Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Found by Margaret Peterson Haddix

Main Characters: (Almost) Thirteen-year-olds Jonah and Chip, and Jonah's younger sister Katherine
Location: Undefined
Time Period: Contemporary
Genre: YA Fiction, Science Fiction, Time Travel
Series: The Missing #1

A plane mysteriously appears at an airport terminal. It was not scheduled, it was not on radar, it did not land. It just appeared. When airport personnel boarded it, they found no crew. But in each of the thirty-six seats on the plane was a crying baby.

Thirteen years later, Jonah receives a letter. There is no return address, no signature, just a single sentence: "You are one of the missing."

Seriously, do you need more than that to want to read this book?

This is the first book in a new series by the author of the Shadow Children series (better known--in my library, at least--as the Among the... series) and as such has to lay a lot of groundwork for the rest of the series. But Haddix keeps the story moving along to the climactic reveal--which is so much more complex than I was expecting. As with the Shadow Children series, there is the potential to follow many different characters through various adventures and some who were minor characters in this book could become major characters later. According to her website, there will be seven books in this series, just as in the Shadow Children, and the second one, Sent, will come out in August 2009. I can hardly wait.

Found is on the 2009-2010 Texas Lone Star Reading List.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

The Penderwicks on Gardam Street by Jeanne Birdsall

Main characters: Rosalind, Jane, Skye, and Batty Penderwick
Location: Massachusetts
Time period: Contemporary
Genre: J Fiction, Family
Sequel to: The Penderwicks: A Summer Tale of Four Sisters, Two Rabbits, and a Very Interesting Boy

The delightful Penderwick family is back. The story starts with a flashback to the hospital where the mother is dying of cancer. She writes a letter to her husband, asking him to start dating, and gives it to Claire to pass on in about 3 or 4 years. Jump forward 3 or 4 years, and the family is anticipating a visit from their beloved Aunt Claire. But Claire chooses this visit to pass on the letter.

The girls are dismayed at the thought of their father dating and possibly even re-marrying. After all, they've watched Rosalind's friend Anna go through too many stepmothers to count, and they all remember the disgusting Dexter, stepfather of their friend Jeffrey from the first book. Their father is no less dismayed at the thought of dating, though he agrees to go out with at least four women before he calls it quits. The girls know they have to come up with a plan that allows them to maintain the Penderwick family honor without risking a horrible stepmother.

But that's not all they have to contend with. There are soccer rivalries, first crushes, switching homework, and Batty's mysterious Bug Man (who may or may not be in her imagination.) There's also the nice new neighbor and her darling baby boy to balance out all whatever unpleasantness arises.

There is a warm, comforting quality to these books that is reminiscent of older, much beloved titles such as the Melendy family books, the Ramona books, or the Moffat family books. Whatever crises the family goes through, the reader knows that all will turn out well and that the strong love these sisters and their father have will not waver. I hope that Jeanne Birdsall plans to write more stories about them.

The Penderwicks on Gardam Street is on the 2009-2010 Texas Bluebonnet Award Nominee list.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

47 by Walter Mosley

Main Character: 47, a young slave boy
Location: Early 19th-century Georgia
Time period: Before the Civil War
Genre: YA Fiction, Historical Fiction, Science Fiction

Since I am a librarian, my young patrons believe that I have read and know intimately every book on my shelf. I cannot begin to tell you how far that is from the truth. I read reviews, I select books for purchase based on those reviews, patron requests, and what I feel will be necessary to fill my patrons current and future needs. When new books come in, I pull some to read, but there are so many more than I can possibly read (even if librarians do just sit around reading books all day long as so many patrons think.) Sometimes I need a nudge to pick up an overlooked book.

That's what happened here. I was reading one of many book-related blogs that I subscribe to when I ran across an entry on this book, Walter Mosley's 47. (Sadly, I cannot remember which blog it was. If I find it again, I'll add a link down below.) The description of a science-fiction novel which centered on slaves in the deep south was too intriguing to resist, and lo and behold, there it was on my shelf.

47 is a young slave boy who has never been given a name. Because his mother had been a favorite of the plantation owner's wife, he has been allowed to grow up near the house, protected and coddled by Mama Flore. But when the owner deems him big enough to work out in the fields, he is sent down to the slave quarters and given the number 47--in fact it is branded into his shoulder. One day he encounters a new man who calls himself Tall John. Tall John appears to be an escaped slave from a neighboring plantation, but he tells 47 that he is really a creature from another planet who has come to find 47, knowing that 47 will one day be the salvation of his planet.

Fortunately, the science fiction aspect does not detract from the slavery story, but it does allow Tall John to teach 47 that he is a slave as much because he believes it as because Mr. Tobias says it's so. Once 47 learns the lesson to think of himself as a man instead of a slave he is able to recognize the first steps to freedom.

One balancing act that books about slavery for young readers have to master is how graphically to describe the conditions the people lived under. (Books about the Holocaust have the same hurdle.) How much can you describe? If you don't go deep enough, you run the risk of the reader thinking "well, that's not so bad," but if you get too graphic then you are no longer appropriate for your audience. Though Mosley does not shy away from some physical torture, like the branding of 47's shoulder, he shows more the psychological enslavement. What could be more dehumanizing than not even getting a name? Not only are the slaves known by their numbers, but the numbers are interchangeable--Tall John is given the number 12 because the previous number 12 has just died. Names give you an identity; 84 is a bitter and angry slave until Tall John names her Tweenie. Watching her transform under John's attention shows 47 that she is a person. (Maddeningly, 47 never gets a name of his own--Tall John says that he has one, but we never learn what it is.)

This is not a feel-good book or a science-fiction adventure romp. You have to be in the right mind-set to appreciate it. It is a thought-provoking (oh, that overused term!) piece of literature. And for those who are in the right mind-set to have some thought provoked, it is a rewarding read.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Silks by Dick Francis and Felix Francis

Main character: Lawyer Geoffrey Mason
Location: London, mostly
Time period: Contemporary
Genre: Adult Fiction, Mystery, Horse racing

Though Dick Francis novels are not in the the subset of mysteries known as "British cozies," they are still very comforting. You know that the hero will be at heart a thoroughly decent fellow who will somehow become the target of villainous thugs but will ultimately prevail. Oh, and there will be horses on the racetrack.

Geoffrey Mason is a defense lawyer in London's Old Bailey but his heart belongs to steeple chasing; he is an amateur rider on his own horse though he knows that he's getting a bit long in the tooth for it. Through his riding, he is on nodding acquaintance with professional jockeys Scot Barlow and Steve Mitchell. When Scot is murdered and Steve is the prime suspect, Geoffrey is the one Steve turns to for help. Soon after, Geoffrey becomes the target of harassing phone calls, mysterious notes, and threatening photos.

Dick Francis is now writing with his son, Felix, who gets co-author credit, but the story is vintage Francis. I noticed a few places where he repeated himself, but those were easily forgiven. The storyline moves forward at a steady pace, the descriptions of the horse races are vibrant and heart pounding, and it all comes to a very satisfactory conclusion. What more can you ask for?

Saturday, December 13, 2008

The Tomb of the Golden Bird by Elizabeth Peters

Main characters: Amelia Peabody, and her ever expanding family
Location: Thebes, Egypt
Time period: 1920s
Genre: Fiction, Mystery, Archaeology

Oh, I do love the Amelia Peabody mysteries! In the volume, we finally witness the opening of King Tut's tomb--something that we have been anticipating ever since Howard Carter showed up as a character in the series. Of course, we've also known that Emerson cannot be directly involved in the exploration of the tomb; he is forced to watch from the sidelines because he has (yet again) offended the powers that be.

But of course there's plenty to keep the Emerson clan busy. Besides their own excavations, there are mysterious happenings going on. Ramses's daughter, Charla, is lured away by a strange man in the marketplace, though she is soon found unharmed. Even their ancient and loyal butler, Gargery, has an adventure when he is kidnapped--though also released unharmed. Ramses and Emerson walk into an obvious trap to try to get to the bottom of it; their captors repeatedly ask "where is he?" which begs the question--which he? It could only be Sethos, still in the spy business even though it threatens to destroy his marriage.

