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The False PrinceThe False Prince by Jennifer A. Nielsen
High-spirited orphan Sage, always a troublemaker at his orphanage, is sold to the noble Lord Conner, who is buying up orphans the right age who resemble Prince Jaron. Prince Jaron was lost four years ago, and presumed to have been killed by the pirates who took the ship he was on. Lord Conner’s plan is to train all four boys to impersonate the prince, and thus prevent the civil war that would otherwise break out when it’s discovered that the king, queen, and crown prince have all been poisoned. There’s a lot at stake, as it’s clear from the get-go that the boys who don’t get chosen won’t have any future at all. While Sage refuses, somewhat inexplicably, to buckle down to his studies, the other boys are doing their level best, including studious and sycophantic Tobias and the less educated but tough and street-smart Roden. Sage is too smart to want to be a pretend prince, forever doing Lord Conner’s bidding, but he’s walking a tightrope between making it clear that he won’t give in to Conner’s demands while co-operating just enough not to get booted out altogether. All too often, his open defiance gets him hard knocks from Conner’s toughs. He’s got two weeks to learn enough to stay in the contest, figure out what Lord Conner’s real motives are (surely not as virtuous as he claims), and find a way to get out of the whole situation alive, preferably saving the lives of the other boys as well. Sage is cagey about his history, even with the reader, and it’s clear he’s got secrets of his own. Having read reviews of this other places, I already knew the Big Secret. (Hint: why does Sage both refuse to pretend to be the prince forever if he’s chosen and tell Conner “I am your prince.”?) Theoretically, knowing this ahead of time could have spoiled the book for me, like already known whodunit in a mystery. Not so. There are still so many gaps in Sage’s story, past and future (and present, the wily kid) that I was sucked in. Ultimately, Sage has to decide if he should go for being a prince or not – and how to get there without Conner coming with him if he does. As I get tired of books leaving me hanging waiting for the next in the series, I was somewhat surprised to see that the catalog record for this says “Ascendance Trilogy Book 1”. Nielsen has been very considerate with her series making: while I definitely want to read more of Sage’s adventures, this is a nicely rounded story in its own right, without being awkwardly chopped off at the right length. The False Prince combines strong characters with fast and tricky plotting, similar to – dare I invoke the name? – Megan Whalen Turner’s the Queen’s Thief series. That series has similarly strong characters who hold on to their secrets to the end, combined with top-level politics with a small number of players, though the gods and magic don’t play a noticeable role in The False Prince. That means that despite it not being set in any place definitely on our earth and having a very similar feel to fantasy books, it doesn’t really count as fantasy. Still, highly entertaining and well worth reading.
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It’s taking me a bit to get to reviewing this, but I made it through this whole book just on my breaks at work by the time I’d written up The Piper’s Son.

Saving FrancescaSaving Francesca by Melina Marchetta Life is somewhat difficult for Francesca Spinelli, whose mother has enrolled her at St. Sebastian’s, a school that prior to that year was all boys. Neither teachers nor students seem inclined to change their customs to allow for girls, and the only other girls for Francesca to hang out with are girls who were losers at her old school: crazy, radical Tara Finke, slut Siobhan, and accordian-playing loner Justine. Then things get even worse. Francesca’s mother Mia, always a major force to be reckoned with at home and at work, stops getting out of bed. Francesca and her beloved little brother Luca are sent to separate relative’s houses, while their father keeps trying to pretend that everything will just get better on its own. At school, Tara decides that the girls will make a list of demands, and that Francesca is the best person to bring those demands to their class representative, Will Tromball. Tromball seems to be a jerk who isn’t interested in changing anything – yet their eyes lock every time they see each other. Francesca keeps getting put into detention for things like trying to talk to Luca at school. In detention she meets guitar-obsessed slob Thomas McKee and weirdo Jimmy Hailler, whom she doesn’t really like but who keeps following her home and is able to accomplish the miracle of getting her mother to talk. There are lots and lots of plot strands here, with family, friends old and new, romance, and school, all swirling around Francesca and the identity she’s building for herself in the absence of the people who have in the past always told her who she is: her mother and her clique from her old school. The characters are clearly drawn and easy to root for, despite the (pardon) depressing topic of a seriously depressed mother. As in The Piper’s Son, families are shown as deeply loving despite their problems, friends worth living for despite their quirks. Though Francesca can draw strength from all of them, in the end, the only person who can save Francesca is herself.

