Friday, October 31, 2008

Don't Read This One in the Dark of Night

Bliss by Lauren Myracle
4Q 4P; Audience: J/S

I'm actually not quite finished with this book, but it's Halloween, and that makes it the right day to post about it. A big part of the reason I haven't finished it yet is because I read a lot at night, especially once I'm in bed for the night. Well, I've gotten to the point in this book where I'm frankly afraid to read it within an hour or two of trying to fall asleep. The tension has been building and building, and I'm expecting a Carrie moment any time now. I'm a little twitchy and I'm discovering it's pretty hard to read when you're trying to avert your eyes from the page because you're dreading what you're about to see. In other words, Lauren Myracle has done a terrific job setting her scene.

Bliss IntheMorningDew has recently arrived in Atlanta to live with her grandmother. It's a far cry from the hippie commune she grew up in in California. Going to school is a new thing for her, let alone a preppy private school. But she actually finds it surprisingly easy to fit in. She even makes friends quickly, leading her to wonder which two of these girls might be the ones that her psychic friend from the commune told her she foresaw in her future. Even though Flying V warned her that the vibes aren't entirely positive, Bliss isn't at all thrown. Bliss herself has had occasional contacts with the other side, and they don't frighten her. No, Bliss is determined to make the most of her new situation, and making friends will be a welcome part of that. Flying V saw her caught between two girls, but doesn't that just mean she'll have at least two friends? Isn't that a good thing?

Bliss's commune upbringing has produced a strange blend of innocence and knowingness in her. She's not unfamiliar with sex, Grateful Dead concerts, and 'shrooms, but she has been sheltered in other ways. She expects life to be as uncomplicated as it is in Mayberry with Andy Taylor and Opie. It's not. Moving from the commune to Atlanta is eye-opening. She's grown up side by side with people of different races and it's never been important before. But Atlanta has the Klan and the school has one token black student ("so they can't force integration on us"). Everyone likes Lawrence - as long as he doesn't try to get too familiar. It makes no sense to her. Why is it such a big deal that he's black? But it clearly is a big deal, as becomes apparent when she catches Lawrence and Sarah Lynn, the most popular girl in the freshman class, in a clinch. Bliss also doesn't know anything about cliques and social groups, so she sees no problem in befriending Sandy, the school outcast. While her other friends don't exactly give her a hard time about that, it's clear they disapprove. She's okay with that. People with her background don't worry much about what others think. But Bliss has no clue how much danger she's inviting into her life when she ignores her new society's conventions.

Bliss's new school has a history. Rumor has it that a girl who lived there when the school was a convent jumped from a third-floor window of one of the campus buildings. "Some say you can still see the blood stains on the pavement" a student mentions casually. Bliss's sympathy for the poor girl turns to something else entirely when she realizes that she hears a voice...the girl's voice? her head whenever she passes by that building. And she does not like what she hears. The voice is insistent, demanding, and clearly evil.

Interspersed throughout are handwritten pages from S.L.L.'s journal. Just a little odd at first, the journal entries soon take a decidedly sinister tone. As we read on, it becomes clear who S.L.L. is and how her journal entries fit into Bliss's story. And that's when the creep factor started ratcheting up for me. Reading on and waiting for Bliss to catch on too has been like watching a mouse sniff its way to cheese and start to nibble. You know it has no idea that the cheese is attached to a trap that's about to snap its neck in two, and you want to look away before it gets caught. That the Tate-LaBianca murders committed by the Manson Family is a thread woven throughout the book does nothing to lessen this sense of dread. I don't have to finish the book to know that when the trap snaps, Bliss is going to be well and truly caught in it, and what happens next is not going to be pretty.

I have read that there is a link between this book and Myracle's Rhymes with Witches. If I'm not too unnerved when I finish this book, I'm going to have to check that one out. But I don't think I'm going to want to read that one late at night in the dark either!