I have to admit that I no longer read this series for the mysteries. My greatest joy is just revisiting this lively group of characters. It's like attending a family reunion each time a new book comes out; you catch up on what's been going on since the last time we met, marvel at how the children are growing, and enjoy lots of energetic conversation about history ancient and modern.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Field of Blood by Eric Wilson

Main character: Gina Lazarescu
Location: Various places, mostly Romania and the southern United States
Time period: Late 1990's
Genre: Christian fiction, supernatural, vampires
Series: Jerusalem's Undead Trilogy #1

I received this book as part of a program being run by Thomas Nelson publishers. Bloggers who register with them can get a free book as long as they agree to blog about it. I thought it would be a good challenge for me to write up a book that I might not otherwise pick up to read, and this is the first one I chose. Let me say that I have not read a lot of Christian fiction--when I look for an adult book, I generally head for the mystery section--so the thought of a Christian vampire book was too intriguing to pass up.

An archaeological dig in Jerusalem disturbs an anicent burial place, allowing a group of demons to inhabit and regenerate the bodies inside. These demons are called Collectors; at one point they refer to the time that the Nazarene (they never refer to Christ by name) expelled them from a man and sent them into pigs which were then drowned, apparently referring to the incident related in Mark 5:09-13. Since then they have been trapped in an incorporeal existence and are rather out of touch with the rest of their kind. (Other demons have survived and since moved to Romania, giving rise to the legend of the vampire.) Demons are able to inhabit and possess any living being--human, animal, or insect--but these particular demons, led by Lord Ariston, are the first to be able to revive the dead.

Meanwhile, a young girl named Gina has been raised by her mother in a very remote part of Romania. Gina's mother, Nikki, is ruled by superstitions and Gina is longing to escape her tight reins and to be seen as an independent young woman, not as a little girl. Then one day a man arrives, a man her mother obviously knows, tells them they are in danger and takes them away. They escape to America, change their names and start their new lives. What Gina does not know, what her mother does not want to tell her, is that Gina is an immortal, the daughter of one of the Nistarim, and as such will always be a target of the Collectors.

The events in the book span great distances in time and space, and it is not always clear when the setting jumps. For example, Gina is hit by a truck; she should have been killed but walks away with barely a scratch. Shortly afterwards, her mother refers to the accident as having been two years ago--but there was little indication that that much time had elapsed; I thought it had been a few weeks at most. I found the references to the Nistarim confusing--I am not familiar with the Talmudic tradition of the Nistarim and had to look it up. I am still not clear on how Gina can be the child of a Nistarim but not a Nistarim herself but her child could be one. When it seems as if Dov, a young orphan boy that Gina takes under her wing, is a Nistarim, it is unclear whether he has always been one from birth or has become one. A framing device, of a person reading a letter marked with four drops of blood, and seeing the memories of different characters through these drops of blood, also raises more questions than it answers, but will most likely be addressed in the future books.

On the other hand, I really liked the image of a Collector's bite creating a thorny vine which grows within the victim and the blood that collects in the thorns being a purer form of blood which they find more nourishing. I also liked that the demons find a single, sometimes petty, vice to exploit in their victims, creating a sense of discontent. (It reminded me of C.S. Lewis's The Screwtape Letters, or Peter Cook's devil in the 1967 movie Bedazzled: in both those cases, the devil's most effective work was not the great disasters but the little daily annoyances.) Even Dahlia's self-righteousness was shown as a vanity which could be exploited.

I'm not going to waiting expectantly for the next book in the trilogy, but I will read it to find out what happens next.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

A Bad Boy Can Be Good for a Girl by Tanya Lee Stone

Main Characters:  Josie, Nicolette, and Aviva
Location:  High School 
Time period:  Contemporary
Genre:  YA Fiction, Fiction in verse

Josie is a freshman when HE notices her.  HE tells her she's the only one that HE can open up to, the only one HE can tell his reveal his deepest, truest feelings to.  Nicolette is older, more experienced (though she mostly hooks up with guys from another school so she doesn't get a reputation) when she meets HIM and breaks her own rules.   Aviva, too, falls under HIS spell.  And each of them discovers that HE was just playing them, racking up points.

The girls do get a bit of revenge.  No, they don't take HIM down and make HIM change HIS ways.  But they do band together and discover they are not alone.  Josie finds a copy of Judy Blume's Forever on the school library shelf, and writes a note on one of the blank pages in the back.  Soon the empty pages are filled by many more than just these three girls.  

As a librarian, I know I should cringe at the thought of the book being defaced (and if I found a book written in like this in real life, I would most likely weed it out of the collection) but in context it felt so right.  I will point out that this is for more mature readers--there are no graphic descriptions, but two of the girls do have sex.  That said, I enjoyed this book, and I liked the girl power solution that the girls found to cope with their shared pain and to warn other potential victims.   

Friday, December 5, 2008

Skin Hunger by Kathleen Duey

Main Characters: Sadima and Hahp
Location: undefined
Time period: undefined, but Sadima's story feels Medieval, while Hahp's is hundreds of years later
Genre: YA Fiction, Fantasy
Series: A Resurrection of Magic #1

Sadima lives in a world without real magic, though there are hucksters and charlatans aplenty. When Sadima is born, a magician robs the family instead of helping, leaving the mother to die. Her father and brother then distrust any talk of magic, so Sadima keeps secret her ability to understand animals. Then one day she encounters Franklin, a young man who also has a talent for magic and who convinces her to come to the city and join him and his master, Somiss, who are trying to revive the old ways. Sadima soon discovers that Somiss is a abusive master, but cannot convince Franklin to leave him.

Hundreds of years later, Hahp is sent by his father to the magic academy to learn to be a wizard. There are ten boys joining the academy at the same time, and they discover a strange and cruel world where they are barely taught but left to discover things on their own--with the admonition that they will learn or die. Literally. They are forbidden to help each other, but some of the boys develop small ways to give hints. Oh, and did I mention that Franklin and Somiss are running the academy?

Sadima and Hahp's stories are told in alternating chapters, which is a format I usually dislike--it seems that just as one story begins to get interesting, the author switches to the other. But Duey carries it off well. Sshe doesn't use a lot of cliff-hangers; each chapter is complete in itself so the switch between Sadima and Hahp's narratives is not jarring. And though they live hundreds of years apart, there are definite connections between the two characters--something Sadima learns in one chapter can shed light on Hahp's story later on.

Because this is the first in a trilogy, there are many questions left unanswered. I look forward to the rest of the books and the answers that they contain.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Two-Minute Drill by Mike Lupica

Main Character: 6th-grader Scott Parry
Location: undefined
Time period: Contemporary
Genre: J Fiction, Sports, Football
Series: Mike Lupica's Comeback Kids

Mike Lupica has written some good sports novels for YAs and now turns his sights towards younger readers with his Comeback Kids series. Reading this book put me in mind of when I was in grade school and reading Matt Christopher, which were the epitome of sports books for kids then and still popular now.

Scott Parry is the new kid in school, trying very hard to make new friends. He is smart but clutzy, which makes him the target of Jimmy Dolan--football player, son of the football coach, and school bully. Things get worse when Scott gets on the football team and Jimmy treats him like his personal tackle dummy. Fortunately, Scott does make friends with Chris Conlan, the team's quarterback. The two get together and practice on the field Scott and his dad marked off behind his house. Chris discovers that while Scott is not very good at catching the football, he is very good at kicking. But Chris has his own problem--he has trouble reading and if he can't pass an upcoming test his parents won't let him play football anymore. The two make a deal--Chris will help Scott with football, and Scott will help Chris with reading.

I enjoyed this book, even though I'm not a big football fan. Scott is a good kid, who is trying to be independent and solve his own problems. His friendship with Chris has its ups and downs, but they are both willing to work at it, and to apologize when they hurt each other. Jimmy isn't as fully fleshed out as the others, but he isn't just a cardboard character; early on, Chris offers some insight as to why he acts as he does. And while Coach Dolan seems to be blind to his son's misconduct, he is still trying to be a good coach.

Two-Minute Drill is on the 2009-2010 Texas Bluebonnet Award List.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Into the Wild by Sarah Beth Durst

Main Character: Julia
Location: Partly in an undefined real-world place, partly in fairy tale land
Time period: Contemporary
Genre: YA Fiction, Fairy Tales

Julie is a girl from two worlds. She lives in the real world and goes to junior high, but her brother is a cat--Puss-in-Boots to be precise--and the Wild, the remnants of the fairy tale world, is kept under her bed. You see, Julia's mother is really Rapunzel (or Zel for short) and while she may look like a simple hairdresser, she was once a fierce warrior who defeated the Wild and freed all the fairy tale characters to live their own lives. Well, almost all of them. Her prince, Julie's father, sacrificed himself in the final battle.