As a note, having read both of these books with shared characters now, it was interesting to read Saving Francesca knowing how things with the characters were going to end up. In actual events, though, only a few big events from this book were mentioned in The Piper’s Son. Most of the past events discussed in that book are set in between the two books, which certainly makes it easier to read them separately.
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I read this book because it won this year’s Printz Award for Young Adult Literature. Here I take a very small moment to note that the winners of all three of the ALA awards that I pay the most attention to – the Newbery, Printz, and Odyssey – were this year by and about males. I am torn between thinking that books by men are already over-recognized and over-reviewed, and thinking that having strong boy books could help combat the notion that only books for girls get published any more.

Where Things Come BackWhere Things Come Back by John Corey Whaley. Cullen Witter, aged 17, lives in the small town of Lily, Arkansas. His best friends are his younger brother Gabriel and Lucas, a very popular boy who manages to spend large amounts of time with Cullen without altering either of their popularity scores (Cullen’s: dismal. Lucas’s: very high.) One of Cullen’s pastimes is writing down titles for books he might someday write, and the narrative switches charmingly between Cullen’s first-person casual narrative of passing events and his more formal and somehow funnier third-person reflections on what has just happened. Many things are happening. Cullen’s slightly older cousin has just died of a drug overdose. A man who seems to Cullen and his small gang clearly to be a charlatan has come to Lily claiming to have seen a living Lord God Bird, a very large woodpecker believed to be extinct. Many tourists follow, hoping to see it. Lucas sets Cullen up on a date with Alma Ember, a recent graduate of the high school, who left Lily, married, divorced, and returned. Even though Cullen has an enormous crush on the prettiest girl in school (of course already dating the biggest and meanest boy in the school) and feels odd dating an older woman, he agrees, in order to go on the double date that Lucas so clearly has his heart set on. And then Gabriel disappears into the blue, leaving everyone adrift. Weeks go by with no news, and the family and their friends struggle to carry on and to know whether or not they should give up hope. Alternating with this main story is the story of Benton Sage, a young man eager to please his uncompromising father, who tries and fails at mission work in Africa and then goes to college. He becomes obsessed with the apocryphal Book of Enoch, and involves his roommate in this obsession. The characters in the Lily, Arkansas part of the story seemed just slightly quirkier regular humans – Ada Taylor’s curse of having her boyfriends die off, for example. By contrast, something about the characters and the storytelling style of the Benton Sage plot line seemed a little stiff and unreal, so that for most of the book I thought that we were reading Cullen’s novel-in-progress. Then the stories intersected and I had to revise everything that I had thought about it. There are some very serious topics addressed here, like the balance of sanity and insanity in the face of extreme grief. “Where Things Come Back” seems to refer both to hoped-for returns like the Lord God bird, and the return of people like Alma who hoped to get out of Lily and end up coming right back home. Somehow, perhaps due to copious amounts of under-aged if not graphically described sex, and definitely Cullen’s sense of humor, the book manages to feel, if not light, a whole lot lighter than I’d expect a book with one missing and a couple of dead teens to be. These are topics that I normally try to avoid, but I found myself enjoying this book, rooting for the characters and hoping that Gabriel would come back.

Cross-posted to and .

Dairy Queen

Mar. 3rd, 2008 02:42 pm
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Dairy Queen by Catherine Gilbert Murdock. Read by Natalie Moore It’s the summer between DJ Schwenk’s sophomore and junior years. She’s managing her family’s dairy farm, with both her parents unable to help and her little brother busy with Little League. Her two college-age older brothers are off coaching at a football camp. Busy, simple, boring. Then a family friend, the coach of the rival high school’s football team, asks DJ to coach his back-up QB. Brian is a rich and snotty quarterback already loathed by the entire Schwenk family. Naturally, DJ and Brian forge a connection as they’re running and bringing in the hay. But more than that, his casual insults make her think about what she does and why. DJ decides to find a way to do more of what she really loves – football. There’s also an interesting subplot with DJ’s best friend, Amber. This is a rare book with a protagonist for whom thinking and words don’t come easily. Natalie Moore brought DJ to life with a great Midwestern country teen voice. DJ's humor and honesty with herself kept me going straight on to the second book, The Off Season.
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In all fairness, my teen librarian recommended this book to me when it first came out. I finally checked it out, though, when [ profile] robinmckinley said she was buying it for everyone on her Christmas list. (Yes, it took me six weeks to listen to it… why do you ask?)