Thursday, October 30, 2008

A Fair-y Trade Agreement

How to Ditch Your Fairy by Justine Larbalestier
3Q 4P; Audience: M/J/S

Wouldn't it be great to have your own personal fairy? Just imagine, you could have a clothes-shopping fairy that always finds you the most fabulous outfits at bargain prices. Or you could have a loose change fairy and never have to beg parents or friends for a couple of dollars when you want a bottle of soda or a slice of pizza. Or you could have an every-boy-will-like-you-fairy, like Stupid-Name (aka Fiorenze). Now that would be a fairy worth having. Then Charlie wouldn't have to wonder if gorgeous new boy Steffi likes her or not. But no. ::sigh:: Charlie doesn't have a cool fairy like those. She has ::huge sigh:: a parking fairy. What good is a parking fairy when you're fourteen years old and can't drive? No good, that's how good. Sure, other people think your fairy is great. What does that get you? It gets you dragged to your parents' meetings and concerts so they can snag a great parking spot. Whee. Charlie is sick of her fairy, and she going to get rid of it if it's the last thing she does.

How do you get rid of a fairy? Well, one theory is that you sort of starve them to death - you simply refuse to do whatever it is that they do for you. So Charlie figures that if she never gets into a car, her fairy will never be able to do her parking thing. She'll get so bored that sooner or later, she'll give up and just go away. That's why Charlie is walking everywhere she goes. And that's why Charlie is always late these days. And that's why she is in such trouble. Charlie attends New Avalon Sports High, a school for teens seriously into sports. Sports are all about rules. Therefore, so is New Avalon High. One of those rules is you are never, ever to be late for class. Being late gets you demerits, demerits get you barred from playing on your team, and too many missed games gets you kicked out of school. Charlie needs to get rid of this parking fairy soon. And everything is going according to plan. Until...

Musings and whatnot

This is, simply put, a quick, light-hearted read. As Charlie might say, it's doss. You can't help but like Charlie and the rest of the characters. I think I might have had a crush on Steffi myself if I'd met him at fifteen. And I liked the fact that Stupid Name was something more than she appeared to be, and that Charlie could admit that. Heck, even the bad guy was fun to read about. I enjoyed the book a bit more knowing that Larbalestier was also poking a bit of fun at things she's discovered living a bi-continental life (she has homes in Australia and NYC). I also wonder if people ever eavesdrop on Larbalestier-Westerfeld conversations and think they're listening to a foreign language or something, since both husband and wife clearly delight in inventing new slang for their books! Anyhow, I'm going to enjoy recommending this book to teens who want to kick back with a book that'll make them smile.

It's kind of fun to think of what kind of fairy I'd like, if I lived in New Avalon and could have a fairy. Our Zora Ann used to have a never-get-lost fairy, and I sure could use one of those. But now that I have a GPS, I'm sort of covered there. So a fairy that could keep me organized or (bliss!) a fairy that would make my meals for me would be just fine by me. Check out Justine Larbalestier's blog for some fun reading about fairies others would choose.

(Bonus read: Extra chapters!)

Friday, October 24, 2008

Pieces of the Puzzle

4Q 3P; Audience: M/J

Frannie is devastated when her father dies. His house was a warm, comforting place, a place where she knew she'd always be understood. Her father saw the world through an artist's eyes, and he taught Frannie to see the art in everything. Her relationship with her mother isn't like that. Even her best friend doesn't get her the way her father did. That huge hole he's left behind - will she ever be able to fill it? It doesn't seem likely.

Her father left his house and its contents to her. It takes weeks before she's ready to face going back there, let alone choose which of his belongs to keep (as many as possible) and which to give away (not that, not that, definitely not that). It is in his studio ("It looks like he's just taken a break") that she makes her most significant find: a carved wooden box with Frances Anne carved on the top. Below her name is 1000. Inside the box are pieces of a handmade jigsaw puzzle. It must have been meant as a birthday gift for her. It is all the more precious because her father never planned ahead, and her birthday is weeks away. He'd been thinking about her.

Her father's death has sent Frannie into a significant depression. She pushes everyone away, including her best friend (who wants to listen to her talk about her new boyfriend when all Frannie can think about is how much she misses her father). All she wants to do is lie on the floor in her room and grieve. But the jigsaw puzzle calls to her. She takes it out and slowly begins to put it together.
Piece by piece, edge by edge, the picture slowly takes shape. It's a village. What village? Where is it? Frannie thinks she knows the answers, but she is in for more than one shock. The more she concentrates on the puzzle, the more real it seems to her. There are times she could swear she was actually inside the puzzle. Could that be? How could that possibly be?

