Friday, January 30, 2009

Something Rotten: A Horatio Wilkes Mystery by Alan Gratz

Main character: Horatio Wilkes
Location: Denmark, Tennessee
Time period: Contemporary
Genre: YA Fiction, Mystery, Shakespeare

I had heard of this book earlier this summer and have been looking forward to reading it. It's a modern-day retelling of Shakespeare's Hamlet set as a murder mystery and I must say I found it more appealing in its concept than in its execution.

Horatio Wilkes spends his summer at the home of Hamilton Prince, a school friend who has been deeply shaken by the unexpected death of his father and his mother's quick remarriage to his uncle. Hamilton's family owns the Elsinore Paper mill which is the mainstay of Denmark's economy, but which is also polluting the town's river. Hamilton takes Horatio on a tour of the plant, where a couple of the security guards show Hamilton a video they discovered--Hamilton's father, looking older and frailer than he had when Horatio last saw him, revealing that he has been poisoned and there is no cure. Hamilton is convinced that his uncle is his father's murderer and asks Horatio to help him prove it. Well, I'm sure you can figure out where the plot goes from here.

There are some nice touches in here--the best of which is the environmental subplot. Olivia, a beautiful young woman who used to date Hamilton until he dumped her, is campaigning to force the paper plant to clean up the water. At one point, she even drinks the filthy water while filming a news story--the toxic sludge causes her to collapse and she is dramatically rushed to the hospital. Not only does this act as a nice counterpart to Ophelia's drowning, but it gives a hint as to what poison was used to kill Hamilton's father.

But the novel also strains to make the parallels, including a hostile takeover of Elsinore by Ford N. Branff (Fortinbras), and the idiot pair of Roscoe and Gilbert who add little to the story. Then there is the community theater, putting on the Tom Stoppard play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead--you can just see the author waggling his eyebrows at you over that one.

There is a sequel, Something Wicked, in which Horatio solves a mystery with strong parallels to Macbeth, which I will read, but not with the excited anticipation that I had for this book.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Black-Eyed Suzie by Susan Shaw

Main character: 12-year-old Suzie
Location: undefined
Time period: Contemporary
Genre: YA Fiction, Abuse, Mental Illness

Suzie has stopped talking. She has drawn herself into a box that no one else can see, but which is getting ever smaller. When she begins crying, to the point that nothing can stop her, her uncle finally insists that she get professional help.

At St. Dorothy's, a mental hospital, Suzie is treated with kindness and patience by the staff. One patient, Joshua, actually becomes her friend, but another, Karen, is always angry, terrorizing Suzie by yelling at her, tearing her picture, and breaking a mirror Suzie's sister gave her.

Slowly, we learn what happened to Suzie to make her withdraw into her "box" and when she finally leaves St. Dorothy's, it's to a much better situation. What Shaw does that is so amazing in this book is to make us feel sympathy even for the least sympathetic characters. When Suzie witnesses Karen sobbing in the common room, we realize that Karen's anger is not an indication that she is a horrible person, but that she herself has some deep problems. My heart went out to Joshua, in denial about his father's death, to Suzie's sister Deanna who finally has the courage to tell the truth, and to Suzie herself, finally coming out of her box.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

City of Ashes by Cassandra Clare

Main character: 16-year-old Clary who's been raised human but recently discovered she is a Shadowhunter
Location: New York City
Time period: Contemporary
Genre: YA Fiction, Fantasy, Supernatural with vampires, werewolves and other demons
Series: The Mortal Instruments #2

In the previous book, Clary discovered that she was a Shadowhunter; that her father is the evil Valentine; and that Jace, the intriguing guy she has a definite attraction to, is really her brother. All together now--eeewwwwwww!

Things just continue to pile up on Clary and her friends. Valentine managed to get the cup last time--now he is after a sword which will allow him to call upon demons. The trick is that he needs to wash the sword in the blood of four downworlder children--a warlock, a werewolf, a vampire, and a faerie. That small fact doesn't bother him, but the attacks cause the werewolves and the vampires to accuse each other and come to the brink of war.

Jace has his own problems--the Inquisitor of the Shadowhunters has come to examine him. She doesn't believe that he never knew he was really Valentine's son and believes that he is even now spying on them for Valentine. It becomes obvious that her suspicions of Jace are motivated by a purely personal reason--her own son died because of Valentine and she is perfectly willing to use Jace as bait to trap Valentine.

And Simon--poor Simon!--is turned into a vampire, something he has dreaded since he was bitten in the first book.

Once again, Clare has created a densely plotted and populated novel with many twists and turns, but keeps it rooted in this family of characters that we come to care for. Personally, I'm not that interested in Valentine and his quest for world domination, but I do care about Clary and Jace, Simon and Maia and Luke, Alec and Isabelle and Magnus. I loved the visit to the faerie world and learning how they cannot lie but they've lived so long that they can deceive while telling the truth.

