Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Leviathan: A Whale of a Story

LEVIATHAN by Scott Westerfeld
4Q 3P; Audience: M/J/S

This is another book I finished quite a while ago but haven’t had the time to write about. (It’s a good thing I don’t write under deadline. Then again, if I did have a deadline, maybe it would help get my thoughts marshaled into order and out of my head in a timelier fashion!)

It’s 1914. Europe is divided between two ideologies, Clanker vs Darwinist. The Clanker countries rely on mechanical technology – iron and steam-powered devices such as the enormous multi-legged machines that carry them into battle. The Darwinists bioengineer animals to create not only beasts of burden but also weapons of war. A face-down is fast approaching.

When Aleksander Ferdinand, prince of Austria-Hungary, is woken in the middle of the night by two of his tutors, he has no idea that he has just become a pawn in the political maneuverings of the Clankers. He has no idea that the assassination of the Archduke has left him an orphan or that his continued existence may be the spark that provokes a world war. All he knows is that he and a small band of loyal men are on the run, and the only thing that may keep them alive until they reach their safe house is the protection of their Cyklop Stormwalker and its cannon and machine guns.

Across the ocean in London, Deryn Sharp is preparing for the midshipman’s entrance exam into the Royal Air Service. She’s confident of passing every test but one: will she be able to convincingly play the part of a boy so that she’s allowed to follow her dream?

When a furious storm during her testing leaves Deryn/Dylan and her Huxley ascender floating miles off course, she is rescued by the Royal Navy’s largest air ship, the Leviathan (a sperm whale enhanced by a hundred other species). But instead of returning her to London to continue her test, the crew, Deryn/Dylan included, has been ordered to fly to the Continent to keep an eye on the Clankers in the wake of the Archduke’s assassination.

Both Alek and Deryn are catapulted into the middle of world-changing events. On opposite sides of the edge of war, what will happen when their paths converge?


I’m just discovering steampunk (see also: Wikipedia's article) and finding that I like the combination of science fiction and alternate history to explore how the addition of technology (either anachronistic or fictional) might have affected the (usually*) Victorian Age. It helps that the mid-late 1800’s is my preferred historical fiction time period. (*Edited to add that I'm aware that this book is set a few years post-Victorian Age.)

What I really liked about Leviathan:
  • The fast pace. It’s pretty much non-stop chases, clashes, and collisions.
  • Devyn’s part of the story is at least as action-packed as Alek’s, so the girl never takes a back seat to the boy.
  • Alek, Devyn, and Count Volger are forceful personalities that really burst off the page. In particular, I love Devyn’s feisty, take-no-guff attitude.
  • Alek’s evolution (it’s formulaic, to be sure, but effective nonetheless)
  • Westerfeld doesn’t get too bogged down describing the new technology, be it Darwinian or Clanker (Though I got confused in a few places, it didn’t really matter.)
  • Striking black and white illustrations which really set the mood and style of the story.
  • C’mon! Who wouldn’t have fun with the idea hitching a ride on a giant jellyfish or gargantuan sperm whale?

  • It's a trilogy, so there's more to come!

What I didn’t like as much:
  • Nothing, really. But I guess I’m a Darwinist at heart, because I was more intrigued by the idea of the bioengineered animals than I was with the machinery of the Clankers. I was a more interested reader when the action began centering around the Leviathan.
  • We have to wait until late 2010 for Book Two (Behemoth).

To hear a chapter from the book, see some of the illustrations, or just read Scott's thoughts about the series, check out Scott Westerfeld's blog. Scott also blogged about how he structures his books to make sure there's a good blend of action, tension, and "nothing".

This book will appeal to both boys and girls who like adventure and action. It’s a natural suggestion for readers who enjoyed Kenneth Oppel’s Airborn series, the Bloody Jack books by L.M. Meyers, or Philip Reeves’s Mortal Engines* and/or Larklight* series. (*These two series are miles apart in tone, but both have elements which pair well with Leviathan.)

Monday, December 21, 2009

After the Headlines, There's More to the Story

AFTER by Amy Efaw
4Q 3P; Audience: J/S (High School)

Devon Davenport did not have sex. She did not get pregnant. She did not give birth. She did not wrap the baby in a towel, then place it in a garbage bag and put it in a dumpster. She couldn’t have. But that’s exactly what the police, the doctors, and her lawyer say she did, and they have the evidence to prove it.

Locked in a juvenile detention center, charged with attempted murder and possibly to be tried as an adult rather than a juvenile, Devon has to explain to her lawyer what happened. But how can she put into words what she has spent the last nine months refusing to admit even to herself?


I admire Gail Giles for her ability to write with great sensitivity about teens who have committed a terrible act. She doesn’t excuse what they do, but she makes us see the whole person and the whole story, reminding us not to look at events in a vacuum. By the end, we may still not be able to forgive, but we may at least be able to understand. With After, Amy Efaw proves herself a worthy companion to Giles in this regard.

I am not generally a fan of books written in the present tense, but it really worked for me in After. It made it impossible to keep Devon’s emotions and reactions at a distance. From the very first scene, Devon lying on the couch so numb and so in shock that she is barely aware of what is happening around her, I got into her head. I felt first her confusion, then her blind panic, fear, and humiliation as she began to comprehend her situation. At times I felt my own gut tightening in response to Devon’s tension, particularly as she began the painful process of not only facing the truth at last but of revealing it to someone else.

Clearly, what was very effective for me doesn’t strike everyone the same way. Though the majority of customer reviews on Amazon are positive, there are some negative comments as well. Several of them disliked the writing. Honestly? I think they missed the point. True, the prose does not always flow smoothly and lyrically. But why should it? The book is about a girl who can’t articulate what made her commit such a heinous crime. Lyrical, flowing language would be inappropriate for the story being told and the character experiencing it. I thought Efaw nailed it.

I wanted to slap Devon’s mother silly. Talk about abandoning your child!

How she views herself and how others view her is of the utmost importance to Devon. Her whole life has been centered around being a responsible, trustworthy, successful person. She can’t allow any cracks in that persona. She isn’t lying because she doesn’t want anyone to know what she did. She’s lying because she doesn’t want to know what she did. The thought that everyone else knows devastates her. One of the scenes that affected me most takes place in the courtroom when Devon discovers that she has not lost the respect of her coach and (especially) of a former employer. I can’t remember now if Devon cried, but I have to admit that I did.

Should we feel sympathy for a girl who did such a terrible thing? Some people will be upset by the very idea. But it’s important to make the distinction between feeling sympathy and excusing her actions. Sympathizing and understanding why she did it doesn’t absolve her of responsibility, and Efaw acknowledges that. I was impressed by the choice made in the end, and it proved to me that Devon really is the kind of person we heard about from people testifying on her behalf. I hate what Devon did, but I can’t hate the person who did it. Amy Efaw, mission accomplished. (And please don’t make us wait another nine years for book number three!)

This is a hard book to read, but well worth it. It's also another excellent choice for a book discussion group.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

So upset!

I just tried to edit one sentence in my post about After by Amy Efaw and the entire post, which I have been working on for a week and was just about ready to upload is GONE. I hit Undo one too many times, I guess, and the post blanked completely out. Then the autosave feature came on and saved the blank page. I have tried using undo and redo, but there's nothing there in either direction. I am one very unhappy librarian. And I can't do any more research now on how I might be able to retrieve it because I have a program starting in ten minutes. If anyone reading this knows whether it's possible to get this post back, please let me know how to do it. (I tried to go into my history, but I had Firefox not to save history, so that doesn't seem to be an option.)

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Where is the Demon King?


I thoroughly enjoyed Cinda Chima's Warrior Heir, Wizard Heir, and Dragon Heir. The plot and the characters were interesting and the pacing kept the story moving at a fast clip. I liked the twists and turns of the Warrior Heir and never being absolutely sure who could be trusted. I remember reading the beginning of Wizard Heir and gasping at the tragedy that occurs within the first couple of chapters. The series had me hooked from the beginning. I was sad to leave those characters behind.

It's not surprising, then, that I've been anticipating Chima's new series for months. When it finally arrived, it came at a time I had no time to read it. Twice my hold came in and I had to give it up and  put myself back at the bottom of the hold list, which was quite frustrating. Last week it came in again, and I decided to bypass another book in favor of reading this one at last. I intended to immerse myself in this new world, whatever it was, and expected to savor every minute. So it gives me a pang to have to say that this new series isn't grabbing me like the Heir series did.