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak. Read by Alan Corduner It is Germany, early in World War II. Our narrator is Death. He introduces us to our heroine, Liesel Memminger, when he first meets her. She is on the train on her way to a foster home with her mother and brother, except that her brother dies on the train. At the graveyard where they stop to bury him, she steals her first book: a gravedigger’s manual that the apprentice gravedigger dropped in the snow. It takes time to make a new home, but Liesel slowly begins to fit into her new family on Himmel Street, the poor section of a small town outside Munich. Her new Mama may call her a Saumensch, but her Papa has kind silver eyes and plays a mean accordion. Rudy, the boy next door, has hair the color of lemons and a developing crush on her. Soon her circle of friends expands to include Max, a young Jewish man that they hide in their basement. Papa, barely literate himself, teaches Liesel to read. She plays soccer on the street and steals food and books with Rudy as food rations get tighter and she runs out of books to read. It is only a side note as Death notes the passing of the years and complains about the increasing number of souls that he is expected to ferry away, as we are so involved with daily life on Himmel Street.

Towards the end of the book, Rudy is in his living room building a gigantic domino structure with his younger sisters. He is trying to eavesdrop as his parents, in the kitchen, argue with the SS officers, who want to send Rudy to a special Hitler Youth school. The children have filled the room with dominoes, snaking from all around the room to a central point. Rudy turns out the lights and lights a match as the whole structure comes toppling down. And, just like that, the strands of plot that we were contentedly watching come together and we remember that things do not end happily in Nazi Germany. Even though this was the point where I couldn’t sleep for four hours one night, the book is not a thriller. Death knows what’s coming, and lets us know, a little at a time. He is a careful observer of humanity, and describes things in beautiful and original language. The people and places of Germany are perfectly described. In the audio book, Alan Corduner’s deep, slightly British voice is perfect for Death. He appears to be fluent in German, as well, pronouncing the German words perfectly and giving the characters authentic German accents together with unique character voices. This is a truly beautiful book.
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Here’s one that I started in my Dear Reader emails and then finished. The book was not at all what it seemed like it would be after reading the first 20 pages.

How I Live Now by Meg Rosoff. Narrated by Kim Mai Guest. Fifteen-year-old Daisy is only a little nervous when she leaves her pregnant stepmother in New York to stay with her aunt and cousins in the English countryside. She loves suddenly being part of a large family, and the old farm house with its animals. Then, her aunt leaves the country for a few days. England is attacked and the borders are sealed, leaving four teens and nine-year-old Piper alone in the big house. Somehow, Daisy falls in love with her younger cousin Edmond (fourteen), who seems to be able to read her thoughts. In spite of the ickiness factor, but aided by the war, they have a tender romance that gets only as explicit as “not chaste”. Then the children get discovered and separated, the oldest brother joining the military, Daisy and little Piper to one house, Edmond and his other brother to another, hours apart. As the war gets worse, Daisy knows that it’s up to her to reunite the only family she’s ever felt she belongs in. And as food gets scarcer, the eating disorder she brought over from New York, while never made a focus of the story, starts to look very different.

At the height of the book, Daisy and Piper are traveling secretly across England by foot, foraging for food, and trying to find Edmond, whom Daisy can still hear faintly in her mind. What started off looking like a loveable family drama turns quickly into a survival adventure, with quite explicit and gory violence. If you’re up for that, the story is compelling, with steady action and characters you really care about. The setting is close enough to reality to feel close to home, yet just removed enough to keep it from being a direct commentary on current events. The tangential treatment of an eating disorder worked a whole lot better for me than writing a whole book focused on Girl with Eating Problem. The narrator of the audio book sounds utterly believable as a young teen, making the horrors she experiences that much more vivid. This is a book that will have you inventing reasons to keep listening.
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This book has been out for a couple of years, and I’d been avoiding it because the title sounded so very fluffy. You know, high school intrigue, but with everyone a future princess in a sparkly pink dress. Silly me! Shannon Hale does not write books that fluffy, and I should know better. At least I waited for the audio book. This was an excellent production by Full Cast Audio. And, those who like the sound of Shannon Hale but aren’t so much for teen books can try her first book for adults, just out this summer, called Austenland. Again, the premise sounds silly, but the reviews are all excellent.

