Thursday, December 10, 2009

Jumping Off Swings by Jo Knowles

From Amazon:
Ellie remembers how the boys kissed her. Touched her. How they begged for more. And when she gave it to them, she felt loved. For awhile anyway. So when Josh, an eager virgin with a troubled home life, leads her from a party to the backseat of his van, Ellie follows. But their "one-time thing" is far from perfect: Ellie gets pregnant. Josh reacts with shame and heartbreak, while their confidantes, Caleb and Corinne, deal with their own complex swirl of emotions. No matter what Ellie chooses, all four teenagers will be forced to grow up a little faster as a result. Told alternately from each character’s point of view, this deeply insightful novel explores the aftershocks of the biggest decision of one fragile girl’s life — and the realities of leaving innocence behind.

I had heard some good reviews for this teen book, so I picked it up. Ellie is a teenage girl who thinks that having sex is the best way to get a guy to like her; Corinne is her less-experienced best friend; Caleb has had a crush on Ellie since they were kids but is starting to have feelings for Corinne; Josh is Caleb’s best friend and one of the guys that Ellie has slept with. When Ellie realizes she’s pregnant, all four of the characters (plus their parents) are changed in different ways. The story is told in alternating voices (between the four teens), and skips over much of the plot; it’s very dialogue heavy and might actually work as a play, as many of the scenes are set either in a park, in a car, or at Caleb’s house. As with most books with multiple points of view, there are some characters that I wanted to hear more from and it was hard to deal with switching over to a character that I didn't like as much, but a great example of how to sketch out different characters.

Read it with:
I Know It's Over - C.K. Kelly Martin
Namoi & Ely's No-Kiss List - David Levithan and Rachel Cohn
The Lit Report - Sarah N. Harvey

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

1000 Times No by Mr. (Tom) Warburton

From Amazon:
It's time to leave says Noah's mother, but Noah doesn't want to. "No!" he shouts. But he doesn't stop there. He tells her no in Latin, Dutch, Japanese, Tagalog, even in Robot! Mr. Warburton, creator of Cartoon Network's Codename: Kids Next Door, outdoes himself in this hilarious celebration of every toddler's favorite word.

I was intrigued by the idea of this book, especially since I’ve quickly found out how much kids love to say ‘no.’ And I wanted to like this book, but I ended up feeling ambivalent about it. The very simple premise is that the child (called Noah, of course) (ha ha) will not do what his mom wants him to do, and one no isn’t enough – he says it in different languages, through different mediums, and many different fonts. The illustrations are cute, but some of them seem little more than stereotypes of places and languages around the world. Some are clever – peas spelled out in no, a tin can conversation, a text message – but they weren’t enough to win me over. It might be a fun book to read with a child, especially a child who loves to say no. I'm interested in seeing what Mr. Warburton does next in picture books.

Read it with:
Let's Do Nothing - Tony Fucile
No, David - David Shannon
Don't Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus! - Mo Willems

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

The Reformed Vampire Support Group by Catherine Jinks

From Amazon:
An unromanticized, irreverent, hilarious look at the blood-sucking life, through the eyes of Nina Harrison, fanged at 15 and still living with her mother. She's stuck in a support group for reformed vamps that has never had anything exciting happen to them...until one of them is murdered. With the help of a priest and Nina's mom soon the whole cast of weak misfit vampires bands together to surprise themselves: saving a werewolf, solving a mystery and keeping the world safe from blood-thirsty unreformed vamps. Through it all, Nina learns to stop fighting fate, accepts that she's a vampire, and realizes she actually kind of does like that cute Dave guy even if he's a vampire.

This is definitely a vampire story for a post-Twilight world. These vampires are sickly, fragile, unpleasant to be around, and unconscious during the day. They all belong to a support group to help them fight their blood-based urges. But when one member is killed by an unknown enemy (who just happens to have silver bullets), the others are forced to work together to protect themselves and their secret. This book has lots of humour and some action (mainly chases and fights), and some - but not much - romance. A good title for teens looking for a funny non-sparkly vampire story or for people looking for an Australian novel.