  • It's 500 pages long. I'm on page 360 (note: I've now finished the book), and the action is only now kicking into gear. I enjoy reading long books, but that's an awfully leisurely set up.
  • Dancer's secret has finally been revealed. How many more pages before Cuffs learns his? (Answer: about another 80)
  • I still don't feel I know Amon and Dancer very well. Cuffs and Raisa are a little more fleshed out, but not as well as the Heir characters were by this point in their books. The only character I'm really invested in is Cuffs, and by this time, they should all be more important to me.
  • That being said, I still think Dancer is getting a rough deal, and I want to see how he works that out.
  • The timeline seems a little shaky. More than once, the implication has been that several days have gone by, but another character's scene  referencing the same events will indicate that only one or two have. Not a big issue, but it keeps tripping me up as I read.
  • At this point, the plot doesn't seem to be showing us anything new. A weak queen, wizards who have more influence than they should, political upheaval, and four (at least) teens with talents and abilities that will put them smack in the middle of the mix. I want something to surprise me. Is it coming?
  • Lots of foreshadowing makes me suspect that the pace is about to pick up dramatically, just in time for a great cliffhanger ending. 
  • Now that I've finished the book, I can't say we got a cliffhanger. But I do think the next book in the series will be much more action driven, now that all the pieces seem to finally be in place.
  • Yes, I'll definitely read the next book in this series. I may not be enthralled by this one, but I'm still a Chima fan.

Anyone want to yell at me and tell me I'm wrong, wrong, wrong? Anyone out there who agrees?

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Books Speak to Her

LIBYRINTH by Pearl North
4Q 3P; Audience: J/S

Clearly, as a librarian, books speak to me. But they don't speak to me. They talk to Haly, though. For as long as she can remember, Haly has heard them muttering in her ears. She finds great comfort in this, but it's also a secret she doesn't dare share with anyone but her friend Clauda, who works in the kitchens. She doesn't dare imagine what would happen if the librarians and other clerks in the Library found out.

Once a year, the Eradicants arrive at the Library for their annual book burning pilgrimage. It's painful for all the Library's inhabitants, but for Haly, it's excruciating. Only she can hear the words, her friends and comfort, fall silent as they die in the flames. She hates the Eradicants for what they do to the Library and to the books. How can they believe that written words are dead and that burning them sets them free?

This year the tension surrounding the Eradicants' arrival is higher than it's ever been. The political situation is volatile and it's not only the Library that is in danger. Neighboring countries that have always protected it are also being threatened. As a result, when Selene, the librarian Haly clerks for, finds a map that reveals the location of one of the most coveted books ever written, someone she thinks she can trust betrays her. The information winds up in the hands of the Eradicants, setting up a desperate flight and search for the treasure that lands Haly in the hands of the Eradicants and Selene and Clauda seeking help from a monarch whose loyalties and priorities are always in question.

Already familiar with the pain the Eradicants can mete out, Haly is terrified when the Eradicants discover her secret ability. What else will they do to her? A realm away, Clauda is not only suffering from her own run-in with the Eradicants, her every move is suspect. Their lives held in the balance by political machinations and religious revelations, the girls are torn by their desire to save each other and their need to save the Library. It doesn't seem possible to do both.


I wish books would talk to me. But it must be headache-inducing to hear them all at once!

I had a great time trying to identify the various quotes in the book. (I thought I'd have search for them online until I thought to turn to the end of the book and found them listed there.) I would love to hear North explain why she chose the various quotes she used. Clearly, she wanted some that were familiar and some that were obscure, with the rest falling somewhere along that spectrum. I suspect the decision to use Diary of a Young Girl came pretty easily. But how did she come to use quotes from Travels with Lizbeth and Gyn/Ecology?

Anne Frank's story has been special to me for almost as long as I can remember, so I'm already predisposed to be happy when I see it mentioned. But it was used particularly effectively in this book. Without saying too much, the moment when the listener understood the importance of the existence of the book was immensely fulfilling for me.

Though Clauda and Haly are supposed to be close friends, I felt that Clauda's relationship with Scio had more life to it, though perhaps that's because they actually spend more time together. Their escapades added a thrill of excitement that I thought was needed in the Clauda sections of the book. I'm a little slow on the uptake, I guess, because it took me a while to realize where the relationship between Clauda and Selene was headed. I think we'll have to see what happens in the sequel to know if it's a necessary ingredient or an unnecessary (though quite possibly tasty) garnish.

The ending was more violent than I expected, though I think I was naive in that.

Is it the librarian in me that made me find Haly confronting Gyneth and the censors with the power of the written word more satisfying than Clauda and Selene's spying and political maneuvering? Probably. But those scenes have an emotional resonance that the Clauda/Selene section is missing. The relationships are more complicated and deeper. Haly's situation is no more fraught with danger than Clauda's, but it has more dimensions to explore.

There's a lot of food for thought here concerning the freedom to read, religion and its role in society, family loyalty, the use and abuse of power, friendship and loyalty and betrayal. Though I think it will initially attract more girls than boys, given the predominance of female characters and some slower sections, it will have appeal to both, and it would certainly lend itself well to both formal and informal discussions. 

Friday, December 04, 2009

August Can't Come Too Soon!

If you're a Hunger Games fan like me, you'll be glad to see this news about book three.

I wonder what the actual cover will look like.

What do you want to happen in this book? Katniss is a reluctant leader, so I'm curious to see how she integrates into whatever is going on in District 13. And I really want to see how that district functions, who is there, and how they were able to keep such a low profile for so long.


Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Liar, Liar, Pants on Fire

4Q 3P; Audience: J/S (high school)

Micah started her high school career pretending to be a boy. That, she says, is one reason the other students shun her. Lying about her father being an international arms dealer didn't help. When her boyfriend Zach is reported missing and is later found dead, Micah can't share her anguish with anyone because nobody knew he was her boyfriend and nobody will believe her if she tells the truth now. Why should they believe her, after all the lies she's told? She also knows, or so she says, the horrifying truth about how it happened. Whether she should be believed is a completely different story. When a book is told by an admitted compulsive liar, then everything she says must be questioned.


I believe Micah is the liar she says she is. I also think she's telling the truth about being biracial and living in New York City. But pretty much everything else she says is open to question. I think she did know a boy named Zach, and that he really is dead. Exactly what her relationship was with him, exactly what she knows about his death, exactly how he died...I'm not willing to accept her word on those topics. I think she probably does have relatives who live a fairly secluded life up north, but are they really what she says they are? What she says about herself and the family secret...that's what has my head spinning the most. I think some readers will take it at face value, and for them, that will make this one sort of book. Other readers (me, for instance) will think there's something else going on entirely, despite what Micah says, and will therefore have a completely different reading experience.

Reading this book was a fascinating, frustrating experience. Because Micah constantly revises her story, each time saying that she lied before and this is the real truth, every event and every comment must be questioned. It's very unsettling. By the time she got to the big reveal about her family secret and what she really is and how that relates to Zach's death, I mistrusted her so completely that I can't accept her final say on the matter. I believe that not only is Micah lying to us, she's lying to herself. Her secret isn't the one she reveals to us. I think it's not so much a question of not wanting to tell the truth, but rather of not being able to face the truth. If she's what she claims she is, then she can't be held responsible for what she's done or may do in the future. But if she's not...

To be honest, I don't know what I think about this book. I finished it about two weeks ago, and I haven't written about it because I've been trying to sort out my thoughts. This is a book so open to multiple interpretations that it practically demands to be read and then shared with someone else. Whether or not that discussion changes the reader's interpretation isn't as important as exploring what those other possibilities are and why they do/don't work for the reader.

I expect this book to win awards, but I don't expect everyone will love it. Love it, like it, or hate it, it would make a terrific discussion book. For sure I'm going to try to sell my Pageturners group on reading it.

Comments are welcome on all my posts, but I'd especially like to hear what you think about this book.

(I haven't explored Justine Larbalestier's FAQ about Liar yet, but I'm about to. You may want to look at it too, but I gather you'll want to do it after you've read the book, as there are spoilers.)