Princess AcademyPrincess Academy by Shannon Hale14-year-old Miri’s one goal in life so far has been to convince her father that she’s big enough to quarry valuable linder blocks with him and the rest of the people in the village. Then, a messenger arrives from the distant capital: the priests have chosen Mount Eskel as the home of the prince’s future bride. And since the residents of Mount Eskel are illiterate country bumpkins, all girls of eligible age will be required to attend a Princess Academy for one year to learn the necessary skills to help run a kingdom. At first, no one believes the messenger: The Lowlanders would surely never allow a mountain girl to be Princess. Once at the Academy, though, where winter snows soon block off the route home, the girls have to work hard whether or not they believe. Miri discovers a talent for learning she never knew she had and makes new discoveries about the silent Quarry Speak as she also learns to negotiate the pitfalls of friendships and rivalries. Yes, there is a ball where the prince is meant to choose a bride – but it happens only halfway through the book. With deep reflections on themes of home, belonging, and the nature of romantic love, this is a beautiful book for fans of fairy tale novels and character-based fiction. It’s probably good from 5th grade up, and, oh yes, it was a Newbury honor book.
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Chicks with Sticks
Chicks with Sticks (It’s a Purl Thing) by Elizabeth Lenhard I was sucked in enough to go back and read the first one… where the second book was about the four knitting friends balancing their friendships while dealing with Boys, this first one was nearly equal parts creating the friendship and becoming addicted to knitting. It was still told from Scottie’s point of view, still addictive, girly fun. The knitting patterns in the back were also much easier – wish I could go from knitting a garter stitch scarf to knitting lace socks in the time it takes to finish two books!
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Scrambled Eggs at Midnight
Scrambled Eggs at Midnight by Brad Barkley and Heather Hepler
Cal (short for Calliope) has been traveling with her mother for several years now. Her mother is a professional wench, traveling to Renaissance fairs across the country. Eliott’s father is a born-again Christian whose latest venture is running a “Jesus Wants You to Be Thin” camp. This smart and tender romance features two teens who aren’t buying their parents’ answers to life or love, as they move away from letting their parents define who they are.
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Chicks with Sticks (Knit Two Together) by Elizabeth Lenhard Once again, I accidentally picked up the sequel first. Scottie, Tay, Amanda and Bella are four girls from different backgrounds who bonded over knitting in the first novel. Now they are the Chicks with Sticks, and have become trendsetters in their school. The book focuses mostly on Scottie, the Jewish girl, as she goes from fruitless crushes on almost any boy to her first kiss and the beginnings of a real relationship, and gets angsty about her favorite pastime becoming trendy rather than different. Tay, the tomboy, worries about becoming too entangled with her boyfriend. Bella, a biracial hippie girl, has decided to give up boys until college. Amanda worries that her boyfriends is in love with the idea of a rich and beautiful girlfriends (she’s both) rather than her. Through it all, the girls are sustained by knitting and their friendships. This teen novel is on the formulaic side, and hampered by the use of way too many internet abbreviations, even when they’re not on-line. I found myself guiltily enjoying it. If you like relationships and knitting, you probably will, too.


May. 19th, 2007 12:02 pm
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Snow by Tracy Lynn One of my favorite subgenres of all time is the fairy tale made into a novel. For the conceit to work, the simple cartoon outlines of the original story have to be fleshed out, the story moving from anytime, anywhere, with any motherless child to a particular time, place and characters that feel real. This is a truly excellent example of the art. Jessica was born a duchess in a tiny manor in Wales. Neglected by her father, she took refuge in the kitchens. When her new stepmother came, over forty and determined to produce an heir at any cost, Jessica became a servant girl named Snow. The new duchess’s madness grows, and Snow flees by train to London, where she finds refuge with a little band of outcasts. The late Victorian setting works beautifully for the tale, with the industrial jungle of London substituting for the forest of the original Snow White. Magic and science blend in the stepmother’s experiments, while the world that Snow lives in also flows back and forth between modern and ancient. Lynn keeps the story close enough to the original to be recognizable, yet without providing the neat edges and answers for which fairy tales are known.

Other books in this little series (which I am going to track down) are The Storyteller’s Daughter and Beauty Sleep, both by Cameron Dokey.

boy books

Mar. 15th, 2006 07:53 pm
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Full Service by Will Weaver It’s the summer of ’65. Paul Sutton, a farm boy from a small Minnesota town, takes a job at the local Shell station at his mother’s urging. She wants him to see more of the world than their tightly-knit religious community. Though he initially does it just to please her, there is a lot going on in the world, and it all goes through the gas station. There are the swarms of tourists going to the lakes, the hippies whose bus breaks down and the townfolk who scorn them, the secret high school lovers who make Paul their go-between, and the workers from Paul’s church, who warn him against losing the faith. Like a summer vacation itself, the novel starts out slowly, builds in intensity as the heat rises, then cools as the tourists go home again. Though it feels a tad slow for the teenage boy audience for which it’s presumably intended, Paul’s coming-of-age is authentic and compelling.