So Julie has never really felt like she belongs anywhere. She longs to know more about her father, but more than anything she really wants to just be a normal girl with a normal life. After dinner with her mother, grandmother, and Snow's seven, her frustration spills out and she tells Zel she wishes Zel wasn't her mother. The next day, her mother is gone and the Wild has escaped her bedroom and begun to transform the town. Julie knows that she--the one person who knows all about the Wild but has never been there--is the only person who might possibly escape the Wild's traps and help her mother defeat it once again.

This was a fun book, with all its references to classic fairy tales and even a few lesser known ones. I loved Julie's friend, Gillian, who puts up her own unique battle with the Wild. Boots' dilemma of wanting to find a soul mate--or at least another talking cat--even if it means losing his freedom is touching; he reminded me of Hoggle in the movie Labyrinth. I even enjoyed the fact that the librarian is the villain. Well, maybe villain is too strong a word, but still.

Friday, November 14, 2008

The House of the Scorpion by Nancy Farmer

Main character: Matteo Alacrán, a clone
Location: Opium, a stretch of land dividing Mexico from the United States
Time period: Some time in the future
Genre: YA Fiction, Futuristic, Dystopian Society

For as far back as he can remember, Matteo has lived with Celia in a little shack. He was never allowed outside, for there were monsters there waiting to snatch him up especially at night. Then when he is five, some children came to the shack and find him. They took him to the big house and make a big deal over him until they find the tattoo on the bottom of his foot that says "Property of the Alacrán Estate." Matteo is a clone.

Have you ever noticed that--without even trying--you will find a continuing theme in various books that you read at about the same time? I've got a little cluster right here dealing with identity and humanity, starting with Robin Wasserman's Skinned and Meg Cabot's Airhead. Now I run into the same theme here. Matteo has not been transplanted into another body like Lia and Em. Instead, he learns that he has been specifically created to provide organs for transplanting in case El Patrón needs them. He is not considered human--he is on a level with the farm animals.

How much of your identity is intrinsic and how much is the way people see and treat you? Lia thinks of herself as human though everyone around her sees a machine, and in time begins to see herself as something other than human. Em has her own memories and personality, but finds her body sometimes at odds--such as when it prefers tofu to ice cream. And because of the agreement her parents made, she has to assume the identity of Nikki Howard and at the end seems to have found a comfortable compromise. But they were both teenagers and had had their own life experiences before catastrophic events changed their lives forever. Except for his very early childhood, Matteo has been raised knowing he's a clone--even if he doesn't know exactly what that means. Among the household children, Tom actively bullies him, Stephen ignores him, but María accepts him as is. Among the adults, Celia protects him, El Patrón spoils him, and Tam Lin tries to teach him. But they all send out the message that he is different, that he is not one of them.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Rash by Peter Hautman

Main character: Sixteen-year-old Bo Marsten
Location: The United Safe States of America
Time period: about one hundred years in the future
Genre: YA Fiction, Futuristic, Dystopian Society

One hundred years from now, the United States (excuse me, The United Safe States) is the safest place on earth. The track team wears padding and helmets, and the track is made out of a more cushioned surface--sure track times have decreased, but at least no one gets hurt if they fall down. There are security cameras everywhere. No one has to work for a living any more, so all labor is done by convicts--which are in ready supply since practically any display of anger is against the law.

Bo is falsely accused of causing a skin rash which has spread rapidly through his school and as a result is sentenced to manufacture frozen pizza in a facility located in the Canadian tundra. There, he finds himself on an illegal football team run by the head warden. In the meantime, Bork, an artificial intelligence computer program that Bo created for a school assignment tracks him down and tries to free him.

This is a sardonic book, taking current trends and attempts to make society safer and stretching them beyond their logical ends to create a world in which safety is a trap. So ask yourself, how would you balance safety and freedom? And how cool would it be to have your own Bork?

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Piper Reed, Navy Brat by Kimberly Willis Holt

Main character: Nine-year-old Piper Reed
Location: Pensacola, Florida
Time period: Contemporary
Genre: J Fiction, Family

Piper Reed is the middle of three sisters, and--as the title informs us--a navy brat. That means that she is used to her family packing up and moving across country on short notice every couple of years. As, indeed, they have to do at the beginning of this book, leaving San Diego for Pensacola (or, as little sister Sam says, Pepsi-Cola) Florida.

This is an episodic family story, like all those Henry, Beezus and Ramona books by Beverly Cleary. Piper is a resourceful and clever girl. She's dyslexic so she sometimes struggles with schoolwork, but she is the one who is able to remember where little sister Sam left her doll and then deduces which moving box it's been packed in. While staying with cousins along the road, older sister Tori shows a mean side, but when Piper invites new friends to a party promising a real gypsy fortuneteller, Tori comes through and saves the day.

Piper Reed, Navy Brat is on the 2009-2010 Texas Bluebonnet Award Nominee List.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Airhead by Meg Cabot

Main Characters: Ordinary high school student Em Watts and teen supermodel Nikki Howard
Location: New York City
Time period: Contemporary
Genre: YA Fiction, Comedy, Popular Culture, Celebrity, Identity

Emerson "Em" Watts has no time or patience for fashion or makeup or any of the superficiality of beauty. She is smart and academically driven, and in love with her best friend, Christopher, who does not see her that way. Em's little sister, Frida, on the other hand, is totally into what's in and what's out, wants desperately to be noticed by the popular kids at school, and is secretly trying out for the cheerleading squad.

When Em is dragooned into taking Frida to the opening of a new megastore, they are stunned (and in Frida's case, thrilled) when Nikki Howard and her entourage make an appearance. There is a freak accident and Em wakes up in the hospital. What the reader realizes long before Em does is that, omigod, she's been totally Skinned! Except instead of being put into a robot, she's been transplanted into drop-dead gorgeous Nikki Howard!

Having just read Robin Wasserman's book, I found it very interesting to read Meg Cabot's take on a similar situation. While Lia had to cope with the existential question of her own humanity, Em has to cope with a body that has different likes than she does--it rebels at the thought of an ice cream sundae and chocolate cookies and craves sea bass and tofu instead. She does begin to realize the power of beauty, though, and the heady feeling of having people look up to her. But while she's got two really hot guys vying for her attention, her heart yearns for Christopher who doesn't even look at her.

I really like the relationships that develop and change after Em's transformation, especially with Frida and Lulu, Nikki's best friend. It would have been so easy to make Lulu a frivolous piece of fluff--in other words, exactly what Em scornfully thought of all FFBF's (famous for being famous.) But Lulu, for all her dittziness, turns out to be a sweet and appealing friend.

There will be a second book, Being Nikki, which I am already looking forward to.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Runemarks by Joanne Harris

Main Character: Maddy Smith
Location: undefined
Time period: undefined
Genre: YA Fiction, Fantasy, Norse Mythology

In Maddy's small village, people do not acknowledge magic. They are also wary of dreaming and imagination. In the constant conflict between Chaos (where magic exists) and Order, Order has the upper hand. So Maddy, who was born with a runemark (or "ruinmark" as the parson calls it) on her hand and has some strange abilities, is an outsider. Her only friend is the Wanderer, old One-Eye, who comes through her village for a short time every year. It was he who taught her about the runemarks and how to control her power to use them. Now he has asked her to go into the World Below and find the Whisperer, an object that could be anywhere or look like anything but Maddy should recognize it when she sees it. She finds the Whisperer, but she also finds Loki, the Norse trickster god. Turns out that old One-Eye is Odin and the Whisperer is the oracle that predicted Ragnarok.

I liked Maddy a lot. She is a strong character who is always true to herself. I also rather like Loki. Yes, he is the trickster that almost the entire Norse pantheon wants destroyed, but he is also charming--a charm that Maddy knows as one of his powers and must guard against.