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Alibi, Alibi, Who Needs an Alibi?

Alibi High by Greg Logsted
3Q 4P; Audience: M/J

Living life on the run, constantly looking over your shoulder for danger, surviving attempts on your life - it's all easier than being in high school. That's the conclusion that Cody comes to when his father sends him to live with his aunt after their narrow escape from a bomb.

All Cody has known from his very earliest memories is the life of a CIA spy. That's his dad's job, and it's his, too. He knows how to tail a suspect and how not to be tailed himself. He knows how to spot suspicious characters in a crowd, and he knows how to keep them from spotting him. He knows five languages and how to fire a gun. He's got black belts in two different martial arts. He knows how to take care of himself.

What he doesn't know is how to be a teenager. He doesn't know how to dress (Baggy pants with all those pockets? What's wrong with a suit and tie?). He doesn't know how not to tick off every teacher he's got (Don't they want to know when they have their facts wrong?). He doesn't know how to make friends with the guys, and he doesn't have a clue how to deal with girls (Cell Phone Girl thinks he's a psycho and he can't even talk to Renee). Why did he think high school would be easy?

As if that's not bad enough, Cody can't shake off the memories of being in that cafe when the bomb went off. Everywhere he looks, there's a Yankees cap. Every strange sound makes him twitch. He can't sleep. He's taken to patrolling the house at night. He can't shake the feeling that he's being watched. He's right. There's someone out there. Who is it, and why is he there?


Readers expecting the constant adrenaline surge of the Alex Rider series may be a little disappointed, but they shouldn't count this book out. The pace and tension build throughout the book.

I appreciated the way Logsted made Cody's training so much a part of his every day life, particularly in the beginning. When he arrives at the airport, he instantly scans the area and people for signs of danger. He's aghast to learn that his aunt is naked - meaning she's not carrying a gun. When an enemy (such as the school security guard) comes too close, he instantly calculates how best to bring him down. A walk isn't a simple walk, it's a reconnaissance mission. Because of those touches, it made it easier to buy the premise that he is, essentially, a born spy.

I also liked the relationship between Cody and Andy, a former Army Ranger who lost his arm while in the service. They each quickly recognize the signs of someone who's been through the wars and bond over nightly surveillance surveys, martial arts, and post-traumatic stress syndrome (the latter unspoken). At the same time, Cody is never quite sure if he can trust Andy.

Okay, it's a cliche to have the gym teacher be a jerk. I liked this storyline anyhow, right down to the martial arts demo and the principal's (eventual) reaction. (I really enjoyed Cody's descriptions of his various meetings with Mrs. Owens. As Cody says, the humor grows on you.)

Logsted hits just the right notes as far as the romance angle is concerned. It's there, with just enough humor, but not enough to put off readers who aren't into it. The junior high dynamics are spot on.

I'm not as fond of the ending as I am of the rest of the book. I don't want to give anything away, so I'll just say that I had a "You have to be kidding me" reaction, mostly relating to the actions and motivations of a particular character. But the nicely-built tension and great action will make many readers overlook that.

I expect this one to be a hit with my sixth-eighth grade boys, and I'm glad to have another book to recommend to the Horowitz, Muchamore, Higson, Sniegoski, and Butcher fans.

Friday, November 06, 2009

Snarky and Sad

Cracked Up to Be by Courtney Summers
4Q 3P; Audience: S

A couple of months ago I was on the hold list for several books that hadn't come in yet (naturally, later about six of them came in at once!) and the books I wanted to read otherwise were all checked out. I was searching desperately for something captivating to read. I was working in the Teen Room when one of my teen regulars started talking about a book from my New Books display she'd been reading, saying it was really funny and very good. She couldn't take it out at the time, so I snagged it. Thanks for the recommendation, Adriana! It was exactly what I was looking for.

I laughed in the beginning, too. I enjoy a good bit of snark, and Parker Faraday is very, very good at snark. But as I read on, the more it became apparent that this is no light-hearted book, and Parker is not a happy girl. In fact, Parker has been on a downward spiral for months. She's gone from being the straight-A's captain of the cheerleading squad to flunking her classes and alienating all her friends. She's having panic attacks. She's come to school drunk and attempted suicide. What we don't know is why any of this happened. And that is only revealed little by little, mostly at times when Parker is desperately trying (and failing) not to remember.

Parker makes no effort to be a nice person. She gets a charge out of her ability to manipulate people. Crying and alluding to her suicide attempt are good ways to get her parents and guidance counselor to back off. She uses sarcasm, brutal honesty, and downright unkindness to push everyone close to her away. She sets her former boyfriend Chris up with Becky, the new captain of the cheerleading squad who sets her teeth on edge, then proceeds to rub Chris's obvious preference for her in Becky's face. When a new boy asks stops her to ask where the art room is, she tells him she can't stop to talk since she's late for class. Ten minutes later, he walks into the art room, only to find her sitting there waiting for him.

That new boy is Alex, and much to her chagrin, he isn't easy to push away. First of all, he's her partner on an art project. Secondly, he's intrigued by her. As hard as she tries to alienate him, he keeps coming back. Chris and Becky, too, refuse to go away. And the more they hang around, the harder it is for Parker to lie to herself, to forget what she's trying to forget. She's trying to hold it together long enough to graduate and get out of this town forever, but the memories and the guilt keep coming back.


I was very surprised at the turn this book took. The first few pages didn't prepare me for the guilt, aching sadness, and desperate fear that lie underneath Parker's facade. I think that's way Parker would want it, and it's a really effective way of mirroring what's going on with her.

The push-pull of Parker's relationship with Alex is very well done. When Parker decides that at some level she wants Alex in her life, she's very upfront with him: she kiss him and maybe even sleep with him, but she'll never be his girlfriend, and she'll never say she loves him. He's free to use her, too. But underneath it all, what she won't admit to herself is that she's relieved he won't go away. Alex's reactions to all of this are honest and believable. I hurt for him, but I had to admire his own inner strength as he seems to understand at some level Parker's need to use him as a punching bag.

While the actual events that lead up to Parker's crash and burn are fairly easy to guess at after the first few flashbacks, what I found truly fascinating was what got her into the situation in the first place. What we often look at as a positive personality trait can in fact be very destructive, a truth that's often not apparent until the situation reaches a crisis point. I think a lot of people (not just teens) will relate to the pressure Parker feels and the panic and anger that follow when she realizes that trying to live up to her own and everyone else's expectations just isn't possible. What follows may be extreme, but by the time I learned the whole truth, I was willing to follow wherever Summer led me.

This is not a light read. Alcohol plays a big role in Parker's downward spiral, and she's matter-of-fact about her sexual experiences. The emotions and sometimes the language are rough. Parker may not be forthcoming about what happened in the past, but she's not pulling her punches about how she sees things in the present. Older teens who like books with an edge will appreciate all of this. Younger readers and those who prefer a softer picture of adolescent life would probably prefer to look elsewhere. As for me, I'm looking forward to reading Summers's upcoming book, Some Girls Are.

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Choose This

The Chosen One by Carol Lynch Williams
5Q 4P; J/S

At thirteen, Kyra is just beginning to realize that there are two things she loves almost as much as she loves her family: books and Joshua. But she needs to keep both of those loves secret, since both are strictly forbidden in her religious community. Books bring the outside in and expose readers to Satan's teachings. Boys...well, boys and girls aren't to look at each other or talk to each other unless the Prophet allows it. If a boy and a girl are found together, even if they are doing nothing but talking, the punishment will be swift and severe. Kyra and Joshua are doing more than talking. They are sneaking out at night to be together. They are sharing books and music. They are kissing and dreaming of being together forever.

The Prophet and his Apostles run everything in the Compound. They make the rules, and the God Squad makes sure they are enforced. The Prophet also decides who will marry whom, and there is no arguing with his decision. So when the Prophet decrees that Kyra is to marry Apostle Hyrum, her uncle, the family is in despair. Try as Father may, there is no way to avoid the inevitable. Kyra is devastated. Her family can only understand part of her anguish. There is no way to tell them that as much as she's revolted by the idea of marrying her sixty-year-old uncle and becoming his seventh wife, she's also shattered at the thought that she and Joshua can never be together. She wants to refuse, to say she just won't do it. But defying the Prophet means bringing his wrath down upon her family, and that thought is just as painful. She loves her father, her three mothers, and her twenty-one (soon to be twenty-three) brothers and sisters fiercely. What will the Prophet do to them if she runs away with Joshua, as she so badly wants to do? And what will he do to her?