Much to her dismay, Frannie doesn't get to spend all of her time locked in her room with her puzzle and her grief. Her mother has arranged a summer job for her. Something to keep her occupied. Something to keep her mind off death and dying. Something right up her alley: teaching arts and crafts at a summer camp. There is far more humor in this book than one might expect to find in a book about dealing with grief, and much of it comes from Frannie's experiences as a camp counselor. There are quirky campers, a dreamy co-counselor, and Frannie's unique take on how to make art with the under-ten crowd. Poison is a riveting subject, for instance. Wouldn't a collage of all the poisonous things in your home that look innocuous be eye-catching? Dishwashing detergent ("If a Poison Control Center"). Batteries ("May explode"). Toothpaste ("May be harmful if swallowed"). Mouthwash (ditto). Not surprisingly, Frannie's avant-garde art style raises a few eyebrows (parents) and gives rise to more than a few grins (the reader).

The dash of is-this-really-happening-or-is-she-a-little-crazy certainly will keep readers intrigued. Several well-placed pictures help underscore how important and omnipresent art is in Frannie's life and in her relationship with her father. And there's more depth here than may at first meet the eye. Using assembling a jigsaw puzzle as a metaphor for putting a life back together again after it falls apart works surprisingly well. Readers who enjoy fast-paced books may want to give this one a pass, but for those who like books that fold you in their arms and carry you gently away, it's a winner.

Quotes to give you a flavor of the book:

Do you know what it says on a tube of toothpaste? In small print? You have to read the small print because they never tell you anything scary in large print. Large print is what they want you to see. Here's what the large print says: FOR BEST RESULTS, SQUEEZE TUBE FROM THE BOTTOM AND FLATTEN AS YOU GO UP. But the important stuff is small. Tiny. If more than used for brushing is accidentally swallowed, get medical help or contact a Poison Control Center right away. You can die from toothpaste.

I've been going to Cobweb since kindergarten. Every week the school holds a meeting, its word for assembly, about world awareness. At the last one a doctor spoke about all the orphans in Africa who had lost their parents to AIDS. The purpose of these meetings is to raise more sensitive human beings, but all that sensitivity didn't stop Sukie Jameson from bragging about her breasts or kids from staring at me when I returned to school. I stared right back...Perhaps they expected a mark on my forehead, like an outline of a man with line through him, kind of like a traffic warning sign.

All the counselors look to be my age. Well, I look old for my age in my opinion, because of my awesome maturity and possible air of tragedy...One counselor, a guy with a buzz cut, is doing push-ups...I guess you need to be in good shape to handle a bunch of kids under the age of ten. "Hey, I'm Simon, who are you?" He jogs a circle around me..."I'm Frannie." I give him a Mona Lisa smile...Jenna [her best friend] and I practiced Mona Lisa smiles in front of the mirror. When someone bugged us at school, we would say, Give him (or her) the MLS*. With the MLS, it's not clear if you're smiling, being secretive, or, in the case of me with Simon right now, acting superior. "Frannie," he repeats. "Frannie-bo-banny." Forget the MLS. A total snub is in order. (pp. 121-123)

(* I confess that I found Frannie's use of initials instead of whole words frustrating at times. I couldn't ever remember what ENP was supposed to stand for, but it was used repeatedly to describe another counselor. Turns out, I discovered just now, that it's an "Extremely neat person". Okay.)

I won't quote more, but I hope it's clear from these few that Frannie's voice is droll and a little wry, and quite worth spending time with.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Run, Don't Walk, to Get Your Hands on These!

I read three books over the past week that are the kind you finish with a groan because you don't want them to end. On top of that, they each end with, if not a cliffhanger, at least a heart-in-your-throat, what-happens-next question. Even worse, they're all the first book in the series, which means waiting months (I'm avoiding the y- word!) to find out. I'm absolutely positive it will be worth the wait, but it's going to be hard.