Magic Street by Orson Scott Card So the story behind the story is that a black friend of Card’s challenged him to write a fantasy novel with an African-American hero. Not just a sidekick – a real hero. Not a comfortable task for a very white author, but Card does an admirable job. Only two people in the comfortable black middle-class neighborhood of Baldwin Hills know where Mack Street came from – and the woman who got pregnant and gave birth to him all in the same day isn’t one of them. He grows up going in and out of all the houses in Baldwin Hills, firmly part of the community. He’s mostly happy, except that he can see people’s deepest dreams – and when they come true, it always hurts them. A girl who dreams of being a fish wakes up inside her parents’ waterbed, and is permanently brain-damaged by the time she’s found. Eventually Mack Street finds out that he is the center of a centuries-old conflict between immortals, and must decide whose side he’s on before everyone’s dreams start coming true. It’s good solid modern fantasy.
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My Lucky Star by Joe Keenan In Keenan’s third offering featuring former lover Phillip and Gilbert and their best pal Claire, the action is fast, furious, and hilarious. (No, I haven’t read the first two, either, but I might look them up.) Phillip is crushed over the failure of his and Claire’s latest play in New York. Gilbert is in L.A. visiting his mother and her new husband, a famous movie producer. Faster that you can say “transcontinental flight”, Gilbert is pulling strings to get Phillip, Claire and himself a job screenwriting a schmaltzy World War II flick for a renowned action producer. Now, as long as no one with any background in film history finds the sample script Gilbert turned in, they’ll be off to a promising new career. When closeted male action star Stephen Donato turns out to be involved, Phillip offers to spy on Stephen’s aunt Lilly and help with her memoir-writing, in a desperate bid both to keep the script-writing job and gain Stephen’s favor. Keeping Gilbert from getting them into any more trouble gets even harder when Gilbert’s blackmailing ex-wife, Moira, turns up. Phillip’s narrative is full of snappy cultural references and self-deprecating humor, and the action doesn’t let up in this hilarious comic caper.

Buddha Boy by Kathe Koja Justin is an ordinary boy in an ordinary high school, a high school with a strict social hierarchy violently enforced by those on the top. Justin keeps his place in the middle mostly by staying under the radar with his friends Jakob and Megan. Then a new boy comes – Michael, who calls himself Jinsen. With his shaved head, hand-me-downs, and begging bowl, he immediately draws attention to himself. At first, Justin avoids the freak along with everyone else. Then he finds himself drawn towards Jinsen by a shared interest in art. This unfortunately only serves to make Jinsen a bigger target for the bullies of the school – but what does a bully do when a victim refuses to play along? The characters and the cruelty are familiar, but Koja does a spectacular job of telling a story that is realistic without being preachy, saccharine, or devoid of hope. Jinsen’s character manages never to cross the fine line over which sanctimoniousness and unbelievability lie. Justin, too, grows a healthy amount of spine over the course of the book. The story is especially well suited to the audio production, where it is read by a full cast, bringing the teen voices even more fully to life.
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It’s been quite a while since I found the time to post. I’m feeling terribly behind, and also that I’ve forgotten one of the books I read. Hopefully not, and if it was something fabulous that you all really need to hear about – then hopefully, I’ll remember it to tell you about it. Anyway, I now find that I don’t have time to write up even the books I remember I read.

Every year, we buy books for the nieces and (usually) nephews for Christmas. I pick out books for them based on reviews, and then try to gobble them up between buying and gifting, to make sure they fit the recipient. This year, alas, I only got through two of them, but as Eric had read one and I had read another book by the same author for the fourth – well, we hope they work out.