Favorite quote:

(Kyra has just been informed that she and her mothers are going into town to buy fabric for her wedding dress. It's the final confirmation that there is no way out of this wedding.)

Outside, it is a lie of a morning. Everything is beautiful: The air fresh. The sky so blue it hurts my eyes.


I've had the pleasure of reading a few beautifully written books lately, and this is another to add to that list.

Polygamist communities have been in the news lately. The idea of plural marriages is certainly foreign to most of us in this country. Among the things that struck me as I read this book was that although she fights against this kind of marriage for herself, Kyra doesn't actually seem to mind being part of a polygamous family. She views her family as loving and supportive and derives a lot of her strength from all of her parents and siblings, making  little or no distinction between them.

Family relationships in plural marriages must be very complicated things. Imagine having three (or more!) mothers to listen to and have to please! Mother Sarah, Kyra's birth mother, is caring and understanding, but her difficult pregnancy leaves Kyra as her caretaker rather than the other way around. And though Kyra views Mother Clare as "the mean mother" and sometimes resents her, it's Mother Clare who most clearly understands Kyra's feelings and tries to help her accept her fate. The moments she shares her own story with Kyra make her surprisingly sympathetic. (Mother Victoria rather fades into the background between Mother Sarah and Mother Clare.) I particularly liked the contrast between Kyra's relationships with her sisters Laura and Margaret. The love Kyra has for both sisters is undeniable, but they are very different people. Laura is the voice of the status quo and Margaret ...well, I suspect that Kyra is not the only  sister in the family who will give the Prophet fits. She's going to be a formidable woman.

I wonder how Kyra's story might have played out under a different Prophet. Would she still have hated her life and wanted to run? It's this Prophet that Kyra says she'd like to kill and leave for the termites to eat. He has very narrow and rigid ideas of what is godly, and he disallows many things (such as freedom to leave the Compound) that the previous Prophet allowed. He is running off the younger men and marrying the young girls to much older men. But the previous Prophet was not that sort of man, and the compound was not always run that way. I wonder if Kyra would have been content to stay under a Prophet who allowed his followers more freedom and allowed her to be with Joshua, even given that she would still have had to share him with other women.

Being a librarian, naturally I love that books give Kyra comfort and support and a means of escape in more ways than one, and I honor Patrick as a true hero.

While I wouldn't classify this as a violent book, there are violent incidents that were shocking and troubling to read. Those images stuck with me for a long time. I am frankly in denial about at least one probable death. Message received: It's hard to think this way about religious groups, but there's no denying that it can be dangerous to take a stand against them.

There are several important issues left unresolved at the end of this book. I found myself wondering what the fallout of Kyra's decision would be. I have no idea if Carol Lynch Williams intends to write a sequel, but I think it would be fascinating to explore the "what happens next?" in a situation like this.

To be honest, this wasn't a book I was dying to read. But I was curious to see if I agreed with all the positive, even glowing, reviews I'd seen and heard, so I decided to read it anyhow. I was caught at the very first page, and my interest never waned. I absolutely believed the people and the situation. I cared, and I think many of my teens will too. I highly recommend this book for both pleasure reading and as an excellent choice for a book group.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

She Feels Pretty, Oh So Pretty...Sometimes, Anyhow.

The Summer I Turned Pretty by Jenny Han
4Q 4P; J/S

I finished this book two+ months ago, and details have faded, so I'm sure I'll forget to mention things I thought about at the time, and some of them will probably be important aspects of the book. It doesn't mean I didn't recognize those things. It just means I have to stop being lazy and procrastinating about writing until I get to the point where I've forgotten what I wanted to say!

For as long as Belly can remember, her summers have been spent at the beach with her mother, brother Stephen, and Susannah and her boys, Conrad and Jeremiah. Belly has always been the tag-along, wishing she could be a part of the boys' fun but always being just a little bit outside of it. She and Jeremiah are best buddies, but Belly knows that if the older boys invite him to come along, Jeremiah will go running. Stephen doesn't want his pain-in-the-neck kid sister hanging around, and Conrad doesn't even to seem to notice her most of the time. This is the way it's always been, and while she doesn't like it, she's used to it. But Belly lives for those rare moments when Conrad doesn't look right past her - those moments when he sees right into her and they connect in that special way that only she and he can. This is the summer she's turned pretty. Or so everyone says. So is this the summer that Conrad will finally notice her?

The beach house is the place where all her happiest memories were born. This summer, though, things have a different feel. Something isn't right. Susannah, who is always there to greet them with a big hug, doesn't come down to meet them when they arrive. Jeremiah seems a little distracted. And Conrad seems to be doing everything he can to pull away from them all. There are unspoken things hanging in the air. Belly can feel things coming to an end, and she can't bear the thought of losing her perfect summers.

The only thing Belly would like to change is her relationship with Conrad. But that doesn't seem likely to happen, what with the distance he's keeping and the new girl he's hanging around with. Maybe she should look elsewhere. Jeremiah? She and Jeremiah have always shared a special friendship, and she can tell he wants more.There's also Cameron, the boy she meets at her first real teenage party. Her mind boggles when he tells her he's liked her ever since he first saw her (eighth grade!) at a Latin convention. Back then she had a retainer and glasses, and she was hardly pretty. From the way he's looking at her, Cameron definitely thinks she's pretty now. Things are changing so fast for her. She doesn't know how to deal with this flirting business. She doesn't know how to deal with boys now that they are looking at her in that new way. She doesn't know how to deal with Cam and Jeremiah getting all over-protective and proprietary when they see her with another guy.  Things were so much easier before!

Unsaid things and love, unrequited and otherwise, all add up to make another summer Belly will always remember.


I loved this book. I loved Belly. Even when you've been looking forward (or impatiently pushing ahead) to the moment when people start seeing you as a woman instead of a little girl, when it actually starts happening and you're forced to create and react to that new mindset, it's disorienting and a little scary. Han does a beautiful job of painting all those confusing, conflicting, exhilarating emotions and thoughts. I also loved the family feeling. It was easy to understand how much Belly looked forward to her summers, because I felt at home and comfortable the moment she got to the beach house. It made me wish I could hang out with the boys and Susannah and be a part of it. (Or maybe it just reminds me of my own childhood, since I can really relate to being the only girl in a bunch of boys!)

Every now and then we're treated to a brief vignette from an earlier summers. This really worked for me. It's like adding an underlay of color to make the tones of the present-day scenes that much richer and deeper.

This is not a major deal for me, but still, it's something I thought about throughout the book. I speak from experience here - there's no way a teenage girl is going to introduce herself to a cute teenage boy as "Belly". As a nickname, "Belly" is embarrassing enough, especially at that age. But when you factor in all the rhymes for it, the cringe factor goes sky high. Who would willingly risk being called "Smelly Belly"? No, Belly is the family nickname she reveals when she knows that this is a guy she trusts and wants to let into her world, not the name she gives when she first meets him.

Choosing between the nice guy and the edgier guy who needs you is a classic dilemma. There are those who love the Heathcliff-Cathy dynamic and those who prefer an Anne-Gilbert love story. Warning: What follows is a spoiler, so highlight the space below only if you're curious and don't mind knowing a piece of the ending. I'm still not convinced Belly wound up with the right guy. We're conditioned to root for the match up between the angsty guy and the oh-so-caring girl, but what makes us think the guy is going to become less angsty as time goes on? Are we supposed to think her love will turn his world from clouds and skunks to sunshine and roses? Do we really want her to spend months or years tiptoeing around the guy, always concentrating on what will make *him* happy at the probable expense of her own growth and desires? Don't get me wrong...Conrad's not a bad guy. But he's so wrapped up in his own issues that I wonder how much he can spare for Belly right now. Personally, I think a relationship with Jeremiah has more potential for happiness than a relationship with his handsome-but-tortured brother. Count me in the Anne-Gilbert camp.