Read it with:
Jessica's Guide to Dating on the Dark Side - Beth Fantaskey
Feeling Sorry for Celia - Jacklyn Moriarty
Locked in Time - Lois Duncan

I got this from: the library.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Big Rabbit's Bad Mood by Ramona Badescu

Amazon didn't have a summary for this book, so I guess I'll have to add my own: Big Rabbit is in a bad mood. That's pretty much it. He's not happy and he can't shake his bad mood. In Badescu's book (filled with Delphine Durand's colourful illustrations), a bad mood is kind of like an uninvited houseguest who won't leave. It's a big furry monster that follows Big Rabbit around, and no matter what Big Rabbit tries to do to cheer himself up (call friends, talk to his mom, watch TV), it won't work. It does, though (spoiler alert?) have a happy ending, and to be honest I was a little let down at the end, because it was so happy and about finding happiness in external things (like friends). I think I was reading it too much about depression (the way it hangs around, closing in on you and how you can't find the happiness you used to be able to in the things that you love), instead of just a regular every day bad mood. So that was my only issue with the book (other than does anyone else think that the rabbit looks a bit more like a kangaroo?) I think that selling stuffed Bad Moods would be an excellent marketing tie-in.

Read it with:
Grumpy Bird by Jeremy Tankard
Michael Rosen's Sad Book by Michael Rosen
When I'm Feeling Angry by Tracey Moroney
Does a Seal Smile by Fred Ehrlich

I got this book: from the library.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

If I Stay by Gayle Forman

From Amazon:
In a single moment, everything changes. Seventeen year-old Mia has no memory of the accident; she can only recall riding along the snow-wet Oregon road with her family. Then, in a blink, she finds herself watching as her own damaged body is taken from the wreck...A sophisticated, layered, and heartachingly beautiful story about the power of family and friends, the choices we all make--and the ultimate choice Mia commands.

Gayle Forman’s If I Stay got a lot of advance publicity when it was announced that Catherine Hardwicke, the director of the first Twilight movie, would be directing the film adaptation of the novel. If I Stay is the story of Mia, a 17-year-old cellist, and the 24 hours or so following a car crash involving her entire family. As she watches from somewhere outside her body, she must make the decision whether she will live or die. It reads sort of like The Lovely Bones meets Lurleen McDaniel (which is either good or bad, depending on whether or not that's your type of thing) and I think it will adapt really well to being a movie (single primary location, lots of flashbacks, interesting characters, lots of music, a romance you can root for).

Read it with:
The Lovely Bones - Alice Sebold
Six Months to Live - Lurleen McDaniel
The Time Traveler's Wife - Audrey Niffenegger
What Dreams May Come - Richard Matheson

I got this book: from the library.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Love is the Higher Law by David Levithan

From Amazon:
First there is a Before, and then there is an After. . . .
The lives of three teens—Claire, Jasper, and Peter—are altered forever on September 11, 2001. Claire, a high school junior, has to get to her younger brother in his classroom. Jasper, a college sophomore from Brooklyn, wakes to his parents’ frantic calls from Korea, wondering if he’s okay. Peter, a classmate of Claire’s, has to make his way back to school as everything happens around him. Here are three teens whose intertwining lives are reshaped by this catastrophic event. As each gets to know the other, their moments become wound around each other’s in a way that leads to new understandings, new friendships, and new levels of awareness for the world around them and the people close by. David Levithan has written a novel of loss and grief, but also one of hope and redemption as his characters slowly learn to move forward in their lives, despite being changed forever.

There’s no mistaking that his is a book about post-9/11 New York; that is clear right from the book’s cover. Somewhat foolishly, I just didn’t expect it to be so closely linked to the days around September 11th. This is the story of several New York teens who were on or near the area on those days. Even as I was reading it I wasn’t sure if I was ready for this kind of story – it still felt very fresh, very real. But I do like Levithan as a writer, and this is very much a book of his: lots of GLBTQ characters, interweaving stories and storylines, talky conversations. Not really a fun read or even an 'important' read, but I'm glad I read it. The characters didn't make as much of an impact on me as some of his other ones, but they fit this story perfectly. I think this is the first fiction about 9/11 I've ever read, and certainly the first teen novel; is this a niche that others have picked up on? How have they handled it? Has anyone written about 9/11 from a non-New York perspective? These are just some questions that I thought of after reading this.