Norse Mythology is not as familiar to us as Greek Mythology is, but I have been noticing a few books using it as a starting point, such as The Sea of Trolls and The Land of Silver Apples by Nancy Farmer. I don't think it's necessary to know much about the Norse gods to enjoy this book, but it does help to understand their relationships (such as why everyone wants to get rid of Loki.) This is not a retelling of the myths, but an original story imagining what might have happened after Ragnarok and the destruction of Asgard.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Skinned by Robin Wasserman

Main Character: Lia Kahn
Location: undefined
Time period: a post-apocalyptic future
Genre: YA Fiction, Sci-Fi, Dystopian

Lia Kahn had a perfect life. She was the most popular girl in school; she had the most desirable boyfriend; what she thought, what she said, what she wore set the standards for being one of the cool kids. And then she died in a freak accident. Her father, unable to bear the loss, has her brain dowloaded into a mechanical body. She has Lia's memories, but is she really still Lia?

The society that Lia lives in feels a bit like that of Scott Westerfeld's Uglies series or M.T. Anderson's Feed--everyone is wired in to a central network and communication is almost instantaneous. It is set far into the future, after a nuclear holocaust destroyed most of the cities, and most of the people live in Corps towns--towns run by the corporations the people work for. But Lia's family is one of society's elite, so they live in an exclusive community where they don't have to see the dreariness of the corps towns or the ruins of the cities.

But that's just the trappings--the real story is inside Lia, as she adjusts to her new life. Her family can't quite accept her--even her father, who thought he wanted this, just looks through her or around her, never at her. Her sister, Zoe, is openly hostile, claiming Lia's friends--even her boyfriend--for her own to protect them from what Lia has become. Religious fanatics, the Faithers, call her an abomination. The class nerd, Auden, someone she never would have spoken to before, becomes her only friend, but does he really like her for herself or is he just fascinated by her technology? Worst of all, Lia finds that she can't really feel anything--only really intense sensations register. Things she used to love have no meaning for her anymore. Is she really still Lia, or has she been made into someone else? Is she defined by her exterior? Is she defined by how others see her? Or does she define herself?

In some ways, Skinned reminded me of Peter Dickinson's 1989 novel, Eva. In that book, Eva is nearly killed in a freak accident and her father, an animal researcher, transplants her brain into the body of a chimpanzee. Eva goes through a number of the same processes that Lia does until she can finally, like Lia, find her own place in the world.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Rebel Angels by Libba Bray

Main character: Gemma Doyle
Location: London
Time period: the 1880's
Genre: YA Fiction, Gothic Romance; Fantasy
Sequel to: A Great and Terrible Beauty

I know a lot of people really like this series, but I'm still not feeling the love. I think it's because I find Gemma rather irritating. She simply cannot make a decision and stick with it! (Yeah, yeah, neither can Hamlet, but that's a whole 'nother story.) For example, Gemma hears her brother (who works as a doctor at Bedlam, the insane asylum) speak of a young girl named Nell Hawkins, and decides that she has apparently been to the realms and has been driven mad. Gemma talks to her and discovers that her rantings do make some sense. The clearest things that Nell says are "Trust no one" and "Stay on the path." Does Gemma stay on the path? No! Is she wary of new people? No! She takes everything someone tells her at face value without weighing what they say against what she knows about them. She believes Kartick until someone says something that make her doubt him. She loves Simon until someone says something. The girl is exasperating!

Now you may get the idea that I think this is a bad book, and the strange thing is that I don't. If it was a badly written book, I would not have such strong feelings. If it was a badly written book, I would just roll my eyes and probably abandon it early on. No, this is a well-written book that kept me reading no matter how much I wanted to just slap Gemma. Mind you, I don't like her friends, Felicity and Ann, any better, but I want to believe that Gemma can learn something, though she's gone through two long books and so far has not figured out much. No, I am just going to have to read the third book, A Sweet Far Thing and see how things turn out for her.

Friday, October 31, 2008

Night Road by A.M. Jenkins

Main Character: Cole, a hemevore
Location: The Midwest, and New York City
Time period: Contemporary
Genre: YA Fiction, Supernatural, Vampires

Cole is a heme, a hemevore, a blood-drinker--just don't call him a vampire. The V-word calls up images from misguided myths and over-the-top movies and bears no relation to the reality of their lives. Cole belongs to a colony which lives in a private house in New York City, but he prefers life on the road, moving from place to place and never really settling down.

But now Johnny, the leader of the colony, has called Cole back for a special task. Another heme, Sandor, has accidentally turned a teenaged boy and he is having trouble adjusting. Johnny wants Cole to take Sandor and Gordon out on a road trip and teach the kid the facts of his new life.

This is a vampire story for people who like vampire stories but are getting a bit tired of vampire romances. These vampires are not interested in romantic entanglements or gothic trappings. Gordon does have a longing to see his girlfriend (from before he was turned) again, but Cole has a good reason to know that that's not a good idea. This is more like a buddy movie, a chance to really examine the life of the vampire and the challenges of immortality.

I would rank this up with Scott Westerfeld's Peeps as an original take on a venerable genre.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

The Dead & the Gone by Susan Beth Pfeffer

Main Character: 17-year-old Alex Morales
Location: Manhattan, New York City
Time period: Contemporary or slightly in the future
Genre: YA Fiction, Dystopian fiction, Survival, Speculative Fiction
Companion to: Life As We Knew It

The Dead & the Gone is set in the same time and the same situation as Life As We Knew It, but while Life followed a family in a rural area, Dead is set in the inner city.

Alex Morales is a smart high school junior with big dreams and plans for his future. On the night the moon is knocked out of orbit, he is working at the pizza place where the only sign that anything has happened is that the cable suddenly goes out. He gets home to find his sisters in a tizzy. Their mother has been called in to work at her hospital in Queens, their father had gone to Puerto Rico for his mother's funeral, and big brother Carlos is in the Marines and is being deployed. So Alex, Brianna, and Julie are alone for the duration.

At first, I thought that Miranda (from Life) was in a better situation than Alex. She had a mother and an older brother to take most of the burden. Alex suddenly becomes the family caretaker. Miranda's family managed to stockpile a lot of food at the beginning. Alex helps his uncle empty his bodega and receives some food in return, but it's not much. But while Miranda's mother worked at isolating her family insisting that they take care only of themselves, Alex has a support network. His church relays information about food lines; his school remains open, guaranteeing a hot lunch on weekdays; and some of his classmates, all from wealthier families, offer information, advice, and other small acts of kindness.

That doesn't mean that Alex has it easy. In a truly horrific scene, Alex looks for his mother among the dead laid out at Yankee Stadium. He and his friend Kevin rob the bodies of the dead on the street for items to exchange for black-market food. When the volcanoes erupt and the air is filled with ash, Brianna develops asthma. Hoping against hope that their parents and Carlos are alive and will come back, Alex and the girls stay in their apartment, but Alex eventually realizes that Julie is not safe--especially after the black market dealer offers Alex and Bri a way out of town in exchange for Julie--and he needs to get them out of the city.

Miranda's story was told in first person diary entries, while Alex's story was told in the third person. This gives a bit a distance to the story; though Alex experiences more than his share of tragedy, this book is not as mournful as the first one. I did think the ending was a bit abrupt, and I would like to know what happens next. Are things really any better in the south? Does the new year bring a clearing of the air? Will mankind survive?

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Song of the Sparrow by Lisa Ann Sandell

Main character: Elaine, the Lady of Shallot
Location: England
Time period: The Dark Ages
Genre: Ya Fiction, Arthurian legends, Narrative verse

I've been noticing an increase in books written in verse, though I haven't had a chance to read much of it. It does require an adjustment in the way you read, rather like reading manga right to left requires an adjustment.

Elaine is a young girl living in Arthur's camp with her father and two older brothers. Most of Arthur's knights--Lancelot, Tristan, Gawain, and the rest--are like her older brothers as well. She has made a place for herself, using the healing arts she learned from Morgan to care for the men after a battle. But all that changes when Gwynivere arrives in camp. Elaine becomes aware of her dirty clothes, her tangled hair, her plainness. She sees Lancelot look at Gwynivere with longing and admiration, and her heart breaks.