For me, it was almost like winter didn't count. Summer was what mattered. My whole life was measured in summers. Like I don't really begin living until June, until I'm at that beach, in that house. (p. 5)

[Conrad] had a smirky kind of mouth, and I always found myself staring at it. Smirky mouths make you want to kiss them, to smooth them out and kiss the smirkiness away. Or maybe not away...but you want to control it somehow. Make it yours. It was exactly what I wanted to do with Conrad. Make him mine. (p. 5)

The moment when she starts believing she really has turned pretty:
They didn't even notice me walk up at first. But then they did. They really did. Conrad gave me a quick glance-over the way boys do at the mall. He had never looked at me like that before in my whole life. Not once. ...Jeremiah, on the other hand, did a double take. All of this happened in the span of about three seconds, but it felt much, much longer. (p.8)

He jerked away from her, almost by accident. Susannah didn't seem to notice, but I did. I always noticed Conrad. (p.23)

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

What I Read and How It Felt So True

What I Saw and How I Lied by Judy Blundell
5Q 4P; J/S/A

It's 1946, the war is over, and life is beginning to get back to normal. For Evie, that means her stepfather Joe is home, Bev, her mother, can stop working, and Evie can just relax and enjoy being a young teenaged girl. While her best friend is boy crazy and ready to jump into romance, Evie's not interested yet. She lives in the knowledge that her mother is gorgeous and that she will never be able to attract a man's attention the way her mother can. All that changes when Joe impulsively decides the family should take a vacation in Florida.

They soon discover that summer is the off-season in Florida. They're practically the only people in their hotel, other than the Graysons...and Peter. While Joe quickly gets involved in business dealings with Mr. Grayson, it's Peter who captures Evie's attention. He's a young, handsome, utterly charming war veteran. They first connect when Peter finds Evie hiding in the shadows of the pool after being bitterly disappointed by an "is that all there is?" experience at her first real dance. Peter invites her to dance, and Evie is smitten. This is a man. This is a dance. She can't stop thinking about him, and for the first time, she understands what all this talk of boys and love really means. In the days that follow, she finds (makes!) every opportunity to spend time with Peter. And it's not her imagination - he seems to be seeking her out, too. He takes her for drives and to the movies. And sure, they often take her mother along, but that's just for cover. It's Evie that Peter is interested in.

Evie begins to blossom. She's been so sure for so long that she will never be as pretty or enticing as her mother is. But Peter doesn't seem to feel that way. And Mrs. Grayson takes her shopping to buy her clothes that are a far cry from the little girl dresses her mother always buys her, and Evie can't help realizing that she can do these grown-up dresses justice. Peter notices, too. The kisses he gives her are not the kisses you give a little girl.

But things take a darker turn when Evie realizes that Joe doesn't like Peter and doesn't trust him. Peter says they spent time together during the war, but Joe doesn't want to talk about it. There are hints, whispers, suggestions that there is more going on here than meets the eye, that Peter's presence at the hotel isn't mere coincidence. Peter seems to know something that Joe wants kept a secret. Joe and Evie's mother begin to fight, and Evie realizes that one of the things that they're fighting over is Peter and his relationship with her mother. Well, that's ridiculous. All those times that she and Bev and Peter went to the movies and out for a drive or to restaurants, they brought Bev along so nobody would give Peter a hard time for spending time with a girl her age. It's Evie that Peter is interested in. Isn't it?

Joe, Evie's mother, and Peter charter a boat and take it out on the open sea just as a hurricane starts up along the coast. Only Joe and Bev come home alive.

What really happened out on that boat, and why did it happen? It's not just Evie who wants to know. So do the police, the judge, the jury, and the tabloid reporters. And Evie has to decide what to tell them. What did she see, and how does she lie?


It's easy to see why this book won the 2008 National Book Award for Young People's Literature. I'm awfully glad I wasn't on the award committe, because it was up against some wonderful books : Chains by Laurie Halse Anderson, The Spectacular Now by Tim Tharpe (just realized I have an unfinished post on this spectacular book), The Underneath by Kathy Appel (which I haven't read and don't have in our Teen collection), and The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks by E. Lockhart (I never uploaded my post on this one, either). I would never have been able to choose a winner, though I know my vote would have gone to either Anderson, Tharp, or Blundell. All three books feature exceptional writing about characters dealing with heartbreaking situations, and they all really moved me.

Blundell does a beautiful job capturing the joys and miseries of leaving girlhood and innocence behind. I'm writing this up over a month after finishing the book, and as I try to write and capture what I felt so many weeks ago, the feeling of being pulled and stretched is what keeps coming back to me. Evie is reaching for something that seems at first to be just out of her grasp. Then it's in her hands, but yanked away so that she has to chase after it again. I picture her being pulled and stretched in all directions, at first welcoming the feeling, but then being stretched so far it's painful, wanting to pull back to her comfort zone but unable to do it. I wanted to shield her from the pain I knew was coming, and I wanted to give her support when she faced the hard decisions with her new-found and hard-won maturity. Evie's growth is a masterpiece of writing.

Though I'm focusing here on the girl-becomes-woman aspect, there's a lot going on in this book beyond that. Guilt and innocence come up again and again in various situations. There's food for thought on every page.

What I Saw and How I Lied is begging to be made into a movie. (Please, would-be producers, don't cast Dakota Fanning in it! This one needs a Jena Malone/Evan Rachel Wood/Clare Danes type.)


I loved these for the vividness of the descriptions, the traces of humor from a serious person in a very serious book, and the perfectly captured moments of stepping out of childhood and into adulthood.

...every time I saw a palm tree it was a little shock, like life was yelling in my ear that this was me, and it was really happening. (p. 113)

Mom took golf lessons, which proved tome how much a place can change you, because Mom's old idea of exercise was crossing her legs. (p. 119)

I don't know when it happened, but things started to turn, just a little bit, like when you smell the bottle of milk, and you know it's going to be sour tomorrow, but you pour it on your cereal anyway. (p. 119)

Squandered virtue was a sin, Margie told me. But she had eight kids in her family. It seemed to me that her mother squandered her virtue all over the place. (p. 121)

I wanted to of music, of dances, of falling in love and getting married before he shipped overseas. And the songs - (italics) I'll be seeing you in all the old familiar places(/italics) - all that longing, all that waiting. It made sense to me now. Every lyric. It wasn't about just hearing it on the radio. The strings were stretched and quivering and going crazy inside me. If Peter and I had met during the war, would we have gotten engaged? Would things have moved faster? I knew girls who were pre-engaged at school. I used to laugh at their smugness. Now I wanted it. Time rushed at me like a subway, all air and heat. (p. 129)

I could have fought her. I could have taken what I knew about what he felt and thrown it at her, proved I was an adult now, just like her. But feeling grown up? I discovered something right then: It comes and it goes. I was still afraid of my mom. (p. 153)

I saw wanting in Wally's eyes. Now I could recognize it as easy as Margie waving at me across Hillside Avenue. What would happen if I got hold of that want and rode it like a raft to see where it could take me? Joe had left me behind like a kid. I didn't want to be a kid. (p. 171)

I didn't know where [Mom] had put her pizzazz. Maybe she had squashed it in that little lace-trimmed pocket of her dress. (p. 232)

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Quick Hits - Three Very Different Books

My apologies: this post was begun (and mostly finished) in late July and never posted.

Angry Management by Chris Crutcher

Three novellas revisit a few familiar characters, giving a couple of them a chance to move on and a couple the chance to stand in their own light and shine. As Sarah Byrnes tries one more time to connect with/confront the person who betrayed her the most, she and Angus Bethune also discover that there are people who will look past their physical selves and see what's really important. Madison West stands up to her narrow-minded, controlling father. And when the school administration try to brush a pink noose on the school's only black student's locker, Marcus James and Matt Miller refuse to let them, a stand that has tragic results.


I like a lot of Chris Crutcher's books, and I admire him for the strong stance he takes regarding the rights of teens (well, kids in general). But in some of his later books, this one included, I think his need to make a statement sometimes overwhelms the story. I kept hearing his voice instead of his characters' voices. But it's good to see him bring back characters I liked and wanted to know more about, particularly Sarah and Mr. Nak, and introduce others, like Matt and Marcus, who could carry their own books. I just wish Mr. Nak had more to do than just be a framing device. He was a wise and charismatic character in Ironman, and I would like to have heard what he had to say to some of these characters about these situations.