I don't know what the third Mortal Instrument will be, but I am psyched because Clary's mom--stuck in a coma in the hospital for much of the last two stories--is finally going to have to wake up.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Double Identity by Margaret Peterson Haddix

Main Character: Twelve-year-old Bethany
Location: One of those I-states--Indiana? Illinois?--in the center of the country
Time period: Contemporary (or slightly in the future)
Genre: J Fiction, Science Fiction, Cloning

When Bethany is almost thirteen, her mother begins crying and cannot stop. Bethany's father packs them into the car and drives until they reach a house in a small town in the middle of the night. There he drops Bethany into the care of her Aunt Mylie, a woman she has never met--or even heard of--until this moment. Then both he and her mother disappear into the night, leaving Bethany alone, confused, and afraid. What is wrong with her mother? Who is the strange man in the dark car who seems to be watching her? And why do so many people in this town seem to recognize her and call her Elizabeth?

As I read this book, it struck me that identity is a recurring theme for Haddix. In her Hidden Children series, third children are denied their identities by law and have to choose between being officially non-existant and hiding in an underground world, or assuming someone else's identity. In her new series, The Missing, 36 children are taken from their own times and given new identities in the future. Here, Bethany learns that she is a clone and begins to question her identity as a human being. Is she her own person, or is she just a photocopy of Elizabeth?

Like Robin Wasserman's Skinned, Meg Cabot's Airhead, and Peter Dickinson's Eva, (and The Adoration of Jenna Fox by Mary Pearson, which I am in the process of reading) we see parents who are not ready to release a child who has died and who grab at any available straws to bring her back to life. (Has anyone read a book where it is a son who is brought back?) But in trying to recreate a life that's been lost, they wind up making things harder for everyone and in some cases are unable to accept the substitute.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

The Wizard Heir by Cinda Williams Chima

Main Character: Seph
Location: Toronto, Maine, and the Sanctuary town of Trinity
Time period: Contemporary
Genre: YA Fiction, Fantasy
Series: sequel to The Warrior Heir

Once again, I am reading a sequel to a book I read long enough ago that the details of the earlier book have faded. However, Chima has done a very clever thing in her storytelling that doesn't leave me feeling lost and confused. (I doubt that she planned it specifically for memory-impaired people like me--but it worked out very nicely.) She shifted focus to a brand-new character who has no knowledge of the events of the first book.

Seph McCauley is a young wizard, but he doesn't know that he is--he just knows that strange things happen around him. After his uncontrolled powers accidentally cause a fire which kills a friend of his, he is sent to a strict boarding school in a secluded part of Maine. There he is told that he is a gifted wizard and that there are others like him at the school who can help him learn to control and use his powers. He just needs to pledge his allegiance to the headmaster, something that Seph is not willing to do. After his refusal, Seph is subjected to systematic bullying and abuse until finally his guardian swoops in to rescue him and take him to Trinity, the sanctuary town that Jack Swift set up in The Warrior Heir.

I really like Seph (short for Joseph) who has a strong moral core despite not having had a lot of parental guidance. As he learns more about the world of the Weirs, it gives us a chance to remember the events of the first book without having a lot of awkward exposition. (Okay, there was one "do you remember what happened last summer?" conversation, but it was handled well and had a natural flow to it.) For those that really liked Jack and Ellen in the first book, don't worry--they are absent from the first part of this book, but they make up for it once they do show up. The more I read in this book, the more details I was able to remember from the first. ("Oh, THAT's who that girl in the nightclub was!" "That's right, that was the doctor who replaced Jack's heartstone.") I just appreciated the way that was done.

There was a climactic battle, but the forces of good have merely won a temporary respite, not a total victory. For that, we will have to wait for the third book, The Dragon Heir.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Getting Even by ReShonda Tate Billingsley

Main Characters: Camille, Alexis, Jasmine, and Angel
Location: Houston, Texas
Time period: Contemporary
Genre: YA Fiction, Girl Power
Series: The Good Girlz #4

I first heard of the Good Girlz series when I read an entry on The Brown Bookshelf blog about African American Christian Fiction for teens. I ordered the series and got this volume first. (One of the rules of ordering series fiction for a library--the books rarely come in at the same time, and never in order.) Once it hit the shelf, it immediately got checked out and has hardly stayed on the shelf since.

Camille has (as usual) fallen in love. Her new boyfriend, Vic, sounds like a paragon. Alexis has met a new guy, too--Anthony. Could these guys be too good to be true?