As I read this book I tried to imagine how it would have worked if told in prose instead of verse, and I don't think it would have been anywhere near as good. Of course the verse recalls Tennyson's poem "The Lady of Shallot" which tells the traditional version of Elaine's tragic tale. More than that, the verse creates an almost meditative quality as we stay totally inside Elaine's head. With a minimum of description and dialogue, her thoughts and emotions remain raw and close to the surface. But don't let me give you the idea that nothing happens--Elaine refuses to stay safely behind when the men go off to battle. Having been raised by warriors, she has developed a strong sense of duty and honor and a desire to fight for those she loves.

This would be a good book for a family read-aloud. I found myself reading it to my cats just for the pleasure of savoring the words.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Toto! The Wonderful Adventure Vol. 2 by Yuko Osada

Main character: Kakashi and Dorothy
Location: An alternate world
Time period: Seems to be contemporary-ish
Genre: YA Manga, Fantasy

Kakashi and Dorothy manage to get out of the house only to find it surrounded by the army and a large monstrous creature. They are told that the creature is Toto--but Toto is not supernatural, it's the collar that he wears. It is one of 12 powerful accessories--ooh, do we see a quest storyline coming up? Sakura's feathers from Tsubasa; the shards of the Rikon jewel from InuYasha; and now these accessories. Anyway, the army fires upon Toto to Dorothy's dismay, Kakashi goes to comfort him, and, entering another dimension where Toto still appears to be the cute little puppy he is, merges with Toto. Now Toto's collar is on Kakashi's wrist and in times of stress Super-Toto appears at the end of Kakashi's arm.

A new military character is introduced--Corporal Chopin, who seems to have one of the accessories. He turns his wrath on the military leader that bungled the retrieval of the bracelet and Dorothy and Kakashi escape. They make their way to Dego City, also known as Locomotive Town. Unfortunately, they arrive just as the last locomotive is being crushed into scrap metal to make weapons for the army. Kakashi is being such a bumpkin that he attracts attention, but a girl comes up and claims him as her brother. Millica takes them in and tells them what is happening in their town. They also meet Noil, a soldier who has a talent for building locomotives but would rather be an entertainer. And he's got a crush on Millica. When the military tries to capture Kakashi again, Noil has to choose between his duty to the army and his love for Millica.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Bleach 24 by Tite Kubo

Main character: Ichigo Kurasaki and everyone else
Location: Japan
Time period: Contemporary
Genre: YA Manga, Fantasy

When last we saw everyone, they were scattered about fighting Arrancars. Now Rangiku is a puddle on the floor (a puddle of hair, at least), Rukia is down, Ururu goes into a trance and gets into the fight only to be skewered. Everyone is in trouble. One of the Arrancars reveals that their numbers indicate the order in which they were made, not their relative strength--except for the top ten. Those are the strongest. And guess who is stuck fighting one of them? Ichigo, of course! He's locked in battle with Grimjow Jaeger-Jaques (what a mouthful that name is.) Just when all seems almost lost, Rangiku gets orders from the Soul Society. The restriction that keeps them using only 20% of their power when in the real world has been lifted so now suddenly each of them is 4 times stronger and they are able to defeat their Arrancars. All except Ichigo, but then Tosen appears and orders Grimjow to leave and report to Aizen. (Aizen doesn't wear his glasses anymore--I am so totally over him.)

Battle is over and healing begins. Orihime works on Toshiro, Rangiku cares for Rukia, and Keigo take Ikkaku and Yumichika home--it's the least he could do since Ikkaku fought defending Keigo. Chad, feeling left out and left behind, begs Kisuke to train him. And finally, Ichigo goes to the Vizored. Hmmm.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

The Prince of Tennis Vol. 25 by Takeshi Konomi

Main character: The Seishun Academy tennis team
Location: Japan
Time period: Contemporary
Genre: YA Manga, Sports

Sadaharu Inue and Renji Yanagi are in the midst of their match, and it looks like Renji has the upper hand. Sadahru even throws out his data, but Renji says "There is no victory for those who abandon their play-style." Indeed, Sadaharu is looking exhausted. But all is not lost--Sadaharu is actually re-creating their last, unfinished match. Now we'll find out who really is the better player--and it's a win for Seishun!

Renji's loss means Rikkai has broken their promise to their team leader, in the hospital waiting for a surgery. Renji submits himself for punishment, but the blow is deflected by Akaya, who now gives himself 14 minutes to win his match with Shusuke Fuji. It's a tough match, and Akaya slams a drive that knocks Shusuke to the group. He gets up to continue playing, but he's got to hide the fact that the blow has made him temporarily blind.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

The Prince of Tennis Vol. 24 by Takeshi Konomi

Main Characters: The Seishun Academy tennis team
Location: Japan
Time period: Contemporary
Genre: YA Manga, Sports

The Kanto tournament continues, and things are not looking good for Seishun. Rikkai has dominated and looks to win the last three matches in record time.

The "golden pair," Eiji Kikumaru and Suichiro Oishi, are up. When one of the opposing players aims the ball at Eiji's head, he goes down and seems to lose consciousness for a brief time. He's carried off on a stretcher as we see a flashback to when he and Suichiro began playing together as children. Awww, how cute they both are! Eiji comes to, leaps off the stretcher, and gets back into the game. (Where is the team doctor? Surely someone should check him out first. And come to think about it, where is the umpire?) Eiji and Suichiro are playing better than ever, but it's still not enough. They lose their match.

In between matches, Ryoma is at the vending machines when he overhears an intriguing phone call. One of the Rikkai players is talking to their team leader, in the hospital and facing surgery.

The next match is a singles between Seishun's team leader, Sadaharu Inui, and Renji Yanagi. They used to play together as doubles partners years ago and are both data collectors. Now they know each other's games so well they can predict not only each other's plays, but finish each other's sentence. But it looks like Renji is going to force Sadaharu to give up his data game.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Love*Com Vol. 2 by Aya Nakahara

Main Characters: Tall girl Risa and short boy Ôtani
Location: Japan
Time period: Contemporary
Genre: YA Manga

Volume 2, and the romantic misunderstandings continue. An ex-girlfriend of Ôtani's shows up and she is a cute little thing that looks just like Chiharu. Maybe Ôtani does have a type after all. Risa convinces herself that the ex has shown up because she wants to get back together with Ôtani and does all she can to help that happen.

Meanwhile, a really tall and really handsome guy catches Risa up in a bear hug. It is Haruka, an old friend from grade school. Back then he was the target of bullies and Risa defended him, so he's got a crush on her. Nice as he is to Risa, though, he is a real jerk to Ôtani. As Risa continues to defend Ôtani to Haruka, he asks her the same question everyone else is thinking--is she in love with Ôtani? Is Ôtani in love with Risa?

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Toto! The Wonderful Adventure Vol. 1 by Yuko Osada

Main character: Kakashi
Location: An alternate world--name as yet unknown
Time period: Seems to be contemporary
Genre: YA Manga

As you can probably guess from the title, this story has ties to The Wizard of Oz, but it is not just a manga version of that classic book.

Kakashi is a small-town boy with big dreams. He is an orphan; his father was an explorer who left their small island years ago and never returned. Kakashi has one memento--his father's journal which ends "The world is vast. You don't need a reason. Go on an adventure." Kakashi reminds me a bit of Luffy from One Piece--he is unfailingly optimistic and determined to get off of his island.

Kakashi's chance comes in the form of an airship which needs to stop for repairs. When it leaves, Kakashi stows away. In the cargo hold, he meets and befriends a darling little puppy with an intriguing collar. The airship is overtaken by a mafia group who eject the passengers over open water but decide to let Kakashi stay aboard. Kakashi sees a world map for the first time and is stunned at how big the world is. The airship comes under attack by the military and is destroyed but Kakashi, along with his puppy, manage to parachute to safety in a corn field where they meet a young girl named Dorothy.

The puppy, now named Toto, is more than he appears, and is the target of the military search. Kakashi, Dorothy, and Toto, fall into the clutches of the Great Nassau Imperial Army but you know they won't stay captives long.

Translation notes point out some of the various Wizard of Oz references. I caught most of them, but was happy to be told that Kakashi's name also means "scarecrow" in Japanese. I'm sure in upcoming volumes we will encounter the Tin Man and the Cowardly Lion as well.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Bleach Vol. 23: Mala Suerte! by Tite Kubo

Main character: Ichigo Kurosaki, plus a cast of millions (well, it feels like it!)
Location: Karakura Town, Japan
Time period: Contemporary
Genre: YA Manga, Supernatural

I am finding it interesting that, since the end of the storyline dealing with rescuing Rukia from execution has ended, the plots of the books and the anime have gone off in two different directions. The anime, showing weekly on Adult Swim, is dealing with creatures called Bounts who seem bent on increasing their power by stealing human souls. In the books, the Arrancars are the main villains. I'm enjoying both storylines, though I favoring the Bounts at the moment.