Pair it with:
Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist - David Levithan and Rachel Cohn (pretty much a love letter to New York)
The 9/11 Report: A Graphic Adaptation - Sid Jacobson and Ernie Colon
We All Fall Down - Eric Walters

Friday, December 4, 2009

Jessica's Guide to Dating on the Dark Side by Beth Fantaskey

From Amazon: The undead can really screw up your senior year . . . Marrying a vampire definitely doesn't fit into Jessica Packwoods senior year get-a-life plan. But then a bizarre (and incredibly hot) new exchange student named Lucius Vladescu shows up, claiming that Jessica is a Romanian vampire princess by birth and hes her long-lost fiance. Armed with newfound confidence and a copy of Growing Up Undead: A Teen Vampires Guide to Dating, Health, and Emotions, Jessica makes a dramatic transition from average American teenager to glam European vampire princess. But when a devious cheerleader sets her sights on Lucius, Jess finds herself fighting to win back her wayward prince, stop a global vampire war and save Lucius's soul from eternal destruction.

The title of this one feels a bit mis-matched; I was expecting a light, poppy rom-com of vampire love. Instead there is a very dark story of Jessica, raised in rural Pennsylvania and Lucius, the Romanian vampire prince who is posing as an exchange student. Lucius is trying to get Jessica to realize that they belong together, not just because they are the main characters but because of alleged family promises made years ago. There are themes of identity, family, loyalty, and nature-versus-nurture running through the book, though none of them are explored very deeply. It’s a fun enough read; I think that fans of Twilight will enjoy it but there is just enough going on in it that I also think it will appeal to Twilight’s non-fans. I think that Jessica has more agency than Twilight's Bella does, and Lucius is a bit darker, a bit more dangerous than Edward. I'm not sure if there will be a sequel, but Fantaskey has a new book coming out in the spring called Jekel Loves Hyde.

Pair it with:
Twilight - Stephenie Meyer
The Reformed Vampire Support Group - Catherine Jinks
The Princess Diaries - Meg Cabot

I got this book: from the library.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Crossing Stones by Helen Frost

From Amazon:
Eighteen-year-old Muriel Jorgensen lives on one side of Crabapple Creek. Her family’s closest friends, the Normans, live on the other. For as long as Muriel can remember, the families’ lives have been intertwined, connected by the crossing stones that span the water. But now that Frank Norman—who Muriel is just beginning to think might be more than a friend—has enlisted to fight in World War I and her brother, Ollie, has lied about his age to join him, the future is uncertain. As Muriel tends to things at home with the help of Frank’s sister, Emma, she becomes more and more fascinated by the women’s suffrage movement, but she is surrounded by people who advise her to keep her opinions to herself. How can she find a way to care for those she loves while still remaining true to who she is?

I didn't really know what to make of this title. It's a verse novel and the book itself is oddly shaped - it's between the size of a regular juvenile hardcover and a picture book. But I decided to give it a shot and ended up reading it all in one sitting (or laying, because I was in bed when I read it). The story grabbed me fairly early on, and Muriel's voice was strong enough to keep me interested. She's the force behind the story. Occasionally the narrative shifts over to Ollie and Emma, and they have powerful stories of their own, and it all works so nicely together with the theme of self-discovery in a very different time period. At times it does feel like there's a lot going on, especially once the setting shifts from Michigan (I think it's Michigan?) to Washington, but since I was most interested in Muriel, it all kind of worked. Frost has created an intricate work that I didn't even fully appreciate the first time through; thankfully, there are notes at the end of the book. I won't spoil that, because it's part of the sense of discovery that comes along with the book, and it gave me another way to approach the book. The best thing I can think to say is that I don't usually like verse novels, but I really enjoyed this Crossing Stones.