We actually accidentally bought two books for this niece, but I was so charmed by this one that I returned the other one unread, even though it is the latest Traveling Pants book.
Boy Proof by Cecil Castellucci Meet Victoria Denton, aka Egg, cinephile and senior in high school in Hollywood. She has always felt isolated and different from everyone else. Her head is shaved bare in honor of Egg, the main character from Terminal Earth, her favorite movie, but she’s sure that no boy would ask her out even if she did have hair. Then she meets Max, who forces her to take a new look at herself. How much of her isolation has she caused herself, and could there be life worth paying attention to outside of the movies? Egg’s journey is filled with real high school angst, plus the fun details of a teen living in Hollywood. Boy Proof is a teen girl coming-of-age novel, but Egg is such an appealing and convincing geek that I would recommend it to geeks of both sexes and all ages.
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Letting Go of Bobby James, Or, How I Found My Self of Steam by Sally Jo Walker by Valerie Hobbs Sally Jo “Jody” Walker is 16 years old, and the first member of her family to graduate from eighth grade. She’s from Texas, but in Florida on her honeymoon, when her new husband ups and slaps her. Shaken, she hides in the gas station restroom. He leaves without her and she decides she’s not going to go back to Texas and a history of abused wives. While this book really has the potential to be just another depressing teen issues book, and the issues are indeed there, and serious, the reader ends up taking a delightful journey with a wonderfully spunky heroine, who does end up finding her “self of steam”.
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So I’m supposed to review a teen book for the library web site for next month. I think, “I could review another fun fantasy, but maybe I should see if the teen librarian has any good ideas.” So I go ask her. Lesson One: Do not, I repeat, do not, ask the teen librarian for assistance picking a book unless you have at least 15-20 minutes to spend listening to her talk about at least one book on every shelf in the section. Lesson Two: Teen literature can be really awfully depressing. Oh, wait, I already knew lesson two. That’s why I so often stick to fantasy.

Chanda’s Secrets by Allan Stratton Note that this book won a Printz award, the highest ALA gives to literature for young adults. As the book opens, 16-year-old Chanda, who lives in an imaginary but representative sub-Saharan country, is out shopping for a coffin for her 18-month-old baby sister, which the family can’t afford. And events do indeed go downhill from there. Chanda’s best friend starts skipping school to turn tricks to earn enough money to bring her scattered family back together, her parents having died of AIDS, though no one will admit it. Her drunken stepfather, her third since her father and two brothers died, leaves and looks to be very ill. She suspects her mother may have AIDS, too. It tries to end hopefully, will Chanda working for people not to be so ashamed of AIDS that they refuse to try to prevent it or treat it. But really, I can only recommend this book to people – probably teens – who feel that they need to drown themselves in a very depressing and very real problems not their own.

I’m not even sure I want to go so far as to put this one on the web site.
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The Second Summer of the Sisterhood by Ann Brashares In this sequel to the teen bestseller The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, we follow – you guessed it – the summer after our four friends’ sophomore year of high school. The magical pants that fit everyone are taken out of storage as Lena, Carmen, Tibby and Bridget prepare to go their separate ways for the summer. Lena has broken up with the handsome Greek boy she started dating last summer, but can’t stop thinking about him. Tibby goes off to film camp. Carmen is distracted from her first date by the horror of her mother going on dates of her own. Bridget, who gained 15 pounds and dyed her blond hair brown in her depression during the winter, goes off to Alabama to visit her grandmother anonymously. The storylines might be a bit predictable, and the book is difficult to follow if you aren’t familiar with the first one. But on the whole, it’s a wonderful example of teen literature. The characters are supportive of each other, but all different, three dimensional and full of teenage flaws and plenty of angst. The writing is vivid in a way that feels authentically teen. I do wish that the narrator on the audio version had been able to create different voices for the girls, and distinguish between male and female voices. But this is again a minor quibble, as on the whole, I really enjoyed this book.

Adorable Knits for Tots by Zoe Mellor Yep, the little outfits are adorable. But, on the whole, I think this book is for a more advanced, less busy knitter than me. Nearly every pattern uses intarsia, and I just don't think I can follow complicated charts right now. Maybe if I'm feeling ambitious one day, I'll try the pirate sweater, which features a skull and crossbones on navy for the body, with red and white striped sleeves. Or maybe I'll try to see if Grandma will knit it.
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Way behind, but here we go....

Montmorency: Thief, Liar, Gentleman? by Eleanor Updale Well, you know, when someone puts a book in my hand and says, “Read this – you’ll like it”, I usually do read it. This one the teen librarian put into my hands. It’s a fine Victorian adventure of a swashbuckling type, even though there are no actual duels involved. Montmorency was an ordinary thief in Victorian England, when a fall injured him badly enough to make him a curiosity to an upper-class doctor – could he possibly be fixed? As he is escorted from prison to the homes and lecture halls of the upper class by the doctor, he hatches a plan to make a better life for himself using his new knowledge of the ways of the aristocracy and – most important – the brand new sewer system. At first, he plays his own servant, using a lower class persona to steal and an upper class persona to sell the goods. But soon, the line between pretence and reality blurs, and Montmorency becomes tangled in even bigger things.