Sebastian Darke: Prince of Fools by Philip Caveney

Sebastian Darke would love to be the jester his father was. Trouble is, he's just not funny. But he is, to his surprise, brave (not to mention loyal and true) and a rather good fighter. Those qualities come in quite handy when he accidentally foils a plot to kill Princess Kerin, thereby (unknowingly) making himself a marked man as well.


I don't think this book will linger long in my memory, but it was fun while I reading it. My favorite character was Cornelius, whose extremely small size belies his fantastic fighting abilities. Trust me, you don't want to take on this guy unless you've got a dozen or so friends with you (unless you don't like your friends much, in which case, this is the perfect scenario to get rid of a few of them). Max the (talking) buffalope is also a fine foil. Kerin and Sebastian work as well apart as they do together, which is fortunate for them and for their readers. This is a good choice for readers who like their fantasies light, humorous, and action-packed.

Broken Thread by Linda Smith

All Alina has wanted for as long as she can remember is to be picked to go to the Weaver's Island, where they create the cloth that controls Fate. When the searchers finally come for her, it is a dream come true. But when she finally sees the Tapestry, she makes a fatal mistake. She nearly destroys everything when she attempts to fix a broken thread by tying it with a piece of her own hair. As a result, the elder Weavers tell her, a king lives who should have died, and her impulsive act will lead to the death of thousands if she does not correct it. To save all those lives, she must travel to his land and kill him. It is a terrible weight to carry with her, made even heavier when she meets her target and realizes he is not what she expected him to be. He is one life balanced against thousands, but how can she look into the face of someone who trusts her and kill him anyway?


I loved the dynamic between Alina and Ranjan and watching their relationship develop. Ranjan reminded me a bit of Mary in The Secret Garden, but Alina is much starchier than Martha and Dickon! She is either a born manipulator or a born mother (both?), because she's a master at handling a frightened, sulky little would-be tyrant. I also enjoyed the hint of romance. I would like to revist these characters again, and it's a shame that Linda Smith will never have the chance to write more about them (though I don't know if that was eve-n/r her intention).

Monday, July 27, 2009

Let Me Fly!

FLYGIRL by Sherri L. Smith
4Q 3P; Audience: M/J

All Ida Mae wants to do is fly. She already knows how; her Daddy taught her years ago. But nobody will give her an aviator's license. After all, not only is she a woman, she's a black woman living in Louisiana. Men in the South don't think women should fly, and it seems that nobody thinks blacks should do anything but work in the fields or as housemaids. She dreams of going to Chicago, where neither her sex nor her race will keep her from reaching her goal. But it's not in the cards, now that her father's dead and her brother has joined the Army. She's promised to stay home and help her family. And for a year or so, she does. Then her younger brother shows her a newspaper article. The government is willing to train women to be Army pilots! It's too good an opportunity to pass up. But when she looks at the pictures of the first training class, she realizes there's not a single girl there who looks like her. The Army doesn't want colored women. Are her hopes going to be dashed again? Ida Mae is very light-skinned. Her hair is light brown and loosely curled. She's been mistaken for a white woman on more than one occasion. Does she dare try to pass for white and apply to this program? It is not a decision she comes to quickly or without guilt. But yes...she dares. If she's ever going to have a chance to have her dream fulfilled, it's what she has to do.

The training is hard for all the girls, and many of them wash out quickly. But the training is even harder when you have a secret that absolutely can not be discovered. Not only does she have the fear of wondering what the consequences of discovery would be, she's also cut off from her family. She doesn't dare stay in touch with them for fear of her secret being discovered. It's a hard life, made even harder by the guilt she feels over lying about who she is. She can only hope it will all be worth it in the end.


I enjoyed reading this book. Though I've read lots of books set in the 1940's and/or about World War II, I'd never read one on this topic before. I know very little about the role women played in the war and very little about the early days of the Air Force. I know a little bit more about race relations at that time, but I don't think I've read another novel about someone trying to pass as white, so that was a fresh perspective, too.

I found the details of Ida Mae's training quite interesting. I wanted more, though. I know it would have made the book longer, but I felt we got just a taste when I wanted a mouthful. But it was certainly clear by the end of the book that, no matter how stringent their training, the Army didn't consider the women to be "real" pilots, at times using them as guinea pigs and as a "see, even a woman can do it" taunt to the male pilots. At the same time, it was also clear that these pioneering women played a valuable role during World War II, whether or not they were given credit for all they did. It's hard to believe it took over forty years for their service to be properly recognized.

At one point in her training, Ida Mae's mother comes to see her. Ida Mae can't hug her or kiss her, or even call her Mama. Instead, they have to play the role of servant and mistress. It's humiliating and terribly painful for both of them. I finished this book several weeks ago, and that scene has stuck in my memory. It was a shattering example of the pain the racial attitudes of the day could inflict.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Creepy, Creepy, Creepy

Frozen Fire by Tim Bowler
4.5Q 3P; Audience: J/S

Frozen Fire is creepy and atmospheric and had me completely engrossed. On a hot summer night, I got chills, and not just because of the suspense. You can almost feel the cold and the snow.

Imagine being alone in the house and getting a phone call (your number is unlisted) from a voice you don't recognize. The voice says, "I'm dying." The boy on the other end of the line sounds about your own age, maybe a year or two older. His voice is slurred and angry. He calls himself Josh. Your brother's name. Your missing brother's name. He's not your brother. But he knows things about you he should have no way of knowing. Creepy, right? Who is this boy? Why did he call her? What does he want?

He says he wants to die. But he can't die. Not yet. Not before he tells Dusty what he knows about Josh. He must know something about him. Why else would he have given her that name? How else would he know her secret nickname? How else would he know what Josh's last words to her were?

When Dusty rushes out into the snowy New Year's Eve night to find the boy, she discovers she's not the only one looking for him. Three vicious men with their equally vicious dogs are also after him. They threaten and terrify her. But they are all stymied in their attempts to find the boy. He has disappeared, literally without a trace. How could he have left no footprints in the snow?

Various people spot a mysterious figure on the paths, up in the mountains, and in and around town. The word is out: this boy is dangerous. He's responsible for horrible crimes. Stay away from him at all costs.

But Dusty can't stay away from him. How could she, knowing that he has the answers she's been desperate to find for so long? She finds him. Now she's more frightened than ever.

This isn't quite fantasy, and it's not supernatural, exactly, either. It's a blend of both, with suspense and mystery thrown in. It may not be everyone's cup of tea (some readers will be discomfited by some of the ambiguity and the British slang and style), but it's expertly told and a great choice for readers who like to be kept on edge. Readers may also want to look for Bowler's Storm Catchers. Bowler's books, including Frozen Fire, have won several awards in England.

Life on the Runway Isn't Easy

Model: A Memoir: Pretty Girl, Ugly Business by Cheryl Diamond
3.5Q 4P; Audience: J/S

Confession: I don't have a clue who Cheryl Diamond is, and I care not one whit about fashion or modeling. But positive reviews for the book caught my eye, and knowing that a lot of my teen patrons do like fashion-related things, I ordered it for the library. When it came in, I picked it up to check it out. I have to say, I thoroughly enjoyed reading it. Cheryl was just sixteen when she went to New York to try to break into the modeling business, and this book covers a year or so in her life. She writes about how she dealt with her less-than-supportive modeling agency, bizarre photographers and makeup artists, catty fellow models, and the numerous guys, some quite shady, who are always on the sidelines trying to hook up with a model. She describes what she had to go through to get bookings when her own agency was working against her, what it's like doing a runway show (Chaos! Don't smile! Walk like a horse!), the perks of being a model (bouncers love models!), and the downsides (it's an ego-bruising business). Even better, she's funny. The haughty look in her pictures hides a wicked sense of humor. I don't know that I can quite swallow all her stories as happening exactly as she tells them. She seems to have picked up on all the inside knowledge about the modeling business (and her own agency) almost as soon as she arrived, which seems unlikely for anyone, let alone a sixteen-year-old girl on her own in Manhattan. And she always has a witty comeback or smart aleck answer in any situation, which got not only a little tiresome but also seemed a little unlikely. Whether or not it all happened exactly as she claims, it makes for fun reading. It's also quite eye-opening. Even if I were gorgeous, twenty, and tall (none of which describe me in the least), I'd never want to be a model after reading this book.