Pair it with:
Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery
Love is the Higher Law by David Levithan
You Wouldn't Want to Be a Suffragist by Fiona Macdonald

I got this book: from the library

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Liar by Justine Larbalestier

From Amazon:
Micah will freely admit that she’s a compulsive liar, but that may be the one honest thing she’ll ever tell you. Over the years she’s duped her classmates, her teachers, and even her parents, and she’s always managed to stay one step ahead of her lies. That is, until her boyfriend dies under brutal circumstances and her dishonesty begins to catch up with her. But is it possible to tell the truth when lying comes as naturally as breathing? Taking readers deep into the psyche of a young woman who will say just about anything to convince them—and herself—that she’s finally come clean, Liar is a bone-chilling thriller that will have readers see-sawing between truths and lies right up to the end. Honestly.

Way back in the summer, one of the hot stories around the blogs was the story of Liar, a book with a black protagonist but a cover shot of a white girl. There was quite an uproar over this, and the cover was later changed to something different, although still problematic. The controversy was one of the reasons why I put the book on my ‘to read’ list, but aside from that I didn’t know anything else about it. Which I think turned out to be a good thing, because Liar had twists that I never saw coming. Even now I think I’ve said too much. Maybe I’ll just use the catalogue blurb: Compulsive liar Micah promises to tell the truth after revealing that her boyfriend has been murdered. So that’s it, and it isn’t it. He’s not really her boyfriend…or is he? He wasn’t murdered…was he? Does she really promise to tell the truth? And if she does, does she actually tell the truth? The book is a mind-bender and the nature of what really happens in this book is heavily debated. (And thinking about the cover after you’ve read the book just changes things even more). If you are thinking of reading it, don’t read about it. Maybe I should have put that at the beginning….

I got this book: from the library

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Charles and Emma: The Darwins' Leap of Faith by Deborah Heiligman

From Amazon:
Charles Darwin published The Origin of Species, his revolutionary tract on evolution and the fundamental ideas involved, in 1859. 150 years later, the theory of evolution continues to create tension between the scientific and religious communities. This same debate raged within Darwin himself, and played an important part in his marriage: his wife, Emma, was very religious, and her faith challenged Charles as he worked on his theory of evolution. Deborah Heiligman’s new biography of Charles Darwin is a thought-provoking account of the man behind evolutionary theory: how his personal life affected his work and vice versa. The end result is an engaging exploration of history, science, and religion.

It’s been a long time since I’ve read a middle grade biography, but I really enjoyed reading this one. Heiligman focuses not on Darwin’s work but instead on Darwin the man and his relationships with his parents, siblings, children, and most centrally his wife, Emma. I found that I learned a lot about a man who I would have assumed I already knew a lot about (there was a period of time in my first year of my undergraduate degree where I was studying Darwin in four out of my five classes - and I wasn't even a science student). It amazes me that so much detail can be found about people who lived so long ago; books like this always make me want to keep writing in my journal, just in case the details will be important to somebody someday. This book was a finalist for the (US) National Book Award.

Monday, November 30, 2009

The Dunderheads by Paul Fleischman

From Amazon:
Miss Breakbone hates kids. Especially the time-squandering, mindwandering, doodling, dozing dunderheads in her class. But when she confiscates Junkyard’s crucial fi nd, she fi nally goes too far. Enter Wheels (and his souped-up bike with forty-eight extra gears), Pencil (who can draw anything from memory), Spider (look up and you’ll fi nd him), and their fellow misfi ts in a spectacular display of teamwork aimed at teaching Miss Breakbone a lesson she won’t soon forget. From the incomparable Paul Fleischman comes a winning cast of underdogs — and one of the most terrifying teachers you’ll ever meet — brought to vivid life in David Roberts’s quirky, hilarious illustrations.

I really, really enjoyed this book. It’s classified as a picture book at my library, which it is, I suppose, but it has a really great story. It feels more like a novel, a short novel with lots of pictures (a graphic novel, if you will?) The evil teacher (who starts off the book by yelling at the children, so you know she's evil - even if the name Miss Breakbone didn't tip it off) confiscates a boy’s toy cat – it was supposed to be a gift to his mother, and now he has nothing to give her. So the rest of the students, rallied by one called Einstein, all work together to get it back. It’s a little bit like The Mysterious Benedict Society meets late-90s Saturday morning cartoons, but it makes for a fun book. The small details in the illustrations had me wanting more; they even made me wonder a bit about the teacher’s life (I have a feeling it would be a fascinating story) while still firmly rooting for the children.

