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.