Thursday, July 09, 2009

Yeah, We Bad, We Dangerous, We Girls

Zombie Queen of Newbury High by Amanda Ashby
3Q 4P; Audience: J

I hear YA literature is branching out from the vampire craze to focus on zombies. There are several zombie books either recently or about to be published. The first one in this batch that I came across was
Generation Dead by Dan Waters. His sequel, Kiss of Life, arrived in the library a month or so ago. I haven't read it yet, but I do hope he addresses all the holes he left wide open in Generation Dead. I'm a little curious to find out what happens with the Phoebe-Tommy-Adam triangle (what girl hasn't dreamt of falling in love with two zombies?), but I'm more inclined to flip through it rather than read it cover to cover. Generally speaking, zombies really aren't a big attraction for me. That being said, how could I resist a book with the title Zombie Queen of Newbury High? Simple answer: I couldn't.

Mia is not in the in-crowd, which makes it all the more surprising and thrilling when star football player Rob asks her out. What's not surprising is that the girls who are in the in-crowd are less than thrilled with the situation and that they intend to do something about it. What's a girl to do? Mia isn't sure, but her best friend Candice is: you go to the local magic shop and get a love potion, of course. Unfortunately, as is the way with such things, the love potion (which - caveat emptor - isn't exactly what it's advertised to be) goes awry. Suddenly everywhere she turns, students and even teachers are giving her cupcakes and kissing up to her. It would all be very flattering, if new boy Chase hadn't spoiled it all with the news that they're merely trying to fatten her up for the zombie feast they're planning. It seems that the entire school is about to be zombified, and it's all Mia's fault. If she doesn't find a way to stop the spell, the after-prom early morning breakfast is going to be her. ::ulp::

This is a quick, fun read. It's a great beach book or one to pick up when you're stressed with tests and papers and need something fun to relax you. It's not likely to be a book you remember as one that made a huge impact on your life. But who says every book has to be deep and significant?

The School for Dangerous Girls by Eliot Schrefer
3Q 3P; Audience: J/S

Hidden Oak is a school of last resort. If a girl has been thrown out of every other school, that's the kind of girl Hidden Oak wants. It's Hidden Oak's mission to take troubled girls and turn them into law-abiding models of society. They have a very high success rate. Many of their girls graduate and never step a foot out of line afterwards. They've learned to accept rules, maybe even to welcome them. But the girls who can't accept the rules, the girls who refuse to change...well, the world doesn't have to know about them. Those are the girls who disappear. They're never discussed, and they're never seen again. And you'd better believe that that makes them the really dangerous girls.

Mia is sent to Hidden Oaks after one too many incidents, culminating in one that leads to her grandfather's death. It's an eye-opening experience. Her cell phone is confiscated, there's no computer access, phone calls are not allowed, emails and letters are censored. Students are not to share the stories of their past indiscretions. The girls have individual and group therapy daily. Every rule of behavior must be strictly adhered to, or harsh punishment will swiftly follow. (Solitary confinement is a frequent option.) As the days and weeks go by, girls start disappearing, usually without explanation. Mia learns that some girls are promoted to the gold thread, where they live in a slightly less strict environment with regular classes and the chance to interact more normally with the other girls. But some of the girls just disappear. They're in the purple thread, and nobody want to talk about what happens to them. Is Mia purple or gold?

Mia winds up in the gold thread, but her rebellious nature isn't prepared to toe the line. That's especially true when she finds out about what happens to the purple thread girls and what the school's real intentions are. She's not going to take this sitting down. There has to be a way to close down this school. There may be indeed, but she'll never find it if the school succeeds in closing her down first. And they're going to do everything in their power to do just that.

I don't know why, but while I was reading this book, I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop. I didn't know for a long time what kind of book I was reading. Was this a tongue-in-cheek book, full of girl power and twists and turns, or was it exactly what it appeared to be? I don't know why I expected it to be the former rather than the latter. Perhaps it had something to do with the title, which (as it turns out) is meant to be taken absolutely literally, but which I assumed at first was hinting at something more along the lines of Ally Carter's
I'd Tell You I Love You, But Then I'd Have to Kill You or Michael Spradlin's Spy Goddess. But this is not those books. My bad. I don't know why it took me so long to accept that. It was definitely a problem on my end, not the author's.

What Schrefer does best is the way he keeps leading his readers on, intriguing them with a hint here and a scrap of information there. I couldn't help but want to know what happened to all those missing girls and just why the purple thread was such a fearful label. And the payoff to that is real. Other reviews make reference to The
Lord of the Flies, and it's an apt comparison. These girls are truly feral, and their situation is desperate. I admired Mia for her passion to fight against the wrongs being done to the girls. But those wrongs are where I felt the book went a bit astray. At some point, I have to believe that much of the faculty would step up to say that enough is enough, and that there's a point at which discipline passes into mistreatment or worse. That nobody does was hard to swallow. The romance angle was stretched past believability. Nobody would step in and stop the one teenage boy from playing Romeo with the girls? In a school like this? I have similar problems with the ending of the book and the role of one person in particular. It didn't seem to follow from what is set up earlier in the book. So I give this book points for an interesting main character and for the suspense it builds in the early parts as well as for the pulse-raising sequences involving the menaces of life among the purple thread. But that early promise didn't hold up throughout the book for me.

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Sarah Dessen Does It Again

Along for the Ride by Sarah Dessen
4Q 5P; Audience: J/S

Count me in with those who love Sarah Dessen's books. Dessen has that ability to write about ordinary people with ordinary problems while never making them seem pedestrian. I often find myself wanting to know her characters better. I don't mean in the sense of "I'm not being told enough" but rather in the sense of " I'd enjoy hanging out with these people". I'm always a little sorry when I get to the last page and have to leave them behind.

In Along for the Ride, Auden is the daughter of college professors who are so intent on their own careers that they can't be bothered about the needs of their children. After years of being put through the ringer by their son, Hollis, they're delighted that Auden (several years younger) is quiet, obedient, and and overly mature for her age. So it escapes their notice that Auden has no real friends and that her only activities revolve around her academics. In fact, it pretty much escapes Auden's notice until the summer before she goes to college, when she looks around long enough to notice that her summer is stretching out before her as a long, endless plain of nothing to do and nobody to do it with. Hollis is backpacking around Europe having, as the picture frame he sends her says, "the best of times". What is she doing? Nothing. In an uncharacteristic bit of spontaneity, she calls her father to ask if she can spend the summer with him, his new wife, and their newborn daughter. To her surprise, he says yes. It's hardly the last surprise she'll get this summer.

In short order and with no intention of doing any of this, Auden finds herself hooking up with a boy she doesn't know, getting a job, and catching the attention of a mysterious loner. What is Eli's deal? It's clear that everyone likes him, so why does he hold himself apart from everyone? Eli and Auden share at least one thing in common: they're both insomniacs. They come together on those long summer nights when the rest of the world is sleeping and they share their stories and much, much more.


The book explores the question of whether people can change. I think at least a few of the 5 W's come into play when you discuss the issue. Who you are, what's going on, whether or not you recognize a need, what's important to you and how much - - all of those things come into play.

Parent expectations can be a good thing or very destructive. Use the power wisely.

I wanted to take both of Auden's parents and shake them good and hard. Her father in particular needs to be slapped. You can't be selfish and be a good parent.

Auden's not perfect. Her prejudices and presuppositions and fears get in the way of her seeing people and situations clearly, and it takes her a while to realize it, and then a while longer to do something about it. Just like real life.

Food for thought: "Life shouldn't be about the either/or. We're capable of more than that, you know?"

Quests are a good thing. ("...I kind of liked the idea of searching for something you'd lost or needed. Or both.") And they're fun to read about, even if you call them chicken salad. (Read the book. You'll get it.)

Just reading about Isby's crying and Heidi's exhaustion made me want to cover my ears, hug Heidi, and take a nap. But mostly, I wanted to lock Auden's father in the nursery with the baby and take Heidi off to the beach.