The Amulet of Samarkand by Jonathan Stroud You know I have a weakness for a good fantasy, and this one got starred reviews in all the publishing magazines. The story is set in an alternate-reality modern London, where wizards run Parliament. The narrative alternates between the third-person story of Nathaniel, a young and ambitious wizard’s apprentice, and Bartimaeus, the ancient and powerful djinni he calls up to serve him. The djinni was for me the best part of the story – in the audio book, his voice sounds like a jaded and snarky Tim Curry – tired of the magicians who always think they know best, proud of his own exploits. But the rest of the story was pretty disappointing for me. Yes, it was exciting and fast-paced, but the plot was motivated by nothing but fairly routine revenge, lots of politics, and little to no character growth. The only women in the story were weak characters who, though loved by our hero, did nothing in the end but inspire him to more revenge by their failure to survive. There was a very interesting subplot about a group of commoners trying to overthrow the repressive wizard government, but so far our characters are firmly aligned with the wizards. I can hope for more from the two sequels currently planned. In the meantime – it’s great stuff for adolescent boys who want fast-rolling adventure without too much subtlety.

No Ordinary Matter by Jenny McPhee The quote which begins this book says something along the lines of, “Truth is stranger than fiction only because we can’t make things up as strange as the truth.” The book then launches into a highly improbable plot that nevertheless manages to be both entertaining and thoughtful. Veronica Moore, soap-opera writer, has always felt in the shadow of older sister Lillian, a successful neurologist. Lillian has recently become pregnant, having chosen an unwitting sperm donor for a one-night stand. When the same man is hired as an actor on Veronica’s soap, she falls in love with him, but can’t tell her sister. In the meantime, the sisters have hired a detective to help them discover the secrets they think their father had when he died 25 years earlier. It only gets crazier from there.

Naming Ceremonies by Mandy Ross
Birth and Growing Up Ceremonies by World Book “How does one welcome a baby into the community?” a friend recently asked me, “Especially if you don’t want to promise to raise him exclusively in one religion?” Well, as it turns out, books on such things for adults are in short supply. Instead, I found these two books. They’re aimed at children, but have helpful and interesting information on how birth is celebrated in different cultures, with double-paged spreads featuring traditions from major religions and cultures. The World Book offering includes general coming-of-age ceremonies with the naming and birth ceremonies covered in the Ross book. The Ross book seems geared towards slightly younger children, with potentially unfamiliar terms bolded and defined in the glossary. Overall, though both are good resources with lots of information and pictures, I felt that the Ross book with its more limited focus was able to cover the topic better. It focused more on current traditions and the people that follow them, with fewer stereotypical statements such as, “Children in the middle ages were often abandoned” or “All Native American cultures lived in harmony with nature,” which seem to me neither helpful nor relevant.

Certain Women by Madeleine L’Engle This is, I admit, a 15-year-old book by a favorite author, which I was re-reading for comfort fare. L’Engle is one of my favorites for her ability to write about complex things happening to complex people, and yet have the stories be about hope, not despair. This story follows Emma Wheaton, successful actress and daughter of the wildly famous actor David Wheaton. As the story opens, they and various other family members are taking a last cruise in his small boat as he is dying. David Wheaton has seen himself much like the Biblical David, especially regarding the many wives that both of them had (there’s a handy chart in the front to keep them straight.), and dreamed of starring in the play about King David that Emma’s now-estranged husband never finished writing. Chapters take their names from the wives of both Davids, and the story alternates between the present and Emma’s past, including scenes from the play. It’s not as complicated as it sounds, and an engaging and thoughtful book.


May. 9th, 2004 02:36 pm
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Here’s the last teen book for a while:
Olive’s Ocean by Kevin Henkes Twelve-year-old Martha is packing to go on her annual visit to her grandmother’s beach home when the mother of a classmate who was recently killed in a traffic accident stops by with a note written by the dead girl. Olive wrote about her dreams: to visit the ocean, and to be friends with Martha. Suddenly, Martha’s ordinary summer is turning out not to be so ordinary. This novel had the potential to be really depressing, but instead is a beautiful reflection about life from a girl who is just discovering what it means to be truly alive. Written in short, poetic chapters, Olive’s Ocean shines like the sun through polished sea glass.

It’s spring. I admit, I haven’t yet done much more than pull up the new crop of thistles from the garden, but I have Plans. It’s the first time we’ve ever had our own garden, and it’s dreadfully exciting. So here are a couple of gardening books.