All of these rate 5Q 5P, Audience: J/S

Graceling by Kristin Cashore

In the Seven Kingdoms, there are those who are Graced, and they are marked by their eyes, which do not match. Graces vary. Perhaps the grace is knowing what someone will say, or perhaps it is the ability to tie knots. Some Graces are valuable, some are not. Some save lives. Some take lives.

Katsa discovered what her Grace was at the age of eight, when a relative made an improper advance and her instinctive response resulted in his death. Since then, her uncle, the king, has used her to teach a lesson to those who displease him. Those who are Graced have always made the non-Graced uncomfortable, but when one is Graced with the ability to kill, the discomfort turns to fear. Katsa's only friends are her cousin, her maid, and her trainer Giddon. Amost everyone else avoids even looking at her.

Katsa loathes her role as killer/enforcer to the King. She desperately wants to find a way to help people instead of hurt them. And so she creates the Council, a secret group of people determined to help those who have in some way been wronged. When the father of the king of Leinid is kidnapped, the Council tracks him down and Katsa rescues him. But who is behind the kidnapping, and why did s/he do it? Those questions are not so easily answered.

One person nearly foils Katsa's rescue, and that person comes looking for her. Is Prince Po, son of the Leinid king, a friend or a foe? Unsure of the answer, Katsa still joins with him on a quest to discover the truth behind the kidnapping. In all her years of training, only Po, Graced with combat skills, has ever come close to challenging her. His challenges don't come only on the training field. He challenges what she knows of herself and what she believes of herself. Is she really the cold killing machine she imagines herself to be? There are many discoveries ahead for Katsa, not least that she isn't as friendless and coldhearted as she imagined herself to be.

Skin Hunger by Kathleen Duey

Told in two voices, this book is a book that will leave you gasping for air. The tension is that relentless. Sadima's story, told in third person, details a world in which magic has been forbidden and forgotten. Even so, those who can't afford real healers rely on fakes in times of need. Sadima's mother died giving birth to her with the aid of a "magician" who then stole the family's valuables and left newborn Sadima on the floor in her dead mother's arms. Understandably, Sadima's father and brother hate "magicians" and even the idea of magic. Sadima knows they will never believe her if she tells them the truth she's known since birth: she can communicate with animals. This bit of magic brings her to the attention of Somiss, a young nobleman who is determined to bring magic back to their world, and Franklin, his servant/friend. As soon as she is able, Sadima joins the young men. She dreams of being able to share her abilities freely, but she soon realizes that, as sympathetic and kind as Franklin is, he will always bow to his master, Somiss. And Somiss is not kind, and he is not sympathetic. His dedication to reviving magic is all-consuming and dangerous.

Hahp's first person description of a world in which magic now exists is chilling and unrelentingly grim. Though Franklin and Somiss dreamed of a time when magic would be used to help people, it is only the wealthy who seem to have access to it. Wizards have a fearsome reputation. Families who bring their sons to the wizard academy are told they will never see them again. Once the families leave, the boys learn why: in each class, only one student (if that) will become a wizard. The others will die. They are forbidden to help each other. Hahp learns to use the magic to get food, but will it be enough to keep him alive? His struggle isn't only physical. Can he bear watching the other boys slowly starve to death, knowing he could help them if only he dared?
The link between Sadima and Hahp slowly becomes clear, but both their stories are unresolved at the end. It was achingly hard to close the book and leave these two characters in their desperate straits behind.

The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

Collins is well known for her Gregor the Overlander series for elementary and middle school students. The theme and level of violence in this book marks it for older readers (middle school and up).

Decades ago, the Districts rebelled against the Capitol. They've paid the price ever since, in the form of the Hunger Games. Every year, a boy and a girl between the ages of 12-18 from each of the twelve districts are brought to the Capitol to compete in the Hunger Games. This is Survivor for real. The players must outwit, outplay, and outlast the other twenty-three players, because this is a duel to the death. The entire country watches every move the players make. The Game creators manipulate every facet of the game to make it more exciting for the viewers. The uglier the kills, the better. The Game is brutal, and players do what they must in order to make sure they're the one to survive. Katniss and Peeta are District 12's contestants.