Pair it with:
The Mysterious Benedict Society
Miss Nelson is Missing

I got this book: from my library

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Gentlemen by Michael Northrop

From Amazon: Michael and his friends Tommy, Mixer, and Bones aren’t just from the wrong side of the tracks—they’re from the wrong side of everything. Except for Mr. Haberman, their remedial English teacher, no one at their high school takes them seriously. Haberman calls them “gentlemen,” but everyone else ignores them—or, in Bones’s case, is dead afraid of them. When one of their close-knit group goes missing, the clues all seem to point in one direction: to Mr. Haberman. Gritty, fast-paced, and brutally real, this debut novel takes an unflinching look at what binds friends together—and what can tear them apart.

I will freely admit that I was intrigued by this one primarily because of the cover (that’s not a hoodie). And because of an enthusiastic review from Bookshelves of Doom, one of my favourite YA book blogs.


Mike is in high school, mostly the remedial classes, and he doesn’t really care. Then one day Tommy, one of his friends is pushed to a breaking point in math class, flips his desk upside down, and is hauled away to the principal’s office. That’s the last time Mike (or his other friends, Mixer and Bones) see Tommy that day. Or the next day. Or the next. When the police get involved, they start thinking that maybe they might know what has happened to Tommy…or do they? This is a perfect book for a reader who likes to guess the plot before it happens (or maybe it’s a terrible choice for that reader - it could drive them crazy) because the whole book is about piecing together clues and trying to pick up on bits of evidence. Crime and Punishment is also featured. I think the book might have worked better as a short story, but at just over 234 pages it doesn’t read like a very big book anyway.

Read with:

Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
Killing Mr. Griffen by Lois Duncan
Special Topics in Calamity Physics by Marisha Pessl

I got the book from: my library

Saturday, March 21, 2009

American Wife by Curtis Sittenfeld

From Amazon: A kind, bookish only child born in the 1940s, Alice Lindgren has no idea that she will one day end up in the White House, married to the president. In her small Wisconsin hometown, she learns the virtues of politeness, but a tragic accident when she is seventeen shatters her identity and changes the trajectory of her life. More than a decade later, when the charismatic son of a powerful Republican family sweeps her off her feet, she is surprised to find herself admitted into a world of privilege. And when her husband unexpectedly becomes governor and then president, she discovers that she is married to a man she both loves and fundamentally disagrees with–and that her private beliefs increasingly run against her public persona. As her husband’s presidency enters its second term, Alice must confront contradictions years in the making and face questions nearly impossible to answer.

I really love Curtis Sittenfeld's writing. I was a big fan of Prep, her first novel, which I read years ago, and I just loved The Man of My Dreams, which I read after American Wife but chronologically comes before it. I wanted to read this partly because of my love for Prep and also because Entertainment Weekly named it one of the ten best books of 2008 (and I am a sucker for 'best of' lists). I ended up reading it in mostly one day once I finally got my hands on it (there were a lot of hold requests at the library).

The character of Alice Blackwell, Sittenfeld's fictional Laura Bush, is easily interesting enough to be the main character of a novel, mostly because she hasn't really seen herself as the main character in her own life. My favourite parts were the first sections of the novel; the last one, set during Alice's husband's presidency in the mid-2000s, just felt like I was reading about Laura Bush. I don't think enough space has passed to read about a post-9/11 president in the 2000s without it being George W. Bush and his wife being Laura Bush. But up until then I was pretty much on board with the whole novel.