Be that as it may, this was a exciting volume--well, after an embarrassing and uncomfortable sequence with Rangiku and Orihime. The Soul Reapers has dispersed around Karakura Town, with Rukia staying with Ichigo, Renji over at Urahara's store, and Rangiku and Toshiro at Orihime's. Orihime confesses to Rangiku that she is a little jealous of Rukia and feels terrible about it--which is very touching and sweet, but takes place while Rangiku is bathing--apparently for no other purpose than to show her in suggestive and inappropriate poses.

The Arrancars are out to destroy everyone who has even the slightest bit of spiritual pressure. The most vulnerable is Chad who is not yet completely healed from his last encounter with them. Ichigo runs to his defense, and Chad is saddened to think that he may never be able to fight side-by-side with Ichigo again. Aww, Chad! You are my favorite character! Rukia reveals that she has regained her powers, and she defeats the Arrancar.

When did Keigo gain some spiritual pressure and become able to see the Soul Reapers and Hollows? I know in the anime storyline with the Bounts he has his near-death experience, but that hasn't happened in the mangas. What have I forgotten?

But the rest of the volume belongs to Ikkaku, who battles with an oversized Arrancar and thoroughly enjoys himself. The fight builds to a crescendo, and then we end with an odd interlude which seems to be a flashback for Ichigo and Rukia from a time before the series started.

Friday, October 10, 2008

The Battle of the Labyrinth by Rick Riordan

Main character: Percy Jackson
Location: Camp Half-Blood in upstate New York, among other places
Time period: Contemporary
Genre: YA Fiction, Fantasy, Greek Mythology
Series: Percy Jackson and the Olympians #4

As with Raven Rise, I had a little trouble at the beginning of this book because I had forgotten some of the details of the previous book. (That's not to say that I didn't enjoy the earlier books--I also had trouble remembering details in each Harry Potter book.) Sometimes, I think I should wait until an entire series is finished so I can read them all at once. But that's no fun either.

Anyway, Percy is about to start another new school, one where Paul Blofis (his mother's boyfriend) teaches. Percy wants everything to go well so he won't make trouble for Paul, but his track record at schools is not good. Sure enough, some mythical monsters--empousai, disguised as cheerleaders--attack him and a fire starts. Fortunately, Rachel Elizabeth Dare, the mortal who can see through the Mist to the monsters' true form, helps him out and he escapes to Camp Half-Blood.

A lot is happening at Camp Half-Blood. There's a new teacher, Quintus, who has a giant hellhound named Mrs. O'Leary. Despite her fearsome appearance, she is really quite affectionate. Grover has been searching for the great god Pan without success and is now given just a week to find him or lose his searcher's license. Someone is sending Percy Iris-messages concerning Nico. And Annabeth finally gets to lead a quest of her own--into the Labyrinth of Daedalus to find a way to prevent Luke from using to invade the camp at the head of Kronos' army.

What follows is what we've come to expect from this series--plenty of adventure, plenty of humor, and an intriguing take on Greek mythology blended with modern times. Percy continues to grow though he does remains clueless as to just why Annabeth seems to dislike Rachel so much. He celebrates his 15th birthday, knowing that a prophecy says he may not make it to his 16th. Still, he tries to protect his friends, especially Nico who, as the son of Hades, might also be the subject of that prophecy.

Rick Riordan announced on his blog that the title of the 5th book will be The Last Olympian (I wonder if that means it will be the last book?) and the release date is set for May 9, 2009. BTW, have you heard about the Mythology Bee? Grand prize is a trip for 4 to Greece with author Rick Riordan! Things like this make me almost wish I was a middle schooler again.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Life As We Knew It by Susan Beth Pfeffer

Main character: Miranda
Location: Rural Pennsylvania
Time period: Contemporary (or possibly near future)
Genre: YA Fiction, Survival, Dystopian, Speculative Fiction

This is one of the books that I included on my dystopian fiction booklist recently. I had read some interesting things about it but hadn't had the chance to actually read the book before now.

Miranda is a typical high school student who lives outside a small town in Pennsylvania. Like everyone else, she has heard the scientists talk about the asteroid that's about to strike the moon. It's expected to make a neat show but that's about it. On the predicted night, everyone is outside; the mood is festive. The asteroid hits and everyone immediately knows that something wrong has happened. The moon suddenly appears larger. It turns out that the asteroid has knocked the moon out of orbit; it is now closer to the Earth and the increased gravitation pull has caused extremely high tides, tsunamis, and volcanic eruptions. Major cities are destroyed, communications are down, the country's infrastructure is disrupted. Food and gas become scarce, electricity is sporadic.

The story is told through Miranda's diary entries as she struggles to cope with her new life. School is canceled and daily life becomes only about survival. One of her close friends slowly starves herself to death. Another leaves town searching for better conditions to the south. A bittersweet first romance ends when Dan leaves town to try to make it to California. As winter closes in, Miranda's world contracts to just her house and then to just the one room they can still heat in their house. Fortunately, spring brings its promise of re-birth and renewal, or this book would just be too sad to bear.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Raven Rise by D. J. MacHale

Main Character: Bobby Pendragon
Location: Multiple territories
Time period: Multiple--yes, I know it's confusing
Genre: YA Fiction, Fantasy
Series: Pendragon #9

For the last few Pendragon books, I've been more invested in Mark and Courtney's activities than in Bobby's--which is a little strange, since Bobby is the main character. I started off in this book feeling the same way--at least in the beginning.

Raven Rise starts pretty much where The Pilgrims of Rayne left off, which was a bit of a problem for me as it had been so long since I read the last book that I had forgotten some of the details. Fortunately, enough information was woven into the story to catch me up. (If you haven't read the previous books, though, you really have to start at the beginning.) Mark and Courtney had gone back to First Earth--the 1930's--to try and prevent the inventions of the dados. Bobby deliberately destroyed the tunnel to Ibara, stranding himself and Saint Dane on that territory. He tells himself and everyone else that it was a strategic move to isolate Saint Dane and keep him from causing anymore mischief, but a big part of him is ready to quit the fight and settle down someplace peaceful.

Naturally, nothing is that simple and Bobby's interlude is brought to an end.

A lot happens in this book, almost too much to keep track off. The convergence--a blending of the territories--is beginning. Bobby has choices to make but no one to guide him to the right one. Saint Dane is the only one telling him anything, hinting at a connection between them--I've got a weird idea that Saint Dane is a future version of what Bobby could be if he makes the wrong choices. At Bobby's side are Mark and Courtney, and the travelers from First and Third Earth and Denduron, but Bobby is the lead traveler, the one everyone else looks to, and he is only just 19 years old.

And along that line, kudos to the artist who does the cover illustrations. You can definitely see how Bobby has aged and the toll these four years of fighting have taken on him.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Winter Study by Nevada Barr

Main character: Park Ranger Anna Pigeon
Location: Isle Royal, Lake Superior National Park
Time period: Contemporary
Genre: Fiction, Mystery
Series: Anna Pigeon National Park Mysteries #14

Time for another adult mystery break. I have read the Anna Pigeon books from the very first one, Track of the Cat, but I really became a fan with the 4th book, Firestorm. That book, with a murder occurring during a flashfire, was such an intriguing twist on the locked room mystery--one that took place totally outdoors--that I have avidly anticipated every book since.

Winter Study finds Anna Pigeon back up in Isle Royale (the location of the 2nd book, A Superior Death) joining the winter wolf study. Her own home park, the Rocky Mountain National Park, will soon be reintroducing wolves and she wants to learn more about them. Anna joins a small group of scientists and a Homeland Security bureaucrat who is supposed to determine whether the Canadian border is a security hole that needs to be plugged year-round--an action that would effectively shut down the annual wolf study.

Naturally, once Anna arrives on the island, winter weather shuts down all access to it--no one can leave, no one can arrive, cell phones don't work, internet communications are down. And then one of the researchers is killed, apparently mauled by wolves. Shades of Agatha Christie's And Then There Were None!