Katniss has years of experience hunting to feed her family. She's confident she can survive, at least for a while. Peeta is the baker's son. He's got the survival skills of a newborn kitten. Katniss doesn't know Peeta well, but she owes him: he once saved her family from starvation. And Peeta...well, Peeta had his reasons for giving Katniss the bread that day, even though it earned him a beating. He is willing to endure much more for Katniss. How can they kill each other? And yet, they must. First, though, the other twenty-two players have to die. What then?

Friday, October 03, 2008

Book of the Living Dead

Generation Dead by Daniel Waters
3Q 4P; Audience: J/S

It's not usually much of an issue if a new kid wants to join the school football team. He just tries out with all the other aspirants, and if makes the team, great. If he doesn't, no harm done. But at Oakvale High, it's not so cut-and-dried. It's complicated when the kid who tries out for the team is differently biotic. Living impaired. Dead.

There's a new phenomenon sweeping the country. Teens are dying and then reanimating. Nobody knows how and nobody knows why. This is not a horror movie come to life. The dead kids aren't flesh-eating zombies. They do most of the same things they did when they were alive. They think, communicate, and reason. They even go to school. Most of them just do it all much more slowly than the living do. A few, like Karen and Tommy, are much more animated and process things more quickly and clearly. When Tommy tries out for the football team, it's not just because he wants to play ball. He wants dead kids to be accepted into society, and he figures that taking part in things like the football team will help bring that to pass. But he knows it will be a long process, not something that happens overnight (think the Civil Rights Movement). He's right. The reactions to Tommy's decision are mostly negative. The coach wants him off the team at any cost, and Pete and his crew are only too happy to oblige. They hit Tommy hard, often, and as dirtily as they can in an effort to permanently disable him. Tommy doesn't crumble. If a living kid could take hits the way Tommy does, he'd be the star of the team. But Tommy's dead, and nothing makes him acceptable to people like the coach and Pete. Fortunately, not everyone feels the way they do. Adam, who used to be in Pete's crew, admires Tommy. It takes guts to do what he's doing. And Phoebe...Phoebe doesn't quite know why, but she's finding herself strangely attracted to him. It's not that she's into dead guys. He's just...interesting. And brave. She enjoys spending time with him. The feeling is mutual.

The dynamics between Tommy, Phoebe, Adam, and Pete drive the book. Old friendships are changing, breaking up, getting deeper, getting complicated. Past relationships color present ones and create dangerous tensions as new relationships are formed and observed. There are some people who just can't abide the thought of the dead freely mixing with the living. And they aren't going to stand idly by and let it happen. And that is not good news for Tommy and Phoebe and Adam.


I enjoyed this book, but not as much as I expected to. Waters teases his readers with things he doesn't deliver. I don't know if that's on purpose (leaving room for a sequel, maybe?) or if he and his editor just lost track of things. But are the white van sightings significant or not? Is everything on the up-and-up at the Hunter Foundation, the group that claims they want to help integrate the dead into society? There's more than one hint that the answer is no, but there's no follow-through. I also felt the lack of any explanation as to who comes back from the dead and why. ONLY teens in the United States come back? That seems far too contrived to me. I also frankly needed to see something of Pete's relationship with Julie in order to believe it really existed in anything other than his own head. He was the one character who felt over the top. As a result, I found Pete just a psycho teen, and that made the book less effective for me.

On the other hand, Phoebe, Adam, and Tommy in particular all felt like real, three-dimensional people. Waters made me care about them as well as admire them. I also appreciated that he didn't go for the goth=angst-ridden/angry/depressed stereotype. The dynamic between the three worked for me as well. I felt for Adam! It's got to be pretty tough on a guy to know that your crush prefers a dead (sorry, "differently biotic") guy to you. I wonder, though, why Waters made such a point to tell us that Adam was a bit of a jerk before he took karate lessons but never showed us anything that proved it. I wish we'd met his karate instructor at some point, too. He's obviously been an important figure in Adam's life lately. I kept expecting Adam to want to talk to him about some of the things he's trying to deal with, but it never happened.

I'm not completely con/vinced that Waters knew what kind of a book he wanted to write, but it was still an enjoyable read. And although the metaphor for the Civil Rights/Gay Rights movement isn't exactly subtle, the book offers food for thought as well.