her. Sophie lets that go for just so long before she forces a confrontation. I love what happens next: the two of them sit side by side on Murphy's bed, but instead of talking, they write their own little graphic novel, drawing the story out and using a few words here and there when necessary. Sometimes a picture is worth 1000 words, and picturing this scene in my head was worth 2000.A couple of lines from this scene:

    From So I Start Working on the Second Frame

    Even though
    just *thinking* about doing that

    makes him feel like
    he's having open-heart surgery --

    with*out* an anesthetic.

    From When I Finish the Girl's Face

    And I draw the boy,
    standing at the window,
    watching the girl walk away --
    a small figure hunched against an icicled world.

    And finally:

    from I Try to Tell Myself

    And *I'm* happy *for* her.
    I really am.

    It's just that, until now,
    I never realized

    how sad
    being happy

    could make a guy

I don't know about Murphy's girlfriend, but I know I loved this book.

Edited to add a link to Sonya Sones's web site. Not only does she provide a biography (she's worked with some very famous people) and information about her books and writing, she's also generous enough to provide a list of other author's books she thinks you'll enjoy. (She suggests the books for readers twelve and up. I'll add that they cover a range of ages, from books for younger teens to YA books for older teens and adults.)

What's a little lie between friends?

Harmless by Dana Reinhardt
5Q 4P J/S

Have you ever lied to get yourself out of trouble? How'd that work for you?

Emma's a former tomboy who is trying to change her image, Anna's the straight-arrow perfect daughter who's just a little naive and dorky, and Mariah's the rebel who loves to show off her hickeys and brag about her boyfriend. They are best friends. Well, really, Emma and Anna are best friends - until Emma and Mariah have to do a scene from Romeo and Juliet together. Emma has begun to feel that she's outgrowing Anna, and Mariah offers her the tinge of sophistication and danger that Anna utterly lacks. Now it's more Emma and Mariah, and oh, yeah, Anna too. Mariah has made a bit of a name for herself in their private school. She's the coolest girl in the ninth grade, and she's dating DJ, a senior from the local public school. Neither Emma nor Anna are in her social circle until that R&J scene is assigned. But as the weeks go by and they begin to hang out together more and more, the friendship grows,

Events really start heating up when Mariah finally invites them not only to meet her boyfriend, but to party with him and some other kids from the public school. The girls tell their parents that they are having a sleepover and head off to the party. As soon as they get there, Mariah and DJ head upstairs. What they're doing up there is no mystery to either Emma or Anna, but they're soon too busy themselves to think much about it. They help themselves to pizza and beer and start getting to know the other kids. Anna watches as Emma turns into someone else right before her eyes. When did Emma get so good at drinking beer? When did she become so confident, especially with guys? When did she learn to throw her hair back like that, to laugh and flirt? When they start playing Quarters, the drinking game, nobody chooses Anna to drink, but everyone seems to be zeroing in on Emma, who is by now totally wasted. Sitting there, Anna realizes that Emma looks like someone they each someday wanted to be. She just didn't realize that Emma would get there so quickly or leave her so far behind.

And there it is. The party. Did any of them really have a good time? Will any of them admit that the answer is no? Not on your life. In fact, Emma's not saying much at all about anything. She clearly has something on her mind, but she's not telling.

A few days later, they tell their parents they're going to the movies and head to another party. But this time, things turn out just a little bit differently. DJ and Mariah go off upstairs again, but this time they get into a screaming fight. And this time, it's Anna who hooks up with someone and spends the night making out on the porch. That is, until Emma's cell phone rings. Her parents are at the movie theater and they aren't. Where are they? They're busted, that's where. How can they get out of this mess? Simple, says Mariah. They lie.

The lie goes like this: They went down to the river and lost track of time. Soon they realized they were too late to go to the movies, so they kept talking. Suddenly a guy came out of nowhere and grabbed Emma. They all started screaming, but nobody was around to hear them. The guy said he had a knife. He took their cell phones. He started to drag Emma to a few feet away and told her to take off her clothes. She refused. Mariah found a rock and hit the guy over the head with it when his back was turned. Anna kicked him as hard as she could, and then all three ran. They waited to be sure he hadn't followed them. They had no idea how long they waited. They were too scared to pay any attention to time.

What harm could a lie like that do? None, right? Not even when their parents insist that they report the incident to the police. They're careful to make sure that their description is too vague to lead the police to a suspect, so the lie is harmless, really. It just keeps them out of trouble.