I really love Anna Pigeon. She has grown a lot in the 15 years since we first met her in the Guadalupe Mountains. Then she was a bitter misanthrope, mourning the death of her husband, drinking too much, and preferring solitude to the company of people. Now she has given up drinking and remarried, though her job does keep her away from her husband much of the time. She has made connections with others and now has something--someone--to live for. She hasn't totally lost her cynicism though--there are too many people doing truly ugly things for that.

Please do be aware that while most of the books I've reviewed here have been suitable for teens, this one is definitely an adult book.

Monday, October 6, 2008

Nobody's Prize by Esther Friesner

Main Character: Helen, Princess of Sparta
Location: Ancient Greece
Time period: Bronze Age
Genre: YA Fiction, Greek Mythology
Sequel to: Nobody's Princess

This book picks up right where Nobody's Princess left off. Helen, disguised as a boy, and Miles, the slave boy she freed and befriended, are trying to find a way to join the Argonauts and their quest for the Golden Fleece. They stowaway on the ship but it's impossible to stay hidden forever. They are helped by Iolaus, who claims them as his weapons carriers, and Hylas, who is Herakles' weapons carrier. When her own body betrays her female identity, her brothers help her by identifying her as Atalanta. Helen does have a moment where she wonders what Atalanta will think when she hears the stories, which put me in mind of The Misadventures of Maude March.

Esther Friesner continues to offer a differing view of the familiar myths, with the truth behind the legends rather mundane and the heroes braggarts and louts. Can't admit you were defeated by a tribe of women? Say that they were really winged harpies. The clashing rocks? A tribe that rolls boulders down on passing ships. Jason is a bully. Medea is insane (possibly caused by the emotional abuse her father heaps on her.) There is a hint of things to come when Agamemnon and Menelaus appears near the end.

Helen continues to be feistier than usually portrayed, though she is beginning to grow into her role as princess and future queen. She sees that her actions have conseqences and often it is others who get hurt. It would be interesting to see Helen's further adventures.

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Dystopian Fiction for Teens booklist

My city is one of the ones participating in The Big Read this month, and our book is Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury. As part of the activities, I have put together a booklist of dystopian fiction for young adults. This has kept me from blogging on a regular basis, so I thought I'd share the booklist with you. There are actually more books here than on the printed brochure since some had to be cut for space.

For every book that says the future is bright, there is another that tells us the future will be miserable. The environment will be wrecked through pollution, global warming, or natural disasters. Technology runs amok and machines will take over the world. Art, literature, and music will be deemed dangerous and are forbidden. Plans are made to avert or survive a coming disaster by going underground or colonizing space, but then something goes terribly wrong. These books are called dystopian fiction.

Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury falls into this category. In this book, society has evolved to a point where literature is no longer valued and is actively destroyed. The characters’ physical needs are met, but their imaginations are starving.

Here is a selection of recommended dystopian fiction for young adults that can be found at the Mesquite North Branch Library.

Anderson, M. T.: Feed, 2002
In this chilling satiric novel, the author imagines a society dominated by the feed--a next-generation Internet/television hybrid that is directly hardwired into the brains of babies.

DeVita, James: The Silenced, 2007
Consigned to a prison-like Youth Training Facility because of her parents' political activities, Marena organizes a resistance movement to combat the restrictive policies of the ruling Zero Tolerance party.

DuPrau, Jeanne: The City of Ember, 2003
In the year 241, twelve-year-old Lina trades jobs on Assignment Day to be a Messenger to run to new places in her decaying but beloved city, perhaps even to glimpse Unknown Regions. The series continues in The People of Sparks and The Prophet of Yonwood.

Farmer, Nancy: The House of the Scorpion, 2002
In a future where humans despise clones, Matt enjoys special status as the young clone of El Patrón, the 142-year-old leader of a corrupt drug empire nestled between Mexico and the United States.

Haddix, Margaret Peterson: Among the Hidden, 1998
In a future where the Population Police enforce the law limiting a family to only two children, Luke has lived all his twelve years in isolation and fear on his family's farm, until another "third" convinces him that the government is wrong. The series continues with Among the Imposters, Among the Betrayed, Among the Barons, Among the Brave, Among the Enemy, and Among the Free.

Hautman, Pete: Rash, 2006
In a future society that has decided it would "rather be safe than free," sixteen-year-old Bo's anger control problems land him in a tundra jail where he survives with the help of his running skills and an artificial intelligence program named Bork.

Kostick, Conor: Epic, 2004
On New Earth, a world based on a video role-playing game, fourteen-year-old Erik pursuades his friends to aid him in some unusual gambits in order to save Erik's father from exile and safeguard the futures of each of their families. Also read the companion novel, Saga.

Layne, Steven L.: This Side of Paradise, 2001
After his father begins working for the mysterious Eden Corporation, Jack uncovers a sinister plot that threatens the existence of his entire family.

Lowry, Lois: The Giver, 1993
Given his lifetime assignment at the Ceremony of Twelve, Jonas becomes the receiver of memories shared by only one other in his community and discovers the terrible truth about the society in which he lives. Gathering Blue and The Messenger are companion novels.

McNaughton, Janet: The Secret Under My Skin, 2005
In the year 2368, humans exist under dire environmental conditions and one young woman, rescued from a workcamp and chosen for a special duty, uses her love of learning to discover the truth about the planet's future and her own dark past.

Pfeffer, Susan Beth: Life As We Knew It, 2006
Through journal entries sixteen-year-old Miranda describes her family's struggle to survive after a meteor hits the moon, causing worldwide tsunamis, earthquakes, and volcanic eruptions.

Prose, Francine: After, 2003
In the aftermath of a nearby school shooting, a grief and crisis counselor takes over Central High School and enacts increasingly harsh measures to control students, while those who do not comply disappear.

Rosoff, Meg: How I Live Now, 2004
To get away from her pregnant stepmother in New York City, fifteen-year-old Daisy goes to England to stay with her aunt and cousins, with whom she instantly bonds, but soon war breaks out and rips apart the family while devastating the land.

Shusterman, Neal: Unwind, 2007
In a future world where those between the ages of thirteen and eighteen can have their lives "unwound" and their body parts harvested for use by others, three teens go to extreme lengths to uphold their beliefs--and, perhaps, save their own lives.

Strasser, Todd: Boot Camp, 2007
After ignoring several warnings to stop dating his teacher, Garrett is sent to Lake Harmony, a boot camp that uses unorthodox and brutal methods to train students to obey their parents.

Westerfeld, Scott: Uglies, 2005
Tally is looking forward to turning 16 when she will get the state-mandated plastic surgery that will make her a “pretty,” but her friend Shay is not sure she wants the procedure. The series continues in Pretties, Specials, and Extras.

White, Andrea: Surviving Antarctica: Reality TV 2083, 2005
In the year 2083, five fourteen-year-olds who were deprived by chance of the opportunity to continue their educations reenact Scott's 1910-1913 expedition to the South Pole as contestants on a reality television show, secretly aided by a Department of Entertainment employee.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Nobody's Princess by Esther Friesner

Main character: Helen of Sparta
Location: Ancient Greece
Time period: Bronze age
Genre: YA Fiction, Greek mythology

Nobody's Princess is a very entertaining take on the legendary Helen of Troy before she became so legendary.

From her very earliest years, Helen has known that she was loved, favored even, by her parents and under the special protection of the goddess Aphrodite. She also learns that she is beautiful and that beauty wins her attention and approval that she doesn't necessarily earn--as her twin Clytemnestra is always eager to point out.

Helen, however, is not content to be just a pretty princess. She wants to learn to be a warrior. She manages to convince her brothers' teacher, Glaucus, to teach her too. Her brothers, Castor and Polydeuces, are skeptical at first, but her determination not to quit no matter how hard things get soon wins them over. When Clytemnestra goes to Mykenae to marry Prince Tantalus, Helen and her brothers accompany her and here Helen's adventures really begin.

Esther Friesner does a great job in reimagining various stories from Greek mythology and fitting Helen into them. This Helen is courageous, rebellious, loyal to her friends, and no fool when it comes to dealing with braggarts--even when they are some of the most famous and admired heroes. These men create the myths that we know today because the truth will not win them fam and glory. What story would you rather hear--that Herakles defeated the seven-headed Hydra or a bunch of swamp snakes?