One criticism I've seen of the book is that it humanizes the Bushes, George W. in particular. I'm not sure why people are so resistent to this; maybe if you have to stop thinking about him as a monster, you have to start wondering about him as a person. Anyway, American Wife is a thick book but an interesting one in terms of fictionalized American (recent) history.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

I Know It's Over by C.K. Kelly Martin

Sixteen-year-old Nick, still trying to come to terms with his parents' divorce, experiences exhilaration and despair in his relationship with girlfriend Sasha especially when, after instigating a trial separation, she announces she is pregnant.

I think I was predisposed to love this book, because "I Know it's Over" is one of my very favourite songs by The Smiths. That really doesn't have anything to do with the book, though, except for the male point of view of a former relationship - although in this care, the relationship is definitely still ongoing in a mutated kind of way.

As I started reading, though, there were just so many more things to love about it - the character of Nick, his honesty and his voice; the way that every character, even the smallest ones, feel like they could have their own novels; the unflinching way that sex, pregnancy, and abortion are dealt with; the unfolding nature of the story, jumping back and forth in time before speeding ahead; the Canadian setting; the heft of the hardcover (I was reading a library copy, as I often am, but the hardcover had such a nice feel to it - something that is very important to me and something that I almost always take note of).

This is C.K. Kelly Martin's first novel, and it doesn't feel like one, given the sure-footedness of the characterizations. You can read an interview with her over at Wondrous Reads (her favourite scene from the book is also far and away my favourite scene from the book, and one of the best scenes I've read all year. There's also a Book Trailer for I Know it's Over, it doesn't tell you anything more but might sell you on the story.

IKIO trailer

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret by Judy Blume

I feel that it's really important to mention that the copy I was reading was an updated copy - that is, Margaret's pads stuck to her underwear with adhesive, and she did not have to use a belt. I remember that the copy I read years ago was the 'classic' version, which didn't leave me as confused as I might have been, all things considered.

Also, I had misremembered a lot of things about this book. I had thought that Laura, the girl with the large breasts, was also the one with the sunburn. And that Margaret's grandparents overlap at her house. Neither of those things really matter, but it did made me think about how many books I'm carrying around with my head that aren't really true.

Anyway, the story is sort of complicated to describe. Margaret, a 12 year old girl with no fixed religion, moves to a small town in New Jersey where everyone is either Christian or Jewish. Margaret quickly makes friends with a group of girls (they call themselves the Pre-Teen Sensations, which, unless this was another rewrite, has held up remarkably well). The girls giggle and wonder over bras, boys, and periods, while Margaret carries on a personal quest to find religion. All the time she continues talking to God, and I really like the idea that you can have a relationship with God independant of any organized religion.

I never talked about my period with my friends, and bras were a giant source of embarrassment, and not pride, but I still have a fondness for this book. I didn't read Forever, another Judy Blume book, until I was much older, so this one is the one that hit me in my formative years. I'm glad that it's still out there for kids to look through, the kind of book that they might feel embarrassed about reading but still pour through anyway. I think that Margaret would have read this book, which in a twisty way is one of the best indicators of telling whether or not a story works.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky

In the ten years or so since this book was first published (by MTV books, my edition was proud to tell me), this book has become a sort of Gen-next Catcher in the Rye. I think this was exactly the intention of the author, who name-checks not only that novel but a dozen other works of literature as it tries to claw its way into the coming of age niche. I'm not really complaining, though - it's hard to bag on a novel that has a character who actually reads.

The Perks of Being a Wallflower also has a Degrassi-esque quality in that one big Issue follows the other, including smoking, drugs, homosexuality, sex, teen pregnancy, abortion, abusive relationships, and others. Charlie, the narrator, maintains a kind of innocence throughout everything, even appearling to be be shocked - Shocked!- by the idea of masturbation, which he discovers at age 15. Charlie tells the story through a series of letters to an unidentified off-screen character, and it took me a good while to get into the flow of the story. I picked it up and put it down a few times before finally deciding to plow through, and I was glad that I did. The story isn't going to change my life, but it's the sort of one that might change someone's. The Perks of Being a Wallflower is number 10 on the ALA's list of the 10 most banned and challenged books of 2007-2008, which is how I came across the book and probably what motivated me to commit to it. I don't know how likely I'll be to look into what else Chbosky has read, but I'm happy that I've read this one.