My quibble, and it's actually a pretty significant one: I can buy that Auden's parents were oblivious when they were going through the divorce and didn't have a clue how often Auden sneaked out at night to hang out at Max's Diner. It's a little hard to believe that a fourteen-year-old could pull that off for the next four years without them tipping to it, though. And this summer, Auden's stepmother is up with the baby every night. Am I honestly expected to buy that she never once asks Auden where she's been or how late it is when Auden stumbles in as the sun is rising? That her father doesn't question it when he meets her on his way out the door? (Okay, at that point in the book her father has other things on his mind. Still.) Auden's insomnia is a pretty conceit and a nice way of giving her lots of quiet time to spend with Eli. But c'mon...somebody is going to notice that she's out all night every night and call her on it.

I really liked the development of the relationships. Auden struggles with accepting her parents as they are, and they (especially her mother) struggle with accepting her as the person she is becoming. It's not easy and it's not always pleasant. Her friendship with Eli grows naturally. She doesn't meet him one day and decide she's in love with him the next. (Good move. Eli is a person well worth the time it takes getting to know him.) Similarly, Auden doesn't go from being clueless about how to hang out with other girls to being best friends in an instant. People have to tell her things and explain how friendship works before she gets it, and it's even longer before it comes to her naturally. That felt really organic to me. I also appreciated her slow realization that Heidi (her stepmother) isn't an airhead trophy wife after all. And watching Auden bond with Isby is just plain sweet.
Read Along for the Ride. Then hop on your bike and take a nice long ride with a friend. You'll be glad you did both.

Edited 7/17/09 to add a link to a blog that linked to this post:
Here's what the YAYAYAs thought about Along for the Ride. And you get a bonus book, too!

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Another reading roundup

As you may have gathered from the long drought since my last (well, last-but-one) post, it's been a hectic time here at the library. I've read lots of books but have had no time to post about them. The post I put up today about The Comet's Curse was started back in May! I've got at least seven more books I've been toting around for anywhere from a day to ...weeks, and I need to get them out in circulation where they belong, so I'm going to forego anything other than brief plot descriptions (which you may prefer anyhow) and just give you my impressions.

Swim the Fly by Don Calame
4Q 4P; Audience: S

Three fifteen-year-old boys make a pact to see a real live naked girl by the end of the summer. There's not a lot they won't do to make that goal a reality, including dressing in drag. Matt compounds that probably unattainable goal with another: swimming the 100-yard butterfly in multiple swim meets. This, from a guy whose best showing in any swim meet using even his best stroke is a fifth-place ribbon. Did I mention the butterfly is the most grueling race of all? Why is he doing this? Why, to impress a girl, of course. Yeah, like watching a skinny dude flail in the pool as he slowly turns blue and goes under is going to do that!

Swim the Fly is going to have a lot of fans among teenage boys. It's fun, it's fast moving, and it's definitely got its share of gross out moments. (There's a scene in the girl's locker room involving laxatives and the girl of Matt's dreams that made me squirm but will make most readers howl with laughter.) Matt's a likeable guy, and you can't help but root for him. He's patient (and funny) with his lovelorn grandfather, sweetly oblivious with (and about) girls, and a loyal friend. My favorite scenes were those with Matt and Ulf (the kind of swim instructor that would make Michael Phelps quiver in fear) and Matt and Valerie ("she's just a girl, not the girl". Matt, you're such a dimwit!). I also enjoyed the banter between Matt and his friends Coop and Sean. It captured the way boys really do talk to each other. (Calame must have scoured the Internet so he could pad their conversations with just about every possible synonym for a particular male body part. I confess to thinking "enough already" more than once!) Coop and Sean are, shall we say, a little less scrupulous than Matt when it comes to playing by the rules and definitely ingenious when it comes to breaking them. While their actions are not always admirable, they will definitely get their readers cheering them on.

I suspect that this is a book that boys will not only enjoy reading, they'll also recommend it to their friends.

Soul Enchilada by David Gill
3Q 3P; Audience: J/S

Here's another one I think boys will like, which is not to say that girls won't enjoy it too.

Bug Smoot is on her own, and things aren't looking good. Just about the only thing she has to her name is the Cadillac her grandfather left her when he died. What her grandfather didn't tell her is that he also left her something else: an unfulfilled contract with Mr. Beals, aka Beelzebub. Nothing says "I love you" like a contract with the devil. What does Mr. Beals want? The car for starters. Her soul for dessert. But Bug is not about to give up either without a fight. Good thing she has Pesto on her side, given that Pesto knows a thing or two about fighting demons and devils.

I heard David Gill speak at a conference a couple of years ago, and I knew he could be laugh out loud funny, so I was looking forward to reading this book. It wavers between humor and horror more than I expected, though I'd recommend it to someone who wants to laugh sooner than I'd suggest it to someone who likes to be scared. I have to say that the details of the plot haven't stuck in my mind as much as the characters have. I'd say that readers who enjoy a book for the people they meet in it will probably like this more than readers who love to chew over what actually happens. But how can you go wrong with a feisty girl who refuses to give the devil his due? Bug isn't frightened by Mr. Beals. She's just royally ticked off that trying to get rid of him means getting hairspray and coyote piss all over her beautiful, shiny, clean car. Their conversations have snap and wit. Equally fun, though for different reasons, is her relationship with Pesto. Bug's not sure what to make of this guy who claims to know all about demons and how to get rid of him. But he's nice, he's hot, and he doesn't run when things get tough. He even puts up with her surliness, and Bug does surly very, very well. What's not to like? At the end, Gill deftly pulls seemingly random things together for a very satisfying climax. (Warning: there's a definite ick factor involved in fighting the devil for your soul. It's not stomach-churning stuff, but there are a few descriptions I'd prefer not to read just before going to bed.)

Evermore by Alison Noel
3Q 5P; Audience: J/S

Ever is an orphan at seventeen, and it's all her fault. If only she hadn't...But she did, and the car crashed, and her parents and younger sister died. She'd have died, too, if she hadn't chosen to linger in that strange, beautiful land they entered after the accident. They were all together, heading towards the bridge and whatever was on the other side. But Ever stopped, and when she looked around, her family was crossing the bridge and she couldn't reach them before they disappeared. The next thing she knew, a beautiful man's face appeared over hers, calling her name. And there she was, back in the real world again. Alone. But never really alone now, because now she hears everything that everyone around her is thinking. Touching someone spills all their secrets. And everyone has an aura. Ever is psychic now, and it's tearing her apart. She can find no peace. Until Damen enters the picture. Beautiful Damen. Damen, who can produce flowers from thin air. Damen, who does not have an aura, whose thoughts she can not hear, and whose touch brings a blessed respite from the constant barrage of thought-noise. Damen, who she can not help but love, but who she has reason not to trust.

Fans of the Twilight books are going to love this one. It is not a vampire story, but it is a love for the ages story. Of all the characters, Ever is the only one who felt close to three-dimensional to me. Her despair over her unwanted powers, her desperate attempts to shield herself from a world that assaults her senses past bearing, her love for and need for her sister Riley (who makes several appearances) all made sense. And I could certainly believe her attraction to Damen, and I appreciated that she wasn't a patsy about it. He gives her plenty of reason to doubt him, so doubt him she does. No "he's gorgeous and mysterious, and yes, he's dangerous, but so what?" for Ever! I like a girl who uses her head when it comes to falling in love. Damen isn't nearly as well-rounded, but the appeal is clear. Aside from his ability to soothe her senses, he's charming, talented, romantic, and sensitive. (And he cooks, too!) The romantic tension works. That being said, I do have some problems with the book. First of all, most of the other characters are one-dimensional, particularly Drina, Matt, and Aunt Sabine. More disturbing, I hate it when an author sets something supernatural up, but when it comes to explaining how it all works, cops out with "well, the whole thing is just too complicated to explain, so just trust me, okay?" After Damen explains things to Ever, she and the reader are left almost as much in the dark as we were before. Nope. Sorry. Don't create the devil if you can't figure out how to give us the details. And c'mon: (SPOILER ALERT! If you want to know what else really bothered me, use your mouse to highlight the next few words.) Isn't it an oxymoron for an immortal to be able to die?

Don't read this book expecting anything deep or particularly logical. Just enjoy the story, the romance, the tension, and the supernatural touches. And if you like this book and have already read the Twilight books, you may want to try Golden and (link is to my blog post) Platinum by Jennifer Barnes next.

My next post will be another reading round up. I hope to get it up soon, sooner, soonest.