It's difficult to see how this Helen will grow up to be the selfish and vain queen whose actions lead to the destruction of Troy, as in Caroline Cooney's Goddess of Yesterday but I could being to see how her need for adventure and her chafing at being confined (even if that confinement is in the most luxurious of palaces) might lead her into running away from a loveless marriage.

The story continues in Nobody's Prize.

Friday, September 19, 2008

The Garden of Eve by K.L. Going

Main character: 10-year-old (almost 11) Eve
Location: a small town in upstate New York
Time period: Contemporary
Genre: J Fiction, Fantasy, Death, Grieving

I picked this book up after a couple of teens told me they had read it and enjoyed it.

Evie is mourning her mother, who died of cancer not long ago. Her father, too, is in mourning, and their grief has isolated them from each other. Evie's father, an orchard worker, has bought an apple orchard that is regarded as cursed by the people in the town. Evie is not happy at having to leave her Michigan home and is even less happy when she discovers that their new house faces the cemetery. There's a funeral going on as they pass the cemetery, and only one pale-faced boy notices them as they drive past. As Evie slowly begins to learn more about her new home, some strange things begin to happen--things that would seem natural in the stories that her mother used to tell her but which her father tells her flatly can't really exist.

Evie meets the pale-faced boy in the cemetery, playing among the headstones. He introduces himself as Alex, and tells her that he just recently died of leukemia--it was his funeral that she saw when they first came to town. Maggie, the elderly sister of the man who previously owned the orchard, gives Evie a box. It's a present he left with Maggie before he died, telling her to give it to Eve when she came. But Evie never met the old man, so how could he know that she would be coming? The box contains an old seed which just might have come from the Garden of Eden. If Evie plants it, will she be able to see her mother again?

This is a beautiful little book, full of loss and grieving, but also with hope and healing. Like Pieces of Georgia by Jennifer Bryant, Evie is missing a vibrant mother and finding it difficult to connect with an uncommunicative father. There is a poignant moment when her father confesses that sometimes he would hide in the shadows listening to Evie and her mother tell each other stories and wishing that he could join them. The revelation that her father sometimes felt left out gives Evie a bit of insight into him and draws them closer together. The biggest mystery--how did the former owner know about Evie--is finally answered in a birthday card that her mother wrote before she died. It wound up being a much simpler explanation than I was imagining, but no less satisfying.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Autobiography of My Dead Brother by Walter Dean Myers

Main Character: 15-year-old Jesse
Location: New York City
Time period: Contemporary
Genre: YA Fiction

Jesse is a young African-American teen growing up in the 'hood. Rise is an older boy who has been Jesse's friend since forever; they even did the blood brothers thing when they were little. Well, Jesse was too scared to actually cut his finger but when he fell and scraped his knee, Rise cut his finger and they mingled blood then. They are as close, if not closer, than actual brothers. But lately, Jesse has been noticing a change in Rise.

Jesse and his friends have a social club, the Counts, which has a 40-year heritage. But when Mason joined the Counts, he seemed bent on taking it over and turning it into a gang. When Mason went to jail for robbing a bodega, Rise began following in his path, trying to become the group's leader and trying to take it in a direction that worried Jesse. The bodega that Mason robbed is firebombed. Did Rise have anything to do with it? Did Rise drop a dime on a Diablo in retaliation for a drive-by? Just what is going on with Rise?

Jesse is a good kid, struggling to grow up in an atmosphere that keeps him worried and nervous all the time. He takes refuge in his art, just as his friend C.J. takes refuge in his music. Rise had been a good kid, too. Only a few years before, he had talked about how drugs and crime were doing no good for their neighborhood, so why was he now talking about taking that path?

Walter Dean Myers has written another powerful novel (but, really, were you expecting him to do otherwise? This is Walter Dean Myers we're talking about.) Christopher Myers contributes the portraits and comics that Jesse draws in the novel. These pen and ink drawings not only illustrate parts of the story, but expand on them, such as the panels showing a drive-by shooting. Like Jesse, I felt nervous and anxious through much of this book. From the title, you know that things will not end well for Rise, but the stress was affecting everyone. Jesse's dad, in particular, is feeling the strain and lashes out in a way that is shocking but also, sadly, understandable. I have hopes for Jesse and his life after the end of this book. I would like to think that he will grow to be a good man himself.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Leven Thumps and the Eyes of the Want by Obert Skye

Main Character: Leven Thumps
Location: Foo, and the human world
Time period: Contemporary
Genre: J Fiction, Fantasy
Series: Leven Thumps #3

This is the third volume of the Leven Thumps series, and I am still finding that I like some parts while other parts still annoy me. I will admit that the balance is tipping and I am not as annoyed as I was in the earlier two books. This gives me hope for the next one in the series.

As in the previous book, the storyline that grabbed me most was the one dealing with Tim, Ezra, and Dennis, along with the remnants of Sabine. The fact that Ezra is really made up of Geth's darker emotions is something I find really interesting. It reminds me of an early Star Trek episode where an transporter malfunction caused Kirk to split into two--one "good" and one "bad,"--and the point was that you really needed both halves to cope effectively in the world. Maybe that's why I find Geth a little bland--though it may also be his lithen nature which puts all trust in fate. It is mentioned a few times in the book that Geth, now that he has been restored to his proper form, is shrinking; I wonder if this is because he is incomplete without Ezra. In the meantime, I still just love the image of Ezra as this spitting mad toothpick with a purple cellophane tassle on his head.

I am also beginning to feel some sympathy for Janet--at least for the will-of-the-whisp Janet that has been trapped in Foo. She is, probably for the first time in her life, examining her life and finding herself wanting. Now that she has come to that realization, it seems as if she is going to actually do something though I'm afraid she's going to wind up on the wrong side of the coming battle. I would really like to see an reconciliation, or at least an encounter, between her and Winter. Notice how I (just like the book) am focusing totally on the sliver of Janet that's in Foo, and not paying any attention to the corporeal Janet back on earth. But now that I mention it, I wonder if losing a bit of her is having an effect on Janet--a parallel of the Geth and Ezra storyline.

Leven finally figures out his place in Foo and it's not much of a surprise, especially for anyone who has read Lois Lowry's The Giver . Still, it was handled very nicely, and I was surprised by the identity of the Want. This volume ended on an up note, and would have made a satisfying conclusion to the series if it weren't for a few loose ends. The title of the fourth book, Leven Thumps and the Wrath of Ezra, promises to tie up at least some of those loose ends and focus on my favorite plot.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

The Green Man by Kate Sedley

Main Character: Roger the Chapman
Location: England and Scotland
Time period: 1482
Genre: Fiction, Mystery, Historical
Series: Roger the Chapman #17

I am a big fan of historical mysteries, so when our library got the new Roger the Chapman book I had to take a break from YA Fantasy and put The Green Man at the top of my to-read pile.

Roger is a chapman, a traveling peddlar who sells sewing notions and ladies' finery--things that can fit confortably into a backpack. In earlier books in the series, he has also acted as a spy for Richard of Gloucester (who will before long become King Richard III.) In this book, he has been requested to act as a bodyguard for Alexander, Duke of Albany, the younger brother of Scotland's King James III. James is an unpopular king among the nobles and populace alike, and the English believe that if they can lead an army to Scotland and provoke James into battle they would have the chance to put Alexander on the throne. Alexander is afraid that someone among the English will try to kill him, or possibly one of his own retinue. He knows Roger from an earlier encounter and insists that Roger is the only one he can trust to protect him.

Ever since reading Josephine Tey's excellent book The Daughter of Time, I have been a firm believer that Richard III has been wronged by history (and particularly by Shakespeare.) One of the things that I like about this series is the portrayal of Richard as a amiable man--a shrewd tactician and able warrior, but a man with a sense of humor and a keen judge of people. So I experienced an unexpected chill when Roger overhears a conversation where Richard asks what Albany intends to do with his nephews when he attains the throne--foreshadowing the fate of the little princes in the tower.

Kate Sedley obviously knows her time period well, and includes enough social and political background to set the story firmly in its historical setting. It is the characters that keep me reading, not the mystery. We could actually have a book with no deaths at all and I would be perfectly content. I want to continue to see how Roger is affected (or indeed if he is affected) when Richard attains the throne, and again when Henry VII becomes king.