One interesting thing that the author does is tell the story in alternating chapters from the point of view of Jasmine and Angel. Jasmine is usually with Camille, and witnesses the fight when Vic's jealous and violent ex-girlfriend confronts Camille. Angel becomes Alexis's sounding board. Neither Jasmine nor Angel have current boyfriends--Jasmine's last relationship ended when her guy went off to college and they discovered they couldn't make a long-distance relationship work. Angel is too busy watching her baby to worry about dating. So they are involved, but have a bit of distance.

There is a nice twist about halfway through the book, and I think it's a shame that the twist is revealed in the summary on the back of the book. (And I am trying very hard NOT to reveal the twist, which is why I'm sounding a bit vague here.) Jasmine learns a secret and knows she needs to tell Camille and Alexis but is afraid of hurting them. Instead, she waits too long and they find out another way--and then consider Jasmine a traitor for not telling them.

The main focus of the book, though, is not the boyfriends--it's the friendship shared by these four girls who come from varied backgrounds and were brought together through a church group. Don't think that the church connection makes them a bunch of goody-goodies, though. They struggle, they fall, and they learn.

This is the 4th book in the series. There are references to events that happened in the previous books, but it can stand alone--you don't need to have read the earlier books to follow the story. However, I like these girls enough to go and seek out the earlier books (which we just received in the library yesterday) so that I can spend more time with Camille, Jasmine, Angel and Alexis (and find out why they don't care much for Tameka.)

I have decided to accept the Diversity Rocks! challenge issued by Ali. For the year 2009, I will read (at least) one book a month written by an author of color. This is my first entry for this year. For more information about the challenge and links to others participating, check out the Diversity Rocks! page.

And I am giving myself a personal challenge--I will also try to read at least one non-fiction book a month. Let's see how I do with both challenges.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Where I Live by Eileen Spinelli

Main character: Diana, a budding poet and astronomer
Location: A six-hour drive from Pittsburgh
Time period: Contemporary
Genre: J Fiction, Verse

This is such a sweet and charming little book--little in size, but not in heart. Diana is a young girl who loves her yellow house, her best friend Rose, the wren nesting in the wreath on the front door, and the night sky. She writes a poem about the sun and it wins a school contest. She wakes up happy in the morning. Her life is good.

But then her dad loses his job and her parents decide to move to Grandpa Joe's house near Pittsburgh. Diana is heartbroken. She has to say mad-sad goodbyes to her yellow house, her teacher Mrs. Clifford, and Rose, and she knows she will never laugh again.

Since Diana writes poetry, this book is written in a series of poems. In spare language, the author reveals Diana's happy highs to her mad-sad lows. The illustrations are black and white pencil drawings, but I can feel the glowing warmth of the yellow house and the deep softness of Rose's purple floppy hat (or "purpy flopple" as they call it.)

Where I Live is on the 2009-2010 Texas Bluebonnet Award List.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

The Sweet Far Thing by Libba Bray

Main Character: 16-year-old Gemma Doyle
Location: London
Time Period: Victorian Era
Genre: YA Fiction, Fantasy, Supernatural

Finally! I am finished with this series. I still found Gemma to be one of the most exasperating characters I have ever encountered, and there were times that I put this book down in favor of others. I was really hoping for a breakthrough--something that would let me like Gemma before the book was over (rather like I was hoping for a major redemptive moment for Snipe in the Harry Potter books.) I did get one, and that made the ending much more worthwhile for me. Things are heading for disaster when Gemma says "I can't live in fear any longer. I've cursed this power. I've both enjoyed it and misused it. And I've hidden it away. Now I must try to wield it correctly, to marry it to a purpose and hope that that is enough." That is what did it for me--Gemma finally (finally!) understood that she had to stop fighting her power and avoiding her destiny.

Now I don't want to give you the impression that there was a sudden switch--there was a a good deal of laying the groundwork for this declaration, including a very nice scene with her brother, Tom, after she rescued him from the Rakshana. This wound up being Tom's redemptive moment as he was able to drop his superior and supercilious facade and talk with Gemma person to person instead of older brother.

I do have to give Gemma props for one thing. In a number of other books, such as Cory Doctorow's Little Brother or Silenced by James DeVita, I have been bothered by how easily the protagonist trusts new people. Sometimes it has turned out well, but sometimes it leads to inevitable betrayal. Gemma does not have this problem. On the contrary, Gemma doesn't trust anyone (well, except for the Gorgon, who continually tells Gemma that she is untrustworthy.) Now, one could say that Gemma learned not to trust when the one teacher she felt close to turned out to be Circe in disguise, but she was showing this tendency early on. The problem with this is that Gemma doubts her own judgement about people--it's takes merely a passing comment from one person to turn her against someone else--and that greatly contributes to her sense of isolation.

I can't say that I enjoyed this series--if it wasn't for the recommendation of some of my patrons, I would probably have given up on it after the first book. Still, I can see why appeals to other readers.