Oh, one more thing about that lie. It not only keeps them out of trouble, it makes them famous. Everyone is talking about them. Everyone wants to know them. Mariah thinks it's no big deal. Anna is thrilled. And Emma...Emma gets quieter and quieter.

This book is told from each girl's viewpoint, and Reinhardt is very good at writing three distinct voices. I particularly like that each girl is three-dimensional and painted in shades of gray, not black and white. None of them is only what she seems to be on the surface, and each follows a distinctly different path as she discovers that some lies aren't harmless at all. This book is just as much about the lies we tell ourselves as it is about the lies we tell to the world. But Reinhardt manages to tell the story without beating her readers over the head with "let this be a lesson to you!" This is a very different story from her A Brief Chapter in My Impossible Life, but you'll care about these girls just as much as you did (or will) about Simone, and you'll feel just as much that these are girls who could be sitting across the aisle from you in homeroom.

(This is yet another book that I read weeks ago and am only now getting the chance to blog about, so although there were plenty of things worth quoting, I no longer have them marked and it's far too late (early, really) in the morning for me to hunt for them now. But trust me, they're there.)

Edited to add a link to Random House's author page on Dana Reinhardt.

What's the buzz on this mosquito?

The Hand of the Devil by Dean Vincent Carter
3Q 4P J

Warning: If you are easily grossed out, think twice about reading this book. On the other hand, if your idea of a good time includes reading about decaying corpses and (very) bloodthirsty monsters, step into my parlor, said the mosquito to her next victim.

Ashley Reeves is a young journalist who works for a magazine called Missing Link. It's his job to investigate weird sightings of strange animals (among other strange things), even though they usually turn out to be hoaxes. He's not expecting anything different when he gets a letter in the mail from a man named Reginald Mather, who invites him to come see his specimen of the Ganges Red mosquito, claiming it is the only one of its kind. The letter seems genuine, and Ashley is intrigued. A few hairs on his neck do quiver a bit at a couple of things in the letter (why must he come so quickly? Why is he not to tell anyone?), but the story sounds too promising to pass up. He's on his way in hours.

Mather lives on Aries Island, so when Ashley arrives at the nearest train station to his destination, he must rent a boat to get to the island. The man he rents the boat from is an old crab, and the boat itself looks barely seaworthy. He's not a particularly expert boater, which is all the more a problem when a sudden fierce storm whips up as he crosses the lake to the island. He crashes the boat on a rock. It quickly starts to sink, and Ashley has to swim to shore. Almost as soon as he drags himself up on the beach, his cell phone rings. Once. Then it sputters and crackles and dies. Great. Now he has no boat to get home and no way to communicate with anyone off the island. If you think this is the kind of thing that should make him think "Bad omen! Go back!", you're right. But Ashley isn't thinking along those lines. Yet.

Mather turns out to be an odd sort of man. And is he really living alone on the island, as he says? Because as Ashley comes up to the house, he's sure he hears a female voice saying, "He's here!" But no, Mather swears he lives alone. He is a gracious enough host, offering to let Ashley stay the night and preparing some hot tea for him. But he is also strangely reluctant to let Ashley see the Ganges Red, telling him it isn't a good idea to disturb her after she's recently fed. Instead, he suggests that he read Her Story. The book is rather ghastly, featuring a series of stories about a fabled creature called The Devil's Hand. The illustrations feature a giant mosquito, quite large in size, attacking one or more screaming people, including Roman centurions, Saxon Britons, early Europeans, and various other cultures. Ashley can only hope that this Devil's Hand has nothing to do with the Ganges Red.

No such luck.

Over the next few days, Ashley will discover the following things:
  • The Ganges Red, or "The Lady", as Mather calls it/her, is a giant mosquito. Her wingspan alone is over eight inches.
  • Mather is rather desperate that he not explore the rest of the island or take any pictures
  • Mather seemingly has no intention of letting him off the island
  • Mather is quite, quite mad
  • The Lady is very, very hungry

I'm not kidding here. This book gave me the creeps more than once. Carter doesn't shy away from describing gross and truly horrific events, and sensitive readers should beware. He also does a great job building up the suspense. He's very good at the creepy moment/lull/creepy moment/lull/crescendo method of creating tension. Though at times some of the characterizations and dialog are a little over the top, it can be overlooked. Teens who have an itch to move past R.L. Stine will probably suck ever morsel of bloody horror from this book and savor it to the very last drop.

(Sorry. I couldn't resist.)