The Weekend Garden Guide: Work-Saving Ways to a Beautiful Backyard by Susan A. Roth I may have mentioned things about not having lots of time. I love flowers, and beautiful gardens, but really I have neither the time nor the inclination to spend all my free time in the summer heat trying to keep a garden going. This book was a revelation! Roth starts with general ways to keep a garden low-maintenance (and even low-cost!), and then goes through different types of gardens, listing specific plants to use and to avoid. This ends up with a garden that may not be native plants, but is well suited for its particular environment. One note: it’s over 10 years old now, and a couple of the species she recommends are now considered invasive. Also, the book presupposes a fair amount of garden knowledge, but even with my very limited garden experience, I was able to understand it. These minor quibbles aside, I’ll probably buy a copy to take to the nursery with me.

Gardening for Dummies by Michael MacCaskey This one is gardening basics and terminology. It is great at covering the basics, and I was especially impressed at their coverage of chemical use in the garden. They favor low-impact methods, and tell you when not to panic, and which guns to bring out in which order and when. Compared with The Weekend Garden Guide, unsurprisingly, it focused much less on how hard individual plants are to take care of. Since I am now determined to have an easy-care garden, I’m now less enthused by this book. But, really, as one expects from the series, it’s a fine and easy-to-understand introduction to gardening.


Apr. 25th, 2004 02:07 pm
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I have this feeling that most of the people who read these humble entries left teen books behind in their teen years and have not looked back. I, however, regard children’s and teen books as comfort fare, to be returned to whenever life gets a little rough. The characters always grow and even the toughest situations are usually viewed with optimism – much more cheerful than adult books. And this week, with airplane rides and visits to the doctor, I definitely needed cheerful reading. So, at the risk of boring my audience:

Boy Meets Boy by David Levithan In a town where PFLAG has higher attendance than the PTA, and the homecoming queen is a drag queen and the star quarterback, Paul meets the boy of his dreams. While the course of true love isn’t entirely smooth, this is the first-ever gay romance where the gay part of the romance isn’t cause for large doses of angst. Leaving the gay-related angst out makes room for probably the sweetest, most touching teen romance I’ve ever read. It’s guaranteed to leave you feeling warm and fuzzy and just a little happier about the world.

Goose Girl by Shannon Hale A friend of mine once mentioned that she thought fairy tales weren’t very applicable to modern-day life. Pardon? Princess Anidori never felt very comfortable being a princess or talking to people, but she is prepared to marry a prince she’s never met to save her kingdom. On the long journey there, her lady-in-waiting convinces the guards that she would make a better princess than Ani. The few guards loyal to Ani are killed, and Ani hides as a goose girl to escape herself. Having lost her country and her identity – and still in danger of losing her life – Ani must work hard to figure out who she really is and where she can fit in. OK, so maybe her situation is a little extreme – but how many of us haven’t had to reinvent and reevaluate ourselves? Relevant to your life or not, this is a beautiful and compelling story of betrayal and redemption.

Alice, I Think by Susan Juby Redemption again. In this case, Alice is trying to redeem herself from her aging-hippie parents, who were cruel enough to let her start first grade dressed in a burlap hobbit costume. Now in high school, and home schooled since the fateful hobbit incident, Alice knows she must try normal society again, or be forever doomed. Her counselor, Death Lord Bob, encourages her to make a list of Life Goals. Coming up with the goals is easy – making them happen is another thing entirely. Yes, it’s an angsty teen, but her misadventures on the road to normalcy are laugh-out-loud funny.

And on a completely unrelated note, The Girlfriend’s Guide to Pregnancy by Vicki Iovine This was recommended to me by several friends, and it is indeed chock full of useful information. Figuring that there are plenty of books out there already to give you the medical advice, this one focuses solely on how to deal – with morning sickness, with the Pregnancy Police, with being too big for your regular clothes but too small for maternity clothes. The collected advice of the author and her Girlfriends are presented with a view towards practicality and humor. The advice is pretty mainstream – the author is firmly in favor of giving birth in the hospital, for example, where a doctor will be there if something goes wrong and someone else will clean up afterwards. But, even if you are leaning towards home birth and a family bed, there’s plenty of useful advice in here for everyone.
[Updated 2007-09-17] I've since changed my mind about this book. It's great for its humorous take on pregnancy, and encouraging you not to worry too much. But the practical advice is often just plain wrong - she tells you that things just don't matter that do, like eating, exercising and whether or not to breastfeed. And, from friends who've done it, if you hire a midwife for a home birth, she will clean up for you, too.


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