Friday, January 9, 2009

Surprises According to Humphrey by Betty G. Birney

Main Character: Humphrey, a golden hamster
Location: undefined
Time period: Contemporary
Genre: J Fiction, School

Humphrey the hamster returns in his fourth book of adventures as the classroom pet of room 26. We're coming to the end of the school year and there is plenty going on. I-Heard-That-Kirk brings in a hamster ball so Humphrey can roam around the classroom. (Nobody knows about the lock-that-doesn't-lock and how Humphrey does plenty of roaming on his own when no one is watching.) On his weekend stay at Wait-for-the-Bell-Garth's house, Humphrey goes on an unexpected roll down the hill in his ball and comes face to face with a curious cat. When Aldo the janitor comes to clean the classroom speaking in a language Humphrey doesn't understand and then is replaced by a stranger, Humphrey becomes convinced that Aldo has been kidnapped by aliens. Most worrying, Mrs. Brisbane hasn't decided whether or not she wants to come back to teach next year.

There is a lot of charm in this series of books which looks at classroom activities through the eyes of a classroom pet. I like his use of repetition for emphasis--things aren't just fun, they're FUN-FUN-FUN! I also like his definitions which close each chapter. A suprise is "something totally unexpected and unplanned for...[it] can be both good and bad, like a shiny balloon (a good thing) that suddenly pops and scares you (a bad thing)." Humphrey cares deeply about the children in his classroom and wants to help them with their problems. He also has the opportunity to watch the teacher and get to know her in a way that the students don't.

Surprises for Humphrey is on the 2009-2010 Texas Bluebonnet Award Nominee List.

Monday, January 5, 2009

Little Brother by Cory Doctorow

Main Character: 17-year-old Marcus, aka w1n5t0n, aka M1k3y
Location: San Francisco
Time period: 2011
Genre: Fiction, Dystopian Society, Fight the Power

I was hearing a lot about this book when it first came out--I think I first read about it on Scott Westerfeld's blog back in April--so I've been looking forward to getting hold of it.

Marcus is a smart kid--too smart for his school. The more they try to limit him--like using preprogrammed SchoolBook laptops which track every keystroke users make--the more he finds workarounds. This drives the assistant principal crazy, especially since he knows Marcus is doing something but just can't prove it. (Shades of Ferris Bueller!) One day, Marcus ditches school to meet with his friends Darryl, Van and Jolu; they are playing a game which gives clues online that lead you to a real-world place. They just get to the spot the clues have led them to when there is a rumbling that isn't an earthquake. They don't know it yet, but terrorists have just blown up the Bay Bridge. People panic and run for shelter, but in the crush Darryl is stabbed. Marcus tries to flag down one of the many police or fire vehicles passing to get help, but instead they are stopped by some military-looking personnel who put bags over their heads, tie them up and bundle them into the back of a truck. Marcus and his friends were just in the wrong place at the wrong time, but that was enough to attract the attention of the Department of Homeland Security. They are detained in a Guantanamo-type facility where they are questioned and tortured for several days until they are released (except for Darryl) with the threat not to tell anyone what they have been through.

Now I am going to say something really odd: I found this book utterly delightful. Despite the seriousness of the subject matter, I had a grin on my face through much of it. Marcus, as I said before, is smart and watching his mind work was a joy. He starts talking about the math behind computer encryption and, yes, some of it goes above my head, but how wonderful that the author trusts the reader to follow it. There is a playfulness in some of Marcus's actions that reminded me of Jean Merrill's The Pushcart War. He is an anarchist, but he doesn't use bombs to make his point. Big Brother may be watching you, but Little Brother is watching back and has YouTube on his side.

I like the fact that some adults supported Marcus; his mom, his social studies teacher, and the reporter are all willing to listen to him. I was a little disappointed in his dad's reaction at first, but he came around. I will say that for someone so (rightfully) paranoid, Marcus seemed a little too quick to place his trust in strangers. There was one character in particular that I was quite concerned about though, thankfully, my fears proved to be unfounded.

There was one little thing that my mind started gnawing on late at night: it is mentioned, almost in passing, that the casualty figures from the Bay Bridge bombing are over 4,000. Plot-wise, I know it had to be that high to make this the worst attack on our native soil, but I started wondering if that could be a realistic number. How long is the Bay Bridge? What is the capacity? It's during a school day, not rush hour, so it wouldn't be bumper to bumper, and what percentage of cars would have more than just the driver? (You know, just about anything can be thought of as a math problem--oh no, I've been Math Cursed!) In the clear light of day, I realized that there may not have been 4,000 killed on the bridge, but that the rest were the number of detainees held secretly by the DHS. After all, Marcus's father thought he was dead. Darryl's father thought he was dead. How many of the people reported missing and killed that day were actually being held by their own government? OK, that is a chilling thought.