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!